Some Small Critters

I have been looking small lately. It is easy to look big, to see the bright sunset, or the glowing sunrise, or the mountains as they wear a cloak of clouds. For the small, you have to pay more attention. The newt that crosses your path? If you don’t look down, you will miss it.

Or you will miss all of them. My beautiful spouse and I took a long walk in the woods the other day. We saw more newts than we could count. I hope I didn’t step on any. They are orange but still, they were easy to miss.

And check out this caterpillar. It is munching on bedstraw (an invasive, by the way–beautiful but aggressive). I had seen one of these caterpillars last year in just about the same spot, but that one was black. It looked like the same pattern but could there be that much variation in color? Yes, apparently. Black? Pink? Fashionable moths. It’s name? Bedstraw Hawkmoth. Appropriate.

Speaking of moths, here is another one. This little dude was attached to the screen door in the morning. It is only an inch and change long, pink and yellow and trying to blend in. It chose a poor location to blend in. I have no idea what its caterpillar form looks like–smaller still I imagine. This one is called Rose Hooktip. Those moth namers call it like it is with the straightforward names.

Or do they? We were pretty excited to find this Luna Moth a couple of days ago. It showed up in the morning, clung to its post for most of the day and disappeared in the afternoon. It repeated that performance the next day, one post over. This critter was much bigger that the hooktip. And, I mean, look at that thing! So beautiful and so fragile. It is confident enough, or carefree enough, or self-assured enough that it just doesn’t worry that that Phoebe with the nest right above it is going to make lunch out of it. Actually, maybe that is what happened to it.

As for that Phoebe? I kept seeing it near the porch, so I looked around. On the underside of the back side of the eave of the roof I found its nest. It was the perfect spot for it. If I hadn’t looked I would never have seen it. That is the theme here–looking. I am trying to look closely–at the newt, the moth, the nest, even at the plant where the caterpillar has breakfast or the moss next to the newt. It take deliberateness to see small.

I still am awed by the full moon or the sparkling lake or the field of wildflowers–the big–but I want to be sure to also get down and look closely at those flowers. Only then will I see the cool zigzag spiderweb that stretches between the stems. And damn those are cool. Seriously. Seeing those webs is worth getting dew on your pants. If you want to be dazzled, looking small is just as good as seeing big.

Wet wetland

I have been busy enough with work lately that I have not wanted to go birding early during the week, even though it is the season for it. So on Saturday I don’t want to give up the chance. Friday night the weather looked good for some morning exploring, so I planned to go. Saturday morning, however, brought light rain. Rain? Seriously? But I went anyway. It was bound to stop soon.

It kept raining. I turned on the windshield wipers. I went to a local nature reserve–it is fairly new and I had not seen much of it. I parked along the road where I thought a trail started. It sort of did start, in the woods, then fizzled when it opened onto a field. I went the way I thought seemed most likely, but it wasn’t much of a trail. I got to the wetland but then was stymied.

By then it was hardly raining, but it had been raining. That meant the tall grass though which I meandered was a bit wet. Dripping, really. Soggy. Soaked. In my haste to leave the house I had put on pants, to avoid ticks, but they were cotton pants. That was dumb. By the time I walked back the way I had come and got to my car, those pants were most definitely not dry.

But there had to be a better access point to this wetland. I drove up the road and found it, hidden in the trees, no parking except along the road. Yes I was soaked but it was Saturday and I did not want to give up and what’s a little cold and wet? So up the hill into the woods I headed, then down the hill in the woods I went, until it opened again in tall grass. There was a clear path but it went both left and right. I went left.

And that way was just as wet as my first attempt. I got even more wet, even though the rain had passed by now. That grass can hold some water. I had a better view of the wetland, saw some ducks, heard a gallinule calling, listened to an Alder Flycatcher and a couple of Veeries singing. I turned around again and thought I would try going right. This was was less wet but the rain started to fall again.

I did find some birds, although not as many as I might have on a clearer day. Back in the car I polished off my warm coffee, waiting for me in the cup holder. I drove home with the wipers on, those cotton pants wicking all that grass water the whole time. I arrived home wet and chilled, satisfied that I had tried and at least had a good walk in a beautiful place. After a hot shower I got some sourdough bread started. I had a day ahead of me yet.

Seeing Beauty, Being Angry

Blue Flag

Look I’m not going to pretend it is all roses around here. I mean, we still have a pandemic happening. But in Vermont things have been fairly settled recently. Our cases of COVID-19 are still pretty low, although there has been a bit of a spike this past week. Still, summer is just about here, and things are more open than they were.

Sometimes it feels like the world is circling the drain. It can be hard not to get angry. I don’t want to be angry. That sucks the life out of me, but how I can I not get angry these days? When I compare my life to others’ I think, what do I have to get angry about? I mean look at this place. It’s beautiful. It is the kind of place people who live in less beautiful places come to go on vacation.

Blue Flag is blooming. There is a patch of it in the field where the cows now sometimes graze. We have these giant domesticated irises at our house, also blooming now. They are related, both purple and intricate and amazing. I got to see both of them when I walked this morning, just as the sun rose, the fog just slipping away into the day. How can those even exist, they seem so fragile? And I get to see them in their glory. Like I said, what do I have to be angry about?

But I pay attention not only to the things right here–the butterflies emerging and the Veery singing and the grass that is somehow four feet tall already–but to what is happening beyond my rural bubble. And that anger pops up. And if you are paying attention then you should get angry too.

So the question: is it OK to enjoy beauty when there is so much to be angry about? I keep hearing the line from the film Bridge of Spies, when the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel gets caught and his lawyer asks him “Aren’t you worried?” since Abel seems so calm. His response: “Would it help?” And that is the answer I have for my question. The problem is, that is another question.

For now I am planning to do both. I plan to enjoy the beauty of almost-summer and I plan to be angry. Beauty is fleeting and I would be a fool to let it pass unappreciated. And anger serves a purpose–it keeps us from becoming complacent, from forgetting, and it can make us take action. I will not bury my head in the flowers but I will still be awed by them. I will not lose myself to anger but I will let it remain, sometimes quietly, sometimes less so.

Those irises are not going to change the world, but finding wonder in them can help me turn that anger into something productive. Those fragile purple petals of late spring can help me to be calm, to think clearly, to be at peace. I get angry that not everyone can be that and think that way and feel that. Maybe not everyone wants to, but I think we would be better off if we did.

I know I should do something and not just talk about it. Of course. We all should. But without experiencing wonder at how beautiful the world is, I won’t be motivated to do the hard things. So I guess I have my answer after all.

Flowers in the Woods

Heartleaf Foamflower

Flowers are out in the woods. I guess it must be spring. I have tried to pay attention to flowers this year. I am curious what I see. I want to know what lives in the world around me. What is that flower? How long will it bloom? Which flowers grow in the woods, or the edge of the woods, or out in the sun? I keep wondering.

Herb Robert

Last year a friend introduced me to iNaturalist. I downloaded the app and have used it a bunch this spring. It is pretty slick–take a photo, get some suggestions for what you see and select what you think you have found. Most of the time it works like a charm–the first suggestion in the list is usually a match. Others can see what you have posted and can confirm your identification or suggest a different one. It has been really helpful in identifying flowers, as well as moths, caterpillars, fungus. It can be used for anything that lives.

False Solomon’s Seal

I have added it to my adventures when I go birding. This morning I got so engrossed in trying to identify some white flowers (they were Columbines but I did not realize they could be white as well as purple), that I found I was tuning out the sounds around me. I had stopped listening for birdsong. I had to bring myself back into the audio sphere in the trees once I walked away from the flowers on the ground.

Common Columbine
Common Columbine

Many of these flowers will be gone soon. They are ephemeral. Others will bloom, however, as the summer progresses. I will keep trying to identify them. Some day I may know when to expect them to bloom, and when the next flowers will appear. I am not there yet, of course, but I keep learning. I can’t keep my curiosity in check, so I will keep wondering. And I will keep trying to answer “What is that?”

Golden Alexander
Canada Mayflower
Virginia Waterleaf
Jack-in-the-Pulpit

A Few Good Things

How about this moon? Setting, nearly full, into pink clouds? That’s a good thing. Things aren’t easy these days, for anyone, whether you are facing death or facing boredom. Which degree of not-so-good are you experiencing? Things are hard here, but we are alive.

It snowed yesterday. It seems everyone who has a way to post is posting about it. We got an inch and a half of the cold white stuff. And it was beautiful. Complain if you want–yeah, snow in May. Boo hoo. It was mostly melted by the end of the day anyway. Green and yellow with bright white highlights–if you can’t appreciate that rare beauty, well, is there hope for you?

I saw a fisher a couple mornings ago. It was up in what we call the tick zone, the snowmobile trail cut in the woods that is just a bonanza of birds in May, but that is loaded with ticks. It was a cold morning–the first of several, so there were few birds singing, except for that Black-and-White Warbler that whispered away non-stop. I was standing, quietly, hoping the birds would wake up already. The rustling in the shrubs turned into a huff of startledness that ducked away. The mystery creature slunk through the underbrush and then crossed the trail a little ways away. A giant weasel–way bigger than a mink or an ermine or a river otter. A fisher! I had never seen one.

Walking back through the tick zone, high on seeing the fisher, a white-tailed deer bounded across the trail, hopping way higher than seemed necessary. That is, apparently, just what they do.

My son made pizza for lunch today. I helped with with the dough, but mostly he handled it himself. And it was really good. Maybe it was really good in part because I was not doing the making, but mostly he just did a bang-up job.

Daffodils are blooming. Dandelions speckle the lawn. Leaves sprout from buds. And I just had a pile of M&M’s. Good things. Good things are everywhere.

May Flowers and All That

We did get enough rain in April, I suppose. At least, the flowers are coming out in the woods, and it is May. Late yesterday I dug up some wild leeks for dinner (which, if I may say, was a particularly good dinner, even though I had never made it before and, if you are curious, was a sort of mini-calzone stuffed with those leeks and garlic and extra sharp cheddar and dang!) and I found some blood root blooming among the leek leaves. Nearby were several clusters of Carolina Spring Beauties.

Earlier in the morning I walked in the woods to find Golden Winged Warblers (I didn’t find any but I did find a Golden Winged/Blue Winged hybrid!). I found some Garlic Mustard while I was looking for birds; I was hoping to find some of that while I dug up my leeks but, wrong woods.

The flower of the day was Dutchman’s Breeches. First, that name is killer. I mean, who uses the term breeches? Old school, know what I’m saying? But those flowers, they really do look like, well, the puffy pants that one of those historical Dutch sailors might wear. They ain’t roses, but they look pretty cool. They look like spring.

Not Winter Anymore

We are in those early days of spring when it is still chilly in the morning, but the world keeps getting greener, when the leaves are not fully out yet and peepers sing at night. Winter has left the scene but summer still has a way to go before she arrives.

I have to get out as much as I can to find birds now. Every day new summer residents arrive. This morning I heard my first Common Yellowthroat and I heard two Field Sparrows singing at once, which is unusual around here. A Barred Owl calls all day in the woods above our house, and that Phoebe nest that sat above the porch light all winter is getting rebuilt. In the woods, leaves are still buds. That means I can see the warblers as they hop from branch to branch in the tops of maples. In a month some of those little dudes will be heard and not seen.

Spring flowers are out as well. Marsh Marigolds are blooming, bright yellow flowers and bright green leaves among the leaf litter in the woods. And Trout Lilies, those dainty pale yellow bells, have emerged. Ferns are still curled into fiddleheads, and wild ramps carpet the forest floor.

Spring’s arrival is a gift right now. It is a gift any year, I suppose, but after being inside so long, after worrying about the health of family and neighbors, after staying away from others, it feels especially powerful. A friend said the other day that she has never noticed spring as much as this year. When you spend less time moving around you have more time to pay attention to what is right there.

I plan to get out early again tomorrow, to listen and to look. I may startle the beaver that slaps its tails when we walk past on the bridge, or the wood ducks dipping into the grass on the river’s shore, but I will try to stay calm enough to avoid disturbing them. Every day the world changes a little, layering on spring. If I don’t pay enough attention, summer will arrive and I will have missed some of spring’s wonderousness. Wonder can be found at any time of year, but spring is when it puts on its best display. I would hate to miss the show.

Peepers and Moonrise

The sun sets and the moon rises. Tonight it rises, full, directly over Camel’s Hump, the moon so bright it shows the snow on the mountain’s summit. Peepers sing from the pools. Wood Frogs too.

Three Woodcocks call out before each of them ascends and dances in the just-light sky, circling until they drop back to the field. A Snipe whistles past. A Song Sparrow offers one last song for the day.

In the pink moonlight, the brown of the dead grass can’t be seen. The dirt left by the snow isn’t visible. The limb from the ash that fell this winter–it looks sculpted.

The cooling air smells of spring, of mud and maple buds. Over the hill a wood fire sends its smoke our way. Even the smoke smells of spring, stretching its heat as if to last until the fall.

The Barred Owl calls again. It has called all day. It cannot get enough of its bold pronouncements, calling in the light, at dusk, in the dark. Does it rest in spring?

I will settle in early tonight, my sleep restless lately, with worry and fear. Owl, put me to sleep. I will leave the window open a bit to hear you. And to let in the pink moon.

Colt’s Foot and Wild Leeks

There have been a few crocuses popping up but I’m not sure they count. The first flowers of spring are really Colt’s Foot. They pop out of the leaf litter on the roadside, yellow stars among last year’s crumpled leaves.

In the woods now, wild leeks emerge. There is a place nearby where I can see down and down into the trees as they slope downward to the west. This time of year it is clear of undergrowth. The floor of the forest grows green with wild leeks as they pierce the matted vegetation. Like crocuses they come from waking bulbs.

I will find my way into the woods behind our house, bend down and dig. I will pull some wild leeks from the soil and turn them into soup. I will bake bread and serve them with the soup. We will taste spring in our house.

Today, as the sun rose, the river smelled like more than melted snow. It smelled like earth and rain and new grass. I stood where the river flows under the road. Colt’s Foot bloomed at my feet. A Meadowlark sang, then zipped across the road until it disappeared into the willows.

Are we more attuned to spring this year? Do we notice more now that we have all slowed down? We are afraid, some of us, of what might come. Some of us are afraid of what has come. Spring, however, also comes. The yellow flowers bloom. The green leaves push up from bulbs.

I imagine the Phoebe, broadcasting from the roof of the falling barn, sings about such things. Perhaps, however, I give the Phoebe too much credit. I find beauty in the life that has been hidden, while the Phoebe simply finds insects and carries leaf stems to build its nest. It sings of that.

It is not wrong for me to be afraid. It is not wrong to admire life seeping back all around me. The Snipe, circling ghost-like over the meadow at dusk, reminds me that I can be both, reminds me that the turning of the world is worth my attention, whether I am afraid or not.

Bird on a Wire

We used to have a road trip scavenger hunt. The idea was to check off items one might see out a car window. Stop sign, fuel truck, school, cows, that kind of thing. Whenever we played this game there was inevitably one item we could not find–a bird on a wire.

It was weird. It is not hard to see a bird on a wire most of the time. Even in winter there are birds and they are sometimes to be found on wires. But when we had that scavenger hunt in hand, and this happened many times, we could not find one. It became a joke in our family. We would be out walking in a new place, with no scavenger hunt list to check, and one of us would point and shout “Hey there’s a bird on a wire!”

I have not played that travel game in years but I still think of it, of those road trips, whenever I see a bird on a wire. I though of it today. After a day of way to much inside time, of too much computer work, of too little physical activity, I went outside with a pair of binoculars as the sun was setting. I didn’t have the binoculars to look at the setting sun. That would have been stupid. I had them to look at birds, were I to spot any. I did spot some. And one of them was on a wire.

Actually two of them were on a wire. Two bluebirds, singing their song that sounds like they are just too lazy to sing as boldly as anything like a Robin, flew onto and off of that wire. Blue birds against a blue sky with the low bright light of the closing of day in early spring–good stuff that. It was a beautiful sight and it was good to get outside and to move around a bunch and to listen and to look for our avian neighbors. And those birds, perched on that wire, reminded me of some good trips with my family.

I still think of that game when I see a bird on a wire while I am driving. I am not driving much these days. There is a chance I will do some driving tomorrow but that is still not a definite plan. I am staying home, along with the rest of the crew, most of the time. You know, stay home and stay safe. I mean, if I want to see a bird on a wire, apparently I can do that by walking down the road. No driving required.