Thursday, February 28, 2013

Road Rage



Penguin behind Slipster: Watch where you're going! (Idiot!)

Slipster: F--- off!

“Marketing Fraud”

Like many other people, we get a lot of telemarketing calls at home. I don’t even answer those calls. Most of them show up on Caller ID with just a phone number (easily tracked online to aggressive telemarketers) or with cryptic Caller ID “names” such as “TOLL FREE CALL” or “CUSTOMER SERVICE.” I just ignore them. Nearly all of our friends or legitimate business callers show up properly on caller ID with their real names and/or numbers.

Today, though, we got a call from….

“A dipped toast for all eternity!”

In light of the upheaval [eyeroll] at the Vatican this week, Thoreau’s musings from this date in 1857 are highly relevant:

“It is a singular infatuation that leads men to become clergymen in regular, or even irregular standing.

Butternut Squash Apple Soup


Here’s a recipe for an unusual butternut squash soup. It includes apples, but it’s not the typical sweetened take on butternut squash. It derives its flavor from curry and chili, rather than sugar, cream, and butter, making it an ideal choice for vegan or low-calorie diets.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Brussels Sprouts Sauté

Do you loathe Brussels sprouts? Try this recipe – it will eradicate the memory of every overcooked, pale, strong-smelling, sour Brussels sprout you ever encountered.

Do you love Brussels sprouts? Try this recipe – you’ll love them even more.

This amazing technique yields bright, green, fresh-tasting leaves. Cooking the little leaves separately instead of the whole (or even halved) sprouts means that you can use a shorter cooking time, thus preserving more color, shape, and fresh flavor.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

“Orpheus with his lute made Trees”

Orpheus with his Lute made Trees,
And the Mountaine tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing.
To his Musicke, Plants and Flowers
Ever sprung; as Sunne and Showers,
There had made a lasting Spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the Billowes of the Sea,
Hung their heads, & then lay by.
In sweet Musicke is such Art,
Killing care, & griefe of heart,
Fall asleepe, or hearing dye.
— William Shakespeare, from Henry VIII, III : 1 (Queen Katharine)
Franz von Stuck, Orpheus (1891)

Monday, February 25, 2013


I enjoyed a lovely drive with K last week…she lives in a beautiful area. Here are just a few of the scenes we took in, along the big river and in some of the farm fields:

“Thus may you feel your pulse”

From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, February 25, 1859:
“Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring. If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature,—if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you,—know that the morning and the spring of your life are past. Thus may you feel your pulse.”

Saturday, February 23, 2013


For the past few mornings, I’ve seen something very interesting in a big hardwood tree in the backyard. (Note: The photos here were taken over the course of two or three different days.)

See those white things hanging from the tree?

What are they?

Sacred and Profane, or, Black Sheep Among the Flock

To the choral geeks among you: Do you ever stop to think about the religious beliefs – or lack thereof – of your favorite choral composers? Do you assume that composers of sacred or liturgical music believe the words they have set? Can an atheist or agnostic person compose effective, persuasive sacred music?


Think again.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

“In the pattern of the shadows”

“Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.”
— Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), Japanese writer

late afternoon shadows

Sweetheart Sweet Potato Fries


I made these for D for Valentine’s Day: Sweetheart Sweet Potato Fries.

Well, they’re not really fries; they’re baked in the oven. And these might be yams. (Sometimes I buy yams, sometimes sweet potatoes). In any case, they were delicious, and healthy, and fun, and easy to make.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Winter Beauty

I saw this beauty today in a nature preserve in the next town. She stopped and watched me for a long time.

I love the wintry colors here: light grey, brown, dove-colored, white, dark grey.

Morning Sentinel

This Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly for several minutes near the top of a tall maple tree in the back yard this morning. I was able to get a few quick pictures before it flew off with its mate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

School for Scandal

A while back, someone posted an interesting question to the ChoralNet forum. Here it is, slightly edited for length and clarity:

I am trying to get my creative juices flowing for a concert theme for my chamber choir ― and bought a very interesting book last week. It is about royal scand[a]ls through history ― Henry II of England's famous temper, Roman Emperors and their “fondness” for their mothers ― you get the idea. It struck me, it might be interesting to have a concert of music by composers who were, um, “characters?” ― my favorite being Gesualdo, eventho a grad school music history prof claimed [that] all the kerfuffle was a legend. Despite [it’s] being a “legend”, I know we will do some of his madrigals. Brahms visited houses of ill repute (waiting for Clara?), so I may include him. Who should I include in my concert of composers of questionable morals? I don't care too much about pieces yet, I can hunt them down myself, I just want names and stories good enough for the [tabloids]. I want temper tantrums, back stabbing (literally and figur[a]tively) and cheating husbands (and wives ― Carlo G. and his wifey weren't exactly angels, were they?). Bawdy house visits ― gossipy stuff that would make the tabloids. Folks believe composers to be saints and I want to show they had foilbles [sic] ― even in Renaissance Italy― and were as interesting in their time as [contemporary celebrities]. Perhaps I'm reaching but I may discover something new. Who would you include in a program such as this and what would you call it ― crazies/devils/villians [sic] in music history? I hope this [query] generates some lively music history tidbits.
Somehow this just struck me as mean-spirited. And that one phrase: “I don't care too much about pieces yet…I just want names and stories” made me wonder if this proposed program would be more about scandal and less about music. Here’s what I posted in reply, edited and expanded a bit for this essay:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Red Herrings

Re: Gun control

Humans have always experienced the feelings and situations that lead to violent behavior -- jealousy, anger, revenge, crime, etc. The ready availability of guns makes it more likely that the angry, vengeful, jealous, criminal people will shoot and kill rather than use other means to accomplish their ends.

Background checks, mental health care, personal defense (protecting against the largely mythical intruder) and school safety are red herrings in this conversation.

Only by removing guns from the equation can we reduce gun violence.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Winter Art


As I wrote recently, small scenes patterns, and motifs catch my eye and hold my attention:

But I also find beauty in larger vistas, particularly where there are interesting patterns of color, light, and line.

Light Snow Light

On Saturday morning, a light snow created its own illumination in the early morning air. It’s as though the snow gathers the ambient light and sends it back to us with softened rays.

The unusual snow-light muted the plumage of the birds that came to the feeders. I couldn’t stop looking.

On the wings of love

Sometimes, by pure chance, we have the opportunity to witness moments of utter beauty and wildness. Today I saw something that will live in my memory forever.

“Quite a Handsome Bird”

This afternoon on the way home from singing and errands, I stopped in at a few favorite birding places. On this very cold, very windy day, not much was about. I saw a few Field Sparrows (good find!) in the farm fields to my north, and glimpsed a smallish Sharp-shinned Hawk as it flew across the road and into a copse.

On a whim, I pulled into a small, unpaved commuter lot near the center of town, where close proximity to a golf course, pond, and a weedy field often provides opportunities to see birds up close.

As I drove through, I scanned the flock of geese (duck, duck goose), but didn’t see anything unusual. I was just turning to exit the lot when two small birds flew up almost from under the truck’s wheels.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Scenic Overlook

I looked out just now to see if the little grey screech owl might be visible. There it was, enjoying the mild sunny afternoon in its roost high above the yard.

The Breakfast Club


As soon as D puts out the feeders each morning, the birds arrive for breakfast. Here are just a few members of this morning’s breakfast club:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is it Because I’m Near-Sighted?

Is it because I’m near-sighted? Is it because without my glasses, I can’t see much past the end of my nose? I don’t know. But I do know this: I notice, and treasure, small views. I see patterns, shapes, colors, stories, in the small views that are within my field of view.

Here’s what caught my eye when I stepped out the front door for a moment earlier today to catch a breath of fresh air:

Valentine’s Day is For the Birds

Though today is Valentine’s Day, many of the birds in and around my yard have been showing “romantic” behavior for weeks, mostly in forming and re-forming pair bonds in preparation for spring breeding.

Breeding behavior? In February? With two and three feet of snow on the ground, single-digit temperatures, and generally wintry conditions?

How Things Have Changed Since 278 A.D.

While I was in the supermarket yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the excessive consumerism that saturates Valentine’s Day. (Of course, that has become true with every holiday, but that’s fodder for another post.) The florist section of the supermarket seemed to vomit a flood of red and pink flowers, plants, fake flowers, stuffed animals, boxes of candy, and balloons across the front of the store. The “festive treats” aisle was crammed with shiny red and pink candy boxes, more balloons, and every variation on the teddy bear theme. (?) I did scan the greeting card aisle for a nice simple card for D, but the pickings were slim (at least for our tastes), unless I wanted to show my love with a gag card, a card that played tasteless music, or made fun of sex, or was over-the-top lace-flowers-pink-with-a-long-poem-that-someone-else-wrote.

Of course it all was tasteless, but I was also saddened by the enormous waste of resources – paper, food, plants, plastic, etc. – that could have been used for more meaningful purposes. And it’s all marketed so heavily (and for so long, starting right after Christmas!), that people somehow have the idea that buying all this stuff is the right, or only, way to mark the day.

How things have changed since February 14, 278 A.D., the date on which Valentine, a Roman priest, was executed.

“It is enough that I am surrounded by beauty”

“It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty.”
—Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (1996)


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

“The Underworld”

The Underworld
by Sharon Bryan

When I lived in the foothills
birds flocked to the feeder:

house finches, goldfinches,
skyblue lazuli buntings,

impeccably dressed chickadees,
sparrows in work clothes, even

hummingbirds fastforwarding
through the trees. Some of them

disappeared after a week, headed
north, I thought, with the sun.

But the first cool day
they were back, then gone,

then back, more reliable
than weathermen, and I realized

they hadn't gone north at all,
but up the mountain, as invisible

to me as if they had flown
a thousand miles, yet in reality

just out of sight, out of reach—
maybe at the end of our lives

the world lifts that slightly
away from us, and returns once

or twice to see if we've refilled
the feeder, if we still remember it,

or if we've taken leave
of our senses altogether.

“The Underworld” by Sharon Bryan, from Sharp (2009)


Bird-watching. Not birding, just bird-watching.

Monday, February 11, 2013

“They are confident birds”


From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, February 2, 1854:

“I stole up within five or six feet of a pitch pine behind which a downy woodpecker was pecking. From time to time he hopped round to the side and observed me without fear. They are confident birds, not easily scared, but incline to keep the other side of the bough to you, perhaps.”


“We too have our January thaws”

Rain and warming are forecast for our region today. With nearly three feet of snow on the ground, we can expect some local flooding.

From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, January 31, 1854:

Nantucket Cranberry Cake


This is a perfect recipe. Perfect. A golden, toothsome cake is the perfect foil for the slightly tart cranberries that are hidden below.

Here's how to make it.

College of Cardinals

Most winters, we have two pairs of cardinals at the feeders. This winter, we have a whole flock: at least five males and six females are here every day. I can identify our alpha pair, whose breeding territory includes the hedgerow and deck area. The others seem to be mostly singles.

This is the only sort of cardinals' conclave that is worthy of our attention and interest.

Here’s a series of photos taken during the stormy weekend.

Scenes from a Blizzard

Scenes from the blizzard that overspread Southern New England Friday and Saturday.

Friday February 8

Snow fell all day long. Gusting winds filled the air with white coldness. Cold whiteness.

More photos:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Snow Day

On Friday morning, I made a big pot of really good minestrone, to  have on hand for easy re-heating in case we lost power. (I'll post the recipe here soon.)

As I worked, I watched the snow began to fall, the first flakes from the blizzard that would bring Southern New England to a standstill by nightfall.

Here's a slideshow of images showing how the view from my kitchen window changed over the course of the day, from about 10am until dusk:

Saturday, February 9, 2013



More photos soon. I'm working today.

Friday, February 8, 2013

“The crow, the goose, the eagle carry my quill”

“My Journal is that of me which else would spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods. They are my correspondent, to whom daily I send off this sheet postpaid. I am clerk in their counting-room, and at evening transfer the account from my day-book to ledger. It is as a leaf which hangs over my head in the path. I bend the twig and write my prayers on it; then letting it go, the bough springs up and shows the scrawl to heaven. As if it were not kept shut in my desk, but were as public a leaf as any in nature. It is papyrus by the riverside; it is vellum in the pastures; it is parchment on the hills. I find it everywhere as free as the leaves which troop along the lanes in autumn. The crow, the goose, the eagle carry my quill, and the wind blows the leaves as far as I go. Or, if my imagination does not soar, but gropes in slime and mud, then I write with a reed.”
—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Journal, February 8, 1841.


Snow Fall


Snow Fall
by May Sarton

With no wind blowing
It sifts gently down,
Enclosing my world in
A cool white down,
A tenderness of snowing.

It falls and falls like sleep
Till wakeful eyes can close
On all the waste and loss
As peace comes in and flows,
Snow-dreaming what I keep.

Silence assumes the air
And the five senses all
Are wafted on the fall
To somewhere magical
Beyond hope and despair.

There is nothing to do
But drift now, more or less
On some great lovingness,
On something that does bless,
The silent, tender snow.

“Snow Fall” by May Sarton, American poet, novelist, and memoirist (1912-1995), from her Collected Poems: 1930-1993.

The Book in Hand — Green Birding

In my essays here about birds, I’ve often touched on my own philosophy of birding. (Short version: Bird locally, and love every bird.)

I explored the idea most fully in these two essays:

The essay at the second link described my astonishment that birders who drove for hours to see a rare bird that I found didn’t seem to care much about…the bird itself. They were most interested in checking it off their birding lists. *eyeroll*

Just about a year ago, Richard Gregson, a birder from Montreal, contacted me to ask permission to include excerpts from that essay in Green Birding, a book about environmentally-friendly birding. I was delighted that he found my essay worthy of sharing with other birders, and I was also very grateful that he asked my permission.

The book has just come out, and it’s a good one. Here are my impressions. (I have not had time to read the whole thing yet, so I can’t in good conscience offer a bona fide review.)

Heron on Ice

While running errands yesterday, I stopped here and there to look for, and at, birds.

One of my favorite spots is a wide stream that glides through a lovely piece of woods (slated to be cut down for a road) and feeds into the River. I stop here in all seasons. Just lovely.

I had walked across the street to take some photos of the striking patterns of light and dark in the ice that partially covered part of the stream.

When I turned back to the truck, I saw something that I had missed just moments before:

See it? At the edge of the water, below that marvelous golden vegatation?

A heron.

Using the truck as a blind, I was able to get a few blurry shots.

This is a juvenile Great Blue Heron, less than a year old. Adults have striking slate-grey-blue plumage, with black, white and buff accents. Young ones like this one have streaky grey-brown plumage. It blended in so well with the surrounding vegetation that I missed seeing it earlier, though I think it had stepped out of a hiding place to get a better look at me.

The young heron was standing quite still on the ice, moving only once or twice in the ten minutes or so that I watched it.

Birds can remain motionless for long periods, usually in order to conserve energy.

D's reaction to these images: "Dinosaur."    :-)

After taking a dozen photos, I went away and left it alone. I knew it would have a hard night ahead.

Is it a hawk or an owl?

In between errands today, I stopped in my favorite birding spot, a group of tilled fields and grassy areas that supports a wonderful variety of birds. I went in there hoping to find some special winter raptors. I had seen two mature Bald Eagles just down the road, sharing a fish from the River. Maybe I would have similar good luck in here.

Here’s what I found straight away: this russet-buff-brown bird sitting in a grassy field:

Looks like a hawk, right?

But what about this face?

Look a little more closely at this remarkable face:

(Sorry it's a little blurry - these are taken on a cell phone camera, through binoculars.)

Is that a hawk or an owl?

It’s a Northern Harrier, a type of hawk found in grasslands, agricultural areas, and shoreline habitats, mostly to our north. We see them during migration and some of them winter where there is apppropriate habitat. This bird is identified as a juvenile by its brilliant golden breast and belly and overall russet coloration. The adult female is streaked brown, and the adult male is a pearly grey. In all plumages, this bird sports a distinctive white rump.

That white rump is easily seen when the bird is hunting. It glides low over the fields and meadows, tipping this way and that as it listens for prey (mostly small rodents).

That’s right, it listens. And that’s why it has that interesting face that reminds us of an owl’s face. Like an owl, a harrier hunts by listening. The round areas around the eyes are called facial disks. They feathers are arranged in a slightly dish-shaped pattern which funnels sound toward the bird’s ears.

When a hunting Harrier hears prey, it whirls, wheels, and drops into the grass feet first. If it’s lucky, it will come up with a mouse or vole in its talons, and might settle right on the spot to eat it. If it comes up empty-clawed, it will lift effortlessly into its gliding, glancing flight for another try.

Unlike our more common Red-tailed Hawk, which sits on a perch high above its hunting area, looking for prey, the rarer Northern Harrier stays pretty close to the ground. It occasionally perches on a low branch, fence post, or the like, but most often it’s on the ground, or perhaps on a grassy hummock. Its eggs are laid in a nest on the ground. I expect that most of my non-birding readers have never seen a Harrier, or even heard of one.

In the context of human interests, Northern Harriers are valuable, as they can consume large numbers of mice and other small animals. Unfortunately, the grassland habitat on which the Harrier depends is fast disappearing under housing developments and commercial facilities.


The young Harrier is almost the same color as the grass:

Cat and Mouse

Hermione helping in the office.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

“Stand very quietly in a corner”

“I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
—Franz Kafka (1883-1924), German author: Diaries (1914)

via K.

Why does this arrest me, speak to me, shake me?

Little Owl

I hadn’t see the little grey screech owl for the past two days, but here it is this morning, sunning itself in the big knot-hole.

Where had it been?

I wonder if it uses several different roosting spots within its territory? Some quick research shows that is probably not the case. It generally sticks to one favored roost. Perhaps it's just been tucked away in there, out of the cold. Perhaps with a mate??

I admit to worrying about that owl when it’s not in “my” tree. (Silly ego-centric human.) I’ve been extremely worried that it might have been roosting in one of the big, old, beautiful, irreplaceable trees that are being taken down on the next street, as I wrote about here:

For several days the sounds of destruction have filled our corner of the neighborhood, as chain saws, chippers, large trucks, and other machines of ugliness have turned that graceful avenue of old maples, beeches and oaks into what D called, this morning, “just another street.”

Well, the little owl is safe, for now. I hope it stays in our yard; D has promised to protect that tree

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Always a Favorite

No matter how many rare or exquisitely beautiful birds I see, I never lose affection for the Black-capped Chickadees. I love their velvety black caps and bibs, their pewter and white back and wings, their tiny black legs and feet, their curiosity, and the way they boss the other birds about, even some that are much larger. They are relatively unafraid of people; when I go out to refill the feeders or look at something interesting in the yard, they come quite near, sometimes within a foot or two, scolding me with their little nasal dee dee dee dee calls.

A small flock of these endearing little birds comes to our feeders every day. Here’s one that came by during last week's snow:

Henry David Thoreau loved chickadees, too. He wrote about them often in his Journal, such as in these two winter entries:

As I stand by the hemlocks, I am greeted by the lively and unusually prolonged tche de de de de de of a little flock of chickadees. The snow has ceased falling, the sun comes out, and it is warm and still, and this flock of chickadees, little birds that perchance were born in their midst, feeling the influences of this genial season, have begun to flit amid the snow-covered fans of the hemlocks, jarring down the snow, - for there are hardly bare twigs enough for them to rest on, - or they plume themselves in some snug recess on the sunny side of the tree, only pausing to utter their tche de de de. (January 12, 1860)

…The little chickadees love to skulk amid [the seed-laden weeds] and peep out from behind them. I hear their faint, silvery, lisping notes, like tinkling glass, and occasionally a sprightly day-day-day, as they inquisitively hop nearer and nearer to me. They are our most honest and innocent little bird, drawing yet nearer to us as the winter advances, and deserve best of any of the walker. (December 1, 1853)

“Ink froze”

On January 23, 1857, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his Journal:
The coldest day that I remember recording, clear and bright, but very high wind, blowing the snow. Ink froze.
We are in the midst of a similar deep freeze here in New England. It’s 8˚F this morning.

This weather is very hard on the birds, of course. I’ve put out extra food, and in fact I scattered extra seed under the hedgerow last night, so that the birds could have breakfast as soon as they were up and about this morning.

Certain leftovers or food scraps are great for the birds, too. Last night I found the remains of some roast beef in the back of the refrigerator… too old for us, but I cut it into small pieces and tossed it out to the side of the yard last night. There was plenty of fat, which is a valuable high-energy food. The crows and jays will love it, and perhaps the fox that has been coming around at night will make use of it.


Note: I originally posted this on January 24th, when it was highly relevant. This morning  (February 5), after I made a small edit to the post and saved it, Blogger, in a spasm of filing ignorance, re-posted it as a new post.

It is not eight degrees here - it's a balmy 25, and snowing.

Monday, February 4, 2013

“These black apparitions”

“Crows yesterday flitted silently, if not ominously, over the street, just after the snow had fallen, as if men, being further within, were just as far off as usual. This is a phenomenon of both cold weather and snowy. You hear nothing; you merely see these black apparitions, though they come near enough to look down your chimney and scent the boiling pot, and pass between the house and barn.”
—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Journal, December 31, 1859.
Crows over winter meadow at dusk, December 2012

If M.C. Escher worked in construction


“A tree has something to say”

Herman Hesse on trees:

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

― Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Really, you must look up!

The other day I wrote about the unexpected pleasures that can be gained simply by stopping and looking at the world around you, and especially about the delights of looking up, looking up at our marvelous sky:

Today while driving home from my morning singing, of course I was scanning sky, trees, and fields for birds, particularly raptors. (Raptors are particularly easy to spot during the winter.)

As I passed an office park, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk soaring over a near-by field:

Then I realized that there were two hawks – a pair – in a courtship flight display:

It’s easy to identify a pair of hawks, and to differentiate male (smaller) from female (larger), though their plumage is the same.

Courtship in early February? Yes, many raptors – hawks, eagles, and owls – begin courtship in late winter. For birds that mate for life, such as Red-tailed Hawks, the late winter courtship is a time to renew and strengthen pair bonds, repair nests that have been battered during winter storms, and prepare to mate and lay their eggs. Some owls lay their eggs during February. And these birds need to get an early start, for it takes months for a newly-hatched raptor to develop the size, strength, and skills to survive on its own during the following winter. 
I’ve written about the noisy summer “flight school” for the Red-tailed Hawks that live in my neighborhood:

And about why that flight school was silent in 2012:
The Red-tails’ courtship flight is a beautiful dance. The two birds climb independently, then soar together in ever-smaller circles, till they are almost wingtip-to-wingtip, hundreds of feet above the earth. Often they will dive steeply and swiftly, in much the same way as they do when they stoop at prey. It’s really a thrill to see this behavior.

Red-tailed Hawks are the most common raptor in our area; you’ve probably seen them, perched in trees or on the tall lamp posts at the side of the highway, scanning the ground for prey.* If you look up once in a while, chances are good that you can watch one soaring and wheeling, its rusty-red tail a sure field mark. (The immature birds have greyish tails.)

As the pair of red-tails danced against the clounds, I wanted to get a closer look. I pulled into the parking lot and parked way off to the side, overlooking the field, where I could enjoy the show. I watched the two birds ascend, ever-circling, to the apex of their flight, after which they dived and swooped low over the field next to where I was parked.

As I watched, I could see that they were calling to each other. I put down the truck window and leaned my face into the fresh air, listened to their harsh cries. They came so close to the truck that when I listened carefully, I could hear their wings cutting through the still air.

Suddenly their cries became louder and more frequent. I looked up (!!) and saw an interloper – a third Red-tailed Hawk, this one a younger male. In this photo of the three hawks, you can see that the female is the largest of the three, near the bottom of the scene.

The young bird tried to “cut in” to the dance of the mated pair, making an obvious bid for the large female, and trying to assume control over their territory, as well. The female’s mate, screaming loudly, engaged with the newcomer in mid-air, circling high, diving, attacking, and eventually chasing the second hawk away.

While all this was happening, a fourth hawk, a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk, tried to get in on the action. (Red-shoulders will occasionally mate with Red-tails.) The two male Red-tails were so deeply engaged in their dogfight that they hardly seemed to notice the Red-shoulder, and the female Red-tail had eyes only for her own mate. The Red-shoulder flew off to the west (into the sunset, as it were) and I lost sight of it.

Soon enough, the invading male Red-tail had had enough, and he, too, left the scene, none the worse for wear. The paired Red-tails continued their dance in the sky, circling higher and higher.

How glad I was that I had looked up and seen this marvelous little drama.

I was reminded of Thoreau’s thought’s on the uplifting feeling we get when we watch raptors – read it here:

What did you see today?

Read more about the raptors I see in my neighborhood:

To see really drop-dead gorgeous photos of Red-tailed Hawks, visit this site, which chronicles the story of the most famous Red-tailed Hawk on the planet, Pale Male:

* While it’s always a thrill to see the big Red-tailed Hawks (and occasionally a slightly-smaller Red-shouldered Hawk) perched by the roadside, it’s actually dangerous for them. Why? These “roadside raptors” prey on rodents that are feeding on the garbage that so many people throw from their cars. Unfortunately, they are often struck by cars when they swoop down on their prey. Please — don’t throw garbage or trash, even biodegradable food items, from your car.


Elegant Ron


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Before Life and After (Thomas Hardy)

Before Life and After
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), English author and poet

A time there was—as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth's testimonies tell—
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.

None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.

If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
No sense was stung.

But the disease of feeling germed,
And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
How long, how long?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Look up

Look up.

Just look up.

When you step outside — from home to car, from car to office — take just five seconds to stop and look up.

What do you see?

Sky. Clouds. Movement! Trees. Birds. Weather. Colors. Wind!

When I stepped out to get the mail this afternoon, I stopped on the front step and looked up. Here's what I saw in the tiny piece of "my" sky between the edge of the roof and my beloved larch tree:

This little view is so beautiful! And full of life and interest! There's so much to learn about and appreciate, if we would just stop to look.

Just look at the bright blue sky against that gray cloud, which a few moments later loosed a snow squall and filled the air with flying flakes that stung my cheeks and gathered in my hair. Appreciate the different lines and textures of the two main trees in view: the dark, rough-textured larch in the foreground, and the silvery, smoother-barked oak against the sky in the background. (The little owl is there, too, just out of the frame.) Look carefully to see the tiny cones on the larch; the juncos and chickadees have been busy there for weeks, extracting the tiny seeds.

I was so enthralled with this skyscape that I forgot to get the mail.

We miss so much of our natural surroundings because we don’t stop to look.

We fail to understand or appreciate the natural world because we ignore it.

We let it pass us by; we let ourselves forget about it. When we become inured to the beauties of our world, we become hardened to its degradation and destruction.

Look at what’s all around you. Love it. Care for the earth that sustains you.

Look. Look up. Just stop and look and be in your world for a few moments.

What do you see?