There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.
ROBERT WILSON LYND, The Blue Lion and Other Essays
Here in Flint, Michigan, where the public water supply’s lead levels created a huge public-health crisis a few years ago, I walk along the Flint River and marvel at what birds can teach us. Every day they do what they need to do to feed themselves and their offspring. They go where they need to go. I’m not suggesting a direct connection between lead levels in municipal water and birds in the river here. I’m merely saying that birds never become sidetracked with the wrong goals or values. They just want to live. How much that can teach me, every day.
Quotation source: http://www.notable-quotes.com/b/birds_quotes.html#BWeKGyk2mxoZyYD5.99
Tutoring. It’s a part of my world right now as I finish my master’s degree in history. I tutor graduate students at Arizona State University in writing. I enter an online world for 10 hours a week, helping social workers and nurse practitioners and criminal justice students and English students and etc. write more clearly. I help them with grammar. With organization. With theme. I help them feel a little less frantic. Today I’m working on a final paper for my course in historical methods. I am remembering my own advice. It will be OK. And this nice award from the Graduate Writing Center arrived in my inbox. Hooray.
The path emerges.
Rock by rock, I laid this path many years ago, using field stone, hunks of an old backyard fireplace, slate pieces rejected by a builder, and even broken pieces of concrete I found at the property line underneath vines. The path lacked a central organizing theme other than I like rock paths. I needed more and larger rocks, but I was impatient, so I made do. Impatience has guided most of my house projects, and I’m hoping to change. The grass year by year crept over the edges of the stones. By this year, you could not see the walkway at all. It had surrendered.
My shovel, my dog, and I spend an hour out there each day. This picture shows my progress after excavation last week. Since I took that I have dug the path twice as wide and begun placing flat rocks a neighbor gave us. I had almost forgotten those rocks lay in piles by the old outdoor fireplace. I’m lugging one each day across the back yard to the path. I drag the biggest ones inside a tarp, foot by foot. Who needs vacations when one has graduate school and a path to rebuild? One stone, then another, then another.
Some years ago, my daughter, Annie, told us about a little boy selling brownies at the annual fife-and-drum parade in our town. His mother went into a store, leaving him in charge. Some girls came by and handed him 5 cents. He gave them their brownie and 25 cents in change.
I laughed so hard hearing this story that my eyes leaked and my voice squeaked as I acted out the scene for my family: “Come and get it! A great deal! A brownie plus 20 cents, only a nickel!” I bent over, slapping my knees, crying and laughing to the point where the girls and my husband looked perplexed.
One week later, we became vendors at the fife-and-drum-parade with a rented ice-cream cart. We didn’t sell enough to turn a profit. We might as well have been that little boy, blithely expending more than he took in while working for several hours. We took in $296.60 in ice-cream sales. But the freezer rental cost $192.30 and the ice-cream itself about $200. So we lost about $95 and we had a freezerful of ice-cream which we would serve our friends for the rest of the year. The brownie-selling boy handed out his losses directly. We took ours home. I say “we,” but I conceived and directed the ice-cream vending project. My husband and two daughters reluctantly helped. The ice-cream we took home would have brought in a few hundred dollars more, if customers had bought it. If we’d sold it all, we could have turned a profit of a few hundred.
At the time, I didn’t see the lesson in the little boy, except I did write this story down a few days after the loss. I told myself that standing with the ice-cream cart was a better way to spend our day at the parade than just holding our ears as the cannons went off. I told myself that working had put us in touch with the community in a way that just watching the parade did not.
But if someone had charged me $95 to give my family some community, I would have thought it was too expensive. I would have thought it as absurd as selling a brownie for a nickel and giving the customer 25 cents’ change. Finally, a few months later, I sold a story about our unprofitable ice-cream vending project to the Hartford Courant, earning $350, thus netting $260 on the ice-cream venture.
Moral: Stick with what you know how to do. If you know how to write, write. If you know how to sell food to parade-goers, do that.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed this cottage, and many other houses, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Courtesy of the Fairfield Fire Department.
A day after Hurricane Sandy hit, Nancy Arnold waded down her basement stairs and saw five feet of storm surge partially submerging her furnace and hot water heater.
After the water eventually retreated, and the local fire department pumped out the rest, Arnold had another worry: mold. A husband and wife who had done painting for the Arnolds showed up and offered to wash the home’s lower level with bleach.
“Where would I have been without that,” Arnold wondered this summer, “because they knew about the mold, and they Cloroxed the whole basement. If there’s another storm, I don’t know if they’re up to do that again.”
Arnold has lived in her house near the end of Whitfield Street in Guilford since 1962. She and her family evacuated to a local community center for six hours during the worst of Sandy’s tempest. Evacuations have become commonplace in her neighborhood, she said. A year prior, during Hurricane Irene, the family also packed their bags and spent the night at the center. After the Sandy cleanup, Arnold hired a contractor to install a new furnace that hangs from the ceiling, about 5 feet above the floor. “That’s as high as they could make it,” she said. “If it needs to be higher than that, Guilford’s in trouble.
But the way the world is today, who’s to say, you know, what could happen?” For the past several decades, Arnold has watched the tide creep deeper into the marshes that ripple outside her living-room window. Guilford’s coastal neighborhoods, like most of the shoreline, saw the future arrive with Hurricane Irene in 2011. In a century, climate change and a rising sea level on Connecticut’s coast have brought more frequent and devastating flooding during storms.
The flooding destroys property, something people hear about immediately. But it also harms people’s health. After flooding, mold quickly multiplies into fuzzy blobs on walls and furniture. When people try to clean up, they breathe in airborne microbes that can trigger breathing problems, skin rashes and infections, mucous membrane illnesses, and problems in internal organs, according to fungal scientist Eckardt Johanning and his colleagues, writing in an article in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.
Health researchers say that residents should view floods as hazardous to their health and doctors need to beef up their training to recognize flood-related illnesses. Mold itself can make people sick, but mold also signals the presence of other bacteria and disease, said Paula Schenck, director of the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at UConn Health. She said doctors “can advise their patients to have the appropriate protective gear on hand before the flood, and then avoid exposures that would cause illness, so I’m sort of on a disease-prevention soapbox here.”
“If you live in an environment that is likely to see severe wet weather, it’s good for your doctor to consider if you might have health concerns from exposures after a storm, or from being in a chronically wet environment, when you go in for your yearly exam,” Schenck said. This little-discussed public health threat—exposure to mold—is rising slowly into the public consciousness. Nuisance flooding has increased on the United States coasts, and it will increase dramatically after 2050, or about the time that today’s babies will be young adults.
People who live near water now live more and more in water. Adam Whelchel, director of science for the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, has worked on coastal resilience planning with dozens of municipalities. “There’s a whole lot of emotional stress that goes along with living along the coast,” he said. Around New England, most coastal areas have been inundated several inches over the past century. Bridgeport’s sea level has risen nearly 1 foot, and New London’s slightly less, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) calculations.
The yearly increase is almost 3 millimeters. In March, the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation at the University of Connecticut released a report predicting increases of another 20 inches by 2050. Major areas of the coast will flood regularly in the future. High-tide flooding along the nation’s coastline has increased 300 percent to 900 percent in the last half-century. NOAA’s map of projected high-tide flooding can be zoomed to street-level detail for any town in Connecticut. A perusal of the state shows that inundation by floods will cover large swaths of Guilford south of I-95, and large areas of Madison, Bridgeport, Middletown, Old Saybrook, Haddam, Hartford and Stamford in the future. Buildings in the floodwaters’ path will be prone to mold and all that mold signifies.
All molds are part of the kingdom of fungi. Scientists haven’t yet identified most fungi that exist—90 percent or so, said De-Wei Li, a research mycologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Valley Laboratory in Windsor. Scientists who study fungi spend much of their time simply identifying species. The hundreds of molds scientists have identified in this part of the world can trigger allergies like asthma and skin reactions, and some of them contain mycotoxins or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their spores. Mycotoxins and VOCs can cause serious diseases or reactions when ingested, when they come in contact with skin, or when someone breathes them in. The microscopic spores penetrate deep into the lungs.
A month after Sandy hit in the Northeast, scientists collected samples of mold from houses in Brielle and Manasquan, New Jersey. They found 36 types of mold, including six that killed flies in the lab. Molds found included Aspergillus niger, which the CDC reports can cause lung infections and allergic reactions; Aspergilloma (fungus ball); and the most common found in damp or water-damaged structures, Penicillium chrysogenum.
The presence of mold also indicates a whole soup of biological materials, including bacteria. If someone sees mold growing inside, they are witnessing a risk to respiratory health, Schenck said. She added that flood waters can be dangerously contaminated. Certain medical conditions make one vulnerable to airborne mold.
“Many materials—wallboard, fabrics themselves (clothes, curtains) and those that trap dust (carpet) are a grand meal for mold,” Schenck has written. “Even some well-constructed buildings that haven’t had moisture concerns in the past become wet from wind-driven rain and flood waters in severe storms.”
Schenck wants people to know that any time they see mold, they should consider it an indicator that “moisture is available for biological growth.” The wetter it is, the greater the chances of severe respiratory illnesses. An increase in floods will cause wood and drywall and other building materials to become saturated more often, causing an increase in people’s exposure to airborne mold spores, since that is how they reproduce.
This means that people whose immune systems have been weakened by disease are more vulnerable to health effects from mold. The most urgent advice about a flooded living space is to get out until the standing water has subsided. “Once it’s flooded, don’t go wading unprotected in that environment,” Schenck said.
My mother Gloria, 35-ish years ago, at around the time I sent the four-page typed letter.
A few weeks ago my three brothers, sister, and I needed to pack up some objects and papers from our past. We didn’t have much time, so our minds jolted into hyper-focus. Who would keep what? My grandfather’s diaries emerged out of a box of check registers and old bills; photos flew into boxes organized with labels like “Riverside” (for the street where we’d grown up) or “Pre-1950.” Then, I pulled from a pile of papers a four-page typed letter I’d sent to my mother when I was 23 years old and working as a journalist in a big city.
Our whirlwind organizing task is done. Now I pull out the letter. The words I read came from a stranger. I have forgotten half of the people in here. I can not believe how much time I spent back then at parties and events whose hosts I was meeting for the first time. My life was one big exploration of personalities.
I see reading my typed stream-of-consciousness that some people I had met tried to be kind and that I didn’t always notice. I can briefly inhabit those lonely, unhappy months in this letter. At the time, I was volunteering at a radio station. I loved that work, and I met so many people through the station that I had stopped trying to keep track of them all. After a folk concert one night (I wrote Mom) one radio buddy’s girlfriend drove me home. She listened gravely as I chattered about my tiring year at a small newspaper with almost no time off. As I climbed out of the car, she peered out at me and said, earnestly, “I hope you have a better fall.” Until that moment, I had not realized how much I had been complaining. Her kindness stopped me flat. I wrote Mom that I “secretly wished” the girl a good fall, too. But I apparently said nothing of it. “You should have answered her! You should have become friends with her!” my older self wants to scold my younger self.
My mother must have been somewhat horrified, too. But she did keep the letter tucked deep into one of her many baskets. She kept all of our letters, and programs, and scrawled little notes saying we were going to see a friend. So I know she had no special love of this letter. But she must have smiled when I told her I’d cooked her best spaghetti sauce: “Tonight I cooked your spaghetti recipe for my semi-gourmet friends,” I told Mom, “and they loved it so much that J—– wants the recipe and D– had seconds of a pasta dish, which he says he never does.”
And then came the inevitable sentences about money. “Please don’t worry about my financial situation or how I choose to handle it. If I need your help, for train fare or anything else, believe me, I’ll ask. The nice thing is knowing you’re willing to help, not that you feel you must. … I want to do as much as I can for myself. It means a lot to me.”
She knew it meant a lot to me, because she had cheered me on about living on my own. She had told me I could do that thing that she had not yet had a chance to try.
On Saturday I gathered around writer Laura Waterman’s log-house table in Vermont with the good people of the Waterman Fund Essay Contest Committee. We reviewed a few dozen narrative pieces by new writers about wild places and their importance. We have a winner, and a runner-up! The winning piece will appear in the winter/spring issue of Appalachia journal. Meanwhile, the summer/fall issue is about to come out. Subscribe now. Appalachia is a print journal published twice a year. We publish excerpts in places like here and here.
Ellen Finnie, left, and Chris on the summit of Mount Washington.
I will give my popular talk, “How Not to End Up in the Accidents report of Appalachia Journal” twice this summer. Join me for these free presentations! I always give out a few extra issues of the journal.
Sunday, July 8 at 8 p.m., Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Gorham, New Hampshire.
Sunday, August 5 at 8 p.m., Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Gorham, New Hampshire.
I will cover the history of our Accidents report, which analyzes selected mishaps, slips and falls, lost hikers, and deaths in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’ll tell real-life stories from the two areas where the most accidents happen: the Franconia Ridge, and the area around Mount Washington. I’ll tell a few stories from beyond this area. And I’ll share principles of safe hiking including “Chris’s Mountain Principles.”
Opossum drawing by Gustav Mutzel (1839-1893).
Behind our house a small ledgey hill adjoins a mysterious woods between my street’s backyards and the main street of my town. One winter night I returned late from working and sat down with my snack by the back window. A small pointy-snouted animal emerged down the hill at the back of the yard. I started and leaned into the window. It sort of waddled along a thin snow cover, its snout leading the way. Later I said that if I could have added a sound track, I imagined it saying, “Neema neema neem neem neem neem…..” Blindly following its nose to a place it had clearly checked out before. After that I could identify the tracks its feet and long, rope-like tail left.
But then spring came, and possums showed up dead on roads. How could they know what a car means? In fact, a year or so after my winter possum encounter, I hit and killed one while driving my daughter and her friend home from school musical rehearsal around 1 a.m. Sorry, sorry, sorry, I wanted to say. Instead, I gripped my daughter’s hand, and she gripped back. We both felt awful.
At times like this, I silently thank the taxidermists.
This is a life-size diorama of musk oxen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The musk ox embodies certain truths about the life of a writer. A musk ox lives in a harsh environment and survives with a shaggy coat and rounded feet that stay on top of the snow. A writer must develop a kind of thick coat against the realities of loneliness in the craft and obstacles to publication.
A male musk ox has horns. So does a female; the Arctic cannot support a double standard. A good writer is a good writer no matter the gender or appearance. But just like a musk ox, a writer must develop horns.
Finally, musk oxen know when they must help each other. Say a wolf creeps nearby, hoping to eat them. They plod those giant furry bodies into a circle, butts in, and their babies inside. They face out, ready to charge the wolf and use those horns.
At times, writers join into a circle with other writers and learn how to become stronger at the craft. They don’t stare at each other, but they make a kind of circle, facing out. I came to Los Angeles to visit my daughter. I gained connection with this young woman I love so much. And I also received this reminder from the musk ox diorama.
The aggressive Lyme spirochete, which can turn itself into a blob and hide in tissues. Shown here magnified on a computer screen at the Western Connecticut Health Network Research Center.
The Connecticut Health Investigative Team has released my story on the search for an accurate diagnostic test for Lyme disease. Check it out!
Part of the reason for the explosion in Lyme cases is the changing climate. Warmer falls and earlier springs have helped spread Lyme disease, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined four years ago.
Tick eggs lie dormant through cold weather, and adult ticks are very clever at surviving under buried leaves, in basements and sheds. “People say, ‘We’ve had a really bad winter; there was a lot of snow’,” said Kirby Stafford III, state entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. “I say the ticks are doing just fine. Snow is an insulator.” One of his researchers discovered that winters with more snow and rain lead to summers with more ticks, he said.
Chris and her mother, Gloria, summer 2016
It’s the universal experience: aging. And yet this feels like my family faces unique fears. My mother’s physical universe is shrinking as she prepares to live somewhere where she can get the help she needs at any hour. Her mental universe, though, seems to expand, even if it goes to points unknown. My siblings and I draw closer together, and that feels right. Could we have done so if Mom hadn’t fallen? Maybe not. Maybe so.
Each section was built when the farmers needed it. Deep River, Connecticut, winter 2018
For many years I thought people acted spontaneously in making history. I thought, for example, that Rosa Parks suddenly thought she’d had enough of segregated buses in Alabama and that she was overcome with disgust and anger and spontaneously decided that she’d stay in her seat instead of moving to the back. Of course, she planned it. That doesn’t change how important it was. I’m still understanding this. In that way I feel like an eternal child who must remember how much planning goes into things before I do them.
This barn also required planning, but its builders acted with more spontaneity than a professional. This barn went up section by section starting in the mid-1800s. It was built with available materials, patched later with plywood and asbestos, and each section was just as big as it needed to be. The first section probably held a piece of farm equipment. The next sections would have held more equipment or tools. This barn has been falling in on itself slowly over the two and a half decades I’ve been watching it. If this barn could tell me a story, it would be a story of building just as much as you need, only when needed, with available talent and objects. The tractor was coming. It needed shelter. In that sense, this barn represents three or four different spontaneous acts over its history.
Snowfall on Pasture Path, White Mountains, New Hampshire
I spent this past week inside a house with my dog in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The first full day there, it snowed 19 inches. Snow creates the perfect writing landscape. Muffled, the world slows down.
I turned my thoughts to timber rattlesnakes and snowshoe hares while I drafted two new essays that week. A few years ago I spent many days following biologists into the New England world collecting rattlesnakes, which are kind of beautiful, poisonous, and rare now. I have never finished that story but realized the story I really wanted to write is more personal than a straight journalistic investigation into snake poaching and other threats to these creatures. The scientists release their snakes later. The poachers sell them on the black market. I’ve revisited all of my notes, memories, photos, and impressions as I write this piece.
Snowshoe hares aren’t dwindling in numbers, but humans have messed around with their populations for many decades. For a half century, New Hampshire alllowed nearly unlimited hunting of them and ended up importing hares from Maine every year. They don’t do that anymore, and I wonder if the hares I have seen were the great-great-great-etc. grandchildren of Maine hares. They rarely show themselves, but I’ve encountered two at close range in my life, both at night. To me they embody the “wild” in wild animals. They bound around from plant to branch, eating pounds of vegetation a day while living in a constant state of fear. Owls and lynxes could swoop down at any second and kill and eat them. Hares breed like rabbits. Mothers give birth to several litters a year. Most of them don’t survive.
It’s an ancient practice for writers, leaving home for a quiet writing spot. I can work anywhere, but I hone my ideas and figure out what I know best alone in a house staring at mountains or at the falling snow concealing them.
It is so easy to think of a writing project I’ve kept at my side for years as if it exists in perfection, a static beauty I just must uncover. In reality, an unwritten essay or story contains no form until I make it. And as I change and think in new ways as each month of my life passes, that unwritten work, too, changes. This seems nonsensical, perhaps.
With the inspiration of creativity teacher Jessica Abel (Growing Gills), I have realized that once I put a long-delayed project onto my short list, maybe even placing it in first or second place, then I meet the differences between the writer I am at the moment I finally start working on the old idea and the old idea. The old idea might have worked in imagination for a long time, but the reality will be different.
Here is where walking through nature helps. I place the idea high on the creative list, and then I make the time for them. Making time includes writing from nature—the title of my workshop next June. I call it this because nature and movement, often with no pad or pencil in the pocket, opens the place in my mind where the main ideas of my piece can take root.
Writing from Nature
For more, go here.