For the past five weeks I have been haunting the Clyde Shepherd Nature Center in metro Atlanta, sometimes with my artists’ group, once with my husband, and several times on my own. During one of those early visits, a Great Blue Heron caught two blue gills. The sight of this Ichabod Crane of a bird with a gorgeous yellow-bellied blue gill speared by his beak mesmerized me. The sunlight on the fish and bird made them appear ethereal, and I swore to bring my camera equipment from then on. Since then I have spent nine hours at the nature center; the heron has caught zero fish.
My cousin Cindy carries her UGA press copy of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast and identifies Great Blue Skimmers and Green Darners for me while I tap my toe waiting for Mr. Blue. I have the Sibley bird app on my phone and have identified a Great Crested Flycatcher, Phoebes, and Wood Ducks. I’ve even done some drawing and reading. I am honing my patience skills Julie Zickefoose style.
After reading Zickefoose’s The Bluebird Effect, I wanted to read her earlier book, Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods. This book is as lovely as her second with pencil drawings or watercolors on every other page. Each page is thoughtfully and attractively laid out, and her field sketches are accompanied by her notes. I found I wanted to savor each chapter, but I also wanted to keep reading, so this will be a book I read again.
Letters from Eden is divided into seasons, and Zickefoose describes the flora and fauna of each along with her experiences on her land. One of the interesting aspects of the book is the love/hate relationship both the author and other people have with different plants and animals. On the one hand she wants to get rid of the invasive multiflora rose that crops up all over her eighty acres. On the other hand, she realizes that it gives cover to many animals and nesting sites for birds.
She writes about her five wonderful, fat bullfrogs which live in her backyard pond and the joy they bring her until she realizes the largest one, Fergus, has been catching and eating some of the birds she feeds. I am not fond of starlings, but I softened towards the lot of them with her description of a heartbreaking scene where one starling repeatedly flies down to its dead mate in the middle of a busy road, walks around it, and returns to an overhead wire: “Fearless, the starling dodges trucks and cars to be near the lifeless mess that was its mate.”
Birding with her infant son in Texas, the author briefly abandoned the rest of her group to nurse the baby. While she was sitting quietly with him, “a large male bobcat, spotted and barred and flamed with orange on the insides of his legs, stepped out of the brush less than twenty feet away.” She writes, “My soul whooped silently, and I wanted to unlatch Liam, hold him up, show him his first, my first, beautiful bobcat, an animal I had waited all my life to see.” I was reminded of Annie Dillard’s comment in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that one has to be there to have personal experiences with nature.
Sometimes what we want in a book is the unknown, the ability to travel to places we may never go. But sometimes, an author’s experiences stir up strong memories in us, and then we lay the book aside for a moment and revel in our own past. I have retold story after story from different chapters to my husband, and I want to tell Julie Zickefoose, “Yes, I know what you mean, and thank you.”
Have you ever wondered what happens to the bird trapped in a grocery store? How many hummingbirds are you actually seeing at your feeders? What eats cicadas? If home gardens make no economical sense, why plant them? Julie Zickefoose offers answers.