skunk cabbage emerging from dead leavesWinter and spring are playing at the back edge of February. Brave tips of skunk cabbage emerge in a soggy pocket of sun-drenched moss behind the stone wall. Resilience flows through the roots that held fast under snowpack and leaf litter all winter, waiting. White caps dance on the river and naked branches etch the blue-glass sky; the wind is the artist’s hand.

But by afternoon it is warm enough to check on my honeybees for the first time since November. Lifting the cover carefully I find bees are blanketing the top frames. A thousand pulsating glassine wings catch the light, feeling the energy of the sun, waiting for the scent of skunk cabbage to waft through the air. They’re more docile now than they were in the late fall, as if they sense the approaching abundance of spring. I lay a winter patty on top of the frames, superfood to hold them over until the skunk cabbage is ready. Inside its protective variegated purple spathe, pollen is developing and when this most unconventional flower blooms, it offers that first pollen of the spring to my hungry pollinators. It is their signal to let the queen know to begin laying again. Promise in the pollen for new generations, green and winged alike. Resilience hums under the cover of the hive, and the bees wait.

I had given up my second hive for dead about a month ago, discovering a blanket of unmoving bees at its base and no buzz from above. Moving to this hive next with the intention of breaking it down, I pulled off the cover to reveal . . . bees? A small cluster surprised me, acting very much like there was a queen in residence. A more intense search revealed her presence along with eggs; she is laying. Yes, there were dead bees blanketing the screen at the bottom of the hive. Yes, there hadn’t been a sound or the sight of a bee for a month, but this small colony had clustered around their queen through the coldest parts of February, keeping her warm, feeding her, even stimulating her to lay eggs as they sensed the tiny size of their tribe. Such resilience! I would treat these bees with special care, I thought to myself as I carefully laid a winter patty on the top of their frames, whispering words of encouragement and congratulations, and gingerly lowering the cover so as not to squish a single precious bee.

Resilience. It requires so much and so little. Patience, energy, instinct, and quite possibly, near miracles.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” From Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger

I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s writings, and from my first reading, I was captivated by his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The fantastic adventure commences in Iceland, or rather under Iceland, for the most part. The movie versions never could compete with the fantastic images that Verne’s words produced in my mind’s eye. And as a child, I became curious about this place called Iceland, and was captivated by the photos of the landscape I found in the library and National Geographic. And amongst the photos that most evoked the sentiments in me that Verne’s book had, were the ones not of volcanos, but of the canyons. It was at that point that I made an emotional connection between canyons and the Journey, and I can’t separate the two very easily to this day. I have not explored Iceland yet, nor attempted my own visit to the center of the earth, but I have found some caverns and more than a few canyons. And in truth, I have not fully abandoned the whimsical dream that the Lidenbrock’s Path that Verne wrote about might exist somewhere at the bottom of a canyon, probably a grand one, at that.

south rim view of the Grand Canyon.When one refers to the Grand Canyon, it is usually the magnificent 277 mile long gorge cut by the Colorado River through Northern Arizona. Usually, but not exclusively as it turns out. There are canyons and gorges in many states that are referred to as “Grand” in some fashion. Kind of like the way iconic people are referred to as the “Babe Ruth of” whatever it is they do. There is Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” in New York, not to be confused with Maine’s Gulf Hagas or West Virginia’s New River Gorge, both also dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Alabama’s Walls of Jericho is called the “Grand Canyon of the South”, as is the gorge in Breaks Interstate Park in the Virginia portion. The “Grand Canyon of the North” is an open pit mine in Hibbing. MN, and the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

Wyoming has the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, while the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina” is Linville Gorge, and “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is Pine Creek Gorge. Features called “Grand Canyon Of ” are found in Michigan, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon and Texas as well. Interestingly, “Little Grand Canyons” also are found in Vermont, Mississippi, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, California and Washington. That’s Washington State, not DC, although I’ve scrambled along some pretty steep banks fishing along Rock Creek in the District, our first National Park incidentally. I am sure I’ve missed a few “Grands”, but you get the picture. The park services, chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus are not trying to deceive you, they are merely paying homage to the ultimate one in Arizona. And for the record, Arizona is not immune to a little hype either, their state moniker being “The Grand Canyon State”.

I guess everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon has a memory of their initial reaction to standing on the rim and beholding what was now in front of them. Most people don’t say behold to describe what they see, but it is the only word that fits, and it is not really enough. We all have seen the pictures and film, or read accounts dating from the Spanish explorers to John Wesley Powell to the aforementioned National Geographic. But as cliche as it sounds, all that doesn’t do it justice. First fully explored by Powell after the Civil War, it was dedicated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt roughly forty years later. Roosevelt’s words on the plaque with his likeness at Roosevelt Point on the rim pretty much sums it up. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American … should see.” It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the superlatives and awe are all warranted.

Hiker on a Grand Canyon TrailMy first visit to the Grand Canyon was in winter, when we took a break from trout fishing along Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Driving north through Flagstaff, we approached the Grand Canyon traveling along a sagebrush plateau dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, and revealing an occasional pronghorn. My first view of the canyon was then of course from the South Rim. The exact spot was at the Bright Angel trailhead. Because of icy conditions there, we did more viewing than hiking. My clamp on ice creepers or a pair of YakTrax would have changed that, but they were 2,600 miles away in my ice fishing bucket. But the viewing was ample and the landscape was like none I’d ever seen. As I stated, I love canyons, so I’ve seen a few, but nothing remotely like this. Not only in terms of scale, but of vantage point as well. And perhaps the single most compelling thing to me from there and several other vistas, was the narrow green ribbon snaking along the bottom of the the gorge as far as you could see.

Although I knew what is was, I could not reconcile easily the appearance with the physical reality of the flow at first. It was of course the Colorado River, but I’d never seen any water so far below me except while on a plane. The virtual trivialization of this mighty river was stunning. The sight of the Colorado looking more like a varicose vein than a river is one of my most vivid memories of the canyon, right up there with the overall surreal scale of the landscape. We often use the phrase “as far as the eye can see”, and probably use it accurately enough in most cases. But here on the South Rim, glassing the otherworldly aspect that the Canyon evokes, it took on a new dimension. And in that moment when my breath was literally taken away by both the scope and beauty of my surroundings, I was re-filled to bursting with a particular thought, quickly becoming knowledge.I knew beyond a certainty that there were more places lying before me than I could ever explore in a lifetime. And right there, under my moon-eyed gaze, were places no one else had been. Boulders where no one else had warmed themselves in the sun, box canyons as narrow as city alleys that no one had followed to the end, rock faces no one had scaled, tiny gravel beaches no one had stretched their legs on, pools that had never seen a lure, and seepages that had never filled a canteen. It both thrilled and amazed me, and scarcely a day passes that I do not re-visit that feeling, a lasting gift of the Canyon.

But, there were other aspects of our initial exploration of the Grand Canyon that allowed a more measured observation of the landscape. A deserted trailhead access for the Hermit Trail provided a rare solitude that day along the rim. On the way there, we passed many coyotes and mule deer, the larger mammals most frequently encountered in the Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down into the Canyon pleasantly afforded us a more micro view of the environment, micro of course, only in comparison to the rim views. The Hermit Trail is rough and steep along much of it’s 4600 elevation drop to the river. But the upper third that we trekked along was not unreasonable, and unlike the upper portions of Bright Angel Trail, the Hermit Trail was ice free that February afternoon. Hiking through the rocks, sagebrush and a few Englewood spruce, gave us a chance to bask in the below rim experience. Two golden eagles, several ravens and a peregrine falcon soared overhead on the thermals as we made our way down the trail. At a switchback we chose as the terminus of our hike, we sat and watched the lenticular clouds forming over the rapidly shadowy Canyon.

As the temperature perceptibly began to drop a well, we headed back up the narrow but relatively stable trail, I felt secure in the fact that our packs were weighted not only with an extra fleece and water bottles, but headlamps and flashlights as well. All but the water bottles never left the packs, as despite the fatigue of a long day, our pace was quicker ascending than it had been descending. That was so, partially because there was less to see in the fading light. Reaching the trailhead parking lot just before dusk, the Canyon had one final surprise for us. As we drove around a sharp bend, a small herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. The size of these animals is awe inspiring, especially to one whose home woodlands have only the whitetail deer as ungulate representatives. An enormous bull elk stood in the middle of the road staring at us until the cows and calves had moved well into the trees, before trotting away and disappearing like a ghost into the dusk and brush, but never from our memory.

Photos by the author and Sherry Yates

Bridging the Divide: A Leap of Faith

Author on edge of cliffEach person had reached the same spot, and the same dilemma; to cross or not to cross. In search for a lookout known as “Hanging Rock” in the Blue Mountains of Australia, my friend and I reached a chasm which now stood between us and the lookout. Among us were several other adventurers, each connected through their shared fear of this gap. The jump was not inconceivable, nor even that difficult. It was only about a metre long, yet to fall into its depth would be fatal.

Being my rather lanky self, I could practically step right across it. And yet, my mind prohibited me. All the potential errors had been worked out, and my mind could see no justification to cross the divide.

I leant over the edge, and stared down the yawning chasm. Vertigo had stolen any stability from my legs as I now quivered in the face of the divide. This was more than just a small hop, but rather a leap of faith. A leap, into the chaotic, foreign arms of nature. Fearful, I stared into it, unable to jump, yet unable to look away. And nor could the others who stood beside me.

Now realising the fragility of my life at this location, I began to wonder, why did I come? I was not forced to come here, nor was I tricked. I willingly chose to place myself here, in the face of a deadly abyss. What was I thinking? At this point, all I wanted was to return to my bedroom and watch television – a place where my life would not be put into question.

Author hiking on cliffWe all stood, thinking the same thoughts, sharing the same fears. Every five or so minutes someone would summon the courage to leap the gap, resulting in cheers from the onlookers. But for me, seeing this only added a greater burden. I could see just how easily the gap could be jumped, and yet my mind still would not relinquish thoughts of the consequences.

What if I fall? What if I die?

My thoughts had commandeered my body, and any attempts at rationalising only made the situation worse. I was petrified, and yet deep down, I knew that if I allowed this one act to conquer me, so too could the rest of my life be conquered by fear.

To quote Ernest Becker,

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

So which did the chasm represent? Was death staring me in the face, or was life?

In order to find an answer, I reached into my mind and pulled out memories of home. Congested, claustrophobic and routine. I now remembered why I was here, and why I’d left the safety of the city; I came to hunt butterflies. Not ones which required a net however, but the ones which now flapped their wings ferociously in my stomach. It was this pervasive, inescapable fear which I sought. The fear of the unknown, of the new, of the chaotic. And so I ran toward the edge and leapt.

Vast forested WildernessBefore I could even digest it, I stood at the other side. I had done it. This was why I came. Blood rushed through every inch of my body, awakening every sense I had. I walked to the edge of the cliff face, soaking in the glory of the view. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I was alive.

From the cliffs edge I could see the entire world. Forests beneath me, an ocean in the distance in front of me, and blue sky above.

Author on Cliff EdgeIt was at this point I realised what Ernest Becker meant. Life could not be lived when clinging to safety. It was only when I let go of my fears of death, that I could truly live a life worth living.

It was at this moment, in which I also came to realise that there isn’t really such thing as humanity versus nature, as is so commonly spouted. Instead, there is only humans versus ourselves. Nature represents the transient, the uncontrolled and the unknown, all of which present great fear to humanity, as these are all the qualities of death. We fear our own mortality, and so we sculpt the world to remove its chaos – to avoid remembering that we are not in control. Life forever slips through our fingers, but we instead remain too fearful to diverge from the trodden paths. We choose safe careers, live within societally sanctioned schedules, and avoid danger at all costs, all in the hopes that we may live just that one moment longer. Though is this really living? As humans we are able to ponder the infinite, and comprehend the immortal, and yet we remain chained to the one thing we fear the most: our nature.

Louis O’Neill is a 21 year old Graduate from Macquarie University in Australia, having completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Writing.

Photos by patsuraseang

Driving in Cars, with Birds

When I practice my new birding skills in field or forest, I work hard at being still and patient, a skill at odds with barreling down Route 9 at 65 mph plus. But, while highway-side perches chosen by birds are viewed at a clip, they are often unobscured, putting the birds on stage for any commuter who looks up.

My favorite pastime as I drive is to keep an eye out for raptors. As I rounded the ramp to Route 9 one day, I hastily pulled my car over on the narrow shoulder. How could I have done otherwise when a handsome Bald Eagle graced a rather low craggy branch nearly within arm’s reach? We gazed at each other for a while and then we both launched — he back toward the Connecticut River and me to my work desk.

woman birdwatching by riverMiddletown, a small city along Route 9, is a raptor hot spot, at least along the highway, which for a while runs directly parallel with the river. Red-Shouldered Hawks are what I see most on that stretch, peering down from the green road signs and lamp posts. I wonder if they go after the Rock Pigeons, who form blue-gray huddles on the posts. I like to count them. Nine on one post is the record.

Spotting a large raptor can make my whole day. Each workday last summer, I happily anticipated the Exit 69 sign during my commute home, where a large Osprey often perched, right at the start of a high bridge. I wanted to pull off in Old Saybrook, park at the Quality Inn, and walk the nearby fenced pedestrian path toward Old Lyme on the other side of the river. This would allow me to get close to the bird, albeit with the distraction of cars and fumes. I’d be able to stare up at his brown and white magnificence, scrutinize his tail feathers through my binoculars. Maybe he’d scrutinize me, too.

Always, I had to be somewhere, or get dinner on the table. Although the workday was over, its tenor was still driving me and my daily to-do list, and apparently my car. If the Osprey comes back to Exit 69 this summer, I am determined to wrestle the car away from its well-worn rut and go visit with the bird this time. For now, I take River Road home once I’m off the highway. Now that the day lingers longer I can cruise this curvy path with the river to the right. Near Pratt Cove I peer over at the two Osprey aeries planted in the salt marsh. I park in the Cove’s gravel lot and walk the short distance to the Osprey path, where I stand on a jutting rock and watch the bird watching the marsh, hearing him or her (they take turns on the nest) calling, wondering if there are eggs deep in the pile of sticks. I think the highway Osprey and relish the thought of his return.

Visit Katherine Hauswirth’s blog, First-Person Naturalist.
Click here for Kathrine’s book, Getting Started with Nature Writing.
Her new book, The Book of Noticing, is available from Homebound Publications.

Book of Noticing cover

Photo by Leung Cho Pan

River of Life

The dirt road across the northern South Dakota prairie was bumpy, especially in a large flatbed truck pulling a trailer loaded with a bobcat skid-steer. The equipment and the truck were necessary to excavate a Triceratops skull and I was along as an employee of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research to help remove the skull.

fossil emerging from earth at dig siteAt first the skull was just the tip of a horn protruding from a low hill in the Hell Creek formation. Eventually one whole horn was uncovered, then two, then the nose horn and beak. Glinting, dark teeth were found here and there amid the tan soil and brown clay. Two conical, pointed and serrated Nanotyrannus teeth were found, suggesting that the small carnivorous dinosaur may have killed or scavenged the Triceratops. The other teeth were the strange, herbivorous teeth from Triceratops itself, teeth that grew in large batteries, new teeth aligned, waiting to replace the old as they wore out, much like sharks’ teeth today. On a hillside behind the Triceratops, the scattered pieces of knobby, armored skull were found a year earlier. These were part of a Pachycephalosaurus skull which sits in cardboard flats, embedded in dirt and rocks back at the lab piled on a table amidst power tools, glue bottles and various bones of other creatures from modern to Mesozoic. Cacti and sagebrush dotted the tops of small buttes and the sand of dry stream beds threaded between and around them flecked with tiny pieces of fossil bone, some turtle, some crocodile, some dinosaur and many indiscernible.

Uncovering the triceratops involves turning over chunks of sediment with a military surplus bayonet and brushing dirt away with a large paint brush. There is also the work of swinging a pick and scooping the broken earth away with a shovel. I sweat; my knees become sharp, raw things against the hard packed soil, rock and fossils.

One night at a dig when my boss and I are alone, drinking beer and eating chips and salsa we watch a doe walking through the prairie grass. The deer startled, at first we think we spooked the animal and then we see a coyote that surprised her slinking away in grass taller than the canid itself. The sun rising over the grass in the morning glows on the tops of buttes and makes the prairie grass glow. The stars at night are a chest of sparkling jewels.

It’s easy for the mind to wander as your eyes pan for the outline of a jaw, the sharp contours of a tooth. As I was sorting through soil and broken rock, looking for bone, I saw a small thing moving. A beautiful, tiny creature was cupped in my hand and I held it close to my eyes, peering. A reddish animal with long, grasping pinchers was in my hand. The whole arachnid was only about the size of an ant, perhaps smaller with intricate detail that could only be hinted to unaided human eyes. I smiled deeply; this was the first pseudo scorpion I’d seen in person. I had collected insects in a cave with a man who’d discovered a new species of pseudo scorpion in a Colorado cave, photographed next to a nickel, it made the coin enormous. We passed the pseudo scorpion around so everyone could get a view of the strange, rare creature and I delicately set it down, a little away from where we dug. Hopefully the pseudo scorpion had no problem making a new home in the soil.

It meant something to me that day to find a tiny arachnid, alive with the remains of a dinosaur. It meant something to see the deer and the coyote and to nightly hear them singing. Animals die. We are animals and we die as well. Everything that is alive succumbs to death. Yet, the same life that flowed through the dinosaurs persists in us. The life, the beauty and variety and power of this force that animates us is more important than us. Life is more important than species or genera, it is the river and we are mere flotsam to be carried for a while and spit out in the end. The river goes on.

Follow Zach’s explorations at Zach of the Jungle

Zachary Fitzner was educated in Biological Sciences in Colorado. He grew up in Wyoming and Colorado and learned to love nature and the outdoors at an early age. He’s done field work in conservation and biology in Alaska, The Caribbean, Africa, South America and the continental American West. He now lives in a small camper in South Dakota with his girlfriend and their Shih Tzu. He works in commercial paleontology and is currently working on an untitled essay collection about nature, conservation and outdoor pursuits. You can find links to his other works and read his blog at

Photo by the author