Nature on the Page

bushyHill drawings

My humble drawing and painting beginnings

I’ve been fortunate, as part of my book launch year, to conduct some nature writing workshops. What joy, to meet others who love nature AND words. Some are highly experienced at both, others just starting to dip their toes into one or the other.

The title of this blog is also the name of the workshop series I have underway at Bushy Hill Nature Center with Jan Blencowe, a gifted visual artist who keeps enviable nature journals that are deftly illustrated and annotated. At the first session, I got to play in a different space: drawing and painting! The deliberateness needed for this activity was a whole new way of looking at nature, super up close and personal and still! Some leaves had put on their best colors just in time for my pursuit. Capturing those hues is still a work in progress.

I’ve taken to bringing a chock-full, carry-on suitcase full of nature writing books when I teach these workshops. Then I watch my fellow nature- and word-lovers drool over them, just like I do. I’ve promised to make a list for my attendees, but maybe it will come in handy for my blog readers, too.

 

nature books

A tiny sliver of my beloved nature book collection. No table (nor house! nor panoramic lens!) is big enough!

A few disclaimers about the list below:

  • These are in no particular order of favorite, type, copyright, or anything else!
  • There are many, many more books I love that didn’t make it into this particular suitcase.
  • I have  a serious used book habit so some may be unavailable via the traditional bookstore route. Think used bookstore or online shopping and of course LIBRARIES!
  • The links I enclose all go to Amazon, simply because that was the easiest tool on hand for me that would lead readers to a quick summary. That said, PLEASE, PLEASE give lots of love to local and independent book sellers, whenever you can. Many used bookstores can do some hunting for you, too. I know Niantic Book Barn does!
  • In the interest of space, I have chosen to restrict my gushing here and keep it pretty factual. I DO love them all, though!

NATURE BOOKS: THE TRUNK SHOW LIST 

  • The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich Much of it is Maine-based; was perfect at Acadia. Plain spoken and colorful.  There’s a quote from her here, at the end. 
  • Dawn Light, by Diane Ackerman Many admirable literary takes surrounding the sunrise.
  • The Practical Naturalist (An Audubon book) Illustrated, large-format exploration.
  • The Wisdom of Wilderness, by Gerald G. May A spiritual take on nature and healing.
  • Central Park in the Dark, by Marie Winn Nature at night in Manhattan: there’s more there than you think! (author of Red Tails in Love, another good one!)
  • The Oxford Book of Nature Writing A great sampling of pieces, from older to more contemporary.
  • A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, by Edwin Way Teale Admirable recounting of undertaking a love affair with the land and its creatures.
  • Stirring the Mud, by Barbara Hurd Made me want to run out and buy muck boots and go into the swamps and bogs.
  • Naturally Curious Day by Day, by Mary Holland A great, modern almanac that teaches you something every day, with photos and text (Northeast focus).
  • The View from the Oak, by Herbert R. and Judith Kohl Meant for children, a unique take on seeing the world through other creatures’ eyes. I think it’s great for adults, too.
  • Thoreau’s Wildflowers, by Geoff Wisner Reflections on Thoreau’s many detailed writings on local flora.
  • The Incidental Steward, by Akiko Busch About citizen science–inspiring and hopeful!
  • A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver Deeply thought provoking poems that are very joyous and humble and accessible and wise. 
  • Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver See line above. I really can’t get enough Oliver.
  • The Wisdom of John Muir, by Anne Rowthorn John Muir was quite an enthused and accomplished writer. And he lived the words–really got out there and had epic adventures! 
  • Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold This classic first-person masterpiece led to a land ethic. I just gave a free book to someone, because she said my name and Aldo’s in the same sentence! 
  • Canoeing Maine’s Legendary Allagash, by David K. Leff  An artful tale of  canoeing through nature, woven with the story of  a relationship.
  • Oak Wise, by LM Browning Insightful poems surrounding ecology and spirituality.  
  • A Walk Through the Year, by Edwin Way Teale Now a few decades old , but still a highly relevant and relatable almanac reflecting time at Teale’s Trail Wood in Connecticut.  
  • The Fields of Noon, by Sheila Every Burnford Engaging essays about walks and time in nature. I quoted her here–she would have been a great walking companion!  
  • Living Things, by Anne Porter These poems are often spiritual/religious and connected with nature. The poet was married to artist Fairfield Porter. 
  • Unseen City, by Nathanel Johnson Johnson sees the urban landscape’s flora and fauna with fresh eyes and contagious enthusiasm.
  • @Nat Geo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos Pictures are more prominent than words, but with compelling perspectives and color.
  • Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey This favorite, a “love letter” to a pet snail by a woman dealing with illness, got away from my suitcase but the short read is an all-time favorite. See this Snail Love Darts entry. 

I know this isn’t my typical blog, but I had fun compiling it. I’d love to hear about your favorites!

PS: As much as I love writing and books, sometimes I am at a loss for words out in nature, which can be a good thing! Take this bee, for instance. How much color in his tiny landscape. How much joy seeing him gave me! It was better to be silent than to talk while taking this in.

bee or fly

In Bushy Hill Nature Center’s garden

 

 

 

 

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Wild Carrots and Lace

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Lace in the meadow

This seems to be the peak of the year for Queen Anne’s lace. That economic principle of things being of less value when they are super-abundant doesn’t apply for me, when it comes to these leggy white blooms that greet me from even the most untended stretches of road. As a small child, their colloquial name captured my imagination—it was one of the first wildflowers I learned. Ediblewildfood.com recounts the legend of Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) pricking her finger, thus the “drop of blood” that shows up on the flower as a tiny purple dot, when you look closely.

 

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Closeup of the purple “blood” on the flower

As with most familiar plants, this one has many names. iNaturalist.com (a great app, if you have a smart phone especially, for learning about flora and fauna) told me that my photo was of a wild carrot, or Daucus carota. I was delighted to learn of other colloquial names, too: bishop’s lace and bird’s nest.

I became preoccupied with the desire to know why, in the morning, some of the flowers have curled in on themselves – and they do look like birds’ nests – or the loveliest version of a tiny cage. I wondered if they all curl up at night, and then for some reason open at different rates in the morning. But the World Carrot Museum site tells me that the umbels (or seed heads) curl inward once they are spent, and the hooked spines that cover the fruits aid dispersal, since they can cling to the fur of animals. Aha! When the flowers are open, they allow pollination, and when closed, they have gone to seed and are ready to “go forth and multiply.” (aside: I was so tickled to learn that there is a World Carrot Museum, even if it is only in cyberspace).

 

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The “bird’s nest” or cage, when the plant has gone to seed 

My sister once had an awful experience of picking what she thought was Queen Anne’s lace and having an intense, photosensitive allergic reaction. She had found herself a bouquet of wild parsnips, not wild carrots, and apparently there is also poison hemlock, another look-alike to worry about, which lacks hairs on stems and leaves compared with the proper Queen Anne’s lace (note: I am NOT an expert—learning as I go!). While the wild carrot root is edible, if you get it at the right time, it is a very risky business unless you really know your stuff. Poison hemlock is so named for a very good, deadly reason, and wild parsnip, while ostensibly having an edible root, carries the risk of at least the aforementioned reaction. More info here, if you are curious about differentiating these plants (although I can’t guarantee the expertise of the video maker! Foraging experts say that the best way to learn, and be safe, is to go out foraging with a bona fide expert).

My appreciation of Queen Anne’s lace’s ubiquitous loveliness took a turn into a discussion of poison, which wasn’t what I planned. I may have gone off on this tangent because I am hoping to pursue my Master Naturalist certification in the spring, and am amazed and intimidated by how much there is to know! But there is also delight in learning, something I look forward to.

 

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In the beginning…a new bud of lace

In the meantime there is simple appreciation, and for me there is always a balance to be struck. You can “know” the wildflowers and insects and animals that you meet as friends—appreciating unique qualities and observing them with alert senses. You can also “know” as an academician knows, even to the point where you are encyclopedic on the topic. Neither way is inherently bad, but too much of one risks obliterating the other. Knowing based on just your own observation can mean false assumptions, and limitations. Knowing based on simply facts can push aside the beauty of the thing. I wonder how much William Carlos Williams knew when he wrote about the seemingly single-minded effort of this plant?:

…until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

(The poem is copyrighted; you can read the whole thing here).

In Praise of the Small: Swallows, Dune Toads, and Caterpillars

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Purple Martins courtesy of Rick Leche on Flickr

Today I checked off a longstanding item on my bucket list of local endeavors. I jumped into my jeans and hurried out of the house to be in Madison by 7:50, where I met with fellow bird lovers in The Audubon Shop parking lot. I met author/illustrator Patrick J. Lynch, and he autographed my new copy of A Field Guide to the Long Island Sound. I’ve lived on both sides of the Sound, traversing many of its rocky beaches, and it seems only fitting that I should, at long last, own a detailed manual about its non-human inhabitants. The group formed a caravan at Hammonasset Beach State Park, driving short stints to favorite bird haunts in the park and learning from Lynch and shop owner Jerry Connolly.

The Purple Martins filled my heart. The sheen on the males caught the light, and the couples seemed to be performing a musical for our benefit, flying to and fro as we stood with our “opera glasses” and took in the spectacle. I learned that they winter in South America and come back to the exact same “condo” bird houses every spring, where they nest in great colonies. When I looked them up later on All About Birds, I learned that man-made Martin houses used to be really abundant. John James Audubon used them as a gauge for his lodging prospects when traveling, noting: “Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.” Should we start a movement to bring back the universal Martin box, especially at inns? Wouldn’t looking for the birdhouses be infinitely more fun than hotel ratings Web sites?

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Beach bum Fowler’s toad courtesy of USFWS on Flickr

I was taken with a modest, marshy pool adjacent to the pavilion’s parking lot. Although we only spotted a few tadpoles, Lynch gave us a lesson on Fowler’s toads, which, unlike the better-known American toads, like to hang out in sand dunes. His book says that they bury themselves in the sand to escape the heat. How many Fowler’s toads did I unknowingly step over as I roamed around Jones Beach and Point Lookout and Caumsett and Welwyn Preserve in my youth? As we learned about the toads, a flurry of bright blue tree swallows stole center stage, appearing to perform for us but in actuality chasing insects. The morning brought more finds, including Least Terns (endangered) and American Oystercatchers and Brants. I couldn’t work my phone camera by the end of the walk, as my hands were surprisingly numb from the wet chill. But it was worth the temporary paralysis.

tree swallows Michael Mulqueen.jpg

Embarrassment of tree swallows courtesy of Michael Mulqueen on Flickr

On the way home on Route 9, warming alternate hands over the heating vents, I once again noticed a particular, still quite bare, tree, which boasts the most tent caterpillar abodes I’ve ever seen in one place. I looked up the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and found what I expected on a college entomology site: Malacosoma americanum is described as a pest with “unsightly silken nests” that feeds on (but doesn’t usually defoliate) trees, going on to say that “they are a nuisance and can create a mess when they are squashed on driveways, sidewalks, and patios.” Those lucky enough to survive our feet and cars and predators (which I bet they consider a nuisance, at the very least!) transform into rather ordinary-looking moths.

The tree caterpillars reminded me of gypsy moth caterpillars, another one of God’s “creatures great and small” often viewed as an outcast, despite the fact that ominous sounding “outbreaks” are very often limited by nature, such as the fungus that counters the gypsies. (I wrote more about gypsies here).  Both tree and gypsy moth caterpillar eggs overwinter under ingenious protective coatings, and it seems miraculous to me that they make it to spring at all. In The Book of Noticing (officially launching Tuesday!) I wrote about peering and tracking and researching “even the common gypsy moth,” and this reminds me that, despite my generally sympathetic attitude, I don’t necessarily fully value the lives of the moths who lay their eggs and flutter to the ground to die each summer, at least not on par with other, usually bigger and more visually pleasing creatures. This is something for me to think about. Can I cut off the branch of my neighbor’s tent caterpillared-tree and bring the innocents, just doing what they were born to do, off into the woods somewhere, far away from the garden, sparing them from destruction?

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New life amid new life

Caterpillars are not pretty in the same way that Purple Martins are. But they fascinated me when I was a child, their suction-cuppy feet traversing my arm, tickling its tiny hairs. Can we make more room in the world even for creatures who don’t make us want to cuddle? Even for those creatures, like many-eyed or hairy-legged spiders, who sometimes make us want to run? They are living their lives, too, and have their place. They, like us, can be so misunderstood. Could they teach us more about compassion?

As I wrote this I kept hearing a small vibrating noise and assumed it was rapid raindrops riding the edge of the gutter. But my eye caught a white moth here inside, fluttering her wings at an impossible speed. Was she trying to dry off? She rode my forearm for a while, then lifted off to the windowsill. Another small creature who so often goes unnoticed, and this one has already been through several stages of her life, like me. She catches the light beautifully. She craves it just like I do.

Lonely as a Cloud: Ospreys, Mom, and Daffodils

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Daffodils at Aaron Manor

I remember other April days like this past Sunday, when I was fooled into thinking we might sit in the sun comfortably, but the wind continued to feel like March and my hands wanted to stay in their pockets. I had decided to take Mom to Sweet Luna’s, our relatively recent tradition. The plan to eat our frozen yogurt outside was scrapped—maybe after Easter, Mom’s favorite holiday.

We used to share delectable meals out, but at this point in Mom’s old age and dementia, her condition is such that she can only eat specific textures and thicknesses of food. Frozen yogurt with tons of fudge and caramel and peanut butter make the list, as do carefully chosen tiny toppings like mini chocolate chips and crushed-up Andes candies. I think we create a small disturbance at Sweet Luna’s, as I have to yell so loud at Mom to be heard. But they are kind and it is a good outing.

Mommy

An excellent day in 2014, when we were still able to eat out

There are good days and bad days with Mom’s dementia, and I have never been able to figure out why sometimes more cylinders (or more accurately, neurons) seem to be firing. This recent outing wasn’t one of the best days—Mom picked at her skin (a common dementia habit) and mostly stayed in her own world. She had little interest in the nearby tent sale, when in the old days she would have shopped up a storm. She had no opinion when asked if she wanted to drive home the pretty way or the fast way.

I chose for us. Pretty. Very pretty, in fact—River Road in Essex. Back in the car, we were again fooled into thinking it might be May, or even June, and I opened the windows to let the breeze in. I hoped that Mom was taking in some of the vista—the river below, the light in the trees—and when I looked at her face I thought she might be absorbing some of it. It was hard to tell.

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A photo from another April, of light in the trees

The first time my heart soared, it was because I saw my first Osprey of the season, far away on the platform at the Pettipaug Yacht Club, the club we joined last year even though all we have is a canoe. Great bird life there! A half mile or so later, I saw another Osprey on its own platform at Pratt Cove. I pointed these out to Mom but the experience seemed lost on her. The car was too fast and her vision and hearing were too dim to keep up. Still, she smiled, discerning from my gesticulations that something had pleased me, and happy that I was happy. (My dedication to her in The Book of Noticing says exactly that: “always happy when I am.”)

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Osprey courtesy of Fritz Myer on Flickr

 

 

But I felt lonely. We used to have the best conversations, and now she’s mostly deaf and often mute. Even when I yell, many of my attempts at conversation are lost on her. My mind wandered, thinking about loneliness and spring. I thought about the daffodils we’d seen, just beginning their lives in bloom. And then, I was inspired. I leaned over toward Mom and shouted, “I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD.” She looked toward me, puzzled, having not heard my first attempt. Again I yelled the first line of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” poem (which is actually titled with that first line that I was bellowing). Without missing a beat, Mom replied, “That floats on high o’er vales and hills.” We fumbled our way through the next couple of lines, back and forth, surely butchering Wordsworth’s perfect lyric but getting to the gist of line four, spoken (inaccurately but triumphantly) by Mom: “A host, of golden daffodils.” A simple but stellar moment. The neurons rose up in joy, for just a brief interval.

Mom majored in English literature, specializing in the British poets. All of these great works used to roll off her tongue. She’d been on the debate team and had great elocution. No longer, but I know that the words live somewhere inside of her.

I thought about how nature inspires me to write. But for Mom, who is not as tuned into to the natural world as I am (and who, on one of her recent good days, rolled her eyes when I waxed sympathetic for the polar bears’ climate change plight) , poetry is what introduced her to nature. The combination of Mom’s poetry and Dad’s fierce love of the outdoors shaped me profoundly. Mom taught me, through poetry (and with robust help from William Blake), to literally:

…see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…

She alerted me to the hallelujah that is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dappled things,” and often recited Pippa Passes, by Robert Browning:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

We got back to the nursing home, and after I settled her into her cushy red chair we exchanged our habitual “vaya con Dios.” As I left Aaron Manor I snapped a photo of the daffodils planted outside.

All was right with the world.

 

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.

 

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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.

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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

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.