Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts

Monday, October 22, 2018

Autumn as a Metaphor

Earlier this week, I crossed the 50,000-word mark in the first draft of my newest novel. I’ve set a target of 1,000 words a day, which I have been meeting and exceeding. I’m enjoying the process of getting to know characters and their challenges, and at this pace, I’ll have the first draft complete by the end of November.

This is a perfect time for me to be working on a first draft: Autumn is a metaphor for my writing process. Hey, you’re thinking: You're a numbers guy, not exactly poet material. Let me try anyway—Autumn is a time for planting seeds, and only in Spring do we discover which ones will grow into something.

With leaves off the trees, my view of the woods changes. The gaudy colors that draw tourists now coat the ground, still a beautiful sight though it will soon be covered by snow. With Summer’s dress stripped by cold and wind, what’s left to observe are the structural bones of the

Rocks, once hidden by ferns and grasses are now visible, poking from morning-frosted ground. I can see the mosses and lichen, indicators of clean air, covering the now visible rock. These rocks are a physical reminder of the region’s geology, of how glaciers scraped topsoil from the ground and dropped erratics (rocks from other areas) as the ice melted.

This is the ancient history of my woods. I can “see” them today without knowing the effect of glaciers, but I can’t know them and understand the hows and whys of their existence without this deep knowledge. Glaciers are to my woods as the Irish Famine is to the McCree family as it brought Seamus McCree’s ancestors to the New World. Nothing that comes after will be the same.

In Summer, the forest appears as a unified whole, composed of many species and generations. With the leaves off, each tree shows its complete form, from which nature will hang a new set of clothes the following Spring. Each tree tells its individual story in straight or twisted trunk, in limbs broken by wind storms or sheared off by the weight of snow storms when they still held their leaves. Some trees lean in toward an opening in the canopy. Those exposed to prevailing winds lean away from it. In the slanting rays of Autumn’s sun, each tree casts its own long shadow across the land.

Some trees are survivors of earlier trauma. Trees that years ago had their central shoot broken have a crook in their trunk where a branch turned upward to become the new central lead. A few seem to grow straight from rocks, their long roots exposed before they plunge into the ground. A half-dozen trees grow in a straight line. Not planted by humans, they came into existence because a long-dead nurse tree that crashed to the ground fed them with its rot, allowing this next generation to fill the space its falling created.

The evergreens stick out from their deciduous brethren: two separate survival strategies on display. The ground and water determining which will work better for this acre or that.

What a dull forest (novel) I would have if every tree (character) were the same. How shallow my understanding if all I can see is their Summer finery.

Plants alone do not make a forest. Without animals, they couldn’t last long. Strategies for animal survival become more obvious as Autumn sets in. Chipmunks and red squirrels forage under my sunflower feeders, stuffing their cheeks with seeds to store for Winter. Bucks and bull moose thrash about leaving scratchings on trees and bushes where they try to scrape off the itchy, drying velvet covering their antlers.

Insect-feeding birds migrate south where they can still find bugs. Geese pass overhead in long, honking skeins. Ducks and kingfishers leave the lake before it freezes over. Sometimes a few stay too late and the ice catches them, forcing them to wait for an Indian Summer to give them one last chance.

Autumn brings with it tiny disasters that suggest how the plants and animals will react when Winter comes: the early snow when leaves are still on the trees; heavy rains that flood low-lying areas; hunters looking for food or trophies. These character tests set the stage for Winter’s ultimate challenge to survive. But that’s a blog for another day, another season.

After my daily writing, planting seeds for the future rewriting that eventually becomes a publishable novel, I often take long rambles in my woods. And every day I learn something new about them.
* * *
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

This post is a slightly modified version of a blog that first ran on Writers Who Kill on 10/21/18.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Northern Lights

As many of you know, Jan and I recently embarked on a nearly two-week vacation with the primary purpose of enjoying ourselves in new territory and experiencing the aurora borealis. The pictures decorating this blog are ones I took on this trip. Neither of us had ever been to Churchill, Manitoba or anywhere on Hudson’s Bay, and we enjoyed the two-day train ride up from Winnipeg. Jan had never seen the northern lights, but I had seen them on several occasions in the vicinity of our camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The most recent had been more than a decade ago.

I had stood on a low hill in a clearcut (now filled with twenty-five-foot larch) with open northerly views and watched a shimmering of greens appear with a fleck here and there of red or purple. Each time I had seen them, I had prior notice because the experts had detected a major solar event that they expected would trigger excellent displays.

It turns out those northern light views I experienced were akin to the blast of newfound love: brilliant, colorful, shimmering in excitement, leaving me breathless and a bit dizzy. What I came to realize on this trip is that, unless one is exposed to a major solar occurrence or one has prepared themselves to see the colors, we witness the more typical aurora borealis (in its long-term love affair with earth’s magnetic field) as silver.

Our visual hardware causes us problems in our quest of magnificent colors in auroras. Our eyes have two sensors, rods and cones. In a simple model of sight, rods allow us to see in low light levels. Cones are effective in brighter light. Rods do not provide color vision. Cones come in three flavors and generate electrical currents that allow our brains to “see” color.

That’s the problem: at night, we have low light. That requires rods and yields no color. To get our cones involved and generate color, the light must be brighter—or we need to have sensitized our eyes to the darkness. For the impatient among us who would like to rush out from our well-lit houses to see the aurora, our cones have no chance to acclimate.

As an example, think of what happens when we rush in from the brilliant sunlight of the beach and enter the dark of the men’s or ladies’ room. We can’t see a thing. Our cones are still stimulated from the sun bouncing off sand and water, and all we see is a smear of white. Our rods are still on break, off smoking a cigarette or chatting up the lovelies at the concession stand because, as far as they knew, there was nothing for them to do.

My few experiences with northern lights in Michigan had been on evenings when the lights were bright and my cones were able to paint the scene in color. Our first night in Churchill, we had a very nice display—and for me (and everyone else) it was all white. After that experience, I now believe many of the times I went out to look at northern lights in Michigan and believed I had not seen them, I had in fact witnessed the display without realizing it. I thought I saw only patterns of high cirrus clouds and did not recognize them for what they were.

On our second night in Churchill, Jan and I were two of only four in our group of twelve who stayed up late enough to witness the northern lights. Around 12:30 a.m. this aurora borealis started very softly, but soon built into a rollicking dance of light, some of which was bright enough (and I had been outside for over an hour) that I once again saw patterns of dancing greens.

That aurora spanned the heavens with an arc I’d estimate at almost 1200, and reached high into the sky. It was so massive that even with my 17mm lens, I could not catch it all in one photograph.

The third night it snowed. The aurora may have been burning bright, but we weren’t about to see it. Having been up two nights in a row until after two in the morning, I took it as a sign that I had nurtured my soul the previous evenings and that going to bed early was appropriate to nurture my body.

We left Churchill the evening of the fourth day and were treated to more northern lights as we awaited our plane. I stood in the airport parking lot, lit by sodium lamps, and once again saw splashes of color in the aurora. As an extra treat, we saw the aurora (back to silver) from the airplane as we flew to Winnipeg.

So what did I learn?

My camera sees much better in low light than I do. Its cone-equivalents can gather light for twenty or twenty-five seconds before rendering an image. My eyes can’t accumulate light in the same fashion as they are required to report to my brain on a continual basis. Patience is indeed a virtue. Some nights the aurora did not start until quite late. Often the initial burst of aurora activity would die out, only to return much later with an even more brilliant display. Even though I had read a book on auroras and understood how and why they are created, I had not considered how my eyesight would affect what I would and would not see.

I am a really, really lucky person. I appreciate that and do not want to forget it.

~ Jim

P.S. Here's a picture of a boreal chickadee and his reflection for those who might think I only looked skyward on this trip.

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog, 3/20/2016

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Sharp-tailed Grouse strutting for the ladies
Wanderlust is yin to my staying-at-home-hibernating’s yang. I am content to remain in one place until I am not, and then I hit the road, which is where I am now as I write this blog. This 47-day road trip will take us (my much better half, Jan Rubens, is with me) from our winter abode in Savannah, Georgia out to Hood River, Oregon, back east to Greece, New York and finally to our summer home in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula woods.

Air travel is my least favorite way to get from point A to spot B. I do love trains, but they run on rails and more or less on schedules; both inhibit our ability to get outside and enjoy seeing, hearing and touching ground. Walking would be great, but I don’t have sufficient time (or energy). That makes automobile travel the happy compromise.

We plan our day-to-day travel to include National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and Monuments and other outdoor attractions whenever possible. We’re not much for cities and museums. This trip we have added a different twist: every 50 miles as measured by the car’s odometer we stop and take a picture. This methodical approach does not capture the highlights of the trip, but it has captured the topography changes as we moved from east to west; from lush to dry to lush again; from low to high to low. (The album is on my personal Facebook page.)

Yellow-headed Blackbird
The saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is not accurate for me. However, I do find that pictures stimulate my memory. Often when I see a photograph I have taken, I recall not only the specifics of that locale, but what led up to it and what happened afterwards. One added enjoyment of this trip has been to see how these more or less random pictures have triggered memories in folks who follow my Facebook posts.

We usually prefer taking backroads, which can make for more interesting pictures than those taken along interstates. On this trip, time constraints on when we could leave and when we had to be in Hood River made it necessary (well, at least very convenient) to do much of our early travel on interstates. Given that, these pictures provide a sense of the modern American society, rushing by the land at 75 miles an hour in our air-conditioned, nearly hermitically-sealed autos.

Northern Gannets billing
As much as these roadside pictures draw comments, the photographs I periodically take of the birds we see always bring responses. Some people have never seen the particular birds before and marvel at their colors or shape or antics. Others of my friends are avid birders and share their own experiences with the birds or the location.

This sharing, initially from me, but then back to me, provides a continued sense of community with my friends and acquaintances regardless of how physically far apart we are. Even those who do not comment on Facebook will, when I see them in person, often engage me in detailed conversations about a recent trip. Those conversations, which can occur months after the trip, allow me to relive my wanderings.

I’ve found writing mysteries has a similar communal affect. I write the mysteries and then some time (often a long time) later a reader will talk to me about the story, or the characters, or the setting, and I have the opportunity to relive the story, yet experience it through the filter of someone else’s eyes.

That is the essence of my wanderlust: to experience, to share, to re-experience and to learn.

~ Jim

Toward the infinite
Originally published on Writers Who Kill Blog 4/26/15

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sex in the Suburbs

Last Sunday I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to the sounds of love—well, more accurately, lust. For whatever reason I channeled, Paul Simon’s “Duncan,” which starts with

Couple in the next room bound to win a prize
They’ve been going at it all night long

The problem with my not-quite-awake brain’s jukebox response was this: no humans were involved that night. We’re talking frogs and toads and they are loud. I mean LOUD! Voyeur that I am, I had no shame and listened from the comfort of my bed.

Male frogs and toads attract mates by finding a suitable spot and singing. Suitable means somewhere a female frog can find him because, as happens with many animals, the ladies choose who gets to fertilize their eggs; males catch as catch can. Behind our house is a pond (called a lagoon down here, which has more cachet in real estate terms) and beyond that wetlands. We have a variety of amphibians and that night I heard multiple LOUD frog/toad choruses. Their combined effect was so exuberant that to fall asleep one night I had to turn on background music in order to provide competing white noise.

We could shut the windows, of course, but that’s not a serious option for those nights when the outdoor temperatures are perfect for sleeping.

Eventually a bullfrog added a basso profundo underpinning to the caterwauling of the leopard frogs and tree frogs and Fowler’s toads I knew were out there. For a short time a Barred Owl added its “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” above the cacophony.

There were other night sounds as well. Egrets maybe? I can’t be sure, but they too are in the mood. The Great Egret that frequents our lagoon during the day has donned its green eye-shadow to attract a mate.

The amphibian chorus brought to mind another occasion, this in August 1980, where night noises awoke me. Earlier that day I had bought my house, built in 1795, in the Purdy’s section of North Salem, New York (NE corner of Westchester County fifty miles from NYC), and before the furniture arrived I chose to sleep on the living room rug underneath a sleeping bag. I was so tired that I fell asleep before dark.

I awoke to a frightening racket. In my sleep-blurred thinking, I decided there was something wrong with the furnace. After shoving on glasses I followed the penlight beam down the basement stairs, remembering to duck because the ceiling over the steps was low.

Partway down the basement stairs I realized the intensity of the sound was decreasing. Back upstairs, I cupped my hands behind my ears and swiveled my head like an owl to locate the sound. As you have certainly guessed, it was coming from outside. The annual cicadas or katydids or some such were doing their thing—a sound I had never heard before. I laughed at my own foolishness and went back to sleep once my heart quieted.

The next night I experienced the beginning of their bacchanalia. First one insect chirped. Then another. And another. In short order they synchronized their chirps so the singing was in unison. As more males joined in, the noise strengthened and I again heard the chorus that had awoken me on my maiden night in the house.

I know I lose sleep over this stuff, but you’ll never hear me complain.

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Taking Lessons From Nature

Last week I finally bit the bullet and labeled the pictures I had taken so far in 2013. Well, not all of the pictures, only the ones I had not previously deleted. Without this filing process, it is difficult to find any particular picture when I want it. The use of metadata tags makes searching go much more quickly.

This process also had the benefit that I got to view my pictures with a fresh eye and on a day when my philosophical hat was firmly in place. Here are a few that caught my attention and some of the thoughts I had about them.

I stumbled upon this spider’s web on a morning walk in Savannah with our now-deceased golden retriever, Morgan. What intricate work the spider performed in order to eat.

Some days later I sat and watched another spider construct its web. Similar to writers who spin stories, the spider started with the major frame lines and then filled in the details until the project was complete. It worked diligently until it was nearly finished, and after a short rest added a bit of filament here and there to fill in a few gaps in the story.

Then it got out of the way and let the web do its work. I often forget that part and keep trying to improve something long after it has become fully functional.

How ephemeral the first spider’s work was. A storm came through later that day and the next morning the web was gone.

I was working in my Savannah study one morning when I spotted this male eastern bluebird outside. He flew from one lamp post to another warbling his bubbly song, letting the world know he was there and this was his territory.

Sometimes it is necessary to take a risk and proclaim from a spot exposed to predator attack that this is yours and you are proud of it.

Overdo it and a sharp-shinned hawk has you for lunch. Hide in a bush and you never get the girl.

I wish I could figure out the right proportions when it comes to publicity for my writing.

When we returned to our northern home, we discovered a beaver had decided to change the landscape in front of the house without consulting the local zoning laws and without a permit from the human owners. I suppose his motto was to ask forgiveness rather than permission. In any event, I was not about to go to a nursery and purchase a half-dozen sixty-foot trees, so I had to live with the change.

On this tree, the beaver worked hard, but got nothing because the tree didn’t fall to the ground; it hung up in other trees. The beaver was successful with other trees, but not all work is productive.

From my perspective, this tree was still dead and now represented only prospective firewood and a drop-on-my-head hazard until I completed the beaver’s work and took it to the ground.

Only after I stopped being angry at the beaver’s decimation of my birch stand did I realize that by removing the trees the beaver had opened up my view of the lake (positive), opened up the view of my house from the lake (negative), and changed the amount of light reaching other trees and our house (positive if you are another tree, not so useful as the extra light heats up our house during the summer months). That reminds me of a story I tell on our neighbors across the lake: they took down many of the trees in front of their house to improve their view of the lake and then had to install blinds because of all the extra light they let in.

As summer progresses, I notice the surrounding trees are reaching limbs into the vacated spaces, preferring to grow out rather than up. Most forest trees are lean poles as they grow straight up in their battle for light. These rare holes in the canopy allow for changed behavior.

Humans, too, can experience new growth spurts when something causes an opening in their personal canopy. Unlike the trees, however, we can sometimes be our own beaver.

These two Northern Crescent butterflied gave me pause.


The one on the left is freshly minted, whereas the one on the right is scarred with life’s travails. Lefty is more colorful and has its life mostly in front of it. Righty has more experience and to me is more interesting. How did it lose the edge of its left hind wing? Was it always less colorful or did the sun bleach out its colors? Did each of them perceive their own shadow, and what did they think about it if they did?

I resemble Righty more than I usually care to admit.

After the bear arrived two successive evenings and mauled our bird feeders, I now have to take in the hummingbird feeders overnight and put them out again each morning.

The first birds up in the morning are my hummingbirds and an eastern phoebe that never tires of saying his name. Like this male ruby-throated hummingbird, the hummers not so silently wonder why I am sleeping in as they buzz their “flowers” and discover they are not yet there.

As soon as I awake, I put out their feeders; and I can’t go to bed until long after the sun goes down because they’re still being used. Since we are so close to summer solstice and I live above the 46th parallel, there is a lot of day between dawn and sunset—almost sixteen hours. The hummers arise in the predawn and retire after dusk. For me that requires a nap.

~ Jim

(originally posted on Writers Who Kill 7/14/13)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Camping with Dad

My father passed away on Thursday. He was 87, lived a good life and, as deaths go, his wasn’t too bad. Regardless of your beliefs in an afterlife, of this I am sure you will agree: as we remember our ancestors in stories, they yet live with us. So here is a story of Dad and me.

I was a boy scout and I belonged to a camping troop. We camped one weekend every month of the year except during the summer when we spent two weeks at Camp Massawepie in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. I liked camping a lot—the more remote the better.

Dad had a bad back, so hiking was not something he was able to do, but he did enjoy canoeing. Our family owned a log cabin on Chandos Lake, Ont. where we spent two or three weeks each summer. It was rustic—no electricity (or hydro as the Canadians would call it), cooking over a wood stove. A few hours north exists a canoeist’s paradise: Algonquin Provincial Park. Unlike most parks with miles of hiking trails, Algonquin’s trails were the myriad lakes connected by portages. Dad and I made several outings over the years.

Our canoe was a monster designed for family outings—much larger (and heavier) than necessary for just two of us, but we made do with what we had. I was the bowman; Dad took the stern. Back then I could still kneel in a canoe for hours at a time, and we could cover many miles a day. When the wind was against us we would have to huddle next to the shore to reach our destination. We chose times with good long-term forecasts, but even the best laid plans didn’t always work quite as expected.

With a little planning you could canoe multiple lakes in Algonquin with just a few short portages. If you were willing to do just one long portage, you could often find yourself the only canoe on a lake. That was what Dad and I preferred to do, although on one trip Dad threw his back out on our first long portage, and we had to beat a painful retreat.

We shared a two-man tent. If the weather was good, we’d set up the fly to keep the dew off our gear. If it rained, we crammed everything inside the tent. Our duties were clear: Dad would collect firewood, I would do the cooking (what little skills I had from scouting far surpassed Dad’s) and clean-up. Once dinner was complete, we played card games using a set of miniature cards and a small cribbage board for scoring.

Dad’s snores assured us that we would not be disturbed by any wildlife during the night. If I could get to sleep first, I wasn’t bothered since I was physically tired from the exercise. However, I was often awake first in the morning, and the snoring meant I would not get back to sleep.

Once we were away from people, wildlife viewing opportunities increased. A distant log became a black bear swimming across the lake. When he reached shore, he shook off great sheets of water, much as a dog would, and then bounded up a 30-degree slope with no more effort than I would need for a Sunday walk. A beaver scared the bejesus out of us when it surfaced and slapped its tail on the water right behind us. Apparently we had stayed too long looking at its lodge, and it wanted us gone. Other fond memories: Osprey fishing for dinner, belted kingfishers leading the way down an outlet, raucous rattles announcing our presence to all the other animals so they could hide before we turned the next bend.

The individual memories are too many to enumerate, so I’ll just relate one more. One evening we camped on an island in a distant interior lake. We had not seen anyone else for more than a day. A dense fog built up overnight, leaving the lake shrouded as the Mists of Avalon. I awoke early and could not get back to sleep because Dad was snoring loudly. A solitary loon was making his “rain call”—that’s the haunting call you often hear in wilderness scenes in movies (even those set in the Amazon which is not exactly loon habitat). Often loons continue to make that call until they are answered by a mate. They have other calls when they are disturbed or frightened. From somewhere in the fog the loon continued calling.

I sat on the shore and watched the day unfold as the sun crept over the eastern hills. The fog did not diminish in the sun’s heat, and I wondered how we were going to find our way home. Our schedule was a bit flexible, but… Then in a manner of seconds, the fog bank lifted three feet off the water. If I stood, my head was in the clouds (something I have been accused of more than once). I waited for the fog to dissipate, but it didn’t and then fifteen, maybe twenty feet in front of me up popped the loon. It tilted its head and gave its call, which echoed around the lake, bouncing from shore to shore, seemingly trapped by the fog.

Normally I let Dad sleep as long as he liked, but this time I woke him up so that together we could listen to the loon and watch it fish in the window under the fog bank. Many minutes later we heard an answering call; a second loon flew in, splashing down in what must have been an instrument landing. It swam to the first loon and together they dove after fish. Soon the fog bank began to disappear.

Earlier this week, I took my last camping trip with my father. It was a different wilderness experience. Rather than sleep in a hotel, I pulled a blanket over me and slept on the cushioned bench in his hospice room, sharing one last night with him. Although his breathing during the day had been ragged, that night it smoothed out. I fell asleep to the rhythm of his respiration, awoke every time a nurse came in to check on him and fell back to sleep to his steady breathing.

And in my waking hours I remembered our camping trips and the fog and the loons and the snoring I will no longer hear.

Night, Dad.

~ Jim
Simultaneously published at Writers Who Kill

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sowing’s Harvest

Originally Posted on Writers Who Kill on 12 August 2012

When we built our Michigan house in 2005 we had to decide what to plant over the septic field. Grass is the traditional answer; its roots pull some of the moisture from the leach field to let it evaporate, while the rest of the water percolates through the soil. We chose wildflowers. We liberated plants from the surrounding woods and trails and transplanted them.

Lesson 1: Invasive species grow best. Well duh! Since I am not a wildflower cognoscenti we went for pretty—and some of the invasives are gorgeous. Fortunately, soon after I transplanted purple loostrife and spotted knapweed I discovered my error and ripped them up. It took three years to get rid of the spotted knapweed because some had gone to seed before my weeding.

Lesson 2: I didn’t want to mow a lawn. It seemed antithetical to living in the midst of the Northwoods. What I didn’t count on was that the maples, birches, aspens, pines, hemlocks, cedars and spruce thought the meadow belonged to them. Of course they were right; the territory had been theirs since the melting of the last glacier. I traded a periodic lawn mowing for pulling weeds—in this case thousands of treelets every year.

Lesson 3: Not all transplants live. The columbine I found has struggled to survive and I’ve had zero luck with jack-in-the-pulpit.

Lesson 4: Nature has her own ideas. I didn’t plant everything now growing in the meadow. Volunteers showed up, brought in by the wind and bird poop and animal fur.

Lesson 5: It takes time to transform bare dirt into something presentable, but given time it will happen.
Lesson 6: I’m not the only one to enjoy the wildflowers.

Lesson 7: If you’d like, this blog could be an allegory for writing, or you can simply enjoy the pictures.

~ Jim