“The Earth is a sacred artifact that resonates with life. We may see the Earth as being ill, but the Earth is a vital and superior organism. The sickness we see in the World is a reflection of the sickness we feel in ourselves.”
On the morning of our second day, we get up and take a rowboat out onto Mirror Lake. We row into a cove where we sit in silence and watch as the wind blows across the water and the ripples bend along the edges of water lilies. A Common Loon dives and resurfaces, sits for a moment or two, and dives once again. The forest reaches down to the shore, where there are reeds and grasses. There is deadfall interspersed, and tall conifers living out their final years towering above the canopy. There are no human voices. No sounds other than the wind and the water lapping against the side of our boat.
We spend the second day hiking through the extensive portions of old growth, which is like hiking through a fairy tale. This may seem overly romantic, or just silly, but it is true. There is a reason that the deep, dark woods is a recurring theme in the fables and tales we’ve passed down from generation to generation. There is mystery in the play of light and shadow.
There was a powerful windstorm some years ago, and the gnarled roots from the upturned trees at times seem poised to reach out and grab you, twist across your ankles and pull you down with the worms and the crawly things. In the night, I understand why the forest was also once a place of fear. In the night, without a moon or fire, the darkness is complete. You can hear the forest alive all around you, but there are no names for the beings dwelling there save those conjured by the imagination. And the wolves.
We spend our second evening in a cabin by Greenstone Falls. As the day falls, slowly, the light changes every two minutes, so you look up and the landscape has shifted all around you. But you haven’t gone anywhere, you haven’t moved from this spot where you’ve sat hunched and distracted by some new mushroom, some strange phenomenon of moss and fern, or the way the light plays against the trunk of a tree.
Walking up a hill behind the cabin to gather firewood, I am momentarily startled by what I imagine to be a black bear with his tan muzzle staring out at me from beside a tangle of fallen branches. We had seen one crossing the road on the way in, and the visitors’ log in our cabin indicated that the previous occupant had enjoyed the privilege of one looking through the windows and wandering around the camp the morning before.
My wife and I sit for an hour beside a shallow pool lined with smooth stones as the day slowly wanes. We are amazed by the dragonflies, who are astounding acrobats, and apparently ruthless carnivores (as one landed before us two days later clutching and devouring a butterfly half its size). They zip up and down, patrolling the length of the stream, investigating wood tangles and fallen logs. A few dive-bomb the pool, splashing down and sending out small ripples across our tiny pond. We are amazed by this behavior, and search for explanations. Are they drinking? Are they eating water bugs? Later, after a little research – Were they laying eggs? The mystery persists.
A cluster of hemlock branches extend over the water, and we notice a small green inchworm, what may have been a Hemlock Loooper, descending along a line of silk, only to stop in midair when it becomes apparent he is set to disembark in the middle of the stream. Left dangling, our Looper pauses. Life is ultimately about choices, it seems, and this fellow has made a bad one. However, success and determination go hand in hand, so over the next half-half hour we provide commentary, encouragement, and wait with baited breath as he slowly reels in his line and ascends back from where he came.
At one point, a dragonfly appears and hovers directly beside the helpless larva and seems to consider whether he’d be a worthwhile snack. Fortunately for the Looper, the dragonfly departs, and we sit until he finally hoists himself back onto the needled branches and disappears.
The light dims, and the mosquitoes are on us once again.
It’s been awhile. And a lot has gone on. A trip or two and some woods and hikes and fishes and great raging swarms of mosquitoes and in the end I find myself lagging far, far behind in penning my thoughts here, in this forum. Why, I wonder…and I largely think it’s due to tedium, and maybe having nothing to say..other than what I believe, which seems sometimes better left unsaid. Or shared only in more quieter, less populous spaces. And with those you love.
Of course it’s all that, and not that at all, which seems to be the point. Again and again.
It could also be that life happens. Life happens, and patterns you’ve put in place for yourself, intentionally or otherwise, either replicate themselves accordingly, carrying you along is a predictable stream, or a variable imports itself and the equation comes undone. So, I got a new job, and I’ve been busy with that (which is good) and the time I have to spend, when broken down between family and friends and time spent outside in gardens or woods, leaves little for the tap tapping of syllables into the
I’ve been tasked, if you can call it that, with making some serious outdoor learning stuff happen (and algebra). As serious as can be on a square block that’s mostly concrete with some smatters of trees and green thrown in between. And then the privilege of field trips to the forest preserves and, I hope, some of the places that I’ve come to enjoy and love over this past year.
The blog’s a year old now, by the way, and I’ve learned a lot this year. Enough to realize how much more I need to learn. A lot. But beside what I’ve learned, and learned that I need to learn, the time that I have dedicated to being out and about, and sitting around, has been transformative. Not that my life has changed, because it hasn’t; but then, it also has. I haven’t kept scrupulous records of how much time spent, but with a recent revisit to the Porkies last month, I think I can safely say that I’ve logged at the very least a week and a half of steady nature time all year. A week an a half meaning 200andsomeodd hours. That’s not bad, and it could be more. I really don’t think less, and that’s not including messing around in the garden. That seems significant.
I’m going to make an effort to keep this up. It seems worth it. I walked around the block with 5th and 6th graders last week and asked, “What is nature, really?” as one of my students phrased it. Wondered if it’s possible to have a healthy environment for human beings, but an unhealthy environment for other beings…meaning, are these environments we consider healthy for ourselves really so, or has our conception of environmental health become so diminished that we can’t even tell the difference? And then, misunderstanding the word biodiversity, someone came up with the idea of ‘biodiscrimination’, which is fascinating to me. Think monocultures.
So, that’s that. Here’s a picture that I like.
For a blog about sitting in the woods, I tend to spend a lot of time in prairies; and lately, as I’ve mentioned, I have been spending a lot of my free out-and-about time at Wolf Road Prairie. Again, this is a great place to visit and a window into the landscape of Illinois and the Midwest in general before..well, before. There’s only a fraction of a percent (1/100th of 1%) of original prairie left in Illinois, and the health and density of biodiversity of this site is quite startling. It’s almost a little disorienting I find with the great variety of plant species of all shapes and sizes, the colors, and then the constant movement of it all in even the slightest breeze. This near perpetual motion also poses a challenge to the picture taking. The density and variety of textures are what I’ve been more attracted to lately than the colors, though the colors are nice too. As I was flipping through some of these pictures, there were some that I liked more than others, but then I kinda felt that, taken altogether, they portrayed some semblance of this constant shifting of the landscape which has become a significant aspect of my developing relationship with this area.
It’s been awhile. And so where are we in this? Where am I? It’s seemed to me for some time that this take a year and figure out something new about myself and the world around me kind of project has become one of the most cliche’d devices around these days. This notion of doing something different for a set period of time and then, what? composing details about how your other life, the one that you left for a year and are now going back to has been altered in some way; or, if you’re lucky, elevated and composed of something greater, deeper, more profound and lasting. That’s all fine and good, but I wonder if this is a little absurd and indicative of some greater, more malignant, social malady?
But this is what we all hope for, right..some sense of the profound? Or am I wrong in this? Is it that, when it comes down to it, we want nothing of the sort. Rather, we’d prefer to play at profundity..or play around with it, as if it’s a fun little item that you can roll around, toss back and forth, maybe even chew on a bit and then place back up on the shelf. OR..a sense of the profound is a notion that we run from. Maybe not screaming, but maybe it’s something we back away from slowly, ever so slowly, so as not to catch its attention and raise its ire.
Profound – deep, bottomless, vast. To bring forth the bottom of things. The immensity and vastness of what…nothingness? oh geez..and there you go. We but barely plumb the depths of our consciousness, we but barely descend below the threshold of what is constant and soundly constructed.
The point of all this is…what? I haven’t been posting on the ole blog lately because it’s just become tedious. I don’t have stories so much at this point; but instead, I have sentiments.
The woods have become a place that I go to. Meaning, the woods have become a place where I say, “okay, I’m going to go there now,” at which point I get in my car and go. Going there has almost become routine. In fact, it has become routine, almost something I feel like I’m supposed to do, and I don’t think this is a good thing.
We are at a place, been here awhile I reckon, where we can have and develop ideas about the wilderness, or nature, as a place you go, or a thing you experience. This idea of wildness, which is something we no longer experience so much of, pervades much of the conservation and back to nature movement. Whatever that means. So, we human people alone can have ideas about nature. We can have ideas about ideas. Our ideas inform other ideas and are self referential in a sense that they both exist solely within our minds. Nature, apparently, exists outside…down the road aways, and it’s something we can think about and unpack and yearn for and idealize in such a way that isn’t artificial in any way, but which is likewise a product of our own consciousness; or better – our own imagination.
I have been attempting to practice mindfulness and awareness building in my own backyard. Bottom line, I/you/we cannot expect to ‘reconnect’ with nature by just visiting our local forest preserve or going camping once or twice a year. Yes, this is a great way to spend time, and it should be encouraged and space should be made for these kinds of activities. But what often happens, I’m afraid, is that the experience becomes somehow sentimental, or routine. This is not what we want, and this is not what we need. When the trip to the woods, or the camping trip triggers these sentiments of remember when, or the good ole days, we may find ourselves seeking out more of these experiences that remind us of something deemed of greater significance, but the sentiment itself can also (maybe, just maybe) end up placed back on that dusty shelf of good times had while we dive back into the city and the day to day.
I’ve known this, and I’m now coming back to it, but we have to be able to reconnect on a day to day basis by learning to see the processes alive around us in our own backyards, on the sidewalk even, and amidst the cement and manicured lawns. This is easier said than done, of course; but I think there’s a lot that can be said about the idea that everything you can know about the world and our place in it can be known by paying deep and sustained attention to what’s going on right where you are. There are rhythms in the day regardless of whether you’re sitting in a field, or the woods, or at a bus stop. The difficulty is, I think, the fact that we insulate ourselves from the rhythms. We are distracted by our own, very real, and manufactured, problems of living.
This presents a very real challenge, to say the least.
So, Spring. I feel like she’s trying to arrive, but in fits and starts and places in between. But I’ve been out and about, and there are indications of the liveliness of the foresty parts slowly unfolding. A new development is that I purchased an Audubon app for my ‘old’ iPhone. I recently upgraded, thank you very much, to the much sought after iPhone 4 (for 99c) and decided that, though I normally eschew the teknos when out on excursions, a digital field guide may be an option better than the lugging around of a bunch of books and/or trying to remember what some bird looked and sounded like by the time I get home and can look it up. Scrupulous note taking does help; but still, the not-knowing tends to be distracting.
So, I got this here application and so far it’s been pretty great. I’ve used it primarily for birds, and the thing that I really like about it is that it also provides various recordings of the calls and songs of whatever bird one may be looking at. This is really quite excellent because I often hear them before I see them, or..more often than not, I’m familiar with how a certain bird looks (even though I may not know what species it is) but I have no idea what it sounds like. And walking along you tend to hear them more than you see them. So, in the past couple times that I’ve been out, I can now identify by sight and sound the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Black-Capped Chickadee, Dark-Eyed Junco, Cardinal, Robin, Belted Kingfisher (of which I saw another just the other day), BlueJay, and Eastern Bluebird. Also, what was definitely a variety of Warbler.
That’s not the real kicker, though – what is very cool is that, on a couple occasions, I’ve been able to use the recordings to actually draw the bird I’m trying to identify closer, or at the very least, keep it around long enough to get a good look. I had the Red-Bellied Woodpecker flying back and forth a few times while I stood in between two trees, a Junco, and a really handsome cardinal all hanging around and looking for some mysterious and new arrival. I will say, though, that I don’t keep up the charade for too long just because it takes a lot more energy for them to fly around confused than for me to stand there amused, and they have to work a lot harder for their stores than I work for my own, so it seems a game best played in moderation.
My bird list is growing slowly, and I have a pretty good idea about a number of different species that I haven’t completely identified. However, in addition to the ones mentioned above, I’ve also seen in this past year, the Great Blue Heron, Great Horned Owl, Red-Tailed Hawk, Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Tree Swallow, Red-Winged Blackbird, Goldfinch, Green Heron, and a Green Egret. I also saw a Bald Eagle flying through the trees in Wisconsin, and a heard a rafter of turkeys calling to one another in the dawn at Starved Rock.
Ultimately, what is significant in all of this is that though I could have identified more than a few of these birds a year ago, I could not have identified but a couple by their song. Nor, if not for me taking the time to really do this thing, would I have seen these different birds as consistently as I have over the past 8 or 9 months. That’s something to consider, when it comes time to sit and consider things, and something that I consider to be…good.
Last July, when I first came across the small ‘prairie’ by Salt Creek Woods, I was so distracted by my inability to make any sense of all the chatter about me..the communiques, the alarms, and the songs. Even in the Porkies I didn’t know until later that the lonely call that I was hearing was that of a Common Loon. I am slowly, slowly becoming more attuned. I can walk along the trail now, and when I hear a particular song, I don’t have to stop and try to find the source; I can keep walking along and know that over there is friend Chickadee.
I intended to say something about the ramps, which are wild leeks, which is from where Chicago received its name, I believe…but there’s not a lot to say, and I got a little carried away with the birds. So, I’ll just say that I found some ramps, and was really impressed by how the outer skin appeared all lacy n’ whatnot. I’ll try to get a decent picture up soon. Also, there are a LOT of ticks about. I went out with the Boy last weekend, and we both got pretty well slathered..well, maybe not slathered, but there were at least 10 to 12 between the two of us, and the dog. Not really too stoked about that.
But I am pretty happy about the birds.