So. I have been thinking about the change of seasons. I don’t want to miss spring this year. I want to distinguish the last winter frost from the out-of-season one, the frost of spring. I want to be there on the spot the moment the grass turns green. I always miss this radical revolution; I see it the next day from a window, the yard so suddenly green and lush I could envy Nebuchadnezzar down on all fours eating grass. This year I want to stick a net into time and say “now,” as men plant flags on the ice and snow and say, “here.” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Storm writing

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Even in the Northeast, everyone is bracing for Hurricane Sandy. Back on Wednesday, before it had really registered as a force to be reckoned with, I read this episode in The Child from the Sea and thought it was just stunning. I’m not sure why it had such an impact on me, but it’s partly that it represents some fine nature writing.

I live inland and have never spent much time near the sea, but Elizabeth Goudge consistently enables me to feel the immensity and power of the ocean. It’s a presence in almost everything she writes, and I find myself longing for the sound of the breakers and the cold spray of salt water. The sea seems like a counterpart for some aspect of the human soul that has been tongue-tied or asleep in me.

This scene describes the evening before a storm in Wales. I don’t usually copy out long excerpts from books I’m reading, but this one seems appropriate for this period of waiting for Sandy. (A full review will have to wait till I finish the book.)

She stood knee-deep in tawny bracken and the vast sky above her was the dim gold of very old beaten metal, thunder gold. Yet there was no haze or oppression of thunder. The only hint of storm was the deep eerie boom of the tide in the caves below the cliff. The sea was calm gold, yet below the surface Lucy knew it must be stirring around the tree trunks of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land under the waves. The orange sun was low over the sea, the path of its reflection trembling a little on the surface of the gold, but Lucy tonight would not see the green flash as it disappeared into the sea, for above the horizon was a bank of cloud the color of the fading heather. The sun reached it and sank slowly, and then all the cloud bank was edged with fire. It grew colder and the land darkened and it seemed to Lucy that the sky reflected the darkness. Then from somewhere far down below her, from some hidden cave, came a great and tragic cry, like some heartbroken prophet crying out in despair at what he had seen. Coming at such a moment the seal’s cry seemed dreadful to Lucy and she turned and fled inland.

It was then she became aware of the birds. They were coming down from the sky like drifting autumn leaves, martins, chaffinches, goldfinches and linnets, finding their way to the bracken-sheltered hollows and the warm dry hedges and the safe crannies of the rocks. Lucy had watched the bird migrations before but she had never seen one halted like this, halted as the warning sounded along the shore. She stood still, scarcely breathing, her arms out and her face turned up to the darkening sky, and they had no fear of her. A wing brushed her cheek and just for a moment some tired little being alighted on her hand, putting on one finger for ever the memory of a tiny claw that clung like a wedding ring. It was for her a moment of ecstasy, of marriage with all living creatures, of unity with life itself, and she whispered in Welsh, “Dear God, this happiness is too great for me!” Then she began to cry again and she no longer saw the birds, only heard them and felt them, drifting and rustling, their colors muted in the twilight, glad to drift upon the tides of the air, to fall and sleep.

What follows is a description of the storm and a shipwreck, the second shipwreck description I’ve read in a Goudge novel. It must have been a part of life for the islanders she writes about.

She writes with the exact and loving detail of someone who has observed carefully. She names the birds. She captures the colors and the emotional import of the seal’s cry. She takes her time with the stages of the sunset. The level of awareness, of literacy at reading the natural scene, is something to aspire to, something that only comes from spending alert, unhurried time outdoors.

I read the passage to my daughters, and they both made a little spontaneous outcry as the bird landed on Lucy’s finger. We’re helpless birdlovers around here, and the feeders will be full for any “tired little beings” who drop from the sky and wait out the storm here.

The pre-storm brooding is a very different experience for us, much farther from the source. But the gusts will reach 70 mph even here next week, the forecasters warn. This scene will be in my mind as we wait.

My Side of the Mountain

The girls and I finished our reading of My Side of the Mountain yesterday. It left me pondering the stark contrasts between 2012 and 1959, when Jean Craighead George’s Newberry winning classic was published.

The story recounts a year in the life of Sam Gribley, a New York City boy who decides he wants to escape from his large family and the crowded city for a wilderness life. He heads to Delhi, a hamlet in the Catskills, to the family’s long-vacant farm property. There, he burns out a house in an old growth hemlock and proceeds to make do by eating roots and berries, setting snares for small animals and deer, making clothes for himself, and capturing and training a peregrine falcon named Frightful.

It interested me that his parents know where he is, but they don’t try to bring him home. In fact, his stay is not completely secret; he’s not a runaway in the ordinary sense. The Delhi librarian knows where he is, as does an old woman he meets picking berries on the hill one day. Over the course of his stay in the woods — even through a New York winter — he meets several other people, the closest of whom are his father and a vacationing English professor he names Bando, who in turn calls him Thoreau. His father and Bando actually spend Christmas with him. But they leave without the faintest suggestion of talking him out of his enterprise. On the contrary, they vow to protect him by keeping his whereabouts a mystery.

It rings strangely in my 2012 ears. But I recognize that  Sam lived in a freer and safer society than ours. Even for the Gribleys, the impulse to let Sam be is ultimately thwarted by the criticism of neighbors and newspapers, and they end up joining Sam on the mountain and starting work on a house there. The interesting thing is that by the end of the story, the reinstatement of parental authority and care seems like a violation. My older daughter was indignant at the idea of a house being built on the mountain where Sam has worked so hard to live off the land.

The confusion of feelings by the time we get to that part of the story is striking. By the end of winter Sam has gradually become lonely on the mountain, and he actually welcomes visitors. It’s something he can’t quite work out in his mind — the conflict between the desire for human company, and the desire to be self-sufficient. He’s delighted to see his family, and this feels right to us as readers. Yet somehow the signals jam when they start to build the house because we want to see his independence respected too. In some important ways, he has grown up. George seems to be exploring what society does to personal freedom, a theme she puts into Bando’s mouth when he comes to visit Sam in the spring:

Let’s face it, Thoreau; you can’t live in America today and be quietly different. If you’re going to be different, you’re going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you and you won’t be different anymore.

It’s a bittersweet, prophetic observation.

The action of the novel is absorbing, but I was equally interested in the persistent theme of Sam’s reading and writing habits. Most of his knowledge of the woods is accumulated from books before he ever arrives on the mountain, and to ensure that more knowledge will be available when he needs it, the first place he goes to in Delhi is the library. He’s a very purposeful reader with an excellent retentive mind. In addition, he is a faithful writer who keeps notes and sketches in his journal. My older daughter was reading Dipper of Copper Creek, another J.C. George book, simultaneously with our reading aloud of this book, and when I asked her what she thought of it she was tentative. “It’s not like it’s an interesting nature journal, like My Side of the Mountain, that has ideas I can use outside,” she explained. There seems to be something compelling about a first-person journal account, something less crafted and more immediate — and perhaps more true to lived experience.

This brought to mind a host of other nature writers who seem to find the journal form fitting to chronicle their experiences with nature: Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Sue Hubbell, to name a few. Among child characters, the one who comes to mind immediately is Sam Beaver of Trumpet of the Swan, who notes his observations in a diary and concludes each day’s entry with a question to ponder as he falls asleep. “Why does a fox bark?” he wonders. “How do birds know how to build their nests?” It seems like a common impulse to record our experiences with nature, partly perhaps because it mirrors our own inner complexity, but mostly because nature is inexhaustibly interesting.

Feather, Light, and Air

Did you know there’s a whole volume of chickadee poems? I’m apparently one of many fans of this cheerful, talkative, hardy, round little acrobat. Anna Botsford Comstock points out that the winter birds have a special place in the hearts of Northeasterners, and I would agree.

Thornton Burgess relates that as a boy practicing with his first gun, he shot a chickadee. But he always regretted it. It made “Tommy Tit,” the chickadee of the Burgess Bird Book, his favorite of all the birds. It was one of the experiences that helped him to understand his chosen tool was the typewriter, not the gun, as an intermediary between himself and the natural world.

Here are a few photos of a chickadee feeding on our pine cone feeder out front. I’m impressed by the athleticism of these round little birds. Clearly it’s not only the large, soaring birds who know a thing or two about aerobatics.

 

A Wing in the Door

A Wing in the Door by Peri Phillips McQuay is by turns a beautiful and a frustrating book. It narrates the fate of a female red-tailed hawk taken illegally by a would-be falconer from her nest when only a month old. The hawk — named Merak — is confiscated by Canadian authorities and kept at a rehab for awhile to be “untamed,” then released at a conservation center. McQuay and her husband, a naturalist at the center, live on site and observe the bird over the next several years.

At first there is some question whether Merak has been humanly imprinted, but it doesn’t take long to see that she has been. Her antics are both heart-breaking and humorous: building a nest on the front porch to lay her yearly eggs (always infertile, because she never mates); sparring with cats and dogs; finding various ways to communicate her moods to her human caretakers. For that is what the McQuays become, even though the original intent was to usher the hawk back into wild living. She proves permanently damaged — McQuay often uses phrases like “essentially infantile” — by her early contact with humans.

McQuay’s writing is beautiful. Her response to nature is poetic, and she finds many ways to infuse the narrative with interesting information about red-tails from her ongoing research. I found much of the material fascinating and could relate to many of McQuay’s perspectives on nature.

What was frustrating, though, was the co-dependent relationship the McQuays seem intentionally to preserve with Merak. It is clear early on that the hawk can hunt for herself. I couldn’t understand why they kept providing her with mice and (in winter, when she refused to migrate) muskrats from local trappers. It would have been more responsible to leave Merak completely on her own for a time to establish whether she could provide for herself, and, if she couldn’t, then keep her captive for use in the center’s educational programs. Our local nature center has several hawks that are not able to live in the wild, and they are licensed to keep them and provide for them, offering them some quality of life as well as protection.

Instead, the McQuays persist in providing food for the hawk as well as interposing themselves in other ways. Parents who never let their growing children make any decisions or experience any consequences on their own will be left with an unhappy, demanding human ill-equipped for life. In the same way, the McQuays end up with a moody hawk who looks upon them as her tribe, responsible for providing for her needs, and sharing her territory. By the end of the story they at last begin withholding food, and the hawk becomes more independent. (Even after Merak learns to supply her own food, McQuay’s husband interferes on one occasion by knocking a wild rat snake out of the hawk’s talons. ???) But she will never be wild, and she never learns how to relate to other hawks. It was hard not to feel that the McQuays were complicit in the unfortunate long-term results of the original crime against Merak.

Rufous Redtail

I read this book when I was around 10, and I’ve always remembered it as one of the best. I didn’t remember all the details, but I remembered some of them. Mostly I remembered it as a book that had a strong impact, opening my eyes to new knowledge and moving me deeply.

You won’t find much about Rufous Redtail (1947) online, or about its author, Helen Garrett. There is more information out there about its illustrator, Francis Lee Jaques. Out of print and priced far out of my range, this novel makes an appearance from time to time at used book sites. It follows a red-tailed hawk from the day he hatches out of his egg, through his mastery of flight and hunting and his fall migration, on to his return to the Northeast in the spring and his finding of a mate and raising of a family. (We live in the Northeast, and red-tails don’t migrate in the winter. Rufous spends summers farther North than we are.)

A young red-tail in our neighborhood.

Our library system doesn’t have it, but a wonderful librarian found a copy at the library of the state capital and requested it for us. It took us four days to read, and we enjoyed every word and picture. It’s full of detail about red-tailed hawks, and I wish I could learn more about its author, who must have had many opportunities to observe these grand birds firsthand. But it’s also a coming-of-age story that takes Rufous from the egotism of a newly hatched chick bursting with pride to the confidence and knowledge of a mature adult hawk. We laughed often as we read, and were sometimes brought to tears.

Another local red-tail, this one mature.

The birds talk in this book, but it’s not sentimentalized the way Thornton Burgess’s stories are. The dialogue carries the plot forward and gives us necessary information without spoiling the realism of the characters. Unlike many of the modern nature books we’ve read, there is no politicization — no page in the back highlighting the loss of habitat of this species, no legislative initiative for this or that, no website to visit to see how you can help. These things have probably been worthwhile and helpful in protecting species and cultivating an ecological ethic. But what shines through in this novel is love for nature, wilderness particularly, and for the creatures that make their homes there.

I think this delight and wonder are stronger influences than anything else. Reach the hearts of children, and they’ll remember. I have remembered this book for several decades, not because someone was defending hawks, but because someone painted their lives in words in such a way as to make me respect and admire and love them myself. I can’t see into the future, but judging from their reactions, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my daughters saying the same thing someday.

Jaques' illustrations adorn the inside cover.

Becoming Native to This Place

I was introduced to Wes Jackson’s work through reading Wendell Berry. The two men have a longstanding friendship and have similar views of what Berry has called “culture and agriculture.” In Becoming Native to This Place, Jackson explores the ways our assumptions about the earth as an inert repository of resources for us to extract and manage developed, how they are destructive to community, and how they might be changed to develop new paradigms in our relationship to nature.

Like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson sees agriculture as the heart of our relationship to the earth, a discipline that reveals our attitudes toward the world and each other. He operates The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, which has worked for several decades to “develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops.”

The book asks several important questions. Why does land cultivated by post-World War II methods produce less, and erode more, than it did before cultivation? Why does it support less life? How did the ideas underlying our system of food production, our use of land and animals, and our reliance on nonrenewable energy develop? Perhaps most basically, what if the settlers of this country had approached their lives asking a different question: “How do we become native to this place?”

I read this years ago, but since then I’ve had children and experienced the Little House books. I couldn’t help but think of the Ingalls and Wilder families’ resounding failure at agriculture as they pushed westward. Kind of like the preacher in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, they brought the assumptions and methods and crops from their places of origin, and it just didn’t take on the prairie. Yet they saw it as a very promising place, and they were right; it was a very fertile landscape. But it had its own ecology, which was foreign to them, and which for whatever reason they never really figured out. Their style of farming was to impose themselves on the land rather than to figure out where they were and how to live there.

That, I think Wes Jackson would say, is pretty much the story of America — or of what Wendell Berry has called The Unsettling of America. There are aspects of this book that I don’t have a good enough backing in science to really know what to do with; Jackson has a B.A. in biology, an M.A. in botany, and a Ph.D. in genetics, and though he writes accessibly enough that I could usually understand, I don’t have the context to evaluate it. I didn’t have a clear sense of the underlying moral or spiritual framework Jackson advocates either, though he sees our various compartmentalizations — of church and state, of science and philosophy, of empirical knowledge and moral knowledge — as negative.

However, when he writes about how different localities have different ecosystems and therefore don’t lend themselves to industrialized agriculture that crams all places into the same mold, it simply makes sense. When he writes about human arrogance in acting confidently before we know all that we think we know, and then having a big mess on our hands afterward, it simply makes sense. It’s easy to feel helpless, but we can at least start where we are, and begin to get to know our own place. I felt glad about the nature study our family has embarked on this year, because learning to love one place is the beginning of an ecological ethic. If we love our place, and learn the names of the native living things that constitute our community, and tune in to the stories going on all around us, we can begin to live with more awareness — and perhaps eventually with more wisdom.

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.

Longlegs the Heron

We’ve been reading and enjoying Thornton Burgess’s Longlegs the Heron. A friend loaned us a copy of this difficult-to-find book after reading this post, and as food for our ongoing heron interest it has been timely and fun.

This book has a feel slightly different than other Burgess Bedtime Books I’ve read — more purposefully educational about the habits of Great Blue Herons. We learn a lot about Longlegs’ fishing practices and his striking patience. We learn that he eats field mice as well as fish and frogs. And we learn a lot about his competitors for the fish — Rattle the Kingfisher (who I’ve not met before in the pages of Burgess books), Billy Mink, and Plunger the Osprey, to name a few.

As in Lightfoot the Deer, the predatory habits of humans are front and center, and contrasted to those of the “little people of the Green Meadows and the Green Forest,” who are not careless but skilled and who never take more than they need. In this book, it takes the moral courage of Peter Rabbit (who plays a heroic role twice in the story) and Sammy Jay, as well as the intervention of Farmer Brown’s Boy, to save a young heron caught in a trap that someone has set for mink and then forgotten about. Longlegs has a couple of speeches about the unjust hunting habits of humans as well.

I remember this theme making a strong impression on me when I read Lightfoot the Deer as a child, and I think my daughters come away with a sense of what it means to be a good steward of nature — and the cost of being a poor one. In any case, they loved Longlegs and were there at my side like glue, pleading for extra chapters, at every reading session.

The Wild Trees

“I think I’ve found out the secret of making a dream come true.”

“What’s that?”

“Just don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. If someone tells you something is impossible, do that thing first. Prove that it is possible, and keep going.”

So says Michael Taylor, speaking of his years-long quest for the tallest tree in the redwood forests. Richard Taylor’s The Wild Trees, as informative as it is about the ecology of the redwood canopy, is as much about the elite society of people who study and climb these trees as it is about the trees themselves. In these pages we get to know Michael Taylor, Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine in particular, but there is a whole supporting cast of characters who share their consuming interest in the life of old growth forests.

I learned about this book when I read Jason Chin’s Redwoods to my daughters. It was The Wild Trees that piqued Chin’s interest in the coast redwoods, and for me the process worked the other way around; it was Chin’s book that made me want to learn more about these trees that support an entire eco-system in their canopies. We can learn a lot from an organism that has been growing since the Parthenon was built, and, as Richard Preston makes clear, there is a spiritual impact as well from contemplating the longevity of a redwood. Most of the people in this book are living examples of people who find an anchor in the study of these trees. They are experts — some are high-level scientists conducting research, some are arborists, and some, like Michael Taylor, are self-taught. All are passionate enough about their interest to take risks, scaling trees as tall as 36-story skyscrapers and sometimes even sleeping in them.

The book is subtitled “A Story of Passion and Daring,” an apt description of these people. As I read about them, I found myself thinking a lot about the passionate nature, and how passion compels people to take risks and seek thrills and find empowerment even in settings that render their own smallness and powerlessness most dramatically. It’s an attractive quality, and most of the characters in this book exhibit it in more ways than just their attitude about trees. I find their put-it-all-on-the-line commitment of themselves to what they love very appealing.

I also noticed that what ultimately seems to draw them to the treetops, though, is the stability and endurance of these trees that have stood quietly in one place for thousands of years, enduring fire and storm and offering a hospitable habitat for any number of other organisms from lichens to salamanders to other redwoods growing from their upper branches. As long as they remain standing, several characters at different points explain, we’re going to be all right despite the trials and evils of the world. What underlies thrill-seeking seems to be anchor-seeking, and their passion for the forests results in qualities like faithfulness, protective care, and the kind of submission to external conditions essential to survival in high-risk situations like tree-climbing. The passion and energy of the people is ultimately balanced by more stabilizing traits, in the same way the vibrant life of giant trees ultimately is balanced by other organisms and forces in nature.

Of course I thought of certain fantasy stories involving trees. I thought of the sentient trees in Narnia, who come to the rescue at the end of Prince Caspian, and whose cutting in The Last Battle signals the end of the world. And I thought of the Ents of The Lord of the Rings. If ever a redwood were to take on consciousness and speech, surely it would be like Treebeard:

These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating. They were brown, shot with green light. Often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.

‘One felt as if there were an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground — asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.’

Although there were a few details I didn’t need as I worked my way through The Wild Trees, on the whole I found it to be an enthralling read, one that invited me to consider many things from the beauty and economy of nature to the mysteries of the human heart.