June to July: Reading Themes

June has been a great month for reading. I read three green books (The Green House, The Great Green Okayness, and Now the Green Blade Rises). I’ve also read several green things, including trees, a meadow, nettles, leaves, and perhaps Appalachia.

Poetry has captured a lot of my attention in June—already I’ve finished six poetry books. The standouts so far: The Green House, by Joyce Sutphen (a favorite poet); Now the Green Blade Rises, by Elizabeth Spires (how have I not discovered her before now?); and Listening to the Leaves Form, by James Grabill. I may yet finish another book of poetry this month, possibly two. We have a couple of hot days ahead of us, and what better than to sit under the ceiling fan and read poetry?

Other books I have in progress: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. These two nonfiction books are both beautiful reads that I don’t want to rush, and I think I will stretch them out over the summer. Also, unrelated to any theme, I am reading the third book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods. Early days yet, but I think I am going to like this third book best.

I’m already excited about July’s theme: one-word titles. I only have two books in my fiction pile, but they are both over 500 pages, and I’m really excited about both of them:

  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

To be sure, I do have more one-word fiction titles. But I am content with these two long books that I am quite looking forward to.

Nonfiction is a different story. So much to choose from, I hardly know where to start. A sampling (I am going to include subtitles, even though it detracts from the oneness of the theme, to give you a better idea of what the book is about):

  • Irresistible (The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked), by Adam Alter
  • Janesville (An American Story), by Amy Goldstein
  • Mnemonic (A Book of Trees), by Theresa Kishkan
  • Stitches (A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair), by Anne Lamott
  • Oneness (Great Principles Shared by All Religions), by Jeffrey Moses
  • Limber (Essays), by Angela Pelster
  • Domesticity (A Gastronomic Interpretation of Love), by Bob Shaccohis

Poetry is a banquet. And since it is so rich, and I am in such a poetry place, I’ll include several that particularly appeal:

  • Gate, by Ilze Klavina Mueller
  • Dolphins, by Stephen Spender
  • Oubliette, by Peter Richards
  • Swithering, by Robin Robertson
  • Shiner, by Maggie Nelson
  • Carousel, by George Murray
  • Heredities, by J. Michael Martinez
  • Curios, by Judith Taylor
  • Meteorology, by Alpay Ulku
  • Kaleidoscope, by Sweta Srivastava Vikram
  • Barter, Monica Youn

Every one of these books appeals to me, and I have only gone through half of my poetry! (I have decided to stop looking, as I already have more than I’m sure I will read.)

I am not particularly fond of hot weather. However, it does seem to lead me to sit back and read more poetry. The perfect thing for a hot summer day. All it lacks is iced tea.

Happy Summer, Happy Reading!

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May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

Post-Blizzard Birding

Last night when I went to bed, I had seen 31 bird species so far this year (including wild turkey and great egret just yesterday). Most (60%) I have seen from my house or yard and nearly all the rest have been spotted while driving (mostly to visit my mom).

(Reminder: We had a blizzard here last week that gave us 20 inches of snow. I’m pretty sure I was shoveling at this time one week ago.)

Today, I added 39 new birds to my year list.

That just sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? But not so much if you’ve been socked in by winter for far too long, and the birds were having none of it.

Our first stop was a marsh that I was sure would be all open water with our current temperatures in the 60s. Shocked we were to see it frozen as we approached, and we nearly turned around. Oh, let’s check it out. And so we did.

Not completely frozen over; open water around the edges. We see red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, coots, pied-billed grebe, ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, wood duck, bufflehead, and lesser scaup. Also flying around: barn swallows, tree swallows, and at least one northern rough-winged swallow. Horned lark, song sparrow, killdeer, eastern bluebirds, northern flickers, brown-headed cowbirds and one ring-necked pheasant. We were glad we didn’t turn around.

And while we were already exceptionally pleased with our birding morning, we continued on to a nearby lake. Who knows? And our luck continued: white pelicans, Bonaparte’s gulls, hooded mergansers, red-breasted merganser, horned grebe, ruddy ducks, green-winged teal, and common goldeneye. In the trees and surrounding area: western meadowlark, mourning dove, yellow-rumped warbler, eastern phoebe, and gray catbird (heard only, but there’s no mistaking that sound; they are a frequent backyard bird here).

We leave the lake—sated with birds and craving food. Moseying down the road, we flush a bird from a shrub near the road. This is not a shape I see often. I watch—this familiar not familiar sight—American woodcock! A life bird for me, completely and totally unexpected.

A week ago I was shoveling out from a blizzard. Today I added 39 birds to my year list.

I love Minnesota.

Early Birds 2018

I start a new bird list at the beginning of each year. (This is in addition to my life list—all the different birds I’ve seen since I started paying attention; and my yard list—all the birds I’ve seen in or from my yard or the house.) The new year started out on a good note.

The first bird of the year was a goldfinch. Any year that a house sparrow is not my first bird is a good year. But a goldfinch seemed especially fine. I don’t see goldfinches in my yard every day, or even very often, so having a goldfinch greet me on my first look out the back window on the morning of January 1 was a fine start to the birding year.

The next bird to arrive was the house sparrow, but along with the house sparrow, umm—not a house sparrow. Female house finch! I never did see a male (much more obvious, like a sparrow with a head bathed in raspberry), but the female hung around for quite a while. I’m attributing this in large part to the fact that I threw out some birdseed on December 31st—it was so cold! In addition to water, I always try to put out extra birdseed on these extra cold days (meaning the high temperatures are below zero).

That was the exciting start to the birding day (and year). Later in the day (back at the window), I saw a blue jay. I love the jays—sassy birds, smart too, and always fun to watch. They have a huge number of calls and songs. The jay was followed by a cardinal. I see cardinals in the yard pretty much every day, but it’s not a guarantee, and I was glad to welcome him to the new year. Mid-afternoon some crows flew overhead, moseying towards their roosting area near downtown. Just as we’re nearing dusk, I hear honking and look overhead. Canada geese.

Seven bird species on the first day of the year is not bad, especially since I didn’t leave the house.

January 3: a spectacular add—bald eagle. Not spectacular because it’s so rare, but because the sighting was so very fun. I was out shoveling the walk on a very cold day, and I heard crows calling to the north. I look up and see they are chasing after an eagle (this is called mobbing). The eagle is flying fairly low—just above the treetops, and then whee! it swoops down and into the street, only just a few feet above the pavement. It flew along for several yards, and then started the ascent back to the sky. I heave a breath of relief (it’s a fairly busy street) and continue to watch the eagle. It moves up and up and slowly drifts south (all of this happened about a short city block to the north) until it’s right overhead.

Even as I was standing there I realized I must look like an idiot, and had done for a good 15-20 minutes, standing on my front sidewalk in a windchill of -20 or so, staring into the sky with a big grin on my face. And I couldn’t care one bit because it was one of my more magical birding moments. I watched until I couldn’t anymore because I’d be staring right at the sun. It felt like a New Year’s gift.

Also on the 3rd, I saw my first black-capped chickadee of the year, and my first junco. I love both these birds, but the chickadee especially makes me smile. Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents in Minnesota, and a fun backyard visitor most especially in the winter when the birds are fewer. I also saw a rock dove (aka pigeon)—the only bird on my list so far that is not on my yard list.

Except for the white-breasted nuthatch that I saw on the 7th—a warmer day and we walked to the pizza place. I heard the nuthatch call before I saw it.

And that was it for a while, until the 14th. I was looking out the back window at a group of Canada geese overhead (I always look up; it’s winter, there aren’t that many birds, and I want to respect the ones that stick it out), and one of these geese seems more of a duck. What? I look closer, and no, not a duck, a very small Canada goose—Cackling goose! This is a new bird for my yard list.

So far, the early birds bode well.

Happy birding!

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.

The Nature of July

I am a heat wimp. I’ve spent much of July sitting at the dining room table reading under the ceiling fan. I have read 14 books so far this month. Let me quickly note that five were graphic novels (Anya’s Ghost, Camelot 3000, two volumes of Lumberjanes, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Three were poetry (average length, 113 pages). Let’s just say that heady reading has not served a large part of the July reading menu, though I do still hope to find out Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

But one can’t sit in the dining room 24/7, so when a cool morning blew in a few days ago, Kathleen and I went birding. There were not a lot of birds to be seen (in part because the cattails obscured our view of the marsh). There was one particularly noisy resident; I searched and searched for this persistent singer to no avail. Later, the same sassy song taunts me on the other side of the road. Again I seek but do not find. Finally the poor bird took pity on me, and the marsh wren flew to the top of a cattail and sang and sang and sang. It was one of those I-love-birding moments.

Another sighting: A small bird was mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and every once in awhile, it would land on the hawk’s back and ride along for a few of the hawk’s wing strokes, and then go back to its pestering. It landed and sailed along three times while I was watching. Not for long, but definitely riding on the back of the hawk. I’ve never seen such a thing.

The lack of birds wasn’t much of a problem, because I kept getting distracted by the butterflies. One beautiful butterfly in particular I memorized, and then sketched it (badly, but captured size and color) as soon as I got back to the car. When I got home and looked it up, I found it was a painted lady. I had never even heard of lady butterflies. I spent hours perusing my butterfly book. Coppers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Commas.

I have always thought of butterflies as inhabitants of sunny grasslands and prairies. But I’ve learned that some butterflies prefer moist woods, others like to be near water, others like woodland edges, some prefer shaded forest, and a whole subset favors roadsides. They seem to be pretty much everywhere. Not just sunny meadows.

In addition to thinking butterflies mostly hung out in prairies, I also thought they pretty much flew the same. You know—like butterflies. But some fly low to the ground. Some fly erratically, others sail. Some swerve from side to side. Some are fast, some slow.

And the names! Part of my enjoyment while flipping through the butterfly book was appreciating the fine names of some of these butterflies: Sleepy Orange, Fatal Metalmark, Crimson Patch, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Confused Cloudywing, Dreamy Dustywing, Black Dash, Whirlabout, and California Sister. I would love to see a California Sister.

I decided to start a butterfly year list (which of course means I have a life list but I only started it last year and I forgot about it because the butterflies have been gone so long). But it is July and the butterflies are back, and I have remembered the up-side of birding in July. Butterflies.

So far I have 7 butterflies on my year list. I am hoping to get to 20. A whole new world awaits me.

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.