Color, Connection, and (once again) Hopkins

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From today’s walk to Chester

After an overall relaxing summer, time has sped up. We did a couple of trial mornings helping Gavin get accustomed to early rising for the bus, and then the school week started. Gone are the weekdays when Gavin slept in and I slipped out for an hours-long walk before work. Mornings are again more about punctuality and to-do lists, and I am relearning how to maximize the time between the school bus arrival and my own commute to work.

The dog’s schedule and the school schedule have conspired to have me walking before dawn on many days, not always ideal but it’s quiet and gives both me and Buddy time to be meditative. And I’ve experimented with pre-dawn snapshots:

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Sometime around 5 AM, on Deep River Main Street

But I was happy when Saturday came at last! The sun was close to rising when I set out for an hour-long ramble to Town Dock. Without Buddy’s inquisitive and committed nose it would have been a much shorter walk, but that’s the beauty of having a hound. They are into the world full throttle, primarily through the scent of it. Each of our successive beagles has acted like he or she has never been outdoors before, EVERY time we take a walk—unbridled curiosity and enthusiasm! Their whole bodies convey a sense of, “What’s next, world? I can’t wait to find out!” The sentiment is contagious and it helped me evolve into a nature writer.

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Town Dock never disappoints

Today I was reminded that visual sensations are often my gateway to nature. Sure, I take in the bird song and the scent of the river and the pines, and I relish the feel of the breeze against my skin. I recently wrote a whole piece about the experience of wind at Acadia National Park’s Tarn, and in The Book of Noticing I wrote a piece called “Scent Trail,” about trying to emulate my dog Molly’s aroma-driven quests. But my “go to” sense is sight, as is the case for most humans. First, before all of my senses kick in, I find myself looking. I relish how something as simple as a berry or a mushroom can catch the light.

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I’d appreciate it if a better-informed reader can tell me, definitively, what these are. None of the descriptions I found quite matched my image. The photo doesn’t do their shimmering quality justice.  

I looked and I looked Saturday and today and these were joyful, holy moments. (On Sunday I was intrepid, walking in moderate rain. But I wished I had windshield wipers for my glasses!). I thought about my artist sister’s sense of color and my mom’s flair for colorful style, and I’ve always felt a lack there, with my inherent bias toward monochromatic palettes in my home and my choice of clothes. But I had a “eureka!” moment while walking. My sense of color lives in the natural world. I am drawn to even the smallest splashes of brightness and visual variety; the colors are treasured even more if they are a hidden deep in the grass or in the understory.

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This unexpected ladybug nearly escaped my notice.

Soon I will turn 50, and I hope that on my birthday I can continue my new tradition of walking to Essex. I imagine that I will be “drinking with my eyes” that day, to borrow from 17th century poet Ben Jonson (I just learned something, thanks to Google — I had mis-remembered “drink to me only with thine eyes” as a Shakespeare phrase!). I know the context is different—Jonson’s poem is about lovers and their longing looks. But longing looks are not reserved exclusively for lovers. At my best moments on the trail (even the asphalt trail), I not only long, but I feel that longing—for stimulation, for interest, for connection, for peace, even for God—fulfilled. I feel that I am literally being filled as I “drink” in the endless colors and the sun and the breeze and the sounds beyond the brush.

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The best kind of collage

Oh gosh, I have quoted him before in this blog, but I am powerless to resit this particular redundancy. Gerard Manley Hopkins said it so well in Pied Beauty. For me, his words ooze the best way of “drinking with the eyes” (and the other senses, too) and the outcome of astonishment and enlivenment that this practice often brings. I’ll end with his words since I can’t top them, but before that I wish all of my readers happy “eye drinking” during their prized time outside.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

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!

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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.

Rich in Raspberries

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I’ve got to give my son Gavin credit for this blog’s title, and top billing in this week’s photo, too. He mused aloud that we were “rich in raspberries” as we industriously filled two sandwich bags with our picks from a tangle of roadside bushes. They were a bit of breakfast, and later, at the close of the day, dessert with whipped cream.

We had to consult a friend to be sure the berries we saw springing up everywhere were safe. Our Backyard Foraging book neglected this particular species, and I was seriously afraid that there might be imposters that looked and smelled like wild raspberries but were actually an artfully disguised malevolent toxin that would leave us gasping for breath. But once we got the all clear, the worst thing that happened was a little patch of poison ivy on Gavin’s arm, a small price for the juicy pleasure of the experience.

On the way up the hill to our best picking spot, we saw a wealth of small birds and a duet of deer, and realized that they, also, were probably relishing the seemingly unceasing red harvest. Something about eating right from the bush, and about sharing the joy with a bevy of creatures, made the berries taste that much sweeter.

Amidst the satisfying pick, I also felt sad when thinking about how removed from the land most of us have become. On the other hand, there remains a stalwart cadre of faithful kitchen gardeners, and foraging seems to have picked up in many sectors, to me a powerful sign of the collective desire to reconnect with the good earth. Recently, I took great pleasure in the book Closer to the Ground, particularly relishing its tales of a family’s catches from the Pacific Northwest waters and coastline.  I thought back to a piece I wrote years earlier surrounding an older book by Nelson Coon, called Using Wayside Plants. Coon was inspired by William Miller, a hobo who dug himself snug places to sleep below the snow, tapped sugar maples with hollowed elderberry twigs, and chewed black birch bark to stave hunger. The read was rich with recipes for sorrel and nettle soups, ink cap mushrooms dug from the roots of trees, clover bloom vinegar, elderberry waffles, and the piece de la resistance —Irish Moss Blanc Mange.

I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting this dish, but I see that Coon’s Irish Moss dessert wasn’t as rare and exotic as I imagined—Fannie Farmer included it in her famed early 20th century cookbook  and a much more recent Block Island cookbook  also put it on the menu. I love the Haiku-like simplicity of how the recipe starts:

Gather fresh moss on the beach.
Rinse well in cold water and
Spread in the sun to dry.

Whether I’ll ever gather sufficient moss and stick-to-itiveness to make such a dish happen, I can’t say. But it does make me appreciate the abundance of both land and sea, and long for the harvest that happens so much less often these days at the individual level, but is there for the taking. The satisfaction it yields is as filling as the food itself.

(A shout out here to my nephew Will, too, who has inspired me with his artful foraging! I still want a mushroom lesson).

Frog Pond

Yesterday, I looked down into a transient ecosystem that thrived in a large bucket at my feet. I took my son Gavin and a friend frogging at our local pond. No matter that it’s in a cemetery—the modest body of water is quivering with life, and our bucket hosted at least 6 frogs, probably twice that many tadpoles, a host of minnows, and a large beetle that swam circular laps with the vigor of an Olympiad. (Or was it a Giant Water Bug, often mistaken for a beetle?).

The boys conferred about the gauge of the nets and the length of the sticks that they were attached to, and what they might garner with each plunge into the muddy depths. I wished I had a stop-action camera to get real-time shots of all the incredible skyward frog escapes. The most impressive creatures of the day were the two thick, ropy Northern Water Snakes that the boys reported (they actually called them rat snakes, but after some research I think this was a misidentification). We released the whole, squirming bucket in the end, washing the sludgy mud off shins and hands with baby wipes before heading back to the commercial world of pizza, chips, Slushies, and candy.

I believe that every town should have at least one well-frequented frog pond, and Googling around for other fine, civic frog pond examples I ran across Save the Frogs! Our frog populations are dwindling because of a variety of factors, among them climate change, invasive species, and habitat loss, and this nonprofit does a lot of education, also encouraging citizen scientists like you and me to build our own frog ponds. So get digging!

Sometimes it makes me sad when I am out and about walking, or taking another turn around the pond, and I don’t see many other interested individuals or families outdoors—I am fervent in my hopes and prayers that we, as a society, reunite with the outdoors and learn from the connections that we can make there. Science, philosophy, spirituality, medicine, relationships–it’s all there for us to learn! I am borrowing a quote by Chief Seattle (1854) that Save the Frogs showcases on their site, plainly put but it rings so true, especially at the lively height of summer:

 And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of a whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?

The Call of Pick Your Own

We have an orchard within a long walk from our house. We’ve never walked to it, though, because how could we leave there without carting an abundance: bushels of apples, jugs of cider, prizes from the farm stand? Our haul wouldn’t mix well with the busy road and its narrow shoulder, although I still consider the adventure from time to time.

It was at this orchard, only a few years ago, that I first saw a pear tree. I was taken by its golden aura in the early autumn sunlight. Every year they put out a PYO (pick your own) sign when the berries come in, and somehow I never make it there—in fact, I don’t recall ever picking berries from a patch. This year, I am determined to make it to blueberry harvest and emerge, stained purple, happy, and ready for a pie.

I’ve been reading about harvests lately, a venture that goes so well with the spilling proliferation of summer, vines and stems laden with promise.

Anne Porter (who was artist Fairfield Porter’s wife) captures that spilling over in her poem The Pear Tree—here are the last two stanzas:

And every blossom
Is flinging itself open
Wide open

Disclosing every tender filament
Sticky with nectar
Beaded with black pollen.

In Early Spring, ecologist Amy Seidl mixes her scientific knowledge about climate change with her love (and worry) for her Vermont surroundings. Her words about berries make me want to garden ambitiously, perhaps even with an orchard in mind:

 …I walk the acre as if it were a hundred, planning the geometry for my fruit tree grid. I envision apple, pear, and plum, and of course the hardy Reliance peach. And in as many places as possible, berries: currant, gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry. The list of varieties reads like a children’s fairy tale, a version of “Hansel and Gretel” where visitors stumble across an Eden dripping in fruit rather than a cottage dripping in frosting. It is very much a gardener’s fantasy, one founded in the belief that life is abundant and the role of humans is to work with nature to manifest more abundance.

This triggered a memory of my own attempt to capture an orchard on a page, actually a specific, memorable day when Gavin was still quite young and  first learned to love apples:

Orchard Day

Miles of trees, Macoun, McIntosh, Empire
and then the illuminated pears

The perfect gild and form
made him lean from the wagon
grabbing for fruit

At home we leaned down together to core it all,
heard the breaking skin, split and crunch, squirt of juice

How solemnly he sought and sorted the seeds,
big plans to plant our own grove just outside

It was a little cold that day–didn’t know the right depth or soil or way to tend

Should have planted them anyway.

Streamside Sunday

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

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

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