Cold, Refreshing Spring (and a Free Books Footnote)

GavinColdSpring_010115It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a whole month since we awoke to 2015, and that first chilly day of the year had us at our traditional New Year’s place: Cold Spring, New York, a village on the Hudson (most photos here courtesy of my husband Tom, except where noted).

Although I continue to work on becoming a hardier example of our species, this wasn’t a prime day for long strolls in the out of doors. The wind whipped off the river; the temperatures were in the teens, maybe even single digits with the wind chill. But even so, we were bundled up and enjoyed a brisk 25 minutes or so on the coast, where we picked through driftwood on the beach, watched long cargo trains pull by on the opposite shore, and marveled at the abundance of spiky, otherworldly-looking water chestnut seed pods, sometimes called devil’s heads, that had washed up onto the beach. (I learned from The Incidental Steward by Akiko Busch that water chestnuts, introduced in the late 1800s as exotic ornamentals, have become quite the invasive species, choking our rivers and spreading at alarming rates).

Water Chestnut Seed Pod From peppergrasss on Flickr

Water Chestnut Seed Pod
From peppergrasss on Flickr

After a warm and happy lunch at Le Bouchon we took a meandering drive along the river, happening upon a herd of deer grazing in an overgrown meadow.


The day was refreshing and lively but indubitably COLD. We didn’t leave the car when we capped the day with our traditional drive through Hubbard Park on the way home, to see the Christmas lights display.

I’m not sure whether two sightings since that cold first day of 2015–and before the recent mega snowfall–should be taken as signs of the havoc that climate change is predicted to bring, but, regardless, they have made me more hopeful about spring coming. In the Wal-Mart parking lot, Tom and I were treated to the spectacle of two sparrows mating alongside the curb—cute, fascinating, and shocking all at the same time. I looked up house sparrows (although I can’t swear this was the variety we saw—didn’t want to create any sparrow scandals by snapping an incriminating photo), and sure enough, they sometimes begin mating as early as January. And then, on a drive along beautiful River Road from Essex to Deep River, I saw an osprey on an aerie. According to the CT DEEP page, they aren’t supposed to return from Southern hunting grounds until March. Then again, you get some early birds in every crowd. I may have to nudge the Essex OspreyCam operators so they can activate the live feed again.

It’s been good for me to learn this winter that life does go on outside even when my instinct tells me to stay where it’s warm and dig in deeper beneath the blankets. Did you know that when birds go South, it’s more about finding food than getting away from the cold? I want to keep them close–I trudged through nearly 2 feet of snow yesterday to get to the bird feeder and was rewarded by an audience (from afar) with several female cardinals. I wonder if they would have liked these berries that managed to display themselves so artfully in Cold Spring:


(PS: For those who perked up at “free books” in the title, I am giving away some copies, while they last, of Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough, in which I have a piece published; as well as Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey. I’m afraid I can’t pay postage but happy to get copies to locals or work out some kind of prepaid mailing arrangement for those afar).

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?

Trail Magic

I haven’t made it up or down the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails yet, just short arms of the former and books about the latter. Cheryl Strayed can take the credit for making the PCT wildly famous with Wild, but before that I enjoyed A Blistered Kind of Love, about a couple who made the same journeya true test of togetherness that’s definitely something to crow about. Before that, of course, there was Bill Bryson, with his A Walk in the Woods on the Appalachian. And then there are the ancient trails across the sea. Joyce Rupp told the tale of her pilgrimage walk along the Camino de Santiago  with a quiet and strong voice in Walk in a Relaxed Manner. The list goes on ad infinitum.

It’s not clear anymore where I first read about trail magic–the trail in my mind is littered with books. But the author who introduced me to the magic so joyfully and vividly described stumbling on a cache of cold beer in a stream that I wanted some. And I hate beer.

Lucky for me, trail magic isn’t limited to just suds. The term is most often used to describe a small gift left behind by a fellow wayfarer, someone who knew you’d come along and appreciate the gesture amid the requisite sweat, blisters, and bug bites of a long journey on foot. But it can also simply indicate an unexpected joy on the path.

I almost missed my own trail magic today. I only had 20 minutes between summer camp drop-off and my work commute to walk around the bend of Cedar Lake in Chester, but I was quickly rewarded with the honor of depositing a wayward baby turtle back up onto the lakeside grass. Not long after that an unusually large (extended?) family of geese made a little parade across the street and down the bank. I walked by a slightly derelict French farmhouse-type house for sale, full of fantasy about the writing retreats I could host there, complete with forays to the water. Finally, I visited a unique gravestone at the tiny West End cemetery, painstakingly encrusted with colored stones. I waded through the damp grass and spoke to the soul honored there, reminding her that she must have been very much loved–and such a spot those who loved her chose! Across the  lake from the grave, summer camp was in full swing with hoots of happy children and bustling counselors. Trail magic, just from rounding the bend. Imagine what could happen with a whole coast!


Playing Hooky: A Crucial Nature Skill

I’ve set my sights on a day off alone before the long days of summer disappear.  I have a particular locale in mind, at least for a good part of the day. Fountain Hill Cemetery right here in town boasts a small but lively manmade pondone we have walked to after many school days to hunt for tadpoles and frogs. If we’re lucky, we see the rare heron, coyote, or fox. It’s no wilderness, and some might say a cemetery is an odd choice for spending time, at least before your time has come. But I like my nature mixed with history sometimes, and don’t feel any distaste for the residents who share the spacehopefully they have some knowledge that they are surrounded by beauty.

Our visits to the pond have always been times between–after school drop off and before work I have had walks there alone among the grassy hills , and strolls there after school have been limited by homework and dinner deadlines. On my last visit, I found myself wishing I could just sit quietly and watch the pond, and then sit quietly and watch some more.

I picked up an old favorite today–Flat Rock Journal by Ken Carey.  My timing was only a little off–just past summer solstice here and what I read was about an April or May tradition he and his wife kept. They’d each get a chance to “throw a few things in a backpack and set out to enjoy a day in the forest…Appreciation of the natural world draws out a self within us that knows what we, in our busyness, often forget.” His words that follow have me recognizing the urgent need for this kind of day:

I remember things in the forest, things I never intended to forget. Things that, as a child, I would not have believed could be forgotten. Johnny, our four-year-old, sometimes tells me of having seen faces in doorknobs or hearing voices among the trees–as if he senses some dimension within and behind what is culturally seen, an alam al mithal, as the Sufis say, where awareness saturates every particle, and beings inhabit all things.

Outdoors, immersed in nature’s season of renewal, there are moments, I find, when such perception comes. Moments when my awareness recognizes itself in all I see, and every pebble and leaf and tree looks back at me, mirroring some facet of myself.

When I feel I have been too long without this awareness, I know it is time once more to strike out alone into the forest, to experience a day among animals, trees, and open sky.

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