Why Feed the Birds?

I’ve found a new reason to feed the birds this year: it makes me look up at the sky. Twice a day I’m reminded of a bigger, brighter world during this time when my eyes and mind so often sink under the ugliness of human society in this time of pandemic panic and what seems like the death of decency and democracy. Because I feed the birds, twice a day I let my whole self really look up. The wire that stretches across the west side of our yard is well above my head when it has no weight on it, so I have to reach my arms up to my full height and sometimes jump up a bit to hook on the first few of the six feeders. That’s when I see the morning sun slide in and shine across the naked branches of persimmon, tulip poplar and oak trees reaching across the air above me. Sometimes I’m stunned into a stand-still state of surprise, my head tipped back, unhung feeder in my hand, the process interrupted completely for a minute. I’ve been hanging feeders for years in this place, so why is it that only this year I’m being struck by the sight of illuminated twig patterns against a brilliant blue sky? At night, I wait until just after dark to bring the feeders in, after the birds have had their fill and disappeared to mysterious roosting spots. I have to look up to grab each feeder and lift it off its hook, and that’s when I see through the patterns of black leafless trees into a spectacular starry sky. I’ve been hanging feeders for years in this place, so why is it only this year that the stars are numerous enough to take my breath away, filling more of the sky than I’ve ever seen in my decades living here? Maybe it’s just that we’ve had a stretch of seasonable cold, dipping into the twenties at night like old fashioned winter weather here. Through a mosaic of black bare-tree lace I see a thousand points of light shining from endless space, as I unhook one feeder then the next from the long wire. More than once I’ve stopped mid process–a few feeders still hanging and swinging because I let go of the wire so abruptly, let go so I could just stand and wonder at the drastic… Continue reading

Ritual to Release the Year

I remember last spring, not only did Covid rip the rug out from under humanity, but a record high number of friends were experiencing cruel twists of fate, from long-standing marriages unravelling, to cancer diagnoses, to the death of loved ones. At one point I sat down and made a list of all the upheaval and unwanted events that were transpiring simultaneously, thinking that doing so might by some magic send them away. I was wrong, of course, and left off the list-making long before it was complete. On December 23, before the cold snap pushed the temperatures below freezing for several nights in a row, I noticed that a coneflower in my south side garden had recently shot up new bloom stalks, a few of which were attempting to birth flowers, the petals not quite formed but promising, their orange-purple color still tucked in close to the center. Ah, I thought, yet another unwelcome, unprecedented anomaly for 2020. Here was a May-blooming plant trying to flower in late December, a “bad timing” event to add to all the others the year had brought already. Nonetheless, I was careful not to say anything morose in front of the flowers. They are only trying to respond to environmental cues, to information from a source that used to be reliable. It was a year of unprecedented loss for so many, even if (as I managed to do most of the time) one kept the dominant discourse on domestic politics and social unrest out of earshot. So here it is, the last evening of the calendar year 2020, as we measure time in the Western World, and I am using this post as my ritual release of this riotous, unrepeatable (I hope) year. Welcome, 2021. We’ve been waiting for you! Continue reading

Flower Ghosts

I woke up and heard the wind still hassling the trees, and I wondered about frost. Before bedtime I’d decided not to cover the clematis, despite its purple flowers being those of its first ever fall bloom (it’s a spring flower by nature, or was); nor would I save the nasturtium, the salvia, or the balsam. I’d picked the few zinnia blooms worth keeping. Salvia before the frost… I had once been in the habit of throwing blankets, row cover, plastic table cloths, whatever I could find over swaths of plants to protect them from the first frost or maybe even two or three frosts; it had been a ritual during the many years I labored to have a garden where flowers were still showy and plentiful by the time the cold arrived. I’m less likely to hold on now, more likely to let nature be nature, however oddly she wants to behave these days.   But then I remembered the amaryllis in its large pot, still sitting on the patio bench. If I put it in the basement (as usual), after a month of dormancy, it could come to the living room and resurrect itself in one or two huge gaudy blooms in February. It would do that, if I kept it alive tonight. I dragged myself out of bed and into my boots, coat, and hat. I picked up the heavy pot and put it just inside the front door. Then I walked outside again. The moonlight made the wind’s antics visible in the tall trees surrounding the house, and I walked past the tender plants as they swayed, hovered quietly on the edge of freeze-burning to death. My soft goodbyes were lost inside the sound of wind whirring through the remaining leaves on the large oaks by the garden and whooshing through the wall of pines to the north. Most of the blooms I could see were salvia’s. Diffused by clouds, the moon’s light wasn’t enough for me to discern the color enough to tell if they were alive or dead. I know the greens turn brown first and only after that will the bright red-orange flowers shrink into the color of dried blood. I could have gone inside for a flashlight, but I went back to bed instead, recognizing the familiar discomfort of that first frost feeling: relief that the growing season’s work is done and… Continue reading

Too Cool for Words

The nights have been dropping into the thirties, and it’s the time of year when many creatures sharing my yard are getting ready to say goodbye, either until next spring or forever. For many insects, the one season they have in the world is coming to an end. I thought of all this because I discovered a stick bug on the outside of my bedroom window when I pushed open the curtains this morning. It had found the glass last night warmer than the air outside, I’m sure. I tried to get a picture standing at its eye-level in my bedroom, but my phone camera couldn’t focus on it. The bug’s camouflage had fooled the phone. I went outside for another attempt. As I folded myself down to his level and stared through my Iphone trying to make it focus, I wondered what he saw. I wondered which of the little dots on his twig head were his eyes and what he thought of the pink rectangle I kept holding up between my face and his.   Then I looked at him without the phone between us, trying to make eye contact, wanting to tell him goodbye and that I hope his season in the world has been a good one. Anyway, I’m sure he saw my eyes searching for his eyes and knew what I meant by that. He stayed completely still on the glass. Does he have sticky stuff on his feet? Wikipedia says that “stick bugs are leaf skeletonisers,” — what a great word!— that they “[eat] the tissues between the leaf veins, pausing for a while and then walking on to new leaves.” And evidently they feed mostly between nine at night and three in the morning. So perhaps this guy was resting with a full belly? (I think it was a “he” based on what else I read on Wikipedia, but at the time, pronoun choice was a mystery). According to a cool website called animaldiversity.org, when females in trees lay their eggs, “The eggs dropping from the trees sound like droplets of rain.” I also learned that the eggs fall “usually from great heights, down to the leaf litter where they are left to overwinter. When the nymphs hatch, they fend for themselves.” Okay, so they aren’t great parents. But think of what it took for this individual to survive the free fall as… Continue reading

My One and Only Monarch

            Wendy and I were standing in her driveway when I saw a monarch in the air above us. I had stopped at her place to pick up a hard copy of the Sunday paper that she’d saved for me because my picture had been in it. The butterfly interrupted our conversation, otherworldly in its brand new black and orange, mesmerizing in its haphazard, seemingly unhurried flight. I wondered aloud if it were a he or she, if maybe it could even be the one that came out of the chrysalis in my yard,             That chrysalis that had been dangling like a green jewel case from an upturned clay pot in my garden. I’d been keeping track of it for ten days at least; I’d placed a small portable table over the entire pot during the days of heavy rain we’d had last weekend. Over a decade ago I’d witnessed metamorphosis inside a butterfly net habitat my husband had rigged up for his second grade class to observe, and I’d been trying to remember what signs to look for that emergence was about to happen. Then two mornings ago I’d found the chrysalis hanging open, translucent, empty. There was no sign nearby of its contents. It wasn’t until the next day, last evening, that I saw the large and brilliant newborn pumping up its wings in the weeds very near the pot that had held its chrysalis. Where had it been for the past twenty-four hours? More than that I wondered if it would make it through the next twenty-four hours, since a cold front was coming with temperatures likely to get into the forties.             It was late this morning before I remembered to look, but there he or she was, wings more open, but still so tentative and hesitant in their back and forth, and still the body hanging mostly upside down. I bent in close to remove a couple of weeds and a dead stalk of something that seemed in the way of its exercise. Would he/she make it into the sky today? I have to admit I was not optimistic. The answer had still been “not yet” when I drove off to Wendy’s, a welcome chance to see another human with only air between us (in these Covid times), now here we were rendered speechless and craning our necks to keep watching this amazing creature…. Continue reading

Thank you, Dogwood

I can’t decide whether it’s their polka-dotted chests, eager dark eyes, the mighty way they rip the berries off the twigs, or how fast they swallow that bright red sugar bomb that I like most. I’m a bird addict. Knowing they’re there by a sound or a glimpse or even a shaking branch brings instant joy. Right now I think it’s the sound that won’t let me go: the swift drumming wings of nearly-weightless bodies dodging their way through branches to alight then toss themselves into the air again. Such rapid, acrobatic flight! They are wild, crazy flyers, not afraid of me as spring birds are when I stand on the back porch so close to the dogwood trees. For these birds, our yard is a purposeful stop in a long journey with a tight schedule. I was lucky enough to get a close up view of several wood thrushes (polka dot chests, coppery backs, not pictured) because they were close to the kitchen window when I was making my tea this morning. From the back porch I’ve also seen a black and white warbler, a not-like-any-that-I-know woodpecker, and two kinds of mainly yellow birds, one of which I’m pretty sure was a female Scarlet tanager (see blurry picture above). But I’ve given up on the ID-ing. I’m just in awe of the Dogwood for having all those tantalizing berries. Oh, here are more birds —five, seven, more like twelve of them. It’s hard to count the shaking branch ends, the tufts of trembling leaves that hide their bodies as they come and go. I’ve tried to photograph, to video, but watching is what I end up doing, phone in pocket, binoculars hanging unused in my left hand. How can I do anything else? Dark is coming. Tomorrow morning the berries and the birds may be gone. Continue reading

Looking for Big Trees

I knew I wasn’t going to save the lovely beings I was walking among, but I do think they made a big impression on the young photographer walking behind me and taking pictures (by young I mean at least ten years younger than me). She was not an experienced hiker, but very game (”I’m not used to walking where there’s no trail,” she said). She soon felt lucky, though, to be the one chosen for this photo shoot, which was only happening because one of the paper’s regular columnists had managed to convince the editor that big trees were worthy of a Sunday spread. Especially big trees that would soon be no more. That patch of forest had been marked for skidders and chainsaws, based on the USFS forest plan of 2014, still in force in 2020, which designates the Pedlar District for timber interests. Age class average for trees in this parcel, so they said, was 94 years, and 94 (though more than ten years older than me) isn’t old for a tree. I was thinking to myself how much has changed since 2014. The way the world is now, many people never see trees as old as these. Ever. But what the young person following me was learning first hand was that forests are so much more than trees. I was happy about that. The place had been left alone for more than her lifetime, I imagine, and it had begun to become itself. It had forest magic. When the next forest plan revision comes up, will there be a call for more old growth allotments in the Pedlar District or anywhere in the National Forest? These trees are almost there. Too bad they won’t be here when USFS plan revision time comes around. To tell the USFS what you think about how this forest should be managed, send comments to Nicholas.redifer@usda.gov. For a recent News&Advance article on the project see News&AdvancearticleSundayOct4 Continue reading