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.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What Beckons?

Common grackles, like thousands of shimmering black ornaments on December-bare trees, move as one. Swirling, swooping en masse, from trees to ground and back again, their insistent cackling, crackling voices dominate the airways until...with the collective whooooosh of a multitude of wings, they are gone.

Seven woolly, wayward sheep, masters of independent intent, carefully pick their way through the whitened meadow, phantoms in the frosted, foggy field, almost indistinguishable from the tall, pale, frozen grassy hummocks.

Ice crystals glisten like twinkling stars on fallen beech leaves. Christmas ferns' fearless green growing among the browns of the forest floor. Busy, nimble squirrel feet barely touching the ground, noisily patter their way atop the crunchy remains of last year's oak, hickory and yellow poplar foliage.

Expected, but no less welcome, voices of the regulars call on a late December morning...tufted titmice, white breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, Carolina wrens, blue-jays, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and the occasional hermit thrush. All busily foraging and feeding, yet still filled with song and conversation.

What stops you in your tracks and draws you into stillness? What delights you? What beckons you into awe?
Pay attention...

For such is the invitation into God...

Monday, November 19, 2018

Taking Off My Shoes

I came across this luminous passage this morning.

"Earth's crammed with heaven
 And every common bush is afire with God;
 But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
 The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries."
      Elizabeth Barrett Browning

There is nothing wrong with plucking blackberries, of course. And do not even the most devout and attentive need to eat, and to get to where they are going, private ruminations and feet intact? And yet, this powerful invitation stops me in my metaphorical tracks, gives me pause and bids me ponder what, and Who, I am missing.

The red-shouldered hawks are calling, a pair of them, their strident, high-pitched piercing "kee-a, kee-a" ringing through the woodlands, brown plumage almost invisible against the leafless oaks. Standing immobilized, listening...watching...waiting...I am drawn into bordering-on-reverent fascination, wondering at the pull of these winged predators on my soul.

I pass beneath yellow poplars and chestnut oaks, giants birthed in another time, silent watchmen bearing witness to the unfolding of recent history. I pause, involuntarily responding yet again to the deepening sense of awe in their presence, the welling up of gratitude for being allowed to walk among them, the not unpleasant awareness of the fleeting years of my life, as compared to theirs and my small stature beneath their vastness. 

"Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush is afire with God." Is this very Presence not what draws me when I step outside my door or look out my window? Is not this Invitation, embodied in hawks and trees, who calls and bids me come? May I, indeed, learn more fully to see and in response, gladly and with abandon, take off my shoes. May we all.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Making of an Amateur Naturalist

Recently, a new friend asked me the meaning of the word "naturalist" and I began mentally reminiscing about the winding path that has brought me to this place of feeling confident about taking on that mantle for myself. The origins of the word "amateur" are from the Latin root amator, to love, and "naturalist" denotes one who "studies the natural world, or plants and animals as they live in nature." So, yes, somewhere along the line, I fell deeply in love with the natural world and it began to feel like my true home, its floral and faunal inhabitants an intimate part of my life and family.

As a child, though there was no one who named what I observed or taught me how to listen, there were myriad moments of awe that, over time, morphed into familiarity and kinship with the outdoors: buttercups in the grass behind the Air Force apartment building in Germany when I was four years old; a picture that my first grade art teacher passed around of an oak leaf that was definitely not a maple; many, many readings of Winnie the Pooh and his excursions into The Hundred Acre Wood; clandestine bicycle trips with my father and brother to gather and replant abandoned, rouge irises on an air base in New York when I was nine; uncountable hours spent playing house under a big old maple tree and dodging territorial blue jays, when playing too close to their nest; exploring our misty, moisty yard in Monterey, CA when I was 10, and finding snails, of all things, among the unfamiliar foliage beneath the live oak trees.

What wove all these random experiences together into a cohesive whole were our yearly family trips to my grandparents who lived in the Tug River valley in the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. There I went to sleep and awoke to the sounds of summer insects. I paid attention to the yellow jackets feasting on fallen apples as I walked barefoot through the grass. Along the roadsides I breathed in a spicy scent from an unknown source that only decades later I discovered to be one of the goldenrod species. In my grandparents' garden I picked beans and corn from plants that towered above me and got to feed what few meal scraps there were to their one black chicken, Susie.

Through the years, through all these experiences, the ways of the natural world seeped into my soul and formed me. I became ever more attentive to the large and small invitations to pay attention - from the caravan of ants at my feet, hurrying on their way to raid a rival ant colony to the startling  whoosh of immense wings as a pair of bald eagles took flight from a branch, far  above my head. In time, the outdoors became the place to which I turned when the rest of life became too much to bear. It became the place to ponder that which I did not understand, as well to give exuberant thanks for unexpected joys. In it and through it, I sensed God's whispers and opened my heart and soul in glad response.

And so, once again, as so I often write...the natural world offers this same welcoming invitation to all of us. As dusk falls you might go outside and listen for the loudly chirping cardinals that are bidding goodbye to the day. Or as first light dawns, listen for the recently arrived white-throated sparrows singing their clear "Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" song. Or you might step out your door, allowing your eyes to feast upon the last few autumn colors, knowing they'll soon be gone. Or, if you live near trees, pause and close your eyes, catching the fragrance of the fallen leaves around you. 

In all of these invitations and in so many more I wish you peace and an enfolding, tangible sense of the Presence that endows and imbues all things.