The Sound of Summer

Fawn cropI found a tiny speckled fawn curled next to my compost pile last week. It just lay there, moving only enough to track my movement down the path as I headed into the woods. Continue reading “The Sound of Summer”

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What’s That Smell?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

It was raining. I could smell it on the air that penetrated my dreams as it floated through my bedroom window this morning. I knew it even before I heard the misty raindrops’ gentle flutter on the leaves, the sound that I so often mistake for the chatter of birds—a huge flock—waking in the oak outside.

The scents always snag me when I walk out the door in the morning, scents so numerous, changing as I make my way down the path toward the stream, scents I can’t even begin to evoke on paper. They’re so much more than the words: floral, fecund, fresh…

Today the morning smells remind me of times when I have spent the night in a tent and woken up in the woods. They make me feel free somehow. They make me feel adventurous. They make me ridiculously happy. They make me think I must pull my tent from the attic and put it up in the back yard, just so I can wake up outdoors and smell the morning.

Because there’s something so indescribably magical that floats in this morning air. Something that pulls me. Something I long for. Something that never seems to be satisfied. Something that makes me feel blessed.

I don’t always heed this pull, though. In fact, in the last little while, I haven’t surrendered to any of the urgings of the ineffable. But here I am now, back on track—most days at least—walking in the woods in the morning, rain or shine. And, oh, it smells divine!

Aliens in the Woods

On my way down the path this morning, I thought about that conversation I had at the Mexican restaurant not long ago with friends, a neighbor family. Dave said he had decided to wage war against the invasives in our woodland neighborhood.

I’m with him. I’ve worked hard to rid my property of ailanthus and honeysuckle and autumn olive and poison ivy and grapevines gone wild. I’ve yanked, chopped, and yes, poisoned these invasives and have achieved a reasonable amount of success on my little half acre.

Japanese stiltgrass still plagues my property, though. And while I enjoy wine berries on my granola freshly picked in season, these briary bushes are, nonetheless, trying to take over my lawn and gardens. And just beyond that human demarcation of ownership, poison ivy is threatening, reminding me that this imagined truce we have—you stay in the woods and out of my yard, I’ve told these threatening leaves, and I won’t whack at you—is tenuous.

Dave has done this on his several acres at the top of the hill too, but he wants to do more. He wants to extend this war beyond his borders. He wants to eradicate these species, get rid of them from the entire neighborhood.

So here we are, this bunch of Quakers, sitting around eating burritos and quesadillas, talking about annihilating aliens. Going to war. It’s ironic.

Now sitting next to the stream, deer have appeared. They snort behind me, trying, I imagine, to rid my scent from their nostrils in this, their native habitat. These are creatures I would also like to get rid of, I suggested to Dave, railing against these Disney-cute critters for chewing away all the flowers on my azalea bushes and hating them for eating that one, most exquisite, most hopeful showy orchid I stumbled upon in these woods last week.

Dave tells me he has considered getting a bow. He says it’s not illegal to hunt on your own property. Not with a bow. And who would know?

But this song is going through my head: Gonna lay down my sword and shield…study war no more. And I wonder how far this Quaker peace testimony extends. Are we obliged to make peace with plants and animals too? Is there a way to negotiate with these species, talk to them like I did with the poison ivy? Is there some other way to come closer to balance with olive and kudzu and bittersweet and white-tailed deer, these forms of life that are changing our native landscape into a place that feels destroyed by foreigners?

Which leads, I now see, to the quagmire of immigration.

Oh, Lord! I do so love the song of the wood thrush in the woods in the morning!

Showy Orchids in the Woods

Showy orchid - cropI have started to come to the woods in the morning again. It’s been a long time since I wandered down that worn path to the stream where I sit and soak in the sounds, the smells, the sensations of the woods. It feels good to be back in the out-of-doors in the spring. The air is finally warm, and so sweet I can taste it. A wood thrush sings from a branch nearby. The sound of the stream is like music too. This is my happy place.

Spring has been a long time in coming this year. It snowed in mid-April—eight inches!—and the temperature hasn’t gotten much above 50 degrees. As I cleared the winter detritus from the path on my way down to the stream, I scanned the ground for signs of spring wildflowers, though I didn’t expect any; it feels too early, too cold, not quite spring enough for spring wildflowers.

So I was shocked when I rounded the bend in the trail and, right there next to the path, there was a clump of oval basal leaves and a stalk with lavender and white flowers. A showy orchid!! It’s the thing I long to see every spring, this rare, beautiful vision. It made me ridiculously happy!

This flower is endangered, which makes me feel very lucky that there are at least a few specimens in my woods. In an environment that is threatened by climate change and invasive species and other destructive human interference, even this one, lone plant—the only flowering orchid I could find—gives me hope.

So imagine my horror when, three days later, I returned to the woods and found that this thing that brought such joy, this one remaining orchid in my woods, was gone, eaten by a deer! That herd of white tails that roam this housing development, eating away all of the azalea blooms in my garden, the English ivy and hostas and daylilies and impatiens and coleus and even the mint in a pot on my back patio last summer, these voracious herbivores are my nemesis. And now they have taken that one ecstatic blossom, that one hopeful sign that Mother Nature is still holding on. I was devastated beyond words.

Surviving

I recently spent some time at Joshua Tree National Park with my son who works there. Joshua Tree is in the high desert in Southern California. It straddles the Mojave and the Sonora. Temperatures spike to 110 degrees in the summer. The landscape looks like what I imagine the moon looks like: brown and rocky, lifeless. The mountains are granite. The dirt is sand.

2015 Joshua Tree - Wonderland of Rocks - editOne day this spring we joined a ranger-led hike to Barker Dam, a man-made construction built at the turn of the last century by ranchers and homesteaders to collect water. (It rained more than an inch in two years back then.) The ranger’s talk on this hike was about these people from the past, including Native Americans, who lived in this area. “Imagine,” she said, gesturing to the brown landscape, “what they had to do just to survive.”

Survive, I thought. Is that all there is? Perhaps I was recalling my own struggles, how hard it has seemed at times to simply survive, how useless it feels. Is that all we’re here for? To survive?

We hiked to Barker Dam, talked about where people found food, how they used what they found on the land, and stopped to see caves where people—ancient and modern—might have sought shelter and stored supplies. Afterward, my son and I kept going to wander through the Wonderland of Rocks. It’s a place that looks like giants might have played there and left their toys—oddly shaped boulders—stacked and scattered along the dry washes that run through the mountains.

My son, a climber, was up on the rocks somewhere, scrambling like a monkey ahead of me as I trudged through one of those sandy washes. It’s hard to walk in sand. It makes you feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. It makes your calves hurt. And it was hot, the sun blazing. I sucked almost constantly at my water supply. It was enough to make anyone wonder about surviving.

2015 Joshua Tree - the flower 1 - cropFor some reason I paused in this trudge and turned around to look behind me. And there, tucked behind a boulder, I was startled to see a brilliant flash of fuchsia. That half inch of rain that fell five months ago caused a single flower to erupt on a paddle cactus stuck in that crevice. It took my breath away. It made me ridiculously happy. It made me grateful to know there was this beauty in the world.

This flash of color stayed with me as I trudged on through the sandy wash, trying to catch up with my son. As I plodded, I thought about surviving and why we are here and that astonishing fuchsia flower. And it occurred to me that maybe this is why human beings exist: to see the beauty. We’re the only creatures who can have that kind of appreciation. Maybe it’s our job to recognize what is wonderful. To delight in these random experiences of splendor. To have our hearts suddenly swell with the overwhelming joy of a single flower in the hopeless desert. Maybe this is why we must survive. Maybe this is what it means to worship the Divine.

What makes you ridiculously happy?

Why do you survive?

What does it mean to you to worship the Divine?

A version of this essay originally appeared on The Pen and Bell blog on June 5, 2015.