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.

A Miracle Hike

Sometimes, in the midst of chaos, uncertainty, sadness, frustration, stupefaction and anger (much of what this country has been experiencing for quite some time and especially recently) or sometimes in the middle of life stretching out so dull and repetitive and without reprieve (which we have also endured)—something that feels miraculous shows up. What have I learned to do with it?

Take it in fully, knowing there’s plenty more chaos out there and we’ve got to see everything that we have, not just what is difficult. 

Examine it carefully and lovingly, appreciate it from all angles, marvel over it with others. 

Appreciate all the ways it could have been missed and also—wow, there it was.

******

“It” was a hike up Coney Mountain in the Horseshoe Lake Wild Forest north of Long Lake, New York. The rest of my week off from the day job had been catch-up from the holidays (finally making gifts), work on the book (still not available online yet but we’re close), and learning once again to take joy in household projects. 

This hike made “time off” a vacation.

According to local folks we chatted with briefly on the trail, it had snowed a week prior and then a more delicate snow dusted the trees on two other days. Unusually, they’d had no wind the whole week, while the sky stayed full of gray clouds. These specific meteorological conditions (once in a decade? once in a lifetime for an intermittent mountain hiker like me?) combined to create what we found.

Because that day, the sun came out.

Feathery ferns festooned with snow.

Therefore, the snow that clung thickly to every millimeter of the branches, stems and twigs was lit from above. The dry frostiness at fifteen degrees Fahrenheit created jewels of every flake, with flashes and glints of rainbow: literal scintillation. On the hike up, shades of blue-white light filled the deeper woods while frosted glacial erratics (boulders dropped from the movement of ancient ice sheets) slumbered between hemlocks and birches. A red squirrel dashed across our path.

Quiet winter woods.

The sky above curved a flat cornflower blue. We mistook the white in the sky as clouds beyond the canopy when in fact there were no clouds on that side of the mountain. The puffs were full heads of glistening tree hair, crowns of snow in filigree as well as stubby clubs of silver. 

Not clouds up there, nope, not at all. Take a closer look.

What we found at the end of the trail, up at 2,265 feet, was not only the expected 360 degree view of the Adirondack High Peaks we’d experienced in the autumn, but a frosted world that left us wordless and laughing.

I have been trying for days to describe what made it so moving and joyful. Does it help to say it was one of the top ten hikes of my life?

The bright at the top couldn’t be viewed without sunglasses. As we turned in astonished circles, we discerned flowing blankets of white becoming darker in the distance. The most pure white appeared in the close-in trees and bushes, then below us the tops of full grown evergreens arose white-beige; further away the mountain tops full of trees flashed a shade darker of brown-white. Finally between two evergreens, the restful dark blue of Tupper Lake came into view, with its own islands of brown dotted with miniature Christmas trees.

Trees after trees after trees, and distant peaks.

A forest of saguaro cactus snow shapes surrounded us. The heavy buildup of frozen crystals looked like hoarfrost—layer after layer of hoarfrost, fat like a corndog. It wasn’t icy either, just weightless and fluffy and when I touched it with my finger it crumbled away. 

If there had been any wind of note during the previous week, this spectacle would have disintegrated into blobs of snow on the ground, and we would never have known what we missed.

Fingers of glowing frost.

As I snapped image after image, I was afraid of distorting what I was seeing—I had on polarized lenses, could I see through the camera what I was seeing in my eyes, what was really there in front of me? Were the photos all going to be shaky because of the huff-and-puff of the climb and/or because I was so excited about what we saw? 

We stayed up top for a half hour, devouring chicken sandwiches with leaf lettuce that startled in its glowing greenness. As we happily headed down, the woods dimmed and shadowed around us; we had taken in all the light we could. 

I keep returning to what we saw, how we felt. I can’t get it out of my mind.

A last look back.

The world was so bright up there, so fiercely, sweetly bright. Snow sparkled silently, blindingly, rainbows and diamonds in every direction. 

It surprised us but was natural and beautiful even if unexpected, was somehow delicate and yet enduring.

I think it looked like hope.

Winter sun over us, up on Coney Mountain.

Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet in early November sun, Glenville NY

A couple words: pandemic, mandatory overtime, 2020 political strife. Any of it enough to knock us off our timetables/schedules/other notions of control. Bittersweet, indeed.

But I’m back, thanks to gentle nudging from several gentle folk. (And less mandatory overtime.) Thank you.

P.S. Add: prepping a book for publication. Details to follow.

Sunset over the Troy-Green Island Bridge, Hudson River, Troy NY, November 2020

Pandemic Care for Self

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Water swirls. Do we get pulled into it, or do we observe from a place of strength, like the yellow coltsfoot flowers on the left? Mariaville Lake, NY, April 2020.

In this pandemic at-home time, I don’t want to lose track of my days and experiences. To get to the absolutely vital, I need some sort of accountability, some kind of checklist that comes out of these questions: 

How do I organize my days?

How do I take care of myself?

Gosh—What is most important?

How do I live this time kindly and gently? 

Very importantly—How do I manage my day job at home (often with overtime) without over-doing it or under-doing it?

****

I am a list maker. 

Even as a young teenager, I mimicked my mother’s “Jot it down—you don’t want to forget; mark it off, isn’t that satisfying?” 

As a college student with a heavy course load, I organized my days in two hour blocks of time. They ran from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six or seven days a week, in order to get all of the studies and papers completed with revisions and any technical glitches—which at the time involved a portable typewriter and carbon paper—and short breaks for meals. 

My desk sized calendar was covered with tiny smeary black pencil scritches of lists, time periods, what was left to do. Complete with panicked exclamation points!!!! and underscores for emphasis (and more exclamation points!). My body ached for movement and relaxation and something other than school. The lists kept score and I persevered.

Looking back now—the lists were brutal and effective. But not sustainable.

Lists can often scream at you only about what you have not accomplished, until out of desperation you write down things like Get Up, Make Bed, Eat Breakfast. Some days that is all you can do, for various reasons. 

Especially right now.

***

Six weeks ago, I created a list. Called it A Check List. Then A Care for Self Checklist. Finally, I had to mention the Pandemic—that there is an overarching shift in the world that has to be acknowledged as I take on this Care for Self.

Pandemic Care for Self Checklist.

Bold type, 17 point font on my paper. These are big things, for big challenging times.

JOURNAL. YOGA. WALK. CREATIVELY WRITE & PHOTOGRAPH. JOYFUL HOUSEHOLD. CONNECTION. COOK. READ. RUB A BODY PART. DAY JOB HOURS WITH GENTLENESS. INDULGE/RELAX.

I use the back to jot down those “gotta remember” things, as well as exciting meal ideas from what I have here at home, future Zoom meetings, and projects I intend to tackle in small bites. However, those are not requirements with a due date necessarily; they are written to relieve the heaviness in my mind, loosen it for other things, like letting go of the list.

I spend time crying and laughing. I do completely unexpected things.

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Stickers can make things so much more fun! The spots on the list are reflections from the window as morning sun pours in.

***

There’s a lot to write about this list. It has grown and shifted over the weeks.

But for now, I toggle between these various actions that feed me. I don’t expect to get every one of them done every day. I note and delight in any accomplishments—and there are quite a few, especially ones that wouldn’t normally make it onto a list.

What is on your Pandemic Care for Self Checklist?

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This sunset photo was part of WALK, CREATIVELY PHOTOGRAPH, CONNECTION (with a friend, six feet plus apart, both of us masked) and INDULGE.

 

 

April is Poetry Month!

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Yes, we do get snow in April! Along the Vlomankill at Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, a few weeks ago.

I chose this photo because poetry is about reflections.

Many of us are doing quite a bit of reflecting these days–when not gnashing our teeth or crying or taking care of the loved people and/or creatures in our living space or learning new skills or finally, finally doing long-put-off projects–or for essential workers, spending exhausted hours doing what we need to do.

Today I have a poem up on the Rensselaerville NY Public Library Poem-A-Day page. In spite of its topical nature, the poem was written under different circumstances and because of other challenges in my life back then; funny how it speaks to Right Now.

Then again, that’s poetry.

You can find the poem here (and comment there if you like) and information about the Rensselaerville Library and the history of their Poetry Month celebration here .

More photos to come soon, as I figure out how to juggle the day job overtime hours and the things that feed me best.

Some invitations for difficult times

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Trees overlooking the Mohawk River along the Erie Canal, Amsterdam NY, April 2020

In this time of hunker down and keep to ourselves, I was wondering what I could possibly do to use my skillset for the community. Pretty immediately, I was surprised by a phone call. 

Last September, I led a forest therapy walk for the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy at Strawberry Fields Preserve in Amsterdam, NY. (I will write about this experience—and soon—I promise!)

Carrie, my contact at MHLC, asked:  Could you lead a virtual hike, and what might that look like?

In response I created two short meditations modeled on the invitations we offer in forest therapy. One is for folks who cannot go outside and one is for when you go out for your daily healthy walk for fresh spring air and long leg movements—or whatever suits you and your body.  Kids can use them, too.

You can play the recordings on your device inside or outside.

https://mohawkhudson.org/virtual-hikes-and-lessons

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My first wildflower of the year–oxalis (shamrock) peeking out from under the leaves on Hang Glider Road trail at John Boyd Thacher (North) State Park, April 2020

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?