Sunday, March 20, 2016

Wandering, Watching and Learning

   One of the things that I have always loved is wandering and looking around and just noticing things. It could be big things, it could be small things. It could be new things, it could be old things. I just like to look at what is around and think about why it’s there, how it got there, what it means, who it connects to, its significance, what it looks like and more. I don’t know how this got implanted in me, but it has been a life long passion and interest. And I do not have to go far to indulge in this. I am not a world traveler by any means; I have never been to Europe or South America, for example. But simple and often accidental trips are just fine with me. I am one of the few people I know who does not mind detours. I have always loved going to different neighborhoods, different landscapes, and just following hunches and interests and seeing where they take me. It can be nearby in Germantown or Center City or further away, as in New York City, New Mexico or Canada. I simply love to wander, look and see what is there. Fortunately I have a wife who loves that as well; we love to go camping, and when we do we also go hiking,“museuming,” garden hopping, walking, birdwatching and library visiting. A couple of weeks ago we had the joy of doing a black history and birding tour in part of the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a few days. It was just a short little trip-just a little bit of wandering. And it was glorious.
    In February I saw a presentation at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown by first person interpreter Bob Smith on the life of Benjamin Banneker.  Banneker was the early American black inventor, astronomer, and surveyor,who among other things, helped plan and lay out Washington, DC. His homestead outside of Catonsville, MD is a wonderful little museum, and we started our Maryland wanderings there. The museum is a cute old-style museum-exhibits in glass cases, artifacts displayed on tables, and videos. But they tell a remarkable story of an amazing life. A little careful looking and reading of the cases reveals how Banneker and his family helped feed his curiosity, the strange laws and realities of color in early Maryland, the way different peoples from different cultures could come together and create things, and the complicated and often contradictory goings on of a nation being born. It was a concise yet powerful way to get to know the man. While development has taken some of the Banneker land, there are still trails, orchards, trees, and plantings on the grounds of the museum that date from his time. There are also some buildings that are either original or reproductions of the original structures. We walked several trails next to the streams, viewed the structures, did some birding, and had a great time. Along the way we saw some great structures, redbuds, magnolias and cherry trees in bloom, and wonderfully re-purposed remnants of Maryland’s industrial past. We also toured part of downtown Catonsville, and caught the wonderful intermingling of the historical and old with the new and changing. it was a very satisfying time.
   We later went to Chestertown, a waterfront town on the Chesapeake Bay that has a beautifully maintained historic district. The town’s historical society has produced a detailed self-guided walking black history tour and a self guided tour of downtown Chestertown. There are houses and buildings that date from the colonial era, and we got a little look at the life of both enslaved and free blacks in early Maryland. The Scotts Point section by the waterfront, for example, was a neighborhood inhabited by many free, property owning blacks going back to colonial times. The tour is extensive, and we didn’t have time to do all of it, but many of the early buildings are preserved. There were also a lot of wonderful things to see on side streets and in the farmer’s market, and the places we ate were both affordable and outstanding. We loved Chestertown and will definitely be back in the summer.
The birding part of the trip involved a guided walking tour of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. We had visited the refuge before in September, but this time we would be taking a trip with a local expert who knew both the area and the birds we were likely to see. We were not disappointed; we went to a section of the refuge that is normally off limits to the public through backwater marshes and streams. It was a fortuitous day for birding: we saw brown headed nuthatches, belted kingfishers, hundreds of tundra swans, wood ducks, teals, red winged blackbirds (our personal sign of spring), and much more. The highlight was being guided to spot three eagles nests with mother eagles sitting on the nests. We definitely would not have spotted them had we not been with an expert, and that experience was one we will not forget. We met some very interesting people as well, including a man who had worked some 20 years for NATO. It was a glorious weekend of wandering, looking, seeing, and learning. 
    So my wandering continues. It always brings new information, new things to notice, new knowledge and new ideas. It takes me to interesting places, keeps me connected to the world around me, and brings me great satisfaction. It does not have to be fancy, it does not have to be far. But I need to be out and about and looking. To me, that is what being alive is about.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Magic of Morning Light

  Puxatawney Phil, the famous western PA groundhog, came up over a month ago and let us know that it would be an early spring. He saw no shadow, which according to the lore, means we in PA would experience the warmth, growth and energy of another spring a little earlier than might be expected. Of course, Phil’s predictions are subject to question: Groundhog Day is February 2, and there are always at least 6 more weeks until the vernal equinox and the beginning of the spring season. But I love the lore of Phil; I am a big fan of many folkloric and cultural traditions, and Phil grew out of the German cultures that came to Pennsylvania in the 1700's. For me, though, Phil is in no way a real indication of spring.  For me there is no more reliable and powerful indicator of spring than the wonderful changes in the morning light that surrounds us. 

   I am an early morning walker. I like to get up between 5 and 6 and walk either north up to Chestnut Hill, south to Germantown, or west deeper into West Mt Airy. I love the quiet of that time; the stillness and the grandeur. I am also a lover of winter’s night skies-intense and dramatic as they are. That combination of waking and walking early and the presence of the winter night sky regularly bring me quiet joy and comfort. I love watching the slow change in the locations of the constellations over the course of a winter, and I love watching the moon cycle through its phases. Both of these celestial happenings seem so much starker and definite in winter. Watching the day come into being earlier and earlier as winter goes on is also fascinating. I notice the way shadows shift, the way light is reflected off rooftops and grass, and on some mornings I get to see this wonderful eerie rolling fog move over some of the larger expanses of lawns and streams. Around the last week in February that starts to change, however, and I have to adjust. It is lighter when I arise, and the sky at 5:30 is not quite as dark and dramatic as it was a week or so ago. The constellations are not as bright, and the light of the new day is visible earlier. It is a different sky now, and we are relentlessly transitioning from one season to the next. Part of me misses the old winter night sky; I almost go through a brief mourning period. Then I notice that at around 6: 15, if I am looking southeast, I can see the sun as a bright reddish-orange disk above the housetops and the day seems to rush into being, And if I am out for a nice long walk like I was this morning,  I can watch that sun gradually become more and more visible and seemingly rise above us. This, too, is a glorious way to start the day.

  So while I like the story of Phil and know that its origins are with Candlemas Day and the hedgehogs in Germany during the Roman era, it is the light that most alerts me that we are entering that next phase of the cycle of seasons.  It lets me know exactly where we are in the cycle. It is undeniable. And when I am out noticing the light I also get to look at the lawns and I can notice the snowdrops and pansies as they make their first appearance of the year. I also get to notice more bird activity as species that have been around all winter get more active, and some new ones are starting to be heard.  And watching the different colors and aspects of sunrise is a joy to behold.  Yes, I still miss the winter night sky, and I probably will for a while. But I can also welcome this new sky, the one that tells me this marvelous cycle is still in play and that it has different joys and wonders for me if I pay attention. And that is very good indeed.