Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Miracles Abound

Our two year old, Abbey, has a new trick. She closes her eyes super tight, grins, and then says "Wow! It's SO dark in here!" The kid knows how to get a laugh.

It's an appropriate sentiment for this Christmas Eve Eve, though - with your eyes closed it can be pretty hard to see the light. In this season of miracles (and trees with no leaves providing stellar views into woodsy wildlife habitat) we need to open our eyes and see that miracles are really all around us. The whole planet is one big sparkling, pulsating, laugh-till-you-cry and cry-till-you-laugh miracle. But you can only see it if you're looking. If your eyes are clouded with to-do lists and stress and the endless noise of modern life, it can get awful dark in there. But, if you can take a moment (five minutes, a cup of coffee's worth of time) and really look at the world around you - you'll see birds still flying and flitting and sitting with puffed up feathers that manage to keep their bodies a toasty 104 degrees despite the achingly cold winter weather. You'll see squirrels chasing each other round trees (and falling down fairly often) faster and funnier than any Tom and Jerry cartoon. (Office Space fans: watch the squirrels, they are merry.) You'll see evergreens full of cones and skies full of snow and everything, everything tinted that wonderful gold and grey color of the watercolor winter sun. And then, miracle of miracles, you'll notice that the hardwood trees are already setting their buds for spring. Wrapped up tight in their casings, spring flowers are waiting out the weather, ready to burst forth and welcome back the light. They know that light always follows the darkness, that warmth always trumps the cold.

Abbey seems to know this too. She knows that she can open her eyes at any time, see the world afresh, and have a nice big laugh. Miracle of miracles.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Traveling Naturalist

Ahh, the road home. There's nothing quite like it. Yesterday we piled one toddler, two dogs, and enough luggage for a small army into the Prius and hit the highway north to bring us back to Virginia for Christmas. Brian, my saint of a husband, drove every last mile and so, between activity changes and requests from the girl in the throne in the back seat, I got to do a lot of looking at the countryside. As usual, I find the view from the passenger seat (or really anywhere you've got a decent window on wildlife) truly excellent.

High(way) Fliers
Highways are a great place to see some of the larger hunting birds (call them raptors if you're talking to a boy between the ages of 5 and, well, 95). You'll find hawks perched high in trees, looking over fields or grassy roadside shoulders for a juicy mouse or grasshopper. Occasionally you may even catch them in mid-swoop. The largest of the raptors you're likely to spot this way in the southeast are the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. They are, in a word, impressive. If, however, you spot a large bird circling high in the air, you're probably seeing a vulture who's riding a "thermal" - using a rising air current to soar without using much energy - so that it can scan the ground for a tasty rotting carcass. (Nothing says "holidays" like tasty rotting carcass, eh?) Vultures are most easily told from hawks in flight by their wings, which very conveniently form the first letter of their name - a wide V shape. When hawks fly, they hold their wings more flat. There are two kinds in the southeast, the turkey vulture (so named for its red, turkey-like head and neck) and the black vulture (different from the turkey vulture in that its head and neck are. . .wait for it. . .black). If you've got a keen eye, you'll be able to tell the turkey vulture in flight because the back half of its underwings are white, like stripes, whereas the outer half of the black vultures wings are white, like white wrists and hands. Yes, I can hear you asking - why would I want to identify a vulture, of all nasty birds. Well, share a little holiday cheer with our poor, downtrodden vultures - if it weren't for those wonderful animals that enjoy the pungent bouquet and exotic flavors of rotting carcass, you'd be dodging a lot more road kill on your drive. Grandma done run over a dead reindeer? No, thank you. The carrion eaters are the garbage men of the natural world, and they don't even have a union. And they fly a helluva lot better than the average garbage truck. So, hawks may be awesome, but vultures are truly cool, too. Besides, they're a great segue to my next traveling nature topic.

Road Kill Cafe Menu Highlights
No, I'm not putting "Anything Dead, On Bread" on the holiday menu this year, but the nerdy naturalist in me was rather intrigued by the variety of animals who gave up their lives to higher transportation. These were not just your average opossums and armadillos - two species which seem to have an unnatural affinity for death-by-SUV - I actually saw a coyote! A coyote in Alabama! These are one of the few species in modern times that are actually expanding their range despite the encroachment of man and the sprawling of cities. Ironically, it's probably because they don't mind tucking in at the Roadkill Cafe. Which means that the one I saw sprawled on the shoulder was probably crossing the highway to get at a juicy carcass right before he became one. The circle of life isn't always pretty, but think of the cute vultures he'll feed. . .

Speeding Up Time
Even at the accelerated rate at which my husband prefers to travel (remember, he's a pilot, and would rather be going fast enough to actually lift off the ground, so a mere ten to fifteen above the speed limit is holding back for him), there was no way to miss the transition between ecosystems from the longleaf pine woods of the Florida Panhandle and the deciduous forests of the Virginia Appalachians. Tall brown trunks with green, truffula-tree tufts of evergreen needles are the hallmark of the "pineywoods" - beautiful in their way, survivors of fire and sources of everything the native Americans and colonists needed to survive, but still the longleaf and slash pine forests aren't the woods I love. I mean, I like them, but I don't "like them" like them. Other than the Birch I actually married, my heart is reserved for the maples and oaks that tower at the top of the Appalachian forests, for the dogwoods and mountain laurels that float in the understory like fairy lace. As the hills begin to rise up at the Tennessee border (right where the fire ant mounds also seem to disappear - a very nice transition), the trees stand above the ridgeline like hair on a wild boar's back, grey brown and seeming to shift in the evening sun. Then, as the roads wind deeper into higher mountains, the winter forest surrounds you on all sides and beckons your gaze deep into its heart, past the ghostly grey trunks of white oaks, as you try to decipher what magic might be going on in there, what secret beasts are running in the twilight, rustling the crackly brown leaves of the forest floor. Luckily for me at this point, the kind requests of my daughter turned to hungry/sleepy/whiney calls for food/comfort/attention, and this bond of love kept me from diving out the window and into the waiting arms of my forest home. I must have been a deer in a past life. Probably ended up as road kill (I never have been good at judging speed and distance and I do tend to fixate on pretty lights- this is why Brian drives). With any luck my departure from deerhood nourished a high flying vulture.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Warming Up the Muse in Winter

December 15, 2008 - Welcome to our blog! Because I'm a naturalist first and a photographer second, I can't resist the urge to add a few words to the thousand each picture is worth. There's too much wonder going on out there in our world every day to miss out on even a little bit of it! So, I'll be writing new installments of Nature Notes every few days to describe some of the amazing things Ma Nature is doing in my back yard, and I hope you'll write in and share your own knowledge and observations. Just email your comments, feedback, facts and ideas to me at dcb@worldofcolorgallery.com, and I'll add them to the page.
The first piece I'd like to share is about how inspiring nature can be. It originally appeared as an article for Moonshine, the online creativity magazine.

Warming Up the Muse in Winter

Winter in the south is a bigger tease than the most flirtatious southern belle. We southerners are warmed by mother nature’s sweet sun one day only to find that she’s turned a cold shoulder on us the next, buffeting us with icy stares and button-up winds. When you combine that with all of the holiday shopping and hustle, it’s enough to make you double up on the spiked eggnog, but we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, cuddle up in a corner chair and hark unto these tips for warming up the creative despite the frightful weather:

Try Your Hand at a new Handicraft
When we try arts and crafts that are out of our comfort zone, they create entirely new neuron connections within our brains, opening up new pathways of thought. This keeps our brains young and our creative juices flowing like sap rising up a winter maple. (And we’ll get to that one in next issue’s article.) For me, in winter, there’s no better craft to try than one that will keep someone else warm: knitting, crochet, sewing, and/or quilting. Especially where knitting and crochet are concerned, the supplies are cheap and beginners (and children) can make high-quality, satisfying projects. Try making simple 7x9” blanket squares for Warm Up America (http://www.warmupamerica.org/); they’ll knit them together into blankets for the homeless, those who’ve fled abusive relationships, or are in hospices, hospitals, shelters, or nursing homes. With almost the same pattern, you can also make caps for preemie babies in the developing world through Knit One Save One (http://www.savethechildren.org/). Each cap will keep a precious child warm and thus increase his or her likelihood of survival tremendously. And, of course, the possibilities for pouring your creativity and love into these small items are endless.

Take a Winter Walk

Look down: Nature may slow down in winter, but there’s still a lot to see! If you’re luck enough to have snow, start tracking animals. If you start at your birdfeeder, you’ll quickly be able to track and identify birds and squirrels. Then, as you wander farther afield, you may be lucky enough to find the tracks of everything from mice to raccoons to foxes and much more. Following fresh tracks is better than a mystery novel for true suspense. If suspense isn’t your thing, the tracks will reveal a symmetry of design, a pattern of motion, and maybe even a glimpse into the animal’s mind – the beginnings of artistry laid out before you.

Look up: Also, with the leaves on the trees now turning themselves into soil underfoot, bare branches will provide you with a much better view of our feathered, flying friends. Look for songbirds such as cardinals, chickadees, titmice, and sparrows, but also for larger predator birds such as red-tailed and red-winged hawks, who are likely to be found hunting pray from a high vantage point next to an open field. Watching wings in motion is always, well . . . moving.

Look all around: For those of us who probably won’t get snow, we’ll be lucky enough to scan the ground beneath our feet for some of nature’s best handiwork – her seeds, nuts, cones, and acorns – the sheer variety of shapes, colors, and protections for surviving winter will knock you out. And forget not, winter walkers, to get up close and personal with tree bark and standing dry grasses – there are a bevy of beautiful bugs to be found hiding out inside them, waiting for the returning warmth of spring.

Hibernate for a Day

With all of the parties to attend, children’s activities to chauffeur tots to, and errands to be done for the holiday season, sometimes Christmas can feel less like a Merry-thon and more like a marathon. Give yourself (and your family) this one gift: declare a hibernation day. Bears are far bigger animals than we are and they manage to hibernate all winter – surely we can manage one day! Plan far enough in advance so that you don’t have to cancel or miss anything you really want to attend, but then give yourself permission to reject other offers because you’re already booked to hibernate on that day. Then do it! Curl up. All day. Sleep if you can; if you can’t sleep then read, take a long bubble bath, put on inspiring music, stare out a window or into a roaring fire, daydream, drink delicious hot beverages (spiked or unspiked – you’re not driving anywhere!) and have everyone “forage” for simple food from the fridge (rather than making big meals). Tell them that this is your bear spirit’s day of rest and relaxation. By the end of the day you’ll find yourself both totally calmed and also ready to jump back into action.

Hit the Snooze for the Muse

If all else fails, remember this – each of the seasons has a lesson to impart. The wisdom of winter is that we all need rest. So don’t create anything for a while. Take a complete break. Even the most creative spirit needs time to recover, to regain all of the energy it puts out into the world. So use this time to take in, rather than give out. It is fun to receive. Allow others to give to you. Accept kindnesses large and small with gracious thanks rather than rebuffing them with an off-hand “No, I’m fine” or “No, you take it.” The giver will feel gratified and your spirit will be renewed, bathed in the light of love that shines brightest in midwinter’s darkness.

As always, to visit our website full of Nature's Colors, head to www.worldofcolorgallery.com.

World of Color Photography