This is a summer of lavender and tangerine sunsets. Beach trips and warm water. Ice cream for dinner, two nights in a row. New flavors. Outdoor concerts. Long lunches al fresco. Waterfront walks. Farmers’ markets. Road trips. Heat waves and autumnal days. Ferry rides. Breakfast on the patio, under the umbrella. Gardening. Cookouts amid twinkly lights. Disc golf antics. Day trips. Musings at picnics. And an August with plenty more room for summer.
My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have curtains on my windows. They’re just . . . too much. Yes, I suppose someone walking by could see me half-naked, but the chances are slim because I live across from a cemetery. I’m cool with ghosts checking me out. So when I arrive at my vacation rental and see a wall of windows, I am in heaven (ironically, where all the ghosts are). It’s like staying in the Philip Johnson Glass House. The only difference is that my house is not in the middle of the country so when it’s lights out on vacation, it’s the darkest darkness I’ve ever seen. Fireflies are welcome little flashlights.
As you might imagine, it’s also very quiet, aside from moths batting themselves against the windows and really, really big beetles that hurl themselves at the door so fiercely it sounds like someone is knocking. Which is a scary thought in the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere. Insect static aside, the quiet and stillness are welcome in a world filled with noise. And serendipity being what it is, I happen upon a fantastic podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and the first episode I hear is an interview with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist trying to preserve the few remaining quiet places in the world. The man really listens. Also, is that not the coolest job? Anyway, he doesn’t define quiet as the absence of all noise, but the absence of man-made or non-natural noise. Even in the quiet woods there are leaves rustling and water dripping and birds singing. I hear it all this week.
The daylight trickles in, dampened by thick tree cover that keeps the house cool in the midst of a heat wave. Maple roams the house sniffing everything, while I appreciate the well-appointed house and its mid-century modern charm. I pretend that I live there, enjoying the Bose system and walk-in shower, and devour weeks of New York magazine. I’m stealing a lot of their ideas–an old hospital cart that holds toiletries, taxidermied animals that are not as creepy as they sound, and this fantastic suitcase idea:
Today I took a walk because I could. Yesterday at this time I was at the finish line with some friends in the very spot that’s on the news, playing over and over again. We were cheering for our friend and her fiance as they approached the finish line. They finished side by side at 2:37. The first bomb went off at 2:50. Proud of her accomplishment, we were more grateful for her speed. Just one bathroom break or leg cramp later, we might have had a very different story to tell.
I may have been trying too hard to see something good on my walk today, but two hearts jumped out at me, lopsided as they are.
* Day dreaming about the feast to come on the day before Thanksgiving, I stumbled on an episode of Nature on PBS about a naturalist who raised turkeys from the moment they emerged from their eggs. You might have flipped past the channel had you been sitting with me, but you weren’t, so I lingered, bonded with the turkeys, and may have wept at parts. My Life as a Turkey recreates a year-long experiment between man and bird that is as beautiful as it is moving. Gorgeously shot, perfectly narrated, and scored with just the right music, the film converts you to instant wild turkey lover. Because you’re the kind of person who thinks, Uh, not in a million years, I’m sharing a link to the 50-minute program. Sweet Pea and Big Boy will win you over or you are dead inside. So, I’ll wait here while you grab a leftover turkey sandwich; come back and we’ll watch it together so I can watch you try not to cry.
* I have two old friends who send well wishes to the other through me, since in a way (after eight years), they know a lot about each other, even though they’ve never met. I go to my friend Sophia’s house for Thanksgiving; my friend Anthony volunteers for mealtime at a homeless shelter, which he’s done for years. This year, I’m at Sophia’s house, post-turkey, warming myself by the fire pit with her family. I go inside for a second where the TV is tuned to the local news doing its yearly story on the volunteers and guests of the shelter. Every year, I kid Anthony that I’ll see his mug on TV, and every year I do, always by chance. This year he’s upstaged by our senator, but not for long. When he flashes on the screen, I call to Sophia in the backyard.
“Come meet Anthony!” I yell.
“Aw,” she says. “Anthony!”
They meet at last.
* Driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, front doors everywhere are open wide, cooling kitchens—windows fogged from turkeys roasting all day. Houses are letting off steam, staving off naps, and pretending it’s early autumn and that the open windows of summer are not yet a memory.
I open the windows to let the breeze in when I hear an unusual animal sound. Mind you, I don’t live in the country where who knows what is roaming around, but there are cats, possums, skunks and groundhogs, and I am do not have intimate knowledge of their sounds. The vocalization is deeper than a wounded cat and guttural. I get a flashlight, which from the second floor, I imagine will illuminate zilch, but it shines like a circus spotlight—so bright that I think my neighbor might call the police—and lands on a skunk.
“Am I interrupting something?” I yell to the furry black and white splotch among the greenery.
I picture skunk sex (interesting) or a litter of newborns, and scan the area for wolverines, just in case. I look to my neighbor’s window and see her cat perched there, also intrigued, and we have ourselves a moment there, the cat and I, wondering what is going on in the yard. A little research turns up the fact that this is simply the sound that a skunk makes. If you’re curious, you can listen here. I try to communicate my findings to the cat in the window, but she loses interest and wanders away.
You might think this is a post about a squirrel that can surf or skateboard, but it’s not. It’s an ode to a neighborhood squirrel that lost his life on a routine scamper across the electrical wires, something he and generations before him had done uneventfully for centuries. Birds are always striking a pose on the wires, and nothing happens to them either. But Zappy, so named by a neighbor to reflect the unfortunate circumstances of his death, was unlucky. The neighborhood electrician figures Zappy put his paw very precisely on the wrong spot—not an easy thing to do.
The fried squirrel has been hanging from the wire since January in a remarkable feat of tenacity—intact and still fuzzy. Some neighbors pointed him out to me, so I darted out of the way; if there was a time when Zappy would plummet to the ground, it would be when I was standing directly below him.
I’m sorry there’s no picture. But you’d be sorry if there were.
So, a moment, if you will, to honor the death of a furry gray rodent that wanted nothing more than to go from one pole to another.
Today on the train, I am transported to the swampy fens of England and the dry, windswept moors of Yorkshire—away from the grim wetlands of Revere, the working Chelsea River, the city, and people. Spartan places a world away that geography has trouble mapping. Something in the rain, the sky silvering at the edge of the horizon, says more England than New England.
The air is heavy and British, full with the promise of fog.
A van crossing the bridge to Saugus becomes a lorry carrying cream from Devon. A white heron that alights in the marsh calls in a British accent. The tracks that run to the rail yard in Boston become tracks that extend to the outermost tip of Cornwall where they head straight off the cliff into the ocean.
It’s dusk and Maple is on the lookout for the funny-looking black and white cat that slinks under the gate and into the patio every night to nibble on pods that fall from the tree.
The treats are pink and bulbous and the squirrels go to town on them too, so they must be tasty. Animals coming from miles around for this delicacy, apparently.
Still, I don’t want my furball sprayed by Pepe, so I ease over to the door to scoop her up only to find a second skunk waddling by to check out the flower pots. An infestation.
At dinner, PBS is generous enough to air a show on the crafty world of skunks, illustrating close up how they secrete that spray. Not exactly dinner fare. And while the narrator insists that skunks retreat first and spray only when surprised or threatened, I can’t help but think a human and cat inches away through a screen door might signal danger and an upturned tail.
Every Columbus Day, my friends and I drive to the White Mountains to twist ourselves into pretzels. Yoga and hiking dominate our annual retreat, and on the hikes at lesat, hats are generally involved. It’s rained on our hikes, even hailed; this year, I couldn’t strip off enough layers and contemplated plunging into the cold river.
We did yoga in the morning, chowed on breakfast, hiked, collapsed, did restorative yoga, ate dinner, read, and hit the sack at a luxuriously early time. We’re always a smidge late for the foliage, but this year, we were a smidge too early; or the rainy season has thrown the trees off their schedule. But the views weren’t too tough to take.
This hike was so strenuous, I barely made the .9 portion before turning back and opting to lounge in the sun with a book about an owl, which seriously, was riveting and a lot easier on the calves.
Barely an hour into our first night, and safely ensconced in the dining hall of the AMC Highland Lodge, we were up and out of our chairs, pressed to the window to watch a black bear ambling by. Its dark furry coat and tan snout was quintessential teddy bear. Two arriving yogis outside, unaware of the bear 20 feet away, thought those of us at the window were waving hello, leading us to invent the universal sign for “bear” (hands raised like claws while snarling).
One year, my friend and I took a rejuvenating hike on New Year’s Day, and as the snow softly fell on our fuzzy hats, it felt like the perfect way to embrace the new year. Of course, it might have been the free hot chocolate.
This year, with California temps and snow on the ground on New Year’s Day, another friend and I took to the woods with our new snowshoes. After tromping around on packed snow and not quite hitting our stride, we noticed we were being lapped by walkers.
“Christmas present?” one guy asked.
“Yup,” I said. “From last year.”
One shoe kept bumping into the other and I stepped on myself more than once. About a mile in, we took off the blasted things and walked back, vowing to try them in new fallen snow—where they’re meant to be used and could be quite enjoyable—while at the same time hoping that we never have that much snow again. In the meantime, they’re handy for getting to your car in a storm.
Anyway, I like the idea of layering up and getting outdoors on New Year’s Day with the promise of a whole year stretching ahead like a long path in the woods. I like spotting deer tracks, and red berries on the white snow, and discovering intriguing creature hideaways like this hollow:
Just makes you want to crawl inside with a stash of acorns and hibernate until spring.
Mt. Auburn Cemetery is one of my favorite walks; its lush paths meander and are lovingly named.
At the top of a hill, this tower defies you not to climb it (it’s as cool and dark inside as you might imagine) . . .
And you almost fall down these treacherous steps, thinking I’m going to die in the cemetery.
The grounds are chock full of nature. A bird watching mecca, Mt. Auburn celebrates the diversity of wildlife with a sign by the front gate where visitors can note on a chalkboard any unusual birds or creatures they’ve spotted with the date and location. Along with lots of birds I’ve never heard of, I was surprised to see sightings of groundhogs and coyotes. That made me look over my shoulder more than once. The cemetery is spread out over a wide swatch of land, but I didn’t think it was big or remote enough to harbor coyotes.
On my walk, I spotted more run-of-the-mill but still noteworthy creatures like bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, and this puffed up robin:
And by this pond, replete with weeping willow,
I spotted a toad that sat nestled in the weeds, waiting for flies:
A very full day of walking, nature and escaping the clutches of the coyote.
You might have noticed it’s Nature Week here at Musings at a Picnic (also known as I Just Got a Digital Camera and I’m Using it in My Backyard and on All My Walks Week).
For example, I keep spotting this snail in my yard. He comes out when it’s damp (along with his buddies the slugs and earthworms), but he just seems like the oddest creature to be hanging out in the grass. His shell belongs more at the beach. Maybe I’ll take him the next time I hit the beach—give him a new change of scenery. I can’t imagine he’d appreciate it. And I kind of like seeing him every time it rains, so fine, I’ll leave him be. I’ll just harass him like I’m the paparazzi.
I feel all manly when I mow the lawn.
Once the weeds hit mid-calf in the spring, I know it’s time to wrangle the lawn mower out of the garage, kick the tires, and rev that puppy. I’d like a push mower so I can feel even heartier and eco-friendly, but the house came with a mower, so I wield it, happy it’s not snow I’m blowing out of the way. I have old sandals I keep for mowing, but my feet still get all green and grassy, part of the charm.
The growth in our yard can hardly be called grass, but it’s nice nonetheless to mow it in orderly stripes. While my front yard will never resemble Fenway or a golf course (watering the lawn feels ridiculous and wasteful), it’ll do. Plus, it’s satisfying to mow down anything that gets in the way. Except for the random violet that crops up in the most inopportune spot. Hello fragile violet.
And with a yard sale scheduled for Saturday, we can’t be losing items—or shoppers—in the weeds.
Sometimes, after reading about a new housing development going up or hearing that another forest will be bulldozed, I get pissed off. More to the point though, I get sad. The loss of wilderness stings. Nature, after all, is the theme of our country’s literary canon, even if the stories were really about destroying nature to build a country. As Americans, we were all about exploring the wilderness, settling the land, and conquering the frontier. With the disappearance of these open spaces, can the demise of our country be far behind?
OK, maybe that’s a leap, but I lament the loss of true wilderness, places untouched by humans. Few places can stake a claim on that these days. Hasn’t every corner been explored, hiked, or snowmobiled by now? Maybe there’s a pocket in the Yukon or Siberia that’s virgin territory, but really, everyone’s been there before you.
Of course, just when I rail against development, how there are no places to “get lost” anymore, I take a walk at the local Audubon sanctuary, maybe 3 miles wide, and find I’ve somehow wandered off the path, hopelessly lost and looking not only for a sign but a water fountain. I mean, couldn’t they put a vending machine along the Appalachian Trail? It’s surprising, really, that that hasn’t happened. Maybe because we all revere nature in these sanctified versions. But if “nature” is a contained place, all mapped out, that we escape to only to find hoards of other people, is it still nature?
But, nature, is, after all, everywhere. I try to notice its smaller-scale marvels on my morning walk by noticing the leaves, or watching the shaggy snow flakes drop, or recognizing the nut hatch that alights on the small tree near the stairs. Nature nourishes, even in a tiny morsel the size of a ladybug or a red-capped mushroom.
At lunch today, my boss was saying how he was surprised to drive by a rich red bog not so long ago on his way to the Cape, when he thought all the little cranberries had been taken in for the winter. “Must be a bumper cranberry season,” he said.
Which somehow led my co-worker turning to me and saying, “Oh, that reminds me. I heard a sad harvest story on NPR and thought of you.”
How my person calls to mind sad harvest stories, I’m not sure, but we indulged her.
“The squirrels are in trouble,” she said. “Apparently, there’s a serious acorn shortage this year. Oak trees experience bad cycles, but this one is particularly bad.”
This has me feeling sad indeed. I don’t have any special affection for squirrels, but the thought of them scurrying around the Common seeking and not finding flavorless little nuts makes me want to hunt and gather on their behalf, maybe host an acorn bake sale. But then I’d risk becoming the crazy squirrel lady, so forget it. Sorry, squirrels: it’s every rodent for himself.
Some strange and wonderful things have cropped up on the Arsenal Center land in Watertown: twine-like cocoons and colorful pea pods. The honeycomb-like cocoons are subtle and caught my eye when they were drifting in the wind—giant interpretations of caterpillar retreats. That’s my take on them, anyway. Birds, listen up: this is a prime nesting opportunity.
Mother Pod is colorful, fanciful, and hard to miss: a larger-than-life pod connected, umbilical cord-like, to a baby pod, both in deep shades of red and purple. The soft material (felt and wool sweaters) makes you yearn to curl up and take a nap in the warmth of the pod.
The installments are part of the Arsenal Center for the Arts’ “Nature and Balance” exhibit that runs through the fall. I love serendipitous discoveries like this; I suspect the animals in the park will too.
I was driving in the Cape last week, my mom in the passenger seat, with the windows rolled down when an electrifying hum became too much to bear.
“What is that?” we yelled to the outdoors.
We were driving by a string of power lines, so I assumed there was some scientific phenomenon going on that I was unaware of causing electricity to fill the air. I’m unaware of most scientific phenomena, so it wasn’t hard to believe. When we got out of the car, there was a man standing beside his own car staring up at the trees, shielding his eyes from the sun.
“What is that?” we asked the guy who we took for a scientist, surely on the scene to document this phenomenon.
“Cicadas,” he said.
Upon closer inspection, we saw the trees were alive not with electricity but with thousands of winged things chanting like devotees at an ashram. It was straight out of The Birds.
“It’s a 17-year-cycle,” Mr. Scientist told us. “They’re born, then they mate and die. It’s only like this for about two weeks.” Yes, that sounded vaguely like something I had learned in school.
If you’re into bugs, and can stomach a truly repulsive video of a cicada molting, check this out. A little more research turned up the fact that it’s the males that do all the buzzing to attract the females. The females are quiet. Surprise, surprise.
Their two-week buzzing period (which sounds not unlike the painful outtakes of American Idol tryouts) may sound brief, but it’s two weeks too long if you’re living or vacationing on serene, seaside Cape Cod and have any hope of sleeping—ever—because pack it in, these little suckers are on a mission to keep you on edge all night. Not that dawn stops them, because they buzz all day too.
Of course, back in Masphee, where we were staying, the night was suddenly so quiet that we wondered what the cicadas had against our neighborhood. I mean, really: Who could sleep in such silence?
Walking through Cambridge is like touring an arboretum. Elaborate landscaping surrounds mammoth Colonials with gardens overflowing with petite flowering trees and flowers I can’t name. I feel a kinship to a tree or two—the lilacs I wrote about last week and this blossom-heavy tree that shivered pink petals in the slightest breeze, a few landing in my hair and on my shoulders. I’ve never been attacked so gently by such sweetness. This morning though, the flowers lay faded and crumpled, the tree clinging to a few blushing bunches, the wind now too strong a competitor. I captured it while it was still rosy:
A fat bee bumbles by, hovering in the air like a helicopter and darting in and out of the crevices in the peeling porch where the wood pulls away from the house, seeking a new hive spot for spring perhaps, but as lovely as the idea of homegrown honey sounds, I’m not keen on a buzzing hive of furry stingers so near my quiet reading spot and shoo it away into the yard where I hope it will alight on the neighbors’ porch, who with eight kids, are a hive of activity themselves.
Nature just hits you over the head with beauty: the ocean, rainbows, sunrises, flowers; but I find stumbling on nature’s little surprises even more satisfying. How great was it as a kid to discover a rock worn smooth by waves or an odd-shaped pebble for your rock collection? I’m still wondering if a perfectly circular rock I found when I was five, complete with a face stenciled on it, was a real discovery or a treasure planted by my parents who knew I’d be scouring the entire dry rock bed. Either way, the moment was captured in a photo of me in gold bell-bottoms holding tight to the rock like it was the best moment of my life.
It follows then, that I would keep up this habit of pocketing smooth trinkets from the woods and the beach as an adult, with the occasional razor clam shell thrown in for variety. Beach glass became another obsession one summer, and I keep a colorful bowl of the smooth shards on my desk that reminds me of Nova Scotia.
I’d like to say I found my favorite heart-shaped rock (pictured below) out in nature while hiking in the White Mountains or at my secret Cape beach. Alas, I found it at a yard sale, a hobby that holds the same excitement of discovery. While pretty in the grass, the heart now sits on top of my compost pile to symbolize the richness of the soil bubbling beneath. Oh, the love!