Monday, September 14, 2009

By Land or By Water

Spent last weekend on the river. Something so right about putting all the stuff I need for a weekend in a boat and taking off from shore (sure). Sam fished, intensely, as usual. I did too, some (didn't catch nearly as much as he), but I also just enjoyed the quiet, the flow of the river, paddle in water and slip thorugh waves and rocks, see what's around the next bend.

We saw an eagle take off above us, woomph woomph helicopter noise as it unfolded its wings. Also saw an osprey dive and catch a fish, feet first.

Had the girl scouts over at our place for a picnic. I had set up the games: badminton, bocci, kickball. But they elected to walk in the creek, all the way down to the hammock we keep in a wooded grove. After burgers and dogs, somebody said, "let's go back to the hammock." And somebody else: "by land or by water?"

Next weekend, mud run and hanging rock observatory to watch the raptors migrate.

Friday, September 4, 2009


I’ve been bad. Awful really. Terrible. Blame the ebony jewelwing. The nighthawks that flew over the other night. Blame the great blue herons that fish in our creek, or the little green ones. Blame the garter snake the kids recscued from the kittens. Or the screech owl that puts us to bed at night. Mostly blame the sun.

My last entry was May 11. Around that time, we were learning of the my father’s melanoma. We made trips Pennsylvania, the Poconos, about six or seven during the summer, and each time he got worse as the cancer metastasized. A month ago today he passed away.

So I haven’t been writing blog entries. I’ve been writing obituaries, eulogies, and tributes. As I worked around the place last night, I certainly thought of him, a man who spent a great deal of time tinkering around the house. My stepmother just called to say that she has no idea how he kept the deck and driveway so free of leaves . . .

Nature has been some comfort in all of this. I wrote in the eulogy that loss reminds us of what is joyful about our world even as it wounds us. We look at something with a renewed sense of both its splendor, and its brevity.

This weekend, out on the river for some healing time, though any time I’m on a river, just the smell of it, I’ll think of my father.

Monday, May 11, 2009


We spent the weekend near Mt. Rogers and went out on one of the field trips with a birding group. It was a pleasure to be with such knowledgeable people. Allen Boynton of VDGIF led the excursion but he was aided by Scott Jackson-Ricketts, whose keen ears turned up Canada (musical jumble that ends with pickety wip) and chestnut-sided warblers (pleased to meet you . . . I want to add, hope you guess my name) deep in the hardwoods. The other birders helped as well: one guy said he had been birding for over 37 years, and he knew his songs: how to tell the black-throated blue (zoo zoo zoo zee) from the green (zee zee zee zee zoo zree). We saw least flycatchers (chebeck) and a redstart, red-eyed vireos and blue headed ones (a slower, slurred red-eyed). All beautiful. Alan and Scott were able to catch some in their scope for all of us to view. For some reason, I kept having trouble finding the little guys in my binoculars. I could see them perched on a limb, but then would fail to aim at them or something, so I’m going to have to be a better binocularist if I’m going to be a better birder.

The highlight for Sam was probably a ruby-crowned kinglet, which he had never seen before, but I think it was also just the company of other bird lovers. At one point we were all were walking down an unpaved road, Comer’s Creek, and saw a cedar waxwing. A local farmer approached in his red truck, but all the birders were still looking up, tripods in the street. They’re a funny bunch. If there’s a good looking bird to see, all else stops. The guy in the truck was clearly not used to seeing such a crowd of people before on this road, and for sure wondered what we could all be staring at.

Several of them were glad to have a young person along, the only one. They wanted to know his favorite bird (not sure), most interesting (yellow warbler), and if he had a “life list.” He doesn’t really, yet, but he might as well. This birding thing, and it is an activity, to bird, doesn’t require too much exercise but it will get you out, and is a good hobby to foster. An obsession for some, yes, but it was easy to see that these people, at 8:00 on a Saturday morning in the Appalachian woods, many had left spouses and family home to be there, are happiest doing something they love.

In other birding news, a friend of ours planted 10 bluebird boxes on our farm and Sam is helping to keep track of their progress. We don’t have any bluebirds in our boxes yet, but we do have a chickadee haven. Chickadee nests are built out of moss. If they were bigger, they look something to take a nap in . . . Here’s the update we sent to Jason Davis, a biologist at Radford University who is studying bluebirds in the area (he and Judy Guinan told me they may be on a hiatus during the summer, but I said we may keep sending reports anyway, so we can at least feel like we’re a part of a real scientific study, have "real responsibilities" to paraphrase our VP candidate)

Box 1 - Chickadee Nest, six eggs (change over last time)
Box 2 - wren's nest (nest too high to see if eggs)
Box 3-4 - NA
Box 5 - Still starling nest, not much progress
Box 6 - wren's nest, possible eggs (also too high to check)
Box 7 – tree swallow nest
Box 8-9 - zip
Box 10 - 6 chickadee chicks!

Oh, and we have Baltimore orioles nesting in our sycamore. And the red-winged blackbirds are everywhere. Now to get out and bird.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reed Award from SELC

Great news: A Natural Sense of Wonder has been selected to receive the Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing about the Southern Environment from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

I didn't know if I had enough of an "issue" for that award, an endangered place or species (save for Childus Outsidus) but so glad to hear, especially coming from a panel of judges whose own work I admire.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Child's Play

Great review from Robin Elton at Eco Child's Play.

The essays "are a pleasure to read; humorous, beautifully written and clearly influenced by passionate naturalists such as Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, and E.O. Wilson. Each essay rings with wonder and awe, both for the world around him and the children beside him, and the tone never veers toward preachy or sanctimonious. "

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

We'll Show 'Em

Usually when we leave the funnest, funkiest, best ski place in the land, Whitegrass, and head home, both cold and snow fade as we head southeast. But this weekend, after we climbed the last pass to the Virginia border, we saw flakes in Harrisonburg, and by the time were up to cruising speed on southbound I-81, a storm had begun. When we hit Roanoke, the big city round here, the driver’s knuckles were nearly as white as the snow.

When we arrived home the trees were hanging low over the driveway with the heavy stuff, our first real snow this year. And inside the robotic alert voice on our answering machine told us what we wanted to hear: no school.

The kids are older now, pre-adolescent, and though a good snow day still thrills them, my wife and I were the first out the door. We put on our skis and blazed trails around the farm. I kicked out along the creek and scared up a great blue heron, a bird that frightens very gracefully: slow jump and lift out of the creek, unfold wide wings to row high above sycamores.

We skied around the rest of the place, looking for tracks in the snow and the stories they might tell. A rabbit must live near the old general store. Something bigger by the cherry tree. Little feet scurried out by the grove.

Then back to the hill, the “intermediate” one, first on skis, but the wind created a crust, a hard crud over soft crystal, so instead of graceful “S” turns--if snow tracks tell stories--mine show a zig instead of a smooth glide, off balance, throw poles up, catch self, try to turn again and recover, lunge back, throw one ski out, straighten body, deep drift again and trip over, break fall with side of face and shoulder, catch snow in eyebrows, melt snow in mouth. In the snow: a bad snow angel, a big round dent.

We also took our skis off and tried a few attempts with the sleds but that crust was hard to break through. I had much trouble keeping our purple plastic toboggan thing going straight. It seemed to gather speed okay, but then turn suddenly and unexpectedly, skid out in the rear, with no way to steer into this one, and passenger dumped into another head over heels roll.

We had to pack the snow, of course, had to do our duty, we said, to make it easier for the kids. Sometime the parents have to show the kids how it’s done. So we kept at it until they joined us, and then spent most the morning up and down, in to warm up, and back out, sometimes on skis, others on sleds, sliders and something Sam calls “Yeti,” his abominable snow-sliding monster.

The second day, day two, school was again closed, even though the roads were clear. But we live south of the Mason Dixon Line, and snow is a major inconvenience here, very unexpected, so we just don’t bother with it. We close schools even at the mention of snow.

Day two I was finally catching up on some school work, sitting at writing desk, looking out on the snow-covered hill, a white expanse only occasionally broken up by tufts of brown meadow grasses. I could barely see their brightly colored hats bob up and down on the far hill, as the kids went about their work, trudging back up the hill, but I could hear their screams, especially Elliot’s, as they zipped back down.

These screams must have attracted the neighbor kids, the neighbor kids we have never seen or met. We’ve been here eight months and barely seen these kids, Timothy and Corley, or their parents, but they asked to join my kids on the hill, the “expert” slope, suicide run. And they did. They’re homeschooled but they had the day off too, and together my kids and these neighbors, new friends, were out the whole day, from lunch until I had to leave for a 5:00 class. They hadn’t met before, but snow drew them out, leveled the playing field—or sledding hill. They made a snow fort and tested out the ice on the creek. It didn’t hold.

Show them how it’s done? Sam set the length record for both days, grabbing Yeti by the handles and a running start, dive head first and down the steep slope, hang on for dear life over bumps, whiplash, wind in hair, sun on face, and glide to a stop in snowy pasture. Sledding records. Out all day. Meet the neighbors we have yet to bother to meet. They showed us. They showed us in their ruddy cheeks, their roller coaster screams.

At the end of the day, another robotic message came in: there would be a “Standards of Learning Writing Test” on Wednesday, “please make sure your child gets rest.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

Audubon Naturalist Review

From Julie Dunlap:

Maps captivate Rick Van Noy. Delaware River maps, labeled with depths of channels and classes of rapids, opened his teenage world to canoeing adventures. Mapmakers became the focus of his scholarly work in literary criticism—investigations of Thoreau and other writers who create maps, and of cartographers, such as John Wesley Powell, who write about the landscapes they chart. Van Noy’s understanding of how both types of mapmakers struggle to convey their intimate connections with particular environments is revealed in his first book, Surveying the Interior: Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place.

Now a young father, Van Noy finds new meanings in maps. Surveying the fresh terrain of parenthood, he discovers that today’s children risk getting lost on their home ground. Tethered inside by game systems, YouTube, and parental anxieties, kids learn little and care less about the wild creatures and unmown places outside their doors. The causes and perils of youthful alienation from nature have been elucidated by Richard Louv in his celebrated Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin, 2005). Van Noy’s book serves a different purpose. As he puts it, “... I leave the diagnosis for others, focusing instead on the prospects for recovery, on what can happen when kids are allowed to naturally play.”

A Natural Sense of Wonder begins in fall, with a quiet essay about walking to school. Readers get to know Sam, age 7, Elliott, age 5, and their suburban Virginia neighborhood, from the chinquapin tree on Seventh Street to a starling flock on Eleventh. Along the way, Van Noy points out lessons in ecology, history, health, and family that his children are gaining while their peers commute to class in cars. Drivers in the drop-off lines may think the Van Noys’ walks quaint, but the author insists that developing human brains need direct experience of the colors, textures, and smells of their surroundings. Reconnecting kids with place, he argues, is not optional, “It’s about survival.”

The family ventures farther as the seasons progress, though not with unalloyed enthusiasm. The kids sometimes balk at early departures, and their mom mutinies on a protracted canoe trip. Wrong turns and forgotten tents make Van Noy himself question the intent of their forays. Such hesitations and missteps enhance the book’s accessibility to other parents, and practical tips add to its usefulness. Take toys along, for example, when you lead children to the creek; they’ll forget about the Wii back home as Barbie bobs down the rapids. Removing yard fences is another key, for barriers designed to keep children safe too often block them from getting wet and dirty. “The only way to experience the world around you,” says Van Noy, “is to jump in.”

An English professor, the author refers to Thoreau, Dillard, and other writers as signposts along his way. Eventually the path carries his family to the Maine coast where Rachel Carson once explored. Where Sam and Elliott splash in tidepools, Carson collected periwinkles for her nephew, Roger. Such intimate adventures, says Van Noy, put “maps in their heads, of not only where they are but what inhabits that landscape.” If only all children would be taken outdoors, to wriggle their toes underwater and get to know the sky above home. “They would feel like full participants of the landscapes they inhabit,” he writes, “happily roaming the ridges and creeks in a world that needs their attentiveness.” Van Noy does more than share Carson’s hope that every child be granted an indestructible sense of wonder that lasts a lifetime. He is doing his best to make sure it happens.

Freelance writer Julie Dunlap lives in Columbia, Maryland, and writes about environmental history and environmental education.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rule Number Seven: From Orion

I knew I like that Brian Doyle. Enjoyed his "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever" in the last issue of Orion and now this great review of NSW in the Janurary/February edition:
The greatest virtue of Van Noy’s lean and thoughtful book isn’t his thesis, now proved by oceans of evidence about increased obesity and decreased attention spans, or even his graceful and penetrating prose; it’s the witty ways he draws his two children and their friends outside, away from the electric drug—taking the long way to school, poking headlong into every vacant lot, building a treehouse, wandering off on birding adventures, hiking with other families, so that the day isn’t a Boring Family Outing but motley play, skating, wading in creeks, salamandering, poking in tide pools, running around in the dark chasing lightning bugs, and, well, just puttering around with open eyes and ears.

“Imagine if [kids] knew plants and animals the way they knew brand names and logos, if they knew mountains the way they know malls,” writes Van Noy. “They
would feel like full participants in the landscapes they inhabit, happily roaming the ridges and creeks in a world that needs their attentiveness. . . . I share with Rachel Carson the hope that children be given ‘a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.’” And that’s the lesson I’ll carry away from this book, and the memorably sinewy phrase, too: an indestructible sense of wonder. I suspect nothing could be as useful, as generative of joy and mercy, as energizing and refreshing, as nakedly holy, as a faucet of wonder that never shuts off; and if we really do love and savor children as much as we say we do, if we really think them the heart of what we might be at our best, the secrets that might heal the bruised and broken world, we can give them nothing more crucial and nutritious than that.

Friday, January 2, 2009


We began the New Year by washing some bottles we found on our property, three small green and one larger Pepsi, all glass, will twist-off bottle caps that read “Expires 9/30/88.” Then we filled them with a rolled-up message, a large “GREETINGS” visible from the outside: “If you find this bottle, please write back to us. . . . We set this bottle adrift on January 1, 2009 from Mill Creek, in the New River Watershed. Please tell us when and where you found it and who you are." We tied a red bow around the neck to help distinguish these from the rest of the trash. We hope that this, and “Greetings,” and the shape and color of these bottles, will make them noticeable. Then we walked down below “Sam’s Dam” and bid them bon voyage, ran with them along the bank and saw them navigate snags and bends, tumble and roll down some mini-rapids, “This is a real adventure Dad,” Elliot told me, only to watch them get hung up in some ice near our neighbor’s creek. They will have to wait until the next thaw, or flood, before they continue their journey.

We also took down our tree, a live one, purchased this year again from the Lion’s Club in Radford. I have about a 30% success rate with these live fraser firs, which like it cool, so we’re hoping that they’ll do better out in the country. We chose a spot up near the sledding hill and to provide some privacy break from another neighbor’s field. I can see it from my desk window now.

It was quite a chore getting it out of the house. We have a dolly that we used to move it out, then we ran the dolly up onto a trailer that hooks onto the tractor. Sam drove the tractor switchback up the garden hill while Elliot and I pushed and tried to keep the dolly from rolling right out the back again. But we made it and after rolling the tree in its new home, we eyed it up to plumb and filled with dirt, keeping the trunk base clear and just above the ground, cut the ropes and pulled back the burlap some, add water and good wishes for a healthful New Year.

Sam kept right on digging a “foxhole” nearby when we were done. That’s one good thing about having some land. At our old place, I feared twisting an ankle at every sign of buried treasure or trench. But there plenty of places out here for foxholes.

Later in the day, we took a walk up Piney Woods and up a path that travels through some neighbor’s 50 acres. We met them the other day, an older couple, Jim and Linda Coyle, and they gave us permission to walk their land anytime. “Enjoy,” he said to me. “Really? You don’t mind?” He smiled again, waved his hand as if to cover the perimeter, ridge to ridge, road to creek, “Enjoy,” he said again, a little slower and more emphatic. So we walked past what Linda says was an old schoolhouse, brown clapboard with white trim, maroon metal roof, and then we found a fallen tree to cross Mill Creek. We walked home along the creek, crossing a built bridge this time and a gazebo of some people we don’t yet know.

All in all, a very good start to 2009, a year in which I hope for more of the same: exploring the creek, planting something green, sending greetings (by whatever means) to friends downstream. Whoever you are, wherever, happy 2009, and thanks for visiting.