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.
Category Archives: nature
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I picked up a yellow flesh watermelon from the farm as part of our share yesterday. I’m the only one here who eats melon (is there a genetic mutation that makes melons unpalatable? – otherwise I can’t explain it). So I had myself a snack.
In the midst of basil season, I’m not making pesto this summer. Pine nuts are just too expensive, for one. Are there any substitutions for them? I seem to remember coming across a recipe for a pistachio-arugula pesto that I filed away in my mental to-try folder, but that’s not answering the need. Walnuts won’t do for the other reason I’m not making pesto: the wife isn’t majorly into nuts to begin with.
So I’m making pistou instead. Which is to say, I making pesto without pine nuts. Pistou is apparently a Provencal basil sauce of garlic, cheese, and olive oil, so pesto without the pine nuts, but it seems a bit extravagant to invoke a whole alternate heritage for what amounts to eliminating the pine nuts and amping up the garlic. Here‘s the recipe that I started with, but it’s no rocket science. And when I say amping up the garlic, I mean I’m using a hell of a lot more garlic than this recipe called for. It’s like a garlic bomb it’s so awesome when you do it like that – just give it a little while for the sharpness to mellow. And, you know, put it in soups and on roasted new potatoes. And of course toss it into pasta. Salad dressings, too.
That, and I’m looking forward to my first basil gimlet of the season.
And, finally, another butterfly, a Gray Hairstreak. This one is small and easy to miss. Think of that and their considerable and broad distribution from Colombia to Canada. A massive invisible nation dwarfing all others, hovering only eighteen inches above the ground of the contiguous land masses of North and Central America.
In the last post I compared my new interest in identifying butterflies with love, and in a few upcoming posts, I’d like to explore a broader, and a bit more technical, philosophical and naturalist background to the comparison. But for the moment, I’ll just say that what turns my head to pursue a flash of color fluttering above the grass is very much like the experience of love. And then to patiently pursue the butterfly until it comes to a rest – which can be at times fifty to a hundred yards, man; to peer intently at it to identify as many characteristics as my inexperienced eye can before it flies away; and then patiently to differentiate and situate it amongst a variety of potential beloved. This one was a tiny pale flake, and without the desire to know butterflies a bit more intimately, I would have simply pegged it the ubiquitous Cabbage White and moved on. Now not only do I know the Hairstreak, I’m also aware of its similarity to the Eastern Tailed Blue, and the Summer and Spring Azures. A world in which to place it, and in which to attempt to place myself. And my eyes thereby acquire experience.
When I say that all we could see were catbirds, butterflies, and a warbler, how many robins, cardinals, finches, and sparrows am I leaving out? How many of the fattest fat, reckless bumblebees? There were two today that buzzed across my path inches from my chest, but they’re not usually remarkable in both senses of that term. Certainly if we’re going on evidence that is not simply sight, this time of year any walk must take into account the overwhelming presence of cicadas. The ebb and flow of their chatter is a constant drone, coming from all places all at once, almost too loud to ever quite fade into the background of our attention. I saw a dying cicada today – the first I’ve actually laid eyes on one this summer. It buzzed and lay still; buzzed and lay still. I wanted to grab it and look more closely at it, but it was well lodged in some brambles and poison ivy. I shook the branches some trying to get at it, and it buzzed in alarm, fell a bit into the bramble, and was silent.
But it seems to be butterflies that I’m in love with this summer; that’s what I look for and what I notice. So like any lover, I’m trying to get a name. Today I saw a Delaware Skipper, so orange in that setting that it seemed that there was an orange world more real than our own pressing up against the green one. Incidentally, this is a great page for New Jersey butterflies – a field guide that is developed on an experiential rather than a taxonomic basis, and so very interesting at a number of levels.
This guy has also been catching my eye nearly every day as I walk along the stream back toward my street: an ebony jewelwing. But what I really wanted to put up here today were some thoughts about berries from an earlier point this summer:
Hey there, red sunburst of seed. You’re a wild strawberry.
I could eat you, but to say that you have almost no flavor
Would be generous. You have that to give, that there are other things
I might pick up from the ground, bush, or elsewhere that would be
Too bitter to eat – fit only for some other metabolism or constitution.
There is some value in that, in having some small benefit
To offer while giving no harm or no offense. Well, there are some
That are allergic and shouldn’t eat you at all. But they’re not missing much.
On the bulletin board above my desk, I pin up lines from favorite poems as reminders. One card has these lines from Gary Snyder’s “For the Children”:
learn the flowers
Snyder here is imagining life as a difficult hike up and down hills (“the steep climb / of everything”), and the advice is meant to carry the next generation through to until they, we, reach that easy pasture “in the next century / or the one beyond that” – or, in other words, always and always ahead of us. It’s a lovely metaphor, life as a somewhat dangerous hike through the wild: a reminder not to let those in your group, howsoever you determine that group, get separated and lost, nor to go off on your own without their support; to be observant and respectful of your immediate environment, even to the smallest and least consequential element; to be alert to beauty; to not overburden yourself, as it is the journey that is the thing, not whatever you drag along with you. And I’ve always treated it as a metaphor, and not as literal. I do not, honestly, know the flowers.
And now the flowers are everywhere. Last month I decided that I would familiarize myself with the flowers, and to do that I would document them by photographing them. The process of documenting them has become rigorous and even obsessive, as I’m determined to record every kind of flower I can find in the fields. Eventually I imagine I’ll want to identify them, but that’s slow and tentative work, and flowers last only so long. For now, it’s enough for me that I’ve documented them.
So I started even before the trees fully unfurled their leaves, when days were still a little cool and damp, mostly, and that is when wildflowers were suddenly blossoming everywhere. The fields and woods are hardly fixed, even within each season, and even within each month, so every day must present an entirely new mixture of buds and blossoms. There are many I missed before I started, and there are many that have blossomed and disappeared in the ensuing intervals between walks. Some plants seem to blossom all summer, and some only for a few days.
So a part of my unfolding obsession is to document them as a progression – month by month for now, with the recognition that this will be a project that takes up a couple years, because not only did I entirely miss some of my favorites, like the blossoms of the locust, which I caught just putting out its leaves only a few weeks ago, and a towering purple flower that resembles wild phlox, but I’m also not entirely successful in capturing the images. My equipment, a digital point-and-shoot equipped with a macro lens, has its limitations, but even more limited are my capabilities as a photographer. A number of times I’ve been unable to get a decent picture and have been unable to find the flower again.Continue reading