Tag Archives: environmentalism

The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting

EarthDayGreeleyTribune To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes. If you don’t live in our area, I hope you’ll find an Earth Day event near you. At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” from A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm. applebaskets Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

If the video isn’t embedded below, click here to watch it.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Writing from Nature’s Artifacts


I’m one of those people who look at the ground when they hike, not to see where I’m going but to scout out rocks. At the beach, I scour the wrack line for shells and other treasures the tide has washed ashore. I’ve collected rocks, shells, nests, and bones from all my travels, including to big cities where artifacts of the natural world are harder to find.


In my memoir A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms and the mementos I gathered during summer vacations there:

“As a young girl, I was a rock hound and my grandparents’ farmyards were my stalking grounds. I scouted petrified wood, round picture agates, and red and gold siltstone flinted like arrowheads, bringing a pailful home to Colorado each summer to polish in my tumbler on the tool bench in our garage. For years, I kept a small dark brown stone, like magma from the earth’s core cooled in the swirled shape of a horse’s head and mane. My Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s neighbor shared pieces of larger rocks he’d gathered on his own farm and from forays in that region. One was a polished oval picture agate, a horizon of shadowed trees landscaped across a champagne sky. Decades later, I had it edged in spiraled sterling with a silver chain, a memento in miniature of the land I’d left behind.”

Now on my travels, I’m more likely to take photographs than artifacts. Still, the fascination is the same. I’m trying to understand my place in the ecosystems that remain. Perhaps because I spent childhood vacations on my grandparents’ farms, built environments don’t satisfy and comfort me the way natural systems do. What I’m searching for, I think, are the ways my body and my writing are connected to the earth.


We live surrounded by human-made things—objects made of plastic, metal, and fabric shaped through mechanization. Even though these materials may have started out in some natural form, the consumer items they produce are artificial in that each is exactly like the other.

Shells and rocks, pinecones, feathers, and bark all share one attribute: none of them is exactly like another but instead vary in magnificent and intimate ways. Each carries a unique trace—or memory–of the world it inhabits.


Writers, too, want to create a unique record of their experiences in the world around them. Some use writing to understand and describe their place within a particular ecosystem or encircling planet. Nature’s artifacts can serve as reminders of experiences or relationships with the natural world, helping to create stories of what Thoreau called “something kindred” between humans and nature.

In a workshop I taught in Colorado, an outdoor adventurer wrote of his obsession with heart-shaped rocks. He carried them home from all corners of the world and kept them piled on shelves like cairns marking a trail, yet he wasn’t sure why he collected them. It wasn’t until he showed us the only picture he had of his mother, who had died when he was very young, that the heart came into view in the shape of his mother’s face. There we saw the heart that had been beating for and in him through the rocks he’d carried home, a memory captured in stone.


Stories like this illustrate how the distinction between humans and the natural world is finer than we think. From cells to bones, we all carry within ourselves some trace of our ecological origins. Through writing, we can examine the world around us for the juxtapositions that complexify the distinction and, in turn, forge new understandings of our place within this ever-changing world.

sitkaviewI’ll be helping writers explore this rich terrain in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast, September 27-28. Bring a natural artifact or image of your own to inspire writing from poetry to fiction to environmental advocacy amid the beauty of the Sitka campus.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, women's writing

A January Tribute to Aldo Leopold


We’re in January, that frigid first month of the year when the sun shines intermittently as snow pellets the already frozen ground. John and I don’t go out much at night in January, but last night we donned heavy sweaters, parkas, and ear grips to attend a small screening of the recent movie Green Fire, a beautiful evocation of the life and land ethic of the early conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

While I appreciated learning more about this important founder of The Wilderness Institute and activist for land preservation, Leopold’s passion for hunting took me aback. When I came home, I re-read some of his essays, not to excuse his killing of animals, but to try to understand his ideas in an historical light. Leopold’s environmentalism evolved from his early days as a forester who approved the killing of game predators like wolves to increase deer for hunters. As a hunter himself, he seemed to view hunters as inherent advocates of wilderness preservation. Later, when overcrowded deer populations devastated wilderness, he realized that such killing only served to unbalance natural ecosystems.Certainly the movie’s use of vintage photo after photo posing dead animals next to men with guns is meant to illustrate the wrong-headed ethic of killing animals with no regard for what their loss means to their environment.

Leopold was also critical of what he called the “artificializing” of the “mass-pursuit” of “trophies” by intensive land management practices that increase the availability of fish and game for “trophy-recreationists,” including by constructing roads into wilderness. Leopold advocated stewardship rather than dominion over the natural world by viewing ourselves as part of that world. The last lines of A Sand County Almanac echo his plea for a change in how humans view land: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Leopold died at age 61 in 1948 of a heart attack while fighting a fire near his family’s Wisconsin farm retreat. One can’t help but wonder how his conservation ethic would have evolved had he lived another twenty or thirty years to see the birth of an environmental movement and the earth’s increasing degradation by short-sighted human folly.

On this cold January day, with a fire in the woodstove to keep us warm, I want to honor Leopold’s passion for preserving wilderness as wilderness with an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press):

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, like other classic nature writings such as Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, combines exquisite detail of his corner of the natural world with an urgent appeal for protecting that world—if it’s not already too late. First published in 1949, Sand County is arranged by months; the February chapter is particularly apt for Stonebridge: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.”


Here on the Front Range, winter eventually catches up with us. New Year’s Eve is cold and snowy and snowstorms come in waves, diminishing in power but keeping the landscape softly blanketed in white. The nights are frigid, but in the house, we’re warmed by a wood fire, one provided by nature and by John with his chainsaw and his willingness to go outside first thing in the morning for wood. Many years ago, our hot water heating system went on the blink. We were using the woodstove pretty regularly already because we liked the warmth it gave, reaching further into corners than less powerful heat. When the furnace went out, we decided to go all the way with wood.

Or almost all the way. The ceiling-high windows on the south side of the farmhouse provide passive solar heat and we have a couple space heaters for our offices or to warm the cast-iron tub in the bathroom. Primarily, though, the woodstove does the job.

Each year since we let the furnace go, we’ve made some improvements. Because the farmhouse is 100 years old, we had extra insulation blown into the walls. What a difference that made, mostly to keep in the heat from the woodstove rather than lose it out the wood walls. Next we built a wood hut to keep the logs dry and handy outside the back door. Designed by Jon Bell with a scavenged satellite dish for a roof, it makes trips to the woodpile much more pleasant, even in the snow. We’ve lined and improved the old chimney and have it cleaned periodically by a chimney sweep. We also bought, at our friend Peter’s advice, a colored temperature gauge so we could monitor the optimum flame. Yellow is too low; red is too high. We like to keep it “in the mustard,” we say, where the wood burns most efficiently.

The biggest improvement is the wood itself from the trees growing along the three irrigation ditches. For years we burned cottonwood, since it was the most common, but that wood burns like toilet paper—lots of ash, not much heat. Now we’re burning willow, apple, and Russian olive, the latter a weed tree that John has sworn to rid from our land.

I’m glad John doesn’t mind swinging an axe as he’s “let[ting] his mind work the while.” And I’m glad to hear the “thump” in the woodbox in the morning as he drops a load of dry logs for the first fire of the day. It’s good to know where our heat comes from, as well as our food. Leopold would approve.



Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

The Natural Affinity of Children and Chickens

Yesterday was our five-week-old grandson’s first trip to the farm. He slept most of the time but we took him on a walk anyway to get some sunshine and show our oldest daughter the crops. We even tucked the baby into the hanging barn scale to see how much he’d grown. 11 pounds, including blankets! He’s getting big and strong too, holding his head up longer each time we see him and trying to scoot on his tummy with his toes.

Too bad he was asleep when we visited the chickens. Most children love watching the hens and will stand, mesmerized, for longer than anyone could imagine their attention span would last, poking a blade of grass through the chicken wire and squealing when a beak nips out to grab it. Children and chickens seem to have an affinity for each other, perhaps because they sense a mutual beneficence and similar proximity to the ground.

I had intended to clean out the chicken coop yesterday but with our grandson’s first visit, put that plan on hold until today. We have 18 chickens right now, a full coop. Most of them are older and not laying anymore so we joke that we’re running a retirement home for hens. Six of our chickens are new, though, raised this spring to replace the older ones we anticipate will die a natural death this coming winter. The new chickens haven’t started laying yet but once they do, we’ll have a good supply of eggs again.

The new chickens–silver and gold-laced Wyandottes

Once a year, John and I muck out the chicken coop. More than just the routine raking out of old, dirty hay, mucking the coop involves the red Farm All tractor with its front bucket, breathers for the dust, and a couple hours of digging down into eight or ten inches of composted hay and chicken poop and forking it into the front end bucket. That might seem gross to city folks but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. The layers of muck flake up easily and, since it’s decomposed into essentially soil, smells more earthy than stinky. John empties the tractor bucket into our big compost pile and turns it in with the vegetable scraps and leaves our CSA members have left us. With childhood memories of my grandparents’ chickens, I never mind the smell of the coop but I don’t like the dust that gets kicked up, hence the breathers and farm clothes that go straight into the washing machine when we’re done.

My sister and me checking on the chickens at our Grandma and Grandpa Short’s farm in North Dakota

The best part about mucking out the coop is filling it, inside and out, with fresh hay. Today’s hay is as fresh as it gets because John mowed the pasture last week. (Hay, by the way, is cut grass; straw is the stalk of wheat or a similar grain). That hay—the season’s second cutting–will last us and the chickens all year. We fill their nest boxes with it every few days and add more to the coop as needed. In years past, we’ve stored it on the hay wagon or under a tarp, but this year John’s building a new storage box right between the coop doors to keep it fresher and handier, a small improvement but a significant one because it will save steps and make the chickens more comfortable too.

Chickens enjoying new hay from the pasture

Mucking the coop isn’t a big chore but it’s not a little one either. It’s a late summer task, one that shows up on the to-do list in July and waits until the heat wave’s over and the demands of watering and weeding relax. I might even call it a ritual because it marks another year on the farm, another season passed. Too, it’s something John and I do together each year, sort of an annual date, and doing it together makes the task more enjoyable.

This year mucking the coop became a little more urgent when I found a bull snake inside last week and realized that may have been the reason for the skimpier number of eggs we’ve gotten lately. Although with chickens, one never knows–it could be a lull between the older hens finishing their laying cycle and the new ones beginning. But if the snake’s been eating eggs, hopefully our presence in the coop today has compelled the thing to move on.

Beyond eggs and compost, I like the chickens for their company. I like taking our compost pail out to the coop each morning; I like how excited the hens get when I throw the grain and vegetable scraps in the coop yard, nudging each other out of the way to grab the piece they want and running to a corner of the coop with it in their beak to eat in private. I like that as long as we feed them, give them fresh water each day, and keep the coop reasonably clean, they’ll give us eggs.

I like, too, that the chicken coop is a convivial place on the farm for children and their parents. I like how trusting chickens are of our stewardship and how we depend on each other. Our chicken coop isn’t fancy—not anything like our friends’ beautiful chicken “palace” with the egg finial on top—but it serves our purposes for now: sheltering happy and healthy chickens laying delicious eggs.

I can’t wait for our grandson to discover the chickens, throw them kitchen scraps, and feed them grass through the chicken wire. Now that he’s here, taking care of the chickens and their coop seems even more important because we want this farm to survive for his generation and beyond. We’ll keep performing the small rituals like mucking the coop and making the small improvements that increase our productivity, efficiency, and comfort. We’ll do it all more mindful of the future and careful about the steps we take to get there. And in a year or two, we’ll get to something else that’s on the list: a treehouse for a little boy to dream in.


Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

42nd Earth Day and Still Counting

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I was a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Earth Day was organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the alarming state of the environment through grassroots actions. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for granted.

My fifth grade class (I'm in the lower left hand corner with knee socks)

Our fifth grade class decided to celebrate the first Earth Day by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers.  All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. We showed up with tools—the girls in pants, which weren’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run a block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds.  A little water, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden.  At the end of the day we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.


Around the world, 20 million participants representing thousands of schools and communities organized events like ours from planting trees to picking up trash along highways in what Senator Nelson called a “spontaneous response at the grassroots level.” Earth Day proved that many people did care about the environment, becoming a symbol for the new ecological movement that at that point held so much promise.

Today Earth Day and its message of stewardship is still part of many school curriculums. Children learn about the value of recycling, saving energy, and protecting endangered species.  Since the first Earth Day, stricter standards have been passed for air and water pollution, cars have become more fuel efficient, and many contaminated areas have been recovered.  But 42 years after the first Earth Day, we are living that fearful future of vanishing species, toxic food, oil spills, nuclear disasters, and climate change-amplified weather crises.

To celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary two years ago, we planted an Opalescent Apple tree at Stonebridge Farm in memory of Mr. Osborn, my fifth grade teacher who had died just a few months earlier.  Many years will pass before Mr O’s tree bears fruit in the old orchard beyond the barn, just as many years have passed since planting my first Earth Day garden. When I tend that tree, I remember how Mr. O inspired us to care about the natural world by getting our hands in the soil. He taught us the Earth Day lesson of working together to care for our environment by visualizing the world in which we wanted to live. Even though the grass and flowers didn’t survive long in the high traffic area outside our schoolroom, it didn’t matter because the real seeds had been planted in us.

Ecology stickers I've saved from fifth grade

This Earth Day we’ll celebrate by learning to forage wild plants on our farm. Foraging lends a new perspective on so-called weeds by showing us that plants we overlook or eradicate can have value. Similarly, Earth Day teaches us that we need to look more closely at the earth’s interconnected ecosystems if we are to be good stewards of this planet.

We’ll plant an apple tree too, one John grafted from the branch of a blush apple tree in our farm’s old orchard. That tree probably came from a seed planted by a bird or squirrel or apple fallen from another tree. Since apple trees grown from seeds don’t come true to the parent tree, until we grafted it, our tree may have been the only apple like it in the world. Now this second Stonebridge apple will bear more wine-fleshed fruit born of this place and bringing the past into a future we hope promises harvests for generations to come. 

In fifth grade, I believed that solutions to the world’s environmental problems would be achieved in my lifetime. How naïve I was to underestimate the economic forces that value profit over preservation and the lack of political will to challenge them. The view that the earth is only ours for the harvesting has led us to disregard its limitations. We should all participate in “green” efforts to plant school gardens, recycle our cans and bottles, or eat locally grown organic vegetables as ways to honor the earth as our home, yet actions like these alone will not save the planet. The changes needed to stop further ecological degradation are monumental and our individual efforts so small, it’s hard to see how the tiny seeds of stewardship planted 42 years ago can still grow.

Celebrate Earth Day on April 22 this year by planting a tree—and then join others in the insistence that the environment must not only be protected for ourselves, but for generations as far as we can count. Together we must create a new vision that inspires fresh seeds of environmental activism, one that looks not only at individual actions but at collective intervention in the mounting crisis of our only earth.

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Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Blue, Blue Highways: Getting Here from There

I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick up Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Published in 1983, the book shows up frequently in my secondhand book perambulations. I think I was put off by its reputed genre: travelogue often seems trite to me. Who wouldn’t write about a paid vacation to someplace fabulous or fun?

But no publisher paid for Heat-Moon’s gas or lodging. He did plan to write an article or two of tripping around the US perimeter in his old van—he’d packed a tape recorder, after all. But the notion to publish a book came later. First came losing his job and his wife, good enough reasons to get up and go.

The title Blue Highways comes from the color of state and county roads on old highway maps and atlases back in 1978 when Heat-Moon set off “not simply to cross America but to encircle her.” Heading east from Missouri, he decides to visit rural towns with colorful names like Remote and Riddle, Oregon; Why, Arizona and Why Not, Mississippi; and Contact, Nevada, Hog Heaven, Idaho, and Dime Box, Texas. Along the way, he records conversations with folks who don’t mind passing the time of day with a stranger. If there’s something better to do, they don’t let on.

As the journey progresses, Heat-Moon begins to seek out particular kinds of people, those who know the history of an area or have witnessed the conflicts of communities undergoing change. This is the late 1970s, when the promises of the Civil Rights movement have not come fully to fruition, but many are resistant to what changes have been made. While a white man in Selma, Alabama, complains bitterly to Heat-Moon that “change has ruined this town,” a young Black man laments, “Ain’t nothin’ changed.”

Blue Highways is a travelogue. Through the author’s eyes, we view the many geographic regions of the United States, as well as their corresponding cultural differences. As a travelogue, Blue Highways winds through the small towns that so-called progress seems to have left behind. Some of the towns on the author’s map had already disappeared; a few roads ended with nowhere to go but back.  The author regrets the disappearance of “six calendar diners,” establishments where local people meet and eat and travelers are served a slice of locale with their eggs and bacon.

But Blue Highways is also an oral history of life on the cusp of hyperconsumerism, a life before cell phones and the internet shrink distances and introduce identities based on corporate branding of all things consumable. These stories are about folks who live off the grid, not from rejection of government or corporate control, but because the grid hadn’t yet come to them. The people Heat-Moon meets build their own houses, fix their own cars, grow or raise or catch their own food. They make their own entertainment too, be it music at a backroads bar or a running argument with a friend of sixty years.

Change is a constant topic of conversation throughout Heat-Moon’s travels, just as change is a constant in the lives of the people he meets. In his search for “places where change did not mean ruin,” Heat-Moon finds that the struggle against ruin requires commitment to the past while keeping an eye on the future. As he reaches the East coast of his circular journey, he hears of a community that fought hard to retain control over change in what the author calls “a story of the past, the future, the present.” In Greenwich, New Jersey, he learns the story of the Atlantic City Electric Company’s secret purchase of land along the Delaware bay in a plan to rezone coastal marshland as heavy industrial and to run oil tank lines through one of the first permanent English-speaking settlements on the bay, a place where townspeople considered historical preservation and “geographical refuge” as “central to [their] history.” The citizens fought the changes and at the same time proposed new commercial ventures, like soybean crops and a new cannery.

This struggle struck me especially as a farmer with small-scale agricultural land in the midst of encroaching commercial development and light industry. The issues raised by a Greenwich community activist could be said of our 101-year-old farm as well: “The problem of what we’re doing lies in deciding what’s the benefit of history and what’s the burden. We’re not trying to hold back the future, but we do believe that what has happened in Greenwich is at least as important as what could happen here. The future should grow from the past, not obliterate it.” These sentiments make sense to me; I hope they will to others in our community if conflicts between agricultural and industrial use arise.

After seeing it for years on secondhand bookshelves, I read Blue Highways, finally, because of its beautiful evocations of nature. I wouldn’t call the book an ecobiography, or ecology-based memoir, in the way I think about the genre (you can see my new website on this topic here) but the book does have much to offer in writing about the uneasy connections between humans and the natural world.

As he travels the blue highways, Heat-Moon often retreats from towns and people to off-road sanctuaries where he can be alone. Here he records what he calls “particularities” like “a green and grainy and corrupted ice over the ponds”; raindrops, lightning, mosquitoes and a slug are his traveling companions.

Pulling off the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, a blue highway that follows the contours of a river without billboard or powerlines—a highway that doesn’t, in the author’s words, “outrage landscape”—he stops to hike a trail into a swamp. Here he senses the arrival of spring as emboldened forms of life begin to emerge from the rot-stewed muck: “I had a powerful sense of life going about the business of getting on with itself. Pointed phallic sprouts pressed up out of the ooze, green vegetable heads came up from the mire to sniff for vegetation of kin. . . . I could almost feel the heat from their generation: the slow friction of leaf against bud case, petal against petal. For some time I stood among the high mysteries of being as they consumed the decay of old life.”

Refreshed by the natural world’s regenerative power, he returns to the road, only to discover emergent signs of humanity amongst a different kind of muck: “strawberry-syrup pancakes, magic-finger motel beds, and double-cheese pizzas.” Leaving kinship with a Mississippi swamp behind, he rejoins the human-built world and yearns for “a texturized patty of genetically engineered cow.”

As we encircle the country with William Least Heat-Moon, we learn to see regional landscapes in a new way. On a seemingly barren drive across Texas with nearly 100 miles between one town and the next, he pulls off the road to make a list of “nothing in particular”— in fact, thirty things that inhabit the nothingness within his vast line of sight. Starting with a mockingbird, he lists insects, many varieties of cactus, small mammals, and shrubby trees that can live on little water, ending his list with earth, sky, and “wind (always).” He rejects the notion that the desert is empty: “To say nothing is out here is incorrect; to say the desert is stingy with everything except space and light, stone and earth is closer to the truth.” We see this close-up too and learn that each area of the country has its own list to offer.

As Heat-Moon writes in the epilogue to Blue Highways, in his three months of travel “preeminent always was the ancient wish to leave an old world and enter a new one.” Traveling with the author, we enter many new worlds, each with its attractions and troubles. Preeminent always for me was the thrust of change that does bring ruin, from outraged landscape to backroad blight to urban inanity. It’s hard to see those old roads go but I’m grateful Blue Highways captured some of their stories before they disappeared. Rich with the small particulars that lend laughter and lament, this is a book to read not once, but many times as we remember where blue highways came from and where they need to go.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Natural Neighbors

As a photographer, sometimes I worry about crossing the line. I don’t believe the whole world is my subject or that it’s my right to shoot photographs of everything in front of my camera. I try to respect other people’s privacy, even in public places.

But I also find myself unable to resist a kind of rationalization to get a shot I like. For example, if I take pictures of strangers without their permission, I try to shoot their faces in positions that aren’t recognizable, like from the side or behind. I know I feel funny about people using my face—my image—without my permission and I appreciate the photographers I know who ask before shooting. Sometimes, though, asking permission isn’t possible so I have to evaluate what I’m actually “taking” with each shot. What I don’t want to do is take away someone’s dignity or agency. My hesitancy limits the kinds of photos I shoot but also, I like to think, makes me more inventive in the images I create.

I’m also careful about images of other living creatures but in a different way. I don’t hesitate for privacy reasons as I do with humans, but I don’t want to compromise other beings’ habitats or safety. The issue here is my presence, more than my camera and the images I make.

I often say that a farm is a cultivated space on a continuum between wilderness (at least the little bit left of it) and human inhabited areas thought of as “civilization” or urbanization. As an intermediary between these types of spaces, cultivation means not only that the natural world is used in an agricultural way but also that an attempt is made to work in collaboration with the natural systems found there. In cultivated spaces, humans and animals must co-exist, sometimes in managed ways, such as livestock, sometimes as neighbors. And as with human neighbors, sometimes the co-existence isn’t easy, such as when wildlife damage crops.

Here at Stonebridge, we try for neighborly co-existence with the other living creatures who live or travel through this land. We try to take the precautions necessary to protect our crops or our beehives or our chickens from creatures who are natural predators of what we’re raising here. We don’t blame bears for wanting to devour our beehives but we will put up an electric fence to protect the bees—and our honey.

This time of year, some of our natural neighbors are busy raising their babies in nests all over the farm. We hang a few birdhouses around, but we don’t usually get to choose where birds make their homes. Right now, we’ve got starlings nesting in one wall of our Sunflower Community room and wrens nesting in another. They seem to trust that we won’t disturb them as they fly in and out with food for the babies that we can hear chirping in the walls and we trust that the birds will leave as soon as they are able.

The most neighborly birds on the farm are the robins because they build their nests right in the midst of our work, in places we could never imagine nest-worthy, even precarious places that wouldn’t seem safe from our human perspective. I like to think that robins are trusting rather than vacuous but maybe the difference doesn’t matter. Either way, we’ve been entertained by robins’ nesting habits for many years.

The most amazing nest was built several years ago next to the outer wall of the Sunflower Room. John had noticed a flicker trying to drill a hole in the wood so he’d propped the tip of a pushbroom on the edge of a bucket on top of an old desk chair so that the broom’s long bristled end covered the hole. Stopped the flicker, all right, but a robin thought that bristled ledge would make a perfect nesting place.

We couldn’t believe that the nest could balance on that broom, itself so precariously crutched on the bucket. We figured the mud must stucco the nest onto the wall, lending support to the entire nesting structure. But once the babies had fledged and the family flown away, we took down the nest and could see that nothing but the grace of exquisite balance kept that nest in place.

This year a robin has built a nest right on top of a tool shelf—right, in fact, on top of the tools. The shelf is on the side of a tool hut built by a friend from corrugated metal with an old satellite dish for the roof. (It’s the sibling of another disk-roofed building in which we dry herbs and store wood). We have to get tools from the hut so we have to disturb the robin’s nesting. Before the baby birds were hatched, the mother would fly to another branch when we’d come close, but now she’ll just sit immobile on the nest in the hope that we won’t notice her.

Before the fledglings hatched, I wanted to see what was in the nest, but since I’m not tall enough to peer into it, I took my camera and held it up over the nest to shoot. I had to count on my shortest-range lens focusing itself and took many pictures to get a few I like. The photos showed three blue eggs of a color seen only in turquoise stones or the ocean, a rare color in nature that seems odd for eggs. Why such a vibrant color for something that must be protected from predators? I’m sure naturalists have posited a theory about that one.

But should I have taken those photographs at all? The mother bird wasn’t happy with me, I know, because she sat on a nearby branch and trilled her scolding. I worried that those few minutes off the nest might cool the eggs or make them more vulnerable to breaking. I’m not even sure yet whether all of them have hatched because I haven’t used my camera to sneak shots of the babies like I did of the eggs. I don’t want to scare them by getting too close but I will try to get their picture with my longest telephoto lens once their little heads pop up over the rim of the nest.

I’m just trying to be neighborly here, not too nosy but curious enough to care. Perhaps that’s a good rule for photography too.

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