Learning the language

One of my favorite authors, Barry Lopez, once gave advice to an aspiring writer, concluding with “Get out of town.” Only when you get far away from home do you face the necessity of learning new languages, meeting new people, understanding new cultures. It stretches you in unexpected ways.

I’m out of town now – way out. So far out that moss grows on the south side of trees – trees that never lose their leaves, that cast a lovely pungent scent, and that bear odd names: she-oak, black peppermint, coastal wattle, banksia, prickly box.Banksia serrata I am so far out of town that Orion has tipped upside down in the night sky, wallaby and pademelon are the local, equally common and voracious version of deer, and the constant roar of surf plays background for utterly unfamiliar birdsong and the chatter of cicadas. When I catch sight of something that I think I know – say, a weeping willow – it is usually, just like me, introduced. Likewise, in the midst of all this strangeness, it astonishes me to come across a butterfly that I instantly recognize – a painted lady. But an Australian Painted Lady: Vanessa kershawi. How did that happen?Vanessa kershawi

I knew that being in Tasmania and New Zealand would provide a different view of biodiversity, but what I didn’t anticipate was becoming a three year old again. I am continually asking Peter, our patient host at Windgrove (www.windgrove.com), “What’s that? What’s that?” And, because virtually everything is new to me, I have no filters for the uncommon, the extraordinary. When your senses are trained and attuned to a particular context, the slightest sound or movement doesn’t put you on alert. Here, not yet knowing the significance of anything, everything becomes significant.

toolsWith Peter’s help and some Tasmanian field guides in hand (building the toolkit), I’ve begun the first steps of learning what’s here. I am, in effect, undergoing the very education in biodiversity that I want to explore during my Fulbright project. This is an unexpected benefit, and one that is beginning to yield insights into what it takes to become familiar with an unfamiliar ecosystem. kookaburra2One of the most important is understanding the dynamics of the landscape and the environmental effects of variables like climate (this area is experiencing drought right now) or invasive species (that kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree just off the deck in the welcome rain, laughing).Even though English is spoken here, I feel like I’m learning a new language: individual species are the vocabulary, while how they fit together within their ecosystem is the grammar.



And, speaking of language, I am doing that other three-year old thing: inventing names. Bottle bird, toilet seat skink, flame butt, sugarberries. Eventually maybe I’ll figure out their real names.



I’ll be putting lots of new photos up on Flickr (sidebar), identifying and commenting on them as I am able. Feel free to visit Dan’s site as well, www.panopicnic.com. It’s not every traveler who gets to have a professional photographer-spouse tagging along, but I got lucky.





IMG_1859Meet Moose, my traveling Jemicy mascot.  He’ll be helping me document some of the places I’ll be visiting down under.

Moose are native to a broad swath of the northern hemisphere. But not Maryland.  What about the photo of the moose swimming under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge?


April fool!

For serendipitous reasons, Jemicy adopted as its mascot an animal far out of its native range. A chunky log beast with rebar antlers, built by kids as a holiday creation, took up residence and stuck around long enough to evolve into the handsome steel sculpture that now graces the entrance to the school.1781775_803760976368069_5871838327839486385_o

Since Jemicy has an introduced moose, I went looking to see if moose had also been introduced to New Zealand, as so many game animals were during the past centuries.  Sure enough, I came upon stories of the Fiordland moose – a mysterious, elusive, and possibly still extant remnant of a population left from release in the mid-1900’s. No verified sightings have occurred since 1952, but Moose and I will be keeping an eye out when we’re traveling around the South Island.



Back when the dog was young, we would take early morning walks on a path that led under some red mulberry trees.  One summer morning as we approached the trees, we surprised a large groundhog foraging for dropped berries.  The dog instantly lunged – this was her first sighting of a groundhog – and the groundhog bolted under a nearby shed.  It never reappeared, but her expectations never changed. For the next 12 years, every time we walked past this spot, her ears would prick forward, she would sniff intently at the pavement, and look toward the shed. It was a lifelong predatory habit born of one exciting moment.

A year or so ago, Dan and I took a walk down the Red Run trail, a path I take regularly.  As we approached the bridge, Dan pointed to the bank.  “What is that?” I grabbed my camera and took a few quick shots.  The blurry photos revealed a mink – a thrilling first sighting of an animal that, while common, is very elusive.

Like the dog with her first groundhog, I have since approached the Red Run bridge anticipating a mink.  40 times or more over the past year I have crossed that bridge, each time scanning up and downstream with my camera ready, in the grip of the predatory habit.

Crossing the bridge today, the habit paid off.







Woods work

December arrived gray, wet, and chilly this year.  When the sun finally broke through today, the wind whipped through the woods and sent the last of the leaves flying. Due to the rain and an extended Thanksgiving break, the kids had not visited their forts for some time.  There was much talk of repairs needed, of missing valuables, and of new ventures.

Someone came running to tell me exciting news: “We have an employee of the month!”  The lucky child was chosen, I was informed, by virtue of always wearing a big smile, and was honored with the gift of a special curved stick. Meanwhile, at the far end of the woods, two 3rd graders worked with a hockey stick and a homemade sickle to cut back a multiflora rose bush that was invading the play area. New welcome signs were hammered together, decorated, and displayed. Two gardeners dug and planted a small plot of soybeans that had been part of a holiday display, hoping for edamame in the spring.

All this, plus it was Thursday Trashday, one of our very favorite days of the week. I am already missing the Jemicy woods.