Flashes of Brilliance: On Spring, John Hay, and the Alewives’ Arrival

Happy Spring and welcome new subscribers! If you are interested in weekly nature posts, please follow the Loving the World free newsletter link to the right. I post here less often than in the newsletter.

I’ve recently finished reading John Hay’s The Run. Hay died back in 2011 at the age of 95, and his Cape Cod Times obituary notes that The Run is considered a classic of nature writing.

I didn’t know that when I picked up my library discard copy. I liked the cover, and I liked that the book was thin—something I could surely finish quickly! A quick flip through the pages told me that Hay was a good writer. I learned that he wrote 18 books and also founded the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, serving as its president for decades. He won the prized John Burroughs Medal for a book I have yet to read—The Great Beach.

The Run is about alewife herring migration, and focuses, like most of Hay’s work, on the Cape Cod area. This was perhaps not the most intuitive choice for me. I don’t have any real connection with Cape Cod, except for wanting to finally get there someday. I don’t fish, and my knowledge of alewives before reading The Run was limited to signs I’ve seen posted for anglers that restrict the taking of these fish. Looking at the DEEP’s current posting, I see that taking alewives is only permitted in certain lakes where some alewives are landlocked, with creel limits imposed. The statement that “emergency closure is in effect” for all but these exceptions is troubling. The Commissioner’s letter talks about “undue depletion.” Will these fish expire for good, become discarded just as Hay’s fascinating book was?

I’ve always maintained that a good writer can make nearly anything interesting if they can pull you into their created world with artful words and pacing, and that holds true for The Run. I’ll admit sometimes things got a bit too technical, like a near full page on the precise anatomy of the fish’s eye. And yet, I stuck with it.

Why? This passage starts to get at it: “As I watched them there was a slight, quick change of wind, a shift in the breeze that flicked the water, and in the crosshatches this made on the bright surface all the fish disappeared. Then the surface cleared and I could see them again, swimming through a rippling weave of light that was reflected on the channel floor.”

The “ripple weave of light” illuminating the fish was parallel to the flashes Hay made with words. He conjured a satisfying mix of practical facts, stories of his wanders in search of alewives, a contagious curiosity, and philosophical moments that kept me wanting to learn more, wanting to vicariously share his connection with this species and its long history of annual epic journey, harvest (these days for animal feed or bait), and persistence (thus far, and just barely) in New England.

My husband Tom didn’t have a choice, being the captive audience in the armchair beside me. I felt I had to share these words with him, to underline the marvel of their effect: “And the gulls proclaimed their coming. Out in the Bay, they began to gather by the hundreds, clambering up with a scrambled yelping and hollering. The last smoky, red line of sunset was disappearing and they hovered over it in a maddened, high, wide swarm like huge bees…And in terrible simplicity, the alewives were swimming toward the inland gauntlet they would have to run, having a title, by their common, wild, and ancient advent, to all great kindled things. Who will see more than that in his short life, with its many meetings and separations? I by and old and natural right felt a fierce water-deep wonder of the spirit. The beyondness in me went back to its beginnings…I felt a cold inevitable grandeur, below consciousness, a swim and go in an uttermost wild world, past home or my life’s memory.”

For a moment there, Hay became an alewife, or a school of them. Even if Hay had just written this one work, he said something important here, something that can’t necessarily be quantified but which conveys both human and animal lived experience and our age-old connections, both pragmatic and mystical.

So, what of the alewives these days? Well, Hay wrote about local “Alewife Committees” that work to balance reasonable harvest against the need for these fish to spawn and return to the sea. A quick search tells me these committees still exist, if only in small numbers. A March 1 report about Brewster (where Hay had lived) says its Committee members voted to continue aiding the herring who migrate between two ponds, despite low water levels that presented quite a challenge for the young herring last year. There will be an effort to maintain water levels and repair fish ladders.  

I was encouraged to see an Old Lyme Land Trust post from just last April—“Come see the alewives migrating up the fish ladder”—about the Griswold Preserve, a place I have walked many times. The post added that cormorants and osprey were seen feasting on these alewives, who were surely tired from their upstream journey. I hope that this year, the alewives come again, and that enough survive the gauntlet of waiting predators and other hardships that we humans have sometimes helped create, like lower water levels and changes to the landscape (and thus, to stream access).

Hay’s first chapter in The Run is called “Waiting Weather,” referring to March. He saw his first alewife the first week of April, just as our Old Lyme watchers anticipated last year. May it be so.

(I wrote about the Griswold Preserve and its fishway, pictured below, in the newsletter, before I read The Run. See that edition here.)

Podcast Interview: It was a Treat. I am a Nature Guys fan!

It was really lovely, and quite an honor, to be interviewed by Bob at Nature Guys. The episode just dropped today, at https://natureguys.org/katherine-hauswirth/

Hello, Subscriber: Some Updates!

I appreciate my subscribers here, particularly as I don’t post here as faithfully as I once did. I got busy with my biweekly Loving the World subscriber e-newsletter (for now it is weekly, while the new book launches and I get busy with events!). And, of course, I got really busy with the book itself, which grew out of the newsletter!

The Morning Light, the Lily White: Daily Dips into Nature and Spirit, with an entry for each day of the natural year (even Leap Day!), is a labor of love that I consider both almanac and devotional. It’s got a spiritual bent, but with a very light touch on that front. Mostly, the entries embody how contact with flora and fauna feeds our daily lives, our minds, and our spirits. Some of the entries are derived from the newsletter, but I had to write many more to make 366 days worth!

I’ve just recently updated the About and Events pages here, and created a new About the Morning Light, the Lily White page, too, complete with generous blurbs from fellow writers and nature lovers. Please take a look. Most events are live, in CT, but there is one webinar coming up at the end of this month.

As always, I love to hear from readers and work with fellow writers at all levels of experience as they engage in their own labors of love. Read more about that here.

Remember, without readers there would be no writers! Thank you for being here and please keep in touch at khauswirth@sbcglobal.net.


Almanacs, Daily Devotion, and “an Orchard, for a Dome”

(Subscribers, a reminder that I post here sporadically–my energies have been going to my twice-weekly newsletter for some time . The link to that is on the right. Thank you for reading, and I always love to hear from readers!)

This month, a local organization that supports arts endeavors threw some shade on Read an Almanac Month, bypassing any recommendations and saying maybe an almanac isn’t such a great beach read!

Who decided that July was Read an Almanac month? No clue, but lots of sites, like BookRiot, list this designation.

Me, I’m a big fan of the farmer’s almanacs. There are more than one, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac was first published during George Washington’s presidency, in 1793. Back then, there was no “Old” in the title.

I relish reading these unique collections. Yes, I might skim past meteorological minutiae and musings about crop timing, but I like the mix of articles, recipes, lore, advice, and the like. The pieces often touch on both nature and history, two favorite topics!

There are other types of almanacs, too, and some of these, like The World Almanac Book of Why: Explanations for Absolutely Everything (for kids), are simply compendiums of fun and interesting factoids. And, while almanacs are often described as annual publications, like the farmers’ editions, they don’t have to be!

As much as I appreciate a good, fact-filled compendium, I bristled at the claim that an almanac would not be of much interest to readers for a different reason. I bristled because I’ve called my own upcoming book an almanac of sorts, although if I’m in a different mood I call it a devotional.

Do those two words—almanac and devotional—seem at odds? Let me explain. First, the almanac part:

There’s an admirable tradition of writers faithfully recording something about the natural world for each day of the year and gathering it all up in a volume often treasured by readers. I was pleased to see that Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year (1979), a gathering of 365 of his best The New York Times mini natural history essays, is at Barnes & Noble, now re-released as “The Timeless Naturalist Classic.” It’s described as “…almost like an almanac following the seasons of the Native American lunar calendar…” Okay, I’ll excuse the “almost.” To me, it is, no doubt, an almanac.

A Goodreads review likens Edwin Way Teale’s Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year (1953) to Aldo Leopold’s famed A Sand County Almanac (1949). Each of these books is a delight; each ran through the year in a linear way, sharing observations of nature through the seasons, as well as some deeper thoughts. In Leopold’s case, he went beyond recording his encounters to discussion of creating a land ethic—an important idea that grabbed readers’ attention and has made him a household name in environmental circles. You can read more here.

Teale and Borland, both of whom wrote about their Connecticut surroundings, guided their readers through the natural year in book form more than once. Most Teale fans I know particularly revere his A Walk Through the Year (1978), with most daily entries reflecting the old farm he and his wife lived on in Hampton, Connecticut (now the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary Trail Wood). I was delighted to see that Julianna Schroeder at The Opulent Opossum blog gives tribute to all these thoughtful and observant naturalists in several entries titled, “Journeys Around the Sun.” Here’s the one on Leopold.

There are other terms that fit this kind of work, like “chronicle” or “book of days” or “nature journal” or “phenology” (that last one sounds so dry, but opens up a fascinating world. See here). But, for me, “almanac” has stuck. I’m pleased to see that, with a search of “nature almanac” at Amazon, many appealing and modern titles come up. (Some older books by the authors I cite here, and many others like them, have gone out of print. I relish finding them in used book stores!)

When I wrote my book proposal for The Morning Light, the Lily White: Daily Dips into Nature and Spirit (coming by fall, I hope, from Shanti Arts!), I suppose my idea most closely followed the Borland tradition, in that quite a few of the pieces were published elsewhere first. I had to update them, adjust them for book format, and create new pieces (at least a third of them) for a final volume. I don’t have a Times column like Borland did, but I have a treasured group of faithful newsletter readers who have written to share appreciation, their own experiences, topic ideas, and the occasional potential correction. (I am, after all, a generalist and fall far more onto the curiosity and appreciation side of things, as opposed to the “expert” side of things!). And what a delight it is to be outside, walking, wondering and taking notes, forming ideas for the next newsletter. The latest: Tom and Gavin found a “barnacle” of sorts in a freshwater stream, filled with tiny worms. Was this a larval case for some famliar creature? I want to go see the stream myself, and then to do some research.

But, in this upcoming book, my second nature writing collection, I wanted to go beyond an almanac, beyond a focus on interesting outdoor finds and facts, and add “spirit” to my title. So, here’s the part about calling the book a devotional:

During my growing up years, my mom read a slim, daily devotional. She got a new edition in the mail each month. It set the tone for her day. Late in life, she switched to another magazine in the same vein, but this time with a Catholic spin (she had converted), for quite a few years. The little volume was handsomely decorated with vintage religious art.

I’ve had a tone set for my days by reading Teale, Borland, and sometimes Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day by Day (that last one, 2016, is complete with engaging photos, many by the author!). I guess that’s part of my “church,” in a way. I learn new things, I get to wonder at the world, and later, when I get outside, I remember what I’ve read. The other part of my “church” is being out in a natural setting, preferably alone, curious, quiet, and alert, and noticing other creatures (both flora and fauna). Oh, and I want to “proselytize,” in a way, in that I want to share this expansive joy, wisdom, and unending fascination that I find in nature with others!

So far, I haven’t mastered any regular spiritual practice in a community, although I want to at times. The quote in today’s title is from Emily Dickinson’s poem, and captures what resonates most for me:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

In my book proposal, I quoted poet Mary Oliver, who said “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I wrote that this turn of phrase embodies a credo for many who are drawn to the natural world and a feel a reverence for their experiences there. So, yes, my own brand of almanac might also be considered a devotional in that it attends to the world.

We come back from our time in nature feeling curious, filled, and inspired; we have enlivening and even ecstatic experiences as we interact with the world outside. All of us, whatever our traditions and history, can find fascination in the living world and acknowledge our longing for deep connection, a longing that extends beyond our own kind to the myriad elements of our swirling sphere, to the soil and the sky, to a nearly unfathomable range of plants and animals.

What a deep blessing it has been to be able to record experiences like these, that touch both mind and soul, and set them in a book.

Radiance in the World, and in Words

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Ferre Pérez on Flickr

If you still subscribe to this blog, thank you. I don’t write in this space nearly as much as I once did, owing to my commitment to the Loving the World newsletter (see free subscription link to right). The newsletter has been, and continues to be, a delight. But I’ve had the experience of reading a book about animal lives, including human life, that lit me up and made me want to write about it. This is a good place for that.

The Radiant Lives of Animals is the second book of Linda Hogan’s that has spoken deeply to me. The first, a gift from my son (and thank you to his Native American Studies teacher for the idea), was her novel Solar Storms. I rarely read fiction, but I had all the emotions, in the best possible way, with Solar Storms. It conjured a feeling of that longed-for, deep reconnection with the world, and pondered what truly matters in our lives as humans.

This blog entry, however, focuses on The Radiant Lives of Animals. I read it using my resurrected habit of reading with pen in hand, underlining or starring things that struck me. Mostly, this was a college habit. But I’ve (re)learned, lately, that I read more deeply when I do this. It works best on really good books. Slowing down to underline or exclaim allows a second taste of what I just read.

SO many underlines and asterisks! Some mark Hogan’s beautiful and provocative turns of phrase, others mark fascinating facts. I mean to do more research on some of what I gleaned, too.

It’s clear Hogan knows that of which she speaks—at both an intuitive and an intellectual level. But she was wise not to turn her book into a “factoid” amalgamation. When she weaves in intriguing facts, they have a deeper message than just, “well, isn’t this a cool thing?”

Here’s one example: she writes about “lavender-blue butterflies that have just been freed from anthills…These have been cared for by the ants while they were cocoons…As the butterflies mature and grow wings, the ants with their busy legs open earth, giving the lavender-blue insects the freedom of air and light and the ability to fly away and become a living part of the sky.”

I certainly get the sense that Hogan feels deep awe and gratitude about this happening, but she is also matter of fact—yes, this is our day-to-day world, with miracles at every turn. She expects no less. She sees and hears marvels everywhere, including in the seemingly more mundane.

But she isn’t gushing, and that is an excellent choice. I think the gushing would have made it more about Hogan and her own emotional experience. While we can intuit Hogan’s personal passion in the story, our attention is drawn to the beloved creatures at hand. It is an instruction in humility, in realizing we humans are part of all this and have so much to learn. We are not some removed entity, despite our many actions and attitudes that so often create a rift between us and other beings in nature.

Many of us readers who are starring and underlining the heck out of such passages, or maybe pausing to read them aloud to our loved one sitting near, have the strong urge to learn more, and of course the information is out there, like in this Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine article about the cocoons.   

(Hogan, by the way, is writing about Colorado in this book, where she lives alone in an old and modest cabin. At least I think she still lives there, based on the address on her website.)

This is the kind of person who has decorative birdhouses on her wall inside. When wasps occupy them, she lives along with them. She throws open the windows during the day, so the wasps can do their outdoor thing. She closes the windows at night, and they all cohabit in the dark. One morning, she hadn’t opened the windows, having slept in, and an “alarm wasp” buzzed over to remind her of their need to get outside.

Hogan’s Chickasaw heritage no doubt contributes to her all-encompassing perspective. The belief that animals have so much to teach us, and that we are not in a hierarchy with humans at the top, is one that reads as deeply rooted. While in one way it seems fantastic, on the other it is intuitively rationale and believable when she shares, humbly, her nonverbal communications with creatures of many kinds.

The Native American perspective, informed by eons on this continent, is one I admire more with each thing I learn. Sometimes I find myself envying those with this heritage, also hoping that such wisdom would drive our current global and political climate.

I also envy this woman living alone, always observing, always allowing space for other creatures. Her interactions are not those born of naivete—she’s had to scare mountain lions away from her property, and to navigate with trepidation around an elk stranded in her barn during a storm. His larger-than-life antlers filled the space as he repeatedly clicked his teeth at her in warning. But she had to feed the horses. She lowered her gaze, avoiding eye contact.

Clearly, her sense of self-preservation is intact. But she also sees the creatures as in it with her, with their own fears and trials. We are all trying to survive. We want safe offspring, plentiful food, and not to be poked and prodded.

Oh, gosh, I wrote just above that it’s good and wise that Hogan doesn’t gush in The Radiant Lives of Animals. Is that what I am doing here? It’s hard not to, and, yes, I did submit some fan comments via her website. It’s just that the read had such a deep effect. It’s hard not to crow about it (or to think very differently about crows, having read her words on them).

The animal encounters are compelling, and there are way too many to mention here, including the intimacies of some life-altering rescue relationships. But the book isn’t simply a catalogue of this encounter and that encounter. It encourages an attitude of contemplation and a thoughtful examination of our human lives and roles.

For example, Hogan writes about re-minding. We humans need “to have changed minds.” We are also charged to “re-member.” She quotes Meridel Le Sueur, who wrote about remembering the dismembered, restoring those connections to the whole that we have lost.

I could go on, but this is where I get to wrap it up, to encourage you to get both the books that I mention here. I realize that the appreciation of writing is subjective, but I’d be surprised if you don’t find some gems in the reads, even if they don’t resonate as deeply as they did for me.

Light in Our Hands: The Wonders (and Worry) of Mica

If you follow my blog, you may know that I don’t post here very often anymore. My twice-weekly writings make their way into my subscriber newsletter: Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection (link to right). But today’s newsletter, which started with a happy exploration of this delightful, shiny mineral, led me to a cause I want to support–thus the posting here. Most of the piece is about the wonders of mica (and some other shiny beings in nature), but at the end you will read about the dark side alluded to in the title. Please consider spreading the word, and donating to the cause (via UNICEF) if you can.

When I was cranky the other evening, Tom knew that handing me a random slice of mica he found among the driveway gravel would lift my spirits instantly.

Minerals don’t generally feature in my nature writing—I don’t know much about them, and they often don’t grab me the way a plant or animal will. But, as with most everything, once you learn more it becomes infinitely more interesting. Mica is a good “gateway” substance into the world of minerals—easy to love at first glance.

Micas—there are 37 types—are known as sheet silicas. They all come in layers. The mineral name comes from the Latin micare—to shine, and other things in nature also have that root. The Philodendron micans plant is known for its iridescent shimmer. There is an African leafhopper bug called Recilia mica, but pictures of it are extraordinarily hard to come by. If the relatives found on this page are comparatively less shiny, it must be stunning! To me, the bugs look like models for elaborate Egyptian sarcophagi. And, closer to home, caddisfly larvae have been found “dressing up” in mica—see image from Colorado here.

A Citizen Times column says that American Indians of the Southern Appalachian region used mica as an ornamentation at gravesites; and that Cherokees used the mineral as a medium of exchange. The column covers a lot of history—like the use of large mica sheets as windows—called isinglass, or the boom in its use during WWII, for vacuum tubes.

The Citizen Times also says that ancient Hindus believed that mica was preserved lightning flashes, and they used it for a gamut of purposes—in medicine, for glazing windows, and as a surface for paintings.

Years ago, a poem I wrote about mica made it into a college journal, and then this Poetry with Mathematics blog. If you read the poem, you can see I was waxing entirely enthused and wistful when I wrote about this substance. So, when I Googled “collecting mica” today, I was expecting to find similar fans discussing their happy finds.

It was shocking to find news coverage of child labor in African and Indian mica mines. What the children collect eventually gets to many products in America—electronics, trains, even makeup. The contrast between the pleasure I find in this glimmering mineral and the exploitation of children to collect it evokes deep sadness. I found, and signed, this petition, and UNICEF is accepting donations.

Contemplating the Unknown: A Read on Origins, Belief, and Humanity’s Place in the World

W.W. Norton & Company sent me a new novel ahead of publication, and it has since launched–a couple of weeks ago. The Great Unknown, by Peg Kingman, is one of those books that weaves a compelling tale while also stirring philosophical ponderings. Its protagonist is Constantia MacAdam, and an unusual set of circumstances has landed her in the role of wet nurse in a Scottish family’s home. Constantia nurses their baby along with her own.

Her hosts, the Chambers family, are kind and bright, and the household engages in the norms of 1845. They read the books of the day and engage in impassioned conversation about their reads and political issues. They study scripture. Dinner guests are asked to contribute to the evening’s entertainment. The family’s rented home—a temporary arrangement while their Edinburgh home undergoes repairs—comes with a  gardener, who keeps pigeons and takes substantial pride in his created dominion.

Woven into this day-to-day, comfortable family life are mysteries, secrets, and surprises. Why is Constantia so vague about her far-off husband? Why is a man cutting stone under cover of night? And, a central question to the book—who is the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation? While The Great Unknown is fictional, the Vestiges book that plays a central role in in the read is very much real, and presaged Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Constantia also ruminates about a mystery she keeps to herself—who was her father? Not knowing carries a sense of shame for her, and at the same time she wonders why it matters so much—would knowing change the person she is today?

The Vestiges book that stirs up household debate was quite the controversial volume in its day, claiming that all creatures, great and small, came to exist through natural law. This offended many who believed that humans were set apart from all other living things, uniquely guided by the hand of God. Kingman skillfully connects the questions about human origins and beliefs sparked by the book with the details of Constantia’s story—the stone cutter’s find, the search for her family roots, and reunification with her husband in the midst of surprising circumstances. Several coincidences recycle the question of origins and destiny—is everything random? Could there be some sort of plan or is this just the marvelous way that the natural order sometimes works?

Kingman also laces the story with intriguing facts and practices of the time, like the use of homing pigeons to communicate with far-off family, the Chartist movement undertaken by working-class men, and the revolutionary discovery of using fine limestone to make lithographs for printing.

All of this is pleasurable food for thought, all of it painted in a warm and lively story. The Great Unknown is a world to step into, and a world worth some quiet, contemplative moments.

No Entry: Fictional Teen, Very Real Eco Issues

There’s a continuing trend here at First Person Naturalist–publishers sending me nature/enviro-themed books to read and review. No Entry from Gila Green at Stormbird Press is the first Young Adult (YA) novel  in this vein that I’ve been asked to read, and I’m glad it came my way.
(Before I get into it, readers who are looking for more of my nature writing, please visit me at my Loving the World landing page. I also post some of those same columns on a Facebook page @LovingWorldNature).

In No Entry,  Canadian teen Yael is sent to a South African conservation camp following a sudden, life-altering trauma that has rocked the whole family. She is the daughter of a zoologist and a veterinarian, so it’s no surprise that she is taken with the animals there, from orphan elephant Afua to a host of creatures roaming the adjacent Kruger National Park game reserve–rhinos, more elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, etc.  It’s not long before the subject of poaching elephants to gain their valuable tusks enters the picture, and it is a  severe slap in the face of all this wild beauty. Yael is heartbroken to see photos of the aftermath, and later she reels after stumbling on an elephant victim quite close to where she is staying.

While the devastation wrought by poaching is a central theme, Green is skilled at layering the tale and its protagonist with many elements that keep the story fresh and cohesive. Seventeen-year-old Yael is a dimensional character who takes in the fiery personality of her new friend Nadine, eagerly awaits her boyfriend David’s visit, struggles to cope with the recent , senseless loss of her brother, and puzzles over some of the goings on at the camp. She witnesses the complexity of South Africa–quite wealthy landowners juxtaposed with squatter camps. She admires and forms a bond with ranger Sipho, who comes from poverty but finds work at the complex. He lights up when he talks about the refuge’s animals.

Yael experienced a haunting  sense of helplessness in the face of her brother’s death, and a stealthy scenario that comes to light at the camp brings up similar issues. Rough, greedy characters are ready to kill to protect the wealth they are gaining through brutality toward the elephants. When things heat up, she must keep a level head and fight her fears. It’s unclear who she can trust, and she feels overwhelmed and alone.

No Entry manages to underline a very real threat while simultaneously offering characters and relationships that draw the reader in and keep the story moving at a good pace. Yael is a teen heroine to be admired–she deals with a spectrum of emotion but can play it cool when the stakes are high. She treasures David’s support but can go it alone when silence is the safest strategy. Yael may be fictional, but her very real search for her place in the world and for how best to stand up for her beliefs is universally recognizable.  As a not-so-young adult reader, I read an echo of my own  teenage concerns and puzzlings (which seem not very long ago) in Yael and cheered when she navigated tricky waters to arrive at an unexpected solution. No Entry is worth the read. It reminds us of  cruelty from which we cannot turn away, but also the human capacity to stand up and do the right thing, even in the face of grave danger. We need more Yaels in the world, and more reads from Green.


Six Legs Walking: A Peek into an Entomologist’s Life

I had the fantasy recently that perhaps I was meant to be an entomologist. I find insects endlessly fascinating. So, it was good timing that I received a copy of Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life, by Elizabeth Bernays (Raised Voice Press, 2019).

It didn’t take me long to realize that I might not be cut out for such a life. The science is quite complex and also requires tons of patience—sitting, watching, waiting for eggs to hatch and the like.

On the other hand, Bernays’ essays are a tempting glimpse into the privilege of witnessing the amazing traits and functions within such tiny lives, as well as the satisfaction of persistence and discovery, and opportunities for travel and camaraderie with fellow bug lovers.

The person behind the science shines through, as Bernays manages to weave scientific commentary in with a picture of her entomological escapades across the decades, starting in Queensland, Australia and most recently in Arizona’s Sonora Desert. There is a universality in so many developments she shares—like how, despite childhood enchantment with insects, she hadn’t initially realized that she could pursue that enchantment as a living. Or how her love for her entomologist life partner, Reg, dawned on her slowly. Or the satisfaction she’s derived from proving ideas that started as mere inklings about her minute subjects.

I developed an affection for how sometimes Bernays “geeks out” about something like the variations in locust taste buds. Sometimes I was impatient to get past the laboratory perspective to more colorful details of her life, like travels to India, Hungary, Africa, Costa Rica, and more. But it was her keen attention to things just like locust taste buds that have made her life so fulfilling. A palpable sense of satisfaction comes through in the book, as Bernays recalls happy moments  of immersion in her work. In one piece about stalwart observations in the Arizona heat, she comments, “For ten hours each day, I almost become a grasshopper,” and explains how her curiosity drives her to persist despite all sorts of uncomfortable conditions. In another essay she recalls a scientific revelation that came to her as she lay in the red soil watching caterpillars that were threatening crops.

Bernays takes us along; we get to ride for a while inside a curious and observant mind, peering down at her beloved insects and the plants so central in their worlds. We feel the warmth of the crew’s shared sunset beers during a stint of desert work. We appreciate a partner with whom very little talk is needed. It becomes clear how a life surrounding creatures many deem insignificant has been so very large. Appropriately, Bernays finds a fitting metaphor for life in six-legged beings: “We are tiny points of light, like a mass of glowworms in a cave, each living briefly and passing on, but wonderful at the time.” It is good to be reminded of this wonder.

Bird Cottage

Something a bit different today. I felt flattered when Pushkin Press in the UK asked me to  review a book.  It turned out to be a good one, and the best of both worlds for me–reading a free book about a fellow lover of nature–heaven! This is a fiction read, but its protagonist was a very real person, as you will learn. Len Howard sort of reminds me of our American Cordelia Stanwood, who I “met” on a trip to Maine a few summers ago. I wrote about her here.


In Bird Cottage (Pushkin Press’ 2018 translation), Eva Meijer does a good job of bringing the reader into the life and locale of Len Howard, a British woman who at middle age left London to live in Sussex with the birds in and around her Bird Cottage. Meijer did thorough research and is careful to acknowledge several sources, but the novel is framed as an imagination of what life might have been like for Len, both before and after her break away from conventional expectations. Meijer explains that her writing process mixed biographical facts, stories from Len’s writings, and fiction.

My sister Linda’s art. More at https://lindahamptonsmith.wordpress.com/

Early in Bird Cottage we meet the privileged child Len (aka Gwendolen) as she makes her appearance in an enthused Blue Tit rescue with her father, complete with a trip to town to buy minced beef and birdseed for the avian patient. We are glimpsing the early life of the once-famous Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds author. Before long we are seeing her as a young woman, considering the possibilities offered by young men around her. Like many young women, she gets her heart broken, and, also like many young women, she feels stir crazy at home. Len takes off for the College of Music in London, where for a while she is consumed with her violin, new friendships, and a lover. Even in this crowded life, though, the birds seem to be calling her—Pigeons on the sidewalk, a nest of Great Tits above her lover’s doorway, Blackbirds and Sparrows in the park.

The book is full of simple, thoughtful moments that show how Len is comfortable with solitude and time alone in nature, moving more and more in that direction as her life unfolds. Even at her lover’s house, she prioritizes these moments: “There are tall trees on the quayside, with shrubs between, and if I wake up early in the morning I often go and sit on the deck to listen and look. It’s not as loud here as in the city. I can hear myself think.

The decision to imagine Len in her young life was a wise one, helping the reader see the many potential paths before her and not simply a one-dimensional “bird lady” who eschewed society in favor of an eccentric life. We watch her evolve into a sure, selective woman who gradually realizes what she wants and needs. A poetic phrase early in the book, placed alongside thoughts on a young man but also some musings on birds and their songs, seems to hint at her unorthodox future: “Longing is—/Understanding that you are fathomless/Understanding that you are flux/Understanding that you are water and that water cannot be grasped.”

In the second half of the book, we get to see Len in the life for which she is best known. A trip to the country sparks a shift—life in a rural cottage calls her. Len relishes the opportunity to welcome a wide throng of birds into her life and her home. She takes notes and she sketches the birds, but primarily she is watching closely, noticing their habits, how their families form, what happens when a mate dies, etc. Music takes a back seat to committed habits of noticing and attending to the birds she has named, of putting food out daily on the bird table, of letting them roost in the house and treasuring the nuances in countless interactions. Len becomes increasingly studious, recognizing intelligence and personality traits in her charges. At one point she witnesses Blue Tits pointedly signaling the need for help when a nest has fallen. She remarks to herself about how “In London I perceived them as a group…I had no idea that they differed so much from each other. Seeing requires time. In London there were too many distractions.

Len begins to publish articles based on her bird observations, most well received but sometimes also met with criticism, with the assumption that she is unscientific and anthropomorphizing. She is quick to note that observing birds in a controlled laboratory is not even close to observing birds in a natural setting—so much important information is lost. Eventually there are her well-loved books, and with them come meetings with publishers, requests for translation, and public attention, which she tolerates as unavoidable tasks that may ultimately benefit the birds. She wades into community matters when the birds’ immediate environs are threatened. Still, her bird-centric existence has her bristling easily at many human interactions—postmen and reporters and friendly visitors are often ill-behaved from a bird’s perspective (and thus from Len’s as well)—noisy, making sudden motions, and the like.

Small, tender moments of reflection and humanity nestle between the facts of the story —Len smelling the damp wool jacket of a friend—“the coat of another creature” and observing their footsteps together in the soil; Len playing a challenging Bartok piece on her violin as she wrestles with feelings of loss. Always, though, the birds claim the biggest part of her. As if to remind us, Meijer inserts vignettes conveyed in Len’s voice, focusing on a treasured bird, Star, and her comings and goings, her family, and her unmistakable patterns and preferences—including an avid interest in playing a counting game.

Len’s sign on the Bird Cottage door warns would-be visitors away, but Meijer’s writing makes it easy to enter the singular life of a promising young woman who gradually chooses the path that never stopped calling her, delighting in her bird friends and spending many hours recording her observations. For a while, we readers can share Len’s delight, and contemplate the rewards of a quiet, devoted life among beloved creatures.