Archive for the ‘Outings’ Category
Mostly tell. Because:
I remember how, as a kid, I used to come home from the library with a stack of books—as many as I could haul home on my bike—and then find it impossible to decide which book to read first. I’d spread them out, flipping through this one and reading a page or two of that one, feeling the torment of indecision sweep over me, paralyzed by all the enticing options.
I’m fifty now, and nothing has changed.
Which book to read next? Which book to write next? Which stitch to try in my embroidery project? Which color? Or maybe I’d rather sketch. Paint. Take a walk. Take a photo! Write a blog post. Water the plants. Fill the bird feeders. Read a book. Oh no, which book??
This hits me hardest on Sundays, when I have a little free time. I often have to start the day by making a list of all the lovely things I could do. It’s funny, though—I can power through a to-do list like nobody’s business, but a fun list? Let me just sit here for an hour, doodling in the margins as I try to decide.
Example: I went to the Portland Book Festival yesterday and had a splendid time. I’m bubbling over with tidbits to share, but when I sat down to begin, I fell into the old needs-to-be-an-organized-well-crafted-post trap. Organized writing takes time! I often think: I’ll save this topic until I can do a proper job with it. Turns out that’s a death sentence for most topics.
Then it struck me that when I read AV Club recaps of a show I’m watching, my favorite part is always the list of bullet-pointed “stray observations” at the end. (In fact, I usually huff with irritation as I read the main body of the post, because so often the reviews seem to be grumpy takes on how the episode could have been better if only it were an entirely different episode, and possibly a different show. But the “stray observations” tend to celebrate memorable moments, and that’s what I’m there for!)
All right, stray observations—that’s an attainable goal. 🙂
• There are a lot of really great independent bookstores in Portland, and I need to visit more of them.
• Had lunch with Kortney and Tonia, and I need way more time with them too!
• Had a very interesting chat with Sue Campbell of Pages and Platforms about book launch strategies. She winced when I admitted that yes, I do have a mailing list, but I haven’t sent out a newsletter since 2015. Um. Yeah. Sounds like I need to bump Project Revive My Bookletter higher on the list.
• (Ugh, you guys, promoting your own work is the worst part of being a writer. I can happily, eagerly talk about other writers’ books until I’m blue in the face! But my own? OH THE PAIN.)
• (Having said that, I am pretty doggone excited to do the cover reveal for my new novel. December 2nd! It’s getting close! The cover is sooo great. I squealed pretty hard when I saw it. You’ll see.)
• I got a demo of a manuscript-writing app called Shaxpir that surprised me by knocking my socks off! It has some features similar to Scrivener (which is what I’ve used for my last two novels) but with a cleaner, better-for-me interface and some extremely nifty tools to clue you in to patterns in your writing. I’m just finishing a trial of Ulysses, another kind of writing/publishing software which has some features I like very much indeed, but I think I might like Shaxpir better. The two platforms are really quite different. Stay tuned for a report. Also: how fabulous is this logo?
• (I’ll always love Scrivener for the corkboard with movable index cards, though. I love moving scenes around on that thing!)
• Shaxpir has a related website called Prosecraft: Linguistics for Literature. If you’re a word nerd, you’re in for some serious fun.
• I enjoyed a chat with the publisher of Two Lines Press, which publishes “exceptional new writing and overlooked classics that have not previously been published in English.” Their list looks amazing. Books from all over the world. I started enthusing about a recent episode of Commonplace Podcast in which Rachel Zucker’s interview of Jennifer Croft knocked my socks off—Jennifer is the English translator of Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and the author of a novel-memoir called Homesick—and it turned out the Two Lines publisher is close friends with Jennifer. Such a fun conversation. Naturally I jumped on Edelweiss as soon as I got home and requested a review copy of That We May Live, a collection of Chinese speculative fiction stories. Stay tuned!
• When I’m at a downtown event, I love to walk across one of the bridges toward home and let Scott pick me up on the east side. Easier drive for him and a beautiful walk for me. I left the festival and reached the Hawthorne Bridge just in time to see the riverfront lights pour themselves into the water. Magical.
Looking back toward the west side
Scenes from our Christmas Day…
We took a drive north to Julian and stopped off to wave hello to the camels—an occasional tradition ever since the time shortly after we moved to California when we were enjoying a country drive and eight-year-old Rose exclaimed, “I just saw a camel!” We all thought it must have been a cow or a horse, but a rather indignant (and who wouldn’t be, accused of confusing camels with cows?) Rose insisted she knew a camel when she saw one. A few yards later, a large sign proclaimed OASIS CAMEL DAIRY. We apologized to Rose for our skepticism, turned the car around, and gawked. And now we go back every couple of years to gawk anew.
While we were there I took about fifty pictures of the six kids balancing on an old rail. Seemed an apt representation of our lives: precariously balanced, a bit off-kilter, and full of laughter.
Among Rilla’s presents from my parents was an adorable sewing kit. Pre-cut felt animal shapes for her to stitch and stuff, plus loads of embellishments. She worked all Christmas evening on this button-eyed elephant.
Not pictured: the moment Huck dazzled us with a sudden leap into real reading! First there was the “DO NOT BLOCK HORSE TRAIL” sign in the roadside pulloff where we were, in fact, blocking the horse trail while hastily scooping a carsick Rilla out of the minivan. (Too late.) Then, back at home, Rose was playing her new Wii game with the dialogue set to Japanese (verbal) with English subtitles. And Huck sat there and read the subtitles out loud. So that’s #6 over the bridge. What a journey!
Okay.. maybe this is a silly question but how do go about learning about plants? We are surrounded by some beautifully landscaped areas but I have no clue how to start. The Peterson’s and Golden Guides are for “wild plants”. I seem to in the mood of firing off questions at your blog, Lissa.
Not a silly question at all. Great question. I’m sure others will have lots of advice here, so please chime in, folks.
My best advice is to start with a good nursery in your area. Spend some time just browsing the aisles, especially looking out for plants you’ve seen in your neighborhood but don’t know the names of. When we moved here, that’s how I learned that the big, wide-leaved plants in our front yard with the spires of beautiful purple globes are agapanthus, or “lilies of the Nile.” We see them all over town, purple ones and white ones. (I snapped a photo yesterday for our Challenge, but haven’t uploaded it yet.)
You could even take some pictures to the nursery with you—on your cell phone or iPod perhaps—to show the knowledgeable workers there and ask for identification help.
Something I did in both New York and Virginia, but haven’t done here in California, was to make a visit to the local branch of the cooperative extension agency. This is a governmental organization funded by the Department of Agriculture. You can find the number in the blue pages of your phone book, or try the Cooperative Extension System website. This is a fantastic resource and almost everything there is free. You can take in a sample of your soil for testing to see how you might need to amend it for certain types of gardening. There will probably be lots of information—booklets, fliers, etc—about native plants, invasive plants, wildflowers, and such. We took home stacks of fliers from the Charlottesville, Virginia branch, I remember. There was also a lovely garden there of native plants, all clearly labeled (bring a camera when you visit!) and a how-to display on composting. And there were “Master Gardener” volunteers on hand to answer our plant- and bug-related questions!
Actually a trip to the county extension agency is a great field trip for anyone, would-be plant identifiers or not.
Another great resource is your local native plant society. This is something I usually look up within the first month of our living in a new place. In Virginia, the local NPS offered guided nature walks at a nearby preserve, as well as a perfectly wonderful annual sale of native plants grown by NPS members. If you saw my big butterflies post from a few years back, you heard me gushing about how awesome that plant sale was.
Yesterday I took Jane to a native plant sale at a nearby nature center while the other girls were napping. It took us forever to even get into the building where they had the plant sale, because there were a lot of booths set up for various nature clubs and societies, and she was fascinated by all of it. At every table she struck up a conversation with the people running the booth. The old lady at the Invasive Plant Display could not have been more delighted to have this little kid seeming so genuinely interested in how to avoid nasty invasives like multiflora rose and ailanthus tree. The lady gave us a really nice booklet with color photos, saying, “I don’t usually give these out to people, but you really seem to care!”
But the topper was the butterfly table…
Oh my gosh, 2003. Five years ago. That does not seem possible. Pardon me while I shed a nostalgic tear or two for Ivy Creek and the Saturday morning butterfly walks guided by the very same man I described meeting in that post.
:::sniff::: OK, I’m better now. We made that plant sale every year we lived in Virginia. I picked up some treasures there: a wood poppy, a spicebush, a hackberry tree. I have to stop now or I’ll get weepy again.
Here in San Diego, I joined the NPS email list immediately and receive regular notices of nature walks and other events. It’s also a good place to ask any questions I might have about a plants I’d like to identify. These groups are full of enthusiasts who are eager to help—and experience has taught me that most of the members tend to be older, retired folks who are thrilled to see some “young blood” (e.g. my children) showing an interest in their favorite topic. You can make wonderful friends this way.
And finally, I would recommend visiting local public gardens or nature centers. Most places will have sections of plantings with labels. We’ve learned a ton from visiting Mission Trails Regional Center, a vast expanse of hiking trails on the scrubby hills in East San Diego County. Not that my kids and I have spent much time on the trails themselves: it’s just not something I can manage with Rilla in the sling and Wonderboy in the stroller. But the visitor center at the main entrance is a treasure unto itself, and we’ve made several visits there. The grounds around the center are full of labeled plantings. In fact, item #1 on our 100 Species list (the only entry so far) was identified and photographed there.
Here are more posts I’ve written about visiting Mission Trails:
“Some Breezy Open Wherein it Seemeth Always Afternoon”
“At First I Could Only Hear People Sounds”
So, to recap:
• local nurseries
• cooperative extension agency
• native plant society
• nature centers and public gardens
And I’ll add:
• befriend a neighbor with a beautiful garden. Usually this kind of neighbor will spend a lot of time outside working in his or her yard, and if you stroll by with your children often enough, sooner or later you’re bound to strike up a conversation. There’s a nice old gentleman who lives next to an intersection on the edge of our neighborhood. We see him out tending his front yard, a mini-landscape of drought-tolerant plants, several times a week. He has a whimsical touch when it comes to landscaping, artfully incorporating suncatchers, pinwheels, bits of broken pottery and glass, and even some old sun-bleached bones into his plantings. He is always wearing an enormous straw hat. There’s a four-way stop at his corner, and my kids always wave when they see him. He grins and waves back. In the winter there’s a breathtaking row of tall poinsettias—really!—lining his driveway. In summer, sunflowers. One of these days I’m going to get up the nerve to pull over and tell him how much I enjoy driving by his garden. Maybe this winter he’ll let me take a picture of his poinsettias for our Challenge list, too. I’ll bet he could rattle off a hundred species in no time…
Anyone care to add to this list? How do you learn about plants in your neighborhood?
This time last year, I was driving through Kansas. It was our fifth day on the road en route from Virginia to California: the five kids and me. If you’d like to read about our trip, I’ve pulled all the posts together into one big page, here.
It’s hard to believe it has been a year. Hard to believe we are West Coasters now, decorating for autumn by plopping pumpkins alongside our rainbow of moss roses. (This year I’ll know to keep watch against pumpkin mush.) We’re planting sunflowers in the back yard at the same time that we’re planning Halloween and All Saints’ Day costumes. It’s a bit surreal.
We went to Balboa Park again today. This time we visited the Museum of Man, lingering particularly long in the Egyptian wing. The kids were fascinated by the mummies, but I was a little bothered by the sad remains of the Lemon Grove Mummy, the body of what seems to have been a girl around fifteen years of age, possibly pregnant, curled into a fetal position. Her skin sags loosely around her old, old bones. She was found in a cave near Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers, who stole her and smuggled her home to Lemon Grove, California. Apparently she sat in a garage for 14 years because the boys didn’t want their parents to find out what they’d done. Eventually she was discovered and donated to the Museum of Man. She’s a special part of the mummy display, but I felt uncomfortable gawking at her in her glass case: it seems like a violation of her humanity for her to be cached there in public view next to the interactive media display about how scientists determined her age and origin. She’s one of several mummies there, and all the others had struck me as simply fascinating until we got to the Lemon Grove girl. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t wrapped up in linens like the Egyptian mummies. She reminded me of the Irish Bog People, and Seamus Heaney’s poems about them.
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach…
(—from “Tollund Man” by Seamus Heaney.)
And that made me think of grad school, where I first read Heaney’s poems, back in the early ’90s when I had no inkling that one day I would stand in a Southern California museum, recalling those lines while watching four blonde heads peer at a long Mexican teenager in a glass case, another golden-haired child perched on my hip in a sling. I didn’t see today coming even two years ago, even 18 months ago.
Rilla was born in April of ’06 and Scott got the job offer in June. I planted a cherry tree in our yard that spring, a gift from my mother. I wonder if the new homeowners got cherries this summer?
This day last year we rolled into Kansas, where the prairie “slices the big sun at evening,” to quote Heaney’s “Bogland.” Today we watched the frothy spray of the big Balboa Park fountain paint a rainbow on the blue canvas of the sky. We counted koi in the long lily pond outside the Botanical Building, their splotched orange-and-cream bodies undulating beneath spiky, ladylike blossoms and the notched round leaves that reminded us of Thumbelina’s prison and Mr. Jeremy Fisher’s raft. We peered inside the deep wells of pitcher-plant blossoms, angling to see if any hapless insects lay dissolving inside. How surreal, this eager scrutiny of death, the children chattering and lively in the moist green air of this palatial greenhouse, just as they had been in the domed, echoing hush of the museum.
How surreal to be pondering corpses while the children are laughing. Pondering the human bodies, preserved; the insects, acid-eaten, their final resting place the polar opposite of Heaney’s peat bog, where hastily buried bodies remained clothed and well-manicured for centuries, and
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
Sometimes I think about how life is like the very DNA it’s made of, a set of intertwined spirals full of small stories. A girl dies in Mexico and centuries later is brought to another country, where a woman stares at her empty skin and remembers an Irishman with a rope round his neck, preserved through the long march of years by the tannic acid in the peat and the ripe syllables of a bristle-browed poet. A child leans out over a reflecting pool and joyously points at a fish the same color as the pumpkins she begged her mother to buy that morning. A man in Virginia wanders, perhaps, out into his yard, and plucks a withered, mummified cherry he missed during the summer harvest, while the hands that planted the tree are pushing sunflower seeds into gritty soil a continent away.
And Saturday is when I play with my photos.
I love this picture of Beanie admiring a stand of bamboo in the Japanese Friendship Garden at Balboa Park.
That was the day we visited the art museum. We had parked behind the Organ Pavilion, which is next to the Japanese Garden, so of course we had to stroll through the garden on our way back to the car.
We were just in time to feed the koi.
I loved the bonsai collection.
Isn’t that one stunning?
Even with five kids in tow, the garden is a peaceful place.
On the way out, we bumped into some friends. Rose took over the camera while the moms chatted.
I think this shot of the Spreckles Organ Pavilion was hers, too.
This next one is from outside the delightfully named House of Charm, which holds the San Diego Art Institute (not to be confused with the San Diego Museum of Art) and the Mingei International Museum, a collection of folk art from around the world.
We haven’t been inside yet, but we found plenty to look at (and climb on) outside the building.
That’s El Cid on his warhorse, by the way. This statue was presented to the park by the San Diego Historical Society in 1930.
And how best to unwind after a day at the park? Relax on your own personal park bench at home, of course! (Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa, for the bench and the countless photo ops it provides.)
We’ve been meaning to visit all the Balboa Park museums since our arrival in San Diego, but the zoo and the aquarium kept wooing us back for repeat visits this summer, hogging our outing time. Then a couple of weeks ago, Alice discovered an incredible art museum near her San Fran abode, and her stories of close encounters with works by Rembrandt, Cassatt, and Monet fired me up to move “take kids to San Diego Museum of Art” from the Sometime list to the Do It Now one.
Yesterday, as I mentioned in my somewhat grumbly tale at Lilting House, was the monthly Free Tuesday there, so off we went.
Lesson number one: You might think you are being all kinds of clever and responsible by spending the morning cleaning house before packing up the kids for the big museum outing—”We’ll come home to a nice clean house, won’t that be nice?”—but you are wrong. The parking lot police officer took time out from writing tickets for cars illegally parked in the handicapped spaces to tell me, jovially, that you have to arrive before 10 a.m. if you want to get a (legal) parking spot. It was 11:45 when he was telling me this, so: whoops.
He very kindly told me where to go to find a parking lot I could drive around in for 25 minutes hunting for a space. I took his advice, and figured out all on my own how to stalk a pedestrian strolling into the lot with keys jangling, suggesting the possibility that she was returning to her car and therefore about to vacate a space. The space was approximately four inches wider than my minivan, so I spent another 18 minutes backing-and-filling in order to get into it.
By this time the kids were fed up with Balboa Park and asked if we could go home. I laughed like a crazy person and told them if they thought I was going to give up this parking space, EVER, they were sorely mistaken. “We are going to LIVE here from now on,” I told them. “Forever. I worked too hard for this space. I am never going to leave it, you can bury me here. Hold on, I need to call Daddy and give him our new address. Honey, we now reside at Space #16, The Lot Behind Spreckles Organ Pavilion, Balboa Park, San Diego, I don’t know the zip code yet. Can you change the mail forwarding? Because I can’t leave this spot to go to the Post Office.”
Then one of the kids pointed out the sign that said the lot closes at 6 p.m.
“Shoot,” I sighed. “We’d better go see that museum before they kick us out.”
The facade of the museum is currently hidden behind plywood and tarps, presumably for a restoration of some kind, but you scarcely notice that as you herd your children up the stroller ramp, because your gaze is transfixed by the lovely pensive face of the Young Shepherdess, the gem of the museum’s collection. Painted in 1895 by William Bougereau, the Shepherdess is arguably the gallery’s most beloved work of art. My daughters want to be her (because she is pretty, goes barefoot, and has sheep) and were desperately eager to see her.
Turns out she is off gallivanting around the country right now. A museum guard told me (very chatty these Balboa Park personnel are, and don’t I appreciate it!) that the painting is making a U.S. tour this summer. But she’ll be back in a few months, and that’s fine because it will probably take me that long to find another parking space.
Instead of the Shepherdess, we visited Giverny. Oh! Giverny! The word is magical. It whispers: Monet, poppies, haystacks, light-streaked skies, picturesque laborers in wheat fields drenched with sun. We made a beeline for the visiting exhibit, a large collection of Impressionist works by the artists who congregated in the little French painters’ colony during the late 1800s. They took their easels out to the woods and fields in a golden frenzy of plein-air painting. All right, the wall placard describing the exhibit didn’t say anything about a frenzy per se, but it did talk a lot about plein-air painting, a term whose pronunciation I managed to fake quite passably but of whose definition I was ignorant until a kind-eyed Englishwoman explained it to Jane.
She was quite a knowledgeable woman and shared many tidbits of information with us as we strolled from painting to breathtaking painting. Monet was everywhere, shimmering in leaf green and spruce green, plummy shadows, frothy blues. Forget my parking space, I want to live in one of those paintings.
I particularly liked the work of American Impressionist Theodore Robinson, about whom I probably ought to have known before but didn’t. (Oh look! I just realized he’s the same guy Elizabeth posted about a few days ago. Maybe that’s why his name jumped out at me.) We also greatly admired the work of John Leslie Breck and Guy Rose. But it was Monet who gave us the goosebumps. Jane and I could not believe we were standing there in front of his actual paintings, a dozen of them at least. I lost count. I was too occupied with counting the heads—and more to the point, hands—of my own children. “Don’t touch the wall, honey. Oh! And don’t point at the paintings. What if you accidentally touched one! Good heavens! Oh! No, Wonderboy, don’t poke the nice English lady. She’s your sisters’ only chance of having their questions answered here because Mommy is distr—Oh! No, Beanie, you can’t eat string cheese in an art museum!”
I do not pretend our outings are serene.
If I get a chance later, I will link to some of the paintings we got to look at. This one, Morning on the Seine Near Giverny (which looks washed out in every image I could find online but is in reality saturated with color so rich it’s like light poured itself into pigment) is the one I mentioned in yesterday’s Lilting House post, the print Rose fell in love with in the bookstore. There were other paintings we liked even better: I think all of us favored the golden haystack ones (and there were many—mighty fond of painting haystacks were those Impressionists) over the misty river paintings.
Not that there’s any reason to choose. The world is an art gallery nowadays. I foresee many virtual pilgrimages to Giverny in our future. As there have been in our past—Linnea in Monet’s Garden and Katie Meets the Impressionists have ranked highly in our book catalogue for many years.
After the Giverny exhibit, we toured several other galleries in the museum, encountering Goya, Renoir, O’Keefe, Warhol, Fra Angelico, and Giotto. We missed Picasso, Rembrandt, and Chagall, but we’ll be back.
As soon as I find parking.
It was a bit humbling to arrive here on the West Coast and realize much of my flora-and-fauna expertise was now obsolete. I don’t know the plants out here yet. Oh, sure, I could identify a bird of paradise or a palm tree—but what kind of palm tree? Got me.
Of course this just makes for a nice new sort of adventure to have with the kids, and honestly, that’s the kind of thing I like best: having a new topic of study to sink my teeth into.
I picked up a couple of field guides and also buried myself in issues of Sunset magazine, a supercool housewarming gift from a certain other East Coast transplant (which: Thank you again, my dear). Lots of local nature centers and gardens have plant labels along their paths, too, and we’ve been slowly educating ourselves that way. But the biggest coup was meeting Julia.
Julia is a young woman we bumped into at a May Fair last, um, May. She and her friend were passing out fliers for a nature studies summer camp, which sounded wonderful but didn’t fit our summer plans. We got to chatting, though, and it quickly became apparent that Julia was just the person I’d been looking for. I’d had a vague idea of hiring a college student to go on some nature walks with us, or even just walks in our neighborhood so we could learn the local landscaping plants. I’m telling you, we’re starting from square one out here!
Julia, it turns out, is an avid urban forager. This news made Jane light up. Back in Virginia, Jane attended several sessions of a nature studies camp, during which she learned (among a lot of other things) to eat her way through the woods and fields and suburban backyards. She got all the other kids in the neighborhood hooked on chickweed as a tasty, iron-rich snack and violets for vitamin C.
But about Julia. I explained what I was looking for, and we exchanged email addresses, and though it took us a while to coordinate dates, we finally managed to schedule a nature hike at Mission Trails, a large natural area close enough to home that I can take my kids there on a regular basis. We have made several visits there already and have fallen in love with its rugged, scrubby hills and rich history.
Yesterday afternoon, I dropped Rose and Jane off at the park entrance, where Julia was waiting with a smile and a backpack full of surprises. ("Grapes, Mommy! She brought grapes for us!") Of course I would have loved to go too, but this outing was a bit more than my younger set could handle. We went to the Super Exciting Grocery Store instead.
Julia had suggested an evening hike for the cooler weather and more active wildlife. And sure enough, the trekkers came home full of stories about the coyote they’d seen, and bats, and birds.
Rose said her favorite part was the twenty minutes the girls spent sitting in silence on a boulder, listening.
"At first I could only hear people noises, Mommy. But then I started to hear lots of birds, and some crickets, and wind and things rustling."
Jane filled a page in her nature book with what she called "sound sketches"—little pencil marks in waves and peaks representing the different sounds she heard. It was really pretty amazing, the way she could look at her cryptic markings and demonstrate the bird calls for me, or the sound of a bullfrog plopping into a pond.
Rose sketched the things she saw: the San Diego River, a fallen tree, a stump that looked like a dog’s head until she got close, a heart-shaped marking on a tree trunk. "I couldn’t tell whether the heart was made by a person or an animal or just Nature," she told me. During the silent listening time, she imagined a whole story about the heart, and although it was nearly nine o’clock by the time the girls were home and had torn themselves away from Julia, revealer of mysteries, Rose insisted upon writing down her story before she went to bed. She didn’t want to forget. Julia had shown the girls flat stones with rounded indentations where Kumeyaay Indian woman had long ago ground their grain. Rose imagined that the tree-trunk heart was carved by an Indian boy, but his beloved had died before he finished the carving and so the tree had finished the heart itself, curving its bark so as to complete the heart.
How blessed are we? I was looking, you know, for our "breezy open," and here it is handed to us on a stone platter, complete with a gentle and enthusiastic guide who knows the way to open a child’s heart is with grapes and a quiet space in which to listen to the wind, the coyotes, and the stories carved on trees by time and imagination.
Fortuna Peak at Mission Trails Regional Park
I’ve been looking for the passage I know is in one of Charlotte Mason’s books about making sure children have one or two favorite nature-spots to visit on a regular basis: a park, a garden, a particular wood, a shore, that is visited over and over in all seasons, so that the children may grow familiar with the plants, birds, and beasts that live there, and see how things change throughout the course of a year.
I can’t find the quote, but I know it’s there somewhere: in Home Education, most likely. Miss Mason’s recommendation impressed itself strongly upon me as a young mother in New York, and I dutifully (a delightful duty it was) looked about for a suitable spot or two. I wound up with three, and with bitsy Jane and baby Rose I made pilgrimages to at least one of them every week for years, so that bitsy Jane became bigger Jane and baby Rose was bitsy, and Beanie became the baby.
One of our haunts was the beautiful garden you might have seen recently in the background of Alice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream pictures. And yes, on those outings Alice and her bonny clan were usually by our side—Alice, naturally, having been the person to introduce me to the garden in the first place. A weathered journal filled with Jane’s primitive sketches of flowers from that garden remains one of my most cherished mementos of those green-golden days.
This place was our other favorite spot: five minutes from home, with woods to tramp in and a long stretch of rocky, sandy shore on the Long Island Sound. Sands Point was our year-round nature spot, the place we went to crunch over snow through leafless woods, or to hunt for horseshoe crabs and bury our feet in wet sand.
In Virginia, we were so blessed as to have nature trails around the undeveloped perimeter of our neighborhood, the trailhead lying at the bottom of our very own street. On those leafy paths we learned "the green ways of growing." We met a woodchuck, several snakes, some woodpeckers, a bevy of chickadees, and, once, a terrifying dog. There was a fallen tree all the kids called a fort, and a creek for floating fairy-leaves down, and stones for skipping, and a long hike through a marshy meadow to a lake where the Canada geese congregated on October evenings. A bald eagle was rumored to live there, though we never saw him.
We also frequented Ivy Creek Natural Area, the site of Jane’s best butterfly encounters. It was there we became acquainted with the beech and the sassafras, the wingstem and the woolly aphid. I always meant to spend more time at Ivy Creek than just the once-a-month summer butterfly walks (and the annual native plant sale); but the years we lived there were dominated by Wonderboy’s medical adventures, and we didn’t make it out as often as I’d have liked.
Now here we are in San Diego. Our first six tumultuous months of settling in are behind us. We have only just begun to explore all that is new and delicious in this part of the country; before we arrived, a sweet friend sent us a two-inch-thick book of Fun Places to Go with Kids in Southern California, and though we’ve had a busy and adventure-packed six months, we’ve only made our way through the tiniest sliver of that book. (Blame the Zoo: we keep going back and back for more.) But I find myself drawing a breath and knowing it’s time to find "our spots"—a Sands Point, an Ivy Creek, a place or two we can be more than just acquainted with: a place or two to know intimately.
The quest itself is one of the great delights of moving someplace new. In New York, there was a third "our spot": a lovely garden tucked in the midst of suburbia, a quiet oasis of pond and flowered path. There, too, we often rendezvoused with Alice and her girls (we moved just weeks after Patrick’s birth), and Alice and I would sit in the shade while our little lasses counted turtles in the pond. You could drive right by this garden and have no idea it was there; I think I did drive by probably hundreds of times before I ever set foot through the gates into that little Eden.
Sometimes, as I drive around this western city, I wonder what Edens lie hidden beyond the highway.
I love knowing they’re there, waiting for us to discover them. Our places, our spots: they are waiting for us. What will they be? A ribbon of beach, where we’ll find tidepools and singing waves? A hidden garden, lush and tropical? A windy hilltop where lizards bejewel the warm stones? A place where we will learn the blue, the brown, the golden ways of growing?
A couple of weeks ago, we met some young women who are running a nature studies camp for children this summer. I got to chatting with them, and before I knew it, I had booked one of them to come out to our neighborhood for a guided nature walk sometime soon. One must be on a first name basis with the trees and shrubs one sees every day! This young woman is just our sort of person; she’s into "urban foraging," aka "picking weeds to eat on your salad"—aka "Jane’s kind of person." (My Virginia friends are reading this and laughing, recalling how Jane taught their children to nibble chickweed for iron and violets for vitamin C. Playing in our yard generally meant going home with green teeth.)
After this nice urban forager introduces us to our leafy green neighbors, I’m going to have her take us farther afield, perhaps to Mission Trails Park, where Father Serra, our family’s new patron saint, once trod.
I still can’t find the Charlotte Mason quote I want. Here, though, is what she has to say about "Out-of-Door Life for the Children":
Meals out of Doors.––People who live in the country know the value of fresh air very well, and their children live out of doors, with intervals within for sleeping and eating. As to the latter, even country people do not make full use of their opportunities. On fine days when it is warm enough to sit out with wraps, why should not tea and breakfast, everything but a hot dinner, be served out of doors? For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.
Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood. Fifty years hence they will see the shadows of the boughs making patterns on the white tablecloth; and sunshine, children’s laughter, hum of bees, and scent of flowers are being bottled up for after refreshment.
For Dwellers in Towns and Suburbs.––But it is only the people who live, so to speak, in their own gardens who can make a practice of giving their children tea out of doors. For the rest of us, and the most of us, who live in towns or the suburbs of towns, that is included in the larger question––How much time daily in the open air should the children have? And how is it possible to secure this for them? In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mothers first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good.
Possibilities of a Day in the Open.––I make a point, says a judicious mother, of sending my children out, weather permitting, for an hour in the winter, and two hours a day in the summer months. That is well; but it is not enough. In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air. And long hours they should be not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October. Impossible! Says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. A journey of twenty minutes by rail or omnibus, and a luncheon basket, will make a day in the country possible to most town dwellers; and if one day, why not many, even every suitable day?
Oh, Charlotte, Charlotte, how I love you. You are, I suppose, assuming I have a cheery, red-cheeked housemaid to keep my home in order while I spend not two, but four, five, or six hours a day outside with my children…and of course in this particular book you are speaking of my youngest children only, the six-and-under crowd. What you do not realize, my dear, is that I’m a devotee of your later writings, and my days are therefore arranged so as to allow for lengthy reading sessions replete with narration. But, please, do go on.
Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children’s day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time, or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in.
No Story-Books.––Let us suppose mother and children arrived at some breezy open wherein it seemeth always afternoon. In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people: there should be no story-books, no telling of tales, as little talk as possible, and that to some purpose. Who thinks to amuse children with tale or talk at a circus or pantomime? And here, is there not infinitely more displayed for their delectation? Our wise mother, arrived, first sends the children to let off their spirits in a wild scamper, with cry, hallo, and hullaballo, and any extravagance that comes into their young heads. There is no distinction between big and little; the latter love to follow in the wake of their elders, and, in lessons or play, to pick up and do according to their little might. As for the baby, he is in bliss: divested of his garments, he kicks and crawls, and clutches the grass, laughs soft baby laughter, and takes in his little knowledge of shapes and properties in his own wonderful fashion––clothed in a woollen gown, long and loose, which is none the worse for the worst usage it may get.
By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes are keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition––Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson.
How to See.––Find out all you can about that cottage at the foot of the hill; but do not pry about too much. Soon they are back, and there is a crowd of excited faces, and a hubbub of tongues, and random observations are shot breathlessly into the mother’s ear. ‘There are bee-hives.’ ‘We saw a lot of bees going into one.’ ‘There is a long garden.’ ‘Yes, and there are sunflowers in it.’ ‘And hen-and-chicken daisies and pansies.’ ‘And there’s a great deal of pretty blue flowers with rough leaves, mother; what do you suppose it is?’ ‘Borage for the bees, most likely; they are very fond of it.’ ‘Oh, and there are apple and pear and plum trees on one side; there’s a little path up the middle, you know.’ ‘On which hand side are the fruit trees?’ ‘The right––no, the left; let me see, which is my thimble-hand? Yes, it is the right-hand side.’ ‘And there are potatoes and cabbages, and mint and things on the other side.’ ‘Where are the flowers, then?’ ‘Oh, they are just the borders, running down each side of the path.’ ‘But we have not told mother about the wonderful apple tree; I should think there are a million apples on it, all ripe and rosy!’ ‘A million, Fanny?’ ‘Well, a great many, mother; I don’t know how many.’ And so on, indefinitely; the mother getting by degrees a complete description of the cottage and its garden.
Educational Uses of Sight-Seeing.––This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’ And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration. The child who describes, ‘A tall tree, going up into a point, with rather roundish leaves; not a pleasant tree for shade, because the branches all go up,’ deserves to learn the name of the tree, and anything her mother has to tell her about it. But the little bungler, who fails to make it clear whether he is describing an elm or a beech, should get no encouragement; not a foot should his mother move to see his tree, no coaxing should draw her into talk about it, until, in despair, he goes off, and comes back with some more certain note––rough or smooth bark, rough or smooth leaves,––then the mother considers, pronounces, and, full of glee, he carries her off to see for himself.
Discriminating Observation.––By degrees the children will learn discriminatingly every feature of the landscapes with which they are familiar; and think what a delightful possession for old age and middle life is a series of pictures imaged, feature by feature, in the sunny glow of the child’s mind! The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen. At the time, there was no more than a hazy impression that such and such objects were present, and naturally, after a lapse of years those features can rarely be recalled of which the child was not cognisant when he saw them before him.
Method of.––So exceedingly delightful is this faculty of taking mental photographs, exact images, of the beauties of Nature we go about the world for the refreshment of seeing, that it is worth while to exercise children in another way towards this end, bearing in mind, however, that they see the near and the minute, but can only be made with an effort to look at the wide and the distant. Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see. Thus: ‘I see a pond; it is shallow on this side, but deep on the other; trees come to the waters edge on that side, and you can see their green leaves and branches so plainly in the water that you would think there was a wood underneath. Almost touching the trees in the water is a bit of blue sky with a soft white cloud; and when you look up you see that same little cloud, but with a great deal of sky instead of a patch, because there are no trees up there. There are lovely little water-lilies round the far edge of the pond, and two or three of the big round leaves are turned up like sails. Near where I am standing three cows have come to drink, and one has got far into the water, nearly up to her neck,’ etc.
Strain on the Attention.––This, too, is an exercise children delight in, but, as it involves some strain on the attention, it is fatiguing, and should only be employed now and then. It is, however, well worth while to give children the habit of getting a bit of landscape by heart in this way, because it is the effort of recalling and reproducing that is fatiguing; while the altogether pleasurable act of seeing, fully and in detail, is likely to be repeated unconsciously until it becomes a habit by the child who is required now and then to reproduce what he sees.
Seeing Fully and in Detail.––At first the children will want a little help in the art of seeing. The mother will say, ‘Look at the reflection of the trees! There might be a wood under the water. What do those standing up leaves remind you of?’ And so on, until the children have noticed the salient points of the scene. She will even herself learn off two or three scenes, and describe them with closed eyes for the children’s amusement; and such little mimics are they, and at the same time so sympathetic, that any graceful fanciful touch which she throws into her descriptions will be reproduced with variations in theirs.
The children will delight in this game of picture-painting all the more if the mother introduce it by describing some great picture gallery she has seen––pictures of mountains, of moors, of stormy seas, of ploughed fields, of little children at play, of an old woman knitting,––and goes on to say, that though she does not paint her pictures on canvas and have them put in frames, she carries about with her just such a picture gallery; for whenever she sees anything lovely or interesting, she looks at it until she has the picture in her mind’s eye; and then she carries it away with her, her own for ever, a picture on view just when she wants it.
It’s good to revisit the books that formed you as a young mother. Eight years ago, Charlotte Mason was my Dr. Spock, and I carried out her recommendations as faithfully as our circumstances allowed. Now my little people are beginning to be bigger people, and it would be quite easy to forget this vision of what life can be like for little ones. I can’t promise four to six hours a day, of course! But one long afternoon a week? That I can aim for, and we’ll all be the better for it.
Now to find our "breezy opens"!
Images courtesy of AntiqueClipart.com.
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—John Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer"
Gorgeous sunny day yesterday, perfect for an outing we’d been planning. We drove out to Cabrillo National Monument, a Southern California landmark perched on a craggy hill on the tip of the San Diego peninsula. The views are spectacular: to your east, San Diego Bay cradling Coronado Island, and on the far side of the bay, the small cluster of skyscrapers that mark downtown San Diego, and the green hills beyond. To your west, the wide-open Pacific.
The peninsula, a long narrow finger of land, is called Point Loma. You reach it by following Harbor Drive past the airport and winding first west, then south through Fort Rosecranz National Cemetery. The rows and rows of white grave markers extending on both sides of the road reminded me of Arlington.
After we entered the Cabrillo site, we parked in a lot at the base of a stubby hill. The western view drew us to the wall for a long look.
That lower road on the left leads to a beach with tidepools. It was chilly and windy on the point, and a few of us were missing jackets, so we decided to save tidepooling for another day.
A path leads up the little hill to an old lighthouse.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse guided sailors from 1855 through 1891. Unfortunately, the site proved to be too far from the tip of the peninsula, and fog often obscured the light.
Inside, rooms have been preserved just as the lighthouse keeper’s family might have left them. The main sitting room enchanted my girls; we imagined the lighthouse keeper’s daughters collecting the shells carefully arranged on a shelf or writing letters at the old flip-top desk with all the enticing cubbyholes. It’s the kind of place that sends book ideas charging into one’s mind…
We squeezed up the winding staircase to the bedroom level, but the tower level wasn’t open to the public.
Back down the stairs and through the gate, we found ourselves facing the Bay.
Unfortunately the camera battery died before I got pictures of the Bay. The kids loved seeing the gleaming curves of Coronado Bridge, which we’d driven over on a previous outing. (Veronica Mars viewers will remember the bridge as the setting for some significant scenes involving Logan Echolls’s mother and, later, Logan himself.)
A goodish walk or a short drive from the lighthouse is the Cabrillo Visitor’s Center and a large statue of Juan Cabrillo himself. This picture is from his Wikipedia entry; there is a close-up of his face at the monument’s official website, where you can read all about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer who "discovered" San Diego Bay.
"Cabrillo departed from the port of Navidad, Mexico, on June 27, 1542.
Three months later he arrived at "a very good enclosed port," which is
known today as San Diego Bay. Historians believe he anchored his
flagship, the San Salvador, on Point Loma’s east shore near Cabrillo
National Monument. Cabrillo later died during the expedition, but his
crew pushed on, possibly as far north as Oregon, before thrashing
winter storms forced them to back to Mexico."
We drove by the Visitor’s Center but tummies were rumbling, and we decided to save that too for the next visit.