Nature Blog: Take heaven where you find it

This post originally appeared on February 26, 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 moved away from this place, 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.”

Spring buds, 2/26/12

Today, in the near-windless air, it is the birds who drown out the rushing cars on the highway. The house sparrows, holding court in a backyard bush a few houses up, twitter and chirp, perhaps scolding me for invading their session. I’m sure they’re discussing something important.

I can hear the male cardinal, whose appearances have become less regular, sing his even, single-note tune, repeated over and over and over, like the drumbeat in this bird orchestra. He is calling for his mate, though that may or may not wind up being the female I’ve seen with him throughout the winter. Sometimes cardinal pairs stay together; sometimes they don’t.

Many area trees have already budded, but trees of heaven are slow to wake from their winter sleep. When they do bud, I will know winter is truly over. Still, the sun feels warm and good on my skin and I do not need to zipper my coat. I wear my “level one” hat, the loose knit one for warmer days. I have two other hats, a level two and level three, each for decreasing temperature ranges.

As the birds sing for mates, I think about roots. Like the creeping Jennie in Megan Dylan Fox’s essay “Sustenance,” trees of heaven send their roots deep and are nearly impossible to eradicate. They stake their place and claim it, and fight to keep it by releasing toxins that kill other plants.

A few months ago in a workshop, we did a writing exercise that involved making a list of things we’d lost while traveling. The first thing I wrote was “a sense of home.” I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years; sometimes it feels like home, and sometimes I hate it. But I chose to stay here because I didn’t want to return to the place I grew up, because there the shift between a sense of belonging and utter revulsion is too intense to bear for more than a few weeks at a time.

And when I’m finished with grad school, I hope to move on, to San Francisco, if only for awhile.* My roots have never gone very deep. I’ve never felt I loved a place until I’ve left it, or unless I’ve known I would have to leave it before I ever arrived. You could say I have a problem with nostalgia. Or you could call it homesickness.

Lichens, 2/26/12

Not all plants need roots, though. Lichens, small though they are, thrive on bare rock and tree bark and other places “higher plants” never could. These little hybrid plants form when a fungus and algae join together. They have no roots, but do need sunlight, water, and CO2 to live. I have quite a few growing on my lower retaining wall. I’ve always enjoyed lichens for their unusual shapes and textures and the unexpected places they grow. Some of them are incredibly beautiful and complex and look almost like corals.

Some of the Rose of Sharon seed pods still contain seeds. I take off my gloves and them out, flat gibbous-moon-shaped things with a ring of fuzz around the edge. I let them fall to the ground so they can put down their roots into the thawed ground. I pluck off the empty pods and crunch them in my palm, then let the powder drift away on the air.

Bird List for February 12-26

  • Flock of European starlings
  • House sparrows
  • Male northern cardinal
  • Female northern cardinal
  • American robin (heard, not seen)
  • A hawk of some kind: a Cooper’s hawk, Sharp-shinned hawk OR possibly Merlin hawk migrating north to his summer breeding grounds in Canada

*Note from 2015: I never made it out to San Francisco. Instead I got a job at the local library and then bought a house in Pittsburgh. I’m happy with how things turned out.


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