Tuesday, December 30, 2008


As we pause to deliberate, Janus-like, on this final day of December, we know the general shape of the year ahead, though not how it will specifically shape our lives. We’re thus faced with the eternal conundrum of the seasoned traveler: within the mystery of the road ahead there’s happiness and adventure, but also possible disaster and grief. Is it therefore any wonder we feel a twinge of apprehension? Many folks attempt to skew fate via the making of resolutions. As if promising to be better—to clean up certain aspects of their act, so to speak—might exempt them from difficulties down the road. Maybe. But to me it sounds too desperate, too much an attempt to bargain with God. And if there’s anything I’m pretty sure about regarding my relationship with God, it is that I’d better not make promises I can’t—or won’t—keep. Personal history also indicates any worthwhile resolutions I might make—those designed to add missing virtues or improve existing character flaws—will almost certainly end in failure. I’m prone to yield freely to temptation, possibly because I’m congenitally incorrigible. Resolutions may be commendable, unquestionably good for me, practically guaranteed to improve my lot in life—but my heart is seldom in them. I’m too set in my behavior, too content to revel in my idiosyncratic and occasionally curmudgeonly ways. Instead, I go through the new calendar month-by-month, page-by-page, and make notations. I list the things I did during the past year on such-and-such date that I’d like to do again. Equally important, I list things I failed or forgot to do which I hope to manage this time around. So often when contemplating the year behind, I find I regret the things I didn’t do more than those I did. This calendar-marking business serves as a sort of reminder of the path I hope to follow—an attempt to set my itinerary by outlining my seasonal map. Of course time has also taught me there’s no need to worry about over-filling this would-be datebook. Weather, finances, health—that crazy mix of serendipity and circumstance called life—always intervenes frequently and unpredictably. Things come up. Janus has his way—doors open and close. The world changes. I change. Most of us have far less control over our lives than we'd like to believe. But that's where the real adventure lurks, two steps into the unknown. Personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way. As you follow the circular trail anew, I hope your potholes and sidetracks are few, while your rewards and blessings are numerous. Walk in beauty… Happy New Year!


Part of the usual gaggle of mourning doves catch a few rays while patiently awaiting yours truly to serve their breakfast. The hungry birds are sitting in one of the big sycamores on the island across from the cottage. More doves are scattered on nearby limbs—39 birds total, as best I could count.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Change is the only certainty regarding Ohio’s weather. At least this has sure been true over the last few days. First it was cold, followed by snow, then bitterly cold, then warmer, and after that came a couple of really unseasonably warm days, which gave way to rain, which got replaced by cloudy and cooler, then almost-but-not-quite-normal-cold with sunshine. Somewhere in that mess was sleet, an afternoon of thunder, and winds gusting near 50 mph…but I forget their exact order, except they didn’t occur all at once. The other day, the arctic cold and wind produced chill factors in the minus-twenty range. Saturday, succumbing to a moment of redneck foolishness, I ambled up to the mailbox and back without a shirt. A couple of days ago a cardinal spent hours in one of the cedars near the cottage singing his heart out—so loud and boisterous you’d have thought it was mid-April. I don’t know whether that ol’ redbird was genuinely confused, or just taking advantage of near-70 temperatures to get in a few licks of practice. Whatever the case, I enjoyed hearing his performance. In the midst of all this the river has continued to rise. It is now up about six feet from normal pool. Not worrisome high, thank goodness. And not now rising. The photo at the top of this entry shows the same riffle the great blue heron is wading in the picture behind the blog’s title and header. The water level would be about two feet above the heron’s head. The second shot is of the same riffle taken a couple of days earlier. This was before our latest heavier rains, which brought the river up to its current level. There had been some rain the day and night before I took this shot, which is why it looks (and was) a bit muddy, plus it had turned much colder—enough so that even the fast water was starting to clog with ice. But if you look close between the ice clumps you can still see a few riffle rocks amidst the churning water. It’s about two feet deeper than when I took the heron pix. Upstream from our cottage, where the current is slower, on this same day ice formed from bank to bank along a half-mile stretch.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


A star, a stable, a baby boy… Such a sweet and lovely tale, Of shepherds on a lonely hill, And heaven’s light or’head. A star, a stable, a baby boy… An angel brought the news, Of royal birth in Bethlehem, The arrival of a king. A star, a stable, a baby boy… What music filled the air, A song of praise, a hymn of peace, Which all creation sang. A star, a stable, a baby boy… His birth so long foretold, When magi watched the sky and knew, Emmanuel had come. A star, a stable, a baby boy… O’ story so divine, One winter night a child was born, A gift for all mankind.
* * * * *
May health and peace be yours during this joyous holiday season. From the riverbank… MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Winter officially begins today with the arrival of the solstice twenty-one minutes from now. If this were Newgrange, Ireland—which certainly wasn’t what either the site or the area was called 5000 years ago, when the passage tomb was built—there’s a chance some of my distant kin might have been huddled deep in the cave-like structure’s innermost recesses, awaiting a single shaft of solstice sunlight to briefly illuminate the floor of the large chamber located at the end of a long passage. We don’t really know why this lighted moment was so important to the Neolithic people who built Dún Fhearghusa, to give it its old Irish name. Ceremonial, surely—though how the renewed sunlight marking the beginning of the sun’s return tied into the huge, hollow grave mound remains a mystery. It was, however, important enough to justify a tremendous amount of brutal labor. If Newgrange were located in my corner of southwestern Ohio, the big event would probably turn out to be a bust this time around. When I poked my head outside a few minutes ago, the sky was heavily overcast, and of course, pitch dark. I wouldn’t bet on it clearing soon enough to allow for a sunrise observance—a bummer if you’re all dressed up in your finest woolly mammoth skins, hoping for an actual sunbeam. This morning is instead likely to be one of those in which the changeover from dark to light is almost invisibly gradual—the former leaking slowly away while the latter seeps in from the east. Dawn which just sort of evolves rather than happens. Today is also the old midwinter point, according to the former order of seasonal reckoning. One of my favorite Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst. But as a kid, I could never understand why the piece referred to midwinter, when winter had—at best—barely begun. It wasn’t until I learned that in earlier times, the Celts, among others, considered that winter began on Samhain, November 1, and ended on Imbolc, with spring’s arrival, about February 1. Midwinter was then centered at the solstice—a perfectly logical way of aligning the seasons, if you ask me…which, of course, Pope Gregory XII failed to do when he screwed up the calendar in 1582. But whether it has been here six weeks already, or is just now arriving, winter is indeed upon the land. And making its presence known, too, with a skift of snow during the night, 18 degree temperatures outside right now, and a predicted low tonight of 4 measly degrees. Brr-r-r-r!
* * * * *
Well, I was wrong about the overcast sky persisting. Though there were still clouds along the eastern horizon only a minute or two before sunrise—they obligingly scooted off-stage as the actual event took place. Who would’a thunk. (It didn't make it a degree warmer, though, as I waited in the side yard for the magic moment when the sun peeped over the little hillock to the east and began climbing through the tangle of limbs in one of my big sycamores. Oh, the things we photographers must do for that perfect shot…) At any rate, it’s time to feed the birds. By solstice dawn’s early light, I see the dastardly squirrels have again yanked the suet feeder off its hook and onto the ground. Can’t have a bunch of irate woodpeckers upset. Welcome to winter!

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Even before we bought and moved into our modest streamside cottage, we noted the property came with natural background music courtesy of the river. There's a large riffle or small section of rapids, depending on your subjective nomenclature, directly in front of the house. Many of our neighbors actually refer to this feature, a four-foot drop in the river level over perhaps seventy feet, as "the falls," though in my opinion, that's certainly stretching reality a bit too far. On the other hand, when someone in a canoe comes floating downstream, and has enough expertise (or maybe just luck) to negotiate the riffle/rapids smoothly, I can almost squint my eyes and fool myself momentarily into imagining our home faces a northcountry trout stream. This fantasy is helped if the canoeist is wearing a flannel shirt and the canoe is either hollyberry red or spruce green and not one of those modern day-glow non-traditional hues such as lime, tangerine, yellow, or purple. Anyway, water pouring across this stony, sloping portion of riverbed, coursing over ledges and washing against boulders as it hurries downstream, naturally makes noise—a dull purling roar that has become a comforting part of the auditory landscape. It has even given us a tentative name for our cottage…Riversong…though we're still trying to decide whether or not naming our home is too pretentious, too old-fashioned, or too influenced by all the British mysteries we've read. Like most background noises—soothing “white noise” in particular—the river’s voice is now something we have to consciously listen for or it’s generally unnoticed. The exception comes when we open the sliding glass door to the small front deck overlooking the riffle and pool below, and are startled anew at how really loud the river’s constant sound seems. We forget this because the cottage walls are solid Indiana limestone, a full 17-inches thick. Beside being bulletproof and more-or-less fireproof, substantial stone walls are also soundproof—no chit-chatting between even adjacent rooms unless you conduct your conversations at a shout. These stone walls effectively block the river’s voice—or certainly mute most of it—until it takes something like sliding open the deck door, or opening the front door, and hearing the sudden noise to remind us there’s a river only a few feet away. I guess I should also explain that we always think of the river end of the house as being the "front" even though the main entry door is on the side of the structure and you actually park and approach the house from the rear, where there's a second, smaller "back" door. Until it rained yesterday and the day before, the river had been silent for months. So long that I can’t remember the last time I heard a sound from its passage. Low water had exposed the riffle’s stones and ledges, revealing them like skeletal bones in a decaying carcass. The water was so low that it simply slipped between the dry rocks like a thief sneaking through a room. The rain changed that. The water was up a few inches yesterday morning; more by noon; and still coming up last night at bedtime. Today it continues to rise, slowly, and is now up enough that all the stones in the riffle/rapids are underwater, which means about a three or four foot rise since Thursday. What makes this special—and the reason for writing—is that along with the higher water level has come sound…the river’s voice has been restored! A dull but fast growl with just a hint of possible seriousness at its undertone edge. The same river voice that accompanies many of spring's rainy weeks. Moreover, as is often the case when you bump into a friend you haven’t seen or heard from in quite awhile, you suddenly realize their absence had left a hole in your life; you missed them more than you realized. That’s how I feel about hearing the river’s renewed song. I’ve missed it a lot and I’m glad to have it back. Now if the river gods will just hold things where they’re at, check the rising water from coming up higher…well, I’ll be happy and perfectly satisfied.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Home. The word is especially meaningful as Christmas and the holiday season draws near. Something akin to magic fills the air and captures our hearts. We speak of home, think of home, wish for home. Home is that place of warmth and comfort…and love. No matter how old we are, there’s a need—a longing—for home in all of us. Home affords us safety, refuge. Home is where the hearthfire always burns bright and the table is freshly laden with all our favorite foods. Home is where we hear laughter, and music, and when we need it, understanding silence. Most important, home is where kith and kin gather ‘round—folks who know us inside-out…and like us anyway. Home is our most precious idea, our greatest gift. And that is why, during this most introspective, nostalgic time of the year, home comes so often into our thoughts. When we celebrate the season, we celebrate home.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


An hour ago, before the daylight began to fade and the flat light of an overcast sky started turning the river beyond my work room window into a ribbon of tarnished pewter, I looked out and saw all the birds at the various feeders startle abruptly. A moment later the reason for their sudden flight became obvious when a Cooper’s hawk settled onto a limb of the front yard box elder. 

It was the first time I’d seen the Cooper’s since the weather had taken its wintry turn…though not the first evidence I’d had of its presence.  

Yesterday, when I went out to fill the basket feeders with sunflower seeds and scatter a scoop or two of cracked corn onto the ground, I saw a small pile of feathers beside the box elder’s trunk. I believe the feathers came from a nuthatch, of which there are always at least one or two hanging around. In addition to the handful of feathers, there were also a few drops of blood on the new-fallen snow. Obviously, something had killed and eaten a bird—probably a foraging nuthatch—on the spot. I figured the predator in question was either a hawk or an owl, since both are fairly common here along the river. When the Cooper’s hawk landed in the tree this afternoon and began scanning around like a café patron checking out wall menus, I had little doubt I was looking at the prime suspect. 

I had a couple of Cooper’s hawks working my feeder birds last winter. And at least one the year before—the first winter after we’d moved into this streamside cottage. For a while I was outraged and set about protecting “my” feeder visitors. Then the absurdity of such an attitude struck me: was I going to pick and choose the species I fed? Did some birds deserve to eat while others starved? Was there a moral issue here, or just prejudice?

In the end, I opted to let the hawks be hawks. Which, I must add, wasn’t a death warrant on my feeder birds. More often than not—by a ratio of perhaps 20-to-1— the Cooper’s hawk usually struck out. Usually…

Hey, a hawk has to eat, too.

This time around, seeing as how any potential meal ticket had already flown away, the hawk could do nothing more except look around for a few seconds and then head off to where the pickin's might prove more profitable. Perhaps a neighbor's feeder? 

Anyway, I did manage a quick—though not very good—photo of this afternoon’s visiting Cooper’s.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I went out just after daylight this morning to replenish the feeders and scatter a cup or two of cracked corn on the rocks and stump below. I was surprised at how warm it felt. Not unseasonably warm for early-December, I suppose, but certainly much warmer than it has been for several days. The window thermometer said 50 degrees. 

When I pulled up the National Weather Service’s site, the prediction was rain beginning at noon. A sprawling front from the Gulf of Mexico was arcing up across the western plains, through the central Midwest, into the lower Great Lakes, and thence eastward. 

The prediction was off by several hours. It began raining before we finished breakfast. Serious, steady showers…and indeed they continued at much the same pace the entire day. 

Whether or not it will be enough to get the river up remains to be seen; if the rain doesn’t arrive in an absolute downpour, it usually takes several hours for the river’s water levels to begin their climb. Feeder creeks have to start draining their watersheds—tiny brooks and rills, roadside ditches, little washes that remain dry 90 percent of the year. These dump into the creeks which dump into our river—which, in time, empties into a larger river, then into the Ohio River, and finally the mighty Mississippi which will eventually empty into the sea. In the case of today’s rains—moisture from the warm Gulf of Mexico, carried north and east on a massive front—it's a journey homeward, a delivery back to its birth source. 

An amazing, circular journey for a water droplet.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Saturday was a day of overcast skies and almost constant flurries. Sometimes the flurries swirled and thickened to the point of trying to make you think they were serious…maybe even the leading edge of a blizzard. 

But mostly these were just a weather version of wannabe intimations.  

By the time dusk rolled around, however, we did have upwards of an inch on the ground—our first real snow cover of the season. 

And a pretty sight it was! 

December needs a mantel of snow to set the spirit right. Sunday was bright and gleaming—still just as cold, with ice crystals wafting in the air and sparkling like diamond dust. Birds crowded about the seed and suet feeders and the cracked corn scattered on the ground. In midafternoon, I heard—then saw—a white-throated sparrow, the first hereabouts for a while. 

Late in the day, as the sun was beginning to set, I snapped a shot of new ice which had formed on the river’s opposite bank. I liked the contrast and the reflected colors, subtle though they are, caused by the prismatic effect of the ice crystals and the water's rippling current. Water is unique in that we know it in three forms—liquid, solid, (ice), and gaseous (steam, mist or vapor). In winter, there are occasions when we can see all three at once. 

I’m still on the lookout for that particular shot. But I’m happy to see our first, ground-sticking snow.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Yesterday was the day for that annual holiday ritual, “Bringing Home the Christmas Tree.” For many decades—and long before we moved to our present riverside abode—that meant driving to a certain local tree farm, inspecting available trees, making a selection, then cutting the chosen tree down and hauling it home. One of those beloved Norman Rockwell scenarios that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy while giving you a jones for mugs of hot chocolate. 

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Let’s begin with the fact that Christmas, and therefore the acquiring of a Christmas tree, occurs in December. December, as you might recall, is a winter month—ergo, a cold month. (No, I’m not going to entertain the argument that two-thirds of the month is technically still autumn; when it’s eighteen degrees outside, it’s winter regardless of what the calendar claims.) 

As I was saying, a smart person would remember from one year to the next that Christmas tree procurement takes place in winter and that winter is cold. Since we’re not talking about smart people here, but rather about me, let’s just say that my memory has a quirky habit of failing to remind me of the occasional pertinent fact. 

I would also like to point out most Christmas tree farms grow and sell trees in the 5 to 10 foot range, mostly because these are what the average customer seeks and can fit into their average-sized living room or family room with its average-height ceiling. Otherwise, the tree farm’s customers would be either elves or require the services of a lumberjack, the latter of which might involve liability issues —though who really knows the trouble an elf might make should they become provoked? Besides, isn’t this the busy season for elves? 

Now, you might imagine a vast planting of cute little evergreens would at least furnish cozy shelter from December’s razor-toothed winds. Your imagination would be in error. Especially if your chosen tree farm lies atop a hidden plain, invisible to the eye, but perfectly situated to catch every breath of artic air coming into southwestern Ohio by way of Lake Michigan, North Dakota, Canada, and quite possibly the Beaufort Sea. I’m not even going to get into chill factors. 

Neither does it help that our thoughtful pine tree farmer has ideally sited his rows of insufficient little windblocks so that this heart-numbing wind can whistle at you unimpeded, whereupon it cuts through insulated overalls, multiple layers of wool, flannel, Polar Fleece, and an L.L. Bean goosedown-stuffed parka. The effects of such cold are, of course, that you can’t concentrate on the task at hand—finding your Christmas tree—because your eyes are watering, your nose is running, and you’re shivering and shaking so bad you expect your spine to snap. You’d share the news of this personal discomfort with your companions, except that your teeth are chattering well beyond any possibility of meaningful conversation, and anyway, you hearing’s no good due to all that interior clattering. 

During those odd moments when your brain thaws sufficiently to permit rational thought, you find yourself dreaming of becoming an Ice Road Trucker or else keeping a yard full of dogs and becoming an Iditarod legend. Both seem like easier tasks. 

Now let’s consider the tree farm in terms of acreage…which is big, sprawling, and located on both sides of a major highway. Naturally, one must look at all the trees, which means risking life and limb to hobble over and back, and perhaps again if you’re prone to look at every tree once and the good ones at least an additional time or two. Running (well, hobbling) this death-defying gauntlet is certainly made no simpler on those frozen stumps you’re now using for legs. You do, however, gain meaningful insight into the possible final thoughts of a possum as it stares upon the grill of on onrushing eighteen-wheeler. 

I did mention that all serious tree seekers always entertain the belief their one special perfect tree awaits them somewhere…somewhere…among the many of their almost-but-not-quite-good-enough kindred brethren, all of whom are scattered over several back forties. And take it from one who knows, you can bet this tree will remain hidden from view until you’re close enough to touch its prickly green branches. 

And so, to find this ideal tree, you trudge and freeze and trudge some more. The morning sun climbs ever higher into the sky, but brings no increase in warmth. You trudge some more. You play dodge-um across the highway. You trudge over vast new forties. You trip repeatedly over last year’s stumps. The sun reaches its zenith. 

Still, the One True Tree chooses not to reveal itself…not yet, not until you’ve trudged and dodged and tripped and suffered a bit more. Good Christmas trees are like that—they make you work for ‘em. 

When you do finally located that will-o-the-wisp tree—the perfect one in a dark healthy green and not a sickly yellow-lime hue which seriously clashes with most ornaments, a tree with a single trunk (yup, them double-trunked jobs are impossible to fit in the tree stand, and the worst ones occasionally subdivide into ugly pieces), and a tree whose single trunk is straight-growing, and will thus save you from needing to invoke carpentry geometrics to keep it upright once you get it home—please keep in mind you not only have to cut it down, but you have to haul it out to the parking lot. There you must have it shook so only the best needles make it home to fall on the carpet. It must also be bagged, which makes your fat tree look skinny and a little goofy, but is well worth whatever the tree farm wants to charge. 

After you pay for the tree, including shaking and bagging (it will always cost more than last year) you lug it out to the parking lot and wrestle your hard-won prize onto the roof of the car/truck/SUV. I suggest you then say a small prayer that it remains up there long enough to make it home and not causing you to incur the lurking road rage of fellow motorists. 

In closing, here are a few final tips: Need I say that any saw you borrow from a tree farm is apt to be duller than last year’s office party? Or that since your perfect tree is always found hiding at the farthest boundary of the most distant field, you must be prepared to drag your tree on it’s cart (you did come to the tree farm during a weekday when their limited supply of carts wasn’t an issue—right?) for however many miles necessary, over terrain so rugged a humvee would falter? And do expect that no matter what direction you walk, it will always be facing into the wind (which increases that chill factor business we didn’t mention a while back). 

Finally, when you do get your chosen tree to the front of the farm—having for one more year, and somewhat to your astonishment, escaped a coronary incident—you’ll find everyone who got to the vast windswept tree farm before and after you somehow already has their tree and is in now front of you on the paying, shaking machine, and bagging lines; their kin, meanwhile, are hogging all the heat from the big fireplace in the barn.  

The hot chocolate stand is, of course, closed except on the weekends.

Remember…Christmas spirit. Holiday cheer. Comfort and joy. As I said at the beginning of this little dissertation…that was yesterday. Today, tonight, in scarcely an hour hence, comes that even more joyous little seasonal ceremony, “Decorating the Tree.” Our perfect Christmas tree will be removed from its bucket of water where it has been taking a long night’s drink. It will be summarily freed from it’s mesh wrap. Brought into the living room. Placed in a tree stand and induced to remain upright and more or less vertical. And subsequently and beautifully decorated. 

All accomplished with only minimal fighting, screaming, sulking, bleeding, or gnashing of teeth. 

I hope. 

Wish me luck. Say a prayer. May the force be with us!

Thursday, December 4, 2008


We had a visitor last night—a Carolina wren which darted into the hall the moment the back door was opened and made a quick left turn into my study. There it flitted from place to place, perching on the edge of bookshelves, atop the fireplace mantel or a picture frame, and most other various odds and ends of the room’s clutter. 

 Like most wrens who suddenly find themselves in an unexpected predicament, this one seemed more indignant than frightened, as if I’d had the audacity to play a practical joke on it by luring it into the house in the first place. The little bird’s watchful, dark-eyed stare seemed mostly vexed and impatient: “Okay, you’ve had your fun, you big oaf—now get me outta this silly room before I really lose my temper.” 

Lucky for the wren, I have long experience in such removals. After taking a quick photo, I simply turned off the hall light, opened the back door and turned on the outside light. The wren did the rest, immediately launching itself from the top of my computer monitor and out into the night—doubtless glad to be done with the bright lights and clamor, and anxious to find a less busy roost site and get back to a sleep without further interruptions. 

 I wished it well. 

 When I was growing up, wrens were always a part of our daily lives, whether we were working around the house, sitting under the shade of a backyard maple, or eating a meal in the kitchen. Wrens seemed to especially enjoy flitting about within the big red haw’s thick foliage, which spread like an umbrella over the back porch. The door off the back porch opened into the kitchen. On countless occasions we’d be sitting at the table when a Carolina wren—perched in the haw tree—would suddenly burst into song. “Sweet 'tater, sweet 'tater, sweet 'tater, sweet!” the bird would sing at the top of its lungs. (In case you don’t know, this is the hill-country interpretation of their song. You may be more familiar with the “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” rendering.) The mellifluous melody would come blasting in through the screen door and we'd all pause in our eating or talking to listen and grin at one another in pleasure. 

The aluminium awning my father installed over the small back porch was a favorite wren roosting spot. The birds would tuck themselves between the awning’s rear framework and the siding-clad wall of the house. We usually remembered they were there and acted accordingly, not switching on the porch light or using the door unless it was absolutely necessary. 

Sometimes, however, one of us would forget. We’d flip on the light and fling open the door, and the startled wren would flush off its roost. Whether due to being blinded or just confused by the sudden light, about one time in ten the wren would mistakenly fly into the house. Most times all you had to do was turn off the inside lights and leave the back porch light on, and the bird would dart back outdoors where it belonged. 

But not always. Every so often Dad or I had to retrieve the long-handled fish net from the basement and use it to gently scoop a perplexed wren from a book shelf or the top of Mom's stately pump organ in the spare bedroom. Now and then the cornered wren would even allow us to just ease up and take it gently in our hands. 

When my mother passed away a few years ago at the age of 94, I spent months in the old home place sorting through a long lifetime’s worth of furnishings and memories. Sure enough, one winter night I opened the back door to let Moon the dog out for her pre-bedtime constitutional and a Carolina wren zipped into the kitchen. As Yogi Berra would say, it was like “déjà vu all over again.” The fearless little wren watched me with sharp-eyed curiosity as I reached up and gently plucked it from atop the china cabinet. 

I held the bird momentarily, marvelling at its diminutive size and lovely chestnut-and-cinnamon markings. The bird was warm in my hand. I could feel the fast rhythm of its tiny heart. Then, stepping outside, I opened my palm, and gave the Carolina wren back to the starlit winter night.

Monday, December 1, 2008


As I write this, about 9:00 a.m., the snow which the National Weather Service forecast for “mainly after noon” is falling briskly. Apparently this snowfall comes under the part not covered by that post-noon prognostication. The temperature is 32 degrees, just two degrees under the day’s predicted high.

I’ve been up for more than three hours already, breakfasted on my usual bowl of steel-cut oats, and attended to a couple of outside chores—the main one being the rehanging of the bird feeder nearest the river, and the one most visible from the dinning table and front room. The feeder fell sometime yesterday while we were away on a shopping junket to Greenville. I noticed it down when I let the dog out for her evening constitutional. With snow coming in, I knew the birds would want to get to their own morning meal as soon as possible.

When I went out to pick up the feeder and bring it in for examination and any needed repairs, I found the snow had already started—at least it’s precursor of fine sleet peppered my eyes and face, and rattled soft and persistent, a subtle background hiss, on the sycamore and box elder leaves littering the yard. Perhaps a portent of things to come? 

The surprise came when I saw it was the rope suspending the feeder that had given way. I’d expected the cause to be the stripped threads on the ring-cap. I suspend this feeder to the end of a hanging rope which is simply looped over a convenient limb. A brass swivel clip is tied onto end of the rope and snaps through the feeder’s ring-cap for handy refilling and cleaning. The long steel rod which extends through the feeder’s center is threaded on the top end. The ring-cap—a sort of nut with a one-inch ring at it’s tip—is what you screw down to hold the feeder’s top and must be removed each time you fill the feeder with seeds. This ring-cap is made from a softer alloy or “pot metal.” It’s actually this part that has the stripped threads.

Obviously, at some point the ring-cap got crossthreaded onto the rod. Steel being harder than the material of the ring-cap, won the encounter, stripping out the interior or “female” threads. I discovered this problem last spring when giving the feeder it’s pre-summer cleaning. The best fix I could think of at that time was to wrap the rod’s threads with plumber’s Teflon tape, thereby making it just a scoosh bigger in diameter…which actually seemed to work, though I knew a fall/winter/spring round of feeding would be the real test of my uninspired repair.  

When I saw the feeder on the ground last night, I glumly assumed it was my makeshift fix that had failed—perhaps assisted by cold-weather contraction. After all, this is a large feeder, holding approximately a gallon of the sunflower-cracked corn mix I use, and thus fairly heavy. Hence my surprise to find the repair had held, and instead, the 1/4-inch nylon rope used to suspend the feeder had parted. 

This was puzzling since the rope’s breaking strength is well over a hundred pounds. A long exposure to sunlight’s UV rays can age and weaken nylon, of course, but this bit of rope hadn’t been up all that long—and the portion that was still attached to the clip end was bright and strong and seemed in good shape. Too, the end looked more like it had parted because of a clean slice rather than a frayed break. So I don’t know what brought the feeder down…but I’ve decided to blame the squirrels. 

Around here, squirrels are a convenient scapegoat for a variety of ills and problems. Furthermore, they’re often actually guilty—and even when they’re not, they look guilty. Plus they come equipped with incisors more than sufficient for the job of rope-gnawing. There were, in fact, two guilty looking gray squirrels hunched in one of the big sycamores, bushy tails wrapped like scarves over their shoulders and head, who seemed to be amusedly watching me when I stooped to retrieve the downed feeder and swiftly jerked upright because a dose of wind-blown sleet found the gap between the top of my sweatpants and my pulled-up tee shirt. I did a quick tuck, snatched up the feeder, took it indoors…then found I had a different problem to repair than anticipated. 

So I restrung a new rope, attached the brass swivel-clip, filled the feeder with fresh seed, added another layer of Teflon tape to the top of the steel rod for insurance, put it all back together and hung it in it’s usual place. 

“Breakfast is served,” I said to the chickadees and nuthatches waiting in the nearby hackberry. By the time I’d washed up and taken a seat at the dinning table to enjoy a second mug of coffee, the chickadees and nuthatches had been joined by goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins, titmice, and a Carolina wren. Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers were busy at the nearby suet feeders. The squirrels were suspiciously absent...