Reading Local

The June book theme is Reading Local. For us, that’s Minneapolis, Minnesota, and pretty much anything in the Upper Midwest. It can be a local author or a local setting (ideally, both). It also includes books with the word local in the title (e.g., Going Local—which is the title of several different books, I just found out).

I had planned to start the month with The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl, which seemed like the perfect pandemic read. But then George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police. Protests and riots ensued; here, and then across the world. The protests have continued but the riots and looting have stopped. The protests must continue, and we must not let this go until systemic change happens.

Suddenly, reading The Art of the Wasted Day didn’t feel like the right read at all. Instead, I took something a bit more timely off the shelf: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin. Sheila (my book-theme cocreator) and I are discussing it this week. Like most edited books, it was a mixed bag. Some pieces were really moving, some painful, one I didn’t understand (this of course, bears revisiting). One, about Minnesota Nice, whacked me right between the eyes.

I followed that up with Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall (she is from Chicago—definitely the Upper Midwest). I’m about a third through, and am getting a good education. I’ve been a proud feminist most of my life, but I am now questioning that pride. It’s a little gut-wrenching, to be honest, but Kendall is making really good points. I don’t know where I’ll be at by the end of this book, but I am appreciating the journey.

In the poetry realm I’ve finished one book, and it has a title I absolutely love: Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life, by Robert Bly (from Minnesota). This is the second of his poetry books that I’ve read, and I liked it a lot.

Fiction has been a bit of a romp. I started with Leave No Trace, a thriller by Mindy Mejia (Twin Cities). This is a very compelling book if you are able to engage in a strong suspension of disbelief. With that (important) caveat in mind, it’s a great summer read. I followed this up with Fever in the Dark, by Ellen Hart (Minneapolis). This is the 24th book in her Jane Lawless mystery series, set in south Minneapolis (and yes, I have read the prior 23).

A thriller followed by a mystery requires a palate cleanser, so I went Fishing With RayeAnne, by Ava Finch (Minneapolis). I found out while reading the book that Ava Finch is a pen name for Sarah Stonich. (Oh! I just checked online, and I see Stonich has republished it, Fishing! under her own name in March of this year. I got the Ava Finch copy a few years ago.) I had no idea Stonich is a local author.

What next? Tough call. Right now, the leading contenders in fiction are The Blindfold, by Siri Hustvedt (who lives in New York, but grew up in Minnesota and still has family in Northfield); Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, by Lorna Landvik (Minneapolis), a long-time favorite author of mine; The Waking Land, by Callie Bates (all I know about her location is “Upper Midwest”), in case I feel like fantasy; and Shelter Half, by Carol Bly (Duluth)—I loved her nonfiction book, Letters From the Country, and am curious if I will like her fiction as well.

As for nonfiction, I’ve still got a ways to go on Hood Feminism. But, should I have time, right now I have three primary contenders: The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang (St. Paul), which I’ve been meaning to read for years (it’s gotten a lot of attention both locally and nationally); Ignorance Ain’t Got No Shame, by Tracy Lenore Jackson (Minnesota), a memoir that looks like it will be difficult to put down once I pick it up; and Give a Girl a Knife, by Amy Theilen (northern Minnesota), a food memoir. But then again, maybe I’ll go for something beautiful: Tempt Me: The Fine Art of Minnesota Cooking, by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky. Take a look at it: a feast for the eyes.

Happy Reading!

My City Is on Fire

Here’s what it’s like to live in Minneapolis right now: scary and heartbreaking. I woke up this morning wondering if my favorite bookstore was still standing (it is). A lot of buildings around it weren’t, though, and lots that are still standing had looting and serious damage, including fires.

Many storefronts are boarded up (most, in some neighborhoods). We drove from Minneapolis to Edina (a tony inner-ring suburb) to find a newspaper this morning because newspapers apparently weren’t delivered to many stores in Minneapolis or St. Paul (or our house). We stopped at a Holiday gas station, and they did have newspapers, but they didn’t have gasoline. The pumps were turned off.

On our return, I noticed another large gas station. It was open, but the windows were boarded and the pumps there were also closed. Many things are closed. Target, Walgreens, CVS, post offices, banks. Not in all locations, but pretty much all of the ones in this area. Shopping malls are closing.

The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul have imposed curfews between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. I, personally, was relieved to hear that.

Mind you, I’d be out there protesting too, if we weren’t in a pandemic. Not participating in the violent looting, of course, but acting with the 99% or so that are peaceful. I appreciate the peaceful protesters. But I am having a very hard time dealing with the looting and the violence and the property destruction. These are opportunists, I think to myself.

But then this afternoon, after returning from Edina with our treasured newspapers (both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press are required), I read this in the Strib editorial:

A riot is the language of the unheard.”

That stopped my brain and opened up my mind. It’s a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. He detested violence, but he understood it.

The police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than 5 minutes has been charged with murder and manslaughter. For a system that typically moves at a snail’s pace, that is swift and none too soon. We’ll see if it makes a difference.

What does one read in such circumstances? Before all of this started, a few days ago, I had planned to read The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl, as my next nonfiction book. It seems perfect pandemic reading. But it doesn’t quite fit for today. I looked at my shelf, and pulled out several books, mostly comforting, to pick one, but I ended up with two. For comfort, I chose Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. For edification (and discomfort) I added A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin.

We have much work to do here. There is much to rebuild, much to mend. And much to learn.

Blue Jay Training

I enjoy birds at the best of times, and in these stay-at-home times, they are helping me keep my sanity. I spend a lot of time at the little blue table that looks out on the backyard. I do most of my reading and writing there, where I spend nearly as much time looking outside as I do looking at paper.

I feed the birds and put out fresh water daily, and they reward me by showing up. One bird that doesn’t show up as often as I’d like is the blue jay. Maybe every two or three days I see a jay, usually getting a drink. I’ve tried putting out peanuts to attract blue jays, but the squirrels always get to them first. After a few trays of peanuts to the squirrels with nary a blue jay sighting, I decided on a new approach.

I waited until I heard a blue jay (they are quite vocal), and then I went out to the garage and got the peanuts. But by the time I put the peanuts out, the jay had left. I tried that a few times to no avail.

This morning it occurred to me: Bring the peanuts in the house. If you go outside with peanuts in your hand…. Well, blue jays are smart. I figured, the blue jay will associate me with the peanuts, and I will thus train the blue jay. So I went to the garage and filled a little container with peanuts, enough to last through the weekend (given the jays only show up every few days).

To my utter delight, a blue jay showed up within the hour. I was busy writing, and I hear this blue jay shriek. There it is, right in the little tree, six feet from the window I’m sitting by. I grab a few peanuts and hurry outside. The blue jay flies off. But not too far—just to the fence. I take a step out. The jay flies into the neighbor’s yard. I can still see it. It can see me.

I wait until it’s watching, and then I toss the peanuts, one by one, onto the sidewalk, clack! clack! clack! clack! Then I scurry back into the house. Within 30 seconds, the jay is grabbing a peanut. Like squirrels, blue jays stash food and come back for it later. This jay got all four peanuts stashed before the squirrels had any idea.

I am quite pleased. My plan is working much better and faster than expected!

About an hour later, I’m writing and I hear a blue jay trill. I look out the window and there is the jay, sitting in the little tree. I grab peanuts and bring them out. The jay flies off. I locate it, and toss the peanuts, clack! clack! clack! clack! Back in the house, the first peanut is gone before I get to the window.

On the third visit, the jay just sat in the tree until I noticed. I went out with a few more peanuts. Again, the jay beats the squirrels. So far, the squirrels haven’t gotten a single peanut. Unheard of.

But I decided silence wasn’t the best approach. After all, I spend less than half my time looking out the window.

It came back four more times (one time shrieking repeatedly on the overhead wire, which would have roused me out of even the most compelling book). Seven times I went out with peanuts. The sixth and seventh time, the squirrels showed up, and the jay lost one, and then two.

So it seems I got exactly what I wanted. The blue jay calls when it wants peanuts.

But I wonder: Who trained who here?

Even more, I wonder if it will come back tomorrow. Stay tuned!

The Winter Birds

The first bird I saw this year was a cardinal. A male cardinal. A gorgeous flaming bright red male cardinal.

An auspicious start to the year, don’t you think?

Along with the cardinal on New Year’s Day, I also saw house sparrows, a red-bellied woodpecker (heard before seen, as they often are—so vocal and beautiful!), many crows (heading to roost), and a white-throated sparrow (I am so pleased to have overwintering white-throated sparrows!).

After that strong start, a few days later I saw my first dark-eyed junco of the year—cute round little puffballs. The same day, I saw a downy woodpecker at the suet out back. Score one for the suet! Mostly the squirrels get it (they are very persistent, gnawing through that cage) before the birds get a fair chance.

On January 5, my best backyard sighting of the year: I was puttering about the kitchen when I saw something much larger than usual zoom through the backyard. I grab my binocs and Sibley’s (conveniently right by the window) and the bird lands in my neighbor’s tree. I have a perfect view. A Cooper’s hawk! It swooped down into my neighbor’s yard, most likely plucking up a songbird (my neighbor also puts out bird food and water all winter, so we’re a nice little winter oasis on the block).

The next day, I welcomed my first black-capped chickadee of the year to the yard. I actually went out and got a new feeder this year specifically to attract chickadees, and it works! This morning they were busy at the feeder. They’re so fast they’re hard to count. There were at least three, but I think maybe five. Delightful little birds—the smiles of winter. I would feed birds just for the chickadees alone.

Then in dribs and drabs I added sporadic birds. A blue jay (so common last winter but a rare sight in the back yard this winter), rock pigeons, a white-breasted nuthatch (another favorite winter bird that hasn’t been as common as usual this year), Canada geese (which I usually hear before I see, and then glimpse flying overhead as I’m writing at my table), and finally at the end of January, goldfinches.

In early February I went birding with a friend. Not much—it was a cold day—but a bit. We started at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (they have birdfeeders set up near the visitor center, and you can watch from the warm inside). When we first got there, a wild turkey was wandering around under the feeders, a bit of a distraction from the scads of chickadees, juncos, blue jays, woodpeckers, and nuthatches.

After that we went to nearby Fort Snelling State Park, where we happened upon half a dozen trumpeter swans! The visit to the park paid for itself in happiness (actually, the MN annual state park sticker of $35 is a really good deal; now we can bird at Fort Snelling, which is practically in our back yard, all summer, or go to any state park at all—67 to choose from). I have a feeling this could be a very happy birding year.

And last but certainly not least, my most recent bird of the year: bald eagle. These beauties are here year round, and I saw this one as we were crossing the Mississippi River.

There are plenty of common winter birds I haven’t seen yet: hairy woodpecker, house finch, purple finch, mallard, and starling, to name a few. Before long, birds will start coming back. It seems ducks appear as soon as there’s open water.

A couple of weeks ago I heard the cardinals’ spring song. Oh how welcome that is!

Can the red-winged blackbird be far behind?

Best Books of 2019

I generally do a favorite-books-of-the-year list every year. Not the top 10 or top 20. It doesn’t stop at a number; it stops when I stop saying, “Oh, yes, I loved that book.”

And these are the books I loved in 2019 (note, these are books I read in 2019, not necessarily, or even usually, published in 2019):

  1. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (nonfiction; a book that can be found in many sections: nature, science, botany/plants, indigenous studies, sustainability, ecology and likely several more)
  2. Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson (fiction)
  3. Hagar Poems, Mohja Kahf (I have corresponded with this author after writing to tell her how much I loved Hagar Poems; I love it when authors respond, and poets are particularly good at responding)
  4. A Year of Living Kindly, Donna Cameron (nonfiction—who doesn’t need more kindness in their life?)
  5. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick (an absolutely lovely and charming novel)
  6. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson (a short book about cleaning up before you die; this Swede finds it a bit more pragmatic than holding each item you own to see if it sparks joy)
  7. Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez (nonfiction about how women are underrepresented in research and why it matters, and not nearly as boring as I’ve just made it sound)
  8. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat (I will never ever look at salt the same way again. A beautiful book about cooking, with lots of illustrations and recipes.)
  9. That Good Night, Sunita Puri (nonfiction about palliative care and end-of-life issues—there’s a lot more out there than straight to hospice)
  10. What I Stole, Diane Sher Lutovick (poetry)
  11. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson (a memoir, told in verse, written for middle schoolers)
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg (first I read the book, then I saw the movie about 10 times, then I read the book again; I love the movie, but the book has elements that the movie just doesn’t have the time to capture)
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (loved this rabbity novel decades ago, and I loved it all over again last year—the same dinged-up mass market paperback I read the first time)
  • Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Lorna Landvik (Landvik is probably my favorite local novelist, and I reread this book because I bought it for a friend and I had forgotten that it was about a bookclub, set right in my part of Minneapolis, so I read it again and I think I loved it even more, because I didn’t live here the first time I read the book)

The last three aren’t numbered because they’re rereads. I don’t like to pit rereads against first-time reads. It isn’t a level playing field.

A bit of context for the numerically inclined: I read 121 books last year, 53 fiction, 38 poetry, and 30 nonfiction. Most of my years are not quite so heavy in fiction, but 2019 was definitely a fiction kind of year.

I’ve also started tracking my diversity reading since I discovered a couple of years ago that it was almost none. In 2019, I read 31 books by people of color. That’s just over a quarter (26%) of the books I read, and a nice improvement on the 19% of the prior year.

Does it matter—diversity in reading? I think it does. Reading helps you to walk in other people’s shoes. I find I’m much more likely to examine things through a racial lens when I’ve read beyond my usual white menu (no surprise there, I guess). I like this trend. And the happy thing I’ve found is that the more diversely I read, the more diversely I want to read.

The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

December Reading Theme: It’s a Winner!

The December theme is Prize-Winning Books. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this theme; in fact it’s the fourth. But I’m particularly excited about it this year because I’ve taken a new approach.

In the past, I researched awards and went through lists to see which books I might have on my shelves (or, perhaps, venture to buy or get from the library). This year, I turned that approach on its head. Instead of searching award winners, I searched the books on my shelves that I really want to read, and then checked to see if they had won any awards. Total score!

Well, not total. But a lot. More than half. What this means is that I’m pretty much looking at the cream of my crop for books this month. I dived head first into this theme on November 30, as I was ready to leave Taste (the November theme) behind. My first pick (and the first book I checked out online for a possible literary award) was No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (winner of the PEN America Literary Award). These are short essays, and they warm my heart. I keep reading one more and one more, and I’m about a third through the book already.

For fiction, I chose Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor (winner of the Locus Award, the Lodestar Award, and the World Science Fiction Society Award for Best YA Book). Note, this is the second in a series and the third is not yet published. However, if this is like the first (Akata Witch), it will have a satisfactory conclusion rather than a cliffhanger. I’m about three-quarters through this compelling book (nearly 500 pages). It’s fantasy and takes place in Nigeria. I’m loving it.

For poetry, I’m reading Billboard in the Clouds, by Suzanne S. Rancourt (winner of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas First Book Award). I’ve made good progress on this, also—nearly half done.

I have a feeling this is going to be a Really Good reading month.

Other top-of-the-line nonfiction: Call Them By Their Real Names, by Rebecca Solnit (Kirkus Prize for nonfiction), Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, by Peter Kalmus (Nautilus Book Award), Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss (James Beard Award), Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, by David Treuer (winner of the Minnesota Book Award).

The Minnesota Book Award was quite lucrative in terms of my shelves. I also have The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang; and Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, by Linda LeGarde Grover.

My fiction stack is even taller. Highlights: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (Orange Prize), An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones (Women’s prize for fiction, Aspen Words Literary Prize), Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (Akutagawa Prize), Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (Oregon Book Award), Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (National Book Critics Circle Award), and that skims the surface. (I haven’t even looked at mysteries, except to find out that my next Louise Penny book has won at least one award. I feel like I’m in heaven.)

My poetry stack is not so high, but I haven’t pushed that one so much. Next up is You Won’t Remember This, by Michael Dennis Browne (thank you again, Minnesota Book Award). I didn’t read any poetry at all for the November theme, so I don’t want to push it. I do have The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (National Book Award), and that would make a fine December read.

So glad this month has 31 days. Happy reading!

Magazine Madness

I’ve never been good at keeping up with my magazines, but about two years ago I seemed to mostly stop reading them altogether, without ending my subscriptions. Well, you might know trouble lies there.

Just recycle the lot of them, maybe keeping the newest issue of each, I hear you say. A good strategy, which worked with exactly one magazine that I found worthless (only a one-year subscription, thank goodness), and old poetry magazines that I subscribed to specifically to find out about new poetry.

It all came to a head when I was looking for a particular magazine which caused me to have to upset the precarious balance of all the magazines piled on top of my seriously overflowing magazine rack. This stack went on my chair, awaiting . . . something. After three days of not sitting in my chair, I hauled the stack to the rack and started sorting. I arranged chronologically by magazine, oldest to newest. I figured I’d read the oldest ones really fast, and slow down as I progressed. I have six magazines I can’t part with without at least glancing through: Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country, Mother Earth Living, Orion, Yes!, and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

But as I finished organizing, I thought—wouldn’t I rather read all the October issues of my cooking magazines now? When they’re talking about fall foods and recipes? Why, yes. And doesn’t the same hold true for Mother Earth Living, with the seasons and such? And certainly the Conservation Volunteer is seasonal.

Fruit basket upset! Clearly the best way to get through the magazines is seasonally, rather than some vague start with the oldest magazines and read fast sort of approach. Granted, this way it takes a year (maybe), but at least, if I stick to it, I will be caught up in a year. This is a pretty good deal to me, since the tower has been building for a few years now (I decreased magazine reading several years before stopping altogether). So I went through and reorganized the magazines by month/season.

I love it, and I’m having great success!  I started the project just one week ago, and I’ve gotten through about 20 magazines. I have all the October magazines done, as well as all the Autumn issues. I have started on November. Actually, I have a good chunk of November done, because one of the cooking magazines is October-November. As such, I read three November cooking magazines in a row. I got a lot of Thanksgiving cooking tips, and was able to do a lot of quick page flipping because how many articles do you need to read about roasting a turkey for a large crowd when you usually go out on Thanksgiving?

I have even made a spreadsheet to track my progress, with the months and seasons in the left column and the six magazines across the top. It’s nice to see two entire rows (October, fall) already completed. I like to see progress this way. When I feel the magazines are still so many, I can look and see how much I’ve already done. If I finish November early, I might read a July issue of something—sort of a vacation. In this way, I think I might get the project done in less than a year.

This is not a solution that will appeal to everyone. But if your magazines are overflowing and you truly can’t part with them, this might be the perfect approach for you. It’s certainly working for me! I love really sinking into the season across the magazines. I love that I’m honoring each magazine by looking at every page, finding good recipes, poems, ideas for saving the world, and beautiful pictures to send to friends. I also love that I’m finally doing this, after continuing to add magazine after magazine to the tippy tower. I love that already the magazines seem manageable instead of overwhelming.

This will be a good New Year’s resolution–finishing the magazines (preferably earlier than later, but no later than end of September).

Fall. It makes me plan ahead. My favorite season.

Happy autumn!

Backyard: Disaster Area or Nature Refuge?

My back yard has never looked worse. The red-twig dogwoods are out of control but are also being invaded by stray elms. The wood and wire compost bin is at a serious slant. The grass is knee high, and there are plants/weeds growing that seem to be new to the yard this year. I was going to hire a landscaper to come in and clean it all up, but that didn’t work out.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In any given summer, I usually get an occasional juvenile robin or two, and on lucky years, I see juvenile cardinals.

This year has been a bumper crop. A few weeks ago I started seeing a couple of young robins (spotted breasts), usually with one of the adults. But not just occasional this year. Not daily, but nearly so. Always two young ones. And then today, I saw at least four juvenile robins, possibly six (they were flying around and I couldn’t count them all at once). So many youngsters was a first for my backyard.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw what I thought was a female cardinal on the back feeder. Turned out to be a juvenile cardinal (they look like females but have dark beaks rather than the bright orange of the adults). I haven’t seen any since, but even one sighting is welcome, as they don’t happen every year. And there’s plenty of time to see more.

A week ago I got a happy surprise: baby wrens. Fledged, mind you, and able to fly, but small and oh so fast! At first I thought they were mice, the way they scurried on the ground (there were about four of them). But then one flew, and their cover was blown. I’ve had a house wren visit every summer, but this is the first time I’ve had a wren family. How fun!

Today, I was sitting at the blue table and a woodpecker was hanging out on the large downed tree branch I’ve been meaning to take out for about two weeks. But what was different about this woodpecker? And is it a downy or a hairy? On closer look, this is something I have but haven’t seen before. A hairy woodpecker, yes, but different, with red on the front of its head (the forehead) instead of the back. A quick look at the field guide confirmed I’d just seen my first juvenile hairy woodpecker.

The catbird returned (the same one? not sure) a few weeks ago, but then I didn’t see or hear it for quite some time. But about four days ago, it showed up again, and has been back daily since. I am hoping that perhaps I will see some baby catbirds sometime down the road here. (That would be another first!)

This is the first summer I’ve ever noticed young chipmunks—two of them, at least. Like the baby wrens, exceptionally fast. Another fun sighting.

The narrow part of the yard that runs along the side of the house is happily overrun with common milkweed. It’s growing up here and there all over the yard, but it’s quite dense on that side of the house (such that it’s falling over the sidewalk, but I certainly don’t want to pull it, so I try to prop it up). Monarchs are a common sighting in this part of the yard, lots more than last year, and often several at a time.

So, there it is. I look at my yard and flinch. And then I look at my yard in wonder. I’ll let you know if I see any baby catbirds.

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?

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.