Icescapes

The last two weeks in Missoula have been unrelentingly cold with inversions trapping the valleys under a veil of dismal grey.  For many people this has been trying–particularly since we are all breathlessly waiting for snow and the beginning of ski season.  But the photographer in me has been rejoicing because the fact that the daytime temperatures never rise above the mid-20s means that the pond and riverbank have been an ever-changing landscape of ice.  The fascinating forms captured by the freezing water are artworks far surpassing what my own imagination could ever conjure up.  

In a workshop at the Photographer’s Formulary with Dan Burkholder, I learned how to use precious metal leafing techniques with prints made on translucent velum.  This creates a modern take on the famous orotones done by Edward S. Curtis in the 19th century west.  

This technique is wonderfully suited to my series of icescapes. A selection of these silver leafed prints are in the current show at the Dana Gallery in Missoula, MT.

 

The Call of the Wild

“Talk of mysteries—Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?                                                                                                                           H.D. Thoreau

The day after Thanksgiving. Sitting amidst my family last night, I had a sudden realization. I am no longer the center of anyone else’s life. My children grown, my parents gone, and Ted and I both, freed from the focus of raising kids have spun out from the center of family and are each pursuing our own questions and passions. What does this mean, to be freed from that kind of responsibility?The day after Thanksgiving. Sitting amidst my family last night, I had a sudden realization. I am no longer the center of anyone else’s life. My children grown, my parents gone, and Ted and I both, freed from the focus of raising kids have spun out from the center of family and are each pursuing our own questions and passions. What does this mean, to be freed from that kind of responsibility?

I look up from my list of have tos and must dos and watch what’s happening out the window. The antics of a squirrel as it leaps from the bouncing wand of the thinnest branch tips to the birdfeeder. Then a doe, unexpected in my garden, chewing the remains of the cabbage. A glance out the kitchen window reveals the two rabbits that have taken up residence in our mower shed, grazing on the still green grass. One is a deer brown, streaked and splotched with black, giving it a certain derelict air. The other a russet beauty with black tipped ears. With the relentless chores pulling at me to get something accomplished, I almost turn my back on these calls from the wild—but no—not this time.

I don boots and jacket and head to the backwoods. Rather than take my usual circuit, starting with the pond, I wind around the other way, following the rusty, tawny path of leaf litter. A red-tail circles overhead, checking me out. I watch his loops and dives and something flutters to my feet—a long thin feather striped cream and umber.

I make my way into the cushiony moss meadow, which I sometimes refer to as the dying place, since there have been several deer carcasses, and mounds of dove feathers from the hawk’s successful hunts. And yes, gleaming white against the incongruously spring green moss is the jawbone of faun.

Looking toward the river my eye is caught by the sun gold light shimmering on the hills through the cottonwood trunks, pressed between the steely blue of the far mountains and the river. With my eyes fixed on those two colors that speak November, I don’t notice the tips of the antlers sticking above the dry grass not 20’ in front of me. Not until the buck jerks awake, clearly as startled by my presence as I am by his. He rises, stands for just a moment before gracefully leaping the fence. He looks back at me as if to say, “Don’t you wish you could do that?” and then saunters away, secure in the knowledge I can’t.

The hawk circles overhead again. By the time I push my way through the willows to the water, the buck is nowhere to be seen. A heron startles off the bank across the water, it’s pterodactyl form outlined against the pinkening clouds

I find a perfect oval wishing rock, bigger than my palm, with a wide white band of quartz encircling it. As I am contemplating what to wish for, a splash erupts from the river right in front of me. Confused, I glance up to see the ring of water spreading from the center toward the spit where I stand. I look back down at my hand, which still holds the wishing rock. I scan the riverbank looking for someone else, but I am alone.

And then, downstream a small dark brown nose pops out of the water, then a little round head, a V of wake streaming behind. It must hear my delighted gasp, because its body humps up out current and its tail whacks the water , making another resounding splash as it dives below the surface. Walking downriver I watch as it rises and slaps, each time getting more distant until I can no longer see or hear it.

I could however hear the cacophonous sound of a huge flock of geese, doing their calligraphic flight formations, long stings of them flying back and forth, as if stitching the clouds together into a story.

This. This is what I want. This time to “daily be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!” Time to answer the call of the wild, and to stitch my experiences together with writing and photography.

I grasp the wishing rock in my hand, but instead of a wish, I whisper a commitment to myself. To take the freedom I now have from being the center of other people’s lives, and to become the center of my own life. To make my art, not something I do only in stolen moments, but the real focus of everything.

I throw the wishing rock far out to the center of the current and watch as it creates silvery rings which spread in all directions.

Plein Air Writing

Last month the Dana Gallery in Missoula held their annual Paintout.  Several local writers were invited to accompany the artists into the field and write in response to the scene.  I was fortunate to join Robert Moore in the Lavelle Creek valley.  The paintings and writings are on display at the gallery through August.

 

 

 

 

Word Painting 

Begin with an underpainting. Great gravelly shores of a lake tens of thousands of years gone. Dusky grey with thin soils that lie heaped to the horizon line. Begin to sketch in the grasses whose network of roots hold that soil from gathering up into the winds that rake this slope.

Pull the individual stems from the plain brown hillside. Mix words on your palette to give definition to those grasses. Timothy and fescue, tawney and ecru, tufted hairgrass and sedge, raffia and buff. Struggle to give the right shape to your words so feathery seed heads come alive and dance on the page as they are shimmying now in the breeze. Look closer and see the greens that are woven into the tapestry. Sagey lupine heavy with furred pods and dusty verdigris balsam root drying in the searing sun. Try to capture the rustle of leaves and stems as some unseen creature darts among the safe cover of grasses, while overhead a feathered form sails across the clear blue sky.

Upslope, the burnt umber shadow of the single pine pools from its base and crawls uphill. How to render the ponderosa? Not spired like spruce or leggy like lodgepole. Words must spread in great boles and boughs, tufted with long needles. Pull the vanilla scent from the puzzled bark onto the page. Try to find the right values for your words. Suddenly the rock nestled at the foot of the ponderosa resolves itself into the hunched form of a wild turkey, escaping the midday sun.

Let the image of the turkey pull you into your own cool shade. Hunker yourself into the shadow of the serviceberry bush that softens the roadcut where you sit, dabbing letter into word into image.

You read the scene you have painted on the page. You like the way the colors mix and blend, the shading that has given it depth, and pulled you into the picture.

A branch dangles just above your eyes, heavy with small hard berries. Know they will ripen with time into something that will nourish you, the way all this foliage is transforming sunlight into life.

Refuge in Yellowstone

“It is important to attend to the outer world and your responsibilities in it, but sometimes it is just as important to attend to the inner, spiritual world.”  words from a tarot card

These last couple of months have thrown me into the outer world–the daily news, the obsessive tweets by our new leader, everyone talking of their outrage, incredulity, calls to action.  And we must respond and resist.  We cannot let things go unprotested.  

But in the midst of all this, Ted and I found refuge in a place where there were no TVs, no radios, no newspapers, no cell phone or internet.  We silenced the cacophony for 5 days, attending instead to the earth whose heart beat just a few miles below our feet, whose life blood boiled to the surface in hot pools which melted the heavy snow and ice clogging open water and offered forage to hungry bison and elk and refuge to trumpeter swans and geese.  For five glorious days the only thing spouting off were the geysers.  We could take a breath, take in the wonder of the snowy woods where the imagination stirring snow ghosts lurked.  An angel hovering in the pines, or a snow snail crawling upstream against the current of the pewter river reminding me that it is always slow going against the current, but like a snail, we must just keep plugging along.  The forces of nature–snow falling in gale force winds–drifts blocking the trails–steam billowing in the frosted air obscuring the sights, but giving the woods an etherial other-worldly quality were all there to remind us that beyond the walls of civilization were forces far more powerful and fierce than our own greed and self-centeredness.  

Of course, we had to return home to the turmoil of the latest news, but our experience was a strong reminder to take time every day to stop obsessing over the latest outrage, the latest tweet and go to the woods –pay attention to the real tweets and songs of the birds.  To reflect rather than react.  And most importantly, to not get distracted from what we really care about.  Focusing on the reality show going on in Washington means we might take our eye off of the crucial issues here at home.  And so I have limited myself to giving my attention to what’s happening in the state legislature and making sure that our representatives don’t forget that they represent all of us.  And with Montana’s representative Ryan Zinke up for Interior Secretary, it is incredibly important that we let him know how crucial these wild refuges are for all our souls.

Hope in the Dark

“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’ but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other, and since it is not all good it must all suck royally.  Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.'” from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Synchronicity is a great thing.  I just happened to be reading another book by Rebecca Solnit and saw Hope in the Dark mentioned, so I found a copy and discovered it was just the elixir I needed to give me hope and a sense of purpose in these worrisome times.

Last fall I had the chance to escape the pre-election madness and drive a friend down to Jackson Hole.  A visit to the beauty of the Tetons was just the distraction I needed.  But when we arrived we found the Tetons had disappeared under a heavy veil of angry storm clouds.  And to make matters worse, our arrival coincided with a visit by Donald Trump Jr.  It seemed there was no escape from my despair.

Driving through the park, we stopped at a number of viewpoints where disappointed tourists turned their backs on the shrouded mountains, thumbing their cell phones, or taking selfies in front of the signs that named the hidden peaks.  Undeterred, we went for hike in the frigid rain, getting soaked in the process, but rather than damping our mood, the walk through an aspen grove shimmering with saturated gold raised our spirits. 

That night we were scheduled for a fundraising dinner at a local restaurant.  I pictured a stuffy cocktail party atmosphere with the retired rich and well connected crowd I have come to expect at fundraisers.  But to my delight, instead I found myself in a room of engaged and enthusiastic young people dedicated to developing a sustainable food system in Jackson.  These members of Tetons Slow Food movement were farmers, ranchers, chefs and locals who were all committed to reducing the impacts of global industrial food. They were not just railing against the devastation wrought by corporate food, not just donating money so others could do something about it, but were all actively engaged in making the world a better place.  I sat across from a fourth generation rancher who was turning the family business away from a traditional cattle operation and toward raising sustainable, grass fed beef, using the most modern methods of land stewardship in the process.  

These young activists did not expect to put Con-Agra or Monsanto out of business, but they understood what Solnit talks about in Hope In The Dark: “The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself…The counter to Monsanto Corporations’ genetic engineering and agricultural patents isn’t just anti-GMO and anti- patenting activism and legislation, it’s local farmers, farmers’ markets, seed diversity, organic crops, integrated pest management, and other practices that work best on the small scale.  A farmers’ market selling the produce of local farmers isn’t an adequate solution but ten thousand of them begin to be.” 

While the food was superb, the real nourishment of that evening was hope.  As Solnit says, “Hope and action feed each other.”  The next day I headed north towards home, and still the Tetons were shrouded in storm.  I stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge and stood on the deck overlooking the valley.  Standing in the freezing drizzle, which alternated with gropple, I took photos of the amazing palette of reds, russets and yellows that filled the valley floor, the colors made more intense by the rain.  I was alone in the cold wind, except for a herd of cow elk grazing their way along the river bottom.  My SD card was full, but I stood and watched as a rustle of willows behind the cows made their heads pop up and the branches in the willows resolved into the six point rack of giant bull.  On the other side of the cows a smaller bull approached and the big bull let out a threatening bugle.  Head down, the smaller bull tried to cut out a couple cows, but the big elk charged and there ensued a short, antler clattering battle that ended with the smaller elk turning tail and running off downriver.  The brash interloper had tried to steal the herd, but was sent packing in the end.

The drama over, I went into the lodge where everyone sat with their backs to the windows, sipping lattes and checking their e-mails.  I went into the gift shop for a new SD card and the clerk offered me one that already had 20 professional photos of the Tetons on it.  “It’s perfect for a dismal day like today when there’s nothing to take pictures of and nothing happening out there,” she said.  I turned down the prepackaged card and smiled at her. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of where you look,” I said.  As I left the park, the clouds began to lift and the Tetons peeked through.

My experience with the Teton Slow Food group has given me more than hope.  They have spurred me to take my own actions locally.  I have rededicated myself to growing and preserving as much of our food as possible, supporting the farmer’s market and sourcing as much as I can from local growers and ranchers.  But that is not enough.  I also feel like I need to do everything I can to resist the political agenda of the new administration, not by being angry, or wringing my hands over every outrageous tweet, but by supporting groups like Garden City HarvestThe Missoula Freedom Garden, and Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula.  And I’m going to become more active politically, as hard as that is for someone as introverted as me.  On inauguration night I will be attending  “An Evening Inspiring Hope and Action” with other local people hoping to turn our anger into action.  

“‘Resistance is the secret of joy,’ …quoting Alice Walker.  Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.  You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them…struggle generates hope as it goes along.  Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait.” from Hope in the Dark.

 

 

Reflections on the Election

reflections-1The morning after the election was a heartbreaking, confusing time for me.  It was not just that my candidate had lost–that had happened before–or that the president elect would not agree with me on the issues that I consider most important.  It was not even the possibility that this man might lead the country into another catastrophic war.  That too had happened before.  No–what devastated me was the fact that I could not understand how the electorate could vote for someone who so clearly had no moral or ethical center.  Did that mean that half the country also lacks a moral and ethical center?

Needing some way to wrap my mind around this post-truth, post-values world, I turned to one of my favorite poems–one that has given me solace in the past during troubled times. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry”

I headed out to the pond in the backwoods.  Seating myself under the great cottonwood, I stared up into its now bare branches.  The red-tail hawk, who had raised a chick in the massive nest over my head was circling high in the sky , scanning the world below.  His shrieking kee-ree sounded like the cry my heart was making.  Because this time, I didn’t feel the peace of wild things.  I felt fear.  Fear for the wild things of which I am an integral part.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, after an unseasonably warm October, after the warmest year on record–again.  The mountains were still bare of snow.  The aspen trees, just weeks after loosing their autumn leaves were beginning to bud out, the furry white tips of the catkins emerging from their brown winter casings.  What would happen when the frost finally did come?  The pond was shrunk down, leaving a bathtub ring of decaying leaves on its shore.  Through the silvery trunks of the cottonwoods I could see the reddened pine needles of another beetle-killed ponderosa,  Our warmer winters are a boon for the pine bark beetles who are decimating our western forests and have created a fifth season–fire season, when massive forest fires eat millions of acres every year.

I thought about our next president for whom reality is a TV show, thought about him sitting in his gilded Trump tower and wondered if he was so cut off from the natural world that he couldn’t see what was happening–that he could really believe that Climate Change was a Chinese hoax, not the gravest threat to our future and the most pressing and dangerous issue.  This was not a problem you could wall out.

I thought about the people who voted for him.  I knew several people who were “unfriending” anyone who had supported Trump.  But I realized that reacting from fear, anger and hate was exactly what his supporters had done.  They saw the problems in the world–terrorism and an economy that was all about the bottom line and not about the workers, where everyone was nothing more than a consumer and their way of life was threatened by so many global issues too complex to understand–they saw those problems as overwhelming and unsolvable.  And it made the them afraid. Trump told them that he could solve those problems.  And they wanted so badly for someone to step up and do just that that they gave him their votes–and their futures.

What I realized was that they weren’t that much different from me.  I too saw the problems in the world–most particularly Climate Change as overwhelming and unsolvable and I felt defenseless in the face of global powers who were refusing to confront the reality of the situation.  I have let myself get distracted by other things, I have stopped paying the deep attention that is necessary for any relationship, and that includes my relationship with the natural world. And so I have sat back and waited for someone else to fix it.  I need to react, not out of fear, but out of my own moral center.

From Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril: page 469

“The times call for integrity, which is the consistency of belief and action.  The times call for the courage to refute our own bad arguments and call ourselves on our own bad faith.  We are called to live lives we believe in–even if a life of integrity is very different, let us suppose radically different from how we live now.  Knowledge imposes responsibility.  Knowledge of a coming threat requires action to avert it.  There is no way around it, if our lives are to be worthy of our view of ourselves as moral beings.  How to begin?  Maybe with four lists.  List 1: These are the things I value most in my life…List 2: These are the things I do that are supportive of those values.  List 3: These are the things I do that are destructive of those values.  List 4: These are the things I am going to do differently.  From now on. No matter what.”

List 1: A healthy, life affirming relationship with the natural world.  

List 2: I can begin by paying attention.  By speaking out in defense of what I love. Recommitting to this blog is part of that.  Supporting those who are working to change the way we relate to the natural world is another.

List 3: Waiting for someone else to solve the problems while I remain quiet and afraid is destructive to my values and ultimately to my spirit.

List 4: This is a start.  I will recommit to the things I already do, like trying my best to eat locally, to be conscious of how my decisions affect the rest of my community and the world, to an ethical relationship to money and how my spending and my investments support or hurt the natural world.  But this is only a start.  One person may not make a difference in the bigger picture, but “each of us, right now, at this exact moment in time, has the power to choose to live the moral life, to live a life that is indeed worth living.” Michael P. Nelson

 

Mother Tree

mother treeWhen I was a child, growing up in Colorado, I went on a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Denver.  While most of the other kids were drawn to the dinosaur skeletons, I wondered off, completely entranced by what the others considered a ho-hum diorama.  Behind the glass was a window into what lay beneath the surface of the earth.  There were the rodent tunnels and the centipedes and earth worms but what really caught my attention were the complex network of roots reaching down and branching out all over from  plants and trees.  My father was a geologist and made colorful geologic maps, so I was familiar with the idea that there were layers of different kinds of rocks hidden beneath the soil.  But until then I didn’t realize how much life was going on out of sight beneath my feet.

Fast forward 50 years and we now know a great deal more about what is happening just under the surface of the ground we tread.  Plant biologists have found that not only do roots sense gravity, and will inevitably grow down into the earth, even if the seed is oriented upside down, they also can sense, and respond to chemical signals from other plants, whether of their own species or another.  In fact, in recent years botanists have discovered that plants can signal each other, exchanging nutrients and information through their roots. Suzanne Simard and her colleagues from of the University of British Columbia have mapped out complex networks of roots, connected by mycorrhizal fungi which transmit chemical signals.  They even showed how older, or mother trees used the network to nourish their young and that they can recognize those trees who are their descendants.

Looking at this mother tree surrounded by her offspring, I could almost feel the vibrations in the earth, and as I imagined the web of connection beneath the soil, that wonder I first felt at the Natural History Museum was rekindled.

Mosquito Hawks

dragonflyThe Montana Natural History Center offers an array of Master Naturalist classes.  Once you have completed the intial Master Naturalist series, you can continue your education through a yearly offering  of specialized topics.  Last week I went on a day long field trip to study dragonflies and damselflies.  Of course, every time I’m around water in the summer I can’t help but notice these large insects whizzing by and flitting from plant to plant, but I never realized the diversity of what I was seeing.  Two or three different colors, the difference in size between a dragonfly and a damsel fly, maybe.  But I was astonished to learn that in Montana alone there are 91 different species, 57 dragonflies and 34 damselflies.

Our guides for the trip,  Bob Martinka and Nate Kohler are men obsessed with the order, Odonata, which means ones with teeth.   This is because these insects are carnivorous, consuming the insects they catch in mid-light by chewing them to mush in their   It is one thing to learn the facts about dragonflies, that their eyes have plus or minus 7,000 lenses, or that they have been around for more than 250 million years, predating the dinosaurs,  or that their wings, because they are attached to their bodies by separate muscles, can move independently, which means that they can fly backwards as well as forward, upside down, dive, hover, pivot in a circle and fly up to 30 miles per hour.

But information like that is available to anyone with the click of a mouse.  What I took away from the field experience was the infectious enthusiasm for Odonatas that our guides demonstrated.  They shared how the desire to find and identify different species can send the naturalist out into far-flung wildernesses and hidden potholes and tarns.  No book or web page can give you the experience of being in the field with someone who opens up a world of wonder.  Reading cannot give you the sense of slogging through a bog, the feel of walking on sponges suspended in water with the possibility of breaking through at any moment.  A list of facts cannot substitute for what it’s like to search the insect filled air for a dragonfly or damselfly and the skill to get just the right swipe, with a twist of the wrist to secure them in you net.

I would never have thought it possible to hold a dragonfly in my hand until Bob showed me how to gently grasp their wings between my thumb and forefinger and peer into their multi-faceted eyes.  They taught me how to look for all the identifying markings that will tell you what species you are holding.

And then, having caught their infectious curiosity and enthusiasm, I am off on my own, discovering the place in the tall grasses where the tiny sedge sprites are perching,  or seeing,  as I track  them with my net, how the Dancers bounce around, a little spastically, in flight and flick their wings when they perch, giving me that aha moment as I connect their name to their flight pattern.  As I spent the day immersed in the Odonata world, I I began to catch a glimpse into the world Leslie Marmon Silko conveys  in Ceremony:

“Dragonflies came and hovered over the pool.  They were all colors of blue–powdery sky blue, dark night blue, shimmering with almost black iridescent light, and mountain blue.  There were stories babout the dragonflies too.  He turned.  Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them.  It was world alive, always changing and moving, and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky.”

 

 

Landscape of the Soul

crabWalking along the beach one morning I found this poor fellow stranded on the sand, far from the tideline ,still on it’s way out.  I feel a bit like him, 500 miles from the familiar mountains of home.

For days now I have wandered Port Townsend’s long empty beach, fascinated by the salt rimed grasses with their lance sharp leaves cutting through the sand, the calligraphy of seal prints that tell the story of late night forages for food, and the twisted, sea bleached driftwood that has traveled, maybe as far as I have, from where it grew.

Everything is new to me here.  I don’t know the names of the shells that lie wave broken on the beach or the lifecycles of the creatures that called them home.  Every walk is an adventure and my pockets bulge with bits of sea glass, the occasional half shell still in one piece and iridescent with pale green and blue luster, and whatever bits of floatsum and jetsum that catches my eye.  I will make a little arrangement on my desk so that I can appreciate them as I work.  It is part of the nesting process I suppose, this urge to create a home, however temporary, in the place you find yourself.

But like the crab, who waves a dispirited claw at me, I am still very conscious of the fact that this is not my home ground.  I will always feel “out of place” by the sea.  For ten years I lived in Tacoma, happy enough with my family and friends and job, but deep down inside there was a longing, a longing made more intense by the endless grey months of rain, to get back to the mountains where I grew up.  To get back to the snow.  To get back to brown hills that were not clogged with undergrowth so thick it felt threatening sometimes.

I think everyone has a landscape where they feel as if they have come home.  Sometimes it is the place where they grew up, but sometimes they must search until they find that place that sings to their soul.  My friend Natasha grew up in London, but inexplicably feels bound to the mountains of Montana.  She came, as John Denver said in a song, “home to place I’d never been before.”

My husband, on the other hand grew up by the sea, and after we moved to Montana, he must have felt the same longing I had, but instead it was for rhythm of tides and the smell of briny air and the endless expanse of water where he could roam free in his boat .  I am amazed in the generosity of his spirit that he was able to leave the seascape he loves so much, and to be satisfied with no more than regular visits back.  Perhaps when we first meet someone we should ask, not what their sign is, but what their landscape is.  What is your landscape?

 

 

Gathering Moss

moss 2There is a place in the backwoods, down near the river where the trees open into a clearing and the clearing is carpeted in moss.  I refer to it as the dying place because often when I go back there a new deer carcass has appeared, hide and bones scattered here and there.  It feels like a sacred place, but not a sad place.  In spite of the death that happens here, it is such a beautiful, gently quiet place.  It’s the perfect place to sit on the soft cushion of moss and listen to the river and watch the herons going back and forth from the rookery, sometimes with gleaming fish in their needle long beaks.

It is also an ideal place to get lost in the miniature world of the moss forest. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss has opened my eyes to the complex ecosystem under my feet and opened my mind to a new way of relating to the natural world.  Her book is a combination of science and personal reflection, born out of her life as both a scientist and as a Native American writer who experiences the world within the framework of indigenous ways of knowing.

She writes: “In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that a thing cannot be understood until it is know by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.  The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind.  In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective.  These essays intentionally give voice to both ways of knowing, letting matter and spirit walk companionably side by side.  And sometimes even dance.”

With her encouragement I have taken small samples of the moss back to the house and placed them under the microscope, which allows me to wander at will through the stems, branches and leaves of the moss.  There I have an ant’s eye perspective and I’m able to wander in this intimate forest, not in search of answers to any specific questions, but as an explorer open to whatever discoveries I might stumble upon.  This is the joy of being an amateur naturalist and not a professional scientist.  I am not trying to probe and prod data from the moss, I am simply listening to whatever it has to tell me.  I love what Kimmerer says about learning in traditional indigenous communities.

“Learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system.  Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience.  They are expected to learn from all members of the community, human and non.  To ask a direct question is often considered rude.  Knowledge cannot be taken; it must be given…Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience.”

As I peered into the world revealed under the microscope’s lens, I found a different way of learning,  “to let the mosses tell their story, rather than wring it from them.”  It is way of learning I hope to carry out into my other explorations of the backwoods and beyond.