Some Philosophical Thoughts on Instinct

There’s something about this time of year, as (in the Northern hemisphere, at least) the Earth starts its tilt away from the Sun: the sunlight moves through the day faster; its angle bathes the greens in golden tones; the nights are cooler, clearer, starry; the morning dew burns into blue-skied sunshine by midday. On afternoon walks, I notice that the branches haven’t yet begun to burst into flames of color, but a few early-yellowing leaves have been blowing off our river birch. They speckle the lawn, not yet piles.

If Spring makes me feel hopeful, and Summer makes me feel centered, Fall makes me feel restless. At worst, this manifests in heightened anxiety and irritability…at best, in inspiration.

I’ve been thinking about this restlessness while watching the backyard animals and wondering if a part of my response to Fall is instinct. So far removed from the wild life, it’s hard to tell…but I’ve been thinking about what an instinct feels like to an animal. From the inside out, is it like an itch? An urge? A creative drive? 

One of the chipmunks that lives behind our garden boxes was spotted taking mouthfuls of leaf litter into its burrow recently. Beyond our ability to notice, his or her fur has already begun growing thicker. Instead of eating seeds in the sunshine, he or she has begun cacheing hazelnuts. I’ve noticed squirrels too, moving more purposefully than playfully this month. 

And the hummingbirds are a rare sight now. Theirs is the first migration I usually notice (by their absence), followed by the monarchs. The thought of just knowing when to go, and how, and where, when you weigh as much as a sheet of paper, is so awe-inspiring.

All this behavior is instinct. And, though we humans are more practiced at drowning it out, as fellow animals, we must have something of it, too, right?

So what’s the deep, wordless, magnetic wisdom our bodies direct us with this time of year? 

Planning Trees

Before we built our house, there were two dead Oak trees on the lot that we had to have cut down. They were in the way of where our house was going to sit and seemed like a magnet for lightning. Even knowing that, having them cut down pained me. Now, a dozen years later, we have about 30 trees of different kinds on our third of an acre (arborvitae, Japanese maples, Cleveland pears, smoke trees, a redbud, a flowering crabapple, a maple, an oak, a hydrangea, and a river birch). And this fall, we’re planning to plant more. 

There are so many reasons to plant trees– you only need one to spur you to action. (Incidentally, even if you do it yourself, it’s easier than you might imagine. I speak from the experience of, when our kids were tiny and our daylight hours were super busy, planting a tree by flashlight around 11pm at night.)

Trees purify the air we breathe, exchanging the carbon dioxide we exhale for the oxygen we inhale, and filtering dust and pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife, each one nourishing and hosting communities of fungi, lichen, insects, birds, and mammals. They help the watershed by capturing rainfall and releasing it back into the atmosphere through evaporation…instead of letting rainfall run off over roads, eroding them, and picking up pollutants before going into streams, rivers, and lakes. Trees offer shade, cool the air, and reduce wind speeds. They reduce noise pollution, transforming the whoosh of traffic into the whisper of leaves in a breeze. As far as making a positive environmental impact, planting a tree (or ten) is probably the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally significant thing most of us can do in our lifetime.

It’s also a good health decision. Trees help lower blood pressure and heart rate. They improve stress and anxiety, and help lift depression.

And undeniably, they stimulate our imaginations. When I was little, each tree was a castle I could climb into, play under, daydream in…I remember some favorite trees in as much detail as I do former houses. I even have favorite animated trees (the ones from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro). I still daydream under trees as often as I can (and, honestly, I still climb into one when the opportunity presents itself).

And unapologetically, I hug them.


I’ve been quieter than I’d like to be here lately. Last month, my grandmother died. She lived to be 96 (and a half) years old, and died peacefully at home. Her death was not unexpected, but it was still a loss, and in the weeks since, I’ve been experiencing time in that weird, sometimes-lengthened/sometimes-compressed way you do after a big event or transition. I feel like I need recalibrating.

Being outside usually helps my body snap back into sensing the season/month/day/time correctly, independent of a schedule, but I haven’t been spending as much time outdoors as I’d like either. After my grandmother’s passing, there were the arrangements, the visitation, the funeral, the luncheon…; then, a week-long parade of back-to-school season check-ups and appointments for me and my kids; I developed a skin issue that forced me to stay out of the sun and the prickly heat; then, it rained. I’m getting back to it, but I’m out of my usual rhythms.

My grandmother would not have ever thought of herself as an outdoorsy person, but (like a lot of people) she probably enjoyed nature more than she realized. When she was young, she loved lying in the sunshine and working on her tan; as a wife, mother, and grandmother, she planted flower beds and hosted backyard picnics; when she became home-bound, she loved to hear about my garden and its wildlife, and we set up a feeder outside her living room window so she could watch the birds (and deer, and squirrels) from her favorite chair.

Her favorite bird was the cardinal– I don’t know if because of its personality or its plumage…or just the fact that it is easily identifiable.

The other day, I saw one in the dawn redwood tree and, in spite of feeling out-of-sorts, I felt compelled to follow and photograph it. It kept finding great pockets of light, and it struck me as scrappy and cheery. I don’t believe it was a gift from my grandmother (what do I know?) but I do believe it was a gift, that a reminder of her visited me and recalled her.

A Charm of Hummingbirds

Last year, at a bird banding at our friends’ home, I had the experience of hearing a hummingbird heartbeat against my ear. It was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime experience and so awe-inspiring that I haven’t found the perfect words to convey all my feelings about it yet.

What I can say is that that moment sparked a great interest in hummingbirds…in learning more about them, in feeding them, and in photographing them.

This last bit is the hardest. It’s not just that they’re incredibly fast, it’s also that they’re small, and iridescent…and so fairy-like that they cast a spell of reverie on me; it’s hard to switch from eye to camera as fast as I need to because I’m just…so…entranced.

We had one hummingbird visit the garden occasionally from the end of May on, but recently, we’ve had two visiting regularly. They sip nectar from the feeder and the flowers (especially the butterfly bush and the lilies), and they call and chirp to each other while they flit and dive and whirl through the air.

I hunch beside our above-ground pool and wait, eyes on the feeder, listening for the buzz of their wings. And when one shows up, I count. So far, the time they hover at the feeder is between 15 and 35 seconds. Long minutes pass between appearances.

It’s worth being patient though.

I keep saying I just want to take one “great” hummingbird photo this summer, and so I show up and shoot a hundred outtakes. With another subject, all these little failures might be discouraging; with the hummingbird, they’re addictive. Every little failure feels like I’m closer to really capturing their magic.

And what do I expect then? To be bestowed iridescence? Flight? A charm (their plural) of guardian hummingbirds? I don’t know…but something of great delight, certainly.

A Little Rant on Behalf of the Vulnerable Among Us

Every Fourth of July, I wonder if (American) animals think it’s the end of the world. Imagine what not just one sparkler or firework smells and sounds and looks like to an owl or a deer or a bear or a mouse (or to any farm or domestic animal); imagine thousands popping up in all directions, in no apparent pattern; with little to no warning (unlike, say, storms or forest fires, which at least usually allow some opportunity to run for cover). These traditional celebrations are supposed to inspire pride and patriotism and gratitude for America…but, if you think of them from a different point of view, they’re terrifying.

I tell my kids that the way we treat those who are vulnerable among us says a lot; that you can tell a lot about someone by the way they treat the ill, the foreign-born, the downtrodden, the elderly, children, animals…among many others. That call to compassion and kindness is a challenge for all of us every day, I understand that. But a key to compassion is imagination, and imagination requires some effort.

It’s not just the animals who might feel like it’s the end of the world tonight. Think of veterans with ptsd, people living with anxiety, children with sensory disorders…think of people, if that helps you be kinder to animals (or animals, if it helps you be kinder to people). Does anyone deserve to feel paralyzing panic or a frenetic surge of survival instinct? A terror so great (even if irrational to others) that it triggers your freeze or flight or fight response?

I don’t think this compassion is unpatriotic. Would it be so controversial other days of the year? Other holidays? I love being a (hyphenated) American, but I can celebrate my patriotism in ways other than by burning and blowing stuff up.

Would it be so hard for our towns and cities to transition to quiet fireworks, set off only during certain hours (instead of all weekend long), in designated places (as far away from wildlife as possible)? And for friends and family to celebrate with picnics and stargazing (as an option)?

Some of my family members will be sitting outside watching the display tonight, but some of us will be inside, in the basement, with all the pets. I wish I could extend that offer of freedom from fear to other creatures who might need it.

Stay safe, everyone.

Summer Light Seeking

It’s the first week of July and it feels like summer has finally hit. After days and days of cool weather and rain, we went directly into oppressively hot days without hardly any transition. Everything is green and swollen with humidity.

We harvested the spring peas and carrots from the kitchen garden. The lilies, daisies, balloon flowers, and butterfly bushes are blooming. After only occasional sightings last month, the hummingbirds are regulars throughout the day now (also: two of them might be an item, stay tuned).

Every morning, in addition to setting out seeds and nuts in the feeders, my older daughter and I fill various bird baths and dishes with ice water, so the garden birds and animals have something to drink when the heat’s at its worst. We humans hydrate and eat ice cream and swim…but sometimes the only thing to do is retreat into the man-made shade and air conditioning. The least we can do for those who can’t is offer some water.

I’ve been taking photos and thinking about writing, but haven’t been doing much editing or blogging. I want to get things done (shot/edited/written/published), but there is something so restorative about just lying in the sunshine. And there are so many cloudy days the rest of the year…so I’ve been sun-seeking and sunbathing as much as possible.

My kids joke that, being named after a flower, I can’t help but require sun like this. But it does feel like an essential need to me, physically and psychologically…it has for as long as I can remember.

I think that’s one of the things that attracts me to photography: the way its magic hinges on the light; it’s ability to illuminate something, save and separate it from the shadows. Every frame’s purpose: light.

It lights me up even away from the summer sunshine.

Scenes from a Burrow Building

Our resident mother chipmunk looks like she’s getting ready for a second litter soon. From what we can tell, she’s eating about the same amount, but looking a little rounder, and more significantly, she’s getting her little paws dirty and undertaking a big renovation on her burrow.

She has filled in the previous main entrance (where the first litter of the season emerged from)…

…and made a few new holes further away, but in the same general area (which, luckily, we can see from the kitchen window and so not disturb her as we watch her work).

One of the holes is interesting because it’s between two of our patio paving stones; she dug out a little bit of the grout between them, then the sand underneath, then some rocks, then dirt. The hole isn’t very deep and it turns sharply into a tunnel, so it’s probably an entrance rather than a plunge hole.

It’s one thing to read that chipmunks are amazing diggers, but it’s much more impressive to see them action. This isn’t cavalier digging; it’s a meticulous feat of engineering and strength. She tests potential hole sites before she excavates them; she transports dirt and gravel and rocks offsite via her multi-purpose (Mary Poppins magic bag) cheek pouches; she brings back grass and softer dirt, presumably to line some of the tunnels. And that’s just what we can see above ground!

Our mother chipmunk has also been rolling some rocks back and forth in front of her new burrow entrance. Are they a door? A warning? A decoration? She moves them a few times a day, into different configurations, both from inside the hole and outside. (When she’s inside the hole, the rocks look like they’re moving themselves).

I hope she’s proud of her hard work, but more importantly, I hope her new burrow keeps her (and her forthcoming babies) safe. Another small marvel among us, we’re looking forward to watching over it– what we can see of it– in the weeks to come.