The Joy of Nature Epistling

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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.

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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:

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Meditation on a Locust

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

Woodstock and Water

Gavin Hartford river walk

Riverwalking in Hartford

Before our family trip to Woodstock got fully underway, its theme began to assert itself. Tom made a wrong turn and we were in the curiously quiet Sunday city that is Hartford. We parked by the Wadsworth Atheneum with a new mission: the first visit to the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza. We took many steps down to the start of the sculpture walk featuring Lincoln’s life. Not far from where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in her later years, here was a sculpture of Lincoln and Stowe meeting, captioned with the famous quote in which he attributed the start of the Civil War to this “little woman.” Beyond them the Connecticut River flowed, an occurrence that long preceded, and long moves past, the war that divided our nation.

Walking along it, we watched young women crewing in their long boats. They pushed the water aside with the force of one. Birds flitted into and out of the abundant greenery that grew along the path. I leaned down to snap photos of 2 kinds of purple flowers and then leaned back to wonder at the high-water marks marked on a pillar, thinking about my mom at 10 after the big hurricane in 1938, watching with amazement as sail boats traveled down her suburban street. Gavin jumped down to an outsized stump at the edge that must have seen at least a century of waterfront history. Tom spotted a miniature field of tiny bird’s nest fungi, which look exactly as they sound, complete with “eggs” that are balls of spores. When raindrops strike the spores they shoot into the air and germination can begin.

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Bird’s nest fungi in Hartford

As we were en route, my sister Linda sent me a link to a short film called Sing the Water Song. In describing their vision for the project, the film makers start with the phrase “water is life.” They share their dream of millions of women (Keepers of Water in Native American traditions) around the world learning to sing the Algonquin Water Song in solidarity with the threatened water we continue to witness. (Standing Rock is just one of countless examples). The song is described by a Native elder as lullaby-like, paying loving tribute to water as the lifeblood of Mother Earth (lyrics are phonetic):

Nee bee wah bow
En die en
Aah key mis kquee
Nee bee wah bow
Hey ya hey ya hey ya hey
Hey ya hey ya hey ya ho

About an hour from Woodstock, we stopped at an antique store and peered down the hill at the creek running beside it, wondering who had placed so many odd-shaped, fist-sized stones on a particular rock. The license plate next to ours said “1-River,” which alluded to one of Gavin’s favorite books, One River, which follows the fascinating work of 2 Amazon explorers.

When we got to Woodstock, we walked around town and paused along the bridges to admire the stream coursing below. On our first full day, we were privileged to visit with local mushroom expert John Michelotti at Catskill Fungi. We walked together through light rain and admired his logs as well as his life, which centers on fungi and has led him to many good things. On the way back from his place in Big Indian, we stopped to read a commemorative plaque beside the start of the Catskill Aqueduct. On the way here we had stopped at Oblong Books in Millerton and I treated myself to Lapham’s Quarterly (on the theme of, you guessed it, water!). As I read it that afternoon I came across a piece on Manhattan’s water sources, and it recounted how 9 villages near Woodstock were obliterated as the dams were created and water was collected in Shokan when constructing the aqueduct. At least 10% of the “sandhogs” who dug the tunnel suffered injuries and deaths. (Shades of Standing Rock: the Quarterly article included a 1913 account of deaths among Native and African Americans, overlooked by most as these were “inconspicuous” people.)

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It’s probably slugs who have been enjoying these “fried eggs” at The Comeau Property.

It poured that afternoon and Gavin swam in the rain. In the morning, we walked through puddles on the trails at The Comeau Property in town. The creek was running high, fed by the buckets of rain the prior day. Slugs and mushrooms were relishing the moisture, brightening the dim woods with their colorful presences. Back at our temporary home, I strolled beside our borrowed salt water pool and found tiny snails dotting the undersides of big leaves and clinging to blades of grass. Under one particular leaf a small spider had woven a rather flat web. He stood beside it, looking ready to defend his work.

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Snails everywhere!

For me, I guess not surprisingly, the best parts of the trip have involved noticing creatures (including plants) out in nature. I keep being reminded of water—how it links us, how we need to protect it. I looked back at an old diary entry on the same date as yesterday, when Gavin was just 6, and found this small start of a poem. I love how, so many years later, we are still treasuring the creatures we meet along the way, still conscious of the dew:

All along this morning walk
There were little beings,
especially funnel spiders
and slugs, who seem to like
the dewy days best.

The Generous Naturalist, the Generous Reader

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Fledgling Swallows by Steve Herring on FlickrSteve Herring on Flickr

I’ve been taking a Master Naturalist class with the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center. The formal classes have finished, and when I finish the required community work and research paper, I will be considered an apprentice Master Naturalist. If I can manage it I’ll take part 2 next summer, and if I complete that I will be full-fledged.

That term “fledged” recalls the young birds (fledglings) that leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves, with the goal of flying off and living on their own. As an apprentice there is SO much to know and of course I will never know it all. But I have learned, like the famed Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to depend on the kindness of (now former) strangers to help me along my way.

Cattails by Elliot Margolies flickr

Who knew cattails were so tasty? Photo courtesy of Elliot Margolies on Flickr

Each teacher has gone out of his or her way to create a welcoming atmosphere, and to help in practical ways. Ed made several concoctions for snack break from his foraging finds—there was knotweed pie (great use of an invasive) and cattail soup (an asparagus-ish tasting delight). He was quick to point out any interesting new finds along the trail, as were all of our teachers.

Brad pulled me up from the ground when I fell on a recent hike, and pointed out chestnut oaks and the skin of a newly molted rat snake after I dusted off my jeans and dignity and panted my way up rocky inclines. That shiny, freshly molted creature (so black it was blue!) stole the show away from our guest expert geologist for a few minutes, while we followed it to its rendezvous with other snakes in a nearby crevice.

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Photogenic, resplendent Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain

Jasper kept our whole group up to date on what was going on, and patiently advised me on the hours I needed to log. Juan made the long drive from his distant home to Deep River to give me a tutorial about lichens at Fountain Hill Cemetery. We got on our hands and knees with hand lenses, and he pointed out the Lilliputian wonders wrought in these algae/fungus (and sometimes cyanobacteria) combinations. Later I paged through the trove of books and pamphlets he had brought along to lend me. He didn’t hold it against me when I decided lichens were too difficult, given the limited time I have to research and write my paper.

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Many lichens LOVE tombstones! I was focusing on brownstone obelisks

Stretching my fledgling wings a bit more, I contacted Lynn, a Master Naturalist program graduate who is busy using her knowledge (and retired teacher skills), leading talks and hikes. She took the time to meet with me and to let me tag along on her hikes, teaching as she went and giving me the opportunity to bring forth my burgeoning knowledge. I now use the crinkly, paper-like feel of the leaves to help me identify the American beech, and she helped me realize that witch hazel may very well be named after the characteristic witch-hat shaped galls on its leaves that house a particular kind of aphid.

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Witch hazel leaf with gall courtesy of Danielle Brigada on Flickr

What is it about naturalists that makes them so remarkably generous, eager to share time, discoveries, and information? I am sure I bring my own biases to the theory, because Mary Oliver’s iconic line, “My work is loving the world” guides all of my time in nature. But could it be that all of these naturalist hearts have expanded because of their love for the world and its creatures, because of the generosity they themselves have received from nature (and other lovers of it)?

Readers are a whole other set of generous folks. An attendee at my nature writing exploration yesterday took the time to write me a complimentary note and share her new piece with me. She later wrote an Amazon review, too! Another recommended haikus written by Richard Wright. Librarian Laurie led me to Brainerd Library’s enchanting butterfly garden and did some research that informed me we were seeing milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (not monarch caterpillars–they look nothing alike!) on the milkweed plants. The list goes on and on. Same theory here for me. Reading, when done faithfully and thoughtfully, has the potential to expand not only the mind, but the heart.

milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (Brainerd)

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillars

And being with these people, naturalists and readers alike (even better if they are BOTH!) has expanded my own heart. It was serendipitous timing that I ran across a 2005 birthday card from Mom tucked into one of my nature books, even more precious now as she can no longer share quotes like she used to. What she shared with me was prescient, because it preceded my full-throttle return to time in nature and time in books about it. Here is what she wrote (and I found the quote on the Internet so have included the full attribution):

A certain philosopher asked St Anthony: Father, how can you be happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied. My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God,
the book is before me.

Anon.Verba Seniorum (Adhortationes sanctorum patrum) ciii (4th – 8th cens. CE)(Greek original lost; Pelagius I and John III, Latin transl.; T. Merton Engl. transl.) in: The Wisdom of the Desert p. 139.

Of course, I am NOT deprived of the consolation of books, and because I can, I want to embrace both–finding meaning in the books and in the spectacular green world. How delicious to know that this possibility is before me!

 

 

 

My First Killdeer

leave eggs aloneOn Saturday, I went to see an old friend: the natural world! I’d only been able to visit her for short stints in recent weeks. And the timing was great— it was Trails Day (well, Trails Weekend, really) in Connecticut, something I’ve missed in past years because of competing demands. (Actually, according to the CFPA, our state has the largest Trails Day nationwide!)

I had an additional motive for making some nature immersion plans: as an apprentice Master Naturalist, I have requirements for – in addition to classes – finding opportunities to participate in and also help out with ecologically related education.

By the time I got my act together that morning, I had just enough time to hastily groom and get myself to Killingworth, where several folks from Connecticut Water were leading a hike in the vicinity of the reservoir. Our group was a mix of younger families with children, singles old and young, a leashed dog, and our leaders. The woman in front of me confessed that this “outdoorsy” adventure was a new sort of endeavor for her. She worried that her slower pace might hold me back, but I welcomed it. I was feeling the humidity (a foreshadowing of the sudden storms that would erupt that afternoon), and appreciated the ability to really look at the foliage, the bark, the bugs, the light on the meadow, etc. My knees thanked me for the leisurely stride, too!

red eyed vireo from Flickr Kelly.jpg

Red-Eyed Vireo courtesy of Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr

The water company folks were good guides. They talked about maintaining the watershed, and about the herons, ospreys, and other local bird life. Our leader Chuck pointed up and cocked his head, indicating the song of the Red-Eyed Vireo. More than one nature guide has told me that this muted olive-green and white bird is often heard but seen much less often (great camouflage, especially when the trees are fully leafed). I pointed out circular Downy or Hairy Woodpecker holes, knowing that holes from the Pileated are much bigger, and more rectangular, and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker holes are in a neat row. We admired a very shaggy shag bark hickory, with a “Do Not Trespass” sign on it signaling the protected area closer to the reservoir.

When we got back from the hike, there was a group photo to commemorate our success, and free bags and water bottles from our hosts. I wondered how disheveled I would appear in the photo, as I hadn’t managed to shower before I ran out the door and was wearing the humidity on my face and neck.

(I hadn’t thought much about it before, but Connecticut Water is actively involved in conservation—protecting their water source! They have an education program for third graders—the Water Drop Watchers!)

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Ooh la la! The Lavender Pond Farm store!

Bedraggled though I was, I knew that I couldn’t pass up my first visit to Lavender Pond Farm down the road. They have about 9000 lavender plants, of many varieties.  The plants were not yet in full bloom (that’s coming soon!) but the place smelled heavenly. I started my visit in the store, thinking of my sister Linda (a sucker for anything Provencal, and the whole store looked like one I might imagine in the South of France). I quenched my thirst with a cold lavender lemonade and bought mix for a lavender-lemon tea cake, as well as honey-lavender candy that Gavin would consume in record time on Sunday.

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Lavender Pond Farm

But the biggest treat was yet to come. I stowed my purchases in the car and walked among the plants. Already, on the way in, I had admired several Brown-Headed Cowbirds  skirting the fields. Now, I walked out onto the grassy lawn surrounding the lavender patches, interspersed with gravel paths. Swifts (or were they swallows?) flew too fast for my amateur birder eyes to completely take in, but I knew they were hunting for insects. And then, an unexpected type of bird motion caught my eye.

Killdeer by vladeb on Flickr.jpg

Killdeer by vladeb on Flickr

I saw the quick, spindly steps of a shore bird (although I wasn’t on the shore). A pair of Killdeer (so named because of the sound they make although I do NOT hear this phrase when I hear their song) were running around among the lavender plants and gravel. When I looked these birds up later, the first sentence in the “All About Birds” entry for this species was, “A shorebird you can see without going to the beach.” Indeed: they are plovers, described by All About Birds as, “tawny birds” that “run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to check their progress, or to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey.”

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I admired the handsome black rings around their necks and upper chests (technically called “breast bands”) and also how well they blended in with the ground. My delight only grew from there. I learned that the pair was guarding a cache of four eggs on what looked to me like a very randomly chosen ground “nest”—really just a scratched out spot amidst a large swath of gravel. Some kind soul had made a crude surround for the nest, and the sign that heads up this blog, signed, “Birdie.” I didn’t want to upset whoever was on “egg duty” (males and females take turns with that) but I did swoop in for a quick photo-op while the prospective parent hovered nearby and made a few anxious squawks.

What a Saturday—by one or so I’d walked for miles; seen a dozen creatures; made some new, nature-loving friends, and all before the sky opened up to dump buckets of rain! The Killdeer incubation period is a short one—less than a month. Maybe I’ll get to soon see some Killdeer chicks!

It Began with a Hoot

Barred owl by Dennis Church .jpg

Barred Owl courtesy of Dennis Church on Flickr

Earth Day didn’t start in the way I would have planned. We have hunkered down in a hotel while we wait for our septic system to be repaired. My foot is acting up again, so I can’t yet have the extra-long walk I have hoped for. Because we can’t use water at home, I typed this up at the laundromat.

I was restless in the unfamiliar room and slept lightly. That meant when Buddy asked to go out at 3:30 AM I was the designated walker. Tom snored through it all.

The roadside patch of grass and shrubs wasn’t especially scenic, but how heartening it was to witness Buddy’s pleasure in the scents. He was onto something exciting, something I couldn’t detect, and I worried that he’d start his insistent beagle yipping and baying if we got too close to the scent of a rabbit. The woods adjacent to the rear of the building are a small stand between the hotel and the next commercial venture, catching illumination from the streetlights on Route 1. But as I stood there and Buddy sniffed about, I heard a gentle question come from the trees at the back of the lot and it thrilled me. A Barred Owl asked, persistently, “Who cooks for you?,” pausing for my reply and getting none. I waited and listened, hearing him query a few more times before Buddy led me on to the next good (if undetected by me) smell.

How I would have loved to have seen the owl. I wrote a whole blog about how I never seem to spot them, and how Mary Oliver seems to see them everywhere! I am determined—spotting more owls is on my bucket list!

chipmunks by madhan Flickr

Chipmunks courtesy of madhan r on Flickr

After breakfast, I took Buddy back out for another walk. The small patch of woods again drew me, and when we stepped in and walked away from busy Route 1 I forgot the workaday world surrounding us. I had Tom’s binoculars and scanned in vain for the owl I’d heard hours before, to no avail. But a chipmunk couple honored the long tradition of a springtime chase across a forgotten stone wall and a stray daffodil graced a small berm. Green shoots pushed up everywhere, breaking through the monotone brown leaf litter. When we stepped back out of this small, forgotten zone, I heard a cardinal in the conifers across the road (one of just a few bird calls I can identify with certainty) and watched a gull gliding towards the same grove. A murder of crows shrieked by.

There are lots of spectacular celebrations of Earth Day today, but I am glad to be reminded that every day can be Earth Day if I take the time to stop and look around, to venture into even the small, somewhat forlorn places that, despite their lackluster appearance, nurture owls and new plants and no doubt countless spiders and worms and ants. And we can all do something to help the earth, too. Take this effort from the Sierra Club, as a start, to eradicate the tons of plastic waste that are choking our seas and marine creatures.

If we are back here at the hotel near dusk, maybe I can venture into the woods and find my inquisitive owl friend.

Happy Earth Day. I wish you happy discoveries in the world today, and every day.

PS: For a look back at the FIRST Earth Day, see this article that includes coverage of my friend George. It was a radical time. Interesting to note that the youth were leading the charge.

Lovely, Dark, and Eternal

Bare tangled branches up against a cerulean blue. That’s all I see when I raise my binoculars and search for the Pileated Woodpecker I keep hearing. The woods, especially unfamiliar ones, can have tricky acoustics. Is the sound  bouncing off the small peak that I just summited? The noise was ahead of me, and now it is behind me. I sigh and squirm on the mossy rock where I am crouching.

The early spring woods are reinforcing the lesson I seem to keep learning in other facets of my life. Patience. Patience while my left foot takes its long, circuitous journey to complete healing. Patience while I wait for another book idea to fully blossom. The never-anticipated need to be patient while my mother continues the “long goodbye” that is so emblematic of dementia (that phrase was the title of Ronald Reagan’s daughter’s memoir about losing him to Alzheimer’s disease). Mom is in her bed with the remarkably life-like artificial tulips I brought her yesterday. I am out here in the woods, thinking of her.

The woods remind me to be still, to listen and remember that all is well, in the sense that the beauty of the world and its workings is a constant, that it can bring me comfort. I remember that time will, eventually, bring peace and healing. Thinking about mom, I am brought back to young childhood, when I sat on her blue flowered bedspread eating tangerines. She is reading me part of Pippa Passes by Robert Browning.

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn
Morning’s at seven
The hillside’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.

It’s a simple stanza and I can just about recall the whole thing. More than the words, I remember the cadence, which sounds to me like a conversational and optimistic list, the poet making a convincing case that spring is, indeed, here. I muse about how, more than once, I have called these words up to help me cope with losing mom.  She couldn’t have known when she gave me these words that I would use them in such a way!

Today I saw thorns, but there were no snails on them. I heard a far-off, high bird call, but probably not a lark. But after I settled into the forest, so much looked and sounded right, just as it was for Pippa. The woodpecker’s rhythm sounded almost thoughtful for a while. The birds, too, were not as excited as I’ve heard them on many mornings amid the tall conifers in my yard. The long spaces between their chirps and chortles helped me hold longer spaces between my thoughts. I start to look and listen and feel and smell instead of simply thinking, instead of planning ahead, instead of worrying, even instead of grieving. This is a welcome oasis, a place from which I can draw quietude and strength.

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My new Trombidium friend

I am taken with a fallen tree whose once loamy root ball has now eroded into a spiky, dinosaur-armor-like projection. Termites have been busy here, breaking the aged wood into inch-long, roughly rectangular chunks. I am startled to see, crawling on the base of a nearby tree,  the most fluorescent orangey-red insect I’ve ever seen, about the size of my pinky nail and quite lively and leggy, zooming up, down, and sideways. I muse about how mom would love the color—she often wears bright colors like this. I try to capture his image, even shooting a crude movie with my phone. How I love not knowing the exact kind of bug this is. I wonder about his life, his day-to-day tasks. (When I look him up on iNaturalist later I am pretty sure he is a Trombidium, a genus of mite that is apparently quite common. Despite so much time spent in nature, I’ve never seen one before).

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Hornet’s nest from last season

There is so much to take in as I follow Camille’s Way, a trail in the Highlawn Forest property adjacent to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association building. The prize of an old hornet’s nest overhanging the murky green pond. The long, refrigerated corridor of conifers that smells like incense and feels like a wise, old friend. The birdsong that becomes more elaborate when I close my eyes. When I am still I realize that the now-noisy Pileated Woodpecker is not the only bird in town. Others are chiming in, too, more subtly, more gently.

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Conifer grove

When I start to see Route 66 off in the distance, and some houses and such., it makes me feel like I’m in a secret realm– still close enough to entertain thoughts of civilization, and removed enough to treasure my solitude.

When I rejoin my group at the nature writing retreat I am facilitating, we talk about the nuances in nature, and how sometimes it’s good to notice and record the less “pretty” aspects of nature—the dead tree; the random, unexplained bone on the trail. But today, maybe because of what I need most, it all looks quenching, uplifting, hopeful to me. I see beauty even in the termite-destroyed tree, and in the sometimes nearly black, wet leaf litter that appears to block out all life.

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New life

I know that life thrives below the dark surface, and that many small creatures have overwintered there. Pushing some of the sodden leaves aside I see green sprouts trying their best to emerge. I give them a head start by clearing a space but know that even without my help they will, with time, find a way. I know that all these flora and fauna, all of us, go back to the earth. Our lives give rise to more life, and I mean much more beyond birth and the whole “dust to dust” thing. I have learned so much from mom and will always carry her grace with me, hopefully passing some of it down to Gavin and distributing the wealth of it among all I encounter.

The woods are where I learn to be patient. The woods are how I come to believe in resurrection. As mom so often used to say (quoting Frost), they are “lovely, dark, and deep.” How glad I am to visit them again.

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Skyward

Nature on the Page

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My humble drawing and painting beginnings

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

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

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

 

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

A few disclaimers about the list below:

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

NATURE BOOKS: THE TRUNK SHOW LIST 

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

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

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

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In Bushy Hill Nature Center’s garden

 

 

 

 

Color, Connection, and (once again) Hopkins

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From today’s walk to Chester

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

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

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Sometime around 5 AM, on Deep River Main Street

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

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Town Dock never disappoints

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

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

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

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This unexpected ladybug nearly escaped my notice.

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

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The best kind of collage

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

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

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