During covid, I've been trying to spend more time outdoors, and have been learning more about Ohio's native species and unique geology. While I've spent a lot of time in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I've only just begun visiting Ohio's state nature preserves. I've mostly visited the ones nearest me in northeast Ohio so far, but I feel like I've only begun to scratch the surface of all there is to see and learn about. The more I've visited these preserves, the more I've come to see how incredible Ohio's natural history is. When glaciers receded from the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, it left unique bogs and fens such as the Kent Bog and Herrick Fen, both of which are home to tamarack trees, highbush blueberries, or leatherleaf. There are more than 3,500 tamarack trees at the Kent Bog, the largest southernmost stand in the continental United States.
Glaciers also left Lake Erie with miles of coastal marshes and beaches. The Marsh, which is where Lake Erie "mingles" with waters that drain into the marsh, has recently undergone a huge restoration project to bring back native species, which has consequently brought a return of wildlife. I was able to see a smattering of wildlife and wildflowers: great egrets, great blue herons, tree swallows and purple martins, jerusalem artichoke, giant sunflower, purple coneflower, yarrow, queen anne's lace, white sweetclover, goldenrod, swamp rose mallow, and more. The Marsh is about 1,500 acres and is a unique feeding ground for fish and migratory birds. I'm only scratching the surface here, though. Just in 2019, some 204 species of birds have been spotted in the marsh.
Headlands Dunes is another unique environment consisting of highly specialized Atlantic Coast Plain species—which would've been established many thousands of years ago. Species such as sea rocket, beach pea, beach grass, and seaside spurge still persist. I had a hard time identifying some of these, but it's incredible to me that they still exist in Ohio today.
“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”
During my freshman year of college, I started visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on a more regular basis. I loved finding new hikes, and being out in nature provided a space for reflection and solitude. I spent hours upon hours hiking all of the trails, identifying trees, looking for foxes. After a year or two of visiting, my enjoyment of nature began to fade—maybe I was preoccupied with school or other life happenings, but I started visiting less. When quarantine began this spring, it provided a pause, so I decided to pick-up wildflower and bird identification again—primarily as a way to rest and occupy my mind from the anxiety of everything going on.
Over the last three months of searching for birds and flowers though, I feel that God has given me an entirely new joy for the natural world. There is so much beauty that he is making during the summertime in Ohio. Living near a lake provides direct access to plants and wildlife that would normally take more time and effort to get to: the purple martins (some of which migrate as far as Sao Paulo, Brazil for the winter) and tree swallows as they chirp and swoop over the water lilies and pickerelweed on the edge of the lake; swimming beavers; the call of a red-winged blackbird; the flight of a great blue heron over the water. There are other wildflowers I typically don’t notice on my commutes, too: bird’s foot trefoil, chicory, day lilies, sweet clover, queen anne’s lace, red clover, or wild parsnip.
I recently listened to an audio version of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder about introducing children to nature. Her thesis is that being in nature ought to be fun, and full of wonder, and that in turn this would lead children to want to learn about it—rather than going into nature with children to “teach” them. As a new parent it’s a profound essay, and one that I will surely return to often. I hope that as Arlo gets older, I'll be able to enjoy the wonder of nature with him. Already I see this inborn sense in him that Carson discusses—the desire to go outside, to explore our backyard, to run freely when we go to parks—there is a freshness and newness to everything he's experiencing. I remember for myself how quickly this dimmed as a child. There is one instance I remember in particular, probably before middle school, where I was angry at my mother because she wanted me to play outside rather than in our basement playing video games. In one sense this responsibility is invigorating, while in another, daunting. Who am I to teach Arlo about nature when I don't know very much myself? Anticipating this, Carson responds, “it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” My hope that this time of childhood will be a time to prepare the soil for this sense of wonder.
There is a small thread which connects this sense of wonder and daily life. I have been reading Liturgy of the the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren, and in a chapter about savoring daily moments of beauty, she quotes G.K. Chesterton on the child-like wonder of God:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
As each flower blooms, I imagine God intricately making each one with care and craftsmanship with a deep sense of joy. I hope that I will learn how to more deeply appreciate these things as if a child. It is a deep privilege to “bear witness,” as Marcia Bonta calls it, to this beauty, and to approach nature as if knowing nothing about it—with a sense of wonder at the hands of a good maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, the use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19: 2–4). I think that children might inherently know this, but maybe I have forgotten and need reminding. I have become impatient with what I deem monotony as an adult. I think it's no mistake that Carson ends the quote at the top of this post with the word humility. At first, it seems that there is so much to teach children about nature, but I think if we're careful and observant, there is so much for them to teach us, too.
I have been using the Audubon Wildflower Guide (Eastern Region) from the library to identify most of these. I am still trying to decide whether or not to get this or the Peterson guide as my own. Against popular opinion and as a newbie, I am partial to the color photos in the Audubon guide, and like the size and 2-part organization. In the past, I’ve found it difficult to use illustrated wildflower guides since I need more detail to accurately identify as a beginner. Either way, it has been a joy finding all of these blooms.
“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.”
Earlier this spring I spent some time digging up more of our backyard to use the leftover pea gravel from creating our patio last summer. At the beginning of spring I always feel energized and ready to work outside. With the pandemic beginning early in the spring here, there was also a sense of national camaraderie around victory gardening, although I can't say that was really my intent. But there is a sense of stewardship that comes along with composting, growing our own food, attracting pollinators with wildflowers, and creating a wonderful space for spending time in outside of our home.
I decided to build two raised beds, and filled the bottom with compost and then covered that with a mix of topsoil and raised bed mix. I also installed a rain barrel with a gutter diverter, but have mostly used that for watering flowers in our front yard. Katey and I decided to grow tomatoes, zucchini, musk melon, broccoli, romaine lettuce, and some herbs: basil, sage, parsley, and sweet mint. We also cut out a section for a midwestern wildflower mix so we could cut flowers to put inside all summer.
Being at home more has made spring feel slower than normal. With the extra time, I have taken up walking more often with the hopes of going for at least an hour per day, or for 10,000 steps if I'm feeling ambitious. If you're wondering where that number comes from, it's a funny story. Even after taking longer walks for two or three weeks, I find that there is a quiet, restful, and observant aspect to them that is refreshing to me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And I feel more strongly about recommending walks the more I take them. I love this quote from Henry David Thoreau:
“No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.”
While I don't know if I'm a true walker by Thoreau's definition, I've really enjoyed taking them in the mornings, during lunch breaks, or in the evenings—and have begun noticing the spring blooms that I often miss around our neighborhood during this season. The street we live on is semi-rural, and borders a lake that eventually makes its way into the Cuyahoga River, so it teems with native wildflowers much more than in town. Walking and observing these is such a special and ephemeral moment of the year. Hoping to do another post later with some summer blooms.
I continually find myself inspired by the work of Bruno Munari (1907–1998), an Italian designer and artist. During my MFA thesis studies, I often looked at the ways he was inspired by nature in his design works—whether observing “continuous forms” and replicating these in a lamp, or cutting up oranges and rose petals to see their symmetry. Munari is also known for his own found object collections, whether stones, shells, or paper. This summer, I spent a lot of time at the beach with friends and family. Whenever I had a chance, I would take walks in the morning and comb for interesting shells or driftwood. My son Arlo also found some great objects in the sand (and then I found them while stopping him from putting them in his mouth).
“When the artist observes nature... it is as if nature communicated, through the sensitivity of the artist at that moment, one of its secrets.”
For our 3rd anniversary, Katey and I took a road trip on the West Coast. We flew to Sacramento, CA, where we made our way up the coastline to Seattle, WA over the course of about two weeks. There is so much that I could say about our trip, but I think the photos will say more. Katey and I planned our trip by looking up the National Parks we hoped to visit, and made highlights on a paper map that we bought in the cases where we wouldn't have cell coverage, but we ended up using the map the entire time (a first for us), and it was a fantastic way to travel. There was a lot of planning and saving for the trip as far as which roads to take, where to stay and when, or what food we'd eat—but it was all worth it, especially once we were out on the road in places we didn't know. We were so fortunate to have taken this trip, and we hope to do another out West again.
I've always had this draw to the Western half of America. I've taken classes about it. I've watched and re-watched the Ken Burns documentary. Its size alone has been a part of America's history, a manifest destiny that has drawn people to its open spaces. Traveling it was much different than I imagined. I think that there are so many aspects of the West that are overly romanticized. And yet I can see why people are drawn to its beauty and size. The West is so big, and beyond comprehension.
Every year in July, we go with Katey’s family to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We spend a lot of time resting, sharing meals, talking, and watching the ocean from the porch. I love and savor these slow times.
God often uses his craftsmanship in nature to teach me new things, or to gain my attention. Because he has made me as a designer and artist, I see his artistry in the cosmos. I see nature not as an accident, but finely tuned and designed with care.
So as I sat watching a storm roll in over the Atlantic last week, I was struck by how slowly it moved—how it molded itself into continuously new forms. Over the course of an hour, the darkness moved towards me, the lightning and distinct shadows of rainfall dotting the white horizon seemed hardly to move, and yet the cloud grew larger imperceptibly.
We live in a culture of speed. As a designer, I am constantly feeling rushed to work and to innovate. Hardly anything nature moves as quickly. We do not sit to watch a seed sprout, a lake form, a glacier melt, a mountain born. It is the way in which God intended nature where I see the fault in humans to hurry life along.
Even in spiritual growth, I often pray speedily, counting on spiritual fruit to be grown swiftly. I think it is no mistake that in Galatians 5, Paul articulates the fruit of the spirit. I pray often that I would grow in love and kindness, expecting these virtues to have been completed within a week. Who ever watched an apple grow within a week? It requires the planting of the seed, the searching of the roots, the growing of the trunk, the slow formation of the branch, and seasons of poorly grown apples before a sweet one can be picked.
It is with this thought that I trust God in his workings of time. Though he exists outside of time, he has formed it and governs it. He will cultivate fruit in us in due time if we simply step out of the way and let him.
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