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Category Archives: Nature Writing

Endless forms most beautiful….

At the very end of On the Origin of Species, after a lifetime of nature observation and discovery, Charles Darwin concludes that “there is grandeur in this (evolutionary) view of life….whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

                  

 

In early June I wandered along the banks of the Betsie River in northern Michigan, suffused with the sweet smell of honeysuckle blooming everywhere,  marveling at the intricately folded lips of the Jack-in-the-Pulpits and at the astute hydrological engineering the Beaver were perpetrating in the wetland.  Among the plentitude of Marsh Marigolds and Wood Anemones I forgot all my worries, entirely absorbed in the way sunlight was dappling the wings of abundant Swallowtail butterflies.

I had been blogging about Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and Carolina Wrens adapting to warmer winters, lizards taking up residence in New York City, Polar Bear numbers holding good in the Arctic and resilient Tardigrades capable of outliving everything, hoping against hope that these adaptions might mean that climate warming  wouldn’t automatically  cause “the death of nature.”

Like every other nature lover in these sad times, I feel dread down to my toenails that climate Armageddon will destroy not only whole species but the natural world itself, and the planet with it. Meanwhile, the presumptuous term “Anthropocene” cropped up everywhere in my environmental reading, filling me with shame that  we homo sapiens  are responsible for this cataclysmic evil.

But then I had a houseguest who sat on the porch with me one evening, as river eddies dazzled beneath the sunset and ravens wheeled across the sky in their enormous dignity, who reminded me these endless “forms most beautiful” do not require human beings to endure:

“Nature can survive, as abundant and changeable as ever,” he remarked. “it might all be very different, perhaps with lots of new species;  it’s just that our particular species might not be here to witness it.”

My anxiety about naturalistic apocalypse drained from my heart at the thought that our beloved planet, with all of its abundant and complex splendor, might survive us after all.

The morning I returned down state the first newspaper I opened bore the headline

EARTH MAY SURVIVE. WE MAY NOT.

“We speak of ‘saving’ the Earth,” writes Adam Frank, “as if it were a little bunny in need of help. …our planet does not need our saving. The biosphere has endured cataclysms far worse than us. . . in the long term, the biosphere will handle anything we throw at it, including climate change. What Earth’s history does make clear, however, is that if we don’t take the right kind of action soon the biosphere will simply move on without us.”

Meanwhile, the same newspaper cheerfully reported that Canadian birders observed 700,000 warblers passing an observatory in Quebec during their spring migration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Is that Seagull Hanging Out with the Pelicans?

 

I had a break on Florida’s Sanibel Island from our Michigan snow, sleet, and polar cold  early this April . It was over 80 degrees every day, sunny and warm, so I  wandered along the Gulf Coast beach in utter bliss with my toes in the waves.

All day long  Brown Pelicans flew close to the shore, suddenly turning as if on a hinge to dive bomb schools of fish, sieving them up in their bills and  throwing their heads back to swallow.  There was a little pod of three pelicans  accompanied by a small seagull, which flew over after every dive to join them.

I wondered, somewhat sentimentally, if this was a bird/bird friendship, like the companionship of cats with parrots and goats with baby hippos you sometime see on YouTube? I asked  a fisherman what was going on, and he explained that the pelican’s explosive dive stuns schools of fish, leaving plenty to bob confusedly about for the gull to feed on.

Gulls are well-known scavengers – there were crowds of them circling and screaming around fishing boats returning to harbor, riding low with the day’s catch.  The fishermen don’t get anything out of this gull companionship; neither, apparently, do the pelicans.

I have a handy-dandy Birder’s Handbook, which includes quirky informational essays. When I got home I consulted it, to learn that the pelican/gull relationship is not bird/bird friendliness but  “commensal feeding.” A  “follower bird” associates with a “beater species”  which “stirs up the waters” like the pelican or flushes hidden food advantageously.

Birds don’t just follow other birds: the Cattle Egrets I saw along Florida highways follow tractors as well as cows, gleaning the stirred furrows; the tractors don’t seem to get  anything from the relationship.

Birds of different species sometimes flock together for mutual protection,  to  “increase the number of eyes and ears available to detect predators and [confuse] them as many individuals flee at once.”   Great Egrets hang around White Ibises not only for fish that the deep-delving Ibises stir up, but also,  being taller, they detect and warn of approaching danger.  Downy woodpeckers feed with Titmice and Chickadees to “use them as sentinels,” while  Blue Jays alert my whole back yard until (including its squirrels) they are all yelling together about a menacing hawk.

Which explains a curious intermingling of species on the Sanibel Island beach:  a flock of Sanderlings, tiny sandpipers scuttling in and out of the surf to probe for mollusks, crustaceans, and horseshoe crab eggs, will have a Plover with them; or a Willet that signals danger with a fluting warble will hang out with a group of  Ruddy Turnstones.

sanderlings (small with white bellies mid-background) in a mixed flock

Another strange thing on those beaches is how tame the shore birds are, standing around totally unperturbed by human approach. One day while I was swimming a Snowy Egret trotted from the tideline to my towel and seemed to be waiting there for me. My father, a professed pagan and ocean-lover, told us before he died that he might come back to see us some day as a big white bird, so, thinking it  was him, I  pulled my grandson from his swim to introduce them to each other.

Silly me: the next day I saw the Egret, with his big yellow feet and his wispy feathers blowing in the wind, sitting by another towel to await  commensal feeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overheated Pikas and Leaping Lizards

There is no question that global warming and habitat degradation have led to the decline of natural abundance, and that we human beings are responsible. Under the delusion that we are other than nature, we have given ourselves permission to destroy it.

In a review of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, Verlyn Klinkenborg finds McCarthy’s hope that encouraging “joy in nature” can meliorate nature’s demise undermined by  anthropocentrism: it ”values nature mostly for what it offers us… as a species, we repeatedly fail to acknowledge the equal and inherent right of all other species to exist, a right implicit in existence itself and in no way subordinate to our own.”

The industrial revolution is a very recent blip in human history; our hunter-gatherer and farming ancestors felt themselves in nature, a part of nature.  They used their considerable brains to adapt elements of nature for their use, but stood in awe and reverence before forces with their own agency that were far beyond human control.

Joy in nature is central to my life, so much so that the loss of natural abundance lowers my spirits considerably. Take, for example, the Pika, a small furry mammal that Joseph Stewart   mourns has gone entirely extinct north of Lake Tahoe due to global warming. “Pikas are adapted for the cold, with high metabolisms and thick fur covering them from the bottoms of their feet to the insides of their ears…..These same adaptations that allow them to survive during the wintertime also make them very vulnerable to overheating in the summertime.”  Spending too much time underground, trying to cool over during hot weather, they don’t to get enough to eat and so they fail to reproduce.

Such accounts leave me fearful that, as the climate shifts beyond the capacity of species to tolerate warmer habitats,  everything will go extinct, including ourselves. But what about adaption? What if  a Pika or two were born less furry than the others? These might give birth to offspring that could survive hotter temperature than their neighbors. Or, do Pika have the capacity for migration to cooler areas?

Isn’t evolutionary adaption much too slow? We know that plants and animals can evolve to tolerate new conditions, but is global warming hastening along too swiftly to allow for significant mutation?

Well, consider the case of the Italian Wall Lizard, once native to balmy Tuscany, which have escaped pet stores and adapted to New York City for the past 50 years. These “sprinters in evolutionary change,” writes Jim Dwyer, seem to have found warm enough lairs to survive;  they are spreading north along the Hudson River and Northeast into Connecticut.  Not to mention House Finches, which also escaped from pet stores in the twentieth century and are widely abundant; what is more, they have evolved new kinds of beaks to deal with seeds typically found in bird feeders.

On a visit to an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, I learned that tropical climates exhibit the greatest species diversity of all other ecosystems. As the earth heats up, won’t species proliferate in the warmer climate?

I live in hope.

 

A Wren in Winter

After  Christmas’s Baroque extravagance of  gold and red and tinsel and splendid carols and Messiahs are over,  the simplicity of Michigan’s deep winter snows calms my spirits. Suddenly, my birdfeeder  becomes the busiest place in my quiet yard.

Those of us who love nature to our very bones are  discouraged to hear that climate change has already destroyed many bird species, and we are profoundly disheartened by apocalyptic prophesies of “mass extinctions,” not to mention “the death of nature” altogether.

And then a Carolina Wren appears in the snow, a bird which does not belong in a Michigan winter. I check with my local Audubon Society – they have seen them for a couple of winters now; I look them up on the internet and discover that though Carolina Wrens feel the cold, our changes in temperature may account for what I am observing  in Michigan, where the numbers of observations are up to 26% from just 8% 10 years ago.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has  become similarly widespread beyond its original southern range, where it had been on the decline, and I remember when we first saw Cardinals move north in the same way.

It seems, too, that we will not always see ubiquitous White-Breasted Nuthatches at our feeders, the National Audubon Society having predicted a northern shift in their range. They have established a climate watch for Citizen Scientists this winter and spring to document nuthatch and bluebird locations.

It seems to me that these new birds of winter,  demonstrate an encouraging adaption to  climate change. When we think of Darwinian mutation, the process of gene modification over a lengthy series of adaptions, it wouldn’t seem that any species would have time to save itself from global warming.

My sightings at my backyard feeder having raised my hopes, I am thinking a lot about species adaption this winter  and plan a series of blogs on the subject, looking for further signs of hope that we human beings can mitigate or even survive what we have done to our beloved planet.

 

 

Hope in a Time of Climate Armageddon

Dear Blog subscribers:

This is my Press Release for The Battle For the Black Fen with a slightly different emphasis  from my previous blog.

The Battle for the Black Fen. Moon Willow Press (Coquitlam, British Columbia) 2017.  ISBN: 978-1-927685-24-2  [Birmingham, Michigan]

We are out of our minds with worry that climate warming will eliminate not only whole shorelines and species of plants, insects, birds, animals, and reptiles but human life itself. We human beings, deluded that we can bend the natural world to gratify our every whim, have become global predators and planetary nemeses. This realization is so hard to bear that many deny scientific reality, while others, paralyzed with dread of impending climate doom, take no action whatsoever.

Enter Eco-Fiction. There are new genres of Cli-Fi and Solar Punk in the science fiction mode, with characters who adapt to climate warming and build new cultures; Arcadian descriptions of communities in harmony with nature; and traditional novels with plots based on environmental conflict.

Small boats to the rescue: longboats, like ones the Iraqi Madan use to ply their marshlands, and coracles, made of willow and canvas, are the crafts of choice in Annis Pratt’s Arcadian series Infinite Games, where marsh dwellers fight for their wetlands against developers trying to drain them for agriculture. Based on the historical conflict between Fen Tigers and Merchant Adventurers in England (1630-1930), Pratt’s writing examines the economic roots of environmental degradation, dramatizing why we act the way we do and how we can do better. These are compellingly plotted adventure novels with appeal for young and old alike.

Can fiction really do us any good in a time of climate Armageddon? Stories like Annis Pratt’s newly published The Battle for the Black Fen,” writes Citizen Scientist Sharman A. Russell, “help us imagine new ways, even as we are entertained by the human drama of characters and plot, war and love. Eco-fiction is a new and important genre in literature.”

Nature writing has always been a way to foster the defense of nature. The world of Pratt’s embattled Marshlanders takes readers into verdant wetlands that sustain the soul. Notes publisher Mary Woodbury.  “The Infinite Games series shares the author’s joy in nature’s splendor,”

The Marshlanders, Fly Out of the Darkness, The Road to Beaver Mill, and now The Battle for the Black Fen can be purchased at www.amazon.com

 

FOG

I have always loved the fog, especially after bright hot August days in Maine when it rolled in from the Atlantic and the horn at Seguin began its plaintiff chant. Fog has often been a welcome  presence for me, soothing the bright edges of life that cut so sharply.

These days, I like to watch fog roll across Lake Michigan, or sit by the Betsie River as the mists dissolve.


 

Even here at home,  foggy mornings  soothe my spirit.

 

 

 

 

Toward the end of the first volume in my Infinite Games series, my characters are entirely dependent upon the fog to escape  enslavement  and exploitation in the early industrial city of Brent:

But where was the fog? The winter days remained relentlessly bright and sunny. Clare and Bess at the loom, the Fisher folk by their boats, the Marshlanders in their huts and the little spinners in the weaving house all prayed long and hard for the Gray Mother to come to their succor. But January wore on, and no help came.

Late one dark afternoon in early February, when the sun had already set, Rivelin was taking his turn at watch near the jetty. The two boats had been ready since midwinter: sails unfolded under the hatches, oarlocks wrapped in felt for silence. But the winter nights remained clear and moonlit, pricked with a thousand stars. Rivelin was watching for one of these stars because when it appeared he would be relieved for his dinner. It was Sirius, the Dog Star, and it emerged twinkling and blinking as it rose from the southern horizon but then, suddenly, disappeared. Rivelin became alert, sniffing in every direction. His sensitive nostrils picked up a damp, greenish smell. Out in the marshes of the bay, first one reed and then another acquired a wispy skirting. As the grey tendrils crept inland, one watcher after another passed along the signal that the time for escape had come.”  

The Marshlanders.

 

 

 

Review: Nina Munteanu, Water Is…:The Meaning of Water

Water Is…The Meaning of Water by Nina Munteanu. Pixel Press 2016

Are you fascinated by what goes on in the physical world? Are you curious about the inner workings of natural phenomena? For anyone like me who is fascinated by water, Nina Munteanu’s Water Is…:The Meaning of Water  offers wonderful analyses from minutia like the construction of a single drop to the way whirlpools and eddies form in the flow of a river and more macro issues like the relationship between the “stable chaos” of turbulence and quantum physics.

Water Is provides delightful explanations of things you thought you knew –

  • That “water occupies over 98% of a human cell molecule,”
  • That “what we do to water we do to ourselves.”
  • How water’s negative charge benefits the health
  • How water arrived in earth from the cosmos
  • What are we drinking, e.g. In various bottled waters?
  • Issues of sustainability at various locals- the Arab Sea, the Empire of Angkor

Though a practicing limnologist and water scientist, Munteanu considers herself “one of the mavericks of the scientific community,” attentive to what her colleagues term “weird water” – aspects of the way water behaves for which traditional science has not (yet) found formulas. The result is a trove of disparate treasures, like how Galileo understood water flow, the Chinese character for water,  Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings, the Gaia Hypothesis, and David Bohm’s theory of flux

 

 

This is less a sit-down-all-in-sequence read than a quirkily diverse compendium of disparate wonders which I dipped in and out of, sitting on my cabin dock as the river babbled and eddied by me, all summer long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midsummer, and the Living is Exciting

By this time most summers, I expect my living to be easy – keeping up with my correspondence, a blog here and there, short pieces of nature writing to accompany lots of time out of doors – but this summer, things are more exciting than usual.

With the help of my (very) patient publisher, Mary Woodbury of Moon Willow Press in Canada, I am doing the final proofreading of The Battle For the Black Fen, the last novel of my eco-fiction series.  Our publication date is August, so I have kept my eyes on my computer screen to find every lost comma, confusing bit of dialogue, and typo.

A couple of tips I have picked up while proofing: in dialogue, always state who is speaking.  Silly me, I figured that if I know who it was, my reader must get it too; similarly, if I start with “Clare thought” and have her musing away about other characters besides herself I had better bring her name in again, even in the same paragraph. And those pesky quotation marks that seem to have vanished into thin air, not to mention the commas and periods before the ends of the quotations…..needless to say, my eyes have been glued to the page.

I never like to dwell in my brain for days on end,   so I have been to my Betsie River cabin a couple of times, and every visit the temperature has plunged to 50 degrees or lower during the (summer?) nights. The wood turtle laid her eggs in mid June; now that other people appreciate my nature observations,  I did my duty as a “citizen scientist”  by reporting her to the Michigan turtle authorities.

By the end of June, tiny fry have hatched and flit about in the warmer shallows, and les becs scies, saw-toothed ducks (mergansers) that give the river its name, are busy and active.

And so are the beaver. Last winter they didn’t fell whole stands of slender trees but were hungry enough to chew completely around the trunk of a sturdy hardwood:


 

This circular gnawing serves two purposes:  the beaver get to eat the inner bark that they can reach and, at the same time, fell the tree so that they can eat the rest. I have never seen them drag a tree this heavy into a dam. It might be possible, but I think mine are bank beaver, only stripping such larger trees for nourishment.

So I let the babble and ripple of the river rest my mind for a while, strengthening my spirit for one last edit of my novel.

Every day of this daunting political year, my fictional battle between a self-sustaining nature-loving people and cruel enemies greedy for wealth and self-aggrandizement seems less a fictional plot than a grim reality. We are trapped in a finite game of victory and defeat; only if we give up on this hoary and outdated paradigm will any of us – enemies and friends alike –  survive. Are we strong enough, smart enough, open-minded enough, resilient enough to abandon the utter destruction of win/lose, you-or-me thinking for an infinite victory where everyone wins, nobody loses, so that we can enter at last the worlds we long for?

 

 

 

 

Rabbit Nests

Now comes that time of year, midsummer approaching, when my sights turn from Niebuhrian incongruities, the capitalism/commons paradox and even my favorite poems to what pops up in front of my eyes, to startle and amaze, from the world of nature .

I wanted to grow in my whole back lawn, which, I learned, was illegal.  I could, however, “landscape” a “wild flower meadow” in part of my yard, so demarked a crescent with a little green wire fence and now all kinds of things are growing there – gill-over-the-ground, little blue heal-all blossoms, and delicately fluffy pink daisies among the timothy grasses:

And also, startlingly, rabbits.

A rabbit or two has always appeared on my lawn in the summer dusk, nibbling quietly. But when my “wild flower meadow” was all grown in a rabbit left the shelter of the back copse to wriggle out a shallow patch in it, all of the way down to the dirt:

This really piqued my curiosity, so I had recourse to that all-time great compendium of nature lore, our friend Google.

What I learned is that a cottontail rabbit likes to make an oval nest in the meadow grass. I thought maybe she laid eggs there but – silly me – of course that’s where she has her babies. My house being in a much lawned-over suburb, she must have found the sudden appearance of my genuine meadow entrancing, but, as it turned out, too exposed to human beings.

The mother rabbit doesn’t stay in the nest with her babies but leaves them alone all day and night, only nursing at dawn and dusk to protect them from predators. Instead, she weaves a lid composed of grasses and her own soft belly fur and places it over her litter for camouflage and warmth.

My own rabbit never used her meadow nest, probably sensing my entranced presence on my porch, far too near for comfort.  A couple of weeks later however,  I found this interwoven lid near the undergrowth at the back of my yard:

My back yard rabbits are our common Eastern Cottontail variety, but there has always been something quite uncommon – even magic –  about rabbits to the human mind. I thought mine would lay eggs because her nesting reminded me of the giant rabbit Goddess Eostre, from whom Easter derives its name, and she is only one of the March Hares and Moon Rabbits, sacred receptacles for our awe and wonder at nature, down through the ages.

 

 

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Spring Poem

I have always loved poetry, and I have always loved spring. Far and away my favorite poem in the world is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring”:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush,

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoling timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightening to hear him sing.

Try reading it out loud.

Did you notice something about the sounds?

It is written in a Welsh poetic tradition full of alliteration (words starting with the same letter) and “internal” rhymes that occur within the lines as well as at the ends. And the words sound just like what they are describing – anyone who has heard our American Wood Thrush, a relative of the English variety, knows how its song really does “rinse and ring” through the forest canopy.

I was so in love with Hopkins’ Welsh prosody (Dylan Thomas’s as well) that I wrote my own poetry in it. Fame-wise, that was one big mistake:  in the sixties and seventies, when terse verbal minimalism was in fashion, I was often dismissed as “Tennysonian,”  too “nineteenth century.”

Oh well,  my poems sounded terrific when I read them out loud; I was quite popular on the poetry reading circuit and was once known as a “Georgia” and, later on, a “Wisconsin” poet.  sic transit gloria mundi.