Did I Kill My Mascot? Mistakes Made While Loving Nature

I am writing a children’s picture book titled Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain. It has made the submission rounds, had a few good critiques, but basically returned home, rejected. I’ve decided to publish it as an eBook and market it to teachers and tech-savvy youngsters with iPads.* I’ve found an illustrator and I am moving forward. This post is not about that process, but rather the ecological processes at work at Halcyon, how we sometimes help and other times hinder nature and how perhaps we have to do both to really be a part of nature. I begin with the little monarch that had to trust me.

On Friday the 13th of May, my illustrator emailed to say she’d do the project. Later, I was mowing paths already established, paths created each year as I mow around desired plant species. I was right beside a patch of milkweed when I spotted a monarch butterfly. My first sighting of the season! I watched her lay an egg on each of four plants before flying off. I was elated and couldn’t help making meaning out of coincidence even though I don’t believe in signs. See (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2014/09/16/fireweed/ ). I had a little mascot to observe while I worked on the book!

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I checked the plants and photographed an egg every day. On the fourth day, I could only find one egg. I panicked. I thought about bringing it inside, still safe on its leaf, but then I worried about getting fresh leaves everyday, and whether that would be as healthy for the caterpillar. I fretted for the afternoon and then I dug up the whole plant, put it in a large pot and brought it inside. That would thwart any birds or insects that wanted my egg. All was fine for a few more days. Then on day 7 the egg was gone! I was quite bummed, but luckily I didn’t ditch the milkweed because 5 days later I saw the larva. It was so tiny, so cute, and definitely a monarch. I later read that they eat their egg when they hatch.

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We had a delightful relationship, in that I delighted in watching it grow. I’m not sure what it thought of its nice cool spot with no sun and no wind. Then one day I noticed the milkweed plant looking weary and worried that it needed to be outside and that a sick or dying milkweed would not be good food for the monarch. I put the pot outside the kitchen door. A few days later, the caterpillar was gone. Did a bird or other predator eat it? I felt directly responsible for this little monarch’s demise. I interfered in an ancient natural interplay between plant and insect and perhaps made it easier for a predator to have a meal. This was not the first time I’ve made such a mistake.

I believe we need to observe, touch, care for and otherwise interact with nature in order to truly understand how our lives are connected to other life on our planet. When I was a science teacher, I looked for opportunities to help students make these connections. My first year teaching, I found a preying mantis egg case while walking in my yard. I knew that I could not pull it off the forsythia twig it was attached to without disrupting the egg development, so I broke off a long stretch of the twig and brought it to class. I placed it in a small aquarium with a screened top so that on hatching day the little insects would not escape until released outside. My students were excited, most had never seen the egg case and they were curious about the mystery inside. How many would emerge? How big would they be? How long would it take? We not only learned the life cycle of the preying mantis, we made a meaningful connection. It was wonderful.

And then I made a mistake.

We did see little preying mantises emerge. Their diminutive size was indirectly proportional to my students’ excitement. But it was time for lunch and I decided that the bottom of the container needed some water in case they were thirsty. We came back to at least half of the baby insects drowned in the millimeter-deep puddle. I never brought in another live creature to the classroom, and I still apologize to any preying mantis I meet.

But connections were made, and that is important. Actually, I think it is crucial to becoming fully human.

When someone says something like, “The problem with fruit trees or planting flowers near your patio, is that the bees come,” I deflate a little inside. Of course the bees come. Isn’t that the point? Those flowers we love in all their glory exist because of countless years of a partnership between bees and flowers – evolution at its finest. Without the bees, the flowers would not have bothered. Do you notice the glorious grass flowers? No. And not because you mow them, but because grass is wind pollinated. Grass flowers did not have to get brighter and fancier to vie for a bee’s attention. As for the fruit trees comment, it is hard to keep the DUH that bounces around in my head contained. There is no fruit without the bee (or other pollinators). Of course the people that say this sort of thing know about pollination; they know it as an abstraction learned in school. But they did not learn to rejoice at the sight of the bee, to be grateful for its existence, and that is why I despair.

I am not sure what happened to the monarch caterpillar. In the interest of easing my guilt I have written a probable ending narrative: Since it was in its fifth instar, it crawled down the stem, over the edge of the pot and to some close object that it could use to pupate. I didn’t notice since I was fixated on finding it on the plant. After two weeks, it emerged and flew over Halcyon sipping nectar and looking for a mate. Its short adult life would be over by now. I hope it was able to complete its life cycle and contribute to continuing another generation.

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I will make mistakes living here at Halcyon, mistakes in managing this piece of land I love, and in doing so I will harm some of the life I love. But I will keep trying and learning to live in this space, and more importantly with this space. I attended a nature journaling workshop in Shenandoah National Park on Saturday. Since this is the centennial year of the National Park Service, there was a lot of talk about ‘whose park is it?” emphasizing ownership by the public. I realized I tend to think of ownership having a negative connotation when in fact the synonyms for own – keep, preserve, maintain, hold – don’t feel negative to me at all. They are how I try to approach Halcyon. And yet, with an eye on preservation, I embrace the change inherent in the evolution of ecological processes. And I accept that I am just a visitor here. Halcyon maintains and holds me far better than I will ever be able to reciprocate.

 

* I have mixed feelings about eBooks, about kids not holding a real book in their hands, and so I will continue to submit to traditional publishers, as well as explore these new technologies for reading. AND….I now have a contract with Arbordale Publishing for one of my picture books!   I just found out last week and have been walking around on cloud nine. I will blog about it on my picture book website once I have a publication date.

https://lisaconnors.wordpress.com/

The Best Pirate I’ve Ever Known (12/24/03-1/8/16)

 

 

Pirate was born on Christmas Eve 2003 from a red-bone coonhound mother and a lab father. He and his six siblings were brought to the SPCA in early January 2004. Luckily a family in the county was looking for a dog. Pirate adopted the Connors’ family of Chris, Lisa, Mauri and Kevin in February 2004 and lived his entire life roaming their property (Halcyon), providing protection from fierce deer and far-off coyote howls and happily eating any leftover human dinners.

Pirate received his name from the SPCA because of the tan patch of color over his right eye. He lived up to his name in pirate-related antics. His first major act was to steal a gorilla twice his size at 8 weeks of age, drag it through the cat door, and shake gorilla fluff all over the yard. Thankfully, it was a stuffed animal. He also stole shoes, doormats and blankets, which were usually (but not always) recovered somewhere on the property in one piece and a Torta de Santiago which was definitely not recovered. His most egregious act in honor of his namesake was the murder of Lisa’s beloved Annie and Andy from childhood (see crime scene photo below). His master was kind, understanding he was still a puppy-pirate and made sure to never again leave childhood heirlooms at a tempting Pirate-mouth level. Mauri feels the time he ate her copy of Watership Down to be the worst thing he ever did, but forgave him when she found a prettier copy to replace it. The only other murders ever recorded were that of a raccoon and that of a groundhog – much less egregious acts to the owners. Over time Pirate mellowed, only removing shoes to his bed and using them as a pillow when his family was gone too long.

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Despite his swashbuckling ways, Pirate was quite sensitive to our moods. Sensing our fear when a large tree limb crashed on the roof of the house during a thunderstorm, he sat as close as possible during subsequent storms. He loved the energy of growing kids in the house and any time we were excited about something. And he knew Chris was the biggest pushover when he needed some extra puppy-like lovin’ or dinner scraps.

Pirate loved eating, following scents, belly rubs and eating. He enjoyed hikes and a few camping trips with his family, stealing food from his ‘sister’ (always a pirate, eh?), dog-friendly guests to the house (especially Nick Fox) and playing with the neighbors’ dogs. He was especially happy swimming and getting dirty in his pond and finding deer bones in the woods.

Pirate had been showing his age, still doing his favorite activities, but slowing down. Just this past week at the age of 12, Pirate fell ill suddenly, refused to eat and quickly lost the ability to walk. His family could not get medicine in him and with a possible diagnosis of idiopathic hepatitis with a 30% chance of recovery, his family made the tough decision to let him go. His family is grateful to Blue Ridge Animal Clinic for 12 years of service and Dr. Robert Murdock for his compassionate end-of-life care for Pirate.

No property walk was complete without Pirate’s company. His family loved and sorely misses him and will imagine his spirit roaming their well-worn paths. Pinot, his best neighbor-friend, will also miss his company. Pirate is survived by his original adopted family, his adopted sister Toc, who is unsure if she will miss him (but we think she will), and family cats Lily and Caroline.

Painted in Waterlogue

 

A Dying Friend

The second year I taught fourth grade we spent time learning about the value of trees as part of a grant I had for an outdoor nature trail and because Virginia education standards mandate students learn the natural resources of Virginia. As a project to the PTA and to the fifth graders, my students created an acrostic to the phrase Trees are Terrific! Here is their poem:

Trees are Terrific

Trees are terrific

Reduce soil erosion

Energy conservers

Ecosystems need them

Sound break and wind barrier

Are a major source of paper

Recycle your paper; save a tree

Endangered species need them

Trees help people heal faster

Even a part of the water cycle

Reduce flooding

Renewable natural resource

Interdependence with us, and other animals

Fruits and food products

Intakes water with roots

Care for a tree; they need us and we need them!

It seems my students learned well. Their poem indeed shows an understanding of trees, these massive organisms with which we share the planet. But I’m not sure. I wish I could do that lesson again; I would tell them there are other important reasons to love trees besides their natural resource values. I know human life would not exist without trees, so maybe I can’t separate their nature resource values from this love I feel. It’s akin to how we don’t need friends for basic survival, but we do need friends for a rich human experience.

I have a special friend that is dying. A maple tree situated right beside our house on the dining room side. We think she is at least 150 years old – sorry, I like to personify other species I connect with, and tend to equate ones so full of life as she; her demise pains me and I cannot just use it. I’m sure she was here before the two-over-two part of our farmhouse house was added. Maybe she witnessed the core of the house built, the slave’s quarters, or maybe she germinated sometime while its inhabitants worked the land.

She’s watched at least four families live their lives in the house and she towers over the property we now call Halcyon. Every time I pass by her or see her from afar, I smile. Isn’t that enough to call her my friend?

Her demise began with the derecho in June 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/06/28/derecho-2012-ten-tell-tale-images-of-historic-land-hurricane/ ). A huge limb was torn from her main trunk by winds that also knocked out power in much of Rockbridge County for a week. We were sad and a little horrified at the force of nature that could rip away something so heavy, so strong. But there was work to do. It took days to clear the debris, and cut and stack the wood. She gave us a bounteous supply of firewood for that winter and we thought about her loss and her gift as she warmed us. We dismissed suggestions to take the whole tree down. How could we kill the oldest, biggest tree at Halcyon?

The following summer, she lost another large limb in another summer storm. We started to worry that she did need to come down. Both stricken limbs had fallen away from the house leaving the main double-trunk, and a large limb, which the laws of physics dictate would fall towards, if not on, our house. But she’s a friend. She makes us happy; her mere presence commanded respect and an understanding beyond our lifetimes. You can’t easily cut that down.

At 1:30 in the morning, July 14, 2015, the laws of physics prevailed. I thought it was a lightening strike, frighteningly close to my head. We stumbled out the front door with flashlights. The massive branch lay almost parallel to our house, blocking all three doors on that side with smaller branches on the roof, right next to our bedroom. The gutters were damaged and the picnic umbrella broken. It seemed incredulous. No broken windows, no ripped screens, we felt very fortunate.

I went back to bed, but not easily to sleep. And this is where I struggle to articulate the intense sadness I felt. I resigned myself to the fact that indeed, she had to come down, and I felt such heartache for her, for all the life she’s seen, for all the life she’s fostered, for all the future life that can no longer live on and in her.

It turns out we’re more fortunate than we could tell in the dark. The upstairs bathroom has numerous plaster cracks and ‘pop’ out spots. It appears that the falling branch did hit the roof, but then lifted back off being counterbalanced from the weight of the end near the trunk hitting the ground. I am grateful to my husband and brother-in-law for building such strong walls when we redid the bathroom.

We’re still not done clearing up her remains. I’m staring at the main part of the branch that fell as I type, resting on the rock wall above my strawberries. It took a day to cut up enough to open the kitchen door, and a week to cut up, haul and stack the rest that was on the ground next to the house. It was a long week, and I did not have the words to express my sadness. Or was it courage I needed to express such strong emotions for a tree? Serendipitously, the very next week, I found a picture book in the library that came brilliantly to my rescue. Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel and illustrated by David Catrow (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005) tells of a family’s love for a tree that they grew up with, and the Dad’s heavy heart when he must tell them it fell down in a storm.

This book was just the therapy I needed.

And ironically, we may not need to take the rest of our friend down. With the weight of that lost limb, the laws of physics now say the rest of the tree would fall in two opposing directions, both away from the house. We’ll keep an eye on her of course, but this realization made me happy. I don’t know if she knows she’s dying, but we’ll take the best care of her we can.

Raspberry Reefs

Raspberry Reefs

I have a long-expired PADI certificate (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). Back in my youthful days of rock climbing, kayaking, spelunking and backpacking, Chris and I took a scuba diving class while living in Princeton, New Jersey. I don’t remember how many weeks the course lasted, but certification required passing a test in the water, obviously. The body of water chosen was an extremely cold lake/quarry somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania. The water was not very clear. All I remember is the shock of seeing another student’s face underwater. Can skin be that white? I looked at my own hands. I was unnerved. I imagined all my blood high-tailing it to my heart to escape the cold water, which was reaching inward. Didn’t my heart care about my extremities? I did. It was, thankfully, a quick test, and no one had any interest in diving for fun that day.

I only dove once more using that certification. We were visiting Chris’ parents while they vacationed in Florida and we signed up to go diving with an outfitter in John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park. The water was much warmer than my first experience and crystal clear. The dive was magical. While I recall the variety and color of the fish and felt excitement to be so close to them, what I remember best is how I could move. The floating slowly and the ability to move up and over a barrier without using hands and feet added a spatial dimension that I’d only ever experienced in dreams where I fly. I know there aren’t more than three spatial dimensions just because I was underwater – after all there is an ocean floor– it is just that it felt so. See http://www.askamathematician.com/2014/11/q-can-a-human-being-survive-in-the-fourth-dimension/ for a fun and confusing explanation on living in three spatial dimensions. I think it was the effect of feeling weightless underwater and the ability to move down headfirst without crashing that contributed to this novel and freeing feeling.

Over the years I’ve thought about how that dive felt. Ironically, the memory always comes to me when I’m landlocked with only my own sweat dripping off my skin to connect me with any salt water. There are no fish to peer at or oxygen tanks to fuss with. My feet never leave the ground, well not at the same time at least, and yet I am reminded of scuba diving. What activity could possibly connect my body with the memory of diving? Believe it or not, picking berries.

I have to twist, bend from the waist and peer upside down at the underside of the bushes. I can miss berries from a bush I was just attending to and only notice them when I see them from a different vantage point. Sometimes I stretch far (that’s when one foot leaves the ground) for that perfect berry just out of reach and I have to remind myself that I cannot gracefully float over to get it – and crashing into a raspberry thicket would ruin my flight of fancy. This body memory does not happen with any other fruit or vegetable that I’ve ever picked. I can’t explain it, but I enjoy the feeling. And if I’m not really diving, I’m at least getting a great yoga experience in with my daily hour of collecting. Right now my berry diving allows me to collect blueberries, and red and black raspberries. Soon I’ll swim over to the wineberries. Blackberries will round out my summer diving season.

These days I don’t have to spend a lot of money or even live near water to enjoy some diving. I do it every year in berry season. Who can beat a diving session that results in fresh berries, sorbet, or fruit for jams and cobblers? I can’t say I’d be too keen on parrotfish or wrasse jam anyway.

Snow Day

We’ve had a cold winter, but no snow to hoot about until February 16th. I love when the snow sneaks in during the night blanketing our worn winter browns with the crisp freshness of white. But this year, instead of masking the landscape, the snow revealed to me how much life keeps right on happening despite temperatures that chase me indoors. The garden was littered with rabbit tracks. I’d forgotten all about rabbits since last spring, and I’ve not seen a sign of one since. Clearly, hibernating inside diminishes my observation skills.

The snow also revealed more bird species wintering nearby than typically visit my feeding station. All winter I’ve had cardinals, tufted titmice, chickadees, white-throated sparrows and Carolina wrens come to eat my offerings of suet and sunflower seeds. But ever since the snow on February 16th and continuing through the heavy snow on the 21st the diversity at my feeding station (right outside my kitchen window) has more than doubled to include: white-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches, juncos, eastern towhees, fox and song sparrows, and a downy woodpecker and red-headed woodpecker (these last are singular because I only ever see one at a time). And one day I noticed a large flock of robins on the other side of the house from the feeder. They were perched in a tree and taking turns bathing in the ice water melting off the roof into the gutter. Brrr. Adaptability to winter life fascinates me.

That first snow day, though anticipated for weeks, did not fill me with the usual cheer and excitement. The problem started the day before.

Chris and I had spent the day at home, and after lunch we walked the property to check on wind damage from the night before. Our first stop, and where we spent the next two hours working in 20°F weather, was the studio workshop. The tin roof had lifted, twisted, and peeled back exposing the lathe and insulation below. The brief thrill I experienced seeing it (because of the power of nature) was quickly replaced with a feeling of doom (because of the power of nature). We had building materials that couldn’t get wet stored under the exposed roof.

While Chris climbed on the roof to pull the roof back and then hammer and screw each of the four peeled panels into place, I stood on the ladder handing him screws, basically being there to call 911 if he fell off. Despite my daily 3-mile walk since Christmas, I couldn’t handle the cold. This is the general gist of our conversation spread out over the two hours. My thoughts are in italics.

          Chris: We just need to fix it enough until we can get it done right.

          Me: Uh huh. It’s so cold.

          Chris: These screws are great.

          Me: Good. I’m so cold.

          Chris: Roofers must have some special tool for crimping over the edges.

          Me: Hmmm. I’m freezing.

          Chris: Thank goodness we had these screws.

          Me: (Noting there’s three more panels to screw down). Couldn’t we call it quits and           just cover the stuff inside with plastic? I can’t feel my fingers.

          Chris: I can probably just silicone the gaps myself.

          Me: Why isn’t he cursing? I’m f’ing freezing!

You’ll notice I quit talking out loud. Is that a sign of hypothermia? I was having trouble with how Pollyanna he was about the whole thing. Not only did he never curse, he never said a word about the cold. Why couldn’t I be more mature? An image of a homeless person sleeping out in this weather froze in my mind.

I couldn’t thaw that image when I sat by my fire. Countless lives are too cold. I couldn’t chip away at that image when I fed my body and soul with homemade soup. Countless lives are hungry. And when I woke excited to greet the snow and my ‘personal disaster’ snow day, that homeless person was still frozen in my mind. I felt the weight of so many injustices – a weight I try to keep at arm’s length for sanity – settle in my chest. There are too many ways – poverty, human trafficking, racism, sexism, wars, big pharma, CAFO’s, and climate change, to name some – that humans destroy humanity.

I know I haven’t stumbled on some new awareness about life. Lamenting over the human condition is nothing new to me or to others. I don’t have enough money or expertise to take direct action against big problems, but I believe, perhaps by necessity, in small, cumulative actions. Do they really matter? Perhaps not always, perhaps not in one lifetime, but I believe they can matter, and they are sometimes the only things any one human can do.

Serendipitously, I read a friend’s timely blog post that morning that helped me with the weight in my chest (http://lesleywheeler.org/). While Lesley is questioning her ability to relate to the nonhuman, something I usually do on this blog, I can relate her words to my problem of feeling powerless about human suffering.

“I can at least believe in looking’ remains a mantra: I can rarely fix what’s wrong with the world, but at the very least I can attend to the lives and scenes around me, the beauty and the suffering.”

This attending is implicit in the words of Karen Maezen Miller:

“The view that there is higher ground apart from the place we occupy is based entirely on ignorance. It perpetuates fear and, worse, it enlarges it. There is only one place. The one you’re in. You can never leave, but you can turn it inside out. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Paradise or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place.

At the grocery story, give your place in line to the person behind you.

Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.

On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.

Buy a cup of lemonade from the kids at the sidewalk stand. Tell them to keep the change.

Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.

Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a long time.

Do not curse your neighbor’s tall grass, weeds, foul temperament, or house color. Given time, things change by themselves. Even your annoyance.

Thank the garbageman. Be patient with the postal worker.

Leave the empty parking space for someone else to take. They will feel lucky.

Buy cookies from the Girl Scout and a sack of oranges from the poor woman standing in the broiling heat of the intersection.

Talk to strangers about the weather.

Allow others to be themselves, with their own point of view. If you judge them, you are in error.

Do not let difference make a difference.

Do not despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.”

Many of us do the things on Miller’s list. I have too. But I’ve room to grow. My goal is to be more mindful of the process of being kind and therefore to become kinder: to step in another’s shoes instead of being critical, to be helpful despite being busy, to be more open by not pushing away the pain. Maybe the next snow day will feel lighter because of smiles I placed in the lives of others.

Miller, Karen Maezen. hand wash cold, care instructions for an ordinary life. MJF Books: New York, NY. 2010.

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Fireweed

This essay was inspired by our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and modeled after Terry Tempest William’s piece in Orion, The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness (September/October 2014). In the essay below I play with a mosaic of connected thoughts. I welcome your comments.

 

Fireweed

I don’t believe in signs.

Not even seeing a black wolf on our last day in Banff, just hours after I lamented such a possibility. Not even a treat of four rainbows gracing the vast Calgary sky on the last few hours of daylight as we left behind our vacation, a splendid respite, a second honeymoon purposefully set in the Canadian Rockies where we’d wanted our first honeymoon, and intentionally starting as soon as we were officially empty-nesters.

Empty-nest: a stage in a parent’s life after the children have left home.

The pre-trip days were heavy with unspoken expectations that vanished into easy, peaceful days as soon as we landed in Canada, rented a car, and set off. If it is possible to mix the passion and playfulness of young love with the wisdom and comfort of a 27-year relationship, we did it effortlessly. It was as hard to leave, as it was to fathom never returning to the nest we’ve built in Virginia. So we lingered on that last day. One more walk, one more canyon to visit, several more hours of seemingly endless mountain vistas, all to stall our return to civilization.

We’re returning to an empty nest. Will it be weird? Can we continue the essence of this vacation once real-life hits us?

For a split second I thought it was a black bear. It’s a wolf! I was driving. I slowed to a crawl on the side of the road while Chris took pictures. Its trot was steady, anxious. If it could know that all my life I’ve wanted to see a wolf in the wild, to look it in the eye, to apologize for the slaughter of its ancestors, that I was an advocate for all the wildness it represents and the wilderness it supports, it would not care. I was interrupting its agenda. It trotted just ahead of the front of the car, seemingly dog-like, until it turned to look back at us. Wild! As far from the dogs sleeping on my living room floor as perhaps we are from our most recent primate ancestors. I could drive the berm for hours just to watch, but suddenly it was gone, retreating back into the understory, back to the shadows in my mind.

I don’t believe in signs, but it is fun to pretend that such events give special meaning to memories of loved ones or milestone events in our lives. And while the wolf and the rainbows are obvious ones to use, it is instead a wildflower we encountered that takes the role of symbolism, or of finding connections, for me. Fireweed.

What happens to an empty nest? How will it change? After all, nature abhors a vacuum.

Chamerion angustifolium. Commonly known as fireweed, but also known as rosebay willowherb, great willow-herb, or wickup is an herbaceous perennial from 1.5 to 8 feet tall with pink to magenta flowers.  We saw it along roadsides and in meadows. It is native to Canada and some parts of the United States, and is found throughout Eurasia. It grows in a wide range of soils and can be found in coniferous and mixed-hardwood forests as well as meadows, stream banks, grasslands and aspen parklands. It is most common in disturbed sites such as burned forests, avalanche areas and along roads. It is the first species to colonize a region after a forest fire.

An empty nest is a disturbance to the flow of days and of years, to meal planning, to weekend routines. As a couple we must colonize new ground.

We saw it and wondered at its name. A phlox? No, it has 4 petals not five. We saw it and marveled at its seedpods, how they split open symmetrically, revealing small seeds that will be carried on the wind by long tufts of white fluff. A milkweed? No milky sap in its stems or leaf petiole. And then we saw it colonizing a forest meadow that had burned eight years ago. Even late in the season, with signs of senescence, it was a stunning sea of purple against the tall black stalks of death. Life after death is real in nature. Change is normal.

An empty nest is not a syndrome, though a Google search will try to convince you otherwise. It’s just a change. Maybe a big change, yes, but we are still parents. We’re still here for our children; our nest has just broadened to include their futures as adults. We will cheer them on or offer shoulders just as before. And they will always have this nest to which they can return.

Fireweed blooms from the bottom up. Alaskans have a saying that when the plant blooms at the base, summer has begun, and when the last flowers at the top bloom, summer is nearing its end. All we saw were flowers at the top.

But the end of one thing is the beginning of something else. Nature abhors a vacuum.

A few days after we returned home, I was preparing for bed and I called upstairs, It’s getting late, time to think about bed. All that replied were the echoes of ghost steps ingrained in my brain and I thought of all the times little footsteps crossed that floor upstairs to brush teeth before bed. Those footsteps grew each year, leaving bigger and bigger signatures on the wood floor until they were big enough to leave. Will I always hear them?

An empty nest is not a syndrome. It is a stage in life. It is as real as adolescence, first loves, parenting, and all the other ways we parcel our time into chunks of meaning. We are embracing it the same way we did the sea change that rode in on the birth of our first child. We will ride the waves of time and change, excited for new possibilities, and comforted in wistful times with great memories.

And, while that wolf encounter is not a sign of anything but serendipity, the wolf itself is a sign of all things wild. It is a sign of tenacity. I can hear its paws thumping along the forest floor in a constant pursuit of new beginnings.

Fireweed along side of the road.
Fireweed along side of the road.
Reflections in a pond, Golden, British Columbia
Reflections in a pond, Golden, British Columbia
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Fireweed seed pods

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Summer School

It has been two years since my first blog post describing my ‘change in plans’, my career shift.   I’ve learned a lot about gardening and home canning.  I’m becoming wiser about the limits of my joints and tendons. I try to balance organization and planning with the patterns of nature, to summon energy for writing when there is a constant tug to get outside.  I could list the facts I’ve learned and anecdotal garden experiences I’ve had over the past two years, but these are things you can look up, or things you already know.  Instead, I want to tell of less tangible lessons I’m learning from gardening.  This is my version of Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten; just replace the word kindergarten with my garden.  I do not consider myself a master of any of the lessons discussed below.  It’s a process I hope to continue until my seasons run out.

First a little background:  I’ve had small doses of these lessons in my 49 years, but not as often or as foundational as I now wish.  My siblings and I grew up with dysfunctional parents who were too busy sorting out their own problems.  Our home atmosphere was thick with tension; their parenting style benign neglect with some emotional neglect woven in.  I had no idea how sheltered and naïve I was until I went to college, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.  Catching up for me meant to-do lists, interests in (too) many things, and always wishing for tomorrow, or next week, or the next month.  Life became a race, a blur, until I no longer knew where the finish line was or what my objectives were.  Mix in modern society, with iPhones, Facebook, and Amazon next-day delivery—all of this just further blurred my days.

But my garden teaches me:

Patience—No matter how often I check the tomatoes, they will ripen at their own pace.  They need the right combination of chemicals produced under the right range of temperatures.  Summer days and weeks have their own pace and it feels good to follow along, rather than fight it.

Humility—I am inconsequential to the universe, meaning I am no more important than another person, and possibly plants and animals.  I’d accepted this notion years ago and I am comfortable with it.  It is why I love how mountain and ocean vistas make me feel small. With my garden, I am reminded of my insignificance daily.  So much goes on in a garden that I’ve only an inkling of, and that would occur without my input at all, save having planted a seed in the first place.  I have problems with a hierarchy of species that puts humans at the top.  The base of the pyramid is key.  We wouldn’t be here without all that green biomass to sustain us.  And what of insects?  E.O. Wilson states: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Tolerance—Gardening is no fun when I’m filled with hate for invasive weeds or insect pests that want to eat my plants.  I don’t weed angrily anymore and I only bother with pests when there are too many.  I’ve taken words like battle and war out of my garden vocabulary.  Though, I did use the phrase crime scene to describe the theft of all my Romas and red runner beans last night.  Like I said, it’s a process.  I’m not pressing charges by the way.  Regarding insects, if I want an eruption of pests gone, I make myself hand-remove them.  Standing with an insecticide and spraying at arms-length seems more violent, and at odds with being humble.

Respect—I have garnered incredible respect for all the farmers before me, whose wisdom is now collected and disseminated on the Internet.  They have saved me years of struggle and confusion.  Yet, in their spirit, I am willing to experiment.  I don’t want a perfect garden NOW.  I actually want the garden to teach me some things, and I don’t mind if it takes time.

Awe—How did homesteaders harvest enough food to last the winter for big families before there was easy access to groceries?  I am recording what I harvest each day.  My family would not be eating as enthusiastically as we do if this were all I had to offer.  And while I am canning more than jams, there is no way we could just shop for flour and sugar during the winter months.  Well, unless bread and jam were all we wanted for dinner.

Reflection—I have flowers all over the garden and this has enhanced its beauty, and attracted more bees than I’ve seen in years.  It also invites me to sit and ponder all the life and death around me. Why don’t we talk more about death?  It’s everywhere.  It’s in past seasons: my father-in-law, my mother, and my sister-in-law.  It’s in front of me: the blister beetle I just killed, the cucumbers senescing on the vine.  It’s in me: cells die and new ones form constantly.  Harmful bacteria are introduced and my immune system kills them.  Beneficial bacteria in my gut die as a natural part of their life cycles or because I didn’t eat the food that nourishes them.

We don’t talk about death because it scares us.  I don’t want to feel scared any more than I want to feel hate when I’m weeding.  I fear a sudden and painful death despite Hollywood’s attempts to make me numb to such events.  I fear a slow and painful death from cancer or an illness.  But I don’t want to fear natural, end-of-life death.  To me the alternative – eternal life – is horrifying.  I don’t want to wear out my welcome.  I hope when it’s my time to die, I will approach death with grace.  There have been nights I have fallen into bed with sheer, physical exhaustion from a good homesteading kind of day, content with what we’ve accomplished (for the purpose of living) and thought, If I die in my sleep, I will have died happy.  And yet, as soon as those thoughts cross my weary brain cell synapses, I feel the vibrations of deep muscle fibers screaming NO!  Not yet!  But I wonder if this is what it’s like, could be like, when I am very old and life in general has tired me, when my season is over.

Every species has its own life cycle.  In general, life doesn’t wear out its welcome.  When it’s time to die, it’s time.  I worry that the faster paced we go in life, the scarier death will become because we we’re bypassing the process.  In trying to cheat death, we’re missing life.

So, ultimately, the best lesson my garden teaches me is to slow down.  Spend some time each day in the NOW.  Eat a tomato off the vine; they don’t all need to go to sauce.  I don’t need my cell phone in my pocket in the garden.  I don’t need to weed every day if it exhausts me or takes the fun away or means I didn’t sit down for a few minutes and watch.  When I slow down, everything looks a lot clearer.

I’m not saying to never plan; planning is important. Just do it slowly.  I’m not saying to not embrace technology.  But be careful of progress gaps (term taken from Paul Kingsnorth: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7277 ).  Do it thoughtfully.  I’m learning to see my days through my years.

I’m excited for the writing I will do this fall and winter, as my garden rests, waiting to emerge once again next spring.  But I’m not so excited that I am wishing for that time to come now.  Right now, I’m happy to pick more tomatoes. I want to hold on to the slowness I have finally welcomed.

I often go to the garden before sunset to sit and wait for the chickens to go to bed so I can close them in for the night.  This sitting refuels me for the last few hours of the day.  I look at sunflowers and zinnias; I listen to bees finishing their work for the day.  I hear grasshoppers and cicadas tell me repeatedly that summer is nearing its end. But summer will return.  We live.  And while we live, we face death; we look it in the eye daily.  It’s ok.  It’s preparation.  Thankfully, I’m not a grasshopper.  I hope for many more seasons to learn, grow, and garden. But I want to be ready when it’s time.  I want to give my final grasshopper call with grace and hope someone is there to heed it and reflect.  Are you living the life you want?  Are you racing or walking?  Is your view clear enough?  If you’re not sure, you might try summer school too.  All you need is a garden.

Green metallic bee on lemon thyme
Green metallic bee on lemon thyme
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Honey bee on catnip
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Garden mid-July
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Honey bee on Bergamont (aka Monarda and Bee Balm)
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Assassin bug eating a potato beetle (no, it’s not a ladybug)