Nature on the Page

bushyHill drawings

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

 

 

 

 

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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.

Wild Carrots and Lace

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Lace in the meadow

This seems to be the peak of the year for Queen Anne’s lace. That economic principle of things being of less value when they are super-abundant doesn’t apply for me, when it comes to these leggy white blooms that greet me from even the most untended stretches of road. As a small child, their colloquial name captured my imagination—it was one of the first wildflowers I learned. Ediblewildfood.com recounts the legend of Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) pricking her finger, thus the “drop of blood” that shows up on the flower as a tiny purple dot, when you look closely.

 

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Closeup of the purple “blood” on the flower

As with most familiar plants, this one has many names. iNaturalist.com (a great app, if you have a smart phone especially, for learning about flora and fauna) told me that my photo was of a wild carrot, or Daucus carota. I was delighted to learn of other colloquial names, too: bishop’s lace and bird’s nest.

I became preoccupied with the desire to know why, in the morning, some of the flowers have curled in on themselves – and they do look like birds’ nests – or the loveliest version of a tiny cage. I wondered if they all curl up at night, and then for some reason open at different rates in the morning. But the World Carrot Museum site tells me that the umbels (or seed heads) curl inward once they are spent, and the hooked spines that cover the fruits aid dispersal, since they can cling to the fur of animals. Aha! When the flowers are open, they allow pollination, and when closed, they have gone to seed and are ready to “go forth and multiply.” (aside: I was so tickled to learn that there is a World Carrot Museum, even if it is only in cyberspace).

 

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The “bird’s nest” or cage, when the plant has gone to seed 

My sister once had an awful experience of picking what she thought was Queen Anne’s lace and having an intense, photosensitive allergic reaction. She had found herself a bouquet of wild parsnips, not wild carrots, and apparently there is also poison hemlock, another look-alike to worry about, which lacks hairs on stems and leaves compared with the proper Queen Anne’s lace (note: I am NOT an expert—learning as I go!). While the wild carrot root is edible, if you get it at the right time, it is a very risky business unless you really know your stuff. Poison hemlock is so named for a very good, deadly reason, and wild parsnip, while ostensibly having an edible root, carries the risk of at least the aforementioned reaction. More info here, if you are curious about differentiating these plants (although I can’t guarantee the expertise of the video maker! Foraging experts say that the best way to learn, and be safe, is to go out foraging with a bona fide expert).

My appreciation of Queen Anne’s lace’s ubiquitous loveliness took a turn into a discussion of poison, which wasn’t what I planned. I may have gone off on this tangent because I am hoping to pursue my Master Naturalist certification in the spring, and am amazed and intimidated by how much there is to know! But there is also delight in learning, something I look forward to.

 

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In the beginning…a new bud of lace

In the meantime there is simple appreciation, and for me there is always a balance to be struck. You can “know” the wildflowers and insects and animals that you meet as friends—appreciating unique qualities and observing them with alert senses. You can also “know” as an academician knows, even to the point where you are encyclopedic on the topic. Neither way is inherently bad, but too much of one risks obliterating the other. Knowing based on just your own observation can mean false assumptions, and limitations. Knowing based on simply facts can push aside the beauty of the thing. I wonder how much William Carlos Williams knew when he wrote about the seemingly single-minded effort of this plant?:

…until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

(The poem is copyrighted; you can read the whole thing here).

Anniversary of Noticing: A Walk to Chester

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Bridge Street at dawn

In The Book of Noticing, I introduced my collection of walks by sketching out a particular one: a walk to Deep River’s neighboring town of Chester on the 4th of July. Every year, the town hosts the 4 on the 4th Road Race. I have little interest in the race itself, but Chester is a good destination and I like to see the preparations underway.

This morning I celebrated the anniversary of this start of the book with a walk to the same destination. Different time of day: this year the dog got me up at 4, and the sky was already lightening, so I went with it. Different dog: Molly’s memory will forever be held in the book, but now she is buried at the pet cemetery in Fountain Hill, and sometimes Buddy and I stop at her marker.

Our new beagle mix, Buddy, is only 4 and full of energy. He didn’t lag once during the whole, greater-than-2-hour, saunter. It was a circuitous route: various side streets to Maple Street to Chester, then a detour up to Laurel Hill Cemetery, then up through Chester and down Main Street, back via side streets to home.

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Buddy checking out the mullein

By the time I approached Union Street, about 10 minutes from home, the sun was showing its face above the horizon, and it washed my neighborhood in muted warm tones. I mused about the many mullein plants peppering my path, their tall shadows standing out in the early dawn light. It’s theorized that the name comes from the Latin word for “soft,” and the herb’s dried down was at one time used for candle wicks. I learned that the stalks used to serve as torches, back in Roman times, and that this often overlooked plant has served many medicinal purposes, from hemorrhoids to asthma. Despite its size, I have always thought it a humble and unassuming plant. I view it as an old friend that visits every summer.

I thought back to my recent weeks at Acadia (see here and here), and how I was literally surrounded by water practically everywhere I went. It’s abundant here, too, but just a bit more work to locate it. From Laurel Hill Cemetery I looked down on the Carini Preserve area, alongside the Chester Creek. I have a favorite spot in the cemetery where I can look over at the Osprey platform planted in the water. Empty! Had the chicks hatched and fledged already? I found myself worrying about their well being. Where were they?

I studied a couple of impressively proportioned rocks—or are they boulders? I had to look up the difference. One forum says that the differentiating factor for the boulder is that it isn’t going anywhere. I hope that’s true for this unusual grave marker at Laurel Hill, pictured below. I wondered about the person or family who decided on the hefty, naturally formed pink granite (I think?) rock bearing only a last name.

Hungerford rock Laurel Hill.JPGNot far from it was another eye-catching rock (I guess it could be moved, with power equipment, so thus it’s not a boulder?) in the creek itself. It’s become a haven for wayward plants.

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Chester Creek rock-nursery

Today I felt an appreciation especially for the plants along my path. I mused about some of the flowers that might be considered “weeds,” since they don’t seem to have been planted intentionally. Actually, I like the term “volunteers” much better. I was amused by my Web research on volunteer plants when I got home, mostly with a gardening perspective, with titles like, “What’s Up with Volunteer Plants?”  and “Should You Keep Volunteer Tomatoes?”  (While to me the answer to tomatoes should always be yes, apparently this is a controversial issue in some circles).

Seeds have so many ways of arriving and blossoming: our compost, the creatures that come and go from our gardens, plants reseeding. Whether we want them there or not, there they are, proud in their innovation and persistence. The many routes that a seed can take are good reminders of the surprises in life, and also of the boundless opportunities to grow, even in unlikely scenarios.

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Volunteer in purple uniform

Which brings me back to The Book of Noticing and its origins. Long, long ago, I brought an acorn home from a walk in the woods. It was a particularly pleasing example–large and burnished brown, with a handsome cap. I though that having this in hand, and later, desk-side, might help me to get going on what was then a rather vague idea about a book on time in nature. Time passed, and still the acorn sat there, not seeming to blossom into much. But, eventually, more ideas accumulated and I had a book. What mattered was that I had faith in the seed; that I cared enough to bring it home and welcome it.

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My mustard seed

I rooted around in my jewelry box to find the pendant pictured above, and remember Mom gifting me with it from her own childhood collection, when I was 9 or 10. She said, “If you have faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains,” a paraphrase from Matthew 17:20 and no doubt a remnant of her Baptist roots. Did she know how fertile a seed she was planting that day?

The Book of Noticing VEXATION!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Naming

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

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

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

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

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Wolf at Yellowstone courtesy of Michael McCarthy on Flickr

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

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

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Buddha courtesy of Kaysha on Flickr

 

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

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

Photo May 28, 6 28 29 AM

 

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

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Purple Martins courtesy of Rick Leche on Flickr

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

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

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Beach bum Fowler’s toad courtesy of USFWS on Flickr

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

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Embarrassment of tree swallows courtesy of Michael Mulqueen on Flickr

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

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

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New life amid new life

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

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

Lonely as a Cloud: Ospreys, Mom, and Daffodils

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Daffodils at Aaron Manor

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

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

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

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

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

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A photo from another April, of light in the trees

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

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Osprey courtesy of Fritz Myer on Flickr

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

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

All was right with the world.

 

At Our Gloved Fingertips: March Microexpeditions

 

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

 

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Courtesy of krissvdh on Flickr

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

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

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Muskrat lodge with rooftop goose courtesy of Vail Marston on Flickr

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

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

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Pileated family courtesy of Henry T. McLin on Flickr

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

 

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

Owl Envy

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Saw Whet Owl courtesy of  David Mitchell on Flickr

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

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

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Eagle Owl silhouette courtesy of Peter G W Jones on Flickr 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation: Holiday to Holy Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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