Field Report: I promised

I promised I’d start doing these again, so you get a field report.

I took the dogs into the preserve. It’s late spring, which means that everything has leafed out for the summer season, some things are in bloom, and a few are even in fruit, such as the lone mulberry at the trailhead that’s already dropping berries into the wheel ruts. The unmowed grass was at chest high.

I could hear mainly goldfinches and the whirr and clank of the redwinged blackbirds in the bushes. On wing were barn swallows. (Last weekend while we were sitting outside, one of my nephews asked me what a swallow sounds like. I paused silently for a moment, motioned upwards with my eyes, and said, “That.”) Butterflies? There was a dusky orange skipper of some sort everywhere at foot level. Higher above the nascent seedheads of the grass were a lot of cabbage whites and even a few early monarchs. Further off I saw a swallowtail flash some yellow but I wasn’t close enough to identify it.

A couple dragonflies whirred past at an even higher plane. Despite my promise last summer I’ve only cracked the dragonfly and damselfly field guide a few times so far. And incidentally, I’m not pulling out field guides for any of this post: no effort to guarantee species or indigeneity. This just what I call them.

The cabbage whites along with multiples of bees were focused on some thistle blossoms which had reached the height of the unmowed grass. I risked untold handfuls I’m sure of ticks to wade out for a closer look. Myself, the smell of the honeysuckle would have been my biggest attractor if I had to name one.

thistleFor the dogs, though, it was the dead rodents in the newly-mown path.

The most emphatic visual punctuation were the profusions of raspberry blossoms from point to point along the path, and then the vibrant purple of the phlox that spouted up in the sunnier spots.


We were headed, or at least I was with companions in tow, to the creek, and tangled in the raspberry now are wild grape vines with the stems for fruit all set out. Making our way through that, I found the water clear and relatively still in the deeper areas where I scouted out a few locations to come back later with my microfishing gear to snag a few minnows to look at. Not today, though, not with the dogs in the water with me. There were a couple schools of minnows in the sunnier pools, and a scattered few low down in the shadier sides. I didn’t bother to stoop and look for the two-lined salamanders, though I’m sure they were there with me, along with everything else that I didn’t see or have seen so often that it doesn’t register as significant.


On the way back a medium-sized bird with a distinctive white rump leaped up from the path and flew off cackling into the trees. A flicker, I guess?


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Field report: May 27

Clover, daisy, buttercup, dandelion.

Seedheads of grass.

Clouded Sulfurs and Tiger Swallowtails.

Blackberry, raspberry, rosa multiflora.


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Field report: first weeks of fall

Fall is now everywhere in evidence. But a couple weeks ago, on the most recent decent walk I’ve had, its signs were only visible once we’d left the road. The trees, except for a few walnuts, still had all their leaves, and most of them were still green. The grasses and brush in the fields were not. They seem to have to have their life burnt out in an instant just before, which my wife confirmed: “It was all green a couple days ago!” The stalks and leaves were crisp, but despite their look were not disintegrating into ash at the touch. The mullein stalks though having gone completely brown had lost none of their substantial appearance.

field in fall

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A brief introduction to the Peircean semiotic, Part 1

Some more academic work, but rather basic. There are a lot of introductions to Charles S. Peirce’s sign theory out there, but I had to do one of my own in order to have some raw material to support points I’m making elsewhere. So you get the benefit of it if you so desire! Peircean semiotic has been a very important theoretical undergirding for my approach to composition, and in particular my approach to teaching science and nature writing, but I haven’t had much opportunity until recently to start demonstrating where and how. It was very trendy in the academy not that long ago, and still may be, but I no longer pay any attention to what is or isn’t. In any case, the engagement then was rather superficial, and the usefulness of his theory has hardly been scratched.

Let’s begin.

Semiotic, or semiotics, or even semiology, is the study of signs in communication. The differences in the name indicate the different inheritances and legacies of theoretical traditions, the later two deriving from the major Francophone legacies, those represented by Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure. I’ll be describing the basics of Peirce’s model of how signs function, and so prefer his term, semiotic.

I am chiefly indebted for my understanding and application of the sign theory specifically to the following two works:

John K. Sheriff. The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Floyd Merrell. Pierce, Signs, and Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.

Also, in many respects this one:

Karl-Otto Apel. Charles Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism. John Michael Krois, trans. Highland, NJ: Humanities, 1996.

The key thing in the Peircean model is to remember to think of things in threes. Peirce was a Kantian at heart, and a formal architectonic system that would use some basic formal relations to describe all human experience was always his goal. Through introspection, systematic analysis, and extensive reworking and revision of his basic model, he arrived at three irreducible formal categories for the functions of the sign and three corresponding phenomenological categories for the process and experience of signification.

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Field report

It’s high summer. We have had some reprieve from the heat, so days are merely warm to hot, not searing. Apparently a polar vortex, much the same as this past winter, is keeping us cooler than usual. If so, then the climate research at my place of employment, Rutgers University, indicates that these vortices may be the result of the increasing instability of the Arctic climate, and that likely means will be paying for this perfect weather eventually, years or decades down the line, when we’ve largely forgotten how stunningly beautiful this July has been.

Otherwise, it’s a July like any other, and at the store and farm stands, there’s still lots of pint containers of blueberries stacking up, and the peaches have been coming in now too. I bring them home a bit hard still so they get here without bruising, put them in a brown paper bag that goes on top of the fridge for a few days to ripen them, and then you only get them a little while before they become a bruised and soggy pulp even with the advantage of modern refrigeration, but you bite into that peach within that brief time of perfection, and they’re so ripe, succulent, and sweet that the taste just explodes across your tongue and cheeks and obliterates all other consciousness. There’s only peach and the craving for more.

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Writing as a Naturalist

This post is rather academic, and also covers stuff I’ve already thrown up here. So I apologize in advance for being pedantic and repetitive. But I need to get this stuff consolidated and thrown up here as part of my process for getting some pedagogical concerns distilled into a longer article. I have some poetry and some field reports coming to leaven the atmosphere when I can get more time to write.


Every fall I teach an advanced composition class called “Writing as a Naturalist” that asks students to write from their direct, personal observation of natural phenomena. Broadly defined, a naturalist acquires experience and expertise in some facet of the natural world in order to educate and enlighten others about it, and while the title can apply to a specific position, say in the education department of a non-profit or governmental science or environmental organization, we use it quite loosely in the class to describe anyone with an interest or attachment in the natural world willing to make a case to a general readership for the importance and meaningfulness of that world. The basic requirement of the class is that the students each week spend a couple hours outside writing about what they observe. Certainly most of the students whom the class attracts enjoy being out-of-doors, and most are pursuing degrees in the natural or environmental sciences, but many of those who would not consider themselves outdoorsy, I think, find the basic requirement of the class at the least refreshingly different. The formal writing assignments are few and relatively simple in scope. The primary piece of work as a culmination of the personal observation of nature is a long essay, twelve to fifteen pages, on some specific aspect of the natural world that the student has observed over the course of the semester. In addition, the students produce two shorter essays, the first discussing some exemplary readings in nature writing and the second connecting the issues raised in those readings to the students’ own initial experiences in direct observation. The students do the writing component of the observations as a journal, and that field journal accounts for a relatively large percentage of the course grade, reflecting its practical centrality to the other writing assignments. The journal entries as a record of each student’s individual encounters with the natural phenomena in which they immerse themselves forms the raw material for the final long essay and much of the second shorter essay, and if the student has not spent a long time looking at and reflecting on something, that student will find little to write about.

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Field Report – Father’s Day, 2014

Nature and New Jersey may not be an easy association. One could write convincingly and well about nature living just about anywhere, though. The challenge of finding topics and finding them meaningful isn’t terrifically greater in an urban environment than a rural one, provided that one is looking for them as they present themselves.

But there is quite a bit of wilderness, or at least minimally managed nature, in New Jersey. The Pine Barrens of south Jersey remain one of the largest and most significant undeveloped areas along the East Coast, and the western portions of central and north Jersey along the Delaware River offer quite a bit of open space.

It’s a different experience, though, than natural areas in even other northeastern states. Excepting the Pine Barrens, both neighboring New York and Pennsylvania have much larger tracts of forest and the like. The most dramatically mountainous and possibly beautiful area in New Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, offers some stupendous hikes, but on pleasant weekends in the summer there are so many people on the trails that it feels more like a social event than communing with the splendor of nature. I’ve seen a family of black bears there moving through the forest understory not thirty yards away while I was walking up a mountain trail with so many hikers in front and behind me that it more resembled a line for a ride at DisneyWorld than anything else.

Where I live, in the Delaware Valley of central New Jersey, there is ample parkland, and our previous house was quite surrounded by it. But as one of the agricultural centers of the colonial era and later, and even still, I imagine, a significant grower of garden vegetables, much of that parkland turns out to be smallish – several hundred acre – conjoined plots of old farmland. The result tends to be rather chaotic jumbles of different stages of reclamation and transition, plus a noisy understory of nonnative plants. But pleasant enough, and plentiful, and even on occasions a bit beautiful.

We were hiking in a gem of a tiny park this weekend. We were doing only a three-mile loop, but the day was a bit warm, and the boy, while at times a willing and hardy hiker, is only ten and tends to get fairly grumbly in the heat. It was our first time there, though it’s only twenty minutes from the house, because I think the trails were groomed for birders primarily and therefore not listed by two trail associations I depend upon for new area hikes. There was definitely a lot of bird racket coming from the bushes as we got out of the car and located the trailhead from the parking area. “See,” said my wife, “there are birds here.”  Yes, almost all catbirds and robins though. And that was just fine. Anyone expecting anything more exotic midday in June in a postage-stamp-sized park in central Jersey is bound to be disappointed.

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Non-Human Community

My department recently hosted a three-day Teaching with Technology seminar. I feel I’m already fairly plugged in enough that I have most of the skills involved in teaching using the Internet and social media, though sometimes I do need to be exposed to ideas why this might an area in which I’d want to increase my abilities. I have students in my Science Writing class write blogs over the course of the semester, with some mixed results, but by and large I’m a pen-and-paper kind of composition instructor. Part of it is practical: in a large state university, we’re not providing the students with laptops or tablets, and I can’t necessarily count on students having regular and unimpeded access to devices during class-time. I’m also hyper-vigilant about electronic technologies distracting students from the task at hand during the class, and flipping open a laptop screen reveals at times too many temptations to students, and too many distractions to other students seated behind them.

At the same time, I acknowledge and am a living example of how much actual writing going on in the world is occurring on-line, or at the very least, is occurring while a small stream of on-line information is being held at the ready. Even when writing about nature, I find I’ll have several browser tabs open with scientific or natural history information. I think it’s important to get students aware of and working with these tools in a way that strengthens their own arguments and develops a sense of writing as in part a community process.

So I came away with at the very least a renewed commitment to pushing my students more dramatically toward doing their work online, making the Internet part of the classroom rather than simply a distraction, and particularly my more advanced writing students. I’m still on the fence about whether to drop my usual writing journal requirement for my Writing as a Naturalist class in favor of a blog, as there are still so many advantages in getting students in the habit of taking in-the-field notes. Certainly I will make every effort to either get them to bring laptops or if that fails make machines available to them during class to do collaborative peer-editing on Google Docs, so that not only can I see what revision suggestions are for student drafts but I can also share the drafts with the class for discussion and further revision.

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Is Buddhism really a religion?

What follows is an at times academic and at times personal essay on Buddhism as a religion versus philosophy. I had thought to be able to touch on all the points I wanted to in about 1000 words, but now find it’s run triple the length and still not quite plumbed all the key points fully. So it may not be of wide interest.

LOL. Because so much that I put up here has a wide, general interest. Enjoy:

The blog over at Tricycle has been featuring a series of posts by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. on “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” that offer to dispel popularly held misconceptions of Buddhism through closer looks at the religion’s history and practice. I strongly recommend it. Previous posts in the ongoing series have looked at, for example, whether Buddhists are necessarily vegetarian or inherently pacifist, and I think the posts are going a long way to getting people to think beyond idealized and monumentalized notions of what Buddhism can and should be. And, after all, what could be more Buddhist than an effort to disenchant a beguiling illusion.

The most recent post addresses the idea that Buddhism is not a religion but a system of philosophy. There’s little doubt that this is a common misconception – I had several students this past semester write papers in no small part premised on the idea that the core of Buddhism is a system of claims about reality easily divorced from practice and tradition. They’re acting out of a deep ingrained point of view. Anyone who’s spent some time looking at scholarship on “Eastern” religions, for example, is aware of the tendency of Western scholars to attempt to salvage a pure and true philosophy from what gets seen as the flotsam of ritual, magical thinking, and superstition.  And it’s not just an academic trait but a larger cultural mode of thinking about religion in general.

Buswell and Lopez’s assert that Buddhism is indeed a religion by any definition, except if one were to narrowly define religion as focused about a belief in a creator god. Buddhism’s relative lack of interest in creation myths certainly distinguishes from other religions, and its founding principles deny the existence of any single omnipresent entity.  But what definition of religion do we then use to apply to Buddhism to see whether it fits? Buswell and Lopez in their post look simply for evidence of belief in miracles and magic, and descriptions of magical events in the legends and scriptural accounts of Buddhas and advanced spiritual adepts are quite evident. My favorite in the post is the reference to the eight sites of pilgrimage in Indian Buddhism, which includes Sravasti, “where the Buddha performed the ‘dual miracles’ (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.” Showing the prevalence of myth and superstition is easy enough, but Buswell and Lopez don’t explain why they have chosen this definition of religion and not any other.

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Spring responsibilities

I wasn’t even looking for warblers this season, but I saw a Chestnut-Sided Warbler in a cedar at the shore when I was on retreat. A jewel of a bird; about as exotic looking as little songbirds come around here. I was just standing on a deck, deep in thought, and there it was, in a branch about six feet from me. I also saw another warbler, something yellow, dark, and striped, but I didn’t get a close enough look at it to identify it. Magnolia, or Cape May, perhaps. I wasn’t out this season to look for warblers, and now the migration has largely passed me by.

Spring is becoming summer, and I feel once again like I haven’t fulfilled my obligations. Spring is a time of responsibility for me: the frogs crawl out of the muck and start chiming, insects and wildflowers appear, and birds begin moving up the coast. As soon as I notice things changing, I start telling myself that I need to get out the frog call and insect noise CDs to start learning to identify the sounds by ear. Get out in the woods and field with the binoculars and a notebook.This year, of course, I keep meaning to get back with learning the butterflies, and so I need a good field guide.  And a good net: I’ve learned I don’t always have the patience or stamina to stalk a butterfly long enough for me to see it as it lands on a nearby branch.

As I was out walking earlier today, the dogs ran by me in a spurt of enthusiasm – they are whippets, and run a lot, very fast, with much enthusiasm – and startled an orangey skipper before I could get close enough to note and commit its features to memory to look up later. Because I have the dogs, and because another form of responsibility insists that when I’m out walking I should make every effort to bring them along so they can get some exercise and some enjoyment, I’m not often walking with binoculars looking carefully for the warblers, and others, passing through. The dogs make a bit too much ruckus for real birdwatching. And the boy often comes with me, too, when he’s not in school, and he talks non-stop. So as I walk through the woods, I’m surrounded by a loose bubble of noise and commotion, which makes stopping for birds and bugs a little harder. It certainly doesn’t draw them too me any better.

But I’ve never really considered myself a birder, despite my deep and abiding fondness for birds, songbirds especially. I find the list approach off-putting, for one thing. And I know that committed birders have all kinds and varieties of lists, and they’re not giving each species a more-or-less fungible weight that once checked off absolves the birder from giving that species any further regard. I know this, but still the field-guide approach, the effort to see everything within a national range, and the completist impulse all unnerve me slightly. My focus has always been a bit more local: I love the birds because they are an expression of the place where I am. And quite literally an expression: the birds are the place made audible, its own speech of a sort. And the same with the flowers, the trees, and the frogs and others. The responsibility I feel is the obligation to know what’s right here with me and how it fits. And that of course is leaning rather hard on a necessary personal observation that I’ll just leave hanging for a bit.

I have some nicer thoughts about lists and birds plus insects that I hope to write about soon. I haven’t been doing much writing. I need to work harder to organize my working life so that I am doing the writing – another obligation I’m not living up to. Continue reading

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