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Last February I began announcing to my patients that I would be retiring in August. A few weeks later, March 2020, the regional health network of which my rural family practice is a small cog decided to curtail face-to-face visits to protect all of us, patients and providers, from exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Today I’m saying goodbye to my patients of 39 years via telehealth.

For several years now, especially after my older partner retired but no doubt because they also noticed my own grey temples, my patients have been asking me, “Are you next?” Or demanded, “Don’t you retire, too!” Or more than one: “You can’t quit practicing until I die!” So I’ve had plenty of time to ponder how I would say my goodbyes. Give fair warning: “But I’ll still be here to see you back for your next 3-month follow up.” Add a bit of boilerplate in the After Visit Summary including my younger colleagues’ names and the assurance, “You’ll be in good hands.” The obligatory form letter to my entire panel, its wording vetted by the compliance office.

The actual farewells, though, have been more intense than I anticipated. I predicted pretty well which grey-haired women (my age!) would ask for a final hug but I never expected the man whose chronic pain I had barely held at bay through the years to tear up and clasp me like a brother. Now it’s May and many more adieu’s yet to come. Currently I’m saying goodbye on the phone or via video link. Patients are asking, “Will I ever see you again in person?”

Will they? Well, it’s a small town. We might raise a hand passing at Food Lion, separated by six feet, although masked we might not recognize each other. What they really mean is will we ever again share together that sacred space, the exam room. Sacred, from Latin sacrare, to set apart: when the door closes the chamber becomes a place for telling and hearing secrets. It is the domain of eye contact and subtle body language. For the healer who can resist the impulse to leap into every hesitation it may become a realm of powerful silences. I am proud of my skills at juggling meds, managing a dozen co-morbidities, recognizing the occasional obscure syndrome, but my highest aspiration has been to master that quarter hour in the presence of one fellow human creature.

My patients are missing a final personal encounter. I am missing hundreds; just one more pale hue in the infinite spectrum of pain this coronavirus is causing. By the time I walk away will we have re-opened our doors? Will our state ever have adequate community-wide testing and surveillance or universal contact tracing? I am in the demographic that is one errant sneeze away from the ICU and a ventilator. Would I be willing to sit down tomorrow twenty-four inches from my next patient and peer at them from behind an ear-loop mask? One sneeze. I am afraid.

I don’t really care that the pandemic has robbed me of going out with the bang of vigorous full daily schedules and stuck me with a whimper. I’m already over the fact that my last few paychecks will be perceptibly slimmer. My deeper sense of loss is like arriving at the dock to wave at the ship that has already cast off its moorings. Can I call it back to harbor? Four decades as a small town family doc teaches a very peculiar sort of generosity – the ability to conceal from your patients your level of personal woe. But this is not the annoyance of another interrupted family meal nor the aggravation of a few hours of lost sleep. This month or the next we will begin to lift some physical distancing restrictions. Will I be generous enough to expand my schedule, to risk my patient’s virus so that we can experience face to face the completion of our long journey together? For whom would I be willing to make that sacrifice? For my patients? Or for me?

 

 

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Care

She opens the jeweled box of care
and unfolds first one
then another – fragile,
painful, frayed.

She falters then lets me touch them:
melancholy scent of longing,
golden afternoon interrupted forever
by thunder,
stained silk of loss;

this shared hour sighs away
past recapture
but the air about her flickers
with some rare new color –
she repacks her box to leave,
each wisp grown a shade lighter

and I carry a pastel weight.

 


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The Geriatrician Ages

They don’t fly up at him, all these names,
no confusion of pigeons’ wings
in the parking lot; they don’t lock arms
to block him entering
the next exam room;
maybe they awaken him near dawn
but not by shaking. More like
the powdery flutter
of a moth disturbed in daylight,
the mute gray snowfall
of ash from burning newsprint.

Many he can’t recall, but all of them
he recognizes when dry lips
whisper their presence
from the other side –
not accusations (their ease of passing
one more benediction
of his calling), not really thanks
though most are grateful,
mostly just an airy I . . . I
in his cluttered bag of memories.

So many, so often now, more and more.
Each murmur a spirit body bowed
into a wheelchair, curled mantis-like
in bed, pushing against a walker,
each of them pushing, pushing
against what held them here
and what let them go.
Some days he can’t remember
if he last saw them on evening rounds
or in a dream, and any moment
he expects the office door to open:
one will enter, speak
his name, one he had thought
was gone.

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Care was first published in Mobius, Vol. 2, Nr. 20, Fall-Winter, 2006
The Geriatrician Ages originally appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 304, No. 16, October 27, 2010, and is also featured in my March 17, 2012 post
Both of these poems are collected in Crossing the River, Main Street Rag Publishing, © 2017

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Jonesville Family Medical Center — Yadkin County, NC — 2008

 

The JFMC Christmas Party of 2010

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This evening at suppertime she peers into the beef and carrots simmering on the right burner; I snip pea pods and spinach into the black bean broth on the left burner. Pretty soon both pots are smelling darn good. It’s usually something like this, the scene in our kitchen all the years since I decided to stop eating meat and she didn’t. Separate skillets, or sequential nuking, then sit down together.

But then every once in a while it’s all her show. She steams the broccoli while I sit near the lamp and read. I start on a little dry white wine (she’ll accept two ounces for herself later – Pastor Jan, pretend you didn’t read this) while she simmers the pasta. She serves two blue patterned Japanese bowls we’ve owned since year one. Then we sit down together.

When I die, sorry to say, I have no faith that there will be an angel in heaven who can make broccoli Alfredo this good.

 

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Getting home from the office early these days, I’m revisiting the overflowing stacks beside my desk. Poetry, philosophy, poetry, nature, poetry — I’ve rediscovered that all of Terri Kirby Erickson’s poems are home.

Lots of poetry is about home – you get a peak through the curtains and maybe you can imagine life on the other side of the pane. Terri’s poems are home. Welcome in. Don’t mind the mess. Maybe you didn’t understand this is your home but for twenty or thirty lines you will be part of the family. So many families. So many homes longed for, left behind, returned to. Soft light, hard edges. Sweet and harsh and all shades between. Come on in. Let’s sit down together.

 

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from In the Palms of Angels, Terri Kirby Erickson, Press 53 © 2011

 

Wayfarer

He seems like a man
you’d see walking down a long
stretch of road, the kind
with dust

rising

in a red haze beneath the wheels
of pickup trucks, cutting
through fields of golden

wheat. Scudding clouds cast
shadows
across the ground like whales

swimming through clear
water, and the air carries the scent
of grain and loam.

Every few miles, the glint of a silo
(startling against the lonesome

sky)

signals a farm house
where peach pies sit cooling
on window sills, and patterned
carpets are worn-out from parents

pacing to and fro with fretful babies
in their arms.

He’s traveling toward the horizon
with the steady gait of someone
with a place to go, whose tender

gaze

will soon find home, that place
more sacred than communion wafers
nestled in the palms
of angels.

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Rosary

Down by the creek,
we sit on dry
stones,

our shoes and socks
jumbled in a pile.
The sun

warms our toes
and casts its
net of light

from bank to bank,
where willows
trail their

fingers in the water,
and snakes look
like branches

floating by
them. Mosquitoes
lay their eggs

in stagnant pools,
far from leaves
and grasses snagged

by rocks, twisting
in the current.
Tadpoles swim

in tight formation,
wiggling their tails
in tandem,

as salamanders
scuttle by, searching
for places to nap.

Dragonflies hover,
then hurry
away,

their wings
thrumming a one-note
song – while we,

silent as nuns in prayer,
count the beads
of summer.

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[Rosary first appeared in Basilica Review; other collections by Terri Kirby Erickson from Press 53 include: Telling Tales of Dusk; A Lake of Light and Clouds; Becoming the Blue Heron.]

Author Page, Terri Kirby Erickson, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC.

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Let’s meet at Grandview above the New River Gorge while the sun is still working its way through the pine and bare hickory. The hardcore birders left from Shelter #4 hours ago but we will follow the same course down the abandoned mining road to the River. We will follow the wild flowers. We will walk into Spring.

We don’t see a lot blooming up here at the end of April, elevation 2,500 feet in the West Virginia Appalachians. Beneath the trees and in the sunny patches the landscape is still mostly brown, but that doesn’t hold for long. Trailing arbutus and trout lily greet us in the first quarter mile, wake robin and four more species of trillium pop up along the course of the trail, wild iris and asters appear by the time we’ve descended 1,000 feet to river’s edge – all of Spring blooming in one morning.

And just in case we miss something we have a guide: my wife’s sister Jodi French-Burr, National Park Service ranger, naturalist, and interpreter. She’ll be kneeling in the duff gently parting the leaves so we can see the wild ginger blossoms. She’ll have at the tip of her tongue the name of every growing thing we discover. She’ll tell us the history of this winding trail and point out relics and landmarks along the way. And she will usually laugh at my jokes.

Come and convince yourself that the earth is filled with beauty.

Bring water and a snack. RESERVATIONS requested by April 21, 2020: 304-465-2632 or jodi_french-burr@nps.gov.

[UPDATE 3/23/2020 — due to the COVID-19 Pandemic many NPS and New River Gorge activities may have to be canceled or rescheduled. Be sure the check this site for the latest info:

https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/wildflower-weekend.htm

BUT . . . outdoor activities with family and small groups (maintaining your social distancing) are just what THIS doctor orders! Get out into nature! Viruses hate sunlight! . . . . . . . . Bill G  ]

 

Erythronium americana — Trout Lily (Dog-tooth Violet, yellow adder’s tongue, fawn lily)

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Deborah H. Doolittle has created a unique botanical and poetic experience with her collection Floribunda, a true garden of verse. The focal point of each poem is a particular flower, from Cowslip to Gardenia, but the speaker or the style of each poem is a giant of literature, from William Blake and Lewis Carroll to Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens. To wander the garden path of Deborah’s poetry is to smell the fragrance and delight in the colors but also to abide in the company of great writers, Deborah H. Doolittle not the least of them. Open to any page and converse.

[all selections are from Floribunda, © Deborah H. Doolittle, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2017]

Hepatica americana — Round-lobed Hepatica

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Emily Dickinson’s Wild Flowers

The way she dressed a flower was
just that extravagant.
The haute couture of wild flowers!
wild flowers! her element.

To that pale cheek she called petal,
she pressed both stem and leaf –
the lupine, like crinoline; sweet
clover, tight Damascus weave.

She had played the part of Botanist,
a child’s specialty.
Swamp candles shed no brighter light
in Latin for the bee.

Grasses of Parnassus, skullcap
of the tiny laces,
she pressed herself soft as a moth
treading through her pages.

Antennaria solitaria — Solitary Pussytoes

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Henry David Thoreau and the Sunflower

Who among us has not followed the sun
and hated the clouds that hid its shining face?
Who else but us can claim that we have traced
across the sky the very path it runs?

We’ve traveled much through Concord, you and I.
The widest fields are fenced and most contain
cattle or corn or the stock of kitchen
gardens. The farmers never wonder why

your seeds proliferate upon their grounds.
I know how the wind blows the smallest crumb
and how the bees and birds know where to come.
The two of us, like them, know no such bounds.

The hedgerows and stonewalls can’t grow taller.
The sun is but a star and you’re its flower.

Sanguinaria canadensis — Bloodroot

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Sylvia Plath and the Impatiens

Unlike my empty hands,
it does not just lie there
with its flowers opening

upon white bed linen.
All its seeds jettisoned,
its future guaranteed

for at least another
season, this jewel-weed,
asks for nothing that I

cannot give it. It basks
in my sunlight, breathes in
my exhalations as fast

as I can breathe them out,
again. Still, we are both
waiting for the nurses

to make their rounds, the sun
to rise up, then subside,
for the moon and the stars

to appear and disappear,
for winter’s frost to turn
us into limp black rags.

Asarum virginicum – Heart-leaf Ginger (Little Brown Jugs)

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The other way to walk into Spring, although it takes a month or two, is to stroll along the same trail every day. Linda and I walk the Elkin Valley Trail Association Nature Trail along Big Elkin Creek at least three days a week. First appears trout lily, hepatica close behind, then every day or two there’s a new species in sequence: pussy-toes, wild ginger, bloodroot, rue anemone, star chickweed. In a month there will be foamflower, bellwort, jewel-weed, jack-in-the-pulpit. The photos in this post were all blooming on the same day, March 16, 2020.

Anemonella thalictroides — Rue Anemone

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Deborah H. Doolittle moved from her birthplace in Hartford, Connecticutt through many different landscapes and gardens before settling in Jacksonville, North Carolina. She has an MA in Women’s Studies and and MFA in Creative Writing and teaches at Coastal Carolina Community College. She serves on the Board of the North Carolina Poetry Society and she loves flowers.

Stellaria pubera – Star Chickweed

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Heavenly body, we circle, approach, broad ellipse, eye each other across the expanse, still closer, with proximity our velocity increases. Will we join, mutual revolution, orbit, or will we sling each other into outer darkness?

Am I speaking to you, lines of verse? Or are you speaking to me? From a distance you attract but how finely do I perceive your true nature? Like the person I have loved for so many years: at the moment I say, “I know the real You,” at that precise moment you surprise me, swift and sudden, slap or caress, and I must humble myself or be humbled by the universe of you.

Heavenly body, I continue. Your placid visage resolves, light that blinds, deepest shadow. We move each other, we move before each other, we move but never cross the same path twice, we flow and bud and the moments we create are like no other moments. There is more to you than can be known.

. .  lunar eclipse January 21, 2019; photo by Bill Griffin . .

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I knew Bruce Lader from a distance. We greeted each other at poetry gatherings, shared the occasional comment about the program or a reader. He was solid and planed as an oak table; he met my eye and I had no fear of being shaken; he invited me into his calm.

And then I read two of his books of poetry. The lines compel you to be shaken. He taught for years in New York City, rough and troubled teenagers, and those characters populate many of his poems. Scary at times. And he writes of relationships and longing, about culture and human frailty in images bright and dark but always hand-hewn and polished from the rock of reality. Joanna Catherine Scott wrote of his book Landscapes of Longing: It does not hold back. Open it with care.

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Gravity

Fugitives from each other,
they skulk along dark corridors
of denial, kidnap shadows
cast by a slivered moon
of eclipsed emotions.

Wordlessness betrays them
at the apogee of centrifugal flight,
as they ransom the desperate
anodyne of sex.

. . . Without a fingerprint
the tides of bodily language
have shifted elliptic;
will a touch burn or freeze?
mend or violate?
The quark of midnight:
inexorable undertow,

they treadmill between grief
and fault, looking for a vague
similitude of conjunction
nothing can rescue.

Bruce Lader, from Landscapes of Longing, Main Street Rag Publishing, 2009
[first appearance in Poetry Salzburg Review]

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Siege

All night, freezing rain – the lights
won’t make up their mind;
then everything’s dark. Trees are walking dead.

In the tar pit of time, a transformer
groans like a dinosaur, becomes extinct.
The turncoat furnace sleeps.

Daybreak we are hostages of the ice storm,
light candles, stove, put a bucket
under the leak by the sliding doors,
resuscitate the fireplace, check for damage.

Storm – odd word for weather
so calm where ice builds by degrees,
immures us inside a cold hurricane’s eye.

The neighborhood is a breath
of blown glass. Crack, crash – trees discard
sodden branches. A dove is still
on a telephone wire of silver stalactites.

Debris is strewn over the battlefield
of tree bones. Broken limbs have toppled
the fence, could crush the roof.
We need a generator, radio batteries.
Is there enough food?

Wounded are throwing shivers
helter-skelter against the windows.
A transparent antler points
as a ghost staggers to shelter.

The phone’s gone dead.
In a million offices, packs of wolves
circle, move closer, with fiery silver eyes.

Bruce Lader, from Discovering Mortality, March Street Press, 2005
[first appearance in The Potomac Review]

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Bruce also published Fugitive Hope in 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0991009183.

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[After the fashion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with apologies; and also with admiration and gratitude to Emily Stein, educator, naturalist, and instructor who prompted, “Make me care about an apple.”]

Behold! [the speaker lifts high in his right hand a bright green globe] Behold . . . the unnamed spheroid before us, orb, minor planetoid, imperfect representation of 4/3 π r3. What shall we call it? What is it?!

Is it Creature? Shall it pick itself up, scuttle about of its own motivation, turn itself ‘round to display its obverse hemisphere presently concealed from our vision?

Is it Mineral, thus created and apportioned and ever so to remain for millennia save it be worked and reworked by wind, water, the abrasion of ever degrading time?

Or is it perhaps . . . Vegetable, and now a revelation of its true nature leaps into my consciousness: is it not Fruit? May we not so surmise when we detect the telltale declivity at its northern pole from whose depth protrudes a brown and spiraled worm so very like a stem? YES, its roundiness, its gloss, its green green GREEN sings life and liveliness, living fruit, fresh, taut, shiny, reflecting what meager light may penetrate these benighted chambers to inspire our minds even as we are inspired by the light of our own great yellow star.

That star which nurtures us has also nurtured our green fruit’s life and growth to this size, this heft, wide in diameter as my four fingers, rounder in circumference than my fist can grasp. Firm and solid it appears, clean and whole, but upon finer inspection decorated with speckles and freckles, minute specks not blemishes but marks of its natural beauty, painted by creation to elevate our perception that Beauty and Truth and even Life itself are not ideal forms that reside solely in the imaginings of philosophers but are real, here before us, weighty, textured, worthy of adulation with all their variations and imperfections, with all their uncertainties, with all our own doubts about how to discover them and what to name them.

But what is Life that we should esteem it so? Life is bruises when we fall. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Life is clamor and confusion that fill the senses to bursting, sight and sound and scent sometimes sweet but oftentimes so foul. Can you convince me that Life is not suffering? Days and years unremitting even such that some might in despair willingly choose to forsake their life?

And yet . . . and yet, where can suffering prevail when we, my fellows, stand together? Where can the horror of decay and decrepitude persist when there is yet Beauty in the world?

Look again upon my treasure’s smiling green visage! Look to the living green that buds and swells and streams through hills and valleys where Life insists it must return to the gray and blasted earth. Look to the green water that calls down from the rocky slopes lithe creatures that hop and slither and find each other, there emphatically to declare their confidence in Life as we discover the motile forms of tadpole and eft.

Look, my friends, into your own hearts and discover there some fresh green shoot arising, a green hope that may yet draw you anew into this day of wonder, a hope that may, my friends, just may [here the speaker bites into the green apple] may taste this sweet! This is what I choose and this is what I treasure – this Life.

I care not what you name my green friend here – seed pod, drupe, jampot, pie bait, cider berry. I name it LIFE. And this rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

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Mitchella repens – Partridge Berry

This essay was prepared as an oral class presentation for “Skills for Sharing Nature,” Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont, February 23, 2020.

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Thinking, for Emerson, was not the contemplation of final Truth, but the daily encounter of an active mind with its environment; it was not a special activity but life itself.

Stephen E Whicher, editor
Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton Mifflin, © 1957

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Apple, genus Malus, is the largest fruit in the family Rosaceae, which also includes plums, pears, cherries, apricots, peaches, quince, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, almonds, rowan, hawthorne and . . . roses.

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Viola rostrata – Beaked Violet or Longspurred Violet

The Rhodora
On Being Asked, Whence is the Flower?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Mad e the black water with their beauty gay;
Her might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask they why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1839

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Middle Prong Little River

The Apology

Think me not unkind and rude
That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not, laborious band,
For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery
But ‘tis figured in the flowers;
Was never secret history
But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
Which I gather in a song.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1846

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Gyrinophilus porphyriticus -spring salamander

The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program is administered by Great Smokies Institute at Tremont within Great Smoky Mountains National Park (near Townsend, Tennessee) and offers weekend intensive programs towards a certificate from the University of Tennessee. More information at www.gsmit.org

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I remember the first bird that counted. Clarification: I remember the first bird I counted.

Mom and Dad had rented a cabin so we could join them for a long weekend on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoahs, June, 1988. Did they think their grandkids were Nature undernourished? Mountain vistas, enfolding trees, night sky – we even saw a bobcat at dusk one evening. Maybe I was undernourished.

The second morning we hiked up a lonely trail in deep shade that suddenly brightened. A forest giant had fallen and invited into its space the sun and the sky. And birdsong. (Prime transitional habitat, I’ve since learned.)

Mom spotted a yellow streak come to rest on a bare branch and begin to sing. I focused. What is this?! Never had one of these on the feeder outside my dorm window, never saw one snagging worms on the front lawn. And listen to it sing! What?!

That Chestnut Sided Warbler is the first bird in my list. Well, make that lists: pocket notebooks, index cards, the backs of trail maps. And of the course the database on my hard drive, which has swelled to megabytes. But what’s the big deal? Thirty-five years old and writing down the name of a bird? What?

I wasn’t a Nature-deprived child. We played outdoors until the street lights blinked on. Caught fireflies in our hands and honey bees in jars. Raised tadpoles to peepers. Camps, beach trips, hiking, Scouts; I was out in Nature pretty much, but I count that CSW as the moment I began to notice. This is not just an unpopulated landscape, not a homogenous backdrop for picnics or games or a nice walk. These are things. Individuals. Differentiated. Species. I start by counting birds but then I notice wildflowers and take up botany, notice one side of the ridge has more blossoms and different, it’s geology, get down on my knees for the tiniest blooms and dang there’s a beetle, entomology.

Pretty soon I want to notice it all, the great grand beautiful interconnected mess, ecology, the parts and the whole. I’m becoming a Naturalist – someone who pays attention. Someone who notices.

Chestnut Sided Warbler in Virginia was my gateway drug. How much was I missing all those years before? Now I can’t help but notice. Blame the wrens that scold me every morning in the driveway. Blame my friend Mike who is always so careful to step over every millipede on the trail. Blame Amelia my granddaughter as she watches the crocuses open. And after last weekend blame Emily Stein* as my chief enabler, she and the other twenty hard core Naturalists I joined at Tremont in the Smokies for an intense course in “Skills for Sharing Nature.” As always, begin with some questions:

Where have I come from to reach this place? Why do I care? What is my personal story? What do I have to share?

The answers may arrive like spring buds that swell along the flank of the mountain seeking the summit, a lifetime of questions and answers, but now it’s time to screw up my courage and take Step 2: I’m going to get you hooked on Nature, too. Come here a minute. Try my binoculars. See that little dab of brown fluff that just flew up to that branch? Yes, that’s the one. Let’s see what he has to tell us.

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* Emily Stein: Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont naturalist educator, youth programs coordinator, and instructor for the February 2020 course “Skills for Sharing Nature,” part of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program (SANCP). More information at www.gsmit.org

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Prayer for the Great Family

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways, who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep—he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars—and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.

so be it.

Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)
from EARTH PRAYERS, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

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In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

by Christina Rosetti

[first published under the title “A Christmas Carol”, in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly]

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Christmas Service, Kernersville NC Community of Christ, December 22, 2019

Valeria and Andrew portrayed Joseph and Mary for their fifth consecutive year.

A ten minute walk from Buxton Woods there are a hundred people milling around at the base of the lighthouse waiting to climb or just spraining their necks. A ten minute walk into Buxton Woods it’s just the three of us. The trail rises, ancient dune now eternal with live oak and yaupon. Surf crash can’t reach us here but the hum is constant, cicadas, mosquitoes, something swift in peripheral vision. We descend to a slough, marsh slowly becoming meadow then woodland. Looks ancient. Smells ancient.

Even in deep shade the trail is not cool but our grandson thinks it’s cool to be here. We’ve never seen this many different colors of dragon flies. Along one stretch a platoon of thumb-sized toads is invisible until one hops across the trail. It’s not a dinosaur, this trail, not yet extinct but endangered. Not only because every other scrap of maritime forest along the outer banks is scrutinized greedily by developers with bulldozers, but because this is the Outer Banks. The dune ridges are a timeline of shoreline creeping ever west, the bank rolling over itself for millennia, now faster and faster. Thousand year old clam and oyster middens are still uncovered, evidence of the human beings that have visited and resided here. How much longer?

This little trail is an insect in amber. Engrave it in memory. From the gallery rail on Hatteras Lighthouse they can’t see us here.

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This poem is from Susan Meyer’s My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass. I return to this book when the world smells like asphalt and I need a whiff of spartina. I mean, when my own ideas are pedestrian and my inspiration is muckbound and I need something with clear veined wings to chase me back into sunlight. Or a chiseled head and slender neck. How can writing be at once so rooted and so lofty? Oh Susan, how few words we need.

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Two Friends Hiking at Old Santee Canal

Ahead of me, he balances his feet, left then right,
on the first of two planks – an unsteady bridge of sorts –
laid down for hikers to cross
               what, on most days,
would be bog,
     but on this one, after weeks of rain, is flooded.

We are learning the look and feel of swamp.

Waiting my turn, I can see his every step.
He pauses halfway across, standing sweaty
in the midst of the ordinary.
          An inch or so beneath his heels,
under the seam of the two boards,
I see the loops and curves
          of a thick brown snake.
The chiseled head, the slender neck. Above them,
his bare ankles.
     How few, the words we need.
Snake, I say, unable to utter where
               or put sense to it.
Which way should I go? He is a statue,
his arms frozen in air.
I tell him to come back, and he does.
          We watch the snake uncurl
and disappear, but in the thrill of fear just past,
our bodies, all breath and jitters, now belong
          to someone we don’t recognize.
Forward is the direction we want to choose
but neither of us can step onto the board.
               We know what we must do:
stumble through ferns and mud,
               clotted roots, the thick
of mosquitoes, a limestone bluff –
backtrack in the safety of a path already taken.

Susan Laughter Meyers
from My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, Cider Press Review, 2013

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Tonya and Roseann found them: wings scattered beside the river bank. Dozens and dozens of wings, bright yellow with stark black bars and fingerprints of orange and blue along the margins. Where had they come from?

Our entire class trooped over to observe. Leaf sized wings strewn on boulders at the north point of Girl Scout Island, Middle Prong of Little River, weekend naturalist skills course, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, perfect setting for our mission: not to know an answer but to learn to question. “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why were they here?

Only wings, no butterfly bodies. Had they congregated here to die? No dark females’ wings — were the males puddling, gleaning minerals for their spermatophores, and then attacked? Or had some devious predator collected the wings and brought them here to mystify us?

We crouched beneath the sycamore and hemlock while the mountain stream raced and chattered beside us. We parted the grasses, looked under rocks, collected a few wings and peered with our hand lenses. We paid attention. We were astonished.

Swallowtail wings

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The naturalist method and poetry have something in common. We want truth but we want to experience it directly. We make connections. We let light shine in dark places. And if we discover an answer it will likely bring with it not only a dollop of new knowledge but more than a dollop of wonder.

Susan Laughter Meyers has been a person and poet who has filled me with wonder. When her ultimate collection, Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, was published this year, two years after her untimely death, its poetry opened my heart and my mind again to the mystery and power of words. She was a fierce observer of the earth and all that is in it, the heron’s plume, the subtle change of hour, of season. And she was an uncompromising naturalist of the soul. In subtle phrase and in lancing stab she uncovers the dark places within us.

And lets in the light.

Oh, and as she reminds us, and as we beside the river finally remembered, besides looking back we must not forget to look up.

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If Not Birds Dodging Loneliness

The bluest ones in an open sky
fan reveries with their wings.
Dream time, that’s what they inhabit —
fabulous as the past and its dingy veils

I wore in a favorite childhood game:
dress-up with the girl whose father
ran a funeral home. The newest shroud
had no holes to trip us, one a princess

the other a bride. The least breeze
and the shroud would ripple, barely
kissing the skin. Wasn’t that a dalliance
to wish for? On days when birds soar

toward light, when they tip and wheel
and turn until they silhouette,
you’d think they’re being chased.
Or if not birds dodging loneliness,

then memories loosed into view.
Like the ones of a blindfolded
child with stick or pin-and-tail in hand,
steering toward a prize, when to win

the game is to break something
or make something whole again.
Fringed and fleeting, such remnants,
though the world is full of them.

There are moments in my life
when gravitating toward feels the same
as ducking from. Moments when,
for recompense, I look back. Or up.

 

Susan Laughter Meyers
from Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, Press 53, 2019

Smokies - Tremont

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The quotation “Pay attention . . . ” is excerpted from the poem Sometimes by Mary Oliver, from Red Bird, Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, page 37.

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Doughton Park Tree #3

. . . heaven that extends to comfort all the night . . .

Traveling by night. The way is obscure, although we still think there must be a way. The way is darkness. We think darkness is what we are leaving behind. The light of full day would blind us. We trust the small light in the moonless night, steady unflickering point that goes before us.

We think doubt is what we are leaving behind. We think certainty is something that must surely lie before us, across the desert, the impassable, the treachery. Aren’t we followers? Aren’t we on the way?

This is certainty: everything we thought was certain we have left behind us. Crowns and gold, nothing. Light and darkness, among us and in us, totality, consummation. We are breath and human and awake have seen all birth and burial merge and fall away.

Carol of the Three Kings
W. S. Merwin

How long ago we dreamed
Evening and the human
Step in the quiet groves
And the prayer we said:
Walk upon the darkness,
Words of the lord,
Contain the night, the dead
And here comfort us.
We have been a shadow
Many nights moving,
Swaying many nights
Between yes and no.
We have been blindness
Between sun and moon
Coaxing the time
For a doubtful star.
Now we cease, we forget
Our reasons, our city,
The sun, the perplexed day,
Noon, the irksome labor,
The flushed dream, the way,
Even the dark beasts,
Even our shadows.
In this night and day
All gifts are nothing:
What is frankincense
Where all sweetness is?
We that were followers
In the night’s confusion
Kneel and forget our feet
Who the cold way came.
Now in the darkness
After the deep song
Walk among the branches
Angels of the lord,
Over earth and child
Quiet the boughs.
Now shall we sing or pray?
Where has the night gone?
Who remembers day?
We are breath and human
And awake have seen
All birth and burial
Merge and fall away,
Seen heaven that extends
To comfort all the night,
We have felt morning move
The grove of a few hands.

 

 

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