Journal Archive


"Crossing the Darklands" © Michael Gambino

Since my last post in August, I feel I have been run off the rails, metaphorically speaking. I have been reassessing my life, my hopes, and my dreams, trying to get my wheels back on track since September when, among other things going on in my life, my father died.

Grieving is a uniquely personal process, and it twists and turns us around in a very disorienting manner at times. Days are up and down, and the past and the future are looking at each other. Hurricane Irene, a tropical storm, and a snowy nor’easter for Halloween all added an element of destruction, change, and chaos to accent the disruption of my inner and outer worlds. I know this type of energy. It has been at work in my life before. The Native Americans might refer to it as the “Powers of the Four Directions” who’s task is to turn us this way and that in the course of our lives when we need to transition in some way. The spirit beings that dwell in each of the four corners of the world do this, it is said, to assist us in fulfilling our highest purpose and to help us get unstuck by steering and guiding us. They show us when we are on our path, and also when we are getting bogged down or side-tracked. That all sounds more pleasant than it usually feels when this energy arrives.

Traversing dark landscapes of the soul, one has to pay attention to where each step will land, lest one stumble and fall into an open pit or quagmire and become stuck. Since the only way out is through, we have to keep moving in order to emerge into sunshine and green landscapes once again.

I am still hiking out from whatever gloomy country I’ve been wandering in over the last few months, but the path ahead is lightening up just a bit. I have paid attention to traversing the landscape, (and not writing blog posts) so you have not heard from me in a while. However, I thought I would risk posting four vignettes of writing from this journey so far. After all, this too is part of my “adventures in an ordinary life”, as the tag line of this website states.


Slumped on a darkened stage there lies a slack-stringed marionette. He is motionless, yet behind his painted eyes he still dances and cavorts with grand style and gesture, entertaining one and all, taking great pride in his abilities, and bowing deeply to the audience as they applaud. In stillness he dreams his puppet dream, as ghostly stage-hands move about him, silently clearing the set piece by piece in preparation for something new.

In time, the marionette awakens from his reverie, and though he cannot move, he stares into the gloom before him at the empty stage – empty, save for a single object bathed in an ethereal light. It is a worn and dog-eared manuscript of the play he performs (when he is animated by the grace of that mysterious force from above). He tries to read his lines and see his cues, but they shimmer and fade away one by one, as page after page is turned by some invisible hand.

With such uncertainty, there is nothing he can do but wait. Wait for direction, wait for a new story to tell, all the while longing deeply for that mystery to which he is tethered to lift him up once again and reaffirm his purpose for being.


Blustery autumn winds strip the leaves from the trees, preparing them for winter’s cold, deep sleep. In similar fashion I too am scoured – stripped of old illusions and fading dreams – left with a familiar emptiness. Bare trees, I remind myself, hold the promise of renewal, of a far-off springtime. Nature always keeps her promises, and in this I have faith enough to see me through this difficult interlude. Such periods in life are perhaps a necessary discomfort whereby the dull, worn, and weary layers of the spirit can fall away to reveal a brighter light and revitalized dreams. The trick is to embrace all the seasons of life (as in nature) as beautiful and equally important.


Our time together on this earth was filled with more silence and separation than conversation and gathering. There was conflict and there was healing; and scars, and strengthening of spirit. Our early years were difficult for me, with many tears, doubts, and fears. Decades later, rising from the ashes of the past there grew the soft green shoots of compassion, forgiveness, and completion.

Sometimes we shared laughter and perhaps a hug, and I found goodness there in our later years. I found out what we had in common, and I liked that – no matter how small it seemed. In the end we had this as a victory, my father and I, before he finally left this world for parts unknown. In these things I see a deeper truth: no anger or hurt can stand long, once a person arrives at the place where love presides over all. However long it may take to reach those gleaming-white shores, it is always worth the journey, if only for one’s self. 


Along a dark road I walk, enveloped by pockets of cool mist as I explore the wisdom and folly of my past. Sifting through the sands of time, I smile a bit – remembering moments of innocence, as I retrieve tiny nuggets of gold that I have earned over the last half-century of finding my way through life. Nearly all of them seem to have come from periods surrounding a transition, when I am challenged to look with fresh eyes on the circumstances of my life and who I truly am. It seems I am once again at such a moment.

Above me, above the trees and hills glows the soft light of dawn, gently washing away the trailing edge of night. At the same moment, far to the east of my daybreak, the sun sinks below the rim of the world, drawing the great blanket of night behind it as it goes. There, some may look forward to an evening meal, cozy pajamas, a warm fire, or at last, some peace and quiet. Others may not have much to look forward to at all.  So much is happening in the world simultaneously: Dreams are born, dreams die, and dreams are brought into being. For some, passions of youth rise now in great leaping flames, and for others, passions are growing cold and fading with each passing year.

The first bird song breaks the long silence of night, marking the moment between night and day. Thus, I am brought back from wandering the corridors of the past to be bathed in this sacred light of resurrection. Once again, the power and simplicity of nature has triumphed! Renewed is my faith in myself and trust in my divinely-guided path. I am grateful to be a part of this earth for another day.


In the Eye of the Beholder

An Ambush Bug on thistle is a masterful work of art. Not sure if its unsuspecting prey would feel the same!!Many people are not fond of insects, except, perhaps butterflies. In the right setting and light, though, they are revealed as masterful works of art, as are all things in nature. Here are a few images to consider. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, true enough, but I feel that this beauty is inherent in nature. Sometimes we just need to be open to it to see it revealed.

Lightening Bug beetle on Milkweed flowers. (Click to enlarge)When I encounter such tiny wonders just going about their business in the world, if I watch them for a few minutes I feel a strong connection to them, something that actually seems to help me relax. They are fellow earthlings, and as such we are related to them. Perhaps this is the link – that we're all in it together, bound together in life and death struggles. Or maybe it's that we're all made up of bits of the same primordial stardust? Or maybe it is a connection beyond the physical, something common that flows through all life on earth – a spirit-that-moves-through-all-things?

Click this image for a closer look at the Ambush Bug!We all have our limitations regarding what images we can accept into our experience. I have an extreme aversion and sensitivity to the graphic slash-and-gore, psychological thriller movie genre. Even one 15-second glimpse of such films disturbs me for days and haunts my mind. I just can't tolerate it, yet I have friends who eat this stuff up, seemingly unaffected by such images. They can easily watch several of them back-to-back with a bowl of popcorn!

Dancing in the light – an Orchard Web Weaver at work. (Click to enlarge)So I understand that some people have a similar aversion to natural images of spiders, snakes, or other such creatures. Watching a grasshopper or wasp clean their antennae of dust and pollen, or seeing a dragonfly eat a moth just fascinates me and contributes more to my life than murderous zombies, severed heads, and bouncing brains.


Masters of Disguise

A spider hidden on tree bark pounces on this unsuspecting Mayfly. This photo illustrates the often unseen drama of nature's predator-prey relationships, as well as evolutionary selection in progress. (Click to enlarge)In nature, avoiding detection is one of the many survival adaptations that organisms have employed to ensure their species lives to see another millennia. Some organisms, such as plants, have no real need to hide. In fact, they try to stand out. They need to find open spaces to grab available sunlight. They produce an amazing variety of flowers to accomplish pollination, and bear tasty fruits, seeds, berries, and nuts to entice animals into dispersing the plant’s genetics far and wide, thus overwhelming the herbivorous creatures that feed on their populations. Their strategies are necessary, and their populations vastly numerous because plants are right at the beginning of the energy cycle, or food chain. As we learned in elementary school, plants capture the photons from the sun and convert it into food for their growing their vegetative bodies.

Many plants have evolved toxic chemical and physical deterrents against browsing animals and insect assault. Sharp, thorn-covered stems and leaves, and poisonous, unpalatable, or caustic plant juices are quite effective at ensuring the opportunity for plant species to successfully grow and reproduce. There are also animals that are passively poisonous or hazardous to ingest (like puffer fish, Poison dart frogs, Monarch butterflies, and Red-efts), though often when we think of poisonous animals we mean venomous animals such as wasps, snakes, jellyfish, spiders, and shrews – those that use their toxins to kill or subdue their food.

Unlike plants, nearly all animals have colors and markings that help them blend into their habitat and deceive would-be predators. Predators at every level in the food chain on land and in the sea must also have patterns, colors, or growth-forms that cloak their deadly mission. There are exceptions to every rule in nature, of course, like brightly-colored animals that advertise their toxicity as a warning (red being the most common “danger” signal).

For me, one of the most exciting things in nature is discovering hidden creatures. Most blend so precisely into their background that when I happen upon them, I gasp in surprise and delight. My photos shown here are but a tiny fraction of what’s out there if you know how to look for them. Some creatures mimic vegetation – bark, leaves, stems, grasses, and flowers; others look like rocks, soil, sand, water, and sky! Some animals that aren’t toxic mimic the shape and color of actual toxic animals to fool predators into thinking they too are not safe to eat. For example, there are beetles that resemble wasps, flies that look like Yellowjackets, (neither the beetle or the fly has venomous stingers), and butterflies that mimic a Monarch’s coloring, basically implying that it too is toxic by association. Many toxic species accumulate lethal alkaloids in their tissues by eating food from their environment that contains those chemicals. So now, a spider has to be more careful about what it pounces on, and a mother Robin must be cautious about what it feeds to her chicks. Perhaps we can now appreciate one reason why the life of a predator is not any easier than it is for creatures sitting lower in the food chain.

All camouflage is a process of natural selection. For example, a white moth that has no more white flowers or white tree bark to hide against (due to diseases or other events killing off the plants) is an easy target for birds, dragonflies, and such. Eventually, the moths with the genes that produce white-colored wing scales will be removed from the gene pool of that habitat, and those moths with more effective camouflaging patterns and colors will live to successfully reproduce generation after generation.

If you want to search for hidden creatures, you need not go looking for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. You can start by looking closely at tree bark, stone walls, and even outside your home for moths and other insects of the night. They need some place to rest during the day undisturbed until nightfall. You might also take a closer look at shrubs and flower beds during the day for a huge variety of insects.

For larger animals, try spotting deer in the forests and thickets, especially in the fall when the leaf colors are changing and deer exchange their tawny summer color in favor of winter coats that reflect the grays, browns, and whites of the winter woods. Trying to decode the cryptic coloring of wildlife offers an excellent opportunity for training your naturalist observation skills! It takes a bit of patience, but the discoveries are always well worth it.

As you look through these photos, take a moment to really examine the backgrounds and the creature’s markings. Look at the patterns of shadow, light, tone, line, colors, and form of the animal’s background setting. (Click on each photo for larger image).

1) Monarch caterpillar on Butterfly Weed (a milkweed).2) A species of Underwing Moth on a stone wall.3) Salt water, “glass eel” phase of unidentified Atlantic eel.*4) An adult stinkbug blends-in well on light green plants.5) Walkng Stick insects mating on tree bark. Amazing!

6) Pickeral Frog’s fantastic pattern against dry wetland grasses.7) Box Turtle in marshy habitat hiding in shadow and light.8) M & F Gypsy Moths and another well-hidden moth!9) A woodland snail in its shell blends with forest debris.10) Grey Squirrel resting on bare tree branch in winter.11) White-tailed deer in winter coat.12) A stinkbug in its nymphal stage hides in autum foliage.13) A species of Notodontid moth rests on a stone wall.14) “Lichen morph” caterpillar of a Catacola moth.15) Ruffed Grouse chicks in dappled sunlight and debris.16) Conehead Katydid coloring and shape mimics leaves.17) A Bullfrog's fine-tuned camouflage.18) Nesting birds must hide from predators. Can you see it?19) Orchard Orb Weaver spider on bamboo. Beautiful!20) A venomous Copperhead in leaf litter. A truly brilliant pattern!


















As a reminder, all the photos and artwork on this website are mine and are copyrighted, except if noted otherwise. Thank you!

*(photo of glass eel by Melanie Gambino)


Journal Notes: Late Spring

Summer Grape vine rising from the earth. (Click on each of the photos on this page to enlarge)It's a challenge to keep pace with nature's acceleration in spring. The rate of growth and development of plant and animal life is staggering, and even a few days of being bogged down with administrative and personal obligations means missing what's taken place in nature in that interval.

Baby Eastern Cottontail RabbitColumbine flowerWhite Mulberry tree with fruitReturning after a few days away from my work at the sanctuary, I notice that the fawns, the baby rabbits, the vegetative growth of vines, grasses and leaf-out on trees have all grown and progressed noticeably. I can almost hear the popping, squeaking, and stretching growth of tall grasses and plants! Baby House Finches have already fledged, and new eggs have been laid in the nest outside my door.

There are quite a few Woodchucks at the sanctuary nibbling flowers and herbs from the fields. Sometimes I find their den entrances as I wade through tall grass and plants in the course of my habitat management duties. This is somewhat hazardous, as it is easy to step into such a hole in the ground concealed by overgrowth, and suffer injury. These large rodents are entertaining to watch, and their eyesight is very keen. It is a challenge to sneak up on them for a closer look before they haul their chunky, fur-covered bodies into their nearby den with surprising speed. I was recently watching a baby Woodchuck, or "chuckling" browsing nearby and followed him for a while. Chucklings are so cute and curious, but still wary and quick. It was fun to observe the little one exploring his new surroundings: what to eat, what to play with, what's dangerous or threatening, and how far from home they should venture.

Woodchuck family under the shed (Click to enlarge)In this photo, the mother (I assume) may have had a health issue that kept her from gnawing for a while. One of her lower incisors has grown very long and is protruding up over her upper lip. Rodent teeth grow continuously and so they must gnaw constantly to keep them at proper length or they won't be able to eat properly. While I stood quietly taking their family portrait, she repeatedly put her head on the ground and closed her eyes, resting. The young one's were all excited, not sure what to do about me, but seemed quite interested in my presence.

Raccoons will often rob bird nests of their eggs and even the young chicks if need be. At the sanctuary, this year's Killdeer hatchling tally is a big fat zero out of 16 eggs I had counted. While Fish Crows may be to blame as well in some areas of the sanctuary, the Raccoon shown here is the culprit behind at least one raid on Killdeer nests. Though mainly nocturnal animals, Raccoons do venture out in daytime if they are hungry or sick, so I followed this one to be sure it was not rabid. Thankfully, she was just really hungry, having recently given birth to two more masked bandits! Her den was 20 feet above the ground in a large tree cavity. The Canada Geese that were hanging out near by did not approve of the Raccoon skulking around nearby, and I watched as they slowly closed in around the wary mammal and, with their heads lowered, chased the Raccoon into the thicket and up a tree! Even a skilled survivalist like the Raccoon gets run out of town from time to time.

For some people, spring and summer mean inevitably acquiring another rash from Poison Ivy. It's a native vine that many species of birds and animals can browse for food with no ill effect and can brush against it with impunity. Humans, unfortunately, are not one of those species. This plant takes many forms and hides well amidst other vegetation, including trees. It can appear as short ground cover and low shrubs, or climb up trees and other structures as a vine. The older vines become thick and hairy-looking as they grow up tree trunks where they put out branches that mingle with those of the host tree. Surely, Poison Ivy teaches us awareness! Unlike other non-native vines like Asian Bittersweet or Porcelain Berry which can smother trees and over time cause them to break or topple in high winds, Poison Ivy grows straight up the trunk of the tree where the tree can support the weight of the vine.

Poison Ivy flowers & branchesHairy look of mature vine.Virginia Creeper vinePoison Ivy climbing treeThe mature plant puts forth elegant, somewhat obscure flowers in spring, and in autumn the leaves turn from green to a beautiful palette of yellows and reds. It is considered a "warrior plant" in some Native American traditions in that is defends its habitat from human intrusion. Have a look at these photos. The Virginia Creeper vine is often mistaken for Poison Ivy, and often grows in the same locations. However, the non-poisonous Virginia Creeper has five leaves, where Poison Ivy has only three.

Each spring, the bulbous buds of Peony plants growing in flower gardens are covered by small, reddish brown ants. They aren't even moving around that much, and appear to be waiting for something. There is no sweet nectar for them to collect, and they do nothing to "assist" the plant in unfurling its tender new flowers. Once the flower has opened, the ants move on. The only Peony flower bud with ants. (Click to enlarge)explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that the plant may exude some sort of chemical attractor to ants. The ants presence on the tender bud may be a deterrent to other insects that might want to chew the bud or suck its juices with piercing mouthparts. As far as I could tell, no one seems to really understand why the ants are present.

Well, I suppose there are a million other things that I could mention regarding late spring happenings in nature, but I'll let this suffice for now. However, I do have a bunch of photographs that you can view in the Gallery section of this website. There are several categories on the main Gallery page, click on each to see a different set of photos. Scroll down for the most recent additions if you've already viewed some. I hope they inspire in you a sense of wonder and delight in the nature that surrounds us.


The Slow Dance of Trees

This portion of an old tree trunk I photographed calls to mind many other things in nature that move with a fluidity that belies their hardness, density, and age. Mile-high glaciers, for instance, flow down mountainsides at, well, a glacial pace! The swirling folds of hardened, metamorphic rock bent eons ago under infernal heat and tremendous pressure can be see in the many rock ledges and outcroppings of our eastern woodlands.

The woody cells (lignin) of trees grow slowly, adding a little bit more girth with each growing season. Because the tree grows slowly, it can make micro-adjustments to adapt to obstacles such as boulders and rocks, and influences like fire, insect attack, prevailing winds, soil erosion, and gravity. When an old tree finally lays down, such undulations are often revealed as it weathers. Bark slips away to reveal the twists and turns taken during a life spent reaching for the sky. The sun bleaches and dries the wood, causing gaps and crevasses between layers of wood grain and growth rings.

Even in death, a tree is "alive" with many other organisms, from an assortment of insects, mosses, and lichen, to fungi and microorganisms. Many bird, mammal, and reptile species will make their homes inside dead trees. Hardwood and resinous trees can take nearly as long to decompose as it did for them to grow so large in life. In the end, the beauty of their journey is revealed as a sacred dance recorded in wood.

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