I always love reflecting on the little things: the remarkable details that make up the whole, the deconstructed universe of raindrops, the fractal patterns of bark and grains of sand. But this week, as I tour the Kenai Peninsula area south of Anchorage, in Alaska, it’s the big things that are on my mind – things like neon blue glaciers and roaring cataracts of melt water that pour thunderously from the very rocks, towering spruce rain forests and massive valleys girded by snow capped alpine peaks.
These are the big things that set life in perspective – timeless rocks and grinding glaciers, the unstoppable force of rushing water that carves valleys and dizzying gorges, the very clouds that descend from the sky to cloak entire mountains. Few things put humanity in perspective like standing alone in a forest of spruce, a fine mist dripping endlessly from the evergreen branches, the sun angling through in starburst beams of light, the roar of water from all directions and glimpses of craggy mountaintops rising far into the sky all around. Alaska is big and wide and unlimited. The only frame of reference here is the sky.
John Muir’s words come repeatedly to mind. Muir, who spread the gospel of the wilderness from coast to coast at the turn of the 20th century, was especially fond of Alaska.
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world, ” he wrote in Alaska Fragment, in 1890. ” —the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”
It’s hard to call Alaska “unblighted” today – a hundred and more years of gold mining detritus litter trails and spoil valleys; the ruins of half-finished cabins and chalets lie broken along roadsides, and tourists and residents alike trail the residue of their leavings in their wake wherever they go. But Alaska is big and powerful with the strength of unbridled nature behind it, and even the ruins of a couple or three measly centuries of humans scratching about on its glacial surface do nothing to subdue it.
Debate about the causes of climate change and the commensurate shrinking of said glaciers aside, Alaska’s remote, untamed massiveness largely shields it from extensive encroachment. Most visitors stick to cruises and well worn trails, leaving millions upon millions of untouched wilderness – untouched. And the season in which I visit is that time betwixt and between – when the summer tourists have gone home, and the winter sports enthusiasts have yet to arrive; when the fall rains descend and there’s mud underfoot, but the roads relatively open and the vistas wide and stunning.
Everyone should take some time to stand alone in a big sweeping landscape, and experience the wonder and freedom of feeling small. For to realize we are just a small part of an immense whole, a mote within the speck of our portion of the universe, is an opportunity to free ourselves of pretense and posturing and pettiness. Within the timeless evolutionary landscape of a glacial valley, the momentary flash of our existence seems little more than the glint of sunlight on a rushing stream. And with the awareness of that smallness and brevity comes, to me at least, the brilliant wash of wonder and appreciation that I am here at all, and gifted not only with life, but with the perspective to make the most of it.
“Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen,” said Muir. ” but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty.”
Alaska is that fresh beauty for me, and I will breathe deeply of its grandeur.
Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details. The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both may be there at the same time.
This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague . Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re arthropods of note and notoriety. Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now, which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses. But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .
I was actually in the middle of a draft review and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.
I did a double take.
It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB. The first
reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.
As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “
The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .
Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs. We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.
West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across 44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.
“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”
And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests. This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.
An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.
“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)”
And yet arthropods continually fascinate me. The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne - that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba. And yet this creature is replete with organs!
And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe. Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.
“Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”
All around me things are clacking in the grass. The abundance of summer rains have
produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely. For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard. I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.
Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted. It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.
The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos, right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.
These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone. The cockroach repels us, yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings. We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought. Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.
And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals, decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.
It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand. E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.” Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.
The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.
A study led by Indianapolis allergist Dr. Mark Hobreich, recently found that incidences of asthma and allergies among Amish children raised in rural farms in Northern Indiana are lower even than among Swedish rural families, a group traditionally known for low allergy rates.
The “farm effect” is nothing new, but this study is a first in the U.S., and raises new questions and possible answers regarding why Amish children in these areas have asthma rates of just 5%, compared to nearly 10% of children nationwide who have asthma (and 11.2% of Swiss control studies).
“The going theory is this early exposure to the diverse potential allergens and pathogens on a farm trains the immune system to recognize them, but not overreact to the harmless ones.” ( Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, online April 16, 2012.)
“By sanitizing our homes of dirt and all its commensurate organic matter, goes the theory, we’ve inadvertently rid ourselves of an important ally: bacteria… Uninhibited by their natural microbial enemies, molds and chitin-bearing insects are able to run amok in our homes and their discarded chitin (and other allergy causing components) are better able to wreak havoc on our immune systems.” (p 45)
Certainly no one stopped me from playing in the dirt when I was I kid – actually, it was where they preferred me! And to this day, even though I seem to write about allergies to a disproportionate degree, I don’t really seem to have any. Similarly, my outdoorsy daughter, who has always been happier on a trail in the woods than anywhere else, also never seems to have hay fever or related allergies.
Obviously it’s hard to draw any hard or fast conclusions from a short report on a very genetically and physically isolated community. But the fact is that immunotherapy, the preferred treatment for many chronic allergies, consists in the long term application of small amounts of the item to which one is allergic, thereby building immunity to allergen. So it only stands to reason that if children build up these immunities early in their lives – by being, playing and working outside from an early age – they might have fewer adulthood allergies to contend with later.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the overall health and well being that comes from being outdoors in the first place – everything from reduced childhood obesity to improved environmental awareness, creativity, and the ability to self-direct.
So yeah, there might be a few germs out there – but sometimes you need ‘em! Now tell the kids it’s okay to go out and get good and dirty. It’s just what the doctor ordered!
I went for a Labor Day walk in the woods with two of my grown children on Monday, one of whom was celebrating her 23 birthday. We thought we’d go to her favorite place for her birthday – which is, conveniently enough, outside, in the woods.
As I walked with my two big kids, I remembered nature walks with them when they and their sister were much younger, and felt gratified that they still loved being outdoors, quiet, curious and observant. It was lovely walking with them, enjoying the simple pleasures of easy conversation and shared discovery – bobcat tracks, a blush of Florida poinsettia, a branch thick with oakworms. My adult children are good company; warm, good-natured, thoughtful, unpretentious, kind and focused individuals. They are, in short, nice, well-adjusted, successful young people, possessed of healthy measures of executive function.
Executive function and its role in our ability (or lack thereof) to focus on tasks at hand, was the topic of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Executive function, explained columnist Jonah Lehrer, in Learning How to Focus on Focus, is “a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses.” Teaching children to resist the urge to run blindly out into the street after an errant ball, to wait their turn, to keep their thoughts about others’ appearances or behavior to themselves, are all examples of ways we help children develop and strengthen their executive function.
Besides keeping us safe and building manners, research has shown that executive function also helps develop our focus and, ultimately, our success. Lehrer cites a New Zealand study that found that children skilled at regulating their impulses and attention were significantly less likely, as adults, to have criminal or drug addiction problems and less likely become single parents. Further, said, Lehrer, “In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.”
That’s saying a lot about what’s clearly a critical human skill. The article goes on to talk about ways to help children develop executive function, via activities that are “both engaging and challenging” like martial arts, yoga, complex board games and computer memory and skills games. He also laments that, despite the evidence of the importance of fine tuning executive function in children, schools do little to support it, and funds are being cut in the very programs that help develop it, from the arts to physical education.
And yet the age in which we live, Lehrer points out, is filled with a “surfeit of information” that can feel overwhelming instead of enlightening, especially if we don’t have the focus to filter through it with discerning intelligence. It’s an example, Lehrer says, of Herbert Simon’s observation that “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Walking in the woods with my children, though, it occurred to me that executive function – essentially self-control and restraint – are things our children can and should learn at home, and in the everyday world outside of schools, in ways that don’t require a budget, nor suffer when said budgets are cut. And one of the best ways to develop self-control is through a low-tech, highly focused walk in the woods.
My children have been walking in the woods -and along shorelines, and mountain paths, and canoeing and kayaking , and any combination thereof - almost since they could toddle. We taught them to walk quietly, so they’d see things, and to sit still, so the things they saw would stay a while. For a small child, there are few rewards as great as a small live animal remaining near them. A child with self-restraint gets to enjoy the wildlife. An impulsive child doesn’t. Executive function rewarded!
Over time, children trained to the ways of the woods learn to see things others miss – tracks, flowers, strange wonderful awful amazing things like imponderable insects emerging from impossible places, or the delicate grace of a deer almost within reach, the rare bird singing at eye level, the otter fishing along the bank. Those same children are more patient out in the world. They know the virtues of waiting because they’ve experienced the rewards. A child who’s waited out a thunderstorm in an open forest, camped or kayaked along a wild river, fallen over roots and gotten up again to keep walking to get to camp before dark, can often better distinguish between real problems, and simple inconveniences.
Lehrer says “it’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills to develop executive function directly and creatively. If we want our children to succeed in the age of information, we need to give them the mental tools that matter.”
I believe one of the best places to exercise those mental tools is right outside the door. Lehrer says the world has changed and that, commensurately, “the mind can’t stay the same.”
But I think what’s actually required is a return to observational and self-restraint skills that hail back to the beginnings of human development. Only when we embrace our most basic human abilities, can we fine tune our minds to rise to the challenges of the information age, which is, when you get right down to it, just a different kind of wilderness.
An interesting piece ran in the St. Petersburg Times this week, syndicated from the New York Times, with the intriguing title: Lawyers, Goats and the Wilderness.
Of course, you have to read something like that. Sometimes the headline is better than the article, but in this case, on the heels of my celebratory lauding of Hog Island in Maine, the article provided some serious food for thought.
The writer, Timothy Egan, had come across a sign while hiking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington that read, “Aggressive mountain goats have been reported. Use caution and move away.”
Apparently a hiker had been gored to death by an irate mountain goat in Olympic National Park last year, triggering a $10 million lawsuit by the victim’s family, and commensurate reflections by Egan about what appears to be our increasing need for “lawyer-vetted” nature. Signs everywhere warn against the obvious: Not wearing flip-flops while hiking, staying out of strong currents, remaining on the safe side of guard rails, not feeding or approaching wild animals – all cautions necessitated by events like the recent deaths of several people who got swept over a cliff in a water fall at Yosemite.
“Many of these people aren’t used to nature,” a Yosemite park ranger is quoted as saying in the article. “They don’t fully understand it. We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”
And indeed, suggests Egan, the more we warn and try to protect, “ the more careless, and dependent, people become. There will always be steep cliffs, deep water, and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed food emporiums. “
That’s why I think we need more places like Hog Island, and more beginners outdoors experiences like my friend Jeanene Arrington offers, with her Not a Clue Adventures company; opportunities for a people increasingly distant from nature, but with an often innate desire to be part of it, to become safely reacquainted with our natural heritage.
Most people naturally love the outdoors, and clearly our pale human landscape of obesity and urban sprawl would suggest we really need to get out more often. For the more outdoorsy among us, it’s easy to make Darwin Award jokes about fatally clumsy attempts to be one with nature. But that doesn’t address the real problem, or offer practical solutions, any more than do silly litigation-jumpy signs making bids for common sense conduct in the wilderness.
With more people than ever visiting our parks and wild places, this is a great opportunity to provide some real outdoors education, from works like my upcoming Florida Allergy Handbook that’s as much rudimentary outdoor health and safety guide, as allergy guide, to places like Nature’s Classroom , guided hikes with groups like the Audubon Society and others, and reacquainting people with some of our greatest outdoor writers and their literature, from John Muir and Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard and Bill Bryson.
If we want “the outdoors” to be something more than an annual – and potentially dangerous – summer excursion experience for more people, it needs to be something we think about more often, even when we can’t go out; something that we read about with interest, consider daily, and find small scale opportunities to enjoy in our urban and suburban communities.
Maybe, instead of warning and protecting, we could simply better educate and inform. Then perhaps a whole new generation of people might be inspired to enjoy the outdoors more intelligently and with a greater sense of appreciation and intentionality, rather than litigated caution.
This past weekend, Audubon Hog Island Camp, on Muscongus Bay in Maine – one of the most wonderful, successful, and, to our family, personally enriching and warmly memorable, environmental education facilities in America – celebrated its 75th anniversary. In the summer of 2007, my middle daughter, then 17, was awarded an Audubon Society Scholarship to a Hog Island residential camp. Always an outdoorsy child but only cautiously adventurous, Hog Island was her first – and only – “sleep away” camp. For ten days, she would bunk with other high schoolers from around the country and learn about birds, and local ecology.
For those ten days, the rest of us journeyed around coastal Maine, touring lighthouses, geocaching in fragrant balsam forests,
exploring Acadia National Park, and a variety of scenic and historical areas. We fell in love with Maine. Our daughter fell in love with birds. We all fell in love with Hog Island.
Our daughter came back confident, excited, and an avid birder. She started a blog – Earthbird: Diary of a Teenage Birder- which
eventually became the diary of a college birder. She wrote an article for the Audubon Society about her experience at Hog Island: Summer Camp Salute , and wrote her college essay about how Hog Island set her on the path to both environmental and self-discovery. She headed to college with fresh focus, new ideas, and a yen for travel that has since taken her to London, Wales and Ireland for a semester, and to Puerto Rico for service learning projects.
This summer, her final summer before she starts her senior year at Eckerd College, where she’s an Environmental Studies and Anthropology major, she interned at Shaver’s Creek , the nature center of Penn State. Among other things, she worked with the Raptor Center there , coming full circle on her journey from fledgling birder to bird of prey handler. Midway through the summer, she journeyed to Tuscson, AZ to join 79 other students from around the nation as a Udall Scholar, which recognizes young leaders in environmental fields.
As much as all of this is a tribute to my daughter’s own drive, curiosity and interest in the world around her, it is equally a tribute to the place that set her mind afire in first place. On Hog Island, my daughter walked in the footsteps of some of the nation’s leading environmentalists, scientists and naturalists, including Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson and Dr. Stephen Kress. Since 1936, campers have experienced the transformative beauty, abundant wildlife and deep serenity of Muscongus Bay under the studied guidance of teachers like Peterson and renowned birder Kenn Kaufman, who turned my daughter’s eyes heavenward.
Environmental education in the classroom is one thing. Experiencing the living wonders of a place as rich in beauty and biodiversity as Hog Island, and rich, as well, in the people who understand it and eagerly share its wonders with others, is something else entirely.
Author Scott Weidensau said of Hog Island, “Hog Island takes hold of you. There are many beautiful places, but this one will change your life.“
Our daughter would probably agree. I know we certainly do! Happy Birthday, Hog Island!
music stops abruptly
cricket song instead
July 18 is World Listening Day, I just learned. One of the principle purposes of World Listening Day is “to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology . “ What a phenomenal idea! Just to celebrate the practice of listening is reason enough to note the day. It should be an international holiday!
As I write, I’m sitting on my porch, listening to our small waterfall and periodic rumbles of thunder, as an afternoon storm rolls in. A dove is cooing from somewhere in the yard. Beyond that, it’s still and warm and quiet.
Often my life is anything but quiet. In additional to my mother-in-law’s endless television viewing, there are airplanes on final approach, whirring air conditioners, growling lawn mowers, howling leaf blowers, rumbling motorcycles, the constant wash of cars along the distant highway, the screech of power tools of neighbors working on things, and even the relatively quiet but collectively loud hum of our electronics and appliances, create a daily crescendo of noise that can be hard to escape. Most of the time we’re inured to noise; we only notice it when it stops.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls noise “pollution” when it becomes “unwanted or disturbing sound”. “Sound becomes unwanted,” notes the EPA, with surprising eloquence,” when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life. The fact that you can’t see, taste or smell it may help explain why it has not received as much attention as other types of pollution, such as air pollution, or water pollution. The air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise. “
Among other things (like Noise Induced hearing Loss, or NIHL), excessive exposure to noise can cause stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.
While I find excessive noise depressing and unsettling, I’m well aware that many people love being surrounded by artificial sounds. Silence, they’ve told me, is as unsettling to them as noise is to me. I find that intriguing. I suppose the sounds of television or radio chatter give the impression of companionship. And they probably conveniently keep at bay deeper ponderings on life and living.
But I find myself wondering, who wants that much companionship all the time? I think we need silence and solitude to truly enjoy opportunities for conversation and company. I think we miss a lot of real living when we don’t know how to be alone with ourselves, with the buzzings, and clickings and chirpings, and rustlings of the natural world. If we avoid thinking about difficult things, or doing truly useful things by distracting ourselves with temporal artificial sounds and vicarious experiences, how do we learn to distinguish what’s real and what’s not, what’s important and what’s gratuitous, what has meaning, and what has none? It’s only when we can fully hear ourselves, I think, that we can better listen to others.
When I go outside my soul expands! There are sounds out here – the thunder, the water, the doves, the lifting breeze through pine branches – but I can, quite literally, now hear myself think. Natural sounds are so very different from those we create, more rounded on the edges, less harsh on the ear. They leave room for thought, for reflection, for creativity, for creation.
Among the ways to celebrate World Listening Day is a Soundwalk , taken with the intent of both becoming more aware of environmental sounds, and of our own sounds of our breathing and footsteps and voices. But I don’t think we need to do anything as pointedly choreographed as the Soundwalk to benefit from a Listening Day. I think we just need to unplug and disconnect, and turn off everything for an hour or so, and indulge in a little Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing , and let a little restorative sunshine and nature wash over us.
We might be surprised at what we hear when we actually stop to listen.
“What you see is what you get.” -Annie Dillard
I fancy myself a sight seer–not a tourist, mind you, but a traveler, a seer of sights. I think sight seeing is underrated and misunderstood. Hailing from Florida, a tourist mecca, I know a little something about how many people sightsee. But I’m talking about something else, something more economic, closer to home and more personal, but as potentially exotic as anything you’ll see on a safari.
I’ve always loved looking at things, at people and scenes and the minutia of a square of visual landscape. That’s probably why I’m a writer. I see things, lots of things. But that’s not a requisite for being a seer. Nor is good eyesight, really. My vision isn’t particularly good. But my sight is sharp; that is, my attention to detail. And thanks to the recent gift by my Beloved of a fantastic camera with a telephoto lens, my vision has become a little clearer, too, and suddenly the world is in sharp focus in previously visually inaccessible places. But a camera is just a tool to record what’s always there.
The fact is, all you really need to be a good sight seer is to make a conscious choice to sit still and look. Turn everything off – phones, iPods, computers, TVs, radios – and simply sit, indoors or preferably, outdoors. Sit and breathe. It’s okay if your mind wanders. That’s what minds do. But look. When you take the time to really look at things, you will see things.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard, the Queen of Seeing as far as I’m concerned, likens the visual gifts around us to “unwrapped gifts and free surprises.” The world, she says, “is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” She laments that few people get excited by a penny these days.
“It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact, planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”
One of my favorite places to look for Annie Dillard’s universal pennies is a lovely county park in Tarpon Springs. Pinellas County, where Tarpon Springs is located, is the most densely populated county in Florida, with more than 3000 residents per square mile. Traffic on neighboring US 19 is an eight lane nightmare, especially during “snowbird season” in the winter, when northern tourists and seasonal dwellers dig in to avoid brutal northern winters.
But Pinellas also treasures and wonderfully maintains its green spaces and this one is no exception, an oasis of cypress and rolling hillside along Lake Tarpon. The park is heavily used by hikers, bikers, joggers, picnickers, dog walkers, nature watchers, sports enthusiasts, boaters and fisher folk, all reveling in the open space and sunlight. Only a small handful ever seem to stay in one place for long though, and while you can see the sights while strolling, you can’t really sight see the astounding diversity of things are to see in this remarkable urban wilderness.
“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization,” notes Dillard. “Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.””
To truly see anything requires silence, stillness, curiosity and studied observation. A bird may flit by a walker; squirrels and lizards rustle branches near picnickers; a jogger might peripherally notice an alligator adrift by the boardwalk. But these are just anterior experiences to the other things we’re doing. Sit still a while, though, and watch receptively, and an entire other universe of life reveals itself.
In the space of an hour or so at the park, sitting at a waterside picnic table, I have seen a blue jay catch an enormous hairy legged spider – and not just one, but several! – observed the protracted preening of purple gallinules and great egrets in magnificent breeding plumage, watched a great blue heron snapping branches off pine trees for nest building, seen dragonflies dipping rhythmically into the near shore to lay eggs, marveled at osprey hovering long seconds above the water before crashing in to catch fish, witnessed the dance of water bugs and the play of light and shadow on the trunks of trees around me.
Although I also enjoy watching people in the conduct of their daily lives, I love watching nature best. It’s unaffected by our observation usually, and unpretentious even when we’re noticed. I find it reassuring and perspective setting to see a tiny portion of animals lives played out before me. It’s humbling to see how much of an osprey’s life, for instance, is spent trying to secure food. They exert an enormous amount of energy soaring above the water, hovering expectantly before soaring again, or diving over and over again, missing eight times out of ten. I felt like celebrating for more than the just the opportunity of a great shot, when an osprey flew by me nearly at eye level recently, with an enormous fish clenched in its talons.
I had no idea, before I took the time to watch, how much work a heron invests in finding branches for its nest, or how carefully a moor hen sifts through water grasses, nor how fantastically they run across the top of the water when they land or take off, and beautifully the water glistens behind them when they do. Animals days are spent patiently, focused solely in the work of staying alive. Once, as I pondered the wisdom of a little grebe paddling near a good sized alligator, the grebe suddenly glided sideways in the water just as the alligator turned suddenly towards it. Then both settled once again into passive floating.
It’s enough to make the minor annoyances most of us face daily just that – irritants. We should make more pearls with them and less pettiness.
While the park is a great place to sight see, so is a backyard or any common green space. There are always squirrels and pigeons and insects and light and shadow playing on benches and buildings. And children are great tour guides when it comes to sight seeing, if we’ll only follow their lead. Too often, they’re discouraged in honing their powers of observation, as the adults in their lives hurry them along. We can take our cues from children, who are naturally curious about their world. We can stop, look, wonder and explore with them, and enrich not only their lives, but our own.
Sight seeing soothes the soul, slows things down and puts life in its proper perspectives, and us in our proper place in life, outside the artificial environments we create for ourselves. When we take the time to look, and to actually see the world around us, we are restored, refreshed and rehumanized.
“The literature of illumination, “ writes Dillard, “reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”
There are sights in great abundance – go see them!
An elderly man passed away not long ago, and left for his family and friends an interesting last wish. A well-traveled man in life, whose work took him around the world several times, he instructed that his cremated remains be scattered in 28 of his favorite places on Earth.
The story, which I heard third hand, leaves out details like whether this was an equally well traveled group of friends and relatives in the first place, whether or not most of them thought this was as interesting an idea as I did, or if, instead, it was perceived as an onerous and unaffordable burden, some posthumous grandstanding. I rather doubt the latter. The one part of the journey of his ashes that I heard concerned a grandson of the man, who was in my daughter’s semester abroad program in London.
The grandfather, it seemed, loved William Butler Yeats’ short poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The poem so moved the grandfather, that throughout his life he lived in a small cabin, and kept nine bean rows and a bee hive . When he died , the grandson and a cousin were tasked with taking their portion his last wish to the Isle of Innisfree in Ireland, the one place in the world, it turned out, that the grandfather had never actually gotten to see during his travels. It became the last place for his ashes to be spread.
Part of the reason the young man took the semester abroad option was to fulfill his grandfather’s wish, and complete his journey. He and his cousin also made it a point to get the Isle of Innisfree as his grandfather had always traveled, by guess and by gosh, by making friends with locals, by hitchhiking, and walking.
It turned out to be a more challenging project than the student expected. The Isle of Innisfree is a tiny inland speck, nestled among 20 or so other islands, in a lake called Lough Gill,
in Ireland, a good ten to eleven hours from London. While the island – or at least a view of it – is a popular destination for Yeats fans, and birders, there’s no regular transportation to it. However, the student told his story to locals, who arranged for a special boat trip out to the island where he was, in fact, able to scatter his grandfather’s ashes as he’d wished, and share the story with classmates upon his return.
But was that really his grandfather’s wish – to have his dusty remains sprinkled on an obscure and remote little island in western Ireland? Or were his ashes just a vehicle for the man’s real wish, to share with his grandson, and others in his family, the gift of purpose and perspective that had guided his own life? This young man, along with 27 other friends and family, were sent on around the world journeys, in any way they could manage, guided to places that had mattered the most to the man, places that had mattered so deeply to him, that had impressed and affected him and shaped his world view, and his world, so much that he wanted to share the gifts the world had given him with those who mattered most to him.
What a legacy!
And that got me to thinking about the things that I’ve most valued in my life so far – the places, people and ideas that I’d like those I leave behind, those who come after me, to get some glimpse of. Where would I want to take them? What would I want them to see of my life? What would I hope for them to take from their glimpses of my life?
What a wonderful exercise! Think about it – there are places and times in all our lives that move us, shape us, drive us, inspire us, and change us. We’re obviously not all world travelers like the globe-trotting grandfather, but it’s not the destination, really. It’s the journey. It’s the story behind the destination, both yours and the person you share it with, that is the real point, and the true opportunity – to build on aspects of a shared journey and make it your own.
The young man didn’t experience the island he visited like his grandfather might have always imagined it. He saw it in a way specific to his own journey. His grandfather just gave him a reason to go there. But clearly, the grandfather thought hard about the 28 destinations he selected before committing them to paper, reflecting on the experiences of his life. And that was his gift to himself, considering the things that made his life most worth living, and most worth sharing with those most loved.
When I think about the places that have most shaped me so far , that have stirred my heart, or fired my mind, they’re not necessarily the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen; many are rather humble locations, and may not look at all today as they did when I first experienced them, and some are not really destinations at all – more ideas of destinations. But they warm me still when I think of them.
English Creek, NJ , which doesn’t even bear that beautiful name today, called instead, Egg Harbor Township; somewhere along Lee’s Lane, or by the old Asbury Methodist Church cemetery, where generations of my family lie buried. Along those back roads and country lanes, by the mill on the creek, past corn and blueberry fields, where I rode my bike or walked the mossy wooded trails from aunts’ homes to great-grandfather’s, to wonderful Mrs. Hart’s place, full of all the wild animals she healed and released and which stayed near her home making it some enchanted fairy tale place in the forest; where I knew everybody and everybody knew me, where I felt more loved and cared for than a child could ever hope to be, a place that taught me to love my children as I had been so loved.
I’d send them to Venice Beach, just south of Sarasota, where, as a teenager, I spent spring breaks with my grandmother, shelling and looking for fossil shark teeth, an excuse, really, for just walking the beach with someone who didn’t always know any other way to show she loved me, but whose beachside companionship showed me how deeply she did. It was there, along the beaches of Englewood and Venice, that I learned that it was okay to have nothing to say, to be in silence with those you love and that time with nothing much to do but watch the waves and the birds and feel the sand beneath your feet can be time well spent.
I’d point them towards Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, where I spent summers fishing with my father, on a tiny boat motoring out of sight of land, where I learned what it was like to live with boundless horizons, with no frame of reference beyond myself, a floating spec above a depthless sea, fragile, mortal, and infinitely alive. At some point, everyone should be alone, or mostly alone, in a small boat on the sea, with no land in sight. It’s deeply perspective setting (especially if the motor won’t start right away!).
I’d urge them skyward, above the Everglades in a small airplane – either piloting it alone, or with just one other person, preferably someone well loved. I never finished getting my pilot’s license, but I remember a solo flight over the Everglades, burbling across the sky, a droning little bird, alone in the air. Like being adrift in a horizonless sea, being alone in the air, high above the everyday world, blurs the terrestrial boundaries we ordinarily set for ourselves.
I’d send my loved ones to Florida International University, in Miami, the Rat maybe, or the grassy quad, if it’s still there. So that those who come after me will understand not only the value I placed on education, but on the gift of self-discovery it offers, I’d have a loved one track down Professor Peterson, if he was still around, and shake his hand for me, or find his children or grandchildren, and tell them how he rocked my world with his History of World Religions class and made me question everything I’d ever believed in that I’d previously believed in unquestioningly.
Actually, I’d ask that the letters I wrote but never gave him, letters where I deconstructed my beliefs based on the new knowledge I gained from his class, pages and pages of philosophical and religious reflections that resulted in my finally removing a crucifix I’d worn since childhood, putting it away and being made unburdened for the first time – finally be given to him or his family, so they’d know how he influenced and freed into the world, at least one of his students.
Sprinkle me over Temple Street in Palm Bay, where my husband and I built our first home, and where I learned what it was like to have a family of my very own, where the real foundations of my marriage strengthened and deepened and I marveled daily as our babies grew into remarkable young people, who taught me so much about beauty, imagination and the fantastic, multifaceted complexities of love.
Save a few pieces of me, I’d tell my friends and family, for the Indian River, down the road from our old place, where the kids and I spent hours fishing, exploring, talking and watching the dolphins raise rooster tails of water in their wake as they corralled mullet. And along Turkey Creek, where we volunteered at the nature center, and endlessly walked the creek side trails where I shared my love of the outdoors – the love of nature I learned from my father and grandmother and aunts and uncles – with my children, who in turn showed me new ways to love being outside.
There are many more places, of course, and if I were nearing the end, I’d have to sit down and do some serious winnowing. Muir Woods north of San Francisco where I lay under a redwood tree and tried to get my mind around the magnificence of time that created such a thing? The stunning red rocks of Sedona, AZ, where I learned that the real “vortex” of energy indicated by the little piles of rocks there, was the energy of simple natural beauty?
You get the idea. When you think about who you are, think, too, about how you got here and what’s most important to you. What of your life do you want your loved ones to know about, to experience, to some degree, to hear or see or think about? What part of your journey do you want to share with them? How have you carved meaning from your time on earth.
Since poetry inspired this grand journey of reflection, perhaps it’s only fitting to come full circle with Walt Whitman.
In “O Me! O Life!,” Whitman observes that life is filled with “the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish, …of eyes that vainly crave the light , of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renewed, of the poor results of all, of the plodding sordid crowds I see around me, of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest of me intertwined.”
The question, he asks, “ So sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?”
And he answers his own question thusly: That you are here. That life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
The meaning of life, Whitman suggests, is simply being, and that in being here, you contribute a bit to the living play of which you are a part. For those who come after us to know what their role is, what the next lines might be, they need to be able to not only read, but understand, the verses we’ve added.
If we view our lives, and the living of our lives, as our truest legacy, perhaps we can live more thoughtfully, and handle the treasure of each day like the valuable gift it is, for us, and hopefully, in some measure, for those who come after us, so that the powerful play goes on.
That it’s a beautiful life
And it’s a beautiful world
And it’s a beautiful time
To be here, to be here, to be here
-Beautiful Life, by Fisher
I went “forest-bathing” the other day. Okay, it was just a short hike in a nature park, but according to a study published earlier this year and reported on by the New York Times , the more time we spend outdoors, the better our immune systems function. The article basically revisits old news about “phytoncides”, a.k.a. antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds, the botanical equivalent of anti-oxidants produced by plants to protect themselves from insects and decay, and which apparently help boost human immune systems, as well.
In Japan, the source of the study, people have known this for a long time, and engage in a practice called “Shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing”. In a 1998 report with the unwieldy title “Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing and walking) effectively decreases blood glucose levels in diabetic patients” 87 non-insulin dependent Japanese diabetics were sent for 3km and 6 km walks in the woods, and afterwards showed significant drops in their blood glucose levels. Researchers concluded, “Since the forest environment causes changes in hormonal secretion and autonomic nervous functions, it is presumed that, in addition to the increased calorie consumption and improved insulin sensitivity, walking in a forest environment has other beneficial effects in decreasing blood glucose levels.”
The more recent studies found that those who spent a few hours of the day in a wooded area showed “lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.” Related tests also found that the more stress a participant was under before heading outdoors, the more stress reduction was experienced from Shinrin-yoku. There was also a 50% hike in white blood cells, the immune system’s killer cells, and in at least one study the counts remained elevated for an entire week after the participates were exposed to phytoncides.
These people got to spend a few hours of the day in a wooded area. They weren’t in an office, or in a heated discussion with a spouse, or hustling children off to this or that, or battling traffic, or trying to balance their checkbooks, or watching the news. All the other things they weren’t doing, taken alone, would account for lowered stress, pulse and blood pressure.
But whether it’s the walk or the woods that’s responsible for health improvements, there’s no debate in my mind when it comes to where I’d rather be walking: and that’s the woods. Or the seashore, or a garden, or along a mountain stream; anywhere the vista is close and green or wide and unbroken.
Sure, you can get your phytoncides from onion, garlic, or tea tree oil, to name a few sources. But an herb or a pill is no substitute for soft green grass underfoot, blue skies and tree canopies. When I’m outside, free of the unnatural sounds, angles, colors and textures of the man-made, the world seems to both fall away and open up around me. I move from the periphery of life into the heart of it, and take my rightful, delicately balanced place on the web. Light and shadow present themselves in new ways. My connection with sunlight and air becomes personal, molecular even.
In a wonderful book called “Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest,” (University of GA Press, 2007) author Joan Maloof points out, “the molecules from the trees don’t just go up our noses…they are also part of the air that goes into our lungs, and once in our lungs, some of the molecules can enter our bloodstreams. So when we walk through the forest, inhaling the sweet air, the wood-air, the forest actually becomes a part of our bodies.”
Maloof says that researchers in the Sierra Nevada in California have found 120 chemical compounds in the mountain forest air, but could identify only 70 of them.
“We are,” she says, “literally breathing things we don’t understand. And when we lose our forests, we don’t know what we are losing. “
And when we don’t go outside, we don’t know what we’re missing.