The Wildness in Wild Things

Photo by Art Farmer (Evansville, Ill.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Firefly 0877)

Photo by Art Farmer (Evansville, Ill.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Firefly 0877)

A few weeks ago I read a magazine article written by a young woman who was recalling fond memories of watching fireflies on summer evenings as a child with her family. Her parents would bring along a large cage and give it to the girl and her brother so they could catch the fireflies. Children love to run and try to catch animals. Just watch any toddler waving her arms and stampeding a flock of pigeons. But these fireflies stayed in their cage.

When the family left the park at the end of the evening, they took the firefly cage with them and the parents placed it in the children’s bedroom. A living little nightlight. By the time the children woke up the next morning, the firefly cage was gone, discreetly spirited away by their parents during the night so the brother and sister wouldn’t see what happened while they slept.

The fireflies had died.

The writer’s language, as she recounts her later discovery of this gentle deception, shows an uneasy awareness of the insects’ plight, her description of “the dead little bodies,” with their “half-dried wings and quivering, then quiet, legs” demonstrating an empathy with their suffering, even as she never explicitly acknowledges that caging them was wrong. Later in the article, she cites the statistic that fireflies in the wild live for around two months, while those that they caught and caged died within twelve hours, but says nothing further on the subject. The remembrance of the firefly nightlight that she and her brother shared leads the writer instead to reflections on change and mortality.

The lessons parents teach their children about our relationship with nature are so lasting and important, lessons that will influence their attitude toward the earth and its creatures throughout their lives. My parents and I enjoyed watching fireflies, too, but it would never have occurred to any of us to try to capture the little creatures. My mother in particular valued the wildness in wild things and reveled in the free and untrammeled workings of nature. Any animal or plant, any stray cat, any bird, any wild creature had a right to its existence.

Fireflies are living creatures, not toys to be gathered for our use and then discarded. The lives of these insects have a place in the world, of spiritual value to humans, of essential value to the creatures themselves, and ecological value to the world in which they live.

Thanks to Amber Foxx for her assistance in editing this post.

Summer Visitors

This past summer we hosted an unexpected group of visitors. Sometime in mid-June I was about to take down the spider plant from its hook above our porch for some much-needed watering when I noticed bits of grass and weeds poking out of the top. Closer inspection indicated that a nest had been built around the middle of the dirt in the plastic hanging pot. I decided to leave it alone and spritzed a bit of water around the roots on the side, where some of the plastic had broken off last year (a tumble the plant took when I went out after dark and thought I had hung it up: not).

photo from watching grass grow blog

photo from watching grass grow blog (This is the female; the adult male has a red head.)

As the days went by, we spied Mama and Papa House Finch as they flew from the nest to a nearby wire every time one of us opened the door onto the porch. It was pretty common to see one of them sitting on the wire, complaining at us, as we sat on the porch reading. Eventually the finches became relaxed enough around us to return to the nest even when we were there.

A few weeks after the nest first appeared, my husband (who’s a bit taller than I) noticed the eggs. Days later we heard high-pitched cheeping sounds, and peering out the door screen saw one of the parents sitting on the nest, obviously feeding the demanding baby birds. Eventually, as the chicks grew, we could sometimes see three little heads poking up, mouths open wide.

Then, one day, they were all gone. We were able to actually witness the young’uns’ first flight. All day long, I’d noticed the parent birds sitting on the wire, calling out to the nest. I was out on the porch reading when my husband came home late in the afternoon. As he mounted the stairs to the porch, a little bird flew out of the nest and down to the ground. My husband worried that he had startled the bird into a premature flight and that it wouldn’t be able to defend itself outside of the nest. But I pointed out that the parent birds had been acting differently all day: instead of sitting on the nest and feeding the chicks, they were out on the wire and calling to them. I think the parents had decided they’d had enough and that it was time for the Finches Junior to leave the nest and learn to fly and fend for themselves.

We were surprised when the little birds didn’t come back, and I started to share my husband’s concern. Then I googled “finches nest” (or something like that) and discovered that once the little birds “fledge,” that is, take their first flight, that’s it. No more nest.

I also found something else: a webcam recording of a similar finches’ nest, with up-close shots of the nest interior, that a nature-loving blogger had installed when a finch family decided to build their new nest on top of the wreath on the front door of his house! I didn’t look at the entire set of footage, but what I saw was fascinating. Here’s the link: http://www.watching-grass-grow.com/house-finch/2010/

photo from watching grass grow blog

photo from watching grass grow blog

We gave it a couple more days in case the parent birds needed to stay there for the night, then took down the long-suffering spider plant, the nest inside still intact and encircled with an almost decorative rim of bird poop.

And how did our poor spider plant survive all this? It looked pretty scraggly when all was done and my husband took the nest off, but now, two months later, it’s green and flourishing, thanks to frequent watering. After reading that finches often raise two groups of chicks in a season, we decided to give poor Spidey a break, and have left it on the porch steps for the reminder of the year. My guess as to how the spider plant survived all those weeks without a proper watering?

It was “watered” by the birds.

Lent, Lenz, Spring

Crocus biflorus photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Crocus biflorus
photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Christians are now observing the season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, reflection and contemplation. But the church season’s development in the Northern hemisphere also draws on the powerful pulls of body and earth, of humankind’s connection to the natural world, which, like our bodies, is a creation and temple of God.

The word itself, “Lent,” derives from the Germanic root “lang,” meaning “long,” which also forms the basis of the present-day German “Lenz” (“Spring”). According to the 1964 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, “Lent” (and, one assumes, the German “Lenz”) takes its meaning from the lengthening of days in the spring.

Historically, Lent began as a time of preparation for new converts to the Christian faith before their baptism at Easter, and I imagine that over the centuries many pre-Christian traditions and practices associated with the seasonal transition became part of religious tradition as well. In earlier societies, this seasonal transition was a time to use up winter stores before they went bad (hence, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a time for one last big winter feast).  A time to fast because those winter stores, even those that keep, are running low.

A good time to clear out larders and cupboards, making room for the coming abundance of spring. A good time to clear out and examine old habits, tossing out those which haven’t served us well, making room for the abundance of life promised by Christ’s incarnation in human form and loving sacrifice. Spring’s rebirth reminds us that spiritual rebirth is possible, too, something that isn’t always easy to believe in the season of cold and “winter’s discontent.”

The earthly season reminds us that scarcity (those dwindling stores of winter food) can coexist with hope, symbolized by the lengthening of days. (Ancients did not have to deal with the less welcome intrusion of Daylight Savings Time!)

The Germans actually have two words for spring, and both are used in one of my favorite pieces of music, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunken Man in Spring”), the fifth movement from Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von die Erde (The Song of the Earth). Especially lovely is Mahler’s setting of the line “Der Lenz ist da!” (“Spring is here!”).

I located a performance on YouTube, sung by tenor Fritz Wunderlich. The English translation follows the German text, and you can see that this celebration of spring is as far removed as possible from the somber beginnings of Lent! I’m certainly not advocating celebrating spring’s arrival by getting drunk, but this is a wonderful piece of music, and you can also take the “drunkenness” metaphorically, as the exuberance of becoming bedazzled by the beauty of nature and the miraculous nature of the season:

Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist,
Warum denn Müh’ und Plag’!?
Ich trinke, bis ich nicht mehr kann,
Den ganzen, lieben Tag!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr trinken kann,
Weil Kehl’ und Seele voll,
So tauml’ ich bis zu meiner Tür
Und schlafe wundervoll!

Was hör’ ich beim Erwachen? Horch!
Ein Vogel singt im Baum.
Ich frag’ ihn, ob schon Frühling sei,
Mir ist als wie im Traum.

Der Vogel zwitschert: Ja!
Der Lenz ist da, sei kommen über Nacht!
Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf,
Der Vogel singt und lacht!

Ich fülle mir den Becher neu
Und leer’ ihn bis zum Grund
Und singe, bis der Mond erglänzt
Am schwarzen Firmament!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr singen kann,
So schlaf’ ich wieder ein.
Was geht mich denn der Frühling an!?
Laßt mich betrunken sein!

If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!

And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!

What do I hear on waking? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if it’s spring already;
to me it’s as if I’m in a dream.

The bird chirps Yes!
The spring is here, it came overnight!
From deep wonderment I listen;
the bird sings and laughs!

I fill my cup anew
and drink it to the bottom
and sing until the moon shines
in the black firmament!

And if I can not sing,
then I fall asleep again.
What to me is spring?
Let me be drunk!

Frost Forest on my Window

Frost_on_windowFrost forest
On my window
Snowflake trees on
Icy slopes

(fleeting, passing)

Soon will sun
Melt
My frost forest
Spring is on her way
***

Writing, editing, and winter ailments have kept me from the blog,
BUT
After multiple revisions, my latest novel is ready for show time.
A big editing job is finally done.
My energy level is up.
I’m ready for Spring!

Seasonal Music by Malcolm Dalglish

Years ago I stumbled on the album Hymnody of Earth by Malcolm Dalglish in a bin of holiday CDs in Tower Records (remember Tower?). I was attracted by the title, naturally, and also noticed that most of the lyrics were by Wendell Berry, whose poetry I already knew and loved. That clinched it. I bought the CD and it has become one of my favorite Christmas albums. The Hymnody really should be listened to as a whole, but I hope to give you a little taste here to encourage you to purchase it for yourself. According to the composer’s website, there are two versions/performances of the work available; I have the earlier one from 1991. The later version (1999) has some additional numbers.

The first  piece is an arrangement for two solo singers and guitar; I don’t know if the arrangement is the composer’s or not, but it is lovely and effective and the musicians, Sarah Stevens and Ben Belinski, do a great job. The simplicity of the church setting (Snowmass Chapel) harmonizes nicely with the essential simplicity of the music. The opening verses are in Latin and the two-part voice lines written in the style of early medieval chant. The piece, “Psalm of Solstice,” is Hymnody‘s opening number.

Next, a lovely, very moving performance of “For the Future” (unfortunately the singers and location are not given (I can’t tell if the setting is a church or concert hall).  Here are the lyrics by Wendell Berry (If you follow this blog, you should become acquainted with his work. If anyone is today’s patron saint of trees, it is he!):

Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

The next number on our little concert preview is “Great Trees,” performed by AKSARA. It can only be watched on youtube itself, and here is the link. The a cappella women’s group nicely balances out the a cappella men’s group on the number that follows. Lyrics again by Wendell Berry.

The final number, “Paradise,” is also the final piece on Dalglish’s 1991 Hymnody album, in mood a sort of sacred version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Like the opening number, it is written in medieval style. The all-male Cantus soloists present a moving performance:

Direct links to the youtube performances:

Psalm of Solstice, arr. for guitar and solo voices

For the Future

Great Trees

Paradise

Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season!

 

Interview with Fir Tree

santa_final_smToday I am presenting an interview of one of my own characters. The Fir Tree first made an appearance several years ago in the short story “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree,” and has been hanging around the corners of my mind ever since, angling for a sequel. Though that remains so far unwritten, I thought I would appease the Tree by inviting it to come to the blog for a seasonal interview. Leave a comment before midnight Dec. 18 EST and you’ll be in the running for a “Saint Nick” giveaway book.

(For reasons that will become apparent, this interview was conducted by a third party.)

SAT: How did you meet your writer?

FT: I was planted by a lovely man named Jack, and lived in their backyard for years and years. But time passes more swiftly for humans than it does for trees; Jack and his wife grew too old to take care of the house and yard. Eventually they sold it to Aunt Nancy and her husband. Aunt Nancy loved to garden and made sure I had plenty of yummy compost and trimmed me every year. But nowadays she stays inside more, writing, she says. Someone needs to tell her to get out and take care of me and the other plants in the yard!

SAT: Did you ever think that your life would end up being put in a story?

FT: No, I didn’t. But after I told Aunt Nancy about my little adventure with Saint Nick, she decided to write it down.

SAT: What are your favorite scenes in the “Saint Nick” story?

FT: It really is MY book. Aunt Nancy just wrote down what I told her and added a beginning and end. I suppose her parts are all right, but the really good stuff is all mine. I think I did an especially good job with the snow scene at the end, when I was worried that the ax murderer would return.

SAT: Did you have any difficulty collaborating with your author, er, scribe?

FT: To give Aunt Nancy credit, no, I didn’t. She was fascinated by the whole thing. But now all she wants to do is stay inside and write. If I’d known that’s what my story would lead to, maybe I would have kept it to myself.

SAT: Have you ever appeared in your writer’s dreams?

FT: I wish. If I did, she’d get off that stupid computer and pay attention to those of us who live in her backyard!

SAT: Do you have any hobbies?

FT: I really enjoy bird watching, and I’m in the perfect spot. There’s a hawk couple who live in the neighborhood, and it’s especially exciting when they drop by. Keeps those loud-mouthed squirrels in line, heh-heh.

SAT: Have you ever wished that you were a human instead of a tree?

FT: Of course not. Humans can be pretty strange, if you don’t mind my saying so. I think it’s much more satisfying being a tree. The other trees and plants in the yard are all friends, and so are the birds and rabbits. The squirrels, now—that’s another matter. They’re the rough element in the yard, if you know what I mean.

SAT: Are you happy with your story?

FT: Oh yes! Fir trees mean Christmas and “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” is a wonderful Christmas story. But Aunt Nancy can’t take credit for that–most of the story is MINE. My words. My adventure.

SAT: If you could rewrite anything in your book, what would it be?

FT: Aunt Nancy’s beginning. What she calls a “punk haircut” is all her fault for not trimming me soon enough in the summer, and I don’t see why she had to mention it at all. It gives readers the wrong impression.

SAT: Do you like the way the book ended?

FT: I suppose the bit Aunt Nancy wrote at the end was all right, but personally I think it should have ended with my words. Other than that, I have no complaints. What she said was true.

SAT: I hear that you’re interested in a sequel. Any ideas?

FT: Plenty! If she’s going to be inside writing anyway, she might as well write about me.

SAT: Do you prefer paper books or electronic?

FT: A touchy question. Unless the paper is recycled, it comes from TREES. The very thought makes me queasy. Though Aunt Nancy says electronic readers may end up in landfills and that’s bad, too. If it were up to me, the book would be electronic ONLY.ADAMS St Nick No Title copy

SAT: What do you think of the book cover and illustrations?

FT: I have to admit Aunt Nancy had the right idea: she thought the cover should be all about me. And she found a great designer and a great illustrator. I just love my portraits!

SAT: Do you have any secrets that your author doesn’t know about?

FT: <giggle> I’m not telling.

Thank you, Fir Tree! Leave a comment before midnight Dec. 18 for a chance to win your own copy of “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree.”

Let all Creation Praise

While searching for a link to explain the Blessing of Animals a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a delightful site: http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/home. Let All Creation Praise is an ecumenical Christian group—that is, one that welcomes all denominations—which is focused on raising awareness of environmental issues and the role of Creation in worship. As “praise” goes hand in hand with “thanksgiving,” it seems an appropriate topic for the week before Thanksgiving is celebrated here in the U.S. When I was working full time, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. We live too far from family to mess with travel, so it was basically a very long weekend with to do nothing but eat and rest up (and read!). Like bears preparing to hibernate.

The idea that Creation praises God is not some new “radical” notion in Christianity or Judaism. The Hebrew Psalms contain several examples:

forestPsalm 65:13 “The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.” (King James version) Here we see a sensitivity to nature and to the earth, that even something as lowly as dirt and grass is a fellow creature to be honored and respected; that the earth itself is capable of expressing joy. Both Psalm 96 and a verse in the history recounted in Chronicles talk about trees “singing for joy.” Likewise, the book of the prophet Isaiah speaks of trees “clapping their hands” (Isaiah 55:12 )–one of my favorite passages.

st francisSaint Francis is, of course, the most famous exemplar of Christian love for creation. His Canticle of the Sun expresses the notion that all facets of creation are the brothers of humankind. Legend has it that he preached to the birds and saved (and “reformed”) a wolf whom villagers were about to kill.

William Blake‘s poetry is steeped in both religious spirituality and the natural world. A century later, Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote poetry that expresses deep love and reverence for all creation within a religious context, most notably in “God’s Grandeur.”

In the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, quite possibly the most influential Christian of modern times, wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the joy and refreshment he found in the natural world. More recently, farmer-poet Wendell Berry‘s novels, essays, and poetry show a Christian worldview where nature and the fruits of the earth are central to the spiritual and moral life.

To return to the group that prompted these musings, on its website “Let All Creation Praise” states: “We seek to serve the whole church by providing resources for Christian worship that promotes love of and care for God’s creation.” The organization “offers resources for congregations to celebrate God’s love for creation, to worship God with creation so as to reconcile and restore our human relationship with the rest of nature, and to foster love and care for God’s whole creation. We also provide resources to celebrate a “season of creation” or “creation time” in the church year.” In a world where human greed threatens to overtax the climate and natural resources of our fragile globe, it is heartening to see this kind of endeavor. Reverence for the earth should not be seen as competition for the reverence of God, but as its natural consequence.

Two Autumn Poems

Goldenrod big- 1024px-Field-of-goldenrod-flowers
Autumn Poem of Innocence

Goldenrod laughs in the wind
Tosses back its yellow hair

Flame-colored maple
Leaves dancing in the wind
Swirl and bow and swirl again

Cloudless blue sky
Bright autumn sun

Cheery pumpkins grace our doorsteps
Cornears unfurl colorful seeds

 

Photo by Nicole Gordine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Nicole Gordine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by BirdPhotos.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by BirdPhotos.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Autumn Poem of Experience

Soon bright pumpkins squirrels will ravage
Corn kernels scatter
Bare cobs leave
Broken rinds
Remains of furry ones’ feast.
(Squirrels disdain to do their dishes)

Rain squalls pound goldenrods’ hair
Branches hurl
Trees uproot.

Will the Monarch grace us?
Or is its beauty vanished,
Vanquished,
Bleared, smeared by human greed?

Yet the seasons cycle on
Dead leaves go to the compost bin
Life begins anew

Monarch Butterfly- BBGMonarchButterflyWings

I want to thank fellow blogger Jeff (StuffJeffReads) for keeping William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in the forefront of my mind this past year. Once I realized the dichotomy of innocence/experience was the perfect way to organize the two initial images—the goldenrod and the Monarch butterfly—the rest of the poetic diptych soon fell into place. “Bleared, smeared” obviously echoes Gerard Manley Hopkin’s line in “God’s Grandeur,” just as “Will the Monarch grace us?” echoes T.S. Eliot’s “Will the sunflower turn to us,” in “Burnt Norton.”

Late Summer Poem

iStock_000005311669SmallCool August morning
Open window to sunlight and air
Of Edenic purity

Play of sunlight across telephone wires
Wingèd insects golden flash, disappear
Webbed spiderwork glistens, disappears
Athena’s handmaiden, busy at her loom,
Weaves across telephone wires,
Golden in sunlight,
Vanishes beneath

Flash of bird shadow
Shower of droplets, last night’s rain,
Shimmer of cicada song
Flash, shower, shimmer, vanish, disappear

Maple wing seeds carpet the street
Golden coins of summer’s last spending.

composed August 24, 2014

This poem was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite bloggers, Elouise (http://tellingthetruth1993.wordpress.com/). I wanted to keep the impressions of this morning, but writing them in prose felt like “work” and I needed a day off. Then I thought of Elouise’s lovely nature poetry and realized that was how I wanted to capture these moments. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it again.

The Salamander Room

Nature and children seem appropriate subjects for summertime musings, and writing about Diary of an Earthworm made me think of another picture book I liked so much I got a copy for myself as well as my nephew.

salamander roomThe Salamander Room is a gorgeously illustrated tale of a little boy, Brian, who finds a “little orange salamander” in the woods and takes it home. Instead of outright denying him his new pet, Brian’s mother instead asks some practical questions—“Where will he sleep?” “When he wakes up, where will he play?”—and then observes, “He will miss his friends in the forest.”

The mother’s responses demonstrate a perceptive compassion that extends to the salamander itself, a gentle reminder to her son Brian that the salamander is not a pretty toy from the store, a plaything made for his own devices, but a wild creature with its own needs, desires, and concerns. By phrasing her observations as questions and statements that demand Brian’s response, she (and the author) avoid accusatory, didactic diatribes on humans and nature, inviting Brian instead to think through the consequences of his action, both for himself and the fellow creature he has taken from its native environment.

Brian’s responses to his mother’s questions and observations (which continue on to the subject of food, and the consequent creation of an entire ecological foodchain) create the magic of the book as the boy envisions how he will transform his room to suit the salamander’s needs. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher show the gradual transformation of Brian’s bedroom to a virtual forest, a complete habitat for the salamander and its food and friends, lush and verdant, lovingly depicted.

The story, by Anne Mazer, is a wise and wonderful tale that creates its own magic. I’m so glad I stumbled on it.

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