Departure – A Hui Hou, New England

Travelling to a new country, let alone a new continent, is an exciting and terrific undertaking. Your senses are bombarded with exhilarating novelty, and every waking moment is permeated with “otherness”. You abide in the different, and in the process broaden your horizons, become a more worldly and educated person, and likely gain some better-defined image of yourself through the sheer contrast of your surroundings. Speaking and hearing another language, eating different foods, meeting a different set of people, walking through different streets, existing in a different culture, your everyday life is saturated with a new human worldview. For the travelling naturalist, this great feeling of change is doubled. Trained eyes that read tree bark, lizard tails and butterfly wings the way that most people would read a street sign are struck with raw new type of unfamiliarity that for other travelers might be muted in its newness. The natural phenomena of a new continent are no less thrilling, unexpected, and enriching to a student of natural history, and so greatly enhance the sense of contrast. This unstructured immersion in Difference (with a capital D!) is an invaluable part (though only a part) of the process of cultural exchange envisioned for a Fulbright scholarship.

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The George Washington statue at the Boston public gardens, a beautiful place to rest during pensive walks around the city.

Being no stranger to international travel, I planned accordingly, and made efforts throughout the summer to enjoy some of the people, places, and things I connect most with New England prior to my departure.

During my time in Hawai’i, the world’s most isolated archipelago, I learned the importance of goodbyes. Living in such a remote place, my Hawaiian friends and colleagues are accustomed to saying big goodbyes, and the uncertainty of when if ever they will see a friend again. With a depth of meaning characteristically well beyond the literal, the saying in Hawai’i is not “goodbye” but A hui hou, until we meet again. These are the thoughts and images I bring with me on this journey, the parts of my “from“, at the start of a story that will otherwise mostly focus on the “to”.

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An old friend and I made a familiar pilgrimage to Fenway Park for our fix of Boston accents and overpriced beverages.

During various trips into Boston to visit the Spanish consulate, I took frequent detours to revisit historical sites around the city with a renewed appreciation. The following week, I treasured the taste of pure Americana blended with tepid beer and a bratwurst at a Red Sox game. Watching the setting sun paint fantastic colors over Fenway, hearing the roar of the crowds, rejoicing over home runs with random strangers, I was more aware than usual of what made these things at once unique, beautiful, meaningful, and hilarious.

Training in the martial arts has always been for me a refuge from the stress and pressures of my studies, and as the summer progressed I tried to squeeze in as much practice as possible at the schools where I did most of my practice in Boston. Training in Aikido (a modernization of traditional Japanese Bushido or warrior arts) was an especially welcome change of pace from my frenetic travel preparations, providing a sense of calm focus combined with vigorous physical exercise. As both an outlet and agent for psychological ablution, keiko (practice) at my home dojo (school) was a tremendous resource. Just as in other aspects of my life, though I always find a new school at which to train and new disciplines from which to learn, I always bring my Aikido training with me. Beyond this, the friends, mentors, and community of the school remain an ever-present and supportive community for me throughout my travels.

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My Aikido sensei (teacher), a mentor of mine since I was about 15, poses for a picture with me a few days before my departure for Spain.

Of equal importance to me were those aspects of New England’s nature that I knew I would sorely miss abroad. Many nature writers and naturalists, of both colonial and indigenous origins, in many geographical contexts, refer often to certain species of plants and animals as “old friends”. Once you get to know them, their behaviors, distributions, and tendencies, they become something familiar, something fixed and reliable, no matter how biologically inaccurate this may be. Just as with a person, repeated encounters bring increasing familiarity, and over time a form of emotional attachment arises. This is why I’ve heard dozens of suburban New Englanders talk with great excitement about a pair of Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) breeding in their back yard every Spring, but who might otherwise be hard pressed to describe any other species or ecosystem of greater fame or importance elsewhere on the planet, or even in the county.

So with great seriousness I set out to bid farewell to many natural “old friends” as well, visiting my favorite woods, ponds, swamps, grasslands, and beaches as my flight check-in date closed in.

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The brackish ponds at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Kingstown, RI house a fantastic diversity of aquatic and terrestrial life, including (in summer) many waterbirds and migratory warblers dear to my heart.

I first made stops at a number of New England’s fantastic National Wildlife Refuges, including Trustom Pond, where I went birdwatching with my undergraduate mentor Dr. Bob Askins, and Assabet River, where a good friend and I spent hours catching up on life and photographing birds, flowers and insects in an extensive network of streams, swamps, and forestland. At Trustom Pond, I had joked with my mentor about the possibility of seeing an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) a rare and highly secretive waterbird in the heron family that has managed to elude me for years and remains a major stain on my waterbird-researcher pride. Miraculously, we saw not only this species during our brief outing, but the other North American bittern species, the Least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) an elfin marshdweller that had taken on almost mythical rarity in my mind. Needless to say, the jokes about possibly spotting the even rarer Eurasian bittern (B. stellaris) during my time across the Atlantic were quick to follow, and I’ll keep you apprised of any developments in that department.

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A blooming Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is an ideal resting spot for a Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) between hunting flights at Assabet National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury, MA.

At Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, the lateness of the season was painfully evident. Many of my “old friends” are migratory birds, those that breed in New England during the warmer seasons, and head back South for the winter, or else insects whose entire lives, or at least their active periods, are restricted to Summer. There was a palpable tiredness in the air as the summer wore to a warm, dreary close, as frazzled bird parents struggled to wean their screaming, but now perfectly capable fledglings, and dragonflies lay their eggs on the stalks of reeds, to wait patiently through the spring thaw in months to come.

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The larger prints of American Herring gulls (Larus argentatus smithsonianus), year-round denizens of Crane beach plod through the tracks of migrating Semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), now starting their own journeys to warmer climes thousands of miles to the South.
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Top: A female Piping plover and chick. (c) Jim Fenton. Bottom: A Semipalmated sandpiper in winter plumage (c) Ken Billington

I next made for the coast, where, too, signs of change were myriad to the knowing eye. At Crane Beach, a beautiful expanse of sandy coastline of great cultural and ecological value, I was already too late to see an old friend. Before starting graduate school, I had worked as a conservation technician there monitoring and protecting populations of Piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), a delicate, endangered shorebird that nests there each spring. This late in the season, they had already packed their bags and gone, and were nowhere to be seen. Instead, they were replaced by migratory sandpipers stopping there to rest and refuel, on their own journeys down from far higher latitudes. As the sun started getting low over the dunes, I enjoyed a late-summer staple of the New England coast, wild beach plums, which were growing in abundance just in from the beach. Their sweet-tartness, accented by the salt-laden evening breeze, was yet another familiar experience to tuck into my suitcase beside a carefully-folded suitcoat and a battered pair of binoculars.

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A handful of wild beach plums (Prunus maritima) in the dune swales at Crane beach are a welcome seasonal treat and literal taste of coastal New England nature.

Nowhere was the coming end of summer more strongly apparent than at a small reservoir pond in my home town of Needham, Massachusetts. I walked there most evenings during the early spring and mid-summer when I found myself back home. There, I had relished spring’s arrival and the bloom of summer, recovering from a long and stressful winter writing and defending my Ph.D dissertation. One evening, up late because I couldn’t sleep, I walked there during a midnight thunderstorm and watched Green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) emerge in droves from the flooding swamp. In fairer weather, admired Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica), bizarre, sleek-feathered aeronauts, chattering and hawking for insects over the water and roosting in the air ducts of the nearby public works buildings as night fell. Now, the leaves of red maples (Acer rubrum) which thrived in the pond’s swampy outskirts were already beginning to turn, and Common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor), rarely seen there during the breeding season, were flying overhead one after another on their southward migrations.

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On my last night in New England, the setting sun cast a warm glow over a pond where I frequently sought solitude and clarity. The cattails (Typha spp.) and other plants were already hinting at Fall’s imminent approach.

I paused a long while on a bench overlooking the reservoir, and drank in the sights, sounds, and smells of the hazy summer evening. The following day I would set out for Spain, clutching a passport and struggling along with an unrealistic amount of luggage for my nine months of research and learning, both professional and personal. “So you’ll be there for about a gestation,” a friend’s mother had joked with me. Indeed, the time ahead is pregnant with possibility, and I am excited for all that is to come. Onward, into the different!

 

Saludos,

Charles

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