Poetry Friday: Moss

I’ve been appreciating moss on our walks in the woods. These images show such a variety of textures and shades. They remind me that sometimes beautiful things grow in quiet, dormant seasons.

Bruce Guernsey appreciates it too, in his poem “Moss”:

How must it be
to be moss,
that slipcover of rocks?—

greening in the dark,
longing for north,
the silence
of birds gone south…

The rest is here.

Guernsey concludes with an allusion to moss adorning our gravestones,

where light fails,
where the chisel
cut the name.

Moss outlasts us, he seems to say.

It’s one of many things we can walk past without noticing, or recognize as yet another sign of the complexity and economy of nature. I tend to see it not as a reminder of death, but as a visual confirmation of life that grows even in the season when most vegetation has died back into the ground. It always cheers my eye.

Anna Botsford Comstock writes,

The Mosses are a special delight to children because they are green and beautiful before other plants have gained their greenness in the spring and after they have lost it in the fall; to the discerning eye, a mossy bank or a mossy log is a thing of beauty always. When we were children we regarded moss as a forest for fairy folk, each moss stem being a tree, and we naturally concluded that fairy forests were evergreen.

I didn’t imagine fairies as a child, but I did imagine tiny animals living in the moss forests.

Here’s to moss-gathering of all kinds! Click the button to visit the Poetry Friday roundup, and have a great weekend.

Winter Walking: Tracks and Birds

Last week, driving home from a walk at a winter-frosted marsh, we saw this:

See it? Right smack dab in the middle, screened by branches? It’s an eagle!

We stopped the car, got out, strove for a better view — all to no avail. Then, it took off and wheeled above us, seemingly mocking us earthbound creatures.

We’ve gone back a few times and parked across the river to watch it. Last time, I got a picture.

It’s about a quarter of a mile away; the river is wide at that point. My camera doesn’t capture a very sharp image. But I followed it through the zoom lens as it flew even farther upriver — and landed in a tree with its mate!

We were excited! We hadn’t seen the second eagle. Some sunny day, I hope to get a good picture. But sunny days are in short supply this time of year.

When they do come, the girls and I capitalize on them. Here are a few things we’ve seen in January.

Fisher tracks

My father confirmed for us that these are fisher tracks, and the more I read about fishers, the more dismayed I am. They apparently like to eat squirrels, of which there are many among the walnut trees bordering this pond. I also read that they like habitats with lots of dead wood, and there are plenty of decaying trees in this marshy place. Though they’re called fishers, they don’t really fish. Supposedly their name is derived from a Dutch word, “visse;” in French their pelts were called “fiche.” “Visse” means “nasty.”

Muskrat tracks with tail drag mark

We know this was a muskrat trail because we surprised the muskrat. He was sitting stock still when we first saw him, at which point he scurried in terror across the trail in front of us and vanished into his hole. We gaped in astonishment.

I think he’s this guy, whom I saw a few days earlier. He’s not very wary. I hope he and his mate know there’s a fisher about. Fishers even eat porcupines; I’m sure they wouldn’t hesitate to eat a muskrat.

More tracks:

Bird tracks, with inner and outer tail feather imprints

I think those might be grouse tracks. I saw one this morning on my walk in the woods, quietly eying me before walking deliberately away into the brush.

Squirrel tracks on a heavily trafficked log
Mouse tracks

This morning, I saw several of these little wood mouse tunnels/trails across the main path.

I couldn’t help but think of Wendell Berry’s description of a wood mouse’s home in Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World, which the girls and I reread recently:

Her native country was about an acre of ground overhung by about an acre of sky crisscrossed by grassblades, weedstems, the stems of twigs of low bushes, and the limbs of trees.

I tried to fit my perspective into these little tunnels when I saw them, and once I saw a lightning-fast dark bolt shoot along one of them. It always amazes me to be looking at just the right place at just the right moment to catch something so fleeting.

We’ve seen birds too. Most are common winter birds.

Red-bellied woodpecker
Downy woodpecker
White-breasted nuthatch
Black-capped chickadee
What happened to this cardinal's tail?
Female slate-colored junco
Male goldfinch in winter drab
Tom Turkey and his harem

We’ve seen lots of hawks too, but I’ve already posted those images under my hawks tag. The only other image I’d like to post is of a bird that winters here, but that I’ve never seen in winter before this year: the Carolina wren. This little fellow was really belting it out in the chilly sunshine this morning during my walk. It’s still hard for me to believe that such a big sound was coming from such a little bird. I’m not sure who he was trying to impress, but he impressed me!

I know this post is really image-heavy, but I like to keep track of our walks and sightings. Still, I’m going to forego some of the botanical beauties we’ve seen — mosses, lichens, winterberries, a porcupine tree, frost-encrusted ferns (which my daughter called “sugar-coated ferns.”) Instead I’ll close with a few samples from our journals.

From my second grader
From my 5th grader -- a raptor tree, made using her bird book and Model Magic clay.

(I wrote about this here.)

A drawing of mine. I'm enjoying drawing more with the girls.

Whew! What a looong post. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for joining us on our winter rambles!

Weekend sights

The girls and I took a walk in the snow the other day. Now I have shots of this path, which my youngest calls the tree tunnel, in three of the four seasons.




Lovely spot.

I also saw more critters over the weekend — this muskrat, who couldn’t figure out what the beeping and clicking of my camera was:

This tree with not one, but two, puffy red-tails sitting in it:

These pics of two different hawks in the same general vicinity:

This is its mate, at a different time of day in the same tree. We’re trying to distinguish them by their coloration.

This is their son or daughter, I’m pretty sure. It was a ways down the road, but we see it in the same territory. Its tail isn’t red yet, and it’s not as wary as its parents.

And last but not least, a few cute feeder birds — a junco,

And chickadees at work on our pinecone feeder.

That last one isn’t the greatest quality picture, but I love it. It looks like the chickadee is making a snow angel in the air. Talk about poetry in motion!


Tree tales, muted colors, birds, and musings

“New Year’s” never has been that meaningful to me, coming as it does in the middle of the year’s school activity. It would seem more intuitively meaningful if it happened in the spring. But this year’s ending finds me noting some new things sprouting up even in the bleak midwinter.

For instance, we visited a new nature preserve today. It was in Elmira, and there was a nice nature center/museum with some animals and exhibits as well as 10 miles of trails. It’s been a comparatively mild December with no snow to speak of yet, and though our walk was soggy, we looked hard for things with color and found some.

Gold, brown, and gray-blue -- austere but quietly lovely. This scene should be titled "Dormant."
Mosses of all varieties thrive in the damp.

In addition to moss, the russet leaves still clinging to the branches, the evergreens, and the lichens added different shades of subtle color. And the ice formed delicate leaf rubbings in many places along the way.

To me, this next photo is the coolest of all. This is an elm tree trunk, but look at the patterns carved into it by the organisms! Don’t they remind you of the Nazca Lines? I’m leaving the image large so the detail really shows.

Other tree trunk messages included this woodpecker tree with dried sap trickling from all the holes — and a nut jammed into one of them. A nuthatch’s stashed dinner?

And the other discovery was this log. Surely a pileated woodpecker has been here. Look at that pile of wood chips!

We counted a dozen red-tails in the treetops on our way to the center, but on our actual walk the only birds we saw were tiny, perfectly camouflaged, and peeping as they spiraled up the bark. We determined later that they were brown creepers. My oldest found a bird’s nest fallen into the trail and took it into the center when we got back. The naturalist worked with her to identify it and told us about eBird, a new-to-us resource we look forward to exploring.

Both daughters are turning into quite the accomplished birders, and for Christmas my oldest received this bird book after wearing out the library copy in renewals. She’s already ingested large sections of it. My youngest is getting interested in drawing birds, and we went over the 5 elements of shape in Drawing for Children the other day to hone her eye. She loved that and has started churning out bird art.

(I have always felt overwhelmed by the idea of working systematically through Drawing with Children, but she certainly responded. Maybe Mom should get her act together and give it a try.)

It felt good to get outdoors, even though the sun went under by the time we were done. There’s always something to see, and now we have a place we can look forward to investigating more in the future. I really enjoyed the exhibits at the center, especially one that explained the five layers of the forest (canopy, understory, shrub, herb, and litter), and the different stages of a hickory/oak forest. (Anyone know of any titles to study these subjects further?) So we’re ending 2011 with a seed of exploration planted for 2012.

I took this photo with my phone, but I like its blur and dreaminess. It's a good representation of the path into the future, isn't it?

Christmas Eve hawking and walking

We went for a walk on Christmas Eve morning. On the way to the trail, we saw this guy hunting for his breakfast. He posed for us in a variety of postures.

He looks chilly with his feathers all fluffed, doesn’t he? He changed branches after studying us coldly for a few minutes.

Then he flashed his lovely feathered pantaloons, and flew away with a few piercing “Keer!” calls. My husband was convinced that he was saying, “Merry Christmas!” I’m not so sure, though.

A few moments later, we came upon this one. I think of this redtail as a “she,” because she was larger. She also looks rather coy. It’s a younger hawk without the red tail feathers yet.

The walk was lovely. It was quite cold, and we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of; all the action in that regard had already happened by the time we got to the trail. But there were other feasts for the eye, even in this season of muted colors.

We had a wonderful Christmas. (It’s still going on today, in fact, with more family celebration.) I hope you did too!

Teachable moments involving shrews

You have to admit, it’s an attention-getting title — for its weirdness if nothing else! For the record, I don’t anticipate this as the start of a new blog category on shrews. Nevertheless, this little fellow inspired a rather serious discussion of ethics when he appeared at a pile of birdseed I spilled while filling our front feeder.

My youngest sat out in the cold for a half an hour with the Burgess Animal Book, watching him dart in and out and forming a mental map of his tunnels through the mulch. Her first comment when she came in was, “Don’t tell Daddy about it! He’ll try to kill it!”

Now in reality, she may have been right in her prediction. There was an incident with a shrew a few weeks ago in the back yard, an incident involving a grown man with a shovel and a squalling small mammal that escaped back into the ground. But she repeated her admonition against telling Daddy so many times that it troubled me. I down with her and said, “If we just happened to forget mentioning it to Daddy, that would be no big deal. But if it’s on our mind, and we conceal it from Daddy on purpose to make him do what we want, that’s different. We have to trust each other. We don’t want to treat each other like puppets.”

“Who made you?” she demanded tearfully.

“God,” I replied, taken aback.

“He made it, too! We can’t just go around killing things God made!”

I happen to share her protective impulses toward what Thornton Burgess calls “our friends in fur and feathers.” So I conceded her feelings. But I also pointed out that it would be more honest, and less manipulative, to simply tell Daddy about the shrew if it was on her mind, and then ask him please not to kill it. Then she’d have to trust him.

I was remembering something from Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy about request (not coercion) being primary in our relationships in the kingdom of God, and it seemed important. This morning I found the book and looked it up:

A request by its very nature unites. A demand, by contrast, immediately separates. It is this peculiar “atmosphere” of togetherness that characterizes the kingdom…

We teach our children to say “please” and “thank you.” This is understood to be a matter of respect, and rightly so. But it is also a way of getting what we want or need. It is a way of getting that requires us to go through the freedom of the person asked, however.

We had an interesting conversation. She didn’t accept automatically the concept of lying by omission, and we tried to come up with some examples from the Bible. I thought of Jacob, not taking the cue to reveal his true identity to Isaac when he was impersonating his brother. She thought of Cain, not answering God’s question about where Abel was. I’m not sure how good the examples were; can you think of better ones? She did latch onto the concept, though. And when her daddy got home, she was the first one down the stairs to tell him about it.

In If Jesus Were a Parent, Hal Perkins talks about watching over our children’s hearts, removing “weed seeds” and planting good ones. I see this conversation in those terms; we may have to have others like it where we continue pulling up the seeds of coercion and replacing them with request. But it’s pretty fascinating to observe where the teachable moments can flare up in the midst of the ordinary. A shrew! It makes me want to hear others’ stories about their incongruous teaching moments.

Hawk Stalking

On the way to church this morning, I told my husband, “Someday, I’m going to get a picture of a hawk with blue sky in the background. All my hawk pictures have been on cloudy days.”

On the way home, we stopped so I could try for a better picture of some forsythia I saw at Brick Pond the other day. (It’s a spring flower, yet I’m almost positive that’s what it is.) It was 16 degrees this morning so it’s wilted, but still yellow.

I remembered something Thornton Burgess said in his autobiography about finding a particular plant blooming out of season in the dead of winter. He found it when he was a boy, rambling in the Cape Cod woods. Even as an 86-year-old man writing his autobiography, he remembered it and told of it as something significant — one of the details worth recounting in his life story. He pointed out that nature is full of surprises and exceptions to the rules we make. If this is truly forsythia, maybe I’ll be writing about it when I’m 86.

Some things are somewhat predictable, though — like the territories of red-tailed hawks. The girls and I saw one on the way to the pond on Friday, getting harassed by crows. So going home, I had my camera ready to see it again, and got a picture. Today I had my camera ready again, and the sky was blue this time.

My husband turned the car around and crept along the shoulder while I snapped some photos. Don’t I have good sports for a husband and daughters?

Hawks look so motionless when we blow past them on the highway, but this one was intent on hunting, turning its head and hunching its shoulders and shifting its grip on the branch. It’s not like a human hunter who has to be still. It just has to be high above its prey, sharp-eyed, and quick on the dive.

It was neat to see. When we got home, though, I was reminded that not everyone is happy about hawks.

Seed speculations

It seems like an odd time of year to be thinking about seeds.

It began over the weekend, when my husband got to thinking about God’s provision of seed-bearing plants very early in the creation story. He’s been thinking about the investment of time and resources as seeds, a metaphor Jesus uses often in his parables.

Coincidentally, the seed preoccupation continued with my daughter’s birthday party, where we made two seed crafts.

The first is from an idea Alice posted on her blog.

That’s grass seed in there, along with a Christmas cactus cutting. “God sent new life into the world in Jesus,” I explained to the kids. “And when we invite him into our hearts, God plants new life in us, too.”

“I don’t think he grows like grass,” replied one little girl.

I refuse to be moved — I like my metaphor! These ornaments are a perfect object lesson — or at least, they will be if the seeds actually sprout (which they haven’t — yet).

To plant a seed and see it grow
Is something every child should do,

And when it blossoms, how it grew
Is something every child should know,

And when its seeds are ripe to sow,
A child may see the old made new.

To grow and gently grow and grow
Is something people should do too.

(Harry Behn, “Lesson)

The second craft was pine cone bird feeders.

Our family ended up with several, since both daughters made one, and I did too. We hung a few in the evergreen out back, and we’ve gotten lots of entertainment out of watching the squirrels.

These squirrels are planters themselves, burying their winter stores here, there and everywhere. I’m sure they’re largely responsible for the grove of walnut trees on our back bank.

Last but not least comes Anno’s Magic Seeds, a thoroughly wonderful picture book that explores the concept of multiplication. I bought it awhile ago at a book sale, wrapped it up to give to my daughter on her birthday, and forgot about it. So it was like getting a present myself this week, too. It’s a simple story about Jack, who gets some seeds from a wizard and learns how to provide for an ever-growing number of people, as well as how to save and plan so that even natural disaster doesn’t destroy him. The “magic” is really the everyday magic of seed-bearing plants, cultivated with common sense. There is something I really love about this book, and I recommend it highly.

It’s strange to me to see such a strong theme being worked out without any forethought, especially a theme that seems more suited to the spring.