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The Joy of Nature Writing

In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, we who write about our love for nature are accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against the grim reality. What is the point of taking joy in forests and meadows that we have already doomed by our greed and folly? How can we go on fiddling about the wonders and beauty of our beloved planet when it is burning all around us?

Is nature writing a retreat from activism or a weapon against climate change?

British nature lovers and writers are particularly anguished about the utility of their pursuits in these darkest of times; In Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too late? Mark Cocker worries about nature writing in the context of species loss and land degradation: “The danger is that it is a compensatory, nostalgic and internalized re-creation of what was once our birthright and is no more… without the underlying biodiversity, these responses will be like the light from a dead star: they will persist for a while, maybe even decades, but they will travel onwards into the darkness that will eventually consume them.”

When I read such catastrophic forecasts I sink into a kind of will-paralyzing dread.  Actually doing something on behalf of nature, however, always gives me a spark of hope. So, in recent years, I have written and lobbied on behalf of our beloved planet by dividing my work time down the middle, allocating half my week to nature writing and the other half to environmental activism.

Last winter, lighting my little candle against the encroaching darkness eventually  burned me right out: too many committee meetings, too many town halls to sit through and legislators to lobby; on the writing side, there were letters to editors, administration of three activist Facebook pages (@CCLDetroitMetroNorth, @BUCGreensanctuary, @annisvpratt), and exhaustive research for articles in the European magazine where I am a columnist. That is why, when May came around, I decided to restore my soul at my Betsie River cabin in Northern Michigan

Summer on the Betsie

I lolled on the banks observing fishes swim by, observed the intricacies of damselfly courtship, listened to what the eddies had to say to each other, puzzled over warbler repetoires and the mysterious projects of bank beavers. As  always, my soul was restored by nature’s intricate beauty: there were patterns in mushroom gills, chickadees’ wings stuttering overhead, and the startling green when black moss resurrects itself after rain.  

 

I always like to read a book at my my favorite spot, down on the dock with the river chortling by.

My Favorite Reading Spot

Robert Marfarlane, who is considered one of the best nature writers in England today, focusses on the sounds of locally used words for landscape attributes. In Landmarks he talks of creating “a work of words” that embed the particulars of nature, de-desecrating” them from mere objects, its rather than thous.

Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.” Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.”  

In his collection of essays about British nature writers Macfarlane gives examples from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain  about the Scottish Cairngorms:

• The “coil over coil’ of a golden eagle’s ascent on a thermal,” “the minute scarlet cups of lichen,”

•  The sound of moving water: “The slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate.”

 Shepherd considers the mountains “’not of myself, but in myself,’” (italics mine). As Macfarlane puts it, she finds in landscape an “inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.” “Shepherd is a fierce see-er,” he concludes, “and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”

“Mysticism! I told you so,” we can hear our nature writing skeptics exclaim: “Mysticism has nothing to do with science, it’s pure escapism!” I feel quite the opposite:  it seems to me that the mind/matter interaction fostered by close nature observation makes a reader  environmentally “woke.” Clearly, a few definitions are in order:

• Empiricism assumes that our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world, then proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment. For nature writers it involves attention to the minute particulars of nature and an intellectual understanding of their interaction in material processes.

• Mysticism understands nature as suffused with divine spirit. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 Gospels purged by the early Christian church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While institutional Christianity declared the human soul existentially flawed and the natural world the enemy of the spirit, this kind of nature mysticism nonetheless persisted in the human heart.

• Immanentism: The belief that the natural world is pervaded with divinity. Like Transcendentalism, immanentism understands divinity as simultaneously present in and extending beyond materiality. It should not be confused with super-naturalism, which locates divinity entirely outside of nature, or with pantheism, which takes nature as all that there is.

Full disclosure: I am a flaming nature mystic.

The nature writers Macfarlane describes bring their readers into tune with their joyous syntheses of empiricism, mysticism, and immanentism by embedding the touch, feel, sound, and sight of natural phenomena into words.

To Pippa Marland, for example,  contemporary nature writing is a call to rather than a retreat from environmental activism: “I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.”

For a stunning example of how nature writing leads to environmental activism,  a single book for children had a significant impact on last summer’s climate march.

The Lost Words, Permission from Jackie Morris 

Two years ago, Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris, was published as a deliberate act of linguistic anti-desecration.

A new edition of a standard British classroom reference work, The Oxford Junior Dictionary, had dropped forty words about nature – otter, acorn, bramble, and dandelion, heron, newt and willow among them. Their space was needed for words from modern technology like cut-and-paste, blog, and bullet-point. I had been following Morris on Twitter; her paintings of natural beings like wrens and otters against gold wash backgrounds fascinated me. 

Then my Twitter feed filled with news of classrooms where the book had been assigned; all over the UK, children were rushing into the countryside and “re-sacralizing” nature in their own drawings,  poems, and stories.

By the end of the summer the book had become a best seller, and the tremendous reaction to The Lost Words phenomenon culminated in a program at the Proms (a hugely popular London concert series), a video shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and CDs of songs inspired by Macfarlane’s poems and spells. The book contributed to the thousands of marchers participating in the September 20 Climate Strikes, bringing new energy and hope to the succor of our ailing planet.

London Climate Strike 2020

And it was children, many of them “environmentally woke” by a single piece of nature writing, who led them.

MICE AT THE COTTAGE

                                         Mouse Menace 

Every spring, when I arrive at my northwestern Michigan cottage, I have to roust dozens of deer mice from winter complacency. Although I am quite fond of the peppy little creatures with their blazing white tummies, I draw the line at droppings on my kitchen counters and in my refrigerator, at gnawed-over soap, toilet paper shredded for nests, and neat gifts of shiny black seeds under my pillow, not to mention the pathos of little corpses all curled up in coffee cups.

Too, they can be carriers of the deadly Hantavirus, so I owe it to my family and guests to evict them.

Until this year, opening the cottage has always begun with an hours-long task of cleaning up their kitchen depredation, especially in the refrigerator: If I leave it open, there are mouse droppings; if I close it, there is mold. Then a very nice lady in the supermarket line gave me the secret password for cottage over-wintering: Bounce!

“Leave your fridge open, just fill it with sheets of Bounce – you can use them in your cupboards, too!”

The next spring, my refrigerator and cupboards were blessedly clean of both mice and mold.  

Then there was the glorious May day when, delighted to be back Up North, I popped a piece of raison bread into my toaster, only to be assailed by the odor of toasted mouse. That’s what I thought I smelled when I used the oven for the first time, but when I searched inside I didn’t come up with a single baked mouse. Nonetheless, every time I turned on the oven, the sour, musty odor filled the kitchen, so I called in the appliance man.

“Mouse all right: not mouse mouse, I mean—mouse pee.”

“What!”.

“Thing is, it’s the insulation along both sides: they like to pee in it. Get in there, pee over and over, all winter long. What you need is a spray bottle, see? You could try bleach, or maybe white vinegar, or Cs-4? White vinegar, I think—one part in four. That should do it.”

That did it very nicely. When I turned up the oven for my meatloaf the odor had vanished, and after cleaning every surface with Lysol and plugging in zappers, I settled down for a mouse-free summer.  Deterred by the odor of Bounce, they never crawled into the oven insulation again.         

                                      Musical Mice ♬ ♬ ♪ 

A mouse zapper is an electronic device (therefore of no use in the winter when the electricity is turned off) that emits exquisitely high-pitched sound waves inaudible to the human ear, but excruciating to a mice. Since they refuse to enter a room with one in it, these are humane devices to make sure mice stay outside of my cabin, all summer long.

Then I discovered that the acoustical sensitivities of these very same deer mice extend to musical appreciation. Very late on a moonlit spring night, a Canadian biologist recording bat communications picked up a lovely little trilling melody.* Almost supersonic, it was the mating song of a deer mouse singing his little heart out at the edge of the forest. After an interval (of assessing the musical quality of the love song and comparing it others she has heard?) a female took up her strain in an exquisite duet.

I began to worry about what my zappers might be doing to the sensitive and fine-tuned ears of these lovely little creatures, not to mention their emotional lives?                                  

Alas, my skittish houseguests convinced me to leave the zappers plugged in.

                                                   Soul Mice

I used to cut down the winter mayhem with a better mouse trap made from a large plastic bucket with three right angled entry tubes set in the lid. I filled it three quarters full of sunflower seeds and put it on my kitchen floor; the poor little things crawled in and ate themselves silly, perishing by dehydration.

“On the night that you were born,” my mother used to tell me on my birthday eve in a tone of lilting wonder, “there was a mouse in the wastepaper basket. Just as I went into labor, I saw his little pink ears sticking out.”

I’ve often wondered about that little creature, his ears translucent with the first dawn of my life on earth. Was he my herald angel?

In some cultures, there’s a belief that when you die your soul escapes in the form of a mouse. One terrible spring when my husband lay dying, I took a brief weekend away from the hospital to open the cottage. There was no hope at all, and before the week was up I would have to remove his life support.

On that bleak Easter morning, emptying my mouse bucket by the woodpile, I was offering words of regret and apology over the pathetic corpses when one tiny soul aroused itself to scurry away into the forest, as the sun dawned translucently through the golden veins of its ears.

*Canadian Biologist Martina Kalcounis-Rueppell, in Rob Dunn, “Singing Mice,” Smithsonian.com (May, 2011).

Birding by Ear

 I was walking along a path in Michigan’s Ludington State Park when I came across a couple leaning close to each other, she focusing binoculars on something high up in a tree and he talking close to her ear.

“Seen anything interesting,” I asked. “I thought I heard Kinglets up there,” the man replied. “My wife is scoping them out for us – she is hard of hearing, so she tells me where to look: I don’t see so well anymore.” “There they are,” she exclaimed, “Ruby Crowned,” and all three of us tipped our heads to search the forest canopy.

That was some years ago, when my sight and hearing were in fine fettle; now that I can’t hear the high pitched calls of the Kinglets any more, I have been thinking how dependent I have always been upon birding by ear.

This June in at my Betsie River cottage in Northern Michigan, the air was full of the songs of birds I never did see. These were the bell like, richly melodic Baltimore Oriole, a steady stream of “Vireo!” from some kind of Vireo hidden among the leaves in the tree tops. a House Wren like a musical wooden waterfall somewhere in the undergrowth, and the “Weep! Weep!” of a Great Crested Flycatcher, perhaps the same one who carried on all last summer without my seeing him once.

It is a good thing I still have (most of) my hearing, though my friend Gene has found a handy dandy amplifier with earbuds attached to a collar you wear around your neck. I may come to that soon because I am so dependent upon the “I hear it…What is it… Where is it” procedure.  

For example, Redstarts nest along my driveway most summers, and when I hear their Tsipping and Tseeping  back there, I know it is time to  look for them. The Flicker’s Woody Woodpecker hilarity and the nesting call of the Common Yellow Throat alert me to find my binocs and get going. If I am very familiar with a song I enter the bird in my daily list, even if I haven’t seen it singing. The Common Yellowthroat is very elusive, but its Witchety, Wichety from  deep in the shrubbery along the river bank is enough for me.  

However, both the Redstarts and Yellowthroats nesting along the Betsie have developed puzzling variations.

For one whole summer the Yellowthroat switched to a melodic “Richelieu, Richelieu,” while I discovered that male Redstarts, when courting females, emit queries in their direction in a much more melodic strain than their ordinary lisping.

And then there was the time two Cardinals were going at it right in front of me. Averting my head in embarrassment, I was suddenly bombarded with a fully developed post-coital aria. To my amazement, the pair were now side by side, but it was the female, head atilt in adoration, producing a full-throated celebration of her sensual satisfaction.

How do birds learn to sing? In their first year as adults, Song Sparrows start the summer with only the initial phrase of the species’ melody; somewhere along the way they develop the complete song. Are they imitating an adult? One researcher who raised two male Song Sparrows in her house found their songs poorer in melodic development than in the wild. I once observed a Papa and Baby Common Yellowthroat hopping about on the ground, the Papa singing the species song before offering the baby a grub, a process he repeated over and over with occasional tentative and (perhaps?) imitative squeaks from his offspring.

There are lots of helpful verbalizations for bird watching beginners:

Goldfinch actually say “Tweet, tweet, Towhees say “drink your TEA,” Oven Birds yell “Teacher, Teacher!” I never see who calls hauntingly in the night, but Screech owls whinny on a descending scale and Barred Owls ask Who Cooks for You? Who Cooks for You Too?”

Our bend on the Betsie has an amplifying echo, so that when I am standing on the bank in my pajamas the Mourning Dove solo sounds like a duet. That Coo Coo Roo-Cooing reaches deep into my brain,to a place where I possess neither speech nor cognition,  because it is the very first sound I remember hearing, reaching my crib through my open window in a New England summer to herald a natural world I belonged to, somewhere close by, suffused with  comfort and splendor.

Being in Nature

I have a Twitter account but, far from engaging in embittered political crosstalk, I enjoy it for some weird little hobbies. I am on a “Mudlark” feed, for example, that shows me pictures of interesting historical items dug out of the thick Thames mud at London’s low tides; I hear from a number of British nature sites about the flora and fauna of fens and bogs in East Anglia; and I follow a couple of artists whose work grabs me by the middle.

Among these is a Welsh painter named Jackie Morris, who, when she discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped words like newt, acorn, bluebell, dandelion, heron, otter and wren  to make room for terms like blog and voicemail, dedicated a painting to each linguistically  banished object. The result was  The Lost Words,   which has taken UK classrooms by storm and launched a movement to “re-wild” childhood.

These stunning paintings illustrate poems and spells by Robert Macfarlane, who, my twitter feed tells me, is perhaps the best nature writer in England today. Which sent me, of course, haring off after his books until I got my hands on Landmarks for some absorbing summer reading.

Macfarlane’s  first chapter is about the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. He describes the twentieth century nature writer Nan Shepherd’s lifelong love for the area and how, in her lifetime of exploration and terrific climbs, she found them “’not of myself, but in myself,’” experiencing a profound sense, as Macfarlane puts it,  of “the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.”

“While half asleep on the plutonic granite of the plateau she feels herself become stone-like, ‘rooted far down in their immobility’, metamorphosed by the igneous rocks into a new mineral self. Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then, and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”66

An empiricist arriving at mysticism through immanence? And why does this series of abstractions, which probably leave you cold, fill me from head to toe with recognition?

Let’s start with some definitions

Empiricism:   Most of my friends are secular humanists, and this is where they come from: all of our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world and from applying the scientific method by proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment.

Mysticism: This is where I am coming from. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 alternate Gospels declared heretical by the early church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While official Christianity rejected materiality, declaring  human beings existentially flawed while valuing only what was  super-natural, mystics through the ages have continued to seek God in nature.

Immanentism: The belief that the world is pervaded with divinity. Or, as Spinoza put it, “God is nature.”

All right, but why does all of this move me through and through? Through and through is the point, here. One morning last week I was leaving Frankfort, Michigan on my way home from errands when I had a whim to take a walk along the Betsie Bay lagoon. 

The Path along the Betsie Bay Lagoon

That late in the morning, I doubted there would be any birds to see, but I took my binocs anyway and entered a path where willows shimmered in a light wind off the bay and the air was redolent with honeysuckle. Cedar Waxwings were dipping and swooping in and out of a grove of sumacs heavy with dried berries; a Warbling Vireo (a little grey and brown bird which I rarely catch sight of among the high canopy) was warbling away in plain sight; a Vesper Sparrow was sitting on a low branch, while within the sweetness of the honeysuckle a Yellow Warbler sang “Sweet, sweet – I’m so sweet,” a Common Yellowthroat called imperiously to declare his nesting rights among the reeds, and a House Wren hopped along the fence in full throat, like a bubbling little wooden waterfall.

Did I mention that I have been quite anxious lately, getting my knickers all in a twist over family worries  and my own ego dramas? All of that dissolved entirely away as I was seized from head to toe by the sight and sound, wind and fragrance I was experiencing then, on that path,  in that particular moment.

Did I “loose myself” in nature? No, I was right there in heart and in body and in mind,  profoundly embedded in the material world as I took my  place with birds and fragrance, song and wind in our earthly paradise   as a mere element of rather than imperious thinker about a natural world shot through and through with divinity. 

A DREAM OF TOADS

We have had such a hard, hard winter – not piles and piles of snow, but cold and wet and drearily overcast skies, day after day.

Then, in April, it began to rain. And rain, and rain. My neighbor across the street sold her house as a tear down. It sat and sat, the City Inspector slapped fine after fine on the builder for leaving it standing  until he tore it down, leaving a steel fence, piles of dirt, and a foundation hole with a pool of rain at the bottom.

And now it is May. Every night before bed, I go stand on my lawn to look at the stars, hoping for perspective; if it is (still) overcast, I raise my eyes to the lowering clouds and hope anyway. Last night it was slate gray clouds and a  fine rain but, then, something else as well. A faint, almost undiscernible trilling at first, rising to a fine high melody from somewhere very close by, then fading into a silence more silent for having sounded. And then, again, the rising trill that heralds the thrilling hopefulness of importunate toads.

American Toad

In 1853 Henry David Thoreau, after some “raw, cold and wet weather,” was passing a shallow pool where a new house was being built when  a song “rang through and filled the air” that he recognized as “the dream of the toad.” It was a sound, he reflected, which “most people do not notice at all. It is to them, perchance, a sort of simmering or seething of all nature.” And that’s the problem: “How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we were made, clear— that it be not made turbid by our contact with the world, so that it will not reflect objects…Often we are so jarred by chagrins in dealing with the world, that we cannot reflect.” *

Sure enough, a couple of pages later he is lamenting how hard it is to be “serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle. The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks.”

I spent the whole winter fiercely composing articles on global warming, when I wasn’t rushing around from meeting to meeting advocating for water affordability bills in our Michigan Legislature and a carbon dividend bill in Congress.

I have been well and truly muddying my crystal well. But May is here, and it seems like a good idea to declare a “Unitarian Summer” for myself just as Thoreau and his friends might have done: I will shorten my to do lists, attend fewer meetings, and cut down on my frantic striving for social justice. Instead, I will get back to nature and take to my river cabin, where I will sit on my dock and do some serious staring at the ripples and even (strange thought for an activist) work as hard as I can at doing nothing.

*The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: 1837-1861 (New York Review of Books Classics)

The Citizen Scientist in Winter

Are you concerned with our environment but are not a political joiner? Do you love nature and want to learn more about it? Are you curious about the insects, animals, plants and fungi all around you? Have you been keeping lists in little notebooks, texts, and miscellaneous scraps of paper all over the house?

Since I wrote about “How I Became a Citizen Scientist” four years ago, the peril to life on earth has increased, but so have ways to transform your observations into environmentally useful data. A recent project, “Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Homes,” lets you make your observations of spiders, ants, and other creepy crawlers sharing your home.

American spiders and their spinningwork. V.3 Academy of natural sciences of Philadelphia,1889-93. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/26146

Here in Detroit, our previously polluted Detroit River has been cleaned up to harbor all kinds of birds, animals (even beaver), and fish stocks; you can see folks fishing for walleye (which they apparently intend to eat) all along the banks. This makes for lots of new opportunities for citizen scientists. In “Reconnecting in Detroit:  The Transformative Potential of Citizen Science,” John Hartig lists “angler surveys, identifying aquatic invertebrates collected from river and lake sediments, counting birds, listening for frogs, spotting salamanders, collecting butterflies of dragonflies, or measuring water quality.”

In Oakland County, the northwest segment of the Detroit Metropolitan Region, I am astonished at what my nature loving neighbors get up to in the middle of winter. In mid-December, Oakland Audubon members range far and wide collecting data for their Christmas Bird Count. Right now, in the dead end of January, there is a stonefly search going on in the Rouge River. Organized by The Friends of the Rouge, this citizen science project helps volunteers examine cold, soggy samples of river detritus to count stoneflies.   These are “a primitive group of insects named for their habit of crawling on stones in a river. They have high oxygen needs, which limits them to clean, well-oxygenated streams.” Since they hatch in the wintertime, that’s when data must be gathered.

Before it gets warm yet in March, The Friends of the Rouge also train intrepid little bands (some of them in their 80s) to recognize particular species of frogs and toads even when they are all singing together.  

They go out in the dark of spring nights, scrambling around secluded ponds and river inlets to identify which species are singing and to get an estimate of their numbers.

As for me, I am sitting in my warm house counting the birds that come to my feeder, turning my scribbled little lists into useful data in the Michigan Audubon’s Winter Bird Survey. I haven’t reached the stage of collecting data about the spiders who come up my bathtub drain, the mealy bugs that burrow into my cornflakes, or the moths munching on my woolies, but it might come to that yet if cabin fever has its way with me!

Red Bees, Blue Bees

Red Bees

Henry David Thoreau felt that he would become “the laughing stock of the scientific community” if he tried to tell them what “branch of science” he pursued, because they would have no use for the philosophical (specifically, transcendental) basis of his observations. He was convinced that humans are not superior to the material world but endowed with the same spirit; his passion for nature had to do with the feeling of wholeness it instilled in him as a participant in rather than an outside observer of natural phenomena:

“I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me,” he wrote on November 4, 1852. “My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.” (The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1836-1861 The New York Review Books and Classics).

His refusal to hold himself apart from nature did not prevent Thoreau from using the scientific method in his observations, taking detailed notes on natural objects and devising experiments to understand them better in order to arrive at viable hypotheses. That is what he and some  friends were up to in September of 1852, trying to figure out how honey bees went about their business:

“We were furnished with little boxes of red, blue, green, yellow, and white paint, in dry powder, and with a stick we sprinkled a little of the red powder on the back of one while he was feeding — gave him a little dab,— and it settled down amid the fuzz of his back and gave him a distinct red jacket.

He went off like most of them toward some hives about three quarters of a mile distant, and we observed by the watch the time of his departure. In just twenty-two minutes red jacket came back, with enough of the powder still on his back to mark him plainly.

He may have gone more than three quarters of a mile. At any rate, he had a head wind to contend with while laden. They fly swiftly and surely to their nests, never resting by the way, and I was surprised—though I had been informed of it—at the distance to which the village bees go for flowers.

The rambler in the most remote woods and pastures little thinks that the bees which are humming so industriously on the rare wild flowers he is plucking for his herbarium, in some out-of-the-way nook, are, like himself, ramblers from the village, perhaps from his own yard, come to get their honey for his hives.”

Honey Bee Endangerment

Alas and alack, these are the very bees that human civilization, which Thoreau so distrusted, has endangered under the belief that we can do anything we want to nature without suffering such consequences as the  “colony collapse disorder” now decimating the bees upon which our agricultural depends:  10 million North American bee hives died off between 2007 and 2013 ”from “a combination of agricultural chemicals, diseases, parasites and stress.”

Nonetheless, every time I step out into my modest flower garden on a sunny day there are bees everywhere and of all different sizes,   tiny bees in the tiny flowers, medium sized bees in the medium sized flowers, and bumblebees rummaging around in the hibiscus. Then, being a transcendentalist myself, my ego vanishes into the sunshine and I feel myself, as did Wordsworth, part of “something far more deeply interfused” than my day to day chores.

Although some larger wild bees like the bumble bee are also in distress these days, many smaller wild bees that are native to our countryside seem to be doing quite well, and one of those is the Blue Bee frequenting the blooms of almonds and fruit trees in our national’s orchards.

 
Blue Bees to the Rescue

The United States Department of Agriculture informs us that “In recent years, the blue orchard bee (BOB) has become established as an alternative orchard pollinator in North America. With a strong preference for fruit trees, BOBs are highly efficient pollinators; in fact, just 250-300 females will pollinate an entire acre of apples or cherries.  BOBs forage and pollinate under cloudy skies and at lower temperatures than most other bees.  They are easy to manage and rarely sting.”

Farmers trying to manage Blue Bees quickly learned that they are much more Thoreauvian in their love of autonomy than the more social imported Honey Bees. Here is they are instructed on:modernfarmer.com:

“Blue orchard bees might be efficient pollinators, but they’re terrible employees.

What makes blue orchard bees enticing to farmers, aside from the fact that they’re inherently cool and native to this country, is that they’re actually much more efficient pollinators than honey bees. This is partly as a result of their solitary nature and partly a result of the fact that they collect pollen with their abdomens, rather than their legs, which is what honey bees do; BOBs perform this goofy sort of swimming motion within the flower to get pollen to stick to them. This swimming motion is really great for spreading pollen from one plant to another, if not quite as great for actually collecting pollen to give to their broods”

If, like Thoreau, the farmers had painted their Blue Bees red, they would not have observed them returning to village hives but, as he to his beloved Walden, to autonomous little dwellings – holes in the ground, actually – more suitable to their distaste for bee socialization and theirlove of solitude

And so it is that modern farmers have learned to poke Blue Bee larvae into the ground near their orchards or to bury carefully measured little tubes here and there where mother bees can lay their eggs in the solitude they so cherish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On the Joy of Natural Curiosity

You would think that when I am at my river cottage in Northern Michigan I would sit back, close my eyes, and relax.  I have the most comfortable deck chair you can imagine, fitted out with the most sybaritic of cushions, but I keep leaping up to see what is splashing in the river or to examine a flower I have suddenly noticed growing on the bank.

This summer I have read three books, dipping into each as the whim possesses me: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861, Walter Isaacson’s   Leonardo Da Vinci, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

“How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact! Suggesting what worlds remain to be unveiled,” exclaims Thoreau on April 18, 1852. “That phenomenon of the Andromeda  seen against the sun cheers me exceedingly.

I think that no one ever takes an original or detects a principle, without experiencing an inexpressible, as quite infinite and sane, pleasure, which advertises him of the dignity of that truth he has perceived.”

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “curiosity,” notes Isaacson, “like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that people over the age of  ten no longer puzzle about.”

Leonardo’s puzzlings are scribbled over 7,200 pages of notebooks that Isaacson deftly organizes by topics. “My favorite gems in his notebooks,” he acknowledges, “are his To-Do lists, which sparkle with curiosity.”

From Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do Lists:

 “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.”

“Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heaver and thicker than the air?”

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Why can our eyes see only in a straight line?”

“What is yawning?”

I am way over the age of ten, but I retain a ten year old’s curiosity. I am always trying to figure out what is going on in nature – slogging through the wetlands to see what the beaver are up to, chasing up and down the river after sandpipers, or lying flat on my belly trying to figure out what Kimmerer means about the structure of mosses.

And what a joy I feel to see my sixteen year old grandaughter and thirteen year old grandson  bent over their nets and collecting jars, closely examining crawfish, dragonfly nymphs, minnows, and tiny river lampreys – curious as ever about the diverse and fascinating abundance of river life.

There is a lovely swathe of emerald, velvety moss right in front of my cottage that brings joy to our bare feet as we race down to swim in the river. After reading my book on mosses, it has revealed an eternity in itself.

Biologist Kimmerer and her assistant crouch on the forest floor, devising multiple experiments to figure out why Dictanum Flagellare shares space with Tetraphis pellucida  rather than compete with each other, as might ordinarily be expected of different moss species. Is it the wind? Is it slugs, they ask themselves, and create a sticky surface to see what might be crawling around. The answer, after two long summers of mosquitoes, sore backs, and discarded  hypotheses?  Chipmunks!

“Part of the fascination of working with mosses,” writes Kimmerer, “is the chance to see if and when the ecological rules of the large transcend the boundaries of scale and will illuminate the behavior of the smallest beings. It is a search for order, a desire for a glimpse of the threads that hold the world together.” P. 58

All three of the authors I read this summer – a nineteenth century New England naturalist, a Renaissance genius, and a Potawatomi scientist –   focus on minute particulars, tiny details like how a curl of hair resembles a river eddy (Leonardo), the motions a great blue heron’s wings make as it takes off (Thoreau), and the tiny sharp outgrowths that allow dried out moss to conduct raindrops to its ovules (Kimmerer). They possess an intense curiosity, an eye for the details of minute particulars, and a tendency to joy in  nature.

May it be so, and blessed be.

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Climate Change and the Conundrum of Human Survival

I have discovered that many creatures have already adapted to climate warming  – I just read about a bird population in an area documented 100 years ago are now so smart now that a whole variety of species lay their eggs  “almost exactly counterbalancing the two-degree rise in average temperatures recorded over the last century.”

Which leaves me with the inevitable, haunting question: but what about humans? How far does global warming have to rise for us to become extinct?

So I spend the summer writing an article for Impakter, an international on-line magazine where I am a columnist, about whether we can learn anything from our history on earth that will help us survive global warming.

Here it is

 

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.