Transformation: Holiday to Holy Day

IMG_1456.JPGThe day could have been one of near-panic. Despite a decade of efforts to simplify Christmas, each year it still boils down to many items piled onto my already overflowing to-do list. Even tasks that carry genuine meaning for me – like creating a photo card that will celebrate our treasured son and reach out to friends old and new – threaten to sap my time and energy. It’s a matter of simple math—more to do, but no extra time to do it.

But then there was this: after my doctor’s appointment I challenged myself to brave the cold for a bit, just 5 minutes down the block to Starbucks in Old Saybrook, where I could sit with a caramel macchiato and consolidate my monster list. My face hurt in the wind, and my leather gloves suddenly seemed too thin.

After my coffee-list mission, I started my chilly journey down Main Street to the car. I was going to be all business from there on out—so much to do! But I glanced down a long, straight side street (Coulter Street, I think) and saw what looked like water at the end of it. It drew me like a magnet. My tingling face and fingers were forgotten as I let the tree-lined block and the water draw me—my curiosity had a happy, warming side effect.

IMG_1345 (1).JPGI looked up at the bare trees as I walked, taking in long-abandoned birds’ nests now exposed and trying to remember what squirrels’ nests are called (dreys!). I examined the varied barks of this tree and that—some smooth, some wrinkled, some like alligator skin. I felt appreciation for older, craggy trees that are allowed to age with dignity and must be homes to many a grateful creature. For the gazillionth time I wondered if I might look up and see a sleeping owl in some tree hollow or on some high branch (it hasn’t happened yet but I keep hoping). I remembered reading about how some trees hang onto their seed pods all winter, poised for the chance to drop them into the soft, fertile spring soil.

IMG_1453.JPGThe marsh came into full view as I strolled, and I simply stood there watching it for a while. I admired the fat, feathery cat tails swaying in the wind. I saw some sparrows or juncoes darting about.

Then I looked up the hill to my left and saw what I thought might be a cemetery. I had never been down this block before, and it turned out my “cemetery” was a long line of boulders on the border of Founders Memorial Park, a 2007 creation built on a former landfill and overlooking North Cove. The vista I found there gave me a sense of deep contentment, and the sign about the park’s bird life had me wishing I’d toted my binoculars along. No doubt many have migrated away for now, but when they come back I will come here, too, looking for a Clapper Rail or a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

IMG_1455.JPGIn the meantime, the cold doesn’t seem so very harsh any more. It was a Christmas gift tailor-made for me—this moment of being reminded that simply stepping out, simply stopping to gaze and wonder, even in the harsh cold, even shoehorned in between the gazillion waiting tasks, can reveal a world that’s been waiting patiently all along. The bench placed there by a local church seemed to be placed there as a fitting caption:

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Gift Ideas for the Nature Lover

Some gift ideas for those who prefer meadows and mountains to malls and mass marketing:

A great read or two on nature. Tastes and preferences vary, and “nature books” can be everything from a detailed field guide to poetry to essays to travel writing to fiction. Expand your search beyond this year’s bestsellers, too. Some of the best reads have had limited distribution, or come to us from distant years. (For used books in Connecticut try  The Book Barn or Bennett’s Books–or places like Powell’s and Abe Books online). A few favorites from my own list:

A course or educational walk in nature. (Live events are in CT but will hopefully spark some ideas for remote readers, t00)

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Golden Grove Bridge near Baltimore, Courtesy of Nicolas Raymond on Flickr

Equipment! (few links in this section, but local, chain or online retailers are easy to find). For locals as well as online shoppers, remember Harris Outdoors:

  • A hand lens for up-close observation (idea inspired by Unseen CityANOTHER awesome book)
  • Binoculars–this may be the best gift my husband ever gave me
  • Trekking poles or a walking stick
  • Warm clothes for walks in the cold–Under Armour, wool socks, etc.
  • Items for the backpack: granola bars, water bottles, emergency kit, etc.
  • Budget conscious and bountiful: birdseed and bird feeders can be super reasonable and are truly gifts that “keep on giving”
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Water droplets in web courtesy of Sara Ward on Flickr

Membership. Society memberships keep on giving, too–often including magazines, free or reduced admission to events or courses, etc. There are too many to name, so here are a few of my own favorites:

Charitable giving. Many of the above-named societies (and more!) accept donations and will often send a small gift in return. Here are a few more:

If your nature-loving friend collects artifacts and mementos from their time outside, consider supplying a special box, display case or shelving, or other container to house their finds.

Last, but not least, spend time with your loved one in nature–even if it’s not your thing! Plan a visit to a special location they haven’t experienced yet. They will relish the adventure and be grateful for your support.

For those of you who celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you have about 12 days. Hit the gift-finding trail!

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.

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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.

The Squeaking is Real: Chipmunk Baby Boom

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Courtesy of Mark Moschell on Flickr

So I haven’t imagined it!

I am not sure when I first noticed it—maybe June? Any walk in the woods, or even down many of our local streets, is peppered with frequent small squeaks followed by the sound of tiny feet skittering through the leaf bed to safety. Often, a chipmunk will run across the trail ahead of my approach, maybe 20 feet hence, tail high. Noticing chipmunks is, of course, not new. But this many? It turns out the favorable weather and food supply this year has led to a bumper crop, according to the DEEP.

Characteristically timid, these creatures can be bold when they want to. My neighbor Susan watched them eating her garden tomatoes. Maybe she was anthropomorphizing, but to her they seemed to be doing it with a sassy defiance in their eyes. They got one or two of my tomatoes, too—didn’t even bother to eat the whole fruit!

Various articles online warn about the potential for garden mayhem or even structural damage. But fears of a chipmunk home invasion don’t keep me up at night. Mostly, I just enjoy them. I assume the squeaks I hear as I walk are squeaks of alarm—a human is coming! Somehow, it amuses me that they would be so fearful—of me? I try to talk to them sometimes, putting on my most soothing voice. But they freeze, every muscle tense, ready to run frantically if I get any closer.(Here’s some audio of their sound repertoire, courtesy of WiIdlife of CT).

I call every chipmunk I’ve ever met Chippy. We have one or two Chippies that live within a stone’s throw of our front door. They seem to love to dart in and out of our stone walls, and I love the liquid black of their lively eyes, the defining stripe in their fur. But that, along with my recognition of their characteristic squeaks, has been the extent of my knowledge on these critters. I decided to learn more.

According to Live Science , chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family. This makes sense—similar behaviors, similar characteristic stance, standing on two feet. But I hadn’t really thought about it before. There are 25 species in North America. Apparently they are pretty much loners, except during mating season, which happens once or twice yearly (late spring and fall).

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Courtesy of Sarowen on Flickr

Okay, here’s a quote from Live Science that really makes me want to see a baby chipmunk:“Pups are hairless, blind, pink creatures the size of a jelly bean.” Of course, those pups would be hard to spot, and it’s reported the mothers are very protective. I’d also like to see a chipmunk who’s just about met his capacity for filling cheeks with food—their cheeks can stretch to three times the size of their head!

Acorns seem to be their big thing, but they will eat nearly whatever they find, including baby birds and birds’ eggs. And this is useless information, perhaps, but I was quite pleased to learn that they possess very tiny thumbs.(Thanks for the factoid, Lakeside Nature Center!)

I think there could be copyright issues with picture reposting, but if you want to see some heart-melting photos of these creatures, check out National Geographic’s slide show here.

 

A Walk to Essex: Happy, Achy Birthday

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Before my battery waned, I was determined to document that I’d made it to the town line!

Continue reading

What I Learned About Sunapees on My Summer Vacation

 

My husband Tom found a new vacation place for us this year. We stayed at a just-the-right-size cabin (courtesy of Airbnb.com) in Freeville, New York. Freeville itself is quite the small town (population 523, part of the larger town of Dryden). Our cabin is adjacent to meadow and trails, and that has been a soothing delight overflowing with colorful mushrooms, dragonflies, and wildflowers. But as nature-loving as we are, we might not have chosen the area if it wasn’t also close to Ithaca, home of Cornell, complete with interesting college town, and, more importantly to me, some impressive waterfalls and gorges. Hence the “Ithaca is Gorges” T-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, key chains…Great slogan if you are a pun appreciator!!

We were determined to swim in a local watering hole, perhaps one fed by a magnificent waterfall. The first swimming spot we tried, at Buttermilk Falls park, turned us away—no swimming that day. We guessed why when we got to the Robert H. Treman State Park,  which was supposed to look like this:

Robert H Treman promo

 

But actually looked like this:

Robert H Treman reality.jpg

According to Ithaca.com, spring-to-summer months (March through June) were the driest on record this year. Hence the wade in the shallows that was not even worth a bathing suit. What really redeemed our disappointingly knee-high dip were the nearby children, maybe 3 years old, who started to shout, “We see a Sunapee! A SUNAPEE!). At first I thought they had found a sunny, one of those common fish so often brought in by a line. But then my mind caught up: a centipede! The little one confided that there were “sunapee babies, too,” although I only saw a large specimen, trying its best to blend into the rock wall as these high-pitched children made their enthused examination, crouching to peer closer, then again shouting SUNAPEE!! In happy unison.

millipede

Factually, a millipede. Forever remembered as a sunapee.

From there we took a short walk up the steps adjacent to the “falls” (or the spot where the falls should be). Maybe the kids helped us to tune in, because we delighted in a few more sightings: more millipedes (I only remembered the distinction later), an exotic-seeming caterpillar specimen, and a snake curled along a tree branch.

sycamore caterpillar

Fuzzy photo of a fuzzy caterpillar

tree snake

Gavin’s sharp eyes found this creature catching the breeze over the rocky ascent

I’m not sure about this—our photo was blurry, but a very impressive online identification site worth bookmarking  makes me wonder if we found the caterpillar of a sycamore tussock moth.

I’ve been reading Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, The Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness,  and it is the kind of book I wish I wrote. Then again, maybe I did! My upcoming Book of Noticing is all about tuning in and looking more closely at what is all around us. Mine is not urban, and its title is not as much of a whizbang. But I feel that author Nathanael Johnson could be a friend. He wants us to see and appreciate the squirrels, the pigeons, even the weeds, and it turns out they really are all quite interesting. There’s so much more to learn than we might appreciate at first glance.

For example, did you know that both male and female pigeons create a sort of super milk, one that has their young doubling their weight in a day?(No, pigeons do not have nipples, in case you were wondering. You’ve got to read the book to learn more!). The book has also inspired me to get my own hand lens to, as Johnson puts it, “peer into the Lilliputian realm.”

Large sheets of rain fell from the sky here in Freeville as I wrote this, and it fell when we hiked yesterday, too. This may mean bigger waterfalls for the next occupants of the cabin. Whatever the forecast, I hope that they also enjoy looking closely. There is so very much to see.

looking down at Treman park pool

The snake’s view

Fallen Gypsies

Sunday morning I walked near the Connecticut River, and the ground was dotted with soft, white, female gypsy moths who had reproduced and then fluttered downward to die. Later Tom and I walked at Machimoodus State Park and saw scores more white bodies. We watched one female who was busy producing her egg sac on a tree trunk. A brown male hovered nearby, and it was hard not to anthropomorphize, imagining him akin to a pacing, proud, and concerned new human father. This guy had up to 1000 offspring to be proud of!

Gypsy nursery

Gypsy nursery

 I remembered my writing residency at Trail Wood last August, when the female gypsy moths, dead and dying, peppered many trails. I had time to watch them and think about them, and I felt compassion for these much-maligned creatures.

I understand that this year is considered an “outbreak” year, as was 2015, and that these insects can wreak some serious defoliation. I’m sure this prospect would bother me more if I was an arborist. But it does sound like nature has its own tools for keeping this prolific population in check, at least partially. There’s a fungus that kills many of the caterpillars.  And small mammals love to eat the moths! I’ve heard other nature writers say that often these overruns of nature have a way of limiting themselves.

It seems unfair to me sometimes that we decide to like, or not like, creatures, based on their appearance, or sometimes on their volume. I’ve met plenty of people who are just creeped out by the hordes of gypsy moth caterpillars, and not because the creatures are consuming leaves. I even got a little spooked when I walked through a particular grove and could actually hear them chewing the green leaves, en masse (someone told me I might also have been hearing them relieve themselves, an even ickier thought).

Still, I have liked the fuzzy caterpillars with their impressive spikes and jewel-colored dots since I was little. They molt 5 times, shedding their skin as they grow and finally curling up and becoming pupae (in cocoons). They only get to live as moths for 2 weeks or less, and reproduction is their final task.

I admire how the egg sacs, which are coated with hair from the female’s abdomen, are sometimes moth shaped. My viewpoint may be unpopular, but I find myself rooting for those tiny lives contained in the sacs. They will overwinter within the hard cases, cozy against the bark of their nursery trees. I want these creatures to make it to their next phase of life, next spring. Many are born because only a fraction will escape predation or illness, or in the case of the caterpillar carcass-littered parking lot at my job, the frequent comings and goings of mankind.

It makes me sad to see the continuing rain of white moth bodies on the ground. I don’t know what the moths think or feel, of course, but I hope they enjoyed their short lives. They have made mine more interesting.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today I picked up a book called Saving Graces: Sojourns of a  Backyard Biologist, by Roger B. Swain. In the essay I read, he was talking about wasps (as well as wolves), but I can apply the same sentiment to these not-always-loved moths:

If we can forget the few times we were stung, ignore the fearful warnings of friends, we can watch wasps catching flies and small caterpillars to feed their young. We can watch as they scrape up wood fibers into pulpy balls to carry back and add to the nest. In the fall…we can cut the big bald-faced hornets’ nest out of the lilac. Slicing open its many-layered paper envelope, we will find level upon level of comb, intricate architecture built without blueprints or a foreman.

Wolves howl in the boreal forests, but few of us will ever hear them. Wasps, on the other hand, still come to every picnic. Make room for them. We shouldn’t have to enjoy wilderness at a distance.

Excuse Me While I Taste the Sky: A Nibble on Foraging

Okay, this whole foraging venture is new to me, so nothing you read here should be construed as advice to eat particular plants. And there is still a part of me that fears eating a poisonous imposter and dying a slow and awful death owing to my lack of attention to detail, groaning with deep regret as I lie in the woods, fading into unconsciousness.

That being said, I am cautiously inspired by two talks Gavin and I had the good fortune to hear about foraging for edible plants, both given by Karen Monger, author of Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging  and one of The 3 Foragers.

Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging: Finding, Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Native and Invasive Wild PlantsAt both talks, Karen’s husband served cold linden tea, and I learned that linden trees are often found in planted landscapes and parking lot medians/perimeters (versus more randomly, on walks through the woods). I will be looking for the yellowish-white flowers next spring, hoping to get my hands sticky with the harvest. (Of course, good foraging etiquette dictates that you ask before harvesting, but I am assuming someone will oblige). I imagine locally harvested linden tea in the winter would be a sweet reminder of greener times to come!

I have started to see daylilies everywhere, now that they are on my foraging radar. Shoots can be eaten in spring, and the flowers can be stuffed, similar to a squash blossom. (See this recipe from famous “Wild Man” Steve Brill). I am especially looking forward to eating the cooked, unopened buds, which reportedly taste sort of like green beans, but also slightly oniony. And the list of wild plant-eating possibilities goes on and on from there. (By the way, mushrooms are advised against for newbies. Consumption can be quite risky if you don’t know what you are doing, and that goes for plants as well as mushrooms! The Connecticut Valley Mycological Society  is a great resource for the long, careful process of learning more about fungi.)

So far, I’ve nibbled on lemony-sour sorrel and grapey-tasting (no surprise there) grape tendrils on my own. I already know, without needing to have my hand held, that the wild berries are coming in soon (only now I will call most of them wine berries instead of wild raspberries). I even have a pie recipe at the ready.

wine berries beginning

Beginnings of bristly blooms in the yard promise tasty desserts later

What I am most excited about, though, is the jewelweed. The Indian Native Plant & Wildflower Society says that “the seeds are both edible and quite tasty. Unfortunately, they are very small. It is said they taste like Walnuts (Juglans sp.).” But what especially intrigues me is that they are a beautiful light blue on the inside, after the darker seed coat is removed. Long-time Saratoga Springs-based nature blogger Jacqueline Donnelly gave me permission to repost this image:

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The inner jewelweed seed, as depicted on the Saratoga Woods and Waterways blog

Jewelweed is so named because of the sparkly way the water beads up on it, I am told. But I am much more taken with this Tiffany blue, hidden gem that can be taken in and savored on the tongue—a small bite of sky captured within a “weed.”

(By the way, the term weed is pretty subjective! See The Heroic Milkweed for Emerson’s quote on same, and more info on the infinity of uses for plants!  I haven’t yet delved into milkweed eating, although I am told it can be done!).

Galls: What Hides Within?

Gall 1 from flickr

Courtesy of Tom Hickmore on Flickr

This piece on galls was published quite some time ago, but it seems timely especially now, since I keep seeing galls!  

Have you ever noticed, among the nuts the squirrels have left behind on the lawn, small, peach-colored, fuzzy balls? How about pocked-looking, speckled spheres at the foot of the oak tree out in front? If you look, you’ll see many other assorted shapes and sizes, hanging off trees, clinging to leaves, scattered along the curb. Galls are everywhere, but most people know little about them.

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Courtesy of Arend on Flickr

Galls are growths formed by the reaction of a plant to mechanical irritations or chemicals produced by insects, bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Insect larvae live inside the protective shells of insect galls, growing to adulthood over the winter before emerging to the outside. Insect galls are generally more benign than the other varieties, some of which can cause ugly and sickly results for the plant.

There are more than 1500 types of insects in the United States that form galls. Wayne’s Word, an online natural history textbook by biology and botany professor Wayne P. Armstrong, describes the vast, and sometimes outlandish, variety of these phenomena: “Galls may be smooth, spiny or fuzzy, and resemble everything from marbles and ping-pong balls to dunce caps, saucers and sea urchins.” (See some of his intriguing photos here.)

Gall 3 from flickr

Courtesy of Picture Esk on Flickr

In 2007, gall wasps had a baby boom in southern Maine. Residents were perplexed by a sudden abundance of small, fuzzy balls in their yards. The wasps inside these spheres, not the stinging kind, emerged to procreate and die, leaving behind a new generation and a new crop of galls to protect the infants.

These tiny galls, commonly called “fuzzy oak” galls, are only one example of what insects and trees can do together. Oak galls as big as basketballs have also been reported. Willow trees can grow what appear to be “pine cones,” quite puzzling to passerby, which are actually galls caused by tiny gnats. Christmas trees may also sport “cones” that are not what they seem.

The benefit of galls to insects is obvious, but humans have also found ways to use these creations. Fisherman break open goldenrod galls to get to the tempting larvae bait. Tannic acid is a gall-derived product, and fine inks are also made from galls. Galls have also been used as a spice, (mostly in the Near East), and as food for livestock. A good tip for campers–dry galls make excellent tinder.

Once you start seeking galls, they “appear” everywhere. Wayne’s Word reported that almost every individual sand aster in one 50-acre grassland area in southern California had a swollen stem tip gall on it. It’s hard not to become a fan of these diverse creations, perhaps even more so if you get to see them “hatch”. You can bring them inside for viewing—be sure you provide a jar with some moisture—and see what (well, who) emerges.

The photos of galls below are my own–not the most beautiful or technically precise images, but literally home-grown!

Galls 2 Galls 1

The Book of Noticing

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Admirable tree in East Haddam

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

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

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

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

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