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.

 

2014-04-20 21.59.36

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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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Grand Forest to Battle Point Park

2013-07-11 14.59.03R

Two years ago I took over a border-collie Belgian shepherd mix, a crossing, a trainer told me later, that isn’t great, because the two breeds are intense in opposing ways.  The family he came from should have had something more bullet-proof, like a lab or a husky.  This character is sensitive as any seismic equipment, possibly dual core, and I’m pretty sure he shifts between 4G and wi-fi, all without any idea what any of it means except that data is suddenly coming at him from everywhere.

And the children must have named him: sixty-five pounds and wired for sound, they called him Coco.  Too close to Cuckoo I decided, so I rechristened him Calhoun.

I think he spent his entire life in the family’s back yard, because everything, everything, from people on sidewalks to busses passing in the street seemed new to this dog, and potentially terrifying–which in his case meant lunging and barking at whatever seemed spooky.  Never mind that to someone nearby, this size dog lunging and barking can be its own sort of spooky.

So we’ve done a lot of work with trainers and dog classes and I know some very nice men, and Calhoun is much, much better.  But I remain aware that his trust is conditional and he’s quite likely not to react normally.  But the same can be said for me, so we navigate pretty well.

Today we left my older dog snoozing in the living room and the two of us landed on Bainbridge Island at a connecting hike between the Grand Forest and Battle Point Park.  The forest is just what it sounds like:  a full canopy of evergreens, wild huckleberry and Oregon grape underbrush.  Battle Point Park is a mile and a half loop of paved trail winding around a community garden, soccer fields and playgrounds, and a lovely pond complete with lily pads and cattails and opportunistic waterbirds.

It had been a while since we’d been on this Grand Forest trail, so Calhoun was on alert, sniffing everything, starting with the sign.  As we descended along the path he wanted to pause at every tree and rock and a fair number of sword ferns; needed to inspect the short boardwalk bridges leading down and up and through.  2013-07-11 14.58.45The walking was quiet and calm, streaked with sun through the trees.  About halfway along the trail a grandmother and three small children were coming our way.  On Bainbridge, grandma may indeed be in ripstop capris and Keens as this one was, and more concerned about my dog’s well-being than whether he’d threaten her children, but I put him into a sit to be sure, and she very kindly asked if he was a puppy;  he is nearly thirty inches at the shoulder.  I said no, he was just a little nervous.

When the forest trail dropped us out into the park Calhoun seemed surprised, and almost immediately distracted by a little blonde girl on a bike, darting an eye at us as she zipped by.  When she got about ten feet past I heard her quietly start singing, and I had a sudden memory of being that age and singing out loud on my bike, secure in my own world and unconcerned whether anyone could hear me, until I passed people, and I’d immediately stop singing, just in case.

For a sunny mid-day, the park was placid and empty.  We walked about a quarter of a mile before we saw an approaching couple with a smallish black and white Newfoundland.  The dog ambled along with a slight sway, like an old elephant.  Clearly harmless even from a hundred yards, Calhoun tried to seem unconcerned, but as we got closer he crossed to my other side, putting me between himself and the larger dog. 

BPPWe passed occasions of other walkers, then Calhoun suddenly fixated on a plastic bag of dog poop someone had left on the side of the path.  It was rattling lightly in breeze and he braced, preparing to charge it.  A middle-aged woman ran by, smiling, “He really wants that!”  My protector.  Later it was a tiny Yorkie coming, and when Calhoun showed interest, the woman walking the little dog called out, “It’s fine–he’s afraid of nothing!”  I smiled and said, “This one’s afraid of everything!”

At the pond I kept him on leash but let him wade, since it was such a warm afternoon and he’s a long-coated, dark-colored dog.  He bit the water, surprised to find it wasn’t salty, and dripped dry as we rounded one of the last bends toward the playground and parking area, heading back to the forest.

Some distance ahead of us came a slow-moving couple:  an old woman with bright, copper colored hair, bent over a walker, and her care-giver, also clearly not in great physical shape–a woman maybe forty, but heavy, and bobbing like she had a bum leg.  It was a toss up whether the care-giver was trying to steady the old woman or steady herself on the old woman.

They were coming out from behind some trees when I heard one of the women start to sing.  It registered only as a song for a very young child, or someone who thinks she has become a very young child, or a person treating her as if she is one–I tried not to get too far into deciding which, but I found I was sort of irritated.  I wasn’t sure what Calhoun would do when he got closer to the walker.  I decided he’d be fine.  And if he started to get nervous I’d just sit him down like I did with the kids.

The old woman was bent once in her low back and again in her shoulders–a sort of bow-shaped body moving in slow spurts with the walker, she continued deliberately forward, and when she spotted us the singing abruptly stopped and I saw the her eyes brighten, clearly fixed on Calhoun.  Coming steadily on, she stretched her arm out horizontally, an awkward kind of a gesture, opening and closing the fingers of her hand like a bird beak towards my oncoming dog.  She called something in a fairly strong voice but I couldn’t make it out completely–a question that included the phrase ‘fur person’ or ‘fur character’ or something, and she was now grinning.  The caregiver reached over to her arm, quite possibly not as sure of the large dark dog coming towards them.

But the little old woman, maybe four and a half feet high in her folded state, continued toward us in slow, rolling spurts–now the outstretched hand swayed back to the walker, now she reached forward with the other hand which was closer to Calhoun.  Her arm reached ahead at the same level as her bent spine and widely smiling face.

I looked down and saw he wasn’t panicked.  In fact, Calhoun walked up cautiously and licked her hand, and she repeated her remark about his fur-personality status, and again I couldn’t make out clearly what she was saying.
“He’s a little shy,” I offered as he backed away now toward me, ears and tail dropping, but the woman was undaunted.  She was beaming, her eyes very clear and blue, and she glanced up at me, confident and happy.  I wished I understood what she was trying to say.

So I tried taking him around to her other side, since I could see he was not going to approach the walker and the caregiver directly.  He was willing to circle around and touch her other hand with his muzzle, and she continued her full smile.

Then he started to back away–I figured he’d done about as well as he could; collected him and thanked them, and they thanked me–and as we headed in our separate directions, at our different paces, they took up the singing again–“Yankee Doodle–” brightly in unison at a good energetic clip. The silly children’s song, the two of them chiming away at a perfect pitch that speaks of happiness and energy on a summer afternoon at the park.

I look down at my worried dog, working his way along the path beside me, scouting ahead.

Hard to say who was helped more.

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January 13th, 2013 The Eagle Flies

eagle in crate

Sunday was the first eagle release of the New Year for the wildlife shelter where I volunteer.  These things can sound more impressive than they turn out to be:  a group of people gather in a field or grassy lot of some kind, some with children most of them with cameras–some with telephoto lenses the length of their arms.  there is a lot of waiting around until a vehicle appears with large dog crate, and one of the senior staff from the shelter will put on very long, very heavy leather gloves and reach into the crate, to extract an eagle wearing a hood, which always causes them to look demoralized, if you ask me.  The hood is removed and the bird realizes what’s going on, and it suddenly becomes irate–then, the pitch:  the bird is lightly tossed into the air out of the keeper’s arms.

And what usually happens is it drops to the ground a number of yards away–looks to see what’s going on, then takes off again, flying to the nearest tree and landing, turning its back to us, ignoring our good wishes, often disappearing into the brush.  No thank you, no looking back–eagles I’ve seen released have been uniformly unsentimental.

Sunday I got up and had coffee with my friend Phil, and we drove to the site.  It was a gorgeous winter morning, the kind we rarely get in the PNW:  clear and cold with a heavy white frost coating everything, glinting at angles in the sun.  Along the way we pass a former bamboo farm, where varieties got loose and have grown to twenty feet clumps in some places;  this morning as we drove by the bamboo is huge shocks of yellow-green, silvered with frost.   And it is cold:  28 or so, which out here constitutes frostbite warnings.  I’ve heard from friends in the Midwest they had their windows open yesterday, while apparently it’s been cold in southern California.  Wending down the country highway in the sun and ice I feel like a snow-dome has been shaken, and the weather has just gone all over the place.

So today looks like an exceptionally fine morning for an eagle release, which is happening in the large sleeping field of an organic farm–lumps of brown grass bowed over and frosted, chickens in their pen back by the house, darting back and forwards, excited by they know not what.  There are several groups of people but it’s not a huge crush;  two media outlets interview Lisa, the new shelter’s executive director, a tall, attractive woman in a bright red ski jacket.

Then, yes, the truck rolls into the field and Mike, the wildlife director hops out, opens the hatch of the truck cap, and there is the dog crate.

A brief speech:  the eagle is hooded, he explains, and will be brought out shortly, and released by the new director–she will throw him into the wind so he can get lift, and Mike gestures where he’d like us all to stand, so we don’t spook the eagle.  Lisa, the new excecutive director has never even handled an eagle before, and she’s not afraid to mention this:  her teenaged daughter stands by with a hand-held video camera, as Mike brings out the bird.

Lisa holds it a moment–I know how she feels–these birds are large and very strong, and the whole concept of holding an eagle sends adrenaline pumping up over your head;  Mike comes over to mess with getting the hood off, and, suddenly aware of where he is, the eagle’s head snaps to attention.  Lisa holds him just a moment longer then gives him the toss:  the bird rises up out of her gloved arms and immediately banks to the south, away from the crowd, but in clear view of everyone:  he rises up higher and catches sight of the water beyond the trees, and seamlessly heads for it–steady, strong wing beats as he confidently rows himself up and away, growing smaller and more distant to our sight but still there, back to the life he’s been missing, the things he’s left undone.  I have never seen a release so flawless.

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Over a return, thawing-out cup of coffee, Phil and I talk about it all–the eagle,  the group at the event, maybe twenty percent of whom are other volunteers and board members, the experience of getting up early and standing out in the open on a cold, sunny morning.

It’s good to have things that make us feel human, he says.  He is suggesting this effort of working with wildlife is something that opens me up emotionally, maybe even spiritually.

I think about that phrase after he’s gone.

No question this is an experience that reaches something in me that I’d consider to be elemental:  a connection to the natural world, a recognition of my place in the larger scheme of the broad wild world.

But does it make me feel human?

I recently turned that around in a conversation with a woman at work, who was telling a story about her beagle, and remarked how animals could seem so human.

It’s the reverse, I blurted out:  we’re animals.  We’ve stepped out and created our own self-importance, but that doesn’t change anything–we just shift the roles to make ourselves feel better.  The recognition we see when a raccoon wash his paws in a stream or a mother bear defends her cubs, the sentiment we see in a dog’s eyes–these aren’t animals being human, these are humans recognizing connection to animals, we just really don’t want to see it that way.  Because after all, we’re the higher order.  Right?

So, I wondered, what things make me feel human?

On a visit to New York City, some years back–an early evening in late summer, I was walking up from Midtown to meet some friends for dinner.  First, there are the canyons of buildings, and the echo of noise–car engines and bus air brakes and all the traffic on the pavement–and there is the motion: other pedestrians streaming along in both directions, the occasional glimpses of people doing something personal, like walking in or out of their apartments or getting out of cabs.   It’s all part of the scene:  the brownstones and restaurants and apartment buildings on either side of me, some filled with more residents than the total of my entire town;  cars and cabs flowing along in lines through the streets, orange neon, green streetlights, high billboards way above the crowd line and buildings reaching up high beyond that;  women of any age going by in the moment’s perfect fashion, wearing sunglasses that may cost more than my first car, or good knock-offs, hoping no one can tell. I pass the street vendors, veer through trash cans lined up at a street corner, past high glass windows of books, or sales banners, or mannequins staring back at me.  I pass a subway entrance–clusters of people going in or coming out, negotiate past a street character sitting down, blasted out from mental illness or intravenous drug use.

“Good evening!” says a tall, smiling black man, and I smile back and say, “Good evening,” and I keep to my course, on to a small restaurant up by Columbus Circle, on our way to Lincoln Center for a play with a famous actor that’s been getting mediocre reviews.

Active and energized, and essentially a huge block of pavement, wildly overbuilt and teeming with human beings–messy and creative and hazardous and beautifully crafted and entirely self referential–heading along the New York sidewalks as the sun went down and the lights came up I have never felt more human in my life.

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Solstice, 2012

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About three weeks ago on a rainy night, I had been on the computer too long, working on a deadline, so I thought I’d take a quick break and go to the gym.  I kept the workout brief, finished about nine o-clock, then hopped back into the car to head home for a hot bath and then more work.

I whizzed along the dark, two-lane country highway that can seem so empty this time of night, came to the last major intersection where a large Indian casino flashes on and off all night like a hallucination, turned onto the road that leads into the town of Suquamish: a gas station, a good pizza joint and the requisite ambiguous tavern next to the pier that reaches out into Puget Sound.  It’s a small basically reservation community, approached and exited by long stretches of dark, tree-lined highway.  Suddenly, in the haze of headlights whipping towards me on the other side of the dark road I saw what could only be one of a couple of things–a white plastic grocery bag, caught up and spinning in the eddy behind the zooming truck, or it was an owl, hit and flailing in the road.  As I passed it I glanced in my rearview mirror.  I had to stop.

I pulled over on the side of the highway and began fumbling in my bag for the small flashlight I carry but thought better of it–if whatever it was was still alive I needed to get it out of the road before another car came along and hit it again.  I popped the hatch on the back of my car, where I keep a sheet and a large towel for this sort of situation, something I learned to do after I started volunteering at the wildlife shelter.  I glanced nervously at oncoming headlights as I got the sheet out of the back, almost wincing at the anticipated impact–the car seemed to slow down as I hoped it would; thought I saw it angle around the mess on the road, rather than over it.

I was still in my gym clothes–boxer shorts and running shoes, fleece jacket over a tee shirt, I felt ridiculously exposed.  I checked for oncoming traffic then crossed into the middle of the highway where there was a large mess of feathers–a barred owl–splayed across the centerline.  I threw the sheet over it and quickly pulled together in an approximate owl-sized shape, to keep it in the right form, even if its wings were broken.  I held it against my chest and ran back to the side of the road.  There was no movement.

Striding back to my car, one of those huge, aircraft-carrier pick-up trucks pulled along side of me, all glowing and ticking in the rain:  “Hey!” a young guy called from the window–“Did you just get something out of the road?”

“It’s an owl,” I called back.

“It hit my truck, man–”

I don’t remember what I said but I was civil, and he pulled away and I continued to my car with the bundle pressed up against me.  I laid it gently on the passenger’s seat on what I believed to be its back, patted down its shape to see if it was holding together, then I settled behind the wheel, put the key into the ignition, exhaled.

Now what?

I leaned over again and carefully opened the sheet partway–the bird’s dark eyes rolled up in its head like a baby doll’s, but otherwise there was no movement.  I put my hand on its breastbone but couldn’t detect a heartbeat.  Still, no blood that I could see: at least it hadn’t been split open on the impact.

I rewrapped it somewhat loosely, glanced at traffic in the rearview mirror and started the car, pulled back onto the road and drove the last quarter of a mile to the glow of the gas station, rolling through it to the darker empty parking lot on the other side, and stopped again.  It was 9:30–still decent time to call anyone, I thought, so I phoned my supervisor from the wildlife shelter, who lives forty five minutes away.

She picked up immediately, sounded surprised and amused to be hearing from me, probably hoping I wasn’t calling in for my shift the next morning.

“Sorry to bother you at home, but I’ve got a barred owl,” I said in a rush.  “It’s been hit on the road.  In Suquamish.  I can’t tell if it’s alive or not.”

She began immediately asking questions and we started discussing what I could do with it:  could I take it to the shelter?  I knew how to open the clinic.  No, she’d put the alarm on when she left that evening.  What about the emergency vet in Poulsbo, a few miles down the highway?  No, she said, if it was alive they’d just put it in a box and wait to give it to the shelter in the morning, and she didn’t want it to be in pain.  She’d come and get it.

“That’s a long way,” I said.  “I don’t know if it’s still alive.  I can’t feel a heartbeat. There’s that crate outside the shelter–I can drive it over and put it in there.”

“Yeah, but if it is alive I don’t want it spending the night in pain,” she said.  “I’ll drive in and get it medicated–”

“You could talk me through giving the meds.”

“No I can’t,” she said.  “Controlled substance.”

I looked down at the bundle.  The sheet might have appeared to be making very faint movement.

“Wait–I think I’m seeing respiration.  Listen, I really do not want this thing to come to in my car.  I’m going drive it over to the shelter and put it in that crate.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “Go on over and I’ll meet you there in about forty minutes.”

I started the car, and with my right hand on the bundle, slowly wheeled out of the parking lot.  I was coming back into focus myself, and suddenly aware of the possibility of a live owl in my car.  Frantic wingspan. Talons.  My car is a straight stick–continuing to keep my right hand on the bundle, I steered with my left hand, then let go of the wheel and reached through with my left hand to shift into second gear, grabbed the wheel again and got back out on the road–reached through and shifted up into third.  The shelter was about two, three miles off;  and by now I was certain, I was in fact seeing the sheeted bundle rising and falling.  Breathing.

By the time I made it to the stoplight at the casino, now the bird began to make noise–a series of staccato, rasping chirps. “Don’t do it,” I told it as I downshifted with my left hand, then grabbed the wheel and banked through the intersection.  “Do not come to before we get there.”

I turned down the narrow road that leads to the shelter, high woods on either side, with long driveways branching back into the trees.  There could be people walking dogs in the dark, or even deer and other things crossing the road–I didn’t need another collision–still, I pushed it as fast as I dared, tight in my chest hoping I could get the owl into the crate before it came back to full consciousness.  Tension pumping, I took the last curve a little too fast, hit the last straight stretch of road, angled into the gravel driveway of the shelter and coasted up to the clinic.  My headlights flashed on the crate, sitting right next to the back door.  I turned off the car, thought again and turned the headlights back on.  I reached over and picked up the bundle, one hand on each side so the wings couldn’t come away from the body, and raced over to the crate; pressed the bundle against my chest again and opened the crate with one hand, then popped the bird in, sheet and all, closed the wire grate and released the spring closure.

I let out a deep, long breath.

Walking back to the car I could feel the cold air through my damp gym clothes.  Lynne was probably still half an hour away.  I had the time now to do a quick exam, check the bird’s injuries for more information when she got here.  I fumbled through my bag and found the flashlight, turned the headlights off again.  Twisting on the flashlight and narrowing its beam I went up to the crate and opened it, reaching in to the sheet, shining the light on the owl.

The owl rose up suddenly, like Uma Thurman hit by adrenaline in Pulp Fiction, eyes open, talons coming at my bare hands just before I got the door slammed shut again.

I stepped back away, back toward my car into the rain, and spontaneously burst out laughing.

Once Lynne got there and examined the owl, incredibly, the bird was unbroken.  It turned out to be a first year, very large and well-fed, probably female, obviously good at hunting.  Except for that last ill-fated swoop in front of a fast moving truck.

She got pain meds and something for the swelling, and on my regular shift the next morning I was glad to hear the owl clacking in irritation when I opened the door on her cage.  It was a couple of days before she ate, which happens sometimes, but pretty soon her recovery moved along well and she was shifted out into the larger mews.

Yesterday, again on my regular weekly shift, as we were finishing up, Mike, the director, stood looking at the white board that lists the patients.  We had a total of five barred owls now, all having been successfully prey-tested, meaning each had proven it was well enough to hunt again by capturing and eating live mice left in the enclosure.

“Wait a minute,” said Mike, pointing to the board–“that’s the owl you brought in, isn’t it?  She’s ready to go.” He turned and looked at me.  “Do you want to release her tonight?”

Owl releases are done after dusk;  it’s better visibility for the owls, and it cuts down on the potential for harassment from local flocks of crows.

I finished what I was doing while Mike and another volunteer went to catch her, put her into the same crate I’d left her in that night, covered with a large towel.  I picked up the crate and felt movement inside, rustling, irritated.

I met a friend for coffee, to wait for the light to finish going down, which it did quickly.  This is the solstice, a good day for owls.  We get into my car, with the bird crated and covered in the back, thumping the sides irritably, and drive to where I found her, though I turn onto a slightly less busy side-road, a few tenths of a mile further back into the woods.

As if the bird knows where she is, the agitation in the crate increases.  I lift out the crate, still covered, and set it on the ground.  The scratching and thumping from inside gets more frantic.

I check the area–the light is going fast, blue gray between the dark outlines of trees, no traffic–all signs look good, so I reach down and throw back the towel.  The bird lunges forward and I try to keep my fingers clear of the grate as I fumble with the mechanism to open the door.

The owl bolts out;  she pauses at the edge, then flutters her wings and makes a short trajectory, landing in the middle of the road–where she sits for the moment, looking over her shoulder back at me.

“What are you doing?” I shout.  “Don’t do that!  Get off the road!”  We start running toward her, and the bird picks up again into a low, long flight, curving up and away, into the trees.

“Do you see her?”

“There–back there–see that branch that looks like a V?  She’s that dark lump in the middle….”

It is rapidly getting darker.  We stand there a little while longer until the owl shape is no longer visible, telling ourselves we can still see her;  then we turn and head back to the car.

Suddenly I am afraid for her.  It’s a cold night;  headlights from cars whizz by on the nearby roads, one of them the road where she was hit.  My owl is out there alone–a first-year, and she’s been hit once already.  I want to protect her.

–and then I have to ask myself, from what?

Even if Laura and I could run out into the trees and try to wave her back down, get her back into the crate–to take her where?  Back to the flight cage at the shelter?  I think of the owls in the outside mews, up on the high perches, staring out.

I drop Laura back at her car, then go a bit out of my way before heading home.

The sky is dry tonight, which this time of year is saying something.  I see a good chunk of half-moon, glowing up through a film of clouds off to the south;  I imagine the owl sitting back there in the trees, taking readings.  I wonder when she’ll get her bearings, recognize the familiar territory.

It is now so dark there’s almost no way to see anything as I roll past the release area.  The road itself is clear and empty, though dampness and woodsmoke have mixed and drift across in milky bands, my headlights sweeping through.

I feel it again, the huge openness with the young owl out there in the night, and I feel empty.  I feel small myself, and inept, just letting her go.

But what else is there?  We could try, as humans, to lock it all up and manage it–or we can let it do what it’s meant to do.

The owl is out there, and I feel empty–but this is why we do it.  This is a wild bird;  this is what she’s alive for.

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