I feel like a voyeur. On the pond down the hill, Canadian geese have paired off for mating. I watch them from my kitchen window. Couples circle around each other, splashing and bobbing their heads in and out of the water. I do not avert my eyes when he pounces on her back, his beak gripping the skin of her neck and nearly drowning her. After just a few seconds, it’s over and they float off. Shouldn’t they share a cigarette or something?
I am washing breakfast dishes by Braille, feeling around the rim of the breakfast bowls to scrape off bits of dried oatmeal with my thumbnail. My eyes stay on the mating rituals.
I have stood over this sink and stared out this window for decades. I’ve watched the trees turn into frothy chiffon made of redbud, pear, magnolia, and dogwood blossoms. Those same trees turn to flares of red, orange and yellow in the fall. I’ve watched wobbly young sparrows, house finches and cardinals badger their parents for seeds from my feeder. I’ve seen my feeder encased in ice.
My interest is not limited to what’s outside. My focus – if you can call it that, as ideas swirl in my brain like bees swarming – pings from whatever is coming over on NPR, to thinking about my grandkids, to considering what to make for dinner, to worrying about the smell in my basement.
The press of the thoughts overwhelms sometimes. But Nature – observing it, learning about it, and realizing that I, too, am a part of it – acts as a balm for my antsy brain. Since the 1980s, I would read an article or two from the Natural History magazine before bed. Quiet time for the body and the mind.
Topics in Natural History are wide-ranging: dinosaurs to ecology, insects to big cats, microbes to star charts, evolution and the history and culture of our own species. It’s a way to get out of myself. In the past, I might have been fretting about a patient in the ICU, or juggling childcare options, or worrying about something my parents needed. It is also a way to gain perspective on my tiny spot in the universe, which to me is the human endeavor.
Currently, I am fixated on Putin’s assault on Ukraine, which bleeds into my mother’s stories of the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. I am sad for the world. I also worry that people have quit worrying about Covid. The current rate of a thousand U.S. deaths a day comes to 365,000 for the year!
Until his death in 2002, the first thing I looked for in every issue of Natural History was evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s column “This View of Life.” Gould defended and explained evolution. Being a polymath, Gould made his point through discussions of baseball, music, religion, whatever country he happened to be visiting, and through his research on snails.
The magazine has given me travel pointers. An article about the Great Dismal Swamp inspired me to tour it. In southern Virginia, the tangled vegetation and boggy byways could not be tamed despite George Washington’s surveying and canal digging. Its impenetrability made it a good hideout for runaway slaves. It still feels wild.
On the basis of one of Dr. Robert Mohlenbrock’s “This Land” column, we hiked Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand. Dr. Mohlenbrock, who is from nearby Southern Illinois, has been writing his botany-oriented columns since I started reading Natural History. He’s 90 years old now and still at it.
Once in a while, I’ll read something that completely changes what I think I know. I had always assumed that St. Helena, the South Atlantic island where Napoleon was exiled, had only ever been home to Napoleon and his jailers. In 2006, while digging a road, workers found the burial ground for about 5,000 people.
These were the bodies of enslaved Blacks chained on ships going to the Americas. In the mid-1800s, British anti-slavery naval patrols searched for and seized these ships. They freed the slaves, yes, but did not necessarily return them to Africa. Many were dropped off at St. Helena, by then, a naval way-station. How inexpressibly tragic, to live and die on a tiny, wind-swept island with no hope of going home.
I loved a recent article called, “On the Origin of Spices.” (As with many Chinese, I am a sucker for puns.) According to the authors, the plants that provide us with spices and herbs contain packets of potent chemicals that our taste buds sense as sharp (like garlic), bitter (like coffee), or spicy (hot peppers.) The plants developed these strong, noxious odors and flavors as defenses against being eaten by animals or humans.
Some humans found these flavors to their liking, and women passed that preference on to their children in utero. So we are born loving Camembert or garlic or fish sauce.
Archaeologists studied ceramics that were made by hunter-gatherers 6,500 years ago in a part of northern Europe. On these pots, they found “foodcrusts,” stuck-on bits of food like the oatmeal on my breakfast bowl.
Besides concluding that “that ancient northern Europeans were not very good at doing dishes,” the researchers determined that the hunter-gatherers ate proteins, like deer and fish, and starch, like acorns and hazelnuts. They also found ample amounts of garlic mustard seeds, which they think was used as seasoning.
It seems these ancient people were as particular in their food prep as we are. I like to imagine them sitting around a fire enjoying the aromas and flavors of their cooking. And the company.
Our food prep starts with Bill making oatmeal every morning. I wake up to that marvelous scent. Oatmeal cooking is as uniquely identifiable as that of coffee brewing. Bill adds protein and fat in the form of eggs, butter and cream. He lays out fresh raspberries and blueberries, apple bits and frozen peaches. He is my very own hunter-gatherer.
We are still doing what our long, long, long-ago ancestors did: gathering food, preparing food, enjoying food and cleaning up. The continuity is especially comforting when the world feels out of control. And the rhythm of the seasons is like a movie sound track, adding beauty and emotion to our lives on a subconscious level.
I am heartened that people study and write about the innumerable topics covered in Natural History. It takes passion to dig into all the corners of the natural world, like analyzing “foodcrusts.” Just as it seems to be my passion to write about how I see the world and my place in it.
Tell me: What calms you down?