The Thing You Actually Find

“Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”          Ann Patchett, State of Wonder

I love the winter season at Stony Brook. The stark landscape seems to magnify the mean and particular, the overlooked and the transparent, while heightening the impact of all that startles and amazes. Today, as I walked the trails, I found myself tempted to go off-course in search of spiny serpents, ungainly reptiles, and a few scrambling arachnids. Not the living species variety, but those frozen in time, caught in a moment of anticipation, sudden regret, or instant folly.

I didn’t know it until later, but I have a ready case of pareidolia (and anthropomorphism) which has been with me since my youth and has stuck by me in old age. I see the familiar in the inanimate. Not just faces, but shapes and forms which seem fundamental to design in nature and myth. I freely acknowledge the humanity in the most mundane of things. It’s a curse… and a blessing.

I invite you to play a game with your children or grandchildren the next time you come to Stony Brook. See who can discover the most amazing dinosaurs in the trunks of trees. The most unusual creatures, real or imagined, forever stuck in a seeming tar pit. An animal body, face or look-alike that is tantalizingly real but merely the product of an advanced imagination. It’s fun and sometimes educational to play this game, but more a source of story and laughter. Such is my good fortune on this day.

First case: dinosaur remains

DSCF2023Who would have thought that creatures so large once roamed the woods and marshes of Bristol Blake?! Here the spine of a stegosaurus surfaces from the depths of mud, rock, and alluvium, its head still buried for other generations to unearth. Perhaps in reaching for some savory wetland plants to feed upon this creature died content with his stomach full and his tail still twitching. For me, he (or she) is an ever-present reminder that creatures of great stature, whether menacing or uplifting, lie always just beneath the filmy depths of the unconscious ready to inspire.

Second case: a snapping turtle no more

DSCF2019

Caught in mid-scurry, its carapace seemingly blown away by an errant meteorite or shotgun, this snapping turtle screams at the inherent unfairness of Nature where chance can often times trump reason or morality with respect to survival.

Third case: Maslow’s cobra rising

DSCF2021

Though certainly not native to this area, this cobra clearly obeys some local snake charmer’s flute, or better still, his pungi. Are we similarly hypnotized by nearly imperceptible music streaming from within? What notes are being struck by primal fear or longing, as yet unrecognized? How much better to rise up to a deeper music whose source is the Self and whose aim is actualization?!

Fourth case: the moment from reptile to bird

DSCF2026No longer content to roam the messy confines of the marshes, the stability of terra firma, this terrible lizard wanted to fly and seems now to be struck with the thought that such freedom is possible. Who knows whether even now our limbs are similarly aching, our bodies busily preparing for transformations unknown?! Perhaps we will become what we imagine, or more likely what we don’t, whether a product of some spurious gene manipulation or the victim of some machine that we create.

Fifth case: Medusa redux

DSCF2030

What angry next of serpents are these that rise out of the bowels of the earth?! Does Medusa lie buried here, her wandering and suffering complete? Surely we can see beyond the horror to the once golden locks that were so alluring to Poseidon and not be turned to stone!

Sixth case: a hummingbird’s beak, a medieval cudgel?

DSCF2034

Some ancient tribe seems here to have snapped the beak off a prehistoric hummingbird and used it for a cudgel? What cleverness! What power! To think that anything so harsh and threatening could have evolved millions of years later into a delicate tool by which to sip sweet nectar from the brightest of flowers!

You, of course, will play this game better than I. My pedantic musings will pale in the face of your children’s creations which, no doubt, will be a source of joy and wonder, and maybe a little laughter. There is more to play than sitting at a computer or laptop, or in front of a tv. Change the rules in any way that seems to work and be open to surprises. Not a bad New Year’s Resolution.

Advertisements

“…when the ruins are cleared away”

splash
I don’t think politicians change the world. I think artists and perhaps philosophers who become true spiritual leaders have that power. Scientists and engineers and business men and women can effect change, but in reality what they are doing is translating art and philosophy into something concrete, something ephemeral. An important role, of course, but nonetheless secondary to that which is eternal.

Chinua Achebe says that “art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.”  I would go further to say that art springs indelibly from the very stuff that is the source of life. It survives and supersedes, as Katherine Anne Porter has said, all manner of chaos and neglect, “outliving governments and creeds and… even the very civilization that produced (it).” It is, in Porter’s words, “what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.”

Art has the ability to freeze time long enough for us to see who we are, to fathom for a moment what life is, and then inspire us to move again. It springs from our unconscious and, in so doing, captures the essence of reality and our humanity. Even at its darkest, it allows us to contemplate the beauty and the mystery that informs our very existence. It is with these thoughts that I return to a visitor to Stony Brook a few weeks ago, one whose impact upon me has yet to fade.

53582ca7e3b149e0ef9e770b70de9c8cWhen Justyn Zolli came into the Nature Center with his father, Frank (a member of the local Lion’s Club who has generously supported Stony Brook as a volunteer over the years), I immediately found myself engaged in one of those conversations that renews the spirit. Justyn was back from San Francisco for a week or so and was clearing out some books, a telescope, and even some skeletal remains that he thought might be of use to Stony Brook. He wanted to make a donation, which I was pleased to accept. But I wanted more. I wanted to know about him and his art.

Punctuated by loving and proud anecdotes from his father, Justyn told me a story of his exploring the woods and fields and streams of Stony Brook when he was young and his growing recognition of, and fascination with, Nature’s patterns. He began drawing what he saw at an early age and carried his love of Nature into his studies at RISD and the Museum of Fine Arts School, and later into his work as an artist in New York and eventually San Francisco.

His words echoed those one finds on his website. At times he seemed almost to be reciting them:

CNY7tbcWxz6UeovR“My art practice is a conversation with the timeless, the primal, and the elemental. My works draw a connection between mysticism and modernism, passing beyond representation in search of transcendence, addressing silence, interiority, energy, and communion through a meditative iconography.

Through my artworks, I explore the unifying and transforming qualities of light and structure. I explore the relationships between pure color, timeless geometry, and the flowing, visual rhythms derived from my study of the dynamics of great Nature. My inspirations come from my studies of ancient and mystical art, my many travels to the world’s sacred architecture and wild landscapes, and my love of modern painting.”

As he talked, I was mesmerized, as these were flashbacks to my own interests and studies, ones which I rarely access now that I am older and “on with my life.” Though I was never an artist and do not have the talent to become one, I knew exactly what he meant. It had been years since I had heard anyone talk like this or think like this, seemingly not since my time in the classroom, whether as a student or as a teacher myself.

VGUIYJetF5KEgl0FI listened as he recounted his travels through India, the British Isles, Europe, the Himalayas, Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the American West. He told me about his fascination with the laws of change and transformation, especially as they work through Nature and us. He cited his study of ancient Chinese landscape painters in the Taoist tradition and, in particular, their concept of “li” (which means “natural principle”), that which gives form and substance to all life.

Heady stuff, I know, and to some extent so arcane as to be difficult to translate into reality. Justyn, however, seems determined to do just that. He referred me to the words of a 14th century Zen painter named K’un-ts’an, whose philosophy he has whole-heartedly embraced:

“Speaking of painting in its finest essentials, one must read widely in the documents and histories, ascend mountains, and trace rivers to their source, and only then can one create one’s ideas” (again, from his website).

Listening to him, I was reminded of one of my favorite plays, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, in which he explores the possibility of translating certain natural rhythms and laws into mathematical formulae. I talked about fractals and the basic premise of order arising not out of design, but out of chaos, an idea to which Justyn seemed to give a knowing nod.

dn9qd584_C6SZzb5Our conversation continued for several more minutes, but as I recounted it to Doug (Stony Brook’s Director) a few days later, I thought that what was most striking and significant about our chance meeting was this revelation: in a time of uncertainty and upheaval, of falsehoods being cast off as truth, of money and power and socio-economic status being equated to importance or value or even dignity, it’s refreshing to know that there are still individuals among us who believe in something larger than themselves and who have goals and dreams that they are willing to pursue to the ends of the earth.

In all sincerity it was not so much the esoteric philosophy and the avant garde artwork of Justyn that impressed me. It was his humility and his honesty, his dedication to discipline and hard work, his belief in knowledge for its own sake, and his willingness to share it. Grounded in an attachment to Nature and a spiritual reality, he reaffirmed for me the basic dignity and desires of ordinary people, though in many ways he and his work are anything but ordinary.

 

Me Again – thanks to a pink moon!

full_moon_full_width

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.

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)

Downy Woodpecker

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.”

Canada Goose

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.

American Robin

“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…”

copy0776

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)

img_7362-mallard-reflection

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?

Hooded Merganser

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

Without the boardwalk…

“There is no there there.”

decknew
Gertrude Stein’s famous remark upon visiting the site of her childhood home in Oakland California, only to find that it was no longer there, has been resonating for me recently.  Clearly the DCR’s closure of our boardwalk for safety reasons has had a powerful effect upon me, the staff, and the entire Stony Brook community.

boardwalk
It’s not that there aren’t still many wonderful reasons to visit the Sanctuary grounds that I think of Gertrude Stein. Teal Marsh, Kingfisher and Stony Brook Ponds have many access points and much to offer from any vantage point. The boardwalk, however, defines this space. It is the heart and soul of Bristol Blake, an iconic ribbon of sun-washed boards capable of transporting any who walk it to undiscovered places.

P1120393
The boardwalk is a source of adventure and mystery, for many a portal through which we become kids again. Thick-skinned creatures emerge suddenly from beneath the depths to match our stares, then slowly slip back into the mud only to reappear behind us as a series of bubbles breaking upon the foot rails. Steam rises off the water and hisses slightly as it evaporates into the sunlit air. Red and blue and yellow stripes flash in and out of swaying trees in a celebratory song to spring. Here we can walk upon water. Here we can gaze into the depths.

DSCF6128
A huge swan flies menacingly over our heads, its wings whirring, laboring to keep him afloat. Wood ducks and mallards leap playfully into the air and then course back into the stream with grace, undisturbed by the cackling geese in the distance. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer will no doubt soon float by on their way to the island, there to build a fort or be on the lookout for ghosts and robbers. Anything is possible here: a chance to be brave, to shout out at shadows, to follow a whisper, to still heavy breathing and a beating heart.

Stony Brook boardwalk
For others the boardwalk is like Jacob’s Ladder, a path to peace, a means to stillness, a source of contemplation, an escape from the mundane and dispirited. Eyes and ears open. The skin feels prickly then smooth. Muscles relax and we are human again. The absurdities of politics, the economic fears, the madcap race to prosperity or influence or acceptance become meaningless and ephemeral. Something is eternal, and we have the sense that we are closer to that here upon these bleached out boards of pine that seem to float upon the water.

boardwalkinFall2
Here we see evidence of beavers felling trees, stopping up the spillways, ferrying sticks and brush and clay into a den they call home. Here turtles sunbathe upon the rocks, undisturbed by thick black water snakes circling about them for a quiet spot of their own. Here, if we are patient, an otter or a mink will swim by on their way to the mudflats, and we bear witness to a great blue heron plucking a fish from between the reeds and gulping it down in one big swallow. Nature follows its own rules in this place, and sees no need to wear disguises.

Stony Brook bridgecopy
We need to be reminded of mystery, the many shades of reality, our connection to nature, and the restorative power of the imagination. We need occasionally to find our mouths open in awe. Our minds quiet. Our eyes able to see what is before us. At Stony Brook, the boardwalk is a means to these ends. It’s a stunning part of the landscape which we hope soon to be open again, the DCR and the state willing. In the meantime, the support – and patience – of all our visitors sustains us.

Being from Nothingness: feeling the seam

DSCF7733copyThe jagged fingers of ice caught my eye. Beyond everything else on my walk along the path- the winter blue sky, the dried out berries, the beaver slough, the tendrils of snow, the towering pines dancing in stiff breezes- the breach of the pond into a crystalized state of yearning fascinated me. It was as though I had caught the water in mid-crawl, trying to escape the limitations of being liquid, the perils of never being known as steadfast, the emptiness of never having a secure form or shape. For a still moment I was bearing witness to energy being converted into matter, potential into actuality, stardust into life.

I recalled some of the artwork I had seen through the years, avant-garde monochromes heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy and technique, in which the artist probed the mysteries of white on white or black on black. These were paintings and photographs that defied interpretation, that found depth where there appeared to be none, focusing on texture and transition and improbable seams in a primordial dance of contemporary light. Surely this is a metaphor for what we are at heart. A ripple of energy, a tear in the fabric. Life witnessed and created in a slurry of darkness into white.

With new energy, I walked the trail, now looking exclusively for blades of ice that inspired or intrigued me, whether in thought or whimsy. Witness some of what I found below:

DSCF7741copy
That rushing water could need a catalyst only, a reed, a mere tendril of thought upon which to take shape delights me. It’s not being only that arose out of nothingness. It’s thought; it’s dreams; it’s opportunity and new direction. Life is anything but static.

DSCF7743copy
Great thoughts and minds sometimes cluster into generational shifts of dreams that literally dazzle us for centuries. Oh to be riding such a wave these days!

DSCF7744copy
Even the most obtuse origins, instincts or creed must occasionally be given new clothes, though at heart we do have to understand the burden that we carry with us. Humans do not shake off the animal within so readily; nor should they.

DSCF7739copyThat rocks can be given wings, that liquid energy can congeal into sentient beings, should give us hope that we are part of something mysterious and wonderful and eternal, lest we give in to fear-mongering and hate. Robert Frost says that the world will end with fire, but that, knowing enough of hate, “if it had to perish twice… ice would suffice.” On this day, I prefer to see ice as an agent of growth, not so much an end as a beginning. Not so much fixed or determined, but a state of perpetual grace.

The archetypal call to innocence

P1040124I am struck again and again by the trees stripped of their leaves, their stark contrast to a radiant blue sky and low-hanging sun filtering through stalwart white pines. The barrenness of winter invigorates me. I feel as though I am stripped clean of old clothes and scrubbed down with soap and steaming hot water, then given license to take a long nap. The land must feel this, too, whether wrapped in deep snow or cleansed by driving rains.

We forget the power of seasonal patterns, the endless cycle of seeming death and rebirth. Whether we have imposed this pattern upon the natural world, or the natural world has imprinted it upon us, it remains a promise given to us by life. Life lives by dying. We do not have to fear change. We can fail and still thrive. We can be lost and still be found. We always return to our roots.

crystals on leafI think of the festivities that come around the time of the winter solstice, the religious narratives, the pagan rites, the gift giving, the celebration of light. With great excitement, we anticipate the arrival of spring, new dreams, romance, the smell of ripening earth. But I would argue that there is virtue in not rushing the next season, of luxuriating in the stillness of winter snow and ice.

P1060494I see burnt out grasses and wilted leaves, shriveled red berries and tightly knit buds on stiff-legged shrubs and trees, and I am given pause. I take deeper breaths and more time to exhale. I slow down in wonder at the simplicity, the quiet, the repose to which we all have access in the midst of our hurly burly lives.

Winter thrusts us into the present moment, perhaps more than any other season. We can pull our knees up to our chests, curl into a ball, and listen to the steady beat of our hearts. It is a not so much a retreat from life as it is obeying the archetypal call to retrieve our innocence, to discover once again who we are and what we value.

shadowsWe can see time for what it is and not worry that it will all slip away. Something is eternal. We know this. Winter sheds anxiety as nothing more than so much dust and detritus. It summons us to believe, once again, in humility and humanity, in selflessness and grace. Only then are we capable of love and prepared for the call of spring.

Learning not to fret about “aboutness”

DSCF7684Last week long-time friend and Stony Brook supporter Mona Tighe urged me to step away from my desk and get out on the trail. “Go look at the witch hazel before you come to the second spillway. It’s in full bloom and spectacular,” she told me. Unfortunately I waited more than a week before I got out there (sheer laziness on my part), but the fact that she had taken the time to tell me about it stayed with me. Mona has an eye for beauty, and I didn’t want to miss my chance to share in it firsthand.

DSCF7685I worried that the wind and rain the night before would have diminished the bushes’ flowers, but the warm air and the breaking sunlight and the sudden onset of brilliant foliage scattered everywhere along the walkway were prize enough: a last gasp of fall before the barrenness of winter; a chance to store up autumnal fires.

DSCF7686Had it not been for Mona’s urgings, however, I never would have noticed the witch hazel on my own. The delicate flowers may not have had the same luster as when she first saw them, but they burst forth along the ends of branches nonetheless, scattered and thin like some child’s attempt to fashion wispy yellow sea anemones out of spaghetti straps of ribbon. Against a backdrop of white pine and red oak, swirling yellow beech and burnt brown leaves, they were almost invisible. But I now had eyes to see.

The core of the flowers looked like green fisted cups, their sides rolled back into four delicate petals reminiscent of Belleek china, strangely in the shape of octopus suckers, some with thin wiry pistils protruding through the center, others with swollen yellow stamens encircling the edge. These cups will fold into pouches that burst forth with seed in the spring, Doug tells me. “It can happen all at once and make a loud popping sound that will catch you off-guard if you’re not looking for it,” he says.

DSCF7688I am struck more by the boldness of the plant to flower in the late fall than by its physiognomy. I marvel that other life forms would choose to challenge winter or, perhaps, forego summer temptations for later- in- life glories. We do not all reach our stride at the same rate. Nor do we all have the confidence that we can stand center stage when the bows of others have already been made.

It’s no wonder that this plant has medicinal powers which the Native Americans first discovered. As if by magic it has been used to cure everything from poison ivy and conjunctivitis to open wounds and hemorrhoids. Loaded with antioxidants, it is a strong anti-inflammatory that has been shown to be effective in treating the Herpes virus and is currently being tested for its ability to reduce wrinkles and repair aging skin. Of course its forked branches have also been used for centuries as a divining rod to locate underground water sources, or even hidden gold.

DSCF7690Leave it to Mona to turn my attention this way. She who was among the first to spot the purple gallinule at Stony Brook. She who keeps a detailed list of every new bird she sees. She who seems perennially young and able to rise above any affliction or temporary ill. She should give lessons in “paying attention.” As I think of her, I am reminded of an essay in The Atlantic a few months ago wherein Lucas Mann reflects on “how honesty and specificity have the power to redeem the banal, imbuing our smallest private moments with significance.”

He talks about J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and tells how reading it “woke (him) up to the fact that spending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at.” Mona has this magical ability and so should we.

DSCF7691So on this day when the witch hazel was not so striking as I thought it would be, I was rewarded nonetheless. The trails were ablaze with foliage that would put Seurat to shame. And I was given a lesson in thinking and feeling and specificity by a true master, who just happens to walk the trails of Stony Brook almost daily.

A Turtle’s Gaze

DSCF7672copyIts beauty is stunning. I had forgotten. It’s been months since I walked the trails. A desk and responsibilities are easy excuses not to get out. Inertia, routine, habit prevail unless vigorously challenged by sticky notes and memos and spontaneity. Or a friend, a spouse, who refuses to let me settle into a sedentary life.

DSCF7670copyThe air moves breathlessly through the leaves and along the water, warm with a hint of northwest chills to come. It radiates an endless stream of iridescent waves that literally mimic the steady flow of the universal ether coming from the Big Bang. We indeed always have one foot in the water and one in the stars.

For all the movement, however, there’s a sense of calm and tranquility, a still point between seasons wherein the exuberance of a summer swim off Sampson Island, kayaks in the day and fireflies circling at night, early evening cookouts and pool parties that linger into dusk, cicadas humming through sleepless nights, all hover in silent repose waiting to be banked as memories. The migration is on!

DSCF7675copyTwo visitors on the boardwalk steer my gaze toward one of the giant turtles surfacing from the mud, kicking up plumes of vegetative dust and debris that has settled to the bottom of the pond, signaling its arrival by a succession of bubbles that pop on the surface of the water. At first he swims to avert my gaze, wandering through a maze of wooden supports to escape detection. His movement is effortless, rhythmic, much like that of an ancient warrior who’s too familiar with earlier battles to be flustered by a novice such as me.

DSCF7673copyI search through my own shadow for signs of life, but he is too cagey, too illusive, to signal his destination. I turn my head only to see my notebook and pen blow off the railing into the water, an ironic and not too subtle reminder that such moments as this are to be savored, swallowed whole, not broken up into discursive scratches, lines and dots.

DSCF7679copyAnd as quickly as I lose sight of him, he resurfaces twenty feet behind me, as if to laugh at my inexperience in this game. He looks at me intently, perhaps thinking me a possible adversary, or more likely wanting to know the source of my curiosity, the reason for my joy at his gnarled and knobbed beauty. He seems equally entranced by my aging body as I am his, either that or he revels in the warm September air that circles above, keeping us both warm before we burrow down for the winter.

DSCF7671copyThen he sinks, slowly, silently, unself-consciously back into the alluvium from whence he came, and I think “so shall we all one day, I hope with equal grace.” Not a death, but a brief departure. The game to be replayed another day.

As I walk back to the Nature Center, reflecting upon the turtle’s gift to me, I am greeted politely by a handsome woman whose husband trails behind her, a frail, disconsolate victim of Alzheimer’s, head bowed, body bent as if in pain. And I realize in passing that I know this man, this once proud doctor who no longer remembers my name or my daughter who worked with him when she was in college. And, thinking back to the turtle, I am reminded that Nature reveals itself to us in such evanescent wisps of truth and beauty, some of which linger forever, some of which burst into flame.