Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Tis the night before Christmas

Christmas Eve
'Tis the night before Christmas, and we're enjoying the fireplace on this cold Christmas Eve. There's just something especially comforting about a natural wood fire. May your holidays be warm and blessed.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Fern

Water flowing in ephemeral stream
Christmas Fern in the winter forest
Thanks to the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), there is always plenty of greenery decorating our winter woods. The fronds of the Christmas Fern remain green all winter and reorient themselves to a prostrate position where they are less exposed to the cold and drying winds. In addition, the warmer ground temperatures help keep the leaves warmer, allowing photosynthesis on sunny winter days. In spring, these horizontal fronds will die back as they are replaced with new upright fronds that will last through another year. The Christmas Fern gets its name from the fact that its evergreen leaves were once commonly used as holiday decorations during the Christmas season. It is also often noted that its leaflets are also shaped like Christmas stockings.


Christmas Fern
Fronds lying prostrate on the forest floor

Christmas Fern
The leaflets of the Christmas Fern resemble rows of Christmas stockings

Christmas Fern in Snow
Christmas Fern in snow

Dining and Dancing

Hopping and jumping,
  dashing to and fro,
  always in hurry,
a dozen feathered bundles of energy 
  rejoice in dining and dancing
  outside my kitchen window.

I am thankful for the grace of time to witness
this party of White-throated Sparrows at sunset.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rotting Log

I admit it. I am fascinated with rotting logs. I spent quite awhile today simply admiring this mossy beauty, so verdant and full of life, even though the tree from which it came died long ago. I have read that the biomass (the total mass of living organisms in a given area or volume) of a tree actually increases when its bole is lying "dead" on the forest floor. An old tree is literally more alive in death than in life, and ecologists are learning that rotting logs are crucial to the life of a healthy forest.

Mossy log
This log in the foreground is the most "alive" tree in the picture

Mossy log

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter Solstice

What a strange Winter Solstice! It was 72ยบ at our house today, and I was warm walking in a t-shirt and jeans. As I walked, I was struck by the beauty in the coppery leaves still hanging on beech trees like ornaments. These rattling decorations will remain on the lower limbs throughout the winter. I was also struck with a new holly sprout that is coming up from root-stock that I've been told is 50 years old. I have always loved holly and have been planting starts of it around my house.

I can’t help but notice that many of my Christian friends regard the Winter Solstice with suspicion. I feel this distrust is unwarranted. I am Christian, and I celebrate Winter Solstice, not as a pagan holiday or as some kind of secular anti-Christmas, but as a day to appreciate the wonders of nature. To me, the Winter Solstice is merely a blaze on the trail, a milepost on our journey round the sun. When I observe the Winter Solstice, it is as a celebrant of the Keeper of the moon and the stars, the Maker of days and seasons.

Holly
New holly sprout coming up from 50 year old root-stock

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Content Morning

Footsteps on wet leaves.
Chickadee and Titmouse
    chattering from branch to branch.
Downy Woodpecker tapping lightly on maples.
Sunlight descending down the western ridge filling the hollow with light.
Whispered glory.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Project: Notice Daily

Wild Grape & Black Cherry
Wild Grape & Black Cherry
I am looking forward to winter solstice with great anticipation. I know this may sound strange for me, but I have decided that beginning on the winter solstice, and going through to spring equinox, I need to make at least one nature observation each day. I believe this discipline will help me notice more.

This idea is inspired by Henry Thoreau, who wrote daily observations of all sorts, and by Jim Brandenburg, who undertook a personal project in 1994 to limit himself to take only one photograph per day between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. The resulting images became a book (Chased by the Light, 1998) and breathed new life into Jim's photography.

Any observation counts, and I will record these observations in notebook rather than on the blog to relieve me from the "pressure to publish." I think the key is going to be developing a daily habit to notice something—no matter how trivial—and just take a minute to write it down. Even such notes as "saw a rabbit while taking out the garbage," or "there are 3 pairs of cardinals foraging in the backyard" will count. I expect there will also be days when I write much more and it turns into something I feel led to post here.

So anyway, that's the plan, and I'm looking forward to seeing what this project brings.

On a sort of related note, here's a picture of my border collie, Sadie, from the other day. Our snow is pretty much completely gone now. This rock is in the woods on the hill behind our house. The thin leaves you see in the foreground and right in front of Sadie are River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea).

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Solitude

"What shall we do with a man who is afraid of the woods—their solitude & darkness? What salvation is there for him? God is silent & mysterious."
(Henry Thoreau's journal, November 16, 1850)

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Transcendence

DSCN3226There are moments when I find myself standing alone in a wood and I realize that what lies before me cannot be photographed or described, but can only be absorbed. And so I stand there desperately trying to soak it all in as if compelled to see and to listen and to feel the world about me. Lord, open my eyes and my ears and my heart!

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Canine Camo

On a snowy winter day my black and white border collie, Sadie, looks like a character in a Bev Doolittle painting, don't you think?

Sadie posing for a Bev Doolittle painting




Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Transformation

How quickly and completely the landscape is changed with a little snow! Last night I awoke around 1:30 to find the world transformed, so of course I had to get up and out shortly after sunrise. It's remarkable how different everything looks after a snowfall. We are very much enjoying our cozy little home in the woods on this beautiful day. I think snow still holds the same magic for me at 53 as it did at age 5.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ice Ornaments

DSCN3109The forest is lightly laced with ice ornaments this morning. Although icy conditions bring a certain amount of danger to travel and power lines, they also carry a fleeting beauty for those who see with a sense of wonder. Beauty abounds even in the season of scarcity.


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Window Shopping with Thoreau

Far too often we try to purchase beauty with money, never really realizing it's right there in front of us—and free.

Check out this quote from Henry David Thoreau that recently came to my attention. I can't help but notice he's describing a scene familiar to today's Christmas shoppers. I've checked the calendar from 1857, and November 27 would have been Black Friday had there been such a thing back then. Thoreau looks at the storefront window filled with beautiful things and receives as a gift the ornate frost decorations on the window glass itself. Simply brilliant

True beauty is free, if only we'll take the time to notice.
Standing before Stacy’s large glass windows this morning, I saw that they were gloriously ground by the frost. I never saw such beautiful feather and fir-like frosting. His windows are filled with fancy articles and toys for Christmas and New Year’s presents, but this delicate and graceful outside frosting surpassed them all infinitely. I saw countless feathers with very distinct midribs and fine pinnae. The half of a trunk seemed to rise in each case up along the sash, and these feathers branched off from it all the way, sometimes nearly horizontally. Other crystals looked like pine plumes the size of life. If glass could be ground to look like this, how glorious it would be!                                              — Henry Thoreau's Journal, November 27, 1857 

[The photo above is not my own.]

Wintergreen

I am fascinated by the green colors of the winter forest. Among the predominant browns and grays, these fragile plants glow like emeralds tossed on a rock pile. Hepatica, Allegheny Spurge, and Christmas Fern are among the gems in our hollow, and they will remain green throughout the winter. They are wintergreen, and they speak to me of perseverance and hope.

Hepatica acutiloba (Sharp-Lobed Hepatica)
Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Each Day a New Season

"The winters come now as fast as snowflakes. It is wonderful that old men do not lose their reckoning. It was summer, and now again it is winter." — Henry Thoreau, Dec 7, 1856
No matter how old I get, the changing of the seasons is continually a thing of wonder to me. As I walk through the seasons, it's hard to believe I am still in the same forest.

Some of my friends complain about the weather and the season's change. "It's too cold for this time of year!" "It's too hot." "Crazy weather. It just isn't right!" I enter into their conversation about the weather and report what it's doing in my neck of the woods, but they get no "amen" from me on their assessment. I think the changing of the seasons—often as quickly as one day to the next—is a wonderful thing, and I delight in it and give thanks for it. Nature is a constant wonder, and each day a new season.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Dream Bear

A couple of nights ago, I dreamed we discovered there was a bear living in our woods. A real, live, young Black Bear! In our woods! I was so excited!
"Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Fountain."—John Muir

(Photo from Bear Trust International at beartrust.org)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Saunter

"While most keep close to their parlor fires this cold and blustering Thanksgiving afternoon, and think with compassion of those who are abroad, I find the sunny south side of this swamp as warm as their parlors and warmer to my spirit. Aye, there is a serenity and warmth here which the parlor does not suggest, enhanced by the sound of the wind roaring on the northwest side of the swamp a dozen or so rods off. What a wholesome and inspiring warmth is this!"—Henry Thoreau's journal, Nov 25, 1858
Self-portrait
Thanksgiving Self-portrait
Whenever possible I prefer to spend a portion of my Thanksgiving Day sauntering my way through field or wood. For me, it is a way of giving thanks.

I remember one year when I was a teenager (maybe 17 or 18 years old) spending Thanksgiving afternoon wandering the hills near our home in northern Delaware. I don't remember many specifics, except that it was cold, and there were geese, and I felt at peace. I remember striding across the cold ground through the stubble of an autumn cornfield. I was going to a pond that I often visited, and I remember thinking that most people would think me odd but I remember thinking there was nowhere else I'd rather be.

Through the years, only rarely have I had the opportunity for a wild saunter on Thanksgiving Day, but this changed when we moved to our house in the woods almost 3 years ago. Now I am blessed to be able to begin a hike merely by walking out the the door. If we are home, we are at the trailhead. Walking daily in an old forest soothes my spirit and keeps me well. As far as I'm concerned, the chain of events that led to our move here can only be attributed to the hand of a loving God. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t say to myself, “I can’t believe I get to live here.”
Holly
Holly sapling planted at our trailhead
from old root stock given by a friend

Today I was able to spend a few hours in the woods. Some of my best walks are when I simply take off and wander without goal, purpose, or plan. I think that is when I am most receptive to discovery and wonder. As a fan of big trees, I often spend long moments simply looking up into the canopy in admiration, and I did a lot of that today. I also saw cardinals, titmice, chickadees, white-throated sparrows, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, a pileated woodpecker, barred owl, red-tailed hawk, and a hermit thrush. Interestingly (or ironically) I did not see any turkeys today.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, I was returning home and I crested the ridge and began the descent into the hollow where we live. Coming down the hill into the hollow, I quickly noticed that it was much cooler here. In one spot, I even saw remnants of Monday's snow on log across the trail. Because the walls of hollow are steep, the amount of sunlight reaching the ground is limited and so it stays cooler. I don't know if this small hollow has ever been named, but it could easily be called Cold Hollow.

Time in the woods for me is always time well spent, and today I am especially thankful to live here and care for this land.

Sweetgum
Sweetgum
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Ridgetop


Beech
Beech

Oak
Oak

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On the Eve of Thanksgiving

It's wonderful thing, on a cold, clear night, to stand alone in the woods among the trees and the stars and the silence.

I count myself blessed to be allowed such encounters regularly. Who am I to be permitted to gaze into the wild mysterious silence of the night? And why am I not more routinely thankful?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kindling the Fire

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On this cold and dreary evening, icy cold and getting colder, it is with a spirit of thanksgiving that I kindle a new flame in our family hearth—the first fire in our fireplace this season. I find it deeply comforting. There's just something about splitting a log—even though it is wet—over and over again until you're left with a nice bundle of kindling. One strike of the match, and the dark and cold is transformed into warmth and light. The flames dance on our hearth tonight, and we will rejoice in thanksgiving.

Ancient Celtic Prayer for Kindling the Fire
This morning, as I kindle the fire upon my hearth,
I pray that the flame of God’s love may burn in my heart,
and the hearts of all I meet today.
I pray that no envy and malice,
no hatred or fear, may smother the flame.
I pray that indifference and apathy,
contempt and pride, may not pour like cold water on the fire.
Instead, may the spark of God’s love
light the love in my heart, that it may burn brightly through the day.

the clever trout

the clever trout
—John Leax

[A friend just said something that brought this poem to mind, and so I decided to post it here to share the thoughtful musing of John Leax. He has provided much inspiration to me although he is not so well known.]

The clever trout that nips
the mayfly from the air
is quick to praise
the maker of his sight.
His speckled side
reflects the light;
he swims as he
was made to swim.

The slender popple
at the meadow’s edge
is in the Spirit
also giving praise.
Its lean into the wind,
its supple ways
declare it stands
as it was made to stand.

The raucous jay,
that scolding streak
of blue, gives warning
to the quiet wood.
He knows my nature
is not good.
“Beware,” he cries
as he was made to cry.

From these, O Lord,
the creatures of your love’s
abundance, let me learn
to forsake
the wild desire that drove
my father Adam to shake
the garden tree and claim
a glory of his own.

Before them, strike
me dumb.  Let me see them
as you made them
in delight.
Then give me grace
to praise as well your bright
presence as the trout,
the popple, and the jay.

*John Leax, Out Walking: Reflections on Our Place in the Natural World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000): 71-72.

Ephemeral Wonder

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Snow crystals on moss
Just so you know, it's kind of a rule that during the first snow of the season you have to drop everything, put on a coat, and make your way to the nearest exit so that you can look up and let the snow land on your face and delight your spirit. Failure to do so marks you as too old. And so I stepped out the door yesterday afternoon.

After a couple of minutes looking up and watching snowflakes seeming materialize from heaven, I caught a couple on my tongue and then went for a walk in the woods. The most intriguing sight I beheld were spiderwebs capturing a harvest of snowflakes.

I am always amazed by the wondrous magic of ice crystals.

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Snowflakes captured in a spiderwebs

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Sycamore leaves

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