Tuesday, March 31, 2009
One crisp afternoon last fall my only working lawnmower decided to self-destruct. I can’t say its death was unexpected, for its life had been long and filled with heavy labor, doing yeoman service well above its small size and original bargain-basement price. Moreover, the poor machine had suffered much early abuse before finding its way into my grateful hands. It is to the little lawnmower’s credit, I think, that its chosen suicide date coincided, more or less, with the last of the grass growing season. Bushels of fallen leaves from the yard’s many trees would conceal any subsequent grass growth from the gaze of an overly-critical neighbor. Out of sight, out of mind. I could therefore wait until spring before purchasing a replacement. So the recently expired mower was hauled to its deserved hereafter at the local scrap dump. Soon thereafter its heftier and originally pricier kin—a good-looking, expensive mower that a friend had given me the year before, which he confessed hadn’t worked well from the day of its purchase, but was making him crazy trying to coax along—was hauled from the shed and bestowed on a neighbor. Along with the full story and a promise that even if he fixed the thing, he wouldn't bring it back. I did this not because I particularly like the neighbor (though he’s okay in his way) but because the still-shiny beast mower wouldn’t run for me either, nor for any shade-tree mechanic or small-engine wizard I knew who’d tried to fix it. However, in its non-working inertness, the cursed thing proved a sure-fire bet for shooting blood pressure and frustration levels through the roof. I knew if I kept it around, sooner or later it would induce violence—though I did temporarily toy with the potential enjoyment I might find in administering various forms of rough justice. The cowboy cure of sixgun lead raised some fear of where any ricocheting bullets might end up. The alternative of a severe clubbing led to worries about hurting my back. Of course I love and respect my river too much to drown bad junk by tossing it into the deepest pool. Nope, the wiser and safer course seemed to be to give the mower to the neighbor and assume he would eventually choose the mower's proper punishment. Having thus divested myself of dysfunctional lawnmowers, I've done nothing from November until now to remedy the situation. Yes, I’ve been looking, pricing, shopping…but have yet to actually put hard-earned cash on the counter. In the meantime, spring is here and the grass is growing, albeit slowly, and I know I must soon find a replacement. I’m now wondering if that replacement didn’t just waddle past my window in the form of browsing Canada geese. Five minutes ago I looked up from my desk and saw this fine feathered fellow plucking his way along—snatching up a beakful of grass here, another there. His more reserved mate followed behind. I know it’s a lot of yard for two geese, but then…if the pair will get to nesting, it won’t always be two geese. Too, I can live with the ragged look of their mowing by simply chalking it up to a more “natural look.” Even better, I’ll no longer have to follow a clattering lawnmower around, breathing its fumes, listening to its racket, sweating and trying to dodge sticks and debris which might occasionally spew from underneath. Plus—and here my Celtic blood possibly skews my viewpoint ever so slightly—I won’t have to invest in a fancy piece of mechanical gear. As to those, um, after-deposits for which geese are rightly famous, I’ll just pay more attention to where I step and not let a bit of fertilizer come between me and my feathered lawnmowers. And if the plan doesn't work out…well, this might be the first lawnmower that ever graced the table as Christmas dinner.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Late yesterday afternoon I heard a loud bang. I first thought it might have been a firecracker or large-caliber pistol shot—though the noise sounded too close to have come from any of the rather distant neighbors. As the day was rainy, dark, and cold, I doubted it came from someone float-tripping the river. An exploding electrical transformer was another possibility, though the nearest box also seemed too far away for the sound I’d heard. The answer turned out to be directly across the river from the cottage. A familiar snag now lay parallel along the edge of the bank, its tip almost touching the water. Oddly, only a day or two before, I’d looked at the old snag—its bark long since fallen off, with not a single limb left to protrude from its smooth gray bole—and wondered how much longer the aging giant could remain upright. So I can’t say the snag’s demise was unexpected. Yet neither can I explain why it fell on this particular late-March afternoon. In spite of the steady rain, the day hadn’t been windy. Perhaps the porous wood absorbed too much moisture and the added weight brought it crashing down. Or maybe ever-increasing rot caught up with the structural integrity. Doubtless the unrelenting pull of gravity had a hand it its collapse. In the end, it was most likely a combination of factors—or you could just say a tired old tree’s vertical ghost simply gave up. Nevertheless, I hated to see the dead snag succumb. The standing stub—perhaps 25 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter—was a favorite woodpecker meal-spot. Downies, red-bellieds, and hairies worked the decaying trunk from sunup to sundown. The big pileateds found it especially appealing, stopping by on their foraging rounds several times daily to give the venerable snag a thorough going-over. This often provided me with an unobstructed and fairly close view of these magnificent birds, as the stump stood at the edge of the island’s wooded cover, 60 feet from my great room window. Regularly throughout the winter, I’ve sat in the rocker beside the fireplace, warmed by a crackling blaze, with binoculars in my left hand, meal tray on my lap, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch while watching one of the pileateds hammer about the trunk, busily seeking their own meal. The old snag also served as a sleeping den for the island’s fox squirrels. Several holes could be seen around the stub’s upper section. Often, as dusk gathered, I’ve watched a portly fox squirrel return to the tree and disappear into one of the openings. The depths of the interior cavity would provide a safe and comfortable refuge for a night’s snooze. Last spring, a pair of flickers decided the snag offered a good nesting site. And the spring before that, the tree hosted a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers. I’d been hoping the pileateds might one day find it suitable. Alas, the old snag has fallen. What’s left of its massive trunk now lies on the ground. I don’t even know what kind of tree it was—though a reasonable guess would be sycamore. There are hundreds of big sycamores along this portion of the river. And yet…somehow the snag never quite looked like a sycamore to me, at least not during the cursory examinations I made through binoculars from this side of the stream. Something about the shape and proportions seem wrong, and there’s the lack of swelling or bulging where the stump enters the ground. No, I really should wade over to the island for a closer look before it’s too late, because there’s a good chance the first high water will sweep the fallen snag away forever. Not that it really matters—except to me. I’d like to know how old the tree was, too. How long has it stood on the island? How many spring floods swirled around its roots? Was it here when the nearby feeder had a grain mill at it’s mouth? Did it stand while the squeak of the turning wheel and harsh grinding of the stones blended with the sweet song of orioles in their hanging-basket nests? I wish I knew. The old snag has fallen. There’s an unfamiliar gap in the bankside cover. An emptiness in the landscape above, and the new clutter of a massive log below. Change happens; life and landscape are all process, ongoing, never static. Rivers run and trees tumble. Still, I wonder where the woodpeckers will go for lunch…?
Saturday, March 28, 2009
I didn’t plan on writing about sunsets again, but… Last evening’s display was a corker, a real knock-your-socks-off presentation of dazzling sky color—the best of which actually came after the sun disappeared below the horizon. The show didn’t last long, but then sunsets are an ongoing process, a kaleidoscopic progression in hues of orange, pink, purple, and blue, that deepens and intensifies as day slides westward and night lays claim to the land. The image above was taken at almost the final instant before the upper portion of the sky went dark, whereupon the only color remaining was a fiery band just above the horizon. At this fleeting point, however, the puffy clouds and their wispy surrounding veils are simply glowing, as if soaking in the last vestiges of warm, fading sunlight. I took photos from beginning to end, but this single ephemeral moment is where everything came together, the event’s true crescendo. This morning, I uploaded the shots to my computer, weeded out the ones I didn’t like, or the blurry images where I again failed in my attempt to prove that I can indeed hand-hold a camera steady at a half second exposure. (Not anywhere close!) Afterwards, I filed several of my favorites shots into the folder labeled “SUNSETS.” I shoot a lot of sunset images, and almost as many sunrises. Most will never be printed, or used in illustration, either online or hardcopy. But I save them because every so often, I like pulling them up and viewing them on the computer’s screen. I like to remember, vicariously relive the time and place where they were taken…and in some small measure, perhaps recapture just a bit of the scene's sense of wonder. Wonder is important to me. I need a good dose of wonder on a regular basis. Wonder is the antidote when I begin feeling blasé; the stimulus for overcoming ennui. I seek wonder because I want to be awed, thrilled, mystified, amazed. What good is a life lived if it lacks wonder? Modern life is wonder’s anathema. The frenetic pace leaves little time for seeking out and enjoying wonder, while the mesmerizing flash and sizzle of technology would replace real wonder with some artificial version. Children are increasingly robbed of their burgeoning capacity to find pleasure in wonder by foisting on them the responsibility to succeed, while simultaneously frightening them with the perils of failure. Where does a kid find the freedom or willingness to experience wonder? The natural world is filled with wonder. Wondrous sights, wondrous sounds, wondrous smells, wondrous places and adventures. Surely a spectacular sunset delivers wonder. No matter that all sunsets share basic similarities. Sunsets are like people—no two are ever exactly alike. Just a sunset? Not on your life! It is a moment of wonder—and I say it’s worth anyone's time to allow this glorious culmination of the day to work its ancient natural magic in your soul.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Rain like the rustling of fine garments— Luminous, whispering rain; Voice of the Spring, sibilant and frail. Rain like the fluttering of wings— The glad sigh of Nature awakened. — Chant of the Spring Rain, Ray Clarke Rose Yesterday was a dreary, drizzly day along the river—though that’s not a complaint. We needed the rain. The wildflowers waiting beneath the leaves and duff need the moisture. The frogs and salamanders and earthworms were thirsty for a good wetting. Even the groundhog needed the grass watered so it would be induced to grow tall and tender, thus providing him with ample good eats. There’s no question we’ve gone far too long in this season of growth and resurrection without the many benefits of a good spring rain. The earth hereabouts is decidedly dehydrated. I noticed just how dry last week when I poked and raked around various planting beds while giving the yard its initial seasonal cleaning. More than once I actually stirred up dust! And when I dug several inches below the surface, the soil at that depth showed little evidence of moisture. Perhaps worse is the river, which is so low it’s almost shocking. As a guess, I’d say it’s already down to something nearing late-summer levels. Gravel bars are dry, revealed to air and sun. The mussels can’t have survived. Large stones normally underwater are exposed half-way and more, their tops sticking above the surface like the backs of beached turtles. How can you have spring without the gift of sufficient rain? Why, the notion is simply preposterous! They are the co-joined twins of season and weather—inseparable here in Ohio. Spring is green and greening requires rain. So when the rain did finally arrive, I welcomed it by donning a light jacket from time to time throughout the day, and taking several quick rambles around the house and yard and along my hundred or so yards of riverbank. There were plenty of birds to keep me company—titmice and chickadees, goldfinches, house finches, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, various sparrows flitting through the trees and bushes. Looking a bit bedraggled, it’s true—but not seeming to care in the least. Robins warbled from the hackberry branches. Cardinals whistled in the evergreen hedges. And a song sparrow which I believe is casing the brushpile behind the stack of firewood as a nest site, sang with unbridled joy. Such glorious birdsong is capable of lighting up even the darkest day. Along the river, the mallard ducks and Canada geese seemed perfectly happy—though why would a little rain rankle any waterfowl? Too, the kingfisher noisily working the pool downstream didn’t appear to mind the flat, dim light, though it must have made the task of locating a target minnow more difficult. Even the squirrels took the weather in stride and spent hours chasing one another as they gamboled through the treetops—though their normally fluffy tails did become soggy and trailing, rather unsightly, which had the detrimental effect of making them look more like scurrying tree rats. Still, what does self-image mean to a squirrel? Nope…a good rain is a good thing in the spring. Though that sunbathing turkey vulture from yesterday’s post probably wouldn’t agree…
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
What would you do if—having spent the night sleeping in a tree—you’d just got up feeling a bit stiff, and perhaps not quite yet in the mood to go cruising at high altitude in search of a bite of something recently dead for breakfast? Well, if you were a wise buzzard, you’d know nothing beats a good sunbathing session to loosen old bones and help a bird to get moving. The morning sun feels mighty good—especially in spring when the night air still hold a decided chill and it takes more than a yawn and a guttural greeting grunt from fellow roost mates to set things right. The answer is to flap across the river to a handy tall snag located directly in the early sunlight’s path, find a comfortable spot in the very top branches, and spread your wings like a week’s laundry as you warm and wait for the batteries to recharge….ahh-h-h. Actually, this quirky behavior may also help dry out any dampness in the turkey vulture’s feathers, while improving the bird’s health and hygiene by baking off a few billion bacteria. Some mornings there may be a dozen or two vultures scattered throughout this particular treetop, all with wings spread wide. Yesterday, however, it was just this lone bird who, not having to vie with other sunbathing mates, got to command the premier spot.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I’m a sunset man. Show me a fiery painted sky and I’ll grab my camera. If the camera isn’t handy, I’ll gape open-mouthed from late-twilight until pitch darkness, “oohing” and “ahhing” all the time. I like dawns too, of course. Some of the best sky colors I’ve ever witnessed occurred in conjunction with the sun finding its way above the eastern horizon. But as a general rule, morning skies tend more toward the pastels, more toward the pinks and pale blues rather than the orange and turquoise and purple of sunset. Dawns are subtle, delicate and genteel, while sunsets take no prisoners, pulling out all the stops as they knock you off your feet. Here along the river, sunsets are particularly enjoyable because of the water. The river along this stretch runs generally north-to-south, though a compass would reveal it’s more like north-northwest-to-east-southeast. Still, if I tell you I live on the east, or lefthand bank of the river as you head downstream, you understand the water is nevertheless between my cottage and the setting sun. Moreover, the river pours over a big riffle just as it reaches the point where the cottage sits, and then opens into a rather wider pool below, with a nice eddy along the far bank. This give me a fine view of both broken and more-or-less quiet water. Why is this water business so important? Because I long ago realized that often the best part of the sunset to be seen is not in the western sky itself—but reflected in or on various landscape features or manmade objects, temporarily transforming them by adding color in extraordinary ways. Often when viewing a sunset, we miss some real treats because we fail to look around…which often means looking behind, away from the sunset, to see what things located to the rearward might be catching its glowing light. Last evening was no exception. The actual sunset—the moments before and after the sun’s disappearance—wasn’t spectacular. And while the western sky did color up a fair amount subsequent to this passage—changing, intensifying over the next twenty minutes before fading away—it still wasn’t one of those jaw-dropping spectaculars. At least not as viewed from where I live, though a friend who lives a few miles northward later sent me an email indicating the show had been dazzling as seen from her viewpoint. This is often the case—cloud cover and similar atmospheric conditions can make all the difference in whether a sunset is sensational or ho-hum; even a mile one way or the other can prove the deciding factor. What was breathtaking here was the sunset as viewed in the river’s riffle. The smoother portions of flowing water became liquid fire, almost like a cascade of hot volcanic lava. The whitewater, on the other hand, seemed to pick up the blues of the sky, and maybe a hint too of red. I don’t know whether you’ll be able to see this latter business, as online color corrections differ greatly from one monitor to the next. But trust me, the actual color mix is there. The image is not manipulated except that I’ve lopped a bit off the right side to square the shot a bit. Also, please double-click to enlarge if you really want to see what a sunset, viewed indirectly via a river, can create. One of the reasons why I so enjoy photography is the way it almost forces me to look at things—to observe, to see what’s really before me in all its amazing variables and nuances, graduations and degrees, overtones, hints, and distinctions. When I focus my camera I focus my eyes and vision…and perhaps my thinking. This image from last evening is of of my favorites. Sunsets and sunrises are common. Barring cloud cover, we get on of each per day. But often, the best of the show created by this regular sky painting is not to be found in the sky, but elsewhere—an infusion of color that’s simply divine.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
(For Francis L. Snare, 1920–2009)
It is finished, old friend.
We have gathered and wept,
listened to sermon and song,
prayed, eulogized, remembered.
Said our final good-byes.
An uneasy assembly
seated first in a hushed room,
laden thick with flower scent,
then standing amid a field of stones,
with ragged sky overhead,
doves murmuring in the eaves,
wrens and sparrows singing
in the hedgerows beyond.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
We gave you back to the earth
you once worked and knew
by the sweat of your brow.
On this cool March morning
when spring’s hope begins
to fulfill its joyous promise,
a bit too early for wildflowers,
though purple crocus bloom
and red maples glow crimson,
we have done what we could,
what was necessary and right.
You always loved the spring,
would have delighted in this day.
I tell you, the creek down the hill
looks fishable! Clear and low,
riffles sparkling their secret pledge.
Smallmouth bass would surely
be stirring in the emerald pools,
responding to the ancient pull
of warm and increasing light.
Your laughter would be booming,
exhilarated by the sight, eager,
confident of the vernal potential.
Instead, a nearby workman leans
on his shovel, waiting patiently
for those who linger, reluctant,
slow to turn away and find their cars.
Where do we go from here?
After we’ve wound our way
along the few miles of rural backroads,
to the little country church where
a meal is being served to those
desiring food and fellowship.
What can we do after that?
We’ve bid you fond farewell,
though the gesture seems inadequate.
Yet those who knew your faith would not
call you back—even if we could.
Still, I make this solemn promise…
though seasons pass one into another,
so long as one of us standing here remains,
you will not be forgotten.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Spring is here…isn’t it? Hmm-m-m? If you took only the long view—gazing at the island across the stream from the cottage—you might conclude this new season is yet hidden, off in the wings somewhere, waiting, certainly nowhere to be found here along the river. The woods appear stark, open, skeletal. The earth is mostly brown, with only a suggestion of green—in fact, a green that has simply persisted all winter, and thus fails to be in the least encouraging. But look closer. Why, I do believe the green did indeed quicken over the past month, turned brighter, felt and reflected some inner stirring of life; moreover, the color is spreading. That green patch you’ve been watching since the snow melted is perhaps a dozen times larger, and practically glowing. Okay…but there is little else to pin your faith on. Wrong! There are signs of the new season everywhere; sights and sounds and smells that proclaim the fact that life still stirs to the ancient pull of warming sun and increased light. Renewal begins; rebirth and resurrection are abundantly underway. Spring is hope fulfilled, a promise kept. It is that blush of green under the trees, the burgundy tip of a volunteer elder, the fresh mound of dirt in front of the groundhog’s den beside the road. Spring is the joyful song of robins amid the darkness before dawn, the whistle of a cardinal in the cedars near the fence, the companionable gabble of the mallard pair on the Cottage Pool. To find spring you have to open your heart along with your eyes. You have to look close, listen with care. Breath deep, inhale the vernal tonic that is laden with the season’s unmistakable elixir. Sniff, use that feature between your eyes and mouth for something besides a handy perch for your sunglasses. Do you smell the good rot of last year’s leaves? The dusty sweetness of sun-baked sand? Spring is a feast for the senses—each and every one. Feel the velvety smoothness of just emerging lilac leaves. Crush a blade or two of wild onion between your fingers…now, catch its scent; yeah, go ahead and give it a taste. You can pick a handful an add it to salads, you know. Before food came packaged and labeled from big-box groceries, it was plucked from backyards and rural byways. Your grandparents actually gathered up this stuff and ate it…and lived! Glory be! Spring is here. The old yellow almanac with the hole in the corner called it right, after all. And the best part is—well, the best is yet to come. I tell you, I can hardly wait!
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Call this the morning’s photographic bird report. All the images in this posting were taken within the space of perhaps thirty minutes. (You can double-click to see them larger, of course.) The session began when I stepped outside to scatter cracked corn for my geese couple who—barely past dawn—were already standing in the yard, impatient to be served. You can’t keep geese waiting. Naturally, the untrusting Canadas flew off the instant I opened the door. These are wild birds, more or less, though they seem to be learning to tolerate my presence. Instead of flying across the river or even farther, they simply glided over the bank to the water, where they bobbed on the current, honking loudly, while keeping a watchful eye on my corn tossing. I pitched out a scoop of yellow grain and picked up my camera for a quick shot. Before I could frame and shoot the geese, I heard a duck quacking upstream. A female mallard was standing on a rock, calling to the drake to get over there and keep her company. I snapped her portrait first, then turned and took a shot of the geese. Looking around, I noticed a few turkey vultures sitting in the tops of some trees across the river beyond the island, testing their wings, waiting for the climbing sun to warm them up before they began their day's scavenging flights. The big birds were located perhaps 250 feet away. Much too distant for more than a mediocre shot. The buzzards are only recently returned from their winter vacations in the South. In fact, these birds are just the early arrivals, a fraction of the 175—200 number of the spring-through-autumn flock that typically roosts in the tops of the island’s big sycamores. The full group won’t manage to get themselves assembled for several more weeks. After a few additional shots—of sunlight on trees, a cloud or two, and crocus biding their time until a higher sun triggered their opening—I figured I’d go back inside and let the geese have at their breakfast. So I headed down the hall to my workroom to check e-mail and upload my photos. I hadn't yet plugged the camera into the computer when I looked out the window and saw a Cooper’s hawk sitting on the stump end of the old Christmas tree, which I recycle as a handy refuge for just this reason: when the hawk suddenly appears, the ground feeders—sparrows, wrens, doves, etc.—have a nearby hidey-hole. (I posted about this in January, REFUGE…NOT REFUSE! here) Some days, when I’m working long hours at my desk and happen to look up at the right moments, I watch the fleeing birds use this hideout tree two or three different times. The wily hawk makes regular rounds and repeats its visits throughout the day. Most times, the tree-hidden birds outsmart the Cooper’s, flying out one side while their would-be killer pokes his hooked beak in the other. A few days ago, though, I saw the hawk plunge into the Christmas tree and come out with a titmouse in his talons. Still, the recycled Christmas tree saves a lot of lives—and I’m glad I didn’t decide to move it yesterday when I spent a few hours giving the yard a spring raking. The final shot, taken perhaps two minutes after the hawk’s (victimless) departure, was of a perky cardinal at the feeder just beyond my workroom window. Here along the river, the redbirds are whistling longer and louder with each passing day: “Spring is here, the sun is shining, and all you lucky ladybirds can’t possibly fail to notice what a handsome fellow I am in my bright scarlet feathers!”
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Tiz again St. Patrick’s Day. And since we Irish are a friendly, generous lot, just for today we’ll grant the rest of you—Irish wannabes, the heritage impaired, anyone who'd like to join in the fun—naturalized citizenship, and thereupon temporarily claim you for our own. You can put on a funny green hat. Eat green spaghetti. Quaff green-tinted beer. Even surprise your mate with a pair of dancing-leprechaun under-shorts—and all the while, pretend your veins contain a wee drop of Celtic blood. But should you elect to participate in the “wearin’ o’ the green,” when choosing your shamrock, I make this request…please draw the line on the side of authenticity. I say this because I stopped recently to browse a local retailer’s display of St. Patrick’s Day merchandise. The selection included everything from tee-shirts, to party hats, mugs, balloons, greeting cards, rolls of streamers and bunting, bumper stickers, pens, and metal badges with funny sayings. What suddenly had me seeing green wasn’t the fact that most items incorporated a shamrock into their design, but that many of the emblazoned shamrocks sported four leaves. Four-leafed clovers aren’t shamrocks…they’re simply a sham. No wonder banshees wail! Whether this represented a case of artistic license or botanic ignorance, I couldn’t say. But—and I emphasize—shamrocks are not four-leafed clovers. In fact, the whole point of the original shamrock was the plant's trifoliolate (three-part) leaves. According to history, sometime in the 5th century, St. Patrick—the missionary bishop who later became Ireland's beloved patron saint—paused during a sermon and plucked a shamrock from the verdant ground. The Christian church was newly arrived thereabouts, and some of its notions were puzzling to the Emerald Isle's pagans. Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate theological teachings regarding the rather puzzling Doctrine of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three separate elements existing as a single entity. Just as the shamrock had three leaflets on one stem. That’s how the shamrock came to be venerated in Ireland and by Irish people the world over. And why on St. Patrick's Day—March 17, the day St. Patrick died in A.D. 491—Irish folks celebrate and remember by the "wearin' o' the green." The identity of the actual shamrock remains something of a mystery. Plants most often cited as the "true shamrock" are the white clover (Trifolium repens), the black medic (Medicago lupulina), a hop clover (Trifolium procumbens), and wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella.) All four are trefoils—plants with leaves composed of three leaflets—and fairly similar in appearance. Any one makes a fine and arguably authentic shamrock. I favor wood sorrel, simply because there was a good stand growing beside the south-facing basement wall of my boyhood home. As a kid, come St. Paddy’s Day, my mother would send me outside to pluck a sprig for my lapel before heading off to school. Moreover, I've always liked the sour-tart taste of sorrel and often nibble on a leafy stem during walks, or add a handful to salads. How many other lapel decorations do you know that are good to eat? Here along the river, I’ve not yet found a handy patch of wood sorrel from which to pick a stem or two. No matter, I’m not in a party mood anyway—what with the fact of a funeral yesterday. I opted instead for a visit to a certain pool—a small spring hole which wells mysteriously from the earth in the middle of a nearby wood. The pool never freezes, remaining open throughout the coldest months. I go there often during the winter because the pool is filled with watercress, thus offering a vision of needed green when all the rest of the world appears otherwise bleak. I think of this place as the Green Eye. What always strikes me is how intensely green the watercress appears—not the velvety emerald green of new grass, or the electric yellow-green of the willows, but a bright, vibrant green, which even on the darkest morning, fills me with the absolute certainty of resurrection. So today—this morning—I celebrate by standing quietly beside the Green Eye, reassured in the knowledge that spring will come, that life will go on…that faith and hope are not in vain.
Monday, March 16, 2009
One of the benefits of living beside a river is that you never know who’ll drop in for breakfast. This morning it was a Canada goose. Actually, it was the male of a pair of Canadas which lately have been hanging around the pool directly in front of the cottage. There are lots of geese on the river, but now that the nesting season is here, territories have been chosen and are being ardently protected—particularly from other geese. The female of the cottage pair never actually came up on the bank this time around—at least she didn’t while I was watching. So I snapped only her handsome and vigilant mate’s portrait. They do visit as a couple most days, though the male is always the first up the bank—acting as scout, looking around, making sure he and his lady love can dine on the scattered cracked corn in peace and safety. He may take half an hour before giving the all-clear sign; sometimes he simply stands around and looks about, then goes back down to the water without taking more than a cursory peck at the available food. Obviously, something about the situation this time around failed to meet his approval—though whether from a security standpoint or simply a matter of current dining companions, I’m never quite sure. The geese and squirrels are, at best, uneasy meal-mates…squirrels being a bit too frolicsome and irreverent for the more stern and haughty Canadas. I have no doubt the geese couple be back sometime before the morning ends. They usually make at least one feeding excursion early in the day and another in mid-afternoon. Last spring, a pair of Canadas—perhaps even these same geese—nested on the lower end of the island next in line as you travel upstream from the cottage. There are three islands in a row along this section—sometimes four, depending on whether a certain cut in the downstream-most island, separating the two portions of river, has washed out or filled in following the most recent bout of high water. All these islands are long, narrow affairs—a hundred yards or more in length and perhaps twenty yards across at their widest, and covered with timber. The one located across from the cottage is either the first or the first and second, depending on the state of the above-mentioned cut. This spring, the cut is open and water is flowing between the two stream arms. But last spring the cut was filled and closed with debris. I’m sure all this is confusing. Perhaps I should have exercised literary license and eliminated this on-again, off-again island count. But, if I’m going to be honest and accurate in these reports, I thought it necessary to include something about the changeable nature of even the land itself. A riverside life is never static. Given a bit of luck, and judicious bribing with cracked corn, I’m hoping my Home Pool Canadas will select a nesting site within easy watching distance…a back corner of the yard would be great. I always get a kick out of seeing the fuzzy goslings. And between now and then, while the eggs are being sat, I’ll do what I can to provide the parents-to-be with a safe, comfortable home…a well as a good place later on for raising their brood.
Friday, March 13, 2009
A couple of days ago I spent some time watching a kingfisher diving for lunch off various perches across the river from the cottage. I tried to capture the bird’s fishing prowess so I could share the images…but even with my 300mm lens—the longest I own—the kingfisher was a bit too far away. I’ve posted what I have, anyway If you’ve ever watched a kingfisher fish, you know they fling themselves into the water with the aplomb and grace of a sack of potatoes being lobbed underhanded by your grandma. They dive with abandon, though, and sometimes they’ll kick up a backsplash that goes four feet into the air. You’d think a bird the size of a Canada goose had just hit the water. For all their inelegance, however, they’re pretty effective—at least as successful as some fly fishermen I know trying to hook smallmouth bass rising to popping bugs. Out of twenty crash-dives I tracked, the kingfisher came up with seven minnows. I don’t know if that’s typical, or the bird had found a school of particularly dumb baitfish…or if it was just a run of good luck. But if my past kingfisher watching memories can be trusted, I think that was no more than a smidgen better than average. They’re good at what they do. What amazes me is how, once they’ve nabbed a minnow and flown back to a feeding limb, the kingfisher can turn the little fish around, administer a few additional whacks and slaps, and eat the thing neat as a whistle without dropping it overboard. I’ve baited a lot of hooks with minnows in my time, and even with four fingers and an opposable thumb, I drop those slick and squirmy little baitfish with regularity. If I had to rely on a foot and a beak, I’d never get the job done…meaning, if I were a kingfisher, I’d probably starve. Some days, using binoculars, I can look up and down the river from the cottage, scanning several hundred yards in either direction, watching for the tell-tale splashes, and count two—rarely even three!—feeding kingfishers. This is good minnow water, lots of pools and shallows, plenty of handy sycamore limbs hanging over the water to furnish ideal minnow bushwhacking perches, and not much going on to disturb a bird busily feeding. Maybe I can get lucky and waylay a bird feeding closer…and if I do, we’ll revisit this feathered angler.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Sometimes a day afield literally turns golden. My best friend, Frank, and I used to encounter them often—while ambling across a summer prairie thick with swaying bluestem, or walking through an autumn woods sharp with the heady fragrance of old leaves and damp humus.
Yet most of the time Frank and I shared these golden moments as we waded for smallmouth bass along a little rural creek.
Intent on fishing, our days together a’stream always passed faster than we realized. We were both equally mesmerized by the unfolding succession of pools and riffles, and absorbed in listening to those whispered secrets eternally told by water pouring over stones.
Whatever the cause, we predictably failed to notice as the sun began slowly sidling off to the west. Indeed, as we worked our way upstream, the golden moment typically caught us unawares—a sudden infusion of yellow-bronze light which stopped us in our tracks. Gold light which made us look up, around…to eventually grin at one another and shake our heads in delight, because at such times words are simply no good. Some things are best acknowledged by the heart.
Frank and I knew each other’s heart.
My heart is now breaking, because I lost my old pal this morning, an hour or so before dawn.
Frank’s daughter, who lives in another city a two-hour drive away, called just before 5:00 a.m. to say she’d been notified her father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. I was on the road within fifteen minutes and at his bedside a half-hour later.
The call wasn’t unexpected. Frank had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. About a year and a half ago he had to move from his home into an extended care facility. Everyone, including Frank, knew this moment was coming.
Since sufficiently recovering from whatever recently nailed me that I no longer worried about being an infectious danger, I’ve been making daily visits. Frank, who was several decades my senior, has been my best friend for thirty years. I could always count on him for anything, in any situation—a living example of that verse in Proverbs about a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Now, I wanted to do whatever I could for him.
As his final minutes ticked softly away, I sat by my best friend’s side, held his hand, patted his shoulder, and told him how much I’d enjoyed our adventures and times together, how I treasured his friendship, what a blessing he’d been, and how I loved him. I also reassured him that I’d stay right by his side and see to things until his daughter arrived, that I’d make sure she was given the news gently, and that I would do whatever I could to ease her burden throughout the coming hours.
That’s what best friends do for one another—stand behind, beside, in front, or in place, to the best of their abilities. Frank would have done the same for me. And best friends know—promises made are promises kept.
Afterwards, I sat and waited in that quiet room, with my friend, keeping vigil at the window for his daughter’s arrival. Night turned gently into day. A few robins arrived and begin inspecting the lawn between the building and the parking lot.
Late this afternoon, I watched last of this very same day dwindle unspectacularly in the west. Clouds banded most of the sky; there was no real color. I picked up my camera and stepped out, onto the deck, hoping to catch a shot of the geese I knew would be flying upstream, winging their way home.
In an instant, the light changed. The grayness gave way to a burst of light—a sudden yellow-bronze luminescence that danced atop the pool, sparkled in the riffle, glowed through trees on the island across from the cottage.
A sorely needed and much appreciated moment—a golden gift of friendship I'll never forget.
Monday, March 9, 2009
One tenet of my personal credo is that when things get tough, the tough go fishing. Unfortunately, this philosophy is sometimes shaky—easier recited than applied. Weather, season, water conditions, gainful employment, social responsibilities, and the current state of my monetary health all hold their sway in the equation; lofty expounds reduced to the mundanely practical. When faced with an enterprise that repeatedly mires itself in failure, I therefore recall another axiom passed down from my mother—a reminder that persistence pays off. I’ve certainly had to persevere lately in my efforts to photograph one of the pileated woodpeckers which daily visit the suet feeders. As usual, Mom was right—at least my stubbornness eventually intersected with luck, although the results were decidedly mediocre. Still, a middling photo has finally been attained! The saga itself has been ongoing for months. Back in January, Giggles, a regular reader and commentator to these postings, mentioned how she’d never seen a pileated woodpecker but would sure treasure the experience. I replied that while a digital image certainly wouldn’t replace an actual field observation, I’d nevertheless take a shot of one of my pileateds for her. It was the best I could offer. There’s an old saying that the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. My casual promise quickly turned into an astonishing string of such ludicrous flops and infuriating near-misses that I soon came to wonder if pileated woodpeckers were actually flesh-and-blood birds, or winged cacodemons who found malevolent pleasure torturing my self esteem. At the very least, I suspect that most—if not all—purported photographs of living pileated woodpeckers in the wild are completely spurious, obtained through a shameful use of taxidermy stand-ins and judicial staging. Either that, or the photographers themselves are current test subjects in the government’s top secret invisibility cloak experiments, and just figured, hey—seeing as how we’re already lurking about disguised as riverside vapors, we might as well take some bird pictures. I swear, there are no other logical explanations. Pileated woodpeckers do not do “photo ops.” It’s easier to get a picture of Jimmy Hoffa or sasquatch than a pileated on a suet feeder. What’s more, these red-headed enigmas can see through walls, read your thoughts, and using their powers of telekinesis, place all manner of inanimate objects between their hastily departing selves and your auto-focused telephoto lens. My own personal pileated will-o-the-wisps live on the island directly across from the cottage. It’s easy to sit by the front window and watch them hammer and hack their way up and down any of a dozen dead and dying snags. Their wild laughing calls—a bit derisive, if you ask me—can be heard echoing through this floodplain woodland at almost any hour from dawn ‘til dusk. Suet-feeder raids, on the other hand, are unpredictable—though possibly predicated on which room my camera happens to be residing in at the time (always a different room from me, of course), and how much scrabbling and crawling they believe I can be induced to attempt should they momentarily present themselves. I won’t bore you with descriptions of how I’ve slithered like a reptile through my own rooms—much to the delight or chagrin of Moon the dog, depending on her mood. (Should rug burn ever becomes a personal issue, contact me…I can summarize treatment options.) Or how I’ve occasionally glanced up (me in one room, camera in another) to observe a heretofore spooky pileated now parading around the box elder with the smug self-assurance of a high-fashion model on a Paris catwalk. If I thought I could get away with it on this blog, I’d claim my modest success was due to consummate diligence and exemplary stalking skills against a wary, wily opponent. Woodsman over woodpecker! But honesty compels me to admit my grandfather’s homespun observation that even a blind hog finds the occasional acorn would prove closer to the truth. Victory of a sorts was eventually mine, but I’ll be more cautious in making future promises to deliver the near-impossible. Remember…no good deed goes unpunished.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Yesterday morning arrived gloomy and damp, a bit on the chilly side. After puttering about inside for a while, I decided to amble a quarter-mile upstream to visit a favorite bur oak. It’s a big tree—five feet in diameter, perhaps fifteen around at chest height. While I’d intended walking from the cottage upstream to visit the old oak, a few minutes into the endeavor proved the effort too much. I was ridiculously weak, still feeling the lingering aftereffects of whatever nasty infective agent—viral or bacterial—had temporarily rode roughshod over my immune system. Disconcerted, I retreated to the cottage, climbed into the pickup, and drove as cloe as I could to my goal. Bur oaks grow slower than most of their kin. A reasonable estimate would put the age of this sturdy individual at 250–300 years. Not ancient as oaks go—but old enough that I’m always impressed by the span as compared to the human historical record. Was this now venerable bur oak a seedling recently sprouted from its acorn when explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, made his first expedition down the wild and beautiful Ohio? Maybe. It was surely a fair sapling in 1750, when Christopher Gist, one of the region’s first white explorers, passed through here while following several of the Ohio’s tributaries northward into the land of the Miamis, Delawares, Shawnees, Wyandots, Ottawas, and Mingos. The oak would have been counted among part of the old Ohio Company’s holdings and later, in 1787, those of the nerwly-formed Northwest Territory. This old oak was practically part of the scenery for the signing of the Treaty of Greenvile in 1795, and a robust tree when Ohio became a state. You have to respect such age in any living thing. I often stop by and lean against its rough bark, giving it an occasional friendly pat as I watch the interplay of shadow and light on the nearby river. In its way, the old oak seems to take me in, to touch me with its great strength. Yet yesterday’s visit was heightened by an unexpected dash of color—brilliant yellow blooms, like dabs of ballpark mustard, scattered in every direction. Little bits of spring sunshine on a cloudy day. I immediately felt better and welcomed the mood change. I’m certainly no stranger to such natural magic. The outdoors delivers such moments with wonderful regularity. Still, the unexpected sight of those cheerful little flowers went straight through my eyes to whatever dank corner of my soul had—only a moment before—been setting my mood. And not for the first time, I wondered…how is it something so insignificant as a small patch of bright flowers poking above the leafy duff of a riverine woods can produce such an instant transformation? So…what were those uplifting blooms? Now, I must admit I’m not one of those hard-and-fast “namer of things.” I’m truly in general agreement with Shakespeare’s observation that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. One therefore doesn't have to know the exact name—including the name in the most up-to-date Latin—of a bird, plant, or whatever else in order to enjoy the thing itself. But I wanted to know the name of the little yellow flowers near the oak because I thought I already knew it—which is to say that somewhere in the mush-filled corridors of my post-illness memory, I was certain the identity of the plant before me was sloshing around. It wasn't a cast of "not knowing," bur rather, "knowing and not being able to recall" that kept nagging at me even as I looked at the pretty clumps growing at my feet…not buttercup…not marsh marigold…not lesser celandine…hmm-m-m-m-? I was still puzzling over it when I returned home. After unsuccessfully consulting a half-dozen of my several dozen books on wildflowers, the answer slowly crept into my befuddled brain…not a wildflower at all, but an escapee from someone’s garden. Winter aconite! Hey, I knew that! Winter aconite is not native to North America, but is a longtime garden favorite for anyone wanting a bit of pre-spring color to blast away winter’s dull brown. I don’t know who planted the small tubers which gave these particular winter aconites their start, or when, but it must have been some while ago. There’s no house nearby, yet patches of yellow were visible throughout the riverside woods and undergrowth as far as I could see, and such plants needed a fair amount of time to establish and spread on their own. However the plants came to be here, though, I was grateful. They were just the nudge I needed to perk up. And while you make think me a fool, perhaps my old oak friend welcomed their bright yellow, too. You see, there’s just enough Druid in my Irish veins to believe such things are possible.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Well, it has been a while since my last posting…simply because it has been a while since I was capable of remaining vertical for more than a few minutes. I began sniffing and snuffling last Saturday. A cold, I figured, and went to bed at my usual time. Colds are a rarity for me; I’ve had maybe a dozen during my entire life and they typically endured only a day or so. I awoke worse Sunday morning—aching, weak, still snuffling. As sore overall as if I’d been thoroughly beaten with a club. Since I’d had an annual flu shot, I figured maybe a mild case of some strain not covered by this season’s cocktail mix; combined with the aforementioned cold, a sort of drippy chaser. No other symptoms, though, including fever. I mostly stayed in bed except for forays to the kitchen for juice and tea and doses of acetaminophen. In spite of which, I kept going downhill as the day progressed. Monday and Tuesday was rock bottom; the absolute pits. The cold was still there. I was even weaker, and still ached in every muscle; yet still had no fever, congestion in lungs, sore throat, or other symptoms usual with the flu. Nevertheless, it felt like worst flu case ever. It was all I could do to sit up long enough to drink juice and swallow meds. I tried bringing the laptop to bed and managed about 5 minutes online a couple of times. Day and night became one long 48-hour ordeal. Most of the time I was so sick I couldn’t read. Luckily, I’d gone to the library Saturday and picked up several Books on CD titles; I’ve now listened to the first few disks of the new Elizabeth George mystery perhaps a dozen times each because I kept napping during various sections and had to replay the things to keep up with the plot. Today—meaning late this afternoon—I arose as if from the dead, a rather unlikely Lazarus in dire need of a shower. Showering so drained me that recovery required a brief return to bed rest. Later on, I tried an encore arising and ate chicken soup. That prompted a following nap on the couch. Just before sunset, I staggered onto the deck for a few minutes of chilly sunshine and some fresh air…and I’m still up, if barely. Hallelujah! Whatever malevolent nasty that appeared like a wraith and had it way with me over the past four days has apparently decided to seek fresh blood elsewhere. Now, with renewed faith the worst is behind me, I’m watching the western sky drain its last vestiges of crepuscular light. Clouds seen through skeletal sycamores across from the cottage are glowing salmon-pink against a background of oceanic blue. There are Canada geese in the air, flying fast and low as they head upstream toward their night roost on nearby ponds. A white-throated sparrow whistles soft vespers. I’m glad to be back.