Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31: Blue Moon

All morning at my desk I've been singing "Blue Moon" to myself... (I also played Nanci Griffith singing "Once in a Very Blue Moon" for variety.) I think I'm actually more excited that today marks the blue moon--the second full moon in a month--than I am for the turn of the year. After all, a blue moon only comes around... well, you know the saying...

Apparently the commonly accepted definition of a blue moon is not its original one, which was based on the concept that every season has 3 full moons, and if there happened to be an "extra" moon during that quarter of the year, the third one was called a "blue moon" to keep the moons and seasons in correspondence. The old definition offers a nice link to our agrarian roots, when we actually paid close attention to solar and lunar cycles and the seasons. But the current definition makes it a little easier for everyone to understand what's going on and celebrate in their own way.

An unabashed moon worshipper, I paid homage to this special full moon when I awoke in the middle of last night to see her bright white face shining through the window. Knowing of the pending storm, I figured I probably wouldn't see much of the moon tonight. And the clouds are in fact already moving in. To celebrate New Year's Eve, my husband and I will share an omakase assortment at Suzuki's Sushi Bar, and I'll enjoy some sake, rice wine traditionally served in little stoneware cups. The story goes that the great Chinese poet Li Po drowned because he tried to embrace the full moon's reflection while drunk on sake. Because it's probably not true, I can appreciate the tragic beauty of that legend, which has forever entwined the moon, poetry, and sake in my mind.

Maybe the restaurant will even offer Midnight Moon sake, to perfectly commemorate the moment.

Blue moon celebrates
turn of year, a new decade--
raise high the wine cup!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30: White

I think of the color white now not because of snow or the almost full moon, but because in the past few days, Maine birders have posted on the Maine Birding List-serv photos of two different white birds. These birds are leucistic, not albino. Put simply, leucism is caused by developmentally defective pigment cells, while albinism is caused by a genetic lack of melanin. The main visible differences are that a leucistic animal doesn't have the albino's red eyes and may not be pure white. I've seen a song sparrow with a white face and a crow with some white tail feathers, for instance. But these photos depicted birds that were, if not as pure white as driven snow, almost entirely white.

The first bird is a junco that has been coming to a feeder in Freedom for most of December. Normally, a junco is an overall slate-grey bird with a white belly. This junco, photographed on a very snowy feeder against snow-covered bushes, is strikingly white, with only a thin dark edge to its wings, dark eyes, and a junco's typical pink legs and bill. This beautiful bird looks as if it's been crafted from the surrounding drifts and brought to life--Frosty the Snowbird. I wonder if it's aware how well it blends in with the snow, if it has learned how to make itself invisible.

This morning a birder in southern Maine posted a photo of a leucistic red-tailed hawk that has apparently been regularly seen in Eliot for the past four years in the neighborhood of the Marshwood Middle School. The photographer has seen the bird with his non-white mate. (With most hawks, the females are larger, hence the assumption that the smaller, white bird is male. Apparently his freakish color didn't render him unattractive to at least one other of his kind.)  The photo shows a white hawk flying against a background of bare trees. Except for his dark eye and bill, the hawk truly looks like a ghost bird, or the surreal visitation of some forest angel.

Two unusual white birds during these snowy days of winter, two pale muses:

White bird in winter--
blank as the snow-covered field
and as beautiful.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29: Wind Advisory

Current weather topics: today's roaring wind, and the big storm predicted for New Year's Day. I haven't been able to find out much about Friday's storm--and since I've got no travel plans for that day, that's alright. But I do know from first-hand experience that today's wind is brutal.

Weather Underground tells me there's a "Wind Advisory until 7 PM EST this evening," and warns of downed branches and power lines, and "dangerous driving conditions over open areas... especially for high profile vehicles." Guess I won't be driving my double-decker bus home tonight. My ears tell me there's a giant roaring monster outside that would like to wrap the building in trees and fling it into the ocean. And the last time I ventured out the door, my skin agreed with the report of Northwest winds gusting from 20 to 40 MPH. Wind chill's dropped an already bone-chilling 10 degrees to about 5 below.

Some people delight in high winds, in feeling nature's power moving through the world, the dynamic, kinetic energy our planet generates without any help from humans. That's cool in concept, but really, strong winds just make me very anxious. I can hear things blowing around outside, thumping against the house. Before darkness fell, I could see mature trees rocking in the storm as if they were stalks of grass on a windswept plain. The windows rattle. Lines from King Lear come to mind: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" Not a happy play, and Lear himself doesn't fare well out in the elements, if I recall.

When I was a kid we lived for several months in a farmhouse with a three-story barn that was just outside my bedroom window. The open barn door was like a giant dark maw that howled with a fierce wind every night while I lay awake, afraid of what was out there. Perhaps that childish fear is with me still as I sit at my desk, shivering despite the heat, cringing as each gust accelerates, gains power, and crashes through the trees and down the street like an invisible tsunami.

Winds from Canada--
thundering caribou herds
sweeping the tundra.

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 28: A Few Birds

This morning the sun thought about shining, and the sky wore sheer blue for a few hours, despite the forecast of 100% chance of snow or rain. The only flurry I experienced was of titmice. After days of having few to no birds visit my office feeder, several titmice came in from all directions for about half an hour. As usual, each bird would land, calling its few raspy notes as if to say, "Here I am!", look in at me, take a seed, then leave.

While this little burst of activity was taking place, four crows were grazing nearby on the sodden, half-frosted, lumpy lawn. One crow played for a while with a frozen apple, tossing it around with its bill without much hope of rendering it edible. The others looked on, and then they all turned their bright black eyes on me at the window. I like to watch them strut and stroll in their family group, my neighbor crows, these birds who will eat almost anything (or at least try). Out of politeness, I backed away from the window so they could continue their explorations without fear. The titmice flew back and forth from feeder to bush and tree a little longer. Then they all flew off. No chickadees today, or goldfinches. An uninspiring day overall, redeemed by these few visitors.

Family of four crows,
what can this wet lawn offer?
One frozen apple.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 27: Winter Rain

A lazy day here at our home, regrouping after the holidays: doing laundry, writing thank you notes, polishing off some of the many cookies we've accumulated over the past week... And now that the Patriots have decisively clinched the AFC East title, I may even sit back and crack open one of the books on the huge stack that has sprouted on my bedside table. It's a perfect day for this kind of thing, because the weather outside is truly frightful. Unfortunately, it's not snow coming down, but lots and lots of rain, the deluge enhanced by gusting wind. The river's high, water pools in our neighbor's yard, and the remaining snow washes away bit by bit. This dreary weather could easily lead to post-holiday gloom. Fortunately, those cookies and some chocolate are close at hand, and I'm about to open Bernd Heinrich's Summer World in hopes of being transported ahead six months to a new season...

Rain sweeps away snow,
reveals winter's detritus
with months left to go.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26: Tracks

Although we've seen a dusting of snow the past couple of days--we got our white Christmas--the white stuff that encrusts our lawn is far from pristine. Our tiny yard is littered with twigs, branches, bark, and other detritus. Some bare patches reveal a layer of crisp brown oak and maples leaves, an earthy cake under that stale frosting. We've tromped a path from the back step to the shed. And all around, the regular indentations of animals tracks meander through the snow.

It doesn't take a skilled tracker to figure out what's traveled through our yard. In the front, some big canine paw prints reveal where a walked dog strayed from the sidewalk. A series of smaller holes, following a purposeful path along the fence line into the backyard, record the visit of the neighbor's cat. I've observed him treading that very route in all seasons, sometimes several times a day. He follows the edge of the backyard to the shed, then ducks beneath the building, where I think he hangs out for awhile before continuing on his way through the south end of the neighborhood. Unaware of property deeds and surveys, he knows very well the perimeters of his territory, which he patrols vigilantly. After every storm I note this same pattern of tracks in the fresh snow.

In the backyard, besides the feline border patrol, squirrels leave the light marks of their daily explorations. Around the dead tree stump where I sometimes leave old vegetables, some deeper imprints reflect high activity when the snow was soft. Like rabbits, squirrels hop. Their paired prints--the bigger back feet landing ahead of their smaller front feet--engrave the snow all over the backyard. Sometimes I'll also see where they dug into snow seeking some long-remembered acorn. And if I went back there and looked carefully along the edge of the trees, I might even see the tracks of yesterday's duck visitors, though ducks tread lightly.

Snow's an open book
telling a simple story:
habits, hunger, quest.

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25: Christmas Ducks

A few times on Christmas, Mother Nature has given us the gift of an unusual wildlife sighting. One year, my dad and I saw a flock of Bohemian waxwings--one of my favorite birds--settle into a tree right outside my parents' house. Another year, we looked out to see an otter on the river ice, apparently eating a fish, eyed by a bald eagle in a nearby tree. This year, as I sat down to my computer after enjoying a lovely Christmas brunch with friends, I noticed three black ducks waddling up the snowy bank from the river, probably scoping out our yard for acorns. That in itself was kind of cool. Although we see ducks almost daily down in the river, they've never before visited our back yard. But then we noticed that a pair of wood ducks was also moving up the bank into our yard. The male wood duck has such exotic coloring and patterns that seeing one at any time seems like a gift. And here he was, mate in tow, hustling through our yard on Christmas Day. Wish they'd hung out long enough for a photo.

(Thanks to Wikimedia, here's a photo I would like to have taken of a male wood duck)

Now a squirrel's digging in a patch of dead leaves, but somehow that isn't as festive and exciting. Still, Merry Christmas, squirrel! I hope you and the ducks find a holiday treat under the snow and leaves back there.

Wood duck in my yard--
gaudy as a Christmas gift,
a gift worth sharing.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24: Christmas Eve

When I was a child, my grandmother told me that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals talk. My grandmother's parents were both from Aberdeen, Scotland, but she was born in Massachusetts. So I have no idea if this came directly from her Scottish heritage--but I do know now that this is a fairly widespread folk belief in America and Western Europe. Trying to track the source is complicated. Christians legend has it that animals talk then because when Christ was born the animals in the manger spoke words of adoration and sang hymns to him. (Even bees, apparently!) Other sources assert that this is a pre-Christian belief along the lines of the myriad Christmas Eve fortune-telling superstitions that have arisen in many cultures.

Be that as it may, Christmas Eve is a magical time for a child, and I always believed what my grandmother told me. She and my grandfather raised sheep and chickens, and I wondered what it would be like to visit the sheep shed at midnight. Knowing them, they would probably all start grumbling about how they wished we fed them more, or how they wished they hadn't been bred this year because next spring it would mean twin lambs butting their teats and hopping all over their backs. And the chickens nestled safely in their little hay-lined cubbies, what would they have to say? Would they suddenly start gossiping like the bunch of cackling biddies they were?

Rosanne Griffeth, a goat farmer living near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, related this Christmas Eve tale about her goat Nod in a 2005 blog:
"This midnight as the clock heralded in the wee hours of Christmas Day, I went out onto the porch to check on Nod. I think the part of me who was still eight years old was half-hoping to hear her say something.

'Blah. Blah-blah.' She said, looking up at me with her topaz colored goat eyes and snorting.

I understood perfectly.

'Screw you! Give me some damn corn, you bitch!'

I scratched her under the chin and told her she was a good girl. Because it's important to tell homely creatures they are beautiful, and naughty creatures that they are good."

Fairy tales in which humans hear animals talking on Christmas Eve don't usually bode well for the hearer, who often learns of his or her imminent demise. Perhaps this solsticial magic isn't meant for our ears, but is supposed to remain in the realm of the unexplained and supernatural--something to spark the delight inherent in the holiday season, but not to be pondered too deeply. Even so, when I wake up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, I inevitably turn to the cat sharing my pillow and ask her if she feels like saying anything. And true to her nature, she twitches her tail in annoyance at my disturbing her sleep and remains silent. Probably just as well. She has quite the temper.

Christmas Eve magic--
will animals speak tonight?
We crave connection.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23: Flicker Feather

I confess that when I'm walking around in the great outdoors, if I find a cool feather I will sometimes pocket it. Technically this is illegal. According to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act: "Unless and except as permitted by regulations, …it shall be unlawful at any time, by any means, or in any manner…to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, …possess, offer for sale, sell, …purchase, import…any migratory bird, any part, nest, or eggs of any such bird…"

That said, however, I've got a small feather from a northern flicker sitting in a little vase on my desk. It's a miniature work of art--about five inches long, dark brown vanes with white edging on the wider side, and a bright yellow shaft with a white quill. Sharpened, it might make a good pen for a gnome. The underside has a yellow sheen. Here in the east, our flickers are of the yellow-shafted subspecies. When a flicker flaps past, that yellow underside is obvious. Out west, you see the red-shafted subspecies. Same basic bird, but the underwing shines pinkish-red when it dips past. They both have the characteristic white rump spots--usually the diagnostic marking that gets noticed as the bird dives into tree cover. 

Maybe because grey tones seem dominant right now, today I've been especially noticing my feather. The hints of spots on its edges are like parts of a Rorschach ink blot test. What do they make me think of? The sharp piercing cry of the flicker as it calls from the trees outside my window in spring... the squadrons of migrating flickers I see on Monhegan each fall... the subtle beauty of this woodpecker as it pecks for ants on my mother's lawn... And the yellow shaft is a really deep gold, almost like an egg yolk or a summer sun. A little bit of brightness next to my books and file folders.

In the spring I'll probably release it to the wind, atone for my law-breaking. But for now, my eyes need it here. 

Small flicker feather
picked up in last summer's woods,
shaft a slice of sun.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22: Squirrel's Nest

4:15. It's that time of day when everything has faded to black and white: black line of driveway, white snow, black branches of trees against white sky. Out my window a row of trees is starkly silhouetted and rocking gently in a frigid breeze. The scene could be pleasing in a nostalgic, twilit kind of way, except for the chunky power pole sitting amid the graceful lines of the lacing branches.

Also standing out amid the lines of trunks, branches, and power lines: a clump of leaves halfway up the tallest tree that must be a squirrel's nest, also called a drey. Odd words like that stick in my head. I've tried looking it up to find out where it came from, but other than learning that you could also name your baby boy Drey, it appears to be of unknown origin.

Photo by Brian Willson (Interestingly, taken the same day I wrote this entry. Guess I wasn't the only one pondering squirrel nests today.)

When I was very young, my mother would read me a picture book called "Miss Suzy." (I just looked it up on Amazon and it's still in print! It's now in my shopping cart.) The plot line was fairly simple. Miss Suzy was a grey squirrel who lived in a neat house in a tree, until some mean red squirrels chased her out and messed up her house. Some toy soldiers fought them off and somehow helped Miss Suzy find a new home. I mostly remember being enchanted by her little acorn cups and twig broom. Even now when I see a squirrel's nest I can't help but wonder what's inside. And how does more than one squirrel fit in there, anyway?

Clump of leaves and twigs,
somehow sheltering squirrels.
What makes a home "home"?

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 21: Winter Solstice

This morning I awoke with a sense of deep excitement: today is the Winter Solstice. In the most literal sense, things will be getting brighter now. 

Solstice means literally "sun standing," an apt metaphor for the shortest day when the sun follows its lowest track above the horizon--a time when the wheel of the seasons seems to pause before rolling on into spring. Winter solstice in this hemisphere is the moment when the earth's axis tilts the farthest away from the sun. It's officially the first day of winter, though we've already been plunged into what most of us would call winter for the past couple of weeks. It seems ironic that the season of ice and cold begins on the day when the sun is, in a sense, reborn. From here on out, until the Summer Solstice, the days will grow longer. Our light will gradually return, even as we plunge more deeply into the snow drifts of the next few months. 

The Solstice has been tracked since Neolithic days--ancient monuments such as Stonehenge are aligned with this significant day. Holidays and rituals have evolved all over the world to celebrate the rebirth of the sun god and/or the light. (Check out Wikipedia for what is literally an A to Z listing of various events connected to the Winter Solstice through time and across cultures. In light of the day--pun intended--evergreen trees decorated with candles really are the perfect Solstice symbol.) As I drove into my driveway tonight, candles in my windows and the lights of my Christmas tree shining through the blind welcomed me, and I felt a true surge of joy. Slowly we progress from darkness to light, reborn ourselves in spirit. Something from earliest human existence, when we must have feared the sun was leaving us for good, stirs within us even now. 

Interestingly, one of my co-workers who is also a doula, a childbirth assistant, helped at a birth today: a new child brought into the world, echoing the reborn sun rising tomorrow to linger with us just a few minutes longer.

Winter Solstice night--
our darkest evening deepens.
New sun awaits birth.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 20: Snow Snakes

This morning I drove to a friend's house as the snow started to fall amid gusty winds. The swirls of snow atop dry pavement were like the mesmerizing S patterns snakes make sliding through sand. Driving home several hours later, after an inch or so of snow had made the roads rather slick, I thought of those "snow snakes" I had seen earlier. Snakes are beautiful creatures, but some can be deadly. And so it is with snow. Watching the flakes fall this morning gave me happy thoughts of a white Christmas; creeping home this afternoon, I was anxiously reminded of the couple of times I slid off the road last winter.

Snow slithers in wind
side-winding into slick drifts--
dangerous beauty.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 19: Christmas Bird Count

The annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of those holiday season traditions that I always look forward to. The basic premise is this: a fixed Count Circle with a 15-mile radius has been divided into territories, or sections; we spend the entire designated day counting every bird we see in our section. Not just how many species we see, but every individual bird we see. All day. It's a long one, especially when temperatures are low.

The Christmas Bird Count, which has been going on for over 100 years, originated as an alternative to the Christmas "Side Hunts" in which men would compete to see who could shoot the most birds. Done in the same place at the same time over a number of years, the CBC reveals trends in bird populations. You can read more about it on the Audubon website. My husband and I have personally been involved with the local Thomaston-Rockland Count for over 15 years, and have been leading "our" section for about half that time. This morning we were joined by several birder friends who were kind enough to brave the cold to help us count. We began the day with a fly-by pair of ravens. Louisa Gerstenberger's sharp eyes found an eagle perched in a tree; later we enjoyed watching it fly over the breakwater. This was the only ocean in our section, so we spent the longest time here, trying to rack up ducks, geese, grebes, and loons. The breakwater itself was covered with a thin coating of salty ice, and scattered with gull-pecked sea urchin bodies. Usually we see purple sandpipers on the seaward side of this jetty, but not today, despite walking its length, with care, two different times.

After lunch, my husband and I were on our own in tackling the most challenging part of our section, a strange no-man's-land in Rockland's hinterlands, a marshy valley bounded by several old limestone quarries that, despite being across the street from the city dump, has also become a local dumping grounds. This year we came upon the remains of a moose head. Some years it's discarded appliances or a bag of deer guts, and always lots of beer bottles. This year, a moose head. We were also fortunate enough to come upon a flock of cedar waxwings, one of my favorite birds, as well as a group of 6 cardinals, several red-tailed hawks flying over the fields, and some attractive sparrows.

By dark, we had racked up 34 species, 753 individuals. In a "good" year we get at least 40 species, but we aren't complaining. Our list includes 7 wild turkeys, 5 downy woodpeckers, 127 Canada geese, 57 crows, 101 herring gulls, 4 horned grebes, and 23 buffleheads. And we spent the whole of a sunny winter day outside, looking for birds with good friends in this beautiful area we call home. That's the kind of holiday tradition I like to keep.

We saw 36 of these guys, including this one. Photo by Brian Willson.

Raven: two; Loon: four--
ritual of the Bird Count.
But who can count joy?

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 18: Sky

I suffer from insomnia, and my patient husband helps me fall asleep every night by reading to me. Over the years, he has read me J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (and The Hobbit), twice, all the works of Jane Austen (he's read Pride and Prejudice, my favorite, three times), Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series, twice, all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. He's currently reading me Tolstoy's War and Peace...

...which explains why today, when gazing out my window at the incredible, clear blue sky in a sort of distracted rapture, a particularly memorable passage from War and Peace came to mind. Prince Andrei, one of the book's heroes, is wounded while fighting in the Battle of Austerlitz. Formerly a rather stuck-up, proud man, the following experience of enlightenment eventually changes him for the better. 
"What's this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way," thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky--the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. "How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran," thought Prince Andrei. "Not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!..." (Book 3, Chapter XVI). 

Amid war, he finds peace. A perfect sky such as today's uplifts my spirits, puts things in perspective. Whatever is going on below--the ant-like toils of humans upon the planet--the implacable blue face of the shining sky overarches it all. Even when clouds obscure this brilliance, we know from airplane travel that if you rise high enough above them, the sun shines and the sky is wide-open, infinite, blending into the cosmos. 

Walk outside. Look up.
Sky gods don their blue silk capes,
dazzle us mortals.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17: Sirius

The night sky has been crystal clear the past few days, but the cloud-free sky has exposed us to winter's frigid blast. Not a good time for star-gazing. But tonight I couldn't help but notice (from the comfort of my car) our brightest star Sirius rising above the western horizon. 

The facts: Sirius, alpha star in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog) is also known as the Dog Star. This white binary star fairly close to us in relative astronomical terms--less than 9 light years away--has a magnitude, or brightness, of -1.43. The lower the number, the brighter the star--the sun, by comparison, is -27. That it's a binary--or double--star means two stars contribute to its light. And the fact that it's so bright, so obvious in the sky, brings it easily to our attention, as well as to that of star watchers throughout human history. 

In Greek mythology, Canis Major and its companion constellation Canis Minor are the hunting dogs of Orion, a familiar constellation to most. When Orion rises in the winter sky, Sirius can be found below his left leg. Sirius, Procyon--the bright star of Canis Minor--and Betelgeuse--the red giant that forms Orion's left shoulder--form "the winter triangle." 

While I always think of Sirius as a winter star, it was revered in Egypt over 5,000 years ago as a symbol of the Summer Solstice. Egyptians represented it with a hieroglyph of a dog, and the star was associated with the Nile and its annual inundation. The Greeks believed that the Dog Star produced the heat of summer, a sultry period we still refer to as the Dog Days. Other ancient cultures thought of Sirius as a dog, too, often the dog of the sun. But right now in New England, Sirius is the dog of very cold nights--three-dog nights, perhaps, when you want three dogs in your bed to keep you warm. 

Interestingly, even the Cherokees thought of Sirius as a dog star--one of the two dog guides guarding the ends of the path of souls. The other star, Antares, is only visible in summer, so the two stars aren't in the sky at the same time. When encountered on the trail, each gatekeeper dog had to be given food before the soul would be allowed to continue its progress to the afterlife.

What must we do to appease the Dog Star of the Sun and perhaps gain a few degrees of warmth back into our life? Do the rising offerings of our wood smoke help? What about the harbor, offering up its own sea smoke this morning? Or the songs of coyotes in the winter woods?

Bright star of winter
shining with cold, remote light--
a sled dog's pale eye.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16: Cold

With wind chill right now it's about 10 degrees outside. As we say here in Maine, it's colder than a witch's tit in January. From the comfort of my desk, I'm watching the wind whip bare branches into a frenzy. The darkened sky is sharp and clear, with a cutting edge of blue steel.

Yes, I'll freely admit it, I'm a wimp about the cold. Despite being a Maine native, I always have been, and I've gotten worse since I've gotten older. In college I used to ski frequently. I'd backpack in the winter, sleep in the snow, and not think anything of it. It was fun! Now, not so much. Now, I sit as close to the nearest heat source as possible, even co-opting the cat from my husband's lap if necessary. (She prefers his lap because, unlike me, he radiates heat like an oven.)

At work I have a space heater under my desk, the miraculous Vornado. And as I basked in its heat earlier today, I thought about what it must have been like in "the old days" in Maine when people lived in big drafty farm houses with a fireplace in every room and burned through 15 cords of wood every winter. I think about Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "The Long Winter," in which she describes running out of wood before winter's end and twisting hay into sticks to keep the fire going. They went to bed with hot potatoes and woke up with snow drifted on top of their quilts, nail heads frosty white in the walls next to their beds.

In Heian Era Japan, over 1,000 years ago, things were even worse, especially for women (isn't it always the case?) Their houses were open-plan wood structures divided into rooms by screens, with flimsy blinds over window and door openings. Aristocratic women were stuck in their rooms, ensconced behind screens; it was not proper to show your face or be seen by a male who was not your husband, father, or a child. For heat, all they had were charcoal braziers. Is it any wonder that the clothing fad was layers? Women would wear up to twelve layers of robes, the aesthetic appeal of which was judged--by other women, at least--on how well they matched the colors of their layers. Women of that era also blackened their teeth as part of their maquillage. And did I mention that they never cut their hair? So I picture a woman of that era behind her screen, dressed in so many robes that she can't move--which doesn't matter because she can't go anywhere anyway--long black hair trailing behind her onto the bare floor and her black teeth a contrast to her pale face, huddled over something looking like a patio hibachi with a few faintly glowing coals... Surely I need to stop whining about the cold and consider myself fortunate to live in this era of furnaces, air-tight wood stoves, Monitors, and Vornado space heaters.

Branches clack with cold,
chilly window panes shiver.
Curl up closer, cat.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15: Nature's Ornaments

As I was driving into town to run some errands, I noticed a tree that seemed to be well decorated with big, puffy brown Christmas ornaments. Wow, I thought, someone was very ambitious! As I was passing the tree, however, I realized with pleasant surprise that it was an hydrangea bush still bedecked with its lovely, lacy blossoms, now dried and preserved for the winter.

So then as I made my way through the side streets of Camden, I began to notice other trees also decorated by nature: an old oak with most of its leaves still hanging from the gnarled branches like little brown hands; a small magnolia with swollen leaf buds, perhaps spurred by the recent warmer weather; an apple glowing with an abundance of frozen, golden orbs of fruit; bright purple clusters of crabapples; a sumac's fuzzy red fruits rising above its bare, twisting branches.

They can't let go, was the thought that ran through my head. I'm always looking for metaphors, and they often end up reflecting my inner state of mind. (Funny how that works.) But that's not really it. These ornaments of nature are each worth hanging onto for their own reasons. The sumac, apple, and crabapple fruits, for example, will attract and feed wandering flocks of robins, bluebirds, and waxwings. Dependent on such winter gifts to survive, these beautiful birds will fill the trees like living ornaments--like some kind of divine visitation--eat all they can, and move on. So it's not about letting go. It's about flaunting what you've got, in your own way. It's about celebration.

Apples, dried blossoms--
wild holiday ornaments
for a wild season.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14: Sunrise

This morning the sun officially rose at 7:04 a.m. EST. Our house faces east, but because the craggy bulk of Mount Battie looms right out our front windows, we don't normally see the actual sun till a few hours after it comes up. So  I was surprised today to pull up the kitchen blind and get a face full of sunshine. There was the rising sun, peeking around the corner of Mount Battie. A rare sight, indeed, even if I were an early riser. With a week to go till the Winter Solstice, the sun tracks a low arc in the sky these days. We'll enjoy less than 9 hours of sun today. To counter any bleak thoughts of the diminishing light, a crisp blue sky offers a welcome change from last night's rain. Enjoy the light on your face while you can.

I learned from that it's the saint day of St. John of the Cross, patron saint of mystics, about which Thomas Merton had this to say: "Just as we can never separate asceticism from mysticism, so in St. John of the Cross we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem at times to be identified."

Also, this quotation from John himself:

"Never was fount so clear,
undimmed and bright;
From it alone, I know proceeds all light
although 'tis night."

I'm not Catholic, although I'm married to one (which is one step closer to playing one on TV). But I welcome spiritual enlightenment and knowledge from all sources, including Catholic mystic poets. St. John of the Cross conveys so well the essence of this season, when we must learn to embrace both light and dark as the nights lengthen, sacrifices of all kinds--as well as love--as we plan for the holidays, and cold and warmth as we endure the variable weather.  He's speaking of the light of his Christian God, of course, but we may also read his words as referring to the sun, one of the original gods, the true center of our solar system from which "proceeds all light" even if our part of the planet doesn't happen to be facing it at just this moment. 

A week from Solstice.
Sun peeks around the mountain--
hopeful morning light.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 13: The Long Read

I've spent most of today sitting on my couch wrapped in a sleeping bag, cat at my side, intensely reading a draft of a friend's novel. Now as darkness falls outside the window, and rain falls at Gillette Stadium on TV, I'm taking a breather, returned from another world to my own living room. I'm slightly dazed and wrung out, in that way a good book will leave you. There aren't many days, especially this time of year, when I get to indulge myself in the luxury of reading for this long a stretch.

A long day inside:
windows frame another world,
pages share one too.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 12: Christmas Tree

Phew, what a day. My sister and my two nieces (Fiona: 3-1/2; Nola: almost 6 months) are staying nearby at my parents' for the weekend. Fiona wanted to spend time alone today with Auntie Kristen at her house. So she and I came back to the house and dressed up teddy bears, "wrote a letter" to Uncle Paul that involved using all the crayons, made candy cane cookies in a way that somehow involved the floor, had lunch, watched Christmas specials on t.v., and "helped" Uncle Paul put lights on the tree. Before we could decorate it, however, my sister showed up, and of course suddenly Fiona had a meltdown. Classic "Mommy's here" response after a day of being a perfect angel. (It doesn't help that she was up at 4 a.m. this morning.)

So my sister drove back to our parents' house with a crying Fiona, who of course immediately fell asleep in the car. After they left, Paul and I put on Christmas music  and hung ornaments on the tree ourselves. When we were done, our Sleeping Beauty cat momentarily woke up and came out to check the newest change to her territory. She seemed to approve. We always hang the non-fragile ornaments lowest in case she ever gets inspired to bat at an ornament or two like when she was younger.

With the fragrance of fir and the soft glow of lights filling our living room, stockings hung from the fireplace-less mantle, and the first round of Christmas cookies still warm in the kitchen, I'm in the holiday mood. Peace on earth, goodwill to man (and woman). Fa la la la la!

Fragrance of fir boughs,
lights twinkle in a dark room--
our faces, hearts, glow.

Update: shortly after completing this post, our Christmas tree spontaneously and unceremoniously took  a face plant on the living room rug. Fortunately only one ornament was broken, easily mended, and the tree is now positioned more securely in its stand. Ah, if only all holiday dramas could be this mild.

Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11: Wind

Funny how a lot of my posts lately have involved the weather. I guess that's life in Maine for you, especially this time of year. One day we have a huge storm; the next, sunshine sparkling on fresh-fallen snow. You can never really be sure of what you're doing a few days from now, because who really knows what kind of weather pattern will move in? They'll predict heavy snowfall, and then we'll get rain here on the coast. The forecast will be "all clear" for that drive south, and then you'll find yourself trying to make your way through blinding snow flurries.

Often when I wake up in the morning I think it's raining because the river is so loud. All that rushing water can make a roar. Today a combination of fast-moving high water and winds made me think some sort of tempest was raging outside. Despite sun and blue skies, wind chill definitely played in part in today's comfort level. I'm sure I'll have more branches to clear off the yard tomorrow.

A friend mentioned the wind in a very lyrical email today. (You can't communicate around here without the weather becoming part of the conversation.) She wrote: "Today is one of those days when I feel like a little speck on the surface of this immense planet with this powerful atmosphere swirling around me. Every time there's a big gust the dog makes a little tiny 'woof.' I agree." I especially loved the image of her dog barking at the wind gusts. So that inspired today's poem. (Thank you, Heidi.) 

Wind a strong presence.
Dog responds to the loud gusts
with a humble "woof."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 10: Willow Wands

Yesterday's storm winds whipped tree branches all over our yard. The big willow next door, which already lost a big branch last winter, tossed little golden-barked wands all over the snowy front lawn.

Willows have always been associated with water. The weeping willow (often carved on old gravestones) makes us think of tears, of course, and willows generally live near water sources. This willow must have sucked up a lot of river water in its time (in addition to bursting our underground water pipe--but that's a story I'd rather not dwell on), so it carries a bit of the river's spirit in its veins. Despite several dams, the river is a wild thing, as is this willow, though planted many years ago by my neighbor.

So what to make of all these wands strewn across my lawn? What kind of magic do they possess? Was this some kind of throw-down by Old Man Willow? Or have they woven a protective spell on our little house? With wild magic, things can go either way.

Storm-strewn willow withes
weave their magic on my lawn,
wild as the river.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December 9: Storm

Another Robert Frost poem:

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I think of this poem not because of any sense of the apocalypse, but because as I type these words, pellets of snow and ice are being driven by heavy winds against my window. Outside all is dark and inhospitable. I can hear the rumble of a plow in a nearby driveway. Our first big storm of the season. Those who live in northern states would concur, I think, that "for destruction ice...would suffice." 

After I'm inside,
wind drives snow across my path,
obscures my footprints.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December 8: School Bus

Driving on Route One this afternoon, I passed a school bus paused at a stop sign. As I drove by, the only passenger I noticed was a small boy in the front seat. He was slumped forward with his face pressed against the window, a vacant look in his eyes. The image of his pale face stuck with me, and memories of long dull bus rides came rushing back. That little boy seemed to embody the very tedium of everyday life. No matter how happy we are, we all experience those moments when ordinary routines get the best of us and we slump against the bus window, watching the same old scenery go by mile after mile. But eventually we step off the bus and we're home. And life gets interesting once again.

Pale face on a bus.
Ah, the tedium of life
for such a young boy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

December 7: Christmas Decorations

We don't have a Christmas tree yet, but tonight I unpacked the rest of our holiday decorations. Also today we received our first Christmas gift in the mail (thanks, Susan and Chris). So let the festivities begin!

I think I was inspired by the snowfall the other night. And today as I left work more pretty flakes were drifting down within the circles of light thrown by the streetlights. First thing when I got home I hauled the boxes of Christmas stuff in from the shed. Every year it's like, well, Christmas, opening the boxes and seeing once more my favorite holiday artifacts and tchotchkes. Like my nesting Santas, the first two pieces of which are lovely Limoges boxes with a third, teeny little porcelain Santa inside. Or my beeswax Santa candles. Or my fake tabletop tree with the bendy branches and the miniature glass ornaments I've collected for it over the years, under which my Christmas polar bear must always be posed. Silly, maybe. Childish. Perhaps trivial. But I love ritual and tradition, and rediscovering these holiday things each December brings me such pleasure. Much more pleasure than shopping and wrapping gifts.

Later this week, we'll get a tree. And then comes the next phase of my Christmas indulgences--bringing out all our ornaments and trimming the tree while we play carols. There's the red globe with my name painted on it from my first Christmas, a felt cat from my grandmother when I was about seven, a series of hand-painted wooden birds, a porcelain flying horse, and my favorite one: Santa riding a snowy owl. Each one has a story of who gave it to me and why, and each story gets revived each year.

Santas in a row,
candles in every window.
House awaits a tree.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December 6: Crow in Snow

One of my favorite short poems, by Robert Frost:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
from a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

This morning I raised the bedroom blind to a shining white world, sun on snow, every tree coated with a thin layer of the fluffy stuff. I paused to admire the first snowfall of the season and the sparkling river running through it. Then I noticed some movement on our neighbor's lower lawn: a crow sat in the snow. As I watched, it dipped its body into the snow and flapped its wings. Was it trying to eat something under the snow? Was it bathing? We got about 3-4 inches of snow last night, so the snow came up to the crow's belly. It barreled through the snow a short way and dipped itself in again. A little further along, it repeated this action, wings akimbo. I called my husband in to see, and he agreed that the crow seemed to be either snow-bathing or simply playing. Ravens have been observed sliding down snow banks, an activity for which there can be no practical value, so why not a crow that's delighting in the first snow?

After a few minutes the crow flew up into a tree, shaking off the snow on the branch where it landed. The action reminded me, of course, of the Frost poem above. And in doing so, made me realize that this crow had gotten me through the hardest part of my day--getting up in the morning--with a smile on my face.

Crow bathing in snow--
you too feel the simple joy
of winter's first touch.

As I type this, a crow has several times flapped around one spot on a tree branch, then flown off. The branches obscure a clear view. I have no idea what it's doing. Through the binoculars, all I can see now is a nuthatch winding down the trunk. Who knows what goes through the minds of these creatures with whom we share our world? ... And now, a crow (the same one?) has just flown upriver carrying something large and white in its bill.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December 5: Paper Whites

A couple of weeks ago I bought a small paper bag full of paper white narcissus bulbs. That evening I put them in a bowl of rocks, added water, and set them on a table in the kitchen. Day by day the greenery has grown a little bit taller; some days I feel like they fit in growth spurts between one visit to the kitchen and the next. Now the tallest plant is a foot high, and they're all starting to swell with buds. They're almost flowers! From a tiny, dry, brown bulb to budding plant in two weeks--it seems miraculous.

Outside the sky is a chilly white, preparing for tonight's first snow storm (or so they predict). The squirrels have been active today, industriously chewing away at the Halloween pumpkin I put out by the mulch pile last week. At one point I saw just a little grey butt and fluffy tail sticking out from the half-eaten orange shell. Now, while two others chase each other over its head, that squirrel is grabbing chunks of the soft pumpkin rind and perching on a tree stump to eat them, stocking up in the face of colder weather and snow. From 68 degrees on Wednesday, with pelicans showing up in Spruce Head, to snow expected tonight. Another miracle of sorts. Nature is just full of herself.

Budding narcissus,
soon your perfect white flowers
will shine like new snow.

Friday, December 4, 2009

December 4: Pelicans

This morning Holly Anderson, editor of The Republican Journal sent me a set of bird photographs taken at 7:30 a.m. by Glenn Wiley from the shore in Spruce Head. (She has also posted some of them on-line at Imagine my surprise when I realized I was looking at pictures of a group of eight American white pelicans! Apparently they left by high tide and haven't been seen since, which is remarkable given that these are probably the largest white birds to ever soar into Maine waters (they have a wingspan of 9 feet). They've only been reported in Maine about a dozen times before, usually one-shot glimpses of single birds, though back in 1874, another group of seven was observed on the St. Croix River.

Undoubtedly these birds blew in behind yesterday's dramatic storm. Am. white pelicans breed in midwestern and northern inland waters--I've seen them in Grand Tetons National Park and in central Idaho--and winter in extreme southern United States. Those warm wet winds yesterday probably carried them into what must have been terra incognita. Here's one of Glenn's photos, also shown at the link above:

Notice the distinctive yellow bills and striking black wingtips. But this setting is definitely not your typical pelican habitat! I hope they enjoyed the novelty of their little foray into Maine waters. This is probably one stray species that isn't in danger of freezing to death up here, but I'm betting that they're heading back south now at a fast clip on those big wings.

Eight white pelicans
blown in by yesterday's storm--
a Maine vacation!

Update (12.7.09): The pelicans were seen by alert birders over the weekend off Rhode Island and then Connecticut, heading south where they belong.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

December 3: Owls

This morning I spoke with a friend who lives on outer Rockport Harbor, surrounded by Beauchamp Point. She told me that night before last she woke up at about 4 a.m. to the sound of a ship's foghorn. She realized the weather must have turned in the night, and had just decided to try to go back to sleep instead of reading a book when she heard an owl call. The owl sounded like it was right outside her house. Then, she heard two other owls calling from distinctly different locations on her property. She realized that every time the ship's foghorn blew, the three owls responded from their various posts. She wondered if the owls thought they were hearing "the mother ship of owls" in some kind of distress--ship foghorns can sound so low and mournful. I love the image of an owl "mother ship" broadcasting to her followers as she moves up the bay, and the Beauchamp Point owls dutifully responding to her call, perhaps with some concern over her well-being. 

I posted this story to the Maine birding list-serv, asking if anyone else had ever heard an owl respond to an inanimate object (other than a playback device). A fellow birder then posted this very interesting story in response: "This spring (April 16) my husband and I were going to camp and I asked him to pull over at an area where I thought I might hear Woodcock along Rt. 17 near the Roxbury/Byron town line.  This was around dark, about 8:30 p.m.  We saw a moose kneeling and eating in the small field, close to the road.   As we were watching and listening, a dog from a nearby house started barking.  In response a Barred Owl started calling, which in turn got responses from a second Barred Owl, both not far away.  Not an inanimate object, but still very interesting.  (The next night we saw at least 16 moose along Rt.17 from Byron to Oquossoc, including one lying in the middle of the road, licking salt off the road!)"

Barred Owl, Photo by Hal Korber/PGC
So that made me wonder if perhaps the three owls--great horned owls from her description of their hoots--were trying to warn off the ship, thinking it was some giant owl invading their territory. We can only imagine what was going through the dark, feather-and-talon-lined corridors of the owls' minds.

Foghorn in the bay,
three owls respond to the call:
mournful hour of dawn.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December 2: Night Clouds

Leaving a night meeting, I couldn't help but notice the sky spread over the parking lot and adjacent field. The full moon shone through cirrus clouds that rippled across the expanse of the deep blue heavens exactly like rows of foamy waves. The sky had become the ocean, with the moon a frosty blur behind the clouds as if underwater. The backlit striations radiated like static, white aurora borealis or northern lights; movement was almost perceptible. I felt I could almost reach up and feel the texture of the sky's oversized corrugations, and kept looking up at the sky through my windshield as I drove home.

Cirrus clouds. Full moon
shines beneath rippling waves,
draws the eye deeper.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1: Full Moon

It goes without saying that it feels like the middle of the night when I leave my office these days. Tonight as I drove home in the dark, my vision further obscured by the fact that I was peering through a sheen of frost slowly melting on the inside of my windshield, the full moon appeared from behind the mountain. I can see it from my living-room window now, above the hulking shape of the mountain and my neighbors' colorful Christmas lights, that bright face looking in at me and the cat in my lap.

The ancient Japanese aristocracy, with their highly developed aesthetic sensibilities, often held moon-viewing parties that involved poetry. According to Ivan Morris's book The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (a companion guide to The Tale of Genji, a Japanese novel written over 1,000 years ago, my favorite book of all time, and the reason why I fell in love with haiku in the first place), the full moon of the Eighth Month was considered the most beautiful. The Great Moon-Viewing was celebrated thus: "To the sound of lute and zither music, men and women spend the night in boats on the artificial lakes of the Palace and of private residences, viewing the full moon and composing poems in its honor." It also "became customary to make offerings of dumplings and potatoes to the moon." Moon-viewing was clearly a warm weather activity. I won't be heading out in a boat on this cold evening to admire the moon, though I'm sure it's reflecting beautifully right now on Penobscot Bay. But perhaps we can cook up those fingerling potatoes I bought last week and celebrate in that way. And with a poem, of course.

The moon has inspired much Japanese poetry over the centuries and is a common subject of haiku. Chiyo-ni, the 18th century woman haiku master, wrote this after she became a Buddhist nun:

full moon--
keeping it in my eyes
on a distant walk

For her, observing the full moon was a form of meditation, a focus that brought her awareness. I have often found myself caught by the full moon, staring rapt like a deer in headlights. And as a child, as many children do, would fixate on the moon through the back seat window as it seemed to follow the car's every turn.

Chiyo-ni also wrote the following poem about the transformative powers of moonlight, perhaps as a commentary on women who spent too much time figuring out what to wear to a moon-viewing party. After all, the moon is the real object of attention, not them. But things apparently never change.

in the moonlight
whatever you wear becomes beautiful

(Translated by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi)

And thus I draw my inspiration for tonight's poem--my muses both Chiyo-ni, a woman who watched this same moon 300 years ago, and the full moon itself.

Full-faced moon, not shy,
wearing the mountain as robe,
beaming on us all.