The Long Winter, Cordelia, and Dead Man’s Fingers

Song sparrow by Budgora

Song Sparrow courtesy of Budgora on Flickr

Last winter, I succeeded in becoming a bit hardier for winter walking, with the help of long johns and other snug layers. I learned that, despite the instinct to avoid the cold, there are long, interesting walks to be had on all but the chilliest and snowiest of days. With caution, of course. I had 2 friends who injured their arms by slipping on the ice; they, too, had been determined to get outside no matter what!

In a minor ironic twist, now I am prepared to layer up and get out but I am not supposed to bear weight on my foot. I am impatient about this, but yet again relearning the old lesson that there is something to notice, something to see when I get in the mindset to find it. The suet hosts the occasional Downy Woodpecker but it has been mostly quiet. What, then, is that hint of a movement on the ground below the feeder? Only with my binoculars can I discern a duo of song sparrows, who blend in so well with the dark leaf litter. They are hopping about, sporting those handsome striped heads.

Cordelia book

I watch Gavin walk back into the woods with envy and turn towards my new friend Cordelia. Well, the book about her, anyway. I bought Beyond the Spring during our family visit to Birdsacre in Ellsworth, Maine, this summer. Cordelia Stanwood isn’t exactly a household name, but I am so glad to be learning about this kindred spirit who died at 93, about a decade before I was born. The first 40 years or so of her life were typical for a single woman of her time who had the support of family and some resources at her disposal. She spent many years teaching and continuing her schooling. That is, until her nervous breakdown. She was back home with her parents and brother after this, and it sounds like for a while she lived a rather numb existence.

Her biographer, who based much of what he wrote on the voluminous papers she left behind, wrote about how she reunited with the world after her illness:

…One day while looking down the long hill below the house she had become aware of the rugged peacefulness of what she saw: the flat smoothness of snow-covered fields on either side of Card’s Brook, the lazy blue smoke curling up from the chimneys in town, the purple outline of the hills in Dedham silhouetted against the rosy tints of late-afternoon sky. Suddenly she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and when a gull sailed majestically through the golden rays of late sunshine she had smiled and whispered to herself, “Oh, world, you are there after all. You haven’t changed. It is I who have been away, and you have been waiting for me all the time.”

Cordelia repaid the waiting natural world with countless hours of watching its birds and taking their photos. Today, you can visit Birdsacre and read some of Cordelia’s words as you walk the trails:

cordelia

From Cordelia’s papers

You can visit the injured birds that are referred to as “permanent guests” there. In the Nature Center, I was especially taken with the Merrit Fitch egg collection (more than 58 species of birds’ eggs collected by two teenage boys in 1888). AND with the dead man’s fingers that grew near the fence. They were the pièce de résistance of the pathway back to the car!

dead man's fingers

During these quiet, snowy days, I like to think back and imagine Cordelia’s reawakening to nature as she looked out over the snow. I like to think about how this possibility is there for us every single day. I have many times felt that recognition, that delight as I looked at a bug or a leaf or a bird—that deep knowing, as Cordelia did, that the world is always waiting for us. We just need to rise up to meet it.

32 Days Old

Anna Hesser peregrine banding

Image of a young peregrine (age not documented) at banding time courtesy of Anna Hesser on Flickr

One morning here at Acadia National Park, before my guys arrived to join me during my writing residency, I took the hour-long drive from my apartment near Schoodic Point to Mount Desert Island, to see what I could learn about the Peregrine Falcons’ nest on Champlain Mountain.

Several trails were closed because of the falcons, giving them room to hatch and raise their chicks, who on the day I arrived were 32 days old. The Precipice trail head parking lot was the place to go. On designated mornings the rangers are stationed there with powerful scopes on tripods, ready to point out the nest site and provide some education.

I had my binoculars, too, and pointed them up and to the right, as instructed. The nest area itself was hidden from view, but I was lucky to see the mother or father fly in, perch on a ledge, and then fly off again, likely to do some hunting. I learned that the nests are created on sand- or gravel-covered ledges that are scratched into a hollow by the parents. There are no twigs or sticks involved. I learned that, this year, there are 2 small, white, fluffy female chicks (“snowballs” who thus far look nothing like their parents). A small group that included a wildlife biologist and climbers determined this, and they banded the new birds so that they can be tracked. The chicks will fledge over the summer, and by winter they may head south (or stay in New England: weather dependent). (More info here.)

Peregrine cliff face Acadia

My shot of the cliff face at Acadia; the nest is in the vicinity of that (sort of) New Hampshire-shaped white patch, upper right

These birds, once fully grown, strike a powerful profile. They often hunt by “striking,” knocking their prey to the ground. Knowing this, it is hard to believe they only weigh a couple of pounds—all of that power in what amounts to not too much more than a puff of air on the weight spectrum.

And of course, the species almost went up in smoke. Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring, emphasized the dangers wrought by the insecticide DDT and is attributed as a key factor in saving the birds. Birds at the top of the food chain, like the Peregrines, were laying eggs that never survived, because of shell thinning caused by an accumulation of the agent (see The Rachel Carson Connection). To this day, Rachel Carson’s words spark some controversy (see here and here), and I don’t know enough about the research cited to draw a scientific conclusion. I have always thought of her in heroic terms. At the very least, she can be credited with awakening environmental consciousness and starting the environmental movement. Now, with social media, there is great hope for important information being spread quickly, with the hopes for saving some species from doom. Lately, I have been struck by information about plastics in the sea and how they are damaging a multitude of creatures. Now, as then, it is important that the science behind these concerns is carefully vetted, and that the solutions themselves don’t cause a new set of problems.

Peregrine stretching by Jeffrey Kirkhart

Peregrine stretching courtesy of Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr

I was moved by seeing the Peregrines’ home, but I was equally moved to see all of the humans below the trail head, peppering the patient rangers with questions and looking through their scopes. There were collective “oohs” and “aahs” when we saw the adult falcon fly, and the crowd was eager to zoom in on the location of the nest. Some had come for the Peregrines; others were passing through and quickly became interested in the tiny lives growing on a hidden ledge. Since the 1980s, Acadia has been involved in reintroducing, and then monitoring, these fine birds that we almost lost. The morning below the Precipice, with these knowledgeable rangers and watchful park visitors all looking skyward, gave me great hope.

Posted with gratitude to Acadia National Park, which, by granting me the writing residency, has made so much possible! 

Who’s Schoodic, and What’s the Point?

I have been granted a great gift: a two-week writing residency at Acadia National Park, in Maine. I am staying on the Schoodic Peninsula (pronounced SKOO dic), a smaller area of the park that’s separate from the main section on Mount Desert Island (site of Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain). I am a short walk from Schoodic Point.

This is a daunting assignment for a writer, because where are the words that do the place justice? Do they even exist? At one point, I found myself envying the visual artists, who with their paint boxes can render some facsimile of the broad boulders by the gulf, the steel of the sky in the mist, the patterns of mosses and lichens that constantly draw the eye. I may need to sort through thousands, even millions, of words to arrive at an adequate description.

In the meantime, I’ve been given time to roam, and this is the best gift for a writer—at least for a nature writer! I roam and write, roam and write. I go to the Point and sit and watch. Or close my eyes and listen. Or lay on the rocks and inhale the salt-infused air.

I pray. Often I try to stay still but am drawn by a small pool a bit farther out, or tiny spiders that look giant through my binoculars, or a shining, black rift in the rock.

The crevices tell an old, geologic tale

I thought perhaps there was some colonial guy, maybe a Dutchman, named Schoodic. But it turns out the name probably derives from the Mi’kmaq word eskwodek—“the end,” or possibly the Passamaquoddy word for “the burnt place”—scoudiac. For me, this “end” has been a beginning, or maybe a return. Although I spent much of my childhood at Jones Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, and although I live not far from the Sound (now on the Connecticut side), I don’t visit the the coast very often. More often, I pass by it. And although I am a nature writer, I tend to focus my words further inland, about my immediate surroundings. It’s good to again survey the edge of the land, and think about the life beyond it.

I am learning so much. A brother of a friend is a park ranger here, and he graciously invited me to see Tom Wessels, author of Granite, Fire, and Fog,  speak. He talked first about granite, and how the glaciers shaped things. But geology doesn’t always grab me—somehow it feels too abstract, too slow-moving (glacial pace, and all) to for me to grasp.

Beard lichen

He had me at lichens. Among the first specifics I noticed here, once I stopped dropping my jaw at the multitude of sweeping, water’s edge vistas that met me at every curve, were the generous “Old Man’s Beard” lichens that hang from so many trees. They are on a maple outside my apartment here, but I think the author said they especially favor spruces. The often-misty climate promotes a different environment, and, as Wessels said, different “communities” of growth, which translates into a truly unique landscape. Get this: fog droplets contain 1000 times more nutrients than rain. So, lichens at Acadia grow comparatively quickly. Still, they are quite slow-growing composite organisms (not plants—they are made of algae + fungi).

They are EVERYWHERE!!

Even the ordinary seems amped up here. (Of course, I may be high on freedom. Or on the salt air.) The rabbits (or hares?) are more approachable, and (apologies to grey squirrels back at home) the squirrels (red here) are cuter and less shy, too. There is an endless variation of color in and on the rocks (I learned that crustose lichens are actually welded down into the rock; almost like they are painted on!). I like looking close up at the snails that hold court on so many surfaces.

Snails and barnacles by the millions

I went to the Oceanarium to learn more about the creatures beyond the edge. The touch tank host held up sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea stars, horseshoe crabs, moon snails, etc, presenting fascinating, often outlandish details about each one. For example, sea cucumbers can spill their intestines in response to an alarming event, and suck them up later. You can’t make this stuff up.

Having my family join me was a joy. We had dinner at The Pickled Wrinkle  and actually tried some wrinkles, and some deep-fried dulse. Before that, we had worked up our appetites around some low-lying areas of the peninsula.

I have to admit, I was concerned about how things might change when the guys joined me. I was a hermit of sorts in the week that I was here alone. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. I wrote for hours. I walked for hours. I was silent for hours.

We talked over dinner about the hermit life—about how Thoreau lived alone in his cabin but walked to town for companionship and had guests come over. Gavin described how the protagonist in a book he loves, Ed Stafford of Naked and Marooned, relished the idea of being alone and planned a whole adventure around the concept, in the South Pacific. But eventually he craved human companionship and hid nearby when he knew humans were going to be on his island, just so he could see them. It’s the rare person who truly does not want any kind of contact. (See The Stranger in the Woods, a Maine story, for one such case).

Gavin in his element

The deepening of dimension that comes with other humans became clear to me right away when the guys arrived. I thought I had been pretty adventurous this week—scaling fairly steep trails and venturing alone into varied terrains. But within a half hour of Tom and Gavin’s arrival, my shoes were muddier than they’d been all week. Gavin was eager to check out the flats, and we squished about admiring the “bubble” seaweed and snails and natural sponges. After dinner, Tom, who had driven a long way on little sleep (thanks to our dog’s urges for nocturnal walks), passed on a walk to the Point. But Gavin and I went, and I rejoiced in his joy at leaping boulder to boulder, embodying the effortlessness and energy of youth and health.

Stalking the wild strawberry

He noticed things I had noticed when I arrived, like the beard lichen. But also new things, like wild strawberries on the grassy walkway back toward our temporary home. On the way back from the Point, he spotted the silhouette of a porcupine crossing the road. And a colony of spittle bugs inhabiting the roadside grass. I’ve had a room of my own at Schoodic Point, and it’s been a dream. I churned out two longer- and deeper-than usual pieces and roughed out ideas for quite a few more. But I can see now that even a landscape such as this only goes so far, if it can’t be shared.

Spittle bug community

We humans need each other, and we each bring a unique perspective about the natural world. We also have a crucial role to play here. I discovered a writer I hadn’t heard of before: Louise Dickinson Rich often focused on Maine. She died in the early 1990s, but reading her words, I am sure I would have liked to know her, had I the chance. I end with an “Amen!” to her words at the end of The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich:

Man, who cannot swim as well as a fish, nor fly as well as a bird, nor support himself on bare ledges as well as a lichen, is the observer, the recorder; because there is no one else—not the bird, not the rowan, not the lichen or the fish—who is capable of doing it. Perhaps all his other achievements are less than this, that he watches, and makes the record, and tries to find the meaning. He alone cares, and in that caring, perhaps, lies his weakness and his very great strength.

Posted with gratitude to Acadia National Park, which, by granting me the writing residency, has made so much possible!