Late November means shorter days. It isn’t December, certainly, but it is hard to tell the difference. Getting up at 6:00 to let the dog out means going out in the dark. Walking on the road to get the day started? Wear the reflector vest and bring a headlamp. It helps if drivers can see you when they pass.
This morning it is raining. A sky full of clouds means it is even darker in the early hours. At least we have had some snow. Not a lot, mind you, but some. I went up to Stowe this week and got to walk on trails covered in the white stuff. Today we have a forecast of snow. This rain will turn over to snow this afternoon. It will accumulate–a couple inches according to our friendly meteorologists.
I put birdseed in the feeders recently. As the light grows I watch the House Finches have breakfast. They get more distinct as the day progresses. By the afternoon their red feathers pop out in the sunlight. Even with clouds they are a small burst of color in the gray and brown. We still have a couple of pumpkins on the porch to add more color there.
Today we will go cut a Christmas tree. We put some strings of lights on the porch already. This season of darkness is only getting darker, so we plan to light the place up. The world is dark these days. We need to add some light to the mornings yes, but that metaphorical darkness needs some brightness even more. Those dark mornings are beautiful. And so are the lights. We plan to have some of both.
It is an odd fall. The leaves turned slowly. Some years we have a blast of color. It knocks your socks off. You can’t help but be dazzled. You look at the hills, and then look again, and then say something out loud like “Damn that’s amazing.” Even poets stumble over their tongues. This year we had some of that but I never saw that blanket of red and orange and yellow, that hallmark of the northeastern autumn. Things have been more stretched.
It is mid-November and trees all over are hanging on to leaves that catch the eye. Full, ancient maples are brimming with orange. Oaks show off their muted yellows. Even some sumac are red. Red sumac leaves in mid-November? Is that a thing now?
Standing at the lake I was accompanied by maples full of leaves–yellow on one side and red on the other. Across the water, the Adirondacks still had some color, with snow topping the peaks. There is some awe in that scene. At least I found some.
Maybe this is a thing now, or will be. Is climate change pushing the season out? Likely. Maybe this year is an anomaly, but I am guessing we will see our fall foliage show happening later and later, one more effect of our changing climate I will notice each year in our corner of the world. Whenever it happens I will still, I am sure, have moments where I lose my words. I am happy to stay silent in those moments. The color can do the speaking.
I have been looking small lately. It is easy to look big, to see the bright sunset, or the glowing sunrise, or the mountains as they wear a cloak of clouds. For the small, you have to pay more attention. The newt that crosses your path? If you don’t look down, you will miss it.
Or you will miss all of them. My beautiful spouse and I took a long walk in the woods the other day. We saw more newts than we could count. I hope I didn’t step on any. They are orange but still, they were easy to miss.
And check out this caterpillar. It is munching on bedstraw (an invasive, by the way–beautiful but aggressive). I had seen one of these caterpillars last year in just about the same spot, but that one was black. It looked like the same pattern but could there be that much variation in color? Yes, apparently. Black? Pink? Fashionable moths. It’s name? Bedstraw Hawkmoth. Appropriate.
Speaking of moths, here is another one. This little dude was attached to the screen door in the morning. It is only an inch and change long, pink and yellow and trying to blend in. It chose a poor location to blend in. I have no idea what its caterpillar form looks like–smaller still I imagine. This one is called Rose Hooktip. Those moth namers call it like it is with the straightforward names.
Or do they? We were pretty excited to find this Luna Moth a couple of days ago. It showed up in the morning, clung to its post for most of the day and disappeared in the afternoon. It repeated that performance the next day, one post over. This critter was much bigger that the hooktip. And, I mean, look at that thing! So beautiful and so fragile. It is confident enough, or carefree enough, or self-assured enough that it just doesn’t worry that that Phoebe with the nest right above it is going to make lunch out of it. Actually, maybe that is what happened to it.
As for that Phoebe? I kept seeing it near the porch, so I looked around. On the underside of the back side of the eave of the roof I found its nest. It was the perfect spot for it. If I hadn’t looked I would never have seen it. That is the theme here–looking. I am trying to look closely–at the newt, the moth, the nest, even at the plant where the caterpillar has breakfast or the moss next to the newt. It take deliberateness to see small.
I still am awed by the full moon or the sparkling lake or the field of wildflowers–the big–but I want to be sure to also get down and look closely at those flowers. Only then will I see the cool zigzag spiderweb that stretches between the stems. And damn those are cool. Seriously. Seeing those webs is worth getting dew on your pants. If you want to be dazzled, looking small is just as good as seeing big.
I have been busy enough with work lately that I have not wanted to go birding early during the week, even though it is the season for it. So on Saturday I don’t want to give up the chance. Friday night the weather looked good for some morning exploring, so I planned to go. Saturday morning, however, brought light rain. Rain? Seriously? But I went anyway. It was bound to stop soon.
It kept raining. I turned on the windshield wipers. I went to a local nature reserve–it is fairly new and I had not seen much of it. I parked along the road where I thought a trail started. It sort of did start, in the woods, then fizzled when it opened onto a field. I went the way I thought seemed most likely, but it wasn’t much of a trail. I got to the wetland but then was stymied.
By then it was hardly raining, but it hadbeen raining. That meant the tall grass though which I meandered was a bit wet. Dripping, really. Soggy. Soaked. In my haste to leave the house I had put on pants, to avoid ticks, but they were cotton pants. That was dumb. By the time I walked back the way I had come and got to my car, those pants were most definitely not dry.
But there had to be a better access point to this wetland. I drove up the road and found it, hidden in the trees, no parking except along the road. Yes I was soaked but it was Saturday and I did not want to give up and what’s a little cold and wet? So up the hill into the woods I headed, then down the hill in the woods I went, until it opened again in tall grass. There was a clear path but it went both left and right. I went left.
And that way was just as wet as my first attempt. I got even more wet, even though the rain had passed by now. That grass can hold some water. I had a better view of the wetland, saw some ducks, heard a gallinule calling, listened to an Alder Flycatcher and a couple of Veeries singing. I turned around again and thought I would try going right. This was was less wet but the rain started to fall again.
I did find some birds, although not as many as I might have on a clearer day. Back in the car I polished off my warm coffee, waiting for me in the cup holder. I drove home with the wipers on, those cotton pants wicking all that grass water the whole time. I arrived home wet and chilled, satisfied that I had tried and at least had a good walk in a beautiful place. After a hot shower I got some sourdough bread started. I had a day ahead of me yet.
Look I’m not going to pretend it is all roses around here. I mean, we still have a pandemic happening. But in Vermont things have been fairly settled recently. Our cases of COVID-19 are still pretty low, although there has been a bit of a spike this past week. Still, summer is just about here, and things are more open than they were.
Sometimes it feels like the world is circling the drain. It can be hard not to get angry. I don’t want to be angry. That sucks the life out of me, but how I can I not get angry these days? When I compare my life to others’ I think, what do I have to get angry about? I mean look at this place. It’s beautiful. It is the kind of place people who live in less beautiful places come to go on vacation.
Blue Flag is blooming. There is a patch of it in the field where the cows now sometimes graze. We have these giant domesticated irises at our house, also blooming now. They are related, both purple and intricate and amazing. I got to see both of them when I walked this morning, just as the sun rose, the fog just slipping away into the day. How can those even exist, they seem so fragile? And I get to see them in their glory. Like I said, what do I have to be angry about?
But I pay attention not only to the things right here–the butterflies emerging and the Veery singing and the grass that is somehow four feet tall already–but to what is happening beyond my rural bubble. And that anger pops up. And if you are paying attention then you should get angry too.
So the question: is it OK to enjoy beauty when there is so much to be angry about? I keep hearing the line from the film Bridge of Spies, when the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel gets caught and his lawyer asks him “Aren’t you worried?” since Abel seems so calm. His response: “Would it help?” And that is the answer I have for my question. The problem is, that is another question.
For now I am planning to do both. I plan to enjoy the beauty of almost-summer and I plan to be angry. Beauty is fleeting and I would be a fool to let it pass unappreciated. And anger serves a purpose–it keeps us from becoming complacent, from forgetting, and it can make us take action. I will not bury my head in the flowers but I will still be awed by them. I will not lose myself to anger but I will let it remain, sometimes quietly, sometimes less so.
Those irises are not going to change the world, but finding wonder in them can help me turn that anger into something productive. Those fragile purple petals of late spring can help me to be calm, to think clearly, to be at peace. I get angry that not everyone can be that and think that way and feel that. Maybe not everyone wants to, but I think we would be better off if we did.
I know I should do something and not just talk about it. Of course. We all should. But without experiencing wonder at how beautiful the world is, I won’t be motivated to do the hard things. So I guess I have my answer after all.
Flowers are out in the woods. I guess it must be spring. I have tried to pay attention to flowers this year. I am curious what I see. I want to know what lives in the world around me. What is that flower? How long will it bloom? Which flowers grow in the woods, or the edge of the woods, or out in the sun? I keep wondering.
Last year a friend introduced me to iNaturalist. I downloaded the app and have used it a bunch this spring. It is pretty slick–take a photo, get some suggestions for what you see and select what you think you have found. Most of the time it works like a charm–the first suggestion in the list is usually a match. Others can see what you have posted and can confirm your identification or suggest a different one. It has been really helpful in identifying flowers, as well as moths, caterpillars, fungus. It can be used for anything that lives.
I have added it to my adventures when I go birding. This morning I got so engrossed in trying to identify some white flowers (they were Columbines but I did not realize they could be white as well as purple), that I found I was tuning out the sounds around me. I had stopped listening for birdsong. I had to bring myself back into the audio sphere in the trees once I walked away from the flowers on the ground.
Many of these flowers will be gone soon. They are ephemeral. Others will bloom, however, as the summer progresses. I will keep trying to identify them. Some day I may know when to expect them to bloom, and when the next flowers will appear. I am not there yet, of course, but I keep learning. I can’t keep my curiosity in check, so I will keep wondering. And I will keep trying to answer “What is that?”
I was on a Zoom call recently with some college friends. One mentioned that his college degree, earned many years ago, did not provide much. Another agreed, saying “my degree did absolutely nothing for me!” Now, there may have been some hyperbole there, and this exchange may have involved some ribbing/noodling/general sh*t-slinging, but it did raise my eyebrows a bit.
Now, there is no disagreement that the college experience was worthwhile. I mean, here we were, oldsters who met in our salad days at college, connecting again a couple decades later. There is much to be said about the shared experience of residential college, especially for traditional students. Personal growth, coming of age, maturity, life lessons learned–call it what you will, it is a big deal. But what the heck does a degree in English or Government get you once you head out into the “real world?” Apparently, my fellow former students believe that “nothing” is the answer.
I find myself disagreeing, so here are five things that my undergraduate liberal arts degree in English has given me to help face this pandemic. Call it a metaphor for life in general, but let’s use this quarantine situation for what it gives us, shall we?
It gave me some solid writing skills. I work in an office, so I use email a lot anyway, but these days, working at home every day, I use it more than I ever have. When you can’t just pop by someone’s desk, you have to use other means to communicate. Sure I use the phone or make video calls, but I write emails too, lots of them. And I think about those emails. I write and delete and edit and craft and when I don’t do that I worry that my tone was off or that my message might be misinterpreted. I think about my audience and how formal I need to sound and I try to use the right words. And that is stuff I learned writing papers for English classes. And email is just one example. I will be working on writing a big grant soon, and it will be better because I know how to write–I will be able to focus more on details other than sentence structure, and it will be a better proposal.
It helps me to be a better parent. The past couple of days I spent time helping my daughter, who is home now rather than at school, to fine tune her thesis for her English class. It is fourteen pages, by the way, a solid accomplishment for a high school junior. I can help her with her thesis because I have lots of practice. High school students have to write papers, and if I can help mine to navigate that challenge, then we will have a better relationship. Also, reading literature for a class means you have to pay attention so that you can understand and analyze it. If you are or have been a parent you know the importance of paying attention to your kid. That kid is not you, and they are sometimes going to think in ways that don’t make sense to you. If you do not pay attention you will understand less now and have a harder time coming to understanding later.
It taught me patience. Have you ever read Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or Moby Dick? Or Great Expectations? That crap ain’t easy. First, you have to get through it. It takes time just to read those kinds of books. Then you have to try to understand what the heck is going on. I read Shakespeare in college. You might not know this, but that dude did not talk like we do now. If Shakespeare showed up today he would be all “What gives with the Tik Tok and the acai bowls and spelling shop with only one p and without the e at the end?” Just like I was all “Beggarly account? Jackdaw? Take arms against a sea of troubles? What the…” I had to work through those works of literature to first understand them and then to collect my own thoughts into writing. Sure, one could rush through that and slap together a paper. I guess that wasn’t for me. Right now, whatever your situation, patience is critical. If you can manage to collect your thoughts and be deliberate, you will be better off then just trying to slap things together. We all will be.
It helps me to understand the power of story. Politicians get elected because they tell stories. Leaders are followed because they tell stories. You want to be a good presenter or to make a successful pitch or to teach anything well? You need to harness the power of story. Sure those authors I read in college were trying to make a living by telling stories. People enjoy a good story and will pay to hear it/read it/watch it, but stories are integrated into our lives. When we meet someone for the first time we ask each other questions, and we share stories. If you can tell a good story you will make friends, you will be more respected, you can be a better boss. Of course, the ability to tell a good story can mean abusing that power at the expense of others. People want to listen. Whether it is for good or ill, however, stories have power. I learned that by doing all that reading and writing, and I relearn it just about every day during this pandemic. I mean, how can you have a successful Zoom call without a good story or two? (Also, my wife handed me a book, literally as I write this, that she got forever ago, telling me I need to read something from it because it is relevant right now–power of story in action!)
I am better able to make connections between all kinds of things. When I read some of those old books it was important to understand the context of the story. Dickens makes a lot more sense when you understand the issues of the day in 19th Century London, and it makes even more sense when you understand what was happening all over the world at that time. Things Fall Apart or Night–those books are stories within the larger stories of their time and place. Reading those books, and then analyzing them in order to write a paper about them, meant trying to understand how things are related. I found that I better understood those stories because I was studying other things as well. I found myself making connections or having insights in French class or Geology class because of some of those stories. And the reverse was true as well. Coal plays a big role in 19th Century England, and it is featured in Dickens novels, and I learned about it in my lab. All of that learning fed into each other. Making connections is important to understanding our world, whether our own community or international politics. This coronavirus thing is not easy to understand. Where did it come from? Why did it spread so fast? Why can’t we treat it? Will things ever get back to normal? The ability to make connections between all of these things helps me to understand what it all means. I often don’t get definitive answers, but I at least can grasp why I don’t.
As for the rabbit, well, I haven’t been seeing all that many of them lately. Some years they are underfoot but this year they are scarce. I saw several of them this morning. I took a photo. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. Rabbits are just cool critters. Seeing them this morning does not have to have any more significance than that. Sometimes things don’t. Studying English in college taught me that, too.
How about this moon? Setting, nearly full, into pink clouds? That’s a good thing. Things aren’t easy these days, for anyone, whether you are facing death or facing boredom. Which degree of not-so-good are you experiencing? Things are hard here, but we are alive.
It snowed yesterday. It seems everyone who has a way to post is posting about it. We got an inch and a half of the cold white stuff. And it was beautiful. Complain if you want–yeah, snow in May. Boo hoo. It was mostly melted by the end of the day anyway. Green and yellow with bright white highlights–if you can’t appreciate that rare beauty, well, is there hope for you?
I saw a fisher a couple mornings ago. It was up in what we call the tick zone, the snowmobile trail cut in the woods that is just a bonanza of birds in May, but that is loaded with ticks. It was a cold morning–the first of several, so there were few birds singing, except for that Black-and-White Warbler that whispered away non-stop. I was standing, quietly, hoping the birds would wake up already. The rustling in the shrubs turned into a huff of startledness that ducked away. The mystery creature slunk through the underbrush and then crossed the trail a little ways away. A giant weasel–way bigger than a mink or an ermine or a river otter. A fisher! I had never seen one.
Walking back through the tick zone, high on seeing the fisher, a white-tailed deer bounded across the trail, hopping way higher than seemed necessary. That is, apparently, just what they do.
My son made pizza for lunch today. I helped with with the dough, but mostly he handled it himself. And it was really good. Maybe it was really good in part because I was not doing the making, but mostly he just did a bang-up job.
Daffodils are blooming. Dandelions speckle the lawn. Leaves sprout from buds. And I just had a pile of M&M’s. Good things. Good things are everywhere.
We did get enough rain in April, I suppose. At least, the flowers are coming out in the woods, and it is May. Late yesterday I dug up some wild leeks for dinner (which, if I may say, was a particularly good dinner, even though I had never made it before and, if you are curious, was a sort of mini-calzone stuffed with those leeks and garlic and extra sharp cheddar and dang!) and I found some blood root blooming among the leek leaves. Nearby were several clusters of Carolina Spring Beauties.
Earlier in the morning I walked in the woods to find Golden Winged Warblers (I didn’t find any but I did find a Golden Winged/Blue Winged hybrid!). I found some Garlic Mustard while I was looking for birds; I was hoping to find some of that while I dug up my leeks but, wrong woods.
The flower of the day was Dutchman’s Breeches. First, that name is killer. I mean, who uses the term breeches? Old school, know what I’m saying? But those flowers, they really do look like, well, the puffy pants that one of those historical Dutch sailors might wear. They ain’t roses, but they look pretty cool. They look like spring.
We are in those early days of spring when it is still chilly in the morning, but the world keeps getting greener, when the leaves are not fully out yet and peepers sing at night. Winter has left the scene but summer still has a way to go before she arrives.
I have to get out as much as I can to find birds now. Every day new summer residents arrive. This morning I heard my first Common Yellowthroat and I heard two Field Sparrows singing at once, which is unusual around here. A Barred Owl calls all day in the woods above our house, and that Phoebe nest that sat above the porch light all winter is getting rebuilt. In the woods, leaves are still buds. That means I can see the warblers as they hop from branch to branch in the tops of maples. In a month some of those little dudes will be heard and not seen.
Spring flowers are out as well. Marsh Marigolds are blooming, bright yellow flowers and bright green leaves among the leaf litter in the woods. And Trout Lilies, those dainty pale yellow bells, have emerged. Ferns are still curled into fiddleheads, and wild ramps carpet the forest floor.
Spring’s arrival is a gift right now. It is a gift any year, I suppose, but after being inside so long, after worrying about the health of family and neighbors, after staying away from others, it feels especially powerful. A friend said the other day that she has never noticed spring as much as this year. When you spend less time moving around you have more time to pay attention to what is right there.
I plan to get out early again tomorrow, to listen and to look. I may startle the beaver that slaps its tails when we walk past on the bridge, or the wood ducks dipping into the grass on the river’s shore, but I will try to stay calm enough to avoid disturbing them. Every day the world changes a little, layering on spring. If I don’t pay enough attention, summer will arrive and I will have missed some of spring’s wonderousness. Wonder can be found at any time of year, but spring is when it puts on its best display. I would hate to miss the show.