Cool July

Finally, after hours of sitting on the couch, he says, it’s gorgeous outside. Can I open the windows? No, I say. No, because of the previous fly infestation. But he props open the front door anyway, and I feel the rush of cool air in July.

I can’t get my shoes on fast enough.

Outside, I pass the four plastic ant-traps and stop at the ornamental plant I monitor every morning. Since this morning, one of the pale lavender buds has begun to break open. Or perhaps I forgot to check hours ago.

Next to it on the chipped paint of the house, a lightening bug electrifies. The reach of its small sphere of green light expands with increasing darkness.

Dark falls quickly on the edge of night in summer. It’s nine o’clock and amazingly still light. It’s nine-oh-two and dusk. By nine-thirty, there’s no mistaking the approaching night.

The fireflies are brighter luminaries now. Another hovers next to my face and blinks, its top shell thrust back and its underwings a-blur. Its legs dangling–thisclose–remind me of its bugginess, and my skin prickles at five imaginary mosquito bites.

I suffer none.

The fireflies continue to blink on, blink on, blink on, until, at maximum darkness, they could light a path. The ornamental plant waits for morning.

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I want to listen to cicadas every night

I want to listen to cicadas every night.

I want to listen to cicadas every night and eat watermelon in my bare feet, on the back porch. The cicadas’ wail marks the beginning of summer.

 

And when summer is over, I want to hop from leaf to fallen leaf.

I want to crunch out a path with my hands dug into my fleece pockets and my nostrils reddening in the crisp air. Changes in color signal the start of autumn.

 

And when fall is over, I want to see my breath.

I want to blow smoke rings of water vapor in the chill air with my nose hairs prickling and freezing. Breath made visible indicates the beginning of winter.

 

And when winter is over, I want to touch the smooth skin of flower buds.

I want to feel the wax on the backs of newly unfurled petals and sink my knees into the damp earth. Knees pock-marked with bits of dirt mark the beginning of spring.

 

And when spring is over, I want to listen to cicadas every night.

I want to listen to cicadas every night and eat watermelon in my bare feet, on the back porch.

 

No stopping for fear of the edge

Snow illuminates nature, every movement broadcast. Birds are suddenly unmistakeable: red, brown, and gray against powder white. The butterfly footprints of squirrels—back feet overtaking front feet—link every tree in the neighborhood. There isn’t a structure they don’t go up and come back down.

Outside of my window, a brown squirrel comes bounding across the roof next door. He slips and slides down to the gutter, clasping it with his white paws as his body flops over the edge. I watch like a nervous father pumping the brakes in the passenger seat. Brake! Brake! Snow flurries to the ground where the squirrel would have landed. Pulling himself up, he slinks along the gutter to an awning and then bounds again, out of view.

Not an hour later, the squirrel appears on the roof again; I catch a glimpse of his stark brown body against the snow. He slinks a different way this time, taking the high route along the peak of the roof. I breathe a little easier that he has learned. He makes a turn and slips down the shingles, sweeping them clean of snow. Recovering, he leaps to the awning and is gone, not stopping for fear of the edge.

The Guilded Corpse

I sat heavily on the bus, my heart hanging low in my chest, thinking about how life is a series of funerals. Next to me, the sky glowed between darkening buildings. Their silhouettes stacked up, almost on top of each other, leaving enough room for the skyline but too little space for the sky. The sun could dart from behind one to the next without being seen. The row of buildings ended, and my breath filled the space where my heart had been. Before me was a glowing set of orange bones. A perfect pelvis and stomach cavity, cut through the middle by a contrail. A sliver of a fingernail, the moon, hung next to it. Wispy clouds, like hair, were strewn all around. Slowly, the bones started to break and the fingernail thicken. Before my eyes, the hair turned a dark gray as the sun finally sank below the horizon.

Smartphones: The People-Nature Connectors

I admit I’ve done it. Sat with my head bowed, eyes nearly lidded, praying to the gods in my cell phone while typing away on a tiny keyboard. When I pause to look up, I realize how ridiculous phones look in the hands of large men with thumbs ten times the size of a single key. They squint and scroll and fat-finger. And I know that I have done it, too.

I have been so intent on what is coming through my device that I haven’t paid much attention to the greenery around me. It is only now that the trees are losing their green that I am paying attention. Only now that I took a long, wandering walk in the woods that am I remembering. To look around me. To not respond to the siren song of work left undone and “more productive” things that I could spend my time doing, every morning, every evening.

But my sin is not so grievous. While I know that I want to live a life spent noticing and knowing—noticing the hawk swooping for its meal on the roadside and knowing when I can walk without a flashlight by the light of a full moon—I still believe that devices can be powerful people-nature connectors, to help them access and appreciate the natural world through a familiar portal. We only need to point our smartphone cameras in the right direction.

The apparent indifference of trees

Tree silhouettes

“tops almost touched against the washed-out blue sky”

Next to the path stood grandfather pine. His roots formed small stairs, each one curled like an arm around a pocket of flat-packed earth. I looked up at his towering body as I stepped down his staircase.

I wondered: What does he know of the tiny humans scuttling around at his feet, so frenetic, from his point of view, running by in bright colors, talking loudly and laughing? No answer, of course, except for branches barely moving in the breeze.

As I sat on the bench, not far from the pine, I noticed other bigger trees whose trunks were far apart but whose green tops almost touched against the washed-out blue sky.

The tree directly in front of me was small and deciduous, so it still lacked leaves for the season. On its trunk, someone had carved, “2012 T + A.” What scars trees bear silently. What things they see and don’t remark on.

When it was time to move on, I got up and gingerly touched the scarred tree’s skin, careful not to touch its wound. Then I wrapped my hands around it and tried to shake it. But it didn’t budge. Its smallest branches jostled in the wind.

I went back to it, having walked a few feet down the path. This time I tried harder to move it. Bolder, I stuck my finger in its deepest scar, almost finger-sized. When I tried to move the trunk again, I thought it budged. But it was just the tree’s upper trunk swaying in a gust of wind.

Not your average herpetologist

The woman did not look like the herpetologists of my imagination. That’s probably because she wasn’t one. I imagine grizzly, sinuous, graying men who have hiked the Appalachian Trail and canoed the Okefenokee. Unfair, I know. I was probably underestimated, myself, during my career in herpetology.

But admittedly the woman did not at first inspire confidence with her approach to the turtle trying to cross the road. She reached out toward it with open arms, only to pull back quickly. I thought: “Oh, God, here’s a half-hearted do-gooder,” which, of course, is the worst kind; they can sometimes do more harm than good. The woman extended her arms again and took several steps forward, but she pulled back just as quickly and the turtle continued marching indifferently toward its goal.

Perhaps due to a befuddling day spent in air conditioning, it took me several moments of sitting in the turn lane—waiting for the light and watching—to realize that it wasn’t the turtle’s bite that she feared but the oncoming cars that whizzed past her and even closer to the turtle. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see the oncoming traffic until it had already narrowly missed the odd pair.

The woman looked down at the turtle and up at the traffic. The cars kept whizzing past, but the turtle was advancing, either oblivious to or in spite of the traffic. Deciding that she had had enough, the woman pointed exaggeratedly at the turtle and motioned for the drivers to stop. The traffic slowed to a halt. I glanced up to see if the light had turned red.

Snatching her chance, the woman doubled over and scrambled to pick up the turtle, but it marched faster, just out of reach. She stood up and looked hesitantly at the quivering walls of the parted Red Sea. They were steady, so she ran and doubled over again.  The turtle narrowly evaded her grasp. It was an easier beast to herd than to pick up, so she followed on its heels, flapping her arms toward the grass on the side of the road. One moment of the turtle’s hesitation as it decided which way to go was all that the woman needed.

She picked it up. I waited for it to bite her, braced for the sickening thud of living shell dropped on concrete. The turtle’s head rocketed out and its mouth snapped at the air. But the woman was unfazed. Traffic was life threatening, but a turtle’s bite could be forgiven.

The Red Sea held until she reached the grassy roadside with the turtle still in hand. It held until after she had crossed back to her car, which was blocking traffic in the opposite turn lane. Then, slowly, the miracle faded. The woman jumped in her car with a smile and a wave to the other drivers, who smiled and waved back at her.

My niece needed a nature spot

My niece, C, needed a nature spot. I scooped her up off the living room floor and declared: Instead of looking at animals in books, we were going to find some real live ones. As the inside door banged closed behind us, it was clear that this quest had not been well thought out. Even in the shade of the porch, it was a cool 95 degrees. The sun had been blasting down on the sparse grass of the backyard for a month straight, baking the red dirt. Only the fire ants were able to break up the packed soil.

As soon as I squatted in the grass and released C from my arms, she started ambling away with a crazy, careening gait—the one that children have when they’ve just learned to walk. I shuffled to regain my position of always being one step ahead of her, on the lookout for ant mounds and any other signs of life. The door banged shut again, and the neighbor’s dog started scolding ours through the fence. Our dog ran from one spot to another to another, nose down, ignoring the yapping next door. Perhaps she was sniffing for signs of life, like we were. Except fire ants and nosy neighbor dogs didn’t count.

Frustrated in my search, I took C around to the front of the house, where at least we wouldn’t be fenced in. A lone tree stood on the expanse of lawn, and cars rolled past on the suburban street beyond. C slowed to a stop as we approached the tree. It wasn’t much taller than I was, but she looked up at it with her mouth agape. I picked her up—here’s goes nothing!—and we dove into the cool shade. Inside the branches, the light wasn’t so harsh and the leaves glowed as they absorbed the sunlight. Looking through one was like looking through an empty glass Sprite bottle; it was that kind of brilliant green. Stained glass didn’t look that rich.

I touched a leaf and motioned for C to do the same. She extended one tiny finger and then drew her hand back to her chest, a sly smile on her face. It’s OK—it’s OK to grab a whole handful! Emphatically, I grabbed a bunch of leaves right in front of our faces. She reached out again and this time took a leaf between forefinger and thumb, like an old woman feeling the quality of a piece of fabric. Soon we were palming the smooth bark and squatting to look at the smaller grayish ants trailing up the base of the tree. C extended a finger; a frenzied ant had to find its way around the flesh that blocked its path. Not as exotic as the monkeys and fish in her books, but at least its legs felt pokey.

Outside, the harsh heat was still oppressive. I blinked and C squinted hard when we emerged. We made our way, hand in hand, up to the shaded front porch that overlooked the lone tree and the street. Had anyone else been standing there, it would have been just a tiny tulip poplar with dusty green leaves.

It was a Beethoven kind of night

Strains of powerful arm-flapping music belted from my car’s puny speakers as I raced the coming darkness home. I could get there first, if I allowed myself to be propelled by the sound. The sun had already sunk behind the dark mountains, and headlights zoomed past me in the other direction. Shadows consumed the details of buildings and trees so that only their hulking forms remained.

It was definitely a Beethoven kind of night. Well, I didn’t remember if the radio announcer said that it was Beethoven or not—Ten minutes before that, I had been distracted by the traffic that was finally beginning to thin. It took me several more minutes to realize that the music that was propelling me, making me push my foot a little harder against the gas pedal, seemed to perfectly match the sky. The road in front of me was dark, but the clouds were lit in the colors of the sinking sun. It was as if the trumpets’ blasts had produced the billows upon billows of orange and purple clouds. The clouds were moving while standing still, a painting whose subject is static and yet reaching, leaping, falling off of the canvas. I drove along the base of the low mountain, with the glowing orange sky in view. The clouds took up all of the space in my chest, and the music filled my ears. I didn’t know how long the moment would last.

It wasn’t a gradual fade-out. I beat the darkness home while the clouds were still lit from below. I pulled into my garage and waited a few minutes for the music to end to figure out the composer. But I noticed then that my stomach felt hollow, and without the combination of music and open road and sky to pull me and fill me, I made my way upstairs before I found out who it was. I still wonder.