Archive for December, 2011
Jasmine, of the Lakota Wolf Preserve, New Jersey
Do you ever think about what animals were really at the Nativity? Of course, we have pre- and Renaissance images, with the ox and the ass and so forth. But who was really there, and what did they do?
This thought has come to me recurrently on recent country rides past farm fields between here and the Delaware River. On grass and in barnyards, I’ve been treated to everything from a donkey through horses to sheep and goats; keeping on until I could find a few cows. These presences made that long-ago stable very real.
My rides made me particularly aware of the depth of darkness that would have surrounded Mary and Joseph in their quest for a room. When they were finally led out back by the grudging Innkeeper, we have to hope he had a lantern or two to light their way in night thick as folded velvet. I picture the Innkeeper leaving one lantern for the young couple, after helping them through straw to the manger.
I sense the breath of farm animals warming that humble place, I’m sure of a donkey and a cow. Probably not goats. Surely chickens and a rooster or two scratching about on the earthen floor in search of nourishment. Perhaps the Innkeeper would share some of their eggs with the hungry couple in the morning after the Event.
Because of Delaware Valley night rides, I picture surrounding Bethlehem hills as darker yet, as the Miracle begins to unfold. Stars, however, would therefore have been exaggerated in brilliance. Even that ‘new’ one soon to guide three kings, waxing and waning to direct the monarchs upon their essential journey.
I feel that curtain of stars served as heavenly comfort to Mary and Joseph, probably neither knowing how to preside at any birth, –let alone such a one. And she, so far from her mother.
I’m ‘hearing’ the breath of the ass, lowing of the cow, scratching of hens as blessed natural sounds, –soothing and enduring as a cat’s purr-, as the world changed forever.
The darkness in and around that stable is intense. The Innkeeper and certain guests learn that Something had Happened because of golden rays rising from the depth of that straw-lined manger. I ’see’ Mary as bare-headed now, her mantle, — woven by her mother–, securely wrapped about Mary’s newborn.
Joseph, though shadowed, remains a solid protecting figure. Acceptance is written in every muscle of these two obedient servants of the Divine. How, from earliest days, those two trusted outcomes when all must have seemed so perilous in that strange land.
Radiance rises along each tendril of straw, as though a small fire burns where a Child lies.
These rays that wake sheep on the hillside, magnetizing flock after flock. In a reversal of roles, shepherds follow their animals to the Source.
These movements are not wasted upon the watchers upon the hill. Where there are sheep, wolves are never far.
Their large forms echo the soft and powerful Bethlehem’s hills. Some of these magnificent creatures are blackas night itself. All wolf eyes are riveted upon the power and light emanating from the stable below.
The wolves, this night, however, give up vigilance.
Their response to events below, –unlike that of humans soon to gather–, is not wonder, but knowing.
There is a legend that the animals speak upon what is now Christmas Eve. What they speak is their own certainty about the coming of this Child, known since before time.
“It has come.”
“That for which we have been waiting.”
“It is time…”
The wolves, in their wisdom, need not leave the heights.
The Child, in His wisdom, is alertly aware of the watchers on the hill, for He has come for all creatures.
As the glow from the manger, strengthens, the wolves lift their voices in song.
A tiny hand rises from the straw, gestures toward that sound.
His first Christmas Carol, the song of the wolves…
Coot Couple, by Brenda Jones
Swan Lake — Swans of Spring Lake, by Brenda Jones
Brenda Jones’ Images of Recent Gifts of Hamilton/Trenton/Bordentown Marsh
Picture a person who requires regular doses of nature. See that person’s right leg gradually stop working, because of a sudden inexplicable departure of cartilage. Watch her finally face the inevitable hip replacement, after which she must work with professionals to use that restored right leg, to cooperate with that new femur. Be aware that all she ever wants is to be, as the orthopedist promised, “Out on the trails and back in the kayak.”
It won’t surprise NJ WILD readers that this former and future hiker/kayaker longed throughout her incarceration in hospital and rehab, and now at home, for trails in general and the Hamilton / Trenton / Bordentown Marsh in particular.
NJ WILD readers might suspect that many of your author’s friends are hikers/kayakers. One, Fay Lachmann, leads a weekly group on explorations throughout New Jersey (and sometimes Pennsylvania), a gathering of lively women known as the Hip Hikers.
The good news is, Fay would be taking her group to the Marsh for the first time, on a December Saturday. The challenge was that she didn’t exactly know how negotiate Route 1 South onto South Broad Street at the Arena and on down to Sewell, so she could share this paradise with her group. Guess who does know the way, who was eager to ride along familiar roadways with this most sustaining friend.
What your NJ WILD blogger was hoping was that she could walk the firm earthen road alongside Spring Lake. What I wasn’t admitting was fear that I’d get partway along and not be able to continue.
Amazingly, despite its being almost December dusk when we arrived, the Marsh was shimmery and welcoming. No one else was there. It was as though this tidal freshwater wetlands had been created just for us. Alongside Spring Lake, the road was, indeed, firm, smooth, and mercifully dry.
A scrim of willows intervenes between road and lake, named by Lenni Lenapes because spring-fed. Most likely, it is/was also beaver created, eons ago. The willows kiss their own reflection in all seasons. There is something so calming about their languid branches. You would never guess our state capitol is a few yards away… The willows were particularly stunning on the cusp of winter, –all other trees being bare. Willow branches were Monet-rich in leaves, all of them tinted the wild gold of March, or of canvases we once saw at the Met, “Monet, The Late Years.”
Fay has birder’s eyes and other senses. It was she found the raft of minuscule ducks afloat on a far stretch of the lake. We moved swiftly toward the migrant waterfowl, darkly silhouetted, occasionally bobbing merrily underwater in quest of nourishment. Only two kinds of ducks win the word ‘adorable’ from me, (usually only in private)– buffleheads and coots.
Against the setting sun, I couldn’t discover whether or not these birds showed ‘diagnostic’ white beaks. Still, something about their ‘rubber ducky’ yet dignified behavior simply said ‘coot’. Sure enough, we could approach clearly enough to confirm the guess. It will give NJ WILD readers a sense of how askew I was on that first Marsh walk – I had left my ‘birding glass’ in my own car, back in Princeton.
No optics were needed to see and identify the mute swan, presiding near the small peninsula that usually holds the lake’s swan nest. With full regality, this white wonder sailed out, lifting both wings like Boston’s swan boats. So long as we walked and watched, he kept those ‘arms akimbo’. Swan Lake, indeed. All the beauty and none of the tragedy…
If we’d turned left and circled the lake, I could’ve shown Fay where the wild rice grows. This annual grass attains 8 – 10 feet each autumn, delighting the red-winged blackbirds, staging for migration. I merely waved in the wild rice direction, knowing that this intrepid explorer, –who delights in “Firsts!”–, would find that site on her own with her group.
In water to the right of the lake road, we discovered a new beaver lodge, practically quivering with the energy of recent construction. I told Fay of other lodges that would be to their left, once well upon the woodland trails. And another out, of course, at Beaver Point.
The miracle of beaver lodges is that, when waters are iced, beavers keep water open. Therefore, rarest wild ducks congregate nearby. One might not see (nocturnal) beavers, although we were late enough that we might have. But one will be treated to spectacular waterfowl throughout the Marsh in winter.
Mary and Charles Leck, botanist and ornithologist extraordinaire, have taught me all I know about the Marsh. Their favorite time there is winter, because, “We can see the beavers’ breath.”
My favorite time there is after fresh snowfall. Signatures of raptor wings will decorate a downed log. A long trail of rose-like footprints reveals where the fox strolls and when he changes to hunting mode. The Marsh is always hushed, as it was on our evening stroll. But never more so than when fresh crystals have descended all through the night. That whiteness becomes a newspaper, –night’s headlines inscribed at every turn.
We reached the bridge over troubled waters. I needed to stay dry-shod and stable, but Fay skipped across, as I have so many times. It was as though she were Alice, entering Wonderland. I feel, when I cross that bridge into the woods, as I did when I first saw Wizard of Oz, and the scene changed from black and white to color.
Deep in the Marsh, I have watched a springtime snake bask in new warmth. It was nearly invisible, absolutely matching winter weeds all along an tiny island in one of the first watery stretches. Charles and Mary did not proceed until everyone on that trek could find that snake. There, alone, I’ve heard and watched crows mob the great horned owl who nests in the Marsh. I’ve witnessed scruffed sand revealing the many entries and exits of a fox den.
Charlie Leck showed me my first brown creeper, creeping, up a lakeside trunk. Mary revealed my first hummingbird moth. Apart from being ripe pumpkin orange (against royal purple blooms of pickerel weed), this moth did, indeed, masquerade as a hummingbird. Charlie taught us to rejoice in some sort of caterpillar infestation, for it brought cuckoos beyond counting, to feed and to breed.
The Marsh can be Heron Central in all seasons. Once one walked along the lake trail ahead of my sister and me for almost a half hour. Swans nest at a number of sites. Recently, American bald eagles have made a part of the Marsh their home. Owls drop lacy pellets in the deepest woods. Turtles lay eggs right in the lake road. Clyde Quin and Warren Liebensperger taught us to see turtle noses among the lily pads of the lake. Mary Leck explains that turtles hatch invisibly – if we see shells, that means a predator has been successful.
One memorable fall, from the (under development) Marsh Nature Center, David Allen Sibley took us on an autumnal birdwalk at key migration time. Throughout, David was humble, lively, and always the natural teacher. Interestingly, he seemed most excited about all the redwings – thanks to the Marsh’s wild rice crop.
As Fay and I reluctantly (sundown) retraced the lakeside road, a skein of Canada geese sang their evening song. To our right, migrant birds staged and restaged, as though an invisible senora were trailing her black mantilla along first the treetops, then lake waters, then up against the apricot sky.
The Marsh is always a treasure trove. That sundown walk with Fay turned out to be a naturalist’s Christmas. There are no finer gifts than the natural!
Remember, as always, NJ WILD readers, the preservation and stewardship mission of D&R Greenway Land Trust. Without its vision and vigilance over the decades, this paradise in the middle of Hamilton, Trenton and Bordentown, would not only not exist. It wouldn’t be moderating temperature and floods, removing pollutants, breathing, breeding, serving the multitudinous functions that make wetlands so vital to humans everywhere in the world.
Without preservation and stewardship, the Marsh also wouldn’t be walkable. By those whose two legs work perfectly well, all of the time. Nor by this very grateful convalescent.
Cape May Lighthouse, NJ
Titmouse in Snowstorm, Brenda Jones
NJ WILD readers know, my favorite time to be anywhere is off-season. In 2009 I had chosen to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Cape May.
My key birding/hiking/art and travel buddy, Janet Black, and I had this urgent need to flee the commercial madness which had come to overwhelm this once sacred season. The fiercest concern, on all channels during this week’s blizzard, was not health or safety - but o, dear! — people can’t get to the malls! Christ was not born to turn balance sheets from red to black.
We went to seek the elemental, even the primal.
I, personally was starved for limitlessness.
We both needed birds, — handsome birds, large birds, unexpected birds, birds dealing boldly and successfully with elements, putting humans to shame. Birds making us catch our breath over their beauty, their fearlessness, their deft way with the wind. Somewhere out beyond the first lines of waves, long-tailed ducks were bobbing and feeding. Sometimes, if we were very lucky, elegant gannets arrowed right over our heads, or threaded their way above the crests.
Yes, we knew the trails, the hot spots, from Sunset Beach to Cape May Point to Higbee Beach. We’ve put in our time on and near the hawk watch platform, normally abuzz - it would be still for Christmas.
Cape May Bird Observatory post captures their Hawk Watch Platform post-blizzard
We knew where to hike (from the jetty to the light) in a benevolent season, when we were sometimes accompanied by ruddy turnstones, living mosaics hopping along beside us as we stride.
We knew where the peregrine stooped (’stooped’ is the birder’s word) upon tasty prey, from an anachronistic bunker to a freshwater pond, as sedate mute swans ignore the entire drama.
Killdeer and Snow
from Cape May Bird Observatory post, post-storm
We knew where monarchs clustered in autumn, on a shrub called “high tide plant.” We had favorite dune trails where we’d seen loons visibly change their plumage before our eyes.
But neither of us knew what Christmas meant at New Jersey’s Cape, let alone what it means to the birds.
We packed foul weather gear - we’ve used it before for Cape May Birding Weekends of 20 mile an hour winds and I swear 20 degrees, although it couldn’t have been - it was the end of May…
We packed our binoculars and our Sibleys - well, they’re always in the trunk. Being writers, books and notepads went first into those suitcases. Janet’s memoir vied with her poetry. My NJ WILD held pride of place - no competition for it, these days, not even from the poetry muse.
We both fled the Victorian, sought out the rustic, the local, and above all, the maritime and the avian.
Down at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, at the birds’ jumping-off place to cross the Delaware Bay, the prime activity would neither be shopping til you drop, nor counting down to Christmas.
Out on the windswept beaches, spirit would be near at hand. Shore birds would do their Holy Ghost thing.
Though we did not see the Christmas star, something was being born. I called it Hope.
SEEKING CHRISTMAS IN NEW JERSEY
Little Caboose That Could, Bordentown, (from the Christmas of 2009)
With rain pelting down, highways clogged, people on either side of cash registers surly, I cannot help but ask, “But, where is Christmas?” One thing I have always known - Christmas is not at the malls. This time of year, we can change that spelling to ‘The Mauls’. I must go searching for Christmas, and right now, in NJ:
Baubles of Yesterday - Mystery Destination, NJ
I have searched for Christmas before: Married, with daughters, my Swiss husband and I would travel in quest of Christmas, seeking to evade the mercantile, to recapture sweet, even tender Christmases of his childhood and mine. Some of the most memorable:
Carolers in sleighs at Waterville Valley. Snow sifting down upon their down jackets. Swiss chocolates and quaint gilt-trimmed, native-Swiss-scened Christmas cards upon our pillows when we came in from Midnight Mass. Snow and sweetness everywhere.
Walking Aspen streets to the scent of woodsmoke, mountain stream singing that year’s carols outside our town condominium. Red and gold vintage popcorn wagon, spilling white kernels, while an ink-sky spilled the next day’s powder. In restaurants , firelight on copper, warmth in every welcome.
“Froeliche Weinachten!” – the (non-written) Swiss language wish for a blessed Christmas, mingling with “Au Guri” in Italian and Happy St. Stephen’s Day, (more important than New Year’s) in the Christmas-card town of Zermatt, [where Werner was right at home at last, but which he'd never visited until we found it in 1964.]
But this is New Jersey. Where do we go to find Christmas here? (Not to celebrate Christmas - that’s another story, to be told), but to feel it?
Where better than a town whose residents helped give us two Trenton and one Princeton victories for Christmas in 1776 and 1777, whose residents gave us and continued to nourish Independence?
My simple nearby answer - Bordentown. Where everything still breathes of long ago.
My Christmas recipe calls for a very large dose of history; an aura of peace; warmth of welcome; and sparkly diversions I find nowhere else. It is enhanced by vintage bookstores, and art galleries and purveyors of jewelry of other days. My Christmas always involves feasting, — easy, relaxed, memorable, casual or opulent, even reasonable, in Bordentown.
Bordentown’s Bon Appetit - The Storied Farnsworth House
In Bordentown, history peals forth like Christmas bells.
Bell of Bordentown
NJ Wild readers know, I crave above all Revolutionary history. Thomas Paine is the Revolutionary of choice in Bordentown. This is the only place anywhere in the world, in which the man whom the Founding Fathers credited with forging the Spirit of ‘76 ever owned property.
Thomas Paine Statue, High on a Bordentown Hill, where we lost a Revolutionary Battle
Rights of Man - Jefferson Credits This Book with The Spirit of ‘76
Patience Wright - Sculptress - Lived Here
America’s first sculptress, who took her 1700’s fame and sailed to London where she perpetuated her fame, increased her skill and success. Her son, Joseph, became a renowned painter. One Patience Wright sign suggests she may have been a spy… In which case, she, also, secured the rights of man.
Bordentown’s Restorations are Stunning, Even When Trees are Bare
Cleaved Bonaparte Tree and Architectural Dig, Point Breeze
Strolling Bordentown’s brick sidewalks (I convince myself each brick came from the brickworks at the nearby Hamilton/Trenton/Bordentown Marsh, where I love to hike and bird, especially after new snowfall.) Charles Lucien Bonaparte, –when he lived on the Bluffs above the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh–, discovered and named new species in the Marsh. He would send news of such creatures as the mourning dove, named for his wife, Zenaide, and the Cooper’s hawk to scientific colleagues all over Europe. His species discoveries, and who knows what from that consummate politician, his Uncle Joseph, traveled under sail, from the confluence of the Delaware River and the Crosswicks Creek, at Bordentown.
View of the Confluence of our Delaware River and the Crosswicks Creek
From Bordentown’s River Line Train Station
Here lived a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Frances Hopkinson, who also created the Great Seal of New Jersey, and his son, Joseph, who wrote Hail Columbia.
Frances and Joseph Hopkinson House
Here Clara Barton founded her free school, the tiny building still crowning a triangle of land not far from Jester’s Cafe.
Clara Barton’s School
Jester’s Cafe, a Warm Welcome In All Seasons
Warm Welcome of Summer
Venerable Bricks: Quaker Meeting House
Quaker Meeting House, with early Bordentown mural on side wall hidden here in shadow
Old Bordentown Mural near Quaker Meeting House
Nearby is the Point Breeze land on top of the Bordentown Bluffs, where Napoleon ordered his brother Joseph, former King of Spain and of Naples, to live but not to rule, because so convenient to Philadelphia, New York and Europe, under sail.
View from the Bonaparte Estate, Point Breeze
Next to the Farnsworth House is the impressive John Bull memorial, first steam engine in America, which pulled the legendary Camden and Amboy Railroad across Farnsworth Avenue — the railroad that carried Abraham Lincoln to his Inauguration and his grave. See what I mean about gliding through time’s veil?
Please, Santa? Bordentown for Christmas….
River Line Trenton Sign (Trenton is one stop north — through the Marsh)
This Way to Camden and Walt Whitman’s House
There’s entirely too much virtual naturing going on in our time. There is NO substitute for being OUT there on the trail, in the kayak, following the birds, threading a forest! However, when Mother Nature is uncooperative weather-wise, or “the world is too much with us” - one rich substitute is reading our gifted (and often quirky and challenging) nature writers.
I had considered a book list, but no! Authors are the key.
A firm believer in independent bookstores, I find my natural mentors at Half Price Books in Montgomery, near the movie theatre; and at Labyrinth, doing a fine job of helping us not to miss Micawber’s on Nassau Street.
Here’s my short list - what’s yours? The Henry’s: Thoreau and Beston (Outermost House). Edward Abbey’s anything. Rachel Carson, ditto. Aldo Leopold. Wendell Berry. Rick Bass and Farley Mowatt, the latter especially on wolves and whales. Annie Dillard and Anne La Bastille - Woodswoman, what I long to be! Terry Tempest Williams, describing her red deserts, exhorting us to preservation, conservation and stewardship. Gary Paul Nabhan on seeds, restoring heirlooms to our produce stands. Michael Pollan’s anything. Mary Austin on deserts. Seminal birding author, Roger Tory Peterson’s Wild America and Kenn Kaufman’s evocative Kingbord Highway, inspired by Roger’s journey with his British colleague.
This will do for starters… opportunities for savoring… I am eager for your responses.