Back to the water

We’ve been taking as many walks on the beaches as we can lately. I know one little mermaid who is delighted to have this part of her world returning to normal.

The Intracoastal Waterway on a bright, sunny day.

I love this time of year in the Deep South, when the magnolias are all in bloom and going for walks is like stepping into some Parisian parfumerie. The surprise scents of flowers out in the woods is part of what makes this region so intoxicating. We have a 60-foot magnolia in our backyard, and seeing it covered in blooms is something to behold.

Green shoots

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast

It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Come with me into the woods where spring is
advancing, as it does, no matter what,
not being singular or particular, but one
of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

Veterans of the last financial crisis will remember that Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was always talking about seeing “green shoots.” For him, green shoots were signs within economic data that the country was starting to recover in some quarters.

This has become something of an inside joke for me, as I take the idea of green shoots rather literally. In the depths of the coronavirus puke (talking about financial markets here, not hospital data, after it became clear that our entire economy was going to shut down) I was so strung out thinking about the possibility of a second Great Depression that I planted over 1,000 new plants in my garden. It was… cathartic?

These were a combination of very young plants and bulbs that I ordered from the Netherlands. My logic was that by the time I was seeing green shoots around me (a few weeks if you live in a warm climate like Florida) there would be “green shoots” in the economy as well.

And here we are. After a few days of rain – including a full 24 hours of heavy, heavy rain – everything I planted is starting to poke up around me. My beds are full of green shoots. Meanwhile, the news is full of states publishing guidance on reopening their economies, as other western democracies are starting to do the same. It’s finally beginning to feel like springtime.

I just received another shipment of plants that I had ordered during my darkest nights keeping the futures vigil. This is rather humorous, too, as I could remember neither the site I had ordered all these plants from nor the plants I ordered.

Today I planted 4 ostrich ferns, 1 Thailand giant alocasia, 1 black metallic alocasia, 12 creeping red sedum, 12 golden sedum, 5 blue poppy anemone, 1 great gunnera (which I have since learned is actually an enormous species of rhubarb, I can’t even with the plant world sometimes), 6 cardinal caladium, 10 red spider lilies, 2 more oriental lilies, 25 double red freesia, and 9 four o’clocks.

I still need to add these plants to my gardening spreadsheet, but I am pretty sure I have surpassed 1,100 plants in my economic depression garden.

The month of May should be unreal around here. And since I am going to be turning 40 years old at the end of the month (shhhhh), this will have to double as a botanical birthday celebration. I going to leave my youth in style.

Speaking of birthdays, our bald eaglets are now 8 weeks old. (This picture was taken of them during a thunderstorm, so it’s not very flattering.) In anther 2-4 weeks, these guys will be proper fledglings!

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

Eaglet update

While the human environment is growing progressively more insane, life is marching on as usual in the bald eagle nest in our neighborhood. The eaglets are getting their feathers and soon will be learning how to fly! They kind of look like grumpy vultures at the moment, but they will be majestic in no time.

Difficult to believe they only hatched in mid-February.

Alligator mating calls – nature's alarm clock

I’m sure mostly everyone these days feels like they’ve wandered into The Twilight Zone. But it’s business-as-usual in the animal world.

The noise from our personal plague of crickets is finally starting to die down, as we’ve recovered a lot of them and fed them to a most obliging Henry. I enjoyed the first real night of sleep I’ve had in weeks.

Well, at least I was enjoying it, until we were woken up at 5 o’clock in the morning by a pair of horny dinosaurs. Yep, it’s alligator mating season across the Deep South, and particularly in the hedge along the water by our house. I’m so glad I started a blog so I can look back and remember how truly bizarre these days were.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard alligator mating calls before, but they will simultaneously freak you out and amuse you. Alligators spend most of the year lurking about the swamps in stealthy silence. They can sit quietly at the bottom of a pond for hours at a time. But when they are feeling amorous, they are louder than a Latin American soap opera.

Perhaps letting an 8-year-old be a cricket farmer was a bad idea

As I explained in an earlier post, my husband got tired of driving to PetCo to get crickets for Elise’s very hungry bearded dragon every other day. So he bought 500 crickets online and put them in a previously unused terrarium in our daughter’s room. And they have been making their sweet, sweet music all night long for about a week. I have not gotten much sleep lately for so many reasons.

It couldn’t get much worse than this, I thought. But like everything in the world these days, it can get much, much worse.

All of the crickets that have not been devoured by the lizard (just under 400, in my estimation) have now escaped and are running loose around the house that the government says we cannot leave.

Interestingly, some of them are starting to make their way back to the cardboard delivery box they came in. I am not sure if that’s because the insects have a memory and think there will be delicious cricket food or whatever they were sent here with in there. Or if being placed next to a terrarium with a giant lizard, with a front-row seat to the daily cricket holocaust, is wearing them down and they want to go home.