Today has been spent working outside, stacking about a cord of maple I picked up at a fellow’s house late yesterday. Before I could begin building my firewood stack, I had to clean and level a corner near the parking area. It’s amazing how much time and effort such minor tasks can take. I’d figured a half day, then head off to the building supply store for some plants and seed for last week’s completed bed; maybe mow the yard afterwards. Ha! A dozen hours later—minus breaks for lunch, the occasional rest, twenty minutes of fishing off my stone steps (time enough to catch one decent smallmouth bass), and about half an hour to hose out the debris in the back of the pickup from hauling the firewood—I’m beat, hungry, and in desperate need of a shower. But that’s okay. It’s been a good day, bright sun, blue sky, not too hot—with something of real value to show for the effort. I like such work days. There’s something quite rewarding to doing a job which goes directly to the fundamentals of your life. Next winter—or more likely the winter after, if I give the maple extra seasoning time—I’ll reap the benefit of today’s labor. Wood, fire, heat, comfort…a straight-line connection which would have been familiar to a settler living along this river a couple of centuries ago, or a Shawnee five hundred years before that; heat has always been a key need for winter survival hereabouts, along with food, water, and shelter. Still, today hasn’t been all work. For one thing there was the Carolina wren which serenaded me practically from start to finish, along with the cardinals whistling from the evergreen tangles and the goldfinches working the feeders. Then there’s the “found” rose, a rich salmon-orange, which appeared beside the chimney the summer after I moved in, and today sported a dozen huge blooms. If you can't find pleasure in the occasional glance at such beauty, you need to reexamine your criteria. So that’s my Sunday report from the riverbank. Nothing exciting, nothing out of the ordinary…but a day of ample reward.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
I’ve never understood why people litter. When my father gave me my first car—an army-green 1956 VW Beetle—one of the things I did right away was hang a little canvas trash bag below the dash. On the rare occasion when a passenger tossed, say, a candy wrapper out the window, I immediately braked, pulled onto the shoulder, walked back and retrieved the bit of paper—and placed it in my litter bag. I never said anything to the offender. But the lesson worked…at least when they rode in my Bug and subsequent vehicles. Afield, I’ve always practiced a similar approach. If a companion—young or old—throws something down, I wordlessly pick it up and stick it in my coat or vest pocket or tackle bag. Along a stream—fishing, canoeing, just poking about—I try and carry a disposable cigarette lighter which I use to burn those wads of discarded monofilament line careless anglers regularly discard. This is more than a dislike of litter, however. I can’t tell you the number of birds and small animals I’ve rescued after they’ve become entangled in this old line snarls—everything from muskrats to groundhogs, kingfishers to great blue herons. Old fishing line is a frequent deathtrap for wildlife. Sure, anyone who fishes suffers the occasional line tangle. And often the only way to put yourself back in business is to yank off the snarl and start fresh. Yet it only takes a moment to hold a lighter flame to the wadded mono and turn the dangerous mess into a harmless lump of plastic ash. Living beside a river is sometimes like living beside a refuse bin. I often think half the people using the stream leave evidence of their passing behind—empty soda cans and drink bottles, bait cartons, sandwich wrappers, even articles of clothing. And when high water comes, mixed in with the down-washing mass of logs and leaves and natural debris is everything from old tires to barbecue grills, plastic buckets, toys of all sorts and sizes, garbage bags stuffed with who-knows-what, pieces of junk cars, and discarded furniture. You name it, and at one time or another it has floated past the cottage…even if you’d have sworn such stuff can’t float. Not that any stream should ever be treated with such disrespect and abuse—but it’s particularly odious when the river in question was one of the first chosen for “State Scenic Rivers” status—a listing based on its clean water and singular beauty. To me, such places are almost holy. I would no more litter a stream or woodland trail than I would a church or my mother’s grave. It’s is a matter of both reverence and honor. Littering is a form of contempt, an absence of conscience. And perhaps even an inadvertent insight into the psychic and physical sanitation of the individual—for I always equate a lack of cleanliness with those treat their waste so cavalierly. People who are nasty in their daily lives are nasty in their body and soul, is my way of thinking.
Yesterday morning, for the eighth year in a row, a group of volunteers did what they could to rectify the situation, giving the river its annual clean-up. Armed with gloves, trash bags, strong backs, and youthful energy, they came floating downstream in red canoes, putting in every so often to go along the banks and pick up the collection of litter and loose manmade clutter. Sometimes good stewardship means becoming the other fellow’s de facto trash man. If I’d have known about the event, I would have joined them. As it is, all I can do is express my gratitude to them for the willingness to spend their time sweating, tugging, picking up and carting away in their canoes the garbage and junk which would otherwise sully the stream’s pristine beauty. To one and all—your hard work was genuinely appreciated. From the bottom of my heart, and the hearts of all of who live along, regularly visit, and unabashedly love the river's sycamore-lined banks, emerald pools, and minnow-quickened shallows… THANK YOU!
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Today the glowering skies finally kept their promise and delivered rain. Not a lot, it’s true; but what the storm lacked in duration it made up for in exuberance. No more than a minute after I’d dumped and raked the final wheelbarrow of soil in the large flower bed I’ve been plugging away at since before my Florida junket, the first drops began pattering through the leaves. I took refuge on the side deck. Thirty seconds later the dark clouds opened and the rain poured down—a deluge you could hear coming like an onrushing wind. In seconds the deck was drenched. I bolted for the door. Looking back, it was barely possible to see across the river to the island. No way to tell whether or not my turkey vulture neighbors made it to the shelter of the tall sycamores. The downpour roared. Rain fell in torrents—hard, fast, bouncing off the deck’s planking, flattening the ox-eye daisies beside the stone steps which lead down to the water. The pool in front of the cottage bubbled as if on hard boil. In the midst of the cloudburst a kayaker came paddling through the riffle, over the lip of the drop-off, and into the Cottage Pool—drenched to the core; as wet sitting upright as he would have been turned upside down. The poor guy looked miserable…but I remember plenty of similar soakings I’ve taken running rivers in canoes, and the truth is, if the weather was warm I sort of enjoyed the experience. I hoped this fellow had a similar attitude. Fifteen minutes after it began, the rain ended. One moment it was raining…the next, the sky-faucet had been twisted to off. A minute or two later the sun peeked through the clouds as the trees drip, drip, dripped in staccato rhythm. As best I can tell, my little acre of riverbank received perhaps a half-inch of rain. Enough to give things a good watering without raising the river’s level. Plus I got my work done in time for the show. A purely perfect rain!
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The sky grows dark and the buzzards come home.I’ve spent the past half hour sitting in the rocking chair on my side-yard deck, waiting for a grumbling mass of black clouds marching in from the west to materialize into rain. I came outside from my study when the afternoon sunshine suddenly winked out. A transition just that abrupt…bright one moment, dark the next. A second or two later thunder rumbled in the distance. As a kid, I used to grab one of my mother’s quilts and head for the front porch whenever I thought a thunderstorm was imminent. Since our house faced west, the direction from which most thunderstorms came, I usually had a great view of any oncoming storm. On the downside, the porch, about an eight-by-ten foot affair sheltering the front door, had an overhanging roof but no sort of screening or sidewall protection. Hence the quilt, though that was good only for the most minor storms. I’d begin stormwatching in one of the chairs, or perhaps on the big three-cushion glider—which, in case you’re not familiar with the term, is a sort of couch that moves (glides) back-and-forth; a moving porch-seating alternative to a rocker or swing. Either place was fine so long as it was just wind coming in. But once the rains arrived, I soon had to stand and flatten myself against the wall of the house. Of course, it didn’t take much wind and blowing rain to make this refuge equally untenable…whereupon I was forced to retreat inside and do my storm watching from behind the screen door—or until rain began blowing through the mesh and onto Mom’s gleaming oak floor. At that point parental authority was invoked—the storm door was closed, the damp quilt confiscated, and I had to get my storm-watching thrills through a windowpane. However, neither maturity nor common sense has cured me from my love of storm-watching. Which is why I ensconced myself on the deck a while back with high hopes of seeing a bit of spring weather drama. The local weather oracles have been predicting rain for the past three days. Like too many modern diviners, though, they’re apparently unskilled in the foretelling arts—full of promise and short on delivery. It did rain last night, but only a little. Not enough to discolor the river or water the roses, although I have no doubt it was more than sufficient to encourage the grass to quickly grow several inches. For a while I had high hopes. The sky turned an ominous charcoal-gray, the hue of a day-old bruise. The wind was swirling around, carrying a breath of cool dampness. Four Canada geese came whipping in, honking loudly, feet out. The big birds made a noisy and not very graceful splashdown, then settled on the rocky bar just across from the cottage. They did seem encouragingly apprehensive about the coming storm, holding their heads high on upstretched necks, looking this way and that constantly. The thunder to the west grew much louder, until it became an almost a constant growling; a great angry beast just over the horizon and heading my way. More encouraging still. Then the buzzards came sailing home—coming in fast from all quadrants, swirling around a pass or two in the looming sky above the island, just enough to show off their aerial prowess, before quickly finding a sheltered roost in one of the big sycamores. Oh, ho, I thought. Here it comes! Confound it, no! A few drops pattered on the roof and deck planks. The wind began whipping the drops into my face and, more importantly, onto my camera. I momentarily deserted my post long enough to stow the photo gear just inside the cottage’s front door. The rain began pouring down…and then just quit. Staring out the opened door, I saw the sky’s dark lid slide away like an auto’s sunroof. Bright sunlight beamed down. The moistened grass sparkled…and doubtless invigorated, began instantly redoubling its growing efforts. I felt cheated, robbed of a deliciously anticipated pleasure. The turkey vultures appeared equally let down. I could see them sitting dejectedly in the top of the greening sycamores. They’d also been fooled by the muttering front—enough to come hustling home, giving up whatever roadkill or tasty bit of offal they’d planned for supper. And for what? Little more than a 20-second shower; probably not enough to wet their feathers. I waved at my black-robed neighbors across the stream. “We all got bamboozled this time around,” I called over to them. The quartet of geese on the rock bar honked noisily and took off, flapping hard to get airborne. Back inside, I reminded myself there would be other storms to watch. At least, I thought, my supper was still waiting in the kitchen.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
There are many rewards to a riverside life, not the least of which are those small gifts the river occasionally washes up and deposits along its banks seemingly for no better reason than your consideration and pleasure. The latest offering is a beautiful purple-blue iris…and both it’s origin and name are currently something of a mystery. The little iris is located on a portion of riverbank near the downstream end of the property. The stone-littered bank here is underlined with a mix of sand and mud. It’s shaded by a clump of sycamore with four separate boles—each trunk being a couple feet in diameter. Throughout the winter and spring, the location where the wildflower is growing is often flooded under several feet of water for days at a time. Moreover, the river keeps this portion of bank below the sycamores fairly scoured out—which is why there’s nothing much in the way of greenery growing there other than an aquatic weed or two and a couple of tiny willows trying to gain a foothold. I often carefully negotiate my way down the rocky near-vertical bankside to where the angle flattens out, providing a narrow, rocky shelf smack at the water’s edge where I can stand comfortably and cast to the waist-deep channel for rock bass and smallmouth. That’s what I was doing a few days ago—fishing—when I first saw the iris. At that time, the plant's showy blooms hadn’t yet opened. The iris finally bloomed today. The blossoms, which are smaller across than my hand, are a deep purple-blue; the leaves are quite narrow. The plant is not much over a foot tall. It is altogether striking, as pretty an iris as I’ve ever found. And therein lies the twofold mystery. First off, how did the plant get here? I’ve been here three years—having moved in during June of ’06. It’s possible that I would have been a little late to witness the plant’s blooming that first year…but not the following spring, nor last spring. As I said, I regularly use this area as a fishing spot. It’s inconceivable to me I could have frequented this rocky pocket that's so otherwise barren of plants—and certainly wildflowers—and not noticed something this eye-catching and lovely. Nope, I’m convinced the plant has never bloomed here in the time I’ve called this riverside home. The only thing I can think is that when it came time to bloom those other years, the iris might have been underwater during a periodic springtime flood, and simply didn’t put out flowers that spring. I don't even know if this is botanically possible, frankly. But if so, I suppose I might have overlooked the small, narrow leaves if it just came up and grew without blooming afterwards…though I have my doubts about even that oversight. The second puzzle is the plant’s exact identification. My best guess is Iris virginica, Southern Blue Flag, or Virginia Iris. And yet its markings and small size don’t seem quite right. So I've continued digging through books and online databases, trying to correlate the iris on my riverbank with a similar photo or description. That’s why I posted this today rather than wait—in the hope that someone might set me straight on the matter. I’d really like to know the correct identity. In the meantime, I don’t have to know the iris's name to appreciate the river’s gift.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Since returning home from my six-day sortie to the Sunshine State, I’ve been trying to play catch-up with all the outdoor chores I should have completed before I left…plus a proliferation of new tasks, some of which literally materialize overnight. Spring is now in its final mad-dash charge towards summer. The magic of ample rain and a wealth of warm sunlight is visible everywhere. What was a nicely greening landscape before I left has become a lush jungle during my absence—and it grows more jungly by the hour. My daily work list has been daunting, if not at times overwhelming. So far, nature and personal ennui are winning. How can a man who is responsibility-challenged at the best of times bring himself to toil away every wonderful hour, when May’s air is sweet and laden with the honeyed scent of black locust in bloom on the hill, and the river, its water sparkling and infused with green light, burbles gently over shining riffle stones? How can I be expected to unceasingly bend my back to the shovel and rake when all I really want to do is laze on the riverbank and watch my island buzzards wheel high in the oh-so-blue sky on rising thermals, and listen while the Carolina wren sings sweet nothings from the hackberry? I’m not to be trusted at making such decisions. Which is why, lacking the fortitude to ignore such temptations completely, I’ve vacillated between mowing grass and smelling roses; digging out a marigold bed and watching the pileated woodpeckers; building a small wooden deck for the back door area and laughing at a pair of groundhogs chasing each other around the yard. I say one must insist on maintaining a certain balance in these matters! The problem is there’s simply never enough time for everything—work and pleasure. In spite of all our modern cleverness, mankind has not managed to give himself a minute’s more time. The forms of labor have changed, certainly. And I wouldn’t want to relinquish such things as modern medicine, electricity (and the Internet), and a few other things which actually help or enrich our lives. But when you figure in job, a bit of overtime—paid or not, a daily commute to and from work, an hour or so to ready yourself to survive your day, meal preparation, the necessary off-work hours consumed by home maintenance and toys such as cars and pools, shopping, social commitments, et cetera…are we any more free than my great-great-great-great grandfather? Or did that old man—born in Ireland in 1756, who fought in the Revolutionary War and then followed Daniel Boone down the Wilderness Road to claim a piece of wild mountain land which he cleared, and where for the remainder of his long life he earned his bread by the sweat of his brow, following a big-eared mule behind a bull-tounged plow, breaking clods in fresh-turned earth—did he actually have a better life? More and more I believe he did. A few minutes from now I’ll fire up my new lawn mower and give the grass its second cutting of the week. While that noisy infernal combustion engine is roaring , I’ll be isolated from the lilt of birdsong and the whisper of river; the heady fragrance of lilac will be overpowered by exhaust fumes—and I’ll not even smell the new-cut grass until after I’ve shut off the power and my nostrils have had a minute or two to clear. My great grandfather would have smelled the turned earth as he worked, just as he would have breath in the scent of fresh-cut meadow grass as he swung a sharp-bladed scythe. He would have heard the birds in the thickets, or the chatter-bark of a fox squirrel on the hill. In a way, I believe, he would have lived within the fullness of time—not exactly its master, but not nearly so much its slave. My distant grandfather now lies sleeping on that same steep hillside which he once worked. Where the view from the top is of folded green mountains and a river which curls and winks around their base. Where birds sing and locust blooms and time is but a memory—a wisp of smoke on May’s sweet air. While I, alas, I must mow the grass…
Thursday, May 21, 2009
I have been to Florida and survived. In fact, I quite possibly thrived…at least if my measure of ice cream consumption is any indicator. For all my pre-trip whining and grumbling, all the contumelious remarks, the Sunshine State proved charming and its inhabitants friendly, gracious, welcoming. As most of you probably know, I braved sunburn and palmetto bugs to visit this sub-tropical sandbox and celebrate with my daughter, Lacy, and Dave, her husband, an alfresco reaffirmation of their wedding vows. The ceremony, held beachside in Anastasia State Park, was lovely and moving; the banquet afterwards, in the intimate Cordova Room of the spectacular old Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, was scrumptious. Yet in the end, it’s not the beautiful settings, all the luxury and exquisite appointments, or even the observance and ritual that matters—it’s the people. Nothing beats family and friends; people are ultimately life’s greatest blessing. Without reservation, I can say that my daughter not only married a fine man, she married into a wonderful family. Folks who know how to have fun, take great joy in sharing, and instantly opened both their home and hearts. Of course, all the while, I couldn’t help but wonder how my little riverbank world was faring. It had been raining as we left. Was the water high—if so, how high? Was my goose being fed, and the woodpeckers and finches and all the rest of the feathered gang? Were the squirrels getting away with murder, stealing all the sunflower seeds, gnawing into the repair storage barrels? And my newly-planted seeds…were they up? Lacy, Dave, Dave’s father, Rich, and I had made the drive south. Now Dave and Lacy were off to Jamaica for a week’s “honeymoon” in the sun, and it was just Rich and I making the return trip. At some point I recalled that Dave Dudley hit from the early-1960s, “Six Days On the Road,” which recounts how a lonely trucker was excitedly looking forward to returning home. In our case it would be four days in Florida with a 14-hour drive day capping either end. Not as much road time and miles, perhaps, but still enough that I think both of us were anxious to get back. Florida was nice. The reaffirmation ceremony was lovely. And I’ve never been around warmer, nicer people. Still, as a wise young traveler named Dorothy once said, “There’s no place like home.”
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Today is sunny and warm, a welcome change from yesterday’s chilly offering. The river is down a few additional inches and noticeably clearer—the perfect clarity and volume to practically guarantee a great day’s fishing. Alas! I still have to go rummaging in the attic for my venerable canvas suitcase. This entails moving and placing the stepladder below the access hatch in the hall, clambering up into what’s bound to already be an overheated space that’s, dusty, low-ceilinged, and poorly lit—then crawling around opening various flap-lidded plastic tubs until I luck upon the one holding duffle bags and the desired suitcase. On the whole, I’d rather go fishing. But, tomorrow morning I must flee with the dawn, southward, pick up my daughter and son-in-law at their place 20 miles from here on the other side of town. We’ll load their stuff and then drive a few more miles south to the son-in-law’s father’s place. There we’ll unload from the truck and reload our stuff in his car—whereupon the four of us will hastily decamp down the Interstate for a 14-hour, 900-mile drive to St. Augustine, Florida. Oh, what unmitigated joy doth await! Perhaps you wonder why I might choose to abandoned my beloved river, this lovely spring-greening acre, replete with newly arriving and loud-singing birds, chattering squirrels, catchable fish, multicolored and ephemeral wildflowers, and countless similar vernal treasures too numerous to list—riches almost beyond measure!—for a land whose best notion of seasons is apparently serving up one warm and sunny day after another? Not that such a monostrophic cycle constitutes seasons…just season, in the singular. The same old same old. Yawn! But I digress… We travel southward to this land of flip-flops and sunblock because my daughter and her husband have decided to renew their marriage vows. The first version took well enough; but the spirit of marital bliss has apparently moved anew upon them and they now feel the need to do the ceremonial gig again, except this time with sand between their toes and the blue Atlantic lapping nearby. Naturally, such things are best accomplished among family and friends, kith and kin. Even if you have to stuff one or the larger of them in the car with you and haul his sorry carcass all the way to Florida. Family comes first. Always. Especially those whom you love more than your own life’s breath. It will therefore likely be a bit quieter here on Riverdaze until after the first of next week—though I might be compelled to post something. To reiterate the verse from the Book of Proverbs which appears at the top of this blog, "…thou knowest not what a day may bring forth." Amen to that! I’m willingly going to Florida. Miracles really do happen. Just don’t allow too much spring to pass without me.
Monday, May 11, 2009
It has been a typical busy Monday here along the riverbank. Mostly sunny, but windy, which makes it feel a lot colder out than its current high of 63 degrees. Pretty, but not a particularly comfortable May day. Which is okay since I had work to complete at the desk and haven’t been able to spend much time outside anyway. For the last few minutes, though, I’ve been sitting on the stone steps which lead down to the water, watching a great blue heron across from me stalking though the shallows along the island’s bank. Three times so far the big bird has speared into the still murky water…and three times it has come up empty-beaked. Even this feathered fisherman has his off days. Whenever the wind gusts, it loosens scads of last autumn’s tannish-gold box elder samaras, which helicopter obliquely down into the big pool in front of the cottage. When the sunlight pours through their translucent membrane as they flutter and fall, they look for all the world like a hatch of mayflies dancing over a northcountry stream. This seed “rain” is, of course, is why there are countless box elders seedlings coming up all over the place along the stream’s banks. Box elders prefer a moist habitat, are fast growing, and thus make a good bank-stabilizing riparian species. Box elders are members of the maple family. In former days, where sugar maples were scarce, box elders were sometimes tapped and the extracted sap boiled down into syrup—though it took a lot more sap and evaporation work to turn the watery juice into a gallon of sweet, thick syrup. Probably tasted great on pancakes, though. Speaking of which…pancakes, not box elder syrup…I’ve spent decades and thousands of miles rattling around the great northwoods on countless fishing, camping, and get-away-from-it-all trips. A great deal of that time has been employed exploring the most remote corners of the Lake Superior country I could find. This is the land of the flapjack, or pancake, that camp kitchen staple of those legendary men whose brute labor felled the vast white pine forests with their double-bitted axes and crosscut saws. You might say I’ve become a connoisseur of pancakes, with the waistline to prove it. You’d also be surprised at how different these saucer-sized rounds of fried batter can taste from one jackpine café to the next. Some are good, most are merely passable, some are awful, and a rare few are simply ambrosial—light, fluffy, melt-in-your mouth delicious. I eventually managed to acquire a recipe which comes the closest yet to approximating the latter in my own kitchen—lacking only the sharp, pine-laden air, the rattle of a tent canvas, and the gurgle of a nearby brook trout stream where the tag alders wave over a tannin-stained riffle and the splash of a rising fish can suddenly distract and cause you to dribble warm maple syrup down your chin. In point of fact, such a pancake recipe is probably not safe in the hands of any admitted pancake aficionado unless he also possesses a preternaturally strong will, which I most decidedly lack. Given this necessary shortcoming, I’ve outsmarted my predilection for yielding to temptation by striking a sort of dietary compromise: I'll try and eat healthy and in moderation as much as possible, and in return, I get to dismiss my conscience from duty for certain days of the year—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Independence Day, and maybe one or two others…plus my birthday. Yesterday was my birthday. I awoke (a gift in itself!), banished my conscience until the following dawn…and fixed a lumberjack-sized platter of golden pancakes on the griddle for breakfast. And I savored every syrup-dripping, butter-soaked, calorie-laden forkful! Sin without guilt…as good a birthday gift as one can give or receive!
Sunday, May 10, 2009
A month or so ago, Sydney, of Adventures In Nature, stopped by and left a comment. Curious, I returned the favor and visited her blog. Sydney’s enthusiasm for nature and animals belies her Big Apple raising. She does volunteer work at both a zoo and a wildlife rehab and education center, and is happily learning everything she can about whatever latest creature has captured her attention. I liked reading about Elvis, the Muscovy duck, and everything from a fossa (a feline-like animal related to a mongoose) to beavers and a baby ‘gator. I figured some of my readers might also get a kick out of Sydney’s adventures, so I added her blog to my “favorites” list. Yesterday, Sydney gave me this blog award—my first and only—which I appreciate very much. And I’d like to reassure her that I’m not worried in the least about compromising my masculinity just because the teapot’s decoration is a bit frilly. I may be a bear…but I’m an occasionally refined bear. As seems to be the protocol, I’d like to pass this award along to several other blogs which I read and enjoy regularly. They are: 1. Bankside 2. Moments of Mine 3. Nature Nutz 4. Roundtop Ruminations If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll stop by and give these blogs a look and a read. Again, Sydney, thank you for this neat blog award…and for being a fan of Riverdaze.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
A few minutes ago I took a break from rearranging a portion of the woodpile to sit a spell and watch the river. It’s cool here this morning and the sky is filled with ragged clouds, so the light is constantly changing from bright to muted to dim. Perhaps this shifting illumination has contributed to my unsettled mood—set me on a path of pensive contemplation as I gaze at the brown water passing with scarcely a sound a dozen feet away. What secrets does this venerable river know? What can it teach me? More pointedly, what am I capable of learning? Am I open enough to receive such lessons? Sufficiently perceptive to recognize their wisdom? Time is like the river, ever-flowing, in constant passage. Which matters most—duration or distance? Does source set the destination…or is it all the shifting and turning, the pools and pour-overs and back-eddies, the influence of land and years through which we make out way? We travel unceasingly, blindly, sometimes racing, yet at times feel almost stagnant. What shapes and molds us? Is it darkness or light? Summer’s heat or winter’s cold? Before I came over and sat down, I took time to count the growth rings on a rough-sawn chunk of hackberry in the woodpile. Some were wide, others narrow, visible recordings of years forever passed. I thought it amusing when I realized that round of wood and I were approximately the same age. Of course the tree from which the small section of log came has already met its end—though it will finish in a literal blaze of glory next winter when I add it to a cheery hearth fire. Meanwhile, I will add another growth ring to my own time on earth tomorrow. Which of us, I wonder, has fared the best? When my own life circles are counted and considered, will I measure up? I hope so. I pray that I will have been strong and solid…and if I might be granted just one wish, that my final gift might be to somehow bring a measure of warmth to someone who needs it on a cold winter's night.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
It is foggy along the riverbank this morning—a delicate world seen through a gossamer veil, at once both insubstantial and strangely primeval. I might be the first to ever lay eyes on this diaphanous land. The river is muddy and up perhaps a foot, muted, sliding in soft murmur between wet green walls or dripping brush and vines. The sycamores have their root-tangles in the flow, leaning affably like white-robed Druid priests enjoying a Baptist foot-washing. The goose on the island across from the cottage honks, telling me it’s times for his breakfast. I take a scoop of cracked corn from the barrel on the front deck and toss under the nearby hackberry. That’s when I see the long-stemmed mushrooms which have sprang up overnight around the tree’s base. I love foggy mornings. The light is dim, diffused, yet shot through with a silver pearlescent. Colors are saturated. Sounds seem more rounded and louder in the muffled quiet. On mornings like these my eyes are drawn to the near, the close-up…to those things we pass a hundred times a day and seldom notice—yet are now transformed. Droplets of water on leaves. The bright colored lichens on chunks of firewood. I know practically nothing about lichens, but after a night of drizzles and amid the subtle light of a morning's fog, they are as pretty as any wildflower. There is always great beauty waiting to be discovered if we only look. But really, isn’t that the way it is? It isn’t life that fails to offer us beauty; rather it is we who fail to see—to slow our pace, focus or eyes, open our heart and appreciate all those marvelous things placed before us. Each day is a gift, a blessing. It has never been before and will never be again, but is all ours to enjoy—right now, amid the sweet soft light of an April fog. And I am so, so grateful….
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
How do you measure trust? When it’s between you and a red-bellied woodpecker, it’s quite literally a scale of the distance allowable between yourself and the bird—a mark always assented to or not by the woodpecker. You have no say whatsoever in the matter. When I first moved into this modest stone cottage beside the river, I hung a bird feeder and suet cage in the box elder near the entry door, and scattered handsful of cracked corn round about. Red-bellied woodpeckers were among the first birds to check out the proffered free eats. I was thrilled. Though I’d certainly seen plenty of red-bellied woodpeckers over the years, never before had I lived in a place where they were such regular visitors. For me, they were a new and colorful dooryard species. One thing I learned immediately was that unlike the rather tame downy, the red-bellies were easily spooked. It wasn’t a question of how close you could get to them outside; just moving around inside the house, near to the big window with the best view of the feeder, was enough to send them fleeing. On a scale of vigilance, the red-bellied woodpeckers were almost as wary as the flickers and pileateds. However, this winter, I began to notice a certain acceptance on the bird’s part, a willingness to grant me a modicum of trespass into heretofore forbidden space. So long as I exited the cottage by the back door rather than the one near the feeding area, I could now move about the yard—work around the woodpile, for example—and the woodpecker would remain in the tree; watching, but not flying off. As winter turned to spring, the allowable distance decreased. I was earning the bird’s trust. Eventually I could come and go by the door near the feeder and, at the most, the woodpecker would simply hide on the back-side of the hackberry. Now even that precaution is a thing of the past. I sit in the rocking chair on the side deck, less than a dozen feet from the various feeders, and the red-bellied putters about—sampling the suet in the wire cage, grabbing a few sunflower seeds from the hanging basket, pecking at cracked corn on the ground. Every so often it will glance my way—actually make eye contact—but I’m apparently deemed tolerable. I can move legs and arms, twist around, drink a glass of iced tea, pick up binoculars or camera, and the woodpecker stays put. I can even stand, walk to the door, go inside, come back out…and at most the red-headed bird simply pauses, making sure I stay on my side of the prescribed boundary; if the woodpecker happens to be on the ground, it might or might not fly onto a low limb nearby until I've again settled. I should say that this trustful tolerance is only extended me by the male red-bellied; the female is more cautious—though she will occasionally work up and down the main trunk of the hackberry when I’m on the porch. And neither woodpecker will come this close when someone else joins me, though the male is surprisingly permissive when it comes to Moon the dog; her trust circle’s perimeter is farther out than mine, but not by all that much. Will I some day be able to have a woodpecker perch on my knee or shoulder? Probably not. Besides, having watched how the bird whacks so enthusiastically at bugs and seeds with its dagger-like beak, I'm not altogether sure I trust it that close to my ear. Nope. I’m happy just to be allowed this close. I consider such red-bellied trust an honer. It isn’t every day a fellow gains the confidence of a woodpecker.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Midnight, or nearly so. I’ve been dozing in front of the TV for the last half hour. Must have been the full day of yard work on my winter-softened body. Every muscle aches; my joints feel rusted and inoperable, stiff, swollen. Who would have thought shoveling, hauling, and spreading a dozen wheelbarrow loads of topsoil and perhaps twice that many of mulch would have wrecked me to such an extent? Not only am I no longer the man I used to be…I’m beginning to doubt I ever was. In less than a week I’ll have another birthday. Tonight, I feel about a decade older already. I obviously need to go to bed, which presents the problem of standing up. Two attempts and a couple of pitiful groans later, I’m vertical…more or less. I switch off the television. Just pushing the remote button hurts. As the room is suddenly plunged into darkness, I hear Moon the dog hop off her snoozing spot on the end of the other couch facing the fireplace. Time to take her out for her final constitutional—providing I can shuffle to the door. The dog and I step outside, onto the side deck. Moon makes a quick snuffle-check under the end of the deck for any errant raccoon or possum that might be hiding there, then trots off into the darkness to complete her doggy rounds. The air temperature can’t be more than a degree or two above fifty—if that; I’m wearing shorts and a tee shirt, so I quickly come fully awake. There’s a cloistered feel to the night, due in part to the light cloud cover which has blotted out all stars and dimmed the nearly full moon to less than half power—its wane light smeared and strangely colored as it slips through the topmost branches of the greening sycamores. Sound fills the darkness…the reemerged voice of the river, missing these last few days because of the high water. In the scant light I can just make out the whiteness of broken water above the riffle. The actual riffle is still a foot or two underwater—but the new hydraulics of water hitting stone is pushing waves to the surface. It is these waves, playing out upon the current, that fill the night with their muted roar. A friendly sound to a riverman…the sound that says my stream is returning to normal. I step off the deck and walk across the yard, trying to remember where I dug those new planting beds so’s I don’t fall into one like a stumbling drunk. The clouds have now completely obscured the moon. There’s a bench on top of the little hillock at the edge of the property, and for just a minute I take a seat—enjoying the cool solitude, the sound of the river, and the feeling I get just looking at the shadowy bulk of the cottage. Somewhere not too far upstream a great horned owl hoots, which sends an involuntary shiver down my spine…though maybe it is just the cold air on my underclad body. Moon the dog comes snuffling over, possibly wondering what I’m doing sitting up here in the May darkness. I pat her head. In dog years she’s about the age I feel. Okay, enough of these self-pitying, maudlin thoughts. I hoist myself up, stifling the urge to groan, and head back to the cottage. I think we’ll both feel better after a good night’s rest.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Life can be trying. Even a regal Cooper’s hawk must suffer the occasional demoralizing round of respectability issues. As is so often the case in these matters, they occur when you least expect them. Here you are, jetting around the neighborhood hunting circuit in your best stealth mode, dropping unannounced into the midst of your favorite birding hotspots…and gloating with pride as your fearsome visage strikes instant fear in the hearts of those who often shortly become prey. You’re having a swell time—shocking, intimidating, terrorizing. Plus you get the occasional warm snack. What fun! What glorious bloody fun! And then you notice…some of your fellow citizens simply refuse to take you seriously. Was it something you did? Someone you ate? What unknown faux pas initiated your obvious fall from grace. Aren’t you still the noble, awesome Cooper’s hawk? Mr. Death-On-the-Wing? Well, nope. Not if you’ve just landed on the Christmas tree now recycled as a handy refuge for those sparrows and finches regularly startled by your sudden attacks—only to find the other bird in the yard happens to be a Canada goose. A goose who apparently wrote the book on belligerent and certainly outweighs you many times over. A goose which watched you arrive, then quickly headed your way—neck bowed, hissing like a viper, showing every sign that he intended to peck your talons off should you hang around. Retreat was indeed the prudent decision. Then, a few days later…same dried-out Christmas tree. You land on the ground—after first checking around for that danged goose—and hop on inside the tangle of branches to see who might be cowering therein in delicious horror. What you don’t see is the grayish blur which races from the corner of the cottage to the refuge tree, sneaks around the other side…and has the temerity—the chutzpah!—to attack you! Egads! Why, it all but scared you witless! And so, once you’d gotten your feathers rearranged, you crouched on the nearby picnic table and gave that ridiculous feline a piece of your mind: Listen, buddy! Didn’t you learn your lesson last week on that gray squirrel? Scrawny cats don’t try and snatch Cooper’s hawks. We are the predators…not the prey! Does it listen? No, of course not. Cats never listen. And this overreaching puss wouldn't even deign to look your way and take his berating like a man…er, cat. In your face one moment, grabbing at you in total effrontery, scaring the bejeezus out of you—and it won't even look your way, acknowledge your presence, say: Sorry, my mistake. That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with the world nowadays…respect is hard to come by, and nobody says they're sorry. What's a hawk to do?
• • • • •[And so, with this twofold flourish, the saga of the Christmas tree-turned-refuge [here] ends for another year. As part of yesterday’s yard clean-up the old Christmas tree, dried and browning, was dragged off to its final reward on the hilltop brushpile, having done yeoman’s duty these many months as the go-to hideout for small birds hoping to flee the clutches of the marauding Cooper’s hawk. The birds—hunters and victims—are now on their own until next New Year’s Day 2010, when the next tree, its decorations removed, is given new duties as shelter and sanctuary.]
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Yesterday afternoon I glanced out my workroom window and saw a pair of male indigo buntings darting about a dandelion-infested wild corner of the yard—a first for Riversong. Not that indigo buntings are uncommon in southwestern-Ohio. However, these pretty little birds, whose namesake color is the intense blue of a northern sky, are more inclined to hang around weed field edges and brushy openings, the thickets on either side of a scrub woods. A riverine corridor is not their usual haunt. The pair were not yet done with their spring molt, as evidenced by the grayish patches on their feathers. After a minute or so they flew around the corner of the cottage and out of sight, but I did see one of them—or a different male—a few hours later. And brief as their appearance was, I’m glad to add them to the list of visitors. Not only did I see those buntings yesterday afternoon, but I managed to get my lawn mowed…with my new lawnmower! You may recall from previous postings and frequent whining that I’ve been lawnmower-less since late last fall—a fact of tactical weakness which the grass may have realized recently. Or it may have been the cool weather and ample rain that induced it to grow like gangbusters. Whatever. Things had indeed reached a critical stage hereabouts. It was either buy a mower or break out the scythe and take in hay. Not having a barn for hay storage, I opted for the lawnmower. The problem is, it has been raining here since Thursday— either as light sprinkles or full-fledged downpours until mid-morning yesterday. Even the buzzards which roost on the island across the river looked miserable—an exceptional feat for a turkey vulture, who tends to look mostly dour and grim. They'd sit atop a dripping limb, wings half opened in a vain attempt to dry out, and give me the gimlet eye whenever I looked their way—as if the rain were somehow my fault! Once the rain ceased, I removed my new mower from its shipping carton, performed the “some assembly required” tasks, checked the blade for sharpness, filled the respective tanks with oil and gasoline—then waited for the exceptionally long grass to dry out to where I thought I might get the mower through it without undue clogging. Nothing like breaking in a new machine with a maximum test. In due time the intermittent sunlight did its work…and I did mine. The days of rain have given my hostas a real boost. The first of last week their green tips were barely poking above the ground; now they’re at least a foot high. It always amazes me how much a plant can grow once it really takes off. In fact, all my plants—including the ones I planted only a week or so ago—have benefited from the rain, including the mix of seeds I sowed in the bed I built near the back door. Thousands of tiny green speckles that promise to become a knee-high thicket of various bright colors by late-June. Naturally, the river is up and muddy, though not overly so; certainly not to worrisome height. In fact, I see this morning it has already dropped 6–7 inches since yesterday afternoon, though we’re supposed to have showers later this morning. As any riverside dweller can tell you, streams are not static landscape features. The cost of those idyllic scenes of a picture-perfect creek or river is learning to live with its moods, the regular ups and downs and discolorations. On the riverbank…life is never boring.