Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Longsitting or Sabbath?

Chief among the things I craved when I retired from fulltime teaching was not to be in a hurry all the time. My first act of slowing down was to re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, hoping to rekindle the same sense of awe I had felt the first time I read it. Little did I know the extent to which Dillard’s chapter 2 on “Seeing” would altar my way of being when it first inspired me to begin the intentional practice of sitting outside for an hour a day, noticing the earth around me.

Later I learned to call it “mindfulness,” but at the time, I thought of it as simple attention. I was a first grade teacher, afterall. I knew the importance of paying attention. I had made a career of teaching children to do just that.

Sitting outside to notice the earth reminded me of a first grade lesson I had taught often, for which I gave my students a 36-inch length of string with instructions to lay it in a circle on the grass, then to sit still and watch the space inside the ring, while I timed them for one silent minute. At the end of the minute, without talking, we returned to the classroom to write or draw what we had seen. The children’s observations never failed to wow me, their reflections every bit as profound as an adult’s, their expressions cuter.

Another thing. For 29 years, I had spent 30 minutes a day on a playground bench, watching children run and climb and discover new wonders of their world. I depended on the short daily respite, recognizing it as essential for student and teacher alike. Most people call it recess. I remember it as a kind of daily Sabbath. The calm that returned to the classroom after recess was palpable and nourishing. It was the quiet that comes after a time of mental freedom, after being out from under any form of direct instruction.

So it was against this backdrop of my teaching life that I re-read Annie Dillard’s words about seeing. One easy leap stretched my long established routine of daily outside recess into sitting for a full hour per day in the quiet of my own backyard—at the end of the hour to journal about the most significant thing observed. I called it “longsitting.” The opportunity for Sabbath this habit now offers me is a sacred gift I never could have anticipated.

Every sitting inspires a new question, a fresh perspective, or leaves me breathless in wonder. I have learned to expect the unexpected by its regularity, yet I continue to be surprised by it. Daily contrasts of the beauty and the brutality of nature make themselves vividly explicit in the finest detail, and lead me to raw enlightenments about life and death and the regenerating genius of the natural world.

Ordinary observations became extraordinary under scrutiny. The crazed antics of a baby squirrel in the grass while the mother watched nearby. The terrible anguish of a live mourning dove being torn apart by a broadwinged hawk in the driveway. The maniacal calls of a barred owl at dusk. The blind perseverance of a chewing caterpillar. The mighty struggle of a tufted titmouse that inexplicably fell to the ground at my feet. The avian acrobatics of a just-fledged family of white-breasted nuthatches. The pre-dawn murmurs of waking birds that gradually swell to a full-blown hallelujah chorus as the sun rises. Season-long nestwatches of house wrens or Carolina chickadees or bluebirds, from the first quiver and fluff mating routines, through the noble and patient care of their young, the clamor of nestlings, the breathtaking thrill of their moment of fledge, my fervent wishes for their safety. The mystery of dozens of varieties of mushrooms after a rainy few days. If their only job is to consume the decay on the earth, why their spectacular beauty? The dazzling black-eyed Susans in odd corners of the yard, planted by birds, not by me. The snatching of a meandering butterfly out of the air by a swift gray bird I could not identify. A pale crescent moon lingering in a pastel sky at 11:00 a.m. The tattered wing of a tiger swallowtail, and the history it suggests. The frenzy of a mob of protective bluejays chasing off a red-shouldered hawk. The first chilly morning, signaling a change of season. The curiosity of why pine needles sparkle when hanging in the sunlight, yet look and feel dull and sticky and non-reflective in the hand. The fall of one leaf on the only ride of its life that spawned large and small questions of life and death and decay and new growth. The lessons of the cherry blossom, the pinetree, the earthworm, the ant, the breeze, the lightning storm. The luxury of fearlessness afforded a hummingbird by its power of ZOOM when it hovered just inches from my face for an eye-to-eye inspection. The frightening but thrilling approach of any wild creature, come to investigate the mysterious longsitting human.
On the wings of encounters like these comes the gift of Sabbath, in exchange for the simple act of paying attention. dkm  

“The secret of seeing is a pearl of great price . . . But although the pearl can be found, it cannot be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. . . I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam . . . The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff . . .”
                                      ~from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

Thursday, August 27, 2015

House Wren Mystery Unsolved

When common house wrens moved into my new $165 artisan bluebird house this summer,  I had to conjure up a benevolent attitude toward them at first. The wrens worked tirelessly to fit their sticks through the narrow entry hole. Nevermind that the house was constructed to discourage little brown birds and was priced accordingly. After many failures, dropped sticks, and continued tries, they learned to tilt their heads to give the sticks just enough of a vertical angle to fit through the oblong hole. Sometimes the sticks were too long at any angle. Those, they learned to poke end-first through the hole. To watch them was to be awed by their effort.  How could I begrudge them their desire for a nice home for their coming family?

Besides, while I love the self-effacing murmur of the eastern bluebird, nothing draws me to the backyard swing better than the tantalizing song of a male house wren in full mating mode. Constantly repeated and remarkably loud for such a tiny bird, his bubbly warble goes on for long seconds, impossible to imitate or describe or resist. Once you have intimate knowledge of the house wren's meandering aria, it becomes an instantly recognized favorite in the repertoire of the backyard opera.

So, bluebird issue aside, I resigned myself to enjoying the house wrens, and embarked on Nestwatch 2015, meaning one hour of meditation and outdoor observation per day on the backyard swing until the house wrens fledged. Things went as expected until a mystery developed that I still don't know the answer to and may never know. The wrens were nearing the end of their rightful nesting sequence. She had accepted his offer, laid her eggs, and tended them well. He flaunted his accomplishments near or atop the house. Whether boasting or protecting, I couldn't say, but he sang his heart out all day every day in the weeks from first attraction to the approaching day of fledge. By that time the nestlings' squawks, at first barely audible from inside their elegant house, were getting louder and more demanding every day. Both parents worked full-time from sunup to sundown bringing morsels of food to the doorway and carrying little white fecal sacs from the nest.

Then one morning, thinking the time of fledge was near, and not wanting to miss the exhilarating moment, I took up my watch on the swing before the sun was above the horizon. The sky had lightened, but the dawn chorus had not yet begun. I love being out early enough to hear the waking murmurs of the backyard birds during nesting season—low and soft at first, until suddenly one bird sings out, then all hell breaks loose, making it difficult to identify who is singing what from which corner of the yard.

On this particular morning, the quiet was first broken by the identifiable Mr. House Wren, who flew to his roof from somewhere in the woods and began his Pavarotti impression. Within a few seconds, Mrs. House Wren emerged from the house on a rapid-fire mission of fury. She pushed him off the roof with an angry sounding chit chit chit chit chit! She might as well have said, "You woke the babies, you bastard! What were you thinking? I've told you a thousand times not to start up that racket this early." She chased him across the clear space in the yard where they disappeared into the low bushes and continued their wild kerfuffle. After the noise died away, she flew back to the house, and he disappeared, never to return. Ever.

In the days that followed, she alone brought food to her little squawkers, but she couldn't seem to keep up with their demand. Was it my imagination that she looked thin and exhausted, that she came less and less often, that the tiny squawks got dimmer? Then one evening, about a week after the father had gone missing, the squawks became so weak I had to put my ear to the entry hole to hear them at all. The next morning the nest box was silent and entirely without activity. That's how it is after a fledge—instant stillness—but it doesn't usually happen so early in the morning. You can often spy the new fledglings hopping in the bushes and trees near the nest box for a few days afterward. Some years I've stuck around long enough to observe one of the adults return to clean out the nest box on the day of the fledge. But on this day, there was none of that. The quiet felt deadly and complete.

Fearing the worst, I was too squeamish to peek inside the house. I chose, instead, to go with the theory that I had simply missed the fledge. Yet the real mystery of why the father disappeared that day remains unsolvable. Why did the mother chase him off?  Did he stay away because of the chase, or did he come to some unknown harm, like cat or hawk?  The mystery seems all the more curious, because in the years I've been conducting my nestwatches, I've never known a father of a successful nesting venture to abandon ship before fledge time. dkm


Friday, June 26, 2015

The Audacity of the Cowbird

A surprising observation outside my window sent me searching through my bird books yesterday.

For several days my daughter had been pointing out a bird we've not seen at the feeder before. While I pride myself in knowing all the species in our backyard, I didn't recognize this one. It was about the size (a little smaller) and shape of a blackbird, beak and all, but was a light mousy brownish gray all over. It had a slightly darker eye-stripe and a barely discernible pattern of lines on the folded wing feathers. In general it was a dull and unremarkable bird, and might have gone unnoticed, but for its unusual behavior of quivering on the bannister for long minutes at a time with wide gaping beak, giving us a good look at its finer features.

I finally decided it was a new fledgling that hadn't yet developed its adult coloring and that it must still be confused about how to survive in the wide world. When smaller birds came to the feeder, it stepped the begging up a notch. Poor thing, I thought. I hope he finds his own parents or figures out how to get his own food before the neighbor's cat finds him. He won't last long in this world by sitting and begging.

But then, oh surprising then, his begging paid off. A tiny frail song sparrow sidled up to the insistent youngster thrice her size and, I could hardly believe my eyes, stuffed a small morsel of food into that gaping throat with great fluttering effort. Whaaat? This I had never seen, an adult of one species feeding the young of another.

After much page flipping and reading, I learned I had witnessed the unhappy result of the invasive behavior of the brown-headed cowbird. Unhappy for the song sparrow, that is---pretty happy for the cowbird, who lays and abandons its eggs in smaller passerine/perching birds' nests, leaving its young to be incubated, hatched, and cared for at the sacrifice of the host parents' young. What we had seen was a fledgling female brown-headed cowbird being fed by her foster mother, a beautiful little song sparrow, run ragged by the cowbird's insatiable appetite.

I could forgive this young cowbird its instinctual behavior if it hadn't happened at the peril of the devoted song sparrow's rightful eggs. I can't say for sure what happened to them, but I can guess. I learned that cowbird eggs hatch in only ten days, compared to the fourteen days of the chosen host's eggs, and that the first-hatched cowbird nestlings push the other eggs out of the nest so as to hoard all the food for their own greedy selves.

Today, here they are again. Now the cowbird follows the song sparrow more aggressively, and the sparrow appears to be trying to get away---but every now and then she gives in and feeds the big crybaby.

Cowbirds never build nests. They always rely on other birds to rear their young. This results in a 90% failure rate for cowbirds, yet they are replacing themselves fast enough to be expanding their own population, while reducing the populations of the more desirable passerines they victimize.

I wish I didn't know this. I can't help making the application to the human world, and the thought is alarming. dkm  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Power of a Simple Moment

I watched a father bluebird
feed his fledgling this morning
and I cried.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Extraordinary Ordinariness

The thing about cherry trees is you can count on them. Every year, at exactly the right times, no matter what evils or joys befall the human world, without fanfare, without regard for audience, and within the grand schema of their DNA code, they go about the ordinary business of being cherry trees.

Come early or late freeze, hard rain, heavy drought, hot sun, high wind, mild spring, or ice storm . . . they bloom, release petals, replace them with cherries, feed and shelter birds and squirrels and insects, sprout leaves, grow taller, drop leaves, and rest.

They do this with perfect timing and spectacular beauty whether or not they are noticed, appreciated, lauded, or loved. It's how they live, what they're good at, what they do. After sixty years or so, without comment, they die—when, if left alone, they will host a parade of animals for awhile before decomposing into the earth from which they grew. It's the ordinary life of a cherry tree, yet there's not a scintilla of plainness about it.

The eight cherry trees whose time and place on earth coincide with mine, hold a spell over me in every season, but none so powerful as the one they cast for a few days just after the peak of their spring bloom, when the gentlest breeze can fill the backyard with a shower of floating petals lighter, warmer, drier, smoother, fluffier, pinker, and more meandering than snow.

In the dazzling moments during which the pale petals are engaged in their swinging and down-drifting through the air, I become mesmerized—transfixed in the act of noticing.

Fallen petals on moss under tree

It takes only seconds to perceive the splendor of the falling corolla, an instant to spawn a wish to write about it, but days of failed attempts to find words. Still, for a full year, I can count on the memory and the anticipation of the suspended cherry blossoms to offer moments of grace whenever I ask for them. dkm

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why Composting Makes Me Happy

I've worried once or twice that I have an unnatural affinity toward my compost heaps. To don a pair of oversized boots and tramp to the back corner of the yard with a bucket of kitchen scraps, to dig a shallow hole in the actively decaying mound of debris known as Pile #1, to empty the bucket into the hole, to cover it with shovelsful of already rotten and rich compost from Pile #2, and to sift some of the sweet-smelling stuff through my fingers is a process that gives me pleasure.

Often I hold the new bits of earth in my hands and breathe. It smells of fresh summer rain, no matter the season. In Georgia, where we don't get many freezes, composting is a year-round sport. Never mind the satisfaction that comes with using the finished product in the garden, it's enough just to smell it, and of course to marvel at the earth's graceful housekeeping system.

Templeton Himself
Heretofore I've assumed the pleasure came from knowing I was contributing to the greater good of the environment. Then comes this bit of scientific research from Gardening Know How, via childhood friend David Cutrell:

Who knew that microbes in the soil have an intense antidepressant effect on the human brain?  What a relief to know there is scientific reason behind my reliance on playing in the dirt as the best mood-lifter going. Explains a lot. dkm

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Advice from Olive and Walt Whitman :-)

The difference between walking by and being still on the beach is in what you see. That a frilled and fleshy creature still churned inside its shell, for instance, would have escaped my notice altogether had I not been standing with feet planted on the hard wet sand of the Atlantic's low tide. A small movement in the exposed ocean bed caught my eye, proof that something of wonder always rewards stillness in the out of doors. At my feet was a thumb-sized rocket-shaped olive shell, propelled by its inner mollusk, pushing a tiny crumbly hill of sand ahead of itself in a brave attempt to go back home. Its wake was a long shallow trail in the sand.

With apologies, I interrupted its journey and rolled it over, and after watching awhile, improved its lie to softer sand at the edge of a tide pool. It dug right in.


This was back in September on Tybee Island, GA, just before I returned to the busy-ness of home and the resulting abandonment of my intention to resume spending an hour a day outside in silent observation. Now, five months later, the memory of that gastropod working so hard to get back to a place where it could thrive compels me to make an equal effort to return to that nourishing honey of daily quietude.

In his original preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote,

". . . This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals . . . , read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life . . . , dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem . . . ."

Today, along with the olive snail's valiant ruffling and the re-reading of Whitman's sweet words, I renew my intention to be still outside for a time every day to pay attention to whatever is there—and to see itdkm

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Seeking Astonishment

Brown pelicans by the hundreds rest, squat, stand, wait on the distant sandbar that emerges from the ocean only at low tide. Occasionally the pelicans stretch their wings and throat pouches, fly from one spot to another, depart from or arrive in small or large groups on the sandbar that looks to be about half a mile out but is probably further. Too far for photo.

Other shorebird species have gathered there as well, feeding on the plethora of tasty morsels to be found on the temporarily exposed ocean floor. A willet flies from there to here, landing near enough to the barrier rocks on which I sit . . .

. . . wading long enough to be worth digging out a camera, blurry though the photo would turn out to be. 

One could never guess by his ordinary brownness what striking black and white wing bars the willet exposes in flight. His spectacular bill seems interesting enough. Yet his hidden wing bars are an additional reward for those who sit long enough to spy them.

No people venture out to the sandbar, one of the few places they don't go, here at the South Beach of Tybee Island, GA— partly because it's too far for a casual walk through treacherous tide pools . . .

. . . partly due to fear, like mine, of not being able to get safely back when the tide returns and buries the route under ten feet of strong currents, so say the signs.

I'm here on a writing retreat with a group of six friends—writers and painters—among us, one hired chef. We call ourselves Inkfingers. Not a lot of ink has passed my fingers on this fourth day of eight.  Mostly reading, walking, enjoying the company of like-minded friends, and meditating by the ocean.

L to R: Carla, Sheila, Deb, Kaaren, Riki, minus Chef Lil.
We gather early each morning for a literary reading and to proclaim our creative goals for the day, then return for happy hour to share our findings. I've come mostly to this southern tip of the island, to wait with the pelicans for new inspiration. Few people make it this far from the hotels at the top of the island—evenso, too many for my liking. It's hard to find enough silence and solitude for deep writing on such a popular beach. No wonder the pelicans and their friends and relations congregate on the sandbar far away.

Today I'm filled with a breathless desire to spread wing and lift across the water, leaving behind the unknown beach walkers and bathers who have just as much right to be here as I do, who are undoubtedly intensely interesting people, who might be seeking the same astonishment I'm hoping to find. dkm

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fast-moving Tortoise

I don't know what kind of tortoises they are, or how they came to live at Black Pines Animal Sanctuary, but most of the residents there are rescued from misguided captors who tried to own exotic animals in places where they cannot thrive in good health or happiness. So whatever the early history of these tortoises, they are lucky to be at Black Pines now, and for the rest of their lives. 

When we visited, at least, they were having a pretty good day. 


In the heat of the moment he toppled onto his back and couldn't right himself. She tried her best to flip him over, but was unsuccessful. What sweet display of tenderness for her best beloved, I thought. The keeper intervened, explaining that a tortoise will suffocate if stranded too long on its back.

 Judging from the high speed chase that followed the rescue, I may have misinterpreted the she turtle's motives for helping her mate. This is her chasing him, not the other way around. Looks more like she's thinking, "You better finish what you started, you bastard." dkm 


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bengal Stare

Never mind the fence. To be on the receiving end of a bengal tigress's predatory focus at close range is a thing of fear I had not expected to know in this good life. It wasn't actually me she was interested in, but my six-year-old grandson, Nick, who hid behind me once he caught on to what was happening. The attention of this tiger — taut, twitching, and intent on Nick's every movement — was like that of a domestic cat stalking small prey, but the size and sharply defined stripe of her physique were enough to knock that comparison right out of the park. The enormity of her head alone was breathtaking. And her eyes, good grief, the laser-like focus of her bronze-colored eyes! I could not look away.

We were visiting the Black Pines Animal Sanctuary in Albion, Indiana, a rescue and refuge center for displaced and captive-raised exotic animals. The young intern who was our tour guide remained calm and unbothered as she explained that captive tigers will sometimes focus on children when they can't hunt in the wild. With only three feet and a metal mesh fence (to be fair, it was heavy metal :-) between us and that big cat's stare, I could feel the proverbial adrenalin rush. 

Looking back, I'm astonished by my own sense of protectiveness for Nick in that moment. I remember pressing my arms around him behind my back, honestly feeling prepared and willing to throw myself on top of him if the tiger lunged, however unlikely the possibility. Getting out a camera never once crossed my mind. No matter. The image of those alert eyes trained on small Nick is permanently burned to memory, giving new meaning to the song title, "The Eye of the Tiger." dkm