Far afield

My desire has been to wander, but my inclination does tend toward staying at home. One reaches a point in one’s life, however, at which wandering will shortly become more challenging than it was in youth. Also, it gets far too easy to stay comfortably within one’s zone of familiarity, which limits transitions and other difficult things.

Recently, I went far away, found myself (among other interesting places) in a field and happily fell into familiar behaviors I follow at home. In this case, scoping out the local flora and minor fauna in the hills in July.

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We were touring a small region of a small but extremely varied country: Portugal. The field featured small lizards that were so quick I couldn’t photograph them; dozens of types of wildflowers and grasses and their assorted tiny pollinators; robins, black redstarts, kestrels, and other birds I couldn’t identify. I am pretty sure we saw a hoopoe, which for me is exciting, though I expect it is not uncommon in Portugal.

As a humanities geek who loves Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, I love the old cities; and the sea’s appeal abides, but the mountain regions appeal to the introverted gardener and naturalist in me. I was pleased with the quiet, with the pure air and blue sky, the twisting roads, the small farms. Most of all I was pleased to find so many plants and pollinating creatures in the field next to where we stayed for two nights, not far from the Peneda-Gerês National Park.

Some of these flower photos feature at least one bee or wasp or beetle-y thing. Below, a common sight on the mountains: heather, flourishing as well as it does in the British moors. Not much rain, but many misty mornings, even in July.

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This region is wind farm country. There are large, electricity-generating windmills atop much of the range, and quite a few of the many small rivers are dammed to create electric power and places to fish and swim. There’s certainly very little air pollution up in the hills…I have visited few places so pristine.

More little critters among the field flowers. Easy to overlook, despite how vivid these photos may appear.

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Nice to dwell, if only for awhile, in a place that offers a beautiful change of perspective.

Growing, watching

Garden update: my valley experiences, once again, a bit of drought.

And I have scored a victory–possibly temporary–against the bunnies, thanks to some very hard, hot work by a pair of my best beloveds and lots of chicken wire. Now, as the weather gets into long spates of heat and humidity, I watch and wait while the garden does its growing.

I watch the tomatoes ripen. I watch the birds:

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Three swallows among the tomatoes

The bluebirds enjoy perching on the fenceposts. This one doesn’t look too blue, but I promise it is a bluebird.

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I guess I need a longer lens.

I watch the herbs and vegetables flower. The cilantro and dill flowers bring all kinds of pollinators to the garden. I found a new kind of very tiny bee this morning, but my camera doesn’t have the best close-up lens. It was a cute bee, very small, grey, and fuzzy.

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The borage gets a bit thuggish but attracts pollinators; cilantro and dill manage to sow themselves among the onion rows.

The beans rows are missing, because the rabbits ate them all.

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Speaking of bees and pollinators in general, I have found some lovely blogs by entomologists online, full of close-up photos, environmental information, and fascinating tidbits about bugs and their interactions with the flora and fauna that surrounds them. I am continually struck by the amazing interconnectedness of life when I read these posts. In addition, something about the sort of scientists who observe insects at close range and study their anatomy and life cycles seems to inspire a kind of geeky humor as they follow their biology passion into the field. Or maybe that quality exists only among the sort of entomologists who also blog!

Here’s one I like, Standing Out in My Field, the nature of a punny field biologist.

Possibly I should have followed my own third-grade dream of becoming “a scientist.” My tendency to watch things, especially as they grow–to be an observer–would have served me well in a scientific field discipline. Though it isn’t a bad quality for a writer to possess, either.

How to start

My students often get confused at the beginning of their essays; a common complaint is “I don’t know how to start!”

I feel for them. Beginnings are difficult. Recently I was wondering why that is so.

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Driving home during a blizzard–concentrating on seeing the road, staying off the shoulder, anticipating the curves, watching for oncoming vehicles. Tense, I’m trying not to clutch the steering wheel. Eight miles home seems long when the visibility is nearly zero and the back roads have not been plowed. And then a blur of activity to my right, a thunk against the passenger side window, and a sweeping shape looms in front of me, veers; a fan, dark stripes, pale breast-feathers, strikingly yellow claws. I’ve nearly hit a broad-winged hawk. And that thunk was a smaller bird that had been harrying it through the snow.

Broad-winged Hawk Flying

A startling incident, that experience heightened my awareness of where I am (in the world), in which environments (natural and human-made), and when (now!).

Sometimes, happenstances such as this evolve into, or figure in, poems that I will eventually write. The image, the occurrence, offers a way in.

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Returning to my question about how to start: the blockade many people make for themselves is that they think they have to know what they want to say before they write anything. “What is it I am trying to say?” the writer asks. We have been instructed to keep in mind our aims when we write.

I suggest it may be a mistake, though, to figure out what one wants to say before trying to write. When my student writers are truly stuck at the start, I ask them to write what they notice, what they experience, what they hear. Just write it down, describe it: the soft thud of the sparrow (if it was a sparrow–allow for speculation), the sound of wind against the car body, the clearly-visible buteo in the windshield where before there had been near-whiteout. What is it I want to say about the drive, the shock, the tension, the world of natural things? I don’t yet know, but I am writing.

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Thanks to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Raptor Preserve, Kempton PA.

Change

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Goldfinches in winter attire

Two kinds of chickadees (black-capped and Carolina). White-breasted nuthatches. A tufted titmouse, bluejays, goldfinches in their brown-ish phase. The winter birds have arrived; despite a strangely warm November, the birds molt into dull plumage or migrate on schedule. I try to remember that when I feel worried about climate change: some forms of life are adaptable, change is normal, anxiety accomplishes nothing, and right action is possible.

I do not mean that we ought to ignore changes, especially those for which we have been responsible. When human beings get concerned enough to act, there’s a great deal of harm we can undo.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people in the USA became anxious about pollution. I am old enough to recall when New York City’s famous skyline was obscured by a yellowish-gray haze almost every day. Days we could see the Empire State Building shining in sunlight without smog were rare.The problems Chinese cities today are having with polluted air were happening for the citizens of Los Angeles and New York fifty years ago, but we took action–surprisingly enough–and eventually state and federal regulations required that technology be implemented to ease the problems technology had created.

This process was not speedy or easy, but it worked. I visit New York fairly frequently, and the sky is almost always smog-free. My now-grown children have never seen the skyline hidden under layers of air pollution.

Things changed.

Can humans undo the damages we have wrought to our oceans, air, rain forests, mountains, deserts, rivers, planet and its climate? Probably not–not all of it, certainly–and I doubt there is much we can do to stave off the “sixth extinction.” We have to accept we are part of the change, for good or ill, and to find ways to do less harm in whatever time remains to us–to activate compassion.

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Meanwhile, I await the juncos. They usually arrive around the first week of December.

 

Second brood

This morning, I noticed catbirds engaged in nest building activities. Then I saw mourning doves mating near the garden–must be time for the second brood.

I do not know a great deal about bird behavior; but many of the smaller birds in my region raise two broods, one in spring and one in early summer. My not-very-scientific observation tells me that the second brood is often less successful–that fewer eggs are laid (or hatch). I could be wrong about that generality, but it seems to have held true in my yard for the past ten or 12 years. A little research would inform me, I suppose. For now, though, I am happy to rely on observation.

Sometimes I am eager to track down information (such as facts on songbird reproduction cycles). This week, though, I prefer to spend my time on looking about and writing. I’m working on a kind of “second brood” of new poems, and that is exciting.

I have also taken walks on two urban above-street-level parks, one in New York City (the Highline) and one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Hoover-Mason Trestle Park at Steel Stacks. The former park is pretty well-known; the latter just opened to the public and ought to be better known than it is.

Here’s some information on the site itself from the Landezine website that highlights the work of SWA group on the Sands Casino/Bethlehem City project and some of the challenges:

One of the most prominent examples of redirecting the environmental legacy of a post-industrial landscape can be traced to the south banks of the Lehigh Canal, in the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Comprising 1,800 acres (20 of which belong to this project) and 20 percent of Bethlehem’s total land mass is the former headquarters of Bethlehem Steel Corporation (BSC). Founded in 1904, the company continued to operate until 1998, when US manufacturing divestment, foreign competition, and short-term profit goals finally led to its demise. After almost a century of operation, the effects of Bethlehem Steel’s [1995] closure on the city were heartbreaking, as thousands of jobs disappeared instantly, along with 20 percent of the city’s total tax base. All that remained was an impending bankruptcy claim and the largest brownfield site in the country.

You read that correctly–the largest brownfield site in the USA. The EPA defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Acres and acres of said brownfield were left by Bethlehem Steel, and about 20 acres are being redeveloped at present. The park around the steel mill, which follows the elevated trestle around the enormous works, offers a fascinating view at what remains of the United States’ industrial heyday and highlights how significant these mills were. Nice bit of history, nice walk.

I’m not sure these urban parks really move us toward sustainability, but they are at least creative “repurposing” that may help make people more aware of the things that have brought us to where we are today (for good or ill). Perhaps another form of second brood?

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Bent & broken II

stunned (downy woodpecker)

stunned (downy woodpecker)

This summer, it seems the birds have fledged a bit later than usual–not by much, but enough for me to notice. And this crop of birds seems to be a reckless bunch of adolescents. At least twice a day I hear a soft, feathered body thud against a windowpane.

 

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We have taken a few of the actions recommended by the Humane Society (see page here if you want some advice), but some of our windows are quite high off the ground and we haven’t been able to bird-proof all of them. Most summers we hear just a few thuds, find the occasional body of a casualty or rescue a stunned survivor before a neighborhood cat gets it.

This year? I think I’ve heard two dozen thuds during the past 10 days. I am surprised at how many of the injured simply recover from their brief concussion, sit dazed for a few seconds, or continue to fly; but youth is resilient.

 

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This woodpecker, for example, was more dazed than most. But it gradually calmed itself into a recuperated state and hopped off my hand and into the hedgerow.

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dazed but recuperating

dazed but recuperating

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I always come away amazed at such encounters with “wild animals.” There is so much I don’t know about them. They are gorgeous. I find myself spending long minutes just examining the details of a feather, a toenail (claw-nail?), a tongue, an eye.

It seems a privilege to hold one, and a privilege to let it go.

 

Even though this bird will no doubt repay me by tearing more holes in the wooden siding of our house.

 

Well, the birds were here first.

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Not as lucky, this poor beauty was, alas, “maximally bent and broken.” Like the language of poetry.

 

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The wildest moment

This morning we were visited by thousands of starlings, whirring in a murmuration of wings and twittering enough to raise quite a din. I was wrapped in a warm robe and standing on the back porch because my vegetable garden patch is finally free of snow, and I just wanted to remind myself that the earth lies waiting (and spring will indeed arrive). I heard the flocks arriving, not an uncommon occurrence this time of year, but had never observed such a huge group in my yard and treeline before. And they came so close! Spinning past me at eye level, five feet away.

I felt almost as if I were among them, and for the first time could see how individual birds suddenly reverse themselves–pivoting on a pinion-tip–followed by some in the group while others swooped away on a different arc. There seemed to be flocks within the general flock, each with its own pattern of loop or zig-zag, rushing level or stopping briefly on the muddy grass, some settling, some leaping, their flight paths intersecting…others taking a second or two to hover in the air as if deciding which invisible line to pursue.

The noise floored me. I felt my whole body respond, eyes wide, heart racing: awe, or elation, not fear. I noticed the neighbors’ cat, who often spends hours on my sunny back porch, had backed himself into a corner and was sitting alert but a bit cowed by the loud, wild activity of the birds.

Here’s a short article from Wired that includes a video and some links to research on the physics and dynamics of starling flocks, including the delightful theory of “critical transitions” which smacks of metaphorical possibilities I think I must explore in a poem someday soon.

I’ve looked for videos of starling murmurations, and there are many–but most of them show the flocks from a distance and leave off the noise of the birds, substituting new age music (see below). For me, part of the experience is aural. Too bad I did not have the means to capture today’s wildest moment; that must be left to the imagination.