The Generous Naturalist, the Generous Reader

Fledgling swallows Steve_Flickr.jpg

Fledgling Swallows by Steve Herring on FlickrSteve Herring on Flickr

I’ve been taking a Master Naturalist class with the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center. The formal classes have finished, and when I finish the required community work and research paper, I will be considered an apprentice Master Naturalist. If I can manage it I’ll take part 2 next summer, and if I complete that I will be full-fledged.

That term “fledged” recalls the young birds (fledglings) that leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves, with the goal of flying off and living on their own. As an apprentice there is SO much to know and of course I will never know it all. But I have learned, like the famed Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to depend on the kindness of (now former) strangers to help me along my way.

Cattails by Elliot Margolies flickr

Who knew cattails were so tasty? Photo courtesy of Elliot Margolies on Flickr

Each teacher has gone out of his or her way to create a welcoming atmosphere, and to help in practical ways. Ed made several concoctions for snack break from his foraging finds—there was knotweed pie (great use of an invasive) and cattail soup (an asparagus-ish tasting delight). He was quick to point out any interesting new finds along the trail, as were all of our teachers.

Brad pulled me up from the ground when I fell on a recent hike, and pointed out chestnut oaks and the skin of a newly molted rat snake after I dusted off my jeans and dignity and panted my way up rocky inclines. That shiny, freshly molted creature (so black it was blue!) stole the show away from our guest expert geologist for a few minutes, while we followed it to its rendezvous with other snakes in a nearby crevice.

Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain .JPG

Photogenic, resplendent Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain

Jasper kept our whole group up to date on what was going on, and patiently advised me on the hours I needed to log. Juan made the long drive from his distant home to Deep River to give me a tutorial about lichens at Fountain Hill Cemetery. We got on our hands and knees with hand lenses, and he pointed out the Lilliputian wonders wrought in these algae/fungus (and sometimes cyanobacteria) combinations. Later I paged through the trove of books and pamphlets he had brought along to lend me. He didn’t hold it against me when I decided lichens were too difficult, given the limited time I have to research and write my paper.

LICHENS TOMBSTONE

Many lichens LOVE tombstones! I was focusing on brownstone obelisks

Stretching my fledgling wings a bit more, I contacted Lynn, a Master Naturalist program graduate who is busy using her knowledge (and retired teacher skills), leading talks and hikes. She took the time to meet with me and to let me tag along on her hikes, teaching as she went and giving me the opportunity to bring forth my burgeoning knowledge. I now use the crinkly, paper-like feel of the leaves to help me identify the American beech, and she helped me realize that witch hazel may very well be named after the characteristic witch-hat shaped galls on its leaves that house a particular kind of aphid.

witch hazel leaf gall Danielle Flickr.jpg

Witch hazel leaf with gall courtesy of Danielle Brigada on Flickr

What is it about naturalists that makes them so remarkably generous, eager to share time, discoveries, and information? I am sure I bring my own biases to the theory, because Mary Oliver’s iconic line, “My work is loving the world” guides all of my time in nature. But could it be that all of these naturalist hearts have expanded because of their love for the world and its creatures, because of the generosity they themselves have received from nature (and other lovers of it)?

Readers are a whole other set of generous folks. An attendee at my nature writing exploration yesterday took the time to write me a complimentary note and share her new piece with me. She later wrote an Amazon review, too! Another recommended haikus written by Richard Wright. Librarian Laurie led me to Brainerd Library’s enchanting butterfly garden and did some research that informed me we were seeing milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (not monarch caterpillars–they look nothing alike!) on the milkweed plants. The list goes on and on. Same theory here for me. Reading, when done faithfully and thoughtfully, has the potential to expand not only the mind, but the heart.

milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (Brainerd)

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillars

And being with these people, naturalists and readers alike (even better if they are BOTH!) has expanded my own heart. It was serendipitous timing that I ran across a 2005 birthday card from Mom tucked into one of my nature books, even more precious now as she can no longer share quotes like she used to. What she shared with me was prescient, because it preceded my full-throttle return to time in nature and time in books about it. Here is what she wrote (and I found the quote on the Internet so have included the full attribution):

A certain philosopher asked St Anthony: Father, how can you be happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied. My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God,
the book is before me.

Anon.Verba Seniorum (Adhortationes sanctorum patrum) ciii (4th – 8th cens. CE)(Greek original lost; Pelagius I and John III, Latin transl.; T. Merton Engl. transl.) in: The Wisdom of the Desert p. 139.

Of course, I am NOT deprived of the consolation of books, and because I can, I want to embrace both–finding meaning in the books and in the spectacular green world. How delicious to know that this possibility is before me!

 

 

 

Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is the title of Anne Lamott’s revered book, subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, so I couldn’t resist borrowing it for this mini-tale of amateur birding.

The origins of the title, as explained by Lamott, are sweet, and an encouragement for any pursuit, birding or otherwise:

 Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

I was a bit overwhelmed myself when I sat down to do my part for Project Feederwatch recently. I was not overwhelmed by the task itself, but rather by the realization that it was truly quite difficult to commit to sit for at least an hour at a time, at least 2 days in a row. What does this say about me, and about my life? Well, part of it is a general tendency towards restlessness, but at least in equal measure it speaks to how much there is to do. This is a wakeup call to keep an eye on what is truly important—not just essential “to dos”—some of which are unavoidable–but what actually matters. I’ve decided that the birds matter greatly. Mary Oliver wrote something that resonates with me deeply in this regard, because the experience of attending to them did feel like an act of meaningful devotion:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And looking up “attend” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, I realize it means so much more than “show up:”

attend (v.)

c.1300, “to direct one’s mind or energies,” from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + tendere “stretch” (see tenet). The notion is of “stretching” one’s mind toward something. Sense of “take care of, wait upon” is from early 14c. Meaning “to pay attention” is early 15c.; that of “to be in attendance” is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.

I like the idea that I was stretching my mind toward the birds at the feeder, taking care of them, waiting upon them… waiting for them to show me so many moments of joy, and also literally being their waitress (slinging bird hash by trudging through the deep snow to their dining room!) .

What a delight to realize that there are whole communities of birds that are visiting my yard daily, most starting their nests and families and some passing through. And how nice, also, to see fellow bird adorers like me pipe in on Facebook, where I took a poll to figure out if I had Dark-eyed Juncos eating my seeds.

Just 2 hours on 2 snowy days (and, full disclosure, on the first day I was SUPPOSED to be working and not looking out the window every 5 minutes) yielded a great mix, the most exotic being my Kestrel (yes, mine: I feel some possessiveness about her), who was not at the feeder but on a nearby deck post. I was surprised by the 2 types of woodpeckers, who I rarely spot with casual glances around the neighborhood. And, by the way, has anyone noticed that the birds seem to congregate at the feeder when it is snowing? Of course, food is harder to find as it becomes covered up but maybe they also know how gorgeous they look among the snowflakes?. Here’s some more information on birds in cold weather.

One of the nicest moments was the iridescent appearance of our Mourning Doves as they flew down to the ground below the feeder. We see them often in our driveway and I hadn’t before appreciated their beauty in flight.

The Project FeederWatch system asked me to confirm the Kestrel—apparently an unlikely find for my area this time of year. But, yes, I’m pretty sure it was a female American Kestrel (Northern) after checking several Google images. It perched just a little way off from these species:

Mourning Dove

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

American Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

I think I need to apply Lamott’s advice to both writing and birding. One word at a time, one gift of a winged moment at a time. I’m looking forward to more Bird by Birding.

Longing for Tree Circles

We’re sharing a good book in the family. Backyard Almanac  gives an entry on “Northern natural history” for every day of the year. Technically I think the “Northern” to which the author refers is more in the vicinity of upper Minnesota and Southern Canada, but close enough—most of the milestones and species are something to which we here in Deep River can relate.

The entry for March 1 was about tree circles, one of many natural phenomena of which I have probably on some level been aware but hadn’t thought about too much before. Larry Weber writes:

The sunlight reflects off snow, but not off dark tree bark, which absorbs heat from the lengthening light and gently radiates it back to the surrounding snow creating ‘tree circles.’ Snow melt may extend out from the trees…to as much as a foot. On tree trunks, plants like mosses get a peek at sunlight for the first time in months, and animals so long beneath the snow have an opportunity to emerge into fresh air and daylight.

I got excited about impending spring plant life resurrections when I Googled around a bit more about tree circles. A Q &A in an archived New York Times Science section reminds me that “Some emerging herbaceous plants, like those growing from bulbs, produce heat to melt snow in order to more easily break through it in the springtime…This is most famously true of skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, likely our earliest-blooming herbaceous native…Some flowering trees also produce heat, likely to melt frost or snow present on their buds.”

I was tickled by the tree circles topic because it’s unique and a little offbeat and warm, but as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s a great blog on the same topic, but I can’t be too jealous of these authors getting there first, because they are a pretty fascinating bunch who seem ultrasmart and science-y in ways that I will never be (but deeply admire).

Unlike these scientists, I will not be intensely studying or positing theories of evolution or alternatives to it. But I do have something in common with them.  I will be PAYING ATTENTION, especially to those tree circles. (I checked today—there are not yet ripples of shallower, soil-tinged  snow popping up around my pines and oaks. But temperatures are gradually trending in an encouraging direction).

About attention, Mary Oliver said it best:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Olivia Newton-John also said (well, sang) something well, about being utterly and Hopelessly Devoted. That’s how I feel about spring at this point. Hopelessly devoted to the promise of tree circles and the spring that will expand around us as they move outward into the sun.