Who’s Schoodic, and What’s the Point?

I have been granted a great gift: a two-week writing residency at Acadia National Park, in Maine. I am staying on the Schoodic Peninsula (pronounced SKOO dic), a smaller area of the park that’s separate from the main section on Mount Desert Island (site of Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain). I am a short walk from Schoodic Point.

This is a daunting assignment for a writer, because where are the words that do the place justice? Do they even exist? At one point, I found myself envying the visual artists, who with their paint boxes can render some facsimile of the broad boulders by the gulf, the steel of the sky in the mist, the patterns of mosses and lichens that constantly draw the eye. I may need to sort through thousands, even millions, of words to arrive at an adequate description.

In the meantime, I’ve been given time to roam, and this is the best gift for a writer—at least for a nature writer! I roam and write, roam and write. I go to the Point and sit and watch. Or close my eyes and listen. Or lay on the rocks and inhale the salt-infused air.

I pray. Often I try to stay still but am drawn by a small pool a bit farther out, or tiny spiders that look giant through my binoculars, or a shining, black rift in the rock.

The crevices tell an old, geologic tale

I thought perhaps there was some colonial guy, maybe a Dutchman, named Schoodic. But it turns out the name probably derives from the Mi’kmaq word eskwodek—“the end,” or possibly the Passamaquoddy word for “the burnt place”—scoudiac. For me, this “end” has been a beginning, or maybe a return. Although I spent much of my childhood at Jones Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, and although I live not far from the Sound (now on the Connecticut side), I don’t visit the the coast very often. More often, I pass by it. And although I am a nature writer, I tend to focus my words further inland, about my immediate surroundings. It’s good to again survey the edge of the land, and think about the life beyond it.

I am learning so much. A brother of a friend is a park ranger here, and he graciously invited me to see Tom Wessels, author of Granite, Fire, and Fog,  speak. He talked first about granite, and how the glaciers shaped things. But geology doesn’t always grab me—somehow it feels too abstract, too slow-moving (glacial pace, and all) to for me to grasp.

Beard lichen

He had me at lichens. Among the first specifics I noticed here, once I stopped dropping my jaw at the multitude of sweeping, water’s edge vistas that met me at every curve, were the generous “Old Man’s Beard” lichens that hang from so many trees. They are on a maple outside my apartment here, but I think the author said they especially favor spruces. The often-misty climate promotes a different environment, and, as Wessels said, different “communities” of growth, which translates into a truly unique landscape. Get this: fog droplets contain 1000 times more nutrients than rain. So, lichens at Acadia grow comparatively quickly. Still, they are quite slow-growing composite organisms (not plants—they are made of algae + fungi).

They are EVERYWHERE!!

Even the ordinary seems amped up here. (Of course, I may be high on freedom. Or on the salt air.) The rabbits (or hares?) are more approachable, and (apologies to grey squirrels back at home) the squirrels (red here) are cuter and less shy, too. There is an endless variation of color in and on the rocks (I learned that crustose lichens are actually welded down into the rock; almost like they are painted on!). I like looking close up at the snails that hold court on so many surfaces.

Snails and barnacles by the millions

I went to the Oceanarium to learn more about the creatures beyond the edge. The touch tank host held up sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea stars, horseshoe crabs, moon snails, etc, presenting fascinating, often outlandish details about each one. For example, sea cucumbers can spill their intestines in response to an alarming event, and suck them up later. You can’t make this stuff up.

Having my family join me was a joy. We had dinner at The Pickled Wrinkle  and actually tried some wrinkles, and some deep-fried dulse. Before that, we had worked up our appetites around some low-lying areas of the peninsula.

I have to admit, I was concerned about how things might change when the guys joined me. I was a hermit of sorts in the week that I was here alone. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. I wrote for hours. I walked for hours. I was silent for hours.

We talked over dinner about the hermit life—about how Thoreau lived alone in his cabin but walked to town for companionship and had guests come over. Gavin described how the protagonist in a book he loves, Ed Stafford of Naked and Marooned, relished the idea of being alone and planned a whole adventure around the concept, in the South Pacific. But eventually he craved human companionship and hid nearby when he knew humans were going to be on his island, just so he could see them. It’s the rare person who truly does not want any kind of contact. (See The Stranger in the Woods, a Maine story, for one such case).

Gavin in his element

The deepening of dimension that comes with other humans became clear to me right away when the guys arrived. I thought I had been pretty adventurous this week—scaling fairly steep trails and venturing alone into varied terrains. But within a half hour of Tom and Gavin’s arrival, my shoes were muddier than they’d been all week. Gavin was eager to check out the flats, and we squished about admiring the “bubble” seaweed and snails and natural sponges. After dinner, Tom, who had driven a long way on little sleep (thanks to our dog’s urges for nocturnal walks), passed on a walk to the Point. But Gavin and I went, and I rejoiced in his joy at leaping boulder to boulder, embodying the effortlessness and energy of youth and health.

Stalking the wild strawberry

He noticed things I had noticed when I arrived, like the beard lichen. But also new things, like wild strawberries on the grassy walkway back toward our temporary home. On the way back from the Point, he spotted the silhouette of a porcupine crossing the road. And a colony of spittle bugs inhabiting the roadside grass. I’ve had a room of my own at Schoodic Point, and it’s been a dream. I churned out two longer- and deeper-than usual pieces and roughed out ideas for quite a few more. But I can see now that even a landscape such as this only goes so far, if it can’t be shared.

Spittle bug community

We humans need each other, and we each bring a unique perspective about the natural world. We also have a crucial role to play here. I discovered a writer I hadn’t heard of before: Louise Dickinson Rich often focused on Maine. She died in the early 1990s, but reading her words, I am sure I would have liked to know her, had I the chance. I end with an “Amen!” to her words at the end of The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich:

Man, who cannot swim as well as a fish, nor fly as well as a bird, nor support himself on bare ledges as well as a lichen, is the observer, the recorder; because there is no one else—not the bird, not the rowan, not the lichen or the fish—who is capable of doing it. Perhaps all his other achievements are less than this, that he watches, and makes the record, and tries to find the meaning. He alone cares, and in that caring, perhaps, lies his weakness and his very great strength.

The Book of Noticing VEXATION!

 

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Malacosoma americana (tent caterpillar moth) courtesy of Andy Reago & Chrissy McClaren on Flickr 

I live for watching nature, hearing its embedded poetry, and waxing enthusiastic about it, hence The Book of Noticing. But on one of those hot days recently (before the chilly, rainy snap returned), I was at a loss for conjuring picturesque images with clever turns of phrase. Mosquitoes found me and buzzed about the delectable main course that was me. They dug in with gusto. ICK! (insert expletive here).

I’ve been sympathetic to other maligned creatures, most recently the marginalized gypsy moths and tent caterpillars. After all, they are just chewing what they were meant to chew, aren’t they? Observing the mother gypsy moth’s carefully fashioned egg cases, often moth-shaped and fuzzy with hair from the female’s abdomens, made me more sympathetic. I also like to watch the tent caterpillars over time, as they grow by impossibly fast leaps and bounds in their gauzy nests. And both types turn into something that flutters gently about, soft and benign if not an especially stunning photo-op.

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Perhaps the most flattering portrait of a mosquito, EVER, courtesy of K Yamada on Flickr 

But I can’t feel very sympathetic about the mosquito moms. According to the DC Mosquito Squad, our blood is “the perfect prenatal supplement for growing mosquito eggs.” Even though I know what it’s like to need a prenatal supplement, and to have babies (well, baby), all I can think is ICK!! I am not willing to scratch and grow welts and possibly contract a disease in the name of mosquito reproductive heath. Factoid: I learned that the very trait that makes me such a desirable blood donor, an O positive blood type, is apparently a real draw to mosquitoes, too. At least they don’t call me as often as the American Red Cross does.

Gavin had a picture book called The Naming when he was little, about the Garden of Eden. We brought it home from the beloved Niantic Book Barn. Each creature in the book was given a name, and a prophetic description. The lion was described as “splendor,” and the fleas that came along later (right after the dogs, of course!) were dubbed “vexation.” (Aside for the book lovers: this book’s author and illustrator were both prolific producers of some wonderful stuff!)

The Naming

Ah yes—vexation in nature! We’ve all experienced that—the mosquito and the tick, the copious sweat on our faces during a humid day, the blisters that well up as we walk that trail that would have otherwise been blissful (not blisterful). What about the roots we trip over; the cobwebs that greet us like a succession of invisible, sticky finish lines; the sharp pebbles on the bottom of the cool stream bed?

You might wonder if I am aiming to send would-be nature lovers back inside for some air-conditioned binge watching. Have I converted from nature writer to nature reviler?

Actually, I’m writing about genuine love. If you really love someone, especially over a long period of time, you come to see that person in a true light that is not always flattering: you know they get cranky, even mean sometimes. You know they have this blind spot, and that one. And a maddening tendency to tell the same stories ad infinitum. And they pick their nose. And they laugh too loud in restaurants. And there are some super-weird tendencies in their family tree. But you also know that they are tender and generous and funny and sweet and a fine specimen of a human. And they would do just about anything for you, if you wanted them to. You sign up for the whole package, because, when you take all of it together, it’s a stupendous gift.

For me, loving nature is like that. It is loving the mix of it all, even the parts I don’t understand or like. As with human relationships, there has to be common sense—it’s not smart to stay in harm’s way, and we can’t let ourselves be victims. And, also as with human relationships, I often find loving easier when I’ve developed a deeper understanding.

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Wolf at Yellowstone courtesy of Michael McCarthy on Flickr

Even the least – and least attractive –  creatures play a part in the ecosystem. Here’s an example from Yellowstone National Park, about how the reintroduction of wolves continues to have reverberating effects on so many creatures.  I’ve written about how we are often more sympathetic to bigger creatures, versus gnats, mosquitoes, voles, mice, etc. Somehow it seems we can feel, or at least imagine, the pain that wolves or bears or other, fairly sizeable creatures might feel. Could it have something to do with being able to look them in the eyes?

While we are working on being more Zen, more all-knowing and all-magnanimous, like this guy…

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Buddha courtesy of Kaysha on Flickr

 

…Maybe it’s easier, with the teeniest, and the more “icky” creatures, to think about what would happen if they were not around, with our interests in mind. This piece talks about how the ecosystem would actually suffer without mosquitoes. Ticks, also, are an essential food source for many creatures.

That’s today’s food for thought, even as we remain potential food for many of our co-inhibitors of the planet. And now, because I can’t quite muster the generosity and equanimity to post a picture of a tick, here’s a happy photo of a decidedly non-biting rhododendron.

Photo May 28, 6 28 29 AM

 

In Praise of the Small: Swallows, Dune Toads, and Caterpillars

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Purple Martins courtesy of Rick Leche on Flickr

Today I checked off a longstanding item on my bucket list of local endeavors. I jumped into my jeans and hurried out of the house to be in Madison by 7:50, where I met with fellow bird lovers in The Audubon Shop parking lot. I met author/illustrator Patrick J. Lynch, and he autographed my new copy of A Field Guide to the Long Island Sound. I’ve lived on both sides of the Sound, traversing many of its rocky beaches, and it seems only fitting that I should, at long last, own a detailed manual about its non-human inhabitants. The group formed a caravan at Hammonasset Beach State Park, driving short stints to favorite bird haunts in the park and learning from Lynch and shop owner Jerry Connolly.

The Purple Martins filled my heart. The sheen on the males caught the light, and the couples seemed to be performing a musical for our benefit, flying to and fro as we stood with our “opera glasses” and took in the spectacle. I learned that they winter in South America and come back to the exact same “condo” bird houses every spring, where they nest in great colonies. When I looked them up later on All About Birds, I learned that man-made Martin houses used to be really abundant. John James Audubon used them as a gauge for his lodging prospects when traveling, noting: “Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.” Should we start a movement to bring back the universal Martin box, especially at inns? Wouldn’t looking for the birdhouses be infinitely more fun than hotel ratings Web sites?

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Beach bum Fowler’s toad courtesy of USFWS on Flickr

I was taken with a modest, marshy pool adjacent to the pavilion’s parking lot. Although we only spotted a few tadpoles, Lynch gave us a lesson on Fowler’s toads, which, unlike the better-known American toads, like to hang out in sand dunes. His book says that they bury themselves in the sand to escape the heat. How many Fowler’s toads did I unknowingly step over as I roamed around Jones Beach and Point Lookout and Caumsett and Welwyn Preserve in my youth? As we learned about the toads, a flurry of bright blue tree swallows stole center stage, appearing to perform for us but in actuality chasing insects. The morning brought more finds, including Least Terns (endangered) and American Oystercatchers and Brants. I couldn’t work my phone camera by the end of the walk, as my hands were surprisingly numb from the wet chill. But it was worth the temporary paralysis.

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Embarrassment of tree swallows courtesy of Michael Mulqueen on Flickr

On the way home on Route 9, warming alternate hands over the heating vents, I once again noticed a particular, still quite bare, tree, which boasts the most tent caterpillar abodes I’ve ever seen in one place. I looked up the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and found what I expected on a college entomology site: Malacosoma americanum is described as a pest with “unsightly silken nests” that feeds on (but doesn’t usually defoliate) trees, going on to say that “they are a nuisance and can create a mess when they are squashed on driveways, sidewalks, and patios.” Those lucky enough to survive our feet and cars and predators (which I bet they consider a nuisance, at the very least!) transform into rather ordinary-looking moths.

The tree caterpillars reminded me of gypsy moth caterpillars, another one of God’s “creatures great and small” often viewed as an outcast, despite the fact that ominous sounding “outbreaks” are very often limited by nature, such as the fungus that counters the gypsies. (I wrote more about gypsies here).  Both tree and gypsy moth caterpillar eggs overwinter under ingenious protective coatings, and it seems miraculous to me that they make it to spring at all. In The Book of Noticing (officially launching Tuesday!) I wrote about peering and tracking and researching “even the common gypsy moth,” and this reminds me that, despite my generally sympathetic attitude, I don’t necessarily fully value the lives of the moths who lay their eggs and flutter to the ground to die each summer, at least not on par with other, usually bigger and more visually pleasing creatures. This is something for me to think about. Can I cut off the branch of my neighbor’s tent caterpillared-tree and bring the innocents, just doing what they were born to do, off into the woods somewhere, far away from the garden, sparing them from destruction?

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New life amid new life

Caterpillars are not pretty in the same way that Purple Martins are. But they fascinated me when I was a child, their suction-cuppy feet traversing my arm, tickling its tiny hairs. Can we make more room in the world even for creatures who don’t make us want to cuddle? Even for those creatures, like many-eyed or hairy-legged spiders, who sometimes make us want to run? They are living their lives, too, and have their place. They, like us, can be so misunderstood. Could they teach us more about compassion?

As I wrote this I kept hearing a small vibrating noise and assumed it was rapid raindrops riding the edge of the gutter. But my eye caught a white moth here inside, fluttering her wings at an impossible speed. Was she trying to dry off? She rode my forearm for a while, then lifted off to the windowsill. Another small creature who so often goes unnoticed, and this one has already been through several stages of her life, like me. She catches the light beautifully. She craves it just like I do.

What We Know

(This week’s post is a guest blog from Shawndra Miller, an admirable writer and energy worker. I’ve also contributed some words to her blog–fun to expand horizons!)

Katherine asked me to contribute a guest post to her blog, and I am honored to do it. We share a reverence for nature and, I suspect, an openness to nonmainstream ways of moving through the world.

I appreciate the detail of Katherine’s observations on her outings, and the way she melds a sense of the sacred with familial and practical concerns. We share that too. And I’m excited to see her book come out in May!

So for her blog, I thought I would write about a beloved tree that I encounter every morning when I walk my dog.

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The Venerable Hackberry Tree

Every day, I commune with this aged hackberry tree. It feels like it might be the wisest being for miles around. I’m grateful that I live a few blocks from this tree, which is somehow more-than-tree, but Presence.

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Good morning, Beautiful Tree!

If I’m late, I blow a kiss as my dog and I pass by. If I’m not in a hurry, I rest my spine against its rough bark. A young hackberry is said to have “corky” bark, but this grand old tree has a skin more like spiny. Its toes spread at the base allowing me to nestle my feet between them on the bare earth. Never mind bits of broken glass from some disrespectful passerby.

Spine to spine, then.

Then it’s just about listening, or sensing. Sinking into beingness.

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Melding

I imagine I can merge my particles with the tree’s particles. No, I know I can. We’re each just a whirling cloud of tiny specks floating in vast space. Energy touching energy, vibration touching vibration.

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A universe in its bark

Contacting this reality—something I love to teach my clients and students—returns me to a sense of the timeless. Feet rooted, body near-weightless. The sensation of Oneness comes easily in the presence of Tree.

Tree time is so different from human time. That’s what comes to me as I gaze up into its branches.

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The view from down here.

And this: I don’t expect to know or understand any damn thing, standing here.

As this Pablo Neruda poem says,

What we know is so little
and what we presume is so much
and we learn so slowly
that we ask and then we die.

What a relief, to give in to not-knowing. To no longer opine or whine or conclude.

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Opal worships me while I worship Tree.

Tree has no agenda but life. The birds in its boughs spin out their short destinies. I stop and touch, stop and look up, offer my thanks, move on into a morning of work and words.

And I wonder. How big is a tree’s aura? How far does this particular tree’s energy field extend? Is it possible that as I sit here at my desk down the street, writing of Tree, that Tree feels me? That I am sitting within Tree’s aura?

Shawndra Miller is a writer and energy worker who lives in Indianapolis. She writes about changemakers at the leading edge of eco-agriculture for Acres USA and Farm Indiana. A certified ThetaHealer®, she offers one-on-one energy work, classes, and collaborative events that connect people to a wider sense of what’s possible in their bodies, energies, lives, and the larger world. Her lyric essays and poetry have appeared in Confrontation Magazine, The Boiler Journal, and The Lavender Review. She is currently working on a nonfiction book that links her healing journey to wider societal healing, represented by a farm built atop the buried remains of a 19th century women’s mental institution.

Lonely as a Cloud: Ospreys, Mom, and Daffodils

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Daffodils at Aaron Manor

I remember other April days like this past Sunday, when I was fooled into thinking we might sit in the sun comfortably, but the wind continued to feel like March and my hands wanted to stay in their pockets. I had decided to take Mom to Sweet Luna’s, our relatively recent tradition. The plan to eat our frozen yogurt outside was scrapped—maybe after Easter, Mom’s favorite holiday.

We used to share delectable meals out, but at this point in Mom’s old age and dementia, her condition is such that she can only eat specific textures and thicknesses of food. Frozen yogurt with tons of fudge and caramel and peanut butter make the list, as do carefully chosen tiny toppings like mini chocolate chips and crushed-up Andes candies. I think we create a small disturbance at Sweet Luna’s, as I have to yell so loud at Mom to be heard. But they are kind and it is a good outing.

Mommy

An excellent day in 2014, when we were still able to eat out

There are good days and bad days with Mom’s dementia, and I have never been able to figure out why sometimes more cylinders (or more accurately, neurons) seem to be firing. This recent outing wasn’t one of the best days—Mom picked at her skin (a common dementia habit) and mostly stayed in her own world. She had little interest in the nearby tent sale, when in the old days she would have shopped up a storm. She had no opinion when asked if she wanted to drive home the pretty way or the fast way.

I chose for us. Pretty. Very pretty, in fact—River Road in Essex. Back in the car, we were again fooled into thinking it might be May, or even June, and I opened the windows to let the breeze in. I hoped that Mom was taking in some of the vista—the river below, the light in the trees—and when I looked at her face I thought she might be absorbing some of it. It was hard to tell.

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A photo from another April, of light in the trees

The first time my heart soared, it was because I saw my first Osprey of the season, far away on the platform at the Pettipaug Yacht Club, the club we joined last year even though all we have is a canoe. Great bird life there! A half mile or so later, I saw another Osprey on its own platform at Pratt Cove. I pointed these out to Mom but the experience seemed lost on her. The car was too fast and her vision and hearing were too dim to keep up. Still, she smiled, discerning from my gesticulations that something had pleased me, and happy that I was happy. (My dedication to her in The Book of Noticing says exactly that: “always happy when I am.”)

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Osprey courtesy of Fritz Myer on Flickr

 

 

But I felt lonely. We used to have the best conversations, and now she’s mostly deaf and often mute. Even when I yell, many of my attempts at conversation are lost on her. My mind wandered, thinking about loneliness and spring. I thought about the daffodils we’d seen, just beginning their lives in bloom. And then, I was inspired. I leaned over toward Mom and shouted, “I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD.” She looked toward me, puzzled, having not heard my first attempt. Again I yelled the first line of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” poem (which is actually titled with that first line that I was bellowing). Without missing a beat, Mom replied, “That floats on high o’er vales and hills.” We fumbled our way through the next couple of lines, back and forth, surely butchering Wordsworth’s perfect lyric but getting to the gist of line four, spoken (inaccurately but triumphantly) by Mom: “A host, of golden daffodils.” A simple but stellar moment. The neurons rose up in joy, for just a brief interval.

Mom majored in English literature, specializing in the British poets. All of these great works used to roll off her tongue. She’d been on the debate team and had great elocution. No longer, but I know that the words live somewhere inside of her.

I thought about how nature inspires me to write. But for Mom, who is not as tuned into to the natural world as I am (and who, on one of her recent good days, rolled her eyes when I waxed sympathetic for the polar bears’ climate change plight) , poetry is what introduced her to nature. The combination of Mom’s poetry and Dad’s fierce love of the outdoors shaped me profoundly. Mom taught me, through poetry (and with robust help from William Blake), to literally:

…see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…

She alerted me to the hallelujah that is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dappled things,” and often recited Pippa Passes, by Robert Browning:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’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!

We got back to the nursing home, and after I settled her into her cushy red chair we exchanged our habitual “vaya con Dios.” As I left Aaron Manor I snapped a photo of the daffodils planted outside.

All was right with the world.

 

At Our Gloved Fingertips: March Microexpeditions

 

The other morning, when Gavin needed a ride to school, we were unusually ahead of schedule. This was miraculous in and of itself, but it got more miraculous. We took a little loop through Ivoryton, to kill time. Those 5 minutes entailed rapt looks through the windshield at the pale, full, setting moon; the burning orange of the rising sun through the trees; and a fox (they really are quick!) running across Warsaw Street. He was so fast as to be a bit of a blur; I might have thought he was a lovely, low-slung hallucination if Gavin hadn’t seen him, too. Already, we both felt better about our impending work and school days.

 

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Courtesy of krissvdh on Flickr

This preview boded well for my pre-work walk. I again found myself at Pratt Cove, one of my favorite Deep River places, and was glad I had extra layers on. The sun was higher already, now more yellow and pale. I was amused by the mistranslation that my phone made as I recorded verbal notes. When I uttered “Pratt Cove,” the phone “heard” “crack of,” and, yes it was dawn. But the sun felt far away. My fingers tingled in the cold.

I pulled my turtleneck up, zipped my coat higher, and looked out at what I am pretty sure is a muskrat lodge, a modest, tan structure made of sticks. It doesn’t compare to the “mansions” that beavers can construct. No signs of life there, but it made me happy to think about the muskrat or muskrat family who might be keeping warm inside. I’ve been learning more about these creatures from Bob Arnebeck’s site.

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Muskrat lodge with rooftop goose courtesy of Vail Marston on Flickr

I trekked up to another favorite haunt (pun intended): Fountain Hill Cemetery. No muskrats apparent in that pond either (have they left the Hill this winter?), but the noisiest creatures were out in full force. Crows cawed insistently and swooped about the place—it would have been impossible to ignore their presence. I got within 12 feet of a Pileated Woodpecker, who was busy doing some serious, high-decibel damage to a cedar. He saw me, but seemed conflicted about leaving his construction project until I inched even closer. I’d seen his characteristic rectangular holes many times, most of them on this poor tree, but this was my first time seeing him (the males do most of the excavating) in action here.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology told me that his holes, in addition to being nests for his own brood (the average clutch = 4/nest), provide “crucial shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens.” I so admire Nature’s thoughtful sense of economy.

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Pileated family courtesy of Henry T. McLin on Flickr

It wasn’t long before I had to be off to work, and the day there wasn’t nearly as colorful and fulfilling as my morning microexpeditions. Still, I’m grateful for my “bread and butter,” and thinking back on my moments in nature, often deliberately shoehorned into my workdays, is a gift that really does keep on giving. Excuse that cliché, but lately I want to chatter in happy hyperbole, using clichés with careless abandon, critics be damned. I blame it on spring fever, which continues to rise despite the current, inarguable, snow day that my husband and son continue to shovel away.

 

Acknowledgments: thank you to Tom and Gavin, who permitted me to stay in my pajamas and write this while they ventured out in full winter regalia

Nevertheless, We Persisted: The Juncos, The Coffee, and Me

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Male Dark-Eyed Junco courtesy of Mike Chellini on Flickr

The wind was howling and at times the snow looked like a glistening white tornado. I was surprised that the Dark-Eyed Juncos were at the feeder. I wondered if the birds have a heightened instinct to feed when a storm is blowing, or about to blow—the same instinct that drives us humans to rush out in determined droves to get our bread and milk.

Have you ever held a bird? They are remarkably light! You might remember that they have hollow bones. But the Juncos didn’t stop feeding when the wind picked up, or when the flakes came down thicker. Nor were they blown off course. They seemed unperturbed, even happy, perhaps, to be in the snow and partaking of the seeds. I mused as I watched, noting how their design must-despite its fragile appearance-allow them to coexist with the wind, even master it.

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Female Junco courtesy of pumpkin ash on Flickr

Dark-Eyed Juncos don’t grab my eye the way Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and Cardinals do. But they have grown on me. I puzzle over their name (aren’t most birds dark-eyed?) while I admire the males’ “two-toned” appearance (dark grey and white). The females’ coloring is more subdued, dunnier, as is the case with many bird species. They sit in the shrubs surrounding the deck and take polite turns at the feeder. They are the birds that I see most in the yard, and I wonder how I had managed to miss them in my childhood yard on Long Island—I wasn’t aware of them until fairly recently!

As I watched the birds ride out the snow with uncommon grace, I was reminded of a friend’s favorite new T-shirt, which reads: “Nevertheless she persisted.” I only learned today that this is a reference to Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech that was cut short. The political world is far removed from the feeder, but I like the ring of these words. They were described by the Washington Post as a “battle cry” when it comes to Warren’s supporters, but the words take on a softer tone when I apply them to the Juncos in the snow. Nevertheless, they stayed near the feeder. Nevertheless, they dined heartily. Nevertheless, they are there to greet me daily. I have come to appreciate their steadfastness.

This morning at 3 AM, I was a bit vexed by a too-long foray into social media when I couldn’t sleep. But something good did come of it. My friend Melissa Gaskill, lover of (and writer about) sea turtles, reposted a reminder about how damaging all of our plastic use is—our straws, our bags, our cups, etc, are taking over, and that isn’t an exaggeration. Here are a few lines from the Sea Turtle Conservancy that sum it up:

Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. Currently, it is estimated that there are 100 million tons of plastic in oceans around the world. It is expected that another 60 billion pounds will be produced this year alone. In some areas, the buildup of plastics is estimated to span 5 million square miles.

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Sea turtle courtesy of Norman Walsh on Flickr

I’ve been working on my plastic consumption slowly, in fits and starts. I bought metal straws last summer, and I have canvas bags in the car. Do I always remember to bring them with me? No. But today I felt more determined, and while I was out for a long walk I decided to buy a commuter mug along with my coffee (am I the only one that is constantly searching for lids to go with the mugs I already own?).

I asked the young lady at Dunkin to rinse my new mug out before she filled it, and she couldn’t get it open at first. It then dawned on me that my “mug” was a small thermos, complete with a screw-off cup a bit bigger than a shot glass and a button-activated mechanism that lets me unscrew a rubber cork. To drink my coffee as I walked, I had to unscrew the cup, pop open the inner seal, and try to take a sip (only to burn my tongue, since the thermos did an outstanding job of keeping the drink piping hot). Eventually I decided to pour my coffee at intervals into the little “shot glass,” and I must have looked especially comical when I tried to answer a phone call from my sister, adding another item to my “juggling act” while walking. I dripped coffee down my top and finally stopped to lean on a high stone wall, temporarily giving in to my frustration.

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A toast to persistence and fumbling and more persistence

Nevertheless, I have persisted, in my own quiet and clumsy way, with a sincere attempt to take better care of this earth and its seas. My thermos might not be the best choice for sipping while walking, but I’ve been downing shots of warm decaf since I got to my creative office, which has no coffee pot. I see hope for my metal thermos and straws and canvas bags, realizing that I can create a plan for using them in just the same way I make sure my teeth get brushed each morning (speaking of, the article recommends bamboo toothbrushes. The plastic kind  never, EVER, disintegrate! How many must be in our landfills and waterways!).

From juncos to Elizabeth Warren to thermoses and toothbrushes—you would think that thermos must have had some actual caffeine within to have me bouncing around like this! Actually, though, these connections make sense when you stop to think about it–birds persisting, Warren persisting, attempts at helping the world persisting, my clumsiness persisting. John Muir, said it well, and his words grace the first pages of my book:

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

To me, there rises a whole new layer of hope when I am conscious of this simple but inevitable fact.It is best to keep the quiet persistence of the Juncos close to me, even as I venture out and buy coffee and consider the larger world.

 

Owl Envy

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Saw Whet Owl courtesy of  David Mitchell on Flickr

I’m surprised I don’t have neck cramps more regularly, and that I don’t fall over more often. I spend a lot of time looking up when I walk, and this time of year there is a lot to see. Yes, most trees are bare, and, yes, a fair number of birds have migrated, but the bare trees also mean that there is a chance to see what’s obstructed by foliage for at least half of the year. There are some gorgeous wasp nests and dreys, to start with, even if you never see a bird. But, of course, you will see birds, seemingly oblivious to the cold and going about their day-to-day lives finding food and exploring and preening and seemingly undertaking great acrobatics to avoid our binoculars. While you wait for the birds, let the squirrels entertain you.

I have been obsessed with the idea of spotting an owl in a tree for quite some time now. I even wrote to the Facebook group I am in, Connecticut Birds, and was advised to try going out in the evening. Ah hah! I am a morning walker 98% of the time, which may explain the complete lack of owls spotted during my excursions. Apparently they are noisier at night, which now that I think that through is a fact probably obvious to any second grader. Still, I know that owls sleep in trees during the day. I know that they have been known to perch in tree hollows. Every dark hole in every tree is a target for my binocs. Where are they all hiding?

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Eagle Owl silhouette courtesy of Peter G W Jones on Flickr 

It may be Central Park in the Dark that started this obsession for me. Marie Winn describes coming upon a sleeping Saw Whet owl roosting in the Shakespeare Garden. The first sighting is no easy task. She writes:

You can scan a tree with your finest binoculars and swear there’s no owl there. Only if you know an owl’s in a certain tree…will you continue the excruciatingly careful, inch-by- inch examination necessary to know that a certain bump on a branch is actually a perfectly camouflaged sleeping saw-whet.

But, even knowing that patience and luck and perhaps some insider trading of owl intelligence is required for such an achievement, I became absolutely jealous when I read Mary Oliver’s piece “Owls” in her profoundly inspiring collection of essays, Upstream. First of all, I am jealous of Oliver’s writing prowess! Take this swoon-worthy prose:

And I search in the deeper woods, past fire roads and the bike trail, among the black oaks and the taller pines, in the silent blue afternoons, when the sand is still frozen and the snow falls slowly and aimlessly, and the whole world smells like water in an iron cup.

It only gets better after this sentence, but best to just buy the book so you can swoon, too. When I read it, part of me wants to give up on writing altogether, and my better half wants to pick up Oliver’s torch and write better, write more. These two sides continue to war.

I’m not only jealous of Oliver’s writing. I am jealous of the content of this particular essay. This statement, for example: “I have seen plenty of owls.” A bit later: “I have seen them in every part of the woods.” Still later: “But the owls themselves are not hard to find…” If I didn’t know that Oliver is a kind soul  I would think she was mocking me personally.

Maybe I need an apple tree. Gavin gave me The Birds of John Burroughs for Christmas, and he writes about a “little red owl” in an apple tree, its presence made apparent to him by jays and nuthatches who loudly proclaimed their wish to see it gone. He writes, “After accustoming my eye to the faint light of the cavity for a few moments, I could usually make out the owl at the bottom, feigning sleep.” He knew the sleep was feigned because on one occasion when he had to cut into the tree, the bird continued to “sleep” until Burroughs physically pulled it out of its spot! Then it freaked out and became quite menacing. Tricky beasts, these owls.

Much of time in nature is, for me, time in faith. Faith that I will learn something. Faith that I may encounter a surprise. Faith in quietude and in cycles and in the mundane noises. Faith that I will return to this spot again, and also find new spots. Faith that goes deeper than just the trail and the wild itself; the kind of faith that Emily Dickinson described so famously and well 

Yes, Emily, we are cut from the same cloth, in that we both believe that “instead of getting to Heaven, at last”, we are “going all along.” In many ways, my walking shoes are my pearly gates.

Wishing you the deep faith of looking for owls, and the peace that comes with the path. (Photos here courtesy of luckier walkers with better cameras and Flickr, until I can supply my own firsthand owl snapshots).

Transformation: Holiday to Holy Day

IMG_1456.JPGThe day could have been one of near-panic. Despite a decade of efforts to simplify Christmas, each year it still boils down to many items piled onto my already overflowing to-do list. Even tasks that carry genuine meaning for me – like creating a photo card that will celebrate our treasured son and reach out to friends old and new – threaten to sap my time and energy. It’s a matter of simple math—more to do, but no extra time to do it.

But then there was this: after my doctor’s appointment I challenged myself to brave the cold for a bit, just 5 minutes down the block to Starbucks in Old Saybrook, where I could sit with a caramel macchiato and consolidate my monster list. My face hurt in the wind, and my leather gloves suddenly seemed too thin.

After my coffee-list mission, I started my chilly journey down Main Street to the car. I was going to be all business from there on out—so much to do! But I glanced down a long, straight side street (Coulter Street, I think) and saw what looked like water at the end of it. It drew me like a magnet. My tingling face and fingers were forgotten as I let the tree-lined block and the water draw me—my curiosity had a happy, warming side effect.

IMG_1345 (1).JPGI looked up at the bare trees as I walked, taking in long-abandoned birds’ nests now exposed and trying to remember what squirrels’ nests are called (dreys!). I examined the varied barks of this tree and that—some smooth, some wrinkled, some like alligator skin. I felt appreciation for older, craggy trees that are allowed to age with dignity and must be homes to many a grateful creature. For the gazillionth time I wondered if I might look up and see a sleeping owl in some tree hollow or on some high branch (it hasn’t happened yet but I keep hoping). I remembered reading about how some trees hang onto their seed pods all winter, poised for the chance to drop them into the soft, fertile spring soil.

IMG_1453.JPGThe marsh came into full view as I strolled, and I simply stood there watching it for a while. I admired the fat, feathery cat tails swaying in the wind. I saw some sparrows or juncoes darting about.

Then I looked up the hill to my left and saw what I thought might be a cemetery. I had never been down this block before, and it turned out my “cemetery” was a long line of boulders on the border of Founders Memorial Park, a 2007 creation built on a former landfill and overlooking North Cove. The vista I found there gave me a sense of deep contentment, and the sign about the park’s bird life had me wishing I’d toted my binoculars along. No doubt many have migrated away for now, but when they come back I will come here, too, looking for a Clapper Rail or a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

IMG_1455.JPGIn the meantime, the cold doesn’t seem so very harsh any more. It was a Christmas gift tailor-made for me—this moment of being reminded that simply stepping out, simply stopping to gaze and wonder, even in the harsh cold, even shoehorned in between the gazillion waiting tasks, can reveal a world that’s been waiting patiently all along. The bench placed there by a local church seemed to be placed there as a fitting caption:

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Gift Ideas for the Nature Lover

Some gift ideas for those who prefer meadows and mountains to malls and mass marketing:

A great read or two on nature. Tastes and preferences vary, and “nature books” can be everything from a detailed field guide to poetry to essays to travel writing to fiction. Expand your search beyond this year’s bestsellers, too. Some of the best reads have had limited distribution, or come to us from distant years. (For used books in Connecticut try  The Book Barn or Bennett’s Books–or places like Powell’s and Abe Books online). A few favorites from my own list:

A course or educational walk in nature. (Live events are in CT but will hopefully spark some ideas for remote readers, t00)

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Golden Grove Bridge near Baltimore, Courtesy of Nicolas Raymond on Flickr

Equipment! (few links in this section, but local, chain or online retailers are easy to find). For locals as well as online shoppers, remember Harris Outdoors:

  • A hand lens for up-close observation (idea inspired by Unseen CityANOTHER awesome book)
  • Binoculars–this may be the best gift my husband ever gave me
  • Trekking poles or a walking stick
  • Warm clothes for walks in the cold–Under Armour, wool socks, etc.
  • Items for the backpack: granola bars, water bottles, emergency kit, etc.
  • Budget conscious and bountiful: birdseed and bird feeders can be super reasonable and are truly gifts that “keep on giving”
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Water droplets in web courtesy of Sara Ward on Flickr

Membership. Society memberships keep on giving, too–often including magazines, free or reduced admission to events or courses, etc. There are too many to name, so here are a few of my own favorites:

Charitable giving. Many of the above-named societies (and more!) accept donations and will often send a small gift in return. Here are a few more:

If your nature-loving friend collects artifacts and mementos from their time outside, consider supplying a special box, display case or shelving, or other container to house their finds.

Last, but not least, spend time with your loved one in nature–even if it’s not your thing! Plan a visit to a special location they haven’t experienced yet. They will relish the adventure and be grateful for your support.

For those of you who celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you have about 12 days. Hit the gift-finding trail!