Mercy, Murmuration, and Mushrooms

Groundhog Mercy

My new friend from Friday (Mercy by the Sea)

I knew I needed to sort my thoughts on my one day off alone before starting my new job. I paid my donation and stepped into the privilege of a full day at Mercy by the Sea in Madison. I spent the start of the day reflecting and looking at old journals, trying to figure out where I am in life and where I want to go.

I’m sure this “soul housekeeping” was a necessary exercise. But the moment I stepped out to the “backyard,” which by my definition necessarily included not only the labyrinth, lush lawn, and well-loved plantings but also the entire Long Island Sound, I wondered if I had foolishly squandered my time with the hours indoors.

Mercy cairns

Mercy by the Sea’s “backyard”

I felt like signs were everywhere out there, just waiting for me. A fat groundhog brought me back to my time as writer in residence at Trail Wood, when some days the groundhog was my only mammalian companion (humans included!). I could tell this guy (or girl) felt as relaxed as the folks on silent retreat here. He let me get unusually close with my phone camera, finally casually loping away, seeming only a tad concerned about me, aka “the paparazzi.”

Near the labyrinth, a memorial bench reminded me that, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” My mom used to say that, in a slightly different way. This comforted me, since lately I have felt a bit distant from my soul’s connection to what really matters. I do have faith, though, that the connection is ever-present (even though I sometimes lose the thread).

Bidden sign at Mercy

Before I ventured out, I journaled about creatures I’ve been longing to write about, but have not made the time for yet. One is the Carolina locust. At the job I just left, I craved an escape from the corporate space and grabbed walks around the office park when I could get them (here is an older version of a piece about that; The Book of Noticing has a newer version). On these sometimes-drab walks I often admired these locusts, who seem to thrive even (or especially?) in hot, dry places like the sparse grass alongside a concrete foundation. I like how their appearance is so very dull in color, blending right in with the sandy soil–but then they take off like sprites and flash the yellow in their wings (my very preliminary research hints that the yellow be more prominent in females??). It always strikes me as such a marvelous secret. I didn’t think I’d see any on the beach, but one skipped ahead of me as I approached the shoreline. I couldn’t identify it with a scientific certainty, but whether a Carolinian or its cousin, I took it as a reminder to learn and write more about this often-overlooked insect. And to also not forget the Mourning Dove, another ubiquitous but often overlooked creature on my short list of writing themes.

Mercy locust

Can you spot the insect? I can’t swear it’s a Carolina locust but I am pretty sure I saw the flash of yellow as it flew

It was so worth sitting at an awkward angle on a wet, barnacled boulder to see the next sight. The multicolored jingle shells, made even brighter by their shallow tidal pool, called me, and I realized as my gaze relaxed that the pool was moving, absolutely saturated with busy crustacean life. Everyone in there seemed to be avoiding a half-dollar–sized, yellow-shelled crab who was throwing his weight around. Periwinkles hurled themselves off their perches as he neared. Another crab with goofy-looking bobble eyes was busily keeping house (or was he collecting things? Sometimes I can’t tell the difference at home, either). The pool could have amused me for hours, and it was only my wet jeans and the evaporating afternoon that got me to walk away and start to write.

This filled my cup, and after a comparatively much more mundane weekend, I started my new job on Monday. But my cup was soon to overflow. My best friends in Connecticut, Pam and Cecilia, literally blindfolded me to cart me away from my desk to a surprise birthday adventure, something I have always wanted to do! We boarded a small ship in East Haddam and went on a swallow cruise. They wined and dined me while we spotted Bald Eagles, Osprey nests, Great Herons, all the while cruising toward Goose Island and dusk, at which point the staggering number of swallows did their swirling, pre-migration season sky dance, called a murmuration . Not one person on the boat seemed at all jaded—all around me I heard, “wow,” repeated excitedly, repeated in hushed voices, repeated over and over as we watched the phenomenon through our collective binoculars. It was my first time seeing the whole show in all its glory. The air was cool, the friends and the sights I got to see were equally, luminously, beautiful. An entire boatload of strangers sang Happy Birthday to me. I felt humbled with sheer gratitude.

swallow cruise

Looking back from the deck, as our boat headed toward the “swallow convention”

I am blessed in that those who love me know the way to my heart. This weekend, Tom stayed home (cost savings!) and sent Gavin and I off to an overnight at the Blue Deer Center , where Gavin is attending a mushroom workshop and I am using the quiet time to write and walk. Years ago, long before Gavin, Tom and I stayed at a B&B nearby in this tiny town of Margaretville, and somehow writing here on the porch of the Center feels like home.

 

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My porch for the next day and a half (Blue Deer Center)

Who knew that years after our B&B trip, I’d be bringing our teenager, one so connected with nature, to learn about mushrooms and help affirm his sacred connection with the land. I love the Center’s mission and am ending this entry with a snippet from their Web site’s mission tab. I have a feeling I’ll be writing more about this place and the cup that continues to overflow, now so much so that it spills onto the page. I wish the same abundance, the same sense of reconnecting, for my readers.

  • At the beginnings of humanity our ancestors were given traditional teachings and practices to keep us in good relationship to the divine natural world. These traditions provide not merely survival, but rather a rich, joyous, connected life for ourselves and countless generations of our descendants. Traditional teachings and practices are every bit as practical now as in the past. The Blue Deer Center is a sacred place and a sacred mission to make the teachings and practices of the ancestors available today.

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Woodstock and Water

Gavin Hartford river walk

Riverwalking in Hartford

Before our family trip to Woodstock got fully underway, its theme began to assert itself. Tom made a wrong turn and we were in the curiously quiet Sunday city that is Hartford. We parked by the Wadsworth Atheneum with a new mission: the first visit to the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza. We took many steps down to the start of the sculpture walk featuring Lincoln’s life. Not far from where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in her later years, here was a sculpture of Lincoln and Stowe meeting, captioned with the famous quote in which he attributed the start of the Civil War to this “little woman.” Beyond them the Connecticut River flowed, an occurrence that long preceded, and long moves past, the war that divided our nation.

Walking along it, we watched young women crewing in their long boats. They pushed the water aside with the force of one. Birds flitted into and out of the abundant greenery that grew along the path. I leaned down to snap photos of 2 kinds of purple flowers and then leaned back to wonder at the high-water marks marked on a pillar, thinking about my mom at 10 after the big hurricane in 1938, watching with amazement as sail boats traveled down her suburban street. Gavin jumped down to an outsized stump at the edge that must have seen at least a century of waterfront history. Tom spotted a miniature field of tiny bird’s nest fungi, which look exactly as they sound, complete with “eggs” that are balls of spores. When raindrops strike the spores they shoot into the air and germination can begin.

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Bird’s nest fungi in Hartford

As we were en route, my sister Linda sent me a link to a short film called Sing the Water Song. In describing their vision for the project, the film makers start with the phrase “water is life.” They share their dream of millions of women (Keepers of Water in Native American traditions) around the world learning to sing the Algonquin Water Song in solidarity with the threatened water we continue to witness. (Standing Rock is just one of countless examples). The song is described by a Native elder as lullaby-like, paying loving tribute to water as the lifeblood of Mother Earth (lyrics are phonetic):

Nee bee wah bow
En die en
Aah key mis kquee
Nee bee wah bow
Hey ya hey ya hey ya hey
Hey ya hey ya hey ya ho

About an hour from Woodstock, we stopped at an antique store and peered down the hill at the creek running beside it, wondering who had placed so many odd-shaped, fist-sized stones on a particular rock. The license plate next to ours said “1-River,” which alluded to one of Gavin’s favorite books, One River, which follows the fascinating work of 2 Amazon explorers.

When we got to Woodstock, we walked around town and paused along the bridges to admire the stream coursing below. On our first full day, we were privileged to visit with local mushroom expert John Michelotti at Catskill Fungi. We walked together through light rain and admired his logs as well as his life, which centers on fungi and has led him to many good things. On the way back from his place in Big Indian, we stopped to read a commemorative plaque beside the start of the Catskill Aqueduct. On the way here we had stopped at Oblong Books in Millerton and I treated myself to Lapham’s Quarterly (on the theme of, you guessed it, water!). As I read it that afternoon I came across a piece on Manhattan’s water sources, and it recounted how 9 villages near Woodstock were obliterated as the dams were created and water was collected in Shokan when constructing the aqueduct. At least 10% of the “sandhogs” who dug the tunnel suffered injuries and deaths. (Shades of Standing Rock: the Quarterly article included a 1913 account of deaths among Native and African Americans, overlooked by most as these were “inconspicuous” people.)

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It’s probably slugs who have been enjoying these “fried eggs” at The Comeau Property.

It poured that afternoon and Gavin swam in the rain. In the morning, we walked through puddles on the trails at The Comeau Property in town. The creek was running high, fed by the buckets of rain the prior day. Slugs and mushrooms were relishing the moisture, brightening the dim woods with their colorful presences. Back at our temporary home, I strolled beside our borrowed salt water pool and found tiny snails dotting the undersides of big leaves and clinging to blades of grass. Under one particular leaf a small spider had woven a rather flat web. He stood beside it, looking ready to defend his work.

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Snails everywhere!

For me, I guess not surprisingly, the best parts of the trip have involved noticing creatures (including plants) out in nature. I keep being reminded of water—how it links us, how we need to protect it. I looked back at an old diary entry on the same date as yesterday, when Gavin was just 6, and found this small start of a poem. I love how, so many years later, we are still treasuring the creatures we meet along the way, still conscious of the dew:

All along this morning walk
There were little beings,
especially funnel spiders
and slugs, who seem to like
the dewy days best.

The Generous Naturalist, the Generous Reader

Fledgling swallows Steve_Flickr.jpg

Fledgling Swallows by Steve Herring on FlickrSteve Herring on Flickr

I’ve been taking a Master Naturalist class with the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center. The formal classes have finished, and when I finish the required community work and research paper, I will be considered an apprentice Master Naturalist. If I can manage it I’ll take part 2 next summer, and if I complete that I will be full-fledged.

That term “fledged” recalls the young birds (fledglings) that leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves, with the goal of flying off and living on their own. As an apprentice there is SO much to know and of course I will never know it all. But I have learned, like the famed Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to depend on the kindness of (now former) strangers to help me along my way.

Cattails by Elliot Margolies flickr

Who knew cattails were so tasty? Photo courtesy of Elliot Margolies on Flickr

Each teacher has gone out of his or her way to create a welcoming atmosphere, and to help in practical ways. Ed made several concoctions for snack break from his foraging finds—there was knotweed pie (great use of an invasive) and cattail soup (an asparagus-ish tasting delight). He was quick to point out any interesting new finds along the trail, as were all of our teachers.

Brad pulled me up from the ground when I fell on a recent hike, and pointed out chestnut oaks and the skin of a newly molted rat snake after I dusted off my jeans and dignity and panted my way up rocky inclines. That shiny, freshly molted creature (so black it was blue!) stole the show away from our guest expert geologist for a few minutes, while we followed it to its rendezvous with other snakes in a nearby crevice.

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Photogenic, resplendent Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain

Jasper kept our whole group up to date on what was going on, and patiently advised me on the hours I needed to log. Juan made the long drive from his distant home to Deep River to give me a tutorial about lichens at Fountain Hill Cemetery. We got on our hands and knees with hand lenses, and he pointed out the Lilliputian wonders wrought in these algae/fungus (and sometimes cyanobacteria) combinations. Later I paged through the trove of books and pamphlets he had brought along to lend me. He didn’t hold it against me when I decided lichens were too difficult, given the limited time I have to research and write my paper.

LICHENS TOMBSTONE

Many lichens LOVE tombstones! I was focusing on brownstone obelisks

Stretching my fledgling wings a bit more, I contacted Lynn, a Master Naturalist program graduate who is busy using her knowledge (and retired teacher skills), leading talks and hikes. She took the time to meet with me and to let me tag along on her hikes, teaching as she went and giving me the opportunity to bring forth my burgeoning knowledge. I now use the crinkly, paper-like feel of the leaves to help me identify the American beech, and she helped me realize that witch hazel may very well be named after the characteristic witch-hat shaped galls on its leaves that house a particular kind of aphid.

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Witch hazel leaf with gall courtesy of Danielle Brigada on Flickr

What is it about naturalists that makes them so remarkably generous, eager to share time, discoveries, and information? I am sure I bring my own biases to the theory, because Mary Oliver’s iconic line, “My work is loving the world” guides all of my time in nature. But could it be that all of these naturalist hearts have expanded because of their love for the world and its creatures, because of the generosity they themselves have received from nature (and other lovers of it)?

Readers are a whole other set of generous folks. An attendee at my nature writing exploration yesterday took the time to write me a complimentary note and share her new piece with me. She later wrote an Amazon review, too! Another recommended haikus written by Richard Wright. Librarian Laurie led me to Brainerd Library’s enchanting butterfly garden and did some research that informed me we were seeing milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (not monarch caterpillars–they look nothing alike!) on the milkweed plants. The list goes on and on. Same theory here for me. Reading, when done faithfully and thoughtfully, has the potential to expand not only the mind, but the heart.

milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (Brainerd)

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillars

And being with these people, naturalists and readers alike (even better if they are BOTH!) has expanded my own heart. It was serendipitous timing that I ran across a 2005 birthday card from Mom tucked into one of my nature books, even more precious now as she can no longer share quotes like she used to. What she shared with me was prescient, because it preceded my full-throttle return to time in nature and time in books about it. Here is what she wrote (and I found the quote on the Internet so have included the full attribution):

A certain philosopher asked St Anthony: Father, how can you be happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied. My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God,
the book is before me.

Anon.Verba Seniorum (Adhortationes sanctorum patrum) ciii (4th – 8th cens. CE)(Greek original lost; Pelagius I and John III, Latin transl.; T. Merton Engl. transl.) in: The Wisdom of the Desert p. 139.

Of course, I am NOT deprived of the consolation of books, and because I can, I want to embrace both–finding meaning in the books and in the spectacular green world. How delicious to know that this possibility is before me!

 

 

 

My First Killdeer

leave eggs aloneOn Saturday, I went to see an old friend: the natural world! I’d only been able to visit her for short stints in recent weeks. And the timing was great— it was Trails Day (well, Trails Weekend, really) in Connecticut, something I’ve missed in past years because of competing demands. (Actually, according to the CFPA, our state has the largest Trails Day nationwide!)

I had an additional motive for making some nature immersion plans: as an apprentice Master Naturalist, I have requirements for – in addition to classes – finding opportunities to participate in and also help out with ecologically related education.

By the time I got my act together that morning, I had just enough time to hastily groom and get myself to Killingworth, where several folks from Connecticut Water were leading a hike in the vicinity of the reservoir. Our group was a mix of younger families with children, singles old and young, a leashed dog, and our leaders. The woman in front of me confessed that this “outdoorsy” adventure was a new sort of endeavor for her. She worried that her slower pace might hold me back, but I welcomed it. I was feeling the humidity (a foreshadowing of the sudden storms that would erupt that afternoon), and appreciated the ability to really look at the foliage, the bark, the bugs, the light on the meadow, etc. My knees thanked me for the leisurely stride, too!

red eyed vireo from Flickr Kelly.jpg

Red-Eyed Vireo courtesy of Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr

The water company folks were good guides. They talked about maintaining the watershed, and about the herons, ospreys, and other local bird life. Our leader Chuck pointed up and cocked his head, indicating the song of the Red-Eyed Vireo. More than one nature guide has told me that this muted olive-green and white bird is often heard but seen much less often (great camouflage, especially when the trees are fully leafed). I pointed out circular Downy or Hairy Woodpecker holes, knowing that holes from the Pileated are much bigger, and more rectangular, and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker holes are in a neat row. We admired a very shaggy shag bark hickory, with a “Do Not Trespass” sign on it signaling the protected area closer to the reservoir.

When we got back from the hike, there was a group photo to commemorate our success, and free bags and water bottles from our hosts. I wondered how disheveled I would appear in the photo, as I hadn’t managed to shower before I ran out the door and was wearing the humidity on my face and neck.

(I hadn’t thought much about it before, but Connecticut Water is actively involved in conservation—protecting their water source! They have an education program for third graders—the Water Drop Watchers!)

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Ooh la la! The Lavender Pond Farm store!

Bedraggled though I was, I knew that I couldn’t pass up my first visit to Lavender Pond Farm down the road. They have about 9000 lavender plants, of many varieties.  The plants were not yet in full bloom (that’s coming soon!) but the place smelled heavenly. I started my visit in the store, thinking of my sister Linda (a sucker for anything Provencal, and the whole store looked like one I might imagine in the South of France). I quenched my thirst with a cold lavender lemonade and bought mix for a lavender-lemon tea cake, as well as honey-lavender candy that Gavin would consume in record time on Sunday.

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Lavender Pond Farm

But the biggest treat was yet to come. I stowed my purchases in the car and walked among the plants. Already, on the way in, I had admired several Brown-Headed Cowbirds  skirting the fields. Now, I walked out onto the grassy lawn surrounding the lavender patches, interspersed with gravel paths. Swifts (or were they swallows?) flew too fast for my amateur birder eyes to completely take in, but I knew they were hunting for insects. And then, an unexpected type of bird motion caught my eye.

Killdeer by vladeb on Flickr.jpg

Killdeer by vladeb on Flickr

I saw the quick, spindly steps of a shore bird (although I wasn’t on the shore). A pair of Killdeer (so named because of the sound they make although I do NOT hear this phrase when I hear their song) were running around among the lavender plants and gravel. When I looked these birds up later, the first sentence in the “All About Birds” entry for this species was, “A shorebird you can see without going to the beach.” Indeed: they are plovers, described by All About Birds as, “tawny birds” that “run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to check their progress, or to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey.”

Killdeer eggs.jpg

I admired the handsome black rings around their necks and upper chests (technically called “breast bands”) and also how well they blended in with the ground. My delight only grew from there. I learned that the pair was guarding a cache of four eggs on what looked to me like a very randomly chosen ground “nest”—really just a scratched out spot amidst a large swath of gravel. Some kind soul had made a crude surround for the nest, and the sign that heads up this blog, signed, “Birdie.” I didn’t want to upset whoever was on “egg duty” (males and females take turns with that) but I did swoop in for a quick photo-op while the prospective parent hovered nearby and made a few anxious squawks.

What a Saturday—by one or so I’d walked for miles; seen a dozen creatures; made some new, nature-loving friends, and all before the sky opened up to dump buckets of rain! The Killdeer incubation period is a short one—less than a month. Maybe I’ll get to soon see some Killdeer chicks!

It Began with a Hoot

Barred owl by Dennis Church .jpg

Barred Owl courtesy of Dennis Church on Flickr

Earth Day didn’t start in the way I would have planned. We have hunkered down in a hotel while we wait for our septic system to be repaired. My foot is acting up again, so I can’t yet have the extra-long walk I have hoped for. Because we can’t use water at home, I typed this up at the laundromat.

I was restless in the unfamiliar room and slept lightly. That meant when Buddy asked to go out at 3:30 AM I was the designated walker. Tom snored through it all.

The roadside patch of grass and shrubs wasn’t especially scenic, but how heartening it was to witness Buddy’s pleasure in the scents. He was onto something exciting, something I couldn’t detect, and I worried that he’d start his insistent beagle yipping and baying if we got too close to the scent of a rabbit. The woods adjacent to the rear of the building are a small stand between the hotel and the next commercial venture, catching illumination from the streetlights on Route 1. But as I stood there and Buddy sniffed about, I heard a gentle question come from the trees at the back of the lot and it thrilled me. A Barred Owl asked, persistently, “Who cooks for you?,” pausing for my reply and getting none. I waited and listened, hearing him query a few more times before Buddy led me on to the next good (if undetected by me) smell.

How I would have loved to have seen the owl. I wrote a whole blog about how I never seem to spot them, and how Mary Oliver seems to see them everywhere! I am determined—spotting more owls is on my bucket list!

chipmunks by madhan Flickr

Chipmunks courtesy of madhan r on Flickr

After breakfast, I took Buddy back out for another walk. The small patch of woods again drew me, and when we stepped in and walked away from busy Route 1 I forgot the workaday world surrounding us. I had Tom’s binoculars and scanned in vain for the owl I’d heard hours before, to no avail. But a chipmunk couple honored the long tradition of a springtime chase across a forgotten stone wall and a stray daffodil graced a small berm. Green shoots pushed up everywhere, breaking through the monotone brown leaf litter. When we stepped back out of this small, forgotten zone, I heard a cardinal in the conifers across the road (one of just a few bird calls I can identify with certainty) and watched a gull gliding towards the same grove. A murder of crows shrieked by.

There are lots of spectacular celebrations of Earth Day today, but I am glad to be reminded that every day can be Earth Day if I take the time to stop and look around, to venture into even the small, somewhat forlorn places that, despite their lackluster appearance, nurture owls and new plants and no doubt countless spiders and worms and ants. And we can all do something to help the earth, too. Take this effort from the Sierra Club, as a start, to eradicate the tons of plastic waste that are choking our seas and marine creatures.

If we are back here at the hotel near dusk, maybe I can venture into the woods and find my inquisitive owl friend.

Happy Earth Day. I wish you happy discoveries in the world today, and every day.

PS: For a look back at the FIRST Earth Day, see this article that includes coverage of my friend George. It was a radical time. Interesting to note that the youth were leading the charge.

Lovely, Dark, and Eternal

Bare tangled branches up against a cerulean blue. That’s all I see when I raise my binoculars and search for the Pileated Woodpecker I keep hearing. The woods, especially unfamiliar ones, can have tricky acoustics. Is the sound  bouncing off the small peak that I just summited? The noise was ahead of me, and now it is behind me. I sigh and squirm on the mossy rock where I am crouching.

The early spring woods are reinforcing the lesson I seem to keep learning in other facets of my life. Patience. Patience while my left foot takes its long, circuitous journey to complete healing. Patience while I wait for another book idea to fully blossom. The never-anticipated need to be patient while my mother continues the “long goodbye” that is so emblematic of dementia (that phrase was the title of Ronald Reagan’s daughter’s memoir about losing him to Alzheimer’s disease). Mom is in her bed with the remarkably life-like artificial tulips I brought her yesterday. I am out here in the woods, thinking of her.

The woods remind me to be still, to listen and remember that all is well, in the sense that the beauty of the world and its workings is a constant, that it can bring me comfort. I remember that time will, eventually, bring peace and healing. Thinking about mom, I am brought back to young childhood, when I sat on her blue flowered bedspread eating tangerines. She is reading me part of Pippa Passes by Robert Browning.

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn
Morning’s at seven
The hillside’s dew-pearled
The lark’s on the wing
The snail’s on the thorn
God’s in his heaven–
All’s right with the world.

It’s a simple stanza and I can just about recall the whole thing. More than the words, I remember the cadence, which sounds to me like a conversational and optimistic list, the poet making a convincing case that spring is, indeed, here. I muse about how, more than once, I have called these words up to help me cope with losing mom.  She couldn’t have known when she gave me these words that I would use them in such a way!

Today I saw thorns, but there were no snails on them. I heard a far-off, high bird call, but probably not a lark. But after I settled into the forest, so much looked and sounded right, just as it was for Pippa. The woodpecker’s rhythm sounded almost thoughtful for a while. The birds, too, were not as excited as I’ve heard them on many mornings amid the tall conifers in my yard. The long spaces between their chirps and chortles helped me hold longer spaces between my thoughts. I start to look and listen and feel and smell instead of simply thinking, instead of planning ahead, instead of worrying, even instead of grieving. This is a welcome oasis, a place from which I can draw quietude and strength.

Trombidium

My new Trombidium friend

I am taken with a fallen tree whose once loamy root ball has now eroded into a spiky, dinosaur-armor-like projection. Termites have been busy here, breaking the aged wood into inch-long, roughly rectangular chunks. I am startled to see, crawling on the base of a nearby tree,  the most fluorescent orangey-red insect I’ve ever seen, about the size of my pinky nail and quite lively and leggy, zooming up, down, and sideways. I muse about how mom would love the color—she often wears bright colors like this. I try to capture his image, even shooting a crude movie with my phone. How I love not knowing the exact kind of bug this is. I wonder about his life, his day-to-day tasks. (When I look him up on iNaturalist later I am pretty sure he is a Trombidium, a genus of mite that is apparently quite common. Despite so much time spent in nature, I’ve never seen one before).

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Hornet’s nest from last season

There is so much to take in as I follow Camille’s Way, a trail in the Highlawn Forest property adjacent to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association building. The prize of an old hornet’s nest overhanging the murky green pond. The long, refrigerated corridor of conifers that smells like incense and feels like a wise, old friend. The birdsong that becomes more elaborate when I close my eyes. When I am still I realize that the now-noisy Pileated Woodpecker is not the only bird in town. Others are chiming in, too, more subtly, more gently.

conifer grove

Conifer grove

When I start to see Route 66 off in the distance, and some houses and such., it makes me feel like I’m in a secret realm– still close enough to entertain thoughts of civilization, and removed enough to treasure my solitude.

When I rejoin my group at the nature writing retreat I am facilitating, we talk about the nuances in nature, and how sometimes it’s good to notice and record the less “pretty” aspects of nature—the dead tree; the random, unexplained bone on the trail. But today, maybe because of what I need most, it all looks quenching, uplifting, hopeful to me. I see beauty even in the termite-destroyed tree, and in the sometimes nearly black, wet leaf litter that appears to block out all life.

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New life

I know that life thrives below the dark surface, and that many small creatures have overwintered there. Pushing some of the sodden leaves aside I see green sprouts trying their best to emerge. I give them a head start by clearing a space but know that even without my help they will, with time, find a way. I know that all these flora and fauna, all of us, go back to the earth. Our lives give rise to more life, and I mean much more beyond birth and the whole “dust to dust” thing. I have learned so much from mom and will always carry her grace with me, hopefully passing some of it down to Gavin and distributing the wealth of it among all I encounter.

The woods are where I learn to be patient. The woods are how I come to believe in resurrection. As mom so often used to say (quoting Frost), they are “lovely, dark, and deep.” How glad I am to visit them again.

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Skyward

Hospital Armchair Travel, New England Edition

Mt Tremper montage

Zen Mountain Monastery beauties

Last weekend I learned that my sister’s husband Randy in Vermont had needed emergency abdominal surgery and then suffered a stroke. Our family had to be in Mount Tremper, NY, at the Zen Mountain Monastery. I was astounded by the beauty of the snowy woods and especially taken with the woodpecker holes that “decorated” so many of the trees. I knew that Randy would appreciate the woods and the snow and the cozy library (happy to report that the latter has a very robust nature section! My time there has also inspired a piece). I tried to take in all the quiet beauty and somehow transmit that, telepathically, as a healing energy.

Monday found my sister Linda and me sleeping in a surgical intensive care waiting room, while Randy began his gradual recovery. Things were dicey but already looking a bit better. By the time I got up to the hospital, Randy was starting to rouse and look around, speaking hoarsely and sleeping for long intervals.

I was glad his room had a large window. We watched the snow and talked about the size of the flakes. I watched large chunks of accumulated white mounds fall from the ledge. We checked on the progress of the Nor’Easter and were not, by Vermont standards, super impressed. Linda and I would be able to get to a nearby hotel the following nights. But I was impressed enough to delay my 4+ hour drive home an extra day, especially after watching news reports on the storm’s temper fit in Massachusetts.

courtyard snow

Hotel courtyard snow (shout out to Doubletree near the UVM Medical Center–they were kind)

The several days at the hospital  limited our contact with the outdoors. So I did the next best thing! I read about being outdoors. Edwin Way Teale published Wandering Through Winter in 1965 and won a Pulitzer for it the following year. My edition, which I acquired during a special day in Woodstock, has a slightly musty smell. But I treasure it and am glad that I threw it into my hastily packed bag.

The book was full of funny coincidences that ran parallel with my own life. In the book Edwin and Nellie drive, in a fairly zig-zaggy pattern (gravitating to natural points of interest with the only real “deadline” being the end of the winter season) from California to Northern Maine, and it just so happened that the part I was up to when I arrived in Vermont was about Vermont. The chapter was called “Snowflake Country,” and the first sentence talked about Lake Champlain, which, if we craned our necks, we could spot from Randy’s room. A flat blue wall sculpture near the lobby illustrated the shape of Champlain in aerial-view detail.

A four-page photographic insert in the Vermont chapter celebrated blizzard snow and numerous animal foot and even tail (opossum!) prints in the white stuff.  The photos reminded me of the arresting beauty Linda and I happened upon via the hotel courtyard window as we hurried from our room to the front desk.

After Champlain, Teale turned his attention to Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a name that locals recognize as The Snowflake Man. Teale quotes the Book of Job upon introducing him: “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” Bentley was the first to photograph snowflakes in great detail. I love this part of the narrative:

“His was a poet’s emotional response to the beauty of the snow. Long years afterwards he spoke with regret of one particular flake, one of the most beautiful he had ever seen, that broke before he could record its image. ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, however rare, rare it be,’ and the snowflake is beauty in its most fleeting form. Its fragile ice shatters or melts away and no one will ever see its like again. Its design is lost forever.”

It was good to be reminded of this precious and quite stunning individuality hidden in the wet clumps I would later be pushing off my windshield.

The Teale book next steered me toward home long before I got on the road. After a delightful chapter about Sugar Bush and maple sugaring (a practice that Linda and Randy have adopted on their own porch), Edwin and Nellie drove down to Essex, Connecticut—the next town over from my own Deep River. These days, it’s a wealthy town high in curb appeal and tourists, but also a pleasurable stop for locals which offers generous access to the river, the Connecticut River Museum, and other adventures like eagle watch cruises and a big deal about Groundhog Day. But Edwin and Nellie, in the 1960s, were drawn to the town because of the E.E Dickinson Company, “the source of most of the world’s supply of witch hazel.” (At least at that time!). The company has since moved to (or been blended with) a company in East Hampton, under the name American Distilling, and continues to churn out the stuff.

Snow on Witch Hazel by I Am I.A.M. on Flickr.jpg

Snow on Witch Hazel courtesy of I AM I.A.M. on Flickr

Teale wrote about “brushmen”—guys who gathered the witch hazel plant in the woods. He followed the most accomplished brushman of his day, Stanislaw Gula of Hampton, Connecticut (where the Teales lived), as he hunted and gathered. Teale described witch hazel as “a botanical individualist…not linked with any special environment. It grows on dry slopes and hilltops as well as in wet and swampy wetlands. At times, the clumps appear singly and widely spaced; at other times, they cluster together like alders in a swale.” I was tickled to look up American Distilling and learn about certified wild crops and sustainable harvesting over 30,000 acres of land approved for harvest. I’d love to go see it sometime and ask about what may have changed since Mr. Gula’s day.

Randy, even in his recovering state, was able to converse a bit about the beauty of the yellow witch hazel plants in he and Linda’s woods back home in Middlebury. He possesses a wealth of knowledge, so also knew about what Teale described earlier in the book as “the diamond fields of Arkansas,” which the Internet now bills as Crater of Diamonds State Park. It was fun to sit in that rather sterile room and talk about some wonders of the world.

We are so grateful that Randy’s mind and personality remain 100% Randy and fully capable, and that his speech, although quite faint for a while, has not been affected by his stroke. The book I was reading at the hospital conveyed miracles of one sort, but a whole other variety of miracle was happening, for all of us, as so many reached out to us with help and prayers and vibes and concrete resources. (And the medical care is a whole other miracle of its own). I started a GoFundMe campaign to help in the face of long-term lost wages—so much support pouring in from not only beloved family and friends, but friends of friends of friends and maybe some strangers, too! How heartening to feel so blessed—by books and family and by the kindness of so many—in the midst of the last throes of winter.

hints of spring

Winter retreating

Westward Expansion

Saguaro by Psyberartist flickr.jpg

Saguaro Cactus courtesy of psyberartist on Flickr 

I haven’t spent any significant time out West since I was very small. But my family has roots there. This past fall my cousin Mike did some research and was able to send me my grandfather’s 1936 homestead certificate from Buffalo, Wyoming. There are family stories about the cowboy days. and many of them went when my father went, not terribly long after a momentous family trip to Wyoming. I wish I had heard more of them.

In the The Book of Noticing, I wrote with fascination about the generous life of the saguaro cactus, which yields the state flower of Arizona. We’ve all seen images of this “armed” cactus, even if we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting one in person. My childhood frame of reference for this plant was the Road Runner cartoon.  When I had a child of my own, I read him The Cactus Hotel,  and this informed the saguaro’s inclusion (alongside Northeastern trees that also give generously to the landscape) in The Book of Noticing. The cactus’ fruit feeds the bats and birds. Woodpeckers and owls live in holes drilled into the plant. Even when the tree is downed, creeping and crawling creatures like lizards and termites take shelter in the saguaro.

WHite Sands by diana robinson flickr

White Sands National Monument panorama courtesy of Diana Robinson on Flickr

I pride myself in reveling in, and learning about, the local landscape right here in Connecticut. And I relish the idea of getting back out on my walks when my foot heals. But being off that foot has expanded my horizons mentally, and as I read Facebook posts and vintage books alike, the West seems to be calling me. My publisher L.M. Browning has just taken a trip out West, sharing photos of Carson National Forest, Cimarron Canyon State Park, and the White Sands National Monument. This is a significant return for her, as her upcoming memoir To Lose the Madness (with a recent very favorable review in Publishers Weekly!) also reflects this region.

I bring an old, somewhat musty book to the stationary bike, multitasking by reading and sweating at the same time. (Actually, it’s from the treasured set I wrote my very first blog here about.) In Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale’s Pulitzer-winning volume from a series spanning four seasons, Teale writes about he and his wife Nellie’s American travels over a season, starting in California. I have read up to New Mexico—(only to Chapter 8), and the ground that Edwin and Nellie covered just in this first third of the book is so incredibly rich with compelling creatures and scenes. Teale is great at conveying the joys of seeking and discovering in nature. He and Nellie searched for pupfish (also known as desert sardines) in Death Valley and marveled at the different species that evolved over time in their separate, mineral- and salt-rich pools. They watched the Christmas morning sunshine illuminate mistletoe that hung among clusters of ironwood trees.

Desert Mistletoe by Laura Camp flickr

Desert Mistletoe courtesy of Laura Camp on Flickr

Like me, they marveled at the long-lived saguaros, which expand with moisture (so much so that they have been known to burst when there is an unusual amount of rainfall) and contract with drought. Teale wrote about the Gilded Flickers excavating the cacti, and, if it is the dry time of year, the saguaro sap hardens around the hole to close it off from the rest of the plant. Birds who nest in this “cactus hotel” are shaded from the sun and cooled by the spongy pulp inside the plant. Sometimes elf owls, the smallest owls (who hunt MOTHS–I would so love to see them!) will move into deserted holes that were fashioned by larger birds.

We live in a culture of immediacy now, and my publisher’s photos of the famed White Sands must have been posted in (or close to) real time. In Teale’s time (the book was published in 1957), he would have gathered reams of hard copy notes and canisters of film, piling them all up to be synthesized later into Wandering Through Winter, most likely doing the majority of this work back in his Trail Wood home. I can imagine him rereading his notes, again “feeling” the grit on his face and “seeing” the haze of the sandstorm that just preceded he and Nellie’s first glimpse of the White Sands, which had only been a National Monument for a couple of decades by the time they stood there admiring the gypsum sand. Edwin wrote, “Ever since my childhood among the sand dunes of northern Indiana, I have been fascinated by the beauty and the mystery of these hills that move.” Here in my immediate environs, there aren’t too many hills that move. But I know what he means, as I recall the relatively modest dunes of my childhood at Jones Beach. The way they shift with the wind is somehow compelling; they are constant and yet always changing.

Jones Beach Photos by Tamar on Flickr

The “white sands” of my childhood, and much closer to home: Jones Beach image courtesy of  Photos ByTamar on Flickr

I hope to learn soon that I have been accepted into the Master Naturalist program here in Connecticut, and there will be no local elf owls or gypsum sands to learn about. But there is so much to know about this corner of the world. I have some worries that I won’t remember all that I should, and I also wonder about how important it is, really, to commit these many facts to memory. Although I will take pleasure in the learning, what Teale wrote somewhere between Patagonia (near the Mexican border, called “The Enchanted Land” by Native Americans, and a new addition to my bucket list) and the White Sands rings clear and true. I hope I will always hang on to the simple appreciation he describes:

There is more to the out-of-doors than a schoolroom and much has been lost when the site of a Hermit Thrush stirs in our consciousness merely the scientific name Hylocichla guttata. The simple enjoyment of universal nature, with no other end in mind—this, too, has its importance. And fortunate indeed are those who know this enjoyment to the end of their days…in this speeding, modern world, an increasing number of people are realizing that just to stop, just to
enjoy nature has its own significance.

For me, the near future of “going west” might mean an excursion to Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, just 7 or 8 miles away. Not surprisingly, the park made it into the Huffington Post’s “15 Spots in Northeast USA to Commune with Nature” (albeit with a typo). Someday, though, I will go much further west, maybe back to Yellowstone park, where I saw Old Faithful at age 4 or 5.  One of the things I like best about being a naturalist: I will never, ever, run out of things to observe and learn and wonder at! This is a bona fide blessing.

The Long Winter, Cordelia, and Dead Man’s Fingers

Song sparrow by Budgora

Song Sparrow courtesy of Budgora on Flickr

Last winter, I succeeded in becoming a bit hardier for winter walking, with the help of long johns and other snug layers. I learned that, despite the instinct to avoid the cold, there are long, interesting walks to be had on all but the chilliest and snowiest of days. With caution, of course. I had 2 friends who injured their arms by slipping on the ice; they, too, had been determined to get outside no matter what!

In a minor ironic twist, now I am prepared to layer up and get out but I am not supposed to bear weight on my foot. I am impatient about this, but yet again relearning the old lesson that there is something to notice, something to see when I get in the mindset to find it. The suet hosts the occasional Downy Woodpecker but it has been mostly quiet. What, then, is that hint of a movement on the ground below the feeder? Only with my binoculars can I discern a duo of song sparrows, who blend in so well with the dark leaf litter. They are hopping about, sporting those handsome striped heads.

Cordelia book

I watch Gavin walk back into the woods with envy and turn towards my new friend Cordelia. Well, the book about her, anyway. I bought Beyond the Spring during our family visit to Birdsacre in Ellsworth, Maine, this summer. Cordelia Stanwood isn’t exactly a household name, but I am so glad to be learning about this kindred spirit who died at 93, about a decade before I was born. The first 40 years or so of her life were typical for a single woman of her time who had the support of family and some resources at her disposal. She spent many years teaching and continuing her schooling. That is, until her nervous breakdown. She was back home with her parents and brother after this, and it sounds like for a while she lived a rather numb existence.

Her biographer, who based much of what he wrote on the voluminous papers she left behind, wrote about how she reunited with the world after her illness:

…One day while looking down the long hill below the house she had become aware of the rugged peacefulness of what she saw: the flat smoothness of snow-covered fields on either side of Card’s Brook, the lazy blue smoke curling up from the chimneys in town, the purple outline of the hills in Dedham silhouetted against the rosy tints of late-afternoon sky. Suddenly she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and when a gull sailed majestically through the golden rays of late sunshine she had smiled and whispered to herself, “Oh, world, you are there after all. You haven’t changed. It is I who have been away, and you have been waiting for me all the time.”

Cordelia repaid the waiting natural world with countless hours of watching its birds and taking their photos. Today, you can visit Birdsacre and read some of Cordelia’s words as you walk the trails:

cordelia

From Cordelia’s papers

You can visit the injured birds that are referred to as “permanent guests” there. In the Nature Center, I was especially taken with the Merrit Fitch egg collection (more than 58 species of birds’ eggs collected by two teenage boys in 1888). AND with the dead man’s fingers that grew near the fence. They were the pièce de résistance of the pathway back to the car!

dead man's fingers

During these quiet, snowy days, I like to think back and imagine Cordelia’s reawakening to nature as she looked out over the snow. I like to think about how this possibility is there for us every single day. I have many times felt that recognition, that delight as I looked at a bug or a leaf or a bird—that deep knowing, as Cordelia did, that the world is always waiting for us. We just need to rise up to meet it.

They Came with the Cold: On Patience, Bird Feeders, and New Beginnings

Juncos Dawn Huczek on Flicr

Junco courtesy of Dawn Huczek on Flickr

It hasn’t been a banner month for our bird feeders. Maybe they don’t enjoy the “wild bird” mix I put out. Maybe that disabled hawk we saw downed on our neighbor’s lawn – who we still spot, flying low, from time to time – has taken up residence and is scaring the smaller birds away. I worried that the local bird population had declined steeply, but others assure me that their feeders have been quite active!

How often did my mother tell me, growing up, that patience is a virtue?

It’s hard to be patient when time seems to be at such a premium. I peek out the back window when I hurry into the cold pantry for a scoop of Buddy’s kibble, or when I walk through the dining room. Nobody at the feeder. Well, not until lately.

A few days ago, when the temperature hovered close to 0, they crept in. A pair of woodpeckers lingered at the suet. They were moving so very slowly, and sometimes not at all for long stretches. They looked more like wax figurines than living beings, and I guessed they were likely in (or approaching) torpor.  Birds use torpor – “a state of slowed body functions” – to conserve energy and heat.

rose hips snow Hisgett

Chilled rose hips courtesy of Tony Hisgett on Flickr

The woodpeckers – Downy variety, I think –  are back today, and moving in normal fashion. It’s a (comparatively) balmy 10 degrees. The Downies are outnumbered by the Dark-eyed Juncos, though. I count seven juncos. When they are not at the feeder they congregate in the bare rosa rugosa bushes lining the deck. Will this be the year that I finally make my own rose hip tea or jelly, when the hips come back into bloom? It seems a good New Year’s resolution, and I think I’ve got at least 5 months to gear up for it!

In the shorter term, there’s so much to aspire to when the calendar flips over to 2018. I want to put more slips in the gratitude jar, inspired by my sister’s heartfelt book.  It’s not that I didn’t find moments to be grateful for in 2017—it’s that I don’t always stop to mark them. (And, yes, that is a literal and a figurative statement! The jar’s slips make tangible what my mind and spirit have taken in.) I want, no, NEED–more time in a state of awareness and contemplation and gratitude. More stopping and noticing and peering and pondering.  More letting the best parts of this world wash over me; less occupying my space and time with the superficial. I’ve even downloaded an app to track and limit my screen time—I’d like to say I use the blue screen to access moments of great meaning, but too often I am flitting about, grazing on what amounts to junk food for my brain and spirit.

Jar

Gratitude jar, with Gavin’s art in the background. To be read on New Year’s morning!

I had a few lovely micro-moments of observation and contemplation in recent days. They have made me hungry for more. The birds, who refuse to accommodate my schedule, are at last showing up with regularity. They dive in and forage the ground below the feeder. They stand in the snow in small clusters, so quiet at mealtime when I know that they could sing for their suppers quite operatically. They are worth every faithful stop at the windowpane, even if I don’t always find them when I hope to.

Branches in snow David Burns Flickr.jpg

Snow-laden branches courtesy of  David Burn on Flickr

Last night, Buddy required a nocturnal walk. My walks have been woefully brief due to a foot problem, and I miss my outside adventures so much. But I can still make mini-circuits around the yard (with apologies to the podiatrist). Last night’s circuit had me admiring how the snow adorned each horizontal limb of the cottonwood, and how the moon lit the yard in such a stirring and immersive way. I called Gavin outside to see it. Today I read a freshly minted poem by Amy Nawrocki that conveyed how I felt when I looked up at the night sky.

Wishing you peace, well-attended bird feeders, and many reverent moonlit walks in 2018.

PS: For some good reading on day-lit walks, check out these fine haibuns about the New England Trail.