Exhaustless entertainment

The fields and woods about one are a book from which he may draw exhaustless entertainment, if he will. (John Burroughs, from the essay “A Sharp Lookout”)

Today, the girls and I took our dog (Katie) and rambled at a place where we spent a fair amount of time in August and early September, collecting monarch caterpillars. It was chilly, with a thin blue sky and a lot of mud and gray tree trunks. After being there when it was abuzz with activity — meadow birds, butterflies, caterpillars, and the occasional soaring redtail — it seemed dead and dull.

Until we came upon a pair of mallards that brightened the brown landscape with their vivid colors and immaculate plumage.

Shortly after that, in the midst of the silent landscape, we came to a bush alive with chirping.

It sounded like the cheerful racket of goldfinches, but a zoom in with the camera revealed what looked like sparrows.

Then we came upon the sound of woodpeckers. We spotted what looked like either a downy or a hairy at work. Then two or three more revealed themselves. They were busy on three large, dead trees beside the creek. It was a true haven for woodpeckers. The king of them all — a pileated — swooped in making his characteristic laugh, and a few of the smaller ones scattered.

I think these birds are magnificent. In “The Rise” Wendell Berry speaks of them as birds of “the big trees and the big woods, and more than any other birds along this river they speak out of our past.” But here was one in a strip of hedgerow/brush between a park and a neighborhood. It was a real treat.

On our way out we saw what we thought must be a muskrat, since we saw no signs of beavers.

One of the scenes I remember from The Long Winter is when Pa sees muskrats building an extra thick mud house and surmises that the winter will be a hard one. I was surprised this week to read John Burroughs’ confession that he no longer thinks muskrats know any more about what kind of winter is coming than he does. He thinks they build according to whim, not according to any reliable intuition as meteorologists.

On the way home we stopped for a few minutes to watch a couple of squirrels harvesting seeds.

My 7-year-old wanted to use construction paper to make paper-cut-outs for her journal page, so as I relived the walk by downloading my photos, she went to work.

Her older sister (10) followed suit.

We had a great time seeing so many surprises, and the pleasure was intensified by the gloomy feeling early on that we weren’t going to see anything much. So I’ll conclude with one more fitting John Burroughs insight to book-end this post:

The place to observe nature is where you are; the walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things: both the observed and the observer have changed; the ship is on another tack in both cases. (From “A Sharp Lookout”)

This post is submitted to the Outdoor Hour Carnival.

Outdoor Hour Challenge: Squirrels

It was October when we first moved into our house about ten years ago, and one of the first things we loved about it was the big window over the dining room table, where we would sit and watch the squirrels trapeze through the trees bordering our back yard. We have lots of American walnut trees, and they are like a tractor beam drawing in these little acrobats.

There are quite a few squirrel’s nests in the brush out back, two of which are visible from the table as we eat or do schoolwork. We watch them year-round, and it seemed like a good time to gather together all of the observations we’ve accumulated since the spring, when we saw this gray squirrel eating buds while working out.

One evening in May, we noticed a female squirrel running from her nest up the tree, tearing off leaves, and returning to line her nest with them. My video work was pretty shaky (you can see it here), and the light at dusk wasn’t good, but it was still an amazing process to watch. She’s so very nimble, and I couldn’t help but wonder how she decided when the job was done.

It wasn’t long before there were babies. We would see them playing in this giant walnut tree — probably the original tree that has spawned all the other walnuts nearby.

The Handbook of Nature Study features red squirrels, and we have a few of those around, too. They’re ill-tempered fellows, often chasing the gray squirrels across the yard and biting them on their bottoms. They’re greatly outnumbered, but we’ve never observed a gray chasing a red — it’s always the other way around.

We assume that the information in the handbook pertains to gray squirrels too, so we went ahead and made our journal pages accordingly. I used a template from Barb’s newsletter, but the girls couldn’t wait for me to make copies and got started before I returned upstairs with them. They’ll use them next week!

Younger Daughter used oil pastels and dictated her observations to me.


Older Daughter did her own drawing and writing.


My page.

The handbook says babies come in April, but it was May where we live — only about an hour from Ithaca, where Comstock wrote her book. I found some online sources that helped provide more details about squirrel reproduction:

The girls got a real tickle out of Comstock’s journal pages about Furry, the baby red squirrel she rescues and raises. They also loved the videos over at the Outdoor Hour — click the OHC button above to check them out for yourself! One of them describes an experiment to see the spatial memory of squirrels in action, and we’re in the process of trying it today.

We continued to enjoy the squirrels through the summer, when they would power lounge on hot days.

Occasionally we’d see the mother calling the juvenile squirrels, and they’d come running from treetops all around. One of the most interesting facts in the Handbook was that they have specific “roads” through trees and on the ground, and they do race pell-mell along these familiar routes, but they become more tentative when they venture off these trails.

She looks worried in this picture — almost like she’s wringing her hands.

I caught this one messing with a tent caterpillar nest in a walnut tree. Was he eating caterpillars, or bugs?

Now that the weather is cooler, we see them often huddled under their blanket-tails, eating walnuts.


I’ve noticed that the crows keep a close eye on the squirrels. More than once, after a squirrel has buried a nut and carefully smoothed and patted the ground over it, I’ve seen a crow immediately land and start poking around where the squirrel just put the nut. Once I watched the crow successfully extract the nut, but after holding it in its beak for a few minutes and turning its head to and fro, it left it and flew away. Must have been hoping for something a little more palatable.

My most recent Birds and Blooms magazine includes a photo from a reader who bakes tiny peanut butter cookies for the squirrels in her yard. I was seized by an inexplicable compulsion to try it.

I put one on their favorite stump and retreated to the window to watch.

It took about a half hour for one to discover the cookie.

The Eastern Gray Squirrel site says not to give squirrels “junk food” like bread, or even peanuts except in small quantities. But a cookie now and then is surely good for everyone.

There are other squirrel stories I could tell: the battle of wits between my husband and the squirrels over dominance of the bird feeder, for instance, or the “dead” squirrel that peeled itself off the pavement and dashed up a tree under my very nose. But I’ll resist.

All that remains is a rundown of some fun squirrel stories, and squirrel side characters, in the world of literary rodentry. Here are some that come to mind:

What would you add to the list?

I realize squirrels can be pests, but they don’t really cause us any problems other than the bird feeder. They don’t get into the house or chew on things or eat our garden. (*Edited to add: Since writing this, I’ve read John Burroughs’ admonition that if you want birds to nest in your yard you should kill every red squirrel you see because they are responsible for pillaging more eggs and nestlings than any other predator. So I guess that’s a bit of rain on my squirrel parade!) They do give us lots of entertainment and are models of industry and athleticism. Here’s hoping one crosses your path today.

Be sure to visit the Outdoor Hour Challenge on the last day of November to see what other folks are learning about the world around them.

Nature Study: Humans

No nature study is complete without taking human behavior into account. Lately I’ve had some opportunities to think about our species.

A local nature preserve where we enjoy going for walks has been in the news lately because of the growing deer population. They eat the wildflowers and the bark from trees, and they have apparently defoliated everything below four feet in the woods. There is also concern about the lyme disease ticks they carry. This is something I think about since we returned from our recent trip to Kentucky and picked up our dog, who was staying with my parents in their home bordering the woods. Over the first week back, we picked off 2o ticks. (!) Some of them were orange — lyme disease carriers. I’ve not taken her with us on any of our rambles since getting back, and we’re careful to check ourselves over pretty well too when we return from a walk.

The controversy over this preserve, which is located on the state university’s property, is with the university’s proposal to hire sharpshooters to come in and kill 90% of the deer over Christmas break. They would donate them to food pantries.

I understand the importance of balance. But is this really the only option? Ninety deer would be baited into the open and shot in the head by a sniper in a tree stand. I’d hope they wouldn’t shoot fawns, but this little guy that I spotted there back in August comes to mind.

The “discussion” is taking place simultaneously with another sometimes heated public debate about natural gas drilling on the Marcellus Shale, which underlies our region and much of Pennsylvania as well. It’s not uncommon to pass neighboring yards adorned with opposing signs: “No drill, no spill” vs “Pass Responsible Drilling.”

Most politicians will say they are “for safe drilling.” It would be a quick economic boon to the area. But it could also put drinking water at risk. Saying you’re for “safe drilling” amounts to having no stance on the issue at all, because it sidesteps all the real questions: how do you make non-local corporations responsible for their drilling practices? How do you monitor them? What happens when mistakes are made — as they inevitably will be, and have already been made in some Pennsylvania locales? Most basically, how can you enforce responsibility in practices that depend on humans working on a scale beyond their control? Saying you’re for “safe drilling” is kind of like being asked where you stand on abortion, and saying, “I’m for a world where all children are wanted.” Me too. But that ignores all the immediate legal and moral questions pressing on us.

On the other hand, I’ve just read in two different places this week of ways humans have improved their world. One is in my most recent issue of Birds and Blooms, which points out that the reason we can enjoy hummingbirds year-round in some areas of the country is that people have cultivated gardens to support them. People have created habitats for them.

The other reading is in A Sharp Lookout, a collection of natural history essays by John Burroughs, who writes,

Indeed, what would be more interesting than the history of our birds for the last two or three centuries? There can be no doubt that the presence of man has exerted a very marked and friendly influence upon them, since they so multiply in his society… Where did the bobolink disport himself before there were meadows in the North and rice-fields in the South? Was he the same lithe, merry-hearted beau then as he is now? And the sparrow, the lark, and the goldfinch, birds that seem so indigenous to the open fields and so averse to the woods, — we cannot conceive of their existence in a vast wilderness and without man.

He gets a little carried away. I can “conceive of their existence” without us. But it’s true that we alter the environment, sometimes in ways that enhance the habitat of certain species.

So I guess humans are kind of a complicated subject of nature study. We can do so much good. But there are lots of horror stories, too, of ways that our attempts to “improve” things have resulted in extinction, or pollution, or the dominance of elements that we wouldn’t have encouraged if we’d had a little more foresight. The first job Adam is given in Genesis is to steward the earth, and like so many other things, we do it better in partnership with the Creator — and with some degree of “fear and trembling.”

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The girls and I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret early last week. Now three years old, this story — which I’m going to call an experimental novel — won a Caldecott in 2008 and has been made into a movie coming out this Thanksgiving. (You can see the trailer at Amazon.)

On the up side, it’s a really neat concept. As the image shows, it’s a very thick book, but hundreds of pages are illustrations that tell the story every bit as much as the text. The illustrations are all in black and white and really enhance the book’s mysterious ambience. Pages of actual text are sometimes full-length, and sometimes only an inch or so of text surrounded by lots of white space. You can read the book quickly despite its length. This is something I like in a read-aloud! I can imagine it would also be a real shot in the arm for a young reader who can feel the accomplishment of ingesting a weighty tome without taking six months to get through it. I still remember the pride of reading Roots and Gone with the Wind when I was in 8th grade. This book, recommended for ages 9 and up, would give a similar satisfaction to a slightly younger reader, I would think.

As far as the plot, well… somehow, it just didn’t work for me. I say this with trepidation, since this is a book Amy recommended very highly, and usually my reactions are very similar to hers. So read her review for a different perspective! The girls really liked the story; it had definite magnetism. But when it came time to put the plot into words, they had a hard time unifying the collection of elements in a way that seemed coherent or sensible.

Here’s how Amazon describes the plot:

Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

That’s a good teaser, but if you try to fill in some of the details it ends up sounding a little odd. I conclude that Hugo Cabret seems to be more a novel with a very unique and absorbing reading experience, less about plot than about imaginative involvement with an unfolding situation. It’s not a book to return to again and again (but then, what mystery is?), but as a one-time read it gave the girls and me an exciting ride.

The Wilder Life

I picked up The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie at a publisher’s book sale that comes to our area once a year. It has one of the most attractive covers ever, in my opinion, and as someone who has read and reread the Little House books, I dropped it into my book bag without having to think about it.

Reading it was a different story. I actually considered throwing it away after the first fifty pages or so. It’s billed as “irreverent,” but the tone and attempts at humor weren’t my style. It made me consider whether there’s a difference between “irreverent” — which implies interrogating myths in a good way — and merely “disrespectful” — which involves recasting someone else so thoroughly in one’s own terms as to simply bury them.

In the end, though, The Wilder Life grew on me.

I couldn’t ever fully relate to Wendy McClure’s overwhelming desire to find a way into what she calls “Laura World,” the imagined world of the stories. But her travels to almost all the Little House historic sites, her efforts to churn butter and twist hay, and her reflections on the interaction between the books and her own developing identity drew me in and got me thinking.

I read the Little House books as a kid, then reread them as an adult when my daughters discovered them and listened to the audiobooks. It prompted me to write some of my random thoughts about the Little House books, inspired me to reread a Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, and kept Laura in my mind as a standard for comparison when we read Caddie Woodlawn. We did attempt a milk-fed pumpkin like the one Almanzo grows in Farmer Boy last spring (a failed endeavor that resulted in a dead pumpkin vine and a margerine tub full of milk and slugs), and I did print out an internet recipe for vanity cakes like the ones in Plum Creek. (It stayed on the fridge for months but never got tried — maybe because of the prominence of lard as an ingredient.) And I remembered as I read The Wilder Life that I’ve been to Laura and Almanzo’s Missouri home site, and the photos my mom purchased there of the Ingalls family are interspersed with our own family photos in our album of that trip. So while I don’t think of myself as a Laura-devotee, I guess you’d have to say I’m a committed reader — someone who has wrestled at times with the distinction between legend and reality.

I found myself really enjoying visiting the different Laura places with McClure, and hearing her descriptions and reactions. She visits the historic sites in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, and New York, seeking the mysterious point of intersection between fictional and lived life. In some sense it’s a personal quest as well as a literary one, and McClure gets somewhere in her travels.

She meets other Laura-readers along the way, some of whom are described. They help to underscore the point that in addition to the shaping effects of fiction when the Ingalls family is translated to the written page, there are also layers of readerly perception that we impose on the stories — baggage we bring to our reading. There is a group of what she calls “End-Timers” at a homesteading weekend who are trying to learn to live off the land so as to be prepared for the end of the world. There are various families with kids dressed in prairie attire. There is a stereotypical homeschool family. When they try to put into words the appeal of the Little House books, many of them cite the “simplicity” and “contentment” they feel Laura Ingalls Wilder exemplifies.

I haven’t ever really thought of Laura in these terms. I’m no doubt influenced by Wendell Berry’s comment once that though people frequently extol his “simplicity,” what he’s actually trying to do is “complexify.” Running through his writings is an attempt to uncover the relationships between different aspects of “culture and agriculture,” and I think the Ingalls story is full of a similar complexity. What impresses me about them is how much they know about the natural setting in which they live out their lives, and how enormously capable and skilled they are at finding or making what they need to survive. They often have bad luck, but they survive because they have so many practical skills and so much inherited knowledge. I admire that about them, although I’m not motivated to emulate them in this respect because it doesn’t seem necessary to know how to make a latch with a string or a puncheon floor. Growing food and canning are practical skills I’d like to master. But the Ingalls’ epic context of wilderness and weather and yet-to-be-formed civilization no longer exists.

[Okay, I’ve gone off track here. I meant simply to say that I don’t think their lives are “simple.” I think they are very accomplished in a wide and intricate range of life skills. Somehow I got into my own ambivalence about having a similar set of life skills in an era when many of them seem no longer to be necessary…]

As far as “contentment,” isn’t Laura’s discontent one of the traits that makes her so appealing in the stories? Like Pa, she always wants to keep traveling, to keep searching. Mary is the content one, and it’s what makes her less interesting. Laura’s whole life, in and out of the books, seems to be about self-improvement, building and building-on until you’ve finally carved out the place you imagined. Even her writerly ambition, not acted upon until later in life, implies a restlessness. So I don’t really relate to the view of Laura as “simple and content.” It seems more apt to call her accomplished and motivated.

I think the other thing about Laura Ingalls Wilder that makes her such a strong presence is her passionate nature. She has some intensely lived moments, and while I wouldn’t say she ever gets to that sense of “arrival” that belongs in my understanding of contentment, she is able to fully delight in certain moments. It’s what gives her such keen powers of description, and enables us to feel like we’re there with her in the stories.

As I read The Wilder Life, I remembered The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller’s account of “a skeptic’s adventures in Narnia.” Like Wendy McClure, Laura Miller wrote about her intense identification with the fictional world of a set of stories, and she tried to come to terms with it as an adult. I’ve enjoyed both the Little House books and the Narnia books; more than that, I’d say both have been very important to me, and my affection and appreciation for them has endured into my (alleged) adulthood. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been so completely involved in a reading experience as either of these writers. The degree of imaginative identification they feel as child readers (both were around 8 or 9 when they first read the books they write about) amounts almost to a religious quest. They seem to have been looking for a worthy object of faith, or a vision of who to be.

I can’t say that I’ve ever approached a book with that kind of intensity. Maybe books are a safe place to entrust some of our tenderest aspirations and dreams. Or maybe they’re not so safe, if we invest too much of ourselves in them, and then have to untangle the me from the not-me later in life. But I have to say that in both cases I’ve been glad these authors have done the work and written about their experience. I have a different worldview than Wendy McClure, different experiences with reading the Little House books, and different ideas about how to write about a beloved author or set of books. But in the end The Wilder Life invited me to think about my own ideas about the books and their author. At some points — when McClure writes about the relationship between Laura and Rose, for instance, or about the historical context of the little house on the prairie, or about the impulse some have to impose a rather showy evangelical faith on the Ingalls family — I felt like I was getting to be a part of a discussion I’ve wanted to have. I’m glad I pressed on through my first reactions and took the whole journey.