Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Flap in the Night

 Bing Images

I awakened to a soft flapping, passing close over my head. It circled rapidly back and forth, within the confines of our small bedroom. Although I’d never heard it before, instinctively I knew exactly what it was.
 Bing Images

 In the darkness, my husband’s silhouette stood out against the pale square of window. The logical, naturalist part of my brain knew that this was perfectly harmless - more at home and able to “see” in the dark than we were. But the more primitive, heard-all-the-old-wives’-tales part screamed BEWARE! so I ducked under the covers in spite of myself.

Bing Images

Curiosity prevailed and I slowly emerged. We had no idea how it came in, even less how to help it leave. My husband opened the bedroom door; it left quickly, flapped down to the living room. Opening an outside door didn’t work, as it fluttered frantically in and out of rooms. Chasing it with an inverted broom or trying to trap it with a beach towel only increased its anxiety - and ours. Finally, we turned on all the lights, opened all the doors, and backed off. It was gone in a flash.

Bing Images

Searching for its entrance, we discovered another one struggling to emerge from between the metal insert and the rock front of the fireplace. Carefully grasping it with a pair of tongs, we placed it in a large jar, punched holes in the lid, and called it a night.

Bing Images

The next morning, we got a close-up look at one of these marvelous little creatures. One of the most common kinds, the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) has a species name which appropriately means "flies from light". To maneuver so well in darkness, it relies on echo-location, emitting high pitched sounds which reflect off of solid objects and inform the bat of its position with respect to these objects. Although we could not hear the sounds, that is undoubtedly how the bat found the open doors.

Bing Images

With forelimbs modified as wings, their extra-long fingers serve as a framework on which a thin membrane of skin is stretched. The tail and hind limbs are connected by a similar membrane. Living in colonies, bats leave their daytime retreat at dusk, feeding on insects as they make their erratic flights near water or forest. Voracious eaters, a single bat may eat a quarter of its weight in bugs a night. Returning to their roosting site just before dawn, they spend the daylight hours hanging upside down, secured by the claws of their hand feet.

Bing Images 
Although bats can carry rabies or other diseases, rarely are humans infected. Unfairly maligned, they don’t purposely attack or fly into the hair of humans, seeking instead to avoid them when at all possible. The ones that invaded our space probably did so out of confusion. Having spent a quiet summer roosting in our chimney, the first fire of the season had disoriented them, sending them downward and seeking a way out. The one that crawled free found itself still trapped and, following the scent of fresh air, crawled with ease and agility through the one-inch space under the bedroom door. It had no way of knowing that the window was screened, that the two of us lurked inside. That, armed with our weapons of choice, we’d soon create bedlam in its quiet little life. Who’s batty now?

Bing Images

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hand.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
Psalm 19: 1-2

Monday, October 25, 2010

Following the Frenzy

Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
My husband noticed first and called my attention to it. Peering outside, I readily saw the large Pileated Woodpecker pecking its way around the trunk of a Cedar tree. Nothing unusual there, but this one was in a frenzy, moving rapidly ‘round and ‘round. He flew into the Hawthorn tree, then back to the Cedar, then to the Hawthorn again. I noticed he was being pursued by Robins – first one, then another, until I could see an entire flock of them also flitting in and out of the Hawthorn. A Flicker joined the party, followed by a very noisy Steller’s Jay, which squawked and darted about among the chaos. The Pileated finally flew to another nearby tree, joined by the Flicker and a smaller Hairy Woodpecker; they appeared to be quietly regrouping. We wondered aloud what on earth was going on. After some moments of careful observation, I thought I knew.

Hawthorns produce many small, hard, red fruits, similar in appearance to tiny crabapples, which many birds enjoy. Robins are especially fond of these and the flock that we observed was made up of many young ones with less than fully-red breasts. They were probably enjoying a noisy feast when the unfortunate Pileated decided to grab a bite also. The traveling flock didn’t take kindly to his interruption and were reluctant to share; in fact they were downright rude in attempting to chase him off. At some point the other woodpeckers joined the fray and the know-it-all jay wanted in on the fun. Frenzy just naturally seems to attract and pull others in.
             Steller's Jay
And is it so very different with people? As children we may become part of a group, whether formed through a common interest, sport, or compatibility and friendship, which can be difficult for an outsider to break into. If that person happens to be very different from the others, in appearance, language, or behavior, they may be shunned, excluded, or even run off. The exclusivity may spread to the point where the outsider becomes a loner and then, desperate to simply “belong”, may fall in with other loners to form an opposing group.
Hairy Woodpecker
As adults we become more subtle, but none-the-less exclusive. The odd person out may simply not be included in conversation nor invited to various activities or events. Opposing groups form because of different beliefs, interests, opinions, or social status. Those who acquire money, belongings, and various benefits may be resented by those who do not and so divisiveness and controversy grow. Sharing occurs to some degree, but it all depends on our point of view and what we feel we personally have to gain - or lose. It has been so since the beginning.

As a multitude of issues continually swirl about us - whether childish taunts, religious beliefs, economic concerns, social statements, or possible Congressional reforms - we all need to take a close, thoughtful look in the mirror. Are we a member of a flock willing to share only so much, part of a group opposing a flock, seeking a reasonable bit for ourselves, or a simply a noisy voice attracted to the frenzy?

American Robin

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,
but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests,
but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:3-5

ALL bird pictures by Alan D. Wilson:
Pileated Woodpecker, Copyright © 2010
Dar's Garden, Port Moody, British Columbia
Northern Flicker, Copyright © 2006
Cabin Lake Viewing Blinds,
Deschutes National Forest, Near Fort Rock, Oregon
Steller's Jay, Copyright © 2004
Pine Pass, British Columbia
Hairy Woodpecker (Male),  Copyright © 2009
Richmond Nature Park, Richmond, British Columbia
American Robin, Copyright © 2008
Blackie Spit Park, Crescent Beach, British Columbia

Used by permission of: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Friday, October 22, 2010


OUCH! I was jabbed again as I plucked the thistle flowers with bare hands. We’d taken a day for a hike and picnic lunch, and I was unprepared for flower picking. But this roadside array of purple flowers had proven too much - I needed a batch of thistles for a project at camp. So I picked, and muttered, and filled the front of my T-shirt with the spiny wonders. Unceremoniously, I dumped them into the trunk of the car.

Arriving home in the late afternoon, I popped open the car trunk and was hit with a heady, sweet fragrance. It took me a moment to realize where it came from. I had not realized that thistle blooms smell so good.

That evening, as I dried the flowers in the microwave, I watched some that had gone to seed. They expanded slowly and when I opened the oven door, it was like watching slow-motion photography. The flower pods continued to open and hundreds of seed parachutes slowly filled the whole oven and gently spilled out onto the counter. It was an absolutely incredible sight - like silky popcorn unleashed!

Thistles remind me of a neighbor we had while living in Texas some years ago. We had barely moved in when she took one look at my husband installing a dog yard (for 4 dogs), cussed him up one side and down the other, asked us what on earth we thought we were doing moving in next to her, and stomped off. We were in shock.

Over time, she observed us I guess. Gradually, we began to visit over the fence. She remembered the way the land had been when she first moved there, before all the other homes went in. She knew where the natural drainage areas were, how fences and foundations now interfered with the flow during heavy rains, how developers and builders totally ignored the lay of the land. One day, out of the blue, she invited me for tea. Another time, she appeared at our front door with a bagful of fresh grapefruit she’d brought back from Mexico. When I told her we were moving to Idaho, she looked sad and said we were the best neighbors she’d ever had. I will never forget her.

A prickly character, yes, but she had her reasons. We all know or run into some “thistle people” now and then. Perhaps they have a sweet and wondrous side, too, buried deep beneath their defenses. All we need do is listen - and try to see beyond the prickles.

...for the LORD sees not as man sees;
man looks on the outward appearance,
but the LORD looks on the heart.
1 Samuel 16:7

(Many thistle species are considered invasive noxious weeds. The seeds of these I used for wonderful "Memory Jars", displaying them along with other dried flowers, leaves, and colorful rocks. The unused seeds promptly went into the trash - beautiful as the flowers are, I do not want them growing in MY yard!)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Purple Smiles

Garden rails, fence posts, sidewalks - even the tops and hoods of cars - sport bluish purple splashes. Judging by this evidence that seems to be everywhere, I’m not the only one who loves them. In late summer and early fall, woods and fields are bursting with ripening Blackberries, Red and Evergreen Huckleberries, Salal berries and Oregon Grapes. Many birds and other creatures become gluttonous, stuffing themselves with the bounty and wantonly dropping their “calling cards” wherever they happen to be.

I, too, venture after berries and am no less a glutton. Earlier, when bright orange Salmonberries and small Red Huckleberries first show their colors, I snatch one or two in passing. Their colors are brilliant and, although they taste quite tart raw, they both make excellent jam, jelly, or pancake toppings. One year I had the time and inclination to make Red Huckleberry jam. Finding no recipe, I experimented and invented one. The result was quite tasty, much like Lingonberries or Cranberries.

Later on, as Salal berries ripen, I enjoy picking a few and gently squeezing a plump one in my fingers to watch the 5-pointed “star” pop out from the blossom end. Early Native Americans made much use of these mild-flavored berries, but they seem to have fallen out of favor. They taste a bit like huckleberries with a hint of fir needles, but are less juicy. I’ve not yet used any, but recently found recipes for two Salal jellies, one made with tart apple juice and one with Oregon Grapes.

Oregon Grapes are edible? Apparently so, although their sourness is so intense that few animals feel the urge to make a meal of them. Still, with their tempting purplish blue color, I bet they make a lovely-looking jelly. Takes a lot of sugar, though! We have a few small plants that were loaded with berries this year, so I’ve picked, cleaned and frozen them for possible future use.

The Evergreen Huckleberries are also loaded, so I’ve been picking those. Small, round, and shiny black, they are tedious to pick, but are quite edible. Unless fully ripe they can be a little sour raw, but they make excellent jam or jelly and you can just substitute them in any blueberry recipe. My favorite is apple-huckleberry pie!

And who could forget the Blackberries, which seem to take over the roadsides and out-produce themselves year after year? Indeed, the plants are a royal pain, but at this time of year all is forgiven as they show up in wonderful pies, cobblers, crisps, syrups, jams and jellies. I think they are best popped right into the mouth fresh off the cane, or sprinkled onto morning cereal. Picking them is fairly easy, if you can be satisfied with those closest to you. Have you ever noticed, though, that the biggest, plumpest, and ripest berries are always just a little deeper into the thicket? And after you’ve fought your way in to get those, there are always a few better ones just a little deeper still? No matter how often I tell myself that those few more berries don’t matter, I still am lured into the thicket where the berry plants wreak their revenge with tripping branches and ripping thorns. Tattered and torn, I always emerge with a smile - even if it is a bluish purple one!

All man’s efforts are for his mouth,
yet his appetite is never satisfied.
Ecclesiastes 6:7

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Silent Spinner

In your web of silken thread,
Silently you wait
White and brown, all straddled down
With jointed legs of eight

Warmed with sunshine, active now
Quite still when bathed in rain
In your web of silken thread
You stealthily remain

Stretched so tight with all your might
It suddenly appears
First tacked there with gentle care
Amid the dewdrop tears

Then pulled here and fastened,
Now a strand pulled down
Stretched so tight with all your might
Then woven 'round and 'round

You lurk there with silent air
Ever out of sight.
Through the heat you hold your seat
Into the dark of night.

Watchful, ever watchful,
Constantly on guard
You lurk there with silent air
Hidden in my yard

When repairs demand your cares
Then you venture out
Tightrope walk, you never balk
Though difficult the route

Wind may do its damage
Storm will take its toll
When repairs demand your cares
You patch each gaping hole

'Tis your fate to sit and wait
Patient, so it seems
If I could, I maybe would
Peer into your dreams

Often in the corner,
Sometimes in the eye,
'Tis your fate to sit and wait,
In your web so high

Feel the tug and now a bug
Tangled in your thread,
Struggles in vain and feels the pain
Numbed, it's filled with dread.

Quickly you surround it
Wrapping with your line
Feel the tug and now the bug
Hungry, you will dine

Thursday, October 14, 2010


“They’re ev’rywhere! They’re ev’rywhere!” In what seems an appropriate time and place, I love to ramble off this line, in high-pitched, cartoon-character voice. As my husband remembers, sometime, someplace we lived had a TV commercial with a “Chicken Man” who was “...ev’rywhere, ev’rywhere!” His memory for such things is far better than mine. I only remember the line and the many times I’ve used it.

At this time of year, they are ev’rywhere. In the corners of doors, windows, across walkways, between trees and bushes. One small one is right up against our bedroom window; a huge one straddles an evergreen outside our bathroom. You can clear them away and one afternoon (or one hour!) later they’re back.

In early spring, hoards of tiny hatchlings appear. We leave most of them be, knowing the good they ultimately do and their place in the greater scheme of things. Some, however, we cannot abide - those who always take over the mail box, set up camp in my husband’s workshop, rally round the back door. In those cases, it’s all-out warfare: them against us. No contest - there’s always more of “them” than “us”.

Think of it - there are kazillions out there! Birds and insects feast and a few furry critters munch on them. Those who escape lie in wait, silently and meticulously weaving their webs. At Family Camp this summer we took the kids on a “Haunted Hike” into the woods, dusting with cornstarch to reveal a great many webs. We marveled at the “high-rises” of web upon web upon web up into the trees - many of a unique domed shape.

Gluing down one end of a silken strand, they crawl, rappel, or float on the breeze to an often distant site - spinning from their own body as they go - to firmly attach the other end. Other supporting strands are tacked down to twigs, leaves or what-have-you. First, a framework of scaffolding upon which to work. Then, the interweaving of connecting lines - one delicate strand at a time. When complete it is an intricate work of art, especially enchanting when sparkling with morning dew or fresh drops of rain.

It is, however beautiful, a trap - craftily set and vigilantly guarded. Touch it gently and you will find it sticky. I have tried to fool the spinner this way, gently tapping the web to imitate a struggling insect, to no avail. I’ve tossed in a small piece of leaf for the same reason with similar results. The one-who-lurks is not so easily fooled. My husband just tosses in small bugs. Instantly knowing the difference, it waits only long enough to be sure the bug is caught, that its struggling against the surprisingly strong, sticky strands has entrapped its legs and wings. It then hurries to paralyze, but not kill, the victim; wrapping it round ‘n round “mummy fashion” in webbing to save for a future meal. It sounds cruel, but it is the way of the spider - the only way it knows.

The spider’s occupation is “Webmaster” and she does it well. The future of her kind depends on it - she must have insect protein to produce her eggs. Routinely, she checks her web. If it is damaged, she repairs it - over and over again. If it is destroyed she will often eat it (ultimate recycling?), spinning another as many times as she needs to. Each week I descend the hill to change the message on a reader board. Without fail, I find webs attached to the sign that I cannot help but destroy as I open it. Week after week they are back in the same place - it is not easy to discourage a spider!

Oh, that I might be as diligent in my life’s work...

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
Hebrews 6:10-12

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Circus Admission: Sunflower Seeds

The race was on - you could hear the bark flying. Up, down, ‘round and ‘round the tree, across the grass lickety-split. Then up another tree, across the branches to another, down, up ‘round and ‘round. They scrambled along the ground, right under the rake, nearly knocking it over and right across the toes of my shoes - with me in them! Then up the tree again, with one finally settling into the swinging box feeder, one in the pole feeder, and one on a nearby branch trilling away. I laughed ‘til I doubled over and cried. Our backyard has become a 3 ring circus. Admission: sunflower seeds.

When we first moved here 30 years ago, we didn’t have many - at least not on our property. We would catch an occasional glimpse of one racing across the road as we drove. One large Doug fir on the corner of our pasture collected a big pile of cone scales near its base, so we knew at least 1 or 2 were busy there. But mostly, they remained a rare sight for us.

Things have changed over the years. To eliminate some of our grass, we planted ground covers and native shrubs; trees that were small now tower above us. More houses (and fewer trees) fill our neighborhood and we no longer have a dog. Thistle and sunflower seeds replaced wild bird seed mix .

They cause us no problems, so to speak. There is the thump, thump, thump as green fir cones come tumbling down and gnawed-off scales do pile up beneath certain trees. There is the chattering, trilling, squeaking and nattering that can be incessant, but I have learned to talk back to them - not that they pay me any mind. Near the end of one summer a few years ago one did get rather bold and was seen exploring our side porch frequently. I had a funny feeling about that one, which was confirmed when I discovered several holes chewed in the cushion on one chair. Reading up, I discovered they have young in June and October, so suspected nest-building. Fall brought the appearance of 3 lively young, so all was forgiven. Another year about the same time, the tablecloth on the picnic table was nibbled all along the edges, so I guess those nurseries must be carefully equipped also...

This could be called the “Year of the Squirrel” for it has certainly yielded a bumper crop. The 3 young Chickarees (or Douglas squirrels) that have graced “our” territory this summer have certainly kept us entertained. In early August, 3 more small ones appeared, and we wonder what part we have played in this increase.

We have stopped filling the most easily-accessible feeders for now. Bickering has increased, and it will be interesting to see who runs off who as territories are re-established. We’ve noticed the Sharp-Shinned Hawk cruises through more frequently.

One change always leads to another, and we sometimes forget that all life is indeed interconnected...

When goods increase, they increase who eat them; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?
Ecclesiastes 5:11

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Snoopy Running Free

Miki and Snoopy - Colorado 1969

I called and called, clapping my hands loudly, trying to quell my rising fear and anger - fear that Miki would be lost forever; anger that Snoopy had, once more, led him astray.
Miki and Snoopy - penned up

Snoopy was a medium-sized dog of dubious lineage. With gray and black short hair and built like a small tank, he arrived on the doorstep of our rural Colorado home not long after we’d moved in. He quickly made himself at home and became fast friends with Miki, our 7 month old Sheltie.

A pet of our home’s previous owners, who moved out of state and could or would not take him, he had been given to friends who lived several miles away. The problem was, Snoopy only knew one home - and it was now ours. His new owners guessed where he was and retrieved him, but over the course of months, Snoopy returned “home” time after time. Finally, his new owners said he was ours.

We did not want him, but decided to keep him until we could find him a new home. He was a friendly dog, with a happy-go-lucky personality. We soon discovered, however, that Snoopy had some less-than-desirable traits. He was filthy and smelled bad, but turned nasty at any effort to bathe him. He was extremely stubborn, blatantly not housebroken, refused all training. Although he lived at our house, ate and slept there, I suspect he had never really been “owned” by anyone - any effort to contain him failed. When he escaped and roamed the hills, Miki went with him.

Backyard laundry

So here they both came, happily loping through the pines - dragging pieces of someone’s damp laundry behind them. Horrified, I scolded them both soundly and put them back in their pen, pondering what to do next. Obviously someone was missing laundry, but I had no idea who or where they lived. Perhaps they did not yet even know it was missing, so I could easily ignore the theft - plead ignorance and never be found out. But somehow, that just didn’t feel right.

Swallowing my anger - and pride - I strolled through the woods in the direction from which the dogs had come. Before long, a tidy little home appeared among the trees; fresh laundry hung on a clothesline in the yard. Hesitantly tapping on the door, I blurted out the tale of the wayward dogs to the woman who answered. Rosemary invited me in, offered refreshment, and became my first neighborhood friend there.

Snoopy - always led the pack

She and her family proved to be good neighbors during the four years we lived there. They watched our house, collected our mail and paper when we were gone; their teenage boys cared for Miki and the next puppy we got. She and her husband were older than we were, but we exchanged dinners several times, helped each other through the Colorado snowstorms. We’ve kept in touch, still exchanging Christmas cards and letters these many years later.

And Snoopy? Neither of us can remember exactly what became of him. My husband thinks we found him a new owner; I picture him running away one last time, alone. But I will never forget him, and the wonderful neighbors his errant ways led me to.

Snoopy running free

I truly hope that he’s still wandering free - wherever free-spirited dogs go...

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
Ephesians 4: 25-27