Solar Eclipse at Blueberry Hill

I shall only say that I have passed a varied and eventful life, that it has been my fortune to see earth, heavens, ocean, and man in most of their aspects; but never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun. James Fenimore Cooper, The Eclipse

On August 22, 2017, a large portion of the United States was witness to a total eclipse of our sun. In a swath some sixty miles wide, running from Washington to South Carolina, nightfall came progressively across this path in the middle of the afternoon. The rest of the country experienced various degrees of the eclipse, with accurate scientific predictions beforehand of the percentage of the sun that the moon would cover in sundry locales. Everybody wins, and although totality was only a fleeting few minutes even directly in the path, we all would see some of the eclipse. That was the word, but the reality of the event was not written so precisely but rather painted in much broader strokes.

In the portion of my home state of New Jersey where I reside, the moon would cover about three quarters of the sun. So we would experience something unique, but short of what was seen in other places directly in the path. Some family members had gathered on a farm in western Oregon for an eclipse watch camping trip, and had the textbook experience: sudden darkness, temperature drop, and eerie light in stages as the eclipse waned. The renown nature writer Anne Dillard wrote about viewing the 1979 eclipse near the same area in her essay Total Eclipse in her book “Teaching a Stone to Talk.”

The long range forecasts had looked favorable for clear skies here on the east coast, so optimism was high for the event and the sale of eclipse viewing glasses was brisk. But as August 21st drew closer, things got a little cloudier, literally. Clear skies coast to coast were hardly a meteorological possibility, but now larger numbers of people, millions on the east coast in fact, would not have anything coming close to prime viewing conditions. Here on the east coast we would experience an “unastonomical sky”, as no less a naturalist than Alexander Von Humboldt had described unfavorable viewing conditions during a Latin American eclipse. But undeterred, I and tens of thousands of like-minded skywatchers, chose to follow the Marine Corps slogan: Improvise, Adapt & Overcome. So with backpacks stuffed with cameras, viewing glasses, camp chairs and water, we set out to view the eclipse from atop Blueberry Hill.

Not to be confused with the fictional mound in Fats Domino’s iconic song, this Blueberry Hill was quite real. It is the centerpiece of the Blueberry Hill Conservation Area, a popular local hiking and biking area, a part of the county greenway initiative. At roughly 200’ above sea level, it trails by less than 50, feet the highest four points in the entire southern portion of the state. To be sure, Sir Edmund Hillary did not train on Blueberry Hill for the first successful summit of Mount Everest. But in the flatlands that are the Atlantic coastal plain, it offers some nice views through the pines, oaks, laurels and rhododendrons that comprise much of the vegetation on this sandy hill. And situated next to a former gravel quarry pit, the opportunity to view the open sky from the cover of the forest canopy, a key consideration on a humid summer afternoon. And while the Philadelphia skyline is visible from the east ridge, the western views are towards the ocean forty miles away, non- visible but always in your consciousness in this neck of the woods.

On the afternoon of the 21st as we pulled into the gravel lot below Blueberry Hill, there was just enough sunshine coming through the cloud cover to suggest sunglasses. But what did become clear as we walked through the marshy access to the hill, was that the we were in the improvisational and adaptation phase of our plan. The winding trails that lead to the top of the hill offer a couple of different surfaces, and we followed a familiar one, sandy and comparatively steep. We wound our way to the plateau that comprises the summit, and chose a shaded spot beneath a few pitch pines and white oaks on the edge of the old quarry. The sun, peeking intermittently through the clouds, still rode high in the August sky at 2:05 PM.

As we got comfortable in our little “eclipse camp” I began to record a some notes in the light that filtered through the branches. A few birds were chirping in the thicker brush behind us and a single butterfly, a tiger swallowtail, flitted amongst the milkweed on the edge of the hilltop. A pleasant breeze wafted up from the south, and within twenty minutes or so, a few buzzing flies visited our position.

A lone gull circled over the shallow, muddy pond that had formed at the bottom of the quarry. That small anomaly in a sea of sand and gravel mounds and potholes, was formed by the percolating aquifer, and enhanced by rain and snowmelt. Over time a familiar process will take place and this quarry will become one of many in the state that fills and becomes a lake, artificially constructed as it were, but filled eventually by nature. In Augusts yet to come, gulls will be joined by herons, egrets, swallows, redwing blackbirds, red-bellied turtles, bullfrogs, bluegills, pumpkinseeds & bass.

By 2:30 there is enough light to see the shadow of the moon partially obscuring the sun between the clouds. But there is still enough light so that the shadow of the pine tree in front of me is still sharply defined on the ground. Two crows are calling to each other now from the woods to the southeast, and I hear but do not see an aircraft above. I wonder in what way, if any, their view is different than mine. By 2:45 the crescent shadow on the moon was perceptibly receding. The light at this point, and throughout the event, had varied little, and it was never darker than a normal overcast day. Something small scrabbled in the underbrush, and another swallowtail appeared. Both creatures moving right to left, the same path the moon was tracing across the face of the sun. Having seen photos from the eclipse in its totality in the western states earlier today, I remembered some of what Anne Dillard had written of her eclipse experiences during a couple of events. She compared a partial eclipse to a total eclipse, to flying in an airplane and falling out of an airplane, the one not in any way preparing you for the other. I knew I was missing what wasn’t available to me, but I tried not to miss what was.

The minutes passed and Blueberry Hill became noticeably quieter. Other than the sound of breeze passing through the tree, one had to strain to hear the faraway call of a cardinal or the trill of a robin. As I pondered whether or not light variations that were too slight for me to observe, might be affecting other life forms, a red blinking light commenced on the radio tower at the old military installation across the quarry. Was that a photosensitive reaction, a malfunction, or just a timer kicking on? I walked along the hilltop edge, trying to sense any other indicators that something was different, but other than the silence, I concluded there was not. As 4:00 arrived, the only notable change in the environment was increasing silence. Even the other small group of observers some forty meters away, had grown quieter, eventually trekking away silently. There had not been an ooh or ahh moment, but the experience was unique though definitely subtle. Sometimes the finest of nature or ourselves, is just so.

We took a longer route down off the hill, encountering a squirrel or two and a few leopard frogs on the far side of the swamp. A warbler could be heard now and then, and towhees and sparrows were darting among the branches, and a scolding blue jay sat on the post of the trailhead marker. Perhaps what I witnessed this afternoon was the world pausing, almost imperceptibly, for the rife st of moments. I gathered the eclipse viewing J glasses from our group ad slipped them into an envelope in my backpack. I sent the glasses to Astronomers Without Borders ( where they will be distributed to school children in South America in time for the eclipse that will cross that continent in 2019. As they look at the world through these same lenses on that day, I wonder what they will see?

Photo by he author

Monarch Summers

boy watching butterfly in glass globeIn late summer, my children and I search for caterpillars. The milkweed is thigh-high at this time, with fragrant mauve flower clusters swelling into rotund seed pods. When we see leaves that are missing great chunks of green flesh, we peer underneath of them, hoping to find a fat yellow-, black-, and white-striped caterpillar hiding there. When we do find one, we bring it home and place it, along with a good handful of its milkweed host, in our butterfly jar, a bulbous vase of blown glass, to complete its cycle of eating and growing and transforming into a monarch butterfly.

The caterpillars we find here in Maine are the fourth or fifth generation of the summer, the children and grandchildren of monarch butterflies born the southern United States earlier in the season, and the great- or great-great-grandchildren of butterflies born somewhere in the northern US or southern Canada the previous summer. Each of the summer generations of butterflies lives only two to six weeks, but our little caterpillars, the winter generation, will have a lifespan of eight months if they survive the many obstacles they will face over the coming winter. When our caterpillars become butterflies, they will embark a two-thousand-mile journey south to their roosts in the mountains of central Mexico, where they will cling to oyamel fir trees, as many as fifteen-thousand butterflies to a branch, for the winter months. In the spring they will fly to north and lay eggs on milkweed in northern Mexico or southern Texas, passing on their genes to the next generation before they die.

The first caterpillars we raised came to us eight years ago in a pickle jar stuffed with milkweed, a gift from my father-in-law. Already overwhelmed by my two one-year-olds and kindergartner, I couldn’t cope with taking care of one more living thing, so I stuck the jar on top of a cabinet in our living room and forgot about it. It turned out that caterpillars do not need much taking care of and, after a week or so, I noticed the caterpillars were gone, replaced by two exquisite green chrysalises hanging from the sloped shoulder of the glass. Pupae, safely sewn up in their cases, I could handle. I emptied out moldering leaves and frass–caterpillar poop–and moved the jar to the windowsill above the kitchen sink so that we wouldn’t miss the emerging butterflies.

Monarch butterflies, like many insects—those in the so-called “higher orders”—go through four distinct life stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. A female monarch may lay between one hundred and three hundred eggs, each on a separate milkweed plant. After about a week, the larva, or caterpillar, is born and, as its first act, eats its own eggshell before beginning on its feast of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars go through five stages, or instars, on their way to becoming adults. At the end of each instar, the caterpillar splits his skin and wiggles out, just a little bigger than before. The whole five-step process takes less than two weeks, at which time the caterpillar splits its skin one last time and forms the pupa.

The monarch butterfly pupa, or chrysalis, looks like a little jade pendant hanging by a small hook, called the cremaster, from a small silk pad that the caterpillar spun as a last act before wiggling out of its skin. The textures on the surface of the pupa correspond with structures of the adult butterfly—ridges along the curved top reflect abdominal segments, the smooth sloping side houses the wings, and the curved bottom cradles the head. The pale green pupa looks as if it has been gilded along the ridge where the curved top meets the sloped side, and in dots near the bottom, giving the chrysalis its name, from the word Greek chrysos, or “gold.” After about ten days, the pupa appears to turn black, but closer inspection reveals that the darkness is the butterfly’s wings visible through the clear outer covering. Each time one of our pupae reaches this point, the boys and I begin to watch the chrysalis closely, hoping to see the moment the butterfly emerges—or ecloses—but we usually only catch it after it’s already fanning its wings dry, leaving behind the clear, plastic-like husk and a few drops of dark fluid in the bottom of the jar.

Monarch chrysalis

The day our first butterflies emerged was one of those hectic days that so often characterize life with kids. The twins were sick and cranky. One of them pounded on the other’s head with the wooden hammer from their toy cobbler’s bench. The other one may or may not have eaten the back half of a live wasp. The school nurse called to tell me my oldest son had fallen and bumped his head and, while she thought he was fine, she was going to send home information on concussions. In the early afternoon, having settled fussy, post-nap twins with a snack and turning my attention to washing dishes, I saw a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. One of the monarchs had emerged, a large, orange-and-black butterfly opening and closing its four perfect wings like the pages of a book. I helped it out of the slippery glass jar with a stick and placed it on a milkweed plant in the yard, and then I moved the jar out onto the deck in case the other butterfly eclosed while the twins and I walked up the long driveway to meet the school bus.

When we got back to the house, we found the second butterfly perched on a twig in the jar, looking horribly deformed, its wings small and shriveled, the ragged orange-and-black train of a Halloween bride. I gently stroked the soft, broken wings, certain I had done something terribly wrong, and placed the butterfly on the milkweed in our yard, near its healthy comrade, so it could at least live out the last minutes or hours of its life in its natural habitat. The twins napped in their stroller while I played soccer with my oldest son. After a while, I went back and checked the milkweed plant and found two beautiful, butterflies with smooth, straight wings. I must have caught the second butterfly moments after it emerged from its chrysalis, before it had a chance to pump hemolymph into its wings, inflating them into smooth, crisp planes. I had not killed it. It had a chance to fly to Mexico and transfer its genes to another generation.

butterfly on red flower

After that year, we began raising monarchs every summer. Though they did not actually split their skins like caterpillars, my children became new again and again. The twins emerged from the chaotic toddler instar. No longer did I have to admonish “Gentle touch” whenever we went into the natural world. At the same time, I became more relaxed, less overwhelmed by motherhood. Raising monarch caterpillars became a joy, not a burden, and the boys became adept at finding caterpillars and even chrysalises on milkweed plants. Our most prolific season came two years ago, when the twins were seven and their brother eleven. Whenever we went out into open fields, we came upon monarch caterpillars. We brought two or three inside to grow in our butterfly vase, leaving the others to take their chances in nature. That fall, weeks after the butterflies we had raised headed south for the winter, I was walking at the arboretum across the street from my office when I saw a bedraggled butterfly flutter drunkenly over a field. She stopped for a brief moment on a tiny milkweed plant, dipped the tip of her abdomen against a leaf, and flew off again on tattered wings.

I crouched near the plant and saw that the poor creature had left behind a single egg, ridged and pearlescent, a tiny jewel. The mother butterfly looked like she had narrowly escaped a paper shredder, and I wondered if laying this egg were her last act before dying or if she continued to lurch through the field, planting tiny pearls. The milkweed plant she had chosen was just a baby, barely longer than my hand, with thumb-sized leaves; it would never be enough to feed a growing caterpillar. I pinched off the plant, brought it home with me, and placed it in a tiny vase in the windowsill. I would give this little monarch a chance to at least attempt the flight to Mexico, even if it was ridiculously late in the season.

After about a week, the egg was gone, leaving behind only a gluey white dot on the leaf. I thought at first the egg had shriveled up, but my husband pointed out to me the very tiny caterpillar, scarcely as long as my pinky-nail is wide, nibbling away at the milkweed leaf, leaving behind pepper-grain-sized dots of frass. The boys and I were excited about our minute caterpillar, inspecting him through the magnifying glass, watching his progress nibbling away at his miniature milkweed leaves. Then one morning, a few days after he hatched, our little caterpillar was gone. In his place was an equally tiny praying mantis, and on the windowsill below, a caterpillar-sized poop.

The children reacted to the loss of their pet philosophically, and generously relocated the mantis to a plant outdoors. Had he survived the praying mantis attack and grown into an adult butterfly, our little caterpillar would have faced innumerable other dangers over the winter, not the least of which was the very late start he would have gotten on his flight to Mexico. While the cardenolide poisons the caterpillars ingest from eating milkweed plants, along with the bright colors of the butterflies’ wings that serve as a warning, protect monarchs from most vertebrate predators, a few species of birds have found their way around these defenses, as has one species of mouse that inhabits the forests in Mexico where the monarchs overwinter. A number of parasites as well as bacteria and viruses prey on monarchs too. If the butterflies survive the predators and the germs and the winter in Mexico, they still have to contend with the vagaries of weather the following spring as they make their journey north to mate and lay eggs. Even without the praying mantis, our butterfly’s great-great-grandchildren would probably have not found their way to Maine the next summer. As it turned out, few butterflies made their way north at all.

boy looking at caterpillar with magnifier

Last summer, when we went looking for monarch caterpillars, we found none. I saw a single monarch butterfly drifting high over a field in July, early in the season, and one of my sons saw another one at daycare, “With bird strikes on its wings,” he told me. Unlike the previous year of abundance, we found no signs of caterpillars. We studied the milkweed at home and at the arboretum for signs of nibbling, but chewed-on leaves revealed only the black-and-orange brush-like larvae of the milkweed tussock moth.

Since the twins were one, our summers had been measured in monarch butterflies. I had taken for granted that we would continue to capture and raise caterpillars right through my own children’s pupation and emergence as adults. Perhaps the butterflies’ absence last summer was just a blip in their population dynamics and they’ll be back this year. But researchers found overwintering populations in Mexico the previous winter to be at their lowest level in decades. They attribute the decline to hotter than normal weather and farming practices that destroy milkweed. I fear that my children and I have raised our last monarch caterpillar. I wonder if we will ever again see a magnificent orange-and-black butterfly drift on the breeze, or if those few summers keeping caterpillars in a vase will be as fleeting as summer itself.

Monarch caterpillars on milkweedIn September, I walked to the arboretum during my lunch break one day and combed the fields for any sign of monarchs. The hum of traffic and road construction faded as my ears filled with cricket song, swaying tree branches, and the occasional scraw of a blue jay. The yellow sprigs of goldenrod had faded to dusty seed tufts, but the asters bloomed in a half-dozen shades of purple and ranged in size from dime to silver dollar. They should have been inviting blooms to nectar-feeding monarchs. But the only winged insects I saw that day were yellow sulfur butterflies, little red meadow dragonflies, and bumblebees.

The leaves of the milkweed plants had started to brown and curl, and some of the seed pods had turned dry and brittle. I cracked one open to reveal the seeds, dark brown teardrops shingled together like a pinecone on one end of the pod, with the silver-white milkweed down laid out smooth as a mare’s tail at the other end. As I shook the seeds loose, each one unfurled its little silk parachute and took to the air. I snapped off the stems of two dried seed heads and tapped them together, releasing the seeds onto the breeze.

Once, as I looked up to admire three turkey vultures drift lazily on a thermal, I saw a single monarch butterfly rise on the same column of warm air. In the cant of its wings, its silhouette against the clear sky, the butterfly looked like a miniature version the massive birds soaring high above it, and I watched until it rose so high it vanished to a mere speck in the blue sheet of sky. I have also seen milkweed plants grow up through asphalt, tender green leaves cracking right through the tar. There is great power in small things.

Monarch with spread wings

It is a small act, raising a caterpillar in a jar. But it is an act of faith, in the ability of this insect that is smaller than the palm of my hand to overcome myriad obstacles to make a journey most of us would find exhausting by airplane. In the same way, bringing children into the world is an act of faith, that our loving presence can steer them safely through life’s hazards.

I can’t change farming practices in the Midwest. I can’t control the climate. I can’t bring the butterflies back through the force of my desire. Nor can I ensure my children’s survival or happiness. But I can spread the seeds of milkweed. And so I clap the brittle stems together and watch white clouds of down whirl across the field.

Andrea Lani writes at the nexus of nature and motherhood from her home in the Maine woods. Her writing has appeared in SaltFront, Brain, Child Magazine, Orion, The Maine Review, and other publications. She has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and she is an editor at Literary Mama. More of her work can be found at Remains of the Day “Monarch Summers” was previously published in the Spring/Autumn 2015 issue of the journal Snowy Egret. Photos by the author.

Firefly: Light My Way

I find solace in observing my natural surroundings in my front and back yard. My house is surrounded by vast fields with many trees, plants and wildlife. I even see wildlife and other sights that most city-dwellers don’t tend to see such as coyotes, deer and even simple starry nights. All things that I love most about living in a more rural environment.

Like most people, I enjoy warm summer nights with nothing but the stars and sweet sound of crickets chirping, yet I can’t help but find myself waiting for just one month in particular. In late May, early June, as the sun sets and the skies turn black, the fields are lit up with the soft glimmer of fireflies. They dance to the song of the crickets and cicadas and mimic the sweet glow of the stars above.

 real fireflies at a calm nightAs I listen to the sweet sounds of summer and watch the dance of the fireflies, I begin to feel nostalgic. The mere site of these fireflies bring me back to my childhood where everything was so simple. Where my life was filled with wonder and awe. Where I was ignorant to the cruelty and hate in the world. For how could such cruelty exist in a world so beautiful and pure?

I can recall a memory of mine that allowed me to feel an extreme sense of connectedness with the nature found in my own front yard. It was the night following a catastrophic event where I sat, lonely and confused on the stairs of my porch. I remember peering into the dark fields feeling comatose wondering how the world could be so callous. The world lay silent with the exception of the forlorn whispers of the crickets. Their ballad complimented the tear drops that lay atop the freshly cut grass. I remember a faint smell of firewood burning in the distance that could only be detected when the gentle breeze caressed my face. I gazed up into the night sky that was as black as a raven’s coat. I sat, staring up into the sky while recalling old memories of a departed friend. I wished so desperately to be able to capture the large, orange-tinted full moon and feel the warmth of the surrounding stars on my skin.

As the night progressed, the breeze became more apparent and the temperature dropped as low as my spirits. I began to look back to the fields at the tall arundo donax and golden rod that surround the perimeter of the field. The shadow of the feather-like appearance on the top of the cane’s stem complimented the soft silhouette of the golden rod’s florets. They swayed back and forth in conjunction with the breeze’s rhythm. Their leaves rustling in the wind as they brush up against each other so carefree and effortlessly. Like a mother shushing her crying infant as if to console it; as if to console me.

I am brought back to reality when I feel a gentle touch of a glowing object on my skin. I gaze at its body as it turns from a simple black insect to an alluring shade of fluorescent yellow. The firefly’s glow is like a bright, yet subtle star that flickers in the night sky. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think that the firefly was reminding me to appreciate the simple, natural splendors that this world has to offer. After a few seconds the firefly took flight and rejoined the others within the fields once again. Subsequently, I went to bed pondering my encounter with this gentle creature.
sunrise over fieldThe following morning, I awoke to the tune of a new song. It was around 5:30 am when I turned my head towards the window to see a small beam of light peeking through my window shades. The sky was beginning to transition from a dreary night to a new day. At that moment I remembered the firefly that reminded to me to enjoy the simple things in life. So although I was still mourning, I decided to take the firefly’s advice and venture back to the spot where I had laid so dejectedly the night before.

I sat with a plush blanket around my body like a tight-knit cocoon on the steps of my porch. I watched as the sun pushed through the darkness and out from the fields below. The base of the sky just above the fields was a light periwinkle that extended up and faded into the deep purple and blue sky. There were also some purple-grey clouds that looked like cotton balls that had been pulled apart and fluffed. The large, dark orange sun emerged from the horizon with its golden rays extending throughout the fields. As its rays stretched, the field began to light up and glow as bright as the firefly. The golden rod that was once just a silhouette became a vibrant yellow with a contrasting green base. The leaves and each floret were now distinguishable with a perfect balance of long, thin, green leaves to clusters of small, complex yellow flowers. Each plant beginning to look as though they had a halo of light radiating from its core.

As the remainder of the field began to turn from a dark green shadow to many different shades of greens, purples, browns and white were now able to be seen—as though a veil had been lifted. Bright purple thistle, Queen Anne’s lace, large tufts of grass, small maple trees and milkweed that were previously hidden became apparent with the glow of the sun—now fully over the horizon but still low in the sky. With the sun’s transition, the sky became a light shade of purple and blue with the sun a bright yellow.
sparrow on grren branch
The light then reflected off of the subtle drops of dew on the grass as if it were a blanket of light laid upon each blade. The sound of the crickets no longer sounded disheartened. They were loud and filled with various tones and patterns, countered by the sweet melody of the sparrow and her children. Her whistle provided sound to the beauty of the sun and nature around me. As I watched her fly to her nest made of tan coloured, dried grass and twigs, I got a glimpse of her body. Her body was a light brown with delicate hints of dark browns, blacks, whites and orange-browns within her back feathers. As she glided her way towards her nest, she was greeted by her children who had been anxiously awaiting her arrival.

At this moment, the world felt like it was in perfect harmony. A unity between every living creature and radiance of the sun. I started to feel a sense of love and admiration, whereas the night before, I felt lifeless and disconnected from the world around me. I now feel calm and connected. Connected to the sparrow providing her children with nutrients and warmth, to the thistles that are vibrant yet sharp to the touch and even to the sky that had become brighter with each passing moment.

As more time passed, I began to recall the moment where the firefly landed on my hand. The firefly showed me that even in dark times, a small glimmer of light can help you through it. Because behind a dark sheath, there lies a beautiful world full of numerous sounds, colours, textures and scents—all working together as a single entity. This moment of realization has now become one of the most memorable times of my life. As I grew older, I started to lose touch with the nature that surrounded me. I became so consumed in a world full of social media and work that I forgot the simple, natural beauty of the earth. But I have since regained my connection to environment and all living and nonliving things in it.

I continue to find peace and serenity in the fields surrounding my home. Not only is the land around me striking, but it also fills me with joy and nostalgia. I love to reminisce and share my childhood memories and other major events that have happened in my life with nature’s melodies playing in the background—whether it be crickets chirping, coyotes howling, birds singing or even the rustling of leaves. Every piece of nature with a distinctive colour, shape, size and smell all come together and create this safe haven for me.

I will always remember and return to the spot where I have seen the most amazing natural marvels that are so dear to my heart. As for the fireflies; they will return next year and I will be looking forward to their long awaited arrival. Though here for such a short period of time, I find myself most connected to them each and every year.

I would like to say thank you to the firefly that was the light to one of my darkest days and for helping me, once again, find beauty within nature. Thank you for helping me regain my connection with the world and most of all, thank you for helping me find myself.

Photos by Fernando Gregory Milan, Sitthipong Inthason, and Grzegorz Gust

The Soothing Power of the Wild Sea

Last month, for a certain period of time my mind had not been by itself. Like a boat tumbling through the cyclonic wind, my subconscious was caught up in a storm of thoughts. The cause of this was a delay in the occurrence of a particular event that I had been waiting for. At the moment, this event was taking longer than I expected or desired, and as a result I’d fallen prey to a restlessness inside my head. Nothing I did was able to keep my mind at peace. I was desperate to find a way to get over this anxious, and absolutely unnecessary, overflow of thoughts.

One evening, to appease myself of this internal war, I decided to spend an evening at the sea. After getting down the tram, I walked to the shore and stood near the railing at the beach, and around me were a plethora of shopping outlets and restaurants. The sea shore was lively as always, filled with people, their pets, and athletes immersed in various water sports. Despite looking at all of this, something inside me didn’t click today.

Instead of moving towards the shore full of people enjoying a relaxed evening, I took a turn that lead me away from the pier, the most loved spot at the beach of Scheveningen in Den Haag. I didn’t want to see the face of the sea that wore an urban makeup and was loved by many in the city, at times, even by myself. Today, I wanted to see a different face of the sea. I craved a glimpse of rawness in nature. Hence, I walked towards the other end of the beach, the end with a mole elegantly extending a few hundred metres into the sea, hosting a lighthouse at its edge.

the North Sea and lighthouseThere were large square shaped rocks on either side of the mole, and at the foot of these rocks, petty tides rose and fell playfully, like a child dancing to a tune of its own. The view of the sea from the vantage point of lighthouse was perfect, and raw, just the way I needed it today. Standing in front of an element of nature, this unending expanse of water, I felt a vague truthfulness in the sight that filled my vision. There was a slender movement upon the surface of the sea – wind was walking swiftly over water, creating long and beautiful ripples which, in turn, transformed into large tides when approaching the shore. The sight was hypnotic. I couldn’t turn my glance away from the happening of this soft romance between wind and water.

As I stood there for nearly an hour and kept looking into the far fetched sea, and the horizon that it created with the sky, and the many ships that were journeying at a long, long distance from where I stood, an unconscious calmness slowly made its way into my heart. The evening sky was slowly turning gloomy with the gathering of dark clouds. In a few moments, the entire sea seemed to be wrapped in a fairy tale-ish darkness, and a slender drizzle started to fall from another world. As these little drops of rain touched me, I walked back to the road at the beginning of the mole, and on the way, I turned and looked back at the endless spread of the sea, as if to satiate myself of an unknown thirst. I reached the hill-like construction with benches, and stairs leading to the road that connected to the trams, and I felt the absence of something in myself. The troubling and anxious thoughts weren’t floating at the top of my mind anymore. As if a bodily pain had been tranquilized, my anxious thoughts also seemed to have vanished, leaving me with a serene calmness. I wasn’t sure when this soothing had crept in me. I did not notice it all this time. I did not become aware of the settling of that buzz inside my head, a burden that I brought with me this evening to the sea to plead refuge.

I made my way back to the tram-stop with a sense of ease filled inside me, and my purpose of visiting the sea this evening was fulfilled.

Photo by the author

Staying at the Super 8

“As the world becomes more crowded and corroded by consumption and capitalism, this landscape of minimalism will take on greater significance, reminding us through its blood red grandeur just how essential wild country is to our psychology, how precious the desert is to the soul of America.” Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert

It is hard to argue with Edward Abbey “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” After reading those words in high school I dreamed of following Abbey to “all which lies beyond the end of roads.” It took arches national parkabout 15 years but I finally made it to Arches National Park. It was love at first sight. For someone born to green outdoors the sandstone red, sky blue and cottonwood green sunk in quick and I was addicted. As I explored Courthouse Wash and the slickrock canyons beyond Devil’s Garden Campground it was clear erosion had created an incredible playground. There were rocks to climb on and places to hide. The one of my many thoughts was “what a wonderful place this would be to bring kids.”

That was the first of many trips to canyon country. But, this would be the first with Zack and Scott. I wanted to show them everything, from the mystery of rock art to the surprise of a desert toad and a sound of the canyon wren’s whistle trailing off in the distance. I wanted to have the freedom of time for what we love to do. The trip came with some worries: would it rain? Be too cold? Would they fight? What about a snake bite kit? In the end hopes far outweighed worries.

We landed in Salt Lake City late at night and in the morning drove to Moab. We spent a day settling in and exploring the town. Across from the entrance to Arches National Park there is an immense hillside of sand. What child wouldn’t be thrilled to climb up a 500 foot hill of sand then leap and fall back to the bottom, just to do it again and again? The sand dunes on Long Island are small and playing on them is greatly discouraged. This place was beyond fun. Scott found a piece of cardboard and tried to use it as a sled. It did not work. The sled stopped suddenly and Newton’s first law sent him rolling down the hill.

From then on is was run up and roll down. The red was already seeping into their bodies. When I pulled into Lin Ottinger’s rock store the boys were soon lost in the maze of bins filled with fossils, crystals, geodes and other amazing treasures. They carefully picked over the selections and made purchases for their museums at home. As we left, Zack announced, “this is the best trip ever” and that was before getting to eat pizza and watch TV in our room at the Super 8. In the morning, after fueling up at Denny’s we packed the gear and it was off to Courthouse Wash and the back of beyond.

The plan was to hike to the third side canyon, far enough from the road to adhere to the backcountry permit. Ten minutes in we took our first break to climb on the slickrock. All that rock and sky made for open space with lots of room to play. They immediately launched into a fantasy game loosely based on Star Wars. Places like this give them the freedom them to play whatever they want. There was no one watching, so they could be whoever or whatever they wanted. This was their first year at a new school and the constant pressure to be cool drained away like water into sand.

After watching a lizard skitter across the rocks we moved on. In another ten minutes we stopped to play in the sand. Jet lag caught up with me and I dozed, half listening to a mix of their voices and the wind. My mind wandered lost in the smell of the cedars and the sky that was blue forever. When I looked up they had built a giant sand city. It was promptly destroyed by their “bombs.” I laughed to myself about the doubts the ranger had that we would find enough to do for three nights. He had never hiked with Zack and Scott.

We hiked on until we came to a small waterfall. Pools were formed where the water slowed down then rushed again down more waterfalls. It was the perfect place to stop. There was water to play in, sand to build with and plenty of bare rock to walk and climb on all without stepping on too much cryptogamic soil. I explained that the black crust on the soil was a combination of living organisms and they needed to get wherever they were going by bare rock hopping. That just made it all the more fun.

Zack wanted to be high on the slickrock safe from flash floods. There was just the spot on a ledge halfway up the canyon wall that looked like good real estate. We set up the tent and there was still room to hang relax without being too close to the edge. The boys soon figured out the best route to scamper up and down the cliff. They just tapped into their inner lizard. From our front door the snow-capped La Sals shone in the distance, canyon walls stretched in both directions and the echo of the water sang to us. We set up camp and spent the afternoon simply hanging out.

They fell asleep early, exhausted from the journey. I lay with my head out of the tent and watched the Milky Way.

The sun rose and quickly warmed our side of the canyon. With a thin layer of ice in our water bottles it was a welcome feeling. We slowly got ready and after a pop tart breakfast headed down to the stream. The water pooled and slid across the rock and in bare feet we splashed and jumped around. I relaxed, while they built forts in the mud. Eventually we hiked downstream, poked into the next side canyon looking for rock art. The sun hid behind the narrow walls and the mood changed. Scott was uncomfortable in the “shadows” so we turned back to the main canyon. Back in the warmth of the sun moods improved and we headed back towards camp to play and hang out. They liked the security of the tent. It was our home. The afternoon drifted by like cumulus clouds and again it was evening. Bedtime. Life at canyon speed was fine with us.

We had a meeting to decide whether to spend another night in the backcountry or hike out and go to the campground. I wanted to stay, Zack wanted to go and Scott abstained. We decided to pack up and drive to Devil’s Garden campground for the last three nights. As we cleaned up the breakfast, without warning Zack threw up. I laid him on a sleeping pad and quickly packed. As we walked out he vomited several more times. He hung in there and only asked once if a helicopter would come to get us. I thought once he got it all out he would be fine. I was wrong. Being an optimist we headed to the campground anyway, I was hoping that after a nap in the car we would be back on track. I was wrong. We stopped to walk out to Delicate Arch, but only got a few steps past the parking lot. We would have to settle for a distant view of the arch.

Zack gave it a good effort but he was not doing well and being at least somewhat mature I said “why don’t we just camp two nights and then we will go to a hotel.” Amazingly Zack agreed. About 15 minutes later I looked at him again and said “why don’t we go to the hotel tonight and tomorrow we will come back to the campground.” That plan did not work either.

It was back to the Super 8. There we spent the next three days laying around the room watching Nickelodeon. It was a marathon of Sponge Bob ( which I like), Jimmy Neutron, Fairly Oddparents, Teen Titans and Ed Ed and Eddy (which I think are really stupid) plus commercial after commercial for Barbie, Light Brite, some kind of colored markers, Hot Wheels and more TV shows. Scott didn’t always watch TV, he played a lot of Game Boy. I would ran across the parking lot to Denny’s for chicken soup and sandwiches. The fever went up and down, my hopes as well.

The next day it was clear the camping part of the trip was over. To get out at least a little we drove to Dead Horse Point. They slept and I couldn’t get Zack out of the car to look at the view. I jumped out, ran to the edge for a quick look and a picture. Back at the Super 8 it was pretty depressing to return to an empty parking lot on a beautiful Moab day knowing everyone else was still out. The following day we drove by Castleton Tower and into the La Sals. The boys slept and I got as far as I dared past the snow line in the rental car. The drives were nice but. On the way back we saw some rock art from the road. The desert though the car window is better than no desert. Back in the room while they watched television I read Terry Tempest Williams’s book, Red. In one essay she describes her escape from the overdevelopment of Salt Lake City. “The next day driving east along the Colorado River, Brooke and I turned south into a small valley at the base of Castleton Tower and the LaSal Mountains. We saw a simple house made of wood, stone, and glass. We walked inside, smiled and said, “This is the place.”

I looked up her address in the phone book but decided it would be too stalkerish to call or show up at her front door. Though it would be great to talk to someone who understood. That night Zack had enough energy to eat a picnic dinner which avoided three straight nights of Denny’s take out.

Our flight was late at night so we had plenty of time for the drive from Moab to Salt Lake City. Taking advantage of the opportunity we drove back through Nine Mile Canyon. This canyon system has over a 1000 rock art sites. Jumping out of the car quickly taking a picture and jumping back in is not the best way to see rock art, but it is better than nothing. Zack got out of the care a couple times. The road was one pothole and rock after another. Mud was spraying up under the car and I began questioning the wisdom of driving this road with a rent a car. The high power hose at the car wash was fun.

Before he threw up Zack was telling me why he wanted to go to the campground. He said he did not like backpacking as much as car camping because he liked being in a place where he had more control over what went on. I said I could understand that and he also said he wanted to be in a place where he didn’t have to try so hard to have fun. He did not want to have to think about how to have fun. This surprised me since for two days he and Scott played constantly and never seemed bored. In fact, I honestly have never seen him bored on any of our backpacking trips.

As I thought about what he said I realized those were two of the reasons to take them backpacking. It is a good idea to be in places and situations where one must take into account forces out of one’s control and learn to adapt. We don’t realize how little control we really have. Our suburban lives fake us out. As for working to have fun, what is wrong with that? Even as they grow into adolescence, I want them to see boredom as an opportunity and the natural world as a place of creativity. Playing in a canyon can be as much fun as playing on a screen.

This was all happening until a force we could not control put us in a motel room watching TV and eating meals out of huge Styrofoam packages. The irony was slapping me in the face with each bite of a French fry and chorus of Sponge Bob, Square Pants. They had watched more television in three days then we usually let them watch in a month. I suppose I might have taken this whole thing in more stride if I didn’t feel like this was our last chance for a western backpacking trip for a long time.

I love the way Edward Abbey described the power of Delicate Arch. “A weird, lovely, fantastic object of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us-like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness-that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the children see, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”

We did see Delicate Arch from the viewpoint a mile and a half away. We were close, but could not touch it, just like the little plastic Delicate Arch inside the snow globe Scott bought in Green River. The arch was just a little too far away to work its magic or maybe it did and I just do not know it yet. In our room I could lay back on the bed just enough so that when I looked out the window I could stare at the sandstone and not the construction crew building a new entrance to the motel. That color combination of sandstone red and desert blue sky has a magic hold on me. I thought about what I wanted from this place. I wasn’t asking for much, some fun, adventure and a couple life lessons. That is what happens when you are in a place where beauty and mystery are combined with the time and space to be in the present. We had some of that and it was good. That is why I wanted more.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. NY: Ballantine Books, 1971

Williams, Terry Tempest. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. NY: Vintage Books, 2002

The essay is part of a collection of essays by Dan Kriesberg, Catching Frogs: Fatherhood, Wilderness and Life in the Suburbs. The essays explore the author’s experiences balancing fatherhood and a desire to be in the wild while trying to live in harmony with the planet not against it.

Photo of Arches National Park by Tushar Koley