The Joy of Nature Epistling

lichens-like-shells-crop.jpg

These lichens reminded me of a certain kind of tightly wrapped conch shell I used to find on Long Island beaches. (Or could these be mushrooms?? The North American Mycological Association says that “lichens are fungi that have taken up farming.”

I am not sure “epistling” is a word, but if not, I have coined a new, inflected verb.

I grew up in a churchgoing family, and “Epistle” in that context meant a letter from an Apostle. The other meaning of the word is simply, “a poem or other literary work in the form of a letter or series of letters.” The word Apostle, outside of the church-centric meaning, also means ” a vigorous and pioneering advocate of a particular…idea, or cause.”

So, yes, I am an Apostle who treasures her epistling, her love letters to the world. My cause is Loving the (natural) World, and I wholly attribute the best articulation of this pursuit to Mary Oliver, in her poem of the same title.

I relish writing about what I find on countless walks–coming upon compelling and intriguing creatures and landscapes, following an impulse to learn about and protect nature. I also relish hearing from my readers, who provide feedback, enthusiasm, and new ideas.

Of course, we humans are not really in a separate category from nature, but so many of us long for a deeper sense of connection with the rest of the natural world. Charles Siebert, in Wickerby, describes our race as, “the only ones who long to be a part again of that to which we already belong.”

My heart is full as I share these twice-weekly epistles. The subscribe link (it’s free!) to Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection is to the right. Here are some examples of recent entries:

Quaker Ladies, Venus’ Pride, and Bluets that Fly 

The Turtle and the May Apple

I hope to see you at Loving the World, and maybe I’ll bump into some of you outside, too, peering down at a little patch of moss or raising your head to follow the birdsong.

Today is Mother’s Day, and I write this from within the rumpled bed covers. My husband Tom, who knows me so very well, gave me this with breakfast in bed–a gift that combines my love for words and my love for the outdoors.

nature-quote-book-e1557666650243.jpg

From it, I remind you on this rainy Sunday that: “The Amen of nature is always a flower,” courtesy of Oliver Wendell Holmes,

My latest Amen, found curbside a block away:

flower-curbside.jpg

 

The Generous Naturalist, the Generous Reader

Fledgling swallows Steve_Flickr.jpg

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.

Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain .JPG

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.

LICHENS TOMBSTONE

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.

witch hazel leaf gall Danielle Flickr.jpg

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!

 

 

 

Owl Envy

saw-whet-owl-flickr-david-mitchell

Saw Whet Owl courtesy of  David Mitchell on Flickr

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

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

eagle-owl-silohuete-peter-gw-jones-flickr

Eagle Owl silhouette courtesy of Peter G W Jones on Flickr 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

2015-03-29 16.13.51

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.

Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is the title of Anne Lamott’s revered book, subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, so I couldn’t resist borrowing it for this mini-tale of amateur birding.

The origins of the title, as explained by Lamott, are sweet, and an encouragement for any pursuit, birding or otherwise:

 Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

I was a bit overwhelmed myself when I sat down to do my part for Project Feederwatch recently. I was not overwhelmed by the task itself, but rather by the realization that it was truly quite difficult to commit to sit for at least an hour at a time, at least 2 days in a row. What does this say about me, and about my life? Well, part of it is a general tendency towards restlessness, but at least in equal measure it speaks to how much there is to do. This is a wakeup call to keep an eye on what is truly important—not just essential “to dos”—some of which are unavoidable–but what actually matters. I’ve decided that the birds matter greatly. Mary Oliver wrote something that resonates with me deeply in this regard, because the experience of attending to them did feel like an act of meaningful devotion:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And looking up “attend” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, I realize it means so much more than “show up:”

attend (v.)

c.1300, “to direct one’s mind or energies,” from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + tendere “stretch” (see tenet). The notion is of “stretching” one’s mind toward something. Sense of “take care of, wait upon” is from early 14c. Meaning “to pay attention” is early 15c.; that of “to be in attendance” is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.

I like the idea that I was stretching my mind toward the birds at the feeder, taking care of them, waiting upon them… waiting for them to show me so many moments of joy, and also literally being their waitress (slinging bird hash by trudging through the deep snow to their dining room!) .

What a delight to realize that there are whole communities of birds that are visiting my yard daily, most starting their nests and families and some passing through. And how nice, also, to see fellow bird adorers like me pipe in on Facebook, where I took a poll to figure out if I had Dark-eyed Juncos eating my seeds.

Just 2 hours on 2 snowy days (and, full disclosure, on the first day I was SUPPOSED to be working and not looking out the window every 5 minutes) yielded a great mix, the most exotic being my Kestrel (yes, mine: I feel some possessiveness about her), who was not at the feeder but on a nearby deck post. I was surprised by the 2 types of woodpeckers, who I rarely spot with casual glances around the neighborhood. And, by the way, has anyone noticed that the birds seem to congregate at the feeder when it is snowing? Of course, food is harder to find as it becomes covered up but maybe they also know how gorgeous they look among the snowflakes?. Here’s some more information on birds in cold weather.

One of the nicest moments was the iridescent appearance of our Mourning Doves as they flew down to the ground below the feeder. We see them often in our driveway and I hadn’t before appreciated their beauty in flight.

The Project FeederWatch system asked me to confirm the Kestrel—apparently an unlikely find for my area this time of year. But, yes, I’m pretty sure it was a female American Kestrel (Northern) after checking several Google images. It perched just a little way off from these species:

Mourning Dove

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

American Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

I think I need to apply Lamott’s advice to both writing and birding. One word at a time, one gift of a winged moment at a time. I’m looking forward to more Bird by Birding.

Longing for Tree Circles

We’re sharing a good book in the family. Backyard Almanac  gives an entry on “Northern natural history” for every day of the year. Technically I think the “Northern” to which the author refers is more in the vicinity of upper Minnesota and Southern Canada, but close enough—most of the milestones and species are something to which we here in Deep River can relate.

The entry for March 1 was about tree circles, one of many natural phenomena of which I have probably on some level been aware but hadn’t thought about too much before. Larry Weber writes:

The sunlight reflects off snow, but not off dark tree bark, which absorbs heat from the lengthening light and gently radiates it back to the surrounding snow creating ‘tree circles.’ Snow melt may extend out from the trees…to as much as a foot. On tree trunks, plants like mosses get a peek at sunlight for the first time in months, and animals so long beneath the snow have an opportunity to emerge into fresh air and daylight.

I got excited about impending spring plant life resurrections when I Googled around a bit more about tree circles. A Q &A in an archived New York Times Science section reminds me that “Some emerging herbaceous plants, like those growing from bulbs, produce heat to melt snow in order to more easily break through it in the springtime…This is most famously true of skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, likely our earliest-blooming herbaceous native…Some flowering trees also produce heat, likely to melt frost or snow present on their buds.”

I was tickled by the tree circles topic because it’s unique and a little offbeat and warm, but as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s a great blog on the same topic, but I can’t be too jealous of these authors getting there first, because they are a pretty fascinating bunch who seem ultrasmart and science-y in ways that I will never be (but deeply admire).

Unlike these scientists, I will not be intensely studying or positing theories of evolution or alternatives to it. But I do have something in common with them.  I will be PAYING ATTENTION, especially to those tree circles. (I checked today—there are not yet ripples of shallower, soil-tinged  snow popping up around my pines and oaks. But temperatures are gradually trending in an encouraging direction).

About attention, Mary Oliver said it best:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Olivia Newton-John also said (well, sang) something well, about being utterly and Hopelessly Devoted. That’s how I feel about spring at this point. Hopelessly devoted to the promise of tree circles and the spring that will expand around us as they move outward into the sun.