SISTERS OF THE EARTH -- WOMEN'S PROSE & POETRY ABOUT NATURE
Her Creatures: ANIMAL AND VEGETABLE PRESENCES
To become aware of other creatures as individuals is to discover that life is a mansion with many rooms. We humans see the world out of the windows of our own small room and think we've seen it all, but each species has its own window and its own view. I watch my cat and wonder what the world looks like to her. I'll never know (at least in this life), but trying to imagine takes me out of my own small room and stretches my boundaries. She can teach me a lot about things like patience, contentment, and concentration, and she can also provide me a kind of companionship people can't. When a mother raccoon and her three cubs came into our yard one night, my cat and I watched spellbound for an hour as the coons sniffed and dug. I slept well that night, feeling somehow less alone, reassured by the company of all the other-than-human lives stirring out there in the darkness.
The selections in this section honor our fellow creatures. These writers bear witness to the fact that we are immeasurably enriched when we approach our nonhuman relations, domestic and wild, with reverence and respect. They express the pleasure to be found in living in harmony with animal and vegetable presences.
Although she did not define herself as a nature poet or a feminist, Denise Levertov (1923-1997) frequently wrote poetry celebrating the values of nature and nurture from a distinctly feminine perspective. And although she was born and raised in England, she became one of the most American of poets, notable for her political activism against the Vietnam War and later against nuclear proliferation and American intervention in El Salvador. Levertov was educated mostly at home by her Welsh mother, BBC programs, and private tutors during a bucolic childhood in Ilford, Essex. She became a nurse during World War II, married the writer Mitchell Goodman (she was later divorced after bearing a son), and emigrated to the United States in 1948, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1955. She taught at a number of universities, including Tufts and Stanford, served as poetry editor of the liberal journal The Nation, and published more than a dozen volumes of poetry as well as collections of essays and reviews. "Come into Animal Presence" (collected in Poems, 1960-1967) takes up a recurring theme in Levertov's work: the world is infused with a holy radiance, if only we have eyes to see it.
COME INTO ANIMAL PRESENCE
Come into animal
What is this joy?
That no animal
In the course of writing eleven books (of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction) and many essays, Josephine Johnson (1910-1990) sought to reconcile her love of the farming country of Missouri and Ohio with her membership in a society that she saw destroying the green world in the name of Christianity and capitalism. Born the second of four daughters of a prosperous coffee merchant, she grew up in a fine house with spacious grounds in Kirkwood, Missouri, and moved at twelve with her family to a two-hundred-acre farm outside St. Louis where she would live until her first marriage in 1939. At age twenty-five she won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, Now in November (1934), the story of a young farmgirl's love of the land set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. After her second marriage in 1942, to an editor of Farm Quarterly named Grant Cannon, Johnson took a long break from writing while she raised a son and two daughters. The Inland Island (1969), her chronicle of a year on the thirty-seven acres of worn-out farmland near Cincinnati that she and Cannon bought in 1956 and allowed to go back to the wild in the midst of creeping suburban development, is considered a wellspring of the modern environmental movement. Johnson grappled all her life with pessimism about the future based on her awareness of social injustice, on her Quaker pacifism, and on what she saw happening to the midwestern landscape. She sought peace in nature just as the heroines of her fiction did. But she also realized how difficult it can be to see nature clearly and unsentimentally, beyond our own longings and projections, as shown by her description of a face-to-face meeting with a fox from the chapter entitled "June" in The Inland Island.
THE HEART'S FOX
The small crumbling cottage was built long ago when all land was farmland in this county and, with its old ragged lilac bushes, still stands near a pond in a corner of our acres. The silver canes of wild raspberries reach across the broken windows, but the great stone fireplace is still there, untouched by time.
There is a well with a wooden windlass under a cedar tree, and living inside are hairy spiders and great black snakes coiled quietly in varying sizes. We lift up the lid and endure each other's stare for several minutes until one or the other goes his way. On summer mornings up there, the far hills are blue, the air is warm and misty and full of white and yellow butterflies appearing and dissolving like bits of cloud. The glowing orange fritillaries, whose larvae eat the wild-violet leaves at night, and whose wings have mica spangles, swarm over the dusty pink and purple milkweed flowers, and these outrageous colors are beautiful and harmonious in the sunlight.
The high seedy grasses at the edge of the clearing suddenly swing forward from the weight of the goldfinch gathering seeds, or the indigo bunting whose blue is like no other color on earth, the rarest, most gemlike blue, as though a wild jewel had gone by on wings.
The goldenrod is high and green, and these skyscrapers of vegetation are covered with red aphis, sucking in and out, pumping the green towers, while ladybugs devour them -- choosing among their overabundant lunching lunch. Ladybug larvae and the delicate lacewing also devour. The aphis jerk in and out, in and out. The harvest spiders stroll and loll. And an unknown, evilish thing, humpbacked and spiny-legged, crawls up and pauses at the red bubbly fountains.
We have this clearing around the cottage under control now, although this was not always so, and the grasses five feet high, with seed heads on them like busbies, grew up to the door. We no longer need old Tom Sayre with his scythe, like Father Time. Old Tom is more than eighty and moves slowly, stiffly but relentlessly, weed-destroying through his days. I have never seen him still. He hates all weeds, and he walked two miles in the early-morning mists to chop ours down, his great scythe moving for six hours, as though a pendulum had been set in motion and could not stop. He is a healthy man, and though he chews tobacco, he never drinks, and has been known to warn that "lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine" -- although what brought this on is hard to say. He is a craftsman and wants to see a job well done. But when he had cut slowly and methodically westward through three days of cocklebur and narrow dock, we felt we could not afford a pathway to the rim of the world and told him it was time to stop. He paused and regarded us with thoughtful scorn. "You're a couple of tightwads," he said. "I ain't anywheres near done."
But misers or not, we had to let him go; and he went back to trimming his own yard to bark and bone. Months later I met him in the grocery store and said hello. He peered at me without recognition. "Who the hell are you?" he asked. A greeting not wholly lacking in friendliness.
"Don't you remember me?" I said. ''You cut our weeds up by the pond."
He nodded absently. ''You're better-looking than you used to be," he said, and stumped away with his groceries down the center of the road.
Once the clearing was made, the children played up there more often, and, on the long stone and concrete slab that was the back porch, now cracked and punctured by pokeweed and grapevines, they made three little stoves out of the fallen chimney bricks and made real fires and cooked real food and held long and very real conversations. It was on one of these expeditions that they saw the fox vixen running from the rubble that used to be the cellar door of the cottage, one of the exits from the underground tunnels where this year the woodchucks live.
Oddly enough, although I have lived most of my life in the country, I had not until recent years seen a fox close at hand -- once, running from the hounds, and once at dawn, grey as the cold mists from the pond, floating lightly over the brush heaps by the barn.
The fox seems fast and fearless, clever and cunning, and without manners or morals or scruples, a legend of freedom, and I had long found release in this private image in my heart. When harassed by those affairs of life for which I am not well fitted -- those which require grace or authority, political acumen, wit and social ease; weddings and meetings, funerals and gatherings; or when, bewildered by the constant domestic matters where the warm maternal wisdom and patience are drawn on as though they were from an unfailing spring, instead of a cistern much in need of rain -- then, tormented by conflicting voices, by inadequate responses, by lack of wit or wisdom (or even the answer to Who-the-hell-are-you?) the self sought relief in the heart's image of the wild free fox. The fox on the ridge moving lightly, seeing far below her the hound on the chain, the old, slow, doorstep hound, whose eyes followed only the boots and the shoes and the beetle's tracks. The wild red-and-grey fox circling the farm lots, free, running the ridge, regarding with cold amber eyes the penned white flock, or sleeping in the silence of the ferns.
And so, when the children had reported seeing the fox twice, I took to going up at odd hours and sitting patiently on the cistern lid of the back-porch pump and watching the dark, dry hole that led back to the den. Hole watching is not for many souls. "Let's go," Carol used to whisper in two minutes. "The animals never come out!" (But last year the woodchucks did come out. They were very loud and clear. You have not really been whistled at until a woodchuck has whistled at you. The shrill warning whistle of a marmot is of poignant rudeness. It goes right through the ear and pierces a hole to the other side. Nor is it well to come between one and his burrow, or he may clamber over you in his rush to reach the warm, smelly sanctuary of his home.)
I was watching alone on a late June evening, having come up to put behind me various unsolved problems, probably insoluble, various choices, equally unchoice, and in the coolness I sat on the cistern's edge and waited. The children had been using the pump, and the smell of wet concrete splashed by cistern water, the sound of water dripping back down in the darkness, brought back the summers of my own childhood, the memories of Arcadia in June. A chipmunk came and ate the last cherry on the little cherry tree. The yellow chat began his mad, dissonant song and then, suddenly folding his wings upward like a butterfly, parachuted downward, legs dangling, singing, and was gone. Little brown toads sat on the bricks and slowly turned brick-color. The air filled with the scent of the great lace elderberry blooms, an odd off-scent, not musk, part lily. The young red-bellied woodpeckers were around in the walnut. They have no red at all on them in this stage but are the color of bleached driftwood. The old-grey feathers of the young.
It was very quiet, and there was no sound from the hole, but a movement flickered, and then a small grey fox came out, awkward and curious, neither the fuzzy baby young, nor yet half grown. And then the vixen was there. Her long neck arched above the cub's head, and then there were two more cubs, and they moved behind her, out from the tangled grapevines to the open grass. She was very beautiful, grey-red fur behind her ears, and the grey fur running down into red below, and the plumed tail fringed in white. She moved forward to cross the clearing, and the three young foxes started to follow her. It occurred to me that this was the final evening for their cottage den, and I had barely come on time to see them before this home was abandoned and the hunting lessons began.
Then she saw me and froze. We looked at each other and she moved her head just once, backward toward the young foxes, who retreated under the house. A long, slow growling that seemed to come deep out of her body began, and was a continuous flow of sound, a very low and frightening sound.
I did not move at all, and we stared into each other's eyes for what seemed a long, long time. I was afraid. Her eyes were cold and amber, and once, perhaps from the gnats, she let the lids droop down. There were ticks in her ears, and one ear was bitten and ragged on the edge. The sound in her throat went on and on and I thought of moving backwards, then did not move at all, and only returned her chilly stare.
This silent confrontation without communion came finally to an end. The growling ceased, the fox simply turned away and trotted off into the snakeroot and was gone. She did not even look back to see if the cubs were out of sight. She had decided I was not a dangerous thing, and she had the night's hunting still to do. I was dismissed and felt very grateful and somewhat shaken. There had not been much distance between me and that delicate sharp muzzle. I did not really feel I had outstared her. She had decided when the meeting should be done.
I turned and came home. In the long looking, I had seen her as she really was -- small, thin, harried, heavily burdened -- not really free at all. Bound around by instinct, as I am bound by custom and concern. And so, although I saw the grey foxes again that summer coming close to the kitchen door at night for food, the heart's fox vanished forever that evening in the woods. And that winter a hunter trapped and killed all the foxes of these woods and fields for miles around.
Award-winning poet, translator, and editor Jane Hirshfield (born 1953) writes poetry that has been praised as "passionate and radiant" as a way to affirm and stay attentive to the ordinary as well as the difficult parts of life. She was born and raised in New York City, and a year after graduating from Princeton in 1973 she headed west in a red Dodge van hung with tie-dyed curtains. She has lived in northern California ever since, working as a poet in the schools, serving on the faculties of numerous writers' conferences and university writing programs, and conducting public readings and workshops. She is the author of five collections of poems as well as a book of essays on reading and writing poetry. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism and of Japanese poetry and ideas, she edited and co-translated The Ink Dark Moon (1990), love poems by two women of the ancient court of Japan, and edited Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). Hirshfield advocates paying attention to and learning from our interconnections with the rest of being. "When we can acknowledge that the earth and all its creatures are completely part of us, ... we can recognize the other-than-human as priceless, as invaluable," she has written. "Happiness"-- from her third book of poetry, The October Palace (1994) -- encapsulates her core philosophy that fully experiencing whatever is going on around or within us is "not only information, but a kind of happiness."
I think it was
from the animals
Hannah Hinchman (born 1953) began keeping a field journal during a summer internship at Aullwood Audubon Center in Ohio in the early 1970s. Since then, she has filled more than sixty-five volumes with her observations of the world around and inside her and has inspired countless others to create illustrated journals through her books and teaching. "I try to see it all as natural history, and have become a naturalist on the trail of my own life," she writes. Born and raised in suburban Ohio, she attended Earlham College in Indiana before moving west to work as a graphic artist and columnist for High Country News in Lander, Wyoming. She moved east again briefly to complete a B.F.A. degree at the Maine College of Art. She now lives in Augusta, Montana, and teaches workshops on the illuminated journal for the Yellowstone Institute, the Nature Conservancy, the Teton Science School, the Zen Mountain Monastery, and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. She is the author of A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal (1991), A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place (1997), and Walks with Sisu: An Artist and Her Dog take to the Hills (2003). She wrote a column for Sierra magazine called "Hand and Eye" from 1991 until 1995; "Sudden Knowing" appeared there in the September/October 1992 issue.
The other evening I glimpsed a bird-shape moving in the distance at the edge of the woods. My first impression was "woodpecker," which narrowed to "sapsucker or downy," then resolved into "sapsucker." Somehow, with just a moment's glimpse at dusk, I was able to recognize the bird. I knew it by a slight weakness in flight, a certain way of dipping up to the tree, by a complex of gestures and characteristics that add up to a particular species.
My ability to recognize birds in that manner is limited, and I want to cultivate it. I think it might be a good example of an old, intuitive kind of knowledge that we often use but don't have a name for -- a subtle knowledge based on a perception of wholeness. Maybe it's a hunter-gatherer skill: Quick discrimination would have been useful to nomadic people, especially if accompanied by a clear mental map.
I'm heartened when I become aware of a skill of that kind -- it balances the sensation that we are an affliction on the natural world. These days, we blunder when we go out among other species. It's the fumbling of ingrained arrogance; there's no reason for us to watch our movements, to blend in. The sounds we make -- too many of them, too loud -- are also a by-product of arrogance, and they serve to isolate us and further dim our perceptions. Even an exclamation of delight or a sweep of the arm toward a view makes a deer freeze in alarm.
On the other hand, the voices of a band of campfire storytellers, punctuated by laughter, or the shouts of kids running down a hill -- why should we assume those sounds weren't part of the ancient sonic fabric? That the nuthatch hears them with distress? (In fact, one animal behaviorist suggests that the nuthatch would probably like to be asked a question by someone with a lilting voice.) Humans can elicit curiosity as well as fear. But most of the time now we carry with us, almost unacknowledged, the conviction that we are outsiders. Is it another level of arrogance to imagine ourselves fitting into a landscape, even adding to it?
I feel most acceptable in a wild place when I sit quietly, drawing. To a passing creature I look absorbed, predictably still, as though I were bedded down or grazing. Others of us might venture to say we are in accord with wildness while hunting, climbing, arranging a careful camp, picking berries, finding routes, reading weather. We can do these things in a way that animals might even admire.
Maybe other creatures are aware of our sadness and isolation. Maybe they've always known, from the lonely songs of the flute player and the intent look of the woman shaping the pot to fit her yearning. They've heard us tell our long stories and watched us cry for our lost ones. They know us by our ways, they know us from a distance.
Maxine Kumin (born 1925), called by one reviewer a "passionate biophiliac," has written that Thoreau is her special mentor and that her work at her desk is rooted in and balanced by the work she does tending plants and animals on her New Hampshire hilltop farm. Best known as a poet, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for her fourth book of poetry, Up Country: Poems of New England (1972), she has also authored novels, short stories, children's books, essays, and a murder mystery, as well as an account of her unexpected recovery from a broken neck sustained in July 1998 when her horse bolted. Born in Philadelphia, Kumin earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Radcliffe, married an engineer, and bore three children while living in suburban Boston. In the spring of 1963, the family bought a derelict two-hundred-acre farm in Warner, New Hampshire, which they moved to full-time in the summer of 1976. From this center, Kumin has become an expert rider, breeder, and trainer of horses, and has produced a literature that values ties of place, friendship, and family, and that protests oppression of peoples and of nature. She has also taught writing at a number of colleges and universities. "The Word" is the preface to her 1994 collection of essays and stories entitled Women, Animals, and Vegetables.
We ride up softly
to the hidden
both of us just in
time to see a big doe
Come back! I want
to call to her,
I want to tell
her, Watch me
and how the vixen
in the bottom meadow
Its sound is
o-shaped and unencumbered,
Hope Ryden, during a distinguished career as a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and writer, has taken special interest in the protection of North American wildlife. A caring and careful observer, Ryden has sympathetically documented the lives of bobcats, coyotes, mustangs, bald eagles, key deer, and beavers in books for both adults and children. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Iowa, she lives in New York City when not in the field. Ryden first became interested in beavers when she wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine suggesting that the beaver be named New York's state animal, a suggestion promptly followed by the state legislature. Her book Lily Pond (1989), from which the following excerpt is taken, tells the story of a pair of beavers and their offspring, whose activities she watched for four years at Lily Pond and other nearby ponds the beavers built in New York's Harriman State Park. Ryden was sometimes accompanied on her trips to the pond by naturalist John Miller, now her husband.
TO BUILD A DAM
Building a dam is not an easy thing to do. I say this from firsthand experience. One afternoon, while exploring New Pond, John and I decided to look for burrows on the far bank. To get there, we took a shortcut across the dam that Laurel and the Skipper had built. But the fresh mud on its crest had not settled, nor had the structure been in place long enough to give rise to rooted plants that would hold it together, and so it failed to support our weight. When we were halfway across, a section collapsed. I was not so much upset over the dousing we got -- which I felt we deserved -- as I was over the damage we had done to the beavers' new dam.
"We ought to try to fix this thing before the Skipper and Laurel wake up," I suggested to John.
And so, after making a trip to my cabin for hoes, we pulled on, our hip boots and waded out to the break we had made. In fairness to John, I must say that he did not think much of my idea, being convinced that the beavers would take care of the big break all by themselves. I knew he was right, but an urge to slosh about in a beaver pond had been growing in me (being a spectator all the time can pall), and repairing the dam we had damaged seemed just the excuse to satisfy it. And so we waded in with our hoes and tried to bring up bottom mud.
It didn't take long to discover how difficult a task we had set for ourselves. The pond bottom was rock hard, the ground having been inundated for too short a time to have softened.
''They must be getting their mud from somewhere other than here by the dam," John finally said. And so we began testing various places for muckiness.
"I found a patch," I called, after considerable hoe-pounding. John joined me in trying to raise my find to the surface, but the stuff was unmanageable. It dissolved, and clouded the water as we tried to get hold of it.
"What about sticks?" I asked. "Maybe we should just try to push some sticks into the breach."
That idea proved no more workable. Water rushed over and under our haphazard placement of forked and branching lumber. In the end, we gave up trying to repair the dam and waited to see how the beavers would do it.
Their efficiency in accomplishing this feat was downright embarrassing. Within minutes of waking, the Skipper and Laurel were hard at work removing our poorly placed sticks and creating a more satisfactory arrangement of them. A long straight one was maneuvered to lie lengthwise across the breach. Then both animals scoured the shore for buttressing material. Several long polelike branches were towed to the break and heaved over it, so that they came to rest in an upright position on the back side of the dam, To secure these in place, the beavers held and guided them with their front hands, while pile-driving them with their mouths.
Afterward the Skipper packed finer material -- branching twigs and bottom debris -- against this picket work, while Laurel made repeated trips for bottom mud, which she obtained from a place John and I never would have found. Apparently, the two had dredged a tunnel under a small island, land that had not yet become submerged in the rising pond. Into this waterfilled tunnel Laurel repeatedly dived, and each time she surfaced she came up with an armload of fresh mud pressed tightly to her chest. The walls of the deep tunnel, not being in the grip of roots, had quickly softened, and so it was from here that the beavers mined all the mud they needed to cement and seal their dam.
I noticed that the order in which materials were used to fix a breached dam differed significantly from that used by the Lily Pond beavers in creating Square Pond from scratch. To stop fast-moving water, the Skipper and Laurel began with heavy lumber and only later used mud to fill in chinks and seal their repair. By contrast, the Lily Pond beavers, in containing a shallow, sluggish flood, first pushed up mud to form a long ridge. They then added fine twigs and decaying leaves to this. Not until several days had passed and the water they raised threatened to erode the soft structure did they back it with upright sticks.
In applying two different strategies to stem two different flow rates, the beavers seemed to have invoked some choice. Perhaps beaver kits serve long apprenticeships to acquaint them with the many ways that water behaves and to allow them time and freedom to experiment with different methods of dealing with what looks to us to be simple flow. To understand precisely what I mean, you would do well to pull on a pair of hip boots and try to mend a beaver dam.
Helen Hoover (1910-1984) and her artist husband, Adrian, renounced their successful professional lives in Chicago in 1954 and moved to a cabin on a Minnesota lake forty-five miles from town, where they spent their first nine years without a car. When they had a chance to get electricity and phone service at the cost of felling a swath through old trees, they decided in favor of the trees. The Hoovers were genuine pioneers, experiencing intense physical hardships but richly appreciating the natural beauty around them. Helen was born in Greenfield, Ohio, and attended Ohio University, where she studied chemistry, and the University of Chicago, where she studied biology. While living in Chicago, she worked as a research metallurgist for the International Harvester Company and held patents for agricultural implement disks; and also wrote romance and mystery stories under the pen names Drusilla Blackburn and Jennifer Price. After the move to Minnesota, she ventured into writing for magazines about wild and human life in the North Woods. Her husband illustrated the series of books she eventually authored chronicling their progress from greenhorns to seasoned woodspeople: The Long-Shadowed Forest (1963, source of the following selection), The Gift of the Deer (1966), A Place in the Woods (1969), and The Years of the Forest (1973). Helen's most memorable writing focuses on her and Arian's relationships with the community of creatures they coexisted with.
TWO CREATURES OF THE LONG-SHADOWED FOREST
The weasel is the most beautiful and efficient mousetrap on earth, and does not deserve its ugly reputation. Its killing of more than it can eat is an attempt to procure food which may he stored and eaten later. Adult weasels need one-third of their weight in meat daily and the young, which number up to a dozen in a litter, one-half of theirs. That weasels are intelligent and resourceful enough to deserve anyone's respect was demonstrated to us by Walter, our adaptable weasel.
On a mid-December afternoon the screaming of blue jays told me that something was amiss in the yard. The center of the disturbance was the ermine we named Walter. Twisted into a fur rope, he was making acrobatic attempts to get suet from a cage hung on a cedar hole. Not having much success, he dropped down and bounded gracefully to the doorstep.
He was only a foot long and very dashing in his snow-white coat, accented by his black tailtip and the candy-pink lining of his rounded ears. His glittering black eyes peered past me. Then he sniffed, audibly and ecstatically, and licked the corners of his mouth with a fuschia-colored tongue. Walter was trying to tell me that, if I would kindly withdraw, he would he happy to go in and take care of the meat thawing in the kitchen.
If this was the crafty, ferocious weasel of ill-repute, he concealed his true nature adequately. He looked alert, eager, straightforward. He gave me an impression of intelligent interest that I had not seen before in any animal.
I wanted to know him better. Like all other wild things, his whole existence was directed by hunger and fear. By satisfying his hunger, I might overcome his fear. I tossed a bit of meat. He snatched it and flashed away, feather-light on his dainty paws.
Gradually we gained mutual confidence until he took meat from my bare hand with care and daintiness. When he occasionally mistook a finger for food, he pulled hard, then sat back and looked puzzled, as though he could not understand why this particular bit of meat was attached to me. Never did he show any tendency toward biting. From this point, I made no effort to train him, that I might learn how he would use his new and strange situation.
Walter was soon busy moving from the deep woods, a matter of finding storehouses and shelters under stumps, outbuildings, boulders, and brush piles near the house. He laboriously transferred one item of personal property, a meaty bone that was twice his length and weighed several times his three ounces. He took suet and ground beef to each of seven storehouses.
He liked frankfurters, potted meat, butter, and bacon, and a can containing remnants of boned chicken was a treasure to be carried home in his mouth. He arched his neck as proudly as a carousel horse as he held his head high to keep his pattering front feet clear of the dangling can. But he preferred red meat, especially moose meat, given us by our Indian friends. Ade insists that Walter is the only weasel ever to eat anything as large as a moose.
My appearance outside after dark was a signal for Walter's head to emerge jack-in-the-box-like from one of his doorways in the snow, whence he hurried to the step to wait for a handout. When I did not go out, he attracted my attention by running up and down on the screen door.
Walter's life, from one of ease, became filled with deadly peril when his larger cousin and arch-enemy, the fisher, arrived. This fellow had all the suppleness and agility of the ermine, was forty inches long, weighed ten pounds, and could leap twenty feet -- altogether a formidable adversary for little Walter. Even a female, perhaps two feet long and half as heavy as the male, would have been menacing to him.
The fisher began his campaign by systematically digging out Walter's storehouses and eating the contents. Then he concentrated on digging out Walter, who abandoned his open paths and found new ways to cross the yard: twisting routes under woodpiles, brush, any cover.
The fisher hunted at night, so Walter came daily for one large meal. When the fisher's night prowling did not yield Walter into his jaws he began to forage by day. Walter promptly began to come at night, scratching briefly on the screen and waiting for me under the woodshed. At last the fisher began to prowl at any time during the twenty-four hours.
Walter did not appear for four days and a fresh snowfall was unmarked by his small tracks. We decided sadly that our ermine had come to the violent end of almost every wild thing.
In the small hours of the next morning I was awakened by a touch on my face. Walter, trembling pitifully, crouched on my eiderdown, his face gashed from brow to nosetip and his right eye black and swollen shut. One of the fisher's raids had been a near thing.
After he had eaten ravenously, Walter went straight to the inside of the kitchen door -- remarkable because he had previously approached it only from the outside. When I opened it, he crouched on the sill, tense and fearful. I stepped into the bluebright moonlight and opened my robe to throw a shadow across the step. In this sheltering dark, Walter shot into the night. He came regularly while his wounds were healing, sliding through some small opening under the foundation (which we never exactly located), and timed his later visits with the hours when the moon-shadows darkened the doorway, but he would not stay inside.
Walter loved his freedom and his own wild way of life more than any pampered security we could offer him. Because of his courage and rapid adjustments, he still roams the forest, the only sign of his brush with death a twisted line of fur beside his nose.
The fisher that was the villain of Walter's story is, when considered from his own standpoint, quite as fine as the ermine. Everywhere wild creatures demonstrate that nothing is good or bad of itself, that circumstances and viewpoint too easily lead to attitudes of judgment that should have no part in the evaluation of the things of the earth.
The fisher retires to remote and dense evergreen wilderness, where men seldom stay long. Consequently, the little that is known of it in the wild state has largely been deduced from observations of tracks on the snow. Because the country in which our cabin stands has rocky hills for den sites, and an abundance of small animals for food, and because we try hard not to disturb the wilderness quiet, fishers drop in on us every now and then.
A fisher is an outstandingly beautiful animal. More than a third of its length is fluffy, tapering tail. Usually its coat is so dark a brown that it seems black, with long, upstanding, pale guard hairs about the head and shoulders, that give it a frosted look. Sometimes the fur is a light or reddish brown and, in 1960, a cream-colored mutant was accidentally trapped a few miles from here. The fisher's body has the elongated form and agile grace of the weasel and mink. Its legs are short, especially the front ones, and powerful haunches foretell great leaping power. Its face is the slender face of the weasel, with the same interested eyes, small ears deep in fur, and sensitive pointed snout. Usually there is a small white throat patch.
By night the fisher is as fearfully exquisite as a creature out of dreams. Moving about in the cold light of the stars, moon, or aurora borealis, it is a mysterious, fluid part of the half-dark. The frosty hairs that give it daytime fluffiness are invisible and, smooth and sleek and sinuous, it flows and poses, a shadow darker than all other shadows, its eyes like emeralds exploding into flame. It glides in the unearthly beauty that belongs to the untamed land and its children.
My first daytime view of a fisher came when I was sitting on the step, admiring the beautiful stripings and rich red wash on the rump of an eastern chipmunk that was standing in my left hand and gobbling corn out of my right. I sensed movement in front of me. Crouched not ten feet away, a big male fisher glared at the little animal in my hands.
Very steadily I stood up, carrying the chippy along. Startled, it almost jumped away, but caught sight of the fisher and collapsed in fear in my hands.
When I moved forward a step, the fisher rose on his haunches and hissed, but he gave ground and leaped to an observation position some five feet up the trunk of a small tree. He clung there much the way a black bear does -- one foreleg wrapped higher than the other while he peered around the bole to see whether he might safely come down or should seek shelter higher up. When I made no other move, he inched himself down backwards -- although they can literally flow head downward -- and trotted away without haste, giving me an occasional over-the-shoulder glance.
The quivering of the frightened chipmunk stopped. I looked down to see it calmly stuffing its cheek pouches as though nothing had occurred.
During the past eight years, Ade and I have seen many fishers and even persuaded some of the more hunger-driven to feed from our hands. Always they took food with care not to touch our fingers. However, a trapped or cornered fisher will defend itself and its freedom ferociously.
I will accept the fisher as an animal that bears within it some of the same unquenchable spirit of wildness as the timber wolf, an animal that adds joy to my days because of its beauty and grace, that sometimes stirs in me an eerie whisper of ancient hauntings as it moves like a bodiless shadow in the moonlight or pads ever so softly across the roof in deep night.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) spoke for her generation in poems of contemporary relevance about feminism, injustice, the beauty of nature, and the idiocy of environmental pollution and war. An ardent feminist and antiwar activist, she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Born in the small coastal town of Rockland, Maine, she was educated at Vassar and, lived an artist's life in Greenwich Village and in Europe for many years before marrying. Thereafter, she settled with her husband on an upland farm in the Berkshires on the New York-Massachusetts border, where she tended her garden and wrote poetry. The farm -- located in Austerlitz, New York, and known as Steepletop -- is now a National Historic Landmark owned by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society and is also the site of the Millay Colony for the Arts founded by her sister, Norma Millay Ellis. "The Fawn" was first published in The Wine from These Grapes (1934) and later in Collected Poems (1956).
There it was I saw
what I shall never forget
Surely his mother
had never said, "Lie here
Might I have had
the acceptance, not the love
Was it alarm, or
was it the wind of my fear lest he
A founder of the Connecticut Audubon Society and for twenty-six years its president, Mabel Osgood Wright (1859-1934) dedicated her life to the cause of nature education and bird conservation. Born in New York City, Wright was greatly influenced by her father, Samuel Osgood, a Unitarian minister and scholar. The family spent their summers at Mosswood, an eighteen-room house Osgood had built on some acres in Fairfield, Connecticut, which he transformed into a showplace with extensive gardens. After receiving a private education, Mabel had intended to go to Cornell to study medicine, but swayed by her father's strong opinions about women's proper sphere, she married instead. She and her husband, James Osborne Wright, an antiquarian bookseller, lived in the Osgood homes in New York City and Fairfield after her father's death. In the early 1890s Wright began to publish nature essays anonymously in The New York Times and the New York Evening Post, and in 1894 these were collected in her first and finest book, The Friendship of Nature: A New England Chronicle of Birds and Flowers, source of the excerpt reprinted here. Wright eventually authored more than two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children, served as associate editor of Bird-Lore (now Audubon) magazine, became an accomplished landscape photographer, and spearheaded the establishment of one of the first bird sanctuaries in the United States.
The swallows distrusted the new barn; perhaps the paint startled them, or the slope of the eaves was inconvenient, and the glazed hayloft window repelled them. In a few years the paint grew dim and weather-stained, crysalids hung in the groovings, and the glazed sash was left down to air the hay, so that its sweets, floating out, reassured them. In June a belated pair were looking for lodgings, and the outside not satisfying them, they ventured in at the window and busied themselves with a minute examination of every beam and rafter, prying here and there and peering about with the gait of woodpeckers. Then they attempted a nest, and all one day brought clay, with which, together with hay-straws, they moulded a bracket; but the second day it fell all in a lump, the smooth wood having in some way upset their plan of adhesion. They began another tour of inspection, and they found a support that was made of mellow old timber, sound and firm, but with a rough cuticle which absorbed more quickly and to which the clay stuck firmly. Here they again essayed, and in two days they had really completed their building.
The brood was ready to fly one warm day in the early part of August, or the parents at least thought so, but the nestlings were perfectly content where they were; the table was good and the view unexceptional. Coaxing did not avail, so next day the parents relentlessly pushed them out on the hay, and there they stayed for two days more. But they either could not or would not fly, and seemed to have cramps in their claws and weak ankles (tarsi is the more accurate term). The third day the parents refused to come further in than the windowsill, where they uttered a lisping chirp, fluttered their wings, and held out insects temptingly. In this way the young were lured up, and finally spent the night on the sill, cuddled together.
Next morning the wind blew sharply and the perch was disagreeable and draughty, so with encouraging cries the youngsters were coaxed to the limbs of a hemlock, the nearest tree to the window, but one which offered only a perilous footing. Two of the four found rest in the most steady branches, but two grasped bending twigs and swung over head downward, having no strength of grip with which to regain an upright position. Under one bird were tiers of soft green branches, under the other a stone wall, rough and jagged. The old birds gave a few sibilant twitters and darted invisibly high; in a minute or two the sky was alive with swallows, fluttering about the bird who was suspended over the wall; so many swallows had not been seen this season in all the village. To and fro they wheeled, keeping always above the little one, as if to attract its attention. The parents stayed nearer, and the mother held a moth in her beak and seemed to urge an effort to secure it. In a few minutes the bird who hung over the branches, relaxing his hold, turned, and spreading his wings slightly dropped to the branch beneath, where he settled himself comfortably.
Still above the wall the other hung motionless, except that its head was slowly drooping backward, and the circling birds grew more vociferous. Suddenly the parent who held the butterfly lit on the branch at the spot where the bird was clinging, and its mate darted swiftly close beneath.
Whether the darting bird really pushed the little one up, or only made the rush to startle it to sudden action, I could not discover, but in a flash the deed was accomplished and the bird righted and led into a bushy cover. The visiting swallows wheeled and lisped for a minute, and then were engulfed by the sky as mist in the air blends with the sunlight.
Tell me, positive science, were these manoeuvres merely instinctive? Or, if you cannot, then confess bravely that there are things that you may not fathom.
Anita Skeen (born 1946) lovingly bears witness to the creatures, landscapes, and weathers that have touched her in her fourth book of poetry, The Resurrection of the Animals (2002), from which the following poem is taken. She grew up in Big Chimney, West Virginia, and considers that home, though she now lives in Okemos, Michigan, and teaches creative writing, women's studies, and Canadian literature and culture at Michigan State University. She earned a B.S. from Concord College in Athens, West Virginia, and an M.A. and M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University, and was on the faculty of the English department and the M.F.A. program at Wichita State University for eighteen years before her move to Michigan. Her poetry, short fiction, and essays have appeared in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, and she's at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. Skeen directs the Creative Arts Festival and the October Writing Festival at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center in New Mexico each summer and fall.
For Emily Kilby
Not a big loss,
some would say.
Two days before
Think of the small
creatures we take
A key figure in the nature study movement of the early 1900s, Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) is remembered today as the author of the "Nature Bible," as teachers call her still widely used Handbook of Nature-Study (1911). This nine-hundred-page tome aims to "encourage investigation instead of give information," in accordance with Comstock's central belief that careful observation of nature will yield an understanding and appreciation of its laws and of our place in the whole. Born in rural southwestern New York, Comstock was deeply influenced as an only child by her gentle Quaker mother's love of nature. At Cornell majoring in literature, she took a zoology class from John Henry Comstock, five years her senior, and became his close friend. After later marrying him, she returned to Cornell for a degree in natural history and learned wood engraving so she could illustrate an entomology textbook he was writing. She not only illustrated but also wrote parts of his second book, A Manual for the Study of Insects (1895), launching her own writing career. Childless herself, Comstock aimed most of her books at children. Her first solo work was the lyrical "Trees at Leisure," published as a magazine piece in 1901 and much later as a book, followed by the more instructive Ways of the Six-Footed (1903, from which "A Little Nomad" is here reprinted), How to Know the Butterflies (with John Henry Comstock, 1904), How to Keep Bees (1905), and The Pet Book (1914). She initiated an experimental nature study program in the Westchester County schools and taught nature study at Cornell, where she became in 1919 the first woman to earn the rank of full professor.
A LITTLE NOMAD
One warm August morning I followed a certain restful, woodsy path which soon led me to a partially wooded hillside. I found a shady resting-place under a pair of twin maple trees, where I settled contentedly in the grass with some downy young sumacs for neighbors. The blue waters of the lake twinkled up at me through the tree-boles, and a blue sky beamed down on me through the tree-tops. The breeze, playing softly with the leaves above me, and the soft swish of the water on the rocks below united in a soothing song, to which a cicada from his high perch was doing his best to perform a worthy obligato. I was tired of a world of work and care; and as I turned my footsteps toward this cosy nook I said to myself, "I will go where I can be alone." Vain decision and absurd desire! I had just arranged for myself a treetrunk chair-back and was enjoying the nice bark upholstery when a grandfather graybeard came teetering along on his stilts, letting his body down at rhythmic intervals to feel of my hand with his palpi to discover if perchance I were good to eat. Then a red squirrel darted up a young ash tree in front of me, the dark stripe on his side where the red and white meet being particularly vivid and dashing; at first he sneezed and coughed his displeasure at my intrusion and then sprang his rattle so suddenly that I wondered if it might be that squirrels have secreted in them storage batteries that may be switched at will from action to sound. Then a great butterfly, a tiger swallowtail, came careening down through a hole in my leaf canopy and alighted on a sunlit bush near me; there, in utter luxuriousness, he slowly opened and shut his wings in obvious enjoyment of his sun-bath. While watching him I noticed that the maple sapling, on which he was resting, was in a bad way; its leaves were riddled with holes, varying in size from that of a bird shot to that of a small bean.
Now while I was tired of a world that lectured and talked and argued and did many other noisy things that wore on one's nerves, I was by no means tired of the great silent world that did things and made no fuss about doing them. So, when my butterfly drifted away, I lazily began to investigate the cause of the dilapidation of the maple leaves. There I found, as I suspected at first glance, a little nomad named the Maple-leaf Cutter, which pitches its tent on leafy plains and whose acquaintance I had made several years ago when I was employed to make its family portraits.
I plucked a leaf that had several oval holes in it and also several oval rings marked by a tracing of bare veins and translucent leaf tissue; then I noticed an oval bit of leaf wrong side up on the upper surface of the leaf. A glance at this through my lens showed that it was made fast to its place by several bundles of glistening white silk. With a knife point I tore asunder these ropes and lifted the wee tent and found fastened to its under surface another bit of the leaf identical in shape but somewhat smaller. Suddenly from an opening between the two an inquiring head was thrust out with an air that said plainly, "Who's there?" I tore the two pieces of leaf apart to get a better view of the little inmate. He was a stocky, brownish caterpillar, about one-sixth of an inch long, with shields on his thoracic segments that shone like polished bronze and an anal shield that was dull purple. His several simple eyes were in two such compact groups that they gave the impression of two keen, beady, black eyes, and I had a feeling that he was inspecting me through the lens. He was very unhappy and squirmy when removed from his cover, and he backed so vigorously that he backed half his length out of the rear end of his tent before he felt safe, and then remained very still. His loosened tent was lying bottom side up on the leaf; and owing to my clumsy proportions I was obliged to leave the labor of righting it to him; he gave it his immediate attention and went at it in a most workmanlike manner. He crawled halfway out upon the leaf and by a dexterous lift of the rear end of his body he brought the tent down right side up and at once began pegging it down. To do this he moved his lower lip around and around on the leaf surface to make fast, then spun his rope up and lifting his head fastened it to the edge of the tent; this process he repeated many times, but with great rapidity, and when the fastening was finished it was well worth seeing. He had spun his silken cords so they formed an X. This arrangement allowed him room to fasten many lines to the leaf and tent, and since they were crossed in the middle they had the strength of many twisted strands. He put his first fastening at one side of his tent and then hastened to put another on the opposite side, and thus made secure he took his time for putting down the remainder of his ropes.
While watching him spin, I mused on his history as revealed in its earlier chapters by that truly great scientist, Dr. Fitch, and added to in its later chapters by our own Dr. Lintner, -- two men of whom New York is so justly proud. This history was as follows: Last Maya tiny moth (Paraclemensia acerifoliella) sought out this maple sapling; she was a beautiful little creature with a wing expanse of a little more than a half inch; her front wings and thorax were steel-blue, and her hind wings and abdomen were pale, smoky brown; these hind wings were bordered with a wide, fine fringe; across both sets of wings glinted and gleamed a purple iridescence like that on the surface of a bit of mother-of- pearl. On her head, between her antennae, she wore a little cap of orange feathers, this color combination of orange and steel-blue proving her to be a moth of fine discrimination in the matter of dress. This pretty mother moth laid an egg upon the leaf which I held in my hand; from that egg hatched my wee caterpillar, and began life, I suspect, as a true leaf-miner. However, this is a guess of my own, inspired by the appearance of the leaf. Anyway, he did not remain a miner long, but soon cut out a bit of the leaf and pulled it over him and pegged it down; beneath it he pastured on the green leaf-tissues in safety, and in this retreat he shed his skin. With added growth came the need for more commodious quarters; so he cut another oval piece from the leaf, as much larger than his tent as he could reach without coming entirely out of his cover; before he cut it completely free he ingeniously fastened one side of it to the leaf with silk so that he would not fall, cradle and all, to the ground. He then used this fastening as a hinge as he came part way out of his tent, took a good hold of the leaf with his sharp claws, and flipped the loosened piece over his back and fastened it down over fresh feeding-ground. What was previously his tent was then a rug beneath him; his new pasture was a margin of about one-twelfth inch that lay between the edges of his rug and his tent; for he was ever averse to exposing his precious person to lurking enemies more than was strictly necessary. Before he shed his skin again he may have needed a new pasture; if so, he struck his tent and walked off with it on his back, looking like a Lilliputian mud-turtle, and finally fastened it on a new site. He had already several times gone through this process of upsetting his house, for he had two rugs beneath him and two tents above him of graduated sizes. And I knew that some time in the near future he would peg down his largest tent more securely than he had ever done before, and there in this safe shelter would change to a pupa. When the leaf that had been the range of this small nomad fell in the autumn he would go with it; and wrapped in his tent rugs he would sleep his winter sleep under the snow until he should awaken next spring, no longer a tenter on leafy plains, but a true child of the air.
I tore off a bit of the leaf on which my little friend had settled, and went over and pinned it to a leaf still on the bush. It may have been an absurd thing to do, but by this time I was shamelessly, nay, intrepidly sentimental, and I did not wish that little chap to starve because of my inborn tendency to meddle with other people's affairs. I then fell from bad to worse and began to moralize; for when a naturalist falls to moralizing science weeps. I meditated thus, "I came here to get away from puzzling problems, and yet here they are all around me; the problems of the little nomad; the problems of the poor, leaf-lacerated maple; and if I look in other directions I will find more in plenty." But for some sweet reason I did not feel about problems as I did when I ran away and hid from the noisy world two hours before. I was filled with a new sense of the dignity and grandeur of this great silent struggle for adjustment and supremacy which was going on around me. I felt inspired to go back and serenely do my own little part as well as I could, trusting that somehow, somewhere, and to Some One the net proceeds of struggle are greater than the cost.
Gene Stratton Porter (1863-1924) once commented, "I write as the birds sing, because I must, and usually from the same source of inspiration." She was the most popular author of her day, thanks to the great success of her juvenile novels -- particularly A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) -- which reached a vast audience with nature lore embedded in romantic fiction. Having agreed with her publisher to alternate fiction with nonfiction nature books, she eventually published twelve novels and seven nature books, as well as children's books, magazine articles, short stories, and poetry. Geneva Stratton was born and raised on a prosperous farm on the banks of Indiana's Wabash River, the youngest of twelve children of a lay Methodist preacher and farmer. During the years at Hopewell Farm before the family moved to the town of Wabash, she roamed freely out-of-doors and became the protector of the birds that nested there. After marrying Charles Darwin Porter, a successful druggist and later banker, she bore a daughter and built a succession of increasingly elaborate rural homes, the first a "Queen Anne rustic" log home dubbed Limberlost Cabin, now an Indiana state historical site. Her writing came out of her rambles along the Wabash River, in the Limberlost Swamp, and later in Southern California, where she was living at the time of her death, overseeing the production of films based on her novels. Largely self-educated as a naturalist and photographer, she had a strong conservationist leaning and was adamant about collecting information and images without harming the creatures she studied. Her studies of birds and of moths, illustrated with her own photographs, are remarkable for the countless hours of patient and often uncomfortable field observation -- or, in the case described in the following story from Tales You Won't Believe (1925), cohabitation -- that they represent.
A WONDER TALE
Primarily I went afield to make scientific and character studies of the birds. I intended to write of them on a basis of scientific truth, and to make a more intimate study than had as yet been made concerning their characteristics and habits. I wished to reproduce them exactly as they lived and carried out their home lives; I had no thought of undertaking any branch of field work beyond this.
But I soon learned that the fields, the swamps, and the woods were filled with rare and exquisite flowers, that here and there compelling landscapes were confronting me, while early in bird work afield I found clinging in deep, dark places, to branches, to bark, to the under sides of leaves, in hollow trees, huge creatures akin to butterflies, having wings ranging from three to over seven inches in sweep, gorgeously feathered with colours as bright as the brightest of the flowers, exquisitely marked, some of them having tiny moons and half moons like isinglass set in their wings through which the finest print could be read.
I was afield with a wagon load of cameras and paraphernalia for the purpose of picturing any pose or characteristic of the birds that I could materialize photographically. Naturally, my first thought was to secure reproductions of these wonderful big night moths also.
With only short experience, I found the forests and fields of May and June were flocking with moths; that night was made splendid by the colours of their softly fanning, jewelled velvet wings. I found these creatures everywhere -- creeping up from the brown leaves of earth with wet wings in some cases not larger than my thumb nail and great pursy bodies striped with yellow, gray, and red. In enchanted amazement I watched the tiny wings droop and widen and spread until in a short time before my eyes they had developed to a sweep of four and a half, five, or even six inches. I found that the moths were unable to fly or to lift the weight of their bodies until these wings had dried and hardened.
I began making a collection of every work of note that ever had been published on the subject of moths. Back to the days of Linnaeus and Pliny and Aristotle I went, searching for every record I could find pertaining to moths. I began making pictorial records of each moth I found in the open on a suitable location. Then, as I learned their habits and characteristics, I began carrying home the cocoons the caterpillars spun for winter quarters and making a collection of pupa cases which the burrowers in earth provide for their dormant period while the winds rave and the rain and snow fall.
At first I was bewildered by their life processes; then slowly, through experience, through research, I learned one of the most wonderful stories that Nature has to unfold to any of her lovers. The story of the life processes of our big native moths of May and June reads like the wildest fairy tale. We find them in the swamps and forests, fluttering around the lights in city parks where there is much foliage, but we do not realize that the present form of these fragile and exquisitely coloured creatures, so delicate and fine that the lightest touch of a finger tip brushes the feathers of velvet down from their wings, is the shortest link in the chain of their existence.
Like delicate fern fronds their antennae quiver before them. Like silk and velvet of every colour of the rainbow their jewelled wings softly bear them through the night. Their eyes are so rudimentary that they only distinguish brilliant lights. Science has not discovered in what manner they seek and find each their own. They have no digestive organs. They take no food. From five to ten days accomplish the period of their lives and they creep away to a dark spot, their mission performed, their nights of glory in the orchards of May and June spent lavishly.
The first step the bewildered person who finds one of these beautiful creatures must take in learning moth history is to realize that it passed the winter, the ice, the snow, the storm, the alternate heat and cold, in a cocoon woven against the bark of a tree, under the roof of a building, in a hollow tree, or dangling by threads of silk from a branch, or a few inches underground in a brown shell-like case so thin that the antennae and the sex of the moth may be distinguished through its covering.
The warmth and the fragrance of May bring moths from these winter quarters into the world in a beauty of birth not exceeded by any created thing. Their gorgeous wings are filled with little pneumatic tubes which harden and make flight possible for them. They are covered with millions of exquisite little feathers so lined and placed as to mark them into patterns of indescribable delicacy and beauty. The wing bases of the female are reinforced with stiff bristles that help to sustain their heavy egg-laden abdomens in flight while in search of the right trees upon which each species deposits its eggs. Because of the necessity for longer flight, and greater activity in finding and courting the female, the males have an extra support to the lower wing which so strengthens it that male moths are enabled to fly even with wing edges badly tattered from being entangled in vines or attacked by birds, mice, and squirrels.
Usually the moths emerge about ten o'clock in the forenoon. Toward evening the tubes in their wings have hardened and been filled with air from the respiratory organs so that they are truly pneumatic; the wings have been raised and lowered in exercise to start circulation until they are so strong that the moths attempt flight.
The male is usually smaller than the female, brighter coloured in his markings, more agile on wing. The female, in some instances from a third to a fourth larger than the male, emerges for her mission having a wing sweep of perhaps an inch more than the male, her markings quite as elaborate but not so deep in colour, and having larger antennae and a big, pursy abdomen which carries, by actual count, from two to over six hundred eggs, varying in number with the species. The weight of these eggs is so great that she usually remains where she emerges or attempts only very short flights to find her own particular tree, shrub, or vine. It is the mission of the male to find his mate and fertilize her eggs.
By morning she is ready to begin depositing them, and it is one of the miracles of a world teeming with natural history miracles how these creatures, so poorly endowed with sight, so uncertain and weighted in their flight, always find exactly the right shrub, tree, or vine upon which to deposit their eggs so that the tiny caterpillars, which soon emerge from the eggs, each shall be upon the right food for it to begin eating when it appears.
These little fellows, not much thicker than a thread, are about a quarter of an inch in length. In from six to fifteen days, varying with the species, they break from their shells and immediately begin eating them. Having finished this first meal, which probably acts as a laxative and a stimulant to the digestive organism, they advance to the edge of the leaf upon which they have hatched and start feeding. They eat so voraciously and continuously that in a short time they grow too big for their skins, literally bursting them and emerging in a new skin, large and wrinkly which has been forming inside for exactly this contingency. This in turn becomes too small with a few days more of feeding and so the process is repeated, differing slightly with different species, until a caterpillar as thick as one's thumb and from four to six inches has developed. These change in colouring during their different moults, but in the fully matured specimens they are exquisitely coloured -- some of them delicate greens, blues, or yellows indescribable in their beauty, having faint markings of pink and lavender or of black or blue. Some of them appear forbidding with heavy horns on their heads and threatening spines outlining the segments of their bodies.
When they are matured, each acts according to its kind. Some burrow in earth, forming an opening as large as a good-sized hen egg in which they burst their skins for the last time and lie encased in a delicate shell of pale tan colour which gradually grows darker until, in most instances, it becomes a rich mahogany or buck-eye brown.
In the case of the spinners the caterpillar ceases feeding, selects the bark or twig upon which it proposes to winter and begins the work of weaving its quarters. A distinctive pattern is used by each species; sometimes the cocoons are slightly different in size and shape, but all are made in practically the same way. When the spinning and weaving is finished, a liquid is ejected which oozes through the spinning and spreads in a complete coat over the outside of the weaving, making it water proof. The long threads at the top are cut off and interwoven so that no moisture or no small insect can penetrate. In the case of Polyphemus the water-proof covering extends all over the cocoon and the emerging moth must bite and tear its way and eject a liquid which will soften the case so that it can emerge safely. The spinning finished, these caterpillars also burst their skin and crowd the discarded garment to the bottom of the little leathery inner enclosure in which they lie and there await the coming of May.
After a number of years of work among the birds it became part of my daily business to watch for these Cocoons and pupa cases, to carry them home, and at time of emergence, begin to record their life histories. I became so interested that I made a practice of copying every emerging moth in water colours so that I would have a perfect record of colour. I found that different specimens varied greatly; notably Eacles Imperiales, especially among males. These moths have a ground-work of delicate celandine yellow feathers with drifts of heliotrope markings. Sometimes these markings deepened almost to purple and sometimes they were a delicate lavender. Sometimes the markings drifted in faint lines across the wings, and sometimes they changed the colour of the entire moth so that the painting of each of these specimens became a work of reproducing individualities and also a delicate task of deciding exactly how much deeper the water colour should be in the original, in order that when it dried it would match the exact shade of the moth. Much practice was required for work so delicate that often I have cut a brush to three hairs in order to obtain a point sufficiently fine to pepper over the wing feathering the delicate drift of markings. This was always the case with Cecropia where the soft grays of the wings had a drift of fine black markings across them so delicate that more than three hairs would not reproduce them exactly.
It was a great day for me when I found that I had collected reproductions of the moths and caterpillars, the pupa cases and the eggs of every big night moth of the Limberlost. There had been thrilling adventures. There had been heart-breaks. There had been one real miracle.
When all of this work had resolved itself into a book which I had entitled "Moths of the Limberlost" and in the making of which I had known such joy as I never had known even in bird work because of the exquisite beauty of the creatures, because of the breathless care, the heart-throbbing pains necessary in handling my subjects to photograph them, and then to release them to the processes of their lives without the moths having been damaged by my work with them, I came to the place where I was almost ready to publish my book.
There came one night-- and this was the night that I started to describe -- a night late in May when May was at its supreme moment. My bedroom was on the first floor on the northeast corner of the Cabin. Owing to a slope in the land, my room opened on a small porch from which five or six steps led down to an orchard containing eight or ten apple trees in full bloom. Never had May a more perfect night. My room contained dozens of pupa cases and cocoons. The collecting of a year was yielding results. The book I had hoped for over a long period was rapidly coming to fulfillment.
This was a month during which I scarcely slept. Each night When I went to bed, I looked over my collection and listened with cocoons held to my ear as one would hold a watch. If I heard struggling and efforts of emergence going on inside the cocoon I laid it on a tray beside my pillow in order that I might be awake and ready to make my records when the moths appeared. This night it was perhaps twelve before I lay down. The last act I had performed was to hang under the latch to the screen door leading to the veranda a twig from which, judging from its antennae a big female Cecropia was emerging. I had such full and complete records of this moth that I meant to lie down and sleep soundly, but about two o'clock in the morning I was awakened by sounds that I did not understand. There was a faint vibration in the air, a soft bumping against the screen on the outside, a metallic sound as if the feet of dozens of moths were walking over the copper screen.
I threw back the sheet and went to the door. In the beneficence of the May moonlight streaming down so whitely that I could have read fine newspaper print in it, over the tops of the apple trees, over the branches reaching across the steps, beating themselves in useless flight against the screen door, there were uncountable numbers of Cecropia moths.
The moth on the inside proved to be a big female, one of the very largest I ever have seen. I was sure she was too recently emerged to fly, but I had in mind the thought that I would move her to some other location so that I might step out on the veranda and try to gain some accurate idea of the number of moths that were flocking above the orchard and sweeping through the veranda. I slipped my fingers under her abdomen and began gently working her feet loose from the wire to which she clung. I had forgotten for the instant what would happen if I disturbed her. Again science is baffled on a point concerning moths. Some time between emergence and finding their mates every moth exudes from the abdomen a quantity of pinkish, creamy liquid. It has not been determined whether this liquid wets the down and assists in emergence from the cocoon or pupa case, whether the eggs of the female lie in this liquid which keeps them segregated until near time for each to be fertilized and deposited, or whether the spray is intended by nature to carry a perfume on the air by which males and females shall be attracted. Evidently some of these purposes are served; very probably all. At any rate, any moth disturbed soon after emergence throws this fine spray. If not disturbed it is not ejected until time to fly, so that it may possibly be a means of defense also.
As I lifted this moth from the screen, she showered me, over my shoulders, over my night-dress, even to my bare feet. I knew by experience when I had her on my fingers that flight was impossible to her owing to her weight and the lack of exercise of her new wings. First I placed her on a window beside the door; then feeling sure, I took her on my fingers, swung open the door, and advanced to the steps. Standing there, between the bloom-whitened apple trees on either side, in the full radiance of the moonlight, I had an experience that probably never has fallen to the lot of any other human being.
With the big female moth on my fingers, with my shoulders and nightgown wet with spray, I became the best moth bait that the world knows and the night became a vibrant thing, a thing of velvet wings, of velvet sound and brilliant colour, a thing so exquisite that God Himself must have enjoyed the excellence of His handiwork. I had no way of numbering the moths that came fluttering around me. They alighted on my head, on my shoulders, on my hands; they clung to my night robe; they walked over my feet; they flocked over the apple trees; they fluttered through the moonlight, and there was no one to see or to know the poignant beauty of that perfect May hour.
I backed inside the door, carrying my moth and five others with me, so that I would have material for a group study in the morning. Then I went back to the veranda and sat on the steps until dawn. Once I followed the biggest male I ever saw across the grass until I coaxed him from a refuge he had taken under a grape leaf in deep foliage. I had the thought of mating him with my big female, in the hope of raising a moth having the greatest Cecropia wing sweep I had ever measured. Seven inches was my highest record, six and three quarters being a large female. Anything over six is large. I carried my big male in triumph to the female, but in spite of every device I could work, she chose for her mate a frowsy little ragged-winged male, sturdy and insistent -- sure proof that her sight was very dim.
I have no way of numbering the moths that were in my orchard that night. In the first place, Cecropia is the commonest moth in America. In the second place, it was the height of the season. And lastly, in my own person I furnished them a lure such as they probably never had encountered before. Repeatedly I segregated and counted very close to one hundred; then more would sweep in, those I had numbered would circle back; and I would lose my count. Taken together, the triple lure of the May night, bloom time, and the moths, made the most exquisite sight I ever have seen.
Mary Leister (born 1917-2003) wrote a column for many years for the Sunday Baltimore Sun based on her daily ramblings with a series of canine companions over the Maryland countryside surrounding her home. "What happens to this small section of the living earth and to the life it nurtures is the daily interest and the continuing adventure of my life," she wrote in the foreword to Seasons of Heron Pond (I98I), the second of two collections of her essays from the Sun. She learned to love the wildlings of fields, marshes, streams, and woodlands while growing up on her family's farm in the foothills of Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains. Her formal education ended with her graduation from high school in Freeport, Pennsylvania, but after moving to Baltimore and marrying an electrical engineer, she continued her self-education with weekly armloads of books from the local library. In the mid-1960s the couple moved to a farming community in western Howard County, Maryland, and Mary combined her deep interests in wildlife; reading, and writing in a successful career authoring articles for outdoor and children's magazines and for the Sun. She explained, "I write of animals, and plants, and weather, and water, and earth that others may learn to love all those things that share our small planet, and accord them the right to grow and to be." "Drama on a Wooden Fence" is collected in Wildlings (1976).
DRAMA ON A WOODEN FENCE
The fence should have been painted early in the spring but other tasks and other interests had pushed the job aside. Summer had been a succession of rainy or steamy days, and it was not until a glorious October afternoon that I began to paint the scarred old pickets.
Being a perfectionist only in certain well-defined directions, I painted the fence, to my own satisfaction at least, while letting the October day keep my five senses busy and my gypsying mind wandering on a hundred vagrant trails.
Even the odor of paint could not prevent the nutty smells of the close-by woods or the fruity smells of the apple trees or the ripe Autumn smells of the weeds and grasses from reaching my nostrils.
Bob Whites whistled their anxious covey-calls from the orchards and the hills. Blue jays screamed and scolded and pounded sunflower seeds into the crevices of white oak bark. Gray squirrels chattered and quacked and bounced frost-ripened hickory nuts down the dark limbs to the ground.
The dogwoods were purple-leaved and scarlet-berried along the edges of the woods. Shadows shifted and flowed on the grass when cool-tipped breezes lifted their leaves. A thousand milkweed silks drifted on the light-drenched air.
And then a gravid, green-bronze mantis nearly four inches long landed on the unpainted plank at the top of the fence and brought my attention closer to my job.
She wandered restlessly back and forth along the top of the fence for several minutes. Suddenly she became aware of me. She stalked to the edge of the fence and peered down at my kneeling form. She cocked her green-button head first to one side and then to the other and stared at me with an intensity that made me acutely self-conscious. Could she see the whole of me? I wondered. If not, how much could she see with those great compound eyes? Was she studying me? Was she mystified by this untypical, non-food-gathering, non-shelter-building activity of mine? Was she trying to classify me?
I try not to be anthropomorphic, especially when considering a consciousness so foreign as that of an insect, but this mantis was something else. For two full hours she followed me along the fence, never more than two feet behind me, usually close at my side, not taking her eyes from me the entire time. She scrutinized every move I made, stared at my face and my paint- pattered coveralls, and seemed to interest herself in what I was doing, which included scrupulously not painting the top of the fence.
For two hours neither she nor I had looked at another creature, but now I saw, a few feet ahead of us, a small dark spider begin to build its frail web in the angle between the topmost plank and a fencepost. It spun swiftly and in less than twenty minutes it had suspended three fine lines and hung a sticky trap within them.
Building completed, it had scarcely retired to an upper corner when a housefly blundered into the snare. The spider dashed to the spot, tied down the struggling captive with a few well-placed strands of silk, and began to dine, first clipping off the pale wings and allowing them to spiral to the ground.
When the spider had finished its meal it sat back and wiped its face with its front legs.
Now, up behind the complacent spider crept the praying mantis. She stalked upon her four angular legs with sinister intent. Her head was up, her eyes were fixed upon the spider. She held her short, saw-toothed front legs folded below her face in a worshipful attitude. She was ready for the kill.
With a graceful motion so swift I'm not sure I saw it, the mantis reached forward and grasped the spider in her spiny arms. I know I witnessed no coup de grace, but perhaps the knife-sharp grip stunned the little spider. At any rate, the mantis proceeded at once to eat it, from the edges in, as though it were a slice of watermelon.
When she had completed her meal, the mantis, in turn, washed her saw-tooth weapons and her face. Cat-like, she cleaned her front feet with her mouth, then rubbed them over her face and over her eyes again and again. When she had bathed, she took one more look at me, then spread her green-bronze wings and flew heavily off, dropping into the yellow chrysanthemums below the fence.
I confess that I watched these episodes in complete fascination with no thought to rescue either fly or spider. I considered that to really complete the drama a pigeon should fly down and eat the mantis; I, in turn, should eat the pigeon; then some larger animal should leap the fence and swallow me. Nothing of the sort occurred, however, and the food chain, for the time being, ended there.
But two questions press at the back of my mind: First, why did the mantis stay with me all that long afternoon? and, second, did the mantis feel that she had eaten only a spider, or did she realize she had also eaten a fly?
Lisa Knopp (born 1956) writes that she became intimate with "swatches and tufts of wildness" in Iowa and Nebraska, the two places she calls home, through the discipline of seeing -- "of remaining alert and of making the eye innocent." "To see what is before us instead of what we imagine to be there means being present and alive in the here and now, a state of alertness that most of us seldom experience or can sustain for very long," she writes in Field of Vision (1996), a collection of nature essays that document her journey toward truly seeing the natural world and her own place in it. Knopp was born in Burlington, Iowa, and educated at Iowa Wesleyan College (B.A.), Western Illinois University (M.A.), and the University of Nebraska (Ph.D.). Her essays have appeared in literary journals and in three collections. Flight Dreams: A Life in the Midwestern Landscape (1998) is autobiographical, while The Nature of Home (2002) explores the concept of home in relation to the natural and human history of Nebraska. Knopp teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her son and daughter. She previously taught at Southern Illinois University. The following selection from Field of Vision "considers the borders between inside and outside, wild and not wild, guest and host."
I was in bed, reading, about ready to drift off to sleep, when I heard it: cree-cree, cree-cree, cree-cree. Perhaps my daughter was still awake and I was hearing the bell on her train. I returned to my book. But there it was again: cree-cree, cree-cree, cree-cree. I realized it wasn't a Fisher-Price toy I was hearing, but a cricket's stridulations, the sounds produced when a cricket rubs the sharp edge of one front wing along a filelike ridge beneath the other front wing. It didn't matter whether it was a house or field cricket I was hearing. Any cricket in the house meant a poor night's sleep.
I'd had uninvited houseguests of this nature before. If I was to sleep, I'd have to find the culprit and release him into my backyard, where he could sing to his heart's content. But I knew better than to look for my guest. There were literally hundreds of hiding places, including the baseboards, my wool sweaters and blazers, and the stack of magazines and books by my bed. Searching for this pest would be futile. I turned my air filter on high, hoping that the white noise would cover the stridulations. It did not. Eventually, I carried my pillow and blanket to the quiet of my study and slept on the floor.
I bring the outside in. In my study, cut birch boughs lean against the wall, their black eyes always half closed. On my desk sits a basket filled with enough acorns to start a small oak grove, with no two trees of the same species. In another basket are jumbled the feathers of finches, orioles, hawks, geese, blue jays, cardinals, owls, and flamingos. In a vase rise dried stalks of sedges, big bluestem, switchgrass, and wild rye. Lining the forefront of my bookshelves are rocks, shells, fossils, and bones. Lately I've been yearning for an ant farm, which I would set on a table near my computer. Then when I tire of watching tiny black forms moving across my screen, I could watch tiny black forms moving through tunnels in the sand.
Guests from the natural world who are either dead (though not decaying) or invited are welcome in my home. The cricket in my bedroom is neither.
The second night, I heard the chirping before I even got into bed. Perhaps the room was too hot. I read that the speed of the stridulations rises at a very predictable rate in relation to the temperature. In fact, you can rather accurately determine the temperature by adding forty to the number of chirps you hear in a fifteen-second interval. I turned down the heat, figuring I could at least decrease the frequency of the cricket's song.
Only males sing, though both sexes have stridulating organs. If female crickets have been my guests in the past, their presence was beyond my ken. So too, the male cricket's courtship song, which is a continuous trill in the ultrasonic range, too high for my ears to hear. I am grateful that I am sensible of only a fraction of the cricket activity that might be taking place in my home.
But why do I appreciate the cricket's coarse call when I hear it in my backyard yet find it a nuisance when it is trapped in my house? What type of nature lover am I? One who wants to assign nature to a separate sphere that I can freely enter and exit. One who wants the natural world to enter my domain only when invited. A nature lover with a double standard.
The old saw says that dirty laundry and houseguests start stinking after three days and should be gotten rid of. But another old saw says if you can't change the situation, change your attitude. On the third night of the cricket's visit, I heeded the advice of the latter. For my bedtime reading material I chose The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre. If anyone could change my attitude about the cricket, it would be the great French entomologist.
Fabre (1823-1915) began his career as a science teacher but was fired for permitting female students in his classes. For the next decade he wrote popular science books for children, an occupation that barely met his family's financial needs. All the while he dreamed of owning a small plot of land where he could study insects. When Fabre was fifty-five, his dream came true: he had saved enough money to buy a harmas, 2.7 acres of sunbaked land unfit for farming or grazing but ideal for his entomological studies. In his "laboratory of the open fields," the man whom Charles Darwin called an "incomparable observer" patiently observed and recorded the finest details of the daily lives of spiders, grasshoppers, glowworms, scorpions, beetles, and caterpillars. That Fabre studied the living insect in its natural habitat is especially remarkable, since most other naturalists of his time were preoccupied with the pinned specimen and consequently knew little of insect behavior. Because Fabre wrote so extensively and poetically of insect lives, he was known as "the insect's Homer." His ten-volume, 2,500-page Souvenirs Entomologiques was a fifty-five-year labor of love, for which the French government rewarded him with a $400 annual pension and the Legion of Honor ribbon.
While Fabre was usually outside, waiting in a ravine for hunting wasps or studying thistle weevils at night by the light of his lantern, he was also able to study insects in his home, since whatever lived outside was welcome within. "Bolder still, the Wasp has taken possession of the dwelling-house;" Fabre writes in The Life of the Grasshopper. "On my door-sill, in a soil of rubbish, nestles the white-banded Sphex: when I go indoors, I must be careful not to damage her burrows, not to tread upon the miner absorbed in her work." Fabre called his harmas "Eden," a place where all creatures are guests and no one is host. No double standard there.
Fabre invited crickets into his home, too. Each day he made "assiduous visits" to pairs of crickets he had isolated and caged until he observed the females ovipositing. Fabre dug up their eggs and brought them home in an earth-filled pot. Weeks later, the five thousand to six thousand eggs hatched. In time, Fabre's house pulsed with cricket music, "first in rare and shy solos, soon developing into a general symphony." Their song was "monotonous and artless, but so well-suited, in its very crudity, to the rustic gladness of renascent life! It is the hosanna of the awakening, the sacred alleluia understood by the swelling seed and sprouting blade.... Were the Lark to fall silent, the fields blue-grey with lavender, swinging its fragrant censors before the sun, would still receive from this humble chorister a solemn celebration."
An alleluia, indeed. Fabre was able to hear something sacred and celebratory in the cricket's song because insects were his raison d'etre. The cricket was an annoyance to me. I listened again to my houseguest's song. Joyous, yes. Hosanna, perhaps. I drifted off to sleep.
The fourth night, I waited. No chirping. I turned up the heat. Nothing. Though the room was quiet and I was tired, I read very late.
My guest had taken his leave, one way or another. I read that one acre of prairie can support up to ten thousand crickets, with each adult eating three-fourths its own body weight per day. While my half-acre backyard hadn't the fodder of tallgrass prairie, it could at least host several hundred crickets. Perhaps the cricket in my bedroom had rejoined the feast and the symphony in my backyard.
But not my backyard. Crickets ate grass, seeds, and bugs, scraped their fiddles, laid their eggs, and were eaten by meadowlarks and nighthawks on this land long before my kind arrived. My cement patio and driveway, my chain-link fence, and my not-so-well-sealed house are but recent interruptions on this millennia-old cricket field. The multitude of crickets are my hosts; I am but an uninvited guest.
Diana Kappel-Smith (born 1951) brought the skills of a scientist, an artist, and a journalist to exploring nature in her own Vermont backyard in her first book, Wintering (1984). She subsequently explored parts of the country with which she was unfamiliar, combining natural history and travel writing with her own illustrations in Night Life: Nature from Dusk to Dawn (1990) and Desert Time: A Journey through the American Southwest (1992). Kappel-Smith was born in Connecticut and earned a B.S. in biology from the University of Vermont. The environmental awareness of her father, who founded the New Canaan, Connecticut, Audubon Society, influenced her own. Before she finished college, she and her sister bought a six-acre farm in Wolcott, Vermont, which she later expanded to 275 acres after marrying a neighbor. While raising their son, she wrote essays and articles on working the farm for Country Journal and then began a collection of essays investigating the hidden world of winter on the farm. "I need," she wrote in Wintering, from which the following selection is taken, "to enter the secret rooms of winter with the same curious urgency with which I enter dreams." In 1986, after divorcing her husband, she moved back to Connecticut and began work on the books that took her on journeys across the United States.
DANCE OF GIANTS
After two nights without a freeze the maple seeds began to sprout on the slope by the Pond in the Woods. I only noticed them because there were sudden white squiggles among the dark leaves on the ground; newborn roots feeling the way out of their winged seeds like sensitive fingers. Some curved over sticks, other luckier ones had already penetrated the wet leaf- covered soil. Most of the embryonic leaves were still furled in the seed, but some of them were edged partly out, swollen and turning green, like insects in splitting husks struggling to be free.
A week later I found a cache of maple seeds farther up the slope. They had been packed away carefully last autumn in a six- inch-wide hollow and were laid round and round in a neat pattern, and even then at the end of April they were frozen, succulent, and crisp, laced with ice crystals. Red squirrel? Chipmunk? Something had rifled the hoard and the leaves were stirred up and seed fragments were scattered, but almost anything could have stumbled on them as I did, grateful for the discovery.
The sun was warm on the slope and the spring beauties had opened their pink stars overnight. Red and green dappled troutlily leaves slanted up, and here and there a flower stem emerged among them coiled like a snake, ready to strike the eye with its yellow tongues.
Lying in the dry leaves, which rustled like paper, I had the old urge to stay put; if I stayed just there for another month I could see the trees dance. Passing through as I do, I can only trace the passage of that dance and can only imagine the flow, the reeling and bowing.
In these maples and birch and beech the branches reach out year after year, running skyward like the fingers of rivulets when water is poured on dry ground. Water is at the heart of their form; they have the shape of river systems seen from space, or veins of blood, or nerves. Standing there, buds swollen, with a wash of deep red over them, they seem as lambent and as alive and as ready as anything on earth could be.
The annual running-out of the branch ends begins in May and will continue in slowing pace even into August, but the birth of the leaves themselves takes little more than a week, and in good weather even less time than that, so that in the movements of the tree dance this emergence of leaves would be seen as a flash, a flick, like the sudden unclenching of fisted hands.
Plants' movements are unmuddied by temporizing thought but are complex enough for all of that. In spite of years of biochemical research no one has managed to explain how they do most of their moving without the medium of nerve and muscle. Most of the time we zip around here too fast to notice that they are moving at all.
Movement is relative: a hummingbird goes by us in a blur; heart pulsing at more than 75 beats per second, metabolic core heat set at 105°F, flying along at fifty miles per hour ... even the fastest human runner moves, from a hummingbird's perspective, as ponderously as a tortoise.
Plants choreograph their clenches and reaches in response to a great many things, but only while their tissues are still soft and young. Past midsummer the twigs and leaves stiffen and their position lignifies and becomes a permanent statement, like a photograph. Most plants move because of differences in growth rate between one bit of tissue and another, or because of shifts in water pressure within each fluid cell. Movement in plants is either an expression of growth itself, or an exercise in hydraulics, or a combination of both.
The newborn maple root is already intelligent about gravity, light, and water. It corkscrews, seeking an opening in which to poke down. Even in pitch-darkness a seedling orients itself by gravity, the shoot going up toward light, and the root twisting down to spread its absorbent network, hairy as a beard, between the crumbs of the soil. Once there it senses the presence of water and grows faster on its drier side, so that it curves and curves again to penetrate the wettest earth.
There is an odd little plant called dodder, and in the summertime the wildflowers that I pick are often twined with it. It is very pretty, leafless, tangled but graceful, like a snarl of fishing line drawn by a poet. It is a parasite. Its fine curling stems are pinkish and its flowers are a foam of white, but I can never quite escape from the knowledge, having read it once somewhere, that it can smell. It can smell a desirable host from inches away and will swing toward this good smell until it reaches its goal. The way it bends toward is the same way that any plant bends toward what it wants the most; by growing fastest on the side of itself that is farthest away from what it wants. So it curves. Its shape is the trace, the wake, of its motion.
In June the tendrils of my pea vines will hook the chicken wire I have put there for them, and, responding to the touch of this wire, they will spiral in a matter of hours and then stiffen. In October I will have to pluck these stiff coils off, themselves as hard as brittle wire, though the plants they held up to the sun are long dead and rotted away. The bog on the west hill has sundews that slam shut on ants and tiny flies in less than a half second. Maples with a patch of their bark gnawed away by a wintering porcupine hurry to send pale caramel-colored bulges of new flesh over the wound. Trees grown in the open are thicker of trunk because the wind has blown them, and they choose to thicken in the parts of themselves most stressed by their own bending. Trees in a dense woods where the wind can't push them are as thin as wands.
Look: I am watching this now as if I were putting together the countless still pictures I have accumulated, the befores and the afters and the durings, into one quick dance so that I can watch it happen, for once! I am tired of going into the woods in May and June and seeing leaves in mid-uncurl, ferns with a fist ready to punch air, twigs pointed like gleaming arrows. They look as though they had stopped their fling because I had stumbled on their private dance and was tactless enough to want to watch.
I have noticed that the bottom twigs of maples grow only an inch or two a year and that the top twigs may grow a foot or more in the same season, so that if one could see this month of their growth as a single convulsion it would be like the upward leap of a flame, as if someone had turned up the wick on an oil lamp. As they leap up the twigs wriggle. They make a hormone in their growing tips that flows back to where the cells are expanding, and it accumulates to the shadiest side of the twig and stimulates the expansion there, so that each twig bends independently toward the light. They turn in to each other and away, and in again until they have trembled to a stop in the spot most lit. Each single leaf does this same light-seeking dither, too, so that they seem to lurch and adjust like hands hefting a ball. The air around me suddenly fills with green commotion; the pond is lost from view, the air clogged with flutter, the path home closed with writhing leaves and with saplings and brush shuddering upward from their roots like sunbursts. Now the ferns careen from the ground, rolling upward and letting fly leaflets like the many limbs of Vishnu, until at last their tips flick over, wavelike, and a new green surf inhabits the shading ground. If you look up at the end of May here, the leaves are an almost perfect mosaic, there are few swatches left of the sky; they have become a web for the capture of the sun.
This seethe if actually seen in full boil could well terrify me beyond recall; except that I know that it isn't me they are after. I am as benign and unwanted as a rock.
I come back to the papery leaves, the spring beauties, the sun which reaches me here, now, unfiltered. The twigs, leaves, flowers, and ferns that are on their way are already formed, were made last summer and packed away in scales and sheaths; all they have to do is to expand like balloons, and then their branch tips will begin their hurry to make more.
As I went down the slope again, I reached into my pocket for some of the maple seeds that I had taken from the frozen hollow, and opened several and ate them; they were crisp and green and bitter. I know what you could become, I thought. I have seen you three centuries hence, massive as a god, pushing your ferment of leaves until you shade a quarter of an acre. I thought about the tribal warriors who ate the hearts of their enemies so that they would absorb the strength and intelligence of the adversary; you are hardly my enemy, O trees, but I want your grace.
Barbara Meyn (born 1923) is a collector of natural objects and observations with a strong environmental conscience and sense of place derived from her life on the coast of northern California. She was born on her grandfather's farm south of Ukiah, California, and grew up there and in Eureka. After attending Humboldt State College and earning a B.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, she worked as a journalist, teacher, and writer. An environmental activist for many years, she helped found Green Fuse, a poetry journal dedicated to the preservation of the planet. She self-published her first book of poetry, Blue Heron on Humbug Creek, in 1981, and lives on Humbug Creek in northeastern Sonoma County with her husband. "Changing" is from her second book of poetry, The Abalone Heart (1988).
quietly. A maple seed
The room is full
of curious, precious things,
Anne LaBastille (born 1938) followed Thoreau in building her own log cabin in the woods, but her experiment in wilderness living has lasted considerably longer than his did. With a B.S. in wildlife conservation from Cornell University, an M.S. from Colorado State University, and a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Cornell, she has forged a career as an ecological consultant, freelance writer, photographer, and lecturer. Her Woodswoman trilogy chronicles the challenges and rewards of her chosen life. What sets LaBastille apart from many other American women who have written about life in the wilderness -- such as Margaret Murie, Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher, and Helen Hoover -- is that she went there solo. Though she has had the companionship of men sporadically during her life, LaBastille acknowledges that loneliness is part of the price she's paid for satisfying her innate independence and love of the wild. An unlikely woodswoman, she was born in New York City and raised in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. Her first job was at a summer resort in the Adirondacks whose owner she ended up marrying. When the seven-year marriage dissolved, LaBastille bought twenty-two acres on the edge of a lake (which she calls Black Bear Lake to protect its identity) in Adirondack State Park and built a cabin called West of the Wind. When civilization encroached, she built a smaller cabin dubbed Thoreau II on a more secluded piece of land. While LaBastille shuns a romantic view of nature in favor of a scientist's tough-mindedness, she is not without a deep appreciation and fellow feeling for her wilderness neighbors, including the trees, as the following selection from Woodswoman (1976) attests.
AMONG MY CLOSEST FRIENDS
During those first weeks and months at the cabin my close and constant companions were trees. I became intimately acquainted with every tree inside a 400-foot radius. What at first seemed like a dense stand of random temperate-zone vegetation -- maples, spruces, hemlocks, beeches, birches, and pines -- gradually introduced itself as an orderly congregation of unique individuals.
The "Four Sisters," a neatly spaced row of red spruces, stood practically within spitting distance of my sleeping loft. A trio of the same species clustered behind and above the dock, acting as friendly navigational aids against night skies. An enormous white pine leaned above the outhouse and another rose straight as a lighthouse on the point near the rocks. A forest of young firs graced the high shoreline from the side of the cabin almost down to the creek. Five more prodigious spruces loomed from a wet pocket of ground beyond the woodshed, while under them a few spindly youngsters stretched for the sun. I came to touch them all through trimming, pruning, clearing, cutting, admiring, and listening.
The first trees I got to know, and later draw strength from, were the mature, towering red spruces and white pines. These were highly skilled veterans, seasoned in survival techniques. They had started fortuitously as seedlings upon rich, sun- dappled patches of earth. They had escaped being nibbled by snowshoe hares, mice, grouse, or deer. They had shouldered past their siblings and finally pushed above the forest canopy into the free blue sky where swallows wheeled in summer and snowflakes whirled in winter. Here all the sunlight on any given day was theirs to activate the chlorophyll-laden needles, and all the rain of any given storm was theirs to wash the thick branches. These trees had survived attacks of smuts, aphids, mites, molds, beetles, galls, caterpillars, viruses, and the other miniature, life-robbing enemies of the plant world. They had also escaped being scratched by falling limbs, ripped by bears' claws, chafed by trunks, or rubbed by deer antlers. Likewise they had been unscathed by forest fires and bypassed by hurricanes. And so, in 1964, a goodly 300 years after their germination, they towered as invincible individuals of great character, lending dignity and beauty to my land.
I developed an amazing awareness of these trees. First, I noticed their noises. In wind, the spruces gave off a somber, deep, sad whoosh, while the pines made a higher, happier softer sough. After my initial surprise at the differences in sound between these two species, I began listening to other kinds of trees. Balsam firs made a short, precise, polite swishing; red and sugar maples gave an impatient rustling; yellow birches, a gentle, restful sighing.
Of course these strains of sound can be explained by the size, shape, flexibility, and thickness of leaf or needle. They can also be explained by the wind itself. I noticed distinct variations produced by the fresh westerly breezes, fierce north fronts, petulant south zephyrs, or stormy east winds. But the sound of the forest is more than this -- just as a symphony is more than the sizes and shapes of the instruments, air pressure or touch which activate them to make music, and the players.
Next I discovered a whole assortment of tree scents. On hot, dry summer days, the balsams, spruces, and pines acted like giant sticks of incense, giving off a redolence which filled the air inside and outside the cabin. The carpet of dead needles, the dry duff, the trickles of pitch, the sun-warmed bark itself, all gave off subtle odors. The live needles tanged the air with what old-time doctors called "balsamifers."
The presence of this restorative odor is what made the Adirondacks a mecca for tubercular patients in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Whether the "balsamifers" did the curing, or the clean cold air, the long rests, the inspiring views, and the presence of such medical prophets as Dr. E. L. Trudeau, many mortally sick patients recovered in the Adirondacks. I know three men, all in their spry eighties, who came here to die in their thirties. They believe, as did Trudeau, pioneer tuberculosis researcher, that the resinous aromas produced by the evergreen forests helped cure them. Recent scientific studies have, in fact, revealed that the turpentine vapor exuded by conifers has a purifying effect on the local atmosphere and plays a part in keeping Adirondack air remarkably pure and healthy.
Another beautiful sensory experience happened to me in my forest of young balsam firs. On late summer afternoons, I saw the sun come slanting between the trunks. The light gave a glorious golden glow to the dense, dark copse. I began trimming off dead branches as high as I could reach with an axe. Whenever I nicked the bark of a trunk, I'd carefully daub moist earth on the wound to lessen sap flow and prevent the entry of disease organisms or insects. Off and on all summer I trimmed the balsam boles farther and farther away from the cabin until I achieved the desired effect. Then on a still September evening I perched on the porch railing, picking pitch from my palms, and watched the setting sun illuminate my fir forest. The sun shafts were straight diagonals of gold-washed air. As far as I could see, the balsam boles were straight black bars which threw black shadows onto the burnished-copper ground, golden-green moss, and bronzed fallen logs. My little forest had become a study in light and shadow, a stained glass window of gold and green panes with black bars, back-lit by the setting sun.
I experienced another quality of light on a dismal, dripping November day. It had rained for a week and the forest was totally drenched. My giant spruce trunks were soaked to charcoal-gray, their branches grizzly-green, the balsam boles inky-black, the ground tarry-brown, the pines pewter-gray. As Thomas Hardy wrote, "The whole world dripped in browns and duns." About eleven o'clock in the morning, the quality of light surrounding the cabin and trees was so watery that I might have been submerged somewhere in the North Atlantic. Each gust of rain felt like the surge of a swell, and the soggy forest looked like a stand of seaweed.
As I became more tuned into trees, I began to admire the enormous white pine near the path to the outhouse. I even oriented the entrance of the outhouse so that I could gaze at this tall, furrowed tree while sitting there. It was much better than reading Time magazine. In strong winds, the trunk would sway in a sinuous motion which combined the suppleness of a snake with the strength of an elephant. No rigidity to that pine. The thick bark, its multiple rings of wood, the very heart of the trunk all moved with a fluidity more animal-like than plant. I drew closer to the tree and eventually came to stand against the trunk in order to watch those tons of wood bending lithely above my head. The grace and rhythm almost hypnotized me....
On my trips back and forth to the outhouse, I took more and more enjoyment from touching the great white pine. One morning, with my arms wrapped around the trunk, I began to feel a sense of peace and well-being. I held on for over fifteen minutes, chasing extraneous thoughts from my mind. The rough bark was pressed hard against my skin. It was as though the tree was pouring its life-force into my body. When I stepped away from the white pine, I had the definite feeling that we had exchanged some form of life energy....
I feel this communion, this strange attunement, most readily with large white pines, a little less with big spruces, sugar maples, beeches, or oaks. Clearly white pines and I are on the same wavelength. What I give back to the trees I cannot imagine. I hope they receive something, because trees are among my closest friends.
In her 1986 collection of essays and poems, At the Gentle Mercy of Plants, Hildegarde Flanner (1899-1987) wrote, "I'm devoted to plants and have given a great deal of my life to them but I'm not a botanist. I am at the mercy of plants." She was born near Indianapolis, Indiana, and educated at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and the University of California at Berkeley. She married the artist and architect Frederick Monhoff, who often collaborated with her to illustrate her work. They made their home in southern California for many years and later retired to an old ranch in the Napa Valley of northern California, the subject of Brief Cherishing: A Napa Valley Harvest (1985), from which the following essay is reprinted. An ardent conservationist and dedicated regionalist, younger sister to Janet Flanner of The New Yorker, she also published articles, book reviews, one-act plays, and volumes of poetry.
THE OLD CHERRY TREE
Together with a few human beings, dead and living, and their achievements, trees are what I most love and revere. In my life and my concerns I have defended trees that are threatened and praised them when they are ignored; for their sakes I have made enemies of friends and neighbors. The knowledge that in a western canyon I am the owner of very tall straight redwoods and firs gives me pride of citizenship beyond anything I might accomplish by my own efforts. I have taken a serious kind of joy and a delightful kind of peace in their shade, and at night I have watched the shaggy white planets pass above their dark branches. I have loved trees, I have planted trees and have been excited to grow a tree from seed and discover the first minute sign of unfolding life that will, some distant year, become a rooted tower or a spreading bower of rustling foliage. I am fortunate to live where native trees are numerous and where horticulture is popular and every rural family has an orchard.
Our own orchard is old and contains many trees that are dilapidated, but even the most dilapidated have been safe for years because each time I look at them, aware of their crookedness and awkward appearance, I also see some odd curve of bough or improvisation of flowering that make sudden poetry of them and of their trashiness. They are thus protected, although they should, under good management, be sensibly discarded and replaced. Yet the more dubious they look the more they resemble the paintings of Oriental masters and suggest the fresh enduring emotions of the ancient anthologies. Perhaps there is universal truth in implying that real meaning is wrung out at the last moment, and the last moment must be prolonged. Whose duty is that? Really not mine. Yet I have discerned it. I am involved in its total meaning, of tree and of human. Still, as I myself grow older and, alas, much older, the image of new young trees in place of the old ones creeps temptingly into my mind. It is a troubling image and its disturbance, just now, settles on the spirit of a woman wandering and trying to think in an old orchard.
If I could have the sense and courage to take down a decrepit tree in spite of its fanatical habit of reminding me of the brave words of General Su Wu written down 2,000 years ago as he sadly embraced his wife for the last time, and in spite of its mad annual impulse to bloom and bear and spill bushels of amethyst prunes and rosy apples on the ground, it might be for me a spiritual rejuvenation and consequently even a beneficial thing for the flesh as well. But conscience is tyrannical. It is a womanly vice. I have become the guardian not of my own but of whatever other life remains in the earth I possess. It is hard to be wise and natural. Although my husband is no longer living I can guess what he might wish to do. To remove a tree that had lasted too long and replace it might well please him. This thought is a poignant incentive, also a consolation for the choice I foresee as melancholy and difficult, whenever it must be made.
The decision I am afraid of, on a mild February morning of our western spring, is one for advice from a clinical priest. It is beyond horticulture. It becomes moral. In my mind it faces and fights itself and I am torn. Must I continue to identify myself with the aged, no longer serviceable and eccentric trees, or do I dare to relate myself to young trees with futures, good looks and green chances of tonic sap? My orchard, by usual standards, is conspicuously shabby. This hurts me. And as I look around I notice a few unrewarding cherry trees.
To get a cherry in our orchard has meant to rise early, before birds or worms are awake, and snatch at a fruit or two as day breaks. One summer, in order to enjoy the large luscious black Bings, my husband ordered a nylon net he saw advertised in an agricultural supply magazine. The advertisement promised protection to fruit from marauding birds and complete accessibility for the picker. If all of this was true, we were not the ones to demonstrate it. As we hoisted the net on poles to the top of the tree the clinging mesh snagged on every twig on the way up; then, as we squinted into the sun and gave helpful and confusing suggestions to each other on how to free the net to slide down as directed, we found that it could descend only by being profanely and scrupulously removed from twig to clutching twig. However, the picture as given of happy people congratulating each other outside the net while the cherries waxed abnormally big and the birds fretted on the next tree -- in the advertisement they were scowling -- this fine fiction was worth keeping in mind until suddenly and utterly we tied ourselves in. The next step was just to ripen along with the cherries in boredom and frustration, while the birds jeered nastily. This very personal recollection comes back to me as I find myself standing under a cherry tree, not the one that lassoed us, but a very old pie-cherry tree, largest and surely the oldest inhabitant of the orchard. Indeed, where is there in the entire valley a cherry tree so old and so big? It is a tree known in the neighborhood, and when we first came here to live friendly strangers drove up our hill and requested, "Just a few cherries, please, from the old tree, enough for the wife to make one pie."
Now so much of the tree is fallen or dead that there is scarcely enough fruit for a robin to make one cherry tart. I get none myself, even on tiptoe or a ladder. And the trifle of birdsong it holds is nothing to give regard to. Neither has it grown ancient with picturesque aspects. All of its gifts are gone. Even the child with a little basket passes by. It is too large, you see, to be forgotten, yet neglect is its fate today. And so I talk to myself as I look up and see no buds swelling toward wide-open blossoms where the bees should soon be rolling. From something so unpromising, what is to be expected? Why is it so difficult for me to say, "It is time, old cherry tree"?
This happens to be the day on which my son is preparing a level space where there will be built a storehouse for tools and equipment. I welcome this plan as one to maintain order. Not only his powerful tractor, but various archaic automobiles considered by him too beautiful and valuable to go to the dump, can now be respectably housed, particularly that very sacred hot-chili-red truck that usurps the sight of grace and elegance where my tallest bamboo has established its feather culms. This is a day of orchard and premises keeping and its purposes begin to take hold of me. I look up at the cherry and assess what I see. Crippled and lumpy, here and there split, beheaded of several heads, and to all appearances so nearly dead that there seems no way to say it is alive. Then I look up at the sky and straighten, as if to think of other things. A good clear morning to be alive myself. And John has opened the deer gate and is driving the loud clanging tractor into the orchard toward the work that makes ready for his storehouse.
"Oh, John," I call. He doesn't hear above the roar of the machine. Without thinking I reach out and touch the subject I was about to speak of. I touch not only a tree of bark and wood but with tingling certainty in my fingers I touch an entire century. At this spot there stood a house which no longer exists. The spring that served its occupants still serves us from its cold stone trough at the edge of the nearby woods. And a county clerk had written the first deed to this property, dated 1878, in script almost too lace-like to read or believe. It was then that the tree was planted and began to work for men and birds and until this spring it has never stopped working. It was always the first to bloom and ripen, always prompt no matter that the weather might delay, still it brought on its sweet sparkling globes of fruit. For 100 years of faithfulness there should be a reward. Hang the old tree with garlands, strike up the fiddle. But I am caught up in another momentum. Again I call, "Oh, John!" He can't hear, there is too much noise. I go closer. "Maybe it's time," I shout, and he yells, ''What is it?" How hard it is now for me to be positive and loud, quick and wise. But I must not take time to be careful. I am committed. "Time to take down the old cherry tree," I shriek.
I know that decisions like this should be made in quietness and deliberately. We should live slowly, even timidly, in imagination with all the possible results of the irrevocable. Once down, there would never be an up to this deed. I exercise a frightening power. It is not exactly a choice between life and death because life is already attacked by mean and obvious details of the end. However, the power of termination is awesome. Naturally, it chokes me. I cough. Kings, tyrants, judges -- how have they arrived at that last fatal word that condemns life without feeling their own lives threatened, shredded and about to come apart? But don't be silly, I say to myself. What are you talking about? Just get on with what there is to do. Isn't this the mistake you have always been making? Too much emphasis on the wrong thing while you let the right thing drift? "John!" I shriek again. "Time to take down the old cherry tree!"
"Yes, yes," he says easily, "I can hear you," and I become aware that he has turned off the noise of the tractor and also that in the interval of silence I can hear the demented sound of the ranging peacock that forages in the foothills and ravines near our place. It always seems to be a sound of mental stress and at this moment it is right for my state of mind.
I am surprised by hesitation on John's part. "I don't think I can cut it down, it's too big," he says. "I'll have to push it down." Again he seems doubtful. "If I can."
And the tractor starts again. Then for a while he is busy with his work of leveling nearby, but as I stand watching he begins to look at the old cherry tree in a calculating way. I suspect that he welcomes my decision to get rid of a tree so dominant yet unproductive in this place, and he must be astonished. He circles and comes closer. I cringe and brace myself for the shock to my nerves and my conscience. John backs his tractor and then goes forward with an awful clang. He hits the old cherry with a loud dull crash. It does not budge. It does not even quiver. He backs away. Again he charges forward and collides with the tree. It stands without shaking. It is only I who grow weak. I shake and feel sick. Perhaps I am wrong to condemn a creature so full of strength in spite of the many signs of being done with strength. Again the tractor charges and without effect. I would prefer to leave now, to go back to the house and hide behind closed doors where I could neither see nor hear; but it was I who started this turmoil and I must remain to see it through.
At this moment my 13-year-old grandson, Danny, arrives and stands near me, watching. "Your father is wasting a lot of good gas," I scream. "Diesel," he screams in return. "Fuel," I scream back at him, as the attack continues. Backing and charging, backing and colliding, the tractor roars and hits, and at last the old cherry tree begins to tremble. But it stands. I suffer and watch in a nauseating agony of indecision. Should I save the body while some secret obstinacy still holds it up? Or is it better to let the savage shocks continue? Suddenly John begins a new maneuver. He backs, then closes into the attack at an angle, tilts the sharp, wide blade of the tractor and digs it into the earth. Again he does this, and again, until the action of the bellowing machine and the chaos and the frightful uproar become a kind of violent choreography. I stand riveted and overcome by what I have started in the quiet orchard. Finally the tilted blade snags on a massive root. The root holds.
The contest goes on. My son will not give up. The old tree will not give up. The tractor will not give up. The boy and I stand and wait and the diabolic ballet goes on and on. The tractor, although a monolith, has been converted into a maniac of circling and twisting power. In its fierceness it is serpentine. At last, at last! With a heavy snap, a sound of fatal resignation, the root breaks. And the tree still stands! The tractor attacks it for the final time. And when the old cherry tree falls there goes down with it a century of hopes and many kinds of weather, sun and drought, of good rain and poor rain, of good pies and poor pies, and 100 years of countless round white flowers opening and coming apart and drifting down while early-rising and late- loitering birds and bees came and went and always, at the right cloistered moment there was the invisible sap slowly storming up through the trunk and into the tips of the branches, just as it was rising in a million other trees at the eternal hour given for ascension.
While I stand and have no voice to speak John nonchalantly gets down from his tractor and walks over to the fallen tree. He begins to peel off patches of thick bark. "Termites," he says. I do not want to see them. "More termites," he announces. I hate the sight of them. I stay where I am. Then he pulls off another, larger patch of bark. "Look here!" he cries. There is a company of small lizards, eight in all, spending the winter in the shelter of the cherry tree. John collects them and quickly puts them all down Danny's back. The boy rolls his eyes and draws up his shoulders but does not flinch.
I retrieve the young saurians and put them in the grass. Then I go to the prostrate tree to hunt for more, as if this intimacy with small creatures might reduce the magnitude of the old giant's final resignation. There seem to be no more lizards, but I find neat necklaces of empty holes, the precise work of woodpeckers whose echoing labors I have often heard. Then John, in the cavity left nearby, finds a beautiful little snake of a dark rich skin, a young gopher snake whose presence close to the tree appears to indicate dependence and community. John holds the snake for a moment and we watch as it flashes its rapid tongue in the sunlight. Then he puts it down and we see it take off, small and solitary. We are left alone with the fallen tree. It is stripped of everything, except its misshapen size, and its weighty bulk so lately upright and adamant. There it lies.
John gets his power-saw and starts methodically cutting branches for firewood. So soon does the drama and ordeal of destruction become the routine of plain use. Dazedly I pick up a few small logs. "Are you out of wood at your house?" he inquires.
"No," I answer, "This is ritual. I want a few pieces of the old cherry for my bedroom fireplace."
He tells me, "It won't burn yet. It has too much sap."
''Too much sap!" I exclaim and hastily drop the wood. "Is it still alive?"
"Well, what do you think? You saw how the old girl fought back."
His personification of the old tree horrifies me and I begin to cry.
John gives me a well-controlled look. "You're queer," he comments.
With difficulty I inquire, "What's the diameter?"
''Three feet at least, I guess. Big for an orchard tree." And he goes to work again.
In wretchedness I pick up the pieces of wood and hug them, small logs of smooth bark ornamented with delicate silver-green medallions of lichen. I carry them ashamedly to my bedroom porch. When I lay them down I know that I will never burn them, ever, no matter how long I keep them to lose their sap. They are too elegant, they have too much meaning. I shall never wish to warm myself at their melancholy and accusing blaze.
I return to the orchard. It is a still, empty place now. John has driven his tractor back through the deer gate, and Danny has gone with him. I stand and stare at the remains of the old cherry, the limbs in a heap, thick bark strewn, the powerful roots split and twisted. Now no one else will know if I give in to tears as I realize that there must always be new questions in my mind about the imperfection of my decision to remove the old tree. I have learned, too late, that there is more to life than what is visible. The greater strength had been underground and out of sight, and I had grossly, stupidly, not even guessed it was there. You fool, you made a wrong choice and you only proved that decisions are hell, a fact you've known since tormented childhood when it was not possible to be sure whether vanilla or strawberry or chocolate was the right choice, or whether to wear the sash with rosebuds woven into the silk or the blue satin one or the one with Roman stripes. I observe how tough the roots are and how strong and sharp and that they point up with a kind of spiraling hiss into the placid noon sky. How dreadfully eloquent they look, expressing all that I felt for them. It is not easy to stand alone with them.
Something prods me into an attempt to understand that the moment holds a finality beyond agitation. In weariness I can only decide that an urban-minded person would take this with helpful sanity, and I shall never be an urban-minded person. "For you they pulled out oak, fir, madrone and manzanita," I say to the roots. "It was a long time ago. Do you remember?"
For many minutes I stand here where the first axe wound and the first gouge of the plowshare cut into this very ground at my feet where the old cherry tree has just been knocked over. Now I hear the tractor again. It is down in the vineyard. "All right," I say, "It's true that I am queer. I talk to trees. I talk to roots. It's true they can't answer. But they have a lot to say. Look at them!" And I myself look at the roots where they lie on top of their trash, full of fierce power in every slashed point that thrusts up, full of a cherry tree voice, full of a forest voice, the forest that fell to make room for an orchard 100 years ago.
I start back to the house. "Just to get out of earshot," I tell myself.
I am consistently aware that we are on a planet, and that it is alive," writes Penny Harter (born 1940) in the preface to Lizard Light (1998), her fifteenth published volume of poetry, where "In Praise of Trees" first appeared. Her recent poems, grounded in an eleven-year sojourn in Santa Fe (1991-2002) with its "vast and changing sky where air is made," focus on our sacred physical connection to the natural world and "speak for the Earth and its inhabitants in a time of great vulnerability for all species, and for the planet itself." Born in New York City, Harter grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Douglass College of Rutgers University. She and her husband, the poet and translator William J. Higginson, moved back to New Jersey after their long stay in New Mexico to be closer to their grown children and young grandchildren. Since 1973 Harter has led writing workshops at community and senior centers, schools, and colleges, emphasizing respect for the planet and all its creatures. She has published sixteen books of poetry, including four volumes of haiku, and her poems and stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies worldwide. In 2002 she was named the winner of the first William O. Douglas American Nature Writing Award.
IN PRAISE OF TREES
On the mountain
where their strong