Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Solstice. Just before Christmas and our tree is up, shining with lights in the darkness which is profound, this shortest day of the year.

I arose in the darkness and sat with it this morning, kept a close eye on it as it gave way to dawn. I plan to bundle up and walk in the woods today. The day may be overcast—but it will be far from gloomy in there. Close, dim perhaps; but not depressing. The woods at the darkest time of the year feel majestic, full of secrets.

Later I’ll listen to music, maybe even get out my guitar and play. I should bake something too, in the longstanding tradition of my people at Christmas, a rite that I’m certain goes back much further than I can see, beyond my mother and my grandmothers, beyond the women whose names are on the recipes handed down to me: Martha, Diatha, Leah, Opal.

It’s still a mystery, my descent from my ancestors, how my life is linked to so many generations before me, as life itself is a mystery, how the light comes back every year, finds us again and the new year begins. It’s just the Christian calendar, a Chinese-American friend said to me once. She was referring to the millennium, as I recall, and dismissing it as a purely Christian invention, and of course she was right—at least, about the year 2000. But the Christian calendar is overlaid on something more ancient, the Gregorian on the Julian, both of them working from the sun and starting the new year soon after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice—observed and celebrated in pre-Christian times. I think of the standing pillars of Stonehenge, arranged to frame the arc of the sun on its shortest journey of the year and constructed at least 4,000 years ago. During the middle ages many western European countries actually started the new year on December 25th, marking the birth of Christ and closer to winter solstice. (When reforming the calendar and lopping off days to get back into alignment with the sun, Pope Gregory held onto the Roman convention of the New Year beginning on January 1.)

Like the calendar many of the holiday festivities, the decorations and the carols are older than Christianity. Now and then I peek behind the “Christmas” veneer and see my pagan ancestors. Celebrating Yule, for instance—it’s not a Christian festival, but the word’s been co-opted as if it means Christmas. I listen to the carols and ancient voices call out to me, singing about the greenwood as if it’s a very real, specific place; singing of dawn breaking and deer running. They had a lot to say and to sing about, it seems, at this shortest day of the year, even without the addition of a prophet from the middle east.

Some of the Christian lyrics build on the happy spirit of revelry (in fact carols were originally dances) and call out for beneficence, and for understanding among people, and who can argue with or complain of that? Other lyrics simply recount the Christmas story: the star, the kings, the birth of Christ; and often each bit of story is tied to something still green and growing, like holly, that one might find on a winter ramble in the wood.

And I come back to where I began: Today I want to walk in the woods, whether dim or shot through with the rays of the low-sailing sun, where people for thousands of years have felt close to the mystery, the unknowable. The trees that outlive us, the ground we will return to, the bits of green that always survive the frost. The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer.

Our roots are long, long as the shadows this time of year.


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Deep in the woods lately hidden under snow there are secrets that spring gives up, brings to light. Still half-covered in the buff and fawn of old leaves, ringed by the green and purple teeth of new skunk cabbage, I find the bones of a deer, long leg bones long lain here, the gentle curve of ribs beside them, soft, bright ivory against brown.

I knew they would be here, somewhere. I found the skull several years ago, a dozen yards away, just the other side of the foot bridge across a stream so small it will be mostly dry by August. It was only a matter of taking the moment’s opportunity to leave the path and look, study the ground for the telltale flash of white that’s more than just a bare branch lying on the ground.

Today I looked, and so I found them. I’ve become quite good at finding bones in the spring, but I think it’s mostly just that: I look for them. I look for them because I like to see, because the sight of them seems a clue the seasons heave up to me, about the nature of life and death, the circle that can seem cruel or sad and always remains a mystery.

That mystery was with me yesterday too, I realize now, as a woman stood before me, the poet at the writers’ conference, and said she’d had to take a nap in her car in between giving lectures because ever since she started chemo, she gets so tired. And then she turned on the overhead projector and began to talk to us about memoir. I kept thinking how vital and alive and strong she was.

Here in the woods I contemplate death as in a still life, easy, poetic; at a distance created by time and circumstance and species. I have lived and seen enough to know death does not look so picturesque, visited upon us in hospitals, on death beds, construction sites, in cars, lying on the floor.

And yet… These bones lying so long, so many seasons covered over in snow and then in green (the skull, I noted today, is now growing moss) have something powerful to tell me. Revealed in this brief time of bare earth after frost heaves and just receded snow, they show me the cycle itself is beautiful. I can see it, here where the deer left its body; the bones have now become another pattern barely distinguishable from the rest, the leaves and twigs and nut shells, the seed cases and bark peelings and old shreds of grasses, walked upon by beetles, turned over under their feet.

Somehow it comforts me to know we’re all going back here. Dust to dust—words, but here I find the picture: the bright, sharp green of the skunk cabbage blade dipped in purple, beside a scattering of rib. Literally entwined.

I wonder if I will hear the poet speak again. I think she must wonder too, how many more times it will be given her to speak, how many more poems it will be given her to write. We don’t know. The mystery is how life and death complete and make each other. Somehow the bones lying beside the creek in the first burst of spring help me accept that it’s not given to me, to understand.

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Farewell to Winter

Like most everyone I know, there are aspects of this winter that I won’t miss. The bitter cold that stung my face nearly every time, it seems, I walked outside. The ice patches on driveways and parking lots, lying in wait, requiring such vigilance that I had to watch every step. Events canceled, flights delayed, traffic snarls. Energy bills—it’s been a cold, cold winter. Even today, in early March, the temperature started out in the teens.

Yesterday was even colder. But I bundled up and went out anyway. And as I walked about (and yes, when the wind hit me, it stung my face), I realized as I usually do that I will miss winter, in some ways.

On snowshoes I crested a small hill and looked over the nine-hole golf course next to our development. Standing in the quiet, I realized I had it all to myself. Striding along a row of trees I followed in the footprints of deer, cleft hooves showing at the bottom of the wells their legs make in the drifts. The stream that drains the pond was running, and at my approach a cloud of ducks rose and honked away. I hoped they would return soon, descending again like a curtain pulled behind me.

Still there were no people. And I thought of spring: golfers, and golf carts; I will be banished from the cart paths. There is a narrow strip of woods abutting the golf course, and I left the path, winding between trees and deadfalls, walking in my snowshoes atop the drifts. I thought: Only in winter is this possible, to wander in the woods with such ease, the snowflakes lifting me above the forest floor, the undergrowth sparse, the insects gone.

There were more tracks, and mysterious tunnelings in the snow; places where squirrels had been eating something (pine cones? bark?) and left flakes of it behind. We’ve not had fresh snow for a few days now, and the wind had sprinkled the pure white with flecks of brown, fallen from the trees. As I came to the edge of the woods I saw that the gusts had shaken the rest of last year’s leaves from the old oak that stands there. They were spread around it on the snow, brown and withered, as if the last of winter, spent, can now let go.

Let go, and spring will come, and spring will be welcome. Still, as I stood in the open park and looked back, I was struck by the beauty of the sky in winter overcast, a wash of yellowish, pearly gray along the horizon, easing to darker clouds above.

Spring will be welcome. But winter too has had its moments.

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Eagle TV

Note: this is a repost from April 2011

My partner Sally’s been keeping a close eye on the eagle cam. This is the camera trained 24/7 (it has infra-red capabilities, in the dark) on a bald eagles’ nest, high up in a cottonwood tree in Iowa. You can go online and see the pair of eagles and their young in real time, any time.

As we watch, the three chicks in the nest are growing at an almost alarming pace. The parent eagles fly off one at a time to gather food, which consists of a variety of dead animals and parts of dead animals. In my first viewing, I could clearly see what looked like the tail feathers of a crow, sticking up from the straw that lines the nest. (Those leftovers were soon tamped down in the nesting material and reduced to a little dark splotch on the video picture.) Next to the crow remains I saw a long, thin carcass that looked gray and furry – probably a rabbit.

Later the food pile was augmented with a whole fish – a pretty big one, maybe fourteen inches or so, and another furry, mink-colored carcass. The adults rip off bits of the carcasses and stick them into the open beaks of the downy, bobble-headed young. Despite the babies’ healthy appetites, the food does seem to be piling up.

Thinking about all that dead meat sitting there unrefrigerated, I asked Sally: “Can you imagine how it smells in that nest?” Soon after my comment, she reported seeing flies buzzing around; and when it got really warm recently, we saw Mama Eagle (or Daddy? we’re not entirely sure) snapping away at them with her iconic beak. By that time the food pile included what looked like a couple of legs (they were long, roughly cylindrical, and covered with matted fur.) All of which I think confirms my suspicion: it stinks to high heaven up there in the eyrie.

Then I got to thinking: eagles probably don’t mind the smell (even if the flies vex them). In fact, maybe they like it, that pungent aroma of dead fish and animal carcass decomposing. I pictured the baby eagles when they’re all grown up, flying low over a landfill some day, or maybe a packing house, and saying: “Aw gee, that smells just like the nest used to smell… Good times, good times…”

Ok, it’s pretty fanciful – bald eagles probably aren’t sentimental, and my friend Filis, a bird lover, tells me they haven’t much of a sense of smell. But they do seem a bit like humans at times – at least, we’ve had no trouble finding similarities. As I said, we’re not absolutely sure – but from the FAQs on the website, I think I can tell which parent is the male, and which the female. Mama Eagle is bigger, her white head feathers look a little scruffier, and she’s more often the one sitting on the nest. Anyway, we don’t let our uncertainty keep us from anthropomorphizing. We watched one evening as the bird we think is the male landed in the nest carrying a big stick in his beak, which he positioned along the edge in a way that made us think he was installing a child gate. His mate didn’t seem appreciative – she got kind of agitated, and we wondered if she was doing the eagle equivalent of saying, “What are you doing with that thing?” or maybe “You’ve been gone four hours and you brought home a stick? Where’s that trout you promised me?” Because basically, it did seem a little like he’d been hanging out at the pool hall all afternoon, and finding himself late and empty-handed (or empty-taloned), grabbed the first stick he found in the parking lot before heading home.

Sometimes we see the parent eagle nodding off and think how difficult and boring it must be, to sit hour after hour huddled over the babies, covering them with your body so that they stay warm and protected. And yes, the entire family survived the recent tornadoes in Iowa.

If you haven’t given it a look, tune into the eagle cam. It’s one of the few reality shows around whose authenticity cannot be questioned.

To view go to: http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles

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This is a repost from a couple of years ago, in honor of today’s snow.

I know a lot of people would say I’m crazy – but I feel a little sad, that winter’s almost over and the snow is melting fast.

What could be more magical than gazing out the window, aimlessly, when suddenly you become aware that the tiniest of white flakes is drifting down from the sky? Slowly, elegantly; and then you see another – but “see” is a word that feels too directed. It’s more like another flake appears, registers on your visual field. It’s so subtle an experience that if you were actually focusing your attention out the window, you might not see the snow falling, at all.

Again, I know that most people think I’m crazy, to feel that little pang at goodbye. The blanket of snow on the lawn has been there for days now, days that have seen the thermometer stuck below 20 degrees. I know the cold can be tiresome. But even after months of cold weather I’m entranced by this sight: the slow drift and float of the solitary snowflake to earth.

In a few weeks I won’t see it again, until next winter. Next winter, when we’ve just battened down the hatches against the cold, when we’re deep in the longest dark of the year; and we look out to see that for the first time in eight or nine months, snow is falling.

Snow is mysterious. It’s frozen water – but it’s nothing like ice. It’s a complicated process, the formation of snow from water vapor, up in the clouds; and the more complex the individual snowflake, the more stages involved in its evolution – a snowflake quite literally “grows.” The delicate structure with which we’re familiar – the lacy snowflake that’s emblazoned on everything from Christmas ornaments to ski sweaters – has been duplicated in the laboratory, using special equipment. However, snow in large quantities is hard to make. The snow-making “cannons” used at ski resorts can’t make snow crystals, but only frozen droplets that look nothing like even simple snowflakes, under a magnifier. (And are a weak substitute to ski on, or so I’m told).

W.A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake, in 1884. I have a book of his photos – my dad bought it years ago. Titled Snow Crystals, the first edition was published in 1931.  It contains 2,453 photographs of snowflakes (and a few frost patterns).  The intricacy of the patterns on its pages is a marvel – and as you might expect, no two are exactly alike.

Thumbing through the book the other day, it occurred to me that until the science of optics created magnifying lenses, people had no concept of the structure of the individual snowflake.  We didn’t know it existed, this infinite world of beauty.

Mr. Bentley, I discovered, was driven by a similar thought.  A teenager on a Vermont farm when he began his lifelong obsession, he had to first beg his parents to invest in an expensive camera.  Then, through a frustrating process of trial and error, he taught himself how to capture the image of a single snowflake. It took him two seasons to succeed.  He continued to photograph snowflakes, with very little reward or recognition, for the next 47 years.  (He died just weeks after the initial publication of Snow Crystals.)

His motivation was not only scientific curiosity, but a passionate reverence for the beauty of snow.  “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,” he told an interviewer in 1925.  “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.  When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

So he resolved to be the guardian of that beauty, and its champion. He took over 5,000 photographs, laboring winter after winter in an unheated room in his farmhouse. For most of his life, the public paid very little attention. (In fact, at the first local showing of his photographic slides, he had only six attendees.)

But the lack of recognition didn’t stop him. He truly loved snow – and he had to show it to the world, in a way that they had never seen it before. Surrounded by neighbors who thought of winter as a condition simply to be endured, he had to share with them what he had found – the mysterious, incomparable beauty of snow.

I think like me he must have felt just a tinge of sadness, as spring drew near and the snow began to melt.

Quoted material from interview with W.A. Bentley, The American Magazine, February, 1925.

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The front’s been moving through for hours. The wind wailed and the windows shook all night long, and looking out the slider this morning I can see it’s still blowing, empty branches swinging, dark clouds scudding fast out of the west. November, and something has clicked over, moved across a line of demarcation.

Yesterday we went for a long walk, thinking it would be the last of 60-degree weather for a good long while. It was dark, under the trees, and rain kept coming in fits and starts, leaving mist in the intervals. The squirrels darting across the path and up and down the tree trunks didn’t care, neither the ducks turning slow circles in the backwater of the river. There were so many birds chirping and trilling in the brushy open under the power lines that I felt like we were in a jungle, or an aviary. Every time I hear a riot of birds I can’t help but think of the people of Guam. The songbirds there have all been eaten by tree-climbing snakes, brought to the island in the holds of ships. There are no longer any birds singing on Guam – not one. I can’t imagine, how sad that would be.

Standing on a fallen tree that lay across the path, I saw the script of beetles – emerald ash borers – cut into its bare wood. An invader of our own had brought down this huge ash tree. It led me to think of the strange and somewhat scary-looking wasp we saw on a camping trip once. It turned out to be a Giant Ichneumon wasp, which uses a long, whip-like appendage to bore through tree bark and lay its parasitic eggs on the beetle larvae inside.

“We’ve seen some crazy bugs,” I said, and then we remembered the Phantom Crane fly we saw on another hike, floating above the trail like a jellyfish in an ocean of air. At the time, we couldn’t imagine what it was, gliding along like a transparent hovercraft. It seemed a creature from another world.

We stayed out longer than usual yesterday, the air being so mild. Walking around in the dimness of the woods, we surprised a couple of deer and saw their white tails retreating. Seed pods hanging from a shrub along the path looked like tiny lanterns; when I picked one up from the ground, it rattled like a maraca. The leaves are mostly down now, but their colors were spread upon the ground and here and there mixed in with the fading and the dying there was the fresh green of garlic mustard or a tuft of grass. Fall berries – bittersweet orange, plum purple – hung over the path, adorned with crystal raindrops.

There’s always so much to see outdoors that once I get started walking, I want to keep going. I wish then that I was on a backpacking trip, or that walking tour in the British Isles that’s on my bucket list.

But then again, adventure doesn’t have to be large, written in capital letters with exclamation points. There’s plenty of adventure spread around, all over the place if you can just slow down and see it, let it find you, settle on you like a misty rain, sing out to you like a chorus of birds, rhapsodizing before winter.

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I went swimming yesterday – a rare occurrence, so late in the year. September 27th. I could hardly believe the calendar read nearly October, and not August.

I walked around in the shallows with my camera first, taking shots of the furrowed sandbars under the clear water, the patterns the light makes, the island with its brushy hairdo in the background, the peninsulas in the far distance. On a calm day, I’m fascinated by the way the water ripples and moves over and around the sandbars. Words from the realm of sound, and music, come to mind: vibration. Resonance. Harmonics. I stood with my camera in the shallows, trying to capture some of it as the minnows pooled around me and nibbled at my feet.

A woman approached on a sit-on-top kayak. I’d seen her dragging it to the water as I walked out, she came from one of the big houses north of us. I wondered which one. Could she be a guest of the people who cut down trees on my sister’s property last spring, without asking?  The trees were right in the sight line to their huge front windows. We had a talk, and they were apologetic afterwards, but still… I’m skeptical. I’m suspicious in general of the “big house” people, they of the expansive landscaping, perpetual lights, wandering chainsaws.

She paddled up to me as I was snapping pictures. I felt annoyed. With an entire Bay to paddle in, why come right by me? Later I realized she wanted to stay in the shallows as she headed south.

“That looks like a nice camera,” she said as she approached.

“I like it,” I said, and shrugged. I was thinking, it’s not a terribly fancy camera. I lined up another landscape in my viewfinder.

She paddled slowly and deliberately – an older woman, probably in her 60s. I noticed her wide-brimmed hat, just like the one I was wearing.

“Are you taking pictures of the island?” she asked.

I stopped to explain a little – the patterns in the sand, the light, the submerged tree trunk I’d seen the day before from my kayak. “It’s around here somewhere,” I said.

“Did you see the eagle on the island this morning?” she asked.

I responded no, not this morning. But, I told her, I’ve seen it out here before. For a quick second I imagined her standing on one of the balconies on one of the big houses, binoculars trained on the island. I felt a strong possessiveness, like a small child with a favorite object – my island, mine! And the urge to say, I’ve been coming to this island since before I could walk… Or was it later that I thought of saying that? I don’t know.

She got just past me with her slow paddle strokes when the trill of a loon floated over the water.

“That’s a loon,” I called from behind her.

“Sounds like it to me,” she said.

It called again. “It sure is,” I repeated.

“Beautiful sound,” she said.

I stood there with my camera as she slowly moved off on the still water.

I walked about, taking more pictures. I thought about the loons. I thought about the woman’s comment: beautiful sound. I thought about avian botulism, the numbers I read this past spring in the newsletter from the Watershed Council. Over 400 dead loons reported last year in Charlevoix and Emmett counties alone, and those are just the birds that volunteers found and tallied. I wanted to tell the woman from the big house, paddling serenely down the Bay, that the beautiful sound of the loons won’t be here for long if we don’t start trying to protect it.

But she was long gone, and I, reluctant if not entirely unfriendly, had not exactly made a friend.

Maybe next time, I thought, while the minnows tickled my toes. Maybe next time I’ll do a better job of connecting. Finished with my photo shoot, I walked back in, off the sandbars onto the clay-like crust that has formed over the pebbly shallows in front of the island, through the mucky patch just off shore where I sink up to my calves in spots, these days. I walked up onto the shore, crossing the gunk-coated stones, thick with dead algae, just at the water’s edge. Less than a decade ago they were clean, their rich colors shining in the sun. When we were small my sister and I spent hours at the water’s edge on a still day, playing with our buckets and shovels, looking at the stones.

I took my camera back up to the cottage, its memory card holding pictures of a rare day in late September: light, pattern, waves of energy through which we, no less than the minnows, move. Next time a kayaker comes out from the big houses up the beach, I hope to remember: at the right frequency, we all resonate together.


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