Loosening the Facebook Noose and Rediscovering the Natural World

Two days ago, we got about five inches of snow. Yesterday was clear and cold, six degrees in the morning, warming to about twenty. My son spent his snow day largely out in the snow despite the temperatures. Between bouts his snow gear tumbled around in the dryer to get it ready for the next session.

Today it is snowing again and my yard is filled with birds munching seeds from dead flower heads and from the feeders which I’ve moved to the north side of the house so we can watch them from the kitchen and the dining room table. The neighbor’s garage acts as a windbreak for them.

We’ve seen dozens of goldfinches in their dull winter coats all vying for a place on the feeder with the thistle seed in it. House finches prefer the sunflower seeds in the tube feeder. Juncos pick up the scraps that fall to the ground. A woodpecker has been carving away at the seed cylinder that is laced with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels off it. Sparrows and nuthatches and cardinals and chickadees and the occasional blue jay round out the company.

“It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m reading for the first time. Winter is a good time for reading anything, but especially nature writing.

I find myself jealous of all that is right outside of Annie’s door in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and I recall how much time I used to spend outside, especially in winter, when I lived in Grand Rapids and volunteered at Blandford Nature Center. Winter and early spring hikes around the property were always far better than those taken in summer. The world holding its breath all winter and then finally releasing it. Each spring hike a wonder as new things came alive. The wonder of spring only made possible by the icy grip of winter.

I think I love winter more every year.

My friend Cindy Crosby writes in the tradition of Annie Dillard, though she is in the great wide prairie lands rather than the mountains. If you enjoy nature writing, you may like her blog or her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Here’s the description from Amazon:

More than a region on a map, North America’s vast grasslands are an enduring place in the American heart. Unfolding along and beyond the Mississippi River, the tallgrass prairie has entranced and inspired its natives and newcomers as well as American artists and writers from Willa Cather to Mark Twain. The Tallgrass Prairie is a new introduction to the astonishing beauty and biodiversity of these iconic American spaces.

 

Like a walking tour with a literate friend and expert, Cindy Crosby’s Tallgrass Prairie prepares travelers and armchair travelers for an adventure in the tallgrass. Crosby’s engaging gateway assumes no prior knowledge of tallgrass landscapes, and she acquaints readers with the native plants they’ll discover there. She demystifies botanic plant names and offers engaging mnemonic tips for mastering Latin names with verve and confidence. Visitors to the prairie will learn to identify native plants using the five senses to discover what makes each plant unique or memorable. In the summer, for example, the unusual square stem of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, sets it apart from its neighbors. And its distinctive leaf cups water after the rain.

 

A gifted raconteur, Crosby tells stories about how humankind has adopted the prairie as a grocery, an apothecary, and even as a shop for love charms. Rounding out this exceptional introduction are suggestions for experiencing the American prairie, including journaling techniques and sensory experiences, tips for preparing for a hike in tallgrass landscapes, ways to integrate native prairie plants into home landscapes (without upsetting the neighbors), and a wealth of resources for further exploration.

 

An instant classic in the tradition of American naturalist writing, The Tallgrass Prairie will delight not only scholars and policy makers, but guests to tallgrass prairie preserves, outdoors enthusiasts and gardeners, and readers interested in American ecosystems and native plants.

Earlier this week, two red-tailed hawks took a brief respite in a maple tree in my back yard then went on hunting. I felt lucky to see them. And I feel lucky that I live in a place that gets a real winter, which always feels like my own respite. A Sabbath season.

I’m winding down my year of reading A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. Today’s selection includes this observation: “When promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated.” Lewis is talking not just of chastity versus promiscuity in this selection, but of the desire to be part of the Inner Circle of mankind. To be in the know. An early 20th century version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I never used to care about being at one with the Zeitgeist. I was comfortably on the outside, not even looking in, because I was spending my time looking at the same kinds of things Annie Dillard and Cindy Crosby were looking at. And I felt with certainty that was the one in the know, in the inner circle. I noticed the things that mattered while everyone else was whirling about trying to be current. I was the insider and they were all outside, not even looking in, because they were too busy for the slow, constant, predictable motion of the natural world.

Sometime in the late 2000s, that changed, and I’ve spent a decade far more engaged with the tumult of mankind than I could ever have imagined I’d be. It’s probably 100% due to my entrance into social media by joining Facebook in 2007. And honestly, I’m not happy about it.

There are things that have to be said, wounds that have to be opened, policies that need to change, and power structures that should probably be toppled. It’s certainly unclear if social media is the most effective place to do this. It certainly is clear that social media makes people feel less understood, less connected, and more anxious and depressed than they would otherwise be. It is the ultimate irony of our times.

The history of mankind and the history of everything else in the world run on parallel tracks, one frenetic and anxious and bumpy, the other timeless and deliberate and while not unchanging certainly changing slower and for more logical reasons sometimes.

Maybe its too early for resolutions, but this has been on my mind. This desire to jump back over to that other track for a while and remember that the weight of the world’s problems are not a burden I need to carry. I can’t carry it.

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” And to the Romans he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This is hard to do in a democracy. It is made all the more difficult when media and social media seem designed to stir up anger, fear, dissension, and self-righteousness.

When I first joined Facebook, it was fun. It was a waste of time, no doubt, but it was fun. Now it’s mostly not. I’m not dumping it entirely for 2018, but I’m taking a step back. I’m unfollowing A LOT of people. I’m limiting my time on it, and eliminating it entirely on weekends. I’m going to go quiet. Take a Sabbath rest. Rediscover my blog, which I’ve let go quiet this fall.

I’m really looking forward to 2018. A time to start fresh. A pure white blanket of fresh-fallen snow. A year of possibilities. A year to buckle down and work on what pleases me. A year to lead a quieter life, at peace with those around me.

I’m not worried about missing out. I’m looking forward to it.

 

On the State of My Desk

At this moment, there’s a lot going on . . . on my desk. The standard things are there: computer, keyboard, mouse, speakers, two landlines (yes, two), lamp, my little coffee warmer hotplate thing that makes drinking coffee in any other room of the house just a little disappointing.

There are other things as well. Yesterday’s coffee mug still waiting to go to the kitchen. A piece of broken glass from the Silverdome sitting on an iridescent shell found on the sandy shore of Thumb Lake. A painted rock. A tray of nineteen Petoskey stones, all found at camp. A tray of pennies. A cactus. A tube of mostly organic moisturizer.

There’s wrapping paper and tissue paper, scotch tape and packing tape. There’s a list of gifts bought, gifts intended, check marks next to those that have been wrapped.

There’s a pincushion, a spool of thread, sewing scissors, a package of elastic, and two stuffed animals (five originally) that need some surgery.

There’s a pair of sunglasses, a couple keys, a barrette. A measuring tape, a couple catalogs, the bill from the eye doctor, the plate from my breakfast.

There’s my work binder with its lists of books in various stages of completion. Copy trackers and catalog schedules and pagination documents.

And there’s my planner, hanging out on the edge of one of those pull out trays old desks have. Ah, the well-intentioned planner.

Inside, things are just as chaotic. Files, yes. Pens and pencils. Post-Its. But also German flashcards, one of those spidery-looking head massagers, collections of state quarters and national park quarters and the first twenty presidential dollar coins. Guitar picks, silicone iPod covers, stacks of business cards I have never consulted.

Last night I finished reading White Noise by Don DeLillo, first published in 1984. After his college town is involved in “an airborne toxic event” the main character is more and more convinced that he is dying (and of course, in the existential sense, he is, just as everybody is always coming one moment closer to their deaths). Near the end of the book, he starts throwing things away, starting with things obviously no one needs — broken things, obsolete things — and then moving on to things you do need — like soap and shampoo still being used in the shower — until his daughters have to stop him.

“The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. . . . It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me.”

And later, “I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible.”

I fully admit that I know the feeling of being overburdened with things, tired of having to organize them and try to keep them neat. I regularly go through purges. I purged when we renovated the kitchen. I recently put two chairs and an old printer from my office on the side of the road. Last weekend, my husband and I helped our son do a full cleaning of his room. We threw away an entire garbage bag of junk, sent several bags of clothes on to our church’s Love Clothing Center, half-filled a very large box with stuff for Goodwill. It took hours and hours.

It never feels like enough.

DeLillo’s character seemed to be doing it out of a sense that these objects were in some way connected to his own mortality and he was afraid to die. He waited to feel a lightness but it never came because the objects weren’t the real problem.

I, on the other hand, always feel lighter when I get rid of things.

Next year I will be moving my office to the smallest room in the house. What a perfect excuse to do a little more purging. At some point perhaps I will have little else than books and rocks and art supplies to my name. It won’t help me escape death. But it will make life feel far lighter.