Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Dogwood

Most of us have a favorite tree. Although many other trees rise up and call to me: tupelo, black birch, white oak, tamarack, ironwood... I'll have to sing of only one this snowy evening.

The Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida
When I was a child, a wild dogwood grew across the driveway from my bedroom window. Its white blooms greeted me on the grumpiest of days.

Nearby, a field was returning to forest by way of the dogwood. Headphones glued to my ears, I walked daily the old farm road through tall, scratchy grasses towards the dogwoods.
The road ended behind the old fieldstone building that was once the community center for the paper mill.

I passed under a telephone pole swamped by Virginia creeper that looked like a crucifix with a wig. Ahead were mysterious stone buildings, supposedly a monastery, shrouded by Norway spruces.

To the right,
a cinder block building with only graffiti, two walls and a roof. The outline of an apple and "Burt is Fat" was spray painted on the side of the water tower (who climbed up that?). Cans and bottles piled in the thickets.

These signs were not accompanied by the sound of footfalls. This place was mine.

I never saw another person here. The teenagers who had been here probably had grown up and moved away. I was thankful for what they left behind. It was an archaeological site for me. It was touched by danger, but held the promise of solitude.

The dogwoods played a bit role then.

When I visit my parents, we often walk the farm road. We exclaim over the beauty of the dogwoods. The cinder block building is gone, the paper mill a Superfund site, the water tower painted, beer cans lost in leaves and honeysuckle vines, nothing distracts us from the dogwoods.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Beginning to Track

I was perplexed. "These tracks," I thought, "who made them? They're everywhere. Squirrel? No, not quite." The tracks seemed to stop at the bases of the trees. In fact, the tracks led to nearly every tree.

I was somewhat sheepish when I realized that I was at least partly right. No, they were not squirrel tracks in the deep snow. Not rabbit. Certainly not deer.

Oh, those are marks made by snow falling off trees. Oh.

I admitted my foolishness to Jared. "I could not figure it out, and then I realized, it was just where snow fell to the ground...a beginner's mistake."

I was interested in tracking. And, each snow meant hours of following the crisscross tracks of Black Saddle, the fox with dark flanks; the skips of Brutus the Sparrow; the diamond impressions of a mouse rump.

Once we followed strange tracks from Culver's clearing to Cat Tail Brook. There, the tracks disappeared into a hole in the ice! They reemerged, muddy, from the next hole in the ice. Down into the brook and out onto the ice again. Mink!

I flipped through Mark Elbroch's tome, Mammal Tracks and Sign and anything by Tom Brown, Jr. I noted where the fox must have turned to look to the right. Where his tail brushed the ground. How he favored one of his heel pads all winter.

But, boy, thinking snow falling from the branches were tracks? What a novice.

* * *

Three winters later I walk through the picnic grove at Washington Crossing State Park. I watch two crows reluctantly take flight. Caw caw. I am glad to be outside.

I see the depressions made by snow falling from branches. Probably yesterday.

Tracks, I see tracks. Everywhere, running to the bases of trees. Tracks of a warm winter day. Tracks of snow melting, time passing. My eyes opened. My heart lifted: I saw The Spirit That Moves In All Things.

Took me three years to see the tracks in the snow. I'm still a novice, and now I can begin.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some Words from Yesterday

Yesterday was good. The talk of hard work. Pick ourselves up, and brush ourselves off, and begin the work... What are the chances of a President asking citizens to work hard? Thank you. I like truth.

What are the chances that the goldenrod bug would fly there, then? Thank you. I like your stubby antennae and golden-green glistening body.

My friend, the 'cycle of life' friend, he watched me let the bumblebee cling to my fingertip. He blinked, "What the..." I stroked the bee and watched his rear legs flex and felt his body bzzzz. "Here," I pointed at my friend. "He won't sting." My friend, he paused, laughed (most laughter is not because the situation is funny), took the bee and petted him. He told me later that he tried to get others to hold bumblebees, but they were not quite ready. Thank you. I like to watch flowers sag under your weight.

The bzzz of the bumblebee. Try it this summer. It is something look forward to.

Cigarette and Blood

The title of this entry could also be:

It Is What It Is

It's the Cycle of Life, It's Just the Cycle of Life

A friend of mine used to say that, "It's the cycle of life, it's just the cycle of life." He said that about surprising things like car accidents. Things that I consider outside of the cycle of life: artificial.

I found a trail of blood, an animal, bits of evergreen tree, and a cigarette. It is what it is. Call it what it is. A poacher.

A father cardinal chased a juvenile cardinal into my bedroom window. I picked up the bent little bird. He righted his head and died. I was struck by the little bird's dignity.

The magazine has a picture of a little mouse with her hands held up to her mouth, just like a person. Just like a person. Some people are trying to save the mouse from extinction by luxury hotel.

I spent this cold morning looking at dead and dying trees, and I am feeling wounded. The unfairness is like a lightning bolt.

Could this be the cycle of life? To me, it all seems artificial. Luxury hotels on beaches that are supposed to erode, supposed to change.

The beach during a storm. The wind is blowing against my right side. Sand needles my face. The ocean is without a yoke. This is the cycle of life. This is supposed to happen: the exhilaration of the storm and what the world looks like when the pieces of earth settle where they may.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Being Local

Local acquaintances
The woman behind the counter smiled and said, "It's been a long time."

"Happy new year. How are you?" I replied.

We've been eating at this Mexican restaurant in Princeton for a few years. The restaurant has a sister establishment in New Brunswick, and the waitress remembers when we used to eat there regularly. That was eight years ago. She's got a good memory.

Local ground

You know you are home when you can sit on the basement floor, eat off the kitchen floor and nap on the front lawn.

Local houses
The spider's body shared the same translucent quality as the jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum) flower. I walked down the lane to another jumpseed population and found the same species of spider making a home on the plant.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Our Birdfeeder is Like Newark Airport

Chickadee on the feeder

My morning routine begins with a trip to fill the feeder with black oil sunflower seed.

Option 1:
For a moment, I watch the gold finches, house finches, purple finches, dark eyed juncos, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, mourning doves, cardinals, song sparrows, white-throated sparrows, and once a female red winged blackbird advance on the feeder from all angles.

I murmur an apology, open the porch door, and hear a blast of wing beats. The juncos that had been engaged in aerial dogfights scatter. A female cardinal flicks her wings and emits glassy chips. The red-bellied woodpecker lets out a trill that sounds like a recording of the rainforest. The flock of mourning doves leapfrogs ever further as I approach.

Option 2:
The feeder is empty, there is not a bird in sight. As I approach the feeder, I usually hear a tinkling of a chickadee or the nasal honk of a nuthatch. I imagine it is partly a warning and partly a celebration: "A predator, a predator! With food, with food!" Seems that they watch me more closely than I watch them.

I turn my back, walk a few feet, and hear thwack, rustle, tseet, tseet. Invariably, a chickadee, brave and fleet, has already alit the feeder and selected a seed. Only the chickadees tolerate a person close the feeder; they zoom in and out, hardly looking when they leave the feeder.

The titmice complain from nearby tupelo branches until I move closer to the house. They don't mind the clanging of the metal can as I retrieve kindling. "She's occupied, all's clear."

Mostly likely to continue feed while the laundry line shrieks: Chickadees and Titmice
Bossiest (in former years): "Brutus" The Song Sparrow
Biggest surprise feeder explorers: Carolina Wren and a flock of Bluebirds
Most Indignant: Northern Cardinals
What's that filling up the entire feeder?!: Grey Squirrel
Best learning curve: Dark-eyed Juncos*
Best couple: Downy Woodpeckers
We'll wait until he's done at the feeder: Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Most likely to make varied calls (Coughs, gags, exclamations of dismay and delight) as I write this: Jared as he opens a box of native plant seeds that had been stratifying under the couch since the summer.

*Last year a junco figured out how to get into the feeder. This year, many of them are pros. They shoot their "laser beam" call at other birds and eject them from the feeder.

We use black oil sunflower seed from NJ Audubon, grown in Hillsborough, NJ with a percent of proceeds benefiting grassland bird habitat.

Two chickadees on the lookout