A Few of My Favorite Writings on Nature

When I was a kid, I’d turning out the light and climbing under the covers at nine o’clock. After a few minutes, the hall outside my door would grow quiet as my parents retreated to the living room to watch TV. Then, I’d reach under my bed, pull out a flashlight, and open the top book of the stack that lived at my bedside. During those years, I probably read more than I slept every night.

Fast-forward a couple of decades to when I was deciding what to pursue in graduate school. There really wasn’t that much debate. I could get a master’s degree that involved reading books and talking and writing about them for several years? Um, yes, please.

There are two things that happen when you’ve fallen into a really excellent tale:

  • you lose yourself, or
  • you become so enmeshed that even after you close the book, the world, characters, ideas, or plot forever reside inside you.

Both are ways of removing focus from yourself, which can be healthy in a world of selfies and constant comparisons to the lives of others through social media. Gardening and spending time in nature offer this same sort of therapy.

So I’m especially delighted when writer’s take the time to slow down, study, and capture the natural world around us in words. Here are a few that have stuck with me over the years:

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

17934530While the oddness of the story is what initially appealed to me, I didn’t expect to come away identifying so strongly with the main character, a biologist. For a few weeks, I had all but decided to go back to school to earn a BS in biology* – until I came to my senses and remembered how I’ve always struggled with the sciences. This was the passage that initially ensnared me:

“My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people asked me why I became a biologist, was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up . . . Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long. Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent . . . The water level slowly rose, fed by the rain, and the surface became more and more brackish with algae . . . Bullfrogs moved in . . . Rather than get rid of my thirty-gallon freshwater aquarium, as my parents wanted, I dumped fish into the pool . . . Local birds, like herons and egrets, began to appear . . . By some miracle, too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.”

The biologist goes on to describe how she’d “escape” from her bullies and parents to this developing ecosystem. She observed its changes and took notes on species and life cycles. Rather than learn about ecosystems through textbooks, “[she] wanted to discover the information on [her] own first.”

EdgeOfTheSea“The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist best known for Silent Spring, a book concerned with the impact of pesticides on the environment. However, I first read her in a class on the craft of nonfiction, while we were studying nature writing. “The Marginal World,” first published in The Edge of the Sea, describes a trip to the shore in detail that shimmers with the ethereal.

“Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted with green sponge. Grey patches of sea squirts glistened on the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color. In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by only a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection, so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave.”

East of Eden by John Steinbeck9780140186390

“John Steinbeck” is a name reviled by many high school students forced to slog through The Grapes of Wrath. I count myself lucky that I didn’t read that heavy volume until graduate school, where I could appreciate Steinbeck’s lengthy descriptions of rural America. Few things make me feel more rooted and patriotic than Steinbeck’s vivid accounts of American countryside, from Oklahoma to California. However, it is East of Eden that Steinbeck described as “the story of my country and the story of me.”

“From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer. The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away. It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea. Then when the late spring came, the river drew in from its edges and the sand banks appeared. And in the summer the river didn’t run at all above ground. Some pools would be left in the deep swirl places under a high bank. The tules and grasses grew back, and willows straightened up with the flood debris in their upper branches. The Salinas was only a part-time river. ”

I’m sure I’ve forgotten other fantastic works, but these are the words that I carry with me day-to-day, sometimes ringing in my ears loudly, sometimes faint and soft. Looking back over just these three texts, though, it’s pretty clear that I feel a connection to water. But what is nature without water? Water – and words – are necessary for life.

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*This isn’t as crazy a proposition as it might initially seem. I get discounted tuition at the university where I work, and I have several semesters of my G.I. Bill left to use. And I’m a total nerd who loves to learn.

 

Wherever or Whatever Your Home, Plant a Garden

Scroll through the gardening subreddit, and you’ll see a variety of gardens. Some users own vast spans of land in lush, green countryside. Others live in the desert or at the base of rocky mountains. More than a few post photos of tiny gardens along windowsills in offices or a collection of pots along a balcony.

green leaf plant in white pot located near the window
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I’ve been spoiled. For almost all of my life, I’ve had ground in which to dig. There were a few exceptions – my college dorm and the apartment in which I resided in Pittsburgh – but for the most part, gardening for me was as simple as choosing a spot with good sun, digging a hole, and tucking in a pansy or a tomato plant.

People are drawn to nature. Studies have shown that being around plants calms us, increases our concentration, decreases our stress, and fosters our compassion for others. Caring for something living makes us feel more alive and connected to the world. My friends who have houseplants speak of forgetting to water them in the same guilt-ridden tone as if they’d forgotten to give their dog breakfast. Most plants, however, have the benefit of not needing attention more than once a day, if that.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s break this down even further. Whether it’s one ficus or an acre of sunflowers, caring for plants calls us to act (consciously or not) in several ways that can positively extend through the rest our lives:

Responsibility

Someone or something depends on us, and we are important to them or it. Without us, that person or thing will wither. At the end of the day, we all need to feel needed.

Compassion

By embracing responsibility for something even as small as a plant, we practice compassion. Like my friends who forgot to water their houseplant a few paragraphs above, by physically caring for something, we also learn to emotionally care for that thing.

Mindfulness

One of the ways gardens calm us is by encouraging a state of mindfulness, which roots us in the present. Gardening revives the senses and surrounds us with sensations – a prickly leaf, the refreshing scent of lemon grass, dew drops shining in the sun. Working with plants forces us to be slow and attentive.

light nature sky sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fortunately, even just looking at nature or going for a walk can provide some of the same calming, de-stressing power of gardening. Even the photos in this post should give you a little boost – searching for them gave me one! But there’s really nothing like the hands-on work of caring for your own plants.

When I lived in that apartment in Pittsburgh, I felt chained in. I really missed having a little bit of yard in which to dig around. And I’m kicking myself now because I barely made any attempt at a patio garden. I figured it wouldn’t work because I only knew how to grow things in the ground. But since I’ve lived in my house, I’ve grown things in raised and ground-level beds, in pots and troughs and hay baskets, in cheap plastic cups and specialized water-retaining planters. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that the set-up tends to be the same, no matter where you grow:

1. Study Your Location

How much space do you have? Is there full sun? Shade? Sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon? Is the soil soggy or sandy? Is it a place where squirrels like to dig? Or do you have pets that will want to nibble on the plant? At the very least, you’ll need to know space, light, water, and “predators.”

2. Know Your Resources

If you only have one store nearby that sells plants, it can be frustrating to build a huge list of amazing plants based off of internet research, and then arrive at the store to find nothing like what you hoped. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some idea of what’s in stock nearby. Of course, you can order plants online, but like anything else, if you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to see the plants first-hand. Home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot will have a selection, but I also see plants outside grocery stores and pet stores. Farmers markets can also be a good source, particularly because they’ll probably have plants that grow well locally and are in-season.

3. Bigger Can Be Better

For folks just entering the garden game, stick to mature plants. Seedlings and seeds might be cheaper, but it’s really frustrating to nurture a seed only for it to die because you watered it a little too much. Mature plants are a lot more forgiving and you need fewer resources. It’s totally find to stick to them forever, but for the serious gardener, growing things from seed can be a fun and gratifying challenge. Keep in mind that depending on what you’re growing, seeds might require additional equipment – a humidity cover, seedling soil, etc.

4. Protect Your Plant

Protection means everything from mulching to fencing to hanging an indoor plant out of a curious cat’s reach. Unfortunately, sometimes you aren’t aware of dangers to your plant until after it’s in the ground (and you suddenly discover that squirrels just love to dig in that patch of earth to bury their nuts). But hey, you’re checking on it regularly anyway, right? So you’ll be able to adapt and help that plant thrive.

Much of the rest is just knowing your plant. Succulents needs much less water than bushy flowers with thin leaves. Butterfly bush roots will rot in boggy soil. The first year may be a rough one, but the second year will be easier.

You’ll learn and a little bud of pride will bloom in your heart.

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Clean up Your Life

When I was nine years old, there were three things I wanted to be: a fashion designer, Gwen Stefani, and a maid. (At the time, who knew that I could’ve just been Stefani and knocked out two goals at once with her L.A.M.B. line?)

stefani
The. Coolest.

Clearly, two of those goals are slightly more exciting than the third.

I was a standard American kid who hated putting away her clothes and making her bed. And yet, I knew how satisfying it felt to be in a clean space. When my dresser was arranged and my floor was vacuumed, I could think more clearly and focus on the important things (like Gwen Stefani’s killer style – blue hair and eyebrow rhinestone?!). I could find what I needed (Barbies) and see what I had (more Barbies).

Plus, Saturdays were family chore day, so I learned from a very early age to associate cleaning with family time. I fondly remember Saturdays where my mom told me to choose some music and we’d open the side door to let in a breeze while we washed windows and mopped.

(side note: if I ever have kids, I’m absolutely involving them in chores as young as possible. It may seem like trouble at first, but it can pay off for years afterward.)

And yet, even knowing the benefits and remembering the warm memories associated with cleaning, I still struggle on a daily basis. Not to make excuses (I’m definitely going to make excuses), but I’m also the sole caretaker of a 1600+ square foot house with pets. I balance taking care of the house and yard with a full-time job.

I blink and the house is dirty again! And I don’t have room in my schedule to clean until next week! Even as a single woman with zero human dependents, my life is hectic. I have a ton to get done everyday, and although much of it is self-imposed (gardens, shed rebuilds), I’m not yet willing to cut those joys out of my life.

In the past few years, I’ve made an exciting discovery: a magical pocket of time exists every day. It’s the quiet hour or two while the rest of the world is still sleeping, or has maybe just awoken. Demands haven’t started to pile up, and the time is mine to do as I please.

In other words, I’ve started cleaning first-thing in the morning.

person using mop on floor
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I was already in the habit of waking early to exercise, so my morning cleaning bursts started with wiping down the counters after strength training. This grew into starting loads of towels, scooping the cat box, mopping, vacuuming…

Truth be told, I’ve actually started slacking off on exercise in favor of cleaning. Of course, a lot depends on whether or not I have people over (what kind of a monster wakes someone at 6am with a vacuum cleaner?). But nearly every weekday morning, I clean.

Not only does my morning tidying habit mean there’s less to do on the weekends or evenings, but I get the same degree of satisfaction from a morning scrub-down that I did from exercise. I start the day with a sense of accomplishment, which is almost better than a good cup of coffee.

As opposed to the evenings, when I’d rather work on projects or read, I actually want to clean in the morning. And after I’m exhausted from work, I can find my tools or notebooks or whatever, because I put things back in place when I was clear-headed that morning. I don’t have to get frustrated when I search my whole house for the stupid screwdriver and end up collapsed on the floor and feeling like a failure in life (it’s a slippery slope, folks).

Breaking large tasks into smaller pieces isn’t exactly a new or unusual concept. Rather, that advice is touted for everything from saving up for retirement to writing a novel. The morning cleaning method falls into this same pattern, although unlike a lot of other larger goals, it’s not really designed to ever be “finished.” Dust will fall, cats will shed. However, waltzing around with a podcast in my ears, a coffee mug in one hand, and a dust cloth in the other is a pretty darn good way to start the day in perpetuity.

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Dress Nicely on Mondays

Sunday nights often arrive with at least a few negative emotions – apprehension, a touch of dread, disappointment that the weekend is nearly finished. Even though my day job is satisfying and my coworkers are clever and fun, I still have to concede that come Monday morning, most of my daylight won’t be as wholly mine as it is on the weekends.

I work in an office environment that has a somewhat loose dress code. I make an effort to dress somewhat professionally, though, to visually mark myself as “not a grad student.” Most of my coworkers are professors who taught me only a year or two ago, and I aim to make it as easy for them as possible to treat me like an employee instead of their student.

But I make an extra effort to dress up nicely on Mondays.

heels
These babies don’t just get busted out on any old day.

On an average day, I will probably wear a skirt, flats, and a nice t-shirt (tailored, solid color) or a button-down. In weather that doesn’t feel like Satan’s armpits, I might swap out the skirt for some pants (I’m a fan of the Sloan and Ryan cuts from Banana Republic). My hair, which is several inches past my shoulders, is probably slapped up in a bun or maybe braided.

But on  blank(1), I usually wear a dress and possibly some heels or a pair of suede sandals (particularly if I’ve painted my toenails on Sunday night). I’ll wear my hair down, or perhaps clip just a bit of it up.

Of course, “dressing nicely” means something different to everyone. I ask myself, “what would I wear to a black-tie event?” and base my choices off of a scaled-down version of that.

But what’s the point? Mondays are full of bleary-eyed drones who miss the weekend, so who cares if my hair is up or down?

Well, for one, I do. It’s similar to the principle of wearing nice underwear – no one else knows, but it gives the wearer a little boost of confidence. When I dress up at black-tie events, I feel elegant and powerful. On Mondays, I like to tap into that feeling.

beach blue sky clouds dress
Like this – but in a cubicle with papers scattered everywhere. Photo by Lucas Allmann on Pexels.com

And because I enjoy feeling elegant and powerful (c’mon, who doesn’t?), I look forward to dressing nicely. That anticipation takes away some of the sting of the weekend’s close.

Moving away from personal effects, I believe there are also benefits to others when I dress nicely. In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth argues that one way to grow and improve is to surround yourself with gritty people so their habits and values will rub off on you. Now, I’m not thinking “gritty” when I slip a dress over my head (unless I’m at the beach), but I do think that dressing nicely encourages others to not only treat me more professionally, but to subconsciously make similar efforts in their own lives.

Okay, let’s take some leaps and say I’ve ignited change. Everyone in the office is impeccably dressed, and we look fiiine – but so what? Well, for one thing, the subtle boosts of confidence all around can improve the quality of our work (which I’d argue is already excellent, but I may be biased).

Looking professional and put-together also makes a good impression on the students, faculty, and visitors who come through the office. Whose advice would you be more likely to follow:  a woman in a wrinkled t-shirt and holey khakis, or a woman in a tailored suit with styled hair? And if they both presented the same idea to you, would you support the one who looked like she just rolled out of bed, or the one who looks like she has her life together and can easily see the idea onto the next stages?

woman wearing black cardigan sitting on black mesh back rolling armchair and using silver imac
I was going to find a “sloppy” contrast photo, but apparently the stock photo gallery only features beautiful, put-together people. Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

I work at a public university in a state ranked #49 out of 50 in education (purely looking at higher education, we do slightly better at #42). Ouch. We need all the help we can get. Therefore, when it comes down to votes or public issues related to supporting education, it’s in our best interest to have the most positive associations popping up in the minds of everyone who comes to us – and that includes dressing nicely.

“But wait!” you might be shrieking while jabbing accusatory fingers at your screen. “You specified Mondays as dressy days!”

I did! But here’s the thing:  I’ve found that starting the week off by making an effort at my appearance means I’m more likely to continue doing that throughout the week. In other words, if I don’t care about my appearance on Monday, I’m less likely to care for the rest of the week. However, if I dress nicely on Monday, that subconsciously becomes my standard for the week.

But, ya know . . . as soon as I get home, the dress goes back in the closet and out comes the rags and the muddy garden clogs. Life’s about balance.

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Working with Your Strengths and Values

When I was little, I watched my older brother draw comics and build empires with LEGOs. I wanted to do everything that he did. Part of that was me being the annoying, copycat, little sister, but there were some innate strengths at play too. My dad is artistically inclined; he would sit at the kitchen table and doodle cartoons on scraps of paper. My mom is more logic-minded; she’s the musician and mathematician and has a talent for solving puzzles.

And yet, as I advanced through school, I avoided both of those paths. Artists starve, as do architects. Business was a no-go, as economics was equally boring and slightly beyond my grasp. Psychology would require extensive schooling to have my own little practice, including horn-rimmed glasses and a leather-and-oak office. Engineering and architecture mean high-level math (that shrieking? it’s me).

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So much math in that computer!

For six years, I pursued what I thought I was supposed to do as a military officer, but I couldn’t understand why I didn’t excel like I had in school. I did a perfectly fine job, but I wanted to be awesome. I just couldn’t reach that bar for all the decorum and traditions that stood in my way. Perhaps more importantly, crucial areas – creativity and the ability to build something that was truly mine – were off-limits to me:

In my current position – a combination of university teaching and administration – I’ve started to rediscover my strengths. The old artistic sense returned, and I’ve spent some time making event posters and course trailers (like movie trailers, but for college classes!). While I never became an engineer or architect, buying a house has encourage me to plan and build on scales I never imagined. And one positive from my military service translated over to my new job:  I understand that clearly written policy is part of the foundation of any organization, and I am capable of creating whole manuals full of the stuff.

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“Step 1:  Be nice to the students. They are paying a lot of money to be here. But don’t be a pushover; this is a public institution, not Harvard.”

These realizations didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t even consciously think about them. Rather, I was reading an article about tapping into strengths at work. For much of my life, I’ve been doing just as the author warns against – undervaluing my strengths. I’ve been so focused on challenging myself, putting myself in uncomfortable situations to force growth, that I had convinced myself I had no innate strengths.

But say you haven’t had the “opportunity” to suppress your strengths or the freedom to discover/re-discover them. How do you find the areas in which you innately excel? There are any number of aptitude tests you can take, but I’ve found it helpful to consider these three areas:

  1. What seems obvious to you, but other people do not seem to “get” it?
    • I’m a reader and always looking for signs or directions. Many other people don’t even seem to notice those same signs. I have a natural drive to figure out how things work and explain that to others – hence, writing manuals.
  2. What projects (or parts of projects) have netted you compliments?
    • Designing event posters was part of my job from the beginning, but then someone approach me to make flyers for upcoming courses. Soon, faculty members and students were streaming by my desk with compliments and requests for more.
  3. Read and meditate.
    • Listening to the audiobook version of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation filled my head with fantasies of going back to school to study biology. The protagonist, a biologist, found her passion by studying the transition of ponds, as humanity leaves and nature takes over. I could picture myself doing the same. But then I stepped back from the dream and really thought about what that would entail. Huge lecture halls filled with students at least ten years my junior. Days filled with science, a subject I’ve never found particularly easy. And what would I do with a spare Bachelors degree? Nothing in my long-term plans aligned with it. For now, at least, I’ll just sit by my own pond and observe.
pond
Oh man, the first iteration of my pond was so lush. Those fish would be duck food now.

Skills at which we’re naturally strong might seem easy. Therefore, this idea of refocusing on strengths might seem counter-intuitive to the path of hard work. It’s not. Rather, strength and hard work can work in tandem.

  • Strength:  I’m good at organizing, so I planned a garden for my front yard.
  • Hard Work:  I built the garden by hand, rather than hire someone else to it.

Now things get really interesting when we bring value into the mix. You probably have some idea of what you value – family, loyalty, socializing – but have you ever written any of it down? Or really thought about your values and their role in your life? Here are some ways to guide your meditation:

  1. The last time you felt truly at peace, what were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with?
    • I felt deeply at peace during my morning run through the park. This reflects my values of:  being in nature, exercise/pushing myself physically, and solitude (I run at a time when most people are just waking up).
  2. If you were on the cover of a magazine, what would be the achievement that brought you there?
    • Choosing one thing might be difficult, but it’s okay to have two or more. Even a general sense will help you. Many of the things that come to my mind, for example, involve creation and making things with my own two hands.

Being aware of your values can help drive your daily activities, and when combined with your strengths and hard work, they can form a supportive triad for living a satisfied life. Here’s the example again, with value incorporated:

  • Value:  being outdoors and growing things
  • Strength:  planning, organizing, building
  • Hard work:  performing the labor to create the garden myself

Hard work is, by its nature, meant to be challenging, but there’s a difference between hard work counter to your values or strengths (or involving something that you just don’t care about) and pushing yourself on a project that embodies your values. During my time in the military, I was constantly doing the former, and I was absolutely miserable. I dreaded work every single day. On the opposite end, the garden project has me almost gleefully outside in the early morning hours before work, bent over and pulling weeds. On weekends, I can’t wait to wake up and haul bags of rocks or stain my fence because I’m tapping into my values and strengths.

One of the beautiful things about the value-strength-work triad is that by working hard toward your values, you might discover or develop new or less predominant strengths. If you consciously choose projects that align with the triad, you’ll naturally curate a very satisfying life. It might take a long time – but that’s part of the hard work.

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