“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!

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.

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.