Daughter of the Earth and Water: A Syllabus for Environmental English


By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Better than all treasures/That in books are found . . .

–from To A Skylark by P.B. Shelley

When Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) needed some inspiration, he read the works of meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864), whose essay on clouds evolved into the classification system that weather professionals use today. The weather was Mr. Howard’s hobby, but he loved nature and wrote about science. The world was Mr. Shelley’s hobby, but he loved science and wrote about nature.

Fewer and fewer of my students become English majors. Their brains are immersed in science and math and technology; they want to become doctors and engineers. Many of them achieve their goals which are good for those of us who need the research done before we pick up our prescriptions that keep us alert enough to go to work and before we play outside in clean and sacred spaces.

Remember, and I shudder to write this, when these students leave my class, they may never read another poem or short story for the rest of their lives. What a world we live in when students spend most of their time on their phones or video games and do not go outside and look up or breathe fresh air or hike in the woods or notice clouds. How can we understand poetry if references to natural wonders are lost on the reader?

So, this year, I thought I would work with the HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) teacher and devise a syllabus of topics that would immerse them in science and math, capturing their minds while I tried to capture what was left of their literary souls. Here is this year’s assignment and reading list:

Find the scientific, mathematical, and/or medical themes in your reading: patients’ rights, doctors’ rights, holistic medicine practices, right-to-die issues, AIDS, environmental justice and influences, Alzheimer’s, the role of government in health issues, addiction, poverty, medical care, philanthropic care, memory, sick societies, and preventative care.

Summer Reading, 2013-2014

Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen (nonfiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (nonfiction)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (nonfiction)

Outside-of-Class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

August: Poboy Contraband by Patrice Melnick (nonfiction)

September/October: The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas (collection of essays)

November/December: Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver (collection of essays)

January-February: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA fiction) and

                               The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa (short fiction)

March-April: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (fiction)

In-class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Wit by Margaret Edson

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Long Day Journey’s Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

and one million poems and song lyrics and short stories

Okay, maybe not a million, maybe not even Shelley, and if I could, I would have my students subscribe to the paper editions of The Sun and Orion every year, to be able to appreciate the beautiful photographs and the exquisite nature writing. Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, on watching a grasshopper up close and personal is the first poem I teach every year.

For college students, the following syllabus is a little more academic as well as full of experiences: they choose an environmental justice issue to research. They volunteer hours to their new cause. And, this is the delicious part, we can have class in the open or in lab or a greenhouse or a park or a farmers’ market, at the botanic gardens, or in the science building.

Course Title: Environmental Activism: Discovering the Literary Influences

Course Objectives: 1) To analyze social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and spiritual factors that shape writers’ ideas about nature. 2) To discuss the literary art of nonfiction in environmental texts. 3) To consider environmental writers in choosing models for activism.

 Syllabus of Readings

Week 1: Inter-relationships: humans and the environment

Introduction to Course, A planned walk

Loren Eiseley, “The Angry Winter” from The Unexpected Universe

Robert Root, “Place” from The Nonfictionist’s Guide

Annie Dillard, “Heaven and Earth in Jest” and “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

E. B. White, “Once More To the Lake” from Essays of E.B. White

Week 2: Bioregionalism

Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place” from The Sense of Place

Barry Lopez, “The Stone Horse” from Crossing Open Ground

Week 3: Environmental Justice

Eileen Gauna, “An Essay on Environmental Justice: The Past, the Present, and Back to    the Future” from Natural Resources             Journal

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac

Week 4: Effects of Globalization

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed

Week 5: Resources and Conservation

Wendell Berry, “Conservation is Good Work” from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” from The Practice of the Wild

Joe Wilkins, “Out West” from Orion Magazine

Week 6: Overconsumption

Eric Schlosser, “Your Trusted Friends” from Fast Food Nation

Bill McKibben, ” Green from the Ground Up” from Sierra Magazine

Week 7: Pollution and Toxic Exposure

Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats

Week 8: Agriculture and Food

John McPhee, “Oranges” from Oranges

            Michael Pollan, “What’s Eating America” from Smithsonian

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

Week 9: Concerns about water

Midterm Exam

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

 Week 10: Indigenous Cultures

Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination” from The Ecocriticism Reader

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

Week 11: Visions of present and future environmental conflict

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

Week 12: Grass-root Movements and Setting New Courses

Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Letter” from The Sound of Mountain Water

Edward Abbey, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Words from the Land:Encounters with Natural History Writing

Bill McKibben, “Where Have All the Joiners Gone?” from Orion Magazine

Week 13: Visions of Future Sustainability

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Week 14: Final Week

Thich Nhat Hahn, “Bathing a Newborn Buddha (Washing the Dishes)” from The Sun My Heart

Turn in Activism Project Paper, Final Exam

I did not get to Long Day’s Journey Into Night this year because of time, but I prefer to leave my students, not in the foggy coastal clouds of morphine addiction, but, instead, in the essence of the literary celebration of nature, just as Howard left Shelley in the throes of wind patterns, water cycles, and cloud forms.

All students of the world need recess where they can look up at a clean sky. All students of the world need to read the words that try to capture that beauty, a 10,000-year-old task, attempted by writers who understand that human beings struggle with the immensity of outside.


Finding Peace in Urban Places

South Mountain sunset - photo by A. Sato

South Mountain sunset – A. Sato

“Listen to the course of being in the world… and bring it to reality as it desires.”

~ Martin Buber

By Aleah Sato

Despite living in Phoenix, a city known for its less-than-environmentally-friendly infrastructure, I cherish South Mountain Park Preserve and am lucky to be so close to one of North America’s largest municipal parks. In fact, it’s humorous to speak about South Mountain as a park because the word park conjures up images that do not apply to South Mountain. For one, it’s the desert … and it is rugged. There are no friendly places to plop down on the ground without first carefully examining each inch for the errant cholla spine or pointy chunk of granite. Despite its lack of lush meadows and ultimate Frisbee lawns, it is, however, grab-your-heart beautiful to those of us with “desert eyes.” Every day the light reflects something new in the shadowy canyons of granite and gneiss. Birdcalls carry on the wind through labyrinths of rock so that the smallest voice echoes larger than life.

Cloudscape and range - image by A. Sato

Cloudscape and range – A. Sato

The suburban community of Ahwatukee on the east and south, the Gila River Indian Community on the west, and Phoenix’s south central neighborhoods on the north surround the preserve. South Mountain Park is actually comprised of 16,000 acres and three ranges: Ma Ha Tauk, Gila, and Guadalupe. The mountains have received increased publicity over the past few years as the Arizona Department of Transportation and developers push for a freeway extension that would run along the boundaries of the preserve and through the Gila River community. Considered sacred by the O’odham (Pima), the freeway has been the subject of controversy and the outcome stands to reflect whether this city has evolved ecologically and culturally, or if it is still mired in the Post-War urban model of growth at all costs.

Petroglyph panel - A. Sato

Petroglyph panel – A. Sato

And population growth is precisely what prompts this essay.

This morning I arrived at my favorite trailhead at 5:45am. The air was still cool and slightly damp in the canyon as the sun was just cresting the top of the ridge above me. I began walking the steep incline up to the mouth of Telegraph Pass and was only 5 minutes in when I startled three coyotes scurrying down the wash.  Inca doves exploded from under boulders. Gila woodpeckers called out in their distinctive voice and an onslaught if small, unidentifiable yellow and black caterpillars made navigating the path tricky (I was afraid of squishing them). Everything was waking up or settling in. It was early in the day and I walked along a less popular portion of the park in a state of blissful reverie.

Now, this was all rather lovely and splendid until I reached the first trail crossing. Something was amiss. Here, I experienced “the recreational others.” (Imagine doomsday music.)

With the recent influx of planned community dwellers, the entire perimeter of South Mountain has filled in over the past decade; the area has experienced much more traffic and, typically, in the form of LOUD recreationists. Easy access trailheads, such as Pima and Beverly Canyons, have become very popular for bikers, joggers, fitness walkers, and large groups. And, herein lie the seeds for today’s post about ignoring even the most glaring of distractions.

Fallen saguaro - A. Sato

Fallen saguaro – A. Sato

Because of South Mountain Park’s sheer size, it gives one the impression that peace and solitude can be found… somewhere. Today, I was seeking peace, but the city had its own agenda. Coming up from the lesser known trail, I was assaulted by the noise of two police helicopters (they seem fond of flying through the Pass) and a media helicopter (traffic report), shattering a moment of solitude and heralding the crowds that would soon follow. As I ascended the canyon and cleared a large boulder, I was nearly struck by one cyclist who was busy yelling out to another (quite a distance away), “Hey, dude, I made it up to the lookout in 40 minutes!” To which the other shouted back, “No way, man!” Both statements reverberated down the canyon for what seemed like torturous minutes. And, here they came: the power walkers, the runners, the gadget holders. As the hoards continued to arrive, the already loud conversation grew into a nasty swell.

To get away, I scurried back down to the less popular trails below, scrambled over some large boulders that formed a shelter, and watched a few ravens pick apart a piece of refuse in the wash (while fuming, of course). It was then it hit me: why should I let these distractions damage my peace and create discord? The work of the determined ravens convinced me that I am not paying attention to what matters and am instead fixating on the very aspects of the city to which I wanted reprieve. Do I call this place home? No. I am an interloper, too. Granted, I am not loudly waxing romantic about my new pool or high-fiving my bike buddy at the top of my lungs, but I am still a noisy, large mammal who changes the landscape with my arrival.

Facing West - A. Sato

Facing West – A. Sato

There are arguments for curbing noise pollution, certainly. I don’t deny I believe there is a difference between yelling and walking quietly. But the reality is there is no such thing as perfect quiet, and certainly no urban natural area is primitive enough to feel a sense of solitude. So how do we cope when we need to find some quiet in such a noisy world? How can we find just a little bit of peace amid chaos?

In my morning observations, I have noticed that – like people – there are “shy” species and “bold” species. There are animals that prefer to remain hidden and are so adept at their craft in camouflage that they are rarely spotted. There are also animals that delight in the wanton human that drops food on the trail and will eagerly wait for such a morsel. This diversity and opportunity for observation and lesson integration have created a map to peace of mind and a sense of quiet even when the natural world is rife with noise of the human kind.

Mexican gold poppy - A. Sato

Mexican gold poppy – A. Sato

Here are a few ways I have learned to increase the quality of my urban park or natural area experience while remaining open to whatever comes my way:

1. Observe and laugh

Be prepared to recognize your own limitations and judgments. How do you impact solitude and the natural world, and is it possible to make simple changes to decrease negative impacts? Try not to take your experience more seriously than any other’s. The coyotes were likely less than enthralled to see me in “their” canyon, after all.

2. Adapt

Spring - A. Sato

Spring – A. Sat

The birds of South Mountain Park don’t seem too stressed by the constant sound of airplanes and helicopters overhead. If they can adapt and get on with things, it’s possible to tune out for the morning and be more intentional about what is heard: the sound of the wind through branches, for example.

3. Notice the small

When the world seems overwhelming, practice looking at the tiniest of things around you. Notice the stem of a plant. Notice the patterns formed by lichen on rock, or the way the creek makes its own rhythmic music. Sit down. Take time to observe closely and completely the things that are within a foot or two of your body.

4. Become small

Remember when you were a kid how much fun it was to hide? Find a nice spot and blend in, remain quiet, meditate on what it is to be small. We are, after all, small animals in a pretty big place. The experience can feel uncomfortable at first, but it is a great exercise in realizing that peace can come from realizing one’s finite existence, limited capacity, and tiny scheme in a vast universe.

Being a nature-lover as a city dweller can be frustrating. Even those who don’t consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts can appreciate some time alone for reflection. By practicing these four principles, even a backyard can become an unexplored wilderness for the imagination. The city park can be the conduit to where the wild whispers to you and draws you into a centered, grounded quiet.

Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

Rich- LI Sound 1973

The author as a budding naturalist, Long Island Sound, 1973


I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934.  Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case.  On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change.  That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.

The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis.  It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change.  It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.

Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.”  Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves.  Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent.  He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”  It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.

Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me.  How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia.  We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.

For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight.  On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.”  Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity.  His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote.  As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood.  At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose.  Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.”  All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire.  As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:

1)      Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity.  Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope.  This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.

2)      For aesthetic reward:  The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world.  It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past.  Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me.  Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself.  Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.

3)      For posterity:  I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax.  Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.

4)      For my children:  Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth.  Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination  to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.

Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example.  At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel.  Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”  The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.

Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.”  At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise.  Such action may not be expedient, but it is right.  In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?

Lion Paths: Encounters in the Pinal Mountains

Looking west - Dripping Springs

Dripping Springs Mountains – photo by A.Sato

“Homo sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them.”

― Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

July mornings in the Sonoran Desert have a way of prompting an unplanned exodus. Upon waking, I wander into the yard to find my plants a paltry collapsed mess under the weight of 95-degree nights – when it “cools down” from 115. This is the scene at my home every summer here in Phoenix. The intrepid gardener seeks to balance her love for fresh vegetables with the advantage of native plants and a little bit of luck against the nefarious blaze of the low desert sun.

Pinal Peak - photo by A. Sato

Pinal Peak – photo by A. Sato

Fortunately, most of my summer weekends since moving to Phoenix have been spent in the Pinal Mountains, a 45,760-acre range southwest of the mining town of Globe, Arizona. Once the deer-rich hunting grounds of various bands of Western Apaches, these mountains have a history of conflict fueled by mining interests.  The Pinals, like much of the region, have stories rife with mining claims, battles, and indigenous displacement. A series of violent attempts to overcome the Apache hold on the mineral-rich mountains by the Spanish and Mexican armies began as early as the mid-1700s and continued through the late-1800s. Remnants of historic mining camps display their telltale goods: thick turquoise glass jug bottoms, fused and rusted bean cans, tobacco tins, and crumbling foundations.

The ascent into the Pinals is both hair-raisingly steep and utterly, unspeakably beautiful. A true sky island, the highest point at Pinal Peak is a 7, 848-foot Pre-Cambrian summit framed by the communities of Globe and the San Carlos reservation to the east, the Gila River floodplain to the south, and the Sonoran Desert to the west and north. Beginning with the high Sonoran and Chihuahuan mix of Parry’s agave (century plants) and the occasional saguaro at the lowest reaches, the terrain soon changes to an interior Chaparral community of scrub oak, manzanita, and alligator juniper. By 5,000 feet, you enter the cool embrace of a Ponderosa pine forest – a welcome relief! The visual change is dramatic, but even more dramatic: the temperature variance. If it is 100 degrees in Globe, which sits at 3,500 feet, it can be an amazingly cool 68 degrees at the higher points of this range.

Ridges and desert for miles

Ridges for miles – photo by A. Sato

Beyond the history of these slopes, what has always appealed to me, desert dweller that I have become, is its eclectic terrain in such close proximity to Phoenix. A short 1.45 hours (when one considers the amount of suburban sprawl that must be negotiated in order to break free) to the upper level campgrounds, and I am able to breathe again. I stroll amongst bracken, goldenrod, and bluedicks along cattle trails that meander their way through high ground meadows. Moss and lichen decorate the aspens and pines on the northeastern slopes as turkey vultures and an assortment of ravens and hawks hang out in the cool evening winds.

Mountain meadow alive with Goldenrod - photo by A. Sato

Mountain meadow alive with Goldenrod – photo by A. Sato

On one particular July morning, I ascended the mountain and found myself utterly alone! I cannot describe the blissful state I enter when I find that I am the only human in a wild place. The cacophony of my urban surroundings was far below the gorgeous slopes and melodic calls of winged friends.  The usual weekend recreationists had not made their way in with ATVs, generators, and guns. Even the peaceful bird watchers who come to this range seeking a glimpse of the rare Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush were absent. The only audible sounds came from the occasional birdsong and the slight breeze that dipped through the oak branches and carried a sweet smell of unknown foliage.

Along the road, verdins jumped in and out of juniper trees and dove beyond the steep drop-offs that fell hundreds of feet onto rocky ledges. As I walked into a dense pine grove, two white-tailed deer – drinking from moisture-filled tinajas – looked up and quickly jumped vertically into the sky and above the granite boulders that hug the creek.
Beyond the trees, the watercolor world of hot sand radiated as one might imagine a distorted photograph kept in a damp attic. From the trees, I feel like a soft traitor – an escape artist capable of flying away from my home at speeds and in manners no other desert dwelling creature has the luxury of doing. I imagined the Collared Peccaries (javelinas) napping in cool wash beds, coyotes flicking off bugs and seeking shade before the midday sun makes a white, hard light of everything.

Aspen groves

Aspen grove – photo by A. Sato

This is the place of the interloper. I know I am not unlike the first foreigner to wander here, hoping for salvation in the form of gold or game or, in my case, respite. This is the land of mule and white-tailed deer and with them, North American cougars. The Forest Service doesn’t know exactly how many mountain lions reside in this range, but they allow a certain number of kills each year. Last year, 8 lions were taken. My one and only encounter (thus far) with a mountain lion occurred just ¼ mile below the Lower Pinal Campground. It happened precisely on the day of my solitude and was uncanny in its luck. I had just witnessed a juvenile bobcat sitting along the forest road, which I had mistaken for a lost dog – and from my jeep, it looked like a dog until it turned and leapt up the slope and into the thick undercover. Dumbfounded by the rare sighting, I slowed down and gazed up into the canopy in awe.

The late day sun was starting to sink and my camp was established, so I decided to take a short hike before making dinner. As I wound my way around a small, overgrown trail, I saw a blaze of yellow descend through the Gambel oak and manzanita. For a moment, I was frozen – truly, that heart-pounding catatonia that typifies such an encounter is accurate because I could not move. I had to process in my frontal lobe what my reptile brain knew: large predator. A short distance later and I saw a mule deer leg. I couldn’t refute my experience at that point; I knew what I had encountered. Needless to say, I quickly retraced my steps and scrambled back to my campsite.

Blue dusk

Blue dusk – photo by A. Sato

That evening, a series of blood curdling screams filled the canyon near my tent. It was early yet and I had every reason to simply pack up and leave, but something compelled me to stay and listen… again, the screams. I can only describe the sound of big cats mating as something my imagination would conjure into a pterodactyl. I turned off my lantern and listened until the sounds stopped and the night was once again silent.

It’s hard to describe with any accuracy the feeling of hearing such an unnerving yet powerful call. But I continued to ponder this, my place in the wild, my safety or lack thereof, and the amazement I felt at listening to a song I never imagined hearing.

Wild beauty - free image via Morguefile

Wild beauty – free image via Morguefile

Always a poetic child and adult, I have written many love letters over the years. Now I find myself writing the narratives of place with the same deep-feeling gratitude and infatuation. The Pinal Mountains have charmed me with their lion magic, rare bird sightings, and unusual flora. Not a wilderness or intensely protected area, my devotion to them grows with each visit because they do not have some of the protections found in areas far more inaccessible. I grow ever-more protective of the range when I see beer cans litter her soft floor or spray paint blotched on granite boulders and pines that house numerous plant and animal species.

If place makes us, I want to be partially comprised of these mountains and canyons of which I make my temporary home. As much as I care for this place, it will take a lifetime for me to scratch the surface of its story or to be accepted into its fold.  The night with the lion, I will always remember with my full senses. Whatever it was, serendipity or fate, I had been gifted with the sights and sounds of a most gracious, graceful, and elusive host. It is her mountain, after all. I am just a visitor.

Reading the Winter Landscape

Intersecting needle ice beneath the footbridge at Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Intersecting needle ice beneath the footbridge at Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

By: Richard Telford

In his 1978 book,  A Walk Through the Year, Edwin Way Teale writes with eloquent simplicity, “Summer diversifies; winter simplifies.”  In mid-January, after a light overnight snow, I spent a full morning walking the southern half of Edwin and Nellie Teale’s Trail Wood, now the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, administered by the Connecticut Audubon Society. I hoped to take advantage of the simplification of the winter landscape in order to better understand natural processes that are often hidden or even absent in the spring, summer, and early fall.  Even in the heart of a particularly cold winter, the landscape teemed with life, with the remnants of ended life, and with the precursors of life to come.

View from the footbridge, Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

View from the footbridge, Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Cutting through Firefly Meadow, due south of the Teales’ former 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, I crossed the small footbridge leading westward to Juniper Hill, the site of Edwin’s modest writing cabin, which he modeled after Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. The footbridge spans a spillway the Teales named Stepping Stone Brook; during times of overflow, it drains the one-acre pond the Teales had dug in the summer of 1964.  Standing on the footbridge, my eye was drawn to the striking geometry of ice formations along the pond’s edge, the ice at this end of the pond kept thin by the moving water.  Lines of needle ice ran parallel to one another like tightly packed feather barbs, intersecting at sharp angles with like formations, dendritic ice filling the open angles at these intersections. Polygonal forms etched the near surface—trapezoids, right and scalene and isosceles triangles—geometric expressions of the crystalline structure of ice.

Climbing Juniper Hill, I headed north along Shagbark Hickory Trail.  I had hiked this trail one week earlier with my five-year-old daughter and had been surprised to see what looked like an eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on a thick hickory branch that crossed the trail roughly twenty feet overhead.  Viewed through 10×50 binoculars, the coloration pattern seemed unmistakable, though the blue was slightly more slate in tone and the feathers were fully puffed out, making it look overly stout.  To my further surprise, I saw two more specimens in neighboring trees. Upon arriving home, I combed through my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds and could find no obvious alternatives.  Further, Sibley’s illustration of a bright adult female variation seemed a good match.  Subsequently, I found the following passage in the December 23 entry in Teale’s A Walk Through the Year:  “A bluebird of December […] flies above me over the snow-covered fields as I trudge home in the early sunset of this shorter afternoon. […]. Throughout the winter each year a few of these gentle-voiced singers drift about our Hampton region.”   On my return trip to Trail Wood on this winter morning, I hoped I might repeat the previous week’s sighting, but the bluebirds were absent, as were any others with the exception of a lone pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drumming unseen in the distance.

Needle ice with dendritic formations in a seasonal pool along the Shagbark Hickory Trail, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Needle ice with dendritic formations in a seasonal pool along the Shagbark Hickory Trail, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Continuing north, I found a small pool, roughly three feet in diameter, its shallow bottom lined with a monochromatic bed of white and scarlet oak leaves (Quercus alba and coccinea). Thin ice coated the surface, and here again was the mosaic of needle ice and dendritic formations, a reminder of the symmetry of natural systems. Beneath the ice, leaf litter and other organic detritus, broken down by fungi and various microorganisms, enriched the pool with nutrients.  Algae coating the leaves did so further.  With spring, these pools scattered throughout Trail Wood enlarge with melted snow and spring rains, transforming them into breeding sites for obligate and facultative species such as the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), distinguished by its yellow polka dots,  and the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), often seen in its juvenile land-dwelling red eft stage. These small pools dot Trail Wood’s landscape like earthen kettles, made visible in winter by the leafless understory.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaves blow in a light winter breeze, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaves blow in a light winter breeze, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Approaching the Old Colonial Road, an east-west trail that is a remnant of Colonial-period horse travel in all its forms, I imagined the travelers who had crossed this way in the course of daily business, travelers who led hard-scrabble lives that likely lent little time for exploration of the kind in which I engaged that brisk morning.  Teale notes in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm that as of 1959, “The ground was still packed hard from the wheels of wagons and carriages and, some say, stagecoaches that once traveled over this long-abandoned way.”  In fact, one remarkable feature of Trail Wood is the unusual variety of Colonial-period stone walls, many of which reflect not only utility but aesthetic artistry.  These walls now provide extensive habitat, and for the New Englander they feel as much a natural part of the landscape as the mature canopies that have succeeded the once clear-cut fields. Here in my walk I was treated to the soft, baby-rattle sound of the light gold leaves of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), a sound familiar to any winter hiker of broad-leaf deciduous New England forests. The American beech is the only deciduous New England tree that does not drop its dried leaves until the following spring.  Gazing in all directions, I could observe beech trees in all growth stages, their ubiquity reflecting the species’ shade-tolerance; only the winter landscape affords such a view.

The beaver lodge in the Far North Woods of Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

The beaver lodge in the Far North Woods of Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

After a brief traverse east along the Old Colonial Road, I headed north, quickly encountering Hyla Pond, a vernal pool named for its annual breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper.  Following Hyla Rill, the small stream that fills the seasonal pond with outflow from the three-acre beaver pond to the north, I reached the latter site after a ten-minute walk.  Here too the winter landscape offered many insights. The double-humped beaver (Castor canadensis) lodge at the pond’s center rose from the stump-laden, snow-dusted ice.  The damn at the pond’s southwestern edge elevated the water’s surface four or more feet above the neighboring ground, an extraordinary feat of engineering.

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) and southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum), commonly referred to as fan clubmoss, sprouted from extensive root networks, forming colonies along the pond’s perimeter.  Both plants, despite their conifer-like appearance, are considered fern-allies according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because, like ferns, they reproduce via spores.  These two clubmosses blanketed the spaces between bigtooth aspen and red maple stumps, many covered with layers of shelf-type fungi; nothing goes to waste in natural systems.

These lopped stumps that yield both food and shelter to the resident beavers in turn become habitat to various saprobes, which, by hastening the decomposition of the dead woody material, replenish soil nutrients, cycling energy for future generations of scores of organisms.

Coyote scat with white-tailed deer fur, bone, and dried cartilage, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Coyote scat with white-tailed deer fur, bone, and dried cartilage, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

The walk south from the beaver pond to Woodcock Pasture, just west of the Teales’ former home, contrasted former life with life to come.  On the trail I found a nearly disintegrated coyote (Canis latrans) scat loaded with dense clumps of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) hair mixed with fragments of bone and dried cartilage, a common site at Trail Wood. Crossing Fern Brook, I noticed a single shoot of skunk cabbage rising from the water, an early sign of spring.  Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) can flower as early as February, in part because it is thermogenic, meaning it can raise its temperature above the ambient temperature.  In findings published in Science in 1974, R.M. Knutson reported that skunk cabbage can maintain an internal temperature up to 15 degrees Celsius in an ambient temperature of -15 degrees Celsius.

A lone skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) shoot rises out of Fern Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A lone skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) shoot rises out of Fern Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Further on, I found a few remnant shards from a white-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) nest tangled in the matted winter pasture grass.  Crossing behind the old Cape Cod home, I walked west to the remnants of Edwin’s former observation blind, crossed Hampton Brook near a Colonial-era spillway, and walked up to Monument Pasture, so named for an early twentieth century rounded fieldstone monument erected by a former field hand named Hughes in honor of himself.  At the eastern edge of the pasture, in an early successional buffer of red maple (Acer rubrum), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) and black birch (Betula lenta) heavily choked by pervasive oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), I found the rain-rotted and crumbling envelope of a white-faced hornet’s nest.  In summer this nest, enfolded in layer upon layer of snarled vegetation, would have been an unseen phantom, a benefit both to the colony itself and to any unfortunate would-be intruder.  White-faced hornets are wisely feared for their stalwart defense of a wide nest perimeter.  After crawling through dense tangles to photograph the nest, I emerged only to be given one final gift from the winter landscape.  A pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) circled in tandem for a fleeting moment before turning eastward, their distinct profiles finally vanishing along the seemingly barren horizon that was not barren at all.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flies over Monument Pasture, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flies over Monument Pasture, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Robin in a Puddle


Photograph courtesy of wiki  commons

By Neva Knott

I often read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, as a way to begin writing. Sunday, I read her essay, “Emergency Case,” in which she explains that many writers feel they need a crisis to get the creative juices flowing. My struggle with writing and creating is not that I need an emergency; rather, it’s the opposite. I am always seeking calm within myself so that I can sit to write. I do not find the writing energy in mishandling my life, living drained and angry, feeling like I’m moving past real life. Though, as I read “Emergency Case,” I thought of the small emergency of getting lost yesterday…

I was driving up to a forest site near Hood Canal to conduct an interview on a community forest site. I was lost, because the forester I was to meet had given me the wrong name of a road. I called him several times, to the point he became exasperated with me. Finally, we agreed I’d park and wait for him to drive out to the main road to find me.

I pulled over from this emergency as Natalie might call it, and walked with my dog up a logging road.

First, I saw the bones, picked clean by predators, eroded clean by weather, but still pliable and not yet beginning to deteriorate. A short set of vertebrae and four rib bones. The ribs were long and their curvatures slightly elegant.

As we walked on, up the slight hill, we came upon a circular puddle, obviously made by a motorcycle rider going around and around. In the water pool of the tire tracks stood a robin, drinking the muddy water. Smallish, singular, but bravely in the pond. This little bird intrigued me. Aesthetically, I think it was the mix of a natural creature in a man-made space out it the woods–in an otherwise humanly uninhabited  place.

Walking down the incline, I looked left. Up on a bank I saw more of the carcass. Rest of the vertebrea and part of the pelvis. Big bones, bigger than human, deer, or dog. My guess–elk. I saw no other smatterings, no fur or sinew. I paused to wonder at the kill, always intrigued by these markers of the circle of life, then walked on.

I thought, as I often do, of how easy it is to embrace life and witness small examples of the vastness of it, just by getting out of the car for a minute or two.

Exploring the Near at Hand

An Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider (Micrathena sagittata) backlit in a web it wove between two of our front porch columns.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012

An Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider (Micrathena sagittata) backlit in late day sun in a web spanning two front porch columns of the author’s home. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012

By:  Richard Telford

Living in Baldwin, New York on western Long Island in 1936, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale lacked wilderness.  At least, to the casual observer it might seem so.  Teale, however, was not the casual observer.  He had for several months searched for a site with sufficiently varied habitat to support the widest possible variety of insect life, finally chancing upon an abandoned apple orchard just fifteen minutes from his home.  As he later noted in his 1942 book Near Horizons, the site included “a line of slender cedars, a weedlot, […] interlacing row[s] of apple trees, [… a] margin of solid ground along the swampedge, […and] a spur of land [that] juts out into the brown water of the swamp stream where slope and swamp meet at […] a great mound of wild-cherry trees [that] lifts its green bulk above the level of the cattails.”

Walking in the footsteps of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, whom he admired deeply, Teale rented the old orchard for ten dollars annually and, as Fabre had done at the Harmas de Sérignan in Provence, France beginning in 1879, worked deliberately to convert the site into an insect garden that would provide “the habitat of nearly every kind of insect found in the region.”  In this insect garden, Teale conducted intensive observations for six years while, for most of that time, maintaining his day job as a staff writer and photographer for Popular Science magazine, a job he came to loathe due both to the sense of confinement it imposed upon him and to the capriciously brutal politics of the magazine editorial room.  For Teale, the insect garden was not just a place for observation but a place for escape from the modern world’s “well-grooved path remote from the Enchanted Ponds and Mad Rivers of the open world.”

An Eastern Forktail damselfly photographed in the author's backyard.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2013

An Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura ramburii) photographed in the author’s backyard. Copyright Richard Telford, 2013

In 1937, Teale published Grassroot Jungles, a book that compiled 130 macro photographs of insects, taken mostly at his insect garden, with accompanying text that expounded the life history of many featured specimens.  Teale’s photography was astounding for its day, and the book was featured in a full front-page review in The New York Times Book Review on December 19, 1937.  Reviewer Anita Moffett wrote, “Mr. Teale is well known for his insect photography, and these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblinlike [sic] grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.”  She noted that Teale’s book demonstrated that the study of insects could “be pursued in one’s own backyard as well as at the ends of the earth.”  Here, Moffett simply echoed Teale’s premise in Grassroot Jungles that “At our feet, often unnoticed in the rush of daily events, is the wonder world of insects,” the exploration of which “is a back-yard hobby open to all, […which] can begin a few feet from your own doorstep.”

The egalitarian quality of backyard nature study was not a trivial consideration in 1937 America, still largely in the economic throes of the Great Depression and four years away from a war-driven recovery.  Though the economic landscape has largely changed, the openness to all of backyard nature study is no less significant for a host of reasons that extend far beyond simple economics.  In fact, Teale’s premise is arguably more salient in the present age of widespread habitat fragmentation, rapid development, increasing privatization of large wilderness parcels, the alarming disconnection of so many children from the natural world, and a social media-blitzed society that makes Teale’s “rush of daily events” seem pastoral by comparison.

A male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author's back door.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author’s back door. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

In a time when we feel increasingly disconnected not just from the natural world but from ourselves, it is perhaps more important than ever that we “pause like stooping giants to peer down into the grassroot jungle at our feet,” that we re-attune ourselves to the magnificent complexities of the natural world that go largely overlooked in the jumble of our daily lives.

Teale consciously manipulated the environment of his insect garden to maximize habitat, and thus the site’s inhabitant variety.  His manipulations included “an ageing pie-tin holding dabs of honey and syrup to provide a treacle-trough for ants and flies and wild bees” and “bits of decaying meat to bring carrion beetles from afar.”  However, such manipulations are not necessary for the back-yard naturalist.  The fecundity of the insect world, to our senses, seems to know no bounds, even in the smallest of natural landscapes.  Consider the fruit fly explosion that occurs when fruit is left a few days too long on the kitchen countertop.  It is perhaps a dangerous byproduct of that fecundity that we largely overlook the reality that many insects presently face potential extinction.  As of this writing, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, for example, lists nearly 150 insect species as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.  Still, there are abundant insects to be seen on nearly any plot, even the most encroached upon or inhospitable.  This fact was illustrated for me this past summer during a trip to the local building supply store.

Exiting with a cart full of lumber, an odd green shape on the brick-facing of the store caught my attention, a large female praying mantis vertically perched with at least 200 yards of asphalt separating her from any floral retreat.  I went to my car, emptied my lunch cooler, and, as nonchalantly as possible, trapped her, self-conscious of the piqued curiosity of several passersby.  I recalled the story of Edwin Way Teale’s domesticated praying mantis Dinah, whom he brought to the Brooklyn Entomological Society and, during a side trip to the New York Public Library, lost and eventually recovered on Broadway, near Times Square.  While I was tempted to drive the displaced mantis home to unleash her predatory powers in our garden, I worried about her survival of the trip and instead drove her to the far end of the parking lot where a long strip of dense thicket masked a long stretch of highway on the hillside above.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)landing in the author's default insect garden.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)landing in the author’s default insect garden. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

The previous summer, largely as a product of neglect, I had made a brief foray into the creation of an insect garden.  It was a busy summer, and with no conscious design I effectively relinquished our small backyard, surrounded by wooded acres, to the natural world. The resultant floral explosion included several species of goldenrod, common burdock, waist-high perennial ryegrass, jewel weed, and many other rapid colonizers.  By far the most prolific of these was daisy fleabane.  With this impromptu insect garden came insects of numerous species, including a host of damselflies and dragonflies attracted by the newly abundant prey stock.  These skilled aerial predators would sweep methodically above the canopy of our own “grassroot jungle” and reap the good living of summer.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)having landed in the author's default insect garden.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella) having just landed in the author’s default insect garden. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

Interestingly, the dragonfly’s tightly grouped legs, effectively useless for locomotion on the ground, are held in a basket shape in flight, scooping up prey that is largely consumed on the wing. The daisy fleabane explosion had the additional effect of attracting a large cadre of American goldfinches, who rode the bobbing, fragile stalks on even the windiest days, plucking linear white petals by the mouthful, not ten feet from our kitchen windows.  Here, as Teale noted in Near Horizons, we could be “explorer[s] who stayed at home, […] voyager[s] within the near horizons of a hillside.”

Teale’s ten dollars per annum was money well spent.  His insect garden truly altered the course of his life.  The commercial success of Grassroot Jungles afforded him both an income and national recognition, allowing him to quit his job at Popular Science.  In notes he compiled for an autobiography titled The Long Way Home, which was neither finished nor published, Teale writes, “Remember sitting in Insect Garden in evening after hot day and coming to a final decision to quit.”

A female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author's back door.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane(Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author’s back door. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

Thus, the site provided a space both for outward observation as well as introspection.  Jumping time in his notes, he continues, “I pack my books etc.  Leave on chill rainy day.  But my heart was bounding.  I was on my own.”  Teale would go on to publish Near Horizons in 1942, for which he would subsequently win the 1943 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing, a recognition he prized greatly even up until the time of his death in 1980.  For us, too, the rewards of exploring the near at hand are plentiful.  Such exploration affords us opportunities for observation, for contemplation, for renewal of our sense of wonder, for appreciation of the complex world around us, and for humble acceptance of our small place in that world.