The other evening, about cocktail hour, I sat on the chaise in the backyard of our house near the village, looking at the tree swallows wheeling and chittering high up in the sky. It reminded me of when I lived in the woods not too long ago, and I was comforted to see these birds here, too. What else have I seen, I asked myself? Ospreys and egrets, since the river is so close. Catbirds, wrens, bluebirds, cardinals, house finches.And bald eagles. I have heard thrushes on those soft mornings they love so much. Plenty, to feel like I’m still surrounded by nature.
Living here has advantages to living in the woods. There’s the Tour de Crumb Cake, for instance. This is when I ride my bike down the river road until I get to Not Ken’s Coffeehouse, where I buy two crumb cakes and one coffee (one of the crumb cakes is for Richie, of course.) I arrange them all in the bag on my D.E.B. bike (intelligently designed and made by Kris Henry for just such a purpose) and pedal until I get to an entrance nearly obscured by large hedges, where I turn and coast past the gravestones to a bench overlooking the water. Here I sit and eat my crumb cake and drink whatever coffee hasn’t spilled out, and I am soothed.
One day, I was disheartened and annoyed to see a small group of people at the overlook near the bench where I always sat. Grumpily, I biked to a different bench and munched the crumb cake, but it was not the same. Obviously other people had discovered the peace and beauty of this place, and now it would be ruined forever; it would be a destination. I cast baleful glances at the group as I munched, until small details pierced through my irritation. I felt sheepish.
It was a funeral.
And so, the cemetery remains a safe destination for rest and peace,
and not just for me.
This morning I watched two squirrels go back and forth, back and forth, leaping from branch to branch with mouthfuls of leaves, dressing up their nest. Yesterday I walked with a friend along the winter beach; the sun sparkled against the dark water, the sandpipers clustered, the marsh hawk silently soaring and the colors of rust, yellow, purple blending into a song of November.
There is still beauty. We humans are love and hate, kindness and cruelty. But the natural world—the natural world just is. And there is a great peace in that.
…Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled–
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing–
that the light is everything–that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
Excerpted from The Ponds, by Mary Oliver
I thought it might be time for something beautiful.
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the trees
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
The summer birds are starting to arrive and they’ve got one thing on their mind; raising a family—and that means staking out territory. The Canada geese and the Mallards arrive first. In fact, in years past, when the winter wasn’t so mild, Mister and Missus Goose have arrived when the pond was still frozen over. I have watched Mister Goose carefully stepping along the ice toward the nesting spot that he had no doubt been regaling about to the missus all winter. She, for her part, seemed to be saying with each deliberate irritated step, “Another fine idea you’ve got, Mr. Goose.”
This year the geese and the ducks decided to swap nesting sites. The geese are now nesting in the tiny island where the ducks nested last year, and the ducks are in the slightly bigger island. I tell them it probably won’t end well, no matter what. There’s a mink that’s savvy to both nesting spots.
But be that as it may, they’re going ahead with it. I know this because I see the husbands hanging out together in the pond—one duck, one goose floating near each other. The Missus’s leave the nests only once a day for a small bit. They eat, they splash around, and then it’s back to incubating. The husbands continue their floating and their fraternity. It’s all very archetypal—the female nurtures, the male protects.
If another goose should show up, Mister Goose lets him know in no uncertain terms with a great deal of honking, that this pond is taken. However, he doesn’t do this with the smaller waterfowl. The mallard male seems to be a friend and there’s a pie-billed grebe in the pond that dives to eat fish. I often see it three or four feet from the feeding goose, diving with gusto, no doubt because the dabbling goose stirs up all sorts of goodies.
It’s an elaborate dance of harmony that seems to be how nature operates. And watching it, I wonder, what happened to our species?
I saw the first wood duck of the spring this morning, as I was sipping my tea upstairs. My eyes are not what they used to be, so I needed the binoculars to confirm. Yes. A male wood duck in breeding plumage. Which, if you haven’t seen one, here is a picture.
Beautiful, isn’t he?
Wood ducks are small and self-possessed. They swim in a quiet, deliberate, earnest way, keeping to the brushy part of the pond, because they are very shy. Even my figure at the glass windows forty yards away can spook them. It is always a thrill to see one.
Another special moment occurred last week when I spied an unfamiliar duck pair. Out came the binoculars. I stared to see how large they were, if they were diving or just dabbling and their coloring (this one seemed to have a black and white beak.) When I had enough information, I put the binoculars down and got out my Sibley’s Guide to Birds. I flipped through the pages, and it turned out that, without a doubt, I was seeing a pair of ring-necked ducks. Something I had never seen before.
Here’s what I think. I think that a life of limits becomes an unlimited life when you slow down enough to see the richness around you.
Recently on the radio, I listened to a program on the resurgence of the cocktail in American society. Perfect timing. Weary of the wrestling spectacle of politics and anticipating the green of spring, it brought to mind my own favorite cocktail to offset dreary—the Buddha’s Hand.
To make a Buddha’s hand you need to start with the citron called…the Buddha’s Hand (citrus medica var. sarcodactyllis). Related to the lemon, but much older, a Buddha’s Hand fruit contains no juice, only pulp. When its “fingers” are closed, it resembles the hand of Buddha in prayer. In China, its characters mean long life and happiness. But what you’re going to do with it is infuse it in good vodka for a month. So slice in up and stick it into the vodka. After a month, it’s ready. Smell it, and revel in the complex and generally uplifting aroma. Next get yourself a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur. Chartreuse is no ordinary liqueur. It is made by the monks of the Chartreuse Order in France–contemplative monks who spend their lives in silence (a documentary, “Into Great Silence” filmed in the monastery brings this home viscerally—there’s no speaking at all in the entire movie.) The green color of the liqueur comes exclusively from the one hundred and thirty plants and flowers that are infused to make the liqueur. Which one hundred and thirty, and in what proportion, is a nearly three hundred year old secret held and passed down to only two monks each generation.
To make this auspicious cocktail, take two ounces of your lovely Buddha’s Hand vodka and one-half ounce of Green Chartreuse. Add one-half ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice and shake with ice. Strain into your very favorite glass. Garnish, if you wish, with a thin lemon slice.
Now, admire the green-lemon color and know that no dyes were used to achieve it. Take a sip and savor the complex herb and citron infusions, redolent of the the natural world, of silence, and of meditation.
And if this doesn’t help you through the testing times, nothing will.
I am in Tucson now for a bit, and the other day I decided to try to do a watercolor of the mountains at sunset. With their vast swaths of deep blue shadows it seemed, visually, like a simple image to capture. I retrieved my travel watercolor kit, 3 x 5 watercolor block, HB pencil, and squishy eraser and walked to the park where there was a view of mountains beyond the highway and power lines. I balanced my cup of water on the rough and not terribly flat surface of the wall, poised pencil over paper, stared at the mountains hard and tried to look artistic, rather than suspicious to any passersby.
When I opened up the watercolor set to begin painting, I noticed that the popular colors—and the colors I would need—were mere scraps of paint clinging to the sides of the pan. Oh well, I thought, it’s only a 3 x 5, surely I’ll have enough paint for that. I unsheathed the tiny travel brush and dipped and dribbled water into each cake of dry paint. But when I started painting, I quickly realized that brush was way past its sell-by date as my husband is fond of saying. It had lost its spring and now resembled, more than anything, a tiny dispirited scrub brush. I plodded onward, painterly speaking, but the deep dark blues of the mountain shadows looked anemic on my paper. I let the painting dry before folding everything back up, because sometimes a painting that I think is awful doesn’t look so bad, given some time and space. (This one didn’t, so you’re not going to see it.) I had began my disappointed trudge back to the house when a flash of hot-coal caught my eye. I stared. What kind of bird was that? Much too red to be a cardinal. Disappointment forgotten, I followed the bird from tree to tree, weaving from one sidewalk to the other. I certainly looked suspicious now, but I needed to see that bird. Back at the house I went on the internet and learned that it was a vermillion flycatcher.
Vermillion–now that’s not a word you hear too often outside of painting. It’s a pigment, made from ground cinnabar and it’s a brilliant, nuanced red. The saturated color of the vermillion flycatcher contrasted, in my mind, with the anemic colors of my watercolor attempt to capture the rich beauty of the mountains–and my dissatisfaction about it.
And then I got it. There is transcription, and there is the thing itself. And that firebird had just reminded me not to forget to rejoice in the thing itself.
What with the world going to hell in a hand basket, I thought maybe you’d like to read about something uplifting this week.
Two years ago, I took all my individual amaryllis bulbs (always save your amaryllis bulbs; they are very easy to grow to re-bloom) and planted them, with lots of space between them, in a big blue ceramic pot.
I let the bulbs grow their foliage in the pot all summer, in full sun and I watered and fed them occasionally. When the frost nipped, I cut all the foliage back to the bulbs. Said bulbs, I noticed, were making new little bulbs and now generally being obstreperous and crowding with each other. I hauled the pot into the cold area of the dining room where it sat in the dark, with no watering, for about six weeks. When I saw the bulbs beginning to grow on their own, I hauled the pot (I keep saying ‘hauled” because it is a heavy, large ceramic pot and I want you to appreciate my strength and effort) to the sunny windows of the living room and began to water. And now look. Each bulb has sent up one to two stalks and each stalk has six flowers. That’s a lot of blossoms, each six inches across, and more coming. It’s been blooming for three weeks now.
So. Save your holiday-impulse-buy amaryllis bulbs after they’ve had their flowering. Plant them all together in a big pot. In the summer, let the foliage grow like crazy. Keep the pot watered and feed it once a week with a balanced fertilizer. (I use, I’m afraid, the blue stuff. It just works better for flowering houseplants.) When the nights get nippy in the middle to end of October, cut all the foliage back (ALL of it) to the bulb. Don’t cut the bulb. Put the pot in dark-ish, cool-ish spot. Don’t water. After six weeks or so of this rest, the bulb will start sending up a green leaf or flower stalk. As soon as you see this, bring it out to the light and begin to water. Don’t feed, since the bulb supplies all the nutrients now for the flowers. And sit back and enjoy your own Amaryllis! Amaryllis! (While the rest of the world largely ignores the beauty that is theirs to create.)
“Oh, I LOVE winter,” younger me used to say. “It’s so much fun, you can cross country ski, and snowshoe and make snowmen and it’s so cozy.”
I suppose it was last winter that did me in. So now, winter has become my time for escape. And my escape in winter is reading about physics and astronomy. As the white stuff piles up and daily living is more of a chore of shoveling snow and hauling wood, to curl up and read about the tiny world of quarks or the vast world of galaxies is delicious.
Right now I am reading Lisa Randall’s new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (selected by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings as one of the top 15 books she has read this year—a list, BTW, guaranteed to make you feel inadequate.)
Randall talks about dark matter, the concept of which I couldn’t quite grasp for a long time, but now I do. We can’t see dark matter because it doesn’t reflect light and we can’t feel it because its force is too weak to have an effect on us at its level in our everyday lives. But we know it exists because in greater densities it exerts a gravitational force. And not only that, but there is much more of it than the matter we can see. So the truth is, we are literally surrounded by dark matter.
As I grow older, more experienced, less sanguine, and more settled into convenience, the awareness of the vast mystery of our Universe is a tonic. And that, perhaps, is the real fountain of youth.
It’s fledgling time here in the country and just a few days ago I heard a bump as something collided with the screen door. I hoped the bird was okay. I looked around and sure enough, there was a baby bird sitting on the deck. It looked alive and fine, upright and staring. I walked slowly toward it, aware that I must look like a giant monster advancing. As I got close I bent down to scoop it up and put it somewhere safer, like on a tree branch and what did the little thing do? It opened its wide beak, still lined with the markers of yellow, and begged the giant monster for food. “I just got out of my nest and this is the only thing I know how to do,” it seemed to say. And what a lovely, innocent, trusting, chutzpah-like thing it was, too.
This is what I leave you for the summer–what that little veery demonstrated for me: Have faith in life and move forward with confidence.