Inheriting the Lake

(Lake Bomoseen photo courtesy of Mike Mahaffie on Flickr )

Note: if you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that its entries are less frequent and have been, most recently, reviews of nature-centric books. My twice weekly Loving the World subscription newsletter (free–see link to right) is where I often write about nature these days. Happy, however, to share a post today–a piece I started during my Tennessee writing residency this past fall. I am so grateful for this inheritance from Mom.

Inheriting the Lake

I bellowed into Mom’s nearly completely deaf ear that I was coming here, that my husband and son would keep an eye on her. She only speaks under certain, increasingly rare conditions, including when she is intensely curious. These situations can temporarily hot wire her dementia-riddled brain. Her mind and her mouth worked to push the question out: “What’s happening in Tennessee?”

Here is what’s happening. I’ve embarked on a writing residency in tiny Speedwell, 14 hours from my Connecticut home. The host is a poet who makes himself scarce. I’ve read his poems, so I know he is a trustworthy neighbor, just across the driveway from where I am staying.

The restored mobile home holds literary and photographic leavings from prior artists in residence. I have a narrow bed and a large table already piled with papers and books. My little porch has a rocking chair and a grey cat visitor named Dorrie. I can rest easy and write and walk alongside the pastures.

As I greet the cows roaming the hill, I think about my father’s deep love for the land, and this love was surely his defining characteristic, since he died when I was six and I am still hearing about it. I am like him in this way. I peer into the scrub to find the Tufted Titmouse singing from within. I wonder about a trap, perhaps for muskrats, that I see in the stream. I touch a curled brown circle of gone-to-seed Queen Anne’s lace and think about how the seed will make its way into the world. I inventory the varieties of vine drawing circles on the landscape.

The immediate land I walk here in Tennessee doesn’t boast sizable lakes and streams, but there’s something about walking Back Valley Road that brings a Northern lake back to me. Maybe it’s the shades of green in the roadside brush, or the specific mix of birdsong that nags at me like a paved-over memory. More likely, it’s walking the road’s narrow shoulder, between macadam and meadow flowers, that rings the bell for Lake Bomoseen.

At some point during our regular family vacations to a run-down Vermont cabin when I was young, Mom established the tradition of walking to Lake Bomoseen for sunset. If my Dad had been alive, I suspect this habit would still have emerged, but with the instructional tone of a guided nature tour. As we walked down Pencil Mill Road and rounded the bend to Route 30, we would have learned how beavers build dams, or how dew forms during the night. Dad would have been eager to tell us these things, to hear us respond in sheer amazement.

But this wasn’t Mom’s way. I remember walking the gravel and turning the hairpin onto asphalt as a family, with just the occasional phrase between us. Once the hairpin was behind us, we’d cross the road. We walked single file, like a duckling family, anticipating our first good glimpse of the water and the burgeoning color show. Occasionally Mom would call out warnings to watch for cars, but not much else was said.

We surely must have exchanged some words about the mesmerizing mix of oranges and reds that expanded and morphed with evening’s onset. But mostly I remember the silence and stillness as the four of us—Mom, my sister Linda, my brother John, and I, took it in—the watercolor prelude to the night; the little island out there, covered in brush; the dog from the meadow house barking incessantly in the distance. The water rippled in its inviting way, catching the last light. We were each in our own reverie, at the same time in reverie together. Really, what words could have done it justice? The walk home in deepening dusk was subdued and meditative.

I am in that meditative state today as I walk the Tennessee roads. I can’t fully step away from the excruciating goodbye with Mom that’s nearing a decade-long run. I think about her thin existence, right down to the pale, soft foods – banana, mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs – that she pokes at on her tray. But, as I ponder this, my eyes take in the cows navigating the limbs of a fallen oak, the better to graze it. Around the curve I sniff the air, puzzling over the source of a strong cucumber smell in the pasture. I watch the shallow stream that’s come alive after two nights of torrential rain. Tiny minnows swim like shadows, their skin matching the sand below. The water runs under a tangle of weeds and broken branches, reemerges with a burst and continues on.

Thoughts of Lake Bomoseen continue to nudge me and lead to other thoughts of family waterside moments, like the uncountable trips to Jones Beach at home in New York, where we all lolled about hearing the surf through our sun-induced naps. Mom took us there in autumn and winter, too. We viewed the wind-whipped landscape from the boardwalk and rested our backs against a sun-warmed wall, enlivened by the brisk air and distant, blue glimmer. We scattered her father’s ashes there years later, sending him off into the rolling tide.

I didn’t see it then, but now I recognize the gift that came with these treks to watch the water. I was helped to understand “what peace there may be in silence,” to quote the framed Desiderata poem next to Mom’s bed.

During our visits at the nursing home, my occasional words are bookended by long pauses. I so rarely get words in return. Mom searches my face. She mimes her love in rare nods and gestures, returns a hug when it’s time for me to go. There is sorrow for me in this silence but, alongside it, there is unexpected peace.

As Mom’s world narrows, my memories of her widen and shimmer, like the waning sun spreading its color above the waiting lake. I see what she led me to then, and words can only begin to hint at it. In my mind’s eye I look at Lake Bomoseen again as the light fades. I see holy water, marked with the ceaseless wandering of the wind. I walk on, enfolded in the hush of the evening.

 

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.

 

 

The Joy of Nature Epistling

lichens-like-shells-crop.jpg

These fungi remind me of a certain kind of tightly wrapped conch shell I used to find on Long Island beaches. I initially wondered here in the caption if these were lichens or fungi. Reader Laurie told me that they are the most common decomposer in our woods, Trichaptum biformus, sometimes known as Violet-toothed polypore.

I am not sure “epistling” is a word, but if not, I have coined a new, inflected verb.

I grew up in a churchgoing family, and “Epistle” in that context meant a letter from an Apostle. The other meaning of the word is simply, “a poem or other literary work in the form of a letter or series of letters.” The word Apostle, outside of the church-centric meaning, also means ” a vigorous and pioneering advocate of a particular…idea, or cause.”

So, yes, I am an Apostle who treasures her epistling, her love letters to the world. My cause is Loving the (natural) World, and I wholly attribute the best articulation of this pursuit to Mary Oliver, in her poem of the same title.

I relish writing about what I find on countless walks–coming upon compelling and intriguing creatures and landscapes, following an impulse to learn about and protect nature. I also relish hearing from my readers, who provide feedback, enthusiasm, and new ideas.

Of course, we humans are not really in a separate category from nature, but so many of us long for a deeper sense of connection with the rest of the natural world. Charles Siebert, in Wickerby, describes our race as, “the only ones who long to be a part again of that to which we already belong.”

My heart is full as I share these twice-weekly epistles. The subscribe link (it’s free!) to Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection is to the right. Here are some examples of recent entries:

Quaker Ladies, Venus’ Pride, and Bluets that Fly 

The Turtle and the May Apple

I hope to see you at Loving the World, and maybe I’ll bump into some of you outside, too, peering down at a little patch of moss or raising your head to follow the birdsong.

Today is Mother’s Day, and I write this from within the rumpled bed covers. My husband Tom, who knows me so very well, gave me this with breakfast in bed–a gift that combines my love for words and my love for the outdoors.

nature-quote-book-e1557666650243.jpg

From it, I remind you on this rainy Sunday that: “The Amen of nature is always a flower,” courtesy of Oliver Wendell Holmes,

My latest Amen, found curbside a block away:

flower-curbside.jpg

 

Brevity is the Soul of…Nature Writing?

town dock winter 3I don’t really believe the title. I love long-form nature writing–both reading and writing it. But these days, in terms of the day-to-day stuff, I’m really enjoying the briefer, twice-weekly Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection e-newsletter I’ve been sharing with subscribers. I’ve written about stink bugs, holly bushes, the bottoms of ponds in winter, Carolina Wrens, Dark-Eyed Juncos, cypress knees and so much more– and I’m having heaps of fun. Please subscribe and/or spread the word to others who love the natural world and what it teaches us. I am taking requests–Jane wants me to write about ravens soon. What would you like me to write about?

Also, if you know anyone that wants to get into nature writing, I’ve finally taken my roughly formatted PDF How to Get Started in Nature Writing and turned it into a Kindle read. You can link directly to it here, or read more about it here in the blog’s Lessons in Nature Writing tab.

For those here in the Connecticut area, I hope you’re able to enjoy the milder temperatures this weekend as much as Buddy and I have.

Buddy tree

 

 

 

 

Loving the World: A New Adventure

barkI feel compelled –maybe even mandated–to share the joy and the sense of discovery I derive from time in nature. It’s too good to keep to myself and it is itching to vault over the borders of this blog and venture out farther into the world.

I’ve started a brief, twice-weekly (Wednesday and Sunday), free-newsletter to spread the love.  Sometimes nature’s teachings are factual and super cool, like how the moon snail “drills” holes into clam shells, creating those ready-made “necklace” pendants we find on the beach. Often her teachings help us connect with ourselves and others, as when lichens slowly (OH so slowly) create soil from a boulder, showing us quiet persistence and patience, an understanding of the full possibilities of time. The newsletter is a brief peek into all of it–factoids, wonder, and the eagerness to understand and connect more.

For more about Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection, and the subscription link, please click here. My posts here on First Person Naturalist will likely continue on a monthly basis: this is a home for some longer-form reflection.

 

Meditation on a Locust

locust (Mercy) cropped

Look closely: I can’t swear this is a Carolina locust (no entomology degree here), but this well-camouflaged locust of some sort blended in beautifully at Mercy Center!

Somewhere in the soil, not doing very much at the moment, there is a tiny, kind of boomerang-shaped egg pod containing about 40 Carolina locust eggs. I am sure that if for some reason I stumbled on it, I might not recognize it as such. Here is a photo courtesy of the University of Wyoming:

Carolina locust egg pod U WYO

Carolina locust egg pod, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

The eggs will hatch when the soil warms. I learned that these insects have the potential to decimate large tracts of commercial crops, but where I encountered them they didn’t seem to be doing any harm. In fact, they brightened the place up.

Not too long ago—less than three months ago, in fact—I worked in grey, corporate offices. The last office was my workday home for about five years. Before that, it was another grey office for about the same duration. I work from home now, and although there are days when I feel practically glued to my computer and deadlines, I can walk to the window, pick up the binoculars, and watch the bird feeder. I can take Buddy out to get the mail and take a short walk to the dead end. Sometimes these little moments just makes me crave more of the same, but they are a step in the right direction.

In the office, I felt starved for the feel of the outside air and for naturally occurring color and movement, far from the closed windows and controlled temperature, from the whir of printers and copy machines. My schedule would only allow 15-minute walks around the perimeter of the office park, but those micro-jaunts felt restorative, like a few good gulps of water after a walk in the heat. I even found occasion to write about them, and they worked their way into my book, eventually. But I would have liked more of this quenching—gallons of it, actually, on any given workday. In the absence of that, I tried to find all of the things of beauty and interest I could.

On late summer days when I walked the sparse and parched grass behind a certain building, segments of the loose, dusty soil seemed to stir to life and levitate before me. Then a flash of yellow would beckon me from midair, suggesting a butterfly. The “butterfly” would land and disappear, closing its wings and seeming to evaporate. It took some real peering to find the dun-colored Carolina locust, sometimes referred to as a road duster or a Quaker, once it landed.

carolina locust sarah fuller (permission via linkedin)

This photo shows the yellow, but to my eye does not do it justice. When sunlight streams through it is especially eye-catching. Photo courtesy of Sarah Fuller; first posted here.

According to the Iowa State University Department of Entomology’s online BugGuide, Carolina locusts are likely the most familiar band-winged grasshopper to most people in North America, since they prefer disturbed and often dusty habitats like vacant lots, paths, and dirt roads. When seen in flight, they are sometimes confused with Mourning Cloak butterflies.

Members of the band-winged grasshopper family are conspicuous in flight. Their bands have been called “flash colors” because they distract predators, and the noises made in flight (males popping taut membranes between their wing veins) can add to the distraction. It’s a head-scratcher when they seem to meld with the dirt, wings tucked in again and any resemblance to a butterfly –if the watcher is lucky enough to even spot them –completely gone. The University of Wisconsin’s Field Station Web site explains the evolutionary advantage of this: “the pursuing predator suddenly can’t find anything that matches its search image.”

Edwin Way Teale’s September 22 entry in A Walk Through the Year muses about these “dancing grasshoppers,” which he describes as rising and falling irregularly “as though jiggled at the end of a rubber band.” He describes the yellow-bordered wings like “thin parchment in the air…rising, hanging, crackling, descending.”

Caroline locust by Fred Bentler with permiss

Carolina locust photo courtesy of  nature photographer Fred Bentler  

I had fun reading up on this creature that is likely often unnoticed and under-appreciated. But that wasn’t what drew me to the locusts, what made me look forward to spotting my jumpy, shape-shifting Carolina friends during my office park walks.

My job and all its trappings felt drab, and, by extension, so did I. But every time I saw that flash of yellow I was reminded how there is so much more to life than meets the eye. How there is so much more to me than meets the eye. Those micro-moments on the hot, dusty path brought me little capsules of hope and wonder.

It’s good to step out more often and feel more connected with the world again–it feels like a gradual but welcome convalescence. But, like the Carolina locust nymphs and many other insects, who go through several phases of growing and shedding their skin before full maturity (these phases are called instars), I feel there are many increments of growth I have yet to undergo, to get to a much deeper and more faithful place of deep connection.

 

Images of third and fifth instars, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

I am so glad I took those walks. I am so glad the Carolina locusts were there.

Mercy, Murmuration, and Mushrooms

Groundhog Mercy

My new friend from Friday (Mercy by the Sea)

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

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

Mercy cairns

Mercy by the Sea’s “backyard”

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

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

Bidden sign at Mercy

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

Mercy locust

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

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

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

swallow cruise

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

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

 

Blue deer porch.JPG

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

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

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