Anniversary of Noticing: A Walk to Chester

bridge st dawn

Bridge Street at dawn

In The Book of Noticing, I introduced my collection of walks by sketching out a particular one: a walk to Deep River’s neighboring town of Chester on the 4th of July. Every year, the town hosts the 4 on the 4th Road Race. I have little interest in the race itself, but Chester is a good destination and I like to see the preparations underway.

This morning I celebrated the anniversary of this start of the book with a walk to the same destination. Different time of day: this year the dog got me up at 4, and the sky was already lightening, so I went with it. Different dog: Molly’s memory will forever be held in the book, but now she is buried at the pet cemetery in Fountain Hill, and sometimes Buddy and I stop at her marker.

Our new beagle mix, Buddy, is only 4 and full of energy. He didn’t lag once during the whole, greater-than-2-hour, saunter. It was a circuitous route: various side streets to Maple Street to Chester, then a detour up to Laurel Hill Cemetery, then up through Chester and down Main Street, back via side streets to home.

buddy mullein.jpg

Buddy checking out the mullein

By the time I approached Union Street, about 10 minutes from home, the sun was showing its face above the horizon, and it washed my neighborhood in muted warm tones. I mused about the many mullein plants peppering my path, their tall shadows standing out in the early dawn light. It’s theorized that the name comes from the Latin word for “soft,” and the herb’s dried down was at one time used for candle wicks. I learned that the stalks used to serve as torches, back in Roman times, and that this often overlooked plant has served many medicinal purposes, from hemorrhoids to asthma. Despite its size, I have always thought it a humble and unassuming plant. I view it as an old friend that visits every summer.

I thought back to my recent weeks at Acadia (see here and here), and how I was literally surrounded by water practically everywhere I went. It’s abundant here, too, but just a bit more work to locate it. From Laurel Hill Cemetery I looked down on the Carini Preserve area, alongside the Chester Creek. I have a favorite spot in the cemetery where I can look over at the Osprey platform planted in the water. Empty! Had the chicks hatched and fledged already? I found myself worrying about their well being. Where were they?

I studied a couple of impressively proportioned rocks—or are they boulders? I had to look up the difference. One forum says that the differentiating factor for the boulder is that it isn’t going anywhere. I hope that’s true for this unusual grave marker at Laurel Hill, pictured below. I wondered about the person or family who decided on the hefty, naturally formed pink granite (I think?) rock bearing only a last name.

Hungerford rock Laurel Hill.JPGNot far from it was another eye-catching rock (I guess it could be moved, with power equipment, so thus it’s not a boulder?) in the creek itself. It’s become a haven for wayward plants.

Chester creek rock.jpg

Chester Creek rock-nursery

Today I felt an appreciation especially for the plants along my path. I mused about some of the flowers that might be considered “weeds,” since they don’t seem to have been planted intentionally. Actually, I like the term “volunteers” much better. I was amused by my Web research on volunteer plants when I got home, mostly with a gardening perspective, with titles like, “What’s Up with Volunteer Plants?”  and “Should You Keep Volunteer Tomatoes?”  (While to me the answer to tomatoes should always be yes, apparently this is a controversial issue in some circles).

Seeds have so many ways of arriving and blossoming: our compost, the creatures that come and go from our gardens, plants reseeding. Whether we want them there or not, there they are, proud in their innovation and persistence. The many routes that a seed can take are good reminders of the surprises in life, and also of the boundless opportunities to grow, even in unlikely scenarios.

purple weed

Volunteer in purple uniform

Which brings me back to The Book of Noticing and its origins. Long, long ago, I brought an acorn home from a walk in the woods. It was a particularly pleasing example–large and burnished brown, with a handsome cap. I though that having this in hand, and later, desk-side, might help me to get going on what was then a rather vague idea about a book on time in nature. Time passed, and still the acorn sat there, not seeming to blossom into much. But, eventually, more ideas accumulated and I had a book. What mattered was that I had faith in the seed; that I cared enough to bring it home and welcome it.

mustard seed.JPG

My mustard seed

I rooted around in my jewelry box to find the pendant pictured above, and remember Mom gifting me with it from her own childhood collection, when I was 9 or 10. She said, “If you have faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains,” a paraphrase from Matthew 17:20 and no doubt a remnant of her Baptist roots. Did she know how fertile a seed she was planting that day?

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

 

 

Honey Guides, Bentonite, and Ayer’s Rock

My wanderlust is usually rather micro. I am often quite content with the many things to see and hear and learn on my local walks, in the many routes I can take without even without leaving Deep River.

Portage coverBut this week has got me thinking about nature that’s farther flung. I’ve finished reading Portage, by Sue Leaf, an account of the writer’s canoe trips north and west of here, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, parts of Canada, Wisconsin, etc. (The only canoeing book I liked more was Yukon Wild!). The author devotes nearly two pages to bentonite clay, a substance that arises from ancient volcanic ash along rivers like the Little Missouri.

Cathedral Gorge is located in a long, narrow valley where erosion has carved dramatic and unique patterns in the soft bentonite clay. IPhoto/caption from Nevada State Parks site.

Cathedral Gorge is located in a long, narrow valley where erosion has carved dramatic and unique patterns in the soft bentonite clay. Photo/caption from Nevada State Parks site.

Of course, having to slog through the wet version of the stuff doesn’t sound like any fun; there are tales of clay stranding hikers for days or holding horses in place, but it’s cool to think about parts of the country that have great swaths of stuff I haven’t ever seen. This same nuisance-y stuff is treasured by herbalists, used in facial masks, toothpaste, etc.

Reading about bentonite also unleashed a dormant memory of a grade-school class trip to Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve, a treasure of Long Island’s North Shore. I’m not sure if I’ve created an exaggerated memory, but I seem to remember standing on a large “boulder” (for lack of a better term) of an unfamiliar substance, and our tour guide, perhaps a park ranger, telling me that it was sea clay. I was quite taken with its texture and the fact that it had appeared along the shore—I had spent so much time on South Shore beaches but had never seen this stuff.

Gavin’s been scooping up clay for years from the seasonal “stream” (basically a tract for runoff from the higher-grade forest spring thaw) that runs along the boundary of our property. This Stay Curious blog (great name for a blog, don’t you think!) has an account of the author’s discovery of little clay lumps (lots of them!)  along Bald Head Island beach in North Carolina. It got me wondering if my potter neighbor would be able to mold a work of art with them.

Greater Honeyguide photo reprinted with permission from Safari blog

Greater Honeyguide photo reprinted with permission from Safari blog

From my clay exploration route I hightailed it (virtually) to East Africa. Hadza: The Last of the First  is worth watching. It’s a well-executed documentary about the region’s last remaining true hunter-gatherers, whose way of life is threatened by encroaching civilization and government interests. There’s more than a blog’s worth to write about in terms of the tribe (see the movie!!), but from a naturalist perspective I was quite fascinated by the Honeyguide bird, which actually works with humans to lead them to hive sites. The humans extract the honey and give some of the honeycomb to the bird. This blog  does a great job describing how the interspecies communication and collaboration works.

My third jaunt in this salvo of armchair trips was courtesy of Bill Bryson. Gavin and I are both reading In a Sunburned Country for the second time (wow that guy can really write!). With the knowledge that Bryson is so very well-traveled, I took it quite seriously when he encouraged me to somehow find my way to remote Australia so I can see Ayer’s Rock in person. I could see that even Bryson struggled a bit to encapsulate exactly why this 1,150-foot high, mile-and-a-half long, five-and-a-half mile around “rock” left him astounded, declaring it was worth a 600-mile round trip.

Photo from Parks Australia on Pinterest

Photo from Parks Australia on Pinterest

The rock is technically a bornhardt, per the author “a hunk of weather-resistant rock left standing when all else around it has worn away.” After nearly 3 pages of noting that pictures don’t nearly do it justice, and that being there left him nearly inarticulate but somehow feeling that the rock was primordially, or even supernaturally, vastly meaningful, connecting with it in a nearly indescribable way, he was forced to wrap it up by saying, in uncharacteristically monosyllabic fashion for such a wordy guy: “Go there, man.”

From my chair, out West and on to East Africa and Australia. All of this almost topped the local adventures to follow here at home: cormorants through my binoculars, hungry birds encircling the feeder, long walks in the surprisingly mild late November air. Thankful for adventures outdoors, both far and near,  vicarious and in the flesh.

Once Around

Both this weekend and last, I suffered from painful cases of the Shoulds. My long scroll of a TO DO list seems to be ever lengthening, and at the top are household chores by the dozen.

So I compromised last Sunday. I would walk Molly for 1 hour only. It takes an hour to foot the mile to town and back with this beagle who follows her nose, who strains with vigor and passion at the leash whenever a new smell beckons.

We set out at sunrise, treated to a Hallelujah Chorus from (mostly unseen) birds in the thick pines that line our yard. I admired a garter snake on the asphalt and right after that the prolific leavings from a neighbor’s cottonwood tree (it looked like snow was lining her driveway!). I later learned that “nuisance” cottonwoods have a lot going for them, and a proud history. I also read up on why birds sing at dawn, or at least the latest attempt to explain this mystery. (Science fully respected, but I think I’ll always experience the chorus as the ultimate hymn of joy and praise).

bobwhiteMy compromise morphed into a substantial ramble when I learned that Tom and Gavin were also up early. They met Molly and me at town dock, where we had breakfast and gazed out at the water. We watched a heron and tailed a pair of Northern Bobwhites ambling along Kirtland Street. We climbed the gradual hill to Mount Saint John, a stately fixture of Deep River since 1904. Tom photographed a bluebird peeking from its house on the grounds.

BluebirdHouse

MollyonWall

There were still Shoulds to return home to. In the hours following this happy indulgence, I caught up with the laundry and restored some sanity to our household environs. But I am so glad I took that 1-hour walk that turned into a 2-plus hour walk. And that later, we all took the drive to Middletown so we could learn about caterpillars and gather some phenology (the study of what happens, and when, in nature) data, courtesy of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. Phenology matters, much more than housekeeping and crossouts on the daily To DO list, and here’s a brief article that gives examples of why.

Deep River: It’s in the Stars

Orion, of course, is a constellation.

From Wiikipedia

From Wikipedia

 

But it’s also a very rich read: a nature/environmental magazine, voted America’s Best Environmental Magazine by The Boston Globe. I am thrilled to see my writeup of Deep River, CT, featured on their Place Where You Live page!