The Beautiful Day

Today is a beautiful day. In Minnesota, you feel guilty for staying inside on such a beautiful day (even if you’re sick, you at least try to sit in the sun). And here I am, sitting inside writing, feeling guilty. Mind you, I’ve spent much of the day outside. I’ve been for two bike rides, done some gardening (such as it is here in April), spent some time birding at the river, and also did a little birding in the yard.

I think the first bike ride was the highlight of the day. I didn’t get out on my new bicycle much last year, and I’m bound to make up for it this year. While riding up the river road biking path, I saw a very large bird swooping low—vulture or eagle? I lost the one that swooped, but when I glanced up, I saw what was clearly a turkey vulture soaring, soon joined by the other. I was pleased, as I’ve already seen an eagle this year, and the vulture was new to my year list.

After biking at a brisk pace for a distance not quite far enough to make my legs rubbery, we stopped and rested and chatted for a bit. Before long I found myself distracted by the birds I saw flitting through the trees, and try as I might I couldn’t focus on conversation. So I decided to go to the river later and do a bit of birding (I didn’t have my binoculars with me on the bike ride—why do I ever go anywhere without binoculars in spring?)

After our equally brisk ride back, I rested for a bit, but the beautiful day and the call of the birds lured me out before long. I rode down to the river, picked a spot, sat down, and waited for the birds to reappear after the disturbance of my arrival. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, birds started coming around. Not a lot of them—it was mid-afternoon, not the best time for birding. Still and yet, I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, as well as an eastern phoebe. Also a northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, and I heard a red-bellied woodpecker laughing. Slowly floating down the river was a group of northern shovelers.

Earlier today, I was outside at the cactus, uncovering it (again—after I had to recover it mid last week for our winter storm). I could almost feel it stretching towards the sun. I got the bulk of it done, and hope to finish the rest yet tonight (it stays light until after 8 p.m. now!). I also uncovered (again) the rhubarb, which is much further along than it was five days ago when I covered it back up. Rhubarb bread is around the corner (with cinnamon and nuts—yum).

I’ve had a few spring migrants in the backyard. For the last 10 days, I’ve had three fox sparrows, which have totally captivated me. They’ve been here pretty much all day for those 10 days, and I’ve been quite diligent about putting out fresh water and seed of various sorts (and also graham crackers). This is a particularly important time to feed birds, as often their common sources of foods (insects, buds, seeds) haven’t arrived yet or are sparse.

Several days ago, as I was watching the fox sparrows under the dogwoods, spouse came up, pointed out the window and asked, “What’s that?” to a bird that was about three feet away from my nose. A beautiful male purple finch! I’m glad I saw him then, because I haven’t seen him since. I have house finches quite often, but the purple finch is rare in my yard.

Robins are plentiful this spring, but I’m still awaiting the return of the house wren.

Do you think if I unplug the heated birdbath, winter will return?

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Spring in Minnesota

March in Minnesota is often mostly winter, but this year the official spring actually feels like spring. Today I went outside in a light jacket to put out birdseed and fresh water. It was so nice out, I found myself picking up winter trash and cleaning up around the compost bin. I moved a stepping stone to the muddy area, and rescued and cleaned a water dish frozen out over winter. Then I started to pull the leaf mulch off the rhubarb until I got to a layer of ice. Time to let the sun do its work. Honestly, there’s just not that much you can do in a Minnesota yard in March.

And then I glanced at the south wall of the house. The cacti are coming back to life! I had worried about this a bit over winter, especially with the polar vortex. I didn’t mulch them as well as usual last fall (because I mauled them the previous spring when I was raking off the mulch) and feared they wouldn’t survive polar vortex and record-breaking February snowfall. But a glance showed me otherwise: Several pads were rising up—I love this miracle of spring.

In a wee bit of awe, I went to check out the full patch (I’m trying to cover the south wall of the house). A bit more mulch than I remembered. I found a twig and used it to gently move leaves off the cactus pads. Most of the pads are still flat on the ground (they seem to almost melt in winter; the first year I was sure they were dead, and was shocked as anything when they came back even bigger and stronger the next spring). And a couple of years after that, they flowered, and continued to spread. When they started to cover the sidewalk, I clipped one off and set it in a bit of a scrape in the rocks. “Back to nature,” I thought. Indeed back to nature: It took root and grew that very summer and started its own vigorous plant the next spring. That’s when I got the idea of a cactus bed on the south wall of the house. It’s coming along nicely.

Also in the land of spring: The cardinals have paired off. No more large groups of them coming and hanging out for much of the day. Ditto for the robins. The juncos are now few and far between. I miss the groups, but the trade-off is worth it in song: Yes, the birds are singing again! They certainly haven’t hit their peak yet, but the occasional robin song and chickadee dee are definite signs of spring, along with the frequent drumming of the downy woodpeckers. There will come a time later in summer when the cardinal calling at 4:30 in the morning does not make me smile, but in March, the birds are the vocal heralds of spring. I cannot help but love them.

I saw my first chipmunk of the season today. An immediate flash of pure affection. So cute. And a few hours later, after I had put out birdseed, I also remembered what little hoovers they are. One chipmunk can clean out a seed tray in record time. They put squirrels to shame. Chipmunks have huge cheek pouches where they store the seed they vacuum up. Then they hie off to their cache, deposit their feast-for-later, and go back to the banquet for more.

Nature. Wily Nature. It makes my heart sing.

Winterson or Waugh?

As the deluge in the basement continued, I became concerned about the books on the bottom shelf of the tall fiction bookcase. These are all my favorite fiction books from over the years (it gets culled and added to on a regular basis—mostly culled, lately). As the water bumped against the bottom of the bookcase, I scanned the bottom shelf. Evelyn Waugh, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf, Banana Yoshimoto.

Note, the scanning was taking place while I was mopping and sopping up the water around the bookshelf. I quick took off my wet gloves and moved all the Jeanette Winterson books to higher ground. I put the gloves back on and resumed mopping. It was a long time mopping and sopping.

But of course I’m mopping and sopping and still looking at Waugh, Woolf, and Yoshimoto. And The Book Thief by Mark Zusak—I loved that. So many very good books.

Back in the basement, another round. Looking at the bottom shelf. Which of those books, if I should lose them, would I buy again because I know I want to reread them?

I moved Banana Yoshimoto to higher ground. Good luck, I said, to Waugh and Woolf. I liked you and maybe even loved you, but I don’t think I’d reread you. (Note: I have a lot of unread Virginia Woolf upstairs.)

And I kept mopping. Today when I went to the basement, the waters had abated. The towels were wet, but not sopped. No standing water. I looked at the bottom shelf. Waugh and Woolf both made it, along with Zusak. But after moving all the Winterson and Yoshimoto, I noticed an entire row of books behind the books I’d saved: mass market paperbacks from forever ago. Books I couldn’t give up.

This was a fine trip down memory lane. There are all my Amy Tan books! The Source, by Michener—I read part of that in college, for one of my biblical history classes. I always meant to finish it. And here it still is, waiting.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Women’s Room, 1984. Alice Walker, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Hesse, and even Ayn Rand (yes, I will admit it, there she is, in the paperback stack, alongside Toni Morrison and Leon Uris). A motley crew, yes? But you know what I did not see? Gone With the Wind. How can this be? I still remember reading it when I was in 10th grade or so, heaving with sobs.

I need to go and take another look. Because I don’t particularly mind losing most of these books. I wouldn’t reread them—trade paperback books have spoiled me. I like the larger format, and now the small paperbacks seem to have tiny print. However, I do think I’d like to keep my copy of Gone With the Wind. Not because I necessarily think I’ll reread it, but because it’s so firmly anchored in my mind to a specific time and place in my life.

While I’m down there, I think I’ll also grab 1984. Now that I think about it, some books are best in the mass-market edition, and I do think there’s a very good chance I’ll reread this book.

Who would you save?

The Snow Hits the Fan

We are having weather. Yesterday morning I read in the newspaper that roofs have been collapsing due to all the snow. Add to that a day of rain (all day yesterday) which snow loves to absorb, and the risk increases. They suggested making sure you know where to turn off your gas, electric, and water in case of this dire type of emergency.

I was pretty sure I knew where all three of those things were, but I thought it would be good to check. I also thought I should check the basement for any leakage, although I was pretty sure I could wait until the next day (which would be today) for that.

Well, I was wrong on both counts. I did not know where the turnoff for the gas is (and I still don’t, though there is a small unmarked lever I would pull in a pinch); need to check my books or with the gas company on that one.

More importantly, I‘m very glad that I went in the basement because water was seeping in from all directions. This is not so bad in the laundry area, where all the trickles trickle to the drain. In the other room, however, it puddles on the floor, though puddle is an understatement. A small shallow pond, perhaps. It took two of us quite some time mopping (why I have so many sponge mops I don’t know, but I’m glad I do) to get up most of the standing water, then we laid down towels, flannel sheets, and rugs to soak it up as it continues to seep.

Four hours later, we had to change everything and do another mopping just before bedtime. First thing this morning (after bringing in the newspaper, which was sopping wet, sigh) we were back down mopping up an even bigger mess because of course it had been more than four hours.

In between the mopping is the drying of sheets and towels (and the rugs, which are marvelously absorbent and buggars to dry). Thank god I haven’t gotten into the magic art of tidying up my basement or linen closet—those old sheets and towels I’ve been meaning to get rid of came in mighty handy yesterday and today (and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow).

I was completely down and out about the whole thing this morning. But I’ve found a different rhythm. I threw all my plans for the day out the window (they involved cooking and cleaning, so not a big sacrifice), and view the basement as the main task. I believe either a nap or an hour in the reading chair (preferably with cat) may also be in order. The trick is to stay ahead of the laundry. If you have plenty of absorbent material, you don’t end up mopping as much.

For those of you wondering about a wet-vac, I thought of that as well. But here I’ve been for 13 years, and it’s the first time I’ve had much of an occasion for one. Mind you, I might look into renting one if the rain (continuing all day today) doesn’t stop tomorrow (as it is supposed to). But still we have a foot of snow, and no matter how much we dig away from the house, there’s so much snow left there’s just not that many places for the water to go.

On the bright side: A little fruit-basket upset in life is good for one’s brain. I’m getting some good exercise (aerobic as well as weight-bearing), and I can use my off time to write. Or read. Or go through an old box of papers I happened upon.

Brief reading update: I am about halfway through Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a novel by J. Ryan Stradal, which I’m quite enjoying (especially since parts of it take place in Minneapolis and St. Paul). And I’m very much looking forward to Radio Free Vermont, a novel by Bill McKibben (I love his nonfiction, and I can’t wait to see if I like his fiction) which is in transit to my local library.

And now I need to transit myself down to the basement and check the linens and the leaks.

Wish me luck!

Joy in the Everyday (with haiku)

This winter I have realized how much joy I get out of everyday things. Last week I was out walking with a friend. It had been snowing at a decent clip for a few hours and there were already a couple of inches on the ground. Mind you, we don’t need any more snow; we already have 3 feet, thank you very much.

And still. It was breathtakingly beautiful. There’s just something magical about walking in a good snowfall—the soft fluffy snow, not the hard dry pellets or the wet sloppy mess. Everything is quieter; sound is muffled, even on a busy street. Our footprints will be barely visible in an hour.

The next day the sun was out and the world asparkle. You had to squint even looking away from the sun. It was that bright.

sun high in the sky
makes the snow a sparkle-fest
I squint in reply

I love watching birds year-round, but in the starkness of winter, they are especially welcome. I spend hours sitting at the little blue table in the kitchen, reading, writing, and looking out the window at the birds (also squirrels and rabbit).

The cardinals have been the standouts this winter. Every day without fail they show up, anywhere between 2 and 20 (most commonly 6 to 10). I counted 8 males after a recent snowfall. That brilliant red against the white snow—this is beauty.

The flock of robins is still around, and there were 2 in the backyard today. (I think they may have been eating the mealworms in the new birdseed blend I recently got.) And a few days ago I had a northern flicker at my ground feeder, a first (not the first flicker I’ve seen in the yard, but the first time I’ve seen one in the ground feeder). Perhaps also after the mealworms?

perched on the birdbath
glinting in the winter sun
a single robin

a sassy blue jay
hides every single peanut
tomorrow’s dinner

Blue jays, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, house finch, goldfinch, and a variety of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, and even pileated), and one red-tailed hawk perched on the telephone pole by the garage.

Pure joy.

Also: Wrapping my hands around a mug of hot tea.

Seeing the cat stretched out in the sun.

After the sun sets and the plates are cleared, we settle in for a few episodes of Downton Abbey. I really had no interest, but first my niece, then my brother, and then my birding friend all gushed about Downton Abbey. With such diverse gushing, I had to check it out. My brother predicted I’d by hooked by the third episode of Season 1, but I believe I was hooked by the end of the first episode. We’ve just finished Season 4 (and Season 5 is supposed to arrive Friday).

At a recent lunch during another snowfall, my friends and I got to talking about snowshoeing, and I admitted having bought snowshoes over a decade ago and never having worn them (I got them end-of-season, it didn’t snow again, and they got put away). I found them at the back of the closet and have pulled them out, with the tags still on.

Perhaps a new source of everyday joy?

Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

The Heart of Winter

We’ve been having serious winter here lately. Polar vortex, freezing rain, snow on ice, black ice, snow and more snow, and the resulting snow emergencies (for those of you not in snow climes, this is about moving cars so streets can be plowed).

And I have hit my winter stride.

Last summer I lost interest in cooking and despaired it would ever come back. It has, and in spades. Or perhaps I should say teaspoons. All the old standbys—meatloaf, roasted vegetables, corn pudding, ham steak, baked potatoes, applesauce, etc. Plus a few new things—minestrone soup, kedgeree (a rice-lentil mix), and quesadillas (how in the world did I never try making these before? So easy!). But here is the fun part (or do I mean the frustrating part?): I cook so much that I have to stop because we have too many leftovers and we’re going to (a) waste food, plus (b) there’s no room in the fridge for anything else anyway.

Oh, the difference that six months can make.

Winter also always gives me a special appreciation for the birds. So many animals migrate or hibernate; I love the birds that stay (or arrive) for the winter. Staying closer to home in winter, I’m much more dependent on my backyard for birding entertainment. I have not been disappointed. Yesterday morning I saw my first pileated woodpecker of the year, in my neighbor’s tree. She was slowly sauntering up a limb. (Today I noticed some large fresh-made holes in a tree several houses away. I wonder if that might also have been my pileated woodpecker.)

But the stars of winter this year are the cardinals and juncos. They’ve been rather plentiful all season, but Wednesday in the snowstorm, even at its height (an inch of snow per hour) the birds were plentiful in the yard. (I went out and spread seed twice, and made sure they had water, and also put out a few peanuts for the blue jays.) I could not get a good count on the cardinals—I think maybe 12. There were a lot more juncos—40 or so? And they stayed all day. Usually the cardinals visit a few times a day. Same with the juncos—they come and go (emphasis on go). But not that day. And I couldn’t help myself. I think I spent half the afternoon watching them. (Also a few chickadees and two intrepid blue jays.)

And the other thing that winter brings me to, at its best, is going through stuff and culling. Being cooped up in a house can be very motivating that way. Most recently it was a small corner bookshelf, that must have been purchased at a clown shop. I went to empty the first shelf and there were just layers and stacks and piles of books—far more than should be allowed in such a small space. This made the culling a bit more challenging (I thought it would be a breeze to do the entire bookcase in an afternoon before I realized its clown-car aspect). On the bright side, I got a huge stack of unsightly hardcover mysteries tucked away on the bottom shelf (ungainly towers on top of the corner bookshelf—20 of them at least).

But it’s not just books. For some reason I develop this “eye” in the depth of winter: I look at everything in the house through a more critical lens. This is a great time to go through clothes, books, dishes, anything and everything. It’s like I have this roving “what can I get rid of” eye. And I find that getting rid of excess things is very refreshing.

This, to me, is the heart of winter: cooking, appreciating the nature in my own backyard, and getting the house in order.

I think this is what I love about winter. It is so close and simple.