Seduced by the Forest

“Hello?” I called out.

No answer.

It was laughable. Of course there was no answer. It was a cold, overcast morning and anyone looking for sights in the park would go to the waterfall, not bushwhack into the “Old Growth” grove where there were no trails. It began to rain. And I was lost.

Cue swearing. Cue self accusations of foolishness. Cue disbelief. Was I really lost? I was really lost.


Despite the fact I was bushwhacking, I thought I was being sensible. After parking at the “Old Growth” kiosk, I descended into the basin and made of point of walking a short distance then turning and retreating to a mental marker before going forward again. I took my time, listened to the stillness, the birds, wondered if I stayed put long enough one would alight nearby. Down a slope, through a stand of pine trees, across a creek, up another slope. Mounds and pits undulated over the forest floor – showing where a tree once fell over, uprooted the soil, and the log has long since rotted away. Old trees here and there, saplings trying to grow up.

Soon I began to doubt I would remember all these markers, so I retraced my steps back to a log near the stand of pine trees and used that as a base to explore different directions. I recognized some oaks and maples, not huge around, 4-5 feet, but laden with moss and showing magnificent buttressed roots. They had clearly been there awhile and had an undeniable presence.

My step was soft – onto accumulated leaves, pine needles, tufts of moss. Trees died in place or fell over and lay there to contribute to the growth of the forest. I edged and climbed and roamed through, looking for old trees, for what the forest had to offer. There was no sign of any human interference. I was inside a wildness the likes of which I had rarely seen. For all I could tell, I was the first person to ever visit this undisturbed forest.

After two hours I decided it was time to head out again. But as I left the grove of pine trees, a large, fallen pine tree caught my eye. It didn’t uproot itself, instead it snapped at the base. Then I saw several more falls in the area, aglow in moss, as if they had been blown over in a storm. It was a tree cemetery. And all of them were much larger than the trees I’d seen so far. Six or eight feet around. I climbed over a log and decided to follow the creek to see what other large trees lurked nearby. There were many, and every time I walked up to one, I would see another a short distance away that beckoned me to visit.

I veered away from the creek, thinking that I was doubling back to the fallen trees that first caught my eye. Instead, I was going deeper into the forest. There were so many fallen trees around it was hopeless to think I could find anything familiar. There was nothing familiar. I couldn’t even find the creek again.

I paced around. I stopped pacing around.

I was lost.



“Hello??” I called again, uselessly. 

It was noon and I pulled my hood on for some protection from the rain. I decided to have lunch and see if I could figure out how to unlost myself.

The map I got from the ranger (“There’s no trails in there,” she said, as if in warning, when I asked about the location of the old growth.) showed I was in an elliptical basin that was three miles long and two miles wide. If I could go straight any direction, I would eventually climb out of the basin and hit the road. I did have a compass, because I was hiking, and had watched a Youtube video to remind myself how to use it. I could do this. I had to do this.

Though I’d been in the forest for two hours, I hadn’t hiked very far. According to the map, due west was the shortest route to a road – the road I parked on. I turned the dial on the compass, faced west, and set off. 

I passed many formidable trees but barely slowed to look at them. This was not a time for tree appreciation, old or not. I focused instead on the compass needle and traveling due west. Actually, I stared at the compass needle as if my life depended on it, as if it was my guide star. Before long, I began ascending a slope, and after about twenty minutes, I saw the road. The forest that drew me in let me go again.

I came out about half a mile north of where I parked, and walked light-footed to my car, crazy-happy to have had such excellent use of a compass.

It was an auspicious start to my tour of exploring old growth forests. I made some notes in my journal, drove down the road to a stone bridge over a creek – a place recommended by my guide book, and probably the same creek I began to follow deep into the woods – parked, and went back in to again be part of the forest primeval.

(A version of this also appears in my monthly newsletter. See the latest issue here. )

Black Holes in the Time of Coronavirus

My newest essay, about black holes, poetry, the pandemic and grief, was published by The Smart Set a week ago. It begins:


Black holes are prisons of light. They are both metaphor and physical entity, mute commentary on what is known, unknown and unknowable. Well-studied but poorly understood, like a virus.

What happens gravitationally if you squeeze the mass of an object to a point? This was Karl Schwarzschild’s question while stationed at the Russian front of the First World War. You get a point of no volume and infinite density – a singularity. It would be surrounded by a region where nothing, not even light, could escape. This boundary became known as the event horizon, because no event within the boundary could be observed from outside.

If there was a boundary around Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, it was porous. Before the city was locked down on January 23, near the beginning of the 16-day Chinese New Year celebrations, the mayor estimated that five million people left. By the time I start tracking it in the beginning of March, red dots appear like sparks all over the globe. One by one the sparks become fires, new hotspots. The virus was on my periphery till then – something that barely registered in my universe.

Schwarzschild sent his solution in a letter to Einstein in 1916: “As you can see, the war treated me kindly enough in spite of the heavy gunfire, to allow me to get away from it all, and take this walk in your land of ideas.”


Early in the semester, before ever hearing of Wuhan, I told my astronomy class that when Cambridge University closed due to an outbreak of the plague in 1665, Isaac Newton went home to Lincolnshire and over the next eighteen months developed his theories of calculus, optics and gravitation. Or so he recalled later in life. The Annus Mirabilis – Miracle Year – though historians argue that the work was spread over half a decade. I joked that if they invented a branch of mathematics to solve their homework, I would give them an A.

My university shifts to online classes in the middle of March, and the nebulous threat crystallizes into reality. Walking home after the announcement, I feel an unease, like waiting for an ill wind to pass through – the sort of miasma that Londoners thought was responsible for the plague of 1665 – and only when it is gone will we know who it has claimed and who it has left behind. The virus has already infected people in 122 countries.

Einstein’s first test of his theory was the precession of the orbit of Mercury, a two-hundred year old anomaly of Newton’s laws. So close to the sun, Mercury doesn’t skate over the same ellipse every orbit like the other planets, but spirals around instead because of how the sun curves spacetime. It will complete a rosette pattern, with 12 million overlapping lobes, in three million years. Einstein wrote a friend about his delight at getting the right answer: “I was beside myself with joy and happiness for days.”

Curved spacetime: was there ever a more elegant idea?

Einstein to another friend in 1915: “The theory is beautiful beyond comparison.”

Read the rest of the essay at The Smart Set

New Species in 2020

Despite the pandemic, new species were discovered in a variety of ecosystems, from the forest floor, to its branches to high in its canopy, as well as at the bottom of the ocean. Here are some of our favorites.

Image by Thaung Win

A beautiful new monkey, the Popa langur, was discovered in Myanmar. Named after the mountain on which it is found, it has white rings around black eyes and gray fur, and is already classed as critically endangered because only 200-260 individuals are known in the wild.

Image by Dominik Schüßler

Another primate, Jonah’s mouse lemur, was discovered in Madagascar. Only as large as a human fist, the mouse lemur has characteristic large eyes and a pointed snout. More than 100 lemur species are now known and almost all are endangered because of increasing deforestation in Madagascar, the last place where they have survived.

Bulbophyllum dologlossum, not yet in bloom. Image by T.M. Reeve.

Nineteen new species of tree-dwelling orchids were discovered on the island of New Guinea, known to have the most plant species of any island, though many are yet to be discovered. Among the new species, three are known for their beautiful flowers.

Gastrodia agnicellus © Rick Burian

 Not to be outdone, Madagascar revealed the “world’s ugliest orchid,” which produces small, brown, and, shall we say, hideous flowers.

Though one of Australia’s favorite marsupials, greater gliders, have long been known, last year the one species was discovered to be three. Scientists have suspected that morphological differences between gliders might indicate there are more than one species, and DNA evidence finally confirmed it. These possum-like mammals live high in the tree canopy, feed on eucalyptus leaves and glide from tree to tree, sometimes staying airborne for over three hundred feet.

Lilliputian frog, much magnified from its size of 10 mm long. Image by Trond Larsen.

One of the smallest amphibians in the world was discovered in the Bolivian Andes. Known as the Lilliputian frog, it is only ten millimeters long and hard to see because of its camouflage-brown color.

Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

A giant hydroid – related to corals, anemones and sea fans – was seen for the first time on the bottom of the ocean, 2500 meters below the surface, in Australia. It has a single polyp that radiates like a sunflower or dandelion from a one meter long stem attached to the sandy bottom.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

The same submersible that discovered the giant hydroid also discovered a giant siphonophore that is 150 feet long. Siphonophores are floating colonies of tiny creatures known as zooids that clone themselves and string together to work as a team. This one is now the longest animal known.

Stills from CBC film

In recent years, Neville Winchester of the University of Victoria has discovered twenty new species of flies, mites and beetles hiding in moss mats high in the canopy of old growth trees on Vancouver Island. They are part of a unique ecosystem suspended more than 150 feet above the ground.  

Yea biodiversity! Especially for a year when everything was shut down for so long. See below for sources and film clips (recommended!)


Popa langur, Jonah’s mouse lemur, New Guinea orchids, Lilliputian frog: Mongabay

Ugly orchids: Royal Botanical Gardens Kew

Greater Gliders: Green Matters

Giant hydroid, Giant siphonophore: New Atlas (a film clip on the same page gives some stunning highlights of the submersible’s mission to the serene depths of the ocean, also found here).

Flies, mites and beetles: CBC (the three-minute film presents amazing views of this lofty old growth ecosystem)

Chasing the New Moon

Last week was a good week for moon viewing. When I turned out my reading lamp on Monday night (Dec 28), oblongs of moonlight appeared on my floor, thanks to my skylights. This happens from time to time, and when it does, I’m always surprised. I floated from room to room in search of the glow. Moonlight on my bookshelves. On my desk. In the shower. On my nightstand. Finally, I returned to my chair and sat again in the moonlight, radiant.

I was delighted to see the moonlight coming in through my skylights on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights as well. It was a nice coda to the end of the year.


While the full moon gets all the attention from moon viewers, the new crescent moon is also something to behold.

On December 15th, at sunset, I went out to look for the new moon. It was new the day before and so I would have a chance of seeing it when it was a little older than one day. Classes were over and I had just returned from biking around town running errands for the previous two hours, and, really, I would have preferred to make a cup of tea, sit in my comfy chair and battle with a Sudoku or read one of my unread magazines. But I went to my back door and had a look – mostly clear, with some thin cloud on the horizon. I had a reasonable chance of actually finding the young moon. I put my shoes back on, found my binoculars and bundled up.

(A version of this article appeared in my monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to here:

I didn’t have much time. It was ten minutes after four, the sun was setting, and the moon would set one hour later. It was too low to be seen from my deck, so I walked the three blocks to the park at the top of the hill behind my place. The park features an old 70-foot water tower that’s now a historical marker, and when I got there I sought the north-western corner for its view of the horizon. As I scanned the western sky, I realized I had to shuffle a few feet over because there was no way I could pick the faint moon out of the branches of the trees on the slope of the hill.

I guessed the moon would be at least ten degrees away from the sun and panned back and forth low on the horizon. The sky was still quite bright and I couldn’t tell how thick the clouds were, nor could I tell if my binoculars were in focus because there was nothing in the sky to focus on. Maybe I would be clouded out? It wouldn’t have surprised me given how many cloudy nights we had had for previous new moons over the fall. Before long, Jupiter and Saturn would be visible, careening toward their conjunction on Dec. 21, so all would not be lost.

The moon was also careening toward the horizon, but it would be brightening as it did so – I still had a chance. Already I had been looking for twenty minutes and in another half hour the moon would set. I panned back and forth, up and down. Then: a whisper of light in the clouds. An ever-so-slight white curve. A slice of pure geometry. The thinnest celestial sickle you’ve ever seen. It was barely there, yet there it was, the crescent moon. I couldn’t see it naked eye, but it was a jewel in the binoculars. Not even twenty-nine and a half hours old.

Success! I could scarcely believe how thin it was, such a delicate curve.

It was sinking fast in the skiff of orange-pink clouds and I tried to hold my binoculars still enough to take a photo through them. But I had nothing to steady the binoculars on, and the icy wind bit my hands. On the one instant when I successfully lined up the phone camera with the eyepiece, my fingers were too cold to press the button and I missed my chance. After trying a couple more times, I realized I should instead be admiring that thinnest slice of moon. So that’s what I did for the last five minutes before the slivered moon slipped deeper into the clouds and finally disappeared.

That was the youngest moon I’ve ever seen. Higher in the sky, Jupiter and Saturn came out, each with their dozens of moons. I’ve always been glad we at least have the one. I looked at the two giant planets – only a few degrees apart – as a sort of exclamation point before putting my binoculars away and heading back home.

Newsletter Index for 2020

I managed to produce twelve issues of my newsletter, DH News Presents: each month a grab bag of writings about nature, conservation, science and wonder, with a good dose of humor thrown in.

Headlines for each of the twelve issues follow below, as well as the revolving DH title. The entire archive can be found here. If you’re not yet a subscriber I’d love to have you on the list (at that link or here).

1. The Drafty House: After the Forest, Deforestation Worsening, Word of the Day, Where the River Begins, Mary Oliver: 1935 – 2019, Clarification, Meme of the Day, Gleanings, Fermat’s Last Poem, Website News

2. The Dancing Hand: Calendar of Events, Did You Know, Today’s Image, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, Homero Gomez Gonzalez, There’s a Word for That, Whale Migration, Whales in the News, Have You Ever, Good Fortune

3. The Dreaming Heron: Image of the Day, Upcoming Events, Walking With Trees, Rhino Poaching in South Africa, Stopping in the Woods, Quote of the Day, My Orchid, Nature’s Best Hope

4. The Dented Halo: Upcoming Events, My Orchid II, Nativeplantfinder, The 16th of September, A Strange Thing, The Bird of the Mind, Diary of a Russian Cosmonaut, Meme of the Day

5. The Dapper Herd: Upcoming Events, Called to Look Outside at the Beautiful Night Sky I Stared Up at the Crescent Moon and Venus in Silence Then Texted My Siblings to Look and They Did From So Far Away, An Update on Comet Atlas, Quote of the Day I, A Walk Around Ponkapoag Pond as an Homage to Some Long Titles Found in Ancient Chinese Poems, Long Titles, Homegrown National Park, Long Titles II, Quote of the Day II

6. The Damned Hero: Announcements, Mercury!, What Snails Talk About When They Get Together, Today’s Image, Bird Feeding: Astounding Numbers, Coronavirus Questions, The River Santa, The Greatest Day, Brief Poem of the Day

7. The Dark Hotel: Dedication, Sightings, A Brief Record of My 4-Day Stay in the Berkshires, Today’s Image, An Evening Walk in the Berkshires, A Moment of Sadness, What To Do If You Get Cornered at a Cocktail Party By a String Theorist, Meme of the Day

8. The Divine Hellos: Announcements, Sightings, Moonviewing from the White Road at Lake Champlain, My Orchid III, Possible Reasons I Like Ferns So Much, The Nights of the Comet, A Line I Wish I Wrote, Another Universe

9. The Droll Harbor: Announcements, Sightings, Kayaking the Charles River, And Then There’s This Lovely Story, Answers to Neruda’s Questions, Neruda Question Contest, From the Cutting Room Floor, Looking for Old Trees

10. The Dubious Hat: Announcements, Sightings, The Highs and Lows of Gardening, Life on Venus? Life on Mars? Do Loons Call Only at Night?, Word of the Day, Looking for Old Trees II

11. The Daily Howl:  Announcements, Sightings/Soundings, A Japanese Garden in Vermont, October Hammock, The Tree on My Block, Letter to an Old Friend, A Love Letter, Life on Venus II, Life on Zoom,  Halloween 2020’s Scariest Costumes, My Orchid IV

12. The Deluxe Hug: Announcements, Sightings, DH News 2020, My Orchid V, 2020: Making the Best of a Bad Situation, The 12 Days of COVID Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Havana, 2004

Looking for Old Trees

Here’s a segment from my essay “A Week in the Wild at Medawisla” from the Winter/Spring 2020 issue of Appalachia journal that never made it into the published version:

Sometimes the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. All week I had been looking at the forests and wondering about them. From the ponds, they were an impressive, unbroken, roiling ocean of green, but when I walked through the trees and saw their small and medium size, I was sorry they weren’t more impressive. A book I picked up in Medawisla’s lounge, “Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England” by Tom Wessels discussed the history of logging and I was struck by the loss of the white pine. White pine, now on their second or third growth in the area, used to be the giants of the East Coast, towering 150-feet or more above the ground. A grove of white pine, let alone a single tree, would be an awe-inspiring site. I couldn’t imagine it.

And then I saw one.

Late on a humid afternoon in Boston, I decided to drive to Walden Pond for a swim. Afterwards, I was in an exploratory mood, so on my way into Concord, I decided to visit the Hapgood Wright Town Forest. I had been by it many times, but never stopped to visit. To my surprise, a map of the forest had an “x” for a site labeled “Old Growth Pine.” A brochure said it was 50 inches in diameter and would have been a good size even in Thoreau and Emerson’s time. It was only about a 15 minute walk away. I had to see it.

The trail went around a small pond and alongside a swamp, where it narrowed and a few planks assisted with the muddy sections. I first glimpsed the trunk from about thirty feet away – so much thicker than any of its neighbors. When I arrived, I looked around in disbelief – there was nothing even close to this one in size. This was it alright. It had its own audience of ferns. I walked up to the tree and felt its coarse bark. And when I looked up the trunk, I nearly wept at the beauty. Branches splayed out in the crown and through them I could barely see the light fading from the sky. Even fifty feet up, the trunk, now split in two, remained elephantine. It was a universe unto itself. Had I waited a little longer, stars would have hung and shone in its branches.

I circled around it, looked up and down. And when it came time to leave, I couldn’t. And when I left, I came back to stand again in its presence. But the mosquitoes were hungry and darkness began to fall so I tore myself away. Not before vowing to return in the daytime, and fall and winter and every time I was nearby. Just to visit this wise old master of the Earth.

I thought of how long it took to grow an old forest; and I hoped that a century or two in the future, a paddler on one of the secluded Roach Ponds, would find a grove of old white pines and walk among and around them, and be impressed with a people who thought it important to conserve large tracts of forest for now and the future.

The Tree on My Block

For many years, a beautiful maple tree lived on my block. And like maples anywhere, fall was its time to shine. For about six weeks, it put on a show with its leaves turning red at the top, and then that red would cascade down. Then the leaves at the top would turn yellow, and the yellow would cascade down. Finally, it would lose its leaves at the top and then lose them branch by branch until it was bare.

The maple tree on my block, a few weeks into its turning, with a hickory tree in front

A few years ago I tried to capture the event in photos. Though I got a number of good pictures, I realized when I tried to put them into a sequence that I wasn’t consistent enough in how I took them – they were taken at random times from a few different places. I resolved to be more rigorous the next year and take the photos from the same place, at the same time of day.

But I never got the chance.

One day in September I turned the corner onto my block and saw all the leaves of the tree had turned yellow. The next day the leaves were on the ground. It was a sudden death if ever there was one. It was like fall itself was cancelled and there would be no colors coming to my block. I didn’t know at the time that the tree had been poisoned, and after lamenting the loss of color on my block, I waited anxiously through the winter for the tree to bud again.

I walked by the tree every day in the winter and wondered about it. And I cast those thoughts into words, and then combined them with the images I had to make a series of films. Each film is two to four minutes long and captures a different aspect of my vigil. To be honest, they are among the creations I’m most proud of – I watch them from time to time and I’m still moved by them. They remind me of how much I loved that tree.

The films are all on my Vimeo page, which for some reason has become difficult to navigate. You can find them all in one place here, or I’ve put the titles with links below in the sequence that I made the films:

Visiting the Ediacaran Fossils at Mistaken Point

It’s not everyday you get to visit 565 million year old fossils.

But on the edge of the Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, which feels like the edge of the known world, you can visit some of Earth’s oldest fossils of complex life. They’re old enough to predate the Cambrian period, and now belong to their own geological period: the Ediacaran.

But what are they? Are they connected to the animals of the Cambrian period and the rest of the Tree of Life? Or were they an experiment that flourished for millions of years before fading away?

Those questions were on my mind as I visited Mistaken Point, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can read about my adventures in the fall issue of Hidden Compass.

Below are a few photos of my visit.

The fossil bed in the foreground, on the craggy coastline
The bizarre Ediacaran fossils
The fossils were once covered in volcanic ash
One of the hundreds of “rangeomorphs” that are visible
Like a kid in a candy shop…

Read my essay, The Medusa of Time, at Hidden Compass.

Los Cedros and the Rights of Nature

From my article in The Revelator:

Should nature have rights? That question is being put to the test right now in Ecuador.

The critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, a resident of Los Cedros

In 2008 the South American country made history when its new constitution declared that nature had “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” It was an unprecedented commitment, the first of its kind, to preserving biodiversity for future generations of Ecuadorians.

The constitutional change did not automatically protect nature, but it gave citizens  what the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature describes as “the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.”

The country could soon make history again when its Constitutional Court hears a case that seeks to apply these rights of nature to a protected forest, known as Bosque Protector Reserva Los Cedros, against large-scale copper and gold mining.

The threat stems from a 2017 change in government policy that allowed mining concessions on 6 million acres of lands, including at least 68% of Los Cedros — part of a hasty attempt to boost the mining sector and compensate for declining oil revenues. Experts say that policy appears to be unconstitutional, which has led to the present showdown.

“Mining in protected forests is a violation of Articles 57, 71 and 398 of the constitution: the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, the Rights of Nature, and the right of communities to prior consultation before environmental changes, respectively,” says ecologist Bitty Roy of the University of Oregon, who has conducted research at Los Cedros since 2008.

A Vital Reserve

Los Cedros is a remote, pristine, 17,000-acre cloud forest in northwest Ecuador and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Conservation biologist Mika Peck, of the University of Sussex, describes Los Cedros as “a biodiversity hotspot within a hotspot — and of global importance in terms of conserving our natural history.”

He adds, “the reserve and all it maintains is priceless.”

The case is to be heard next week, October 19.

See the rest of my article at The Revelator

The Highs and Lows of Gardening

My deck gets twenty-five hours of sunlight a day in the summer so because covid cancelled my spring trips, I decided to make use of a bunch of long planting containers that my neighbor put out on the street for trash and start a garden.

Gardening is easy. All you have to do is buy the seedlings, get the mulch, replant the seedlings in the mulch, water the newly planted seedlings, expose them to the sun, move them into the shade when they wilt, or water them again, or move them back into the sun, or feed them nitrogen, check on them an hour later to see if they have stopped wilting, shoo the squirrels away, put your finger up to test the wind, water them again, turn around three times, check on them again, and hope for the best. It’s a bit like having a pet that eats sunlight and drinks all day but doesn’t need to go out to pee or poop.

Apparently there’s some mysterious operation related to not letting things go to seed too.

I planted a bunch of herbs: mint, basil, cilantro and tarragon. The cilantro was a non-starter and the tarragon was a disappointment, but I now have abundant mint and basil, which I’ve been putting to good if not abundant use in rum and cokes and stir fries.

I put in two kinds of lettuce: butter and romaine, and because of the mystery about not letting things go to seed, they both grew tall stalks, rather than spreading out in the container like I thought they might. I have harvested a few leaves for a few sandwiches, but not so many as to compel me to do handsprings down the street. Given how tall they’ve grown, I hoped for more.

And I put in zucchini, as well as two kinds of squash: Butter Baby and Cupcake, which have both been growing big leaves and sprouting flowers all summer. For some reason, the Cupcake floundered at the beginning of September, perhaps while I was away being inattentive for the long weekend.

But then, a miracle: on September 9 at noon, I checked under the leaves of the Butter Baby plant and there before my eyes was a beautiful, plump, not-yet-ripe phenomenon of nature: a three-inch long baby squash.

The Pride of My Garden

Oh pride, oh joy, oh happiness. I grew a vegetable!

I paced around my deck the way I did when I got a piece of writing accepted. What a thing to happen! An actual vegetable, from the actual ground (or, in my case, ground-like conditions). I took a photo and The Boston Globe ran it with the headline: “Area Man Grows First Vegetable.” Local news rang me for interviews. My mother called me a farmer.

It was stupefying in its wonder.

And all too short-lived.

Two days later, with the phone still ringing off the hook for media interviews, I went out to marvel at my vegetable, but, alas, it was gone.


My one and only vegetable. The pride of my garden. The joy of my deck. Disappeared. Vanished. Gone.

No Butter Baby flambé. No Butter Baby fried with butter and fresh basil. No squash a la mode.

I suspect a squirrel – I have seen one digging in the mulch and he has practically admitted his misdeed when his eyes told me “I’ll be back” – and only wish I could have seen the little thief carrying away my prize.

No, maybe I didn’t actually want to see that. What I wanted was to admire my squash, to water it, fuss over it, watch it ripen. And finally to cook and eat it. With butter and fresh basil.

I’m not mad. Really. A lesson in nature being nature. I get it. But if anyone has any squirrel recipes I’ll soon need one. With basil.

Homegrown National Park

In “Nature’s Best Hope,” entomologist and author, Doug Tallamy brings one of conservation’s best new ideas alive: to connect isolated land reserves via biological or wildlife corridors. And it’s something we can all practice in our front and back yards.

Through much of the 20th century, the dominant idea in conservation was to protect land for its inherent beauty as well as for animals. Despite that, animal populations have continued to dwindle because the protected land is too small and too isolated. The reserves need to be connected so that animals can roam freely, particularly because one of the effects of climate change is to force animals to move from their preferred habitat.

This is the idea behind the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, or Y2Y, a protective corridor that will ensure animals can travel freely over its length of 3200 kilometers (2000 miles). In the early 1990’s radio-collar data showed that over two years a wolf roamed over an area ten times the size of Yellowstone and fifteen times the size of Banff National Park. Other animals like lynx, cougars and golden eagles were also found to travel distances as great as 1600 kilometers (1000 miles). Much of that roaming would be outside protected areas.

While most of us will not be safeguarding habitat for wolves and cougars in our yards, we can provide habitat for insects, birds and other small animals. All we have to do is plant native plants.

Plants are the foundation of all food webs, but as Tallamy points out, our gardens tend to emphasize ornamental plants that originated in other ecosystems and are often ignored by local bees, butterflies and birds. So while they look pretty, they are ecologically sterile and don’t contribute to local food webs.

The reason they don’t contribute to local food webs is because plants generate toxins to avoid being eaten. But over millions of years, insects like caterpillars – primary food for birds – have developed ways to circumvent plant defenses and make a meal. Because each plant has its own defenses, each insect restricts its diet to one or just a few lineages.

For example, monarch butterflies have restricted their diet to just a single plant: milkweed. When milkweed declined thanks to the ramped up use of the weedkiller, Roundup, or glyphosate, monarch populations plummeted.

So by restricting our gardens to a handful of exotic ornamentals that local insects have no relationship with, insect populations will continue to decline. Yet insects are how plant energy is transmitted elsewhere in food webs, so this is a decline we can and must reverse.

Further, in the US, turfgrass has replaced native plant communities in more than forty million acres, which is larger than the ten largest national parks combined. By converting half of that turfgrass back to native plants, we could have a new national park – homegrown – that is literally everywhere.

We visit national parks to satisfy our curiosity about places we’ve long heard about, and to experience wonder and awe. Homegrown National Park will be on a totally different scale – right in front of our eyes – and will appeal to our sense of self-discovery. We’ll be able to tune into natural cycles and experience the excitement of seeing living things thrive under our care, in addition to helping local food webs. It will allow us to create an affinity for all kinds of creatures that visit our yards, provide natural stress relief and help us pass our stewardship on to our children. Truly, it’s an idea whose time has come.

The North American Native Plant Society has tips to start gardening with native plants (start small – even with one plant!) here:

In the US, you can find guides for what to plant in your area at

Lost Species Day Nature Walk and Reading

Here’s the notice from Anne-Marie Lambert, who leads poetry-themed nature walks in Belmont, MA

She writes:

I invite you to join me for a guided walk through Rock Meadow in Belmont on Saturday November 30, 2019, 10:00-noon, with special guest  Daniel Hudon, who will read stories from his book of stories,  Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.  It’s a great way to give thanks over the holiday weekend for the birds and animals and habitat who visit or reside in the beautiful habitat at Rock Meadow.

This Saturday’s walk is a special event for “Remembrance Day for Lost Species,” an annual day (November 30) started a few years ago by artists in London “to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways and ecological communities.” This year’s theme is “Original Names”. Participants are invited to share thoughts, poems and stories of local indigenous peoples and of non-humans past or present.

So, come reconnect with the land and water in our town as creatures who are still with us scurry or migrate to prepare for colder weather. Hear lyrical stories about species who used to live in or migrate through New England, including the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen and Urania Sloanus, as well as the Eskimow Curlew and Labrador Duck.

This walk is sponsored by the Belmont Citizens Forum, whose mission includes promoting interest in the preservation and protection of environmental resources and educating the public and community leaders about the environmental importance of open space.

Lost Species Nature Walk at Rock Meadow

What: Learn about Rock Meadow and pay tribute to Lost Species as we visit Beaver Brook and stop along a one-mile nature trail.

When: 10:00-12:00 Saturday November 30, 2019

Where: Meet at the small Rock Meadow parking lot on Mill Street. Bike racks are available. Address: Rock Meadow Conservation Area, Belmont, MA

Parking: There is a second parking lot across the street at Lone Tree Hill conservation area. Please carpool if you can.

Who: Anne-Marie Lambert has been leading local nature walks and writing Newsletter articles about Belmont history and stormwater for the Belmont Citizens Forum.  

Originally from Canada, Daniel Hudon is a Boston resident and part-time lecturer in astronomy, math and physics. He writes prose and poetry about science, travel and nature and his recent book about the extinction crisis, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” was named a Must Read in this year’s Mass Book Awards.

Bring/Wear: closed shoes, weather-appropriate clothing, and, optionally, a walking stick for uneven terrain.

Rain: Only thunderstorms will cancel.

Trail Map: Rock Meadow Map (park by the Mill Street Information Kiosk)

RSVP:  an email reply if you are likely to come would be appreciated but is not required

More information:

Lost Species Day:

Daniel Hudon:

Rock Meadow:

– Rock Meadow Conservation Master Plan, including steps to encourage inviting habitat for certain types of birds.

– Developing a Conservation Master Plan for Rock Meadow by Jeffrey North (Sept/Oct 2018)

– Rock Meadow: Past and Future  by Margaret Velie (May/June 2001)

– Belmont Highlights Natural, Historic Treasures by Mary Bradley (Sep/Oct 2019), including Anne-Marie’s October 2019 walk at Rock Meadow

– Belmont Journal video interview about the master plan:

Belmont Citizens Forum:

The Mass Book Awards

Some recent good news is that my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” was named as a “Must Read” in this year’s Mass Book Awards (pub date 2017). A nice celebration was held in mid-September for all the honored books, with short readings and speeches about the long history of literacy and the literary craft in Massachusetts. It was great to be a part of it and you can see the full list at the Mass Book Awards site:

The Pianist Plays for the Melting Glacier

I loved the video that Greenpeace produced a couple of years ago to bring attention to climate change in the arctic. Pianist Ludovico Einaudi plays his own composition, Elegy for the Arctic, on a barge while around him the glacier ice melts. I wrote a poem about the video and published it in the Amsterdam Quarterly. Now, with the permission of Greenpeace, I have put the poem together with the video and some minor video editing — you can see the result here.

Climbing Brandon

Have you been on any good hikes lately? Last year, I stumbled on Mount Brandon, on Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, an area rich with Celtic and early Christian ruins. The Smart Set just published an essay I wrote about my experiences:

It begins:

I wound up hiking Mt. Brandon by accident. But it is an accident in the same way a traveler stumbles on ruins he didn’t know he was looking for. On Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, they say you don’t get lost, you discover. And wherever you go, someone has been there before, walking.

So it was with me. While meandering along Slea Head Drive, stopping to take in the coastal views and ruins, I passed the sign for Mt. Brandon. It was late afternoon, still lots of daylight left. No need to return to Dingle just yet. So I turned around and followed the sign to the foot of the mountain.

All day I saw it looming over the peninsula, snow on its flanks, peak in the clouds, a presence. At the trailhead, the gentle slope looked enticing. I could start walking up the trail right now, I thought, the way people have done for hundreds of years.

I came to Dingle because of a book I read many years ago. Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God, by Chet Raymo. In eight essays, named for the canonical hours, the author tries to reconcile the many evidences of historical faith on the peninsula with the findings of modern science. He looks deep into geological time on the Dingle coastline, ponders early Christian and pre-Christian ruins, tells the tales of the land, and goes stargazing. Through it all, he walks and walks, and these meditative hikes stayed with me.

I knew about Raymo’s writing from his previous book, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, a heady mix of creation myths, poetry, and cosmology. I discovered it during my undergraduate studies in physics and astronomy, and it provided a lyrical antidote to my equation-filled courses. It was here I first learned that I wanted to read more from Rilke and Roethke, here that comets, star clusters, and quasars came alive among the constellations, and here that I got a taste of the big questions in cosmology: How did the universe begin? What is it made of? How will it end? The book was a quest for our place in the universe, and my young mind took to it like a sponge.

Read the rest at The Smart Set

The Tree on My Block — Films

I didn’t notice the tree right away. I’d lived on the block for several years and it took me awhile to tune into it. But once I did it became my favorite tree. It took its time with its autumnal leaf changing, a month or even six weeks. In 2015, I was able to record the transition, though my photos were haphazard. I vowed the next year to be more consistent, get the photos from the same location, the same time of day and so on. But I never got a chance. The tree died in September 2016, when it dropped its leaves suddenly several weeks before it usually did. I didn’t know it was dead until I saw that it didn’t bud again in the spring. It stood dormant on my block for another year and was removed in April 2017.

I wrote several short prose pieces between the time the tree last dropped its leaves and when it was removed and have now made films out of them. They’re collected in the album on my Vimeo page, a memorial to a great tree. Still some tweaks to do here or there, but let me know in the comments what you think, which one is your favorite and so on. Thanks for watching.

The Tree on My Block — A Cycle

2013_trees_sue_patti 092

The Future is Now: Donald Trump and Climate Change

“Maybe it won’t be so bad?”

I caught myself saying this yesterday and today, regarding the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, over the much more qualified Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Apart from my objections to the extreme and divisive statements Mr. Trump made in his campaign, I’m particularly concerned about his policies on climate change and the environment.

Really, the question is “How could we let this happen?” We actually let three debates pass by without a single question on climate change, the biggest issue of our time. We on the coasts need to  be concerned about climate change for the inevitable sea level rise. Both on the coasts and inland we need to be concerned about drought conditions (see the latest map here that shows parts of California, the Northeast and the Southeast suffering from severe drought), which, if prolonged, will start affecting food supplies. Internationally, we need to be concerned because, in the case of Syria, the droughts caused by climate change had a direct role in fomenting the conflict that created a humanitarian crisis with the exodus of more refugees than neighboring and Western countries wanted to take in. Have a look at how Bangladesh is faring in our warmed world, or the island nation of Kiribati and one can only conclude that the era of the “climate change refugee” has already begun.  In fact, the USA already has its own climate refugees.

Yet despite describing climate change as “A hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Mr. Trump was still able to get himself elected.

I took some solace in finding out that there are provisions in last year’s Paris Climate Treaty, which prevent easy withdrawal. (It takes three years, and there’s still a twelve-month waiting period after that.) But it would be easy for Mr. Trump to undo President Obama’s modest gains on reigning in emissions and investment in renewables and thus for the US to fall short of the Paris targets. (See the big piece in today’s New York Times.)

So, I no longer think, “Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

I just read through a lengthy discussion about Mr. Trump’s environmental plans on Reddit, kicked off by an informative summary by u/arksien (a long-time Redditor). The thread has more than 3500 comments both by Americans and from people around the world. Together with the piece in the Times mentioned above, it’s truly a cold slap in the face about what awaits us under President Trump.

The US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because China and India didn’t have to commit to any emission reductions. In the Paris Treaty, China and India are now both onboard so the US has no excuse for inaction. The USA also has no excuse for inaction because the rest of the world depends on us here to lead by example.

The People’s Climate March for action against climate change

The USA has always been a country of leaders.

And now is the time for the USA to lead us out of climate danger. If we let Mr. Trump and his cohort make good on his promises to expand fossil fuel usage, we’re dooming ourselves and our children to increased climate misery and uncertainty. The last five years have been the hottest ever.  Given Mr. Trump’s character, it is going to be incredibly difficult to convert him to a climate hero — therein lies the challenge. Now is not the time for complacency. We all must engage the crisis. If the leaders won’t lead on this most fundamental of issues, we must lead ourselves.

Now, when’s the next meeting and where do I send my dues? Hope to see you there.