What with summer activities and chores and the myriad details associated with the launch of my memoir Mango Rash, I confess I haven’t been doing much new writing lately. I was inspired to make an exception, though, when I received a compelling request earlier in the summer from one of my favorite Michigan authors, Anne-Marie Oomen.
She was appealing to writers in her circle to join in an undertaking she called the Lake-love Letters Project. The idea was simple: write a love letter—no more than 400 words—to the Great Lakes or a specific lake. Not a huge investment of time and energy, but an important one, as Anne-Marie’s cover letter made clear.
I love our waters: lakes, rivers, wetlands, little sinking ponds, remote swamps. If it’s wet, I’ll probably like it. And of course, I’m worried about all of them, as I know many of you are. I often wonder what I can do. I’m not a scientist, politician, lawyer, not even a very good journalist. I often feel inadequate, a “fish out of water” when it comes to this work. This year, a question I asked myself: how might I use my small gifts a literary artist (creative writer) to do something for our beloved waters.
She went on to relate that just as she was considering how she might make a difference, she received a letter from Liz Kirkwood, director of the regional water organization For Love of Water (FLOW). The letter explained that in July, the International Joint Commission of the Great Lakes would meet in Traverse City. Liz wanted to enliven what might otherwise be a dry discussion (subject matter notwithstanding) by involving artists who are passionate about our water.
As Anne-Marie described it in her letter,
She had a vision: at the final meeting with the commissioners, could we showcase our love of water in a way that would involve the arts, particularly the writers. She spoke of the arts as one heart behind all the science and legal work. I was so grateful for her rare understanding. And she offered an idea that I could run with. Could we writers and artists do something with love letters to our waters. Love letters? Yes!
I usually take my time responding to requests that ask me to write, edit, or critique something. I like to consider what else is on my to-do-list and how interested I am in adding to that ever-expanding list. This time I didn’t hesitate. As soon as I found a sliver of writing time, I drafted my love letter. After a few revisions, I sent it off to Anne-Marie.
Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Lake Michigan,
You’re not like the others—the ones I grew up with. In that flat and dusty land, those pretenders to the title were mere puddles. Knowing no better, we suited up, dived in, toweled off, sat on shore with sandwiches, staring out across their dense, red-silted expanses, thinking, “Well, this is nice.”
Then I met you, and I had to expand my vocabulary. I’ll admit it: you dazzled me, spangled like a rock star, necklaced with villages whose very names enchant: Empire, Pentwater, Saugatuck.
The only time I didn’t love you as much as I wanted to was on that blustery September day I ferried across your liquid skin. Your ups and downs! How they unsettled me. Betrayed, I sulked until I reached the other shore and looked back at your troubled face, your spectrum of shades.
You, too, carry burdens, I realized in that moment. And also this: I may have loved you since we first met, but I haven’t really known you. Let me know you now.
Just before the commission meeting, Anne-Marie reported that nearly 100 letters submitted to the project would be presented in book form to each of the commissioners. In addition, she extracted sentences from some letters and shaped them into a ten-minute script to be read as part of the presentation to the commission. “Your words made a beautiful praise song to the lakes—thank you!” she wrote to contributors.
So often, writing feels like a solitary, inwardly-directed pursuit. It was gratifying to take part in this project, and it made me think about other ways I might merge my passion for writing with the issues I care about.
How can you apply your talents to something you care about?
FLOW’s video of the entire Traverse City meeting can be viewed here. The Lake-love Letters Project portion begins around minute 14 and continues to minute 28. FLOW and the commission also plan to post the entire collection of Lake-love Letters on their websites.
This is what spring looked like at my house a few days ago. Not exactly picking-posies weather. But I do believe it's coming . . . eventually.
Until then, let's enjoy a few reminders of what spring should look like.
What are your favorite signs of spring?
It's a busy time of year, wouldn't you agree? You've got places to go, people to see. I've got stuff to do. So instead of burdening you with blather, I'm making my holiday gift to you a visual one. Today I'm sharing some favorite photos from our trip out West last fall.
But before we head West, some photo-related news: Copies of my photo book, "Nature by Nan," are now available for purchase at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Cafe in Croton. The 8x8-inch hardcover book contains 20 of my photos of local flora and fauna.
I hope to soon add copies of my second photo book, "Nature by Nan, Volume II," and to make both books available for order on this website. Stay tuned.
Now, let's head out West!
What are some of your standout memories from the past year?
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This month -- this week, in fact -- finds us commemorating both Earth Day and Arbor Day. In the spirit of those two observances, here's a collection of quotes about nature and the planet on which we live.
As a bonus, I'm including at the end of this post, some of my favorite nature shots from our recent visit to the Southwest.
Love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need -- if only we had the eyes to see.
-- Edward Abbey
Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.
-- Gary Snyder
The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
-- Alexey Leonov, Russian cosmonaut
The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees -- all of these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.
-- Thomas Berry
The earth is a living thing. Mountains speak, trees sing, lakes can think, pebbles have a soul, rocks have power.
-- Henry Crow Dog
When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do. Or what weather does. This sustains me very well indeed.
-- E.B. White, One Man's Meat
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.
-- Rachel Carson
Nature repairs her ravages -- but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again; the parted hills are left scarred; if there is a new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.
-- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?
-- Henry David Thoreau
Loyd: "It has to do with keeping things in balance . . . It's like the spirits have made a deal with us . . . The spirits have been good enough to let us live here and use the utilities, and we're saying: . . . We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took . . . You've gone to a lot of trouble, and we'll try to be good guests."
Codi: "Like a note you'd send somebody after you stayed in their house?"
Loyd: "Exactly like that. 'Thanks for letting me sleep on your couch. I took some beer out of the refrigerator, and I broke a coffee cup. Sorry. I hope it wasn't your favorite one.' "
-- Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
And now, for a little more nature appreciation . . .
Sometimes the roads we travel take us back to crossroads that were pivotal in our past. Sometimes they show us the way forward.
Both happened on our recent trip through the Southwest. Ray and I spent most of our time in the Tucson area, a place that has lingered, dreamlike, in a cranny of my memory for decades. Though I've made a couple of quick visits to Tucson in recent years, I hadn't spent any wandering-around time there since an unforgettable visit in my twenties.
It was 1976, and I was on a meandering road trip with my boyfriend. We'd driven from northern California to Los Angeles to visit his parents, then struck out across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas before heading north to Oklahoma to see my family, venturing on to Kansas, and returning to California by way of Colorado. The stated purpose of the trip was to check out graduate schools in Arizona, Texas, and Kansas, but we planned the route to take in as many national parks, monuments and other nature-y points of interest as possible: Joshua Tree National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Mount Lemmon, Chiricahua National Monument, Cave Creek Canyon, White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Big Bend National Park, Oklahoma's Great Salt Plains State Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument.
We spent our days hiking through cactus forests, bizarre rock formations, lush oases, meadows and more, stopping to raise binoculars or crawl on the ground in search of unusual insects. The assortment of critters boggled my mind—from the javelina that trotted across our campsite to the jewel-like cuckoo wasps and furry velvet ants that flitted and scurried around us.
We slept out in the open—no tent—where we could watch the moon and stars and hear the night creatures. (Lucky for us, it wasn't the height of monsoon season.) Enthralled with the writings of Carlos Castaneda, I saw our surroundings as steeped in mystical power. As I contemplated the future I was heading into, I was sure it would include frequent visits to these enchanted places—as a scientist studying the flora and fauna, but also as a spiritual seeker.
Somehow, life took me in other directions. Or I should say, I made decisions that took me in other directions. And though I often thought of those places and their hold on me, I never found my way back. Until last month.
On this latest trip, Ray and I trekked through some of the places that had made such an impression on me more than forty years ago: Saguaro National Park, the Desert Museum, and Chiricahua National Monument, in addition to visiting sites where neither of us had been before--Sabino Canyon and Bisbee, to name a couple.
I expected to be wowed again by the landscape, with its unique array of plants and animals, and I was. What I didn't expect was the flash flood of memories and emotions that swept through me. I remembered the connection I'd once felt to the desert and how firmly I'd believed it would be an ongoing part of my life. I thought about the decisions I'd made that took me away from that vision, the places I wound up instead, and how easy it is for years to slip by while you're thinking, "Someday, I'll . . . "
My musings could have been an exercise in regret; instead I made a conscious decision to use those memories as a tool to explore my feelings about the paths I've traveled, where they've led me, and where I still want to go. (I'm not just talking about geography here, you understand.)
Putting myself back in my twenty-seven-year-old mind, I asked myself what excited me about the prospects ahead. What did I value in my vision of the future? Returning to my sixty-nine-year-old mind, I asked myself how much of that excitement and those values I still possess—even though I took a different route to them—and what I might still make space for in my life.
My conclusions: At twenty-six, I prized my freedom: freedom to explore whatever captured my interest, freedom to live where I wanted, freedom to spend my days doing something rewarding. I took it as a given that my explorations would keep me close to nature. That's the part I lost for a time, when I spent long days cooped up in an office, in a big city.
Now I'm living a close-to-nature existence again—not in the desert, but in another place that teems with wildlife, wildflowers, and woods—and I have my freedom back. When I think about where I want to go next, it's out to discover more wondrous places, not just to see and photograph them (though you can bet I'll do that), but also to linger long enough to experience the mystery of these places and let my spirit connect with theirs.
Photos: Nan Pokerwinski & friends
While I'm taking a break for relaxation and recreation, I've invited some of my fellow bloggers to fill in with guest posts. This week's is from scientist and author Mark L. Winston, who blogs at The Hive. Mark's story takes place in a scientific setting, but I think you'll agree that the underlying message applies to all sorts of situations in life.
Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs
Noon. I joined Mark on our shady, makeshift ground cover. We ate a snack and gulped down water. I tested out my safety glasses. The sun was a complete, round, orange ball. I ducked back in the shade. Twelve fifteen. A tiny Pac-Man bite showed in the top right section of the sphere. Someone shouted, "It’s starting!" Over the next half hour, we kept checking. The Pac-Man effect increased and the air began cooling, even though the sun cast shadows. By twelve-forty or so, standing in the sun no longer felt intolerable.
By one p.m., the sun appeared as a slivered, orange crescent. One-fifteen. Like sentries on cue, several hundred people wrapped their eyes in safety glasses, bent their heads back, and stared skyward.
One fine swath, only a 15-minute drive from our house, is the Michigan Nature Association's Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary. I visited the site last Saturday with a group from the River City Wild Ones native plant organization. Led by Michigan Nature Association regional stewardship organizer John Bagley, we poked around the prairie for a couple of hours, admiring such late-summer bloomers as rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), fern-leaf false foxglove (Aureolaria pedicularia), prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) and cylindrical blazing star (Liatris cylindracea).
Before long, members realized they needed to do more, and the group began purchasing sensitive property to set aside as sanctuaries. Today, the organization maintains more than 170 sanctuaries throughout the state.
- Fern-leaf false foxglove, a bushy plant with bell-like, yellow flowers that are popular with pollinators, is semi-parasitic and needs oak trees to survive.
- Porcupine grass has a nifty way of getting its seeds into the ground. The long, bristle-like awn coils and uncoils in response to changes in moisture, drilling the seed into the ground.
- The small, white flowers of sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), smell like maple syrup when crushed. Sweeeet, indeed!
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom