specifically, love

Author Jonathan Franzen delivered this year’s commencement speech at Kenyon College. He spoke about technology, and about liking versus loving, and about what those born in FBCE (Facebook Common Era) stand to lose by letting “like” take over in sentences where “love” should be the verb.  The New York Times ran the text which you can read here. Go ahead, click over. It’s worth a read, and I’ll only be three clicks back when you finish.

Those of you who didn’t follow the link to read may be wondering why I pointed you to a college commencement speech from my nature-y blog. Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Franzen told a personal story about liking vs. loving (hint: it’s not about elementary school crushes). His story reflected my own inspiration around here at TFW, so I thought I’d share.

He spoke about his phase as a liker of nature, and about how liking nature in a general way lead him to environmentalism, — highly contagious during those college years. Over time, his environmentalism carried him over to anger and then despair, as he considered “what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests,” all problems he could do nothing meaningful to solve. Eventually, he decided to stop worrying about the environment, which he only liked anyway, and “get on with devoting [himself] to the things [he] loved.”

But, it turns out, one of the things Mr. Franzen fell in love with was birds. That’s right, the published author, the guy who writes for the New Yorker, who pals around with Oprah and joined her Book Club — ok, all nerdy credentials, but he has a lot going for him —confessed to being a birder. He went birding. He kept lists of his sightings. He took special trips to see rare birds. And his love for birds totally changed the way he related to nature as a whole, nature as a very pretty, likeable thing with lots of problems.

He wrote,

“Now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.

“And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.”

Me and TFW, we can relate. I grew up reading Ranger Rick Magazine, flipping through my grandma’s stacks of vintage National Geographic magazines. I always liked creatures, begged to go to the zoo, played outside as often as possible. But as soon as I was old enough to play Endangered Species Memory games, I started hearing more and more insistently the doom and gloom prophecies about the end of the natural world as we know it.

There’s no minimizing what’s happening to the world around us. But honestly? It’s exhausting trying to maintain the right amount of outrage over the plight of polar bears I’ll never meet. The rage fades while I’m not paying attention to it. And, as polar bears live thousands of miles away from me, this kind of environmentalism can disappear into the oblivion of “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s sad, but true, and has certain implications for the success of environmentalist campaigns based on fear and anger. But that’s a conversation for another time.

A year ago I moved from a major city to the semi-rural suburbs where I live now. Truth: I Google-maps stalked my new hometown before I arrived. Satellite View introduced me to the bays and parks, woods and preserves that creep right up to  — and sometimes across — my main street. I grew curious. I Google-stalked some more. When I moved here, I started snooping in person. When I couldn’t see the birds I could hear, I asked for binoculars. When my curiosity about that tree with the cinnamon-toned bark or the bush blooming with its roots in the pond couldn’t be sated, I borrowed a field guide. And then I fell pell-mell in love with a place, as wild a mile away as it was tame in my apartment’s parking lot.

From Mr. Franzen’s commencement speech,

“How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject…. When you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.”

Love, Mr. Fanzen explains, is always specific, always has an object, and is aimed outside of oneself. This kind of love mostly grows while I’m not paying attention; it’s much easier to maintain than rage. So when I return to one of my haunts after being away for a time, I get a giddy, catch-in-my throat happiness, searching with a lover’s eyes for what reminds me of my last encounter, and embracing what changes as the days grow longer or shorter. For me, loving means cultivating perpetual curiosity, exploring all the ways the object of my affection will remain forever interesting. Now, I’m chasing the blooms through the forests, exploring the geography of kettle ponds, and moraine hills, the ecology of marsh and swamp and pine barrens and oak woods, watching the pollen motes flash in the sunlight as they carry sexy birch tree intentions across a pond at the end of the day.

And this makes it all worth saving, for me.

So how about you? What do you love, and how did you find out? I’d love to read what you have to say.

even closer

When I was a home-schooled elementary student, my awesome mom bought us a hobby-store microscope for conducting the exploratory experiments suggested in our textbooks. The microscope was red, and the kit included slides and covers, colored light filters, a scalpel and tweezers, and tiny bottles of powders and dyes. I felt very scientific just reading the labels on these bottles. Methylene blue. Eosin. Gum media. I’m still not sure what the bottles do. The proposed experiments needed lots of adult supervision (it takes a mature 8-year old to get through all twenty steps for staining and wet-mounting an onion skin slide. I had a hard time making it past “Slice an onion,” before I got distracted by the tears flowing from my eyes), or sounded painful (“Prick your finger with a sharp needle. Squeeze a drop of blood onto the slide…” Um, hello? Kids HATE needles. I wasn’t about to stab myself. My little brother, maybe…)

Truth be told, I lost interest in the experiments pretty quickly. I could read about science-y things for hours, but preferred horse-y novels. Once in a while, I would examine the kit’s butterfly wing under the microscope’s 400x lens. Otherwise, I could just look at the photograph of wing scales in the encyclopedia. Usually the book won.

Grown-up me sometimes wants to go back in time and scold Child-me. “Get your nose out of the book!” I would say. “Don’t you know you only have once chance to be a little kid, fearlessly curious, to meet everything in the world for the first time, to see it through your own eyes?” But Child-me was quite precocious, and likely would have sulked and felt patronized.


Last summer I helped at a science learning center’s open house. All day, kids played with maglev trains, set keystone blocks onto hand-built arches, revved magnetic electric generators made faces at each other through one-way glass. I ran a magnifying lens table, so I spent the day showing two-year-olds how their hands doubled in size through the glass. Eight-year-old girls studied their favorite creepy crawlies up close for the first time. And, um… I had as much fun as they did. Their shrieks and giggles were contagious. My childhood curiosity was resurrected from its untimely grave.

Now, I have a jewelers’ loupe to look at small things, like mosses or fern spores or the pistils and stamens of flowers.

And I have binoculars for looking at far away things. Or birds hiding in bushes only ten feet away (they’re harder to spot than you might think).

But a gap remained in my ability to observe things up close.

While cleaning up after a church fair last Saturday, I opened a mysterious box I’d been tripping over all day. Lo and behold, “It’s a microscope!” I cheered… yes, I really cheered.

“I forgot all about that!” my mother-in-law said. “I saved it for you. I knew you’d want it.” What a good mother-in-law.

Of course, I wanted it. Now I can look at very very small things, too.

So what am I going to do with a childrens’ microscope? Look at pond water and feathers and bugs, probably. But most importantly, I’m going to take the time to really see with my own eyes, instead of through someone else’s lens. Because now that I’m a grown-up, I know that’s important.



Waking up early has its perks, I’m finding, and this morning’s ramble will hopefully inspire me to rise early another day. The spring woods glow in the early morning light. Here and there, fresh green fronds shiver above their bed of last year’s leaves. Blueberries — I think, summer will confirm — raise their fairy-bell flowers to charm a passing pollinator. Oak saplings dangle fuzzy tangles of leaf and stem.

Now’s about the time of year when the magnolias blast open their pink buds, and people flock to cherry blossom festivals to fuss over those blushing beauties. Every newborn thing here in my woods is infused with a rarer rosy hue. Each velvety leaf shades to red by the faintest of blends. Trees that appear frothy with blooms from a distance turn out to be festooned with fresh foliage.

You’ll have to forgive me. I seem to be channeling my inner rhapsodic gardening columnist. But I’ve never been in the woods at the right time to see this before. I suppose I can let them speak for themselves.

I have always been compelled to know the names for things I find. That plant, that fruit, that color – what is it? I want to file all these details and observations in the right drawer, labeled so I can open the “chokeberry” folder at will and riffle through everything I’ve learned from the plant, go back to the time I first recognized it in real life. And, vice versa, an unfamiliar name in a book is a tantalizing hint that there are new things waiting to be seen. Few things are more satisfying to me than pinning an unattached appellation I’ve been saving since that 2007 magazine article to its subject in real life. I have a lot of those floating around. I’m dying to hang them on some handle in my woods.

All my metaphors are so… indoors. Office-y.

Names imply intimacy. I want to know everything I can about my home. Who and what it’s filled with. How all the trees and bushes and wild creatures live and grow through the seasons. Learning a name for something I met in its first hours, at 6 o’clock on a fresh May morning, christens my relationship to it. The name makes me responsible for it, in a way.

So which name belongs to these? Highbush blueberry? Huckleberry? Fetterbush, maleberry? That’s one of my projects for the year, to identify all my neighborhood plants. So I’ll be formally introduced soon enough. I hope the names will unlock more details, and reveal more secrets. And I hope that, come November, fall’s scarlet leaves will carry me back to a spring morning when they first blushed in the sunshine, the day I learned their names.