Friday, December 26, 2008


The human noises that intrude on my woodland walks are usually something I resent. Traffic sounds, the rumble of trains, the growl of distant machinery--and above all, the sinister whine of chainsaws--make me grit my teeth. I have to discipline myself to ignore them, and not let them distract me from the singing of the birds or the rustle of a vole in the fallen leaves.

But human noises are animal noises, too, and sometimes our species harmonizes with others in delightful ways. This morning I was near the edge of the park when a siren sounded at the nearby fire station. Then the fire trucks began to scream, and somewhere in the distance a cop car chimed in, growing louder as it approached. A pack of dogs, probably penned hunting hounds at one of the houses just outside the park, began to yelp and sing. All together they made quite a concert, and I smiled because my own dogs like to sing duets with sirens. Then from the top of a ridge perhaps a hundred yards away, a solitary coyote cut loose with a full-throated howl, as if to say, You guys are pathetic, let me show you how it's done.

Photo of a gray wolf by Retron from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Maybe you're wondering why this guy is making an appearance in the dead of winter. Well, it's not because I saw one of his kind in the woods recently. It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit here this morning, so all our snakes are snuggled deep in hibernation--and I realized yesterday, as I walked toward the Solstice sunrise, I'm in hibernation, too.

Not physically, of course. I've been out hunting and gathering in typical 21st century human fashion, but spiritually I am half-awake, dozing and waiting for spring to rouse me. That's why the posts on this blog have gotten so sparse. My body is taking me along for our daily walk, but I don't feel inspired to interpret the sights and sounds along the way. My brain, for once, is silent.

I've been a little troubled by that internal silence, wondering if maybe this walking meditation is becoming a dead ritual or a chore, instead of the blissful practice it's always been. But it dawned on me--literally--as I did my Yule observance that it is inevitable that my talking self would retreat during this time of the year. A friend appeared for a moment with the rising sun and explained it to me.

A long time ago, when I first began to understand that there might be something of value in my intuitive connection to the earth, the snake became my totem. It was not a conscious choice, and I didn't do any ritual or dream work to determine it. The serpent just declared himself my companion and that was that. It made perfect sense, because the snake is associated with healing and with the power of transformation, both things I desperately needed at the time. As the years have passed I've come to see that I always had an affinity for the special energy of snakes, and that their particular forms of wisdom--decisiveness, resilience, the ability to change--are gifts I will always lack.

And so, as the earthly serpent goes underground and sleeps during the dark season, so does the spiritual serpent inside me. My own energy is inextricably tied to his. Nothing's wrong, we just need to be a little quieter now.

Photo of a black rat snake by Patrick Coin from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Missing the juncos

The Dude returneth. He was back in his corner of the lake yesterday--alone, as usual. Actually, not entirely alone, because a flock of dark-eyed juncos were hiding in the tall grass along the bank. They took flight as I walked toward them, buzzing the Dude’s head like low-flying aircraft. He didn’t seem to mind at all. Apparently, he’s fine with avian companions as long as they are not his own kind.

The juncos were so pretty they made me sigh. I’m too lazy to go looking for the post, but I know I’ve blogged at BitterGrace Notes about how the juncos abandoned my feeders a few winters ago, never to return. I still miss them.

I’ve never been a scorekeeping sort of birdwatcher. You know, the type who keeps a careful record of exactly how many species she’s seen, and always has a hit list of birds she hopes to add to the tally. I do get excited about seeing a rare bird, and I’m sure at some point I’ve gone through my Peterson’s guide to see who I’ve missed, but I never feel any sense of accomplishment or failure. My birdwatching is pretty much a goal-free activity. I do it solely because it gives me joy to look at birds, to know they’re alive. That’s the reason I feed them, too. I might make noises about promoting their survival or whatever, but really, I haul those bags of seed home for purely selfish reasons. If I put out food, more birds will come and entertain me.

What is so enthralling about these creatures, especially the little ordinary feeder birds like the juncos? Isn’t it amazing that human beings all over the world, if they have the resources to spare, will feed birds just for the pleasure of watching them eat? Let’s face it, birds, taken objectively, are not especially appealing. They fight constantly, they prey on each other’s young, they carry any number of human diseases; and yet, most people are completely charmed by the sight of them.

Not everyone, of course. My brother lived for a while with a young woman who seemed sort of vacuous but basically harmless. The first (and I think only) time she came to my house, she saw my bird feeders in the back yard.

“I hate birds,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say in reply. It’s funny now, but at the time it actually shocked me a little. What sort of person hates birds? I felt a sudden, visceral dislike for her, as if she’d insulted my religion--which, in a way, she had. My encounters with the birds are sacred to me. They are, pompous as it sounds, moments of mystery and higher consciousness. I look at those delicate beings and see myself in what is not myself. It’s a kind of ecstasy.

Video of dark-eyed junco uploaded by Midhue at Youtube.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two flocks

Except for our few days in New York, I've done my usual tromp through the woods every morning. I haven't been doing Turn Outward posts primarily because nature has been so damned peaceful. Winter is a still season here. It gets chilly enough that a lot the wildlife semi-hibernate, or at least wait for the warmth of the day to get out and about; yet we rarely have any dramatic winter storms or brutal cold to report. Our winter, for the most part, is just a lull between the brisk, busy fall and the budding of spring.

I was thinking about the quiet yesterday as I walked toward the lake. We'd had some rain, and there were perfect frozen droplets resting on the fallen leaves. They crunched underfoot, and that was about the only sound I could hear. A couple of woodpeckers were hammering away somewhere in the distance, but no one was singing, no deer or squirrels were rustling the leaves. I found myself looking around for some sign of a vole, or even a cricket. Nothing.

The lake has a little thumb, almost a lagoon, that presses into a shaded hollow. It's prime catfish territory, so there's often someone fishing there, but I found it as deserted as the rest of the park. I stood staring down at the dark water, feeling a perfect solitude, so zoned out that I didn't hear them coming: Blackbirds, that is--one of those enormous winter flocks that seem to come from nowhere; grim, noisy flash mobs that suddenly fill the world, and then just as suddenly disappear.

They landed heavily in the trees on the opposite bank, and the air vibrated with their chatter. It's thrilling and slightly creepy to be in the presence of all that combined avian energy. I was happy to have my reverie disturbed, but I felt sort of surrounded--then I realized I was surrounded: A second large flock, a mixed group of finches, had quietly taken over the trees on my side of the lake. Their twittering was a gentle counterpoint to the loudmouth blackbirds, and they flitted between the branches as lightly as the leaves they sent falling.

Wheat Field with Crows, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

Monday, November 24, 2008


It rained all day today--one of those cold, steady rains that come in the late fall. Rain has its beauty. It's pleasant to sit in a cozy house on a day like this, looking out the window at the dripping trees and dreary sky, but it takes an act of will for me to get myself outdoors. A half hour into my hike, after the wet starts to seep through my boots and mud is spattered up the leg of my jeans, I'm able to make friends with the rain, but the beginning of our relationship is always rough.

It started really pouring when I was about halfway to the lake. I considered cutting the walk short, but I decided to keep going because I was curious to see if the Dude would be out. The Dude is a solitary Canada goose who has been loitering at the lake for the past few weeks. Flocks of Canada geese often rest at the lake, and for a long time I assumed he was just a mildly antisocial member of one of them, the kind of guy who sits alone in a corner with his drink at a party. But I've come to the conclusion that the Dude is entirely unattached--no wife, no buddies, nobody. I can't find any mention in my bird books of anserine hermits, but that's what he seems to be.

He's a very laid back bird, which I suppose is why I call him the Dude. He's aware of me, he turns to look at me as I approach, but otherwise he doesn't react at all. Geese can be very territorial, but he doesn't show any sign of resenting my presence. He just eyes me indifferently and goes back to paddling slowly around the lake.

I like his blasé attitude, but I can't help feeling a little sorry for him. Geese are such social birds, surely he would be better off attached to a flock. It was very cold last week, and as he swam away from me I could that there was thick frost over his back. Somehow that seemed a little tragic.

I don't know why I have this notion that he's lonely. After all, I'm out there all by myself, and I'm not lonely. On the contrary, I'm so thrilled with solitude that I'll tramp miles in the rain for the privilege of being alone by the lake as the day begins.

But this day, I didn't make the hike to be alone. I made it to see the Dude. He wasn't there. No sign of him. Perhaps he finally hooked up with a flock, but it's possible that he actually likes solitude more than I do.

Photo by Thegreenj from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Frost flowers

Nights have turned very cold here and dawn reveals frost flowers everywhere. They're wonderful to examine close up, always so weird, and each one unique. Frost flowers are the antithesis of everything flowers are supposed to be. It's in the nature of actual flowers to be regimented in form. As part of the machinery of reproducing the species, they have to match the blueprint. Evolution does require the occasional freak, but day to day survival is all about lack of originality. Frost flowers are all freaks, absolutely lacking pattern. Utterly ephemeral, they beget nothing, and as far as I know, abet nothing in the life cycle of the plant. They're like the creation of some alien god, who wants to please us with a familiar gift, but doesn't get it quite right.

Photo by Josiah Johnston from Wikipedia.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


There is no downside to wrens. They are all charm: pretty, petite, peaceable and chatty. They mate for life. This time of year they flit among the fallen leaves, so light and quick in their movements that they seem barely real, like fairies of the autumn woods. It’s impossible not to love them.

"Dismembers large insects by hammering with its bill and shaking it until small pieces break off."**

Of course, if I were a bug, a failure of love might be possible.

**From the Carolina Wren page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Photo by Ken Thomas from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Home sweet home

It’s been nice and quiet in the woods this week. The chilly, wet weather has kept a lot of the other hikers at home and encouraged the birds to sleep in. Gun season for deer doesn’t start until tomorrow, and muzzleloader season ended last weekend, so there hasn’t even been the sound of distant gunfire. The only commotion I’ve encountered on the trail was a squirrel that decided to bless me out this morning. I didn’t do a thing to bother him, but he still squawked at me and gave me the propeller tail. I think he was bored.

Here at our place things have not been so serene. Twice, my morning loll in the bathtub has been disrupted by the yowl of triumphant coyotes within a stone’s throw of the house. Hard to know just what they killed, but I’m pretty sure I heard the scream of a cat on one occasion. That made me cringe, of course, but really, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just thinning the herd. Our sweet, elderly neighbor has gone from feeding one or two feral cats to maintaining a 24-hour buffet for a horde of felines, some homeless and some not. I’m not sure how she can afford to buy enough food to keep them all coming, but it’s not unusual to see a dozen or more hanging around her house, which is about 50 yards from mine.

The cats are pretty helpless against the coyotes, but they administer justice down the food chain. I recently moved my bird feeders to an open area nearer the house, in part to make my own birdwatching easier, but also in hopes of discouraging predatory felines. Silly me. The day after I moved the feeders, I looked out the window and saw an obese gray tabby underneath them, happily chewing the innards out of a cardinal.

Later that same afternoon I was startled by a tremendous thump outside my office window, which opens onto the roof of a carport. Birds like to peck around on the flat metal surface to see if anything tasty has landed there. A couple of big maple trees loom above the roof, and a clever cat had hidden in their branches in order to leap down on his prey. Score another one for the carnivores.

So, that’s life chez BitterGrace: a steady parade of murderous canids, and bloodthirsty fur balls falling from the sky. No wonder I flee to the woods.

A Dog and a Cat Fighting, Alexandre-François Desportes, 1710. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Odocoileus sniffapaloozus*

Last week was muzzleloader season for deer, and as I walked along the trail Saturday morning I heard a few shots in the distance. There's no hunting in the park, but there's private land nearby where people are free to blast away, provided they have a permit. Sometimes I get the impression that the deer are aware of the two-legged predators. I seem to see a lot more of them in the park, as if they are taking refuge there. But that's probably just my imagination. It's clear from watching them that they're not especially nervous or easily spooked.

The little doe I met as I headed back to my car on Saturday certainly wasn't hiding from anybody. She was nibbling on something near the trail, and when I came up she moved just a few feet away and stared me down. Deer always do the same thing when they decide to hold their ground instead of running away: They stand at an angle to you, giving a 3/4 profile. This gives the appearance of confrontation, yet makes it possible for them to take off for a quick getaway if necessary. They raise their heads to look as big and authoritative as possible, then they lift a skinny leg and stomp the ground as if to say, "You, scat!" When big bucks do this, it is slightly menacing; from does, with their soft eyes and dainty bodies, it is just ridiculous and endearing.

It was especially funny from this girl, because she was so tiny. She was bold, though. She gave a couple of extra stomps, and when I still didn't retreat, she actually moved toward me. Then she stopped and sniffed the air in my direction. That's another typical gesture, but instead of just taking the usual quick whiff, she really gave me an olfactory going over. She thrust her head forward and flared her nostrils, then withdrew for a second, looking thoughtful. She seemed a little perturbed, as if she was unable to place my scent--What are you? I stood still, and she sniffed at me again, twitching her nose and even opening her mouth a little. She seemed very curious, and took yet another step in my direction.

I wondered what about me could possibly be so intriguing, and then I remembered that I was doused in vintage Jolie Madame perfume. It's pretty potent stuff, and I think it must have been what inspired her reaction. Deer are very sensitive to scent, and I'm sure she had never smelled anything quite like me. The notes of vintage JM include musk, castoreum and civet. I have no idea if any of those were still naturally sourced when this juice was made, but if they were, I must have seemed like a remarkable beast to her: Funny, you don't look like a beaver.

Whatever she took me for, I was obviously the most interesting thing that had happened to her that day. She eventually turned her attention back to feeding, but she stayed very close, keeping an eye on me. Her nose twitched from time to time. When I decided to move on, she raised her head but didn't run. About 40 yards down the trail I looked back. She was still there watching me, and I couldn't help thinking that she seemed a little sad to see me go.

Original photo by Dori from Wikimedia Commons.

*A completely unauthorized but admiring reference to the fine folks at Sniffapalooza.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The tunneling vole

I startled a little vole this morning, and it scrambled to hide itself in the fallen leaves. A rustling trail above it revealed its escape route as it tunneled away. Watching it, I felt a pang of sympathy. Seems like a tough break, being born a vole. A vole's life is one long horror movie of being pursued and eaten. There's not much in the way of compensation for that curse. Maybe voles have delightful social lives, or they spend their unharassed hours engaged in deep philosophical inquiry, but somehow I doubt it. A vole's pleasures, assuming voles feel pleasure, consist of little more than eating and fucking.

It's an awfully limited life from a human point of view--and yet, the little critters cling to it ferociously. They use up most of their energy and all their intelligence struggling to survive, even though they are doomed. That's the ironic miracle of life. Individual beings are so fragile, their existence destroyed and forgotten from one day to the next, but the instinct to stay alive and perpetuate life never wavers. Without faith or aspiration, or even any awareness of a future, they continually seek the next moment.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Turkeys, leaves, etc.

I came across a flock of turkeys this morning, feeding in a little hollow filled with pine trees. They were scattered across the trail, so I actually waded right in among them. In typical dim-witted turkey fashion, they were very slow to react to my presence. If I’d been a hungry coyote, I probably could have taken one down before they even had the sense to start running. I felt sentimental about them as I watched them flee. There’s something endearing in the awkward stupidity of a panicked turkey. But the predator was alive in me, too, and thought about giving chase.

It’s cold here for this time of year. The temperature was just above freezing, and I was reminded how the winter chill subtly changes the texture of everything. The surface of the lake is glassy, reflecting the sky and the trees with a clarity never seen in the summer. The dirt along the trail is denser, not dusty even in dry weather. The bark of the trees always feels a little damp under your hand, and the moss doesn’t crumble the way it does in the heat.

A steady breeze was knocking the leaves loose from the treetops, and as they fell they skittered off the branches, making a delicate rustle. I stopped to listen and thought That’s the voice of death. Death has a beautiful aspect, as well as a sad one. It's the joy of something set free, released from the confinement of its living form. The random, dry whisper of falling leaves is the sound of that unshackling.

Tree-Man, Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Little wonders like this

...are the reason I haul myself out of bed every morning and go tromping through the woods, even when it's cold, or pouring rain, or I'm so tired I'm dizzy. I came across this spectacular fungus yesterday. It had popped up through the wet leaves after a heavy rain, like a surprise lily on steroids. It's about 5 inches across, and the cap--if that's the right word for such a blossom-like structure--is very thick. I didn't have a camera with me when I first saw it, and the shriveling process was already beginning when I took the photo this morning. Yesterday it was a more brilliant orange, and the flesh was so full of moisture, it glistened.

I get such joy out of a little unexpected beauty like this. I understand the thrill naturalists feel when they find a long-sought rare plant or animal, but I get as much pleasure from the things I stumble upon. There's a delicious mystery about a living thing that just appears, makes itself known, and departs. It's proof of the roiling life that surrounds us, unseen, all the time.

Speaking of mysteries, I have no idea exactly what this baby is. I don't recall ever seeing anything quite like it, and a fungi ID search has turned up nothing--though I did find this great site, which has dozens of beautiful photos. If there are any mycologists out there who can put a name to my little friend, please email or leave a comment.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cruelty and life

Sometimes I marvel at the earth's unending cruelty. I realize I'm wallowing in cliché--"Nature, red in tooth and claw," etc.--but the observation still strikes with a lot of power if you spend time wandering around the world with your eyes open. You could stop every war, pacify every violent home, reform every Michael Vick or Sarah Palin, and the planet would still writhe continually with the suffering necessary to life.

A few days ago, Dave told me that a friend's little dog had been taken by a coyote. The dog was a cossetted pet, completely unprepared to battle for his life against a canine cousin. He had no experience of predators. I wonder what his diminished instinct told him in the moment the coyote struck.

Yesterday I saw a little dead vole along the trail. It had been bitten cleanly in half, probably by an owl. The head and upper body were missing. The remaining back end had been invaded by ants, which were frantically excavating the innards, leaving the hide, feet and tail intact. The little guy had been preyed upon twice.

When I got home, I looked out the window to check on my spider. She had captured a fat moth, and was sucking out his life with the usual arachnidian concentration. I watched a while and wondered what death is to a moth.

Kingfisher photo by Marek Szczepanek from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Finally, California pics

We took these shots of the coast from Trinidad Head, which has a nice trail going all the way from the beach to the summit. It was a pretty good climb, but well worth it--gorgeous all the way, with interesting vegetation and lots of places to stop and enjoy the view. It's windy as hell, and cold, but that only made the climb more fun.

When we sat down for a few minutes to watch the surf, we were lucky enough to see a pair of whales at play. Apparently, Trinidad is quite the whale watching spot, though we didn't know that. The good thing about being lazy tourists who never bother researching our destinations ahead of time is that we're often pleasantly surprised, and never disappointed. If we'd trudged up that cliff expecting to see whales and hadn't, we'd have been irritated and let down. Since we weren't looking for them, the whales were like a little miracle just for us.

This is a view in Redwood National Park, along the the road that leads to the Tall Trees Grove. My photo, as usual, doesn't do it justice. It's an amazing vista. You feel as if you are floating above the ocean on a carpet of trees. I kept hoping to see a raptor soaring below us, since the late morning air was warming up, creating the updrafts they like to glide along. None appeared, though there were lots of passerines and butterflies, as well as little lizards crawling over the rocks nearby.

The park is heavily managed, not really remote or wild, but they don't make it very easy for you to get to the grove where the biggest redwoods are. You have to get a permit at the park station, which provides the combination for a gate that blocks access to an unpaved road. You drive several miles, dodging the ruts, to get to a trail where you hike down to the tall trees--"down" being the operative word. The trailhead is 800 feet above the grove, so the 1.5 mile walk is all downhill. There's a loop through the grove that's about a mile long, and then you get to hike back up the same way you came. For someone in decent shape, it's just a pleasant, slightly demanding hike, but I'm sure there are people who get down there and have trouble getting back up. Although it was a beautiful Sunday morning, we only met a handful of other visitors.

The top and bottom photos below were taken in the Tall Trees Grove, the other two along the trail leading down to it. I wish they gave a better sense of the beauty of the place. The redwoods are stunning, but there are all kinds of other flora, especially ferns, and probably a dozen varieties of moss. There's a beautiful clover that is colored brilliant fuschia on the underside of its leaves. And the smell is incredible. Imagine the most exquisite fougere, with a touch of cold ocean air. It was very strange to come back to the heavy, slightly dank air of the Tennessee woods after breathing the crystalline air along the coast.

We spent a very happy few hours among the redwoods, though I came away feeling the same grief I always do when I visit the little bits of nature we've caged for our enjoyment. I feel the same way in the parks here at home. They're beautiful in exactly the same way a tiger in a zoo is beautiful. And tragic in the same way, too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


This beautiful yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) has built herself a spectacular web outside one of my kitchen windows. She's a big girl, at least 3 inches from leg tip to leg tip. You're looking at her belly. I'd have to climb up on a ladder to get a picture of her other side, and I'm way too lazy for that. You can see what she'd look like from another angle on her Wikipedia page here. The web stabilimentum they describe is clearly visible in this pic.

One of the pleasures of fall is that I nearly always have a gorgeous spider take up residence somewhere around the south side of my house. Often I get one on the southeast corner, which means there are at least a few opportunities for me to watch the moon rise through her web.

Another regular fall resident is the straggling hummingbird. This year I seem to have two. All the others departed around October 1, right on schedule, but this pair--both females--have decided to hang out for a while. I've never had any stay past mid-November, but I keep hoping one will eventually overwinter with me. Maybe one of these will do me the honor.

The weather was unsettled this morning--rain clouds moved in from the west opposite a pink sunrise, and there was a steady wind that kept the trees rustling all through my walk. It was a little warmer than it has been lately, and the breeze kept the lake free of mist. I had trudged up an old logging road, away from the water, when I heard a flock of Canada geese arriving. You can always tell whether the geese are just passing through or planning to land by the amount of racket they make. Migrating flocks do a sedate honk-and-answer routine, but if a rest stop is on the agenda, everybody talks at once. They sound like a busload of kids on a school trip.

By the time I got back down to the lake they were all on the water, swimming sedately and just giving out the occasional squawk. There were 9 or 10 of them, and they had perfect ownership of the lake. I know these birds can be a huge nuisance in suburban spaces, but that's our fault, not theirs. In their natural habitat they are exquisite creatures.

Canada goose from John James Audubon's The Birds of America (1840)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What the owl said

I was in the park early yesterday, well before dawn. It was chilly, and not much was stirring. I was trudging along in the quiet darkness, keeping an eye out for wandering skunks, when I heard the ululation of a screech owl close by. It's such an exquisite sound, I can't help wondering about the mind of the creature who makes it. Owl calls are so complex and varied, even to our ears, that they must be expressive of the individual bird. Whatever he feels in that moment--hungry, happy, frightened, content--he's surely conveying it with his voice, displaying a consciousness as powerful and unique as any human's.

My response when I heard him was a brief, distinctive pang of joy, the fleeting transcendence that draws me to the woods. I never find it anywhere else.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Every season has its particular stillness. For instance, the spring has a damp, heavy silence, with great energy humming just beneath it. Standing in the woods on a cool April morning feels like hovering over a sleeping toddler--feeling his breath, admiring the peaceful little body that you know is going to wake up and wreak happy havoc any minute.

The autumn stillness has none of that tension. It’s a meditative stillness, a sense that the world is calm yet focused, waiting for something that is absolutely certain to come. That was the feeling in the park this morning. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, reluctant to disturb the trance. There was no mist on the lake, just a soft reflection of the cloudy sky and the trees turning red and gold along the shore. A great blue heron flew over with even more unhurried stateliness than usual. Herons often mutter as they fly along, as if they are talking to themselves, but this one was silent. All the other birds were quiet, too. The woodpeckers tapped halfheartedly, and the crows were cawing sotto voce.

As I walked away from the lake it started to rain, just a light sprinkle that was barely audible as it hit the tops of the trees. I stopped and looked around, listening. Everything was listening. Waiting, and wide-awake.

The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field, Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Druidic morning

It was chilly enough this morning for the cold to tickle my lungs as I trudged up the hilly parts of the trail. I love that feeling. It's like consuming a living spirit from the air.

I was moving at a faster pace than usual because I wanted to reach the lake in time to watch the sunrise. If I stand on the western side of the lake this time of year, I can see the sun come up in a notch between a pair of ridges. It's a sort of natural Stonehenge, and on a clear morning it creates a beautiful, dramatic birth of the day. The mist from the lake softens the pink glow of dawn, and all movement seems suspended for a moment just before the sun tops the horizon. I feel a little pang of anticipation until, finally, the bright edge appears, nestled between the two dark hills. Then it almost bursts into full view, and light warms the world.

Once the sun was well up, I wandered back onto the trail and came across a pair of dueling white-tail deer. Actually, I couldn't see them--they were on the other side of a little rise--but I could hear the distinctive wheezing snort of competitive bucks facing off, and the rustling of the leaves as they moved around each other. It was just a scrimmage, I think, since I never heard anything that sounded like contact, and it's a still a little early for mating. As I walked on I met a young doe who was loitering on the trail. She stood her ground and gazed at me, perched on her exquisite little legs, and seemed to say, Admire me. I'm as beautiful as the sunrise.

Photo by Fir0002 from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Can we talk?

There haven't been any more freaky phenomena at the park since my last report, but the woods are damn noisy in normal ways. I keep running into mixed flocks of nuthatches and chickadees feeding together, and those tiny guys make a hell of a racket. I always think of the nuthatch chatter as laughter--rude laughter, like guys who've had a little too much to drink telling dirty jokes. There's a crude quality to their voices. The chickadees, on the other hand, have dry, transparent voices. They make themselves heard, but with the restraint of a librarian on hush patrol.

According to the Cornell page for the nuthatches, it's common for the two species to gang up this way, though I've never noticed it before. It's a little surprising, since they're fond of the same foods, which makes them natural competitors. The Cornell description suggests that they cooperate to look out for predators, but of course they are also helping each other find food. They certainly find plenty to talk about, in any case. I wonder whether they understand each other's vocalizations, or if each bird is just talking to its own species. It seems remarkable to think that they could be, in a sense, bilingual. But then again, domestic animals can often understand human speech in a limited way. All my dogs can comprehend at least a half dozen words or phrases from us, and they can definitely decipher our language with more nuance than we can theirs.

Speaking of dogs and speech, one of my dogs has decided to open a dialogue with the coyotes. Nio is a big dog with a big voice, and an awesome ability to howl. He has a basso profondo bark he employs to warn of intruders, and the coyotes that come yipping around the house have always qualified as intruders of a particularly unwelcome kind until now. The last few times they've visited, usually in the early morning before sunrise, Nio has sung them one of his more beautiful songs--a throaty, thin howl that creates a mellow counterpoint to their hysterical yelping. He actually seems to enjoy their presence. His howl has a note of longing, as if to say, I wish I coud be out there with you.

Coyote sounds

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I passed by the beaver lodge today, and saw that the big male was helping out for a change by providing breakfast for the family. He swam to the opposite side of the lake to get what he wanted, and waddled up to one tree after another, being very persnickety about his choice of fare. It was amazing to see how fast he could harvest a branch as big around as my arm. It took him just a second or two to bring it down, and then he swam easily back with it, even though it was heavy with foliage that made the load four times his size. He disappeared with his prize at the entrance to the lodge, leaving nothing but a few bubbles to disturb the surface of the water. Shortly thereafter I could hear Mom and the kids inside, trilling and chomping away. He came back out and did the tail slap, as he often does when I hang around for any length of time. I don’t think he’s really alarmed at my presence, he’s just making a point: This is my territory, no loitering.

Everyone was being very chatty and active this morning. The geese were flying, the crows were arguing, and the ground was alive with crickets. Nature is moody, and today the mood was happy, buoyant—so it was especially surprising when something happened that was so weird I’m not sure I can fully describe it. I was walking along a narrow, shaded portion of the trail when a big horsefly buzzed me. Nothing unusual about that, but then a moment later I was surrounded by the hum of a huge swarm of flies. The noise blocked out all the other sounds around me, and created a vibration that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

But ... there wasn’t any swarm of flies. Just the one guy, who circled my head and flew away. I kept walking and the sound stopped as abruptly as it started. It was as if I had stepped on the other side of a curtain, and whatever I had just encountered was now hidden behind it. I stopped walking and looked all around, trying to see what it might have been, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. I considered backtracking to see if I would hear and feel it again, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I wasn’t really frightened, just a little unnerved, and the experience was unpleasant enough that I didn’t especially want to repeat it.

My grandmother would have said I met a haint. My 21st century media-soaked brain immediately categorized it as an X-Files moment. The rational me is trying to figure out whether it was some obscure natural phenomenon or simply a fleeting hallucination. I think I’ll walk that trail again tomorrow and see what happens. If I run into Mulder and Scully, I’ll let you know.

Photo by Marcin Klapczynski from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Diospyros virginiana

I've been craving the rich, gooey pulp of persimmons ever since I whined about all the "deceptively ripe-looking" ones in my picture post last Sunday. (Wild American persimmons are somewhat different from the Asian persimmons you find in the grocery store. If you are not familiar with them, you can read about them here.) Wild persimmons turn color and look tempting in early fall, but you'll get a nasty surprise if you bite into one. The flesh, especially right next to the skin, is so tannic it will pucker your mouth. If you eat more than a bite or two it will make you ill. It doesn't become fit to eat until it's more or less rotted, or after a freeze softens it. Then it becomes luscious and sweet as candy.

When I was out walking on Wednesday--in the big park where there are more critters than people--I kept coming across little piles of scat that were full of persimmon seeds. I don't know what sort of beastie left it there, since I'm not skilled at the art of scat reading. It might have been a skunk or a raccoon, or even a fox. Whatever it was, it had found some edible persimmons and I figured I could find some, too.

It didn't take me long to find a tree that had dropped a lot fruit. Most of it was unripe, and the pieces that were sufficiently decayed were generally too dirty to eat. I did manage to find a small handful of good ones, though, and I ate them right there, leaning up against the tree that produced them.

The skins were still treacherous with tannin. I split the fruit open from the stem and turned out the halves like an orange to expose the tasty part. I dug out the seeds with my fingers so I could enjoy the velvety pulp without having to spit them out. (I'm willing to follow shit to find food, but spitting just seems like bad manners, even out in the woods.)

Those few bites of persimmon tasted so good I smiled. I said a silent thanks to the mother persimmon tree, and to the filthy varmint who led me to her.

Photo from Vanderbilt University Bioimages page.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A familiar thrill

It's finally turned cool here, which feels like a gift. The late summer heat had gotten so tedious, and that warm, damp air from Hurricane Ike was enervating, in spite of all the wind.

Bright weather like this brings a lot of extra people out to the parks. The trails are much busier than usual, even in the early morning. It's nice to see folks out enjoying the world but I prefer my solitude. I tend to follow less popular routes on days like these, and I'll stop a while beside the trail to let groups of hikers pass by so I don't have to listen to them chatting behind me. I was doing that this morning, watching the birds flit around in the brush, when I saw a fallen leaf caught in a spider web. A light breeze was blowing and the web was invisible, so the leaf seemed to be floating in the air, as if brandished by a ghost.

I felt a familiar thrill, looking at the archetypal fall image: the decaying leaf, the web, the suggestion of something otherworldly. Autumn is the season of memento mori, and yet it's not a quiet season, not still. There's a powerful energy that shimmers through the natural world as it surrenders the life and productivity of summer. Fall is not a time of death, but of dying, a process of transformation. I grieve to see so many beauties and pleasures disappear, but it's exhilarating to feel the force that has lifted up every green thing reverse course and rush back toward the earth.

Photo by James K. Lindsey from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Picture post

The remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through here today. We got a little rain, but it was mostly a wind event. As I walked the trail this morning, the trees were crashing against each other, littering the ground with pecans and hickory nuts still in their husks, green acorns and deceptively ripe-looking persimmons. I've always wondered why the wild foods that appear in autumn--the time of year when everybody needs to pack on some weight--require the most patience and work to eat. There's nothing I like better than hickory nuts, but when I think of the effort involved in gathering and shelling them, the packages of pecans and black walnuts in the supermarket start to look a lot more appealing.

I love mushrooms, too, but I never gather those wild, either--not so much out of laziness as fear. Even knowledgeable 'shroomers make mistakes sometimes, and I'm just not willing to risk agony or death for the sake of a taste experience. Seeing these tree ears almost tempted me to try it, though. As far as I know, they're the same as the tree ears that show up in Chinese food--"as far as I know" being the key qualifier.

That's another irony of the fall harvest: Not only are the good things difficult to get at, so much that looks pretty--from the colorful toadstool to the pokeberry--is poisonous. This fruit of this firethorn bush, which sits just off my carport, is no exception, despite what Wikipedia says. My dog Pearl, a great forager, snarfed down a few one day and was very sick for the next 24 hours. I thought about cutting the bush down after that, but the birds can eat the berries without harm, and they love them. The plant holds its fruit all winter and it's so nice to watch a mockingbird or cardinal chow down on an icy day, I decided the dogs and the firethorn would have to coexist.

This pretty flower is a wingstem, and it's not food for anything except butterfly larvae. It's in abundant bloom right now, along with the equally beautiful--but also poisonous--white snakeroot. Both plants are tall, standing 3-4 feet off the ground, and they create a soft border of yellow and white at the edge of the treeline.

All photos by me, for a change, taken at my house and at Edwin Warner Park in Nashville.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I went out on the back porch yesterday afternoon to fill a hummingbird feeder, and I noticed a dead grasshopper floating in one of the dogs' water bowls. I let it float. The two big dogs, Nio and Kobi, inhabit the back yard, and the 5 gallon tubs of water I put out for them tend to collect a lot of debris: shed fur, bird poop, stray spiders, pollen, etc. Plus, Kobi is very fond of bathing her feet after she's been digging. If I was hung up about them getting pristine water, I'd be throwing out a bathtub's worth every day, so I restrict them to a fresh supply each morning unless things get truly nasty.

I went back out several hours later, and of course the grasshopper was still floating. It was a pretty little bug. I wanted to get a closer look at it, so I grabbed one of the dogs' nylon chew toys and fished it out--and damn if it didn't start moving. I laid the toy on a ledge and watched the little guy bring himself back to life.

He gave a small shake of each limb, then commenced rubbing his face and the base of his antennae with his front legs. He was very thorough. He'd pause for a second and then start rubbing again, as if he realized his styling job was not quite done. When he was groomed to his satisfaction, he flexed his torso a little, and then extended each hind leg, pointing it like a dancer warming up. At that point he seemed to realize he was precariously situated on the end of the fake bone, so he slowly moved himself off it onto the ledge.

The late afternoon sun was shining directly on him. The black and yellow stripes on his legs were beautiful. I leaned down to admire him, and just as I did he shook his wings and flung water in my face--Go away, kid, you bother me. So much for gratitude.

He settled himself along the outer corner of the ledge, clearly enjoying the warmth of the sun. If a bug can be happy, he was. I went back out to check on him an hour later and he had flown away.

Photo by Gothika from Wikimedia Commons,

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Becoming the pokeberry

One of the things I love about escaping the pavement is the loss of a sense of being separated from the world--you know, the "I'm in here, looking at everything out there" sensation that we live with most of the time. I don't mean the complete loss of self that I described in an earlier post. That's a rare event. I mean something much more subtle, so subtle I'm often barely aware of it except as a small, instinctive pleasure.

For instance, today I had been climbing a hill and the muscles in my legs were very tight, so I stopped at a big, dead cedar tree to stretch. I threw one leg onto a low branch that had been stripped and worn smooth by some combination of critters and the elements. I looked at the bare skin of my leg against the surface of the branch, and I felt an intuitive understanding that I was made of the same stuff as the wood--sort of a bonding moment with all carbon-based life.

A little later I came across a stand of mature pokeweed, and I couldn't resist pulling off some berries and crushing them in my hands, just to see the bright magenta stain. Sometimes I think the practice of painting the body was originally inspired by the desire to explore the source of the color, as much as to make a display of oneself for other people. Smearing that pokeberry juice over my hands was a real sensual pleasure--the feel of it, the sight of it, and the scent, too. Pokeberry juice has an alluring smell; a perfumer would say it's a bittersweet accord of hay, cucumber and orris. Sniffing it, I felt that moment of communion again. I didn't make it a literal communion by taking a taste, of course--I know better--but I admired my painted hands for the rest of my walk.

Photo of pokeberries by Rei at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My, it's quiet around here

On the blog, I mean, not here in Tennessee. It's actually pretty noisy here with the sound of cicadas. This is the time of year when the birds love to feast on them. In addition to their usual non-stop song, you'll often hear the cackling protest of a cicada as it's carried away to its death.

The other sound around my house is the eerie buzz of the blue dirt daubers as they build their mud nests around our windows. I welcome the noise--it's strangely musical, and it means more of the venomous spiders that plague us will be wasp food.

I've been somewhat out of commission for a few days, hence the scarcity of posts. My time on the trail has mostly consisted of leaning up against trees, trying to summon the energy to get back to my car. I'll rally shortly, I'm sure. Autumn is almost here, and there's no better time to be out in the woods.

Photo by Nickaleck from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mystery dance

I got felt up by a daddy longlegs this morning.

I was standing in a little glade that's surrounded by pine trees. It's one of my favorite places to stop and just be when I'm out walking. The scent of the trees and the feel of all the pine needles underfoot is so soothing. I was lost in my bliss when I felt something tickling my ankle. I looked down expecting to see a tick, but it was a daddy longlegs parked on the tongue of my shoe, reaching up to feel my bare skin with his one of his fragile limbs.

He'd tap in one spot, then shift a little and tap in another, always touching my flesh, never the top of my sock. He was so absorbed in trying to figure me out that I didn't have the heart to brush him off. I just stood there and allowed myself to be examined. He kept at it for a minute or two, then seemed to come to a conclusion and abruptly departed.

I wonder what I was to him: Predator? Potential meal? Unusual plant? Impossible to know. I can't even say what he was to me.

Photo by Danny Steaven from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Castor canadensis

I spent a little time watching the beavers this morning. (No snickering. If you can't keep your mind out of the gutter, go to the other blog.) There's a good-sized lodge in the shallow end of the lake that I've passed by many times, but the inhabitants have always been hidden away. This morning they were out--or rather, one of them was out, cruising around the lake and climbing up on his house to give me a suspicious stare. The other was inside the lodge. I could hear her in there, scratching around furiously and making querulous beaver noises. She sounded a lot like my mother in housework mode. Mr. Beaver appeared to be offering no domestic assistance at all. He was just enjoying a nice swim, and occasionally paddling over to irritate a lone Canada goose.

When I was a kid we had a family friend who trapped beavers to sell the pelts. I guess there's still a market for wild beaver fur, or at least there was then. I remember him driving by the house one day to show my dad a particularly large one he'd just caught. He lifted it up by the leathery tail and I touched the fur, which was incredibly soft and smooth. I was in my first hardcore vegetarian phase, so I was appalled that he was trapping (actually, it would appall me now)--still, I couldn't resist the touch of that fur. It wasn't just the sensual pleasure of feeling it. There was also a faint atavistic thrill of admiring the kill. I always think of that moment whenever I see a beaver or one of its construction projects.

The beavers weren't the only ones out and about this morning. A little ringneck snake--pretty and utterly harmless--slithered by my foot on its way to the water's edge. I saw a great blue heron take off just as I got to the lake, and there were a couple of very noisy turkeys playing some sort of game in the trees. They were perched maybe 12 feet up on different trees, and they'd alternate choppering down to the ground, then quickly swooping back up. The whirring of their wings was very loud, and they were taking down the maximum amount of foliage on their descents. All this was punctuated with brief outbursts of turkey chuckling. They kept at it longer than I was willing to stand there and watch. If they'd been humans I would have sworn they were high.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 22, 2008


House cats are not a welcome sight in parks and nature preserves, and for good reason. They are rapacious alien predators that wreak havoc on the songbird population. I've certainly done my share of preaching to people about not letting their cats run loose and not feeding feral cats--and yet, I have to admit, I always smile when I see a somebody's spoiled tabby creeping around in the woods enjoying an unauthorized adventure.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a fat orange kitty on a pretty isolated trail. It was very early in the morning and he was clearly in search of something small, furry and delicious. He was crouched in a hunting posture with his back to me, about to go after some unlucky varmint hiding in the leaf litter. He heard me and turned around with an expression of absolute outrage on his face. Then he lumbered off through the trees projecting that particular air of disgust for the human race that only cats possess.

In all the time I've spent hiking, I don't think I've ever seen a dog wandering through the woods on its own. Dogs, whether they're strays, escaped pets or truly feral, just aren't interested in getting away from it all. Left to their own devices, they seek people, garbage and other dogs--not necessarily in that order. Cats, on the other hand, are in the woods to escape from people and to kill things. In other words, they're there for the same reasons we usually are. Personally, I leave the hunting to my gun-toting neighbors, but I completely understand the cat's desire to be where humans aren't. I always feel a little sorry when I intrude on a prowling cat's solitude. We're kindred spirits, unable to resist the lure of a place that would be better off without us.

Photo by רוליג from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Going nocturnal

As the days grow shorter, I sometimes find myself out on the trail before sunrise. This morning I got an especially early start, so it was quite dark in the woods. Some of the places I walk are pretty heavily traveled and there are plenty of other early risers around, but today I was someplace a little more remote. There wasn't a soul around but me...and whatever it was that went crashing through the trees at the sound of my approach.

I love the little thrill of uncertainty the darkness brings: Was that a squirrel? A deer? A skunk? A person? It could be anything, and the fact that there's no way of knowing presents a small challenge. I can decide to be uneasy, possibly even retreat to the safety of my car until the sun's up--or I can let go of my attachment to clarity and try to join the murky current of the night.

Moving through the darkness is much like being in the water. You're in another element, one that's less familiar but not unnatural. Consciousness shifts to accommodate the different sensations, the different requirements for navigating the environment. You feel the earth, roots and rocks underfoot more distinctly than you ever do in the light--you have to if you don't want to wind up sprawled on the ground. Your visual field is reduced to a few feet, so distance gives you only sound. Curiously, that makes both sight and hearing more acute.

There's a wonderful feeling of being awake that happens only in the dark. It's a kind of exaltation, a transformed sense of possibility that is unavailable in the well lit world.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
(Companion post at BitterGrace Notes)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The curse of Eve

This is a photo of our apple tree. She's dying in childbirth. She stands right behind our house, so we can look out the kitchen window and enjoy the blooms in the spring, and watch the birds and deer that come to feast in late summer. The first few years we lived here she bore a tremendous amount of fruit and we were careful to keep her pruned. She was already an aging tree and her trunk was dotted with sapsucker holes, but she was basically healthy. She did well even in drought years, since she had the good fortune to be placed near the field line.

Unfortunately, our second apple tree fell to the borers seven years ago, and since apple trees have to cross-pollinate, the elderly survivor went barren. She still had gorgeous flowers every year, but produced just a handful of apples. Our neighbors planted a few apple trees near her and we hoped for more offspring, but even when theirs got big enough to flower, ours didn't conceive. We figured she just didn't have it in her any more, and we didn't bother with pruning because it seemed like a pointless expense.

This spring she flowered more spectacularly than she ever has. I posted a picture over at BitterGrace Notes, which you can see here. The bees were swarming over her like mad, but we still didn't expect any results. How wrong we were. As if to make up for all the barren years, she's produced an especially abundant crop of apples. Every branch is laden with big clusters of fruit--and that's the problem.

The old branches can't take all that weight, and the tree is literally falling apart under the burden. She's lost 4 big branches--one took down the phone line--and she may lose yet more. Dave has been out there cutting and trying to forestall more damage, but it looks as if it's too late. The core of the tree is weakened and it's not likely she'll just bounce back from this. Plus, all these openings in the bark invite pests, which will only weaken her further. We could spray for that, but I worry about the birds.

So, it's a sad situation--partly our fault, of course, but as I said, she was already old, and fruit trees never seem to last long in this part of the world. If she goes, when she goes, I'll miss her. One of the best memories I have of living here is seeing a dozen bright cardinals perched on her snow-covered branches one January morning.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Being and moss

I was doing my “signal to noise” exercise at the lake this morning, trying to pick out all the voices I could hear: cicadas, crows, wrens, jays, squirrels, woodpeckers, etc. It’s actually harder than you might expect. The critter sounds meld together like the instruments in an orchestra. Your ear gets hooked on a particular pitch and deafens you to the others. I had probably been listening carefully for more than a minute before I heard a cricket which had actually been chirping like mad the whole time.

While my ears and brain were engaged with listening, I saw a pretty patch of moss, and I crouched down to run my hand over it. I did it absent-mindendly, the same way you might finger the fabric of your clothes, or pet the cat when it rubs against you. Somehow my intense awareness of sound shifted itself to the sight and feel of the moss, and I experienced one of those moments of pure consciousness. There was no sense of separation between me and the thing I perceived. There was no sense of “me.” There was just the event of perception.

I’ve had those moments before, but usually after meditating or doing ritual. Ordinary life doesn’t produce them very often—at least, mine doesn’t. It’s such a joyous thing, a little glimpse of perfect freedom.

The spell was broken by the arrival of a solitary duck on the lake. He flew in and commenced diving for his breakfast. I started counting off how long he stayed submerged with each dive—One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. He averaged 25 seconds. Try holding your breath for 25 seconds. It’s a nice little stretch of time. I always marvel at the way waterfowl move between the elements.

Photo by Dick Mudde from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where have all our hummers gone?

Well, not all the hummers. I do have perhaps a dozen who are visiting my feeders, and the dry spell we've had has encouraged them to spend a lot of time squabbling over the food. Most years, though, I'd have at least 2 or 3 times that many. By mid-August I'm usually measuring my weekly nectar production in gallons, not quarts. The population does vary from year to year, but we've been in this house for a decade, and this is the slowest hummer season by far. This afternoon I finally got around to doing a quick Web search to see what other folks are saying, and sure enough, lots of people are noticing a dearth of hummingbirds.

This kind of population drop-off happens with a lot of bird species. A few years ago everyone was concerned about the reduced numbers of bobwhites, and I have certainly seen fewer of them here. The reasons for a species' decline are hard to determine, but it seems likely that the hummers are victims of last year's drought. I had a reasonable number of hummingbirds come through here during migration in 2007, but they had to get through a lot of drought-stricken territory on their way south, and there simply may not have been enough food along the way to sustain them all.

One consolation is that the hummingbirds I do have this year are very pushy and entertaining. The other day I was reading a book on the porch and two flew right up to me and hovered in front of my face. Another one harassed me while I was picking tomatoes. I love that. I hope they're all feisty enough to make it through their long journey, and come bug me again next year.

Photo of rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) from Wikimedia Commons.

(The rufous hummer is not considered native to Tennessee, but it does stray here pretty often. One was banded in my yard several years ago. Click here for this guy's page at the Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The predator at the party

The heat wave here finally broke a couple of days ago, and the gorgeous weather is a nice preview of fall. It'll get hot again, so I've been trying to get out and enjoy the cool as much as possible, which is one reason I've been away from the blog.

All the animals seemed to be at play in the woods this morning. I was circling the lake when there was a sudden noise of something crashing through the woods on the opposite side. It was quite a racket, sounded like a herd of buffalo, but it turned out to be just a single doe and her fawn. Deer are always thought of as dainty and quiet (except when they're fighting over sex), but these two were feeling rowdy and enjoying the opportunity to disturb the peace. They ran into the water and splashed around like kids. I hate to use the word, but it was incredibly cute. Unfortunately, the doe soon saw me. They retreated back into the trees and hid, perfectly silent. Game over.

Sometimes it sucks, being a predator. I wonder if coyotes and cougars ever get depressed and feel that no one likes them.

Happily, I was no threat to the little group of blue-gray gnatcatchers that were feeding in the trees along the shore. I stopped to watch them--they're such pretty little birds--but they were, as always, so hyperkinetic I couldn't even get a reliable count of them. There were at least 6, possibly 10. They're that manic. I soon gave up watching and just listened to them twitter at each other. You can hear their sound at their Cornell Lab page here, and there are some more nice photos here (scroll down.)

As I was leaving the lake a flock of Canada geese took off and made a couple of wide circles around the perimeter before settling back to earth. It looked a lot like flying practice. Fall is definitely coming.

Photo of blue-gray gnatcatcher by Daniel Berganza from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Herping with Dylan

I stumbled onto this guy while looking for other snake stuff on YouTube. He's not only adorable--he also knows his snakes! He's got a whole collection of herping videos, which you can find here. I particularly like this one, especially the tragic ending.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What the tick knows

This has been a bumper year for ticks. They are usually worst here in the spring and early summer. By August the population dwindles—thanks, I suppose, to drier weather and all the hungry young birds. But this year is an exception. The woods are literally crawling with dog ticks along with their accompanying “seed” ticks, which are far more annoying. These infant ticks are so tiny you can hardly see them until after they’ve gorged themselves on your blood. Sometimes you’ll look down to find a swarm of them crawling up your shoes. I’ve always been a tick magnet, ever since I was a kid, so I ought to be used to pulling the little bastards off by now, but they still disgust me.

I was extracting a stubborn little guy recently, and remembered a debate I once had with a friend. She absolutely refused to believe that the little brown ticks and the blobby gray ticks were the same bugs, pre-and post-prandium. This was before the days of instant bet settling with Google, so I never was able to convince her.

I was a little exasperated with her at the time, but her skepticism actually makes perfect sense—how could two such radically different things be the same creature? More to the point, why is it that I think they are the same creature? Why do I perceive a persistent identity between skinny tick and fat tick, given that they appear so radically different? I feel that my perception is simple, intuitive, ineluctable—but, of course, my friend felt the same way about her perception.

We confront this problem a thousand times a day, and we are oddly arbitrary about how we solve it. On the one hand, we’re very prone to assigning persistent identity to people. Most everyone (including me) would say I am the same being now that I was in the first grade. Likewise, I’d be the same person if I gained 400 pounds or became severely brain damaged. The person Maria Browning will even persist when I’m dead and buried—anyone who assumes my name and social security number will be said to have “stolen” my identity.

One the other hand, we’re much more fickle about the identity of things. Scarlett’s curtains and her dress are different entities, in spite of the fact that their substance is identical. Ears of corn and tortillas are different things. An acorn and an oak are different things, though everyone recognizes their connection. We can’t seem to decide whether their human counterparts—fetus and infant—are the same thing, which just shows how muddled our thinking is on the whole issue.

Philosophers have spent a lot of time puzzling over this one, and it causes us a lot of emotional agony. Even though we’re desperate to hang onto our individual identities—we order our entire existence around them--the inevitable changes in the organism assault our confidence in who and what we are.

Aging is the universal change that seems to throw everyone into a tizzy, as we each try to reconcile the transformation of decay with the static concept of “me.” Everyone deals with it differently. Some of us do battle with the flesh. Others try to tweak their behavior and ideas to fit the changing form without surrendering some fundamental sense of self. A few people just refuse to engage the issue and go on believing themselves to be children well into withered old age—which may keep them happy, but causes a lot of trouble for the people around them.

Which brings me back to the tick. The tick does not have this identity problem. Nothing in nature has this problem, except us. Not that identity is never an issue for the rest of the world. Deer have to know the difference between poisonous snakeroot and all the similar-looking greenery that is good to eat. The natural world is filled with deceivers and identity thieves, from the harmless scarlet snake who mimics the deadly coral snake, to the cowbird who sneaks her eggs into other birds’ nests.

But those practical, real-time identity problems are different from the one we inflict on ourselves when we recoil from the crumbling face in the mirror. The tick doesn’t mourn the loss of her figure, and she doesn’t have intimations of her own mortality as she happily sucks away someone else’s blood. She doesn't wish she could do anything over or be the girl she once was. She doesn't wonder whether she's "authentic" or leading a purpose driven life. She simply is what she is at every moment, and she changes without protest or resistance.

Photo of lone star tick from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


There was a light ground fog this morning, with mist on the lake. A faint breeze was moving the water just enough to force the mist to swirl up in gauzy columns. The light from the rising sun played off them as they moved over the surface. Some stood up, tall and independent; others stayed low and joined with their brothers to swirl together in a ghostly spiral dance.

The sun rose higher, the lake warmed up and the ghosts went away. It was just a trick of temperature, humidity and dust in the air—one routine act in the endless magic show the planet puts on. But I couldn’t look at it without seeing the spirits dancing. I would never want to.

Photo by Mila Zinkova from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Lizard weather

The fish were jumpin' this morning, just like the song says.** It's still hot here, humid and overcast--perfect fishing weather, but nobody was taking advantage of it. I had the lake shore all to myself and the fish were left to play unmolested. Most of the birds were sleeping late, so it was quiet except for the cicadas and the periodic splash from a leaping bass. It's a very cheerful sound, that splash.

The whole park was oddly depopulated for a Saturday morning. On a typical weekend there are anglers, hikers and maybe a gaggle of boy scouts entering the park as I leave it. Today I met only one very intense-looking runner, and a big guy with a lot of tattoos who was gathering firewood. I guess everybody's hiding from the heat.

The lizards love this weather, and they seem to be everywhere. A startled skink ran over my foot as I walked the trail. Skinks make me feel very nostalgic. I only have to look at one to be reminded of all the hot summer days I spent as a kid just hanging out in the woods. I loved to catch the little blue-tailed ones and play with them a while, then turn them loose in the grass. I'm sure I enjoyed that more than they did.

The walk back from the lake was pretty sweaty, and I rewarded myself by stopping for a few of the remaining blackberries, which have been very juicy and sweet this year. I scarfed a couple of cherries, too. Why should the skunks get them all?

**Click here for a nice little essay on why fish jump.

Photo of skink by Patrick Coin from Wikipedia.