Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Idyll of the Nest

To continue talking about the visibility of birds’ nests in winter: the sight of some bird family’s cozy little habitation exposed on bare branches takes me back to my child self, because I used to view birds’ nests with so much awe and wonder, (and my children likewise showed a great deal of interest in nests). In “The Poetics of Space,” Gaston Bachelard describes “the na├»ve wonder we used to feel when we found a nest,” and associates the nest with archetypal images of the cozy hut, the happy household, and a secure refuge (despite the precarious condition of so many nests) where one can retreat to daydream. Bachelard’s writings are very much about how our material and elemental world associations shape our inner worlds of reverie and dreaming.

In a childhood dream which stuck with me for many years, I was snuggling in a giant rooftop nest with a bunch of sisters, (though I have no biological sisters). I periodically reflect on this idyll of sisterhood, but long wondered where the image came from, until a few years ago I realized it corresponds to a scene from the “Wizard of Oz” movie, (briefly shown in the scenes of Munchkin Land), where a clutch of little bird girls in a big nest are waking and stretching.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I have been away from this blog due to end-of-semester and holiday busy-ness, plus icy walkways make it difficult to get out and around to make my walking observations. However, I shall resume by writing about some things we can see while walking (or driving) in winter.

One of the interesting things about living in the country is that once all the leaves have fallen, we become aware of neighborhood residents who are normally out of view, because their houses are set far back on deep wooded lots. Similarly, the bare trees reveal so many different birds’ nests. Often these nests are low and close to walkways I/you regularly use, without ever being aware that you are passing so close by a family of birds. When I walk around my 2-1/2 acres looking at the bird nests, I feel very privileged that so many birds also consider this little spot on Earth their home. It also seems that a tree is privileged to have a bird’s next in it. For example, I planted a fir which was at first shorter than the weeds, but is now getting taller, and for two consecutive years, robins have nested in it. It’s like somehow now that it has a nest in it, it has become a “real” tree, not just some kind of ornament.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Halloween's Remnants

A week past Halloween, the jack-o-lanterns all have this sunk-in look, (though some had gotten to that stage well in advance of Halloween). Due to car problems, I wasn’t able to get into one of the local towns for my traditional early-morning-after-Halloween walk. I always look forward to the morning after Halloween, because some of the magic and excitement of the previous night lingers in the air--accented by the pieces of dropped candy and costume parts lying here and there on the streets and sidewalks, as well as the occasional smashed pumpkin.

However, Halloween spirit was in shorter supply this year, because fewer houses were decorated. When people who normally decorate for the holidays stop doing so, that seems to be a sign of depression, stress, or absence. As I walk the scantly decorated neighborhoods, I do see a fair number of houses up for sale, including vacant houses with “notice” stickers on the doors or windows. When occupied houses are up for sale, they tell a different story and exude a different atmosphere than empty houses. There is that tinge of desolation when you see a house standing empty, especially when it sits close enough to the walk that a passerby can see beyond the windows, into the empty rooms. In any community, a certain number of houses are going to be up for sale at any given time, but it does seem that there are more of the vacant ones. As tokens of our scary economic scene, these empty houses are perhaps more spooky than any Halloween display.

On the bright side, today’s walk was enlivened by the neighborhood animal life: a brown bunny in the yard of a duplex; a fat, fluffy, puffy squirrel perched on a broken branch; and the call of bluejays coming from any quarter towards which you turn your ear.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Performance Art

Continuing my observations on Halloween decorations: holiday decorations and other forms of yard art can be seen as a performance that householders put on for their communities. The performative nature of such decorations is seen in the African American term, “yard show.” Material culture scholars have noticed that yard shows incorporate many of the same features as cemetery decorations, so it’s amusing to note that some people convert their front yards into cemeteries at Halloween. I have yet to fathom the philosophical implications of this type of yard display.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Pumpkin Zone

As I walk up and down the streets admiring the Halloween decorations, I think about how decorations are part of the interface between an individual household and its community of neighbors and passers by. That’s because the decorations are usually on the front porches, on doors and windows, and in the front yards, which are the transition zones between public and private. Transition zones have a certain numinous quality, but also a certain dangerous quality, because they are liminal spaces.

In the case of Halloween decorations, scary-faced jack-o-lanterns and such are part of a world-wide tradition of decorating doors and other transition zones with apotropaic objects with grotesque faces to scare off evil spirits. Of course, friendly-faced jack-o-lanterns, as well as the golden pumpkins and other symbols of the harvest festival, serve to welcome the good spirits. By the way, I notice that people often flank their doorways with jack-o-lanterns or other decorations. It’s a natural desire for aesthetic balance, but it also echoes the African custom of setting a pair of gourds or pots filled with protective medicine on either side of the door.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bird World in Motion

The ancient Celts had a special reverence toward the Bird World, which they called the “ealtain” or “ealt nan ian,” (ref: Carmichael, “Carmina Gadelica”). Taking notice of the Bird World and being mindful of how it truly is its own realm enhances the daily walk.

On Monday, I saw huge numbers of robins in a field. They weren’t immediately visible, because of the way they spread out amidst the corn stubble; others were roosting in the adjacent wood margin, and were heard more than seen. A flock of blackbirds surrounded an interior pond, and some were calling, but their okarees were muffled and weird—not the clear, spring-like calls I’d heard back on the 12th. On Tuesday, bluebirds were moving through my copse; I haven’t seen many bluebirds this year, but then I’d been getting more temp work in the spring and summer. The calls of jays are regularly heard, and today, I see a constant stream of them through my copse. They don’t travel in flocks as such, but in a spread-out sort of line. My best experience of jay migration was while staying at my Dad’s beach house on the north shore of Lake Michigan, when bluejays were streaming across the dunes of Michibay, in a continuous west-moving line past the big picture window that looks out on the dunes and the lake. (I have similarly seen hawk migrations there.) Flickers, and of course, Canada Geese and Crows are regularly heard. However, since we’ve been having frosty nights, the frogs and insects are no longer a part of the sound environment. Strange to think, I could still hear cicadas as recently as September 30th, (which is supposed to be rather late for them).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Color Show Continues

Out enjoying the spectacular fall foliage, I see a lot of maple trees where the outermost leaves are reddish orange, behind them are yellowish leaves, and more toward the interior are still green leaves. My younger son actually called my attention to these sorts of trees some years ago, when he likened them to certain types of spherical, translucent lollipops that have different layers of color.

Also, Friday I walked in the town of Leslie, which has a variety of old Midwestern-style houses, plus some people with Halloween spirit. The wooden steps of one old house were lined with jack-o-lanterns, and a plush gray cat was resting at the foot of those stairs, while on the porch just at the top of the stairs sat a black cat. If I had had a camera on me, that would have made a perfect Halloween composition. Leslie happens to have a spiritualist church, so anyone walking by might want to send out a mental Hello to any friendly spirits who might be gathering there, in anticipation of the high energies of Halloween.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Festival of Colors

In this part of Michigan, the Fall colors are at their best the second week in October, and I think that today they were truly at their most splendid. For those of us walking in small towns, the Halloween decorations also add to the seasonal color. I’ve been walking in Mason and Eaton Rapids, and it appears to me that the people of Mason have more Halloween spirit than those in Eaton Rapids. (Oddly though, the people of Eaton Rapids usually have more personalized decorative arrangements around their family tombstones in the cemetery.) I enjoy both Christmas decorations and Halloween decorations, but Halloween has the advantage because it’s a better time for walking, plus the decorations lend themselves to more color and whimsy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blackbird Spring in Fall

There comes a day in Spring when you know that the red-winged blackbirds have officially arrived, because you wake up to a morning where their chucks and okarees ring out from every tree, in every direction, and if you look up, you see them in singles and in groups, criss-crossing the skies. Although you may have seen a few blackbirds winging along in the previous days and weeks, a sudden invasion force has arrived en masse, over night.

There also comes such a morning in autumn, and today was that morning. The redwings were in such large numbers, and so vocal with songs that are normally associated with their nesting territory, that it seemed more like spring arrival than fall migration. (At the same time, the jays could still be heard, so it’s still Jay World out there.) Later, we’ll see huge flocks, and if we’re lucky enough to be out at the right time of day, we’ll see rivers of blackbirds flowing across the sky; however, although they’ll be noisy, it won’t be the chorus of okarees, with no time to stop and party, because they’ll be heading straight south with a sense of urgency, (though there is always gaiety in their urgency).

By the way, this was quite a warm morning, with afternoon temperatures into the 80s, so perhaps the weather contributes to the festival atmosphere. I do not think we would call this Indian Summer—that pertains to certain warm days in November. If it weren’t for the fiery colors of maples and sumac, it really would seem more like Spring.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Cure is Close By

Continuing the theme of walking and finding food, Mary Hunter Austin, in her autobiography, “Earth Horizon” (1932), related how when her family moved from the Midwest to California, she was initially very dazed and disoriented—in what she described as a spellbound state. Going without food and sleep, she wandered the hills and canyons, driven by an obsessive desire to get the country to explain itself. The turning point came when she discovered wild grapes in Tejon Canyon, and feeding on them almost exclusively for two weeks, she restored herself to health and sanity

I have a theory, albeit unproven, that if a person could consume a certain amount of the wild food to be found in his or her vicinity, around the calendar, (for winter, you would have to make teas out of certain trees’ bark), that would help align and harmonize him or her with the environment, (and the spirits of the land), in such a way that it would mitigate a lot of physical and mental complaints. (I’ve never carried this out myself, because too many disruptions to my schedule prevent me from getting out on a regular enough basis.)

Kind of tied in with this, although I’m taking it out of context, Tom Brown, the Pine Barrens Tracker, cited an old Indian belief that wherever there is something that causes illness or other problems, the cure will be found nearby. So for example, jewel weed, which is a cure for poison ivy, grows in a lot of the same places as poison ivy. My extension of that theory is that if you need a tonic, your own land or your neighborhood will provide what is best suited for you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Practice of the Wild

I've been digging through my notes to get the context of that Gary Snyder comment on walking. It is from "The Practice of the Wild," page 18: "Out here one is in constant engagement with countless plants and animals. To be well educated is to have learned the songs, proverbs, stories, sayings, myths (and technologies) that come with this experiencing of the nonhuman members of the local ecological community. Practice in the field, "open country," is foremost. Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of hardiness and soul primary to human kind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility. Out walking, one notices where there is food." Snyder is talking about wild country, but engagement with the nonhuman community and the search for wild food can also be carried out in ordinary neighborhoods.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Wild Harvest

Being an on-call temp worker, I’ve been away from work for three weeks, so it wasn’t until today’s walk that I noticed that apples and shagbark hickory nuts from the trees near my building had become ripe, (so I gathered some). To once again cite Gary Snyder, in an essay on walking, he emphasized how when out walking in the wild, we notice where the food sources are. I find there is something atavistic about that, that puts us in touch with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Because I work at MSU and get deployed to different places on campus, I make a point of routing my walks through any new buildings I’m in or near, to acquaint myself with where the vending machines are, as well as other important resources like Sparty’s Snack Bars. I also feel a certain harmony with the hunter-gatherer ancestors when I’m scouting those things out.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jay World

Although I previously mentioned the call of the flicker as characteristic of the Autumn World, even more common is the shriek of the blue jays. A little before the Equinox, I know the jays have stepped up their activities and started their migration, because every time I stick my head outdoors, I can hear them as they move through the copse to my west. A jay was also what I heard immediately upon stepping out this morning. Their shrieks ring though every neighborhood you walk through—even heard over the sound of lawn mowers. In the Spring time, I refer to all of outdoors as “Robin World,” because of the sight of multiple robins hopping across my 2-1/2 acres of lawn, as well as their whinny-like calls, heard from all directions. (Several robin families usually nest about my place.) Outdoors has now been transformed into Jay World. Another major sound is the buzz-saw chorus of cicadas, still holding forth despite cooler days and nights.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Interconnected--Even in Suffering

When I mentioned yesterday that I look forward to Hurricane Season, I did not in any way mean to imply that I don’t care about the suffering of people who get the brunt of those storms. Ike is estimated to have killed 143 persons in Haiti and elsewhere, not to mention all the damage to property; for everyone who lost their homes or loved ones, the pain will be felt for many years to come, and my heart goes out to them. Yet despite the destruction inflicted in some parts of the world, Ike also brought relief from heat and drought to people in other areas. That is simply the nature of major weather systems, and there’s nothing we can do about it—beyond trying to ensure that storm victims have the resources needed to cope.

After yesterday’s post, I looked into an article on Hurricane Ike, [], and learned that Ike began as a system in the Sudan, and moved through Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal before crossing the ocean. After moving through the U.S., it proceeded to unleash high winds and heavy rain on Ontario and Quebec. So, it is truly awesome to contemplate how extensively the elemental powers connect places and people. Here, we have an echo of “butterfly effect” theory. In the wake of destruction, we are also reminded of other ways that we are connected. A lot of people think that Buddhism teaches that we are all One, but that is actually more of a Hindu concept. However, as one of our local monks, (Ajahn Khemasanto, abbot of Wat Dhammasala in Perry), has pointed out, what the Buddha did say is that all beings are united in suffering. So, something else for me to contemplate, as I gaze into the creek which is still racing, two weeks after the storms.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Heaven and Earth

Since yesterday afternoon’s walk, I’ve been driving about on different errands, and have seen onions lying by the side of several other roads--some in town, and some in the country—so the end of September must be the big onion harvest. On today’s walk along Ash Street, in town, I picked up a big one, though it was kind of dirty and mashed up a bit. (Although I live out in the country, in a big agribusiness area, I do a lot of my walking in the small towns of Mid-Michigan, because of the dangerous highway traffic where I live.) To extend the symbolism I discussed yesterday, when humble onions briefly became solar symbols, I will use this one for “Himmel und Erde” (“Heaven and Earth”), a German dish that combines apples with potatoes and onions.

Another way that Heaven and Earth are interconnected, and enable us to be interconnected, is through water and weather. Today I stood on the Elm Street bridge, as I like to gaze into Sycamore Creek. I noticed the creek is still a bit swollen and swifter-moving from the torrential rains of two weeks ago. When Hurricane Ike was done pounding the Gulf Coast, its system tracked up into the Midwest—which is typical of prevailing weather patterns. Although it created a lot of havoc in Chicago, we weren’t too badly affected, even though we experienced “a hundred year storm.” (We’ve had several hundred-year storms in the 12 years I’ve been living here.) I actually look forward to Hurricane season in the Caribbean, because when the rains eventually get to us, they bring cooler weather, often break summer droughts, and wash a lot of the ragweed pollen out of the air—thus enabling me to get out for more walking. These weather systems also enable me to feel elementally connected to my older son. He is an rpg designer-programmer in Austin, Texas, so the weather that he experiences eventually works its way up to me. (By the way, one of his hobbies is tornado chasing.) When I watch the weather news and see that something is coming my son’s way, I know it will eventually get to me as well.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Magic Along the Roadside

Something I saw while driving home from yesterday afternoon's walk in Mason has made me think I ought to start a blog on driving, as a companion to this one on the magic of walking. Heading west on Columbia, I glimpsed a golden ball by the side of the road, and wondered why someone left a Christmas ornament lying there. Not too much farther down, I saw another one. Continuing along, I saw more of them, and realized that some onions had fallen off of a farm truck, (a not uncommon occurrence out here in farm country). The sun was at just such an angle, shining on the onions in just such a way, that they truly glittered like golden orbs. Of course, my driving speed aided the illusion, as a walker would not have been fooled. I then stopped and dashed into Darrell's Market to buy a couple of things; when I came out and continued my drive, I saw more onions, but the sun was no longer at just the right angle to work its magic.

The illusion of onions as golden balls amuses me, because the golden orb is a traditional sun symbol, and in Jungian psychology, it is also an archetypal emblem of the Self. Golden balls (in sets of three) used to be hung at the top of English Maypoles, and they are a common design element in old German signage and other wrought iron decorations. Also, people have seen mysterious golden orbs hovering over crop circles and other mystical sites in Britain. So, if I want to color the onions by the side of the road with meaning, I could read them as a message of how we can find a shining quality of happiness and wholeness in the humble things of the earth.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Flickers of Awareness

As I walk, I try to engage all the senses, though as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, (a mild form of autism), this is a challenge. Like many people with autism and other sensory processing problems, it's difficult for me to operate on the visual and audial channels at the same time. So, if my seeing function is "on," my hearing function is muted, and vice versa. Nevertheless, when walking at this time of autumn, my seeing and hearing are both alerted by the flash and cry of the flicker. Though yellow-shafted flickers are found almost year-round in Michigan, our local residents are going south, while their Canadian cousins are also moving through. Because their activities are intensified, I am noticing their noisy presence in my neighbor's oak tree, and I sometimes see them partying along the road, in trios or quartets. I never see them in large flocks, because they fan out as they travel.

The flicker's exhortation to seeing and hearing is a theme in the works of Gary Snyder, who likens its cry to the zen master's exclamation, "This! This! This!" This is a reminder to see things as they really are, independent of the images and notions we form about them. Because "Whimsy Walks" has to do with ways we can project our imaginations into the things we encounter, this may seem like a contradictory point to be bringing up. However, I think it's possible to maintain a dual consciousness, acknowledging that other beings have their own realities, while entertaining our own little fantasies about them--as long as we remain respectful. After all, who is to know whether some of our imaginings engage reality on another level?

Because flickers are Michigan's most common woodpecker and have such distinctive markings, they were among the first birds I learned to identify, beyond the obvious robins, cardinals, jays, et al. (In those days I was more into my seeing function, as the only bird call I ever noticed was the mourning dove's; I didn't start paying attention to sounds until I was in my 40s.) Nowadays, the recognition of different birds revives memories of my first sightings, which in the case of flickers, was on a walk in the autumn-yellow woods. Also, there is something about the way a flicker flashes his big white spot during a sudden take-off that can be just a little bit startling--not unlike the flash of insight.

p.s., the flicker pic is by F.C. Hennessey, circa 1919.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rites of Greeting

To start this walking blog on an auspicious note, I wish a wonderful life walk to all and everyone! As the Sephardic blessing goes, "Paths of milk and honey!"

I collect proverbs and greeting words, and greeting itself is a magical act. When you say "Hello" to someone, you are using an old Anglo Saxon blessing word that is wishing health and wholeness, as well as happiness, to him or her--in keeping with the wholistic worldview that characterized the Anglo Saxons as well as so many other tribal peoples. The greeting terms of other lands have similar associations. For example, "salute" comes from Latin roots that are related to salutary (healthful) and even salt as a healthful, protective substance. Walking provides an opportunity for many hellos, and as I walk, I try to extend my Hellos not just to the humans I meet, but also to animals and to distinctive features of the natural as well as built environment. Such "rites of greeting" enable us to engage the environments we pass through in ways that make us participants, not just mere observers.

Therefore, I wish us all innumerable hearty hellos, as we greet our world, and in return, receive greetings from that world.