Almanacs, Daily Devotion, and “an Orchard, for a Dome”

(Subscribers, a reminder that I post here sporadically–my energies have been going to my twice-weekly newsletter for some time . The link to that is on the right. Thank you for reading, and I always love to hear from readers!)

This month, a local organization that supports arts endeavors threw some shade on Read an Almanac Month, bypassing any recommendations and saying maybe an almanac isn’t such a great beach read!

Who decided that July was Read an Almanac month? No clue, but lots of sites, like BookRiot, list this designation.

Me, I’m a big fan of the farmer’s almanacs. There are more than one, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac was first published during George Washington’s presidency, in 1793. Back then, there was no “Old” in the title.

I relish reading these unique collections. Yes, I might skim past meteorological minutiae and musings about crop timing, but I like the mix of articles, recipes, lore, advice, and the like. The pieces often touch on both nature and history, two favorite topics!

There are other types of almanacs, too, and some of these, like The World Almanac Book of Why: Explanations for Absolutely Everything (for kids), are simply compendiums of fun and interesting factoids. And, while almanacs are often described as annual publications, like the farmers’ editions, they don’t have to be!

As much as I appreciate a good, fact-filled compendium, I bristled at the claim that an almanac would not be of much interest to readers for a different reason. I bristled because I’ve called my own upcoming book an almanac of sorts, although if I’m in a different mood I call it a devotional.

Do those two words—almanac and devotional—seem at odds? Let me explain. First, the almanac part:

There’s an admirable tradition of writers faithfully recording something about the natural world for each day of the year and gathering it all up in a volume often treasured by readers. I was pleased to see that Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year (1979), a gathering of 365 of his best The New York Times mini natural history essays, is at Barnes & Noble, now re-released as “The Timeless Naturalist Classic.” It’s described as “…almost like an almanac following the seasons of the Native American lunar calendar…” Okay, I’ll excuse the “almost.” To me, it is, no doubt, an almanac.

A Goodreads review likens Edwin Way Teale’s Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year (1953) to Aldo Leopold’s famed A Sand County Almanac (1949). Each of these books is a delight; each ran through the year in a linear way, sharing observations of nature through the seasons, as well as some deeper thoughts. In Leopold’s case, he went beyond recording his encounters to discussion of creating a land ethic—an important idea that grabbed readers’ attention and has made him a household name in environmental circles. You can read more here.

Teale and Borland, both of whom wrote about their Connecticut surroundings, guided their readers through the natural year in book form more than once. Most Teale fans I know particularly revere his A Walk Through the Year (1978), with most daily entries reflecting the old farm he and his wife lived on in Hampton, Connecticut (now the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary Trail Wood). I was delighted to see that Julianna Schroeder at The Opulent Opossum blog gives tribute to all these thoughtful and observant naturalists in several entries titled, “Journeys Around the Sun.” Here’s the one on Leopold.

There are other terms that fit this kind of work, like “chronicle” or “book of days” or “nature journal” or “phenology” (that last one sounds so dry, but opens up a fascinating world. See here). But, for me, “almanac” has stuck. I’m pleased to see that, with a search of “nature almanac” at Amazon, many appealing and modern titles come up. (Some older books by the authors I cite here, and many others like them, have gone out of print. I relish finding them in used book stores!)

When I wrote my book proposal for The Morning Light, the Lily White: Daily Dips into Nature and Spirit (coming by fall, I hope, from Shanti Arts!), I suppose my idea most closely followed the Borland tradition, in that quite a few of the pieces were published elsewhere first. I had to update them, adjust them for book format, and create new pieces (at least a third of them) for a final volume. I don’t have a Times column like Borland did, but I have a treasured group of faithful newsletter readers who have written to share appreciation, their own experiences, topic ideas, and the occasional potential correction. (I am, after all, a generalist and fall far more onto the curiosity and appreciation side of things, as opposed to the “expert” side of things!). And what a delight it is to be outside, walking, wondering and taking notes, forming ideas for the next newsletter. The latest: Tom and Gavin found a “barnacle” of sorts in a freshwater stream, filled with tiny worms. Was this a larval case for some famliar creature? I want to go see the stream myself, and then to do some research.

But, in this upcoming book, my second nature writing collection, I wanted to go beyond an almanac, beyond a focus on interesting outdoor finds and facts, and add “spirit” to my title. So, here’s the part about calling the book a devotional:

During my growing up years, my mom read a slim, daily devotional. She got a new edition in the mail each month. It set the tone for her day. Late in life, she switched to another magazine in the same vein, but this time with a Catholic spin (she had converted), for quite a few years. The little volume was handsomely decorated with vintage religious art.

I’ve had a tone set for my days by reading Teale, Borland, and sometimes Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day by Day (that last one, 2016, is complete with engaging photos, many by the author!). I guess that’s part of my “church,” in a way. I learn new things, I get to wonder at the world, and later, when I get outside, I remember what I’ve read. The other part of my “church” is being out in a natural setting, preferably alone, curious, quiet, and alert, and noticing other creatures (both flora and fauna). Oh, and I want to “proselytize,” in a way, in that I want to share this expansive joy, wisdom, and unending fascination that I find in nature with others!

So far, I haven’t mastered any regular spiritual practice in a community, although I want to at times. The quote in today’s title is from Emily Dickinson’s poem, and captures what resonates most for me:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

In my book proposal, I quoted poet Mary Oliver, who said “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I wrote that this turn of phrase embodies a credo for many who are drawn to the natural world and a feel a reverence for their experiences there. So, yes, my own brand of almanac might also be considered a devotional in that it attends to the world.

We come back from our time in nature feeling curious, filled, and inspired; we have enlivening and even ecstatic experiences as we interact with the world outside. All of us, whatever our traditions and history, can find fascination in the living world and acknowledge our longing for deep connection, a longing that extends beyond our own kind to the myriad elements of our swirling sphere, to the soil and the sky, to a nearly unfathomable range of plants and animals.

What a deep blessing it has been to be able to record experiences like these, that touch both mind and soul, and set them in a book.

Radiance in the World, and in Words

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Ferre Pérez on Flickr

If you still subscribe to this blog, thank you. I don’t write in this space nearly as much as I once did, owing to my commitment to the Loving the World newsletter (see free subscription link to right). The newsletter has been, and continues to be, a delight. But I’ve had the experience of reading a book about animal lives, including human life, that lit me up and made me want to write about it. This is a good place for that.

The Radiant Lives of Animals is the second book of Linda Hogan’s that has spoken deeply to me. The first, a gift from my son (and thank you to his Native American Studies teacher for the idea), was her novel Solar Storms. I rarely read fiction, but I had all the emotions, in the best possible way, with Solar Storms. It conjured a feeling of that longed-for, deep reconnection with the world, and pondered what truly matters in our lives as humans.

This blog entry, however, focuses on The Radiant Lives of Animals. I read it using my resurrected habit of reading with pen in hand, underlining or starring things that struck me. Mostly, this was a college habit. But I’ve (re)learned, lately, that I read more deeply when I do this. It works best on really good books. Slowing down to underline or exclaim allows a second taste of what I just read.

SO many underlines and asterisks! Some mark Hogan’s beautiful and provocative turns of phrase, others mark fascinating facts. I mean to do more research on some of what I gleaned, too.

It’s clear Hogan knows that of which she speaks—at both an intuitive and an intellectual level. But she was wise not to turn her book into a “factoid” amalgamation. When she weaves in intriguing facts, they have a deeper message than just, “well, isn’t this a cool thing?”

Here’s one example: she writes about “lavender-blue butterflies that have just been freed from anthills…These have been cared for by the ants while they were cocoons…As the butterflies mature and grow wings, the ants with their busy legs open earth, giving the lavender-blue insects the freedom of air and light and the ability to fly away and become a living part of the sky.”

I certainly get the sense that Hogan feels deep awe and gratitude about this happening, but she is also matter of fact—yes, this is our day-to-day world, with miracles at every turn. She expects no less. She sees and hears marvels everywhere, including in the seemingly more mundane.

But she isn’t gushing, and that is an excellent choice. I think the gushing would have made it more about Hogan and her own emotional experience. While we can intuit Hogan’s personal passion in the story, our attention is drawn to the beloved creatures at hand. It is an instruction in humility, in realizing we humans are part of all this and have so much to learn. We are not some removed entity, despite our many actions and attitudes that so often create a rift between us and other beings in nature.

Many of us readers who are starring and underlining the heck out of such passages, or maybe pausing to read them aloud to our loved one sitting near, have the strong urge to learn more, and of course the information is out there, like in this Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine article about the cocoons.   

(Hogan, by the way, is writing about Colorado in this book, where she lives alone in an old and modest cabin. At least I think she still lives there, based on the address on her website.)

This is the kind of person who has decorative birdhouses on her wall inside. When wasps occupy them, she lives along with them. She throws open the windows during the day, so the wasps can do their outdoor thing. She closes the windows at night, and they all cohabit in the dark. One morning, she hadn’t opened the windows, having slept in, and an “alarm wasp” buzzed over to remind her of their need to get outside.

Hogan’s Chickasaw heritage no doubt contributes to her all-encompassing perspective. The belief that animals have so much to teach us, and that we are not in a hierarchy with humans at the top, is one that reads as deeply rooted. While in one way it seems fantastic, on the other it is intuitively rationale and believable when she shares, humbly, her nonverbal communications with creatures of many kinds.

The Native American perspective, informed by eons on this continent, is one I admire more with each thing I learn. Sometimes I find myself envying those with this heritage, also hoping that such wisdom would drive our current global and political climate.

I also envy this woman living alone, always observing, always allowing space for other creatures. Her interactions are not those born of naivete—she’s had to scare mountain lions away from her property, and to navigate with trepidation around an elk stranded in her barn during a storm. His larger-than-life antlers filled the space as he repeatedly clicked his teeth at her in warning. But she had to feed the horses. She lowered her gaze, avoiding eye contact.

Clearly, her sense of self-preservation is intact. But she also sees the creatures as in it with her, with their own fears and trials. We are all trying to survive. We want safe offspring, plentiful food, and not to be poked and prodded.

Oh, gosh, I wrote just above that it’s good and wise that Hogan doesn’t gush in The Radiant Lives of Animals. Is that what I am doing here? It’s hard not to, and, yes, I did submit some fan comments via her website. It’s just that the read had such a deep effect. It’s hard not to crow about it (or to think very differently about crows, having read her words on them).

The animal encounters are compelling, and there are way too many to mention here, including the intimacies of some life-altering rescue relationships. But the book isn’t simply a catalogue of this encounter and that encounter. It encourages an attitude of contemplation and a thoughtful examination of our human lives and roles.

For example, Hogan writes about re-minding. We humans need “to have changed minds.” We are also charged to “re-member.” She quotes Meridel Le Sueur, who wrote about remembering the dismembered, restoring those connections to the whole that we have lost.

I could go on, but this is where I get to wrap it up, to encourage you to get both the books that I mention here. I realize that the appreciation of writing is subjective, but I’d be surprised if you don’t find some gems in the reads, even if they don’t resonate as deeply as they did for me.

No Entry: Fictional Teen, Very Real Eco Issues

There’s a continuing trend here at First Person Naturalist–publishers sending me nature/enviro-themed books to read and review. No Entry from Gila Green at Stormbird Press is the first Young Adult (YA) novel  in this vein that I’ve been asked to read, and I’m glad it came my way.
(Before I get into it, readers who are looking for more of my nature writing, please visit me at my Loving the World landing page. I also post some of those same columns on a Facebook page @LovingWorldNature).

In No Entry,  Canadian teen Yael is sent to a South African conservation camp following a sudden, life-altering trauma that has rocked the whole family. She is the daughter of a zoologist and a veterinarian, so it’s no surprise that she is taken with the animals there, from orphan elephant Afua to a host of creatures roaming the adjacent Kruger National Park game reserve–rhinos, more elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, etc.  It’s not long before the subject of poaching elephants to gain their valuable tusks enters the picture, and it is a  severe slap in the face of all this wild beauty. Yael is heartbroken to see photos of the aftermath, and later she reels after stumbling on an elephant victim quite close to where she is staying.

While the devastation wrought by poaching is a central theme, Green is skilled at layering the tale and its protagonist with many elements that keep the story fresh and cohesive. Seventeen-year-old Yael is a dimensional character who takes in the fiery personality of her new friend Nadine, eagerly awaits her boyfriend David’s visit, struggles to cope with the recent , senseless loss of her brother, and puzzles over some of the goings on at the camp. She witnesses the complexity of South Africa–quite wealthy landowners juxtaposed with squatter camps. She admires and forms a bond with ranger Sipho, who comes from poverty but finds work at the complex. He lights up when he talks about the refuge’s animals.

Yael experienced a haunting  sense of helplessness in the face of her brother’s death, and a stealthy scenario that comes to light at the camp brings up similar issues. Rough, greedy characters are ready to kill to protect the wealth they are gaining through brutality toward the elephants. When things heat up, she must keep a level head and fight her fears. It’s unclear who she can trust, and she feels overwhelmed and alone.

No Entry manages to underline a very real threat while simultaneously offering characters and relationships that draw the reader in and keep the story moving at a good pace. Yael is a teen heroine to be admired–she deals with a spectrum of emotion but can play it cool when the stakes are high. She treasures David’s support but can go it alone when silence is the safest strategy. Yael may be fictional, but her very real search for her place in the world and for how best to stand up for her beliefs is universally recognizable.  As a not-so-young adult reader, I read an echo of my own  teenage concerns and puzzlings (which seem not very long ago) in Yael and cheered when she navigated tricky waters to arrive at an unexpected solution. No Entry is worth the read. It reminds us of  cruelty from which we cannot turn away, but also the human capacity to stand up and do the right thing, even in the face of grave danger. We need more Yaels in the world, and more reads from Green.

 

The Joy of Nature Epistling

lichens-like-shells-crop.jpg

These fungi remind me of a certain kind of tightly wrapped conch shell I used to find on Long Island beaches. I initially wondered here in the caption if these were lichens or fungi. Reader Laurie told me that they are the most common decomposer in our woods, Trichaptum biformus, sometimes known as Violet-toothed polypore.

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.

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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

 

Brevity is the Soul of…Nature Writing?

town dock winter 3I don’t really believe the title. I love long-form nature writing–both reading and writing it. But these days, in terms of the day-to-day stuff, I’m really enjoying the briefer, twice-weekly Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection e-newsletter I’ve been sharing with subscribers. I’ve written about stink bugs, holly bushes, the bottoms of ponds in winter, Carolina Wrens, Dark-Eyed Juncos, cypress knees and so much more– and I’m having heaps of fun. Please subscribe and/or spread the word to others who love the natural world and what it teaches us. I am taking requests–Jane wants me to write about ravens soon. What would you like me to write about?

Also, if you know anyone that wants to get into nature writing, I’ve finally taken my roughly formatted PDF How to Get Started in Nature Writing and turned it into a Kindle read. You can link directly to it here, or read more about it here in the blog’s Lessons in Nature Writing tab.

For those here in the Connecticut area, I hope you’re able to enjoy the milder temperatures this weekend as much as Buddy and I have.

Buddy tree

 

 

 

 

Loving the World: A New Adventure

barkI feel compelled –maybe even mandated–to share the joy and the sense of discovery I derive from time in nature. It’s too good to keep to myself and it is itching to vault over the borders of this blog and venture out farther into the world.

I’ve started a brief, twice-weekly (Wednesday and Sunday), free-newsletter to spread the love.  Sometimes nature’s teachings are factual and super cool, like how the moon snail “drills” holes into clam shells, creating those ready-made “necklace” pendants we find on the beach. Often her teachings help us connect with ourselves and others, as when lichens slowly (OH so slowly) create soil from a boulder, showing us quiet persistence and patience, an understanding of the full possibilities of time. The newsletter is a brief peek into all of it–factoids, wonder, and the eagerness to understand and connect more.

For more about Loving the World: Visits with Nature and Deeper Connection, and the subscription link, please click here. My posts here on First Person Naturalist will likely continue on a monthly basis: this is a home for some longer-form reflection.

 

Meditation on a Locust

locust (Mercy) cropped

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

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

Carolina locust egg pod U WYO

Carolina locust egg pod, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

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

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

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

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

carolina locust sarah fuller (permission via linkedin)

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

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

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

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

Caroline locust by Fred Bentler with permiss

Carolina locust photo courtesy of  nature photographer Fred Bentler  

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

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

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

 

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

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

Mercy, Murmuration, and Mushrooms

Groundhog Mercy

My new friend from Friday (Mercy by the Sea)

I knew I needed to sort my thoughts on my one day off alone before starting my new job. I paid my donation and stepped into the privilege of a full day at Mercy by the Sea in Madison. I spent the start of the day reflecting and looking at old journals, trying to figure out where I am in life and where I want to go.

I’m sure this “soul housekeeping” was a necessary exercise. But the moment I stepped out to the “backyard,” which by my definition necessarily included not only the labyrinth, lush lawn, and well-loved plantings but also the entire Long Island Sound, I wondered if I had foolishly squandered my time with the hours indoors.

Mercy cairns

Mercy by the Sea’s “backyard”

I felt like signs were everywhere out there, just waiting for me. A fat groundhog brought me back to my time as writer in residence at Trail Wood, when some days the groundhog was my only mammalian companion (humans included!). I could tell this guy (or girl) felt as relaxed as the folks on silent retreat here. He let me get unusually close with my phone camera, finally casually loping away, seeming only a tad concerned about me, aka “the paparazzi.”

Near the labyrinth, a memorial bench reminded me that, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” My mom used to say that, in a slightly different way. This comforted me, since lately I have felt a bit distant from my soul’s connection to what really matters. I do have faith, though, that the connection is ever-present (even though I sometimes lose the thread).

Bidden sign at Mercy

Before I ventured out, I journaled about creatures I’ve been longing to write about, but have not made the time for yet. One is the Carolina locust. At the job I just left, I craved an escape from the corporate space and grabbed walks around the office park when I could get them (here is an older version of a piece about that; The Book of Noticing has a newer version). On these sometimes-drab walks I often admired these locusts, who seem to thrive even (or especially?) in hot, dry places like the sparse grass alongside a concrete foundation. I like how their appearance is so very dull in color, blending right in with the sandy soil–but then they take off like sprites and flash the yellow in their wings (my very preliminary research hints that the yellow be more prominent in females??). It always strikes me as such a marvelous secret. I didn’t think I’d see any on the beach, but one skipped ahead of me as I approached the shoreline. I couldn’t identify it with a scientific certainty, but whether a Carolinian or its cousin, I took it as a reminder to learn and write more about this often-overlooked insect. And to also not forget the Mourning Dove, another ubiquitous but often overlooked creature on my short list of writing themes.

Mercy locust

Can you spot the insect? I can’t swear it’s a Carolina locust but I am pretty sure I saw the flash of yellow as it flew

It was so worth sitting at an awkward angle on a wet, barnacled boulder to see the next sight. The multicolored jingle shells, made even brighter by their shallow tidal pool, called me, and I realized as my gaze relaxed that the pool was moving, absolutely saturated with busy crustacean life. Everyone in there seemed to be avoiding a half-dollar–sized, yellow-shelled crab who was throwing his weight around. Periwinkles hurled themselves off their perches as he neared. Another crab with goofy-looking bobble eyes was busily keeping house (or was he collecting things? Sometimes I can’t tell the difference at home, either). The pool could have amused me for hours, and it was only my wet jeans and the evaporating afternoon that got me to walk away and start to write.

This filled my cup, and after a comparatively much more mundane weekend, I started my new job on Monday. But my cup was soon to overflow. My best friends in Connecticut, Pam and Cecilia, literally blindfolded me to cart me away from my desk to a surprise birthday adventure, something I have always wanted to do! We boarded a small ship in East Haddam and went on a swallow cruise. They wined and dined me while we spotted Bald Eagles, Osprey nests, Great Herons, all the while cruising toward Goose Island and dusk, at which point the staggering number of swallows did their swirling, pre-migration season sky dance, called a murmuration . Not one person on the boat seemed at all jaded—all around me I heard, “wow,” repeated excitedly, repeated in hushed voices, repeated over and over as we watched the phenomenon through our collective binoculars. It was my first time seeing the whole show in all its glory. The air was cool, the friends and the sights I got to see were equally, luminously, beautiful. An entire boatload of strangers sang Happy Birthday to me. I felt humbled with sheer gratitude.

swallow cruise

Looking back from the deck, as our boat headed toward the “swallow convention”

I am blessed in that those who love me know the way to my heart. This weekend, Tom stayed home (cost savings!) and sent Gavin and I off to an overnight at the Blue Deer Center , where Gavin is attending a mushroom workshop and I am using the quiet time to write and walk. Years ago, long before Gavin, Tom and I stayed at a B&B nearby in this tiny town of Margaretville, and somehow writing here on the porch of the Center feels like home.

 

Blue deer porch.JPG

My porch for the next day and a half (Blue Deer Center)

Who knew that years after our B&B trip, I’d be bringing our teenager, one so connected with nature, to learn about mushrooms and help affirm his sacred connection with the land. I love the Center’s mission and am ending this entry with a snippet from their Web site’s mission tab. I have a feeling I’ll be writing more about this place and the cup that continues to overflow, now so much so that it spills onto the page. I wish the same abundance, the same sense of reconnecting, for my readers.

  • At the beginnings of humanity our ancestors were given traditional teachings and practices to keep us in good relationship to the divine natural world. These traditions provide not merely survival, but rather a rich, joyous, connected life for ourselves and countless generations of our descendants. Traditional teachings and practices are every bit as practical now as in the past. The Blue Deer Center is a sacred place and a sacred mission to make the teachings and practices of the ancestors available today.

Woodstock and Water

Gavin Hartford river walk

Riverwalking in Hartford

Before our family trip to Woodstock got fully underway, its theme began to assert itself. Tom made a wrong turn and we were in the curiously quiet Sunday city that is Hartford. We parked by the Wadsworth Atheneum with a new mission: the first visit to the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza. We took many steps down to the start of the sculpture walk featuring Lincoln’s life. Not far from where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in her later years, here was a sculpture of Lincoln and Stowe meeting, captioned with the famous quote in which he attributed the start of the Civil War to this “little woman.” Beyond them the Connecticut River flowed, an occurrence that long preceded, and long moves past, the war that divided our nation.

Walking along it, we watched young women crewing in their long boats. They pushed the water aside with the force of one. Birds flitted into and out of the abundant greenery that grew along the path. I leaned down to snap photos of 2 kinds of purple flowers and then leaned back to wonder at the high-water marks marked on a pillar, thinking about my mom at 10 after the big hurricane in 1938, watching with amazement as sail boats traveled down her suburban street. Gavin jumped down to an outsized stump at the edge that must have seen at least a century of waterfront history. Tom spotted a miniature field of tiny bird’s nest fungi, which look exactly as they sound, complete with “eggs” that are balls of spores. When raindrops strike the spores they shoot into the air and germination can begin.

birds nest fungi.JPEG

Bird’s nest fungi in Hartford

As we were en route, my sister Linda sent me a link to a short film called Sing the Water Song. In describing their vision for the project, the film makers start with the phrase “water is life.” They share their dream of millions of women (Keepers of Water in Native American traditions) around the world learning to sing the Algonquin Water Song in solidarity with the threatened water we continue to witness. (Standing Rock is just one of countless examples). The song is described by a Native elder as lullaby-like, paying loving tribute to water as the lifeblood of Mother Earth (lyrics are phonetic):

Nee bee wah bow
En die en
Aah key mis kquee
Nee bee wah bow
Hey ya hey ya hey ya hey
Hey ya hey ya hey ya ho

About an hour from Woodstock, we stopped at an antique store and peered down the hill at the creek running beside it, wondering who had placed so many odd-shaped, fist-sized stones on a particular rock. The license plate next to ours said “1-River,” which alluded to one of Gavin’s favorite books, One River, which follows the fascinating work of 2 Amazon explorers.

When we got to Woodstock, we walked around town and paused along the bridges to admire the stream coursing below. On our first full day, we were privileged to visit with local mushroom expert John Michelotti at Catskill Fungi. We walked together through light rain and admired his logs as well as his life, which centers on fungi and has led him to many good things. On the way back from his place in Big Indian, we stopped to read a commemorative plaque beside the start of the Catskill Aqueduct. On the way here we had stopped at Oblong Books in Millerton and I treated myself to Lapham’s Quarterly (on the theme of, you guessed it, water!). As I read it that afternoon I came across a piece on Manhattan’s water sources, and it recounted how 9 villages near Woodstock were obliterated as the dams were created and water was collected in Shokan when constructing the aqueduct. At least 10% of the “sandhogs” who dug the tunnel suffered injuries and deaths. (Shades of Standing Rock: the Quarterly article included a 1913 account of deaths among Native and African Americans, overlooked by most as these were “inconspicuous” people.)

fried egg mushrooms (not sure of ID).JPG

It’s probably slugs who have been enjoying these “fried eggs” at The Comeau Property.

It poured that afternoon and Gavin swam in the rain. In the morning, we walked through puddles on the trails at The Comeau Property in town. The creek was running high, fed by the buckets of rain the prior day. Slugs and mushrooms were relishing the moisture, brightening the dim woods with their colorful presences. Back at our temporary home, I strolled beside our borrowed salt water pool and found tiny snails dotting the undersides of big leaves and clinging to blades of grass. Under one particular leaf a small spider had woven a rather flat web. He stood beside it, looking ready to defend his work.

land snail 2.JPG

Snails everywhere!

For me, I guess not surprisingly, the best parts of the trip have involved noticing creatures (including plants) out in nature. I keep being reminded of water—how it links us, how we need to protect it. I looked back at an old diary entry on the same date as yesterday, when Gavin was just 6, and found this small start of a poem. I love how, so many years later, we are still treasuring the creatures we meet along the way, still conscious of the dew:

All along this morning walk
There were little beings,
especially funnel spiders
and slugs, who seem to like
the dewy days best.

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!