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Strata

A lifelong love for nature offers solace during trying times

By Celeste Helene Schantz

I'm not well-known to my neighbors. I'm an older woman who could sink into these autumn hills like some broken-down tractor and perhaps no one would notice. I'm the eccentric person in baggy sweatpants in the stillness of morning, climbing awkwardly down to a creek's ledge with my notepad and pencil.

Strata, Next Avenue, Telling Our Stories
Credit: John Gilman

As a small child bullied by classmates, I'd come here to hunt for brachiopods and horn corals, trying not to slip on the slime of algaed stones in cold shallows.

Now I come for the joy of sinking my toes in gravel, mud and rill: to hear the susurration of fresh air above in quaking aspen branches.

I know my actions in this small place can inform what happens in the world miles away. And what happens miles away can eventually make its way back to me here.

There's the sense of something prehistoric here. Sit long enough and you'll enter its brook-ish mind. There's a stone memory of kames, kettles and moraines. You feel the glacier ice rising 1,000 feet in the air.

It's antediluvian: an ancient ocean swimming through forked white oaks. You taste the metallic mineral tang from wet sediment slabs, striated the color of ammonite and smoke.

You can imagine Haudenosaunee traders who once walked this creek, tracing maps made of water.

I record the bruised verdigris of a mallard's neck catching daylight; the wingspan of a turkey vulture like a black Jurassic shadow rushing against the afternoon sun. I inhale the petrichor of rain that passed through the hemlocks yesterday.

There's pollution on the banks; a face mask tossed in the grass.

I'm privileged to be here, but it's not always a paradise. Each day's headlines bear the names of people dying from the virus. 16. 247. Now more than 246,000.

Hatred surfaces even in this small hamlet. I envision endless apparitions of the bodies of Jamestown slaves, of missing indigenous women, of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor staring as they pass by me through the arterial current.

I know my actions in this small place can inform what happens in the world miles away. And what happens miles away can eventually make its way back to me here.

My home is dying. I mourn it. Sixty percent of all animal species on earth have vanished in my lifetime. I'm living in the sixth extinction during a pandemic in a crisis of Man.

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I must look odd; someone who mutters, digs, scrawls cryptic verses. I stare into space and collect rocks in a bucket, holding each one up to the light.

I witness the great green glory of each new morning.

Beyond worrisome, sleepless nights, I rise, gray-haired, to walk this visceral ridge of pelvic bone; to step upon these green fields, to lie beneath this wheeling crown of sun. I roll life's syllables into words over my tongue and test the hardness of each.

I don't know where I fit into this stratum; where I belong in this cycle within cycles. Or even where I fit within these words I write.

What do you write about when the world's gone mad?

I'll start with my love of one single childhood creek. I'll head out from here.

Telling Our Stories contributor Celeste Schantz
Celeste Helene Schantz is a poet who lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York State with her special needs son. Celeste works for the public library. Writing this essay "was cathartic, to share my love of this small, trickling, wonderful creek where I've gone for years. Lovely to celebrate that, yes, but I found myself suddenly tying in our interconnectedness as humans and our responsibilities to each other and to the planet in a wider implication," she says. Read More
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