The Nature of Exploiting… Making the Best of the Hand We’re Dealt!

We’ve heard many times the old adage that we must play the hand we’re dealt. Because we’ve made 13 interstate moves over our married years, we’re often asked, “Which place did you like best?” We have a stock answer, one we earnestly believe and have little trouble answering: “We have always preferred the place where we happened to be.” Granted, each location is one we chose to accept and embrace as career progressed. Here’s a quick chronology with mileposts of our journey:

  • Cumberland, MD
  • Syracuse, NY
  • Franklin, VA (then Sedley, VA — an intrastate move)
  • Savannah, GA
  • Prattville, AL
  • Manlius, NY
  • State College, PA
  • Auburn, AL
  • Cary, NC
  • Fairbanks, AK (we maintained a condo in Wexford, PA near our son Matt and his family)
  • Urbana, OH
  • West Chesterfield, NH
  • Madison, AL
  • Fairmont, WV (six-month temporary)
  • Madison, AL (not counting as another because we never permanently left)

Again, we selected each location; we chose to bloom where we were planted. We considered ourselves place-committed. In contrast, we’ve met too many people who strike us as place-bound. Who lament the rain; the snow; the heat; the cold; the wind; the remoteness; the crowding; the shopping; you name it. I suppose that we are half-full people; our glass is never half-empty. I could look out over Big Blue Lake and see only the houses. Instead, I prefer focusing on the water, its diverse fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds:

I know that my own career-nomadic life in early 21st Century America is fortunate… blessed with choices. Few global citizens can choose. At least not so easily as we. February 10 and 11, we toured the Flint Hills in Kansas. A cut-metal hilltop sculpture welcomed us to Council Grove, depicting 19th Century settlers making a far more arduous relocation along the Santa Fe Trail:

And perhaps many of these same families had already crossed the Atlantic from their European homes. Prior nomads had likewise seasonally crossed these tallgrass prairies in search of sustenance, temporary quarters, and life energy:

 

A Non-Mobile Opportunist

Now, imagine that some small ground-burrowing mammal had enjoyed the bitter fruit of a prairie crab apple, and scarified the hard seed coat through its digestive system. Then standing alert on a limestone outcrop, the ground squirrel deposited the seed and its fecal accompaniment serendipitously at a fissure atop the ledge. The seed might have managed much better in a more fertile setting, yet the small crack provided protection from crows that may have pounced had it been exposed. The seed germinated, having been dealt what I gauged (upon my initial assessment) to be a pretty lousy hand. Yet, Nature has been dealing poor hands to many generations of prairie crab apples. A seed lucky enough to secure purchase on deep and fertile soil in the open would simply not have survived the first fire (a prairie certainty) to sweep across the prairie. Far better to root on the rock:

A bird couldn’t reach the seed; fires burned less intensely across the spartan ledge-rock prairie vegetation. I’m guessing (yes, I admit it’s a wild guess) this specimen has seen a century or more of tallgrass seasons. It’s made the most of what I call at least a questionable hand, if not outright lousy. This tree couldn’t relocate, but it did manage the next best thing. It sent out a scouting party — roots that dipped into the crevasse, and reached deeper soil.

Root exploitation and now brute force (widening the fissure) serve the tree beautifully! The fibrous, moisture- and nutrient-gathering fine roots reach into moist and reasonably fertile soil beneath and below the rock. The best of all worlds, I suppose.

 

A quick geology side-trip. An interpretive sign diagrams the pancake strata of limestone, chert/flint, and shale that underlie and shape these Flint Hills. Limestone strata are the most resistant. Hence limestone ledges run their contour where they intersect the side slopes (see the cross section upper right).

Other crab apples make a living along the outcrop ledge, but none thrive like this individual. As I write these words, I’m shifting my assessment. No lousy hand for this crab. This perspective just struck me with yet another trump card dealt this fateful seed. As I’ve already noted:

  • Seed dropped with a dose of natural fertilizer
  • Into a fissure sufficient to protect it from avian marauders
  • With enough substrate to germinate
  • And send roots down to underlying soil
  • Elevated above the reach of periodic grass fires

Add a new one — out of easy reach of whitetail deer. We saw nine the Sunday morning we hiked the Konza Prairie Trail, just eight miles from Manhattan, KS, home of Kansas State University. This view west along the ledge shows both the density of woody vegetation and the superior, deer-resistant position of our hero.

Had the small mammal deposited our crab apple seed here (the open prairie photo below), multiple natural forces would have doomed it. Such is one reason why crab apples produce far more than the one seed it takes to grow one new offspring. Even if the seed on this upland prairie had germinated, it would not have reached an age/size to flower and bear fruit. Counter to my lousy-hand original assessment, our heroine may continue bearing fruit for decades to come. She (crab apples bear perfect flowers — male and female on every tree) has all that a prairie crab apple might wish to have. Although her height is suppressed by the rather harsh exposure, the tree does not need to reach far for full sunlight. Nothing nearby is competing for the solar gift. And another favorable attribute — this stretch of ledge faces south, well below the concordant prairie hill summit elevation, a lee position sheltered from howling northerly and westerly winds. What more than a long life, a great view, firm anchorage, ample nutrition and moisture, and protection from adversity could any of us hope to secure?!

So, what is Nature’s lesson. First, as in life and enterprise, what seems apparent upon first glance isn’t necessarily so. Even as a student of applied ecology, I leaped to seeing this rock-bound crab apple as having been given a raw deal. But not so fast — he’s living the good life! I began this blog post in my head even as we stood by this rock-top sentry, thinking it a lesson for persevering under adversity. Yet here in the comfort of my office, examining the photos, and reflecting on this individual, I have switched gears.

I see two levels of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe in this resolute prairie crab apple. The first dimension is purely aesthetic — a full-crowned tree/shrub standing astride a rock. The second level is hidden within the secret of its success. Think about the remarkable alignment of favorable site factors that enable this tree to stand as a symbol for the exquisite opportunism hard-wired in Nature.

Do you know what remarkable potential lies hidden within you and your enterprise? Do you focus on what at first glance seems a lousy hand? Or do you consider what might be… and strive to secure firm footing, satisfaction, and a long, productive, and vibrant life? Are you choosing to bloom where you’re planted? Nature is an opportunist — are you?

I even choose my attitude — life is too fleeting, fragile, and short not to choose upbeat! Although I certainly have always taken what I do seriously, I refuse to take myself with other than a sense of joy and lightness. As we approached trail’s end, we passed the shell of a long-dead snag. We chose to be framed on the Konza Prairie Trail!

Life is GOOD!

Spring’s Mid-February Harbingers

I write these words and reflections on a damp Saturday afternoon (February 17, 2018). Yesterday’s dawn temperature, a balmy 65 degrees, yielded to showery and drizzly upper-40s by noon, courtesy of a cold frontal passage. This morning the front backed our way with more light rain and drizzle, dragged northward by a strengthening low pressure system tracking eastward through Tennessee and Kentucky. Yet another cool front will follow tonight. We are in the transition season — a tug-of-war between winter and spring, a competition that spring will ultimately win.

Over the past week, up to two-dozen hooded mergansers have returned to Big Blue Lake, on schedule with what we observed last February. They’ll depart before March exits. Robins have found dawn voice. Killdeer have joined the robins, and continue to call day-long as they fly over the water and from shore to shore. We’ve seen two pairs of bluebirds at our feeders. And finally, the seminal spring bellwether, the voice of spring peepers, has sounded.

Spring travels northward at approximately 100 miles per week; and it ascends vertically at some 800 feet per week. I noticed our native red maple flowers opening (giving the entire tree a reddish cast) just two days ago. I took all of the photos in this post within the past hour.

I suppose that last week red maple had opened flowers in the Birmingham vicinity. Next week we could see the same evidence near Nashville, Tennessee.

Lawns are sprouting wild onions, shooting slender, tubular sprouts above the still quite-dormant Bermuda grass.

I’ve seen lyre-leaved rock cress’ bashful, pale white flowers and delicate, deeply-lobed basal greens (below) in disturbed areas along with whitlow-grass and chickweed, likewise with non-showy tiny white blooms. These are the early spring vanguard; spring’s full frontal assault will follow in two-to-four weeks.

Ornamental flowering plants won’t be long — daffodils are poking leaves and swelling buds through mulch. Our Rose Creek Abelia are sporting new leaves.

Pete Seeger penned the lyrics to Turn! Turn! Turn!, adopting them from Ecclesiastes:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

And so it is with our seasonal ebbs and flows, whether in Alabama’s Tennessee River Valley, along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, or near the Ashuelot River in southwestern New Hampshire, all places, among others, where we have lived. Likewise, we have metaphorical seasons of our lives, romances, friendships, and enterprises. Nature prompts us to observe and learn from the patterns, purpose, and signals.

Learn so that you might harness Nature’s wisdom and power. Recall, too, what Leonardo da Vinci observed half-a-millennium ago:

“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” The seasons of all things abide by lessons of meaning, merit, and purpose… as should your life, vocation, and avocation.

Beaverdam Swamp at Wheeler NWR — Nature versus Boardwalk

I wrote recently that Judy and I took grandsons Jack and Sam to the nearby Beaverdam Swamp trail at Joe Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 31. See my Dormant Season Beauty blog post. We four enjoyed ourselves walking, talking, and observing.

Beyond what I previously reported, we all found fascination in the battle underway between the wooden boardwalk and the forces of Nature. We appreciated Nature’s artwork on a section of handrail:

Lichens and mosses have colonized the wood rails, ensuring that moisture holds steady and decay progresses, and even accelerates. These lovely organisms are feasting — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The cycles of life and death are ongoing. The decking likewise feels the ravage of a suite of demanding primary and secondary feeders. The action means little to the wood. It has already served its biological life functions… supporting its tree of origin and when still cambial, translocating vital water and dissolved nutrients and sugars vertically to and from the roots and leaves. Wood, and perhaps all living organisms, live and die, cycling and recycling the stuff of living from one life form to another. We pass judgement on the agents of decay only when we are asked to maintain the boardwalk:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We visited the trail last winter, when we were forced to climb around and through a tree that had splintered a ten-foot segment of boardwalk. Small wonder — the boardwalk winds through an old growth forest that is, like most living communities, a dynamic ecosystem. Here’s a 30-inch diameter denizen that will eventually yield to gravity, taking yet another boardwalk segment with it:

Decay weakens wood even without the force of a falling giant. Slipping past strength thresholds results in an accidentally well-placed pedestrian footfall snapping a board:

 

Note the recently replaced board adjacent to the broken member. The battle continues. Given time and deferred maintenance, Nature will prevail… always! Inexorably, the forces of time and decomposers will reduce all organisms to their simplest components — the cycle is complete, honed by 3.5 billion years of life on the mote-of-dust-Eden we call Earth. The community of organisms in a single board enriches a small corner of the world in ways that we humans can only aspire to match:

We see only a board decaying, bit by bit, cell by cell, the debris falling to the leaf-littered forest floor. Yet countless organisms are performing their designed life-functions as part of Nature’s grand scheme. Leonardo da Vinci observed 500 years ago, “There is no result in nature without a cause.”

I suggest that we humans should ask ourselves, “What is our cause?” Individually and societally. Explore the question deeply when you next find a contemplative moment in Nature. Do you have a cause more noble than recycling the stuff of life? What have you done recently to change some small corner of the Earth for the better?

I ask myself the same questions often. I hope to help others seek the answers via my writing, speaking, and counseling. Unless we individually, and in aggregate, seek and find the answers, we risk our species’ place in Earth’s future, relegating us perhaps to rare occurrences in Earth’s fossil record eons hence. And, that would indeed be sad and tragic:

Never forget Nature’s Wisdom and Power and her lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading. And always remember that this Earth is a gift for which we share an obligation to appreciate and steward. Don’t let your grand-kids down… or theirs.

 

Kansas Annual Natural Resource Conference

My keynote address to the annual meting (Conservation Delivery in Changing Times) of Kansas Natural Resource Professionals focused on Applying Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration to Conservation Delivery. Three hundred seventy-five registrants set a new attendance record for the annual gathering, this the 11th. What a great concept in drawing together professionals dealing with forests, range-land, fisheries, wildlife, and related fields.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect in way of reaction to my message. This was my first venture into the heartland with my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading sermon. The first time testing the message with diverse natural resources managers in a part of the country far removed from my eastern US (and Alaska) former fields of practice. Really, my first test since adopting this deep message of Earth Stewardship, rooted in science, yet driven by my growing emphasis on heart, spirit, and soul. I outlined many of the basic elements I’ve brought forward in these Great Blue Heron blog posts.

I told the audience my purposes during that afternoon session. First, reuniting with my dear friend and colleague over the past 30 years, Larry Biles (left), Kansas State Forester, who arranged for the invitation to deliver the keynote. Such a great privilege and joy to see Larry (and wife Sarah) again.

I admitted that another aim for me was meeting the attendees and talking with as many as possible. How better could I learn than by hearing from those who are steeped in the practice of Kansas natural resources management! I shared another shamelessly selfish objective: gauging their reaction to some of my ideas and reflections on Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. A parallel objective — spreading the gospel of applying Nature’s wisdom and inspiration to living, learning, serving, and leading.

And I made clear that I hoped to stimulate them to contemplate:

  • The privilege we have of working in our allied fields
  • The beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of Nature
  • Our obligation as natural resource managers to sow the seeds of Earth Stewardship

I closed my keynote with some final thoughts about their role as natural resource professionals:

  • Theirs is a noble calling
  • One with high purpose
  • Urging them to adopt a goal to unveil and interpret the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lies hidden within Nature at all levels, whether Denali National Park, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Konza Prairie, or a Manhattan, KS city park
  • Their service is a privilege… a gift
  • And what they do carries a professional obligation to steward and sow the seeds of a land/Earth ethic

I challenged them to Rise to the Challenge… and leave a legacy

My Concurrent Session:

Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration through the Power of Stories

Some 50 participants attended my second-day concurrent session. This amounted to the first time I introduced my idea of Wild-Land Legacy Stories to any contingent of natural resource professionals, much less this wide range of folks from watershed to forest to wildlife to range to fisheries.

Rather than lay out the details here, I’ll hold the summary and discussion for a future blog post. Watch for it!

Also, soon I will post photos and text from my day-after-the-conference visit to Konza Prairie and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, my first full-blown immersion into this incredibly beautiful ecosystem and community that once dominated our nation’s heartland.

Remember: every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in… or is powerfully inspired by… NATURE!

 

Beaverdam Swamp at Wheeler NWR — Dormant Season Beauty

One arm of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge extends north from the Tennessee River to I-565, just three miles from our daughter Katy’s home. January 31, Judy and I retrieved  local grandsons Jack and Sam from their respective schools to hike the two-mile round trip at Beaverdam Swamp, returning them to Katy’s as dusk settled. Temperature nearly 60, we enjoyed a spring-like walk in the deeply dormant hardwood bottom-land. The trail-head is within 300 feet of the Interstate. Thick forest soon muted the traffic cacophony as we headed south at 90 degrees to the highway.

Fittingly, Jack shared with us that day’s fourth grade lessons, which focused on Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. A perfect alignment with our venture into this small appendage to the Refuge’s 35,000 acres. The trail begins in a mature upland forest, heavy to oak and peppered with a few large loblolly pines. We graded ever-so-slowly into true bottom-land. Our gravel surface yielded to boardwalk as we entered the persistently wet tupelo swamp:

These are rich sites, with deep, fertile soils, periodically refreshed by frequent overflow of the nearby stream and the Tennessee River. Many main canopy trees from trail-head to the creek-side terminus reach 100-plus feet. On the uplands (I use the term generously; the higher ground may be only ten feet elevation above swamp level), some oaks meet the description of ‘mighty.’ Large diameter; towering boles; wide-spreading crowns. The tupelo likewise presented impressive dimensions (I must confess, I snapped this bright-sunshine photo along the same path a couple weeks prior):

Many tupelo evidenced their advanced age via hollow trunks, tops dropped, and visible fungal fruiting bodies:

I find special beauty in the winter season hardwood forests. The crown geometry expresses the ongoing reach for light. The intricate patterns are species-determined, yet each design is driven by common purpose — capturing sunlight in service to the leafy factories. The Adaptive Geometry of Trees (Henry S, Horn, 1971) is an exquisite study of the species-dictated branching patterns and designs. Summer’s foliage masks the intriguing crown structure. As I’ve often penned, we need not search far in Nature to detect the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lie hidden within.

The sun kissed the horizon as we found rest at the far terminus, creek-side:

While there, we appreciated that the sun still illuminated the crowns above us:

Please take note of how different the two photos appear. Judy and the boys seem to sit in rather bleak semi-light, while the sky above retains its blue and the branches bask in the day’s final rays.

I suppose this, too, offers a lesson worthy of record. Nature’s faces are many. We can choose to see only the approaching darkness… or we can rejoice in the majesty of the moment. Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago observed, “Nature is full of infinite causes that have never occurred in experience.” He is suggesting that she offers a face for every occasion, and reminds us that over the vast sweep of time, Nature has faced all manner of situations and has the ‘experience’ to handle more than we might imagine.

I have also pointed out often that we need not visit Yellowstone or Denali National Park to experience Nature’s inspiration or feel the deep humility that she can place in our hearts. We started our hike pounded by Interstate noise. We quickly left the debilitating crescendo behind to find an oasis of peace, tranquility, and cathedral essence. I wonder how many of those drivers hurtling east and west realized what was so near at hand. The answer, I admit, is a near-zero. They are blind… oblivious to the wondrous Nature that lies within reach.

They do not know or believe that they could discover treasure so close to home. Nor do they Look or See. I shudder to think how many were also still connected to the deadly force of digital distraction. So sad. Yet I also remind myself of Aldo Leopold’s wisdom, “Conservation of all wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish, one must see and fondle. And when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Still, I find little solace that so few cherish this Wheeler treasure.

I pray that Sam and Jack will carry an embrace of Nature throughout their lives… that the seed we are planting will eventually bear fruit. We want to make sure that they never suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder. Many have asked me, “Why did you move to northern Alabama?” A photo is worth a thousand words of explanation!

My life is, and will always be, Nature-Inspired!

Frozen Wheeler Wildlife Refuge

We visited Wheeler again January 7. Real winter had reached into the deep south, holding grip long enough to freeze Big Blue Lake. I think had I been a bit more adventuresome, the ice may have supported my weight:

I have written and reflected often of nearby (20-25 miles WSW of where I live) Joe Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. More than one reader has inquired, “Where is Wheeler?” I can show better than explain: https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_4/NWRS/Zone_3/Wheeler_Complex/Wheeler/Wheeler%20Brochure%20(wlrgen.).pdf .

I had anticipated finding slack water at Wheeler frozen, and wondered whether the adjoining fields would harbor peak-level sand hill cranes just the same. Sure enough, open water proved to be fully ice-covered. Nary a duck, contrasted to many thousands just two weeks prior. Where were they? We observed a few flights of hundreds nearer the distant tree line, perhaps a larger channel of the Tennessee River offered open water beyond the trees. The cranes did not disappoint. Refuge personnel as we entered the visitor’s center reported 30,000 cranes on the property at that very moment. Due north of the two-story observation building, sand hills clogged the field (right). Same to the northwest, as one lone adventurer crossed the ice stilt-legged and quite carefully (left).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned previously in these posts, Nature plays within the limits of normal. Although the recent cold has extended more deeply and longer than average, it nevertheless is within the bounds of normal. The following day, warm air surged northward bringing 0.90 inches of rain and temperatures approaching 55 degrees. I write these words Sunday, January 14, when we’re back in the upper twenties for highs two days running.  Friday we reached 70. Winter does not hold firm here. Instead, it now and again crests south of us, then quickly retreats with southern breezes. Tomorrow will surpass 45; Tuesday we expect 1-2 inches of snow. The cranes have faith (and millennia of experience) comforting them that this is a good place to overwinter, despite the few winter advances.

From the observation deck, we could see four whooping cranes, less than clearly distinct in the distant center below. What a story of success in saving ourselves from ushering yet another magnificent avian friend to extinction. I think of the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, and the Ivory-billed woodpecker… and weep. Thank God we can still see whoopers in the wild!

We also saw a few dozen snow geese near the observation building. Yet the sand hills stood and moved about in overwhelming masses. Their croaking dominated the airwaves — conversations, chatter, and arguments here and there. Even in flight, they announce their comings and goings — a music that both excites and soothes.

I think of the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, when the young girl leads the orphaned Canada geese south in her ultra-light aircraft. Cinematography places the viewer with the geese during their sojourn. Ah, what must it be like to migrate with the sand hills! Or at least fly over Wheeler for a couple hours with them. I know that I will not. Yet my soul accompanies them. I stand, as I did taking the two in-flight photos above, and cast my gaze with them, pivoting as they swing past effortlessly, chattering all the way. Theirs is a voice of promise, hope, joy, and aspiration. As so often is the case with Nature, I feel deep humility… and unfathomable inspiration. We have watched other thousands of sand hills, from western USA flocks, as they stopped off twice annually at Creamer’s Field near Fairbanks, AK, at 64.8 degrees north, just a few hundred miles from their Arctic breeding grounds. I felt the same magic and wonder.

Wheeler is special for all manner of its 35,000 acres (>50 square miles). I never tire, winter or summer, of the cypress swamp near the visitor’s center. January 6 gave me a view I had not previously enjoyed — ice and cypress knees:

The buttressed, fluted lower trunk projects a stronger-seeming image in ice and cold:

Where is the greater beauty — the cypress or the sand hill crane? May I inquire of you, which among your children is your favorite? The package of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe appears where we seek it. I am blessed with seeing it most everywhere I look.

I believe in my heart of hearts that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Because I believe, my awareness of the lessons and my search for them will find reward. What do you see in and sense from this field of magic below? I hear echoes from eons; I see hope for the future; I feel Nature’s seasons throbbing; I inhale the sweet fragrance of promise and inspiration. I believe these are symbols of an Earth-of-Life, spurring and challenging us to steward our isolated home, alone and fragile in the vast darkness of space. I see obligation — environmental, social, moral, and spiritual. I see a higher power; I pray for a higher power.

Importantly, I accept that we humans, all 7.5 billion of us, are not the measure of all things. What are 30,000 cranes to 7.5 billion of us? In no small way, they are every thing!

 

 

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Consider this essay in measures of Nature-derived inspiration. View this GBH Blog Post as one of exquisite timing. This year marks the centennial of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects more than 1,025 species. The January 2018 National Geographic features Why Birds Matter. Lead article author Jonathan Franzen begins, “It’s not just what they do for the environment–it’s what they do for our souls.” He adds, “In 2018 we’ll explore the wonder of birds, and why we really can’t live without them.” These sentiments parallel my own, yet mine extend beyond our avian neighbors and friends to Nature and life on Earth, as well as the beauty and splendor of Earth itself.

My Recent Migratory Journey

December 22 and 23, I migrated south from my Fairmont State University Interim Presidency (https://www.fairmontstate.edu/), thus sharing something in common with the 20,000 or so sand hill cranes wintering at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. We visited Christmas week with grandsons Jack and Sam, our daughter Katy’s sons:

The waterfowl had logged a few more miles than I. My road distance amounted to ~640 road miles from Fairmont, WV to Madison, AL; 450-500 air miles, I suppose. The cranes migrated well over 2,000 direct miles from the Canadian Arctic! And it was vocation, and not winter food supply and more tolerable weather, that spurred my travels. Theirs was a life or death journey. Mine a return-to-semi-retirement-sojourn. Neither theirs nor mine distilled to liking one place better than the other. The cranes would have frozen had they not left the bitter, unforgiving high latitude winter. Judy and I chose to reside in the Tennessee Valley post-permanent-employment. Our daughter and her two sons are here. We know the state and region well, having resided in Alabama (near Montgomery and in Auburn) twice before. We feel great comfort and satisfaction here on the shores of Big Blue Lake. I doubt the cranes know comfort and satisfaction; more likely, it is survival they seek, and to store consumed-energy sufficient to head north once again by mid- to late-February.

After a full-year in-place (July 2016 through June 2017), I couldn’t resist the six-month opportunity to serve Fairmont State University (https://www.fairmontstate.edu/) as Interim President. I relished the half-year of deep professional satisfaction, reward, and fulfillment. Like the cranes, I brought echoes of my season-away back to northern Alabama. In fact, I carry the echoes and reverberations from 66 prior annual seasons. I suppose the cranes, who have the navigational agility to re-discover a favorite Tennessee River sandbar from thousands of miles away, carry the echo of countless generations past that have made the same journey. I saw Wheeler this time with fresher eyes, and renewed perspective. I felt intense gratitude for my safe return and delight in my re-ignited inspiration at once again seeing these magnificent creatures (the cranes, and the grandsons!). The boys, too, are on a journey… one that will extend far beyond the few more crane cycles I will observe and enjoy. May the Nature seed we’re planting echo within them for decades to come.

Nature’s Lesson

What is Nature’s lesson that I draw from yet again experiencing the cranes at Wheeler? I suppose its facets are several. A sharp reminder that life (as well as vocation) is a journey — across miles and time. A journey of cycles and circuits and switchbacks… and way stations and highs and lows. Another element of the lesson is that life unfolds, surges, slows, and follows signals, breezes, and gales we seldom anticipate and sometimes do not detect. Once again, Nature instructs that unless we look for magic, beauty, awe, and wonder we will never see nor recognize it. And unless we see it deeply, we will never feel Nature’s Power and Wisdom. And unless we feel it, we risk missing the journey altogether, wandering rudderless and blindly from one day to another. Had I sought another out-of-state longer-term presidency, who knows what I might have foregone:

And, one need not be living at distance to miss the annual show. Sadly, how many people living in this Huntsville Metropolitan Statistical Area have no idea that tens of thousands of feathered migrants settle seasonally just a few miles down the Tennessee River? I embrace and savor Nature and life. I write these words Saturday afternoon, January 6. It’s been well below freezing for more than a week. Tomorrow when we plan a return to Wheeler (watch for another post), I anticipate ice covering most of the slack-water. How will that change the Refuge and the birds? I’ll be sure to let you know.

The cranes stir deep emotion for me. I remain eternally grateful for those who established the National Wildlife Refuge System. By an Executive Order of March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt  established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, the nation’s first. Dare to imagine the stark reality of North America had we failed to preserve these continent-wide corridors and stop-overs. What price does the US pay to manage and preserve these national treasures? What unfathomable costs would we bear without them? How can we place value on a dram of Inspiration; a cubit of Knowledge; an ounce of Wisdom; a milliliter of Hope; a thimble of Faith?!

Emily Dickinson viewed birds as literal and symbolic hope (“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers):

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Author Christopher Cokinos borrowed his book title from Dickinson’s 1862 metaphorical poem to tell the sobering tale of six now extinct bird species in Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. My hope is that we learn before it is too late. Wheeler is a symbol of what difference we can make when we look, see, feel, and act.

I want to tell the Land Legacy Story for Wheeler’s 35,000 acres. An ambitious project, yes. A tale worthy of passing along to future generations? Absolutely! I am attempting to make inroads, and now that I am back in northern Alabama, I will see what I can do.

Franzen closes his article with words matching the depth of Dickinson’s poetry, “The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value… their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without.”

Great Blue Heron accepts and champions that we humans are certainly not “the measure of all things.” I’ve held for years that our guiding tenets for living, learning, serving, and leading should include Nature’s wisdom, power, and force in evoking: Gratitude; Inspiration; and Humility. Unforgivable and unconscionable arrogance describes those who are unwilling to see our true place in Nature’s World. We are a mere frame in the cosmic eternity. A cog in the wheel of time.

Great Blue Heron, via writing, speaking, and chronicling Forest- and Wild-land Legacy Stories, urges recognition and respect for our place in the web of life and living.

Visit Amazon to purchase one or both of my books — they might just inspire all that lies ahead for you in this world rich with Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe!

 

Post-Script: we ventured to Wheeler Sunday January 7. Sure enough, slack-water fully ice-covered. I can’t wait to share my observations and reflections with you! Here’s a teaser photo:

 

 

 

How Did We Stand the Continuous Darkness?

We spent four years (2004-2008) in Fairbanks, Alaska, at nearly 65 degrees north latitude. This time of year, people often ask, “How did you stand the continuous darkness?” I patiently try to explain that because Fairbanks is south of the Arctic Circle, even on the winter solstice, the sun still rises, albeit just 1.5 degrees above the horizon at solar noon.

Now I can refer them to a University of Alaska Fairbanks (where I served four years as Chancellor) time lapse video of the 2017solstice 24-hour sun cycle: http://akclimate.org/…/webcam-timelapse/2017_12_21-TLaps.gif

Note the central Alaska Range some 70 miles due south. We found deep winter in central interior Alaska spell-binding, with beauty, magic, wonder, and awe around every corner.

We’ve made 13 interstate moves over our 45 years together. We decided long ago to bloom where we’re planted. And, that has made all the difference. My hope is that you are doing same.

But Baby It’s Cold Outside!

Here at 34.7 degrees north latitude (contrast that to Fairbanks, AK at 64.8), we expect some relative warmth this time of year. Average daily high for early January is 48. We enjoyed one day since the last few days of December that made it all the way to 35! Average daily low is 30; most of these past seven-plus days have fallen to high single digits and teens! Big Blue Lake is ice-covered… and has been for a week. Were I a bit more adventurous (and still near my marathon-running-days weight), I believe I could walk across it.

Although my local friends would think me near-crazy, I welcome the spell of deep winter. It legitimizes seasonal dormancy in these parts. Nature prepares for the extremes… the outliers. When we lived near Montgomery, AL back in the early 80s, our landscape beds showcased scores of ornamental azaleas. An Arctic air penetration brought the temperature to negative two over the Christmas break while we were with family in Maryland. We returned to find the bark and cambium split on every plant — burst and deceased. Native azaleas survived the extreme low. Nature had prepared those native species and varieties to the wild swings within the parameters of normal. That Arctic air-mass, as well as this one, fall within the range of normal. Below average — certainly. Yet within the rather wide limits of long-term natural.

Let Nature’s plant kingdom enjoy a break. A rest from the pressures of making a living via photosynthesis. In fact, the break extends from early October through most of March. Our northern Alabama red maple begins flowering early in that spring equinox month. Most forest species extend leaf dormancy into late March and early April. That’s nearly half-a-year of forced rest, even here in a part of the country our northern friends consider The South — a place to escape winter.

Even as Nature prepares for the extremes, we humans tend toward remembering the severe conditions, and recalling them as typical. Here’s an example. We arrived in Fairbanks June 2004. By early October, summer had gone, leaf color began turning aspens and poplar gold as August transitioned to September; deciduous trees had shed all leaves by September’s third week. We had 2-3 snows of 1-2 inches that fell, accumulated, and then melted. I watched for the climatological summary for September. With the summary in mind, I asked many long-term Fairbanks residents, most of them affiliated with the university, how the just-completed month compared to “the way they used to be.” Without exception, respondents talked about how Septembers used to be much colder, with a winter-long snow pack already in place by month’s end. Interestingly, September 2004 was the third coldest December on record! We all remember our parents telling us that they walked uphill to and from school in waste-deep snow.

So, what are the lessons we can draw from this cold spell? If you are a duck or a goose, prepare for some hard landings (yes, those are geese on the ice):

Otherwise, be aware of the nature and extent of normal (not just average) ebbs and flows for life, living, and enterprise. Remain aware that Nature prepares for the extremes. Even for those of us who choose to live in high risk areas, on average (over the vast majority of days), the hurricane does not make landfall near us; the fire does not consume our surrounding shrub and forest cover (and our home); the flood does not inundate us; the mudslide does not sweep our home down the hillside; the earthquake does not liquefy our firm under-footing. Yet the risks are quantifiable. While not average occurrences, they do fall within the long-term normal. Know what is normal and prepare for it… or, if too much to bear, avoid it.

Nature prepares. She knows that these cypress will from time-to-time see real winter settle on the Tennessee River flats here at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. My guess is that in their own way, the trees, too, welcome the dormant season. They are re-loading, ready to launch into full production once Arctic threats are at bay.

A Sharpened Great Blue Heron Focus

My own dormant season began when I headed south from my Fairmont State University Presidency (https://www.fairmontstate.edu/) just before Christmas. I view these Blessed subsequent two-weeks as a form of rest and reloading. Professionally, I have begun thinking in earnest about how to better focus my work with Great Blue Heron, LLC. Here is where I will concentrate:

  1. Promoting my books (and continuing to write; two new ones in process)
  2. Speaking — along the Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading theme of my books. Purpose: to inspire, educate, and enable audiences to harness Nature’s Wisdom and Power in service to cause.
  3. Land Legacy Stories — contracting with individuals, organizations, agencies, and companies who own wild-land (forested and not) to tel the Story of the property. Both the Human and Human Nature dimensions of the Land Legacy.

Although perhaps separate from GBH, I will consider other higher education consulting and interim executive positions — all of which I will approach from the Ecosystems Basis I employed successfully as FSU Interim President.

I will devote future Blog Posts to more clearly defining and expanding upon this New Year’s resolution to sharpen GBH in greater service to tomorrow.

 

Returning from a Six-Month Absence

Happy New Year!

I left Big Blue Lake end of June, 2017 for my six-month Interim Presidency at Fairmont State University. We returned mid-day December 23. I squeezed a lot out of that half-year. Yet I must admit, I cannot ignore the trade-offs… the costs of a six-month full immersion out of state. Judy (my spouse of 45.5 years) joined me a week per month, too infrequently for me not to feel generally as though I was living alone. Also, I made it back to Alabama only once during the term, making our daughter and grand sons Jack (10) and Sam (4) seem remote. We kept up through phone and Face-time, yet it’s not the same.

Was great to reconnect at Big Blue Lake upon return! As I appreciated this special place and reunited with family, I thought of Wendell Berry’s “VII,” his poem reminding us that the day-to-day small things aggregate to life, pleasure, and reward:

“Again I resume the long

lesson:  how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.”

Christmas Eve stayed cloudy most of the day as a cold front slowly slipped south. Thick low clouds parted at sunset, rewarding us with sparkling clear skies above as the cloud deck slipped away.

Again, Nature serves dollops of magic to those willing to look, see, and feel. What did seeing this wonder require of me? Sensing the light changing outside my window… and wandering to the patio with camera at the ready. The view is to the south, clouds racing from the northwest, heralding the first really cold spell of the young winter. The mix and richness of colors and textures constitute the scene, yet the details of season, wind direction, and frontal passage add meaning and content not discernible to the unknowing and disinterested. I observe people clinging to their digital devices, and feel sorrow for what they are missing.

When I hit the shutter for this frame, I saw only the magnificent sky. Then my eye saw Big Blue standing at water’s edge near the willow clump just right of center. Hunched to buffer the now chilly breeze, he did not rise.

I brought him closer via the zoom. This was my first close-up of our resident great blue heron since my return the day prior. I viewed his presence as a gift, an acknowledgment that the simple things matter. Berry’s “VII” said it beautifully:

“What more did I

think I wanted?  Here is

what has always been.

Here is what will always be.”

I seek Nature’s gifts relentlessly. She rewards selflessly… and often. She asks only that I be alert, and not demanding on a Grand Tetons or Alaska Range scale. Life presents itself in bite-size morsels. Enjoyment, appreciation, and fulfillment need not await the once-in-a-lifetime vacation adventure.

Christmas brought the anticipated pleasure of celebrating the ultimate Gift of a Life that forever changed the world to those of us who embrace Christianity. May each of you have found some similar Spiritual awakening… your own belief in a higher power — a spiritual purpose and calling.

Jack’s new fishing rod and reel connected the day after — a 1.5 pound large-mouth bass right at our shore. We immediately released it, knowing that the frogs, smaller fish, and other critters will soon nurture his growth to tougher future angling battles and perhaps a fry-pan.

That day ended with yet another gift, this one at sunset, welcoming a night that fell into the lower twenties. Balmy by our Fairbanks, Alaska winter standards, yet seasonably cold for northern Alabama.

Again, just four days back at Big Blue Lake and life is rich, full, and good. All without any digital immersion beyond a few emails and texts from friends and family.

I can’t resist the shutter when Nature paints the evening sky.

The same holds for Nature’s wake-up call, this one greeting December 29, a full-week returned to Big Blue Lake.

Are you on alert for Nature’s richness?

Are you looking, seeing, feeling, and acting? I’m writing these words Friday evening, the 29th. I just glanced out my office window to the north, discovering a glow reflected in windows across the street. I rushed to the patio, camera in hand, curious to see whether the day would end with the west ignited in farewell:

Sure enough, another blessing, both without and with Sam and Jack in silhouette! As I’ve said too many times to count, every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is compellingly inspired by Nature. This Blog Post focuses on Nature’s incessant inspiration. Yet perhaps her most poignant lesson expressed powerfully in these photographs and reflections is simple and direct. Berry nailed it:

“Again I resume the long

lesson:  how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.”

Dewitt Jones, decades-long National Geographic photographer extraordinaire, observed in The Nature of Leadership (Covey, Marshall, and Jones), “Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from nature is gratitude. If we could publish it in our lives everyday, the way nature publishes beauty in every sunrise and every sunset, how different might the world be?”

Great Blue Heron can help you find Nature’s simple power and wisdom to guide your life and enterprise. And how we might inculcate a measure of gratitude for the world around us.