Robin Building a Nest

Photo: Robin with moss in beak, sitting on beam under our deck roof.

A robin is building a nest in the beam under our deck roof. I thought she would stop yesterday, after I went out and in a few times–it is our entryway. But she is back today. It seems to be a great place for a nest. The way the beams are fastened, the center board creates a lowered groove between two higher boards, so a nest could rest in that groove and be quite secure. It is protected from rain. She can enter and exit from either side of the beam. I do wonder how warm it might get under the clear plastic roofing, nice for now, but later it could get hot.

One weird thing is that she seems to be working on more than one nest, bringing dried grass and moss to three different sections along the beam. She started in the segment on the left, and this morning I’ve seen her in three different sections adding dried material. Still, her focus is on the section on the left.

Larger view, robin adding nest materials in different sections.

I feel so grateful for the animal neighbors. I love to watch the robin fly back and forth, carrying so much material in her beak. I hope we can be neighbors during the time she raises a little brood. But however it turns out, it is a delight today.

Offerings

I wasn’t able to capture most of them with my camera, but I want to speak of bird visitors nonetheless. This morning little winter goldfinches, with their olive feathers, were flocking to our bird feeder, and to the water, and to the dead heads of bee balm never cut down, and likely full of lovely little seed breakfasts. The seeds, and the water kept liquid by electric warming, are our offerings to the creatures with whom we share this land.

I think of February 1-2nd–Imbolc, Brigid’s Day, Candlemas, Groundhog Day–as the day the birds start singing again. The light returning. Still, even though something is stirring anew, this year there were many birds and other creatures who frequented our little offerings of seed and water during the dark of winter as well. There were a couple days mid-January when flocks of robins appeared. I only managed to photograph this one getting a drink of water, but there were likely a dozen. They love our neighbor’s crabapple tree. The birds also love to perch in our fruit trees branches nearby.

Photo: dark day, robin drinking water

The cardinals have stayed throughout the winter, and I often see the female cardinal at the feeder. The other day she and other smaller birds were jockeying for position—if three were on the roost, the seed door would close—so they chased each other off long enough to get a snack. Of course, the squirrels always have to take their turns–they’ve mastered the acrobatic positions needed to keep the door open. So smart.

Storms seem to increase the number of creatures who seek out our offerings. During our last blizzard, as dusk enveloped our yard, Margy called me to the back door, where we saw two deer walking so quietly near the bushes. The next morning, I saw their tracks leading to the seeds and water. I have heard it said that one of the rituals of Brigid’s day is to give food offerings to the spirits of the land. I hope our seeds and water might be a blessing to all the creatures who visit or call this place their home.

Courage

Photo: Female cardinal at feeder, with three smaller birds nearby.

I am finally embarking on a project to go through all of my papers, now in boxes in the basement. These range from files that I brought from my office when I retired 3 1/2 years ago, to boxes that I have carried around since college. This week I have been going through a box of writings–poems, essays, and an almost book, dating from about 1986 to 1996. During those years, I lived in Boston, surrounded by lesbian community, making a living in what today might be called the gig economy, while focusing my time and energy on activism, writing, feminist spirituality, and social change.

It was a scary time, financially, just getting by with no safety net, no health insurance, moving from rented apartments to other rented apartments in an increasingly difficult housing market. It was also, for a while, a joyous and exhilarating time, creating chosen family through collective living with other lesbians, wrestling with issues like classism, racism, and sexism, all the while imagining justice, mutuality, and queer beauty.

Reading the many words I wrote brings me back there, and I am impressed by the creativity which filled those pages and filled my life and the lives of those around me. But there was an undertow that sometimes threatened to drown me–a shift when housing got harder to find, when joyful cooperative situations became uneasy roommate situations, when loneliness began to plague me. Still, poetry and Spirit sustained me even then. I found this poem that seems worth sharing as 2021 comes to an end, and 2022 is about to begin. May you find the courage to follow the road where your heart leads you!

1/13/93

If there can be power in a word
the word “courage”
gets me out of bed
surrounds my heart in hard times.

There are many poverties.
Each moon waning, as I just get by
financially, I find my true despair
lurks in the isolation
which has covered the walls of my days
like some asphyxiating new paint
and I feel I can’t breathe
and I feel I don’t belong here.

I remember when I set out on a path
to transform the world.
We sang then, the joy of our
meeting filling our mouths
like lovemaking, our visions
changing us into new beings.
We laughed at how we didn’t fit
our chains anymore, and big as life
we set about to craft a new home.

There are many poverties.
Loneliness is the unforgivable sin.
I have always felt I could survive
the insanity and cruelty of the world
any poverty or hardship or struggle
if only I had companions to share it.

But here I am.
Loss and need my only mothers.

If there can be power in a word
the word courage
gets me out of bed.
Courage rests her cheek against my heart.
Courage squeezes my hands into her pockets.
Courage plants her feet into the prints
of my solitary steps
as if of course this is where the road
must go and I am still
that traveler.

Climate Catastrophe in Disguise

Wild pansy purple and yellow, blooming in December

A climate catastrophe sometimes shows up as the fragile beauty of a wild pansy blooming in mid-December in Maine. I took a photo this morning, before the snow arrived this afternoon, our likely first plowable snow of the season. Very late for us. The unseasonably warm days feel bright and pleasant, nothing dangerous. But I am thinking of the deadly storms that blasted through the midwest last week, tornadoes killing dozens of people in an unprecedented long trail of destruction. I am thinking of giant raging wildfires in the west, and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic. Sometimes the change feels like nothing much at all, unless I stretch my eyes to take in the bigger picture.

We arrived at our current house and yard six years ago after a 4 month search to find greener housing. We were able to downsize, to add insulation, to cover the south facing roof with solar panels, to install energy efficient heat pumps, to create a garden. Our actions fit the best choices we could make at that time, to align with our love for the earth and all her creatures. In that, they were like a prayer, like a magical spell to further the possibilities of earth community based in mutual respect. On a spiritual level, I have to hope that our small choices can ripple out for good.

But these individual actions don’t make a dent in the greater physical scheme of things. The giant polluters of greenhouse gases continue to ignore the limits of earth to push for expanding profits. We, as a planet, have already exceeded the hopeful atmospheric carbon dioxide goals of environmental organizations like 350.org. Now we’re at 415 parts per million. We’re on the way to unmitigated disasters that we can no longer walk our way back from. Scientists can make some predictions, but no one really knows how the increase in global temperature will play out in the next years and decades.

From where I sit, I can feel overwhelmed and helpless. I don’t have the energy to be out in the streets anymore, an activist like in my younger days. I don’t have the money to donate to activist organizations like I used to when I was working. Many activists I respect talk about the coming collapse of economies and civilizations, even within the next decade. I don’t imagine that I have the physical capacity to survive such a collapse, given my age and health. So what is there to do?

What helps is to recognize my limitations, to take in the very smallness of my being. What helps is to see young activists in the street, sharing their anger and love with loud voices. What helps is to remember that Indigenous people the world over have already experienced the collapse of their economies and civilizations. Pay attention to their advice. What helps is to recognize the smallness of my being, and yet remember how I am interwoven with the ancestors and all the interrelated beings of earth. What helps is to keep on loving the trees and birds and frogs and even the squirrels of this small place we are lucky to share with them. What helps is to offer bird seed as a prayer in the morning. What helps is to imagine the unimaginable largeness of the Earth, our mother, and her mysterious powers that we cannot measure or predict.

Our pond, frozen, with light snow cover.

A Nest in the Peach Tree

Photo: a nest in the branches of the peach tree, surrounded by leaves mottled with kaolin clay

Life is getting exciting in the orchard. The other day, a friend noticed an empty nest in the branches of the peach tree. It must have just appeared that day–the Summer Solstice–because I had been spraying the tree a couple days before with an herbal foliar spray and would have noticed it. But it seemed like it might be abandoned, and I wondered if perhaps its creators had noticed the toy snake I had hung from the tree the day before to warn off squirrels.

Today, I began to wrap and tie little woven net bags around the peaches–another strategy to keep them protected from burrowing bugs and poking birds and of course, squirrels. This year, I am trying all the things!

Photo: Peach tree, somewhat whitened by kaolin clay, with net bags around some peaches.

While I was slowly adding a few more bags, this little sparrow was chirping in the next tree over, as if she were trying to get my attention. (Later, I did some research, and she seems to be a native chipping sparrow.)

Photo: chipping sparrow behind leaves

Curious, I carefully put my finger into the nest (which had been empty the day before) and ever so gently touched the smooth shell of an egg. Holding my camera above the nest, I confirmed it.

Photo: one light blue egg with spots inside a nest

Of course, this left me with a dilemma. Do I pay attention to protecting the peaches? Or do I take care not to disturb the chipping sparrow and its nest? Hoping to do a bit of both, I kept putting more net bags around the peaches, but only on the side of the tree away from the nest.

With the bags around the peaches, I won’t need to spray the tree again with kaolin clay, and that seems like a good idea as far as the nest is concerned. These net bags require quite a labor intensive process though. The design of the bags could have been better. I decided to make a small cut in the top of each bag, on the opposite side of where the drawstring tie comes out, so I can pull the tie string out from two sides. That way I can secure it across the branch closest to the peach. (Otherwise, if I just tied it around the stem, I am afraid it would pull the delicate peach right off the branch.) So bit by bit I added perhaps 15 to 20 bags on peaches. I have many more to go.

And then I saw that the sparrow had returned to her nest. Maybe to lay more eggs? Maybe to keep one or more eggs nice and warm until they hatch. I read that it takes two weeks for the eggs to hatch, then 9-12 days for the young to fledge. I think we’ve reached a truce. I hope so.

Photo: head of sparrow is just visible over nest, behind bright green leaves

Crows at the Pond

Photo: one crow perched, another below to his right, dipping her head in the water, tail up

Yesterday, I was excited to see a few crows visiting the pond! I was looking out my window from the house, and there is a string-and-bamboo trellis (for our snap peas) about halfway between the house and the pond that partly blocks the view. But if you look carefully, you can see one crow taking a bath, while the other is perched on a log on the edge behind it.

Photo: Crow in the water lifts up its head

I have been slowly gathering more stones from country roads, and adding them to cover the pond liner all around the edge, along with placing some aging branches there, from around our land. Seeing the crows perched on the branches, I am so glad I included them. This process of covering the liner edge is about two thirds complete now, and the plants in the water are also beginning to grow some new leaves and shoots.

Photo: crows on the branch, one with a stone in his beak, one wet from her bath

I didn’t notice until I saw these photos, but one crow has picked up a little stone in his beak! He reminds me of me as I go around looking for stones the right size for the edge. I wonder if he brought it with him to place somewhere himself. (By the way, I don’t know whether these crows are male or female, but they are not “its” so I prefer to give them personal pronouns. I wish English was like the Wabanaki languages in that the personal pronouns are not gender specific.) After placing a new batch of stones in the morning, I felt really exhausted and rested for the afternoon. But in the evening, I came out and just sat down next to the pond, enjoying the reflections in the water.

Duck, Duck, Goose!

We had a spring teaser day today, with temps in the upper 50s so Margy and I went to Kettle Cove to take in the sun, the breeze, and the sea. We got a special treat when we saw these lovely birds in the water and on the shore. At first I thought they were ducks, because they were that size, but they were also somehow similar to Canada Geese but not quite. When I got home I searched the internet until I found them. They are Brant Geese. The Maine coast is part of their migration route. Here are some of the ones we saw. Margy Dowzer and I shared the camera, so I am not positive which photos are hers and which are mine.

Brant goose swimming in the low tide shallows.
Seven brant geese at Kettle Cove
If you look closely here, the goose in the foreground has plastic netting on its lifted foot–it was limping and we wondered why so we moved closer to see what it was. It was using its beak to try to get the netting off. We had no way to help it, and then they all flew off. So sad. I hope it was able to get free.
Sunshine sparkles on the water as the goose swims calmly.

Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

Hawk Neighbors

I was sitting at the kitchen table, and glanced out the windows to the back, and saw a big bird perched right on our deck railing outside.  When I moved to get a closer look, s/he flew up to the trees nearby to the right, in our neighbors yard.Coopers Hawk in Tree

A few moments later, s/he flew around behind the garage, and then this bird (same one or not?) appeared walking in the grass over to our hazelnut hedge.

Coopers Hawk in hedge

Finally, another bird flew from around the back, and landed in a tree to my left.  A juvenile, even though it was bigger than the first one.  Turned out they are Cooper’s Hawks, and they like to prey on small birds and mammals. Everyone’s got to feed their babies.

Coopers Hawk Juvenile

Now it is time to go outside and plant our new bushes.  The ground is finally unfrozen enough to dig holes.

Almost

Witch Hazel

Our bushes arrived from Fedco this week, and today we were going to plant them.  Last winter, we ordered four witch hazel bushes, five spicebushes, and two winterberries.  We wanted to expand our mini-forested edges in the back and on the side, and thus we needed species that grew well in the shade of other tall trees (which these do).  We hope they will enhance the privacy of our yard, and also provide food for pollinators, butterflies, and birds, as well as beautiful flowers and berries to see.

We had done some preliminary work before we ordered them, to decide where they might be planted, and today Margy and I went around to confirm the spots, to make sure each bush would have enough room when full grown.  We marked them with flagging and markers. We unpacked the box of young plants and were delighted that they were more than just sticks with roots. They looked healthy, and we stored them in dampened shredded paper.  The photo is our witch hazel bushes.

The land in our yard has been soggy and wet for the last week.  But, when I tried to dig holes, I could only go down about five or six inches before I hit a barrier of ground frozen solid.  I guess we aren’t planting these today!  Still, it was in the 60s out there, and it was marvelous to just be outside in the sun–and then it was too hot, so we pulled out our shade umbrella for our patio table.  We turned to other tasks in the garden, and listened to birds singing, and I dug up the old kale plants that had overwintered.  Before I came in, I noticed that the holes I had dug were now filled with water.  I am curious as to whether the holes I dug will thaw faster than the undug ground.  We’ll see.  We are expecting no freezes this week.