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Along the Inland Sea

Thursday, October 23, 2014


 Writing from a hotel in Columbus, where I'm waiting to go on WOSU to do an hour of fun fundraising with my sweet dear friend Ann Fisher, who constantly amazes me with her grasp of diverse issues and ability to interview anyone in depth, fearlessly, smoothly and kindly. If you want to listen/watch, it's at this link.  If you've got good Net, which I don't, you can watch! Eee! Good thing I dressed in my best torn up top. At 18:14 I read a commentary about Fergus, the bird-eating bullfrog. Makes me realize how very much I miss radio, miss performing commentaries on All Things Considered. Ah well. We raised around $2,000 in an active hour of wheedling. I adore Ann Fisher and it's clear Columbus does too.

On my way into campus last night, a spirit tapped me on the shoulder and told me to scan the building tops. "There's something up there for you," he whispered. Sitting at the light, I looked up far to my left, thought I saw a remote camera. Or was it a juvenile peregrine, perched above the L in LIVE IT? B. A deep charcoal black dream of a bird, calmly preening where only I could see it. This is why we listen to the little voice, why we carry binoculars in the car, everywhere we go. Yes, it made my day. I parked at my hotel and ran the half-mile back to properly ogle it. Looked big. Probably a hen, born this year. In Columbus? Who could say? There is a nesting pair in town, but it's also time for dispersing juveniles to be finding new places to live, heading south. She seemed a little surprised that I noticed her, but it didn't stop her sorting through her fluffy pantaloons. Best I could do with my iPhone steadied on a trash can. Yes, sometimes I yearn for my telephoto, but I tend not to take it to cities. I ought to. Wildlife is everywhere, if you're watching.

But with this post we're back in Ithaca, where my friend Joyce, whom I met during Joy of Birding at Hog Island Audubon Camp, has kindly offered to take me on a guided tour of Montezuma NWR, up north at the head of Cayuga Lake. I jumped at the chance to spend a day birding on my busy trip.

We stopped by Ithaca's fabulous Green Star Co-op, where you can get everything from lentils and bran to vegan tuna toenails in bulk, and picked up some sammitches. I chose Vegetarian Tuna, not realizing that it had never so much as been waved in front of a fish. Maybe I thought that meant it was made from vegetarian tunas, who ate kelp or something. I guess I don't know what I was thinking. I had Montezuma brain. Turns out I had bought textured vegetable protein bathed in some kind of vegonnaise, masquerading as tuna. Got a couple of bites into it. Texture convincing. No tang o' the sea. I scratched my head and looked at the label again.

Hmmm. Something about vegetables being made to pretend to be other food. Nuhhh. I ate it anyway, and resolved to be a little more label-conscious next time. It wasn't so bad. Zick. You fool.

The day was so beautiful I settled back, burping vegan Tu-Nuh, and dove into the trees and sky.

Vineyards abounded.

You don't see sheep farms in Ohio.

The sheep looked like scattered boulders out there, and the sky looked like North Dakota.The wind roared like that too. I fell into a momentary reverie of prairie.

That's what I love about travel--the way it neatly excises you from whatever trench you're in and refreshes your outlook with a vista, a color wash, a bracing gust in your ear.

I felt blessed to be on this road on this day with Joyce, the woods coming into peak color.

We sped north to Montezuma, rolling along the edge of this huge inland sea.

And the grapevines turned yellow from the bottom up.

Cornell Plantations in the Rain

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Last week, I traveled to Ithaca, which is a solid nine hours from southeast Ohio. I haven't been home very much lately; seems like I'm always loading the car for the next thing. My last two trips were so close together I just kept the car loaded. Writing now from a hotel room in Columbus. Missing my bed and my boys and the time just to be with a hot cup of tea.

I had two talks to give, one on Monday night at the Lab of Ornithology, hosted by the Cayuga Bird Club. The auditorium, one end of which is wood paneled and decorated with oil paintings by Louis Fuertes, one of my favorite-ever bird painters, was full. So was my heart. I'd made the trip up two years ago, only to have Superstorm Sandy cut the turnout to about 15. This made up for that! I'm pretty sure the talk I gave was unlike any other given at the lab--a personal view of how birds inform and inhabit my spirituality. 

On Wednesday, I was to present "Personal Habitat" for the Elizabeth E. Rowley Lecture at Cornell Plantations. 
Part of my speaker's welcome was a tour of the Plantations gardens by Betty Rowley herself! 

The heavens opened on us as our tour began, but Betty was slickered and umbrellaed. I was wearing a brand new, untested Eddie Bauer ultralight windbreaker/slicker. Best to find out how it would perform in actual field conditions. 

These white pines were planted in 1912, the year my DOD was born. I couldn't believe a hurricane hadn't brought them down, and just as I was thinking that Betty said that these are all that remain of a much larger plantation, hurricanes having brought the rest down. 

Part of the fun of an arboretum or plantation is seeing plants and trees from all over the world. These are Japanese katsura trees, with their small round leaves like gold coins. 

I think I was most impressed with the "Bioswale," a water-purifying streambed designed and planted to take water runoff from the parking lot and sidewalks, purify it with roots and gravel, and send it into a nearby stream which feeds into Cayuga Lake. 

The young sugar maples were at peak color, and they just took my breath away with the golden katsura trees, asters and grasses interplanted.

I love the notion of putting plants' root systems to work in purifying runoff water. And they chose such gloriously colorful plants. I couldn't imagine the Bioswale being any more beautiful than it was at this moment, in this hard rain, and I was thankful to be there to behold these landscape architects' handiwork.

This plant is from Texas and it has "blue" in its name. How embarrassing. But I couldn't pull my little notebook out to write. It was raining too hard. 

I knew this one: castor bean. It was in a medicinal plant garden. Mmm. Love those leaves. Every placard had something about the plant's use or connection to literature. I could have strolled and read for hours.

A large and lovely catalpa tree dominated the decorative plant garden, which was adjacent to the herb/medicinal garden. 

A spectacular Viburnum in blazing fruit. 

It was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into creating a landscape that would change interest and color with the seasons. 

The Tropical garden still had banana trees out, but it was clear the landscape there would change radically with the first frost. These red coleus, for  instance, would liquefy...I was glad to see them before that happened. 

And still the rain came down. I spotted several Plantations employees, weeding and deadheading and cleaning the gardens even in the rain. With their hoods up, they looked like wraiths popping in and out of the vegetation. It reminded me that no garden stays this beautiful without constant maintenance.

I discovered rather quickly that my nice lightweight slicker had two seams in the armpits that admitted a steady trickle of cold water on either side. Said water ran down my flanks to my stomach, where it pooled above my belt and soaked me from armpit to waist. Meanwhile, the water was running off the hip-length slicker and onto my trousers, which were saturated by the end of the tour. I was every bit as soaked under my slicker as outside it. Altogether a highly unsatisfactory performance for outdoor gear. Which I bought at a factory outlet. The phrase "You get what you pay for" probably applies. To be fair, what tags were on it made no claims for water resistance. Not sure what it's good for--windbreaker? Who gets wind without rain?

This is going to sound a little strange, but one of the things I enjoyed most was the pavement beneath the trees in the parking lot. As the leaves fell, their tannins interacted with the concrete, creating dark


Under each katsura tree was a great dark print of hundreds of fallen leaves. The leaves had been raked away, but their round ganged imprints were still on the concrete.  I found it so beautiful, this unbidden art made by trees. I couldn't do it justice in photos. It was all the more beautiful because no one could have anticipated it would happen. Sonja, who took wonderful care of me throughout my stay, agreed. It was nice to find that others noticed and appreciated the tree art.

A drip on the chin of the Yarb Lady, much like the one hanging off mine. I spent the rest of the afternoon slowly drying out.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Building. Hmm. My friend Tim said it looked like it might rise up and stomp on cars. I agree. Kind of a lurky Transformer vibe to it.  Cornell's campus is a melting pot of architectural styles, that's for sure. Something like this arises, cheek to jowl with something like this.

Pretty sure this was a redtail, hangin' out on some ironwork high above Cayuga Lake.

I know for a fact this is a redtail nest stuffed in a light fixture, because Sonja told me it was featured on a Lab of O Webcam. The female's name is Big Red, the male is Ezra, if I remember correctly.

Oh look. It's starting to rain.

Hmm. Wonder how this slicker will do? I left my heavy-duty one home...

In the photo below, that's scaffolding on a cupola under repair, transforming it into a magic, temporary pagoda against the sky. A lovely sunset, just the Lord's way of saying sorry about the wet pants.

Gentian Church

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

One of the things, it turns out, that is almost impossible to do when one is constantly traveling is: 
Put up blogposts. 

I miss it. It's a meditative thing. I get to roll around in my photos and think about what I've experienced and try to put all that into words. 

But I can't do that when I'm rushing around preparing talks and publicizing said talks, matting prints to sell, packing the car and meeting people for lunch and dinner and trying to sell books and prints and notecards and keeping track of all that by myself. Talk about a one-man band. Yikes. It's amazing how much energy goes into making your living on the road. Which, I realize suddenly, is what I do now.  Just ask Liam and Bill and Chet. 

I'd been saving one special experience from my eastern Pennsylvania trip at the end of September. I was saving it for dessert, for myself, and for you. And then it fell off the radar screen altogether. 

So I'm sitting in a hotel room high above the Cornell campus right now and the view looks like this in the morning: 

and it also looks like this:

and I feel incredibly lucky to be seeing these things, to be treated like visiting royalty when all I'm doing is giving talks and showing people pictures of my little corner of Appalachia.

But  it's all going by much too fast. I don't even have time to reflect on it, to write the way I used to about every little thing I see. And I miss that, the down time I need to process all this beauty.  I woke up this morning meaning to go for a run but I couldn't tear myself away from the sunrise on Ithaca. I mean, holy smokes. How could you walk away from a view like that? So I took a little time just to watch it and take some photos and fool around with them until they looked as beautiful on the screen as they did to my eyes.

That's the thing--to try to share things so you feel a little bit of what I did when I experienced them. 
I'll try with this one. 

September mornings are magical almost anywhere, but September 20 in Kunkletown PA was killing me. 

I took off on a 4 mile loop and breathed in the meadows and the slowly changing trees, the expansive skies. 

I saw a closed gate with a No Trespassing sign on it. By the signage, it seemed to lead to a gravel pit, that for all I could tell was now defunct.  I examined the blacktop road. It was clear to me that it had had no truck traffic for some time. Weeds were growing up through the asphalt. I walked around the gate. Gravel pits can be interesting places.

I was drawn to the blooming goldenrod and New England asters that were thriving in a meadow. It looked to me like at some point the meadow had been a vacant lot, scraped, perhaps, and leveled for stacking timber from the surrounding forest, which had been heavily cut over. But the wildflowers were growing, thriving in rank profusion on what was once a waste place. I liked the way they looked against an unsettled morning cloudbank rolling over the Kittatinny Ridge. I knelt and got down low to put them as high against that blue ridge and sky as I could.

And then I noticed a royal-blue flower in the grass and goldenrod and aster tangle. And another, and another. 

I hadn't seen greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)  for easily 27 years. I knew a place in Connecticut where I could find a couple of plants come September. That was it until now.

It was cool, early morning, and bumbles were asleep on the flowers, waiting for them to open and release their sweet nectar and pollen to the bees' care. You can see the fringed eyelashes on the petals.

For all I knew they'd fallen asleep in a nectar-drunk stupor the evening before and spent the night on the bar's front step.  I stood up and gazed around me after taking these photos. There was gentian everywhere I looked. 

photo by Diane Husic

And that's the way gentians are. They sneak up on you. Maybe you see one here, one there. And then one fine September morning when you least expect it you come on a meadow and decide to walk into that meadow, deer ticks be damned, and kneel down to take a photo of goldenrod against a dark sky, and damned if you don't find a gentian. Or a hundred of them. 


Did some unseen hand send me around that gate, into the meadow? Sometimes I wonder.

When the sun warms them the gentians' eyelash fringed petals open up, the caps on the bottles, and the bees hurry to fall into them, crawling all the way to the bottom.

And they have to back out.

This plant grows as an annual or biennial in wet alkaline soils. It's rare, nowhere common. To find it in such profusion, growing to such magnificent heights,  overwhelmed me. It literally brought me to my knees, as in worship. 

And why not? For the plants were approaching a yard tall, each one so magnificently arrayed in tiers of elegant violet-blue blooms that they looked like a floral arranger's work, a perfect bouquet in each plant. I couldn't take it all in alone. The next morning Diane and I came together to the service at Fringed Gentian Chapel.

We wandered, aimless as two clouds, amidst the impossibly rich splendor in the grass.

For they hide, not easily apparent until your eyes are ready to pick up that royal velvet purple deep in the meadow. And once you see it, and begin counting, and pass 60, 70, 80, 100's like drinking a whole bottle of wine, and then pouring another glass.

We began making Best Bouquet photos.
Here's a foursome of goldenrod, heath aster, New England aster, and fringed gentian.

This was a nice combo, too. Red sumac, heath aster, New England aster, and fringed gentian.

Might as well go all red white and blue while we're at it.

Each plant was so full of buds I could tell the show would go on for weeks.

What a sweet coda to the end of summer.

Diane and I spent Sunday morning in our makeshift church, praising satin blue creation. David was competing at a fiddle competition, but he'd come worship later that week.

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,

And colored with the heaven’s own blue,

That openest when the quiet light

Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
Thou comest not when violets lean

O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,

Or columbines, in purple dressed,

Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.
Thou waitest late and com’st alone,

When woods are bare and birds are flown,

And frosts and shortening days portend

The aged year is near his end.
Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye

Look through its fringes to the sky,

Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall

A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see

The hour of death draw near to me,

Hope, blossoming within my heart,

May look to heaven as I depart.

"To The Fringed Gentian"  William Cullen Bryant 

Yes. That Massachusetts poet had knelt at the same altar perhaps 170 years earlier, marveled too that this splendid plant raises its cup as a toast to dying summer, just as the nights turn sharp.  This poem made me happy, made me feel that Diane and David and I are part of a continuum of appreciators of the best things, which are, after all, often hidden in thick meadows.

When I'd said my thank-yous to the best hosts ever and finally got in the car to head home, my clock read 11:11. Yes. This morning had definitely gone to eleven. No time could have been better spent.

I drove east all day, and as evening came on traffic ground to a halt. A truck was burning up on SR 50 in West Virginia. I sized up the situation, took a couple of photos of someone's savings going up in flames, and peeled off on the side road to the right of the picture. I have driven enough side roads to know that sooner or later they all come back out on the main road. I'd just head west and hit Rt. 50 farther on down the line.  I'm sure the traffic was backed up for miles behind that conflagration. 

Not for me. I rolled the windows down and opened the moon roof and breathed the sweet autumn air as I found my way home. 

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