Sunday, February 17, 2013


Over one hundred and fifty years ago, in a February, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: we have such a habit of looking away that we see not what is around us.

It is, naturally, a February thought.

No other month is harder to catch. 

I mean, it’s already half-way over.

I must’ve blinked.

It goes by so fast.

And, like Thoreau noted one February so long ago, it’s a month that’s too easy to miss, so easy to leap over.

And it’s not just because it’s the shortest month or, according to the history of the Gregorian calendar, one of the newest months.

It’s because nothing is really happening now and, yet, that is exactly what we nature writers are trying to find.

That is, after all, the grand subject of nature writing.  It has to be about catching the now, finding the here, living the moment.

Nature writers, tree hunters, birdwatchers, storm trackers, leaf peepers, herb seekers, stargazers, moon lookers…foragers, anglers, scouts, rangers…it’s all about resisting the urge to look away and learning the skill to see the now…turning the act of observation into an exciting adventure…the passive bystander as the most dauntless and intrepid explorer ever in the history of this exact moment.

Now.  Right now.

That’s the prey.

Those fleeting, spontaneous moments happening out of the corner of the eye.  Those rare instances that take place right here in the present time.  The epiphany.  The coincidence.  The haiku.  The now.

That’s the catch.

In my experience, it’s never something you can really go out and actively hunt.  It’s just something that happens while you’re out there looking for something else.

A certain slant of shadow.  A deer on the highway.  A color, a ripple, a snow.  Running into an old friend.  An owl passing over the moon.  Dust mites in a shaft of sunlight.  A snap decision, a rash judgment, a blind leap, a wild laugh.  The plunk of an acorn hitting the roof of a car.  A perfect strawberry.  A red hot Valentine’s Day kiss.

Hey, compared to other nature hunters, I got it pretty easy.  All things considered, tree hunters have a much better chance of catching the now than other observers.

Flowers are mostly predictable, leaves are pretty much out all year round, fruit is just hanging off the branches or rotting by the curbside, and the trees themselves?  They don’t move around that much.

My now is much easier to catch than, say, a birdsong or a tornado or a dinosaur fossil or a meteorite.

But there are certain moments that happen out there in the tree-scape that, I know, I have no chance of catching.

It’s true.  No matter what I do or where I go, no matter how long I stay on the hunt, there are a handful of tree events that I will never see with my own two eyes.

Things I’ll only read about in books.

And no other tree reminds me of this sad fact more than the Hamamelidaceae hamamelis…sometimes called the winterbloom but more commonly known as the witch hazel.


I caught up with the witch hazel last weekend at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market.