Working hard

4 06 2009

I unexpectedly had a moment before I left for the bus this morning.

I stopped to watch a robin working his way through the uncut part of the lawn. The tops of the unopened dandelion buds are just over his head. He moves with an eye cocked, rushing forward from time to time to snatch at something I cannot see. The sun is already pretty high when I’m heading out. (It was pretty far up when I woke up – the days are long!) He works all day long – sometimes I resent having to work, as though leisure was the natural state. I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks off soon, but when does he get time off? Sometimes animals do get leisure – often from human’s labor. Birds and baboons freed from having to work focus on social status (and, for baboons, grooming, which is all tied up with social status). Hmmm.

Written while taking a moment before giving a talk to a room full of strangers.

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Elderberry connections

13 05 2009

Shadow portrait on clearcut

I  see the clear-cut as an opportunity as much as a calamity — an opportunity to be observant as this scraped land returns to life. The land just behind my property had been cut in 1993 — 6 years before I first saw it — and I didn’t realize that it would change and shift so fast over the last 9 years. I’ve also changed a lot since then, and parts of my life have been shorn away, while others have grown and others simply changed. I regretted not paying attention to the changes going on in my backyard before, now I have a second chance at this, so taking a closer look at the clear-cut resonates with other things in my life, other second chances I hope to have. This time around I know so much more, see so much more, understand so much more, even as I also realize how vast my ignorance still is.  

Learning about nature opens up avenues to learn even more; the more I know, the more I can know, in a virtuous cycle that I feel directly on this walk. The air is floral and scented as I walk along, strong enough perfume that I wouldn’t like it if it were lingering around the counter at the department store; it’s pleasant and not overpowering in the open air. I track the smell down to clusters of brilliant off-white blossoms.

Elderberry blossomsI’m sure I’ve traced this smell down on some earlier walk — maybe many times. But now I can — or bother to — recognize it, and this smell has a name. These flowers will be clusters of Red Elderberries. In fall, bears pull sprays of berries down with a paw and surround whole clusters in their mouth, scraping off berries and, I imagine, a helping of stems, from cluster after cluster. I used to see them across the bowl of the valley behind my backyard. One time 5 bears, including a cub, were feeding at the same time in the early evening. A few years later, I would only see the twitching  and shaking of the branches, and now, the trees have shaded many of the elderberries out. But they thrive in the extra sunlight along the trail. How many years, I wonder, until they first colonize the clear-cut?

Back home, I turn to one of my berry books — Northwestern Wild Berries, by J.E. Underhill. I’ve read about them before; these berries are so abundant, it would be nice to use them somehow — but they taste bad, and even the Indians didn’t find a use for them. The Black Elderberry, a cousin if you will, is the one you’ll find in jellies and syrups; another berry book records that some people have made jelly out of them with no apparent ill effects — like almost all native berries they are probably not harmful in small quantities. I think “If it feels good, do it.” is a poor motto for life, but it seems quite reasonable advice to say: If it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it! 

I discover something new: the Swainson’s thrush is one of the birds that feeds on this abundant berry. Probably I didn’t know its name when I read this entry before. This thrush has perhaps my favorite song, a beautiful watery warbling that seems to spiral through the air; I despaired of ever identifying as it seemed always to emanate from some mysterious cranny of the woods in the evening. Birdsongs are hard for me to look up — bird books, with their attempts at onomatopoeia, are hopeless dead ends for me. The radio came to my rescue, and if you  want to hear what they sound like, you can listen at this link:  http://birdnote.org/birdnote-transcript.cfm?id=223

They sound pretty enough on that recording, but it doesn’t really capture how they sound in the clear evening air in my back yard. I expect I’ll hear them any day now, as they arrive in mid-May.