Ian Marshall Reflections


Site 1: Twin Bridges

Thursday, March 9, 2006

The “Reading the Shavers Creek Landscape” sign by Twin Bridges, where Shavers Creek runs into Lake Perez.

OK, I admit to some trepidation here. Not only am I sullying with blue scribble the first page of a brand-new notebook — one designated for the purpose of the Shavers Creek Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project — but I am also conscious that this will be the first entry of, let’s see, two writers producing eight reports over the course of a hundred years, that makes 16 reports annually or 1600 reports over the next century. And this is the first. Talk about your blank slate. Of course, it’s already not so blank — I’m more than halfway down the first page. And the landscape itself is no tabula rasa — there’s plenty written here. It’s a palimpsest actually — a page written on several times over, with seas and glaciers, rising and receding shorelines, storms and sunshine at various times erasing and rewriting.

I don’t want to take my analogies too far. For one thing, this landscape is not actually underlain by slate, I don’t believe. Limestone, maybe? A question for a geologist. As is the question as to just when this land was under water. Or if the glaciers reached here in the last ice age.

Sounds — the sibilants of Shavers Creek. A distant woodpecker.

Another first now: with a borrowed GPS unit, I attempt to take a reading for the first time. “Wait . . . Tracking Satellites,” it says. It’s a Garmin. And our position is . . . drum roll, please . . . N40 40.010’, W077 54.400’. Elevation: 844 ft.

Now the position is N40 40.045, W077 54.424’. Why the change? I’m not moving. Because the satellites are? The earth is? Trees are in the way?

On the bridge: N40 40.027’, W077 54.417’. Mark as a waypoint on the GPS.

The topic of “reading the landscape” — as opposed to taking its measurements — this seems a good fit for a literary ecocritic and writer like me. So much of the nature writing tradition is about reading landscape. In fact, much of American history, or at least the history of American relations with the natural world, has been about reading the landscape. When the Puritans came here from Europe, they were trying to purify their religion, to free it from all the institutional folderol that had come to mark established religion in Europe — the ornate churches and extravagant iconographic art, the whole social class of the clergy intervening between the individual and God, interpreting God and the Bible, representing God in judging the moral behavior of the rest of humanity. Hoping to dispense with all that, the Puritans wanted individuals to establish a direct relationship with God — no fancy churches, no established bureaucracy of clergy, not even the Bible. But without the representative of God or the word of God, how was one to know the mind of God? In America, which to the newly arrived Europeans looked like pristine wilderness, one could look to the land, God’s handiwork. The world was text, everywhere bespeaking the mind of God. Thus you have, in the mid-1700s, Jonathan Edwards, in Images or Shadows of Divine Things, reading the mountain, say, as a middle ground between earth and heaven, partaking of both. The way up is difficult, and wearying, like the path of the Christian who aspires to heaven, but on top fresh breezes blow and one has a grand perspective on all that lies below. But as a reminder not to lapse into the sin of pride, Edwards also points out that lightning strikes in high places, and if you get too prideful up there in the high place, you will be struck down.

For the transcendentalists a century after Edwards — writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau — nature was still a text to be read for its symbolic value, but now the spiritual lessons were not necessarily limited to a Christian context. “Particular natural facts are the symbols of particular spiritual facts,” said Emerson. “Nature is the symbol of spirit.” In this sense, nature is the means by which we gain understanding of natural laws and by which we have access to the realm of spirit, and can thereby transcend the physical world.

Of course, Thoreau was so enamored of the physical world that while he could certainly live by the transcendentalist party line (“let us not under-rate the value of a fact; it will one day flower into a truth”), he could also perceive nature as the transcendental realm itself, not just a world of symbol that one should somehow strive to transcend: “Is not nature, rightly read, that of which we take it to be the symbol merely?”

Here there is a stream, bifurcated, twin bridges spanning the two branches. Hemlocks. Open space with standing dead trees on the island between the two legs of the creek. The sign here gives tips for “reading the landscape,” pointing out the linear surface roots of hemlocks, telling us that those roots bespeak the underground presence of a “nurse log,” a fallen hemlock that nurtured the growth of a line of new hemlocks. The sign points out that one can often see in the forest “pillows” and “cradles,” swellings and depressions of ground where a tree once fell, with the root ball making a mound (the “pillow”) and its vacated space making a small crater (the “cradle”). Sometimes these are called “pits” and “mounds” rather than “cradles” and “pillows.” Across the creek is a fallen white pine, crown to the east, suggesting that it was blown over by a wind from the west, and that in turn suggests that it was a summer storm that did the deed. (If it fell to the northwest, that would suggest a wind from the southeast and late summer or autumn, hurricane season. To the southwest, from a winter nor’easter.) Its root ball is taller than I am, and the depression it left in the ground a few feet deep — a future pillow and cradle. For the most part, though, the forest here is not marked by pillows and cradles, which suggests that the trees did not fall over naturally, root ball and all, but were cut (or were burned). And the nurse log, likely a hemlock, was probably cut as well, the trunk left to rot after the bark was stripped for tanning leather.

“Are there other clues to the puzzle” of this landscape, the sign asks. And, yes, there are — some of the hemlocks here are girdled round, the work of beavers. They weren’t trying to eat or gather the hemlocks, just kill them in order to make space for more preferred species. Beavers — that would explain the open space and standing dead trees along the stream. This was a beaver pond once. When humans built a dam downstream to form Lake Perez, well, they weren’t the first. So what am I reading into the landscape? Something analogous between human activity and nature’s. My very phrasing suggests that the two are separate realms — the human, the natural — and it’s always a thorny issue trying to figure out to what extent human activity is natural or against nature. A dam — clearly a human artifact. But the lake behind it? Isn’t the whole thing just another version of a beaver dam and its pond? But if a dam is OK here, if it is “natural,” then why not anywhere, like, say, the Grand Canyon? As an environmentalist, I know that dams are decidedly unpopular — they turn wild places into controlled spaces. But I also know that the lake here provides an attractive focal point for my excursions in the area. Most of the time when I come here, I hike around the lake.

I should cite my source here — or the sign’s source: Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape. It’s a terrific book about how to make sense of what’s going on in a forest — or rather, what has gone on. I remember meeting Wessels on a hike at Mt. Monadnock in Vermont. After showing our group a stone wall in the forest and then showing us how we could tell what the land on each side was used for (cattle here, sheep there), he pointed out the bent branch of a large tree. “That happened at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, September 9, 1938,” he said. (Actually, I made up the time and date because I don’t remember exactly what he said. But it was that specific.) How in the world, we wondered, could he possibly know the exact date and time? The answer: from the size of the tree and the direction of the fall of its fellows, he knew this tree had been in the middle of a hurricane, and not many hurricanes make it that far north. But the ’38 hurricane caused extensive damage in the area, and from knowing when it hit nearby towns, he could extrapolate just when it had passed through the forest.

Wessels’ book is set up like a series of detective stories. Each chapter begins with an illustration, and then bit by bit, clue by clue, he points out the features that reveal the history of the forest in the illustration. By the end of the chapter, you have solved the mystery. Actually, as a reader you’re often more like Dr. Watson, expostulating at the brilliance of Wessels in the role of Sherlock Holmes of the northern forest, who calmly explains the obvious significance of the clues you missed.

I’m no Holmes out here in the woods, but Wessels reminds me of how much there is to see if I can learn a few basics of ecological science and pay attention to what I’m seeing. As Melville’s Ishmael says, “Surely all this is not without meaning.”

Monday, March 13

While my home-schooled son works as a volunteer at the raptor center, helping to care for the animals, I walk back down to the twin bridges. I want to dwell further on the metaphor of landscape as readable text, touching on some basic literary theory and some recent ideas about “biopoetics.”

First, the literary theory: one of the starting points of a course in literary criticism is to ask how a text makes meaning, or where meaning is located. Our students often arrive with the old-fashioned notion that all reading is an attempt to decode the author’s intent, so the reader is trying to figure out what the author means. In that sort of reading, biographical information would be important to know. But in the middle of the twentieth century, New Critics dismissed all that as the “Intentional Fallacy” and shifted attention to the text itself. How could we ever know, really, what an author intended, and what does that matter anyway? All we have to work with is the text, and that’s where meaning must lie. Later in the twentieth century, other critics made the case that meaning lies with the reader. Or they contended that as long as literature is made out of the slippery stuff of language, we can never agree on any one meaning, and that any text will invariably undermine all attempts to convey a particular meaning, and that meaning is contingent upon such factors as the influence of culture, both the writer’s and the reader’s, and since culture changes all the time, well, so will meaning. Whew. The simple question of where meaning comes from gets complicated in a hurry.

So where does the meaning of this place lie? A hemlock grove, a nurse log underground, a stream, crayfish in the stream, standing dead snags, a history of beavers, evidence of human logging, a partially cloudy day, warm, in the 60s. And here I am. It seems to me now that to read all this as an expression of the mind of God is to engage in the Intentional Fallacy. To read like a transcendentalist, detecting universal laws, is to read like a New Critic, who saw all texts as reconciling tensions and holding ironies (perhaps as a way to explain away the fact that different readers reached opposite conclusions). And I wonder if this long-term ecological reflections project is not a kind of reader-response data collection. Let’s see what the geologist, the ecologist, the environmental historian, the economist, the botanist, the literary critic, the ethicist — let’s see what they make of this place, this set of places. The writers who will be asked to contribute to this project are representatives of different academic cultures, trained to look in different ways and to see and wonder about different things. But we’ll all be making meaning, or looking for meaning, each trying to read the landscape in a particular way, with the aid of a particular lens.

Maybe what the literary critic can do is remind us of the intricacies and the complexity of meaning-making. I mean, we’re the ones who have studied the processes of reading and interpretation. Maybe we can remind the representatives from other fields of the difficulty of trying to convey meaning, or even of being able to see the world without imposing our culturally-determined preconceptions. Maybe we can remind others that metaphor is everywhere in our use of language, even when I say a word like “in” when I say “in our language,” which works with the idea of language as container. And it’s certainly there in a metaphor like “reading the landscape,” which presupposes the idea of landscape as text, an object separate from the self, the purpose of which is edification or entertainment. A text is unchanging, can be stored on a shelf somewhere to be reexamined later, passed on to a new generation of readers.

But all of these assumptions implicit in the metaphor of landscape as text are open to challenge. Are we separate from the text of nature? If so, we ought to recall Heisenberg’s observation that the act of observation changes the thing observed. I remember a friend of mine telling a story about bear biologists in the Smokies tracking behavioral patterns in bears and finding that they (the bears) could be cranky, irritable, and unpredictable. Then a sociologist showed up to observe the biologists, following them around and taking notes, and observing that eventually the biologists too became cranky, irritable, and unpredictable.

Other assumptions inherent in the “reading the landscape” metaphor: Is its purpose to fulfill the desires of a reader? What constitutes a good or valid reading? What sort of literacy is required? What do we receive from the text — information, moral improvement, a relaxing reprieve from the stress of everyday life? (“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” said Henry.) Can this text stay the same, from one reader to the next, even from one day to the next? Are we all looking at the same text?

It’s warmer today than when I was here last week. More birds are out. I’m on the bridge over the deep part of Shavers Creek. The water’s really flowing today, producing deep gurgles to accompany the stream’s sibilance.

Streamsound — its gurgles, splashes, hisses — attest that the relationship between word and meaning is not always arbitrary. It’s why Emerson said all words can be traced back to their source in nature.

And right now seems like a good time to quote Loren Eiseley: “If there is magic on this planet, it is in water.”

Ooh — a trout in the pool just below a fallen log about thirty feet upstream. Twelve inches long, I’d guess. Facing upstream, so it can see what’s coming downstream. There’s a lesson there for us all.

S’s in the overall shape of the stream, as defined by its banks, and in its current around rocks — as well as in its sound. Sinuous — the shape of water. And the shape of the mindflow it inspires, meandering and roundabout.

A squirrel runs across the fallen log.

A few fingerling near the big trout.

The longer I sit here, the more there is to see — I could probably write all day just trying to record what’s going on around me. In short, I’m busy reading the landscape — and feeling I could never write it all down. But what’s the point of trying to write it all down? Maybe the point is to remember and commemorate the beauty of a place like this before it’s all gone. Hence the elegiac strain in so much nature writing. Quick — preserve the place in words before the Wal-Mart gets built here.

It strikes me at the moment as an odd thing — our compulsion to create stories and poems. The impulse to preserve something or to pass on information can’t quite account for our literary compulsion. Clearly literature does a lot more than simply inform. This line of thinking leads me to biopoetics, which begins with questions about what literature is for, considered from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Is there some adaptive advantage that literature provides?

There are some fascinating answers to that question. One is that literature serves as a means of sexual selection. It’s a way of saying, hey, I’m so healthy and well-provided-for in terms of basic survival needs that I can waste time reading — and trying to understand — James Joyce’s Ulysses. (And the next show-off tops that with Finnegans Wake.) The very uselessness of such an endeavor — that’s the whole point. Or maybe writing and reading are ways of showing off intellectual prowess, a display of mental fitness, a linguistic version of the peacock’s tail.

The notion of literature as an aid to sexual selection does not seem far-fetched at all when you consider how often poetry and song have been used as means of seduction. Every writer knows something of the desire to use verbal dexterity as a way to seek esteem, maybe even to appeal directly to a potential sexual or romantic partner. (Or is that just a guy thing?)

But forgetting about sexual selection for the moment, let’s think about natural selection. Stories have always been a way, especially in oral cultures, of recording information and passing it on, whether the information is a set of natural facts or a guide to appropriate moral behavior. Think of any myth — and since I happen to be sitting on a low bridge above water right now, I’ll take the story of Narcissus as an example. Don’t fall in love with a reflection of yourself is the moral of the story. (After scorning love, Narcissus saw himself in a pool and pined away with love only for himself.) That’s not only a warning against self-absorption — perhaps it also suggests the genetically-encoded incest prohibition: if they look like you, look elsewhere. In that sense, the story serves to encourage genetic diversity. And the Echo half of the story — about the woman who was fated only to repeat what others had said, and who withered away with yearning for Narcissus until nothing was left of her but her voice? Perhaps that story warns about losing one’s sense of self to such an extent that you serve only to echo the words (and thoughts) of another.

I look over the edge of the bridge, but the stream is fast-moving and there’s no me to see. Only a dark blur chopped up, in crudely impressionist fashion, by ripples and swirls of current.

The trout is back in position, tail to shallow rocks where the water spills out of the pool.

More on literature as an adaptive practice: some have seen story as a means of spinning scenarios. If we encounter a situation in fictional form, then later if we encounter something like it in real life, we’re prepared for it, maybe even having learned which strategies are liable to be successful or not. Hunting big white sperm whales across the ocean — seeing such whales as evil incarnate, responsible for all the world’s ills and one’s personal afflictions — not recommended. In this sense, literature, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, is “equipment for living.”

But here’s my favorite explanation for the evolutionary function of literature — and this will bring me back to the topic of “reading the landscape.” Think of the obvious advantages to Pleistocene humans — our immediate genetic ancestors — of being able to skillfully interpret signs in the landscape. To be able to track a prey animal successfully, to recognize edible or medicinal plants, to remember the routes to find certain plants or trails at certain times of year, to be able to visualize and draw maps, to understand the signs that foretell changes in the weather — these skills would have been invaluable. Whenever a skill or behavior provides a survival benefit, one way we may be genetically programmed to practice that skill or behavior is the pleasure principle. If it feels good, we do it. Think of sex, for instance. Its survival benefit is obvious. Our genes get passed on. Hence the activity that provides for that passing on of genes is made pleasurable enough that we are motivated to practice that behavior.

And the ability to interpret signs? What is literature but an incredibly rich playground for the exercise of interpretation? This is more pun than etymology, but “language,” it seems to me, bears some relationship to the ability to “land gauge.” It’s all about reading signs and symbols. Maybe this is why we take particular delight in stories that call for interpretive skills — complex stories like Moby-Dick or Ulysses, but also less high-brow stories, like mysteries. Like Sherlock Holmes stories. Or Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape.

And maybe, too, reading and writing are ways of changing our internal clocks, of slowing and settling down enough so that we can sit quietly and think while trout appear in an eddy.

trout in the shallows
my watch says it’s time to go
the stream runs on

Site 2: Sawmill Site

Monday, March 20, 1:35 p.m.

As of nine minutes ago, it’s spring. I’m facing Shavers Creek, leaning against the tall dead tree, its trunk thigh-sized, that has orange flagging tape on it, which I presume marks the site of the old sawmill, off to the left of the Sawmill Trail. Earlier I walked past here and down the Homestead Trail along the old mill race, now just a ditch with a trickle of water and some shallow pools of standing water, down to where the race meets back up with the creek. I found some Table Mountain pines down there, picked up a cone with pointy bracts. Then I backtracked here.

Lots of hemlock bough tips strewn on the forest floor, nipped off by red squirrels. Beautiful spot right here, looking down on the creek. Doesn’t quite feel like spring yet — in the upper 30s, maybe 40 — but, hey, it’s only been spring for twenty minutes. Give it time.

I’ve come here to think about the past and the role of landscape in helping us feel connected to the past. The land doesn’t so much commemorate or preserve the past in the way that, say, castle ruins might. Actually, around here a better example of a ruin that preserves the past would be a charcoal furnace — there’s one by the highway a couple of miles from here.

The truth is, there’s nothing left of the sawmill that was here just a little over a century ago, other than the mill race, and I would not have recognized that as man-made if I weren’t looking for it. (I’ll leave it to an environmental historian to get more details about the when and who and how of the sawmill operation here.) The trees here — not a one of them was standing back then. I suppose it’s likely, though, that some of them got their start right about when the sawmill shut down. A few nearby are growing smack dab in the middle of a dried-up portion of the race.

So in what sense does wild land remind us of the past? For me it evokes all those early American writers who contrasted the New World with the Old. There, the land was altered by human hands; here, it was the uncorrupted work of the Creator. There, reminders of the past came in the form of ruins; here, by trees, the decay of standing snags suggesting the relentless workings of time and the fate eventually shared by all living things, the growth of big ones suggesting a long span of undisturbed time. All that time packed away, so neatly and concentrically, in any big tree. But the forest speaks not only of linear time, but of cyclical time. The hardwoods budding and blossoming, each mature tree manufacturing a quarter million green leaves per annum, then having the audacity to drop them all in the fall and start over again the next spring.

It’s astounding. There is no end, it seems, to the magic tricks of trees — consider the book, one more transfiguration of the idea of tree.

Which brings me back to landscape as time travel machine. When I have visited a place like Walden Pond, part of the satisfaction comes not just from enjoying the place in the present moment, but from feeling the haunt of Thoreau’s presence in the land. Surely the trees, as individuals, are not those that Thoreau knew, but the contours of the land remain, and I can imagine that the forest is akin to the one he knew. It is a place sanctified by the fact that he wrote about it. We have some record not only of what it was like, but of how one of our kind interacted with it, what he thought of it. And to be in that place is to sense a connection to a mind from a century and half ago.

I’m remembering a scene in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, where the protagonist, Thea Kronberg, a singer visiting the canyons of northern Arizona, discovers some pottery of the ancient Anasazi. She can almost see the women carrying water in the decorated jars, and she comes to believe that she discovers the source of all art: that it is all a container for life. A throat projecting music, lips shaping the notes, sound arranged in a song, words shaped into a poem — these are all different ways of constructing containers for life. It strikes me that we often feel compelled to collect things, like photos in an album, say, precisely when we are aware that the things contain something that won’t last.

Does this account for the elegiac note in so much nature writing? Quick — write it all down, says the nature writer, collect it with these words, put it in this narrative container, because it won’t be here for much longer. It’s all about loss, the words taking the place of something in the world — no, not taking the place of the world, simply trying to capture something of its essence before it’s gone. I’m thinking here of a story like William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” all about the “Big Woods” and a hunt for the greatest bear, but by the end of the story the woods are shrinking, a logging operation is taking its toll, a rail line runs through the forest, and where once the primordial bear roamed, the very spirit of the Big Woods, now there’s a little runt of a bear scared for its life up in a tree as a train runs though. When I taught this story recently, I noticed for the first time a reference early in the story to the “Lord God bird,” the ivory-billed woodpecker. By the time Faulkner was writing the story (published in the early 1940s) the ivory-bill population was already endangered, and on its way to extinction. Was Faulkner planting an image, then, of loss? Of course, I only noticed the ivory-bill reference on this reading because the ivory-bill has been in the news in the past year — back from the brink of extinction. And rediscovered in the big woods of central Arkansas, not far from the northwestern Mississippi of Faulkner’s story. Hope springs eternal.

Maybe literature is not just a container for something past, then, but a way of making us care about something that ought to be preserved. My friend Mike Branch has written a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek essay about the “V.E.C.T.O.R.L.O.S.S Project” (VECTORLOSS standing for “Vernacular Experiential Cartographic Traces On Regions, Landscapes, Or Specific Sites”) whereby contributors are asked to record the significant events that happened to them in a particular special place. Mark the coordinates, tell the story. What we would end up with is an encyclopedic collection of all the sacred places on earth — which is to say all places on earth. Each anecdote announces that something important happened here, and to lose the essence of whatever makes here recognizable as a place is to risk losing the association with whatever it is that makes the place significant. At this bend in a stream a young boy caught his first fish — upstream a couple picnicked on a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine and fell in love — downstream a hiker saw a pinkish rock that glittered in the sun, and he sang a song as he departed. Every time, then, that they want to put up a Wal-Mart in a special place (“and they will,” says Branch), we can have at hand a record of events that mark it as sacred ground.

Perhaps this long-term ecological reflections project will have a similar effect. Every spot in these woods where we stop to wonder — and to try to understand — is a way of marking that spot for its sanctity. At this spot, someone thought and wondered, tried to make connections, to understand, watched a creek wind through the forest, felt moved by it all. And at this spot a hundred years ago, someone working at the sawmill might have paused amid his daily work and looked at the creek and marveled at the idea that the water keeps passing downstream, but the creek remains.

Walking here I passed a young beech still hanging on to last year’s leaves, faded to a light beige after enduring a winter’s worth of precipitation. I thought of Robert Frost’s poem “A Boundless Moment,” where he sees something white while walking in the woods in March. His hopes soaring, he thinks maybe it’s a flower in bloom, even though he knows it’s too early in the season for that. He stops, he looks closer, figures out that the patch of white is beech leaves from the previous year, and he walks on. But what is the “boundless moment”? The moment of illusory hope (is that a flower blooming already?), or the moment of returning to reality? No, not a flower blooming, but a beech tree handing on to last year’s leaves — and that’s pretty wonderful too. That phrase “returning to reality” connotes disappointment, but maybe it shouldn’t. We also speak of coming “back to earth” as a return to the world of ordinary rationality, as if it’s less exciting than fantasy, but maybe we should see it as a return to connectedness. The stress and frenzy of the paved-over world — why do we mistake that for the “real world”? The real world is made of softer stuff, I think, decaying birch stump and flattened Christmas fern, beech leaves and streamsound, the flow of time, its ripples in the hearts of hardwoods, even the pointy-ended bracts of pine cones. Even the cold that penetrates through finger-flesh to finger-bone on the first day, the first hour, of spring.

a perfect fit
the stream between its banks
its curve through the forest

Site 3: The Chestnut Experimental Forest / Research Orchard

Monday, June 6, 2006

I’m inside the exclosure at the Chestnut Research Orchard — the chestnuts are planted in tubes, I presume to keep rabbits from eating the newly sprouted chestnuts — and the fence I presume is to keep out deer. Some of the chestnuts aren’t sprouting, and the biggest one is maybe three and a half feet high — the longest leaves about three inches long, with a “trunk” thumb-thick.

A couple of vultures overhead, rocking and gliding, riding sunbeams and breeze.

The nature of the experiment here, I’m guessing, is to cross native chestnut with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut, then keep back-crossing with American chestnut until you have a tree that’s mostly American chestnut (maybe 90%) but with the blight-resistance of a Chinese chestnut.

The chestnut, of course, was once the dominant tree in northeastern hardwood forests, offering incredible mast yields for passenger pigeons, squirrels, bears, and humans (“chestnuts roasting on the open fire . . . “) and terrific rot-resistant wood for building — all in all, an enormously valuable tree, pretty much wiped out by the blight, which was (and is) caused by an exotic species brought over from Asia in the early twentieth century. Oaks have filled the chestnut’s ecological niche in eastern forests fairly well, but of course humans don’t eat acorns. Chestnuts still sprout from old stumps, but when they get large enough for the bark to crack — about the time they start producing nuts — the blight gets in.

Right about the time the chestnut blight arrived in this country, the passenger pigeon went extinct. Both were in decline for a long time before then. There’s a section in Henry Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking,” in fact, where he says, “few and fewer pigeons visit us every year. Our forests furnish no mast for them.” Northeastern forests in general were decimated for firewood in Thoreau’s day, and the chestnut would have been in particular demand since it was also such good building material. I can’t help but wonder if the chestnut blight was the final blow for the passenger pigeon, which apparently needed huge populations — and huge areas of mast-producing forest — to survive. For the stump-sprouting chestnuts, at least, there’s still hope that a blight-resistant strain can be developed.

Walking up the Old Faithful Trail, I was checking the undersides of hemlock needles for the white, puffy masses of woolly adelgid egg cases. The woolly adelgid is another exotic species, also from Asia, now threatening eastern hemlocks, Pennsylvania’s state tree. In New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and Virginia, hemlock stands have been devastated, and the adelgid is just starting to appear here in Central PA. In fact, I saw some a few months ago on those hemlocks on the Old Faithful Trail. Maybe the adelgids didn’t survive the winter? That seems to be one hope, that harsh winters will stop the spread of the adelgid. Then, again, with global warming, maybe the adelgid’s range will extend further north.

You can’t spray insecticide to kill off the adelgid, because they live on the undersides of needles, and spraying goes from top down. There has been some talk of bringing in another exotic, a beetle that feeds on the adelgid, but then what happens if that beetle starts feeding off something else once the adelgid population dies down? Ecosystems are complex, and their balance can be delicate. I’m reminded of John Muir’s quote: “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

But what does it matter if the passenger pigeon or the hemlock goes extinct or the American chestnut no longer grows to maturity? This experimental forest is dedicated to the idea of preserving the chestnut, the whole enterprise of Shavers Creek Environmental Center is dedicated to the idea that preserving some small piece of the natural world is a consummation devoutly to be wished — but there are those among us who ask, why bother? They assume that the loss of species, whether through habitat loss or the effects of exotic species (and these are the two greatest culprits in what E. O. Wilson has called our “biodiversity crisis”) is in essence a “natural” process, and that it is somehow quaint and antiquarian to seek to preserve nature. These are the ones who dismiss people like me as “tree huggers” or “environmentalist wackos.”

Wilson and other biologists have suggested that the reason we should care about biodiversity is that the genetic information that is lost when a species goes extinct could turn out to be useful to us — the cure for cancer or the basis for some other new miracle drug. Or it could be that we risk changing the entire ecosystem in some way that could prove economically detrimental (or fatal) to us. Others have argued on ethical grounds that just because our species has the power to affect whole ecosystems does not mean we have the right to do so. We must learn to look at the world ecocentrically, meaning in terms of the whole ecosystem and all its interconnecting parts, and not anthropocentrically, meaning in terms of how it benefits our species.

But Thoreau’s “Walking” suggests another reason to care about species loss, one that doesn’t get much attention from either biologists or deep ecologists. When Thoreau describes the decline in passenger pigeons, he compares them to our thoughts, which he says are also in decline:

So, it would seem, few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste,—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill, and there is scarcely a twig left for them to perch on. They no longer build nor breed with us. In some more genial season, perchance, a faint shadow flits across the landscape of the mind, cast by the wings of some thought in its vernal or autumnal migration, but, looking up, we are unable to detect the substance of the thought itself. Our winged thoughts are turned to poultry. . . .

In this elaborate metaphor, thoughts are pigeons and our minds are habitat — habitat in the process of becoming deforested. It is contact with the wild, suggests Thoreau, that makes creative thinking possible, and without that contact, our thoughts become either extinct or hopelessly tamed and domesticated. Emerson had suggested that nature is the source of all language; Thoreau takes it a step further and suggests that nature is the source of thought. It is not simply something we ought to think about — it is what we think with. This sounds entirely compatible with what evolutionary psychologists tell us these days about the human mind. It developed as part of a way of life in which humans lived connected to the natural world, with minds adapted to natural environments. Outside of that context, that habitat, in lives disconnected from the natural world we are adapted to, we naturally feel out of place. That explains the generally high level of discontent in contemporary society — and for Thoreau it would explain the general dullness of our intellectual lives. Our winged thoughts are turned to poultry.

There’s one other exotic (that is, alien, non-native, often invasive) species in this meadow at the moment — Homo sapiens, the one busily scribbling. We too come from elsewhere, out of Africa, they say — this one by way of Canada.

A bee buzzes inquisitively from chestnut leaf to chestnut leaf. Why is it checking out leaves? Don’t they specialize in flowers? There is no nectar on a leaf, is there? But the bees definitely seem attracted.

But back to exotics and aliens. Biologists say that exotic species pose a danger second only to habitat loss in terms of threats to biodiversity. The problem is that native species often have no defenses against a predator from outside the ecosystem, and the exotics themselves may have nothing preying on them in the new ecosystem. Thus, they can take over the niche of a native species. Just look at the effect we humans have had in North America. Even in our own culture these days we seem to strive for homogeneity — think Wal-Marts and MacDonalds and 7–11 stores and Howard Johnsons. Our farming practices tend to stress monoculture, dedicating acres and acres to one crop. The danger is that the one crop, like the potato in Ireland before the great famine, is susceptible to not only blights but insect pests. Given a favorite food source, that one insect pest will thrive. The way we try to manage that these days is not by following the organic method of depriving the pest of food by trying to grow something else in the next field or during the next growing season, but by spraying the hell out of the monocultured crop with insecticides. Yum.

The irony of my complaint about monoculture is that I’m sitting in a field dedicated to the idea of monoculture — hence the fence. But I guess the idea is to eventually return this new breed of chestnuts to the forest and thereby enhance biodiversity. And even here, within the confines of a fence, I’m hearing three different bird calls, the hum of bees, and the clack of a grasshopper’s wings. Between the tubes with sprouting chestnuts I see stalks of rye grass a foot and a half high, fully ripe and going wonderfully to seed. Around my head circulate flies attracted to my sweat on this sunny day, and all around me flowers bloom. So does the tendency of life to ignore artificial borders (like fences and lines on a map) mean that it’s futile to try to prevent the spread of species in a global economy? Or does it speak to life’s inherent drive towards diversity?

in the chestnut forest
the vireo’s call
going up, going down

Site 4: The mini-canyon to the right of the Wood’s Route

Thursday, March 9, 2006

N40 39.089’; W077 55.253’; elevation 975’

On the way here, following the Wood’s Route, just after it turns off Shavers Creek Road, I stopped on a bridge over an unnamed tributary of Shavers Creek. There is still ice on the stream, but not completely covering it. Around me I see a couple of hemlocks, a white pine, some hardwoods (oak and hickory?). Just upstream, a nice stand of hemlock with no sign of the adelgid — though I saw plenty of their puffy white egg cases down on the Old Faithful trail. Is the difference in elevation keeping them out? Or is it that the population is localized and hasn’t had time to get here yet?

I hear a rich sound of water bubbling over rock, dropping with a gravity-aided gurgle, under an isthmus of ice. The ice is ground out from below, so it’s standing about an inch above the water level, and it acts like an echo chamber.

Lovely to see the water threading through rocks, zigging and zagging downstream like a skater, but steadily heading towards me. It is time on its way, still on its way after it has passed.

Downstream, below the bridge (the bridge is now, the present moment, I suppose, in my water-as-time metaphor), the grade levels, the water pools and calms, settles, less turbulent. In my metaphor, perhaps we always settle our past in our minds by making some sense of it, figuring out how it fits in the story of our lives. The future’s coming at us every which way, it seems, but steady as the pull of gravity, it gets here.

over rock and under the bridge
over and over

Downstream, there are imprints of leaves in the ice, where the leaves have melted down into the ice, in one spot all the way through, so that there is a leaf-shaped bay at the edge of the ice.

All that en route to Site 4, which is downstream from the bridge.

Wednesday, July 26, Site #4, the mini-canyon near the bottom of the Wood’s Route, a few hundred feet upstream from where this unnamed tributary joins Shavers Creek after it outlets from Lake Perez:

I’ve come here in the summer, long after that exploratory visit back in March. Since I’m the first one dong these Ecological Reflections, I get to have some say in which sites get selected, and I had thought about making a pitch for that bridge over the unnamed stream I describe above. This is a more dramatic and distinctive spot, but I saw even back in March that summer would be a better time to sit here — in the cool of hemlock shade, rock slab, and the slide of water.

The stream is low now, but still flowing, gently, over smooth, mossed-over boulder slabs upstream. Lots of small trout in the pool there, then tumbled scree, then another pool, and more small fish, all this enclosed on both sides of the stream by the vertical rock slabs that make me think of this as the “mini-canyon” site. But this canyon is only about twenty feet deep, though above the rock slabs the hillside is steep.

A bald eagle calls, kee-ing, in the woods up the hill, in the vicinity of the Mountain View trail.

A mosquito at my ear — not nearly as impressive a sound as the eagle’s kee, but it gets my attention.

Perhaps this is the time to explain the form of my entries — a combination of prose and haiku called “haibun,” as practiced most famously in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. Actually, Basho’s prose sections there are shorter and more poetically charged than mine here, but for all my straying from his model I like the idea of a form that combines the explanatory and exploratory possibilities of prose with the suggestiveness and succinctness of haiku. In American literature we have a long tradition of that sort of exploratory prose — a tradition that we call nature writing and that includes the work of people like Henry Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, David Quammen, Terry Tempest Williams, and, closer to home here in central Pennsylvania, Marcia Bonta — but we have a lot to learn, I think, from the aesthetics of haiku. So here’s a brief primer on the subject:

About the only thing most Americans know about haiku is that it is a Japanese form with three lines and a syllable count of 5–7–5. That syllable stuff is the first thing you should forget about haiku, since 17 syllables is really not equivalent to the length of an equal statement in Japanese (about 12–14 syllables is) and it leads to people actually padding their haiku with unnecessary verbiage in order to make it work out to 17 syllables. There is also a great deal of misunderstanding about the subject matter and tone of haiku, which generally do not dwell on big portentous-sounding moral apothegms regarding the meaning of life. Nor are they quick witticisms about experiencing computer problems or being stuck in traffic. Haiku is built on pure image — things we can hear, see, taste, touch, and smell — with very little generalizing or commenting on or explaining what things mean. Often haiku juxtapose two or more images, leaving the connection between them unstated. The two images may suggest implied similarities or contrasts or a bit of both. In haibun, too, the point is not so much to repeat the prose passage in the haiku, but to provide some sort of juxtaposition that may encapsulate the prose passage in an image or to provide an echo or reflection in terms of tone, or to suggest some sort of shift or qualification in meaning. Haiku also focus on small things — the call of an insect rather than the spectacular sunset. And while the language of haiku should be as simple as its subject matter, somehow the whole thing should suggest depth of meaning.

What is it that we can learn from the practice of haiku? Something about paying attention to detail, I think. The natural world is usually not the stuff of highlight films; it’s much calmer and quieter and taking place on a smaller scale than the nature we see on TV programs, which is a world, it seems, full of lions mating and grizzlies charging. Haiku helps us value the little things and to notice relationships between them. It focuses on the present moment — Basho said haiku is what’s happening right here and right now — and places each time-sliver in the context of the seasons, customarily evoked in haiku with a kigo, or seasonal reference. Constancy and change are the recurrent themes. It’s a poetry of wonder and gratitude, with the smallest observation of the most ordinary slice of life viewed as meaningful. And yes, the end result is some sort of Zen-like awareness, the world becoming ever new, every snowfall the first snowfall, every call of a cicada heard for the first time. It’s a form of awareness that helps us get past the tired habit of taking the world for granted. And yet, there’s poignancy, too, since nothing we see will last, and every detail of life speaks of the impermanency of it all.

I pause in my scribbling to place three or four blackberries on my tongue. The berries are ripe along Red Rose Road, just after the turnoff from the chestnut orchard. M and I filled plastic containers, and the berries are supplementing our granola bar snack here. (The next day we realize — itch itch — that there were chiggers in the berry bushes.)

It seems to be mushroom season, too, lots out along the trail, several with chunks bitten out by wood and box turtles. Yesterday, on the Mountain View trail, we saw a wood turtle happily munching on the last remnants of a mushroom. Well, we think he was happy — hard to tell with a tortoise.

Just up the trail from here we found two mushrooms that look incredibly penis-like, inspiration for several jokes and photos. I made a lame pun about feeling insulted since even though M had me, she was so interested in some other fungi. (Fungi / Fun guy — get it? Communal groan.)

A cicada, loud, close behind me — or is it the first of this year’s late summer katydids? — and answering hums, that low soothing sound, rising and falling from the ridge across the stream. In the pools, dimples and circles appear, from the unhurried rise of small fish, then the dimples are gone without a sound.

the mosquito’s hum
an eagle’s high kee
summer flying by

Site 5: Bluebird Trail

Monday, January 22, 2007

The height of land on the Bluebird Trail — a bit after the mowed meadow and past the big pine to the left of the trail. A faint sleety drizzle affecting the writeability of this page of my notebook — one of the hazards of taking field notes. Crows caw steadily in the woods behind me — is there an intruder in their midst?

And now some jays chime in — if their rasp can be compared to the sound of bells.

This is the spot where, on the day I showed Scott Weidensaul the eco-reflection sites, we encountered the shirtless man catching insects, and I was so impressed that both Scott and the flycatcher could identify them all — robber-fly and so on. I often tell my students that knowing the names of things is the first step in becoming better acquainted with them, just as it is with the people we meet; if you don’t know their names, well, it’s hard to know them much at all. Not knowing the name of something in nature means you don’t have a label under which you can organize your observations of that thing. All that said, I am aware that I’m not very well-acquainted with much of this world I profess to love.

There’s a bluebird box about thirty feet in front of me. And of course that’s why these small meadows along the bluebird trail are kept open by mowing — to create the park-like habitat that bluebirds like.

I can hear, to the southwest, occasional cars on the road. There’s an unknown bird behind me, repeating a raspy call, like a buzzer whose batteries are running low.

The openness here is temporary, most likely. I suspect that without mowing, these meadows would be made impenetrable by brambles in a year or two, and they would grow into young forest within a decade. About six feet in front of me there’s a foot-high pine. I get up and count the needles — five — white pine.

About a half inch of snow on the ground — incredibly, that’s about the most we’ve had in one shot all winter. Can you spell global warming, Mr. President? The word was in this past week that measurements showed 2006 to be the warmest year on record, like just about every other year of the past decade, as each year breaks the previous year’s record. I was hoping to skate on the lake today, but it’ll need another week or so — if it stays cold enough, which is a big if.

first snow
chickadees and crows
chat about the weather

I’m teaching plot in a class this week and so I have the standard shape of plotline in my mind — the shape of a mountain. The foothills of exposition, the rising action of the western slope, the summit of climax, the sheer drop-off of denouement. Is it coincidence that I’ve paused here at the high point to sit and think and write? Am I hoping for some sort of climactic action, something to give the narrative of my walk a defining moment of epiphany?

That purpose eludes me today, as I sit and think and take notes. But there’s this: as I hunch over to write, trying to protect my notebook from this light sleet, the back of my neck is exposed and I can feel the sleet there, so faint the skin doesn’t even feel wet. It’s not much of an epiphany, but it reminds me that I am out here in the world, among the elements, touched by the not-me.

Oh well: onward and downward. I didn’t find what I’m looking for up here today, so I’ll come back another time.

when the crows’ caws settle
the snow’s silence

Same day: Back at the environmental center, warming by the wood stove, I’m thinking more about my search for some sort of climax up on the Bluebird Trail. The arrival at a recognizable high point may be why I love hiking up mountains so much. There is the satisfaction of reaching the clearly marked goal, and a summit usually provides a view, the elevated prospect from which you can gauge where you’re going and where you’ve been. And of course there is the tidy way in which ascent of a mountain imitates the shape of a narrative plot line — it arrives somewhere and returns. But hiking in Pennsylvania one becomes accustomed to high points that are pretty much indistinguishable from the long line of whatever ridge you happen to be traversing. John Tallmage in Meeting the Tree of Life has written about the same sort of thing in an essay about canoeing on lakes — you never achieve that high point that provides perspective or a climax to the story. And that point is what I was looking for and not finding on the Bluebird Trail.

It occurs to me that haiku offers us (by which I mean me) a different way of experiencing the natural world — that is, if we insist on trying to render that experience in some literary fashion. Forget about story, narrative, plot, climax, resolution. What haiku does is bring images together in some sort of fruitful juxtaposition, lets them resonate with and against one another, and it deliberately avoids resolution, preferring open-endedness, irresolution, suggestiveness.

Doug Wenzel, a naturalist and program director here at Shaver’s Creek, walking by and pausing to chat as I type, thinks the raspy iterated call I heard might be a titmouse.

Haiku, it occurs to me now, is an art of the ecotone, the line where two ecosystems meet — like where I sat along the Bluebird Trail, looking out at the meadow, the forest at my back, while winter had yet to fully assert itself at the cusp of this new year. In haiku, those merging “ecosystems” could be images, or they could be language styles. Koji Kawamoto has written of the “base” and “superposed” sections of haiku. The base is the main image, conveyed in concrete (sense-appealing) diction, and the superposed section is the part of the haiku that suggests meaning or context, often through a seasonal reference. He also speaks of the two different language styles of haiku — “zoku,” which is the simple, unornamented, concrete, often vernacular language of the base; and “ga,” the more generalized language that owes something to the more formal poetic tradition of renga, from which haiku emerged. (A renga is a group poem, usually composed by two to four poets, which begins with a three-line “hokku,” to which a two-line stanza is added by the next poet, then a three-liner, and so on, with the poets taking turns. That opening stanza set the scene, and so creating a good hokku became an art unto itself, and that’s what became the art of haiku.)

In haiku, then, you have a contained area where two images and two language styles meet. It is built on the aesthetics of the ecotone. And since haiku continually plays with the idea of constancy amid change — well, that great theme of haiku also makes the Bluebird Trail seem apt territory for haiku. Individual bluebirds come and go, the seasons come and go, this meadow too will come and go — but the revolving cycle of the seasons, the calls of birds known and unknown, the feel of sleet on the back of the neck — these go on and on.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Saw a muskrat by the Troll Bridge on my way up here. He must have slipped into the water at the one patch of the creek not yet frozen over, or else he had a lair in the streambank right near where I saw him.

High ‘20s today — warmest it’s been in a couple of weeks. So clearly winter arrived since I was up here last month. I actually did not get out and walk last week because it was too cold, even for me — hovering around zero.

Despite the cold, the snow melted (or evaporated?) off the south-facing slope of the big meadow on the way up here.

Following up on some of my thoughts from a month ago, thinking still about how quickly the open meadows of the Bluebird Trail would be taken over by forest if they weren’t mowed — I’ve got transitions on my mind. Of course transitions are rarely marked by precise dividing lines, not even from season to season. Global warming has been in the news the past week or two, with the Third IPCC report recently appearing and policy-makers finally admitting there just might be something to this global warming thing. Some states have begun taking the lead in energy research as the federal government continues to waffle about taking any action and to deny that there’s a problem. Amid all this, my thought is that the cold snap the last couple of weeks is not so much fodder for the naysayers and deniers as it is evidence that the slide into global climate change, too, will not be marked by any emphatic dividing line, like the absence of winter one year. It’ll be like this — arriving later each year, leaving earlier, so people may barely notice the difference from one year to the next. “This is the way the world ends,” said T. S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

But everything is eternally in transition — I’m thinking of the current ecological thinking that has challenged the idea of forest succession leading to a climax forest where an ecosystem supposedly stays stable, unchanging. That stable state is a fiction, says the current science, since change is the one constant — a tree falls here and lets in light on the forest floor, a windstorm hits, or flood, or lightning, or fire, a human or a deer carries a seed of an exotic species into a piece of suddenly cleared sunlit space, and look, something new grows there. The point is that things are always in transition.

We often think of the “good old days” on this continent predating the arrival of Europeans, and we hear stories of the incredible abundance of nature in pre-Columbian America. But a book I read recently, Charles C. Mann’s 1491, suggests that we should not mistake the first recorded glimpses of the American continent as accounts of any sort of climax state. The many descriptions of the flocks of passenger pigeons and herds of bison — darkening eastern skies and the Great Plains, respectively — were the result of ecosystems in flux and already out of balance. What had changed, mainly, was the disruption of their main predators, Homo sapiens, in the form of Native American populations decimated by disease — disease whose spread preceded the advance of white settlers.

It strikes me that accepting the concept of eternal flux would help us live our lives with less angst. Our children will grow up, the nature of our relationships will change, the circumstances of our jobs will be altered. And yet at the same time, naturally at times we seek to maintain a system — an ecosystem, a way of life — by artificially fending off change. Essentially, we’re managing an ecosystem — a way of life — like the Indians did pre-1492. Or like the good people of Shavers Creek are doing here by trying to preserve bluebird habitat. When the changes going on around us are not good ones — like the loss of habitat for bluebirds or tree-hugging humans — it may be wise for us to resist change. The challenge is to balance the forces of constancy and change.

It’s actually pretty comfortable sitting here in a bare patch under a white pine, snow all around, my gloves off — not too cold at all.

It occurs to me now that the hole in the stream ice where the muskrat disappeared earlier — that was also managed habitat. Why is it that that one turn in the stream had not frozen over? Because the muskrat is keeping it open — so he can escape from the approaching clomp of critters larger than himself. That would be me.

Monday, March 5

snow falling lightly
woodpecker on a maple

The sap is rising in the maples as we begin to have some warmer days after below-freezing nights. The maple harvest festival, one of the highlights of the year here at Shaver’s Creek, is a couple of weeks away.

Monday, March 19

Once more around the lake, walking in ski tracks, which in places have dissolved into bare but still wet ground. A woodcock just past the intersection with the Bluebird Trail, horizontal yellow bars across the top of its head, allowing me to get within five feet before taking off. They have likely just returned from winter grounds and are staking out their territory for this breeding season.

snowmelt woods
woodcock rising
the chirp of its wings

Site 6: Lake Perez

Monday, Jan. 29, 2007: The Lake on Ice

Exhilaration! I started my walk today, intending to head up the Bluebird Trail, but saw that the ice now extends under the Troll Bridge that goes over the little stream that runs into Lake Perez south of the Environmental Center. I walked over to the little dock near the end of the peninsula, and walked out onto solid ice. Then back to the car for skates and a hockey stick, which I’d happened to leave in the car after playing at the rink in Altoona a few days ago. Then back to the dock to lace ‘em up.

Cold getting the skates on and then heading into the wind. Clockwise around the lake, exploring coves and bays along the way, touching with my stick (no puck with me) the shore at the dam end and by the cove where the Civil Engineering students race their concrete canoes in the spring, and the dock by the Civil Engineering Lodge. Fifteen minutes to go around, including pauses to look at my tracks in the inch of snow that covers much of the lake. Interesting to see how one stride commences before the other is completed, so there is a short stretch where you have two strides together, but moving away from each other. Left skate right skate, like close quote open quote, or closing and opening parentheses, over and over. Single quotes, of course, for quotes within quotes.

The smoothest ice seemed to be the patches where there was just a dusting of snow. Other spots had sludgy snow about an inch deep, hard to glide through, and there were some upraised ridges, where snow had drifted perhaps and melted down somewhat atop the ice, then refroze, or perhaps where ripples had kept the ice from freezing smoothly. These could be skated through, but more often I hopped over them. Fifteen minutes around (it takes 45 to walk around), then I went back to the Civil Engineering cove and reskated the smoothest patches.

I chatted with an ice fisherman for a few minutes. He showed me how he measured the line and set the contraption with the flag to signal when there was a fish on the line. Catching trout and perch, he said. He used minnows for bait, placing them about six inches off the bottom.

When I’d first thought about the pond itself as a site for ecological reflection, I was thinking of something much quieter and more subdued than my gliding gallivant of the past hour. After all, I thought, what better spot for “reflection” than the surface of a lake — a mirror that can never crack, as Thoreau said of Walden, whose surface, for all its ripples, never shows a wrinkle. Shows the difficulty I have trying to see myself clearly — I go to the reflecting surface only when it has turned opaque with ice and is dusted with snow. Maybe that explains the strange colors I’ve been seeing in my beard lately. Must be snow on the mirror at home as well.

I wrote an article once about Thoreau’s comments on skating, mostly from his journals but some from Walden and his essay “A Winter Walk.” (For the curious, the article was called “Winter Tracings and Transcendental Leaps: Henry Thoreau’s Skating,” in Papers on Language & Literature, fall 1993; a poem on the same topic, “Henry Thoreau’s Transcendental Skating,” was published in Organization and Environment in March of 2001). Thoreau was apparently a very good skater, and he was avid about it, skating up to thirty miles a day on the Concord River. Thoreau’s fellow citizens of Concord, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, also skated. Nathaniel’s wife Sophia describes Hawthorne skating “like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave.” She describes Emerson being “too weary to hold himself erect, pitching headforemost” — which seems such an appropriate way for Emerson, who always seemed to me so much more a poet of the mind than of the body, to fall. What he described in theory about human relations with the natural world, Thoreau tried to put into practice in the way he lived. Thoreau apparently was the best skater of those famous Concord writers, performing, according to Sophia, “dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice.”

I won’t claim for my own skating such balletic exuberance as Thoreau was capable of, but my hour or so of skating on Lake Perez leads me to realize that one of the reasons we go to woods and ponds is to renew our acquaintance with our physical selves. We escape to nature, surely, for spiritual reasons (to get in touch with the world or with the self, or to experience some sort of psychic rejuvenation) and for intellectual reasons (to learn about the world around us, to satisfy our curiosity about the places on maps that are not checkerboarded and gridded by roads). But part of the delight too comes from experiencing life in a physical way, walking, hiking, climbing, paddling, skiing, skating. Out in the woods, we have to rely on our bodies and not our machines to get around. And aside from using our muscles, it also feels good to exercise our senses so fully, to use our vision both up close in examining the grain in the ice and far away in perusing the raised horizon of the surrounding hills. Same thing with our hearing, with sounds both near and far — the crunch and rumble of a skate blade over the ice and a birdcall, faint, deep in the woods, and the breeze along the shore providing soothing white pine noise. Scientists and literary critics alike are on guard against projecting human emotions onto other creatures, or to imagine that their emotional responses or thought processes are akin to ours — what the biologist calls anthropomorphism the literary critic calls the pathetic fallacy. But it’s not much of a stretch at all to imagine that other mammals at least must perceive and experience the world in a very similar way to us in terms of their physical relationship to it. I mean, we’ve all got legs and eyes and ears. It is at the level of physical being that we may most feel ourselves connected to other living things.

And my goodness it sure feels good to walk, or to skate, to be in the world as a physical being, to look at the sheer variety of what there is to see from the lake — the stretch of the horizon, the curves of my skate strides carved into black ice. And to hear my skates rumble and sizzle across hard ice, and to pause and hear apparent silence at first, and then a snatch or two of what the trees are saying to the breeze. And then to skate again, feel wind against my face and then to realize that it’s not the air moving, it’s me. The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-HIGH-ee), in a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, speaks of the concept of “flow,” as in being “caught in the flow.” He is referring of course to those moments of total absorption in experience, such that you cease to be aware of the self as self, which seems to me to be what haiku poets strive for but is also something athletes are very familiar with. Once they are caught up in the rhythm of a game, athletes say they react without thinking. Csikszentmihalyi says the state of flow occurs amid “a challenging activity that requires skills,” “the merging of action and awareness,” such that our “attention is completely absorbed by the activity,” all of which suggests that flow occurs amid physical activity. Flow also involves “concentration on the task at hand,” “the paradox of control” when we feel that we are able to handle a challenging or risky task, “the loss of the sense of a self separate from the world around it,” and “the transformation of time,” or its disappearance. In the final chapter of Walden Thoreau describes the artist of Kouroo striving to carve the perfect walking staff, taking all the time he needs to seek the best possible wood, and focusing intently on his carving — and while he was so absorbed in his task, whole civilizations rose and fell around him.

I suppose if I stepped or skated out of time out there on Lake Perez, it didn’t last long. My watch showed less than an hour had passed before I was back on the dock unlacing my skates. But my fingers were no longer cold as they had been when I was putting the skates on. I was warm throughout. My blood flowed, and my heart beat a little quicker, and I knew what it meant to be alive.

looking back on skate tracks
the figure I cut
open quote, close quote

Site 7: The Raptor Center

Monday, September 19, 2006

Surrounding me, as I sit on an amphitheatre bench at the Raptor Center, are a black vulture, a red-tailed hawk, bald eagles (2), a turkey vulture, screech owls, barred owls, barn owls, great-horned owls, a golden eagle, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk. All in cages.

While I sit outside the bald eagle cage, Jen Brackbill, one of the directors of the Raptor Center, strolls by with a clipboard, on her way to her office (behind the red-tailed hawk cage) to make calls to people who want bird shows at school assemblies, and we chat about work, a new beer selection at the local microbrew, and my son, who also wanders by, a volunteer here at the raptor center, on his way to the great horned owl cage, where he’ll help clean out the cage and put out dead mice and chicks for the owls.

My son has been volunteering here for a few years now, part of his home-schooling curriculum, and each week while Jacy feeds the birds and sweeps their cages, brings water to the herps inside the environmental center, or takes the turtles on a “walk” on the front lawn, I go on a walk around the lake. For both of us, there’s a feeling of at-homeness here. The Raptor Center is the starting point of my circuit around the lake. I leave from here and return here. It’s home base for my weekly jaunt around the lake.

My theme here is home and away, and of course I’m thinking of these birds, emblems of freedom, usually visualized soaring high in the sky, riding the wind, traveling far. And yet, here they are in cages. This is their home. Hard to think of them as imprisoned, though, since the good people of Shavers Creek are doing what they can to save them. These are, of course, birds that have sustained injury or for some other reason cannot be returned to the wild. This is their only chance for survival. And before I get to feeling too full of pity for the plight of the poor caged raptors, I should recall something I learned from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a wonderful novel about a shipwrecked boy surviving on a lifeboat in the company of a tiger. Pi, the protagonist, is a zookeeper’s son, and he has learned that animals in a zoo, rather than feeling imprisoned, claim their cages as their territory — which works out very conveniently, since the spot where the zookeepers wish to keep the animals contained is precisely the area the animals have learned to claim as their territory. Pi uses this knowledge to claim part of the lifeboat as his territory and allows the tiger to claim the rest, reinforcing the training about respecting each other’s territory by rocking the boat and making the tiger seasick whenever it ventures near the boy’s designated territory on the lifeboat. So the bald eagles behind me — that cage is not their prison, it is their territory. And yes, their home. I suppose that ought to make me a little nervous when my son goes in to clean their cage, but they do no more than squawk a bit when he ventures in.

November 6, 2006

Back from another circuit around the lake — and returning to the theme of home. It’s a key theme in nature writing and ecocriticism these days, and in environmentalism and bioregional studies as well. Know your place, is the rallying cry — know where your water comes from and where your trash and sewage go, eat closer to home (which does not mean eating at the closest restaurant but rather selecting locally grown crops that have not been trucked across the country or flown in from the far reaches of the next continent), know what species are native to your place, know what forest is native here and why.

I wouldn’t quibble with any of these impulses, and in truth that whole idea underlies this ecological reflections project. Let’s keep looking at the same place (or eight places) for a very long time (a hundred years), and from a variety of differently informed perspectives, and let’s find out what it really means to get to know a place. This place.

Still nothing to quibble with. But I also sense that as much as local knowledge has been crucial to human experience of the world (as it has been for all species, for that matter), we also have a built-in impulse towards movement — movement outward and away — away, that is, from home. And, yes, we also delight in return, the movement back home again, to be sure — but there is no denying that we find it satisfying to explore terrain away from home. It’s not hard to see why that instinct would have served our species well. You roam around and who knows what you might find over that next ridge — a new water source, new edibles, good hunting, the right kind of rock for spear points, a neighboring tribe that might provide opportunities for enhancing your tribe’s genetic diversity.

So if wanderlust seems something essential to our species, imagine what it is for a bird. How, I wonder, do these birds cope with their confinement? Unable to fly, something crucial to their essential birdness is missing. This is not to complain about their confinement here — as I say, these birds can’t be released back into the wild, mostly because of some injury that curtails their ability to feed themselves, and their territorial imperative still operates even if all they have to claim as home is a cage. But still: I recall that in a book I’m having a class read, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, the author, Thomas Foster, notes that literary references to flight always mean freedom, and that the opposite of freedom is constraint or confinement.

Perhaps rather than take these birds as emblems of freedom denied, I should think of them as symbols of impaired humanity. In the case of people, we are too often confined behind metaphoric cages of our own making, no longer capable of surviving in the wild, separated from the natural world by some wire mesh of fear and disregard that forms the warp and woof through which we see the natural world and are sealed off from it.

Ken Lamberton’s book Wilderness and Razor Wire has something to say along these lines. It’s an account of his attempt to come to know, or at least to stay in touch with, the natural world while being incarcerated. The men in prison cherish their limited contacts with nature, which come to them in such forms as a mouse kept as a pet in a cell, a tree branching over a prison wall (which ends up being chopped down for fear it may form a more literal rather than metaphoric sort of escape route), a cactus blooming in the arid ground of the prison yard, birds visible through the bars, an owl audible at night. These all provide little tastes of freedom, of connection to the world outside, but what you start to realize over the course of the book is that most people are as imprisoned as any convict in their disconnect and their distance from the natural world. The sad part is that for most of us our sentence is self-imposed, though possibilities for parole present themselves every day.

What injuries, I wonder, have we sustained while behind our bars? And what institution is it that feeds us and cares for us and keeps the bars in good repair? What would it take for us to spread our wings?

But there I go, turning nature into metaphor, these birds into symbols of our lives, performing that intellectual trick of rendering the life around us into a reflection of our own lives, diminishing the whole of the natural world into an object lesson for human self-regard. It is precisely that way of viewing the natural world — seeing it only in our own frame of reference, on our own terms — that may account for our disconnection from it. That impulse toward anthropocentrism may be the very building material of the cage we use to separate ourselves from the world.

Look at the broad-winged hawk, perched on an Astro-turf-covered bar in his cage. His head swivels, his beak is yellow, his eyes are steady upon me. He leans forward, his tail feathers twitch.

In the woods nearby, the raspy call of a phoebe. Overhead, the sound of an airplane.

Monday, April 30

Around the lake in 45 minutes, now back to the raptor center to continue thoughts started months ago. It occurred to me on the walk around the lake that one way to organize my entries on these reflection sites could have been to draw on Stephen Kellert’s categories in The Values of Nature. The book is Kellert’s attempt to deepen our understanding of biophilia — our inherent (and genetically imprinted) love for living things. He creates nine categories for the different ways we value the natural world. Some are obvious — the aesthetic value, for instance, whereby we respond to our perceptions of beauty in nature and draw inspiration from it, or the scientific, whereby we satisfy our curiosity about how things work in the world around us. The dominionistic — our desire for conquest, like when we reach the top of a mountain, or claim a continent in the name of a king. The utilitarian — making use of nature as resource, which may well be our culture’s prime motive in its relation with the natural world. The negativistic, which either denies that there is anything of value there, or responds to nature with revulsion or fear or disgust, all of which constitute a kind of valuing because you have to be deeply impressed by nature in order to respond with powerful negativity. The naturalistic — going to nature for adventure, to explore. The symbolic, using nature for language and thought, drawing lessons from it, as a good transcendentalist does, as nature writing so often does, as I have been doing so often in these reflections.

Since there are only nine of Kellert’s categories and eight sites, I might apply two of Kellert’s categories — the moralistic and the humanistic — to the kinds of experiences we have right here at the raptor center, surrounded by these birds. The moralistic motive is based on “spiritual reverence and ethical concern for nature,” growing out of our search for “order, meaning, kinship, altruism.” The humanistic motive is based on “strong emotional attachment and love for . . . nature,” emerging from our need for “bonding, sharing, cooperation, companionship.” The Shavers Creek staff makes a point of refusing to name the birds here, wanting to keep it clear that these are wild animals — and not pets, whose names serve as a kind of claim that renders them into human property. But clearly part of the appeal to visitors here is precisely the desire to feel emotional attachment to these animals, to forge a bond as we look each other in the eye, human and bird, and surely too there is a great deal of love and dedication that goes into the care for these birds. This is the humanistic motive. And surely too ethical concern is at the heart of the whole endeavor of an environmental center, teaching visitors about the order and meaning of the world around us all. Is there spiritual reverence being taught here as well? Maybe that’s where haiku and other forms of nature writing come in. But I think too of when my kids were in summer camps here, learning about the birds and finding glowing foxfire by the trunk of a tree at night, holding a black rat snake in their laps, and learning a silly song about a crazy moose who liked to drink a lot of juice. Those activities inspired a great deal of joy, certainly, and that may be a good start toward spiritual reverence. Or I think of my son now, taking turtles for a walk, feeding mice to a great horned owl, chopping celery for the wood turtles, filling feeders for the wild birds, giving the timber rattler a quick spray of water to moisten its skin. These are chores, so he’s learning something about a work ethic, but he’s also learning something about care and kinship and altruism.

My point, and Kellert’s as well, I suppose, is that we are better human beings for being able to find and appreciate our place in the world, as part of it, and for being able to love and care for it. These birds in cages — maybe they don’t deserve my pity. They give me and other visitors here an opportunity not just to learn something about the creatures of the world around us but to respond to it, and them, with the best of what we have to give — with love, affection, altruism. It would be entirely too self-absorbed to imagine that it is the purpose of these birds to evoke that response from us — but perhaps it is appropriate to wonder if that is our purpose: to so love the world that we do what we can to let it remain, so that we can remain in touch with it.

indigo bunting
a piece of sky
going to the pine

Site 8: Circumambulation of Lake Perez, via the Lake Trail

Monday, April 10, 2006

spring shoots
the pines show them how
the green thing is done

A glorious day — sun out, maybe 60 degrees. Scallions coming up on the west side of the lake. The green of the pines seems especially vivid in the warming sun.

Construction on the boardwalk into the swamp complete now about forty feet in. Construction workers eating pizza and chatting as I walk by.

En route around the lake, I think of Thoreau’s description of Walden Pond as “Earth’s Eye,” with overhanging pines as eyelashes, the surrounding tree-covered hills as brows. There are ducks skimming over the lake today, motes in Earth’s eye.

And Emerson, in “Circles” — “the eye is the first circle, the horizon the next, and nature endlessly repeats this figure.” (That may not be an exact quote; I’m relying on memory here.) The trunks of trees, the shores of the lake, the earth in its turning, the whirl of a galaxy — circles. And me, once a week, inscribing a circle around the lake, watching the seasons turn, a bit at a time — 1/52nd per week, to be precise. Hmm, my next birthday is my 52nd. Once more around and maybe I too will have seen the whole cycle. How does that Issa haiku go? Something about his fiftieth birthday, and everything from here on is gravy. (Again, that’s not an exact quote — and probably not even very close.)

Saw a raccoon, I think — might have been a groundhog; I didn’t get a close look — by the small stream by the Bluebird Trail. He headed for the hollowed-out base of a dead tree right in the stream bed. Good hunting from there, I would think, especially for a crayfish-loving raccoon. But it must be a chilly home-base with the water flowing by so near.

Monday, April 24

Another circumambulation — saw the groundhog again, again near the bridge by the Bluebird Trail — and can confirm it as a groundhog (not a raccoon).

I thought of time and metaphor, and circles and lines, on the walk around the lake today. Time as arrow — that is, linear time that leads us to see evolution as a progression leading up to us, at least in our teleological view. Or our own lives as progress leading up to us, now, at this point in the story of our lives. And onward to our dying day. But of course time moves cyclically as well — as in the seasons. And I suppose we could see our whole lives as cyclical — from earth we arose, to earth we return. Think of how often cyclical movements are repeated in the natural world — earth in its daily rounds, the moon around the earth, the earth around the sun, the sun one of many on a whirling galactic wheel, the hawk I saw on my walk spiraling over the ridge.

What’s that Yeats line about a “widening gyre”? His image of a center that “cannot hold” has been crucial in postmodern readings of life and literature. The center — whatever anyone happens to think holds things together — God, Truth, Progress, Democracy, Nature, Law, Reality — whatever transcendental signified you put your faith in — it cannot hold. And things fall apart.

But I’m wrong, aren’t I, in calling the earth’s path around the sun a circle. It’s an ellipsis, the path of something with two foci, not the one center focal point of a circle. I have no idea what that means in terms of transcendental signifieds, nor am I clear what the twin foci of my life might happen to be. Literature and Nature? Self and Significant Others? Inside and Out? Me and Not Me?

I seem to be traveling a long metaphoric way from my path around the lake today. Maybe I should be writing about skunk cabbage and meadowroot, emerging life along the Lake Trail, instead of going in philosophical or meditative circles. But perhaps that’s what literature trains the mind to do — think metaphorically. Robert Frost points out that thinking by metaphor is an important and high order intellectual skill — one that can be best cultivated through the study of poetry. But he also cautions that when we ride a metaphor, we have to know when to get off. A metaphor is a way of thinking about one thing in terms of another (i.e., Lake Trail = Life), but at some point all metaphors break down, because whatever else it might represent, a cigar is just — no, not just but also — a cigar. And the Lake Trail is the Lake Trail, a walk around the lake a walk around the lake.Oh, I surprised a pileated woodpecker — and he me — on my walk. A clatter in the brush, a flurry of flight, a quick impression of his size, the red head. Odd that he was in the brush, though, and not tapping at bugs on the trunk of a tree.

startled on a spring walk
groundhog, woodpecker, squirrels,

Monday, May 8

Post-walk around the lake: I’ve got to say something about the rhythm of walking. It’s conducive to poetry, certainly — see Wordsworth and his blank verse excursions. Walking is so consistently iambic — two syllables combining to make a metrical foot. The fact that we call a beat of poetry a “foot” — that alone says something about the connection.

A walk does seem to be conducive to the flow of language — or maybe it’s that the flow of language is the product of the workings of mind — the jaunt or journey or meanderings of mind — that a walk inspires. But why is that? Is it the physical motion that jolts or nudges the mind into its own motion? The montage of perceptions — so many things to notice at every step — as landscape seems to slide by?

Besides the poetry, there’s something very human about walking. It’s what we humans do well — as opposed to the snake’s slither, the tiger’s pounce, the impala’s dead run. I mean, I know all creatures walk, but not bipedally, and we humans can do it all day long. (When we’re in shape, at least.) We can cover a remarkable amount of ground in a day, seeing — and thinking — and planning — all the while.

I know it’s one of the things I do well. Maybe it’s not much to boast of — I walk well — but it’s true. When I take students out on hikes, few can keep up with me. And yet, many of them are stronger and fitter than I. I guess there’s some muscle memory involved, giving some fluidity to my walk that has stayed with me from days when I was strong and fit and walking the Appalachian Trail. There must be some kind of efficiency in a practiced hiker’s stride — the unconscious placing of foot on angled rock or over log or around whatever other little obstacles disrupt the flow of an inexperienced walker’s pace.

I note that I usually go around the lake clockwise — and it occurs to me that a walk happens in at least three kinds of time. There’s the second hand of moment-by-moment perception — where you see things like the skunk cabbage still out, or that somebody’s put a board over this muddy spot in the trail, the meadowroot flowers are done already, the deciduous trees are all in leaf now, and the conifers seem to take a step back into the general forest green. Minute-by-minute there are small highlights anticipated and relished whenever you pause for more than a moment: a view of the new boardwalk from that open spot up there, new canoes beached on shore, hello to a fisherman, stop at the bridge over the dam and watch the patterns in the water moving down the spillway. And hourly — another circuit of the lake completed, time to write about some of what I thought about — though most of it is gone now, or never took shape as words.

But of course a walk is implicated in other sorts of time as well — daily rhythms, the cycle of the seasons, and so on. What a walk does, I think, is remind us more of certain kinds of time — especially the moment-by-moment and seasonal cycle types of time — than we typically encounter in lives that focus mostly on daily and weekly routines.

Monday, October 17

Once more around the lake — as always, clockwise. The lake as clockface — that upon which we can read the time. Currently, at every mark around the dial, the clock says autumn. Yellow, gold, orange, red, scarlet — easy to read at this time of year.

So if the lake is clockface, what am I in my weekly walk around? The second hand? No, the whole point of the walk is to experience nature first hand.

It’s the turn of the seasons, I suppose, reminding me that my walk around the lake echoes the cyclical nature of time. Despite all the round clock faces in our daily lives (maybe because they’ve been replaced by digital clocks?), we tend to forget that circular figure of time. We typically measure our lives in lineal time from the beginning of a semester, or a work week, or a business quarter, or a fiscal year, and we pause at the end to measure our progress, to see how far along some line we’ve moved, how much further to go to reach some goal. We grow up, we grow old, we shall wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled, and we measure out our lives in coffee spoons. (Thank you, T. S. Eliot, for the convenient phrases).

But it’s not like that, is it — life, I mean. It’s all cycles — water falling, flowing down rivulet, rill, and stream to a lake, evaporating out, condensing in clouds, falling again, down to the sea in molecules. Then evaporating and condensing again, falling again on dry ground, then uproot and outleaf of plants and transpiring out to the open air, back to the clouds, back to the earth.

Walking the boardwalk today (yes, it’s been completed since the spring), I saw a turtle in Shavers Creek, legs splayed, shell tilted down to catch the current, beaked snout poked above the surface. He’d ride the slow current for a minute, then paddle a few inches, splay and float. Debris drifted past him, but he didn’t try to eat any. His shell was round, marked around the edges with orange and yellow.

painted turtle

Resident Reflector: Ian Marshall,
March 9, 2006 — April 30, 2007

Ian Marshall is a Professor of English at Penn State Altoona and conceived the LTERP, as well as designating the eight sites.