Sunday, January 24, 2021

Vital Basics: Nature Journaling Week #18

Another back-to-back weekly journaling! I’m feeling more together and motivated to open that book. I’m still working inside but hopefully will do an outdoor session soon.

Last week, Juncos and the other creatures at the bird feeder inspired me to think about interactions and connections. One of the things all the living things outside are dealing with right now is snow. It’s a cold habitat out there, but not just cold. There’s water out there. Snow is water in its solid form. But I also have a heated birdbath, so there’s liquid water, too. Icicles have hung on my house eaves. That was natural water that moved from snow to liquid water and back to a solid. A much more substantial solid, but still composed of the same molecules.

I decided to spend some time with water. It’s a unique molecule with both positive and negative regions that allow it to do all the things it does. Ice floats because it has less mass than liquid water, for example. Salts can dissolve in water because the pieces are drawn to the charges of water molecules. Every living thing requires water in some amount and form. As I flip back through my journal, I must understand that.

The creatures here right now, especially mice and voles, can use solid water as a home. A layer of snow insulates the ground from major temperature fluctuations that occur in the air. We’re basically blind to this subnivean zone life unless we catch some tracks as they occasionally come to the surface to raid dropped birdseed.

Water is so important and so complex, many journal entries could be made. I like the water cycle and added it. It’s another reminder of how life changes constantly and how everything is connected. We depend on that change and those connections. If water only fell and didn’t rise as vapor, the skies would eventually become dry. If water didn’t flow underground, we would eventually become submerged. If we lose the ice at our poles, we may lose the thermoclines that power winds that direct our climates. If our water reserves become polluted, the mechanics might still work, but will we be able to drink it? Consuming water is necessary for all life.

Simple things are important. Writing about water reminds me of that. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Winter Guests: Nature Journaling Week #17

 I ended my last essay at the end of 2020 for a call for unity. Then the US Capitol was invaded on January 6. I also went through a mental crisis personally and am on the path to recovery. I think this week's journaling ties in with all that. We all need others. We all need community. 

It’s been over 2 weeks since I journaled last, and I spent time looking at my book this morning. Wow! It really felt good. Things I wrote stood out to me like messages from the seasons to current me and they made me smile. Good memories returned to my present mind and that filled with me good feelings. And I was reminded of things I still want to do, as well. 

Anticipation is an amazingly healing feeling. 

It’s cold and snowy out, and we can also anticipate spring in a few months. Until then, we have a different world out there inhabited by creatures adapted to winter. Dark-eyed Juncos are one such species that live here only during the cold months and I decided to focus on them today.

These birds hang out at feeders and landscaping shrubs so are easy to observe. And, they give off a happy vibe, at least to me. They hop and flit about. They scour the ground for seed and scatter into our arborvitae as the snow lightly falls.

As I’m sitting here, a Cardinal couple joins in the feeder activity. Cardinals are bigger than Juncos, but both have the chisel beaks best suited for cracking seeds. Now, a downy woodpecker is at my feeder, chiseling nuts and mealworms off the block. Its work will help the Juncos score some more food as crumbs fall to the ground.

I read that Juncos hang out with other sparrow species. I saw that as well today as a number of birds hopped on the ground and used the birdbath. Watching this morning, I saw a busy community.

There’s a dance going on out there. I’m reminded again that Life is a dance. Trillions of lives across millions of species all interact at some level- together. Life’s always changing and that should encourage us instead of frightening us.

There can be anticipation. There can be hope. If we’re open to that truth of community. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2021 Nature Resolutions: Nature Journaling #16

A DORK (Delightful Overthinker of Random Knowledge) friend asked today if any of us had read anything by Barry Holstun Lopez. We had not. Another DORK shared a link to the NPR remembrance they did of him this week, as he passed on Christmas Day after a long battle with cancer. That brief piece inspired me to complete the nature journaling I wanted to do this week.

2020 is almost gone and we typically look back and ahead to what we hope for and aspire to in the coming new year. I have much to say on those in but wanted to pull my nature-based thoughts out separately and place them down in my journal and in this blog.

Mr. Lopez wrote extensively and focused on slowing down to notice what is really there. I’ve been doing that with my journaling, but I hope 2021 finds me doing it more consistently and for longer periods of time. Truly seeing. Truly noticing. Truly documenting.

Barry Lopez was intimately aware of both personal and global despair and devastation. Can I demonstrate grace in 2021? Can I not give up? Mr. Lopez spent 30 years on his last book and was inspired by the beaver in his local waterways to keep going back to the tasks at hand. Can I try to help build some things in 2021 that will make others and myself feel safe, loved, and capable as Mr. Lopez hoped to do in his life?

I hope 2021 is a year of light for people. I think it could be a year like an acorn cracking from its shell and sending out that first tiny but vital taproot and leaves to face the elements. Nothing guaranteed. But the potential for some amazing living down the next couple of centuries.

Personally, I hope to savor many sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures in wild spaces. I want to spend some time under the stars and in a waterfall. I hope my circle challenges and grows with me. I want to read at least 5 nature-themed books from 5 different authors, including Mr. Lopez.

These are all wishes, not demands. If we can only have one thing, let it be a sense of unity. We can each inspire one another if we understand we’re together. Let’s do this.

Monday, December 14, 2020

A Bigger Life: Nature Journaling Week #15

In last week’s essay I focused on my questions about who or what is the reason for this world we inhabit. Some claim it’s all been created for humans with us at some apex of existence. I argued that we’re just a single result of a number of key pieces coming together, none of which would be possible without the sun.

I wrote:

Tiny details add up.

Tiny things allow big things to happen.

I touched upon some different species, including trees, birds, and fungi all being connected back to the sun. Then this week, two things popped up for me that reminded me of or taught me anew on the big concepts I’m struggling with here. 

The first block of information I received this week was a New York Times magazine piece by Ferris Jabr entitled The Social Life of Forests that a friend shared with me. I had read and enjoyed Peter Wohlleben’s NYT bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees and written about it in my main blog in October of 2019 in a piece called Humility From Trees. Reading that essay again is a shocking reminder of what I’ve been wrestling with for so long and how it’s supported by all these other minds. Back then, I didn’t even know Wohlleben’s work was a product of Dr. Suzanne Simard’s pioneering explorations. My loss.

Scientific exploration has revealed that trees and fungi form partnerships known as mycorrhizas. There is actual communication and positive interactions between multiple species within forests. From the NYT article:

“By analyzing the DNA in root tips and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits.”

Further research is showing other species in other habitats are doing these things as well. 

Jabr’s article does caution that we can’t call all interactions between species and individuals as perfectly commensal in nature. Dr. Toby Kiers, a professor of evolutionary biology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, says reality might be closer to “reciprocal exploitation”. A tension is maintained- together- by the collection of lifeforms, described by Jabr well thusly:

“Such reciprocity does not necessitate universal harmony, but it does undermine the dogma of individualism and temper the view of competition as the primary engine of evolution.”

That friction-filled connection between seemingly separate things is further explored in my second block of information from this week, the November 25 On Being Podcast of Augustin Fuentes: This Species Moment. Fuentes brings up the concept of “holobionts”, a term that was coined in the 1990s by Dr. Lynn Margulis, which describes how every one of us is an ecosystem of a number of species that live together for long periods of time and rely on one another to exist. Fuentes repeats the story of how a human body contains so much non-human DNA that if the human portion could be sucked out, there’d still be enough stuff left to see the human shape we know. 

Without that “other”, we cannot function as we do. Our bodies are intimately reliant upon other species to survive. For example, we’ve discovered our gut biome either helps or hinders our overall health and some are calling the gut a “second brain”. Fuentes points out another “other” we need: other people. Fuentes brings up this concept of a “social ecosystem”. I love this quote on what we’ve discovered about how important our connections to other people are for us:

“So that means that over evolutionary time, the bodies, the structures of being human have adapted to and integrated themselves into the system where the social is everything. The psychologist Michael Tomasello says this great phrase: “a fish is born expecting water; a human is born expecting culture.””

This really made me stop to think. We expect culture? We need social interactions? I can grasp the notion because I can quickly list people I depend upon and those I help. Those relationships are extremely important to me and I think of and do things for these people constantly. 


Are we living in a healthy forest...

I look at where we are today as a country here in the US and see that “social ecosystem” in damaged and fractured forms. From a distance, I can see insulated towers of people, supporting folks they consider “acceptable”, but not an overall healthy network or web that can take hits and weather storms. If we could be a huge, dynamic, and diverse forest ecosystem of 328 million organisms, right now we’re shriveled islands sitting in a horrible desert of distrust.

...or a choking tangle

I am comforted with the knowledge that ecosystems can bounce back when given the opportunity. With purpose and effort, what is still alive can flourish anew. Perhaps even in spectacularly new ways.

So, I’m looking at all this stuff and remembering my now years-long obsession with the phrase “we’re stronger together” and going, “Hmm, isn’t this interesting?” Physical connections. Social connections. Life is clearly not a simple case of “survival of the fittest”.

That belief and operating with that as a guiding principle has caused a lot of pain over the years. 

A lot more pain and suffering than believing and living with the idea that there are multitudinous connections and ways we relate to both each other and the entire planet.

That’s why I’ve journaled today on the holobiont and connection.

We really *are* stronger together. Our planet appears to be a working testament to that.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

It's All About The Sun: Nature Journaling #14

I dispute the idea that Earth revolves around human beings.

None of us- none of THIS (waving arms around wildly)- would exist without that fireball star in our sky. Our world revolves around the sun. That’s why I decided to devote a page of my nature journal to it.

I missed another week of journaling last week. In my defense, I did draw and create. I had a great time creating a holiday card for some folks in the one BTS fan group I belong to. The process helped me think about others around the world and how we’re linked. Another great example of that idea I fall back on: we’re stronger together.

My journaling page covers some facts about sunlight and why it’s THE link to everything living today. My Nature Dork group went for a great hike yesterday and we appreciated some amazing trees that have spent decades building chlorophyll, sugars, and starches. In winter’s reduced light and temperatures, most of them are basically sleeping right now. But, come June when we’ll have about 6 more hours of daylight every day, they will be churning out the products of photosynthesis with gusto.

I love the reality that in places north and south of the equator, our daylight varies over the year. We get our 4 seasons because this planet not only revolves around the sun, we tilt away and toward it. Those details have allowed for a range of habitats and inhabitants to evolve around the globe.

Tiny details add up.

Tiny things allow big things to happen.

Our walk showed us tiny fungi and insects alive and working. Without insects, we would have few fruits to eat. Insects are great food sources for things like birds and mammals. Without those fungi, trees would never break back down into soil components for new plants and trees to use. And we can’t forget the billions of microscopic lives we can’t see with our eyes. Without them and their operations, who knows what else would perish? 

Fun fact: in a teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more microbes than people on Earth. You can read more hereWe are learning more and more about these hidden worlds and it’s awe-inspiring. 

Humans are capable of a broad range of things. We can build and we can destroy. But are we the apex? To me, that would mean we would stand above and alone.

I find myself saying that's just not the case when we look at the facts. I might be wrong and will have some serious explaining and apologizing to do in the afterlife according to some. I prefer to think we’ve evolved just enough to always be learning what’s here, appreciating it, and nurturing it. We’re kids in a classroom filled with potential and wonder to both discover and share with one another and everything else that's here.

All awaiting spring

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Letting Go: Nature Journaling #13

Last time I focused on how everything changes and used the evolution of a forest to support that idea.

I missed another week of my nature journaling last week. 2020 is really forcing some evolution. Covid19 spread and election results that the current president refuses to acknowledge have been consuming me more than I like to admit. Fun things have been occupying my time, too. BTS released another album and music video for Life Goes On and I’ve been on several hikes that have filled my body, mind, and spirit.

Clinging to something. Letting go of something. A tree branch I found in my yard this week is the inspiration for this week’s nature journaling about those important concepts.

Cottonwoods are extremely messy, fast-growing trees. I was out this week giving my cat some fresh air. As he sat and used his crazy hearing to seek out voles or shrews, I picked up branches. Eventually, I looked at one more closely. It was fascinating so I took some shots. This branch did not break off from the tree randomly. The end was smooth and rounded as if it could be plugged back into where it had been. It reminded me of a giant version of what the end of a leaf looks after it falls from the tree. 

Some research today led me to an article about small branch drop in cottonwoods by Mary Small. Sure enough, cottonwoods let go of branches when the tree is stressed- when there’s a summer drought, for example. Although it’s a net loss for the tree, it’s more advantageous for the tree long-term to cut its losses. Before they do so, however, the tree prepares. I am sure the process is similar to what occurs in the annual leaf drop: as many nutrients and water are pulled back into the tree before the branch is jettisoned.

Trees and people can both prepare to let some things go.

The results here were quite beautiful in my opinion. Looking closely (a magnifying glass would be helpful here) I could see cellular patterns within the inner and outer bark. The active cambium layer appears as a dark line right in front of the sapwood. The broken circle in the center is the pith. There are so many different parts clearly evident, but all of them end smoothly in an almost perfect semi-circle.

The tree neatly and efficiently let this branch go.

I learned that this process is called “cladoptosis”. What a fun word! I decided to work it into the visuals of this week’s journaling. I enjoyed transcribing info from the article into my book- almost making the words a branch of the tree. I added more facts about cottonwoods after I drew the end of the branch.

My drawing doesn’t express the roundness as well as I’d like. But slowly creating it drew me in. Other thoughts and worries dropped away as I focused on the patterns and colors I started to see. The cracks were angled fissures. I could see why they formed because of the overall structure of both the individual cells and the overall construction of the branch. The cracks were inevitable. I was impressed by how the bark rounded off and back over upon itself a bit, like a turtleneck sweater. The outer bark still clinging loosely to the branch shows just how dried out it became before falling to the grass far below where it originally grew.

If the tree simply lost that branch, the end would be tattered and oozing precious water, sugar, and minerals. That could lead to invasion by fungi or insects. The tree’s chances to go on for years to come may have been improved by dropping the parts I was picking off the ground that day. 

I’m looking ahead to another week now. I hope I can act as well as a tree responding to its environment: growing when I can, reaching out when I can, and pulling in only when it’s absolutely necessary.

Everything does more and has more opportunities that way.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Forest Evolution: Nature Journaling #12


Nothing lasts forever.

Life is change.

The US elections are over and we are all in a state of adjustment to that. I had done this journaling back on Thursday afternoon before any decisions had been made. I went for a walk to vent some energy, enjoy the unseasonably warm weather, and relax. I ended up meandering over to an old downed tree, where I decided to sit for a bit.

Maple seeds & white oak leaves

I became aware of being surrounded by every single life stage of a tree. The grey squirrels were pushing through the fresh layer of leaves on the ground, picking out acorns, maple seeds, and hickory nuts. The trunk I was sitting on was the naked skeleton of an old oak. There were broken limbs from its fall all about me in various stages of decay. Emerging from one gnarl were 2 maple saplings no thicker than a couple of my fingers. Above my head, the healthy crowns of other adult aspen, maple, and oak trees were raised to the blue sky, their branches naked in preparation for the coming difficulties of winter.

Flying insect visitor

My rotting tree seat is returning to the soil, providing food for fungi, mosses, insects, worms and more. A beetle landed on my book as I drew and I occasionally brushed aside other flying visitors who flew close to my face. The logs and downed branches about me also provide habitat for mammals and birds through the seasons.

Another part of the forest

I noticed some living trees were leaning on others. The individuals ARE the forest. There are connections that are so intimate, there’s a blending of one to all. That’s an important concept to grasp. Recent decades of research have allowed us to realize that the forest’s pieces NEED the others. Fungal strands called hyphae actually connect individual trees and carry nutrients and information over distances. We’ve discovered that some trees emit chemicals that allow them to communicate with others downwind. There are many books now about these ideas- one that I read and enjoyed was Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.

Seed. Sapling. Juvenile adult. Adult. Senior. Death.

Repeating over and over and over.

Life is change, and sometimes the patterns will get completely disrupted. Climate change or fire could catastrophically wipe the forest away, opening the way for other patterns to develop.

Sometimes these truths can be extremely upsetting to us humans. We like control and to know what to expect. However, sitting in that forest calmed me. As I was leaving, I noticed a cicada shell on my tree seat. It had been there the whole time- I just missed it. That insect lived under that tree in the soil for years before emerging during the summer and shedding that shell before flying away as a full adult. Its life changed through metamorphosis. Its reality changed. The world was basically the same, but its relationship to it changed.

Nothing lasts forever.

Change is life.