On a recent sunny afternoon, Dana Wilde was lying on his stomach in the scruffy grass of his backyard in Troy. He was looking closely at a nearly transparent spiderweb that was smaller than a single sheet of toilet tissue and slung low against the short blades of grass. At one end, it folded into a soft, funnel-shaped shaft.
What spider could have manufactured such a marvel?
“One of the grass spiders,” Wilde said without looking up, jostling the web lightly with his finger to see if the shy arachnid would come darting out of its hiding place.
After several minutes, it hadn’t, and Wilde slowly stood up. There were other spiders and other webs to look at, all manner of small creatures and insignificant plant life, and all the infinity of outer space to be discovered, right there in the grass and trees and sky behind his house. All he had to do was look.
Wilde, 63, has been observing and documenting the world around him, intimately and affectionately, for years. The author of the popular Amateur Naturalist column in the Bangor Daily News from 2005 to 2012, he now writes the bi-weekly Backyard Naturalist column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel news outlets. He also is the author of several books, including “The Other End of the Driveway” in 2011, “ Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography” in 2012 and “ Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” in 2016.
What does numina mean? It’s the plural of the word “numen,” which, according to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, refers to a deity or “an indwelling guiding force or spirit.” This new book of Wilde’s short essays is touched by considerations of inherent divinity, by the possibility of meaning or mysticism in the vast order and disorder of the natural world.
In “Summer to Fall,” Wilde writes with equal fascination about the complex structure of a dragonfly’s eye, the fatally toxic root of the water hemlock and the amoral hunting behaviors of his two otherwise sociable cats, Panda and Brian. He ponders the apparent loneliness of a solitary purple martin, left behind at the baseball field in nearby Unity when all its compatriots have migrated south. He marvels at the overarching constellations that pass through the open patch in the trees above his driveway and compares their ever-expanding clusters to the flowering umbels of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace along the roadside.
In a tender essay titled “Cherry May,” he allows us a glimpse of his longtime love for Bonnie, his wife of many years:. “… the shadbush blossoms in my lexicon stand for the first mid-May my wife and I spent together. That was true madness, it seemed to me then and every spring since, because every pastel green place I looked, I thought I saw her face, especially in the shadblossoms. Once you know what to look for, it is suddenly everywhere. I see it still now.”
Wilde’s notions of divinity in nature don’t come from formal religion but rather from a lifetime of wide-ranging reading and studying. In this book, his essays are rich with offhand allusions to writers and philosophers from Socrates to Tolkien, from William Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson to Jerry Garcia, Tom Rush and Maya Angelou. He references the Sufi mystics, the Old Testament and the rich mythologies of ancient Rome and the aboriginal cultures of the Americas.
There’s plenty of solid natural science here, too, whether he’s describing the life cycle of the lowly dog tick, the 600-mile migration of the ruby-throated hummingbird or the slow turnings of the galaxies. Though he cautions that the book “comprises essays, not scholarship,” it’s evident Wilde has consulted many authorities in assembling this information.
Despite all this erudition, Wilde aims to achieve a natural speaking voice in his writing, a conversational tone with his readers. “The goal is to communicate,” he said. “When you read my columns and essays, you should be hearing me talking to you. If you don’t, I’ve failed.”
He does not fail.
Finding a life’s work
Wilde was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but moved with his parents and younger sister to Chebeague Island off Portland when he was 2 years old. Later, twin brothers were born. His father flew a seaplane, spotting schools of herring for the seiners in Casco Bay, and worked on the construction of a power station on nearby Cousins Island.
He graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School in 1971 and studied English at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Gorham. He didn’t finish his bachelor’s degree until 1979.
“I’d get sick of going to school and go to work for a while, and then I’d sick of working and go back to school,” he said.
When he wasn’t in school, he worked at Tower Publishing in Portland, which published the state business register and the city directory, eventually advancing to the position of managing editor.
“It was mind-numbing,” he said.
After a year of graduate school in Orono, Wilde returned to Portland to write and play music. Eventually, he entered the master’s degree program in English at SUNY Binghamton, graduating in 1985.
Through his work-study position as a teaching assistant, he said, “I discovered I was a good teacher.”
So he accepted a job at Unity College, where he met Bonnie, who was working as a secretary in the English department.
“I fell completely into the deep end of the pool in love with her,” he said. “She was the quickest-witted person I had ever met, with unreal charisma.”
Plus, he said, she had the most beautiful hair and eyes he had ever seen. They moved into a log cabin on 9 acres in Troy and bought the place a year later. It is still their home.
Wanting to pursue a serious career in academics, Wilde returned to SUNY Binghamton completing a doctorate in creative writing, modern literature and contemplative literature in 1995. His dissertation was a collection of creative essays about outer space, informed by his early and ongoing interest in science fiction. Those essays are the basis of his 2012 book, “Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography.”
Wilde spent two years teaching English at American University in Bulgaria, which is affiliated with the University of Maine. He applied for a Fulbright fellowship and spent a more than a year teaching in China. Another Fulbright sent him back to China and then to South Africa. He got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and studied Sufi literature in North Carolina for a year. He picked up adjunct teaching jobs at UMaine, USM and Eastern Maine Community College and published some articles in academic journals.
“All this time, I was still thinking I was going to be a professor someday,” he said. “I was qualified in spades, but I was getting too old; it was as simple as that.”
With his wife holding down a full-time job teaching high school English, Wilde found behind-the-scenes work at the BDN, first on the copy desk and then, in 2007, as an editor. He left the BDN in 2012 and now works part time at the Kennebec Journal, laying out pages and writing his Backyard Naturalist columns.
It leaves him plenty of time to observe, think and write about the natural world that fascinates him. He’d like to write a whole book just about spiders, and he is thinking about a full-length science fiction novel.
“Now that I’m not working five days a week, I have more time to think about it,” he said.
Asked about the writer who has influenced him the most, Wilde is quick to name Thoreau. An undergraduate class in the work of the Massachusetts Transcendentalist “changed the course of my thinking,” he said, opening him up to the work of other contemplative writers who have encountered “full-on experiences of unity with divinity or the cosmos.”
“I’ve never had that experience myself,” he said, with a broad smile, “but I’ve been near the edges.”