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DECEMBER NOTES, ON THE EVE OF CHRISTMAS

Here are some notes from my journals, Decembers 1990-2016. Some of them appeared  in the “Field Notes” section of The Windward Shore:

FIRST SNOW, barely an inch deep, and suddenly the world is pristine again. Climbed the hill out back and looked down on the land rolling beneath its new white coat and could see what lay beneath it. Like seeing muscles under the pelt of an animal. Could see the bones too, and the tendons and sinews.

*

Storm watch for tonight. First one of the season. About three inches on the ground already and heavy flakes falling. The monochromatic world seems ripe for storm. I’m ripe for it too.

*

It’s only December 6, but full winter already: bitter cold, a wind so strong it burrows through the walls. The furnace runs nonstop and the house won’t warm beyond 64 degrees, and my office so cold I’m working in a winter coat and wool hat – already a bitter black-and-white world. Shocked by all I’ve relearned so quickly: the penetrating cold, the burning touch of driven snow, the animal sounds of the wind.

*

Glenn says his house was so cold last night that he felt like he was being prepped for an organ transplant.

*

Last night I walked in the field in the moonlight (waxing, two days till full) and was surprised to see that every weed standing above the snow cast a shadow. I felt exposed and vulnerable, prey for owls.

*

This is the opposite of spring rain: winter drizzle, a degree or two short of freezing, the small drops driven on the wind and stinging my face. The road sheens dangerously. Glitter of sleet on the gravel shoulders; trees dark with wet limbs; sky the color of nothing. Should be a perfect day for discouragement, but my spirit soars.

*

Saw a sharp-shinned hawk in the front yard standing on a mouse it had just caught. It flew off to the woods across the road with the mouse limp in its talons, dangling like a pouch of tobacco. I didn’t think until later—too late—after fresh snow had fallen, that I should have looked for plunge marks in the snow.

*

Tonight the stars are close and bright and bonfires blaze on the hilltops. Cherry trees, bulldozed into piles as big as houses, doused with fuel oil, and ignited. I can see two of them from the front window. They blaze with the intensity of a furnace and trail streamers of sparks downwind. Even here, inside the house, I can smell the sweet smoke.

*

The harsh, deep, hopeless cold of full winter. The wind—dry, incessant, merciless, from the north—pries around the door and claws its way inside. Two electric heaters burn full time, and still my office is cold in every corner.

*

Twenty degrees this morning and another six inches of snow. Wraiths of sea-smoke on the bay.

*

All night awake. Trying with some long fingernail of the will to scratch some deep itch of the spirit.

*

Walking in moonlight. The snow is so deep now that Toby could make almost no headway. He bounded, rested with his belly deep in the snow, then bounded again. Finally he was so exhausted that the sat in the track of my snowshoes and watched as I went on without him. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him quit.

I could have walked for miles, but I didn’t want to leave the dog behind, so I decided to go only as far as the shadowline made by the hill. Once I stepped past the boundary between shadow and light the moonlight lay so bright around my legs that my shadow strode along beside me.

When I returned to him Toby ran in circles of gratitude in the snow. The rest of the way home he followed so closely in my tracks that he kept stepping on the backs of my snowshoes.

*

Cold is the default condition of the universe.

*

When I’m out there it doesn’t feel like “out there.”

*

Wallace Stevens, in “The Snow Man,” writes that a “mind of winter” is required before one can see the snow and frost and “the junipers shagged with ice” and not project a correlation with human misery and other human things. Only a cold, rational intellect knows that he is a nothing who perceives the winter landscape and sees the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

When we know that we are nothing and that nothing permeates everything, our humanity kicks in. From loneliness, awe, and perplexity comes compassion.

*

We need more time outside. Five minutes walking in winter air—the air cold and clean as mountain water—and our faces are bright with joy. We look like children again.

*

Twenty degrees this morning and another six inches of snow. Wraiths of sea-smoke on the bay.

*

A white Christmas after all. Five inches, light and fluffy. Very cold. This morning a sun pillar shot up ahead of the rising sun and lit the hill behind Carolus’s in pink alpenglow. As I watched, it crept downhill until everything around me was brilliant with pink then golden light.

-End-

 

CAN WE INSPIRE A NEW GENERATION OF STEWARDS?

OF ALL THE CONTRADICTIONS IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR, our relationship with nature is surely the most contradictory. We can’t decide if we’re part of it or apart from it. We love it and hate it to death. We abuse it heartlessly and defend it ferociously. We annihilate species, tear down mountains, poison oceans and rivers, and clear-cut forests even as we fight with all our strength to save them.

How can we understand our place in nature, when our place is so complex and uncertain? How can we expect people to care about an endangered bird or an imperiled ecosystem, when there are bills to pay and classes to attend and retirement to worry about?

I don’t know. The older I get the less certain I am that there are easy answers to such questions.

But I know this, at least: Most people, most of the time, are led not by their minds, but by their hearts.

For the first time in human history, more of us live in cities than in the countryside. It’s not surprising, then, that our children have fewer opportunities than ever to explore woodlots and creek bottoms and other pockets of wild nature that were once found near almost every neighborhood. And with all the indoor diversions available, more and more kids would rather stay in their houses anyway. The result is an imminent “extinction of experience,” in the words of ecologist Robert Michael Pyle, and “nature deficit disorder,” according to writer Richard Louv. We seem to be creating generations of young people who are increasingly uncomfortable outdoors and increasingly less interested in the environmental legacies they’ll one day inherit.

Already it’s an old story, and most of us can probably come up with examples to illustrate it. During my own work, which, for the past couple decades has included studying and writing about the nature, culture, and environmental health of the Great Lakes, I’ve seen many examples of what is wrong and have met many people who are battling to make it right. In inner-city Milwaukee, for instance, an elementary-school teacher told me that half his students have never seen Lake Michigan—and most of them live less than a mile from it. Another teacher, Sandy Bihn, who is the Lake Erie Lakekeeper, said that she has spoken to hundreds of groups of students and adults in classrooms and public gatherings near the shore of Lake Erie, from Detroit to Sandusky. She always begins each session by asking how many people in the audience have ever walked on the beaches of Erie, swum in it, fished in it, or boated on it. The results are consistent, she says: five percent raise their hands.

How can we hope that the other 95 percent will care enough to take over the job of protecting and restoring the Great Lakes? And if they can’t be convinced to care about the enormous and amazing lake in their own backyard, what chance is there that they’ll care about national and global issues?

The time-honored tactic of educators, of course, is to reach into their grab-bags and pull out facts that they hope will dazzle their students and make them care. “As big as the British Isles! Enough water to cover the United States in a lake ten feet deep! Twenty percent of the world’s liquid fresh water!”

But facts can never have a fraction of the impact of simply leading kids to the shore and letting them discover for themselves that they can’t see across to the other side.

Around the Great Lakes, as in so many places, the difficulty is compounded by both a lack of personal experience and a deficiency of knowledge. Americans’ famous ignorance of world geography applies not only to distant places. A friend of mine told me about a 30-year-old woman who works in his office and who lived until she was 18 years old in Escanaba, Michigan, a small city perched on the north shore of Lake Michigan. When he asked her what it was like growing up there, she said it was great, wonderful, and that it was really neat having Lake Superior in her front yard. “You mean Lake Michigan,” my friend said. “No, Lake Superior,” she said. He had to get a map and prove it to her.

A few years ago, a young man riding a personal watercraft ran out of gas on Lake Michigan near Chicago and drifted for a day and a night before he was rescued by the Coast Guard. He was taken to a hospital to be treated for hypothermia, where a doctor noticed that he was also dangerously dehydrated. The doctor, baffled, asked why he didn’t just drink the water. The young man was surprised by the question. He had thought he was on an ocean.

A better education would correct many of those kinds of misunderstandings, of course, and many more serious ones as well, but education requires more than textbooks and maps. Geography remains just lines on paper until the character or spirit of a place is somehow made tangible. Give people the experience of walking a beach or climbing a dune or identifying plants and animals and the experience becomes their own, which makes the place their own, as well. They don’t forget the experience or the sense of ownership, and often they begin to care.

Kids seem to have an innate hunger for this kind of encounter. Their explorations of the neighborhood take them on excursions to the boundaries of what is known and safe—and just a bit beyond—and teach them to navigate independently in the world. And by getting to know their neighborhood, they can start to become involved in it.

That’s the premise behind place-based education programs in many schools and organizations across the U.S. and Canada. One I know about personally is the Inland Seas Education Association in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Since 1989 their staff have taken more than 100,000 kids aboard their school ship and given them hands-on experience with the freshwater ecology of Lake Michigan. And it’s making a difference. Those kids are going home carrying a spark, and sometimes the spark becomes a fire. Not long ago, at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, I met a graduate student who told me that spending a single day on Tom Kelly’s school ship, when she was in sixth grade, inspired her to pursue a career in biology. “Literally,” she said, “it changed my life.”

Getting kids outside is also what Kim Kaufman is doing at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. Recently she told me that many of the kids that take school trips to the observatory have never been out of the city. When they step off the bus they immediately cluster around her in the parking lot and at first refuse to set foot in the woods and marshes. One girl asked in a frightened whisper if gorillas lived there. Another said in the haughty tone that only a twelve-year-old can muster, “I don’t do nature.” Yet, at the end of the day, those same children are often in tears because they don’t want to leave.

The lesson is clear. If we’re going to inspire stewards of the natural world, we somehow have to make that world vital to them.

My own experience in doing that is checkered, at best, but I’ve noticed a few things that seem to work. In my books I try to bring places to life with the hope that readers will connect with them, be inspired to learn more about them, and maybe someday come to their assistance.

My wife and I have also tested some ideas on our sons. When they were young we really piled it on. We tutored them in the entire amateur naturalist’s curriculum, from dragonflies to flycatchers, from smallmouthed salamander to largemouth bass. We took them on canoe trips and snowshoe treks, on mushroom hunts, full-moon dunes hikes, and aurora quests. Some of it stuck; some of it didn’t. Both Aaron and Nick grew up to be fearless on computers and a little afraid of spiders, and for a long time they were more inclined to relax with a video game than with a canoe paddle.

Gail and I were bothered by that at first, but in time we became okay with it. We noticed that Aaron and Nick approached their computers with the same  spirit they exhibited when they were having adventures outdoors. We live in a part of the world that still abounds in wild, beautiful places, so naturally we urged them to explore those places and nudged them outdoors for at least part of every day. Beyond that the boys dug in their heels—and we hit an impasse. It was our job to guide them in learning as much about the world as possible, and clearly Nintendo and the Web were a significant new part of it. Eventually we concluded that it would do more harm than good—and would probably backfire anyway—if we tried to discourage their interest in the online world.

Children naturally seek adventure, and in our time, when so many neighborhoods lack sidewalks and parks and many others are unsafe, the most ready source of it is often electronic. In the virtual world even very young children are in control of their explorations. They find wonders and make discoveries there as surely as they do when exploring a zoo or a museum or the pond at the frontier of their neighborhood. Our sons moved back and forth so easily between the world of video-games and the natural world outside that we concluded that both were important to their education. Aaron and Nick are grown now and earn their livelihoods using many of the computer skills they learned as kids. And they spend a great deal of their free time outdoors.

I don’t know if we can hope to inspire kids to care about the piping plover and Kirtland’s warbler, about fragile dunes ecosystems and shrinking water resources and accelerating global warming, but I know we have an obligation to try. And I know that some approaches are more effective than others.

Should we teach by example rather than by rote? That seems to work best.

Do people respond better to being led than pushed? Usually.

Will kids follow us to a lakeshore or ocean or river and wade into the water and begin to sense in their guts that everything is linked to everything else and that some of it requires our attention? Sometimes.

Can they be guided toward a deeper appreciation of the world? Definitely.

Albert Camus once wrote that a life’s work is nothing but “the slow trek to rediscover those two or three great and simple images in whose presence the heart first opened.” We can’t expect our children to open their hearts to the same images that shaped their parents and teachers. But if we’re patient, and compassionate, and a little lucky, we can sometimes help them discover the great and simple images of their own.

And when that happens a lot of the other stuff takes care of itself.

-End-

(This essay was originally written as a keynote address for the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, a group that assists educators and students to work with and learn about nature, especially in the places where they live. It was later honored with an award from The Web of Life Foundation.)

NOVEMBER NOTES, WITH THANKS

ON THE EVE OF THANKSGIVING, in this year of complexity and setbacks, when I have more to be thankful for than ever, I’ve found myself going through my notebooks looking for observations from previous Novembers. Here are a few of them:

The trees as bare as bones, standing shocked, and the hills are blank and blanketed. We don’t see the true face of the world except in glimpses. We are not shown the whole of the world: we deduce it from evidence.

But the lake is as open and guileless as a child’s face. [1985]

*

Frogs-and-Fishes-NatureBaroque

[art courtesy of Glenn Wolff Studio]

Last night the season’s first snow, and now, this morning, the world is altered. This blink to whiteness, this switching off of color, this monochromatic strangeness that takes my breath away, as if I were seeing the world for the first time. [1985]

*

In Michigan woods—beechnut scent and crushed ferns, the stink of swamp and raw loam. Squirrels rustle in the leaves. Angle of sunlight so clearly a northern autumn. Breeze, then stillness. The approach of winter has me excited beyond reasoning. Our days diminish. Nights grow cold. We gather what nuts we can. [1986]

*

November 5, first snowstorm warnings for tonight. Now at 10:30 in the morning, the world outside my window is as dark as evening and wet snowflakes plummet down and splash in the puddles. Snowflakes fill the sky like a plague of insects. The sky is low and glowering, full of bluff, and I am glad to be inside, warm, in a well-lit office with work to do. [1990]

Fig02_lighthouse-lowres

[art courtesy of Glenn Wolff Studio]

*

The storm that blasted Minnesota and Wisconsin yesterday is here now: powerful redwinds, cold, snow pellets hitting the windows like someone’s throwing handfuls of gravel at the glass. [1991]

*

November 6 and it feels like real winter. The snow and cold have settled in like guests who show up at the door unannounced, with numerous fat suitcases, and walk in and make themselves at home. “We’ll take the upstairs bedroom,” they say. “What’s for dinner?”
We’ve got 6-8 inches on the ground, but inland and north there’s 20 inches. [1991]

*
The south wind is mild and misleading: it shoves huge waves the length of the bay and strips their frothing tops ahead in banners. No boat could last out there. From my office the wind roars overhead, doubling in strength at intervals. The power flickers; the house gives a lurch; curtains lift and fall. The wind is like a shepherd’s dog herding autumn away. [1994]

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[photo courtesy of Chelsea Bay Design]

*

Summer and winter are the long seasons, when for weeks on end nothing changes. But autumn is all change. Every day brings variety and transformation. It’s the season of plenty, or decline, downturn and decay. It’s richer for being brief. It has simmered down to its essence. It’s a roux of a season. [1995]

*

Early this morning, four am, November 22, first snow: bb’s rolling on the driveway, spinning across the hood of the car and hopping through the air as if they were charged with static. Wind huffing and gusting and banging the windows and doors. A night as dark as the inside of a pocket. [1997]

*

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[Common Redpoll. Photo by Mike Wisnicki, from allaboutbirds.com]

Stood on the steps outside my office admiring a redpoll on a branch of the cherry tree. Until a week ago I don’t recall ever seeing a redpoll at our feeders. We were thrilled to see the first one, and had that feeling, familiar I think to anyone who feeds birds, that we’re honored to have them.

I took a step forward and two or three hundred redpolls lifted from the tall grass beside my office and rose in a rush of wings to the cherry and walnut trees. They were like a reversal of fall — leaves returning to their branches. [2007]

*
Reached 70 degrees yesterday, election day, the day optimism returned. Gail noted how bright with copper colors—burnt sienna—the trees have become. Aaron back from NY and staying with us until he can find an apartment. We played basketball in teeshirts at lunch. [2008]

*

I love this yellow season. Always one day when most of the leaves dump all at once. Ours was last Thursday at dusk, in the rain. Yellow leaves plummeted like wet snowflakes in one of those windless mountain-pass snowfalls—a sudden silent fall of half a foot in ten minutes. [2009]

*

Nov 17—First snow. An inch on the ground, and a strong wintry wind carrying more. Except the wind is from the south, fraudulent. [2011]

*

460762483Standing in the open meadow beneath the night sky. The idea that the infinity of space among the stars is matched by the infinity of space among the atoms of our bodies. Freud said the unconscious—the interior universe—was inexhaustible. The exterior universe is, too. Infinite and inexhaustible.Within us is a great absence. Not necessarily an emptiness. It’s an absence that periodically fills. It’s where grief dwells, and joy. It’s where we find what is true. If we’re terrified by it, who can blame us? [2012]

*

Gail, Chelsea, Aaron, Nick, Midori and I went to Mom and Dad’s and raked their leaves. Three hours of pure fun, using combination of leaf-blower, riding tractor, and, everyone’s favorite by consensus, old-fashioned rakes and tarps, raked up twenty or thirty big piles and hauled them out back to the compost heaps. Everyone jolly and energized. Midori scooting around on a blanket in the shade—she’s almost crawling, got the general hang of it, pure determination. She sees something she wants and scoots across the blanket until she gets it. Mighty girl. [2016]

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Midori, first snow, November 2016

MAKING A LETTERPRESS BROADSIDE

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GLENN WOLFF AND I have been making limited-edition broadsides for awhile now. First with Chad Pastotnik over at Deep Wood Press (“The Trout in Winter”), and now at our own Big Maple Press. What’s a broadside? We get asked that a lot. In short: a one-page work of art and text suitable for framing.

But there’s more to it than that. The art in this case is intaglio—etchings on zinc plate, which are hand rubbed with ink, placed in an etching press, and embossed deeply into the paper. Glenn then hand colors each one.

See the entire process here, at our Big Maple Press website…

LITERARY FEASTS (REVISITED)

1299524414Literature and music come closest of all the arts to matching the creative opulence and diversity of nature. Just as the 117 elements in the Periodic Table are the raw material for all physical matter, the 26 letters in our alphabet create a spoken/written universe of virtually endless variety. Putting letters and words into new order is an organic profusion, wild, fluid, and unstoppable, not learned so much as tapped into, as if we discovered language by driving a pipe into the literary equivalent of an artesian well. Writers who tap into that aquifer take for granted that readers will accept their profuse output—not just accept it, but relish it, snapping up words like plump berries we pop into our mouths, bump against our teeth, roll across our tongues, and bite to release bursts of nectar. Certain sentences and paragraphs are so sensuous that just reading them is never enough. No wonder we say of a favorite book that we “devoured” it, or “ate it up,” or found it “delicious.”

So it shouldn’t be surprising that literary descriptions of food and have so often inspired feasts of language. As a reader, I want to enjoy every bite—feel the words on my tongue, taste combinations so unusual and surprising that they are like new classes of flavors. Here are a few offerings to dine upon:

From Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin:

“…But you may not be familiar with the foods that Harry Penn holds dear to his heart. He and his daughter have favorites, which I’ll teach you how to make.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, durbo cheese stuffed with trefoil, camminog, meat of the vibola, roast bandribrolog seeds, satcha oil hotcakes, young Dollit chicken in Sauce Donald, giant broom berries, crème de la berkish tollick, serbine of vellit, pickled teetingle, chocolate wall hermans, trail lemons, Rhinebeck hot pots with fresh armando, parrifoo of aminule, vanilla lens arrows, fertile beaties, archbestial bloodwurst, Turkish calendar cake, fried berlac chippings, cocktail of ballroom pig, vellum cream cake, undercurrents, crisp of tough boxer lamb, sugared action terries, merry rubint nuts, and rasta blood-chicken with sauce Arnold.

“Always flour the marble before you put down an uncooked lens arrow. Sprinkle the vanilla. Cut it fast!” she screamed, her fat sausagelike arms flailing about the medicine ball. “Otherwise, it sticks. Sticky little bastards, lens arrows. Did your mother ever teach you how to properly bone a good serbine of vellit?”

From the “Cyclops” section of Joyce’s Ulysses:

“Thither the extremely large wains bring foison of the fields, flaskets of cauliflowers, floats of spinach, pineapple chunks, Rangoon beans, strikes of tomatoes, drums of figs, drills of Swedes, spherical potatoes and tallies of iridescent kale, York and Savoy, and trays of onions, pearls of the earth, and punnets of mushrooms and custard marrows and fat vetches and bere and rape and red green yellow brown russet sweet big bitter ripe pomellated apples and chips of strawberries and sieves of gooseberries, pulpy and pelurious, and strawberries fit for the princes and raspberries from their canes.”

From Donald Barthelme’s story “The Zombies,” in Great Days, in which a zombie, visiting the only village for miles around that is willing to sell wives to zombies, tries to win a bride for himself by describing the copious breakfasts served in zombie homes:

“Monday!” he says, “Sliced oranges boiled grits fried croakers potato croquettes radishes watercress broiled spring chicken batter cakes butter syrup and café au lait! Tuesday! Grapes hominy broiled tenderloin of trout steak French-fried potatoes celery fresh rolls butter and café au lait! Wednesday! Iced figs Wheatena porgies with sauce tartare potato chips broiled ham scrambled eggs French toast and café au lait! Thursday! Bananas with cream oatmeal broiled patassas fried liver with bacon poached eggs on toast waffles with syrup and café au lait! Friday! Strawberries with cream broiled oysters on toast celery friend perch lyonnaise potatoes cornbread with syrup and café au lait! Saturday! Muskmelon on ice grits stewed tripe herb omelette olives snipe on toast flannel cakes with syrup and café au lait!” The zombie draws a long breath. “Sunday!” he says. “Peaches with cream cracked wheat with milk broiled Spanish mackerel with sauce maitre d’hotel creamed chicken beaten biscuits broiled woodcock on English muffin rice cakes potatoes a la duchess eggs Benedict oysters on the half shell broiled lamb chops pound cake with syrup and café au lait! And imported champagne!”

Here is Mark Twain, from Autobiography of Mark Twain (The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1), remembering meals at his uncle’s farm in the 1840s:

“It was a heavenly place for a boy, that farm of my uncle John’s. The house was a double log one, with a spacious floor (roofed in) connecting it with the kitchen. In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals – well, it make sme cry to think of them. Fried chicken; roast pig; wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed; squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie chickens; homemade bacon and ham; hot biscuits, hot batter-cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot “wheatbread,” hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butter-beans, string beans, tomatoes, peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes; buttermilk, sweet milk, “clabber;” watermelons, musk melons, cantaloupes — all fresh from the garden — apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler — I can’t remember the rest. The way that certain things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor — particularly a certain few of the dishes. For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and wheatbread and the fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North — in fact, no one there is able to learn the art, so far as my experience goes. The North thinks it knows how to make corn bread, but this is gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern corn bread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.

Yummy. Do you know of other copious literary breakfasts, lunches, dinners, or snacks? Please let me know. I’m hungry!

 

 

 

 

THE FRINGE OF AUTUMN

AutumnMeme4-lowresEVERY YEAR THERE’S A DAY when summer gives way suddenly to autumn. Last year it began before dawn on September 30, when the temperature fell from the fifties into the forties and a powerful wind funneled down the Great Lakes. By midmorning, waves had reached twelve feet. NOAA measured one rogue near the center of Lake Michigan at twenty feet.

A week earlier Gail and I had walked to the meadow behind our house and found summer still lingering. It was September 22, the autumn equinox, but except for the scarlet sumac it could have been July. We walked through goldenrod, knapweed, thistle, and New England aster, all in robust blossom. Honeybees droned and grasshoppers skittered ahead of us.

Usually we’ve had a spell of cold weather by the end of September, but last year the season was slow to change. There had been no frost and none of those sudden, slanting rains so characteristic of autumn in Great Lakes country. The days stayed bright and warm and the nights mild.

Of course we knew all the things we love about fall were coming, followed, perhaps sooner than we wished, by winter. We’d been noticing subtle changes since August, when the afternoon light grew brassy as the sun eased lower in the, and the nights began to cool. Starlings were flocking and lining up on telephone lines, sometimes in such numbers that the wires sagged dangerously. Along the Great Lakes shores monarch butterflies fluttered southward on their way to the mountains of Mexico. People on the beach lay in the sun or swam, but you could sense an urgency. They knew every day might be the last.

Autumn reminds us to enjoy every day. It reminds us, also, of transience and mortality. I mentioned once to my friend Emily Thompson, who is a biologist at Washtenaw Community College, that I sensed oblivion when apples fell to the ground to rot and animals disappeared into their burrows for the winter. Emily pointed out that I was being short-sighted. The seeds in decaying fruit and the animals that hibernate are not falling into oblivion, but merely waiting for spring. They are “sort of spring-loaded,” she said, “ready to bust out with offspring at the first warm weather.”

We’re spring-loaded, too, and can take comfort knowing that renewal is waiting on the other side of the sun. In the meantime we have October, the scent of burning leaves, hunting camp, the flame colors in the trees, those slanting rains rattling against the windshield. That morning last year when waves rushed the length of Lake Michigan and the temperature plummeted, I slipped into a down jacket, put on a wool cap, and walked out to meet the season straight on.

 

[Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine, Autumn 2015. Copyright Jerry Dennis]

THE COLOR OF WATER

LAKE MICHIGAN IS BLUE TODAY, the color of robins’ eggs and summer sky. Other days it shows blues as varied as a painter’s palette. I have never seen it match the electric indigo of the Gulf Stream or the surreal carnival blues of Caribbean flats, but I’ve seen it as powder blue, baby blue, and the blue of faded jeans. Some days it is as subtle as herons, others as vibrant as bluebirds. It can be periwinkle, phlox, or forget-me-not blue. It can be blueberry blue.

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(photo by Chelsea Bay Dennis)

Water has some chameleon in it. It can mimic the bottom – khaki of sand, ash of zebra mussel beds – or reflects the sky or the trees along shore. It might be green with algae, red with suspended clay, or white with finely ground stone.

To appreciate these differences, we have to remember that water reveals two kinds of color. True color is usually a result of dissolved or suspended materials. If water is turbid it is probably because it contains suspended colloids so small that a single particle can take fifty years to settle.

But most of the water in the Great Lakes, although it appears in many shades of blue, is as transparent as the crystal stream emerging from a hose. The blue we see is its apparent color, loaned to it by reflections of the sky on the surface or by the separation of blue from sunlight’s spectrum in the depths of the lake.

My wife and I were talking about all this one evening as we walked the shore near our home. Gail, who is an artist, is intently aware of color. We made a game of listing the blues we saw in the lake. Gail saw phlox and iris, turquoise, sapphire, and lapis lazuli. I saw enameled cookware and razor blades and the hot blue at the base of a candle flame.

LakeMichColorsThen she challenged me to look more deeply and see the colors and shapes an artist sees. I concentrated and for the first time perceived water as a painter must, as a problem of technique. The waves as they came to shore no longer had mass and weight, but were two-dimensional arrangements of light and color. I saw not “waves” but  wavering bars of blue, rose, and gold shifting on a flat background. John Ruskin concluded that “To paint water in all its perfection is as impossible as to paint the soul.” I understood why he thought so.

The wind fell, the water calmed, and the colors grew softer. My eyes swam – it turns out that looking is hard work. While Gail sat in the sand and sketched, I collected a pile of stones and threw skippers until the sun was gone.

 

(Adapted from The Bird in the Waterfall: Exploring the Amazing World of Water, illustrated by Glenn Wolff. Available now in an updated edition.)

BirdCOVERbrightmall

“POSTSCRIPT” BY SEAMUS HEANEY (THE BEST THING I READ TODAY)

Postscript

by Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

“Postscript” by Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

MURMURATIONS (AND SHOUTS) IN THE VIRTUAL SKY

A few weeks ago I got “schooled” in social media. The occasion was my first blog post for Mother Earth News, A Murmuration of Starlings”, about the swirling, shifting, switching formations of starlings in large flocks.

My point was about looking at the glass half-full: That starlings are invasive species and a scourge, yet in many ways they are beautiful. I expected some push-back, but I was unprepared for the huge and varied reaction the article received on the Facebook page of Mother Earth News. I was astonished and pleased that it received thousands (and thousands and thousands) of shares and likes. And then I began reading some of the hundreds of comments and couldn’t stop laughing. They were as various as nature itself:

The first hundred or so were of this sort:

“Wow.” “Awesome.” “Beautiful.” Breathtaking!!!! “Unbelievable!” “Mozart kept starlings—he said they gave him melodies.”

Then came:

“As bad as cane toads.” “What a flocking load of rubbish.” “This an invasive species. I have been shooting all the starlings I see.” “Bad idea to bring them here. I say let’s send them all back to Europe!” “Reading the comments here, I thought for a moment this was about immigrated Europeans and Native Americans, LOL!” “Starlings are flying rats.” “Kinda like the morning doves…just sit in the feeder and crap and ‘coo’, and ‘coo’ and crap, ALL the time.” “Starlings are a scourge on the continent.“ “They are parasitic, laying their eggs in other birds nests! Nasty buggers!!” “Those dad-burn mother flockers….”

Then there were reactions to the photo I selected, which had looked fine until it was posted:

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flickr photo by Alden Chadwick

“Somebody really messed with the filter to get it to look like that. Usually they look more like a dirty oil slick.” “Breathtaking photo.” “Photoshopping a nasty invasive species doesn’t make it great!” “This is not the true color. They’re a dingy black brown color with a minuscule touch of green.” “Their iridescent colorings are amazing!”

And then (of course) there were the irrelevant and absurd:

“Hey girlfriend. Miss you!” “Not a humming bird but hello Alexa.” “Can you do your hair like this?” “I must attempt to draw, once I get my flat tidy.” “I wonder if it’s a high roller or low roller….claireese?” “The local church has murmurations daily. Its amazing to watch.”

What did people say about the article I put so much work into researching and writing?

“Didn’t read the article; but the photograph is stunning.” “Pretty cool. There is a group in England that is collecting videos of starling murmurations and attempting to decipher the mathematics of their flights.” “Bloody starlings!!! So majestic in migration…was lucky enough to see the “smoky haze” off the coast of Brigatine NJ last fall.” Finally: “This article was an education!”

I thought that one result of this minor sensation would be that thousands of people would “flock” to my website to find out about the book from which the article was adapted. But, no. My son Nick who is an expert on social media (he co-owns the web design and marketing firm Binary Trail) laughed and said “ It doesn’t work that way, Dad.” And then he set out to school me, too.

(“Murmurations of Starlings” is adapted from A Walk in the Animal Kingdom. Learn more about it here.)

 

HILLTOPS AND RIVERS

 

IN THE JACKPINE AND ASPEN COUNTRY OF CRAWFORD COUNTY a hill rises between cedar swamps. I was poking around there in early May not long ago, searching the woods for morels, and decided to climb the hill to get some perspective. At the top I discovered the place I’d been looking for.

You can find it on a map. The upper Manistee comes nearest to the upper Au Sable there, and a long, low hill divides the two watersheds. If you climb to the crest on the west side you can look out over a densely wooded valley of cedars angling away toward Lake Michigan. Walk a hundred paces to the east side and you have an overview of another valley of cedars that angles gradually east toward Lake Huron.

Hilltops and Rivers1-lowres

artwork courtesy of Glenn Wolff

 

I’d been searching for this spot because I knew that the Au Sable and Manistee formed one of the earliest cross-country routes between lakes Huron and Michigan. Ancient people paddled their bark canoes up one river, portaged the height of land, and descended the other river. Much later, European traders, trappers, and timber cruisers used the same pathway. When the giant pines that grew here were cut down for profit, they were floated down the two rivers to mills on the shores of the big lakes.

The perspective I was seeking was partly historical and partly geological. From a hilltop in spring, before the leaves are out, you can see the land revealed, its muscles, its ribs and shoulder blades, its tendons and sinews as they were when the glaciers departed. Or you can view it as a navigation problem to be solved—is that the shortest route to the river? Or as a place to homestead, a landscape to be painted or photographed, or a resource to be plundered. In the late 1800s a timber speculator named David Ward might have climbed this very hill to scan the surrounding valleys for virgin pines. He found vast stands and laid claim to them—eventually owning 70,000 acres— and established a mill on the upper Manistee that grew into a town. On plat maps it was marked “D. Ward,” which, when spoken aloud, became “Deward,” which is how the ghost town is labeled on maps to this day.

It’s good to now and then climb to a height beneath the sky and take stock of where you are. You can see changes in the land, sense the march of centuries, maybe even get a fresh view of where you are in your life and where you are headed.

That day on the hill between the rivers, with spring bursting around me, my view of the world was softened by distance. I was comfortable up there, surveying the land.

But in the valley of the Manistee I could see a glimpse of silver. Maybe a bend in the river. Maybe a beaver pond churning with feeding trout. Suddenly I lost interest in perspective and wanted simply to catch some fish. I hurried down to the valley and busted my way into the cedar swamp and became happily lost in the short view.

 

 

(This essay originally appeared as Jerry’s “Reflections” column in Michigan Blue Magazine, Spring 2015)