Arriving Where We Started

If I had a blog, today I would write about coming home a second time.

Almost exactly a year ago we made a remarkable decision: With Dad’s retirement approaching, he, Mom and I decided it would be exciting to leave our native Missouri and make our home in a new place, a place quite different from that which we know so well.

Our first thought was Florida. We had a beach house near Sarasota when I was a child and memories of sun-drenched mornings on the beach, collecting baskets of seashells, and watching dolphins play in the evening surf made us think perhaps that was the place we should go. Mom and Dad made a trip down to look at homes and see if any of Old Florida still existed and, for a few months, it seemed a real possibility. But when the calculators came out and the risk of hurricanes was factored in and the bumper-to-bumper traffic was assessed, we had to admit that our version of Casey Key was gone. We were chasing ghosts of the past trying to make our dream a reality and we accepted that we had to move on.

00-solstice-sunset_0040-webOur next thought was Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’d all visited Santa Fe and loved the classy, artsy feel of this quaint city and the fierce landscapes surrounding us would be the perfect place to experience wilderness in a way we hadn’t before. We looked at hundreds of homes online, talked to a realtor, and even made a trip out to get one more up-close-and-personal Santa Fe experience, but, in the end, we realized our dreams of a desert oasis would be drowned in a sea of wall-to-wall tourists the year round and so we set this plan aside as well. It was then that we had the most remarkable thought of all: Why not stay here, on the farm we call The Greenwood?

the-house-in-summer-webTwo decades ago, Mom and Dad bought this land and built the farm of their dreams. They designed the house, planned the barns and pastures and planted crops that would benefit livestock and wild creatures as well. Together, we raised sheep, cows, horses, pigs, and chickens to feed ourselves and eventually, our growing base of customers. We had a twenty-cow dairy and sold our grass-fed meats to the best chefs in St. Louis. We hiked every acre of this place and came know the spirit of every hillside, creek, and valley. We built a life here. Why should we be in such a hurry to leave?

Eight years ago we stopped farming on a large scale and slowly sold our livestock to others until the barns stood empty – waiting for the next chapter to begin. We thought the story would be written by others, but, it turns out, we have more to say, more stories to create in our little valley by the river. When all was weighed in the balance, the answer was clear: Our next adventure begins here, on The Greenwood.

20160921_0066Twelve laying hens now inhabit the chicken house, already providing us with healthy eggs, rich in flavor. In the next few weeks, we hope to bring home six sheep to give us lambs in the spring, and over the course of the winter, we will acquire half-a-dozen young cows who will supply us with beef calves and breeding stock. There might even be a border collie in our future. Its hard to say just how deep this rabbit hole goes.

When I think about it, staying here makes perfect sense. It has the ideal circularity of story to give a happy ending. It also mirrors one of my favorite quotes, a passage written by T.S. Eliot in the final passage of The Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploring                                                                                                               And the end of our exploring                                                                                                                         Will be to arrive where we started                                                                                                                 And know the place for the first time.

So we begin – again.

Nothin’ Could Be Finer

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds: The Carolina Wren.

web 10062014_247I love wrens. They are bold, brassy, and outspoken; flitting from pillar to post with their tail upright as if in protest. I’m not sure what Carolina’s have to protest, but believe me, rebellion is in their blood.

Carolina Wren’s average about 5″ in length and weigh about 3/4 of an ounce. They are the second largest wren in the United States after the cactus wren of the desert southwest. Carolina Wrens can live to be 6 years of age and often keep one mate for their entire breeding lifespan. When a pair of wrens bond, they not only stay together through the nesting season, they remain a pair and interact throughout the year.

Although both sexes of Carolina Wren can sing, it is primarily the males we hear making their strident calls from fence row and thicket. One captive male was recorded singing 3,000 times in one day! This is news to me, as I assumed female wrens were the ones making a racket during breeding and nesting season: Sort of an, “I am woman, hear me roar,” attitude. Nevertheless, female wrens do defend their nests with great vigor and anyone approaching her brood should do so with caution.

web 04292014_085623

Baby Carolina

During the breeding season, male Carolina Wrens several nests, although only one will be used for brooding. Not only do the “dummy” nests confuse predators, but scientists believe female wrens choose the most appealing nest to use for raising young.

The hallmark of the Carolina Wren is the bold, white eye stripe that gives them a somewhat cross demeanor. If wrens come back as humans, I think many would return as stereotypical boarding school teachers. Their stern visage speaks of rapped knuckles and detention after school. There would be no talking, note-passing, or other fol de rol in the classroom of Mr. or Mrs. Carolina Wren !

web 10062014_250Carolina wrens spend the majority of their time on or near the ground searching for food, or in tangles of vegetation and vines. They also probe bark crevices on lower tree levels, or pick up leaf-litter in order to search for prey. Their diet consists of invertebrates, such as beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, ants, bees, and wasps. Small lizards and tree frogs also make up the carnivorous portion of their diet. Vegetable matter makes up a small percentage of their diets, such as fruit pulp and various seeds. In the northern portion of their range, they frequent bird feeders.

For me, the bottom line is: I like wrens because they are small yet mighty. I admire their courage and the bold way they approach life. More often than not, life seems overwhelming to me and yet here are these wee birds who are ready to take on the world. When a Carolina is sitting on my porch, belting out his vibrant song, it gives me courage to be my authentic self, to sing my own wonderful song.

Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.

 

 

Lighting the Lamps of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of Autumn Light.

09192011_041320 webI’ve been waiting for days now. Waiting for the moment when the sun would shift just enough to replace the brassy summer light with a mellow autumn glow. I keep track of this day in my journal and some years it has happened as early as August 8th. This year it arrived on August 17th. I was in my reading chair, finishing a chapter of Sigurd Olson’s Reflections From the North Country when I saw it: Streamers of gold filtering through the blinds on my French doors. I took up my journal and penned, in all capital letters, “THE LIGHT HAS COME!” And my heart rejoiced.

At first, the Lamps of Autumn are most noticeable in the late afternoon and it brings back memories of walking home from school. My brother and I walked almost two miles from the bus stop to our little farm. We complained about it, as kids are wont to do, but in truth, memories of ambling along the gravel road in the waning light on a chilly autumn afternoon ranks as one of the best remembrances of my childhood.

web 09292009_034631The coming of autumn light signals an end to the frenzy of summer. The harsh call of cicadas is replaced with the gentle chirp of crickets along the lane. Birds return to our feeders and fill our days with their winter-songs: A chorus performed simply for the love of singing, now that the rush of parenting is through.

 

This time of year slows me down too. My daily walks are easy rambles now that I am not in a race with the heat of the day or the biting bugs of summer. My dog and I stop often and drink in the rare beauty of the changing landscape as it changes from green, to gold, to grey. We take time to watch for the arrival of the first white-throated sparrow, the fall warblers, and the juncos. This is the season for reveling. The season of peace.

 

 

Free At Last: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would share some more of my journal from my trip to Ely, Minnesota in the fall of 1998.

September 3, 1998

Sometimes life is just too good. I had the most wonderful, peaceful, relaxing day. I followed my heart instead of my mind. No agenda, no goals, just what felt right at the moment.

I got up at sunrise, then went back to bed. I read and wrote and loafed. I went into town around noon and moseyed in and out of stores, soaking up the rich conversation inside and the glorious fall day outside.

MN Backroad (6) webLater on, I drove to Hegman Lake for an evening paddle and to see the pictographs. The drive out the Echo Trail was beautiful. The sunlight sparkled on Burntside Lake and the aspen leaves danced in the breeze and the colors of red maples and golden birch blazed in the forest.

The portage to Hegman was long, but once on the water, my aching muscles eased with every paddle stroke. Loons called from a secluded inlet and the only sound was my paddle along the gunwale. Coming and going, I met the nicest people and I visited a long time with everyone I met. Some light human interaction is good even for an introvert’s soul.

 

Hegman Lake Pictographs webThe pictographs themselves were fascinating. The Chippewa who made this their home lived here as long as 9,000 years ago and it is estimated that the pictographs were painted 500-1000 years ago. The Native Americans used hematite to dye their paint red, soot for black, and white clay for white. These particular pictographs were red and depict a moose, a wolf or dog and a man-like maymayguayshi figure. They are higher above the water than many other pictographs in the North, the artist sitting on a ledge high above the lake. Archaeologists think this may be why they are of such high quality.

As I sat below these ancient works, I marveled at how many generations of we mere mortals they have seen. What stories they could tell! Tales of voyageurs and trappers, Chippewa and Cree and those like me, who simply come to honor what has gone before. There is something awe inspiring about such things.

The light was fading when I reached the take-out, yet I felt completely unhurried. Somehow, my tendency for speed is tempered here. I walk slower, drive slower, paddle slower, LIVE slower. In so doing, I taste much more of life. I savor the present instead of always rushing ahead into the future. What a lesson to remember and take home with me.

Damp, dirty and blissfully happy, I got home just at moonrise. and the sun’s pale sister called me to linger outside, to join her at the lake. Camera in hand and adrenaline pumping, I headed into the moonlit forest. Images of glittering eyes and low growls made me step lively, but the forest remained dark and silent.

At last I left the trees and the lake lay before me in all her glory. The moon rose high above the trees in a black satin sky and her reflection danced on the water like pale, liquid jewels. A beaver swam through the moon-path, his wake two silver threads. I wanted to fall to my knees in reverence to this wondrous hour. All fears calmed, I stood on the shore a long time, soaking it all in, making memories to carry with me.

At last, filled to the spiritual brim, I turned and started back. Once in the darkness of the trees, I felt a need to travel swiftly and the light from my cabin was a welcoming sight. It felt good to be inside, to bathe and dress for bed and at last settle down with a cup of coffee and my journal.

The loons are calling much tonight, perhaps preparing for their long flight to the sea. Or perhaps, like me, they are simply overcome by the beauty of the moonlight. Amen.

Free At Last

If I had a blog, today I would write about my first solo trip to Ely, Minnesota, in August and September 1998. A journey where I experienced The Wild for the first time.

September 2, 1998

Jules Chopping WoodIt takes time to heal from the taint of the world. But at last I am back in balance. Three days of healing in this mystic place have peeled away the facade. I am real again. I remember who I am.

It has taken me a few days to shed the ball-and-chain of responsibility that I wear back home: The need to accomplish, to prove, to meet the expectations of others. Now I am here for me for my renewal. I feel light, unburdened.

For this short span of days, I am Emerson, Thoreau, and Sigurd Olson: Lovers of The Wild who have inspired me to take this trip. I am here to bathe in the sunrise, dance in the moonlight and sing with the loons. The hikes to Bass and Ennis Lakes, canoeing on Johnson Lake at sunset, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t belong out there, in the shadowlands of fast-track careers, I belong here, among the birches and pines. This is my place.

Tonight I walked to the lake to watch the sunset. A beaver swam to and fro, gathering twigs for his winter store. He swam noiselessly until I moved, then he slapped the water and dove with a great splash. I sat on the rocks and watched the moon rise over the cathedral spires of fir and spruce. A late-day fisherman cast into the lily pads near the shore, hoping for one last tangle with a northern pike. He was as silent as I, for noise would be sacrilege in this holy hour.

07122011_224001Then, from across the lake, came the holiest sound of all: The evensong of the loon. One clear note rose in the chilly air, echoing in the Great Silence.Then came the haunting tremolo, the signature sound of wildness. The loon called again and again and chills ran up my spine. Tears came to my eyes for one cannot help but weep in the presence of The Divine.

Sigurd Olson calls this “the witching hour,” a moment of epiphany when our mother, the Earth, opens to us her wild beauty. These moments cannot be contrived or orchestrated, they are gifts of the highest order and I am humbled to be so blessed.

It is dark now and the full moon is shining over my bed. They say sleeping in the moonlight will make you crazy. Maybe so, I’ve been doing it all of my life. But if this is insanity, there is no way I would rather be.

Walking With Giants

If I had a blog, today I would write about my friend, Big Bluestem.

09032013_180602 WebI call big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) my friend because it has been part of my life for over twenty years. Big bluestem is a native grass of the tallgrass prairie, a vast domain of largely treeless expanse that, before the coming of the white man, dipped down out of southern Canada, expanded to over 600 miles in width across the Midwest, and ran for more than a thousand miles towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, we touch the boundary of the prairie that extended, and broadened, as it went north. Plants native to the tallgrass prairie grew here, though not in the lush abundance found to our north and east. To honor the sea of grass that once touched The Greenwood, we planted grasses and wildflowers common to the tallgrass prairie here on our farm and big bluestem is the first of the grasses to bridge the gap from summer to fall.

09212013_070226 webGrowing up to nine feet high, big bluestem was a wonder to the first settlers. In his book Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, author Joan Madsen writes “[big bluestem] was a marvel to the early settlers who plunged into it and left accounts of big bluestem so tall that it could be tied in knots across the pommel of a saddle.” I see these slender sentinels as the guardians of my homeplace, keeping watch over the long gravel lane that connects our farm to the outside world.

In August, big bluestem begins to go to seed and as it opens, reveals a three-branched seed head that has given rise to another name, “Turkey Foot.” Its unmistakable silhouette tells me fall is near.

10282011_155806 (1) webI am not the only one to await the ripening of big bluestem. From late September until November, the seed-heads are an endless bounty to sparrows, juncos, and a host of migrating birds who rely on the nutritious seeds to fuel their winter stores of fat. Driving along the lane on a fine autumn afternoon, the giant grasses are bent to the ground under the weight of feeding birds. The continual rise and fall of the stems makes it appear as though the plants are moving under their own power, bowing to the mellow sun.

09202013_181510 webThis year, the big bluestem began to open on July 31st. It will take some time for the seeds to cure, but already the sparrows are gathering, testing the crop to measure the breadth of the harvest to come.It is a welcome sign that summer’s reign cannot last and the time of harvest, then rest will come.

There are only a few tallgrass prairies left today. Most fell to the settler’s plow over a century ago, so I am proud to know the big bluestem, so see them dance, as Wallace Stegner wrote: “in the grassy, green, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it.” I walk among giants as my forbears did and dream of what lies just out of sight, oven the next wave of green.

Mantras

If I had a blog, today I would write about my hiking mantra.

Continental Divide Wildflowers webIf you polled avid backpackers, or even day-hikers, you would find that most of them have a mantra: A phrase they repeat over and over to help them manage the monotonous parts of the trail. I use mine to get up tall hills or to get through long stretches of hot, featureless trail. It focuses my mind so I don’t feel overwhelmed by the mountain or desert stretching before me.

I adopted my hiking mantra from a woman who wrote about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and it goes like this:

We are the thru-hikers,                                                                                                                                      Mighty, mighty thru-hikers.                                                                                                                            Everywhere we go-o, people want to know-ow                                                                                                    Who we are and so we tell them:                                                                                                                            We are the thru-hikers,                                                                                                                                     Mighty, mighty thru-hikers…..

073116_2088I was using my mantra this morning to get me through the sun-baked expanse of Big Valley, in a hurry to get through into the shade on the far side, when I saw the rose mallow. It has been blooming for a while now, but I’ve blazed by so fast, I hadn’t really taken it in its depth and breadth. It covers a whole side of Big Valley and in the morning it glows pale pink, its hibiscus-shaped blooms angled towards the sun. It was stunning – and enlightening.

Seeing the rose mallow made me realize the danger of using distraction to get us through the unpleasant parts of life: It can easily become a habit that robs us of the experience of being alive.

When I am chanting, I am focused inward. That’s the point, after all, but if I use my mantra all the time, I don’t see the landscape around me. I miss the flowers blooming along the trail or the chance to see a rare bird flit into the forest. I miss the sun on the clouds, the ripple of the trout stream, and the fragrance of moist earth, bursting with life.

I know this phenomenon extends beyond just my daily walks. Sometimes I get so focused on fast-forwarding through the uncomfortable parts of life, I forget to look around me and really live.

The Little Engine That Could had a mantra. His repetitive, “I think I can, I think I can,” got him up that mountain, but we can’t stay in that state forever. At some point we have to shout, as he did, “I KNOW I can!” and sail down the other side of sorrow, drinking in the glory of being alive.

So, I will save my hiking mantra for the really rough spots on the journey and take a chance being present for the rest. I will let myself be uncomfortable or bored or tired and still experience what is going on around me – in nature and in my relationships. From now on I promise I will stop and smell the rose mallow.09242014_084459 web

Walking Into the Sun

If I had a blog, today I would write about revelations on my morning walk.

It’s a dangerous thing, submitting to the ministrations of Nature. When such a pact is made, just stepping out your front door can have dire consequences. When I hide indoors for a long period of time, I begin to grow arrogant, building a belief system that says I know things, I comprehend the width and breadth of the Universe and have a firm grasp on the order of things. I become jaded and tell myself there is no need to get out in the heat, that I have seen forty-seven Missouri summers and I have seen it all, done it all, felt it all. Then, I go on a morning walk and I am remade.

09252008_184946 webThe valley was full of fog this morning. We’ve had rain showers off and on this week and the air is heavy with moisture. Mom, Gus and I walked down to the river valley again and once we left the barn lot, we descended into a world of pale pink mist where every blade of grass sparkled with drops of dew.

09192011_190311 webThis time of year, the main activity in the woods and fields is that of tiny spiders. Their species are many and they create a world of intricate webs through which we pass wherever we go. The most prolific are the orb-weavers: Minute, triangle-shaped spiders who weave beautiful round webs that cross our woodland path and that hang glimmering on the taller grasses in the fields. There are other weavers too: The pasture roses are draped with long festoons of web that hang like strands of diamonds in the dewy morn. Still other spiders make broad, thick mats of web along the ground, complete with little tunnels in which their creators hide. This morning, every gossamer thread was alive with color in the soft, misty light.

Coming back from the river, the sun had emerged from the fog and was beginning to heat the earth. Although it was nice to have the heat on our backs, not our faces, I noticed our world of webs had disappeared from sight. I knew they existed as the had just half-an-hour before, but that rare moment of misty morning light had passed, and with it, our moment of epiphany.

09252008_185405 (3)webTo experience the rapture of Nature, you have to be out there come rain or shine. The beauty of the natural world does not appear for our benefit, we must be present when the miracle happens, and miracles are happening every day. No matter how long I live in this little valley, there will always be something new, something rare and wonderful waiting for me if I will set aside my cynicism and get out in The Wild.

Naturalist John Muir knew the truth of these things. In the early part of the century he wrote, “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half-made, becomes more beautiful every day.

I must read this quote each morning when I rise. I must remember that I haven’t seen it all. I must remember that all I have to do is step out the front door and walk into the light of the rising sun.

 

 

Resistance

10102013_183150 web.jpgIf there is one thing I’m good at it is resistance. Give me a good reason to dig in my heels and you’ll need a tow truck (or two) to get me moving again. Recently, my resistance has been to the heat and humidity of our Missouri summers. It happens to some extent every year, but this summer we no longer have any livestock, so being outside is purely a matter of choice, and my choice has been to stay indoors.

For a while it was all good. In my spare time I watched movies and worked on photo projects and lounged around with my dog, Gus, but now the party is over. I’m bored and feel more than a little claustrophobic, even in the air conditioning. So, despite my refusal to acknowledge the existence of summer, yesterday I decided to go for a walk to the river.

08112013_122313 webWe live about a mile from the Little Piney and the walk is fairly easy in terms of terrain. Not much upping and downing. So, when my mom started on her walk yesterday morning, Gus and I decided to give it a try and, much to my chagrin, something amazing happened: Despite the sweat and the bugs and my determination to dismiss summer as entirely useless, I felt better for having done it.

The key, it seemed, was in the hardship itself. Spending an hour getting soaked with sweat, feeling like a chicken under the broiler was worth it because it felt so amazing to rise to the challenge and return victorious. Not only did I have a sense of accomplishment, I also got to enjoy the bliss of returning to the cool  house, taking a shower, and slipping into soft, clean clothes. It was the contrast that made the experience an epiphany.

Web of Purpose

I don’t know if it is true for all people, but for me, going out into the uncomfortable, uncertain natural world without resistance is life affirming. I need to get my hands dirty, rip my jeans on a greenbriar, get bitten by bugs, and become soaked with sweat as a sort of daily baptism – dying to the ease of modern life and being reborn a child of nature. It is an exhilarating experience.

I will have to push myself to go back out there every day. The dark coolness of my office says, “Just stay here and check Facebook or work on a blog,” but I have to get out, go wild, get messy first or the pleasantry of my life loses its meaning. I need The Wild to keep me strong and in love with life.

So I go forth in hope, hope that I can remember the bliss nonresistance can bring. I will fall open-armed into the discomforts of summer and emerge a creature of joy.