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Lessons From Nature (Odd Socks #3)
Mother Nature as an early mentor, learning things the hard way, and one of my few life regrets.
Welcome to Odd Socks Issue #3!
You may wonder, “Odd Socks?” It’s a phrase I’ve loved for a long time, and waiting for a meaningful moment to use it. I guess this is it!
Writing about stuff I think about, put a smile on my face, or could use some clarity amidst the noise, each issue has two articles and four bonus sections. I hope you enjoy reading it. If not already, please subscribe for a free biweekly newsletter delivered to your inbox every other Wednesday!
Lessons From Nature
As someone who spent a lot of time in nature, I could easily call her my earliest mentor. Over the years I’ve been camping, hiking, immersing, retreating in woods, exploring forests, and much more.
This is not a brag post about time spent "out there." If I scan across the decades and divide by the actual adventures, it’s not overwhelming per year. But such a list would likely bore you as the reader, so let’s move on.
Recent musings about places I’ve lived resurfaced good memories from one particular house where I learned three valuable lessons from nature. Back at an age when I was still impressionable, yet going in all directions, these three learnings stuck.
The setting is a house where I lived in the Texas Hill Country at Lakeway on Lake Travis, a resort development near Austin. In the late 1970s, I bought a small, cinder-block home originally built to emulate the adobe style. I fell in love with the Southwestern style during my time at The University of Texas at Austin studying architecture. The L-shaped house had a separate two-car garage, both connected by courtyard walls, thus a typical adobe-style layout.
The floor-tiled courtyard open to the sky had a stone fountain in the center with a raised walkway around it covered in Saltillo tiles. A timber-framed roof topped with Spanish roof tiles shaded the walkway. A classic adobe home feature and a great place to relax to fountains soothing falling water. Cedric, my English Bulldog, especially liked to belly-lie with arms and legs splayed out on those cool Saltillo tiles around the courtyard.
I spent lots of time outdoors in that courtyard reading and writing, or on the back patio overlooking the terraced ravine behind the house. The place looked authentic inside too, with its faux-adobe beehive fireplace, Saltillo floor tiles throughout, and timber beamed ceilings (including grass mats between the living room ceiling beams).
Life there was simple and easy, and I felt connected to nature. Natural vegetation surrounded the house, and the lot in the back sloped down into a ravine whose stream at the bottom fed the lake. Inside was always more pleasant and cooler than most homes because of the thick outside concrete walls, the 10' high ceilings, and that amazing Mexican Saltillo tile floor throughout. Those handmade floor tiles held the cool from the night, yet never too warm during the day. The nature lessons shared here came from time spent on the 1.5 acres around that house.
Lesson 1 – Always share with nature
The previous owners built a large vegetable garden plot on the east side of the house. Surrounded by a low stone wall with 4' steel posts that would hold up the custom-made anti-deer net, protecting the garden from those notorious hooved munchers of anything that grows. If you’ve ever lived in deer country, you’re nodding at how cool that is. Farmer friends of theirs help bring in rich black topsoil mixed with goat manure, ensuring the ideal growing medium, despite the land being scrubby, rock-hewn ground most everywhere.
During my first growing season, I went a little overboard planting eight different crops, including too many rows of cucumbers, and two rows of okra (a fave veggie). Unknown to me, I wasn’t the only one on site with a love of okra.
One sleepless night after the okra plants were ready to pod, I wandered around outside with my flashlight. I often stargazed during the pitch-black hill country night, and lighting the ground in search of scorpions, rodents, ants, etc. was great fun. Recently, I've been admiring my garden's progress on these nighttime walks, but I fear that may have led to pride going before a fall.
That night, shining a light on my beloved okra rows, drooling at the prospect of soon picking fresh pods, my mind went blank, unable to initially translate what I saw. Every okra plant in both rows was almost completely leafless. Looking closer, I caught the criminals red-handed, er… red-mandibled. A nearby colony of leaf-cutter ants found my okra and, with amazing organization, had stripped the leaves from nearly every okra plant. One group of ants up in the plant cut the stems of the leaves to drop them to the ground. On the ground, another group surgically cut the leaves into ant-heft-able pieces. Then the last squad hoisted the leaf pieces high with their mandibles and headed back to the mound.
I followed the ant caravan making off with the stolen goods, and marveled how the trail wound around every obstacle, yet every ant kept to trail. It was a veritable two-way highway, with one stream food-laden from garden to mound, the other returning for a new load of ill-gotten booty. Initially pissed, my anger soon gave way to fascination and awe of the engineered nighttime raid.
Lesson 1 takeaway: A veggie garden planted should always sacrifice one crop to the goddess of nature (aka, all good things come with a small price to pay).
My sacrifice that night secured a bountiful harvest from everything else in the garden. The nearby cucumbers must have sensed my sorrow, held a team meeting, then decided to give 110% that year. Those plants produced more cucumbers than I could eat, and soon even friends and family refused my offers of free cucumbers. That year everyone with a garden grew too many, and neighbors began ignoring doorbells if the ringer stood there holding a paper grocery bag full of cukes!
Lesson 2 – Don’t mess with hungry crows
I’ve loved eating fresh figs since I was a little guy in California where we had backyard fig trees. Thus delighted when I discovered this place had a row of mature fig trees behind the house.
When time to harvest those delicious, plump purple wonders, I got up early. Grabbing my 6’ stepladder and a pouch to load with fruit, I headed down to my fig grove. Setting up the ladder at the first tree, I marveled at how perfectly formed and ripe the figs were. As I plucked one fig after another, I discovered the backside of each had a sizeable chunk of fruit missing! It was as though some thief in the night used a small ice cream scooper to steal a tasty snack!
Puzzled, I soon found the “who” when the first crow dive-bombed me. After the third one (some mornings I’m slower than others…), I got down off the ladder and watched the crows fly in for breakfast. Once they left, I could get back up in the tree to learn the pattern of the purloined figs. Crows ate mostly from fruit hanging in areas clear from surrounding branches. Other parts of the tree, more entangled with branches and leaves, had plenty of untouched figs.
Lesson 2 takeaway: Always share the best fruits of life. No need to be greedy since there’s plenty for all.
Lesson 3 – Don’t adopt wild animal babies
Up early one day, I’d planned to go sailing with friends, but first wandered around the yard with a cup of tea. Nearly stepping on a small brown-speckled “boulder” in the back under a fig tree, I realized it was a baby fawn, no doubt birthed that morning. I’d learn later that a doe usually drops their fawn, then leave to avoid attracting predators. Since just-born fawns have no animal smell, sticking around during the first few hours could attract something looking for an easy meal.
I did not touch or move the fawn, since I heard doing so would put a human smell on them, thus the returning doe might abandon it. Of course, rescuing baby fawns in the wild happens when a doe never returns, but not this time since the fawn was gone when I got back from sailing.
Lesson 3 takeaway: Sometimes in nature, "look, don’t touch" is the wisest option.
Of all the places I’ve lived, this idyllic place is on my quite short list of life regrets. Not for buying it, but for the lack of foresight that I would eventually cherish this house and regret letting it go. What a fantastic place this would have been to return for vacations and seasonal visits. My kids would’ve loved exploring nature there as I did, and it would be a perfect abode for a reclusive writer.
This recent New York Times article (paywall), mentioned Daniel Pink’s excellent book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. Regrets can be sources of insight and, if we can focus on a few tips, can also become opportunities for growth. Pink’s research led him to sort regrets into four major themes:
Failing to reach out to others,
Lapses in moral judgement,
Incremental choices resulting in big consequences (working too much, smoking, etc.), and
Holding back when we should have been bolder.
Like my fondly remembered house, there are periods and things in life which, in hindsight, we appreciate more later. Back in our days, either to avoid extra hassle or, more likely, lack of funds, we let them slip away. Reflecting on those times, I clearly planted the seeds back then for theme #4.
The Zen of Power Outages
Continuing the theme of lessons, we had our second serious power outage within a few months. The first one knocked out power for three days. We figured how to make do: how often to open the refrigerator, which places still had ice for keeping the fridge food cool, etc. And of course, the answer to the ultra important question: how the hell do we make coffee in the morning without power? Silly spoiled humans.
This first outage (after dark) plunged us into cave-like darkness. No worries, I said, then headed to the basement. There I bumped into more than one thing in the dark, cussing but realizing I should first find the damn strap-on headlamp. Thus noting it’s dumb to store flashlights for emergencies down there, I found the camping bins. Grabbing the fast water boil camp stove (coffee!), the small Jackery solar battery, a solar camping lantern, and several more battery-powered light thingies, I headed back up. Essentials? Check.
The top two survival items covered (coffee and keeping devices and Macbooks charged – silly pampered humans), we met the day braced for whatever. Not much else to do but wait, read, and now and then do stuff online. Having a decent amount of hotspot data available on my iPhone, we could do some Interneting if we didn’t stream Netflix.
When the second outage came (thankfully only two days sans power), we were more prepared and my bruised shins and stubbed toes healed. We’d gathered all the stuff we used during the earlier outage, and stored them on a breakfast room shelf. And we distributed flashlights around the house.
This time, we vowed only to open the refrigerator/freezer initially and pull out stuff to thaw and cook (on a larger camping stove I have) for that day. If the outage continued, we’d forage afield for hot meals. That turned out to be like Russian bread lines: packed places lucky enough to have power with long lines waiting for morsels. Even though prepared, we had a few new obstacles to get past (mostly bagged ice: seemed everyone got wiser this time and hit those places within the first few hours).
Power Outage Takeaways:
The Farmer’s Rule – Get up with the sun, go to bed when it’s dark.
The Scavenger Ice Hunt Rule – No matter how many honey holes you identified before to get ice, you’ll need to find new ones the next time.
The Old Ways Rule – Despite our addiction to all-things-digital, there are other ways to bide one’s time waiting for the power to come back on: they’re called BOOKS and require no batteries or Wi-Fi. Wondrous things, these descendants of dead trees.
These were summer outages, with their own seasonal challenges. Winter will present new ones, and prepping for those is a work in progress. We don’t have alternate heating available, so looking into how big a second Jackery solar battery we’d need to run small space heaters. Averting frozen pipes will be another challenge, if any outage lasts more than a day or so.
With climate change altering the rules, outages are likely to be more common in the years ahead. Here in Michigan (or any historically cold winter state), such outages could be life-threatening. Silly humans seem to insist on staying warm and not freezing to death. Go figure.
A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics breaks my qualifying rule of suggesting only books I’ve read. Only part-way into this one, I think it’s worth sharing now.
Oneironautics: The ability to travel within a dream on a conscious basis
If you’re like me and dream in stories, this could be very interesting. I’m often the main character in my dreams (or an alternate form of me). It will be interesting to learn how to be conscious while in the dream yet sleeping, and to fulfill two of the book cover’s promises:
Open doors to creativity and insight.
Remember dreams and diffuse nightmares.
I am intrigued by the book so far, and it’s a fun read with cool visuals. If you actively dream while sleeping, you might enjoy this book Available via the Bookshop.org affiliate link above, or from your favorite Indie book store.
Love listening to music these days: so accessible and travels well on our smartphones, especially paired with wireless ear buds. The marvels of the digital revolution just keep getting better.
Recently I came out of a Luddite’s cave and subscribed to a streaming service. But which one? Reading reviews of the big three (Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify), I settled on trying Apple Music for a long-term test: no trial run for this aged ex-hippie. Part of what turned me to Apple Music (other than being a Borg-like Apple fan boy to their ecosystem), were two significant “features” I discovered after reading the reviews:
Apple Music has a growing library of tracks recorded in (with?) their “spatial audio” feature available to one’s ears if owning a recent model of Apple AirPods (I do). Amazing sound, although more a way of hearing than sonic improvement.
My Verizon iPhone plan includes six months of a free Apple Music subscription. Who knew? (Well, should’ve been me, since I failed to RFM, aka read the ‘effin manual, when I got the plan.)
Is the cost of Apple Music ($11/month) worth it long-term? So far, probably. I upgraded my Apple AirPods to the latest Apple AirPods Pro 2, mostly for their noise canceling feature, but these new AirPods come with another six months of a free Apple Music subscription!
Combining Apple Music with the new noise cancelling AirPods Pro, I’ve set up yet another tool to help writing focus while at coffee shops, libraries, etc. With this feature, I’ll avoid distractions from conversations, blender sounds, or the cute girl at the next table trying to flirt with me (yeah, like that could happen).
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