Tag Archives: nature

Who’s That Nut-Nut-Nut-ing at My Door?

I like to think that I can communicate with non-human animals. I don’t eat them, and maybe that gives me an edge, since they can smell it on us. Or, maybe I am just open to other creatures, so it happens. Yes, I have opposable thumbs – big deal – I don’t think that is the only meaningful attribute in the universe.

Many years ago, we were living in Allentown, Pa., in the upper two floors of an old Victorian twin. The house sat at the top of a big hill with amazing views west, a precarious and exciting spot for watching thunderstorms roll in. The yard swept steeply downhill and, because of its pitch, stayed as a rather wild area. There were many small animals that made their homes on that hillside. I watched their daily patterns as they grazed about in the late afternoon: rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks and birds. There were times when I witnessed bunnies playing leapfrog in the grass, just as frolic-y and fun-loving as squirrels. I would sometimes sit in the yard and watch them as if it were a scheduled performance, one I would have gladly paid to see.

So on one of those occasions, as I was sitting in the grass, the entire community of small mammals showed up simultaneously, whereas usually their timing was as separate acts, with a bit of overlap. My partner was coming up the path alongside the house, and stopped. It was like a Disney moment, with me and these other wild creatures all going about our business in perfect harmony. A peaceable kingdom, indeed. The bunnies were perhaps a couple of feet away from me, and the whole cast of characters surrounded me, as if I were a tree in their landscape. I talked softly to them. This went on for minutes and we shared a moment. Arslocii.

Disney moment

I have always talked to animals; at a zoo, where a pacing wild cat would suddenly start purring and pressing its flank against the bars; to squirrels, many times admonishing them to stay out of harm’s way. In March, I was working in my community garden plot and was visited by a robin who, of course, was excited by the digging. I started talking to this robin, and when a huge worm would surface I would toss it over to Robin (let’s call him/her that). Every day after that, Robin would show up and serenade me, or call to me from a tree; then, upon hearing my voice, would hop over to greet me. My partner was digging in the plot one day and Robin showed up. After hearing the wrong voice, Robin flew away.

I am an appreciator of squirrels, despite the fact that so many people see them as pests. We have a small courtyard that is an oasis, if not an animal refuge, in a hard-surfaced city neighborhood. Squirrels come into our courtyard every day, sometimes to bury things, since we have one of the few breaks in the pervasive cement. One squirrel likes to eat the samaras on our paperbark maple tree. I don’t mind as long as the smaller branches don’t break, although they often do. To ameliorate the damage, I started setting out small fistfuls of peanuts in the shell. Since there is more than one squirrel, I am learning a lot about their differences. There is a huge chubby one that sits in the pile and scarfs down the nuts, scattering empty, broken shells every which way. There is a slimmer one who systematically buries all the nuts, maybe eating one or two, but leaving no trace that there ever were peanuts.

tail

I don’t put out nuts every day, maybe every few days. They all get taken, but I can tell who got them by what is left or not left behind. I have witnessed, lately, that if the fat guy got the nuts, the thin guy gets angry and kind of acts out, running around the courtyard and digging up some of the stored booty. I have talked to this particular squirrel and explained that there is more to come, just be patient.

Yesterday, the overfed one’s thievery must have happened again because the thin squirrel was excavating previously stashed nuts. And, surprisingly, a few shells were left on my steps. But the peculiar thing was that, sitting in an empty plant tray on a low wall, there was a single peanut still in its shell and with telltale dirt marks from its burial. Mind you, I always pile the nuts far from the stairs and door, to give a sense of safety to the hungry diner. Was this squirrel telling me something, making an offering, or asking for more? This had never happened before. It was a sign.

1st sign

This morning, while I am sitting at the kitchen table next to the partially open window that separates the kitchen from the courtyard, I hear a strange chirping sound. It is unfamiliar but insistent. I look out – and there is the thin squirrel looking straight at me through the door, and the chirping is emanating from the squirrel. It is a request, I understand. More nuts, please, sir. (And, so, more nuts were given.)

An interspecies communication, a breaking down of barriers, a placeness. It is a wonderful thing. And right in my own backyard.

offering

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A Little Light Music

winterHere we are, well into the free-fall frenzy of the final month of the year, the now super-sized holiday season that appears to be a whopping two months long instead of what used to be individual days separated by weeks of ordinary days. Growing up in my house, there was a a polar oppositeness in the recognition and observation of holidays. Dad was more of a humbug guy and, other than enjoying the fruits of all the womenfolks’ labors that resulted in a cornucopia of plenty to savor, he would have preferred to continue his daily routine uninterrupted by such unnecessary rituals.

Mom, on the other hand, believed in the magic bestowed upon special days. Probably a little too much, but maybe it was her way of trying to tip the balance from Dad’s point of view. Or maybe she just preferred fantasy. The downside of holidays is having too much expectation and always being disappointed in the reality. Between the two of them, she was likely the most unhappy as a result of holiday cheer; and, despite the evidence to the contrary, her hope sprang eternal.

Their children, as an offshoot of this bipolar environment, chose to reject traditional holidays and their underpinnings – much like Dad did – but, rather, decided to find magic in the real as opposed to the fictitious – a healthier Mom. What this means is that we resist the relentless reminders of “the season” and try to avoid the persistent false advertising about the Dickensian ideal of good will and peace on earth. No matter how many thousands of these observations of a single day or groups of days we have, as a species, it seems we are no closer to reaching the more perfect union that the holidays encourage us to seek.

We know from whence it came: we are the primitives in our caves, winter and darkness biting at our frozen digits. It must have felt like the world was ending, the sun sneaking away to warm other creatures that we didn’t know existed over the horizon. We needed some sort of story to comfort us, a way of repeating the fear – of owning it – and keeping in mind that there is hope for the return of the light. It is a primal story, and it has been molded into many variations by different sects; but, even though these groups interpret their stories in their unique tellings, it is still about the light.

winter_solstice

This holiday is about the Winter Solstice, no matter how far afield the explanations stray. It’s funny how a natural phenomenon, so basic and so real and having such immense impact, can be interpreted in such fantastical ways. There is the physical-science explanation; the cosmic, spiritual connotations; the religious-story overlays; the familial-bonding imperative; and the commercialism spin – the Winter Solstice has become a growth industry. All these things exist otherwise, but for some reason the Winter Solstice has had to carry the load, becoming all things to all at the end of the calendar year, and being buried in there somewhere in the rubble.

I celebrate the Winter Solstice as a jumping-off point, an end to one period and the start of a new one, a cyclical reminder of nature and life, darkness and light, beginnings and endings. It is, for me, a time of reflection. A time to slow down and think about the year past and the year ahead. And even though we now know that the light will be returning, most assuredly, we must not take that for granted. Ever. It is the gift for the season and it costs nothing. Happy Winter Solstice to the entire Northern Hemisphere! That’s something to celebrate.

SolarEclipse

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Forest nor the Trees

Up north, the leaves have been off the trees for weeks, helped by a heaping handful of Sandy. But, down south a couple of hundred miles, the leaves were happily attached to their mother ships, showing no sign of giving up the host, until a few days ago, when, overnight – whoompf – bare limbs and the anguished cries of leaf-rakers who’d just filled bags of the stuff, thinking that they’d have some days’ respite before the next necessary round of gathering.

Back up north, where we have a new place to call home, trees surround the house and then roll on to the distance, so that, in spring and summer, there is no horizon, only the tops of massive pines and maples and ash, and all the bushy undergrowth. All of it – the tall, the short, the great variety of green, the hard and soft and prickly, the native and the invasive – creates a kind of cocoon, or a force creeping up on what humans have carved out from it, a sure but subtle approach, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; indeed, behind every tree, within every dense brush, on every leaf-shrouded limb, creatures live, many of them, yet so few that we actually see or hear. And you can’t see neighbors’ houses, either – they’re there, somewhere, but behind and beyond, and out of mind. The foliage acts like a buffer, and a sound muffler, and it is, when you first start looking to live in these parts, exactly what your urban heart gladly surrenders to: unbridled green, like a warm mitten, granting you privacy, and ease, and basic things, even a kind of security, tenuous and fragile though it may be.

So, when the sky changes, and the wind blows cold, and the leaves start swirling down like confetti at a political convention, the newbie fears that all of nature that is good is gone, and that fall and winter will be times that are not to be loved but endured. What was green is brown and grey; one feels exposed, as if he’d walked out of a shower to discover that the walls had disappeared and an audience was enjoying the view from box seats.

Yet, that’s all wrong. This is an astounding time, perhaps even more so than when the force through the green fuse drives the flower. Thinking as I was thinking was simply getting it backwards: This is not a time when one is exposed, it is the time when the world is revealed. Where once there was a clump of green, now I see the close, middle and long-range depths of the world around me. That house I was trying to avoid seeing? It’s a lovely counterpoint to the natural world that now unfolds it to me. That ravine, that hillock – both seemed like soft cushions and springs, but are now clearly places of sharpness and mystery and secrets, not monochromatic but full of shadows and dappled areas of browns and tans and orange. Suddenly, I see something red, so red that it would seem impossible to not be a constant beacon, and yet I have no idea what that could be, because in my spring and summer days in this place it has never been visible to me. A short walk informs me that it is a canoe hanging on the side of a small shed – a canoe and a shed I didn’t know even existed.

And then – on going across the road to check the mailbox, I look back at my remarkably ungreened house, so open to the eye that it seems like a landmark, and I see, where just a few short weeks ago there was nothing but tree after tree … I see the mountains, less than a mile away, that look over (hence the name of one) and guard (hence the other) our little village. The real-estate brokers call this having “seasonal views,” and tout it as a selling point, or, rather, a buying opportunity. But it is not so crass – the surprise appearance of the rolling, sinuous and nearly feline mountains is nothing less than a gift, and a comeuppance to any who believe that this time of year is only about huddling and shelter, about losses and not gains.

Discovery is everywhere, in every place, in every direction, if only one moves with nature and time and does not cling to easy beauty, or fears sleep or death. Renewal is yet to come; epiphanies are here right now, for the taking.

 

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Cat O’ One Tail

Some years back, I bought a potentially goofy-looking ceramic pot online. It was a seated cat figure, with an almost human face, and with the planter area at, appropriately, the backside of the animal. Let’s just say, it spoke to me. When the newcomer arrived, I happened to have on hand a tiny cactus which I thought might be a funny choice for this container, since the design sort of asked for it. The cactus was about 4” high when it took up residence, making the planter’s form and its living stubby “tail” resemble that of a Manx cat more so than most felines I know.

I admit I have a number of succulents, and this one might be the oldest. It is now, certainly, the tallest. I could never have imagined that it would reach such heights. At a certain time during its life – say, when the plant had tripled or quadrupled in size – I worried about its ability to support its own weight. I rigged up small cages – scaffolding, really – that kept the wind from knocking it over during its summers outdoors.

For many years, when cat-pot plant was outside it would sit on a small table about two feet off the ground, happily enjoying light filtered through the tree above. A couple of years ago, it became too tall and unwieldy to safely sit atop the table, so it then rested beneath the table with its “tail” extending to just below the table top. A couple of more seasons passed, and the “tail” was well above the table’s surface.

For safety’s sake, I started anchoring the cage supports, tying them down to the chair next to the table to make sure that, even sitting on the ground, the cactus would not be tumbled over by wind or storms.

I have never known exactly what kind of cactus this one is. I think it comes from the Espostoa family, but which one, exactly, is a puzzle. It has flowered once or twice – tiny floral eruptions from its side – making me imagine that it might be about to extend a new limb or some lateral growth. But, no, it just keeps climbing skyward.

Every year I think that this will be its last because, omg, it can’t keep going and not collapse. It now has a permanent cage support and has had it for some time. As you see, it would collapse without this assistance. In mid-2012 I had to extend the already-high wire structure because my cactus friend grew another 6” or so beyond the original cage. I have left it room to keep on growing, as it so desires.

It has become not only a magnificent cactus and, in its perfect container setting, a stunning tail. For me, it has almost become a marker of time and growth, like the kind you would notch onto a door jamb for a child. And at this rate, the plant may soon outgrow me. But even more, the cactus has proven itself to be an over-achiever and an emblem of going against the odds. When I bought it in a 3” pot at the annual flower show and brought it home, what were its chances for survival? If I were to take it back to the flower show, to let the vendor know that here was a super plant – it would blow some minds. Here is the power of nature, right smack dab in this goofy cat pot. Arslocii.

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Desert Solitaire: A Lone Ranger

We have said that placeness can be in the eye of the beholder. One such beholder, a certain Edward Abbey, wrote a book in 1968 called Desert Solitaire. His observations about time spent alone in the desert, specifically Arches National Monument (now Park), are keen and true – and often express our concept of arslocii. Up front, in the introduction, he worries that the book might be perceived as being based on appearances and surfaces rather than “to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships … the true underlying reality of existence.”

First of all, an amazing time the late ’60s was – when people actually thought about such things as reality. Apparently, a lost notion. And, then, to be concerned that critics might think that he wasn’t providing dialogue about it, let alone answers. Wow. But, he as writer is a great combination of scientific observer and poetic interpreter. The 33,000 acres of Moab valley, canyon and tableland, with the deep gash of the Colorado River, which he tends as a park ranger, are described in achingly beautiful detail, sometimes to the point of madness. And he is protective and angry about its impending loss for human use. But he states, simply, that he is there “to confront … the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us … in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”

Abbey illustrates so well in this book that the combination of human observation – not intervention – and wilderness together make a perfect pairing. Voyeur and performer, interpreter and constant changer, lover and indifferent object of that love. Arslocii. One of his stated goals is to lose the filters, the human translation of the place – although he certainly describes and reacts to what’s around him – but he simply wants to “be,” just like nature itself. He can’t help his human emotions and his metaphors and similes, and because of that he makes it real for us. He creates that placeness for us in his words. We can’t see it through his eyes but we can hear it in his voice. Nature’s indifference feeds the flames of his human passion.

Aside from rants about nearly every facet of human endeavor (and I cannot disagree), Abbey is a prophet in his wild world. And he is the perfect counterpart to the wilderness. His writing is eloquent, his mind is facile, his sources of knowledge are varied and vast. He has depth and humor and seems to be without fear. As powerful as his detailed sightings of landscape, flora and fauna are, as deep as his respect and love of nature are, he is a man who treasures the gifts of individual humans in the context of civilization

precious and fragile, drawn through history by the finest threads of art and idea. … It is the conscious forefront of evolution, the brotherhood of great souls and the comradeship of intellect, a corpus mysticum … a democratic aristocracy based not on power or institutions but on isolated men – Lao-Tse, Chuang-Tse, Gautama, Diogenes, Euripides, Socrates, Jesus, Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, Paine and Jefferson, Blake and Burns and Beethoven, John Brown and Henry Thoreau, Whitman, Tolstoy, Emerson, Mark Twain, Rabelais and Villon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Spartacus, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, Lucretius and Pope John XXIII, and ten thousand other poets, revolutionaries and independent spirits, both famous and forgotten, alive and dead, whose heroism gives to human life on earth its adventure, glory and significance.

He goes on: “The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” His thoughts and the rich tapestry of his surroundings, a harsh environment to be sure, are the ideal and the real, brought together in this remarkable diary. Placeness.

Desert Solitaire is as full of extremes and paradoxes as nature is, written by a human who is at once a misanthrope and a mystic. In the forty-four years since its writing, Abbey has proven himself to be right as well as righteous.

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The Deer: A Solstice Tale

Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?

Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.

One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.

The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.

Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.

We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.

Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.

We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.

 

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