Nature & animals


Countless steps

On my way to a meeting at Framingham State last week, I stopped to take a handful of pictures. Behind one of the academic buildings, a green vine was climbing a brick wall, and below that was a tall, lush stand of Asiatic dayflower abundantly blooming.

Climbing

Dayflowers are so named because each blossom lasts for only one day: bloom today, gone tomorrow. But you’d never know that by simply looking at any given cluster of dayflowers, as each plant blooms with fervent, verdant abandon. Tomorrow, there will be new dayflowers to replace today’s: one cohort arriving as another retires, a rolling legacy of bloom after bloom.

Admiring a patch of dayflowers is kind of like teaching first-year college students: every year, a new crop of youngsters arrives, the whole world new and full of opportunity. College campuses stay evergreen through a continual influx of new students, and this is one of the things that keeps me from becoming too jaded. What’s old-hat to me is new and exciting to my students.

Asiatic dayflower: blooms for only one day.

The strange thing about teaching, however, is the simple fact that I grow old, but my students never do. The freshmen I teach today, more than two decades after I started teaching, are just as young and green as the ones I’ve ever taught. Whenever I grow frustrated with the feeling of having repeated myself over and over and over on some incredibly basic point, I remind myself that this is the first time my students have heard this lesson from me, or possibly at all.

Butter and eggs among clover

I wonder if dayflowers have any idea how short their flowering lives are, or if they have any idea of anything at all? Is any blooming day a good day if you’re a dayflower, or are some days simply better and more sunny than others?

Today was, I’m guessing, a good day to be a dayflower–sunny and warm, but breezy and comfortable in the shade. If you bloom for only one day, what basis would you have to compare your life with any other? Any day is a good day if you’re young, green, and open to the sun.

Yes, we'll be watching.

Yesterday was the much-awaited Great American Eclipse, a celestial event that spanned the continent and consequently garnered a great deal of media buzz. Although New England was outside the path of totality, partial solar eclipses are interesting in their own right, so months ago I bought eclipse glasses, looking forward to an opportunity to let my inner science nerd shine.

One of the things that struck me about yesterday’s eclipse was its (literally) universal aspect. The sun shines on rich and poor alike, white and black, left and right. Everyone looks funny and feels foolish wearing eclipse glasses, and everyone’s first remark upon seeing a bite bitten out of the sun is some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Eclipse watching

Eclipses are wonderful but not surprising: these days, we know far in advance when, where, and to what degree an eclipse will occur. But much of the wonder of any eclipse is the very fact that it happens just as predicted. We say “Oh, wow” because the bite nibbled out of the Vanilla Wafer sun happens just as expected and right on schedule. It’s the wonder of holding a newborn infant and counting her tiny fingers and toes: exactly ten of each, just as it should be.

It comes as news to no one that we are a divided nation, but as soon as we step outside and look up, we find something we all share. Yesterday here in lush and leafy Newton, neighbors spontaneously gathered at the local ballfield, each of us drawn to its wide, unobstructed sky. And just like that, a set of suburban Little League bleachers was transformed into an observation platform peopled by armchair astronomers.

Colander crescents

Some of us had eclipse glasses and others had homemade pinhole viewers made out of cereal boxes; everyone shared. One boy showed off a richly illustrated National Park Service booklet about eclipses, and I held aloft a kitchen colander I’d brought, casting a constellation of pinhole crescents onto a piece of cardstock. It was, I’d guess, the kind of ragtag gathering that happened in lots of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces across the country yesterday: a spontaneous gathering of strangers that fell into place because word had gotten out that something special was happening. All you had to do to join was go outside and look.

And here’s the shocker: the sun is there every day, and so are your neighbors. Yesterday offered a rare and special light show, but every day there are weird and wonderful things happening in place you might not expect, but can readily see if you’re outside and looking.

Cicada killer

Yesterday as we were sitting on the bleachers gazing skyward, an enormous bug suddenly zoomed and buzzed us. It was an aptly named cicada killer wasp carrying a cicada that looked twice its size. Nobody could have predicted a two-inch wasp carrying an even bigger bug would fly by at exactly that moment, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Cicadas, like the sun, are almost ubiquitous in August, and so too are the wasps that sting and paralyze them before dragging them underground to serve as living larvae-food.

Cicada killer

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there: sometimes we’re expecting signs and wonders, and sometimes they shock and surprise us, buzzing right by our upturned faces. As the sun gradually grew back into its usual round shape, J and I walked toward home with a neighbor, startling a pair of strolling turkeys before meeting up with another neighbor walking the other way.

He’d viewed the eclipse at home with a pinhole viewer with his kids, he said, but he hadn’t seen it directly. Leaving him with a pair of eclipse glasses, we told him to wait until the clouds cleared and then look up. Although we left him there alone, I can predict what he said the moment the clouds parted: some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Mountain laurel

This time of year, when the mountain laurel is blooming outside our front door, I silently thank whoever it was who planted it. I love flowers but don’t have a green thumb, so I’m grateful that someone chose to surround our house with rhododendrons, euonymus, and pieris as well as spiderwort and spirea: a flowering legacy that continues from year to year despite burying snows and nibbling rabbits.

Mountain laurel

Want to make a lasting difference in the world? You can have and raise children, or start and grow a charity, or make and donate millions. Or, you can plant a long-lived and hardy perennial, something green and growing that will outlast you. They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and I’m grateful to the gardeners who had the foresight to plant the flowers and shrubs that fringe my house with beauty now.

Almost

This morning, I finished reading Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I agree with the book’s central premise about nature’s restorative power, but I believed that before I picked up the book. If you already think that time spent in nature is good for your mental and physical well-being, Williams’ book offers circumstantial evidence to support that belief, and it describes some interesting nature-focused therapies from places such as Japan, Korea, Finland, and Scotland. But I’m not sure the book would change the mind of a skeptic, and I found mildly annoying Williams’ occasional attempts to be funny, lighthearted, and cute.

Mossy Buddha

I appreciate researchers’ attempts to find quantifiable, scientific proof that spending time in nature is good for the soul, but I found myself thinking I’d be better served actually spending time in nature than reading a book about spending time in nature. (Yes, I could have read the book outside in the presence of trees and flowers, but this week’s weather has been cool and damp, not ideal for sitting outside with a book.)

In my experience, the curative power of nature is a holistic thing, which makes it difficult to quantify and measure. Spending time outside in nature usually means you’re taking time to step away from mundane obligations, and it often involves exercise and the unplugging of devices. Is any one of these actions “the” secret to a happier, healthier life, or is it the synergistic effect of all of them combined?

Spiderwort on drizzly day.

The proverbial act of “stopping to smell the flowers” might be restorative because the scent of roses is medicinal, or maybe stopping to smell anything is curative because of the magical effects of stopping and simply breathing. Perhaps instead of reading about scientific studies, each one of us should conduct our own individual experiment, taking time to seek out green spaces and then paying attention to how those places make us feel.

Vanhoutte Spirea

At some point this week, I blinked and spring slipped into summer. Trees that were leafing are now in full leaf, and fragile spring flowers have faded and given way to hardier replacements.

Just bloomed

Where there was honeysuckle, now there is beauty bush, and lily-of-the-valley is blooming where there had been glory-of-the-snow. In our front yard, the pieris is starting to fade, the mountain laurel is about to bloom, and the turkeys that were loud and emphatic only a week or so ago have started to quell and quiet.

When, exactly, does spring start and summer begin? At exactly the moment when green passes into green, the pale neon glow of fresh foliage deepening into a more somber and shadowy hue.

By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

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