When the chill of winter arrives, you can either run the other way or embrace it. Having spent many years enjoying the outdoors in all seasons and weather, I aim for the latter and in this spirit spent the past week on a dog sledding and Nordic skiing camping trip in northern Minnesota.
With temperatures well below zero and in the single digits, but also in the balmy teens, needs focus in on the basics: food and sufficient firewood with which to boil water and cook, the right clothing for staying warm and dry, and shelter-- in this case a bivvy sack for sleeping under the stars.
The Boundary Waters are remote area that feels all the more remote in the winter. An area north of the "Laurentian Divide", raindrops and snow melt end up in the Arctic Ocean, rather than the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, or Pacific. Led by the fabulous outfitter Wintergreen, founded by Paul Schurke, a noted polar explorer whom we dubbed "Eighth Wonder of the Word" for his endurance, resilience, and intrepidness, the trip entailed traversing blissful miles of frozen lakes and boreal forests filled with black spruce and balsam furs, birch, and aspen.
Along the way was evidence of local creatures -- snow tracks left by wolves, deer, moose, and snowshoe hares -- and continual admiration for our sled dogs, true professionals, each full of personality and eager to pull, dragging sleds carrying our heavy loads of equipment (with skiers breaking trail in the deeper snow). Inuit dogs are the domesticated breed closest to wolf; their wolfish selves emerging in their occasional canine-bearing snarls directed at one another to assert dominance. At the same time they respond like puppies when interacting with humans, basking in attention and rolling onto their backs for a stomach rub.
In the remote frozen region, one's reliance on others becomes all the more apparent, an interesting irony in that one can feel most connected to other people in a wilderness environment. Arriving into the evening's campsite, we spread out to perform tasks assumed almost instinctually: gathering firewood, digging into the lake ice to create a water hole, setting up a fire pit on the ice, with a layer of logs underlying metal fire trays to separate the fire and ice. We cleared areas to set up our bivvy sacks, digging into the snow to shelter the bags from wind. And we tending to the sled dogs, transitioning them from the sled to hooking them up one by one on a line set up along the trees, removing their harnesses, and preparing their food.
While the Boundary Waters are a world away from New York City, there was much that was elemental on the trip that translated to my urban home. If neighboring wolves and our sled dogs are pack animals, so too we humans form packs, finding community and interdependencies among one another, and even asserting--or encountering others asserting--alpha dominance.
My return to New York City from the Great North Woods felt uncanny. The taxi that whisked me from the airport to home seemed confining and way to warm inside. To the driver's chagrin, I opened the window to feel the snap of cold and the breeze -- to breathe again -- and could almost imagine that I was being transported by dog sled across a frozen lake, rather than in a taxi on the crowded Grand Central Parkway.
On arriving home, I took pleasure in having a warm bed and modern conveniences: indoor plumbing and a stove that didn't require gathering abundant firewood. At the same time that I appreciated the significant labor saved by these inventions, they also made me feel disconnected from the elemental features they deliver: fire at the turn of a knob; water at the turn of a handle. No hours spent scouring an island for firewood, with coordinated efforts to chop and saw fallen trees, drag them many yards to our fire pit and sort the wood into fire-starter twigs and birch bark, thicker branches, and logs. No continual chinking into the 2-foot lake ice to reach water. It all seemed too easy, and I pondered for a while what is lost when we receive such abundant resources with ease -- recognizing too how much is gained by not having to focus every day on basic survival needs.
Having unpacked and run a load of laundry (more modern convenience magic!), I proceeded outside, ambling down Lexington Avenue, with each step sensing the breeze along the avenue as it touched the bare skin of my face and noting it felt as constant as the breeze encountered while traversing frozen lakes and forests on skis and dog sled.
By some premonition, I felt a presence that impelled me to look up. And there, aloft on 73rd and Lex, was a Peregrine falcon, drifting on a thermal, a touch of wild in the metropolis, and a reminder of the wildness that persists if we just know where to look.
With temperatures in the New York City area in the single digits and teens over the past few days, a stroll outside can feel like an adventure. One of the more noticeable things about walking outside on a chilly day is that we can see our breath. With every exhale, a small cloud billows from our mouth, wisps whirling, clustering, separating and then fading into the surrounding air.
From each living, breathing animal-being around us, cloudlets emanate with every breath, vaporous chiaroscuro intermingling with the exhales of passers by, as if engaging in a collective dance. Dogs on their outings and birds too display visible breath. Even the exhaust from cars and output from the tall chimney stacks on buildings become more visible, suggesting that in way they too are breathing, or that perhaps we living creatures have our own little engines. Indeed it is the oxygen we breathe in that fuels our bodies. We can live a month without food, a week without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen.
Seeing our breath on a cold day is a reminder of our reciprocity with the natural world around us. The air we take in is 21% oxygen (78% is nitrogen) because of plants, which intake carbon dioxide and mix it with sunshine to create sugar and breathe out oxygen. We are taught in meditation to focus on our breath. How much easier it is to focus on breath when it becomes visible. And how much it reminds us of this minute by minute bodily process -- on average 16 breaths per minute -- that sustains our lives and the lives of others creatures around us.
The past weekend's marathon brought 50,000 runners to New York City. But you needn’t stride 26.2 miles through the City's five boroughs to achieve a sense of body awareness. The recent marathon offers an opportunity for all of us, whether elite athletes, weekend warriors, or more sedentary folks, to check into our physical selves.
Think about your muscles, major and minor, at work as you make even the smallest of motions, the mechanics of mobility, and all that is required for to ambulate even several steps, let alone 26.2 miles. Think about your sense of proprioception—the spatial awareness and awareness of the movement and position of your bodies, and particularly your limbs—involved in moving from here to there, even if “there” is across the street, down the block, or up the stairs of a subway station.
Consider too how kindred the structure of your body is to other animals, with spines, shoulders, and joints, eyes, noses, and ears, and how your limbs mirror their limbs, even if we move upright rather than on all fours.
And think about the pull of gravity, with every step reconnecting us to the earth. Our weight and presence returning to the earth with every step and stride, offers a reminder of our tangible, material being and our connection to the earth that supports us.
In a place like New York City, there is often a primacy placed on our “thinking selves”. We are often measured, or measure ourselves, by what we know and what we do, leading to a risk of separation from our “being” selves. Attention to movement, however minimal or subtle that movement is—the balance required when we lift a foot to take a step, sensing when our foot has returned to the ground and we lift the other foot—can reconnect us to our fuller selves, to the earth and to our kindred fellow animals.
Witches, ghosts, and werewolves: fear-inducing outliers brewing powerful potions, apparitions defying the normal cycle of life and death, humans metamorphosing into savage canine creature. If one can step away from the commercial hype, Halloween reminds us of places and times where nature’s wilder manifestations were anthropomorphized.
In Landscapes of Fear, Yi-Fu Tuan explores ways in which threatening aspects of nature—fears of drought, flood, famine, and disease shared by entire communities, and fears haunting the individual imagination—were given shape and tamed through myth, stories, and anthropomorphizing. Writes Tuan (pp. 105-112):
"Dark nights curtail human vision. People lose their ability to manipulate the environment, and feel vulnerable. As daylight withdraws, so does their world. Nefarious powers take over…. People the world over have shown a tendency to anthropomorphize the forces of nature. …[T]he physical environment of dark nights … acquires an extra dimension of ominousness, beyond the threat of natural forces and spirits, when it is identified with human evil of a supernatural order, that of witches or ghosts."
Witches defy social values. They dwell in untamed places outside standard human habitation—deep in forests or mountainous—and are closely associated with wild animals that defy human control: wild goats and horses (Europe); toads, snakes, lizards, frogs, jackals, leopards, bats, owls, and nighttime screeching monkeys (Uganda); hyenas and black cobras (Sudan); and dressed in skins of wolves and coyotes – werewolves (Navajo). They "are a force for total chaos, and they are closely associated with other forces or manifestations of chaos such as dark nights, wild animals, wild bush country, mountains, and stormy weather."
Your costumed neighborhood trick-or-treaters might be a far cry from the bone-chilling renderings conceived by people trying to make sense of nature's more fear-inducing tendencies. But consider how cultures, living without electric lights and ease of communication across villages, coped with frightening aspects of nature. Maybe, for a moment, from the comfort of your built environment, and between sampling candy corn and observing various ninjas, princesses, and superheroes, you can sense how the supernatural helped explain the natural.
Song of the Witches
William Shakespeare, from Macbeth
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
Spring migration has come and gone. Non-migratory birds and birds that have migrated as far north as New York City have been at work building nests and tending to their young. Bird nests appear in a variety of locations and forms, from ground nests (shore birds); to bowl-shaped nests in shrubbery or trees (Robins); nests within the cavity of trees (Woodpeckers) or eaves of roofs or other spaces (Swallows); platform nests (Osprey); and nests suspended from tree branches (Orioles). Though much of New York City is covered by concrete, steel, and asphalt, nature's life cycle continues where greenery is present.
I have noticed much activity over the past few weeks (Robins tending nestlings near Maintenance Meadow in Central Park and Wood Ducks shepherding their fuzzy-feathered duckling on the Central Park Reservoir along a route rich in food, nudging them in the right direction if they wander off too far). And, avid local birdwatchers have reported numerous sightings (Courtesy Manhattan Bird Alert):
How rich and epic is birds' cycle of life hidden away in trees and among buildings even within our largely paved-over city!
New York has always attracted beautiful and flamboyant creatures, all the more visible in spring, when the weather warms up. And the past few days witnessed a particularly high concentration in the Central Park area, creatures costumed in colorful, body-hugging couture, designed to attract attention, a visual announcement of “Here I am! Take a look at this! I am spectacular!” I’m talking about the concentration of Warblers in The Ramble.
Oh, and the annual Met Gala took place too, a few blocks north.
At 6:15 this morning, I joined my friend, Carl Howard, and a few dozen other birders for the New York Audubon Society’s annual Birdathon, a two-day all-out effort to identify as many bird species as possible in the New York City area. Carl is a master birder who can rattle off a slew of bird songs and recognizes species by their calls. The day before, the group identified 106 species.
On my way to the meetup spot in Central Park, I passed by The Mark, a luxury hotel on the corner of Madison and 77th. Although it was 6 a.m., a group of people had gathered outside, with cameras ready. The Mark is not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted its annual Gala the night before, an event of utmost fashion splendor, and these folks were hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or two who were spending the night at the hotel following the nearby event.
After pausing to ask a few people in the crowd what celebrities they hoped to see I continued making my way into the park until I found another group preparing for rare sightings: birders, armed with binoculars instead of cameras but equally enthusiastic about the colorfully coutured creatures they were hoping to see.
The Met Gala might have hosted an unusually dense concentration of A-listers, but during spring migration Central Park hosts the most varieties of Warblers on the planet. Like the stars at the Gala drawing attention from adoring fans, they appear garbed in yellow, red, gray, blue, black and white, and many other hues, all designed to attract attention.
Stars! They're just like...birds!
A recent blog focused on the Atlantic Flyway and the great spring migration of birds from tropical regions to northern breeding grounds. It's thrilling to witness the many species of birds that pause in our urban parks to rest and refuel. Thinking about birds' great aerial passage is also an opportunity to consider for a moment a birds' eye view. Places--many familiar to us when we are dwelling or moving within them--can look vastly different from overhead. Patterns emerge and one can't help develop an awareness of the interconnections among localities and regions across the earth.
Artist Ben Grant explores this perspective in his book Overview. What began as an Instagram project is now a book with more than 200 breathtaking, high definition satellite photographs of industry, agriculture, architecture, and nature highlighting uncanny patterns and the impact of human existence. Says Grant, “From a distant vantage point, one has the chance to appreciate our home as a whole, to reflect on its beauty and its fragility all at once."
Grant's book is well worth perusing and exploring. His work not only offers perspective on interconnections across landscapes and the human impact on our planet; it can inspire us to be aware of what an overview perspective might offer us in our current location--how our familiar surrounding buildings, blocks, avenues, and parks look from above. We can take time to imagine this perspective, and we also can explore the perspective Google Maps satellite view offers as a way to notice our environments from overhead.
Beyond viewing location from above, we can consider the overviews available to us on a smaller scale, from our own, human vantage points--the forms and patterns observable to us at ground level as we move about or just pause to take it in. I think about a lovely New England lake where I enjoy swimming during the summer. How thick and robust its underwater vegetation becomes by mid-summer, with tendrils billowing in the murky water in a spectrum of shades of green, from deep olive to sweet pea. Skimming the surface stroke after stroke while gazing down through my goggles, I lose my sense of scale and imagine myself to be in flight, soaring through the air while peering down on a vast mass of flora below, a primeval jungle or forest.
There's a massive movement afoot, or more accurately, aloft. I'm not talking about political awakenings, #MeToo, or teenagers finding their voices to combat senseless gun violence. I'm talking about the great spring migration, tens of thousands of birds, from tiny hummingbirds to large bald eagles, flying from the tropical climate of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to their breeding grounds as far north as the coast of Greenland and the arctic.
In North America, birds commute along one of four flight paths, including the Atlantic Flyway, which is routed directly over New York City. Over 500 species of birds take time to feed and rest in the New York City area. Central Park, an 800 acre oasis of green in the densely populated metropolitan area, offers a particularly diverse range of bird species. And with much warmer weather pushing into the New York City area over the past few days (yesterday and today are exceptions!), migrating birds have been traveling in this air space. Some species travel at night and some travel during the day. Recent sightings in Central Park have included American Woodcocks, Eastern Phoebes, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers, Green Herons, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow Throated Warblers, Snowy Egrets, and Belted Kingfishers. A osprey was sighted in Inwood Hill Park a few days ago.
Non-migratory species are busy too, preparing their nests. Red-tailed hawks can be seen nesting on South Tower of the San Remo on Central Park West, in Washington Square Park, and at 927 Fifth Avenue, near 74th Street (home of the famous Pale Male). Screech owls are nesting in Inwood Hill Park, and a Great Horned Owl is nesting in Pelham Bay Park. Cardinals, Robins, Blue Jays, and Song Sparrows are readying their nests for their young as well.
You don't need to be an expert birder to appreciate this wonder (I am a relative beginner)! Simply having an awareness that this ancient cycle is taking place can add a sense of awe to your day. Think about the massive activity talking place overhead while you go about your day and while you sleep, precision hitchhiking on air current superhighways and singular wingbeats adding up to a journey of thousands of miles. Combine that with simply tuning into--noticing--bird songs. Even in well-trafficked urban areas--city midtowns, packed with tall buildings, people, and cars with horns blaring--birds, and not just pigeons, are abundant. Those curbside trees you may see bordering sidewalks and busy city streets are havens for sparrows with their delightful, melodic songs, and many other birds. And if you have a moment, wander into a green space or park. Sightings can be found everywhere this time of year. Bryant Park, abutting the west side of The New York Public Library in midtown, is often a resting and dining spot for unusual migrating species.
Add some song and color to your day, and awareness of ancient cycles, and think about the remarkable journey our feathered friends take every spring and fall.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.