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God's Acre

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Diane's been reading my blog for years, and she knows what makes my canary chirp. Big trees, great architecture, old and venerable things...The grand destination of our Friday afternoon walk was an ancient (well, for America) burying ground on the campus of Moravian Academy that's known as God's Acre. Moravians (from the easternmost part of the Czech Republic) came to America in the mid 1700's thanks to religious persecution at home, and they set up a peaceful community in eastern Pennsylvania that honored everyone no matter the color of their skin. 

This is reflected in the headstones. None are bigger or more ostentatious than others, and all are flush with the earth.

I'm thinking the Little Strength is a ship. Gee. Not many of these good people are making it out of their 40's. It must have been incredibly rough.

 One year-old Thomas Otto Braun gets the same treatment 

as 12-year-old Benigna Antes. Smallpox. How awful. I marveled that her marble stone was as crisp and readable as if it had been carved yesterday, instead of 224 years earlier.

I kind of fall into headstones when I start reading them. I absolutely love the font used on Sarah Iselstein's stone. Wow, wow, wow. There's something so 2014 about it. It's absolutely alive, antic. Might have to steal that font for a project. I'd call it Saccona.

The cemetery makes for a beautiful parklike space, albeit a kind of trippy one (in more ways than one!)

The Moravians established more than 30 settlements around the world on the "Herrnhut model," which, according to Wiki,  "emphasized a lifestyle of prayer and worship and a form of communal living in which personal property was held but simplicity of lifestyle and generosity with wealth were considered important spiritual attributes. As a result, divisions between social groups and extremes of wealth and poverty were largely eliminated." Moravians believed in universal education, for men and women, for people of color too. 

This one arrested me. It's doubtful that a mixed-race person would have received a place in many cemeteries at this time, in any other spot but here in this Moravian community. I bet she was beautiful, at 15.

Each stone I study starts a train of reflection, a set of mind perfectly in tune with walking, hands behind back, reading stone after stone, wondering about each one. I surface with difficulty from my reverie and am surprised to see people driving cars and walking about, noses down, poking away at their phone screens. I blink at them like a traveler from another time, set down in 2014.

Looking at Pennsylvania

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bethlehem and Kunkletown, Pennsylvania are very beautiful towns. Although I've been to mainland Europe only for the briefest time, and that was Holland, I can't help but feel I'm being transported back to my ancestral Germany with the gorgeous architecture and lush plantings. 

An allee of hydrangeas. Really! An Italian villa, plopped down against the Kittatinny Ridge.

And yet a fieldstone house is so uniquely Pennsylvanian, and I celebrated that fact every time I went for a walk. My dad was so enamored of Pennyslvania's fieldstone houses. I remember as a kid wondering what the big deal was, what a house was made of. Now I get it. Local stone that nobody else has. And so beautiful. I'm so thankful to have been raised by parents who sought out and appreciated what was special about each corner of the America they knew. Dad, Mom, it sank in.

A John Deerey bit of Americana. I couldn't resist.

More Europe in Bethlehem, but with New England asters. 

Diane Husic and I went on a little tree safari around the campus of Moravian College, where she is Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences. This oak rang a distant bell, but I don't get to see many of them, so I held out a leaf and used Diane for scale against its magnificent trunk and rectangular chunky bark so I could check my Sibley Tree Guide when I got home.  It turns out to be a burr oak, which my dad always called "Vanguard of the Forest" because it was the first one to grow on the prairie. Sigh. Glad I remember all this stuff. Or maybe he's whispering in my ear. This photo makes me smile. iPhone as Naturalist's Companion. Note to self: identify this oak. Tiny Diane perched on my hand like a parakeet in her chicory-blue sweater. I had a parakeet named Bing. Chicory blue he was.

Diane showed me a fern garden growing in a London plane tree (sycamore, Platanus x acerifolia). Those little fern spores can blow around and land about anywhere. Moravian College's campus is absolutely loaded with plane trees, which glow golden in fall light. Their bark is distinctly yellower than our native sycamore's.

Ahh, I could look at their bark for hours. 

There are so many pictures in it.

Moan. These trees are such extravagant beauties, such a lovely choice for streets and campuses. Magical.

 We walked toward Moravian Academy, where soon-to-be-world-famous naturalist Corey Husic had his start. It was all so beautiful, so surreal, so very different from my low-slung brick elementary school, baking in a field next to a strip of loblolly pines in Richmond, Virginia.

 Diane showed me the building where I'd lead a creative writing class that morning. Wow. It was so...Harry Potter.

Out on Main Street, a duplex that made me laugh out loud. A schizophrenic house. Yes, we are joined at the awning and roof, and have had to live as Siamese twins for decades. But don't for a moment think we are ANYTHING alike. Hodge, baby, this one's for you.

I was also amused to note how thoroughly the birds had enjoyed this urban American Poke's fruit.
Stripped nekkid, it is. A fine bird food, makes for lovely purple poops to swoop down and put on cars. I tell anyone who will listen that American Poke is valued as a specimen plant in fine English gardens. And in not-so-fine Ohio gardens as well. I do pull it out of the main border when it tries to start, as it has a little problem with scale. It leans toward gigantism, then it leans toward the ground and flops all over smaller, weaker plants.

Just a few things I noticed and enjoyed on my Pennsylvania strolls.

The Zen of Otters

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I went to Pennsylvania last week, all the way across what feels like the longest state in the Union. It took me about nine hours to get to Bethlehem PA from southeast Ohio. I know that sounds crazy, because Ohio borders Pennsylvania, but it's true. Read it and weep.

When I passed Shartlesville I happened to be lustily eating almond butter off the end of a ballpoint pen, which was the only utensil that presented itself. On this I will not comment further.

I passed a billboard that reassured me greatly, since I am after all verging on being a senior. I look forward to the tender ministrations of Phoebe Ministries. This is why we have daughters. I will make such a fantastic mother-in-law, too. I hope they make me a nice little apartment with good light where I can grow my orchids and fruit trees.

That's enough ridiculousness. On to the sublime. I got up the next morning at the glorious country home where I was staying. It was cold and misty, especially down in the creek bottom. The ridge you see up ahead is the Kittatinny, what the Indians called The Endless Mountain. It's the famous one all the hawks use as a thermal highway. I found it a tremendous thrill to be looking at The Endless Mountain every day.

Sun filtered through woods studded with hemlocks.

Shy horses peeked out of their barn. A radio played inside.

A fall garden lapsed into lushness, abundance, decay. I loved the little fence, the folk art touches. It was a garden, but also an artistic statement.

There are barns everywhere. This one was so magnificent, but no longer in use.

Inside it was all Wyethy.

And outside too. This decaying horse collar hung in a small alcove. I wondered if it had been moved since it was last taken off a sweaty plowhorse. And how many years ago that would have been. 

A Milk of Magnesia bottle and an old Coke bottle graced another alcove. Judged too good to throw away, I guess.

 In the shivery dawn light, tall yellow sunflowers glowed. I noticed that many old houses in Pennsylvania are smack on the roadside. And I wondered why that might be, and how it would be to live with a double yellow line down the middle of your front yard. It'd be kind of hard on dogs and cats, I'd imagine. Kids, too. Yikes.

I ran on and looked up a quiet creek. The scene was so peaceful that I became very still, and stood listening.

I heard the water moving downstream. It sounded like something was swimming. I became even more still and waited. Whatever it was had a good bow wave in front of it, and it was making a sinuous course against the current. Swimming upstream.

It surfaced briefly and dove. The head was large and squarish. The tail, long and thick at the base. You can see it, shiny and brown, midway down the right margin of the photo above. That's no muskrat. That's an OTTER. Not one otter. THREE OTTERS. And they were swimming upstream, right under the bridge where my amazed self was standing.

I can't even tell you how I got these photos with my phone. I was so excited I was bursting, my hands trembling. I couldn't see jack in the bright morning light. I just pointed and shot, pointed and shot, hopeless of getting anything worthwhile, but compelled to shoot, to try to record so I could share. Practically every photo on this blog is taken with my iPhone 4S, and usually it does an amazing job. But fast-moving otters in reflective water are not what it's made for. Oh, how I longed for my Canon telephoto, a "real" camera. But the iPhone is what I had, so it is what I used. 

The moment when all three lined out and arrowed under the bridge in the crystal clear two-foot-deep creek with me standing right over them, staring open-mouthed, was The Moment. It was like looking down from the bow of a ship and seeing dolphins riding its wave. Only this was Aquashicola Creek, and these were river otters. 

They passed under the bridge and I ran to the other railing to see them. They popped up and chuffed at me. Pfffhhht! Fwup! Their little round heads broke the water, their ears like a stuffed teddy bear's.
They wanted me to know they had seen me.

If you stare at this sad, bad blown up photo below long enough you will see otters. The one on the left jumps out at me--eyes, nose, mouth, head just breaking the surface. The one on the far right is a little harder to discern. He's standing up, head, neck and shoulders well out of the water. There might even be a third animal in the middle--maybe. Can't say. I've made a little tracing paper overlay to show where I think the otters are in this photo. The leftmost animal is showing clearly. The shadow under his boxy head gives him away. Middle one is a stretch. Now you see him, now you don't. As is the rightmost one. But maybe. It has the same sort of shadow under its chin that the left-hand animal does.

As they swam away upstream, they kept popping up to stare at me, like seals. They'd chuff and dive. They didn't seem frightened, just as amazed to see me as I was to see them. I got the distinct feeling that they were on the move in some sort of autumnal migration; that this was perhaps an irreproducible moment, a passing through that might involve hundreds of miles. That didn't stop me from going out to the same place at the same time the next morning. Naturally I didn't find them again.  I didn't expect to.

I never expected them in the first place. 

Which, I suppose, is why they came.

The Zen of Otters.

 Three quiet otters
Glide smoothly up the bright creek
I love how they chuff
To say good morning

Aquashicola Creek, Kunkletown, Pennsylvania

The Squeaking Sphinx

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


I told you it was going to be a special morning. I could feel it in the air. Little did I know when I turned down Best Hollow that I'd find something that would make me laugh and wonder right out loud.

As I trotted under a huge black walnut tree, I saw a small pale green sphinx caterpillar lying on the cool gravel. My first instinct was to pick up the tubular little guy, who was miraculously uninjured after his fall from who knows how high in the walnut.

I've found great ash sphinx caterpillars who've fallen onto gravel with sadly busted guts, so I was really happy that he seemed healthy and intact. He looked a lot like a great ash sphinx, but the black walnut should have been a tipoff that he was actually a (surprise!) walnut sphinx.

Since I didn't know there was such a thing as a walnut sphinx before this morning, we'll let that one go by.

I bent down to pick him up and the most amazing thing happened. Watch the video!

I love making these little videos, because they really capture the way I fool around with wild things, the way I try to help them and how they delight me. 

On the video, you'll hear me speculating that, because caterpillars lack anything that could be called a vocal apparatus, and have no wing covers to rub together, the caterpillar might be producing the squeak by forcing air out through his spiracles, which are the little holes along his sides through which he breathes. That turned out to be a pretty dang good guess, Science Chimp. I quote David Wagner's writeup in his marvelous book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America.

"When touched, the caterpillar whistles or hisses by forcing air out the spiracles. It is also a thrasher, casting its body violently from side to side when provoked. A good way to see this caterpillar is to go out at night and inspect the lower surfaces of hickory and walnut trees by flashlight--trees where you would be hard pressed to find a single caterpillar by day sometimes yield more than a half-dozen caterpillars at night."

When I read this passage I danced around the living room hooting and high-fiving Bill. That made my day! (A day easily made, but still.)

If you don't have this book, buy it NOW. It will change your life. That is, it will if you are in the habit of wondering about caterpillars.

Which I do, I do.

When I was done making this video, I looked up at the black walnut. There was no way I could reach even the lowest branch of that magnificent tree, and the cat didn't look like he would be good for the climb up the trunk to the first branch, a distance of at least 15' straight up.

So I cradled the caterpillar, now placid and calm, in my hand and ran a half mile until I found a young black walnut whose lowest branch I could reach. I had a heck of a time placing him on a leaf, because he kept squeaking and thrashing. He didn't understand what I was trying to do. Finally, after I cradled him in the leaves for a couple of minutes, he settled down and clasped the midrib. I tiptoed away and left him to growing up and becoming a walnut sphinx.

His pointy, angled little head is at the right side, even though the left end looks more like a head. That's probably the point. :) Bite this end, if bite you must.


Sunday, September 14, 2014


Shadows are so profound on a blue and gold September day that sometimes they're all I see. 

I cast these incredibly long shadows in the morning, and I love to watch me and Chet run across the landscape, all stretched out.  Here, I'm overlaid on dew-wet dogbane, and it looks like I have a terrific idea.

I mess around with some of my photos, trying to bring shapes out of darkness. It's fun.

Chet stands before our favorite rubble pile, now decked out in goldenrod. Mmmm. This would make a cool jigsaw puzzle, no?

The pines etch ink-black silhouettes on the sky.

And always the little auxiliary inkblot to look for, trotting ahead.

The neighbors' Bartlett pear yields honey-sweet fruit, cold from wet September grass. Yes. Thank you. I'll have that for breakfast, beat the deer to it, and feed the cores to the cattle. 

The sun is so low and brilliant in the sky I'm blinded and can't even tell what I'm shooting, but I have a feeling it'll be cool.

And I get an alert sundog and his crazy, inexplicably short-legged Chihuahua shadow. Go figure! 

Always worth pointing the camera toward the sun now and then. You never know what you'll get.

We push on, and I watch our shadows. They make me laugh. I'm glad there's no one around at 7:30 on a Sunday morning to hear me laughing as I clump along with Chet, his toenails clicking and scraping on the asphalt. I would make a lot better time if I had legs like these.

We reach the Shadow barn. Presenting...

The amazing Chet Baker!!

Bill saw this and said, "Don't shoot! It's Bacon!!"

Off we go. I marvel that I got the roofline perfectly lined up in this shot as I ran along. Most of the shots I take on the run are all cockeyed. That's OK. I like them all. 

 Most of my favorite shots are complete accidents anyway. Well, planned accidents. 

Chet's shadow looks like some kind of space bug to me. 

In this one, his form vanishes into the turf edge shadow, and the space bug seems to slide along the asphalt unexplained, unaccompanied. 

At the farm, I find the Concord grapes hanging in the old barn perfectly ripe, waiting for me. I've had my eye on them for several months. Breakfast, Part II. These are so beautiful that I fill myself up on ones I find outside this composition. Chet begs and begs, so I give him one. Grapes aren't good for dogs, but he doesn't know that. 

 Concord grapes perfectly capture the taste, the nostalgia, the wine-sweet loveliness of a September morning. 

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