September 2009


Is it so difficult to imagine some sort of leafy sentience in a thing that so persistently reaches and clings, clambering its way toward the light it needs as desperately as air?

This is my short-and-sweet contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Plants.

As I type this, a great horned owl is calling outside my window, perched (I presume) in a taller, more rigid sort of greenery.

Nature journal-in-the-making

Last Thursday afternoon, I took my first-year writing students outside to draw in their nature journals. It was sunny and mild, and I gave them a choice of two tasks: either draw clouds or draw the lilac tree that sprawls in front of Parker Hall. It’s an exercise in seeing as much as drawing: once you stop and look, what do you see? I think looking is addictive, or at least I hope it is. What I want instill in my students, if they get anything from this class, is an inquisitive spirit that looks, notices, and wonders.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

This cultivated habit of noticing is a theme running through this entire course, “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History.” It’s what Robert Sullivan does in his rat alley, it’s what both Henry David Thoreau and Clare Walker Leslie do in their journals, and it’s what I urge my students to do in their semester-long projects. Pick a topic that truly interests you and spend a semester investigating it from every conceivable angle. Really look at it, deeply and and repeatedly, noticing its nuance and details over time. Read about your topic, think about your topic, and talk to others about your topic: get to know it first-hand and up-close, in a way none of the rest of us do. Become our resident expert in the minute details of your topic and its intersection with your life.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

It’s a foreign concept to many of my students, this invitation to explore their own life deeply. When my students learn the first day of class they they have a 15- to 20-page paper to write, they immediately think of distant, well-publicized topics that they reason will will be easy to research because so much has already been said about them. Surely for a long research project, they think, they should pick a big and grandiose topic: serial killers or the death penalty or Global Warming with a capital G and W. These are Big Topics, ones that garner attention, headlines, and entire shelves in bookstores and libraries: the Brad and Angelina of research topics. With so much attention being paid to these types of topics, my students think, writing a long research paper will be easy, like a big scavenger hunt: just go out, find the “facts,” and bring them back.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

My students don’t yet know–they don’t yet believe me, really, when I say it–that this is not the kind of research topic I’m looking for. I hesitate, in fact, to call this project a “research paper,” because that mere term causes my students to click into a familiar mode of producing out of sheer habit Whatever Worked In High School.

Veterans' Memorial

The long project is an exercise in investigating a topic close to home, like the rats that ran down an alley in Robert Sullivan’s own city. It needn’t be spectacular; in fact, the best topics are usually the most obscure ones, the ones that Only This Student deeply loves and is genuinely interested in. In asking my students to be intellectually curious, I’m actually asking them to take a deep and genuine interest in their own lives. I’m asking them to show up on a partly cloudy day in the shade of a sprawling tree and capture what they see.

Once again, I’m asking my first-year writing students to keep weekly nature journals as described in Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal: an assignment designed to complement the kind of observation and intellectual inquiry their semester-long writing project demands.

The three journal entries illustrating today’s post come from my own nature journal: three separate entries from three separate Septembers. You can read more about the philosophy behind my “Art of Natural History” class–and you can see another September nature journal entry–in this post from 2006. Enjoy!

Dry docked

These days are perfect for walking. The mornings are as cool and crisp as the bite of a fresh cucumber, and the afternoons are filled to overflowing with sunlight, the air as dry as paper. On bright, brilliant days like these, I feel as if I could walk forever, my feet light and suntanned in my sandals, the way ahead of me smooth and wide as I settle into a long-gaited September stride.


It’s easy to feel healthy on days like today. It’s the second week of the semester at Keene State, and already I feel settled into a regular rhythm, rising in the morning with a clear sense of what I need to do and what can potentially slide. Slipping back into my weekday, academic-year schedule–the life I live in Keene on Monday through Thursday versus the life I live in Newton the other days–has felt like changing from one pair of comfortable, well-worn shoes to another. Here, in both places, is a schedule that has grown to fit me, a schedule that curls around the curves of my psyche like a well-worn glove. There is no burden and little effort in wearing a glove that fits, a glove that remembers the shape and movement of your particular hand. A good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, molds to the shape of your being; a good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, is as snug as a hug.

This morning I got up at 5 am without effort or complaint, as if my body already has been trained: “On Thursdays, we get up at 5:00.” It helps to have lived at a Zen Center, albeit years ago. Like riding a bike, the routine of getting up at five, bowing, and then sitting is something you never forget: you might fall out of the practice, but resuming it, once you’ve burnt off your initial inertia, feels like coming home, a single step into your own skin.


My routine in Newton is entirely different from my routine in Keene, and I’ve come to accept and even embrace that. It’s all about following my situation, recognizing that one morning regimen doesn’t fit all, nor does one morning regimen work for every morning. One of the most practical, helpful outcomes of my Zen practice is this flexible acceptance of routine. Every day at a Zen Center, you know exactly what you’ll do from 5 to 7 am, and every day on a Zen retreat, your entire day will be clearly and inexorably charted for you. On early days of retreat or when you’re new to Zen Center life, you might bridle against this routine, seeing it as monotony. In time, you’ll learn to embrace it, recognizing that nature’s most basic, life-giving, and creative rhythms–the inflow and outflow of breath, the regular beat of a heart, the daily cycle of sleep and awakening–are themselves monotonous. When you fight the schedule of retreat, it’s brutal and oppressive. When you grow tired of fighting and instead surrender to your situation, letting the schedule move you through your day as you simply show up at every allotted task, you find and tap into the Universe’s own energy, which can be spent but not irrevocably exhausted.

So at 7:15 I type these words, illustrating them with photos I uploaded last night; at 7:40 I’ll walk to campus to teach my 8:00 class to sleepy-eyed students. I will, in other words, simply show up for my life, not fighting or bewailing it. On a sunny September day that dawns in due time after its predecessor, I will naturally settle into the stride of clear-shining days.

Autumn leaves

The leaves are already starting to turn in both Newton and Keene, as if the first week of September comes and the chemistry of tree and herb alike immediately changes, switching into shut-down mode. It’s a change that’s been a long time coming, of course–in a sense, all any leaf does with its life is prepare to die, accomplishing as much photosynthesis as it can in the summer sun while somehow sensing in its insentient way that the end is mere months away.

Autumn leaves

What would you do with your life if you knew you had only three months to live? Leaves spend every ounce of their cellular selves working, toiling at the drudgery of converting air, light, and water into an energy that will outlive them, stored in miserly roots, stems, and fruit. Leaves don’t see this work as drudgery because they don’t see anything at all. Instead of laboring over complaints and resentments, leaves lead the simplest of lives, simply doing their job and then dying without complaint. Not an ounce of energy is wasted fighting or bewailing fate: when the time comes to change, wither, and then fall, leaves simply follow their situation.

Go outside some bright autumn day, or even on a gray moody one, and listen: can you hear it? Can you hear the sound of leaves bemoaning their lot, lamenting the brevity of their days and the pure tedium of their allotted job with all its mindless chemical transpiration? Do you hear the mournful wail of millions as countless leaves succumb to dessication and then die, their anonymous bodies fed as fuel to the fire? No, leaves don’t fight it; leaves don’t fight anything. They are expert in surrender. Leaves recognize the way the wind blows and fall into it, allowing themselves to be carried aloft without care.

Pollinating butterfly

I wasn’t planning to take any photos on this morning’s dog-walk, but I couldn’t resist the sight of a butterfly pollinating flowers alongside the usual handful of bees. Even on mornings when I’m not planning to take any photos, I have my everyday-use camera in my purse, within easy reach. You never know when or where there might be butterflies.

Grasshopper on flower

The world, it turns out, is full of such serendipity. I wasn’t planning to take any photos across from the Starbucks in Waban Square, but when I saw a single butterfly dancing around flowers that were within easy shooting distance, I walked a few feet out of my usual way, Reggie happy to sniff a few steps this way rather than that. While taking a handful of butterfly shots, I spotted a grasshopper sitting atop the same cluster of flowers: an unforeseen bonus. Had I not taken a few steps this way rather than that, I’d never have seen it.

Some might argue that looking at the world through a viewfinder narrows your vision: there is so much that lies outside your perceptual frame, you run the risk of missing the proverbial forest for the trees. But I say that carrying a camera encourages a depth of vision: zeroing and zooming on one small thing, you see another and another. William Blake was right, and he didn’t even own a digicam. The whole world dwells in a grain of sand, and all of heaven hides in a wildflower.

Ivy clad

I arrived back in Keene on Monday night, just in time to see scattered throngs of students walking home from their first day of fall semester classes. As I unpacked my car and got settled into my apartment, it occurred to me that I’m revisiting my own undergraduate days when I’d move home for the summer then return to campus the weekend before classes began, re-inhabiting a dorm room that felt like an empty shell upon entry.

Virginia creeper

It’s a strange sensation to move back into your own apartment after a summer away. I’d left the place tidy but not immaculate, and all this week I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with the same old cupboards, closets, and quirks. I imagine this is what it’s like to return to a familiar vacation cottage every year: it takes a few days to remember where you put the colander the last time you used it, and it takes a few showers to remember exactly how hot the water runs. Here is my old, familiar bed, just how I’d left it with a few half-read magazines and a once-worn fleece tossed across the spread. How strange it is to sleep here alone after a summer of sharing a bed with boyfriend and beagle.

This week I’ve felt alien and odd on the streets of Keene as well as in my own apartment; so far, my classrooms are the only place where I’ve felt truly at-home, returning to a teaching ritual that, after more than 15 years of doing it, feels like second-nature. In my office at school, I nearly forgot the combination that opens my basement office, and once inside, I couldn’t remember my computer network password. But once I’m in front of a classroom of students, it feels like I’ve never left, with no fumbling to find a familiar but forgotten doorknob in the dark.


While I was gone, the quiet family across the street has been replaced by a houseful of college guys with pickup trucks; while I was gone, a handful of houses I regularly pass while walking the dog have begun remodeling projects. The houses that first arose as sticks at the start of summer are now finished and occupied, with lawn chairs out front that look like they’ve been there forever. While I was gone, in other words, the rest of the neighborhood has gone on living, not really noticing I was gone. It’s a lesson I should have learned long ago, but I have to learn it anew each year: time waits for no one.

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