Category Archives: flora and fauna

Maybe this year

Grocery store lot, March 2016.

Imagine, if you will, an enormous industrial stovetop. Six back burners. Imagine every burner with a pot on it, every pot asimmer. The whole kitchen smells like waking to somebody already cooking breakfast, like Thanksgiving, like a happy childhood. Yeah, so those pots are the stories I want to tell here. Nothing’s ready to eat yet, of course. Shall we stretch this metaphor to the very edge of its usefulness? Can I say I guess these stories really do need a good long braise? Shall we turn around and look out the kitchen window while we wait?

Because y’all, here at our house near the salt marsh, it is spring. Spring! Spring is better than winter! It looks a lot like you might expect, especially if you also live in the Northeast. The daffodils opened up a few weeks ago, and then I saw the roadside maples with their blood-red buds, and then it was just BAM! BAM! BAM! Magnolias! Forsythia! Sandals!

And then there is all the stuff that feels so particular to living right here, surrounded by wetlands, supported by the summertime crowds, waiting for vegetables. Most of the ice cream shops have opened back up, for one, which I really should have said before all that bosh about back burners. The crab shacks and seafood markets are open again too. We’re still waiting for mini-golf and the bread stand, but the peepers are singing their lovesick chorus and my husband is turning all that winter cover crop back into the soil and so we know it can’t be long. My brain is racing happily: When are signups for swim lessons? Can my kids stay awake for the Friday night frog hikes in the trails around the lighthouse? Can we help tag horseshoe crabs this year? The pear tree behind the oldest barn, the one loaded with a welcoming committee of juicy fruit when we moved twenty minutes up the road last November, went from tiny green buds to full bloom in the span of just a couple days this week. We didn’t do much more than cram the pears into our mouths during our first walks here last fall, but maybe this year there will be jam or pies or something poached.

Here’s to my own gentle simmers and to spring’s wild rumpus!

Maple buds, March 2016.Bridal veil spirea/Spiraea prunifolia, March 2016.East Point Light, March 2016.Eggs, April 2016.

My haphazard phenology

Hemerocallis fulva/tiger daylily/ditch lily

I want to be a writer.

I’m not talking about someone who sits back while her muse serves up exquisite turns of phrase on a silver platter. I don’t daydream about an advance that pays the bills. I’m not thinking about getting an MFA. I’m thinking about Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote night after night, after her children were asleep, throughout her “tired thirties.” I’m remembering when I would rise at 5 to get in an hour of words before anyone else was awake. And I’m still sitting with this episode of On Being. It made me cry about eight times (about par for the course), including when Maria Popova remarked:

“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”

Campsis radicans/trumpet creeper

These early years of motherhood are startling in – nearly defined by – their paucity of uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, but it’s there. It’s there when I’m nursing my daughter in the pre-dawn hush, when I’m driving to the grocery store, even in that fraction of a moment when I take my first sip of coffee. I used to say I did my best writing in those delicious (and pen-less) moments, but real writing is something I can share with someone else. Real writing is a decision to push through the distractions and exhaustions that reappear as soon as I put the coffee cup back down. Real writing is work.

When I do the work, life is really good. I get words to look back on, hindsight casting a gentle glow on a time I thought I was stumbling through the dark. I get to wade through the mush of my mom brain and figure out what I really think. I get to talk to you, to other writers and readers. And that’s when a remembered bowl of corn flakes and a downpour in the grocery store parking lot and the quiet wilderness of my little backyard turn blogging into something useful: an instrument of encounter.

But when I don’t do the work, all that fades, like so many July blossoms.

Rudbeckia/black-eyed Susan

My haphazard phenology is as concrete a metaphor as I can come up with for why I want to write. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles, especially as influenced by available sunlight, temperature, and precipitation. The most valuable phenology happens at regular intervals and focuses on a discrete physical area – the span of backyard you can see from the bottom step where you sip your coffee every morning, for example, or the same 10-meter stretch of shoreline.

But even my amateur and slipshod observations have worth. They help me understand where I have landed. They help me teach my children about death and patience and wonder, lessons that seemed so easy when we lived on farms and which seemed so hard at first when we didn’t anymore. And these tiny heralds all around us – poison ivy’s first leaves, tiny and carmine; the first whelk egg cases to wash up along the wrack line; February’s robins puffing their feathers and settling into a westward position on bare oak branches to absorb the last of the day’s thin sunlight; even the cocklebur I step on and curse in the dunes during the dog’s morning walk – they tether me, at least for a moment, in time and in place. These years are tricky. My children are one day asleep in the crook of my elbow, the next day climbing the bookshelves, and the next day teaching themselves to read. They need water and toast and a new shirt and kisses and I have not had any coffee yet. She wants to whisk the pancake batter and he wants to know which species of sharks give birth to live pups and I struggle to gain purchase. But I pry the bur from my heel and drop it in my pocket and look it up online when we get home. I think that perhaps the whelk egg cases are a little earlier this year. I am not startled now to unearth a clutch of horseshoe crab eggs when we dig moats for June’s high tides to fill. Patterns emerge from the welter. I am reminded that life – marine and my own – is unfolding with a sound beauty.

Albizia julibrissin/mimosaMay I be resolved and stubborn enough to do more showing up, more noticing, more work.

The same cheerful hurly-burly

raised bed

It is tempting, sometimes, to call this neighborhood less wild than the other places I have called home in the close to ten years since I left New York City. There are stop signs and water mains and dogs accustomed to their leashes, tidy sod lawns, fences every hundred feet or so that say this is mine and that is yours. I do not watch the fireflies flirting in the marsh a hundred feet off my back deck. The goats do not call to me at milking time from their spot under the enormous old oak at the highest point on our old farm. There is no Virginia creeper or bittersweet snaking its way up our front porch.

But there is a small brown rabbit that sits and chews quietly between two of our raised beds most mornings. The cardinals here fill their lungs just as boldly and sing the same cheerful hurly-burly hurly-burly hurly-burly as I make my coffee. Here they call from somewhere in the spiny sanctuary of holly all around. Last year they called from the mulberry at the edge of the marsh, and in Virginia it was the sycamore outside our kitchen window. Neither the plantain nor the clover will be beaten back, for all my mowing. On the nights when I walk the dog, I regularly nearly trip on a toad that must live under the porch, and last week a young garter snake eyed me calmly as I hung the diapers. I keep forgetting to roll up the car windows and the most exquisite spider webs appear on my dashboard overnight. A few months ago a mourning dove made its nest in our gutter. The dragonflies right now are a marvel to me and they touch down everywhere: clothesline, tomato stake, radio antenna on the car. These creatures, I am reminded, don’t discriminate. They find some food, and find a mate, and make themselves at home.

I sat on our back steps with a glass of iced coffee late this morning, eye to eye with an inchworm swaying on its silk escape rope, and I thought how our suburban street has more than a little in common with all the farms I have known. We humans harrow and mow and mulch and build, hoping to coax the land into providing us food or shelter. But we are always just a step ahead of the bindweed, or the bean beetles, or the crows, and that’s only if we’re quick enough and lucky enough. The lawns will always need mowing, and the shingles will always be battered by the wind off the ocean, and some pretty bird will always be eager to make its nest in our gutter.

And of course: the bay. It is four hundred yards from porch to surf. We leash the dog and set off, stopping perhaps to talk with a neighbor about the mosquitoes, or how big the baby is getting, or Ninja Turtles. We walk on. We slip off our sandals and climb the dune and then there it is: broad like the sea, glassy and lazy some days, other times fierce and grey. We right overturned horseshoe crabs. We inspect sea lettuce and graceful red weed and knobbed whelk egg cases in the wrack line. We identify laughing gulls, semipalmated sandpipers, snowy egrets, and at least a half dozen others that we will look up when we get back to the house. Here more than anywhere, I am reminded: we are only scratching the surface. Sure as the plantain and the cardinals, we will be at home here soon enough.

horseshoe crabs