About the Light

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve been heading into it for weeks, now.

I hear it from friends who’ve moved here from California, I hear it from acquaintances with seasonal affective disorder.  I am reminded of an afternoon with my old friend Annie, a Seattle native, as we drove back from a late lunch in December and she growled,  “Right.  It’s that time of year again.  Darkness at noon.”

It’s been coming on since October, of course, but especially since passing Thanksgiving the sunsets are more notable and the twilight begins shading in early: hazy dark at six, or maybe five thirty.  Then five.  Then four.

As I’m writing this right now, here in the PNW we’re in the 8 hours, 24 minutes period of actual daylight, and we will be until Christmas–at which point we will all be given the gift our first full additional minute.

It is now black when I wake up at 7 and it is full dark again by 5, and I do understand that for some people this is horrific, or at least disconcerting.  I have to be honest, though.  I love this time of year.

I think I always have.  I remember it when I was a kid in the Midwest: noticing the streetlights coming on earlier, or walking through the neighborhood to a friend’s house and seeing the glow from the windows of the houses.  The air could be full of the smell of leaves and smoke, or the neighborhoods banked in snow—which brought its own particular brittle, almost sweet bite of winter air, and silence of all but the crunch of footsteps.

Out here in Western Washington, of course, we’re snowless and often very wet, but the darkness is also markedly more pronounced.  The reason is simple and geographic:  where I grew up in Indiana was the 41st longitudinal parallel of the Northern Hemisphere.  My little town of Indianola sits at 47.6.  Depending on things like axial tilt, these five and a half degrees can make a big difference in how much light is visible, and for how long.

You live long enough and you hear all sorts of repeating noises from other humans, and reaction to the early winter dark is a seasonal theme.  For me, though, this darkness is enormously comforting.  It’s a deep, almost velvety darkness, as opposed to summer nights which seem to me, somehow, a thinner, more transparent black.  When the darkness starts to drop in the late fall I feel safe, autonomous, and for some odd reason, deeply happy.

I once wondered if it was a biological thing, since I do not disbelieve those who find this time of year genuinely depressing and hard.

I thought about my family, the various nationalities that went into my four grandparents, for instance, and found an intriguing thing:  the Germanic sides came from anywhere from 47.3 degrees latitude in Bavaria, to the Prussians who might have been as far north as 52.  (The second cousin who did that side of the family’s genealogy was still not clear what part of Prussia we came from, and I cling to his repudiated research that suggested it might have been Pomerania.)  My Bohemian great grandmother from outside of Prague would have been born at the 50th latitudinal line, and the Scots could have been as far north as 56.  (White Americans can be stunning in our ancestral obsessions.)

So depending on the shakedown of genetics, this may, as I suspect, be organic.

Except that can’t be the whole story.  My sister was never fully comfortable until she moved to southern California.  Maybe she got more of the Bavarian genes, who knows, and not everything can be nature.  Still, my brother’s daughter, born in St. Louis, calls me from where she lives now in San Diego, remarks on the blue skies and temperature at this time of year, and weeps.

This season is also when so many cultural traditions face and respond to the darkness, and those Germans, again, are considered responsible for the tree-thing: possibly going back to the 8th century, but certainly by the 15th they were hauling trees into their dwellings, and by the 16th century, adorning them with lights, and later, blown glass baubles.

Was it because evergreen represented life throughout the winter—or that some regional folklore believed the branches warded off witches and evil spirits?  Given the seasonally recurring nostalgia, I cannot believe that Christmas trees keep away ghosts.

The tree celebration did not immediately transfer to the colonies, by the way:  the Puritans were totally opposed to it (a ‘pagan mockery’).  It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Christmas trees in the US started catching on, first showing up, no surprise, in German settlements in Pennsylvania.

For myself, I have no desire to haul in a tree.  Live tree?  Chopped tree?  Are they environmentally sustainable?  Should it matter?  What about an artificial tree?  (what are those made of?)  What about one of those fine, aluminum Christmas trees of the ’50s and ‘60s, like the gold and silver number my grandmother insisted on, with the weird round lights that looked like electron microscope photographs of pollen?  The lights were elegant enough, she said, that the thing didn’t need ornaments.  It was fancy enough on its own.

City lights and stoplights blinking a bright red and green, yes, I may put up lights, why not? They’re beautiful, and the colors are wonderful against the dark night sky at the windows.  And there are all sorts of other ways to get light, this time of year.  Full-spectrum bulbs in the home, tanning booths, if anyone still takes that risk; firing up the houselights inside, or, if necessary, taking the rash act of migrating south:  New Orleans at 29 degrees latitude, Miami at 25.  A New England friend has moved to Costa Rica, and now rocks happily at 10.

When I lived in Houston (29.7), one year my neighborhood in the Heights held a Mexican Posada that passed through several blocks, mapped out in luminairias.  Never mind that the weather was warm enough we didn’t need jackets, the candlelight through the paper bags looked magical against the December night, and even to this agnostic, joining in with the crowd of neighbors, all following the path to find a safe place for the birth of the Christ child, was beautiful.

In the largely unseen world, this time of year the creatures have their own organic practices for facing darkness.  Many animals are less active, some have reduced metabolism and heart rate.  Their body temperatures drop, and this can be pretty intense: I do see squirrels still hopping alongside the road, but chipmunks and other rodents have gone into hibernation, as have insects and snakes.  Bats and bears settle into torpor—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a state of mental and motor inactivity with partial or total insensibility,” which isn’t far from the symptoms I hear a lot of people describing.

This time of year something in me settles; becomes quieter, moves less, but it’s more a centering than a sleep.  And it rests there, even as I work and live my life and walk the dog and all that, and watch everyone around me doing all they can to capture and revere light.

December brings oil lamps to remember, candles to set aflame.  We look to the solstice, with its plea for us to trust the gradual gains in daylight.  Whenever Christ was actually born, humans have coupled that event to the darkest time of year, starlight falling on the baby that would later claim to be the light.

I step out on my porch and off through the evergreens I see small blues and reds and greens and gold, sparkling on my neighbor’s houses.  Then I hear the faintest rustle of something moving slowly along my fenceline.  Whether deer or something less endearing, I can’t tell.  In the dark blue of the early morning sky I hear the eagles calling, I have no idea what they’re up to, but I do know that they and the owls are already building nests, obedient to instincts that are certain of the next season.

Ultimately, I suppose, for any of us it is an inside job, this need for illumination.  It can fire on the warmth of memories or from a spiritual core, or emanate from astronomical forces that don’t need our conscious minds to understand.  It is the radiance of our own interior furnace, the unseen glow of being alive, even in this season of darkness, and believing that will continue.

It’s all about the light.

 

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Beginning the Season of Gratitude and Endings

photo: Jay Wiggs

 

Such a strange time of year—the beginning of a holiday season, tilting toward gatherings of community and lights and feasting, even as, and of course because, the daylight is diminishing, and the natural world goes lean.

I can never tell exactly when it happens, I just notice at some point the area songbirds have finally gone.  It doesn’t seem that many days ago I had a tree full of migrating robins and was hearing the single-note Keystone Cops whistle of the varied thrushes, throwing some sort of late-season territorial fit.

Suddenly I realize I’m down to Steller’s jays:  three or four of them have moved in on the evergreens around my yard, hopping along the roof of my outbuildings, clearly taking possession of the newly vacated space.  The flocks of crows that live down along the waterfront are also still in town, of course.  And then the local pair of ravens, who normally live a bit north of my home, thought they had it going on:  I would hear what sounded like the bark of a heron, or maybe a rattle, coming from the tops of the trees across the road from me, then see them jetting across the sky, peppering the neighborhood with still more prehistoric vocalizations.  Until the salmon runs started to wind down in the upper north rivers—the Elwha, the Dungeness spit, the Skagit—and the local pair of eagles returned from their seasonal, opportune feasting.

Now we have a morning sky ballet:  the ravens land, thinking they’ll spend the day in the treetops hassling the crows and jays—until a slow, large shadow drifts in, several thermals higher in the air, and everyone takes off:  the ravens shoot back to woods a quarter of a mile away, and the eagles, they almost seem not to be moving, holding their casual cruising patterns in the thermals above the neighborhood.

My old dog is fading, though for all cognitive purposes she’s still in there:  still delighted by touch, wild for meals and for treats.  She just can’t get her back end to cooperate.   So she sleeps much of the day, then totters around the house, looking for things the bird has tossed onto the office carpeting, or to see if she can shake me down for another biscuit.

Tonight I carry her out to the yard in a dry moment, after a week of rainy nights.  I put her down on the grass and she stands there, frozen, as if she is unsure how she suddenly happens to be outdoors.

She lifts her head and sniffs the wind.  For the moment she is reading the breeze, picking up what I cannot imagine, a chord mixture of dampness and earth and wet evergreen, and god only knows what else.  I watch her sorting it all out, making mental notes, her muzzle quivering, creating narratives.  Then she coughs.

She ambles to a different corner of the yard and another scent takes her attention until she bumps into the wiry branches of a now leafless thimbleberry.  She pivots, unsteady on her back left, and gradually weaves her way down the hill to the bottom of the stairs.  Going down the stairs on her own has been beyond her for some months, but up until a few weeks ago she would insist on making her own way up.  Tonight she stands, waiting for me to come and carry her.

I look around for a moment, thinking of the Novembers when I was young.  The Midwest landscape had its visuals down:  the colors drained to pastel skies, thin blankets of November snow or maybe just heavy silver frost, but the trees were now empty of leaves, very stark grays and browns, blacks and whites.

One morning I was driving up country roads in Indiana to do chores at a small barn in Michigan.  It was still dark but there was a beautiful sunrise, hot pink and deep purple at the horizon while three quarters of the sky was still night blue.  Across the frost of a farmer’s field and against this sky, the thin trunks of his windbreak streaked up against the growing light:  black trees, their empty branches still reaching up.

photo: Patti DeGolier Cripe

 

We do have the ability to hold two things in our minds at the same time, though it takes practice.  Moments can be both sad and resonant.  The impending season can be energized and busy, even as the earth around us is going dormant.  The darkness comes early, but houses warm with lights and cooking and familiar voices now all contained together inside.

This being the time of year she died I will miss my mother, and at the same time feel my heart open at the memory of a late afternoon in December, just home from the airport, hours before dinner and the arrival of my stepfather from work:  the two of us, glad and comfortable together, a pot of tea in the living room, the windows full of blue winter sky and reflected light from the Indiana snow.

The Pacific Northwest has an amazing ability to display several types of weather at once:  wind in the sunny summer, cold mornings in July, rain falling under otherwise blue skies, or like tonight: after heavy rains for several days, I stepped out to hear water running down my eaves, siphoning heavily off the leaves and the cedars to find nothing more than  a light mist falling.  And I looked up to see stars—and off to the east, clouds, with the moon just visible behind them.

I carry the dog up the stairs and we come back inside.

 

It is a season of endings, and a season of warmth, if we reach out to it.  If I let go of my mind and look around me, I get what I need.  The natural world can read it all back to us.

photo: Jay Wiggs

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Midsummer afternoon, 2017

It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon in what’s turning out to be an unusually sunny, rain-free summer in the Pacific Northwest, and my yard is a mess.

Once upon a time I was a landscape laborer, so I actually do know how to take care of a these things.  When I moved out to Kitsap County I even spent a great deal of the first few years moving plants around and making plans for what to do in the future:  lists of new types to consider bringing in, timelines for relocating more of the trees and shrubs the previous owner had surrounded the house with, what appeared to be an elderly woman’s attempt to sock herself in.  It was a pretty great yard with some nice details: I found a good-sized bleeding heart under my office window, hellebores around the trunk of a hemlock tree, clematis along the fenceline, and then in June, some scruffy things I hadn’t noticed started putting out flowers and fruit:  raspberries.

As time has gone on, though, neighbors’ tree removal, excavation of my septic system, my own distractions and the added help of a shrub-eating Boston terrier, have turned my property into looking not much different from the abandoned cabin’s yard down the road.  Some good things, like genuinely native plants such as thimbleberry, have sprung up where they weren’t before, but so have morning glory and Himalayan blackberry.   I don’t have a lot of time for yard work right now, so I live with the snarls and brambles, until something comes over me or I am avoiding grading papers, and I rise up to find myself out tearing out bindweed and ripping out blackberries and redefining all the coordinates of the yard that have been rearranging themselves when my back has been turned.  Some are pleasant surprises.  During the septic mess they had to remove an old flowering plum tree I loved, to make way for the drain line.  A small start of the plum turned up on the other side of the yard, seeded by some appreciative bird, and I meant to move it to a better location.  Now, though, it’s a good ten feet high and lanky as a teenaged boy.  It stays.  Some invasive type of upright hypericum has showed up all over the place, golden leaves and round, black berries, and a nasty root system that requires more than a good yank to get out of the ground.  I narrow my eyes, waiting for the moment to take it on.  Meanwhile, it sort of holds off the vacant lot look that has been coming on for a while.

And the red elderberry–sambucus racemose, a lovely pair of words–a wild, weedy native shrub that typically grows about seven to twelve feet high.  I had two huge ones in the front of my yard, close to twenty feet tall.  They remained there happily for years, developing woody trunks, waving their long stalks of compound leaves.  In spring, seemingly overnight I’d come out to find hanging clusters of of  foamy white flowers draped among the emerald leaves.  Given a few more weeks, the flowers dropped off, replaced in early summer by clumps of small red berries, favs of thrushes and robins, adored by band-tailed pigeons, those heavy-winged bowling pins of the sky.

Anyway, for reasons I have not discovered, one of these two big red elderberries simply died two winters ago, so I took down the other one, which was looking peaked.  Now I have even more sun in my yard, more exposed dirt, it is less lovely than ever and I haven’t had time or energy to figure out what to do.  My large dog seems to have run over a rhododendron in the back, so on one impulsive grading break I moved it out front and that’s looking pretty great.  Instant landscape.  But on the other side,  in the stand of neglected raspberries, a new red elderberry came up this spring and decided it might try to take over.

The raspberries are a mess.  I’m not being generous.   I’ve neglected them for several years.  I think of my friend Seppry, who used to hang out and offer to help me in my yard.  He’d grown up with his family’s berry farms on Bainbridge Island, so he had reasonable and professional opinions.  He’d quietly shake his head and then smile at me:  “You’re not working your laterals.”

“I’m not working anything.  What are laterals?”

He’d walk over, pick a leaf between his fingers, look at me.  “The part of the plant that actually bears the fruit?”

Seppry belonged a distinctive Bainbridge Island community, Filipino and Canadian First Nation families who stepped up to care for the crops when the Japanese who owned those farms were marched off to the internment camps.  He referred to himself as India-Pino, and both cultures were strong with him.  When an eagle flew over my property he’d stop from whatever we were doing and watch it. Then he’d say to me, “That’s a blessing.”  He meant it as an active thing, not just a pretty chance.  His mother’s tribe was particularly connected to trees (he loved the huge cedars on the back of my property) but when I’d be heading to the wildlife shelter he’d say, “Go take care of my birds,” meaning the eagles that blow in to the shelter, needing rehab.

I am teaching on line this summer, another blessing, and very grateful for the rhythm that has occurred:  a day at the wildlife shelter, days of grading, defending the time set aside for a manuscript I’m trying to finish.  Doing these things means a lot of other things do not get done.  It’s a useful excuse for the condition of my yard.

Today I became gripped and decided to pop out that volunteer red currant bush with a spade shovel.  It was over four feet high by now but it gave up pretty easily.  Then standing in those neglected, pitiful raspberries, I saw some that were actually ripe.  So I stopped, picked them—enough for tomorrow’s breakfast, it turns out, easily a couple of dollars’ worth at the grocery store.  Free, and without any effort on my part, a generous offering from my otherwise totally out of control yard.  

Seppry died this past spring, only two years older than I am.  I have missed him tremendously.

His memorial was at the Filipino-Community Hall: food, talk, and a group of Native drummers who chanted about eagles, sent his spirit on. They’d already done this a few days before in Canada, his other home. Driving back up my road afterwards I couldn’t believe what I was seeing:  high in the air, holding their place in a thermal, were the two local bald eagles, but they were joined by four more—six bald eagles, all slowly and gracefully seeming to hold a pattern, wheeling in the sky.  I called a friend from the shelter.  She said it was likely that this is the edge of the territory for the local pair, so they’re not threatened by the others, who might be juveniles scouting for a location.

A couple of weeks ago, going out to my car in the morning on my way to the shelter, I found a large, dusty, chocolate colored feather, laying in the grass.  It looks to be a plume feather.  It’s from a good-sized bird.  Could be a heron’s, though it’s not really the right color.

We go about our lives.  We complicate them, then deal with the hell that humans create so effectively.  We might even interact with the nature, pruning it, shaping it to our specs, telling ourselves stories.

What I know is that there was a lot of eagle noise through the spring and early summer, early in the morning and on through the day, even after the light had gone. I have totally ignored the plants in my yard and still they offer me fruit—albeit raspberries.

The natural world can be forgiving and there’s much in it to restore one’s faith.  And this isn’t just a charming analogy:  if this weren’t the case, we’d be tremendously screwed.

Pay attention, I tell myself.  The tangle of plants, the casual remarks and smiles of friends, the spirits in the sky.

Blessings, so long as I’m willing to pause, recognize them, and gratefully accept.

 

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmgVEys6TdU

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Eagle Release, 10/30/2016: A Story for Winter Solstice

 

img_20161030_070118784There are things that are absolutely worth getting out of bed for.

I’d come home past midnight from a quick trip up and back to Canada; a wedding– wonderful people I hadn’t seen in years, but a hard turnaround and I’m not getting any younger.

Five hours later the alarm is going off, the extra-annoying electronic one on my phone, which I use when I want to make absolutely certain I can’t miss it.  I nab the phone and pull it back into my bed.  Out beyond the blankets it’s black and cold, but I roll out and toward the clothes I’d put out the night before:  next to the cast off wedding blouse and pumps, a stack of jeans, thermal shirt, waterproof steel toed boots.

The black sky is just beginning to turn deep blue at the horizon as I drive down the road to the wildlife shelter, dark lines of trees on either side forming a long vee toward the east side of the island, where the light is coming up even more.

Lynne is already there opening the van and getting crates in place, and three or four of the volunteers, and Cate.

I fall in with Lynne.  “We’ve just got to get the two out of Ward D,” she tells me.

“Do you want me to get a blanket?”

“No, just the eagle gloves.”

And we head into the windowless space next to the hospital—mews the size of small box stalls, where we keep patients that should only have limited ability to move around.  These two had been in the full-size flight cage up until the day before, but were transferred here to make them easier to catch this morning.

Lynne flips on the very yellow light in the runway and I open the door to the first enclosure, and the dark body of the juvenile eagle thuds into the corner.

“Easy!” Lynne mutters toward the bird, “we just have to do this—“

“And then,” I add, “It’s all going to get so much better.”

She moves steadily toward the eagle, who stands nearly thirty inches high and is starting to open its wings like it’s about to try to fly again but she’s too quick for it:  she has it by the legs, at the same time trying to get one long, agitated wing folded up like a recalcitrant umbrella.

“Do you need help?”

“Head!” she says quickly, and I reach out fast to grab it from the back, turn the beak down and away from her, a good five inches of beak coming off of a head that’s the nearly the size of a soft ball.  Big baby.

We ease the bird into the large flight kennel we’ve brought, then cover it with a sheet, even as the bird begins thumping against the sides in protest.  Then we carry it to the van, and come back with the other empty crate for the eagle in the next mew.

The other four juvenile eagles were put in crates the night before, and now I walk up through the cold, still-dark morning to the building where they wait.  I open the door to thudding from three of the crates, even though each is draped in a colored sheet and they probably can’t see me, they just know the door’s been opened; the smaller, fourth crate is quiet, though, which shouldn’t worry me but it does, so I go toward it, but before I’m within three feet of it the whole crate erupts, bouncing, the bird inside warning that it’s more than ready to take me on.

These are not birds I’ve worked with much.  Several years back my focus became the shelter’s education program, less time in the clinic.  Unlike previous eagles, or the coyote pups we raised into packs that we later released, I have not fed these birds every week, cleaned their mews and taken away food scraps, tracked them from smaller, to larger brown juveniles.  I have, though, helped during exams, holding them while hospital staff tube-fed them when they first came in, later helping to check their body weight.  When these birds were ultimately all housed together in our largest flight cage—the one the length of my house—I did go in a couple of times to assist other stewards.

And there’s something unbelievable about being in that space with them.  We walk into the open, wood and wire room and the air suddenly fills with huge birds careening in different directions, talons swinging below them because the babies are so centered on just flying that they don’t think yet about tucking up their legs.  Helene, a volunteer of ten years advises new people, “If they’re moving, you stop.  Just stop.  Wait until they settle.”   You stay aware that at any moment one of these huge babies could come shooting back toward you, just over your head—or dive off one of the high perches and misjudge a turn and crash to the ground right with you in the way.  So you pass quietly and rapidly through the enclosure with the plates and plates of salmon, mixed with raw chicken or rabbit, the feathers and fur left on so the eagles learn that these are the things they’ll eat in the wild.  You do this for weeks, for months, maybe, larger and larger plates.

Cate is backing up her SUV and we load in two of these crates, then carry the remaining two to join the other pair we’d already loaded into the shelter’s van.  The rest of us drop into our own cars and carpool, and we all begin to caravan out of the gravel parking lot.

Light is coming through more now, the sky mostly deep blue dawn color.  We roll through the trees, seven thirty on a Sunday morning, no sign of anyone up, but I notice at the end of one neighbors’ driveway a yellow short haired dog, sitting, observing the vehicles passing with wilder creatures.

We get out to the main highway and head toward the ferry but the van pulls over to the side of the road, and I come in behind her:

Lynne rolls down a window:  “I forgot the eagle blood—I have to go back.”

“I can go back and get it, you all head on—see you on the ferry.”  And I haul ass back to the shelter, unlock the clinic, find the soft-vinyl cooler pack in the small refrigerator in the exam room, take it out to the passenger’s seat of my car.  On our way up I’m making a detour to pick up my friend Heather, who lives out of state, now, and is visiting her elderly mother.  Heather’s father was a beloved local veterinarian, and she grew up around all manner of animal husbandry.  I know she will be very happy to manage the eagle blood.

Any release is a good day for the wildlife shelter and its volunteers:  opossums, raccoons, single songbirds taken back to where they were injured and freed back into familiar territory.  Eagle releases are a special experience, but in the eight years I’ve worked with the shelter this is only the second time we’ve set out more than one eagle together.  These being juveniles, orphaned for varying reasons, they still need time around adults—so we’ve waited until the salmon are running in the upper Skagit River.  With more than enough food and more than three months ahead of mating season, territories and boundaries ease, and the adults won’t be irritated by these younger birds—who then have the opportunity to observe them, as they all come to this abundance of fish: the salmon finishing out their life cycle, the gathering eagles in differing stages of theirs.

On the ferry I find the crew gathered on the car deck, excited and energized by the cold, img_20161030_083414076_hdrclear morning—a rare fall day in the Pacific Northwest where there isn’t any rain in the forecast.  We will drive nearly three hours, much of it on the freeway due north, angle east along a two-lane highway, then finally wind down through very small towns in the foothills of the Cascade mountains to a little park and boat launch by the river, where the Fish and Wildlife agent has directed us to go.  He will meet us there to pick up the eagle’s blood, which he’s using for some research.  He will also band the birds;  each eagle will have to be removed from the crate and held while the agent uses pliers to snap a wide metal ring around its leg.  Then the bird will be put back into the crate and carried down to the side of the river.

 

The first one is a large female;  Lynne holds the talons away from the agent, one leg in each of her heavily gloved hands, while with the inside of her arms she pins the wings to the bird’s sides;  still, at the sight of the open sky the eagle begins to kick and snake her head, so I step up again to hold it, keep it from stabbing at human soft parts. x

 

The Fish and Wildlife agent measures beaks, feet, calls out numbers to an assistant.

y

 

Then, rather than put this first bird back into the crate Lynne opts to let her spill right out of her arms:  a scramble of wings and struggling balance into the air, wings thrusting until the bird can feel she’s in control, and then the whole action becomes more rhythmic, and the big bird pumps up into the sky and sails over the river, flying to a far stand of leafless trees, dropping past our line of vision.

And on to the next.  b-2

The process repeats again: measuring, numbers called out, band clamped onto the bird;  img_20161030_131710126-2this time it’s another shelter staff member, Sarah, who hold the bird while the agent does his measuring, and this time the bird is put back into the crate, which is taken down to the river.  Another bird, and another—until five crates are lined up along the bank.  Then one of the crowd of maybe fifteen or twenty people who’ve joined the caravan, shelter supporters and volunteers, is asked to come over and open the first of these crates.

The door is opened and there is a pause—then the eagle boots out in a series of hops and into the air, eyes focused and racing to it doesn’t know where—it also lifts up, banks left, and crosses the river into the trees.m-2

Another one isn’t sure what to make of it:  we open the crate door and nothing happens for a minute.  Lynne and Sarah wait, begin to consider taking off the top, but then he hops out onto the ground in a defensive, almost fencer’s posture—looks around himself, and springs into the air, wings beating furiously.

r

Two, three—number four, a small male, is the only one that flies behind us, spinning into some bare trees along the side of the park road, hanging there almost like he’s overwhelmed.  Everyone pauses to see what he’ll do—which right now is nothing.  He is roosting, considering what could possibly have just happened to him.i

We go back to release eagles five, six, and then we’re all standing along the riverbank with a line of empty crates, looking across the river at the trees, the rise of hills, the browns and faded greens of the late October Pacific Northwest.

 

 

There isn’t much to do from here.  We start to pack up the van, collecting sheets and crates and gloves.  The Fish and Wildlife man congratulates the staff on the health of the birds.  Small groups of people chat quietly, everyone’s faces flushed from the cold and eyes bright from the experience.

Then one of us calls and we all turn to see something rise up out of the lacework of the tree canopy across the river—small in the distance it is a dark eagle, a juvenile, one of ours.  It flies up against the pale gray sky and follows the river a short way, curves and heads further into the next level of hills and tall evergreen trees, following the river through the mountains.14882226_10208936123455051_4963998450537694579_o

The Skagit is fast, shallow water, different from the Midwestern rivers I grew up with, and the combinations of trees are also different:  some brownish yellow here and there, but without the color of the Midwestern maples the scene looks more like late November because of the grays and browns and moss green of the ground cover and foliage.  There is the same pale sky, but here it all fades into the dark, wet, almost black green of cedars and firs.

I don’t know why the bleakness of this time of year is so dear to me, why I love it so much even as I feel its barrenness and challenge;  as I get older I’m much less likely to bother with why.

The eagles absolutely do not care.

 

 

 

 

g

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Full Moon, September, 2016

for-full-moon-blog

It’s been a long busy summer, warmer and clearer than usual for the Pacific Northwest, and I’m still technically on my break.  But it’s also one of those years when, just as the last day of August clicked over to September, there was a marked change in the atmosphere, almost like the weather knew the calendar, or the calendar had actually been created with the natural world as a reference.

The other night around nine thirty I walked outside to get something out of the car, and the air had a sharpness it didn’t have just a day or so ago.

I stood there, taking it in.  A hint of moisture, but no wind, and surprisingly cool for being so calm, which told me this was wasn’t temporary:  We’re a week into September and circumstances are just different.

Dark sky, open enough above the trees to see stars.  A huge, beautiful waxing moon.

 

A friend called from Indiana this afternoon, and she said it had been 52 in the morning and 71 by noon, which was a welcome drop from the incredible heat and humidity that’s been going on back there.  They’ve been having weeks of swollen, intense storms with rain like they only get in tornado season.  But they got the tornadoes, too, so timing didn’t seem to make any difference this year.

The natural world seems to surprise us—repeatedly–especially moments like this.  It brings us out of our brain-noise and makes us notice, and it’s really sort of amusing that it does.  This isn’t just set decoration.  It’s the basic stage, the structural reality that makes any of our own psychological realities possible.  We may not think about it at all—or we may get irritated at being made aware of new toxins in the environment, discussions about over-development, the back and forth about climate change.  Then I walk outside on a night like this, and immediately it all becomes so very clear and simple.

Because of where I live, just a ways beyond city lights and noise, it’s harder to ignore the sky, the seasons, though I still give it my best—I descend into my brain and my emotions and burrow in.  But standing here I am brought back to the basics of circumstance:  no planet—no brain.  No consciousness or breath.

 

I went to a middle school recently with three animals from the wildlife shelter, and standing there waiting to start our program I wondered to myself how I could make this real for the students.  I remember being 13, 14:  so totally caught up in the chemical weather of hormones that I was completely detached, thinking only of the drama between my friends, the storylines going on in the hallways between classes, the small episodes that day in class.   Why should these teenaged people care about owls and vultures and opossums—about keeping garbage away from streets so the animals don’t come out and get hit by cars, about not shooting the big birds when they see them out in the country?  Why think at all about anything beyond their cul de sac?   They don’t notice the irony that the entirely biological reality of puberty detaches them mentally from anything but what is going on in their immediate ‘now’, which they thoroughly believe is generated from cell phones and the right tee shirt and name brand jeans.

So my colleague and I waded in to do our best, and we both know our secret weapons: that the best advocates will be the animals themselves, totally arresting the kids’ attention.  It’s up to us to give them the right introductions, but at that point just stand back and wait for the gasp, when we bring our arm out of the crate and the room is face to face with a live, silver, barred owl.

After the program we drove back.  To our own dramas, maybe less hormonal and certainly, we believe, more civilized—but we also drop back into the mental current of our own needs and immediate concerns:  whether or not to stop and pick up something for dinner, what to get done for work next week, what to get done around my property before the rains set in, whether or not to complicate my personal life.  It may seem like a contrasting urban, human perspective but it’s still just shelter, territory, love.  And it doesn’t care if I don’t recognize at this moment that these personal obsessions are the same concerns of every other creature living on the planet.

 

Out here in the Pacific Northwest the sky can have so many variations at the same time:  clear enough above to see the scattering of stars, more becoming visible the deeper you look, while at the same time, in the same sky, the moon floats in a gray haze, maybe clouds or some sort of mist from the water.  Tonight the nearly full moon is the color of pale cream, emitting a very thin silvery light.  It shines through a lunette window above my French doors, and until it rises fully I see it through a fringe of trees—which themselves, right now, are black cutout paper silhouettes, thin, almost seem like the flat stuff of a theater set.  Behind them the light, the silver  halo of light from the pale cream moon, light graying out into the broader darkness of the open sky.

We get so caught up in ourselves and our lives, and I suppose there’s no real reason not to. Still, it’s really such a simple equation. We are here because the earth is here.  Not the other way around.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

An Old Memory, a Correction, a Valentine

IMGP6586Sometimes you don’t know when it’s going to show up, or that it was even on its way.

A couple of weeks ago I was standing in the wildlife shelter at nine AM, listening to our morning report.  It’s the off season, and the regular crew has winnowed down some, and that morning I think there were four of us besides the clinic manager, Brandy.

We were in the kitchen, the nerve-center of the hospital, which hadn’t yet been disrupted by preparations of fish and fowl for the raptors, strange mixes of things for the injured opossums, piles of leftovers for the two turkey vultures.  The census is low:  no babies yet, and the only raccoons coming through this time of year have been old and beat up, and like the cormorant with wings torn by fishing line, euthanized pretty much on arrival.  Besides the opossums our current patients are a couple of gulls, a pigeon waiting through a long, slow molt, and three red tailed hawks.  Brandy explains changes in treatment or feeding, non patient-care tasks to get done if there’s time, then, just to catch everyone up, a list of the creatures that had come through during the week:  a kinglet that was released, an adult squirrel, “Oh, and we had a goldeneye come through which we transferred, since our waterfowl enclosures are shut down right now.”

“What’s a goldeneye?” someone asks, and Brandy begins explaining, “It’s a small diving duck, they show up this time of year….”

and I sort of zone out over my coffee.   I saw the goldeneye when it came in –a pretty little brown-headed female.  And I know them because occasionally they’d show up on the river where I grew up in Indiana, on winter migrations; always a big deal when my mother spotted them in her field glasses.

Brandy is continuing, “They roost in trees.   In fact, sometimes they can really surprise people, popping out and dropping onto the ground.”

Suddenly something in me resonates like an old bass string snapped against the fretboard.    DSC_5852

“Wait,” I say to Brandy, interrupting.  “What do you mean, they roost in trees?  I thought only wood ducks roosted in trees.”

“Wood ducks do,” she says, nodding, “but a lot of other ducks will, too.  Like goldeneye.  And mergansers.”

I am 57 years old standing in the kitchen of the wildlife shelter in Washington State while at the same moment I am dropping down a chute in my soul to Indiana.  I am fifteen (It’s been 42 years?  How did that happen?)  and I am laughing, uncharitably, at Tim.  He and I have been experiencing difficulties, but in hindsight that’s not really surprising:  all of our small tribe of friends have been experiencing difficulties as our seemingly innocent and racy drug experimentation has led us to become cranky.

One place where we all feel safe and secure together is a small stand of evergreen trees, just off the street where several of us live, where another street veers away and creates a peninsula of greenery: somebody’s civic landscaping keeps the grass mowed, the shrubbery lightly clipped, but seems to ignore these evergreens.  They are planted in a cluster just apart from a set of tennis courts belonging to one of the big houses along the river;  it’s likely that this is all their land, too.

These trees had grown to be twenty or thirty feet high, with boughs all the way to the ground like thick skirts, and closely blended together.  Fir, spruce, maybe a cedar, I don’t know what they were, only that we referred to them as ‘the pines’  because one of us  (Tim, probably) discovered that if we crawled up under them, in the circle of their trunks there was a clearing, an open space — a den of sorts, in the very center of these trees, screened completely from everything else by the evergreen branches.

It suited our teenaged senses of irony and recalcitrance to be hidden in plain view.   So we congregated there in twos or threes, delighted to think of the cars rolling by so near to us but with no idea we were in there — possibly even our mothers, or someone else’s mothers in their station wagons.   At one point someone brought in a candle, bedded it into the center of the needles, I remember its low flame and the scent mixing with that of the needles as we all passed around a bong in the shape of a sitting gnome.   Overalls and oversized cardigan sweaters, young male faces with bushy full beards, girls with feathered earrings, the whole thing.

A slightly different take on wildlife.

The pines community didn’t last all that long.  Adults may have gotten suspicious, s2016-02-14 12.02.30eeing the patched and rumpled teenagers springing over to and disappearing into this stand of trees, or maybe we were just afraid they had –though now that I think of it, when I was visiting and drove by years later, amazingly the pines were still there, but they had been pruned about three feet up their trunks, creating clear visibility from across the grass.  So maybe I didn’t imagine this.

Anyway, the time I’m remembering Tim was excitedly telling me,  “You won’t believe it:  I was at the pines, and I’m just smoking a cigarette, when something plops right down out of the trees—it just falls down at my feet.  And it scuttles away.”

“What are you talking about?  You saw a squirrel?”

“No,” he insisted, “I don’t know what it was, some kind of bird.”  He gestured with his hands, airspace the size of a football.  “It just plopped out of the tree,” he went on then, with a directional flourish, “and it sort of waddled off across the grass!”

“Leprechauns?”

He’s laughing with me, but I can see he’s frustrated, too.  “I’m telling you, I saw it!”

I no longer remember which one of us or when we decided Tim had seen a penguin.  Because considering our lives and our selves at that point, our recreations and his love of elaboration, it made more sense that Tim saw a penguin fall out of branches of the pines and scuttle away across the grass than it did that he’d seen anything at all.

Except that he brought it up again later:  “I’ve been meaning to tell you, my sister knows what type of thing fell out of the trees that time when I was in the pines.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She said it was likely something from the river—I think a coot, maybe.”

“A coot?  They don’t roost in trees.”

“I forget what it was, then, maybe she said guinea hen. But she believed me completely.  These things really do fall out of trees!”

The story about the penguin was picked up by everyone; I think we all knew it, it’s own shorthand reference.

We have remained in touch all these years, an old, tribal love between many of us – sometimes closer than others, but never losing contact completely.  Two years ago a couple of us flew in to see Tim marry his partner of nearly thirty years. (I offered to give him away, but he ignored me.  But the happy couple did buy me breakfast before I left the next morning.)

Tim has always loved holidays, was a generous boyfriend at Valentine’s day, and through the years boxes have arrived, unannounced,  full of amusing and delightful things.  “Tell me,” his card said this year at Christmas, “which of these brings up a small, shared memory from our youth?”2015-12-25 19.26.08

Was it the coasters with pictures of Janis Joplin’s mug shot?  The peel-and-stick computer key that said “Oh, shit”?  Not the set of demitasse cups, though we did drink a lot of coffee together.  The inflatable penguin, wearing a little holiday hat and scarf?

And here I am standing in the wildlife shelter, forty two years later, wanting to find you immediately and grab you by the bibs:

Tim, oh my god.  I was a grouchy, irritable teenaged girl who was feeling spurned;  I was tired of all of us being so high and unaccountable to each other, even as I was contributing to all of it myself.

I knew wood ducks roosted in trees, but I would also have been quick to tell you they hadn’t been seen on the river in ages.

And of course you really were capable of seeing anything in the pines.

But standing here in the kitchen of the wildlife shelter, a woman who hadn’t even been born at that point is telling me, forty-two years later, that you were right:

Tim, my dear old friend, I owe you an apology, a correction.  I want to atone for my crotchety, irritable, dismissive teenaged self.  It turns out that while you were standing there in the pines a duck-sized bird could very well have dropped out of the branches and scuttled away, just as you described.  It could have been a goldeneye, like the one getting some play time in the shelter’s bath tub this past week.  I realize now it also could have been a bufflehead, sometimes known to pass through Northern Indiana in the odd migratory year;  it could have been either type of merganser, common or hooded.

Tim, I need to let you know that I got it—I was a grouchy little bitch—and you were right.

I am so grateful for our years of affection and the heart-clearing chance to send you this, my valentine to you this year. DSC_6438

Which life serves up sometimes even decades after the arrow’s been released from the bowstring.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

September 5th: International Vulture Awareness Day

A text message pinged on the phone as I was making breakfast this morning: a friend in Seattle, a print artist–  “I just heard that it’s Vulture Awareness Day!  Thinking of you!”

I was actually getting ready to leave for the wildlife shelter, filling in for a volunteer who was called east on family business.  The shelter’s primary effort is to rehab injured wildlife of all kinds and get them back out into their habitat, and we are coming through a record summer census, and what we hope might be the end of baby squirrel season.  The shelter also has an education program that goes out into any of the regional counties—to community groups, churches, public events, and schools, with non-releasable wildlife ‘ambassadors’.  To be a steward in the education program is its own form of specialization and within that program there are levels of training and difficulty, so when one of us is missing, the spot has to be filled by another ed steward, and off I went.  Getting the word that it was International Vulture Day just helped me focus:  first I would check in with the Princess, aka Remington, our resident turkey vulture, and get her out into the thin September sunshine.

In addition to two winning opossums, the shelter’s education program has two beautiful barred owls, red tail hawks from two different regions of the United States, a lovely, small and deadly female kestrel, and a peregrine falcon.  But the Princess is the largest, obviously, and in several ways the most challenging to handle.  I was delighted to be informed that today was her day.

Occasionally people will ask me, “Aren’t they just incredibly ugly and disgusting?”  Or better yet, “What do you feed the vulture?”  Seriously. This is a vulture.  What on earth do you think?

But I feel it incumbent to say that while the common impression of vultures is that they should be sitting on the left bank of the river Styx and no closer, Princess Remi is an excellent wildlife ambassador for the shelter, and an incredibly effective teaching tool.

The continental United States has two resident vulture species:  the smaller black vulture of the southern and gulf states, and the turkey vulture, which is everywhere else, including Central and South America.  For this reason they’re referred to as “new world vultures”—and yes, there are also Old World Vultures, but more on that in a moment.

When we schedule a program I try to get into the classroom before anyone else, as Remi travels in the largest size dog crate on a small cart, often with an assistant to help me schlepp the whole contraption up and around.  The students file in at the appointed time and we go over a few basic concepts:  the purpose of the wildlife shelter, the difference between domestic and wild animals, how even the youngest of them can help with the habitat, and some general facts about adaptation.  A few concepts can tell them a lot about what a creature is designed to do, and it can make studying them much more interesting and fun.  For instance, most birds have virtually no sense of smell:  they have the brain area for scent, but it’s not developed because they don’t need it, whether they’re eating seeds and insects, or a raptor hunting live prey with their very sharp eyesight.  This bird I am about to bring out, I tell them, is one of the very few that does have a sense of smell:  why would that be the case?  I might have to wait one, maybe two beats before an enthusiast in the back fires up at full arm’s length to get my attention:   “So they can smell their prey!”   “And what does that mean they would be eating?” I ask—“Why would it smell?”  Another hand blasts up.  “Because it’s dead–!”  and the crowd swoons.

I then turn to the crate and uncover  it to reach inside;  most raptors are solitary, though our education birds are used to crowds and very tolerant.  But vultures are a species that actually likes group events and gatherings in the wild.  Not only is Remington curious about where we are and who is out there, she has excellent timing:  having stepped up onto my gloved arm she emerges– shriveled little red head first, then the thickly feathered body, and then, when she clears the opening of the crate, she unfolds her giant wings, raised like the victorious stance of Eva Peron.

Evita

Rems 2 (3)

The crowd is amazed.

From there, we can talk about how beautifully this bird is designed for its place in the world:  the feet, rather than talons, so that it can stand flat on the ground or on carcasses;  the tiny, featherless head with the single hollow nostril, so that when it’s face is inserted in something damp or sticky the vulture has no problem shaking things off or blowing them out;  Baby Sillouette 10 14the broad, elegant wings for soaring great distances and riding thermals, using its remarkable eyesight to scout across open ranges for things immobile; and that ability to smell, which can detect something rotting, even if the vulture is flying over forests and tree canopies.IMGP5456Like albatrosses, the vulture’s wings are so long that it can’t take immediately to the air—thus it has developed its secret weapon to drive off any possible predator: the vulture simply vomits on command.

A very intelligent and thought moment

I arrive at the shelter just before noon and head out to her enclosure, met en route by an energetic and young aspiring education volunteer. “Are you going to get Remi?  Can I come along?”  Remington is sitting down on her perch and rises as we approach, and I notice she is shaking.  This can be because she’s responding to the change in seasons (it is still about 57 degrees when I appear) or she’s nervous, wondering what I’m doing there and why I’m bringing this young blonde person with me.  I enter the enclosure and she turns her back to me, which can either show willingness for me to put on her jesses or a way to block me—I can’t ever be certain.  She takes a couple of swipes at me with her beak, but she’s fairly compliant—I connect her leash, ask her to step up on the glove and she does, and we head out into the weathering area, then to the grounds beyond.

When we hit the first patch of bright sunshine the wings go out like mobile solar panels:  maybe she was cold after all.  But a few paces further and she starts the open-mouthed gagging behavior that means—yes, she’s throwing up–as a warning or out of nervousness or just to tell me how she feels about being taken out, it’s hard to say.  If we leave it on the ground, the vomit is not only going to draw flies but will smell worse and worse until it will be noticeable all over the area.  “I hate to ask you this,” I say to the volunteer, “but would you go get a surgical glove?”  and she does, the intrepid young soul—she comes back with one blue nitrile hand, gamely picks up the tart-sized wad of indistinguishably-digested something, and she pops back to leave it in the mew, where Remi will be happy to re-consume it later.  The smell is acrid and pungent, but now it will dissipate, at least from here.

The ph of a vulture’s digestive system is just one notch or so above battery acid, another wonder of these fabulous birds: diseased carcass goes in one end of the vulture, hits those juices, and comes out neutralized.  Vultures have been proven to eradicate botulism, cholera, anthrax, rabies, and possibly even ebola.   In the US, vultures are in no way endangered, but in Africa and India the use of new poisons has killed off large numbers of their vulture species and the surrounding populations of humans and farm animals are paying the price: these diseases have recurred to chronic proportions.  (African Vultures Declining at a Critical Rate:  http://www.peregrinefund.org/news-release/321).

When I take the Princess to a classroom, I can tell them all of this.  I can explain that while she may seem strange and off-putting to the unschooled eye, to those of us who have considered her design, she’s walking brilliance.  The Bacteria Stops Here.

This past spring, I took the vulture, and one of our beautiful owls, to a group of third grade classes in a small school district.  The kids gasped when they saw the owl, and made all the appropriate groans when I described the attributes of the vulture, and they asked great questions about each—and we talked about how each of these creatures contributes to the ecosystem—the owl keeping down the population of rats and mice, the vulture working as habitat sanitation.

At the end of the program, as I was putting the birds into their crates while the classes lined up to exit, a small cluster of kids stuck with me, asking more questions, telling me stories.  Then from the line of students heading out the door one little girl broke away and ran over—a pretty little dark-haired girl in a pink dress.  “At home?” she said, “we have a Morkie—that’s a Maltese and a Yorkie mix?”  I nodded.  “Her name is Princess,” she said brightly.  “But now, I’m going to call her Princess Remington!”    She grinned, and she darted back to join her classmates.   On the drive back to the shelter my associate and I had a fine time considering this little girl who decided to rename her fluffy white lap dog after our turkey vulture.

The Princess and I spent nearly an hour in the sun today, in the middle of a patch of strawberries and rose bushes beginning to fade with the season.  She had her wings extended with one across my back, and someone commented that it looked like a strange sort of date.  Other volunteers walked by and chatted, which she does actually enjoy: we can’t release her, but we can offer her our own community, whatever it’s worth.

At programs, we try to convey to the audience or the students that having these creatures in our area is a sign of good things—great things.  Wildlife, no matter how odd or off-putting, tells us that our region is healthy.  It isn’t the case any longer that we live in human communities surrounded by wilderness;  more and more of the world is expanses of suburbia encircling smaller and smaller areas of wild.  Some wild creatures have managed to adapt to human habitation—peregrines on top of skyscrapers, coyotes in the alleys of cities, hawks in city parks, eagles returning to waterways.  Others need more attention, and all the balances needs to be checked.  Maintaining their habitat, caring for these creatures will make a difference—to children and grandchildren and little girls with fluffy white dogs and every bit of this interconnected planet.

http://www.vultureday.org/2015/index.php

IMGP5456

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments