Today I’m Keeping my Focus Close

I’m keeping my focus in close today I think – not much past my own front yard in fact.

I need the rest.

So this is what I see these days, on the frosty autumn mornings.

I see the milky morning light as it plays on the landscape. We live on the corner so we get a good a good look around at things.

I note that the ivy is growing on our house again. How hard it was to see it all stripped off last year so the painters could paint! It’s coming back now, if slowly. It’s about up to my head where it climbs the chimney with those tenacious tendrilled fingers.

I see that the birds are vying for the last berries on the hawthorn tree…..

I see all this.

And I see these stalks of oat grass if that is even oat grass, bought at Whole Foods the people who would sell you back the dirt under your shoes if they could figure out how to get it away from you long enough for to mark it up in true Whole Paycheck style.

Still, it’s pretty, the oat grass.

I see my pumpkin, nibbled even more that it was last week by this little guy and his pals, all seeking to plump up before the real cold comes.

And speaking of the real cold, something special happened yesterday morning: The ginkgo tree lost all its leaves within an hour’s time, as is its custom.

Here is what it looks like. I just love seeing – and hearing – this happen every year. What is the ginkgo’s lesson for us do you think.

Spring is…. Coming?

So what if we do get a little snow today? I’m watching three robins prowl silent as the nuns of my childhood, eavesdropping on the poor worms passing between classes in their underground corridors.

I’m looking at two crocuses holding up their cupped blossom like so many pale-purple shot-glasses. “Fill us!” they say, like young Oliver Twist at the workhouse. “Please, sir, may I have some more?” they are saying to that warming sun.

We laugh at the snow and wind. Look at these blooms from the Smith College hothouse. Soon these blooms will be everywhere

Well, wait a minute.

Sure I can laugh, safe in the land of the Alcotts and Thoreau, in quaint old not-much-doin’ New England where things are generally quiet.

I guess I wouldn’t laugh if I lived out by Boulder County Colorado when these winds came through on Wednesday.

Here is a video of what a wind can do. I’d show you the truck blown over out there but the footage is embedded in the Channel 9 News site and first you have to watch a long ad in which a heavy lady talks about how her life changed when she skinnied out on some miracle diet product.

It’s upsetting to see a truck go over on its side, as bad as seeing a race horse founder and fall, because you know there’s a person in it. It does show what Nature can do though; and it isn’t funny at all.

That Channel 9 News site also showed a schoolboy with his backpack being blown right over and skidding upended like a turtle along the roadway. That wasnt funny either.

It’s never funny when Nature does this. Remember the floods of ’94?

This was the Chagrin River in Ohio that year,

We forget.

We shouldn’t.

Prey Unceasingly

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, as they say…

And just because you’re not watching them doesn’t mean they’re not watching you.

This is a beautiful and amazing video of an owl caught on camera just as he’s swooping down on his prey,

It stirs up many responses in me all at once:

Like how much fun it must be to fly, a thought I have at least once a day every day.

And also…

what amazing strong legs he has;

and the glory of his plumage;

and the intricate workings of those talons.

I’m joking with the paranoid talk. The video doesn’t really make me feel hunted by anything: not illness, or bad luck, or even death.

Anyway, death isn’t like this, as far as I can tell. Death is more of a subsiding. And whatever the agent of your death, in the movie of your life it’s the loss of oxygen that makes the projector stop. (I learned that by reading physician Sherwin Neuland’s oddly comforting book How We Die.)

No, this creature’s slow-motion pounce doesn’t remind me of death at all, even though his landing spelled death for his meek victim. His flight, his pounce, his grace and energy remind me of life and all life’s beauty.

The Sick and the Well

The workman across the street from us is a fan of ‘70s music.  He’s got Janis Joplin and Credence singing so loud I feel like I’m in the shower with them – which is fine with me. It’s nice to be someplace where a workman feels like he can whistle or sing along.

My heart aches for those people in the dark still so many days after Irene. Without juice it’s dark even at high noon inside most houses. You can’t see a whole lot in a closet, for example, even with your flashlight, and how many people have generators?  Of course a stove won’t work because the spark to light it is electrical. TV and radio are out, natch, so the only sound is the creaky little string-section of the crickets coming from the yard. AND you can’t maintain very good hygiene with no water – though you do find yourself saying prayers of thanks for Sir John Harrington who, in the 1500s, invented the entirely mechanical device we now call the toilet. Pour in water, even by hand, and the thing flushes. The only challenge is you have to haul the water from someplace else to do this if you don’t want to be wasting the potable stuff on this task.

In this family all we had to do when the storm hit was live for six short hours without power, then cut up the 30-foot tree that toppled at the height of the storm. But what pity I feel when I look at pictures of the destruction others have faced and are still facing!

In the second-to-last chapter of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald observes that there is no difference between people so great as that between the sick and the well  and you could say that about a community too, the communities whose services still function normally being the obvious well ones.

Look at this picture above from Winooski, Vermont. At first glance it looks like a snow field much trampled, right? Nope. Those are the still-raging waters of the river tearing through the town of Winooski Vermont three whole days after the passing of Tropical Storm Irene. 

It’s chilling to see the kind of power evident in that photo and in the video below as well. It makes you realize why humans taught themselves to whistle and sing in the first place: they did it to tamp down terror.   

Waiting It Out

Like everyone else. we waited around yesterday, but because the body will stay for only so long in a state of alert we also watched some TV.  I myself swam with this Scooby Doo fan, out to the swim raft, onto whose ladder a water-spider had tied a webby netful of babies.

This same little guy’s mum, who is our first-born and is seen to the left in profile, told us not to climb onto the raft. If we did we might dislodge this one mother spider’s silk-sack of webbing, inside which her two dozen tiny progeny trembled tinily.

So we paddled around for an hour without once resting, he using his Spider Man boogy-board and I on my  own two legs, trained at age five to do the Elementary Back Stroke.

Our other daughter meanwhile, whipped up an Indian food feast that took eight hours to prepare. (When you make the cheese, then press the cheese, then cube it, then deep-fry it, all so you can mix it into the Saag Paneer and the Shahi Paneer, it takes eight hours at least and these were but two of several  different dishes. She also did a homemade banana later cake.)

Our other young grandson played a really hard game with Uncle Jeff to pass the hours. This was after Jeff and Old Dave and the little boys’ other mother Chris had taken and moved indoors every lawn chair, houseplant, loose branch and wind chime…. And then, again like everyone else, we waited.

And the storm came and for five hours put us in the dark with no water. When the juice came back on it seemed like a miracle. 

After supper and before bed, the Defender of All Spiders was limping a little. She spoke of a hitch in her hip-flexer and so for the first time in five years I practiced some deep-tissue massage. On her. To release the TFL if I could and just bring some freshly oxygenated blood to the area.

Later, as the wind still howled, lashing the trees outside our bedroom window I worried I had gone too deep on her. She is pregnant and what if I lifted one of the complicated membranous ‘pegs’ anchoring the delicate water balloon of packaging in which her child floats, disturbing him/her just as she had feared disturbing the water spider’s babies? 

On a day filled with wind and flood you worry about such things, even as you count yourself safe in your shelter from the storm.

 many trees and branches down on the innocent-looking morning after

Here Lie…



This isn’t my house thank God but I’ll tell you what it’s really like living here in the growing season. I know I said it was like living inside the Keebler Elf tree and proved it with these actual pictures but an even better analogy is coming to mind now: It’s more like what that nutty little genius Emily Dickinson wrote.

See if you remember this poem, where she pictures herself and the mystery person she addresses lying side by side in their graves, dressed just in the clean white bones maybe, or maybe still in their starched Sunday best with the undertaker’s makeup pale upon their cheeks. You know it I betcha :

I died for Beauty–but was scarce 
Adjusted in the Tomb 
When One who died for Truth, was lain 
In an adjoining Room-

He questioned softly Why I failed? 
“For Beauty,” I replied 
“And for Truth, Themself are One 
We Brethren are,” He said–

And so, as Kinsmen, met at Night 
We talked between the Rooms
Until the Moss had reached our lips 
And covered up our names

Emily didn’t do punctuation, aside from these crazy dashes every few words, but doesn’t that ring a bell somehow? The image of us carrying right on with the talk while slowly – slowly and wonderfully in a way – Nature knits the green blanket that will cover us all in the end.

You saw the picture of the ivy outside my study window . Now here’s the mother dove who sat on my window sill all last summer hatching babies; whose descendants may sit here still when I and that boy I fell in love with lie all quiet in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, beneath the grand old trees and under the wide cold sky.

The Tenants

Off and on all spring we’ve had these thumb-sized mice darting around the kitchen baseboards faster than the light from a laser pointer. Off and on all spring we’ve had these shiny black ants using their delicate feelers to probe all the soaps and sponges in the bathroom.

What to do? Mousetraps work, sure, especially when baited with peanut butter, but how many mousetraps can you set before you start feeling like a serial killer? How many exquisitely fashioned insect bodies can you crush before you feel twinges of shame?

Yet I enter the kitchen nights and see a mouse scooting so fast around the baseboards my eyes can hardly follow it. I enter the bathroom mornings and the place is a-shimmer with ant-dancing.

Our problem is we’ve grown tender-hearted enough over the years that we’re much slower to spring for the executioner’s implements. (I once watched as a little spider landed on David’s nose, a tiny thing that began rappelling down toward his chin like a climber descending a cliff-face. He just unhooked that delicate rope of web, went to the door and set the whole thing down outside.)

Now, to complicate things even more, a sparrow has built her nest inside the glass globe of our front porch light.  We realized it because every time we set foot on the porch we there was this great and general fluttering. It took days before we thought to look over our heads to see where she flew from.

We can’t actually see inside the light’s globe – its glass is opaque – but we’re think she’s hatching a family in there.  Also, a tiny egg appeared under this light fixture one day, smashed in pieces on the porch floorboards. Poor bird! She didn’t know she lived inside an oven; never guessed how likely it was that a switch could be slipped, wildly overheating her nest. Is this what happened, and the egg was damaged, so she nudged it overboard?

Last summer, a mourning dove made her nest on the sill of an upstairs window here and for six straight weeks we watched her sit her eggs and tend her babes – not one, but two separate batches of them.  It just took us outside ourselves to watch them; softened our hearts to see the way she came to trust us. We could stand within inches of her, watching through the window glass and she would only regard us calmly as she stooped to feed and nuzzle her struggling offspring.

So maybe soon this sparrow will trust us too. Anyway we’ve taped the light switch in the ‘off’ position, so no one will again set her nest on Broil. The mice and ants will move out soon, we know, but our thoughts keep returning to this small tenant, who is so like us in a way: who lives and moves and has her being entirely  oblivious to the fact that eyes more powerful than she can picture or imagine are daily upon her, watching,  to keep her safe. 

Goodbye Frog, So Long Mouse

Here’s a scary sight from the trip my family and I took out west. While the rest of sat like fat lizards in sun so dry the skin on your face tightens like a mummy’s, Annie went hiking with her super-fit man, then sat for a bit in a gully while he ran up the side of a mountain. As she sat by that little creek-bed she saw this snake eating a frog who, she says, cried out in heart-rending fashion until only his little hands remained, which you can just see disappearing down the snake’s throat.

When I emailed this picture to a member of the family who couldn’t come on this trip she wrote back to say it was the saddest thing she had ever seen and there sure is enough plenty of sad stuff in the great outdoors I guess. Plenty of ‘sad’ indoors too if you count mouse death.

Our new housemates, freshly transplanted from Florida, stayed behind and shivered in the late March cold.  (Click here to see one of the nice big fires they made so as not to die of frostbite in the 20-degree nights.) I bring them up because yesterday when we were cooking together in the kitchen I saw evidence of mouse-life over by the earthenware jars where we keep the coffee. “Shall we set a trap and kill it right away or wait for warmer days when it will go outside on its own?” I asked Veronica who as a size Zero is not much bigger than a mouse herself. (See?)

“Oh I hate to kill it!” she said at first, then some ten or 15 minutes later reversed herself: “I’ve been thinking about that mouse…” she began.

So the a death sentence it was: I smeared peanut butter on a 59-cent mousetrap and here he was this morning, all nicely packaged for his trip to the dump.

It does feel sad – such perfection of form gone down to death! – but that’s how it is in this world. The poet Tennyson said it; nature IS red in tooth and claw.

David put him into the bag; Veronica and I were useless.

Revenge of the Birds

Have you noticed how it’s suddenly WAY lighter in the morning and the birds are getting about more? Though not this one who died last night of who knows what. We found him this morning by the ginkgo tree. Is there a bird mortuary I could call?

A year ago I got a bird feeder for my birthday which I carefully filled, carried outside and hung from a tree before sort of falling down on the job. Meaning I didn’t keep up so well in the re-filling department so that now, well, they just won’t come to it.  I filled it up with fresh new birdseed after Christmas and still, even with all this ice and snow, it hangs there untouched.

I think maybe they’re mad at me. Or their parents told them, “Don’t even start with that one because she’ll leave you high and dry.”

But it was a regular love-fest with the avian population around here last summer. That’s when a mourning dove laid her eggs and raised not one but two sets of babies on the windowsill not six feet from where I write each day. And she liked me, she really did and felt safe with me at all times, whether entertaining her man friend or sitting her eggs or letting these unbelievably homely babies put their whole heads down her throat to eat what she had eaten ten minutes earlier.

Maybe these winter birds know all the bad things I use around the house: all that Comet, all that Clorox, never mind the deadly ice-melting potions we’ve been scattering around over the last few weeks.

I try to be like my kids who wouldn’t use these products if their lives depended on it, whose napkins are made of cloth instead of paper and who – get this – use birdseed to give traction on icy sidewalks.  I bet they’ve got cardinals by the dozens at their house, practically eating out of their hands.

But I was such a good landlord to those doves and what I’m wondering is, why can’t you keep getting credit the whole way for the good things you have done in the past?

That’s what’s so hard in life: the way you have to keep ON being good every single day.

~ Sigh ~ Just look at this sweet mama-dove from last summer. What a contrast to the image of that little toes-up corpse at the top here! What a contrast between who we are and who we would like to be!

Come back summer! Come back soon!

Goodbye for Now

At 7:00 this morning the leaves on our ginkgo tree started to fall. This tree came with this house we bought in my 30th year and that first spring we lived here a strolling elder passed our yard and stopped. “You know you have one of the only two ginkgoes in this town,” he said in grave tones. “”Really?” we said, knowing little then of the power of trees. “Yes,” he said sternly. “The ginkgo is one of the Nature’s first trees, a real primitive. Look how its leave grows right from its large branches; there are no little branches!”

We started noticing then, all right. That was  in April and six months late we saw what you will see below.

This morning I was slow to wake and was just passing the upstairs room I call my office when a flickering caught my eye. The tree was releasing its leaves – so fast that in an hour the tree would be bare. I threw on my robe and hurried outside so you could see it too. You’ll hear the work of the world in the background – a truck backing up? – but mostly you will hear the tree. Press ‘Play’ now and think for a minute how quickly change comes to all us mortal things.