Tag Archives: spirituality in nature

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

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Eyes on the Sparrow

A heartbreaking image of a swallow with seared wings is what initially scared me away from Rebecca Solnit’s important recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. But Rob insisted rightly that I needed to read it, so I finally prepared my all-too-sensitive eyes and mind to get through painful descriptions of bird tragedies.

Solnit argues forcefully that to deal successfully with our contemporary climate crisis, we need to reinvent not only how we extract energy (and, I would add, our desire for it), but how we tell stories about our time. She is right.

We do need to tell stories, Continue reading

Feast of Fogamar

Fogamar, “of wind and abundance,” Old Irish for this season we call autumn. It’s the perfect word for our annual shift from daylong predictable sunlight to those interesting grays and shifting breezes, and the occasional convergence zone with its furious rains and towering charcoal cumuli.

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

When we first met our new home a few months ago, the air was lilac-laden, dizzying in its sweetness. The blooms were fading by the time we moved in at the beginning of August, and by a couple of weeks ago the tall shrubs were looking pretty bedraggled, with shriveled brown seedheads sticking above the brown-edged green leaves.

But oh, they are beloved by the birds. Continue reading

Speed and stillness: A contemplation

Yesterday the fastest creature on Earth stopped by for a visit. Ever the news-bringers, our park’s crows alerted us to a predator’s presence, and I was astonished to see a rare Peregrine Falcon up there on a high branch, lit beautifully by the winter sun as the crows called, annoyed or just gossiping.

Peregrine Falcon with crows. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon with crows.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

My first Pacific Northwest peregrine encounter, 27 years ago, had involved only sound. I had just sweated my way to the top of Little Si (at 1500′, higher than almost all of the eastern state I’d just moved from).

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

I was sitting there on the rocks, munching granola and admiring the vast glaciated valleys and the two forks of the Snoqualmie River merging below me, when suddenly the air vibrated with a sound I couldn’t place; I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. Continue reading

Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.

https://i1.wp.com/ww4.hdnux.com/photos/20/23/42/4274339/3/628x471.jpg

Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl

.

In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart


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Traces of Hidden Presence

Yesterday, in the darkness at exactly 6:00 am, I heard a high-pitched screech outside my window, which turned into a squeal. Finally the call evolved into one I recognized: a Barred Owl, the familiar denizen of my park. After a short but fierce inner argument between the Voice That Wanted To Stay In My Warm Bed, and Naturalist Voice, the naturalist won and I dug myself out from under cats and covers, pulled on pants and a jacket, and ventured out into the dark street to try to spot the light-gray owl in the thick trees.

Unfortunately, the conifers along my street were too dense and tall for me to find the owl, who stayed quiet after that. So after my brief foray into the dark morning, I (quite happily) went back inside and crawled back under the covers to read for a while with tea and juice, knowing contentedly that the owl was somewhere nearby.

We humans, as you may have noticed, are pretty much diurnal: we’re active during the day, and if we’re out and about at night, we go where there are artificial lights. You can tell this is what we’re made for by looking at our faces. Continue reading

Respite

“What day is it today?” Charles asked.
“Tuesday,” Linda replied.
“Good. What’s your doctor’s name that we’re driving to see?”
“Dr. Lopez.”
“That’s right! You’re doing great. Now, again, what day is it today?”
“Umm…Friday?”

A half-hour later, Charles and Linda arrived for their regular meeting with the psychologist, scheduled after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis many months earlier. When Dr. Lopez asked Linda what day it was, she couldn’t remember, even though she’d practiced with Charles over and over during the drive. And a clock was now way too complicated for her to understand.

The dark curtain of Alzheimer’s descends in inexorable stages. The very first stage must be the worst for the patient: receiving the diagnosis, but having enough awareness left to understand what’s going to happen. Then as the patient loses more cognitive awareness, the nightmare expands to the caregiver.

Charles, whom I’d met at my church, was one of the most patient people I knew. He also had a brilliant career in management, ultimately becoming a senior administrator of an international company. But managing Linda’s illness was a wholly different challenge.

“Linda, you’ve got to have three more bites,” he insisted to her at lunch during one of my visits to their home.

She looked at him resentfully. Who was this person who kept ordering her around? He looked familiar, and sometimes she thought she could remember his name, but she had thought he was a nice man, not like this.

“You have to eat! Now, take this spoon and swallow.”

Linda finally did. But she was clearly pretty annoyed about it.

As we watched over the months, kind, warm Charles became short-tempered, defensive, and irritable. His friends began to suggest he take a respite break: arrange for Linda to stay for a week, or even just a weekend, in a high-quality local nursing home. But he’d always been able to handle any situation that came his way; why should this be any different?

“She wouldn’t understand,” he protested. “It would really upset her.” And of course he was right.

Finally, though, we persuaded him to at least give it a try. Charles went to visit his son and daughter-in-law in Malibu for a week. When I talked with them about it later, they said he’d been pretty quiet most of the week. He’d gone with them on a whale-watching cruise, a visit to the museum, out to a new play, and had seemed to enjoy each activity well enough, but clearly didn’t feel like talking about Linda, so they didn’t pry. He told us later that until that week, he’d had no idea how tired he was.

* * * * *
In many ways, Charles and Linda are like millions of other Americans who currently deal with Alzheimer’s in themselves or their families. Current estimates indicate that 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s, and this number may swell to as many as 16 million by 2050. And surely at least the same number of people love and care for those with Alzheimer’s: spouses, family members, nurses, therapists, ministers. The kind of “vicarious traumatization”—or, less officiously, “compassion fatigue”—that exhausted Charles affects millions in his position.

* * * * *
Now, imagine that Charles, his son, and his son’s wife are at a pierside restaurant in Malibu, admiring the view and enjoying a delicious dinner of fried shrimp and chips. They run into Ted, a friend of Charles’s son, who sits down to join them for a while. Ted, meaning well, starts telling Charles that he shouldn’t eat fried food; especially since Charles is getting older, salads are much better for him. And besides, Ted explains, those shrimp were harvested from Thai shrimp farms that destroyed many acres of mangrove swamps that used to protect those shorelines from hurricanes.

Picture Charles as he stops eating and sits looking down at his plate; he doesn’t say anything. Everything Ted said is true.

But both Charles and Linda desperately needed Charles to take a respite from increasing darkness as the curtains of Linda’s mind were drawing permanently closed. Without taking time to open up the drapes, breathe fresh ocean air, enjoy a new horizon, and get away from the weight of continuous negativity, Charles would more quickly lose his ability to take care of her as her needs increased unrelentingly. And without a respite, his own suffering would increase: compassion fatigue brings measurable physical, psychological, and spiritual pain. Charles needed a break, not a lecture bringing even more bad news. Just for a week.

* * * * *
We who struggle to hold back the darkening curtain of environmental damage suffer compassion fatigue as well, as we work desperately to minimize the deterioration of our beloved nature. We cling to frayed threads of hope in the face of impending collapse of eons-evolved natural systems, trying to drag the curtains apart just a little, to prevent the increasing darkness from acquiring an Alzheimer’s-like inexorability.

Where is our respite? You cannot open any environmental magazine, or even a newspaper, without coming across yet more information about the devastation we humans have wrought. We read these because we care, because we want to know more about what we can do to change our culture’s behavior, our beliefs, our beatitudes of destructive consumerism and selfishness.

But sometimes we need a break. We need to return to what we love, the exhilarating and precious natural world, to extend to ourselves and each other a respite of undampened joy in the beautiful and the fascinating.

In designing this blog, I’ve intentionally stayed away from sharing yet more of the depressing, enervating environmental news that crosses my screen multiple times a day. You already know about all that. And you know where to get more of it, if that’s what you want to read on a given day to provide you with the tools you need to save what you love.

What we so often lack in these darkening days is delight.

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers, and a wonderful writing teacher and mentor. Yet I disagree full-throatedly with what she wrote recently,

And I can’t read the literature of willful innocence, either. These are nature books by authors who celebrate a beloved place without acknowledging the anthropogenic violence it’s suffering, or books that rejoice in the healing power of a hike through a forest, say, without noticing that it’s poised to burn to the ground. These days, looking away is hard to forgive.

I’ll have to stay unforgiven, I guess. I will continue to write about chickadees and bushtits, spiders and seals: small creatures of forest and sea, living their little lives in shimmering, stunning, awe-inducing ways and means. I’ll let others expound on the anthropogenic violence that pervades their world and ours. I’m convinced that we deserve a respite of delight now and then: for our own sake and for the creatures. At least, I need it.

* * * * *
Coincidentally, on the same day that Moore’s essay arrived on my Facebook page, I also received “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, courtesy of The Sun magazine. Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire remarkable poem.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I insist on our right to be dilettantes—ones who take delight in things—and on the legitimacy of moments of joy unfettered by reminders that we’re nearing the event horizon of an ecological black hole. That doesn’t mean I’m one bit less aware of how fragile and threatened it all is. It just means I never forget why it’s worth saving.

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

One Wren, New Under the Sun

The wrens are singing! This unusually bold fellow, a male Pacific Wren, perched by my regular trail yesterday and sang up a storm, not flitting into hiding even when I stopped and swung my camera into position.

Pacific Wren singing

Pacific Wren singing

When I first encountered the delicious extended burble that’s the Pacific Wren’s song, I marveled about it to a superb naturalist friend who used to teach in North Carolina. She told me of taking a group of students on a spring field trip, a hike up into the mountains to reach the spring range of the Winter Wren (formerly viewed as the same species), promising them the reward of a truly magnificent song in return for making their way up the warm, humid trail.When the group finally reached the wren’s elevation, they waited – and lo, there it was, somewhere deep in the forest, singing its little heart out! Many of the students oohed and aahed appropriately. (The other group’s response was “We climbed all the way up here for that?” But they were young; there’s still time.)

Now it’s our local forest’s turn. Pacific Wrens may be tiny and secretive, but they light up the woods with their complex melodies. We’re lucky enough to have them around all year long, and spring’s when they sing. (Lucky also that we can hear them with an easy walk along a bluff trail in fine breezy 60° weather; have you ever hiked uphill for hours in the North Carolina heat?) As described in this brief BirdNote from “Living on Earth,” it takes slowing down the Pacific Wren’s song to grasp that it may be telling stories we can’t understand with our ears.

Of course, it’s not just the wrens who are celebrating spring’s arrival. The budding Bigleaf Maples are attracting Black-capped Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna's Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna’s Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Everyday little birds, all of them. They’re regular neighbors who live here all year and do pretty much these same things each time spring rolls around. We humans, especially we scientists, love these regularities. Cycles and rhythms soothe us, reassure us that yes, even after the past year’s, any year’s, winter of wars and wrenching tragedies, the maple leaves will open, warblers will return to the flowering hawthornes, wrens will sing.

I’ve been trained for decades to look for these generalizations, to utilize the singular only as a clue to a new and more powerful pattern. Inexplicable uniqueness? No thanks, says my scientist-self; if it’s unusual, I want to explain it, figure out its bigger context.

It’s the artist in me, not the scientist, who wants to find what’s unique about this season—already so thoroughly explored by countless writers and poets for millenia—and this very wren, and treasure it for its own sake. Not only for what it might teach us about wren phenology or phonology or physiology—which knowledge I love not one whit less—but simply because that is a really cool song that the forest just sang. Right here. Just then.

Artist-self insists: This is not the same spring as before. This chickadee, who’s had a nest with her mate in this same Pacific Madrone for the past three years: rotting has opened her nest hole up so you can see right through it; what’s she going to do about that?

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

That particular Anna’s Hummingbird, who each spring has taken up his place at the top of the dead Bigleaf Maple that overlooks the salmonberry patch by the stream, defending his turf from that Rufous Hummingbird who regularly arrives once the blossoms begin to open: the maple finally blew down this past winter, and how’s he going to choose a backup throne?

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled, keeping a lookout for the Anna’s Hummingbird

What about this artist, this writer? This spring’s also different because I am: I now love penguins, when I only liked them before.

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

It’s different because I now have more memories of disparate natural beauties than I ever imagined a person could have; because Antarctica’s ecology-on-the-edge helped me to understand that ohmyGod what an astounding creature any tree is; because my soul has been fed with utter wildnesses that have taught me better how to pray attention. It’s an entirely singular spring because I’ve gotten to live a whole additional year with my beloved partner, and we’re both getting older, and other people I love are getting older, and one day it’ll suddenly be someone’s last spring.

And because a lone small red tulip has mysteriously sprouted in our side yard amidst a thick cluster of irises, while a distant wren was singing through the wind.

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Engaging Gazes: Mysteries of Animal Presence

Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

 

Brown Creeper in concealment posture - closeup

Brown Creeper in concealment posture – closeup

I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk: The Animal Gaze

What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.

In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.

Mule Deer, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Elk, Estes Park, CO

Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.

Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?

How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.

The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat [1].Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.

We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm [2]. A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own [3]. People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina [4].

Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between SpeciesKalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.

What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?

  • Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
  • Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
  • Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
  • Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!

I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.

The gaze of a Barred Owl

The gaze of a Barred Owl

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?