Cabinets of Curiosity

Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonders)

Modern day museums evolved from the Cabinets of Curiosity that originated as far back as the 1500’s and reached their peak of popularity in the Victorian Era. They were collections of extraordinary objects that categorized and told stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.

I have always been a collector. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “ I have picked flowers where I found them—have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood …When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too…I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”

Working in the Morton J. Elrod Collection at the University of Montana I had the rare opportunity to work with specimens that dated back to Elrod’s original collections.  At the same time I was reading George Dennison’s biography of Elrod and his scientific curiosity and sense of wonder in nature became a part of my own vision.  I hope the three curiosity cabinets I created from my experiences as Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center inspire that same sense of wonder in you.

 

Articulating a Story

Leslie Marmon Silko’s story Skeleton Fixer has been the guiding myth through my career as a writer, photographer and book artist. Gathering ideas, experiences and insights I strive to fit them all together to tell a story, a story that may intrigue, inspire and resonate with my “readers.”

 

Haunted by Owls

Last January I came across an owl that had just been hit by a car. I brought it to the museum at the University and was thrilled when Libby Beckman, the curator allowed me to be present as she prepared it as a speciman. Before she began she carefully checked it for molting, then separated the feathers on its abdomen to find the patch of bare skin where birds use their body heat to incubate their eggs. Opening up the owl’s stomach we discovered the half digested remains of a dove, whose own stomach contained the seeds it had just eaten. Removing the eye, I was amazed to see the long bony tube that encased it which protects the long rods they use to see in the dark.

Swan Song

The articulation of bones to create a skeleton has always held a fascination for me, so I was very excited when I had the opportunity to watch Larry DePute work on the trumpeter swan. The first time I met Larry he was making a magic wand from a bone for a baby shower, and I knew I had found a soul mate. Seeing the hollow structure of the bones that allows these birds such grace in flight and looking into the elliptical curve of it’s windpipe that gives it it’s distinctive call was a revelation.

All are on view at the Montana Natural History Center, along with my Bone Spirit series through the end of March.

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

 

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.

Bitterroot

 

bitterootIt is the Bitterroot blooming time in Missoula. Their appearance signals the end of the harvesting season for these roots that were one of the main staples in the Native American diet in the region. The fleshy green shoots of rosettes began appearing on the rocky hillsides around town soon after the snow began to melt, beating out even the earliest flowers. The Native Americans traditionally dug the root in May, before the rosette withers away and the flower blooms, because afterwards the woody brown skin on the root is difficult to remove. Among the Flathead and Kutenai Indians of western Montana, a special ceremony honored the Bitterroot and opened the root and berry picking season. Early settlers reported great gatherings of Flathead, Kalispell, Pend d’Oreille, Spokane and Nez Perce tribes camped in the Missoula valley to collect the roots.

Lewis and Clark encountered the plant in the Big Hole Valley in 1805. Captain Lewis tried the boiled roots, finding them quite soft, but complained that they had a bitter, nauseating taste. The first time I tried the Bitterroot I too found them bitter, but I rather liked their astringent taste. Bitters have long been used as a way to stimulate the digestive juices and given the Native American’s meat heavy diet, I imagine that the roots were very beneficial.

Jeff Hart, in his priceless book Montana—Native Plants and Early Peoples recounts one of the origin stories of the plant: “Long ago, as the story goes, in what we now call the Bitterroot Valley, Flathead Indians were experiencing a famine. One old woman had to meat or fish to feed her sons. All they had to eat were shoots of balsamroot, and even these were old and woody. Believing that her sons were slowly starving to death, she went down to the river early one morning to weep alone and sing a death song. The sun, rising above the eastern mountains, heard the woman singing. Taking pity on the old woman, the sun sent a guardian spirit in the form of a red bird to comfort her with food and beauty. The bird flew to the old, gray-haired woman and spoke softly. ‘A new plant will be formed,’ said the bird, ‘from you sorrowful tears which have fallen into the soil. Its flower will have the rose of my wing feathers and the white of your hair. It will have leaves close to the ground. Your people will eat the roots of this plant. Though it will be bitter from your sorrow, it will be good for them. When they see these flowers they will say, here is the silver of mother’s hair upon the ground and rose from the wings of the spirit bird. Our mother’s tears of bitterness have given us food…’”

Even as a twenty first century white woman, when I see the blossoms of the Bitterroot, I feel a deep emotional connection to this mother’s story.  But more than that, I am struck by the world view this story illuminates.  The idea that the natural world is responsive to us in such an nurturing way is so different from our western view of nature being at best indifferent to us, or, at worst, if it does respond it is always in a violent, revengeful way (you shouldn’t fool with mother nature!)  What if nature really is both responsive and benevolent and interconnected to us in such an intimate way?  It certainly is worth further exploration and reflection.

Silent No More

bird skeletonbird skeleton“We stand now where two roads diverge.  But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair.  The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
The choice, after all, is ours to make.  If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accpt the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.”  Rachel Carson, Silent Spring           

I have just finished re-reading Silent Spring, a book I have not picked up since I read it in college nearly 40 years ago.  At that time it was very controversial and I remember the way she was vilified for even suggesting that the brave new world—“better living through chemistry”—was not turning out to be the Eden the chemical and oil companies touted.  Re-reading it now I am horrified by how little has changed.  True, the book and Carson’s subsequent testimony before congress did have some positive impacts.  DDT was eventually banned in this country, though we still sell it overseas.  And she was one of the instigators of the broader environmental movement that was spawned at that time.  I have always looked to Carson as an inspiration, a shining example of what powerful writing can accomplish.  And yet…

And yet, fifty years later “only 200 of the more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in the US have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.  And exactly none of them are regulated on the basis of their potential to affect infant or child development.” Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah.  Coincidentally, just as I was finishing Silent Spring, Bill Moyers had Sandra Steingraber on and her book is the natural sequel to Carson’s.  Steingraber says, “(In Silent Spring Carson) posited that ‘future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.’  Since then, the scientific evidence for its disintegration has become irrefutable, and members of the future generations to which Carson was referring are now occupying our homes.  They are our kids.”

Steingraber speaks of the moral crisis of our day being two-fold—the pollution of our bodies by toxic chemicals and the alteration of our climate through the accumulation of heat-trapping gasses.  Both of these crises are attributable to our economic dependence on fossil fuels.

After outlining the scientific evidence for her arguments, Steingraber presents a compelling case that it is the moral responsibility of all of us to not give in to “well-informed-futility-syndrome”, whereby knowledge about the enormity of a problem becomes incapacitating.  Instead we must scale up our actions to match the size of the problem.

I would love to sit back and focus all my time and attention to being a naturalist, to bearing witness to the incredible complexities of nature that abound in my backwoods and beyond.  I still believe, as I wrote last year in “New Language, New Way of Thinking” that observing and writing about nature in an effort to restore its sacredness as Jack Turner in The Abstract Wild,  “If we find we live in a moral vacuum, and if we believe this is due in part to economic language, then we are obligated to create alternatives to economic language…Emerson started the tradition by dumping his Unitarian vocabulary and writing “Nature” in language that restored nature’s sacredness.  Thoreau altered that vocabulary further and captured our imagination.  The process continues with the labor of poets, deep ecologists, and naturalists,” is a worthy enterprise, I am beginning to feel that it really isn’t enough.  Neither is changing out my light bulbs, driving less, or even growing and canning my own food.

I can’t just throw up my hands in despair, even if any action I take will be insignificant in the face of the power of the economic interests of the corporations.  I have to be able to look my children in the eye and not feel shame for my cynicism and cowardice.  And so, when I was asked to sign a petition stating that I was willing to be arrested to protest the Keystone Pipeline, I did.  You have to make a stand somewhere.  And stopping the pipeline and fighting the expansion of fracking in my own state is a place to start.  Faced with peak oil, the answer is not to find new and dirtier oil.  It is to begin to build an alternative to our fossil fuel economy.

I will still be exploring the backwoods and beyond.  But I will also be looking for ways I can keep myself from despair over the state of the world.  Reading both Silent Spring and Raising Elijah is good place to start.  I don’t want to leave my children a world with a silent spring, and so I can’t be silent any longer.

Having My Cake and Eating it Too

      Today, while my husband prepares for his annual hunting trip, I am up at the homestead gathering.  As convenient as my garden is, right out my front door with its neat rows of produce ready for the picking, its domesticated flavors can’t compare to the wild tanginess of a berry foraged from the forest.  Half the experience of eating a huckleberry or spreading thimbleberry jelly over your toast is the memory of finding it–the day spent in the mountains taking careful notice of things, discovering not only the berries you were seeking, but stumbling upon the carefully built midden an industrious chipmunk has gathered against the winter snow.

I read recently that women are better suited to gathering than men.  It seems that we see colors more vividly than the guys and I wonder then, what the world looks like through their eyes, slightly less saturated, a bit duller perhaps.

Anyway, on this fine summer day I am gathering rosehips to dry in the sun–a winter’s bounty of vitamin C rich tea.  And of course, a few kept by to make a rose hip cake.  When the boys were little and we spent our summers rangering in Glacier Park, their favorite stories were the Broughton Bear books, by Susan Atkinson-Keen.  The main character was a little boy who lived in a cabin in the wild, just like my sons.  And the boy in the stories lived with a grandfatherly bear who took him out in the woods to share some natural history and gathering adventure which always ended in the preparation of food, recipe included.  Thus began our tradition of gathering the fat red rosehips to make a summer rich treat in the middle of winter.

ROSE HIP CAKE

2 cups dried rose hips
1 cup water
blob of butter
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Cover and simmer rose hips in water for 20 minutes.  Strain to remove seeds, hairs, and pulp.  Set aside 1/2 cup of this juice with a blob of butter.

Beat eggs in large bowl.  Beat in sugar.  Add flour, baking poweder, and hip juice.  Mix well.  Pour into greased 8″x8″ pan and bake 25 minutes at 350 degrees.  Remove from oven.

Topping

3 tbls. butter
3 tbls. brown sugar
2 tbls. cream
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Mix topping in small pot and heat until butter melts.  Pour over cake, then brown slightly under the broiler.

Enjoy!

Cloud Spotting

22 degree halo

 

While we wait for the flowers to come up, we can turn our eyes to the sky and indulge in another game of identification, Cloudspotting.  This example is a 22 degree halo seen in the Cirrostratus clouds.  This type of cloud is composed of a delicate layer of ice crystals and the halo is made by sunlight refracted by the crystals.  Cloudspotting can turn the most mundane trips around town into a real naturalist’s adventure and there are several books that can heighten the experience.

First is The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Prector-Prinney. He gives detailed descriptions of the different kinds of clouds and their subspecies, like the wispy Cirrus clouds or “mare’s tails” outside my window just now. It also includes interesting tidbits like the history of the meteorologists in Bergen Norway who first worked out the complex science of the development of rain clouds, and the Chinese scientist Zhonghas Shou who is using the appearance of certain cloud types as a short term earthquake predictor.

If you want to share this experience with kids, Tomie De Paola’s The Cloud Book is a great introduction. He describes the basic cloud types, mixing elementary scientific information with the mythology of clouds and the popular sayings that have been used for centuries to predict weather. “When the fog goes up the mountain hoppin’, then the rain comes down the mountain drippin’.”

To take your cloud spotting to the next level The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, also by Pretor-Pinney, gives you a field guide and a “birding list” in one. Each type of cloud you find and record is worth points. Living in Missoula it is easy to get 15 points for the Stratus that lay low in the valley on inversion days, and you can pick up another 5 points for getting above the clouds and seeing their undulating upper surface.

Very young children can join in the fun as well with Eric Carle’s Little Cloud, a great book for encouraging the age old game of spotting different shapes in the clouds.

Finally, check out www.clouds365.com where you can share your finds with this online cloud appreciation community.

This book review will appear in the Montana Naturalist Magazine, spring issue, put out by the Montana Natural History Center

The Burgess Books

 

(This blog post originally appeared in the Connecting Children to Nature Through American Literature Blog at: www.http://childnatureamericanlit.blogspot.com/
Old Mother West Wind Blew Me Away – by Peggy Christian
When I was five years old my parents and I spent the summer in a tent at a remote Colorado gold mine.  Over the course of the summer my father read me all of Thorton Burgess’s books, starting with Old Mother West Wind and then on to Buster Bear, Reddy Fox, Jimmy Skunk, etc.  These were more than good bedtime reads to my father, they had been his childhood favorites.  Born in 1911, the same year Old Mother West Wind was written, my father eagerly awaited the publication of the next in the series.  He wanted to share with me the deep connection to the natural world these books had given him.
 Going back to the books fifty years later, having read them to my boys and then stored them in the attic for future grandchildren, I was surprised to see how well they stand up.  Yes, the language is dated, but they have a lovely oral storytelling quality that I’ve missed in some modern children’s stories.  And I know the anthropomorphism is very out of date—shunned by all enlightened writers of children’s books today.  Still, I would argue that instead of making children see animals as human, it engages their imaginations, encouraging them to relate to animals in a deeper way than most non-fiction books, which make us see the natural world as something to be studied and protected, but not something we are a part of.
Being an only child, there were no other kids to play with at our camp, but I never felt lonely because Chatterer the Red Squirrel greeted me (or scolded me—I was never sure), every morning.  And Paddy the Beaver lived just down the creek in the pond he’d built.  Every time I ventured near, he would slap his tail and scare me to death.
Burgess was a naturalist and conservationist and he based his animal’s characteristics on his own close observations of their behavior.  This encouraged me to watch as well.  After hearing the story of Sammy Jay, I sat out by the campfire observing the gray jays as they chattered in the trees and snooped around camp for any loose crumbs.
I also remember how Burgess named the places in the landscape of his stories—The Great Woods, The Green Meadow, The Smiling Pool and the The Laughing Brook.  I too named the places where I played– the creek with the wild watercress, Sandwich Creek, or the willow bushes by the pond Willow Cottage after I cut away a secret little den inside the tangle of branches.  My mother helped me draw a map and the woods felt like home.
Burgess encouraged his readers to engage imaginatively in the natural world.  In fact, he said that the imagination is “the birthright of every child.”  And I hope to do the same in the stories I write for children.