On the Cusp of the First Frost

October 31st, and I’m afraid many a child will be disappointed by today’s weather for trick-or-treating. It likely won’t even hit 50 degrees, rain is a real possibility, and the winds are supposed to pick up in the late afternoon. The brilliant autumn colors are falling down, down, down as the continued drought conditions push the trees into letting go of their leaves. While Sourwood Forest is mostly about woods and wildlife, I also share part of this place with four goats: Cocoa, Bertie, Iris, and Captain Fantastic (in order of seniority). And the book I’ve been working on for the past seven years–about the woods and goats–is finally in print. So this post is pointing at that, to remind readers that this place is also an inspiring place to create. Several amazing artists contributed images to make the book visually beautiful. A few of them have websites: James Cicatko , Cathy Leather , Ted Moore, Rhea Nowak. I encourage you to check them out. If you’re interested in knowing more about the book, Contact me. I only printed a limited number, and they are not available online. Tonight the first real frost is likely to happen here at Sourwood Forest, which marks the start of my search for artists and writers who would like to be next summer’s residents, spending some time here between May and October 2024. Contact me if you’d like more information about possibilities. I chose the title after surveying over forty friends and colleagues to make a choice from five possibilities. Two of the titles got 75% of the votes, and What Holds Us Here won by a nose. I like it because the book’s content speaks to just about every way to interpret each of those words, making the title both a statement and a question. Continue reading

Pedlar River September Morning

I am choosing a Pedlar River photo to put at the end of my book, which is about to go to print once I decide on this last image! It was a cool morning, so I braved the risk of ticks to walk down to the river and take photos, carrying my wading boots since I knew it would be low and that the best views were likely to be had from inside the river. Below are the four I’m trying to choose between. Continue reading

Here one day, gone the next

Since the small milkweed patch finally appeared in our front garden several years ago, monarch caterpillars have been a part of September for me, and I’ve learned not to get too invested in the whole thing. That said, I am still thrilled when I first spy them (usually when they are smaller than my pinky fingernail), and I look in on them every day, amazed at how fast they can grow. But it’s hard not to be disappointed when they sometimes just disappear. I try to convince myself it must be because they have found their way to a secret location and are beginning to “hang J” in preparation for what comes next. This week I decided to photograph the current residents one morning when I was lucky enough to see four of the gaudily striped critters, quite healthy and sizable, and (in my opinion) way to close to the top of the milkweed they were feasting upon. When they reach the top and all that’s left is stem, do they climb all the way back down (some four or five feet) and proceed to crawl across the dangerous ground to climb up another stalk? I’ve never seen them on the ground or headed in a downward direction. They always seem to be moving up and very focused on eating. Today was rainy, and I wasn’t able to find any of them in my brief foray into their milkweed neighborhood. I’m going to believe that does not mean they are actually “gone” from the world. It is so metaphorically rich, this monarch life cycle, that the actuality of it can sometimes get lost in all the meaning I can assign to this particular creature’s way of being in the world. So my point here is just to document that “they were here,” that they had reached (at the time of having their pictures taken) a size that meant they were ready to pupate, to move into their next phase. I’ll post these pictures now and not speculate on the uncertain future they have already entered. That said, I’ll be looking daily in the neighborhood of my front gardens where these photos were taken for a gorgeous green chrysalis. Or maybe four. Continue reading

5 Minutes of Awe

On the back porch last Sunday morning, I felt awe three times in under five minutes. First, from the sound of the wood thrush’s song high in the trees across the middle pasture from me. Second, from the arrival of a nuthatch, who stared at me as he stood facing downwards on the locust post waiting for the other nuthatch to finish his (or her?) turn at the suet cage hanging about five feet from where I sat. He turned his head left then right, tilting it each time. Then he faced me straight on, deciding he wasn’t afraid enough of me to change his meal plans. And third, a hummingbird flew into the scene to feast on the rhododendron blooms just off the porch’s corner.  (The pictures here aren’t from that morning, though, but from a few days later as I stood at the kitchen sink trying to photograph a very active nuthatch feeding at the same suet cage I’d watched during my minutes of awe. The awe that arose from those happenings was a feeling like I was invisible but yet not invisible, and so somehow part of everything. That kind of feeling is part of the official definition of “awe” being thrown about purposefully within psychology and health care circles these days. There’s a lot of new science supporting what we’ve known forever: that awe is good for us.) After the awe, when I was thinking about the fact that I’d experienced awe but still sitting and watching, I was happy to know that the birds, while wary, weren’t afraid of me. That made me think of the snake I’ve been seeing a bit too often in the past couple of days. I would prefer he were a bit more frightened by me. He’s a young black snake (a teenager by the size of him) who has been slithering around the back porch and sunning himself on the front patio. Too close to the house’s doors for comfort. And he’s so casual about my presence that it’s making me a little nervous. But I have enjoyed the opportunity to watch a snake move, imagine what he’s intending or how he’s responding to me, an incentive to stand there and adopt a snake’s pace—not the fleeing pace but the decision-making pace, as he chooses how to get from this point to that point. I wonder how my presence may… Continue reading

Winter in All Its Glorious Forms

I have not written in December because I’ve been outside in the woods, through temperatures high and low, winds calm and raucous, days shortening and, just recently, beginning again to grow. That intoxicating slant of winter light drags me outside before I’ve even finished my first cup of tea and again in the afternoon when I should be staying glued to my screen for another hour. Recently, there was a cold spell. A period of below freezing temperatures for several days in a row, unlike we’d experienced for many years, it seems. I did my best to thaw the birdbaths a couple times a day to save the birds from having to fly to the creek to drink (knowing they had to conserve energy), and I put birdseed out in more places and types of feeders than ever before. And, of course, the goats had to be fed twice daily instead of once, have warm water added to their plug-in buckets (which keep water just above freezing, but not warm enough to entice them to avoid dehydration), as they munched through the hay in their net and racks at three times the usual rate. The extra outdoor work was worth it, though, for the chance to see ice art at the creeks! No way can I stay inside long enough to do any decent writing, so I’ve posted these photos (I’m too entranced by the woods, though, to even photograph anything properly..); and I’ll insert a poem from a few years back, though it requires a windy day and large white pines to picture it, something I don’t have in my photo gallery, sadly. So just imagine. Wind and the White Pine Tree It’s just another one of those days, another one of those windy days like so many others you’ve stood through. And so you just trust to your internal structure, to the joinings with neighbors below and above ground, and ride out the whims of the wind. Perhaps all will calm and you’ll still be standing, mostly whole and able to grow on. It’s in your DNA: this knowing what to do, what you can do, and when to do nothing. But there’s more to it than that. What I see is your motion inside the wind: your branches dance, along with the other trees’ branches powered by invisible air, and grace comes from how you bend to… Continue reading

Blessed Rain

Hurricane Ian’s outer flank is stirring up the woods, dropping much needed rain all over the Pedlar River watershed today. Yesterday, before the rain started, I took photos of the river at a place very familiar to me. I don’t remember ever seeing the Pedlar here so low. I’m sure it must have been this low during the drought (circa 2000-2002), but my memory isn’t what it used to be. What I do know is that area friends and neighbors have been noticing the low water this year more than ever before. Is this because we have reached a certain age where we can feel sure about our comparisons of “these days” with the past, perhaps? Or maybe it is because the swings from rain to dry are extreme enough for even those who don’t pay much attention to notice. This time of year is unsettling for many reasons–day length changing fast, trees changing color, squirrels racing about and all those signs we don’t even realize are triggering the oldest part of our animal beings into a sense of “Winter is coming! We must put up food and get the nest insulated!” These brainstem instincts are much stronger than the civilizing forces that allow us pretend we are somehow above and in control of nature. But the usual anxiousness of Autumn “these days” occurs within the larger context of climate change. What I think is different for me this year is the degree to which I’m accepting disruption as the rule. I know that my time of becoming more familiar with this natural place I call home has ended; and for the rest of the time I’m able to live here, home will continue to become less familiar by the season–because of climate change. The familiar becomes strange and strangeness becomes the norm. October is still a beautiful time, even in this topsy turvy world. What is here now is worthy of witnessing and celebrating. I’m reminding myself of this daily, hourly, and this minute while I look out at the neon red berries on the dogwood tree, her leaves shiny wet and tinged with burgundy, her soaked branches swaying in the wind. The thirsty world is drinking blessed rain, and for the moment that’s what matters most. Continue reading

Tornado?

As a tornado ended its short but dramatic life in my neighborhood last May, it dipped its tail into the woods surrounding my house and also into the forest on a neighbor’s adjacent property, between us and the Pedlar River. I didn’t come upon evidence of any of this until a few days later, after I had talked to my neighbor. He was out haying his field across the county road from my house, and I went out to find him because I wanted to ask him about buying one of his bales for my goats. His observation about the storm was that “there was stuff in the field from as far away as Boonsboro.” Boonsboro is the part of Lynchburg across the James River from us, and quite a few miles to the southeast. His observation about debris coming from somewhere else rang true with what I’d witnessed after that storm. Our back pasture seemed to be decorated with droppings from pine and deciduous trees, many from species other than what grew around the perimeter. The twigs and branches seemed evenly distributed, spaced all throughout the clearing, as if the storm had been a giant food processor picking up ingredients from all over the place, chopping them into similar sizes, then dropping them. But mostly my neighbor had been talking about the huge old oak trees the tornado had brought down, here and there across a large stretch of his woods on the edge of the hayfield. And that had led him to ask me, “Have you seen what happened at the end of the road?” I walked to the end of the county road the next morning, and that was when I realized why his eyes had been so big as he had asked me whether I’d seen this. Less than 1000 feet from our driveway, a huge hole in the sky had formed in the woods next to the road, created by the absence of a mess of very big trees, oaks and pines that had filled that space since before I had moved here almost thirty years ago. It was disconcerting. It made a part of the world that had become very familiar to me look suddenly strange and ominous. I was not able to get a picture of it because the scale didn’t translate into what my IPhone could see. My neighbor and I had… Continue reading