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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Full Moon, September, 2016

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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

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Listening to Crosby Stills and Nash on a Saturday Morning

I don’t think anyone would describe me as a traditionalist.  While I came from a perfectly solid, four-square 1950s American upbringing, as we headed into the space-race 1960s with great energy and hope, we ran into some serious snags.  It happened to a lot of families: part cause and part effect of the uprising of young people that anymore is what “the Sixties” brings to peoples’ minds.  Without meaning to lay blame, I’ll just say that I was very early launched onto a trajectory that led out of my Midwestern Christian nuclear family, across some interesting landscapes, and has left me here on the west coast, living relatively simply with two dogs and a cockatiel.  Not the household reality that I was reared for.

This morning my reality includes waking up fighting back a cold, with a lot to be done today and a lot on my mind, and not much of it very clear or easy. Since I could, I decided to stay in bed a little longer, let my body rest, try to shake out my head.

I took up my phone and punched in the morning news and lay in bed listening to it, which can either help me drop back to sleep for a couple hours more, or if not, provide a little advance warning of whatever is going on outside of my bedroom.  Europe tracking extremists after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, anti-Muslim sentiments rising in Germany; Syria, and Boko Haram, the US Presidential Elections of 2016.  There is a piece about the Academy Awards nominations, another about an opera singer who has lost weight and written a memoir.

And then sports:  the Seattle Seahawks, preparing for a playoff this weekend.  I smile.  Coming away on the ferry last night, from the Space Needle to the stadium the city skyline was washed in blue and green.  10933910_10152548016241722_5349515837732649265_nThere were blue and green donuts in the faculty office yesterday at work. 2015-01-16 12.31.28There are blue and green lights in the doorways of two homes down by the post office in the little town where I live.

And the Colts, bless them—probably doomed against the Patriots, but who knows?  I remember when they were from Baltimore.  I remember Johnny Unitas.  I have been delighted to have the Colts relocate to my home state, so even though I am the most minimal of football followers, I rouse for this segment of news, the excitement and happy energy in the announcers’ voices an early bulwark against the impending threat of laundry and paper grading, local skies shrouded in filmy light and hazy rain.

Checking the phone I see the next few news items don’t look like a good way to start my morning, but I’m not feeling like there is any particularly good way to start my morning, and that presents its own existential problem.  I cast about in my mind, examine my soul, wonder why.  It is too early in the day for this, but here I am.

I turn off the news on the phone and go out to the kitchen to feed the dogs and myself, and as often is the case, I discover a thread of music turning around in my head—a couple of lines have drifted up on some synapse of the broadest sort of association: “It’s getting to the point/where I’m no fun anymore….”

Just this week a friend in his forties was making fun of me again because I still prefer compact disks to digitizing my music, but I am pleased now to put my oatmeal on the burner and go to the CD collection in my hallway.  I congratulate myself because I know I will find Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and that because it’s a CD, its sound quality will be better than I can probably even detect.  The disk goes into the CD changer and I turn it up a little more than the normal setting—and the guitar chords of “Suite for Judy Blue Eyes” come darting out like a troup of actors in a Medieval morality play:  vivid and familiar characters, breathing in front of me, promoting inspiration, a path and belief.

It’s been so long since I’ve heard this CD that this morning I am detached enough to simply listen, happily drifting through the harmonies and lyrics about values of love and the intensity of the young moment.  Its own sweet hippy dogma.

2014 was challenging in a lot of ways and I am looking forward to what’s coming in this year.  But as with the NFL playoffs, so much of todays’ excitement and confidence will be obsolete pretty quick.  And it’s never certain what will trigger large, serious global issues:  there’s plenty of genuine political tragedy on the planet right now, but the killing of twelve people at a sophomoric satire magazine has focused at least two continents, and I’m old enough and agnostic enough to believe that it’s important to pay attention to it.

As I grow older I have more and more respect for the pull of routine and convention, the benefits and good reasons for the forms of a traditional society.  I can see the wonderfully restorative quality in an annual return of rituals and events, the meaning inherent in a life transitioning from being young, to parent, to grandparent.  I see in my friends the many things that these roles can balance out, sustain, and effect.  Do I regret not having such a family?  As I grow older I am also more and more convinced that I was different from the beginning, and it would have been much easier for everyone involved if we’d all accepted that as soon as it started to be noticeable.  So, no.

This morning it would be helpful to have the structure of a traditional life, standard religious faith and practice.  I don’t.  What I do have is music.  I have warmth and surprise from animals, appreciation and devotion to the natural world.  I have friends to laugh with when I will ring them up later, on that magical phone. I do have a very deep appreciation of the moment.IMGP8424

At the end of this CD I tacked on a few extra takes from later albums that I loved, and now comes the opening of “After the Gold Rush:” which brings immediate, involuntary tears to my eyes, over forty years later.  Some of it is the young tremolo of Neil Young’s  voice, the song’s mythical concern about the environment.  It is also that this particular song drops me out of any present moment into immediate time travel: a dark basement bedroom with a couple of girlfriends, all of us too wired to sleep, very late on a full moon night, or morning.  Whoever was still awake was talking and joking.  But I lay there staring out the basement window at the moon.  I was frightened about decisions I’d made, worried I’d turned my back on the wrong person and what that would mean. I was fifteen years old and feeling tremendously empty.

Convention provides security and confidence to go on.  Faith is a blessing, no matter how it’s specifically defined.  Regardless, I wouldn’t change my life even now, in my small house that needs cleaning, with its stacks of papers on the counter and books on the dining room table–all these years beyond the promise and creative hope blasting out of these earnest, really quite young voices.

Be Sure to Hide the Roaches.

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7-3-2014

2014-07-03 20.35.23It is the evening of the third of July and I am out walking with my dogs.  As the light starts to fade, the sounds of fireworks rise.  Muffled booms across the water, occasional cracks and rattles, small rehearsals for the big event tomorrow, which, given my proximity to Native American fireworks stands, could run from morning into hours far beyond tomorrow night.

Families are turning up in my little beach community.  I pass gatherings around fire pits, and grandparents walking back from the general store with small children, all eating ice cream.  Never mind that it’s the Pacific Northwest and it’s dropping into the 60s as the sun goes down, will probably be in the 50s by tonight.  We just wear fleece while we maintain the holiday traditions.

One neighbor has strung an old-fashioned red white and blue bunting along his porch rail, and another has made bright wooden cut outs of firecrackers and placed them through his garden.  I wonder if I can find my flag in the shed, if I can hang it before I head out for my shift at the wildlife shelter tomorrow.  People don’t often think about it, but like pets, wild animals are pretty thoroughly terrified by fireworks, and this time of July at the shelter can be busy, with creatures that have been frightened into windows, or out onto highways.

We turn up a path through the woods that leads back to our road, very near where the local eagles have their nest.

Which makes me think of eagles—the national symbol, and what I’ve learned about them at the shelter these past five years.

I have prepared food for eagles, I have scrapped their leftovers and cleaned up their enclosures;  I have helped bandage them, or held them as they’ve been bandaged.  I’ve force fed eagles, tube fed eagles, tended to emaciated elders, and worked with babies who have been brought in when their nests collapsed.  I’ve assisted at euthanasia when the eagles have wound up on the wrong side of humans:  torn up by cars or trucks, or so badly shattered from gunshot that the giant wing couldn’t be rebuilt by even the most dedicated avian wildlife vet.

And, I’ve been fortunate enough to be present at releases—watched a now-healthy bird fight to get out of the grip of the rehabber carrying it from its cage, spilling it out of their arms and back into the air—the big bird’s wings beating the air, stretching out in  its return to the sky.

I have had to explain to kids at presentations that it’s not simply coyotes that are wiping out their cats and small dogs—eagles will happily hunt easy prey, like unattended pets.

Because in all honesty, our national symbol is lazy.

Eagles are opportunistic: they think nothing of bullying other birds, like ospreys, for the fish they’re carrying, swiping it out of the air when it’s dropped in fear.

I’ve heard plenty of descriptions from Alaskans of dumpsters covered in eagles, just as happy to pick at the trash from the fish canneries than work for it out on the open water.

And they can seem surprisingly willing to put up with regular harassment from crows, ignoring the dive-bombing and outriding because they just don’t want to bother—that is, until they simply stop tolerating it—and the eagle flips over in the air and with its talons, ends it.IMGP1466

Eagles know how tough they are;  they’re fully aware they have no real predators themselves, and they’re not above using their presence to reorder things to their own particular benefit.

Benjamin Franklin had all this in mind when he famously and satirically chided his compatriots at their choice of the eagle for the national symbol of this country.  In a letter to his daughter he joked that we should have used the turkey instead, because it had more courage than an eagle, and “would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Symbols are tricky things.  I am forever telling my students to be careful what ideas they link to what images, as there are all kinds of ways that symbols can be read.  You have to make sure to emphasize the connections you intend for them to carry.

I heard the baby eagle in the nest across the road yesterday, but nothing today.  Its parents, a monogamous pair of many years, are undoubtedly nearby, keeping watch, worrying at the noise in the sky.

A friend who is Native American used to help me with my yard, and when an eagle flew over he would pause;  to his understanding, eagles are messengers of God—“A blessing,” he’d say to me, and smile, and we’d get back to whatever we were doing.

If it is the job of humanity to rise above our animal nature, our physical selves, tonight as the Fourth comes on and the sounds of fireworks pick up I find myself hoping that we might think about our national symbols–override the self-centeredness, the sense of power and arrogance, in favor of tolerance, grace, and strength granted us by larger, natural creative forces.

IMGP7522 (Photos by Jay Wiggs)

 

 

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