Potential hauntings

This is a newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, ostensibly but not always full of nature writing. Thanks for your support, always, whenever. If you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward and share. And you can always say hi directly at @hedhouseman.

Everyone I know has in turn and in waves been obsessed with hauntings. Horror in fiction, ghostly apparitions in movies, bones clattering in the hallways of books on our shelves. We love to be haunted, to be reminded of the Big Scare, memento mori style. Being haunted can horrible, but it is not quite lonely, and the right kind of haunting can be quite helpful if you’re into that sort of thing. I pretty much only get into the unseen when I have to unpack the cultural baggage of being raised Catholic, which I find a lightly embarrassing and yet useful framework, an experience not unlike knowing how to make something without a recipe and then somehow fucking it up on execution. The memories have false doors and stairways to nowhere and surprisingly soft boards in the floor. You start with a bit of prayer and end up with your foot through it, think of a saint and get half a random fact, chase a bible passage around a corner and find there’s nothing there.

My reading right now happens to be full of ghosts. I will spared you the sci-fi space necromancy and stick to the relevant books that are full of ghosts and hauntings. I’m thinking particularly of Timothy Morton’s HumanKind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, which I have been dipping in and out of for three months at least. It’s spectrality and seeming all tied up with being and praxis and politics. I am halfway through the book, and the only thing I can fully digest is that the paper is absolutely haunted by the trees that died to make it, trees that have yet to appear in any meaningful way in this book of ecology and political theory I am trying very hard to understand. I keep at it because I suspect the book is quite good, and I think about what is written in it quite a bit. I do also think I am not quite bright enough to get down with it, and that knowledge is a bit of its own reward. I have a hairshirt streak that misses Confession and loves feeling too thick to understand the material.

I’m particularly obsessed today because it is the most haunted day of my personal cultural calendar; it is hard to be a lapsed Catholic and make it through Holy Week without a few ghost stories. Good Friday marks the day that Jesus hung on the cross, and until Sunday, he’s just a guy who died, and his unbelieving friends are very sad, and the whole streak of days is a great one for wallowing in miserable inevitabilities that you cannot escape. I am writing this at the hour I would usually be sitting in lightly enforced stillness and silence at my mother’s house. She’s not particularly far away, just an hour, she’s likely making ravioli and face masks for the fire department, soon she’ll put Jesus Christ Superstar on the record player like she always does on Holy Week. Instead, I haven’t seen her in a month, not since we sat across the dining room table anxiously putting together a trip itinerary and translating messages into Italian to our cousins.

It probably bears stating I don’t believe in proper ghosts, not the kinds that other people believe in, that show up to visit you for good or ill. If the Church couldn’t get me after 18 years of catechism, it feels unlikely I’ll develop a particular faith in anything that’s supposed to resurrect. I have not seen a ghost, and as Thomas knows seeing is believing, and in between, there’s quite a lot of wiggle room of folks trying to poke their fingers through doubtful holes and generally carrying on about the quantity or lack of proof. It’s not quite that I don’t know how to have faith; I believe in the blue of robin’s eggs though I’ve never, ever seen one, I have some faith in our collective ability to change and transcend and be better than we have been even though it currently feels impossible. Hauntings of any kind require a bit of faith, in that they require a bit of belief in something beyond the light hitting our corneas and the nerve endings in our fingers.

Good Friday for me is always haunted by what might have been, shades of possible pasts and futures and not a small number of other presents. It used to be this day was made spooky by the nearness of a person that I could have been if I had instead chosen to get Confirmed, instead of showing up in a different church, for a different kind of ceremony, to tell a room full of people that I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in God. When that hurt healed, it was haunted by a desire that I indulged and denied in turn, to go to Mass even when it felt like a dry old skin. I’ve always liked the darker services, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday among them. I went to both last year and cried in the back pew. I went to neither this year and felt very little about it, aside from a slightly feral desire to sing in a room with other people where I knew all the songs without thinking and was not in the least made conspicuous by my participation or seriousness.

This year I will go to the woods alone in the rain and I will look at the flooded creek. I will get very little done at work because I am deeply distracted by all the ghosts of all the things that were supposed to happen between March and June, like a trip to Italy or a cousin’s wedding or my 15th anniversary or something vaguely unplanned to celebrate my 30th birthday somewhere wide and new. For now I am painting my nails to look like robin’s eggs and wishing the sun would come out and looking at my radish sprouts. I am hoping my lemon tree with set out some new leaves. I will come and see when my partner points out the brightness of a sitting cardinal, and I will wonder about money and jobs. I will think about mushrooms more than any particularly sane person, but then again who is sane any more? I am flushes of angry and blue and haunted every day, flecked with joy and fragile and full of a life that I cannot really touch right now. I will pick myself up and try again next week, as we all roll away our rocks and send them back up a hill if we can. I will forgive myself for not getting it right, because who can really do the calculus right now, counting up choices?

The Weather Forecast

When I lived in New York City, I loved to walk, though of course, compulsory walking is rarely as routinely pleasurable as elective strolls. The city always felt infinite, and even when it became somewhere I couldn’t live, the ability to walk anywhere, everywhere whenever the mood struck felt like freedom. When I wasn’t running late, which was less and less often the longer I lived there, I would walk distances that were easily traversed by the subway as a matter of course. Good weather always ruled this habit, of course.

I didn’t go out much here in the woods before all this began, and I didn’t think of it much. I left New York and worried that I would be lonely in a place where I had no local company. Instead, my life grew a manageable, much-needed predictable quiet that let me hear myself think for the first time in a long while. It turned out it wasn’t quite the thrill of travel that ways so conducive to thoughtfulness, which is what I had thought for a long time. It was being gifted predictable, silent time and a span of my own company.

Very soon after we moved, we adopted a very energetic hound that needed 2-3 miles of walking to settle down and allow me to work. He joined the family a few days before Christmas, and so the first months of dog ownership were specifically about bad weather, donning layers in the dark and taking laps and sips of coffee from a thermos and ice-sheeted riversides. It was terrible to do it, but being outside was good for me. I still went days without seeing anyone other than my partner.

It was not that I was not ever lonely, but that socializing was not available without a bit of planning. I texted friends and I drove myself down to Boston every few weeks, a weekly visit to my parents’ house an hour away, the occasional dinner or drink out with my partner. We liked to bowl in the winter when it was too cold to go for walks.

Walking is my primary recreation, and certainly aside from a once robust but now spotty yoga practice. In the fall, I happily layer up, crunching ice in favorite boots in the winter. I live for the emergence of mushrooms and blooms in the spring. And in summer, with a sun hat and not much else, I spend whole days just walking, gardening, walking again.

It has always been something that my partner and I loved to do together, walking in relative silence, pointing at birds. We like to hike too, lightly, but mostly prefer long, long walks in the woods, goal-less and wandering, just breathing. This has been true since we were car-less teens traipsing through our beach town, finding pockets of woods with nothing to do and nothing particularly sinister in mind. I walked it through cities and woods on other continents, with other people and alone, but even after a decade, I look forward to the weekend and sharing rather than splitting the dog walk with him.

We had moved where there were fewer people not in a small part because there were more trees. What I did not think much about until I arrived is there are no sidewalks to walk here, just a verge that ends in winter road sand and then an abrupt line of asphalt. There are trees, but most of those trees belong to someone, or to each other, with no path around or through. Fens dominate large stretches, uncrossable reedy river basins that can house neither homes nor roads. Any park with a trail through it must be driven to.

There is one park just a road or two from home, though not a safe walk. It is a smidge of hilly trails from which you can almost always hear the road, plus a lake that’s more of a pond, ringed with small homes and a grassy shore in the park dotted with ambitious if not successful fishermen. It is technically not open yet, only open for boats and swimmers June through September. The moment the snow melts I am there, 7:30 am walks with frozen fingers. Dogs are not allowed once the park opens. Until then, it was an oasis, too small to draw attention, just big enough to roam. I walk there several times a week until the snow drives me out again.

It’s April, and the park is filled any sunny day. We are all just trying to get through, we are all just trying to sun ourselves, we are all trying to stay safe. I wore my mask to the woods and felt foolish. Parks and trees that belong to all of us, and I am just somehow so desperate still for the familiar kind of loneliness, where I pick and chose when I see others. Where the park is empty on a Tuesday morning because everyone else has somewhere more important to be.

And I am guilty of wishing for other kinds of distance than the kind we owe each other right now, where we all stay home so we can each get a small slice that is safer because of that love. My slice is so much larger and requires so much less of me than most people I know. My head is full of impulsive feelings that my more thoughtful and empathetic self does not approve of. My mood is terrible if I stay in, it was always low when it rains. Every spring of my life I have prayed for a little more sun each day.

This month when it rains, I rejoice because it means the park will be empty enough for me to coo at the creek. I don my anorak happily, pull on my boots, and splash. When it is cold out, I linger in the forest. And when the sun arrives, I negotiate timings and location, mask-wearing and extra thoughtfulness. It is good, and it is social, and it is even loving, but it is not just me and the trees. It is me and the trees and the world and all of us together, trying to keep our distance but feed our hearts. We’ll do this for months, and it will only work as long as we’re willing to stay in until we’re bursting, share the sun we usually hoard, be frugal with the gentle forecast.

Choices in Loneliness

This is a newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, full of nature writing. Thanks for your support, always, whenever. If you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward and share. And you can always say hi directly at @hedhouseman.

Two weeks ago I started this letter after building a fire in the woodstove of the cabin I was staying in. I have revised it several times, trying to keep up with the world’s changing. My clothes no longer smell like wood smoke and I cannot keep up with the news, so it’s time to send it as is and make space for something else. Much like you, I have no idea what that will be. The world has changed so much in these past two weeks, and yet the surface of my life feels very much the same. I am very lucky and very sad, and very much in need of connection, as we are all in different shades.

I had planned to be in meeting my extended family in Sicily that week I was building a fire, and had set aside my first real set of vacation days in 3 years, saved money, anxiously planned an itinerary with my parents. The trip had been called off the week prior, as the virus tore through northern Italy. I was devastated; my parents, who had planned this trip as a second attempt at a honeymoon in Italy 30 years later, were speechless. The first honeymoon had been called off because of a bombing at the Roman airport. It felt improbable that we had ever imagined ourselves in my nonna’s apartments, meeting a new baby and collecting geneology paperwork.

My working life has been difficult in 2020, my personal life complicated, and I was looking forward to the break and space to think. In fact, I was falling slightly to pieces by the week of my intended trip, and at my partner’s urging, took a family friend up on a loan of a cabin up north for a few days, to be spent alone in my favorite corner of Maine. And so I packed my bags and left for the woods. As I shared a dog walk with my elderly next-door neighbor the morning of my departure, she was shocked I would go alone, so far away, without even my dog for company. She said I was “very brave",” and I felt very much like a fraud and a coward.

The truth is I very much enjoy my own company, and love to be alone. I have travelled alone on almost every continent, gone months in foreign places where I knew few people and made fewer friends. This felt like an escape, like running, but I knew I was running on fumes. By the time I packed the car for Maine, I realized I had not been alone for more than 24 hours in almost a year, possibly longer. It felt like the only sane choice, to carve out space away from my normal life to be silent, to think, to breathe. I needed a sense of loneliness so desperately that I was like a thing caged, alternating between exhausted rage and demoralizing grief. At the moment my world felt very small and very claustrophobic. So I went to the grocery store to buy a steak, and I did not wash my hands, and I drove down the dirt road, and I built myself a fire when I arrived.

It does take some time to get used to voluntary loneliness. When the friend with the cabin key mentioned someone had been politely letting themselves into unoccupied cabins, I did not feel particularly brave. Instead I smoked a joint, locked the deadbolt, and got in the tub. The first step may have been a mistake; I got so nervous that first night I slept with a chef’s night under my pillow. But that did not stop me for enjoying the space, and I snowshoed in the mountains and listening to the breathing of the woods and read until I fell asleep for several days that I would otherwise be home, working and editing and possibly weeping for very little discernable reason. It was just what I needed, to be alone.

But the world was changing rapidly outside my elective loneliness, as texts from friends in Boston and New York and Chicago rolled in, detailing quarantine preparations and toilet paper shortages. I had intended to stay put through Sunday afternoon, but it became clear that if I did so, I would emerge into another universe entirely. I packed the car and came home, stopped at an apocalyptically bare Walmart on the way to stock up on groceries. The next day, when I supplemented my grocery store run with the local store, folks had already donned masks as they shopped. The universe has shifted while I was away.

I have left the house just once since, a run to supplement my groceries, mail last-minute packages, drop supplies to friends. I stood in a patient and well-spaced line at the local dispensary and marveled as I always do at the variety of patrons. Life looked mostly normal on a surface level in these interactions, but there is a cloud of layoffs, school closures, material shortages, and anxiety that feels like moving through molasses. Both my partner and I are working from home, but the only change for me is his company, since I have worked from home since 2016.

Had I known as I drove North on 95 with a car full of books and anxiety that I would be lonely indefinitely, fretfully in the extreme, I am not sure I would have gone. I am grateful I did spend that time because there are all kinds of loneliness, both necessary and unnecessary, the kinds we choose and the types that are foisted on us, varieties that come from heartbreak but also from freedom. My current flavor has company in a good partner and a good dog, video calls with friends and coworkers, group chats full of tenderness. It is still very hard, but it is not the kind of loneliness that sleeps with a knife under its pillow. It is something far more shared and tender, tinted with solidarity and care.

The most alone I have been in years was in that retreating week, standing in a clearing off a snowy trail at the foot of my most beloved mountain, following old snowshoe tracks to nowhere. I stopped and sat on a log, turning off my headphones, I simply sat and listened to the trees. There were no birds, not yet. Barely a scratch of squirrels on the bark. Just the wind in the evergreens and my own breath. I stayed there until my fingers were numb in my gloves, eyes unfocused, head as empty as a bowl. Loneliness as medicine. As preparation for the unknown.

May I steal your violets?

Sorry for ringing your doorbell in the middle of the day!

This is a newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, full of nature writing. Thanks for your support, always, whenever. If you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward and share. And you can always say hi directly at @hedhouseman.

Last week I finally threw out my last jar of violet simple syrup. It had turned a while ago, but I was feeling guilty for foraging more violets than I could actually consume. Foraged food always feels more precious to me, which is why I have to have a stern conversation with myself about the morels I dried in the spring as well.

I have begun to develop a bit of a reputation in my neighborhood for oddness about plants. It’s sleepy u-shaped cut out into the forest of older baby boomers and young families. Every lot has a lawn in various stages of green, but tended for the most part with a resolute uniformity that is disconcerting to me, a person who grew up with a large yard full of tangles, where I played “Lion King” in the long grass and ate honeysuckle. Surrounding us on every side are young, boggy woods, the history of the land here being all unfilled fens and farmland. Despite all attempts at eradication, every lawn has a wild tangle of dandelions, onion grass, garlic mustard and violets.

The reputation I have is of being a bit of a thief, though I always ask permission.

It’s considered a little unusual to pick edible things out of suburban lawns, though if not treated with weed killers, it’s not so different from the woods out behind our houses. I find the best onion grass where the woods meets our fence, at least. For violets, I knocked on the door of an elderly woman and her not-young daughter, who have the biggest lot in the U, stretching across the middle of the neighborhood with a vegetable garden and fruit trees. I steal their currants, a few at a time for a dogwalking snack, when they poke through the fence. But last year the back lawn was so filled with violets, I couldn’t help myself. I knocked and asked if I could pick a basketful for syrup. The answer is always a shrug, and an odd look, and an “I guess!”

My first fall here was an excellent one for mushrooming. I found a cache of chicken of the woods in the park big enough to keep me in mushrooms for weeks, even when picked frugally. My neighbor who I knew best developed a suite volleyball-size puffball mushrooms in her front yard, which she graciously though bewildered gave me permission to take. This past year though, absolutely nothing. Not in the spots from last year, not in the new spots I had scouted. The year was too warm and too dry. I thought a lot about how climate change was going to cost us so much more than we were prepared for.

And then, like magic, another neighbor had a growth in her front yard after a particularly wet week. They were beautiful, these mushrooms, covered in tawny honeycombs and some as big as my hand. After a lot of Googling, I was very sure these were morels. I was sure enough to knock on the door, knowing full well I was already well known to her as the woman asked permission to spend every morning in June picking mulberries off the tree next to her driveway. The nice thing about a reputation is that when deployed correctly, it circumvents explanation. The morels were mine, though it took an enormous amount of convincing in the kitchen to feed them to my partner. There’s still a few left, dried patiently in and oven, best for risotto. They are extremely precious to me even unconsumed, a memory of a day that felt like pure serendipity when I was convinced there could be no more.

Share The Morning Report

What is the Morning Report?

Rebooted, and ready

For those of you who don’t religiously follow my twitter account, first of all, bless you. But you might wonder why I named my nature writing newsletter “The Morning Report” when like most day-job-having writers, I am wont to write it very last at night, usually because something is keeping me awake.

When I adopted a dog in late 2018, I agreed to do his morning walk, mostly because I work from home and my partner leaves for work at 7:30 am, but also because it is good for me to get out of the house that I both live and work in. I spend somewhere between 10 and 12 hours glued to a screen, and everyone involved, including myself, was getting a little concerned about my habit of waking up and logging directly on to manage social media accounts before coffee.

Categorically, making this commitment was a nightmare. The weather in the Merrimack Valley in the winter meant I woke up in the dark at 6:30 am to put on two pairs of pants and walk my 10-month-old puppy in the snow for at least an hour, just so that he would sleep for the 2-3 hours I needed to get focused work done. I drove 20 minutes each way to get to a park large enough to tire him out. Every routine around work I had previously was smashed into tiny, tiny pieces. And while I love my dog, he was a brat about it 95% of the time.

However, because I am both addicted to twitter and was freshly arrived in my relatively rural town after nearly 6 years living in urban centers, mornings in the park absolutely blew my mind. As miserable as the cold was, and as much as I hated going outside in the morning, I had genuinely forgotten how much I loved to be in nature, and how fascinating nature was on its own. And so the Morning Report was born.

Two years ago in the morning report:

And a year ago in the morning report:

After two or so years of tweeting out my observations from our morning walks, I have a digital catalog not just of what caught my eye, but how the seasons shift. I can also use to triangulate where the good mushrooms grew two years ago, a huge plus. It made me a better nature writer, which I had been aiming at for years, more observant, and more likely to slow down enough to observe. And if you follow me closely enough, you can generally find that a burst of Morning Report correlates to optimistic, productive periods in my own personal seasons.

I love to read and write more formally about the natural world, but there is only so much time in a day, and also the nature writing world is fraught with the same issues any beat has. Breaking in can be difficult. So much of what is published sounds the same, however unintentionally. I’ve been so gratified to see writers come to the fore in recent years who write about nature in the context of climate change and solidarity with non-human beings, with wide, wide lenses on what “nature writing” is. (I’ll make a list for a future dispatch, I think.) I dreamed up HumanxNature in part because it was what I wanted to read and couldn’t find.

Now I spent all day glued to my screens, but I start my day with the world outside. And the woods outside my windows feel likes like an empty place, and more like a crowd of quiet friends. The deer that live there feel like neighbors, and I certainly pay more attention to them than the vast majority of the cul de sac’s human occupants. I’ve learned to identify the plants, birds, trees, mushrooms that form my personal slice of the outdoors, and the world feels like a less lonely place because of it. And while this feeling of community has ratcheted up the tension of our collective precarious existence, but I’ll take it. I prefer a high-stakes and crowded world to a gently greening static backdrop.

If you’ve gotten this far, I invite you to join the Morning Report life. Anywhere plants grow and animals live is nature, even a city park, even your subway stop and its rats, even if you don’t have a large orange hound to bully you into it at daybreak. Tweet it or don’t, but greet the outdoor world as a friend. It’s hard to feel lonely while a bird is singing.

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