Woodland Magic

It is natural to notice when a muskrat is chasing quacking ducks on the pond in Menotomy Rocks Park, but the woods has a quieter energy. There is a lot going on, but it is easier to miss.

The trees with their roots wrapped around granite outcrops or buried beneath fallen leaves and mounding needles are the backbone here. And light slanting through them can suddenly create all-embracing wonder.

The woods in winter remind us that resting has its season too.

Melting Art on Cars

In late November 2019, I noticed wonderful large ice crystal formations all over a car. This November, most interesting symmetrical patterns formed on car hoods after a light snow began to melt. The patterns varied quite a bit, probably reflecting the different engine and hood support designs within.

I had to wonder what other wonderful designs I might discover by getting out early after the first freeze of the year.

Imaginary Creatures in the Woods

As we walked along the trail, a friend told me that her grandchild loved pine needles. He also liked looking for hollow logs that would make good houses. My friend seemed to share her grandson’s delight in the magical quality that can be sensed just below the surface in many forest settings.

Perhaps because children can be particularly sensitive to the intelligence of other species, or because of their vivid imaginations, looking for or constructing “fairy houses” seems a perfectly natural thing to do. I thought of the troll that my Aunt brought back from Norway at my request. I promised my friend that I would take photos of him in the park.

Indeed, this eager little fellow seemed to be quite at home in these woods far from his native land.

A Boulder Around the Seasons

A boulder perched at the edge of Hills Pond when I started the photo series. It became an island as the waters rose. Then ice linked it to land again. In spring, geese and ducks perched on its strong back. There were signs of trouble as algal bloom sullied the water and all the birds left.

Waiting unperturbed, the boulder bore silent witness to ducks returning as brilliant colors in shades of yellow, orange and red mixed with the greens. Though all of this, the boulder sat with perfect equanimity. It had me wondering whether I could be more like that. Probably not, but that I could appreciate (and hopefully remember) its still presence seemed to count for something.

A Bumper Crop of Edible Mushrooms

When I was out taking mushroom photos, I came across two people with a basket full of hen of the woods as well as a bag of honey mushrooms they had gathered from the base of oaks. They told me that the number of edible mushrooms you can collect in Europe is limited so as to leave some for others. Here there are no such limits and they had gathered so many mushrooms they would need to give some away. As they explained, the best way to learn which are safe to eat is to go out with an expert local guide, although books and online resources (like this one) can be helpful.

Like many, I find fungi’s beautiful diversity and complexity fascinating. In addition to their use as food and medicine, mushrooms can have profound cultural significance. Those with psychotropic properties are used in healing rituals. A lovely jade pendant (below) bears witness to the significance the Chinese place mushrooms that play an important role in traditional medicine. The Maya carved wonderful anthropomorphic mushroom stones.

Fungi support the health of forests in a variety of ways. They can survive fire and have been used to control insect pests and to clean up plastic and organic waste. No doubt our appreciation for what fungi do for us will increase as we learn more about their many roles in various ecosystems.

Mushrooms After Rain

Nature is constantly shifting and not just with the normal seasonal changes these days. I would certainly welcome the respite of fewer distractions on my morning walks in Menotomy Rocks Park (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA), but nature has its own ideas.

After abundant rain all summer, amazing fungi were popping up everywhere and calling out for me to take their portraits.

Eye Training for Backyard Gardeners

Training to become a garden designer in Japan may involve apprenticeship to a master designer and years of traveling to view beautiful natural and manmade landscapes. Few of us desire (or can afford) to spend years doing that, but there are many ways we can train ourselves. For those in the Western world who wish to create their own Japanese gardens, it is possible to design a self-study program using ideas from the Japanese training process. Here are some ideas which helped me train my own eyes in Japanese aesthetics.

  • Visit places of natural beauty: An early goal might be to simply observe nature in a totally open way. With practice, it becomes possible to understand what it is about a specific scene that produces a particular response. I visit places of natural beauty regularly and particularly value a park within walking distance which teaches me about local conditions. If I have a strong emotional response, I take a picture to assist me in determining why.
  • Look Inward: Aspects of places which had special meaning to me as a child can be incorporated in a garden design. In my case, I have a special love for mossy woodsy places based on camping trips. The Inward Garden. by Julie Moir Messervy, provides excellent guidance in this process.

  • Experience Japanese gardens: Viewing Japanese gardens teaches how limited elements can be used to suggest various places, moods and subtle natural relationships like the curve of a river bank. If possible develop a relationship with a Japanese garden within traveling distance and visit it at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and in all seasons. Of course, an actual trip to Japan would be wonderful.

  • Learn to sketch: I have found it very useful to make sketches of natural settings and of Japanese gardens. Sketching nature requires me to focus on the essential elements in a scene, and it also helps me focus on the most important details.

  • Study design principles: Many books as well as this Journal* describe principles which apply to Japanese gardens. The academic study of design principles won’t replace the experience of working under a master designer, but it is valuable nonetheless. As to learning from books, I have found it easier to relate to the more intimate and modest courtyard gardens and residential garden designs for practical ideas, but I also value the many spectacular images of larger Japanese gardens for all the various ways they teach me about beauty.

  • Learn by doing: The garden in your own yard can serve as a laboratory and teacher, and it can be a reflection of your own personal development. In the early stages, rocks and plants moved around a lot until ‘they found their homes.’ Once I had a clear idea of the topography of my garden and the effects I cared about achieving, I found that scale and composition were paramount.

  • Keep a garden album: An album with photographs, drawings and notes provides me with a record of how the garden has changed over time, and how it looks in different seasons. It is satisfying to see what has changed, and improved as a result of my efforts.

*This article was originally published in the November/December, 1998 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening, which has since been renamed Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Intelligent Adaptation

Spending more time observing nature has provided me with opportunities to observe examples of intelligent adaptation up close. When a yellow patch moved up the side of a small basin, I thought this must be a slime mold. These wonderful beings that are neither animals nor plants, make intelligent decisions. After a series of rainy days, this fuligo septica had found a suitable dry place to make a fruiting body and release spores.

Nonhuman intelligence is all over the place. I thought of the octopus in the award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, and parrots with brains more similar to our own. These birds make tools, dance and tap out rhythms with small sticks up in trees, seemingly for the pure joy of it. Even mice turn out to be efficient learners with aha moments. And we humans continue to learn how to make natural disasters less disastrous.

Nature is still here teaching lessons. It feels like we might be gaining a new appreciation for how much we can and should care about that. There is a new interest in trees, fungi and how we, too, are dependent upon an interconnected web of life. Even as we grieve actual and imminent losses, many are reconsidering priorities, and leaving stressful jobs with long hours. Time to appreciate and ponder may be one of the most precious resources we have.

Pandemic Stories: Art in Nature, An Invitation

When I first came across the installation in Menotomy Rocks Park, early morning light streamed through the trees onto the translucent flags. A sign explained that Nilou Moochhala, the 2021 Artist in Residence in Arlington, Massachusetts had created this work, “Reflecting on Our Pandemic Experience.” As she describes, individual flags were designed in response to interviews she conducted with a diverse cross section of this town of 50,000.

Every other flag had a word embedded in its design. I found Freedom, Madness, Tolerance, Humanity, Denial, Inclusive, Collaborative, Wary, Grateful, Unreal, Healing, Cautious, Overwhelming, Devastating, Love, Comforting and Confusing among others. Patterns and colors out to the edges suggested that the stories that inspired the multi-media flag drawings are still going on.

The words, patterns and colors all seemed part of a lively conversation going on within and among the flags, and I was being invited to join in – literally, as I learned. There was an opportunity to add my own responses to the pandemic via an online questionnaire. All responses plus this art work would remain in an archive at the local library.

We are connected like the flags by this pandemic, I thought. None of us can escape being affected in one way or another. Nilou’s art asks us to bear witness to the diversity of experiences. While there are great challenges, grief and suffering, the flags remind us that supportive connection and even growth are also still possible in these dark times. This art asks us not to turn away but toward. It asks us to hold and honor all of it with kindness and care.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

The Spirit of Wood

With its warmth and depth, wood can speak to us in ways that few other materials can. We make so many things from it, we can take wood’s existence for granted. Some cultures particularly value the beauty of wood. The Japanese (who also value “forest bathing ”) have developed tools to shave incredibly thin strips from wood leaving a satin-smooth surface.

This post focuses on two old wooden objects from Nepal – see the first photo below. The wonderful five inch box with wheels has a cherry blossom carved in its swivel lid. Some kinds of cherry trees are native to Nepal but this chunky box seems quite a contrast to the delicacy of those blossoms.

Anthropomorphic figures like the one to the right are found outside temples, near springs, guarding bridge entrances and on rooftops in western Nepal. In Wood Sculpture in Nepal, Jokers and Talismans, Bertrand Goy and Max Itzikovitz write, “very few serious and thorough scientific works (are) available to help us make sense of the scattered, fragmented and often conflicting information on these sculptures” (p 49). Scholarly works tend to discuss religious objects from the Kathmandu valley like the idealized donor lamp in the second photo.

Knowing almost nothing about them only increases the appeal of these two wooden objects – I am free to imagine all kinds of meanings and uses. Whatever the original intention, the makers deep feeling for the spirit of wood is clear in a vivid aliveness that transcends cultures and time.

These two old wooden objects from Nepal captured my heart

An idealized donor oil lamp that would have been given to a temple