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.
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.
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.
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.