Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #3

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1-25-15 at 4:30 pm
at the Stewart Park Promontory

  • Temperature: 20 degrees
  • Wind: 0-8 MPH   Gusts: 2-12 MPH
  • Feels like: Hypothermia weather
  • Partly sunny, high wispy clouds

Animals seen:
  • Flocks of Canada Geese flying in Vs
  • A few gulls flying
  • One or two unidentified songbirds flying overhead

Humans seen:
  • A dozen or so people coming and going. Driving by the lake taking photographs. A few walking around.

The sky is pastel this afternoon, slipping toward darkness as the sun steals away behind the west hill. The wind blasts me with cold, cutting through every bit of clothing I wear, as in previous visits. I hasten to the Promontory to see what I can see, with the goal of getting out of the cold as soon as possible. I keep to the loop, then step down onto the small west side beach where the wind doesn’t penetrate.

I’m hoping for a sunset show. As I wait to see what the sun will do, I look around the tiny beach. At first glance it’s all rocks and branches, nature’s debris. Then I see a large, white stick glaring at me and whispering I don’t belong here. A beaver-chewed stick. Utterly odd to find this. There are a few creeks that flow into the lake here at the southern end, but as far as I know, none of them are home to beaver. And to the north there are no swamps or side ponds that would house beaver. It’s a beautiful stick though. Perfect for building a submerged lodge.

I look more around the pebbly beach. There are other odd items to be found. Others that don’t belong.

At forty miles, Cayuga Lake is the longest of the Finger Lakes. Stewart Park sits at the southern tip. Though the water in the lake moves from south to north—through the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario, then on through the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean—the winds push surface water, and anything on the surface, to the shore at Stewart Park.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Native Americans had a village at the edge of Cayuga Lake called Neodakheat. By the 1700’s, Ithaca was under the dominion of white settlers. Since then, the land now called Stewart Park saw use as athletic facilities, an amusement park, a film studio, a zoo, and Ithaca’s first Vaudeville theatre. A lot of uses, a lot of humans.

So, in addition to whatever is tossed into the water from all of those forty miles north, and the extensive use of this end of the lake, there are bound to be cast-off relics.

Normally, I would feel compelled to collect all this garbage. Normally, I would feel disgusted and angry. Normally, that anger would switch to depression, as I thought of the lack of human respect for nature. But today is different. Today I have questions. Today, a discussion in my Nature Writing course has me thinking constantly about what nature is. And how exactly humans fit in to it.

A beaver leaving scraps of its housing is ‘natural.’ But a Smirnoff bottle is not. Why? When Native people lived here 400 years ago, did they not cast off their waste? Yet when we find shards of ancestral peoples’ pottery, don’t we clamber to preserve them, often in situ, often as evidence of the previous natural world? If I dug down under the grass and tennis courts in the middle of the park, would I find traces of the carousel, the movie making, the zoo animals that once paced in their cages on this land? Would they be natural items, there, deep in the dirt? Or would they still be foreigners?

There is no doubt that these human remnants are indeed trash. My gut tells me they don’t belong. But right now, I look closely at the various artifacts, figuring out how to take a photo that captures light and creates composition that might be pleasing to the eye. I imagine I can spin trash into art.

I see these remnants as bits and pieces of discarded life. Someone drank from that bottle of Smirnoff. Was he drowning his sorrows in a stolen moment at the far side of the park when he put bottle to lips? Was she leaning on the rail of the dinner boat when a shift in waves under the hull caused her to lose her grip on the bottle, dropping it overboard? Was he with his friends, a few stolen bottles from the parent’s liquor cabinet to try for the first time? I have to wonder if the stories behind the remnants make them belong. For we are behind the stories, and we all are trying desperately to belong.

If the human alteration of earthly materials renders an item unnatural, can a second human alteration—stories, photographs, art—revert it back? Or is it a natural alteration—burial underground, wind erosion, time—that which is needed for a remnant to become a part of nature again?

Back in my car with the heat running I jot down my thoughts about the Promontory today. The sun is gone behind the hill. Only black silhouettes of trees—and many questions—remain. When I look up at a willow outlined in light, I see a contrail. A stab of white cut into the darkening evening, slashed across the tree. An intersection of sorts.

Slowly, the plane traverses the sky leaving its sharp mark behind it. Equally slowly, the wind pushes at it, breaking the water droplets into a thousand pieces, dissipating it into blue.

For a brief history of Stewart Park, go to The Friends of Stewart Park website.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #2

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1/20/15 at 3:30pm
At the Promontory at Stewart Park

  • Temperature: 26 degrees
  • Wind: 5 MPH
  • Feels like: 20 degrees
  • Mostly sunny, with scattered clouds

Animals seen:
  • Canada geese flying overhead

Human presence:
  • Foot and tire tracks all around the park
  • A few cars parked, a few people walking on the ice
  • One woman on a thick-tired bike riding on the ice

Rush. Get it done. What is there to see today? Take photographs. Go. Now. Go. Move.

I’d squeezed my visit to the Promontory between a much needed trip to the grocery and my kid’s pick-up time from after school ice skating. I thought I’d left enough space, but I was down to forty-five minutes—if I wanted enough of a buffer to get to the rink to help the kids take their skates off. So I arrived at Stewart Park in a flurry, annoyed that the check-out man had been the slowest one in the store today. 

I gathered my notepad, pens, camera, and walked out to the edge of the lake. The wind blew a steady breeze and cut right through both layers of pants that I wore. My fingers were already cold, but slipping one out of the mitten to take pictures felt like slipping them into ice water. I hurried to the loop.

Hurry. Pay attention. Click. Go. Move.

The ice had drawn closer to shore since last week, though not much. The inlet where Fall Creek pours into Cayuga Lake was completely iced over well out to the first lighthouse. From there, the blue water lapped at the edge of the ice, beckoning me. I wanted to be closer to the water, but wasn't brave enough—or stupid enough—to leave land.

On the western side of the Promontory I found a small rock beach protected from the wind. I climbed the few steps down to it and stood facing the sun, the tips of my boots crunching the ice where frozen Fall Creek met the shore. I was instantly warmer.

There are more than 140 tributaries that feed into Cayuga Lake, and Fall Creek is one of the largest. It runs about a mile back to Ithaca Falls—one of Ithaca’s most beloved downtown waterfalls—where the water tumbles down from 100 feet above as it races to the lake. Even with the creek frozen over, the water from the hills doesn't stop its sprint over Ithaca Falls. It has to make its way to Cayuga Lake somehow. I guessed that it must be moving underneath the ice.

I stood still. Perhaps I could hear it.

As I waited for sound, instead, I noticed breath. My breath. For the first time all day I’d slowed down enough to be present. Some Canada geese flew overhead. The sun warmed my legs through my dark jeans. The snow glistened like diamonds sprinkled across the ice. 

There was more here to take in than I could do in forty-five minutes. It was time to stop moving. I sat down on a cold slab of shale and let the sun thaw me. 

All across the ice-crusted shore were bits and pieces of life: the shells of zebra mussels broken and scattered; a scrap of aluminum foil tossed carelessly aside; a yellow brick frozen into the ground, a remnant of Ithaca’s yellow brick road days. Each thing sparked in me curiosity, generated ideas, triggered thoughts. Though I had stopped my body, my mind kept moving.

Like Fall Creek. It was frozen on the surface, but underneath, the water kept racing for the lake. But then the thought struck me that maybe it wasn't racing. Does water ever really race anywhere? Maybe it was just flowing in the direction it needed to go and the ice had simply slowed it down a bit. I needed to slow down a bit too, and it seemed this ice was helping me do that. What was the rush all about anyway?

For a moment, I didn't want to move. Or rush. Or go. And so, I didn't.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #1

On 1/12/15 at 11am
At the Promontory in Stewart Park
  • Temperature: about 33 degrees
  • Wind: 1 MPH
  • Feels like: 33 degrees
  • Clouds: thick, low, misty snow clouds
Animals seen and heard:
  • Huge flocks of water birds like clouds above the lake
  • Handfuls of Canada geese flying overhead
  • Song of a White-Throated Sparrow
  • Calls of Gulls
Human Presence:
  • One set of tracks from a runner around the promontory
  • Handful of cars slowly driving around the Stewart Park loop

I'm sitting in the falling snow, looking north over Cayuga Lake. The snowflakes aren't really flakes, they’re tiny shards of ice. It's too warm for fully-formed flakes. But it suits me today. Hundreds, thousands, of the shards land each second, coating me, and everything else, in damp heaviness. 

It's a winter morning that carries more weight than just the wet snow's. My dog of thirteen years passed away four days ago, and my heart is dense with sorrow. As the splinters of ice fall, it seems as if they are fragmenting my heart further.

Winter personifies this emotion. Traditionally, winter is a time of dormancy and shutting down, a time of reflection and contemplation on the inner world, and for some, a time of death. The winter solstice was less than a month ago and marked the shortest day in the calendar year. It was a day where darkness prevailed and the northern lands tilted their farthest away from the sun. 

Today the lake is white, the ice reaching out to the second lighthouse. These recent cold days have pushed its boundaries far from shore. Canada geese fly overhead, aerodynamic in their Vs and honking directions to their flying partners. I wonder what they make of winter. Are they warm in the lake water, just at the edge of freezing? Do they wonder when the sun will return full-force? Do they feel the pressure of death?

As I walked around the promontory to reach this bench where I now sit, I paused to investigate a dormant tree being choked by an equally dormant strangler. The bark of the tree was rough and grey, and bulging over where the vine was wrapped tightly, suffocating. At least for now, in the depth of winter, the tree is safe. But I wondered how long it would survive once summer comes and it needs to expand outward. The strangler wasn’t wild grape vine (Vitis spp.) or oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), two common invasive stranglers, but I couldn't determine what it was. Just one more thing I sought to understand.

Winter means darkness. For Native people, the solstice was a way to mark time. For modern scientists it is a way to chart the relation of earth and sun. For me, in some ways, winter has come to represent death. Last year, I suffered through the sudden death of an old friend. The year before, I felt my heart shatter as six- and seven-year-old children in Newtown, CT were murdered in their school. And now, my canine companion has passed on, and left me to sit here alone in the snow and reflect on death yet again.

I don’t know what happens after we die. I’m not quite convinced about reincarnation. I don’t believe in heaven, nor a happy doggie park in the sky where my pup can frolic freely forever. Maybe our energy turns in on itself and becomes some other configuration. I don’t know.

What I do know is that my world has shifted again, without my influence nor my consent. Autumn passed and winter arrived. I do know that the earth’s tilt has put me in my farthest position from light, and I am surrounded by darkness. And yet, I also know that the earth is going to keep turning on its axis and time will pass and eventually I will find myself closer to the sun.

I leave the bench and wander farther around the promontory loop. I come to the one quiet oak tree on the path. Unlike many other trees, the oak hangs on to its lifeless, autumn leaves well into winter. Orange, drooping memories that will fade sometime in the future when the light returns. It sparks in me a warm memory of what was.

I move along the path and cut under the porch overhang of the Boat House. Here, I come across a snow-free patch of moss, glowing green amidst the surrounding grey. In this burgeoning winter, I would have expected moss to disappear, to shrivel up and hide like the rest of the plants of New York. Like I want to today.

And yet, I want to touch it. To feel what I remember moss to be. I want the spark of those orange oak leaves to ignite the life within this moss and help move me back toward warmth.

As I reach out to the greenness, a perfectly-formed, hexagonal snowflake lands on my mitten. I marvel at its flawlessness, its precision, its magnificent geometry that captures the white light of this short day and reflects it back out onto the world. It is beautiful. It sticks there for a few seconds before slowly turning in on itself and becoming a droplet of water.

For everything you want to know about winter solstice go to EarthSky.org