Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SETTING THE PATH…

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!

IS IT BREAKFAST TIME YET?

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 AND HIGHER WATER

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…

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

MIDWINTER…OR NOT

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

RIVER'S VOICE RETURNS

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

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

COOPER'S HAWK RETURNS

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

RAIN AND A CIRCULAR JOURNEY

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

FIRST REAL SNOW

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

BRINGING HOME THE CHRISTMAS TREE

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

A WREN VISIT

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

SQUIRRELS AGAIN?

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...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

DIVINE IMAGE...OR SHOWER PEEPER?

It's been an exhausting couple of days. First there was Thanksgiving—the Roasting of the Bird, all twenty-two pounds of his fat, stuffed carcass, plus making oyster and non-oyster dressing (gotta please everyone), pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries (open can, dump contents, stir up so they don't look like the can) and everything else that goes onto our particular "classic feast" table. This year, we interrupted our cooking to partake of a medium-sized kitchen fire, when too much dressing overflowed too little baking dish and a sheet of flames four-feet high and oven-wide lashed out like an infuriated dragon, trying its best to burn the cottage down. While others in our midst leaped frantically about shrieking like lunatics, I calmly threw about two pounds of kosher salt on the base of the flames until the blaze was out, whereupon we all set to opening windows to allow the thick black smoke to exit the house and puzzle our neighbors. Moon the dog actually sat in the hall and sobbed—I've never in my life heard anything like it come from a dog. Obviously, we all handle distress in our own peculiar way. There is, however, nothing like a good kitchen fire to whet the appetite...and once the residual soot and salt aftermath had been cleaned up, we sat down to our groaning table, said a heartfelt grace, and ate with uncommon gusto. Guilt and blame for the fire, along with certain recriminations and threats, denials, and brief tantrums, and not a few smart-alec remarks peppered our mealtime conversation. All in all, a fine day of modest infamy and tasty turkey. Yesterday was, by comparison, quiet and more relaxed. A tiny amount of work gathering a stick or two of driftwood from the river's edge near the cottage; tossing a few stones up onto the bank for later building projects; dragging the first of the Christmas decorations from the attic; a bit of writing and puttering in my work room. Breakfast, which didn't occur until midmorning, and took place before the fireplace and a crackling blaze, was leftovers (better the second time around than the first!) as was a late-afternoon lunch (thirds tasting just as good!); supper was late and light, a bit of cheese and a glass of wine. Okay, two glasses of wine. Today I have crashed... No energy. No desire to do anything more than read, snooze, and emulate a member of the vegetable kingdom. And no, it wasn't all that turkey and leftovers, and those two glasses of wine...or maybe it was. But I'm content in my lassitude, at one with my torpor. Sometimes rest is as good a way to spend a day as any requiring busy vigor. On the other hand, my morning shower has taught me a necessary lesson—I herewith promise I'm never again going to doubt or make fun of those folks who claim see religious images in the most mundane objects and places. Indeed...I have joined their ranks. This very morning, as I finished my shower and, in my soapy, dripping nudity just happened to look down, I saw something—gremlin, imp, brownie, leprechaun, or soggy sprite, looking back at me from the wadded washcloth I'd tossed casually and with no artistic forethought, into the corner of the bathtub. Egads! After recovering from my initial shock, I plucked my cell phone from the nearby counter and took a shot. You tell me...is this Our Lady of the Washrag? The Terrycloth Troll? Divine, secular, good, evil, imagined, or pure kismet? Or have I simply been holed up in my riverbank cottage too long. I await your thoughtful replies. Meanwhile...a slice of pumpkin pie beckons.

Friday, November 28, 2008

SURPRISED BY KINDNESS

A few weeks ago I wrote a column on black walnuts for a small-town newspaper. Just before Thanksgiving, I received an email from the paper’s editorial offices saying some lady had called and said that if I wanted them, she had some black walnuts she’s like to give me. I thought she meant whole walnuts. Several years ago, after writing another walnut piece for a different newspaper, a lady wrote in saying she had twenty-three 5-gallon buckets of walnuts still in the hull—mine if I’d drive up and collect them. Which I did…though that’s another story. But this recent caller had actually shelled, cracked, and picked out the tasty nutmeats already. When I called her back she said she had about three cups worth—a lot of work, in case you’ve never picked walnuts yourself. I was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted. “Why would want to give them to me?” I asked. She was one of the newspaper’s subscribers, but we’d never met. “I just figured with the holidays and all, you’d like to have some walnuts to put in cakes or cookies. I know from reading your nature columns that you cook and bake.” That afternoon I drove out to the farm she and her husband have near the edge of the county. A huge, sprawling brick home with several barns and outbuildings, all neat as a pen. The dooryard was graveled, all fallen leaves from the century-old maples sheltering the house had been raked and likely carted off to a hidden compost pile, nearby gates and fences were whitewashed and in perfect repair. And the wide side porch held a cute little doghouse—well, cathouse, as it turned out, though not THAT kind of cathouse—from which a cute black-and-white cat emerged, stretched, and began rubbing against my leg. I could see a thick pad inside the little building, which was doubtless a snug escape from the cold November wind blowing across the half-mile expanse of open field. The lady of the house answered the door with a smile. “My husband built that a couple of months ago,” she said, nodding at the cat’s shelter. “It has a little heat strip in it that’s on a thermostat and the walls are foam insulated. The cat has it made!” Turned out she and her husband—German Baptists, or what most folks in these parts called “Dunkars”, from their faith’s baptismal practices—had recently moved her mother from West Virginia and installed her in a new mobile home just behind the main house. It was actually the mother who’d plucked out the big ziplock bag full of nutmeats which I was handed, and for which I thanked my benefactor profusely. “Don’t worry,” she said, laughing, “I have plenty more. Mom likes to spend her evenings working through a bucket of walnuts. You’re most welcome to them—and beside, we all like to read your columns.” Driving home a few minutes later, I kept thinking of the effort it took to accumulate those nuts, idle time busy-work or not. I was humbled by the gift, surprised by such an unexpected act of kindness. We live in a cynical world, a world ruled by pessimism and fear. There are, indeed, people and cultures out there who’d like nothing better than to see us obliterated because they disagree with us. We can be hated for our faith…or lack. Killed over sex, money, boundaries, politics, or a parking space. No one and no place is entirely safe. And yet…and yet there are those moments of unexpected kindness which ought to say to each and every one of us that much human goodness still remains. Amidst all the war and hate and death there’s also joy and hope and love. Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly “relied on the kindness of strangers.” To me, that’s philosophically too much like expecting someone to do something good to you, or depending on being bailed out of a mess. Not that strangers haven’t bailed me out of plenty of messes over the years. Sill, it isn’t quiet the same. A fellow I know often goes into a fast-food restaurant and buys a meal for someone in a nearby line—a stranger. No strings. He doesn’t expect them to talk with him, or even thank him. If they ask why he’s doing such a crazy thing, he says simply that it makes him feel good. And it does. “Hey, it the best five bucks I can spend at McDonald’s,” he says. It certainly gives the term “Happy Meal” new meaning. The sad part about this is that it’s even worth writing about—that kindness should ever be unexpected and amazing. Strangers ought to be able to do nice things for one another without us questioning their motives. That ancient verse from Luke, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” is still a valid way to live our lives. Practicing the “Golden Rule” could go a long way toward ameliorating the world’s wrongs, on all levels from global to personal. The place to begin this is at home, with our own behavior, through our own acts of unexpected kindness. It can be as simple as taking a container of homemade soup next door to a neighbor…or calling up some writer after reading his piece on walnuts and offering to him a supply of precious nutmeats sufficient to last through the holidays. The lady who gave me that bag of walnuts knew the power and grace of this already. The rest of us need to learn it for ourselves.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

TWO TROUT FOR THANKSGIVING

“I was just thinking how good a trout would taste, Sonny,” my father said, smiling at me from the other end of the laden kitchen table. We’d just finished our Thanksgiving meal—a huge, turkey-and-all-the-trimmings feast which could easily have accommodated three times as many people and still filled the refrigerator with leftovers afterwards. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last Thanksgiving I’d get to share with this wise and quirky man who loved the outdoors with thoughtful passion, and had spent countless hours rambling woods and fields, on lakes and streams, passing this love along to his only child. Dad loved God, family, nature, books, music, and shaping bits of wood into everything from guitars to benches to custom details in fine homes such as fitted cabinets or an exquisite spiral staircase. I’ve tried to embrace his values wholeheartedly, though I’m sadly deficient when it comes to woodworking skills; the best I can do is hammer together a deck or garden shed. A couple of years earlier, Dad had suffered a mild stroke. There didn’t seem to be any permanent damage afterwards, but he’d then begun having mini-strokes, and each one took a slight toll. During the last twenty-some months I’d watched my father age twenty years. From a robust seventy-three year old he’d become a faltering seventy-five…and the change was swift and heartbreaking. Several times during our holiday meal the talk had turned, as it often did, to fishing—fishing for bass, bluegill, walleye, catfish, crappie, and then when we got to reminiscing about fishing in Michigan, salmon and trout. I guess that’s what started my father to thinking—remembering those skillets of fresh-caught trout, fried in butter over an open campfire, the chill morning air redolent with woodsmoke and pines, rose-breasted grosbeaks whistling from nearby thickets and the tannin-stained stream burbling merrily along a dozen yards away. I remembered such times, too—and I knew we’d never get to reprise those wonderful adventures together. But I also knew I could give him a small part—literally a taste—by supplying a trout or two. And so, on that bittersweet Thanksgiving Day twenty-six years ago, I abruptly left the table and drove an hour north to one of the only genuine trout streams in Ohio. It was sunny, but cold and windy, a wintry November afternoon. But after I’d parked by the bridge, layered up in warm clothes and waders, rigged my fly rod, and begun following the faint streamside trail to the pool I intended to fish, I thought I just might have a chance. This isn’t a fishing tale, so I won’t go into details—except to say that after a half-hour of casting practice, I suddenly saw a trout swirl on the surface. Then another began to feed…and a third. I made my presentations, floated my flies past the hungry fish, and summarily caught two. I didn’t try for the third. Never take more than you need…and always leave something behind. My father taught me that, and it’s the cornerstone principal of good outdoor stewardship. I was back home in time for the supper encore of our dinner’s leftovers. In some ways, I enjoy these secondary meals more than the primary event. One feeds your hunger, though it comes with the excitement and pressure of having fussed about getting everything on the table just so and on time; the other is leisurely, laid-back, with ample time to savor—feeding both body and soul. Dad was pleased with the trout—a pair of silver-phase browns, plump and solid, fat from feeding on the stream’s prolific caddis. I promised I’d fix them for his lunch the following day—and he grinned at me and nodded. “I’d like that, Sonny.” I’m sorry I didn’t get to spend every moment of that long-ago last Thanksgiving Day with my father. But I tried to make up for it by spending every day with him thereafter I could…until that early June afternoon of the following spring when Dad suddenly passed away. In a way, though, Dad went with me on that Thanksgiving Day trout trip—just as he has accompanied me on every fishing trip of my life, and every outdoor ramble I make, whether it’s to gather mushrooms or pawpaws, explore a hill-country woods, watch birds, or pick up a sack of walnuts to feed backyard squirrels. My father taught me how to do all those things, and a thousand more. I miss him still. But his love and guidance remain as fresh in me today as if he were still sitting at the other end of that old kitchen table, smiling sweetly at me and telling me about the birds he saw at the feeder that morning, or a wildflower he’d recently spotted beside the road, or maybe reciting a line or two from James Whitcomb Riley about things a country boy understood. When I bow my head and say grace on Thanksgiving, my father is always one of the things I’m most grateful for…a blessing worth remembering. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

BIRDS AND WINDOWS DON'T MIX

The all-too-familiar thump came just as we finished breakfast. The muffled whap of another bird hitting a windowpane—this time the window two feet beyond the table. I only missed witnessing the collision because I was busy getting up and gathering my breakfast clutter. When I hurried outside, the victim was crumpled upside-down on the deck…a junco. I gently picked up the bird and saw it was injured but still alive—though thoroughly addled from its head-on encounter with the plate glass. I felt bad because I’d just refilled the seed feeders and scattered some cracked corn on the ground an hour or so earlier. Naturally, the birds flocked to the replenished eats like gangbusters—cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, doves, titmice, and others; the usual post-dawn contingent. Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers were eagerly working the nearby suet cakes. Now, the little slate-backed, or dark-eyed junco, to give its proper name, was knocked out cold, and possibly wouldn’t. All I could do was hold it in my hand and hope that some warmth and time would help. The downside to having a cottage situated on a wooded riverbank is that there are always birds around—birds which regularly mistake a reflective window for a hole through the trees. Sometimes this error proves deadly. Of course, being lucky to live in an old stone cottage on a tree-lined riverbank, with a variety of birds coming and going, is a constant joy. Still, there’s no denying the cottage windows account for at least a half-dozen fatalities each year—though this represents only a fraction of the number of birds which slam against the window, often to the tune of several during a given day. Fortunately, most window-bird crashes aren’t serious—little more than a nasty surprise and lost feather or two. Then there are those which collide harder, enough so the impact stuns them for several moments, a few minutes, even an hour. Most of these casualties do seem to make it, given sufficient time. It required about half an hour for this morning’s junco to feel perky enough to fly away. I usually hold the stunned bird until I see some sign of it coming around, then place it on a windowsill where it can continue its recovery—sheltered a bit and handy for me to keep an eye on things in case a cat comes around. That’s what I did for a nuthatch back in the spring, and a white-throated sparrow last winter. What I truly hate to find are birds which are DOA by the time I retrieve them. Worse, fate always seems to dictate such fatalities either come from the ranks of my favorite species or those of uncommon visitors. During the past twelve months, for example, the window traps claimed a cardinal, a Carolina wren, a tree sparrow, and a cedar waxwing; the two atypical birds were a Swainson’s thrush and a northern waterthrush. If I could do anything about this ongoing situation I would. Changing the lighting inside the cottage doesn’t help. Neither does hanging stuff around the windows themselves. I could relocate the feeders farther away from the cottage, but besides making it impossible to birdwatch without resorting to the binoculars, I’m not really convinced it would make much difference. The reason for this conclusion is that during the summer, when the feeders are empty or only seldom visited, the muffled windowpane thumps continue unabated—as does the percentage of injured or deceased birds I find. Moreover, feeders at most nature centers, including an Audubon Center I frequent, are typically placed about the same distance from their buildings as mine are from the cottage. Alas, I’ve about decided a few dead birds are simply unavoidable collateral damage to multiple windows and a riverside cottage. Though I occasionally feel like one of those looter pirates who made a living luring ships onto the rocks by means of displaying false lights, I somewhat placate this guilt by reminding myself the Cooper’s hawk which swoops through the yard daily accounts for far more victims. And I do whatever I can to nurse the injured back to health so they can fly again another day…though hopefully, they’ll have learned their lesson about taking that shortcut through the window.

Monday, November 24, 2008

TOO BUSY? NAAAHH-H-H!

Well, here it is less than a month since I began this blog, and already I’m remiss in my self-made promise to post something—even if only a few lines—daily. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, there’s been an unusual spate of grocery shopping and other holiday-related tasks to get done—and, of course, not enough time, energy, or money to accomplish everything in one fell swoop. But that’s no excuse. And neither is the fact that from well before daylight until long after dark, I’ve been working, dashing about, fretting or sulking…and at the end of it too exhausted to do more than tumble into bed somewhere close to midnight. Even today, I ate lunch standing at the kitchen counter. Yet it wouldn’t be honest to claim I wrote nothing because there was nothing of interest to report. The world beyond the windowpane didn’t pack up and leave town for the weekend. The past few days might have been unusually harried, but the lack of material more accurately reflects on my failure to observe—and really, to simply see what was always before my eyes, in plain sight, had I taken time to look. Instead, I got caught up in the mundane to the point of being unaware of, and therefore unresponsive to, the world around me. I certainly couldn’t have asked for more varied weather, since the past few days have given us a bit of everything here along the river. Snow one day—though nothing ever actually stuck for long, even when flakes came down thick and furious and the ground turned temporarily white. The following day was one of brilliant sun. Cold though, with an overnight low of 13 measly degrees…the lowest temperature of this fall-heading-to-winter. Then a day of clouds, and some wind. And finally today, which began in light rain, which became light fog and heavy overcast, before again turning back to rain. About noon, before making run to Sam’s to pick up a turkey and oysters for the dressing, I took a shot or two of the light fog—really, almost a heavy mist—upstream from the cottage. An hour later, having successfully bagged my final ingredients for Thursday’s feast and returned home—I looked out at the same upriver stretch, now without the misty fog, and saw a small flock of mallards feeding in the riffle. Fifteen in all, seven pairs plus an additional drake. Was this odd male a bachelor, widower, or just an unlucky ol’ duck who couldn’t fill his dance card and is doomed to spending the holidays alone? Or perhaps part of a waterfowl ménage à trios? Actually, mallards aren’t to common along this particular stretch of river—at least not during the three years we’ve lived here. More likely to be seen are woodies. And a male wood duck, in full feathered regalia is, in my humble opinion, one of the most astonishingly magnificent birds around. Though the first year we lived here, smack in the middle of winter when the river banks were arctic white and the pool and riffle area directly in front of the cottage was filled pale green water and rimmed with ice, six goldeneyes appeared one afternoon and hung around in the pool for the next couple of days, giving me ample opportunity to watch the three pairs, diving and feeding, for long periods at really close range. And I thought then they were perhaps even prettier than the wood ducks. We also have some semi-resident Canada geese—and several flocks of Canadas which pass over the cottage daily on the way to and from their chosen feeding areas and the shallow pond in the nearby park which they call home. I expect today's mallards might be travelers—for their behavior during the time I watched them certainly struck me as that of wild birds. I do hope they stick around a while. And I'll try and be more faithful to watching and writing...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

AUTUMN AND OATMEAL COOKIES

There’s something about a cold November day that whispers to my inner child how this would a perfect occasion for baking oatmeal cookies. Not that there’s actually a bad day for oatmeal cookie baking, mind you. But you know what I mean.…certain foods seem particularly well suited to particular times. Never one to stand in the way of gastronomical/seasonal destiny, I complied. To the tune of several dozen cookies, made with old-fashioned rolled oats, brown sugar, butter and vegetable shortening, baking soda, salt, vanilla, a dash of cinnamon, and unbleached flour. I figured if the food police came around, I’d buy them off with a really good cookie. Between shuffling batches of cookies in and out of the oven, I kept an eye outdoors—at the river, the mallards feeding in the riffle, a red-tailed hawk loafing in one of the big sycamores on the island across from the cottage, at birds visiting the feeder and squirrels scrabbling through the leaves and chasing about in the yard. When the final batch of cookies was done and set out to cool, I poured a glass of real cider from the orchard up the road, and sat at the table by window in the front room, where I ate more oatmeal cookies than I care to admit, and watched the sun slip behind the low hill to the west across the river. Late-autumn, it seems to me, is a necessary interregnum between that first half of the season—which can almost seem like an extension of late-summer except with colored leaves—and genuine winter, when stars hover close and trees creak and pop with the deep cold. The last half of November helps us begin to get in the mood for things ahead. We humans need this—or at least I do. Maybe it keeps my circadian rhythm in proper alignment or something. Or maybe it just gives me time hunker low and brace for winter. Whatever, I’ve come to think of it the same way I do any journey—that the in-between part is at least half the fun. Which is also why I’d rather drive to, say, Florida, than fly. Sure, the airlines do it quicker—a few hours for them versus twelve hours for me…and that’s if I hustle and don’t stop much along the way; or two days if I can take the time to dawdle a bit. But either way, by driving I get the sense of going somewhere, of the distance covered and the way the landscape changes. By contrast there’s a sort of unreality when I step into a jetliner in Ohio and step out in Florida a couple of hours later. I feel disconnected—not jet lagged—but missing the miles of landscape separating me from where I now stand and where I came from. Maybe a little robbed, too, that I didn’t get to see and touch and smell and hear it—if only from an opened window as I tooled down the highway. That’s how I feel about these days of late-November—a sense of seasonal journey to be quietly enjoyed. And best savored with a handful of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

FUN IN THE SUN

Today we enjoyed plenty of sun and a slightly lower temperature. What? The man is a masochist saying colder is more comfortable! Nope. Tiz the true gen, as a friend of mine used to say. When I took Moon-the-Dog out for her morning ramble, the thermometer read a bracing 24 degrees—ten degrees colder than yesterday. But—and this is the important “but”— therefore not nearly as damp. What would have been dampness was now frost, coating the leaves and limestone walls of the cottage, shimmering in honeyed early sunlight, and setting off my aging canine into a fit of puppy-like snarffling and rolling and wallowing, interspersed with bouts of racing about the yard. When we came back inside a few minutes later we were both breathless—Moon from her shenanigans, me from laughing…especially when she tried to make a high-speed power turn worthy of a barrel-racing quarter horse and found out sycamore leaves silvered with frost are too slippery for a pooch with clipped toenails. Anyway, that little ten-degree temperature drop, which freeze-dried the dampness, had the effect of making it feel more comfortable outside, even though it was actually colder. Which, I’m bound to admit, always surprises me a little, though at my age, I should well know better. Still, there it is—why colder felt better, and was thus more enjoyable. Of course, the gleaming sunlight, sparkling off the leaves, dancing like jewels in the riffles of the stream, and backlighting the hanging bankside boxelder keys might have had something to do with lifting my mood….

Monday, November 17, 2008

NOVEMBER'S COMPENSATIONS

Friday it was cold but partially sunny early, then rain during the afternoon and throughout the night. Saturday was dark and cloudy and colder still, with a weather oddity in mid-afternoon of huge snowflakes—some nearly hand-size—mixed in for a few minutes before going back strictly to rain. Yesterday morning began with streaks of clear sky in the west, which soon disappeared to be followed by a few minutes of hominy snow. After that the day was simply cold and cloudy. This morning the overcast sky is thicker, darker, with falling moisture that alternates from minute-to-minute between the lightest of drizzles and periods where the rain is replaced by snowflakes. The reason for this back-and-forth weather-business which can't seem to make up its mind whether to rain or snow, is temperature. Since the end of last week, we've been hovering right around that mid-to-low thirties range, never varying more than two or three degrees either way day or night. The big, slow-moving system is coming from the north and west—the Dakotas and Great Lakes, bringing moisture and clouds, and of course, colder temperatures. In point of fact, this is typical November weather. We're never pleased about such a turn of things after those crisp blue days of October. But we ought not to act so surprised about its annual arrival. Because it is a damp cold, it always seems worse than it is so far as comfort goes. Which is why we shiver and complain so much, I guess. Plus, in my case, I need to give the yard a final raking, there's wood to split and stack, caulking around the house to do, and a lot of general tidying up and light repairs I still need to have done before genuine winter sets in. But the news isn't all negative. These first cold, damp November days are why a hearth fire and a mug of hot tea seems so cozy. Why, too, I suspect, a batch of oatmeal cookies baking in the oven smells so wonderful. Why that pot of beef-and-noodles you've slow-cooked all afternoon tastes so good. November days such as these may not be the best for going outdoors...but they have their compensations inside.
* * *
UPDATE: It is now nine hours since I wrote the above portion of this piece. Most of the day, or at least the daylight hours. Twilight is setting in here along the river. It will be dark in another half hour. The news is that the snow which has sputtered off and on all day is finally sticking to the ground. So maybe this makes it our official "First Snow." To celebrate, I took a quick photo...can't remember the name of the flower, but I stuck a few into my marigold bed at the end of spring and while the marigolds have given up weeks ago, these sprightly little plants have kept right on blooming. It will be interesting to see how long they last after being snowed on.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

FIRST SNOW UNUSUAL

Yesterday we marked a milestone of sorts here along the river. The occasion was the season's first snow—a snow made all the more memorable by it's unusual nature and setting. The day began in rain—carried over and continued throughout the night from the day before. I'd spent most of the morning and afternoon in my work room, unboxing and adding books to a big wall unit of shelving I built a couple of weeks ago. Occasionally I'd glance out the window near my desk at the yard and river beyond. From time to time I'd see one of the resident blue herons fishing or flapping up or down the stream, or maybe a gray squirrel or two chasing about in the fallen leaves. For a while I watched a red-bellied woodpecker working the big seed feeder that hangs from the soffit just beyond the glass. Throughout the morning and during the first half of the afternoon, the rain came down unremittingly if not particularly hard—though the showers were hard enough to get you wet in a minute or two, and far more than Moon-the-Dog likes if she has to go out for a doggie break. The day's temperature had started off in the low-40s, and had been steadily dropping. However, it never quite got down to freezing. The snow began in mid-afternoon, and commenced with an increase in the rain. One moment it was rain only, the next you could see big flakes of snow mixed in. The rain-snow combination never did get to the fifty-fifty ratio—there was always more rain coming down, though once or twice it might have gotten to a sixty-forty mix. And rain mixed with snow isn't in itself all that unusual. What was unusual, though, was the size of the snowflakes—huge, many a big as a silver dollar and quite a few the diameter of a coffee cup. I could visually track some of these enormous falling flakes as they came down between the house and the sycamores on the far side of the river, or looking directly downstream, upwards of a hundred yards! Unbelievable! The fall of monster flakes only lasted a few minutes. After that it was back to rain and the occasional bit of slush. Of course none of the flakes—big or small—stuck to the ground. Still, they were quite the biggest snowflakes I've ever seen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A BLAH DAY

Today has been one of those late-fall days that sneak past without leaving much more than a smudge on your memory banks. We've had a heavy overcast from dawn to dusk. In late afternoon it began to drizzle, and it is still raining at nearly 8:00 pm. A dark, dank, drizzly, dreary, damp, cold day, to pile on the adjectives. And I've spent most of it working at the desk, kicking around words and sentences and paragraphs, trying to make something readable out of an idea that, to make it work, seemed to need three times as many words as I could allot. For me, writing "short" is seldom as easy as writing "long." Usually, though, it doesn't take this much effort...thank God!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

LOSING THE LIGHT...

Even though it has been more than a week since we made the switch from Daylight Savings Time back to Eastern Daylight Time, I’m still not used to the early twilights. It seems like I have lunch, do a bit of work, and suddenly it’s getting dark! Of course, as time’s great pendulum completes it’s swing from equinox to solstice, we do lose an eventual total of a bit over three hours of light per day. Almost half this daylight loss occurred in October alone; and another full hour will be lost in November. Nevertheless, oncoming dusk always catches me unprepared. As I write this, at a couple minutes past 5:00 p.m., it is already almost too dark to see across the river. Just a minute or two ago I looked up from the keyboard and watched a great blue heron sail in for a landing in the shallows downstream from the cottage. It’s one of the big bird’s favorite fishing spots whenever the water is low, as it has been hereabouts for weeks. But now I have to strain to see the stalking heron through the rapidly dimming light…and in another minute or two, hampered by the gathering gloom, I won’t be able to make out the pale-gray shape at all. The leaves come down and we fiddle with the clocks. Meanwhile, autumn treks steadily onward along its journey to winter, while our days abruptly seem shorter and darker—as if the turning of the season precipitated a headlong rush into darkness.

Monday, November 10, 2008

THE OTHER AUTUMN

Today is really a good example of the “other autumn,” which is how I’ve come to think about the season’s second half. When someone says the word “autumn” we mentally conjure up an image straight off October’s calendar, of multicolored leaves and bright blue skies. In fact, there's an old proverb, a sort of palindrome, that says, 'fall leaves after leaves fall.' This, of course, ignores the truth by overlooking that autumn officially begins the last part of September and continues until the winter solstice in late December. Autumn is more more enduring than a few weeks of patchwork leaves. The season in its entirety must be given it's due. Looking out the window, I now see a yard carpeted in rather monotone brown leaves. Too, the sky is thick with woolly clouds as gray as old socks. The river runs dark and sullen. Yet this too is a face of autumn. Less picturesque, perhaps, but no less a part of the season. It’s also cold out—currently 30 degrees, with the day’s high predicted in the low-40s. Last night, about 9:30, I heard an odd sound of something rattling against the windows. It didn’t quite sound like wind-blown leaves, and I thought it was too cold for rain. Curious, I got up, looked out, and in the yellowish porch light saw sleet pellets scattered across the front deck. Our first wintry intimation. Pretty much on schedule, too; a November foretaste of things to come. During the past week, by contrast, we enjoyed a spell of Indian Summer—days in the 70s, cloudless skies the color of just-starting-to-fade denim. I spent much of my time gathering wood for next year’s fires—loading log chunks into the wheelbarrow from a neighbor’s two huge hackberries which toppled several weeks ago as aftermath winds from Hurricane Ike roared through the area. One of the big trees landed partially across the top of his garage, so he had to wait for the busy tree trimmers sent by his insurance company to clear and cut them. I’ve now hauled all the sections I can heave into the wheelbarrow. Those remaining are simply too heavy, being two feet long and thirty inches and more in diameter. More than my bad back can handle. I may be able to roll a few more of these crossections to my woodpile, seeing as how we’re only talking a few hundred feet, and most of that at least slightly downhill. Otherwise, these enormous rounds will have to wait until I can scare up ample help or else rent a power splitter. In the meantime, I have plenty of wood splitting with maul, axe, and wedge to keep me busy. As a rough estimate, I’d say I have perhaps four or five cords, of which, maybe two-thirds will require at least one split. Lots of work…but I look at it as money—and heat—in the bank.