Solstice: a Paradise of Forms in Nature

Summer solstice is upon us: the time of year we fully celebrate the daylight in all its glory: when the earth tilts on its axis to most directly face the sun – which is highest in the sky – and we in the northern hemisphere experience the year’s shortest night and longest day.

Some say the highest purpose of form is to serve its own unique function. Thinking of simple yet brilliant creatures such as the snail reminds me of ancient mathematician Fibonacci’s sequence, which was limited by the golden mean or golden ratio, a number so universally irresistible, it’s been used by artists, architects, writers, and scientists to describe the symmetrical appeal of the human face and body, buildings, poetry, the structure of flowers, and animals such as the chambered nautilus.

An earlier post highlighted some of the fantastic forms that local lichens take. Perhaps not everything under the sun takes the form of the golden mean – but it’s a beautiful idea – and every day I’m enchanted by the multifarious and fantastic forms in nature.


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20160413_155118 20160508_14281420160428_185634  20160508_152710 Spiderwebs, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park




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The Lichenologist, or, Taking a Liking to Lichen

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist! ) This bad pun was even made by our instructor at a recent class B. and I took at the Pepperwood Preserve, a nature preserve focusing on conservation, research, and public education. We knew nothing about lichens before, just always noticed them on hikes locally and abroad.

Lichens aren’t plants, but rather a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae, and grow on bark, stone, a wide variety of surfaces. California is the first state to adopt a State Lichen! These and other fascinating facts we learned from our teacher, a member of the California Lichen Society, which offers educational information, citizen science opportunities, and membership resources.

A recent Atlantic article profiles a man who fell in love with lichen later in life. And during our class hike around the preserve (as well as in nearby Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, home to Sonoma County’s tallest peak, Mount St. Helena), we were struck by the beauty and versatility of lichens – as well as their fierce tenacity in different harsh conditions. It’s easy to become obsessed with these amazing organisms.

For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen

Back then, what did I know?

The names of subway lines, buses,

How long it took to walk twenty blocks….

When I saw you, later, seaweed reefed in the air,

you were gray-green, incomprehensible, old.

What you clung to, hung from: old.

Trees looking half-dead, stones.

Marriage of fungi and algae,

chemists of air, …

Transformers unvalued, uncounted.

Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.

-Jane Hirshfield


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Posted in Language, Local Area Hikes and trips, Nature, Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

May Day/Beltane

Happy May Day! Today we celebrate both the venerable tradition of honoring our workers, and the holiday also known as Beltane in some parts of the world. This holiday celebrates the coming of spring and summer, and focuses on fertility and the growing season. We may celebrate with a bonfire, or dancing around a Maypole, or simply appreciating earth’s bounty all around us. This year, we’re especially grateful that winter rains have brought lushness to our garden after several years of drought.

So, in honor of the season and also to sneak in another poem at the end of National Poetry Month, here’s one of my favorites, by one of my favorites, William Butler Yeats:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.


I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.



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Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! This 46-year-old holiday is commemorated this year by world leaders signing the Paris Agreement on climate change at the UN in New York – a great step, but the real work will be to take aggressive action to protect our planet. Arbor Day, which fell back in March, celebrates the great role that trees play in our ecosystem. This Earth Day is a great time to plant a tree: they absorb harmful emissions, shade nearby plants (and homes, and creatures), and bring communities together in their cultivation and care.

Finally, in honor of National Poetry Month, from one of my absolute favorite poets, the dark, brilliant, totally singular Emily Dickinson‘s take on trees:

I robbed the Woods—
The trusting Woods.
The unsuspecting Trees
Brought out their Burs and mosses
My fantasy to please.
I scanned their trinkets curious—I grasped—I bore away—
What will the solemn Hemlock—
What will the Oak tree say?


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Spring Blues for a Green Garden

Happy Spring!

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

…and then, from the deluge and burst of sunshine – the plants burst into life!


Mushroom colony


20160130_124716 Ladybug!


Dutchman’s pipevine


Grape hyacinth


Lithodora and forget-me-not



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The Mind of a Crow


Illustration by Irene Barnard

Just after my avian-centric previous post, B. and I began to notice a newcomer to our front yard: A small crow, almost a black shadow, dragging his badly broken wing at his left side like a tattered flag, venturing in search of shelter and food when we tried to approach him.

For those who still think of crows as pests, harbingers of doom or other ill omens – let me dispel those myths. They are wildly protective of each other, as is evidenced each time we see a murder of them (yes, that’s the collective noun!) swoop around and mob the magnificent red-shouldered hawks that sometimes menace their nests or territory, calling out and dive-bombing the much larger birds until they go elsewhere. They are recognized by scientists as some of the smartest creatures – not just birds – on earth.

Our backyard is fenced off, so we decided to try to corral him there, where he might be safer from street predators. B. cast a sheet over him for a calming effect, gently carrying him to the back. As we unwrapped the crow, he stared at us for a minute, unmoving, then hurled himself backward, hopping to and hiding in the radish patch, then behind our garage – farther away from us menacing humans. My bird whisperer B. set up protective shelters, put out nuts, organic popcorn, bread, and water, and we left him alone for the night. The next morning when we peeked out to check on him, he gamely perched on the back of a lawn chair, greeting his corvid friends and family.

After I called our local Sonoma County Bird Rescue Center, they strongly advised us to bring him in – citing the large number of birds they had helped, and their successful release back into the wild from where they came. We did so immediately, along with a dear friend who was visiting – again traumatizing the poor thing with that sheet while I drove as quickly as possible. The staff said he looked well overall, and that they would try to bring him back to our area after treatment. But when I called in the following days, they told me his injury was too severe and despite their best efforts, they were unable to save and had to humanely euthanize the crow. I was crushed, naively thinking that they could somehow preserve the wing, or even if not, that he could return here and we could care for and bond with him.

Our hearts were broken! How could it be? We only knew him for a few days – a few hours, really – and of course didn’t actually “know” him at all. I may be anthropomorphizing, and perhaps we can never truly know the mind of a crow, but when I looked into those wet black eyes, I felt that for a moment I had glimpsed the wild spirit at the center of his fierce, intelligent heart.

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Great Backyard Bird Count

My first memory of an awareness of birds and their importance in our lives was – like so many things in my life – connected to my mother. She’d rescued a baby bird that fell from its nest in our backyard, and for days she lovingly nursed it back to health, making it a soft-cloth-lined shoebox to sleep in, giving it food and water. B. echoed this loving act early in our relationship when he spied a fallen fledgling by the trail where we hiked one day. He quickly moved it to a soft spot out of the way of the path, but not far from the tree where its mother might still find it. What is it about a fallen bird that is so compelling? Perhaps it’s that it should be a creature of flight, a transformation that, as we watched the bird take off after my mother’s care, proved startling.

Although they may look similar, there are actually three stages of baby bird development that occur before full independence: hatchlings are newborns, featherless and sightless with eyes closed. Once they open their eyes and grow feathers, they become nestlings. After about two weeks in the nest, they can leave but cannot fly – these are fledglings. It’s common to find them on the ground, as that’s part of their growth process. It’s also fine to gently pick up the bird and place it back in its nest if possible; contrary to popular myth, the mother will not reject it. Sonoma County wildlife rehabilitation center Native Songbird Care and Conservation provides help and education about local birds.

This time of year is once again the Great Backyard Bird Count, a great citizen science project held all over the world and put on by Cornell University’s Lab or Ornithology. Anyone can participate in any country, just spend at least fifteen minutes in a single place to count (as best you can) the number of different bird species you observe, and submit results online (the site also can help with bird identification).

Some of our favorite winter birds are Cedar waxwings, beautiful brown and yellow crested small birds with red-tipped wings. They whistle to each other and fly close together, often whirling and swooping in unison. These nomads wander from country to town and back in search of new berries, and are crucial seed-dispersers in our environment. We spied them enjoying a rainshower in a backyard tree one day, an enchanting picture that instantly brought to mind that startling image from my early memory.

Cedar waxwings bathing in a backyard rainshower


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