Monday, April 27, 2009

The beautiful natives

There are often beautiful surprises lurking in the woods, but the dwarf crested iris is one of the loveliest. It has just begun to bloom here in the past couple of days.

This tiny one managed to struggle out from under the leaves. I had to push aside a mess of poison ivy to get a good look at it.

This one is much larger, and has a number of companions nearby that will be blooming soon. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you can see the spider clinging to a petal. I didn't even know she was there when I took the photo.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The wrong will

Last night, Dave and Nio were sitting out on the deck having a beer. Nio doesn’t actually get a beer, though I’m sure he would enjoy one. He just hangs out and chews his Nylabone while Dave does the drinking. They do this every evening when Dave’s in town. It’s their special man time. I was puttering around in the kitchen. Dave hollered at me to come outside—“Come listen to this bird.”

I was a little annoyed because I assumed he was summoning me to listen to the vocal antics of a mockingbird. We have scads of them and they never shut up this time of year. Dave has a tendency to find novelty where I don’t. But when I got out there I discovered that it really was something a bit novel. A bird somewhere along the tree line behind the house was repeating a sharp, loud call.

“Is that a whip-poor-will?’ Dave asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard one.”

Whip-poor-wills aren’t rare, but we’ve never had them in our yard. They’re ground-nesters, so they tend to prefer more heavily wooded areas where there aren’t a lot of people (or roaming cats.) I agreed with Dave that we were listening to a whip-poor-will, but something about its call was not quite right. I have a pretty poor ear for birdcalls, and I thought maybe this whip-poor-will was just a little eccentric.

Just to be sure, I hunted up an online whip-poor-will call. Yep, it was slightly different from our bird. I kept hunting, and discovered that we were actually being serenaded by a chuck-will’s-widow. They’re as common as whip-poor-wills, and I’m sure I’ve heard them many times without knowing it. It would be nice if this one would stick around so I can get a good look at him. He’s welcome to eat all the insects he wants while he’s here, though I hope he leaves our bats alone.

Watercolor of a male chuck-will's-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, from Bird Lore, 1926. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The best thing about walking in the woods is that there aren’t any ghosts there. Most of the world is filled with ghostly chatter. Disembodied voices speak to us everywhere we go. Tinny singing haunts the marketplace. Belligerent spirits shout at us through the radio. Giggles and screams of pain come from the TV. People who aren’t really on the other end of the line—sometimes computer-generated people who never existed at all—cajole us on the telephone. The familiar voices of people we know are set free to race around the planet and speak intimately in our ears, even though their owners are thousands of miles away.

No matter how sophisticated we think we are about technology, I suspect our brains cannot quite credit the reality of a voice with no immediate source. When we can’t make eye contact with the speaker, can’t touch or smile at him, all that ethereal gab becomes pretty much indistinguishable from our own internal dialogue. Ghost voices, even though they fill the air around us, actually pull us away from our environment. They make us draw inward. We hear the sound, but we hear as we do in dreams. It all seems to be our creation, and the only awareness that counts is our own.

Listening to the voices of the forest is like waking from the dream. Every bird song or frog call comes from a creature who is right there, enjoying the same sunrise or being drenched by the same storm. Maybe your companion does a good job of staying out of sight, or maybe he’s equipped to speak his mind from a couple hundred yards away; nevertheless, you know he lives. His heart is beating along with yours, he’s gathering his breath from the same air that carries the scent of pine and wet leaves to your nose. Every sound he makes defies the power of the ghosts.

Mockingbird photo from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Resentment, and other fine feelings

The warm spring weather is back now, but winter returned for a couple of days earlier this week. It even snowed a little. The pretty dwarf larkspur, which is very plentiful here, has gone a little droopy and sad as a result, but the blooms have survived. Wildflowers are tough.

No matter how many times I remind myself that it’s absurd to resent the weather, I can’t stop feeling irritated when I have to haul the winter coat back out after I thought I had put it away for the season. It seems unfair to be given a taste of warmth and light, only to have them snatched away. I assume most people feel the same way, since everybody whines about the cold. It’s a craziness we all share, this grudge against nature. Sometimes I think peevishness was our principal reason for inventing God--not so we’d have an explanation for consciousness or what happens when we die, but so we could feel that someone is responsible for all the annoying glitches in earthly life. The faithful like to praise God for creating a beautiful world, but somewhere in the back of their minds they’re ranting at him about late freezes and fire ants.

The cold snap silenced the birdsong and the frogs went back to sleep. The squirrels stayed out, along with the deer, and I saw a quartet of turkeys marching single file through the trees on the morning it snowed. I wonder how they felt about the cold. I know they suffer from it, but do they ever resent it? Do they think the day should be warmer, or even conceive that it could be? It seems ridiculous to suggest that they might, but animals certainly make qualitative judgments about their environment. One of my dogs hates the wind. If you make her stay outside on a breezy day she gets very crabby and snaps at the other dogs. How is she different from me, when I get in a snit about the unseasonable chill?

Even after the thousands of studies of animal behavior, the emotional lives of animals are still opaque to us. We don’t know anything about their passions, about their interior experience of life. One morning before the temps dropped, I watched a mating triangle being worked out among downy woodpeckers. The trio flew from one tree to another, chasing and chattering with the intensity you always see in courtship rivalries. Even when the intruding male tried to retreat, the other two kept chasing him, not wanting to let go of the fight. It certainly looked as if they were feeling all the fury and anxiety humans feel in the same situation. I wonder if they were. And if they weren’t, I wonder what that says about us.

Photo of dwarf larkspur from Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide.

Photo of downy woodpecker from Wikimedia Commons.