Thursday, November 15, 2012

Discovering Nature's Stories

In preparing for a Nature Journaling Workshop I have been thinking about stories—their seductiveness, and their universality. My partner Bob’s particular gift is learning the stories of the people he meets, every day and every place. A stranger’s offhand comments in a Wegman’s checkout line can, and often does, lead to an extended conversation. Points of intersecting lives are discovered and celebrated. There are friends of friends in common, mutual cheers for life-changing movies from the ‘60s, or shared tastes for smoked salmon and dark chocolate. Every person has a story, and within that story, a thousand others.
Lichen, meet moss.

To me, a solitary walk in nature holds a similar appeal. Fragments of stories reveal themselves with every step. Soft mosses of every shade of green compete with lichen for space on rocks; lichen radiates outward from the center like a new philosophy crowding old-thinkers onto the diminishing edges. Pushing, pushing, a mystifying enmity at work. What forces propel this glacially slow movement … and why?

Goldenrod bunch gall, caused by a fly
Questions. Intrigue. What is that bunching of leaves on the goldenrod stem? Who goes there! Does the crow’s single caw mean something different from the double, or triple caw caw caw? “Being a good noticer is terribly important in learning animal language,” said Polynesia, Dr. Dolittle’s talking parrot. Through a combination of books, databases, and deduction, I attempt to fill in the plentiful gaps between the noticed and the known. Always there are riddles. A puzzle may linger for weeks or years until, one day, an inspiration or flake of information floats to the top. And so the next level of inquiry reveals a whole new set of mysteries.

For Bob, the stories of the people he meets hold endless fascination. For me, they can be tiresome. And yet I wonder how anyone could possibly find the stories of nature anything but compelling. The synapses that cause our brains to snap and crackle differ from person to person, but we are all, in our underpinnings, noticers. We are all curious. We follow every enticing word the media feeds us about the General Petraeus scandal. Details about extramarital activity and international secrets keep coming and coming, and we can’t look away. When the focus is honeybees, the popular media has not so much to offer us. “Honeybees are Dying,” the sensational headlines read. But where are the subplots, the ancillary characters? Major media outlets have little to say about nature’s regenerative powers, about the 4000 species of native bees that are still on the job, about the honeybee’s history in America. Rather than captivating us, the dumbed-down story leaves us with a vague feel-bad sensation. Somehow it is all our fault … again. This is no way to build a good relationship.

Parasitic plant strangles its host!
Coming upon a silly-string patch of dodder I can’t help but ask, “What is your story?” This crazy parasite of a plant has somehow developed a homing pigeon instinct for finding a host. The host, scientists believe, sends out volatile compounds to the dodder that say, “Come to me.” Why would a host send that message to a marauding intruder, one might well ask? And how did the common name dodder come about anyway, and is it related to doddering fool? Mysteries, mysteries. 

What many people forget as they busy themselves with inside occupations is that Nature is not out there. Our story is entwined with those of the goldenrod gall and the long tailed wasp. The air, the trees, the ancient mosses and liverworts, the parasites and gall builders, the rotting trunks and the decaying grasses vibrate with interconnected activity. The Story of the world, which holds a million other stories, is one without an ending. All you can do is grab at threads and try to weave sense into the whole. And try to steer clear of the human impulse to adopt a creed that pulls it all together in a neat package. 

Despite my sometimes impatience I have learned to appreciate the chance encounters at Wegmans (really, I have). Take a minute (or in Bob’s world, 20) to learn a little something about someone and they become real, and the time turns out not to be wasted. A stranger suddenly and unexpectedly gains value. Being a nature noticer requires a similar attitude adjustment, and yields similar rewards, compounded each time you take the time … to notice, to explore, to care. Grab an hour and a blank book. And a drawing pen. Try to leave the camera at home; this is not about capturing images but about uncovering stories. It’s about building understanding, getting lost in the narrative with its multitude of characters and twists of plot. 

Respect—the same respect that is present in any good relationship—is a happy byproduct.

 "Well that," said Polynesia, brushing some crumbs off the corner of the table with her left foot—"that is what you call powers of observation—noticing the small things about birds and animals: the way they walk and move their heads and flip their wings; the way they sniff the air and twitch their whiskers and wiggle their tails. You have to notice all those little things if you want to learn animal language. For you see, lots of the animals hardly talk at all with their tongues; they use their breath or their tails or their feet instead. That is because many of them, in the olden days when lions and tigers were more plentiful, were afraid to make a noise for fear the savage creatures heard them. Birds, of course, didn't care; for they always had wings to fly away with. But that is the first thing to remember: being a good noticer is terribly important in learning animal language." – from The Story of Dr. Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

After Hurricane Sandy

Just imagine, for a moment, that you are a sheep. You and your 60 or so fellow sheep find yourself in an open-ended shelter as a terrible storm rages. A deafening roar fills your world and gusts of wind, such as have never been felt before (although, because you are a sheep, you know nothing about weather history) threaten to lift your shelter up and carry it away. 

Suddenly a massive blast of air pushes the pole structure that had until then offered minimal protection several feet to the west, bending and breaking the water pipe in its path as easily as if it were a strand of spaghetti. A geyser of water is now spewing from the ground; sheets of rain are pouring from the sky. The structure tilts and topples, poles bending and fences snapping. Still the roar surrounds you and you strain against the wind just to stand in place. 

Someone among you takes the lead (is it the same someone every time, or do you, like geese in a V, take turns being the leader, one wonders). Is it sheep intuition that instructs your leader to brace her shoulders against the wind and head up hill? Maybe she remembers the location of the broccoli, and knows instinctively that it is good to eat, though none among you have ever sampled even a single leaf. Or maybe the broccoli’s alluring scent carries through the sodden air and transcends the supposed fear of the moment.

You follow your brave, or clever, or particularly olfactorily gifted—or just lucky—leader over the broken fence and up the hill to the promised land, where the taste of tender florets greatly outweighs the discomfort of the blustery march. You eat your fill. 
You devour heads of cabbage, tender leaves of Brussels sprouts and kale, and a whole long row of broccoli and cauliflower. Big full heads of green lettuce are covered by a flimsy white cloth—it’s only a minor inconvenience to rip through it. When the good stuff is gone there are the grassy blades of oats and delicacies like carrot and parsnip leaves, turnips, and rhubarb stalks. The rain pelts and the wind furiously blasts at your wet hide, but how often do you get a chance to eat like this? 
Never! That’s how often. Usually it’s fields of grass and clover. If you’re really lucky, alfalfa. How sweet are the rewards of an occurrence calamitous enough to disrupt normal life. And, in the case of a sheep, how immediate. 

As humans, the process is slower, and more reflective. When we find ourselves displaced, our homes lacking the things we need to carry on, we have no choice but to experience life from a different perspective. In the midst of our discomfort, a kind friend, a soft bed, a pot of African peanut soup arrive on the scene. 

Suddenly there are conversations that would not have happened, revelations that would not have been learned, a debt owed and instantly discounted, a favor granted, a bond deepened. The garden is in ruins but the good feelings multiply. The sheep now know where the broccoli is kept, we now know that we can trust in friendship. 

I rip out the bare stalks of brassicas and chomped heads of cabbage and count my losses. One, two, three trashcans full of remains will go to the pigs. Enthusiastically they will grunt and rejoice over their good fortune (do pigs rejoice, one wonders). 

Safe, warm, full of contentment, I am once again ensconced with my stuff. The refrigerator has been emptied of its spoiled contents and refilled. The prematurely empty garden is planted in winter rye and vetch, builders of next year's soil. I am much richer for my losses. 

After all, It’s only broccoli.