Through the Eyes of a Child

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” – Baudelaire

Isaac Newton saw his world-changing discoveries as something he did when he was “like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Yesterday, I spent the day with my two grandchildren, ages 3 years and 9 months. Those times are when I often come closest to recovering from my childhood moments of discovery and a different way of seeing the world. We use the word “wonderful” for many things that are not full of wonder – or perhaps, they are filled with wonder but we fail to see it. Think of looking up at the night sky, or at a wave forming and crashing or a plant blooming or making fruit, or a young bird testing its wings. Wonderful.

I came to these thoughts from our play time yesterday and noted them because of an article on The Marginalian (a website often filled with wonder). It was mostly about observing as done by John Steinbeck. He is an author that I read very intensely in my teen years, but have read much of late.

The book that was quoted is his non-fiction The Log from the Sea of Cortez which I had not read. This somewhat forgotten book of his (as compared to his Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden) is about one of his marine biology expeditions in the Gulf of California, but in some ways, it is a book on how to observe and how to think.

Here is one excerpt:

As always when one is collecting, we were soon joined by a number of small boys. The very posture of search, the slow movement with the head down, seems to draw people. “What did you lose?” they ask.
“Then what do you search for?” And this is an embarrassing question. We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another, as this young man searches for a warm light in his wife’s eyes and that one for the hot warmth of fighting. These little boys and young men on the tide flat do not even know that they search for such things too. We say to them, “We are looking for curios, for certain small animals.”
Then the little boys help us to search.

Though it seems like the boys and the adults were searching for different things, they really were searching for the same things.

My title makes me think of the dreamy Moody Blues song, “Eyes of a Child.” It is on the album To Our Children’s Children’s Children. Those will be my great-grandchildren who I don’t expect to ever meet. That concept album is mostly about the world we leave the generations after us. I also think it is about how we see the world and the idea of observing it through those childlike eyes that see wonder and are full of curiosity about the what, why, and how of so many things.

I do sometimes think that my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond might one day read things I have written – on paper or online. Some of those words are about me, our family, their grandfather, their father, and even about them in my imaginings. Although many of those words are through the eyes of an adult and now an old man, I hope some of them came from the place that I once was as a child too.

“We dismiss wonder commonly with childhood. Much later, when life’s pace has slackened, wonder may return. The mind then may find so much inviting wonder the whole world becomes wonderful. Then one thing is scarcely more wonderful than is another. But, greatest wonder, our wonder soon lapses. A rainbow every morning who would pause to look at? The wonderful which comes often or is plentifully about us is soon taken for granted. That is practical enough. It allows us to get on with life. But it may stultify if it cannot on occasion be thrown off. To recapture now and then childhood’s wonder, is to secure a driving force for occasional grown-up thoughts.”Charles Scott Sherrington

The Full Moon Is There Even When It Is Not Here

The May 2023 Full Moon made its appearance on May 5. It did not appear to me in Paradelle because it was cloudy and rainy. But the Flower Moon was there and this weekend will be filled with flowers as the temperatures finally climb into the seventies. That was the second Full Moon of this spring and the second after the spring equinox. There was also a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse at the same time as the Full Moon. (Technically 9 minutes before its peak.)

The May Full Moon is in Scorpio. The predictions don’t sound very good for those who believe in such things. One source says, “Scorpio rules the eighth house of sex, death, and transformation as well as the reproductive and excretory systems and the sacral chakra. The focus here is on what is buried, and themes of rot and renewal, endings and beginnings…Scorpio is the patron sign of obsession (sorry, not sorry) and this eclipse points to patterns, compulsions, and behaviors that we repeat but reap no reward from. This eclipse wants you to cut that s–t out. Scorpio is about what we keep hidden from others so these obsessions, underlying energies, personal pains, and anxious attachments are for us to identify, expose, politely thank, and heartily cast out.”

As with all astronomical and celestial events, happenings in nature, and many very human events around us, things go unobserved. Our view of the stars and planets shirt. The sun rises in a slightly different place each morning. Trees, leaf out, bloom, and produce fruits and seeds during spring whether or not you take notes. People you don’t know die. People you know get depressed but for whatever reason you never noticed. People, nature and the universe doesn’t always announce themselves to us. You have to be observant.

The Parable of the Elephant

The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms.  You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.

examining the elephant
Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One version of the story:

Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.” 

“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.” 
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”

The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.

In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.

And what is the moral or lesson?

Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences.   Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.

The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.

In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”

In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.

I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”

In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.

The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.


In the Month of Winter and Spring

For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.

Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.

The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]

I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?

These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.

Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.

Spring leaf anomaly: dark red indicates areas of early bud burst, with some areas as great as 21 days early. It should be noted, that areas around Los Angeles are conversely nearly 21 days behind schedule. Image via

According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”

The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.

Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.

This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog

Nature’s Notebook

The crocuses bloomed three weeks earlier this year in Paradelle.

Things are blooming in Paradelle, so I have started recording them in my garden notebook. Have you noticed any changes in when things sprout or bloom in your neighborhood? Maybe flowers tend to bloom a little earlier in the year or birds that used to migrate are hanging around your yard through the winter?

In some ways my garden notebook is a nature notebook as I find myself also recording first and last frosts, snow storms, the appearances of birds, insects and wildlife. Some of those things I report here, both seriously and also as a kind of weather lore. My posts about predicting the weather based on signs in nature seem to get a lot of hits, so I am not alone in my interest, scientific or not.

Most people have never heard of phenology. but if you have ever paid attention to the timing of natural events, like blooming flowers and migrating animals, you have been practicing this -ology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.

If you want to make those observation to be more “official,” you can become a citizen scientist by connecting with groups like Nature’s Notebook. It  is an online project sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network. Americans can practice phenology in their own habitat and share their observations with other members and have their data shared with scientists who will use the data for research and decision-making.

It saddens me how disconnected people are to the natural world of plants, animals, the earth and sky. s a lifelong teacher, it really saddens me to see how disconnected kids become as they get older. The interest is always there in very young children, so it is something that is lost.

We may not all be as observant as Sara Schaffer of Nature’s Notebook who suggests that we notice the “slightest blush on a maple leaf that foreshadows the coming fall” or the “new, more vibrant feathers warblers put on days before mating.”

robin-pixabayDo you see the appearance of the first robin on your lawn as a sign that spring has arrived? I grew up hearing and believing that. But I have observed and recorded robins every winter. Once I saw four of them sitting on my fence in a February snowstorm. Robins as indicators of spring is a good example of weather lore.

Most robins do migrate south, but some are probably still around your neighborhood all winter – no doubt better protected in the woods than on your bare lawn. The robins that do migrate to the South in the fall, return in the spring, so then we see many more of them on that soggy lawn and field in search of food.

Geese flying south in Paradelle is a daily occurrence. They fly from the reservoir south to a pond. They never migrate and leave any more. What does that indicate? Perhaps some of it is climate change, but it is also the prime water and grass we provide them in parks, golf courses, school fields and corporate settings. Why leave?

Though thinking a captive groundhog can predict the end of winter is certainly weather lore, paying attention to events like true bird migrations can help us understand long-term trends and predict future events. That is why many observers may be reporting small changes that can help more accurately predict the long-term impacts of climate change and shorter-term events in the near future.

And observing when the smell of smoke from fireplaces changes to the smell of barbecue smoke is a definite indicator of suburban seasonal change!

Notes from the Edge of Town

“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.”

In Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town by Susan Hand Shetterly, the author takes a similar path, observing her own neighborhood in rural Surry, Maine.

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.