Saturday, January 31, 2009

REFUGE…NOT REFUSE!

Like all predators, Cooper’s hawks are persistent. Seldom a day passes that a Cooper’s hawk—likely the same one—doesn’t make at least one pass around the cottage and through the bird-feeder area. The usual drill is to come zipping into the zone from upstream. This keeps the cottage between the incoming bird and potential victim, a hunting tactic which relies on surprise—one moment the unsuspecting birds are feeding happily, the next their worst nightmare of winged death is smack in their midst. Naturally, the feeder gang scatters explosively. Sometimes a confused bird practically flies into the hawk’s clutches. Occasionally, an unfortunate bird gets hampered by limbs or bushes blocking the escape route—a momentary delay that can prove fatal. Or the terror-stricken escapee may get fooled by the reflective mirage of the great room’s window, thump themselves silly, and thereby seal their fate. None of these scenarios are what you’d call a Disney Moment. Reality in nature can seem brutal…until you accept that every living creature on the planet eats to survive, whether they consume sunflower seeds or tufted titmice. My feeders attract songbirds which attract hawks— which are, after all, only another bird. Yet the situation I’ve created—lots of birds at the same location—does aid and abet the hawk. To help counteract this unintended partisanship, nothing beats an old Christmas tree. When the holidays have ended and the decorations have been removed, rather than dragging my decommissioned tree curbside to await the trash haulers, or adding it ignominiously to the compost heap, the tree gets deployed for secondary seasonal duty. Laid on its side near the box elder, at the center of the feeding area, the old evergreen provides an immediate hideout when there isn’t time to fly away—a sort of on-site sanctuary. I’ve regularly watched birds dive into this handy refuge to escape a marauding Cooper’s hawk. Usually the hawk sees them, too—not that it does any good. When placed on their side, Christmas trees pack into a dense mass, limbs tucking inward, long needles closing and covering like a blanket. Add a bit of snow on top and it’s almost a castle keep. The only way you can see inside this solid shelter is by looking up (or what would be “up” if the tree were still vertical) the trunk. The hawk will land beside the horizontal tree and begin circling, craning it neck, trying to peer into the dark, tangled depths of limbs and greenery. Sometimes these aggressive hunters will attempt to wade and wiggle their way into the Christmas tree’s “innards,” figuring to catch whatever they’ve cornered. Which seldom proves manageable for the large hawk. Or the hawk will hop atop the downed mass and try to flush their quarry from its effective shelter. Nothing ever works. The hawk finally gets frustrated, flummoxed at capturing what seemed like an easy meal, and flies off. Though the Christmas tree shelter often holds a dozen or more refugees—ground feeders, usually sparrows and a wren or two, maybe a dove—I’ve never seen a hiding bird get caught. The best part is watching the hidden birds come back out—cautious, just a quick peek; then a better look from a stance outside the dense evergreen mass; finally, the coast clear, either a resumption of feeding or a take-off to elsewhere, more time at a safer distance until the nerves are settled. The wrens like to celebrate their victory with a snatch or two of song, usually performed from atop the horizontal tree. To my way of thinking, this is recycling at its best…turning refuse into refuge.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SNOW AND IRISH SODA BREAD

As I write this, snow is pouring down across the southwest corner of the state, as it has been doing all morning—7-inches on the ground already and counting; by far the heaviest snowfall of the season. Here along the river, we’ve actually received less snow (so far) than folks just a few miles south. Still, the river looks like something from Currier and Ives, or maybe a work by Robert Duncan, who paints a lot of snow scenes and, better than anyone I know, does a terrific job of rendering snow to look real—light and fluffy, rounded and mounded, shadows just right. The island across from the cottage is indistinct, at times almost invisible, fuzzy behind the moving curtain of falling snow. The light is flat and dim making snow and sky blend into one. The feeling is of a murky, condensed world in which there are no horizons, just a small clarity in a misty landscape that fades to uncertain boundaries, nebulous, amorphous, so vague you think it all might end a step beyond the obscured boundaries of your sight. Downstream, at the bend, three great blue heron have decided to fish together. The big birds are standing along the far bank, equally spaced about five feet apart. Though these “blue” herons typically appear more gray than blue, today, in the light and against the backdrop of snow, they live up to their namesake. I like winter. And I like winter most of all when it’s snowing. There’s a deliciously threatening quality to a good snowfall, an impending sense of forced adventure that always makes me want to huddle inside, snug and warm, where I peer out from my refuge at a transfigured landscape—lovely, harsh, stark, menacing, breathtaking. Winter isn’t any fun unless you have at least one good snowfall sufficient to close businesses and schools, halt all but the reckless and snow-savvy from trying to drive, while pitching the TV talking heads into a blathering frenzy. As always, when I looked out and this morning and saw what was happening—the whole glorious extent of the unfolding weather drama—I immediately went into survival mode. Not that there was really much of anything to survive, of course, except another mediocre Buckeye snow which probably wouldn’t even be noticed by the folks in Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. What can I say? Sometimes a man with deep Celtic roots has to give in to those vestigial tremors in his blood, the restless stirring of some ancient DNA. In days of yore, I might have hied myself off to the snowy woods and slain a mighty stag. Mighty stags not being in great abundance hereabouts, I instead set to making a kettle of hearty beef stew—the sort of stew which can be served on a plate and eaten with a fork; big chunks of beef roast, potatoes, carrots, and onions, in almost equal proportions. When it comes to food, I am an unabashed peasant. If you’re taking my order or serving me a meal, I’ll eat what the countryman is having—the fellow who works the land, faces weather and circumstance as it comes, knows something of the natural world around his bailiwick—sky and birds, trees, grass, water, soil. A man who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, or stain a shirt with sweat. If the countrified cook is also a hunter/gatherer, every so often supplementing the table with a taste of the wild…so much the better. My idea of good food is fresh, in season, and simply prepared with a minimum of ingredients and fuss. Nothing beats a good beef stew during a snowstorm…and you can’t have a good beef stew without good and appropriate bread; something rough, heavy, able to sop up the rich juices. Corn bread (not—OHMYGODNO!—sweet cornbread…ugh!), hoecakes (again…gag, gag, double ugh, not sweet!), cat head biscuits, bannock bread (especially if you’re making your stew while camping), or Irish soda bread. Today I decided on the latter. If you look on the Internet you’ll find about a gazillion recipes for Irish soda bread. At least half of them are nothing of the sort…not even close to the real thing. And to put it bluntly, if an Irish soda bread recipe calls anything other than four ingredients—flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk—it isn’t Irish soda bread. It may be tasty, but it isn’t authentic. There’s a dandy site at www.sodabread.us/index.htm that delves into the history and parameters of Irish soda bread and its making. My own recipe calls for a daub more buttermilk, but is otherwise identical to the one on this site. I bake my soda bread at 425 degrees in a preheated oven, and instead of using a Dutch oven as a baking container (my Dutch oven normally resides in the attic with the rest of my camping gear), I employ a cast iron skillet, and place a second skillet, turned upside-down, on it as a lid during the initial half hour of baking. This makeshift arrangement works perfectly. Here’s my recipe: 4 cups all purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 16 ounces buttermilk I like King Arthur’s organic unbleached flour; never use self-rising flour. I mix the dry ingredients with a whisk. Then I stick my cast iron skillet in the pre-heated oven for a minute or so to allow it to warm. While that’s happening, I measure out and add my buttermilk, stir everything together, and turn the slightly sticky dough lump onto a countertop dusted with flour. Knead the dough no more than a minute, and form it into a flattened circle, about an inch-and-a-half or slightly more, thick, and about the same diameter as the skillet’s bottom. For authenticity, slice a crosshatch in the top of the rounded dough. Remove the heated skillet, grease it lightly, bottom and sides, with butter (or I suppose, having never used the stuff, one of those sprays) and place your bread in the skillet. Put the skillet in the oven, turn the other skillet over and place it atop, lid-like, and give it 30 minutes at 425. Remove the lid (inverted skillet) and give it another 15 minutes. Your bread should sound hollow when thumped. That’s it! Real easy, real good, and the real thing. And it goes great with a pot of hearty beef stew on a snowy winter day. Yum, yum!

Monday, January 26, 2009

BEGUILED BY GEESE

I am beguiled by geese…mesmerized, enchanted, bewitched—and in no small way, smitten. For me, the sight of flying geese is a natural magic, a cast spell which instantly transforms both moment and mood.
Mostly I’m talking Canada geese. I’ve seen a few snow geese and blues, but was so thrilled by their rarity that I can’t say one way or the other whether it was the geese that caused my reaction, or the unexpectedness of the event.
Not that today’s ubiquitous Canadas were always so common. In fact, I can remember a time when a flight of Canada geese was a rare sight, so noteworthy that it would be talked about for days thereafter among neighbors, recounted at the hardware store, market, and café, and might even make the local paper.
When I was a little boy, Mom or Dad would sometimes call urgently for me to dash outside—“Hurry, Son! Hurry!” they’d cry. “The geese are coming!”
These exciting moments usually took place in spring or fall, when the birds were heading north or south in migration, following their ancient flyways, likely traveling high in the sky. Sometimes their ragged skeins contained more than a hundred birds. There wasn’t much traffic or noise back then, so you could hear the cries of the oncoming flock while they were still a long ways off. Their cries would float down as if from heaven, throaty, angelic, a voice all but disembodied from those moving cross-stitches which eventually appeared, flying almost in the clouds.
And we—my parents and I—would watch, transfixed by the sight and wonder of those passing geese…and we would continue standing there even after the birds had disappeared from view, listening, until the last sound of their passage had also faded into silence.
Perhaps that’s why I still prefer my geese to be flying. Oh, a goose on the ground is interesting enough. And I do like to see a parental pair of geese paddling around a quiet backwater, towing their little flotilla of fuzzy goslings.
But geese on the wing are what stirs my soul.
Come twilight, a ragged string of calling geese cleaving a painted sky is all the proof I’ll ever need of a creator God. Only a force far greater than man and more purposeful than chance could conceive and fashion so breathtaking a creature. There is something about those big birds on the wing that’s both holy and magnificent, a poignant glory that assails my heart like a sweet flame. I never know whether to weep with joy or shout in jubilation.
Lucky for me—lucky for all of us!—the modern history of the Canada goose is a tale of comeback. What might have been a story of unfathomable loss is now one of triumphant plenitude—too triumphant, some might mutter.
It is said Ernest Hemingway had a way with bears. He often admitted to liking bears, and bears seemingly responded in kind—at least so claim several friends who witnessed this reciprocal behavior. An Ojibway acquaintance once speculated that bears might have been his “totem animal,” a sort of kindred spirit that bridges the gap between worlds—animal and man, natural and supernatural, known and unknown.
That’s how it is with me and geese. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a string of geese veer my way, often turning from a different directional line and a fair distance away, to pass directly overhead. (And no, I know what you’re thinking…and I’ve never been “bombed” by an over-flying goose.) Sometimes they flew so low I could hear the rush of wind beneath those great heaving wings.
A skeptic might chalk such anecdotes up to mere coincidence or an overeager imagination. Could be, says the wry ornithologist, those birds were just curious as to why that burly fellow was standing on that riverbank looking up, mouth agape.
Perhaps…
But isn't it just possible all such matters can’t be explained by science or dismissed by skepticism? Much as we like to believe otherwise, we don't yet know it all; answers by the multitudes elude us every day. There is still wonder in the world waiting to be discovered.
I do know that if I believed in reincarnation, I’d like to come back as a goose. I like the way geese talk to each other as they travel, and the way they share the lead during flights. I like how they pick their mate and stick together. They're gregarious, adventurous, boisterous, and will stand their ground if challenged. They're also regal in a flat-footed, silly way—and I like the dichotomy of that; man or goose, we should never take ourselves too seriously.
But most of all, just once, I wish to know what it’s like to lift my wings and fly up there, alongside my brethren, above the trees, in the heady grace of a painted sky.

TWO CROWS

Two crows sit on a sycamore limb amid a snowstorm. Which sounds like the start of an off-color joke, something a comic might have told in one of those little Catskills clubs back in the old days. A joke that had to be cleaned up when television came around and the audience became uncountable families watching a flickering box in their living rooms and parlors. Two crows sit on a sycamore limb amid a snowstorm. The river broods along below them, inscrutable, dark and gray as old pewter. The sky overhead is a lighter gray, a tone midways between water and snow. White, black, a couple of grays. A scene you could render perfectly in pencil. Two crows sit on a sycamore limb amid a snowstorm. Side-by-side, hunched against the wind and cold, old friends discussing the weather, or some devilment they intend for later in the day. I'm restless by the fireside, watching river and snow, envious because those companionable birds have the better seat.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

SUNDAY MORNING

It is cold this morning, 11 degrees according to the thermometer hanging outside the great room window. Dawn is just finding its way through the darkness, a faint band of salmon-and-gold light inching above the little hillock to the east. I let the dog out and feed the birds. Then, with chilled hands and feet, shivering, hasten back inside where I can sip hot tea and warm my hands on the mug. The band of colored light has broadened, intensified. It catches momentarily in the bare tangles of the leafless trees at the yard’s edge, then moves onward and upward, pushed aloft by the sun. A few minutes later the dog returns of her own accord. I let her in, hand her the expected treat, go back to my windowside and tea. There are birds at the feeder now—sparrows and titmice, woodpeckers, doves, chickadees. When my daughter was young, she used to sing a song whose chorus was, “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad…” I thought of that this morning, sitting there amid the clean streaming light of a brand-new dawn. How often we search for something…anything… to give our lives meaning. We look for pleasure, reward, recognition. And still we’re dissatisfied, restless, with no notion of thankfulness. Our lives are never going to become perfect. There will always be something going on, something which needs fixing, improving, redressing. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never mange to make everything all right. But…so what? So long as we can sit at our table in quiet awe and watch a morning’s sunlight reclaim the darkness, isn’t that gift and blessing and reason enough to rejoice and be glad? Downstream, a great blue heron stands in the riffle, hunched and fluffed against the cold. An equally riser and a serious, patient fisherman. One angler to another, I wish him well.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

JANUARY THAW

Hooray! Here in southwestern Ohio, we’ve just had ourselves a genuine January Thaw. During the two days it lasted, temperatures along the riverbank climbed all the way to the 50-degree mark. Stalactite icicles, which for several weeks had fringed the cottage eaves like dragon’s teeth, began drip-drip-dripping on Thursday. By late afternoon they’d begun dropping, falling with a clatter onto the deck, shattering like broken crystal on the ground. Big patches of snow from the roof also kept sliding off—a sudden whoosh-spalt! Practically all the snow in the yard was gone by Friday afternoon—except for a few fist-size patches under the evergreens and tucked in the nooks of a pile of stones over against the southeast fence. Icy sheets in the drive had turned into puddles; there were miniature bogs in the yard, little remnants of standing water which had nowhere to drain and couldn’t soak into the soil because the earth beneath the temporarily-warmed surface was still frozen hard as a rock. The ice shelf along both sides of the river, however, managed to survive the heat—at least about half of it did. Throughout the two thaw days, I watched the center channel of open water gradually widen as the outermost edges of the white shelf—where the ice was thinnest—slowly melted back. The sun-filled days inspired the birds, prompting all manner of boisterous singing—cardinals, titmice, wrens and sparrows formed the core of the daylong chorus. The welcome mild weather inspired us, too, and we spent the first day sawing wood, cleaning up the yard, and sorting through the clutter of a small shed that’s going to get replaced this spring or summer, but for now simply acts as a junk magnet for everything we can stuff through its doors. January Thaws, like Indian Summer and Dogwood Winter, aren’t officially recognized or sanctioned as such by the professional weather folks—never mind that countrymen and those less concerned with scientific dogma have identified and appreciated these mid-winter warming interludes for centuries. The old timers may insist that a true January Thaw has to occur after the 20th…earlier doesn’t count, being just a continuation of those mild stutters we frequently experience between Christmas and Epiphany. No matter. We don’t have to have some TV talking head tell us when a January Thaw comes—just as we know how to revel in its brief warmth. Moreover, a January Thaw is all about hope and promise, a temporary loosening of winter’s icy bonds and a brief but encouraging glimpse of better days to come. As I write this the temperature is back down to 19 degrees. The sky is gray, and the air filled with flurries of new snow. But our January Thaw has again reminded us that time passes and seasons change.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

FREEZE-OVER!

Night before last the prolonged bout of single-digit temperatures finally had it’s way with the river—at least the slower stretch upstream of the cottage—locking the surface water under a layer of ice which stretched all the way across. From bank to bank, not even a narrow channel of open water snaked down the long hole to mark the current’s main line. The view was unfamiliar—from one side to the other a flat, white cap of solid ice with a layer of snow on top. There was still open water in the cottage riffle, and open water downstream at least as far the bend. Ice shelves on both banks didn’t appear to have extended themselves, either. Which doubtless reflects the amount of current throughout this lower half-mile stretch as opposed to the half-mile of river visible above the cottage. The river’s freezing over hasn’t made any difference in terms of wildlife—at least so far as I can tell. The resident great blue heron is still fishing patiently in his favorite downstream riffle—a stark, gangly figure dressed in a gray overcoat and looking somewhat forlorn. Of course the water in the long, slow stretch upstream is waist-deep or a bit more at the center when the stream’s at its normal level. (I know because I often wade though it when fishing for smallmouth or rock bass.) Too deep for a heron, though great for the kingfishers which sit on overhanging sycamore limbs that offer a strategic perch from which to launch their dive-bomb attack on hapless minnows below. Otherwise the long stretch is more the province of true waterfowl—mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese. These tend to move around from place to place anyway, and since there’s ample open water downstream, I doubt they care whether this particular stretch is temporarily unavailable. I haven’t noticed any squirrels using this new “bridge” to cross over from the island side to the mainland, though I did see a handful of crows ambling about. They didn’t seem to be doing anything, poking, prodding, investigating; just congregating for a brief crow chat, smack in the middle the frozen, white plain—a location doubtless chosen because it showed them off to their contrasty best. The prediction is for above-freezing temperatures to replace the single digits for a couple of days. If so, the river upstream will once again prevail with open water. But for how long…only winter knows.

Monday, January 19, 2009

JANUARY SQUIRREL

You follow the dawn… Eager and quick with energy, Heading for food and frolic After a night of snuggling In the hollow sycamore. You make your hurried way Through skeletal tree-tops. Leaping from limb to limb, Hurtling across breathless space. A fearless aerialist. Undaunted by icy branches Or iron-hard earth far below. Certain of your gymnastic skills. Little puffs of displaced snow Trickle down from the heights. A confetti of diamond dust To mark your swift passage. And then you’re there… In the tree near the food, And you pause—why? Fear? Shyness? After the Giddy path you’ve traveled? Is it a trust issue? A lack of faith? Or just thankful hesitation, A grace before your meal.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

ROLL CALL

I'm not an expert birder. I can recognize a fair number of species at a glance, the common or unmistakable, though sparrows (some, anyway) always send me thumbing through the field guides, as do warblers in the spring (even a field guide seldom helps me here during their fall migration). Each season supplies its own cast of characters. For a lot of folks, winter is their favorite period since it's a good time for window-side birding—that is, watching birds which gather at the feeders, while remaining in the comfort of a cozy room. The game begins at first light and you soon learn to expect a certain order, a regular progression of daily visitors. There are the early arrivals—those birds who come at the crack of dawn—and birds which seldom show up until midmorning. Some species are daily guests, others only stop by now and then—say, a few times per month. Then there are the rarities. Some birds I may see only once per season; other birds I’ve seen only once since moving here a few years ago. The goldeneyes that spent a few January days on the pool in front of the cottage that first year were a one-time deal…at least so far. So were the flock of bluebirds that came swinging in for only a few minutes that same winter—not rare for Ohio, but rare for this area and habitat and time. Last January it was an oriole, an astonishing vision in black-and-orange which I wouldn’t even admit to seeing, except that I recently read on Jim McCormic’s excellent Ohio Birds and Biodiversity blog [see favorites list] about other midwinter oriole sightings…and have thus mustered the courage to come out of the closet. Yesterday, I thought it might fun to list the various species which visited my feeders during a single day—at least those that I saw and recognized. In no particular order except this is how I scribbled their names onto scraps of paper throughout the day, here’s my roll call: Carolina chickadee Tufted titmouse White-breasted nuthatch Brown creeper Carolina wren Downy woodpecker Red-bellied woodpecker House wren Cardinal Goldfinch House finch White-throated sparrow White-crowned sparrow Field sparrow Swamp sparrow Tree sparrow Song sparrow Slate-colored junco House sparrow Northern flicker Hairy woodpecker Pileated woodpecker The day’s “prize” was probably the male pileated. A pair or two live on the island across from the cottage and regularly flap over here to hang on the feeders—they fancy both suet and sunflower seeds. But they’re easily spooked; it’s a good day when I can spy on one of these shy, spectacular birds from only a dozen feet away. I almost never have starlings, grackles or, oddly, bluejays. And rarely more than a few house sparrows—I’ve seen maybe twenty, total, for the month, about a third of which flew in yesterday morning and stayed no more than fifteen minutes. The Cooper’s hawk either failed to make his daily pass-through yesterday or, more likely, I failed to see him. If you allow me to include birds I saw within fifty feet of the feeders—though not technically feeding from them—then I could add a crow (several paused in a sycamore to nosily irritate the squirrels who were eating at the feeders), the great blue heron who wade-fished the riffle, and a belted kingfisher that likes a certain dead limb overlooking the main pool. (There were a few mallards on this same pool, but they were on the island side of the river, more like 75 feet away.) Anyway, that's my list. Nothing special to an expert…but then again, I'm just a riverside bird watcher. What was your roll call?

Friday, January 16, 2009

DREAMING THE FIRE…

Dreaming the fire… 

I first encountered the expression in the writings of Colin Fletcher. According to Fletcher, “dreaming the fire” was a Swahili phrase he’d heard in Africa. 

I took it to mean that state of almost transcendental meditation you often achieve when you’re sitting before a crackling blaze, looking not at the embers and flames, but deep into the worlds beyond, the interior land of soul and imagination. 

Dreaming the fire… 

How often have I sat beside a campfire on some northern shore, where loons called in the dusk and the moon came rolling up from behind the jackpines. Where the Milky Way was painted across the sky as a broad wash of uncountable points of light—so many stars that all you can do is gape and feel yourself shrink to the insignificance of a sand grain. 

Sometimes it was the Northern Lights that came rising up, as they once did when Myladylove and I huddled before a roaring fire on a freezing November night at a camp on the south shore of Lake Superior. On this occasion the Lights were electric blue and indigo, with a wavering rim of turquoise. Awesome, truly, like a magical blue city just over there, across the big lake, beyond the shadows. 

Dreaming the fire… 

Tonight I sit before another fire, this one on the hearth inside the main room of my cozy stone cottage on a small southwestern-Ohio river. Outside, there’s snow on the ground and more on the way. The temperature is below zero—maybe well below, though I haven’t checked lately. 

The only light inside comes from the cheery blaze. If I look upstream, through the glass, I can see the white trunks of sycamores leaning like thoughtful Druids over the black water. 

There’s music on the stereo—some haunting old Celtic fiddle pieces that I love because they reach something within…but which I can’t play too often because, well, they reach something within. 

I can play them tonight, though. Because tonight the world—my world—is pretty good. My heart is full. I have love and work and if I’m lucky—and blessed—a few more years to follow the northcountry two-tracks, to look for rising trout, to see hillsides spangled with trilliums, to amble a trail through smoky hills, to hear an old gobbler ring in the dawn. Books to read, music to hear, adventure to enjoy. 

Or so I hope and pray as I sit here in the sweet darkness. 

Dreaming the fire…

LOW-DOWN COLD

A cold morning here along the river. Cold of a sort that an uncle used to call "low-down cold." But the river was still open and moving. There was snow on the banks, ice in the current, shelf-ice extending out from the edges. Tendrils of fog hung above the surface. Water sliding through the riffle near the cottage looked sluggish and a pale green, reminding me of a frozen daiquiri I once had in the Floridita Bar, in Havana, when I took time out from a bonefishing junket to look up one of Hemingway’s old watering holes. However, the weather in Cuba that day had been decidedly warmer. Here, the thermometer stood at –13 degrees when I went outside to check the seed and suet feeders and scatter a big scoop of cracked corn on the ground for those who prefer to take their breakfast on the low side of the table. The official low hereabouts, according to the NWS and the airport a few miles away, which occurred about an hour before my dawn foray, was –14. Cold, though without wind—at least here, where we’re tucked below a couple of low hills (in truth, hardly high enough to be called hills, but I can’t think of a better term) and protected. Wind would have made it feel far worse. I’m always amazed how temperatures of zero and something in the minus range feels so noticeably different. This is true even if the spread is only a few degrees. A single inhaled breath tells you whether or not you’ve passed the line; so does an exposed patch of cheek, or the way snow squeaks underfoot. No doubt folks who live in Minnesota know a thing or two about real cold that we Buckeye’s can’t imagine. Deep, north-country cold is an entirely different environment than what we experience during an Ohio winter. At best, we receive only a taste; their winter cold is serious, another country entirely. For me, today, -13 is sufficient.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A BURR-R-R-R DAY…HOORAY!

When I went out to scatter cracked corn for the ground-feeding birds this morning, the thermometer stood at the 2-degree mark. Barely any temperature at all… Okay, just kidding. I do know better. Zero or a couple of degrees either way on the scale may not be much numerically, but in practicality it represents plenty of cold. Burr-r-r-r-r! Yesterday’s snow had all but played out, with only a few flakes still coming down. Occasionally a puffy glop of snow would dislodge from a nearby limb and fall softly earthward, light and all but suspended, like a dusting of diamonds. To give the weather oracles their due, their predicted 3-5 inches was closer to the 5-6 which I measured around the cottage, and disappointingly short of the foot I’d hoped for and thought might be possible given the what the snow front began. Wishful thinking gone awry again. The river continues to freeze—adding feet to the shoreline ice shelf along the pools and runs, constricting the narrow artery of open water. In the riffle off the front of the cottage, some of the slower water spaces between the rocks are freezing up, which slows the water in ever larger spaces nearby until any open surface water finally disappears beneath a white-ice cap. That won’t happen for another day or two, though if this serious cold persists, it will occur sooner rather than later. This afternoon’s wind-chill is predicted to be minus-25, though the wind isn’t doing much yet. We’re actually somewhat protected here along the river, tucked below low hills to the west and east. Could be we’ll not feel the full force of this deep freeze wind-chill. A good day to hunker by the fire, grill a steak, sip some tea, read a book. Isn’t a snowy winter day grand!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

SNOW AT LAST!

Well, the weather oracles finally got it right…or as my Granddaddy used to say, “Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.” Snow has been predicted off and on for more than a week, and this morning the prediction came true—an hour early, perhaps, but let’s not quibble with minor details. A little before eight the first flakes appeared here along the river. Within a matter of minutes a few flakes had turned to many—millions, billions—snow coming down so fast and furious it looked like a minor blizzard. Except no blizzard-wind. Just a vast white curtain descending from a still, overcast sky. Soon the ground was white. The sight apparently so inspired a Carolina wren that he perched atop the discarded Christmas tree and sang at the top of his tiny lungs. I took inspiration from both snow and wren, bundled up, and headed outside. There was already upwards of an inch of snow down. The weather oracles claimed we’d receive 3–5 inches, but if it kept falling at it’s current pace, I figured there’d be more like a foot on the ground by noon. I wanted them to be wrong on this one…com’on snow! Every time someone urges me to move south, I keep thinking…what, and miss seeing snow? I love the seasons, love the whole 365 day journey around the year. So far as I'm concerned, no sandy beach and swaying palm is ever going to replace a morning of falling snow. Snow is like a natural miracle, a magical spell which instantly transforms the landscape—any landscape—smoothing out bumps and rough edges, concealing clutter, gearing our eyes to notice the most subtle nuance of hues. This weedstem is brown, that one gray, another golden, or with a faint purplish tint which reminds you of a knitted shawl your favorite aunt often wore. A male cardinal on a limb is like a spot of living blood; the female, though not as bright as her gaudy mate, nevertheless stands out, elegant in sophisticated understatement. To not like snow is to be unimpressed by one of nature’s genuine wonders. I no more understand such an attitude than I understand how someone doesn’t like dark chocolate. It was cold—8 degrees at dawn, maybe 12 by the time I began poking about the riverbank. Slush was collecting in the stream’s slower side-currents, while ice was starting to form—or was expanding—in the quiet pools below and above the island across from the cottage. Moon the dog raced around the yard in glee, oblivious to her advancing years. She’s always loved snow—loves playing in it, snuffling through it, wallowing atop it in joyous delight. I spent a minute or two chasing and jumping at her, which invariably set her off on ever more vigorous run-arounds. We were both soon out of breath. Finally, I decided I’d better give the yard back to the birds and squirrels, allow them to continue eating the seed and suet and cracked corn I’d put out at daylight. What’s fun and pretty to us can prove a life-threatening weather obstacle to many wild things. Too, I was getting a bit concerned about the snowflakes I kept having to brush off the top of my digital camera. Micro-electronics and moisture don’t mix. And so I coaxed my old dog inside. Maybe later, after the snow stopped, we’d make another round, take a few more photographs, check out corners we’d missed on this brief excursion. In the meantime, a wood fire would feel nice and a second cup of tea wouldn’t hurt. What I mostly wanted to do was sit back awhile and watch it snow.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

RED-BELLIED IN REVERSE…

One of my favorite birds here along the river is the red-bellied woodpecker—though I’d be the first to admit I’ve never yet met a woodpecker species I didn’t like. Red-bellies are good-sized birds with striking black-and-white zebra-striped backs and colorful red-orange heads (nape and crown in the male; nape only in the female.) Still, don’t let their name fool you, because the red-bellied woodpecker is arguably the most misnamed bird around. Yes, there is a pale orange-buff wash on their bellies. But this namesake marking is often difficult to see afield. Even when one is working a feeder eighteen inches beyond the windowpane, you still might fail to see this orangish patch unless the woodpecker is turned just right. The bird’s most prominent feature is their red head area—but, of course, we already have a “red-headed” woodpecker. And “zebra-backed” woodpecker might cause confusion since several woodpecker species sport fairly similar back markings. Alas, I suppose we’re stuck with this misleading moniker, though I still think it badly misses the mark and shows a decided lack of naming creativity among the ornithological set. However, I’ll also conceed that in practice, the issue is usually moot, since even a beginning birder quickly learns to recognize a red-bellied from, say, a downy or hairy. Red-bellies are said to be expanding their numbers throughout their range. They’re certainly common here along the river. One or more are usually hanging around from dawn until dusk, either working the seed and suet feeders, or clambering up and down a nearby tree. This morning I spent perhaps half an hour watching a pair of red-bellies. The male arrived first. Though the suet feeders had just received a fresh cake, this breakfasteer preferred to take his meal from the cracked corn I’d scattered on the ground. Not unusual, since red-bellies are omnivores, eating everything from berries and fruit to bugs, and in winter, a wide variety of nuts, grains, and seeds. What was unusual was this particular red-bellied’s pre-feeding maneuvers. As I said, the cracked corn was on the ground beneath a big box elder near the cottage. The woodpecker would land about eight feet up on the tree’s trunk. Most woodpeckers are wary, and this red-bellied was no exception. For a minute or so he looked carefully about—turning his head this way and that, peering across the stream, at the house, looking over the yard, scrutinizing bushes and boulders, checking in every direction for potential danger. The perfect picture of pessimistic woodpecker paranoia. When the bird was finally satisfied the coast was clear, he headed for the corn on the ground—not by dropping for a flap-fly landing as you might expect, though, but via backing. Herky-jerky reverse all the way. Yes, I know nuthatches are the down-the-tree-face-first experts among local birds, and that all woodpeckers typically back down trees when feeding. But this one wasn’t feeding, just heading to where the food was, which—as mentioned—was a fair distance away. Plus there were obstacles in the form of two big limbs which the backing bird had to negotiate around on his way earthward. What I found interesting—and more than a bit amusing—was the way that red-capped fellow kept craning his head, trying to look behind at where he was heading, checking the path he had to take to swerve around the blocking limbs on his way to the free eats. More than once he was forced to pause, pull forward, make a correction in angle, and try again. I swear, that little woodpecker looked for all the world like a first-time boater trying to back a trailer down the launch ramp. And I kept thinking what that goofy woodpecker really needs is a good set of rearview mirrors. Once he’d set up on the corn, the red-bellied would feed voraciously for maybe two minutes. Then, as if alarmed at something, he’d suddenly take off. A few seconds later the female would land on the trunk of the box elder, at more or less the same landing spot as her mate. After going through her version of a red-bellied security check, she also came down and fed a minute or two on the cracked corn before abruptly flying away. The interesting thing was, when the female red-bellied had done her look-around and it came time to eat, unlike her mate, she took the quick route down—a simple (and far more graceful) flap-drop. Now, if I were sexist, I’d suggest the female red-bellied (being, so to speak, a “female driver”) wasn’t quite so adapt at executing the long-haul reverse maneuver all the way down the tree to the ground. But my money says she—like a lot of females, and not just among woodpeckers—was simply more practical, less a time-waster and show-off, and smarter than her mate. Whatever the reason, when she’d done her look-around and it came time to eat, the female woodpecker took the quick route down—a simple (and far more graceful) flap-drop. I watched the pair take a dozen turns at their feeding routines: the male always backed down the tree’s trunk to the corn, the female always flew. I hesitate to bring this up, but I do believe there’s a lesson in there….

Friday, January 9, 2009

ORA ANDERSON

A few days ago a friend wondered if I had ever met Ora Anderson. She’d noted the name on a calendar with photo illustrations of bird carvings Anderson had done. “I think he also wrote about the southeastern hill country,” she said. The name sounded vaguely familiar, though not as someone I knew personally. So I did some research. Ore Anderson lived a full and varied life—farmer, writer, editor, newspaperman, business manager, spokesperson to the Ohio legislature, executive banker. He was also a woodcarver, naturalist, birdwatcher, conservationist, and as he called himself, “Kentucky hillbilly,” even though he spent the bulk of his ninety-four years living in Ohio. Most Kentuckians, I’ve found—especially those from the rugged hills in the eastern end of the state—never stray far from their roots, at least not in their hearts. In Ora’s case he just strayed across the Ohio River. I’m now writing about Ora Anderson after reading his small book of nature essays, Out of the Woods, published posthumously. Ora was certainly a man I‘d like to have met because we'd surely have become friends. In an odd way, though, we did sort of meet. Ora was born in a log cabin on the Mill Branch of the Middle Fork of the Licking River, in eastern Kentucky’s Magoffin County. By coincidence, my father—from birth until graduation from college—and paternal grandfathers stretching all the way back to the late-1700s, lived within a mile of this location. I have kin resting eternally in briar-tangled graveyards atop nearby high ridges, some of which are likely within sight of Ora’s birthplace. Too, my best friend, Frank, a retired Baptist minister, lifelong newspaperman, nature writer, and fellow small-stream devotee, once wrote columns for one of the Ohio papers Ora edited down in Jackson. I don’t yet know if their respective timeframes coincide, but they’re close…and it’s probably during conversations with Frank that I’ve heard Ora’s name mentioned. Frank is only a few years younger than Ora. They shared a potload of common interests—fly rodding, nature, birds and birdwatching, conservation, farming, newspapering, plus memberships in several organizations related to these causes and vocations. The hill country is just too close a community to think their paths failed to cross. The next time I visit Frank at his retirement home, I’ll ask. Still, knowing Frank—and by extension and first-hand reporting the values, issues, and social and political climate of the region at the time—I do think I know Ora Anderson a bit better. In 1956, Ora and his wife Harriet bought her family’s old farm in Athens County, smack in the middle of southeastern-Ohio’s enchanting hill country. They immediately began planting trees and shrubs, building ponds, and practicing the tenants of good land stewardship which slowly turned the worn-out farmland into a haven for birds and wildlife. The old farm became just as much a refuge for the Andersons after retirement, a place where Ora could daily study and consider those quiet little dramas which nature presents in wondrous abundance. He wrote about all this in country-boy eloquance: “To hear the clear, flowing notes and phrases of this remarkable long-tailed songster is quite an experience: I would almost call it epiphany,” he said in a piece called “The Virtuoso Brown Thrasher.” In another essay titled “Gentle Hours,” Anderson said: “This old southwestern-Ohio hill farm, bald and wrinkled after a century of subsistence farming, rewards my forty-plus years of benign intervention with goldenrod and golden finches, morels and meadowlarks, and the sighing wind in the crown of towering pines and poplars.” Lovely, poetic words, from a man whose eye was keen and talent sufficient to get something real down on paper. You know when reading his pieces that he took great joy in sharing. I won’t denigrate Ora’s book by calling it regionalist. That it is, indeed, about one region—in fact almost entirely one modest-sized Ohio hill-country farm and it’s surrounding woods and ridges and streams—is of no importance to the quality. If you like good nature writing—no, just make that good writing—you’ll want to read this small book. Which brings up my only quibble…I’m hacked that this is all I have to read from Ora Anderson. I want a dozen books, a bushel or two’s worth of additional essays. You can’t have too much of a good thing.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

EATS IN THE SLEET

Last night's rain has turned to this morning's sleet. There's a thin coat of ice on everything, which is likely to increase dramatically if it continues sleeting throughout the morning. An ice overcoat might make for good photography, but it's already hazardous trying to walk across the graveled drive and deck. I filled both feeders with sunflower seeds soon after getting up, and scattered the usual ration of cracked corn plus a bit extra on the stump block, rocks, and ground. I always worry about the birds not having enough to eat when their usual wild tidbits are unavailable due to ice. Birds live on a thin margin during the winter; I wouldn't doubt the difference between surviving and dying often comes down to half a teaspoon of calorie-producing seed or grain. I don't want my carelessness to push even a single dooryard sparrow over the survival edge. Within moments of putting out the food, the birds were gathered round and busy breakfasting in numbers—juncos, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, various sparrows, finches both red and gold, cardinals. The Carolina wren even favored me with a snatch of song. The wire cage suet feeders hadn't needed refilling, but the various woodpeckers seemed to increase their numbers right along with the rest of the gang—downeys, red-bellieds. Even the pair of pileateds I'd noticed working their way up and down a couple of sycamore snags on the island across from the cottage flapped over to see what all the fuss was about. I was, however, most pleased when a pair of hairys came to dine. Hairys are the least common of the common lot here in this riverine woodland setting. I see them even less often than I do flickers. I've never had a red-headed woodpecker come a'callin', nor a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I suspect, given where I live, that I actually have likelier hopes of seeing the latter one day than the former…though either would be a prize.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A FIELD IN JANUARY

Old plank fence, Empty gateway. Not even a path In the winter grass Revealing recent passage. Once fertile fields Now bounteous with Goldenrod and Cedar, Queen Anne’s lace, Honeysuckle, red haw. Under your boots, Weed-covered earth Still bears shallows rows, Disintegrating scars From long-gone plows. You have to ask yourself, Why? What happened here? What caused this abandonment? Finances? Sickness? A bad marriage? A life as fallow as this field? Only questions remain… Plus a field of weeds, A rotting wooden fence, Deserted gateposts, And ghost lines in the earth.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

WILLY BOY'S HOLIDAY RESCUE

How can you abandon such a dog? When my daughter the Child Psychologist and her husband the Budding Real Estate Tycoon drove from their home near Dayton to the town of Wilmington a week or so before Christmas, intending to look at a bank-foreclosed property the son-in-law was listing, they had no plans to add to their family. So far as they were concerned, the two of them plus their two cats seemed an entirely adequate household—at least for the time being. “No grandbabies for you yet, Pops,” is the answer I regularly receive when I badger my only offspring for someone I can spoil by turning them into a fly fisherman (or fisherwoman, makes no difference to me), piano gypsy, book collector, and inveterate outdoor rambler. Fate, of course, had a surprise for everyone. The house, a nice residential home in a nice neighborhood had been empty for weeks…well, almost empty. When the CP and BRET got there they found a note from the power company saying they’d been unable to shut off gas or electric (not sure which) to the house because there was a dog locked inside the residence. Whether this was a case of individual good will or company policy, I have no idea. Whatever the reason, it undoubtedly saved the above fellow’s life. November hereabouts had been unseasonably cold. Temperatures were often brutal, falling into the single digits only a few days before. The first few weeks of December were only marginally better. Many days and nights dipped into or remained below freezing. Think of locking a little dog in the refrigerator for six weeks and expecting it to survive. How thoughtlessly cruel can people be? Inside, the dog, a ragged-looking, smelly mess, was shivering and shaking—grateful as any castaway on the brink of doom and without a glimmer of hope would feel when salvation suddenly appears. The house was spackled with droppings and urine spots. The dog’s former owners, in an attempt, perhaps, to salve their merciless consciences, had left a bag of kibbles open on the floor, plus a water bowl now filthy and empty; apparently the tiny pooch had survived by drinking from the toilet. “There was no question about not taking him home,” my daughter said. And so they did—by way of the vet’s for an examination, shots, and a bath, and then to their condo where the cats, both bigger than the little guy, greeted their new family member with that aloof reserve cats always exhibit to creatures not lucky enough to have been born feline. According to the vet’s best guess, the dog is a poodle/Maltese mix, about four or five years old. The daughter and son-in-law named him William, in part for the town where he was found. I think he’s more of a Willy. As it happened, the CP and BRET had made plans for a New Year’s getaway to the Hocking Hills, located in the rugged, unglaciated southeastern corner of the state—Ohio’s hidden and generally unsuspected miniature portion of the Appalachians. At literally the last minute, they learned the lodge where they’d booked their rooms did not allow dogs. Naturally, old Pops got the next call; naturally, old Pop agreed to dog-sit for the next four days. “He is your new granddog,” my daughter pointed out. “A little hairier than expected,” I said, “but I do see a resemblance to the Budding Real Estate Tycoon.” Normally, I’m not a fan of foo-foo dogs. I don’t dislike them, but I just think dogs the size of fox squirrels are somehow genetically wrong. Usually, teensy-tiny dogs yap…and yap…and yap. Not with authority, not so a burglar or mugger would think twice—but in a voice and pitch reminiscent of Truman Capote; annoying, penetrating. I don’t mean to imply I prefer a vicious dog; but when a dog does decide to savage your ankle, it ought to be able to do more than prick holes in your socks. Willy Boy is nothing like this. He seldom barks—and when he does, which has been about three times during his stayover—it’s a sort of single-note honk, like a small goose with a tenor voice. Not frightening, of course, but also not annoying. He’s a busy, high-energy pooch, prancing about on mile-a-minute legs, tiny toenails clicking on the floor. Not all the time…only when you’re doing something and he wants to check it out and keep you company. Otherwise, he curls up on the couch and sleeps, half-hidden under a pillow. I don’t know anything about his history, but he seems perfectly happy here on the riverbank. My own dog, Moon (also a foundling) is a bit curious, but willing to accept Willy as a welcome visitor, even sharing her food. Willy Boy is polite and gentle, loves to hop up in your lap, and always waits to be invited in or out of the house. He comes when called, does his business outside every time you ask, and frankly, is no trouble whatsoever while being as fine an example of dogdom as anyone could ask. When he gets picked up this afternoon, I’ll miss him. I still don’t understand how anyone could abandon such a creature. So far as I’m concerned, when you take on a dog, you’ve simply adopted another family member, no different than if it were a child. With dog or child comes responsibility. You don’t abandon either. There’s just no excuse. Willy now has a loving home and a future; we have a new family member. A Christmas miracle with a cold nose and warm heart.

Friday, January 2, 2009

ICE BELLS RING IN NEW YEAR

I don’t know what they’re properly called—or even if they have an official name—but I always think of them as “ice bells.” They are, in fact, a sort of fat-bottomed icicle. Their shape can be bell-like or more of a teardrop. They’re formed, I theorize, when a regular carrot-shaped icicle has its pointed tip close enough to some source of water—lake or stream—that splashes or sloshes and repeatedly rewets the lower section. (I can certainly be wrong in this assumption. If so, please don’t hesitate to set me straight.) You would get the same effect, I suspect, if you dipped the bottom half of a long candle in hot wax—though for both candle and ice bell to take on their distinctive bell-bottomed shape, the cooling, in the case of the candle, or freezing, necessary for the ice bell, has to be quick. In the case of the ice bell, this must mean the air temperature has to be significantly colder than the water, which therefore implies that the water must be in motion—hence the running, splashing, or sloshing—or it would, itself, be frozen. In other words, certain, fairly exact, conditions or circumstances must be met to produce the phenomenon. Anyway, the first two photos are of ice bells I found along the edge of the river near my stone steps yesterday. The third shot in the series is of the bank edge along the island across the river (taken using the longest lens I own, a 450 mm, so please excuse the slight “softness”) and shows several ice bells which have formed in more of a teardrop shape. Whatever their scientific genesis, I’d like to think they were nature’s—and the river’s—way of ringing in the new year.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

WELCOME TO 2009!

Well, here we are—a new day and a new year. And I’m up, while not quite at the crack of dawn, as early as I could manage given the limitations of my aging carcass and last night’s excesses. But also up thankfully, for being able to get up is always better than not. Today we begin the round of the year anew. A familiar path. A journey into the unknown. The tick and tock of time. The earth spins on its tilted axis, whirls along in planetary ellipse around the sun, while the whole solar system glides silently through the vast cold darkness of deep space. Three-hundred and sixty-five days and nights lie ahead, yet to be born. Three-hundred and sixty-five sunrises and sunsets. Twelve months and four seasons. Two each of equinoxes and solstices. Winter snows, spring’s returning birds and ephemeral wildflowers, summer’s green mantle and baking heat, autumn’s kaleidoscopic colored leaves. During the year ahead, just as during the one now past, an incalculable number of raindrops will fall upon the earth, percolate through the soil, eventually find their way into a tiny rill, thence a brook, later a creek, flow onward into a river, and ever enticed downhill by gravity, into the sea. Upon reaching the sea, sun and wind and current will stir this water. Tides will pull. Evaporation will occur. The water will return to the sky in the form of fog and mist and clouds. Atmospheric pressures will wax and wane, pulling the moisture-laden air this way and that, mixing and colliding, hot with cold, damp with dry, funneled and swirled by earthspin and geography. Clouds will turn into storms. Rain will fall. Those uncountable drops of water recommencing their long, roundabout journey again. The lovely little river that passes my cottage owes its life to this cycle. This is all part of nature’s ancient course, the annual circular trail which we mark off and designate in their individuality as years. The circle within the circle within the circle, ad infinitum. From a scientific perspective it would make logical sense to begin tracking years at the winter solstice. On earth, light and life are practically synonymous. That’s unquestionably where the new annual journey begins—with the increasing light. Where better to begin a year than at the moment of its annual renewal? Unfortunately, we’re a few days late, stuck with a nominal beginning on a calendar created by politics and ego rather than astronomy and logic. However, right starting point or wrong, the attitude remains the same—thoughts and emotions mixed, caught between those of the future and past, the known and the unknown. The preceding twelve months has turned into history. All the joy and sorrow, good times and bad, become a part of our past, relegated to the shaky closet of memory. Looking warily in the opposite direction, we know—thanks to our calendars—the name of the year ahead. We can track its pathway. Yet even the snazziest calendar makes a poor prophet. What will 2009 bring? Laughter? Tears? Delight? Anger? Success? Failure? Enlightenment? Confusion? Exhilaration? Love? Sickness? Despair? Compassion? Death? That’s what a year’s worth of life is, a continual series of experiences and emotions, some good, some bad. “Highlights and lowlights,” a friend likes to say. All contained within a matrix of the commonplace and routine, the everyday, the boring and mundane. But we’re all here…at the start of a new day and a new year. That’s something! I say let the adventure begin! Happy 2009!