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.

A Very Long Winter

No explanations, just existence

It’s been a very long nearly-year since the last Morning Report. Maybe you forgot you subscribed? Until recently, I was convinced very nearly that I had forgotten how to write anything other than corporate emails and tweets.

An amazing thing, how unexpected things can change you. For me, an extended bout of migraine and chronic illness knocked the letters right out from underneath my fingers. The year dragged with day job work and early bedtimes and doctor's appointments and the acute sense that I had forgotten something very important. It turned out, my body had forgotten how to make some important thyroid chemicals, and consequently, I forgot how to do anything other than eat, sleep, kiss my friends, and show up for work.

And just like that, decades of muscle memory was gone: the daily journal writing, the habitual jotting down of weird phrases and half-formed pitches. Outwardly, I had every appearance of a functional human, aside from the days in bed while I figured out dosages and liters of water. I showed up, I did my work, I tweeted things. I even taught myself some very accomplished cookery in an effort to keep my creative fire lit. But it was the emotional equivalent to a very long winter, the tufted green onion grass of my thoughts and feelings quilted by a necessary layer of chilly, protective preservative while my body figured out how to behave again.

Yesterday morning I left to walk the dog and it smelled and felt just briefly like spring, the sun warm and low on my calves at 7 am. The snow was still lying in clumps on the curb, but the birds were loud as a March morning. And even though it was 10 degrees and I was bundled, I could feel a flash of anticipation. The thaw is coming.

In the meantime of my personal quiet season, I did do a lot of non-writing work I am proud of. Some of it is won’t ever see the light of day because it is corporate, or non-tangible in ways that are meaningful only to me. I read a lot of books, shaving down my to-be-read pile to what one might find in a normal person’s home, rather than someone who anxiety purchases every book they find appealing. And I, with a wonderful partner and a clutch of great contributors, put out another issue of HumanxNature, an anthology of unconventional natural writing essays. This issue also included a robust, action-oriented climate change workbook, a culmination of many drinks and conversations about how we wish the world could be different, and what we could do to make it so.

I am feeling very much myself lately, which is to say I remembered at least how to type again, if not how to write. And if you stick around, you might even get to read some more nature writing here shortly.

Bloom and Bust Cycle

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.

It snowed a bit last weekend, and while I’ve been patient in not planting out anything that’s not frost hardy, it feels like spring might never come. I’ve stalled out writing several dispatches of this newsletter because the knots of climate change and gardening and cut down trees seemed too tangled to wade into. Everything feels a little raw, which I suppose should have been the first indicator that winter was already over. The stacks of gardening magazines and endless rain were another.

But Sunday was sunny, and I came out of Mass singing that morning, unexpectedly light. It was Palm Sunday, which is my favorite, one I looked forward to every year despite generally loathing Mass. My mother and I listened to the liturgy in a plain church and wove palm crosses which we promptly gave away to anyone who looked curious. It seems like no one weaves crosses anymore, a bit of folk knowledge lost already, just one generation removed. Who can blame people for walking away? I haven’t attended that Mass, or any other Mass, in years, and the same goes for a lot of people. The small and beautiful rituals don’t trump the context.

I’ve gone to church more in 2019 than I have in any decade since I was a hellion, disbelieving altar server. My feelings about the institution of the Church remain relatively uncomplicated, since we disagree on pretty much every point, and have long gone our separate ways. But I can’t account for the experience of Mass, the joy of making crosses out of palms with my mother on Palm Sunday. The rituals of Mass, writ larger and small, are part of how I always welcomed in spring, though never consciously. Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter: they line up so neatly with breaking out the trowels and the first yellow green burst of forsythia.

I intended to send this yesterday, and instead I watched the Notre Dame burning, and thought about what a clumsy, complicated metaphor we’ve been given, the burning of a beloved, tree-ladened monument to human craftsmanship and institutional power. I did not expect to feel so sad, but I also did not expect to think so hard about all the old growth forest felled for the construction of “The Forest,” a nickname for the cathedral I was only passingly familiar with. I did not know before the burning of the church that the oaks of Versailles were planted to eventually provide replacement wood in case of disaster and ruin. I hadn’t realized the long span of its construction, not just in human hands, but in the growing of the things that made it possible. A thousand years went into a roof that burned in hours.

Everything these days feels like a metaphor, too spot on to be quite real. We are fascinated by beautiful things, living or created by human hands, but we don’t know how to save them. We don’t even remember how to plan for destruction, and we have lost the thread of how to plant seeds and build miracles for generations to come. We arrive in forests and cut them down to build cathedrals to remind us of forests. Instead of planting new forest, we mourn the old dead trees and what they’ve come to represent. We try to sent aside the difficult parts of the legacy, the parts that are destructive and ugly. We lose track of the years. If we planted new trees in Versailles today, could we guarantee they’d be tended to until the fire next time?

My neighborhood is cutting down trees, too. And every one I talk to has a sad story about how there’s one particular tree that was so old, or that made things so private, or that dropped black walnuts onto their car, denting it. The trees are just background, something that fades into static when unless we’re forced to mark its absence or its life. I’ve grown a habit of touching trees as I walk past them, especially the old ones. I don’t know how else to tell them that I see them, I see them living. After reading about trees all winter, I now know they are so much older, so much more alive than I had ever let myself see.

Trees are not rocks, or dirt, or even vines and blooms. They are something altogether different, prepared to outlive us all, planning careful for each seasonal with rituals of their own. Setting buds invisibly in the fall, dripping sap in the spring. Cooling every inch they touch, not just raising property values or damaging human infrastructure. Every breath they take gives, and each moment they live is one of profound connection in cycles large and small. I used to mock my dad for being a tree hugger, talking about making friends with trees in the old forests he grew up in. Now I’ve come face to face with the legacy of seeing living things as commodity or incidental, and am grappling with the shame of recognition.

So much will have to change if we want the world to stay the same, for it to breathe and flow the way it has always done. We’ll have to do the changing, and we’ll have to make plans. The future can only bloom when we see it.

Vocabulary Lessons

Some housekeeping first:

This is a new newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, full of nature writing. If you signed up for a previous incarnation of my work, please feel free to unsubscribe, no hard feelings! Thanks for your support, always, whenever.

This morning when we left the house the air was the dead kind of silent that I dread. The sun was ribbed over with clouds as it rose, lighting up the dark skeletons of trees. For a span of 10 yards or so down the front walk, the silence was deafening. Then I heard the smallest voices with the very back of my ears, and then it all flooded in: whistles, trills, screamsongs. When the woodpecker drilled, I let out a lungful of air.

Some too-quiet winter mornings never break into a chorus, and the sense of unease follows me around all day. And there are days I admit that I am too preoccupied to listen particularly well. But for most, I say good morning to the jays and chickadees as the dog and I barrel out the door. I spend a lot of time breaking my own heart imagining a future without them as we walk in circles around the neighborhood.

When a whole flock does appear, it’s unusual enough that we stop and stare, the pup’s nose in the air. He’s not much interested in them as snack, but seems to like to watch the birds fly all the same. A real murmuration lifting off above the trees feels like a benediction. It’s a strain to remember regular and unremarkable flocks of birds, though I know they were common when I was small, like the thick buzz of insects on a summer night, or winters that snowed from November to March. There are days even in the winter where the sparrows explode from from the lilac shrubbery with an angry chorus. Those are my favorites, even if it’s blustery and gloomy, as it is today. 

Every interaction I have with the natural world is marked now with a remembering, a nostalgic tinge of what is already gone. If you aren’t familiar with the word “solastalgia,” you will be soon. My phone’s dictionary doesn’t recognize it, but it’s already permeated my perception of nature, and colored how I approach writing about the environment. The word is loosely defined as “the distress caused by environmental change,” and encompasses both the cataclysm of a wildfire and the slow disappearance of the reliable pattern of the seasons.

If you live in the northeast, as I do, the past two weeks have included snow, rain, ice, below zero temperatures and at least one mild, 60 degree day. The unease you feel in a t-shirt in February has a name. Now I just need a name for mourning the bugs and the birds and the deer, a name for the unshareable and enormous loneliness of living in a world with fewer non-human compatriots. 

The potential of a sweeping silence is the most unnerving thing to me, though there are plenty of other dire consequences to fret about. I can fill my apartment with plants, but I can’t invite the trees and their inhabitants inside as a helpful measure. My bird feeder only goes so far. And sometimes I wonder if other people can feel the beating heart of the alive things outside our windows, or if that feeling is just in my head, that alive and connected sense of community. 

This feels like a dire start to the Morning Report, but it’s important to me to speak plainly about why I tweet those observations as I walk. This is the conversation lives between the lines when I am celebrating the squabbling jays and fancy cardinals. It’s all very tender and earnest, I can’t help it. And it makes no sense to not own it, especially not now, when even the dirt feels so important and fragile. There will be other future dispatches full of seed planting and fresh green things. I hope you’ll hang out and enjoy them with me and the birds.


Tune into the Morning Report

Seasonal woods-walking observations from the Merrimack Valley

Get ready, because here I come… as soon I finish getting set up. For now, feel free to subscribe if you love The Morning Report, twitter version. This will be an occasional, barely scheduled longer version of those nature observations.

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