A Northern Alabama Update — Nature-Inspired

Spring is now at full throttle, yet keep in mind that the progress is not laminar. Spring leaps and pauses; surges and retreats. We touched upper 70s to near 80 in late February. This morning (Thursday, March 8), we walked the neighborhood at dawn with a breezy 28 degrees. Birds a little more subdued than on the warmer mornings. The National Weather Service has issued another freeze warning for tonight. A wet southwesterly flow returns for this coming weekend (1-2 inches forecast), followed by another frosty morning or two next week. Such is spring at full throttle in northern Alabama.

We returned to Alabama March 5, after a long weekend in Pittsburgh. An inch of snow fell our first night there, the same storm that dumped some 39 inches on a Catskill town within 40 miles of Albany. Brisk winds kept us chilled the entire time in Pittsburgh. However, spring is rushing northward… at its normal pace of roughly 100 miles per week. Red maple flower buds already showing a bit of red near the Steel City. Daffodil leaves are poking through bedding mulch. We saw a flowering crocus here and there. Bradford pear buds are swelling, soon to burst.

Our very cold Alabama January produced only 1.75″ of rain. February conditions shifted remarkably. I measured 11.59.” Big Blue Lake remained at brimful.

Area creeks and rivers carried a full load most of the month. Our return flight from Pittsburgh revealed lots of wet fields and flooded bottom-land. I snapped the photo below before we headed north. Even then, we saw plenty of water.

February 12 upon returning from Kansas, we counted 25 hooded mergansers on Big Blue Lake, bobbing and diving repeatedly. Last year we saw only as many as five. We reached a peak of 34 February 26. I counted 25 early afternoon today. They seem to feed constantly. What are these 2-3-dozen fish eaters finding to keep so many of them here? Do their numbers relate to the bass, bluegill, and carp stocked in mid-June? The bass are apparently thriving, which leads me to wonder how the mergansers are feeding so voraciously? This large-mouth bass that I caught (and released) March 6, weighed at least 1.5 pounds. It competes, I presume, for some of the same critters the mergansers eat.

So, I’ve categorized this post under “Steve’s Big Blue Blog.” Where is Big Blue in this essay? Strangely absent. Why? This January brought some real winter cold; Big Blue Lake froze substantially twice. How did that alter Big Blue’s life and habits? We saw him only twice in January. At the end of the third week of February, crews cut the shrub willow along the shore for all of Big Blue Lake, yet that does not explain Big Blue’s scarcity leading to that date. Granted, Big Blue frequented water’s edge at one of the willow clumps along our shore.

Are the bass eating yearling tadpoles and small fish, such as the gold fish that appeared in large numbers our first year and that we saw Big Blue catching, flipping, and swallowing? Are the large merganser numbers affecting feed-stock for Big Blue? I am concerned about our resident great blue heron. I will continue to observe… and keep you posted.

We have seen hawks (red-tail and rough-legged) often. January we found dove feathers and blood in our back bed, clear evidence of a successful hawk capture. February 26, late-morning we came across this fine specimen in a street-side sweetgum tree, 20 feet above us. The sun gave us trouble in getting a good photo image and in discerning whether the bird is a red-tail or rough-legged. Like so many ‘wild’ creatures, the resident raptors have adapted to suburban life.

Likewise, just the evening before (2/25), Judy and I enjoyed the warmer air on our patio. Dusk brought the spooky sound of coyotes yipping and howling in the open land beyond the street south of the lake, within a quarter mile. Again, our non-human area residents adapt quite well. I am grateful that we still have enough local “wildness” to keep me enthralled and inspired. Nature is where we seek it, whether a short drive away to Wheeler’s Beaverdam Swamp Trail (the photo of Judy standing on the boardwalk with the creek high and muddy), or right here in Legendwood (our development).

As we left the tupelo swamp that day at Beaverdam, we spotted our first trillium of the season, a least (also known as dwarf) trillium (Trillium pusillum). Once we saw one, our eyes imprinted with the image, and we noticed an entire colony of 25-30 individuals. Again, Nature, with its beauty, awe, magic, and wonder, is where we seek it.

I add this final paragraph Saturday March 10. Yesterday evening I attempted to check for freeze damage on our hydrangea, near our river birch. Before I could get close enough, a killdeer went into the noisy, broken-wing routine at the birch, where we had seen a pair within the past week frequenting, and actually saw them in the act of coitus. I checked again this morning at first light. No bird nearby. I found the nest, and lo and behold, two eggs! A killdeer soon returned and began tending the eggs. ALERT — I just went out to snap a photo and three eggs! A bit later, as I filled our feeders, momma displayed nicely for me. I checked last year’s notes on our resident pair, whose nest first appeared May 21, and eventually fledged four hatchlings. Could that have been last year’s second brood, thus explaining this year’s two-month head start?

Isn’t Nature grand! May all that you do be Nature-Inspired.

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.


Brief Return to Alabama

I drove the 640 miles from West Virginia to visit my Alabama home Saturday, August 19, seven full weeks since I had departed. Normally, by three weeks into August, summer has taken its toll. Browning road medians and some fading tree and shrub foliage. Lawns that are yellow, no longer lush as they were early in the season. This year, however, medians along the entire route remained verdant. Lawns, even those along north Alabama rural routes at homes seldom if ever employing lawn treatment and sprinklers, appeared June-like. I prefer these years when Nature delivers ample rainfall across the long growing season, not that Nature cares or considers my preferences!

Sunday dawned clear, warm, and humid on Big Blue Lake. Big Blue stood quietly at the lake’s northern neck, either having rested there for the night, or just arriving for breakfast. He paid us little mind as we walked past and later returned. I doubt he noted that this was my first appearance in some fifty days. My heart filled to see him, always symbolizing my Dad’s spirit, welcoming me home, perhaps inquiring of how things are going at Fairmont State University, where I serve as Interim President.

Judy and I enjoyed a cup of coffee on the patio. Big Blue flew low across the water within thirty minutes, departing the neck, bee-lining for the southwest corner, then lifting across the second pond, rising above the trees on the far south shore, and to points beyond. Katy (our daughter) brought Jack and Sam (our two Alabama grandsons) to visit after our coffee. Jack, the 9.5-year-old, requested a walk around the lake. We departed counter clockwise. Leaping frogs preceded our passage by 10-15 feet. Several created enough ruckus to startle Sam (3.5 years). His attention shifted occasionally from the frogs to the goose poop spotting the grass and back again. I suppose priorities and perspective vary with the distance between heights of three and six feet, and ages from 3.5 to 66! Jack and I paid more attention to the many bass we saw hunting along the near-shore shallows, and the three green herons we watched come and go solo, and stalk along the shoreline or perch momentarily on lower willow branches. For the frogs, fish, and herons (green and great blue), predation in search of satiation is the order of the day. No omnivores, these voracious predators share the same food-stocks. These placid waters and their scaly, slippery, and feathered denizens soothe my psyche and reward my visual palette. The frog finds nothing soothing about Big Blue.

We did not see three other meat-eaters that we have encountered on past circuits: snapping turtle, snake, and hawk. What a privilege to call this rich environment home. What a relief to be above the dangerous lake community food chain! I imagine that few among my human neighbors pay much attention to life on the lake for other than themselves. I am fortunate to be able and adept at seeing far more than the houses and lawns that ring the lake. I have dedicated myself first to looking, and most importantly to seeing and feeling the magic, beauty, wonder, and awe that Nature affords and provides.

Amazing, too, is how much change I see over those two elapsed months. Our landscape plants have flourished. Subtle and somewhat invisible when viewed day after consecutive day, changes over the extended period of heat, moisture, and long days shout at me. Our loblolly pine, just four feet at planting, now stands close to seven feet. Our back-bed willow oak is very noticeably of larger girth. The list is long, evidencing Nature’s dynamism. Sometimes, only by stepping away for a bit, can we see change and progress. Nature teaches the lesson day in and day out.

Monday morning, Big Blue did not greet us from his fishing grounds in the neck. Instead, after our breakfast and my trip to the gym, we sat in the sun room reading. I glanced out the window over Judy’s shoulder. There stood Big Blue rooftop, a couple hundred yards to the south. He stood tall and regal. I gasped, grabbed my phone camera, and snapped the shutter just before he took flight. Not much resolution, yet the photo captures the moment, puzzling as it is. Why would this wading hunter land atop our neighbor’s roof? Perhaps to occupy my field of vision, to signal, “Here I am; welcome back.”

After I depart this coming Saturday for Fairmont, I may not return until the Christmas holiday. What changes by then? The average daily high will drop from 91 to 53; the low from 69 to 34. Average precipitation would see 16 inches fall now to mid-December. Leaves will go from green to fallen. Now-dry, standing corn at eight feet will be combined. The cotton, now in flower, will have fruited, opened to lovely balls of filament, and been harvested. The night will last three hours and three minutes longer. Our flower bed annuals will have succumbed to first frosts and then deep freezes. We won’t need the covered patio ceiling fan to cool us morning or evening — instead, even on mild days we’ll don sweat shirts. All that, and yet day to day will bring only barely discernible change. As in all of life and business, shifts occur that only seasonally and across the sweep of time reveal patterns and depth.

As I’ve repeated time and time again, only when we consciously and purposely look, do we see. And only when we focus our vision, do we see deeply enough to evoke the feelings that stir our passion to act. Such is the secret sauce of Nature-inspired living, learning, serving, and leading. The sauce is an elixir for me. Nature fuels my life. Just today (August 21, 2017) the Great American Eclipse raced across the US from Oregon to South Carolina at 1,850 miles per hour.

Judy, Jack, and I watched the eclipse reach 98 percent here in Madison, AL at ~1:30. We viewed it through the special glasses we wore. We also watched live video and highlights on The Weather Channel. I admit to somewhat regretting that I did not head north the two-and-one-half hours (on normal traffic days) to experience totality. I rationalized that the return home could very well have taken twice as long. Even at 98 percent, I felt the magic. We reached near-dusk. The temperature dropped ten degrees. I was struck by how many of the Weather Channel meteorologists along the route reached tear-filled levels of emotion.

I felt it, too, even outside the zone of totality. So many of Nature’s wonders bring me to and beyond misty-eyes. The path of total darkness did not leave telltale signs in its wake. The Earth does not bear a scar. No vestige of its passing marks the land or vegetation. Yet, like so many events and happenings, the solar eclipse left its mark on the hearts and souls it touched. Many of the eyewitnesses interviewed said that the image and impact will live with them forever. My own threshold for “living with me forever” is one that I cross almost daily. I am grateful that my heart, soul, and spirit are so accessible. That I can feel Nature’s power and wisdom without waiting for years, decades, and longer (as in the case of a total solar eclipse), to feel the magic and wonder.

Are you feeling the magic and vitality of living, learning, serving, and leading in your life and work? Great Blue Heron can help you discover Nature’s elixir. Contact me to learn how we can find the magic within you, and bring it to the surface.


Featured Image: Big Blue found a perch atop our neighbor’s roof. He stood there for a few minutes, stork-like!


Karen Jacobs Cook’s GBH Photo

The younger of my Mom’s two brothers had two daughters, Karen Sue and Debbie. Karen is a year older than I. Life took all of us in different directions. Decades had passed since we last communicated. Early this past spring, Karen and I found each other on LinkedIn. I had no clue that Karen had discovered photography, particularly nature and wildlife. Her company: “My Shot Photographs, LLC” in Daytona Beach, Florida. Her work: stunning! She had no idea that life had led me to higher education leadership and Great Blue Heron, LLC. We delighted in our independent alignment — a correspondence; a divine providence in the view of Emanuel Swedenborg. Karen kindly sent me her exquisite “Elegant Flight,” a great blue heron flying gracefully along a Florida waterway.


I just retrieved the photo from the local frame shop, hanging it prominently on my Fairmont State University president’s office wall. Elegant Flight will accompany me back to Alabama after my Interim Presidency, where he will reside in my GBH, LLC office. I have always preferred paintings that look like photos, and photos that seem to be paintings. Elegant Flight fools people — they think it’s a painting!

Life is an amazing journey, much like the many trails I have hiked, run, or cycled over the decades. Each twist and turn offers new vistas, experiences, and lessons. As Robert Frost so beautifully penned, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” Way did lead on to way for cousin Karen Sue and me, and rather than diverge in a yellow wood, our roads converged in a great blue heron’s magnificent flight.

Had we not been alert to the world around us, we might never had made our re-connection nor discovered the alignment of interests and pursuits. It’s uncanny that our paths crossed via a great blue heron, my deceased Dad’s totem. Perhaps Dad played some role in guiding our paths to this point of convergence. Judy and I are eager to reunite with Karen Sue and Gary!

Drop me a note if you care to see Karen’s inventory of photos. I will pass along your contact information.

Big Blue’s First Quarter 2017

Observing nature clears my head and allows me to glean lessons for harnessing Nature’s wisdom and inspiration. Nature informs and inspires my consulting, stimulates my writing, and furnishes endless vignettes and anecdotes for motivational speaking.

We moved permanently into our new home in Madison, AL end of June 2016. Christmas 2016, our then 8-year-old grandson Jack gave me a Bird Watching and Other Nature Observations Journal. I immediately dubbed it my journal of Observations from Big Blue Lake, named after our resident great blue heron. I began journaling January 1, focusing on Big Blue’s comings and goings, yet not limited to him.

Drafting the 13 essays in Nature Based Leadership, my first book, I discovered that writing requires far deeper thinking than talking. In fact, and I’ve occasionally been guilty myself, I’ve had some verbal interactions when it soon became obvious that one of us was barely engaging the mind! Writing is far more demanding. Journaling requires a lot — I hand-write mine, which means the more concise and clear I can be, the fewer words I must record.

Today I re-read journal entries through March 31. Wow, a quick and cogent reminder that life can be pretty exciting on a four-acre lake in northern Alabama! Of course, Big Blue head-lined the quarter. See the photo of him fishing at our willow clump. We saw him 26 of January’s 31 days, including the final 12 consecutive days. January 2, 26, and 28 he stayed near our shore most of the day. Over the month we witnessed four successful fish catches. On the 17th and 21st two great blues appeared at one time, reminding me that we cannot be certain that Big Blue is a single bird we see repeatedly. Our resident may be more than one.

February we spotted him (I’ll stick with the image of a single resident) 19 days, and saw him make two unsuccessful plunges for prey. February 24 we once again saw two herons at once. March brought 19 observations during the 28 days we were home. We saw no doubles. We witnessed a single fish catch, along with a spectacular empty dive from shore!

February 2, two hooded mergansers appeared — and stayed with us every day through March 21. I did not see them March 22, or any day after. When in residence, they floated, paddled, and dived continuously across the lake. some days we saw two and three pairs of male and female. One day seven toured the lake. I suppose with the equinox they departed for points north.

I’ve noted often that autumn here in the South slowly, blessedly, deliciously transitions to spring. Winter comes only as a day or two here and there. We reached a low of six degrees just once. Ice covered two-thirds of the lake two mornings. March 12 looked a little like winter with a coating of snow. Just 15 days later a spring evening thunderstorm set the stage for a glorious double rainbow!

Our resident Canada geese began getting aggressively territorial by mid-March, with what I assumed to be the males of two pairs chasing away all other intruders. By late-March bullfrogs were bellowing and red winged blackbird males posting, posturing, and singing loudly.

All of Nature ebbs and flows with the seasons. I will enjoy beginning anew next January. I want to learn the rhythms. Our lives and enterprises likewise follow seasonal shifts, cycles, and patterns. We can anticipate, respond, and adapt only when we take time to learn the patterns. Great Blue Heron strives to help clients look (really look) to actually see, understand, and anticipate the trends affecting them. We urge those we touch to look and see deeply enough to generate feelings. Day-to-day and in aggregate, the rhythms and patterns reveal themselves, and inform our decisions. The feelings spur us to action — actions that enrich and lift the individual and the enterprise.

Great Blue Heron specializes in Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration.


Big Blue Has Adopted Us!

Big Blue, the great blue heron that is resident to our small lake here in northern Alabama, is spending more and more time with us. Our home sits 50 feet above water level on the north shore. Our shore-line vegetation includes three willow clumps, which I have lopped to eight feet — that’s as far as I can reach. Big Blue is spending hours a day (six, three, and ten hours, respectively, these past three days) standing in the near-shore water at the largest of the three willow clumps. This one is about ten feet across. Why there?

A cold front swept through last evening. Cold is relative — what is cold in north Alabama is down-right warm compared to January in Fairbanks, AK, where we lived 2004-08. Today never made it to 50 degrees with a brisk northwesterly wind. So again, why is he adopting this particular spot? The willow clump cut the breeze hitting Big Blue as he basked in the bright sunshine warmly bathing his southern exposure. The willow also prevented any land-dwelling predator from rushing him. Another reason he prefers our end of the lake is that we and our near-neighbors have no dogs. Well, our neighbor to the east does have what I refer to as a diminutive pretend dog. Some large dogs live on the south end, quite noisy when out. I would guess very threatening even though fenced. And finally, I imagine from his fish prey’s perspective, the willow behind him masks his image. So, all in all, a great place to spend the day.

I revel in seeing him comfortable near our home. I can only hope that this is more than a passing fancy.

As I contemplate future Big Blue Blogs, I list several topics for exploration. First, can I be sure there is just this one Big Blue, and not a series of great blue herons I cannot distinguish one from another? We’re trying to catalog sightings with photos. I refer to Big Blue in the masculine — how can I be sure? I call this four-acre body of water a lake — I will delve into the difference between a lake and a pond. Other ideas will come to me.

A Banner Big Blue Day

Judy and I walked pre-dawn this morning. We often see Big Blue standing knee-deep at the neck that reaches north to near the road just east of our home. Illuminated by the street lamp, he stood there once more. I suppose we appeared too suddenly — he spooked to the south, quickly disappearing into the darkness.

Ninety minutes later post-breakfast, we went out to the patio with coffee mugs in-hand. Big Blue stood on the near-east shore, likely seeking his own breakfast. We watched him for thirty minutes, including a lake-exit and stroll up the grassy slope. We all three heard thunder rumbling to the south and southwest, inexorably approaching. Radar depicted a meso-scale convective complex lifting to the ENE, fueled by an upper disturbance and loaded with Gulf moisture. Big Blue took flight and headed to the second pond as the rain became steadier.

We also watched a kingfisher alternate between two perches, rattling occasionally and constantly making forays into the water. More than a dozen geese also entertained us, chatting and bugling constantly, making a great deal of noise and creating quite a disturbance on the water. A sharp bolt of lightning sent Judy inside. Shortly thereafter, another great blue heron appeared in the SE, bee-lining it at 100 feet altitude above the lake and rooftops toward the WNW. By then the rain intensified, thunder pounded, and a fresh breeze brought sheets of rain under the patio roof. Even I sought shelter indoors.

We returned home from our daughter’s at sunset. Big Blue awaited us at the base of our lot, standing at a small willow clump. He was as close as he could be. He spooked as I walked onto the patio, once more flying just above the water’s surface to the second pond. Twenty minutes later, at deep dusk, he came back, landing on the near-east shore. We could see him only another five minutes before darkness obscured him.

A banner Big Blue day. Four sightings of our resident Big Blue and a fly-over by another. Add in the Canada geese and the kingfisher, as well as mallards, mourning doves, crows, killdeer, red-wing blackbirds, and house finches, and it was just a great day.

Steve’s Big Blue Blog

My Great Blue Heron web site went live earlier this week. I am testing the posting function.

The great blue heron for me is both totem and talisman, a palpable spiritual connection to my deceased father. Dad inspired my love of Nature and propelled me into my lifelong passion for applying Nature’s Wisdom to living, learning, serving, and leading.

We live on a small lake in northern Alabama’s Tennessee River Valley. We have a resident great blue heron: Big Blue. So far we have seen him 14 of 2017’s first 19 days.

Please view this posting as my brief introduction to Steve’s Big Blue Blog.

Warm regards,