How many of us truly pay attention to what is around us and are not oblivious to the small, minute yet miraculous changes that occur all around us? How many of us see what William Carlos Williams called “the local.”
Stephen de Vere is a well-known wildlife photographer who has worked on such BBC productions as Life and Frozen Planet. Sir David Attenborough has described him as “an extraordinary cameraman.” He’s captured some of the most amazing wildlife images around the world. Then he decided to spend a year focusing on the changing seasons in his own countryside. He watched the animals and birds that occupied the fields and hedgerows and woods around his own home. The final film, Through The Garden Gate: A Diary of the English Countryside, was a stunningly quiet, peaceful and beautiful film: a meticulous and lovingly recorded journal of a what he saw: everything from foxes to barn owls to a badger to sparrowhawks to a muntjac. It’s highly personal despite the fact that we never see Stephen; though his voice narrates the film. What drew me in was how he offered the viewer a portrait of the land around him that he clearly and deeply loves.
In her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote of what she saw during explorations near her own home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains through each of the seasons. It’s a glorious meditation on nature, solitude, and observation. As she writes in the first chapter:
“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”
How might we change if we, ourselves, were to pay attention, closely, to the land around us during the seasons of a single year? Would we be surprised by the unexpected encounters we might have? How might we feel more connected to nature? Would we start seeing the ordinary in a new light if we looked at it with astonished eyes?
Most would dismiss even beginning this with the excuse, “That’s all well and good for a nature photographer or a writer to do, but I’m too busy to just sit around and look at my own yard.” But the poet Mary Oliver would disagree. She ended her poem “Yes! No!” with this line: To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
Though we live not that far from the center of our town (it’s within walking distance), I am always constantly amazed by the natural world that I discover within my own backyard. We have had Barred Owls with their owlets, red-tailed hawks, a raccoon, goldfinches, numerous Robins and Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, squirrels, black snakes, chipmunks, and even wild turkeys.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have had less sun and more heavy rainstorms which have, unfortunately, kept us inside a great deal more than we’d have liked. During the respite from the rain, I would venture out so that I might breathe in more deeply and see the changes this weather has wrought on the garden.
Robins were busily working the soft earth to remove long, juicy worms. Those worms then dangled from their beaks as they flew up to the limbs of nearby trees. Adult Robins do not eat these worms but feed them to their young.
Just outside our kitchen window, in a myrtle with its waxy green leaves, is a nest that has been there for the last few years. I don’t allow my sons to touch it or remove the nest because every year the Robins return and we get to enjoy the hatching and growth of their young. It’s fascinating to us to see them go from small ugly, featherless creatures whose eyes cannot even open to large, round young who are reminiscent of the three men in the tub from the Mother Goose Nursery rhyme.
This year, we even got to see them as they began to leave the nest. Testing their untested wings, they hopped about our backyard until they were finally able to take to the sky themselves. Their feathers were still tufting up about their heads and bodies.
By one of our old oaks, a dead vole lay in the soft bowl of grass its body created in our yard. Using a small spade, I gathered him up and buried him in one of our flower beds. Nature always reminds us of our own mortality.
As I covered the body of that small vole with dark, wet and rich earth, I thought of the day that I heard the fierce screech of the hawks long before I spotted them. To my utter amazement, they landed in our backyard. In the sharp talons of one was the body of a smaller bird, though I could not make out what kind. Both the male and female red-tailed hawk took turns pulling at the sinews and flesh of this bird with their short, dark rostrum. It was a picture that the natural world is both tremendous and terrifying. That there is always death and destruction. When the hawks had departed, all they had left behind in the grass were some small bones and bits of feathers: leaving that small bird indistinguishable and unidentifiable.
All about the yard, amidst the tall unmowed grass, were mushrooms of various shapes, colors, and sizes. There are over 1.5 million different species of fungi in the world. As children, we most often enjoyed kicking them to watch their pieces fly scattered over the yard. Now, however, like so many other forms of nature, I am fascinated by them. Woodland soil can contain, in a small gram of space, over a million microscopic fungi. Like animals, fungi are eukaryotic organisms (meaning their cells have a true nucleus). How long had these been dormant beneath the ground until we had gotten enough rain to wake them from their slumber? Some can remain dormant for decades. While researching fungi, I found that the honey mushroom is the largest and oldest living organism on earth: having lived 2400 years and covers over 2000 acres. Thankfully, not in my backyard but in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. The fungi in our yard also provided me with the opportunity to teach my younger son, whom I homeschool, all about the importance of them and allowing us to be amateur mycologists for the day.
I have loved watching the bold, vivid colors of the flowers in bloom, like the irises and the day lilies. They are magnificent in their array of hues, iridescence and brightnesses that rivaled those used by Matisse or Gaugin or even O’Keefe. All they ask is that I notice for when I do, I am filled with a sense of gratitude that such beauty offers itself up to me every Spring. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us’.” I cannot help but see the truth of those words. How much these plants have taken care of me when I have needed their beauty and their reminder that there are wonders all around us, that life is precious and a gift.
The large, flute-like bloom of the big-leaf Magnolia tree resembles a soft, pale vase one might find in a museum until it opens and reveals its interior of white and daubs of purple with a yellow stamen in the center. This tree is a reminder of a dear friend and neighbor of ours who gave this as a gift to our older son. Every year that it blooms, we cannot help but think of his generosity in giving my son a gift that may outlive us and beneath whose branches at the base, we have buried our beloved dog Chloe. Though my son, who was young at the time, did not grasp the importance of this gift, now that he is older he cherishes this tree and it often inspires us to tell stories of our friend’s life.
Like Stephen de Vere and Annie Dillard, I document, in my own way, the transformations and encounters of my own place as the seasons change, as I and my sons grow older, as life happens and nature reminds me that beneath it all is birth and life and death and rebirth. The physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “Nature has a great simplicity and therefore a great beauty.” How true this statement is when I am present to it. When I take the time to delight in the fact that I am now seeing the soft yellow flickering of fireflies in our backyard at night.
I am, indeed, grateful for the simple movement of the trees in the wind. Of walking the dog at night and being able to look up at the stars and moon and seeing its silver, shimmering reflection in my fish pond. To hear choirs of birdsong in their limbs at dawn and dusk. I am grateful to grasp that all of this is a glorious, gift. I cannot help but gaze in wonderment that so much of this will go on long after I am gone. That the atoms of which I am made will become a part of this natural world just as those of my ancestors are.
Perhaps, if we all stopped and took the time to notice, to really watch the changes of the seasons in our own locals, we would all, like Henry David Thoreau, declare, “I love my fate to the very core and rind.” Whenever I do stop and see, I find that, like Thoreau, I do love my life and the life all about me.