Writing Out Loud

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The Case of the Talking Trees



Being the tree-lover that I am, I already knew they talk because I’ve heard them. No, I’m not crazy. I’ve actually heard them talking. Not in words, mind you, but in other ways, including simply in how they behave together, communicating when it’s time to bend a certain way and to straighten up again, and when to stand perfectly still. Trees speak many different languages, and it can be a veritable Babel to most people. But to someone who understands them, theirs is the most comforting voice in the world, far preferable to that of humans that almost always portends bad news of some sort or that has the ability to grate on the nerves.

Recently, I decided on a whim to research trees and to see if anyone else out there believes they communicate, and I was both surprised and delighted by what I learned. According to at least one researcher, it seems that a vast network of tiny root fibers produced by fungi that attach themselves to tree roots actually do communicate by sending nutrients from tree to tree. Perhaps the most fascinating fact I discovered was that the oldest and largest trees in a forest are indeed, as I’ve always suspected, the most important ones, as their root networks extend the farthest and involve the most trees around them, and at sometimes great distances. Not only are these considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of a woodland simply by their size and stature, but they also are responsible for keeping many of the younger trees in their “families” alive. If nothing else, this system produces yet another lovely metaphor for the importance of cooperation that is the hallmark among families or other groups of people whose lives intertwine much as do tree roots.

Known as a mycorrhizal association, fungi, the same type that produce the mushrooms we see pop up along a forest floor after a wet spell, multiply rapidly beneath the soil where they attach themselves to the roots of everything, including trees, that grows there. This greatly improves the trees’ ability to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil, but also creates a system by which these are distributed to whatever grows within the fungal network. The fungi help feed the trees, which in turn help to feed them. And this exchange, which also conveys information about soil conditions from tree to tree, is how they communicate. In some cases, the micorrhizal filaments are so small, they can be likened to the millions of similar threads that connect everything going on inside our own bodies. Hence, another wonderful metaphor for life!

I didn’t need to read the statement that “trees communicate.” I knew this. I like to take that one step further by saying that, not only do they talk to each other but to us, too. Don’t listen for words or even for distinct sounds. Listen, rather, with your heart and your other senses. Smell the air around trees. They’re telling you about how their very presence there produces that scent. Touch the bark of an old pine and feel its energy course through your own veins. And then, the next time you are in an old forest, close your eyes, clear your mind, and listen for that humming sound, very subtle but very much there, that only trees can make. It’s there. I promise.




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Trees...the sun and I...

For all who wonder what the purpose is of writing a book, I don’t have a ready answer, as the motivation is unique to each writer. A piece of writing can be the result of sudden inspiration, a message that absolutely must be shared, or a story that just won’t go away until it’s consigned to paper or word processing screen. Some writers become wildly successful, while others enjoy a modest sense of accomplishment. Then there are those who write simply because they have something to say that they think is important enough to share, and they don’t really care if they make a dime.

I’ve come to believe that what a person chooses to write about also says a lot about his or her reason for doing it. In my case, I write primarily about Nature. That takes the literary mantra “Write about what you know” to a whole new level, as I don’t just write about something I know a lot about but because it makes more sense to me than anything else does, especially now in these very troubled times, when NOTHING “out there” makes much sense. And when something makes that much sense and leaves no room for doubt, well, the words just flow.

That’s how it is with Nature and me: I get her and she gets me. And together, we make some pretty good music. In our world, there are no loud voices or disputes, and other than birds twittering, the wind blowing in the tops of pine trees, or the rustling of chipmunks chasing each other through the dry leaves, there is no sound at all. The benefit of that? I get to hear what my thoughts sound like, and what’s more, I hear whatever it is that Nature is trying to tell me. We have secrets, she and I, and from time to time, we share a few, and that is why I wrote this book.

It was time to let others in on it…




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Second Nature




Much has been written about how important reading is to the writing process. That might seem to some like putting the cart before the horse; but in the case of writing, it makes perfect sense. Of course, it’s entirely possible to read simply for the sake of reading, to soak up the narrative in search of the moment when the mystery is solved or the infidelity discovered. This type of reading does not take much into consideration beyond the story; and that’s fine, if one reads merely for pleasure.

For writers, however, reading is different in ways that can’t be adequately explained. Yes, writers also read for pleasure. But something else happens along the way that has nothing to do with the destination and everything to do with the journey there. Writers tend to notice things, usually unintentionally, that have to do with voice, style, sentence structure, and even the more mechanical aspects of a text such as punctuation and spelling. But what came first, the writer or the reader? And is it accurate to say that, for some, the seeds of the writing craft had already been planted and it just took the fertilizer in the form of thousands of written words to feed and nourish it?

I’m not sure how many writers would agree with this, but I have decided that writing, at least in its early formative stages, is more mimicry than anything else. A budding writer remembers what he or she has read in such a subliminal manner that it works its way into whatever he or she writes. This is a totally involuntary reflex, and yes, it comes from long years of reading that involve many different authors using a multitude of writing methods in the many different literary genres. To write poetry and write it well requires long years of reading poetry before an author finally finds his or her own mode. What started out as simply copying another’s style evolves eventually into a totally new one once the author finds the courage to speak in his or her own voice. The same goes for fiction or any other type of writing, for that matter. The first tentative baby steps involve imitating someone else, while the subsequent larger more assured strides are taken through new territory but that lead directly back into the writer’s own psyche.

In my own reading and writing life, I’ve noticed that it’s also possible to take that a step further. In my case, my love of nature impacts and transcends just about all that I do. Not a day, or even a few moments, go by when I’m not focused on some aspect of nature or not being distracted by something going on outside the realm of the human experience. And now, I find myself even looking for it in my reading, and when I find it, it’s almost a reason to celebrate. At such times, I say to myself…there it is, that reference, direct or subtle, to nature or to some aspect of her personality, or how she relates to our experience or to her influence on our perceptions of life and the world around us. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t much writing, if any at all, other than the most technical sort, that doesn’t touch upon nature at some point or at least gives her a passing nod.

Right now, I’m reading Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” a long letter he penned, while serving a short prison sentence, to a friend and alleged lover in which he mentions nature many times. I would not have expected to find such references within those pages. But Wilde, as so many other classical writers, routinely inserts mentions of the natural world in the form of gardens, flowers, woodlands and birds, in nearly all their works, because they knew instinctively that there really is true division between us and nature, and that no matter what we think, where we go, or what we do, it somehow and in some way, has to do with nature.

It’s thus a serendipitous joy for someone with a great love of nature to come upon these references and allusions in her reading. I’ve gone beyond wondering now if it will happen to almost being sure that it will, which makes my travels through the writings of others all the more pleasurable.



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Where Nothing is Expected

b25aa-img_0393Nature doesn’t ask your permission; it doesn’t care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You’re obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’ve taken so many walks in the woods that now, when I move through any other aspect of my life, be it a personal interaction or when I’m “out there” in the big chaotic peopled world, I adopt the same mindset, the same stance, and it is as if I am merely walking through woods of a different sort. I close my eyes to those things that irritate my vision and my ears to those sounds that grate on my spirit like fingernails across a chalkboard, replacing them in my mind at least with scenic beauty and pleasing sounds. Most of all, I close my soul off from all those things I don’t understand. Because in the woods, in the secreted places that few know about or venture to, I understand it all and can move forward without a single question other than perhaps who might have passed this way before me…

It follows then that I am most comfortable when writing about nature, for it is the source of all things to me, the place where all my comforts reside, and the fount of all the knowledge I could ever hope to possess. In its vast and forgotten places, I am most at home and where I belong. I understand now why some are haunted all their lives by a sense that they’re in the wrong place, and I also comprehend now what a struggle life can be for such people who literally must step outside themselves to function in the world of human interaction that, all too often, becomes more emotionally strenuous and stressful than they can bear.

How often have I heard someone say how much they enjoy the solitude and serenity of a week spent at the seashore or at a cabin or in a tent in the woods, how much they prefer that experience over that of their daily lives? The more complex and draining the human experience becomes, the more naturally some of us tend to gravitate toward that place where none, or very little of that, exists. It’s not a regression but more a stepping off the assembly line…for we are all, like it or not, products of the system we alone among all species have created, and we continue to move along allowing ourselves to be shaped by whatever forces exert the most power over us.

Once off that line, we are then free to turn to nature, and I immediately feel the difference between being propelled forward by societal pressure or simply standing there surrounded and towered over by forces that couldn’t care less whether I exist or not. And there’s the difference: society and the world of people do care to the extent that they exploit what I have to give, while nature ignores me and allows me to blend in and not worry at all about being appropriated for its use. That is so liberating and, I think, one of nature’s more abstract qualities that many people miss: in the woods or in any isolated place, we can let our guards down, be totally ourselves, and no judgment will ever come to us from the trees or other living things around us. There, we are never ridiculed, poked fun at, criticized or demeaned. We simply are, along with everything else, in a place that puts us into the proper perspective and where everything–tree, flower, or wild creature–is simply trying to move through its life as best it can.



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Nothing Else


Yesterday, I took a short drive to a place I’ve only just recently rediscovered and where I sat on a bench beneath a great old maple tree. During the late spring and summer, this tree’s leaves are a bright vibrant green. But at this time of year–late October–they’re intensely yellow almost to the point of glowing when touched by the sun. And yesterday was just such a sunny day, so that tree was literally on fire.

I looked up through its branches from where I was sitting and found there were no words…none at all…that could adequately describe how that felt…to look straight up through a startlingly intense tangle of leaf and bough that was, ironically, in its last throes before the next strong wind or storm decimates it for another year. But that’s the thing…for just another year, not forever, unless someone comes along to cut that tree down, thus ending its life for all time. But in the place where it stands, protected, well-cared-for, and revered, I doubt that will be happening any time soon.

When I first got there, I was alone. And the only sounds I could hear were the wind in those dazzling yellow leaves above me and the calls of birds. Every few seconds, the wind increased and a few more leaves fell from the tree, some doing a small pirouette as they descended, others simply floating on the breeze in a to-and-fro motion. At that point, I heard voices in the distance and noticed two women walking toward where I was sitting.

As they passed, they never stopped chattering, and that, of course, spoiled the silence and serenity for a few moments until they moved far enough away so I couldn’t hear them anymore. It occurred to me how vastly perceptions of certain places and experiences can and do vary. There I was, needing no other sound other than that of the wind and birds, while they walked along talking nonstop. While I can’t be absolutely sure, of course, I suspect that they missed the true wonder of that place, lost as it was in the sound of their own voices.

I hope that, at some point in their lives, they and others like them, DO take a moment now and then to be still and listen to what Nature has to say, because she’s got plenty to talk about in that wordless way of hers that I love so much. Trees communicate, too, and yesterday, that maple I sat beneath was singing for all the world to hear…something along the lines of…”Let your gaze linger on me and you’ll know there is nothing else you need…”



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In the Spaces Between Time



The concept of time is unique to humans, as it’s a way of organizing our lives so as to enable us to keep track of our activities, particularly when they involve other people. Time also figures in our personal spaces, as it is how we keep tabs on some of the things we enjoy doing, like watching a television program that comes on at a specific time or meeting a good friend for lunch. In some cases, the timing of these activities can be altered to suit ourselves for the sake of our personal convenience. A good example of that is the ability to record certain forms of entertainment to make them available to us when we’re ready to enjoy them. In those cases, time is merely relative, and we get to dictate it, whereas in other areas of our lives, it still dictates to a great extent where we go and what we do at any given moment. We still have to be “on time” to work every day or to a doctor’s appointment or that lunch with a friend. Lacking the ability to set a specific set of minutes or hours aside for many activities would throw life as we know it into complete disarray. So I think it’s safe to say that our particular concept of time provides a great deal of structure in our lives that we would literally be “lost” without.


In the world of nature, however, time isn’t such a rigid arbitrator of how all forms of life carry on, and much of their existence is organized around the seasons in some parts of the world. Just about everywhere, climate also plays a huge role in determining what happens and when. None of it, though, is rigidly encapsulated into increments of time but allowed to unravel at its own natural pace.


I never feel this truth more starkly than when I am in the woods or some other wild place. There, time doesn’t exist. In keeping with some unwritten law, it’s as if there is an invisible sentinel at the entrance to any trail or along any shoreline who admonishes me to leave my watches and clocks behind, and along with them, my adherence to some sort of schedule. The very essence of time clashes with all things natural, for it is only the slowly shifting difference between night and day that hints at the passing of what we know as time.


If plants and wild creatures operate according to some unwritten law of nature, it obeys that law instinctively and with no great ceremony. A rose knows when to bloom, and it has nothing to do with a device ticking on a wall or a changing number on a bedside table. For the sort of time that all living things operate by has nothing to do with how we humans gauge it and everything to do with every single form of life knowing just when something should happen. When a fox sees the light fading at the end of a day, it sets out foraging, returning to its den once the sun casts its first streaks across the eastern sky. When some species of birds sense the temperatures changing at the end of summer, they migrate to a warmer place to spend the winter.


In all of nature, there is what is called the circadian rhythm, a sort of internal clock, if you will, that operates as a response to darkness and light. What is known as a biological clock is actually large groups of molecules inside our cells that interact to control and coordinate all our individual bodily functions. Several “clocks” control all those functions, with one master clock in the brain, composed of nerve cells, controlling them all. There are no minute or hour hands in these clocks, nor do they produce red or green digital readouts on black screens. They operate, rather, as the result of the stimuli produced throughout our bodies based on our individual genetic makeups and how every single part of our bodies was designed to operate, be we plant or animal.


Yet, none of this is immediately apparent when one steps from the populated world into a woodsy and more remote one. Right away, I sense a shifting of my perceptions and a calming that originates deep within me, as though I am responding to an ancient voice calling me home. If we stripped the world of all the things that humans have produced over the course of time, we would be back to a lush green environment where nothing has yet been dirtied, sullied, or defiled. It’s naive to think that today’s wilder places have remained untouched by that, for our reach has extended to such a degree that the very water pulled up out of the earth by our vast forests is no longer pristine and pure. But from all that I’ve read, the trees, enormous swaths of them which blessedly still exist in some parts of the world, are still hard at work pulling that water up, filtering it through their millions of tissues, and then releasing it back–purified–into the atmosphere, where, sadly, it is once again tainted by the poisons that are the byproducts of our efforts to improve upon a planet that needed no improving to begin with.


So I step from the pavement or the edge of a dirt road onto a narrow woodland path and leave “all of the above” behind. Time ceases to exist for however many minutes I’m there, and even the light takes on an almost celestial quality. I like to think of being in the woods as being in a space between those minutes where nothing and no one acknowledges them. The life of those woods continues around me on all sides in the form of flora and fauna, and not a one of them ever looks at the time, nor do I…


From the Urban Wilderness: Life in the Southern Maine Woods




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Full Circle


Although I’d already received a few proofs of my first book, it was still a big thrill to hold the final and finished copy in my hands. I was immediately struck by the enormity of the accomplishment, of how this apparently diminutive thing represents the culmination of several years of work that involved seeing, thinking, and feeling to the degree that would allow others in to the process. What I was holding in my hands wasn’t just a collection of bound pages with a pretty cover but a testament to perseverance and a need to share a part of myself in a more lasting way.

I’d be less than honest, though, with both myself and anyone who chooses to buy the book if I said that it didn’t allow me to prove something to myself. It did. Those who know me know that I don’t come from a privileged background but rather from people who worked in the mills and for whom putting food on the table was a big accomplishment and something to be proud of, which it certainly was. My parents had both gotten very little education due to reasons that will forever remain a mystery to me. But like most underprivileged parents of that time, they hoped for more for me. And despite the many detours I’ve taken along the journey of my own life, I never lost sight of that fact nor did I ever stop feeling the pull toward some sort of accomplishment that would have made them both so proud.

That’s what this book symbolizes to me. As I’ve gone through it, revisiting the times that inspired the words that line its pages, going back to where I was when inspiration washed over me, I realize that, aside from trying to perpetuate my great love of nature and bringing it to readers in a different form, it has a much simpler and more organic meaning for me: it’s the fulfillment of a life’s dream, one that grew from two people’s desire to see their child do better than they had. Somewhere along the way, along the timeline of a young girl who had been given no reason to believe that she could author her own life, words happened. Words…something she could work with, manipulate, order, get to do her bidding, and shape her life.

I remember walking home from the park with my mother one summer afternoon and coming  upon a pile of rubbish that someone had deposited on the side of the street to be picked up by the trash collector. On top of heap sat a single book with dark blue binding and many pages. I was just 5 years old and not yet in school, but I picked the book up and riffled through it, wishing I could read the lines on those pages. That was 61 years ago, and I’ve held many other books since then that captured my imagination and took me to new places.

Now I hold in my hands a book that I wrote myself. My circle is complete.

From the Urban Wilderness: Life in the Southern Maine Woods