Sunday, September 12, 2010

Faint voices

Through the deep woods, the slanting sunlight
Casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses.
No glimpse of man in this lonely mountain,
Yet faint voices drift on the air.*

Wang Wei, 8th century

The woods are getting quieter these days. The concert of bird families with hungry babies has faded away. No one's talking except the crows, and even they keep quiet most of the time. As I walked along the trail this morning, a silent flock of geese flew overhead, so low I could hear the whispering beat of their wings. A pileated woodpecker dropped down onto the ground not far from me, hunting for food and making not a sound except for a faint rustling of leaves. Pileateds seem to spend a lot of time earthbound in autumn. They're a curious sight--big, redheaded birds toddling belly-to-the-ground like foraging squirrels. A wren complained when I walked by, but there was no fury in her rasp. On my way out of the park I moved a box turtle from the road to the treeline. He hissed softly, then pulled into his shell with nothing more to say.

*To read a slew of different translations of this same verse, go here.

Forest in the Morning Light, Asher Brown Durand, c. 1855

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The exquisite withering

Chill early morning air. Dawn light glowing through the mist that lingers around the trees. Damp spider webs draped like curtains across the trail. Wild turkeys everywhere.

Oh, yes, the season is about to change. We may be killing the earth but so far it shows no inclination to stop waltzing around the sun. Soon the trees will commence their exquisite withering. The box turtle that wanted to fight me this morning over a delectable toadstool will go to ground, and the last hummingbird will depart.

In fall, nature shimmers with an aura of good death--transformative, liberating death. Life ends so that it can begin again. Collapse is renewal. That's the mystery and the resolution.

Though the black swan’s arched neck is like   
       A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:   
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine   
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
       And the swan-song it sings
    Is the huge silence of the swan.

Illusion: the black swan knows how to break   
       Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,   
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,   
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
       Transform, in time, time’s damage;
    To less than a black plume, time’s grief.

From "The Black Swan" by James Merrill--a poem that has always evoked for me the beautiful face of death. You can read a very different interpretation from Charles Simic here.

Autumn landscape with a flock of turkeys, Jean-Francois Millet, c.1873

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Promising visitor

The hummingbird feeders outside my kitchen window hang above a firethorn bush so neglected and overgrown that it's a menace. The branches flame out in every direction, just waiting to snag clothes or flesh. The reason I don't try to get it under control--aside from the fact that every time I go near it with a trimming implement it fights back until it tastes my blood--is that nearly every species of bird seems to love it. Flocks of cedar waxwings descend on it in winter to strip the berries, and every summer the latest crop of mockingbirds trains for future mating violence by using it as a launching platform for practice assaults. Yesterday it drew one of the most welcome avian visitors I've had in a long time--a male orchard oriole.

Even though orchard orioles are common summer residents here, they have always shunned my yard as a nesting site. I get one or two females passing through every year on their way south for the winter, but I've never once seen a male until yesterday. He lingered for quite a while, hopping delicately around those vicious thorns in search of bugs, stopping periodically to ponder the antics of the mob of hummingbirds overhead. I hope he was scoping out a location for next summer's housing. I'm keeping my fingers crossed--and leaving that firethorn alone.

Illustration by Alexander Wilson, 1808.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Oh, it's you

One of the trails I frequent has a resident pair of coyotes this summer. I see them once or twice a week. They must have a den in the area but I haven’t seen any sign of pups, though there is a third adult that joins them sometimes, possibly their offspring from last year. They fled the first few times I came across them, as coyotes generally do hereabouts. Ours are not bold, suburban coyotes—not yet, anyway. But I’ve become a routine presence to this little family now. When I walk by they look up, check me out, and then go back to the business of ferreting around under the trees in search of snacks. Coyotes will eat nearly anything, from lizards to persimmons. Right now the wild black cherries are falling in abundance, so I’m sure they’re eating a share of those. I eat a few myself.

The coyotes have stopped taking much notice of me but I always take notice of them. Encountering them has become the highlight of the day. I love that they don’t run from me anymore, though I wouldn't attempt to approach them. That would be a breach of etiquette that they’d never forgive, and on the off chance they decided they didn’t mind me getting closer, it would be a bad thing. If they failed to avoid other hikers they’d be doomed.

I'm a little embarrassed my sentimental attachment to these critters. Coyotes are really nuisance animals. They are aliens in this part of the country, 20th century invaders who arrived and thrive thanks to land-clearing development. Aside from their bad habits of killing livestock and munching on house cats, they wreak havoc on the native wildlife, especially foxes. Wherever coyotes move in, the fox population declines. Bobcats, too, suffer by the presence of coyotes, which is a particular shame because the bobcat is the only wild cat we’ve got here anymore and they have enough problems dealing with the destruction of their habitat.

Still, I can’t resist this particular little group, so tolerant of me invading their space. (They occasionally leave a pile of scat right in the middle of the trail, just so there won’t be any doubt about ownership of the territory.) When the sun shines through the trees and dapples their fur they are breathtakingly pretty, and no other animal moves with the slinking grace of a coyote.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In the bramble

This morning I stood a while and watched a pair of wrens play in a bramble of vines that had colonized the corpse of a fallen poplar. There’s a special grace in the way some birds can navigate dense brush—more impressive, really, than the stunt of soaring through the air. The open sky seems easy compared to the treacherous nets the earth casts across itself. Imagine yourself inside one of those tangles. It would be torture, wouldn’t it? Thorns tearing skin, snatching ferociously at hair and clothes, the rough web of creepers holding fast against all attempts to escape—just thinking about it makes me feel a little panicky. But the birds are very happy inside the trap. They fly around fast and unhindered, no matter how tight the web may be. That dark, convoluted realm is home to them and they don't long for anything different.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


It was so hot and sticky at 6 this morning that I worked up a sweat just walking in the shade. Good weather for things that sting and buzz, not so good for charging along the trail, so I decided to take it easy and hang out by the creek. The water was flowing slow and clear, and I could see the crawdads scuttering between the rocks. There's something profoundly strange about crawdads--mostly due, I think, to that weird, sidelong way they move. They always look like bits of trash tumbling along the creek bed until they are suddenly seized with intention and dive under a sheltering stone. They seem to inhabit a special category somewhere between living things and inanimate objects. They disturb me, because if there's one spiritual duty I really believe in, it's endeavoring to see myself in all of nature, and I cannot see myself in the crawdad. I'm pretty sure crawdads can't see themselves in me either, but I have enough human arrogance to think they don't have the same spiritual obligations I do. I don't want to consider the other possibility. I don't mind if the deer or the crows contemplate their kinship with me, but I don't want those arthropods having deep thoughts. (See "Sandkings.") I left the crawdads to their business and ambled back up the path, where I met a barn owl on his way to bed. He perched in a tall poplar and studied me with a doubtful look.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hawk and dragonfly

Yesterday I came upon a small Cooper’s hawk that had taken down a flicker right in the middle of the road. He was so absorbed in strangling the life out of his victim that he didn’t budge as I pulled up next to them. The flicker was lying on its side with its pretty speckled breast toward me. The hawk was perched on top of it and a little blood seeped out where talons met flesh. I stopped the car and studied the drama for a moment. Exasperated by my intrusion, the hawk lifted the flicker—which nearly matched him in size—and flew away into the trees.

At the lake a startled turkey startled me by suddenly rising out of the tall grass and taking off over the lake, weighed down by his own bulk as the hawk had been by the flicker. I walked into the woods, where a box turtle hissed at me when I passed him on the trail. Apparently, it was my day to be a nuisance.

By the time I got back to the lake the sun was high enough to start warming the water and the dragonflies were out in force. There were dozens of them buzzing delicately around me, diving for their morning feast of gnats and mosquitoes. They didn’t seem to mind my presence. Maybe they thought of me as a useful lure.

Photo by Kuribo at Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Briefly noted

The woods are full of mosquitoes and hummingbirds. The sound of the hummers' sweet chatter rains down on me from the treetops as I trudge along slapping away the bugs. I curse the little bloodsuckers, but try to think of them as nourishment for the dainty birds. Actually, the bloodsuckers make me nourishment for the dainty birds, which is a delightful notion...sort of.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds by Chester A. Reed, from The Bird Book, 1915.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The snapping turtles...

 not understand why everybody is so upset about the flood. I made my first trip back to the lake this morning since the big rain, and saw three large specimens, all apparently delighted with the mud and high water. Insofar as it is possible for reptiles to have facial expressions, they looked very smug. One of them was lolling next to the beaver lodge, which seemed to be vacant. The lodge is intact, but it's clear that the lake rose well above the top of it during the flood, and I didn't hear the usual early morning trilling from inside. No sign of the colony in the water or on the shore, either. Hope they survived. As I stood by the lodge, a little phoebe perched in a cedar tree right next to me and sang like mad, as if to fill the silence.

Photo by Matt Reinbold from Wikimedia commons.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Turtle conjuring

I’ve been noticing the scarcity of box turtles on my walks lately, even beginning to wonder if the population is declining for some reason. Last night I went to bed with turtles on my mind—and this morning, as if I had conjured them, scads of turtles, thanks to the heavy rain that set in a round 4 AM. Turtles love the rain, especially in the spring. For some reason they like to mate during wet weather. (Sound familiar? I posted about this last year.)

I was delighted with the turtles, and with the soggy walk. I love hiking in the rain. There’s always an initial resistance to getting wet, but once I surrender to the experience I realize that I like that sensation of the water slowly soaking through my shoes, droplets running down my arms. There’s a wonderful loss of boundaries when you’re out in the rain. It doesn’t respect your personal space.

Unfortunately, the morning showers have turned into a daylong deluge with tornadoes and heavy storms south of here, and flooding everywhere. It looks to continue all day tomorrow. Too much of a good thing. I take no responsibility. I only wished for turtles.

Charmeur de tortues, L. Crépon, 1869

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The end

Isn't this image beautiful? I love the clots of color, and the graceful pale shapes in the center. I find it a soothing image, even though I know what it is: a micrograph of brain tissue damaged by rabies.

When I arrived at the trailhead this morning I saw an adult raccoon curled up on the ground in the middle of a clearing. Not a good sign. Nothing wild ever settles down for a nap on a lawn. The raccoon was lying perfectly still and I assumed it was dead, but I resisted the urge to get a closer look to make sure. Rabies is always a concern here, and that's a natural phenomenon I'd just as soon not learn about firsthand.

As I started down the trail I saw a ranger's truck pulling up next to the clearing. A couple of minutes later I heard a shot behind me. I guess the ranger didn't want to take any chances either. When I came back down the trail there was no sign at all of ranger or raccoon.

Who knows what was wrong with the raccoon--it may have just crawled out there to die after being hit by a car. Whatever the cause, it's sad to think of it struggling, instinct lost, helpless under the open sky.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

In the presence of animals

After posting that beautiful Levertov poem, I went walking in the woods Easter morning and encountered some less spiritual wildlife. It was clear and sunny, and couple of days of warm weather have the redbuds blooming. A cardinal was singing his heart out somewhere. I was just thinking how perfectly beautiful it was when I heard a scrabbling sound followed by ferocious snarling. I looked around for the source and discovered it about 10 feet up the trunk of a tree. It took me a second to figure out that I was looking at the rear end of a weasel, pushing his way into a cavity that looked much too small for him. Judging from the contortions of the weasel, his snarling, and the pitiful cries coming from inside the tree, I'd say he was making breakfast out of a chipmunk, or possibly a nesting squirrel. Whatever it was it put up a pretty good fight, but the weasel won. He somehow got his whole bulk into the tree and shortly thereafter the cries stopped. He growled a bit more and then fell silent, too. Busy eating, I assume.

The rest of my hike was serene. As I approached the lake two great blue herons took off toward the rising sun, casting their shadows behind them. A pair of Canada geese flew low over the water in the opposite direction, murmuring to each other in that perfect harmony they have. I came upon a flicker and a pileated woodpecker that were perched on adjoining tree stumps, apparently enjoying each other's company until the woodpecker answered her calling mate and left to join him on the other side of the lake.

Weasel with chaffinch, Bruno Liljefors, 1888

Sunday, March 28, 2010


What Blogger really needs is a dead link alert, so bad housekeepers like me don't have to discover by accident that they're sending folks on a snipe hunt. I just discovered that my link to "Sign-Post" above has been sending readers to a blank page at the Poetry Foundation. Dang. I love that poem. If you were disappointed by the old link, try this one. Hope it lasts a while.

La Récureuse, André Bouys, 1737


I frightened a duck this morning. She was tucked up in the weeds at the edge of the lake and I never saw her before she let out a squawk and scuttered out onto the water, wings spread, feet slapping the surface. She got 20 feet from the shore and instantly settled down, paddling serenely as if she had completely forgotten fleeing for her life 2 seconds before.

The weather is wonderfully unsettled here--storms and heavy rain last night, fitful rays of sun after dawn, then the descent of a pregnant black cloud as I hiked around the perimeter of the lake. Sunlight leaked around the cloud’s edges as it dropped fat drops of rain. The wind rose up and spread sheets of silver over the water. It carried a red-tailed hawk’s call to me from the opposite shore. The bird was perched in the crook of a tall tree, hollering in hope or anger. He took off and flew in wide circles over the lake, defying the rain, which promptly stopped.

Photos of Red-tailed Hawk courtship

The scent of spring, after the rain, Ma Lin (Song Dynasty), 13th century

Sunday, February 14, 2010



It’s not terribly cold here, but it’s gloomy and there’s been snow on the ground for days. I haven’t had much company on my hikes. On Thursday morning I listened to a long concert from a pair of coyotes who were very riled up about something, and Saturday morning a great blue heron flew over the lake. I’ve heard a woodpecker or two knocking around the woods. That’s about it. The rest of the birds are mostly silent and even the squirrels are scarce. I’d think all the critters were hibernating, waiting for winter to end, but the snow tells me otherwise. There are lots of dainty deer prints going from the tree line down to the lake. The turkeys leave scribbled evidence of their chronic confusion as they wander in circles among the trees. The feet of skunks and rabbits mark the trails for short distances before their owners think better of it and veer off toward safe cover. Raccoons don’t travel along the trails much at all, but they clearly go out of their way to use the footbridges—raccoons hate wet feet, apparently. Coyotes rarely leave tracks on the bridges, although they like to walk the trails for long distances. So do bobcats. I followed a bobcat track for at least half a mile yesterday. The cat had traipsed right along the trail, as if on a hike of its own. Walking beside the line of footprints, I felt I had a ghost companion, a feline familiar. As we came to a place where the trail crossed a road, the bobcat’s track abruptly turned away, back into the woods. I paused for a moment to say goodbye and then headed on my way.

Photo of mouse tracks in the snow from the National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"...stretched out upon Mother Earth"

I’ve spent a good portion of my Sunday reading The Book by Alan Watts—the sort of philosophical meringue that seems delightful as you consume it but leaves you hungry for something more substantial. Watts walks the thin line between expressing ideas simply and reducing them to something simple-minded. The Book’s considerable wisdom shares the page with a certain amount of 60s-style spiritual claptrap, which is kinda fun but doesn’t help me take the whole enterprise seriously. I thought about giving up on it a couple of times today, but I hung in there and was rewarded with Watts' quote of this passage from Schrödinger’s My View of the World:

“Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of time, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

Alrighty then. That was worth wading through 100 pages of The Book to reach. I’ve seen the last sentence of that quote before, but never the bit that precedes it. Schrödinger expresses in a few elegant words the joyful intuition that lures me into the woods. I can grasp that sense of being continually brought forth only when I literally throw myself on Mother Earth. This blog is all about dancing around Schrödinger’s insight, seeking the eternal now of union and metamorphosis.

The Carrot, Willem Frederik van Royen, 1699

Monday, January 11, 2010

"One must have a mind of winter"

Yesterday we woke up to an Arctic freeze, and today we're back to an ordinary Tennessee chill. When you live where the winters are mild it's easy to forget the special beauty that bitter cold creates. An ice-blue sky, glittering snow, the perfect silence that falls when it's so cold that no animals stir--these are rare pleasures for us.

The Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Text from
Jay Keyser analyzes the poem here.

Garden under Snow, Paul Gauguin, 1879