Friday, January 31, 2014

I'm not a very consistent feeder of the birds - but it's been cold these last weeks.  I rummaged in my shop to find the feeders that I'd never gotten around to cleaning - and hung them up filled with black oil sunflower seeds.

It didn't take long for the customers to arrive.  Black-eyed juncos by the dozen and the white-throated sparrows that travel with them.  The occasional song sparrow or fox sparrow or tree sparrow will scratch on the ground with them.  Alighting on the feeders are the white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice.  They all scatter when the larger red-bellied woodpecker crashes in.  Among the chipping of the sparrows I also hear the slide-whistle call of the goldfinches.  A couple of house finches squabble with them.  A half dozen pairs of cardinals brighten up the snowy scene.  A carolina wren makes an appearance.  The tiny brown creeper ignores the feeders, but seems to like the bustle of birds flying all about.  It does its thing, creeping around the bark poking in the crevasses.  Blue jays show up occasionally in loud gangs - as do the mourning doves.  I was surprised yesterday to see a male Eastern Towhee scratching with the juncos under the bare lilac.  He should be off in his southern ranges far to the south.

I'll spend this 25 pound bag of sunflower seeds to see the birds through the worst of the cold - and a smaller bag of thistle seed for the goldfinches - but after that I think they're on their own again . . . .

UPDATE, Feb 5th

A hairy woodpecker came by today, and Monica said there were a few red-winged blackbirds joining.  The little brown creeper comes by every day.  But filling up the three feeders and scattering around a few handfuls used up the last of the 25 lb. bag.  There was eight inches of snow on the ground, though this evening's rain will have turned that to a few inches of slush.  Still, I may have to see about getting another bag.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The forest reclaims the ruins

A comment I left over at the Archdruid Report:

I was hiking today in the Rhode Island woods and it got me to thinking about our stories of progress. I think one of the reasons that the hegemony of Progress never quite gained full hold on me has to do with walks like this. The Pocono mountains where I spent summers as a child - like the Rhode Island woods - are filled with the remains of old farms and houses, tanneries, quarries and forgotten cemeteries. You may feel like you are walking in the forest primeval, but then you notice a few scraggling branches of lilac and an elderly apple tree. Poke around and you are certain to find the foundations of a cellar overgrown. Obviously, these abandoned places could be folded into the story of Progress, but for me they never were. They didn’t give me an alternate story really, but I think they created a productive dissonance to the stories that I was being told.
Updated with the Archdruid's response:
Andy, fascinating. It occurs to me that frequent childhood trips to the Gray's Harbor area of Washington's Pacific coast, where rotting pilings from long-defunct canneries stick up out of the water like decayed teeth and the ruins of dead factories are nearly as common as they are here in the Rust Belt, may have played a similar role in the shaping of my imagination.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hiking to Phantom Bog

Swamps along the Pawcatuck river
Judging by the oak trees, it's been at least a century since the woods behind our house was pasture.  Those days left behind the innumerable stone walls that criss-cross the forest.  Today I hiked back through them.  The temperature was dropping through the mid-twenties, but the breeze was light.  A new layer of snow was fresh from last night, but not deep.  

A single holly berry
Once you cross the low wall that bounds our property it's not long before you come to another wall and then another.  There's a small stream that runs to the southwest, and although the water is little more than a trickle, it creates a broad, swampy swale of green briar, pepper bush and other shrubs that make crossing though a chore.  

Tracks of a fisher cat?
I've never settled on a singular path or cleared one for myself, and often enough I just drift to the southwest until I eventually come to the dirt road that cuts between highway 91 and the railroad tracks. Today I drifted as far as an old foundation I know about - it's marked by a young holly tree - but then just cut through the swampy woods.

The snow showed the tracks of the local creatures -- deer, fox, gray squirrel, coyote.  And down the ice-covered stream itself ran the trail of a fisher cat, I believe.  (It might have been an otter, but there was no sign of any dragging tail.)

I crossed the swale without too much trouble, and continued through the woods to the head of a shallow gravel and sand quarry.  A good place for a snowy owl to hunt, but alas there were nothing but blue jays.  At the mouth of the quarry is that dirt road, which offers access to the railroad tracks, but also bends northeastward to parallel them for a stretch.

Ice in the gravel quarry.
John Weeden Barber, died 1852, aged 5 months and 26 days.
I followed it for a few hundred yards to where it forks again, turning leftward up into the forest or rightward down to the tracks.  If you turn right and cross the tracks there you might be able to spot an unpromising footpath that disappears into the woods.  As far as I know it's mostly used by hunters, though someone had once opened it enough for a four wheeler, perhaps to get to the old cemetery that is hidden down there. Or maybe it was fishermen using the trail as a back way to one of their camps down on the Pawcatuck river. 

Remains of a well.
No one has been keeping the trail open recently, however, and scrub oak has collapsed down onto much of it.  Even the deer had given it up, and only coyote prints were upon it.  I persevered to where the land rises and there is a clearing with the remains of an old farm.  The foundations of the house and barn and a hand-dug well mark the edges of a grassy glade.  Pitch pines grow around it surrounded on two sides by swamps and on the third by the river.  It seems an unlikely spot to farm.

Still, it is a pretty place.  To the north there is open water and beaver-felled trees.  This time of year the beavers themselves are cozy within their lodges.  If the lake has a name I've never seen it on any map.  I suppose it may be the northmost extent of Phantom Bog, which surrounds this bend of the Pawcatuck and reaches down Poquiant Brook toward Watchaug Pond.  On this day, the water was iced over and quiet.  Only the little kinglets that live in these stands of pine made any sound at all.

I didn't take the trail back, choosing to trust the deer paths wherever the forest wasn't open.  A single deer can take you into any kind of difficulty, but a well worn deer path always avoids the worst thickets and stands of greenbriar. Their browsing even prunes back what little there is.  The snow has been on the ground for nearly a week, so it was easy to see their favored paths.

I zigged and zagged, because the deer don't always go where you'd like them to, but the hazy winter sun stayed to my left and I wasn't in much danger of getting lost.  I came to the railroad tracks at the quarry mouth and walked back the road toward home.  A flock of robins and a lone hermit thrush kept me company.

Francis Lee Greene, died 1876, age 14

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I love January - 19th to 25th

I love a joke well-told.

I love the solving of a riddle, that moment when the rigid, false facade collapses and an unexpected figure strides smiling forth.

I love:

the migration of birds

the orioles squabbling in Costa Rican palms while juncos forfeit their taiga to claim these rich south woods of winter.

the dormancy of things that stay - creatures burrowed deep to sleep.

the fierce biding of stemless roots and leafless twigs.

the genius of a queen bee, hot within her cluster, sipping summer's honey.

 . . . The whole love poem below the fold . . .

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Between the sea and Ninigret pond

There was a steady, cold rain falling as we arrived at East Beach.  Monica was supposedly leading a hike for the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, but we weren't expecting anyone to join us.  A light breeze was moving great bands of torn black cloud from south to north.  But Monica had brought a huge black umbrella, and I wore my broad brimmed hat, and we were determined to walk.  My resolve to get out into the woods every week had failed me for too long already.  There's an irruption of snowy owls along the southern New England coast, and we weren't going to catch a glimpse of one by staying inside.

The southern Rhode Island coastline from Watch Hill to Point Judith is made up of salt lagoons separated from the sea by narrow barrier beaches.  Ninigret pond is the largest of these lagoons, and East Beach conservation area - an undeveloped stretch of coastline - bounds it for three miles from Blue Shutters beach to the Charlestown breachway.

We walked east northeast along the sandy, unpaved jeep trail through a low forest of pine.  The rain upon needles sounded like sleet, and felt like sleet on the skin, but it was liquid enough.  Juncos, chickadees, sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers flitted around the underbrush.  A downy woodpecker chittered to itself as it poked in the bark.  A red squirrel fled across in front of us.  Deer had left deep tracks in the rain-wet sand.  The crash of surf seemed odd to hear as I walked among pine trees.

After a couple of miles we crossed the dunes to the beach, and continued further.  The graceful gulls of summer are all gone, leaving dour Herring gulls and their larger cousins the Great Black-Backed gulls.  A few rafts of eider and maybe scoters bobbed up and down on the swells beyond the surf.  We didn't walk all the way to the breachway.  In the mist it kept retreating.  And in any case five miles on sand is hard work for a Saturday morning.  As we hiked back along the wrack line, my wet, cotton pants gripped my knees icily.  But every shell, stone and crab carapace upon the sand glistened with vibrant color and glossy texture in the stormish light.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

More winter loves, January 12-18

I love that moment when a friend averts their eyes - to gather the threads of the story they intend to tell -  and we lean in to catch it.

I love the resonance of raindrops doinking gently on my black and broad-brimmed Amish hat.

I love that toads live in our cellar - warty house guards who take crickets and bring good luck - or so I'm happy to believe.

I love the eight-eyed spiders who stalk prey in high corners and leave no cobweb behind.  Jumping spiders - too quick - I love their way of moving - jerky little teleports.

I love the sunbeam that re-makes a room to a sudden work of art.  I love my wife's drowsy, feline pleasure in the warmth of slanting sunshine.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

A week of winter loves


We can lament the time-wasting aspects of life on-line - but I'm linked with a far-flung circle of friends and phantasms though facebook posts and bloggings.   One of these friends passed on a new year's idea for keeping a jar and every day slipping in a note about something good that happened - so at some point you can empty that jar like a piggy bank of happy moments.  Another friend came to a poem exchange with Stephen Dunn's Loves, in which he rambles on and on about the things he loves.

I thought I would try to combine those ideas, and every day write down a single thing that I love.  At the end of the year, I might have the draft of a mighty poem - or at least I'll have had another tool to chip away at pessimism and distraction.  Here's a first installment.

A week of loves . . . January 5 - 11 . . .

I love the cold so bitingly mad that wind-tossed branches clack together as metal rods.  I love the mist-drizzle needles' subcutaneous dance in the blood-heat of my cheeks.  I love the gray, wet, chill air, which can be snatched away like a magician-scarf to shock me into knowing light and sun-warmth.

I love the arrogance of chickadees and tufted titmice - tiny, feathered, fearless, dinosaurian.

I love the skepticism of cats.

I love how Irish stout will not be rushed - whose churn from foamy brown to velvet black forces one to wait and contemplate.

I love the victory of laughter over shyness.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Six degrees below zero


It was bitter cold this morning - six degrees below zero as the sun came up.  

I own a pair of boots that I wear only a few days each winter - usually when I shovel snow.  Even with their thick woolen inserts they fit too loosely for walking far - unless I wear wool socks as well.  I own this pair of boots for the rare morning like this one.

wintering hives
The snow is a dust that has forgotten it was ever water.

The rhododendron leaves have drawn themselves down in tight coils, as if the plant were squinting against the cold.  

The only tracks across the whiteness are from birds among the weed-tops and a lone deer, who browsed a long path through the yard, nibbling cedar and pruning the cherry.  

I can hear a woodpecker pounding dully on the oaks.

I'll put out birdseed, which I haven't done yet this winter, but this is the kind of cold that can kill even the juncos and chickadees if their energies fail.  

And I'll sweep the little drifts from the beehive entrances, though no bee is going to try to venture out.

tree shadows on the snow

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Tarot Reading for 2014

A commenter noted that my predictions from New Year's Eve, were kind of depressing.  Of course, any good pessimist can always simply claim to be a realist.  And I do.

But if I'm being honest, I also admit that I have a superstitious reluctance to make rosy and optimistic predictions, especially about my life or the lives of people I care about.  There's an old and well-established tradition that talking with confidence about future good things will "jinx" them.  It's a tradition that is alive and well in my own upbringing.

If I were just a little more superstitious I could avert the problem by humbly knocking on wood. 

I don't "believe" in such things intellectually.  It seems preposterous to me that the universe at large would care if I get hubristic in my pronouncements about good things coming my way.  On the other hand I do "believe" such things in the sense that the reluctance exists and persists in me.  (Sometimes, in fact, my intellect will relent and allow the superstitious part of me knock on wood for a tiny dose of irrational peace of mind.)

A time tested way to get around this problem is to consult an oracle, so this morning I cast the cards for a New Year's reading.  This is how they fell:

It's my familiar deck, the Mythic Tarot, cast in a traditional Celtic Cross. 

The significator is Strength, with the Three of Pentacles as the crossing card.  This indicates that our strength is being blocked by the things we have created in the material world - our own success and prosperity.  As we try to understand this conflict at the conscious level, the crowning card is the Six of Cups, a card that symbolizes looking back and dwelling upon the past - while in the position of the more unconscious base of the matter is the Four of Pentacles, the miser card.  By focusing on the past rather than the  future, and trying irrationally to hold onto what we have, we thwart our own strength.

The card of where we've been is the Queen of Swords, which is the powerful, but uncomfortable blending of icy intellect, emotion and the grounding of the feminine.  In the position of where we are going is the Two of Pentacles, which is the card of getting down to work and creating something in the world.

The resource card is the Ace of Wands, which is the inexhaustible fire of creativity and passion that gives energy and drive to action.  It is a card without preconceptions, but only the desire to create something.  The next card is how the situation is seen by others.  In this case the Seven of Pentacles represents the challenge of making decisions - of forethought and planning.  So while the common view is that we have choices to make, the reading as a whole puts the emphasis less on planning and selecting options, and more on inventing and doing.  

The hopes and fears card is the Queen of Cups - who symbolizes a more integrated, but also more limited or focused way of being than her counterpart the Queen of Swords.  The Queen of Cups experiences and embodies her emotions and the slippery element of water, where the Queen of Swords manages it all through intellect and control.  In this contrast, there is hope and reluctance to set aside some of the directing force of reason in favor of emotional depth and honesty.

The outcome card is the Nine of Pentacles, which is a card of material prosperity and reward for work and effort.

If I wanted to offer an antidote to the intellectual pessimism of yesterdays predictions, I couldn't have asked for a more straightforward and complementary reading.  As I said yesterday, I don't believe that 2014 is the year that we begin to honestly tackle the problems of our unsustainable ways of living.  But in its inimitable, affirming way, the tarot lays out the case that as we eventually come to extricate ourselves from the material and intellectual pitfalls we have fallen into, we have the resources and the clarity of motivation to invent for ourselves a new, satisfying way of living.

That's why, in spite of my reasoned pessimism about where our civilization is trending - I still raise a family, learn to keep bees, travel, make plans and make friends.

Happy New Year, people!