Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Ramble

Wood anemone unfurling

Trout lilies are up!

Skunk cabbage leaves are growing

The first few hepaticas are blooming

Pennsylvania sedge is preparing to flower

Pennsylvania sedge close-up

Wild leeks have emerged and are opening

When I got home, a kestrel was perched on top of the utility pole. I quickly built a kestrel box... Maybe he will stay!

Meadow #1

I decided I would photograph the wet meadow out front once a week from now until the growing season ends in fall. I'll stand by the white oak each photo. Here's photo #1. Not much going on aboveground yet... but stay tuned!

Sounds of frogs and chickadees

The vernal pool we found in the woods

Rachel and I rambled out to visit "the Sourland's only Hearts-a-burstin'" a few days back. Hearts-a-Burstin', also known as Strawberry Bush or Euonymus americana, is a beautiful little woody plant, native but infrequent at best around here. When I first found it out on the Sourland ridge, it took a few seasons before I was convinced it was not some weird exotic Euonymus. Eventually I saw both flowers and fruits, but what really made me trust the little beauty was seeing many of its genuflecting evergreen low stems in the old growth woods at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in South Carolina.

Our Hearts-a-burstin' has one upright stem, about six feet tall, and any number of low evergreen stems which are constantly cropped nearly to the ground by deer. I try to check on it regularly to make sure that one stem is still healthy. But someday soon I'll have to lug a hoop of fence into the forest and protect it... even though it's on private property.

As we stood around the Hearts-a-burstin', two chickadees arrived nearby and one immediately set to excavating a little nest cavity in a nearby snag, pulling out wood pulp in its beak. The other perched on assorted branches about 20 feet up and out from its mate, moving circularly in a slow orbit around the nest site. It repeatedly called in a way I imitate as "chick-a-squonk!" Is this a territory-announcing call? Does that make the "hey sweetie sweetie" call of early spring a mating call?

As we listened to the chickadees, Rachel noticed spring peepers calling. We decided to wander towards the noise and found ourselves shortly at a spectacularly large vernal pool roiling with frogs - wood frogs were partying and peepers were invisibly peeping.

This wood frog had enough partying and was leaving the pool

Later, we wandered back home circuitously and followed our ears to several other vernal ponds. In one, we removed invasive watercress and I startled up this beautiful lady wood frog-

Lady wood frog

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Emerges from the Earth!

Spring Beauty flower

Here's how I reckon Spring:

In January, around the 15th, Spring begins as a sound. "Hey, sweetie" sing the chickadees. "Peeter Peeter" says the titmouse.

Sometime in February spring begins as a smell. Skunk Cabbage sticks its horns up through the ice, snow or slush. They are marbled in burgundy and citron, and each contains a weird cabbage-brain of a flower. In the low banks of forest streams I step cautiously in the spectacular alien minefield of Skunk Cabbage flowers.

In March Spring begins as a feeling. Warm air brushes skin newly bared. Somewhere in here an equinox happens and the calendars blandly declare a change of season.

Here's how Spring really arrives: it emerges from the Earth.

Spring emerges as spring beauty flowers, as violet leaves unfurling, as toothwort appearing from beneath the sleep of leaves and brittle twigs.

In case I'm being coy: today I saw the first Spring Beauty flower of the year! It was at the Cedar Ridge Preserve, Jim and I saw it right after we finished lunch. For me, this means spring has begun.

Woodland Violets unfurling

Toothwort leaves emerging

An early moth

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ebullient Flying Monk

This morning I was overjoyed to see a long-awaited harbinger of spring which I've come to count on and anticipate with the eagerness of a kid whose birthday is right around the corner...

feeBEE? FEEbee!!

A few years ago, when Rachel and I moved to the Sourlands, I knew very little about the natural world. A few things happened shortly after we moved which really grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and ultimately changed my life.

I had always been a city dweller until we moved out here. There's one thing that a real city rat has in common with a country mouse: we love to walk endlessly and explore. In the city I grew up in, I loved to wander the streets, especially at night when tall buildings loomed in silhouette over the silenced sidewalks.

As soon as we moved out to the woods, I started to ramble around, looking. I didn't know to touch and smell and listen yet, but, it was wintertime...

I picked up one of those little "tree finder" books and tried to figure out the names of some of the trees. Identifying trees by bark was not, I discovered, the common first step. But I tried. I remember reading that a tree called a "Silver Maple" existed, and guessing that a cluster of luminously-barked beauties were silver maples. Only after leaf-out (and the casual remarks of contractor talking to my neighbor) did I find out they were white oaks.

Here's what grabbed me by the neck and hasn't let go since: On January 17th, 2006, a red-tailed hawk flew low over our house and cried out its heart-piercing Kheeerrr!

Two days later, I was wandering in the woods behind our house and was startled by another extraordinary sound. I looked up to see a giant black bird with a red mohawk and white facial stripes clutching the trunk of a tree some 50 feet off the ground. Pileated woodpecker, aerial arborist. Kuk kuk kuk kukukukukukukukuk!

Rachel's parents had presciently given us a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and over the following days we were dragged swiftly into a new world. The week following the riveting calls of the hawk and the pileated, I saw a small raptor land in the bushes near our house, then launch itself after a passing junco, overtaking and bringing down the gentle snowbird within a few hundred feet. Our nascent bird calendar says "peregrine falcon" but I suppose in retrospect that it was probably a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the next month or two we got to know our winter resident birds. On February 8th I wrote: "A head like a worn pencil eraser helped me identify this brown creeper".

On March 10th I saw a new bird as I stepped out of the door. It was boldly perched on the Japanese maple (which at that point I still hoped was an ironwood), pumping its tail. It was cowled in chocolate grey-brown like a capuchin monk. I wrote:

The morning started beautifully-- warm with a spring feeling. A new bird made a first appearance-- is it an eastern wood-pewee or a flycatcher of some kind? It flicks its tail like a flycatcher, but its call is pee-wee, pee-wee, peearrwee... Shortly after, the day became very windy and there was nary a bird to be found.

I blame David Sibley for the fact that it wasn't until 20 days later that we decided that our "mystery flycatcher" was a Eastern Phoebe. We had the (utterly excellent) Sibley Field Guide to Birds out from the library (renewed for many months until we could afford to buy our own-- do you think we could do all this birdwatching if we weren't horrifically underemployed?) Sibley describes the phoebe's call as "seeriddip and seebrrr", which even now seems sort of silly when the phoebe really says "FeeBEE?! FEEbee! The closest match in the Sibley Guide seemed to be the wood-pewee, but the sidebar on "Identification of Empidonax flycatchers" threw all certainty to the wind.

Whatever its name was, I was absolutely charmed by this acrobat with its roughly ebullient call. That spring, solitary phoebe met solitary phoebe and they chased each other in hour-long lovegames while I stood outside woodworking (maybe I could make some money carving hand-made musical instruments...? How about Shaker-style candle sconces?) They eventually built a nest on top of the exterior light fixture at the eave of our house, and always landed first on the pin oak outside the kitchen window before flying up to the nest with insect delicacies.

When I heard the phoebe this morning, I was happy and a bit relieved. One year, it was as early as March 7th; never later than March 13th. March 19th had me pretty worried.

You're late, feebs, but I'm glad to see you! I called.

FeeBEE? FEEbee! he answered.

Phoebe House, wood-burning/painting by Rachel
(cropped by little scanner)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Like a wave,

it cannot be stopped.

Surely does the snow fall. Surely does it give way to another cold, rainless early spring. The air is damp, cool. The clouds perch above. Immovable, unyielding, the clouds withhold their gifts from the dry earth.

Walking through the air, cool, damp. The clouds are to let loose today. No, two days from now. No, wait until next week, maybe then.

The seeds wait in the earth. Cattails are red spears, they wait, too.

Field garlic is unperturbed. Green, it awaits eating or is forgotten when selecting a Vidalia at the market. Rose is breaking its buds.

The first eastern phoebe of my spring was heard today at Jacob's Creek.

Like a wave, it cannot be stopped.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Red and Green are Complimentary Colors

The frogs started croaking down at the pond, so the red maple delivered a bouquet worthy enough to trade along the Silk Road.

Jewelweed seeds have waited long enough to germinate.

Wood rush nestled among cohorts fern moss and partridgeberry.

The eastern phoebe has not yet returned, but the skunk cabbage leaves will not wait.

Skunk cabbage flowers are beginning to fade...

...while golden saxifrage is beginning to bloom.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tattered may apple

Tattered may apple, Sourlands, New Jersey, 2007

A titmouse sang, without ceasing, from morning until late afternoon. I listened through my office window.

Three woodcocks whirled around the mowed meadow when I returned home in the evening.

Those are today's brushes with nature. Not nearly enough, and I can tell because I feel rather unsettled and edgy. Perhaps a little like this may apple leaf.

Monday, March 9, 2009

In Time

6:15 in the morning was just starting to look nice. For about a week. Then along comes Daylight Savings Time. This morning's 6:15 AM was much, much darker than Saturday's 6:15 AM.

After dinner: Lots of time 'til bedtime. Plenty of time to bake a cake, sit by the fire, read Aku Aku aloud, thumb through the newly arrived Native Seed/SEARCH catalog for ancient cultivated crop seeds from the southwest... To boot, we just vacuumed the house after a few months of slacking - the palette cleansed, mind cleared, vacant spiderwebs swept aside.

I glanced at the clock: 7:00 PM. Wait, I'll be falling asleep in a couple hours. Wait, what happened to the time?

We ducked outside as the light was fading to hear the last cries of the woodcock.

"Peent!" I heard over the sqeaking door hinges as we tiptoed out the door. "Peent!" Twitter, twitter went the bird's wings as he swept over the house.

We waited, but he was done. Sunday evening was his first night out, maybe he's just warming up after a retiring year in the Sourlands forest.

His call reminds me that I haven't spent enough time watching the juncos. Their flight is magical: they accelerate incredibly after a few seconds in the air. I haven't observed the habits of the siskins closely enough. I haven't seen the sun, a fleck of mica in the cloudy January sky, illuminate the silvery bark of the white oaks, beeches and birches, but just ten times or so.

Skunk cabbage flowers in greens and purples, speckled and plain, fern fiddleheads appear like tight little knots, the buds of the trees are swelling. All this that I wish for sends the juncos and siskins north, sends the mica sun south in exchange for a golden summer sun, platinum tree bark hides in a cloak of green bedecked with a scarlet tanager.

This is real time. Not the tight figure eight of work days, nor the boxes upon boxes of calendar time.

It is the expectation of the moon coming and going, spring rains and spring peepers, the quieting of the songbirds at nesting time, the gathering of the hawks, the return of the juncos... The woodcock knows the time, and he tells me easily.

Meadow at Night, Sourlands, New Jersey

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What does the Shagbark sing?

Shagbarks with pale winter sun

Last night I played with a group of top-notch musicians. Fast bluegrass, fiddle across two strings, liquid notes of a dobro. Heavy circular Irish jigs. Rachel and I pulling out our best 1920s blues songs and hearing them with accompaniment for the first time.

Later, the fiddler asked me a question. She's said to be one of the best young fiddlers in the country and I don't doubt it. "Do you play shows?"


I hemmed and hawed a poor answer, veering everywhere from "gettin' old" to "don't really know that many other musicians in the area...", the upshot being: no.

A few years ago I would have had that answer, whatever it was, honed to a fine point. But music has slowly slipped from a passion of the first rank to an old friend, occasionally corresponded with, sometimes taken for granted.

Playing with those professionals last night, I understood what being an amateur is all about. That's not saying anything too damning: mainly, it's about less experience and less practice.

A good answer to the "do you play shows" question would have been different:

Moving out to the woods grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and opened my eyes to a level of depth, intensity and beauty I've never experienced anywhere before. My heart is with this world.

A lot of art and music that I appreciated before I came to live in the forest seems pallid now. The discordant treble shriek and carny torrent of The Birthday Party is damn intense after you exit the dead air of a New York subway and walk home beneath the steel girders of Northern Boulevard. Right after the first sky-hued hepatica flower opens on a fuzzy stalk in April -- less so.

The "other" bookshelf (the one without the field guides) has a lot of relics from our past. Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann: The Designer's Archives. Wendingen: 1918-1932. The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia. These art books epitomized richness, grace, intricacy, the sharpest edge of the designed environment and the lusty artifice of the human throng.

Most I haven't glanced at for years. On the other shelf (the field guide one), the mildly inscrutable, highly unwieldy botanical manual Plants of Pennsylvania by Rhoads and Block is a regular companion on the couch, in the field sack, even kneeling in the inches-deep water of a Sourlands hardwood swamp in spring.

Kill site

* * *

So, why don't I "play shows" these days?

I think I'm having a hard time finding music that really inspires me. What do you put on the stereo after stalking in close on an hour-long sparring match between a hungry young sharp-shinned hawk and a tag team of three pileated woodpeckers?

If I stumble upon the lone hearts-a-burstin' on the Sourland mountain, young stems cropped nearly to death by deer, lone slender trunk supporting four splitting magenta fruits with pendant berries like crimson drops of blood, what music keeps me in communion with its brave improbable spirit when I get back to the house?

Communion with spirits. If the boulder-strewn creek has a spirit, as does the hemlock along its banks and the junco picking through the duff, as did the dead raccoon floating ominously in the slow water, what can bring me into deep contact with them?

The traditional answer is awareness/imitation. Mimesis. The shaman stalks the jaguar stalks the shaman. Deep contact operates at the edges of being human.

What music observes the sea-foam etchings of rain-enlivened lichen, or the ochre of wren-stomachs? What music imitates the natural world, and in so doing frays the edges of my human individuality, transforming me into a boulder, a river, a forested ravine?

No, I haven't been playing shows lately. I'm looking for this music.

Solitary Hearts-A-Burstin'

This Place is a Dump.

Who made this mess? Really, I'd like to know.

I have two guesses. One guilty party currently has her cheeks packed with curried venison meatballs. The other guilty party is currently blowing sawdust all over a workshop about 10 miles away.

That kitchen really is a mess.

* * *

It has been said that one Buddhist reached enlightenment while washing dishes. I try to keep that in mind. Washing dishes is not a meditative time for me. I wonder if this Buddhist is of modern times; the book did not say.

When I do the dishes: Mason jar lids roll out of the dish rack and dive into a greasy pan. Top heavy spoons pitch over the side of utensil holder. Leftovers containers stack up like clothing in a suitcase at the end of a long trip. Did the Buddhist not mind the smell of a scrubbing pad against a cast iron pan encrusted with scrambled eggs?

I have a long way to go.

* * *

I grind the coffee beans with the mortar and pestle Jared made for me. I laugh to myself, "Boy, this place is a mess."

I experience a flicker of calm. I'm surrounded by familiar things, each with its own story. And then, for a brief moment, I see it all in color and light. I'm removed and my insides feel like the are expanding and becoming lighter. Everything before me is amazing. This happens sometimes when I photograph. It is a great feeling. I think this what is meant by mindfulness. In that moment, I'm mindful of my occupation.

* * *

Interconnectedness. What an awful word.

This is a word with a prefix, a past tense verb ending, and a suffix. Does English have any better way of expressing the very nature of all life?

Advertising copy doesn't offer a synonym for Interconnectedness. Cereal boxes and ketchup bottles lyricize about harmony, oats, and lycopene. The Dr. Bronner's bottle screams out from a flurry of text "ALL ONE! ALL ONE!" Nearly every toilet paper manufacturer has become the Walt Whitman of recycled junk mail.

Image-makers struggle with language. "I'm making connections, connecting to my environment, building bridges, erasing lines," we say in our artists statements.

* * *

It's time to go for a walk.