In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, authors who celebrate their joy in nature are sometimes accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against an ever grimmer environmental reality. What is the point of taking pleasure in rivers and forests when we have doomed them all in our greed and folly? Nature writers just fiddle above the flames while Mother Earth burns all around them.
Irish nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist brings his readers to the side of joy. Weaving the minute particulars of feather and lichen, otter and tadpole into a lyrically precise prose, his joy in nature is emotionally empowering in both a personal and a political sense.
McAnulty’s observations combine scientific detail with personal engagement. He is sitting near the sea on some “Silurian hornfels…the result of colliding continents and marine life recovering from extinction,” when some baby wrens hop up to him. As he hears them “drowning each other out with attention-grabbing chirps,” he muses that “this is the sound of our ancestors too, waves in one ear, wren siblings in the other. A two-track stereo. The sound of natural things that influence very other thing, whether we know it or not.”
Is this sense that human beings are woven into a web of natural being, (into “something far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it, or like Thoreau’s idea of nature as “not of myself, but in myself”) mere romantic nostalgia for a natural abundance that we have destroyed?
On the contrary, the concept that human beings and nature interact in mutually beneficial interdependence is at the heart of contemporary environmental philosophies like Ecosophy and Deep Ecology, which are based on the Gaia Hypothesis that everything on the planet strives for balance in a complex synchronistic network.
McAnulty reaches his conclusions not by philosophical speculation but by direct experience. On a trip to Scotland to collect Goshawk data, for example, he notes that “Dave asked me to hold one of the birds, and as I bring it close to my chest its body heat illuminates me. I start to fill with something visceral. This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. I don’t know for certain. it is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life (full of school and homework) doesn’t have the space for. The goshawk wriggles. I settle it down and look into its eyes again – as it grows older the baby-blue eyes will change, become a bright and deep amber….”
Astonishingly, Dara McAnulty is only 16 years old: he wrote The Diary of a Young Naturalist about the how nature saved him when he was 14 and suffering from depression over being viciously bulled for his autism. Observing the smallest details of the world around him provided a mind-grounding solace, an anchor to still the thrashing waves of “brain chaos,” “pain thrusting” stabs of “quick transitions,” all the “inner torments” and “liquid panic” of his condition.
“I consolidate myself by thinking, and thinking whilst intensely watching the flight patterns of dragonflies or starlings is explosive or mind-blowing. Who knows where watching sparrows will lead?”
Where it has led this courageous young naturalist, in spite of his paralytic nervousness around people, is to the discovery that when he stands in front of a bullhorn at a School Climate Strike or a microphone on radio or television, he can speak as eloquently as he writes on behalf of the earth and her creatures.
*The Diary of a Young Naturalist will be published in the U.S. by Milkwood Books next spring, but it is readily available to U.S. readers from Blackwell’s (www.Blackwells.co.uk ). Cover art by Larry Falls.
One night last week, self-isolation blues were getting to me, so I went to look at the stars. There was a full March moon, and, while I stood gazing at it, a concatenation of bugling and cackling reached me from way high up. I wouldn’t have known what it was if I hadn’t heard Sandhill Cranes at the same time last spring, flying north on the rivers of the sky. Thousands of them pass through Michigan along The Mississippi Flyway, migrating from their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to breeding sites in Canada.
I I would have jumped up in the air and clicked my heels if I could (I did it mentally, anyway).
In these lonely days, we are allowed to get fresh air and exercise if we keep 6 feet apart and upwind from each other (rumor has it that dread Coronavirus droplets can be carried on the wind). Chance conversations with real human beings who stop to chat always lift my mood, and watching birds on their spring migration rachets me right out of my funk.
The Rouge River runs through Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, where Canada Geese are sorting themselves into mating pairs amid clamorous lunging and imprecation. (With their people-watching curtailed, New Yorkers have taken to goose goggling.) If you aim your binoculars away from the shore, you often see migrating ducks resting on their journey.
Last Saturday (March 21), I got into one of those arcane bird watcher’s conundrums trying to figure out whether the little ducks gliding and diving in the middle of the lake there were Buffleheads or Hooded Mergansers, only to come back on Sunday to discover both species present. From that distance, the males with their prominent white head markings looked quite similar: the key was in their mates. The female Bufflehead has a small, round head and is brownish all over, but the female Hooded Merganser has a wild rusty mane that looks, my bird guide says, as if she had attacked it with a hair dryer.
Figuring out the intricate details that Mother Nature bestows on her creatures focused my mind wonderfully, and helped me rise above my gloomy preoccupation. There is something reassuring in the way birds migrate on predictable routes and schedules. In my back yard, for example, a Red- winged Blackbird has appeared around March 5 (my mother’s birthday) every year since I started keeping feeder lists in 1982 (my family has always thought we might come back to each other as birds, maybe it is her?)
Bird species tend to migrate through our area at set times. If you happen along the riverside path in Birmingham’s Linden Park during the first week in May, a bunch of us with binoculars around our necks and frantic looks on our faces will be scrambling about in the bushes tallying migrating warblers, teeny tiny birds given to darting about way high up in the treetops (warbler neck is a significant muscular affliction of this season.) These little birds travel at night, descend at dawn, and don’t fly in the rain: if we have had a wind from the south and a nighttime rainstorm, we might get the warbler “fallout” that we have waited for all year long.
Between 1992 and 2010 we kept records for Oakland Audubon in Linden Park and Quarton Lake, 112 species of year-round and summer residents and 26 varieties of warblers passing through on their spring and fall migrations. Tired and hungry on flights from as far away as South America, they spot the glittering currents of the Rouge River and descend for restorative stopovers on their way to Canada and the Arctic Circle.
I think most of us became nerdy listers as the secondary effect of the sheer delight of bird watching. Just looking at birds is a mood lifter, as I first discovered as an anxious ten year-old New Yorker when a kindly Audubon Club maven plopped me down in the middle of a Central Park multi-species fallout with colorful, active, and excitedly chirping birds perched on the trees and bushes in every direction.
Although climate change and destruction of stopover habitat has led to a sad decline in bird numbers, Scientific American reports that it is also shifting the timing of bird migrations, but only by two days each decade – not enough to throw them off their seasonal feeding schedules. It is heartening, too, that so many of our fellow creatures are adapting themselves to global warming. The Scientific American notes “a study of 52 species published in Ecology Letters found that birds’ bodies are getting smaller over time while their wingspans are getting longer, apparently in response to rising temperatures. The smaller size may allow the animals to lose body heat faster as the climate warms, the researchers suggest.”
Are you interested in taking up bird watching? Here’s a great Cornell University Site to get you started.
Guess what? On March 29, the Kinglets were back! Tiny and darting swiftly in the undergrowth, they are the first migrating birds to alight along the Rouge River every year.
* visit Linden Park off of Lincoln at Shirley and Douglas Evans Nature Preserve off of Evergreen between 14 and 13 mile roads.
There is a silence to winter that is a being in and of itself. If you still the chatter in your head, you can sense the fields and forests humming quietly to themselves under the snowpack, way down below the roots of everything.
Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness?
Listen! Beneath the frozen lawn and the icy layer of leaves on the garden, can you here faint singing? Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness? Can you hear the field mice pattering in their intricate maze of pathways? How about chipmunks scurrying between cleverly discreet chambers, some for sleep others for storage or giving birth or private little bouts of copulation?
There is a deep hole dug into the brush pile, whose occupant remains unknown, a winter mystery.
Just below the frost line night crawler worms are waking in their slime-lined nests to quietly arrange themselves, side by side, in hermaphroditic alignments.
Today it is all mud and muck boots; tomorrow there will be snow and snowshoes, but winter is breaking up, don’t you worry.
Listen and attend! While silence sorts, nature cavorts.
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
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.
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.
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.
And it was children, many of them “environmentally woke” by a single piece of nature writing, who led them.
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.”
“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.
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).
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.
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 Landmarksfor 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.