Tuesday, May 21, 2019

In the Shadows of the Pin Oak

Sitting on the porch this morning, which feels like it could be the first morning, I am gleeful in the coolness, the return of spring after a brief incursion of summer. Enfolded in scents of honeysuckle flowers just opening and multiflora rose just fading I relish the greeness of trees swaying so lithely and supple, surrendered to the movement of the wind. 

Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers and the occasional rose-breasted grosbeak eat at the feeders and in the distance the ephemeral notes of a north-bound Swainson's thrush resting in our woodlands for a while. The warbler migration is almost finished, but the residents are busy with nest building and egg laying, still singing their individual sweet songs. 

A typical, if glorious, spring day...green of all that grows, blue of sky, golden sunlight falling in swaths upon the grass...and yet full of mystery and presence of the unseen. When looking into the clear, bright air they are invisible, but when looking into the backdrop of the pin oak across the road, thousands of moving particles are revealed as they reflect the light..pollen, dust, the fluff of sycamore seeds, tiny gnats and unidentified insects flitting through the air, far too many to begin to count. Everywhere but unseen unless gazing in exactly the right spot.

Life is all around, always, revealed by the Light even in the dark places. We are invited. Look for it.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Mary's Lark

This morning I bore witness to the waking of the day and to the participation of its heralds. I took my place on the porch at 5:30 am, just as the first cardinal began to sing, a half hour before dawn. A few minutes later a second one echoed each call and then, from further away, a third tuned up and the duet became a trio...like an avian version of the Wailin' Jennys' song, "One Voice." In time, a fourth and a fifth joined the ensemble and by 5:50, it sounded as if every cardinal in the world had awakened and joined the chorus.

At 5:52 a few Carolina chickadee and white-throated sparrow voices emerged amid the cardinal's raucous seranade and by 6:00, as the woodland and garden turned from grey to  green, the cardinals' song began to fade. Perhaps grudgingly giving up on further sleep, titmice and Carolina wrens accompanied the chickadees and white-throats, their collective melody punctuated now and then by Canada geese and barred owls' exclamations. The spring morning was in full swing!

Now it is evening and the order reverses and at some point, right around dusk, all the voices will fall silent for a few minutes, and then the cardinals' evening vespers will commence...not the exuberant exaltations of a new day, but the soft chipping of a lullaby, as though intent on lulling themselves to sleep.

Whenever I hear bird song, I think of this passage that was recorded by Alexander Carmichael, as he wandered through Scotland in the 1800's, attempting to set down the almost-lost Celtic prayers and blessings of centuries past.

"My mother would be asking us to sing our morning song to God down in the back-house, as Mary's lark was singing it up in the clouds, and as Christ's maven (song-thrush) was singing it yonder in the tree giving glory to God of the creatures for the repose of the night, for the light of the day, and for the joy of life. She would tell us that every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds, of the virtues and the blessings, and would we be dumb."

God of the Creatures, thank you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Own Who You Are

Some time ago, a spiritual director spoke those words to my husband..."Own who you are!"  But what to do when we don't remember very clearly, when forces beyond our control cause us to forget? These little plants don't look like much at first glance, perhaps. But for me, they were the needed gift. They were what led me back to myself this morning.

It is 39 degrees and windy outside. The landscape is still mostly brown. The March malaise is upon me, the long weariness of winter, frustration at the teasing days of warmth, only to be plunged back into freezing temperatures and muddy ground. The suffering of the globe feels particularly heavy these days...the emotional and physical turmoil of the nation, the farms and cattle and soil that have all been washed away, the loss of people's lives and livelihood, worldwide.

Suffice to say I am not at my best in March. I am tired of grackles and red-winged blackbirds dominating my feeders. I am tired of going out to look for blooming spring garden flowers that I know full well are barely up out of the ground. I long for the blue jay's squeaky, raspy cry to be replaced by the melodies of wood thrush and warblers. Sometimes all that is in me wants to cry out, "How long?"

March is the almost-but-not-quite season. It is the season I begin to forget who I am because, deep down, much of who I am involves the green and growing world and my participation in it. Never mind that there are trays of young lettuce, kale, cabbage, onions, chives, dill, and calendula growing upstairs under lights, or pots of orchids and foliage plants growing happily in my study.  My soul longs for the awakening of the earth and the plants that no one has planted. 

And that brings me to my walk out into the woods behind our house this morning and my rediscovery of the cutleaf toothwort populations carpeting the ground. Flowers that no one planted intentionally, flowers that are some of the very first to support early bees and butterflies, flowers that declare unequivocally that there is order and assurance built into the natural world, if we but wait for it. 

I know that I am connected to the One who mysteriously (and I imagine, joyously) splashed the toothwort across the wooded landscape. But sometimes I forget. This morning was a reminder that participation with the Holy sometimes means waiting and bearing with the longings of the world and, at the same time, there are moments of relief, moments that anchor us, not just in God, but in our deepest selves, as well. 

Soon the toothworts will all be blooming.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Waiting for Woodcocks

I heard them over the fields last week, their twittering, whistling calls punctuating their seemingly reckless descent towards earth from far above the tree line. In the gathering dusk they fly, and at dawn, males hoping to out-do all other rivals for their ladies' favor. I have heard them just a handful of times so far, as they do not like to fly in snow or rain or wind or extreme cold. But they are patient and they wait, as they do every year, knowing the winter will not last forever.

They fly as harbingers of early spring where wet woodlands meet wild fields dressed in the brown stubble of last year's grasses. As darkness settles in, as the cardinals cease their evening song and spring peepers begin theirs, these comical little birds with their large eyes and long beaks waddle from the woods into the fields, positioning themselves for the moment when, as the light fades, their longings launch them skyward in an wide arc above the earth, exuberant in the mating flights that only happen this time of year.

The woodcocks are surely more patient than I am. At least there is no indication that they are fretting at the grayness of the sky or the browns and tans of the landscape. They spend their solitary days probing the soft, wet earth for worms and attending to survival. And then, as the days slowly lengthen, their brains and bodies respond to the onset of mating hormones, and the males begin to fly in what seems such glad abandon, earthbound no longer, suddenly free from the confines of the largely terrestrial life they lead most of the year.

It has been cold again the last few days, too cold for the woodcock's song and sky dance but, soon enough, the temperatures will warm and I will again hear the nasal "peeent" from across the road, declaring that spring, though slow to arrive, will not tarry forever. It is me who needs to learn to wait patiently, not trying to hurry along that over which I have no control or becoming despondent that the winter has seemingly dragged on for so long. Being attentive to the signs I recognize, like the woodcocks flight or the spring peeper's tentative calls, enable me to open myself to what is, even in the midst of grumpy moments. And for this I am exceedingly grateful.

If you would like to know more about American Woodcocks, you can go to this link from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Wandering and Wondering Along the Boardwalk

At first glance, the marsh looked almost barren, particularly at low tide. Broken cattail remains dotted the mud flats and the bare branches of silky dogwood and buttonbush appeared as frozen as the ice that clung to the Potomac River shoreline.  As I braced myself against the biting wind, the bright February sunlight did little to warm me and I puzzled, yet again, at how the waterfowl swimming and feeding just beyond the ice can live, and even thrive, in the cold.

The boardwalk runs between the river and the tidal marsh, at the intersection of the two ecosystems, and offers abundant opportunity to observe the life of both.  There were not many ducks in the marsh but, on the river, several species were feeding, splashing and calling with abandon.  Furthest out were the diving ducks-the common mergansers, hooded mergansers, American widgeons and buffleheads and for the most part, each species swam alone, not mingling with others not of its own kind. Closer in to shore were the dabbling ducks, the mallards and black ducks whose bottoms we often see as they tip their heads underwater to feed. This area of the Potomac is rich in the aquatic plant life, fish and crustaceans that sustain the waterfowl who make this area their winter home and the boardwalk is an excellent vantage point from which to observe and learn more about them all.

Though I enjoyed watching the waterfowl, my attention turned to the bald eagle pair perched on a large, bare sycamore nearby. The female should be laying her first egg any day now and, though I believe I know which nest they will adopt, I won’t be sure until she is sitting still for a while.  I have come to quietly watch and wait and, perhaps, to discover.

Absorbed in the eagles, I slowly became aware of new activity around me. The dabbling ducks were on the move from the river into the marsh.  Initially, a few pairs of mallards flew over but, shortly thereafter, groups of eight and ten followed, wings whistling softly as they passed overhead and disappeared into the channels between the cattails. Within a short time, the two hundred mallards and black ducks who had been on the river had flown into the marsh and the seemingly lifeless wetland was alive with sound and splashing and what seemed like joy in returning home.  I puzzled about their mini-migration and realized that it had to do with tidal ebb and flow. I had arrived at low tide and the marsh was drained.  While I focused on the waterfowl and eagles, however, the river slowly and steadily streamed in and, at some definitive moment, the marsh held enough water for the mallards and black ducks to resume maneuvering and feeding in their favored setting. 

I was reminded, yet again, that there is always, always something to be learned when venturing outdoors, whether we live on the border of wild lands or in a suburban community. Wherever we are, we are given daily opportunities to expand our understanding of the natural world, simply by opening our eyes and minds and by paying attention. As we take them in, these opportunities grant a renewed joy in discovery and lead us into a more deeply held understanding of the land and its ways. They connect us to life beyond our own and yet, if we are willing to accept them, invite us into a life of wonder, a life that becomes our own.

Saturday, February 2, 2019


Three months until the wood thrush song, two and a half, if I am lucky.

In the meantime there are robins, their distant cousins...hundreds of them
foraging in the soft soil beneath leaves, drinking from the open water of woodland streams, calling out their winter presence, perhaps keeping tabs on each others' whereabouts. 

There is the flicker, rustling high above in an old squirrels nest set in the fork of a tall tree, tossing old leaves this way and that, perhaps searching for morsels, perhaps rearranging the structure for its own purposes, certainly busy about something. And on the ground, from the vantage of a fallen log, a hermit thrush silently watching me watching the flicker, bright eyes fixed curiously upon the human standing in the middle of the road.

There are the white-throats, rummaging around in the leaf litter and the rush of wings just as I am getting a good look at them. And the male and female robin having what looks and sounds for all the world like a winter-weary irritated couple's spat, unmindful of me altogether.

Yesterday's light layer of snow has filled the cracks and crevices of fallen trunks and brings the forest floor into sharp relief. Lustrous holly leaves glisten in the sun and shelf fungi run up the skeletons of old trees, who appear indistinguishable from their living neighbors, except for this adornment.

Waiting...what was it Mr Rogers used to sing? "Let's think of something to do while we're waiting, while we're waiting, let's think of something to do."  What better than going out into the cold (even if only for a little while), breathing the frosty air, walking on frozen ground and listening to the crunch of feet on the grass and leaves, noticing the birds or the squirrels or the trees or the lacy patterns of ice crystals on standing stalks. 

Three months until the wood thrush song. In the meantime, I have a lot of living to do.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

"Hope Is The Thing With Feathers"

"Hope is the thing with feathers, 
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops - at all-" 
            Emily Dickinson

I thought of her verse as I stepped outside this morning. Like so many, I have felt weighed down lately...discouraged by national foolishness, by seemingly intentional hardheartedness, by frozen ground and icy puddles in the potholes, by thinking human thoughts and, naturally enough, carrying all-too-human concerns.

But when I stepped outside my door this morning, and stopped, and listened...why,there were songs of hope all around me, just like in the poem. It has only been in the last day or two that the red-winged blackbirds have begun to sing in the stand of bamboo where they shelter from the winds and I've been hearing the tufted titmice's high, clear, spring whistles for a week or more. I think I more than imagined the faint whisper of a cardinal's spring song yesterday morning and the bluebirds and barred owls tuning up their voices for another season.

In the front yard, catkins have emerged on the hazelnut bushes and buds are enlarging on the star magnolia and the dogwood, as they do every year at this time...and as happens every year and as is about to happen this week, they will be challenged by a bout of unseasonably severe winter cold, almost as an assault on their natural rhythms and intentions. And yet, though they must endure the upcoming frigid blast, it will not defeat them. Miraculous though it may seem and mostly invisible to us, those buds and catkins will continue on in their slow, methodical development and preparation for their spring display. They will take in their stride what this week and the rest of winter offers.

The winter weeds, those brazen and opportunistic chickweed and hairy bittercress youngsters that germinate and take hold during the dark of the year, and will mount an all out barrage on our gardens in a couple of months, will wither in the coming freeze and look altogether vanquished by the low temperatures. But once the air and ground warm a bit, they will shake off the cold, laugh at our wishes for their demise, push out new growth and go on to bloom when we are paying them no attention. Such is their resilience and their place in the botanical scheme of things.

And so, once again, even as I tire of the frigid temperatures, the many-hues-of-brown landscape, the lack of obviously growing things, the tumult of our times, I am reminded of the presence of hope, the Presence that lives in all things and bids us comfort and the ability to look beyond the immediate. In the coming weeks, I will need reminders. I will watch and listen carefully for signs of the unfolding spring, subtle as they might be. I am grateful for these tangible invitations to hope and their encouragement to believe that what is today is not what will necessarily be tomorrow. Newness and freshness beckon, right now just out of reach but, just as we experience every year, are all the more joyous for the wait.