Friday, August 30, 2013

Late summer songs

My favorite ritual is opening windows to let in the morning each day.

The cats usually follow me around the house and jump onto the sill of each newly opened window to get a sniff of a bird or squirrel, as I pull back curtains and adjust blinds. They are part of the ritual, too.

Our windows are old, the sash cords mostly broken. So I need to prop them open. Each window has its own dedicated propping object near at hand.

A picture frame hiding behind the curtain holds open one of the bedroom windows. A hairbrush stood on end props another one.

Kitchen windows: Balsamic vinegar bottle and 2 smallish pieces of scrap lumber.

Altar room window: Teak incense holder from India, inlaid with stars and moons.

Dining room window: 2x4.

Living room window: Air conditioner.

Porch window: Giant metal clothes hanger from the dry cleaner.

I gauge what the day will be like as I open windows and read the air, breathing in a rush of possibilities made new every morning by dreams and dawn.

This particular morning, the air was cooler and drier, breezing in from the north and east, mild as milk punch. And after many days of creaky, around-the-clock laboring, our old window air conditioner is silent, its steel skin cool as early-morning sheets.

Late August sounds like this.

Cicadas buzz in cascades, louder then chorus rises to a Martian army crescendo as another drops into silence, over and over like waves lapping the shore.

The fan hums quietly.

The kitten flips and squirms and hugs her cloth mouse, bumping the legs of the desk chair where I sit.

A car with a big engine cruises by outside and I don't look away from my screen but I see it in my mind: a silvery-blue 1973 Chevrolet Caprice convertible. An 8-cylinder engine and an exhaust pipe with at least one rust hole. Its windows are rolled down, and the driver's heading home early because it is Friday, and the start to a holiday weekend, and the sun is shining and it is not too hot; only hot enough for a late summer holiday weekend.

Maybe, just maybe, the radio was not switched on because this song, with its perfect lyrics, was playing in his head, as it is in mine.

It's like you're standing in the window 
of a house nobody lives in
and I'm sitting in a car across the way
Let's just say, it's an early model Chevrolet
Let's just say, it's a warm and windy day
You go and pack your sorrow
The trash man comes tomorrow
Leave it at the curb
and we'll just roll away.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Feeding what is hungry

I fed some baby birds today. Can't stop smiling.

During my first day as a volunteer in the Avian Nursery at Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, I also laundered and folded piles of towels, pillowcases and cage liners. At any given time, WRC has about 600 volunteers, as well as vets, vet techs and interns. So the walls and doors are covered with signs and instructions. "Take blue washcloths and gloves with rubber dots on to the Bat room." "Put small squares of fleece in a clean basket and take them to the mammal nursery." "No entry without rabies vaccination."   
An intern with a gift for teaching showed me how to read the charts at each cage. How to angle the feeding syringe so the food goes down the right side. How to catch a bird who escapes. And the way to hold a small bird who has not been gaping in one hand, and ever-so-gently-and-patiently coax open its tiny beak with a finger, to make sure it gets some nourishment.

I fed bright-eyed House Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Barn Swallows and one young Jay whose feathers are just blueing-up (he got mealworms). These were amidst cagefuls of American Robins, doves and Bluebirds who were self-feeding and were getting ready to move into the flight area.

When some of them were hungry (mostly the brash sparrows), they flew right up to the bars and thrust their beaks through, jostling each other out of the way. Other species, like the barn swallows, stayed on their perches until fed, and once they'd had enough they hopped back into the corners of their cages, far from the scary hand with the syringe.

The trio of Chipping Sparrows were especially precious...tiny, soft-colored and exquisite, cuddled close to one another on their perch. We use a fine tip on the syringe to feed them. Here is a photo of one Chipping Sparrow fledgling who's a bit older (not taken at WRC):

I am beaming, really. Given this godawful heat wave, it was uncomfortably warm in the nurseries and laundry room...and the smell issuing from the waterfowl room gave the hallway quite a pungent aroma...and you don't know from dirty laundry until you've gone through a load of soiled cage liners.

But what a fine way to spend four hours. 

Strange how you define yourself. Over the years, I've expanded into an identity as an animal and nature person, a creative person, a person who writes, a reading person. I never saw myself as a "medical" or "technical" or an "applied sciences" kind of person. I've fallen into the dichotomy trap, I see. We are much more complex than that. What I do is not who I am. Who am I, who are any of us, to be summed up so easily, hemmed in by fear, clinging to our egos for identity?

Maybe we are all more like prairies. “True prairies and meadows contain plants that are far more densely packed than any designed border. This density gives them a resilience that designed borders lack…. True prairie is a dynamic plant community, with its own rules and trajectory, very poorly understood even by ecologists,” writes Noel Kingsbury in a book on natural-style gardening I’m reading right now.

I feel freer, letting go of even the least part of these limits with which I seem to have been holding myself back. Small ones now...perhaps larger ones to come. I hope so. The truth is that I am changing to become more myself all the time. The paradox of that? The more we become ourselves, the more we seem to lose need of our carefully constructed identities, a thought that rings a gong inside of me every time I encounter it. Rob Brezsny was today’s guru, posting this to his Facebook page:

“There is only One Being: the Living Intelligent Consciousness That Pervades Every Cubic Inch of the Universe. Every seemingly separate thing, from earthworm to human being to star, is a cell in the body of this One and Only Great One.

“All of us cells feel pain as long as we have forgotten we are part of the One. But the forgetting was an essential rule that the One set up to begin the master game. Because of our illusion that each of us is alone and separate, we are under the impression that we must become distinctive and unique. As we work to create ourselves, adding intricate modifications to what we started out as, we give joy to The One, expanding and deepening the meaning of the master game.

“At the point when the sense of isolation is greatest in each cell -- which is also the point when each cell experiences its uniqueness with maximum acuity -- the pain of separation triggers the longing to remember where we came from.”

And when I got home from feeding the little bright-eyed ones, I found that the first of my monarch butterflies had emerged from her chrysalis, and hung suspended between one stage of her journey and the next, breathing.

Prairie restoration photos: Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Coldwater Spring.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A tale of redemption

Nothing makes me happier and more filled with hope than a redemption story: the mended-wing owl released into the wild, the neglected weedlot patiently transformed into a bee-humming garden, the painting dimmed by time that's restored to its original glory.

I am coming face-to-face with these stories lately, in the way that our brains seek and find that to which we give our energy and thought.

Spending one long afternoon exploring a reconstructed native tallgrass prairie and oak savanna, I found myself in the midst of one.

Before the Europeans came to North America, tallgrass prairie and oak savanna (a transitional landscape between woodland and prairie) covered much of this area. The fertile soil called "prairyerth" once supported millions of animals, birds, insects, reptiles and plants. Now, only a tiny fraction of a fraction remains.

That is a profound loss and a great sadness. How many oak trees, I wonder, were felled in this square mile, to convert the savanna to farmland, in the years before this house we live in was built in 1922?

But this is where the hope comes in. Many, many people are mending. Restoring what was. Healing the land in all sorts of inspiring ways.

And the blessing of sadness is that it makes you more open to everything that is sad, and also everything that transcends sadness, or that has been made whole; like the subtle magic of a wide-sky, wind-tossed prairie reclaimed from farmland.

"She who tells the prairie mystery must hear the prairie in her heart." --William A. Quayle

"I would be converted to a religion of grass," writes novelist Louise Erdrich, then goes on to describe what the prairie tells us: "Bow beneath the arm of fire...Be lovely and do no harm."

Coming around this curve, my eye was caught by the sunlight glowing through two large ears, belonging to a white-tailed fawn across the grass-scape, resting as her mother grazed a few feet away.

We watched each other in stillness, each in our own species-sphere. Long enough for me to take a photo. Then the doe caught my scent and together they bounded off into the brush, flashing their tails. I heard them circling back around in the distance, heading into the woodland over the hill. So I waited for them to get away so that they wouldn't feel pursued.

It was like walking in a neverending present, in a place that felt intensely itself.

Red Admiral

Flowering Spurge

Of this particular redemption story, Al Johnson, who undertook the reconstruction in 1965, said, "Although the process is slow and painstaking, we feel the results are well worth the effort...The flash of blazingstar and sunflower in the summer, the waving of bluestem and Indian grass are sights that as they grow rarer, become more precious to us and our children."

Rough Blazingstar 

Tall Blazingstar



"To see and know a place is a contemplative act. It means emptying our minds and letting what is there, in all its multiplicity and endless variety, come in." --Gretel Ehrlich

My next mending project: Dig out the daylilies behind my garage and put back a bit of prairie.

Prairie quotes from the Bennett/Johnson Prairie Field Guide.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An amazing life

"You were not born to struggle. You were not born to live a life where the moments of joy are few and far between. 

"You were not born to toil in your work five days a week, with fleeting moments of happiness on weekends. 

"You were not born to live with limited energy, feeling exhausted at the end of each day. You were not born to worry or be afraid. 

"You were not born to suffer. What would be the point of your life? 

"You are meant to experience life to its fullest and have everything you want and, at the same time, be filled with joy, health, vitality, excitement, and love, because that is an amazing life."  — Rhonda Byrne

Photos: Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, August 7, 2013.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Weedwild byways & flyways

At the end of the monarch training, I went home with three green milkweed leaves speckled with eggs. In fact,  as we humans were still learning our duties and responsibilities as monarch foster parents, two bitty baby larvae (AKA caterpillars) emerged, hatched into their first Instar, already zooming forward in their infant life cycle. 

In the low light of the classroom, they looked like tiny curved bits of black thread. By the time I got home 2 hours later, I was pleased to see that a third had hatched and all were busily munching holes in their leaves.

My first mission: to lay in a supply of milkweed to feed the young caterpillars. Of roughly 2,000 different species of milkweed in the world, the monarch's preferred food is the Common Milkweed, which often grows in sunny ditches along Minnesota roadsides and around the edges of farm fields. As you'll recall, Butterfly Weed is growing nicely in my pollinator garden, and it is one type of milkweed (asclepias tuberosa); but only the best for my larvae, so off I went to hunt down some of the good stuff.

I hopped in the car, powered down all the windows, and let my hair swirl around my face in the mix of warm August air and car exhaust as I wheeled down the highway a couple of miles. Then I wound my way back along a highway frontage road and pulled onto the shoulder,, tires crunching over gravel. I grabbed my camera, because I usually regret it when I don't.

Under the flight path, next to the whooshing traffic of Cedar Avenue and the Crosstown Highway, there is a wetland near a small lake. Jets occasionally thunder overhead and truck engines whine as they downshift around the exits. 

But the cattails wave in the wind like velvety wands, casting their spells. Nature's signature magic is to breathe in flurry and noise, transmute it, and breathe out waves of peace and timelessness. 

Purple Loosestrife

Blue Vervain


Field Thistle

And finally...Common Milkweed
I checked the milkweed stalk for monarch eggs (none) then pulled it up. They grow from rhizomes so the stalks replenish themselves.

At home, I hosed it down and plucked off the leaves, which bleed a milky sap that is toxic to vertebrates but not to insects (though it renders monarchs toxic to birds). Then I placed the leaves between layers of damp paper towels, covered them in plastic and put them in the fridge on top of Lee's bottles of Lift Bridge Crosscut.

(Lee is unexpectedly squeamish about me keeping the larvae in the house, where they must be so that they do not get eaten in the usual way of nature. I explained the reason for hand-raising them; because there is a severe shortage of monarchs, we are trying to help more of them make it. He was still squicked out. I get it. "Larva" is a slightly disturbing word in an indoor context, which is why I prefer think of them as caterpillars, a much cuter word.)

Two caterpillars and a scattering of eggs in container #1...see the crescents they eat out of the leaves?

A third, larger caterpillar in container #2.

It's just occurred to me that, if you don't count Lee, all the creatures I am currently taking care of--two tabby cats and three monarch caterpillars--have very handsome stripes. I also like this band. And Lee wears a lot of striped shirts. There are no coincidences.

Monarch housing on my altar

I will do my best to help these little chewers make it to chrysalis, where they completely break down into "bug soup" and then transmogrify into winged wonders in just a few short weeks. And this, the fourth generation of butterflies this year, is always different than the previous three: "The fourth generation of monarch butterflies does not die after two to six weeks. Instead, this generation of monarch butterflies migrates to warmer climates like Mexico and California and will live for six to eight months until it is time to start the whole process over again." (From this page.)

These caterpillars living  at my house, if they stay healthy, will be butterflies; and the butterflies, if they find nectar sources along the way, dodge predators and don't run into any insecticides, will fly all the way to Mexico, and overwinter with a colony of their brethren on oyamel firs ("sacred fir") in the mountains of Michoacan.

The chrysalis is a marvel of nature and a common because apt metaphor; a blueprint for anyone going through a transformation, rebirthing into a new aspect of themselves.

At least, I hope that is what is trying to happen inside myself. Because it is certainly uncomfortable, not consciously knowing what the long journey in front of me is and whether or not I am on the true road. I believe I know somewhere; but alas, getting at that voice, listening to it, understanding its messages is a slightly iffier proposition than simply following a directive encoded in my butterfly cells....

I have a sneaking suspicion that when it comes to venturing out of my comfort zone, I have much to learn from a migrating butterfly.

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