Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sharing the Harvest

All that I have is a gift. Why should I be unwilling to share that which I have been so freely given? It is far better to celebrate what I have than to begrudge not having it all.
"How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also in the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer's barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also." — Thoreau, "The Bean-Field," Walden, 1854

Monday, July 29, 2013

Simplicity through Diversity

Wasps on apple
Wasps and apple
Nature is at once simple and complex. The myriad diversity of living things and the unfathomable way all the pieces are woven together creates an amazing simplicity. It is clear that an ecosystem with a lot of biodiversity is fundamentally more stable, so my suspicion is that the simplicity of nature is dependent on its complexity.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Delightful Sunday Afternoon

What a beautiful summer day! The cool weather (high of 80ºF and low humidity) is a delightful and unexpected treat. Here are a few portraits captured during my afternoon woodland saunter.

Bear's Foot or Yellow Leafcup (Smallanthus uvedalius)
Yellow Leafcup (Smallanthus uvedalius)
This course plant is also called Bear's Foot because of the large, lobed leaves. For the last two weeks, I have seen these plants playing host to bumble bees, swallowtail butterflies, and goldfinches. I think I prefer the name Bear's Foot.

Bear's Foot or Yellow Leafcup (Smallanthus uvedalius)
Bumble Bee on Bear's Foot
Spicebush (Lindera sp.)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
The fruit of the Spicebush are beginning to ripen. When they are fully ripe, I plan to collect a few and try them in my cooking. Some say the berries taste similar to allspice. I recently tried a tea made from leaves and also from the twigs. I preferred what I made from the twigs alone.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Not all orchids are showy. Although fairly common, most people have never noticed this summer orchid. With no leaves and the flower's diminutive size and nondescript color, the Cranefly Orchid is barely noticeable. The leaves come out in autumn and overwinter, but are withered and gone by the time the plant flowers in late summer. The numerous flowers on a slender scape easily blend into the colors of the shady forest floor.

Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)
Cranefly Orchid

Thinleaf Coneflower or Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
Thinleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba)

Fungus at base of sassafras tree
Unidentified fungus at the base of a sassafras tree

Sassafras Note

Like a misplaced Valentine note, a scarlet red sassafras leaf lies in the trail. Being the 3-fingered version, it brings to mind the 3-in-1 Creator. I have been stepping over this note for the last couple of days. What if it is not misplaced at all? What if it was left here for me intentionally?

Sassafras note
Sassafras Leaf

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Picking beans

Picking beans
Picking beans in the garden

Think Sacredly

"We should think sacredly, with devotion. That is one thing, at least, we may do magnanimously. May not every man have some private affair which he can conduct greatly, unhurriedly?" — Thoreau, Journal, July 27, 1852.

Thoreau fishing, N.C. Wyeth, 1936

Traveling Light

"The rule is to carry as little as possible." — Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 22 July 1857

Good advice, for all areas of my life. Why do I burden myself with so much stuff? We have very little extra money, and yet I am apparently affluent enough to have far more things than I need. This seems to be the American way. Why do we insist on complicating everything?

Our Home in the Woods

In every season, our home in the woods is my Walden refuge. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Morning Light

Morning Light
Morning Light
Front porch. Coffee steaming in the cool morning air. Rising sun casting its beams through the trees. Hummingbirds and the neighbor dog visit me in my rocking chair. Dew on the grass. Dishes clanging in the kitchen promise a breakfast. Birdsong and Pileated Woodpecker. Counting my blessings and overwhelmed with gratitude.

Sanctuary in the Trees

The other day I ran across these people who build all kinds of amazing tree houses, and I thought about how wonderful such a retreat would be. A well-built treehouse would be an airy sanctuary in the trees.

Temple of the Blue Moon
This tree house is called Temple of the Blue Moon and is at a retreat center called TreeHouse Point in Washington. It sits partway up a 300-year-old, 160-foot-tall Sitka Spruce and boasts skylights and built-in cedar beds.

As wonderful as a treehouse would be, I still think I would prefer simply to build a replica of Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin. Although we do have big and old trees in our woods, the logistics of building and maintaining a safe treehouse would be tremendous. All things considered, I think I would prefer to stay on terra firma and think Henry's thoughts after him. Of course, I can't help but think of Thoreau's famous summary paragraph about putting foundations under our castles built in the air

Nestled in the forest, Thoreau's cabin would still be a sanctuary in the trees. It would just be more, well, down-to-earth or grounded, if you will. The Walden house is basic and simple, which was Thoreau's whole point.

Replica of Thoreau's house at Walden Pond

Thoreau's house in the woods at Walden Pond

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Owls at Twilight

During a twilight walk this evening I again found myself in the midst of Barred Owls calling (as I did yesterday morning). I will never cease to be amazed by these beautiful birds. Whenever I am in a forest filled with their calls, I feel like I'm in the presence of magic.

Here is a video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the call of the Barred Owl (Strix varia).

The Magic of Books

How is it that words on a page can summons a smell, draw out a tear, or satisfy a longing?

For the last couple of days I have been reading again here and there in Jeffrey Cramer's annotated edition of Thoreau's Walden, and (if I am left alone) it's like a visit to the woods, fields, and ponds around 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. After reading during lunch, my walk from the break room back to the bookstore feels not like the 50 ft. stroll that it is, but more like I'm walking back from the vale of Walden itself. When I read, I sit with Henry in his tiny cabin and think what it would be like to live here. I hoe beans in his bean-field or walk in the crusty snow to town. Enjoying the smell of wood smoke, I share Indian (corn) meal bread baked on an open fire outside the cabin. How in the world can Henry's old book cast so powerful a spell?

A similar thing happened once sitting next to a campfire with Sigurd Olson.
"We touched a match to the kindling, and soon the smells of early morning, the damp smells of wet rocks and duff, were joined by the richness of coffee and frying bacon. We sat close, for the air was chilly, and ate our breakfast with an eye to the east and the mouth of the river." — Sigurd Olson, 1956
It was a little over a year ago when I first read this passage. I was in our bookstore break room, preparing for my work day by drinking a cup of tea and trying to relax with a few minutes of reading. I was reading "The Loons of Lac La Croix," in The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd Olson. I was in a windowless room made of concrete and steel, and I would remain indoors for the rest of the day. For just a few minutes, though, I was transported to the canoe country of the great north woods.

Suddenly, as if by spell, I was surrounded by huge boulders and tall pines on the edge of a lake. Campfire smoke blended with the smells of rich, damp earth. My cold fingers were warmed by the quick, bright flames, and I could taste and smell the fresh bacon and coffee. And then, just as suddenly, my time was up. I had to douse the fire and report for work.

The spell was not completely broken by the punch of the time-clock, however. Throughout the rest of the day I remained refreshed and rejuvenated from my time in the morning woods. I marvel at the magic of books.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Singing Praise

A single mosquito bite is a small price to be in the presence of owls calling to each other in a damp morning forest.
   Bless the Lord, oak and owl;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Simplify, simplify

I am becoming more and more convinced that simplicity is essential for true happiness. At least it is for me. I think that Henry was right on this.
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run." — Letter from Henry Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, 27 March 1848

Luxuries, comforts, and hindrances

Food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. These are the essentials. Not until these needs are met can we afford time and effort on anything else. A few tools make easier the getting of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, but all too often our collection of tools grows until they are a giant pile of things that demand our constant care and attention. Who is the master and who is the servant?

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."  — Henry David Thoreau, "Economy," Walden

Monday, July 22, 2013

Symphony of the Rain

The sounds of gentle rain and distance thunder are music for my heart sometimes. This morning I have the luxury of just sitting with a cup of coffee and listening to the symphony of the rain. And I am deeply thankful. What a gloriously peaceful morning!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Simplicity in All Things

"Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost." — Sigurd Olson
Sometimes I speak of learning from nature, and then I have people question what kinds of things I'm talking about when I say this. Usually I have a hard time coming up with a quick answer that will make sense to the questioner. I think the lesson of simplicity is one of the best answers I could give.

Simplicity. This is one I need to remember. This is one I need to learn better. This one needs to be emblazoned on my heart. Simplicity.

Milkweed seed pod

Children & Nature Network

Check out the Children & Nature Network. Envisioning a world where "all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives," this grassroots organization was created to "encourage and support the people and organizations working nationally and internationally to reconnect children with nature."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Wilderness is at our doorstep

I have come to the conclusion that I am something of a wandering homebody. A woodland wayfarer at heart, I also love nothing more than hearth and home with my family. Fortunately, answering the call of the wild does not necessarily mean forsaking home and family. True nature and wildness is at our very doorstep.

Boots and walking sticks
Boots and walking sticks at the front door
I have found that spending time in nature is vital to my sanity. I know that I am healthier when I can often get outside and feel the sun and the wind and the rain. I also know that wilderness is not limited to majestic far away lakes and mountains. One doesn't need to live next to a national park to walk daily in wild places. Getting away from the constant lights and noise of the city is good, but anywhere outdoors will do, whether it be a city park, a nearby woods, or a forgotten hedgerow. The birds that visit my feeder are just as wild as those who live deep in the forest. The moss growing in a corner of the yard is home to a myriad of creatures that would take a lifetime to know, if only I would take the time to see.

The beauties of nature are not somewhere else, but all around us. All we must do is walk out the door and see. Go ahead! Walk out the door and experience the wonder. Nature is not far off. Wilderness is at our doorstep.

Our trailhead
Backyard Trailhead

Dining with Mother Nature

To increase your enjoyment and awareness of nature, there are 5 simple things you can do at your dining table: Eat outdoors, eat fresh, eat wild, eat thoughtfully, and eat thankfully. All of these things are easy and can be done by anybody, no matter where you live.
  1. Eat outdoors. Why save the picnic table for holidays and parties only? Our instincts seem to tell us that outside dining is a good thing. Why not do it more often? No special event necessary. Simply grab your coffee and cereal bowl and walk out the door. Why watch The Weather Channel when you could be looking at real clouds?
  2. Eat fresh. As much as possible, eat real food. Real food is mostly the stuff your great grandmother would recognize.
  3. Eat wild. Almost no matter where you live, there is probably real food growing wild right outside your door. Start simple, and be careful, of course. This time of year, it's easy to find wild blackberries or raspberries. Young tender leaves from a dandelion growing in the yard will make an interesting addition to a salad. Nuts are available in the fall. If eating wild interests you and you want to take it further, be sure to educate yourself. Positively identify anything before it you eat it, and be sure you know how to prepare it safely. Mistakes can make you very sick or worse.
  4. Eat thoughtfully. Think about what you're eating. Where did it come from? What is its life-cycle? Imagine the wheat in your bread blowing in a breeze before it was harvested. Imagine how the apple in your hand was once a seed, then a tree, then a flower, which became your apple.
  5. Eat thankfully. We should all be thankful for the food on our table. Our fruits and vegetables and meat and drink sustain us and bring us joy. To share good food at the table with people we love is one of life's greatest blessings, and we should always be thankful for the opportunity.

Wild Blackberries
Wild Blackberries
Educate yourself before trying wild edibles

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Giving Thanks for Fireflies

I am thankful for the heavenly host of fireflies filling our July humid Tennessee woods. As I stood alone among them tonight, their thousands of tiny lights added a little magic to an already good day. Their flashing lights are a gift, and I must give thanks.

Monday, July 15, 2013

We Need Wild Nature

"We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander." — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Red Oak

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Part of Creation

Creation is not for us.
We are a part of it,
not apart from it.

It would be best to learn this at a young age.

Bridge crossing
The Cobra Patrol of Scout Troop 17
hiking near the Warner Park Nature Center

Phacelia purshii (Miami Mist)
Phacelia purshii (Miami Mist)

Simple Blessings

Real blessings are usually simple.

Wild Blackberries
Wild Blackberries

Garden Riot. Beans, Pumpkin, Squash, Tomato
Beans, squash, tomato, and pumpkin, all American natives.

Pumpkin blossom
Two species of bee on a pumpkin blossom (click to view closer)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Firefly Walk

The forest is enchanted. Just after sunset this evening, Beth and I went for a walk in the woods and immediately found ourselves surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of fireflies dancing in the air all about us. The sight of a forest filled with twinkling fireflies was mesmerizing.

I knew the experience could never be adequately described either in writing or a photograph, and I was grateful that Beth was in the woods with me to see it in person. This was a special moment of common beauty, and the only way to really know it was to be there. The glowing fireflies filled the hollow with glory and light, and we felt lucky just to be there.

This blog is not enough. The written word and the photograph will always fall short. I must do more to get people into the woods so they can see and touch and feel the wonders of wild places for themselves. 

Common Beauty

DSCN0251The light of dawn is a new miracle every day. Beauty and wonder inhabit the commonplace.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hiking Tip - Use a Longer Walking Stick

Sycamore walking stick
If you use a walking stick as tall as you are (or nearly so), you will catch fewer spider webs across the face. The longer staff will naturally deflect most of them away as you walk. This can be very useful in the summer forest.

I only realized this truth tonight while walking through the forest after dinner. I was using a beautiful walking stick recently given to me by a friend when I noticed that I wasn't walking into nearly as many spider webs. Commercially manufactured adjustable trekking poles may be conditioning walkers to believe that an optimal height just a little above our elbow is crucial. While walking you can, of course, grip the stick anywhere along its length. A tall stick also has the added benefit of being instantly longer when needed - no fancy adjustment necessary.

Of course, you could also clear your path by swinging your staff in front of you as you walk down the trail. But then you don't get the benefit of a walking stick, and you look silly. You may even be mistaken for Don Quixote.

[The photo at right shows the walking stick I was using tonight. This stick is natural sycamore adorned with deer antler and turkey feathers. It was made by a craftsman friend of mine.]

My Psalm 29

Thunder and lightning.
Trees dance in the wind.
Whole trees sway and move with a fluid grace
impossible for a creature made of mere wood.
Hands lifted up, upper branches wave and spin wildly in exultation,
Walnut leaves shout silently in sign,
"Praise! Praise!"

Even the trees dance in the breath of the Great Spirit.
How can I remain silent?


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Summer Dawn

This morning was magical as I shared the dawn in our yard this morning with expectant pumpkin blossoms, rabbits, crows, a squirrel, a full-cheeked chipmunk, and a deer staying quietly in the forest shadows behind the barn. For a few seconds the deer steps an inch into the sunlight, its ruddy fur glowing like bronze. The trunks of black cherry seem to glow in the spotlight of the rising sun. I feel so lucky to live here, in this clearing in the woods.

Monday, July 8, 2013


"But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either – or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time."
— Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker, 1968.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Always Camping

I am glad that returning home from Boy Scout summer camp does not mean leaving the woods. Shortly after getting home late last night, we heard a nearby owl calling in the darkness, and I realized that I had really only moved from one woods to another. Perhaps a healthier outlook would be to recognize that all of life is a journey and we are always camping.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Frogs and Fireflies on the 4th

Now that it's dark on this Independence Day, there are fireworks going off all around Boxwell Scout Reservation. Despite all their bang and pop, however, the fireworks are no match for the frogs and fireflies celebrating in the woods around our campsite. At least I think so. Personally, I more enjoy the wild show that plays every summer night in these woods.

It's the 4th of July, and I'm still at summer camp with my Boy Scout troop. The weather has been wonderful all week until today. It is now coming up on 24 hours of continuous rain, and everything is soggy. The frogs and the fireflies seem especially to enjoy the wet weather.