September 2008


After a rainy weekend, it feels good to walk umbrella-free again. Today at Keene State, I had time for only a short lunch-hour spin around campus, but the natural Powers-That-Be packed a lot of sightings into that short time span.

Milkweed pods

After crossing the Ashuelot River and skirting the soccer field next to the tennis courts, I saw a pileated woodpecker flap across the overcast sky. Although this isn’t the first time I’ve seen pileateds zooming out of the woods along the Ashuelot, their sudden appearance always startles me. Pileateds are the size of crows, but their flight is flappier, their wings showing big white patches and their crested heads making their necks look scrawny and under-sized, like a bad drawing of a bird. No matter how many times I see pileated woodpeckers fly, they never look the way I’d remembered them: they always look shocking and unimaginable, a prototype of a bird still under design.

After seeing an unplanned pileated, I could have returned, satisfied, to my office and my afternoon classes, but the natural Powers-That-Be weren’t done with me yet. Walking the rail-trail that borders campus, I heard a hidden downy woodpecker calling from a tree, and then a distant pileated: the one I’d just seen? Pausing to look for a chipmunk I’d heard chirping from the underbrush, I startled a big brownish bird from a low branch. Wood duck? Grouse? My brain flipped through memorized mug shots of the Usual Subjects: what kind of big brownish bird would flush from a low branch in a scrubby patch of woods?

Railtrail bridge

It was, I discovered, a Cooper’s hawk I’d flushed from hunting some low-lying prey: it perched on someone’s backyard branch just long enough for me to identify it, naked-eyed, before it zoomed off to some other prey. My Tuesdays are packed with teaching and other tasks, so it’s a welcome relief to have a lunch-hour walk punctuated by woodpeckers and hawks, creatures whose to-do’s are refreshingly different from my own.

Creeping vine

It’s the fifth week of the semester at Keene State, and as predicted, the novelty of a new school year has begun to wear off for students and professors alike. While my paper-pile begins to creep eye-high, here’s one single image–just this!–from yesterday’s full plate.


One of the lessons I try to drive home in my Thinking & Writing course, “The Art of Natural History,” is the fact that “natural history” happens close to home. Too many folks see “nature” as being something far off and exotic, something you either see on TV or drive in your car to “visit.” One of the things I try to encourage my first-year writing students to realize, though, is that “nature” exists everywhere that living creatures live. Even on a college campus, humans live in a habitat that supports creatures other than themselves.

Cedar waxwing

One of the texts we read in “The Art of Natural History” is Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, a work that suggests that even creatures we think of as vermin live in interconnected ecosystems. A rat in a trash-strewn alley, a chipmunk living under a granite step, or a cedar waxwing perched above a campus pond might not merit high-profile coverage on the Discovery Channel, but they’re “nature” all the same. Once we widen our notion of “nature” to include our own habitat–our own backyard and beyond–we can view our immediate surroundings through the lens of natural history, noticing the way our lives are interconnected and our mundane behaviors have real-world effects.

Environmental awareness requires us to look at human activity from a global perspective: how do our actions close to home have far-ranging effects? At the same time, however, environmental awareness is a regional pursuit, so it makes no sense to care about distant creatures while ignoring our neighbors. Bumper stickers encourage us to “Think globally, act locally,” and at Keene State I urge my students to apply that dictum to their own intellectual life. It’s fine, good, and perfectly necessary to care about polar bears, rhinoceroses, and other far-off creatures…but we mustn’t forget that charity starts at home, with the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds that share our own neighborhood.

Kousa dogwood

At first glance, they look like an alien life form: little pink globules hanging from gracefully branching ornamental trees. And this year, they’re everywhere: golf-ball-dimpled fruit dotting a tree in front of the President’s house at Keene State, and baubles bobbing on a tree by a bench in front of the now-closed Waban branch library in Newton.

Sign of autumn

I don’t remember seeing pink, dimpled globules hanging from trees last year, but surely they were there: the trees that currently sport spherical pink Easter eggs aren’t new to their neighborhoods, and neither am I. But I had to do a double-, triple-, then quadruple-take when I first noticed this year’s strange fruit. These alien life forms hang from trees with dogwood-looking leaves, and dogwoods are popular ornamentals in both Newton and Keene. But the dogwoods I’m familiar with–the wild kind–bear clusters of bright red berries, not funky, fleshy globes.

A quick Google search solves the mystery: Kousa dogwood, alternately called Asian or Japanese flowering dogwood. Apparently ornamental Asian dogwoods don’t follow the same fruiting form as their wild American counterparts. But still, I’m left with another, more pressing enigma: how could I have walked for so long through the neighborhoods I and these dogwoods share without having previously noticed them?


I’m re-discovering this semester a simple formula for my personal health and serenity: WWW, the letters that represent my time-tested but oft-neglected morning ritual of waking, walking, and writing.

Shop window tiger with jewelry

It sounds simple enough: in order for me to stay happy and sane, I need to structure my schedule so I wake up early enough to walk Reggie and then write in my journal before tackling the day’s other tasks. Not only does this routine sound simple enough, it’s one I discovered over four years ago, when the demands of teaching, dissertation-finishing, blogging, and life in general were enough to drive even the most faithful walker mad. Back then, I learned from experience that a regular diet of dog-walks and journal-writing kept me sane. But even though I know full well that the simple recipe for my own personal happiness boils down to three simple letters, so many other things intervene. When you have classes to prep, papers to read, and emails to answer, life seems so much more complicated than the simple practice of “WWW.”

Window shopping

In a previous lifetime when I attended a nondenominational evangelical church whose Sunday services lasted most of the day, the minister used to remind us from the pulpit that “preparation for worship starts the night before.” If you want to be awake, showered, and dressed in time for morning service, you need to be mindful of that intention on Saturday night, when the temptation to stay up late can destroy even the best laid plans. This semester, I’ve been making a conscious effort to be both in bed and asleep by midnight so getting up early isn’t a huge difficulty. Thanks to the two and a half years I lived in a Zen Center, getting up at 5am or even earlier isn’t a completely foreign concept: you can, I’ve learned, train yourself to be an early bird rather than a night owl…but you can’t (I’ve also learned) be both.

Window shopping

Although having a dog guarantees I’ll walk sometime during the day, I really do prefer to walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when there’s barely enough light to see the sidewalk ahead of me. At that hour, my body feels fresh and invigorated; at that hour, it feels good to be awake, outside, and moving. When you walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when it’s still lingering dark, you can pretend you’re the only one for miles around who’s awake and stirring. The streets, shop-windows, and lamp-lit shadows are all yours, with no need to share. When you start your day with even a short walk, you have something to write about when you come home, sit down to today’s oatmeal, and then write today’s pages over tea. When you start your day with even a short walk, it’s even easier to come home after a solid day’s teaching, take the dog for a second stroll, and feel your workday has been beautifully bookmarked, the life of the mind fueled by the moving of one’s feet.

The three Ws of waking, walking, and writing are in no way fancy, but for me, they’re a simple equation that adds up to a good, productive day. In the pursuit of the elusive W called Wellness, it ultimately comes down to two other Ws: Whatever Works.

Fall crocuses

This weekend, mere steps from the spot where I saw the spring’s first crocuses, I spotted the first wan crocuses of autumn. Yes, crocuses and other presumably “spring” flowers sometimes bloom a second time at summer’s end, spurred by the stimulus of dwindling daylight. Right now, with darkness arriving earlier each evening, we have roughly the same number of daylight hours as we did in the spring, when days were lengthening.

Fall crocuses

This, our second spring, is the mirror image of the first. The crocuses of spring are hearty and hale, the better to fend off chilly nights and lingering snow. The crocuses of autumn are feeble and tenuous, with pale coloring and an almost wax-like translucence. These are ghost flowers–the wispy afterthoughts of now-dormant growth–and they look the part. Their stems nearly drained of chlorophyll, these sprouts are anemic, the last hurrahs of plants who have upended their proverbial chairs on tables, ready to close up metabolic shop for the season.

The crocuses of New England’s first spring are a promise of lush and fecund days to come; the crocuses of our second spring are a whispered memory of dwindling days: nature’s first memento mori of fall.

Come sit a spell

When I was going through the most trying and tenuous days of my divorce, I adopted Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” as my unofficial theme song. I’m not a particular Elton John fan, and “I’m Still Standing” isn’t even one of my favorite songs of his. But I liked the bold, defiant imagery of the title: I’m still standing. Hearing that title, I envisioned Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky movies or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: characters who were repeatedly bruised, bloodied, and beaten but somehow managed to find their feet. As we Zennies like to say, “Fall down six times, get up seven.”

Where else would I be?

In the days (and now years) after my divorce, “I’m still standing” continues to be a personal mantra of sorts. At the height of any busy semester, when colleagues greet me with the usual “How’s it going,” I often respond with that bare-bones fact: “I’m still standing.” This “still-standing” philosophy reminds me of my Italian grandmother’s typical response to the same question: “I can’t complain.” Even if I’ve gotten four hours of sleep and still have a to-do list the length of my arm, I can’t complain: I’m still standing.

This week has been a proverbial juggling act, with my students at Keene State struggling to decide upon topics for their semester-long research projects, my SNHU Online students struggling to figure out the logistics of a fresh term, and my soon-to-start online literature class for Granite State College needing some last minute tweaks and attention. My mom once summed up motherhood with the observation, “When you’re a mother, someone is always mad at you,” meaning that you can’t please all your children (and your husband, and your mother-in-law, and the neighbors) all of the time. I’m not a mother, but I can say that when you’re an adjunct instructor teaching at three different institutions, someone always needs you. That’s not a bad thing: helping students is my job, so I’m glad to do it. But sometimes the proverbial juggling act leaves you feeling bruised, bloodied, and beaten.

So far, the three-ring circus called Fall Semester is going well: I’m still standing. Or, better yet, I’m still sitting: in the face of all those students with all those needs, I’m still finding spots of calm where I can meditate, write in my journal, walk the dog, or otherwise unplug. I haven’t been around much online, but I’m doing okay offline. I’m still standing, sitting, walking, and writing: in other words, I can’t complain.


On Tuesday, just before heading off to teach a class on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking,” I decided to put the essay into action by taking a midday stroll around campus: a purely pedestrian lunch hour.


I’ve been teaching a class on “American Literature of the Open Road” for years now, and Thoreau’s ode to sauntering has always been on my list of assigned readings. This particular essay, in other words, is familiar terrain, one I’ve walked repeatedly and in many weathers. Once I almost literally ran into a former Open Road student as I was rushing to teach a fresh section of the class, and he looked puzzled when I explained where I was going. “How can you keep teaching the same thing over and over,” he wondered, surely inspired by his excitement to take something different this semester. “Oh, but it’s not the same thing over and over,” I explained, and my former student looked unconvinced. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten Thoreau’s point the first time ’round.


The point of Thoreau’s “Walking” (or one of the points, since Thoreau has many) is that you can never grow tired of walking and re-walking the same routes. In “Walking,” Thoreau isn’t describing any actual experience he’s had visiting somewhere as exotic as the Holy Land; instead, his insistence that you approach any walk as if you had such a sacred destination points to the essentially spiritual nature of his pedestrian practice. In actual truth, Thoreau traveled a great deal in Concord: the four-hour walks he refers to in “Walking” began in his own backyard, included a fair amount of rambling, and then ended right where they started. We can see that as Thoreau’s failure to achieve his own ideal of a one-way walk that doesn’t look back upon the mundane world: proof of his presumed hypocrisy. Or we we can see Thoreau’s circular excursions as being a map we all can follow: even a busy instructor in the midst of a busy day can find time for an hour’s stroll.


What I once said to a former student wasn’t hyperbole: you can’t read the same essay twice, nor can you re-teach it. It’s always new. I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken the same old stroll around the same old campus to clear my same old head before rushing to teach the same old classes. Students line up to enroll in “Lit of the Open Road” because they think tales about travel will offer something new, just as wandering Anywhere But Here must surely offer new scenery and new stories. But even if you motor your same old body to the Holy Land and beyond, you’ll find your same old self when you get there. Yesterday, today, and forevermore–here, there, and everywhere–walking has always been and will always be a matter of putting this same old foot–your own, familiar foot–in front of the same old other.

Bittersweet nightshade

Today is Labor Day, the holiday marking the official end of summer in the United States. I suppose this should be a bittersweet time: the beginning of the end as the freedom of summer settles into the to-do lists of fall. The turn from August to September marks the season of back-to-school, late harvests, and worrisome thoughts toward winter: how high and deep will this year’s snow fall, and how costly will this winter’s home heating bills be?

When I was married, I used to dread the onset of autumn even though it’s my favorite season. My then-husband suffered an undiagnosed (and thus untreated) case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, so the span of time from our anniversary in November until his birthday in March was an emotionally rocky time. Whenever the heat of summer broke and the nights turned cool and soothing, I’d feel an upwelling of silent foreboding: would the mood swings come now or later? At exactly what moment would I return home from teaching, looking forward to a break in tending others, only to find my then-husband harboring some unforeseen emotional crisis that demanded more tending?

Lost Matchbox car

These days, when I come home from teaching, I know my emotions are the only ones I’ll have to manage, and that’s a huge relief. J loves winter and thus relishes the onset of autumn, the labor of occasional snow removal being less sweat-intensive than the regular burden of summer lawn care. September marks the start of my busy season, with back-to-school bringing another brimming crop of both online and face-to-face students. When I was married, I used to lament in September all the things I’d failed to do in summer, but now I live with far fewer regrets. There is a time and season for leisure and a time and season for work, and I welcome each in its balanced turn.

My face-to-face classes at Keene State started last week, my online classes for SNHU start tomorrow, and it feels good to be back to work even though I taught a steady course-load during the summer. Teaching is both a profession and vocation for me: it’s what I do, so it feels good simply to do it. I love autumn in part because it’s New England’s most lovely time and because the weather right now is perfect: sunny and warm by day and cool and comfortable by night. The start of a new school year brings the optimism of new beginnings: once more, a chance to re-visit and revise past experiments, a fresh start. Where in the world is there anything bittersweet in that?