The art of noticing

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of–something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Do you suppose, that part of the constant delight of Heaven, will be the ability to be truly thankful for every thing, no matter how minuscule? Even in this life there are an enormous number of very pleasant things that happen to us throughout the day, that we accept as being nothing out of the common way, and thus do not regard: not realizing that the very fact of their being so ‘common’ is in itself a blessing of the very highest magnitude!

Meredith Allady, Letters to Julia

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

One of the most amusing things about our eight-year-old daughter is the extent to which she is a covert collector. She is the sort of kid that will make you regret not checking pockets before throwing dirty clothes into the washing machine. You never know what’s going to be in there, and sometimes it’s not inanimate.

As I wrote last year in Raising a Young Naturalist in the Deep South, our daughter spends substantially all of her free time outside. (I try to as well, but kids have more free time.) Even though we bought her a giant bearded dragon, she catches lizards and other reptiles on a daily basis. I have to remind her to turn them loose at night. On hikes, she is the first to spot armadillos from the slightest tickle of movement in the ferns or owls by the near-silent swoosh of their wings.

She commits entire volumes of nature guides to memory and can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about snakes in particular. She can tell you how fast a mamba can slither and that coral snakes and cobras are biologically related.

She’ll spend an hour sitting in the grass watching a golden orb spider build a web. Regular animal visitors have names, like Acorn, the squirrel, or Othello, the enormous black racer snake who lives in my garden. And no matter how much I scold her, she is always barefoot and usually muddy. Many days, I feel like I have given birth to Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing.

The real problem is that, for each of her adventures, she wants to bring home some sort of souvenir. Oftentimes, many souvenirs. Feathers, sea shells, pine cones, rocks, leaves from bizarre plants (to identify later in said nature guides), a spectacularly thick square of moss that just felt so delicious underfoot. One time she even brought home the complete skull of some poor animal, probably discarded from some bird of prey, which is now sitting on top of the piano. She also brought me a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest (named Maximilian).

I take walks to think through things. She takes walks to look around. She notices more out of the corner of her little eye than I see in an entire trip.

Collecting has been a habit from when she was very tiny. I almost think it is an innate trait in some people. I have it too, except for me it is books and art. As a preschooler, I bought her a beautiful pink music box that plays Für Elise (as that is her name, it was supposed to be a personal gift). I stuffed it with plastic children’s jewelry for her to dress up like a little lady. Yeah, that never happened. When I was cleaning her room later, I discovered she had chucked the jewelry and filled the music box up with the bright blue shells of robin’s eggs. That’s closer to her idea of treasure.

A lot of people complain about being forced to spend a great deal of time around little kids during this pandemic, but I genuinely love it. I have received so many messages from friends this week asking me how it is that I manage to homeschool full-time while getting anything else done, how it doesn’t drive me completely mad. I think I would have to say that the key to enjoying being around kids is to approach their antics with a sort of radical openness rather than scorn.

One of the best parts of parenthood is being able to see the world through the eyes of a child again. You start to notice things in your environment you stopped noticing a long time ago. Your native curiosity resurfaces. I have learned so much simply by pausing what I am doing and Googling whatever random question our daughter has about why something works the way it does. I realize that for many other parents the thousand inane questions children ask are annoying. But magic happens when you stop being arbitrarily perturbed and start trying to answer them. When you start treating curiosity as if it is something important and worthy of becoming a daily priority. That’s one of the big things you need to do to model being a lifelong learner for a child.

But it’s a posture that will enrich your own life too.

I have a habit of walking outside late at night to let the dog out and listen to the ocean. Sometimes this is an almost religious experience, like when the full Moon or a storm out at sea brings loud, violent waves to the shore and floods the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s like listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with an unrelenting cascade of percussion amplified by the cool night air.

My favorite thing these days is to look for the animals that have taken to sleeping on our front porch. There’s this bird who likes to tuck up into the corner of one of the pillars every night. She showed up one evening after a line of violent thunderstorms passed through the area, and now I guess our porch is her home. I put out a birdhouse that a previous avian tenant used to build a nest in last year (the nest is still in the birdhouse, in fact). Perhaps the new bird will find it comfortable.

There is also a pair of lizards that have taken to returning every night to sleep on this one rogue branch of the mandevilla I have climbing a trellis around the porch entrance. They’ve been showing up for over a month now. I had no idea that reptiles could be so loyal. The branch looks ridiculous sticking out from the rest of the plant, but I don’t want to slip it back into the trellis because then where would the lizards sleep? (They are kind of difficult to get a picture of at night.)

Much like how Saint John Henry Newman praised knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I think you need prolonged exposure to the ways of a child to value observation for observation’s sake. Adults are in such a hurry all the time, with their minds not present all the time. A kid will train you how to sit down and wait for something small but interesting to happen.

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

One small place of enchantment

I do not understand how anyone can live without one small place of enchantment to turn to.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

For after all what is man in nature?  A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either.  The ends of things and their beginnings
are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret.  He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.

Blaise Pascal

I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.

John 14:18

Horseback riding and a new place for pho

I haven’t posted any pictures of the wee equestrienne lately, so here you go. Tacking up Chewy for a ride.

Walking Chewy in the ring before practice.

We have a long tradition of going out for pho on especially cold days. After a couple years in Florida, anything in the 60s now feels insufferably cold. It’s kind of difficult to believe I am the product of Finnish and Dutch immigrants.

When we moved here, there were not any Vietnamese places nearby. But this month, Tram’s Cafe opened. We are so excited to have a place walking distance away for pho. I also discovered that I really love Vietnamese coffee, which tastes a lot like Cuban coffee (and thus will probably be very popular here). The cultural fusion in Florida is always impressive. There’s nothing like sitting in a Vietnamese cafe and listening to Vietnamese, Latin, and American pop music in rotation.

I feel like I am the last person on the planet to discover bubble tea. Elise is absolutely in love with it. On the odd chance that any readers here are similarly uninitiated:

Bubble tea is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s. Recipes contain tea of some kind, flavors of milk, and sugar (optional). Toppings, known as “pearls”, such as chewy tapioca balls (also known as pearls or boba), popping boba, fruit jelly, grass jelly, agar jelly, alovera jelly, sago and puddings are often added. Ice-blended versions are frozen and put into a blender, resulting in a slushy consistency. There are many varieties of the drink with a wide range of flavors. The two most popular varieties are black pearl milk tea and green pearl milk tea.

This will be a fun place to hang out with a book.

And the second eagle egg now has a pip. So we will have another eaglet in our neighborhood hopefully tomorrow morning. Happy days.

So… we bought a giant kayak

We have been thinking about getting into kayaking for years now. There are canals, natural springs, wetlands, and large inlets all over the place here that are perfect for kayaking. (A lot of people go out onto the ocean with kayaks and paddle boards, too, but I am not brave enough for that.) The sport is so popular here that Elise took kayaking lessons for kids at the community pool several months ago (totally adorable).

A friend brought the idea of kayaking back into our minds recently by mentioning that we should do a clear-bottom kayak bioluminescence tour in a city just south of here when the weather warms up.

We very much plan to do one of those tours (this summer, hopefully). But after that, I spent forever online looking for a tandem kayak that could hold all three of us. We ended up finding one at our local West Marine and walked out of the store with it, a couple paddles, and new life jackets. (We only had the emergency life jackets that you wear when you are out on a sailboat.) And whistles.

I thought whistles were for someone to locate you if you got lost – and they are – but the sales guy says paddlers generally use them to express scorn at misbehaving boat pilots. I’m so southern that I don’t even honk my car horn at bad drivers, however, so I imagine my whistle is going to live forever inside the pocket of my life jacket. Incidentally, one of the funniest things about moving to Florida is being around so many people from up north on a regular basis. They are awfully fond of their car horns. If you are ever stuck in traffic with a bunch of Yankees, it’s like one enormous symphony of discontent.

So now we are searching for a location that is tame enough for beginners. I originally thought we would try a nearby inlet that has a lot of fun sandbars, but more experienced paddlers say that it can be dangerous when the tides come in. Apparently, the tide coming in with the sandbars creates a sort of washing machine effect. But I will find a safe spot for the maiden launch.

If you have any tips, please share them!

Elise’s big ride, Rails-to-Trails, and the Florida Trail

I am very proud of Elise. Yesterday, we rode our bikes from our doorstep to the end of the Lehigh Rails-to-Trail path and back – a distance of over 22 miles. I feel like that is an impressive accomplishment for an 8-year-old. She is such a sport and down for almost any kind of big activity. This path passes through the 3,000+ acre Graham Swamp Conservation Area and along the Lehigh Canal, roughly from Flagler Beach to Highway 1. It’s quite beautiful.

(We had been planning on driving down to Blue Spring State Park by Daytona Beach over the weekend to see the manatees, who like to swim inland during the “winter” months here. The natural springs up and down the Eastern and Gulf Coasts have waters that are kept stable at warm temperatures. Alas, we had forgotten that this weekend was both the Daytona 500 and a day President Trump was in town. We expected the whole area to be a madhouse with traffic and changed up our plans. Hopefully, we can make it down before temperatures warm up and the manatees move out.)

Yes, that’s water.

In the spirit of having many future adventures, I bought two excellent books:

Rail-Trails Florida: The Definitive Guide to the State’s Top Multi-Use Trails – This is a wonderful book mapping out the handiwork of the Florida Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. As Lehigh is one of our favorite trails, I wanted to find more around the state that are like that. (Our beach town alone has 135 miles of bike paths along the water, through wetlands, and through the jungle, but we ride or walk them every day.)

I was shocked by the number of endurance-worthy bike paths the state has. In particular, I would really love to ride the path along Henry Flagler’s original railway bridges through the Florida Keys. My understanding is you can ride the restored path, separated from traffic, from Key Largo to Marathon. After that, you have to ride alongside cars. That’s a very long distance in its own right, but it had us fantasizing about taking off on our bikes and booking a hotel room along the way. Like we have to make it to [insert island here] to stay overnight, then we turn around and come back. Or just hanging out for a while on several different islands. It’s a little intimidating though, because if something happened to your bike that far out on the water, you’d kind of be S.O.L.

There is also an over-100-mile path that circumnavigates Lake Okeechobee, the 8th largest freshwater lake in the United States.

I love the Rails-to-Trails program in general. It manages to combine my great loves of history, infrastructure, and finance all in one thing. For a while, I got into reading about the history of the railroads here in the United States and elsewhere. I have a framed railroad bond from Russia dating back before the revolution, with the coupons still attached. So cool. I like learning about all the independent railways that were established all over Florida.

The second book is Hiking the Florida Trail: 1,100 Miles, 78 Days, Two Pairs of Boots, and One Heck of an Adventure by Johnny Malloy. This book is about a thousand times more entertaining than I imagined it would be.

The Florida Trail is an 1,100-mile trail that stretches from Big Cypress National Preserve outside of Miami (in the Everglades) up to to Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Pensacola Beach (the Florida Panhandle). I had absolutely no desire to thru-hike this trail before I bought the book, but I figured it would be a good way to learn about Florida geography and maybe find some sections to hike.

All I can say is, good grief, the people who actually manage to thru-hike the Florida Trail are bonkers. The official site for the trail warns you that the trail is unlike other long trails in the US, starting with the fact that it is not through mountains but often through swamps. One website I looked at advised hikers to pre-treat their clothing with some industrial-grade mosquito repellent that you can get off of Amazon when hiking through the swamps.

Malloy starts off describing the hike through Big Cypress as miles and miles of sloshing through swampy water. Unlike other trails, where you can pretty much hike until you are exhausted and then set up camp, in the Everglades you have to reach specific destinations to camp because the rest is usually underwater. Once you begin, you are totally committed. Combine this with the fact that even urban areas in Florida have hungry dinosaurs, big cats, and venomous snakes roaming around, that’s a scale of adventure I’m not cut out for. But it does make a fantastic read.

The whole time we were riding through the swamps yesterday, I tried to imagine venturing off the boardwalk and trying to hike through that stuff. Nope!

Habits

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Carl Jung

Virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.

Aristotle

After exhausting my music and podcast options, I have been searching for quality audio books to listen to while I am on the treadmill each morning. So far, I have listened to Jordan Petersen’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos; Victor Davis Hansen’s Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom; and James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. All of these have been excellent and thoughtful books. Beyond that, they have all been so engaging to listen to that the miles pass by without my even noticing.

Until recently, I have never considered myself to be of the “self-help book” persuasion. To say I find women like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sheryl Sandberg annoying would be an understatement. Every time I hear a woman complain about how she gets paid less than men, I want to walk her down the aisles of pseudoscience and crank psychology books marketed (with great success) to women in bookstores. Keto cures cancer and autism, you know. Measles can be treated with lavender oil. Micro-dosing on psychedelics will help you with mood swings. You should shove rocks up your vajayjay. (And be sure to call it your vajayjay, because nothing says feminism like communicating in baby talk.) The only thing keeping you from material success is scribbling affirmations on your mirror with your lipstick. Exactly the kind of person you want in the corner office, right?

But listening to Atomic Habits had me thinking about all the psychology books I have listened to or read recently that are fantastic critiques of our culture.

Atomic Habits is a great book – I highly recommend reading it – but it’s also simply a reworking of the philosophy of Aristotle. The author’s main thesis is the most effective way to change your habits is to focus on the kind of person you want to be (I want to be healthy), rather than dwelling on discrete outcomes (I want to lose 15 pounds). Most of the book focuses on manipulating how you respond to unconscious cues, how your practices relate to the mechanical, biological organization of your mind (what you might consider your “self”).

This is essentially Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Whether or not someone is happy or flourishing is the cumulative effect of their habits. A virtuous person is a person with good habits. To be a good person, you don’t need to hang out in the agora talking about goodness in the abstract. You simply need to start acting like a good person acts here and now. If you want to be courageous, put yourself in positions that demand courage. If you want to be charitable, start working toward a cause. If you want to be a reader, be the kind of person who goes home and opens a book every day instead of turning on the television or mindlessly scrolling Instagram. Good habits become your identity and that is how you flourish over time.

In many ways, some of these more thoughtful psychology books are reclaiming philosophy. Jordan Petersen is expanding on Freud and Jung. Victor Davis Hansen talks about being a classicist as a lifestyle rather than professional curiosity – not just studying Greek, but preserving Greek-ness. I even saw a book called Unfuck Yourself, which revisits stoic philosophy like Marcus Aurelius.

Academia has pretty much destroyed the real human value of philosophy as a discipline. There are plenty of academics who go around calling themselves philosophers, but what they are doing is not philosophy anymore. You open up academic philosophy journals now and you see articles like Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression (The Monist), Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism and the Challenge of the Exotic (British Journal of Aesthetics), and Refugees, Safety, and a Decent Human Life (The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society). At best, these articles are simply Twitter-esque political blathering with some philosophical sounding wordplay. There’s not a lot of love of wisdom happening in the academy these days. The citizens of Athens would not recognize or promote this activity.

Philosophy as a durable human project is not dead, but is now coming from improbable places. It’s on YouTube. It’s in podcasts. I’m not sure I should be surprised by this. Just as Aristotle trained generals, Clear is training folks in the business world.

At any rate, if you know any good audio books, please pass on their titles.

A ride through Graham Swamp

We went on a bike ride through through the Graham Swamp Conservation Area when we broke for lunch today. I know it seems strange to say this about a swamp, but everything was so green!

Elise is very proud of her new bike. She’s finally tall enough to be able to ride a bike with gears. (Yes, she has a horn in the shape of a parrot. ) It had been very difficult for her to take a little kid bike on sandy trails.

We didn’t see any alligators today (although we’ve seen dozens on swamp outings before). We did see a lot of other wildlife though.

We had stopped for a drink of water when a gopher tortoise booked it across the trail. He walked straight between the wheels of our bicycles and back into the swamp. They are an endangered species, so I’m always happy when I see one.

And a bird feast.