“I live on land that has not surrendered the last of its wildness. It keeps secrets, and those secrets prompt us to pay attention, to look for more.” – Susan Hand Shetterly
You don’t have to escape the world most of us live in to observe how animals, humans, and plants share the land. One of my favorite books of any type is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It is a series of connected essays that combines scientific observation, philosophy, daily thoughts, and introspection. The writing is wonderful. I have used it in many classes as a model for writing prose. (Dillard also has several books about writing.)
Rather than go off to live in the woods, Dillard decides to take a very close look at nearby where she lives. Tinker Creek and its inhabitants offer her plenty to write about and she extends beyond the woods and water as she seeks out factual and metaphysical information about what she sees. And all that leads her to see much more.
As a reviewer said, she might be quoting the Koran or Albert Einstein, then describing the universe of an Eskimo shaman or the mating of luna moths.
She respects the landscape and its inhabitants. She tries to commune with them.
“No matter how quiet we are, the muskrats stay hidden. Maybe they sense the tense hum of consciousness, the buzz from two human beings who in silence cannot help but be aware of each other, and so of themselves.”
One difference is that she observes and writes about all of the local inhabitants – which includes the humans and the snowshoe hares, salmon, cormorants spring peepers and many others. How do all of them make their way in an ever-changing habitat?
That idea of taking a magnifying glass to your own little piece of the world isn’t quite as Romantic or adventurous as a year at Walden Pond or on a island, but it’s a lot more practical and possible. She observes a displaced garter snake, the paving of a beloved dirt road, rescues a fledgling raven, and see her town’s happiness in the return of the alewife migration. She gets and gives a reader some education in nature that might inspire you to take a similar short journey.
In doing some research on Shetterly, I found her website and discovered that she has also written a children’s book, Shelterwood. It is described as a teacher’s guide that explores forest diversity, from learning about different kinds of trees, to understanding how the “layers” in a forest provide habitat for all kinds of animals and insects. It sounds like the background material plus activities that encourage exploration while learning might also be a good book for parents to use this summer with their own youngsters.
The website also has an excerpt from the book, and I found a post there that had this section in it.
My plan is to lie on the couch, read the paper, uncork the wine. And so I wave to him, turn into my driveway, into the shadows of the softwoods, and pull up at the clearing where my house sits, catching the light left in the day.
Inside, I set down the paper and the wine and stand at the window watching a hen turkey, who has spent a good deal of the winter here, emerge out of the woods and direct herself toward the house. She’s lame. She walks by lifting her right foot in an exaggerated gesture, thrusts it ahead, and sets it down.
Birds walk on their toes. Most of what we see of a bird’s leg is the elongated foot with the same joints going the same ways as our own. On this hen, just at the place on the right foot where the tarsal bone fits to the bones of the toes, her toes curl under like a fist. She is two years old, and some neighbors and I have fed her since she was a jenny – a youngster -whenever she appears in our yards.
Her group of hens left her after the first snow this year. Or maybe she left them. In the fall, every time I watched them troop across the field in a line, she brought up the rear, rocking along. But she is a determined soul. Now she spends her days near my house, or she walks through the woods to be near a neighbor’s house. She preens. She watches every movement around her, perks at every sound. Sometimes, when I look into the trees in the woods on a sunny day, I see her resting in the leaves on the ground, or she is balancing on a fallen log above the snow, her head tucked back, asleep.
It seems that Susan had once done the move into the unfinished cabin approach and was probably more idealistic, and less prepared for the experience. But most of the essays come from the later period. She’s not always the quiet observer, like Dillard, as when she rescues that fledgling or stands down a bobcat that’s chased a baby rabbit into the middle of the road.
And she is interested in the people too, neighbors and the fisherman who encounters whales and swordfish or the garbage collector who repairs what others throw away.
So, perhaps, it is all about preservation of what matters and even finding out what does matter in the wilderness and yourself and about the slowing down that is required to make those kinds of observations.