Diaries and the Wild Mind: How to Start (or Re-start) a Journal Habit

Some (but not all!) of my diaries from the past several years.

In common with Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, May Sarton, Anais Nin, Gary Snyder, Katherine Mansfield, Joan Didion, Leonardo da Vinci, St. Therese of Lisieux, and countless other writers, I am a diarist.  I have kept a diary, with more or less regularity, since first grade.  When I fall into a period in which I neglect “the notebook,” as Gary Snyder refers to his journal, I find myself less settled, less clear, less creative, less sure of myself, less inspired, and–yes–I think also less intelligent.

I used to keep a separate notebook for my nature observations and sketches alongside my everyday diary, but now I just throw everything into one book, which seems right to me–life and nature tangled together, as they are in truth.  When I teach writing, the habit of keeping a journal is the first thing I recommend:  Carry a notebook everywhere, and write whatever and whenever you like.

DailyJournalHoriz480Starting (or returning to the habit after a long hiatus) is the hardest part.  Even seasoned writers know that blank pages, especially the first blank pages of any project, can be strangely intimidating for flat, inanimate objects.  Here are my top three tips for staring down page one, and getting started in the habit of diarizing:

1.  For your first diary, choose a cheap notebook.  I think that  once you are in the habit of keeping a journal, you should choose a book that delights you.  But does this sound familiar?  You want to start a diary, and so for inspiration you purchase some elegantly bound book filled with handmade, flower-petal-strewn paper. A book this beautiful deserves to be started while you are sitting in the perfect place, with the perfect pen, and the perfect cup of tea.  The first words to grace its pages must also be perfect:  thoughtful, intelligent, yet personal.

How intimidating!  Mark Twain himself would be struck dumb by such requirements!  And so the gorgeous diary sits empty, sometimes for all eternity.  Now you feel guilty for not starting a diary as you’d intended to, and for buying an expensive journal that gathers dust.

Composition books are perfect for starting to journal, or getting back in the habit.  They’re a comfortable size, a perfect number of pages, and unintimidatingly cheap.   Once you are settled into the habit of keeping a diary, then go for the flower paper, or whatever inspires you. (I am lovingly devoted to my current diary–a cover of rich, aged leather, with refillable fountain-pen-friendly paper.  It looks like it could have been carried by a medieval bard, and I plan to use it for the rest of my life.)

2.  Counter first-page jitters by starting with a quote or poem. I still do this, and it’s magical–the first page fills up, and you don’t even have to think of what to say!  Here a few from my recent notebooks:

“Je choisis tout. ” (I choose all.)–St. Therese of Lisieux

“Everything I do gon’ be funky from now on.”  –Dr. John

“It is true that we are called to create a better world.  But we first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task:  that of creating our own lives.” –Thomas Merton

Or there is always the diarist’s perrenial favorite from Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

3.  Whenever you don’t know what to write, try this:  “So, right now I’m…”  This will cover everything from crying over bad break-ups to observing limpets at low-tide.

spiral staircaseI don’t often read through my old diaries, but after gathering them for the photo at the top of this post, I heaped them onto my desk, and have been peeking into the pages now and then. Wow–if I hadn’t written most of this stuff down, it might as well not have happened, as far as my memory goes. The most wonderful thing I am learning  (or is it the most disheartening thing?) is that I am just the same as I was ten years ago–the same things make me anxious, joyful, peaceful.  The same issues–living simply, living creatively, living wild,  learning what it means to be a mother, a wife–lie at the center of my mind’s wandering.  I see, as I never have before, that my life is a spiral staircase (or maybe a kettle of vultures on a morning thermal) winding around itself, but with an ever-higher view.

And if none of this is enough for you,  a new study shows that keeping a diary about emotional events can dramatically  speed healing from traumatic physical injury.

Are you a regular, wanna-be, or on-again/off-again diarist?  I’d love to hear your stories.

This Cute Raccoon Is Stealing Our Cat Food!

I was out on the back deck reading after dinner when Tom poked his head out the door, looked past me towards the steps, and laughed, saying “Who’s your friend?”


We quickly realized that this was the raccoon we’ve seen hanging around our yard recently. Claire and I had spotted her the day before, boldly bathing in our backyard fountain, totally unconcerned when we came close enough to take this iPhone photo.


But that evening on the porch, it took a few minutes to figure out the source of her boldness: a few days earlier, I had (somewhat alarmingly) heard the sound of glass breaking in the middle of the day, but never found the cause. Later, Tom asked, “How did that jar get broken out back?” and he told me how he’d cleaned up a big broken jar at the base of the deck stairs.  Eventually, we put it all together: mid-day open back door, jar of cat food, bold raccoon! (No cat food bits were left amongst the broken glass, Tom reports.) The jar had a lid with a handle, just like the one in the picture below.  Can’t you imagine those bad little paws pulling it along the porch?  Now she was back for the new jar.


She’s a very small raccoon, and a little sweetheart–not much concerned about our presence, but still a little shy, and not at all aggressive. She always leaves when we ask her to. Her enlarged nipples mean she’s got some young stashed away nearby somewhere. I don’t begrudge her the cat food (part of me–the unecological part– would love to feed her and her babies!) but for her own good, I’m making sure she doesn’t get any more.  Raccoons that are accustomed to human food sources  become emboldened, and if they begin visiting households that aren’t as sanguine about raccoons, it can mean a ticket to the animal control death chamber.  This day, I went back to reading Jane Austen, and the raccoon climbed the cherry tree to steal the fruit.  A much better arrangement.

There is a myth that raccoons seen during the day are rabid, but this is untrue.  While most raccoons are more active at night, female raccoons with young, like this little girl in our yard, will be out searching for food anytime of day.  When her young are ready to leave the nest, we may see them during the day as well.

There is a lot more about raccoons–mythology, history, crazy stories, coexistence–in my new book, The Urban Bestiary, out this September (and conveniently available for pre-order now, during baby-raccoon season). It’s the time of year that all manner of babies are emerging from nests, dens, and hollows. What are you seeing in your corner of the urban wild? I’d love to hear your stories.

The Urban Bestiary: My New Book, Coming In September

UB225I am very pleased to announce that my new book, The Urban Bestiary:  Encountering the Everyday Wild, will be published by Little, Brown this fall.  If you read The Tangled Nest you’ve heard bits about it here and there, and if you follow me on Facebook, you’ve seen a glimpse of the gorgeous cover.  Now I want to tell you a little about what’s inside.

It is my passionate belief that daily connection with the natural, wild world matters.  It makes us more creative, responsive, responsible, imaginative, wild, and happy inhabitants of our home communities. It also allows these communities–made up of humans and myriad other animals—to flourish.  The Urban Bestiary is a song—a symphony, really—in support of this belief.

In an homage to the medieval bestiary form, my modern bestiary mingles the many beautiful human ways of knowing.  The creatures that live among us are explored not just through science and natural history, but also myth, memoir, story, philosophy.  Through the activities of our own lives and homes, we are drawn into nature’s daily story, a story that is not always easy to navigate, and that in urban places includes a shaggy cast of characters: coyotes, hawks, raccoons, moles, rats, robins, chickens.  Humans, and even trees have their own beastly chapters.

This book reflects countless hours spent with my nose buried in scientific research, interviewing wildlife professionals and biologists, exploring global animal traditions and mythologies, and of course observing and tracking urban wildlife on a daily basis.  More than  anything I’ve ever written, this book was composed outdoors, even when the weather wasn’t inclined to cooperate. Wanting to be in close contact with my urban-wild subject matter, I built backyard fires; learned to write neatly with fingerless gloves or while holding an umbrella; found a tree branch at the local park that could double as a writing desk; and singlehandedly kept the Rite-in-the-Rain notebook company in business.

squirrelOn days when I just couldn’t work outside, I worked with my study windows open and discovered the truth of one of my basic tenets—that our homes are semipermeable to the wild.  I discovered a very bold squirrel on my desk one day.  And another day?  A hummingbird flew in the window like a faerie apparition and then, thank god, out again.

BearThe cover art is by the wonderful Swedish artist Olaf Hajek, who also did the cover of my last book, Crow Planet.  Treat yourself to a visit to his website, where his influences are everywhere in evidence, including European folk art and Frida Kahlo.  I love the cover—I love how it is full of whimsy and lightheartedness, and yet the scene is not merely lighthearted; the conflicts that can brew in the urban wilds are everywhere in evidence.  I also love that it’s my favorite color of blue-green.  The front cover is a delight, but more images wrap all the way around the back and onto the flaps—bears, opossums, and…well, you’ll just have to buy the book!

PossumTracksThe interior art is the work of the wondrously talented Tracie-Noles Ross.  You’ll see a profile of her life and work here on The Tangled Nest closer to the release date.  For now let me say that the book is full of her detailed pen and ink illustrations that capture the spirit of this Bestiary perfectly.  Here’s a sneak preview: an opossum track that is simultaneously accurate and magical.  I don’t know how she does it, and I can’t wait for you all to see the rest!

The official release date is September 17th.  You can pre-order The Urban Bestiary from the usual places including IndyBound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local bookseller.

I can’t wait to share this book with you.  Please join me later this summer as I begin a more serious campaign of  Facebook sharing, tweeting, and shouting from the rooftops.

Saint Hildegard’s Cookies of Joy

Spring is the perfect season to celebrate Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Rhineland mystic, hildegardnaturalist, seer, writer, gardener, composer, and physician. The world is leaping to life in every color of green, a celebration of Hildegard’s central concept of viriditas–the “greening finger” of the divine in all of life. I’ve long considered Hildegard a personal patron, and wrote about her in my book about Darwin.

Seattle is greening these days, to be sure. It’s also wet. As it pours rain for the third day in a row, I’m not feeling the least inclined to venture outdoors, not even to tend the herb garden as the saint surely would have. Instead, I’m curling up with a nice cup of tea and a plate of Hildgegard’s Cookies of Joy.


Yes, Cookies of Joy. As a healer, Hildegard was alert to the healing properties in herbs and spices. This blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves not only banishes melancholia, according to Hildegard’s Physica, but also releases our innate intelligence, and keeps us youthful in body and spirit. This recipe is my own adaptation of Hildegard’s 800 year old version. Her abbey at Rupertsberg had many benefactors, and traded regularly with the towns nearby. She would have had access to sugar, as well as eggs and butter from the holdings of the abbey’s small farm, and it is likely that she added such ingredients to her basic recipe, which emphasized fresh-ground spices in a paste of wheat flour. I like to think that Hildegard would gobble up my interpretation of her biscuits. Joyfully. They are just sweet enough, and perfect with coffee or tea. Take as directed: 3 cookies a day.

Cloves-VerticalHere’s the recipe:

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white/cane sugar (or one full cup of either brown or white)
1 egg, preferably fresh from the hen house
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour (can include part or all whole wheat or spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon cloves
(add up to 1/2 teaspoon more of each spice, to taste)

Cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Add the egg and mix well. Sift the dry ingredients together and mix until fully blended.

Roll the dough out to a generous 1/4 inch thickness, cut with your favorite small cookie cutter, and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. I use a 1 1/2″ fluted round cutter, and I love the looks of them, but other nature-inspired shapes, such as flowers or butterflies would be lovely. If you are one of those bakers who hates rolling and cutting cookies, you could instead hand roll the cookies into one inch spheres, arrange on a cookie sheet, and press them into 1/4 inch flat circles with the bottom of a glass.

Bake at 375 for 10 minutes, or until the edges are just browning.

Surely you’ll need a soundtrack for baking: There are many recordings of Hildegard’s gorgeous, unusual compositions, but for these cookies the most fitting might be Sequentia’s Canticles of Ecstasy.

Our Lady of Yerba Mate

nsmateA few months ago I was standing at the counter of Chaco Canyon, a favorite local cafe, and I guess I was staring over-long at the tea menu because the barista took matters into her own hands and said, “I think you should try mate.  Put a little honey or agave in it.  You’ll like it.”  Why not?  I’d heard of yerba mate, but hadn’t read anything of its touted benefits.   I was already overloaded with the glorification of acai berries, raspberry keytones, mulberry, and hemp milk in the health news arena.  Who can keep track of everything?  But I love tea, and was game to try something new.  I added the recommended drop of agave, and sat down with my laptop to get some work done.

The tea was fine.  Not delicious, but perfectly drinkable. As I sipped it over the course of an hour, I noticed I was feeling a nice little pick-me-up.  It wasn’t the direct caffeine injection that coffee brings.  I love my morning cup of java, but I just can’t drink coffee throughout the day like I could in my wanton youth.  Afternoon coffee these days makes my jittery, and sometimes even a little nauseous.  The mate seemed to offer the benefits of caffeine, but in a slow-release fashion–an easy, pleasant, stream-like movement from a draggy mood to a feeling of brightness.  I came back every afternoon that week for a cup of mate and tracked my experience:  the tea made me feel more alert, more able to focus on my work, and ever-so-slightly euphoric.  It also seemed to balance my blood sugar:  at 3:00, when I am usually ready for a salty-yummy snack, I didn’t feel like I needed anything at all.

After that week, I bought my own bag of yerba mate to brew up at home, and Googled the herb to see what I could learn.  I was impressed to see that many of the tea’s reported benefits were exactly those I experienced, including enhanced mental focus, balanced blood sugar, and the regulation of metabolism.  It’s also believed to aid digestion, support cardiovascular health, increase physical endurance, and reduce post workout recovery time.

yerba mateThe cultural aspects of the tea are lovely.  In Argentina it’s the daily brew, the unifying cup, available to all, loved by all.  This prayer to Our Lady of Good Mate, an image long beloved by the people (and given the Apostolic Blessing by Pope John Paul II in 1993) sums up the herb’s healing grace:  “Teach us to drink mate . . . that mate may be good news, a song of friendship, a way of loving and giving life.”

The drink was thrust onto the national stage recently when Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez visited Pope Francis in Rome.  For years the two lived walking-distance from each other in Buenos Aires, but Fernandez avoided then-Cardinal Bergolio, who opposed much of her progressive social agenda.  Faced with a country that was suddenly jumping with joy and pride over Bergolio’s election to the papacy, Fernandez appears to have adopted a practical “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, and accepted Francis’s invitation to his papal installation, and then his personal invitation to lunch.  There she presented him with a traditional mate set–an embellished gourd with a curving metal straw–along with a canister of the herb from Francis’s native land.  She and the pope (who traditionally does not eat or drink anything but eucharistic bread and wine in public) were photographed sharing a gourd of yerba mate.

To make a good cup of mate:  Brew as any tea, but add the water just before it boils. Honey, agave, sugar, and milk are all acceptable enhancements.

Experience with yerba mate?  Received any favors from Our Lady of Good Mate? I’d love to hear your stories.

Welcome Spring

Thank you Marigold, Ophelia, and Ethel for the beautiful eggs. And happy spring to everyone!


I heard the neighborhood flickers drumming in earnest on my early morning walk today. Let the wild rumpus begin!


Chickens in the Winter Garden

It’s a wet blustery day here in Seattle–a good day for braised kale and quinoa with tahini sauce, or a nice plate of kale chips fresh from the oven.  Kale is one of a few veggies that can overwinter in Seattle without a cold frame or garden cloth tunnel (we can also grow broccoli and some root vegetables). Carrots and kale are made sweeter by a release of sucrose after our mild frosts.  Fortunately, we have a nice kale crop flourishing in our winter garden this year.


Don’t we?  Winter is also the season I give the chickens free range in the backyard, since there isn’t much in the garden for them to ruin.  Our current group of chickens never seemed to like kale (which is odd, because chickens eat almost anything–my daughter took this as evidence that she herself should not have to eat kale:  if even chickens won’t eat it, surely it is indigestible, and no animal should be eating it, including teenage humans).  But for some reason these bad little hens had a sudden change of heart.  Maybe they found out about the sweet sucrose. I only know that when I went out to gather my feast, all I found was Ophelia the Buff Orpington among the bare dinosaur kale branches.  I guess it’s market veggies for me today.  And time to start dreaming in earnest of the spring garden…

It’s Darwin’s Birthday: Celebrate Fiercely

DarwinPosseI love Charles Darwin.  I love his sweet, flawed humanity; his affection for his family; his books, his quirky letters, his diaries.  Most of all, I love his innate, constant wonder in the face of the natural world.  Join me in celebrating Darwin’s birthday.  Here are some of my favorite ways to conjure the spirit of the great naturalist:

1.  Go outside.  Looking over the top of my computer and out the window this moment, I can see a flicker, three crows, two black-capped chickadees, once chestnut-backed chickadee, and Worthington the squirrel.  I can watch the drip of the light winter Seattle rain, and I pause to wonder over all these things.  But it is when I get off my widening bum and step through the doorframe that I am truly able to “contemplate” Darwin’s “tangled bank,” (which I wrote about in a sidelong manner here) to enjoy up close his “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful that have been, and are being, evolved.”  No matter how urban our homes (or how rainy the day), a short walk will provide opportunities to observe representatives of these “endless forms,” and to embrace Darwin’s truest legacy–a deepened sense of interconnection with all of  life.

2.  Read a few of Darwin’s letters.  I love epistolary collections, and Darwin is one of my all-time favorite letter-writers.  So often we have the big, bearded, Father-of-Modern-Biological-Science image of Darwin in our head–an image staid, daunting, and not much fun.  In his letters we find someone much more delightful–communicating with his friends via pen and ink, Darwin is alternately silly, serious, whimsical, catty, gossipy, caustic, spoiled, lovable.  Bawdy?  Never.  But dip into his letters, and I will make you two promises:  you will learn things about Darwin you never imagined to be true; and you will want to run outside and lie in the grass, soaking up the secrets of nature, as Darwin himself did.  We have 14,000 extant letters from Darwin.  For a manageable and well-chosen sampling, see Frank Burkhardt’s collection Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870.

3.  Observe pigeons.  Darwin was a famous pigeon collector, and in the myriad forms that sprang from the common urban rock pigeon, he found a perfect example of his basic tenet–diversity in lineage. (While members of the Victorian fanciers disagreed with Darwin–How could their many beautiful breeds all be connected to that dirty little bird?  Surely the breeds were genetically unique!the latest research vindicates Darwin.) Modern urban pigeons get a bad rap (“sky rats,” some call them) but they are gentle, watchable birds with iridescent feathers, and a fascinating behavioral repertoire.  Put your observations to good scientific use by joining Cornell Lab’s Project PigeonWatch.

4.  Read The Origin of Species!  You didn’t think you were going to get out of here without me recommending that, did you?  This is one of my favorite nightstand books. When I am feeling crabby or anxious or isolated, I  read a few paragraphs, and remember my place in life–simultaneously small and meaningful; individually alone, yet intimately connected.

pilgrim on the great bird continent5.  Read my book on Darwin, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent.  It tells the story of Darwin’s own evolution as naturalist, focusing on little-known diaries, and ornithological notebooks.  Of all my books, this lesser known volume is my favorite.

6.  Celebrate Fiercely.  William McDonough, co-author of the iconic and wonderful Cradle to Cradle:  Rethinking the Way We Make Things, speaks often about celebration.  When asked about this by Justine Toms, he looked out over the profligacy of a spring flower field and said, “It’s not about survival of the fittest.  It’s about those who celebrate the most being the evolutionary winners.  Nature is all about fierce celebration.”

Certainly Darwin’s birthday should be observed for the rest of the month, at least.  How will you celebrate?

“Darwin has a posse” image by Colin Purrington.

Friday Links: Amazing Bookstore, Natural Kids, Litany, and a Marley-Mumia Encounter

Livraria Lello:  I posted a couple of photos from this incredible bookstore in Porto, Portugal to my Pinterest account. Wow! That woodwork! That staircase!

Natural Kids: Recent academic research shows that when nature elements are incorporated into playgrounds kids have more fun, are more active and utilize more motor skills. And getting them out of cars, and instead walking or cycling to school, improves their concentration:

The survey looked at nearly 20,000 Danish kids between the ages of 5 and 19. It found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than traveling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

Pan This Book! Tireless Portland cycling promoter/writer/publisher Elly Blue is experimenting with soliciting funny one-star Amazon reviews for her book Everyday Cycling. She says,

My reverse astroturfing campaign made some people laugh (usually shortly after it made them confused) and seems to have resulted in a sales bump. But the jury is still out on whether or not it’ll continue to be a good thing in the long term, or end up a liability.


One Love: In honor of Bob Marley’s birthday this week, here’s a remarkable piece of audio history: Bob Marley interviewed in November 1979 by an award-winning local Philadelphia journalist named Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Litany: How wonderful is this? A 3-year-old recites the poem Litany by Billy Collins.

Happy Superb Owl Sunday

There are a lot of superb owls on the internet, but this is one of my favorites.

I don’t know where this was filmed, but it’s a Eurasian Eagle-Owl (captive, as indicated by the jesses on her legs). You can see the family resemblance to our ubiquitous North American Great Horned Owl–both birds are in the genus Bubo. Gorgeous!