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…”


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)


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:

Romeo Gump’s 2016 Bicycle Adventure

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!

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.




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)

“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.

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.

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!”

“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.

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.

“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)

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


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
No black tie dinners or dress-up lace.
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


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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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!

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.