Early Spring – March 2014 in the Longleaf Woods Near Pensacola

The sharp-eyed bluebird watched in his lapis lazuli suit with its apricot vest from a fence post perch as more than thirty cardinals at the feeders played a manic game of leapfrog.

The steady rain didn’t slow them down at all. Hours later, the rain continues to fall straight down and steady into the warming ground and I know that within days I’ll be cranking up the old John Deere. Mowing season will have begun. But this afternoon the circles of light inside our dry abode are all the sanctuary a creature could dream for, and a nap beacons.

First, though, a March walk in the pine woods. If you’re still awake on this sleepy day, come along. Plenty of sweet, fresh air for everyone.

Woodland fashion show. We hear chartreuse is hot this year.
Woodland fashion show. We hear Chartreuse is hot this year.

2014 March Morning deer at #6
If you’re very quiet, and look close, you’ll see a couple of whitetail deer enjoying a breakfast salad.

Old garden bench Buck and I carried down to the spring. Perfect spot for morning coffee or lunch.
Old garden bench Buck and I carried down to the spring. Perfect spot for morning coffee or lunch.

2014 March Big sister baby brother pines
“You be as tall as me by next summer,” big sister to little brother.

2014 March Streambed 4
Natural all-weather, even-flow springs in northwest Florida are not very common.

2014 March Florida Anise tree in bloom overhanging stream
The native Florida Anise tree’s boughs hang over the stream, spicing the air with an aroma that evokes kumquats mixed with herbs.

2014 March When little Smilax grows up
Even a young smilax vine will trip you up and tear your skin. But when they grow up, . . . well, see for yourself.

2014 March Moss on rocks near stream
Luxuriant moss has returned to the woods, so green it seems to glow from some inner light.

2014 March Magnolia
I have come to love the dark, glossy magnolias and their stalwart presence throughout the woods.

Together we are stronger.
Together we are stronger.

In the clearing, a young oak dreams of what life will be like when she develops gravitas.
In the clearing, a young oak dreams of what life will be like when she develops gravitas.

Home.
Home.

Perfect site for a small, woodland cottage, midnights on a screened porch, storytelling and owls.
Perfect site for a small, woodland cottage, midnights on a screened porch, storytelling and owls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heralds of Spring in the Pine Woods 2014

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At my desk early this morning, I was distracted by a bumping sound outside under the window. I went to look, and saw fuzzy white ears belonging to a small whitetail doe. Her companion, another doe, was foraging for green shoots midway between clearing and woods. Her ears were the typical brown. The white ears were quite distinctive. I’ll recognize her even from a distance now.

Questions for the Winter Sky

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Winter sky late February, 2014 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida

The photo above is a good reminder never to leave the house for a walk without the old point and shoot camera in my hand. It was Monday, February 24. Buck and I started our walk later than usual. After our second or third house-to-gate lap, we rounded the driveway in front of the house to circle back to the gate a third of a mile away when I looked up and saw this amazing sky. The clouds looked like they were quilted from softest down. The opening, like an upside down inactive volcano, was rimmed in sun-gold.

Our hearts were heavy that day, because we had learned Sunday that a dear old friend was near death. After returning from our walk, an email from his daughter told us TC had died Sunday, only an hour after we had talked with his wife, B.

A brilliant, wise, and kind man, TC was an engineer with a stellar career until retiring in 2000. Disaster struck eleven years ago, when he was diagnosed with an unusually cruel disease known as Semantic Dementia. Imagine an intellectually gifted person, one who managed a major industrial plant and thousands of employees, a person who founded a scholarship program at his beloved alma mater which continues to educate new engineers every year, a person who — along with his devoted wife of 55 years — created a youth program at their church decades ago which continues to thrive long after their relocation from Pensacola to other cities and ultimately to Birmingham; a father of two accomplished adults and grandfather of five. A person who loved to read.

Now imagine that person, or yourself, with four objects on a table: a pen, a pair of scissors, a table knife, a flashlight. Someone asks you to pick up the scissors. You pick up the pen. Frontal lobe deterioration is rapid, irreversible. For the last five years of his life our loquacious friend didn’t say a single word.

Some days I wonder whether we might be more content not to have so much information at our fingertips. In the past few weeks, I’ve learned far more than I am comfortable knowing about conditions that can affect the lives and quality of life of human beings: Guillain-Barre Syndrome, from which our friend Harold is slowly recovering (he proudly took eight steps on a walker yesterday); and Semantic Dementia, which took our friend TC’s mind and eventually his life.

I look at the photo of the sky and wonder at it’s ability to comfort my ruffled spirit. I have so many questions.

February Pitcher Plants: High-Style Carnivores

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Are these pitcher plants gorgeous or what? Talk about a nice surprise. A crystalline blue sky and dry, cool air drew Buck and me outdoors yesterday to wander the fire line trails. There’s a swampy area where the road is too wet to cross this time of year. We walked right up to that spot; I looked off to the right, and there, in the pine straw and muck, nearly hidden, was this stunner. No wonder hapless insects find them irresistible.

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We only saw this one cluster, but it was our treasure find for the day.

January 2014 at Longleaf Preserve

Most of us have heard the old chestnut that the trick in life isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get. Expectations shade our perception of reality. Here on the Gulf coast of Florida, we’ve had a series of mild, rather pleasant winters. Until this year. Birds skating on the frozen bird bath for days on end is not part of my world view of “how things should be” in our winters. I can almost hear my friend, Jeanne, laughing. She lives in Moose Pass, Alaska, although even she has dusted out of there for an adventure to South Africa. (Check her fantastic photos at Gullible’s Travels.)

The ice melted completely late last week and now we’re back to more typical winter weather: chilly for a day or two, then a warming trend with rain, then cool again. Repeat until spring. Some beautiful days are coming, I’m sure. Like lots of other folks around the country, we’re eager for some bright sun blue sky days.

Here are a few January scenes. I wish now I had roused myself from the warm house and gone to the woods to get some ice and snow photos, but instead was true to my hothouse flower roots and stayed by the fire with hot chocolate, Buck, and a pile of books.

Antidote for the Tendency Toward Over-Immersion in Social Media*

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Meadow Beauty at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida on September 5, 2013.

It would have been cooler if Buck and I had started our walk earlier. Even so, at 9:00 a.m. the difference between the hot sun in the clearing and the near chill of the deep shade down by the draw was striking. Rainfall for August broke all records. The last week of August  hinted at fall, but this morning summer was back in all its steamy glory. We walked our regular five laps from house to gate and back, clicking off three and a third miles in just under an hour — fast enough for a slight uptick in heart rate, slow enough to chat.

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Buckeye Butterfly. I always mistake this one for a month.

We returned to the house sweaty, ready for a shower. It had gotten late on us, though, and we opted to have breakfast first. I whipped up a strawberry banana smoothy in the old blender with vanilla soy milk and a handful of flax seeds. You would have sworn it was made with ice cream. Too eager, I gave myself a brain freeze.

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Gulf Coast Fritillary

By the time we finished breakfast, our bodies had cooled enough to consider going outside again even though it was nearly mid-day. Buck took to his old Case 60 horsepower tractor to bush-hog the major fire lines, and I took off walking.

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Buck on his old tractor, making a safe path for me.

Tomorrow, more pictures and some thoughts on the pleasure and treasure of living in the pine woods and how it feeds the instinct toward creativity.  It may even be an antidote for the tendency toward over-immersion in social media, a preservation of precious inner space.

*Title of this post suggested by author Rebecca Solnit’s superb piece in the London Review of Books. I saw it thanks to memoirist Richard Gilbert’s link. Highly recommended reading for all us “well-connected” folks, here.

Swallowtails in the Star Flowers

Hello, little lizard. You come out to greet me every day when I visit the tiny pocket garden.  You’re new here. I’m happy you’ve taken up residence.  You’re not gorgeous and flashy like the butterflies, but a cheerful, steady presence that gladdens my heart.

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Of course, I’m not knocking “gorgeous and flashy.” Check out these swallowtails on the Penta flowers (also known as Egyptian Star Cluster, Star Flower,
Pentas lanceolata)

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Why Are Writers Like Mushrooms?

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IN SEARCH OF A POT OF LEFTOVER BOSTON MARATHON CHILI TODAY, (which I thought would make a fine lunch and I was right), I found a large bluish-lilac mushroom zipped up in a gallon-size plastic bag in the refrigerator and remembered my quest to learn its identity.

Today is a typical Gulf coast Florida so-called winter afternoon: 77°F, cloud bursts alternating with streaky sunshine leading inexorably to a front that will drop temps into the 50’s overnight, with another murky day to follow, and then Thursday, yes! Bright sunshine, with a high of 58°F and low of 40°F. This is why, even in the dead of winter, when nighttime below-freezing temps can line themselves up one against the other like frozen peas, we never pack up the shorts and t-shirts.

Perfect weather for hanging out in my study tracking down fungi identities and pondering why it is that writers are like mushrooms.

A lovely Lepista Nuda (Blewit) nestled in the clutter of the forest floor between house and gate — found January 13, 2013, Longleaf Preserve, near Pensacola, Florida.

Our friend, Elaine Spencer, and I, were making several laps to the gate last Saturday following a late breakfast with Buck and Elaine’s husband, Neal, of Mary B’s Thin Biscuits, Greek Fage Yogurt and a mélange of fresh fruit, including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, blood and navel oranges, and sliced bananas. We were fully caffeinated and ready for a nice stretch of the leg. I spotted the unusual looking mushroom on the way back from our second lap.

We got back to the house and Elaine headed up stairs to shower and dress for a lunch outing at The Grand Marlin on Pensacola Beach. I decided to go back and take a picture of that lavender ‘shroom, harvest it and bring it back to the house so I could look at it in a good light.

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I put it on a glass coffee table out in a room we call “the snow porch.” Snow never falls outside those windows, but it reminds us of a similar room we had in the mountains of Western North Carolina near Asheville, North Carolina from 1997-2004. I’ll never forget being there one Christmas Eve and watching a rose-breasted grosbeak commandeer a feeder box full of seed on the deck as large flakes of falling snow wrapped us in the white silence of angel’s hair, a serendipitous gift.

Clitocybe nuda (blewit)In truth, writers are more like members of the kingdom of fungi, working cryptically in la noche oscura del alma. Like fungi, we only become noticeable when fruiting, our mushrooming pages the visible evidence of our efforts.

“Turkey Tail” (trametes versicolor polypore) seen January 13, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola.

Sometimes the fruit of our labors is showy, but tasteless, hard.

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Sometimes, no matter how intense our effort, the result is dry and dull. Like mushrooms, writers, too, may dwell solitary or in colonies. There is a nearly infinite number of unique forms within the fungi kingdom.

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When the words pour elegantly like delicate, warm madeleines, they dazzle. When they spread thickly like whole-wheat gingerbread made in madeleine molds, they are fragrant and succulent; they nurture. These spore-bearing fruits look like gingerbread butter cakes to me.

Amanita muscaria, seen December, 2012 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida.

A writer’s words can emerge, as mushrooms do, from many environments: from the rotting wood of life, hard bark, packed sand, the air, leaf clutter, even excrement. Words have power. Like the Amanita muscaria, they can send dreams and visions, enlightenment or the illusion of it, as well as deadly poison. Consider these words from Roger Phillips, founder of a wonderful site, Roger’s Mushrooms:

This is one of the easiest species to recognize and describe, and consequently its properties have been well documented for centuries. The common name Fly Agaric comes from the practice of breaking the cap into platefuls of milk, used since medieval times to stupefy flies. It is a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant and was used as such by the Lapps. In such cases the cap is dried and swallowed without chewing. The symptoms begin twenty minutes to two hours after ingestion. The central nervous system is affected and the muscles of the intoxicated person start to pull and twitch convulsively, followed by dizzines and a death-like sleep. During this stage the mushrooms are often vomited but nevertheless the drunkenness and stupor continue. While in this state of stupor, the person experiences vivid visions and on waking is usually filled with elation and is physically very active. This is due to the nerves being highly stimulated, the slightest effort of will producing exaggerated physical effects, e.g. the intoxicated person will make a gigantic leap to clear the smallest obstacle. The Lapps may have picked up the habit of eating the Fly Agaric through observing the effects of the fungus on reindeer, which are similarly affected. Indeed, they like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of Fly Agaric on the ground. Another observation the Lapps made from the reindeer was that the intoxicating compounds in the fungus can be recycled by consuming the urine of an intoxicated person. The effects of consuming this species are exceedingly unpredictable; some people remain unaffected while others have similar, or different, symptoms to those above, and at least one death is attributed to A. muscaria. This unpredictability is due to the fungus containing different amounts of the toxins ibotenic acid and muscimol according to season, method of cooking and ingestion, as well as the subject’s state of mind. Ibotenic acid is mostly concentrated in the coloured skin of the cap. This very unstable compound rapidly degrades on drying to form muscimol which is five to ten times more potent. Traditionally, where A. muscaria is used as an inebriant, it is the dried cap which is taken.

1-IMG_7363And in that rare moment when elusive perfection brings life to the page, our words can curl happily up at the edges like some old, light-filled scroll, worthy of binding into a book that others will keep on their shelves, riffle the pages, sleep with and dream the created worlds.

A New Year’s Eve Wild Mushroom Tour

And why not? I have to go jump in the shower to get scrubbed and ready for kids and grandkids to join Buck and me for a New Year’s Eve “bring your own pizza” party. There will be all varieties, from artisanal to gluten-free and fully-loaded. We’ll have a blast, from ages 13 to 75.

After they leave, I’ll play around some more with fonts and colors, then say my first piece in the new year. Depending on how long they stay tonight, that piece may not get spoken until    mid-day tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I would not that ye have come to this page for nothing. So, here (ta da) is a semi-brief photographic tour of some of the coolest mushrooms in the woods. Buck and I noticed them about two weeks ago when we were out walking.  Something  was knocking many of them over like in a way that looked petulant. You’ll see.

Happy New Year — see you tomorrow and we’ll begin again!

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