"I only went out for a walk, but finally decided to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." --John Muir

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Mast Year

Every time I look at you you’re chewing. 

“What’s that in your mouth?” I’ll say.  Just ten months old, you respond with a closed-tooth grin.  I sigh and approach you, opening my own mouth wide, hoping you’ll copy me so I can slip a finger in and fish out whatever mistaken hors d’oeuvre you’ve found beneath the lilac bush, where I have you sitting while I do a little weeding.

Once, before your nap, I pulled out an entire dandelion leaf, which you were chewing like gum. We’d been inside for nearly an hour.  Well, they’re edible, I thought although the smaller, younger leaves tend to be less bitter and more palatable.  You’ve also sampled the wispy seeds and the flower.  Another favorite:  white pine needles.  I pull them out regularly, telling you that yes, they’re packed with Vitamin C, but taste better in teas than in salads.

Your favorite by far:  maple seeds.  No matter where I put you, you find them.  Sure, they probably have protein, and even some omega-threes, I say, but let’s save them for the chipmunks. Rose-breasted grosbeaks eat them, too, I’m surprised to find, and rabbits and flying squirrels and foxes.  In Vermont, up to 50 % of a porcupine’s diet consists of maple seeds, according to American Wildlife & Plants:  A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. 

I put you in the middle of a large blanket while I plant a new strawberry patch, but you pull the blanket toward you until you can reach over the accordion of folds and fill both fists with maple seeds.  I rush over and pull one out from between your lips by its long wing.

I anchor the corners of the blanket and put you back in the middle.  Once you start to crawl, I confine you in the stroller at the edge of the garden, or in the laundry basket under the clothesline, offering up increasingly dangerous items for you to handle and suck on that I think will keep you satisfied (a set of binoculars, a child-proof pill bottle filled with buttons) but still the maple seeds find you, helicoptering down to your small territories like heralds with a message from wonderland:  “Eat me,” they say.

It’s a mast year:  the maples are producing a higher-than-normal number of seeds. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.  Certainly weather and climate play a role in just how many seeds a tree produces each year, and producing lots of seeds requires lots of resources, so a tree may not be able to produce as many seeds the year following a bumper crop.  But there’s more to it than that.  Masting could be a reproductive strategy for the tree:  producing an occasional, surprise high yield overwhelms seed-eating animals, allowing more seeds to survive.             

I’m not sure how effective that strategy will be in my yard this year, I think, as I watch you curl your toes toward another seed and grasp its wing between them.  The maples didn’t know you were coming.                

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Winter Comes

My winter comes in autumn.

It does not come with cold.  In even the lowest temps I cover everything but my eyes, venture out, and each time am delightfully reminded of my own warm-bloodedness.  We humans carry our own climates inside.

It does not come with snow.  That inevitable first dusting in October I pass by as if it were the summer fluff of cottonwoods.

Winter begins, for me, when the day becomes what's missing.  I can ignore the lessening light from June 21 to September 21, a sort of reverse spring, the amount still generous, bright early mornings and languid evenings perfect for watering gardens and mowing lawns--not enough time to sleep, really; enough light at enough height that I sneeze and become dizzy when I turn my face toward the sun.

But then the autumnal equinox rolls around, and the sun, when it hits me at all, hits me straight on, eye-to-eye, like a lover I loved so much I didn’t see it coming when he declared, “I’m going. I’m going.”  That is when my winter begins.  I mourn the loss of those hours, how each night it worsens, relentlessly.  There is no getting better, I know, until December 21st.   

Then, on the winter solstice, it’s spring as far as I’m concerned.  The world starts to open up again, each day a breath longer.  Springtails migrate in great masses over the snow on rogue warm days (I’ve seen them twice already!); in their dens, while hibernating, black bears give birth; chickadees begin their mating song.  Phenology fills my dreams:  sandhill cranes, red-winged blackbirds, eastern phoebes, spring peepers, wood frogs, hepatica, anemone, bloodroot all promise to come back like prodigal sons.  With snow, the world is blindingly bright in daytime and glows pleasantly under any moon over a quarter. Light.  Light.  Light! 

What gets me through the coldest season is not that famous line from Shelley’s ode--If winter comes, can spring be far behind?--but my own:  When winter comes in autumn, spring is twice as long.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ode to Salamander

Oh, salamander, how your cool weight warms.

Sometimes I think if I was hungry enough I would swallow you down.

Four times this season I have found you under this same log, though many times I have knocked and you were not home. 

I wonder how long you will tolerate me, this dry giant, this desert god who keeps appearing unbidden to roll away your darkness and lift you up. 

But it is you who lifts me on this Midwestern summer mid-morning, too cool, even, for mosquitoes.

The sky grayed and I waited for someone to poke a hole in it, fancying all my happiness lay in the blue beyond. 

But then I turned to the here-and-now, to where last winter scattered my resolve like frost-heaved rocks, and found you again,


with spots like tiny suns.

Saturday, June 21, 2014


I am convinced the universe speaks each night through the amphibians, their voices so extraterrestrial:  gray tree frogs like planets hit with tuning forks; the whirring toads a lunar wind (were there one); the peepers, each, a lost world.  One insect and one fowl are dummies too for this ventriloquist:  katydids rattle out the cosmic background radiation; and loons call their distance from some center—one, two, three AU’s. 

My husband and I know upon waking, before we even move, the day will be humid. A gray tree frog has trilled incessantly all morning from a perch level with our second-story bedroom.  I have seen them around before:  suctioned to the window, in the mailbox, in the watering can.  Today, the humid air has swelled his voice to bull-frog-sized.  He happily bellows out the weather report:  high relative humidity for the next twenty-four hours.

We are governed by water.  In much of the world, women and children walk great distances daily—six miles during the dry seasons in rural Africa—to procure enough water for their families, an estimated five gallons a day per person for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene.  Some women carry, on their heads, up to 100 pounds of water at a time.

I cannot really know, though, how water rules.  Wisconsin receives year-round rain and snow, cradles water in 15,000 lakes and 2,444 trout streams, bears water around 86 % of its border, floats on water, even—bring the 1.2 million billion gallons of water in the aquifers beneath it to the surface and the state would be submerged one hundred feet deep.  So when I hike to water as I do today, it is not an act of survival—at least not the physical kind.  I carry my quarter gallon—mostly for the dog—from home to the pond, and come back with the bottle empty, my skin and clothes sweaty, much lighter, in weight and spirit, than when I set out.

When I arrive at the pond, I see the forest has greened in the night’s rain; the pond wears its shore like a grass skirt, stitched by dragonflies that loop and pull.  Plants are 85-90 % water.  I look from the shore to the pond and back again.  How can they be this close in composition?  What is the difference between a blade of grass and the pond?

“All ponds,” says my Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, “have the charm of secrecy.” Two sandhill cranes take off, bellowing a Pleistocene cry.  Red-winged blackbirds balance on cattail heads, puffing out their ketchup-and-mustard epaulettes.  A green frog banjoes.  An arc away, sedges rise through the skeletons of two bucks. 

Bring a kitchen strainer to the pond, says Audubon, and you can find unusual and fascinating pets for your “nature room”.  Today, on a defunct muskrat lodge turtles bask in rows, like a sheet of shiny floor tile, one that could move right out from under you—and it does when my dog runs by, as if a small, silent explosion in the middle had sent each turtle flying.  Once, I encountered a tiny painted turtle somersaulting in the shallows.  I leaned down to pluck it out between thumb and forefinger and just then I realized what it really was: a very large predacious diving beetle, which, with its two sharp pincers, likely would have given me a painful bite.  I shudder to think how I might have held it, like a wrong choice in love, clear in hindsight.

The heat presses sweat out of me while vapor from the humid air condenses on my skin.  We are closest to a pond when we are young.  Babies, at birth, are 78% water. By one year of age, that amount drops to about 65%.   By adulthood, we average out at 60%, less for women than men.  All too quickly, we become more human.  But today I feel rather watery.  The whole scene makes me pleasantly dizzy.  I think of a book I read, written by a neuroanatomist who had survived a stroke.   During the stroke, the author felt fluid rather than solid.  She could not discern her body from the wall she used to maintain her balance—where she ended and the next thing began became no longer evident.  It was as if, she wrote, the world became a solvent and everything in it a solute.  That is how I feel now:  both totally present and not quite there at all.  And I'm quite glad about it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


My dog sat sniffing, her piercing predator’s gaze fixed on the valley, as if she had something important to do.  I didn’t get the memo.  So I lay on my back on snow that has melted and refrozen day after day to form a hard pack, snow shoes no longer necessary.  The temperature was rising now, in the evening, though the day had been cold.  In the distance, high up in the sky and out of my frame of reference I heard a sound so familiar I didn’t realize it was foreign, a sound that, according to the fossil record, is 2.5 million years old.  But I hadn’t heard it for a few months.

We only have eyes for one season.  It is hard to imagine summer in winter or winter in summer.  As love does, weather blinds us in intervals.

When the world is all icy-moon-white, green seems a wavelength undetectable to the human eye; swimming more like a latent memory of the womb than something that, in a few months, we could actually do.  How we long to move our naked arms through a pond or lake, hair flailing out around our heads like the stems of a sea-plant, and rise to the surface and dive down again as if between two worlds.  Did we dream this?  Or actually do it? 

Likewise, in summer, we can’t imagine how snow polka-dots the sky, how when it falls it doesn’t make a sound.

So what I heard was a sandhill crane.  It startled me into spring.  And as soon as it did, I forgot I had forgotten that crimson head, that throttling cry.  Winter was gone, like the time before birth.  It was spring, and always had been.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Yesterday, on a bright, white hillside, in a grove of maples, I heard the black-capped chickadee’s breeding song:  two (sometimes three) thin notes, one high, one low.  The night before, knowing the forecast was for sun, I slept with the curtains open.  All winter, waking up has felt like suddenly discovering myself at the bottom of a deep hole.  Sure enough, at 7 AM, spots of pink shown through Jack Frost’s handiwork on our east-facing bedroom window and beamed straight across the room to leave a few interrupted circles on the swirled woodwork of my bureau.

After oatmeal, when the temperature had warmed almost as much as it would, I strapped on snowshoes and hiked through the field and up a steep hill that rises like a cold volcano.  And there, on the open face, bracketed by trees, I heard not the chick-a-dee-dee call of year-round, but the two-note whistle, a song for the maidens which, in the still air, rang out like the door-bell of spring.

Without wind, my hat pulled down and my scarf pulled up so that only a small sliver of eyes were visible, warmed from my step ascent, the temperature was bearable.  The chickadee no doubt has registered this extremely cold winter—he certainly has spent more time at my feeder.  But it surely wasn’t the temperature directing his song on this 3-degree morning.  It was the photoperiod, the longer day.  He doesn’t act according to the fluctuations of the jet stream, that earthbound current of air which dictates how high the mercury will rise in the glass bulb of a man-made instrument; so much as by the revolution of our planet around the sun, which, along with the earth’s tilt on its axis, dictates how much of that great ball of orange we will see.  He is moved by bigger things, hinged to the universe at large.  And I, too, must remind myself of that in this winter whose cold has tested my patience:  we are all part of a bigger picture.