Cover image for The unequal hours : moments of being in the natural world
The unequal hours : moments of being in the natural world
Underhill, Linda.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Athens : University of Georgia Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xi, 145 pages ; 22 cm
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F127.A4 U54 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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After spending most of her life in the city, Linda Underhill moved to rural Allegany County, New York, in 1989 and observed a successful citizens' protest against a low-level nuclear waste dump near her home. Having always thought the environmental movement applied mainly to the wilderness. Underhill began writing to voice the essence of what her neighbors were trying to preserve in their own backyards. Her essays describe elements of the natural world: wind, water, ice, fire, trees. The title essay concerns the ""unequal hours"" of the changing seasons, while other essays explore a nature preserve, a garden, backyard wildlife and a hot air balloon ride. Deliberately choosing settings close to home, she shows that one does not have to go on a wilderness voyage to appreciate the natural world. The Unequal Hours brings our attention to the sudden, intense experiences of reality that Virginia Woolf called ""moments of being"" by using the events of everday life as a way to explore what the natural world means to ordinary people. Like the sudden moments of illumination in haiku, the ""moments of being"" Underhill describes are rooted in the ordinary, but they reveal the extraordinary.

Author Notes

Linda Underhill teaches writing at Alfred University in upstate New York

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In these jewel-like essays, Underhill invites readers to practice the difficult art of stillness. Quiet, small, transcendent moments of illumination that restore us to ourselves and to a sense of connection with all things can occur, she insists, while watching the rain, or sweeping the porch, or sitting and looking at the backyard. To commune with nature, she reassures readers, it's not necessary to emulate Thoreau, to leave home and go live in the woods. Underhill, who lives in western New York's rural Allegheny County (where she teaches at Alfred University), finds creative solitude in her yard and in a nearby private sanctuary, her family's farm, with its cabin by a pond. Of course, such idyllic settings aren't available to many, yet her keenly observant reflections‘on wind, trees, birds, water, on nature's symphony of colors, on the spiritual rewards of gardens and gardening‘overflow with evidence that nature watching has greatly enriched her life, and beckon us to do likewise. Underhill also follows engaging, serendipitous tangents, describing a ride on a hot-air balloon with a veteran pilot or exploring the roots of Christmas traditions in pagan Saturnalia. While her book opens by briefly describing a successful grassroots campaign to prevent former New York governor Mario Cuomo from placing a nuclear waste dump in Allegany County, and while Underhill bemoans the loss of wilderness that has drastically reduced the number of migrating songbirds in her area, this is not an environmentalist activist's screed. It's more a series of elegant meditations in the tradition of Wendell Berry, sprinkled with references to poetry, myth, science, Taoism, ecology and ancient customs. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Moment Moment after moment, we find our own way. SHUNRYU SUZUKI, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind         In each day there are tens of thousands of moments, 86,400 of them, to be precise. Most of these thousands of moments pass by with so little notice that we are hardly aware of them. We are too busy making plans for the future, lamenting the time we have wasted in the past, or saying we have no time. We may be alive, and we may be awake, but we live in a state of nonbeing. We are not paying attention to the present.     But there is a moment outside of time, the one Virginia Woolf called the "moment of being." Now and then, she says, from the confusion of everyday life, a clarity emerges, and we see the connections between one thing and another, between one person and another, between one place and another. In such moments, we become aware of how rich is the tapestry of life we wander through. We understand that the world is our home. It is the job of the writer, Woolf says, to receive and to record these moments of being, to find the pattern of meaning in daily life.     Like the sudden moments of illumination in haiku, these are rooted in the ordinary, but they reveal the extraordinary. In these moments, we are able to capture the sacred, as Willa Cather said in The Song of the Lark , "to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself--life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose."     Beginning in 1991, I began to seek out moments of being where I live and work, in rural western New York. I had already watched for two years as a group of volunteers called the Concerned Citizens of Allegany County successfully fought the efforts of the governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo, and his siting commission to place a low-level nuclear waste dump here. Allegany County was chosen, no doubt, because few people in our own state have heard of it. It is nevertheless home to three small colleges, one of which--Alfred University--is where my husband, Bill, and I both teach. Far from New York City and Albany and Buffalo, Allegany County borders Cattaraugus County to the west and Pennsylvania to the south. It has no cities but many small towns, no amusement parks or shopping malls but many acres of forest, no race tracks or casinos or ski resorts but many streams, creeks, and ponds. Its natural environment, the Concerned Citizens argued, was its greatest resource, and they wanted it protected from the possible contamination of a nuclear waste dump. All over the county, signs and bumper stickers sprouted urging us to "Bump the Dump." Through meetings, teach-ins and editorials, newsletters, concerts, and marches, the waste dump proposal was debated. Early in 1991, there was a stand-off between protesters blocking the commission's access to the proposed site for the dump and the state police ordered to clear them from the area. The governor blinked. He called the siting commission home, and they have not been back to Allegany County since.     I was newly married, and I had never before been so far removed from urban life. I grew up in Pittsburgh and had spent most of my life in cities. I was only vaguely aware of the growing environmental movement. And what I did hear almost always applied to remote wilderness areas, for the most part places where I never expected to live or even to visit. I had never thought about a battle for "the environment" occurring in my own backyard.     I decided to find out what my new neighbors had fought so hard to save.     So for the next four years, I looked out the windows of my house, wandered the streets of my town, and traveled the roads of the county where the Concerned Citizens had fought their battles. I explored the elements of the natural world that could be found in these ordinary surroundings. I gave myself up to the places Bill and I call home, our house on its three quarters of an acre in the town of Wellsville, and the old farm a few miles away where the family keeps a cabin. I found many moments of being in the natural world--often when I was least expecting them--when I was sweeping our porch, weeding our garden, or simply sitting and looking out at our yard. I felt the touch of water, the movement of wind, and the promptings of memory. I searched for color in a winter landscape and taught myself to see the wild creatures living in my own backyard. I learned about the growth of trees and the symmetry of ice. I studied the meaning of sanctuaries, nature preserves owned and supervised by conservation organizations, as well as ordinary backyard gardens and the acres of land purchased by those with no other purpose than to protect the forest from development.     I found that a wilderness voyage isn't necessary to experience the natural world. "In wilderness is the preservation of the world," said Henry David Thoreau. Yet most of us, after all, do not live in the wilderness. We live in cities and towns, suburbs and subdivisions. Here too, I have learned, is the natural world, and here too is a calling, to find in the most ordinary of places a world worth keeping.     Each of these moments of being, like stones thrown into a pond, sent out ripples of thought and memory to other places, to places I had seen and to places I had only read about and to the stories of ancient people who gave witness to the sacred powers of the natural world. I collected these ripples, too, in the narratives that follow.     These essays describing moments of being in the natural world also pose some questions. How do ordinary people benefit from a relationship with the natural world? .And what choices can we make that will improve our environment right here, where we live and work?     On his Independence Day, Thoreau decided to leave home and go to the woods, to live, as he said, "deliberately," to "front only the essential facts of life." His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Let us not rove, let us sit at home with the cause."     On my Independence Day, I decided to stay at home. Chapter Two Independence Day Between one breath time and the next, between one lifetime and the next, something waits for a moment. P. L. TRAVERS, What the Bee Knows              This morning I put the final coat of white enamel paint on an old chair I am restoring. The chair is a high stool we found in the kitchen of an abandoned farmhouse on country property belonging to my husband, Bill. It is made of heavy, solid maple, with tooled legs and a short ladder back. When we found it, it was scratched and dull, its paint turned colorless with age. Stripped of the old paint and made shining white again, it is transformed. It makes a fine stool for the kitchen counter in our house in town, a place for a friend to sit and talk to me while I cook, a place for me to linger with morning coffee, a perch for sleepless nights and midnight snacks.     The solid old life of the object must still be underneath, layer upon layer of associations I can only guess at. If only I had a magnifying glass of memory I could hold up to the old wood, what could it tell me of the people who owned this chair, the meals they prepared in their kitchen, the birthday parties, the arguments, the tears, the late nights waiting for a child to come home? How many times did this chair see winter come to the farm and firewood hauled in to warm the old house? Was it made by hand in a workshop on the farm or purchased from the hardware store in town? Once, long before, it was a tree growing in a glade, just like the maples that grow on the hillside behind the old farmhouse now.     Emerging fresh and white again, the old chair reflects the new life of the present moment on a warm morning in July, Independence Day.     Waiting for the paint to dry, I walk outside carrying a pair of scissors to clip a bouquet. The two ravens who live here year-round are flying back and forth squawking loudly, and as I look up at them to see what is the matter I notice that another pair is also flying about, and the residents must be trying to chase the intruders off. This is their home, too. Orange and black viceroy butterflies soar over the roof on a warm breeze, catching the updraft, heading for one of the mini-meadows we have allowed to grow up around the house. Another kind of butterfly I have not yet been able to name is velvety blue, white, and black. It floats right past me at eye level. Innumerable tiny white moths, wasps, beetles, and bees careen through the yard, feeding on the nectar of flowers blooming now. One of the wasps found its way inside this morning as I was working at my desk, and I had to catch it in my pencil cup and carry it outside trapped with a postcard over the cup as it buzzed in annoyance at its captivity, however temporary.     I stoop to clip a few stems of the purple spirea among the hosta in the door yard, and I notice another butterfly perched on a tangle of leaves, legs bent and antennae outstretched as if alive, but unmoving. I poke at it with the tip of my scissors, and then I see that one wing is tattered, and its eyes are dull. How could it give up life, perched on this stem as if only resting, about to take flight again in a moment? We think of death as a struggle, a heroic battle, an ordeal, yet it also comes like this, in the midst of movement, on a warm summer day.     It is a tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus , the two points of its tails black and shiny, delicate spires at the ends of its veined and scalloped wings. Often, I have found dead butterflies on the street, fallen from treetops, their wings tattered almost beyond recognition. But never before have I seen one so nearly perfect that it might have been alive the moment before. The black and yellow stripes of its wings and its furry body resemble a tiger skin. The outer edges of the hind wings have a blue band scalloped with yellow crescents and two bright orange globes on either end, as if to suggest the phases of the moon.     The black stripes on the wings, a little over an inch long, appear as if made by the brush strokes of a calligrapher's pen dipped in rich black ink on yellow paper, some strokes fat and full, blurred at the edges like a stencil, some mere pencil lines, some fading out to a powdery blur. All of these could be the strokes taught in the study of Chinese ink painting, yet they were made not by an artist trained in a painting class but one that lives in the cells of the butterfly, designing life and painting with DNA.     Before its metamorphosis, while this creature was still a caterpillar, the genes that designed this wing cut away its shape as if from a blank piece of paper and then marked each brush stroke on the butterfly's wing, exactly where it would color the composition. Using a few simple patterns, a few basic shapes, and pigments derived in part from the plants the caterpillar eats, the genes within a butterfly's cells can produce innumerable variations on a theme. Some butterflies have eyespots, and some do not, some have dashes, dots, chevrons, or borders on the wings, and some do not.     What cellular memory guides these choices, changing the caterpillar, slimy and munching on the leaves of our trees, into one of the most beautiful of creation's mysteries, floating free?     This is the secret of the butterfly, the magic of metamorphosis and flight which becomes to us a symbol of the soul, its rebirth and resurrection, its promise of freedom. Thus medieval painters put a butterfly on the Christ child's hand when they depicted him on his mother's lap. Thus the Taoist Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly and then wondered if he were dreaming of the butterfly or if the butterfly were dreaming of him.     Some butterflies are plain-Janes, clothed in simple white or pale yellow. Others are gaudy as peacocks, and some even have a wing that resembles a peacock feather, with its iridescent eye. Their wings may be painted brilliant orange and black, sulfurous yellow, copper red, gorgeous green, purple, or blue. They are called painted ladies, mourning cloaks, checkerspots, commas, and question marks. They are called Apollos, Dianas, elfins, nymphs, satyrs, admirals, monarchs, and viceroys. Their colors are made both of pigment and of the structure of the scales overlapping on the butterfly's wing which modify the wavelengths of light striking them to make them look like velvet or satin, glass or metal. Some have colors in the ultraviolet end of the spectrum, seen only by other butterflies or bees. And the butterflies themselves, with the thousand views of their faceted eyes, can see much more than we do. The ultraviolet landing strip on a flower petal beckons to them; the world to them is a symphony of colors we can know only in dreams.     Butterflies use their coloration not merely for art but for protection. They mimic leaf and bark, stem and stone, to give themselves camouflage. They mimic other butterflies known to be poisonous. Their vivid eyespots and stripes may startle an enemy, hypnotizing it long enough for the butterfly to make an escape. The intermittent play of bright patterns on a butterfly's wing as it flits through the air makes it harder to capture than a wing of a single hue would be. The phenomenon is called "dazzling coloration" because it appears to dazzle the butterfly's predators. Butterflies also seem to mimic our own art--or mock it. Some butterfly wings look like shiny metal, some like marble, some like stained glass.     One day not long ago as I crossed the courtyard of our home I noticed what I thought at first was a wedge of wood sitting on the edge of the fence, and while wondering how it got there, I came close enough to see that it was not wood at all but a brown butterfly sitting perfectly still on the ledge. Its veined wings were colored to resemble wood grain, a wedge with edges slightly ragged, like a rough cut, splintered and spiked. This one, however, unlike the tiger swallowtail, was still alive, and when I came too close it took flight, to live at least another day. The average life span of a butterfly is seven to ten days.     I keep the tiger swallowtail on my desk, resting on the leaf just as I found it, wings half folded as if ready for flight, rather than spreading it to lay in a box as Vladimir Nabokov would have done. A lifelong fascination with butterflies led him to chase them over three continents. Nabokov became an expert on the classification Lycaenidae melissa , commonly known as the mountain blues, and used them as the inspiration for describing his famous nymph Lolita, with her "downy limbs." "Few things indeed have I known," he says in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, "in the way of emotion or appetite, ambition or achievement, that could surpass in richness and strength the excitement of entomological exploration." Standing in a field filled with a rare butterfly he had hunted, he says, was ecstasy, "and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone."     The first of his captures, when he was seven, was "a splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail." He caught it in a cap and put it in a wardrobe overnight. But it escaped the next morning when the wardrobe was opened by his nurse. Then he learned to use ether to still the butterflies when catching them in his net and to pierce the thorax with a pin and position his captive on a cork-bottomed spreading board covered with thin paper, for display in glass-covered boxes.     I collect my butterflies in memory. I remember the yellow butterfly I saw resting on Bill's shoulder some long minutes one day as he walked ahead of me in the woods, unaware of the stowaway catching a lift. I remember the large brown butterfly with the arc of white moons on its fore wings and the band of iridescent blue on its hind wings that sat for a moment on the chair on my deck, folding and unfolding its wings in the sunlight. And I remember the flock of large orange and black monarchs we watched dance in a field of milkweed behind the old farmhouse one afternoon late in August. They were bound for Mexico, twenty-five hundred miles away. Without habitat like this, the monarchs could not make their annual journey. Generations live and die along the way, feeding on milkweed where they can find it, passing on the memory of the long route in their genes. The development of what were once meadowlands full of wild flowers into shopping centers, parking lots, and lawns threatens their being more than the butterfly hunter's net and bottle of ether.     So we do nothing with our country property, letting the milkweed and the goldenrod, the wild yarrow and the purple thistle grow free. Here there will be no parking lots or vacation homes, no convenience stores or souvenir shops. And in town, we do not chop down the wildflowers some call weeds: Queen Anne's lace, daisies, and dandelions. Here where the house we live in is built there was a meadow years ago, and the land remembers.     In my kitchen, I sit on the old chair with my feet hooked around its tooled legs and look at the tiger swallowtail cupped in my palm. It grows brittle and soon may turn to dust, the final metamorphosis. Then it will become memory. Every one of the ten thousand things will become something else in time. And in every moment, every thing shares life with every other thing. At this moment on Independence Day, the chair, the butterfly, and I, we live here together. Copyright © 1999 University of Georgia Press. All rights reserved.