Wednesday, July 2, 2014


It's the time of the pause between books I've been writing—a time when I'm reviewing the work of ants, spiders, birds, plants, and the lime green trees in the wood beyond my front porch. I can't call it the time of idleness because I have a condition that is known as "racing mind," and contemplative or centering prayer is difficult for me unless I have some sort of mantra buzzing in my brain.

I console myself that the transcendentalist Thoreau observed, read, listened to the sounds of nature, built a cabin, planted a garden, and wrote about all of this during his two years of communing with nature in the Concord woods. As far as I know, he didn't assume a lotus position and just ponder or practice nothingness.

Right now, the crows overhead are jeering at me, as they do every time I come out on the porch. I've read that they recognize faces and voices, and we keep up a lively conversation above the sound of construction work going on near my driveway. One of them waddled over to my steps the other day and cocked his yellow eye at me when I recited the first poem I learned at age four while my mother read aloud from A Child's Garden of Verse: "A birdie with a yellow bill/hopped upon my window sill..." The crow quickly exited the yard at the sound of rhyming verse since he's more accustomed to readings of my free verse, and he flew away when I continued to recite the rhyme in a sing-song voice.

Moments later, my nose picked up the scent of a skunk, a creature more equipped for nocturnal visits, and I shuddered, remembering the family that colonized the insulation underneath our cottage two years ago—and ripped it into pieces for a nesting place to raise babies. Three skunk catchers later and $1,000 poorer, we rid ourselves of the offending visitors. I hope the scent this morning doesn't indicate there's a scouting expedition nearby.

We've had rain in sporadic bursts for weeks, and the snails are out. A large one was encamped by the French doors leading into our living room, and I was rude enough to interrupt his slumber, brushing him into the yard. When I was a child, a neighbor bully was fond of sprinkling salt on snail bodies when they emerged from their shells and would watch them turn into "butter," as he called it. It was a gruesome sight, and I've never bothered to find out why this chemical reaction occurred as it was a clear violation of nature.

Tiny bright orange toadstools have appeared in the bed of fern, varicolored hosta, a sickly lemon balm plant, and a stunted rosebush by the steps, the latter two preferring more sunlight than they're getting under the shade of the white oaks. The toadstools look like the fairy footstools my mother painted in her renderings of fantastical creatures that she imagined populated the piney woods near Franklinton, Louisiana. I expected a gnome with a pointed hat to appear on the spot as she always painted a gnome standing alongside huge mushrooms, a palette in hand and a large green frog perched in the foreground, observing the magical creature at work.

Those who want to read expert observations on the natural world should get a copy of The Unseen Forest: A Year's Watch of Nature by David Haskell, or read his blog entitled "Ramble." He has received national awards for his wonderful writings about a square meter of space in the woods where he spent a year observing nature at work. 

I'm not a trained naturalist, but I do like my observation post on the front porch here at Sewanee and find that it's a great way to reclaim my writing urges on a day that could have been a time for just being a good for nothing southerner doing some serious porch sitting.

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

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