Sleeping trees and spring buds

Spring is here. In our little Rocky Mountain ski town, that means muddy trails, gray skies, spring snowstorms and (maybe) a few patches of green grass. Every year at this time, I become more attuned to every little sign of spring: the returning Robin, the bear scat left in a neighbor's yard, the soft buds on the aspen and willow trees around our house. 

This year, those tree buds caught my attention, and in an effort to learn more about how buds work, I headed to Google. And I was surprised. I learned that those tree buds didn't just show up when the calendar passed March 20. Rather, they've likely been around since the fall, when trees have their last big hurrah of growth and prepare for winter.


It was a good reminder that sometimes I only notice what I'm looking for. And it set me off on another path of questions: how do trees actually survive through the winter?

Trees can live in pretty cold climates. Sub-zero temperatures, feet of snow, blizzard conditions. Why in the world don't trees freeze? They have liquid in them after all. And if they do freeze, why haven't I noticed it?

It turns out trees actually enter into a dormant period over winter. It's like hibernating, or going into a very deep sleep. Before winter, they make a growth regulator called abscisic acid (ABA) that halts their growth. Some trees dehydrate their cells, pushing water out of the cell and into the spaces between: there, it can freeze without damaging the cell. Other trees beef up the number of minerals, hormones and other solutes in their cells, lowering the freezing point to prevent freezing. That still isn't always enough, as evidenced by trees that crack or "explode" in frigid temperatures. But those efforts get most trees through the long, cold winter months.


Now back to the tree buds. As you've probably noticed, they come in a range of shapes and sizes: some are pointed and others are clustered, some have scales while others are smooth. Cut one open, and you'll tiny leaves, ready to grow as soon as days lengthen and temperatures warm. 

I love that, how a bud contains everything needed for broad, green leaves, just waiting for conditions to be right. And it reminds me of how writing sometimes feels. Like something is there under the surface, not quite ready to appear. Creativity, like creation, is cyclical. Periods of intense growth and productivity are followed by periods of... nothing.

In writing, I love the first draft part the most, when thousands of words are hammered out and cloudy ideas slowly take shape. Revision is harder for me (though sticker charts help). But the hardest is when I have no writing to do. My creativity seems spent and no new ideas are prodding at my mind or my heart. Books are out to editors, waiting for revisions to return. And I muddle through the days, thankful for my part-time jobs, wondering whether I'll ever write another creative word again.

That's when I need to remember that there's a rhythm to creativity and creation. There are seasons - winters followed by springs, ups followed by downs. It helps to know that even trees rest through winter. And that maybe those dismally unproductive periods are actually necessary to prepare for the next spurt of growth. After all, the buds of the next project are likely there, just waiting for spring.




Images from Pixaby/Creative Commons

Goodbye winter (and notes on duck feet)

Days are longer, the sun is brighter and the snow is slowly melting away. But I can't help remembering how a few weeks ago, on a bleak, frigid February afternoon, I watched a group of ducks paddling along the icy river through town.


The ducks were surrounded by snowy banks and sections of thick ice. And as my own breath came out in crystalline puffs, I wondered how they stayed warm. I wasn't worried about their bodies - yes, the air was frigid, but they have down coats for that. I was more curious about their thinly webbed feet that were submerged in the icy water. 

After a bit of research, here's what I learned.

Ducks have a counter-current heat exchange system: the warm oxygenated blood flowing to their feet passes close by the cold, waste-carrying blood returning to the heart. It's a finely webbed system of arteries and veins that allows the birds to efficiently recapture heat. Since the blood in their feet is already cooler, they don't lose as much heat to cold water. All to say they're not wasting too much energy keeping their feet warm.


But their feet are still chilly: the blood that circulates through is just warm enough to prevent frostbite. And that's surprisingly okay with these birds. Their legs and feet are mostly free of soft tissue. Even the muscles that operate the foot are higher up in the leg, connected to the foot bones by long tendons. So their feet don't need much warm blood. And if they get too chilled, the ducks can pulse extra blood to the foot through valves in leg arteries, providing the needed warmth and preventing frostbite.

Believe it or not, this whole system is also helpful in warm weather. Birds can forage in water hotter than their body temperature as the counter-current exchange keeps their feet cool. This also explains why the Great Flamingo, which has very complicated branching in its arteries and veins, stands on one foot: it's limiting its exposure to heat through its feet. This same system is found in the flippers of whales and sea turtles, as well as some reptiles. 


So the next time you stand at an icy pond and watch ducks paddling along, there's no need to cringe and shiver and worry why those little feet don't turn into icicles. Instead, you can tuck your hands in your pockets, watch your breath cloud in front of you, and marvel once again at intricacy of nature.



photos from Creative Commons/Pixabay

The Eye

Look at this word.  Then this one.  And think for a moment how it is that you


How your gumball-sized sense organs studded by ears and straddling nose differentiate among 10 million colors, detecting the brightest noontime sun down to a single photon of light.

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How an image passes through the clear cornea. Along the colorful iris. Through the gatekeeping pupil, M&M-sized black hole to your soul that it is.

Through the damp aqueous humor and the jelly-esque vitreous body that reminds scientists of egg whites

and lands on the retina.

Where cone cells, 6 million strong in the center of your eye film, detect bright light and colors quickly. And rod cells, 90 million or so along the edges of your field of view, detect low light slowly.

Both important, yet the rod cells are your friends for the deep, dark nights. Slower but more sensitive. Allowing you to see starglow and to pilot submarines.

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When light hits, pigments shift, ion channels snap and brain words release,

travelling along the optic nerve

all in a blink of an – well, you know.

Lest you think the optic nerve is too fancy, sending its pitter-patter of information to the brain so three-dimensional images form,

you should know it is also responsible for your blind spot. The blank area in all of your images that your brain somehow fills back in.

To find your blind spot, close one eye and focus – really focus – on one of two dots.  Move your face closer or further and suddenly, the second dot disappears.

Ah-ha. You’ve found it.

Maybe now you can truly see.



  Blind spot test. Close your right eye and look at the cross with your left eye. Move closer or further from the screen until the dot disappears. Switch eyes, look at the dot with your right eye, repeat.

Blind spot test. Close your right eye and look at the cross with your left eye. Move closer or further from the screen until the dot disappears. Switch eyes, look at the dot with your right eye, repeat.


Creative Commons/Pixaby | |

Write, revise, repeat

There's something about writing the first draft of a book that is exciting for me. The idea is simply that - an idea, a figment of my imagination, a hazy thought. And then slowly, minute by minute, day by day, pages appear. Putting weight and substance to the shadowy thought. 

It's one of the my favorite times in the process. Not that it comes easy, or that it goes as planned. But because the accomplishment is clear. I am creating where there was nothing before. As I mark off the words - 1,000... 10,000... 50,000 - it's as though I am passing mile markers in a months-long marathon.

Writing 2,000 words is an achievable goal, and when I fall asleep at the end of a long day, I know for certain whether I have met my goal.

Then, once the first draft is out, messy and convoluted and unclear as it is, the next bit of work begins. Revision.

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I know revision is hugely important. I know it's where the magic happens, where the book really gets written. And yet, for my Type-A achievement-focused personality, it can be a challenging phase to muddle through. 

I move around entire sections, cut out paragraphs and pages of hardwork, add in sentences, changes words.  Little by little.  The word count might go up slightly, and then back down.  And day in, day out, it's hard to see whether I'm accomplishing anything.

Recently, I got halfway through a big revision only to feel stalled out. The mountain of words still ahead of me seemed insurmountable. And I was not ready to put my hiking boots back on and pick my way through the rubble.

So I did what any self-respecting adult should do in a time like this: I created a sticker chart.

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I actually got the idea for another author friend, who shared recently how she bought fancy stickers and rewarded herself with them for a work well done. The idea immediately appealed to me. I've always loved stickers - I remember a large folder of stickers I collected as a child, and how I would slip through the glossy (and sometimes fuzzy or glittery) sheets and look over my finds. So I searched through Amazon and ordered up a few interesting stickers, then divided a small square of paper in two - half to hold stickers for every 10 pages that was revised, and another half to hold stickers for every 2,000 words that had to be newly written.

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The sticker chart, simplistic though it was, gave me a newfound devotion to the work of revising. Who cared if it didn't seem that I had accomplished much, just pushing my way around another 2,000 words? At the end of the day, I had a sticker to show for it! 

And slowly, as the stickers lined themselves up on the sheet, I got closer and closer to the end of the first revision. Finally, I hit those peace-evoking words - THE END - and set the newly revised book and the sticker chart aside.

After a bit of a break, I'm beginning to think about the next round of revisions. I have to admit, I'm not looking forward to it.  Thank goodness some new stickers are coming in the mail.


__________ | |

Tender-hearted, sharply quilled

First things first: I have no idea whether porcupines are actually tender-hearted. They're very solitary animals - they have those fancy quills for protection, so don't need to live in groups for safety. Maybe that's part of why I like them so much.


Just yesterday, I saw a porcupine in a tree while running on our bike path in town, and so I decided it was as good as time as any to give a few interesting facts about our prickly friend. As the second-largest rodent in North America (the beaver is first), they seemed deserving of a post. Plus, they held the title for longest living rodent (27 years) until a naked mole rate turned 28. Alas.

First a clarification: there are Old World porcupines that live in Europe, Asia and Africa; these guys are mostly bigger (one type weighs up to 60 pounds) and stay on the ground. But I'm going to focus on the New World porcupines that live in North American and South America. They're a bit smaller and are really good at climbing trees. So if you want to spot a porcupine, try looking up.

Porcupines are stout, round creatures, and have several defense tactics. Their quills are the main one, a type of "aposematic" defense (which just means predators can see the defense and so are warned). Their 30,000 quills are sharp, hollow, modified hairs that are coated in thick plates of keratin. Contrary to popular belief, a porcupine cannot shoot its quills at you, so you're safe getting somewhat close. But if you touch a porcupine, its needles slide out of its own skin and into yours quickly. Since the needles are barbed, they are a challenge to pull out. Just ask my dog.

When mating, porcupines hold their quills down so no one gets hurt. But porcupines keep antibiotics handy (in their own skin) to deal with repercussions of the inevitable tree fall.


Also interestingly, when they raise their quills, it makes a white stripe along their dark brown or black body, similar to a skunk. Porcupines can release their own stink and do so as another warning, after they've raised their quills and chattered their teeth. If all else fails, they can attack, positioning their prehensile tail towards the predator and swinging it to get as many quills as possible lodged into the predator's face and body.

Porcupines are slow-moving, nearsighted and most active at night. Supposedly, they are also smart. One source said they can learn a complex maze and remember the solution up to 100 days later.

If you're lucky enough to see a porcupine, take a moment to observe it. You don't have to watch for long, as it likely won't move fast or far. But it's still pretty cool. After all, how many animals are covered with a coat of long, prickly needles? One more thing my writerly self likes about them, as it seems important to maintain a tough exterior when doing anything creative. And yet just as important to keep your insides soft.



photos from Creative Commons/Pixaby

The power of collage

Sometimes ideas just come. But there's one fail-proof way of helping them along: make a collage.

I was introduced to the idea of collaging during a summer class on Julia Cameron's The Artist's WayAt first, I was skeptical. And a bit nervous. To be honest, the idea of flipping through magazines to collect images, then gluing them to a piece of poster board, felt more like grade school work than "writerly" work. Not very productive. Better to actually write, right?

But I stuck with that first collaging session, surprised at how enjoyable it was to think of a word or idea, then stumble into images that captured whatever I was looking for perfectly. Colors and textures and feelings, all right there before me. Images of soaring mountaintops and leaping dogs and summer flowers bursting out of an arrangement. I'd flip through, faster and faster, pausing to collect only the images that called to me, tugged at my heart. It was a subconscious reaction, and was so fulfilling to pull the image out and save it.


And then, putting them together. Taking a pile of images that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Cutting or ripping. Arranging. Gluing. And suddenly, meaning would appear. Something bigger, something more, something that resonated completely with me, but that I hadn't even known to look for.

Not only that, but I could repurpose images: an ad for a beauty cream became a statement on true beauty; tips for time management became a call to slow down and manage less. It was empowering. And beautiful. And fun.

I collage regularly now. For big life changes and questions that I need to work through. To explore goals for a coming season or year. And for my writing.


For every book that I write, I'll make several collages along the way. At the very least, it's a nice way to spend an hour or two feeling productive when the ideas stall. And invariably, these collages point to deeper themes and meanings that are bubbling up in my work. 

It's become a part of my artistic process. I grab used magazines from doctor's offices and the library whenever they're available. I subscribe to several magazines just because of the quality of the images inside. I always try to have glue sticks and poster board on hand. 

And somewhere in the process, as those bits of photographs come together in a new and orderly way, I find myself ready to dive back into the writing process again.

Skin deep

Act I: Epidemermis

Aka - Boundary Line. Death Zone. Bacterial breeding grounds.


This is my boundary line. Where I separate from the outside world. Where I become me.

My outermost layer, very strong wall that it is, virtually impermeable to all on the outside. It keeps the enemies out, and keeps my inside parts in.

The living claim the bottom parts, and then slowly rise, shoved up and pushed out as new life begins below. On their way up, these cells release proteins, lipids, keratin. Strengthening the whole, fulfilling their duty even as they march to their death.

Then, it is time. They die, dry, flake, slough, fall off. Millions every day. I leave tiny bits of me everywhere I go.

And there among the sloughing skin, live my bosom buddies, the bacteria. Thousands of them, crowded in, claiming their plot. In between fingers and toes, inside nostrils and ears, belly button, too. Tucked into the far corners of me and spread along the remaining surface, like a well-iced cake. My skin's flora, as though I am a walking botanical garden. 

More than 80 species reside on the heel; about 40 between the toes; 60 in nail clippings. They munch away at my sweat, releasing the stink under my arms. I am not smelly on my own.

Mostly, my bacteria in residence are good, or at least, they do no harm. They keep the bad guys away, secreting nasty chemicals and calling my immune system into action. But I never  get too comfortable with these nice guys: let some in, and they'll wreak havoc, infecting lungs and bones and gut and joints. 


Intermission: The Basement Membrane

Thin, fibrous sheet. Made by both the layer above and the layer below. Bumpy and folded to allow nutrients to pass from bottom to top. Reservoir for supplies in times of skin repair.


Act II: Dermis

Lots of action here, but we'll be quick. It is Act 2, after all. 

Dense connective tissue that cushions the body. Life-filled cells surrounded by a thick substance that gives strength and snap-ability to the skin. Little ropes and proteins and hyaluronic acid, a third of which is degraded and remade each day.


The necessary bits live here: hair follicles and sweat glands, lymphatic vessels and blood vessels. The dermis is home to many.

Including feeling. The myriad nerve endings that communicate touch and heat and pressure and vibration and more to me. They're how I know to drop the burning pan. How I know that my child's hair is silky smooth. How I know the wet slide of a tear, the tight squeeze of a hug, the warmth of a fire.


Act III: Hypodermis

The grand finale now. The part that holds it all together, attaching the slim skin layers to the muscle and bone beneath. Fat lives here, too, keeping me warm and buffered from winter winds, sometimes making my clothes squeeze tight. If this layer gave up, threw in the towel, quick, then everything else - my boundary with the world - would slip off and fall away.

And I would be lost.


__________ | | Creative Commons/Pixaby



Legends of the Crow

Crows have made their way into both historic and legendary stories for thousands of years. From the Bible to the success of a nation, crows take on minor and not-so-minor roles. A few of my favorites are below.

Greek mythology: Apollo, the god of prophecy, sent a white raven to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven returned saying Coronis had been unfaithful, Apollos was so mad he scorched the raven, turning it black.

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The Bible: Noah releases a raven from the ark to see whether the flood has subsided enough for land to appear; ravens feed the prophet Elijah while he hides out in the Kerith Valley.

Christian legend: After the fourth-century martyr Saint Vincent of Saragossa was executed, his body was said to have been protected by ravens; flocks of ravens then guarded his grave.

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Norse mythology: One of the principal gods in Norse mythology, Odin, is said to have two ravens (Huginn and Muninn) that fly out each morning and soon return to perch on his shoulders, bringing him news of the world and serving as thought and memory.

Hinduism: The deity Shani, who is considered to be a bringer of bad luck, is often represented as riding a large black raven.

Islam: The founder of Islam, Muhammed, was hiding from enemies in a cave. A crow, which was originally white, spotted him and alerted the enemies by calling "Ghar, Ghar" or "Cave, Cave!" Muhammed still escaped, then turned the crow black as punishment and cursed him so he would only speak the phrase, "Ghar, Ghar" for the rest of his life.

Native American stories: For some, the raven is the Creator of the world, as well as a trickster god. There are stories about raven stealing and then releasing the sun, and of raven coaxing the very first (and very skittish) humans out of a clam shell.

England: Ravens have lived in the Tower of London for centuries, and per legend, the Kingdom of England will fall if the ravens are removed. The ravens were first protected under the reign of Charles II, and today, seven ravens are kept by the Raven Master at the Tower (the required six, plus an extra). They are fed raw meat and sometimes a rat, and people enjoy watching their antics - one used to lie on its back and play dead.

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__________ | Carl Emil Doepler |

The Fern

One of my favorite times of year is early summer when the ferns begin to grow. Within weeks, they've sprouted up high, sometimes reaching above my chest or head. Their tall, lanky forms make tunnels of green over trails and bite at my arms and legs as I barrel down on a mountain bike.

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These vivid plants, with their coiled fiddleheads that expand into large leaves, have been around for millions and millions of years. And though they're most commonly associated with moist woodsy environments, they can live almost anywhere, from high mountains to dry desert rocky surfaces, often adapting to flourish in places where other plants cannot.

Ferns do not produce seeds or flowers. Rather, they reproduce by tiny spores, which are released from underneath their fronds and have half the number of chromosomes needed for a mature plant. Once a spore is set free, it can develop into a thin, heart-shaped structure (gametophyte) that makes both sperm and eggs. The sperm are mobile, actually swimming through water left by rain or dew to fertilize the fern egg.  

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There a lots of types of ferns, but here are two that may catch your attention:

-The interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), an excellent example of "evolutionary stasis" as it has not changed (nuclei and chromosomes included) for at least 180 million years. It's common name refers to the gap in the middle of the frond blades, which is left after fertile portions wither and die.

-Resurrection ferns, which can survive long droughts (possibly up to 100 years). During a drought, this fern will curl up its leaves and dry out, turning a gray-brown color. But when just a little water appears, the fern uncurls and opens, quickly restoring to a vibrant green. Studies have shown they can lose almost all their water (even up to 97 percent) and still live; most other plants would die after losing 8 to 12 percent.

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Ferns are not without intrigue. In the Victorian era, there was a craze for collecting ferns and using ferns in art. And there are various legends about ferns: in Slavic folklore, if you see a "fern flower" you will be happy and rich for the rest of your live. According to Finnish tradition, anyone who finds the seed of a fern in bloom on midsummer's night will be able to travel to the place where will o' the wisps mark hidden treasure.

The next time you're outside, keep your eyes open for ferns. It most likely won't lead you to hidden treasure, but it might just lead you to an appreciation of something ancient and unique.


__________ | |


To share or not to share

When I first started writing, one of the most common pieces of advice I received was to join a writing group. Share your work, read it aloud, take input and make it better.

It's straightforward, good advice. And for many people, it works really well. Joining a writing group can be motivating, encouraging and an excellent way to improve.

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But for me, all that sharing stalled me out. After reading the first chapter of my yet-to-be-written book, I'd listen intently to the feedback and questions that other writers had.

What's the main character's critical flaw?

What if the story had higher stakes, like maybe... death?

What would this sound like if you wrote it in first person? Or started it five years earlier? Or put it in another setting - like, Nebraska, or the moon...

Okay, that last one is an exaggeration. But the lists were often long. All (usually) great feedback, all great things to consider. And yet, for me, the endless options sent me into a flurry of self-doubt and questioning. Maybe the story should take place in an entirely different place or time. Maybe the main character wasn't the right person for the job. Maybe the whole thing should be scrapped and begun again.

But there's an alternative. I first heard about this method from author Jennifer Haigh, who said when she writes a novel, she does not share it until she's far along in the process. She doesn't talk about the idea, doesn't give her agent a blurb on what she's writing - nothing. Talking about a work in progress, she said, was like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne: it can let out all the energy and excitement, and make it difficult to continue.

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In an interview with GrubStreet, Haigh gave an emphatic "No," to the question of whether she lets her mother read her work in process.

"I don’t even tell anybody what I’m writing.  And my editor doesn’t know what I’m writing about until it’s too late. I’m super protective about my work. I think that work in progress is very porous and very fragile. … It’s the coward’s way out. I don’t want feedback. That’s just a chilling idea to me that I would show somebody a chapter out of context and ask for feedback. It’s really unimaginable to me."

Now don't get me wrong - my work definitely needs to be edited. But I've found a gentler process that involves a full reading by a trusted editor, and I'm lucky to have an agent who is hands-on with editing as well.

So the bottom line? Use and enjoy writers groups if they help you. Who knows, maybe I'll plug back into one in the future. But don't be afraid to find another editing process that works for you. Different processes work for each of us, and the main thing, at the end of the day, is simply (or not so simply) to write.


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__________ | | Rob Arnold |