tempt the shortening days
obscure the seasons turning
over a new leaf
These past few weeks have been difficult for me, but I managed to squeeze out a haiku today after a walk in the swampy heat we’ve been having, in which I was surprised to find many gentle reminders of pending fall. Peace to you.
Occasionally, my friend and I take trips to garden centers together. Although we have yet to leave empty-handed, we mostly do it for the fun of browsing. We point out the things that move us, say why if we can, and the other joins in the movement.
During one of these trips he observed to me that the plants and flowers that catch my eye are very different from the ones that catch his. Different colors speak up, different forms stand out.
But this happens all the time. When I take a walk, as long as I’m not looking down (I’m prone to trip), certain things catch my eye that, based on my partner’s responses (or lack thereof), I know are not conspicuous or interesting to everyone.
I walked to work today and decided to remember some things I noticed on my way. Here are a few.
A squirrel eating a pinecone.
The cloudless sky.
A beautiful gate enclosing a shitty yard (a metaphor not lost on me).
Bricks and angles.
The small weeds that grow in sidewalk cracks.
An old window on a collapsing house.
I don’t know why I notice the things I do, but it’s an interesting exercise nonetheless. What do you see? Why do you see it?
Last weekend my partner and I took our first camping trip of the year in Green Ridge State Forest. It was our first time staying at this camping area (we had originally intended to return to the magical Big Run State Park/Savage River State Forest we went to last September, about an hour west of Green Ridge, but it was supposed to be much colder there). Despite cool temperatures and some rain, we were able to enjoy fishing, hiking, a midday hammock nap, off-roading in my tiny but surprisingly adventurous Kia hatchback, and wildlife viewings.
We paid for campsite use at the headquarters ($10/night), where two very lovely middle-aged women talked with us and helped us choose a site based on our interests and lack of four-wheel drive. We ended up at campsite #4, the north-most site in the forest and a short drive to some nice fishing spots, although if we ever return, we’ll opt for one of the more remote, forested sites farther south.
The first thing I did after unloading the car and setting up camp was walk the perimeter of the site to observe the nearby land, plants, and small creatures. Under a grove of pine trees, I found an eastern (red-spotted) newt. I had just recalled the other day how my cousins, sister, and I used to find dozens and dozens of eastern newts (although we always called them salamanders) in my grandmother’s yard growing up, until one day we couldn’t find them anymore. I hadn’t seen one in years. But there it was, hanging out in a bed of fallen pine needles, as adorable as ever.
This boded well. The following day, it was sunnier and warmer, so we hiked the Twin Oaks Trail (the purple trail) and looped back around on the Pine Lick Trail (blue), four miles in all. We stopped for lunch where the trail fords a stream, skipped some rocks, and kept going. The loop is described as a moderate hike; there were many ups and downs, but it was never too steep in any one place. At the steepest ascent, my partner saw a small creature scurry across the trail onto a tree. “That was a fast toad.” But it wasn’t a toad – it was a lizard! I’ve never seen a lizard before in the States, having spent the majority of my life in New England. With some research, we determined it to be a female eastern fence lizard and this location to be about the northern-most habitat where you can find them. She was much too quick for us to get her picture.
Here are a couple other small friends I found:
We saw many fish swimming in the stocked pond down the road. A whippoorwill sang off and on all night. But the biggest friend of all that we saw that weekend was an American black bear.
It was about 9:00 in the morning, and we were drinking our coffee but hadn’t pulled out the food for breakfast yet – we of course keep all tasty smelling things secured in the car. Suddenly my partner tells me in a serious voice to get to the car. About twenty yards away at the perimeter of our site, a young bear was watching us from the trees. We backed slowly towards the car, talking loudly at the bear (as you’re supposed to do; but it makes you feel like a fool!), hoping it would lose interest. “Hey, bear! Go away, bear! Please leave us alone!” It circled to another part of the site, never getting any closer, just observing our setup. After about five or ten minutes, it lumbered back into the woods.
We didn’t see it again, although we were extra careful with our food and trash for the rest of the time. Both of our phones were dead (and in the tent), so there’s no photographic evidence of our curious Ursus. My hypothesis is that it smelled our coffee and wanted some, too. Coffee is, after all, hard to come by in the forest.
We all know the old saying. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But when my sister and I were kids, money grew on weeds.
In the summers, on the border of our neighbors’ yard and ours, past the swing set, behind the willow tree, and between Threepinederoga and my mom’s garden, tall, bright green weeds grew. The stalks were covered radially with three- or four-inch oblong leaves that were slightly fuzzy, somewhat floppy, and perfect specimens for make-believe currency.
I never knew what they were called; I never cared until I wanted to blog about it. A cursory web search has suggested the terms “marestail” and “horseweed” and Conyza canadensis, although I can’t verify this with my diminishing visual memory of the plant.
What I do remember distinctly about the moneyplant is the smell it would give off when you tore bills from that primitive ATM. The smell was earthy, sharp, and very, very green. It was so delightfully pungent that I used to rip the leaves up after I was done “paying” with them just so I could smell it again.
In case you were wondering, yes, I did regularly tear up different leaves from around the yard to investigate their odor. The moneyplant is just one of many whose properties I discovered. For example, there was a small, feathery weed you could find low in the grass that smelled minty (but wasn’t mint). Did you know that the shredded leaf of a checkerberry plant smells exactly like its berries taste? You’d be surprised at what you find when you dabble in botany.
But I completely forgot about the scent of the moneyplant until I started cooking for myself a few years ago.
It happened when I was chopping parsley. Olfactory memory is strange because you almost never can identify the origin of the nostalgia at first. This is just normal fresh parsley, so why have I been transported to a childhood summer? After wracking my brain I finally remembered the moneyplant. If that weed really was C. canadensis, I can find no indication that it’s related to parsley (although American Indians did use it as an herb and apparently when dried it tastes like tarragon). However, the memory is reawakened every single time I chop parsley, so I figure there might be something to it. I can’t think of another olfactory trigger that affects me like this does or that conjures as specific and unadulterated a memory.
The money of my childhood and the money of my adulthood bear only a few similarities. For one, I used to keep a stash of moneyplant bills, and I still hoard my money today. (What are banks but professionally-tended hoards of money?) The bills are still green, but I wouldn’t recommend tearing them up and huffing the pieces anymore. Adult money’s harder to come by, but worth more. It can make you more comfortable but not more happy. The memory of the moneyplant’s aroma, on the other hand, offers no material comfort whatsoever, but every time I chop parsley, I smile. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but as it turns out, happiness just might.
For Christmas this year, and for the sanity of the adults involved, we decided to buy my nephews presents as usual but draw names for each other. My dad was the lucky soul who drew me, and he won the day by getting me exactly what I most wanted: a camping hammock.
The only problem with getting a hammock for Christmas is that there’s still a lot of winter to wait through before you can use it. But, thanks to the temperate nature of the mid-Atlantic, my own temperance soon paid off, and I was able to set up my present last weekend during a hiking trip my partner and I took on Sugarloaf Mountain.
If you don’t have a hammock, get one. You can easily find inexpensive ones that do the job well; no need to get a super fancy one. Then all you have to do is learn a good knot or two, let tension and gravity do the rest, and you’ll be swinging in paradise in under five minutes.
sit under milky way sky
permitting the dark circle
beyond ember glow
This unseasonably warm weather has been taunting me almost more than I can bear. All I think about is the quiet crackle of firewood, crackle of frying eggs, crackle of leaves being stepped on gently by forest friends. When can I go back?
The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.
Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.
In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.
One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.
This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.
Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)
On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.
A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.