Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category


This morning’s yield was worth every bit of bushwhacking. To go with them, here’s an essay I wrote a few years ago for West Virginia Public Radio:


My love of berry picking goes back a long way. My grandmother was famous for baking pies. Family lore has it that she baked her husband a pie for breakfast every single day of their marriage. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know this: During summer vacations at her lakeside cottage, my cousins and I had a bargain with her. If we brought her enough blackberries, we could count on blackberry pie after supper.

The best time for berry picking is the cool of the morning. I get up and put on my uniform: long socks covered by trousers I altered myself, for the purpose, with elastic at the ankles. Waterproof boots to repel the morning dew. A long-sleeved T-shirt. I grab an empty quart yogurt container and head out to the berry patch behind the house.

The house belongs to my friend Michael, who has given over his large backyard to raspberry vines. For a couple of weekends each summer, this is my paradise.

I start at the edge, but soon wade into the middle of the patch, bushwhacking when necessary. The vines are taller than I am: I’m hidden, I’ve escaped from the real world and landed in this kingdom of briars. It’s a place chock-full of smells and sounds and sensations: the fresh scent of mint leaves, growing somewhere nearby. The trills and chirps and scolding of birds all around me. The drone of a bumblebee and the whine of a mosquito. The trickle of sweat on my neck.

I love the crazy zigzag patterns of branches and thorns. I marvel at the variety of spiders and beetles and tiny winged creatures, and a kind of pink grub that curls itself into a cluster of berries, pretending to be one of the delicious morsels and sometimes fooling me.

I go for the ripest berries, dark and plump, rolling them off their stalks into my plastic bucket. Soon my fingers are stained red with the juice, and the backs of my hands, inevitably, bear little beads of blood from the thorns.

Along with this feast for the senses, the berry patch has life lessons. Progress comes in small increments, but patience pays off. Sometimes a slight change in perspective yields a new opportunity. Some prizes really are just out of reach, and you might as well let them be, but the sweet rewards you can reap are worth a few scrapes and scratches.

I carry my sweet rewards into the house. I’m not a pie baker, but I can manage a pretty good cobbler. With vanilla ice cream and a cup of coffee on the side…it doesn’t get any better than this.

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…and on clematis and jewelweed as well. How I love walking after a morning rain. Even with that song stuck in my mind.




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In January of this year, a coal-cleaning chemical leaked out of a tank less than mile from the intake for West Virginia American Water Company. Some 300,000 West Virginians lost their water for drinking, cooking, bathing or cleaning. For quite a while, the liquid flowing through our taps had a weird, licorice-like odor. Even after it was declared safe, many people did not trust that it was, and continued using bottled water. (Some of us still are using bottled water.)

Politicians—including many who collect big money from their coal investments, and including our governor—skittered to distance themselves from any responsibility to protect West Virginia’s environment or the citizens who depend upon it. As I took my daily walk around Charleston in the weeks following the chemical spill, my thoughts were angry as well as sad. A melody and some words began to take shape in my mind: a from-the-heart, straightforward message.

In early February, there was a public hearing in the West Virginia House of Delegates. Although the prospect terrified me, I decided to “speak” at the hearing by singing my song. Many legislators were absent, but I sang my song anyway. Many other citizens also stood up to express their outrage and to beg our so-called public servants to quit serving extractive industries at the expense of public health.

Now my friends Julie Adams (producer), George Castelle (guitarist), and Paul Flaherty (sound engineer) have helped me record the song, and yesterday I successfully uploaded it to CD Baby as a single (for download only). It’s deeply satisfying to me to send my song out into the world on the same day that the EPA proposes new, stricter standards for water and air quality. Our politicians will no doubt scream bloody murder over the new standards, the way they should be decrying the mining and fracking methods that are fouling our state. They will declare the new standards as a “war on coal” instead of what it really is, a plan to protect public health and safety from the ones who only use us for the riches they can steal.

You can download or listen to a 30-second snippet from the song at CD Baby. You can read the lyrics right here:

If you love my West Virginia, you will keep her waters clean

If you love my West Virginia, you will keep her mountains green

If you love my West Virginia, love her Wonderful and Wild

You’ll respect her like your mother and defend her like your child

If you love my West Virginia, you would suffer for her sake

If you love my West Virginia, you will give more than you take

If you love my West Virginia, you would grieve to see her kneel

To the ones who only use her for the riches they can steal

If you love my West Virginia, you will hold her in your soul

If you love my West Virginia, you won’t let her mountains fall

If you love my West Virginia, you will fight to see her stand

With her summits bathed in glory like our Prince Immanuel’s Land

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It is still (just barely) National Poetry Month, and I am thinking of Edna St. Vincent Millay, particularly since the subject of one of my favorite Millay poems, “The Strawberry Shrub,” is in bloom now. It’s an odd poem, a very close examination of this plant that she calls “old-fashioned, quaint as quinces,/Hard to find in a world where neon and noise/Have flattened the ends of the three more subtle senses,/And blare and magenta are all that a child enjoys.”

She describes its color as the “color of dried blood, color of the key of F.” I love that last metaphor. Although I do not have synesthesia in the medical sense, Millay’s “color of the key of F” makes sense to me. When I sing my own songs, my natural key is generally A or G. The key of F is lower, deeper, fuller, a bit darker. If fire red is middle C, the key of F is this color.

This past week I have been having a good time finding other blooming plants in the color of the key of F. Here are a few.


The interior of a jack-in-the-pulpit.


Pawpaw blossoms.


A kind of red trillium.

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Dew Tell


Rain on a tulip and dew drops strung along a spider’s web, dripping from a bluebell, and dancing on the leaf of a celandine poppy. Surface tension is a wonderful phenomenon.



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I love walking on the carriage trail at this time of year because of what’s unfolding…literally. Is there anything more intricate and beautiful than the process of a bud opening into a leaf?

Nature’s origami, the most elegant geometry, has inspired origami designers around the world. One of them, Tomoko Fuse, has created many beautiful designs for containers. She’s famous for her boxes and other modular designs, but I’m also very fond of this leaflike chopstick holder she invented. It’s one of many fun—and surprisingly easy—projects I hope to introduce to willing folders in my Origami Containers class at Cedar Lakes Crafts Center this August.

Check out the Road Scholar website for more information, and join me at Cedar Lakes Crafts Center near Ripley, WV this summer!


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Jewels of Autumn


I got out my beads the other day to make a pair of earrings. Today, walking along the carriage trail and in South Hills, I couldn’t help but notice that some of nature’s fall colors and shapes are far superior to my jewelry-making efforts. I’m not sure what the flower above is, but it certainly is a great color combination!


This one is the fruit of the native plant Euonymous americanus or “Hearts A’Busting”—and another of my all-time favorite color duos.


A side view of the flower that hangs beneath the leaves of jewelweed. I always thought the plant got its name from the way water beads on top of the leaf…but maybe not.


A kind of milkweed plant, not native to West Virginia but pretty spectacular.


And I think this is on a tree I have heard called “Chinese dogwood.”

Shouldn’t they all be beads?


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End-of-summer Treats


This morning’s walk on the carriage trail yielded some lovely things to look at. On the way up the trail, I stopped for a while to watch a large bee gather nectar from jewelweed blossoms. She was methodical: burrow into a blossom, back out, buzz over to the next blossom. What amazing aerodynamic powers!

Then I did my daily check-in with the pawpaw tree near the top of the trail. These pretties are plump and ready to plop. I predict it will happen sometime in the next week.


Finally, here’s a closeup of the fruit, or seed pod, or whatever it is called, produced by the moonflowers in a garden at the top of the trail. I love the unfurling moonflowers and their lemony scent. But this part of the plant is just as dramatic.


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Iris opening…


A dead tree trunk…


Edge of a cardinal feather…


Raindrops on leaves…


Poison ivy…


and part of a neighbor’s trash.

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Spring is here. Ramps are breaking out all over. Arla and I spent a lovely hour or so on a hillside in Pocahontas County, digging enough for a supper of chicken enchiladas with ramps. Good eating tonight!

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