About of-the-essence blog

Me? Memoirist, essayist, and photographer, who cooks--a recipe for a good life, I think, and one that changes with the ingredients at hand.

Crocuses and Optimism

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Mid-March crocuses.

I am an optimist. A belt-and-suspenders, prepare for the worst and be glad when it’s not optimist, raised by people only half a generation out from the Great Depression–but nonetheless, an optimist. I look for signs of hope while I choose not to downplay the suffering and unfairness that exist intertwined with that hope. I acknowledge the immensity of so many good things I’ve received, earned or not. 

That’s been helpful during these days of up and down realities and feelings, the strange watchfulness and anxiety—what my fellow writer E.P. Beaumont has described to me as “Big Crisis combined with No Big Motion.” 

All the motion I can do is walk.

***

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Sky over Sage College, Troy NY, March 2020

Six days ago, I set out for the Sage College campus under a rain-brooding sky. I found my first spring flowers–popped up in a corner bed:  crocuses, so perky and open. Some of them relaxed back, complete with raindrop sparkles (like those too-artful portraits with a single tear on the cheek).

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Picture perfect spring crocus

A few nights later it snowed long and steady here in the Hudson Valley. Six inches or so of moist snow sounded like styrofoam squeaking as I shuffled through it. An umbrella protected from the plops and blops, let go from overloaded trees in the dark. 

I thought of my crocuses and found them, as expected, buried and flattened under the snow. 

Such a sadness. Did it portend or just reflect the horrors we are facing?

I noted what I found, felt it, and went on to tromp through the snow some more; I wondered at the thick white frosting on spring budded trees and even smiled at the usual landmarks softened in golden streetlight glow.

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Other spring bulbs weighted by the snow

In daylight, the weather warmed and the snow melted away almost entirely. I went back, concerned at what I might or might not find.

There they were: beaten, torn, down in the mud. MY crocuses; it hurt to see them damaged, some flowers not coming back.

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Flattened and bruised.

However, the mud, often disparaged, is for growing. I found another bunch of bulbs that had sprung back with vigor. 

Some of the flowers will not return. Some will come back next year. Some are already OK.

I hear the message:  appreciate what you can while you can. Feel what you feel, move your body, hold both the optimism and the bad news. 

And dammit, take the precautions, be belt-and-suspenders! Do not weary of what will keep ALL of us vulnerable humans (those tender purple petals, every precious last one!) safe and able to blossom again.

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We’re in the middle of the storm. Keep the lamp on for each other.

 

Signs of Spring

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One of this year’s crop of squirrels leaning over for a tasty bud on the elm.

Here at the beginning of March, I have spotted signs of spring. Yes, there is still snow on sidewalks and in the woods for many of us, and probably more to come, but certain things are happening.

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Seven of the eight male cardinals (less visible, at least five of the females) that flocked to the feeder; normally there are just three pair.

Animals are on the move; plants are growing quietly.

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Even if temporarily captured by a freeze, this plant in the Vlomankill at Five Rivers is determined to grow.

Who is popping out to see if spring is on its way?

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The little chipmunk who lives in the sewer grate!

Where do you see signs of seasonal shifts, of new life?

Resting on the Ice

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Staghorn sumac drupe on the ice

Staghorn sumac is a shrub or low tree that has flowers that are replaced with drupes, hard coated seeds with bright red hairs. Don’t they look brilliant against the ice?

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Moss from a tree, or maybe a rock

I’m wanting to learn more about mosses, lichens, and algae. Right now I enjoy the bright green against clear.

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Winter tree litter

Look closer at the “litter” and you’ll see needles and bits of cones from the hemlocks that surround this patch of snow. Someone has been busy: either nibbling animals and pecking birds, or the wind–or both.

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A bee, caught by freezing temperatures

I thought this was another bit of plant or rock, until I took a second look.

Snow and ice are not just white, or clear; items fall to rest on them, things we wouldn’t see if they fell on dark dirt or leaves.

What do you see, when you stop to really look? When you lean in close?

 

Bunnies and Hope

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The hedgerow at sunset

I see them at night, after work, when I pull into a parking spot.

By the hedgerow: round, stone-shaped shadows, but then a fluff tail pops up, a hop gives them away. Sometimes one bunny, often a pair.

They give me hope. 

These creatures are huge, from nibbling the grass and the plants by the farmer’s field.  They pause when caught in my headlights, then scamper back to the safety of the brush. Sometimes they stay until long after I leave, if I don’t make too much noise or movement.

Even in the snow, they are out there. It’s late enough in the day they must not fear the eagles and other hunters in the area.

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Another predator: the Cooper’s hawk that sometimes stalks the bird feeder.

It’s usually at late dusk or already dark, so photos are difficult. In my excitement I end up with pixellated brown and white blobs against gray grass, so I choose instead to observe, breathe, take them into my memory.

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Cardinals and sparrows in the hedgerow by day.

One dusk walk last summer it was a “twelve-bunny night,” with various bucks and does nibbling grapevines and greenery near the apartments. A bevy of bunnies under bushes and bopping in the open field; a score skittering between buildings where small children run themselves, wobbly with bikes and balls. 

Another night we mourned a small rabbit smashed on the road, and wondered if it was the result of deliberate cruelty, or a mistaken dash across the asphalt. 

Could you be more careful? we asked—of drivers and of bunnies. We will be, now.

A dear friend used to say that bunnies were a sign of good luck, or good things to come. She gave us all little charms of smiling bunnies that made me smile in turn. When I see rabbits, I remember to think positively, for all the good in the midst of what can feel like overwhelming bad in our world.

Every chance I get, I look for bunnies on the lawn. Every chance.

 

The Hedgerow

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Sunset, facing east, in winter

 

A hedgerow is a marvelous thing–the edges of a field. Remnants of this year’s rows of corn are visible through the gaps. At this moment, the hedgerow is still. Sunset dapples yellow on blue snow, like the summer glow fading on ocean sand.

The hedgerow’s few trees are weighted down by grapevine and other plants so that the far view has not been impinged by thick or tall trunks. Bushes create hiding places for year-round birds as well as travelers.

There is space inside this edge, the hedge-edge, as well as on both sides.

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Staghorn sumac against the sky

Dark shadowed limbs create a picture frame for the world on the other side of the hedgerow. Deer travel the dawn field; wild turkeys jut heads and flash feathers at each other.  On this side, cars slide in and out; owners and dogs walk each other. Snowplows beep and scrape in the night and later, when day comes, the hedgerow’s birds flap to the feeders.

Which edges do you cherish? Which do you chafe against? What life can be found inside the edges?

 

Ask Questions–Wait and See

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Bubbles that look like coins and holes. Off Tubbs Pond dock, Partridge Run WMA, East Berne NY

Some of my nature mantras:

Stop and notice.

Be aware of distractions in your head and in the outside world.

Don’t divide your attention. 

Ask questions when something seems unusual. 

Wait and see.

Take it in.

***

In a funk, I walk over to the pond on a quick outing, to see if there are unusual ice formations or quirky fallen over plants or any of my other usual photographic thrills. For several days, the temperatures have hovered just above freezing; a thin sheet of whitened ice rests over mostly liquid water.

Often ice is marked by little shapes or lines where objects have struck or steps been made by pads, claws or boots. Much of it melts, refreezes, and reshapes until it is unidentifiable except as blobs and stretch marks. My heart races to find perfect captured bubbles in a column, breathed upward: exhaled perhaps from winter-slow fish or turtles, or gassy plants at the bottom.

On the ice this time, an odd dark shape on the white—how funny! how curious! Random melting and re-freezing? I move to walk on, but hear quiet gurgling sounds. Could it just be my imagination, or a sound carried from elsewhere? I hear it again.

If I wait, I bet I’ll see something! I hope I’ll see something!

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Pond ice near the Mohawk River

***

The cattail stalks are dry and pale yellow this time of year, the seed heads exploded white out of grainy brown-toasted hot dog buns. I squint to see between them.  Carefully skirting crumbling piles of dog doo, the urban menace to mindless wandering, I move down a bit closer. 

Was that rock there before, in the open water? Time to zoom in with the camera. 

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Curious, what appears among the plants….

A motionless anvil-shaped brown fur head, whiskers spangled with drops of pond water, an eye that looks straight, avoiding my glance. Nothing to see here folks, nope, keep on a-goin’. 

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No, not a rock.

A blink. Then a double blink.

***

We saw a passel of muskrat babies last year, in the tiny stream that feeds the pond. They were well hidden in the green reeds and overgrown plants there, a parent teaching them to forage. Much like I taught my children to travel the train in Chicago: at first with me and in a group, then the group without me, and finally alone, self-reliant. I wonder if this animal is one of the babies or the parents.

***

I could stay there longer at the pond to see what else might happen but chores call, along with a waiting lunch. When I turn my head, SPLURG! SPLUSH! away it goes, a trail of trembling water behind it. Closer, in the cattails, there it is: a fresh muskrat home of knocked over stalks hidden in the standing ones.

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Beavers use sticks, grasses and mud to make lodges; muskrats prefer cattails with their mud.

Off the wet grass, my boots grate and crunch thick salt crystals on concrete. Cold February air nuzzles my exposed cheeks. Wind brings the smell of mud and muck and someone’s wood stove. I smile to glimpse another creature inhabiting its life, like a secret I got to share. I am grateful for the patience with myself–to stand motionless and allow the natural world to reveal itself, doing what it does when I am not here to see.

***

Stop and notice.

Be aware of distractions in your head and in the outside world.

Don’t divide your attention. 

Ask questions when something seems unusual. 

Wait and see.

Take it in.

***

(In re: animal identification–If the ears protruded more I might say it was a beaver–since I can’t see the body’s size. If the nostrils were more rounded and flared I might think river otter. I know that a muskrat is pretty fluffy under the chin, but this animal is soaked. I might be “all wet” myself, in my identification, but I enjoy asking the questions, and absolutely aware I could be incorrect.)

 

Feeling Your Senses in Photos, Part 2: Curls and Wisps

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These dried leaves held together against the wind and temperature changes of fall-into-winter.

Without distracting myself with research to identify this plant, I want to sense it through the photograph.

The leaves are not summer green but brown with aged cell walls. Before the days shortened, fingertips could have felt the transformation of rain absorbed through roots and pulled upward into firm outstretched greenery.

Can you feel the chilly breeze dry your hand as it reaches out to touch the curls? Can you smell the damp moulder of meadow plants soggy in the snow? Can you hear the raspy crackle of the ringlets of leaves, one against another, barely able to be heard over the wind?

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From another angle, the dancing leaves.

Look closer at the soft furry surface in the sun. Feel warmth on old bones.

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Closer still.

Look even closer and see the seed fluff from another plant hooked on those furry edges. Caught temporarily, it will either blow away again in a stronger wind, be washed down by melting snow, or wait further and sprout when this plant falls to the ground.

What would it be like to rest, like this tiny seed, nestled in softness?