A Trove of Seeds

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky's Department of Agriculture page

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture page

Last week, a coworker gifted me with a jumbo-sized acorn. She’d wanted to work outside for a little while, but had to come in because the oak tree above the picnic table was dropping these plump seeds in an urgent and generous rain. Even walking across the grass had become a challenge, as if navigating a small sea of ball bearings. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but a quick Internet search told me there are quite a few kinds of acorns—I think this one was a chestnut acorn. (Here’s a link to an iconic chestnut oak specimen in Clinton, CT–I hope it’s still there!). Our local oaks seem to be having “mast years,” dropping huge volumes of their offspring after a season of favorable weather and ramped up production.

Seeds buok imageMy acorn research coincided beautifully with my latest read—Seeds by Richard Horan. The author traveled around the country, visiting trees that inspired famous American writers as well as other notables. He scooped up samples of many trees’ progeny, sometimes on a solo journey, sometimes with family or friends. I’d like to ask him what became of the resulting plantings. Is there, somewhere closer to home than Monroeville ( Alabama’s literary capital), a Harper Lee chestnut that I can visit?

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

I liked what one of Horan’s friends said: “You know, when you initially arrive at a site, you think there’s nothing there, but after spending a little time looking around, trees begin to appear.” Of course, our silent observers are always there, often assuming a strictly background role. Many precede us, and many will survive long after we are gone, so I regard them as wise and infinitely patient, owing to their long lives and inability to walk away. I like what Willa Cather (one of the many authors featured in Seeds) had to say about them, too: “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” I am not so sure (forgive me, Willa!) that I would have chosen the word “resigned.” Maybe, after all these years the resigning has evolved into accepting. John Muir was more optimistic: “I never saw a discontented tree.”

This season is often thought of as a time of winding down, but time outside reminds me that so many creatures are hurriedly proliferating before the cold and stillness of winter wreaks a time of suspended animation for many. I’ve noticed gypsy moth pupae in the trees around my office park, a bit concerned because I don’t think it’s the right season and I know they can fall prey to all manner of infections. I’m fully aware that these insects are considered pests, but observing them in recent years has made me more sympathetic. I like the moth-like shape of their felted egg masses and wonder how many will survive the winter.

Gypsies and their kids at Trail Wood

This, too, is the time for planting bulbs—something I too often forget to do. I am especially taken with one advertised: The Poet’s Daffodil. I like the haiku-like description on the American Meadows site (line breaks inserted by me!):

Flowers are pure white with
a yellow cup edged in red.
Sweet fragrance

Poet's Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Poet’s Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Of what poet was this bulb’s namer thinking? I’ve no idea, but it just so happens I have a Robert Frost anthology beside me. My mom, whose memory and hearing are so very poor now, came alive when we took turns reading from it last Tuesday, this treasured corner of her mind not unlike a bulb that’s overwintered finally flowering. I’ve flipped to this Frost poem today. It reminds me of the inevitability, and often hibernating gifts, of bleaker seasons:

 

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

Preserves and Professional Parks

path in woods startMy friend Chris asked me recently about my week-long nature writing residency at the Trail Wood memorial preserve, and the first two words that came to mind were “life-changing.” I reveled in the chance to be in nature alone for extended periods, to contemplate, to write and rewrite, to read the treasured words of Edwin Way Teale in his very home, his very office—a sacred place to me! For the first time ever, I used up the camera storage in my iPhone. This blog isn’t big enough to contain the wealth of images, so I’ve scattered a select few throughout the post.

butterflyfuzzy mushroom lichenOf course, Trail Wood had many creatures and plants that I don’t see every day. The Beaver Pond became my favorite destination, and one morning I watched one of the beavers having an early swim. I took photo upon photo of insects in both meadow and forest, but I wasn’t usually swift enough to capture the many birds digitally. I looked forward to daily sightings of the woodchuck who lived near the house. My suburban New York roots showing, I sang to myself in the woods and carried pepper spray just in case the reported resident bear didn’t like my performance. (Maybe the bear wasn’t as exotic as it seemed. There have been several reported sightings in Deep River neighborhoods recently!)

Teale cabinAn absolute gift of the preserve was its undisturbed quality. But another gift I took away from my time there is the practice of really looking and listening even in places that haven’t had the benefit of such thoughtful stewardship. I  take small walks around the office park where I work, not by any stretch a nature preserve. Still, I smile at the abundance of Carolina locusts behind the buildings (who don’t seem to be doing any noticeable damage), and the occasional spotting of a raptor, bright bird, dragonfly, or hornets. I look down into the wetlands below the tall hill. Once in a while, I see a deer. Just once, I rescued a young raccoon who was clattering around in the nearly empty dumpster, watching from a distance as he climbed the long birch limb escape ladder I’d lowered for him.

Just the other day, I snapped a picture of a delicately decorated moth (looked like the oversized Oriental vases my grandfather had around his house) who turned out to be an ailanthus webworm moth. I love it when nature comes right to my door!

alianthus web worm

While staying at the Teale home I was drawn to a book of Mr Teale’s that I hadn’t read before: Days without Time. The edition on the study shelf was dated 1948, just 3 years after his son David was killed in World War II. Teale’s introductory words ring so very true:

The fall of the tree, the swoop of the hawk, the tilt of the buzzard in a windy sky, the song of the hermit thrush at evening, the opening of a windflower, the eddy of a woodland brook—all of these are events for days without time. They might have occurred during any one of a thousand or ten thousand years. Ticking clocks and factory whistles have little to do with the eternal recurrence of these eternal themes.

Something for me to remember after my New Hampshire vacation, chock full of walks in shallow streams and visits to waterfalls: when the “factory whistle” is again in play, nature doesn’t live only in preserves or the areas we think of as great sightseeing locales. It is everywhere. With eyes and ears wide open, every day is a new chance to notice it, to give it the full attention that it deserves. With that attending we find ourselves more connected and more alive.

Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is the title of Anne Lamott’s revered book, subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, so I couldn’t resist borrowing it for this mini-tale of amateur birding.

The origins of the title, as explained by Lamott, are sweet, and an encouragement for any pursuit, birding or otherwise:

 Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

I was a bit overwhelmed myself when I sat down to do my part for Project Feederwatch recently. I was not overwhelmed by the task itself, but rather by the realization that it was truly quite difficult to commit to sit for at least an hour at a time, at least 2 days in a row. What does this say about me, and about my life? Well, part of it is a general tendency towards restlessness, but at least in equal measure it speaks to how much there is to do. This is a wakeup call to keep an eye on what is truly important—not just essential “to dos”—some of which are unavoidable–but what actually matters. I’ve decided that the birds matter greatly. Mary Oliver wrote something that resonates with me deeply in this regard, because the experience of attending to them did feel like an act of meaningful devotion:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And looking up “attend” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, I realize it means so much more than “show up:”

attend (v.)

c.1300, “to direct one’s mind or energies,” from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + tendere “stretch” (see tenet). The notion is of “stretching” one’s mind toward something. Sense of “take care of, wait upon” is from early 14c. Meaning “to pay attention” is early 15c.; that of “to be in attendance” is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.

I like the idea that I was stretching my mind toward the birds at the feeder, taking care of them, waiting upon them… waiting for them to show me so many moments of joy, and also literally being their waitress (slinging bird hash by trudging through the deep snow to their dining room!) .

What a delight to realize that there are whole communities of birds that are visiting my yard daily, most starting their nests and families and some passing through. And how nice, also, to see fellow bird adorers like me pipe in on Facebook, where I took a poll to figure out if I had Dark-eyed Juncos eating my seeds.

Just 2 hours on 2 snowy days (and, full disclosure, on the first day I was SUPPOSED to be working and not looking out the window every 5 minutes) yielded a great mix, the most exotic being my Kestrel (yes, mine: I feel some possessiveness about her), who was not at the feeder but on a nearby deck post. I was surprised by the 2 types of woodpeckers, who I rarely spot with casual glances around the neighborhood. And, by the way, has anyone noticed that the birds seem to congregate at the feeder when it is snowing? Of course, food is harder to find as it becomes covered up but maybe they also know how gorgeous they look among the snowflakes?. Here’s some more information on birds in cold weather.

One of the nicest moments was the iridescent appearance of our Mourning Doves as they flew down to the ground below the feeder. We see them often in our driveway and I hadn’t before appreciated their beauty in flight.

The Project FeederWatch system asked me to confirm the Kestrel—apparently an unlikely find for my area this time of year. But, yes, I’m pretty sure it was a female American Kestrel (Northern) after checking several Google images. It perched just a little way off from these species:

Mourning Dove

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

American Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

I think I need to apply Lamott’s advice to both writing and birding. One word at a time, one gift of a winged moment at a time. I’m looking forward to more Bird by Birding.

Nature (and Nests) Laid Bare

TealeCabinSaturday found Gavin and me wandering around the Hampton, CT, Audubon Society at Trail Wood pathways. They encircle the former home and writing cabin of nature writer extraordinaire Edwin Way Teale.

The day was a gift. We relished the balmy 51 degrees of an unseasonably comfortable late December day. We signed in at the information building, musing over the many visitors that have walked these trails over the years. We looked up the day Gavin was born–yes, someone had been hiking there on that very day in 2002! Some guest entries provided great detail–2 beavers at the pond, deer on the path, beautiful autumn colors. Someone had left a large paper wasp nest (now abandoned, of course) on the table, alongside maps, books, and magazines to educate the visitor, including this Connecticut Woodlands issue on the former resident nature writer. Teale wrote A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm at Trail Wood; the book about his time at these 168 acres of ponds, woodlands, and pastures was the Christmas gift to which I treated myself.

TealeCabinLittleBeaver

One of my goals this year is to make myself more hardy, so I am more apt to get out when it is colder than my current set point of 40 degrees. For super frigid days, I have my “Cabinet of Curiosity” to pore over–a box that Gavin decorated into which we’ve deposited egg shells, snake skins, fungi, lichen, nuts, butterfly wings, and all matter of other nature finds.

nests

A few items from our shoebox collection

Among the collection are several nests, and it occurred to me as we wandered the woodlands that sighting of nests is a big bonus of wintertime, one even the most cold-averse explorers can appreciate. The leaves are gone, and revealed among the bare branches I see large paper wasp nests overhanging the road, squirrel’s nests high up in the forks of trees, and plenty of abandoned bird nurseries. I like to think about when and how they were built. Squirrels’ nests always look like quite a messy affair to me, so I was tickled to read in West Virginia Wildlife Magazine about how much care and planning goes into them:

Construction begins with a platform of twigs roughly woven together, upon which damp leaves and moss are compacted to form a solid base. A spherical skeleton of interwoven twigs and vines is erected around the base. The outer shell is then completed with the addition of leaves, moss, twigs, and even paper.

I have new respect for the squirrels, and great hopes for more outdoor “nest safaris”, even when the temperatures dip a bit lower. Of course, when the weather warms again there will be new nests with new occupants. It will be fun to find those, too, although of course they must be viewed from afar. Here’s some advice on the pursuit from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Morning with Raptors (Soundtrack included)

One morning recently, when it was just barely light, I stopped the electric toothbrush to listen. Unseen, coming from a tree over the garage, an Eastern Screech Owl cried. I am a truly amateur bird watcher and listener, so I had only a faint idea about what I was hearing. But the nice thing about being an amateur these days is that you have a world of resources just a few key strokes away. To me, the screech sounded like half whinny, half screaming woman—it sent a chill of alarm through me before I figured out that it was a raptor. Here’s a link to the audio. The dramatic, human quality of the call reminded me of the start to Mystery on PBS years ago (the part of this video where the helpless woman is crying in distress from atop, for some reason, a large tombstone. Creepy, with Edward Gorey graphics.)

I loved the unexpected treat of this unseen visitor. That owl sat on the same branch, I think, where Gavin had once spotted a juvenile bald eagle, in all its magnificence, looking down at our garage. (we have mice and chipmunk visitors to the garage—has the word spread in the bird of prey community?). I was so impressed I had to try a poem that day (it’s at the bottom of this post).

What was it about this particular Saturday morning that had the raptors showing themselves to me? A half hour after the Screech Owl, I was only two blocks into my walk when I pulled out my iPhone to try to record a Red-Shouldered Hawk at the very top of a tall pine. My friend Chris paused her own walk to stare up and take photos with me, and I had a new appreciation for nature photographers/videographers. Of course, I had no zoom lens, but to even get just a recognizable profile I had to wait, patiently, until the guy (or gal) turned his/her head. And I started to feel like the bird was intentionally withholding its call now that I was trying to capture it. I got a neck cramp watching and waiting, but finally it graced me with its song and I hit the “record” button with success. Here’s a link to hear what the hawk sounds like (my free version of WordPress won’t let me upload videos, but I am quite proud of my own recorded song). Here’s the best picture I managed (as handy as the phone camera is, I am putting a compact camera with zoom on my wish list):redShoulderhawk

Last year, Gavin and I attended an Audubon Society “Owl Prowl”—a nighttime walk in the freezing cold led by an expert birder and caller. The only owl we saw and heard was the baby one they were rehabilitating inside—I think it may have been another Eastern Screech (I remember its fluffy ear tufts). But it was endlessly amusing to witness this 50- or 60-something woman expertly contorting her vocal chords to cry out like an owl. I don’t remember her doing the Eastern Screech call though—that would have been an impressive feat. I see there’s another Owl Prowl in the works (this one in Milford, CT, but, for locals, I bet others will be scheduled soon—watch the Audubon Web sites).

And this strays from the raptor topic, since I’ve never seen a raptor at my bird feeder, but Project FeederWatch, an opportunity to be a citizen scientist and tune in more to birds even as the winter weather zooms in (an initiative by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada) is underway. Participants are asked to select 2 feeder watch days at least a week apart, and record what they see. If you get into it, winter also brings the Great Backyard Bird Count in February 2015. I am not a cold weather lover but the distraction of birding makes it a much more enriching time for me!

Wishing you your own morning with raptors, for it truly is a gift to be visited by these magnificent creatures.

Should I remember anything of this day,
it will be the bald eagle on bare branch
framed against the Sunday afternoon sky

Watched me watching him,
nearly motionless,
incongruous in his largeness

Stayed during my afternoon nap
(perhaps he had one too),
screeched as I roused,
just before he flew

I searched each limb from
every pane of my own aerie

Found him again between
the spaces in this poem