Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #10

4-11-15 at 5pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory

  • Temperature: 45 degrees
  • Wind: 4-8MPH
  • Clouds: mostly cloudy, clearing slightly

Humans and Animals seen:

  • Ultimate Frisbee teams playing on the field
  • Sailboats
  • Lots of walkers and runners
  • Woman named Andrea who liked to talk
  • Man with big camera on a tripod
  • Canada Geese
  • Gulls
  • Mergansers
  • Chickadees

The ice is completely gone and lake level is up. So spring has come to Ithaca after all. Just in time for my last official entry for my nature writing class. 

Water in Cayuga Lake is not stagnant. Like everything, it flows. And the level rises and falls not by the pull of the moon or the fall of the rain; rather, the Canal Corporation Office controls it from the northern end. Every fall, the Corp. opens the floodgates and the water pours from Cayuga Lake into the locks of the Erie Canal. It meanders through the lock system, goes on to the Seneca River, which will carry it to Lake Ontario, which filters through the St. Lawrence River and then into the Atlantic.

Opening the canal gates causes the water level of the lake to sink a few feet, thus exposing much of the rocky shoreline. This lower level was why I could explore the ragged edges of the Promontory all winter. In spring, the Corp. estimates snow melt, flooding, and runoff and decides when and how much to close the gates. The goal is to keep Cayuga Lake stabilized for the navigational season. So now, my warm, wind-free, west side beach is under a foot of water, and I am relegated to the bark-chip pathway until fall. 

When I was younger and first living in Ithaca, I worked on the tour boat that travels around the southern end of the lake. I would put on my headset and impart local facts and fairy tales over the loudspeaker about Ithaca’s role in the movie industry, the great blue herons that lurked along the inlet, the soybean-oil-powered MV Haendal, and of course, I'd talk on and on about the water. One fact (though I can’t verify its truth) I shared with the excited and interested visitors, was that one drop of water will take ten years to move from Stewart Park to the north end of the lake, 38 miles away. What an extraordinary number! How many years more for this one drop to move through the Erie Canal system and the Great Lakes before finding its way to the ocean? Thirty, forty, fifty? What seeps out here at the Promontory today will travel this water system for many years to come.

Though it's a grey, cool day, spring is budding at the Promontory, and I’m being released from my winter confines. The warmth is arriving, and the green and growth won't be far behind. The days and weeks will pass slowly, I’ll celebrate Mother’s day, and then the end of the school year for my kids. Summer will come and with it infernal heat and blood-sucking ticks and sweaty days in the garden. We'll schedule a trip to the Adirondacks. I’ll plan and prepare to go to Pittsburgh for the Summer Community of Writers. A month after that, I’ll marvel that my son is entering fourth grade, my stepdaughter her final year of high school. I’ll settle into another semester of learning to be a writer, and watch as the maples and oaks shiver and suck in their heat, their water. Then, the Canal Corporation will note the ice on its way and open the floodgates again. Water will leave the lake, shifting the landscape in preparation for another cold season.

And all the while, this one drop of water I touch here today at the conjunction of Fall Creek and Cayuga Lake will be somewhere out there, tumbling around all the others. Slipping slowly north, following the flow, moving mindlessly amidst the chaos of hydrogen and oxygen atoms grasping each other as if their lives depended on it.

In fact, all our lives depend on it. Another year will pass, and another, and many more until finally, this one drop will finally reach the sea. Where will I be then? I’m not sure that matters. I think perhaps what matters is that what I have done here, today, to this drop of water carries with it the promise of good; the assurance that I have left this drop clean and clear and safe for my son and stepdaughter to sail on as they cross that ocean on their way into the future. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Home for Mr. Emerson


Do you know your neighbors? In ten years of living in my house, it has only been during the last few that I have gotten to know mine. Why so long? I wonder.

We live in a world where we fear an unknown man walking down the street. We lock doors at every turn. We pull our coats and hats tight around us and look the other way so many times a week, a day. Yet, what we truly need more of is community.

A Home for Mr. Emerson written by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is a picture book that expresses the joy that comes by surrounding yourself with neighbors and friends. Even more than that, this book lauds the ideal of not locking ourselves away from the world, but acknowledging that we need to care for and allow ourselves to be cared for by others.

"The only way to have a friend, is to be one." -RWE

We all know Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was a writer, thinker, nature-lover, transcendentalist, and general all around good and famous guy of the mid-1800s. I expected this book to be about his writing, as all books about Emerson are. But instead, this moves in a different direction, one that took me by surprise and was incredibly refreshing. Kerley glosses over Emerson's writing and fame, and focuses on the steps Emerson took throughout his life to create a community. He built a home, he found a wife, he had children, but that wasn't enough. He knew he needed friends. And so he set about to create a close-knit community in Concord.

The illustrations by Fotheringham are quite stunning; the page layouts are dynamic, the colors vibrate, the characters jump off the page. My favorite image is the one where Emerson is wandering through a glowing orange forest but some of the trees are books! The text utilizes quotes from Emerson, interspersed throughout the story, which brings the man to life. This is a vibrant and novel book that steps out of the old box and into the bright sunlight where no boxes exist.

"Happy is the house that shelters a friend." -RWE

Kids reading this may not know who Emerson was, they may not care. But I don't think that is why this book was written. The end page doesn't teach kids how to write, or what poetry is all about, or give a single fact on Emerson's birth, death or shirt size. Rather, it suggests they keep a journal to get to know themselves, that they get to know their city or town by exploring and creating a map, and that they get to know their community by joining an organization that takes action.

When Emerson was an older man, a tragic fire struck his home. His friends and neighbors leapt to help at a moment's notice. He was stricken with suffering, but they stood tall and supported him through it. Yet, it is not just to our friends that we must be supportive. I think the point of this simple picture book and what Emerson would have wanted was one in the same: we must build a sense of community in whatever place we call home; we ought to know our neighbors; we must give more than we receive; we must not shut our doors in fear to those we don't know or understand. I think Emerson would have wanted us to simply be kind. For in doing so, the world opens.

"Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world... Build therefore your own world." -RWE

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #9

3-29-15 at 2:15 pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory

  • Temperature: 40 degrees
  • Wind: 3-4 MPH
  • Clouds: None!
Animals seen:
  • Gulls
  • Canada geese
  • Crows
  • Mallards
Humans seen:
  • Dozens of pairs of people walking and running around the park, lying on benches in the sun, playing on the playground, walking dogs

"Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly."

I’m sitting under a sky the color of sapphires on the stone terrace overlook, watching the chaos on the swan pen pond. It’s not really a pond again yet; there is still ice and snow and the water level resembles more of a puddle than a pond. But there is liquid water, muddy muck, and a gaggle of hungry gulls vying for whatever scraps they can find.

Herring gulls are the most common species of “seagull” on the east coast. They hang out in large groups, moving about from lake shore to parking lot to beach in search of the best meals. They take what they can get, they are scavengers.

They are also loud, these birds. Voices call, yak, scree and caw over and over, the cacophony blending into a music of sorts, but with no rhythm. They are a mob of constant motion. In the air, in the water, on the mud, bouncing off each other like molecules bonding and breaking. For no apparent reason one or two will fly up, circle, then swoop down to a new location a few feet away. Then resume their chatter with their neighbors. This continues until at some point they all screech and take wing at the same moment, leaving the mud and ice, making way for the lake. After circling for a short time, they sift slowly back to the mud pond, one by one. 

The gulls are beautiful in flight. Against the crystal blue above, white wings spread wide is like a perfect picture of freedom. They soar so effortlessly, feet tucked underneath their behinds, head turning left to right scanning the scene below. I am slightly jealous. Their vivacity, energy, vigor surrounds me and fills me as it fills the space of the swan pen.

But something is missing. I wonder how they can live as they do, so incredibly not nice. They scream in each other’s faces, push others away with a snap of the beak, and snatch food from the mouth of whoever’s swallowing. I saw one deliberately holding on to and pulling at another’s wing to… do what? I don’t know. What was the point of that? And it’s not simply a random outburst every now and then. They seem pissed off all the time. They are together as a flock, and yet they don’t seem to want each other’s company.

It’s a strange dichotomy. This need we have for others of our kind, and the struggles we face when we are all together. Is it the nature of the animal to behave this way, or is it the circumstances that bring to light the challenges? Is it a case of too many animals in too small a pond? Regardless of the why, do they have to live like this?

The gulls continue their racket. They dip their faces into the murky shallows and pluck up whatever yummy goodness they can find, then dash away to hide and consume their food without harassment. Up, a glide around the sky once more, then a splash into the water again, searching for what’s next.

"Jonathan, remember what you said a long time ago about loving the Flock enough to return to it and help it to learn?" [said Fletcher Gull.]


"I don’t understand how you manage to love a mob of birds that just tried to kill you."

"Oh, Fletch, you don’t love that! You don’t love hatred and evil, of course. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and to help them see it in themselves. That what I mean by love. It’s fun, when you get the knack of it.'" 


Italicized sections from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach.

Find out all about gulls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology webpage.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #8

3/21/15 at 4:30 pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory

  • Temperature: 42 degrees
  • Wind: 3 MPH
  • Clouds: Yep

Humans and Animals Seen:

  • People running and walking around the park loop
  • A man parked in his car with the windows open and music pumping
  • Geese, gulls, water birds on the grass, in the water, in the air
  • A dead goose next to the road

"A new love affair is blossoming on the peaceful waters of Fuertes Pond in Stewart Park — at least that's what Cornell University ornithologists and Ithaca Park Department officials hope.” So stated the Cornell Chronicle on November 5, 1970. (There is an excellent photo of the new swan in this link.)

The resident female mute swan had died, while the male “has splashed about on the pond for a month without a mate.” At the urging of Cornelius L. Edsall, the Stewart Park caretaker at the time, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology acquired a second female mute swan. They introduced her to the pond and hoped for love.

But swans mate for life. Would it be that easy to replace the female, just by shipping in a new one? Could I replace my husband were he to die? It seems a silly idea. But the ornithologists of the time felt differently. "The pair of mute swans should hit if off fine," Tate [assistant director at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology] said, "because they're two of a kind not too common in this region." So, oddity seeks out oddity? 

There are no swans at the Promontory anymore. But the oddity remains.

In the parking area, a heavily-bearded older man sits in his red Esquire, windows open and pumping some jam band music. I don’t get a whiff of anything “recreational,” but I don’t doubt something is brewing in his car. To each his own, but his engine-running presence for the hour I wander, unnerves me.

What has been frozen and out of sight for the past three months is now reemerging. I walk past empty bottles of vodka, plastic coffee cup tops, and crumpled fast food wrappers and bags. I make to walk down behind two of the thick willow trees to the rocky beach, but a thawing pile of human shit stops me.

I notice that there is a way to walk out onto a tiny spit covered in willow sprigs and scratchy shrubs that sticks out in the middle of the Swan Pen. At the end of the spit I find a shed. More of a doghouse, only bigger. Six feet long, three across, with green shingles and a wide open front door. I note a layer of hay on the floor. The little building is tucked into the shrubbery and is not easily accessed. It seems somewhat new, yet not used. I explore all around it, but no further clues present themselves. It's the strangest thing.

And then there's the dead goose.

Just off the road; head bent back under its body, wings slightly splayed, black feet lurching stiffly up into the air. It looks so soft and light. But the heavy weight of emptiness pulls it down. I stand over it, thinking of Barry Lopez and his essay “Apologia.” The man drove across the country, and stopped to move hundreds of road-kill carcasses off the road. It was a meditation, an apology, a penitence. 

I wonder about the swans. When one bird died, she got replaced. How did the love affair go? Did the two hit it off? Were there babies? Canada geese mate for life too. But this bird laying on the cold ground in front of me can't be replaced. There are no ornithologists here to offer her mate another chance at love. I wanted so much to touch this broken creature in front of me, unpin its head from its body, fold its feet down, and lay it out for all to see. But I can't bring myself to do it.

Usually I take pictures of everything, but today, the first day of spring, I can't photograph more waste.