This is part of their “Summer of The Pause.” The host of their Poetry Unbound podcast, Pádraig Ó Tuama, writes that “Rather than going for the high moment of drama, the high moment of the erotic, the high moment of the extraordinary, poetry will choose the small moment of pause just to look at what’s really happening, to look at a few layers deep and to let that small pause, that ordinary moment, open up with all the fullness of its being to us.”
I haven’t had a “pause project” this summer. James Prosek is an artist, fly-fisher, author, and environmental activist who has always, as he puts it, “found God through the theater of nature.” My theater of nature might be my frequent walks in the woods, working in the garden, sketching and painting, or writing in my journal. But are those pauses? Am I standing still in the stream? Maybe it was standing in a field of lavender in Provence with my wife this summer, or sailing down the Rhône River and just watching a world I’ve never seen before pass by.
The site invited people to share their #StreamOfTimelessness from summer with a short video or photo on Instagram. I took a look there trying to figure out how people interpreted the pause and standing in the stream of timelessness. This one makes some connective sense to me – though I still don’t know what is my answer to their question.
Some years ago, I discovered the work of Dan Snow. He builds with stone things practical and artistic. He builds stone walls without using mortar or other binding material. They call that ancient method “dry-stone.”
A few decades ago, I built a twenty-foot stone wall along my own driveway with the help of one of my sons. It is nothing like Snow’s work and I make no claims to “art.” I bought my stones;in six unnatural sizes. I secured them with adhesive cement.
It took me more than a week to dig out the bed for the wall from a small slope. Then I had to create a base. The most enjoyable, frustrating, and almost artistic part was arranging and rearranging the stones for balance, aesthetics, and strength.
It was the kind of process that some people might describe as a “Zen” experience. I have spent some time studying Zen, and I don’t really like it when people attach the word to other practices, such as the Zen of tennis. But I know why people attach Zen to certain experiences. It means that they find some mindful, insightful, almost spiritual connection to the practice.
This gives us the Zen of: writing, gardening, running, building a wall etc. John Stewart had The Daily Show’s “Moment of Zen” video clips. CBS Sunday Morning does a concluding ambient sound video minute that might be described as a moment of Zen.
I bought two of Dan Snow’s books.In the Company of Stone is full of photos of his landscape projects. Many have an “ancient” look, and if you passed by them, you might think it had been there for a century or more. I couldn’t find any images that I can reproduce here but look at the gallery on his website. His “Star Shrine” recognizes that people in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth. I like some of his phrases like “heaving and hewing” stone and “gravity as glue.”
My friend, Hugh, has a cabin in Maine on a pond (in New Jersey it would be a lake) that he bought decades ago. I remember the first time we visited the place many years ago (before I built my driveway wall) he showed me a winding stone wall he was working on that led from the cabin down the slope to the water. He had been working on it for several years and it was still far from done. He told me he worked on it every summer while they were there – collecting stones in the woods and from the pond and river. I didn’t understand at the time why he was making so little progress. I understand now. Hugh is a real artist and I doubt that Hugh ever wants to finish that wall.
Dan Snow is a good writer too. He writes about the natural world and our relationship to it well. His prose is sometimes compared to John McPhee and Annie Dillard. I like both of those authors and they are worth posts of their own.
Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is still in the top five on my non-fiction list, but the book of that comes to mind today is Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read it more than 25 years ago and I found the meditations there both enlightening and frustrating. It contains essays written about the arctic, the jungle, the Galapagos, and one of my favorites about a cabin in the woods. For me, Annie Dillard’s writing is all about close and mindful observation. Take this excerpt:
“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th century tinted photograph from which the tints have faded… The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”
Writing is like building with stone. You set the words one against the other trying to create the strongest structure and still have some beauty. I find writing poetry to be much closer to that mindful building than writing an essay or a blog post. Still, I hope my essays and posts occasionally enter that place.) Revising is like sculpture where you subtract and carve away at to reveal the form.
Dan Snow likens his process to alchemy. I find his second book, Listening to Stone, more poetic and thoughtful. His work goes far beyond walls – stand-alone sculpture, fences, pillars, staircases, arches, grottoes, pavilions, and causeways. He also combines stone, wood, and metal into many of the sculptures.
Snow started back in 1972 working on an Italian castle restoration, and his stone wall career began four years later. In 1986 and 1994, he apprenticed (a sadly lost word and practice) with Master craftsmen “wallers” in the British Isles. It took thirteen years fo him to achieve his Master Craftsman certificate.
I may need to have some formal study in all this. I definitely need to listen more often to the stones.
This past week I saw on the news footage of millions of monarch butterflies arriving in California and into the forests of Michoacán, Mexico.
It is wonderful in the true meaning of the word – something filled with wonder. I am filled with wonder and awe whenever I look up at the night sky and consider the universe. I get that same sense sometimes when I am walking through a forest, watching a river or at the ocean, or standing on a mountaintop looking at a faraway horizon.
Those butterflies swarming like a swirling paint palette of orange and black also seem magical.
Cooler temperatures make the monarchs cluster together until it warms and they can fly again.
Their migration began in the northern U.S. or Canada and they have traveled as far as 3,000 miles to reach more temperate winter homes.
Migration is pretty amazing. We know some things about how species make the journey. We describe it in human terms sometimes – they have built-in “GPS.” They have the knowledge from parents who passed along the knowledge. With monarchs, it is not parental knowledge. Their short lifespans preclude that. Only about one out of every five generations of monarchs migrate. Birds do back and forth migrations, but monarchs are the only butterfly species known to make a two-way migration.
The Sun has played a role in human navigation and also for monarchs. We don’t understand exactly how it works for these butterflies. I kind of like that it is still a mystery, but scientists do want to know. After all, the Sun moves, and to use it to navigate you also need to know what time of day it is when you are looking at it. How do monarch butterflies keep track of time?
Researchers have discovered that most monarchs take to the skies when the Sun is 57° to 48°. That is their window of opportunity whether they are leaving Canada or Kansas. They don’t seem to have some built-in clock but their antennae do seem to play that role in some way.
But all the science takes some of the wonder out of this. As much as I love science, the idea of researchers putting microchips on butterflies and painting or clipping antennae to study how their brain reacts in captivity to a false Sun seems cruel.
It is also sad how climate change and deforestation are negatively affecting monarchs and their migration. A recent report from the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund states that the amount of forest occupied by hibernating monarchs in Mexico went from nearly 15 acres in the winter of 2018 to 7 acres in 2019 to only 5 acres in 2020.
The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.
It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”
Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing The Lady and the Monk.
He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.
So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.
All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.
There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.
In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.
He does not promote or reject attaching a religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.
Acorns have been bombing my home’s roof and deck and pinging the roof of the metal shed in the backyard heavily since late summer. The quantity of acorns seems to vary year to year. This year might be what is known as a “mast year.”
I had to look up what a mast year means. The fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Things like walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, hard seeds, and acorns are called hard masts, and berries and fruits and buds are soft mast. A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number,
Since my first association with the word “mast” is with a sailing ship, I had to check the etymology of this botanical usage. It comes from Middle English and earlier Old English mete similar to mæst in Old High German where it meant food. If you think of an acorn as food (many animals and some humans do) then inside that shell is the meat.
Can we predict these cycles of acorn plenty? Do we know why they occur? There are theories but it is still mostly a mystery.
These mast years seem to occur in irregular cycles of two to five years. An abundance of acorns is often said to be a nature sign of a bad winter. The folk belief is that squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other animals somehow know that they need to stock up for a bad winter and that nature somehow knows to increase the supply chain of acorns. But there’s no real science behind that folk wisdom and weather lore. that they need to stock up. The Farmers’ Almanac – which has lots of folklore around weather – seems to indicate that if acorn numbers mean a bad winter then almost every year is a bad winter.
But I continue and observe and write about signs of the seasons in nature and keep a nature calendar.
Squirrels, mice, chipmunks and deer feed on the acorns in my neighborhood. When the trees produce smaller crops for a few consecutive years, they are in effect keeping the populations of these animals in check. But during a mast year, the trees produce more food than the animals can possibly eat.
This abundance causes a boom in the populations of the smaller mammals. It also guarantees that some acorns will survive and grow into new trees. Producing nuts slightly stunts the tree growth, but as it happens in cycles the tree gets a chance for growth in the non-mast years. Living things generally live to reproduce.
Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather and so in Paradelle, they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. I read that one chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. But those cute little Disneyesque critters don’t just eat acorns. Along with seeds and fungi, they will eat grain, fruit, nuts, insects, and worms. I was surprised to find that though they don’t hunt for bird eggs and even nestling birds and baby mice, they will eat them when they find them. They also love to dig in my outdoor potted plants, so cute as Chip and dale might be, they are also pests around here.
In 2020, the chipmunk population locally was insanely large. This year I barely saw any – until the acorns started to fall in late August and now they are all over my backyard and deck. Where were they all spring and summer?
In reading the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers and some other research as a follow-up. I learned a lot about trees. For example, most people probably believe that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water, and nutrients. That isn’t true. In fact, in most settings, they communicate and cooperate.
With acorns, temperature and moisture are probably factors in these cycles, and now it is theorized that oaks might be sending chemical signals to coordinate their production. In my part of the country (Northeast) last winter and spring were generally mild winter and so white and red oak trees are able to produce more of them when they start creating seeds in the spring. A harsh winter or cold spring or freeze can mean little acorn production, or sometimes none at all.
There are still mysteries in all this. How trees communicate with each other is still being explored. We can’t predict when any one species will have a mast year.
but we do better understand what causes it. The weather certainly has a part to play. To produce a healthy crop, the trees need the right combination of temperature and rainfall in the spring.
Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events in relation to the weather. This is the scientific version of weather lore and the studies continue.
SIDEBAR: Can humans safely eat acorns? Yes, they can be used in a variety of ways. They can be eaten whole, ground up into acorn meal or flour, or made into mush to have their oil extracted. Once you’ve safely leached the tannins from your raw acorns, you can roast them for 15 to 20 minutes and sprinkle them with salt for a snack. I haven’t tried eating yet, but maybe this is a good year for it.