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Life & Style
Calm Tales from the Natural World for a Nervous Time
Middletown garden writer Thomas Christopher is the 2021 recipient of the Sarah Chapman Francis medal for outstanding literary achievement by the Garden Club of America. Christopher is at least the third Connecticut garden writer to receive this national honor. Tovah Martin won in 2008, as did Edwin Way Teale in 1965. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Christopher)
Middletown garden writer Thomas Christopher poses here with one of his flock. “She’s from the Sultan breed,” he says, and adds, “a very sweet and somewhat goofy breed.” (Photo courtesy of Thomas Christopher)
Author Robert Tougias offers a peaceful sense of place in his 2020 book, Birder on Berry Lane, in addition to plenty of birding insight. The first-person story takes place over 12 months in his southern Connecticut backyard. Tougias is a birding columnist for The Day and the author of two other nature books. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Yale Peabody Museum’s education coordinator Jim Sirch now writes a nature blog with a hyper-local flair for our southern New England environs. Here, he releases a newly hatched black swallowtail butterfly. (Photo courtesy of Jim Sirch)
A long time ago, I saw a tag on a teabag that read, “Calming tea for a nervous world.” I still don’t know who wrote that line, but the sentiment stayed with me.
I’ve been drinking a lot of tea lately. Luckily I’ve also found a podcast, a blog, and a book that help keep me grounded in the peace of the natural world.
For instance, when I need some good listening, I visit the Growing Greener podcast. It’s 30 minutes of down-to-earth discussion between well-known garden author Thomas Christopher, a Middletown resident, and his guest experts on land care, landscape ecology, and horticulture. Christopher is author or co-author of more than a dozen books on horticulture. Among his recent works are the widely-read Garden Revolution with Larry Weaner, and Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill.
What’s a successful author doing with a podcast? Christopher calls the endeavor his “passion project.”
“Environmental challenges are the defining crisis of our age,” he says. “Addressing them begins at home, literally in our own backyards. My guests give us ways to care for plants and land in harmony with nature.”
After a long career in print media, he says he enjoys bringing a live dialog directly to his audience.
“Listeners get to hear these experts’ enthusiasm for their topics, their excitement over what they are doing. It’s very inspiring.”
The podcasts began in 2019, featuring speakers such as author and scientist Douglas Tallamy, forager Ellen Zachos, songbird researcher Desiree Narango, bee specialist Heather Holm, ethnobotanist Enrique Salmon, firefly conservationist Ben Pfeiffer, and many, many more.
Full disclosure: Tom Christopher interviewed yours truly in a Jan. 21 podcast titled “Landscaping without Herbicides.”
The podcasts take a deep dive into subjects, and interesting turns.
For example, the podcast with Zachos focuses on “cordials and cocktails in the wild.” She talks about harvesting “nutritious and tasty plants” from places as varied as city parks to vacant suburban lots. She takes those gathered goodies and her knowledge of mixology to create cordials, syrups, and extracts that can be used in cocktails.
In the podcast, she talks about recipes that include stinging nettle cordial, acorn orgeat, wild sangria, and lavender-infused gin.
A podcast from December focuses on Wambui Ippolito, described as “a rising start in the New York horticultural world,” who’s worked for the likes of Martha Stewart and David Letterman. She talks about how immigrants are vital to the landscape industry in the United States, and how “the American landscape can be enriched if all of us re-discovered our immigrant roots.”
There are three ways to listen, described at www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast. You can also contact Christopher through his website. He says he finds his interview guests in various ways, but he especially prizes listener input.
A Hyper Local Lens
Many emails arrive in my inbox every day, but only a few do I click right away. Among those are posts from “Beyond Your Back Door” (BYBD) by nature blogger Jim Sirch.
Sirch’s blog is part of his work as the education coordinator at Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven. He is a trained naturalist with degrees in both forestry and science education.
“Since so many people are working from home and spending so much more time outside, it seemed like a great way to answer questions that might come up about what they’re seeing and hearing in the local environment,” says Sirch. The blog launched in April 2020.
Since the launch, Sirch has put a hyper-local lens on our region’s outdoors, demystifying what’s going on “out there.”
After a friend commented that she thought she heard ducks quacking in the woods last spring, Sirch wrote the first post, “What’s That Quacking in the Woods?” (Answer: Wood frogs.)
A recent post, “This Cat Should Stay Outside,” explains bobcats’ lives, their local ecology role, and how to co-exist with them.
Another, titled “Autumn Calls of Spring Peepers,” explains why some tiny frogs sing both spring and fall.
One of my favorite posts was titled “Is Connecticut Their Florida?”
“Retirees who want to escape the cold and ice to spend the winter down south are known as ‘snowbirds,’” he writes. This nickname also describes the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). “Juncos overwinter here after spending the summer nesting in northern New England and the Canadian boreal forest. They will head back north next spring.”
What future posts can we anticipate?
Sirch says, “I have always been interested in phenology, the science of seasonal and cyclic natural phenomena.” For instance, why should we plant extra parsley next spring? (Answer: To offer food when swallowtail butterfly caterpillars need it.)
I’m guessing that’s a preview of posts to come, as the topic of phenology is front-and-center in climate change discussions.
He adds, “I am happy to take requests, and I always appreciate ideas.” Reach Jim Sirch or sign up for his blog posts at beyondyourbackdoor.net.
Peaceful Reading, Local Focus
Finally, I’d like to mention a lovely book that I have found both calming and informative. It is Robert Tougias’s 2020 publication, Birder on Berry Lane: Three Acres, Twelve Months, Thousands of Birds.
While the book is ostensibly about his love of birds and birding, the more profound message is about a place: his three-acre landscape on Berry Lane.
“This is not the story of a small New England town, nor is it about me,” he writes. “Rather, it is an account of my awareness...By tuning into the life around me, I have come to know my place.”
Elsewhere he writes, “A great feeling of peace comes with this experience. I would like readers to find this peacefulness...”
Though he never mentions the exact town location of Berry Lane (I’ll leave that up to readers to discover), the scenes and events that take place over 12 months will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the nature of southern Connecticut.
Tougias helped me understand some of the subtleties of bird behavior in my own backyard. Why is there so little birdsong in the fall? Why does the male vireo spend so much time in the high canopy? What gives the wood thrush its unique, beautiful voice?
The bonus section at the back of the book offers more information about our common (and uncommon) avian visitors.
More important, I did indeed find the book’s quiet tone very soothing.
I hope you’ll check out these three sources of connection with the natural world if you find yourself in need of “calming tea for a nervous world.”
Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscape design, landscape ecology, and land care. Visit her website and contact her through www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.