The sun sends out its welcome beams of light and warmth, warmer than I expected, as I set out for a morning walk. It is very quiet, no dog walkers, the traffic light, everything holding stillness for this while. Except for the birds who are hidden in leafy surrounds, chirping, making plans, exchanging observations on the day and the new season. Do they know it is the first day of Autumn?
The days are perceptively shorter. We rise in the dark now and dark descends too soon after dinner, it seems. But today, after the early morning clouds melted away, a golden light makes the sky appear an even brighter blue, a huge blue bowl that does not hover and limit sight, but stretches to infinity and makes all things feel possible. What a relief after days and days of heavy smoke-choked sky and lowering clouds with no silver lining.
Birds are gathering on the tops of trees, fluttering and circling, settling, then calling and unsettling again. They are restless, testing their wings, and uncertain. Is it time? Not yet, not quite. How will they know the moment when their flying will take on purpose and the migration begin?
I keep walking, scanning the ground for colored leaves, acorns still clinging to their caps, and if I look in the right places, chestnut conkers, gorgeous deep-brown, shiny orbs shaped perfectly to hold in my hand and rub with my palms. I plan to fill small bowls with them to create my Autumn tableau of treasures. But I am too early; they are not ready for collecting, not yet ripe and freed from their spiky cases. Only a few trees have begun to turn from green to gold and red and brown. Still, I do glean some leaves, a beginning. It’s just the first day, I must be patient though I long for a change. The turning of the season, a closing and an opening.
Ah, but some creatures are well aware of the passage of time. The garden spiders are busy, their webs more elaborate and visible. They are now fully grown and mature, ready to mate and produce eggs that they will bundle into a silken sac that will protect the tiny spiderlings until next spring’s warmth. Then the cycle will begin anew with the tiny spiders growing, shedding their exoskeletons for new roomer ones, busy with life, until we again see them as mature beings, urgent with the need to keep the generations coming. Be kind to their webs, let them fulfill their destiny.
Everything feels hushed, stagnant, hunkered down, the sky dull with smoke and ash; collapsed in upon itself, sorrowing and rejecting even the blurry red sun that burns a hole through the murk but warms nothing. We’ve been reading the terrible news stories about the fires obliterating whole towns and blackening landscapes to the south and east of us here. The heavy smoke covering our skies tell us of worse things happening not so far away. Our hearts ache with worry and fear for those in danger.
But wait, what’s that soft dappling sound this morning? Rain! A wash of life-saving water to clear the air, refresh the dusty trees and spread a little hope. It didn’t last very long but maybe it will start up again and really get down to work. It was like a small candle of possibility that help is on its way.
I have been thinking about the time in my younger years when several people I knew took up Tarot card reading, not with a belief exactly in the esoteric realm but perhaps because it was a way of posing questions to oneself. Where am I going? (Tarot involves a lot of questing and journeying, literally and metaphorically.) What is important? Who or what can help me on my quest? It was all very romantic and poetic. But what I was remembering now was the cards, laid out in a pattern that told one’s fortune, were of two kinds: High Arcana and Low Arcana. The lower set were said to indicate directions and decisions that were within your own range of power to influence and choose, but the higher cards—especially if you had a preponderance of them in your reading—indicated that what was happening in your life was not within your control. Forces beyond your grasp or understanding were determining your path or limiting your actions. You were in the grip of Fate!
Life has felt like that of late! We are in the grip of a worldwide pandemic; we are living in a society that feels like it is careening off any recognizable path; and now we here in the West are literally on fire. Those all feel like High Arcana cards.
Again, wait! While it is true that this troika of woes is overwhelming, we can choose how we feel about it all and we can do something—maybe just small acts, or maybe more effective ones if we join with others—but still, choosing our response and finding inspiration or just tenacity to keep going, keep practicing acts of kindness and good sense, promoting justice and a path to healthful living for everyone, caring for the Earth and each other, it is in our grasp.
The rain did not fall for more than a brief respite, but it was refreshing. It was a start. The Earth welcomed it and it raised my spirits too.
Everybody noticed it. The cleaner skies, the quiet, the lull in traffic. The pause, some called it, as we all hunkered down, stayed sheltered, and waited with held breath to see what “safety” might look like. It was the surprise silver lining in a very strained and anxious time—not over yet, not by months—but as humans and their machinery retreated, wild animals began to creep and then saunter into the vacated spaces. They must have been there all along, waiting along the margins, hidden by our noise and busyness.
There are images online about wild goats with impressive headgear taking over Welsh towns, of wild boars trotted uninhibitedly through streets and rooting in gardens, wild buffalo, foxes and coyotes, elephants, monkeys, penguins turning up where you don’t expect to see them, and even a sea lion pressing its nose against a shop window in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was heartening to many that even in these dark and dreary times Nature could rebound and startle us with hope and thoughts of regeneration. Whether at our behest or happenstance and opportunistic, wild animals were asserting their right to spaces we humans had assumed were ours alone.
We are not alone—and never have been. It’s good to be reminded. And good to coexist not just with other humans, as crucial as that is, but with all beings: animals, birds, trees, moss, insects. Inconvenient or not. Everybody welcome? It’s a goal, a thought.
Well before the pandemic tamed the traffic, deer have inhabited my neighborhood. Our streets dead-end into the high banks of the Deschutes River estuary, now captured by Capitol Lake, but still wooded and crisscrossed by narrow trails made by many creatures. The deer come up and wander the streets and gardens, favoring roses and other tender and tasty bits laid out like a smorgasbord for their pleasure. Coyotes, raccoons, and sometimes foxes slip through alleyways and live largely unobserved but unmistakably present. Birds are abundant and living their complicated lives, season by season. All woven together rubbing shoulders, so to speak, or playing out the ancient rituals of prey and predator.
We replanted much of our space here with native plants and leave tangles of vegetation for cover, put up birdfeeders, and keep the birdbath fresh. Our Welcome mat for wildlife is out! We humbly revel in signs that our way station has found some notice among the locals.
I would like to here praise my favorite New York Times contributing writer, Margaret Renkl, who recently posted this essay and said everything better that I was attempting to communicate. She is an inspiration! I wish she lived nearby.
One of the great pleasures of getting to know Margaret and her work is to discover, here and there all over the country, other women—kindred spirits—who also were turning to Nature for inspiration and frankly, aspiration. Many made their living from their knowledge of natural history, whether by teaching it to others, through writing, through their art, or by designing gardens and by other means. Though often the money earned was needed for daily life expenses—certainly Margaret was dependent on her own earnings to live—one gets the impression that love of Nature was preserved inviolate and kept a private delight that sustained them no matter their circumstances. Margaret and women everywhere went out into fields and woods, to riversides and ocean beaches, tide-pools, and mountain meadows, to feed a hunger, a curiosity and a need quenched nowhere else but in wild places. Though often unknown to each other, they formed a kind of tribe we can recognize when we come across their life stories.
Good friends introduced me to one such woman whose story is unusual to say the least, but who carved an independent life for herself along a path strewn with wild flowers, birds and woodland creatures familiar to the sisterhood. Gwen Frostic was born in 1906 in Sandusky, Michigan and lived her whole life in that state and now is so associated with the Wolverine State that she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986, and even has an official day honoring her on May 23. The School of Art at Western Michigan University is named for her, as is a Woodland Shade Garden in Grand Rapids. She was granted several honorary degrees in recognition of her long career of artistic work. But beyond Michigan she deserves to be better known.
Gwen was reputedly a crusty personality but her art, for which she was renowned, is delicate and intimate. She especially drew inspiration from her native flora and birdlife for her linocut images, which graced her trademark stationary items, calendars, prints and other items. Studying her designs feels like a walk in the woods, a trip to the river where flowers might spangle the tangle of ferns or a bird alight on a branch just ahead. You imagine her eye taking in the sight, memorizing it and reducing it to its essence and then reproducing it so that it is reanimated, alive again and sealed in the moment. Her work is fresh, full of delight and appreciation of form and the suggestion of movement. Looking at it, you want to go for a walk and see what you too might find.
As a young child, Gwen suffered an undiagnosed severe illness, which left her with the marks akin to cerebral palsy: damaged hands, a limp, and other impediments which would have discouraged many another person who didn’t have her steely strength. She never let her physical state slow her down or prevent her from learning to use her hands to form exquisite art in her own unmistakable style. She ran her own business, created her own studio, and fashioned her own life. She took chances and made a great success out of her own hard work and genius. Her studio out in the woods beyond the tourist town of Frankfort on Lake Michigan was a magnet for anyone who knew her art.
Although she died in 1986, her artwork is still available for those seeking it out. The calendar I have that showcases her images is helping me count the days in this difficult year. Some day, when the possibility of travel opens again, I plan to visit her part of the world and explore her landscape and marvel at the wild flowers, trees and birds that inspired her and that she brought to the attention of so many who saw Nature revealed through the work of her hands and attentive eyes. Her life story is an inspiration. Her art is a timeless delight!
And they are loud! Quarrelsome and bossy. Or thin, thread-like conversations and twitterings. Or searching and pleading for a parent to drop a little something their way for a snack. Sometimes there is no sound at all, just a quick skirmish and peck. It’s the season of juvenile birds.
They show up at feeders, a little disheveled, fluffy, undecided as to color, squawking for parental “input” but eventually discovering how to feed themselves. The youngsters of some species are almost the same size as their overworked parents but still sit tightly with beaks open, waiting for lunch. They try out new wings, quivering and tentatively flapping, sometimes rising a little and then resettling, and sometimes seemingly discovering the joys of flight in a bound. I haven’t been able to work out a pattern for maturation: Do larger birds take longer to mature, while small birds live quicker lives, from egg to sky in mere days? The bush-tits that crowded my suet feeder were fluffy one day and then too soon indistinguishable from the adults. But the teen-aged scrub jays are still careening around practicing their swoops and high-shouldered swaggers.
There is a lot of action around the feeders. As an experiment I put a rimmed dish on the fence near the water dish for birds that were less adept at perching on the vertical hanging feeder. I filled it with a suet block and sometimes cracked seed mix to see what was preferred. The jays make a show of possession but the smaller birds—not to mention the resident squirrel—show up and take their fill. It’s a parade of birds, a show of personality and tactics. Some come alone, quickly and with some stealth, while others come in flocks or pairs. It’s Grand Central for bird watching!
My favorite ones to observe are the young flickers. For such large birds with such powerful serious-looking beaks, they are shy and nervous feeders. I have at least two of them visiting. They avoid the jays for the most part but occasionally can be seen waiting under cover of the bushes to take their turn when the more aggressive jays take off. They creep out, talking quietly and eat large chunks of suet, carefully wiping their beaks between gobbles. Their coloring and markings are so beautiful but I am as drawn to their expressive eyes that seem to communicate both their fear and wonder simultaneously.
But there are two juveniles who never come to the suet feeder but who are even more thrilling: tiny hummingbirds! I am indebted to my astute neighbor who noticed them one day sitting on a wire strung to my house. Too tiny to see clearly and almost lost in the background of a leafy tree, still they caught her eye as “different.” Sure enough, as we watched, they were clearly testing their wings. Fluttering, rising off the wire, and then clinging to it. And then trying again, exercising tiny muscles, gaining confidence. I saw them several times now that I knew where to look. Every day they seem to alight but leave with more ease and determination; I can no longer tell them from their parents by their behavior.
In these standstill times when one day is too much like every other day of isolation and waiting, watching young birds appear, grow and explore, and merge into the flow of life is a real gift. Who knows what our own lifespan will bring us or how much time we have to experience what comes our way. Meanwhile, the birds are putting on a show and growing right before our eyes.
Although my camera is never to hand when a hummingbird approaches the fuchsia bush for a sip, I keep still and watch the precise maneuvering it employs to probe each tiny blossom, an acrobatic hovering that must be worth it, though how many drops of nectar can such tiny flowers contain? My garden is a tangle of plantings with just such moments in mind, and especially in these stay-at-home months, my main source of nature-nourishment. Any bird activity keeps me watching and wondering who will show up next. But I realized with a sense of woe that I have seen very few butterflies this year.
I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood that’s fairly environmentally conscious but this lack is likely a widespread phenomenon. I’ve been dipping into a very enlightening gardening book by Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home, with the instructive sub-title, “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” for insight on what to plant next in my tiny refuge. According to Tallamy, the key to biodiversity is native planting. Plants that belong naturally in your area support healthy insect life, the foundation for a wealth of birdlife and so much more. He describes a host of popular plants introduced by “well-meaning horticulturists looking for exciting new species to sell in the garden trade” that have made many a backyard a desert for wildlife and which have, in too many cases, escaped the manicured confines and now threaten to overwhelm whole areas because—of course—they have no indigenous enemies to keep them in check. Think about the infamous kudzu and Japanese knotweed; think about English ivy!
Not the postcard ivy-covered cottage of a Jane Austen movie, but the nightmare version rampaging through out local parks. The kind strangling even Douglas-firs and entangling and smothering every native berry-producing bush and species of undergrowth that is the glory of Northwest forests. I recently spent a morning learning more about English ivy with a good friend who dedicates time every week to addressing this scourge in a very hands-on way. We went to Watershed Park—one of the places dear to Margaret McKenny who led the effort to keep that area in its natural state—to see the state of nature there today. When walking on the trails there is so much to enjoy that the dark green menace might not be that obvious, but let your eyes stray further and you’ll see trees with thick ropes of ivy snaking up the trunks and dark green patches of the trefoil leaves that blanket areas that should be more variegated.
My friend led me off to an area where I had never ventured before, to show me the extent of the problem and what can be done about it. Ivy was everywhere. It latched onto trees and blanketed the ground, swelling over fallen logs and invading every nook and cranny. Its tendrils and root systems reached high and low. Clearing breathing spaces for native plants and saving trees before the ivy kills them by rampant-growth weight alone or by vacuuming up all the nutrients and sunshine needed for survival is both an art and a science. Understanding how ivy roots, grows and spreads is key to unraveling it from any area. Ivy wants to reach for the sun; if you can thwart its spread and leaps upward, you can start to cut it back. First save the trees—for the sake of the trees—but also understanding that trees are the ladders to light. And a tall tree loaded with ivy that is brought down by wind catching in the clogged branches is a highway of several hundred feet laid down in a new direction for that ivy to spread.
You can attack the problem at the root. And what roots! Arm-thick muscular-looking growths emerge from the ground and press against the base of trees, sending up shoots that reach into the crown. Fortunately you don’t need to climb the tree, just cut that root and break the link, stripping the tree of the vine to about chest-height. Try not to damage the tree as you pull the ivy away from the bark. The rootless vine will whither and die. For good measure dig up as much of the root mass as possible.
And gather up the snipped vine and either remove it for disposal or stash it in such a way that keeps from re-rooting until it can be retrieved for removal. (Note: It should not be composted as that can merely reintroduce it if it is not thoroughly destroyed.) An area several feet around the tree should be cleared as well.
Ivy on the ground can likewise be cleared in ever-expanding circles, checked periodically so no new starts can repopulate the areas. It takes diligence and devotion. Ivy is an implacable foe. But standing in a clearing free of its menace is exhilarating! Seeing a tree thriving anew thanks to your work is like removing a dark gloom from your heart. Encouraging the small growth of native plants that in turn will support all manner of wildlife and birds is a miracle born of your persistence. How often can our efforts be so graphic and measurable? Removing ivy takes force, a force driven for all that we hold dear. It’s a start to bringing back birds and butterflies and a brighter future. My friend toiling away in this patch of forest is a quiet hero whose legacy is as tall as a Douglas-fir and as wide as the world. I can’t thank him enough!
Another group working to free areas from this invasion and restore natural eco-systems is the Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Preservation. Find opportunities to get involved here: https://www.facebook.com/OlyEcosystems/
When shopping for plants in local nurseries ask them to consider not selling invasive species like English ivy, and of course, don’t buy any for your garden either! For lists of what other plants to avoid, see here: https://www.co.thurston.wa.us/tcweeds/
A good friend let me know that a beloved senior citizen in her neighborhood was nearing the end of her life. She urged me to visit her so that I might catch a glimpse of her mature stature and significance, even though she had already lost great pieces from her aging body. I am writing here about a Katalpa tree, estimated to be as much as one hundred years old.
When it was planted on East Bay Drive circa 1920, the main thoroughfare that leads out of town here in Olympia, was nothing like its paved orderliness of today, nor was the neighborhood a tidy collection of homes overlooking the bay. Cars were coming into their own but some horse-drawn conveyances were still employed, though the competition was clearly trending toward the motor-car. Perhaps the tree was planted in celebration of the end of the Great War, a popular expression of remembrance and looking forward to a new world.
Originally, Katalpas (also spelled with a “c”) were found primarily in Midwestern forests but settlers may have brought them here as reminders of former homes; now they are a popular nursery tree. They are a rapidly growing ornamental tree that soon produces a sizable canopy of giant heart-shaped leaves. As the tree grows, it twists its trunk and some branches, creating a dramatic and distinctive shape. After several years of growth it begins to put forth showy and fragrant white blossoms that remind some observers of irises or trumpets every spring. Hummingbirds are drawn to the blooms like magnets. As the season progresses, these flowers develop into long bean-like seed pods. There is always something of interest happening with these trees!
If you are lucky enough to have one in your garden or neighborhood it is bound to capture your attention and affection. But like all living beings, these trees cannot grace our views forever. It will be sorely missed, its majestic spread has seen so much history and it has touched so many lives. My friend was surprised but heartened that so many passers-by have left notes of condolence and respect for the grand lady of the neighborhood. Trees can be such a presence in our lives, their place in the canopy not to be taken for granted. I’m glad I was able to visit her before it was too late to take note of this important being.
A while ago I discovered a British organization, The Tree Council, that is devoted to the love of trees, with the intention of that love leading to actions working to protect trees. And these are not trees in the abstract but actual individual beloved trees in neighborhoods and local walking areas.
One of their programs encourages followers to “visit remarkable trees.” Remarkable being in the eye of the beholder:
“Every tree is beautiful – but sometimes a particular tree captures our attention. Perhaps it’s the way it sits in the landscape; perhaps it is the tallest or most advanced in years of that species you have seen. Perhaps it simply gladdens your morning walk. If you have a favourite local tree, list it on our map of remarkable trees so others can seek it out and enjoy it.”
The Council also promotes the possibility of becoming a tree warden to help care for local trees, as well as outings to find and marvel at trees nearby and throughout the country. What an amazing tour that would make for a visitor (when we are allowed to travel again.) I remember the awe I felt standing under a great spreading tree on the grounds of a grand estate that had hosted the first Queen Elizabeth in her day. Deer grazed off at a distance. The air was still; time was at a standstill, just for a moment. The tree seemed to transcend all human effort; it was witness to great events of dynasty and history—and the small daily life of twittering birds and the hum of insects. Hard to say which mattered more. Our own neighborhood trees, whether great and noble, or just planted yesterday, can give us moments of insight and appreciation of time and its passage in their own ways. Trees, of course, give us so much more.
What would it take to develop such a program of tree wardens here? The City of Olympia has an Urban Forestry department, as do most cities, but this would be a way volunteers could perhaps play a role in caring for trees and acting as ambassadors for trees. We all have our favorites! And we feel terrible loss when we lose one that we feel closely connected to but have no role in its well-being or ultimate fate. I just begin here with musing but this sort of idea might be something that catches fire when we come back together to rebuild our society.
Meanwhile, get to know the trees in your neighborhood. They are remarkable! They sustain us in these difficult times.
Arbor Day follows close on the heels of Earth Day, just two days later, as seems only right. But as this year is so off-kilter, let’s give ourselves weeks or even a month if we need it to celebrate the importance of trees in our lives and communities. Traditionally, Arbor Day is marked by planting trees in both public places with ceremony and speeches, as well as privately in our own gardens in remembrance of people and events dear to us, or just because we love trees. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
The first Arbor Day was held April 10, 1872 in Nebraska City, Nebraska, initiated by Julius Sterling Morton who had moved to that nearly treeless state from New York. He and his new wife had taken a homestead and began by planting an orchard and other trees that eventually transformed their land with hundreds of trees. They appropriately named their home Arbor Lodge. Morton took the tree-planting gospel public, giving speeches, writing articles, and encouraging the planting trees wherever he could. He served as acting governor of his state from 1858 to 1861, was a member of the State Horticulture Society, and was appointed US Secretary of Agriculture by President Cleveland, among other offices. Everywhere he served he promoted the planting of trees and more trees. Nebraska made Arbor Day official the year Margaret was born in far-away Washington Territory, in 1885, and Morton continued to spread the word further until most of the country celebrated Arbor Day the last Saturday in April or on a day best suited to the planting of trees. Hawaii and Alaska, when they became states, had very different calendars, for instance, according to their climates. That moveable date gives us license to celebrate whenever we can best do so.
Let’s make a difference! Plant a tree!
We have some records that show Margaret participating in Arbor Day activities. As a member of the Olympia Tree Committee, appointed by Mayor Amanda Smith, Margaret had the honor of helping to officiate at various ceremonial tree-planting occasions. Here we find her with Governor Albert Rosellini planting a Coastal Spruce tree in celebration of Arbor Day in 1961. This tiny tree has a fascinating pedigree. It was said to be a scion of “The Lone Tree, which served as a maritime beacon since it guided Captain Robert Gray into the harbor in 1792.” And if that wasn’t enough to distinguish it, the Governor also designated it as a memorial to Charles Tallmadge Conover, who had coined the moniker “The Evergreen State” for a national campaign advertising Washington as an up-and-coming destination soon after statehood. The legislature adopted it as our official slogan in 1893 and we’ve been proud and green ever since. The tree flourished and still bears its historic association with dignity.
Locally, as the state capital, we have many trees planted to honor individuals who have made their mark in some way. But sometimes it is the tree itself that holds our attention. On one corner of the grounds grows a majestic White Elm that can be said to be a grandchild of the famous Elm under which, legend has it, General George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A visiting University of Washington student was able to send a rooted cutting from the old tree back to Botany Professor Edmund Meany in Seattle who successfully planted it and then had more cuttings made for new trees. This tree was ceremoniously planted by the Bi-Centennial Committee, headed by Supreme Court Justice Walter Beals and the Sacajawea Chapter of the DAR, on February 18, 1932 to mark the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. Appropriate orations, prayers and patriotic sentiments celebrated Washington and his glorious legacy but today it is the tree itself that expresses the continuing importance of the founding values we associate with the first president. And for good measure, another cutting was made and planted just to the west of the big tree in 1979 as a promise to the future. Trees are living links to our past and harbingers to a time we hope will be a credit to our best traditions.
Earth Day is Fifty! We could have all used a better splash! Maybe tighten up some pollution regulations, close down the last coal power plant or decide not to keep building that pipeline trenching through the landscape and maybe put up some solar panels instead. A girl can dream.
But even the best stories were other people’s stories, other people’s experiences. I needed to go outside, or at least stand on my front porch and see for myself. I needed to breathe in lilac scented air and breathe out the deep gloom that had settled in my heart. Climate change catastrophe looms like a shadow around the coronavirus upheaval, but that day I had to just open my hands, palms up and try to let some of the pent up fury and sadness go, just for now. There was a steady Northwest-style rain, the kind that washes all the pollen out of the air and soaks down into the tree roots. We badly needed it in this dry spring.
I needed the lilacs, the most we’ve ever had on our bush, are just coming into their own now. And my eyes drank in the blue sweep at its peak in our front garden. It’s my prairie even if it’s not camas. Somewhere out near the Mima Mounds, there is a real glacial prairie ablaze with blue and yellow and pink and every soft and vibrant color even if we can’t visit it this year. The butterflies and birds have it as their domain. It is enough to know it is there. That the Earth will go on, in ways we cannot fathom just now, but that we hope will include us. We must resolve to deserve—and serve—this beauty. Every day is Earth Day, really.
It’s not so bad, staying put, staying still, in this one place during this time of social isolation. We count ourselves lucky to be healthy and “okay” in this dire pandemic time. If I could, blindfolded, put a pin in a world map, I’d want to choose this as my home right now. I try to keep myself occupied with the ever-present nearby. Even though I’ve lived here for decades I am still learning its stories, still finding new things to learn and put in my small pile of wonders. Paying attention to what got Margaret’s attention has brought me to see so much richness right under my feet. Take these pine-cones I habitually pick up on walks….
Just the other day I was reading about Douglas-fir cones in a book so good I can absorb only sips at a time: Tree, A Life Story, by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady. They are unfathomable complex structures. I will give you one tiny piece of their role in the tree’s reproductive story as told by the authors:
Pollination by wind is a wild but dubious adventure and is considered quite primitive among plants, since there is no control over where the pollen will land. In contrast, pollination carried out by an insect provides a reasonable probability that pollen stuck to the insect will find its way to another flower of the same species. In fact, many species evolve flowers that are attractive to specific insects for just that purpose.
But here is the kicker:
But conifers developed their pollinating techniques before there were flying insects. The flowering plants, or angiosperms, evolved only during the Cretaceous period, which ended 65 million years ago, when gymnosperms—conifers, cycads, and ginkgos—had already been around for at least 300 million years.
A case of evolution not fixing what wasn’t broken? The conifers seemed to double-down on the pollination method of reproduction. The authors go on to describe the incredibly clever series of developments and mechanisms that evolved in the long stretch of time that still bring us Douglas-firs today. Primitive? Ancient, yes. Venerable. Three hundred million years have taught them a few survival tricks, indeed. We can delve more into some of those details at a later time; all I want to say now is my feeling of awe and respect in the presence of one of these giants. This one can be found in one of our city parks. Imagine all it has witnessed! I don’t know but I would guess it is perhaps at least a century old, or much more?
Today on her birthday, April 17, Margaret would have been one hundred and thirty-five years old. As venerable as a Douglas-fir. Her enjoyment of the world, her sense of adventure and curiosity, her knowledge of the natural world, make her seem young though, and very present still today. Let’s celebrate her birthday by watching a bird poke around our garden, or note how the buds have swollen and blossomed into flowers and leaves, how blue the sky is on this spring day. And maybe find some fir cones that have escaped the attentions of local squirrels, part of the circle of life and renewal.
There is something about waking in the dark well before any need to plan the day or check the news. It can be a time of inward receptiveness, a pause, an opening to nothing and everything. And without knowingly listening, a sound arises, here, then there: bird song. But it is still quite dark! The singing is brief and tentative, a kind of trying-out of a trill or warble. A warming up of the vocal chords?
But then, there is more: a sustained series of notes, less interrogative, more of a statement, a declaration. A voice calls from one direction; another perks up and begins to call attention to itself from another place. Soon there is song swelling from every nearby bush or tree. The sky, without making a sound, empties its darkness from black to intense blue, a midnight blue, and then spreads a watery warmth from a far edge upward. The moment before dawn. The birds send up their chorus to greet the day. It never fails to thrill.
I remember such moments as a child, waking early and slipping over to the bedroom window to watch the light spread in the sky and listening to birds singing the new day into existence. And the time I raced the light across town to join friends on a dawn walk through woods to hear the birds. Lucky me to have birding friends who could call the names of the singers by ear and who were attuned to all the songs as we moved quietly along the trails first in the darkness and as the sun brightened the horizon. A great feeling of peace and well-being suffused the moment.
But for the birds, this singing has a different imperative. It is a competition, a challenge, an urgent call of territory and mating siren. It has nothing to do with the ecstasy of sunrise. Except that it does, in a way very different from our human romanticism.
As reported on the Cornell website, a bird researcher, Karl Berg, discovered that that the dawn chorus was a precisely organized orchestration; there was nothing random or spontaneous about the songfest. The research team found that “each species started singing at a specific time relative to first light.” They were able to correlate this sequencing in relation to “each species characteristic foraging height and its eye size. Species that forage higher in the canopy or have larger eyes sang earlier than others.” This is so intriguing!
Further, “this suggests that light levels are responsible for the timing of singing. Leaves and branches shade out lower levels of the forest so that the forest floor takes longer to brighten than the canopy. Birds with different eye sizes perceive light levels differently at the same height, because larger eyes gather more light than smaller ones. At some point around dawn, each species may have enough light to see predators and competitors, before there is sufficient light to effectively forage for food. It may sing at its maximum rate for the day until the point when there is enough light to forage.” And at that point, the singing dies down. It’s breakfast time, a different imperative.
The dawn chorus will still feel magical to the listener lucky enough to awaken in time but now feels like it has gained a level of complexity never guessed at before. I know only a few bird-calls with any certainty. I could hear robins and a cacophony of “probables” as well as a buzzing sound that I attributed to a wren. Later in the day, I did see a wren skittering around in the camellia bush. Aha! But as to eye size and height of foraging…I’ll have to leave that to the ornithologists. Fun to think about, though!
It was with a little shock that I saw on my calendar that yesterday, March 19, was the first day of Spring. I had missed the moment. No day now, in the midst of the corona virus epidemic, is like any other day used to be. Time is passing in slow motion, or in fits and starts, sometimes even going backwards or sideways. Still, I felt chagrined that I had been unaware of the advent of a more hopeful season: a time of birth, growth and exuberance!
But there have been other moments to lighten the heart worth sharing. Sitting on my front porch, I could hear high scratchy calls. Searching the clear blue sky—itself noteworthy—sure enough, there were two eagles circling and wheeling over my neighborhood, calling and sweeping the sky and then disappearing out of my view.
In other bird news, in a stretch of mid-night insomnia, I could hear an owl hooting, pausing, and then hooting some more. It must have been quite close by. I was thrilled, having never heard hooting before. It was magical. It didn’t help me get back to sleep but I was so glad to have been there for the moment.
A friend and I had been searching for the first trillium, a definite sign of Spring, but had not yet made any discoveries when “social isolation” ended our shared pursuit. But—lucky me—another friend knew of my longing and sent me this wonderful photo of her first sighting. Renewal! Hope!
And another gift: Just drink in this blooming cherry tree gracing the Capitol Campus here in Olympia. We gazed—six feet apart—and felt cheered even in this difficult time. Be well. Don’t miss the season, go outside. We will get back to discussing feeding wild birds soon.
So long as people have been feeding birds there has been a debate whether or not this is an acceptable practice. Or even a moral one. Is your backyard feeder ruining the character of your local birds, encouraging laziness and slothful habits? Are you somehow endangering them by making things too easy for them?
I am enjoying a book that asks these very questions, and searches through the scientific research for pertinent data to lay this issue to rest, for once and all. Darryl Jones trots the globe and scours the ornithological libraries to find out how many people feed birds and what the impact might be—on the humans as well as the birds—in The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters. He seems to be tipping his hand a little in that subtitle.
Let’s all have a conversation on this surprisingly hot topic. Please use the comment section to weigh in, pro or con, or ambivalent, or “just wondering, too.” All opinions are worthy. As I read, I will report my findings and reflections for you in a kind of serial pondering.
In her 1939 book, Birds in the Garden and How to Attract Them, Margaret begins her chapter on “Feeding Devices” by coming down unequivocally on the side of feeding birds: “There are people who say that we merely pauperize the birds by feeding them and that it is pure sentimentality on our part to want to see the birds near us.”
She then relates a story told by E.H. Forbush, State Ornithologist of Massachusetts—Margaret was always happy to have a recognized authority on her side—about how his habit of feeding birds fortuitously drew them to his orchard and thereby saved his apple crop from an insect infiltration. The birds went from feeder to trees and busily gobbled down all the encroaching pests that they might not have noticed if they weren’t already in the neighborhood. He considered that a fair exchange.
She returns to her own argument by defending so-called sentimentality by reminding readers that,“…birds often perish by the thousands during a heavy snowstorm that covers all natural food, or when there is an ice storm and all twigs and branches are sealed with a glittering armor. The bluebirds were almost wiped out a number of years ago in an unseasonal storm.If it is sentimentality to assist birds through such a time of stress, then sentimentality is a good thing. How much better to feed the birds through the year, getting them accustomed to a secure source of supply, than it would be to go out some subzero morning and find a chickadee frozen in a knothole, or the stiff form of a downy woodpecker or a brown creeper at the foot of a tree.”
Margaret went on to give detailed instructions on how to create a feeding station for birds. She followed a more do-it-yourself mode but did include information on feeders that were available by order from the National Audubon Society. She cautioned her readers to situate the feeder where it would be sheltered from cats and other predators, kept dry to preserve the food, and include fresh water and even a source of digestive grit. And in a place where the human benefactor could see the arrivals and “breakfast with the birds.” She freely acknowledged we feed the birds for our own pleasure as much as for their well-being and the health of our gardens. Is it any more complicated than that?
I’m not ready for it. I don’t know if I will ever be ready. Oh, I greatly admire, and hold in awe, those with the knowledge and confidence and better eyesight than I have who can say, yes, that is an Anna’s Hummingbird. And not a Rufous Hummingbird. As it moves and the light flashes on this or that side, it changes color and is at once very dark looking and then…not. I can’t seem to see it whole. It seems to be a male; it’s so brilliantly colored. The Rufous in the guidebook is quite red, as would befit its name, with a light colored belly, so maybe then this bird is an Anna’s. Am I sure? If I were a real birder, wouldn’t I know this by now?
And then there are the sparrows. Males and females who are so variable in streaks, blotches and head stripes, all shades of “brown” or grayish-brown, yellowish-brown, reddish-brown, more or less all the same size, certainly all eating seeds and scratching around in the same manner. I saw three, pretty sure, white crowned sparrows but whose white stripes were kind of dirty looking, not yet committed to real white; perhaps its too early in the season and the males have no need yet to be showing off their crowns for the ladies. Fun to watch though, when I let go of the idea that I should know one bird from another.
And that bird on the telephone wire with its back to me. It looks like a big ball of feathers! I can see that it is all puffed up and grooming itself with its beak but I can’t make it out at all. It looks so much bigger than all the juncos and other little brown birds. But not as big as a crow, not black, but blackish. How mysterious. Maybe something really different and unusual! Until it turned around and even I could see it was a robin. A case of wishful thinking?
What brought on all this angst? I had a garden teeming with birds, all I could want. I had already seen a flicker, a Downy woodpecker, more Bushtits than I could count. Plus my usual chickadees and dainty juncos, a flock of robins, and several Western Scrub Jays. If I waited awhile, I would see nuthatches, towhees, crows flapping by, and maybe even an eagle. Once—a lucky moment—I saw a hummingbird and an eagle in the same glance! (It made me think of Great Danes and St. Bernards and Shih Tzus and Chihuahuas …can they really all be the same species?) I should just be enjoying the show.
I was so challenged because this President’s Day weekend, from Friday to Monday, is the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The idea is to engage ordinary people—well, ordinary people who know their birds—to identify and count them and then report their results to a designated website. The aggregate results would be tabulated and from this massive input of information, this cumulative snapshot of birds seen all over the country over the course of the same days, scientists would be able to gain a big-picture count of the birds, where they are, how many there are, and how they are. It’s another version of the Christmas Bird Count run by Audubon since the earliest years of the last century, one of the biggest and longest-running citizen science projects that gathers information in an organized way using the extraordinary powers of observation by ordinary citizens. The results are a deep dive into the state of birds and can be used to shape policy and wake up the world to the plight faced by these creatures that we love. It is a very worthy endeavor and something, though seemingly small, that has a big impact. I applaud such efforts with my whole heart.
Which is why I am not signing up for it. Not yet. The dry run I gave myself today was so inconclusive, so tentative and with so many caveats in my attempts to nail down just what I was seeing in my own garden that I decided, no, not yet, my results are too shaky to be of scientific use to anyone. But I could have it as my goal that by next year, say, I could really learn to identify one sparrow from another, to know what is a finch, male and female, and not just see a small grayish, vaguely striped—or not—bird poking about in the bushes. At any rate, it will be fun trying. Bird by bird, here and there. I’ve already learned so much in the short while I’ve been trying.
But if you feel ready for a lively challenge, check out the Great Backyard Bird Count, by all means! They ask that you watch birds for “at least fifteen minutes.” You probably do that every day. And they tell you how to submit your report. They make it easy! And so worthwhile. I’ll join you some day.
It’s February, sodden and cold. I spend a lot of time gazing out my kitchen window into a tangle of bushes, a lichen splotched wooden fence, and, most entertaining, my bird feeder. It’s a hybrid contraption of a tube sunflower seed dispenser with a suet block attached with a wire holder, all connected to a pulley system carefully calibrated—most of the time—to keep it out of reach of squirrels and tree rats.
The bushes are a mixed row of unruly camellias and ancient rhododendrons, a perfect tunnel of safe perches and launching pads for small birds. Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, flocks of Bush-tits, sparrows of several kinds, and my pride and joy, a family of Downie woodpeckers. The feeder often sports a flicker contorting itself to reach the suet while pretending to be a small bird. Starlings sometimes blow in and hog the feeder while quarreling among themselves, forcing the less aggressive birds to wait. A curious wren occasionally flits in and out of my view and towhees and juncos forage for dropped seeds on the ground. I also leave seed on the fence railing for them and any others who aren’t built to comfortably cling to a feeder. I never tire of watching the parade.
A while ago our neighbor reluctantly came to the decision that the centerpiece of my view and a favored perch for the birds, a fast-growing cherry tree that had seeded itself many years ago and was aiming to claim all the sky it could reach, was a likely menace to our respective house foundations and underground gas lines. I had to agree. From a slender stick of a tree that we had barely noticed, it had shouldered its way through the rhodies and was adding girth every year. I worried that the Downies who seemed most to rely on its rough bark for clinging purposes would desert my feeder if the tree was removed, that my small grove of bushes wouldn’t accommodate their needs. But the tree was impossible in that location and the arborist duly came and carefully removed it from its spot.
I waited and watched. Well, the birds seem to barely register the change, the gap in their repertoire of perches! They came and went as if the cherry tree had never been there. The Downies adjusted and focused their attention on the suet feeder as before, I was relieved to note. And one day I noticed a red House finch, a bird we hadn’t seen at the feeder in years….perhaps ever since the cherry tree had crowded into the space? Maybe they preferred a bit more room to maneuver? And the most exciting of all, a Townsend warbler flashed its bright yellow as it nipped in and out for several weeks. We hadn’t seen warblers for a long time either.
So, lesson of the day? Birds have different needs for cover, some more, some less. Experiment by hanging your feeders in different locations. Try out different seed mixes. Think about which birds can cling to a feeder or prefer ground feeding and will need cover to scratch and poke about. But mostly, find a spot where you can observe the action and be surprised by who turns up. That quick vision of yellow or red will make your day!
When I began this journey of local discovery—admittedly, an inward journey, not a traveling venture, as it chiefly involves standing still and looking, digging down into what is right in front of me, or at least, close by—one of the features most mysterious to me was the tide. My almost complete lack of awareness of its coming and going, its timetable of rise and fall barely registered in my day-to-day life. Olympia sits at the bottom of Puget Sound, a body of salt water connected to the mighty Pacific Ocean threaded through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But by the time the last bit of sea-water reaches our shores there is not much ocean-nature left in it to stir the imagination. No foamy breakers hurl themselves against sea stacks or log-strewn beaches as they do on the wilder edge of the “real” coast off the Olympic Peninsula. Still, we do have tides.
And this week, we had “King Tides.” King Tides are not just very high tides but special “astronomical events” which involve the dance of alignment of sun and moon and earth in such a way as to pile up record amounts of water pulled by gravitational forces acting “just so” during lunar cycles around the Earth. This morning, January 15, at 9:32, the tide was predicted to rise the highest of this cycle for this season.
A good place to view this occurrence is along the boardwalk that borders a marina in the central downtown area that faces north into Puget Sound from the bay that shelters the city. The water was indeed very high, lapping against the underside of a bridge that normally is well above the water surface, and stealing up the shoreline almost to a road that circles that side of the bay. There were no waves other than the gentle “push” against the shoreline; all was very quiet. The heavy gray sky reached down to the gray water without much of a line separating too watery elements.
As I stood and gazed over the water, I began to sense a feeling of swelling, of the water gathering itself, holding itself up, a kind of power and a force larger than the usual body of water that filled the bay. Though there was no discernible movement there was something “more” there. A stirring underneath the surface. A drum roll without any sound.
I stood there just silently watching, absorbed by the depth and darkness of the water. I had a feeling that if I stayed long enough I would hear a kind of sigh as the tide eventually relented and released itself from the pull of the moon and turned, slipping back up the Sound to the ocean. I wanted to witness the relaxation of the tension holding the water so high above its usual mark, but it was a cold day and I suddenly felt replete with waiting and watching.
I had felt the deep connection with the water of the Pacific, fingering its way all the miles down the gouged-out trough the retreating glaciers had made so long ago to reach these shores here. On King Tide days the ocean floods in, announcing its power of ancient water over the land, its primal nature tied to the cosmos, reminding us how easily it could once again rise and rise.
This is the last day of the year, 2019, and here it is raining hard enough to wash away any trace of unfinished business we may have left waiting for a better day. Time to turn the page and begin anew. Yet it hardly feels new; it is still dark and Winter has barely dug in for a spell. Why is the New Year celebrated at this time of year?
Not long ago, merely hundreds of years, in the fifteenth century or so, most of Europe considered mid-March the beginning of the new year, when Spring brought a sense of renewal and burgeoning growth. But for complicated cultural reasons, a movement developed then to dig even further back into past history, to Roman times, and by the next century it was accepted that the first of January be designated as the New Year. The namesake of the month, the god Janus, had the special property of having two faces, one looking backwards into the past and one looking forward to the future. Janus acts as a hinge, the god of doorways and beginnings.
Certainly our practice of making resolutions fits well with the nature of this month: assessing where we have been and making plans for improvement and growth. Occurring soon after the Solstice, we are given a little extra boost of daylight that by the advent of the new year we can actually notice the difference and feel a surge of optimism. And, unbeknown at the time of changing the calendar style, it happens that the Earth is the closest to the sun just now as it travels on its orbit; this is called Earth’s perihelion. That’s something to celebrate!
On a recent walk—on a less rainy day—I discovered other signs of renewal that gave me hope. As a friend and I tramped through some woods she pointed out fresh buds on a beaked hazelnut bush and more buds swelling on the Indian plum bushes. These are some of the earliest blooming bushes in the Northwest; we plan to return frequently and watch their progress. The whole forest was glistening and radiant; the evergreen understory and mosses were a riot of greens to delight anyone needing a break from Winter’s grays. The trees agreed, it was a new year.
When I returned home and did a turn around my sodden garden, there too I found small signs of growth and the promise of Spring. Even on a dark day like today, the Earth is moving steadily toward more light, more hope, a chance to begin afresh—and maybe improve and seek opportunities for change we missed out on last year. With a new calendar, we are given a new Now. It’s right under our feet.
There is a persistent buzzing sound emanating from the
tangle of rhododendron bushes that create a safe bird habitat tunnel on one
side of my house. I pause and wait and am rewarded by a glimpse of something
small and pert with an upright flag of a tail: a Bewick’s wren. As a novice
birder I am pleased to have recognized that distinctive call that drew my
attention to the otherwise small brownish gray bird nearly invisible in the
thick leaves. Learning bird sounds, bit by bit, has added to my awareness and affection
for these lively but elusive creatures. My ordinary-day life is made richer by
these chance encounters; there is more life going on than I knew!
Birds are everywhere! As the cat follows me onto our front
porch we both hear the scream of an eagle aloft in the sky as it wheels large
circles above nearby Capitol Lake; we look at each other for reassurance and
she elects to stay on the porch for now. I nod my agreement even though it
would be fantastical if an eagle could dodge all the fences, bushes and other
barriers to snatch the cat dozing by the tomatoes, but who wants to find out?
She elects to sprawl on the cushioned bench where she
studiously has to ignore the frantic maneuvers of two hummingbirds squabbling
over the hanging feeders. Their iridescent flashes are the lightning bolts to
the thundering whirr of their wings as they chase each other through the
garden. Quieter birds go about their business scratching for bugs, twittering
to each other in my neighbor’s protective holly tree, and gathering in small
groups on the wires above; mating and raising broods are done for the season.
The only other sound comes from scrub jays pounding hazelnut shells on the
roof, hopeful of the prize within.
It’s the in-taking pause of breath as one season begins its turn to the next, summer into autumn. Mornings are cooler, often misty and gray, but clearing into heat and high skies by afternoon. We awake now in darkness and clear away dinner dishes as night overtakes sunset. The birds already know all about the waning season; observing them and understanding their cycles offers us a calendar of days full of light and dark, growth and rest, the eternal round.