Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Every season has its particular stillness. For instance, the spring has a damp, heavy silence, with great energy humming just beneath it. Standing in the woods on a cool April morning feels like hovering over a sleeping toddler--feeling his breath, admiring the peaceful little body that you know is going to wake up and wreak happy havoc any minute.

The autumn stillness has none of that tension. It’s a meditative stillness, a sense that the world is calm yet focused, waiting for something that is absolutely certain to come. That was the feeling in the park this morning. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, reluctant to disturb the trance. There was no mist on the lake, just a soft reflection of the cloudy sky and the trees turning red and gold along the shore. A great blue heron flew over with even more unhurried stateliness than usual. Herons often mutter as they fly along, as if they are talking to themselves, but this one was silent. All the other birds were quiet, too. The woodpeckers tapped halfheartedly, and the crows were cawing sotto voce.

As I walked away from the lake it started to rain, just a light sprinkle that was barely audible as it hit the tops of the trees. I stopped and looked around, listening. Everything was listening. Waiting, and wide-awake.

The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field, Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Druidic morning

It was chilly enough this morning for the cold to tickle my lungs as I trudged up the hilly parts of the trail. I love that feeling. It's like consuming a living spirit from the air.

I was moving at a faster pace than usual because I wanted to reach the lake in time to watch the sunrise. If I stand on the western side of the lake this time of year, I can see the sun come up in a notch between a pair of ridges. It's a sort of natural Stonehenge, and on a clear morning it creates a beautiful, dramatic birth of the day. The mist from the lake softens the pink glow of dawn, and all movement seems suspended for a moment just before the sun tops the horizon. I feel a little pang of anticipation until, finally, the bright edge appears, nestled between the two dark hills. Then it almost bursts into full view, and light warms the world.

Once the sun was well up, I wandered back onto the trail and came across a pair of dueling white-tail deer. Actually, I couldn't see them--they were on the other side of a little rise--but I could hear the distinctive wheezing snort of competitive bucks facing off, and the rustling of the leaves as they moved around each other. It was just a scrimmage, I think, since I never heard anything that sounded like contact, and it's a still a little early for mating. As I walked on I met a young doe who was loitering on the trail. She stood her ground and gazed at me, perched on her exquisite little legs, and seemed to say, Admire me. I'm as beautiful as the sunrise.

Photo by Fir0002 from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Can we talk?

There haven't been any more freaky phenomena at the park since my last report, but the woods are damn noisy in normal ways. I keep running into mixed flocks of nuthatches and chickadees feeding together, and those tiny guys make a hell of a racket. I always think of the nuthatch chatter as laughter--rude laughter, like guys who've had a little too much to drink telling dirty jokes. There's a crude quality to their voices. The chickadees, on the other hand, have dry, transparent voices. They make themselves heard, but with the restraint of a librarian on hush patrol.

According to the Cornell page for the nuthatches, it's common for the two species to gang up this way, though I've never noticed it before. It's a little surprising, since they're fond of the same foods, which makes them natural competitors. The Cornell description suggests that they cooperate to look out for predators, but of course they are also helping each other find food. They certainly find plenty to talk about, in any case. I wonder whether they understand each other's vocalizations, or if each bird is just talking to its own species. It seems remarkable to think that they could be, in a sense, bilingual. But then again, domestic animals can often understand human speech in a limited way. All my dogs can comprehend at least a half dozen words or phrases from us, and they can definitely decipher our language with more nuance than we can theirs.

Speaking of dogs and speech, one of my dogs has decided to open a dialogue with the coyotes. Nio is a big dog with a big voice, and an awesome ability to howl. He has a basso profondo bark he employs to warn of intruders, and the coyotes that come yipping around the house have always qualified as intruders of a particularly unwelcome kind until now. The last few times they've visited, usually in the early morning before sunrise, Nio has sung them one of his more beautiful songs--a throaty, thin howl that creates a mellow counterpoint to their hysterical yelping. He actually seems to enjoy their presence. His howl has a note of longing, as if to say, I wish I coud be out there with you.

Coyote sounds

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I passed by the beaver lodge today, and saw that the big male was helping out for a change by providing breakfast for the family. He swam to the opposite side of the lake to get what he wanted, and waddled up to one tree after another, being very persnickety about his choice of fare. It was amazing to see how fast he could harvest a branch as big around as my arm. It took him just a second or two to bring it down, and then he swam easily back with it, even though it was heavy with foliage that made the load four times his size. He disappeared with his prize at the entrance to the lodge, leaving nothing but a few bubbles to disturb the surface of the water. Shortly thereafter I could hear Mom and the kids inside, trilling and chomping away. He came back out and did the tail slap, as he often does when I hang around for any length of time. I don’t think he’s really alarmed at my presence, he’s just making a point: This is my territory, no loitering.

Everyone was being very chatty and active this morning. The geese were flying, the crows were arguing, and the ground was alive with crickets. Nature is moody, and today the mood was happy, buoyant—so it was especially surprising when something happened that was so weird I’m not sure I can fully describe it. I was walking along a narrow, shaded portion of the trail when a big horsefly buzzed me. Nothing unusual about that, but then a moment later I was surrounded by the hum of a huge swarm of flies. The noise blocked out all the other sounds around me, and created a vibration that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

But ... there wasn’t any swarm of flies. Just the one guy, who circled my head and flew away. I kept walking and the sound stopped as abruptly as it started. It was as if I had stepped on the other side of a curtain, and whatever I had just encountered was now hidden behind it. I stopped walking and looked all around, trying to see what it might have been, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. I considered backtracking to see if I would hear and feel it again, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I wasn’t really frightened, just a little unnerved, and the experience was unpleasant enough that I didn’t especially want to repeat it.

My grandmother would have said I met a haint. My 21st century media-soaked brain immediately categorized it as an X-Files moment. The rational me is trying to figure out whether it was some obscure natural phenomenon or simply a fleeting hallucination. I think I’ll walk that trail again tomorrow and see what happens. If I run into Mulder and Scully, I’ll let you know.

Photo by Marcin Klapczynski from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Diospyros virginiana

I've been craving the rich, gooey pulp of persimmons ever since I whined about all the "deceptively ripe-looking" ones in my picture post last Sunday. (Wild American persimmons are somewhat different from the Asian persimmons you find in the grocery store. If you are not familiar with them, you can read about them here.) Wild persimmons turn color and look tempting in early fall, but you'll get a nasty surprise if you bite into one. The flesh, especially right next to the skin, is so tannic it will pucker your mouth. If you eat more than a bite or two it will make you ill. It doesn't become fit to eat until it's more or less rotted, or after a freeze softens it. Then it becomes luscious and sweet as candy.

When I was out walking on Wednesday--in the big park where there are more critters than people--I kept coming across little piles of scat that were full of persimmon seeds. I don't know what sort of beastie left it there, since I'm not skilled at the art of scat reading. It might have been a skunk or a raccoon, or even a fox. Whatever it was, it had found some edible persimmons and I figured I could find some, too.

It didn't take me long to find a tree that had dropped a lot fruit. Most of it was unripe, and the pieces that were sufficiently decayed were generally too dirty to eat. I did manage to find a small handful of good ones, though, and I ate them right there, leaning up against the tree that produced them.

The skins were still treacherous with tannin. I split the fruit open from the stem and turned out the halves like an orange to expose the tasty part. I dug out the seeds with my fingers so I could enjoy the velvety pulp without having to spit them out. (I'm willing to follow shit to find food, but spitting just seems like bad manners, even out in the woods.)

Those few bites of persimmon tasted so good I smiled. I said a silent thanks to the mother persimmon tree, and to the filthy varmint who led me to her.

Photo from Vanderbilt University Bioimages page.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A familiar thrill

It's finally turned cool here, which feels like a gift. The late summer heat had gotten so tedious, and that warm, damp air from Hurricane Ike was enervating, in spite of all the wind.

Bright weather like this brings a lot of extra people out to the parks. The trails are much busier than usual, even in the early morning. It's nice to see folks out enjoying the world but I prefer my solitude. I tend to follow less popular routes on days like these, and I'll stop a while beside the trail to let groups of hikers pass by so I don't have to listen to them chatting behind me. I was doing that this morning, watching the birds flit around in the brush, when I saw a fallen leaf caught in a spider web. A light breeze was blowing and the web was invisible, so the leaf seemed to be floating in the air, as if brandished by a ghost.

I felt a familiar thrill, looking at the archetypal fall image: the decaying leaf, the web, the suggestion of something otherworldly. Autumn is the season of memento mori, and yet it's not a quiet season, not still. There's a powerful energy that shimmers through the natural world as it surrenders the life and productivity of summer. Fall is not a time of death, but of dying, a process of transformation. I grieve to see so many beauties and pleasures disappear, but it's exhilarating to feel the force that has lifted up every green thing reverse course and rush back toward the earth.

Photo by James K. Lindsey from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Picture post

The remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through here today. We got a little rain, but it was mostly a wind event. As I walked the trail this morning, the trees were crashing against each other, littering the ground with pecans and hickory nuts still in their husks, green acorns and deceptively ripe-looking persimmons. I've always wondered why the wild foods that appear in autumn--the time of year when everybody needs to pack on some weight--require the most patience and work to eat. There's nothing I like better than hickory nuts, but when I think of the effort involved in gathering and shelling them, the packages of pecans and black walnuts in the supermarket start to look a lot more appealing.

I love mushrooms, too, but I never gather those wild, either--not so much out of laziness as fear. Even knowledgeable 'shroomers make mistakes sometimes, and I'm just not willing to risk agony or death for the sake of a taste experience. Seeing these tree ears almost tempted me to try it, though. As far as I know, they're the same as the tree ears that show up in Chinese food--"as far as I know" being the key qualifier.

That's another irony of the fall harvest: Not only are the good things difficult to get at, so much that looks pretty--from the colorful toadstool to the pokeberry--is poisonous. This fruit of this firethorn bush, which sits just off my carport, is no exception, despite what Wikipedia says. My dog Pearl, a great forager, snarfed down a few one day and was very sick for the next 24 hours. I thought about cutting the bush down after that, but the birds can eat the berries without harm, and they love them. The plant holds its fruit all winter and it's so nice to watch a mockingbird or cardinal chow down on an icy day, I decided the dogs and the firethorn would have to coexist.

This pretty flower is a wingstem, and it's not food for anything except butterfly larvae. It's in abundant bloom right now, along with the equally beautiful--but also poisonous--white snakeroot. Both plants are tall, standing 3-4 feet off the ground, and they create a soft border of yellow and white at the edge of the treeline.

All photos by me, for a change, taken at my house and at Edwin Warner Park in Nashville.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I went out on the back porch yesterday afternoon to fill a hummingbird feeder, and I noticed a dead grasshopper floating in one of the dogs' water bowls. I let it float. The two big dogs, Nio and Kobi, inhabit the back yard, and the 5 gallon tubs of water I put out for them tend to collect a lot of debris: shed fur, bird poop, stray spiders, pollen, etc. Plus, Kobi is very fond of bathing her feet after she's been digging. If I was hung up about them getting pristine water, I'd be throwing out a bathtub's worth every day, so I restrict them to a fresh supply each morning unless things get truly nasty.

I went back out several hours later, and of course the grasshopper was still floating. It was a pretty little bug. I wanted to get a closer look at it, so I grabbed one of the dogs' nylon chew toys and fished it out--and damn if it didn't start moving. I laid the toy on a ledge and watched the little guy bring himself back to life.

He gave a small shake of each limb, then commenced rubbing his face and the base of his antennae with his front legs. He was very thorough. He'd pause for a second and then start rubbing again, as if he realized his styling job was not quite done. When he was groomed to his satisfaction, he flexed his torso a little, and then extended each hind leg, pointing it like a dancer warming up. At that point he seemed to realize he was precariously situated on the end of the fake bone, so he slowly moved himself off it onto the ledge.

The late afternoon sun was shining directly on him. The black and yellow stripes on his legs were beautiful. I leaned down to admire him, and just as I did he shook his wings and flung water in my face--Go away, kid, you bother me. So much for gratitude.

He settled himself along the outer corner of the ledge, clearly enjoying the warmth of the sun. If a bug can be happy, he was. I went back out to check on him an hour later and he had flown away.

Photo by Gothika from Wikimedia Commons,

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Becoming the pokeberry

One of the things I love about escaping the pavement is the loss of a sense of being separated from the world--you know, the "I'm in here, looking at everything out there" sensation that we live with most of the time. I don't mean the complete loss of self that I described in an earlier post. That's a rare event. I mean something much more subtle, so subtle I'm often barely aware of it except as a small, instinctive pleasure.

For instance, today I had been climbing a hill and the muscles in my legs were very tight, so I stopped at a big, dead cedar tree to stretch. I threw one leg onto a low branch that had been stripped and worn smooth by some combination of critters and the elements. I looked at the bare skin of my leg against the surface of the branch, and I felt an intuitive understanding that I was made of the same stuff as the wood--sort of a bonding moment with all carbon-based life.

A little later I came across a stand of mature pokeweed, and I couldn't resist pulling off some berries and crushing them in my hands, just to see the bright magenta stain. Sometimes I think the practice of painting the body was originally inspired by the desire to explore the source of the color, as much as to make a display of oneself for other people. Smearing that pokeberry juice over my hands was a real sensual pleasure--the feel of it, the sight of it, and the scent, too. Pokeberry juice has an alluring smell; a perfumer would say it's a bittersweet accord of hay, cucumber and orris. Sniffing it, I felt that moment of communion again. I didn't make it a literal communion by taking a taste, of course--I know better--but I admired my painted hands for the rest of my walk.

Photo of pokeberries by Rei at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My, it's quiet around here

On the blog, I mean, not here in Tennessee. It's actually pretty noisy here with the sound of cicadas. This is the time of year when the birds love to feast on them. In addition to their usual non-stop song, you'll often hear the cackling protest of a cicada as it's carried away to its death.

The other sound around my house is the eerie buzz of the blue dirt daubers as they build their mud nests around our windows. I welcome the noise--it's strangely musical, and it means more of the venomous spiders that plague us will be wasp food.

I've been somewhat out of commission for a few days, hence the scarcity of posts. My time on the trail has mostly consisted of leaning up against trees, trying to summon the energy to get back to my car. I'll rally shortly, I'm sure. Autumn is almost here, and there's no better time to be out in the woods.

Photo by Nickaleck from Wikimedia Commons.