Archive for February, 2010

A Walk in the Snowy Woods

Friday, February 26th, 2010

     “Whose woods these are I think I know.”

     Actually, I don’t know. 

     According to the deed, these woods on the slope below our house belong to my husband and me.  But I certainly don’t feel I ‘own’ them.  Standing in the hard-edged holes my feet have made in the crusted snow, I marvel at the quiet that I can hear only when I stop walking.  I feel nothing at all akin to ownership.  Instead, I feel I am being allowed into a sacred space, one larger and more wondrous than anything I ‘own.’  That line from Robert Frost’s poem ”Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” rings soothingly, but it also reminds me how preposterous is the idea of owning these–or any–woods.

     After just a few moments of standing still in the snowy woods, the forest is filling me,  feeding me.  I take in the sky, the trees, and the snow all around me.  The sky is blue, barely.  Not a deep, bright New Mexico blue, but a pale, winter Virginia  blue. 

     The sun is shining for the first time in days.  In the morning sunshine, the tall, bare trees are stretching southward from their bases, extending along the surface of the snow in long, grey streaks.  A tangle of young, thin trees commingle on the snow to create an undifferentiated mat of grey.

     I crunch on down the hill to sit on a fallen tree, bare of snow.  And I make plenty of noise getting there!  With the snow on the ground for so long, through high winds and melting, walking has become an unpredictable affair.  One step may end on top of the snow, while the next may send my foot crashing through the crust, down seven or eight inches.  I lurch along, making my way unevenly.

     Sitting on the downed tree, I look around at the snow.  It’s dirty.  Although this forest is too far from the road to be blackened by soot or car exhaust, the snow here has lost its pristine, new-fallen look.  All about me the snow is dotted with tiny bits of debris–a dried whorl of pine needles here, crumbs of organic matter there.  I surmise that these bits have been blown here–tiny pieces of bark loosened from trees, wood dust from woodpeckers’ drilling, shreds of brittle pine cones, all thrown  up the snowy hill by howling winds from the west. 

     I notice another curious thing as I sit.  Here and there I see slender dents in the snow.  Each one, about an inch wide and a couple of inches deep, cradles a twig.  And each dent is shaped perfectly to match the twig it holds.  How could such small twigs have made these dents?  Surely they are much too light to have dented this crusty snow when they broke off from a tree above.  I am puzzled, especially since my own weight does not always dent the snow.   

     This question reminds me of another curious thing I have noticed in the days immediately following every major snowfall this winter.  An empty space soon appears around each tree trunk, so that every tree is standing in its own tiny ’clearing,’ devoid of snow.  At first I wondered if trees, living beings that they are, exuded warmth, even a slight warmth that might be enough to melt the snow with which it is in immediate contact.  But then I also noticed that even the stone statue of St. Francis is surrounded by his own little snowless ring.  Even if a tree exudes heat, a stone statue doesn’t.  What then?  I am still stumped. 

     As I sit pondering, I hear a pileated woodpecker calling from the south.  Its call grows louder as it approaches, and I wait for it eagerly.  Soon the bird flaps into view, and I ogle it until it disappears again, its call fading into the north.

     I sit smiling, so happy in these woods that are too wild and free for anyone to own.–April Moore  

the forest under a clear sky

the forest under a clear sky

trees casting their shadows on snow

trees casting their shadows on snow

bits of debris on snow

bits of debris on snow






a tree in the middle of a snow ring

a tree in the middle of a snow ring

snow dented by a twig

snow dented by a twig

Savoring Winter Before It’s Gone

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

     I am starting to feel that spring is around the corner.  But it is still winter for a few more weeks, so I will savor what’s left of it.  For my own enjoyment, and I hope for yours, I would like to share with you a few reflections on the passing season from a writer I love, Annie Dillard.  These excerpts are from her essay, aptly titled Winter, included in her 1974 book The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  I thank my friend Seth Binsted for reminding me of how much I love this book that I first read more than 30 years ago.

     Annie Dillard is both a naturalist and a gifted writer.  Her descriptions–and the wonders she describes–evoke many a ‘wow’ from me. 

     “It snowed.  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.  The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light on paper inside a pewter bowl.  The snow looks light and the sky dark, but in fact the sky is lighter than the snow.  Obviously the thing illuminated cannot be lighter than its illuminator.  The classical demonstration of this point involves simply laying a mirror flat on the snow so that it reflects in its surface the sky, and comparing by sight this value to that of the snow.  This is all very well, even conclusive, but the illusion persists.  The dark is overhead and the light at my feet;  I’m walking upside-down in the sky.”

     “Sant-Exupery says that when flocks of wild geese migrate high over a barnyard, the cocks and even the dim, fatted chickens fling themselves a foot or so into the air and flap for the south.”

     “Yesterday I watched a curious nightfall.  The cloud ceiling took on a warm tone, deepened, and departed as if drawn on a leash.  I could no longer see the fat snow flying against the sky;  I could see it only as it fell before dark objects.  Any object at a distance–like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window–looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue.  It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled;  silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration at the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed.  The snow on the yard was blue as ink, faintly luminous;  the sky violet.  The bay window betrayed me, and started giving me back the room’s lamps.  It was like dying, that growing dimmer and deeper and then going out.”

Friendship Across Species

Friday, February 19th, 2010

     I hope you will click on the orangutan and the hound at the bottom of this posting.  You will be taken to a video that depicts a beautiful friendship.  Not a friendship we would readily imagine, between two people, or even between a human and a beloved pet.  This unlikely-seeming friendship unites an orangutan and a dog!  And it is fascinating to behold.  According to the video’s narrator, orangutans and dogs are not normally interested in each other.  But when Suryia the orangutan met Roscoe the hound dog, it was love at first sight.

     I am fascinated by friendships between animals of different species.  I have read numerous accounts of what seem to be genuine and loving relationships between mammals of very different species.  Are particular species naturally compatible with certain other species?  Or is there just something in the personalities of the two individual animals that draws them together?  Or is it loneliness, a separation from others of one’s kind that drives two very different types of mammals together for some needed companionship? 

     And I wonder how similar animal friendships are to human friendships.  Are animal friends like human friends in that there is a special spark each feels for the friend that just isn’t there with most others?  

     I have watched this video several times, and I am moved by the great joyfulness of the orangutan.  He seems made for pleasure.  His every move conveys happiness in being alive.  He rolls over and over in the grass;  he splashes with abandon in the pool;  he hugs his arms behind his head and throws himself backward onto the grass;  he grabs a railing above his head and swings himself around and around from it.  He hugs the dog close, and, I swear, appears to be smiling! 

     When I watch Suryia, I feel a kinship with him.  How alike we are, I think, we humans and the orangutans.  I too have felt all I see  him express.  I am thankful that he is so happy, that he has a cherished friend with whom to play and share his natural exuberance on a daily basis.  And these two friends are fortunate to be cared for by a human couple who obviously love them and treat them kindly.

     I may tend to anthropomorphize, to attribute human qualities to animals who don’t actually have such feelings.  But with our fellow primates, I feel sure that I am looking in a mirror.  These animals truly are our close relatives.  They love, and they exhibit a wide range of feelings we humans know very well.

     When I watch this video, and I look into the eyes of Suryia, this close relative of mine, I wish him well.  I want the best for him and his fellow orangutans, these endangered species who love life so much.  I want them to be able to live in the joy that seems to be their birthright. –April Moore

Please click below:

The orangutan and the hound


Win-Win for People and Birds

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

     The National Audubon Society, long known for its work to protect our bird populations, has launched an exciting new initiative that is helping not only birds, but thousands of people as well. 

     For the last few years, Audubon has been establishing nature centers right in the middle of some of our largest cities.  As many cities have grown in population and sprawl over the last  decades, birds have had an increasingly difficult time finding the habitat they require.  And many urban areas are hostile to migrating birds.  As they fly through urban areas, the birds cannot find the trees, shrubs, and grassland they need, and so are forced to land on concrete and metal.

     The six urban nature centers Audubon has created so far–in Phoenix, Brooklyn, Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Columbus– demonstrate that a wasted industrial site can be transformed into a productive ecosystem teeming with life, even in the middle of a big city!   In the heart of downtown Phoenix, for example, a landfill was replaced with a natural Sonoran Desert habitat that attracts more than 200 species of birds and other animals.  Species once seen only rarely in the area, like owls, roadrunners, hawks, herons, and hummingbirds, are now common sights there.  The newly created habitat includes an environmentally friendly structure, in which adults and kids alike can learn about the flora and fauna native to their area.

     Another urban nature center, New York City’s Prospect Park Audubon Center, is housed in an historic landmark boathouse in Brooklyn.  Around the building, natural habitat has been carefully restored.  As a result, hundreds of bird species have been spotted, including such rare birds as the pied-billed grebe and the American bittern.  The Center includes a cafe, interactive exhibits, a nature theater, and a learning lab.

     In the cities where urban nature centers have been established, adults and children alike have been observing the birds and wildlife there.  That’s a good thing, maintains Judy Braus, Audubon’s senior vice-president for Education and Centers.  Since most Americans today do live in cities, many, many peoople have little contact with nature.  But by visiting a nature center close to home, city dwellers can gain an awareness of the wealth and beauty of living things that surround them, and have an enriching experience, Braus explains. 

     Braus is especially pleased that the urban nature centers are increasing children’s opportunities to experience nature.  “We are especially worried that children raised in urban settings will grow up with no appreciation of or connection to the natural world,” she explains.  “And if our children have no appreciation for the value of nature,” she asks, “what will the future hold for our birds and wildlife?”  She is hopeful that by providing young people with greater access to nature,  these urban nature centers will help stimulate and develop a new generation of conservation leaders for the future. –April Moore


Prospect Park Audubon Center, Brooklyn

Prospect Park Audubon Center, Brooklyn

Don’t-Mess-With-Me Icicles!

Friday, February 12th, 2010

     Not only has this winter been the snowiest of the dozen I’ve experienced in Virginia; it is by far the ‘icicliest!’  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen such giant, muscular-looking, sword-like icicles in my life! 

     Now, I grew up with icicles.  Icicles formed part of the backdrop of my winter play in Minneapolis.  In fact, when thirsty, we kids would just snap off an icicle from a low-hanging eave and suck in its coldness like a popsicle.

     But here in Virginia this winter, the icicles are huge–longer, wider,  more formidable than anything I can remember in the much snowier, much colder Midwest. 

     The icicles outside our kitchen window form almost a drapery, with many of them joined at the top in a wide mass that only separates into individual icicles seven or eight inches below the roof’s edge.   Outside another window, icicles are relatively thin from side to side, but they extend outward several inches, resembling vertical window blinds.  And some of the icicles don’t just head straight down.  They take a short, eastward detour at the tip, a shape I attribute to wind blowing from the west as drops of ‘icicle melt’ are clinging to the icicles’ tips.

     But what has most astounded me is the length of some of these icicles!  Some are–and I am not exaggerating–more than seven feet long!    

     So why, here in relatively mild Virginia, are the icicles so much more a hulking presence than anything I remember in the Midwest?   Shouldn’t southern icicles be, if anything, tamer than their northern cousins? 

     I have been pondering this question at I stare, fascinated, at the icicles obscuring more of our window space with each passing day.  I shared my wondering with my husband Andy, who came up with a hypothesis that seems like it might be the answer. 

     Here in Virginia, he reasons, the temperature rises to around freezing on many days, unlike in Minnesota ,where the temperature falls way below freezing and just stays there.  With Virginia’s warmer temperatures, the icicles drip a little bit on most days.  Then when the temperature drops, the water dripping from the tips refreezes into an icicle that is a little longer than before.  Those Minnesota icicles, however, don’t spend much time dripping because the temperature rarely reaches 32 degrees. 

     So if you like icicles, as I do, then a generally warmer place, like Virginia, is the place to be!

     I invite you to take a look at my icicle photos below, taken at my house in the last few days.–April Moore




Join in the Great Backyard Bird Count

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

     I invite you to spend a little time this weekend enjoying–and helping–the birds in your area by participating in the thirteenth annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), February 12-15. 

     Organized jointly by the Audubon Society and Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab, the GBBC engages thousands of ordinary people across the U.S. and Canada in observing birds over a winter weekend, and then letting scientists know, by filling out an online form, how many birds of which species they observed and where. 

     The Bird Count is a great help to our feathered friends!  It provides scientists with a real-time snapshot of where birds are across the continent.  Bird populations are dynamic and in constant flux.  So by monitoring their numbers and whereabouts year after year, scientists are amassing a great deal of data that reveal trends over time, that allow researchers to investigate  such far-reaching questions as how birds are responding to a changing climate and to changes in available food sources.  In short, how are the different North American bird species faring? 

     And why February?  “Winter is such a vulnerable time for birds,” explains Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at  the Cornell Lab, “so winter bird distributions are likely to be very sensitive to change.”  And there is only one way, she says, to gather data on private lands where people live, and that is with thousands of people helping.        

     Our help is needed because no single scientist or team of scientists could possibly gather as much information as thousands of people, all over the U.S. and Canada, in urban, suburban, rural, park, and other settings submitting data.  Last year’s GBBC was the continent’s largest instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever, with more than 90,000 checklists generated, and more than 11.5 million individual birds of over 600 different species counted.    

     So wherever you live–in an apartment in a big city, in a suburban neighborhood, on a farm, anywhere–you can join in.  You can make your observations from your window, standing in your yard, in a neighborhood park, in the forest, in a field, etc.  As little as 15 minutes spent counting birds will be a useful contribution.  If you wish, you can count birds each day, in different locations, during the four-day count.  And don’t worry if you’re not an expert at identifying birds.  At the GBBC Web site,  you can find photos and sounds of the birds you are likely to see in your geographic area. 

     Visiting the Web site is the next step if you think you may want to participate this weekend.  There you will learn how to document what you see, how to avoid counting individual birds more than once, and how to distinguish between species that look very similar.  You will also find the online form you’ll need to report your observations, as well as ideas for involving kids in the Great Backyard Bird Count.   The site also enables you to track observations of birds in your immediate area over the last 12 years.

     So I hope you’ll join me, and the thousands of others, who will be spending a little time this weekend focusing on–and helping these amazing little beings.–April Moore 


Let It Snow!

Friday, February 5th, 2010

     I am told we are at the epicenter of today’s giant Mid-Atlantic snowstorm.  That’s fine with me;  I love snow.  Snow is what makes the cold of winter worthwhile.

     Since I work from my house, staying home is not the treat for me that it is for teachers, students, retailers, and the many others around here who are forced to take today off.  But fortunately, even though I spend more time at home than most people, I usually love being here.  I frequently stare out the windows, looking beyond the icicles at the falling snow.  It feels cozy to know that the snow won’t be stopping anytime soon.  In fact, reports are that it will continue late into tomorrow evening.

     This has been a banner year for us snow lovers.  In the dozen winters we have spent here on our ridge in the Shenandoah Valley, this is the snowiest.  In the past, each snowfall has certainly been a sensory delight, punctuating long periods of mere cold.  But this year the snows have come in waves, mighty and frequent, each one covering the last, still on the ground. 

     I am reminded of my Minnesota childhood;  once the snow began falling in earnest,  that was the last anyone saw of the ground until spring.  And I can’t forget my son’s childhood.  Even though he is now 21 years old, I still listen attentively to the school closing announcements on the radio.  I perk up as the announcer approaches  the ‘esses,’ listening eagerly for ’Shenandoah County Schools.’   Hearing it gives me a little lift;  not hearing it is slightly disappointing.  

     I’m happy that the kids and teachers get the day off, and that the forest where I live is silent, as the snow falls and falls.  I don’t plan to go anywhere for awhile, at least not by car.  I’ll be skiing along the ridge or tromping in boots down into the snowy woods.

     And here are some photos I have taken in the last few days–around the house and down in the woods.–April Moore 




Africa’s Largest Protected Marine Area Established

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

     More than 200 miles of shoreline and pristine beaches along Africa’s southeast coast are now protected.  The newly created Marine Protected Area is the largest such area in Africa, and it runs from southern Mozambique south into northeastern South Africa.      

     This international effort connects two existing reserves, Mozambique’s Maputo Special Reserve  and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa.  

     The Mozambique portion of the new Marine Protected Area is home to rare and endangered species, and to many mammals and ecosystems.  The area also includes sensitive breeding grounds of leatherback and loggerhead turtles, currently threatened by human encroachment and by uncontrolled harvesting of the  turtles’ eggs.  Southern Mozambique is also a major nursery for commercially important fish populations, with larvae and eggs carried in south-flowing currents into South Africa’s iSimangaliso Park.  

     iSimangaliso, translated as ‘miracle and wonder,’ encompasses three major lake systems and eight interlinking ecosystems.  The park also includes South Africa’s remaining swamp forests and the continent’s largest estuarine system.  iSimangaliso is home to more than 500 bird species.  And its 25,000 year old coastal dunes are some of the world’s highest. 

     The Marine Protected Area designation is vital to the preservation of southeastern Africa’s coastal ecosystems.  The new status means that such activities as using  explosives in fishing, fishing on coral reefs, industrial fishing, and driving motorized vehicles on the beaches will all be prohibited. 

     “All parties are to be congratulated on this transfrontier initiative which is desperately needed along a heavily exploited coastline, threatened under the weight of beach tourism,” according to the Zululand Wildlife eForum, a South African nonprofit organization.–April Moore

photo by John Nelson

photo by John Nelson

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