“To Wander the Fields” an Ekphrastic Poem by Bev Gorbet

Farmer’s field at sunset in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Oh! to wander the fields wild and free,
To commune with wild nature,
Her beauty everywhere extant.

Small country road in Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Path through meadow of goldenrod in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Tender lullabye and song in forested glade,
A still peace this sacred moment:
The profound silence: holy echo of dream, every hope;
Melodies of heart and soul;
Rhythms, memory and wonder in a windrift calm,
Tree and bough, moment of a joyous uplift

Field in early spring fog in Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Meadow in fall in Peterborough, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Forested cathedrals, great songs of heart and mind,
All the majesty: a windstorm day in fierce call and cry
Whisper and sigh midst far tossed leaf and bough…
Promise and a grace filled endurance
All the beauty flame interior universes:
A captive soul set free.

Path through meadow alvar, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Path through farm country, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Fields in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Earthstar Goes To Tea

Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) on mossy cedar growing on rotting cedar logs of Trent swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar lived in a verdant cedar forest, under a soft dappled light, where the fresh smell of moss and loam mixed with the pungency of cedar. It was a good life, thought Earthstar, gazing up at the tall canopy of green above her. She lived among many like her, scattered on and between old cedar logs that had piled on the ground and rotted into a rich woody ‘soil.’ It was just right for earthstars who grew deep in the warm, moist rot, covered in a carpet of moss and ferns. Cedar saplings had even sprouted on the rotting log piles, and grown into large mature trees. That was not surprising, given the number of caches the red squirrels left on the spongy rotting logs.

Red squirrel on a tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fully opened Earthstar and sister buds in mossy humus of rotting cedar logs, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When she was just a young bud, Earthstar had pushed herself up from her parent mycelium through the woody humus then cracked open her outer shell to reveal her inner spore sac and beaked mouth. The outer shell formed arms of a ‘star’ that pushed back, raising her up to meet the world. When she surveyed her mossy terrain, she noticed that she was one of the earliest earthstars to emerge. Most of her sisters were still budding through the moss and duff. She was eager to fulfill her path. Soon she would be ready to deliver her precious spores to the world—

“Hey there!” a beaky voice called to her.

Earthstar recognized a Beaked Earthstar ambling along the rot pile using its outer skin ‘legs.’ She herself was a Collared Earthstar, and although she had long dislodged from the woody soil and become independent of the ground she sat on, she didn’t normally walk about like this Beaked Earthstar, known for its itinerant lifestyle. He was a rare and somewhat mysterious earthstar, not often seen, and somewhat of a legend. In fact, it was the first time she saw him and she felt tickled that he’d stopped in his wanderings to greet her.

Beaked earthstar, showing many arms that keep it upright, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“I’m on my way to town,” said Beaky cheerfully. “Want to come along? There’s so much more to see than this silly forest.”

“No thanks,” said Earthstar, overcoming the flush of excitement at being invited by this exotic drifter. She’d heard about ‘the town’ but knew nothing of it—and decided she didn’t want to. Besides, the forest wasn’t silly, she thought peevishly. It was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.

“Suit yourself,” said Beaky. “But you don’t know what you’re missing! There’s a river out there, and strange but wonderful creatures and moving things on wheels that carry them from place to place. And the fine ladies have something called ‘High Tea,’ which is quite splendid.”

“I think this forest is quite splendid enough,” she retorted a little rudely.

“Ah… But you won’t truly know your place until you’re out of place,” Beaky said. Then with a slight nod of his beaky head, he left her and soon disappeared along the forest path that wound its way into somewhere.

What did Beaky mean by his last comment? wondered Earthstar. How can one be out of place? And why would one wish to be? As time went by, Earthstar began to wonder about that ‘somewhere’ and those wonderful creatures and fine ladies and that thing called ‘High Tea.’ And before she realized it, she was no longer content. She became very curious about that ‘somewhere’ that lay beyond her forest home.

In a sudden thrilling act, Earthstar decided to leave the forest to see the world. And once she thought of it, she did it. That’s the way of earthstars. So, within moments, Earthstar was wandering along the same forest path that Beaky had earlier taken. She took Moss with her, tucked safely inside her ‘legs’ as companion.

Path, damp from a morning rain, through cedar swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar rests on small root snag on leaf-strewn trail through Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Path through Trent cedar swamp forest with ash and poplar in early fall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The path wound through dense cedar forest, mixed with birch, ash, poplar and the occasional oak and maple tree. Earthstar passed many relatives. Flaming waxcaps dotted the rotting logs and ground, looking like dance partners. Graceful Fairy Fingers thrust up through the duff on either side of the path along with Ashen Coral fungi, whose delicate ‘fingers’ reached up like praying hands. By the feet of one poplar tree, Earthstar saw a party of Scaly Ink Caps loitering on one side and Striate Bird’s Nest fungi having a party on the other. Stalwart boletes towered majestic, anchored to a mossy slope. A single shield mushroom with its smart lilac cap had burst out of a cedar stump and leaned into the sun with joy.

Waxcaps on decaying cedar wood in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fairy Fingers in cedar duff in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ashen coral fungi on ground of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scaly ink caps growing at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Striated Bird’s Nest fungi at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Bolete on mossy hill of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Shield fungus grows out of rotting cedar stump in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A group of Scaly Pholiota graced an old maple tree and not much farther a gaggle of Wolf’s Milk spread orange fungus joy over a decaying log. Conifer Tufts created a fairy ring around an old ash tree. Witches hats stood at the feet of a huge cedar tree, bowing with shy wisdom to her. There was a cheerful family of brilliant Scarlet Fairy Helmets tucked in the mossy undergrowth of a buckthorn thicket.  She even saw a crowd of her closest relatives, Lycoperdon puffballs clutching a rotting birch log, and waved to them.

Scaly Pholiota on an old maple tree in Trent mixed cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Wolf’s Milk slime mould on rotting log in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Conifer Tufts form a fairy ring around an old ash tree in Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Witches hats nestled at base of a cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scarlet Fairy Helmets in mossy undergrowth of cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Lycoperdon puffballs on decaying birch log, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Eventually, the forest opened into fields and thickets and the path became rocky. The dense cool cedar-scented air of the deep forest gave way to a fragrant floral breeze and the warmth of the sun touched Earthstar with rays of good tidings.

Earthstar on rocky path out of Trent cedar forest into open area, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar negotiates the rocky path on her way out of the Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Soon Earthstar reached a road and thought to follow it to town. Within moments a huge thing on wheels barrelled toward her! She froze in terror. But the cheerful wind whisked her out from under the wheel in the nick of time.

Earthstar almost gets run over by a car!

Earthstar thanked the wind and continued down the road, certain that the thing on wheels was what Beaky had mentioned and that she’d soon find the town and the river and those wonderful beings at the end of the road. And perhaps there she would encounter this marvelous “High Tea.”

Earthstar keeps to the side of the road with busy traffic
Countryside near Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The road took Earthstar through an open countryside of meadows, flowers and trees. Earthstar kept to the side of the road to avoid getting squashed and soon found the river Beaky had mentioned. The river was magnificent. Sparkling in the radiant sun, it danced and lapped against the shore with the gurgling rush of laughter around the rocks and reeds.

The shallows of the Otonabee River, showing diatom-froth, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar on Rotary Trail as bicycles bear down on her (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Sensing the lateness of the day, Earthstar continued her journey in search of “High Tea.” She wasn’t quite sure where she’d find it and followed the river on a trail through a black walnut forest.

Earthstar passed a large building with an open lawn just as a loud bell sounded and large beings with legs spilled out onto the trail. They chattered about their lit class and laughed as Lillie, one of the students, recounted her scifi story about flying giant tardigrades that terrorized human cities for destroying the planet.

Attack of the giant tardigrades (image by Ramul in Deviant Art)

“Tardigrades are the coolest creatures,” Lillie went on. “Some people think they’re from outer space and lived among the stars. They can handle extreme temperature, the vacuum of space, and radiation, after all. And water bears can even survive a bullet impact!”

The students didn’t notice Earthstar below them.
She was so tiny after all!

Earthstar (and her moss companion) gets underfoot near the high school (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Just as the dark shadow of a giant foot loomed over her, someone shouted, “Wait, Marcus, STOP! Look!”

Earthstar was snatched off the ground before Marcus could step on her and gently cupped in the girl’s hand where the little fungus felt finally safe. “It’s an earthstar!” said the girl holding her. “How cute! See the bit of moss clutched in its arm? How adorable!”

“But, Emily, what d’you think it’s doing here on the trail by the school?” Marcus asked the girl holding Earthstar. “How did it get here?” Marcus suddenly grinned with inspiration and turned to Lillie, eyes sparkling. “Or did your giant space tardigrade drop it here? Which means we’re in your story–“

Lillie elbowed him and said something Earthstar didn’t understand.

Emily looked down at Earthstar, who sat quietly in her palm. “They’re the only mushrooms that move. Earthstars. I’ve read about them.” Emily then bent low and carefully set Earthstar on the grass by the trail, out of harm’s way.

“Maybe it’s on ‘walkabout,’” Lillie suggested, inspired by the thought of travel.

“You mean floatabout!” Marcus laughed. “If it came all the way from Australia it’d have to float across the Pacific Ocean!”

The students giggled, visualizing little Earthstar floating on a leaf and braving the vast ocean then hitchhiking across the North American continent into the Kawarthas. Still discussing the earthstar’s epic journey, they went on their way, leaving Earthstar on the grass.

Earthstar continued her journey, wondering what ‘walkabout’ meant. She found another large building and thought this might be where she needed to go. When one of the giant beings walked out through a door, she slid inside.

Earthstar and her Moss companion make it inside the condo complex (photo by Nina Munteanu)

She found herself in a wonderfully lit atrium with many more doors and lost herself among the indoor plants under large skylights. Within moments, as if sensing her presence, one of the large beings stepped out from a doorway and immediately saw Earthstar, perched by one of the indoor gardens.

“Well, well, what do we have here? A wandering earthstar and her little moss companion!” The being picked Earthstar up and gently cupped Earthstar in its hand. “Would you like to join me for tea?”

Earthstar in lady’s hand (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The magic word! Tea!

Earthstar jiggled on her ‘legs’ with joy. Was this being one of those fine ladies? As if sensing her excitement, the lady smiled and brought Earthstar inside her apartment.

The lady brought them outside to the patio for tea, where she had laid out tiny sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, scones with jam, and lovely pastries. Of course, Earthstar did not partake in these strange foods—being a saprophyte, she fed exclusively on decaying matter. But she enjoyed the ambience of this civilized celebration. And, of course, the tea!

Lady serving the tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When the lady went inside to replenish the tea, Earthstar explored the patio. Mistake!
Moments after Earthstar dropped to the patio bricks with the help of a little breeze, a very large dog (well, a rather small dog for you and me) came bounding to her and gave her a lick. The dog might have eaten her but the lady returned and rescued Earthstar.

Poppy the dog licks Earthstar! (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Oh, my! Don’t mind Poppy, the neighbour’s shiatzu,” the lady said to Earthstar. “Poppy is harmless and only eats dog treats. I don’t think you’re a dog treat, are you?”

Earthstar dipping her feet into the water of the bird bath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking to get her to safety, the lady placed Earthstar on the edge of the birdbath where Earthstar dipped her tired feet. Within moments a mischievous wind pushed Earthstar into the water! Luckily, Earthstar floated. She was accustomed to deluges of water that filled her ‘collar’ and raised her spore sac to better deliver her spores. Water was an earthstar’s friend; earthstars counted on the beating drops of rain to help release their spores. After the initial shock, Earthstar rather enjoyed the swim.

Earthstar swims happily in the birdbath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The lady thought she ought to rescue Earthstar again and put her back down on the patio. Then the whistle of the kettle inside drew the lady away to the house. In that short time, a clever black squirrel, who had been spying from the silver maple tree nearby, leaped forward and seized her!

Earthstar about to be snatched by the black squirrel (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Mine!” he shouted to himself and bounded away with her clutched in his mouth. After waiting for an oncoming bicycle, he raced across the trail–just inches in front of the zooming bicycle (squirrels are daredevils at heart)–and entered the little wood by the river.

Earthstar screamed. But no one heard her, because it was a silent scream.  

The black squirrel took his prize to a huge old willow tree by the river. The tree bowed over a small path as if reaching down to say hello. The squirrel left Earthstar on the bowing tree to dry like he would any mushroom for later caching. Then he scurried away to look for more food.  What this city squirrel didn’t know was that—unlike most other mushrooms—earthstars can move!

Old willow of the riparian forest by the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar let the wind blow her off the branch to the ground where she used her six arms to carry her back to the trail and back to the lady’s place.
“Where have you been?” asked the lady when Earthstar got there. Her eyes seemed to wink. “I suspect you were on a small adventure with squirrels.”

Driving Earthstar home to the forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

They continued their tea and when it was finished, the lady took Earthstar in her car and drove Earthstar home to the forest. Earthstar didn’t wonder how the lady knew where Earthstar’s home was; there is only one place where earthstars grew in the region. And no doubt the lady—being a true lady—knew where that was and respected the earthstars place in the world.

Cedar trees covered in moss, growing on ancient rotting cedar logs of the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fern-like moss grows on cedar roots that dig into old decaying cedar logs of the forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When they reached the deep forest where the tall cedars covered the sky with green and the air stirred with the breaths of cedar and birch, Earthstar felt the exhilaration of coming home. She did not need to rely on the vagaries of a capricious wind to deliver her safely home; the kind hand of the lady set her down on the soft downy surface of woody loam. The lady set Earthstar right beside her sisters, her tiny moss companion still with her, tucked under her arm.

Gently placing Earthstar back home by several earthstar buds in moss of decaying cedars, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.
And this time she really was…

~~The End~~

Moss-covered red bark of cedar tree in the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Trent Nature Sanctuary

Located in the southeast corner of Symons Campus of Trent University, the Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Area includes many types of ecosystems and a network of trails. Wetlands of the area are deemed Provincially Significant by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The cedar/maple swamps of the sanctuary support a rich diversity of fungi and lichen amid a rich ecosystem of plants and animals of the forest. It is within this area that I keep discovering interesting life each time I visit. Virtually all the images of the forest and fungi in this article come from this sanctuary, including the Collared Earthstar.

Mossy cedars in the cedar swamp forest of the Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Information on the Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex)

Eight stages of the Collared Earthstar life cycle, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON: 1) buds emerge in late summer; 2) the outer layer begins to crack in early fall; 3) the bud cracks open; 4) then spreads open; 5) forming a ‘flower’; 6) the outer layer cracks; 7) to form the ‘collar’ by early fall; 8) the outer layer shrivels by early winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Life Cycle

The Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) is a Gasteromycete or stomach fungus, since it produces and releases its spores inside a saclike structure. The earthstar spends most of the year as a network of fungal cells (mycelia) that penetrate the soil and digest decaying organic material. When they are ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops the “earthstar” above ground. New earthstars emerge as ‘buds’ and develop in late summer and autumn through into winter. The matured fruiting bodies will survive the winter to be discovered the following spring by curious explorers like me. 

Spore sacs of Collared Earthstar in the frosts of winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Geo means earth and astrum means star. The species name triplex, which means ‘having three layers,’ refers to the way the ‘star’ arms of the outer layer crack when they peel back, making it look like the spore-sac is sitting on a dish. The three layers allow the earthstar to do something no other fungus can do: move. When it rains, the two outer layers of the peridium split and peel back, forming a ‘star’ with 4-12 rays. The rays spread with enough force to push aside leaves, raising the spore-filled sac above the surrounding debris. The rays often lift the earthstar high enough to break the connection to the parent mycelium, releasing the earthstar from its sedentary position. Detached, the earthstar can move with wind or rain to better spread its spores.

Finger poking the spore sac helps release the spores (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Fruiting bodies are large, 5-10 cm in diameter. Spores escape from the apical pointed hole (peristome) as breezes blow across it. Much larger puffs are released when raindrops hit and compress the spore-sac—or an interfering finger depresses the sac. What escapes is a powdery gleba (which distributes the tiny spores). The sides of the peristome ‘beak’ are fibrous and appear slightly ragged.

Several stages of the Collared Earthstar, from buds to opening ‘flower’
Early budding stage of Collared Earthstar (photo by Nina Munteanu)

After a late summer / autumn rain, the collared earthstar emerges from the leaf litter looking like a Hershey’s kiss or a fancy bulb-shaped truffle dusted in fine cocoa. Only the outer layer (exoperidium) is visible, peeking out of the litter and loam. The outer layer eventually cracks open, looking like a coconut husk and splits into five to seven ‘arms’ to form a star. Inside is revealed a tan to grey-coloured spore-sac (endoperidium) with a fringed beak (peristome) and its opening (ostiole). The endoperidium, or spore sac, is more like an elastic membrane resembling rubber that holds the gleba (spore-bearing mass). The star arms peel back and down, eventually cracking to form the ‘saucer’ which the round fruiting body (spore sac) sits on. The spore sac contains a mass of spores and fertile mycelial tissue, called the gleba that is white, fibrous and firm when young, but turns brown and powdery as it ages. A network of cells (capillatum) help spores move to the pore when a raindrop strikes the endoperidium. The columella, a bulbous sterile base at the centre of the spore-producing gleba forms ‘columns’ that radiate out to help spore dispersal.

Over time, the outer layer of ‘stars’ (exoperidium) form a reticulated pattern of cracks and fissures that deepen into golden-brown colours as they decompose and curl downward to lift the spore-sac farther up. The sac also grows more pale and papery. 

Parts of Collared Earthstar (photos by Nina Munteanu)
Just opened Collared Earthstar, not yet showing the ‘collar’ formed by cracking of exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Good example of a more mature opened Collared Earthstar, showing the ‘collar’ formed by separation of exoperidium and extended curled back ‘arms’ (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Mature Collared Earthstar, showing papery spore sac sitting on reticulated exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)

However, in the rain, the sac reverts to a rubbery consistency and deepens to a dark shiny tan colour. I was surprised by its elasticity; this time when I poked it, the sac sprang back to its round sphere like a thick balloon. 

Mature Collared Earthstar; left in rain, right in dry weather (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Habitat

I also learned that the collared earthstar prefers a habitat of leaf litter in deciduous woods, especially beech on chalky soils. However, researchers acknowledge that the collared earthstar is also found under coniferous trees, especially on sloping ground—which better describes where I found them, in this cedar-birch forest of the Kawarthas. Geastrum triplex is a saprophytic organism: it gets its nutrients from decomposing organic matter—such as well-rotted cedar trees, where humus has accumulated—by further breaking down the organic matter then, in turn, returns those nutrients to the soil to complete the cycle. It does this by releasing enzymes to break down and digest the lignin, cellulose or chitin in these materials, converting them to soluble compounds that can be absorbed by them, and by plants, as nutrients. Earthstars, like all fungi, play a vital role in reducing the accumulation of dead organic material and in recycling essential nutrients, particularly carbon and nitrogen. If not for fungi, forests would choke under a mountain of logs and leaves.

References:

Ellis JB, Ellis MB. 1990. “Fungi without Gills (Hymenomycetes and Gasteromycetes): an Identification Handbook. ”Chapman and Hall. London. ISBN 0-412-36970-2.

First Nature. “Geastrum triplexJungh.—Collared Earthstar” Online: https://www.first-nature.com/fungi/geastrum-triplex.php

Kirk, Paul M., Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers. 2008. “Dictionary of the Fungi.” CABI, 2008

Kuo M. 2008. Geastrum triplexMushroomExpert.Com

Roel, Thomas. 2017. “#044: Mushroom Morphology: Earthstars.” Fungus Fact Friday.

Roody WC. 2003. “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians.” University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. p. 443. ISBN 0-8131-9039-8.

Torpoco V, Garbarino JA (1998). “Studies on Chilean fungi. I. Metabolites from Geastrum triplex Jungh”. Boletin de la Sociedad Chilena de Quimica43 (2): 227–29.

Woodland Trust. “Collared Earthstar.” Online: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/collared-earthstar/

Pegler, D.N., Laessoe, T. & Spooner, B.M. 1995. “British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns.”Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Utah State University. “Earthstars.” Online: https://www.usu.edu/herbarium/education/fun-facts-about-fungi/earth-stars

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Verge–When the Water Sprites Dance…

Jackson Creek just before sunset, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)



It was early evening in late summer, when the sunlight was gentle and rich with the promise of golden light. I was walking in one of my favourite forests—the pine-cedar woodland that smelled of needles, bark and loam. This was Jackson Creek forest. Where some time ago I’d glimpsed a blue forest sprite

The water in the creek was low, in places exposing its bones—boulders and cobbles that emerged out of the stream into the dry light. I walked along the creek bank, beside tranquil glades and chortling riffles. The creek trickled with the most delicious sounds, like chatty water sprites having tea, watercress sandwiches and fresh scones with jam …

Sunlit water cascades over rocks of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I set up my camera on the rocks to capture the silky green and gold reflections of the overhanging trees in the water. Oak, beech, and ironwood along with shrubs and grasses crowded the banks of the creek in a parade of leaves and flowers. Long arms of the cedar tree bent low over the creek as if reaching out to touch water’s skin.

Cedar tree overhangs Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the gladed pools, the water swirled as if in slow motion in a fluid mosaic that mirrored the riparian forest. Each tree gave the water its unique shade in a diurnal dance that heralded the coming dusk and nightfall.

I walked the ythlaf, that remnant stretch of half-dried river bed, revealed by ebbing water. A place in-between land and water. I teetered on rocks and cobbles covered in dried periphyton, and angled the camera for long exposures up to f32. I crouched, squatted, crawled and kneeled on the cobbles, boulders and snags to position the camera just right. At times I danced to keep from falling in knee-deep water and laughed with thoughts of how the sprites were watching from below and taking bets on my possible spill into the water. I imagined their chortling giggles of anticipation.  

Water cascading over rocks in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Then, with the patience of a heron, I captured the various faces of the creek during its golden hours. The water’s silken threads sparkled in the raking sunlight and hugged the rocks in swirling clouds.

Water swirls around rocks of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We were nearing that in-between time, when all nature hushes for a life-breath as time descends for the briefest moment into a deep stillness. We lurked like thieves in that intermediate place of becoming, a diurnal ecotone poised on the threshold between night and day. The gloaming verge of a forest where dark and light danced with uncertain intent.

Glade of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Immersed in the cheerful melody of the creek, I imagined the water sprites again, playing in the watercress forest, among the spinners, caddises and stonefly nymphs. I imagined them, plump gilled water-babies or slender creatures with winking faces, diaphanous wings sparkling in the slanting sunlight as they stirred up algae and organic detritus.

Were they dancing?

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

‘The Moment’ by Margaret Atwood

Great blue heron in Thompson Creek outlet marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Old cedars and roots by Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Now is The Age of Nature…

Age of Nature is a series of three films made by PBS and narrated by Uma Thurman about humanity’s relationship with nature and wildlife and how scientists and conservationists study ways to restore the planet. The series, beautifully narrated and filmed, shows how restoring nature might be our best tool to slow global warming. From Borneo to Antarctica, the resilience of the planet is helping us find solutions to cope and even mitigate climate change, providing hope for a more positive future. The series consists of three episodes: Awakening, Understanding, and Changing:

In AWAKENING you will discover how a new awareness of nature is helping to restore mostly collapsed ecosystems; this included: restoring the cod fishery in Norway’s Lofoten Islands; the restoring the Chagres watershed in Panama; rehabilitating the collapsed ecosystem of Mozambique’s Gorongosa Park; and restoring the denuded Loess Plateau in China by planting a forest (and reducing the sediment in the Yellow River by 80%). This episode shows how innovative actions are being taken to repair human-made damage and restore reefs, rivers, animal populations and more.

“We are at a turning point in history,” says narrator Uma Thurman. “and moving in a new direction. How we live with nature now will determine our future. A new age is upon us, the age of nature.” This new awakening comes with a change in philosophy.

“Materialism has suggested that wealth is coming from things. But, in fact, wealth is coming from ecological function.” 

—John D. Liu, Ecosystem Ambassador, Commonland Foundation
Orangutan in Borneo forest (image from “Age of Nature”)

In UNDERSTANDING you will explore how a new understanding of nature is helping us find surprising ways to fix it. From the salmon runs and connection to forest health of the Pacific Northwest to restoring fireflies in China, and the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone—scientists, citizens and activists are restoring the environment, benefiting humans and animals alike.

“If humans get our acts together and start thinking about the whole ecosystem, we’re going to be recovering the whales and ultimately we’re going to be saving ourselves.”

—Dr. Deborah Giles, Killer whale researcher, University of Washington
Jungle in Borneo (image from “Age of Nature”)

In CHANGING you will discover why restoring nature might be our best tool to slow global warming. From Borneo to Antarctica, the resilience of the planet is helping us find solutions to cope and even mitigate climate change, providing hope for a more positive future. Bhutan’s negative carbon system is based on “decades of enlightened but courageous policies,” says Tshering Tobgay, former prime minister of Bhutan. By law they maintain over 60% forest cover to maintain a rich biodiversity and help balance climate as a carbon sink. Over 70% of Bhutanese live along river banks where they cultivate rice and other crops. “We’ve always had a strong association with water,” Tobgay adds.

“Ultimately, if we’re going to understand how to stop climate change, we need to understand our planet,” says Professor Tom Crowther, who leads a team of ecologists in categorizing forests and soils around the world from “on the ground information” to understand the carbon they contain and absorb. Crowther stresses that “the key is to restore these ecosystems in the right ecologically-minded way. That means we don’t plant trees in ecosystems that would naturally be grasslands. We also restore trees in a very biodiverse mixture; we don’t just want plantations, monoculture of the same species. We need all the different interacting species which help one another to grow and capture huge amounts of carbon…We absolutely need nature to survive on this planet. If humanity is going to have a chance, we’re going to have to restore ecosystems all across the globe…Biodiversity is the life support for our planet.”

Rainforest (image from “Age of Water”)

The movie showcases three major ecosystems of significant carbon sequestration that need to be (and are in some cases) encouraged, nurtured and grown:

1.  Old growth forests of the world: Bialowieza in Poland is the oldest forest in Europe:

Malgorzata Blicharska at Uppsala University reminds us of an ecological tenet: the higher the biodiversity of an ecosystem, the more stable and resilient it is. “The more complex the forest is, the more resilient it will be to different environmental pressures, which is really important now in relation to climate change.” A more complex ecosystem has a larger toolkit to draw from when confronted with change. “Even if one species with a particular function disappears because of climate change, there will be other species that take over this function.” This provides a natural buffer to change, helping it cope with disruption. “A natural forest is not a stable forest; it is changing all the time.” Adapting. The simpler the ecosystem, the less likely it will be equipped to adapt to imposed change; the more likely it will collapse with change.

Bison in Poland ‘wilderness’ (image from “Age of Water”

2,  Ocean phytoplankton, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows: Peter MacReadie, at Deakin University, studies seagrass meadows that store enormous amounts of carbon. They, along with tidal marshes and mangrove forests lock massive amounts of carbon; this is known as blue carbon. Mangroves are incredibly efficient blue carbon sinks. “Blue carbon is definitely one of the new heros in the climate change mitigation scene.” They not only effectively sequester carbon, they protect coastlines, and they support half of the world’s fisheries.

MacReadie acknowledges the role apex predators in achieving balance in the ecosystem that might otherwise be destroyed by an over-abundance of herbivores. The apex predator keeps a balance not so much by eating prey but through what is called “fear ecology” and achieiving a healthy trophic cascade: the shark changes the behaviour of the next trophic level down, the turtle, that would otherwise over-graze the seagrass. “Through fear, they affect how much turtles breed, where they forage, where they move around,” ultimately creating a healthy balance of apex predators at the top, turtles in healthy balance and seagrass meadows thriving.”

Peatlands in Indonesia (image from “Age of Nature”)

3.  Peatlands: Taryono Darusman, director of research and development of the Katingan Project in Indonesia, tells us that, “globally, peatlands store around five hundred and fifty gigatons of carbon.” Covering only 3% of the land on Earth, peatlands absorb twice the amount of carbon in all the world’s forests—which are ten times the size. Peatland ecosystems also provide for a unique and highly biodiverse community. Peatlands form in wetlands and rainforests; many of these areas have been drained to create canals or for agriculture. The drying peatlands become susceptible to fire. The Borneo fires of 2015 released more carbon than all of North America’s industry of that same year.  

The last ten minutes of the film are truly heartwarming and encouraging as the film documents how awareness is growing and inspiring a grass roots movement, particularly with the brave efforts of youth around the world. People like young Dayak activist, Emmanuela Shinta (who worked with youth groups to replant a destroyed ecosystem in Kalimantan, Borneo), and eleven-year old Madison Edwards (who started a social media campaign to stop oil drilling off the shores of Belize).

Planting in Borneo (image from “Age of Nature”)

Eco-heroism is sprouting all over the planet in response to her need for balance. Showing us that every single individual can make a difference…  

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Walking in the Rain: Part Two

Flooding creek in Trent Nature Sanctuary during a rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One morning, in late spring, I went walking in the rain through the Trent Nature Sanctuary forest. Looking for magic…

Moisture covered everything. It coaxed out vivid colours and textures in a tangle of stable chaos. I felt like I’d entered a Tom Thomson painting…

Moss-covered cedar trees after a soft rain in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The rain intensified the forest’s mosaic of unique scents from pungent, heavy and sharp to floral, fresh and sweet. The gossamer morning light favoured photography with a gentleness that softened and deepened everything, and invited intimacy. Mist hung low and rose like steam from the damp earth, slowing time. It felt as though I was walking through a cloud. The forest emerged ghost-like in glimpses of tree, shrub and grass. The brilliant red of the osier dogwood. The vivid greens of mosses and leaves. A tangle of blue-green lichens and bright red cedar roots. I was witness to a chaotic tapestry of Nature’s art. Infinite shades of green, brown, grey and yellow created a fluid landscape that water painted into a vibrant watercolour scene.

I moved through it, boots squelching along the spongy loam path, as though wrapped in a moving artwork.

Dew drops on hawksweed, lichen fruiting bodies in background, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Moss with spore capsules in the rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar roots and ferns in the heavy mist of a morning rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar root and moss during a mild rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar root and moss shortly after a rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The moisture carried the warbles and fluting chirps of lively bird song amid the hush of raindrops on vegetation. Each surface had a unique voice. And the rainfall—from light drizzle to hard pour—carried its own tune, rhythm and percussion. A symphony of diverse frequency from rich infrasound to beyond. 

Nina’s Canon EOS Rebel camera on its tripod, ready to take photos, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I kept my camera, attached to its tripod, tucked under several water-proof bags and walked with deliberate steps through wet duff, decayed leaves and mud. I had a hood but couldn’t stand to keep it up—I needed to hear and feel all of it: the rain sizzling through the vegetation, the red-winged blackbird’s conk-a-lee! The robin’s cheerily-cheer-up-cheerily-cheer up! The crow’s caw and rattle. The primordial shriek of a blue jay or kingbird. All were out, though not visible, as I navigated the huge puddles and slippery mud-leaf mix. Hair dripping, face in a grin.

Rain falling on the marsh to the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Pond lilies in the rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Rain falls on the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I felt elation in Nature’s celebration of life.

I was the only person in the park and thoroughly basked in that feeling of humbleness that comes with a kind of knowing: of being part of something far greater than oneself and yet in some way being that greater ‘self.’ Like I belonged there. Hard to explain. But it felt truly awesome and eternal.

Nina Munteanu
Boardwalk over the forest swamp, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fence post with marsh in the background during a steady rainfall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Country road in the rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I could have stayed there, wet in the rain, for hours. But I felt sorry for my camera and headed home, thinking of a warm cup of tea… 

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

“Sunlight on Snow” an ekphrastic poem by Bev Gorbet

Snow glitter rains down from cedar tree on a sunny day after a major snowfall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Bright lit: the great cedar forest,
Cathedral dome skies bright sunlit above…
All of a fulgent blue, all of an azure glow…
Everywhere, the peace of a radiant sunlight

Pine tree with snow glitter behind in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Worlds of magic and a most sacred light
Bright sunlit day, bright shafts 
Through a portico of treetops high above
The trees reaching so very high,
Deep into the sheltering skies

Snow-covered Buckthorn with path through a snowy meadow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Snow decked branch and bough: gently swaying memory;
Movement into the swaying winter winds
The gentle whispers, the gentle sighs 
The treetops,
Their  song, their gentle touch, their toss, their glide

Snow dust falls in a cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A deepest silence, a most profound contemplation
Midst snowdrift and snowlit mists as they shift
Between icy branch and snow covered green bough

Dust of snow and cedar lights:
All the ethereal wonders of a snowy day, 
The snow blessed, lost ephemeral lands
In a full clothed beauty, snowy wonders: of sunlight, of shadow

Snow-covered shrub on a snowy day, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Oh! sacred forest, this great beauty of place
To overwhelm, to protect, to shelter…
Here, a deepest meditation, a deepest circumspection…
Snow and ice and all the wonder of a  glorious sunlit day
All the ephemeral beauty in a winter’s sunlight world.

Snow dust rains down from snow-laden cedar trees in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Bev Gorbet is a Toronto poet and retired school teacher. She has published several poems with the Retired Teachers Organization and most recently in “Literary Connection IV: Then and Now” (In Our Words Inc., 2019), edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier.

“Rhapsody in the Rising Windstorms”–an ekphrastic poem by Bev Gorbet

Poplar trees in the late autumn, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

My heart will rise to follow in the fierce rhapsody:
Wind’s cry and rapture;
Mystical beauty in the primal call, wildernesses,
Mad windstorm  moving from treetop to treetop,
From branch to bending branch, from singing leaf to leaf
Moving, high sheltering in the high tumult, skies above
Midst songs of midnight, darkest shadow, deepest shades

Path through maple-beech forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The great beauty in the wind’s mystic path
Darknesses far beyond into the cathedrals of the night:
Airs, echo and sighs, dreams,
Thoughts of all our  tomorrows:
Sacred windstorms at the beginning of time:
A glorious sun and the rising dawn lights

Pine cedar forest in Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All promise was once ours,
Echoes of dreams once ours,
All beauty once ours and days never to be forgotten
Dawn lights and dusty twilights:
The songs of the wind’s rapture,
Fierce windstorm sighs, cries through branch and bough…

Old maple tree in a mixed forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
A pastoral field blazes with autumn colours of sumac and maple, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Oh! memory hold strong
Windsong: mystic soul of creation: the mystic fire, the holy flame;
Worlds ablaze
The long sacred journey into mystery
Beauty transfigured, wind’s message and haunting
Windstorm and mystical  worlds, sanctuary far away
All passion spent.

Marsh at sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Giving In to the Beauty of the Moment…

Marsh in the Kawarthas of Ontario in the fall (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”—Rachel Carson

In a recent seminar called “Cultivating a Sense of Place” (Programs in Earth Literacies) Douglas Christie introduced me to the works of Philip Levine. In particular, he discussed a work entitled “Dust” which appeared In Levine’s 2004 collection Breath:

Dust

My wife tells me that when she was six
she came home from school to an empty house,
put down her lunch box, sat on a hassock
by her father’s chair, and simply waited.
Someone known would return home soon, she was sure.
The house was still, silent, holding its breath,
the late afternoon sunlight streamed in
the unshaded windows and turned the dust
into in golden planets floating
before her. Sixty-four years later
she declares, “It was beautiful,” and goes
on to describe the sense of awe and peace
before this vision of the universe
that descended from nowhere or perhaps
rose from within. North-central Iowa,
1933, her grandmother’s house.
Nothing else remains of the day. She gazes
into space seeing again those whirling
worlds more perfectly than the room she’s in,
her smile open, her glazed eyes radiant.

–Philip Levine

Philip Levine

Such utter stillness in the moment described! As though it still existed. Which it did, which it does. Intact and unaffected by time’s erosion.

What we see as beautiful, touches us in our heart-minds and we cherish it.

Because that moment was beautiful, Levine’s wife cherished it; because she cherished it, it was beautiful. This was so only because her child-self gave herself over to the moment and allowed herself to experience the awe and wonder of that moment. It helped that she was a child, alone in an empty house that was usually filled.

Old shed of farmstead with goldenrods in foreground, fall in Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

When we grow up, why is it that we lose the tendency, even the ability, to simply be in the moment, in the silence of ourselves, to discover beauty? I suppose we make excuses; it isn’t efficient or productive to “do nothing.” Compelled to feed into the ever-burgeoning capitalist machine, we must keep “doing.” Do we learn to ignore those moments to be efficient machines ourselves? Surely, in refusing to live these moments, we are also silencing the many voices of beauty that could touch our hearts.

To appreciate beauty is to open your heart to wonder and silently witness. Beauty is found through beholding. Beauty is slow. To notice beauty, we must slow our mind and sense with our soul. We may “see” beauty all around us, but we do not “feel” it until we open to it, let it touch us and let it stroke our inner soul.

Pine cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Beauty Instinct

Researchers have confirmed what the poets have long known: that we need to experience beauty in our lives. According to biologist Richard Prum, all creatures possess an aesthetic instinct—an instinct and a need for beauty. “The taste for the beautiful is as distinctive [and meaningful] as the need to survive,” writes Brenner. “One of the attributes of the beauty instinct is an inbuilt sense of respect for others.”

Encouraging yourself to recognize and appreciate beauty in Nature may be one of the most important aspects of your well-being.

Reflections on the Otonabee River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

But what is beauty and how does one experience it? I devote an entire chapter to this topic in my book “Water Is…”.

There is beauty, writes 18th century aesthetic realist Francis Hutcheson, “in the knowledge of some great principles, or universal forces, from which innumerable effects do flow, such as gravitation, in Sir Isaac Newton’s scheme.” Neither beauty of form nor beauty of idea sufficiently applies to its definition, because beauty is, as we all know, “in the eyes of the beholder.” 

Beauty—like love—is not so much a quality as a relationship

Lane to farm off country road in Ontario (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In 1942, philosopher of aesthetics Jared Moore described complete beauty as three varieties of harmony combined: (1) objective harmony (i.e., harmony among the elements that make up the “beautiful object” through form, idea and its expression); (2) objective–subjective (i.e., harmony between the beautiful object and the contemplative mind through spiritual and psychophysical [empathetic] means); and (3) psychological (i.e., its meaning). Moore writes that complete aesthetic harmony—expressed by psychological or purely subjective harmony—is achieved only when the first two harmonies are attained. He describes this complete sense of harmony as “a sense of pleasure” which not merely adds itself to the sense of beauty, but “enters into and becomes a part of it.” This “inner harmony” brings the personality into a state of “unity and self-completeness.” A unity of the subjective, not only with the object, but with itself. 

We recognize beauty, and, in feeling it, are beautiful.

Stand of poplar trees in the fall, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

British artist and educator John Lane, author of Timeless Beauty, describes beauty this way: 

“Although the complexities of both nature and beauty have a subtle mathematical basis, reason by itself cannot tell us why beauty exists nor what is beautiful … There is often something spontaneous, even ‘illogical’ about these emotions; like love, they can never be predetermined, let alone dictated. But neither can the otherwise and splendid things which are most significant in human life, to which the greatest of the human race have contributed most, and in which our real refreshment consists—the love of truth, the sources of inspiration and the production of great works of art.”

“These, like beauty,” says Lane, “ultimately pertain to the unconscious, the heart and the soul. They pertain to the heart because it is love which discerns the mystery inherent in those things we see as beautiful; love which abandons arrogance and stands in awe before the mystery of life. It is love that sees beauty which, in turn, is always loved.”

Jackson Creek in the fall, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Beauty of Place

I grew up in the Eastern Townships, a gently rolling agricultural region in Quebec, Canada. I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby maple-beech forest and local stream. The forest was our playground and gateway to our imaginative play. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” that we inflicted on some poor insect. Yes, I was a bit destructive as a child—and I took a lot for granted.

Country road in Kawarthas in fall, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Much later in life, when I gave birth to my son, Kevin, in Vancouver, BC, I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway back to wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool. This time the little insects weren’t molested.

Red oak acorns line up against a tree root, Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Being with my young son slowed my world and returned to me a great sense of wonder. A walk to the little store with young Kevin was an expedition. He’d amble, explore, poke, then suddenly squat and study something on the pavement that I’d missed. 

He brought me back to the ground, to the extra-ordinary mundane—to the quiet details and the fragrant light. Acting like a macro lens, he pointed me to the little things, Nature’s nuanced designs that I’d forgotten in the larger paradigms of my hurried life. 

Poplar leaf amid the litter of a cedar forest floor (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

He brought me back to the immediate, to Nature’s elegant silence and beauty. He showed me the fractal wonders of tree branches, exploding seeds, glorious reflections in puddles, strange mud waves and odd moss-covered rocks. We crouched in halted silence to watch a bee feast from a flower’s nectar then launch itself—a dirigible laden with pollen—into the sky. We followed the brilliant Fibonacci spiral of a sunflower or the circular gossamer web of a spider, both mimicking the greater spiral of our own Milky Way Galaxy. We stuck our tongues out to taste the snow as it cascaded down in heaps or caught hexagonal snowflakes on our sleeves and sadly watched them melt. We stomped in road puddles or threw rocks and watched the circles of waves feed outward, changing the colour and texture of everything. We collected flotsam in nebulous forest pools and made magical potions. We wrote stories in the ocean sand, then leapt from dry rock to dry rock until the sea trapped us in its rushing embrace.

Group of young boys explore the river bank, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

My adult son still carries that sense of wonder for the natural world. He lives in British Columbia where he skis the mountains and frequently hikes the mountain foothills and old-growth forests of that beautiful province.

He’s soul-bathing. 

My son Kevin skiing in British Columbia (photo by Lindsay; rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In her 2003 foreword to John Lane’s book Timeless Beauty, Kathleen Raine writes, “Of Plato’s three verities, the Good, the True and the Beautiful, none can be understood in terms of the materialist values of modern Western civilization, and beauty least of all.” She adds, “Keats saw [beauty] as the highest value—because its reality can be known only to the soul … If beauty is the highest of Plato’s verities this is because it is in accordance with our nature: Plato did not invent that need. And did not Dostoevsky in The Idiot affirm his believe that the world can be saved only by beauty? We disregard and undervalue the beautiful at our peril.” 

“That the universe is alive, a living entity, there can, it seems, be less and less doubt, and that it is beautiful there can be none at all.”

—John Lane, Timeless Beauty
Mossy rocks in Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Parts of this article are excerpted from “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.”

References:

Aristotle. 350 BCE (1984). “The Poetics” and “Metaphysics.” In: “The Complete Works: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 1. Bollingen/ Princeton University Press, N.J. 2512 pp.

Birkhoff, George David. 1933. “Aesthetic Measure.” Harvard University Press. 225 pp. 

Hutcheson, Francis. 1725 (2004). “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.” In: Wolfgang Leidhold (ed) Indianapois: Liberty Fund. 

Lane, John. 2003 “Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life.” UIT Cambridge Ltd, , UK. 192 pp. 

Livio, Mario. 2005. “The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved.” Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. 

Moore, Jared S. 1942. “Beauty as Harmony.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2(7): 40–50. 

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

Newton, Eric. 1950. “The Meaning of Beauty.” Whittlesey House. 207 pp. 

Puffer, Ethel. 1905. “Psychology of Beauty.” Houghton, Mifflin & Co., NY. 156 pp. 

Marsh with cattails and flock of geese, near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Squirrel Joy

Grey squirrel munching on a maple seed, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Do you believe in serendipity or destiny? That all things are interconnected in a flowing web that responds like a super consciousness? 

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called it “meaningful coincidence.” Bohm used the term “implicate order”; the Vedas call it “akasha; Goethe gave it the name “the ground of all being”; and Mae-Wan Ho described it as “quantum entanglement”: when puzzle pieces cooperatively arrange themselves into a symbiotic pattern of synchronicity to provide meaning. 

The universe provides…

I’ve come to rely on it in my writing: moments when key things of interest reveal themselves to me just when I need them. I call it writing in sync. Time and again, I’ve serendipitously discovered just what I needed for a plot point or something to complete a backstory: a news event, a conversation with a friend, or an image on the internet. Synchronicity occurs all around us. Birds flying in formation during migration. Electrons synchronizing by the billions and passing through impenetrable barriers. Fireflies flashing in harmony.

Rupert Sheldrake , British botanist and author of The Rebirth of Nature, suggests that “our minds are extended in both space and time with other people’s minds, and with the group mind or cultural mind by way of their connection to the collective unconscious.” Sheldrake posits that we tune into archetypal fields or patterns and “our minds are much broader than the ‘things’ inside our brains. He’s talking about Jungian archetypal gestalt synchronicity. The notion of consciousness as a global phenomenon that occurs everywhere in the body, not just our brains. “Consciousness, at its most basic, [is] coherent light,”writes science journalist Lynne McTaggart in her book The Field

young black squirrel lies on the branch of a silver maple tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It started when I was lunching with good friend Merridy and we were observing several young black and grey squirrels stretched out, lying down on the grass or a branch of the silver maple. They were obviously litter mates and had just finished a playful romp on the grass with sneak-ups, great leaps in the air, twirls and ‘attacks’ and rolls. Such fun! Merridy and I agreed that they looked satisfied and happy after their play, stretched out and languishing in the sun. We talked about how playful squirrels were and how science didn’t seem to acknowledge this. That led to a discussion on people’s perception being largely based on worldview. I shared how we see only what we’re prepared to see and we discussed how science, in its preoccupation with objectivity, can take the ‘soul’ out of life by not observing as much as it could by observing. The concept of anthropomorphism—ascribing exclusively human traits and behaviours to other animals—is based on our own limited definition of what is an exclusively human trait. Who unequivocally proved that only humans are capable of thought or feelings? This recalled a quote of Goethe that I used in the preface of my book Water Is…: “Whatever you cannot calculate, you do not think is real.” We are often blinded by our beliefs and hubris. 

Young grey squirrel climbs up the silver maple tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

During the 1600s in what is ironically called the “Age of Enlightenment,” the highly regarded philosopher René Descartes denied thought to animals; he claimed that animals could not process pain through thought and certainly not through emotions such as joy, sadness, or embarrassment. Only humans were conscious, had souls, and were capable of meaningful communication and language. What he failed to observe—in his own pet dog, even—was that animals other than humans are capable of these thoughts and emotions. One need only pay attention through an unrestricted lens to recognize their expressions and behaviours. 

In western exploitive society and religions particularly, this Cartesian view has persisted into the present day with those who still argue that animals are incapable of altruism or empathy, can’t reason or calculate, are bound by the “selfish gene”, and don’t have souls. These persist in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary and ironically serve an economic and social worldview of Nature exploitation.

Then, in a wonderfully serendipitous moment of synchronicity, Merridy announced the next day that she had just read the following passage by David George Haskell in his recent book The Forest Unseen. It was as though he had overheard our conversation about the squirrels:

Four grey squirrels loaf in the bright upper branches of a dead shagbark hickory tree fifty meters down the slope. I watch them for an hour, and mostly they loll in the sun, limbs sprawled. They seem companionable, sporadically nibbling the fur on one another’s hind legs or tails. Occasionally one will break from sunbathing and chew the fungus-encrusted dead branches, then return to sit silently with the other squirrels.

This scene of scoured tranquility makes me unaccountably delighted. Perhaps I so often see and hear squabbling among the squirrels that today’s ease seems particularly sweet. But something more is behind my delight; I feel freed from some burden carried by my over-trained mind. Wild animals enjoying one another and taking pleasure in their world is so immediate and so real, yet this reality is utterly absent from textbooks and academic papers about animals and ecology.

This insight is not that science is wrong or bad. On the contrary; science, done well, deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanism; nature’s workings become clever graphs. Today’s conviviality of squirrels seems a refutation of such narrowness. Nature is not a machine. These animals feel. They are alive; they are our cousins, with the shared experience that kinship implies.

And they appear to enjoy the sun, a phenomenon that occurs nowhere in the curriculum of modern biology.

Sadly, modern science is too often unable or unwilling to visualize or feel what others experience. Certainly science’s “objective” gambit can be helpful in understanding parts of nature and in freeing us from some cultural preconceptions. Our modern scientific taste for dispassion when analyzing animal behaviour formed in reaction to the Victorian naturalists and their predecessors who saw all nature as an allegory confirming their cultural values. But a gambit is just an opening move, not a coherent vision of the whole game. Science’s objectivity sheds some assumptions but takes on others that, dressed up in academic rigour, can produce hubris and callousness about the world. The danger comes when we confuse the limited scope of our scientific methods with the true scope of the world. It may be useful or expedient to describe nature as a flow diagram or an animal as a machine, but such utility should not be confused with a confirmation that our liming assumptions reflect the shape of the world.

Not coincidentally, the hubris of narrowly applied science serves the needs of the industrial economy. Machines are bought, sold, and discarded; joyful cousins are not.

David George Haskell, “The Forest Unseen”
Grey squirrel peers at the camera, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
A sugar maple tree flowers in early spring in Ontario (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.