Marla through the Looking Glass

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle! (Alice in Wonderland)

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“Oh, good, my slime molds are here! I’ll have to find out how to feed them so we can watch them move in two weeks when there aren’t any outside when I need them. I think I need oatmeal for the slime mold. What was I just doing? Oh, taking pictures. But right now I have to go spray the millipedes or get some compost from the pile so they stay moist. They don’t really have a brain, only ganglia, so someone has to watch over them… Knock Knock. Who’s There? Canoe! Canoe Who? Canoe come out and play with me today?”

I swear, it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. Who else would talk like this, let alone get excited about slime molds?! Welcome to the inspired, sometimes wild and crazy, splendidly creative, at times ingenious, always one step short of being disorganized world of Marla Cohen: our camp director, our education coordinator, our resident crisis manager and teacher, house cleaner, chef, and whatever else has to be done to keep Stony Brook alive.

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Her sense of humor is often droll and sarcastic, or just plain silly. Her dress is casual to say the least, suitable for mucking ponds or hiking the Appalachian Trail or running off to the circus, frequently accentuated by flashy wands, tie-dyed shirts, sparkling tiaras, duck calls, glasses, and a fistful of keys. She leaves a trail of paper and detritus behind her, covering any desk or open space with lesson plans, posters, coffee cups, half-eaten bagels, markers and pens. There’s literally no end to her territory or space.

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With this remarkably successful camp season winding down, I find myself reflecting upon how it all works. Parents and kids praise it, send thankyou letters complete with drawings and gifts in appreciation. Campers become CITs and CITs become counselors, and counselors come back to visit even when they’ve moved on. I hear the shouts of joy, the meaningful silences, the soothing reassurances, the chatter and laughter, and behind it all is Marla Cohen.

Much like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, she believes “in as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and then somehow summons the energy to do it again the very next day. The kids love her, her staff adores her, and anyone who deals with her respects her uncanny creativity and knowledge base, as well as her unparalleled work ethic and commitment to Mass Audubon’s goals.

Her counselors’ comments say it all:

“Her teaching style is unbelievable. The stories. The facts. All the information that just spews forth from her mouth is incredible…”

“You can be struggling to communicate with kids for ten minutes and she comes by and says two simple words and they immediately understand…”

“She knows where everything is, and where and when you need it, before you do…”

“She’s extraordinarily supportive, the best boss ever. Enthusiastic and goofy… She has a jello mold for a brain. That says it all!”

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“She’s so helpful. When I have difficulty thinking of things to do with the kids, she’s the first one to step forward with a ton of ideas… She spouts forth hilarious things and strange thoughts indiscriminately, and is full of surprises. Anyone who doesn’t know her would think she’s odd or strange… But she’s always thinking about the kids, making sure everyone is doing what needs to be done to make their experience a good one.”

The fact is that behind the crazy costumes, the silly knock knock jokes, the chaotic jungle of an office, and the constant muttering to herself there resides an incredibly disciplined and talented teacher who has inspired thousands of kids over the last 20 odd years. No one gives more of herself to her job. No one is more attentive to the details or cares more about the results. No one is more capable of being 3 places at once than she.

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More than the Camp Director, she is the heart and soul of Stony Brook, over-seeing, developing and informing everything from our local school, scout and birthday programs, to our special events like the Fall Fair and Amphibians after Dark. She produces the curriculum, writes the skits, fashions the costumes, organizes and designs the activities and crafts behind everything we do.

Even as I write this a woman comes by with a plush, stuffed animal frog for her. “I know Marla will have a use for it,” she says. “I won it at a carnival, and the first thing I thought of was to give it to her.” She can turn trash into treasure, straw into gold. Every object has a story; every moment is a teachable one. And everyone who takes the time to know her understands this basic truth: Marla Cohen loves children, loves teaching them about the natural world and seeing their minds spring to life.

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“Don, what do you think: poisonous flowers in the creamer?”

She’ll do that to you. Just when you think everything makes sense and you are about to complete a task, she’ll stand in front of your desk and say something that catches you off-guard alters reality as you’ve come to know it. There’s really no one like her. At Stony Brook we are fortunate, indeed.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
(Alice in Wonderland)

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The Old Eternal

DSCF7799Forget the clouds!
It’s the blue
Lapis lazuli sky
That seems to float endlessly into space
Filling black holes and dark matter
With dancing birch and swaying pines,
Variegated dragonflies and Baltimore Orioles
Feeding their young, reveling in the warmth
That stays

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Forget the barricades
That forbid entry
To sun-bleached deck and rails
Their dips and sways
Sweet ribbons of rough-hewn grace,
Lightly lifting the soul

 

Forget juice and June
No sultry romance along city streets
Back alleys or sidewalk cafes
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No black tie dinners or dress-up lace.
Nothing
But insects humming blindly,
Song birds thrilling
To the breezes down from Canada

 

Water lilies frothing in the heat
Blossoming uncontrollably across the pond,
White lips cradling yellow bursts of gold
On floating hearts of deep moss green

 

DSCF7808Forget the sodden news, the self-serving politics,
The mindless acts of terror and violence,
The fears of ordinary people
Trying to make a life!

Here there is only the moment

When bullfrogs croak to wake us
And we take our waking slow
DSCF7804The faint smell of blossoms drifting
Into the shifting wind.

 

Green is the new gold
Blue is the old eternal
June is a reminder to bear witness
To our role as Nature’s eyes.

Into the Wild: a few thoughts about H is for Hawk

 

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H Is for Hawk
, Helen Macdonald’s best seller, has been in the back of my mind for about two months now when I finished reading it. I hesitate to recommend it since it seems suitable for a very small audience, and yet its appeal has been fairly universal, its acclaim unquestioned. It’s a quirky book, one part memoir, one part training manual, and one part psychological analysis of T.H. White, the writer of such books as Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King.

The book arises out of the need for Macdonald to come to grips with the death of her father: her pain of loss, her bitterness toward the fact of mortality, her confusion about a direction in life, her need for love, for purpose. Almost as if to avoid addressing these issues, she takes on the challenge of adopting and training a goshawk, which she names Mabel, in the ancient art of falconry. Over time Mabel becomes a powerful force of nature, capable of seeking out prey with such precision and grace and, yes, brutality, as to inspire awe in those of us who are merely human.

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Ironically, on the journey to satisfy her blood lust, to fulfill her role as predator, Mabel ends up helping Macdonald appreciate the value and beauty of Nature’s rules, to understand better the complex relationship between life and death, and to respect the responsibility and distinct virtue of being human. Through memory and tradition and, indeed, consciousness, we make associations, we see connections, we fashion lives that have meaning and structure worlds without end.

Macdonald’s foray into the life and writings of T.H. White may seem offhand and even off-putting at times, especially since so much is made of his confused sexual identity and his parents’ abuse, but it’s her re-reading of White’s The Goshawk that ultimately propels her on her own journey. In her determination not to make the same mistakes White makes in training his goshawk, she becomes obsessed to do things right, to win Mable over, to make her father proud.

In the end, whether by her own occasional failings, sheer exhaustion, or the passage of time, she becomes much more forgiving of White and able to see in his writing an attempt to triumph over a failed life. In effect, she sees something of herself in White, and in Mable, and revels in the opportunity she is given to make sense of it all. In effect, she realizes that with her father’s death “she “was in ruins” and in need of rebuilding herself. The book, then, becomes the story of her becoming a hawk, which is everything she thought she wanted to be: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

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She discovers, of course, that what she needed was just the opposite. And so, like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, she takes on the guise of an animal to learn first-hand what it means to be human. What begins as an impulse to escape the world, however, to flee to the wild, to cleave to the earth and let “’nature in her green, tranquil woods heal and soothe all afflictions,’” (John Muir) ends with a recognition that doing so was “a beguiling but dangerous lie.” She learns that “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

In her words,

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.

More to the point, Macdonald learns to re-connect with people, to give of herself, to embrace the pain of being human as part of what makes life worthwhile.

All this, however, does little to express the impact of the book, the power of its prose, or the beauty of its depiction of the natural world. Macdonald is so intimately involved with Mabel that we come to see with her eyes, to pay attention to details that ordinarily we’d miss. Consider this passage as an example:

The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird… This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarized light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur… I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own.

Whether describing Mable preening, the training process itself, the rigors of the hunt, or the lush forests and fields of England, Macdonald combines magic with ministry. For me, the strength of the book lies in its glorious detail. The goshawk becomes for Macdonald a kind of shaman who is able to “cross borders that humans cannot,” a messenger between this world and the next, a bridge between the human and natural worlds. At a time when more than ever we seek to remake Nature in our own image, shape it according to our needs, take for granted its endless bounty, this is a book you might want to read.

Without the boardwalk…

“There is no there there.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Whether age 4 or 50, a learning tree

DSCF7757copyJust this last week I decided to observe Jessica Watson’s “We Are Nature” class for 2.5 – 5-year-olds. I had been thinking about how we approach teaching young children at Stony Brook, how kids best learn, what we can do to encourage their curiosity and life-long learning skills. Of course my own grand-children spurred on some of this reflection, but two articles in The Atlantic online were my principal impetus: Educating an Original Thinker, by Jessica Lahey, and The Power of Thinking Like a Preschooler, by Lauren Cassani Davis. Both are well worth reading.

DSCF7775copyLahey’s article is essentially an interview with Wharton professor Adam Grant whose new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, examines how unorthodox thinking changes society. She discusses the tension between order and control in a teacher-centered classroom and the spontaneity of student-led inquiry focusing on problem-based learning. Too much freedom and kids can suffer “choice paralysis.” Too much structure and discipline and “kids don’t learn to think for themselves.”

DSCF7749copyNeedless to say, Grant argues for a blend of both pedagogical approaches with an emphasis on giving kids responsibility for their own learning. This comes in a variety of ways: for example, in developing their own ways of teaching a lesson learned and presenting it in small groups; exploring a variety of solutions to problems; offering students a chance to reinterpret something they think they know by presenting competing viewpoints; asking them to investigate why something fails or does not work and how that failure can be beneficial. Grant emphasizes values over rules and points to such concepts as a respect for difference and the joy of meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

DSCF7751copyDavis’s article is an interview, as well, in this case with Erika Christakis, a child-development specialist from Yale, whose book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, examines the “academic takeover” of pre-school education in this country and the lack of “understanding children’s needs and inner lives.” Christakis argues that we “under-estimate kids’ intelligence,” don’t understand “how profound children’s thoughts are,” and often “don’t give them enough time to engage in something.” She points to the value of “spontaneous, meaningful conversation” between adults and children, the importance of open-ended toys that can be used “to represent things symbolically,” the power of fantasy play, the need to ask open-ended questions that encourage dialogue. Like Grant, she advocates “inquiry-driven” education whereby children acquire content rather than simply get it spoon-fed.

DSCF7779copyChristakis cites the importance of developing a cognitive approach to learning that involves “observation, questioning, exploration, (and) reflection.” In essence she says that we need to equip young people of all ages with basic skills like “how to have a conversation, how to listen to other people, how to… express yourself, how to observe and then explore and then reflect on what you’ve explored.” These, she says, become life-long skills for all of us, whether age 4 or 50.

DSCF7776copyWhat excited me about these two articles, however, was not so much the content per se as it was seeing that content validated by Jessica Watson’s class. From the very beginning she declared her central values (“I love to pretend”; “I love to use my imagination”; “I love to be silly”) and invited the children to  explore with her “what it means to be a bird” and to discover “how birds use their beaks as tools to eat.” She encouraged them to talk, to ask questions, to move from one investigation table to the next and then to share what they had learned. The goal: to figure out what tool (eye dropper, chop sticks, scissors, spoon, sieve) worked best to collect the pretend food (ants, worms, algae, nectar, meat represented by such things as rice, packaging peanuts, fruit loops and model clay).

DSCF7764copyThe kids were intent upon their tasks, enthusiastically sharing their insights, responding to Jessica’s praise, volunteering to help, asking questions freely. They seemed to relish the tactile nature of their learning, to see it as an opportunity to play. They helped one another find answers, waited patiently for their turn. Rarely did they get side-tracked, and when they did Jessica invited them back into the conversation smoothly. One boy simply wanted to manipulate the eye dropper and the “nectar” over and over again, as if fascinated by the process. But his reluctance was not a problem. He was given free rein to go his own way, but was brought back into the group when it came to working on the craft which everyone else chose and he knew he’d enjoy.

DSCF7784copyLater, after drawing some final conclusions and celebrating their discoveries, Jessica moved them outside where they had a chance to run. First they closed their eyes to listen for sounds and talked about what they heard. Then they moved down the trail to observe beaver cuttings and a goose feeding in the stream. As if on cue, the goose illustrated perfectly the virtue of a bill that strains duck weed from the water, much as the kids had just discovered inside. Then on the way back Jessica asked each child individually what animal he or she wanted to pretend to be, and the whole group ran (or flew) down the path imitating the various choices.

DSCF7787copyThinking back to the articles I had read, I could see the virtue of learning in this way. There was structure and a clear cognitive pathway to be followed, but there was flexibility and opportunity for the children to take the lead, to share their stories, to move at different speeds and to find their own way. This is what we strive for at Stony Brook and why I encourage parents and grandparents to enroll their children in our programming. We foster growth and responsibility. We see obstacles as opportunities. We believe in process and life-long learning. And we see work as a kind of play.

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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

 

To Be about Play…

 

 

blog7After reading one of my recent blogs, my wife reminded me that Stony Brook is more than the serious reflections on life and death that I often fall prey to. She is absolutely right. In fact, as I listen to the whoops and hollers of the camp kids outside and watch them running through the field with their counselors in chase (who look like throw-backs from the days of Huckleberry Finn with their straw hats and cut-off jeans), I have to smile.

blog4Stony Brook is a place of self-discovery and exploration. It’s a place to take a leisurely walk or to witness Nature unfolding before our eyes. It’s a place of color and light, winding trails and breezes on the water. A retreat from routine, a source of comfort or solace, or better yet inspiration. But perhaps more importantly our campers remind us, it’s a place to run, to shout, to sing and occasionally to dance. I hear our Discoverers singing now before they leave for home: “Good bye, friends. Good bye friends. We had fun today, yeh!” There’s a clear sense of camaraderie here, of friendships being made, of trust and security, of stories in the making.

campblog2One grand-mother comes to pick up and, unsolicited, says to Marla, our camp director, “You do such a good job here. My grand-children love it. They come home excited every day… They’re safe. They’re well cared for. And they have so much fun. Thank you.”

blog3We should be thanking her. We love to hear the children’s voices, their whispers, their shouts of glory, their teasing, their giggling, their occasional outbursts. They remind us to be about play. To be about time. To be about no boundaries, no judgment, no fears. This is a place where pressures and expectations vanish, where time slows down. Where it’s acceptable to jump in puddles and throw your head back to catch the rain. Whether child or adult.

blog8Daily routine takes a back seat here to pretend Beluga whales and home-made boats that carry record amounts of pennies. Kids run through imaginary air-dryers to get warm. They clamor to get three men into a boat while their counselor barks out commands. Then they all sing: “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.” Yes, life is a dream, of the most precious kind.

blog5The noise is deafening, and I love it. Children are restorative. They remind us how large the world is, how full of surprises, how much we as adults have lost, and how wide open our eyes must be to find it beneath our feet.

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