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

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

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:

Field Notes Friday 0036: Signs of Spring

Just a quick note today. Others have joyfully pointed out Trout Lilies and Spring Herald (or Elbow Bush) to me this week. But the King of Spring this week is a magnificent, stately elm tree (also pointed out to me – where has my head been??) that stood stately by the Green Dragon Trail at LLELA. Look at those buds/blooms!


Field Notes Friday 0035: Thoughts About Mushroooooooms

This is how obsession starts. It’s also how real learning happens.

I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it’s dawned on me that I’m interested in fungus. Very interested. I’ve been fascinated for years by how decomposers turn trash into treasure, especially into soil. Soil is more precious than gold. But lately I’ve become interested in the fruiting bodies of fungus (which we call “mushrooms”).

My awareness crystalized when I was supposed to be ordering one unrelated book online… but I wandered over to the field guides and… I ordered two field guides to mushrooms. Sight unseen.

The Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms has arrived, and I am reading it cover to cover (as noted on my Twitter account).

Happy Naturalist on Twitter

I’m learning a lot. Like, from the first page.

A First Page of Peterson's Field Guide to Mushrooms

Who knew I could learn to recognize fungus Orders so quickly! That’s thanks to Vera McKnights’ organized sketches.

But I had been paying attention even before nature-nerd-ing out over the field guide. In fact, I’d taken a few photos and posted them to iNaturalist. I was excited (and honored) to receive a response from LGPrice, the creator of the Texas Higher Fungi project on iNaturalist. I quickly learned that I need to take more photos, and perhaps even cut some mushrooms open (which I’m loathe to do).

I also need to take even more field notes. I know journaling is important, but in the case of mushroom edibility, noticing and recording details can be the difference between life and death! (Not that I’ll be eating wild mushrooms without an experienced mycologist any time soon… or ever…)

Here is just a sample of information that’s crucial in mushroom identification:

  • Cap size, shape color, thickness, and surface texture
  • Color and texture of the INSIDE of the cap (Cut it open!!?!)
  • Odor/aroma
  • How the color changes when the surface is pressed or scratched
  • Regarding the stalk: does any fibrous material connect to the cap? Is there a skirt-like structure?

(Currently I’d be happy just to identify to the right Order, let alone Species.)

I’m even using Vera McKnight’s illustrations as inspiration to get back into sketching! As an art teacher told me, a great way to learn to draw is to emulate good drawings. (Note the important quote.)

mushroom sketches compilation

My newest nature obsession even bubbled out during an iNaturalist social meeting – the first of its kind that I know of – wherein local naturalists who have also “gone digital” get together to support and encourage each other. I mentioned mushrooms twice, and quickly found other Fungi Friends! Oh, this could get geeky. And wonderful.

This is just the beginning of a fruitful obsession, and I’m so excited.

(I’m glad we’ve moved beyond the British influence which negatively associated mushrooms with witches and dark arts. Although if you look at the #mycology hashtag on Instagram you won’t just find beautiful photos of mushrooms… if yaknowhaddimean)

If you’d like to geek out over nature and share it with your friends and family, please participate in Field Notes Friday!

Field Notes Friday 0034: The Appearance of Destruction

Shocking as scenes after a fire may be, some fires are “good” (meaning they’re an essential part of some ecosystems). In a controlled burn, one of many goals is to burn often enough that raging, far-ranging fires aren’t a possibility in the future.

I imagine in the past, the swath of land a herd of thousands of bison had tread and munched might serve as a natural fire break – not enough fuel for the fire to continue. (I don’t have a source on that; just imagining.) In modern controlled/prescribed burns, at least the ones I’ve participated in, mow lines, water sprayers, and backfires do the job.

Here’s a before and after shot:


It looks shocking. Like the land is devastated.

But it’s not. The fire burned through quickly and made way for native prairie species while making it harder for invasive woody species to encroach.

I hope to return and show a different “after” photo: one that’s full of the green and gold and reds of life, sprung anew from the ashes.

I’m posting this as part of my pledge that I will make it easier for myself to participate in Field Notes Friday. I’m taking my own advice: keep it simple! Just a photo and some thoughts are plenty.

Here’s a link to the photo and thoughts I shared on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me there as well as on WordPress (…and iNaturalist… And Instagram…)