Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nature of Home

My 'home' plant: mountain laurel.

I recently accepted a travel award to attend a symposium for graduate students doing research in environmental studies and agriculture. The symposium will take place in early May and I will have to take some time off from work to attend. I filled out my request for vacation time and began to make plans for my first trip back to Chicago in over 40 years. When I was young our family traveled to Chicago to meet with my aunt and uncle (he was in the Navy) and to see the sights. I remember standing on the shore of Lake Michigan with my aunt. I recall the trash, the smell, and the color of the water. It wasn't pretty. We didn't stay long!  I'm looking forward to going back and visiting what is now a restored shoreline, full of birding areas, parks, clean beaches, and a city celebrating a return of its 'wilderness' - I can't wait to see it again!

My aunt grew up in Baltimore and mentioned to me how different the Great Lakes area was, how hard it was for her sometimes to really get to know a place being in the Navy and transferring all over the world. She was a birder, as was my grandmother. I remember her saying how she never felt at home unless she could see some of her favorite birds: cardinals, orioles, and chimney swifts. She was glad that she'd seen all of these in the Chicago area.

One of my Aunt Loretto's favorite 'home' birds, the cardinal.

So as I begin to research some trails and birding hotspots for my trip, I think about what animals and plants remind me of my growing up in the hilly Piedmont of northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. From my childhood are the mountain laurel and barred owls. Living along Deer Creek and the Little Gunpowder River and roaming day after day, sometimes night after night along the woodland trails, both mountain laurel and owls were plentiful and became part of my natural 'mooring' to place.

The smell of a thawing skunk cabbage wetland is my 'home' scent, from river valleys in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

I've traveled a bit across the country and have a real love for different natural landscapes:  tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills,  bald cypress swamps of the Lowcountry, alpine balds of the White Mountains. But these places, though novel and incredibly exciting, are visited not lived in - not raised on.  I remember standing in the Chiricahau Mountains in southern Arizona. My sister and I could not get enough of the pine-scented air and the volcanic ash soils that crunched underfoot on the trails. Once home, however, I recall heading back to work (Maryland Park Service) after our vacation had ended and hiking down a mucky trail to the river. The bright woods, waiting for leaves to shade the hollow, was thick with the scent of skunk cabbage and thawing mud. That, I thought, was the smell of home in springtime.

I plan to pick up another sketchbook before I head to Chicago. I have over twenty sketchbooks loaded with maps, illustrations, poetry, notes about birdsong and animal tracks - all from forty years of exploring the outdoors at home and far off. It's time to start a new one. I wonder what natural sights, smells, and sounds will make an impression on some blank pages? With a trip to Austin, Texas right around the corner (Farm-to-Cafeteria Conference), a new place for me altogether - this will be nice spring time to compare far away nature with the nature of home.

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