A Walk on the Oxfordshire Ridgeway

Today I took a walk up to my favourite spot on the Ridgeway. It’s been a little while since I have been there, and I wanted to see how it had changed, what magic nature had worked, how it would feel like a different place since I last saw it, overcast and grey and covered in the white, milky puddles that ancient chalk footpaths make.

The sky was blue but the air cool when I arrived at the top of Chain Hill. Instantly, the instinctive expansion of lungs and stomach to draw in the light, windswept air, and the dropping of shoulders. I don’t get up here enough. A short walk this morning, a couple of hours wrestled from the week to refuel, slow down, see what I am missing – to really look.

a footpath running along a hillside I should know it already, of course, but in my absence the world has changed immeasurably, in a way that every time, though I should know better, takes me by surprise. There are, I could easily believe, a thousand shades of green. Unreal, neon-lit grasses, deep emerald leaves, the nearly-black of shaded undertrees, the lime newness of unfurling buds, the changing dusty yellow-sage and winter-brown of fields as clouds race over them. Enough variety to make life below this high old pathway retreat and curl up, distant.

Verges which I know busied themselves with snowdrops against a bare, black and white background are now shoulder-high with shoots and violet flowers. The grass that runs down the middle of the track is dotted with white and yellow buds and thistle-shaped heads. The sky above is the kind that seems put together to amaze us, to force us to recognise how large the world is, how ridiculous our arguments, our problems: cobalt blue, with faint lines drawn long before smaller white circles. There’s something about being surrounded by all this colour, above and below, that fills the mind and leaves no room for negative emotions.

I read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, about the benefits of simply being surrounded by nature and away from the devices that we use to fill our senses at home – that the bright colours and movement and noise of our televisions, computers and mobile phones cannot compete with the way in which all our senses are needed when we’re outside – the noise, the movement, the detail, the scents, the feel of grassheads on your palm. This makes absolute sense to me. I don’t hate modern life – it’s wonderful that we can share information in a way that has never been done before. I just hope that we don’t forget what else there is, outside. That we remember that pictures of nature are inspiring, but they aren’t the same as being there, and breathing it in; the sound of wind whistling through treetops, and the playful changing light.

As I walked from Chain Hill to the iron age fort, the sun grew warmer and the light brighter, so that I feel, now, a couple of hours later, that a light and warmth is still held behind my eyelids. Soon I realised how much I had missed – that sense that you can walk the same path every day, and it will never be quite the same. Different things will happen, different details will appear under different lights, impossible as it is to see without filtering everything through your own mind. Such walks fill me with a sense of peace, but also with an underlying sadness that I can’t be there everyday. I’m missing things. Things so important and unfeasible in their simplicity. That somewhere, while I sit in traffic, kites are circling and flowers are unfurling. There’s something comforting, though, in knowing that whatever else happens, this goes on. The green sap pushing through the world as it turns, producing tidal waves of growth as the seasons wash from one continent to another.

What things did I see, and not miss, this time? Butterflies, tiny and violet blue, like jewels on a Victorian dressing table, looking as if they would taste of dust and sugar; brown, with bright orange circles, sunning themselves on flowers that tilted with the wind; pearl, and quick to flutter away into the white cloud above. Their cousin, a long, furred caterpillar with an armour of small spikes that wriggled across the pebbles and which I paused for, to make sure that it reached the grass on the other side, safe from the tracks of cyclists’ wheels, and which thereby shrank and wonderfully paused my world for a few minutes.

a path through a bluebell woodPassing underneath trees so thick with leaves that delightfully spooky-looking shadows covered the path beneath me, a cloud of buttercups glowed like gold coins. Above the branches, a crow burst across the sky in a shocking black cross, like a warning, like a shout. Back in the sun, a chaffinch warbled proudly from a branch end, showing off his salmon breast. All these seemed suitable, when after an hour I arrived at the iron age hill fort which I had last climbed up on a windswept day, hands tucked in pockets.

Grass which had seemed sparse and bare underfoot now swept past my knees, leaving small circles of dew damp. From the top of the fort’s ridge, I saw that what had been bare grass, impressive in its stillness and plainness, was now a waving field of yellow and white, tiny flowers and paper-like grassheads. Truly, I had missed the arrival of a new world. I could be in another country. I kneeled in the damp grass to see things from its level, as the sky grew immense overhead and insects fizzed around my head. No wonder the birds and bright colours had been trying to prepare me for this.

There is something immensely comfortable in the thought that you can stand on ground that was moulded by human hands hundreds of thousands of years ago, and yet be amazed to see it change from season to season. Its permanence, and flexibility. Its continuity, despite all odds, and the way it can burst forth with life from days of ice chill and bare soil. In changing times, I feel invigorated by the reminder that such earth does not care for current political changes, for what I have to achieve this week, for tarmac roads and busy offices. It will be there, even while I am away, preparing another surprise, a new show, a shift of details that will prove so rewarding when found. It is possible, there, to feel both tiny and young, and older than the years, part of the sky and soil that surrounds you. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. It’s just free, and alive.

As I turned to head back to the rest of my day, I saw from the corner of my eye a dark shape drifting through a field of emerald green crops to my right. A deer, solitary, and moving slower and more gently than I have seen before, as if swimming through the plants, enjoying the view, as if floating. Hands raised over my eyes, I stopped to watch – she was so close, but unaware of my existence. Time paused. Then, she lifted her head and looked directly at me. I froze, unwilling to break the moment that had snared us both in it, a tightrope drawn between us. A shallow breath later, she gently swung her head round, and carried on her slow, sedate way, parting the green waves. Knowing that neither of us mattered, really, just the parts we were playing in this life, this time, this round, as the sun travelled overhead.

Photos by Adam Edwards

Lessons in the Wind

windy day sky and bunchgrass scrubOut the window, a bright-burning circle of sun cut into a cobalt sky. The dogs seem to notice, too. They smash their noses against the sliding-glass door eager for their daily romp. The day is cool with a slight breeze, so off we go into the fields. We walk too far, stay too long and the harsh evening winds descend. Dust devils swirl and tumble weeds bounce across the earth. The leaves of the silver sage shake and the air fills with its sharp scent. A gust blows. My ears turn cold and crimson. My hair ― a wild lion’s mane.

The dogs run through bunchgrass that stands taller than their shoulders. I call to them, but the wind hushes my voice. As the sun and the temperature lowers, I turn back towards home. The wind pushes against me. My pace is slow. Grueling. I can’t see the dogs, but somehow they meet me at the gate, panting ― their long, pink tongues hanging out of their mouths. I’m wind-weary and disheveled, but full of endorphin-flowing exhilaration.

A tree falls on Tyler’s house. My student’s and I can hear the wind rage outside the classroom. A freight-train wind, we call it. Gusts up to 60-80 mph are not unusual here in the high desert. We are writing stories, when someone says, “Tyler, a tree just fell on your house.” We look out the window, and there it is, the tree thrust inside the shattered roof. Tyler walks out of the classroom. We watch him from the window. He crosses the street. Stares at his ruined home. That night, his family moves out of the house until the tree is removed and the roof is repaired.

That same day, I find our camper in the middle of the long, gravel driveway that leads to our home. The wind had grabbed the camper, tossed it like a tumble weed. It landed on its back, its feet sticking up. I stop my truck, get out and walk over to check the damages. I peer through the window. Everything is upside down. The clothes that hung from a rod in the closet spread across the ceiling, which is now the floor and littered with broken dishes, pots and pans. Later, the ruined camper will be hauled off, and a new one will replace it.

As the sun sets and the night grows black, I listen to the winds howl, rattle the old stove pipe like brittle bones. The stove-vents clap and the windows shake, keeping me from sleep. Living in this land of wind, I see its power. The wind brings change; it tears down the old, and from the wreckage, new directions flow.

Kandi MaxwellKandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. She walks through forests, soaks and splashes in rivers, lakes and hot springs, and bends frequently in downward dog. She is a retired high school English teacher. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, One in Four, Foliate Oak, and others. Her work has been nominated for The Best American Essay series.

Photo by the author

The Wonderland of Caterpillars’ Creative Camouflage

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice stumbles upon a large mushroom. She peeps over the edge and encounters a caterpillar, “smoking a long hookah, and taking not the slightest notice of her or anything else.” If Alice had touched the creature, she might have been in for an even bigger shock – forked horns, nasty smells and other repellent tricks designed to send her running to the nearest rabbit hole.

The defense mechanisms of caterpillars are ingenious and varied. They have to be. There are numerous predators that make a meal of these fat, juicy morsels – birds, spiders, other insects, and mammals. Migratory warblers, for example, eat approximately one and one-half times their body weight in caterpillars every day.

I love caterpillars, even though some can leave holes in my flowers and veggie starts. But I will never kill any as they turn into the most glorious of creatures – moths and butterflies. Today there are three flagrant swallowtail butterflies on my Miss Kim lilac bush, gracefully fluttering for its nectar, that were once chubby grubbers.

Butterflies go through many stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. In the larval stage as caterpillars, their daily agenda is to eat, avoid being eaten, and keep eating. The results are impressive. Some caterpillars can gain up to 20% of their body weight in one hour.

monarch caterpillar eating swan plant in the gardenThe protective creativity of caterpillars is stunning. Monarch caterpillars, for example, have two defense mechanisms – toxicity and warning colors. As they feed on their host plant, the milkweed, they ingest toxic steroids that are stored in their bodies. I used to have many Monarchs every spring and summer flitting gaily among the milkweed I keep in my garden especially for them. In the last two years, sadly, I have seen none. We all know about their serious decline due to loss of habitat and toxic insecticides.

Another plant I grow in my garden is the stinging nettle. Not only is it a wonderful plant to steam lightly and eat, high in vitamin C, the Red Admiral lays its eggs on the stinging nettle leaves, even on the sides of the stinging hairs. The caterpillar bends down the tips of the leaves, fastens them with strands of silk, and then feeds inside these little tents. Such ingenious little creatures!

The Tomato Hornworm is a bright green caterpillar that even has a red horn on its head to help it disappear, along with eight v-shaped markings on its underside. Beware! They are voracious lovers of peppers and eggplants. My beloved Swallowtail caterpillars look like shiny, wet bird droppings (repulsive to most insect-eaters), and also have an orange, y-shaped gland on their neck which gives off a strong odor when threatened, repelling predators, like parasitic wasps and flies.

old world swallowtail butterfly caterpillaOne of my favorite camouflages is the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. It looks like a scary snake. One day I was sitting at my picnic table and a gigantic bright, sap green caterpillar with huge black eyes made its way up the table’s leg and spent a good hour with me on the table. What a startling beauty. I now keep my Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterflies close at hand.

Another ingenious costume is the Wavy-Lined Emerald Moth’s. It chews off pieces of the flower or plant that it’s feeding on and affixes the pieces to its back, matching the color and texture of its surroundings. And the gorgeous Saddleback caterpillar wears a brightly colored saddle with spiny, irritating bristles for defense.

To add to nature’s immense creativity, we have caterpillars with long whip-like organs attached to the ends of their bodies. The caterpillars wiggle these organs to frighten away flies. Others evade predators by using a silk line to lower themselves down from branches when disturbed. Many species have a knack for thrashing about violently when approached in order to scare away potential predators.

The Walnut Sphinx caterpillar even makes high pitched whistles that frighten birds. I’ve never heard them whistle, but then we humans don’t register so many of the sounds in nature.

The wonders of the caterpillar world are rich and mystifying. And to my mind, underappreciated. As the comedian George Carlin once said, “The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity.” In Alice’s Wonderland, when the caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?” Alice hardly knew herself, having changed so much since morning. The caterpillar might have asked himself the same question. He was a caterpillar. Or was he a snake?

Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; kayaking, gardening, and recently completing a short story collection.

View her work at the links below:
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation

Top Photo of Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) by Julie Crean
Photo of Old World Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio machaon) by Krzysztof Slusarczyk

For The Sake of Pines

I have always loved pine trees. Ever since I was a child, the sight of pines has been a constant presence in my neighborhood, their evanescent green constant through the changing seasons. In my area of Oklahoma, pine trees are not a native species, but my family’s next door neighbor planted pine saplings over fifty years ago and they were giants in my childhood.

I would go across the street and pick up needles and pinecones, exotic oddities on our block filled with soft wood, enjoying the smooth feel of the needles and the rough texture of the cones. The contrast between the two made me love pines even more as I grew up, and as an adult I longed to have pine trees in my own yard. But since I now live in a dry West Fort Worth area, that is not possible.

father and young sun looking at tree in sunsetYears have passed since I was a child, and my parents’ neighbors who owned the lot died long ago. My parents now own the lot, and when my twin sons and I come to visit, we often go that that yard to explore and play in the shade of the pines. Last weekend while my sons played, my son Ivan pointed at the pine needles of a low-lying limb and asked “What is that Daddy?”

I plucked a clump of needles and showed them to him. “These are pine needles. See how green they are. Touch them and feel their smoothness.” My three and a half year old son touched the smoothed needles and laughed, his smile flashing like the sun in a darkened room. I playfully ruffled his hair as he soon went off to play something else.

As I watched him and my other son Aden play with fallen twigs and pinecones, I hoped that they would remember this time, this golden memory they shared with me. I want them to remember that their father shared with them his love for pines, and I hope they share the same love as me. Seeing them run and play chase in the tree-filled lot, I felt the years pass, my mind flashing back to when I was a child and did the same thing.

A lot has changed since I was a boy, but my love of nature still holds true. I can only hope this simple love can be cherished by others and pass that legacy on. For that I believe it will happen.

This is an article in my Subdivision Journal series. I am trying to use mindfulness to observe nature in my neighborhood. Other articles in the series:
Signs of Decay, Signs of Life
Meeting With Magpies
The Tree Blossoms
The Dead Bird
A Budding Tree
An Encounter With a Falcon
The Carrying of Sounds
The View from My Window

Author PhotoCarl Wade Thompson is a poet, essayist, and the graduate writing tutor at Texas Wesleyan University. He has published poetry and memoir essays in The Mayo Review, The Concho River Review, One in Four, Anak Sastra, The Galway Review, The Blue Collar Review, Piker Press, The Eunoia Review, Blue Minaret, Nebo Literary Magazine, Alphelion Literary Webzine, and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. He lives on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas. His poems explore the link between the urban and the rural.

Photo of father and son by Jozef Polc

I Know Where He’s Been

I know where he’s been. The damp stains on his t-shirt and the look on his face say so much. It may have been strenuous because he looks exhausted, but I can tell he liked it. I would, too.

I can see by the way his body moves when he walks that it was long and arduous for him. That look in his eye conveys the wonder he felt and the satisfaction it gave him.

I know he was in a darkened place filled with scintillating smells. He likely heard some pounding against wood. I bet he felt every curve, maybe touching the hard places and breathing in the scent of the soft ones.

I wonder if he took off from work to go there, and if he’s done that a lot or was this the first time? Did he worry about being seen? Did he know how good it was going to be?

I know what it’s like, so I know he was sheltered by the green canopy that covers the trail as the broken pavement makes way for insistent plants to push through. If he looked up he probably saw indigo buntings as he neared the crest of the climb, their chirping melodic whistle reaching his ears. He may have heard the flute-like song of wood thrush.

The woodpeckers, after tapping purposefully up in the trees, were likely finding sap or grubs for breakfast. Although he couldn’t see the campground hidden behind the trees and moss-covered boulders, the sweet, pungent scent of bacon wafted down from there. If he was lucky, he heard a lone rooster greet the morning with a cock-a-doodle-doo.

Since it has been raining pretty hard the past few days he may have heard running water on the side of the mountain and looked over to see it forming rivulets down to a fresh stream from the runoff. He might have had to climb over a tree fallen across the trail, its roots loosened in the rain-soaked earth.

He might have ventured off the main trail to a path around the side of the mountain. Goats and deer could have met him as he made his way gingerly over rocks and roots.

When he got to the top he probably sat on the stone wall at the overlook. He may have seen misty fog nestle between the cleavage of the other peaks in these foothills of the Appalachians. I hope he noticed the warblers and chickadees and cardinals singing to their friends in neighboring trees.

He possibly paused at the overlook a few minutes to breathe nature’s glory in full view before starting back down the trail. The birds now would be settling in for the day, more quiet than on the walk up. The trees and boulders look a little different from this side, and he may have noticed some squirrels at play or a large colorful wild mushroom he hadn’t seen going up. As he neared the bottom he likely started to hear cars a quarter mile or so before emerging from the trail, back to the everyday bustle of life, and drivers going by like me.

Overlook from trail in essay

Courtney Hill Gulbro lives in the foothills of the Appalachians in North Alabama. She has returned to creative writing after a career as a counselor and counselor educator.

Photo by the author of the overlook at the top of the trail in the essay, Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville, Alabama, USA