Nature, Writing

Wildness brushes close

Over the years I’ve been a member of or led in-person writing groups in which the goal is to generate new writing. In all of these groups, I’ve relished the synergy of sitting with other writers, each of us deep in our creative worlds. On a good day, the generative hum can be almost palpable, a shared electric current.

Writing group time doesn’t always flow smoothly though. There are days when I’m distracted by the click of keys or scratch of pens on paper, days when I’m restless, the prompts don’t speak to me, words don’t come, and I just want the writing time to end. But my commitment to the group and to the process helps me sit through this edginess; I make false starts but eventually words become sentences that become a paragraph or two. And I am often surprised when I read aloud, hear what resonates with listeners, and discover a thread to develop, an idea to pursue. 

I wrote the following on one of those restless days. I’m sharing it here mostly unedited—I corrected typos, cleaned up verb tenses and punctuation, put in paragraph breaks but didn’t “fix” anything else. The prompt was to choose a word, write a sentence, pause, and continue with “What I mean to say is…” I chose two words—owl and brush—and this is where those words gradually led me.

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I haven’t seen the barred owl since sometime in January. What I mean to say is my life hasn’t been brushed by a glimpse of that still presence, that beautiful bird of prey that sits and observes, warming its feathers in winter sun. 

What is it about birds of prey that fascinates me? The owl, the peregrine falcons that swoop on their target at 200 miles per hour?

I first spotted the owl a few years ago on a cold winter morning. I saw it fly across the yard and land on a branch of the yellow pine. Every morning it appeared and then just as suddenly disappeared. The clamoring, cawing crows let me know when it arrived—I’d look where they were gathering and yelling and there, through the branches, still but for its swiveling head was the owl. 

I’ve only heard it a few times, the distinctive “who cooks for me” call echoing at night. But all too often outside sounds are muted by the sound of the furnace or the air conditioner, the house living and breathing around me. 

One year I heard the distinctive call of a great horned owl, the deep call and then an answering call. I was glad the cat was inside. I saw a great horned owl one late summer day. Two friends and I were walking on a path in a wooded park outside of Chicago. We heard the whoosh of wings and looked up to see this large creature eyeing us as we scurried past. 

Wildness brushes close. Wildness which so many people fear and destroy.

A few years ago, in response to the disappearance of nature words from a children’s dictionary, English author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris collaborated on The Lost Words: A Spell Book, a book of acrostic poems and art that conjures these words and keeps these bits of nature alive in our hearts and minds—dandelion, raven, lark, thistle, owl, conker, hare—the list goes on. 

If we lose these words, they say, we no longer see and value the species they name. The book has become a best-seller in England, curricula have developed around it, crowdfunding campaigns have thrived with an aim of getting it into schools throughout the country, a group of musicians created a song cycle based on it, other composers have used it as inspiration. I listen to the CD of the song cycle and my heart aches for the disappearing species. 

So I revel in the wildness that trots and soars and lumbers through my suburban yard. The family of raccoons that loll in the crook of the pine on hot summer days; the possum that noses at the cat door and on occasion takes up residence in the garage; the skunk with its plumed tail that ambles through early in the morning; the coyotes I’ve seen in late winter when lingering snow cover shrinks their hunting grounds; the bobcat that posed in the back corner of the garden one summer; the hummingbirds and wrens and orioles and cardinals and jays and crows; the butterflies and moths and bees and wasps; the tree frogs and crickets that fill the summer nights with music. 

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Listen to “The Lost Words Blessing”

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Meditation, Nature

Things I let go

I take part in a weekly writing group. We gather in one another’s living rooms, someone offers prompts, and we write. At the end of the writing period, we read our fresh, new words aloud. One week, the prompt was to pick words out of a bowl and then write a piece that used those words. My words were canoe, heel, and bowl. A challenge—and as always I was intrigued by what emerged. 

After the group, I took the raw writing and polished it up slightly—and here it is. 

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When I was 11, I spent a month at Camp Pokagon for Girls in northern Indiana. We rode horses, paddled canoes, swam, shot arrows at targets, hiked, went on snipe hunts, sang, short-sheeted the counselors’ beds, and all in all had a grand time (although I never did come to terms with the horses). 

Before we were sent off in the canoes, we had to learn how to recover from a spill. What glee, what joy, standing on the canoe and rocking, rocking, rocking until it tipped over and we fell, yelling into the lake, to sputter and snort as we surfaced then grabbed onto the side, clambered into the waterlogged canoe, and bailed until we could paddle to shore. 

I haven’t been in a canoe in years. The last time was in Maine when a friend and I rented a canoe to explore the salt marshes near Scarborough. But if I close my eyes I can feel the water moving against the shell as I step in placing feet just so, find the balance point, sit back on my heels, pick up the paddle, then stroke and pull, stroke and pull. I hear the ripples as water moves against hull, feel the coolness as my hand dips into the water.

The things that drop away. The things we let go. 

I used to shape clay into bowls, cups, plates, and vases. I’d throw the hunks of clay on the wheel, center them, open them, draw up the walls, shape and smooth, cut them off, dry and glaze and fire. I’d hold the finished product in my hands, feel the heft, the smoothness, the gloss of glaze. I still use those bowls and cups and plates but I haven’t made new ones in years. 

The things I’ve let go. Singing in a group, dancing with women friends, swimming across a pond with long sure strokes. 

I recently watched a TED talk about joy. The speaker, Ingrid Fetell Lee, defined joy as a strong positive feeling that makes us want to laugh and jump up and down—I think of my 11-year-old self laughing and squealing at the plunge off the canoe into the cold lake or my middle-aged self swimming across that pond under a cloudless sky. 

I could find another group to harmonize with, gather my friends and turn up the volume, tug on the swim suit and edge into the pond, sink my fingers into clay. Letting go isn’t the same as losing. 

These days I dance in my kitchen, sing in the car, walk next to woodland streams and ponds where I pause frequently to listen and watch. I experience joy as a quiet burst of pleasure, an aha, an exhalation. A glimpse of a flower, a trickle of peach juice that I lick off my fingers, friends laughing around the dinner table, the cat’s soft fur, the hum of crickets on an August night.

Meditation, Nature, Poetry

Looking downstream

Early crocuses are blooming, daffodils are pushing through, buds are swelling on shrubs and trees. Even on chilly days the sun feels stronger. 

Spring feels especially poignant and necessary this year. After so many months of loss and change, I need the new growth, the lingering light, the quickening bird song. 

Patches of snow and ice linger in the woods but a favorite path is clear and dry. Each day this week I’ve walked this path that winds along a stream in full spate with snow and ice melt. I stop at a bridge, lean on the railing, and let the sound of water quiet my mind. I should write a poem, I think, and then realize that this—the sound of water over rocks, the glinting sun, the green boughs—is already a poem.