The Long Winter, Cordelia, and Dead Man’s Fingers

Song sparrow by Budgora

Song Sparrow courtesy of Budgora on Flickr

Last winter, I succeeded in becoming a bit hardier for winter walking, with the help of long johns and other snug layers. I learned that, despite the instinct to avoid the cold, there are long, interesting walks to be had on all but the chilliest and snowiest of days. With caution, of course. I had 2 friends who injured their arms by slipping on the ice; they, too, had been determined to get outside no matter what!

In a minor ironic twist, now I am prepared to layer up and get out but I am not supposed to bear weight on my foot. I am impatient about this, but yet again relearning the old lesson that there is something to notice, something to see when I get in the mindset to find it. The suet hosts the occasional Downy Woodpecker but it has been mostly quiet. What, then, is that hint of a movement on the ground below the feeder? Only with my binoculars can I discern a duo of song sparrows, who blend in so well with the dark leaf litter. They are hopping about, sporting those handsome striped heads.

Cordelia book

I watch Gavin walk back into the woods with envy and turn towards my new friend Cordelia. Well, the book about her, anyway. I bought Beyond the Spring during our family visit to Birdsacre in Ellsworth, Maine, this summer. Cordelia Stanwood isn’t exactly a household name, but I am so glad to be learning about this kindred spirit who died at 93, about a decade before I was born. The first 40 years or so of her life were typical for a single woman of her time who had the support of family and some resources at her disposal. She spent many years teaching and continuing her schooling. That is, until her nervous breakdown. She was back home with her parents and brother after this, and it sounds like for a while she lived a rather numb existence.

Her biographer, who based much of what he wrote on the voluminous papers she left behind, wrote about how she reunited with the world after her illness:

…One day while looking down the long hill below the house she had become aware of the rugged peacefulness of what she saw: the flat smoothness of snow-covered fields on either side of Card’s Brook, the lazy blue smoke curling up from the chimneys in town, the purple outline of the hills in Dedham silhouetted against the rosy tints of late-afternoon sky. Suddenly she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and when a gull sailed majestically through the golden rays of late sunshine she had smiled and whispered to herself, “Oh, world, you are there after all. You haven’t changed. It is I who have been away, and you have been waiting for me all the time.”

Cordelia repaid the waiting natural world with countless hours of watching its birds and taking their photos. Today, you can visit Birdsacre and read some of Cordelia’s words as you walk the trails:

cordelia

From Cordelia’s papers

You can visit the injured birds that are referred to as “permanent guests” there. In the Nature Center, I was especially taken with the Merrit Fitch egg collection (more than 58 species of birds’ eggs collected by two teenage boys in 1888). AND with the dead man’s fingers that grew near the fence. They were the pièce de résistance of the pathway back to the car!

dead man's fingers

During these quiet, snowy days, I like to think back and imagine Cordelia’s reawakening to nature as she looked out over the snow. I like to think about how this possibility is there for us every single day. I have many times felt that recognition, that delight as I looked at a bug or a leaf or a bird—that deep knowing, as Cordelia did, that the world is always waiting for us. We just need to rise up to meet it.

They Came with the Cold: On Patience, Bird Feeders, and New Beginnings

Juncos Dawn Huczek on Flicr

Junco courtesy of Dawn Huczek on Flickr

It hasn’t been a banner month for our bird feeders. Maybe they don’t enjoy the “wild bird” mix I put out. Maybe that disabled hawk we saw downed on our neighbor’s lawn – who we still spot, flying low, from time to time – has taken up residence and is scaring the smaller birds away. I worried that the local bird population had declined steeply, but others assure me that their feeders have been quite active!

How often did my mother tell me, growing up, that patience is a virtue?

It’s hard to be patient when time seems to be at such a premium. I peek out the back window when I hurry into the cold pantry for a scoop of Buddy’s kibble, or when I walk through the dining room. Nobody at the feeder. Well, not until lately.

A few days ago, when the temperature hovered close to 0, they crept in. A pair of woodpeckers lingered at the suet. They were moving so very slowly, and sometimes not at all for long stretches. They looked more like wax figurines than living beings, and I guessed they were likely in (or approaching) torpor.  Birds use torpor – “a state of slowed body functions” – to conserve energy and heat.

rose hips snow Hisgett

Chilled rose hips courtesy of Tony Hisgett on Flickr

The woodpeckers – Downy variety, I think –  are back today, and moving in normal fashion. It’s a (comparatively) balmy 10 degrees. The Downies are outnumbered by the Dark-eyed Juncos, though. I count seven juncos. When they are not at the feeder they congregate in the bare rosa rugosa bushes lining the deck. Will this be the year that I finally make my own rose hip tea or jelly, when the hips come back into bloom? It seems a good New Year’s resolution, and I think I’ve got at least 5 months to gear up for it!

In the shorter term, there’s so much to aspire to when the calendar flips over to 2018. I want to put more slips in the gratitude jar, inspired by my sister’s heartfelt book.  It’s not that I didn’t find moments to be grateful for in 2017—it’s that I don’t always stop to mark them. (And, yes, that is a literal and a figurative statement! The jar’s slips make tangible what my mind and spirit have taken in.) I want, no, NEED–more time in a state of awareness and contemplation and gratitude. More stopping and noticing and peering and pondering.  More letting the best parts of this world wash over me; less occupying my space and time with the superficial. I’ve even downloaded an app to track and limit my screen time—I’d like to say I use the blue screen to access moments of great meaning, but too often I am flitting about, grazing on what amounts to junk food for my brain and spirit.

Jar

Gratitude jar, with Gavin’s art in the background. To be read on New Year’s morning!

I had a few lovely micro-moments of observation and contemplation in recent days. They have made me hungry for more. The birds, who refuse to accommodate my schedule, are at last showing up with regularity. They dive in and forage the ground below the feeder. They stand in the snow in small clusters, so quiet at mealtime when I know that they could sing for their suppers quite operatically. They are worth every faithful stop at the windowpane, even if I don’t always find them when I hope to.

Branches in snow David Burns Flickr.jpg

Snow-laden branches courtesy of  David Burn on Flickr

Last night, Buddy required a nocturnal walk. My walks have been woefully brief due to a foot problem, and I miss my outside adventures so much. But I can still make mini-circuits around the yard (with apologies to the podiatrist). Last night’s circuit had me admiring how the snow adorned each horizontal limb of the cottonwood, and how the moon lit the yard in such a stirring and immersive way. I called Gavin outside to see it. Today I read a freshly minted poem by Amy Nawrocki that conveyed how I felt when I looked up at the night sky.

Wishing you peace, well-attended bird feeders, and many reverent moonlit walks in 2018.

PS: For some good reading on day-lit walks, check out these fine haibuns about the New England Trail.

Transformation: Holiday to Holy Day

IMG_1456.JPGThe day could have been one of near-panic. Despite a decade of efforts to simplify Christmas, each year it still boils down to many items piled onto my already overflowing to-do list. Even tasks that carry genuine meaning for me – like creating a photo card that will celebrate our treasured son and reach out to friends old and new – threaten to sap my time and energy. It’s a matter of simple math—more to do, but no extra time to do it.

But then there was this: after my doctor’s appointment I challenged myself to brave the cold for a bit, just 5 minutes down the block to Starbucks in Old Saybrook, where I could sit with a caramel macchiato and consolidate my monster list. My face hurt in the wind, and my leather gloves suddenly seemed too thin.

After my coffee-list mission, I started my chilly journey down Main Street to the car. I was going to be all business from there on out—so much to do! But I glanced down a long, straight side street (Coulter Street, I think) and saw what looked like water at the end of it. It drew me like a magnet. My tingling face and fingers were forgotten as I let the tree-lined block and the water draw me—my curiosity had a happy, warming side effect.

IMG_1345 (1).JPGI looked up at the bare trees as I walked, taking in long-abandoned birds’ nests now exposed and trying to remember what squirrels’ nests are called (dreys!). I examined the varied barks of this tree and that—some smooth, some wrinkled, some like alligator skin. I felt appreciation for older, craggy trees that are allowed to age with dignity and must be homes to many a grateful creature. For the gazillionth time I wondered if I might look up and see a sleeping owl in some tree hollow or on some high branch (it hasn’t happened yet but I keep hoping). I remembered reading about how some trees hang onto their seed pods all winter, poised for the chance to drop them into the soft, fertile spring soil.

IMG_1453.JPGThe marsh came into full view as I strolled, and I simply stood there watching it for a while. I admired the fat, feathery cat tails swaying in the wind. I saw some sparrows or juncoes darting about.

Then I looked up the hill to my left and saw what I thought might be a cemetery. I had never been down this block before, and it turned out my “cemetery” was a long line of boulders on the border of Founders Memorial Park, a 2007 creation built on a former landfill and overlooking North Cove. The vista I found there gave me a sense of deep contentment, and the sign about the park’s bird life had me wishing I’d toted my binoculars along. No doubt many have migrated away for now, but when they come back I will come here, too, looking for a Clapper Rail or a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

IMG_1455.JPGIn the meantime, the cold doesn’t seem so very harsh any more. It was a Christmas gift tailor-made for me—this moment of being reminded that simply stepping out, simply stopping to gaze and wonder, even in the harsh cold, even shoehorned in between the gazillion waiting tasks, can reveal a world that’s been waiting patiently all along. The bench placed there by a local church seemed to be placed there as a fitting caption:

IMG_1457.JPG

Cold, Refreshing Spring (and a Free Books Footnote)

GavinColdSpring_010115It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a whole month since we awoke to 2015, and that first chilly day of the year had us at our traditional New Year’s place: Cold Spring, New York, a village on the Hudson (most photos here courtesy of my husband Tom, except where noted).

Although I continue to work on becoming a hardier example of our species, this wasn’t a prime day for long strolls in the out of doors. The wind whipped off the river; the temperatures were in the teens, maybe even single digits with the wind chill. But even so, we were bundled up and enjoyed a brisk 25 minutes or so on the coast, where we picked through driftwood on the beach, watched long cargo trains pull by on the opposite shore, and marveled at the abundance of spiky, otherworldly-looking water chestnut seed pods, sometimes called devil’s heads, that had washed up onto the beach. (I learned from The Incidental Steward by Akiko Busch that water chestnuts, introduced in the late 1800s as exotic ornamentals, have become quite the invasive species, choking our rivers and spreading at alarming rates).

Water Chestnut Seed Pod From peppergrasss on Flickr

Water Chestnut Seed Pod
From peppergrasss on Flickr

After a warm and happy lunch at Le Bouchon we took a meandering drive along the river, happening upon a herd of deer grazing in an overgrown meadow.

DeerColdSpring010115

The day was refreshing and lively but indubitably COLD. We didn’t leave the car when we capped the day with our traditional drive through Hubbard Park on the way home, to see the Christmas lights display.

I’m not sure whether two sightings since that cold first day of 2015–and before the recent mega snowfall–should be taken as signs of the havoc that climate change is predicted to bring, but, regardless, they have made me more hopeful about spring coming. In the Wal-Mart parking lot, Tom and I were treated to the spectacle of two sparrows mating alongside the curb—cute, fascinating, and shocking all at the same time. I looked up house sparrows (although I can’t swear this was the variety we saw—didn’t want to create any sparrow scandals by snapping an incriminating photo), and sure enough, they sometimes begin mating as early as January. And then, on a drive along beautiful River Road from Essex to Deep River, I saw an osprey on an aerie. According to the CT DEEP page, they aren’t supposed to return from Southern hunting grounds until March. Then again, you get some early birds in every crowd. I may have to nudge the Essex OspreyCam operators so they can activate the live feed again.

It’s been good for me to learn this winter that life does go on outside even when my instinct tells me to stay where it’s warm and dig in deeper beneath the blankets. Did you know that when birds go South, it’s more about finding food than getting away from the cold? I want to keep them close–I trudged through nearly 2 feet of snow yesterday to get to the bird feeder and was rewarded by an audience (from afar) with several female cardinals. I wonder if they would have liked these berries that managed to display themselves so artfully in Cold Spring:

ColdSpringBLUEBerries_010115

(PS: For those who perked up at “free books” in the title, I am giving away some copies, while they last, of Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough, in which I have a piece published; as well as Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey. I’m afraid I can’t pay postage but happy to get copies to locals or work out some kind of prepaid mailing arrangement for those afar).