In her nature
Still searching for that garden hose slithering under all your unraked leaves? When Nona Bell Estrin takes stock outdoors each fall, she grabs pen and paper to capture more fanciful things:
"Fall dandelions blooming. Milkweed pods just starting to burst. Mint still green by the brook, we pick bunches to bring home and dry for tea, the clean fragrance hovering in the air around us as we harvest them."
Estrin, of East Montpelier, is a naturalist. She has a hawk's eye, doe's ear and coyote's nose for detail.
"I have a very clear first memory of being outside," she recalls of her childhood in Carlinville, Ill. "The light was coming through a tangle in such a way that it hit some flowers. I now know those were Virginia bluebells, which colonize and go wild in certain Midwestern settings, so it must have been spring."
Estrin went on to travel the world. But today she roots herself in the fields and forest around her tiny Vermont home, having published a book of her backyard observations, "In Season: A Natural History of the New England Year," with her husband, former state naturalist Charles Johnson.
"I don't think you really get the depth otherwise," she says. "The depth comes from one place."
And from one moment, she believes.
"We live with a myth about New England that we have four distinct seasons here."
But Estrin says the nature of things is constantly changing. See the early autumn peak of red maples? Then the mid-season peak of fiery sugar maples? Then the late fall peak of golden tamarack and poplars?
Estrin teaches people how to pay attention to the here and now.
"If you're looking for the one dynamic person, bar none, who captures all the excitement of Vermont nature every day of the year, no one can overshadow Nona," friend and fellow naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer says. "She can find excitement in anything at any time of year. Whether it's an odd pattern in the snow left by the wind or her curiosity about what critters are getting inside, she loves and understands everything about being outside."
Solace in nature
Estrin's father, Charles Greenleaf Bell, is a Mississippi-born Rhodes scholar who taught English and physics at colleges and universities from Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and Munich, Germany. Daniel Boone was his great-great uncle. Albert Einstein attended Bell's first poetry reading.
But Estrin doesn't volunteer any of that. Outgoing yet modest, she refers to Bell simply as "my daddy."
"I'm an academic brat. I've lived in every university town you can mention. It sounds like a very privileged background. It was privileged in terms of travel, language, books and culture, but I had malnutrition as a kid because at one point we didn't have enough food."
Nona, named after her grandmother, may have long brown hair and a girlish frame, but she herself is a 65-year-old grandmother of five. Growing up, she often didn't go to school because she had eczema, a skin condition that left her vulnerable to infections at a time before antibiotics.
The student found solace in nature. When her parents divorced when she was 8, she moved to Indiana, where her mother let her roam, without a compass or watch, among the oak and hickory of the Hoosier National Forest near her new home.
"I did get in trouble a few times when I didn't come home for supper — the police were called. But generally speaking, I managed to find my way pretty handily."
Estrin, known as the "bird girl," began keeping a journal.
"I'm not book taught — all my learning is observational. Things were happening and I got excited about them, so I wrote them down. I was doing it to catch, to capture the thrill and to hold it."
Estrin's first journals chronicled the places where she spotted pileated woodpeckers — "places where they were nesting, places where they were feeding, places where they seemed to fly."
She soon learned how not only to see the birds, but also to speak to them.
"Would you like to hear my pileated woodpecker call?"
She sits up straight and swallows a big breath. The prolonged, piercing, high-pitched kuk-kuk-kukking that follows is beyond description.
"They'll answer that," she says with a laugh.
Estrin moved on to track other things. She pulls out her childhood drawings of the half-century-old box turtles she still can spot crawling around her old haunts. She also has the trinket-like fossils she pocketed, starting with the 500-million-year-old crinoid stems (remnants of a prehistoric marine animal) that sit on her kitchen table.
"You really know you're young when you look at these."
The bird girl grew up and flew off to Europe and the West Coast, then married writer and cellist Marc Estrin and gave birth to two children. Her parents used to move her from place to place; now her husband did. He took a teaching job at Goddard College in Plainfield in 1969.
The bride knew the Green Mountains for her father's old summer house in Danby Four Corners.
"We got to Vermont," she recalls of her newlywed years, "and I said, 'Sorry, I'm not moving again.'"
She and her husband went on to separate. But her footing in the Green Mountains has grown firm.
'Capture that detail'
Estrin spent 20 years sharing the job of state director of Meals on Wheels. That gave her time to guide nature tours throughout Vermont for Country Walkers, an international travel company specializing in hiking vacations. She also built a solar-paneled home on an old farm field overlooking Montpelier's Winooski River valley.
Some people would document such exploits in a diary. Estrin instead draws everything in spiral-bound art pads, using pens, pencils and an eight-paint box of watercolors brought alive with the help of an eye-drop bottle.
Turn to page 135 of her "In Season" book (published by the University Press of New England in 2002) and you'll see her sketches of chocolate-brown fishers atop a red maple.
"I found it fascinating that they sleep up in a tree with their bodies supported on a branch and their legs and tails dangling down," she says today. "I try to capture that detail."
Estrin leads workshops at nature centers throughout New England, teaching people how to document their environment through art.
"Her gift is slowing people down and getting them observing," says Chip Darmstadt, director of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science's North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier. "I consider myself an avid naturalist, but I often don't take the time to sit and watch. What Nona encourages people to do is a bit of a rarity in this day and age."
Watercolor isn't Estrin's only medium. She points to the ash, maple and apple trees outside her 12-foot-tall kitchen windows.
"This is wild applesauce," she says, offering a spoon from a pot on the stove.
She then nods to a backyard vegetable garden.
"We eat out of that twice a day all summer."
And a nearby cold frame that yields lettuce, kale and other greens until Christmas.
"I haven't found an aspect of the natural world — or the human world — that doesn't interest me."
Estrin is literally a trailblazer: She founded the nonprofit East Montpelier Trails Inc., which is creating an 18-mile permanent hiking loop in and around Vermont's capital city.
Rocks are just one obstacle she and other volunteers have to clear. They first must work with public and private organizations to secure land rights and raise money. Last year Estrin spent weeks on the phone in a community effort to purchase a $350,000 conservation easement on 480 undeveloped acres in East Montpelier.
Then comes the hard part. A small brook, for example, can become a big engineering hurdle. It requires a bridge, which requires pulling in beams with a bulldozer, which requires approval one machinery-leery landowner wouldn't give. That requires switching to a horse, which requires a different plan, which requires a support post in the water, which requires a state permit.
Amazingly, the group has finished 14 miles in as many years.
Estrin may seem to be Mother Nature personified, but she struggles with her personal impact on the environment. She notes she's a three-mile drive from downtown Montpelier and long car trips away from her parents, children and grandchildren.
"I probably use enough fossil fuel in a day to keep an African village going for weeks."
Suddenly she spots a deer outside her window.
"When I see a deer, I have very complex feelings. They're so beautiful to watch, to draw, to paint. But deer have nailed the environments I know best."
Estrin recalls forest floors "full of May apples, hepatica and ferns of every sort." But she says deer are eating away at the plants, which is eating away at hillside topsoil.
"You can walk out here and see tree roots. It will be an environmental tragedy in another 10 to 20 years."
More hunters? More wolves? Estrin has more questions than answers.
"We need to do something. I can't keep up with the environmental change I'm seeing in my lifetime. When I moved to Vermont, there were no turkey vultures, no fishers, no coyotes, no cardinals, no titmice — you can go on endlessly listing all the things we have now. Some of these changes are heartening, and others are just devastating."
'Screaming bright stuff'
But Estrin sees some things looking up: Leaf-peepers, for example. Fall would seem a prime time for a naturalist to live in Vermont. But Estrin has a confession.
"I have to say, coming from Indiana, we like the softer browns — the beeches, the oaks. This screaming bright stuff, it was a little gaudy for me. I didn't really like it so well."
Today Estrin sees the "spectacular" red and gold of maples, the brass of tamaracks, the lavender of bare branches. She hears the "scritch-scratch" of airborne leaves, the underfoot crunch of "scuffling season." She smells the "good fall leaf smells."
"I learned to appreciate fall foliage through touring with people from around the world. They'd say, 'Oh, it's so beautiful!' I'd say, 'What are you seeing?' I am a connoisseur at this point, but it is through my years of seeing through the eyes of other people all over the state, from the top of Mount Mansfield to the Northeast Kingdom valleys."
That said, this isn't Estrin's favorite time of year. Ask her what is and she answers like a parent who professes equal love for each and every child.
"You sure can get mad at a lot of the kids some of the time," she adds with a laugh. "But my favorite month is actually February. I love, love, love February."
Some may consider that to be a frozen, flaky, flee-to-Florida month. Estrin, a cross-country skier, sees it for its growing daylight on snowy landscapes, "with gorgeous grays and blues and pinks, and life coming back …"
That's how the transplant reveals herself to be a true Vermonter: In the winter, she stays put.
'Something we love'
Estrin says everyone can harvest something from nature.
"I find that people who are consummate shoppers are the best observers. I've heard them on a hiking trip: 'That looks like what's back there, but the leaves are shiny — what is it?' I believe people are hardwired for observation. We have thousands of years of hunter-gatherer in us."
And that, she believes, can offer shelter in the jungle of today's society.
"We face enormous problems; we crowd our lives with lots of stuff and stimulation. Every individual needs some place, some practice, some moment that goes beneath the surface fabric of living. You look at a tree, you see the leaves — there are so many subtle things going on that your intellect is active, but your mind is more at rest. The earth is something we love. I believe it's somehow encoded in our DNA. We are of this, and it is us."
Estrin knows some people may think she's talking about religion or spirituality. She doesn't label it.
"My interest has always been in 'clearing the screen,' in just being quiet in the natural world and making myself available to whatever happens. I remember the moments when I am very present. Those are like pearls on a necklace. The thing that brings me outside again and again and again is wanting that moment."
And wanting to share it with others.
"All of us are very capable observers. I have to be hopeful the natural world is still there for us. I like to think whether you put a person outside on a golf course, on a snowmobile or walking to work, there's some part of all of us that derives that same connection that I do."
Contact Kevin O'Connor at email@example.com.
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