There is Still Beauty

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This morning I watched two squirrels go back and forth, back and forth, leaping from branch to branch with mouthfuls of leaves, dressing up their nest. Yesterday I walked with a friend along the winter beach; the sun sparkled against the dark water, the sandpipers clustered, the marsh hawk silently soaring and the colors of rust, yellow, purple blending into a song of November.

There is still beauty. We humans are love and hate, kindness and cruelty. But the natural world—the natural world just is. And there is a great peace in that.

…Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled–
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing–
that the light is everything–that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Excerpted from The Ponds, by Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver Reminds Us in These Harsh Times

I thought it might be time for something beautiful.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the trees
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver

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The Call of the Wild Rice

Let’s go gather some wild rice. After all, it grows on the fresh water tidal inlet very near where I live. What? You’d rather go to Costco? Naw, we can’t go to Costco, not while there’s abundant wild rice just begging to be harvested. Do I know how to do it? Of course I know. How do I know? Well….I read about it and really, there’s nothing to it. You get in canoe, one person paddles around in the rice, the other person whacks at it with a stick and before long, wild rice is piling up in your canoe. Then what? You take it out. Obviously. There’s nothing to do after that?

Well. Probably. But I’ll find that out when we’ve gotten all the wild rice.

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Me, ricing

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My sister, paddling.

Not much rice is in the canoe. We decide the birds are eating it all. (There are a lot of red-winged blackbirds. Hundreds. They are on the rice stalks. This mollifies my sister somewhat since it tells her that this stuff we are attempting to harvest is, in fact, edible and not another one of my sketchy ideas.)

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Our harvest.

Obviously, the canoe did not get filled up with wild rice.I research what happens next. My sister goes to her house to take an allergy pill. Turns out she is allergic to nature. I dry the rice, as per YouTube instructions.

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I dry and parch the rice.

I parch the rice, ditto.

 

Next the rice needs to be hulled. YouTube says Native Americans stomped on it with soft deerskin thingies on their feet. That seems difficult.

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I squish it with my hands. Ouch. I don’t have soft deerskin mittens.

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I rub it with a rock I picked up on the Maine seashore. That seems to sort of work. But not really.

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Maine seashore rock.

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With hull.

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Without hull.

I hull the frickin’ things one grain at a time. I invite my sister over. She declines.

 

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The almost finished harvest.

I have taken “Gather Wild Rice” off my bucket list.

Duck Duck Goose

The summer birds are starting to arrive and they’ve got one thing on their mind; raising a family—and that means staking out territory. The canada geese and the mallards arrive first. In fact, in years past, Mister and Missus Goose have arrived when the pond was still frozen over. I have watched Mister Goose carefully stepping along the ice toward the nesting spot that he had no doubt been regaling about to the missus all winter. She, for her part, seemed to be saying with each deliberate irritated step, “Another fine idea you’ve got, Mr. Goose.”

This year the geese and the ducks decided to swap nesting sites. The geese are now nesting in the tiny island where the ducks nested last year, and the ducks are in the slightly bigger island. I tell them it probably won’t end well, no matter what. There’s a mink that’s savvy to both nesting spots.

But be that as it may, they’re going ahead with it. I know this because I see the husbands hanging out together in the pond—one duck, one goose floating near each other. The missus’s leave the nests only once a day for a small bit. They eat, they splash around, and then it’s back to incubating. The husbands continue their floating and their fraternity. It’s all very archetypal—the female nurtures, the male protects.

If another goose should show up, Mister Goose lets him know in no uncertain terms with a great deal of honking, that this pond is taken. However, he doesn’t do this with the smaller waterfowl. The mallard male seems to be a friend and there’s a pie-billed grebe in the pond that dives to eat fish. I often see it three or four feet from the feeding goose, diving with gusto, no doubt because the dabbling goose stirs up all sorts of things.

It’s an elaborate dance of harmony that seems to be how nature operates. And watching it, I wonder, what happened to our species?

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Unlimited Life

I saw the first wood duck of the spring this morning, as I was sipping my tea upstairs. My eyes are not what they used to be, so I needed the binoculars to confirm. Yes. A male wood duck in breeding plumage. Which, if you haven’t seen one, here is a picture.

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Beautiful, isn’t he?

Wood ducks are small and self-possessed. They swim in a quiet, deliberate, earnest way, keeping to the brushy part of the pond, because they are very shy. Even my figure at the glass windows forty yards away can spook them. It is always a thrill to see one.

Another special moment occurred last week when I spied an unfamiliar duck pair. Out came the binoculars. I stared to see how large they were, if they were diving or just dabbling and their coloring (this one seemed to have a black and white beak.) When I had enough information, I put the binoculars down and got out my Sibley’s Guide to Birds. I flipped through the pages, and it turned out that, without a doubt, I was seeing a pair of ring-necked ducks. Something I had never seen before.

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Here’s what I think. I think that a life of limits becomes an unlimited life when you slow down enough to see the richness around you.

The Buddha’s Hand, a cocktail post

Recently on the radio, I listened to a program on the resurgence of the cocktail in American society. Perfect timing. Weary of the wrestling spectacle of politics and anticipating the green of spring, it brought to mind my own favorite cocktail to offset dreary—the Buddha’s Hand.

To make a Buddha’s hand you need to start with the citron called…the Buddha’s Hand (citrus medica var. sarcodactyllis). Related to the lemon, but much older, a Buddha’s Hand fruit contains no juice, only pulp. When its “fingers” are closed, it resembles the hand of Buddha in prayer. In China, its characters mean long life and happiness. But what you’re going to do with it is infuse it in good vodka for a month. So slice in up and stick it into the vodka. After a month, it’s ready. Smell it, and revel in the complex and generally uplifting aroma. Next get yourself a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur. Chartreuse is no ordinary liqueur. It is made by the monks of the Chartreuse Order in France–contemplative monks who spend their lives in silence (a documentary, “Into Great Silence” filmed in the monastery brings this home viscerally—there’s no speaking at all in the entire movie.) The green color of the liqueur comes exclusively from the one hundred and thirty plants and flowers that are infused to make the liqueur. Which one hundred and thirty, and in what proportion, is a nearly three hundred year old secret held and passed down to only two monks each generation.

To make this auspicious cocktail, take two ounces of your lovely Buddha’s Hand vodka and one-half ounce of Green Chartreuse. Add one-half ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice and shake with ice. Strain into your very favorite glass. Garnish, if you wish, with a thin lemon slice.

Now, admire the green-lemon color and know that no dyes were used to achieve it. Take a sip and savor the complex herb and citron infusions, redolent of the the natural world, of silence, and of meditation.

And if this doesn’t help you through the testing times, nothing will.

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The Firebird

I am in Tucson now for a bit, and the other day I decided to try to do a watercolor of the mountains at sunset. With their vast swaths of deep blue shadows it seemed, visually, like a simple image to capture. I retrieved my travel watercolor kit, 3 x 5 watercolor block, HB pencil, and squishy eraser and walked to the park where there was a view of mountains beyond the highway and power lines. I balanced my cup of water on the rough and not terribly flat surface of the wall, poised pencil over paper, stared at the mountains hard and tried to look artistic, rather than suspicious to any passersby.

When I opened up the watercolor set to begin painting, I noticed that the popular colors—and the colors I would need—were mere scraps of paint clinging to the sides of the pan. Oh well, I thought, it’s only a 3 x 5, surely I’ll have enough paint for that. I unsheathed the tiny travel brush and dipped and dribbled water into each cake of dry paint. But when I started painting, I quickly realized that brush was way past its sell-by date as my husband is fond of saying. It had lost its spring and now resembled, more than anything, a tiny dispirited scrub brush. I plodded onward, painterly speaking, but the deep dark blues of the mountain shadows looked anemic on my paper. I let the painting dry before folding everything back up, because sometimes a painting that I think is awful doesn’t look so bad, given some time and space. (This one didn’t, so you’re not going to see it.) I had began my disappointed trudge back to the house when a flash of hot-coal caught my eye. I stared. What kind of bird was that? Much too red to be a cardinal. Disappointment forgotten, I followed the bird from tree to tree, weaving from one sidewalk to the other. I certainly looked suspicious now, but I needed to see that bird. Back at the house I went on the internet and learned that it was a vermillion flycatcher.

Vermillion–now that’s not a word you hear too often outside of painting. It’s a pigment, made from ground cinnabar and it’s a brilliant, nuanced red. The saturated color of the vermillion flycatcher contrasted, in my mind, with the anemic colors of my watercolor attempt to capture the rich beauty of the mountains–and my dissatisfaction about it.

And then I got it. There is transcription, and there is the thing itself. And that firebird had just reminded me not to forget to rejoice in the thing itself.

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