Meditation on a Locust

locust (Mercy) cropped

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

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

Carolina locust egg pod U WYO

Carolina locust egg pod, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

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

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

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

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

carolina locust sarah fuller (permission via linkedin)

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

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

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

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

Caroline locust by Fred Bentler with permiss

Carolina locust photo courtesy of  nature photographer Fred Bentler  

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hospital Armchair Travel, New England Edition

Mt Tremper montage

Zen Mountain Monastery beauties

Last weekend I learned that my sister’s husband Randy in Vermont had needed emergency abdominal surgery and then suffered a stroke. Our family had to be in Mount Tremper, NY, at the Zen Mountain Monastery. I was astounded by the beauty of the snowy woods and especially taken with the woodpecker holes that “decorated” so many of the trees. I knew that Randy would appreciate the woods and the snow and the cozy library (happy to report that the latter has a very robust nature section! My time there has also inspired a piece). I tried to take in all the quiet beauty and somehow transmit that, telepathically, as a healing energy.

Monday found my sister Linda and me sleeping in a surgical intensive care waiting room, while Randy began his gradual recovery. Things were dicey but already looking a bit better. By the time I got up to the hospital, Randy was starting to rouse and look around, speaking hoarsely and sleeping for long intervals.

I was glad his room had a large window. We watched the snow and talked about the size of the flakes. I watched large chunks of accumulated white mounds fall from the ledge. We checked on the progress of the Nor’Easter and were not, by Vermont standards, super impressed. Linda and I would be able to get to a nearby hotel the following nights. But I was impressed enough to delay my 4+ hour drive home an extra day, especially after watching news reports on the storm’s temper fit in Massachusetts.

courtyard snow

Hotel courtyard snow (shout out to Doubletree near the UVM Medical Center–they were kind)

The several days at the hospital  limited our contact with the outdoors. So I did the next best thing! I read about being outdoors. Edwin Way Teale published Wandering Through Winter in 1965 and won a Pulitzer for it the following year. My edition, which I acquired during a special day in Woodstock, has a slightly musty smell. But I treasure it and am glad that I threw it into my hastily packed bag.

The book was full of funny coincidences that ran parallel with my own life. In the book Edwin and Nellie drive, in a fairly zig-zaggy pattern (gravitating to natural points of interest with the only real “deadline” being the end of the winter season) from California to Northern Maine, and it just so happened that the part I was up to when I arrived in Vermont was about Vermont. The chapter was called “Snowflake Country,” and the first sentence talked about Lake Champlain, which, if we craned our necks, we could spot from Randy’s room. A flat blue wall sculpture near the lobby illustrated the shape of Champlain in aerial-view detail.

A four-page photographic insert in the Vermont chapter celebrated blizzard snow and numerous animal foot and even tail (opossum!) prints in the white stuff.  The photos reminded me of the arresting beauty Linda and I happened upon via the hotel courtyard window as we hurried from our room to the front desk.

After Champlain, Teale turned his attention to Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a name that locals recognize as The Snowflake Man. Teale quotes the Book of Job upon introducing him: “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” Bentley was the first to photograph snowflakes in great detail. I love this part of the narrative:

“His was a poet’s emotional response to the beauty of the snow. Long years afterwards he spoke with regret of one particular flake, one of the most beautiful he had ever seen, that broke before he could record its image. ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, however rare, rare it be,’ and the snowflake is beauty in its most fleeting form. Its fragile ice shatters or melts away and no one will ever see its like again. Its design is lost forever.”

It was good to be reminded of this precious and quite stunning individuality hidden in the wet clumps I would later be pushing off my windshield.

The Teale book next steered me toward home long before I got on the road. After a delightful chapter about Sugar Bush and maple sugaring (a practice that Linda and Randy have adopted on their own porch), Edwin and Nellie drove down to Essex, Connecticut—the next town over from my own Deep River. These days, it’s a wealthy town high in curb appeal and tourists, but also a pleasurable stop for locals which offers generous access to the river, the Connecticut River Museum, and other adventures like eagle watch cruises and a big deal about Groundhog Day. But Edwin and Nellie, in the 1960s, were drawn to the town because of the E.E Dickinson Company, “the source of most of the world’s supply of witch hazel.” (At least at that time!). The company has since moved to (or been blended with) a company in East Hampton, under the name American Distilling, and continues to churn out the stuff.

Snow on Witch Hazel by I Am I.A.M. on Flickr.jpg

Snow on Witch Hazel courtesy of I AM I.A.M. on Flickr

Teale wrote about “brushmen”—guys who gathered the witch hazel plant in the woods. He followed the most accomplished brushman of his day, Stanislaw Gula of Hampton, Connecticut (where the Teales lived), as he hunted and gathered. Teale described witch hazel as “a botanical individualist…not linked with any special environment. It grows on dry slopes and hilltops as well as in wet and swampy wetlands. At times, the clumps appear singly and widely spaced; at other times, they cluster together like alders in a swale.” I was tickled to look up American Distilling and learn about certified wild crops and sustainable harvesting over 30,000 acres of land approved for harvest. I’d love to go see it sometime and ask about what may have changed since Mr. Gula’s day.

Randy, even in his recovering state, was able to converse a bit about the beauty of the yellow witch hazel plants in he and Linda’s woods back home in Middlebury. He possesses a wealth of knowledge, so also knew about what Teale described earlier in the book as “the diamond fields of Arkansas,” which the Internet now bills as Crater of Diamonds State Park. It was fun to sit in that rather sterile room and talk about some wonders of the world.

We are so grateful that Randy’s mind and personality remain 100% Randy and fully capable, and that his speech, although quite faint for a while, has not been affected by his stroke. The book I was reading at the hospital conveyed miracles of one sort, but a whole other variety of miracle was happening, for all of us, as so many reached out to us with help and prayers and vibes and concrete resources. (And the medical care is a whole other miracle of its own). I started a GoFundMe campaign to help in the face of long-term lost wages—so much support pouring in from not only beloved family and friends, but friends of friends of friends and maybe some strangers, too! How heartening to feel so blessed—by books and family and by the kindness of so many—in the midst of the last throes of winter.

hints of spring

Winter retreating

Westward Expansion

Saguaro by Psyberartist flickr.jpg

Saguaro Cactus courtesy of psyberartist on Flickr 

I haven’t spent any significant time out West since I was very small. But my family has roots there. This past fall my cousin Mike did some research and was able to send me my grandfather’s 1936 homestead certificate from Buffalo, Wyoming. There are family stories about the cowboy days. and many of them went when my father went, not terribly long after a momentous family trip to Wyoming. I wish I had heard more of them.

In the The Book of Noticing, I wrote with fascination about the generous life of the saguaro cactus, which yields the state flower of Arizona. We’ve all seen images of this “armed” cactus, even if we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting one in person. My childhood frame of reference for this plant was the Road Runner cartoon.  When I had a child of my own, I read him The Cactus Hotel,  and this informed the saguaro’s inclusion (alongside Northeastern trees that also give generously to the landscape) in The Book of Noticing. The cactus’ fruit feeds the bats and birds. Woodpeckers and owls live in holes drilled into the plant. Even when the tree is downed, creeping and crawling creatures like lizards and termites take shelter in the saguaro.

WHite Sands by diana robinson flickr

White Sands National Monument panorama courtesy of Diana Robinson on Flickr

I pride myself in reveling in, and learning about, the local landscape right here in Connecticut. And I relish the idea of getting back out on my walks when my foot heals. But being off that foot has expanded my horizons mentally, and as I read Facebook posts and vintage books alike, the West seems to be calling me. My publisher L.M. Browning has just taken a trip out West, sharing photos of Carson National Forest, Cimarron Canyon State Park, and the White Sands National Monument. This is a significant return for her, as her upcoming memoir To Lose the Madness (with a recent very favorable review in Publishers Weekly!) also reflects this region.

I bring an old, somewhat musty book to the stationary bike, multitasking by reading and sweating at the same time. (Actually, it’s from the treasured set I wrote my very first blog here about.) In Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale’s Pulitzer-winning volume from a series spanning four seasons, Teale writes about he and his wife Nellie’s American travels over a season, starting in California. I have read up to New Mexico—(only to Chapter 8), and the ground that Edwin and Nellie covered just in this first third of the book is so incredibly rich with compelling creatures and scenes. Teale is great at conveying the joys of seeking and discovering in nature. He and Nellie searched for pupfish (also known as desert sardines) in Death Valley and marveled at the different species that evolved over time in their separate, mineral- and salt-rich pools. They watched the Christmas morning sunshine illuminate mistletoe that hung among clusters of ironwood trees.

Desert Mistletoe by Laura Camp flickr

Desert Mistletoe courtesy of Laura Camp on Flickr

Like me, they marveled at the long-lived saguaros, which expand with moisture (so much so that they have been known to burst when there is an unusual amount of rainfall) and contract with drought. Teale wrote about the Gilded Flickers excavating the cacti, and, if it is the dry time of year, the saguaro sap hardens around the hole to close it off from the rest of the plant. Birds who nest in this “cactus hotel” are shaded from the sun and cooled by the spongy pulp inside the plant. Sometimes elf owls, the smallest owls (who hunt MOTHS–I would so love to see them!) will move into deserted holes that were fashioned by larger birds.

We live in a culture of immediacy now, and my publisher’s photos of the famed White Sands must have been posted in (or close to) real time. In Teale’s time (the book was published in 1957), he would have gathered reams of hard copy notes and canisters of film, piling them all up to be synthesized later into Wandering Through Winter, most likely doing the majority of this work back in his Trail Wood home. I can imagine him rereading his notes, again “feeling” the grit on his face and “seeing” the haze of the sandstorm that just preceded he and Nellie’s first glimpse of the White Sands, which had only been a National Monument for a couple of decades by the time they stood there admiring the gypsum sand. Edwin wrote, “Ever since my childhood among the sand dunes of northern Indiana, I have been fascinated by the beauty and the mystery of these hills that move.” Here in my immediate environs, there aren’t too many hills that move. But I know what he means, as I recall the relatively modest dunes of my childhood at Jones Beach. The way they shift with the wind is somehow compelling; they are constant and yet always changing.

Jones Beach Photos by Tamar on Flickr

The “white sands” of my childhood, and much closer to home: Jones Beach image courtesy of  Photos ByTamar on Flickr

I hope to learn soon that I have been accepted into the Master Naturalist program here in Connecticut, and there will be no local elf owls or gypsum sands to learn about. But there is so much to know about this corner of the world. I have some worries that I won’t remember all that I should, and I also wonder about how important it is, really, to commit these many facts to memory. Although I will take pleasure in the learning, what Teale wrote somewhere between Patagonia (near the Mexican border, called “The Enchanted Land” by Native Americans, and a new addition to my bucket list) and the White Sands rings clear and true. I hope I will always hang on to the simple appreciation he describes:

There is more to the out-of-doors than a schoolroom and much has been lost when the site of a Hermit Thrush stirs in our consciousness merely the scientific name Hylocichla guttata. The simple enjoyment of universal nature, with no other end in mind—this, too, has its importance. And fortunate indeed are those who know this enjoyment to the end of their days…in this speeding, modern world, an increasing number of people are realizing that just to stop, just to
enjoy nature has its own significance.

For me, the near future of “going west” might mean an excursion to Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, just 7 or 8 miles away. Not surprisingly, the park made it into the Huffington Post’s “15 Spots in Northeast USA to Commune with Nature” (albeit with a typo). Someday, though, I will go much further west, maybe back to Yellowstone park, where I saw Old Faithful at age 4 or 5.  One of the things I like best about being a naturalist: I will never, ever, run out of things to observe and learn and wonder at! This is a bona fide blessing.

If You Fill It, They Will Come

On Thanksgiving Day I dug the bird feeder out of storage and filled it with a fresh mix of seeds. I relished the happy anticipation of visitors to the buffet.

I stopped feeding the birds when the spring came (with the exception of nectar for the hummingbirds—they get the royal treatment). I read that this is a good idea in something by Edwin Way Teale, I think. The premise is that they our avian friends have tons to eat without our help in the warmer months, and it’s best not to encourage too much dependence. But of course, berries, worms, and bugs are much harder to find when the temperature drops. Plus, I want to support the most stalwart of birds—those who stick around and don’t migrate South when the going gets tough. They grace my winter days.

I know some people who keep the feeder stocked all year. Either way, the winter makes birds more noticeable in many ways. We can see them more readily now that the trees are bare, and they may be more apt to come by for breakfast or supper when their natural supplies start to diminish.

Once the feeder was stocked, I waited for the birds to find it. It took a few hours before the word got out. My first visitor of the season was a nuthatch. Always, this bird’s feathers remind me of a grey coat I once had, with handsome black piping. And his/her habit of standing or walking upside down so effortlessly is one that helped me, as an amateur birder, help to identify this species. (My knowledge is not yet sophisticated enough to tell the genders apart, hence the “his/her”).

Not long after the nuthatch came titmice, sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncoes, and today I saw two mourning doves on the ground below the feeder. The downy woodpeckers have dominion over the suet cake, although I’ve seen the nuthatches pecking there, too. The same crowd as last winter, except no cardinals yet. I’ve seen them around; just not at the feeder, for some reason.

mourning dove flicker 2.jpg

Mourning Dove courtesy of Harold Neal on Flickr

I’m reminded with a little Internet research that more and more robins are overwintering here and not heading South. But they don’t tend to visit feeders—they don’t eat birdseed. Plus their behavior changes in wintertime and they flock more, working together to watch for danger and look for food.

Robins may have been my first birds, ever. I mean, the first birds I became aware of as a small child. I remember watching them pull worms with great vigor from our front lawn. Their presence thrilled me, as it does today. And they still mean spring for so many of us, because even those that have been here all along seem to “reappear” as the weather warms, hopping about on our softening lawns and starting to contemplate raising a family.

Hal Borland wrote that “birds are independence itself.” He explained: “they live uncluttered lives with no possessions to protect, no homes to maintain, no family responsibilities once the nesting season is ended…” Maybe that is part of their allure for me. I am not sure—all I know is that refilling the feeder also fills my heart, and then my heart is lifted by the visitors that come, again and again.

PS: In my case, there is so much more to learn. I am considering signing up for some of these courses–the most basic, about shape and color, are quite reasonable.

Hodgepodge Lodge, and Considering the Lillies

frogs

Since I can’t share my own hodgepodge of a collection firsthand, this blog is sprinkled with some Deep River wonders. These frogs live at Fountain Hill.

When I spout reminiscences about the Hodgepodge Lodge show to other people my age, I get a lot of blank looks. I guess I should be grateful my mom steered me over to PBS. Because the Lodge was a big influence during my formative years. If you’ve never been initiated here’s a clip from YouTube.

I have fond memories of the kindly woman who starred in the show and her many lessons in the ways of wildlife. Miss Jean was very pragmatic also, and sometimes the wildlife -while clearly appreciated -got eaten. For some reason, the episode I remember most is one about cooking food  (fish, I think) in a Dutch oven buried underground. I perceived the results as nothing less than magical. But most episodes didn’t center on cooking. I remember cocoons, frogs, caterpillars, kids with butterfly nets,  and a meadow. I researched the show and Miss Jean and the actual Lodge just now, and was touched to learn that the original Lodge, built to be a set for the show, was restored and moved to a nature conservancy in Maryland. It also seems that Miss Jean is still an active contributor to the nature scene (and I have just written her an email fan letter, nearly 40 years after the show went off the air!).

Over the last decade or two, I’ve been returning to my Hodgepodge Lodge roots, which harken back to the days when I still wore many hand-me-downs, blissfully unaware of how I looked or why that could ever matter. When I show up at local nature events—at places like Connecticut Audubon Society or The Stewart B McKinney National Wildlife Refuge or the Flanders Nature Center, I am garbed in attire that might be described as anti-fashion. Practical, comfortable shoes; layered clothes that can get dirty; something to cover my head should it rain; back pack stuffed  with more practical items. More and more often, binoculars dangle from my neck. I am nature nerd central. (Speaking of nature nerds, a fellow naturalist has a good blog named just that: Nature Nerd).

Aside for word nerd readers: the term hodgepodge “comes from hogpoch, alteration of hotchpotch (late 14c.) ‘a kind of stew,’ especially ‘one made with goose, herbs, spices, wine, and other ingredients’,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

When I look around at my fellow nature lovers, they are – almost without exception – fashion challenged as well. But the appeal for me is in their alert eyes and interested expressions. They are asking questions, or peering into the water, or trying to recall something they read. Sometimes, an expression of amazement surfaces, with the sighting of a creature or a prized new fact learned. These are my adopted people.

Recently, I was part of a small gathering of Edwin Way Teale fans. We met at Trail Wood, the place where I had my writing residency this past summer, and shared our favorite passages from his work. We sat in a circle surrounded by inquisitive (but not biting) may flies, reading aloud and pausing to comment or look up at a bird or wonder aloud if we might spot the various species Teale recorded on the surrounding land. It was nice to think of Edwin and his wife Nellie having their many adventures on the nearby trails.

The information shed on the Trail Wood property has its own Hodgepodge Lodge type of accoutrements that come and go over time, like a wasp’s next or feathers or the white board where visitors can note the creatures they spotted that day. A side room houses some taxidermy, and curious visitors can also thumb through the musty guidebooks and other nature-themed reads shelved there.(See this CT Woodlands issue for mine and a fellow nature writer’s pieces on Teale and Trail Wood).

Teale cabin quote.jpg

This sign is inside the Teale cabin at Trail Wood. The glare obscures the attribution, but I believe it is from an old tombstone in England.

 

I relish collections like this; the more eclectic the better. In an older entry I wrote about one enviable cache kept by an archaeologist and cartographer. The original name for my book – Cabinet of Curiosity (recently submitted to an interested publisher, now with a different title!) – reflected the happy collecting of talismans from nature. And a great read from Vermont Quarterly that my sister put aside for me, about Bernd Heinrich, included snippets about what he’s accumulated in his rustic Maine cabin. His laptop sits amid a set of watercolors, field notes, field guides, etc, with hawk feathers and binoculars nearby and a whole tree trunk holding up the ceiling. I love this part of the article:

On the way out the door, I stop to photograph three items on the window ledge: a pair of desiccated spiders pinned to a block of foam; a pile of animal poop which includes a bird’s claw; and an embossed circular medal. “Those barn spiders had just laid their egg clutches,” he tells me later, and the scat was probably deposited by a coyote who had eaten a grouse. “I saved it to quiz the winter ecology students,” he explains. “They should be able to tell me the season too—because a piece of toe skin has fringes.” Heinrich makes no mention of the medal sitting next to the poop: it’s the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in American natural history writing.

I am sure Heinrich must have felt honored by the medal and that its proximity to scat is not a reflection of his thoughts on John Burroughs or his namesake award. But I also think that Heinrich has his priorities in order. He needs  to be outside, studying the denizens of the natural world. In his world, scat with a revealing history is just as important as accolades (and likely more so). I am guessing fashion isn’t high on his list, either. I would treasure the nature-centered hodgepodge in his cabin more than any decor or wardrobe that you could offer me.

Which brings to mind something I learned quite young, in Sunday School:

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. (Luke 12:27, NASB)

small white flowers

Somewhere along Bridge Street

 

Found nest

Spotted this nest today along the shore of one of the quarry ponds, near Plattwood Park

 

 

A Trove of Seeds

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky's Department of Agriculture page

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture page

Last week, a coworker gifted me with a jumbo-sized acorn. She’d wanted to work outside for a little while, but had to come in because the oak tree above the picnic table was dropping these plump seeds in an urgent and generous rain. Even walking across the grass had become a challenge, as if navigating a small sea of ball bearings. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but a quick Internet search told me there are quite a few kinds of acorns—I think this one was a chestnut acorn. (Here’s a link to an iconic chestnut oak specimen in Clinton, CT–I hope it’s still there!). Our local oaks seem to be having “mast years,” dropping huge volumes of their offspring after a season of favorable weather and ramped up production.

Seeds buok imageMy acorn research coincided beautifully with my latest read—Seeds by Richard Horan. The author traveled around the country, visiting trees that inspired famous American writers as well as other notables. He scooped up samples of many trees’ progeny, sometimes on a solo journey, sometimes with family or friends. I’d like to ask him what became of the resulting plantings. Is there, somewhere closer to home than Monroeville ( Alabama’s literary capital), a Harper Lee chestnut that I can visit?

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

I liked what one of Horan’s friends said: “You know, when you initially arrive at a site, you think there’s nothing there, but after spending a little time looking around, trees begin to appear.” Of course, our silent observers are always there, often assuming a strictly background role. Many precede us, and many will survive long after we are gone, so I regard them as wise and infinitely patient, owing to their long lives and inability to walk away. I like what Willa Cather (one of the many authors featured in Seeds) had to say about them, too: “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” I am not so sure (forgive me, Willa!) that I would have chosen the word “resigned.” Maybe, after all these years the resigning has evolved into accepting. John Muir was more optimistic: “I never saw a discontented tree.”

This season is often thought of as a time of winding down, but time outside reminds me that so many creatures are hurriedly proliferating before the cold and stillness of winter wreaks a time of suspended animation for many. I’ve noticed gypsy moth pupae in the trees around my office park, a bit concerned because I don’t think it’s the right season and I know they can fall prey to all manner of infections. I’m fully aware that these insects are considered pests, but observing them in recent years has made me more sympathetic. I like the moth-like shape of their felted egg masses and wonder how many will survive the winter.

Gypsies and their kids at Trail Wood

This, too, is the time for planting bulbs—something I too often forget to do. I am especially taken with one advertised: The Poet’s Daffodil. I like the haiku-like description on the American Meadows site (line breaks inserted by me!):

Flowers are pure white with
a yellow cup edged in red.
Sweet fragrance

Poet's Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Poet’s Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Of what poet was this bulb’s namer thinking? I’ve no idea, but it just so happens I have a Robert Frost anthology beside me. My mom, whose memory and hearing are so very poor now, came alive when we took turns reading from it last Tuesday, this treasured corner of her mind not unlike a bulb that’s overwintered finally flowering. I’ve flipped to this Frost poem today. It reminds me of the inevitability, and often hibernating gifts, of bleaker seasons:

 

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

Preserves and Professional Parks

path in woods startMy friend Chris asked me recently about my week-long nature writing residency at the Trail Wood memorial preserve, and the first two words that came to mind were “life-changing.” I reveled in the chance to be in nature alone for extended periods, to contemplate, to write and rewrite, to read the treasured words of Edwin Way Teale in his very home, his very office—a sacred place to me! For the first time ever, I used up the camera storage in my iPhone. This blog isn’t big enough to contain the wealth of images, so I’ve scattered a select few throughout the post.

butterflyfuzzy mushroom lichenOf course, Trail Wood had many creatures and plants that I don’t see every day. The Beaver Pond became my favorite destination, and one morning I watched one of the beavers having an early swim. I took photo upon photo of insects in both meadow and forest, but I wasn’t usually swift enough to capture the many birds digitally. I looked forward to daily sightings of the woodchuck who lived near the house. My suburban New York roots showing, I sang to myself in the woods and carried pepper spray just in case the reported resident bear didn’t like my performance. (Maybe the bear wasn’t as exotic as it seemed. There have been several reported sightings in Deep River neighborhoods recently!)

Teale cabinAn absolute gift of the preserve was its undisturbed quality. But another gift I took away from my time there is the practice of really looking and listening even in places that haven’t had the benefit of such thoughtful stewardship. I  take small walks around the office park where I work, not by any stretch a nature preserve. Still, I smile at the abundance of Carolina locusts behind the buildings (who don’t seem to be doing any noticeable damage), and the occasional spotting of a raptor, bright bird, dragonfly, or hornets. I look down into the wetlands below the tall hill. Once in a while, I see a deer. Just once, I rescued a young raccoon who was clattering around in the nearly empty dumpster, watching from a distance as he climbed the long birch limb escape ladder I’d lowered for him.

Just the other day, I snapped a picture of a delicately decorated moth (looked like the oversized Oriental vases my grandfather had around his house) who turned out to be an ailanthus webworm moth. I love it when nature comes right to my door!

alianthus web worm

While staying at the Teale home I was drawn to a book of Mr Teale’s that I hadn’t read before: Days without Time. The edition on the study shelf was dated 1948, just 3 years after his son David was killed in World War II. Teale’s introductory words ring so very true:

The fall of the tree, the swoop of the hawk, the tilt of the buzzard in a windy sky, the song of the hermit thrush at evening, the opening of a windflower, the eddy of a woodland brook—all of these are events for days without time. They might have occurred during any one of a thousand or ten thousand years. Ticking clocks and factory whistles have little to do with the eternal recurrence of these eternal themes.

Something for me to remember after my New Hampshire vacation, chock full of walks in shallow streams and visits to waterfalls: when the “factory whistle” is again in play, nature doesn’t live only in preserves or the areas we think of as great sightseeing locales. It is everywhere. With eyes and ears wide open, every day is a new chance to notice it, to give it the full attention that it deserves. With that attending we find ourselves more connected and more alive.

Why I Walk Early, and (Blog) Hopping into Spring

fallenRobin's eggI love my walks, so often crammed in before work hours or weekend errands. I love it when creatures become more prolific with the warmer temperatures and start to cross my path again in greater numbers. So many are busy making new families now. Soon flowers will be easier to find just by following my nose, and moths of every size and shape will crowd the front porch, greeting me when I first step out in the morning.

Mary Oliver wrote a stunning poem called Why I Wake Early, and that ran through my mind the other day before work, as I watched a rabbit’s white tail hop away into the brush, looked for fallen eggshells, and snapped photos of mourning doves and a red-winged blackbird in the branches. Why I walk early also merits an ode. Although I could wax wordily on about it, I’m keeping my explanation here mostly in the form of pictures for a change.

After the pictures comes my participation in a blog hop interview–my nomination was bestowed by my writing group friend Laurie Baxter, and it gives me a chance to say a little bit about my burgeoning book and my writing life. Laurie is a prolific writer, and I’ve enjoyed every play and story that she’s shared with me, as well as her boundless enthusiasm for words and life, generally. Most recently I indulged in her Kindle Veronica Mars novella–a fun and engaging read that brought me back to my guilty pleasure watching the series on Netflix. I’d love to be as spunky and clever as Veronica, or as Laurie, for that matter! I think this blog hop is mostly for fiction writers, so am honored that my mostly nature writing self has been welcomed in. (You know how that goes, though–now I am letting other nature-centric writers into the party!) Interview after the pictures, along with nominations for the next blog hoppers!

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Early spring visitors.

Pratt Cove. I spotted a vulture on a nest. The birders lining the railroad tracks told me that's what it was!

Pratt Cove. I spotted a large bird on a far-off nest, flapping its wings. The birders lining the railroad tracks told me it was a vulture!

Can you spot the red-winged blackbird. iPhone shot requires use of squinting and imagination

Can you spot the red-winged blackbird? iPhone shot requires use of squinting and imagination

Mourning dove couple, next door neighbors to the blackbird.

Mourning dove couple, next door neighbors to the blackbird. I have plans to buy a camera with a decent zoom lens, but nonetheless treasure these silhouettes against the bright blue sky.

Can't swear that these are bona fide fiddleheads--they seemed awfully big to me.

Can’t swear that these are bona fide fiddleheads, as in good eating–they seem awfully big to me.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Cabinet of Curiosity: Talismans from New England Rambles. I’ve also written and self-published Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and Things My Mother Told Me (more below about the self-publishing experience). I have participated in an anthology called Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of EnoughThis link leads to a lot of my published articles, essays, and poems. There are a bunch of links here on the blog, too.

Where did the idea come from for these books?

The germ of the Cabinet idea came when my son Gavin was still quite young, and I was (as I still am now) working as a medical writer and writing creatively on the side. I carried an acorn home with the idea that I’d bring something home from each walk and use it as a writing prompt. Many years later, Gavin and I started a shoebox full of specimens we’d gathered during time in nature, a real-life Cabinet of Curiosity. It’s a tangible representation of the experiences and revelations I work to convey in the book.

These days, I am at least 80% focused on nature writing, and the essence of the Cabinet book and my piece in the anthology springs from the powerful experience of connection I have when spending time in nature. But my other works, come to think of it, have been about powerful connections, too. I seem to be always connecting dots in my writing (or trying to).

What genre do your books fall under?

The Cabinet book is definitely nature writing, with some essence of memoir blended in. Harriet’s Voice  is part memoir, part self-help for writing mothers. Get Satisfied = nature-oriented/reflective essay. BTW I think the essay form is totally underrated!

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My dog Molly is key in the Cabinet book and can be quite girly but also gritty and down to earth–Meryl Streep?? My son gets a lot of mentions, too–can’t recall any 13-year-old actors who could do Gavin justice.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

OK–excellent marketing practice for me. Have to do it in third person, imagining I am a gushing but sincere blurb writer featured on the back of the book (PS also breaking the rules and writing 2 sentences. I am more Wolfe than Hemingway): Each walk-inspired essay from Katherine Hauswirth hands you a significant talisman from nature that you can turn over thoughtfully in your palm. Her meditative reveries reflect on the deep connections between what we experience outdoors and our day-to-day existence as humans.   

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?

Agency, for sure. Know any good agents??

My first self-published book, Things My Mother Told Me , was almost forced upon me–I won an essay contest and the prize was a self-publishing contract. I see it primarily as a family keepsake, although it was a fortuitous exercise that taught me I actually CAN write a book. Harriet’s Voice is a love letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe and a letter of encouragement to writing mothers. I sometimes wonder if I should have held out for traditional publishing but after some positive feedback and false starts with publishers/agents was antsy to get the book out of my system. Self-publishing Harriet allowed me to move on to Cabinet! But I respect the traditional publishing world and the quality that it (often) demands. I want to join that club!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Cabinet is still in progress. It’s been nearly 2 years and  I have, thankfully, picked up speed. I recently won the honor of Edwin Way Teale Artist in Residence, and I await details on which summer week  I will get to live where the incomparable Teale did, and write without interruption in such an inspiring setting. I expect to be wildly prolific during this heavenly interlude!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That question is always a tall order. Dare I say it might be in the vein of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, if Pilgrim were written in fits and starts by a busy, distracted, sandwich-generation, insomniac, working mom who was nearly obsessively jealous of Annie Dillard’s time by herself at the creek?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My shelves are crammed with nature books, and I’d be hard pressed to pick one or two volumes that spoke to me most. I consider each one a precious gift–so many meaningful voices have come before me. What inspires me most, actually, are the many walks I take. When they are long enough, and when I am in a deeply listening frame of mind, ideas roll in like welcome waves.

Thanks again to Laurie Baxter for this excuse to expound! For the next leaps and bounds in the blog hop, I nominate Shawndra Miller, and Jean and Gabe of PocketMouse Publishing. I reserve the right to later invite more hopping good writers.

Nature (and Nests) Laid Bare

TealeCabinSaturday found Gavin and me wandering around the Hampton, CT, Audubon Society at Trail Wood pathways. They encircle the former home and writing cabin of nature writer extraordinaire Edwin Way Teale.

The day was a gift. We relished the balmy 51 degrees of an unseasonably comfortable late December day. We signed in at the information building, musing over the many visitors that have walked these trails over the years. We looked up the day Gavin was born–yes, someone had been hiking there on that very day in 2002! Some guest entries provided great detail–2 beavers at the pond, deer on the path, beautiful autumn colors. Someone had left a large paper wasp nest (now abandoned, of course) on the table, alongside maps, books, and magazines to educate the visitor, including this Connecticut Woodlands issue on the former resident nature writer. Teale wrote A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm at Trail Wood; the book about his time at these 168 acres of ponds, woodlands, and pastures was the Christmas gift to which I treated myself.

TealeCabinLittleBeaver

One of my goals this year is to make myself more hardy, so I am more apt to get out when it is colder than my current set point of 40 degrees. For super frigid days, I have my “Cabinet of Curiosity” to pore over–a box that Gavin decorated into which we’ve deposited egg shells, snake skins, fungi, lichen, nuts, butterfly wings, and all matter of other nature finds.

nests

A few items from our shoebox collection

Among the collection are several nests, and it occurred to me as we wandered the woodlands that sighting of nests is a big bonus of wintertime, one even the most cold-averse explorers can appreciate. The leaves are gone, and revealed among the bare branches I see large paper wasp nests overhanging the road, squirrel’s nests high up in the forks of trees, and plenty of abandoned bird nurseries. I like to think about when and how they were built. Squirrels’ nests always look like quite a messy affair to me, so I was tickled to read in West Virginia Wildlife Magazine about how much care and planning goes into them:

Construction begins with a platform of twigs roughly woven together, upon which damp leaves and moss are compacted to form a solid base. A spherical skeleton of interwoven twigs and vines is erected around the base. The outer shell is then completed with the addition of leaves, moss, twigs, and even paper.

I have new respect for the squirrels, and great hopes for more outdoor “nest safaris”, even when the temperatures dip a bit lower. Of course, when the weather warms again there will be new nests with new occupants. It will be fun to find those, too, although of course they must be viewed from afar. Here’s some advice on the pursuit from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Streamside Sunday

There really is nothing that could make a book and nature lover happier than a Sunday afternoon during which you acquire a used, 4-volume set called The American Seasons by Edwin Way Teale, and then watch your son wade in the shallow stream next to the Reader’s Quarry shop and catch small crayfish in the sun-dappled water. From Journey Into Summer, volume 3 from the set:

To the lost man, to the pioneer penetrating new country, to the naturalist who wishes to see the wild land at its wildest, the advice is always the same–follow a stream. The river is the original forest highway. It is nature’s own Wilderness Road.

I am thinking our crayfish may have been the Allegheny variety. Continue reading