Hospital Armchair Travel, New England Edition

Mt Tremper montage

Zen Mountain Monastery beauties

Last weekend I learned that my sister’s husband Randy in Vermont had needed emergency abdominal surgery and then suffered a stroke. Our family had to be in Mount Tremper, NY, at the Zen Mountain Monastery. I was astounded by the beauty of the snowy woods and especially taken with the woodpecker holes that “decorated” so many of the trees. I knew that Randy would appreciate the woods and the snow and the cozy library (happy to report that the latter has a very robust nature section! My time there has also inspired a piece). I tried to take in all the quiet beauty and somehow transmit that, telepathically, as a healing energy.

Monday found my sister Linda and me sleeping in a surgical intensive care waiting room, while Randy began his gradual recovery. Things were dicey but already looking a bit better. By the time I got up to the hospital, Randy was starting to rouse and look around, speaking hoarsely and sleeping for long intervals.

I was glad his room had a large window. We watched the snow and talked about the size of the flakes. I watched large chunks of accumulated white mounds fall from the ledge. We checked on the progress of the Nor’Easter and were not, by Vermont standards, super impressed. Linda and I would be able to get to a nearby hotel the following nights. But I was impressed enough to delay my 4+ hour drive home an extra day, especially after watching news reports on the storm’s temper fit in Massachusetts.

courtyard snow

Hotel courtyard snow (shout out to Doubletree near the UVM Medical Center–they were kind)

The several days at the hospital  limited our contact with the outdoors. So I did the next best thing! I read about being outdoors. Edwin Way Teale published Wandering Through Winter in 1965 and won a Pulitzer for it the following year. My edition, which I acquired during a special day in Woodstock, has a slightly musty smell. But I treasure it and am glad that I threw it into my hastily packed bag.

The book was full of funny coincidences that ran parallel with my own life. In the book Edwin and Nellie drive, in a fairly zig-zaggy pattern (gravitating to natural points of interest with the only real “deadline” being the end of the winter season) from California to Northern Maine, and it just so happened that the part I was up to when I arrived in Vermont was about Vermont. The chapter was called “Snowflake Country,” and the first sentence talked about Lake Champlain, which, if we craned our necks, we could spot from Randy’s room. A flat blue wall sculpture near the lobby illustrated the shape of Champlain in aerial-view detail.

A four-page photographic insert in the Vermont chapter celebrated blizzard snow and numerous animal foot and even tail (opossum!) prints in the white stuff.  The photos reminded me of the arresting beauty Linda and I happened upon via the hotel courtyard window as we hurried from our room to the front desk.

After Champlain, Teale turned his attention to Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a name that locals recognize as The Snowflake Man. Teale quotes the Book of Job upon introducing him: “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” Bentley was the first to photograph snowflakes in great detail. I love this part of the narrative:

“His was a poet’s emotional response to the beauty of the snow. Long years afterwards he spoke with regret of one particular flake, one of the most beautiful he had ever seen, that broke before he could record its image. ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, however rare, rare it be,’ and the snowflake is beauty in its most fleeting form. Its fragile ice shatters or melts away and no one will ever see its like again. Its design is lost forever.”

It was good to be reminded of this precious and quite stunning individuality hidden in the wet clumps I would later be pushing off my windshield.

The Teale book next steered me toward home long before I got on the road. After a delightful chapter about Sugar Bush and maple sugaring (a practice that Linda and Randy have adopted on their own porch), Edwin and Nellie drove down to Essex, Connecticut—the next town over from my own Deep River. These days, it’s a wealthy town high in curb appeal and tourists, but also a pleasurable stop for locals which offers generous access to the river, the Connecticut River Museum, and other adventures like eagle watch cruises and a big deal about Groundhog Day. But Edwin and Nellie, in the 1960s, were drawn to the town because of the E.E Dickinson Company, “the source of most of the world’s supply of witch hazel.” (At least at that time!). The company has since moved to (or been blended with) a company in East Hampton, under the name American Distilling, and continues to churn out the stuff.

Snow on Witch Hazel by I Am I.A.M. on Flickr.jpg

Snow on Witch Hazel courtesy of I AM I.A.M. on Flickr

Teale wrote about “brushmen”—guys who gathered the witch hazel plant in the woods. He followed the most accomplished brushman of his day, Stanislaw Gula of Hampton, Connecticut (where the Teales lived), as he hunted and gathered. Teale described witch hazel as “a botanical individualist…not linked with any special environment. It grows on dry slopes and hilltops as well as in wet and swampy wetlands. At times, the clumps appear singly and widely spaced; at other times, they cluster together like alders in a swale.” I was tickled to look up American Distilling and learn about certified wild crops and sustainable harvesting over 30,000 acres of land approved for harvest. I’d love to go see it sometime and ask about what may have changed since Mr. Gula’s day.

Randy, even in his recovering state, was able to converse a bit about the beauty of the yellow witch hazel plants in he and Linda’s woods back home in Middlebury. He possesses a wealth of knowledge, so also knew about what Teale described earlier in the book as “the diamond fields of Arkansas,” which the Internet now bills as Crater of Diamonds State Park. It was fun to sit in that rather sterile room and talk about some wonders of the world.

We are so grateful that Randy’s mind and personality remain 100% Randy and fully capable, and that his speech, although quite faint for a while, has not been affected by his stroke. The book I was reading at the hospital conveyed miracles of one sort, but a whole other variety of miracle was happening, for all of us, as so many reached out to us with help and prayers and vibes and concrete resources. (And the medical care is a whole other miracle of its own). I started a GoFundMe campaign to help in the face of long-term lost wages—so much support pouring in from not only beloved family and friends, but friends of friends of friends and maybe some strangers, too! How heartening to feel so blessed—by books and family and by the kindness of so many—in the midst of the last throes of winter.

hints of spring

Winter retreating

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They Came with the Cold: On Patience, Bird Feeders, and New Beginnings

Juncos Dawn Huczek on Flicr

Junco courtesy of Dawn Huczek on Flickr

It hasn’t been a banner month for our bird feeders. Maybe they don’t enjoy the “wild bird” mix I put out. Maybe that disabled hawk we saw downed on our neighbor’s lawn – who we still spot, flying low, from time to time – has taken up residence and is scaring the smaller birds away. I worried that the local bird population had declined steeply, but others assure me that their feeders have been quite active!

How often did my mother tell me, growing up, that patience is a virtue?

It’s hard to be patient when time seems to be at such a premium. I peek out the back window when I hurry into the cold pantry for a scoop of Buddy’s kibble, or when I walk through the dining room. Nobody at the feeder. Well, not until lately.

A few days ago, when the temperature hovered close to 0, they crept in. A pair of woodpeckers lingered at the suet. They were moving so very slowly, and sometimes not at all for long stretches. They looked more like wax figurines than living beings, and I guessed they were likely in (or approaching) torpor.  Birds use torpor – “a state of slowed body functions” – to conserve energy and heat.

rose hips snow Hisgett

Chilled rose hips courtesy of Tony Hisgett on Flickr

The woodpeckers – Downy variety, I think –  are back today, and moving in normal fashion. It’s a (comparatively) balmy 10 degrees. The Downies are outnumbered by the Dark-eyed Juncos, though. I count seven juncos. When they are not at the feeder they congregate in the bare rosa rugosa bushes lining the deck. Will this be the year that I finally make my own rose hip tea or jelly, when the hips come back into bloom? It seems a good New Year’s resolution, and I think I’ve got at least 5 months to gear up for it!

In the shorter term, there’s so much to aspire to when the calendar flips over to 2018. I want to put more slips in the gratitude jar, inspired by my sister’s heartfelt book.  It’s not that I didn’t find moments to be grateful for in 2017—it’s that I don’t always stop to mark them. (And, yes, that is a literal and a figurative statement! The jar’s slips make tangible what my mind and spirit have taken in.) I want, no, NEED–more time in a state of awareness and contemplation and gratitude. More stopping and noticing and peering and pondering.  More letting the best parts of this world wash over me; less occupying my space and time with the superficial. I’ve even downloaded an app to track and limit my screen time—I’d like to say I use the blue screen to access moments of great meaning, but too often I am flitting about, grazing on what amounts to junk food for my brain and spirit.

Jar

Gratitude jar, with Gavin’s art in the background. To be read on New Year’s morning!

I had a few lovely micro-moments of observation and contemplation in recent days. They have made me hungry for more. The birds, who refuse to accommodate my schedule, are at last showing up with regularity. They dive in and forage the ground below the feeder. They stand in the snow in small clusters, so quiet at mealtime when I know that they could sing for their suppers quite operatically. They are worth every faithful stop at the windowpane, even if I don’t always find them when I hope to.

Branches in snow David Burns Flickr.jpg

Snow-laden branches courtesy of  David Burn on Flickr

Last night, Buddy required a nocturnal walk. My walks have been woefully brief due to a foot problem, and I miss my outside adventures so much. But I can still make mini-circuits around the yard (with apologies to the podiatrist). Last night’s circuit had me admiring how the snow adorned each horizontal limb of the cottonwood, and how the moon lit the yard in such a stirring and immersive way. I called Gavin outside to see it. Today I read a freshly minted poem by Amy Nawrocki that conveyed how I felt when I looked up at the night sky.

Wishing you peace, well-attended bird feeders, and many reverent moonlit walks in 2018.

PS: For some good reading on day-lit walks, check out these fine haibuns about the New England Trail.

At Our Gloved Fingertips: March Microexpeditions

 

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

 

fox flickr.jpg

Courtesy of krissvdh on Flickr

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

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

muskrat love Val Marson flickr.jpg

Muskrat lodge with rooftop goose courtesy of Vail Marston on Flickr

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

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

Pileated family mcLin Flickr

Pileated family courtesy of Henry T. McLin on Flickr

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

 

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

If You Fill It, They Will Come

On Thanksgiving Day I dug the bird feeder out of storage and filled it with a fresh mix of seeds. I relished the happy anticipation of visitors to the buffet.

I stopped feeding the birds when the spring came (with the exception of nectar for the hummingbirds—they get the royal treatment). I read that this is a good idea in something by Edwin Way Teale, I think. The premise is that they our avian friends have tons to eat without our help in the warmer months, and it’s best not to encourage too much dependence. But of course, berries, worms, and bugs are much harder to find when the temperature drops. Plus, I want to support the most stalwart of birds—those who stick around and don’t migrate South when the going gets tough. They grace my winter days.

I know some people who keep the feeder stocked all year. Either way, the winter makes birds more noticeable in many ways. We can see them more readily now that the trees are bare, and they may be more apt to come by for breakfast or supper when their natural supplies start to diminish.

Once the feeder was stocked, I waited for the birds to find it. It took a few hours before the word got out. My first visitor of the season was a nuthatch. Always, this bird’s feathers remind me of a grey coat I once had, with handsome black piping. And his/her habit of standing or walking upside down so effortlessly is one that helped me, as an amateur birder, help to identify this species. (My knowledge is not yet sophisticated enough to tell the genders apart, hence the “his/her”).

Not long after the nuthatch came titmice, sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncoes, and today I saw two mourning doves on the ground below the feeder. The downy woodpeckers have dominion over the suet cake, although I’ve seen the nuthatches pecking there, too. The same crowd as last winter, except no cardinals yet. I’ve seen them around; just not at the feeder, for some reason.

mourning dove flicker 2.jpg

Mourning Dove courtesy of Harold Neal on Flickr

I’m reminded with a little Internet research that more and more robins are overwintering here and not heading South. But they don’t tend to visit feeders—they don’t eat birdseed. Plus their behavior changes in wintertime and they flock more, working together to watch for danger and look for food.

Robins may have been my first birds, ever. I mean, the first birds I became aware of as a small child. I remember watching them pull worms with great vigor from our front lawn. Their presence thrilled me, as it does today. And they still mean spring for so many of us, because even those that have been here all along seem to “reappear” as the weather warms, hopping about on our softening lawns and starting to contemplate raising a family.

Hal Borland wrote that “birds are independence itself.” He explained: “they live uncluttered lives with no possessions to protect, no homes to maintain, no family responsibilities once the nesting season is ended…” Maybe that is part of their allure for me. I am not sure—all I know is that refilling the feeder also fills my heart, and then my heart is lifted by the visitors that come, again and again.

PS: In my case, there is so much more to learn. I am considering signing up for some of these courses–the most basic, about shape and color, are quite reasonable.