Time Lapse

A couple of days ago I set up my wildlife camera next to the bird feeders to record who all showed up over the course of a day. I’ve only been paying attention to birds in any kind of focused way for the past two years, and I would not call myself an avid birder. My interest in them started when I decided I wanted to take a bird photograph every day for a 100 days of fill-in-the-creative-endeavor project, and while I still enjoy trying to get decent photos of them, I’m not that committed to that either. I follow a local online birding group and I see a lot of amazing photos there, and a lot of people excitedly adding to their life lists (the poor painted bunting who showed up in the DC suburbs seemed to have more photographers than all the current and former British royal family combined). I admire the enthusiasm but I don’t fully understand it. I do get pretty excited when I see a bird I’ve never seen and can actually identify, but maybe next year I’ll forget and get just as excited again.

I had the bird feeder camera set up for about ten hours to try to catch multiple feeding cycles. Most of the 1,354 photos are just that – repeat cycles of the same visitors, including a cardinal couple, a red bellied woodpecker couple, a blue jay, a mockingbird (it could be more than one – they come one at a time and I can’t tell them apart), a bluebird or two, a few brown headed cowbirds, a vast parade of house finches (with an occasional purple finch to remind me I am terrible at finch identification), goldfinches, little chipping sparrows, and one very fat and sassy squirrel. The photos I like best are the ones that make me laugh: the squirrel moving from one feeder to another, several bird blurs coming and going at once, a goldfinch in the middle of a 180 as he realized he didn’t want to mess with the mockingbird and he could come back later.

It turns out to be watching the regular birds doing regular bird things that interests me most. An eastern kingbird in his little tuxedo perched on the fence looking so refined, and then full-on assaulting a robin, appearing to say “I said GOOD DAY, sir!” to the back end of the departing robin. The way the female cardinal always shows up first, whether at the feeder or a tree, and then is joined by her mate – in contrast to the red bellied woodpeckers, who take entirely separate turns at the feeders, and always the male first. Many of the birds I’m seeing now I saw all winter. I’ve been watching the male goldfinches shift from a dull sort of olive color in winter to their bright yellow breeding plumage. The chickadees who buzz impatiently at me from the nearby sugar maple while I fill the feeders may well be the same ones who have been buzzing at me all winter, though their red breasted nuthatch and pine warbler associates who were bold enough to perch right on the stands while I added seed seem to have moved on.

The green herons have made their first spring appearance. They are following their usual pattern: first I see one flying north from the reservoir next door, perhaps to one of the other nearby ponds. Then I start seeing them flying over our property to or from the water – that’s the phase we are in now. Soon those flights will include carrying sticks to build their highly hypothetical looking nests, which I believe are constructed of eleven twigs and some wishful thinking, but they always do the trick. Last year when they built a nest in the weeping cherry right outside our bedroom window and I found one of the eggs after it hatched, I was amazed how small it was, and that it didn’t just slip right through the twigs. Green heron baby watch may be my favorite season, and it’s coming soon.

The barn swallows returned in April, as they always do. The consistency of birds is another thing I love, and barn swallows seem to be among the most punctual. We have had barn swallow mud nests in all of our run-in sheds for years, but I haven’t seen any evidence they are inhabited. I don’t know if swallows reuse nests; they may just be out and about doing their swallow activities all day. Far and away my favorite thing about mowing is having the swallows fly low and fast around me, eating the bugs that are scared up by the tractor. It’s a little wet to mow right now, but I had to mow the dog yard so as to not lose the actual dogs in the tall grass, and I had swallow companions the whole time. They were one of the first birds I paid attention to, in my early twenties when I didn’t have attention for much but the fact that I seemed to be losing my mind. Luckily I was working on a 95 acre farm at the time and there was a lot of mowing to do. I sat on the tractor for hours, sifting through depression and trauma and confusion and grief, all of which lightened with the swoop and swish of the barn swallows. For me, barn swallows are the dolphins of the air. They always make me smile, with their tiny rust colored breasts and bright eyes and sparkling wings filling my heart and reminding me to look up.

In the two years since I started my current bird journey I have also had bouts of depression and trauma and confusion and grief and feeling like I’m losing my mind. Most of it has been less extreme than in my early twenties – life in general was just more extreme when I was in my early twenties. But some things have gotten bigger, or harder, and the grief keeps adding up.

As with my early barn swallows, all the birds I watch now help me through that grief, and all the other worries large and small. We have raptors here as well as song birds, so I get frequent reminders from the birds (or the remains of the birds) that nature can be brutal, but I also get the beauty. I get the ebb and flow of bird migrations, the transient joy of the exotic visitors passing through, the birds who stay, the birds who return again and again, the birds who build their improbable nests and raise their babies against slim odds to start the cycle all over again.

Postcards from Terra Firma

The ash tree is known in some mythological traditions as the world tree, the tree of life, the tree that spans between worlds. I chose our lone ash tree over fifteen years ago without knowing anything about the tree from either an arboricultural or mythological perspective. I liked it for its straight trunk and symmetrical branches. In our first two waves of planting trees here, we chose trees for practical reasons. We chose them for their crown shapes: some spreading, some rounded, some upright. We chose them for their growth rates: near the barn and the horse pastures we wanted fast growers to produce shade, so we planted London planes and tulip poplars. Near the house we wanted less shade, so we chose ironwood, crimson king maple, ornamental plum. Some we just find pretty, like the weeping cherry and the redbuds. We planted the ash for my mother two days after she died, and it has grown untouched by ash borers for over fifteen years, spanning the world where I am, the world where she is, the world where I remember us, and the world where I picture us together.

Birds are a constant presence, their specific populations shifting with the seasons and the birds’ own whims. Birds that are just passing through, birds that come for the summer, birds that stay for the winter. When we first moved here, there were few I recognized: robins, bluebirds, starlings, grackles. Every small brown bird was a sparrow, every red bird a cardinal, every raptor a red tailed hawk. The year my sister died, I took up bird photography. I went through bird crushes, stalking and trying to capture closer and clearer shots of the Coopers hawk pair, the female cardinal, the nest of Dr. Seussian green heron babies. I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dying, and then I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dead. I can differentiate a goldfinch from a pine warbler from a yellow-breasted chat, even if I can’t quite yet parse grief from anger from loss.

Ice storms are a part of winter every year, though between winters I manage to forget about them and am surprised anew each time. They embody the exact intersection of destruction and beauty, dropping tree limbs on fences, downing whole trees across our driveway, cutting off power and rendering driving impossible even if we could find a way out. As I make my careful way around to inspect the damage, I carry a camera to try to capture the magic of the sun sparking rainbows through the ice encasing every twig of the ironwood tree, the icicle stalactites growing downward from the barn eaves, the jewel-bright dogwood berries glowing red through ice teardrops. We mourn the fallen Bradford pear even as we plan what to plant in its place: a tree both sturdier and more flexible to weather the inevitable storms.

Blinking one by one into the dusk, shining brightly in the black of late night, hiding behind cloud cover, stars both visible and invisible fill my nights. Shooting stars, not stars at all, grace my late and early outings with the dogs just often enough to keep me, like the dogs, looking up for the intermittent reward. I have traveled to places where I can see the Milky Way, where the stars are so numerously visible they form a web of light, but here at home they remain individual points even on the clearest night. I can pick out a few constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper, the Pleiades. I am less certain of Taurus, but in true Taurus fashion I will confidently point out where it is. I have lived in this spot for more than a third of my life, lucky enough to have my views both day and night unchanged in twenty years. When my father was dying I returned to the city where I grew up, spending nights in his spare room lit by the orange glow of the streetlamps, unable to comprehend how to sleep with no true darkness to delineate night from day, with no stars to remind me: Look up! Look up.

The trees on the front and back edges of our property are trees that were here before us. A stand of tall white pines whose needles have made their own ecosystem at the entrance to the property, a ridgeline of locusts that shed their limbs more readily than their leaves, mulberries on the edge of the back woods, their berries drawing birds and squirrels to their branches and white tailed deer and foxes to the fallen fruit below. The rest of the trees, the trees closer to the house and barn, we planted ourselves, sweating and swearing our way through digging holes in our rocky soil. There is the weeping cherry I can no longer wrap my arms all the way around, shading the living room window. The plane trees that tower over the barn. The oak and maple trees that mark the graves of the four horses who moved here with us – each of those trees a seedling the year we buried each horse, the smallest tree now fifteen feet tall. I am particularly drawn to the trees in winter, their skeletons visible to the world. Bare branches cast shadows on the snow like visible roots that ground us here, or split around the solid line of the trunk shadow like the branching of veins and arteries around an aorta, carrying blood to and from the heart and lungs of this place.

Wineberry plants grow thick along the edge of the back woods, and they spring up anywhere else we let them. Canes bend to the ground to bury and root their tips in their ongoing crawl towards the sunny pastures. A welcome invasive, they feed us when we remember it’s the right time of year to pick them, and otherwise they feed the wild creatures. Wineberries look like raspberries lit from within, their drupelets smaller, brighter and more translucent than even a raspberry from the farmers’ market stands. When my mother stayed with us after her second to last hospital visit, her appetite dulled by cancer and drugs and depression, I tried to create small plates of things she loved to tempt her to eat. A quarter of a bagel, smoothly cream cheesed and covered with a thin layer of lox plated with a small fruit salad: bright red wineberries with blueberries, a few slices of banana, two-toned green kiwi. A small dish of yogurt bejeweled with wineberries. “Too pretty,” my mother declared, “not to eat.”

Harbingers

The tundra swans are here! This is our sixth year seeing them, and while I don’t know what caused them to add us to their migration path 15 years into our time here, I am always grateful. Uncharacteristically, they showed up during a period of bad weather this year. I have long suspected they know just how good they look against a bright blue sky, and in fact they seem put out by the gloomy, wet weather we’ve been having. Normally during their time here, they go to other bodies of water during the day and return to our reservoir at night, but they have mostly spent the rainy weekend grumbling along the edge of the ice on the reservoir and not flying at all.

We have enormous numbers of Canada geese who inhabit the reservoir year-round, and they are not fans of the swans, who are the only birds I know that make the geese look small. The first year or two the swans came here, the geese would circle and circle over the reservoir, sometimes returning to one of their daytime ponds for the night, and sometimes landing as far from the swans as possible. They spent the nights they were here grumbling about the tourists, while the swans made their own odd calls that I can best describe as what it would have sounded like if Mr. Rochester had also had mad geese locked in his attic. This year, as almost always, it was their voices that tipped me off to their arrival. They came after dark on Friday night, and when I took the dogs out for last pee, they all stopped in their tracks and looked at me like “What the hell, mom?” which seems a reasonable response to unexpected swans. The geese seem resigned now, but it will likely be a few more days before we see them actively mingling with the swans. It’s warming up and the ice is melting, which means more water space for everyone to keep to their own species.

The swans come by during the first half of March each year, but what they find when they arrive varies quite a bit. If the winter has been mild, or if it has warmed up already, the whole reservoir will be water. If it’s been a cold winter or if the cold is lingering later, most of it may be ice. They seem unfazed either way, sometimes gathering on the ice and sometimes paddling serenely through the water, no matter the temperature. The ground at this time of year is almost always terrible. This year we have had more snow than we have had for a few years, and it’s lingering in both slushy and icy swaths. The horse pastures are a muddy, manure-filled mess, and (as is true every year) look like they will never recover. Mud is the unifying theme – sucking off our boots, changing the colors of the horses, coming in the house on the dogs, making everything we can see a drab brown – not that different than the colors of the Canada goose, come to think of it. It matches my mood almost exactly.

My excitement about the swans is a mixture of the beauty of their bright white plumage in the sea of mud, the novelty of these very short-term visitors, and the indication that spring really is coming. The swans usually arrive before the first crocus blooms. The snowdrops are just getting started, so the crocuses and the Carolina bluebells won’t be far behind. I confess I don’t think very much about the first sign of the change of any season except winter into spring. Spring into summer just seems to happen. Summer into fall is heralded by the first change of leaf color – usually the deceptive beauty of a bright red poison ivy vine climbing a tree I should avoid – followed quickly by sadness and a sense of time passing too fast. Fall into winter is only rarely a snowy event around here, but snow is what I think of when I think of winter. This year the snow didn’t come until February, but it feels like it’s been snowing for all 17 weeks that February feels like it has lasted. It took very little time to go from “I can’t wait for it to snow!” to “Is it EVER going to stop snowing?” I had not realized quite how much of the magic of a good snowstorm is the shutting down of all regular activities. When so many regular activities are already shut down, it’s hard to notice much of a difference. Plus there’s no such thing as a snow day from work when everyone is already working from home.

My normal eagerness for signs of spring has an added frantic edge to it this year. I long for warmer weather, for green pastures instead of brown, for fresh vegetables from the garden, for sun on my skin. I also long for travel, for seeing and hugging my kids, for new experiences, for live music. I hate crowds, but right now I would dearly love the shared experience of singing along with a stadium full of people to songs we all know and love. I feel like this winter has lasted a full year, and like it’s never going to end. I’m not a believer that “back to normal” is a thing, partly because I’m not really a believer in “normal,” but also because I sincerely hope we have all learned some things about what we can keep doing and what we really have to change. In the midst of this ongoing and season-spanning year of the unknown, I’m grateful to the swans for reminding me that the seasons really do keep changing and that some things – good things, beautiful things – remain the same.

Reluctant Traveler Stays Home (Reluctantly)

When I first signed up for the job I’ve now had for five years, a colleague from my last job said “Wow, are you going to get to travel to lots of places you’ve never been to that you’ve always wanted to go?” and I said “Well, I will get to travel to lots of places I’ve never been to.” While I’ve heard of almost all of the countries we work in, I do sometimes have to get out a map to see exactly (or even approximately) where they are. Few of them are on the top of most people’s tourism lists, though I have learned that those lists vary a lot depending on what your originating country is. Anyway, I did not have a life goal to see all the countries I’m unfamiliar with. I’m not a huge fan of airplanes and the very closest place I’ve been for this job is eight hours if you can get a direct flight, but there are almost no direct flights to any of these places. Mostly, though, I don’t like being away from home. I miss my people, I miss my animals. I have a vague fear that I will be forgotten in the week or so that I am away (note to adults minding children: if you accidentally walk away from a five year old at the zoo and they look up to find they are surrounded only by hippos and strangers, they may in fact remember it for life).

But for the last five years, I have been traveling. I have done the bare minimum of travel and have still managed to go to six countries, three of them twice, in that time. For the last two weeks of February this year I was in two different countries. I came home a week before the US started limiting flights from Europe and about two weeks before everything shut down. After two weeks away, I was ready to stay at home. In fact, before two weeks away, I was ready to stay at home. Over nine months later, I’m still ready to stay at home. And yet.

Today is the start of a two week vacation. It is the ideal kind of vacation – the whole office is closed so I won’t even have a backlog of work to come back to in two weeks. I love the idea of a staycation, but I’ve been doing an awful lot of staying already this year. If I were to go anywhere right now, it would be to Colorado to see my two kids who live there, and my friends, and just Colorado in general. I haven’t been there since January and like many things this year, it seems like years ago. I know that technically I could go, but I have zero interest in getting on a plane right now, and I don’t want to spend that much of my time driving. I also know that I will continue to stay at home until it’s less of a health risk to travel. All this time to think about traveling without having to travel has got me thinking about the travel I think I want to do and the travel I actually want to do.

In my mind I’m a much more adventurous traveler than I actually am. I want to go to more exotic places, and I want to do more things while I am there, and I want to travel for long periods of time – in my mind. In reality, when I travel I alternate between bursts of wanting to do things and bursts of wanting to curl up in my hotel room in the fetal position. I want to spend time getting to know the people I’m working with, but I also can’t wait to get away from them and be by myself at the end of the work day. Most of the time when I go somewhere I’ve never been, I try to do and see some things I will otherwise never have the chance to do and see, but I have about a day of that in me and then I’m done. I’m never going to be a person who tries to fit in a lot of activities in the end of the day after work. I do like to walk around anywhere I can, and my last trip before lockdown that is mostly what I did, usually in the mornings before the work day started. I really did enjoy both people-watching and nature-watching on my last trip – it’s nice to be in a city with big parks so it’s easy to do both.

Because I’m at home now, I get to dream about traveling. Because I don’t have to actually travel, I can look at the dreams against what I really like to do. I’m missing my people – my actual people, not my work people. I’m probably going to become one of those RV people, because I love the idea of traveling with Rose and the dogs, taking as long as we want to get places, and staying wherever and for however long we want. Part of me still wants to want to be the person who wants to get on the plane for the 20 hours or whatever it takes to fly to New Zealand. Part of me is still the person who thought peace corps sounded like a good idea, though I think that version of me also wanted to be a bull rider or a steeplechase jockey. I have an adventurous soul and a homebody heart and I’m learning to accept this.

One of the things I really do love about the work travel I have done is that it has given me perspectives I would never have been exposed to. I’ve encountered some eye-opening attitudes and questions about Americans. I’ve learned about history of countries I would have never learned about. I’ve heard personal stories of people who lived through things I’ve only read about in newspapers. I pay attention to world news in a different way because I know people who are living in the places the news is about, and that makes me hear and feel it differently.

I’ve decided to focus on other perspectives during my staycation, in particular the perspectives of the other inhabitants of my home, whether human, canine, feline, equine, or avian. Two weeks of listening and traveling in someone else’s shoes (or feet, or paws) seems like a good place to start my next travel adventure.

Everyday Magic

Magic hosta

Many years ago, the bagpiper we hired for Rose’s father’s memorial service looked around our property and said “This is the kind of place where if you are sitting down, you should be doing something.” I’m flying solo here for a few weeks and I am reminded of that every day, as I try to keep up with all the things that two of us usually do.

It’s hard for me to see this property on a macro level sometimes. If I look at once at all the things that need to be done, I just want to go lie down in the basement with the dogs. Especially when it’s over 90 degrees every day. The thing about having horses is that there’s no option about whether to go outside and do the chores, regardless of the level of heat or cold. Once I get out there and start doing things, I don’t have time to think about whether or not I feel like doing the things, I just do them, whether it’s weeding or mowing in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, or feeding, moving hay, or mucking in all weather. With the exception of weed-eating, which I can’t pause while doing or I know I just won’t start up again, while I’m doing chores I keep one eye out for the small bits of magic that remind me why I love this place so much.

Magic Crystals

I take a lot of photos of the things that catch my attention while I’m doing chores. I usually have my cell phone with me because it fits in my pocket. As often as I wish I had my binoculars or my actual camera with me, I don’t like trying to wrangle horse feed buckets with things clanking around my neck, and I am almost guaranteed to get hay or water in some key part that should not have hay or water in it. I used to buy my cell phones based on call quality, but now I buy them based on camera quality and as a bonus, it makes phone calls. I assume. Making phone calls is by far the least used activity on my cell phone.Magic Spiderweb

Every so often, like yesterday, I look around at the trees. When we moved here twenty years ago, the only trees were evergreens that bordered the property on three sides. There was no landscaping; there was just grass growing right up to the edge of the house, and one azalea bush near the front door. The first things we had done when we moved in were to have fence put in for the horses, and to have the barn built. The first thing we did ourselves was to plant trees. The ground is quite rocky here, and digging holes for trees is no easy task, but it’s extremely satisfying. I am routinely amazed that we planted all of these trees, some of which tower over the house or the barn, and some of which my hands no longer meet around when I hug them (because of course I hug my trees).

The trees are almost all different – there are very few varieties we planted multiples of – and in addition to looking different, they seem to attract different birds. The mockingbirds like to sing from the top of the dawn redwood, and they nest in the Alberta spruce. There are hummingbirds in the Crimson King maple, grey catbirds in the yews, brown thrashers in the Autumn Blaze maple, and bluebirds in the willow. The hawks and crows battle it out in the tall pines. The sycamores hold house finches and seemingly endless varieties of sparrows. This year, for reasons I do not understand but I’m not about to question, the green herons have decided to nest in the weeping cherry tree right outside our bedroom window.

Magic Tree

I grew up in the city, and it’s taken me a lot of years to progress past thinking every red bird is a cardinal, every brown bird is a sparrow, and every yellow bird is a goldfinch. I don’t reliably wear my glasses and I think my eyesight is better than it is, so my experience of birds is often a flash of color or movement. If they sit still and I can get a good look, I can now identify many of them. Sometimes they kindly stay put long enough for me to go get the binoculars from the house, and identify a yellow warbler, a scarlet tanager, or last month my first ever pair of cedar waxwings. The things that don’t move also catch my eye, and give me time to get them in focus: frost on the fence boards, spiderwebs shimmering with dew, raindrops on the hosta leaves, and a far more varied and beautiful range of fungus on the horse manure than you might expect.

If I am sitting still, it is true that I should be doing something. Often that something is paying attention. The weeds on the fence lines can wait for another day, but the spiderwebs and the dewdrops and the horse manure fairy garden are transient. The real shame would come if I didn’t take the time to notice them.

Magic Mushrooms 1

Bird Song

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Listen, she said
to the birds.

We hear them, we said
all the noise they make
right outside our windows
while we’re trying to sleep.

Listen, she said,
to the birds’ voices.

Oh, we said,
they have different voices,
but we can’t understand them. 

Listen, she said,
to the birds talking.

Please, we said,
tell us what they mean.
Teach us how to hear them.

Listen, she said,
to what the birds are saying.

We hear them, we said.
Some are hungry,
some are joyful,
some are fighting.

Listen, she said,
to the birds.

We are listening, we said,
and we will tell others
how to listen.

You’re still talking,
she said.
Listen.

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Invasive Species

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Hitching rides on boat hulls,
hidden in packaging,
given as gifts,
brought in for bait.
Revered as exotic beauties –
their value shifting
when they pushed out the natives:
reproducing more quickly,
choking out the habitat,
hogging the food,
depleting the resources.

If the native species
convened a committee,
Which way would they vote?
Who would they eliminate?
The pond dwellers and their algal blooms,
The nest destroyers, the egg leavers,
The tree-chokers, the wetland-fillers?

Or might they say, no,
Most of you can stay.
We will learn to live together,
Or we won’t, no matter.
But on this we can agree:
Someone has to go.
Let’s send back the ones
Who built the boats.

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