Friday, December 15, 2017

A Restorative View

Through a window I can view subtle changes in the garden with seasons and the weather as I complete my morning ritual. I notice when the leaves hang on longer in an unusually warm autumn.  And when the leaves have fallen I see a distant knothole through tangled branches of sassafras and dogwood. It is a hole in the bark of an oak where a branch used to be. I wonder what might live or seek shelter in there. Throughout the winter months I search for clues in the bare canopy. Could it be a downy woodpecker, a tufted titmouse or a black-capped chickadee? I often see these birds as they perch in the sassafras to hammer open a sunflower seed they have taken from the bird feeder.

When snow falls the trees have sleeves of white and frozen fluff settles in crooks and elbows. As birds flitter about they release clouds of white powder. Squirrels sit all puffed up against the cold, front paws curled as in a muff, their tails a fur wrap held close to their backs. When snow melts on a bright cold day in February, I notice the patterns in grainy bark and swelling buds against a pale blue sky. During a rain shower in March, gray-green lichen brings color and every twig glistens with water droplets. 

In April there is a red blush in the canopy as maples bloom. Mid-month a strong staccato warble can be heard. The house wren returns to claim its territory amongst the flowering boughs of dogwood and lime green sassafras blossom. The woodland is colored with unfurling leaves and the soft browns, beiges and ochre of oak. I witness avian drama in May. A great crested flycatcher dive-bombs the window from the sassafras tree. Is it fighting its own reflection perhaps? The wren builds a nest in the nesting box. This fierce little bird scolds marauding blue jays. Its mate is seen frequently returning to the box with caterpillars in its beak to feed a growing family.

The leafy green of summer is a restful backdrop to my ritual. The canopy closes in and blocks much of my view. The wren’s family fledges and sometimes it makes another brood. It seems that the Carolina wren sings more stridently once the house wren has flown south. The dogwood tree turns first in fall. A mauve seeps through its leaves and grey twigs hold next year’s flower buds, which remind me of Hershey’s Kisses. Peak fall color is heralded with the oranges, pinks and yellows of sassafras leaves.

Often in the fall, the drone of a leaf blower disturbs my meditation and I wonder why anyone would blast away leaves that sustain such a beautiful natural cycle. At the very least, a view through a window affirms my faith in nature. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A chattering, a cackle, a plague

For a few weeks in late October, at different times of the day, a raucous cacophony compels me to go outside to view an autumnal spectacle. I am in awe of this sight! A large flock of common grackles descends on the garden. Hundreds of the birds are paddling in the pool cover, picking through leaf litter, rummaging in the gutters, and perching in noisy numbers in the tall oak trees. Their rasping, scratchy, squeaky sound is quite deafening for all of ten minutes. And then, the squawking stops as some leader or a combined intelligence summons the flock to take flight. There is a perceptible whoosh, almost a roar, as a multitude of wings beats together and the birds fly past me to another location. The sun glints from an iridescence on feathers and these powerful fliers swoop with great speed through the canopy. 

The collective name for a flock of grackles is a chattering, a cackle or a plague. “A big velvet wave” is another apt description that I have read. I imagine thousands of black feathers made luxurious by a purple, peacock blue, emerald or bronze sheen. Their dark shadows and loud chattering can remind you of Hitchcock’s birds. But I think individually they are rather handsome and have such an air of self-assurance, with an intense golden eye and a jaunty strut. Grackles are gregarious and these garrulous gatherings in the fall are preparation for a southerly migration. It’s safety in numbers as large traveling flocks are more likely to discern danger and find areas for forage. I have witnessed them in early spring as they return from overwintering grounds.  A chattering of black birds in bare branches against a blue spring sky often falls silent. Every bird is still, heads cocked as if listening intently, for a hawk perhaps? 

The beak of a grackle is adapted for omnivorous foraging. A sharp ridge or “keel” inside the beak is used to cut through acorn shells like a can-opener and barbs at the back of the tongue prevent live prey from escaping. They wade in water to catch small fish and have been known to steal worms from the mouths of American robins. Many a garden pest, such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, Japanese beetles and house sparrows, are a part of their diet. They benefit by being close to human habitation and will follow a plow to catch soil invertebrates and mice, or will roost near mall parking lots to feast on discarded fast food. 

The plague moniker is most probably given by farmers, whose corn crops have been decimated by hosts of grackles, causing millions of dollars worth of damage. On writing this missive I think I have solved the mystery of my denuded Indian corn ornament, which I hang every fall by my front door. For the first time in many years, and coinciding with this season’s numerous cackles of grackles, all three cobs have been pecked clean of kernels. Resourceful birds indeed!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Box Turtle

I’m on my way to pick up the mail.
You are parked along the driveway.
Back leg extended, neck craning forward in suspended
Your amber reptilian eye
fixates on me with an air of defiance.

I know where you are headed.
Across the asphalt
to reach the other side of the road.

But would you not be safer here?
Under the juniper hedge,
Sheltered in cool layers of leaf litter.

You know better.
Instincts intact, you stand dead still.
Wait for me to go,
quite unperturbed. I take in the beauty
of your embossed shell.

Golds and russets and grays adorn you.
Your skin is folds, scales and horny leather.
A pert little tail protrudes from under.

Will your sharp claws propel you
to the other side
in your own sweet time?

Half an hour later

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hawk Eye

A sharp-shinned hawk has been visiting my garden lately. It is a young bird, quite at home, sitting for quite long periods of time in full view from the kitchen window. This photo was taken when it was sitting on the dogwood tree, which is just yards from the house.  The bird was pulling its beak along tail and wing feathers, preening and altogether having a thorough clean up. Had it just eaten some prey? The yard was eerily silent but every now and again the hawk would swivel its head to observe some tiny motion or sound with its intense hawk eyes. Eventually, some bold chickadees ventured to the bird feeder. I gingerly opened the back door, but before I could aim my camera the hawk had vanished.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Earth's Eye

There is gathering place in my garden where I commune with nature. Downy feathers floating on water, blazes of guano on rocks and footprints in snow on ice are all evidence of avian visitors. Uprooted plants and tracks in the mud tell me that raccoons have been searching for sustenance here and my cat makes a beeline to drink from this pond’s fresh water. I watch the pond in all seasons. In winter I spy from my kitchen window through the bare branches of the dogwood tree.  On a summer’s afternoon I watch, as I relax with a cup of tea in hand, from a strategically placed plastic garden chair. I often observe a myriad of visitors up close by crouching low on the pond’s banks.

This watering hole is my creation. I put a shovel to the ground to build some habitat in a distressed patch of woodland. I sculpted ledges for plants, depths and shallows for breeding and bathing, and a pebbly beach as access for the waders-in. I placed a black rubber liner to prevent water from draining into the sandy base. I hauled boulders and stone to create a natural boundary and to hold the liner in place. I turn on a pump in summer months to recirculate and aerate the water, to keep it fresh and to deter mosquitos from multiplying. I spread a net in the fall to prevent a build up of leaves.

Yet this artifice is a window to many dimensions of nature. Water brings sound, movement and an ever-changing palette of color. It splashes and ripples, gurgles and bubbles. It reflects the sky, clouds, leaves and winter trees. Birds flap their wings and sip through their beaks in this essential element, which also provides a nursery for insects and frogs. And so nature takes over from the man-made and an ecosystem is built. Plants aerate and clean the water, some scramble over the rocks, greening the boundary. Pond lily leaves are landing pads for insects. Along with duckweed they keep the pond from overheating by covering open water. Stems thrust above the surface and bear colorful flowers that attract bees and butterflies. Etched by glaciers or the movement of the earth, each rock carries its own mystery of how it was formed. Some are speckled and rough with granite, some are a smooth blue-grey and some twinkle with mica. All of this has replaced a dry clearing in a suburban garden.

A pond nourishes and shelters. It is a place to gather thoughts, soothe a soul and find serenity. Henri David Thoreau referred to Walden Pond as “Earth’s Eye, a place to measure the depth of one’s nature”. Even a much smaller mirror of a pond has such a power, whether its surface is white with snow, sparkling in sunlight or reflecting grey skies. I see birds bathing in the January thaw, the flash of a hummingbird visiting a cardinal flower, the plop of a frog diving for cover. Life goes on, no matter our misgivings about the state of the world.