I Sleep with the Windows Open

It was my turn to write the newspaper article this week. Here’s what I submitted:

I Sleep with the Windows Open
by Jennifer Schlick

After my brother was born, dad and the neighbors transformed the attic into a bedroom for my sister and me. Tongue and groove knotty pine boards on walls and ceiling created an atmosphere of rustic log cabin. The men also created a built-in table that served as both desk and vanity, a big double closet, and even a little sewing nook with built-in cabinet storage and a top big enough for laying out and cutting the fabric. Twin beds were placed on either side of the south-facing window, each with its own reading lamp. It’s a sweet space that I use to this day. I’m typing this article at a computer I’ve set up on that built-in desk.

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Katydid: “Katydid! Katydid!”

Being just under the roof, the temperature of the room varies widely with the season and the weather. The heat of a summer night can be mitigated by a window fan placed in the north window, blowing out, pulling cool night air past the beds. It works brilliantly on all but the hottest and most humid nights. The cold of winter can be managed by leaving the door at the bottom of the stairs open and opening a floor vent that allows heat to rise from the 1st floor furnace. But I like it cold and I like wearing sweaters, so I rarely resort to these measures. In fact, I only close the windows when an unruly wind blows the rain in, or when the winter temperatures are truly frigid.

I realized recently what an intimate relationship I have with nature in my neighborhood as a result of those open windows, an intimacy that goes beyond an awareness of seasons and weather brought to me by variations in temperature and humidity. That realization started with a scritchy-scratchy noise outside the south window, just under the roof. It didn’t take me long to decide it must be a bat. The next day, when it was light enough to see, little “chocolate sprinkles” attached to the screen added evidence to support my guess. Guano. I was pretty sure. It was months before I finally saw the dark silhouette of a bat in flight swooping from under the roof just after hearing the scritchy-scratchy noise.

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This is not the Screech Owl I heard outside my window. At least it is doubtful this is the very one.

One morning, awake and procrastinating the start of my day, the sound of bat’s return coincided with the whinny of an Eastern Screech Owl, and that got me thinking about the soundscape outside my window. I began a mental list of the dusk-night-dawn animals I know are out there because I’ve heard them. In spring my lullabye might be the high clear peeps of Spring Peepers and the elegant trill of American Toads. In summer I fall asleep to the chirp of crickets and katydids calling out their own names. There are times of year when I don’t need to set an alarm because the dawn chorus coincides exactly with the time I wish to awaken. Robins, phoebes, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, crows, and others sing me awake, or a Red Squirrel might chatter in the boundary line of spruces. The soundscape might include the non-animal conversation of winds, sometimes gentle and sometimes aggressive, rain or hail on the roof, long low rumbles of distant thunder, sudden explosions of nearby thunder, or a muffled snowy quiet.

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American Robin: “Cheer-up! Cherio!”

Odors come through the windows, too: that fresh air smell that doesn’t have a name, the smell of rain that does (petrichor). A skunk went through the neighborhood more than once over the years. And let’s not forget that humans are a part of nature: the smoke from summer campfires tells tales of friendly gatherings and is often accompanied by guitar music, songs and laughter. The winter fireplace smoke is quiet and feels warm and cozy.

When I’m outside during the day, I favor my sense of sight and neglect my other senses to a certain extent. When I’m in my room, sight takes a back seat, but isn’t totally useless. I awoke at 1:00 a.m. a fews days ago thinking I had overslept. A glorious full moon was flooding my room with light. And I love to put sleep aside and don my glasses during a thunderstorm so I can get glimpses of lightning bolts.

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Full Moon

I work at an organization whose mission is to connect people with nature. To that end, we often implore you to get outside. Today, I invite you to connect with your backyard by sleeping with your windows open.

Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon Community Nature Center. ACNC is located one-quarter mile east of Route 60 on Riverside Road between Jamestown, New York and Warren Pennsylvania. Visit auduboncnc.org or call (716) 569-2345 for more information.

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A Sense of Place

It was my turn to write for the weekly column.  Here’s what I came up with:

A Sense of Place
by Jennifer Schlick

I had a peak experience while on horseback in the summer heat and sun of Bryce Canyon.  Brilliantly orange hoodoos rose above me against a sky so intensely blue as I listened to the musical song of Canyon Wrens and watched the seemingly playful, though actually purposeful flights Violet-green Swallows.

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Bryce Canyon National Park

I’ve walked in the desert, and learned the names of cacti and shrubs that can survive in a landscape of sun and drastic temperatures.  I’ve watched seals swimming in the waters off Cape Cod and poked around in the sand and pebbles looking for shells, marveling at the power of the moon to create the tides.  I’ve hiked above the tree line in the Rocky Mountains where the air is thin and the view magnificent.  I’ve camped in Arkansas just west of the Mississippi and watched dozens of species of birds fly overhead, and on the bank of the White River near the Badlands in South Dakota on a full moon night.

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A Cape Cod Shoreline

All of these places hold special memories for me, but none of them is home.  None of them engenders that special “sense of place” that makes me feel whole.  It takes good old western New York forests and rolling hills, and streams to do that.

That phrase – “sense of place” – became the buzz-phrase of the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Psychology and sociology students wrote papers about it.  I found one online prepared by Jennifer Cross from the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University, written in late 2001 and based on interviews she conducted in the late 1990s with people in one particular location.  In the paper, Cross describes six categories of relationships to the landscape.  I looked for myself in these descriptions and found two that resonated – biographical and spiritual.

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Keyser Lake, Camp Timbercrest, Randolph, NY

The biographical relationship, Cross explains, is “characterized by a strong sense of identification with place and a relatively long residence.  In these relationships, place is an integral part of personal history.”  I was born and raised in the Jamestown area.  I’ve been away from Western New York only for relatively short trips.  My longest times away were eleven months in Japan when I was a Rotary Exchange Student, and two and a half years while in school in the Phoenix, Arizona region.  Other trips were at most a month long.

So, yeah.  I have a long residence here.  And a good deal of my time since childhood has been spent out in it.  I grew up in that wonderful era when children were kicked out of the house after breakfast and only popped in when hungry.  We played in our yard, or the neighbors’ yards, or the schoolyard, (or the secret places we weren’t allowed to go to – shh, don’t tell my mom) from morning until bedtime.  I was privileged to spend two weeks of every summer at Girl Scout Camp in nearby Randolph, New York.  As Jennifer Cross explains, “spending time in a place creates memories and experiences, which become part of a person’s individual and community identity.”  This place is me.  I am this place.

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Icy Layers, Chautauqua Gorge, Mayville, NY

Cross describes the spiritual relationship as being “based on something much less tangible than personal history. [The interviewees] describe relating to place in a profound way, of having a deep sense of belonging or resonance that is difficult to describe and is often unexpected.”

This happens to me most often when hiking.  I am simply awestruck at the beauty that surrounds me, the diversity of plants and animals, and the interconnectedness of it all.  I am humbled to realize I am a part of it, too.  I breathe the forest air and have the sensation that the forest is breathing my air – that we breathe together as one whole being.  The water rushing or meandering or trickling through gorges, streams and gullies is my life blood.  We are one.

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A Frosty Morning, Allegany State Park, Cattaraugus County, NY

I now have two dear friends and a daughter who live out west and who tell me all the time how much I would love Colorado.  Another friend extols the virtues of his Florida home and tempts me with photographs of wildlife and ocean landscapes and sunsets.  My siblings-in-law have retired on a little island off the coast of Honduras and beg me to come visit.

Visits might be fine.  But I don’t know how any place but western New York can be home.

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Mist and Mystery, Busti, NY

Jennifer Schlick is program director at the Audubon Nature Center, 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, New York and Warren, Pennsylvania.  For more information about the Nature Center, call (716) 569-2345 or visit http://jamestownaudubon.org.

Jennifer Cross’s paper can be found at http://western.edu/sites/default/files/documents/cross_headwatersXII.pdf.

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Stress Relieving Walk

I’ve been putting all my brain power into a big fundraiser for the Nature Center where I work. On Thursday afternoon, just an hour before we had to drive down to set everything up, I took a much needed nature break. Here’s some of what I saw.

Staghorn Sumac:
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I love Staghorn Sumac. Much of it is more brilliantly colored than this one at this time of year, but I didn’t find any fiery ones on my walk. This deciduous shrub produces fuzzy red berries on the female plants which persist all winter and provide food for birds, and can be used to make tea. It spreads like crazy from the root system, so you often see big patches of the stuff that are tall in the middle and shorter as you move out from the center. Click here for lots more info from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Red Maple against a background of Red Pine:
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After checking the forest service website (which you can visit by clicking here), I’ve decided Red Maple is the Superlative Tree. Consider these quotes:

  • one of the most abundant and widespread trees in eastern North America
  • the greatest continuous range along the Atlantic Coast of any tree

I’m fond of Red Maple in all seasons. The spring “flowers” are very interesting.

The Red Pines in the background are not native to our area. They were planted when the Jamestown Audubon Society first got the property – a vast goldenrod field – in order to provide wildlife shelter. If you pay close attention to our Red Pines, you will notice they are always growing in straight lines! If that’s not a clue that they were planted by humans, I don’t know what is. Read more about Red Pines by clicking here.

White-tailed Doe:
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This little lady was nibbling away in one of our bird banding net lanes. I took several shots through the brush and while she noticed me, she did not seem concerned with my presence. So, in order to get a better shot, I sneaked down the “steps” and into the net lane with her. She let me snap the above shot, then turned up her tail:

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White-tailed deer are very common in our region. And this is the season of the rut. The males’ antlers are quite impressive at this time of year. After mating they will shed them and I will search for the shed antlers and probably not find any, if past experience is any indicator… (sad face) Read more about White-tailed deer by clicking here.

Swamp Rose:
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I wish we could eliminate some of the non-native Multiflora Rose that grows like crazy at the Nature Center and replace it with native Swamp Rose. It’s a much prettier, if less prolific plant. Its blooms in spring are showy and pink, and in fall the hips are big and the leaves so colorful. You can learn more at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website by clicking here.

Some Leaves on the Surface of the Pond:
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Those little round ones are Frogbit, an non-native that we discovered in our waterways at the Nature Center back in 2006. It has since spread to all the ponds. It makes really pretty little flowers, which is why it was brought here from Europe – to decorate backyard ponds. But it sure makes thick mats, which isn’t good for native wildlife… It doesn’t look bad in this photo, but boy can it grow fast! Read more about it by clicking here.

Even more Swamp Rose because it’s so pretty at this time of year:
IMG_7019 Swamp Rose

And the Big Sugar Maple; I just can’t resist a photo every time I pass it:
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This great, old sugar maple was on the property when Jamestown Audubon Society acquired it. It is a massive tree and I have a hard time walking past it without snapping a few photos. I worry about our sugar maples in this era of global climate change. You can read about sugar maples in general by clicking here. And you can read about the effects of climate change on sugar maples by clicking here.


The auction was a great success. Many thanks to all the volunteers, donors, guests, and to the venue staff for making it so much fun.

And many thanks to Mother Nature for the stress relieving break she gave me while in preparation for it all!

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Lunchtime Walk-About

Tuesday was a day jam-packed with meetings.  A break at lunchtime between meetings afforded me a walk. It was a working walk – looking for potential volunteer projects for a small group that will be coming in next week. But plenty of time to be stopped by beauty.

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Winterberry Holly

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Grasses and Cattails

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An Oak Leaf, Stuck in the Hemlock

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Beech Leaves Catching a bit of Sun

This I Believe

I delivered this talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Jamestown today.

This I Believe

I have long been a fan of the NPR series “This I Believe.”  I admire the people who can so eloquently and so succinctly put their beliefs into words.  And I have long wanted to write my own “This I Believe” essay.  The problem is, I have always struggled with knowing exactly what it is I believe!

Last spring, I rented a cabin at Allegany and went with my dog to hike, to take pictures, to write, to be alone with my thoughts.  One of my goals was to write my essay.  I figured the solitude would afford me the time and space to focus and get this essay written once and for all.

It was a nice idea.  I struggled and struggled and gave up, choosing instead to enjoy my hikes with the dog.

A couple of months later, Dick and Joyce Rose approached me about doing a talk for the UUC.  I said sure and told them I’d get back to them with a title and description. After a little thought, I picked “This I Believe” as my title, because there’s nothing like a deadline to get a project done!  Am I right?

And so I continued to struggle…  I struggled with semantics.  I looked up the definitions of belief, believe, faith, and so on.  I had philosophical discussions with family, friends, my dog and myself about the difference between belief and faith and my fascination with sentences that began with “I believe in…” and “I believe that…”

Belief:  acceptance of something as true.

Faith:  unquestioning belief.

I believe in God.  What does that mean?  What is god?  What does it mean to believe IN something?  Just accept it as true?  If I’m going to accept that God is “true” then I would need to know what God is and that seems pretty unknowable so…

How about beginning the sentence with “I believe that…”  I’d be forced to be clearer about what I believe:  I believe that the concept of God is a comforting idea to many people…  Oh dear… now isn’t that just too intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying?

When all the conversations and reflection led nowhere, and all the thinking and writing led nowhere, I’d hike.  And take pictures.  And I’d hear myself uttering a simple phrase over and over.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

I realized that of all possible combinations of words – that is the phrase I voice more than any other.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

Now, when I am trying to get to know someone, I listen to what they say and I watch what they do.  I pay attention to the choices they make.  Why not use this same strategy to get to know myself better.  In other words, might I discover my own beliefs by reflecting on each word in this phrase that I use so often?  Couldn’t hurt to try.

Let’s start with “Oh.”

Oh

I am awakened from a temporary slumber and reminded to pay attention.  Oh.  I am surprised and delighted by something I’m just now noticing.  Oh.  Stop thinking and just be present, why don’t you?  Oh.  Wow.

Oh my…

My

Not your.  Not his.  Not her.  Not their.  Not our.  My.  This is my experience and no other’s.  This is mine.  I can attempt to share it with you, my hiking partner, by pointing it out.  Or I can try to capture it in a picture and share it with you later.  But whatever you get from my telling or my showing is (a) second hand, and (b) your experience, not mine.  This is mine.  The thing that made me say “Oh” – it’s mine.  All mine.

Oh my god…

God

“God” is an unlikely word for a self-proclaimed atheist to utter.  For me, there is no god, at least not the kind that can be thought of as a person with whom one has prayerful conversations.  But when I am awe-struck, I invoke the name of god.  Perhaps it is because there is a sensation that is as difficult to describe as is god.  Sometimes it is a feeling of connectedness.  Sometimes it is an appreciation of creation and the wonder of it all.  It is a losing of my sense of self – which seems like a contradiction to what I just said about the word “my”.  Still, it is MY loss of self – my blending with the universe.

Oh my god, this…

This

This stuff that is all around me.  When I’m hiking, “this” is the scene that surrounds me – the canopy overhead, the trail beneath my feet, the air I am breathing, the colors and contours I am seeing, the sounds that come from around me and in me.  “This” might be a rolling landscape or a tiny patch of moss on a log, a gushing creek full of snow melt and run-off or a tiny spring flower.

Admittedly, I tend to whisper this phrase most often when I am hiking – surrounded by the natural world.  But I have used it in other situations as well, or at least I have had the same sensation in other situations that causes me to say the phrase.  I still remember a live performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that Bob and I saw in London in January of 1989 that had this effect on me.  When the show was over, we sat for several minutes, unable to move because the experience had been so intense.

I’ve been in touch with “this” at certain movies, standing before certain paintings or sculptures in art galleries, at parties given to honor someone, while listening to music, watching dancers, or reading a book.  Heck, I’ve even felt this way while watching TV – and sometimes it’s during the commercials!  “This” thing that makes me say “oh” can creep up on me at any time, in any moment.  And when it does – bam – I am fully present.

Which leads me to IS.  Oh my god, this is…

Is

Not was.  Not will be.  Is.  Now.  This moment.  Thoughts of the past are gone.  There is no anticipation of the future.  In these awe-struck moments, I am fully present.  Right here.  Right now.  As I stand or sit and revel in the moment, past and future disappear, as does any feeling of separateness. I’m connected. If it’s a hiking moment, I’m not just viewing the scene, I’m not just in the scene; I am the scene, and the scene is me.  If it’s a theatrical moment, I feel fully a part of the experience – audience and actors creating a kind of unity – a oneness.

Oh my god, this is SO…

So

Beyond “very.”  More intense than “most.”  To the extreme.  I am overwhelmed by the degree.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

Beautiful

It’s more than visual.  When I am hiking and I stop to appreciate beauty and say “Oh my god, this is so beautiful,” I am awash with sensation.  Sight.  Sound.  Smell.  Touch.  I can close my eyes and the scene is no less beautiful.  The way the wind slides through branches and leaves, the songs of birds and frogs and chipmunks and squirrels, the way my boots make rustling noises in the dried leaves or squishing noises in the mud, or the sound of my skis gliding through the snow.  Aromas like fresh air, or decaying leaves, the musty smell where foxes and coyotes have marked their territories.  The roughness or smoothness of the bark on the tree I lean on, the feel of the air – dry or moist, warm or cool – on my skin.  It’s a full sensory experience.

The word “beautiful” can be applied to an object that can be seen and touched – paintings, photographs, sculptures, animals, people, landscapes, flowers.  The word can be applied also to intangible things like speeches, movies or live performances, music, bird songs.  Acts of kindness or compassion can be beautiful, as can the conversation that accompanies a delicious meal.  Beauty can be found even in death and decomposition, rust and decay, aging and oxidation.

There is a whole philosophical area of study called aesthetics that concerns itself with matters of beauty.  I looked up the definition of aesthetic and found the 4th definition under adjective to be my favorite:

“pertaining to, involving, or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality”

Beauty, in this sense, is not in the eye of the beholder, but in her heart.  Recognition of the beautiful is full-sensory and emotional, not intellectual.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

This I believe…

OK, so now I have reflected on this phrase, this mantra of mine.  I’ve gone through it word by word considering each most carefully.  Where does it leave me?  Am I any closer to being ready to write my essay?  Maybe…  Let’s see.

Must be I believe in beauty?  No.  Too vague.  Sounds like I believe that beauty surrounds us, but we often neglect to notice because we are distracted by memories of the past and anticipation of the future.  Sounds like I believe that recognition of beauty is an emotional exercise, not an intellectual one.

I think I’m getting closer.

There are, of course, guidelines at the This I Believe website.  Here’s what you’re supposed to do:

  1. Tell a story: Be specific. Take your belief out of the ether and ground it in the events of your life. Consider moments when belief was formed or tested or changed. Think of your own experience, work, and family, and tell of the things you know that no one else does. Your story need not be heart-warming or gut-wrenching—it can even be funny—but it should be real. Make sure your story ties to the essence of your daily life philosophy and the shaping of your beliefs.
  2. Be brief: Your statement should be between 350 and 500 words. That’s about three minutes when read aloud at your natural pace.
  3. Name your belief: If you can’t name it in a sentence or two, your essay might not be about belief. Also, rather than writing a list, consider focusing on one core belief, because three minutes is a very short time.
  4. Be positive: Please avoid preaching or editorializing. Tell us what you do believe, not what you don’t believe. Avoid speaking in the editorial “we.” Make your essay about you; speak in the first person.
  5. Be personal: Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. We recommend you read your essay aloud to yourself several times, and each time edit it and simplify it until you find the words, tone, and story that truly echo your belief and the way you speak.  (Click here for source.)

I’m getting there.  But, I think I still have some work to do.

Oh my god, this – even this – this trying to articulate what I believe – even this is so beautiful.