David Taylor Reflections
Dates: August 4–10, 2013
Lodging: Stone Valley Recreation Area, Cabin #7
Sustenance: granola bars, Lance’s Sandwich Cracker variety pack, turkey and swiss sandwiches, peanut butter, strawberry jam, Starbucks VIA Ready Brew (that just means instant!) Coffee Packets, a couple of trips for dinner and beer at Otto’s Pub and Brewery (try the Double D IPA!), lots of tap water, and a variety pack or two of good Pennsylvania craft beers (I’ll give you the lowdown if you write me).
The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”)
The earth, I see, writes with prodigal clear hands all summer, forever, and all winter also, content, and certain to be understood in time — as doubtless, only the great user of words himself fully enjoys and understands himself. (Walt Whitman, An American Primer)
Everything and everybody is a potential story or a song. Life, the universe is a great symphony and the stars, planets, the earth, and us people, are just one great dance. These are all the things on my mind.
(Woody Guthrie letter to Marjorie Mazia, June 10, 1944)
About two months ago, when asked to be the next participant in the LTERP project, I said yes reluctantly, pointing out I knew nothing of central Pennsylvania natural history. I have a decent understanding of plants, critters, and geography of my north-central Texas home, but even there I am a mediocre naturalist, avid, just not particularly competent. Oh, I have friends who are great naturalists, and my environmental science colleagues at my university can answer most of my questions — some thoughtful, some worthy of their eye rolls at the asking.
No, no, I was told, You don’t have to know the natural history here. Ask questions! Spend time at the LTERP sites. Be ignorant. Listen, learn and watch. I got the first of those down, I thought, so welcome.
I did bring my National Audubon Society Field Guides to Eastern Birds and Trees and the National Field Guide to Butterflies. However, some of the following has been researched after my week at Shaver’s Creek by looking up the information in other guidebooks and also by asking colleagues, friends, and folks at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center for confirmation and guidance. These people at Shaver’s Creek are wonderful and kind. Stop by and hang out with them sometime! Any mistakes or misidentification are mine.
Why Emerson, Whitman, and Woody?
I brought along Emerson’s “The Poet,” Walt Whitman’s An American Primer, and some photocopies of Woody Guthrie’s letters and notebooks from my research at The Woody Guthrie Archives for my time before and after visiting the LTERP sites. The readings didn’t offer anything new about this place, but have been part of my research for various projects over the last few years. Woody, especially, has made me think broadly about music, writing, and art, reminding me to also work and talk with folks not in the hallowed halls of an English Department or a university. Woody’s been a damn tough and good teacher that way; reading him is a constant gut check. What all three always offer are some thoughts and encouragement on language, poetry, music, and connection with people and place. It occurred to me what I might bring to Shaver’s Creek and to the LTERP is just this — poetry, music, and connection. What follows is an odd collection of arts reaching from their thoughts and teachings to my experience in this amazing and beautiful place to you. I’ll say more about this later, but this work is intended to get you out of your chair to be in these LTERP sites, to be there by yourself or with those you love or at least like, and to write, dance, and/or sing for yourself. Woody would say if you ain’t gettin’ folks a’ movin’ and a’ feelin’, you ain’t doin’ what ya’ should. Emerson would remind you of our inherent resonance between nature and the poet within all of us. And heck, Whitman would say every word, accent, sound, and syllable is worthy of note. So get out there!
Twin Bridges cross Shaver’s Creek farther up, so that even when Lake Perez fills, it should still be a river and riparian area instead of standing water. The blackberries aren’t ripe yet, but the Glossy Buckthorn is full with berries black and red. The Joe Pye Weed is four feet tall and the Black-Eyed Susan about the same.
Bumble bees roam each side of the bridges and fill themselves on the flowers, unconcerned by my grabbing the closest flower and pulling it near me. If you stand on the eastern bridge you’ll hear the comforting sound of a creek. You’ll also see a hefty chain tethering the eastern bridge to a hemlock upstream. I’m guessing during a past storm the western bridge lost its twin for a while. It’s a lush transition from hemlock, pine and poplar forests and the matted needle-leaf trail to the bridge over Shaver’s Creek with chest-high flowers and shrubs topped with tiger swallowtails and fritillaries of some sort.
The Environmental Center has day camps throughout much of the summer, so kids around 5–12-years-old move in packs led by high school or college-age interns. Up over a rise or down the trail I’d hear their giggles and footsteps or other times the group will break into a loud, silly song flushing out even the bluejays. Once, at Sunset Point, a group walked into the pavilion and the leader yelled, “Camouflage” and the children scattered and hid behind trees and rocks trying to blend into the forest. On the grassy lawn adjacent to the Center, another bunch played “Mosquito Tag” running around with fanoodles stuck to their noses jabbing their then paralyzed host. An intern turned to me and said, “It’s Adaptation Day!” Ah, I grinned.
Standing on the eastern bridge, I see a group of campers walking toward me from the other bridge. They take note and are appropriately wary of me, an adult they don’t know. For a moment, it seemed we were so far apart, this generation of kids and me, almost old enough to be their grandparent, on either side of these twin bridges.
When I was their age in the mid 70s, my summers were spent on my own. My mom would make me a lunch (usually Fritos and a bologna sandwich) and tell me not to be inside the house until they returned from work. We lived near a reservoir dam and below it was 1,800 acres of forested, flood plain bliss. I would roam the woods making forts of rocks and limbs or fish for sand bass in the shallows of the Elm Fork tossing a silver slab lure and reeling it in slowly against the current. 5 o’clock always came too early, but I knew I had to be back by dinnertime. I’d come home with fossils, rocks, or odd shaped sticks that caught my fancy. Sometimes, I’d also bring home a poison ivy rash and chigger bites all along my legs; now and then my mom would pluck a gray, bulbous, engorged tick off me. Those summers, though, were sheer joy. Some forty years later, I’ve never lost that feeling. It is the single most important reason I’m here as part of the LTERP and why I write; writing or a walk in the woods lets me become that playful and curious boy again.
In his essay “The Extinction of Experience” from The Thunder Tree, Robert Michael Pyle points out that without vacant lots and woods to roam in children can lose a sense of caring for the natural world. More recently, in Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv makes a compelling case for the need to get children in the natural world, coining the phrase “nature-deficit-disorder” to describe a loss of connection with other living things. More and more I see a gap between myself and my college students: their need to stay “text”-ually connected at all times; their iPads churning with video games; their earbuds serving as a wall of sound separating them from the world as they walk between classes. Of course, some of my feeling is the age-old problem of every generation becoming old geezers and lamenting “these kids these days.” Some of it, though, is my fear that they won’t have experience outdoors like mine — playful, curious, and partly conscious of all the myriad life around them.
The intern smiles and waves at me, and I wave back. She motions the kids to follow, and they return to their chatter and laughter, the round, wooden nametags hung around their necks bouncing right and left. We pass each other on the landing between the Twin Bridges, and one kid gasps and points to a huge tiger swallowtail lifting from the flowers and flying between us, its wings seem as big as my palms. There are oohs and aahs from the kids, and I can’t help letting out a small gasp too. These kids will be all right. We’re really not so far apart. We’re still crossing the same twin bridges.
Site 2: Rudy Sawmill
(for Jerod Skebo, naturalist)
The trail to the Rudy Sawmill site is less worn than other trails. Hikers and visitors don’t often walk this far into the forest. The hemlock, pine, poplar forest feels thicker and sunlight less available. You have to look for the trail markers on the trees to get to the sawmill site, and you have to look closely to know when to head toward Shaver’s Creek to see it. The day before, my friend Ian had taken me to the sawmill site and asked, “What looks strange here?”
It’s the same feeling I have when playing Where’s Waldo? I know there’s an anomaly I’m supposed to be seeing. Creek. Check, it’s OK. Pile of rocks. Too close together and stacked back when. Not OK. Forest. It’s young, but most of this forest is, all of it having being cut not more than a century ago. OK. Big groove in the ground arcing toward Shaver’s Creek but no running water or muddiness. It isn’t a tributary. Whoa, not OK. Ian gave me partial credit for seeing the sluiceway and filled in the gaps, so I could see all of “Waldo.” When the sawmill was in use, water was diverted to [power the mill — Ed.]. Since no water is diverted now, it’s a dry crease in the land. Hemlocks grow in the middle of the cut, which suggests running water isn’t common.
Today, I’m on my own. I’ve been on the trail since the sun first made its way over the mountain to the east and spending most of my time dodging Spined Micrathena webs. They are the perfect height to walk into face-first. It’s not a pleasant sensation. They’re harmless, so I can’t help feeling guilty accidentally tearing one web after another. If I see it first, I take the time to follow the threads to their origination point and step under or around the web. They’re gorgeous webs, intricate and lacey; some folks call them “CD spiders” because their webs look just like my old Pink Floyd CDs.
By the time I get to the sawmill site, I want to get to the creek and wash a few dozen webs stuck to my face. I nod to the sawmill site, knowing the forest around me wouldn’t have been here when the sawmill was functional. I replay yesterday’s conversation with Ian, and somehow the area is a bit more intimate because I understand its history a little better. Shaver’s Creek feels cool and clean as I wash my face. I stack three or four flat rocks to make a seat and sit to write in my journal. Downstream a few yards, the creek takes a hard turn to the right and the current scoops out the softer soil to make a deep pool (three feet in places) in the stream. Some of the trees and shrubs are being washed out and cling to the bank while bending upward to sunlight.
The pool is full of life, a school of fish darting from one end to the other, water striders scooting across the surface. I notice, however, I am in another “Where’s Waldo?” moment, seeing only what I know or what’s obvious. What now? Slow down David. Slow down. Look. Be patient. It’s hard to call yourself out to make such a change, but that is in part how to begin to see more of what’s there. Just then a black flutter crosses in front of me and lands on a downed shrub crossing the creek just below the pool. Its body is an iridescent bluegreen that changes colors with the shifting sunlight. Next to this insect I notice small, alienlike multicolored cones growing out of the shrub leaves.
I don’t know what either the black flutter is, much less the strange candy corn stuck to the leaves or even the shrub. I take lots of pictures and make notes in my journal; this is enough for now. I am slowing down.
Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center has some amazing naturalists; Doug Wentzel and Josh Potter see, hear, and feel the natural world surrounding them in a way I doubt I will ever experience. A bird call over here? Kingfisher … belted. Over there, a nurse log … a fallen log now below the soil providing nutrients for the saplings. Walking with them opens up what’s around you in a way that feels like walking in a small town with a local. Jerod Skebo is another naturalist on staff; he’s a young man whose curiosity, knowledge, and dedication belie his young age. His passion for nature does not. He’ll root around in a rotten tree for five-lined skinks and snake eggs and then handle them with the care of a new parent. He’ll skip a family reunion to look for hellbender salamanders because they’re family too. Twice, he made his way to my cabin to talk late into the evening about what he saw that day, his naturalist studies, his scientific studies, and how he was able to share this with others, all the while never ebbing in his love for this life.
At the Environmental Center, Jerod looks at my photos. “Ebony Jewelwing, a damselfly, and some kind of gall on Witch Hazel,” he quickly answered. “Some call them Witch’s Hats.”* He goes on to talk about the characteristics of the jewelwing, how the females have a white spot on the ends of their wings, their prey, and their predators. His hands mimic how their wings move in flight; his face is pure joy.
When I return from my trip, I do the appropriate research on Ebony Jewelwings and Witch’s Hats. It deepens the memory of my time there, but this is after the fact. Just as importantly, it reminds me of how fluidly Jerod engages in his place. I’m playing Where’s Waldo? and asking myself to slow down. I’m doing the work I need to to best understand, but it’s not familiar in that old sense of the word familial. It’s beautiful and complex, but it’s not home. Jerod’s home, and he’s attending family reunions every day in this place with a naturalist’s passion and love.
Site 3: Chestnut Plantation
(Thanks to Sara Fern Fitzsimmons, Research Technician with Penn State and The American Chestnut Foundation, for additional information)
A portion of Mountain View Trail is a gravel road along the top of a ridge; it’s a stark transition from the rest of the trail meandering through hemlock, pine and hardwood forests. On the road, I feel somehow more exposed than I was during my long saunter up the mountain — all this sunlight compared to before.
Off on the west side of the road a saunterer will come upon a fenced forest, or better yet, as the sign puts it, a plantation. The trees are rank and file and often have girders on the trunks to protect predation, insect or otherwise. It’s clear that this is a research site, and the trees are like nothing else I had seen — the leaves not in my catalogue of recognizable shapes. It’s not surprising because I’ve never seen a chestnut tree.
We all know Mel Tormé’s 1944 “The Christmas Song,” “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …,” but how many of us have actually roasted American chestnuts? Very few. The American chestnut was one of the dominant trees in eastern forests soaring to 100 feet in height and making up almost a quarter of all trees along the Appalachians with a population well over 3 billion. However, by the time Tormé was typing out his lyric, most of the American chestnuts were infected by Asian Bark Fungus and by the time I was born in 1962, virtually all American chestnuts were gone. Chestnuts were prized not only for their nut, but for their timber. Thus, timber folk quickly cleared the forests of the dead chestnuts — you’ll still see furniture and floors made out of chestnut in some old houses. The chestnuts you buy from the store to roast are likely from the European chestnut; however, it isn’t cold hardy enough to withstand our winters. So, when Mel’s talking about “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” a European chestnut would be dying.
Standing before the Xi Sigma Pi Red Pine Clear Cut American Chestnut Plantation, I remember these are the first chestnuts (American or Chinese) I’ve ever seen. Oh, when I’ve wandered in the forests in southern Appalachia I’ve found chestnut stumps with a shoot or two growing out of them, but I’ve never seen a chestnut tree silhouette, even small ones like these (15–20 ft).
I contacted the email on the Xi Sigma sign and was directed to Sara Fern Fitzsimmons. Sara referred me to a recent New York Times article about chestnut restoration and the American Chestnut Foundation, a source for all things chestnut and a vital resource for connecting researchers interested in returning the chestnut to eastern forests. There’s a lot going on in American chestnut restoration; foresters, biologists, molecular biologists, and geneticists are all at work to find a blight resistant tree. Heck, even Dolly Parton has a song about chestnuts you can download.
Notice, though, I didn’t say returning the “American chestnut” to eastern forests, but this sentence is up for interpretation. Ms. Fitzsimmons and some others are working toward breeding chestnut trees with resistance to the fungus and the favored characteristics of the American chestnut by crossing chestnut species. Thus, according to Ms. Fitzsimmons, this planting has several different species of chestnuts, along with few hybrids. Planted here are:
American chestnut (Castanea dentata)
Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima)
Japanese chestnut (C. crenata)
European chestnut (C. sativa) – though these have not fared well due to their lack of cold-tolerance
F1 — American x Chinese hybrids
B1 — American x (American x Chinese) backcrosses
B2 — American x [American x (American x Chinese)] backcrosses.
The goal is after enough generations that the best of these hybrids can be reintroduced into the forests bearing blight resistance and enough resemblance to American chestnuts to compete with other species. Other researchers are working on restoring the American chestnut by working at the genetic level by introducing a wheat gene that allows the tree to fight off the blight. Now, they are also introducing genes from the Chinese Chestnut. These genetically modified trees would have all the characteristics of the American chestnut. Ms. Fitzsimmons emphasizes there this isn’t a competition in their research methodologies but rather a collaborative effort to return the chestnut to our forests. That is the goal.
Bravo to all involved! I look forward to encountering a forest with chestnut trees. I have to wonder, though, no matter which type of research might succeed, whether those trees would be American chestnuts. It’s an odd and funny thought to imagine those backcrossed chestnuts thriving and sorting through my imagined memory of what they looked like before 1900. Or if the gene-altered chestnuts are the better option and the trees I’ll see look identical to pre-blight American chestnuts, will I have that strange reaction of imagining them with little Frankenstein-like bolts on their trunks? Please listen when I say I’m not saying any of this is bad. Haven’t forests been hybridizing and “genetically modifying” themselves for millennia? No, not by splicing in a wheat gene or the introduction of another continent’s chestnut, but those forests didn’t have to respond to introduced stressors and diseases in a matter of a generation or two. The nature we imagine as non-human no longer exists. I’m not sure that’s a lament, but it is to say that experiencing “nature” is a complex moment, whether it be a scientific observation or an artistic response. In twenty years, I hope I can walk into the woods, gather some chestnuts and roast them over an open fire with my grandkids. What a wild story then I’ll have to tell them.
Site 4: Dark Cliffy Spot
“Song for the Unnamed Creek”
“I like limber, lasting, fierce words ….”
(Walt Whitman, An American Primer)
Guitars: Ian Marshall & Richard Hunt
Note: I apologize for the recording quality. I’m a bit off key, but that’s not unusual.
Talk Verse 1:
Over on Mountain View Trail, there’s a creek without a name. In Pennsylvania, that’s not saying much, there’s a creek flowing one way or another every time a cloud sniffles. But this one is special to me. I was hiking down the trail on a warm August day, sweating and dreary. Just about then the creek offered up a swimming hole, so I dropped my skivvies, donned my Tevas and laid down right in the middle of it. There’s nothing like 100% humidity to cure the discomfort of humidity. It’s a bit overused to say I was immersed or baptized in the stream, but as I sat there, I just tried to see it.
No names are your waters; no sounds are your stone. The poets’ lines fail your calm, their odes are not your own. I wish I had fierce, live words to reflect your beauty clear. I’m not the one to name you, but I have to sing you’re here.
Talk Verse 2:
“Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word,” Emerson says. And I’m here in this nameless creek in a new relation. Knowing this creek is in the timeless dancehall of the earth. I’m listening to the sound of eons — rock and water greeting each other and dancing and dancing, turning and dipping and holding on in cadences fast and slow. One leads and sometimes the other, a small ripple or a fall their curtseys, thank yous, goodbyes and hellos. And I’m wanting to say to them how beautifully they twirl, the slight blue wiggly line on the map, the fish soaring like speckled or striped specters in mirror pools, three different kinds of ferns fixed to the slick, dark rock, and hemlock roots like fingers reaching into the streambank. How do I introduce myself? Say howdy? Say thanks? Say this place, this big turtleback home, the swaying pines and firefly stars are all the more there because of you, creek without a name. I have no words, no language that makes a river into an ear, or a human into running water. But if I don’t say something, my life is without honor, my words and songs without weight. So I’ll sing out! and let the words and sounds drift down the creek and over the ripples and pools mixing and fading and making a relation I might someday understand.
Talk Verse 3:
So here’s to the new word, the new poem, the relation I am trying to make to you, nameless creek, something which I can’t speak, write or fully understand. Hell, even this song couldn’t figure out a normal verse or melody to express itself. But maybe this is as it should be because something typical just wouldn’t be enough.
Site 5: Bluebird Meadow
It’s raining hard and across the lakebed
a church bell rings, half-hearted and erratic. There’s no reason for the sound,
on this rainy Friday afternoon.
No more than a few other people
across the valley to hear it.
In the muggy cabin, the ceiling fan remains on high. Since it’s hung at an angle, off-kilter,
it keeps a rhythmic clack,
metronome to plywood walls —
again the errant clang,
the patter and plop of rain,
a deerfly humming up and down at the window screen.
Listening to this wayward song,
I see Whitman’s image on the book cover
near my journal —
a rumpled beard and dusty coat.
a black rat snake egg shell and acorn by his head, and return here.
Bluebird Meadow is dotted with bluebird houses, singles and duplexes. They’re nice houses, nailed to the top of a post at the right height and with a door hole at just the right diameter. Bluebirds can be picky about such things. They also like meadows and open fields in order to perch and search for prey. A sparkling, blue flash of the male’s wings is a quintessential moment in birding. The introduction of house sparrows and starlings, as well as habitat loss, have been the biggest factors in the reduction of bluebirds. House sparrows and starlings are fierce competitors and very comfortable with adapting to urbanized landscapes and former fields are now strip malls. Thus, many homeowners and most every nature center with appropriate lawns or fields have put up bluebird boxes and created, like the one I’m walking, a bluebird trail.
I don’t see a bluebird this day (August 8) though I linger and sit in the meadow for a couple of hours. I catch my fair share of butterflies, especially silver spotted skippers and Eastern tiger swallowtails. Bumblebees and wasps hum around the lush wildflower options. In the meadow areas, pine saplings dot the fields, and sumac shrubs are well on their way to becoming trees. Bluebird Meadow is quickly becoming “Bluebird Forest”; soon, someone will need to decide to clear the meadow of shrubs and trees if they want bluebirds here.
Along the trail to and from Bluebird Meadow, I pass through forests. By now, after a few days of walking into the face-high Spined Micrathena webs, I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting them beforehand. When one has the chance to see them vs. wear them, the webs are a beautiful and complex work of functional art. Only the females build the webs, devouring it at sunset and rebuilding it every morning, starting with three main threads and then circling in the center making the orb. The height, typically between three to seven feet, is perfectly situated to catch flying insects.
What’s catching my eye today is that twice I’ve encountered a falling leaf caught in a web. It’s a disturbing sight to see a leaf suspended in mid-fall and wonder first what gravity-defying event is taking place. It levitates there, twirling in the light wind. I have this strange sensation of time stopping just around this leaf in this space, but, of course, I jolt myself back into looking at the objectively at the situation. Then, I have to marvel at the strength of the web to have caught the falling leaf without tearing and then keep hold of it in the breeze.
The second “unfalling” leaf I come across resembled a hummingbird hovering over a flower. I’ve seen ruby-throated hummingbirds throughout the week working the wildflowers in the lakebed. Here, this yellowish-brown leaf is caught in such a way that the stem points just like a hummingbird’s beak. Having some time to ponder such a thing, I watch it turn this way and that or as I like to fancy, moving from imaginary flower to flower.
I’m wondering now how many folks have had this experience, looking at a natural object (a leaf) in a natural event (being caught in a web) taking on the characteristics of art. I know there’s a risk to this flight of imagination — not seeing what’s really there, leaf, web, breeze, gravity. However, I’ve been on the trail for hours now, seen vibrant colors and taken in wonderful scents from the meadow flowers, stalked butterflies and ground cedar, noted the progression of meadow returning to forest. Beyond that, I’ve been in Stone Valley four days with my only work being to roam the trails, visit the LTERP sites, and eventually create art about my responses. I can’t say I’ve earned this moment of seeing the “humming-leaf-bird” because there’s an arrogance to typing that. Perhaps, it’s the gift of time that I’ve been given. It isn’t so much that I am seeing something, as the privilege of time I’ve been given has offered me such a sight. How many more moments like this might we see if we have the time? If we make the time? I know that this residency is the gift that has allowed me to be here, right now by this leaf and web, but I’m reminded that I also have some choices about my time when I am home — my mornings, evenings and weekends. Where will I choose to be with my free time? If I want such sights as this, I need to attend to them. The remarkable appears in nature when we use our time to witness it.
Site 6: Lake Perez
Lake Perez is a study in irony; up until October, 2013, you can walk to its center and plop down your lawn chair as I did. On the trail map it’s listed as Lake(bed) Perez. Canoes, fishing and sailboats are neatly lined up and eagerly await standing water.
Piers and docks offer walkways into stands of saplings, Joe Pye Weed and thistles. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has placed Fish Habitat Enhancement Structures in the lakebed for the impending impoundment.
They look like some sort of giant Jenga game gone very wrong and left for the vegetation to overtake. What makes me scratch my head is pondering for whom the signs are intended. Obviously, it’s intended as a temporary audience to keep folks wandering around the lakebed, like me, from grabbing one for yard art or such. Odd, once the lake is filled, who’ll read the signs then; outside of The Incredible Mr. Limpet (young folk, look it up), fish don’t read well.
A sign near the dam gives something of Lake Perez’s history, its size, its birth, and the Civil Engineer who envisioned it. Professor Lawrence Perez saw in this valley a lake waiting to be born of Shaver’s Creek, and likely from the lake, Stone Valley Recreation Area, with cabins and restrooms, was also born. The cabins and grounds are immaculately kept. Oh, and an off-topic query — WHY do Pennsylvanians love to mow so much? I can see, sitting on the porch of my cabin and looking across the grounds and lakebed to the far shore and hills beyond, how proud Prof. Perez must have been in 1961.
Something, though, there is, that doesn’t love a dam, whether it be shifting rock, the push of water, springs and seeps weakening all that engineering. Thus, three or four years back the lake was drained and the dam taken down. Locals tell me another dam was near complete not long ago, but that too had to be taken down because seeps and springs in the rock might silently erode it. There was talk about not rebuilding the dam and letting Shaver’s Creek wind its way through the weeds. No doubt, someone looked at all those abandoned boats and piers and possibly unoccupied cabins and let it be known that this is not the Corps of Engineers’ way. Now, this version, the last version, I’m told, should last. I won’t be around another 52 years to see, but over the week, I have come to intimate Lake Perez’s sense of humor about such things. [Ed. note: The dam at Lake Perez was originally replaced a little over a decade ago, then again drained around 2008 to remedy subsurficial seeps and springs below the dam. After five years of permitting, these issues were addressed in the fall of 2013 and the lake will be refilled in 2014.]
I can’t say that in my one short week here I have much of a stake in whether there should be a lake here. It’s beautiful the way it is, full to the brim with flowers of brilliant colors and smells and yet partially created by human wants; the lake too will be beautiful with sailboats whipping through turns and will equally be there because of us. I’m not sure what to make of this other than a kind of irony. Such a feeling can be piquant; it can also be devastating. I’ll let you decide.
Take the canoe and drag it out on the lake bed overgrown With grass and reeds and flowers seeds where forest critters roam. Jump in the boat and paddle hard, let the stroke push through the weeds. Close your eyes, and dream real hard, you’re right where you believe.
Oh, Lake Perez is wide and green, the grassy banks unclear. Where water stood and children swam are memories splashing here. Rebuild the dam and flood the creek, the lake will make its home. What once I loved will be again, and what I love now will be gone.
“Dry Lake Perez Love Song”
Take the canoe and drag it out on the lake bed overgrown
With grass and reeds and flower seeds where forest critters roam.
Jump in the boat and paddle hard, let me stroke push through the weeds.
Close your eyes, and dream real hard, you’re right where you believe.
Oh, Lake Perez is wide and green, the grassy banks unclear.
Where water stood and children swam are memories splashing here.
Rebuild the dam and flood the creek, the lake will make its home.
What I once loved and will again, and what I love now will be gone.
Kingfishers cry and bluebirds nest on the meadow ‘tween the hills. Construction trucks keep rolling in with riprap for the fill.
Aspens reach and white pines rise, touching sky as they grow
I’m standing by the dry lakebed wondering what to hope.
Sometimes we long for old lost loves, sometimes we let them go.
Sometimes we want something bright, just to call it gold.
Sometimes we think about what has been, sometimes we want what’s new. Perhaps one day we’ll be OK with just the morning dew.
Site 7: Raptor Center
Ranier Maria Rilke
(translation by Stephen Mitchell)
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars;
and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly — .
An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
It’s early in the morning and no one is here at the Raptor Center, except me. The benches are wet from dew, but it’s worth soggy shorts to sit and take in the amphitheatre. The bald eagles are making their cackling, squeak calls; it seems to me that they are calling to each other across their roomy cages as one waits for the other and then responds. Each has its cage to itself, but their cages are close, so they can easily see each other. I’m guessing they enjoy the company and conversation.
The naturalists told me that one of these eagles had a cage mate that died not long ago. As I’m listening to them, I can’t help feeling a bit of sorrow, wondering if they are remembering their companion. I have this wonderful/dangerous tendency to filter through my emotions. As I tell folks, I cry at lots of things, low art, high art, and sadness or beauty wherever I imagine it: Tony Danza’s Angels in the Outfield; Hank Williams’ songs (I’m talking Sr. as Jr.’s best work just inspires people to throw whiskey bottles or watch football); well-sprayed graffiti; an act of compassion; the shape of light in the bottom of the Grand Canyon; lucky moments of inspiration. The risks are obvious: sentimentality, over-reaction, ignorance about the actual object; the returns are equally obvious: love, connection, openness.
When my daughter was a little girl, she once asked Bob Pyle, one of the world’s best lepidopterists, if butterflies feel? “Do you mean if they sense the world around them or if they have emotions?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she answered. Bob, having a big soul, smiled and paused. He then described a butterfly’s central nervous system and the relative size of its brain matter, but concluded, “I don’t know either.”
How does one experience the world without emotion? I don’t know. Nor should I want to. That’s not to say I don’t want to see the world as a naturalist, but I don’t want to give up what I am either.
It’s important to see the world through some level of objectivity. I tell my students that they shouldn’t write a poem about a flower they can’t identify; it’s creating a false intimacy with something or someone because they haven’t earned a real one. Thus, while I’m not a good naturalist, I try to make sure and balance this tendency to emote by talking to good scientists and naturalists, reading the guidebooks, keeping good journals. I’m still at this place where these are distinct approaches, though, not a seamless response.
I’ve read the signs outside the cages about the natural history and habits of bald eagles. I’ve also read about their decimation by loss of habitat and prey, being hunted as nuisances, and last, the impact of DDT. Down to only a few hundred nesting pairs, bald eagles have been brought back through law, protection, and habitation preservation, and perhaps most importantly, through folk’s sentiment as our nation’s symbol. Caring is likely what motivated us most.
By now, a few adults are wandering through the Raptor Center, drinking coffee or smoking a cigarette before their leadership workshop starts on the other side of the environmental center. We nod at each other, but don’t want to talk because we are focused on the eagles. We’re reading the signs and learning about them, but we’re also looking through the fences and listening intently, enough to still us beyond cursory greetings. We can’t help feeling something standing by these eagle cages, seeing their keen eyes on us this cool, wet morning imagining whether their calls spark for them a memory of taking prey, a reminiscence of pairing, a muscle twitch of riding thermals. We’re trying to earn an intimacy worthy of telling others this story.
Site 8: The Lake Trail
“The Work of Walking”
I built a fire from the wood
gathered from the unused fire pits,
lit the fatwood Ian left me
and a page of last week’s USA Today’s sports section.
I watch the small flames of pine ladder limbs and hemlock bark listening to Eliades Ochoa sing “El Carratero,”
Yo trabajo sin resposo.
It’s been wet all day, low fog and clouds hanging
just off the mountain ridge to the west.
Just as Eliades sings the chorus,
El caballo va para el monte
a light rain, more mist than drops, starts. My chair is near the fire
under a pine bough, an umbrella of sorts.
Off and on a rolling bass note of thunder
follows, and the jays squall and cackle in the tops of the pine
in flurries at each other, limb to limb,
and off in the distance a ladderback woodpecker thumps and thumps
to the rising shush of rain on the pine needles.
After the storm,
the fireflies glitter, moonlit rainfall in the forest.
I’m walking the three mile hike around the lake,
over mowed lawn,
across the rain-slick wood walkways and bridges spanning Shaver’s Creek, around the dam construction,
up and down the trail passing hickory, sumac, oak, pine, hemlock,
listing as I go.
What is this that must be done?
Stretching out one leg then the other,
counting shrubs and trees,
noting the silver spotted skippers by their spattered ore mark,
watching a wren and listening for its call, imitating perch and pitch,
letting the bumblebees whirl and hum around me as I hold a stem of clover, marking a cloud shifting from one ridge to another with my hand.
It’s a calling to circumambulate,
a vocation to circle the mountain there, to round the lake here,
to walk the trail over and over,
beginning to see your own footprints.
LTERPreter: David Taylor, August 4–10, 2013.
David Taylor is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of North Texas. His creative writing and research crosses disciplinary boundaries and genres — poetry, creative non-fiction, scholarship, and science/technical writing. David has also organized multiple interdisciplinary student/faculty projects. In October 2008, he led a group of eight students on a forty-mile trip down the Brazos River re-enacting John Graves’ trip 50 years ago.
All photos on this page by David Taylor.