Not eight feet outside my studio window, a red-eyed vireo has built a nest. It is a wondrous thing of fine birch bark, pine needles and spider silk. The spider silk not only holds it together, but also holds it suspended on the twigs. I have been watching the vireo daily and I’m impressed with the quiet, most decidedly non-instant gratification life she leads. She sits on the nest, sometimes with eyes closed, for hours on end. During thunderstorms and driving rainstorms (the little basket-nest tossing, but holding) she sits. Once or twice a day, her mate visits the tree next to her and sings out a few lines of his song to say “this place is taken.” I’m flattered they have chosen to build their nest so close to our nest, as it were. I feel like I’ve been accepted as a part of nature.
Observing this ordinary, but still wondrous, natural event brings Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical to mind. He knows what he’s talking about. We are from, of, and nurtured by nature, whether we know it or not. Our culture of instant gratification—the way we try to fill the holes in our souls with things—is a direct consequence of our emotional and physical separation from the natural world.
The closer we nest ourselves into the natural world–noticing it, living in it, absorbing it–the closer we are to the small rhythms that nurture our well-being.
Because what is well-being after all but simply a sense of belonging?
Snails, we are brought up to think, are slow. I am here to tell you that snails are not slow. Not when you’re using them as models as you perch on a low-tide rock, peering into a tide pool with watercolors balanced beside you and you are in the full grip of an artistic fever to capture this light and shaped-filled moment. Then snails hunker along quite annoyingly rapidly. What was, when you first spied it, a sinuous curve of light and dark, two snails in a perfect sine wave and you catch your breath with the awe of it and quickly, quickly! get your pencil and brush and paper out and, secure in the knowledge that snails are slow and you have plenty of time—all the time in the world, in fact, given that snails are so slow—lay down a line of shape and hue and glance to your models and discover that, oh my gosh, that sine curve is no longer. Now the space between them only speaks of space between them and not a beautiful visual harmony and you shake your head a little wondering if in fact you were mistaken at the beginning and then you realize, HEY, they are moving! Little-thick-antennae-sticking-out-suctioning-along-pulling-the-shell-behind-purposeful-moving.
I don’t pretend to know where snails in a tide pool are going. It’s only a tiny tide pool after all. But they have shown me that slow is relative and that time, tide and snails wait for no man.
When I posted last week about watching dragonflies hatch, I didn’t realize at the time it was a metaphor for my current life.
This past week, it seemed every direction I faced there was a wall. Nothing got finished; everything in process, obstacles galore. After about the third frustrating project, the image of the dragonfly nymph popped up. My subconscious was knocking.
I thought back to that afternoon and how I had felt a combination of peace and impatience watching the nymph emerging from its confining caste. The peace because it felt so wondrous, the impatience because it was taking so long.
I remembered how the nymph’s emergence had had spurts of effort followed by long moments of stillness. During the still parts, I imagined the nymph making minute adjustments to its still-restrained body inside the caste, cognizant that a single impulsive movement could tear the delicate membrane of the wings. (I did see a dragonfly that had emerged with crooked, broken wings–heartbreaking–and this dragonfly was doomed. A dragonfly must be able to fly.)
I think anyone who tries something new (which is another word for growth) is like that nymph emerging. And like the nymph that instinctively knows when to push and when to rest and adjust, I think there is a roadmap inside us.
If a dragonfly is given the intrinsic knowledge of how to grow, surely we, as part of nature, are too. There is no guarantee we will be successful (the broken-winged dragonfly) but there is the knowledge, always, waiting for us to only listen.
I was filling up the watering can from the pond when I noticed a small bug-looking thing hanging from another bug on the dock steps. It was odd enough for me to take a closer look. Then I realized I was seeing one bug emerging from a bug, or rather, a casing. Dragonflies. Watering chores would have to wait. I got my glasses and camera and settled onto the warm planks of the dock to watch.
This bizarre looking thing is a dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage, where it has lived in the water for a year. I can’t wrap my head around how what was a bug is now a bug-casing and there’s a new bug coming out of it.
The dragonfly has emerged. At this point, It looks more like a worm than a dragonfly, and see how tiny the wings are? As it hangs there, it gets larger and when I compare the casing it came out of, I wonder how it ever fit.
Then the wings grow–gossamer incredible bits of translucence. Are they unfolding or expanding or both? Really, it is a miracle.
Then more hanging there while the wings get even larger.
Now the dragonfly, looking like a dragonfly and twice as large as its original casing, crawls up and faces the wind. It takes its tiny legs and rubs them over its giant eyes. I am so, so eager to watch it fly. But it waits, wings back, more facing into the wind, more eye rubbing.
And then it happens. The wings that have been up to now, straight back, suddenly open, two on each side, and like a prop plane warming up, they vibrate, feeling the wind.
And then it takes off, up into the air, and away.
From the water to the air, from an aquatic bug to a flying thing, in less than two hours. And we humans think we’re so clever with our gadgets. We’re just lumbering blind things, compared to this miracle.
It is a soft, wood thrush morning this morning and sure enough, as soon as I step outside in the misty half-light, I hear him. An ethereal, bamboo flute song that echoes the mystery of the morning.
Hearing it coaxes out my child-wonder and I breathe in deeply and fully. A gentle and magical beginning to my day.
I wonder if there’s anything more satisfying than an April shower?
This morning I woke up to the little pitter patter of rain drops on the thawed pond, each drop making its circle of ripples until the whole surface shimmered. Then a waft of fresh air came through the open bedroom windows, air that had moisture and something green in it–the smell of damp earth and things growing.
Winter, my dears, is over.
I knew about the energy vortexes that Sedona, Arizona is famous for since I was immersed in that world when I was a practicing massage therapist. I even taught the Energetic Foundations course at the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. But in recent years, I have disengaged from those heady days of crystals and whatnot. So as far as energy vortexes went, I was keeping a neutral mind when Richie and I headed to Arizona for our vacation this year.
Our B&B wasn’t quite ready for us, so we drove to Cathedral Rock, a hiking site and also a purported energy vortex. We began to hike the short, steep trail up the slippery red rock. When the trail turned into a chimney-like crevice, I decided that was enough. We picked another, flatter trail that wound through the scrub at the base of the formation. As we walked further into the rocks, I started to feel…well…good. It wasn’t just the peace of silence and natural beauty; I’ve got plenty of that at home. And it wasn’t just being away from winter, because it was a spitting rainy day in the 50’s. No, what I felt was almost maternal. As if I was being held as a cherished part of the whole.
To make sure I wasn’t making it up, I cast my mind back to hiking in Ghost Ranch last year. The landscape was similar, a place of red rocks and vast distances, but, there, while awed by the beauty, I also remembered feeling distinctly intimidated by this immense physical reminder of my own insignificance.
In Sedona, I woke up the following morning in our private B&B room to the cozy sound of the little coffee maker dripping away. When the coffee was done, Richie brought me a cup and we sat in bed, sipping in companionable silence. “What time did you start the coffee?” I asked, glad for this luxury.
A pause. “I thought you started the coffee,” he said.
* * *
A few days later we drove down to Bisbee, a town at the other, southern end of Arizona. Bisbee is known for its funky arts culture and people assured me I would love it. As we entered Bisbee, a former copper mining town built into a canyon, I felt a growing sense of apprehension. I assumed it was just a bit of claustrophobia because of the steep canyon walls that surround the town. We found our motel and I had a nice glass of whiskey and started to feel more relaxed. We walked around town. I didn’t like it. From the mountains riddled with mine tunnels to the junk shops to the graying hippie population, everything spoke of willful disconnection and the exploitation that is both its cause and result.
Later, back home in Massachusetts, I Goggled Bisbee. To my surprise, I discovered that just about every hotel and public building purports to be haunted. Apparently decades of murdered miners, suicidal prostitutes, and other violent death had left its mark. Was it this uneasy energy I had felt so strongly while I was there?
Some people like ghostly things. I don’t like uneasy ghostly things, but I don’t mind comfortable ghostly things, and a thoughtful ghost who starts the coffee maker in the morning? Well, that’s a ghost I can live with.
I just got back from Arizona where it was both a pleasure and a relief to hike without snowshoes, pat green plants and feel the sun on my bare skin. The severity of this winter in Massachusetts was grinding and I didn’t even realize how beaten down (and weird) I was becoming until Richie and I left it. After a few days of hiking in the stupendously gorgeous red rocks of Sedona, my paranoia about what Mother Nature was planning to inflict next dissolved and my sense of confidence, not to mention perspective, reinstated itself.
We watched hummingbirds flit amongst the cacti and, at an outdoor café, laughed when magpie stole a packet of sugar off a table, then ate it in the nearby tree with sparrows scarfing up the leavings. I picked up a lemon that was on the sidewalk. A lemon! On the sidewalk! Fallen from a tree, just growing there!
Naturally, after a few days of this Eden, my thoughts turned to the people who winter down here—snowbirds, the ones we hardy New Englanders like to scoff at.
I scoff no more. Now I think they’re onto something. And what’s more, I’m starting to think that RV’ers are also onto something. We stopped at Whitewater Draw, a spot in the desert near Bisbee where Sandhill cranes gather. Next to the oasis, a sign at a dirt parking lot informed us we could camp there for free for up to three days. A few RV’s were already parked. How cool is that? You drive your home around the country, park places, plant out the pink flamingoes and lawn chairs, watch the cranes come and go in the sunrise and sunset.
I remember talking to Dario Pegoretti at an early NAHBS when we were both taking breaks, and we jokingly planned a commune in New Mexico with all our frame-building friends. The idea still appeals to me, only now it would be RV’s. We could all drive around in our RV’s, park together in a wagon-train circle, ride bikes (for the cyclists), have a writing prompt session or two (for the writers) and generally have a ducky time avoiding winter.
What do you think? Am I just getting old or is this a ReVolution?
I look at the seed catalogues piled up on the little table next to the chaise. They have been piled there since December and I have not been interested. But the sun is at a higher angle and the air, while still annoyingly cold, has softness not discernable two weeks ago. The cardinal is calling, as are the chickadees, and the goldfinches are starting to turn from buff to yellow-buff. Yes, spring’s coming—hard to fathom as I look at the 30 inches of snow covering the landscape—but it must be. So it really is time to knuckle down and make seed decisions.
But I’m still not interested.
I’ve been planting vegetable gardens from seed every year for thirty years and I have to admit it—the thrill is gone. Maybe it’s because the local food supply around here is fantastic. I belong to both a meat and a vegetable CSA. I joke that all I need is a dessert CSA and I’m set.
So I’m thinking about something radical. I’m thinking about planting a flower-cutting garden in place of the vegetable garden. Flowers, big, honking, colorful armloads of flowers. A crop of color and scent. Can I do it? Can the practical Swede throw a season to the wind and be frivolous with flowers?
Ja, I believe she can.
Tomorrow’s forecasted snow is number five? Six? I can’t remember. At any rate, there’s already plenty, thank you very much, of snow on the ground. I walked in my snowshoes thirty yards or so to check the culvert and it wore me out, the snow was so deep (although to be fair to myself, I was coming down with a cold).
In the food department, I find myself leaning toward making dinners that are heavy on the carbs—no surprise there, since we spend huge amount of calories outdoors just shoveling and hauling wood and whatnot. So last week, I decided to make baked beans in the oven for dinner and as I was assembling the ingredients—maple syrup that was a gift from a friend’s farm, onions and garlic from the garden, bacon from the farm a half-mile away—I dug out the molasses and realized two things: one, molasses really is slow in January (or February) and two, I had just enough for the recipe. I wondered, had I not had enough, what I would do, since driving to the nearest store, even when it’s not snowing, is still almost an hour’s commitment of time. Then I thought, well, of course, I would ask my neighbors up the road if they had any.
Way back when, when stores weren’t close or transportation so readily available, neighbors really did borrow a cup of sugar or a few tablespoons of molasses to finish up a recipe if they found themselves short. And they supplied to their neighbors as well, when it came to it. So that old saying about borrowing a cup of sugar is based on an agrarian truth, like so many of our adages. It reveals the heart of a community, underscored in a rough winter. Asking for a hand: It’s what people do when they have to and it’s what people give, when they’re asked.
P.S. For a passionate, poetic view of life in the country, in the winter, see Ben Hewitt’s blog.