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Category Archives: Nature Writing

Animals at the Cottage: Whole Worlds We Could Never Dream of

When I looked out of my bedroom window to see what was making that strange noise both the yard and the forest were impenetrably dark, though I could hear a light wind moving through the pines. Then the noise came again: a deep cough, a harsh hruff!, and an abrupt bark.

Had the deer caught bronchitis again or, even worse, tuberculosis?   They usually move as they graze, though, and this creature stood stock still.

“I saw him last week,” my daughter told me the next morning.  “It’s a big fox – probably a male.”

A week later, I heard something similar carrying on, father back in the forest this time.  It was a coyote-like call, but more melodic, and hauntingly solitary as the singer moved to a new spot, stopped and called; then to another for a further rendition of what must be the aria of the vixen, seeking her mate.

That’s all guesswork, of course – though I Googled the song of the female fox and it matched up  –  but what either of them were actually up to is probably a far more intricate bit of animal communication than we humans can ever fathom.

I have been reading a book by Ed Yong, Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us , that ventures into the mysterious worlds our fellow creatures inhabit, perceiving things from their existentially non-human perspective by means of a complicated array of senses we don’t have.  Just think of your family dog: “humans share the same basic machinery, but dogs just have more of everything; a more extensive olfactory epithelium, dozens of times more neurons in that epithelium, almost twice, and a relatively larger olfactory bulb.” When he

sits by the river with his nose ecstatically quivering, he is taking in whole worlds through scents we human beings cannot even begin to imagine. That is why you should humor your dog when he sniffs every tree, and especially a fire hydrant: to him, it is as rich with information as the Sunday New York Times!  So make a resolution to take him on a sniff Safari at least once a week- that’s is a walk on a long leash, where he gets to lead the way, and sniff anything he wants, as long as it takes to absorb all the information.


Then  there are our Wood Turtles.   We have seen them every year since 1998, crossing the road from the forest to the Betsie River and laying their eggs in the meadow between our cabin and the water. I wrote to Michigan’s beloved “critter guru,” Jim Harding, an instructor in Integrative Biology at Michigan State University before his 2020 retirement.

This beloved turtle rescuer replied that he is glad that Wood Turtles are still here and so frequently seen in the Betsie River habitat, as “they have declined greatly over the state in recent decades.”  I was surprised to learn that they are an endangered species “of greatest conservation need,” requiring clean flowing rivers near forested area, and pleased that our river’s protection under the Natural Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) has spared them the loss of their favorite habitat.

Wood Turtles are between six and eight inches long, sporting shells patterned with pyramids.  They are said to be friendly and curious, which may be a human projection, but they do have some interesting habits.  Did you know that they stamp their feet and their shell on the earth to imitate rain falling so that a meal of worms will rise to the surface? In late June this year two of them crossed the road and headed in our direction, taking up temporary residence under our deck. They seemed to hang around to greet us in the morning before heading for the river.  And – what do you know? –  the female spent a whole day digging twelve separate holes in our clearing and laid eggs in each one of them.  Why so many separate nests, we wondered?  We got our answer that same afternoon when a raccoon turned up, but he went hungry.

Are Wood Turtle eggs scentless?  I hope so, as they are clearly in danger from animal predation as well as from habitat loss.   Keep tuned – they are scheduled to hatch on or about August 5!

Earlier in the summer, a Porcupine descended the tall pine he almost never comes down from to stand on our swimming stairs.  “What is he doing?” asked my grandson, but I had absolutely no answer.   It had an elegant set of quills – shaded from white ends to brown and beige- the kind that Native Americans fashion into components of their elegant embroidery.  I read that, if you don’t actually touch them, they won’t shoot quills at you – but what might be going on in their heads remains an utter mystery.

And may it be so.  We humans, who think we know so much, clearly don’t; these wild creatures we occasionally encounter remind us that there are other sensations and other worlds that, for all of our elegant philosophizing, we can never even dream of.

The Fox illustration is by Angela Harding, a British Printmaker whose book, Wild Light, has just been published. I have my copy and it is absolutely gorgeous.

The River Flowing in My Heart

I never had a visitor to my river cabin who left the same person who arrived.   Whatever their delight – painting, basket-making, birdwatching, swimming, canoeing, fishing, reading, kayaking, or just  plain sitting and staring – something about the Betsie changes everyone who spends time along its banks.

The Betsie River runs for 55 miles from its source in Green Lake to its mouth in Frankfort, a Northern Lake Michigan port.  It is a narrow river of sunlit vistas alternating with shady banks, full of birds and frogs and fishes and turtles and people like me who find solace in its meandering course.   It is a fisherman’s delight, teeming with Rainbow, Brown, Brook and Steelhead Prout along with pickerel, Pike, Muskellunge and a stunning summer surge of Salmon.

It runs free and clear because it is protected under the Natural Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1973. With the nearby Boardman and Jordon Rivers also under the  act,  and the Conservation Resource alliance stewarding even more of our local rivers, Our Northern Michigan Watersheds are a wonder of pure water and biodiversity.

The CRA is a non-governmental project supported by a varied group of stakeholders, including businesses like Consumer’s Energy. sport fishing associations like Trout Unlimited, and the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, all maintaining the riverine health of our watershed ecology under a River Care program.  

My husband Henry and I bought our A-frame Cabin in 1992 and enjoyed our summers there before, alas, he died eight years later, never to know all four grandsons who would caper along its banks, their spirits flourishing from long summer days musing over snails and spiders, butterflies and crayfish, mink and muskrats. Two of them, in their twenties now, have kayaked the entire length of the Betsie; lately, a family dog has joined us, with his own door so that he can romp down to the river any time for exuberant swims and sniffs and forest excursions.

There is a kind of assertive forcefulness about the Betsie that gets into the creatures that live here.  When we arrived, we had a determined clan of dam building beavers who, when the Department of Natural Resources “removed” them so that their deftly engineered constructions would not cause flooding, turned themselves into bank beavers instead, denning underground, building river entrances, and going right on felling whole swathes of trees for winter fodder.  There is also a tribe of river mink that have little fear of humans, scampering much too close to our bare feet for comfort.  One summer when the grandchildren were just toddlers, we were haunted by a puma screaming at its slaughter among our deer yards.  

Then there are the Robins: These are not your little hop and peck back yard friends – Betsie River robins have attitude!  During breeding season, they streak in and out of their nest trees. If you go anywhere near, they attack from above, like Red- Winged Blackbirds.  They sing in the summer mornings, but these are different songs than their down state numbers – no mere warbling, but deeply resonant and assertive arias counterpointed against anything local Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can come up with.

From midsummer on, gangs of robins rampage along the river, doing the kinds of things you associate with bigger, tougher birds.  When there is a hatch of flies, they decide to be Great Crested Flycatchers, soaring on the updraft and swooping down on their prey.  Sometimes, they transform themselves into Kingfishers and dive straight down, veer at the very last moment, then soar to a high branch, where they munch their catch and scream like Kingbirds.  

I have been a life-long birdwatcher, but. by the Betsie, my bird lists have given way to a kind of wild-eyed feeling that I have died and gone to heaven. Just being by the river rivets my soul:    I become less of a nature observer than a nature contemplative as I lay  my binoculars aside to just sit and stare.

One of the things I stare at, whether walking along the banks or drifting in my kayak, is the river bottom, where the clarity of the water renders everything translucent as if seen through a watery but precise microscope : the freckle on the trout’s fin, the stripes on the smolt and the transparent minnows’ inner organs, the geometry of the wood turtle’s shell as it plows along the pebbles, the pebbles themselves in all their tawny variety, and up spouts of bubbles bursting from underground springs. I take it all in, my mouth open and the agitation of my life vanished as I drink in the utter calm of nature’s multiple and minute particulars.

Years ago, I admired a bench some friends had built near their cottage, and they gave me the plans.  It turned out to be a meditation bench designed by Aldo Leopold to hold your back at just the right angle – not straight up or lolling –  for sitting and staring.   I hired a carpenter to build mine between two trees along the river bank, at a spot where it is shady even at noontime, and there I go to lose myself in the flourishing banks, a muddy little beach across the way and whatever catches my wondering eye.

write me: I’ll send you the building plans.

 In the spring, Yellow Flags  (the  original wild Irises) spring from the water among emerald reeds; later on, St. John’s Wort and Vervain, Milkweed and Goldenrod bloom in their season, with effusions of Cardinal Flowers springing up between. In Autumn, the brush is heavy with elderberries, wild grapes, dark blue dogwood berries, and high bush cranberries – all feasted upon by flocks of birds preparing for migration.

Birds that land on the beach across the river from my bench are always  blessings. Grackles love the watery pools, and Song Sparrows dart in and out among the tree roots. During mating season, the Common Yellowthroats and Rose-Breasted Grosbeak are in full chorus.  Shorebirds sometimes peck tiny crustaceans from the mud, like a Solitary Sandpiper that stopped along its way south one August, every waxy feather demarcated and  eyes like little black pebbles taking me in.  

One day a slender snake poised among the reeds, brown with yellow dapples; another time, I saw a stick swimming upriver, and realized how amphibious our Betsie River snakes seem to be– I have seen the Blue Racer and the Hog-Nosed snake go swimming as well.  Muskrat often swim by, trailing leafy branches. One  June, a flock of Swallowtail butterflies gathered on the mud, all piled on top of each other, though whether they were ingesting minerals or making love, I couldn’t tell.

Bowie the dog often emerges from the woods when I am sitting there, and comes over to put his paw on my knee and look up at me with his brown, brown, eyes so like the river at its deepest. Although I take pleasure in his affection, there is something deeply mysterious in his eyes that I can never quite fathom.

There are stairs going down to the water in front of the cabin, where the river has deposited enough sand for a narrow beach.  After a bit of wading, there is a nine foot deep swimming hole, cool and dark –   the home of a great big fish none of the fishermen have ever been able to catch.   One April opening day they had all gotten drunk (very unusual, they are a quiet, even meditative lot) and after standing around the hole raucously casting for hours, they finally went home.   As dusk fell, I sat on the stairs to take in the sunset.  Up from the darkness lept the huge Brown Trout, twirling on its tail as if mocking we puny humans. I could see a reddish-brown fin as it arched out of the water, only to dive back down to its dark dwelling, flexing every arrogant muscle, a vision of something vital and deep and overwhelmingly strange.

That huge fish is an inexplicable conundrum. The dark from which it comes is unfathomable. The river retains its secrets:  when I am there, I am a mystery, even to myself.     

Let it be so,  Blessed be.

New Worlds, Web Update

“We may not have wings or leaves” like our fellow created beings, writes Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweetgrass, ” but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land.”

This is a great motto for me when I wonder about my purpose in life since I morphed from a writer of Eco Fiction to a political/environmental columnist for a world-wide publication and a contributor to a newspaper out of Frankfort. Michigan.

So, here we go! For those of you interested in a collection of my columns on the Trump Horrors, the Rise of Republican Fascism, the Nitty-Gritty of Political Organizing, How to Handle Climate Grief, and some of the alternative ways to redeem our good green world that we yearn for in these troubled times, check out my updates to The Worlds We Long For . Then, to cheer yourself up, you can see what my zany family and I have been up to at our Betsie River cabin now that, after long pandemic absence, we are together again!

Scientific Animism

I have long been a foe of either/or thinking, a logic that takes binaries as inevitably oppositional, with no compromise possible. I much prefer both/and solutions whereby opposites merge to form brand new syntheses.

We have begun to hear talk about the inherent rights of other-than-human beings in nature, including the lands’ right to sue humans for our abuses and depletions. While this is sometimes taken as a new concept it is actually a very old one, basic not only in the animism of all of our ancient ancestors who saw nature as ensouled or animated in-and-of-itself, but in present-day Native Americans’ traditional principles setting forth the duty of human beings to the natural beings that sustain us.

My sit-out-by-the-river-and-read-slowly book this summer was Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I found myself right at home with her synthesis of science and animism as complementary tools for approaching the seemingly intractable problems we are experiencing as we try to achieve sustainability on our threatened, beloved planet. Home in autumn, here is my article just published in

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller Books: Dorset, 2020).*

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 ( ).  Cover art by Larry Falls.

Rivers of Birds

 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.

On the Silence of Winter

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.

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.


                                         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.”


“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,” (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.