The Book of Noticing

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Admirable tree in East Haddam

Soon, I want to write about tent caterpillars and robins and nests and the soul’s ease that comes with long walks during lengthening days…But this post is just a short one, because I want to share great news!

I just signed a contract to have The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail published by Homebound Publications. So, this time next year I expect to have the bound book ready for release into the world! There may be Kindle and audio editions, too!

The Book of Noticing is a contemplative narrative on time in nature and the deeper truths that the experience reveals. It takes in the variety and beauty of many adventures in New England, weaves in intriguing facts from the natural world, and often steps back to look at broader subjects like family, a meaningful life, and the future of our planet.

(That being said, I need friends to help me perfect a really good “elevator speech” that can help me encapsulate what this book is about! I have less than a year to learn how to be a good marketer, and any and all tips will be genuinely appreciated).

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My neighbor on Bridge Street has been mowing around these beauties!

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).

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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

 

 

Timberdoodle versus Human: Which Singles Scene is More Exhausting?

American Woodcock

American Woodcock image courtesy of Paco Lyptic on Flickr

I don’t miss my single days—trying to look just right, the awkwardness of some conversations, disappointing dates, and being pursued by men who just seemed overeager.

Of course, that was a long time ago. And I don’t know for certain if it’s still the case that the men often take the lead—asking for a phone number, or a date, or trying to plan a “perfect” night. For all I know, the women are in complete control now! But, back in the day, I felt for these guys, with such an onus of needing to impress the girl.

Well, I’m here to argue that the American Woodcock (aka Timberdoodle or Bog Sucker) has a much more difficult time of it. For proof, if you are local, get to the Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook this Sunday for a repeat of this  past Saturday’s American Woodcock event—a brief talk and then watching the male do his elaborate courtship display.

Scientists or other exacting readers, please forgive me if this summary is less than 100% precise. But the male’s courtship job basically involves:

  • Calling out for quite some time (can you say PEENT?) while rotating in a 360-degree circle on the ground
  • Shooting up into the sky for an erratic (or maybe to the female, it’s erotic) flight while making strange whistling sounds with your feathers
  • Zooming back down while making another sound, described by some as “whimpering chirps” (is this desperation setting in?)
  • Landing in about the same spot, often to do it all over again (and again) (and again).

All of this is based on the assumption that there must be a female woodcock camouflaged in the brush, just waiting to meet you!

Here’s a good account, complete with audio, from Miracle of Nature.

If you can get to the local event, it is so worth it. It’s led by Patricia Laudano, president of the local Potopaug Audubon Society. She’s been developing her very specialized expertise in this species for many years! (If you don’t hail from Connecticut, it might be worth researching if there’s something like this going on in your area.)

It is a truly a treat to learn about these amazing creatures, their upside-down brains, and the labor-intensive ritual that makes human dating look like a cake walk!  Plus, to me they are uniquely enchanting. Bonus: they are an ungainly, endearing, persistent, and often unnoticed sign of spring!

 

Join the Club (Moss)!

One of the best things about being out in nature is the absolutely limitless supply of opportunities to learn. On par with that plus are the many reasons for hope and delight to be found in places as seemingly humble as the forest floor.

My latest study—and also hopeful venture—is club moss. This link leads to the inaturalist page for Connecticut club moss sightings. I am particularly enamored of running pine moss, which really does look to me like a little figure that’s about to dash off a la the Gingerbread Man of childhood story books (it’s pictured in above link)! But most often, in the Cockaponset State Forest behind our house, I see princess pine:

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According to inaturalist its spores used to be used as flash powder (in early photography or magic tricks ). I know if I tell Gavin he’ll want to try that out pronto, and preferably with bushels of spores. Come to think of it, some adults I know would be right on that, too. (Can’t vouch for how to do this, or for safety. Also, some states list the plant as endangered, likely a result of earlier enthused harvesting.)

This Massachusetts land trust’s site has a nice write-up about the princess pine. What I like best about this diminutive species, which is not a pine at all, is its evergreen-ness. It comforts me when I think ahead to the depths of winter. It is also such a pretty and precise-looking plant.

Before I read The Beginning Naturalist by Gale Lawrence, I’d assumed that the princess pine and other similar club mosses were baby evergreen trees. But they are already fully grown, and they are not in the conifer family. Confusingly, the club mosses are not mosses, either. They are closer to ferns. The “club” refers to the club or spike that shoots right up from the plant—it is coated with a fine layer of spores. The growth from spore to mature plant takes a full 17 years, but some plants can also grow by sprouting along the same stem.

Gale Lawrence’s chapter on these plants amused me, because she refers to the “attacks of the Christmas decorators.” Determined crafters let loose in the woods can pull up whole long underground stems of club mosses for weaving into wreaths, wiping out that impressive life cycle with one good yank. Even without the greenery of Christmas in mind, it is a bit tempting to imagine taking one of these miniature (non) trees home. But the happy-seeming plant has worked too hard to become a pet. Best to visit it in its “home in the loam,” beside its mushroom, acorn, and looming tree neighbors.

BONUS photo for those who read to the end! 😉 : the decorative lichens (or could they be mushrooms??) adorning a stump in our yard! This is just a bit blurry, but I can’t be the only one who thinks these are simply gorgeous.

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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.

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.

Deep River: It’s in the Stars

Orion, of course, is a constellation.

From Wiikipedia

From Wikipedia

 

But it’s also a very rich read: a nature/environmental magazine, voted America’s Best Environmental Magazine by The Boston Globe. I am thrilled to see my writeup of Deep River, CT, featured on their Place Where You Live page!