Look Down


The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.
James Oppenheim

It’s become a bit of a cliché that people don’t look up enough; they don’t take the time to gaze up at the clouds, the stars, the echelons (you know, that V pattern!) of migratory birds.

But what about looking down? My recent early morning walks have yielded foot-level sightings of rabbit families, colonies of funnel web spiders, a scurrying vole, entire condo complexes of ants, and a visit with a stunningly decorated moth in the center of the brick sidewalk. The pattern she boasted was reminiscent of some of the fine, filigreed, turn-of-the-last-century marcasite you can find at estate jewelry counters. My Golden Guide told me she was a caterpillarworm moth. They are known to lay their eggs near wounds in tree bark. My find, if she is lucky, will live three or four years. I think I increased her odds by removing her from the flow of foot traffic.

Of course,  my casual observations don’t hold a candle to those devoted to looking down, probably at the risk of getting stuck in a stooped position. EO Wilson, Pulitzer prize winner known to many as “the ant man”, can’t stop waxing enthusiastic about his favored species and his newer, inspired project, the Encyclopedia of Life. In The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell spent a year observing all manner of tiny life in a meter-wide mandala. And a chapter in Alexandra Horowitz’ On Looking is devoted to “Flipping Things Over”, in which field naturalist Charley Eiseman is a vigilant and enthused observer of insect (and other small creature) signs—tiny larval trails in a leaf, slug teeth marks, and such. This is the kind of guy who spends five hours in a driveway turning over leafs and logs before setting out on the “official” invertebrate tour he’s planned.

Those of us of a certain age, especially, will hear Casey Kasem’s voice in our heads when we read the quotation: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”It’s a phrase associated with American Top 40, but I think it’s okay to adopt it for much quieter time outside in nature, too. There’s a lot to see curbside, right alongside your sneakered feet.

Happy stooping!




Sick of Nature?

What could be better than trolling the asymmetrical paths, piles, and aisles at Niantic Book Barn, eyes peeled for the next great nature read? David Gessner’s essay anthology Sick of Nature certainly caught my attention and its contrariness made me grin. I love well-written books on nature but have always had a love-hate relationship with Thoreau and his perfectionist, purist streak (see Ignoring Walden in the Get Satisfied book!).

How refreshing it was to read Gessner’s title essay, which begins by describing how sick the writer is of trees, birds, and the ocean, and of “writing essays praised as ‘quiet’ by quiet magazines”. He talks about how nature writing can be akin to church or Sunday School—either worshipful or preachy—and about how a kegger party with nature writers would probably go over like a lead balloon, although Thoreau and he might end up BSing late into the evening (if Thoreau’s drink was spiked).

After his rant–after all who wants to be boxed up in a genre?–he comes clean and admits to thoroughly savoring a memory of October on Cape Cod. (AHA, I knew he couldn’t turn away for long, considering all of the top-notch writing he’s done about the earth):

A month when the tourists finally packed up and cleared out for good. A month when the full moon rose over the pink-blue pastel of the harbor sunset and the blue-grey juniper berries shone with iridescence at dusk, and when masses of speckle-bellied starlings filled the trees (and the air with their squeaky-wheeled sounds). A month when the ocean vacillated between the foreboding slate grey of November and a summery, almost tropical blue (while occasionally hinting at its darker winter shades).  Most of all, a month of color, a month when the entire neck caught fire in a hundred shades of red.