Mercy, Murmuration, and Mushrooms

Groundhog Mercy

My new friend from Friday (Mercy by the Sea)

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

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

Mercy cairns

Mercy by the Sea’s “backyard”

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

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

Bidden sign at Mercy

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

Mercy locust

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

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

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

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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.

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!

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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.

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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!

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.

Trombidium

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.

 

nature books

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.

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?

Who’s Schoodic, and What’s the Point?

I have been granted a great gift: a two-week writing residency at Acadia National Park, in Maine. I am staying on the Schoodic Peninsula (pronounced SKOO dic), a smaller area of the park that’s separate from the main section on Mount Desert Island (site of Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain). I am a short walk from Schoodic Point.

This is a daunting assignment for a writer, because where are the words that do the place justice? Do they even exist? At one point, I found myself envying the visual artists, who with their paint boxes can render some facsimile of the broad boulders by the gulf, the steel of the sky in the mist, the patterns of mosses and lichens that constantly draw the eye. I may need to sort through thousands, even millions, of words to arrive at an adequate description.

In the meantime, I’ve been given time to roam, and this is the best gift for a writer—at least for a nature writer! I roam and write, roam and write. I go to the Point and sit and watch. Or close my eyes and listen. Or lay on the rocks and inhale the salt-infused air.

I pray. Often I try to stay still but am drawn by a small pool a bit farther out, or tiny spiders that look giant through my binoculars, or a shining, black rift in the rock.

The crevices tell an old, geologic tale

I thought perhaps there was some colonial guy, maybe a Dutchman, named Schoodic. But it turns out the name probably derives from the Mi’kmaq word eskwodek—“the end,” or possibly the Passamaquoddy word for “the burnt place”—scoudiac. For me, this “end” has been a beginning, or maybe a return. Although I spent much of my childhood at Jones Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, and although I live not far from the Sound (now on the Connecticut side), I don’t visit the the coast very often. More often, I pass by it. And although I am a nature writer, I tend to focus my words further inland, about my immediate surroundings. It’s good to again survey the edge of the land, and think about the life beyond it.

I am learning so much. A brother of a friend is a park ranger here, and he graciously invited me to see Tom Wessels, author of Granite, Fire, and Fog,  speak. He talked first about granite, and how the glaciers shaped things. But geology doesn’t always grab me—somehow it feels too abstract, too slow-moving (glacial pace, and all) to for me to grasp.

Beard lichen

He had me at lichens. Among the first specifics I noticed here, once I stopped dropping my jaw at the multitude of sweeping, water’s edge vistas that met me at every curve, were the generous “Old Man’s Beard” lichens that hang from so many trees. They are on a maple outside my apartment here, but I think the author said they especially favor spruces. The often-misty climate promotes a different environment, and, as Wessels said, different “communities” of growth, which translates into a truly unique landscape. Get this: fog droplets contain 1000 times more nutrients than rain. So, lichens at Acadia grow comparatively quickly. Still, they are quite slow-growing composite organisms (not plants—they are made of algae + fungi).

They are EVERYWHERE!!

Even the ordinary seems amped up here. (Of course, I may be high on freedom. Or on the salt air.) The rabbits (or hares?) are more approachable, and (apologies to grey squirrels back at home) the squirrels (red here) are cuter and less shy, too. There is an endless variation of color in and on the rocks (I learned that crustose lichens are actually welded down into the rock; almost like they are painted on!). I like looking close up at the snails that hold court on so many surfaces.

Snails and barnacles by the millions

I went to the Oceanarium to learn more about the creatures beyond the edge. The touch tank host held up sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea stars, horseshoe crabs, moon snails, etc, presenting fascinating, often outlandish details about each one. For example, sea cucumbers can spill their intestines in response to an alarming event, and suck them up later. You can’t make this stuff up.

Having my family join me was a joy. We had dinner at The Pickled Wrinkle  and actually tried some wrinkles, and some deep-fried dulse. Before that, we had worked up our appetites around some low-lying areas of the peninsula.

I have to admit, I was concerned about how things might change when the guys joined me. I was a hermit of sorts in the week that I was here alone. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. I wrote for hours. I walked for hours. I was silent for hours.

We talked over dinner about the hermit life—about how Thoreau lived alone in his cabin but walked to town for companionship and had guests come over. Gavin described how the protagonist in a book he loves, Ed Stafford of Naked and Marooned, relished the idea of being alone and planned a whole adventure around the concept, in the South Pacific. But eventually he craved human companionship and hid nearby when he knew humans were going to be on his island, just so he could see them. It’s the rare person who truly does not want any kind of contact. (See The Stranger in the Woods, a Maine story, for one such case).

Gavin in his element

The deepening of dimension that comes with other humans became clear to me right away when the guys arrived. I thought I had been pretty adventurous this week—scaling fairly steep trails and venturing alone into varied terrains. But within a half hour of Tom and Gavin’s arrival, my shoes were muddier than they’d been all week. Gavin was eager to check out the flats, and we squished about admiring the “bubble” seaweed and snails and natural sponges. After dinner, Tom, who had driven a long way on little sleep (thanks to our dog’s urges for nocturnal walks), passed on a walk to the Point. But Gavin and I went, and I rejoiced in his joy at leaping boulder to boulder, embodying the effortlessness and energy of youth and health.

Stalking the wild strawberry

He noticed things I had noticed when I arrived, like the beard lichen. But also new things, like wild strawberries on the grassy walkway back toward our temporary home. On the way back from the Point, he spotted the silhouette of a porcupine crossing the road. And a colony of spittle bugs inhabiting the roadside grass. I’ve had a room of my own at Schoodic Point, and it’s been a dream. I churned out two longer- and deeper-than usual pieces and roughed out ideas for quite a few more. But I can see now that even a landscape such as this only goes so far, if it can’t be shared.

Spittle bug community

We humans need each other, and we each bring a unique perspective about the natural world. We also have a crucial role to play here. I discovered a writer I hadn’t heard of before: Louise Dickinson Rich often focused on Maine. She died in the early 1990s, but reading her words, I am sure I would have liked to know her, had I the chance. I end with an “Amen!” to her words at the end of The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich:

Man, who cannot swim as well as a fish, nor fly as well as a bird, nor support himself on bare ledges as well as a lichen, is the observer, the recorder; because there is no one else—not the bird, not the rowan, not the lichen or the fish—who is capable of doing it. Perhaps all his other achievements are less than this, that he watches, and makes the record, and tries to find the meaning. He alone cares, and in that caring, perhaps, lies his weakness and his very great strength.

Posted with gratitude to Acadia National Park, which, by granting me the writing residency, has made so much possible! 

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…

Buddha by Kaysha

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