100 SECONDS – To Sleep, Perchance to Dream 2/17/21

All animals struggle to find adequate food in cold, dark winters. Around 12,000 years ago, our ancestors started planting wild varieties of peas, lentils, and barley, along with figuring out that herding animals for food and warm clothes was much more dependable than hunting or foraging. So, we humans rely on cultural solutions like inventions and language to solve the hard nut of survival, rather than genetic evolution.

Right now, many are shivering under a blanket of historic snow and ice without power. Texas must seem like a Titanic of sorts. Few people are self-sustaining, rather our lives depend on the infrastructure of post-industrial civilization. The Texas model is one of unregulated fossil fuel corporations running the show with no connection to the national grid. This crisis vividly underscores the vulnerabilities of that.

Many animals use hibernation as their way to survive without migrating to warmer climes. They turn down their metabolisms to save energy. Some in hot climes undergo a form of hibernation called aestivation, which works in a similar way and enables them to endure extreme heat or lack of food.

Hibernating is much more profound than simply sleeping. Depending on the species, it can vary from long, deep unconsciousness to short spells of inactivity. Small mammals, such as chipmunks and hedgehogs, hibernate – plus many insects like ladybugs, amphibians and reptiles. Bears have “dormancy light”, where they are groggy, but easily roused in their dens.

To prepare for winter, mammals feed heavily in summer and autumn, storing fat to see them thru the lean months. During hibernation, body temperature and breathing slows. A bat’s heart rate can fall from 400 to 11 beats per minute. Some cold-blooded animals produce natural antifreezes to avoid being frozen solid.

Hibernation is intriguing enough, but some animals actually have brief bouts of suspended animation, called a torpor, usually lasting less than a day. Hummingbirds and bats can go into torpor every day.

For my hibernating residents, I leave some wild areas in my garden with soggy leaves, fallen branches, and downy moss. I put up a simple wooden “bee hotel” with holes for nesting solitary bees, and may add a bat nesting box before long. In the summer at dusk, swooping and careening brown bats vacuum up the gnats, and I really should return the favor.

100 SECONDS – The Beguilement of Winter 2/12/21

Winter is often described as somber, dull, dreary, endless, best to avoid by staying inside and warm. The brief days and persistent nights can make us feel depressed, especially during this year of a terrible global pandemic. Maybe I’m a bit daft to love this season, but I find that winter’s magic and majesty lays in its details, hints, and flora that come into their full glory when everything else sleeps, moves south, or dies.

In winter, our eye is not overwhelmed. The stage is cleared, the deciduous trees sleep, raising their naked limbs to the sky as if in prayer, exposing last year’s tumble of nests. The flash and dazzle of annual plants are well gone with the first cold snap or frost, leaving their carapace of dead leaves and stems.

I can hear the territorial calls of the great horned owl, one close, one farther away, a pattern of three or four hoots in the darkness. The rain beats harder, the wind jostles the walls.

With the sun skimming the edge of the sky, one can enter an intricate world of pattern and texture in a snowflake, catch sight of the crimson, glistening berries of the holly, nandina, and other shrubs that intoxicate winter birds. With global warming, spring bulbs come earlier and earlier, elbowing their way into winter.

At last, it’s the time for the delicate and perfect white of a winter-flowering camellia, the time for the floating, buttery flowers of witch hazel, the time of the other-worldly hellebores. I have waited and almost forgotten them.

Native to Europe and Asia, hellebores (with 20 species or so) are a poisonous member of the buttercup family with a rich history back to ancient Greece, when hellebores were called Melampodium, after the physician Melampus who used it to cure King Argos’ daughter of madness. The plant has also been used in Medieval rites of exorcism, banishment, and protection.

The plant produces what looks like individual flowers, drooping downward as if bashful, but these are actually sepals that enclose the petals and protect the true flowers, which are at the center. The sepals are showy and come in a wide range of colors including purple, pink, green, yellow, white and black. Hellebores has been known as the “Christmas Rose”, but they are not a rose at all.

In my garden, I have a shady slope that is perfect for hellebores, and I can easily see their subtle colors, that linger throughout winter into early spring. And I can admire them when I wake up, outside the glass doors, in all their glory, lifting my spirit, reminding to truly look and be grateful for this moment.

100 SECONDS – Why Camouflage 2/5/21

In the animal kingdom, camouflage is a key strategy to survive and breed by disguising one’s location, blending in, appearing as something one is not like a leaf or twig, melting into the background of colors and textures of plants and trees in order to avoid being eaten or increase the chance of getting a meal by sneaking up on the unwary. In the pecking order of lunch, one can be both predator and prey.

Over millennia, camouflage has become so diverse, complex, and widespread from moths to deer, insects to tigers, birds to turtles, chameleons to butterflies. Most interesting to me is active camouflage, changing colors and patterns to merge into a particular surrounding or changing colors with the season.

One bitingly cold March, I decided to hook up with a small group of birdwatchers for a weekend field trip in the Highlands of Scotland. Our prize was a kind of grouse called the ptarmigan. Ptarmigan comes from the Gaelic, tàrmachan, for “grumbler” or “croaker,” a reminder of the ptarmigan’s grouchy voice.

This bird is gray-brown in all seasons (melding in with boulders and crags perfectly); but when the snow starts to fall, it turns a glistening white, except for its firehouse-red eyebrows. To maintain their color camouflage and evade foxes and other hunters, ptarmigans molt their feathers three times a year. These birds don’t sit out in the elements overnight but burrow into the snow. So, spotting a ptarmigan is a tall challenge.

Wouldn’t you know it when we had about given up and ready to head off to a local pub, our leader spotted one perched on a boulder backlit by the fading sunlight! We stayed glued to the spot with our binoculars, until the bird scurried down to its cozy snow cave for the night.
I’ve wondered how this bird would fare with global warming and melting glaciers. I’ve wondered about us, how we use camouflage, how we try to disguise ourselves, even from ourselves.

100 SECONDS – The Most Beautiful Masterpiece 1/31/21

Creating a garden is a form of love, love for beauty and the gifts of the natural world. Gardening and growing your own food are activities that make us part of the sacred space of plants. Only outdoors, do I find revitalization and serenity, despite the tempest that rages around us.

My garden has distinct rooms to be in, to look into, to look out of from the many glass doors and windows of my interior rooms. Each part leads the eye on a journey of styles, colors, and scents. In each, I pause and smile, absorbing its jewel-like, transient moments.

A garden is both autobiography and art. My young fruit trees, planted bare root, are a personal statement of hope and replenishment, though I may never see their maturity. And the flowers and shrubs reflect my love of Monet, his home in Giverny, and Provence.

As Monet, the great artist and gardener, observed: “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers. My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”

I was overwhelmed every time I walked into the white oval room at the Orangerie Museum in Paris that holds the canvases of Claude Monet’s Nymphéas. A total of eight panels, an infinity of color and light, where I lost myself in the profundity of lilies, pendulant willows, and water, both reflecting and reflection. I had to see his home and gardens in Giverny – his masterpiece of place.

At Giverny, I wandered for hours, learning a new language, a way of seeing, understanding what Monet meant by saying “for me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

I vowed to create my garden as a continual activity of nourishment and visualizing color, form, and texture. My own bit of Giverny, my own joy and affirmation at last.

100 SECONDS – 1/29/21

Circum-horizontal arcs, or “fire rainbows” are refractions of sun or moonlight on plate-shaped atmospheric ice crystals. I couldn’t quite apprehend that this phenomenon of nature was real, not a virtual fantasy.

100 SECONDS – The Genius of Trees 1/25/21

In an unexpected summer storm, I dash underneath an old valley oak and look up at its thick, furrowed trunk pushing upwards to the sky, the hail bouncing off its spatulate leaves. Trees are so familiar to us, but too often we view them as simply objects, background, or products, incapable of awareness, memory, feeling, perception, or intention. An inferior, uncomplicated life form, there for our use as paper, a Christmas symbol, weapon, charcoal, building material, medicine, furniture, to name just a few uses.

Old growth woodlands are far more complex and remarkable than we imagined, offering indispensable value to our climate and environment. Scientists are still catching up with their ways and capabilities. I’ll share some astonishing things I have learned, which unfortunately do not apply to farmed, corporate tree plantations or one-off street trees.

A tree would laugh at our perception of time, based upon the tiny window of human existence. My sheltering tree could live 600 years; others many thousands (such as the bristlecone pine). The first real tree evolved around 370 ml years ago (us homo sapiens, around 300,000+).

Beach, spruce, and oak trees all register pain as soon as some insect creature starts nibbling on their leaves. This triggers the tree into releasing a defensive chemical that makes their bark or leaves toxic or unpalatable; or like elms, even attract parasitic wasps to destroy the pest. Through the vast network of tree roots and fungi in a forest, trees communicate the danger to sister trees who respond with similar defenses.

Trees are social beings, and some species can even share nutrients with an ailing sister tree. They lean on each other for stability and protection against wind and snow. They seem to have an awareness of water scarcity and adapt to survive.

Forests act like giant air filters, cleaning out pollution, releasing tons of oxygen into the air. No wonder walking in one feels so fresh! Our battle against climate change centers around carbon dioxide release and fossil fuels. Trees and forests are without a doubt the best carbon capture technology in the world.

Well, a walk in the woods will never be the same again.

100 SECONDS – THE CURE OF TROY 1/20/21

THE CURE OF TROY by the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, is oft quoted by our new President Joe Biden, as it touches the heart of rising above hate and violence; and in doing so, imagine hope and heal each other.

Human beings suffer. They torture one another. They get hurt and get hard. No poem or play or song can fully right a wrong inflicted and endured.
History says, ‘Don’t hope on the side of the grave,’ But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing, the utter self revealing double-take of feeling. If there’s fire on the mountain and lightning and storm and a god speaks from the sky, that means someone is hearing the outcry and the birth-cry of new life at its term.

It means once in a lifetime that justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.

100 Seconds 1/18/21

I came across cold winter’s delight
A frozen droplet clinging to a twig
A glowing promise of spring to come.

100 Seconds 1/15/21

My favorite Franz Schubert song from “Winterreise” is called “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree). Another name for this tree which often line avenues is the lime tree, said to have been present in Britain since about 7300 BC. A graceful, ample, wistful shade tree much celebrated in literature. Schubert’s song is set to the words of a lyric poem by Johann Muller. The English translation:

By the well, before the gate,
stands a linden tree;
in its shade I dreamt
many a sweet dream.
In its bark I carved
many a word of love;
in joy and sorrow
I was ever drawn to it.
Today, too, I had to walk
past it at dead of night;
even in the darkness
I closed my eyes.
And its branches rustled
as if they were calling to me:
‘Come to me, friend,
here you will find rest.’
The cold wind blew
straight into my face,
my hat flew from my head;
I did not turn back.
Now I am many hours’ journey
from that place;
yet I still hear the rustling:
‘There you would find rest.’

100 Seconds 1/13/21

I haven’t posted for a while, as I’ve been recovering from shoulder surgery and pondering last week’s events, the images of a violent mob storming the citadel of our democracy, emboldened and incited by a president who broke his oath to protect it. I wrote this four years ago, still so haunting today: “With an authoritarian narcissist in the White House, spinning a web of lies and hate, being silent, laying low, or appeasing him could well undo us.”

Here is my teacup for a raging storm when everything seems so rough and blustery, from which I take small sips of commitment, quietness, and most of all, hopefulness.

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