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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2014-03-17 09.39.11

For reasons I have never entirely understood, Easter remains a powerful holiday for me:  regardless of what I am doing, I’m aware that it is Easter, which leads to memories of growing up in Indiana, in a family mix of Episcopalians and Catholics, warring for the souls of the grandchildren.  Easter is the smell of incense in the church and the organ roar of the recessional hymn—which led at last to going home to the egg hunt, of course.  Some years the grass was still a damp, icy crust, or occasionally full-on snow, but more typically it was a cool, humid spring morning.  There was something specific in bloom—a tree or a shrub that when I smell whatever it is now, instantly transports me to those back yards and my very small childhood—and the agitated, edgy feeling that comes with it tells me I have probably suffered most of my life from undiagnosed allergies.

This year I was invited to join a friend and his family for the complete celebration: egg hunt and large group meal.  Instead, I followed my own inclinations and kept things simple.

In the morning I went in to the wildlife shelter as I usually do on Sundays, to feed and clean the animals we use for education programs.  Preparing quail for a red tailed hawk, I remembered an Easter when I met friends at a fashionable Seattle restaurant for brunch, which came with hard-cooked quail eggs as a flourish. P by Dottie  I opened the bird to clean it, and found eggs—I put them aside for a kestrel, who would shortly take them from my fingers, she loves them so.

Which led for some reason to thoughts of the soft forms of my great-aunts from southern Indiana.  Some years they made it up north to where we lived, in their flowered dresses, bearing trays of deviled eggs.  Those Easters the big meal would be a brunch after church, with a lot of delicacies they’d brought with them:  sausage my great-uncle made from pigs he’d raised and slaughtered, which he then was not able to eat; eggs, homemade biscuits, succotash, and pies–the heavy, rich, and starchy foods of people who appreciated holiday feasts as the exception to the rule.

I had a boyfriend in high school who became what we then called a Jesus Freak.  He joined a radical Pentecostal church, had seen through organized religion, and he wanted me to come with him.  So he very deliberately deconstructed my family religion to the point of ridiculousness.  I dutifully followed his logic but could not follow him to the next step.  He is a fundamentalist missionary in Africa now, still fighting Satan and saving souls for Christ;  all these year later I remained deconstructed.

Which is why it’s all the more surprising Easter strikes me so regularly and profoundly.  I can go right to part of me that still feels the connection to my family—the love between those aunts and grandparents and my parents, the intention from my mother, ushering us into the pew in church.  I can still sing the recessional hymns.      2014-04-09 17.21.58

Resurrection of course is the main theme to this all, but maybe renewal is more in line with how I am feeling at this point in my life, and stewardship of the things that matter.  We had a ward full of orphaned baby animals at the shelter this morning, squirrels and possums and bunnies, along with the raptors and the other education birds, and the high school and college-aged volunteers bustled around preparing formula, cleaning cages.  There was a cool, Easter blue sky through the window of the mews as I watched Remington, the turkey vulture, delicately eat a mouse I’d given her the way a child might eat a chocolate bunny:  tail first, then the feet–then she goes for the head.

I came home to meet my also deconstructed friend, Eddie, for a walk on the beach.  Our conversations are always personal and global and complex, followed by talk about music.  Today Eddie had a bunch of second hand, hand knit sweaters in his back seat, and he insisted I take one:  pulled out an absurd blue and white triangle print and draped it over my shoulders:  “It’s Easter!” he said.

Walking back, I met the neighbor with the Westie named Poppy, contemplating pilfering a bit of rosemary from another neighbor’s landscape, where we were standing.  It’s a huge bush;  I’ve been admiring it and it’s made me think I needed to plant my small container rosemary into my own landscape.  I reached over and cut off a branch for the neighbor, with the pocketknife I still had from my shelter shift this morning:  she was surprised I was so open about it.  “I’m going to go roast a chicken,” she said heading off, waving the rosemary at me,  “and maybe drink a beer….”  I tried to imagine if I’ll care if anyone takes a branch or two from the shrub that will grow in front of my house.  Herbal karma.

I adjusted Eddie’s sweater, and came home to grill a fresh lamb chop and some asparagus, replaying conflicting, amazing thoughts and memories, shot through with gratitude.

 

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Time On the Planet

Skyscape Indianola

Out here by Puget Sound, the weather has been classic;

After a fairly dry and clear, if cold winter, the rains came in, and before we’d gotten through the first full week of March we’d set records for rainfall.  It’s been dark, it’s been wet, it’s been heavy.  Every morning in addition to general traffic reports, the radio tells me which highways have been rerouted or closed due to mudslides.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, they ambush us with Daylight Savings time.

It seemed early for it this year.  I know my friends in the Midwest, still under multiple inches of snow, or my niece and her family in Colorado who are still getting fresh inches of snow, can barely tolerate the mention of spring; it seems like some sort of mean tease.

I’ve said this before and I’ll probably continue to say this until people get a bag over me, but I’ve never understood the characterization of spring as bright and sweet.  Growing up in Indiana, it was a brief exchange between two violent seasons:  the heaviness and long goodbye of winter, and the intensity and humidity of summer.  For a moment in there we had a spongy thaw and tornadoes, while everyone dressed in pastels and acted like this was some sort of lawn party. 

It wasn’t until I lived in Houston, Texas, of all places, that I really got it.  There of course, the weather is just varying degrees of humid.  Winter might be damp and humid, summer shifts to simply nasty and humid.  Winter might get as low as fifty on occasion, but once the thermometer hits 90 again, which is usually in May, that’s it—it doesn’t look back—and won’t drop down below 90 until maybe October, but quite likely December.

But I became aware of a moment—usually in April, when the weather paused at a fairly balmy 80 degrees and the flash floods hadn’t hit yet—the crepe myrtles bloomed, like a standing riot of bouquets.  Poor little Yankee, I didn’t know what they were when I saw them—thought they might be some sort of lilac, but I’d never seen lilacs in red and pink, as well as lavender and white.  During that brief spell of pleasant weather I’d walk out to my car in the mornings and find that the crepe myrtle by the curb had dropped blossoms all over the hood and roof, like some sort of random Hindu blessing.  I knew this moment was fleeting.  (The blossoms would drop, the cicadas would kick in, and all would be lost.)  But I also knew the crepe myrtle was feeding something elemental, some reservoir of renewal.

So after the days and days of hosing rain we recently got a break, and I headed out quickly to get my poor shut-in dogs some exercise.  The weather was actually better than predicted and had warmed up into the low fifties, and the slate-colored clouds had space between them.  Alongside my local gravel roads were fast streams of clear water, audible run-off running overtime to drain everything down to the sound.  Walking along and looking around me like a surfaced mole, I spotted a few white blossoms in a neighbor’s ornamental plum tree:  two or three on the long brown branch, still dripping.  I thought—I was almost afraid to think it–I began to notice a slight shift in the air.  Something in me, non-intellectual, organic, started to rise up to feel hope.  Spring Eagles   wiggsley

I maintain that this is not an easy time of year.  The weather will improve, and the weather will worsen.  In my area, even as song birds are stepping up to blow off a ringing call to the season, eagles are gathering starting to nest; the smaller birds panic as the dark forms glide over them.  Volunteering at a wildlife shelter I watch as injuries come in from fights over territories, or as restlessness and mate-seeking drives mammals out on to the road.  New babies are coming into the clinic, orphaned from the complete mistakes that happen to living creatures.

On the news there is the strange disappearance of an airliner in Malaysia, and I’m reminded of my father’s small plane’s disappearance years ago, when he was forty-seven.  I am fifty-five; at this age my mother lived in her own part of the forest, an island off the upper peninsula of Michigan, deeply happy.  None of us knew, of course, that in three years she’d be suddenly dead of cancer.  On the other hand, some of my family go on into their eighties and even nineties.  It remains a crapshoot.

Which made me think of when I was a student of the poet Colleen McElroy.  In class once she told us that no matter how seriously we took ourselves, most young writers just didn’t have enough time on the planet to really know what they had to say.  I remember the syllabic emphasis she used, the cadence of a broadly experienced African American woman (“You all haven’t had enough time on the planet…”)

There are a lot of ways to measure time on the planet.  Clocks lurch forward, the earth tilts.  Blossoms open and our hearts rise—the rain comes back, and there very well could be one more freeze before this season is behind us.

At this point, though, I may have had enough time on the planet to take a long moment and a deep breath and savor the lure of the warming air.  I hear the water dripping off the evergreens, and after my very cynical youth I see that the pastels people wear for Easter really are all around me:  in the plum trees, in the grass coming up through the mud.

It is just a moment, but it is also true.

For the near term, at least, the system seems rigged in our favor.

spring sparro

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December 21st, 2013

I woke up yesterday morning to about an inch of picturesque white snow;  it was heavy and wet, and pretty certain not to last past noon.  But the dogs larked around in it like rabbits before they came in for their breakfast, and when I headed out that morning the snow was beautiful, settled into the high boughs of the fir trees that line the roads.  The season–whichever you want to call it–does really seem to be upon us, and for some reason inspires something genuinely energizing.

I have known many, many friends who find this time of year oppressive because of the lack of light;  ironically, the two who were the most disturbed by it each told me they actually looked forward to the solstice, because it meant that from this point, the light was coming back—once we’ve rounded the 21st, the days will be getting longer again.

Living on the edge of the 49th parallel, this time of year it’s impossible not to notice how fast and how completely the darkness moves in, taking over large parts of the hours we usually count on to be bright and clear and productive.

Still, personally, I have always found something very soothing and safe about darkness.  I look at the 49th parallel on a world map and sure enough, it also runs through the places my family originally came from:  Germany, Bohemia.  I have no trouble believing my response to light is genetic.

Human beings can easily believe other animals have particular times of day they belong in but we don’t think it can be true of us, and we’re generally wary of the night creatures: bats, possums, big owls making their odd noises.  But that overlooks other things that are small and amazing: field mice, mink, flying squirrels.  Most things out in the dark are happy to be left alone to their own business.  They’re really not interested in interacting with anyone.

In that list of creatures of the night I would also include teenagers.  In my own case it’s easy to recall the generous amounts of time I was out walking with friends in the dark—talking, smoking, roving around for miles in all kinds of weather just because we didn’t have anywhere else we felt safe, where we thought we could be ourselves.  Most of us transitioned on to be comfortable in the daytime, though I may have been a slow bloomer—plenty of my life I have felt safest at night, by open water, and that was true well into my thirties.

I do love electricity and heat, the depths of blankets and comforters on my bed, this computer and the music devices in my house—all of it.  But I still love getting out in the open air, even in full darkness.

Where I live there are places I can look across Puget Sound to Seattle;  I can see the glow of the electric city, burning high into the night.

So much goes on in a city at night, much of it wonderful.  But I think back to those teenagers and their walks.  In an effort to surround ourselves with electric light and paved streets there has been a tradeoff:  we’ve lost of the crispness of the night air, the quiet of a very dark evening, sudden breathtaking recognition that the sky is completely littered with stars.

So winter is here, and in the Pacific Northwest, today is probably never going to seem like more than twilight—the sky is overcast and lightly raining, soon it will bleed into inky darkness, raising that blood-level wariness in us that needs assurances the light will come back.

Give it a moment.  Trust the darkness, and the animal side that knows its use.  There is plenty to be learned and renewed in this time of year; information to be sat with, some  maybe disturbing.  But there are reasons for these rhythms.

A hot cup of tea beside a good lamp shakes it off, a glass of wine can soften the edges, and god knows there are plenty of social gatherings this time of year, to break the isolation.

Still, no matter how much energy we blast against it, however much we party it away, something running quietly inside us knows the darkness is there.

Solstice peace and insight to all of us, as we ride out the natural rotations of the planet.

2011-11-15 22.25.05

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Princess: A Halloween Story, sort of

Full Moon Jan 2012

It is the evening of the Hunter’s moon and I am out walking my dogs as it rises.  When I get home I’ll try to get some work done but I’m looking forward to a hot bath.  I am pretty well chilled through; I spent much of the day outside, at least half an hour of it sitting on the gravel floor of an open enclosure with a full-sized turkey vulture.

Two years ago this very month of October, I went in to my weekly volunteer shift at the wildlife shelter to find a sign on one of the regular wards that said, “Staff Only–Do Not Enter.”

 I looked at my supervisor, who was sitting at the intake desk. “What’s in there?”

“It’s…something that requires special treatment,” she said. “Wait until the rest of the shift arrives, and I’ll explain.”

“Is it a dragon?”

She looked me in the eye.  “Maybe,” she said, and she didn’t look like she was kidding.

It turned out to be a juvenile turkey vulture, found on the ground unable to fly–because it had been shot.

The supervisor explained we could tell it was a juvenile because its head was mostly feathered and the skin of its face was gray–as it got older the bird would gradually go bald, and at sexual maturity its head will become scarlet.

She also told us, which we did not know, that because vultures are so large they have very few predators, and therefore also very few methods developed for self defense.  The vulture’s primary tactic, when startled or frightened, is to throw up.

That may sound ridiculous, but pause here for a moment.  This is a vulture.  What it throws up isn’t just disgusting for the normal reasons. Consider the vulture’s regular diet and you will understand why one of the staff said when the bird was first brought in, it was hours before anyone was willing to walk back into the examining room.

The shelter’s goal is to rehab any animal that comes in and get them back out into the wild as quickly as possible.  Toward that end, we have to keep stress to a minimum, and to a wild animal of any kind, proximity to human beings causes stress.  So when a hawk or a squirrel or a raccoon or a wren is under our care, we treat it for as brief a duration as possible with the least contact we can manage.  Because no matter how fabulous we think we are,  as far as the animals are concerned, human beings are simply two-legged walking stress.

So no one was to enter the ward and we were all to keep especially quiet in the hall and entry way, the better not to disturb the young vulture, and to minimize opportunities for it to get so upset that it threw up again.

Still, a few lucky souls were needed to go in to clean its cage and to feed it–moving very slowly and quietly.

I had to volunteer.

A few days later I mentioned to a friend that we had an injured vulture and she got very excited:  vultures aren’t often seen in this part of Western Washington, and it was almost Halloween, after all.  “You have got to put a costume on that puppy!” she told me.

“Excuse me?” I replied.  “We are a hospital.  We do not do things like that.  This bird is here to recover from being shot!”

But I am a human, with the built-in bad human brain.  The following week when I went in, carefully and soothingly cleaning around the vulture, it cocked its odd, gourd-shaped head at me and the image hit clearly and all at once–pink crinoline, tiny, sparkly tiara: it wanted to be a princess.

We do not name the animals that come through the shelter.  As I said, we do everything we can to keep contact to a minimum: this is a hospital, and they are wild.  However, it wasn’t long before everyone on the shift was referring to the bird as Princess.  Was it male?  Was it a female?  Impossible to tell, as there is little to no sexual dimorphism in vultures, but we were all a pretty broadminded crew: it never really mattered.

Within a few weeks and vet examinations it became apparent that this bird was non-releaseable, which usually means euthanization.  This was when the director began to quietly mention that vultures make “awesome” education birds.  An education animal is one that has been injured in some way that makes it incapable of living again on its own in the wild.  But it is otherwise healthy and in no pain, and usually these animals have come in young enough that they can become accustomed to occasional exposure to human society.

Visiting a classroom, or a club meeting, or really any kind of public event, the education animal and its handler promote the appreciation and importance wildlife, and of maintaining wildlife habitat:  that the presence of owls tells you that the local ecosystem is healthy; that possums are not giant rats, they are shy, nearly prehistoric animals and are actually beneficial in many ways, for instance eating garden slugs; that it is quite likely not those nasty coyotes killing your cats–it could also be the majestic bald eagles you think are so beautiful, and the moral of the story is to keep an eye on your pets and don’t blame wildlife for acting wild in their own neighborhood.

When the vulture formally became one of our education animals the director named it Remington–tough, old-west, and a perfect segue way for explaining why the bird was not able to be released, to discourse on the fact that it is illegal to shoot migratory birds of any kind, anywhere in the US.  Though still something of a novice, Princess (it will always be Princess to me) really is becoming an awesome education bird.  It has logged a number of education programs in the past year, and with regular training sessions throws up much less often.

So this is how, two years later, I find myself seated on the gravel in its enclosure.  For over a year now I have been training to work as a wildlife handler.  I love the idea of helping to educate people to preserve and protect wild animals and their natural habitat. I also have to confess it’s really cool.

Currently, my supervisor is still the vulture’s only handler, but several of us are in process to become future attendants. Which is why for regularly scheduled half hours of quality time, I sit and speak to Princess.  It learns to trust me enough to dine with me, and today it was standing about five feet away, helping itself to nubbins of raw rabbit.  True to the handbooks, these past two years its hairline has receded and its head is pinking up towards its mature red: right now its about the color of  a newborn Caucasian baby.  Still, as much as I adore this thing, this is not without challenges.  Because of dietary preferences vultures have incredibly acidic digestive juices to break down and nullify the things they eat.  Plus, in hot weather, vultures defecate on their legs and feet, which for some reason keeps them cool.  All this adds up to say that no matter how well-fed and cared for, even the healthiest vultures have a remarkably distinctive if not acrid smell.

In the future when I take it to programs the bird will hear me talking to an audience, which is why I need to speak for as long as I can.  I sit in the enclosure, telling it about its natural behavior and habitat–I go through all the turkey vulture facts I know–I invariably run out of things to say.  On my last visit I just broke into poetry.  Princess seemed very intrigued at “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” especially the parts about the oysters.

walrus_carpenter_oysters

I followed with “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” because somehow, it just seemed right.

This is all very amusing on my part–give the vulture a cute name, read it poetry, but in actuality each time I go into the mew I remind myself this is a wild animal:  it really does not want to be in this situation, its brain has no receptors to sort out the present circumstances of its life–it is here because some asshole shot it, and the young vulture cannot go back to the life it was designed for.

IMGP5456

Even among wildlife defenders there is a vigorous debate about the ethics of keeping education birds:  given that spending its life with human beings it will often be frightened or at the very least worried, maybe benign euthanization really is the kinder choice. Human beings believe we would want to live no matter what: disability, disfigurement, even complete inability to move or speak–we think the best option is to remain alive, warm, with decent food and medical care.  We say that, though most of us will never ever be in this position.  The nearest we can come to this bird’s point of view is something out of War of the Worlds or some similar sci-fi horror, where human beings are captives in a zoo run by much larger, differently shaped aliens we cannot understand, who cannot understand us, and whose control over our well-being could be determined by whim.

This vulture is being asked to bond to the aliens–for instance, here is an alien is in its enclosure, making rhythmic noises.  Is it comforting?

Princess stops plucking at its rabbit carcass on the gravel, looks at me and cocks its head.  Then it paces up a long ramp and pauses about three feet from my face.  I look up.  Today I do not see the crunchy tutu or the sparkly headwear.  Hunched over, all dusty black–I imagine the vulture wearing a beret.  This year for Halloween Princess seems to be asking to be a beatnik.

I tell myself it is the concern for the future of wildlife that leads me to do this–and I hope that’s at least mostly true.

But I will not deny that I am also hugely happy, sitting on the gravel, in the cold, surrounded by the very odd smell.  I punch the web browser on my cell phone, begin reading:

       “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical      naked,

        dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

        angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry    dynamo

        in the machinery of night….”

It’s been a while since I read this.  Ginsberg do go on.

 There is no doubt that vultures are spooky creatures.  But which of our species is the spookier is still so worth questioning.

 Happy Anniversary, Princess.

P 2013

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