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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.

Are Rivers Persons?

Have you heard about courts endowing nature entities like rivers, wetlands, and even rice as “persons” with inherent rights? I am fascinated by this concept from an ecological point of view. Isn’t it anthropomorphism to accord humanity to beings who are utterly different from humans? Doesn’t this natural beings-as-persons approach value human beings over nature, which is how we got out of balance with nature in the first place?

Here is a column I wrote about this for www.


The tight little Snowdrop buds poking on stalwart green stems through the hard-packed snow tell me that spring is arriving, the whole earth regenerating itself after the long, long months of snow and sleet and freezing temperatures of an especially hard winter. It is a yearly miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, reminding us of nature’s fiercely self-redemptive powers despite degenerations wrought by our tragic propensity for making bad decisions.

With new warnings about how close we have come to the destruction of a climate that can sustain human life, there are those who feel that only large-scale inter-national, national and corporate actions can save us, while others insist that if we cooperate with nature in personal and local acts of restoration, we still have a chance.

Here is my latest article with my take on The Role of Human Beings in Regeneration:

The watercolor painting by Helen Klebesadel is called “Nature Arising.”

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.

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.











Overheated Pikas and Leaping Lizards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I live in hope.


Rabbit Nests

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

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

And also, startlingly, rabbits.

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Prairie Fellowship, a beloved Unitarian community that provided me in anchor in my peripatetic years, used to spend a weekend every October in the Wisconsin Dells. One year I was asked to read autumn poems out of doors and so, on a warm-enough sunny morning, I sat under the forest canopy all ablaze in gold and crimson to await any participants who might come.



Review of Sharman Apt Russell, Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

I started keeping bird lists in 1947 when my school’s Audubon Club suggested we list birds and describe their behavior. This was New York City, and I had lots of fun observing pigeons and English sparrows. Then, one wondrous day.  we were taken to Central Park to see the spring migration. Tanagers and goldfinch, hermit thrush and grosbeaks and warblers of every kind tumbled all around us. I was hooked for life.