Anniversary of Noticing: A Walk to Chester

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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! 

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:

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The Book of Noticing

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Admirable tree in East Haddam

Soon, I want to write about tent caterpillars and robins and nests and the soul’s ease that comes with long walks during lengthening days…But this post is just a short one, because I want to share great news!

I just signed a contract to have The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail published by Homebound Publications. So, this time next year I expect to have the bound book ready for release into the world! There may be Kindle and audio editions, too!

The Book of Noticing is a contemplative narrative on time in nature and the deeper truths that the experience reveals. It takes in the variety and beauty of many adventures in New England, weaves in intriguing facts from the natural world, and often steps back to look at broader subjects like family, a meaningful life, and the future of our planet.

(That being said, I need friends to help me perfect a really good “elevator speech” that can help me encapsulate what this book is about! I have less than a year to learn how to be a good marketer, and any and all tips will be genuinely appreciated).

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My neighbor on Bridge Street has been mowing around these beauties!

Join the Club (Moss)!

One of the best things about being out in nature is the absolutely limitless supply of opportunities to learn. On par with that plus are the many reasons for hope and delight to be found in places as seemingly humble as the forest floor.

My latest study—and also hopeful venture—is club moss. This link leads to the inaturalist page for Connecticut club moss sightings. I am particularly enamored of running pine moss, which really does look to me like a little figure that’s about to dash off a la the Gingerbread Man of childhood story books (it’s pictured in above link)! But most often, in the Cockaponset State Forest behind our house, I see princess pine:

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According to inaturalist its spores used to be used as flash powder (in early photography or magic tricks ). I know if I tell Gavin he’ll want to try that out pronto, and preferably with bushels of spores. Come to think of it, some adults I know would be right on that, too. (Can’t vouch for how to do this, or for safety. Also, some states list the plant as endangered, likely a result of earlier enthused harvesting.)

This Massachusetts land trust’s site has a nice write-up about the princess pine. What I like best about this diminutive species, which is not a pine at all, is its evergreen-ness. It comforts me when I think ahead to the depths of winter. It is also such a pretty and precise-looking plant.

Before I read The Beginning Naturalist by Gale Lawrence, I’d assumed that the princess pine and other similar club mosses were baby evergreen trees. But they are already fully grown, and they are not in the conifer family. Confusingly, the club mosses are not mosses, either. They are closer to ferns. The “club” refers to the club or spike that shoots right up from the plant—it is coated with a fine layer of spores. The growth from spore to mature plant takes a full 17 years, but some plants can also grow by sprouting along the same stem.

Gale Lawrence’s chapter on these plants amused me, because she refers to the “attacks of the Christmas decorators.” Determined crafters let loose in the woods can pull up whole long underground stems of club mosses for weaving into wreaths, wiping out that impressive life cycle with one good yank. Even without the greenery of Christmas in mind, it is a bit tempting to imagine taking one of these miniature (non) trees home. But the happy-seeming plant has worked too hard to become a pet. Best to visit it in its “home in the loam,” beside its mushroom, acorn, and looming tree neighbors.

BONUS photo for those who read to the end! 😉 : the decorative lichens (or could they be mushrooms??) adorning a stump in our yard! This is just a bit blurry, but I can’t be the only one who thinks these are simply gorgeous.

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