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:


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.


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.


Sleep Deprivation and Sparkles (Thanksgiving Morning)

Buddy in lamplight predawn.JPG

Buddy under a street light

It’s like having a new infant
all over again.

Except this one has four legs—
wakes us with the click-click of toenails
pacing our wooden floor,
mounting full-body shakes to make his collar jingle.

It is cold and dark but it does no good
to roll over and plead ignorance because then
come the snorts of frustration and high-pitched whines,
like a tiny piccolo ceaselessly rehearsing.

It’s time to take Buddy outside.

We walk the edge of the marsh by the library.
I peer up into the dark slot of the bat box,
looking for shapes. Buddy flushes some large bird out of
the overgrown grasses. We gasp,
crane our necks as the flutter of white
disappears into the Little Dipper.

This celestial mission accomplished, he stops
to do his business and I stoop to remove it,
startled to see sparkles all across the lawn—tiny stars of frost.
The thin rim of ice on the parking lot’s makeshift lake shines, too.
When we get to Lafayette the sidewalk glitters, revealing its cache of mica.

Cumberland Farms is lit up, just letting in its first sleepy customers.
Its light catches the feathered edges of the trees.

Who was it that called this hour ungodly?


A Currrell from Flickr night pavement

Courtesy of A. Currell on Flickr. The picture is called Bicycle Tiltshift.


Grounded (aka My Left Foot)


This woolly bear foretold a promising winter. I envy his capable feet.

One of my favorite 60s songs, recorded just a couple of years before I was born, is Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds. You  know it—”to everything there is a season…turn, turn, turn…” Did you know that the words come from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes?

I’m not here to write about this song, however beloved. But it started playing in my mind when I thought about my unexpected season of not walking much lately, and this has coincided with November, my favorite month.


I ventured up the block with Gavin to gather roots for his first sassafras tea

The culprit is a foot ailment that has me nearly howling in pain when I hit the floor in the morning. I think it is getting better slowly. SO slowly. I have upped the frequency of the exercises that are supposed to help. But in the meantime I have missed the freedom to roam outside.

Usually the colder weather means a bit more tunneling under the covers for me, an increased dose of introspection and contemplation. I didn’t expect to start that season earlier in 2017, but I’ve decided that maybe I am meant to have a season for slowing down and going easy on myself. I can be a great outdoor adventurer later, when I’m healed up. Maybe, for now, I’ll go on adventures in my mind.

There ARE a few perks to all of this. Tom is the “designated walker” who has to take our dog Buddy out at ungodly hours, plunging into the cold WAY before dawn! I’m reading more: most recently No Word for Time: The Way of the Algonquin People. It’s reminded me that there are other ways of measuring what’s important than how things fit into the calendar or the watch face.


Asters have a subtle beauty. They can always be counted on to show up in abundance even as the warm season wanes.

And, when I DO venture out on mild forays into the air (ignoring doctor’s orders but absolutely needing to connect with nature), I am instantly appreciative–in an amped-up way–  of even the smallest findings—like velvety new mushrooms in the yard or the ferns that live alongside our border stone wall.  The colors seem to pop more, now that I am exposed to them more rarely.


No adjective does this color justice.

I wish I had snapped a picture of those intriguing, velvety fungi on my last walk, but I did snag shots of the beauties scattered throughout today’s blog, from the last time I climbed the hills to the Cockaponset and to Mount Saint John’s, and from a brief, mostly flat jaunt at Millers Pond State Park. These moments were worth the foot aches that came later, as I strapped my foot into its contraption for healing and settled into a good read.

Addendum: Shortly after I posted this, I continued thinking about being “grounded.” It’s a funny word–it can mean being forced to stay in place and it can also mean being well-rooted, well connected with the earth and what matters–stable. When I dove back into No Word for Time, I read this and it filled my heart:

In Western culture we equate “being well grounded” with getting there on time, mastering the way of the clock. But watching Wabanaki elders has taught me that there is another way. They are grounded in the earth and in their bodies, and in the Creator, and get there at the right time spiritually. They tune into the flow of events which emerge from the source of Creation. When you are one with Creation
you can do that.

shrooms on tree

A “mushroom tree” at MillerPond State Park, Durham



Nature on the Page

bushyHill drawings

My humble drawing and painting beginnings

I’ve been fortunate, as part of my book launch year, to conduct some nature writing workshops. What joy, to meet others who love nature AND words. Some are highly experienced at both, others just starting to dip their toes into one or the other.

The title of this blog is also the name of the workshop series I have underway at Bushy Hill Nature Center with Jan Blencowe, a gifted visual artist who keeps enviable nature journals that are deftly illustrated and annotated. At the first session, I got to play in a different space: drawing and painting! The deliberateness needed for this activity was a whole new way of looking at nature, super up close and personal and still! Some leaves had put on their best colors just in time for my pursuit. Capturing those hues is still a work in progress.

I’ve taken to bringing a chock-full, carry-on suitcase full of nature writing books when I teach these workshops. Then I watch my fellow nature- and word-lovers drool over them, just like I do. I’ve promised to make a list for my attendees, but maybe it will come in handy for my blog readers, too.


nature books

A tiny sliver of my beloved nature book collection. No table (nor house! nor panoramic lens!) is big enough!

A few disclaimers about the list below:

  • These are in no particular order of favorite, type, copyright, or anything else!
  • There are many, many more books I love that didn’t make it into this particular suitcase.
  • I have  a serious used book habit so some may be unavailable via the traditional bookstore route. Think used bookstore or online shopping and of course LIBRARIES!
  • The links I enclose all go to Amazon, simply because that was the easiest tool on hand for me that would lead readers to a quick summary. That said, PLEASE, PLEASE give lots of love to local and independent book sellers, whenever you can. Many used bookstores can do some hunting for you, too. I know Niantic Book Barn does!
  • In the interest of space, I have chosen to restrict my gushing here and keep it pretty factual. I DO love them all, though!


  • The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich Much of it is Maine-based; was perfect at Acadia. Plain spoken and colorful.  There’s a quote from her here, at the end. 
  • Dawn Light, by Diane Ackerman Many admirable literary takes surrounding the sunrise.
  • The Practical Naturalist (An Audubon book) Illustrated, large-format exploration.
  • The Wisdom of Wilderness, by Gerald G. May A spiritual take on nature and healing.
  • Central Park in the Dark, by Marie Winn Nature at night in Manhattan: there’s more there than you think! (author of Red Tails in Love, another good one!)
  • The Oxford Book of Nature Writing A great sampling of pieces, from older to more contemporary.
  • A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, by Edwin Way Teale Admirable recounting of undertaking a love affair with the land and its creatures.
  • Stirring the Mud, by Barbara Hurd Made me want to run out and buy muck boots and go into the swamps and bogs.
  • Naturally Curious Day by Day, by Mary Holland A great, modern almanac that teaches you something every day, with photos and text (Northeast focus).
  • The View from the Oak, by Herbert R. and Judith Kohl Meant for children, a unique take on seeing the world through other creatures’ eyes. I think it’s great for adults, too.
  • Thoreau’s Wildflowers, by Geoff Wisner Reflections on Thoreau’s many detailed writings on local flora.
  • The Incidental Steward, by Akiko Busch About citizen science–inspiring and hopeful!
  • A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver Deeply thought provoking poems that are very joyous and humble and accessible and wise. 
  • Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver See line above. I really can’t get enough Oliver.
  • The Wisdom of John Muir, by Anne Rowthorn John Muir was quite an enthused and accomplished writer. And he lived the words–really got out there and had epic adventures! 
  • Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold This classic first-person masterpiece led to a land ethic. I just gave a free book to someone, because she said my name and Aldo’s in the same sentence! 
  • Canoeing Maine’s Legendary Allagash, by David K. Leff  An artful tale of  canoeing through nature, woven with the story of  a relationship.
  • Oak Wise, by LM Browning Insightful poems surrounding ecology and spirituality.  
  • A Walk Through the Year, by Edwin Way Teale Now a few decades old , but still a highly relevant and relatable almanac reflecting time at Teale’s Trail Wood in Connecticut.  
  • The Fields of Noon, by Sheila Every Burnford Engaging essays about walks and time in nature. I quoted her here–she would have been a great walking companion!  
  • Living Things, by Anne Porter These poems are often spiritual/religious and connected with nature. The poet was married to artist Fairfield Porter. 
  • Unseen City, by Nathanel Johnson Johnson sees the urban landscape’s flora and fauna with fresh eyes and contagious enthusiasm.
  • @Nat Geo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos Pictures are more prominent than words, but with compelling perspectives and color.
  • Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey This favorite, a “love letter” to a pet snail by a woman dealing with illness, got away from my suitcase but the short read is an all-time favorite. See this Snail Love Darts entry. 

I know this isn’t my typical blog, but I had fun compiling it. I’d love to hear about your favorites!

PS: As much as I love writing and books, sometimes I am at a loss for words out in nature, which can be a good thing! Take this bee, for instance. How much color in his tiny landscape. How much joy seeing him gave me! It was better to be silent than to talk while taking this in.

bee or fly

In Bushy Hill Nature Center’s garden






Color, Connection, and (once again) Hopkins


From today’s walk to Chester

After an overall relaxing summer, time has sped up. We did a couple of trial mornings helping Gavin get accustomed to early rising for the bus, and then the school week started. Gone are the weekdays when Gavin slept in and I slipped out for an hours-long walk before work. Mornings are again more about punctuality and to-do lists, and I am relearning how to maximize the time between the school bus arrival and my own commute to work.

The dog’s schedule and the school schedule have conspired to have me walking before dawn on many days, not always ideal but it’s quiet and gives both me and Buddy time to be meditative. And I’ve experimented with pre-dawn snapshots:


Sometime around 5 AM, on Deep River Main Street

But I was happy when Saturday came at last! The sun was close to rising when I set out for an hour-long ramble to Town Dock. Without Buddy’s inquisitive and committed nose it would have been a much shorter walk, but that’s the beauty of having a hound. They are into the world full throttle, primarily through the scent of it. Each of our successive beagles has acted like he or she has never been outdoors before, EVERY time we take a walk—unbridled curiosity and enthusiasm! Their whole bodies convey a sense of, “What’s next, world? I can’t wait to find out!” The sentiment is contagious and it helped me evolve into a nature writer.


Town Dock never disappoints

Today I was reminded that visual sensations are often my gateway to nature. Sure, I take in the bird song and the scent of the river and the pines, and I relish the feel of the breeze against my skin. I recently wrote a whole piece about the experience of wind at Acadia National Park’s Tarn, and in The Book of Noticing I wrote a piece called “Scent Trail,” about trying to emulate my dog Molly’s aroma-driven quests. But my “go to” sense is sight, as is the case for most humans. First, before all of my senses kick in, I find myself looking. I relish how something as simple as a berry or a mushroom can catch the light.


I’d appreciate it if a better-informed reader can tell me, definitively, what these are. None of the descriptions I found quite matched my image. The photo doesn’t do their shimmering quality justice.  

I looked and I looked Saturday and today and these were joyful, holy moments. (On Sunday I was intrepid, walking in moderate rain. But I wished I had windshield wipers for my glasses!). I thought about my artist sister’s sense of color and my mom’s flair for colorful style, and I’ve always felt a lack there, with my inherent bias toward monochromatic palettes in my home and my choice of clothes. But I had a “eureka!” moment while walking. My sense of color lives in the natural world. I am drawn to even the smallest splashes of brightness and visual variety; the colors are treasured even more if they are a hidden deep in the grass or in the understory.


This unexpected ladybug nearly escaped my notice.

Soon I will turn 50, and I hope that on my birthday I can continue my new tradition of walking to Essex. I imagine that I will be “drinking with my eyes” that day, to borrow from 17th century poet Ben Jonson (I just learned something, thanks to Google — I had mis-remembered “drink to me only with thine eyes” as a Shakespeare phrase!). I know the context is different—Jonson’s poem is about lovers and their longing looks. But longing looks are not reserved exclusively for lovers. At my best moments on the trail (even the asphalt trail), I not only long, but I feel that longing—for stimulation, for interest, for connection, for peace, even for God—fulfilled. I feel that I am literally being filled as I “drink” in the endless colors and the sun and the breeze and the sounds beyond the brush.


The best kind of collage

Oh gosh, I have quoted him before in this blog, but I am powerless to resit this particular redundancy. Gerard Manley Hopkins said it so well in Pied Beauty. For me, his words ooze the best way of “drinking with the eyes” (and the other senses, too) and the outcome of astonishment and enlivenment that this practice often brings. I’ll end with his words since I can’t top them, but before that I wish all of my readers happy “eye drinking” during their prized time outside.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.


Wild Carrots and Lace

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Lace in the meadow

This seems to be the peak of the year for Queen Anne’s lace. That economic principle of things being of less value when they are super-abundant doesn’t apply for me, when it comes to these leggy white blooms that greet me from even the most untended stretches of road. As a small child, their colloquial name captured my imagination—it was one of the first wildflowers I learned. recounts the legend of Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) pricking her finger, thus the “drop of blood” that shows up on the flower as a tiny purple dot, when you look closely.


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Closeup of the purple “blood” on the flower

As with most familiar plants, this one has many names. (a great app, if you have a smart phone especially, for learning about flora and fauna) told me that my photo was of a wild carrot, or Daucus carota. I was delighted to learn of other colloquial names, too: bishop’s lace and bird’s nest.

I became preoccupied with the desire to know why, in the morning, some of the flowers have curled in on themselves – and they do look like birds’ nests – or the loveliest version of a tiny cage. I wondered if they all curl up at night, and then for some reason open at different rates in the morning. But the World Carrot Museum site tells me that the umbels (or seed heads) curl inward once they are spent, and the hooked spines that cover the fruits aid dispersal, since they can cling to the fur of animals. Aha! When the flowers are open, they allow pollination, and when closed, they have gone to seed and are ready to “go forth and multiply.” (aside: I was so tickled to learn that there is a World Carrot Museum, even if it is only in cyberspace).


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The “bird’s nest” or cage, when the plant has gone to seed 

My sister once had an awful experience of picking what she thought was Queen Anne’s lace and having an intense, photosensitive allergic reaction. She had found herself a bouquet of wild parsnips, not wild carrots, and apparently there is also poison hemlock, another look-alike to worry about, which lacks hairs on stems and leaves compared with the proper Queen Anne’s lace (note: I am NOT an expert—learning as I go!). While the wild carrot root is edible, if you get it at the right time, it is a very risky business unless you really know your stuff. Poison hemlock is so named for a very good, deadly reason, and wild parsnip, while ostensibly having an edible root, carries the risk of at least the aforementioned reaction. More info here, if you are curious about differentiating these plants (although I can’t guarantee the expertise of the video maker! Foraging experts say that the best way to learn, and be safe, is to go out foraging with a bona fide expert).

My appreciation of Queen Anne’s lace’s ubiquitous loveliness took a turn into a discussion of poison, which wasn’t what I planned. I may have gone off on this tangent because I am hoping to pursue my Master Naturalist certification in the spring, and am amazed and intimidated by how much there is to know! But there is also delight in learning, something I look forward to.


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In the beginning…a new bud of lace

In the meantime there is simple appreciation, and for me there is always a balance to be struck. You can “know” the wildflowers and insects and animals that you meet as friends—appreciating unique qualities and observing them with alert senses. You can also “know” as an academician knows, even to the point where you are encyclopedic on the topic. Neither way is inherently bad, but too much of one risks obliterating the other. Knowing based on just your own observation can mean false assumptions, and limitations. Knowing based on simply facts can push aside the beauty of the thing. I wonder how much William Carlos Williams knew when he wrote about the seemingly single-minded effort of this plant?:

…until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

(The poem is copyrighted; you can read the whole thing here).


Anniversary of Noticing: A Walk to Chester

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Bridge Street at dawn

In The Book of Noticing, I introduced my collection of walks by sketching out a particular one: a walk to Deep River’s neighboring town of Chester on the 4th of July. Every year, the town hosts the 4 on the 4th Road Race. I have little interest in the race itself, but Chester is a good destination and I like to see the preparations underway.

This morning I celebrated the anniversary of this start of the book with a walk to the same destination. Different time of day: this year the dog got me up at 4, and the sky was already lightening, so I went with it. Different dog: Molly’s memory will forever be held in the book, but now she is buried at the pet cemetery in Fountain Hill, and sometimes Buddy and I stop at her marker.

Our new beagle mix, Buddy, is only 4 and full of energy. He didn’t lag once during the whole, greater-than-2-hour, saunter. It was a circuitous route: various side streets to Maple Street to Chester, then a detour up to Laurel Hill Cemetery, then up through Chester and down Main Street, back via side streets to home.

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Buddy checking out the mullein

By the time I approached Union Street, about 10 minutes from home, the sun was showing its face above the horizon, and it washed my neighborhood in muted warm tones. I mused about the many mullein plants peppering my path, their tall shadows standing out in the early dawn light. It’s theorized that the name comes from the Latin word for “soft,” and the herb’s dried down was at one time used for candle wicks. I learned that the stalks used to serve as torches, back in Roman times, and that this often overlooked plant has served many medicinal purposes, from hemorrhoids to asthma. Despite its size, I have always thought it a humble and unassuming plant. I view it as an old friend that visits every summer.

I thought back to my recent weeks at Acadia (see here and here), and how I was literally surrounded by water practically everywhere I went. It’s abundant here, too, but just a bit more work to locate it. From Laurel Hill Cemetery I looked down on the Carini Preserve area, alongside the Chester Creek. I have a favorite spot in the cemetery where I can look over at the Osprey platform planted in the water. Empty! Had the chicks hatched and fledged already? I found myself worrying about their well being. Where were they?

I studied a couple of impressively proportioned rocks—or are they boulders? I had to look up the difference. One forum says that the differentiating factor for the boulder is that it isn’t going anywhere. I hope that’s true for this unusual grave marker at Laurel Hill, pictured below. I wondered about the person or family who decided on the hefty, naturally formed pink granite (I think?) rock bearing only a last name.

Hungerford rock Laurel Hill.JPGNot far from it was another eye-catching rock (I guess it could be moved, with power equipment, so thus it’s not a boulder?) in the creek itself. It’s become a haven for wayward plants.

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Chester Creek rock-nursery

Today I felt an appreciation especially for the plants along my path. I mused about some of the flowers that might be considered “weeds,” since they don’t seem to have been planted intentionally. Actually, I like the term “volunteers” much better. I was amused by my Web research on volunteer plants when I got home, mostly with a gardening perspective, with titles like, “What’s Up with Volunteer Plants?”  and “Should You Keep Volunteer Tomatoes?”  (While to me the answer to tomatoes should always be yes, apparently this is a controversial issue in some circles).

Seeds have so many ways of arriving and blossoming: our compost, the creatures that come and go from our gardens, plants reseeding. Whether we want them there or not, there they are, proud in their innovation and persistence. The many routes that a seed can take are good reminders of the surprises in life, and also of the boundless opportunities to grow, even in unlikely scenarios.

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Volunteer in purple uniform

Which brings me back to The Book of Noticing and its origins. Long, long ago, I brought an acorn home from a walk in the woods. It was a particularly pleasing example–large and burnished brown, with a handsome cap. I though that having this in hand, and later, desk-side, might help me to get going on what was then a rather vague idea about a book on time in nature. Time passed, and still the acorn sat there, not seeming to blossom into much. But, eventually, more ideas accumulated and I had a book. What mattered was that I had faith in the seed; that I cared enough to bring it home and welcome it.

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My mustard seed

I rooted around in my jewelry box to find the pendant pictured above, and remember Mom gifting me with it from her own childhood collection, when I was 9 or 10. She said, “If you have faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains,” a paraphrase from Matthew 17:20 and no doubt a remnant of her Baptist roots. Did she know how fertile a seed she was planting that day?