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Nature Girl

I have never in my adult life been what I think of as a Nature Girl. I hate camping, and anything that involves jumping across slimy stones in the middle of moving water while other people wait with increasing impatience. My role models, during my formative years, tended to be snarky urbanites like Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz and Dorothy Parker. For a long time, it suited me to affect a kind of Urban Sophisticate persona so that the whole outdoors thing was simply out of the question. I liked unfiltered Camels, black clothing, oysters and indie films. I was not a person one would invite to spend a few days rappelling, spelunking, kayaking, or portaging. I had no desire to use a compass to find my way out of anything, ever. Until recently, I was even terrified of dealing with my own small, rapidly decompensating yard.

Then, for many reasons, I began to change. There was, inside me, the little girl who had had a shelf of books about seashells, reptiles and amphibians, stars, and flowers. That little girl made fairy houses in the woods, knew a cicada from a katydid, and made daisy chains. She climbed trees, tried to reconstruct ruined anthills, and brought garden snakes, toads and frogs into the house in an attempt to make them pets. She swam like a fish, collected rocks, shells, acorns, birch bark and feathers, and lay at the end of a dock in Maine watching the Perseid Meteor Shower put on a show in the hot, night sky. She read “Rascal” 800 times, and wanted a pet raccoon. She went to Camp Discovery at a nearby nature preserve and wept, inconsolably, when she learned that the day’s project was not just to catch butterflies but to kill them in a chemical-filled jar and pin their wings to a board.

Like a princess under an enchantment, I woke up to find myself in a sanitized, glamorized, chemical-filled world where there was no place for the cry of a mourning dove or the miraculous appearance of a sand dollar tossed from the depths of the ocean. I remembered, but it would take some work to reconnect with that wild child running through the woods with sticks and wilting flowers stuck into her frizzy brown hair.

 First it was about food – how could it not be better to eat produce that was uncontaminated by chemicals, dairy free from hormones, and fish caught in the wild? How interesting would it be to be a forager, urban or otherwise, learning to identify the mushrooms and plants that would make a satisfying dinner without killing anyone? I thought about hunting animals, and the balance of things, and how I would not choose to hunt, but hunting spared local deer a slow, agonizing death. And how did things get that way? Was it a natural evolution of predator and prey, or had we built so many strip malls and subdivisions that the deer were placed at an entirely unnatural disadvantage?

Then there were things celestial. I remembered childhood nights in the backyard with my father as he showed me the constellations, telling me the story of Orion, and the Pleiades. Night after night we went out, noting that we saw the stars and planets in different places as the earth moved, discussing the phases of the moon, shooting stars, and meteor showers. I knew, then, and I never forgot that there would be a meteor shower in the middle of August. If we were in Maine, where the sky was free from competing light, we watched the show over the treeless lake, and it was magic. If we were home in Michigan it was less clear, but we could still take blankets into the yard, lie on our backs and watch. It was thrilling to be outside so late, grass smells all around, swatting mosquitos and willing my eyes to scan the sky with only brief blinking so that I wouldn’t miss the streaks of bright light.

Later, other things came back. My parents were bird watchers, and I grew up knowing my common chickadees from my Cedar Waxwings. When there was a truly exciting visitor, like a Flicker, it was reason to run to the kitchen window and watch as the bird, unaware of his celebrity status, blithely consumed sunflower seeds. I put up a bird feeder last winter, and felt the old thrill every time I looked out the window to see that a Blue jay or a Cardinal had come to my yard to dine on seed. I wanted to see a hummingbird again, and maybe, if I was really lucky, a Flicker.

How could I have forgotten this, that I lived in a world of tiny toads that hopped around manically in the days after they grew legs and left their watery lives as tadpoles, spider webs glistening with dew, and bulbs storing energy beneath the hard, cold ground until the first tickle of sunlight penetrated their hiding places? I began to read about herbs, to cook with them, to grow them, and to study their traditional, medicinal uses. I walked bravely through my own, small yard wondering how so many oak leaves and acorns littered the ground when all the trees I could see were maples. I thought about making a place for myself in that overgrown yard, raking up the dead leaves and adding them to my compost bin, filling a Radio Flyer wagon with pots of herbs and a tomato or two that I could move to sunny spots during the summer. I imagined lying on my back in my own yard, looking into the August sky, watching the Perseus put on their show.

Yesterday, as I gathered sticks from the ground, I contemplated making a couple of raised beds in the front yard. A butterfly, not a Monarch, but a creature of impossibly bright red and black, fluttered around me and seemed to follow me as the cat and I traversed the yard. Telepathically, I promise it some flowers if it would check back in a few weeks, once the danger of frost had fully passed. I thought of bees, the helpful, maligned fleets of them that did us so much good while we bombed them with pesticides and sent them reeling back to their hives. I saw, in my head, an entire Peaceable Kingdom on the small piece of land where I was privileged to coexist with nature. Worms turning earth, bees collecting pollen, and birds pecking for tasty insects in the trees.

This morning, a single mallard duck appeared in our front yard. I think he was an omen. He didn’t stay long, stopping only to look at us and give an obliging “quack” before waddling purposefully down the street. I think he heard there was going to be some nature going on around here.

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A Cardinal on a Pinecone

My father famously remarks every year that “Christmas is at our throats again.” He is not, categorically, a Little Ray of Sunshine, and for my whole life I have rolled my eyes when he says this, appeased him with fruitcake, and gone on about the business of making holiday magic.

This year, his genetic contribution is manifesting in me. It has been dark and rainy here, my mother is very ill, and there’s been a death in my extended family. My parents are not well enough to “make Christmas” any more, and for the first time, they have no tree, no decorations, and no Christmas village with its mirror lake hosting a tiny skating party. For the past few years I have “done” Christmas at their house and gone back in January to put it all away; this year they gently suggested that it was just too much for everybody, and that we should just not bother. My son, almost 15, is too old for the reading of Olive, The Other Reindeer, and actually forgot about the Advent box I have filled for him every year with tiny treats of money, candy and toys. I have, sometimes, a feeling that everything that Christmas should be is evading me, and I resent it.

I realized, yesterday, that Christmas is only nine days away and we still have no tree, I have baked no cookies, and I have not seen a single “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “White Christmas” or (my personal favorite) “Love, Actually.” The long window box that hangs from our porch is not, as it usually is by now, filled with an assortment of pine boughs, holly and mistletoe. I have bought gifts, but they aren’t wrapped, and I can’t seem to get myself excited about the usual ritual of putting on a Christmas CD, making myself a cup of hot chocolate with a candy cane in it, and blazing through piles of gifts, ribbon and paper with bits of Scotch tape stuck to the back of my hand. We have lights up because my husband is a better person than I am, and he somehow understood that it would be too unbearably sad not to have the tiny white lights wound around our porch columns to brighten the long, winter nights.

Desperate to find some holiday spirit, I noticed several mostly-empty jars of peanut butter in the pantry, and thought about my father making pine cone feeders for the birds. He is 85 now, and it’s too hard for him to maintain his traditional routine of putting out seed, suet cakes and other delights for the birds, but he trained me well. The peanut butter triggered a memory of sitting at the kitchen table in childhood, spreading peanut butter onto pine cones, rolling them in seed and hanging them like small Christmas gifts for the Cardinals, Bluejays, Grosbeaks and Tufted Titmice. We knew that the squirrels would find a way to get their fat, fluffy bodies onto the slenderest of filaments in order to steal a snack, and nobody much minded – squirrels have to eat, too.

And so, although I had a list of things that really needed doing, I went to hunt for pine cones in the woods near my parents’ house. While I was there, I clipped some holly for the window box. Later, we bought a Christmas tree and carried the boxes of ornaments and stockings down from the attic. After the groceries were bought and stored, the laundry was humming, and my husband and son had started the annual business of adjusting the tree in its stand so that it pointed towards the ceiling rather than the North wall, I assembled my pine cones, the peanut butter jars, a knife and a bag of tiny seeds. Channeling my childhood self, I began to spread the nubbly shapes with peanut butter and roll them in seed, imagining the delight of some tiny feathered creature as he discovered one last beak-full of food tucked between the little shingles. Humming something, which turned out to be “Silent Night,” I found some yarn in my craft stash, and went into the cold, dark night to hang them from trees near our ground floor windows.

As I sat writing at my desk this morning, a flash of brightest red caught my eye. I looked up, and outside my window was a Cardinal, regal in his red cap with its jaunty feather even as he tried to hold on to the pine cone and eat his fill of nut butter and seeds. That lovely, red bird against the stark background of bare trees and gray sky was, for me, a miracle. In that moment, before he flew off to his family, I felt the warmth of connection to my father the bird lover, myself as a child, and the possibility of tiny, startling and beautiful occurrences that give us hope.

This Christmas is different, my family is changing, and nothing can stay the same forever. There is always beauty in the world, though, and it doesn’t come from the mall or from frantic human merry-making. It is always available, given graciously and freely by the natural world around us in the graceful arc of birch branches under snow, or the great silver coin of a full moon suspended in the winter sky. The natural world is always in flux; even as I admire a crystalline icicle there are miniscule seeds growing beneath the cold, damp earth. I have been trying desperately to hang on to seasons past, but the truth is that everything changes.

Sometimes, if we hustle, budget, strive, and calculate we can create a holiday that looks like it should, from the perfect tree in the front window to the ancestral bowl of figgy pudding after the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. If we are blessed with material wealth, we might even be able to give our loved ones everything they want in boxes with bright ribbons. Sometimes, though, if we stop trying to make things happen as they should, we are given the gift of a Cardinal on a pine cone.

Consider the Bee

There is much in this world that leads us to believe that as humans, we are superior to other life forms. We have opposable thumbs, and the kind of intellect and consciousness that allow us to build more than a hive or a dam and shape our future with intellect rather than instinct. We have religions that teach us that we are “stewards” of the earth, as if we had somehow been handed a title by an unseen force who we may actually have invented.

We do not, often, look at ants as they carry a fallen comrade across our bathroom floor and consider whether we would do the same. We worry about how they got into our house, and how best to kill them. No one is going to be bothered to carry every ant, spider and fly outside – they are, after all, encroaching in our homes with their dirty little feet. We particularly hate stinging creatures like bees, hornets, and wasps. We say things like “I see a purpose for bees, at least honey bees, but the other ones don’t do anything useful.”

We are irrational, sentimental and blind about the earth. We love our own pets, and Bambi, and national parks, the sight of an untrammeled field of Purple Vetch by the highway or a perfect ripe strawberry. We also develop land that is the habitat of creatures, mess up the food chain, pollute the air and water, cut down forests to make houses and paper, drive cars down the block, and encourage farmers to grow cattle feed and raise animals in tiny pens that make them better food sources for people. More meat, more eggs, more milk, because we are exercising stewardship and dominion over the land. Because the land belongs to us and it is our right. Right?

Still, we crave nature even as we continue to destroy it. We plant gardens, feed birds, travel to unspoiled places and marvel at the miracle of a naturally-occurring waterfall, a spider web glistening with dew, flowers that open only at night and seem to glow white in the moist darkness of a summer night. No matter how many Disney’s, Dollywood’s, Imax theaters, French restaurants and pristine golf courses we create, most of us still feel the pull of a giant Harvest moon, a meteor shower, or a story about the way that elephants mourn. We still feel small and insignificant as we look out on the ocean or up at a mountain range. We are not the boss of this earth, but participants in a cooperative venture, doing our part alongside the worms that turn the earth and the rivers that carry water. If anything, our ability to dream and plan makes us more responsible to protect and preserve our habitat rather than destroying it.

Which leads me to this video, made by a kind of remarkable person who I have never met, but who I believe to be a kindred spirit.   I started the day reading about local farmers making a comeback growing not food, but corn and soy to feed Asian cattle, and I was sad. Then I read about legislation that would open the doors to wider use of genetically modified crops in my state and I was sadder. Then I saw this video, and I knew that there was still a balance in the world between those who would dominate and those who would coexist with respect, humility and compassion. Thank you, Algis Kemezys.