Blog Posts


A Spring Birthday

Margaret once described the progression of the seasons this way: “the quiet anticipation of winter, the joyous activity of spring, the restful fulfillment of summer, and the hopeful acceptance of autumn.” We can share with Margaret some of what brought her joy in the weeks leading up to her birthday and celebrate her special day, April 17, and then carry on, season after season, anticipating and noticing all that Nature brings. To begin, if you happen to awaken in the early hours, before the sky lightens, open a window and listen for the dawn chorus of birds. That urgent calling out of bird to bird will set you up for coursing of energy that rushes through all beings in this season of bursting of new life.

A few weeks before her birthday, Margaret would have looked for her favorite flower, the trillium, appearing in clumps in the dappled shade of mixed forests. Its clear-white three-petal flower rises on a stalk above bright green heart shaped leaves that grow in whorls of three, a flag announcing that spring has truly arrived. It’s not the earliest flower—skunk cabbage heralds the season in its own vibrant way, Indian plum puts forth its small flowers and other bushes and vines unfurl their bright pink—but finding trilliums in bloom puts a stamp on spring, a feeling of relief. “We made it!” Trilliums are rare so seeing them reappear we can exhale and renew our sense that however precarious, wonders do still happen.


To celebrate Margaret—and follow in her footsteps—I went for a walk with dear friends who are familiar with her storied life and who also revel in finding spring flowers and noting all the new growth and the appearance of old favorites. We went to a local park that follows the steeply descending course of the Deschutes River through a series of falls as it rushes toward Budd Inlet and Puget Sound. The park has been closed for months to refurbish its trails and add new features so it was with great anticipation and a sense of discovery that we took to the path that threaded the high banks of the river. The froth and surge of water, the glint of the sun and sparkle of scattered drops as water met rocky outcroppings added to the festivity of our outing.

The Deschutes froths over the rocks sending spray into the trees and freshening the moss and ferns that green its banks
Where the river relaxes into slower moving pools that become Capitol Lake

We were richly rewarded!

We could see these lilies growing on the bank a ways below where we stood on the path. My friends thought they were probably white fawn lilies, but we could not get close enough to see them in detail to be certain. Just glad to see them!
Look closely and you’ll see a native Pacific Bleeding Heart, less showy than the cultivated ones from a garden center but delicate and sweet
False Solomon’s Seal
Perhaps a native crab apple? Again, we saw it from a distance down the bank and could not be certain
I don’t remember! But I’ll be searching through my guide, The Plants of the Pacific Northwest by the go-to authorities, Pojar and MacKinnon! So much to learn!
Everybody was out enjoying the beautiful spring day!

At the end of our excursion we found a spot and set up our chairs—still socially distant but close enough for real conversation without the aid of technology—and enjoyed sharing our reflections with some cake with a salute to Margaret. We calculated that it has been 136 years since her birth in the old house that overlooked that same river around a few bends from where we sat. So much has changed—the house is long gone and the river itself has been impounded behind a dam to create Capitol Lake—and yet so much remains. The same spring flowers still bloom and delight. Her story still resonates and her teachings still matter: Don’t pick the trilliums! Let them flower and fade back into the earth so they can gather strength to return again, spring eternal.


A Day for Honoring Trees

A row of Douglas-firs against the sky. Margaret described such a line of firs as “engraved on her memory” from her childhood that sustained her, especially when she lived in New York City, so far from her Northwestern home

The narrator in Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, upon arriving in Nebraska from an eastern state, looked upon this place with wonder. As he “peered over the side of the wagon” that was carrying him to his new home, he felt, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” In daylight the next day, it was the same: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I…As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as water is the sea.” There were no trees.

Potential evergreen trees! Three different kinds of cones, part of the infinite variety of making the next generation of trees

This is the windswept landscape that depressed the spirits of another incoming settler, this one from well-wooded Michigan, J. Sterling Morton, in 1855. He recalled he “…could not but be oppressed by the sense of treelessness…No forest was visible on either side, as far as the eye could reach, and only here and there, along the banks of small creeks and in deep ravines, would a few fire-spared trees be found. Even these were mostly maimed, scarred and deformed by surges of flame which had swept down upon them from the burning prairies during nearly every fall of their precarious lives. Thus everywhere the waves of rich land stretched bare of shade to the horizon.” Morton ignored the derision of his neighbors and set out to rectify the situation; he planted trees: American chestnuts, Osage orange trees, black walnuts and orchards of fruit trees. And then he preached the saving grace of trees wherever he could to everyone, listening or not.

In 1872, Morton promoted his idea of a new American holiday celebrating trees; he called it Arbor Day. He declared, “All other anniversaries look backward; they speak of men and events past. But Arbor Day looks forward; it is devoted to the happiness and prosperity of the future.” Gradually, others, in one state after another, took up the cause and added pageantry and poetry to the annual ceremonial tree planting. And now we have a national Arbor Day, April 30, but also state and city sponsored Arbor Days as various climate zones allow—Washington State’s is held on April 14 while Alaska waits until the third Monday in May to assure any newly planted tree has a good chance of survival. In any case, any day is a good day to celebrate trees.

A row of survivors, cedar trees on the grounds of the old State Capital Museum

Here in the Northwest we are blessed with trees. The moisture-laden winds sailing in from the Pacific Ocean confronting the Olympics and Cascade mountains pour their wealth of life-bringing water on the land and the land responds with Douglas-fir, cedars, Big-leaf maples and sinuous Pacific madrone, to name just a few of the tangle of forest specimen. One of the giants, Western Hemlock, was named our Washington State tree in 1947. If you have time and opportunity, you might plan an expedition to visit one of the great trees native to this land in celebration of Arbor Day. But for many of us, smaller street and garden trees are our more familiar companions and justly deserve our affection and care. It would be a lonelier, more barren world, bereft of many birds, with less color and interest, without our street trees, garden trees, and trees in local parks for we city dwellers. Wherever trees grow and brighten our days, Arbor Day is a good reminder to give thanks for such beings in our world.

A Douglas-fir and a cedar tree as old companions keeping good company

Learning by Degrees, Without Degrees

Margaret was always careful not to claim she was a scientist. She worked closely with many professionals, especially those engaged in mycological studies. They often turned to her for help in both finding fungal species and identifying obscure mushrooms. She was a recognized expert….and yet….not a scientist. She had no college degree or position in any institution.

Many “amateurs,” especially women, were in the same position: very knowledgeable and respected, sometimes recognized but more often working behind the scenes, nameless. They helped their husbands* or brothers or worked diligently holding together various botanical organizations, editing journals, keeping the membership lists, the work that must be done that supported the forward march of science.

Start small and build piece by piece. So with puzzles (like this wonderful example of botanical specimens) try to learn the basics.

Earlier, scientific work was not as rigidly organized as it became and there were fewer barriers between serious students of the various branches of what became science and those who, say, loved flowers or ferns or gathering shells on the beaches. Many early Victorians had amazing collections and knew the names of all their prizes, and some went on to further study; the line between collectors and “real” botanizers was quite permeable. Botany was a common and popular subject in schools or could be learned independently through the many books and journals meant for anyone to peruse. There were clubs with open memberships and societies and public talks and exhibitions. Margaret was raised in just such a fluid and accessible setting and worked her whole life to keep those doors open for others.

It’s all in the details

Margaret learned her botany in school and in the family garden and on walks in the countryside. And then she took it further, bought a microscope, and really studied her subject and shared her findings widely with her many friends and neighbors who were also keen to explore the natural world. Everyone studied at least some botany in school and so had a grounding in the subject and a foundation for more learning. That seems to be no longer the case.

the shapes of the leaves, the branching pattern, the exact colors of the flowers

I’ve been reading more about botany now, inspired by Margaret, but it’s slow going. I flounder; I don’t have a system for remembering all the new vocabulary and definitions. I even bought a textbook but it is very dry reading! And it feels remote from actual plants somehow. Maybe I’m not going about this the right way; maybe I should get more acquainted with the plants in my own garden first: really look at them and learn the shapes of their leaves, the times they flower, the seeds they produce, everything there is to see. And then apply the terminology the textbook insists upon.

As so often, I ask myself, “What would Margaret do?” She’s make sure it was fun, an adventure, that I do know!

This was fun! Every piece got me closer to seeing the big picture.

A fascinating woman of this type was Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934). As a young woman, she was already an accomplished botanist and bryologist (the study of mosses) as a charter member of the illustrious Torrey Botanical Club. She wrote hundreds of scientific papers, was curator of the moss collection and editor of the club journal. After she married fellow club member, Nathaniel Britton, she worked tirelessly with her husband to found and staff the New York Botanical Garden where she again created a renowned collection of mosses. They were energetic collectors of plants who traveled extensively to find new specimens; wherever he went, so did she. Later, she became concerned with the plight of wild flowers and founded the Wild Flower Preservation Society in 1902 to educate the public and create reserves for the vanishing beauties. And yet she is little known today. A brief biography can be found here:


Drama of the Day

According to my Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, given in his customary staccato language, the Bald eagle: “….with its white head and white tail is all field mark. Bill of adult yellow. Immature has dusky head and tail, dark bill. It shows whitish in the wing-linings and often on the breast….” (emphasis in text) He adds that the “voice is a harsh, creaking cackle, kleek-kik-ik-ik-ik-ik or a lower kak-kak-kak.” That at least is very descriptive: harsh and creaking!

We—the small cluster of neighborhood walkers all masked and distanced—were certainly halted with our gaze pulled skyward by that call which shattered the peace of the afternoon. There, not too high for viewing but ducking in and out of view behind some tall Douglas firs, were two eagles circling and calling and gliding in this and then that direction, but always crisscrossing and making a huge racket. Were they courting? Were they male and female or two males challenging each other? Did the females have the same field marks, the white head, especially? We were tentative in our speculations.

Peterson’s system, which revolutionized field identification of birds when he first published in 1934, focuses on identifying “marks” you can see at a glance, to distinguish one species from another closely related one.

Once back home I could peruse my handy field guide. Peterson doesn’t come out and say in so many words, but in his case the absence of comment indicates that the mature males and females share the same markings. Peterson gave me the basics but I still had questions. I then turned to the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as an additional trusted source. I learned that females can weigh as much as two to four pounds more than the males and have a wingspan half a foot longer, but that would have been difficult to measure from where we had stood transfixed. More locally, the website of Seattle Audubon indicated that yes, now would be courting season as the time for egg-laying is generally late winter to early spring. So it seemed likely that these were a male and female pair of eagles.

The female lays two eggs in her nest of sticks high up in a conifer tree, but slightly sheltered by the trunk and some branches, not at the top where it would be vulnerable to crows and other dangers. Unless separated by mishap, eagles mate for life when they are four-to-six years old. As they can live as much as forty years, that’s a long relationship!

The mated pair care for their young together, taking turns in the nest until hatching, which happens about 36 days after laying. One parent stays with the young while the other hunts, again taking turns. It takes a long time for such large birds to mature. It is ten to twelve weeks before the chicks can fly and two to three months before they can defend themselves and venture out from the watchful scrutiny of their parents’ sharp yellow eyes!

We will keep a lookout for the pair on our weekly walks. Seeing eagles adds a buzz of excitement and a welcome distraction to our Covid-limited world. Outside our daily human-centered preoccupations it’s a tremendous lift to remember there are eagles, great seven-foot wings scribing trails through the sky, waking us up to lives lived in quite other realms.

The snow from our recent storm is melting and plants like these daffodils are emerging to assert–again–that spring really is coming. The eagles announced it, too, in their own way. Ready for what comes next!

Here are links to the sites I mention:


A Release from Gloom into Light

We are now a month into the new year; yesterday was the Celtic celebration of Spring, Imbolc, a feast of burgeoning light, new growth and healing. Hold that thought as cold and snow pounds swathes of the country and here in the Northwest the sky was dark and brooding all day yesterday as rain poured out of the clouds as if it meant to cover the entire earth. Today, however, at least this morning, we are having a reprieve from the incessant rain. I was able to take a walk without having to huddle under an umbrella….easier to see and count new wonders!

Puddles that aspire to be lakes

With Ireland in mind, my first impression was how very green the world was! This is the season to celebrate moss. As the rain saturates this plant it swells and stretches and grows; now is its chance to flourish and show off all its intricacies and complexities of growth. Having just read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s awe-inspiring book, Gathering Moss, I notice moss everywhere, bright brilliant green and shimmering with rain droplets. I will write more on moss later but for today it was the tapestry underlying and nearly overwhelming all I saw.

An even shaggier variety of moss mixed with lichen blanketing a maple tree branch

Poking up through last year’s fallen leaves, small bulbs were thrusting into light. The daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops are heralding springtime. And the hellebores are beginning to open in the race of early flowers to welcome the season. Forsythia throws its bright yellow spray to the sky with joyous abandon and soon the daphnia bushes will overwhelm passersby with their bracing scent. My honeysuckle vine is greening bud by opening bud.

Daffodils soon to open!
Crocus flowers looking for sunlight
Shy snowdrops amidst the new growth pushing up everywhere
Hellebores are some of my earliest bloomers, a gorgeous shot of color
My neighbor’s glorious forsythia!
A little more sunshine and this Daphnia will scent the air for yards around. I enjoy it every year.

Crows are everywhere—but remarkably camera-averse—investigating the new growth. My local squirrels are taking advantage of the momentary dry spell to taste the various buds on street trees.  I could hear our neighborhood eagle screaming its presence but could not locate which tree where it might be sheltering. Everyone was busy engaging with the moment of respite. Rain makes the Northwest but that blue sky after the downpour makes my heart sing!

Honeysuckle buds

P.S. Now that it’s February and I haven’t seen a pine siskin in weeks I put my feeders back up. However, if siskins do show up, I’ll take them down again. I hope my chickadees return. There was a lone Bushtit checking out the empty space the other day; maybe it will get the word out now, if it should return.



I had to look them up to be sure, but yes, these smallish, streaky-brown birds with flashes of bright yellow on tail and wing feathers that were flocking into my garden were Pine Siskins. I had not had them at my feeder for quite a while. They are lively!  While confirming their identity, I learned that they are a type of finch, albeit smaller with a finer pointed beak. They adore thistle seed or small seeds like millet and acrobatically hung off my clumps of untrimmed flower stalks gleaning seeds, saved for just such a purpose. They appeared voracious.

A little hard to see among the tangles but several are feeding greedily on seeds or perhaps small insects

Siskins are noted for their flocking behavior and for mobbing feeders. Some writers called them gregarious, while others shaded more to “aggressive” or “domineering.” Other feeder birds might agree. When Siskins move in, your chickadees and nuthatches are sidelined. But it seemed only momentary at my house. Siskins breezed in, partied, and left for new places; maybe I didn’t have their preferred foods. They can’t handle sunflower seeds still in the shell and are peckish about suet, my main offerings. I tried to capture them in photos but they swished around too rapidly to have more than blurry images.

They began, though, to show up on neighborhood postings and in anxious emails and message boards. All that close flocking and eating and general congregating—just like we humans used to do in pre-Covid times and now should not—can lead to tragedy. First there was excitement and wonder at the arrival of this northern bird from the conifer forests and mixed boreal woodlands of Canada, identified as an irruption from their normal migration pattern due to food shortages in their winter range. But it soon turned to dismay when more and more sick and dying birds were discovered at feeders and in gardens. The close flocking and feeding behavior that draws our attention facilitates the spread of salmonella bacteria that can contaminate feeders, birdbaths, and water dishes and be passed bird to bird. (Humans and pets can be impacted too. Wear gloves, wash your hands thoroughly and clean areas frequented by birds.)

Sick birds are said to be lethargic and appear tame—or at least indifferent to human approach. They have fluffed up feathers, perhaps swollen eyes and an unnatural stillness. Besides being careful about your own exposure, seeing birds in this condition signals that you need to take down your own feeders and dishes and clean everything with a mix of hot soapy water rinsed with bleach water. See here for  exact instructions:   And then retire your feeders for a week or more. Some advice recommends not putting out feeders again until sometime next month to be sure the Siskins have moved on and the danger has abated.

Normally, my seed feeder and suet feeder hand off this contraption tied to a pulley but now it just dangles, empty

It was a melancholy sight to see a line of Bushtits clinging to the dangling empty string from my feeder. Where were the goods? It’s been very quiet for days now. I rejoiced to see a few juncos scrambling around under the ferns and in drifts of old leaves the other day. And the hummingbirds are as territorial as ever; their feeder is entirely their own and not endangered. How I miss “my” birds! But I have to remember it’s not about me, but their health and lives. And take the long view.

A lone junco in a rain-drenched garden

To learn more about Pine Siskins in general and about the meaning of irruptions, see here:

And here, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more species information and a great map showing Siskin territory and what is impacting their normal range of habitation:


A Fresh Start

The official New Year was days ago, I know, but it didn’t really feel like I had turned the page until this morning. Monday morning: a new list for the week, facing forward after the weekend, time to take stock. First, look out the window and notice that it has stopped raining! We’re in the middle of one of those weather “rivers” that pours water out of the sky and feels like a permanent geographical fixture; you can’t imagine how it will ever stop. But somehow the sky is less pulled down on the treetops and roofs and there is a visible smudge of light in the sky that must be the sun. No time to hesitate! Go outside!

Looking up, the first thing I see is an eagle slowly passing over the neighborhood, barely tipping its wings and intent on surveying the possibilities. And in the same frame of vision, I see a vivid-pink flash of a hummingbird. The definition of “bird” stretches almost to breaking point to encompass these two! Besides the cessation of rain, I am counting this twin sighting as my #1 Wonder of the Day.

And instantly know that instead of New Year’s resolutions—you know, lose those extra pounds, be more organized, and clean out a few drawers—I’m going to collect Wonders; make that a minimum of three a day. It’s a wake-up call from winter hibernation or Covid-induced fog. I feel better already.

There are several ways to discover Wonders. Some present themselves like the eagle and hummingbird. For my next Wonder I only had to follow my nose. We have a bush in our side yard that blooms in winter; if anyone can identify it, please do. It has the freshest sweet-but-not-too-sweet scent from tiny white flowers that just gladdens my heart on these dark days. I stand in front of it and breathe in the scent and feel that spring cannot be lost no matter what the date. I have Wonder #2.

You can almost smell the flowers by looking at them…..
The mystery bush that signals spring

And I have a theme: What other signs of early spring can I find? Soggy brown leaves litter the ground and bits of fallen branches from the windstorm nearly hide my next find. There is a tiny, slightly battered, but bravely pushing upward primrose whose pink catches me eye. It’s very modest but not at all prosaic. I’m counting it as #3 for the lift it gives my mood.

Easy to miss

I see green shoots pushing up here and there, probably the bluebells that will take over my garden later, but perhaps because they are so prolific they don’t quite feel like a bona fide Wonder to me today. Ah, but what’s this? Again a pink color draws me to peer more carefully in the clutter of last-year’s leaves. This seems incredibly early, but some of my strawberry plants are in flower! Very pink, indeed. Spring is more than a wish; it feels like a promise kept. Strawberry plants blooming in January is a Wonder, a bonus, #4. Everything is going to be okay.

The pink among the scattered leaves of fall.

A Mind-Journey: Renewal

This morning as the sky lightened, there was no brightness, no evident sun, not even a fiery red one like the day before. Instead, there is an opaque featureless gray of fog, possibly—probably—laden with smoke and particulates from fires still consuming the west like hungry monsters. So I was charmed…distracted…pulled into reverie when I  opened an email inviting me to revisit Newagen Seaside Inn, near Boothbay, Maine. We had once stayed there in late July, 2018. A lifetime ago!

The come-hither photo of perfect pumpkin-orange and golden Fall leaves, mostly still clinging to trees lining both sides of a path you’d give anything to be exploring, but just enough decorously scattered on the ground to add some crunch, drew me into the scene. I could almost smell the trees and catch a salty breeze coming off the nearby bay. This is a very special place!

I loved the wind-tossed trees that clung to the rocky outcroppings. No postcard prettiness but rugged beauty that spoke to me of strength and survival.

The Inn and its surroundings are, of course, Maine-perfect and a dream vacation destination but the reason we had made a stop there was for me a pilgrimage to pay my respect for someone I have long studied and held in awe: Rachel Carson. She used to stay at the Inn when she was working on her Sea books, examining the tidal pools, finding the threads of life that linked every minute form to the cosmos of the whole biotic community. She loved the area so much she eventually settled in a small cottage just a few minutes away from these rocky beaches.

Some of the relics saved from her stays at the Inn proudly displayed for guests to ponder.

The hotel is proud of its association with the life and work of Rachel Carson and eager to relate stories of her time there.  Even more powerfully, you can follow a sign-posted path to a favorite beach on hotel property where her ashes were scattered at her request when she died in 1964. As the small waves washed in and out and pooled between the granite rocks, endlessly obeying the waxing and waning of the moon, I gazed at the crevices, the bits of shaggy seaweed, the flecks among the gravel and tiny shell pieces, as if to see her essence still there, mingled with all the ongoing life she loved and wrote about. Her words floated in my mind, now carved on a marker, captured in bronze from the page where they first appeared…

Rachel Carson, Writer, Ecologist, Champion of the Natural World, 1907-1964,
“But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs”
Here at last returned to the sea–“to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end”

I had read her excellent biography by Linda Lear and all her Sea books before our journey there, so my mind was super-charged with her story and with her own evocative descriptions of shore and tidal life, on out to the very depths of the oceans just then being explored in its darkest reaches for the first time. But all these words spun in the breeze and floated like so much flotsam, efflorescent, out to sea. What remained was her solid love of place, her will to share it with us all, and her granite resolve to save it for its own sake. The air coming off the water was so fresh and tangy. I left with a new resolve to dig into my own place, to put down roots, and find my own words. But I’ll always remember finding Rachel at Newagen.


September 22nd

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.

Let Autumn come and be welcome.


Weight Lifting, Weight Shifting

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. 

The bird bath captured the ripples from the first drops.

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.

The named cards of the High Arcana can be joyous or doom laden, but the main thrust of having them turn up in your reading is that they represent forces beyond your human control. They rule you and indicate your fate.
Some of Low Arcana cards indicate strife, deep sorrow, and other states of being we would rather not experience, but we are said to have more agency with readings like this and can take heed to avoid disaster.

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.

Cards featuring “cups” are thought to relate to our emotions. We can respond to life in any number of ways.
What shall we choose?

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.


Come on Over!

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.

Who lives here? Somebody is making this their home. They are welcome too.

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.

Deer are very much at home here, walking down the street in broad daylight, people outside, no cares at all.

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.

Sometimes the deer eat things we thought we had planted for ourselves. We stand corrected!
This is the first year the deer have sampled our hydrangea. But luckily they don’t seem to have relished the taste.
Deer love chard, apparently. Luckily it grows back and we’ve been able to enjoy it too.

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.


Carving a Life: Gwen Frostic

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!

To learn more about Gwen, see:

And especially see her still thriving business website at


Finding Their Voices

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.

The baby sparrow is, of course, the one with its beak wide open.
This photo was taken a few weeks ago of a scrub jay family. The parent bird is about to oblige one youngster while the other one waits its turn. Yes, there was squawking!

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.

It wasn’t too long before the young jays realized they could feed themselves. Here this one is already taking on the colors of an adult bird.

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!

This is a juvenile towhee. It comes alone and disappears quickly if any other birds approach. Its indistinct coloring and extreme shyness made it very difficult to identify but its thick beak and robin-size did afford some clues. Still, I would like to thank my good friend Kathleen for her definitive reply to my query.

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.

At first the young flickers were modestly colored and easily faded into the bushes….
But soon enough the beautiful speckled plumage grew in.

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.

I could never catch the tiny hummers trying out their wings on my camera. But here is one looking around and posing just for the moment.

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.


Using our bare hands (and a sharp pair of clippers)

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!

Ivy can start small, just a couple of leaves and a bit of root….

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.

A tree virtually cleared of ivy!

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.

Marvel at the thickness of this ivy root! This is what you –and the tree–are up against. This is a very determined and implacable plant.

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 bundled for removal, kept from touching the ground so it can’t re-root as soon as you turn your back.
Ivy tangled around a fallen log and heading off to claim new areas.

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!

If you are interested in clearing ivy and other invasive species from our local parks in Olympia, get in touch with the Park Stewardship program here:  Children and teens can help too.

Or wherever you live, look for a similar program.

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:

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:  


The Passing of an Iconic Neighbor

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.


Appoint Yourself a Keeper of Trees

 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.”
 A map with designated trees accompanies the invitation.See:
 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.
Avenue of large mixed trees leading up to Margaret’s house
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.
A glorious native dogwood announcing itself amidst mature Douglas-firs
Meanwhile, get to know the trees in your neighborhood. They are remarkable! They sustain us in these difficult times.
The cherry trees and dogwoods that line so many of our streets put on a spectacular show this year! They lifted everyone’s spirits who walked in their dappled pink light.
Many of the Big-leaf maples that used to grace our streets have been removed over the years. They tended to upend sidewalks and drop dangerously large limbs. But we still have some magnificent Japanese style maples that fill our gardens and streets with color through the seasons. My life is certainly the richer for living in proximity to this awe-inspiring maple. Birds and squirrels abound in the small world it creates.

Celebrate Arbor Day! Not Too Late

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.

Governor Rosellini manning the shovel while Margaret gives advice. Two State Capital Museum staff look on, Sherry Ehrman and Director Robert Carpenter. Margaret is wearing her pearls for the occasion! This photo ran in the Daily Olympian newspaper in April, 1963 but was accessed from the Washington State Historical Society collections website.
The tree as it looks today, with its commemorative plaque

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.

There is no way to capture the grandeur of this giant tree, from its foundation to its myriad stretching branches to its crown. I never tire of admiring it.

Earth Day, One Day at a Time

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.

The iconic photo that still inspires us to see the Earth whole, as one place to be shared and cared for

I lost myself instead reading one powerful online story after another, some uplifting, some hair-raising. Here are links to some of the most inspiring: to introduce the idea of Earth Day, one of my favorite writers, “Chorus at the Dawn of Earth Day” by Gary Paul Nabhan, as featured in Orion Magazine. Another one of their special Earth Day essays was an unexpected delight: I learned something new about Amy Tan: 

Emergence magazine, if you haven’t discovered it, offers real sustenance and substance, as well as stunning beauty in their posted essays and artwork:  And the Rachel Carson Council was full of stories and actions backed by research and information, as befits their name: But don’t forget sheer joy to keep you putting one foot in front of another; listen to Birdnote for a reset when you most need it:  Puffins!

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.


At Home With Margaret

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.


The Bird’s Day

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!

For more on this research, see the Cornell Lab website at:


Gifts of the Season

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!

Red currant bush lighting up my side garden

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.


Should we be feeding wild birds?

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?

A well tucked-in bird feeding shelf, from Birds in the Garden


Prime Time?

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?

In some lights this hummingbird looks almost black but then it moves and there is revealed an iridescent red that makes you gasp.

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.

Can you see it? A grayish bird with darker markings scratching the ground between the bricks for seeds. It is barely visible but there are two dark stripes on its crown with a faint lighter stripe in the middle. Not yellowish but white–sort of. So, a white crowned sparrow and not a gold crowned sparrow?

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?

Definitely a robin under the bird bath! But as for the small grayish bird enjoying its morning splash, a ubiquitous unknown sparrow?

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.

Here is a link to the Cornell website:


Flashes of Inspiration, Most Needed

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!


Moonstruck Waters

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.

A good place to learn more about the science behind King tides is the website of the University of Washington College of the Environment “Washington King Tides Program.” See:


We Begin Again

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.

A beaked hazelnut bush showing its early buds, a promise of Spring
New buds forming on an Indian plum bush in the foreground of the photo, enlivening the mash of dead brown leaves covering the ground. Bright salal pokes through to catch the light and gladden our eyes.

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.

Hidden among the fallen leaves, a primrose flashes its brightly hued buds.
This fragrant bush has tiny white flowers that fill my whole side garden with sweetness in the Winter months.
The camellias are already budding. Their shiny deep green leaves catch the light on even these dark days.

As Summer Slips Away

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.

Winter Colors

Sometimes when I go out for a stroll I walk for several blocks without noticing a thing. It’s a rather gray day today, quiet with barely a breeze; no one is about but a few squirrels that melt away as I approach along the sidewalk. My thoughts chase each other with more vigor than they exhibit….which may be why I am missing out on what is happening all around me. But there is drama!

The sky had its own drama of dark and light, all moody and heavy. I was not able to capture the eagles on camera but I have them firmly in my mind!

I happen to look up at the sky and there above me are two eagles wheeling and gyrating, tracing large patterns across the canvas of the sky. They circle and soar, together, each on an invisible path of air that looks aimless and lazy, yet no bird takes a chance to test their seeming indifference. The eagles’ outspread wings and stiff wedge of tail, the thrust of their beaks cutting through the afternoon sky, their presence wakes me up. I turn and turn trying to follow their flight. I wait to see if one or the other will suddenly plummet to the ground, great claws forward to scoop up some unlucky snack. Finally, they drift away, but the day has changed.

Though they left no lines in the sky, not so much as a puff of breath, I now see everything in a clearer light. Why, there is so much to note! Winter is having its way, whittling down the world to its core, stripping away the painterly lushness of summer and leaving us with charcoal etchings. Trees show off their bark, darkened by yesterday’s rain, and the strong upward lines of branches. Each one has its own habit of growth, each one a statement against the sky.

The discarded leaves litter the ground and collect where wind and chance have scattered them. Remnant bits of color against dark cement or the opaqueness of water make abstract Jackson Pollock-ish splatters. A few red or stark-white berries clinging to bushes are like splashes from a paintbrush, pure jolts in a brown-gray landscape.

The deep puddle held both this scatter of oak leaves and the light from the sky.
The flecks of yellow against gray cement with splotches of purple-brown made an arresting pattern.
The artistry of chance made lovely patterns of brown leaves against the green of lawn.

Best of all is the luminous moss! Plump with rain, vibrant and refreshed, this is its season. I touch its springy surface, make a wish, and go home in a better frame of mind.

Different kinds of moss springing up between rock sidewalks, decorated with tiny maple wings.
Moss fairly calling out to be petted!

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

I see frost on my neighbor’s roof and a skim of ice in the birdbath. We are hovering on the edge of winter.  My local birds are hoovering up suet as quickly as I refill the feeder, fueling up to withstand the cold. I keep an eye on the hummingbird feeder too as the liquid in it disappears in a wink.

Signs of the season: soon this glorious golden Ginkgo tree will be bare.

Will the hummers stay for winter? Who stays and who heads out for warmer climes?  I ask myself this question every year at this time so I’ve turned to my bookshelf for some guidance. I’ve been reading a thick and every-page fascinating book on migration by Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. The book opens with him staring out to sea—the Bering Sea—from a piece of shore he describes as: “this tendril of land is a global crossroads…a port of entry between Asia and America.” It is a place of arrival and leave-taking for thousands of migrating birds, a seasonal high drama that stars some of the most spectacular travelers of the bird world. He describes some of the birds that fly almost pole to pole, but Weidensaul also notes that some birds hardly bother. Even birds of the same species, take Dunlins for example, don’t all undertake similar journeys. He tells us that there are three different populations of Dunlins, each with a different strategy for coping with winter. It turns out, migration is not a simple all-up-and-out movement but involves a lot of back and forth and odd variations and choices.

Before I follow Weidensaul along all the possible lines of his map, I will just give you this point that he says underlies all the patterns birds follow: “Migration is, fundamentally, about food, not temperature; those birds that can continue to find enough to eat during the winter rarely migrate—why bother?—while those whose food supplies are seasonal must flee.” So, no pressure! Keep those feeders topped up!

A robin pausing to get a quick drink of water. All that calling makes a bird thirsty!

Part of my interest in this question of migration centers on one of our most common birds, the American robin. As a child growing up in Alberta where winter is a long and serious affair, seeing the first robin every spring was an annual quest and a triumph of hope over dreariness. But here in the Pacific Northwest, do robins migrate? Is theirs a case of “Why bother?” On a walk the other day, the air was full of robins, whizzing back and forth, calling, landing and taking off, clattering and nervous-seeming. They gathered, as if readying for a journey, but just as quickly dispersed as if on private business separate from their flock. What was going on?

It was impossible to catch a robin on the wing with my camera. I settled for just watching them zip around. But every once in a while they would congregate and land for a moment. Here are some outlined against the sky.

Robins, in my experience, don’t eat from feeders. My interest that day was from long affection for these handsome birds with their storybook bright red bellies and contrasting gray-black over-coats. And there was no ignoring their frantic movements and their piping voices. But the next day on my walk I didn’t see a single robin. Where had they gone? Did they finally make a group decision and fly away? Back home, I turned to my trusted source for all bird questions, the Cornell Lab for Ornithology website for answers to my query about robin migration behavior. They had this to say:

“One reason why they seem to disappear every winter is that their behavior changes. In winter robins form nomadic flocks, which can consist of hundreds to thousands of birds. Usually these flocks appear where there are plentiful fruits on trees and shrubs, such as crabapples, hawthorns, holly, juniper, and others.

When spring rolls around, these flocks split up. Suddenly we start seeing American Robins yanking worms out of our yards again, and it’s easy to assume they’ve “returned” from migration. But what we’re seeing is the switch from being nonterritorial in the winter time to aggressively defending a territory in advance of courting and raising chicks.”

The clue to the robins’ behavior was right in front of me: my neighbor’s venerable holly tree. Covered with delicious—I suppose—red berries. They had crowded along its branches, gorging and perhaps getting a little tipsy if any of the berries were fermenting as sometimes happens. It was a grand party! No worries about social distancing. Maybe they were off to find another smorgasbord somewhere else in the neighborhood the next day, but there are still berries for the taking so I imagine they will be back. Still a cheerful sight!

Bright Sights

I admit to being fatigued; I’m even tired of being tired. The family cat doesn’t want to hear about it. She has her own remedies so I am reminded to turn to my own sure-fire ways of finding a little balance and respite in “these times.” I look out my kitchen window.

Ways of dealing with the daily barrage of Covid news, anxiety-inducing headlines and cold weather…

The local sparrows (Will I ever figure out which sparrows are which? It doesn’t matter today.) and glossy-headed juncos are taking turns pecking at the seeds I’ve scattered for them. Chickadees are swooping on the hanging feeder and choosing just the right sunflower seed before dashing away again. A buzz of bush tits erupts out of the bushes, congregate on the suet feeder and just as quickly head for cover. A brilliant red-eyed towhee with its smart black and rusty red outfit shows up for a snack. There is a lot going on outside!

These are my beloved “regulars.” Not quite as often, nuthatches show up for a meal, and there is always a commotion when a flicker arrives. For such a large bird it is shy and easily scatters at the slightest movement my side of the window, so if I want to watch it I need to freeze in place or slowly step back a bit to be less visible. It’s comical watching it contort itself to cling onto the small feeder. I haven’t seen much of the downy woodpecker lately; I hope it comes back soon. And of course, jays show up and starlings, always with a big clatter of wings and whistles.

But sometimes I am lucky and see something unusual. I have a secretive Bewick’s wren that slips in and out of the heavy cover of the Camilla bush to poke around and occasionally sample the suet in the feeder. The white blaze over its eye and perky tail draw my attention but it doesn’t stay for long. And one recent day there was…hey, what is that? An almost-pink raspberry colored bird showed up, pecked and looked about and stayed long enough for me to find my bird guide and confirm that it was a purple finch. A new bird for me! We used to get the red house finches all the time, although they have disappeared from our area for unknown reasons, but I had never had one of these. (I don’t know why they are called “purple” but they are clearly not red.) So far, that was my one sighting. Maybe it was only passing through the neighborhood. But it made my day!

Hard to spot but always a thrill, a Bewick’s wren
A real stand-out: a purple finch!

Another bright light has stayed now for a couple of weeks, and my birding friend who knows this sort of thing assures me it may well stay for the season: a Townsend’s warbler. You can’t miss that flash of lemon yellow and black. It’s a tiny bird with a dainty sharp beak and bright eyes but when you see that color, you have to stop and search for it in the leaves. It’s in and out, flashing like a light bulb, hiding and then daring to try the feeder. I stand as still as possible for my reward of a glimpse. And I keep the feeder topped up! It may be the beginning of winter, but all color has not drained from the world. Hang on, be well. Look out the window.

Like sunshine on a cloudy day, a Townsend’s warbler