About Lisa

I live on 14 acres in rural western Virginia. I am taking time to learn about the species that share this land with me.

Halcyon Days

 

Halcyon Days: a state of pure happiness induced by hard physical labor in the pursuit of enhancing natural habitat, complete with the resulting physical exhaustion and wildlife encounters.

Synonym: a perfect day.

I know that if you look up the lore and definition of halcyon, it will not be exactly the same as my definition above. The previous owners named this property Halcyon because of a pair of kingfishers that live near the pond. We liked the name and adopted it, but since all relationships depend on the personality dynamics of those involved, Halcyon has shaped us as much as we have shaped it these past 16 years. It’s only natural that the definition of halcyon could change a bit.

golden ragwort

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know that I would do some of the work I do to help shape my home or property. A lot of this work is what most people have to do to manage a property: painting, mowing, house upkeep, gardening, fencing out deer, etc. Even when we bought the house I had no real understanding of the activities I would undertake to make Halcyon our home: gutting rooms down to the studs, cutting and placing tile, plastering, using a chainsaw to clear brush and cut firewood (once crawling on my stomach under a forsythia bush with my chainsaw to cut invasive mulberry at the base, and aware of how foolish this was), learning about and eating some wild edibles, and lots and lots of canning. Chris has undertaken much of the same in addition to plumbing, wiring, dam building and the ability to amass a huge pile of firewood in the amount of time that takes me days. I have chainsaw envy.

This relationship wasn’t always easy. In the early years, we were very busy and Halcyon benefited from our benign neglect and my do I have to mow all that? attitude. When we would walk the trails, which were getting narrower year by year, I would feel frustrated at all the work there was to do, all the times Chris would point out places we should clear. This frustration, and the slow steady creep of a host of invasive species: ailanthus, multi-flora rose, autumn olive, honeysuckle and more, was a huge part of my desire to leave teaching and focus on Halcyon. She needed me. I don’t think I grasped how much I needed her.

waterfall on Mouse Run

It still isn’t easy. I mean, I don’t sit on the couch and eat bon bons, but a good day is made all the better by the fact that it isn’t easy. Sweat, scratches, close-encounters with snakes (we let them be) and sore joints and muscles are not only a price we pay for our Halcyon Days, they are part of the process. I daresay there would be no bliss, no matter how enshrined in exhaustion, if someone else did this all for us and we just showed up as guests every day. For me at least, I have to be a part of the process.

view of the Mouse Run from our bench

There have been almost daily discoveries, mostly of native trees. We have been rescuing some favorites from honeysuckle and other crowding. I call these dates with Chris, Operation Redbud Rescue or Operation Sassafras Patch. Just a few days ago we had a really rich Halcyon Day: We rescued sassafras trees and found many maples and baby sassafras. We cleared around a milkweed patch so they had more room to grow. We found and watched 5 fledgling Carolina wrens in the wood shed (they are so cute!), found a patch of wild phlox, and saw an indigo bunting at the bird feeder. All of this makes for a great day, but Halcyon wasn’t done with us yet. Before dinner we made a cocktail and took our tired bodies to the stream to enjoy the view of the waterfall – talking about what else we want to clear no longer frustrates me, it excites me – when I noticed a GIANT morel! It was almost 8 inches long and wide! I have never seen one so big. There were enough others nearby for two dinners and I am drying a few. Ah, Halcyon Days!

monster morel

morels

Each morning as my joints are slow to join me in greeting the day, I have less of a to-do list in my head and more of a vision. This vision of Halcyon grounds me in these tenuous political times and gives me hope that nature will outlast us all. But it is not just the vision; it is the process, which I hope is never done, that grounds me. It also gets me, eventually, out the door to do it all over again.

shady wall garden

I Contain Multitudes

Science is a way of life. From our first observations as curious three-year-olds we are scientists-in-the-making. Science drives our understanding of the world around us. It helps us at the doctor’s, with our shopping habits, to make our gardens more productive, our cooking better, to understand disease, health, relationships, and motivations. I can’t imagine life without science – well I can, but it’s a world I wouldn’t want to live in. What I appreciate most, besides an ever-increasing understanding of the world, is that good science leads to more questions.

What I write on this blog is an attempt to understand the world right in my own backyard. What tangled webs of life cycles exist and why, and how I can protect and enhance the nature already here. Knowing the squirrels, turkey vultures, opossums, black snakes, dandelions, screech owls, snapping turtles, deer, hoverflies, and others I’ve written about enriches my world, grounds me and fills me with more questions. Science is like a continuous enrichment machine; all you have to do is dive in.

So how could I not dive in when I saw the title for Ed Yong’s latest book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. I already knew that microbes were way more important than most give them credit for, that they are helpful, not just harmful. But having just finished this book, I can agree with other comments about it such as, “It will change who you think you are.”

Yong states that I’m not just a person, a body, or a vessel with my own DNA. I’m not an island in a sea of other organisms. I am a sea of organisms in constant contact with other seas of organisms. Bacteria with their own DNA, helping me, hopefully, but I’m sure not always, in my pursuit of growth and happiness. They after all, have an agenda also – to survive and replicate – but since I’m a relatively healthy and happy 51-year-old, I think the symbiosis is working fairly well. Question: Could it be better?

The bacteria living in and on my body is different than the bacteria living in and on your body. Even the bacteria living on my left hand is a different population than those on my right hand. All living organisms have their own microbiome signature. More mobile organisms like us humans spread ours around wherever we go. While our knowledge of all the symbiotic relationships out there is in its infancy, and questions of self-improvement through microbiome manipulation are still being tested, it is apparent that diversity in our microbiome is paramount to better health.

Diversity in your home: bringing a pet in to live with your family increases the microbial diversity of the home and trains immune systems of young children. Dog dust has been found to have allergy-suppressing microbes (Yong, p. 252).

Diversity in our hospitals: scientists have found that the air inside air-conditioned hospital rooms is not a subset of the outside air. The air outside was a “full of harmless microbes from plants and soils. Indoors, it contained a disproportionate number of potential pathogens, which are normally rare or absent in the outside world, but had been launched from the mouths and skins of hospital residents. The patients were effectively stewing in their own microbial juices. And the best way of fixing that was remarkably simple: open a window” (Yong, p. 257). Question: does a health care worker bring home a diversity of microbes that helps the others at home (like a pet does) or is it a negative addition to the home’s microbiome?

 Diversity based on lifestyle: scientists compared the microbiomes of people in WEIRD countries (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) with those of rural communities and from hunter-gatherer societies. “All of these groups still live traditional lifestyles. They find or catch all of their food. They are rarely, if ever, exposed to modern medicine. They are still modern people with modern microbes living in today’s world, but they at least hint at what microbiomes look like without all the trappings of industrialised life” (Yong, p.131). Yong goes on to say that the data show that all these people’s microbiomes are more diverse than those in the West. “Their multitudes are more multitudinous.” One example is a strain of bacteria that helps digest carbohydrates. It is present in hunter-gatherers and apes and absent in industrialized populations. Question: can we choose certain foods to augment our microbiome?

 Our diversity is in constant flux: Yong explains, “The microbiome is not a constant entity. It is a teeming collection of thousands of species, all constantly competing with one another, negotiating with their host, evolving, changing. It wavers and pulses over a 24-hour cycle, so that some species are more common in the day while others rise at night. Your genome is almost certainly the same as it was last year, but your microbiome has shifted since your last meal or sunrise” (Yong, p.136). Question: how does my particular microbiome shift and what habits could I have to increase my vitality?

Many of the models we are working with to stay healthy, grow stronger, etc. appear to be incorrect. I’m excited about this grand view of life we’re learning from the smallest organisms on the planet. Bacteria aren’t just hanging out with us or hitching a ride, they’re integral to who we are. They’re integral to all life processes on earth. The bolded sentences above are just some of the many questions I had reading this book. I highly recommend I Contain Multitudes as a way to start your year, a way to rekindle your three-year-old scientist. The book is not laden with confusing terms; it’s quite readable, and Yong’s sense of humor adds to the experience. I really do see myself differently. In this essay I highlighted examples that largely affect humans, but much of the first part of the book highlights what we know about microbial processes that affect plants and animals. I know my walks at Halcyon will be enlightened with this new knowledge.

So I hope you’ll check out I Contain Multitudes. At the least you’ll have the latest understandings of microbial processes and their effects on human life. At best your worldview will be changed. Happy New Year! Life is much more fun when you’re curious. I for one will be looking at even the common dandelion at Halcyon differently from now on.

Life and Death

I’ve been obsessed with life cycles lately. I spent over two years working on a picture book about a food chain and some of the life cycles related to milkweed plants and monarch butterflies. Two years seems long enough for the larval stage of a book, and I am happy to announce that it has wings; it’s out there in the big world, making its rounds and opening minds.

Opening minds to what? Well, I have a desire to connect humans to their inherent wildness, hence a main purpose of this blog. I believe the more we remove ourselves from nature – from green spaces and fresh oxygen, from mountain ranges and oceans bigger than ourselves to the small-scale life in our gardens, from the bacteria that share our human vessel and help with our life processes – the more we become detached from living. Kids are more open to giving nature a chance; they haven’t developed a fear of exploring or just being outside. That’s a big reason I chose to focus on writing for kids even though I enjoy what I learn when writing nature essays for this blog. Here however, I’m mostly ‘preaching to the choir.’  I hope to have a broader influence on the importance of nature in our lives as I grow as a writer. Inherent to understanding how we are connected to life on earth as we live is also the understanding of how our death is a part of the cycles and life processes on earth.

In the classroom we commonly teach life cycles without talking about human death. We use frogs, apples and butterflies – three species familiar to children. When kids are older, we make sure they understand that humans have life cycles too, but we really refrain from talking about human death, our death, at least in the classroom. Also, we teach food chains separately from life cycles, and so many children do not grasp how they are connected and how all life should be a part of the energy flow through ecosystems. I say should be because most modern burial customs cause a broken food chain where humans are concerned. In my new picture book, Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain, I’ve told a food chain story starting with the sun giving energy to a seed, in this case a milkweed seed. The story I’ve told is not the only food chain that a milkweed can be a part of, but by using the monarch butterfly as the primary consumer in the food chain, I’m using a species which is familiar to many children, in hopes of helping them better make a connection between what they know about food chains and life cycles separately and how both concepts are linked.

As teachers, we matter-of-factly teach about decomposers, a group of organisms crucial to recycling energy in nature, and placed at the ‘end’ of the food chain. Without decomposers – worms, flies, roaches, fungi, bacteria, and many other kinds of insects – life on earth could not continue, at least as we know it. Life cycles would be affected. Plants need the nutrients that decomposers release from dead bodies in order to grow, to start a new life cycle. It’s too sensitive to talk about humans decomposing, and so we don’t. But if we don’t talk about death, can we fully engage with the wondrous life part of our life cycle? For me, at least, I don’t think so. I liken it to how we can’t fully appreciate happiness without experiencing sadness, how we can’t truly grasp what it means to be grateful if we’ve never experienced hardship. All of this together, the ugly with the beautiful, makes up our lives. Having only good experiences might make us feel empty, while having only bad experiences can leave us bitter and feeling disempowered.

Death is sad. My thoughts on death have not ended by publishing Milkweed Matters. My mother-in-law, a very special woman to me and to her whole family, died last month. The childhood and adult stages of her life cycle were rich because they were a mix of good times and hard times, happy times and sad times. She gained a lot of wisdom in her 87 years. She wasn’t ready to die, but cancer doesn’t always give us a choice. We weren’t ready to lose her. I think we need to talk about death more because it is ok to feel sad sometimes, because the sad and the happy are related in creating our whole experience of life, in creating a richer sense of self.

I have always thought I wanted to be cremated when I die because I don’t want to take up space in a cemetery that does not have personal meaning to me. But as I get older and experience more death around me, as I contemplate my life and my death in the context of my increasing knowledge of ecosystems, and as I strive for ways to fully embrace my niche as an animal among all of earth’s inhabitants, I think perhaps I do want to be buried. But only if nothing will interfere with the decomposers who will transfer my energy and nutrients back to the soil – no embalming, no kind of casket that cannot decompose with me and no vault that is impervious to the forces of nature. I’m thankful there are now green cemetery options available; I’m equally thankful their existence means I’m not the only person with these thoughts.

I wanted Milkweed Matters to help children see the connections between food chains and life cycles. However, I think I was also exploring how to allow for more conversations about death with kids. It’s too early to tell if my main goal worked; there are only two reviews on Amazon at the moment. Is it possible to make death less scary? I don’t know. I drafted another life cycle story recently, playing with this idea. Of course, it still has an animal character to model what is otherwise too sad or scary to show with a human character. Maybe that’s the closest we can get. But we’re all going to die someday. I won’t know until it’s my turn, but I wonder if the dying part of my life cycle will be less scary if I continue to ponder and discuss death with those whose life cycles intertwine with mine.

 

If you’re interested in reading Milkweed Matters, here is where you can get it. I welcome any feedback. Thanks.

The Calming Power of Chelydridae Persistence

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The bubbles alerted me, snaking in my direction, and occasionally skirting off course. I knew what they were, or at least I thought I did, and I stayed to get confirmation. The reflections on the pond were more vivid than their source and made it impossible to see below the surface. Suddenly the bubbles stopped moving, but they continued to rise, looking like a dinner plate expanding in size. I imagined it frozen in place underwater, waiting, just as I was frozen on shore. Show yourself.

Finally, I decided I didn’t have all day. I need to finish picking blackberries, so I melted out of the moment, but not without stealing a glance over my shoulder a few yards later. Yes! I was right. Chelydra serpentine, the common snapping turtle, had poked its head above water. So again, frozen in a moment, we sized each other up. Me, wishing it could know I’m grateful for its presence. No, more than that, that it calms my troubled soul. Its head disappeared after a few more frozen moments and the bubble snake continued across the pond.

The common snapping turtle cannot pull its head into its shell for protection because its plastron is small, compared to the plastron-carapace ratio in other turtles. This means more body remains exposed. Some scientists theorize this morphology led to the adaptation of strong jaw strength in order to protect itself. When encountered in the water, a snapping turtle will usually flee or bury itself in the sediment. When encountered on land, most likely feeling vulnerable, they are aggressive, earning their reputation for being a creature not to mess with.

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I love that snapping turtles live in our pond at Halcyon. I have seen three at one time, but I am not sure how many actually live there. This spring we saw a female constructing a nest in a clay bank at least 300 yards away from the pond. Young turtles spend a few years near streams before migrating to a pond to establish a territory. They face numerous predator pressures from before hatching – skunks and raccoons will dig up nests – to migrating – birds and larger mammalian predators including humans will hunt them, and cars will crush them – and even while hibernating – otters have been known to dig them out of their muddy nests and eat their arms and legs. But once they reach a sufficient adult size, snapping turtles are ‘top dog’ in the pond.

Their natural history is interesting to me, but it’s not the reason I’m grateful for their presence. What endears them to me is how long a presence they have. Not just that an adult turtle can live 100 years, but that the species has existed for 90 million years with little further evolution. Snapping turtles lived in the western hemisphere when the first peoples crossed the Bering Land Bridge. They were here with the dinosaurs. And that feat of tenacity, of persistence, is calming to me. Our pond is spring fed, and between the spring and pond edge lives a large patch of skunk cabbage. The setting has always felt primordial – a sense I can only imagine from science and movies. You can read about a previous post on skunk cabbage here http://www.halcyonnature.com/2014/03/31/late-winter-wanderings/

Because of the skunk cabbage and the snapping turtle the pond allows me a glimpse into the world of long, long ago. Thankfully, I don’t need dinosaurs to complete the mood! It’s not the past I think of though when I find myself brooding at the pond. It’s the future. Maybe not mine, but probably my children’s future and definitely the future of humanity on earth. At the pond, I find hope in the small spaces of wildlife that hang on despite mankind’s destruction of habitat, and the scary prognosis of climate change. At the pond, I find peace when our politics are full of chaos. I remember constructing an essay for an art class when I was a student at Mary Baldwin College and feeling frustrated about Bush and the Supreme Court stealing the presidency from Al Gore. I believe our society would be further advanced with regards to environmental protection and progress to slow down climate change if Al Gore had been our president. But the snapping turtle tells me we’ll get through this eventually. I go to the pond now to find sanity when I hear the hate and nonsense that comes out of Trump’s mouth. Society may oscillate forward and backwards with regard to what I believe is true progress for our species: gender and race equality, universal health care, closing the poverty gap, and environmental protection. That snapping turtles keep on keeping on through all our missteps is somehow comforting to me.

Whenever I feel troubled or anxious, I’m drawn to our pond. I know I will feel better after some time spent there. I don’t know exactly how the snapping turtles were drawn there, but as long as I live at Halcyon, there’ll be a space for them to persist.

 

Since I’ve only one good photo of the snapping turtle to include, I thought I would be brave and also share the essay I wrote in 2004. In class we had brainstormed a word splash (not knowing why). The assignment then revealed was to use all the words in a poem, story or essay. The words in italics were the words we had to use. It is sad that some of what I wrote still applies twelve years later.

 

Inquiry in the Arts/October 8, 2004/Art words assignment

Buried in Lies

I emerge from my house like a turtle from its shell; like an artist from a coffee shop after hours of writing her craft in low light. I walk slowly to the pond to let my body wake up. Passing the garden, I see that the beans are done for the year, dead on the vine. But the pumpkins are doing well, lined up on their vines like paintings in a gallery hall. There is the crisp smell of fall in the air, and the color of gold in the trees around me. As I arrive at the pond, the Kingfishers’ call greets me like the sudden music of a radio just being turned on. I can’t help but wonder if she is screaming an expletive in bird language at me as she flies away. Then all is quiet again.

Ah quiet, why do people think it boring? Quiet is so good for my mood, calming and invigorating at the same time. The water is serene and the sun feels good. I wish I could paint this feeling. I just stand at the edge of the water letting the sun reach into my blood and warm me. The sun is warm. The sun is perfect. Weird!

Why is it weird for the sun to feel good? Oh yeah, because it is usually too hot. Here I go with thoughts to wreck this lovely ambiance. But the sun so rarely feels good to me anymore, always too hot, with spring too short and summer too long. Why can’t people see what we are doing to the atmosphere? Even George Bush said global warming is real. Hmmm, then maybe it is a lie! Ever since November 2, 2000 when a wise child said to me “ My stuffed animals voted for Al Gore, but their vote does not count,” I feel like I am immersed in lies. I can’t even figure out where to find the truth anymore. Why do we still not know what really happened September 11? Why is no one questioning the way the towers fell? Why is there mercury in our water and smog in our Clean Air Act? Maybe we are all to blame. Don’t we start out early lying to our children? We tell them about Santa at Christmas.   We tell ourselves we deserve a break because we work so hard, forgetting that we chose to be married to our jobs. No wonder we do not know what is true anymore.

What if . . .

we replaced B.C. with A.B.B (it would now be 13 billion years after Big Bang), and we celebrated our relationship with nature?

multi-cultural was not just an expression of tolerance, but really meant we embraced and celebrated all the interesting kinds of culture in our world

history was not stuck in libraries? What if Americans had to take field-trips to live with starving children in Ethiopia?

presents were always homemade?

we valued eclectic personality traits more than the status quo of the majority?

all Americans from Seattle to St. Louis to Miami used less resources, built smaller homes, got rid of garage-door openers and backyard fences? What if neighborhoods and neighbors existed again?

our President knew the difference between ‘pre-emptive strike’ and ‘last resort for war’?

snow was considered a decoration rather than a nuisance, a reason to have a party?

 art was a conduit for empathy more often than a symbol of status?

What if . . .

 schools valued all kinds of talent, not just math and verbal skills?

honesty was valued over money and power?

I was awakened from my design on life by the sound of my dog jumping into the pond. His splash made a ring around his body from the waves he created.

I wish I had a boat to sail away from all these lies, but now the sun is too hot. As I walk back to the house I wonder (more realistically) what if? What if there is a change in the guys on Capital Hill this fall? My hopes are not high. Perhaps I’ll just settle for no more bad coffee. Especially if I have to listen to the same old lies for four more years!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did I Kill My Mascot? Mistakes Made While Loving Nature

I am writing a children’s picture book titled Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain. It has made the submission rounds, had a few good critiques, but basically returned home, rejected. I’ve decided to publish it as an eBook and market it to teachers and tech-savvy youngsters with iPads.* I’ve found an illustrator and I am moving forward. This post is not about that process, but rather the ecological processes at work at Halcyon, how we sometimes help and other times hinder nature and how perhaps we have to do both to really be a part of nature. I begin with the little monarch that had to trust me.

On Friday the 13th of May, my illustrator emailed to say she’d do the project. Later, I was mowing paths already established, paths created each year as I mow around desired plant species. I was right beside a patch of milkweed when I spotted a monarch butterfly. My first sighting of the season! I watched her lay an egg on each of four plants before flying off. I was elated and couldn’t help making meaning out of coincidence even though I don’t believe in signs. See (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2014/09/16/fireweed/ ). I had a little mascot to observe while I worked on the book!

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I checked the plants and photographed an egg every day. On the fourth day, I could only find one egg. I panicked. I thought about bringing it inside, still safe on its leaf, but then I worried about getting fresh leaves everyday, and whether that would be as healthy for the caterpillar. I fretted for the afternoon and then I dug up the whole plant, put it in a large pot and brought it inside. That would thwart any birds or insects that wanted my egg. All was fine for a few more days. Then on day 7 the egg was gone! I was quite bummed, but luckily I didn’t ditch the milkweed because 5 days later I saw the larva. It was so tiny, so cute, and definitely a monarch. I later read that they eat their egg when they hatch.

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We had a delightful relationship, in that I delighted in watching it grow. I’m not sure what it thought of its nice cool spot with no sun and no wind. Then one day I noticed the milkweed plant looking weary and worried that it needed to be outside and that a sick or dying milkweed would not be good food for the monarch. I put the pot outside the kitchen door. A few days later, the caterpillar was gone. Did a bird or other predator eat it? I felt directly responsible for this little monarch’s demise. I interfered in an ancient natural interplay between plant and insect and perhaps made it easier for a predator to have a meal. This was not the first time I’ve made such a mistake.

I believe we need to observe, touch, care for and otherwise interact with nature in order to truly understand how our lives are connected to other life on our planet. When I was a science teacher, I looked for opportunities to help students make these connections. My first year teaching, I found a preying mantis egg case while walking in my yard. I knew that I could not pull it off the forsythia twig it was attached to without disrupting the egg development, so I broke off a long stretch of the twig and brought it to class. I placed it in a small aquarium with a screened top so that on hatching day the little insects would not escape until released outside. My students were excited, most had never seen the egg case and they were curious about the mystery inside. How many would emerge? How big would they be? How long would it take? We not only learned the life cycle of the preying mantis, we made a meaningful connection. It was wonderful.

And then I made a mistake.

We did see little preying mantises emerge. Their diminutive size was indirectly proportional to my students’ excitement. But it was time for lunch and I decided that the bottom of the container needed some water in case they were thirsty. We came back to at least half of the baby insects drowned in the millimeter-deep puddle. I never brought in another live creature to the classroom, and I still apologize to any preying mantis I meet.

But connections were made, and that is important. Actually, I think it is crucial to becoming fully human.

When someone says something like, “The problem with fruit trees or planting flowers near your patio, is that the bees come,” I deflate a little inside. Of course the bees come. Isn’t that the point? Those flowers we love in all their glory exist because of countless years of a partnership between bees and flowers – evolution at its finest. Without the bees, the flowers would not have bothered. Do you notice the glorious grass flowers? No. And not because you mow them, but because grass is wind pollinated. Grass flowers did not have to get brighter and fancier to vie for a bee’s attention. As for the fruit trees comment, it is hard to keep the DUH that bounces around in my head contained. There is no fruit without the bee (or other pollinators). Of course the people that say this sort of thing know about pollination; they know it as an abstraction learned in school. But they did not learn to rejoice at the sight of the bee, to be grateful for its existence, and that is why I despair.

I am not sure what happened to the monarch caterpillar. In the interest of easing my guilt I have written a probable ending narrative: Since it was in its fifth instar, it crawled down the stem, over the edge of the pot and to some close object that it could use to pupate. I didn’t notice since I was fixated on finding it on the plant. After two weeks, it emerged and flew over Halcyon sipping nectar and looking for a mate. Its short adult life would be over by now. I hope it was able to complete its life cycle and contribute to continuing another generation.

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I will make mistakes living here at Halcyon, mistakes in managing this piece of land I love, and in doing so I will harm some of the life I love. But I will keep trying and learning to live in this space, and more importantly with this space. I attended a nature journaling workshop in Shenandoah National Park on Saturday. Since this is the centennial year of the National Park Service, there was a lot of talk about ‘whose park is it?” emphasizing ownership by the public. I realized I tend to think of ownership having a negative connotation when in fact the synonyms for own – keep, preserve, maintain, hold – don’t feel negative to me at all. They are how I try to approach Halcyon. And yet, with an eye on preservation, I embrace the change inherent in the evolution of ecological processes. And I accept that I am just a visitor here. Halcyon maintains and holds me far better than I will ever be able to reciprocate.

 

* I have mixed feelings about eBooks, about kids not holding a real book in their hands, and so I will continue to submit to traditional publishers, as well as explore these new technologies for reading. AND….I now have a contract with Arbordale Publishing for one of my picture books!   I just found out last week and have been walking around on cloud nine. I will blog about it on my picture book website once I have a publication date.

https://lisaconnors.wordpress.com/

The Best Pirate I’ve Ever Known (12/24/03-1/8/16)

 

 

Pirate was born on Christmas Eve 2003 from a red-bone coonhound mother and a lab father. He and his six siblings were brought to the SPCA in early January 2004. Luckily a family in the county was looking for a dog. Pirate adopted the Connors’ family of Chris, Lisa, Mauri and Kevin in February 2004 and lived his entire life roaming their property (Halcyon), providing protection from fierce deer and far-off coyote howls and happily eating any leftover human dinners.

Pirate received his name from the SPCA because of the tan patch of color over his right eye. He lived up to his name in pirate-related antics. His first major act was to steal a gorilla twice his size at 8 weeks of age, drag it through the cat door, and shake gorilla fluff all over the yard. Thankfully, it was a stuffed animal. He also stole shoes, doormats and blankets, which were usually (but not always) recovered somewhere on the property in one piece and a Torta de Santiago which was definitely not recovered. His most egregious act in honor of his namesake was the murder of Lisa’s beloved Annie and Andy from childhood (see crime scene photo below). His master was kind, understanding he was still a puppy-pirate and made sure to never again leave childhood heirlooms at a tempting Pirate-mouth level. Mauri feels the time he ate her copy of Watership Down to be the worst thing he ever did, but forgave him when she found a prettier copy to replace it. The only other murders ever recorded were that of a raccoon and that of a groundhog – much less egregious acts to the owners. Over time Pirate mellowed, only removing shoes to his bed and using them as a pillow when his family was gone too long.

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Despite his swashbuckling ways, Pirate was quite sensitive to our moods. Sensing our fear when a large tree limb crashed on the roof of the house during a thunderstorm, he sat as close as possible during subsequent storms. He loved the energy of growing kids in the house and any time we were excited about something. And he knew Chris was the biggest pushover when he needed some extra puppy-like lovin’ or dinner scraps.

Pirate loved eating, following scents, belly rubs and eating. He enjoyed hikes and a few camping trips with his family, stealing food from his ‘sister’ (always a pirate, eh?), dog-friendly guests to the house (especially Nick Fox) and playing with the neighbors’ dogs. He was especially happy swimming and getting dirty in his pond and finding deer bones in the woods.

Pirate had been showing his age, still doing his favorite activities, but slowing down. Just this past week at the age of 12, Pirate fell ill suddenly, refused to eat and quickly lost the ability to walk. His family could not get medicine in him and with a possible diagnosis of idiopathic hepatitis with a 30% chance of recovery, his family made the tough decision to let him go. His family is grateful to Blue Ridge Animal Clinic for 12 years of service and Dr. Robert Murdock for his compassionate end-of-life care for Pirate.

No property walk was complete without Pirate’s company. His family loved and sorely misses him and will imagine his spirit roaming their well-worn paths. Pinot, his best neighbor-friend, will also miss his company. Pirate is survived by his original adopted family, his adopted sister Toc, who is unsure if she will miss him (but we think she will), and family cats Lily and Caroline.

Painted in Waterlogue

 

A Dying Friend

The second year I taught fourth grade we spent time learning about the value of trees as part of a grant I had for an outdoor nature trail and because Virginia education standards mandate students learn the natural resources of Virginia. As a project to the PTA and to the fifth graders, my students created an acrostic to the phrase Trees are Terrific! Here is their poem:

Trees are Terrific

Trees are terrific

Reduce soil erosion

Energy conservers

Ecosystems need them

Sound break and wind barrier

Are a major source of paper

Recycle your paper; save a tree

Endangered species need them

Trees help people heal faster

Even a part of the water cycle

Reduce flooding

Renewable natural resource

Interdependence with us, and other animals

Fruits and food products

Intakes water with roots

Care for a tree; they need us and we need them!

It seems my students learned well. Their poem indeed shows an understanding of trees, these massive organisms with which we share the planet. But I’m not sure. I wish I could do that lesson again; I would tell them there are other important reasons to love trees besides their natural resource values. I know human life would not exist without trees, so maybe I can’t separate their nature resource values from this love I feel. It’s akin to how we don’t need friends for basic survival, but we do need friends for a rich human experience.

I have a special friend that is dying. A maple tree situated right beside our house on the dining room side. We think she is at least 150 years old – sorry, I like to personify other species I connect with, and tend to equate ones so full of life as she; her demise pains me and I cannot just use it. I’m sure she was here before the two-over-two part of our farmhouse house was added. Maybe she witnessed the core of the house built, the slave’s quarters, or maybe she germinated sometime while its inhabitants worked the land.

She’s watched at least four families live their lives in the house and she towers over the property we now call Halcyon. Every time I pass by her or see her from afar, I smile. Isn’t that enough to call her my friend?

Her demise began with the derecho in June 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/06/28/derecho-2012-ten-tell-tale-images-of-historic-land-hurricane/ ). A huge limb was torn from her main trunk by winds that also knocked out power in much of Rockbridge County for a week. We were sad and a little horrified at the force of nature that could rip away something so heavy, so strong. But there was work to do. It took days to clear the debris, and cut and stack the wood. She gave us a bounteous supply of firewood for that winter and we thought about her loss and her gift as she warmed us. We dismissed suggestions to take the whole tree down. How could we kill the oldest, biggest tree at Halcyon?

The following summer, she lost another large limb in another summer storm. We started to worry that she did need to come down. Both stricken limbs had fallen away from the house leaving the main double-trunk, and a large limb, which the laws of physics dictate would fall towards, if not on, our house. But she’s a friend. She makes us happy; her mere presence commanded respect and an understanding beyond our lifetimes. You can’t easily cut that down.

At 1:30 in the morning, July 14, 2015, the laws of physics prevailed. I thought it was a lightening strike, frighteningly close to my head. We stumbled out the front door with flashlights. The massive branch lay almost parallel to our house, blocking all three doors on that side with smaller branches on the roof, right next to our bedroom. The gutters were damaged and the picnic umbrella broken. It seemed incredulous. No broken windows, no ripped screens, we felt very fortunate.

I went back to bed, but not easily to sleep. And this is where I struggle to articulate the intense sadness I felt. I resigned myself to the fact that indeed, she had to come down, and I felt such heartache for her, for all the life she’s seen, for all the life she’s fostered, for all the future life that can no longer live on and in her.

It turns out we’re more fortunate than we could tell in the dark. The upstairs bathroom has numerous plaster cracks and ‘pop’ out spots. It appears that the falling branch did hit the roof, but then lifted back off being counterbalanced from the weight of the end near the trunk hitting the ground. I am grateful to my husband and brother-in-law for building such strong walls when we redid the bathroom.

We’re still not done clearing up her remains. I’m staring at the main part of the branch that fell as I type, resting on the rock wall above my strawberries. It took a day to cut up enough to open the kitchen door, and a week to cut up, haul and stack the rest that was on the ground next to the house. It was a long week, and I did not have the words to express my sadness. Or was it courage I needed to express such strong emotions for a tree? Serendipitously, the very next week, I found a picture book in the library that came brilliantly to my rescue. Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel and illustrated by David Catrow (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005) tells of a family’s love for a tree that they grew up with, and the Dad’s heavy heart when he must tell them it fell down in a storm.

This book was just the therapy I needed.

And ironically, we may not need to take the rest of our friend down. With the weight of that lost limb, the laws of physics now say the rest of the tree would fall in two opposing directions, both away from the house. We’ll keep an eye on her of course, but this realization made me happy. I don’t know if she knows she’s dying, but we’ll take the best care of her we can.

Raspberry Reefs

Raspberry Reefs

I have a long-expired PADI certificate (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). Back in my youthful days of rock climbing, kayaking, spelunking and backpacking, Chris and I took a scuba diving class while living in Princeton, New Jersey. I don’t remember how many weeks the course lasted, but certification required passing a test in the water, obviously. The body of water chosen was an extremely cold lake/quarry somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania. The water was not very clear. All I remember is the shock of seeing another student’s face underwater. Can skin be that white? I looked at my own hands. I was unnerved. I imagined all my blood high-tailing it to my heart to escape the cold water, which was reaching inward. Didn’t my heart care about my extremities? I did. It was, thankfully, a quick test, and no one had any interest in diving for fun that day.

I only dove once more using that certification. We were visiting Chris’ parents while they vacationed in Florida and we signed up to go diving with an outfitter in John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park. The water was much warmer than my first experience and crystal clear. The dive was magical. While I recall the variety and color of the fish and felt excitement to be so close to them, what I remember best is how I could move. The floating slowly and the ability to move up and over a barrier without using hands and feet added a spatial dimension that I’d only ever experienced in dreams where I fly. I know there aren’t more than three spatial dimensions just because I was underwater – after all there is an ocean floor– it is just that it felt so. See http://www.askamathematician.com/2014/11/q-can-a-human-being-survive-in-the-fourth-dimension/ for a fun and confusing explanation on living in three spatial dimensions. I think it was the effect of feeling weightless underwater and the ability to move down headfirst without crashing that contributed to this novel and freeing feeling.

Over the years I’ve thought about how that dive felt. Ironically, the memory always comes to me when I’m landlocked with only my own sweat dripping off my skin to connect me with any salt water. There are no fish to peer at or oxygen tanks to fuss with. My feet never leave the ground, well not at the same time at least, and yet I am reminded of scuba diving. What activity could possibly connect my body with the memory of diving? Believe it or not, picking berries.

I have to twist, bend from the waist and peer upside down at the underside of the bushes. I can miss berries from a bush I was just attending to and only notice them when I see them from a different vantage point. Sometimes I stretch far (that’s when one foot leaves the ground) for that perfect berry just out of reach and I have to remind myself that I cannot gracefully float over to get it – and crashing into a raspberry thicket would ruin my flight of fancy. This body memory does not happen with any other fruit or vegetable that I’ve ever picked. I can’t explain it, but I enjoy the feeling. And if I’m not really diving, I’m at least getting a great yoga experience in with my daily hour of collecting. Right now my berry diving allows me to collect blueberries, and red and black raspberries. Soon I’ll swim over to the wineberries. Blackberries will round out my summer diving season.

These days I don’t have to spend a lot of money or even live near water to enjoy some diving. I do it every year in berry season. Who can beat a diving session that results in fresh berries, sorbet, or fruit for jams and cobblers? I can’t say I’d be too keen on parrotfish or wrasse jam anyway.

Snow Day

We’ve had a cold winter, but no snow to hoot about until February 16th. I love when the snow sneaks in during the night blanketing our worn winter browns with the crisp freshness of white. But this year, instead of masking the landscape, the snow revealed to me how much life keeps right on happening despite temperatures that chase me indoors. The garden was littered with rabbit tracks. I’d forgotten all about rabbits since last spring, and I’ve not seen a sign of one since. Clearly, hibernating inside diminishes my observation skills.

The snow also revealed more bird species wintering nearby than typically visit my feeding station. All winter I’ve had cardinals, tufted titmice, chickadees, white-throated sparrows and Carolina wrens come to eat my offerings of suet and sunflower seeds. But ever since the snow on February 16th and continuing through the heavy snow on the 21st the diversity at my feeding station (right outside my kitchen window) has more than doubled to include: white-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches, juncos, eastern towhees, fox and song sparrows, and a downy woodpecker and red-headed woodpecker (these last are singular because I only ever see one at a time). And one day I noticed a large flock of robins on the other side of the house from the feeder. They were perched in a tree and taking turns bathing in the ice water melting off the roof into the gutter. Brrr. Adaptability to winter life fascinates me.

That first snow day, though anticipated for weeks, did not fill me with the usual cheer and excitement. The problem started the day before.

Chris and I had spent the day at home, and after lunch we walked the property to check on wind damage from the night before. Our first stop, and where we spent the next two hours working in 20°F weather, was the studio workshop. The tin roof had lifted, twisted, and peeled back exposing the lathe and insulation below. The brief thrill I experienced seeing it (because of the power of nature) was quickly replaced with a feeling of doom (because of the power of nature). We had building materials that couldn’t get wet stored under the exposed roof.

While Chris climbed on the roof to pull the roof back and then hammer and screw each of the four peeled panels into place, I stood on the ladder handing him screws, basically being there to call 911 if he fell off. Despite my daily 3-mile walk since Christmas, I couldn’t handle the cold. This is the general gist of our conversation spread out over the two hours. My thoughts are in italics.

          Chris: We just need to fix it enough until we can get it done right.

          Me: Uh huh. It’s so cold.

          Chris: These screws are great.

          Me: Good. I’m so cold.

          Chris: Roofers must have some special tool for crimping over the edges.

          Me: Hmmm. I’m freezing.

          Chris: Thank goodness we had these screws.

          Me: (Noting there’s three more panels to screw down). Couldn’t we call it quits and           just cover the stuff inside with plastic? I can’t feel my fingers.

          Chris: I can probably just silicone the gaps myself.

          Me: Why isn’t he cursing? I’m f’ing freezing!

You’ll notice I quit talking out loud. Is that a sign of hypothermia? I was having trouble with how Pollyanna he was about the whole thing. Not only did he never curse, he never said a word about the cold. Why couldn’t I be more mature? An image of a homeless person sleeping out in this weather froze in my mind.

I couldn’t thaw that image when I sat by my fire. Countless lives are too cold. I couldn’t chip away at that image when I fed my body and soul with homemade soup. Countless lives are hungry. And when I woke excited to greet the snow and my ‘personal disaster’ snow day, that homeless person was still frozen in my mind. I felt the weight of so many injustices – a weight I try to keep at arm’s length for sanity – settle in my chest. There are too many ways – poverty, human trafficking, racism, sexism, wars, big pharma, CAFO’s, and climate change, to name some – that humans destroy humanity.

I know I haven’t stumbled on some new awareness about life. Lamenting over the human condition is nothing new to me or to others. I don’t have enough money or expertise to take direct action against big problems, but I believe, perhaps by necessity, in small, cumulative actions. Do they really matter? Perhaps not always, perhaps not in one lifetime, but I believe they can matter, and they are sometimes the only things any one human can do.

Serendipitously, I read a friend’s timely blog post that morning that helped me with the weight in my chest (http://lesleywheeler.org/). While Lesley is questioning her ability to relate to the nonhuman, something I usually do on this blog, I can relate her words to my problem of feeling powerless about human suffering.

“I can at least believe in looking’ remains a mantra: I can rarely fix what’s wrong with the world, but at the very least I can attend to the lives and scenes around me, the beauty and the suffering.”

This attending is implicit in the words of Karen Maezen Miller:

“The view that there is higher ground apart from the place we occupy is based entirely on ignorance. It perpetuates fear and, worse, it enlarges it. There is only one place. The one you’re in. You can never leave, but you can turn it inside out. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Paradise or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place.

At the grocery story, give your place in line to the person behind you.

Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.

On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.

Buy a cup of lemonade from the kids at the sidewalk stand. Tell them to keep the change.

Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.

Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a long time.

Do not curse your neighbor’s tall grass, weeds, foul temperament, or house color. Given time, things change by themselves. Even your annoyance.

Thank the garbageman. Be patient with the postal worker.

Leave the empty parking space for someone else to take. They will feel lucky.

Buy cookies from the Girl Scout and a sack of oranges from the poor woman standing in the broiling heat of the intersection.

Talk to strangers about the weather.

Allow others to be themselves, with their own point of view. If you judge them, you are in error.

Do not let difference make a difference.

Do not despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.”

Many of us do the things on Miller’s list. I have too. But I’ve room to grow. My goal is to be more mindful of the process of being kind and therefore to become kinder: to step in another’s shoes instead of being critical, to be helpful despite being busy, to be more open by not pushing away the pain. Maybe the next snow day will feel lighter because of smiles I placed in the lives of others.

Miller, Karen Maezen. hand wash cold, care instructions for an ordinary life. MJF Books: New York, NY. 2010.

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Fireweed

This essay was inspired by our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and modeled after Terry Tempest William’s piece in Orion, The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness (September/October 2014). In the essay below I play with a mosaic of connected thoughts. I welcome your comments.

 

Fireweed

I don’t believe in signs.

Not even seeing a black wolf on our last day in Banff, just hours after I lamented such a possibility. Not even a treat of four rainbows gracing the vast Calgary sky on the last few hours of daylight as we left behind our vacation, a splendid respite, a second honeymoon purposefully set in the Canadian Rockies where we’d wanted our first honeymoon, and intentionally starting as soon as we were officially empty-nesters.

Empty-nest: a stage in a parent’s life after the children have left home.

The pre-trip days were heavy with unspoken expectations that vanished into easy, peaceful days as soon as we landed in Canada, rented a car, and set off. If it is possible to mix the passion and playfulness of young love with the wisdom and comfort of a 27-year relationship, we did it effortlessly. It was as hard to leave, as it was to fathom never returning to the nest we’ve built in Virginia. So we lingered on that last day. One more walk, one more canyon to visit, several more hours of seemingly endless mountain vistas, all to stall our return to civilization.

We’re returning to an empty nest. Will it be weird? Can we continue the essence of this vacation once real-life hits us?

For a split second I thought it was a black bear. It’s a wolf! I was driving. I slowed to a crawl on the side of the road while Chris took pictures. Its trot was steady, anxious. If it could know that all my life I’ve wanted to see a wolf in the wild, to look it in the eye, to apologize for the slaughter of its ancestors, that I was an advocate for all the wildness it represents and the wilderness it supports, it would not care. I was interrupting its agenda. It trotted just ahead of the front of the car, seemingly dog-like, until it turned to look back at us. Wild! As far from the dogs sleeping on my living room floor as perhaps we are from our most recent primate ancestors. I could drive the berm for hours just to watch, but suddenly it was gone, retreating back into the understory, back to the shadows in my mind.

I don’t believe in signs, but it is fun to pretend that such events give special meaning to memories of loved ones or milestone events in our lives. And while the wolf and the rainbows are obvious ones to use, it is instead a wildflower we encountered that takes the role of symbolism, or of finding connections, for me. Fireweed.

What happens to an empty nest? How will it change? After all, nature abhors a vacuum.

Chamerion angustifolium. Commonly known as fireweed, but also known as rosebay willowherb, great willow-herb, or wickup is an herbaceous perennial from 1.5 to 8 feet tall with pink to magenta flowers.  We saw it along roadsides and in meadows. It is native to Canada and some parts of the United States, and is found throughout Eurasia. It grows in a wide range of soils and can be found in coniferous and mixed-hardwood forests as well as meadows, stream banks, grasslands and aspen parklands. It is most common in disturbed sites such as burned forests, avalanche areas and along roads. It is the first species to colonize a region after a forest fire.

An empty nest is a disturbance to the flow of days and of years, to meal planning, to weekend routines. As a couple we must colonize new ground.

We saw it and wondered at its name. A phlox? No, it has 4 petals not five. We saw it and marveled at its seedpods, how they split open symmetrically, revealing small seeds that will be carried on the wind by long tufts of white fluff. A milkweed? No milky sap in its stems or leaf petiole. And then we saw it colonizing a forest meadow that had burned eight years ago. Even late in the season, with signs of senescence, it was a stunning sea of purple against the tall black stalks of death. Life after death is real in nature. Change is normal.

An empty nest is not a syndrome, though a Google search will try to convince you otherwise. It’s just a change. Maybe a big change, yes, but we are still parents. We’re still here for our children; our nest has just broadened to include their futures as adults. We will cheer them on or offer shoulders just as before. And they will always have this nest to which they can return.

Fireweed blooms from the bottom up. Alaskans have a saying that when the plant blooms at the base, summer has begun, and when the last flowers at the top bloom, summer is nearing its end. All we saw were flowers at the top.

But the end of one thing is the beginning of something else. Nature abhors a vacuum.

A few days after we returned home, I was preparing for bed and I called upstairs, It’s getting late, time to think about bed. All that replied were the echoes of ghost steps ingrained in my brain and I thought of all the times little footsteps crossed that floor upstairs to brush teeth before bed. Those footsteps grew each year, leaving bigger and bigger signatures on the wood floor until they were big enough to leave. Will I always hear them?

An empty nest is not a syndrome. It is a stage in life. It is as real as adolescence, first loves, parenting, and all the other ways we parcel our time into chunks of meaning. We are embracing it the same way we did the sea change that rode in on the birth of our first child. We will ride the waves of time and change, excited for new possibilities, and comforted in wistful times with great memories.

And, while that wolf encounter is not a sign of anything but serendipity, the wolf itself is a sign of all things wild. It is a sign of tenacity. I can hear its paws thumping along the forest floor in a constant pursuit of new beginnings.

Fireweed along side of the road.

Fireweed along side of the road.

Reflections in a pond, Golden, British Columbia

Reflections in a pond, Golden, British Columbia

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Fireweed seed pods

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