Tag Archives: natural metaphor

Storylines in Sepia

After years of planning, I was finally heading for the Galápagos: my long-awaited retirement gift to myself. I had bid a teary farewell to my last-ever group of natural-history students. I had enjoyed the closing parties: the celebration for all my university’s retirees, the reception for the new faculty emerti, the departmental gathering just for me. I had packed. I had given my last final exam, turned in my final final grades that same day.

Forty-eight hours later, Rob and I were, at long last, on the plane to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We spent a couple of days recovering from jet lag by basking in the soft tropical air by the wide brown Rio Guayas, watching mats of vegetation float by on their journey toward the Pacific, fifty miles away.

Vegetation mat rafting toward Pacific on Rio Guayas, Guayaquil, Ecuador

Recuperated and restored, we finally departed for the islands themselves. I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of wandering through a tropical paradise filled with exotic birds, which had been so critically important to my hero Darwin.

But I’d been so busy bringing closure to a thirty-year career that I hadn’t wedged in a lot of time for trip research. So when our planeful of fellow voyagers started its descent into Baltra, I’m embarrassed to admit I was startled by the bare brown landscape below me. Where was all that lush jungly green we’d admired around Guayaquil?

Isla Baltra, Galápagos. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA, shared on Wikimedia Commons.

Although the Galápagos Islands are on the equator, which is generally pretty rainy around the globe, it turns out that they’re desert islands. Three cold ocean currents converge there, chilling the air enough to discourage the cheerful abundant plant growth of coastal Ecuador. And the islands, created just a few million years ago by a volcanic hot spot, are so removed from the mainland that it’s hard for plants and animals to get there to colonize and soften their rocky faces. (Some of those floating mats we’d seen on the Guayas may have brought the first seeds.)

At Baltra we boarded the friendly Samba, our floating home for our fortnight in the Galápagos.

The Samba, anchored at South Plaza Island, Galápagos

Lava was the language of landscape on each island we visited. Its dialect might be pahoehoe (smooth) or a’a (craggy), but in each place, fractures in the fresh-made land told stories of its birth from water, birth in fire.

Lavascape, Vicente Roca, Isabela, Galápagos

Lava landscape at Punta Moreno, Isabela, Galápagos. Volcan Alcedo in background, showing classic shield shape of basaltic volcanoes

Viewed from a higher perspective, these fractures tell the deeper stories of the island’s sepia faces. The curved concentric cracks around Darwin Bay at the island of Genovesa were formed when the underlying magma pool drained and the rocks above it collapsed.

Concentric fractures around Darwin Bay show where volcanic caldera collapsed (Genovesa, Galápagos)

To those who can read its wrinkled language, this lava landscape tells its life story: tales of explosion and collapse, of inexorable erosion and stressful seas.

* * * * *

We tend to think of beauty in terms of smooth curves and vibrant colors. Look what shows up when I do an image search on “beauty in nature”:

Results of “Beauty in nature” image search. (I had previously deleted cookies to avoid influence by past searches.)

The resulting images are bright, oversaturated, mostly with a soft feel. So the face of the Galápagos’ harsh landscape, with its craggy wrinkles and sepia palette, might seem unlovely; hard to love. But such fractured faces have their own beauty.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise. Urbina Bay, Isabela. Giant tortoises can live over 200 years.

Giant Tortoise. Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

Marine Iguana. Punte Espinoza, Fernandina, Galápagos

Climbing such challenging landscapes brings its own rewards as well as new vistas:

View from peak of Bartolomé Island, Galápagos

Lava Lizard on Marine Iguana. Punta Espinoza, Fernandina

Wrinkles bring character and depth to noble coppery visages:

Brown Pelican. Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

* * * * *

Somewhere in my family’s photo collection is a bunch of old black-and-white photos of my older relatives. Among the great-aunts and second cousins once removed, there are jagged holes. These are where my grandmother Mimi cut her face out of the photos. She was recognized as a beauty in her youth—

My grandmother with my infant mother, about 1925. Photo from Susan Adger.

—and I’m guessing that she couldn’t stand to see her face with the wrinkles etched by hard times and good: the storylines of her life.

Searching recently through the vast photo collection in boxes in my father’s attic, I could only find a couple of images of my grandmother that had escaped the sharp edges of her scissors—including this one from my mother’s wedding day.

My grandmother with my mother on her wedding day, 1954

Over her decades, my mother’s smooth face grew similarly storied, and even more beautiful than in her youth.

My mother in her late 50’s

And now it’s my turn to work toward the peace my grandmother could never achieve regarding wrinkles.

Trileigh, photo by Benjamin Drummond, taken as part of the Natural Histories Project (http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/)

Like the Galápagos Islands’, like my mother’s and her mother’s, my own wrinkles are the storylines of my life, rendered in sepia. All of the women in my family, as all women and men everywhere, are born from water, formed of fire, sculpted by exuberance and by wear.

Bright colors and smooth surfaces aren’t the only shapes beauty takes in landscapes, reptiles, pelicans or people. Those that catch my eye and touch my heart are the etched, lined, fractured faces—the ones with the wisdom of wrinkles.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Santa Cruz, Galápagos


The Herald Pelican—Hark!

2016-9-28-7822-Lipari town

Lipari Town, island of Lipari, near Sicily

As I climbed up the steep cobbled path to the ancient Sicilian church, resting on its rock by the sea, I didn’t expect to encounter a haloed pelican inside. But there she was, a glowing mosaic at the front of the altar: wings slightly spread, neck arched gracefully over three young who were begging with open beaks. Her halo and her backdrop shone with tiny gold squares.

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Looking more closely at her breast, I could see chips of red among the delicate aqua and white glass squares. What was she doing here, shining like a beacon in this baroque-looking 16th-century Catholic church replete with life-sized crucifixes and saints?

The images here in Chiesa di San Giuseppe struck me as unusually kind ones. A life-sized statue of Joseph with his lily-topped staff, holding 6-year-old Jesus by the hand as he listens affectionately to the boy’s stories. Mary in an earthen grotto, beaming as she received the news of the gift of life within her. Jesus leaning with concern over Lazarus, who is dying on a bed with loved ones around him.

So a pelican feeding its young seemed in tune with the loving images in the rest of the church. And Lipari has long been a fishermen’s town, probably for all of its 7000 years, so its people would have admired the bird’s exquisite fishing skills. Still, I was surprised to see a bird so prominently displayed: her gold setting shone like a beacon in the church’s dim light. Why was she here?

The “Pious Pelican,” it turns out, is one of the major avian symbols in Christianity. Another bird, the dove, is much more familiar to me as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But the pelican has widely been used as a metaphor for Christ since about the second century AD.

Woodcut of a pelican in her piety

Pelican in her Piety. Woodcut by Cecco d’Ascoli (1269–1327). Click here for further info/permissions.

In this woodcut and the beautiful mosaic in Lipari, the pelican is piercing her own breast to generate drops of blood that will provide sustenance for her hungry children—a clear allegory for the sacrifice of Jesus. Thomas Aquinas referred to the bird’s generosity back in the 13th century:

Pie pellicane, Jesu Domine
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine
Cuius una stille salvum facere
Totum mundum qui ab omni scelere.

Pelican of Piety, Jesus, Lord and God,
Cleanse thou me, unclean, in thy most precious blood,
But a single drop of which doth save and free
All the universe from its iniquity.

(Translation: Edward Caswall).

* * * * *

The Great White Pelican pictured below is  the species that likely would have been familiar to Sicilian churchgoers. You can see why early observers, without the benefit of contemporary optics, might think that pelicans pierce their own breasts:

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

And looking closely at the beak tip of this Great White Pelican, you could imagine it had been dipped in blood:

Great White Pelican - note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican – note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

 Finally, when a pelican feeds his young, he may flatten his beak against his chest to promote the regurgitation process—looking like he was poking his breast for blood.

Whatever the source of the symbol, it’s clear that pelican parents sacrifice themselves for their young. They share nest-tending duties and spend lots of energy catching food for their chicks. They literally open themselves up to nurture their babies: as the young grow bigger, they’re able to reach far back into their parent’s beak to grab the goodies. Sometimes the babies are so persistent that hints that dinnertime’s over don’t work—meaning the pelican has to shake her head hard to dislodge the hungry beggar from her throat, literally knocking it off its feet. Parents put up with a lot. But it’s worth it.

* * * * *

A few winters ago, I had pushed myself to get out for a walk in my park even though the weather was dreary and soggy. I was coming to the end of my loop, and as I shivered in the dusk’s chilly air, I thought how good it was going to feel to come into my warm hobbity home just a few minutes’ walk away.  I stood overlooking Puget Sound for a moment before turning into my street, when puffing up the steep trail from the beach came a ridiculously fit-looking runner. Seeing my binoculars, he asked me if I’d seen any interesting birds.

“Just the usual,” I said. “Towhees, juncoes, bushtits—guess they’re able to stay warm under those feathers.”

“Well, I saw a pelican just now as I was running along the beach.”

No way, I thought, we don’t get pelicans here. Like me when I was just starting birding, novice birders can sometimes think they’re seeing rarities when really it’s just a normal bird, perhaps in unusual light, or juvenile, or molting. Perhaps this was a gull fluffing its feathers, looking large in the dim light.

When I asked politely if he were sure of what he’d seen, he laughed and reassured me that it was definitely a pelican. I sighed. On the off chance that he was right, I was going to have to haul myself and my gear back down to the beach just in case, then trudge back up again when there was no pelican. I thanked him for the tip and headed down the wet trail.

At the beach, the light was fading fast. Bracing myself against the stiff wind, I scanned with my binoculars. And to my amazement, there it was: an American White Pelican, far outside its regular range, flying up and down along the beach, occasionally plunging into the cold water for fish. Would he still be here in the morning, when I could hope for good photos?

Yes! In the brighter light, and yet stiffer wind, the pelican shone like a beacon against the rocking, whitecapped water.


American White Pelican, West Seattle

Looking more closely, I could see the red tip on her beak.

American White Pelican, West Seattle

American White Pelican, West Seattle

I alerted the birding community, and soon I was getting texts asking where the pelican was now, and now. The birding website eBird shows that an American White Pelican (presumably this one) was sighted occasionally around Puget Sound for the remainder of that month, but then not again—until this year. Suddenly we’re getting lots of white pelicans all over Puget Sound.

Why? Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Katie Campbell reports that these birds may be climate refugees. Their usual freshwater nesting sites in eastern Oregon and Washington are experiencing drought, shrinking the inland lakes they depend on for security from predators. The white pelicans are failing in their efforts to be the good parents that the ancient Christian symbols show they’ve always been. And they’re apparently hoping that perhaps the Puget Sound area, even with all of its human disturbances, may provide a manger when there’s no room back at the climate-changed inn.

Like a visiting white-winged angel, the rare pelican brought a message from beyond our local world. She and her fellow refugees need our help. Not gold, frankincense, and myrrh: but perhaps bold, frank incentives to slow climate change—and a bit of mirth to keep our own spirits buoyant and resilient.

At this darkest time of year, the pious pelican remains a beacon in the dim light. The hope of Christmas will soon face a challenging New Year. Can we find it in ourselves to pierce our breasts for our family, shedding five drops of our own blood—five personal practices to help reduce climate change this coming year? Can we make this small sacrifice to feed not only our own children, but those of the herald pelican and all her fellow birds?

Let us hope so. These white-winged wonders are worth it.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo for attribution/permissions.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for attribution/permissions.

P.S. – Good news! In comments below, my friend Véronique Robigou, naturalist and artist extraordinare, points out a Seattle Times article by Annette Cary, which came out just as I was finishing up this post. Cary reports that on Badger Island in Washington’s Columbia River, our state’s only American White Pelican nesting area, the pelicans seem to be rebounding. So we can start 2017 with a cheer of good hope for our avian angels!


Creche of young American White Pelicans. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for link and permissions.


The Weavers’ Tale

KEEP BACK, the sign said.

2013-7-16_0032-Wasp nest warning sign

That inviting package was wrapped in bright yellow ribbons saying “CAUTION,” so of course I went right over to check it out. **

Wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

A construction of remarkable beauty hangs from the drooping branches of a Western Redcedar in our neighborhood park. The size and shape of a football, it was finely crafted by the social wasps who built this nursery to house and raise their young. They’re called Dolichovespula arenaria, or aerial yellow jackets. Thankfully, our park’s management made the decision to let their nest stay rather than removing it.

Dolichovespula arenaria (Aerial yellow jacket) wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Dolichovespula arenaria (Aerial yellow jacket) wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The outer sheath looks like a watercolor painting: fibers of different tones from a brown palette woven together into diffuse stripes. (Or perhaps like bacon, if you’re reading this in the morning before breakfast.) The meandering colors evoke a landscape of flowing rivers or rock strata warped into waves over eons.

Woven fibers of wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Woven fibers of wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The nests are made, like so many homes here in the Northwest, by utilizing timber from our local forests. In the wasps’ case, unlike ours, the homebuilders don’t fell the trees; the workers harvest snags or chew wood that humans have already cut and put to use as sheds, fences or decks. In fact, if you’re sitting quietly in your backyard in spring or summer, you might hear a tiny gnawing that, with good eyes and an attentive mind, you can trace to a small yellow-and-black insect working at the nearby fence. (Click here for a video of a different kind of wasp chewing wood.)

Where do these colors come from, I wonder? Perhaps each brown or tan or buff stripe represents the type of wood gathered by one particular wasp at one particular place: your neighbor Mary’s beautifully weathered gray fence, or the dead dark-brown Douglas Fir that provided a home to last spring’s Pileated Woodpecker family. The foraging wasp has chosen a harvest site for her own reasons—maybe she thought its hue especially beautiful, or she found its taste exquisite. She flies back to the nest, chewing the fibers and mixing them with her saliva, then deposits the paste on the rim left by the last worker, creating a band whose color tells the story of her journey, her destination, her work.

Wasp at nest entrance. Note her vertical mandibles.

Dolichovespula arenaria wasp at nest entrance (note her vertical mandibles). Is she laying down a new band?
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Look closely at the photo below, and you can find tiny slivers of wood in the saliva paste, each color band a memoir, the multi-toned sheath a tale told in layers, as all good tales must be.

Aerial yellow jacket nest closeup Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Aerial yellow jacket nest closeup
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Within its protective cover, the nest holds the precious young, one larva in each cell. Here’s what the inside of this nest might look like:

Nest development for aerial yellow jackets. (a) Nest starts with twisted stem and initial cell. (b) Queen nest with beginning of layered envelope. (c) Mature nest with many cells, enclosed within sheath. Figure (14.62) and information from Wenzel, John W. "Evolution of nest architecture." The social biology of wasps (1991): 480-519.

Nest development for aerial yellow jackets. (a) Nest starts with twisted stem and initial cell. (b) Queen nest with beginning of layered envelope. (c) Mature nest with many cells, enclosed within sheath.
Figure (14.62) and information from Wenzel, John W. “Evolution of nest architecture.” In Ross and Matthews, The social biology of wasps (1991): 480-519.

Skilled caregivers go out and capture insects, then feed them to the growing young. After the larvae have extracted their own nutrition, the remnants then become concentrated food for the adults. Children feed their parents in diverse ways in many species, before they leave home to become part of new colonies.

A wasp nest in the forest: a finely bound book of family stories, quests and adventures, children raised and launched—all set in a particular landscape that is quite literally embedded in the woven text whose fragmented and rewoven pieces hold a community together. A good reason for an orange cone and some yellow CAUTION tape; we surely want to keep it safe in our natural library.

* * * * *

** Footnote: Please be very, very careful around wasp nests! If you disturb the nest, the wasps are likely to come out and spend their energy defending the nest instead of maintaining it and taking care of their young. They may also label you with a pheromone that, as you’re running away, will alert any other wasps along your path to come after you…not a good way to spend a sunny summer afternoon. For you or the wasps.

Starting Small: Bushtits, Beethoven, and the Art of Memoir

The forest is in high gear these days, with everyone busy at the different tasks of life in springtime. Uncertain speckled juvenile robins are trying to copy their parents as they forage on red elderberries.

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

The park is ringing with the cawcawphony of teenage crows arguing with each other…

Juvenile crows on rooftop; 2 on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

Juvenile crows on rooftop; two on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

…and harassing their parents for one more, another, another feeding they don’t have to get for themselves — yet.

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Flicker parents pry the ground open in search of ants, beetles, and other bugs to deliver to their hungry young, still in the nest for just a bit longer.

Male Flicker feeds two young - more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

Male Flicker feeds two young – more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

A pair of Bushtits are busily helping the forest economy through new-home construction. It seems late to be getting started, but they’ve chosen a lovely spot in an aging Pacific Madrone, with a nice view of Puget Sound. The husband harvests the dried flowers of a nearby oceanspray and carries them over to the nest.

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

He then disappears into the opening they’ve woven into the lengthening bag, it wiggles for a bit, then he reappears and flies off to Avian Home Depot for more hardware. His wife arrives a few seconds later with some soft fluff in her beak: bedding for the tiny eggs that will become these tiny birds, perhaps?

Bushtit brings fluff to nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit brings fluff to nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Their nest is the woven story of the forest: tube lichens from Douglas Fir bark, silk webbing from our Cross Spiders, dried grass, Madrone flower petals. Reading a bushtit nest, you learn where you live.

* * * * *

I’ve recently begun considering a memoir of some kind, stretching myself to write in a new style. But although I’m comfortable writing academic pieces, I’ve never tried anything as intimate as a memoir. How on earth do you go about it? Being the aforementioned trained scholar who’s spent decades honing my scientific research skills, I put them to good use: I went to Google and typed “how to write a memoir.”

Behold, up came William Zinsser’s marvelous essay on the topic, creatively titled “How to Write a Memoir.” Zinsser begins by relating his father’s annoyingly straightforward and angst-free writing of his own memoir: the man just sat down in his favorite armchair with pencil and paper, wrote the thing out in one draft, had it typed and reproduced, handed copies around to everyone in his family, and was done.

Since it isn’t that easy for many of us, Zinsser taught memoir courses. A woman in one class wrote about her journey to Poland to unravel her Jewish father’s early life in the village he escaped at 14, one of few survivors to do so. Zinsser describes his own World War II experience of riding across North Africa in a “forty-and-eight”: a train car that could hold forty men or eight horses. Like a peephole camera, the tiny lens of a single short time span allows a whole world to come into focus on the page. You don’t have to write the Whole Big Drama Of Your Life — you just have to start with one memory, and then another, then another. You can trust Life to shine through your life.

* * * * *

On the spur of the moment a couple of weeks ago, Rob and I decided to attend our local stage theater’s penultimate performance of the season, “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman. In the play, Katherine, a contemporary Beethoven scholar, seeks to understand why the great composer used such an unremarkable rustic dance theme, written by his publisher Diabelli, [1] as the basis for a grand range of complex variations, working far beyond the original task even as his health is giving way towards the end of his life.

Katherine’s story is interwoven with that of Beethoven. As her own health deteriorates from ALS, she is able to see that in her life as an academic, her search for the universal has led her to disregard the particular, the individual—especially her quirky daughter. Ultimately, Katherine comes to understand Beethoven’s motivation and his genius in the Variations: he is glorifying the profound beauty of the mundane, showing that even a mediocre theme, a rustic dance, the simple events of a single life, are the shimmering seeds of the transcendent.[2]

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day! sings Jesus in the carol of that name, as he dances the redemption story “for my true love.” Transcen-dance: a grain of sand becomes the world, an hour holds eternity. A little nest is a mosaic containing a forest full of dances.

* * * * *

Zinsser’s final advice for writing about your life is: Think small. Moments become memoir; motifs become meaning; one life becomes a lens to the drama of history. A bushtit, second only to the hummingbird as tiniest in the forest, weaves her nest from the inside. The setting sun illuminates her form as she performs her own rustic dance, transforming the small bits of the forest into a home for her true love.

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside nest  (Click for 90-sec video of her work)

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside their backlit nest
(Click here for 90-sec video of her dance)

[1] You can hear Diabelli’s theme here: http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Diabelli-Variations/dp/B000TPXKK8 by clicking on the first item, “Tema: Vivace.”

[2] In the piece’s title, Beethoven chose the unusual term Veränderungen, rather than the more traditional musical term Variationen. Why? Veränderungen implies transformation rather than simply variation.

Time rewound, for a moment

After several cloudy, mizzly days, I woke up this morning to the stiff north breeze that carries the promise of blue skies all day long. Dazzling! I wasn’t the only one out luxuriating in it; almost as soon as I got to the path, an eagle soared overhead. Shortly thereafter, a gull circled repeatedly, apparently enjoying an invisible wave of cold Canadian air cresting over the bluff.

Gull soaring in north wind

Although there are still autumn colors in the woods, most of the leaves have undergone abscission and are lying quietly on the forest floor, beginning the slow journey into compost.

Autumn path near end of season

Always habitually scanning (consciously or not) for signs of birds, my attention was caught by a flicker of movement to my right, a flash of yellow soaring upward. A (very) late warbler? No.

It was like seeing time spin backward. A fallen Bigleaf Maple leaf had been retrieved by the wind and was spinning up the bluff, dancing upward in ecstasy through the mostly-bare branches, as if retracing its journey to its tree of origin.

I smiled as I watched it twirl through the tangled twigs, circle round a sturdy fat trunk, fly across my path. And then I laughed out loud when it actually managed to land upright on the thin branch of a young tree—it had made it back home!

Bigleaf Maple leaf, back in a tree for one brief shining moment

Did it feel, perhaps, that it had been granted a second chance, a new lease on life, a last chance before death to once again breathe in sweet carbon dioxide, feel the freshness of water flowing in its stem and the strength of sap surging out to its tree?

Maybe to fix a mistake or two: an occasional lack of generosity in sap supply, a desire to outshine its neighbor leaves with a particularly brilliant yellow?

Or possibly just to revisit the old home place, remember what it was like to be part of a tree, view again the vistas up and down, recall the soft vibration of a pair of life-mated crows grooming on your branch in spring.

Crows grooming on Bigleaf Maple, leaves in background

The leaf was only allowed to enjoy its time travel home for a brief moment (during which I was miraculously able to snap its portrait above) before the next gust returned it to the forest floor. But I wanted it to have just a little more time, so I picked it up and nestled it into a nearby trunk, a finger of bark holding it close, where it can imagine for a few more moments that it’s still part of a living tree.

Bigleaf Maple leaf held by a finger of Douglas Fir bark

We’re due for big storms this weekend, so the leaf will be back down in the duff soon enough. If you pass it while you’re walking through the park, please feel free to greet a time-traveler who was given one last chance.

What would you do with one last time-travel gift?

Things that for some unknown reason threaten to breach the soft earthen dam of your heart within a half-hour space on a late autumn late afternoon

Pacific Dogwood berry clusters

Sunlight on fir needles after a soaking rain

Curling madrone bark dancing in the wind

Snowberries — tiny lamps in the dark forest

The gnarled base of an old camellia…

…arching tenderly over its three-year-old child.

Vertical moss garden, ecstatic after recent rains

Bigleaf Maple leaf ready to fall, having conscientiously done its duty…

…waiting to join its companions below, in their final glory.


Making Meaning Through Natural Metaphor

Sally McMillan was concerned about the 13-year-olds in her seventh-grade English class. She wrote:

“Most 21st-century adolescents have difficulty comprehending the numerous natural descriptions and metaphors they encounter (i.e., ‘a waxing, waning moon’) in, for example, Romantic poetry, transcendental essays, folkloric stories, or Shakespearean plays.”[1]

With their sparse direct interactions with nature, how could these young people even understand, much less value, the long traditions of poetry and other forms of literature that employ natural metaphors in the search for human meaning?

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a Joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

From “To the Moon,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

For a young person who hasn’t had much skywatching experience—whether because light pollution has obscured our celestial birthright, because he spends too much time watching computer screens instead of the night sky, or just because he grew up in Seattle where clear nights are a rarity—how could he intuit that “ever changing,” for the moon, means going through the same cycle month after month? That constancy underlies those unending changes?

McMillan and her fellow researcher, math and science teacher Jennifer Wilhelm, asked their students to keep a “moon journal,” in which they observed the moon every day at the same time for five weeks, and wrote two sentences about their experience.[2] The kids’ other teachers helped out by having them read stories and legends, work math problems involving the moon, and build lists of nature-related words they encountered.

The students spontaneously started writing their own moon poetry. Emergent themes included awe; gratitude; hope.

That bears repeating.

Awe! Gratitude! Hope! From simply watching the moon. They paid attention.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention….

From “The Summer’s Day,” by Mary Oliver

 It was as if the students were creating their own new realm of spirituality. Without prompting, they began to see the moon as a protector and to find its rhythms a source of reassurance during this particularly turbulent time of life. One student wrote:

You’re the protector…
The fair moon,
a guide to many souls,
the lantern in the sky.

From another, to the moon:

I know that I will see you again…your promise endures forever.

It’s not only those of us beginning the difficult journey through adolescence who need natural metaphors. Some young friends in their early 20’s wrote recently of metaphors for this time in their lives, evoking mountains, forests, trees blowing in the wind. How will their chosen metaphor evolve, I wonder, as they grow older?

My grandfather wrote this poem, probably when he was about 50, in the prime of his career as one of the first osteopaths.

A little lisping rivulet
That trickled round a stone
Swept up the sands about it set
And drew them farther down.

 It swelled to be a rustling rill
That leaped and laughed along,
And rolled the pebbles ‘round until
The bars bent to its song.

To be a rushing brook it grew;
Around a cliff it wore.
It carved away the base and drew
The towering summit o’er.

Then grown to be a river wide,
It bore with stately ease
The hills dissolved within its tide
And swept them to the sea.

He who his soul’s commission keeps,
And labors with a song,
From power to vaster power sweeps,
And bears a world along.

Can you see the majestic river that’s grown vastly from its origins? Can you hear the tones of a man happy in the height of his powers? Glimpse his evolving sense of identity?

Middle Fork, Snoqualmie River

Finally, I talked with a friend in his mid-80’s about what might be a natural metaphor for this phase of his life. For him, it was a lovely image of mists clearing from a sunlit landscape, revealing the self he hadn’t realized he had always been.

Clearing mist

What natural metaphor speaks to you these days?

[1] McMillan, Sally and Jennifer Wilhelm. 2007. “Students’ Stories: Adolescents Constructing Multiple Literacies through Nature Journaling.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (5): 370-377. http://search.proquest.com/docview/216921765?accountid=28598.

[2] McMillan’s and Wilhelm’s assignment derived from an earlier paper: Duckworth, E.R. (1996). “The having of wonderful ideas” & other essays on teaching and learning (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.