It’s cloudy today, perhaps some snow tonight as the temperature is supposed to drop to around thirty. The sky right now, however, is dark grey from horizon to horizon, and across the reach the bay is barely visible, Windmill Point not even a thought in the morning fog and mist.

I’ve been viewing the work IT Chris is doing on the Nature Readings website, adding videos from writers reading about nature just about daily, in preparation for its launch soon. But when watching or listening to readings from New England and California and Pennsylvania and Prague, and Texas, and more, I find my mind quite quickly drifts to my yard, then beyond my yard to the river, and then further still. So I turn off the computer and saunter along the trails here at Aerie until I’m on the road which brings me down the hill to the Rappahannock.

And there, the seemingly infinite routine of buffleheads and gulls diving is in progress. An egret or heron lifts from the grass in the marsh, letting out its distress call of a low honk—almost a cross between a goose and a mallard. It lands nearby, however, anyway, and lets me pass without so much as looking up from the shallow pond, as if it would say, “Geez, Bob, you scared the crap out of me!” as it settles back into its perpetual rhythm.

This is my morning.

The contrast from duck pond to Rappahannock River is startling considering they are separated by a mere twelve feet of sand and reeds. The pond, shallow and still, mirror-like most of the time, and the river, while it has moments of glass-like reflection, is more often choppy, more than a mile wide at this point just a stone’s throw from the mouth of the bay. It is always moving, the current, the tide, the winds on the surface, always mixing and pushing out to sea or up the banks here, and every so often that barrier between river and pond erodes enough to allow a few narrow currents cut through. It is never the same.

At the university the other day a student came by my office to say hello. While we are completely online at this point, I let them know I’d be in my office for a few hours since several students opted to live in the dorms. This student, an athlete who lives with her teammates, came by because she said she’s a face to face person, and she wanted to meet me so when she watches the lectures via zoom, there will seem less of a barrier. We talked about sports and essays and pandemics and pizza, and she left. In the hallway she said she was going to go back and rewatch the first few videos now that she has met me; she believes she’ll absorb them better now. I agreed.

When I was young I tried reading John Muir and Thoreau and other such nature writers. The writing is inspiring, albeit, for me, often drawn out and boring. But there was always some barrier between the imagery and my imagination, some sort of missing element which I felt I needed to completely understand the prose.

Then I went outside.

I hiked the mountains, walked endless beaches, lay in fields of leaves of grass and walked along the edge of Walden in autumn, alone. On that particular outing, I returned to my yellow house on a reservoir not far from Concord and reread Walden, and for the first time in many readings of the book, I felt like I was reading my own journal, or a letter from a friend who I had traveled with. It came to life like nothing had.

That tradition continues. Prague, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg guides couldn’t help me comprehend the cities until I walked the streets, found a stool in a local pub and talked with locals, and then returned home and revisited the guides and literature of the area so that the experience seemed sealed, somehow grounded in another writer’s adventures, so that I could sit back after passages and say, “Yes! Exactly!” Before going, I didn’t know what the writer meant; upon return I read the work with the passion only experience can provide.

I need eye contact with nature; I need all the senses to be involved. An hour walk along the water or through the mountains can bring me a greater understanding of not only nature but myself than all the volumes nature-writers can provide.

I don’t mind today’s clouds, this evening’s forecast. The storms and “dreary” weather are as enlivening to me as a clear day or a starry sky in January. I don’t mind being cold, the wet night air on my face making my skin feel tight and my eyes sting. It is that sensory experience which is dreadfully lacking in literature.

I don’t believe nature writers write so those who can’t experience what we do can somehow be there vicariously. I think we write so that just a few pages in the reader might put down the book and grab some gloves and a scarf and head outside, whether to saunter down the sidewalks of a village or the blocks of a city, or a nearby park.

Being outside is as primitive an instinct as humans have; it is in our nature.

The Return of Human Decency.

Schedule of Biden-Harris Inauguration Day: Timeline of events and how to  watch | TheHill

Isn’t it crazy? An ordinary day, with relatively ordinary people showing each other signs of respect and humility, acting with diplomacy and integrity, being polite, demonstrating their love for each other and country, is suddenly an extraordinary event.

Like some prodigal child, the country has come home to open arms, and is welcome with a feast, for what was once lost is now found, what once seemed gone forever has come home again.

It is inauguration day, and a gentleman, a fighter, someone not ashamed to show emotion, proud of his faith, his country, his service to this country, is at the helm, and at his side is a woman of color whose intelligence is surpassed only by her fierce determination, and her devotion to country is equaled by her devotion to her family.

The former leadership showed no signs of love, none of integrity and certainly no signs of humility. The irony, of course, is had he shown even a small amount, he just might have won reelection. But it simply isn’t in him. When I saw the pictures today of Vice President Harris’ kids grabbing her arms, and them all laughing, it reminded me of the beautiful photos of the Obamas, and of President Biden’s brutal loss of his son, today his other at his side. These images—truly universal images of the elemental in all our lives, family—are absent from the past four years, and for all of the debates over policy and bullish attitudes, it just might be that love and grace, humbleness and a sense of sacrifice, is what we want in our leadership.

I’m not depressed today. It’s not medicine or the sunny, clear blue skies, or starting classes again or moving along well on a new project. No. It’s that today is an ordinary day, finally. The news is positive, words like “hope” and “grateful” have returned to the rhetoric. I’m going to have a glass of wine but this time to celebrate instead of to forget.

I live in the country, and many of my neighbors have been serious supporters of the former president. During the previous four years, the example set by the president seemed to make some feel like they had carte blanche to treat others, particularly those of us with different ideas, as intruders, as suspect, and more than a few acted like childish, unintelligent people. But this was the example set for them. Sad.

But the example set for us by President Biden and Vice President Harris is clear: it reflects the president’s very own faith in the words of Thomas Merton: “Our job is to love others without stopping to decide if they are worthy.”

That should be normal. That should be how we act on any given day. But for four years I’ve felt like my most successful days were when I made it home without having an argument, without having a stroke. Life should not be like that, but it was. It really was.

No more. Now, while we still have a transition to endure, the golden rule—quoted today during President Biden’s speech—is in favor again, and the normal acts of human behavior to treat others with respect, to act with dignity and integrity, and to have some self-respect, have returned.

The view from this wilderness today is one of hope. It’s been a long time coming.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris & Their Families on Stage for Fireworks -  Photogallery


Tourists In The Street At Kazan Cathedral In St Petersburg, Russia  Editorial Stock Photo - Image of road, church: 131547573

I’m thinking tonight about Rachel. Dear beautiful Rachel.

This is a tragic story.

In the early 2000’s, in May, in the hallway of the Pribaltyskaya Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, I ran into my good friends Jose and Rachel. It was nearly four am and we were leaving in a few hours for the airport, but no one was asleep anyway and Rachel decided while packing that she still needed a half dozen or so bottles of vodka to bring home as gifts.

“Vodka!” I said, perhaps a little too loudly. “Rachel, you’re pregnant!” A few hookers at a nearby booth turned to watch.

“It’s not for me!” she declared, also not just a little loud for the hour of the morning.

Jose explained he was bringing her to a twenty-four-hour kiosk not far away and would make sure she didn’t get hurt or ripped off, or, worse, purchase bad alcohol. This was Jose’s fourth trip to Russia with me and he knew his way around the black market during the white nights of late May. “Just be careful, Rach,” I called. “You should be dead anyway!” I added, and we all laughed.

A few days earlier our entire entourage was walking freely down Nevsky Prospect, the Fifth Avenue of the city. I was right behind Rachel on the crowded street so we were all pretty close to each other. As usual, my former student was engaged in taking pictures and writing in her notebook, jotting down “Kazan Cathedral” which was just to our right. Of all the people I’ve traveled with—numbering well over four hundred—Rachel was by far the most diligent about drinking it all in, making notes, taking countless photographs. She always smiled anyway and could make everyone around her laugh, and there on the other side of the world she was in her element. She absorbed every single moment. In the evenings she’d come into my room and show me what pictures she had taken that day and double-checked their locations. Then we’d sit and talk about her impending motherhood, what it’s like being a parent—my son had just turned ten. We’d laugh about students in the classes of mine she had taken. Like one guy that previous semester who kicked over a desk, told me to fuck off, and stormed out of the building.

“I have that effect on people,” I said.

“Only those who deserve it!” she laughed. “He was such a punk! I can’t believe you let him back in.”

“Chances,” I told her, and she laughed. We had over the course of a few semesters joked about how many second chances we get, and when we do to not screw them up. “He pulled out a passing grade. He’s in my next class this summer, so we’ll see. Which, by the way, I saw you’re not in!”

“Hello?!” she laughed, pointing to her abdomen, which was just starting to show enough that she wore loose blouses.

“Can I ask about the baby’s father?”

“We’re working it out. He keeps promising he’s going to be different now that we’re having a baby. He got a job, moved in with his parents to save money. We’ll see.”

“Second chance?”

“HA! More like fourth or fifth!”

And we’d talk about education, about travel being the most advanced degree possible, and that she wanted to make sure she went on all the trips she could. For this one Rachel had secured a scholarship to help pay for the expenses. To earn that, however, when we returned they would have to write a paper for me for Humanities credit, and she chose to write about architecture.

So the next morning while walking past Kazan Cathedral, she was absorbed in her notes and stepped right off the curb and into the cross street where a bus was ripping past us at forty miles an hour. I was close enough to Rachel to grab her hair which she had pulled back in a pony tail, and I yanked her back into my chest, and the bus was close enough to knock her bag out of her hand on into the street. Those around us screamed and Rachel turned back somewhat unaware of what had just happened. “He saw me,” she said, to which I replied, “Yeah, he did. He just didn’t care. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way here.” We picked up her belongings and in no time she was back into enjoying her tour of Russia; my heart didn’t settle down for hours.

“Second chance!” she said to me, later on the walking tour.

“More like four or five!” I joked.

The morning we were to leave, she and Jose showed up to the bus with their bags just in time for our ride to the airport. Rachel had her vodka supply and asked how she should handle customs. I ran through the myriad responses possible for whatever they asked, but as it turned out they waved her right through.

I saw Rachel several times during the following year, even after she turned in her paper (A), and a few times after she told me she had a new roommate at an apartment on 24th Street at the beach, and she broke it off for good with the ex.

The last time I saw her she brought her daughter, Shaylyn, to my office. This beautiful woman with her beautiful little girl was so excited to move on with her life; she’d be a single mother, she told me, and hoped she could set a good example. Then we remembered the bus in Petersburg, laughing at the nearly tragic outcome, and she assured me I had saved two lives that day. I laughed and told her I was just glad she hadn’t cut her long, curly hair. “Yeah that hurt, by the way,” she joked, grabbing the back of her head.

Her daughter has her eyes.

Not much later, in May of 2005, the little girl’s father went to find Rachel who was hanging out with some friends at their apartment. When she refused to let him in, he cut a hole in the screen and climbed through. Rachel ran out the back door and called 911. Her ex walked through the house and shot four people killing two of them before he found Rachel hiding outside. She had called 911 and the operator had to ask several times what was going on, but Rachel was quiet, until finally she replied, “He saw me,” and her ex put his gun to her skull and shot her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Three years later with some plea-bargaining to avoid the death penalty, he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

In the woods not far from the hotel, right on the beach and tucked away in a grove of trees, was my favorite gritty bar I’ve ever been in. Everyone called it “the shack.” I knew a gypsy band who played there most nights after midnight until about four, and for a few years by then I’d head out and join them, borrowing Dima’s guitar while Sasha played violin and Natasha sang, and it would last until dawn while we drank red wine and ate shashleek, a chicken dish similar to shishkabob. Sometimes there would just be a few of us, and other times a whole group, like the time we spent the night in the shack during a storm. Rachel was there that night, sitting at a table in the small make-shift shack, taking it all in, watching everyone dance, sing, and drink. She had bottled water and a lot of chicken and laughed hard with Natasha who sat with her between sets, though I know Rachel didn’t understand a word the singer said. I can picture her still, sitting there, laughing.

That’s how I will always picture her.

Her daughter today would be almost Rachel’s age then.


We spin and we turn through the changes and falls, hoping beyond hope we get to the end of it all without something tragic happening, dreaming of second chances and laughing the best we know how, stealing time with friends, telling stories and remembering when. But there are no second chances, not really; just this one, and while not all of us will live the life we had hoped for when we started out, some will not get any chance at all.

A few weeks after the murder I was giving a tour at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, to my art students at the university. Rachel always showed up for those tours—notebook in hand. She was on my email list of people who wanted to know when I brought my class since it was open to anyone. I stood in the atrium lobby drinking a glass of cabernet talking to another student who often came with her husband. It was quiet while visitors and students mulled about waiting for the tour to start, and I said to the woman, “I thought Rachel would be here. She had emailed a few weeks ago that she was going to bring her daughter.”

The woman handed her wine to her husband, touched my arm, and suggested we move to a table to talk.

Rachel Scher Obituary - Chesapeake, Virginia | Graham Funeral Home
Rachel Scher

Opinion: The Most Misunderstood Concept in Discourse


If you will indulge me for one post, this is a diversion from the literal nature to human nature:

Few people think they know more than the ignorant MAGA dude does in line at 711 looking for attention, for someone, for anyone to mark his credibility. These maskless morons cannot be reasoned with, nor can they comprehend large words or complex concepts. Does that sound arrogant? Does this hint of elitism? I don’t care, because at this moment I am going to do something I rarely do: Brandish my three college degrees as well as my expertise in research and verification of sources. And if any of this basic lesson in critical thinking comes across as anything other than a frustrated, highly anxious professor of thirty years who can’t handle the spike in blood pressure when small-brained pricks yell conspiracy, fine.  

So to the point, here’s how discourse in this country is supposed to work:

The most important question professors ask of every student who writes a paper, takes an exam, debates an issue, or raises a hand to ask a question is, “Where did you get your information?” The answer to that question determines just how prepared that student is to participate in any discourse. The very notion that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” is simply not true. An opinion is a “judgement based upon facts.” What everyone is entitled to is their “belief.” And as long as people keep mixing up those two simple concepts, we will have division, dissent, and misleading information.

A simple metaphor: if someone’s stomach is in excruciating pain and they want to know what to do, they ask a doctor, not a plumber, not the guy next door, not the friend in line at the convenience store. No one questions this. But when it comes to issues of constitutional law, of election accuracy, of the rights of individuals to raid a government institution, too many people “believe” they are entitled to their opinion of what should be allowed and what should be questioned and mocked.

It is a simple three step process to insure people know what they’re talking about when they protest or protect, when they prosecute or defend: One, again, “Where did you get your information?” The answer to this question, if done correctly, should be sources whom have advanced degrees and experience in the field discussed—constitutional lawyers, political science researchers—and it should be noted that education and experience are not the same thing. A three-term member of congress does not make that person an expert on anything except what it’s like to be in congress for all that time. An historian, social scientist, or political scientist who has made a career out of investigating the causes and effects of House and Senate activities, studying the experts through the years, and has published extensively, is the source of what works and what does not work.

Two: Because even experts may allow personal beliefs to stand in the way, people who truly know what they’re talking about have multiple, independent sources. No self-respecting expert would dare present results of any investigation, whether into the actions of a president, the accuracy of voting machines, or the validity of an election, without first consulting at least three independent, recognized experts in the field being discussed. Then and only then can a valid judgement be made based upon the most accurate and complete set of facts.

Three: Anyone who is to be taken seriously should have a complete understanding of the opposition’s argument, evidence, and position. To know how anyone reached an opposing opinion is essential if any intelligent discourse is to take place. This allows either side to point out the fallacies of the opposition through prior understanding.

Okay, so what’s the problem? Easy: A fundamental belief that everyone who disagrees with you is lying because they want what’s best for themselves and not for you. The only way to combat such a non-objective belief is to insist those people provide the source of their information so you can better understand how they came to that conclusion. If the answer continues to be “the other side is lying” or “it is a conspiracy,” but never fastens itself to concrete study and research to accurately determine the validity of the evidence, they are participating in a debate they simply are not prepared for, rendering their belief absolutely worthless.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may... - Quote

The Five

In my creative writing classes I gave an assignment to exemplify the benefits of immediate experience over memory of a previous encounter, and of allowing all our senses to participate instead of just one.

I sent half the students into their respective bathrooms (without limitations upon identification, of course) with a pad and pen and I asked them to spend ten minutes in there and describe it. The other half of the students stayed in the classroom but did the same thing. The results of this second group were always predictable. Certainly, every one of them had been in the bathrooms multiple times through the semester, but still they almost universally remember the trite—running water, unpleasant odor, writing on the wall, mysterious missing locks on the stalls, paper towels on the floor around the garbage can.

When the first group returned, their notes were a bit more illuminating. Not just unpleasant smells but one of overwhelming cleansers; the low buzz of a fluorescent bulb, the mirrors always slightly too low on the wall, the faucet left on, the urinal still running, the clogged commode.

We experience with five senses, sometimes six if you include that sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, but we tend to remember and often only experience with one—sight. Studies show we rely upon how things “look” to recall them more than eighty percent of the time, yet the number one trigger for recall is smell. “Use ALL the senses,” I tell them. “Perhaps ‘taste’ is not so appropriate in this particular assignment, but sound is essential, obviously smell, and touch for its absence—how can you not include the desire to not touch anything?”

We spend a good deal of our lives living in the singular. One thing at a time; one sense is enough, one path in the woods. One thing problematic in this dip back to Psych 101 is how much we are missing. Sure, sometimes one is enough—but even when we eat, taste is only a fraction of the experience—the aroma draws us in and works with taste for complement, and presentation strikes first, of course. And how many of us are not crazy about a particular food because of its texture (for me, swordfish).


This morning I sat on the rocks at the river, trying to mentally juggle too many happenings at once. The new semester starts soon—online for now—and I thought about how I had hoped for more classes but enrollment is way down, so then I thought about the project I’m working on to catalogue as many readings about nature from writers as I can and my attempts to summon interest, then about a new book project I started, kinda—okay, not so much started as stepped in that direction—and about my sharp, intensely sharp spike in anxiety and depression when the news is violent, when the rhetoric is redundant and aggravating and angry, and about a tree which fell and needs to be cut up, and about

and about…


the coffee kicked in and I took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly into the chilly breeze, and reminded myself that I need to warm up to the day in much the same way we would warm up before a class at the health club. Take deep breathes through the nose, out slowly through the mouth, stretch, let all our senses work—and stretch those senses, make them limber, feel and see and touch and taste and hear all at once, not only like we are absorbing the world around us but the world around us is absorbing us.

This doesn’t work well in the city. It doesn’t even work well at home on a mat in a quiet room—we created the room by design and experience. No, nature is safe from subjective influence, it remains absent of judgement and human influence; there’s nothing out there we need to “get to” while looking around. It has a sense of eternal about it.

So I sat on the rocks and did that breathing thing, and the cold tightened the skin on my face the way cold wind does, and I could sense every touch of air across my reddened and tight neck and cheeks. On my tongue and lips that taste of salt I have known since my childhood, the marshy odor, the freshness of the Chesapeake, and the waves ripping against the rocks, lapping on the sand, breaking ten feet out in the river, the call of a gull behind me, the low distant rumble of a workboat diesel.

And then, dominantly, the view, the view which reaches deep into the immediate and blocks out all things social and political and makes us present. The deeply blue water today, the intrusively blue sky, the foam from the cold water on the sand and the white edges on the tips of the breaking waves. The small green strip of interruption that is Parrott Island a mile or so out, and the glint of sun off the window of a truck crossing the Norris Bridge in the west.

I am rarely present these days, distracted by what I hear on the radio, disturbed by the distance between where I am and where I need to be. It happens to us all. The changes in my life over the past two and a half years have been so drastic that sometimes—usually—it is hard to keep up with everything, so I turn to the constant, the familiar, to let my senses recalibrate themselves and make things right.

I like—need—order in my very unorderly life. And stepping into nature is perhaps the most reliable method of getting all my ducks in a row and feeling centered again. There’s something Thoreauvian about that, of course, and Jung is part of this equation, but for me on a much simpler and basic train of thought, it’s the undefinable persistence of beauty that brings me peace. And the innate need of us all to love. Lao Tzu was right when he insisted that “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses.”

So many changes, so much turmoil, so many medications and sessions and updates and downplays that have distracted us all from what should be elemental in our lives—ourselves, and all of our senses working together. It is the cure for the soul, as Oscar Wilde once noted, as is the soul the cure for the senses.

In this new year I’ve noticed something which at once was subtle but has become too persistent to ignore—I’m stepping further away from that which doesn’t bring peace to my mind. And the one absolute I know is I never had that problem in nature.

It just makes sense.