Saturday, June 17, 2017
Right here, at the beginning of these musings, I will admit that I wish that all of my moments were spent in wonder, in the noticing what is right in front of me. They are not, however, and sometimes, to be honest, wonder is the farthest thing from my mind. Nevertheless, its invitation is always present, always beckoning, always the means of dropping the cares that consume me, if only for a short while.
Take right now, for example...a gentle rain is falling and, out my window, I can hear every drop pattering on the layer of dried leaves I laid down last fall. Sometimes, as I sit near this window, I hear birds scrabbling through the leaves, looking for worms and insects. Sometimes, in the night, tiny creatures move quietly to and fro in the midst of their nocturnal business. Occasionally, something louder...a opossum or raccoon ambles by, doing I know not what, affording me the opportunity to stop what I am doing and edge closer to the window to better listen to their rustling.
A few days ago, while walking to the nearby wetlands, I happened to look down at just the right moment to witness a mother snapping turtle laying her eggs in the sandy shoulder of the road. I kept a respectful distance, and she seemed to not notice me, so consumed was she by the task at hand. The next morning, I walked the same route, and found that her egg laying efforts would produce no young turtles this year. Her eggs had been dug up and consumed by a predator, possibly the opossum or raccoons that come through my yard. Each soft, white egg had been torn in half and the contents slurped out, leaving only the broken shells behind, scattered like dried magnolia petals along the road.
On that same walk was a dead tree whose top had broken off some time ago, and only the lowest part of the trunk remained, a common enough sight where I live. This tree trunk, however, was dotted with myriad small, white specimens of shelf fungus, thriving on what had once been alive and was no longer.
Like the broken turtles eggs that nourished some other being, like last year's dry leaves that carpet the earth, the dead tree and the thriving fungus reminded me of the ways of this world, ways that I don't want to accept or embrace, sometimes. Loss can lead to life, if we let it. It can lead to a new way of being alive, a new way of seeing the world and ourselves, even a new experience of gratitude. Having known loss numerous times...who lives to be my age without its presence...I look back, indeed with wonder, at its softening effects on my heart and soul. Would I have been as pliable without noticing the ever-present examples of transformation that the natural world offers? I think not. These examples are there for all who look and who stop, in their busyness, to pay attention. They are there, for you. May you heed and be enriched by them, as you go about your own life this day.
Saturday, May 13, 2017
I did not set out to make a bouquet with these flowers. They were supposed to be part of an arrangement that, as it turned out, not only didn't need them, but looked much better without them. These flowers became the leftovers.
I have been thinking about living in the present moment, lately...about appreciating the rain, even after several days of showers; about letting go of my frustration as I fight my way through snarly traffic to travel most anywhere north of here; about willingly accepting the aches and pains that are a given part of my chosen vocation. While it is easy to embrace the moment when all things are going well, how much more challenging when such is not the case. During those seasons, when life is not as I might wish, I am coming to realize that there is an invitation in accepting what is, and that surrender often offers riches that I have surely been slow to appreciate.
If you keep a garden, you are likely intimately aware that its conditions change over time and, that at least sometimes, you actually have very little control of what occurs there. Some plants you try are just not happy where you put them. Some run vigorously where you would rather they not venture, the moment your back is turned. Some newcomers appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and other faithful members suddenly disappear altogether. Is this not one of the intriguing mysteries of gardening, if we but admit it? What we would miss if we were able to direct the players and keep a tight rein on the production...the unexpected mingling of colors and textures, the good health of plants that have positioned themselves into conditions best for them, the joy of a tiny, unexpected seedling of a favorite flower.
I have found that life also has a way of offering deep rewards on the other side of what can seem like chaos. Seeds of trust, sometimes barely alive, germinate when I least expect them. Paths that I would never have chosen lead to places that begin to seem like home. Questions that seem to have no answer become less pressing. Sometimes, what seem like the leftovers of my life end up providing the greatest opportunities for growth and self-discovery. I am gradually learning that, through the meanderings and the twists and turns, beauty evolves, as surely as in a bouquet of leftover flowers.
Saturday, April 29, 2017
The light is slowly fading and dusk is soon is at hand as I sit on my front porch, listening to the end-of-day chorus of Carolina chickadees, titmice, cardinals, a Carolina wren, and a few remaining white throats. Perched in the tall trees surrounding the house, the Cope's grey tree frogs are noisily tuning up and soon I'll hear the bullfrogs in the nearby wetland, as well. The temperatures are cooling and it is time to sit and rest from the hot and sweaty, but immensely satisfying, earlier labor of planting tiny trees in the back section of the yard. All of them, flowering dogwood, red maple, black gum, red oak, and persimmon, began as seeds I collected and sowed in a propagation bed a couple of years ago, though I wasn't exactly sure what I would do with them once they germinated.
As I sit in gratitude for the fragrances and songs of evening, I am pondering my work in the world, and in the local landscape in which I live...my life's work, really. Though, for these last few years, we have been so fortunate to live in a large swath of woodland, protected by federal scenic easements, I cannot help but embrace a sense of responsibility to this land and to the creatures who live here. Planting for insects, for pollinators of all kinds, for caterpillars who become the foundation of resident and migrant bird populations has become second nature. Planting native fruit and nut bearing tree and shrub species, though I may not live here long enough to see them bear, provides me the deep joy of knowing that the day will come when the local wildlife will benefit from my seeding experiment.
Recently, I was talking with my spiritual director (which is a topic for another day) and she asked me what I most want to do in life. And, without thinking, I blurted out, "I want to walk in the woods and plant things." And so, without really meaning to, I have come to live out my life's work one day at a time. And in living out that work, I have come to know God in the way that is most natural to me. The ancient Celts believed that God did not create the world out of nothing, but that creation flowed out of Himself, thereby imparting a bit of God in all that is. I find a deep peace in recognizing not just His work, but that bit of Himself, in the woodlands around me, in the soil into which I put my hands, in the whispers of the wind and the frogs who will sing me to sleep tonight.
May you, as you pay attention to what is around you, find Him too.
Saturday, April 15, 2017
In the busyness of your life, of all of our lives, how long has it been since you stopped what you were doing, let go of what you were pondering, set aside your worries and fears and, even just for a moment, drank in the Spring?
How long has it been since you walked outside your door with no other purpose than to breathe in the fragrances of new growth and moist earth? To listen to bird song, even if you don't know who is who? To notice the seemingly unlimited hues of green that change day by day, right now? To notice the miracle of tiny leaves that seem to grow larger overnight? To welcome this year's new generation of lightening bugs that are twinkling in the night, somewhere nearby?
If there were ever a time to practice noticing, it is now. I encourage you to spend some time outside with no other purpose than just to see what you can see. What might call to you? What might catch your attention and draw you into wonder?
As I walk our roads lately, I have been reminded of how ephemeral is spring. Maple trees that were crowned with red flowers a few weeks ago are now covered with jaunty red seeds. Pawpaws, that a few days ago sported only their curious deep-purple flowers, are now sprouting tiny, shiny leaves, soon to be food for zebra swallowtail caterpillars. Sassafrases that were almost invisible among the other trees when bare, now boast tufts of fuzzy chartreuse flowers, similar to the green of newly unfurling beech leaves. Black cherries have surprisingly deep pink stipules, at the base of each leaf stalk, present only until the season progresses into summer.
This year, I am reminded that spring, like life itself, is not to be taken for granted. Do you remember that line in Sound of Music, "How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?" Spring is like that. We can't keep it. We can't even slow it down and therein lies its invitation. It invites us into appreciation for the moment, into joy in the temporary and, into gratitude to the God who lives and moves among all Creation.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Is there any sound more welcome than the trilling of toads on this soft, damp, still-dark morning? Except, maybe, the peepers calling in the background, exuberant in the genesis of another spring, having survived the sudden freeze of last week….as did we all.
Or is it the cardinals’ spring whistle, beginning before first light, before all other birds, the solo that rises above the amphibian chorus, soon joined by the chickadees’ counter-melody, high-pitched, sweet notes sung before dawn?
Or, perhaps, the chattering of the red-wings’ congregation, at the feeders and in the bare trees surrounding the house, waiting, as they are for the signal that spurs them towards the marsh and this season’s new reproductive urges.
Tiny, winged, samara cover the red maples, splashes of crimson against the grey of the still-bare woodlands, having defied the recent killing freeze. We lost the magnolia blossoms to its chill, and the early-blooming fruit trees but, the maple flowers, and their pollen, somehow survived. Overhead, their seeds, as testimony to resilience, perhaps, now dance in the slightest breeze.
In the woodlands, I rejoice in the blooming toothwort and spring beauties. Shall I also welcome the subtle beauty of weeds in the grass and at the edges of my garden beds? Purple deadnettle and henbit, blue speedwell, and the white chickweed and hairy bittercress have vigorously sprung to life, laughing at the chagrin of gardeners who believe they own the plots they tend. What is the mysterious awakening mechanism that drives them, their seeds germinating in the dead of winter, plants that flourish in the cold, and now offer their nectar and pollen as one of the few available food sources for newly emerged and hungry bees? Who am I to deny their value?
Beneath what can seem like just another late-March day in the meandering procession towards the longed-for spring, today holds an invitation to gratitude and to wonder at each step of the new season's unfolding. It offers opportunity to step out of our "every day" lives and to sink into moments of noticing the life around us, and in so doing, perhaps, noticing the life within us, as well.
Friday, March 17, 2017
Do you remember that old Mr. Roger's song about patience? He sang "Think of something to do while you're waiting. While you're waiting, think of something to do." That sentiment so describes my need right now. Most any gardener, or naturalist, for that matter, finds this time of year a lean one, and this year is even more difficult. We had that teasing taste of spring a week or two ago...enough to cause early fruit trees and magnolias to flower and spring peepers, wood frogs and American toads to awaken and commence their mating songs and activity...And then the bottom dropped out. The flowers froze and, this year, there will be no fruit on those trees or berries on the magnolias. What of the frogs and toads, and the eggs they laid when it was warm? Will there be new generations? Did the parents live through the sudden cold? And what became of the nectar and pollen of the red and silver maples that were flowering at the time of the freeze, first food of the season for bees?
We humans had warning of the coming freeze, and time to make preparations. In my case, that meant a mad dash to plant three new crabapple and two plum trees while I could. In time, the crabapples will form a protective thicket, with plenty of autumn and winter food for any birds that want it. Thanks to the squirrels, we may or may not ever harvest any plums for ourselves, but the leaves will be hosts to various butterfly and moth species who need that genus for reproduction.
In the midst of ice and snow, I realized it was time to start seeds for the spring that I still expect to come, at some point. I sorted through packages of cool season lettuces, kale, spinach and dill, warm season tomatoes, various peppers and lots of flowers, choosing as many as I could fit into my trays and enjoying the feel of dirt on my hands, once again. And thanks to a new propagation arrangement, I had a place to put them afterward, where I can watch those seeds grow into healthy and stocky young seedlings, ready to set out at the proper time. Like the dormant fruit trees, seeding promises hope for the future and stirs the weary imagination into remembering the colors, fragrances and tastes that are yet to come.
The morning is sunny and the beginning of warmer days ahead and on my early walk, a multitude of robins were singing away, as if spring's temporary setback was just that...a temporary setback. I am watching downy and red-bellied woodpeckers at the suet, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and goldfinches at the feeders and myriad blue jays, crows, white-throated sparrows and squirrels where I have scattered seed and corn, up the hill. I sometimes envy their lack of human ability to look ahead, to fret and worry over what is or is not going to happen, their ability to live fully in the moment, because they know no other way to live.
And at the same time, I am grateful for promise and for imagination and for being able to plan ahead, after all. I am grateful to be able to sit indoors in the company of potted plants, to dream of flowers and butterflies and bees and to think about what else I can plant for them. I am glad to look forward to the woodcocks resuming their mating flights over the fields nearby, and to hope for the frogs to resume their choruses, when the time is right. While I intellectually know that winter will not last forever, this time of year I need these experiential reminders that it is so. Soon the blessings of new growth and warm breezes, of the fragrance of the earth's awakening and the buzzing of wings will, indeed, come again. May it be soon.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
I find late winter, whether it be uncharacteristically warm or unbearably frigid, challenging. My internal store of reminders about the land’s need for cold and rest is about used up. My aesthetic appreciation for the naked woodland’s structure is wearing thin, as is my earlier delight in the myriad grey and brown birds of the season. Amid the drabness of titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, white-throats, song sparrows, mourning doves, and juncos, the astonishing color of blue-jays and male cardinals and bluebirds, seem a thoughtless mistake…or, perhaps, a bit of grace.
And so, in response to the challenge, out I go, a needy seeker longing for late winter’s assurance that spring will come, despite what my senses might initially lead me to believe. I am not disappointed for, as John Muir wrote, “In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” In my case, even with the ground frozen and high winds roaring overhead, I fill a page with observations, writing with chilled, almost immobile fingers, by the end of my excursion.
Working from just beyond the back door, and out into the yard I find plant shoots determinedly emerging, not far out of the ground it is true, but up and ready to spring into exuberant new growth once temperatures are reliably warm enough. Garden phlox, black and brown-eyed Susans, short-toothed mountain mint, smooth beardtongue and arrow-leaf aster are all sprouting an inch or two of green through the previous season’s still-in-place stalks. Short new blades of Pennsylvania sedge peak through last years dried ones, and moss grows abundantly in and through the grass. Tucked under last autumn’s dried leaves, the green foliage of spring blooming Jacob’s ladder, foam flower, golden ragwort, and creeping phlox promise the bright blues, pinks and yellows that I am so missing on this winter day.
Wildlife that remains through the winter is active as well, though finding its evidence sometimes requires more diligent searching. Beetles and borers tunnel just under the bark of dead or fallen trees, in turn drawing in a variety of woodpeckers, who are happy to find and feast upon them. Soft ridges and ripples undulating through the yard are the work of moles, invisibly expanding their feeding tunnels in search of worms and ground dwelling insects, active just below the frost line. Inconspicuous holes in dried mullein stalks are evidence of downy woodpeckers and chickadees, who probe for insect eggs and larvae as part of their winter diet. Goldfinches forage on spiny seed balls high up in sweet gum trees and ground-feeding juncos eat from sycamore seeds that have drifted softly, like snowflakes, down into the grass, often overlooked by human eyes. Here and there, I find small caches of corn, stashed in the grass, by whom, I do not know. Crows perhaps? Maybe squirrels? Possibly blue jays…Winter riddles.
It is at this feeling-empty time of year that I most need to push myself outside and into noticing. I don’t need to leave my yard if I don’t feel like it, for the busyness of winter life is everywhere. Searching is a bit like pilgrimage, a journey made to some sacred place, for it is in the seeking that I find evidences of Life, and of God, just beneath the surface.