Monday, January 31, 2011


While most of America was under snow last week, I snuck down to Florida to spend some time with my parents. On my way to the airport, I nearly got into a traffic accident as a trunk squeezed my taxi nearly into a parked car. The cab driver, a young Moroccan man in a hooded sweatshirt, shrugged his shoulders, sighed some prayer to Allah and we went on. “I don’t get upset any more at these things,” he told me as if explaining to himself. We’d bonded and he went on to give me his philosophy of driving he’d picked up from an old Indian man he knew from his cab company: “Doesn’t pay to rush. You do your job and thank God, for what comes to you. In the long run, you are happier, you don’t get so much of the stress, and you are thinking more of God. And this is the better way.” He was happy to tell me this. We talked on about politics in America and in North Africa. He was excited about events there. (Though he reminded me that, like so many immigrants from North Africa, he’d come here to find work as there was little chance for him there.) Yet he was proud of his country. He told me that Morocco was the first country to recognize America after its independence.
When I told him, I was going to visit my parents in Florida. He turned around for the first time, smiling under his hood. “You are a good son.”
I sighed. My parents are aging and it’s hard sometimes to watch this. My mother is struggling with dementia (or Alzheimer, no one knows). My Moroccan cab driver heard the sigh. “Tell me, when you come back from visiting your parents, how do you feel?”
“I feel . . . I feel always better. You’re right.”
“I know I’m right. They took care of us. Now we take care of them.” (He’d told me that he sends money home as often as he can, and he’d helped pay for their new house along with his brothers.)
In northern Florida, I spent every day walking with my mother on the beach and into the inter-coastal dunes and oak and manzanita groves on the barrier islands where they spend part of the winter. Each morning, we walked an hour or so. And at night after my parents went to bed, I’d walk back on to the beach, where it always gives me the sense that you are walking in space, as the sound of the surf and soft sand seems to lift you out of your small thoughts and up into the stars.
But it’s with my mother where I always seem to learn something new about walking, which is to say, something I’d ignored about what happens to our body when we reconnect to the land around us. When my parents came to this part of Florida twenty years ago I found the area of quaint beaches and the endless inter-coastal wetlands boring. Over the years, in my visits I’ve hiked about and kayaked and fished and found more fascinating each year. This is the area, I’ve learned, where the Spanish first landed in the continental US. It’s also the same area (roughly) where Charles Bartram, the 18th century Philadelphia naturalist, made his drawings and observations about natural history as part of his walks through the Southeast. Bartram’s Travels, chronicled with a lyrical but lucid prose, is often credited with being a major influence on the Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as a hundred years later, inspiring a young John Muir, who trekked from Indiana to these same wetlands to follow in Bartram’s footsteps.
With my mother, we walked as naturalists, too, picking up seashells, pointing at the pelicans and skittering sandpipers, marveling at the osprey with the snake dangling over the telephone wires where he perched. We always make a pilgrimage, a long walk around the beach to Fort Matanza National Coastal Park. A wonderful park with interpretative board walks along the shore and coastal waterway. Here we invariably meet my parent’s neighbors out for their morning walks. There, we find our prize, nesting in the great Spanish oaks, the great horned owl, warming her egg. My mother has a hard time spotting it but feels the excitement and presence of the wondrous owl just the same.
Over past few years with onset of memory loss and the cognitive impairment of Alzheimer’s, my mother’s pace has slowed. She can’t always discern the level of the ground from shadows and changes of light. The beach is easier for her somehow. Perhaps, she trusts it from all the years she’s walked on it, relying more on the feel of her feet than on what her mind might misinterpret. She’s more relaxed and thus more lucid. But, then again, so am I.
Walking gives her a sense of agency and adventure and certainly a sense of joy and freedom. And this, in fact, is extremely important to all of us, but especially those suffering from memory loss and cognitive impairment. Recent studies have shown that walking three or more times a week for at least a mile has a marked improvement on brain plasticity and cognitive health.
Why? Circulation and heart rate are improved, of course, but perhaps more importantly the intricate relationships in the brain circuitry are maintained via the variety of actions being carried out by the body as we walk. Think about it. Orbetter feel it next time you walk. We think, we move, we see, we feel, we haveemotions, all in fractions of seconds as we simply take one step. Link.
As much as I can, I try to slow to her pace, noticing the ferns growing on the mossy limbs, the raccoon tracks in the sand, listening to the cardinals overhead. But I’m still too fast. And then my mother asks, from behind. “You don’t like to walk slow, do you?” I turn. She’s looking out at something in the wooded undergrowth of the oak groves, and if talking to it and not me, declares to all who might walk too fast in the world: “I liked to walk slow. It’s better that way. More interesting.” And then finding me again, “There’s so much here to see, isn’t there?”
From my Moroccan cab driver to my mother, I’m trying to get the message.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Open Lands and Ragdale

“The health of the eye demands a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we see far enough.” R. W. Emerson

Something happens to perception and thus to our very well being when we are afforded access to natural spaces and open lands where we can walk, gaze, wonder at the elemental world that somehow we lose sight of in our urban life of work, possessions, and technology. I don’t believe we have evolved quite so far as to ignore our essential affinity with our nomadic roots and for our need to roam and wander.

A couple of weeks ago I spent several days at an artist’s retreat, known as Ragdale, that is located on a ridge near the shore of Lake Michigan in Northern Illinois. For those who may not have heard of a place like Ragdale or of someplace like an artist’s colony, imagine a place where you are invited, honored no less, because of the value of your work as a writer, or composer, or artist and given two or four weeks to work without interruption. Where you are given a quiet space to think and doodle and sleep and stare and hopefully create. And you are fed by a gourmet cook who treats you like a prince or a child or a tired soul or whomever you are when you show up to imbibe with your other colonists at supper. And, in this case, at Ragdale, a place that is adjacent to acres and acres of prairie, marsh, and a wooded creek, all preserved by a band of good folk who recognized the value of these spaces and preserved it as well as those today who maintain it, such as the citizens of Lake Forest and the Open Lands.

I’d not even finished unpacking my bags before I marched right out even though the sun had just set. Darkness and the cold made it just that more enticing, and I found myself losing myself in the woods, my eyes not used to the darkness and I nearly walked into the creek bed. But I just wanted to be in the middle of it, just to hear the place, and sink into it a little, be for a while in the land and feeling it there, feeling its darkness and winter brittleness.

That first night it snowed about four inches, beautiful soft wet flakes that fell lighting up the darkness, and by morning the trees and prairie grass were covered, creating that purificatory ritual we all know that comes with the first snow. The patterns made you wince when you had to make the first foot tracks in the snow, reminding me of what it feels like sometimes when I walk at the Indiana Dunes and you don’t want to mar the magical windscapes of sand. But I did, and ran about like a boy, stopping to see if the snow would mold easily into . . . something, I mean I’m no Andy Goldsworthy but I began imagining a snow fort on the edge of the prairie under a few trees. At dinner that night, almost every one of the artists had made a similar excursion into the snow and prairie, and I whispered to the paper-maker and artist next to me, Melissa Craig, if she wanted to make something with me. “Sure! I’ve been going out and finding all kinds of interesting things in the woods.” Of course, that is what she does in her work, find ways to use the actual natural world as the very medium of her work. (Here you can see what she’s doing with her paper making and sculpting and organic use of color in creating a fungus like bar code that reads: “DO NO DAMAGE."

I walked around every day of my 12 day stay, watching and walking about in the snow through this precious oasis that is painstakingly and lovingly restored to its original and evolving ecological niche. But each day, I’d see something I’d not noticed or appreciated before, either because of the light, or the weather, or my own mood. One day, I decided to walk on the ice of the creek, seeing or hoping that it was as hard as it appeared. From inside a ditch, looking up in to the brambles and branches of the cottonwoods and other hardwoods that create the canopy over the creek, I realized from this perspective, from below ground, that this is not only another view but another world, even in winter.

Other artists made other discoveries, British poet, Cheryl Moskowitz, wrote this about one outing of hers where she came upon a deer:

Out there in the cold you don’t expect to see anyone.
Glad if you don’t, actually.
Time to be alone, find a stump,
brush the mound of snow off
sit for a while by the creek that’s all froze up
and listen, like the deer do.

You are a stranger here
the birds know that -
calling out to one another in their strange tongue
retreat, retreat, retreat.

And all at once she’s there,
one side of the Dharma wheel.
Chestnut markings like a dark target
framed against the vast white
and so are you.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Ragdale and not heard of some reference to the prairie or to some insight that it evoked. Here’s another image from poet Beth Brandt who very much works with natural imagery in her work:


How it

is dust

rut mound





What it

hides what it

keeps. How it holds

you up weighs

you down draws

you in. The gravity

of it turn of

it pull of

it when

it’s midnight

in November

and you can’t


But, oddly, as the days wore on, I found myself transfixed in my walks by not just the natural landscape but the the electrical towers rising out of the ground, at the fixity of the rusted steel of a train trestle and the trains that went by that I could hear at night in my studio. And I wasn’t the only one, Cheryl told me on the last day she made a video with her I-phone of a train moving through the landscape as she stood in the woods listening, and listening to her video myself, I was struck by the disappearance of sound as the train faded from view, leaving the woods and making me hear it anew. Here it is, listen to the end of the video. We think sometimes that these environments are sullied by the ways of humans. But all spaces have something of the wild still echoing through. We just have to give over to the place as it is and spend some time there, watching and listening and absorbing what it has to offer.