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.

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.

Garden Portraits: Holding My Camera Sideways

My garden is a haven more than ever now; a place to get away not only from too much togetherness but from the unsettling news that blasts from the radio and television. When a particular application required that I submit a garden photo with a “portrait” orientation, I found I had vertical shots of trees, leaves and lanterns, but not one that gave a sense for the garden as a place.

So I went out with my camera held up sideways. The first three shots are the result. They surprised me. Compared to the other shots I had taken in this orientation, these three revealed how what I planned and what nature provided worked together; how we had been working together in partnership for some time now.




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.

Neighborly Haiku

My town’s art association was holding a haiku contest. The haiku should refer to something the writer experienced in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts.

My feelings for this area where I live had deepened during the pandemic. I was more appreciative of kind neighbors and the caring friendliness of those working in local businesses. I spent more time in nearby parks enjoyed by children, families and dogs both on and off-leash.

As I walked along Massachusetts Avenue near its intersection with Park Avenue looking for haiku from the contest, I came across several in the process of being painted. I said to one of the painters, “Maybe this has started something. Maybe there will be more poetry displayed in Arlington Heights.” The woman doing the painting agreed that should happen.

I noticed that some of the signs shop owners had put up in their windows felt a bit like poems. Looking back along the street, I knew it had happened again. I felt a new appreciation for this particular corner of the world.

Trouble at Menotomy Rocks Park

According to Don Mattheisen’s Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this woodland park in the midst of a dense grid of small yards in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA was once called “Devils Den.” Transforming its tangled woods with looming granite outcrops and a swamp into a usable park required considerable will, expense and effort. When muck and leaves began to fill the pond, the town once again secured funds to dredge it out and installed aeration devices.

It was particularly colorful when I began my frequent walks there last October. The ducks seemed to follow me. Perhaps they were only looking for handouts. I preferred to think they knew I cared about them. A few stayed through the winter as the paths became slick with compacted snow.

After the pond ice thawed, turtles seeking warmth gathered on a rock jutting out from a wetland area. Two swans probed for tender shoots for a few days. A pair of Canada geese acted as if the pond was their own private resort. A muskrat swam over to hide in plain view under foliage at the water’s edge. A bull frog’s loud voice startled a dog walking with its owner around the pond.

In late May, robins and red wing blackbirds were as plentiful as ever, but only a single duck slept atop a boulder. I wondered if the other ducks had left to raise their ducklings away from dogs and snapping turtles. I saw other animals in the park but not in the pond water. Then I saw a notice in a plastic sleeve – Sixteen fish had died and water testing had been requested.

As if to ensure I had gotten the message about the larger threat we all face, as I left the park, I saw a squirrel lying by the side of the road next to a rock. it was still breathing. I spoke in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.

Only a single duck slept high on a boulder in late May

Many ducks of various species frequented the pond last October

A pair of Canada geese came in early March and stayed for several weeks

Turtles sunning themselves on a rock jutting into the pond on one of the first warm days

Swans probing for tender young shoots in the wetland at the side of the pond

Looking a bit like a small beaver, this muskrat has a narrow tail

The muskrat with its head poking up looks like a rock or log by the edge of the pond
A bull frog making a rare appearance out in the open on a rock where it can be seen.
A raccoon to left of the tree trunk stared at me while I took its portrait
This park is lucky – people care and have the resources to work at preserving its health. May testing found the water was safe, however later testing in September found toxic algal bloom: