Lovely, Dark, and Eternal

Bare tangled branches up against a cerulean blue. That’s all I see when I raise my binoculars and search for the Pileated Woodpecker I keep hearing. The woods, especially unfamiliar ones, can have tricky acoustics. Is the sound  bouncing off the small peak that I just summited? The noise was ahead of me, and now it is behind me. I sigh and squirm on the mossy rock where I am crouching.

The early spring woods are reinforcing the lesson I seem to keep learning in other facets of my life. Patience. Patience while my left foot takes its long, circuitous journey to complete healing. Patience while I wait for another book idea to fully blossom. The never-anticipated need to be patient while my mother continues the “long goodbye” that is so emblematic of dementia (that phrase was the title of Ronald Reagan’s daughter’s memoir about losing him to Alzheimer’s disease). Mom is in her bed with the remarkably life-like artificial tulips I brought her yesterday. I am out here in the woods, thinking of her.

The woods remind me to be still, to listen and remember that all is well, in the sense that the beauty of the world and its workings is a constant, that it can bring me comfort. I remember that time will, eventually, bring peace and healing. Thinking about mom, I am brought back to young childhood, when I sat on her blue flowered bedspread eating tangerines. She is reading me part of Pippa Passes by Robert Browning.

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn
Morning’s at seven
The hillside’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.

It’s a simple stanza and I can just about recall the whole thing. More than the words, I remember the cadence, which sounds to me like a conversational and optimistic list, the poet making a convincing case that spring is, indeed, here. I muse about how, more than once, I have called these words up to help me cope with losing mom.  She couldn’t have known when she gave me these words that I would use them in such a way!

Today I saw thorns, but there were no snails on them. I heard a far-off, high bird call, but probably not a lark. But after I settled into the forest, so much looked and sounded right, just as it was for Pippa. The woodpecker’s rhythm sounded almost thoughtful for a while. The birds, too, were not as excited as I’ve heard them on many mornings amid the tall conifers in my yard. The long spaces between their chirps and chortles helped me hold longer spaces between my thoughts. I start to look and listen and feel and smell instead of simply thinking, instead of planning ahead, instead of worrying, even instead of grieving. This is a welcome oasis, a place from which I can draw quietude and strength.

Trombidium

My new Trombidium friend

I am taken with a fallen tree whose once loamy root ball has now eroded into a spiky, dinosaur-armor-like projection. Termites have been busy here, breaking the aged wood into inch-long, roughly rectangular chunks. I am startled to see, crawling on the base of a nearby tree,  the most fluorescent orangey-red insect I’ve ever seen, about the size of my pinky nail and quite lively and leggy, zooming up, down, and sideways. I muse about how mom would love the color—she often wears bright colors like this. I try to capture his image, even shooting a crude movie with my phone. How I love not knowing the exact kind of bug this is. I wonder about his life, his day-to-day tasks. (When I look him up on iNaturalist later I am pretty sure he is a Trombidium, a genus of mite that is apparently quite common. Despite so much time spent in nature, I’ve never seen one before).

hornet nest

Hornet’s nest from last season

There is so much to take in as I follow Camille’s Way, a trail in the Highlawn Forest property adjacent to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association building. The prize of an old hornet’s nest overhanging the murky green pond. The long, refrigerated corridor of conifers that smells like incense and feels like a wise, old friend. The birdsong that becomes more elaborate when I close my eyes. When I am still I realize that the now-noisy Pileated Woodpecker is not the only bird in town. Others are chiming in, too, more subtly, more gently.

conifer grove

Conifer grove

When I start to see Route 66 off in the distance, and some houses and such., it makes me feel like I’m in a secret realm– still close enough to entertain thoughts of civilization, and removed enough to treasure my solitude.

When I rejoin my group at the nature writing retreat I am facilitating, we talk about the nuances in nature, and how sometimes it’s good to notice and record the less “pretty” aspects of nature—the dead tree; the random, unexplained bone on the trail. But today, maybe because of what I need most, it all looks quenching, uplifting, hopeful to me. I see beauty even in the termite-destroyed tree, and in the sometimes nearly black, wet leaf litter that appears to block out all life.

new life 2.jpg

New life

I know that life thrives below the dark surface, and that many small creatures have overwintered there. Pushing some of the sodden leaves aside I see green sprouts trying their best to emerge. I give them a head start by clearing a space but know that even without my help they will, with time, find a way. I know that all these flora and fauna, all of us, go back to the earth. Our lives give rise to more life, and I mean much more beyond birth and the whole “dust to dust” thing. I have learned so much from mom and will always carry her grace with me, hopefully passing some of it down to Gavin and distributing the wealth of it among all I encounter.

The woods are where I learn to be patient. The woods are how I come to believe in resurrection. As mom so often used to say (quoting Frost), they are “lovely, dark, and deep.” How glad I am to visit them again.

skyward.jpg

Skyward

Advertisements

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

Color, Connection, and (once again) Hopkins

IMG_4137.JPG

From today’s walk to Chester

After an overall relaxing summer, time has sped up. We did a couple of trial mornings helping Gavin get accustomed to early rising for the bus, and then the school week started. Gone are the weekdays when Gavin slept in and I slipped out for an hours-long walk before work. Mornings are again more about punctuality and to-do lists, and I am relearning how to maximize the time between the school bus arrival and my own commute to work.

The dog’s schedule and the school schedule have conspired to have me walking before dawn on many days, not always ideal but it’s quiet and gives both me and Buddy time to be meditative. And I’ve experimented with pre-dawn snapshots:

img_4107.jpg

Sometime around 5 AM, on Deep River Main Street

But I was happy when Saturday came at last! The sun was close to rising when I set out for an hour-long ramble to Town Dock. Without Buddy’s inquisitive and committed nose it would have been a much shorter walk, but that’s the beauty of having a hound. They are into the world full throttle, primarily through the scent of it. Each of our successive beagles has acted like he or she has never been outdoors before, EVERY time we take a walk—unbridled curiosity and enthusiasm! Their whole bodies convey a sense of, “What’s next, world? I can’t wait to find out!” The sentiment is contagious and it helped me evolve into a nature writer.

IMG_4113.JPG

Town Dock never disappoints

Today I was reminded that visual sensations are often my gateway to nature. Sure, I take in the bird song and the scent of the river and the pines, and I relish the feel of the breeze against my skin. I recently wrote a whole piece about the experience of wind at Acadia National Park’s Tarn, and in The Book of Noticing I wrote a piece called “Scent Trail,” about trying to emulate my dog Molly’s aroma-driven quests. But my “go to” sense is sight, as is the case for most humans. First, before all of my senses kick in, I find myself looking. I relish how something as simple as a berry or a mushroom can catch the light.

IMG_4108.JPG

I’d appreciate it if a better-informed reader can tell me, definitively, what these are. None of the descriptions I found quite matched my image. The photo doesn’t do their shimmering quality justice.  

I looked and I looked Saturday and today and these were joyful, holy moments. (On Sunday I was intrepid, walking in moderate rain. But I wished I had windshield wipers for my glasses!). I thought about my artist sister’s sense of color and my mom’s flair for colorful style, and I’ve always felt a lack there, with my inherent bias toward monochromatic palettes in my home and my choice of clothes. But I had a “eureka!” moment while walking. My sense of color lives in the natural world. I am drawn to even the smallest splashes of brightness and visual variety; the colors are treasured even more if they are a hidden deep in the grass or in the understory.

img_4118.jpg

This unexpected ladybug nearly escaped my notice.

Soon I will turn 50, and I hope that on my birthday I can continue my new tradition of walking to Essex. I imagine that I will be “drinking with my eyes” that day, to borrow from 17th century poet Ben Jonson (I just learned something, thanks to Google — I had mis-remembered “drink to me only with thine eyes” as a Shakespeare phrase!). I know the context is different—Jonson’s poem is about lovers and their longing looks. But longing looks are not reserved exclusively for lovers. At my best moments on the trail (even the asphalt trail), I not only long, but I feel that longing—for stimulation, for interest, for connection, for peace, even for God—fulfilled. I feel that I am literally being filled as I “drink” in the endless colors and the sun and the breeze and the sounds beyond the brush.

FZEI6498.jpg

The best kind of collage

Oh gosh, I have quoted him before in this blog, but I am powerless to resit this particular redundancy. Gerard Manley Hopkins said it so well in Pied Beauty. For me, his words ooze the best way of “drinking with the eyes” (and the other senses, too) and the outcome of astonishment and enlivenment that this practice often brings. I’ll end with his words since I can’t top them, but before that I wish all of my readers happy “eye drinking” during their prized time outside.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

The Book of Noticing VEXATION!

 

tent caterpillar moth Andy Reago

Malacosoma americana (tent caterpillar moth) courtesy of Andy Reago & Chrissy McClaren on Flickr 

I live for watching nature, hearing its embedded poetry, and waxing enthusiastic about it, hence The Book of Noticing. But on one of those hot days recently (before the chilly, rainy snap returned), I was at a loss for conjuring picturesque images with clever turns of phrase. Mosquitoes found me and buzzed about the delectable main course that was me. They dug in with gusto. ICK! (insert expletive here).

I’ve been sympathetic to other maligned creatures, most recently the marginalized gypsy moths and tent caterpillars. After all, they are just chewing what they were meant to chew, aren’t they? Observing the mother gypsy moth’s carefully fashioned egg cases, often moth-shaped and fuzzy with hair from the female’s abdomens, made me more sympathetic. I also like to watch the tent caterpillars over time, as they grow by impossibly fast leaps and bounds in their gauzy nests. And both types turn into something that flutters gently about, soft and benign if not an especially stunning photo-op.

K Yamada mosquito.jpg

Perhaps the most flattering portrait of a mosquito, EVER, courtesy of K Yamada on Flickr 

But I can’t feel very sympathetic about the mosquito moms. According to the DC Mosquito Squad, our blood is “the perfect prenatal supplement for growing mosquito eggs.” Even though I know what it’s like to need a prenatal supplement, and to have babies (well, baby), all I can think is ICK!! I am not willing to scratch and grow welts and possibly contract a disease in the name of mosquito reproductive heath. Factoid: I learned that the very trait that makes me such a desirable blood donor, an O positive blood type, is apparently a real draw to mosquitoes, too. At least they don’t call me as often as the American Red Cross does.

Gavin had a picture book called The Naming when he was little, about the Garden of Eden. We brought it home from the beloved Niantic Book Barn. Each creature in the book was given a name, and a prophetic description. The lion was described as “splendor,” and the fleas that came along later (right after the dogs, of course!) were dubbed “vexation.” (Aside for the book lovers: this book’s author and illustrator were both prolific producers of some wonderful stuff!)

The Naming

Ah yes—vexation in nature! We’ve all experienced that—the mosquito and the tick, the copious sweat on our faces during a humid day, the blisters that well up as we walk that trail that would have otherwise been blissful (not blisterful). What about the roots we trip over; the cobwebs that greet us like a succession of invisible, sticky finish lines; the sharp pebbles on the bottom of the cool stream bed?

You might wonder if I am aiming to send would-be nature lovers back inside for some air-conditioned binge watching. Have I converted from nature writer to nature reviler?

Actually, I’m writing about genuine love. If you really love someone, especially over a long period of time, you come to see that person in a true light that is not always flattering: you know they get cranky, even mean sometimes. You know they have this blind spot, and that one. And a maddening tendency to tell the same stories ad infinitum. And they pick their nose. And they laugh too loud in restaurants. And there are some super-weird tendencies in their family tree. But you also know that they are tender and generous and funny and sweet and a fine specimen of a human. And they would do just about anything for you, if you wanted them to. You sign up for the whole package, because, when you take all of it together, it’s a stupendous gift.

For me, loving nature is like that. It is loving the mix of it all, even the parts I don’t understand or like. As with human relationships, there has to be common sense—it’s not smart to stay in harm’s way, and we can’t let ourselves be victims. And, also as with human relationships, I often find loving easier when I’ve developed a deeper understanding.

Wolf at Yellowstone Michael McCarthy.jpg

Wolf at Yellowstone courtesy of Michael McCarthy on Flickr

Even the least – and least attractive –  creatures play a part in the ecosystem. Here’s an example from Yellowstone National Park, about how the reintroduction of wolves continues to have reverberating effects on so many creatures.  I’ve written about how we are often more sympathetic to bigger creatures, versus gnats, mosquitoes, voles, mice, etc. Somehow it seems we can feel, or at least imagine, the pain that wolves or bears or other, fairly sizeable creatures might feel. Could it have something to do with being able to look them in the eyes?

While we are working on being more Zen, more all-knowing and all-magnanimous, like this guy…

Buddha by Kaysha

Buddha courtesy of Kaysha on Flickr

 

…Maybe it’s easier, with the teeniest, and the more “icky” creatures, to think about what would happen if they were not around, with our interests in mind. This piece talks about how the ecosystem would actually suffer without mosquitoes. Ticks, also, are an essential food source for many creatures.

That’s today’s food for thought, even as we remain potential food for many of our co-inhibitors of the planet. And now, because I can’t quite muster the generosity and equanimity to post a picture of a tick, here’s a happy photo of a decidedly non-biting rhododendron.

Photo May 28, 6 28 29 AM

 

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

purplemartin by Rich Leche.jpg

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?

Fowlers frum US fish wildlife.jpg

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?

Tent caterpillars.JPG

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.

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

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:

IMG_1457.JPG

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.

A Walk to Essex: Happy, Achy Birthday

essex-town-line

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

Continue reading

Hodgepodge Lodge, and Considering the Lillies

frogs

Since I can’t share my own hodgepodge of a collection firsthand, this blog is sprinkled with some Deep River wonders. These frogs live at Fountain Hill.

When I spout reminiscences about the Hodgepodge Lodge show to other people my age, I get a lot of blank looks. I guess I should be grateful my mom steered me over to PBS. Because the Lodge was a big influence during my formative years. If you’ve never been initiated here’s a clip from YouTube.

I have fond memories of the kindly woman who starred in the show and her many lessons in the ways of wildlife. Miss Jean was very pragmatic also, and sometimes the wildlife -while clearly appreciated -got eaten. For some reason, the episode I remember most is one about cooking food  (fish, I think) in a Dutch oven buried underground. I perceived the results as nothing less than magical. But most episodes didn’t center on cooking. I remember cocoons, frogs, caterpillars, kids with butterfly nets,  and a meadow. I researched the show and Miss Jean and the actual Lodge just now, and was touched to learn that the original Lodge, built to be a set for the show, was restored and moved to a nature conservancy in Maryland. It also seems that Miss Jean is still an active contributor to the nature scene (and I have just written her an email fan letter, nearly 40 years after the show went off the air!).

Over the last decade or two, I’ve been returning to my Hodgepodge Lodge roots, which harken back to the days when I still wore many hand-me-downs, blissfully unaware of how I looked or why that could ever matter. When I show up at local nature events—at places like Connecticut Audubon Society or The Stewart B McKinney National Wildlife Refuge or the Flanders Nature Center, I am garbed in attire that might be described as anti-fashion. Practical, comfortable shoes; layered clothes that can get dirty; something to cover my head should it rain; back pack stuffed  with more practical items. More and more often, binoculars dangle from my neck. I am nature nerd central. (Speaking of nature nerds, a fellow naturalist has a good blog named just that: Nature Nerd).

Aside for word nerd readers: the term hodgepodge “comes from hogpoch, alteration of hotchpotch (late 14c.) ‘a kind of stew,’ especially ‘one made with goose, herbs, spices, wine, and other ingredients’,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

When I look around at my fellow nature lovers, they are – almost without exception – fashion challenged as well. But the appeal for me is in their alert eyes and interested expressions. They are asking questions, or peering into the water, or trying to recall something they read. Sometimes, an expression of amazement surfaces, with the sighting of a creature or a prized new fact learned. These are my adopted people.

Recently, I was part of a small gathering of Edwin Way Teale fans. We met at Trail Wood, the place where I had my writing residency this past summer, and shared our favorite passages from his work. We sat in a circle surrounded by inquisitive (but not biting) may flies, reading aloud and pausing to comment or look up at a bird or wonder aloud if we might spot the various species Teale recorded on the surrounding land. It was nice to think of Edwin and his wife Nellie having their many adventures on the nearby trails.

The information shed on the Trail Wood property has its own Hodgepodge Lodge type of accoutrements that come and go over time, like a wasp’s next or feathers or the white board where visitors can note the creatures they spotted that day. A side room houses some taxidermy, and curious visitors can also thumb through the musty guidebooks and other nature-themed reads shelved there.(See this CT Woodlands issue for mine and a fellow nature writer’s pieces on Teale and Trail Wood).

Teale cabin quote.jpg

This sign is inside the Teale cabin at Trail Wood. The glare obscures the attribution, but I believe it is from an old tombstone in England.

 

I relish collections like this; the more eclectic the better. In an older entry I wrote about one enviable cache kept by an archaeologist and cartographer. The original name for my book – Cabinet of Curiosity (recently submitted to an interested publisher, now with a different title!) – reflected the happy collecting of talismans from nature. And a great read from Vermont Quarterly that my sister put aside for me, about Bernd Heinrich, included snippets about what he’s accumulated in his rustic Maine cabin. His laptop sits amid a set of watercolors, field notes, field guides, etc, with hawk feathers and binoculars nearby and a whole tree trunk holding up the ceiling. I love this part of the article:

On the way out the door, I stop to photograph three items on the window ledge: a pair of desiccated spiders pinned to a block of foam; a pile of animal poop which includes a bird’s claw; and an embossed circular medal. “Those barn spiders had just laid their egg clutches,” he tells me later, and the scat was probably deposited by a coyote who had eaten a grouse. “I saved it to quiz the winter ecology students,” he explains. “They should be able to tell me the season too—because a piece of toe skin has fringes.” Heinrich makes no mention of the medal sitting next to the poop: it’s the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in American natural history writing.

I am sure Heinrich must have felt honored by the medal and that its proximity to scat is not a reflection of his thoughts on John Burroughs or his namesake award. But I also think that Heinrich has his priorities in order. He needs  to be outside, studying the denizens of the natural world. In his world, scat with a revealing history is just as important as accolades (and likely more so). I am guessing fashion isn’t high on his list, either. I would treasure the nature-centered hodgepodge in his cabin more than any decor or wardrobe that you could offer me.

Which brings to mind something I learned quite young, in Sunday School:

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. (Luke 12:27, NASB)

small white flowers

Somewhere along Bridge Street

 

Found nest

Spotted this nest today along the shore of one of the quarry ponds, near Plattwood Park