Journal


We’ve gotten 10+ inches of snow in the last day, so most things were shut down around Indy today.  Kind of nice to be forced into a Sabbath of sorts (Okay, so my wife will point out that I didn’t really take the day off, but I did nix my plans to run errands and instead caught up on email and spent awhile this afternoon just sitting and reading).

Jeni and the kids played outside for awhile this afternoon, shoveling walkways, trying unsuccessfully to build a snow man (snow is too dry) and decorating the snow in front of our house with spray bottles full of water and food coloring. I’m so glad that we’ve actually gotten some real snow this winter, even if it did take this long to get here.  If it’s going to be cold, I’d much rather have snow than not!

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On Tuesday, I hiked out to the largest unused “wild” space in our neighborhood, which I have decided to call “The Wilds.”   This strip of land lies at the southern end of the Englewood neighborhood,  is about 300 feet wide and spans that entire end of the neighborhood from East to West.  You can see most of this area from the following Google satellite photo.

Those are railroad tracks that run along the center of the photo from left to right, and as best I can tell The Wilds is owned by the railroad company, but about one-third of it, the strip along the northern edge, is undeveloped.   There is a strip of forest about 40 feet deep that butts up against the development (mostly industrial) just north of this land.  Just to the south of the forest strip is a strip of thick prairie-like grasses and small trees that range in height from 3 to 6 feet.  This prairie strip is about 60 feet wide.  The remaining land on this strip is composed of the railroad tracks and strips of mowed grass on either side of the tracks.

I saw some signs that this property does get some human traffic (litter, footprints) and knowing our neighborhood, some of the activities that go on here (mostly after dark, I presume) are undoubtedly nefarious.  However, especially considering its location in the middle of the city, and its being almost completely surrounded by human develpoment, the signs of human use of this land were relatively few.  This fact could possibly be attributed to the present winter season, so it will be interesting to see if it still seems so “wild” come spring and summer.  The forest and prairie strips at the northern end teemed with all manners of plant and animal life.  I saw a flock (is this the right word?) of 7 or 8 cardinals, some other random birds that I couldn’t get a good look at and a number of bird’s nests, including one on a small tree in the prarie area that was so low that I could look down into it; for anyone who is wondering, it was empty.

As I was walking about on this land, I was thinking about how peculiar it was that this land exists relatively untouched in the middle of the city, which got me to thinking about wild spaces and developed places and the relationships between the two.  I was reminded of the following passage from Wendell Berry’s essay “Preserving Wilderness” (in the book Home Economics):

. . . If I had to choose, I would join the nature extremists against the technology extremists, but this choice seems poor, even assuming that it is possible. I would prefer to stay in the middle, not to avoid taking sides, but because I think the middle is a side, as well as the real location of the problem.

The middle, of course, is always rather roomy and bewildering territory, and so I should state plainly the assumptions that define the ground on which I intend to stand:

1. We live in a wilderness, in which we and our works occupy a tiny space and play a tiny part. We exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance.

2. This wilderness, the universe, is somewhat hospitable to us, but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.

3. That we depend upon what we are endangered by is a problem not solvable by “problem solving.” It does not have what the nature romantic or the technocrat would regard as a solution. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.

4. There does exist a possibility that we can live more or less in harmony with our native wilderness; I am betting my life that such a harmony is possible. But I do not believe that it can be achieved simply or easily or that it can ever be perfect, and I am certain that it can never be made, once and for all, but is the forever unfinished lifework of our species.

5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively. We cannot intend our good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place-which means, ultimately, the good of the world.

6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical   way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.

7. If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.

What these assumptions describe, of course, is the human predicament. It is a spiritual predicament, for it requires us to be properly humble and grateful; time and again, it asks us to be still and wait. But it is also a practical problem, for it requires us to do things.

In going to work on this problem it is a mistake to proceed on the basis of an assumed division or divisibility between nature and humanity, or wildness and domesticity. But it is also a mistake to assume that there is no difference between the natural and the human.

Hmmm… A lot to think about there as I continue to explore “The Wilds.”

Well, after reading Mary’s comment this afternoon, I had to go out and see what exactly what the strands of material were in the bird’s nest that the kids and I had seen on Monday.

Alex wanted to do some tree-climbing, so he agreed to go out and take a look with me after I got home from the office.  The tree that the nest was in did not have any branches low enough to allow him to climb it, so I hoisted him up on my shoulders and told him to pull a strand of the material off the nest… gently.  And he did.  It looked to me exactly like Easter grass, but it had these weird lateral stripes that alternated between colorless and blue.  Having collected that, and with plans of showing it to Mary and others to get their opinions, we set off for one of Alex’s new favorite climbing trees.  While he was making his way up the tree, I was pondering what the material from the nest might be, and surveying the landscape around us, when what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a chain link dog kennel with a frayed tarp hanging off it.  I practically screamed to myself with excitement, borrowing a turn of phrase from Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a tarp!!!!!”

I went over, and upon closer inspection, this tarp was undoubtedly the source of the strands in the Rural St. nest.   So Mary was mostly right, the strands were indeed from a tarp, but not from her tarp several hundred yards away, but from this one that as best I could tell from pacing off the distance was about 75 yards away from the nest, as the crow — or whatever kind of bird this was — flies.  Here is a closeup of the fraying tarp:

Later this evening, I taped the strand that we had garnered from the bird’s nest into Alex’s nature book, so that it wouldn’t get lost:

It was thrilling to unravel this mystery (thanks, Mary!), but even more exciting are the realizations that this was found within 100 yards of our very own back yard and that there are many more wonders of this sort that lurk around about us, if we would only take the time to pay attention to our surroundings.

Indianapolis weather this afternoon:
Clear, sunny and bitter cold!
+2°F
(Feels like -17°F with wind chill)

Here’s a thought on the coldest day of the winter to-date, a day when I’m inside at my desk pounding away on my keyboard.  The is a part deep inside me that wishes I could agree with Liberty Hyde Bailey’s views on the weather: e.g.,

No man is efficient who is at cross-purposes with the main currents of his life; no man is content and happy who is out of sympathy with the environment in which he is born to live: so the habit of grumbling at the weather is the most senseless and futile of all expenditures of human effort. Day by day we complain and fret at the weather, and when we are done with it we have—the weather. There is no other effort at which human beings are so persistent, and none at which they are so universally unsuccessful. [Outlook to Nature 42]

Generally, I agree with Bailey and since Bailey first bludgeoned me with this point three months ago, I’ve been trying to live more contentedly with the weather as it comes, but the exception to this rule is bitter cold days like today.  I tried to go exploring last week on a day when it was almost this cold and I lasted about 15 minutes.  Maybe I am such a creature of comfort that I just can’t handle the cold, and certainly people like my friends in Minneapolis brave much colder weather than we do here in Indy.

Bailey later emphasizes this point further:

The person who has never been caught in rain and enjoyed it has missed a privilege and a blessing. I never want to live in one of those featureless climates that cannot get up spunk enough to raise a storm. Give us the rain and the hail and the snow, the mist, the crashing thunder, and the cold biting wind!  Let us be men enough to face it, and poets enough to enjoy it. In “bad” weather is the time to go abroad in field and wood. You are fellow then with bird and stream and tree; and you are escaped from the crowd that is forever crying and clanging at your heels. [Outlook to Nature 47]

Maybe after work today, I will muster up the courage at least to get out and shovel the snow off our sidewalk!

Yesterday was a mild day with temperatures in the mid-30’s, so after work, the kids and I went exploring.  From our backyard, we crossed the alley and the church parking lot and headed to lot’s entrance off Rural St., near which I had seen a nice bird’s nest that was seated on a low branch (below).

Miriam wanted to see the crab-apple tree in front of the church building again, so we headed back in that direction.  However, on the way, Alex found a tree that he wanted to climb.

That boy definitely loves to climb trees!  There’s a tall spruce tree right in front of our house and he will climb so far up it that he will be level with our second story windows.  It definitely freaks his mom and I out a bit, but I guess its good that he’s fearless in that way.  Maybe I will soon write more about tree-climbing as an important part of exploring the urban landscape.

While Alex was climbing the tree, Miriam found a holly bush close by, which she was really excited about.  Over the holidays, we had visited my uncle and aunt in northeast Ohio and they had a holly bush which they showed to the kids, and gave them each little clippings complete with berries.  So, Miriam was quite pleased that she recognized the holly bush, and all the kids were excited that we had a holly bush so close to us that we did not know about.

We finally made it back up to the crab-apple tree (a distance of less than 100 yards from the tree where we saw the first nest!), and Miriam spent awhile jumping up in efforts to catch apples on the lowest branch.  She finally did get a couple and wanted to get even more, but we had a conversation about how the crab-apples are important food for the birds, and how I had been observing that on this street (Rural) there seemed to be more birds in te winter than on some of the other streets, a fact that I attributed to the several crab-apple trees along that stretch of the street.

We re-traced our steps back past the holly bush, the climbing tree and the tree with the nest where we had started.  We also saw a couple of other crab-apple trees that still had their fruit clinging to their leaf-bare winter branches.  A few houses down, we saw a low-lying bird’s nest that apparently was made up in large part of plastic Easter grass.

This nest, of course, speaks of its maker’s resourcefulness, using the materials it had at hand, but I wonder if nests like this one that are made in large part of debris of human origin are more common in the city than in more rural places?

At this point, the batteries on my camera died and we finished our trek without any more pictures.  Miriam found a bunch of seed pods that she plans to put in her nature book, and we found another tree that all three kids wanted to climb.  There is a nice little pocket of trees that I had never noticed before right behind the Village Pantry (convenience store) at the SE corner of Rural and New York Streets.  It will be interesting to see what this area looks like in summer.  As it was starting to get dark, we walked pretty briskly to the corner of Oxford and New York Streets and then down Oxford to our house.

The kids and I spent a couple hours outside exploring on New Year’s Day, which was mostly sunny and temperature-wise, pretty mild for this time of year (30’s).

The kids played in the community garden, while I did a few things that needed to be done there: re-securing the tool shed, storing a tent that we had used in the fall on one of the beds.   Then, we headed over to the corner of Oxford and Washington Streets, where I shot the photo that I am using for the header above.  Heading back up the alley toward the library, we saw a bird’s nest in the tree at the back of the garden.  I shot a bunch of pictures of it from every angle I could imagine — including climbing as far up the tree as I dared without putting myself or the camera at risk! — but the nest was so far up that I didn’t really get any good pictures of it…  Here is probably the best one:

We kept walking up the alley toward Rural St. looking at trees and watching for birds.  We picked up several nice leaves from a Ginkgo tree, but since all the trees in that area were barren of leaves, I’m not sure which ones were the Ginkgo trees.

We also saw some birds, chickadees I believe, but they were so small and we were never able to get too close to them.  I tried taking pictures of them, but never could zoom in too close (are you sensing a theme here?)  Once we got to Rural Street, we headed north toward the church building, and saw a number of birds, including a male robin that was quite cooperative with my camera:

This picture was taken in the crab-apple tree at the northwest corner of the church property.  It had all kinds of its fruit still on it (but withered, of course) and I thought it was a cherry tree at first, but my friend and next door neighbor, Debbie, later told me it was a crab-apple.  I need to find out what variety of crab-apple it is.  Debbie told me at our friends at the community-formerly-known-as-Bruderhof make a fine jelly from crab-apples.   If these fruits are edible, it sure would be worth the try to see what kind of jelly they make come summer!   Last summer, we took a risk and made jam from the huge mulberry tree in our neighbors’ yard and dang, was that ever good! (We’ll definitely be doing that again this summer!)  Some other friends made mulberry wine, but I think that is still aging, or they drank it and didn’t tell me…

Here’s a close up of the fruits of the crab-apple tree in winter:

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