The awkwardness of spring came in full force as the weather was nice enough for some of us to don shorts and spring jackets, but also fickle enough to fluctuate between comfort and chill minutely. This awkwardness was highlighted for me with that morning’s footwear choices: to trudge the journey slowly with bulky snow boots, free to walk through any puddle daring to challenge my path, or risk sneaker stains and wet socks in exchange for nimbleness around the protruding tree roots and stone newly uncovered from the melt and absorption of winter. More or less to my regret, I chose the latter. One can’t help the desire to urge along spring with one’s dressing options.
The river was unusually high, spilling onto the path in places worn smooth by our frequent travels. I noticed our path wasn’t the only one being frequented though; from the riverbank through the brush we found a smaller trail along with some critter, perhaps a beaver, had journeyed, leaving compacted mud and broken twigs along the way.
Whomever he was, he now had company on the river. A mallard’s bright green head contrasted with the mostly cloudy sky, shining in the rare touches of sunlight able to poke through. He descended gracefully, swerving around a bend and out of sight, at least from my angle, before settling into the chilly waters. Close to shore, the first water bugs have begun skating across the glossy surface of the river, occasionally fleeing from the hungry mouths below splashing and sending ripples around the crime scene.
Before long, the ripples came in greater frequency, peppering the calm with islands of chaos. A drop of water landed on my nose. It had begun to rain. Pulling up my hood and hearing the voices coming down the path to retrieve me from my spot, I noticed some had landed on my lap, surprisingly solid. I blinked. It had begun to hail.
As if on cue with my realization, it began to come down in a torrent over the water, pit pattering with crescendo. If you looked carefully at the column of air and tracked a drop as it plummeted towards the Earth, it seemed to fall in slow motion. Spring is full of surprises.
Clad in shorts and sweatpants over our sundresses, upon arriving back at the bus, we were wet to say the least. Fortunately, some of us figured out quickly that Crazy Creeks also make great umbrellas in a pinch. Even better yet, Liana’s previously terrible day had been reversed, her spirits now particularly high having come face to face with a neighborhood beaver. Minding her little, he went along his business as if she weren’t there, kindly letting her bask in his adorableness and giving her a story to fill us all with envy as we rode the bus back to campus. She was beaming.
Lit and the Land bucket list: spot a beaver. One student down. Ten more to go.
I wonder when it was that nature became an escape. Admittedly I just spent the past half of an hour on a comfortable couch in my living room. I stared at this screen with my cursor blinking to remind me I had a paper to write. Well, I wish that were all. I have two more to go. My mother came inside after tending to the lawn and sending my little sister off to her father’s. She took up her place on the other end of the cushion, bringing to life her own screen and against the advice of her doctors, putting her concussed brain through LED fueled torture to keep up good relationships with someone on the other side of the ionosphere. Our combined hands harmonized the mechanical tapping of plastic buttons, measuring the rate at which our brains were formulating and articulating ideas. Plastic over time equals progress.
The balanced quiet was interrupted further as her boyfriend came home and flipped on the television. More LEDs pervaded my periphery. Bang. Bang. Bang. “Penny?” Bang. Bang. Bang. “Penny?” Bang. Bang. Bang. “Penny?” I stole a glance up at the screen. The woman was rubbing her eyes as she opened the door of her apartment in confusion. “Yes Sheldon?”
I gathered my belongings and tiptoed up the stairs to my bedroom. Fighting the temptation of my favorite show took more effort than the comfort of the couch was worth. I would find solace in silence. I would finish my papers; I would sleep tonight. I felt a stir in my pocket. Instinctively, subconsciously, I reached for my Android and swiped right, then down, clicking it to light. A potential college roommate had stuffed a message in a bottle and cast it into the virtual sea, surely with high hopes of it landing on the shore of another mutually bored and college bound teenager. At least, so Facebook’s notifications had implied.
What would have been a healthy dose of curiosity instead metamorphosed into claustrophobia. I couldn’t get away. My mother shouted upstairs for me to yell at my sister on her behalf. She should have been doing homework. So should I. I found her on her iPad in bed and relayed the scolding, internalizing some of its moral. Then casting my phone somewhere into the depths of my sheets, I booked it outside.
And here I am now, sitting in the bed of my neon blue 1994 Ford Ranger with chilly toes and a stubbornness to not return indoors to retrieve shoes. Though still in the driveway, I have managed to escape the buzz: my mother’s reminders of the dishes yet to be done, my pile of books waiting to be researched through, the vibrations of the world knocking on my pocket, begging for attention. Hood up around my ears and sun setting on my pale fingertips, it’s almost as if in the openness of the yard, I am invisible.
I noticed upon sitting down the massive Norway maple, stretched out and comfortable in its tightly wrinkled bark. Before rational thoughts took over, I imagined it as the lone wolf tree in a field, its summer leaves shading a herd of sheep. My yard could easily have once been a farm back in “the day”. Back then people built shelters to escape the weather, to escape nature. Despite reveries of my suburban home once being a homestead, I remembered Norway maples were a city tree, planted for its ability to tolerate our human tainted air. It must have been planted long after the past tenants moved out and Ford’s like mine moved in.
I still fancied its neighbor, a now barely budding silver maple, providing lumber once to build a house, to provide some lucky family with refuge from the elements, from nature. It had coppiced into five trunks, providing excellent sitting space between its hydra necks. But perhaps, like similar unfortunately placed white pines, its initial destruction was the result of a merely cosmetic cut. It shaded the windows improperly. Its remains would be scraps in the bush rather than a mantel above the hearth.
The sun and temperatures have sufficiently dropped and the robins who had sung so sweetly for me before now tease “Pa-pers, pa-pers,” reminding me the mystery will remain unsolved and only pondered for now; the mystery being, of course, on which side of the drywall home really is. It seems to me now an ironic switch. A last savoring glance to acknowledge the passing week of the daffodils and then back to buzzing for me. Reluctantly searching for my previous resolve, I’ll take one last swallow of fresh air, of nature.
The day is cloudy and the soil is moist as we get off the Red Dragon and head into a portion of Exeter’s woods that I have never visited before. We are in search of vernal pools, the ephemeral collections of water that form in the spring where frogs come to chill and spawn. I smell the dead grass as we cross the fields into the forest, and sense the green sprouts venturing out into the open in the cold weather.
I look and smell and hear, and I’m slightly frustrated by how ineffective I am. Mr. Bre is quick to point out deer tracks, something that I had originally dismissed as merely wet soil. And as we progress into the woods, Mr. Bre again points out that a deer has scraped against a small shrub; I note in my journal as Mr. Bre explains, “something for mating.” I don’t completely understand, and I begin to wonder how people like him and Claire Lesley Walker see so much. Is it because I’ve spent so much time in the city? Yet even in the city, I believe I am observant; I notice the ways buildings are built and stand, people’s expressionsand innuendos within the urban landscape. But when I am in the land, I feel lost and unsure how to look, interpret.
We get some time to go off on our own. I find the nearest tree, and I just stand there to look and listen. The branches on the lower portion of the tree are dying, and some stick out as if they were demented arms. The wind blows, and I hear the creaking as the tree sways with the wind. I look up, and notice how the tree’s creases get less defined as I progress to the top. The tree is so tall, sturdy, in place, yet so temporary, and I find comfort in that when it dies and rots away it will join the earth and revitalize into something new. The urban environment, made of concrete and metal, appears so permanent, stuck in its place, unable to grow or evolve, to disappear with time. Thirty years from now, the apartment buildings in the city back home will stand, stuck in a different age.
Perhaps we have come to look for vernal pools to early; no frogs today.
Some more notes from the day:
I hear the chickadee! It’s calling, and another squeaker responds.
We find deer droppings that look like beans.
The sound of the cars and traffic is inescapable.
Krissy points out the wooly adelgid on hemlocks, that arelike poison to the woods.
And right as we are about to leave, we see a blue heron fly over us. What an end to the excursion.
Lastly, we come together in an oval circle and Harkness in the classroom that is the forest.
L&L, here’s the plan for tomorrow:
We’ll meet at 8am at the bus, which will be parked in front of Peabody. Keep your eye on the weather, but it looks like rain, so you’ll want to pack your rain jackets in addition to your notebooks and your Elder and Price handouts. Bring your Crazy Creeks, too, so we can find a spot under a hemlock to Harkness afield.
Remember: Paper #2 is due tomorrow and, Brian, you’re on for a blog on tomorrow’s walk.
Looking forward to being out with you all in the morning!
Today, I headed out with Rosie and the stroller for a walk out past the mill buildings on the east side of the Squamscott. Heavy clouds encroached from the west, harkening rain, but we ventured out anyway, thinking we had just enough time before before getting wet. A crisp north wind. Slanting light emanating from cloudbreaks.
Pairs of small birds sliced through the air low over the water. Sharp wing angle, iridescent backs, light bellies. Clare Walker Leslie lamented the absence of tree swallows on her visit and she’d be glad to know that in the intervening days, they’ve returned. If you’ve never watched tree swallows in flight, it’s a true pleasure. Mini stunt pilots they are, all g-force and bravado, sometimes their wingtips carve thin grooves in the surface of the water as they dart for hovering insects.
A solitary male redwinged blackbird swayed in the breeze, balancing on a cattail stalk along the reservoir, baring his red and yellow shoulder badges. He let us approach to within ten feet before flitting away. 50 yards farther, we came upon a great blue heron wading shin-deep in a tangle of reeds; he took flight upon our approach, and with two or three wingbeats, glided to the opposite bank. We’d meet him again as we circled around.
On the return side of the reservoir, past our second brush with the heron (he crossed back over to his original spot!), a man with a telephoto lens flagged us down, pointing down a steepness of bank where a large round object rested on top of the reeds. “Snapper!” While the man entertained Rosie, I scuttled down the bank, closer, for a (poor) iphone picture. I thought of the time when I was six when I lost a hooked bluegill to a dark monster rising up from the muck. I can still see a thickly clawed reptilian hand (what do you call a turtle’s foot, anyway?) slashing my fish in two, leaving me with a dead-eyed hunk of flesh dangling on the end of my line. Or the time my dad thought it would be a good idea to pick up a cornered snapper by its stegosaurus tail, only to have it’s head shoot around lighting-quick from it’s shell in a defensive maneuver. I still don’t know how my old man has all his digits.
I’ve heard about all sorts of fascinating sights from our last trip outdoors: wood frogs, grey squirrels, a whole slew of common birds, and even an osprey. I didn’t manage to see any of the local fauna. However, despite my observational failure, the forest felt alive for the first time this year. I believe that the majority of that energy came from the humidity. The dew brought out all the vibrant colors in the environment. The grounded leaves that I had previously seen as shades of decaying brown, but on Friday, they burned vibrantly in an array of oranges, reds, yellows, browns, and purples.
The dew also seemed to lift the dirt’s nutrients into the air, and the whole forest had this intoxicating, refreshing smell. Each breath brought the spring freshness into my body, pulling me out of my winter mindset the same way the spring pulls leaves from the buds and flowers from the topsoil. You could taste the spring aroma floating through the forest.
I don’t know bird calls, but I’m starting to wish I did. Avian sounds filled the forest, the chirps and squawks and wingbeats echoing through the trees. Last time I sat in the woods and listened, I had to focus intensely to hear the birds at all, but since then, they shattered the silence completely. In addition to the euphonious sound of birds, I heard squirrels scrambling up and down trees, their tiny claws scraping against bark. If I had seen them, I might have seen them chasing each other or leaping from branch to branch. The wood frogs also emerged from their winter hiding places, and at the places they congregated, their croaking, which was admittedly kind of annoying, trumpeted loudly.
While the air was still cool and clouds still shrouded the sun, the forest felt lively again, and I knew that spring had come.
When I woke up this morning, it was raining, and that almost immediately put me in a bad mood. I walked outside in my rain jacket, light-wash jeans and boots. Every step I took kicked water onto the back of my legs, and thus I was overall quite irritated. I hadn’t known anything about Claire Walker Leslie other than that she drew well, and so I had no particular excitement about being up at 7:40 am on the coldest and rainiest day of the week.
L&L, some thoughts as we prepare to meet Clare Walker Leslie (hooray, yippee, wahoo!!!) on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
1. Ms. Walker Leslie will be available in our classroom on Monday night at 7:45pm. Your attendance here is OPTIONAL, though if your work is done and you have the inclination, it would be so good to have some of you there to welcome her to Exeter. This will be a time to interact with Ms. Walker Leslie in a small, intimate gathering, to listen to her thoughts and story as they speak to our exploration of environmental literature and the environmental movement.
2. We will meet on Tuesday morning at 7:40am in front of Elm Street to head into the field with Ms. Walker Leslie. Please have your Crazy Creek, your Write in the Rain notebook, a pen AND pencil, and your copy of Abbey. An IMPORTANT NOTE: it will be really, really, REALLY wet, muddy, and generally sloppy out there. It is imperative that you dress appropriately. Rain or muck boots are recommended (if you don’t have a pair, try and borrow some).
Ms. Walker Leslie is excited to field your questions. She specifically asked me to have you think about and write down some questions for her, and I’m including this LINK to her website to offer you further insight into her work and passions as you frame those questions . Three or four apiece should be plenty.
See you soon.
I checked the weather app on my phone compulsively this morning, watching the mercury steadily climb, climb climb for the first time in six months. 50…60…62. At 65 degrees, I told myself ok, this is it, handed Rosie to Ms. Simmons, and headed down to the basement to pump up my mountain bike tires and don some spandex. After a long, long, long and sedentary winter, this fleeting initiative was no small success! My own inner spring rustlings felt alive!
As I pedaled across campus, the soggy grass soaked up my momentum and sapped my speed. My tires skidded and slid through patches of slush-covered trail, threatening to tip my handlebars far enough aside to put me on my side. I managed to stay upright, though, out past the stadium, across the Exeter River spur berm, and into the hemlock grove where the shadows grew heavy and the snow on the trail thickened in a wall of cold air. Soon enough, it was too deep and slick to maintain traction, so I turned around and traced the swollen river back in the direction I came. I noticed the banks reaching deeper into the woods where they had overtaken a stretch of trees growing on a flat, their trunks stretching up from roots submerged in inky swell.
As I exited the woods, I caught a glimpse of peripheral movement sliding through the air and glanced up to see two bald eagles not thirty feet in the air–level with the tops of adjacent maples–winging by directly overhead. I caught a glimpse of silvery underplummage in the bright morning light, yellow, grizzly claw beaks, one or two ruffled feathers. The second bird, just behind, was immature, mottled as a giant speckled hen. So close. So immense. So surprising that they were upon me and gone before I could hit the breaks to take them in.
As I slowed my pace in their wake, reveling in the unexpected delight of such a gift, I downshifted and pedaled lightly back toward the stadium, breathing in the smell of soggy grass and mud. I banked left at the sagging lattice fence of the dog park and rolled to a stop at the crest of Cobb’s bridge. I wanted to watch the water slide by where not five days ago it still held icy static. As I looked south, almost immediately I caught sight of something in the water. I thought log, for it stretched long and thin, tapering at the downstream end, and drifted with the outside current’s bend. When the taper curled upstream, across the current, my mind began to rearrange itself…plastic bag I thought. Some detritus caught on the river bottom and reshaping itself with the downriver pull. As it drifted closer, though, I recognized the flat head and chin resting in line, split horizontally by the water’s surface, the sleek, moose brown back, the forearm-thick tail tapering to a downstream point. Otter. At the moment of apprehension, she tucked her chin and rolled underwater without a ripple. Gone.
All of us, out and about in incipient spring, the eagles and otter and I.