The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

Image by LwcyD from Pixabay

I wrote last weekend about writing a letter to your future self. I didn’t mention then that the inspiration for that was my seventh-grade English teacher who had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left our junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish I had gotten my letter back. My 17-year-old self would have liked to have seen what my 13-year-old self was thinking about the future that had become the present.

Writing letters seems so old-fashioned today. I had students that were amazed that there were entire books of letters that authors, artists, statesmen, or historical figures had written.

vincent's signatureI showed my students a book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. He wrote often to his brothers, especially Theo, and his sisters, other artists and friends from home. It is estimated he wrote more than 2000 letters and about half survive. Theo kept Vincent’s letters carefully stored. Vincent often discarded letters.

It is estimated that Thomas Jefferson had written 18,624 letters in his lifetime.

I also had my students write letters to famous people and I amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I displayed in my classroom. This was in the days before email was common and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

When my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. There was an autographed tennis ball, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand-drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did in that odd bold scrawl that became familiar to us during his Presidency and included a copy of his Art of the Deal book.  One student asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home.

I encouraged students to write to the contemporary authors that we read in class. We even wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers from her. (Read my post about that to learn how)

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that, I don’t mean just the format of a business and friendly letter. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is probably why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD or playlist of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

After my mother died, I found a box of letters written to her. Some were from my father who had died many years earlier. Some were from me, written when I was away from home as a child on vacation with relatives, and from me at college. They are priceless pieces of the past. I have a postcard reply from author John Updike. I have a letter from astronaut John Glenn I wrote in fifth grade when I thought I might become an astronaut too. I have all the letters to authors and actors and celebrities that I wrote each year when my students were doing that assignment. One from Mr. Fred Rogers is something I treasure.

I find it sad that letter writing seems to be a lost form of communication. When was the last time you received or wrote an actual letter to someone by hand, on paper, that was mailed? Probably, too long ago.

Lost Skills: Reading Nature

After doing lots of reading and observation of nature in my life, I have determined that some of the signs we think we see in nature are deceptive, false, or what I categorize on this site as “lore.”

Prime example: Thinking that some groundhog held in captivity and pulled out on a day in February means anything about the weather to come. Even the voluntary arrival of robins in your backyard doesn’t mean a lot. I’ve seen them sitting on my fence in a March snowstorm. They are more likely to be using nature signs in the place they were wintering. Though the American robin has always been a harbinger of spring here when it arrives in March and starts nesting activities, I’ve read that many are here year-round. They have gotten the message about climate change.

cherry blossom

Japanese cherry blossoms, known as “Sakura,” reached a peak bloom in Kyoto, Japan this year on March 26. That is the earliest date in 1,209 years, based on data collected by Osaka University. This is the first time they’ve been this early since 812 AD.

Still, I keep reading and observing, particularly in my own Paradelle area and in my own backyard microclimate.

New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C.  Branch Brook Park in Belleville and Newark has more than 2,700 Japanese cherry blossom trees. The Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival this year is from April 3 – 18. They are in bloom this weekend and set to peak in the next week or so. But that doesn’t mean we still won’t have a frost night in the next two weeks.

A few years ago, I read The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. The book’s cover subtitle tells you the breadth of the subject of reading nature signs: “Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals―and Other Forgotten Skills.”

I have tried to use all those skills. Okay, I haven’t had the need to find water. I can use tree roots to know the sun’s direction which tells me which way is east/west and therefore north/south. Of course, you also need to know where you are and where you want to go for that to be useful. I used to teach classes in using a map and compass and one exercise was to take people into the woods and then say “Take out your compass. Okay, which way do we go to get back?” Most students couldn’t answer. At night, some people can navigate by the stars.

You can tell something about the current and near-future weather by observing insects since many of them can sense atmospheric pressure differences. Honey bees stay in the hive when they sense a storm.  coming. Insects use tiny hair-like receptors on their cuticle to sense pressure changes.

I have read that flies bite before it rains because the barometric pressure drop makes them get food before the storm. An old weather lore rhyme is “When hungry bites the thirsty flea, rain and clouds you sure shall see.” Ladybugs seem to swarm in warm, nice weather. Red and black ants sometimes build up their mounds for extra protection or to cover the mounds’ holes when bad weather is coming. I have written earlier about crickets telling us the temperature. 

Similar to insects, birds fly high in clear weather and come closer to the ground with a storm coming, possibly because the pressure is causing them pain at higher altitudes. Old adages include: “Hawks flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.” and “Geese fly higher in fair weather than in foul.” I have also heard that when seagulls fly inland, you should expect a storm, but I have seen them inland on nice, sunny days, so…

Lost Skills: Tracking

Common woodland animal tracks

Spring has officially arrived but there are still plenty of days in Paradelle when the temperature is below freezing. People are thinking about, planning and cleaning up their gardens, but it’s not a frost-free time yet. This weekend we may even get some snow in our part of the world.

Winter is not my favorite season and dealing with snow is my least favorite part of winter, But one thing I do like about a fresh snowfall is that it gives me a chance to more easily do some animal tracking in the woods.

I have written here about getting lost and getting found. Part of that writing focused on “The Tracker,” Tom Brown, Jr., who lives in New Jersey.  I still marvel at Tom’s abilities as a tracker and his knowledge of the natural world. I feel like I am still learning and I like that process very much.

dog track

In my almost suburban woods, the most common tracks are often that of dogs and their owners.  I have to go off trails and paths to find wilder life. If you look in books about tracking, you usually find drawings of tracks like the one at the top of this post. They are very clear, but the chances of finding such a clear track in your tracking are not very good. Mud is a good track medium, so I often look beside creeks, ponds, or even vernal pools. Snow makes the entire woods easier for tracks.

coyote track

Where I track, a coyote track is a possibility and, as you can see, the tracks are very similar to their relative, the domestic dog. (No wolves in Paradelle, but they would also be quite similar.)

But snow melts and so tracks change rapidly. The snow can help you determine how long ago the animal passed based on the melting or crusting of the edges from an overnight freeze.

Deer are very common in my neighborhood. I can track them on my front lawn. Their tracks are distinctive hooves. The challenge for me in the woods tracking deer is determining where they stopped, took a leap, or how they moved over gravel and rock, crossed creeks, and ran. The ultimate for me is to track a deer right to its present location – which might be its day bedding area.


I like tracking because it is a problem-solving challenge. It uses your vision in a way that you don’t often use it in everyday life situations. You need to take in all the signs and signals of the woods – not just the tracks.

It is quite clear that almost all of these senses and this knowledge has been lost in our move from frontier to civilization. Do we need to be able to track animals? No. We don’t need this skill or the ability to name trees and plants or pick out a star or planet in the night sky. But I think that having all those skills and many other lost ones has benefits today.

I cannot move as silently as the Native American scouts. I still find myself looking in tracking guides when I am in the field to confirm a species. No one will call on me to find humans lost in the wilderness, as they do with Tom Brown, Jr. But I have skills beyond those of my neighbors and friends.

raccoon “hands”

I know that those tracks in the alleyway are raccoons checking out my trash cans with their almost-human “hands.” that can push the handle locks on those cans.


I will walk out to my backyard with my morning coffee in the snow and track the many squirrels who have been busy.  But there are more challenging tracks and bigger animals to find.

bear black

The “big game” for my area is the black bear. Bears appear in my area which is too suburban for hunting, but the state does have a controlled hunt season for bear and deer. Though finding fresh bear tracks is exciting, I might not track the bear’s path forward to find it, but instead, follow it back to see where it has been and what it has been doing.

I used to teach classes in tracking at the Pequest Trout Hatchery and Education Center in New Jersey. My favorite was a winter one that, with the cooperation of the weather, was called “Stories in the Snow.” The class was very much a problem-solving session besides teaching the basics of identifying tracks. The goal was to find the story in the snow. Beyond knowing who left a track, I wanted people to think about why the animal was there, what it was doing, and where might it be going. Could we actually track it down and find its home, bedding area, or the animal itself?

Some finds were more spectacular than others. I would go out a few hours before the class and look for places that would definitely have tracks, such as around the fishing pond filled with trout and along the Pequest River which also held trout.

My classes were open to children and adults and I often had parents with their children which was great. Kids have such a different way of viewing the natural world. You might have a 5-year-old who guesses that a track is from a dinosaur or a 10-year-old who sees a chipmunk track go “through a tree” and surmises that it must have “climbed up the tree for a better view.”

What happened here?

The photo above is one of those “wow” finds for a class. What happened here? It looks like someone created a design in the snow. Animal tracks often cross after one has passed, but when animals cross paths in real time, you usually get a story. This photo tells the story of a rabbit (tracks) who met up with an eagle (“tracks” from its wings). Did the eagle swoop down and get the rabbit, or did the rabbit escape?

I might get one last tracking session in the snow in early April. Then, in the soft mud of spring and after rainfall, I will walk the woods in greater temperature comfort but more challenged by the conditions.

And maybe I will finally find where that fox that sometimes walks through my backyard actually lives.