Step Closer

What draws you in, entices you to step closer?

There’s a Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) in my neighborhood I’ve never, ever noticed before, and this Fall it’s multi-colored. I suspect, though I haven’t taken careful note, that Blackjack Oak  leaves usually turn paper bag brown like the leaves of Post Oaks (Quercus stellata), my favorite trees. But not this year, not in my neighborhood. There are delicate shades of turning in these remnants from ancient Cross Timbers forests.

This tree captured my attention so thoroughly on recent a drive home that I turned the car around, parked, and hopped out to get a photo.

And here’s the photo.

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This photo is an unpoetic, unskilled, simple copy of my view – what my eyes could take in. But it in no way captured what my mind focused on. The criss-crossing power (or telephone?) lines detract, the pavement dominates, and only the barest hint of color shimmers in the leaves. I was surprised with the result, and disappointed. So I stepped closer.

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The second photo is more like it – the pavement and power lines are relegated to the background where they belong, the azure sky frames much of the tree, and the color of the leaves is starting to tantalize. But I really, really wanted to capture that rare color, and I hadn’t yet. So I stepped closer.

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And, look! I got some color. There are golds in them thar leaves! But, I thought, the grandeur I see in this tree just isn’t showing. It looks the tree is pushing you away with a suddenly raised branch, or trying to distract you by dangling a confusing mass of leaves in your face. You can’t see the scale of the tree; the trunk looks scrawny. So I stepped closer.

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Now I looked up. The leaves were illuminated by the warm sunshine and contrasted with the dark bark (which I presume gives the tree its name). I wanted to scale the tree like a spirit squirrel and revel in the dappled light and lounge on the branch hammocks all day. But the picture didn’t quite portray that longing. So I stepped closer.

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This one. This one is framed like I wanted, and draws me upward into its branches. It makes me want to reach toward that rare gold which shines like a beacon above the darkness of the writhing, rippled bark. I had to hug the tree, lean against it to get this shot. I experimented with framing, with attempting to capture the fractal-lightning branches silhouetted against the sky.

There is a wildness in this untamed, untrimmed remnant of ancient Cross Timbers forest. Maybe that’s what drew me in after the splash of color caught my attention.

I had to get closer to capture the feeling that drew me in from afar.

If you want to see something better, step closer. If you want to understand something better, step closer. Of course, there’s a time to step back, and a time to step away. To everything there is a season. But right now, in life, there are a lot of things that puzzle me, and I’m choosing to step closer to get a better look.

The next time you want to step closer, will you?

 

These photos were taken with my husband’s iPhone 6 and are completely unedited. If I learn photo editing it will be to help my photos better convey the feelings of longing and appreciation each subject inspires in me.

Field Notes Friday: Outdoor Meditation

Yes, I still do #FieldNotesFriday, and so should you! As my parents would say, “It’s good for what ails ya.” This entry is an example of exactly that: reflective time outdoors calming the mind. Lately for Field Notes Friday I’ve been posting photographs to my other social media sites (Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr), but today I’m sharing a nature-focused entry from my personal journal.

Thursday.

I have a beautiful view. Yes, the soundscape is urban – traffic, landfill trucks, buzzing power lines overhead – but at least the trees & grasses are rustling & there are crickets chirping. The sun & clouds tousle over who will win the day. The dragonflies hunt. Sagan is asleep in the carseat, which I’m leaned against as I face out the car door, East, toward water towers & buildings far away on the horizon, but forest & field between them & me. And power lines & their obligate gangly structures. Trees rustle. Leaves turn color. Grass bows. A fly searches.

It’s hard to make sense of the events of the past few weeks, some of which I share with the nation & world & some for which only a few close to me have endured. I seek solace in these moments, but I’m not open to it – not yet. Right now I feel raw & negative & aimless. I need to settle my mind with some meditation! That will help me sort out what needs doing, & appreciate the beauty before me, rolling toward me like the moments of life. I can either appreciate the moments, the view, the sounds, the smell, the sensations — or I will miss the whole thing.

After I wrote the above, I put on my headphones and listened to this guided meditation: Sam Harris Guided Meditation With Atmospheric Music

This was my view. Not the Grand Canyon, but it did the trick. I needed a long vista, both physically and mentally. img_7957

This is the original handwritten entry…img_7967 …and a detail from the page which reflects my mental state, not what I was seeing.img_7967

You should also think on paper and with your camera, and share with the rest of the online nature community! Here’s how to #FieldNotesFriday.

Don’t Poison Your Audience With Politics

You’ve experienced it – you’re sitting in the audience enjoying a pleasant presentation on something you’re interested in, when the speaker says something awkward and cringe-worthy. No, no, don’t go there! you think, but it’s too late, and the speaker has just alienated a significant portion of the people s/he wanted to influence. You want to smack your forehead with your palm, or melt into your chair with embarrassment for the presenter.

This was my experience several weeks ago. A seemingly likable fellow was beginning his exposition on something interesting in nature. He introduced himself first – an important move, as anyone who knows the cardinal rules of resource interpretation will impress upon you. You want the audience to feel connected to and comfortable with you. But then, like a bolt from a clear sky, instead of mentioning why he’s qualified to give the talk, instead of explaining why he’s passionate about the topic, instead of finding out the base knowledge of his audience, instead of relating an interesting opening anecdote, he decided to make comments about current political leaders, even proudly comparing himself to a controversial one as if it’s a badge of honor.

Ack! There was instant dissent – groans, muttered comments, shaking heads, nodding heads, smiles and frowns. Not the atmosphere you want to cultivate to enhance learning. Even the people who agreed with his assessments now had minds whirring about topics completely separate from, and distracting from, what he would be talking about. I found my own mind fuzzy and spinning, like the man had just slapped us with a noodle or something else bizarre, and it was hard to reel myself in to listen. In fact, I don’t think I completely succeeded, as my paltry notes reflect.

I thought I never want to do this to my audience.

Here’s one way to avoid this gaffe: don’t talk about politics if it has nothing to do with your presentation! Even if it’s related to your presentation, tread carefully. In polite southern society, this is drilled into us: don’t talk about religion or politics. Stick to the weather or sports, anything besides those other toxic, polarizing topics. And currently, is there anything more polarizing than politics? (I gather from several members of previous generations that politics have not seemed this divisive and unpleasant in decades….or ever.)

As interpreters and educators, we often tackle tough topics. Climate change. Human evolution. Slavery. Environmental policy. It’s hard enough to influence hearts and minds when interpreting uncontroversial material; why make your work harder by mentioning unrelated and divisive subjects? 

In any attempt to educate, we must strive to find common ground with our audience, despite our differences. Tell the truth, but tell it in love and with understanding. Don’t poison your audience by bringing politics into your presentation. If your message is important enough to share, it’s important enough to share well.

A Naturalist Looks at Pregnancy

Hello again. It’s been a while.

I’ve been reminded by my fellow interpreters at the latest NAI Region 6 conference that it’s time to break the silence; it’s time to post my own #FieldNotesFridays again, and get back to regular writing and online publishing. So I thank them and you for the encouragement, and the patience, as I gathered myself over the last months.

You helped me through a dark time, when I felt ecologically estranged and depressed. I can’t say I’m through that stage, but I can say that hearing from you, learning that I wasn’t alone, meant a lot to me and helped me see light at the end of the tunnel. I feel closer to our in-person and online naturalist community since sharing how I felt and learning how you feel. You were with me on that journey, and now I’d like to share another journey with you.

The driving factor in my life right now, the inescapable and obvious-even-to-others fact: I’m pregnant.

I’ve wanted to share the steps and moments with you all the way. I’m fascinated by the biology of pregnancy and excited to be ‘attempting’ our first child.

For example, I wanted to post around week 6 that – eww – my ‘baby’ still looks like a deformed tadpole and – fascinating! – has gill arches which will someday turn into a jaw, inner ear bones, and more. (More on the evolution of those homologous arches in Your Inner Fish – and hey, there’s a companion TV series on PBS we should watch)

And I wanted to post on week 23 that – strange – our kiddo might survive out of the womb with modern medical technology, but still has translucent skin, so would look like a baby-shaped bundle of blood vessels for a while.

And in week 31, I was excited to learn that our little human’s cortex was furrowing into a more spacious place for cognition.

At least, these were the developments we assumed were taking place, if everything was going well.

And that’s what stopped me cold. Once we got pregnant (and it seemed to take a long time, although I know it’s taken others longer, and some are heart-broken that they can’t get pregnant), I was quickly reminded of the social taboos of sharing your news “too early.” Too early – in the first three months! – because of the danger of miscarriage. Miscarriages are strikingly common. 50% of fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, and 10-20% beyond that are also miscarried (this doesn’t even count stillbirths, the term used after week 20). Those are sobering odds.

As a friend studying sonography(?) said, when you learn about all that can go wrong, it seems amazing that humans can procreate at all.

I’ve been… scared.

I’ve been scared of what can go wrong – not that I wasn’t previously aware of these possibilities, but now I am keenly aware of them, and they’re personal. If we lose this child I know I will go through a period of doubting myself, questioning anything I might have done wrong, and having a hard time forgiving myself.

And if, medicine forbid, I contract Zika virus… well, there’s a whole new worry for pregnant women. (More on the CDC’s suggestions for pregnant women avoiding mosquitoes and Zika here).

But part of being a naturalist, and therefore being scientifically aware, is not only recognizing possibilities, but recognizing probabilities. I’m not likely to contract Zika; there fewer than 20 cases in Texas so far (or were when I first drafted this in March), and all but one them is from travel. (One is from sexual contact, a transmission method more likely than originally thought – again, see the CDC’s recommendations.) Even if I do contract Zika, studies in Brazil show that only about 30% of fetuses are adversely affected*. (Right, I know… who wants to be in that 30%? Who wants to take those odds on their future kid? But my point is I’m more likely to experience complications from not taking my vitamins and from gaining too much weight.)

The fear has a positive side: I didn’t realize how much I would care about our first child surviving. I didn’t have any concept how much I would want this pregnancy to come to fruition, how much I would anticipate meeting our son, giving him all the chances I’ve had in life, and hopefully more.

So maybe now that I’ve shared my fears I can share the joy more readily. I’ve come far enough to be facing the very real, highly likely possibility that this pregnancy will be successful, that little Sagan Shane will enter the wider world healthy and ready to learn, and I’ll have a whole new set of possibilities to worry about and come to peace with.

Here I am, just another primate procreating… but to me, this journey is sacred. I have a support network of family and friends, I chose to be pregnant and chose a loving partner with whom to raise a family, and I recognize, because I’m aware of the biological process, that this is a precious, dangerous, treacherous, joyous, once-in-his-lifetime journey.

I look forward to sharing the rest of the journey with you.

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Pregnant naturalists can still hit the trails! Here I am bumpin’ out in the wilds of Village Creek State Park in March (left) and the LLELA Nature Preserve in February (right).

*Please note: this figure is from a newspaper article I read in March 2016. I need to find the article and link to it; I apologize for not having the source available at the time of publication. Til I can provide a source, take this figure with a grain of salt (healthy skepticism), just like I hope you treat every unsupported claim.

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.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds

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