December Flies In

The reading theme for December is Things That Fly. Or, it could be Things With Wings. Or perhaps we should have gone with the simpler, Flight. As I mulled this over while I perused my shelves, I settled more and more on Things That Fly. Because a lot of things fly. In addition to all kinds of birds, both time and the wind fly, the weekend flies, as do mosquitos and kites (which are also birds, but in this case I mean the kite that is flown with a string by a person on the ground).

I like a little wiggle room.

When you have such a very broad lens, you kind of look at your book collection in a different way. I have a very small kid/YA shelf, but it was quite lucrative:

  • The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  • Memoirs of a Bookbat, Kathryn Lasky
  • Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  • Dragons on the Water, Madeline L’Engle
  • The Young Unicorns, Madeline L’Engle

(Everyone does know that both dragons and unicorns fly, yes?)

I was a bit surprised at how many angels were lurking in my fiction books. I expected more birds, but dragonflies, cockroaches, bees, and even a ghost also flew onto the pile:

  • The Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • Angel, Elizabeth Taylor
  • Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym
  • Angel Landing, Alice Hoffman
  • Cockroaches, Jo Nesbo
  • Ghost of a Chance, Amy Patricia Meade
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
  • The Bees, Laline Paull
  • Reel Time, Julia Willis
  • Day of the Bees, Thomas Sandez
  • The Weekend, Peter Cameron
  • The Pollen Room, Zoe Jenny
  • Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra
  • Red Sky, Red Dragonfly, John Galligan
  • The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kid
  • The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker
  • Starling, Sage Stossel (Graphic novel)

You can see why I might like these monthly book themes: Most of these books have been on my to-read shelf for years, and now they’ve been dusted off and brought to light. And I haven’t even gotten to nonfiction yet:

  • The Winged Seed, Li-Young Lee
  • The Snow Geese, William Fiennes
  • The Geese of Beaver Bog, Bernd Heinrich
  • The Wind in the Ash Tree, Jeanine McMullen
  • Private Lives of Garden Birds, Calvin Simonds
  • Songbirds, Truffles, & Wolves, Gary Paul Nabhan
  • Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall
  • The Hidden Lives of Owls, Leigh Calverz
  • Death of a Hornet, Robert Finch
  • The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman
  • Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil
  • Under a Wing, Reeve Lindberg

So many books flying onto my plate, and I know I can’t even read the half of them! (And then of course, there’s always the other book I want to read, totally outside the theme—what’s a reader to do?)

And I haven’t even mentioned poetry. Poetry adds Cardinal, Humming Birds, Arrow, Butterflies, Kingfisher, Flies, Phoenix, Mosquito, and Spirit to the flying pile.

It’s good to be excited about reading again. I didn’t read much in November. I didn’t finish a single nonfiction book, and read just two fiction books (one short, the other light), a graphic novel (which probably held my interest the most), and two poetry books. A bleak (for me) reading month.

But I can tell December will be different. So many of the books are calling. Which of the Geese books should I read? Absolutely I will read Starling. Poetry? Who knows?

It’s good to be back. Happy reading.

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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.

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 Reading Landscape

The reading theme for May is landscape/terrain. This is one of those broad themes that would encompass things like field, grassland, range, desert, marsh, and so on. I was really excited about this theme. I have a lot of landish books that I am really looking forward to reading.

But it is May. May, when the birds migrate. May, when the lilacs bloom. May, when butterflies return and the house windows are open. When the herbs are coming up and rhubarb demands picking. The month of warblers. May, when I have the binoculars right beside me even when I’m reading. Especially when I’m reading. May, when I bring binoculars into restaurants just in case we get a window seat. You never know when you’ll see a warbler wave.

I’ve only finished one book so far this month, but have several in progress: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, by Marc Ian Barasch (later published under the title The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness); Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; Prairie Reunion, by Barbara J. Scot (memoir); Divining the Landscape, by Diane Jarvenpa (poetry); and Joyland, by Stephen King. (Two of these are holdovers from the emotions theme. I love having books that cross themes.)

I am finding Field Notes on the Compassionate Life to be quite helpful. I tend to struggle with issues like grudges and resentment, and perhaps especially forgiveness. This book is giving me some good insights and suggests some practices that I think could be very helpful. I am reading it quite slowly (a chapter a day), because that seems to be all the compassion my wee brain/soul can absorb. And Strangers in Their Own Land promises to be fascinating, but I’ve only read the first few pages.

Report on last month’s theme (emotions): I experienced calm surrender, hate, love, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, longing, grief, moping, consolation, more happiness, wild comfort, and solace. I found emotions to be an absolutely lovely (and fun) reading theme. Best book of the month: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore. I loved this book because sometimes I felt like I was right there with her, wherever she was talking about. If she was in the forest, I could almost smell the pines. The writing is that good. But also—there’s a spiritual element to this book which I resound with. Nature is always where I most feel god.

There are many potential landish options for the rest of the month. John McPhee’s Basin and Range is high on the list (he has two other books that also intrigue: Rising from the Plains, and In Suspect Terrain). Found poetry:

basin and range
rising from the plains
in suspect terrain

Other books of interest include Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle; and Of Landscape and Longing, by Carolyn Servid. And Notes From the Shore, by Jennifer Ackerman, is nipping at my brain.

Because I am a planner by nature, I always look ahead. The theme for June is celestial objects, and I am finding my pickings extremely skimpy beyond earth, moon, and stars. Any fun ideas or suggestions out there?

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.