The study of–

Earth Day. March for Science. Global weirding. Polar ice caps. Phenology, biology, meteorology, chemistry, zoology, entomology, geology…all the ologies: “The study of.”

Ways we learn about who and where we are and how to live where we are and with those who have been there before us and on whom we–usually without realizing it–depend.

Scientists tend to justify their work by citing how factual it is. They believe it is necessary to have facts. But there are people who question these facts and who peg scientists as dry, heartless unbelievers. How wrong that concept is. Let’s look at scientists as people who study. Observers. Curious, inventive people. People who push the envelope of the “known” and who inquire into assumptions. Science evolved from philosophy, after all.

And there is so much at stake. We are all stakeholders in this environment, in this universe that extends–as far as we mortals know–infinitely. But scientists are working on that.

 

17498711_10158425599030261_5744494573695525358_n

March for Science–Philadelphia.

 

So many reasons why “the study of” matters.

How to start

My students often get confused at the beginning of their essays; a common complaint is “I don’t know how to start!”

I feel for them. Beginnings are difficult. Recently I was wondering why that is so.

~

Driving home during a blizzard–concentrating on seeing the road, staying off the shoulder, anticipating the curves, watching for oncoming vehicles. Tense, I’m trying not to clutch the steering wheel. Eight miles home seems long when the visibility is nearly zero and the back roads have not been plowed. And then a blur of activity to my right, a thunk against the passenger side window, and a sweeping shape looms in front of me, veers; a fan, dark stripes, pale breast-feathers, strikingly yellow claws. I’ve nearly hit a broad-winged hawk. And that thunk was a smaller bird that had been harrying it through the snow.

Broad-winged Hawk Flying

A startling incident, that experience heightened my awareness of where I am (in the world), in which environments (natural and human-made), and when (now!).

Sometimes, happenstances such as this evolve into, or figure in, poems that I will eventually write. The image, the occurrence, offers a way in.

~

Returning to my question about how to start: the blockade many people make for themselves is that they think they have to know what they want to say before they write anything. “What is it I am trying to say?” the writer asks. We have been instructed to keep in mind our aims when we write.

I suggest it may be a mistake, though, to figure out what one wants to say before trying to write. When my student writers are truly stuck at the start, I ask them to write what they notice, what they experience, what they hear. Just write it down, describe it: the soft thud of the sparrow (if it was a sparrow–allow for speculation), the sound of wind against the car body, the clearly-visible buteo in the windshield where before there had been near-whiteout. What is it I want to say about the drive, the shock, the tension, the world of natural things? I don’t yet know, but I am writing.

~

Thanks to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Raptor Preserve, Kempton PA.

Hawks & fragments

When I take the commuter bus into New York City and back, I prefer daytime trips because I can count hawks.

I’m not a birdwatcher; but I have noticed, over many years of traveling the route (Interstate 78 Pennsylvania through New Jersey), that the highway offers good predatory-bird landscapes. The bus has large windows and elevates the passengers above the usual traffic lanes, so even though I’m traveling 70 miles an hour, I have a panoramic view through eastern Pennsylvania and north-central New Jersey, where there are scrims of woodlots behind the noise barriers, scrubby undergrowth on medians and embankments, a few cornfields, many high-density housing communities, railroads, creeks, and small county park lands.

I seldom get a close enough look to identify a bird positively; yet from my motor-vehicle perch I can tell a buteo from a harrier or an accipter. The fairly small kestrel is difficult to note, being about pigeon-sized (and pigeons are legion in NJ &NY) but I’ve identified them by their flight pattern. The buteos are most common around here, and from a bus I can’t usually discern a broad-wing from a redtail. But I see them roosting at dusk, or perched, or soaring over the fields and the strip mall parking lots. Twice, I have even spotted a great horned owl in trees along the route.

There are important raptor flyways along this path and into the region just west of where I live: Hawk Mountain is a big birding attraction along the Appalachian Trail. I have counted as many as 18 raptors along an 80-mile stretch of road. The commute takes just under two hours; I am probably the only person on the bus who spends most of her time looking out the windows at what is, admittedly, a rather uninspiring and predictable landscape.

redtail

See below for a link to raptor id at Hawk Mountain

~

51YVrgMy9sL._.jpg

Hawks have been very much on my mind because I recently read Helen Macdonald’s quite wonderful memoir, H Is for Hawk, which I highly recommend.

~

Here are a few fragments of notes I wrote in my journal while I traveled home last Sunday.

what could be a hawk. but isn’t–

paper wasp nests     squirrel dreys (nests of food for hawks!)     leaf clumps      plastic bags[tangled in boughs]

big crows. until they fly.          traffic cameras. the particular angle of them, perched (as it were) above streetlamps.

without binoculars, and in motion. not birdwatching. I scan for raptors.

frozen swamp–The Meadowlands–

snow. out of which phragmite grasses emerge, brown, russet brown. color of redtail feathers.

cranes/high tension wires. canadian geese–also in snow, feeder creeks & streams frozen, Hudson frozen, Delaware frozen.

raptor count NJ 10, PA 4. Four in 16 miles, Pennsylvania.

And yes, I composed a couple of poems during the trip.

But only one of the poems featured hawks.

~ Link to a great page for Eastern US raptor identification