Saturday, February 28, 2009
For weeks now the brown creepers and I have been playing games—part hide-and-seek, part tag—wherein I attempt to take a good photo of these little birds clambering about on my dooryard box elder tree, and the resultant photos keep turning out, at best, mediocre, and more usually, plain awful. I am, to put it mildly, a tad frustrated. The blame, however, can be solidly laid on two main factors—subject uncooperativeness and photographer impatience. Brown creepers are small, goldfinch-sized tree-climbers, slim in profile, sport a stiff tail for better balance and propping, with a long, slightly down-curved beak they use to probe the nooks and crevices in a tree’s bark. Those of you familiar with creepers know their habit of starting near a tree’s base and spiraling upward as they search for grubs and insects. If you’re not so well acquainted you might assume—wrongly—that this upward namesake creeping is slow and orderly. Nothing, I assure you, could be further from the truth! Creepers work a tree in a spastic, herky-jerky manner—up, stop, sideways, stop, twitch, up-no-down, stop, up, sideways, sideways, up. Never stopping in place for more than a second—and even then their head is twisting, turning, bobbing, up, down, this way and that—a continuing kinetic series of sudden shifts that makes it nearly impossible to track them through a viewfinder, and is guaranteed to have you grinding your teeth after half an hour. It doesn’t help, of course, that brown creepers look like brown tree bark (except for their whitish undersides) and so, should they actually pause for longer than the usual millisecond, chances are at least 50-50 you’ll overtrack through the viewfinder and miss the only photo opt you’re likely to get during the session. Which, I suppose, brings us to impatience. Given time I’m sure I could eventually manage a few decent portraits. Had I known this now obvious necessity, I would have begun my creeper photography career soon after graduation. As it stands now, however, I doubt I have sufficient lifespan remaining to accomplish the task. I’m not giving up, mind you; just putting these interim images out there for anyone to see. I’ll keep taking my daily 150 or so brown creeper shots, downloading, trash-canning 149, putting the remaining one in a folder, shooting another 150, and another, and so on until I have a dozen possibles to scrutinize closer, at which point I’ll throw all but one of those in the trash can. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I must go and take my blood pressure medication. I’ve again been trying to photograph brown creepers.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Rivers, creeks, brooks, rills. I love the sound of these words, the sweet and magical way they roll off the tongue; the music they make when spoken aloud. In them I hear the essence of life, bubbly and light, cool, refreshing, purling over riffles, quiet in pools and eddies, soft and sibilant against sandy bars. Bold words with power to stir feelings, invoke moods. I often whisper them as a prayer and feel better. They are reaffirming words, offering beginning and end, source and destination, purpose and hope. Rivers, creeks, brooks, rills. Moving waters free from birth, possessed of eternal restlessness, they are shaped by their passage, gaining strength as they travel, continuing to seek what lies beyond, unwilling to give up the journey. What could they teach us about being true and steadfast if only we would listen? Sometimes I say their names —Stillwater, Scioto, Miami— and ache with loneliness afterwards, because they are not mere places, but flow through my soul, and it has been too long between visits.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Winter continues to linger along the river. We received another dusting of snow during the night. Just after dawn, the temperature registered a chilly 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead of taking breakfast at the dining table, I carried my bowl of steel-cut oats and mug of black tea to the great-room’s opposite corner. There I could cozy comfortably by the fire in my favorite rocker, which faces the sliding glass deck doors and allows me to watch any goings-on at the island across from the cottage. Sometimes I see deer over there, or one of the fat resident fox squirrels. Yesterday it was a mink. In the past I’ve watched muskrats, beaver, and raccoons, among others. The island is also the home for a pair of pileated woodpeckers—huge and astonishing with their flaming red crests and pterodactyl-like semblance. I’d just finished my meal when the red-tailed hawk landed in the top of one of the island’s huge hackberries. The bird was perhaps 80 feet up and 175 feet away from where I sat, so seeing as how I don’t own a 600mm telephoto, this admittedly inferior photo was the best I could manage. Sorry… The hawk was not actively hunting, but was instead doing exactly what I was doing huddling beside the fire—getting warm. Only in the red-tail’s case, this was accomplished via solar energy—which entailed pointing its chest at the morning sun and poofing out its feathers. As I watched through binoculars, the big hawk began preening, using its sharp beak and equally sharp talons to “comb” its feathers, pulling, poking, plucking, working from head-to-tail. A raptor version of a morning bath. This preening business went on for at least a half hour, with an occasional pause to look around—right, left, forward, behind, down, head swiveling as if on a turret—until the job was apparently accomplished to perfection. Then the hawk simply readjusted its position slightly, better to catch the now-higher sun, and settled back for an additional half-hour of sauna therapy; a thorough warm-up before hitting the skies for a breakfast hunt. The many birds working the various feeders, all of which were in plain sight of the tree-top hawk, seemed to know they weren’t in any present danger. The sunning red-tail would give them a cursory glance from time to time, but the looked lacked any real malice aforethought that’s so noticeable in a look harboring real predatory intensity. The feeder birds kept their eye on the hawk, in case the situational mood changed. But everyone seemed to understand the other’s intentions and be willing to accept a momentary truce. An hour after it landed in the hackberry, the red-tailed hawk shook itself a few times as if awakening from a doze. Then it looked around, scrutinizing every quadrant of earth and sky, hopped lightly off the limb—and caught its fall on broad, outspread wings. The hawk’s movement and sudden flight drew the eyes of the feeder crowd, some of whom made a hasty departure. But the hawk still wasn’t interested—at least not at the moment. A couple of minutes after it deserted the island hackberry, I saw it began a slow spiral into the morning’s blue sky above a field well beyond the far side of the river. No longer the one being watched, the red-tail had again become the watcher.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
It is cold here beside the river on this February morning. A scant 20 degrees according to the thermometer mounted just outside the dining area window. A good day for building a fire and making a pot of chili, maybe baking a pone of spicy cornbread. Heat in any form will be welcome—whether from the flame-released BTUs of seasoned cordwood in the great room fireplace, or the capsicum heat from cayenne, jalapeños, and habanero peppers in the food. Thirty minutes ago I watched a mink heading upstream on the island across from the cottage. Its coat was the rich dark brown of satiny milk chocolate; the animal’s gait was that curious sinuous humping canter peculiar to weasels, ferrets, otters, ermines, and fishers—all members of the Mustelidae family. The mink was not following the river’s edge, but was finding its route a dozen yards back from the water, on higher ground cluttered with leaves and brush and deadfalls. Hunting, I think, though not for a meal. Rather I suspect the purposeful creature was looking for a mate or perhaps a suitable den site under one of the washed-up log piles or the intricate root-caves of the big sycamores. February to April is the mating season for mink hereabouts, and now is the time to get the ball rolling. So this morning’s mink was likely on a procreative quest. Yesterday’s skift of snow still covers the ground. Perhaps it is this bright white carpet that’s primarily responsible for shifting and changing the light filtering through overcast skies, making the river appear a deep slate green. Whatever the cause, it is a lovely hue—not the green of spring, but the green of mystery and promise. A green which makes me want to launch a canoe and follow the current wherever it may lead. What adventures await around yonder bend? The green water whispers to come and see, to take the chance, to put my faith it in pools and riffles, in the purling prayers it offers when passing over smooth stones, or the quiet sibilance of peaceful affirmation as it glides against a sandy bar. Without doubt the water is numbingly cold—yet within that moving green flow there’s an undeniable warmth. I see it and feel it and know it, as surely as I know anything. This is one of the reasons I’ve been so enamored with rivers and creeks all my life—because no matter how much you learn their ways, regardless of the intimacy achieved, there’s always a paradox. Rivers are like life, possessing a past, present, and future. Never the same, always changing, beguiling and filled with surprise. Today this soft green river calls to me…and just between us, I confess, I’m more than half inclined to listen.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
The morning snow was brief but intense—enough to practically cover the ground over the space of thirty minutes. Watching it come down, swirling in every direction, it was easy to expect more than just this fraction of an inch. Meager though the snow amount turned out, it was apparently sufficient to stir the birds. Scarcely had the first flake appeared before traffic at the various feeders tripled. A sudden hungry horde, all jostling and yattering like starving teenagers at a high-school cafeteria. Chickadees, titmice, juncos, nuthatches, a variety of sparrows, house finches, cardinals, a couple of wrens, and a profusion of woodpeckers including the paranoid pileated who flew in to snatch a few quick hammers at the suet cage before dashing back across the river. In other words, the usual morning line-up of suspects. Squirrels, too—five of ‘em, leaping, jumping, chasing each other around at breakneck speed, briefly startling the feathered guests working the hanging baskets of sunflower seeds, or shoving aside the ground feeders in order to nuzzle through the cracked corn like bushy-tailed pigs. This feeding frenzy had been going on for several minutes when the goldfinches arrived, carried in on a snowy gust like a handful of splendiferous confetti. Winter gold from a leaden sky. The goldfinches still wore their drab seasonal dress, of course—shades of olive-gold rather than their resplendent summer namesake hues of dazzling yellow. Which was fine by me. Gold that needs a polish is still valuable treasure. And this quick squadron of goldfinches in their muted raiment were nevertheless royalty. Besides, I’m not sure an Ohio winter watcher is prepared to witness birds as brilliant as marigolds. But my, oh my…how such breathtaking creatures would light up a dismal February morning!
Friday, February 20, 2009
“Hope,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune…” In today’s case, hope’s personification is a sassy cardinal attired in bright scarlet, perched on a branch near the feeding station. All morning he has been singing: “What cheer, cheer, cheer! What cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer!” There can be no doubt the news is encouraging when old Mr. Redbird rears back and rings out his message. “What cheer, cheer, cheer!” His positive outlook and enthusiastic proclamation is contagious. “What cheer, cheer, cheer!” For months now, all I’ve heard from the gaudy cardinals have been their usual, “Purrt! Purrt! Purrt!” as they went about their business nabbing a few sunflower seeds from the basket feeder, or pecking at cracked corn scattered on the ground. But now the redbird’s song is one of procreation. Spring is there, not too great a distance over the seasonal horizon, and it’s inexorably heading our way. The cardinal knows. Moreover, he intends getting the word out. “What cheer, cheer, cheer!” The weatherman says we’ll be getting several inches of snow over the next few days. Such dire predictions have not dampened the redbird’s buoyant spirits one iota. That colorful ol’ bird began singing at daylight, and has continued his upbeat recital every hour since. I’d be willing to wager he’ll carry on the concert when the air is thick with snowflakes, and after the ground has a fluffy new blanket of pristine white. Hope has filled my ears all morning, and now it fills my heart. “What cheer, cheer, cheer!”
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A thick overcast blankets the sky. A light drizzle has been falling since just after dawn. Though the thermometer outside my workroom window reads 41 degrees, the dim light and dampness makes it feel a dozen degrees colder. Indeed, according the local weather reports, snow is on the way along with a corresponding drop in temperatures. I suppose it is therefore odd that today—in spite of conditions—my mind is filled with thoughts of spring. Isn’t such thinking a bit premature? More fantasy than fact? Not at all! Why? Because yesterday I found certain proof of vernal forthcoming in a few green tips. They appeared overnight, as if by magic—a half-inch high already when I spotted them just after dawn, three-quarters of an inch by day’s end. They are located under my workroom window, on the southwest side of the cottage, within a foot of the house. A sunny location, protected from wind, and in soil perhaps a degree or two warmer than soil a yard distant—a slight microclimate courtesy of the thick limestone wall’s radiant heat. These emerald messengers are crocus, up from bulbs I planted the first autumn after moving to the riverside. I love crocus, and I put out a hundred of them in little patches around the property—along with daffodils, squills, and hyacinths. I added a similar number the following year, and a few more last fall. So far as I could determine from a quick search yesterday afternoon, the plants beneath the window are the first to poke up—scouts for the purple, yellow, and white assemblages to come. It isn’t unusual for crocus to begin blooming well before the official advent of spring. My mother, who was also a crocus fan, had many bulbs planted along the south wall of her house, and around the home’s front porch and steps area, which faced west. This latter location took the brunt of incoming weather. And yet, those front-yard crocus were the first to bloom, always. Most years they appeared in late-February; and most years their bright blooms endured at least two or three snows. Sometimes the flowers wilted permanently; more often, however, the damage—bad as it looked—was only temporary; given a day or two they’d spring upright and reopen, looking only slightly worse for wear. Crocus are as tough as they are jaunty. Will my plants jump-the-gun and bloom before winter’s worst is over? Maybe. If you believer the forecasters, we’re certainly going to have some snow over the next few days. But these first crocus aren’t that close to blooming yet, and I don’t think the cold will hurt their exposed tips. In the meantime, I’m now allowing myself to think green thoughts, to conjure up notions of spring—with new grass, birdsong, wildflowers, and fish eager to take my flies. If I need reassurance that this all isn’t just a premature dream, I can peer out the window at those little green fingers reaching for the sun. The crocus know spring is on the way…and I believe them!
Monday, February 16, 2009
Have you ever noticed how a single moment can change your mood? Today has been mostly overcast. Not dark and dreary, just a bit on the gray side—somewhat dim, as if you’d mistakenly put too weak a bulb in your favorite reading lamp. Flat light that would normally have been soothing and soft, great for close-up photography, but which today somehow made the world beyond my workroom window appear bland and lackadaisical. I admit, it was probably more me than the low-intensity light. And I certainly didn’t mind about the few snowflakes I saw swirling about from time to time. In fact, it was odd. Days such as this normally seem to energize me; if anything, I’m the opposite of a SAD sufferer. No winter blues or seasonal depression. Short days, long nights, no problem. But last night had been a restless one; I spent as much time awake as asleep. I arose at my usual pre-dawn hour and didn’t feel particularly tired. I have, however, felt chilled and lethargic all day, though not as if I were getting sick. Yet I couldn’t seem to settle into my work. It wasn’t a case of lazy, or a bout of creative ennui. In fact, I couldn’t even chuck everything aside temporarily and lose myself in a book—which is almost without precedent. For want of anything better, I’ve spent the time futzing, fiddling with this and that since midmorning, busying myself with small tasks that didn’t require much in the way of concentration or energy. And then…I happened to glance out the window just as the afternoon sun came pouring through a seam in the otherwise wooly-gray sky. Bright light streamed down, into the sycamores and onto the river. I grabbed my camera and rushed outside. It was still cold, below freezing. But the sun made it seem warm—at least I didn’t notice the chill, in spite of not having put on a jacket. I only had time for two quick shots of the interplay of light upon the water before the overhead clouds sealed their leak, as if realizing they’d made a mistake and allowed an errant shaft of bright sunlight to escape. As suddenly as it appeared, the scintillating illumination was gone, switched off. The gray returned, the light went flat, and I headed back inside. But that brief time of light had been enough. An internal fire had been lit; I could feel the energy returning. My mood executed an abrupt 180 degree about-face. All it took was that single moment.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Sunday morning. But not yet a “sun” day—though by the look of things, that’s what will soon occur. For now, however, it is still dark, still early, with only a faint glow to the east and a wash of stars overhead. I send the dog out with an admonition to stay in the yard. Then I head back into the kitchen and make a pot of coffee—the first coffee I’ve made in several weeks. For whatever reason, I shift between coffee and tea as my morning drink, sometimes alternating back and forth almost daily, though usually staying with one or the other for a week or two before switching back. This seemed like a coffee morning. It takes only a few minutes to boil a kettle of water, pour it over the ground coffee, wait the proper time, and push the plunger in the French press. Between these small tasks I kept peering out the front-room window, keeping tabs on both the dog and the dawn; the former uncharacteristically followed my orders, the latter heeded only the effects of planetary rotation. With mug of hot coffee in hand, I stepped outside, onto the deck. Cold, a brisk 22-degrees according to the thermometer by the front door. The half-disc moon, bright and silvery, was sneaking westward through the skeletal tops of the sycamores across the river. The river itself, down a couple of feet from a few days ago, was an opaque greenish-brown in the burgeoning light. I checked the seed feeders, and suet cadges—full enough—then dipped a scoop of cracked corn from the bin on the deck, and scattered this golden breakfast out for the sparrows and doves and cardinals that I knew would soon be arriving. A lone Canada goose came hustling downriver, honking loudly with every wingbeat. I’d heard a flock of geese go over while I was making my coffee. Perhaps this straggler simply overslept and missed the pre-dawn departure flight with his buddies. In my experience, there’s usually one invariably tardy member of any group—whether we’re talking people or geese. The sun was up now and starting to varnish the ranks of leaning sycamores along the river. This wasn’t one of those spectacularly colorful dawns, where the eastern sky is filled with pink and orange, purple and turquoise, and a dozen hues in between; just the ordinary miracle of another morning, one more day in our unknown allotment, a day to use as we see fit. Nevertheless, all days and dawns are special, and the white-barked sycamore trunks and crowns glowed a rich gold in the new-born light, a victory gift of light over darkness. The light had stirred the birds. Titmice were whistling, and cardinals. Several nuthatches were already on the big box elder by the front door, yank-yanking in nasal glee. A Carolina wren was tuning up from the cedar thicket. The feeders began serving their first customers. Sunday mornings seem especially holy to me. I grew up in a church-going family, and we went to services every Sunday morning. I don’t go as often nowadays as I should…and I not only feel guilty about that lapse, but I miss it when I fail to attend. I love the old hymns. Love the quiet warmth of prayer, and the message of hope eternal in the sermon. I love just being in the sacred space of the building itself. Life is such a wondrous gift, even when things are hard and we’re struggling with pains and troubles. Each new day is precious. I know this every time I stand on my little piece of riverbank and watch the sparkle of morning light on the water, or see the golden sun reflecting off the sycamores. My own heart soars with the traveling geese and sings with the bright music of dawn’s birds. I am so very blessed. So I say this before Almighty God, as deeply and honestly as I know how, fully aware that I'm unworthy of such treasures, grateful and humbled almost to tears…thank you.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is in the air! Romance abounds! I'm sure, because a boisterous cardinal told me so in a sweet clear song soon after the sun came up. And if anyone knows about passion, it’s that saucy ol’ scarlet-attired redbird. Yet I confess, I’m never quite sure why we celebrate such a love-affirming day in the middle of winter. Wouldn’t April or May be a better time for proclaiming matters of our over-flowing hearts? Actually, maybe not. If you wish to know how Valentine's Day came about, various legends and bits of folklore abound—all purporting to explain the who, what, where, when, and why of things. Yes, I know, you pragmatists will harrump and say the whole shebang is a vile concoction of the greeting card, chocolate, and flower retailers, designed solely to add dollars to their coffers. Well I say lighten up! Go with the moment, fantasy or not—what does it matter? Love and romance and passion surely aren’t fantasies. Life is too short to keep peeping behind the curtain; just enjoy the show! There’s the tale of the Roman priest, martyred for performing marriages for soldiers, against the decree of Emperor Claudius II, who thought single men made better warriors. A priest named Valentine who fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, to whom he sent a letter just before being beheaded—on February 14th—which he signed…“from your Valentine.” Or perhaps you prefer the tale which says Valentine’s Day springs from the old Roman Feast of Lupercalia—a rowdy fertility festival where teenage girls would write their names on bits of parchment and place the slips in an urn. Unmarried young men would then draw a name from the container and the girl would become his companion for the remainder of the year. Centuries later, the early Christian Church, appalled by the concepts of this pagan rite pairing, tried to switch things around a bit—first by banning the name drawing, second by renaming the day to honor a saint…enter St. Valentine’s Day. (The young men were, of course, bummed at losing such a near-perfect form of matchmaking. Which, when you think about it, is much like our modern system of automobile leasing—pick out a new vehicle, drive it a while until the miles build up and the new wears off, then turn it in and pick out another model and start over.) Anyway, the old practice was modified to a more decorous exchange of notes expressing admiration which, as centuries progressed, got adopted by young men and women around the world. Though nowadays I suspect any red-blooded American male who wishes to do Valentine’s Day up right had better come calling with more than a paltry hand-written card. My favorite folkloric twist to the Valentine’s Day opus concerns the odd notion that February 14 marked the beginning of the mating season for birds. This idea seems to have been fairly widespread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Many birds do begin to congregate in flocks around this time of the year. And large migratory flights are often witnessed. Some scholars think the belief can be traced to the courtship flights of crows, which often takes place throughout much of Europe around the middle of February. There’s additionally the venerable tradition regarding the first bird a woman sees flying overhead on Valentine’s Day. If the bird’s a robin, she’ll marry a sailor. A sparrow indicates a future mate who’s poor. But if she sees a goldfinch, her prospective husband will be rich. The belief that February 14 somehow marked the beginning of the avian mating season also seemed to coincide with many early-European traditions which saw mid-February as the rightful start of spring. And spring, as even those prosaic Middle Agers could have told you, is unequivocally the season for kicking off a romance.
Friday, February 13, 2009
What happened here? That’s what I always wonder when I find such traces. A drop of blood in the snow. Hair tufts caught on a twig. A handful of smoky-gray feathers, damp and matted, atop last fall’s coppery sycamore leaves. What fierce scenario played out while my gaze was elsewhere? Did the end come quick, sharp-talons swooping from ashen February sky? Give me the details. Let me understand this tragedy’s events and shape. Please. I see the death notice, but I want the story. Now, before the wind rises and erases these small reminders. And I, caring but distracted, forget to honor a passing with mourning.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Do you see the great blue heron? Look close—the big bird is standing on the edge of the far shore, right at the point where the leaf-covered bank meets the water…almost smack in the center of the photo. The distance is a bit over 200 feet, across the river from the cottage, beyond one of the islands whose lower tip you can just glimpse peeking above the water to the right. The area where the heron is standing would normally be dry ground. Between the melting snow and a number of rains, the river is up a good 6-7 feet; not yet at a worrisome height, but fast expanding in width, as the shallower stream section between the island and the far bank merges with the mainstream portion on this side of the islands. Okay…I’ve enlarged the shot as much as I can without making it too grainy. Now the heron is easy to spot. I can’t imagine the fishing over there would be easy. When a stream is in spate, running high and fast, minnows and many fish seek shelter on the bottom. The hydraulics down at stream-bed level are different than that of the water higher up. Bottom water moves slower; the slower current delivers a lighter pressure or "push" against the fish. So a little minnow doesn't need quite the strength and effort to hold itself in place against the flow. Of course it also puts the minnows below the sharp eyes and vise-like beak of a hungry heron—good news if you're a fish, but a bummer if you're a feathered angler looking to score a meal along the shoreline. Yet what are the alternatives? The bird’s usual shallow riffles, where it normally wade-fishes daily, are temporarily buried deep underwater. There are no small feeder creeks nearby, no ponds that aren’t themselves now flooded. Sometimes a bad choice is also the only choice. Besides, high-water days are nothing new to the river’s residents. Inconvenient, maybe, but not critical. For the Canada geese, it may even be enjoyable. All morning I've watched them appear in noisy flocks, twenty or more birds at a shot, honking like about-to-be-late commuters stuck in a traffic jam. The clamorous clans set down on the backwaters above the island just upstream from where the heron in the photo is fishing. There the gregarious geese—still honking—mill about for a few minutes, paddling to stay in their flooded landing zone. Then they suddenly allow the river to take them—and as they come to the upstream end of the lower island, they divide into two groups. Downstream they go, lickety-split, speeding on the fast current, freewheeling along like kids at a waterpark. They honk back and forth across the narrow ridge of dry land, keeping in touch, maybe checking their pace against that of their fellow float-trippers. When they meet a half-minute later where the divided river's two streams merge into one at the island's tail end, they commence honking excitedly, almost in glee at the fun they’ve just had racing downstream. Then, after a brief rest, they flap back up to their starting point and do the whole thing over again. I don’t care what anyone says, I think those birds are playing. The river continues rising, another foot overnight. High water brings bad fishing for the heron, furnishes makeshift amusement for the geese, and now makes me watchful. Still, like so many things in life…what it boils down to is just a matter of perspective.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
There’s a field up the road where I sometimes go for a ramble. Once farmland, it’s now a mostly forgotten parcel of public property—seldom visited, lacking any amenities other than a gravel pull-off large enough to accommodate two parked vehicles. Whoever designed and had built this tiny lot was either a well-meaning optimist, or some local government official playing fast and loose with public funds—though I suppose it could just be a case of the guy operating the bobcat needing more room to turn around, whereupon the fellow driving the gravel truck figured, might as well dump a few rocks since the patch has been scraped. At any rate, I’ve never once shared this little lot with another vehicle or noticed one parked there in passing. Neither have I ever encountered another visitor during one of my walks. Should the ground be covered with snow for weeks on end, mine are always the only human tracks I find on subsequent visits. All of which suits me just fine. I like the place precisely because it lacks those three most necessary conveniences for attracting casual strollers—restroom facilities; a dry, well-maintained loop path; and a little kiosk displaying a large trail map with a bright and apparently reassuring YOU ARE HERE dot, along with a list of rules and a holder dispensing folded, smaller versions of the big map, so once our impromptu adventurers have ambled around the first manicured bend (unschooled in the art of backtracking), can at least feel some confidence of eventually finding their way out alive from this 200-acre bit of howling wilderness. It’s certainly not wilderness. Not with a large, sprawling city, several smaller villages, a couple of Interstate highways, shopping malls, big-box groceries, hardware, and general merchandise stores, plus fast-food emporiums galore…all within a 30-minute drive. Rather it’s what I like to think of as “wild” land. Land left to its own devices for long enough that only nature rules. The rhythms of ever-changing seasons prevail; days follow the dictates of earth and sky, water and wind. Land where ancient struggles of life and death are played out regularly, without fanfare or apology. I like that, just as I like having the place to myself, apart from resident and visiting birds, animals, and other creatures great and small. Just as I like the total lack of even a rudimentary path, other than the maze of crisscrossing rabbit runs, and the deer trails which angle from the corridor woods along the river to day-bedding thickets higher up the gentle slope. Here, during decades of blessed neglect, natural succession has made good progress at reclaiming the place as its own. I’m especially fond of the numerous red cedar, our most common native species of juniper. Though often thought of as barely more than an evergreen bush, the red cedars in this old field thrive. Some of the biggest specimens now top the 30-foot mark; and given time enough, they might eventually come close to doubling that height. I hope so, though I won’t be around to applaud their accomplishment. What caught my eye yesterday was the number of blue “berries” or roundish seed cones, which so many birds adore—among them, the cedar waxwing, whose penchant for cedar berries carried into its name. Many of the field’s cedars were so loaded with berries their limbs drooped with the weight. I don’t recall ever seeing such a crop—though it must have been a real blessing for wildlife during recent weeks of snow and cold. In yesterday’s bright sun, however, the blue berries almost glowed—looking so luscious I momentarily considered eating one myself. Then I recalled that another use of aromatic cedar berries is as a flavoring in gin…which, after a walk in the unseasonable heat, did seem a more prudent and preferable means of ingestion.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Today we are “in the pink”—at least that’s how we began the morning’s first minutes. Odd as it may sound, most mornings I keep track of the day’s arrival by actually looking west, across the river, where ranks of white-barked sycamore lean over the water in thoughtful vigilance. Their high tops, intricately interlaced like the finest pale-ivory netsuke carvings, catch the initial light. Typically, this reflected light appears as a rich golden varnish. Today, however, the watchful trees seemed to be blushing—their normal warm yellow replaced by a light rosé. I half-arose, stretched over the breakfast table, and craned around to where I could look back to the east. What a sight! Above the hill, dawn’s earliest light was slipping through the tangled branches of the walnut and hackberry along the drive, shimmering like a sensuous nymph in shiny pink satin. The hues were soft but sure, not at all weak or washed out, and of a shade that reminded me of an ancient rosebush that rambled along the front fence at my parents’ home. A dawn glowing pink and flushed as a healthy newborn fresh from the night’s dark womb. A dawn bursting with potential and possibility. A dawn the color of cotton candy…and just as sweet a treasure.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Yesterday’s official temperature reached 54 degrees; today’s high likely won’t make it above the mid-40s. Both days were filled with sun. (Oddly, today feels warmer—probably because yesterday the ground still lay hidden beneath a thick layer of ice-crusted snow; the breeze wafting over this icy covering was…well, cold as ice.) Still, as the day wore on the melt began and kept increasing—dripping eaves, icicles breaking off and shattering on the deck, the whoosh-wallop of snow sliding from the roof, a wet sheen atop the ground’s white crust…and toward sundown, the first few patches of dark earth and pale grass beginning to appear in the lawn. Winter probably wasn’t over, but this round of winter, anyway, was definitely on the way out. Today the old snow cover is all but gone and the river is rising—a foot during the night, another eighteen inches since morning, and probably more to come. The real event has been the break-up of the river’s ice. For weeks now we’ve had ice-shelves—wide bands of ice extending anywhere from a half-dozen to 30 feet out from both banks, depending on the current’s line and speed. Upstream from here, along more than a mile of slower-moving stream, the ice-cover has stretched from bank-to-bank. Throughout the day, a chunk of ice, from the size of a dinner plate, to bigger than a dinner table, would break off and float downstream. (The ice-shelf pictured in yesterday’s bird-drinking post, for example, broke up and washed away before noon.) Then, about forty-five minutes ago, I heard a grinding roar, looked up from my desk, and was astonished to see the swollen river absolutely filled with a fast-moving blocks and chunks of white ice—some the size of a living-room carpet and more than a half-foot thick. Intermixed were limbs and logs, leaves, bits of debris. It looked like a scene from the arctic. Apparently all the ice pack upstream had just given way and was washing in our direction. Out on the deck, which has it’s support posts planted in bottom of the river itself, the air felt suddenly colder—a sharp cold which had, until only moments before, been locked in the white layers beneath my perch. I could hear the mutter and groan of the passing ice, hear the deep basso grinding which given time and scale can carve and shape a continent. I could feel the power of that moving ice vibrating under my feet. Wondrous, scary…a whole-body experience. The floe lasted perhaps twenty minutes—whatever time it took for the brisk current to carry a mile’s worth of breakup ice past the cottage. Now, only minutes later, the river is free of its burden, loosened from winter’s bonds. And I too feel loosened and free—though I have no doubt winter will still be around for another month or more. Yet, I’ve just witnessed the rare treat of ice-out. A season’s stranglehold suddenly broken…however temporarily. That’s reason enough to renew my faith in a coming spring.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
A recent snow squall, which for almost an hour poured in like a minor blizzard, apparently generated a powerful thirst among the local avian population. One minute the ice-shelf across from the cottage was empty, the next two-dozen or so birds were lined up at the ice’s edge, tippling forward and back, drinking like they hadn’t seen a drop of water in weeks. They looked for all the world like a gaggle of parched cowboys all bellied up to a saloon bar, at the end of a long and dusty cattle drive. The group was constantly changing. Birds few in from the thickets along the bank, found a space in the lineup, began imbibing. Others, their sudden thirst apparently quenched, flew back into the brush. At one point I counted nearly fifty birds strung out along this ice shelf. This is really one of those shots you need to click and enlarge…and even then, you may not be able to identify the participants. Most of the birds in the photo are robins, along with a few starlings. The bird near the center, the one sort of isolated and hunkered down, is a flicker. That flicker remained in that same spot, drinking a few sips at a time, for twenty minutes, through who knows how many shift changes of robins and other species. However, at one point, before the flicker appeared on scene, every bird drinking off the ice’s edge—more than thirty of ‘em—were robins. The feathered drinkers shuffled and sipped for half an hour. Then, lounge time over, they departed as quickly as they’d arrived. Snow continued to fall, the river slipped silently along, and the ice shelf was again empty.
Friday, February 6, 2009
“I hear the call of the hills…” wrote Ohio poet Samuel Harden Stille. The author’s name and writings were unfamiliar to me when I plucked the worn volume from atop the dusty shelf. The used books shop was small and dark. For the better part of an hour I’d been scrounging about, high and low, with little luck. While fellow bookmen understand when a search of their wares fails to turn up anything you need, I didn’t want to leave empty-handed. The owner had been friendly, chatty, gave me a tissue when dust started me sneezing, offered a cup of coffee from the pot brewing behind the counter; a welcome kindness on a cold winter’s day. Courtesy compelled me to buy something. “How much,” I asked, holding the book up. The shopkeeper squinted a moment. “Three bucks,” he said. “Don’t think it’s much good, poetry-wise. You’re the first person ever showed any interest. Why don’t we make it two bucks?” I gave him the three. When I later stopped at a country café for lunch, I carried Stille’s book in for mealtime reading. I read the book’s title poem, “The Call of the Hills,” first. In truth, the bookseller was right. From a literary standpoint, these were far from examples of great verse. Yet…there was occasionally something—an authenticity, perhaps, a voice, a truth which revealed that in some ways, we were kindred spirits. Stille certainly loved the modest southern-Ohio hills; of that there was no doubt. And every so often, a word or phrase would resonate. “When stars look down,” Stille wrote, “the call of the hills comes in from their eternity…” I’ve not been able to find out much about Samuel Harden Stille. Other than a few booksellers offering used copies of his two or three books, the Internet is strangely parsimonious of biographical information. I know his boyhood home was in Warner, Ohio, a tiny hamlet in Washington County. Here, north of Marietta, not far from the Ohio River, “the Buckeye Hills slope off to the west,” Stille said in a sort of introduction found on the interior flap of the book’s dust jacket. A photograph opposite the copyright page reveals a distinguished gentleman bearing a striking resemblance to “Colonel” Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. “Only the high winds,” Stille mused in another poem, “understand the dignity of a lofty cedar.” I knew what he was talking about when he said, “I yearn for the healing deep solitude of the woods. I am lonely for comradeship with fog, mist, and shadows.” As with Stille, the hills of southeastern Ohio have been singing in my own heart since birth. “God tramps the hills, Stille said, “and I love to be with God. My hills are my eternity, my immortality. When it is time for me to go, I beg of those who know me best to let me rest among my hills…” Sometimes poetry doesn’t have to be good to be great.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Snow had been pouring from the iron-gray sky for the better part of an hour. Now, the storm was over and the wind had stilled, leaving every limb and branch and twig with a frosting of fluffy white. A scene of winter wonderland. When I stepped outside the first thing I noticed was the quiet, though a muted stillness oddly lacking in comfort, as if the world at hand were collectively stunned. An uneasy silence, tense, discomfited, even while I stood amid the yard’s familiar surroundings. The river ten feet below the bank slipped along soundless as a furtive shadow. The woods on the island across from the cottage looked foreboding, as if something brought in by the storm might be lurking amid its dense tangles. And the big sycamore, stolid and ancient, which leans like a wise Druid in a nearby corner near the drive, was remote, guarding its secrets like an old friend who refuses to speak or smile. Maybe it was the light that set this mood, for the sky remained flat and dull—exuding a sort of midmorning gloom that robbed the powdery snow of its crystalline sparkle. Or perhaps it was just me—a seed of melancholy trying to sprout and grow, a sudden onset of low spirits caused by circumstances and worries and a feeling that I was on the verge of becoming shallow and trivial…worthless; an inconsequential man living a banal life. Whatever it was closed around me like a dark and heavy blanket. How long I stood there I couldn’t say—five minutes, ten? Long enough that the cold in the air and the chill in my soul met and melded, a numbing both corporal and spiritual. And then…and then, a robin flew in and landed in a nearby tree. Such as small thing, a winged trifle, merely an incidental addition to the immediate landscape. What difference could a small bird make? As it turned out—everything! In an moment relief washed over me like a cleansing flood. My spirits were instantaneously lifted, my heart filled anew with faith and hope and joy. The morning was beautiful and mine to savor. I was the luckiest man on earth. How often it is that a small act makes a big difference. We forget this truth regularly, waiting for the profound change, the monumental moment, stuck in the notion that significance is related to size. Yet time and again it’s the little things that count—a kind word, a hug, a kiss on the cheek. Not much. A letter or card, a phone call, a meal shared, a visit. Maybe just a handshake or a pat on the shoulder. Really, not much at all. Any good photographer or painter knows that sometimes all you need in a scene is that one detail, a tiny highlight or a dab of color. The slightest of additions can change everything, make all the difference. It’s the small things that give life value. The sweet damp of an April morning. The silkiness of your child’s hair when you give them a friendly tousle. The light you see in your true love’s eyes as you stare at one another across a candlelit table. A single word can give courage. A simple handshake can create trust. Just being there, in shared and understanding silence, a friend, when words and gestures fail. That single robin sitting in a tree overlooking the river was not particularly colorful, and as Ohio birds go—even in winter—it certainly wasn’t uncommon. But it was the detail that invoked the change…in both the scene and me. Small things make a difference
Monday, February 2, 2009
Today is Groundhog Day, which means all across the land, reporters for radio, television, newspaper, and the Internet will be waiting with bated breath, cameras poised, for the weather prognostication of these supposedly prescient furry rodents. According to folklore, if the awakened groundhog sees his shadow today, there’ll be six more weeks of winter; if not, spring is right around the corner. Groundhog Day is simply the North American version of a long line of animals thought to be able to predict the weather—everything from bears to otters, wolves to hedgehogs. Many prophet animals were hibernators. The theory went that if you watched one of these sleeping critters awaken on Candlemas Day, whether they then chose to remain awake or decided to go back to sleep would determine winter’s duration. Various Europeans, including both English and Germans, favored badgers for their seasonal foretelling. When the Pennsylvania Dutch came to the U.S. in the mid-1700s, they brought their custom of animal-based weather forecasting along. Since badgers were not at all common thereabouts, the settlers switched allegiance to the ubiquitous groundhog—also called a woodchuck—which might be mistaken for a badger to the same extent a horse might be mistaken for a moose. But then, most of our early colonists were always a bit shaky when it came to animal identification. In addition to their mistake in telling a groundhog from a badger, they also muddled up the fact the animal was supposed to awaken on its own, and that it was whether or no it choose to stay awake—not seeing its own shadow—that determined winter's duration. The photo above shows the main entry—the front door—of my own resident groundhog’s den. The burrow opening is located at the right side of a big Osage orange tree’s base, to the left of the exposed portion of root. You don’t see it? Well, that’s because it is filled in and covered over with ice and snow. The other three den entrances connecting the tunnel complex are located nearby on the same hillside, and while smaller and always less conspicuous, are now equally invisible beneath winter’s icy mantle. Groundhogs are almost total vegetarians. They eat grasses, leaves, shoots, stalks, certain wildflowers, and almost any plant from the garden. Since winter in a Great Lakes State typically doesn’t offer much in the way of handy eats, groundhogs cope with the season by hibernating. I have no doubt that somewhere on the hillside within a dozen feet of the big Osage orange tree and 5-8 feet underground, in a snug, grass-lined chamber, my rotund resident groundhog is snoozing away—blissfully unaware that he’s failing his annual duties. Unfortunately, a few of his brethren won’t be so lucky, because the news media will insist on a photo op for their stories. Thus groundhogs residing in nature museums, zoos, schools, and kept as pets (legally or otherwise) will be prodded awake, hauled out into the cold, drowsy, confused, and doubtless a bit cranky, and made to participate in this bit of seasonal silliness before being allowed to return to their warm beds. Personally, I hope these displaced groundhogs, each and every, one manage to sink an incisor into the hand of their inconsiderate keepers. And just in case you’re wondering…the sun is shining bright here this morning. Those bright-eyed bushy-tailed rodents awake of their own volition (squirrels) are casting shadows to beat the band. Looks like winter will be lingering hereabouts a while longer. But who am I (sigh) to buck tradition—silly or otherwise. Therefore…Happy Groundhog Day!