Spring

It is spring in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So far, like the damp, chilly winter we just had, spring has been wet, but it’s been punctuated by promising warm days under skies as blue as memories. This season has a reputation for frolic, mating rituals, the riotous bursting forth of suppressed life. But there is an earnestness to spring as well, an implied faith that awakening from dormancy is worth the bother despite the short growing season of this northern clime. It is a sense that life will out, that even in this time of unreason and teetering on the brink of we-know-not-what-but-it-don’t-seem-good, the world is safe enough to re-enter.

IMG_4886.jpgLooking out my bedroom window to my backyard, I think that autumn is not the only season with “peak color.” Spring has it, too, and it is upon us. The new leaves on the young tulip tree are a bright, succulent green that seems as much a light source as a reflection. Nearby, the Japanese maple leaves appear like delicate little hands painted a rich, dark red. The pink flowers of the pear tree next door arc above the fence. They remind me of redbuds, whose branch-hugging blossoms outline the bony winter shapes of the trees even as they declare, “It’s spring! It’s finally spring!”

Sunlight through translucent new leaves is lovely, but it is on a rainy day that the colors are at their peak. The wetness reveals the truest hues as it does in river stones. It is tempting to collect those stones, to bring them home to admire, yet it never quite works out, does it? Dry, they become dull and dusty, seemingly ordinary, and when you notice them months or years later, you wonder what possessed you to put them on your mantle or sideboard or whatever knick-knack place you have. You could put them in a home fountain to expose their beauty once again, and maybe you do for a time, but eventually you tire of refilling it, when all along if you had left them in the river, they would have shone for you and anyone else who happened upon them.

I stand on my front porch and look at the new redbud tree that stands hopefully where a lovely one, carefully nurtured, once lived. That one, having just reached its prime, was crushed by a mammoth street tree that fell during a windstorm, grazing the house when it could have destroyed it. We cleaned up, did some thankfully minor repairs, and planted another redbud. It appears to be thriving, and it should have a nice long life in its spot. Then again, that’s what I thought about the previous one until its lease all too suddenly ended. For now, the new tree seems to be making the best of the time it has in what was a place of life, then sudden death, and now life again. I miss its predecessor, but I am rooting for this one. It’s gradually coming into its own. Life, like truth (I hope), will out. Spring is its time.

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Winter Solstice

Today, on winter solstice, I realize that I have been less aware than usual of the encroaching darkness this year. True, I begin my walk home from work each day under glowing street lamps, but unlike other years, I have not minded the lengthening night. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am happy with this development, because my lack of reaction stems from a lack of noticing. This story is one of preoccupation, not equanimity or acceptance.

Most winters, I have groaned at the loss of daylight. I’ve watched with a touch of melancholy as the darkness crept relentlessly forward and the sun retreated deep into the southern sky. I’ve long loved solstice, however, because it is a literal and figurative tipping point. I go joyfully to the wonderful and thoughtful celebration hosted by our dear friends, who offer an evening of community to reflect on night’s zenith and the beginning of daylight’s inexorable march forward. There, we are invited to let go of something within us that is unwanted, to put it into the past, and to welcome something new as we look ahead to increasing daylight.

I am particularly eager for the celebration tonight.

This past semester of teaching has been among my most difficult, though I am convinced that I offered my students an excellent experience in the legal clinics that I teach. Inside, though, I felt like I was careening along twisty roads at a breakneck pace, just barely hanging on. Week after week was filled with late nights, early mornings, weekend work, and certainty that my life was out of balance with no chance of change within the semester’s demanding confines. It all ended well, to be sure, and this post isn’t so much about work as it is about the importance of noticing and intentionality and balance.

I miss my moaning and groaning about the plunge into ever-longer darkness, because I miss being a person who notices things. For me, ignorance is not bliss. Rather, it signals that I am damped down, preoccupied, closed off. And my failure to notice the lengthening night raises questions of what else I’ve overlooked. What flew by unappreciated? Was I present enough for my family and friends (alas, I’m sure the answer is “no.”)?

This winter solstice is a chance to wake up.

I’ve found myself noticing again the past couple of weeks, probably because classes ended and some big projects came to fruition. Even as my mind was going a mile a minute for the last few months, portions of it fell into dormancy. The lead-up to solstice has been like an alarm clock, and the parts of my mind that have been sleeping are now throwing off the covers, sliding out of bed, and revving up to meet the day. I need these parts to be “on” in order to balance the more work-related parts, the parts that are forced into overdrive every semester, a trend that seems only to be increasing. One sign of my recent awakening is that this month I’ve turned my attention back to writing (more on that in a forthcoming post). For me, that means turning my attention back on, because I am at my most attentive and open when I am writing regularly.

So, what will I welcome into my life this solstice? A daily writing discipline and the increased sense of being present that this brings. Being more efficient during the work day (not that I’ve been lazy, but there’s room for improvement), so I can let go of my work in the evenings and on weekends. More time talking and corresponding with friends and distant family. Richer and more frequent connection with my wife and kids. In other words, as the hours of daylight increase bit by bit, I want to be more open to those things that bring joy and balance into my day to day life.

What do you hope for in your life on this solstice? If you’d like, share through a comment to this post.

I wish everyone reading this piece a contemplative solstice, happy holidays, and a healthy, joyful new year.

Eagle’s Cry

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I awoke yesterday morning to an eagle’s cry.

“Are you still asleep?” I asked my wife. Her eyes opened a crack, and I said, “It’s the eagle. I can hear it.” She lifted her head from the pillow to listen, and the eagle cried again. We both rolled out of bed and pulled on our swimsuits. It was 6:20. The wind was nearly still, and the lake was the quietest it had been this trip. The air was cool but weighted with a touch of humidity. I got to the beach first and high-stepped into the water until it was up to my waist, far enough out to see the eagle if it was perched in its usual tree, a towering hemlock just south of the camp property. The eagle wasn’t there, but a moment later, it glided overhead, wings held wide as it flew south and then banked eastward around the point. My wife arrived after it had gone, and when I told her where it was headed, she set out that way with a strong crawl stroke. She went perhaps a hundred yards and then switched to backstroke so she could look up at the trees as she swam. Soon, she rounded the point and went out of sight. I used to worry when she swam far away, alone in open water, but she’s a powerful, relaxed swimmer, and my anxiety has faded over the years. I swam up and down the length of the beach for a little while and then stood in the water, looking across the lake. A fog bank had settled over the low hills. Though it appeared static from where I was, I imagined being up close and watching it creep over the peaks and down their slopes, a slow, vaporous waterfall.

I returned to the tent to dress, and my wife joined me perhaps fifteen minutes later. Swimming around the point, she had seen two eagles in flight, and she thought at least one of them may have come back toward camp. I went outside, and pretty soon, I heard the same, plaintive cry that had awakened me. I couldn’t see the eagle, though I could hear that it was high in a tree nearby. Then the cry changed to a gentler, chittering call, and I looked up to see another eagle glide toward where the call had originated. It was as if the perched eagle had called to the other, “Here I am. Come home to me.” The one that flew over was huge, its great brown wings stretched wide. Its white head seemed preposterously small, stuck on the front of its massive body like an afterthought.

imageIn the camp hall, there is a list from 1899 of the birds that were spotted around the property that year. It is written in a fine, looping hand and is meticulously alphabetized. It has common as well as Latin names, including which taxonomic system the writer used for each – most are Linnaean, but not all. There are four varieties of sparrow and three swallows, two types of woodpecker, bald eagle, phoebe, bobolink, purple martin, kingbird and kingfisher, and many others. I don’t know if all of the birds are still found in this area, and of course there’s no way to verify the accuracy of the list today, but it makes me think about the people as much as the birds that were at camp then. Was it one birder who compiled it? Several? How many bird experts were in that early bunch of campers? Was the list a special project? Or did people just mention their observations over the course of the season, and someone thought to write them down? If we made a bird list today, would it be so long and varied? Or have many of those bird species disappeared from this lake and these woods, victims of climate change, environmental degradation, and habitat loss?

Last night, the barred owls called again and again from points all over camp. I’ve heard them almost every night this trip, but this was the most active they had been. I remarked on hearing one when I was sitting in the hall in the late evening. A couple of campers cocked their heads, listening through the open windows, and when it called again, they nodded their satisfaction. No owls appear on the 1899 list. It skips from “ovenbird” to “pewee, wood,” but whether that means no owls were heard is a question to which the answer is lost to time, much like the species that disappear daily today.

West Wind

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A west wind has blown for the past three days, stirring up strong currents and whitecaps on the lake. Though it has brought waves of rain and made swimming difficult and canoeing doubtful, no one has minded. At camp, winds from the west bring pockets of passing weather, the kind that’s in and out quick. East winds are the ones that we cluck over here. Weather from the east tends to stay a while, socking us in and making us think about whether to take the kids to a museum in town, or maybe head to the Moultonborough Country Store for a dry diversion. So we look at the flag on the dock and see which way the wind blows, and no matter what the weather, if it’s coming from the west, we don’t sweat it. Even in the past three days, there have been periods of sunshine and stunning, scudding cloud formations. There were a couple of strong storms, too, with thunder booming from walls of gunmetal gray clouds. Those have passed over quickly, and the forest in which the camp is nestled is even more green and lush because of the rain.

Two evenings ago, after dinner, the west wind died down, and the lake calmed. Before long, though, the flag shifted direction before an east wind. There were thick clouds in the eastern sky. A few of us looked at each other, but someone said hopefully that they had checked the weather, and it’s supposed to be beautiful after another day or so. Others weren’t so sure as the east wind blew.

They say in places like the Great Lakes, where we live, and New England, where we visit, that if you don’t like the weather, wait a while, and it’ll change. Sure enough, in the night, the east wind died after a few hours, and the west wind returned, strong and chilly. Our tent faces the lake, which is west on this part of camp’s undulating shoreline, and wind-driven waves pounded the rocks just yards away. The tent canvas rippled and snapped, and the wooden platform creaked. The support poles shivered. Once, last year, an empty tent collapsed in a wind storm. But we’ve had a lot of wind storms here, and that’s the only tent collapse I’ve heard of, so I trust. There’s a lot of trust involved in camp: trust in our tents in all weather, trust that a huge hemlock or pine won’t fall on a tent in the night, trust that the community of campers will work together to overcome challenges. I suppose it’s no different than any significant activity we do in nature, where if we’re honest and smart about it, we acknowledge that we really don’t control a whole lot, so we control what we can, prepare as we ought, and trust that it will be enough. It makes me think about my experiences hiking in the White Mountains. Preparation and judgment are so important there, where weather systems converge and can bring instant winter in the summertime, but deep down, we know that some of the thrill we feel being there is that in the end, getting off the ridges and peaks in one piece partly comes down to luck.

Today dawned cool and clear, the west wind still blowing. The mountains across the lake are sharp against the blue sky. A few puffy clouds slide past, and strong currents and whitecaps race by. When the wind ebbs even a little, the warmth of the sun makes adults take off sweatshirts and children jump off the dock, and there’s a sense that maybe the wind will calm to a gentle breeze as the afternoon goes on. And if it doesn’t, with some luck the wind will remain in the west, and no one will mind.

 

Night Camp

imageAt sunset at our camp on the lake, we gather on the dock to watch the sky turn yellow and pink and orange over the mountains that line the western shore. Clouds become silhouettes surrounded by a golden, electric glow. The eastern sky dims to indigo. After the sun has gone, we leave the still-light dock and slip into the dark woods among the pines and hemlocks and birches. Night falls rapidly in the forest, where shade abounds even at noon. The dusty smell of pine straw rises from the warm ground into the cooling air. Chunky toads speckled with brown and tan, camouflaged against the leaf litter, come out for their evening romp. We are quick with our flashlights, hoping to spy them when we hear them hopping. Or is it the rustle of a field mouse scampering? No, not this time. It was a toad.

Tonight, as we watched the sunset, a juvenile bald eagle soared directly over our heads not much higher than the treetops, coming from behind and then veering over the forest. It was dark brownish-gray, the underside of its wings flecked with light gray or white. We debated what it might be. Some sort of hawk? None that we knew. One person noted that its wings were vulture-like, and that tipped my son and me toward the possibility that it was an eagle. A glance in a bird guide quickly settled the discussion. We get bald eagles here. One frequents a tree over the camp beach. A few years ago, two of them perched for a long time directly over the heart of the camp, and someone passing through would have seen a couple dozen of us on our backs on the forest floor, watching the national birds above. The show lasted for more than an hour. With the binoculars that were passed around, I got a better view of the eagles than I had ever had before outside of a sanctuary. Sleek, white heads. Husky, brown bodies. Curved, sharp beaks that were all business. The birds preened and looked majestic – just another day’s work for them.

As darkness falls, a few boats run for home with bow and stern lights. At the camp, the hall turns bright as some folks gather to read or chat or play a game. The sturdy, old-school canvas platform tents that we stay in glow white with lantern light. The high buzz of crickets replaces the bird calls that dominate the daytime. As the activity of camp wanes, the sound of the water lapping against the rocks seems to get more prominent. I love falling asleep to that rhythmic sound. It seems almost to rock me back and forth, suspended between sleep and wakefulness, a cocoon of muzziness enveloping my mind. Often, when I awaken for a moment late in the night, I find that the lake sounds have gone, the wind having died. The water has become a luminous sheet outside of our tent. A half-moon heads for the horizon. On the lake, a loon calls, its cry sounding like a breathy, mournful whistle. Three tones, low-high-low, sometimes repeated, perhaps with a monotone call thrown in. A barred owl replies from deep in the woods, eight short hoots divided into two measures of four each. In a few hours, the grey light of dawn will throw the trees into relief against the tent walls. If I’m up, I will think about an early morning dip in the glassy water, long before the breakfast bell rings from the hall.