The Book of Noticing VEXATION!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Naming

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

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

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

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

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Wolf at Yellowstone courtesy of Michael McCarthy on Flickr

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

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

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Buddha courtesy of Kaysha on Flickr

 

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

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

Photo May 28, 6 28 29 AM

 

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

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Purple Martins courtesy of Rick Leche on Flickr

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

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

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Beach bum Fowler’s toad courtesy of USFWS on Flickr

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

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Embarrassment of tree swallows courtesy of Michael Mulqueen on Flickr

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

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

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New life amid new life

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

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

What We Know

(This week’s post is a guest blog from Shawndra Miller, an admirable writer and energy worker. I’ve also contributed some words to her blog–fun to expand horizons!)

Katherine asked me to contribute a guest post to her blog, and I am honored to do it. We share a reverence for nature and, I suspect, an openness to nonmainstream ways of moving through the world.

I appreciate the detail of Katherine’s observations on her outings, and the way she melds a sense of the sacred with familial and practical concerns. We share that too. And I’m excited to see her book come out in May!

So for her blog, I thought I would write about a beloved tree that I encounter every morning when I walk my dog.

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The Venerable Hackberry Tree

Every day, I commune with this aged hackberry tree. It feels like it might be the wisest being for miles around. I’m grateful that I live a few blocks from this tree, which is somehow more-than-tree, but Presence.

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Good morning, Beautiful Tree!

If I’m late, I blow a kiss as my dog and I pass by. If I’m not in a hurry, I rest my spine against its rough bark. A young hackberry is said to have “corky” bark, but this grand old tree has a skin more like spiny. Its toes spread at the base allowing me to nestle my feet between them on the bare earth. Never mind bits of broken glass from some disrespectful passerby.

Spine to spine, then.

Then it’s just about listening, or sensing. Sinking into beingness.

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Melding

I imagine I can merge my particles with the tree’s particles. No, I know I can. We’re each just a whirling cloud of tiny specks floating in vast space. Energy touching energy, vibration touching vibration.

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A universe in its bark

Contacting this reality—something I love to teach my clients and students—returns me to a sense of the timeless. Feet rooted, body near-weightless. The sensation of Oneness comes easily in the presence of Tree.

Tree time is so different from human time. That’s what comes to me as I gaze up into its branches.

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The view from down here.

And this: I don’t expect to know or understand any damn thing, standing here.

As this Pablo Neruda poem says,

What we know is so little
and what we presume is so much
and we learn so slowly
that we ask and then we die.

What a relief, to give in to not-knowing. To no longer opine or whine or conclude.

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Opal worships me while I worship Tree.

Tree has no agenda but life. The birds in its boughs spin out their short destinies. I stop and touch, stop and look up, offer my thanks, move on into a morning of work and words.

And I wonder. How big is a tree’s aura? How far does this particular tree’s energy field extend? Is it possible that as I sit here at my desk down the street, writing of Tree, that Tree feels me? That I am sitting within Tree’s aura?

Shawndra Miller is a writer and energy worker who lives in Indianapolis. She writes about changemakers at the leading edge of eco-agriculture for Acres USA and Farm Indiana. A certified ThetaHealer®, she offers one-on-one energy work, classes, and collaborative events that connect people to a wider sense of what’s possible in their bodies, energies, lives, and the larger world. Her lyric essays and poetry have appeared in Confrontation Magazine, The Boiler Journal, and The Lavender Review. She is currently working on a nonfiction book that links her healing journey to wider societal healing, represented by a farm built atop the buried remains of a 19th century women’s mental institution.

Lonely as a Cloud: Ospreys, Mom, and Daffodils

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Daffodils at Aaron Manor

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

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

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

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

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

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A photo from another April, of light in the trees

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

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Osprey courtesy of Fritz Myer on Flickr

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All was right with the world.

 

At Our Gloved Fingertips: March Microexpeditions

 

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

 

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Courtesy of krissvdh on Flickr

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

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

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Muskrat lodge with rooftop goose courtesy of Vail Marston on Flickr

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

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

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Pileated family courtesy of Henry T. McLin on Flickr

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

 

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

Owl Envy

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Saw Whet Owl courtesy of  David Mitchell on Flickr

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

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

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Eagle Owl silhouette courtesy of Peter G W Jones on Flickr 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation: Holiday to Holy Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Squeaking is Real: Chipmunk Baby Boom

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Courtesy of Mark Moschell on Flickr

So I haven’t imagined it!

I am not sure when I first noticed it—maybe June? Any walk in the woods, or even down many of our local streets, is peppered with frequent small squeaks followed by the sound of tiny feet skittering through the leaf bed to safety. Often, a chipmunk will run across the trail ahead of my approach, maybe 20 feet hence, tail high. Noticing chipmunks is, of course, not new. But this many? It turns out the favorable weather and food supply this year has led to a bumper crop, according to the DEEP.

Characteristically timid, these creatures can be bold when they want to. My neighbor Susan watched them eating her garden tomatoes. Maybe she was anthropomorphizing, but to her they seemed to be doing it with a sassy defiance in their eyes. They got one or two of my tomatoes, too—didn’t even bother to eat the whole fruit!

Various articles online warn about the potential for garden mayhem or even structural damage. But fears of a chipmunk home invasion don’t keep me up at night. Mostly, I just enjoy them. I assume the squeaks I hear as I walk are squeaks of alarm—a human is coming! Somehow, it amuses me that they would be so fearful—of me? I try to talk to them sometimes, putting on my most soothing voice. But they freeze, every muscle tense, ready to run frantically if I get any closer.(Here’s some audio of their sound repertoire, courtesy of WiIdlife of CT).

I call every chipmunk I’ve ever met Chippy. We have one or two Chippies that live within a stone’s throw of our front door. They seem to love to dart in and out of our stone walls, and I love the liquid black of their lively eyes, the defining stripe in their fur. But that, along with my recognition of their characteristic squeaks, has been the extent of my knowledge on these critters. I decided to learn more.

According to Live Science , chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family. This makes sense—similar behaviors, similar characteristic stance, standing on two feet. But I hadn’t really thought about it before. There are 25 species in North America. Apparently they are pretty much loners, except during mating season, which happens once or twice yearly (late spring and fall).

chipmunk kiss sarowen.jpg

Courtesy of Sarowen on Flickr

Okay, here’s a quote from Live Science that really makes me want to see a baby chipmunk:“Pups are hairless, blind, pink creatures the size of a jelly bean.” Of course, those pups would be hard to spot, and it’s reported the mothers are very protective. I’d also like to see a chipmunk who’s just about met his capacity for filling cheeks with food—their cheeks can stretch to three times the size of their head!

Acorns seem to be their big thing, but they will eat nearly whatever they find, including baby birds and birds’ eggs. And this is useless information, perhaps, but I was quite pleased to learn that they possess very tiny thumbs.(Thanks for the factoid, Lakeside Nature Center!)

I think there could be copyright issues with picture reposting, but if you want to see some heart-melting photos of these creatures, check out National Geographic’s slide show here.

 

What I Learned About Sunapees on My Summer Vacation

 

My husband Tom found a new vacation place for us this year. We stayed at a just-the-right-size cabin (courtesy of Airbnb.com) in Freeville, New York. Freeville itself is quite the small town (population 523, part of the larger town of Dryden). Our cabin is adjacent to meadow and trails, and that has been a soothing delight overflowing with colorful mushrooms, dragonflies, and wildflowers. But as nature-loving as we are, we might not have chosen the area if it wasn’t also close to Ithaca, home of Cornell, complete with interesting college town, and, more importantly to me, some impressive waterfalls and gorges. Hence the “Ithaca is Gorges” T-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, key chains…Great slogan if you are a pun appreciator!!

We were determined to swim in a local watering hole, perhaps one fed by a magnificent waterfall. The first swimming spot we tried, at Buttermilk Falls park, turned us away—no swimming that day. We guessed why when we got to the Robert H. Treman State Park,  which was supposed to look like this:

Robert H Treman promo

 

But actually looked like this:

Robert H Treman reality.jpg

According to Ithaca.com, spring-to-summer months (March through June) were the driest on record this year. Hence the wade in the shallows that was not even worth a bathing suit. What really redeemed our disappointingly knee-high dip were the nearby children, maybe 3 years old, who started to shout, “We see a Sunapee! A SUNAPEE!). At first I thought they had found a sunny, one of those common fish so often brought in by a line. But then my mind caught up: a centipede! The little one confided that there were “sunapee babies, too,” although I only saw a large specimen, trying its best to blend into the rock wall as these high-pitched children made their enthused examination, crouching to peer closer, then again shouting SUNAPEE!! In happy unison.

millipede

Factually, a millipede. Forever remembered as a sunapee.

From there we took a short walk up the steps adjacent to the “falls” (or the spot where the falls should be). Maybe the kids helped us to tune in, because we delighted in a few more sightings: more millipedes (I only remembered the distinction later), an exotic-seeming caterpillar specimen, and a snake curled along a tree branch.

sycamore caterpillar

Fuzzy photo of a fuzzy caterpillar

tree snake

Gavin’s sharp eyes found this creature catching the breeze over the rocky ascent

I’m not sure about this—our photo was blurry, but a very impressive online identification site worth bookmarking  makes me wonder if we found the caterpillar of a sycamore tussock moth.

I’ve been reading Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, The Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness,  and it is the kind of book I wish I wrote. Then again, maybe I did! My upcoming Book of Noticing is all about tuning in and looking more closely at what is all around us. Mine is not urban, and its title is not as much of a whizbang. But I feel that author Nathanael Johnson could be a friend. He wants us to see and appreciate the squirrels, the pigeons, even the weeds, and it turns out they really are all quite interesting. There’s so much more to learn than we might appreciate at first glance.

For example, did you know that both male and female pigeons create a sort of super milk, one that has their young doubling their weight in a day?(No, pigeons do not have nipples, in case you were wondering. You’ve got to read the book to learn more!). The book has also inspired me to get my own hand lens to, as Johnson puts it, “peer into the Lilliputian realm.”

Large sheets of rain fell from the sky here in Freeville as I wrote this, and it fell when we hiked yesterday, too. This may mean bigger waterfalls for the next occupants of the cabin. Whatever the forecast, I hope that they also enjoy looking closely. There is so very much to see.

looking down at Treman park pool

The snake’s view

Galls: What Hides Within?

Gall 1 from flickr

Courtesy of Tom Hickmore on Flickr

This piece on galls was published quite some time ago, but it seems timely especially now, since I keep seeing galls!  

Have you ever noticed, among the nuts the squirrels have left behind on the lawn, small, peach-colored, fuzzy balls? How about pocked-looking, speckled spheres at the foot of the oak tree out in front? If you look, you’ll see many other assorted shapes and sizes, hanging off trees, clinging to leaves, scattered along the curb. Galls are everywhere, but most people know little about them.

Gall 2 from flickr.jpg

Courtesy of Arend on Flickr

Galls are growths formed by the reaction of a plant to mechanical irritations or chemicals produced by insects, bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Insect larvae live inside the protective shells of insect galls, growing to adulthood over the winter before emerging to the outside. Insect galls are generally more benign than the other varieties, some of which can cause ugly and sickly results for the plant.

There are more than 1500 types of insects in the United States that form galls. Wayne’s Word, an online natural history textbook by biology and botany professor Wayne P. Armstrong, describes the vast, and sometimes outlandish, variety of these phenomena: “Galls may be smooth, spiny or fuzzy, and resemble everything from marbles and ping-pong balls to dunce caps, saucers and sea urchins.” (See some of his intriguing photos here.)

Gall 3 from flickr

Courtesy of Picture Esk on Flickr

In 2007, gall wasps had a baby boom in southern Maine. Residents were perplexed by a sudden abundance of small, fuzzy balls in their yards. The wasps inside these spheres, not the stinging kind, emerged to procreate and die, leaving behind a new generation and a new crop of galls to protect the infants.

These tiny galls, commonly called “fuzzy oak” galls, are only one example of what insects and trees can do together. Oak galls as big as basketballs have also been reported. Willow trees can grow what appear to be “pine cones,” quite puzzling to passerby, which are actually galls caused by tiny gnats. Christmas trees may also sport “cones” that are not what they seem.

The benefit of galls to insects is obvious, but humans have also found ways to use these creations. Fisherman break open goldenrod galls to get to the tempting larvae bait. Tannic acid is a gall-derived product, and fine inks are also made from galls. Galls have also been used as a spice, (mostly in the Near East), and as food for livestock. A good tip for campers–dry galls make excellent tinder.

Once you start seeking galls, they “appear” everywhere. Wayne’s Word reported that almost every individual sand aster in one 50-acre grassland area in southern California had a swollen stem tip gall on it. It’s hard not to become a fan of these diverse creations, perhaps even more so if you get to see them “hatch”. You can bring them inside for viewing—be sure you provide a jar with some moisture—and see what (well, who) emerges.

The photos of galls below are my own–not the most beautiful or technically precise images, but literally home-grown!

Galls 2 Galls 1