Category Archives: nature

Packing it in

Well, I did go backpacking this weekend — only the second time in my life and perhaps the last.

A group of twelve — nine men and three women — hiked from the trailhead to the Cecil Cove campground, in the Buffalo River National River area, a couple of hours east of Fayetteville, Ark.  The scenery was, as usual in this area, gorgeous, and the hike was short, only 2.5 miles at most. But my new pack, which is supported by neither external nor internal frame, cut into the small of my back pretty hard and I was in pain.

Frost flower
Frost flower.

On the way out, the pack was lighter, for I’d drunk most of the water I lugged in and eaten most of the food. But first, we had to get there!

I knew only two or three of the twelve that comprised the group, and they were all decent sorts. A campfire was lighted Saturday night, which blazed high and kept us warm after we’d cooked our separate meals. But I felt anxious soon after the fire was lit, unable to enter into the conversation, or contribute. I found the topics trivial and tedious — maybe because I was fretting about “doing” something, or getting something done, being productive, or, in short, working — and soon enough lapsed into silence, then retired long before all the others, about 8:30 pm.

Camp fire
Sitting around the camp fire.

It was no easy task sleeping in my little pup tent. Though I had a pad and a sleeping bag, it was damned cold that night, getting down to 23 degrees, and the bag was not warm enough, the ground soft enough. I tossed and turned practically all the night, putting on an extra layer at one point but never able to find rest. I might have slept a couple of hours, earlier in the night.

Stone wall
Stone wall built by former inhabitants of the area, perhaps around the turn of the 20th century.

Though weary, like most of the others, who confessed they hadn’t slept well either, I was cheerful in the morning, getting my coffee and oatmeal going, chatting with everyone. We broke camp about 10 am and returned, most of us, the same way we’d come in, to the trailhead. (Another, longer and more scenic route was taken by the more energetic.)

I want to go back to Cecil Cove to hike the whole seven-mile loop, the short route in and the longer route back. But not backpack there, or anywhere, ever again, could be. I think I’ve packed backpacking in.

 

My Struggle 2

With a tip o’ the hat to Karl Ove Knausgaard, I reference here my own struggles with a backyard garden and pond I’ve been working on since late last year.

Garden pool
Backyard garden-pool, with stepping-stone waterfall, filling. Just one part of the never-ending garden project.

To be literal and direct, I’ve worked on the pond a great deal this summer — digging the hole in the ground and trying to shape it to the preformed pool; balancing the pool in that rocky bottom; building a waterfall that drops into the pool, a place where birds should come — near our bird-feeding station — and refresh themselves in the circulating water. I can’t say how many hours I’ve put into this project, and like gardening itself it will take how many more before it’s done if it ever is.

To be figurative, to fly away with symbolical suggestion, let me say I’ve suffered several disappointments along the communal line lately — belonging to groups (not so easy for me), organizing our neighborhood into a property owners’ association (a project halted by libertarian objections) — and so have fallen back on that old Voltairean advice to cultivate your own garden. This is what Candide does, in the end, in the eponymous book by Voltaire. After all his disappointing adventures in “the best of all possible worlds” — being kicked out of the castle after fondling Cunégonde, careening around Europe’s war zones, witnessing and suffering the Inquisition, riding with the lady with one buttock over the Andes — he comes home to roost in his own little home, his own yard, and starts a garden.

Am I advising isolation or isolationism? No. Simply acknowledging that, like Hamlet, one soon tires of “the all too solid flesh” and its struggles with the world.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

But if Hamlet had been a bit more Voltairean, a bit more like Candide and less like himself, he would’ve put in a garden at the castle and done some weeding himself. And so avoided his earthly troubles, including all that bloody and murderous sword-fighting. There soon comes a time, seems to me, when a no longer young man’s thoughts, never mind Hamlet, turn not to war and not to love but to gardening of one sort or another.

It’s the urge, I tell folks, when they turn fifty to put their thumbs in dirt. A guaranteed way to have a dirty, if not green, thumb, I tell ’em. And what can be more comforting, at this age, than to make that connection to the earth once more? After we’ve run the rat race, how many years, burdened with family, oppressed by work, stupefied by technology, we come to our senses, at last, or once more, and feel the way we felt when we were children — in the supersensory pleasure of connection to  experience at hand.

Cultivating a garden is both nature and culture, of course. The flowers we plant, the flow of water we direct come from nature and are shaped by man. Like Candide, we forget our earthly sorrows, our earthly experience, when we plunge into the earth. We are mortal, sure, but grounded in the soil. We feel our  sensory connection to everything we touch and everything that touches that, down to the center of the earth.

In this connection, time dissolves. The world whirls away. There’s only us, our hands, our grounding down to the earth’s deepest zones, and, even while working (on our own, for ourselves, in a trance), we are protected, for the magic moment, from the high voltages of alienated labor and alienated affections.

(P.S. Those of you who don’t garden, there’s still time!)

Hummingbirds, our summer clowns and warriors

Hummingbird
Female ruby-throated hummingbird at feeder.

Jen and I get a great kick out of watching the hummingbirds, ruby-throated and others, that visit our patio all summer — they swarm and kick up in great clouds of territorial aggression, as many as 12 to 15 at a time, lately, with the weather cooling, these tiny aerial warriors that lord it over an area of maybe 1,000 square feet.

The males are especially aggressive, driving away Lilliputian rivals in aerial combat. Many collect, and hide, in a neighbor’s big maple. Do they sense each other there? Do they attack even in that covert?

The birds seem to expend more energy driving away their rivals from the feeder than they do in feeding. One perches on the rim of the feeder and just stands there, body tense, warily waiting and watching for interceptors. As soon as a rival approaches, the percher lights after him, and the two describe crazy aggressive circles in the air, as if they were all von Richthofens.

Yes, we’ve been cooling this late August. It won’t be too long, a month or so, before the rubies fly south, abandoning their fiercely held Arkansas territory. We will miss them, of course, sitting at the table on the patio  looking upward in vain.

Still, these feisty Lilliputians set an example we really don’t need to follow. They chase away all comers from the feeder, though there’s nectar (sugar water) aplenty. Though polygynous, the males guard their females zealously, jealously. Hey, guys, we feel like shouting out, there’s enough for everyone! (Food, females.) They put out so much energy in jealous defense that you’d think they’d wear themselves out. And yet they may live, the ruby-throated variety of these smallest of all birds, as much as nine years  and, so, make nine round-trips, self-propelled, of course, to the tropics, more than most of us will ever make or ever dream of making.

All hail, then, Lilliputians of the air! Your iridescence amazes us. Your feistiness and flightiness make us laugh. Your talent for survival, against huge odds, astounds and heartens. Prosit! We raise a cup of our nectar, a pinot noir say or summer chardonnay, and toast you!

 

Are you squirrely tonight?

squirrel and nut
Central Park squirrel, cum nutkin, has nothing on the Arkansas variety! (Photo from www.psychologistmimi.com.)

Every other week I’ve been tutoring kids up in Bentonville, a smart group of Indian-American kids whose immigrant parents want them to assimilate and succeed. They are ahead of their grade levels already and like reading if not, necessarily, writing, which comes less naturally than reading, or speaking, and which requires more learning and more patience.

One of the kids — let’s call her A — is just seven years old now, eight this fall, like my granddaughter Ruby. She’s the youngest kid I tutor and the silliest, which I appreciate.

When I came to the door the other night, A hid behind it, on the inside, and opened the door so I couldn’t see her. “Oh, my goodness!” I proclaimed. “An automatic door opener!” A’s mother and I smiled.

Sometimes A is quite attentive and focused; other times, she’s full of exhaustible and combustible energies. She curls in a ball on her chair, beside mine, and tries out various feline positions. She hums and jabbers and is intent on telling me stories of the day or jokes.  Sometimes she runs around the room.

It’s at junctures like these that I think the two of us should step outside, into the backyard, and find a tree to climb. Go way up to the crown and have a look-see at the neighborhood. Scramble out on the branches and grab some nuts. Sit there together, crack the nuts in our steel jaws, and pick out the meats with our claws.

Then and only then return to the educational business at hand.

Wouldn’t such a climb be what is called “active learning”? In truth, I might try to accommodate my tutees with some such squirrely exercises. (I remember teaching college way back when, when the simple expedient of throwing a rubber ball around the room to all who wanted to ask or answer a question produced astonishingly results!)