A New Chapter

Here’s what’s been on my mind lately. Stewardship. What is the best use of my time, money, and energy? I work this problem all the time, attempting to follow my soul’s leading and my body’s wisdom.

Which brings me to a new development: A dozen years after leaving corporate life, I’m reentering the workforce. This time around, no pharmaceutical company. This time, my work will completely align with who I am. In fact, I was inspired to apply for a part-time communications position at the nonprofit Central Indiana Land Trust largely because of its stewardship mission. (I start at CILTI May 1!)

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Tulip poplar, Indiana’s state tree because it was used for so many log cabins, stands straight and tall on land protected in perpetuity.

“Stewardship of the kingdom” is a Christian value I absorbed from a young age. In Mennonite circles, stewardship ranks pretty high on an unwritten list of What Makes a Good Mennonite. We don’t discard things lightly at my house, even though I’m years away from my Mennonite upbringing.

I had the example of my parents: Mom who hated to waste air-conditioned air on a wide-open doorway, Dad who contrived creative ways to get the last drip of salad dressing from the bottle. Dad also volunteered extensively with CILTI, finding its vision a match for his passions. So it’s sort of in my blood—this impulse to conserve, tend, preserve.

(These days, I wouldn’t call it “stewarding the kingdom.” That phrase denotes a dominion mindset that no longer rings true. Here in my state, some controversial logging invokes stewardship as a rationale.)

Back to my new workplace: Sunday, I joined a CILTI-led guided hike of the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve, a portion of which is old growth forest. Old growth means it has been forest for thousands of years.

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Love the color of this fungus, which I can’t ID. Anyone?

The preserve was donated to the Nature Conservancy before it was even the Nature Conservancy, and given to the DNR under the 1967 Nature Preserves Act, protecting it from development forever. It’s the site of tons of studies, along with scads of spring wildflowers and ginormous trees.

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Trout lily in bloom at Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve.

It was downright moving to hear executive director Cliff Chapman give the wider perspective on CILTI’s work. And it has everything to do with seeing a tree as an organism, not an economic commodity.

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One of many fallen trees left to decompose as “nurse logs” for other species.

The goal is to buffer the 28-acre old growth forest with new trees, spanning hundreds of acres. Cliff pointed out a nearby field that will soon be planted with trees and monitored extensively.

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A field beyond the border of Shrader-Weaver will be put into trees.

Why undertake such a task? Well, consider the birds. Brown-headed cowbirds thrive in the edges of natural woodlands. They lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and other migrating birds. That wouldn’t significantly affect warbler population if habitats weren’t so fragmented. But warblers fly into places like Shrader-Weaver, and cowbirds fly out. These little underdog birds need to reproduce, or their numbers will dwindle away.

The answer is to unfragment the wild. Bigger patches of habitat give migrating birds more cover.

Beetles, spiders, fungus, all manner of rare plants all thrive in such a place as well. And in what sometimes seems like the last days of biodiversity (how many bugs went splat on your windshield on your last road trip?)—protecting them becomes even more critical.

How do we imagine that humans can thrive when our kin—winged, petaled, myceliated, rooted, scaled—collapse all around us? And who would want to live in that kind of world anyway?

We’ve got to start embracing other species not as “resources” but as organisms. Each has its own life and its own role intrinsic to its being. It doesn’t exist to serve us.

And knowing this can heal some of the painful loneliness of modern life, where we walk around feeling like nonbelongers on the land that sustains us whether we acknowledge it or not.

Speaking of embracing: When Cliff gave a one-armed bro-hug to a big old Shumard Red Oak, I thought: I am joining the right team.

More info: See the CILTI website to learn all about their stellar work (soon to be our stellar work!) Here’s a blog post I wrote about Dad’s volunteer work with this organization.

Ephemeral Nature

The “radical ephemerality of the mind.” That’s a phrase from yesterday morning’s yoga class, which kicked off a spring day when the snow just fell and fell.

I happen to love snow, no matter when it falls on the calendar, no matter if it’s wet and sloppy or airy and feathery. Snow brings out the little kid in me. Not for me the grousing of most folks confronted with a late-season blizzard.

In fact, I notice that I want a storm to last longer, snow harder, more more more. Never mind if it means I need to shovel longer/harder/more. There’s still this internal clinging. I believe the Buddhists would call that attachment.

It’s just: I like the draping of snow over every twig and berry. I want that to stay. I want to fill my eyes with that clean beauty. It’s even more precious for being so fleeting. (A few years ago when we were in the deep freeze with that Arctic Vortex, I hated the extreme cold but loved the way it preserved the softness of snow.)

Today I woke up to a different kind of loveliness, with wind and sun conspiring to wipe the snow off every limb. I got out for my walk as soon as I could.

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Watching the ephemerality of  nature (and my mind), I noticed my tendency to focus on past and future moments instead of NOW. Like: This creek view reminded me how I walked on it when it was frozen solid a few months ago. That was another moment I wanted to last forever.

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I decided I would continually draw my attention to the here and now, instead of mentally wishing for something to last beyond its particular moment. “Be where your feet are,” is something I remember Anne Lamott saying, and in my Yak-traxed boots, I did my best.

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The same wind that chilled my face and kicked up snow like desert sand had carved gargoyle shapes on top of this bridge railing.

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Is this the last Yak-trak of the season? Would I step less reverently if I expected more?

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What I’d like to do is pay close attention in every moment regardless of its assigned significance. Barring that, I’d like to remember to remember to remember to come back to the present moment… as soon as I remember to!

Ruminations on Reverence

I almost did it again. I almost got caught in an old thought pattern, the one that goes: Foolish child, gazing at birds, loving up trees, singing to streams. Have you seen the news? There’s work to do! Wrongs to right! 

Woops, I forgot for a minute. I forgot that wonder and reverence are the very things that bring the old story of separation—source of all the wrongs—to its knees.

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Echinacea photo by Sara Long

The last few nights I’ve watched a little bit of a DVD series loaned to me, called Journey of the Universe: Conversations. I didn’t know that reflecting on the grandeur of the universe would be the antidote to this old thought pattern. But when the late Paula Gonzalez (rad scientist nun!) spoke of “falling in love with the world” and how this changes us, I thought, YES.

Here’s a quote from cosmologist Thomas Berry, whose work inspired the series:

“Our relationship with the earth involves something more than pragmatic use, academic understanding, or aesthetic appreciation. A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live.”

—From The Dream of the Earth

I am of the ilk of those who can no longer call a companion animal a “pet,” nor a forest “natural resources.” I don’t see the planet as something outside of myself, to be appropriated. That intimacy Berry speaks of…I feel it developing between me and the spaces I love, and by extension the entirety of the world.

In his portion of the series, poet/activist Drew Dellinger says that reverence for the planet extends to all its people (and ourselves). If we begin to sense our place in the unfolding story of the universe, we gain a sense of wholeness and connectedness that forecloses any idea of exploitation or misuse.

Because make no mistake, the injustices perpetrated on indigenous people and people of color are part and parcel of the same old story that “thingifies” a tree or a waterway.

Yes, much work to be done. And where to start? What thread do I follow if I want to untangle some part of the mess? It’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed, lost in despair or anger.

So I go back to the heart of the matter: the story I want to live.

I bow to reverence once more, and give myself over to wonder.

Photo courtesy of Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

A Biodiversity Birthright

Last week’s Indiana Master Naturalist class has put me into a state a little bit like that dream … the one where you suddenly find a whole section of your house that you didn’t see before. “This was here all this time?”

Since the week-long intensive ended, I’ve been noticing things that previously weren’t on my radar. I’m hearing (sometimes identifying) distinct birdsongs that had largely been a sort of background chitter-chatter. Who knew there were indigo buntings around here? I had never heard of the Kentucky Coffee Tree, which I’ve seen on my walks (if my budding tree ID skills are on target).

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Sunfish. Photo by Sara Long.

On one particular day we saw fish in Lawrence Creek that were simply stunning, and a green frog to boot. Now I’m curious what wonders lie under the surface of the creek I cross every morning on my rambles.

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Green frog. Photo by Sara Long.

It’s common for Hoosiers to agree with people who denigrate our state. We seem to come at the bottom of every list measuring quality of life, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

But: It turns out that my state is actually pretty fascinating, geographically and ecologically–with incredible (often unsung) biodiversity.

That’s largely because of a thing called the “ecotone.” This is a place where two edges overlap, such as woodlands and wetlands. More species live in these spaces, naturalist Amanda Smith told us.

And Indiana, I learned, is lousy with edges. We have the Great Lakes edge in the north. Eastern Seaboard forests terminate in Indiana. Prairies had their eastern edge in Indiana. And the swamps of the south begin in Indiana.

Finally, we have glacial edges from retreating Ice Age glaciers. (I did learn this fact as a child as the reason for the way Indiana turns hilly south of here.)

I now have a long list of Places to Visit in my Own State. Part of being a naturalist is simply appreciating the natural world. Another part is sharing wonder, to get other people out and appreciating alongside us, so they can have their own epiphanies.

Another part is dirtying up the hands. A host of volunteers and organizations and nature preserves are working to conserve our ecological heritage—to support the coevolving native plants and bugs that form the foundation of life (not to mention beauty). So much habitat has been lost to development. The wilder corridors are so fragmented and invasive species so pervasive that many native species are imperiled.

The good news is that we can be part of habitat restoration in our own places. Our yards can become “our largest national park,” urban tree advocate Holly Jones told us, quoting native plant proponent Doug Tallamy.

Because, as Holly put it, “if you think your life is independent from the black-capped chickadee*, you are wrong.” (These perky little birds are on the decline in many areas.)

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Bumblebee on milkweed. Photo by Sara Long.

“Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.”

—Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home 

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Milkweed bug. Photo by Sara Long.

A long time ago, the elderly mother of a friend questioned me about my vegetable garden. “Do you have a lot of BUGS in your garden?” she said, and all but shuddered at the word BUGS. It was sort of comical, but sad too.

Now I want to plant a native garden that will unapologetically attract “bugs” to support the biodiversity that is Indiana’s birthright.

*A classmate just informed me that Black-capped Chickadees are in northern Indiana. South of Lafayette we have Carolina Chickadees.

All photos courtesy of my hugely talented classmate Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

“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.

How

“How do we apologize to the plants, the oceans, the air? The Mexicans?”

Asked by a dear friend who came to this country decades ago, wearing skin that makes her a target to some—and now more than ever.

I don’t know the answer.

I can say a mantra learned from the Hawaiian healing tradition of ho’opono pono. I take full responsibility. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

Everything that comes up to confront me is a part of me already, says this tradition. So I take responsibility for it all.

With this mantra comes a sense of settling, and sometimes a bit of clarity. Perhaps an idea arises that may or may not by Divinely inspired: I will join the local Amnesty International group and write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience. I will volunteer with Exodus Refugee, which works to resettle displaced people in my community. I will look up what Charles Eisenstein  and Starhawk have to say.

Or sometimes it’s an idea like: I will take my dog to the park and reconnect to trees and earth and sky.

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Opal and the Wise Old Oak.

Or simply: I will sit and feel into my body. I will allow my heart to be heard.

I will take this deep breath in, and let it go, and know that no one can steal my peace from me, because I make it myself and receive it as I ask.

Yes, all of these and more. And I still don’t know the answer.

Living Proof

Yesterday at Rivoli Park Labyrinth, I met up with a riotous party of plants, insects, and birds.

The park, which formed on a vacant lot thanks to community organizer Lisa Boyles, has gotten overgrown this rainy summer—but it is also a haven for life.

"Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects during this dry part of the summer when they don’t have many options. Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves, bees and other insects drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey, such as aphids" according to Chiot's Run. (Click photo for more.)

“Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects… Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves… and predatory insects come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey,” according to Chiot’s Run. (Click photo for more.)

Some plants we call weeds and others we call ornamentals. Some we consider natives, wildflowers, edibles, or another elevated status. Some we designate as invasive, others as desirable.

What I realized yesterday: These divisions are more important to humans than the rest of nature, which seeks its own balance.

The plants called “weeds” are the ones we pull out. Still, the grasshoppers, bees, and spiders find food and shelter on plants of all stripes. They are the epitome of nonjudgment, our guides in an insectile anti-labeling initiative.

Friendly pollinator

Friendly pollinator

So often I am quick to judge something good or bad.

Just now I went to strike that sentence, gauging it too trite! As testament to my new commitment to allowing things to be messy and imperfect, I am leaving it there.

Lisa and I talked about this very thing: In my writing, I declared my intent to finish my book while letting go of the need for it to be “perfect, balanced, and comprehensive.” Lisa swept her arm toward the “weedy” labyrinth and said, “Here’s living proof that a project doesn’t have to be perfect—just look at it!”

What I saw: voluptuous plants abuzz with happy pollinators. Abundant living entities in ongoing conversation, all encircling the glorious hibiscus at the center. The idea of perfection doesn’t really apply when we’re partnering with life, does it? So it can be with writing.

I told Lisa that the labyrinth didn’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution to the community. Uh, hello. Maybe I should write that down and stick it on my computer monitor.

Repeat after me: We don’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution!