Wonders Everywhere

Most of us enjoy visiting dramatic outdoor destinations like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Banff National Park. In fact, untold numbers of us have intentions of visiting such places when we have the time and/or the money. Banff is one of those yet-to-visit places for me, as are Denali, the Olympic Peninsula, Glacier, and Big Bend. Further afield are Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, and Tibet. I have big intentions! [Click on the photos to see them larger; then click on the back arrow to get back to Ambling.]

But the reality is that most of us won’t get to all our desired destinations this side of the kingdom. Those dreams, however, sometimes have the effect of dampening our appreciation of and wonder in nature nearby. Most of us don’t live a stone’s throw from yawning canyons, towering mountains, or forests primeval. So we live in envy of those who do—many of whom are jaded about their local wonders.

Some, no doubt, may be envious of me, living in America’s Great Lakes region—one of the globe’s remarkable geographical features. And I do love living here. However, the shore of Lake Michigan, the closest “big lake,” is still about 45 minutes away. This means that for the most part my experience of the natural world is not a grand shoreline vista. Actually my most visited natural area is across the road where I walk the dog—an area of about three acres now glowing yellow with goldenrod punctuated with red rose hips on long arching stems and loaded crabapple branches. The big leaves of the milkweeds also stand out on their hardy stems, the toughness required to support the large pods that are about to burst and spread their “parachuted” seeds over the landscape. These yet unopened pods also provide nourishment for the brilliantly colored milkweed bug, the young of which often congregate in large masses that catch the eye and rouse curiosity in even the casual ambler.

Nearby in the woods, abandoned orchard, and ditches other signs of the changing of the seasons stand out. The most brilliant plant in the woods during nature’s swing shift from summer to fall is the seed-head of the Jack-in-the-pulpit. In fact, with its brilliant red berries and bright green stem, it seems to herald the approach of Christmas. It is, however, like Christmas decorations, merely to be observed. And because the summer was hot and humid, the mushrooms and other fungi proliferate and decorate the floor of the woodlands and the boles of dead trees with yellows, oranges, and various shades of white. Last week I came upon a clump of “chicken mushrooms” that looked like hot lava petrified on the side of a dead oak. Because of its brilliance, it is often called the sulfur-shelf, and it is one of the most delectable of wild mushrooms. Need I say that it tastes like chicken?

Berries of all sorts abound as well in this period before the changing of the leaves: wild grapes and the blue fruit of the Virginia creeper often hang side-by-side on intertwined vines, testing the novice forager’s skill at choosing the right fruit to pick for making jelly—or creating a bad bellyache. The beautiful blue and white “doll’s-eye” berries on two different wild dogwood bushes are also a temptation for the forager to resist—at least for eating. The brilliant high-bush cranberry fruit also heralds the coming of autumn, but its luscious-looking red berries are to be avoided until after a few frosty nights—at which time they can be made into a tolerable compote, if one can stomach the offensive odor they give off as they simmer their way toward edibility. (My family made me abort my one and only attempt!)

When it comes right down to it, when you learn to love God’s great outdoors, you will find wonders not only in the mega-majestic but also in the mini-majesty just outside your backdoor.

See you outdoors!

Dean