Wintery thoughts in a time of resurrection

barberry in snow

Bigger news than this Easter weekend snow and cold snap, for us, is a rare visitor at the bird feeder two days in a row: a swamp sparrow. Or so my mother determined — I’m no birder. She came back from a walk yesterday morning glowing with enthusiasm at all the birds in the hollow that were seemingly unfazed by two days of snow: migrant hermit thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, blue-headed vireos, and more. I had walked briskly down the hollow and back an hour earlier and saw nothing but the blowing ghosts of winter and the sharp contrasts between green barberry leaves or yellow spicebush blossoms and the new backdrop of white.

snow on walk

A purely aesthetic vision necessarily excludes as much as it admits, always seeking to impose some sort of frame. That may account for some of my blindness. Then, too, as a man, I am probably more inclined toward tunnel vision in the service of specific search images (in my case, certain kinds of photos). I’ve always agreed with Louis Leakey, who felt women make better naturalists than men because they tend to be more patient observers. That’s one reason why he recruited women — Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas — to do the long-term primate studies he thought were needed. He also felt women would have more compassion and empathy for their subjects, and unlike a lot of scientists at the time (and to this day), thought that that was a good thing.

spicebush

It seems to me that the critical balance we need to strike is not so much between art and science, but beween dispassion and compassion. It is not enough simply to dissect a frog, or to capture its picturesque image on a lily pad, in order to understand what makes it work. We need to see the whole pond, and the ecological matrix of which it is a part. We need to understand why frogs are suddenly going extinct all over the planet. And we need to understand that when they go, a part of us goes with them — and that no purported salvation that is limited to the human realm can in fact save us.

Happy Easter.

17 Comments


  1. A big 10-4 on that limited salvation line!

    Nice shot of forsythias (?) blooming against the snow. I can’t say I’ve seen that. (They canceled our snow down here today.)

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  2. Thanks. No, that’s spicebush down in the hollow. Though our forsythia is about half-out now too.

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  3. Amen!

    For what it matters, I prefer spicebush over forsythia. They’re just blooming and already I’m tired of the garrishness of their flowers. All the early bloomers here are white – magnolia, shadbush, etc. which wouldn’t look like much against the snow if we’d gotten what they predicted.

    Sounds like your mom found some good birds – hope they’ll find their way to NJ before too long.

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  4. I like forsythia for their ragged elegance, the way the branches stick out in all directions. (People who prune their forsythia into neat, rounded or boxy shapes really worry me.) In full bloom, they look quite lovely backlit by the April sun. I don’t find them garish. But flowering trees and shrubs in the forest are much more impressive, to me – it’s context as much as color and arrangement of blossoms. My favorite spring tree of all is shadbush (sarvis).

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  5. Ah, that’s me, the worrisome forsythia pruner–and you should be worried. Around here, spring is the time to take up plant torture and killing. As much as I admire your wild ways, I am in a compact with my wife to maintain an orderly suburban domesticity, and that means obsessively spraying to kill broadleaf, spraying round-up to kill along fence lines, and yes, we confine large mammals. I’m even out there digging up the creek with a tractor to see if I can divert it from my fencing.

    Oh my we had a killing frost here. Wholesale destruction of oak, maple flowers and leafs. I never knew we had so many hickory and ash until I saw all their olive-brown leaf spray hanging at a droop. It will be interesting to see if the woods turn to brown even as they are greening. It could mean that there will be no acorn or walnut crop. I have learned of late of the chinquapin, which died out with the chestnut blight, a late bloomer whose abundant nut crop never failed both man and animal.

    I’ve been meaning to weigh-in on frogs since it was asked here here months ago whether it was true that frogs won’t jump out of a pan of water as it heats up. I think that it is true. When I was a child I remember a friend of the family who was a distinguished researcher holding forth on this, for him it a matter of empiric truth. So I,at least, believe it’s true. I think this guy spent a good part of his career scrambling frog brains and piercing them with electrodes (it was the ’60’s and lobotomies were going around as well). When it came up here, I remember taking a very hot bath and thinking about what it might be like to be a frog, and it occured to me that by nature a frog does not leave water to flee, but digs itself deeper into the muck. How alien that behaviour is to the mind of man. As a child I remember feeling so much smarter than that scalded frog in the lab. I think this anecdote probably sustains in most people a feeling of eminent domain over amphibians that is in exact ratio to their ignorance of their true nature. But then again I would contradict myself by saying that my insight into the amphibian mind derived from my own shared desire to cover the sky in mud.

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  6. Thanks, Brett!

    Bill – You forgot to close your link tag – easy enough to fix. Glad you’re taking an interest in learning HTML.

    I hadn’t heard of the Ozark chinquapin. I was very interested to learn that another species besides the American chestnut was so affected by the chestnut blight!

    in a compact with my wife
    Thanks for alluding to another big gender difference in how we tend to relate to nature and natural spaces. Though there are of course plenty of male neat-freaks and female slobs, I hear all too often of situations like yours, which – I’m sorry – strike me as domesticity run amok. I will pass over your other confessed sins in silence, but running the tractor in the creek – I hope you don’t do too much of that. I know from our own experience that sometimes it is unavoidable, for example to prevent one’s only access road from being washed away, but with the sort of situation you’re describing, won’t streamside revegetation solve the problem? (In which case initial regrading with the tractor might be necessary.)

    I share your envy for any creature able to feel so at home in the mud. And yeah, the story about the frog not jumping out of the pot of boiling water sounds bogus to me, too. (Is that what I said last time it came up? Can’t remember.)

    Thanks for the interesting comment.

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  7. Thanks for the clean-up, Dave. I thought sure I backslashed.

    Rereading my comment makes me think I’d do well not to scape-goat family members for my own lack of imagination as to how to manage rural land. But once again spring has come, dreaming is over; it is time to re-enact fatal, age-old habits.

    Oh, I meant to convey that I do believe the frog stays in the slowly warmed pan. I wonder who cooks frogs whole, other than neuroscientists?

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  8. Happy Easter to your mama!

    She always puts me in mind of my own, a great birder and hiker and raiser of native plants.

    A need for salvation and restoration limited to the human is actually not scriptural, by the by. The shadow is over all creation. It’s just cornball thinking and t.v. evangelists get so much play.

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  9. Hi, marly! Thanks for the comment.
    A need for salvation and restoration limited to the human is actually not scriptural, by the by.
    I didn’t mean to imply that is was. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that having the same words in the same order hasn’t prevented different faith communities from believing in very different scriptures. (I have a problem with the whole project of bibliolatry, but that’s another issue.)

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  10. Happy Easter!
    You wrote “That may account for some of my blindness” — but you have a beautifully sensitive vision, in my opinion. I really enjoy your attention to the smallest details in your writing and in your photos.
    Thank you.

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  11. I enjoyed your photos, Dave. Your spicebush flowers look much like Aromatic Sumac flowers, a common woodland shrub here.

    We also have shadbush, one of the most charming of the woodland spring-blooming trees.

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  12. rather than say that men also have “tunnel listening” as well as vision (although I believe it can be said) I would comment that it is more of a single minded focus or intensity, which comes in handy for hunting or building big phallic monuments.
    But it is not much useful for finding solutions to complex environmental problems. It takes the ability to both look and listen to subtle clues, to grasp complex relationships at a glance and to be in an ever vigilant watch for signs and changes to understand why the matriarchal nature of the bonobo monkey is more sustainable than the patriarchal nature of the chimpanzee society, or why the change in the weather is more serious than it seems.

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  13. Clare – Thanks. Of course, one can be sensitive to one’s shortcomings, and I hope I am, but that doesn’t do away with them.

    Larry – You should have spicebush there, too – Lindera benzoin.

    Cady May – Actually, wasn’t a lot of the bonobo work done by a man, Francis deWaal? But I agree with your larger point. Men are good at single-mindedness; women are much more likely to see the larger context. I strongly believe that. I was hoping someone would take me to task here, but I’ll take agreement, too! Thanks for weighing in.

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  14. Perhaps, on balance, I won’t pass on the potentially libellous fourth-hand gossip I was about to repeat about Louis Leakey. Your snow is very pretty, but I’m quite glad we don’t have any of it here.

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  15. Harry – Yeah, gossip like that is probably best not committed to “print.” I’m quite sure the guy was a lech and cheated on Mary, but I think his attitude toward women derived from real respect – and from a patriarchal impulse to put them on a pedestal.

    This morning, again, we have two inches of fluffy new snow. This is getting really old.

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