Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 21, 2014
Authors Among Us
Kathie Fiveash: finding home in nature
by Elke Dorr
Kathie Fiveash was perhaps 8 years old when she had her first significant birding experience, one that has remained in her memory all the years since. She had been walking over a series of low dunes on a beach in Sanibel, Fla., when she saw a pool where she observed herons and egrets. “There was a tree,” she remembered in a recent interview, with spreading, horizontal branches where she lay down to “really watch,” wholly captivated by the birds’ presence, their activity and complete unawareness of her. She was so close to them, she said, that she didn’t need binoculars to see the details of their fine plumage, the shaggy feathers of the herons. She watched mesmerized as a heron “speared a large fish…and swallowed it.” So intense was her quiet observation that she lost herself in the moment, time fell away, and she became part of the world of those wading birds. “I had become a birdwatcher,” she writes.
In the introduction to her newly released first book, Island Naturalist (published by Penobscot Books, a division of Penobscot Bay Press), a collection of the columns she has been writing for Island Ad-Vantages since 2010, Fiveash writes, “To look, listen, smell, touch and taste in nature has been my delight and pastime since childhood.” Perhaps naturalists find their beginnings in those very early experiences in the natural world or through the influence of someone who helps lead them to observe closely and marvel at that world. For Fiveash, a commingling occurred of her early experiences and the significant influence of grandparents. It was a vacation spent with them, in fact, that brought about the unforgettable birding encounter. Other recollections of their influence abound in her memory: joining them on hiking vacations; collecting shells, which she would later look up in their reference books; her grandmother’s memorable comment that the tracings of a bark beetle on logs were “the handwriting of God.” Her grandparents, she said, bestowed on her a lasting gift, “the great legacy of learning about the outdoors.”
“If we study the natural environment where we live, we come closer to understanding the huge web of life that holds us in place,” she writes in her introduction. She then asks, “What does it really mean to call a place home?” In every naturalist there exists, perhaps, the desire to be more fully at home in the place she finds herself. It may be that such yearning is what leads to close observations and fosters the consequent attunement to nature. A naturalist, according to Merriam-Webster, is one “who studies plants and animals as they live in nature.” Yet, that definition, while concise and to the point, fails to include two significant traits possessed by Fiveash that characterize her observations as well as her depiction of her subjects: reverence and passion.
It is her passion for learning about Isle au Haut’s “primal world” and all she finds within it, as well as her reverence for the very vulnerable balance in nature that suffuse the book. While page after page offers much information, each chapter is also colored by her abiding passion for everything from earthworms, about which she has this to say: “One of the pleasures is turning up a multitude of healthy, wriggling earthworms” in spring, to coyotes, whose “singing” thrills her and causes her “to wonder how they are changing my island world.” Her passion is not simply reserved for the wild creatures that share her world, but extends to the plants such as skunk cabbage and bladderworts, as well as to phenomena such as red tides, the winter solstice, and birdsong. Yet she is also a pragmatist, recognizing as she kills some voles that were destroying her vegetable garden that she is simply “one more critter trying to feed myself. It is all part of nature’s balance.”
The list of subjects on which Fiveash’s naturalist lens is focused is both abundant and varied. In explaining how she chooses her subjects, she remarked that she enters the world outside her door and “sees what catches [her] interest at any given time.” Her hope, she said, is that what interests her “will also interest others.” We learn, for instance, that each day during “the sap run, half a ton of sap is flowing up and down a [maple] tree”; or that if you walk “through a patch of dry lichens, you may have set their growth back 100 years”; or that “it may take ten to thirty years until [American eels] finally settle in lakes or rivers,” following their migration from the Sargasso Sea, where they were born.
Like the subjects of her columns, her research has also ranged widely as a consequence of her desire to provide correct information. She consults reference books, guides and articles, as well as the Internet, and even scientific papers. When she begins writing, she said she often asks herself, “What do I think is most illuminating about this particular plant or animal?” She emphasized, “I don’t write about anything I don’t understand myself.” To that end, she had a fortuitous correspondence with Deer Isle geologist Roger Hooke that helped her correct some errors in the column about the area’s complex geological history. He was a “generous resource,” she commented and admitted that it was “the hardest column to write.”
Writing about the natural world of Isle au Haut represents only one of Fiveash’s pursuits, however. Although she is a lifelong naturalist, she has also been a teacher for many years, first for 20 years in Massachusetts, where she still lives when she’s not on Isle au Haut, and for nine years at the K-8th grade island school. It was here she started a program through a grant from MBNA to study island habitats and ocean food webs. She created a coldwater tank for which some of the island fishermen would leave buckets holding an array of sea creatures for students to observe first-hand. Though she no longer teaches in a formal capacity, she still encourages children “to build, to create, to wonder, and to feel connected” to the natural world.
Her own connection to her island home has been profound, enlarging her once scant knowledge of sea life, she said. Her world until moving to Isle au Haut had largely been spent in the fields, mountains and woods of New England rather than along its coast. Fishing for lobsters “has allowed me to see what I never would have seen otherwise,” she remarked, “the fish, the shrimp and sea stars, for instance.” Additionally, she said she’s developed a “clearer view of predation.”
In the midst of her enthusiastic observations of the varied species and wild plants populating Isle au Haut, however, is her sense that humans are “really damaging the earth….I worry about what kind of world we’re leaving for those to come,” she mused and then confessed, “Sometimes I despair,” as she cited our dependence on fossil fuels and the effects of climate change. She feels that there is a “kind of hubris in humans,” about our intelligence, about our ingenuity and capacity to solve our problems that may not serve us well.
But the essential optimist in Fiveash refuses to be quelled for long and became clearly evident as she talked about her hopes for the columns and for her book. Declining to call herself an activist, she expressed her hope that in writing about the creatures and plants of her island world, she might help people “love nature more…through greater understanding” of that world. Perhaps she is less a pessimist and much more like the Golden Crowned Kinglets she describes in the book that “exemplify grace and gladness in the face of daunting odds.” Like the kinglets, she “reminds us that miracles happen every day,” with her illuminating descriptions of the natural world, a world she faithfully observes and chronicles.