This post originally appeared on February 11, 2012 on Nature Writing.
During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and will be moving away from this place soon, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”
Snow flakes fill the air between the gray sky and the white ground. It looks and feels like February on Heaven’s Hillside, but spring sits poised behind the crisp coldness. The green of daffodils and tulips peek up from beneath the mulch in their pots, and little gray buds have formed on the branches of one of the bushes in the yard. Yesterday, from my office window I saw my first robin of the season scrubbing around for food. I hope she has a warm place to wait out the snow.
Everything seems quieter when it snows. Sometimes being in the snow feels like being underwater. Sounds travel slowly and arrives distorted. A neighbor’s wind chimes jingle in short bursts that surround me and then vanish. Their music has no direction. I turn my ear one way and it seems to come from the opposite way.
This snow is heavy and clumps together. It compacts under my feet when I walk but not in a satisfying or crunchy way; my feet push flakes together, remove the air between them, instead of forcing them into each other or hardening them into ice. Honeysuckle leaves curl against the cold but cling to their vines. Snow rests atop the now mostly empty seed pods like little fur caps.
As I’ve learned, I have to settle in and listen if I want to hear anything. Janisse Ray was on to something when she wrote, “A forest never tells its secrets but reveals them slowly over time…” Distant birdsong emerges from the ever-present rushing of cars. I scoop some snow from the top of a stump and let it melt onto my tongue, savoring the tangy, mineral taste.
One bird sounds close. I look up, but can’t see it. The first bird’s song continues, and a different bird flies overhead. Its silhouette looks swallow-like, but it doesn’t have the forked tail feathers, just the pointed, swept-back wings. I think it may be a chimney swift, since they thrive in urban areas. I imagine it’s a bit early for him to have returned from his wintering grounds in South America, but I did see that robin yesterday. And on Chatham’s campus yesterday, too, I saw half a dozen more robins as well as at least a dozen little warblers: red-eyed vireos being my best guess based on size and color, and because they’re common and love urban areas.
Layers of sound aren’t the only secrets my “forest” reveals today. A solid inch of snow rests on the ground, enough to throw details of height and shape into sharp relief, but not enough to obscure shapes. For the first time I notice three trees growing sideways out of the back retaining wall. The largest is at least two feet in diameter, maybe more. It’s amazing those trees can grow so large between the cracks of a stone wall, getting a little bigger every year. They must have strong roots to keep them from toppling down the hill.
Right in front of me I notice that not all of the living trees in my yard are trees of heaven. One, six inches thick and very tall, has craggy, whitish-gray bark that looks nothing like the smooth triangular pattern of tree of heaven bark. It could be the offspring of the enormous dead tree at the top of my yard, but I’ll have to wait until it grows some leaves in spring to identify it. I’ve been staring at it for a month and never noticed the difference.
I find this discovery thrills me, a little. There is, it seems, still one stronghold against tree monoculture in my yard. I realize now why Joyce Carol Oates’s essay “Against Nature” irritates me so much: she ignores how delightful nature can be in a simple way. Though, to be fair, she does seem to take an awful lot of delight in smashing those ants at the end, perhaps too much.
When I see “my” male northern cardinal, I don’t feel awe, or reverence, or piety (hah!), or mystical oneness with anything. I feel delight that for a few minutes, I can watch something beautiful do what it does. That isn’t to say I’ve never felt “mystical oneness” in nature, because I have. And Joyce Carol Oates is certainly not going to diminish that for me, though I might think twice before I write about it.
Bird List, February 1-11
- Northern cardinal, male
- Song sparrows
- Crows (heard, not seen)
- American robin
- Chimney swift (shaky ID)
- Black-capped chickadees (very shaky ID)