Nature Lessons

Grandmother’s house nestled at the edge of a wild wood. In the summer, my parents left me with her while they traveled north for my father’s job. He worked part-time for logging companies, clear-cutting forests, harvesting pulp and timber near Grand Marais and Stonington in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those were summers of tanned bare legs scratched by blackberry brambles, bee stings I hardly felt, and staying up late on the back porch with Grandma Kate watching moths, sometimes as large as my hand, cluster around the light cast from the oil lamp.

Grandmother, in her late sixties, lived like a pioneer. She had neither electricity nor running water and heated her home with a wood stove. She cooked her meals on its heavy, cast-iron burners. Every morning, she cleared ash from the stove’s belly and hauled it in a bucket to the ash pile beyond her house. She stocked her cupboards with homemade blackberry jam, apple butter, jars of thick, spicy pickles, and green beans from her garden.

She taught me the names of flowers, trees, birds, and the habits of animals. On those long summer days, we sat for hours on the porch in the shade of the oak that grew bent, twisted, and cast long shadows to cool us. Grandmother sprinkled seeds across her palm and held her hand out carefully. I leaned into her bulky frame as I watched the sparrows creep closer, until a brave one finally snatched a kernel. It was difficult for me to stay still for too long and sometimes my jerky movements sent them wheeling into the blue sky and back under the eaves of the barn roof where they nested.

A large field stretched out into a wooded area beyond her cabin and sloped into old growth forest, where a pond slept in partial sun and shadows. On early June mornings, we walked through drifts of orange hawkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and patches of goatsbeard and daisies to the pond where cattails grew in abundance. I bounded ahead of her on my long, gangly legs, scattering field crickets and meadow katydids before me. The grass filled with clacking as grasshoppers rubbed their legs together and their singing echoed inside my head. Clouded sulphur and copper butterflies, delicate cabbage moths and swallowtails darted from blossom to blossom.

“Slow down,” Grandmother often scolded me. “Look, even the downy woodpecker is leaving now.” A small woodpecker with black and white checkered wings abandoned his perch in the nearby oak, and all I could see was the flash of red from the patch at the back of his head as he flew away.

Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience.

As a young woman, I used to think my grandmother’s lessons were about nature and learning how to appreciate the stillness found in the natural world. Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience. As a child, this required stepping carefully without flattening the grass and crunching dried leaves beneath the soles of my blue plaid Keds. It meant lowering my voice to a whisper, like that of morning wind slipping through needles of a Norway spruce. And when we sat on the back porch under the afternoon sun, it meant keeping my body still, holding my arm out, fingers open so I, too, could coax the shy sparrows to take seed from my hand. For a child who was constantly hopping on one foot, twirling to imaginary music and talking loudly, stillness was not an easy state for me to obtain.

“Someday, you’ll understand about quiet,” Grandmother said. “How restful it can be to just sit in the sun and contemplate nothing.”

“Is that what you do, Grandma?” I asked.

“Often,” she said. “There’s so much to think about.”

Grandmother knew the names of many birds, and recognized their songs in all seasons. During the winter months, when my family moved back to Wisconsin, she often sent me pictures of birds clipped from magazines, and once she sent me a perfectly woven robin’s nest abandoned by its family. Birds were plentiful those summers. I recall the killdeers circling overhead in early evening calling out their distinct kill-dee, kill-dee, cedar waxwings preening in the juniper bush, and yellow warblers singing dee-diddly-dee! Dee-dee-dee-diddly-dee! Several purple martins nested in the tall wooden birdhouse near the porch.

“The Martin is viewed in the Christian faith as serving God, being God’s ‘bow and arrow,’” my grandmother told me. “The Martin brings good luck to any home where it nests and rears its young.”

“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage”

She quoted whenever a robin landed nearby. Later, when I studied English literature in college, I learned those lines came from the poet William Blake. She was delighted if a blackbird built a nest on her roof. “This is a sign of good luck,” she said. If we walked down to the pond and encountered a hissing duck, Grandmother would say, “Rain is on the way.” In the evening as we lit the oil lamps, sometimes we heard an owl at the edge of the woods. “If an owl flies around the house at night, it means that death is near.” She lowered the pitch of her voice. “If you see an owl during the day, it’s bad luck.”

I shivered and stood closer to Grandmother, listening to the distant cry of a screech owl as it echoed through the night.

One morning we walked to the pond, Grandmother moving slowly as always, quietly pushing branches out of her way. I walked behind her, trying not to trample twigs and rustle leaves, proud because I was not running wildly ahead in a hurry to arrive as I usually did. I was practicing patience and the way to walk through nature like my grandmother often showed me. When we reached the pond, she lifted a hand to stop me, and then I saw the bird. It stood regally at the edge of a cluster of cattails on its long, slim legs.

“I think it’s a sandhill crane,” she whispered. She lifted her binoculars and let me look through the lenses. The bird was a soft gray color with a plume-less head.

After a second look, she bent down close to my ear.

“No, it’s not. It’s a Little Blue Heron.”

We watched the heron for a long time then furtively turned back and retraced our footsteps.

When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to study butterflies, moths and other insects when I grew up. The name I discovered for this type of scientist was a lepidopterist. My parents bought me a butterfly net and my father made a spreading board out of cork and balsa wood. All that summer, I used the patience my grandmother taught me to sit in the field waiting for the perfect Tiger Swallowtail to land on an orange hawkweed blossom or a Painted Lady to stop and take nectar from a milkweed, then I would catch one in my net, gently find the butterfly’s thorax and hold it between my thumb and index finger to still the fluttering of its wings before I carefully placed it in the killing jar. My collection grew all summer, but my grandmother was disappointed.  She shook her head when I left in the morning carrying my net.

“I didn’t teach you patience to kill such treasures,” she said. “It disturbs the fragile balance Mother Nature intended. Someday, the butterflies that are so abundant now will become scarce.”

“But I want to be a scientist. I want to study butterflies. I’m keeping them beautiful forever,” I told her. I collected butterflies for only one summer. Then I quit. I realized I hated watching them struggle to breathe in their glass prison, until finally they grew too weak and died.  I decided to become a geologist and began collecting rocks instead.

 *     *     *

I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage.

Many years later, I sit on the back porch of my own home in the small town where we live at the edge of a larger city. My daughter is playing with our dog in the yard, and her laughter echoes as she tosses him a ball and he catches it in mid-air. It’s August, and bumblebees buzz around the bee balm in my butterfly garden. I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage. Back then, there were red admirals with distinct bands of red wrapping their wings, tawny crescents, and mysterious dark purple mourning cloaks. Brown elfins fluttered over blueberries and willow catkins, and the Great Spangled Fritillary perched jauntily on clusters of black-eyed Susan. I recall Grandmother’s words, and I realize she was right. Although she did not know what it would be called, global warming is slowly killing all the butterflies, and it is a privilege now to encounter their ethereal beauty.

The patience my grandmother taught me has served me well through the years. While my daughter was growing up, I took her for long walks through the wooded area behind our home in Northern Michigan, naming the fields of spring flowers, or sitting on a rock by Lake Superior explaining how the great glaciers shaped and carved our land. We pressed wildflower sprigs between pages of her picture books and glued bright autumn leaves into a scrapbook. I consulted my Trees of Michigan guide, and we sat cross-legged on the floor matching the leaves to their names.

Senara is seventeen now and living with her father up north. As she entered her teenage years, her interests centered more on clothes, television shows, and spending time with her friends.  When she comes home for visits in the summer, she sits for hours in front of a computer screen chatting online, or curls up on her bed with her cell phone, texting messages back and forth to her boyfriend. I worry she is forgetting my teachings about nature and no longer noticing or finding harmony in the beauty surrounding her: spring rain, a full moon sailing above the trees at night, the first red-winged blackbird swooping down when there is still a trace of snow on the ground.

She attends high school where we used to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The other evening she called me as she was driving home. It was late at night and dark along her road, so she kept the speakerphone on until she reached her dad’s house safely. When she got out of the car, she was suddenly silent.

“Are you still there?” I ask. I could hear the soft rustle of her clothes and crunch of her boots in the snow.

“Yes,” she says. “I was just looking up at the sky. Mom, it’s so beautiful. The stars are so brilliant tonight. It’s amazing!”

I turn off my kitchen light and go out on the back deck in the chill air. The constellations are not as clear as up north due to the nearby lights of the city, but she is right – the sky is filled with stars.

“If you wait a while, you might see a shooting star,” I tell her.

“Maybe, you will see the same one,” she says.

As we stand waiting patiently, separated by distance, in different latitudes, I feel my grandmother’s presence. I remember her sending me sky charts during the winter months and naming the constellations when we sat on her porch in the summer dark.

I visualize Senara, hair tucked under her Stormy Kromer hat, one hand covered by a wooly mitten shading her eyes as she tilts her head back. I wonder—if I were with her, would I see her the same way my grandmother saw me? Does my daughter hear me the way I heard my grandmother? There is, however, one thing I do know: Grandmother’s teachings are alive tonight as we gaze up at the stars.

Petrouske headshot

Rosalie Sanara Petrouske lives near the Grand River, the longest river in Michigan. A writing instructor at Lansing Community College, she has published essays and two chapbooks of poetry, the most recent with Finishing Line Press. Last November, she received a first honorable mention in the Abbie M. Copps Poetry Competition.