Ecologically Homeless (a Field Notes Friday entry)

I’ve said to several people that I’ve loved every ecosystem I’ve ever visited (except human urban ecosystems, I suppose). And I do:

I love the Pacific Northwest,

the coast of California,

the sub-arctic alpine forests of Alaska,

the Pacific tropics of Hawaii,

the Caribbean/Atlantic tropics,

the Gulf Coast (except the obvious human-made damage of dying ocean & oil spills there),

the Arkansas rocky forests,

Louisiana bayous,

North of London rolling farmland (though it used to be forest),

the Great Redwoods,

the gorgeous country of Upstate New York & unsullied New Jersey,

the rocky hills and mountains of southern & eastern Oklahoma,

the big skies of West Texas,

the chalk hills of Aledo/Hill country…

I’ve never seen real prairie yet, but if I like the sickly shadow of it that’s left in North Texas I’d probably love the real thing in Kansas…

and now I’m in the pinewoods of East Texas. And maybe it’s my sore back from the first night camping or the disappointing drone of the nearby highway, or how little energy I had for our one real hike in the forest (where it was QUIET), but I have now turned that statement around and am looking at it from the other side.

I love every place I’ve visited, every ecosystem I’ve briefly experienced, but none – not one – feels like home. I feel like a homeless wanderer bound to love every place a little, but none too deeply.

There’s a character in a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away) who suffers a kind of amnesia – he can’t remember who he is because the river where he’s from has been destroyed – paved, obliterated.

I feel like that. I get the most excited about the Cross Timbers, but they’re vanishing even as I write. What’s left of the system is the skeleton – dying trees which will have trouble reproducing in Bermuda grass and sprinklers, which are cleared on the whims of businessmen and women who crave larger parking lots. Their birds are moving on, the forest’s silence shattered by highways and landfills and machinery, the trees’ once-impressive profile on the landscape obfuscated by rows and rows and rows and rows of squeezed-tight houses. The few builders who try to preserve the few trees do so as an afterthought, and the trees die soon after the check is written anyway.

The Cross Timbers is the only place I can think of right now where I would walk quietly, stealthily in my modern ‘moccasins’ (Vibrams) and be hunting thrill… belonging… comfort… and find it.

I want to research where remaining Cross Timbers (and similar habitats) are. Then have a getaway there.

[…] I think if an ecosystem is ‘yours’ in a deep sense, it’s like how I described the Cross Timbers to Tony- like a lover, simultaneously exciting and comforting. This is how we achieve my desire for continuity with change – you get so familiar with the same place that you are then aware of the differences. Seasonal differences, annual subtleties, overarching change. Last year the frost nipped the greenbriar. This year more grasshoppers than crickets. The kind of things you can’t notice if you don’t stay put, but noticing them makes you feel like you’re on a journey.

Field Notes Fridays are an invitation to share the raw entries in your own journal ~ whatever format, whatever content. Won’t you join us?

Field Notes Friday: Ecologically Homeless Field Notes Friday: Ecologically Homeless

The (Sad) Happy Naturalist

I started this blog with the premise that happiness is a choice. And it is. But sometimes sadness is a sign that it’s time to take notice of something important. If you feel what we call ‘negative’ emotions, explore them. Don’t stuff them or ignore them. They can teach you something.

I’ve been feeling a powerful desolation; I imagine it as a stream that’s run dry. Imagine your feeling of deep joy is a cool, clear lake. It’s fed by many streams: one of your streams might be partaking in music or art, another may be time with family or friends, or reveling in ideas and good books, or running – who knows. We’re all different, and our lakes are filled by different streams.

One of my streams is connection with what we label ‘nature’ – that which is wild, beautiful, harsh, untamed, and ineffably tantalizing. It’s an arbitrary and misleading label because really, we are natural, and nature is within us as well as around us. There is no separation… but in my middle-class, affluent, wired life, there’s the illusion of separation.

I feel disconnected. And disheartened. And tomorrow, I plan to share a field journal entry that evinces this.

I thought I shouldn’t share it. I thought you wouldn’t want to read it, or it would bring you down. And I want, rather, to inspire people to make a positive difference in the world.

But perhaps sharing the down moments of despair is a way of inspiring those who want to make a difference. Not every moment is a high, one of elation or accomplishment. Sometimes there is darkness, and sometimes the lake is dry.

And this is why Jane Goodall emphasizes hope for those who care about the planet and the biosphere. She noticed an entire generation (my generation) who got the message that the world was f*(k3d, that the rainforests were disappearing and species were going extinct and there was nothing we could do about it, except maybe recycle (which seems to have nothing to do with the problems we learned about) and don’t personally kill whales. And I’ve seen, in my campaign to reduce my plastic consumption, that the biggest critics of my message were people my age. They cried ‘hypocrite!’ and ‘ineffective!’, ignoring the message that our planet needs help, and we can do the helping.

Hope is important. The choice to be happy is important, especially as we strive to fight the influences that make the world a worse place.

It’s also important to acknowledge the dark times, the down times, the dry times.

And I hope, somehow, this entry and my future entries help you.

Field Notes Friday: Emulate Others’ Art

You know sketching is good for you, and you already know why: it’s good for your field notes, it hones your observation skills, a picture is worth a thousand words, yadda yadda yadda. So what are you waiting for?  You can do it! 

I recently had the pleasure of being re-inspired by an artist and friend, so I’m trying to pay it forward and for others. Jump in there! You won’t be sorry. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Start by emulating another artist’s sketches. Pick something you like that appeals to your interests and style. (As your skills mature, you can graduate to photos and then live subjects. Or so I hear.) 
  • Just start with a little piece of the sketch at a time. Maybe just do a leaf, or a nose, or a wing. Grow from there.
  • It doesn’t have to be perfect. A rough outline gets you further than paralyzing perfectionism. 

Here’s a sketch I made recently based on an illustration from Botany in a Day.

    Notice that the picture morphed as I changed things along the way. There are no mistakes in art. Stems bent. Petals shifted. Veins disappeared. I darkened some spots inadvertently, but knew I could change it when I added color. 
  Adding color is another time to exercise your creativity. In this case, the sketch I was emulating was black and white, so I searched the Internet for colors to use on this species. The sky blue background was an artsy touch I was nervous to add (what if I ruin it???), but worth the risk. And of course, because I’m a natural science nerd, I had to label the species. And below you’ll see that I kept track of the colors I used. 

Here’s the version that is now in my field notes. I’m proud of it!

Here is the original inspiration. 

  Not bad, huh? I love this book! It’s edifying and inspiring. 

Search for sketches of your favorite plants and animals, and just dive in. You’ll learn from whatever you do. 

Field Notes Friday: Hill Country Sounds

Picture yourself in the Hill Country of Texas, enjoying a beautiful night. You’re sitting by a fire that’s reduced to embers. Your friends and family have retired for the evening. The breeze is soft and comfortable, the oaks around you dark against the clouded, moonlit sky. You’re relaxing and letting your thoughts flow where they may… and you realize you’re hearing that sound again. A sound you’ve been hearing for several nights, but decided to simply enjoy rather than identify. (Now pretend you also can’t identify these sounds – press play and listen as you read on.)

I’ve been trying to get into birding. I feel I’m making a successful entry, but I’m not as quick a study as I’d like to be. The mnemonic devices used by birders to describe calls are baffling. I don’t hear “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle” when I hear a Carolina Wren – I hear something without English consonants (and often not matching any vowels), something whistly and tuneful but strange and inimitable. And that’s a problem – I can’t imitate bird songs with any useful degree of fidelity (*confession* I can’t whistle) so I can’t speak the songs to myself like I can Spanish words or “botanical latin” or any other language I’m trying to grasp. Buntings sound like someone’s shaking a squeaker toy (but I can’t tell Indigo from Painted – yet), Phoebes supposedly say their names (“Phoebe! Phoebe! Phoebe!”), but unless it’s a crow or a Great Blue Heron, I’m hoo-dooed by the sounds.

I’m even more baffled by the descriptions of some songs, like this one:

The song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill.

Technical! I don’t get an auditory picture in my head when I read that. And when I listen to the beautiful recordings shared in the website above, the description and my perception don’t match. I just don’t grasp the lingo yet.

But enough grousing. (Ha – grousing. Get it?) Because I’ve had a wonderful auditory experience recently, and thanks to the magic of technology, I can share it with you.

I was having the experience described above: I’d spent several days and nights with family in a new place, and had heard what I figured was a bird, but knew I had little chance to identify it, so I just decided to embrace the sounds and the not-knowing. But something amazing happened on the third night. Loving the sounds and accepting not knowing, thinking about anything and nothing, a phrase floated into my conscious mind. “Chuck will’s widow.” Hmm. Wonder where that came from, and why it came up – like an ear worm, you know? A jingle, a phrase, a bit of forgotten trivia out of nowhere. I let my thoughts drift on. But I came back to that phrase and wondered, is that a menmonic device? A bird call? …And a little later I wondered, is it also the name of a bird?

I made a recording with my phone just in case the singing stopped – because I knew I couldn’t imitate or describe the call well enough for other birders! I opened my Audubon app and looked up that weird phrase. Sure enough, it’s a bird! And then wonder of wonders, when I listened to the sound on the app, it was a match with what I was hearing in real life, in real time.

I think I’ve identified my first bird by sound.

Maybe some of those mnemonic devices are useful after all.

Did I get it right? Here’s more info on the Chuck-Will’s-Widow.

For more info on Field Notes Friday and how you can participate, click here

How a Nature Interpreter Knows it’s Spring

…Because it’s busy as a beehive! If you’ve been with me on this journey for the last few years, you know I crave feeling attuned to the seasons, and want my job to reflect seasonality.

And it does. Spring is when suddenly everyone (“and their dog” as locals say) becomes aware that there are things to see and do outside of those climate-controlled spaces. The phone rings off the hook with questions about programs and trails (and sometimes found baby animals), program numbers sky rocket, and down time is a thing of the past and won’t be part of the present again till sometime in July, when the heat beats even hardy outdoor-folk into retreat (or at least into siesta schedule, a good adaptation in Texas).
Add to the Spring busy-ness a little El Niño weather-related excitement (like the most rain we’ve seen in 5 years), and trail conditions and mosquito populations and river levels and potential program cancellations and rescheduling make for one busy nature-centered job.

And I love it all. I love the rain. I love the highly seasonal level of activity. I love the uncertainty of whether the weather will favor a program at a particular time. I love people remembering that there’s a whole world outside their doors. As a sweet young person said on one of my recent guided hikes, “This is like the real, REAL world!”

Yes, these flowers and leaves and bugs and mud and tracks and that breeze – this is all the REAL real world. Nobody filmed it or animated it or coded it or photoshopped it to impress you more. It’s just beautiful and wonderful, and I’m so glad to have the occasional person like you who is open to it, aware of it.

Of course I didn’t tell her all that. I just let her soak it in, and I soaked in her wonder.

This is what it’s all about.

Field Notes Friday 00??: Shooting Star of the Prairie

This month I’ve shared a few Field Notes Fridays on other social media and not via my blog, so I’m not quite sure what number I’m on. I plan to rectify that soon. 

In the meantime, here is the lates FNF I’ve shared via Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Please also join me on those venues! And I welcome you to join in the field notes fun. You’ll be glad you did. 

Dodecatheon meadia, the shooting star of the prairie. Held one in my hand at a Native Plant Society meeting this week. I’ve never seen one in person till now, and still haven’t seen one growing in the wild. They’re pollinated by bees with sonication.

#NPSOT #prairielove
#FieldNotesFriday #nofilter 


Field Notes Friday 0038: A Creaking Floor as a Time Machine

I’ve been challenged to include sound, video, and historical/cultural treasures into my field notes, and I’m delighted to say I had a fantastic moment this week when all of those facets came together. Thank you to the historical interpreters who’ve inspired me to strettttttch just a little bit and open my heart to the importance of human history (not just natural history).

I just returned from the NAI Region 6 annual conference in Natchitoches (“nack-eh-dish”), Louisiana. We spent three intense days honing our communication skills, communing with nature and our fellow nature and history-lovers, and eating really good food. In the evenings, there were places to visit and tours to take, and one of these was the Prud’homme Roquier House, a restored French Creole building from the late 1700s.

I’ll share explanation from my field journal before the video, so it makes sense.

The words [the historical interpreter] shared about the function of the rooms, the type of construction (bousillage), the time it took to build the house… also insight into how central food and dancing were to the 1800s Creole… these were background in my head as I walked through the house, rather underwhelmed and under-engaged. The exposed bousillage wall felt more earthy and relatable than the nice, modern-looking (to me) old furniture. 

I went upstairs, enticed by a level change and a strange floating door above the stairs. I stepped up on the last step, looking at some neat old artifacts in front of me, and it happened: CREEEEEEAAK. an old board with cracks and personality creaked. A warmth rushed into my cheeks: It suddenly felt real that people lived here! They climbed these steps and danced below and played games and looked out those windows…

At first I thought that in spite of all [the interpreter’s] words, it was an experiential, auditory, tactile moment that brought it all to life. Then I realized, no: the facts that had been shared were a scaffold of context that I ascended like those stairs, and when I reached the top of both it clicked. All of it was part of the experience. Interestingly, the house empty of people and dark and museum-like somehow made [the moment] more real, or perhaps more poignant.

I delighted in that creeeeeeak and took some video. I shared the joy with Lisa and Diane [coworkers] and took video fo them making the floor creak more.

To me, these moments were hopeful:

  • If I’m sharing lots of information and someone is uninterested, they may yet have a meaningful experience because of what I shared.
  • Even I can be transported by human history, a subject I rarely engage with for long (but plan to engage with more!)
  • I felt challenged by my interaction with my fellow interpreters this week to share more audio and video, and because I had that in the back of my mind, I was ready when the opportunity presented itself. We shape our own learning!

Hoping you’ll join me (and a growing community) by participating in Field Notes Friday. Lear more here: