What the Catbird Overheard – Series Final

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“Grampy, are we alone?” The question caught the young boy’s grand-father off guard since they were the only ones on the trail this early in the morning.

“I don’t see anyone else around, Harrison? Why do you ask?”

“No, Grampy. I mean in the universe. Are we alone?” the boy asked hurriedly, as if the question had been on his mind for a long time.

“That’s a big question for a six-year-old. I’m not sure anyone can answer it. But what made you ask, and why does it matter to you?” The grand-father brushed away the choke berry bush that otherwise would have captured his attention.

“Is it a big question for a six-year-old, Grampy, or for anyone?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ace. For anyone. Not just boys who are soon to become men,” the grand-father laughed.

“Well, last night I tried to imagine our earth floating in a universe of other planets and stars, and I kept backing away in my mind until I thought I’d come to an end, but I couldn’t see the earth anymore.” The boy began to take deep breaths. “And then I thought eventually I should come to a wall and that behind that wall there might be someone or something. But I couldn’t come to an end.”

“And then what happened, Harrison? What did you see?” A single Cooper’s hawk circled several hundred feet above them.

“I didn’t see anything. Just darkness. I looked in the direction of earth, where I knew there was at least one boy standing with his head up to the sky, but I couldn’t see him. And I thought if there were anyone else out there, he or she couldn’t see me. He wouldn’t know I was looking. And that’s when I started to wonder whether we’re alone.”

Suddenly the grand-father understood that this was not an idle question. In the background the wood ducks’ morning banter reached a crescendo. “Maybe you have to have faith, Harrison. Faith that another little boy is out there wondering the same thing.”

“Faith, Grampy? What is that?”

“It’s a kind of trust or belief. Deep down inside you know something is true even though you have no proof,” the grand-father answered, knowing that words wouldn’t do.

“I think I understand that, Grampy. It’s like knowing that the flowers and the birds will return in the spring… or that mommy and daddy will always love me… or that I’m going to make a difference in the world when really the world is very big and I’m only little.”

“Yes, you are only little,” the grand-father smiled. “But already you’ve made a big difference in my world, and your grand-mother’s and your parents’ and your sister’s and your friends’; I guarantee it.”

“That’s why I wonder, Grampy. If we are alone, I wonder whether anything we do makes a difference.”

Such big questions from so small a boy, the grand-father thought. “I don’t understand, Harrison.”

“Well, if there’s no one else in the universe, then what does it matter what happens here on Earth. No one else is affected. It only matters to us.”

“That might be enough, Harrison. That might be enough,” the sun’s warmth now revealing itself in water vapor steaming off the under-brush and rocky path.

“Still I’d like to know, Grampy. I’d like to have proof.”

“But how would it change anything, Harrison?”

“I guess it would make me feel as though I was part of something very big and special.” How could this boy be only six, his grand-father thought. “Like on a huge stage, with all my classmates, singing in a holiday concert for our parents. Not standing all alone, the lights dimmed, with no one clapping…”

“I don’t know, Harrison. Do you really need an audience and a big stage for something to be special? Isn’t it possible that what really matters is all around you?”

“Oh, I know that, Grampy, but just think. If there were someone else in the universe, they might be so different from us. They’d speak in a whole new language. There’d be so much to talk about, so much to learn. Enough for a lifetime! It would be a miracle if that could happen.” A yellow leaf floated down slowly from the single maple on their right side.

“I think we have enough for a lifetime here, Harrison. We are the miracle. That we exist at all, that anything exists. Look at the trace of last night’s moon floating in the morning sky! Could anything be more miraculous or beautiful!” The grand-father did all he could to restrain his joy at what was taking place between them.

“What do you mean, Grampy?”

“I guess, Harrison, I mean that life is something that either has always been, or somehow appeared out of nothing. In either case, it’s incomprehensible. Even if there were some divine power, the same would be true for him. Or her – I know you’ll correct me, Harrison. Either he’s always been, or somehow appeared out of nothing. Either way, it is beyond explanation and amazing that we are witness to it.”

“No human sense, Grampy. Maybe if there were others for us to talk to, we’d see that it makes perfect sense for something to appear out of nothing. Like a hunch or a new idea or a star. Or an imaginary friend!”

“Have you been talking to Cecilia, Harrison?” A weight began to lift from the conversation.

“You know about her imaginary friend, Grampy?”

“Oh, yes. Cecilia is a lot like her mother.”

“In what way, Grampy? Tell me.”

“We’ll talk about that another time, Harrison. You’ve left me exhausted. I think if there are other creatures in the universe, they better be ready for you!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citizen Science at Its Best

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By all accounts Stony Brook’s Purple Martin Project has been a tremendous success. We’ve seen the martin population increase two-fold this year to approximately twenty-eight birds, counting fledglings. Anyone who has walked out to the nest site has no doubt seen the playful swirling of the birds around the nesting boxes or heard their distinctive song which is easily identifiable and always memorable. With a little luck and a lot of persistence, these birds will make the trek back from South America next spring to nest here again and increase the population even more. We are already thinking of adding more gourds in anticipation of their arrival.

The success of this project is no doubt due in part to the new gourd houses we installed (thanks to the generosity of our many donors) and the inspired efforts of our Volunteer Director, Jess Watson, who solicited donations for the gourds and who put together a volunteer team to manage the nest sites. The impetus for the idea, however, came from Madeleine Linck, a retired wildlife technician who came to Stony Brook several years ago when her grand-daughter had a birthday party here.

At the time she had not moved to this area and was managing several martin colonies for Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota. When Madeleine happened to notice our martin house in the field, she saw the potential for a colony at Stony Brook and was excited that Doug, our director, was open to her helping out at a future date. This year that initial dream came to fruition, but it never would have happened without the leadership of someone like Madeleine who had the knowledge and vision and sheer tenacity to see the project through.

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Madeleine is a larger-than-life figure who commands respect immediately without ever saying a word. She rushes into a room with the look of an adventurer who has just came back from an African safari and is late for her next expedition. Her demeanor is reminiscent of accomplished women from the past who pioneered wilderness exploration or natural history studies. She has the decorum and soft-spoken wisdom of a Jane Goodall mixed with the gritty pluck of an Amelia Earhart. This is a woman who will always make her mark.

Madeleine oversaw and mentored an enthusiastic group of volunteers who, to a person, can’t say enough about their experience and, in particular, the leadership and guidance that Madeleine provided. To me, she is the story here. The volunteers cited her enthusiasm, her tremendous knowledge and patience. They touted her willingness to share, her dedication to environmentalism and land protection, her gracious manner and ability to draw upon a wealth of life experiences to illustrate a concept or drive a point home.

Last week I went out with Madeleine and two other volunteers to view the nest site and to understand their process. In simple terms Madeleine explained that “successful nesting gourds and boxes must be managed,” or else they will be subject to disease and predation. House sparrows in this area are particularly problematic and aggressive. They can overtake a nest and drive out the martins, destroying their eggs and attacking their defenseless fledglings.

The group kept very specific records of how many eggs had been laid in each box or gourd, how many had hatched and for how long, disposing of eggs that had not gestated and looking for signs of mite infestation. They also noted which sites had been taken over by house sparrows and, when appropriate, addled any unhatched eggs. When I looked into one of the gourds, I could see as many as six babies huddled around each other to preserve body heat, layered together in what looked like a dark puff pastry or souffle. In another there were five newly hatched babies, featherless and exposed, more gelatinous than distinct. Like everyone, I was amazed to see life so raw and unvarnished.

All the while Madeleine recorded the volunteers’ findings, answered any questions they might have had, and shared relevant anecdotes that were as much informative as charming. Madeleine told me, for example, that the toiletry habits of the birds can be particularly interesting. The parents actually remove the fledglings’ fecal sacs early on, but near the end of the 28 day cycle, she “had seen them actually back up in the nest and poop out the door.” She added, “You don’t want to check the houses at that time because they will sometimes get so excited they come out of the nest too early, not fully prepared to fly.”

When I sat down with Madeleine later, I learned that she had earned her Masters in Biology at Worcester State here in Massachusetts, and had worked for the Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota for nearly 25 years while her husband was teaching at the University of Minnesota. At Worcester State she concentrated her studies on the Blanding’s turtle, an endangered species, and later published the results of her work. She retired to this area because her daughter’s family lives in Foxboro and she can be close to her grand-children there. One grand-daughter in particular seems to share Madeleine’s fascination for birds, keeping a notebook of drawings and having committed to memory many of the birds’ songs.

Madeleine talked freely about the current socio-political climate in which “people may have jobs but may not be able to breathe the air.” She fears that the average person will stand by silently as the EPA is stripped of its authority and those in power demonstrate an increasingly scary disregard for the Earth. She worries that children are raised in front of monitors and tv screens and not in the outdoors, unable to understand their connection to the natural world, its diverse life-forms and shapes. “We’re all connected,” she says, “and our survival may depend on the fact that we don’t throw any of the pieces away.”

She says, in fact, that “if human beings disappeared from the Earth, it might not matter. But if insects disappeared, the whole eco-system would collapse. It would make a huge difference.” That’s how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. Her hope is “to educate, to make a difference, to open little windows.” According to the volunteers who assisted Madeleine, that’s exactly what she did for them. Listening to her, I thought, if citizen science projects are ultimately to succeed and effect worthwhile change, we might look to emulate this one.

 

What the Catbird Heard – Part III

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“Sterling, what are you holding in your hand?!”

“It’s a squirrel, Grampy! I have it by its tail. I found it by Dinosaur Rock.” The young boy stood proudly on the path, having found his very own treasure.

“Sterling, put that down! It’s dead. It’s covered with disease and filth!”

“No, it’s not, Grampy. It looks clean and its fur feels soft. Look, you can hold it by its tail! It must be sleeping.”

“Sterling, it’s not sleeping. It’s dead. Put it down before Grammy sees you and has a fit. I want you to go inside the Nature Center and wash your hands. Right now.”

Sterling was surprised by his grandfather’s quick words, even as a dragonfly distracted him momentarily. “What if it isn’t dead, though, Grampy? I could take it to school or keep it in a box as a pet.”

“Sterling, when animals die, they get stiff like that. It’s called rigor mortis. We have to bury him.”

Rigor mortis? Grampy. What is that? I’ve never heard those words.” Sterling laughed at the silly sound the words made.

“It means ‘stiffness of death,’ I think,” his grandfather replied. “It’s Latin. When someone dies, medical examiners try to determine when rigor mortis sets in so that they know approximately when the person died.”

“People get stiff, too, Grampy? Not just animals? Why would we have to know the time? Isn’t it enough to know that someone died?” Suddenly there were so many questions.

“People are animals, too, Sterling,” his grandfather said simply, wending his way through a flock of geese.

“Gross, Grampy! We can’t be. We don’t live outside and eat berries and worms. We have houses with beds and tvs and microwaves and showers.” The birds chattered noisily now, the summer sun now peeking through the trees.

“Well, animals have houses, too, Sterling, and they may not have the same conveniences as we do, but they bathe and sleep and eat pretty much like people.”

“Grampy, if animals are like people, why don’t they talk like us?”

“I think they do talk to us, Sterling, but their language is different and we don’t always know what they’re saying. Sometimes I think they just talk among themselves. Birds are like that. And chipmunks and squirrels. They almost seem to be laughing at us.”

“Why, Grampy? What’s so funny about us?”

“I’m not saying they really are laughing, Sterling, but if they were it might be because we don’t have our priorities straight, at least in their minds.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Grampy. What are ‘priorities’?” His grandfather used such big words.

“The things we care about the most, Sterling. Animals must think all we care about is running off to work or school, driving to malls and supermarkets, talking into funny looking cell phones or plugging strange boxes into our eyes and ears. They must wonder at the endless line of people who stop off at our homes to cut our lawns or fix our pools or install appliances or even cook for us. They might wonder whose home it is!”

“Well, I think animals are the ones who are silly, Grampy. They don’t do anything but eat or sing or jump from tree to tree. All they seem to do is play.”

“I think that’s why they laugh at us, Sterling. We don’t play, at least enough. We work, just like they do, to eat or to find shelter, but for them it’s play. For us, it’s a job. We complain about having to do it.”

“Do you think animals don’t complain, Grampy?”

“I don’t know, Sterling, but it looks as though they don’t. They seem to have a gift for enjoying the present moment. It’s the one thing that most people seek, but can’t seem to find in their lives.”

Sterling thought about that for a moment and then said, “Do you think I work too much, Grampy.  Mommy tells me I have to stop playing sometimes and to come in to do my work. Can I tell her you said I don’t have to?”

“No, Sterling, sometimes you do have to come in to do your work, but what the animals seem to know is that there’s really no difference. Both are required to live. Both bring us joy and satisfaction. That’s their secret. That’s what they sing to themselves each day.”

“But I complain sometimes, Grampy. I don’t always want to go to school or help with the chores or clean my room.”

“Especially clean your room, from what I can see, Sterling!” His grandfather laughed.

“Does that mean I don’t have the gift of the moment, Grampy? I love presents.”

“I know you do. No, you have the gift. You’re curious. You ask questions. You’ll talk to anyone who wants to listen. You’re never bored. You’ll call me at night to go outside to see the moon. I think the animals could take a lesson from you!” His grandfather’s eyes glistened slightly now. The ducks frolicked wildly, perhaps in response to their early morning spectators.

“I wish I could teach this squirrel how to come back to life, Grampy. His stiffness scares me. It makes me think there’s never enough time for play, or the work we have to do.”

“You haven’t put that animal down yet? Sterling, we need to get a shovel. There should be a proper burial. I think your squirrel friend has taught you an important lesson today. We ought to be thankful for that.”

What the Catbird Heard – Part II

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Grampy, did you ever have an imaginary friend?” The geese honked loudly as if laughing at the little girl’s question.

“No, Cecilia, I didn’t. But Grammy’s mother did. She called her Lime Creche.”

“That’s a silly name. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Nor have I, Cecilia. I don’t know where she came up with it. But it was her childhood friend who used to play with her and follow her to school.”

“Sterling says that there’s no such thing as imaginary friends, Grampy, but aren’t there some things that are real that not everyone can see?”

Her grandfather stopped short of the spillway, surprised by the truth of what his grand-daughter was saying. “Well, yes, I think so, Cecilia. People say they see ghosts and spirits and the like.”

The like, Grampy? It tickles me when you talk like that. You sound so serious!”

“You’ve got me there, Cecilia. I can’t help it. But I want to give you the best answers I can… Ideas are real, too, but we can’t see them. We can only see their results. And gases are real, but we can’t see them. Then there are atoms, protons and neutrons and subatomic particles… And other solar systems… And stars! Some even that we see but which don’t exist anymore!  Now you’ve got me started, Cecilia. I’m sorry. That’s probably more than you wanted to know.”

“No, Grampy, I want to know everything. Even if I don’t understand you, I like it when you get so excited. It makes me feel the same.” Two mallards skirted the shore, pushing aside the budding water lilies exploding now into yellow and white.

“Now that I think about it, Cecilia, there are lots of things that are real but which we can’t see. There are even colors that we can’t see but that scientists can with special filters. Or animals with their different eyes.”

“Animals don’t see what we do, Grampy?!”

“No, Cecilia, they don’t hear what we hear either. The more I think about it the more I realize that there are as many worlds as there are ways to look at them.”

“Then Sterling is wrong, Grampy! There are such things as imaginary friends! I told him so!”

“Not ‘wrong,’ Cecilia. Maybe just not as wise as you yet… Do you have an imaginary friend, Cecilia?”

“Yes, I do. She’s called Buddah Baby.”

“Buddah Baby?!” her grandfather laughed. “And you thought Grammy’s Lime Creche was a funny name!”

“That’s what she told me her name was, Grampy. I don’t think she thinks it’s a funny name at all.”

“No, I suppose not.  But tell me about her. When do you see her? What’s she like?”

“She doesn’t come to school with me, Grampy, but she is always here when I come home. She likes to play school and go outdoors. She sends me postcards from places she visits. And she loves birthday parties with cake and candles to blow out!”

“She sounds a lot like you, Cecilia. Full of life!”

“I guess we’re a lot alike, but you can’t hold her like me. And you can’t see her. And she never seems to get mad at me.”

“Why would anyone get mad at you, Cecilia?” her grandfather wondered, overcome by the innocence of her belief.

“Oh, they do, Grampy. Mommy and daddy… and even Sterling. They weren’t happy with me when I dropped my gum and Nugget licked it, then I put it back in my mouth! And they screamed when I picked up a dead bird!”

“Cecilia, they’re not mad at you. They just don’t want you to get sick.”

“Sometimes I say a word wrong or make a mistake when I’m adding my numbers, and mommy loses patience with me. I can’t get sick from that, Grampy.”

“No, Cecilia, you can’t.”

“Well, Buddah tickles me when I make a mistake, and we both laugh.  She wonders what’s behind every door and doesn’t hear when she’s told something can’t be done. That’s why I like her.”

“You know what, Cecilia, I like her, too. Maybe Buddah has an invisible friend for me.”

“Oh, Grampy, you’re silly. Grownups can’t have invisible friends. Besides, you have Grammy.”

“Yes, I do have Grammy, and I’m lucky at that. But maybe adults should be able to have invisible friends, too. I think sometimes adults accept the world as given and forget that we can change it. An invisible friend would remind us of that.”

“Buddah doesn’t want to change the world, Grampy. She just likes to laugh or smile at it.”

Her grandfather smiled and stopped short of the second spillway, swollen now with spring rains. “That’s just it, Cecilia. Adults forget how to laugh. Especially when people die or get hurt.”

“There’s nothing funny about people getting hurt, Grampy.”

“I know, Cecilia, but does Buddah Baby stop smiling? Does she ever not want to play?”

“No, she doesn’t. You’re right.”

“How can that be?”

“I don’t know, Grampy. It’s almost like the pain isn’t real to her. Like she sees the next step… or that everything changes…”

“Or that what we think is real is not?” Her grandfather took a deep breath.

“Isn’t that where we started, Grampy? You did that on purpose!”

“Maybe so, Cecilia. Or maybe I have an invisible friend, too, and didn’t know it.”

“I wasn’t going to tell you, Grampy. But Buddah told me that long ago.” The little girl grabbed her grandfather’s hand and smiled. “She’s funny that way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the Catbird Heard – Part I

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Photo courtesy Audubon.org

“Mackenzie, why are you lying on your back with your head up against that tree?” her grandfather wondered, surprised to find his little girl alone just off the trail in the back of the Nature Center.

“I don’t know, Grampy. I sat down, then fell back, and when I opened my eyes and looked up, I couldn’t stop. It’s too beautiful. I feel dizzy, as if I am spinning upward and out of control.”

“Let me see. I’ll lie down beside you and we can both look up!”

“Do you feel the sky pulling you, Grampy? Do you wish you were that tree?”

Her grandfather smiled, warmed by her active imagination and capacity for love. “I think I know what you mean, Kenzie. Down here I can feel the tree soaring, defying gravity. If I were younger, I’d want to climb up its branches and see how high I could go, how long they’d support me.”

“Don’t talk, Grampy. Just listen. We can climb later.”

“Do you love me, Grampy?” his granddaughter suddenly asked, the morning’s stillness broken only by the steady hum of the insects coming to life in the spring.

“Oh, Kenzie, of course I do! Why would you ask?”

“Well, Mommy and Daddy say they love me. And Grammy of course. And I always say I love them back, but it’s hard to know what we mean when we say we love someone.”

The berries along the garden fence suddenly looked a deeper red. “I think we mean that we care deeply about that person,” her grandfather answered. “It’s a way of saying that we want to be with that person, that he or she makes us feel happy or more alive.”

“But, Grampy, how can we be more alive than we are?” Mackenzie wondered. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Her grandfather laughed, realizing how inadequate words can be to explain what really matters. “Well, there’s a difference between being able to walk and talk and eat, and being able to transform someone or something.”

“Transform”? Mackenzie asked, puzzled by a word so unfamiliar to her.

“Change them. Make them better. Help them to feel inspired, able to do anything. It’s how you feel when you look up from the bottom of that tree,” her grandfather replied.

“I like that feeling, Grampy, but I’m not sure I love the tree.”

“In a way, I think you do, Kenzie. I think you are a loving person, which means you give something of yourself to the people, and even things, around you. You give some of your light or energy or trust.” Her grandfather stepped away from the tree, as if to give himself more space.

“I don’t feel as though I’m giving anything, Grampy. I feel people are always giving me something instead.”

“That’s a big part of love, Kenzie. You give, but feel as though you get more in return.”

“What about when you’re bad, Grampy? Sometimes I get really mad at Mommy. Once I even bit her I was so angry. And Mommy sent me to my room when I spit at her one time. Did she stop loving me then?”

“No, Kenzie, believe it or not she didn’t. She may have been hurt or disappointed or angry, but in some ways her love actually grew stronger.”

“Stronger? How can that be?”

“Because the anger isn’t important. It fades away. What stays is the exchange of feeling, the communication, the realization that nothing can break the connection that exists between you.”

“Is it always that way, Grampy? My friend Abby said that her daddy was leaving her mommy and wouldn’t be living with them. Abby didn’t know whether she had been bad and her daddy didn’t love her anymore.”

“Oh, that’s so sad, Mackenzie. I’m sure Abby’s dad still loves her, but sometimes love becomes complicated between adults. Sometimes people change, and the trust is broken. Love can be very painful.”

“Will that ever happen to Daddy and Mommy, Grampy? I don’t ever want to lose them.”

“No, Kenzie, I think they are like me and Grammy. We disagree, and sometimes fight to the point where we won’t talk, but you know the feeling of being pulled up that tree and into the sky? You know the excitement you feel when you look up? That’s what we always come back to. That love doesn’t end.”

“But, Grampy, is all love the same? You’re married and love Grammy. Do you feel the same about her as you do about me? I’m just a little girl. Who will ever want to marry me?”

“It’s different, Kenzie, but equally wonderful. As for who will want to marry you, I think they’ll be lined up for miles!”

“I don’t even like boys, Grampy. They’re dirty and they fight all the time and throw acorns at me.”

“More proof that they like you already! Boys have a funny way of expressing themselves.”

“Grampy, boys are gross! I don’t care how they express themselves; there’s no way I will ever love any of them. I think you should marry me, and we can have our own family. And Grammy can live with us, too!”

“I’m flattered that you would ask me, Kenzie, but wait until you’re a little older and see if you change your mind. I think you may see those boys differently. Love sometimes grows in mysterious places.”

“Grampy, I like mysterious places, but for now I think I want to climb this tree. Will you lift me up?”

“I’ve got ten fingers waiting for you, little girl. Hold on!”

 

 

 

 

Me Again – thanks to a pink moon!

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Photo courtesy Old Farmers’ Almanac

I am me again! I realized it just two weeks ago when I was lying awake in bed bathed by the light of the full “pink” moon that couldn’t resist shining through my window, I think to wake me.

Suddenly I felt released from winter, from the aches and pains, the head colds and sinus infections, the feeling small and self-contained, the endless physical annoyances that cold weather can bring. I could breathe fully. I slept the whole night. I felt relaxed and full of life… full of dreams. I could speak to people and look them in the eye. Joke with them and actually listen without distraction when they shared moments from their on-going lives, or small talk such as people are wont to do.

I’m told that it’s a “pink” moon because pink is the color of the wild phlox that is among the first flowers to blossom in the spring. Its arrival represents new beginnings and signals the start of several important religious festivals around the world, thereby attaching symbolic meaning to the cycle of nature, much as native peoples have done since the beginning of time.

I can’t remember having had this particular feeling of “me-ness” before. I think old age has made me keenly aware of transitions and change and, as much as it has left me wistful for the mental and physical dexterity I imagine I had in my youth, more often I find myself overjoyed and surprised that a child can still exist in this ancient body.

Surely time is not linear! If ever we needed proof that the claims of quantum physics are real, we need only look to the universe within. We grow old and younger at the same time. Memories spring from the well unfettered. We span generations in an instant and often get confused or lost, not knowing for sure how we got to this place or this state of being.

This winter, for the first time, I felt some of that confusion. I felt I had lost my ability to negotiate the lapses of thought, the lack of strength, the long nights of restless sleep and dreams that jolted me awake, startled by the sound of my own breathing. But this pink moon brought me to my senses. I am, and have always been, blessed.

That fact was never more apparent than when, on a whim, I decided to take a hike with my grandson on the forest trail across from the Stony Brook exit. I hadn’t been there in two or three years, but now that the boardwalk is under re-construction and parts of the loop trail have been closed off, it seemed a perfect alternative.

dceditI may as well have walked into the primordial Garden! The air was still and warm, disturbed only by the early morning chattering of song birds and the occasional crackling of dry branches against leaves. We scaled the rock ledges with little effort, my grandson quickly finding the easiest footholds and reveling in the fact that I had to follow him. We stood together at the highest point, looking down at our new-found territory. I found myself recalling that same sense of adventure and self-discovery when I was young roaming through the back woods of Sunset Lake or clambering up the trails of Blue Hills on a family get-out-of-the-house day.

heditThe pond was a perfect forest mirror, unbroken only by a single duck’s wake as he drifted to the far shore. No one else, it seemed, had ever discovered this space. My grandson teased me when I faltered on the path. I laughed that he would have to carry me out some day. He raced me to the spot where we could see the beaver lodge and marveled at the size of the tree they had taken down, I think to strip its bark for food during the winter. Then we looked for the return path to the parking lot, talking quietly about our plans for the day.

On the way out we ran into Mona Tighe, one of my favorite daily visitors to Stony Brook. No one takes more pleasure in a simple walk through the sanctuary or has a better eye for a returning migrant, a change in the landscape, a new birder looking for direction, or someone needing a friend. If anyone else should be privy to our sacred Garden, it should be she, so it seemed doubly significant that on our way back to civilization my grandson would meet her and then find a lucky penny just before we got to the street.

I know that not all spring days will be like this. That the feeling of “me-ness” will only be temporary. Spring is, after all, as much about promise as it is about disappointment, as much about innocence and renewal as it is about contradiction and change. But to be reminded of how powerful and uplifting, how restorative and elegant it can be to put ourselves into the arms of Nature is a treasure that never fades away. I believe my grandson began to learn that lesson this day.

Seeing into the Gaps

“That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.”

“The creatures I seek do not want to be seen.”

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

“I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
(Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

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I have long been preoccupied with seeing, by which I mean not simply sight, but perspective or insight or, on a grand scale, enlightenment. In my writing I return to this theme again and again, I think because I have had moments of seeing and, in some sense, want to confirm them with others and, more generously, hope that I can inspire others to have moments of seeing, too. This last is a result of the teacher in me. I cannot help it.

Along those lines I return as well to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in particular the second chapter, “Seeing,” where Dillard chronicles her life-long efforts to “forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious” instead. An artificial obvious becomes a way to narrow down things, a technique to cultivate the point of view of an expert in a field, or to imitate the sense of awakening a blind person feels when suddenly his sight is restored.

It may mean, too, the reverse: seeing as a child, or as someone blind, or someone lost, or deprived of any sense but touch. An artificial obvious becomes a means to cast aside expectations and self-consciousness, to let go and lose oneself in the present moment, to see not the fence but the space between the pickets. “Go up into the gaps,” Dillard says. “If you can find them… Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe.”

Here I’ll dispense with my suggestions for getting into the gaps and focus instead on Marla Cohen’s, Stony Brook’s Education Coordinator. A few months ago Mass Audubon partnered with REI on Black Friday and urged people to “get outside” rather than to roam the malls or troll the internet looking for sales. Marla set up a program of activities that day which received little notice (due to the weather), but which I thought were wonderful nonetheless.

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On various trees and posts around the Stony Brook loop, she tied a series of laminated “leaves” with suggestions written on them, ideas for parents or grandparents to try with kids, or people of any age to try on their own. She paired these “leaves” with a scavenger hunt box left outside the Nature Center which gave people a quest for that day, should they have been up for the challenge. It’s the “leaves,” however, that drew my attention since they might well have been a primer in how to construct an artificial obvious.

For anyone interested, I urge you to try any of these or, even better, to create some of your own. The idea is to engage the senses on a new level, to raise consciousness or, more simply, to encourage dialogue. A trip to Stony Brook, or anywhere outside, even inside your own house, becomes a source of inspiration and story when it leads to “seeing” in a new way:

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Camera – One person in each pair is the camera, and the other person the photographer. Have the “cameras” close their eyes while the photographers set up each photo by walking with them, turning them, or asking them to crouch to face a particular view. When the photographer taps the camera on the head, the camera opens his or her eyes for three seconds to take tin the picture, then closes them and is brought to a new location. Take turns. What was your favorite “photo”? What did you see?

Sneaky Feet – Have one person move up the trail about 10-15 feet, stand with his or her eyes closed and arms out. The rest of the group tries to sneak up close enough to touch that person’s hand without being heard. If the person with his or her eyes closed points at them first, they must freeze. How close can you get?

Colors – How many different colors and shades of colors can you find along the trails? Make a prediction.

Monogram – Try to find something that begins with each of your initials. The items don’t have to be physical; they can be sounds or smells, too.

Sounds – Close your eyes and count on your fingers how many different sounds you hear during one minute. Was it more or less than you expected? Just for fun, see if you can count to 10 without hearing a bird song.

Shapes – Choose a shape: square, circle, dodecahedron… whatever you like. Can you find something that shape? Try a different shape.

Penny Hunt – How many things can you find that will completely fit on a penny? If you don’t have a penny try something else, like your thumbnail.

Last Picture – Before you leave this place, imagine that you have one picture left in your camera. The “camera” is made by framing pointer fingers and thumbs into a square and looking through it. Which “shot” would you choose for your last picture? Share your “picture” with your friends/family.

Meet a Tree – Close your eyes and let your partner lead you up the trail to a tree he or she likes. Explore the tree without opening your eyes. How does it feel? Can you reach all the way around it? When you are finished exploring, have your partner lead you back to the starting point. Can you find your tree? How do you know it’s your tree?

Animal Walk – Have someone choose a particular animal species to walk like and have everyone imitate you. For example, hop like a rabbit, pretend to soar like a hawk, or get as close as the ground as possible to crawl like an ant.

All Along the Watchtower

“There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” (Bob Dylan)

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Our children are watching… (Bill Knowlton photo)

All politics aside, I find the recent spate of reports about fake news, deliberate misinformation, distortion of facts, refusal to distinguish between truth and lies, etc. upsetting and demoralizing. The feeling is akin to a curtain being pulled behind which we discover, as does Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that the god-like wizard (in this case our experts, our authorities, even our government) is in fact a mere man creating smoke-and-mirror illusions of strength and wisdom and power. Perhaps more accurately  our refusal to seek a higher standard recalls “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in which no one dares to say the truth fearing they will be declared “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent.”

The sad truth is that there no longer seems to be a consensus about what is real or factual. Substance appears to have little meaning any more. Everything seems to rest on opinion or bias, point of view or perspective. If a narrative conforms to an existing belief, it is accepted as gospel. If it challenges that belief, it is declared false, fake, part of a conspiracy. We live in a “post-truth” world in which facts don’t matter when shaping public opinion. Appeals to emotion and personal belief have far more sway.

Perhaps, as some suggest, this has always been the case. Megan Garber makes a good argument for that idea in her Atlantic article “The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality.” Garber examines Daniel Boorstin’s thesis that we live in (and have for a long time) a P.T. Barnum world in which people not only can be fooled, but want to be fooled. “We don’t quite know what reality is anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care,” says Garber.

“The image, the stereotype, the ad, the manufactured spectacle, the cheerful lie … these are, (Garber says), all of a piece. They are evidence of Americans’ constitutional comfort with illusions—not just in our cultural creations, but in our everyday lives. Deceptions are our water: They are everywhere, around us and within us, palpably yet also, too often, invisibly.”

That idea is reinforced by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg in their insightful Salon article about redeeming civic virtue in an era of looking for simplistic answers through an imaginary past. They argue that “our political mythology is stuck on the constant longing for an earlier-imagined simplicity, a return to fairness by stripping away barriers of bureaucracy. In America, people have always demanded simple answers, as if “simple” was inherently virtuous.” Exacerbating this tendency, they say, is the fact that:

“Educated opinion is distorted today as never before: modern media sensationalism, commercial sponsorship of every conceivable space, Internet tunnel vision, fake news. Fame has become an end in itself, counted in Twitter followers, YouTube viewers and the like. And then there’s the ongoing addiction to reality TV, where outright humiliation is tolerated so long as it insures the image-conscious(ness) of enduring popularity.”

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Beyond the bluster and noise… (Bill Knowlton photo)

In effect, if image is more important than substance, popularity more valued than reflection or vigorous debate, bluster and noise more credible than intelligence or open-mindedness, pettiness and self-aggrandizement more common than empathy and a willingness to sacrifice, then we have little chance of meaningful discussions and little hope of mustering the discipline necessary to effect change.

Nico Lang says as much in his Salon article comparing fake news to modern propaganda. He recalls a recent speech given by President Obama in which he says, “If we are not serious about the facts and what’s true and what’s not, particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Words matter. Actions have consequences. And everyday people need to be held accountable for their decision-making as much as politicians and civic leaders, educators and professionals of every stripe. Charles Taylor echoes this idea in the Boston Globe when he says, “There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know.” He adds, “No one is too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed not to be held morally accountable for their choices.”

Scientists like Donald Hoffman of U Cal Irvine may give credence to the existential crisis into which we have fallen by telling us that “the world presented to us is nothing like reality…” Our perceptions fool us into thinking that “the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” They may declare boldly, as does Julie Shaw in Scientific American that “I don’t believe in facts,” that our job as scientists is to “collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions… but at no point have we proved anything… our findings are wrong, almost by necessity.”

But they also give us a path to dealing with our angst. “Let’s make it our job as a society,” Shaw says, “to encourage each other to find replicable and falsifiable evidence to support our views, and to logically argue our positions.” Beyond that stance, I would argue, we need to educate our children in the subtleties of propaganda, the increasingly sophisticated tactics of advertising, and the perils of online “sourcing.” We need to teach them how to conduct research and evaluate reliable resources, how to structure a reasoned argument and listen with an open mind to viewpoints different from their own.

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“If we are alive, let us go about our business” (Thoreau-Bill Knowlton photo)

I would suggest, too, that old and young would do well to become re-acquainted with Thoreau’s Walden, particularly “Where I Lived and What I Lived for.” Nowhere will we find a more sage and prescient prescription for what ails us today. Essentially Thoreau argues for simplicity, saying that “our lives are frittered away by detail.” He argues for pace and proportion, saying we think it essential “that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour… but whether we live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain.” He argues for presence and living in the moment rather than waking from a half-hour’s nap after dinner only to worry about “what’s the news?”

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths,” he tells us, “while reality is fabulous.” As for facts, if we stood face to face with one, he says, we would “see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing (us) through the heart and marrow… Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” For Thoreau, that reality lay in “living as deliberately as Nature,” beyond the “mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe…”

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What we seek is right before our eyes…

For us, reality may become clearer in a moment of quiet, the tranquility of a walk, the smile of a loved one: the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, the release of self-discovery, the excitement of pursuing an unfamiliar path. Something simple and focused that allows us to breathe, something that forces us into the present moment. Whatever takes us out of ourselves will at the same time take us within. “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,” says Thoreau. “…petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.” We create our own lives, Thoreau would remind us. We can change what we know to be untrue or doesn’t work or isn’t acceptable. We do not have to depend upon others for the formula. Our instincts and intellect will guide us along the right path.

 

 

 

Truth in the present moment

“Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and never will be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.” (Thoreau, Walden)

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Bill Knowlton’s photo is stunning. When I view it, I think of a universe of shimmering waves, some of which coalesce before our eyes as animal or vegetable or human forms, but which ultimately are little more than electrons floating through a space-time continuum. We think in terms of a material world, but all matter is energy. And in this photo it’s as if the mallard swims simultaneously between two realms of particle and wave, its path detectable only by a trail of azure blue refraction. There are no dualities: no life and death, no up and down, no past and present. Only now. All is one quantum consciousness, here visible in the form of heavenly white feathers supporting a head of emerald green and a beak of ancient gold.

Striking, too, is the sense of peace, of quiet, of tranquility conveyed in this image. That the mallard could glide through his life with such utter grace and purpose, seemingly unaffected by anything but his being, inspires us to do the same. For all the motion that is apparent here, an impressive aura of silence fills the space, perhaps equivalent to, or a reminder of, the steady movement of the planets and stars. Is it possible that we leave a similar blue plume through the vacuum, the glowing trace of our lives in our wake?

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The sharp contrast in this second image reminds me that the sanctity and beauty of life is more complicated than a smooth glide upon still water. There will be tumult. There will be change. No journey is complete without a struggle. The merganser standing firm upon the nest box entrance knows the course. Her eyes are steady, her feet braced, her cinnamon crest defiant in the wind. Breeding season awaits. Winter still leaves a trace of rime upon the wood frame she now inhabits, the specter of black ice that drove her to leave for open water a mere memory. She knows she will leave again if need be, that she will have to share her space with species who lay unfamiliar eggs. But spring will come with all its promises. There will be fish enough for all and warmth and summer rain.

Note: Photos are courtesy of Bill Knowlton. See more of his images taken at Stony Brook here: http://www.billknowlton.com/Birds/StonyBrook

Romeo Gump’s 2016 Bicycle Adventure

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In some small way we all want to do the impossible, test the limits of our courage and stamina, our intelligence or physical grace, our ability to adapt to changing circumstances or to look failure square in the face. It’s no small wonder that so many people idolize or seek to emulate great athletes or explorers, legendary entertainers or artists, world leaders or creative geniuses, outstanding educators or religious saints. People who change the world or redirect our definition of what’s possible, who inspire us to do the same.

All too often, though, such heroic figures make the impossible seem out of reach, and we settle for complacency or living vicariously through others rather than making our own way. The heroes I admire, however, are more everyday, those who live and give of themselves fully, without pretense or need to take center stage. These are people who live “deliberately,” to use Thoreau’s terminology. People who do “not wish to practice resignation… to live what (is) not life.”

Such everyday heroes raise families, fight illness, risk falling in love, find meaningful work, contribute to their communities, overcome loss. They do not seek accolades. They are not interested in fame. They solve problems. They combat ignorance. They stand up for the helpless. They believe in purpose and the potential for joy, no matter how difficult the circumstances. In the end they desire simply to be or do something beyond themselves and their individual needs. No small task!

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Recently I had the good fortune to meet an individual who has managed to bridge the gap between these two classes of heroes, though he is more the latter than the former, unpretentious and yet bold, open to and appreciative of the support of others, yet determined to fulfill his own self needs. Rob Edwards came to Stony Brook because he had just finished a 6000 mile bike ride and wanted to return to his boyhood home visiting family, friends and reconnecting with the place where he first discovered the allure of the natural world.

Just by chance I engaged him in conversation as he checked into the Nature Center, then met him on the trails later to get more information. His bike ride first took him 2500 miles along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, from Antelope Wells, New Mexico to Roosville, Montana, a route which crisscrosses the Continental Divide. He then rode back to Whitefish, Montana and headed east to Lake Champlain. He rode for 108 days, carrying everything he needed in 4 panniers attached to his bike frame: his shelter, his food and drink, his stove, his sleeping gear, his clothes – a total weight of 75 pounds which he pedaled along the road for about 50 to 70 miles each day.

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He had worked for Terra Nova LLC of Utah, a zipline construction company, but left his job at age 55, looking to make a change. There was “nothing holding him back,” no family, no job, no obligations, and so he set out to realize a life-long dream. His motto: “Never take life for granted.”

I wondered what he had learned along the way. He told me that he discovered he “had more patience than he thought,” adding that “amazing things happen if you have patience.” You see things, the sites, scenery in whole new ways. You discover the ease of Nature and “get away from the noise we hear in our everyday lives.”

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He also talked about the “remarkable” people he met on his journey, one couple in particular who were riding their bikes from Fairbanks, Alaska to the tip of South America. He cited his family, his friends, the many strangers he was grateful to have developed relationships with. Specifically he wanted to thank his Mom “for her independence,” Dirk Heffelfinger (the childhood friend who introduced him to Stony Brook) “for his friendship,” Angie Domenegat “for her perspective,” and Margaret Morris “for her guidance.” Even the tone with which he spoke of these people revealed a basic truth to me about heroic quests: there’s always a support system for which we have to give thanks.

Dirk Heffelfinger, in particular, was the man Rob came back to this area to visit. “He introduced me to another world,” Rob told me. “He opened my eyes to an entirely different perspective.” We’d go out fishing at Stony Brook and he could spot a snake a hundred feet away and pounce on it, then serve it up for me with his bare hands. Rob was spell-bound and learned to love Nature in those early years. And now, “Whether it be the immensity of the Grand Canyon or a small pond in Borderland State Park, the environment offers amazing rewards” for him every day. From here, Rob was headed out the door for a couple days of exploration in the Quabbin Reservoir area, by “Subie Outback, bike and foot,” he told me, in his own inimitable way.

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When I reflect upon my conversation with Rob, I’m struck by a few basic revelations. One is that there is something about Stony Brook that attracts people who are “finding their way.” I can’t tell you how many visitors I speak to who have a similar story, though not so dramatic or compelling as Rob’s. I think nature sanctuaries are important spaces. They provide solace and inspiration. They provide mirrors into which beholders can take the measure of themselves, again to paraphrase Thoreau.

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I think, too, that we do not always see how making a life, developing a self, connecting to others and making sense of the place we hold in the universe is a challenge equivalent to any of the heroic quests we see on the screen or read about in our various texts. Ultimately we all must come to grips with what it means to be human and whether there’s any way for us to appreciate or understand how we came to be in the vast emptiness of space.

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Finally, I think it’s good to be reminded that there are people like Rob who are capable of extraordinary things. I think it’s the teacher in me, but I have always maintained that we can do anything we set out minds to if we are patient and are willing to fight through the setbacks that always come our way. We create our own lives. Reality is, in some ways, mere pedagogy: an idea we can learn to create.