“What Would Gene Stratton-Porter Do?”

After years of saying, “We should tour the Gene Stratton-Porter homes,” we finally visited two historic sites in the northeast corner of our state last week. We went to Rome City and Geneva to tour homes inhabited by Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th century author/conservationist/nature photographer.

You can be forgiven for not knowing her name, though she was beloved by our grandparents’ generation for her romance novels set against the backdrop of a disappearing wilderness. Even most Indiana residents are unfamiliar with the work of our state’s most widely read female author of all time. But in her day, she was embraced by enthusiastic fans all over the world.

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Portrait of Gene Stratton-Porter, via Creative Commons

Stratton-Porter married a well-to-do businessman who must have been a brave man to wed such an independent-minded woman. She “shed social conventions like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon,” to quote a book I’m reading about something completely different.

Hubby didn’t want her to explore the vast Limberlost Swamp, though they lived right on the edge of this intriguing wilderness. At that time the marshland (later to be drained for farming and drilled for oil) was dangerous uncharted territory—teeming with Massasauga rattlesnakes, boggy muck, swarms of insects, and the occasional unsavory character.

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Limberlost Cabin in Geneva, where Gene Stratton-Porter began her writing and photography career. Her many-windowed conservatory is facing us.

But Stratton-Porter’s love of the natural world compelled her, and in the end her husband relented, accompanying her on expeditions to photograph wildlife and collect specimens.

Her best-known book A Girl of the Limberlost, among others both fiction and nonfiction, brought this place to life for people worldwide. One of our guides told us that she’d worked out a deal with her publisher: I will write you a crowd-pleasing story as you require (heavy on nature details), and then I will write a nature book of my own choosing. Rinse. Repeat.

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She helped build this low stone wall around Limberlost Cabin, with openings for wildlife.

We learned that she wore what was considered mannish clothing, that she served her husband dandelion and horseradish stew with hambone (he dubbed it “fodder”), that she organized a bucket brigade the night her husband’s businesses were threatened by fire while he was away. This woman was, in modern parlance, fierce.

I went on this trip mildly interested in her as a part of Indiana’s literary history, having read A Girl of the Limberlost sometime back. But I came away as full-on fangirl. I jokingly told a friend that my new philosophy should be “What would GSP do?” (except for the ironic not-driving thing—apparently she was afraid to drive, and in fact was killed in a car wreck at age 61).

So, what would she do?

  • She’d hyphenate her name as her nom de plume, well before the time when women commonly retained their family names.
  • She’d drop out of high school, but attend Chautauqua meetings for her own edification.
  • She’d monitor all the bird nests on her family’s farm as a child, honing her powers of observation and her connection to wild creatures.
  • She’d teach herself photography, developing early box-camera pictures in a bathroom that she converted into a darkroom.
  • She’d purchase a piece of land on a mile of lakefront, and design her own home, and supervise its construction, rowing across the lake every morning to check on the workmen. (Husband came on weekends.)
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Wildflower Woods on Sylvan Lake, the house that she designed and used as creative workshop.

  • She’d collect stones from her friends’ travels, from all then-48 states, and build a fireplace using them, creating images in the stonework’s artful placement.
  • She’d sleep with cocoons, so as to be ready when the butterfly emerged. She’d live in a houseful of winged creatures. (Later, she would write of her realization that the only ethical way to interact with these creatures was in their native habitat, so presumably she no longer kept them indoors.)
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Where she slept with cocoons. Note them hanging from the bedframe and gathered on her bedside table.

  • She’d be exacting in the execution of her creative vision. If a photograph didn’t come out right, she’d return as many times as it took to get the one she wanted. No matter how treacherous or buggy the territory might be.
  • She’d carry on with her work even as literary critics and scientists alike dismissed her; she’d see herself as a defender of the places and animals she loved.

From What I Have Done with Birds:

“This is the basis of all my field work—a mute contract between woman and bird. In spirit I say to the birds, ‘Trust me and I will do by you as I would be done by … I shall not tear down your home and break your eggs or take your naked little ones from the nest before they are ready to go … I shall come in colors to which you are accustomed, and move slowly and softly about, not approaching you too near until your confidence in me is established. I shall be most careful to feed your young what you feed them; drive away snakes and squirrels, and protect you in every way possible to me. Trust me, and go on with your daily life. For what small disturbance is unavoidable among you, forgive me, and through it I shall try to win thousands to love and shield you.’”

I found loads more information on this fascinating figure in an Indiana Historian article. And of course we bought several books that I’m looking forward to diving into.

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In the shadow of Wildflower Woods cabin, looking over Sylvan Lake.

Picking Up the Healing Trail (Guest Blog)

It’s been a while since I hosted a guest blogger. This week the marvelously observant Katherine Hauswirth, a nature writer from Connecticut, contributes this post. (She also invited me to write a piece for her blog, and it will come out soon!)

Guest post by Katherine Hauswirth, author of The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail.

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Today, Shawndra is allowing me to visit her blog and contribute my own words, and I have gratefully received some words of hers to share at First Person Naturalist. I’ve gotten to know Shawndra a bit through her writing, and was drawn to her work because of its clear awe of nature—the topic I like best. Her admirable, dual tagline of Writer/Energy Worker conveys connection—connecting words, ideas, people with ideas, energies, the body with the mind and the soul.

Shawndra introduced me to the work of Gaian teacher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. She wrote about her here. Macy talks about “The Great Turning”—shorthand for our current age, one that’s suspended between a society shaped by industrial growth and the possibility of a new one that is life-sustaining. I examined Macy’s words a bit in The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, which launches this month:

Macy transmits hope for our ailing world in many ways, but she wonders aloud about the direction in which we will collectively turn. I, too, am unsure, but I seek out comfort in gestures of both adoration and action performed by those who, like Macy and me, are smitten with love for the world.

I continue to hold out hope that the many smitten folks out there will help our world to turn in the right direction. But today it occurred to me that love for the world also acts as a tonic for me, personally. I need to be smitten with that love in order to heal. And by “heal” I mean to feel like I am whole, like I am closer to my best self.

I had recently been sick with a minor illness, and while I was “cured,” in the sense of no longer coughing and sleeping more peacefully, I still needed to heal. The illness seemed to spark a pattern of not caring for my needs very well (or could it have resulted from such a pattern?). My schedule was off; my mind was off; my spirit was off.

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For me, time to myself and time in nature are essential for thriving, and if I can get both at once, all the better. So, despite a long to-do list, I’ve been taking myself on walks.

At the start of today’s walk I was tense, ruminating about a million pending chores and the little annoyances of family life that were stacking up in my mind like dirty dishes. Soon, though, I was happily distracted by a pair of Mallards in the cemetery pond. The female was curious about me, and floated quite a bit closer than her spouse dared. I watched her rubbery orange feet paddling for a while and moved on.

A drab-looking sparrow looked much more exciting when I trained my binoculars on her—I could see bright yellow marks by her eyes. (Later, a little research suggested she was a White-Throated Sparrow). An Osprey couple has taken up residence at Pratt Cove, a freshwater tidal marsh, on the same platform that yielded chicks last year. The female called from the nest in her familiar, high-pitched whistle. And front and center across from the viewing deck nearby sat a Mute Swan on her sizeable, cushy-looking nest, her neck folded over her body, her eyes idly watching her mate, who meandered the channel.

White Throated Sparrow by John Flannery

White-Throated Sparrow courtesy of John Flannery on Flickr

Healing feels like expanding. I am no longer “trapped” in the container of my intellectual mind, with its thoughts bouncing off the walls noisily. I am using all senses to connect with the larger world. I take it in and feel refreshed, open to new possibilities.

Awesome “side effect”: I think more generously about others when I have had these restorative moments.

Nesting Mute Swan by Mike Scott

Nesting Mute Swan courtesy of Mike Scott on Flickr

We all lose the trail sometimes. We forget to even take the time to figure out what we need. When we get our feet back on the healing path we feel more whole and hopeful. And we have more to give.

How lovely, this spring, to turn toward the sun and to watch the natural world turning in the same, light-loving direction. No doubt there is much to do for Mother Earth, but spending time with her is, in and of itself, a crucial act of love. As usual, she bestows much in return.

Katherine Hauswirth’s writing focuses on connection and contemplation inspired by the natural world. She has been published in Christian Science Monitor, Orion online, Whole Life Times, and Connecticut Woodlands. Her blog, First Person Naturalist, reflects on experiencing and learning about nature. Her awards include artist residencies at Trail Wood (Connecticut Audubon’s Edwin Way Teale memorial sanctuary) and Acadia National Park, and first place in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. She lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Her book, The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, comes out later this month.

Kinship

An ancient hackberry tree holds my heart this winter. I visit it on many of my walks.

beautiful hackberryA tree that has lived a long time has something to say about holding and releasing. I try to listen. (Maybe there’s a wise tree in your neighborhood who calls to you. I hope I’m not the only one out here hugging trees. I feel that they want us to give in to the impulse!)

I love to lean against the hackberry and feel its life force thrumming under my touch. Sometimes I rest my cheek against the bark and stretch my arms wide. Other times I wedge my feet between its tall roots and press my spine to the trunk.

IMG_4461I could probably explore this tree for weeks and never know it fully. The roots have made a mysterious bowl here.

IMG_4464Here’s a front view of the same formation. Now it is an open mouth under two eyes.

IMG_4463Here the roots meander, a tangle of ropes.

IMG_4462Every time I touch this wise tree-being, I say: Thank you, and I love you. Standing in its presence, I feel I can send my care deep into the heart of the earth.

Perhaps tree-beings are speaking to you too? Or am I alone in thinking the borders between us and our kin are thinner than we once imagined?

Note: For another view of the tree that shows myself and my (somewhat indifferent) dog, check out the Spacious Light Intuitive Arts page.

The Biggest Sky

I’m back from living under the biggest sky ever. Playa,* a retreat for artists, writers, and other creatives, granted me precious time in silence in the midst of a stunning landscape. I have to say, Oregon is my new favorite state (next to Indiana, of course).

My first morning at Playa, I walked this mown path through the grass.

Morning walk in the high desert.

Morning walk in the high desert.

To my left was Summer Lake, the “playa” (defined as “a temporary lake, or its dry often salty bed, in a desert basin“). To my right, beyond the road, was a smallish mountain range known as Winter Ridge. The vistas pretty much gobsmacked this Midwestern girl.

This was the view from my deck. I ate, read, wrote, and practiced yoga outside, shaded by two friendly trees.

My deck looked out over a pond. Who needs TV when you've got birds, dragonflies, jumping fish, and the occasional muskrat to watch?

Who needs TV or Internet when you’ve got birds, dragonflies, jumping fish, and the occasional muskrat to watch?

Pond life provided constant diversion, fodder, and entertainment. The jingles of my avian companions kept me humming all day. (I decided the redwing blackbird says, in French, Bon, vas-y! and in English, Look at meee, yeah!)

Every day I explored my interior and exterior worlds.

Walking on the mud flats.

Walking on the mud flats.

I was (and still am) overwhelmed with gratitude for such a gift.

An unexpected bonus  was connecting with so many incredible people, all in love with the natural world, all devoted to seeking, listening, experimenting, creating. In an upcoming post I will share a little bit about my co-residents, who inspired me almost as much as the wide-open space.

*Are you a writer, artist, naturalist, or researcher who would benefit from time away from routine demands? I would encourage you to apply for a residency at Playa. The program offers a combination of seclusion and conviviality in an absolutely gorgeous desert landscape. You won’t regret it, if you have the chance to go.

Respite

I’m back from Mesa Refuge,* where I had 10 days to write, read, reflect, and draw inward. It was heavenly to leave the smartphone in a drawer for most of that time, and to let my social media accounts languish.

It was a time of exploration. I explored through my writing every day, starting early in the morning and working late into the night in my private writing shed. From this window I spied deer, quail, rabbits, hummingbirds, juncos, redtailed hawks, vultures, egrets, white pelicans, and many other waterbirds and songbirds I couldn’t identify.

My writing shed  overlooked a Tomales Bay tidal estuary, where San Andreas fault lies.

The shed overlooks a Tomales Bay tidal estuary. San Andreas fault runs through this wetland. Mesa Refuge is “a place for writing on the edge”–and this shed is situated on the edge of the North American Plate, looking across to the Pacific Plate.

I explored the nearby town of Point Reyes Station. Not one but two yoga studios serve the tiny populace, and the farmers market brings everyone out each Saturday.

Point Reyes Station Farmers Market

Point Reyes Station Farmers Market

And once I ventured out in a borrowed pickup truck to one of the many wild places near the refuge.

Path to Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

Path to Abbott’s Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

This was one of my favorite days.

Abbott's Lagoon

Abbott’s Lagoon

I relished the solitude and quiet that are so rare in workaday life. It felt like a privilege.

Beyond Abbott's Lagoon: The Pacific.

Beyond Abbott’s Lagoon: The Pacific.

But there was conviviality along with the solitude. I spent many of the evenings in conversation with the brilliant writers who were in residence with me. In coming weeks I plan to feature each of these writers and their crucial work.

I also decided to spend some time sitting in nature each day, now that I’m home. Here in my city, the hummingbirds are long gone and there are no dramatic cliffs or hypnotic ocean waves, but the leaves are turning and the songbirds are still as vociferous as ever. Heartland beauty may be subtler than West Coast beauty, but it still fills me.

*Are you a nonfiction writer whose work touches on nature, economics, and social justice? I would encourage you to apply for a residency at Mesa Refuge. It is a phenomenal place to write.

To a Young Cicada

I looked for you today. There on the trunk of the maple tree, surrounded by the carapaces of your siblings, you’d been left behind. You were still unzipping your old skin and squeezing out. I saw your convulsive twitch, your jointed limbs, your staring eyes. Your struggle to be born. Your excruciating vulnerability in the moment of leaving your armor.

top viewI know you from your song, the vibrating sine wave soundtrack of every August of my life. Your evening crescendo drowns out human words spoken under the trees.

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I know you from your shell, the source of childhood torment. Yesterday I picked one off a raspberry with shivering fingers, reliving the horror of such husks left by a prankster brother: on my pillow, my bookshelf, my lightswitch.

I know you from your rare jittering bounce on the ground, a curiosity for the dog, an opportunity for the cat. And once you turned up at my back door after I wrote a poem in which you starred. You looked at me as if to say, You rang?

cicadaBut I’ve never seen you like this, in the act of slow-motion vaulting into your new shape.

for blogDoes it hurt, this freeze-frame backflip into airborne freedom? It looks like it would hurt.

Maybe it hurts like a numbed limb awakening, the flow of blood returning. A rightness in the pain. A sensing that what comes next is flight.

Do you look back at that exoskeleton that used to house you, once you’ve finally juddered free? That hull too small to contain you? No. The buzzing symphony pulls you up to the treetops. You ready your instrument.