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.

Advertisements

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.

Small Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merely another June miracle.

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

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

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

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

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.