Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coyote Highway

With the return of the snow season, I enjoy following the tracks of animals as I walk in my yard (2.5 acres) and the surrounding fields. Seeing coyote tracks cutting across my south lawn by the tree margin, and criss-crossing other parts of my yard as well, I’m reminded that they’re still around, as I haven’t actually heard them in a while. If there are any coyotes in your area, the sirens of a passing ambulance or fire truck can get them going, so I stick my head out to listen when I hear sirens, but I haven’t heard the coyote chorus for a year or more.

Following the coyote tracks, I’m impressed with how they are able to work the Michigan grid system. Out in the country, we have “country miles,” where each block is approximately a mile long, with the north-south and east-west running roads crossing each other in a pattern that divides the landscape into squares. Not all of the roads go through, but if you are trying to get somewhere, like to a town that is north and east of you, you can usually work the grid by bearing north then east then north then east, until you arrive in the approximate vicinity you’re aiming for. As for the layout of the individual grid squares, you typically have farm houses and some strictly residential houses fairly well spaced out along the road frontage. There are no sidewalks. The large interior sections are like a patchwork quilt of fields in different crops; these are bordered by tree margins (called “fence rows,” though most are not fenced), with creeks and drains cutting through, woodlots in spaces less suitable for farming (such as sump-like areas), and the occasional pond with its marshy border.

What a pair of coyotes will do (as evidenced by the way individuals’ tracks meet up and separate), is start out in a corner of a field, then split up, each following the fence rows in a different direction, until they meet again in the opposite corner. If there are more coyotes, some might also cut across the field diagonally. The wood margins are a boon to coyotes, because they are an animal highway—again, something you can see by all the parallel tracks. As border zones, they are rich in animal life, including raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, and cats, who may feel more safety in skirting the tree-thick borders of fields. Woodchucks, pheasants, and turkeys will use the margins too, and also venture further out. When not crossing or grazing in the fields, deer like to rest and hide in the wood margins. On my walks, I have noticed an average of two dead deer per mile of road frontage (on just one side of the road—so about eight per square mile), which gives you a notion of how abundant they are. Wandering through the fields, I sometimes come across the spot where some unfortunate bird or mammal met its end, as the coyote pack converged.

What I wonder about is how the coyotes’ adaptation to the grids affects their cognitive maps, that is, their internalized representation of the world and way of being in the world. It is sometimes said that there are no straight lines in nature, but coyotes at least are getting a notion of lines and squares, (though, strictly speaking, they are not hard lines or angles).

The square relates to modern western (i.e. white European) culture, in contrast to others. Black Elk said that the Power of the World moves in circles, and that Indians tried to move with the world by consciously carrying their acts out in a circular motion. (This is borne out by Native American commentators from widely varying groups, as well as outside observers.) I’m not mentioning this to criticize our modern penchant for angles, but merely to make philosophical observations and cultural comparisons on how our man-built landscape has its effect on the wildlife. When I was in American Studies, I actually thought about doing a thesis on wood margins in relation to the grid system, because there are many social and historical—as well as cognitive—implications.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Seasonal Decorations & Mental Health

Among the delights of walking in autumn are the foliage and the Halloween decorations, though at this point the trees are bare (though not the lower growing bushes), and the Halloween decorations are being replaced by Christmas decorations. I guess I’ll have to take my own Halloween decorations down shortly. (This consists of a porch display with six differently shaped light-up jack-o-lanterns, a large plywood ghost, 2 plastic hangings of a witch with cauldron and a pair of black cats peeping out of a pumpkin, and a strand of lights with alternating jack-o-lanterns and friendly ghosts.) As with last year, it did seem to me that fewer people were decorating for Halloween, and I wonder if that also means fewer Christmas decorations. When people who previously had a zest for decorating stop doing it, I suspect that they are either overworked or depressed—and that is a reflection of our current economy.

As a walker, I recall a past walk on a bleak winter day, where a single string of Christmas lights in an otherwise undecorated cul de sac in Holt was enough to give my spirits a boost. It may be that as an Asperger’s Syndrome person, I am extra-sensitive to the environment, but that would go for a lot of other people with neuro-processing disorders, including schizophrenics. It also goes to show that subtle interactions can take place between a homeowner and a walker, or other persons just passing through, so you can have an effect on other people’s mental health. Little things you do can affect people you don’t even know.

These things also affect drivers, because in late fall and winter, when many of us leave for work in darkness and come home in darkness, the sight of lighted decorations in the neighborhoods we pass through certainly adds cheer. I leave my Halloween lights on throughout the day, so that it will be easier for me to find my way home at night. (Out on these long stretches of country road, with no distinguishing landmarks that you can see in the dark, it is easy to overshoot your house.) However, I also turn them on on days that I don’t go in to work, and I leave them on through the evenings, as my public service. As I concur with Thoreau’s observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” I feel that anything we can do to help offset depression is worth doing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Late October Walk in Cemetery

I couldn't walk today because of rain, but earlier this week, I walked in the Mason cemetery, and the background music was the calls of jays, flickers, and white-breasted nuthatches. Ordinarily, when walking in cemeteries, my attention is drawn to specific things, whether they be individual tombs or inscriptions on tombstones, or features of nature, such as the roots of trees or shelf fungus. However, this time I attempted to take in the big picture, to de-focus on the near-by objects , so I could view the cemetery as a whole, and take it in as a unit.

Scanning the landscape, it is obvious that the oldest part of the cemetery occupies the higher, hillier part, and the newer sections are laid out on the flatter peripheries. I especially noticed the height and massiveness of many of the Victorian monuments. The density and verticality of these monuments suggest the buildings of a city, and of course, a cemetery is often referred to as a necropolis, a “city of the dead.” In the modern necropolis, the newer sections are more like the suburbs, (with their smaller monuments, some of them just flat plaques). Making comparisons to the current and Victorian eras, I wonder if the Victorian era was a more exuberantly optimistic period, because ordinary people could still be a part of world-changing discoveries, and that now our energies and expectations are more reined in, making us a diminished people, to correspond with our diminished tombstones. (It’s not that you can’t explore, and discover, and build, and create anything today, but you generally have to be a member of a highly specialized elite, with officially recognized degrees and licenses.)

If we are living in an age of greater restrictions, that might also restrict the expression of our “chi,” the life energy generated by our minds and bodies. If you live with a greater sense of “possibility,” would you radiate a stronger energy field? One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed walking in older cemeteries is that tall standing stone monuments seem to project power. Perhaps there are feng shui principles here, with the monuments drawing up earth energies. Credo Mzulu Mutwa, in his book on Zulu shamanism, mentions that people in Africa respect tall standing stones because of the earth energies they channel, and that these stones have a very high polish because of thousands of years of human’s rubbing or anointing them. Of course, if one entertains ideas of earth energies, one might also entertain the possibility that tombstones radiate other metaphysical energies because of their association with the dead, and that a very expressive tombstone might also be able to convey a sense of the presence of the individual it commemorates.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Jay World's Resounding Echoes

In the Spring I refer to all outdoors as Robin World, but in the Fall it is transformed into Jay World. Though robins are still around, they’re less seen and heard, while the jays are heard continuously—whether you’re in the country or the city--as they are getting wound up for migration. Although jays are with us throughout the year, at this time of Fall, they dominate the sound environment. Even if you are working in an office with closed windows, you may still hear their raucous, cacaphonic calls—a nice reminder that there’s still a living world out there.

I always experience a bit of a thrill when I hear or see the sounds of fall migration, because it alerts me to this massive movement in nature, and I believe that the birds in flocks are very excited, in addition to the sense of urgency that drives them forward. Of course, for jays, it isn’t the perilous long-distance journey that some other birds undertake, though the jays’ excitement is the most audible. Our local blue jays just go down to Dixie, so the ones we see over the winter are actually their Canadian cousins. As we get closer to Equinox, you’ll see little trios, quartets, or quintets of jays criss-crossing the roadways as they move purposefully southward, (though you’ll also see them heading in other directions, on shorter, local errands). Although you may see some larger bands of blue jays flying higher over head, they tend not to mass into large, high-flying flocks like some other birds. Rather, blue jays flow through the landscape as they move more leisurely and noisily from tree to tree and copse to copse.

My most memorable viewing of the jay migration, as well as the hawk migration, took place in front of my Dad’s big picture window in his beach house on the north shore of Lake Michigan, between Manistique and Gulliver. The house is set back in the dunes, with various bushes and trees in front of it. As the hawks and jays follow the shore line, they continuously stream past this window—on sort of a bird highway—as they move from tree to tree and bush to bush. When I was living in California and home schooling my children, we spent a number of months from summer into late autumn up there; however, now that I’ve moved back to Michigan, my ties to my work and my house keep me from going back, (though the house is not abandoned, because my brother’s family goes up there).

By the way, sometimes in addition to their usual semi-obscene shrieks, jays will also make metallic whistling calls. The quality of these calls may vary from a sound not unlike a rusty swing-set, to a more refined flute-like sound. Because these calls are unfamiliar and somewhat un-jay-like, some people don’t recognize them and find it hard to believe that jays are making these calls, even when you point it out to them. I heard some metallic jay whistles just yesterday, as I am fortunate to sit near a window. For over six months, I’ve been working in Berkey Hall, on Grand River Avenue. Though it’s such a busy street, it is a divided road with trees in the median strips, plus there are tall, mature trees lining it on narrow but park-like lawns on the MSU side. So, despite all the congested traffic and everything, this strip is rich in bird life, and from my window I continuously hear robins in spring and jays in fall. I am still also hearing the sound of cicadas.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Quest for Canopy

My lunchtime walk is a problem, because although as I have said, the whole MSU campus is an arboretum, it's hard to find enough continuous tree canopy to stay in shade, and I've been getting too much sun on my face and arms. When I take my 15 minute breaks in the morning and afternoon, I walk around in circles in a small park-like area with mature trees. However, to walk to the International Center food court for my 1 pm lunch (15-20 minutes one way) I can't avoid a lot of sun. Even if I skip lunch and proceed to the shady walk along the Red Cedar River, I still have to cross open spaces to get there. I don't walk in a straight line, but tack from shade spot to shade spot. Every time I can get under tree canopy, I experience an immediate burst of relief, which is all too quickly gone as I pass through the pool of shade and back into the blasting sunlight. It would be nice if future landscapers would consider this problem.

To appreciate the importance of trees, consider what it would be like in an environment were there are none. We can build things like canopies and overhangs, but there's a limit to the feasibility of providing enough man-made shade, and it's just not the same as tree shade. I think it would be very disturbing for someone like me to be transported to some dessert place without tree shade, yet there are people who grow up in such environments.

Thinking about differences in the natural environment and the built environment, as I was climbing the stairs in the parking tower, I saw a squirrel in a third story stairwell, sitting atop a trash receptacle, munching on an apple core it had fished out of the garbage. I initially thought it odd to see a squirrel so at ease in this steel and concrete structure, (though it's an open structure and there are nearby trees). Although the squirrel can see that a parking tower is not a tree, he probably doesn't concern himself with distinctions in what is natural vs. what is man-made. His concern is, "Is this a place where I can find food?" The squirrel's conceptual world is so different from ours that a lot of the distinctions we would make are of little relevance to him.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Places Where Memories Connect

Not long after my previous entry about interactions with trees and features in the landscape, I came across some tidbits of information that tie in with this theme. I had written about how universities and other institutions can have natural and architectural landmarks around which memories form, so while out walking in the area of MSU’s Beaumont Tower, (a structure which houses the carillion, and which is in a park-like section of the old campus), I was approached by an elderly couple who asked me if I knew the location of “the Engagement Rock.” They looked perturbed, like they had once known its location, but now they were disoriented. They said that the Engagement Rock used to be a destination for lovers, and it became a tradition to propose marriage at the site of the rock. I had never heard of an engagement rock, but luckily, Wikipedia has a feature on it. It turns out that it is the same object known to contemporary students as “The Rock.” It was moved from its former location to a spot alongside Farm Lane, were it sits at the top of a grassy lawn that slopes toward the Red Cedar River. The current practice is to paint and repaint the rock with sports slogans, cartoons, humor, and other topical and pop culture references. I don’t know whether anyone but old timers know it as the Engagement Rock. There is nothing romantic about its current location or status. Nevertheless, there are still people around for whom The Rock holds memories of their own lives’ landmarks.

I had also been writing about how it would be interesting to know if George Washington had ever climbed a tree. I don’t know about climbing any trees, but he actually intervened to save a tree, and the tree is still standing. I’ve been listening to the audiotaped version of Cokie Roberts’ “Founding Mothers,” and she relates that when George Washington went on his southern tour, he stayed at Hampton Plantation in South Carolina, where his hostess was Harriot Pinckney Horri, (whose family had extensive connections to the Revolution, and who is also the author of a notable cookbook). “As he prepared to leave Hampton, the president commented on a young oak near the house. Harriot explained that it interfered with the view, and she planned to cut it down. Commenting that man cannot make an oak, Washington entreated her to keep it, and so she did. The Washington Oak still stands at the Hampton Plantation historic site. If only it could talk.”

Also, I was watching some of the television features on Michael Jackson, aand his love of trees was mentioned in two different segments. In one, he was shown inviting a reporter to climb a tree with him. In another, he mentioned that he liked to climb high in trees, and when he sat there, looking down, he got all kinds of ideas for his music compositions. If any of Jackson’s home sites become tourist destinations, one can assume that if there are any good climbing trees on the site, he must have been in them.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Squirrels and Coyotes Out in the Open

Because the weather is so hot, I don’t spend my whole lunch hour walking. Rather, I stroll over to MSU’s Beal Botanical gardens, to better familiarize myself with all of the herbs and weeds by reading the little placards which explain the different plants’ uses. On these strolls, and walking around the campus in general, I notice squirrels all over the place, including the black squirrels, which I had never seen until I moved to this part of Michigan. I am a former Detroiter, but also lived in California for 20 years, and then moved here, to mid-Michigan. There were no squirrels in our California neighborhoods; for some reason they don’t thrive there like they do in the Midwest and elsewhere. The only squirrels we saw were California Ground Squirrels that live in burrows in more natural areas, not residential neighborhoods. My younger son, then in Jr. High School, came to Michigan with me, and mentioned that neighborhood kids were always surprised when he would shout, “Look, a squirrel!” because to them it was such a common sight. (One of our favorite sights was the way squirrels ripple as they run across leaf-piled lawns in autumn.) A Japanese MSU student I knew also commented on how she and her boyfriend took all kinds of pictures of friendly squirrels, because they’re apparently not known in Japan.

My son is now back in California, and mentioned that when he was walking in Huntington Beach’s Central Park last week, the ground squirrel population had become so dense that seeing them poking their heads out of their burrows, they’re so close together that it looks like a meerkat colony. This is likely what attracted the coyote, which he also saw on his walk. The coyote was just relaxing on a sunny, open lawn where other people were picnicking, playing, and pursuing their other recreational activities without taking notice of it. A couple walked past with their dog, and the dog became alert, although they did not. When another bystander asked them, “Do you see that coyote over there?” they replied, “Oh, we thought that was your dog.” There’s no reason coyotes shouldn’t loll about in public places, because who, actually, would chase after a coyote? A dog catcher or game warden might, but nobody else would have a reason, and where would they chase him to? I would only go after a coyote if he was menacing somebody’s dog, cat, or child. Now that this coyote has discovered that he can go about in open daylight unmolested, the rest will probably follow suit, and soon we’ll be seeing coyotes in all the public squares.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trees that Reach Across Time

Picking up on the previous topic, interactions with trees form an important part of many peoples’ childhood memories, and they also tie into family stories—so I’m always interested to hear about my friends’ and families’ connection with trees. Because of their relatively longer life-spans, trees are witness to history, so they enable us to experience connections across time. As a genealogist, it would help me feel a greater connection to my roots if it were possible for me to visit trees that individual ancestors had been fond of. Many of the trees I have planted on my 2-1/2 acres come from family properties, the offspring of trees that had been planted by my father or grandfather, and I always appreciate those connections.

Trees can also enhance our connection with historical figures. We know that the story about Washington cutting down the cherry tree is phony, but he may well have climbed some trees as a kid. Maybe that’s a bit too long ago for those trees to still be around, but knowing that “George Washington climbed here” would interest me more than “George Washington slept here.” I believe I’ve heard about certain communities having honored trees that came from seedlings of trees that Jefferson planted at Monticello. When my Texas son was visiting a few years back, we stopped by the spot “Under the Oaks” in Jackson, Michigan, where the first Republican convention took place in 1854, and I joked whether he’d like some Republican acorns to take back to Texas for George Bush.

Getting back to my campus walks, MSU, like any such institution, has had a number of notable graduates as well as illustrious visitors, so it would be interesting to know if some of them had clasped specific trees, or patted certain sculptures, or leaned out of certain windows, or relaxed on a certain bench or patch of ground, or what have you. On passing that same spot, it would enable us to have that imaginative encounter across time.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I’m back to walking now that my broken toe is mostly better. Unfortunately, I lost my groove for walking and blogging back in the spring, because I took on more course work than I could balance with my now full time temp work and family obligations. As my goal in walking is to find whimsy, imagination, and magic in the landscape, my current challenge is the MSU campus; I work here as an office temp, so I get deployed to different parts of the campus, depending on the assignment. Something you can really appreciate here are the trees, because the whole campus is an arboretum. Even in areas that are mostly buildings and parking lots, there are still some interesting trees, and many of them are labeled with little signs that provide their names and a bit of their natural history.

I particularly enjoy looking at very old trees with interesting shapes, including those with multiple trunks separating near to the ground, because those are the sorts of trees that young people can climb and play around in. No doubt, successive generations of students have interacted with those trees, and some must have memories of relationships with special trees. It would be interesting to interview MSU alumni about their memories of trees—as well as how they have imaginatively engaged other distinctive landscape features and architectural features of the campus. I know that when my Dad went here, he was in the forestry department, and the students would knock the juniper berries off the bushes and use them to brew gin in the huge creosote cookers in the basement of the department. I shall have to ask him if he has any other memories of trees.

One person whose memories of MSU would be worth recording is the poet Theodore Roethke, though, unfortunately, he is dead. He briefly taught here, (in 1935), shocking students and staff with his eccentric wild-man behavior, which included climbing out of the classroom window and creeping along the ledges while making faces into the windows. (This was for a writing class.) One night, Roethke went for a walk in the woods near campus, hoping to experience a mystical oneness with the trees, and came back in a disheveled and delirious state, which got him fired. Because Roethke used a great deal of botanical imagery in his writing, I have to wonder if he had some favorite trees on campus, as they may still be here. Indeed, it would be interesting to know which window ledges of which building Roethke had been climbing around on. (You can read more about this at Bill Peschel’s blog,; the article is “Theodore Roethke’s Walk in the Woods.”)

Another mystical encounter that took place in this general area involved Carlos Castaneda. I don’t recall where I read this, but Castaneda said that he was strolling the streets of East Lansing with a companion—or maybe it was someone who wrote that he had been walking with Castaneda—and anyway, they were surprised to see a strange creature which morphed into a fallen tree limb—or maybe it was vice versa. Again, no way of knowing where, exactly, in East Lansing this uncanny event took place, but it’s something to muse upon while out walking here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Morning Magic

Next to the morning after Halloween, my favorite morning for walking is Easter. Because I get to see how some families are getting set up for their egg hunts, I know that children’s excitement is soon to follow, and that some good memories will be made for those families. On top of that, I have always felt Easter morning has an air of magic. As a child, I walked to Sunday school every week, but walking to church on Easter seemed special because the morning sun always seemed to be shining more intensely, and there was that elevated sense of sacredness. In fact, I have a bit of a superstitious belief that Easter is always a sunny day, because I can’t remember one that wasn’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to town this morning for my walk, because I was buried under a truckload of coursework. I did finally get out locally, in the late afternoon, and am noticing that the trees are starting to shed their bud scales, though they are not yet piling up in windrows. Nature writers have pointed out that everybody notices the fall of leaves in autumn, yet the shedding of the bud scales is a second kind of fall, which largely goes unnoticed.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Robin World Returns

Before it’s even light, I can hear the morning robin songs and calls; when I step out the door to go to work, I immediately see robins flitting by; and when I return from work, robins are dotting my lawn and sitting on my roof. This is why, in Spring and Summer, I refer to all of outdoors as “Robin World.”

I have been out walking in the fields, even though they are still kind of muddy. When I’m outdoors, I like to reflect on how the metaphysical elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water are intermingled. Each Spring I observe that the fields have pushed up new rocks—which makes me happy because I like to look for fossils and puddingstones, though the rocks are an annoyance to farmers. It’s fairly rocky ground around here, and we also have a lot of ground water, so it fairly seems like the rocks are able to swim through the earth, like animate beings.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Unveils Winter's Roadkill

Today I saw my first buzzard of the season—and I’ve been watching for them. This buzzard has arrived later than the robins, blackbirds, grackles, killdeer, and sandhill cranes. Possibly the buzzards have been detained because they had to work their way up by first cleaning up the roadkill in Indiana and Ohio. At least there is no excuse for any buzzard or coyote to starve in Michigan. Roadkill is one thing you notice while walking, and it’s especially noticeable when you first get out in Spring, once the ice gets off the roads so you can walk. Not only have you previously been prevented from getting out, but a lot of carcasses had previously been covered by snow—though they are well preserved due to being frozen. Out here in farm country, there is at least one dead deer for every mile of road frontage, (and sometimes more).

Every carcass marks not just the end of the trail for some poor animal, but also the end of its story. Sometimes you wonder about the story’s end. A very short walk from here, in a tree just a few feet from the road, is a narrow crevice about three feet up from the ground. Hanging out of that very tight crevice are the tail and hind legs of a dead raccoon, and I wonder, did the raccoon get stuck climbing into that crevice to explore it and die there, or did he maybe get hit by a car, crawl to the side and try to climb into the tree crevice for safety, and then expire there? Because I see it every time I walk that way, I can’t help but wonder what happened there.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Robins Bringing in the Spring

Because my course-work fills my evenings and weekends, I have been able to get to neither my blogging or my walking in a good while, but happily things are lightening up now.

Walking is a great way to get to “see the spring come in,” (as Thoreau put it). On today’s walk, I saw how a tidal wave of robins is flowing across the landscape. In an extensive field that was sporting some new, green growth, hundreds and hundreds of robins, spaced out but a few feet from each other, were hopping along. In the adjacent fields and wood margins were even more robins, and they spread throughout my larger neighborhood, (which would be described as an “agribusiness” area), so this must have amounted to thousands and thousands. Unlike blackbirds, which form large flocks that criss-cross the skies, robins move northward more by flitting from branch to branch or hopping from lawn to lawn, so their migration isn’t as visible as it would be if they all formed a tight flock and flew overhead.

I suspect there probably weren’t as many robins back in Indian days, because there were fewer fields and lawns. Robins did like to frequent Indian villages, and the legend goes that the robin was once a boy whose ambitious father forced him to stay on his dream fast longer than normal, in the hopes that his son would gain greater supernatural powers that way. Despite the boy’s pleas that his dreams were boding evil, the father wouldn’t relent, and the boy was transformed into a robin. As related by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, “He looked down on his father with pity beaming in his eyes, and told him, that he should always love to be near men’s dwellings, that he should always be seen happy and contented by the constant cheerfulness and pleasure he would display, that he would still cheer his father by his songs, which would be some consolation to him for the loss of the glory he had expected, and that, although no longer a man, he should ever be the harbinger of peace and joy to the human race” (164). Elsewhere I have read the Ojibwe name for the robin is “Pitchi” or “Peechee.”

By the way, Jane Schoolcraft (1800-1842) was half Indian, and her Ojibwe name was “Woman of the Sound that the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.” Her story about the robin is included in a book by Robert Dale Parker, “The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky.” Parker asserts that Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is the first known American Indian literary writer, and he has tracked down and published her manuscripts in his book.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Walking Therapy (cont.)

In my last post, I described how the eye movements one makes when walking, (with the eyes darting to either side of the path, and also looking high and low, as the gaze moves from one thing to another), actually help the brain to process whatever issues a person might be working through. In fact, all of this eye movement may give us some of the same benefits as the REM phase of sleep. In addition to that, I would say that the motion of walking itself plays a therapeutic role, because walking is a whole-body activity, so having to coordinate your arms and legs and everything as you walk must surely have a brain integrating function.

I recall listening to a recent (of not too many weeks ago [?]) NPR report on wrestling, and I’m a little foggy on it now, but I think it may have been about how wrestling has helped people with learning disabilities, or memory problems, or something like that, because so many parts of the body are worked, and therefore many parts of the brain are engaged. (I can’t easily track down this information online, because my Windows 98 and rural phone lines dial-up make it painfully slow to get into sites.) If wrestling can do that for you, I would assume that swimming and bowling would too, as swimming has been described as the most complete exercise, and bowling as second best.

Brain integration is a big concern for people with Asperger’s Syndrome and other neuro-processing disorders. Activities that help to get the hemispheres and different brain modules working in tandem can help mitigate the brain fog, which so many of us suffer from. I believe that it also modulates mental energy—what one might describe as the flow of mental “chi.” When a friend whose child was suffering from migraines looked into Chinese medicine, she was told to have her child sit with her feet in a pan of water that was as hot as she could comfortably manage, as a way of drawing energy from the head to the feet. The theory here is that a migraine amounts to too much energy in the head, which is plausible, when you consider that a migraine has been described as “a firestorm in the brain.”

I believe that in Jansen’s study of “The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire,” some of the people described were suffering from mental breakdowns due to what some of their traditional African medical practitioners diagnosed as “too much thinking,” a state of overload ascribed to city living. I wonder if Africans who are used to an enormous amount of walking have problems re-modulating when they have to adjust to a different way of life. We ought to consider how too much energy in the head is part of the modern condition, and build time for walking back into our routines, to walk off some of that energy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Walking Therapy

I have mentioned how I notice birds’ nests when I am out walking in winter, and how that stimulates a flow of associations related to “the dream of the nest.” If, when you walk at different times of the year, you are looking around for different things such as birds or nests, or trying to identify specific things like trees, herbs, or flowers, the darting eye movement combined with the motion of walking has a potentially therapeutic effect.

It was an ordinary walk that gave rise to EMDR therapy: “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” Francine Shapiro, the originator of this therapy, took a long walk one day while working over some disturbing thoughts and personal problems. By the end of her walk, she felt a great sense of resolution—no longer troubled—and ascribed this to the eye motion that one is naturally engaged in while walking. (We can appreciate the benefit of eye movement when we consider how “rapid eye movement,” the REM phase of dreaming, is important for peoples’ ability to process the day’s events, as well as other issues they might have, and how people suffer when they are deprived of that REM phase.) Impressed with the therapeutic implications, Shapiro developed EMDR to help people process traumatic memories and other sorts of conflicts. In its early stages, the therapy involved having the patients follow the therapist’s finger movements with their eyes, to achieve bilateral stimulation of the brain. This has evolved into a more high tech system, where your eyes track a moving light, and audial and tactile stimulation are also utilized. Of course, there is a lot more to it than what I am describing here, and care is also taken to create a psychologically safe space for patients, so they can alternate between processing traumatic material and returning to the safety of a comfortable setting in the present moment.

Persons with major psychological problems should naturally seek professional therapy, whether it be EMDR or some other. However, for ordinary people with the ordinary load of daily problems to deal with, why not go take a long walk, like Francine Shapiro was doing when she made her initial discovery? To bring in more eye movement, you can make a point of looking for specific things, as mentioned earlier. (Getting a field guide to birds, butterflies, trees, or whatever will be helpful here.) Walking lightens one’s worries for a great number of reasons, so it can’t help but benefit you. At the very least, you will get a nice walk out of it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Nesting Places

Continuing on the idyll of the nest, I’ve been reading Winifred Gallagher’s “House Thinking” (“a room-by-room look at how we live”). She mentions that Frank Lloyd Wright arranged domestic spaces to accommodate areas for what he described as “nesting” (refuge) and “perching” (prospect), i.e. cozy areas such as an inglenook, and then large open areas where one has a broad view of interior and exterior spaces. Modern home designs based on open floor plans with a “great room” tend to lack secluded areas for “nesting.” (Women tend to prefer the nesting areas, while men prefer the prospects.)

Some birds’ nests, on the other hand, seem to combine functions of nesting and prospect: birds feel safe when they hunker down in their nests, but when perched high on ledges or certain types of trees, the view from the nest may provide a commanding prospect of a wide area.