Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Nature Entry #6

3-1-15 at 12:15pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory

Temperature: 25 degrees
Wind: 5-11 MPH
Clouds: Yes, of course

Humans and Animals seen: Only the crazy ones who got lost on their way to Florida

My notes for today begin “cold, white, cloudy, crappy.” I've been willing to play along, work in an occasional cross-country ski or skate on the pond, marvel at the glistening sparkles across the snow drifts, enjoy the slap-in-the-face cold that I'll long for on those long, humid, hot days of summer. But the game is over. That's it. I’m done.

It doesn't help that today I’m in a bad mood. Is it the cyclical hormones, the infiltration of winter, or the pressing cabin fever that has my mood sinking? Probably all of the above, but I leave my car and fumble around the Promontory loop anyway. All I see is high snow banks, deep post holes, and white and gray monotony burning my eyeballs into oblivion.

I picked the warmest day of the week to visit the Promontory, but I feel frozen. If the ice shelf went out far last week, this week it’s glacial. You can walk across the frozen tundra here at the southern half. I haven’t heard reports that it is frozen completely farther north, but it must be getting close. I see people far out there, and I have an inkling to go too. But I know that will only increase my bad mood. Trapped on an ice sheet in the dead of winter, only a notebook and camera as defense, and cloaked in negativity—probably not the best plan.

According to the US Climate Data website, Ithaca’s average temp in January is around 22 degrees. February's norm is around 24 degrees. According to the Ithaca Climate Page, temperatures this January ranged five to twenty degrees below the norm. But February, ah February, that month of spreading love with hearts and candy, that short month that the groundhog dictates, that month where the earth is supposed to be turning back toward our sun, this February ranged daily from ten to thirty degrees lower than the norm. One day, it was 35 degrees below the norm. There aren't enough candy hearts or groundhogs to get me to appreciate that.

I snoop around the boathouse to try and keep myself out of the wind. It doesn't work. But there are some intriguing patterns: the slats on the balcony, the stairs with their chipped paint, the curves of the beams overhead. Patterns that normally I would render beautiful. But today all I see is a state of disrepair, the decrepit nature of the old building, a shabby attempt at shelter.

I realize, of course, that deep winter will soon dissolve into warm spring. And before I know it, I’ll be cursing the plethora of deer ticks and raging against the heat waves that summer will bring. But today it's hard to imagine. Today, the only things that exist are cold, white, cloudy, crappy.

Monday, March 2, 2015


No comments:
a short ski trail
through long slippery weather
to a drop of ice

(Taughannock Falls in February. Perspective/context is difficult in the photo, but the falls is 215 feet high. Here completely encrusted with ice.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #5

2-22-15 at 3pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory and Cayuga Lake ice field

  • Temperature: 30 degrees
  • Wind: 2-8 MPH
  • Clouds: Yes, overcast, gray-white everywhere

Animals Seen:
  • Canada geese on land and others flying against the wind
  • A hawk harassing a gull over the ice

Humans seen:
  • Lots of people at east end of the park walking out on the ice

It’s been frigidly cold in Ithaca for weeks. Cold that prevents you from going out to play in the snow. Cold that freezes your fingers in minutes. Cold that prompted the Ithaca tourism board to recommend that potential tourists head to Key West, instead of Ithaca. (This was a strategic advertising campaign which got the tourism board website hundreds of thousands of hits in one day. The bureau estimates that 10 to 15 million people heard about the campaign over the ensuing days, and thus, now know where Ithaca, NY is on the map.)

In the fourteen years I have lived in Ithaca, Cayuga Lake—40 miles long, 3.5 miles at its widest point, and 435 feet deep—has never frozen over. There are a few documented cases from the past 160 years when the lake did freeze completely: 1856, 1885, 1912, 1918, 1934, 1948, 1962, and 1979.
This year, the ice has pushed the farthest from shore that we've seen, and my husband, Rob, wanted to take the kids as far out as they could go. So we all headed to Stewart Park on the warmest day we've had in weeks (30 degrees).

I wandered over to the Promontory, while they set out into the ether.

I was distracted from the start. Wondering where they were headed, how far they could really go, and if walking out onto the ice was really the best idea in the world? I followed the post-hole steps of one other brave path walker around the loop until the footsteps veered off onto ice-locked Fall Creek. I followed. I stumbled around the edges of the Promontory looking for something to inspire my visit. Though a few windswept snow drifts captured my attention, there wasn't much of note, except the white.

Sitting on the bench looking north over the lake, the white filled everything, the wind was low, the air crisp, but not shocking. Then rose their voices; carrying across the ice, pulling me away from my seclusion at the Promontory and back into my world, the world of family. I saw them, three dark forms—one large, one medium, one small—picking their way across the vast field, getting farther and farther away from me. 

Watching them shrink into the distance, I realized that the most profound thing I would find at the Promontory was this ice field, and the three people I love most who were on it. 

I left the bench, struggled through knee high snow drifts, grabbed branches for balance and clambered down the bank and onto the thick ice sheet. It was a desert. There was no context for distance, space, time. Take away the gray hillsides and it was how I imagine Antarctica to be. I trudged, seeming to make no progress toward or away from anything.

In some places the wind had whipped the ice bare and my boots slipped easily. In other places the snow had crusted over the top into a smooth, hard face, like oak floorboards. About two tenths of a mile out, the surface texture changed to a rough, jagged, jumble of chunks. Layer after layer of ice slabs jutting up from the thickness below. I stopped there. My family was about another tenth of a mile out, but they were turning back.

Above me I heard a piercing cry. The dark form of a hawk swooped up and down on the drafts, seemingly harassing a gray gull. The gull evaded the hawk, but they kept up their dance for a few minutes. Finally, one bird went one way, the second went the other. It was interesting, but the show, like the ice, held no context.

My family caught up with me, I caught up with them. My son eagerly showed me the triangular ice chunk shaped like a shark fin he planned to keep as a souvenir. My stepdaughter moved slowly, wisps of blond hair sticking out beneath her hat, still clicking pictures on her camera. My husband grinned beneath his enormous, red, poofy coat, clearly pleased at the success of the ice-sheet excursion. We all marveled at how far we had come.

I’m not sure what experience I would have had, had I been at the Promontory or out on the ice alone. Perhaps something deeply philosophical would have arisen. But nature isn't always a solitary thing. Its wonder and magic can be amplified or altered by what other people see and share. I even contend that sometimes, it should be. The truth is, my life is not just about me. For good and bad, everything I do affects or is affected by these three people. 

We began the Antarctic trek back across the ice and I looked over at the indistinguishable peninsula that is my Promontory. I could sort of see the Boat House hidden in the trees, but it was vague. Along with the sky, the ice, the birds. The whiteness made everything vague. The one thing that wasn't vague in all that gray haze, was my family. They were colorful and solid and right in front of me. It is they who give my life context.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #4

2-8-15 at 12:45 pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory

  • Temperature: 32 degrees
  • Wind: 5 MPH   Gusts: 6-9 MPH
  • Misty, heavy, low clouds
Animals seen:
  • Canada geese, Gulls flying overhead
Humans seen:
  • One runner
  • Three cars passing by

It’s February 8th. A storm is coming. Some say rain, some say snow. But I ventured out looking for birds anyway. After reading Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge all morning, I want to see some flying and flitting and hopping about from branch to branch.

I wander toward the Boat House, where a small stone terrace sticks out over the mud pond. It’s drenched in snow, but I tramp closer, imagining the lush greens, the splash of cormorants touching down, the daisies and black-eyed Susans that will cling to this watering hole come summer.

There are two pillars at the entrance to the terrace. On one is a plaque honoring Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

In her chapter titled “Pink Flamingos,” Tempest Williams references Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and I admit it put him on my mind. I know a bit about Fuertes because I've written about the Cayuga Bird Club and the Lab of Ornithology for the local paper. And I'm intrigued. 

There are few birds at the Promontory today. I amble around the edges of the Boat House, wishing I could get inside. And then, a ghost. A Gull? Where was he gliding to across this porch?

Drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Fuertes was born in Ithaca in 1874. He became a prominent ornithologist of his time and a revered wildlife artist. He sketched and painted birds his whole life, equaling John James Audubon in his talent. He worked at Cornell University and was the founding President of the Cayuga Bird Club. Upon his untimely death in 1927 due to an oncoming train, his colleagues and peers became determined to honor the great ornithologist. He’d had a plan for a bird sanctuary at the tip of Cayuga Lake, and so his friends set about the work of building a wildlife pond on the location where he had intended to offer refuge to traveling birds. 

The Promontory. 

My Promontory.

Canada geese honk overhead. They have become backdrop here. Standard. I want more. As I look to the skies at the latest passing flock, I see a relic that could well date back to Fuertes’ time. It’s the oldest birdhouse I have ever seen: creaky and rickety; roof caving in, and rusted metal fastenings. It is about twenty feet in the air, perched on a pole that I desperately want to climb to examine the insides. Do birds actively use this hotel in spring? If so, who? And when will they return? 

Photo from Cornell Daily Sun, March 22, 1928
The plan was this, according to Cornell Daily Sun, in March 22, 1928: “You remember the old Cascadilla Boathouse, on the little cove where Fall Creek empties into Cayuga Lake? Well, the sanctuary will include the boathouse and the marshy land near the Lake shore as far east as Stewart Park [goes]. The southern section of the marsh will be dredged, and water allowed to enter through sluices. A constant flow will be assured through this pool, which will be about four feet deep. At the southeast corner will be a feeding pond, where free food will be supplied in winter. An artesian well will be dug, so that the feeding-pond will be kept open all winter. A moat will encircle the swampy area, to keep out cats and other preying animals, including the bathers who will continue to use the beach between the moat and the lake….The boathouse will be made a seasonal museum of feathered fowl; an observation balcony will be constructed upon it. Birds with clipped wings will be kept in the sanctuary, to serve as decoys to passing fowl.”

Much of this came to fruition. Much of it didn't. I can’t help but wonder what this sanctuary would have been like had Fuertes himself overseen the creation of it.

But another presence. Someone was here. There is a distinct wing mark in the snow. An indentation in the middle where a body would have landed. Was it a falcon taking a sitting sparrow? Or an innocent landing? A foot away is a feather. A single grey feather tipped in a vibrant red like nothing else that colors this landscape. A Cardinal. It must have only just happened, the marking and the feather are not spotted with a single snowflake. 

Photo from Bird Lore Magazine, 1934
They call my Promontory the Swan Pen. One article states that the little stone terrace was the idea of Arthur Allen, one of Fuertes’ peers and the ornithologist who created the first graduate ornithology program in the US and founded the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In 1934, in Bird Lore magazine, Allen wrote, “...a group of us decided that we ought to have some method of observing the Ducks in our refuge without having to look through or over a fence. Accordingly, we drew up a tentative design, which, after passing though the hands of more experienced draftsmen, finally resulted in the stone gateway and look out shown in the accompanying photograph….”

I round the mud pond, the Swan Pen, to see the wind off the lake has been playing: two and three foot high snow banks create waves perpendicular to the wind, to the direction I am walking. I have to step over the drifts to move forward, again and again, snow slipping into my boots.

I wanted to see birds today. Instead, I found evidence. They’re here. The hearty ones are here. And, I think, Fuertes is here too. Ninety years later, the Promontory looks significantly different than it did in the old pictures. But the heart of the project is still here, offering refuge to souls who seek it, bird and human alike.

I look up from the drifts and spy one more spirit fluttering madly in the wind. A feather. Incredulously stuck into the end of a branch. It’s downy, from deep down at the warm underbelly of a bird. It somehow tugged free and swept up against this branch. I cup it gently with my mitten and take a picture. It looks like white fire. 

Fuertes was born on February 7th. A fact I did not know until I researched him. Yesterday he would have had his 141st birthday. I’ll celebrate by doing what he would have done. I’ll keep looking for birds.
Photo from Division of Rare and Manuscript
Collections, Cornell University

Read more about the history of Fuertes' influence on Stewart Park at the Cayuga Bird Club website.
Find Fuertes's paintings and papers at Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
Read PBS' account of the Harriman Expedition to Alaska that Fuertes' traveled on.
Read a memorial about Arthur Allen at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.