Nothin’ Could Be Finer

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds: The Carolina Wren.

web 10062014_247I love wrens. They are bold, brassy, and outspoken; flitting from pillar to post with their tail upright as if in protest. I’m not sure what Carolina’s have to protest, but believe me, rebellion is in their blood.

Carolina Wren’s average about 5″ in length and weigh about 3/4 of an ounce. They are the second largest wren in the United States after the cactus wren of the desert southwest. Carolina Wrens can live to be 6 years of age and often keep one mate for their entire breeding lifespan. When a pair of wrens bond, they not only stay together through the nesting season, they remain a pair and interact throughout the year.

Although both sexes of Carolina Wren can sing, it is primarily the males we hear making their strident calls from fence row and thicket. One captive male was recorded singing 3,000 times in one day! This is news to me, as I assumed female wrens were the ones making a racket during breeding and nesting season: Sort of an, “I am woman, hear me roar,” attitude. Nevertheless, female wrens do defend their nests with great vigor and anyone approaching her brood should do so with caution.

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Baby Carolina

During the breeding season, male Carolina Wrens several nests, although only one will be used for brooding. Not only do the “dummy” nests confuse predators, but scientists believe female wrens choose the most appealing nest to use for raising young.

The hallmark of the Carolina Wren is the bold, white eye stripe that gives them a somewhat cross demeanor. If wrens come back as humans, I think many would return as stereotypical boarding school teachers. Their stern visage speaks of rapped knuckles and detention after school. There would be no talking, note-passing, or other fol de rol in the classroom of Mr. or Mrs. Carolina Wren !

web 10062014_250Carolina wrens spend the majority of their time on or near the ground searching for food, or in tangles of vegetation and vines. They also probe bark crevices on lower tree levels, or pick up leaf-litter in order to search for prey. Their diet consists of invertebrates, such as beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, ants, bees, and wasps. Small lizards and tree frogs also make up the carnivorous portion of their diet. Vegetable matter makes up a small percentage of their diets, such as fruit pulp and various seeds. In the northern portion of their range, they frequent bird feeders.

For me, the bottom line is: I like wrens because they are small yet mighty. I admire their courage and the bold way they approach life. More often than not, life seems overwhelming to me and yet here are these wee birds who are ready to take on the world. When a Carolina is sitting on my porch, belting out his vibrant song, it gives me courage to be my authentic self, to sing my own wonderful song.

Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.



Lighting the Lamps of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of Autumn Light.

09192011_041320 webI’ve been waiting for days now. Waiting for the moment when the sun would shift just enough to replace the brassy summer light with a mellow autumn glow. I keep track of this day in my journal and some years it has happened as early as August 8th. This year it arrived on August 17th. I was in my reading chair, finishing a chapter of Sigurd Olson’s Reflections From the North Country when I saw it: Streamers of gold filtering through the blinds on my French doors. I took up my journal and penned, in all capital letters, “THE LIGHT HAS COME!” And my heart rejoiced.

At first, the Lamps of Autumn are most noticeable in the late afternoon and it brings back memories of walking home from school. My brother and I walked almost two miles from the bus stop to our little farm. We complained about it, as kids are wont to do, but in truth, memories of ambling along the gravel road in the waning light on a chilly autumn afternoon ranks as one of the best remembrances of my childhood.

web 09292009_034631The coming of autumn light signals an end to the frenzy of summer. The harsh call of cicadas is replaced with the gentle chirp of crickets along the lane. Birds return to our feeders and fill our days with their winter-songs: A chorus performed simply for the love of singing, now that the rush of parenting is through.


This time of year slows me down too. My daily walks are easy rambles now that I am not in a race with the heat of the day or the biting bugs of summer. My dog and I stop often and drink in the rare beauty of the changing landscape as it changes from green, to gold, to grey. We take time to watch for the arrival of the first white-throated sparrow, the fall warblers, and the juncos. This is the season for reveling. The season of peace.




If I had a blog, today I would write about following nature’s calendar in my garden.

When you live close to nature, one of the benefits is following the passage of time through the changes in the natural world. In my yard, the month of August, and the end of summer, are marked by the blooming of two of my favorite flowers: Cardinal flower and blue lobelia.

Both of these striking flowers are in the lobelia family, a species defined by the presence of five lobed petals on the flower. The family of plants is named for Belgian botanist, Mathias de L’Obel, who often used a “latinized” form of his name Lobelius.

081113_0822 webThe name cardinal flower (lobelius cardinalis) was inspired by the color of the robes of the Roman Catholic cardinals. John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist, wrote, “But when vivid color is wanted, what can surpass or equal our cardinal flower? There is a glow about this flower as if color emanated from it as from a live coal.” It was first found by explorers in Canada who sent the plant to France in the mid-1620’s. Many Native American tribes used tea made from the roots and leaves as medicines to treat everything from bronchitis to rheumatism. The leaves were often smoked in place of tobacco, despite the fact that overuse can be toxic.

In this day and age, cardinal flower is of greatest benefit to the ruby-throated hummingbird, its primary pollinator. The beak of the ruby-throat is perfectly shaped to reach deep into the flower where the nectar and pollen reside. The flowers are especially adapted to pollination by hummingbirds. They are said to “pull hummingbirds from the sky.” In fact, their blooming period corresponds especially well with the southern migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

09242014_093525 webGrowing alongside the cardinal flowers are its cousin, blue lobelia. These blue-violet blooms are a favorite of bees and, being one of the last flowers to bloom during the growing season, are essential to building the bees’ store of food for the winter. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia are so closely related, they can cross-pollinate and produce blooms of fuchsia, white, and pale pink.

When these favorites are in bloom, I know the clock is turning from the bounty of summer to preparation for the scarcity of winter. These are flowers who provide lasting nourishment for the hummingbirds and bees. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia tell me it is time to add to the wood-pile, put by the last of the preserves, and glean the last of the garden’s bounty. Winter is coming and it is time to gather the harvest at last.

In a world where everything seems up for grabs, it is reassuring to see the constancy of nature. Regardless of how crazy the calendar on my wall may become, nature’s measure of time is regular as a heartbeat, and as comforting as a soft blanket on a chilly fall night. We need things we can be sure of and I thank my garden for giving me something on which I can rely.

Walking With Giants

If I had a blog, today I would write about my friend, Big Bluestem.

09032013_180602 WebI call big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) my friend because it has been part of my life for over twenty years. Big bluestem is a native grass of the tallgrass prairie, a vast domain of largely treeless expanse that, before the coming of the white man, dipped down out of southern Canada, expanded to over 600 miles in width across the Midwest, and ran for more than a thousand miles towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, we touch the boundary of the prairie that extended, and broadened, as it went north. Plants native to the tallgrass prairie grew here, though not in the lush abundance found to our north and east. To honor the sea of grass that once touched The Greenwood, we planted grasses and wildflowers common to the tallgrass prairie here on our farm and big bluestem is the first of the grasses to bridge the gap from summer to fall.

09212013_070226 webGrowing up to nine feet high, big bluestem was a wonder to the first settlers. In his book Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, author Joan Madsen writes “[big bluestem] was a marvel to the early settlers who plunged into it and left accounts of big bluestem so tall that it could be tied in knots across the pommel of a saddle.” I see these slender sentinels as the guardians of my homeplace, keeping watch over the long gravel lane that connects our farm to the outside world.

In August, big bluestem begins to go to seed and as it opens, reveals a three-branched seed head that has given rise to another name, “Turkey Foot.” Its unmistakable silhouette tells me fall is near.

10282011_155806 (1) webI am not the only one to await the ripening of big bluestem. From late September until November, the seed-heads are an endless bounty to sparrows, juncos, and a host of migrating birds who rely on the nutritious seeds to fuel their winter stores of fat. Driving along the lane on a fine autumn afternoon, the giant grasses are bent to the ground under the weight of feeding birds. The continual rise and fall of the stems makes it appear as though the plants are moving under their own power, bowing to the mellow sun.

09202013_181510 webThis year, the big bluestem began to open on July 31st. It will take some time for the seeds to cure, but already the sparrows are gathering, testing the crop to measure the breadth of the harvest to come.It is a welcome sign that summer’s reign cannot last and the time of harvest, then rest will come.

There are only a few tallgrass prairies left today. Most fell to the settler’s plow over a century ago, so I am proud to know the big bluestem, so see them dance, as Wallace Stegner wrote: “in the grassy, green, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it.” I walk among giants as my forbears did and dream of what lies just out of sight, oven the next wave of green.

Be Still And Know

If I had a blog, today I would write about the sacred nature of silence.

The Lord of Holiness

The Lord of Holiness

The last few days, the message of The Universe has been, “Be still.” I spent two days on a solo retreat in Missouri Wine Country, enjoying the rare privilege of reading, writing, and sitting in quiet contemplation. Originally, I had gone to the little town of Hermann to eagle-watch along the Missouri River, but when I arrived, I knew my trip was to center around restoring my spirit, not adding to my portfolio. I gave in to the urge to rest and in the stillness of those midwinter days, I found new life in the simple act of doing nothing.

Any doubts I had about forsaking my eagle project were erased this morning when I discovered a handsome bald eagle perched in a tree near the barn. I had followed my heart on my retreat and now the eagle had come to me and I knew at once the story I needed to share:

The Eagle wasn’t always the Eagle. The Eagle, before he became the Eagle, was Yucatangee, the Talker. Yucatangee talked and talked. It talked so much it heard only itself. Not the river, not the wind, not even the Wolf. The Raven came and said “The Wolf is hungry. If you stop talking, you’ll hear him. The wind too. And when you hear the wind, you’ll fly.” So he stopped talking. And became its nature, the Eagle. The Eagle soared, and its flight said all it needed to say. (As told by Marilyn Whirlwind on Northern Exposure).

My Bald Eagle

My Bald Eagle

Today the eagle assured me I can trust my heart; that not all needs are met by action. The eagle reminded me that unless I am quiet in body and in spirit I cannot hear the voice of The Divine. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to this when he wrote: There are voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.”  and still more compelling, he admonished, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.”

Going forward, I will remember to stop, to be still, and to listen, for then I will not have to go in search of Holiness; it will come in search of me.

Christmas to Me: Part III

If I had a blog, today I would finish telling you the story of my best Christmas ever…

Crossing Conchu Lake

Crossing Conchu Lake

Christmas Day dawned clear and cold. Without the folderol of opening presents or cooking a big company dinner, we ate our Paddler’s Porridge. This is our usual North Woods breakfast as it was the traditional breakfast of the French Voyageurs, the legendary fur-traders and explorers who made this part of the north part of song and lore during the 18th and 19th centuries. In need of a hearty breakfast, these strapping young men started each day with hot cereal made from of oatmeal, mixed with wild rice, and craisins. I add cinnamon, vanilla, cream, and butter to up the ante just a bit, but either way, after a bowl of Paddler’s Porridge, even a Southerner is ready to spend the day out on the frozen lakes.

Once the dishes were washed, we bundled up and strapped on our skis, traveling east towards Uranus and Conchu lakes. Around noon, we crossed from Conchu to the Kawishiwi River, a ribbon of ice between tree-lined shores. The name: Kawishiwi (or Kawashaway) comes from the Algonquin words Kaw, meaning “no” and Ashaway meaning “the place between.” To the Chippewa, who dwelt here until the coming of the white man, this land of “No Place Between” was a spirit land; home to those who had passed beyond the mortal coil and was forbidden to those who still lived. Despite the legend, we chose to follow in the footsteps of naturalist Sigurd Olson, who came to this place often, in search of some sense of the magic the Chippewa found in this world between worlds. We did not know what we would find, but it was thrilling to be in a place so steeped with mystery.

Mom & Dad on the Kawishiwi

Mom & Dad on the Kawishiwi

As we traveled along the river, we discovered we were not the only ones to use the Kawishiwi as a winter roadway. The new-fallen snow was crisscrossed with the tracks of deer, foxes, moose, and wolves and it made me feel good to be part of this tapestry of life, a member of The Wild. In the trees along the shoreline, chickadees, timberjays, and pine siskins went about their daily round, gathering pine-nuts or retrieving seeds hidden during the bounty of autumn. In the distance, we heard the raspy voice of ravens patrolling the landscape for food. The wolves rely on the ravens’ aerial reconnaissance to locate deer or moose that have died from injuries, starvation, or cold. The ravens circle above the carcass, calling loudly, in hopes that the wolves will come and tear the bounty into bits the ravens can share. It is a somewhat macabre relationship, but that is the way of The Wild, the way of The North.

Lunchtime found us near a frozen waterfall. Across the river was a rock outcropping where we ate the sandwiches we’d packed for just this occasion. Despite the cold temperatures, the dark rock face was warm and it made a perfect rest stop after a long morning of skiing. By the time we’d eaten and basked in the sun, it was time to turn towards home. That far north, it was twilight by 3:30 and full dark an hour later, so we didn’t have time to waste on our journey home.

Lark Lake Sunset

Lark Lake Sunset

We crossed onto Lark Lake at sunset, the sky awash in magenta and purple. Most winter sunsets Up North are quite pale, so this blaze of color was a perfect end to a perfect Christmas day.

Nearly twenty years have passed since our Christmas on Lark Lake. We’ve been back to Ely many times since and each trip has been more akin to a pilgrimage than a vacation. There is something powerful, mystical and magical in the wilderness of the North that opens a person to experiences most profound. Part the magic comes from living simply – without the bells and whistles of modern convenience – and the rest is experiencing Nature in her wildest, freest form. Up North, Nature is still a wild thing, unfettered by human design. When you step into the woods or onto a frozen lake in the North Country, you become the servant and Nature is the master. It is an exhilarating experience, a gift from The Wild I will never forget.

The Quiet Season

If I had a blog, today I would write about the gifts that lie hidden in the leaf-bare November woods.

The Quiet Season

The Quiet Season

Over the weekend we had our first hard freeze. We’ve had a few chilly nights lately, but last night was the real thing: Twenty-three degrees; a certified hard freeze. Now the last hint of green in the pastures and fence-rows will turn to golden and the landscape will stretch before us like a somnolent brown beast, drowsing in the mellow sun. From now until spring, the only color will be the ruby red of rose hips and holly berries alongside the crimson and orange of ripened bittersweet.

I like this time of year, even though it is harder to find great photo-ops, but the dearth of stunning subject matter brings a type of relief. Now I have to concentrate, take my time, and become one with the land in hopes it will guide me to one of its hidden gems, resting among the crisp, brown leaves.

The Feather

The Feather

A few years ago I was on my Journey to the Solstice and came upon the feather of a great-horned owl, caught in the bare branches of a redbud tree. The pale sun lit the feather from behind, giving it a light of its own, as if a candle shone from within. I took several photos, then brought the feather home. It rests in my library now, reminding me of that day and the gifts that await those who are mindful as they enter the forest. Had the feather been dropped a month earlier, among the scarlet dogwood and golden hickory trees, I doubt I would have seen it, my mind filled with things bright and showy. It took a day without many options to bring the beauty of my feather to the fore.

In this season of thanksgiving, I am most thankful for this quiet time between autumn and the coming of the snow. It inspires me to look at the familiar with a different eye, to see more in a landscape that offers less. This is a time for listening, for watching, and for contemplating, for now the voice of Nature is most clear. As I take my evening walk up the lane or to the barn, I will be attuned to the whispering wind and unadorned trees. I am here, ready to receive the gifts that only the quiet season can bring.

Old Friends

If I hand a blog, today I would write about the comforting presence of some especially dear friends.

Things are quieting down in the woods these days. The joyful chaos of the fall migration is, for the most part, over and my birdwatching has become less about adding to my life-list and more about greeting old friends. As the autumn passes and the riot of color fades, a sense of peace settles over the woods and fields as our winter residents settle into their regular routines.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

Along the path to the river, the white-throated sparrows have settled en masse among the pasture roses, their dark forms dipping in and out of shadow as they dine on rose-hips the color of autumn apples. As they go about their day, they sing their winter-song, a shortened version of their lyrical mating call, and it is music to my ears.

Junco in the Sun

Junco in the Sun

The juncos are working in the tall grass along the lane these days, erupting skyward in a flash of slate gray and white when they sense my presence. Later in the season, when they know me better, they will linger in my presence, but for now, they are wary, unsure if I am friend or foe.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

On woodland walks, my companions are the chickadees and titmice. These are the bravest and ckeekiest of birds, daring to land on branches just a few feet above my head as they sing their familiar songs. I always feel as though they remember me and are just keeping their distance to maintain their standing among their avian colleagues.

There is a lot to be said for the new, the unusual, and the exciting, but more often than not, my soul needs the familiar, the known, and the comforting. In a world where little is certain, the cycles of the natural world give me peace. As long as I can rely on the turning of the year, the rising and setting of the sun, and the return of my feathered friends, I have hope that I can weather whatever storms may come.

The Voice of the Wilderness

If I had a blog, today I would write about the healing power of the natural world.

October 11 - White Throated Sparrlw

White Throated Sparrow

It has been a hard week. On Friday, I lost a dear friend: My nephew-dog, Hank the yellow lab. Hank was with us for thirteen years, most of them spent living next door to us with my brother and sister-in-law. For the last four years, we were Doggie Day Care for Hank when his people were at work, so his absence from our life has left a great empty place, a place even our own dogs, Owain and Bree, can never fill.

Yesterday it was chilly and overcast, the weather making my sadness deeper. I tried reading, watching a movie, and even attempted some writing, but I couldn’t focus; couldn’t stop my mind from going deeper into dark places that pronounced life nothing more than a long string of sad goodbyes. I felt hopeless and depressed, too bereft even to sleep, so about noon I packed up my camera gear and went for a walk in the woods.

Given my state of mind when I started, I figured my walk would be short, but I thought maybe some fresh air would do me good and I needed a photo of the day, so I headed down towards the little valley just beyond the barn. When I got to the gate, I felt a little better and decided to go a little farther.

Down by the creek, I came upon a gathering of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, and juncos – all feeding on rose-hips, the berries of the multiflora rose. I took a few photos, then a few more, and before I knew it, two hours had passed and I was watching kingfishers down at the river.

About mid-way through my walk, I started to feel better. The dark cloud in my mind lifted as the sun peeked out and warmed the landscape with it mellow light. I still carried the weight of grief, but out in the woods, it was a weight I could bear, and I realized as long as I have Nature, I have refuge from life’s heavy-handed blows.

I can’t put my finger on any one event or sensation that eased my pain, so I can’t offer a ten-point plan to finding peace in the natural world. All I can tell you is: Being surrounded by the beauty and abundance of life made me feel part of something larger, more eternal, and more substantial than fragile, mortal life.

I returned home in the late afternoon, sweaty, tired and covered in stick-tights, but my mind was quieter, my thoughts less troubled. As I tended the barn-cats and chickens, settling them in for another night, I had hope – hope for myself, for my loved ones, and for the future. With that hope came thoughts of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Singing Wilderness, by naturalist Sigurd Olson. In it, Olson writes:

I have discovered that I am not alone in my listening; that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere… We may not know exactly what it is we are listening for, but we hunt as instinctively for opportunities and places to listen as sick animals look for healing herbs.