December state of mind

Here we are: me and my daughters. My oldest is waving. See?

We’ve made it through November, one of the grayest months of the year, and yesterday we made another of our ongoing efforts to get outdoors and look for beauty in a season when I’ve usually hunkered down and faded into a depressed meditation on how long it will be till April.

It’s still deer season, but there is no hunting on this marsh. There is a pair of bald eagles that nest on the river nearby, and we’ve seen them fishing in the dead trees here before when we’ve driven by in the car. I was hoping we’d see them yesterday when we were on foot, but — no luck.

Against the colorlessness, these winterberries positively blazed.

Occasionally we got a peek at an Edenic, green-drenched bog. This one features a dead tree with its large root system covered with moss and facing the camera. There are several others along the edge. The scene has a primeval look.

Somehow the color and light this time of year are more brilliant (when the sun is out, at least).

My daughter wanted to call this picture the Jesse Tree, since it shows a young tree growing out of the upturned roots of another one.

Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots.”

What a thought. This is the month of Christmas, marking the advent of a new strain of spiritual life altogether — this month when the trees are bare and the birds have gone south.

At least, most of them…

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

–Oliver Herford, “I Heard a Bird Sing”

All in all a lovely hour on a sunny day. We lingered as long as we could.

Poetry Friday is at Carol’s Corner today.

Facebook and blogging

Over the last year I’ve read of several fellow bloggers who’ve left or put limits on their Facebook involvement. One is Deb; another is Jess; most recently, Pastor Dennis. I find something I can relate to in all of them. And I’ve found myself returning from time to time to my own post about Boundaries with Technology, where I “had my full say.”

Since writing that post in which I come down very strongly against Facebook, I should admit that I’ve tried it again. It was back in the early summer, when I decided that I shouldn’t be so judgmental and should make myself available “where everyone is” — on Facebook. It lasted a few weeks before I deleted my account, this time permanently.

While I probably still believe what I wrote in my “Boundaries” post, like many practices it has metamorphosed into something simpler. Instead of “Facebook is bad,” it’s more like, “It’s not my thing.” I just never discovered the appeal. It was one more thing that added noise to my life, and it didn’t add an iota of relational enrichment. I found that the things I learned about people there weren’t the things I wanted to know. I’m more interested in what you think and feel and believe. Somehow those things don’t grow in the climate of Facebook. I can see that some people like it or value it as an informational tool, and that’s fine. It just wasn’t my thing, and I don’t miss it.

I do, however, really enjoy blogging, and have since 2007. What’s the difference? At times, I’ve really struggled with spending too much time at it, or with silly things like which theme or which header image to use. A few times I’ve dug in and tried to be “ambitious,” wresting it into a niche — making it exclusively a book blog, or listing it here or there, or even, once, creating a Facebook page for it. (Another very brief tryst with Facebook.) But it always morphs back into the rather shapeless, eclectic creature it now is — a “whatever I happen to be thinking about” kind of blog.

Though I’ve struggled with giving it too much importance, I’m comfortable with where it is right now. My publication rate is not terribly consistent; some weeks I post a lot, some weeks, not so much. But if I have something I want to work out in writing, I have come to really value this place for it. I like that there is a fairly complete record of my reading here; I go back and look at my thoughts on this or that book quite often, and I’ve kept this record more consistently than I’ve ever kept one offline. I also value this forum for keeping a record of nature study, mainly because I can post the photos along with the reflections here. I take lots of pictures, but our printer is such that I can’t print out many at all — the ink cartridge runs out after about 5 photos, and it’s expensive to replace. Here is a place I can put some of them.

Even though I don’t post every day like clockwork, this blog has fostered a regular discipline of writing — moreso, and for longer, than any paper diary ever has. It has made the concept of “audience” immediate and real, too. There is always some degree of shooting my thoughts out there into the vague “blogosphere,” but there are some distinct faces in the crowd, people who have left comments pretty regularly and whose blogs I read. These things have helped me to develop as a writer because they help to keep me writing.

It’s not a diary. It’s not a place to record the innermost thoughts of my heart or the personal details of my family. That’s just as well; those things are reserved for my prayer life and my friendships. It’s not really “social technology” either; blogging is a self-publication platform, not a place that exists to “find friends.” But I have developed and value some online friendships here in the blogosphere. They’re not the same as face to face friendships, but they have a certain depth because this forum allows us to develop and exchange our thoughts. These friendships exist somewhere in the space between the verbal and the physical, between the printed word and the human voice. I’m not sure how to define them! But they are real, and I have come to value them (you) very much.

I’m not sure I can pin down the difference between Facebook and blogging, or that I need to. But while Facebook isn’t my thing, it appears that blogging is, and I’ve grown comfortable with that.


Now I Remember: The Autobiography of Thornton W. Burgess

Sometimes you can enjoy a series of books, but grow disillusioned when you read the author’s biography. (This happened to me when I read Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography.) But in Thornton Burgess’s case, I find my respect and liking for the man greatly increased by reading his autobiography. And I am drawn back to the stories of the Green Meadows and the Green Forest now that I have learned more about their back story and motivation.

I grew up with the Thornton Burgess books. My parents passed some on to me, and my grandmother gave me some new ones for Christmas one year. My favorite was Lightfoot the Deer, but over the years (and more recently, with my daughters) I’ve read the respective adventures of Paddy the Beaver, Johnny Chuck, Grandfather Frog, Peter Rabbit, Longlegs the Heron, Mr. Mocker, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, and The Burgess Bird Book. I have to say that though I enjoyed them as a child, I took them in fairly small doses. They are written in a sentimental style, and the animals are given human characteristics — including human speech. The pictures by celebrated illustrator Harrison Cady are very distinctive, but they never really appealed to me.

Since reading the books with my daughters I’ve noticed that underneath the stylistic trappings, there is quite a bit of real nature knowledge. As we come upon different animals in our travels, it’s becoming a reflex to reach first not just for the Handbook of Nature Study or an animal encyclopedia, but for a Thornton Burgess book as well. And we find ourselves referring to the “folk in fur and feathers” (as Burgess calls them) around the yard by his names for them: Chatterer, Happy Jack, Sammy Jay, and so on.

Now I Remember was published in 1960, when Burgess was 86. Despite the distinctive, grandfatherly voice that pervades the stories, I really had no idea who the man behind them was. Born in Sandwich, Massachusetts and a self-identifying lifelong Cape Codder no matter where else he lived, he was an only child who lost his father in his first year of life. As a boy he helped earn money by collecting plants, tending cows, and trapping muskrats, and these outdoor rambles laid a foundation of nature observation that later blossomed into his best-known tales. “Studying the wild things and their ways that I might better outwit and kill them, I was with complete unawareness laying the foundations for my lifework, which began happily when I put away the gun for camera and typewriter,” Burgess explains.

He went to business school for a year, but that was the extent of his post-high school education. As a writer he began by writing advertising copy; the nature stories began when his 5-year-old son was staying with relatives (he was married twice; only a year into marriage, his first wife died at the birth of their son), and he would send him stories about the “little people” of the Green Meadows and Green Forest and Smiling Pool. Burgess wrote 15,000 stories for newspapers and magazines and well over 100 books. An amateur naturalist, he built on the foundation of his early years of firsthand observation through study and field research, always aspiring to accuracy and avoidance of becoming what President Teddy Roosevelt termed “nature fakers.” Though his writing career began in the desire to simply entertain and make a living, he quickly realized that his books had educational value, and he became a strong advocate for nature study and conservation. He worked to pass laws protecting migrant wildlife, and started various clubs associated with his stories and radio programs with rewards for conserving behavior and nature study: the Bedtime Stories Club, the Green Meadow Club, the Radio Nature League, and even the Happy Jack Squirrel Saving Club for children buying thrift stamps and bonds during World War I.

My daughter is sitting here as I type this, and I asked her what she likes best about the Burgess stories. She replies, “The animals mostly get along. There is real nature in them, but the animals get along.” This is intentional, as Burgess explains. Children learn quickly enough of the cruelty in the world. He felt strongly that in stories for children they should not be treated to the “realism” of their favorite characters getting eaten. That’s why Reddy Fox never gets Peter Rabbit. At one point in Burgess’s lifetime, an editorial gently poked fun at this by asking, “When Does Old Man Coyote Eat?” But on the whole the safety of the fictional world, though not totally realistic, is one of the features that held readers so devotedly.

I had mixed feelings about some things. These days it’s hard to imagine stories as propoganda to get children to invest in war efforts. But at the same time I found myself wistful for the kind of national unity and community that existed then, and for the moral consensus that surrounded the war effort. We live in a much more ideologically fragmented age — less naive, but with a knowledge that has come at some cost.

I also hesitate at Burgess’s repeated assertion that nature stories are ideal vehicles for conveying morals because of children’s innate sense of superiority to animals. Again, we live in a different age when it’s not fashionable to think in such a tiered way about nature; ecosystems and webs of life are inherently more democratic than superior and inferior species. Yet I’m also a Christian who remembers that the first responsibility humans are given in Genesis is to steward the Creation. There is a hierarchy of sorts; who can deny that humans display qualities that are unique among all species? The ability to reason and reflect and alter our environment can be used for good or ill, and can be exercised with the humility that comes with recognizing that we are dependent on the health of the world around us. So I found myself qualifying and revising some of Burgess’s views.

Even though I felt some of these differences, I found Burgess to be an extremely gracious personality, and my strongest impression as I close the book is liking for him. This book includes an account of events in his literary life, description of his writing habits, memories of childhood, various philosophies of life, personal and professional associations, and excerpts of letters from readers over the years that he has accumulated in a scrapbook. It could have come off as self-adulation, but it doesn’t. Instead what comes across is his great appreciation for his readers, and the enormous encouragement and inspiration they provided him. He sees himself as indebted to them.

I come away from Now I Remember knowing I would have been one of the many who loved this author and felt a sense of personal connection with him. His stories were a part of daily life in the newspapers for thousands of people and provided not just nature knowledge, but a sense of stability and decency in a rapidly changing world. His impact is much greater than I knew.

  • Images courtesy of Gutenberg.
  • Visit the Thornton Burgess Society here.
  • See the book on Amazon here.

Neighborhood Hawks

The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine.

(From “Hawk Roosting,” by Ted Hughes. See the rest of the poem here.)

The girls and I saw this hawk in a roadside tree on our way out to run some errands. I had my camera with me, so I pulled over and took a few pictures. It’s a large, chunky hawk, and I assumed it was a red-tail, but since its tail isn’t red we looked through the bird book to check out other options.

The only candidate we found was the Swainson’s hawk, but the Swainson belongs west of here. It also migrates in a large group or “kettle” of other hawks — sometimes up to thousands. (Wouldn’t that be an amazing sight? A thousand hawks sweeping past overhead?) This bird is alone, late in the season, in the northeast.

My father came to the rescue, identifying it as a young red-tailed hawk still wearing protectively-colored plumage. The brown on its back will even out, and its tail will redden, as it matures.

Red-tails are pretty common around here. We see them often in highway medians, and in the trees alongside the highway, surveying the grasses for mice. But to see one this close up — and to be held in that fierce glare — was a thrill.

Over the summer, we began to worry that we saw so few red-tails perched on dead trees or soaring overhead. We were used to seeing one alongside the road we take into town, and it wasn’t there. We wondered if they were being driven out by a kind of hawk we’d never noticed before: a broad-winged hawk.

I saw this one in the Adirondacks in July, and when we returned home we discovered that we had a pair of them in the neighborhood. They’re buteos, like the red-tail — they have chunky bodies and thick wings, and they soar. They’re smaller than the red-tail. But the most distinctive thing about them to us was their incessant “squeaky-door” call throughout July. Sometimes we’d see them circling together and occasionally darting at each other high above. And sometimes, we’d see them hunting in the brush that borders our back yard.

We haven’t seen them in awhile. They go south for the winter, traveling in a kettle, and I assume they’ve left. Interestingly, we are seeing many more red-tails now, too. I wondered, is it because they can move into territory vacated by the broad-wings, or because the leaves are down and we can simply see better who has been in the treetops all along? This site suggests a third alternative: red-tails “disappear” every summer because they move to more wooded locations. As with so many things, I just haven’t really paid attention before.

Last but not least comes the Cooper’s hawk. We’ve known about this hawk for several years; it comes through the neighborhood periodically, and we feel the dread of all songbird-lovers when it casts its shadow over the lawn. The redtails and broad-wings hunt small mammals and snakes mostly, but the Cooper’s hawk hunts songbirds as well — as we witnessed from the kitchen window one night in early July.

Cooper’s hawks are accipiters; they don’t soar like buteos. We see them fly close to the ground, and my husband tells me they are capitalizing on the natural buoyancy of “ground effect.” They have longer tails and shoot like an arrow at their prey.

Of these three types of hawks, we’ve only observed the Cooper actually capturing prey — once a robin (above), and once, a chipmunk. Maybe that’s why of the three, it strikes us as the most cruel looking.

I seem to be permanently conflicted about hawks — in awe of their beauty, power, and warrior-like ferocity, yet chilled by their proficiency (if they are going to survive) as killers. I think Ted Hughes captures some of that conflict between fascinated admiration and horror in his poem. Maybe the hawk’s perspective is as Hughes imagines it: “the world exists for me.” Maybe hawks need that kind of megalomania to survive. It’s only dangerous, the poem implies, if a person, with human capacities for reflection and compassion, adopts that attitude toward the world. We don’t expect non-human species to be “humane.” But humans better be — or else.

We look at hawks and feel the kinship of lordly species — creatures with power over other creatures. Yet maybe we sense the implicit warning, too, against the possibility of becoming like the hawk in Hughes’ poem: “Now I hold Creation in my foot… I kill where I please because it is all mine.”

Poetry Friday is at My Juicy Little Universe today.


Charlotte Sometimes

This haunting novel is classified as a children’s book, though to my mind it seems more like an adult book with child characters. Although it’s poetic and truthful in its depiction of character and psychology, its storyline is intriguing, and for many it’s considered a modern classic, it’s not a book I recommend.

First, the details. Charlotte Sometimes is a time-travel story with a twist, originally published in 1969. 13-year-old Charlotte Makepeace goes to boarding school and sleeps in a unique bed with wheels. Though it’s never explained how or why, the bed facilitates an exchange with Clare Moby, a girl sleeping in the same bed 50 years earlier in 1918. Every other day, the girls find themselves trading places. They start to keep a diary whereby they communicate essential details to make the transitions easier. Then they find themselves trapped in the wrong times. How will they get back where they belong?

The story is told through Charlotte’s perspective, and the loss of identity she feels is quite delicately and compellingly drawn. When she finds herself transported back to 1918, she “becomes” Clare, and pervading the novel is her sense of wondering what makes her uniquely “her.” Clare has a sister, Emily, at the boarding school, and even she doesn’t catch on right away to the fact that her sister has become someone else. The ordinary, and our expectations and assumptions, exert a tremendous power over what we perceive, the novel suggests. Sometimes they cloak reality. And sometimes they isolate and alienate.

The World War I historical context is deftly drawn in realistic detail. We are immersed in the experience of boarding school life in an England at war, where water, gas and food must be consumed “patriotically,” and where one can never be sure whether she’ll see her father or brother again because they are doing their duty as soldiers.

What I didn’t like about the novel was the introduction of occult themes. While trapped in 1918, Charlotte and Emily go “into lodgings” with a British family for a season. Instead of living at the school, they live with the Chisel Brown family — an elderly couple and their grown daughter Agnes — at their tomb-like home, Flintlock. Flintlock is essentially a shrine to Arthur, the couple’s son who went to war and was killed.

One evening Charlotte has a dream in which she “becomes” Arthur as a child having a nightmare. At another point, the family has a seance to conjure up their dead son, and somehow they get Clare, trapped 50 years into the future, instead. The whole conception of a chaotic spiritual realm full of souls with permeable boundaries between life and death, and between one person and another, is disturbing. It was further compounded for me by the characterization of Clare as an extremely pious Christian. The idea that she could be conjured from one era to another by a medium is as false to anything the Bible has to say about spiritualism as it’s possible to get.

The fictional situation does get resolved eventually, but it’s a bittersweet resolution at best. For me the atmosphere of the tale is pervaded by sorrow; whatever its literary merits, its overall effect is oppressive. I read the 1986 edition — the only one available in our library system. It wasn’t till I sat down to write this review that I learned its ending had been altered from the 1969 edition. (Apparently there are three versions: 1969, 1986, and now a more recent one that restores the original ending.) The original ending sounds like it might offer slightly more closure, but still no real satisfaction.