Leaping into Autumn

How’d that happen? It seemed like it was all summer all the time, and then I turned around and it was fall. I think it was the freeze warning a couple of days ago. We didn’t frost in Minneapolis, but lots of other parts of Minnesota did.

The frost put me in mind of the herbs that I want to harvest before freeze—rosemary, feverfew, catnip, lemongrass. I went to grab a basket for the fresh-cut herbs, but all my baskets seemed to be full with pretty much already dried herbs. Yikes! I needed to take care of these herbs before harvesting yet more.

First, I had to gather things together. The cat seemed to have had a bit of a heyday in there swatting at the herbs (he is particularly fond of the lemongrass, for some reason—much more so than catnip, interestingly enough). He also seems to have squashed my drying calendula (which I realized was pretty much completely dried since most of it was decimated into wee bits). Sigh. Luckily, I still have some left from last year and as well as plenty from my herbal friend in California.

I sorted yarrow, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, catnip, and lemon balm. For cleaning, I started with the lemon balm and then did the catnap. These two got combined, and I poured organic vodka over them. In six weeks, I will have a wonderfully effective mild sleep aid (just a small sip before bed). Also good for anxiety and upset stomach.

Next I cleaned the yarrow. Then I sat and looked at my list and thought for awhile about what I wanted to do with the yarrow. I usually tincture it, but I have plenty of yarrow tincture on hand. So I cleaned the rosemary and added it to the yarrow (used the pestle to ground it up pretty well, especially the rosemary), and covered them with olive oil. This is a new combo I’ve not tried before, but it should be good for arthritis. And it should smell good (rosemary has many medicinal properties, but I think its sharp, happy-making aroma might be the most powerful).

Sage and lemongrass didn’t seem like a good combination to me, so they remain. I think I will keep the lemongrass to use in salves (it imparts a nice lemony scent), and perhaps use the sage primarily in its customary culinary role. (Sage dressing for Thanksgiving, anyone?)

When I saw all the clean-up I needed to do before harvest, I checked the weather for the next few days. The lowest prediction is 38 degrees, and then next week we climb back up to toy with the 70s. I decided that if the lemongrass, catnip, and rosemary had survived this far, they could wait until next week. But I did harvest the feverfew, because I have none in back-up (which really surprised me when I moved into almost panic mode while going through the pharmacopeia and coming up feverfewless).

Lots of autumnal signals outside my herbal obsessions: Last week I saw white-throated sparrows in the backyard, migrating south for the winter (not very far south—they overwinter in Iowa and the southern United States; one year I had a white-throated sparrow at my feeder throughout most of the winter, very exciting for a Minnesota birder). I also spotted a Tennessee warbler in my backyard a few days ago. Definitely migration season.

And of course the trees, the plants, the colors, the leaves. The trees closest to the Mississippi are starting to get serious color. A lot of trees in Minneapolis are still green, but the sugar maples are already fiery orange and bright red. Beautiful contrast to neighboring trees just starting to mosey into yellow.

No crunchy leaves underfoot yet. The best part of autumn is still to come.

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If a Tree Falls in a City….

Today the city cut down one of our boulevard trees. It wasn’t mine, it was my neighbor’s, but only a few feet from my property. I feel the loss keenly. (Ach! I have realized we have an uncommon use of the word boulevard in Minnesota. The boulevard refers to the space of grass [usually about 3’ wide] that separates sidewalks from streets.)

It was a big tree, a majestic tree. A tree of spirit. I will miss it dearly.

But it was dying, and had been for several years. Last Friday (a day of no wind to speak of) I was on the front porch and heard a loud crack and a thunderous crash, quite close to the house. A very mighty limb had given up the ghost and fallen to the ground. I was first on the scene, and the large branch was blocking the entire street. I tried to move it (fat chance!) and was happy to see three neighbors arrive (the crack and crash really was quite loud) and we moved the branch and cleaned up the debris in a couple of minutes. So we knew the tree was a goner. But seeing it dying and seeing it gone are two different things.

I watched the removal almost from the get-go. The noise woke me at 7:00 and I was on the front porch by 9:00. In spite of myself, I was absolutely fascinated. How do you cut down a tree that spreads over several houses, without causing damage?

First, you post no-parking signs. Then you close the street at both ends of the block. Then you unload the equipment (which included something very like a bobcat except it was designed to move logs—it completely fascinated me), park the equipment (truck for the logs), and move the equipment into position (the cherry picker—I’m sure it is not a cherry picker by name, but this is the lift that gets the sawyer up in the tree).

And while I mourn the tree, watching these men (I saw only men) work was almost like watching ballet.

(And I must say this just as an aside: Many people complain about lazy government workers, long breaks, and a lot of standing around. I am sitting on the front porch reading the paper, waiting for them to take a break. I don’t think they ever took a break.)

The linchpin seemed to be the guy up in the cherry picker. I have never seen an entire tree dismantled (I do hate to use that word for a tree, but it is still most appropriate from this perspective). There is a complete and total science (possibly also a bit of intuition, but I am only intuiting here) on taking down a tree. Some limbs you can let free-fall (this is what I saw mostly when I first arrived). This freaked me out for a bit until I realized that they only did it when they (the sawyer, actually) knew that it would fall directly on the road. He was never wrong.

So while I sing the praises of the sawyer, there was also this amazing ground crew, the rest of the ballet (because really, a ballet with only one person is hardly a ballet). When a branch dropped, the souped-up bobcat swooped to grab and move the logs; others gathered smaller branches and debris; and I kept waiting for them to take a break, to just stop for awhile, but they never did.

Back to the sawyer. I was particularly keen to know how they made sure these huge limbs don’t fall on people’s houses (having one hang above my very own house). It took me a little time (and a little coffee), but I finally realized they were using ropes. I watched one large branch, in particular, and as the sawyer made his final cut, I could not imagine how this would not damage something (my house, my neighbor’s house, or foliage at the very minimum). But I watched the limb, and the ropes, and it landed exactly in the middle of the street.

After all the limbs were cropped, the cherry picker moved, and they started sawing from the bottom. They sawed and sawed. The rest of the workmen were around, cleaning up bits of this and that, sweeping and raking up debris. One even sat down on a brick wall, for a moment. A bit of a lull. But the bobcat was moving and workers in the picture (though always at least two watching the tree and the cutting, which I found very reassuring). And then, the street is empty. No workers.

At the same time, spouse comes home and says the street might be blocked off all day, just as I say they’re almost done taking down the tree. Nah, he says, and goes out the front door to check it out. He gets 10’ from the door, and is warned back by the sawyer himself. The rest of the tree was down less than a minute later.

Right in the middle of the street.

I will miss the tree greatly. I’ve cried (several times now—it was very nearby and quite old, and I have a particular fondness for trees) and I have put flowers and some fresh currants (that the birds must have spared for this exact purpose) on the stump.

But I must also give kudos to the crew that arrived this morning and removed a tree that needed to be cut down, being in the city and dropping limbs as it was. They didn’t just take the big parts of the tree; throughout the process, they went around and picked up branches and twigs in the street and on neighboring lawns. One of the workers picked up a chunk of wood the size of a baseball. And then they swept the road and sidewalks after they were done.

Except for some sawdust and a few leaves and a stump, you’d hardly know they were here.

I will miss the tree, but I am thankful and slightly amazed at this ballet team that works together so well to do something so difficult.

Coffee Break

This morning when I plugged in the coffee maker, it made a huge sparky flash and then a fire. Not a big fire, a small, 2-3” fire from the outlet (I thought). I pulled the plug, the fire was gone. I’m sure it was less than a couple of seconds between the spark and the end of the fire, but it seemed like a long time to me—one of those times where your brain shuts out everything else and 100% of your attention is focused on this flame that could burn down your entire house.

I wasn’t sure if it was the outlet or the appliance. I toyed with plugging something else into the faulty outlet, or trying the faulty coffee maker on a different outlet. And then I decided I needed to have some caffeine before conducting any kind of experiment that might involve fire (and a spouse with a fire extinguisher nearby might not be a bad add).

I looked in the fridge, hoping for a Coke, but no colas to be found. I settled for iced tea, and went to read the morning paper on the front porch.

Halfway through the front page, it occurred to me that I could boil water and pour it into the coffee filter myself. It was not quite as fast as pouring it into the reservoir, but it took less than 10 minutes, and I had fresh coffee to accompany the morning paper.

In the way that one does, as I was reading the paper, I was wondering if I should get a new coffee maker at a Kitchen Window kind of place or a Herberger’s kind of place. Then I remembered a friend who has several coffee makers (I found this out when I was helping her clean out her basement, and when I suggested she get rid of these excess coffee makers, she wanted to keep them for friends who might need said coffee makers). I texted her this morning to see if she still has this abundance, but have not heard back.

In the meantime, after a cup or two of coffee, I took a closer look at the coffee maker. Holy cow! (We actually do say this in the Midwest—at least some of us do.) The cord (rubber/plastic) was half severed. The miracle of caffeine. No need for an experiment or fire extinguishers, the culprit is the cord.

I love this little coffee maker. It’s the mini size you often get in hotels. It has no frills—no timer, no clock, no auto-off; it doesn’t even have an on/off button. And while it’s true, I do need to make sure I unplug the coffee machine before I leave the house, I don’t have to reset the time/programming every time the power goes out.

Also going on in my background is a Wendell Berry book that I recently finished, Our Only World. God bless Wendell Berry, reminding me that reducing consumption is a good thing.

I love this little coffee maker. It has a broken cord. I called a couple of nearby hardware stores and one of them said they would take a look. I brought it in today. They estimate it will cost $25 or so to fix the cord.

I know I can get a new coffee maker at Target for less than $25, with a clock, auto-off, and possibly an espresso feature. But I don’t need any of those things. I just want coffee in the morning.

And while I’m 99% sure that they’ll be able to fix the cord, the other 1% of me is not uncomfortable with spending 10 minutes in the morning making coffee.

Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

In Search of Warblers, or, Joy in Unexpected Places

I have not been having a very good warbler season. Usually in spring (May especially) you catch small waves of warblers—maybe 20 warblers of a variety of species. That has not happened to me once this year. I’ve seen warblers, all right, but it’s been one here, two there, with not even a wavelet to be seen.

Knowing that time is slipping through my hands, yesterday I headed to the river to see if any warblers might care to wave at me. I sat, I looked, I watched, I waited, I walked. I stopped, I listened, I looked.

I saw one American Redstart. Hey, at least I saw a warbler.

I left.

It was a little cloudier and chillier than I expected, and home seemed a good destination. But at the last minute, just because the warblers will be here only a couple more weeks at best, I decided to stop once more. Sitting on a wall looking over the Mississippi, I noticed a largish bird (not a warbler) fly up from the ground about three feet and then immediately go back down.

That got my attention. I watched. Waited. It came back up. Just a glimpse and it is back down again. I am thinking, thrush? (In addition to the robin, we have several fairly common thrushes in Minnesota.) I keep watching; up it comes for only a moment. White eye ring. Gone for the longest time. Back—for several seconds this time, but I only see the top of its head— very rufous, almost orange, the color of a robin’s breast. I know rufous goes with a particular thrush, but I can’t remember which.

Then it shifts, just a bit, and I see black dots on the breast. Score for confirming the thrush ID, but even more excitement about the black spots, because they are not so common on our thrushes. And one of the thrushes with the black spots, I know, is the wood thrush. Could this be a wood thrush? I keep watching. A few more glimpses—silhouette, head again, shape (very round). After half an hour of no more sightings, I retire to my books.

It took almost no time at all to confirm that I had indeed seen a wood thrush, a new life bird for me! The rufous head (the other rufous thrush has a rufous tail); the black spots, the round body, hurrah!

I have wanted to see a wood thrush for years (most especially after I heard one—at least I’m pretty sure it was a wood thrush—up near Bemidji maybe 15 years ago). But while I have seen all of our other common thrushes, the wood thrush continued to elude me. Until yesterday.

I love when birding gives me total fruit basket upset. I went out looking for warblers. At the peak of warbler migration, I saw exactly one warbler. And I most unexpectedly saw a wood thrush, a bird I’ve been searching for, for more than a decade. The vagaries of birding.

I wonder if, as frequently happens after you see a bird for the first time, I will start to see wood thrushes quite often from here on out. I certainly hope so.

Maybe one will sing for me again.

The Marsh Birds

I went birding with my friend Kathleen this week. Early May is a fine time to bird. It’s almost like birding in Florida (not that you will see a roseate spoonbill, but that experience of wherever you look—in the water, in the reeds, in the trees, in the road—there are so many birds to capture your attention, you can hardly decide where to look).

These are among the best birding days.

Today we went to the 180th Street Marsh, to bird in general of course, but also specifically to see yellow-headed blackbirds. This marsh is the best place I know of to reliably see yellow-headed blackbirds, and we were not disappointed. More, perhaps, than I’ve ever seen, and we got so close to them! Not that we snuck up, mind you (though of course I’ve done that), but we’d just be standing still and they would land a few feet away. They seemed to not particularly care about us. Saucy, bold, beautiful birds.

Somewhat less bold is the sora. Soon after we arrived at the marsh we spoke with a man who asked if we had heard the soras. I am not so very good at bird songs and calls, so I wasn’t sure. And then this guy does his rendition of a sora. Hmmm. Okay. Within two minutes, I hear almost the exact same call, from the marsh. And then one in another part of the marsh. He had nailed it!

(This is truly a gift, to be able to reproduce a birdcall so well. I can hear them perfectly in my head, but my reproductions do not often help the listener so much.)

We heard them, the soras. And heard them—on both sides of the road that crosses the marsh. Like right here—right at my feet. This bird must be within a yard. No sora. We stood so still for so long at a clump of reeds one foot away. In the middle was a sora calling, but could we see it? No. Sigh.

Moving on. The yellow-headed blackbirds continued to be beautiful, and who can be disappointed in anything when you have these insouciant birds practically landing on your shoulder?

We saw three kinds of swallow: tree, barn, and northern rough-winged. I also saw a purple martin (that was fun as I don’t see them every year)—in, or possibly fighting for, a purple martin house (of all things). There were many tree swallows at this martin house, and lots of activity. But not all tree swallows! Dark, dark, yes, martins! Kathleen was parking the car (lots of rain recently, soggy ground near the marsh and  parking was dicey) so she couldn’t see the battle in progress. When the car was parked, we almost immediately saw the yellow-headed blackbirds, and moved forward.

Lots of Canada geese, coots, and ducks (bufflehead, blue-winged teal, red-breasted merganser, ring-necked duck), but I would say that most of my time was spent enjoying the yellow-headed blackbirds and trying to spot a sora. There were so many! How could I not see one? (Birds do often have this amazing ability to disappear.)

After spotting a turtle sunning on a something, and a final look for additional ducks, we headed out. Before we got very far at all, I said, “Stop.” And there it was: a sora. Easily seen from the car without binoculars (although of course I DID look through my binoculars because it’s nice to see close-up). I was afraid Kathleen wouldn’t be able to see it, but she is enough taller (and she also has really good eyes) and got a very good view of it.

After the marsh we went out for lunch. En route near Minnehaha Creek, a merlin flew so close to our car I was afraid we would collide. Not a typical encounter.

Even when Kathleen dropped me off at home the birding continued: chipping sparrows just hanging out in the street.

May. Birds. Euphoria.

The Early Birds of Spring

I went birding with a friend Sunday morning. Neither long nor far, but a fine day nonetheless. Spring birding is mostly about water. This is when the ducks and shorebirds come back or migrate through. Sunday morning we saw trumpeter swans, wood ducks, blue- and green-winged teal, northern shovelers, canvasbacks, buffleheads, lesser scaups, a few great blue herons, one great egret, coots, and hooded mergansers.

None of these birds are new to me, but many are new this year. After a winter of frozen lakes, it is nice to have open water and birds thereon, and to look up and see a great blue heron flying overhead.

If you think seeing a great blue heron is a rarity, you would be mistaken. Throughout most of the United States great blue herons are either year-round or summer residents. Before I started birding, I had no idea. Once I started noticing birds, though, I saw great blue herons flying overhead all the time (probably one every few weeks, which is a lot for a huge bird you didn’t even know existed in your city).

Not all of the early spring birds are in water, though. There were a lot of song sparrows about, as well as downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. Scads and scads of robins. And a couple of show-stealers:

A most flashy eastern phoebe, hanging out ever so close, flashing its tail and being sassy, beautiful, and back for the summer.

A fox sparrow, beautiful large rufous sparrow, this one had a very gray head. I do not see fox sparrows every year (though they are not uncommon here), and to see one is always a gift.

I added 14 birds to my year list (now at 65). I was really pleased about the 14, but of course it isn’t about the numbers. It’s about getting out—out with a friend, out in nature. I’ve seen a lot of eastern phoebes, but this particular eastern phoebe heralded spring.

There’s plenty of research out there showing that interacting with nature is good for us on many levels. I have always found nature my go-to place when I am troubled (in almost every living situation I have had, there was some sort of nature sanctuary within walking distance). But nature is also a go-to place for joy. I love birding. But in a way, the birds are just an excuse.

A couple of weeks ago I went birding with a different friend. We visited a marsh that had been teaming with life just a few days ago, but a cold snap had sent them off. A frozen marsh. We didn’t see a lot of birds. We did see one great blue heron (the first I had seen of the year) beautiful and majestic and commanding awe. But mostly we were accompanied by crows. We both like crows, so we were not unhappy. The crunch of a gravel road, being out of town. Being in nature, with nature. Looking for birds. A perfect day.