Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 21: Full Moon on the Solstice

Despite predictions of dire weather, this morning dawned clear, albeit blustery and with pale skies. Today, the Solstice, is the shortest day of the year, so any light will be welcome. In addition to its importance as a highly spiritual pagan holiday, this Solstice is special for reasons we can all appreciate, coinciding with a full moon and a total lunar eclipse. I heard on the radio yesterday that the last time a total lunar eclipse happened on the Winter Solstice was when Galileo was alive. Unfortunately, this lunar eclipse, a beautiful spectacle that turned the moon's bright face red, happened last night while a storm howled like a freight train around our house. But simply knowing it was happening somewhere up there above the tempest added to the wild magic of the night, even if I didn't witness it with my own eyes.

The astronomical significance of the day corresponds with an internal emotional shift, as well. Tomorrow the span of daylight will begin to lengthen again. We are turning once again into the light, and a little hope and optimism has begun to return to my heart. These past few weeks have been personally dark, and not just for the shortness of the days. A family friend barely survived a heart attack, another dear friend passed away unexpectedly, and we lost our beloved cat of sixteen years. Two friends were fired from their jobs this past weekend--who fires someone the week before Christmas? It seems like every day I hear another bit of bad news, either on the world/political front or in the life of someone I care about--an earthquake in Iran, fierce storms across most of this country, a local fisherman lost at sea.

But today we renew the solar cycle of the northern hemisphere. The light will grow, and the world will begin to seem a brighter place again. At least, I have hope that it will.

Above wind's night roar,
obscured by storm clouds and sleet:
Solstice moon, eclipsed.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

December 9: Signs

This morning we were importunately awakened at 4:30 by our old cat, who had an accident while lying in bed between my husband and me. After we stripped the bed and started a load of laundry, we were both up for the day. I'm not normally a morning person, so this was found time. I got in my run at the gym at the beginning of the day rather than the end. I called the vet and made an appointment. Then I got a call that the guy was finally coming to replace our broken microwave oven. So I had about an hour to do the errands I had planned to spread out over this day off. With the last load in the washing machine and the cat curled up on the couch (on a towel), I rushed off to Reny's.

I do a lot of my thinking while in my car. This morning my mind was full of my beloved cat, whom I adopted almost exactly 16 years ago. Her health is declining and various medications don't seem to be helping her. I looked up into the morning's beautiful blue sky and asked for some sort of sign, something to let me know that she'd be ok, or that I'd be ok if she's not. Be careful what you wish for.

Back home, after remaking the bed, taking care of some other chores, getting the kitchen ready for the microwave installer, and cleaning up the cat's latest mishap in the bathroom and getting her soothed and re-settled on the couch, two elderly gentlemen knocked at the door. They wanted to tell me about the life of Jesus. It being the Christmas season and all, that certainly seems appropriate. If you're Christian. Which I don't consider myself to be. So that's what I told them, kindly, reassuring them that yes, I have a source of spiritual comfort in these dark times, just not Christian comfort.

Just then the microwave installer showed up and I was distracted by that, but it later occurred to me in a moment of spiritual panic that maybe the visit by the two men was my sign. And I just blew it with God.

I'm watching the river flow between two snowy banks right now, thinking about how easily we can allow the mundane to distract us from the spiritual. But sometimes the mundane is the spiritual. If the divine is to be found in a book of stories about Jesus, then why am I more uplifted watching a flock of doves lift off the bird seed I scattered in the driveway?

Cat's soft white throat, purr--
this is my comfort for now.
And for tomorrow...?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

December 5: Sunset Magic

Yesterday afternoon as my husband and I drove into Rockland via Old County Road to see a late matinee of the new Harry Potter movie, we enjoyed a magical moment that had nothing to do with the movie. The Dragon cement plant, the only cement plant in New England, dominates the horizon along Route One just south of the Rockland line. It was in full view as we headed for the movie theatre, and as we watched, the thick plume of smoke unfurling horizontally from its one tall smokestack turned pink. Hot pink against the backdrop of an otherwise clear, deepening blue sky. It happened suddenly, literally out of the blue. 

We lost sight of the pink smoke as we pulled into the parking lot, but by the time we got out of our car, the whole sky had been transformed by the setting sun. As we walked toward the theatre more pink streaks of sunset were filling the sky, blooming pinker and pinker, and the horizon glowed with one hot bubble of light where the sun had been. The smokestack smoke had turned purple. We lingered in the cold, enjoying the color display for a while before going in to watch a different kind of magic. I commented to my husband that it's amazing how a sunset like that can transform a landscape into something beautiful despite the combined visual presence of the cement plant, a blocky storage facility, a car dealership, and a nondescript, blocky chain hotel. He said he thought it was because all those things are man-made and therefore impermanent. 

A trick of nature:
from cement plant at sunset,
pink smoke unfurling.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 28: Harp Seal

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, my husband and I were able to observe a harp seal in Camden Harbor this afternoon. He read a news story on Village Soup about a harp seal that had been photographed on the kayak floats in Camden Harbor on Thanksgiving. Then he saw on Facebook that a friend of ours had seen it chasing fish in the harbor this afternoon. So we decided to go try and see it.

The sun was just setting as we got to the public landing, casting a pink glow on the horizon behind Curtis Island. A lone loon drifted past, as we wandered down the pier to the kayak floats. And there was the seal--fat, happy, stretching itself on one of the floats. It seemed alert to the two couples watching it, but not alarmed. Several times it flapped its back feet, revealing that what looks like its tail is really two big feet with a small tail in between. It waved a front foot at us. It seemed to be showing off in a lazy, seal kind of way. Only when the church clock tolled four did it seem at all startled, tilting its pale face toward the sound, then relaxing again. We decided this big reclining creature would look right at home on a couch watching football.

A guy walking past told us it had been hanging out in the harbor for a week and a half. He said the Marine Resources people had checked it out and given it a clean bill of health. What it's doing this far south is a mystery, but a harp seal has been seen here before. Maybe this is the same one, back for another little vacation in warmer waters.

On the walk back along the pier to our car, we ran into a friend working on his fishing boat. As we chatted, the Mount Battie star lit up for the night, a magical moment.

Amid wrapped schooners,
harp seal, loon, lone fisherman.
Chilled couple watching.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

November 23: What Is That Crow Up To?

To be grammatically correct, I guess I should have said, Up to What Is That Crow?

I'm home sick, and today's source of entertainment is my back yard, where a pair of squirrels assiduously combs the carpet of wet leaves for food. A couple of nights ago I tossed a full bag of popcorn out there, next to the stump where I left them the (now-eaten) Halloween pumpkin, and I think they're still looking for more. Or perhaps they cached some and are now trying to find it again.

Just now, as the squirrels were burrowing through leaves in that vicinity, a crow landed on the lawn and cawed at the squirrels, who appeared a bit startled and backed away. It then hopped up onto a branch directly above where I had strewn the popcorn, cawed a few more times, grabbed something from what looks like a little hollow in a nearby tree trunk, and flew off. Another crow spotted it and chased it down river. As I type, I still see the two of them in the morning mist, chasing one another among the bleak tree trunks. I wish this window faced the couch, where I've been holed up for two days, so I could enjoy the crows and squirrels from a recumbent position. Spending a day trying to figure out what crows are up to seems far superior to watching tv or reading a book.

Watching crows' antics,
trying to get in their heads,
I forget I'm sick.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

November 13: Emma's World

My almost 17-year-old cat Emma, while still going strong in many ways, has serious arthritis in her hindquarters which hampers her movements and makes her walk with a sort of sideways-slipping sway. Because she spends a lot of time lying around with her hind legs sprawled uselessly behind her, the other day my mother jokingly called her "Christina's World" after the famous Andrew Wyeth painting.

So Emma's activities today were cause for pleasure. While she's an indoor cat on principle, now that she's old and slow (though not as slow as you'd think), I sometimes let her hang out in the back yard with me for short, supervised outings. On this beautiful Indian summer afternoon, I set up a tv tray and chair so I could sit in the sun on the back porch and read over the proofs of my husband's second novel. Emma came out with me and explored the leafy back yard under my watchful eye. She tromped around in the leaves for quite a while, sniffing everything, undaunted by her awkward gait. She was more active than I've seen her in a long time. She even chased a twig I dragged past her.
Later, after some lunch inside, we went back out to the porch to take full advantage of this weather. She curled up tightly on my lap and napped while I read the latest New Yorker and drank a hot mug of chai latte. The river, dark and riffled, rushed past. Piles of leaves skittered and shifted. Chickadees flitted by on their way to the bird feeder. At one point Emma awoke and watched with interest as a neighbor's cat blithely walked through the yard and right past us, then she curled back up under my arm for more sleep. I held her in a close embrace, feeling keenly in those moments the brevity of the time we have left together. 

Emma and I have been together since before I met my husband. Childless, I have doted on this strange and often ornery little creature for 16 years. So I was especially grateful for us to be able to share these few hours together, with both of us simply enjoying the moment and each other's company, recharged by the late autumn sunlight.

Old cat, piles of leaves,
last warm days of November--
we share the sunlight.

PS: As I wrote this entry at my desk, Emma came over and indicated she wanted to get into my lap. After I boosted her up, I thought she'd curl up and sleep as usual, but instead she sat upright on my knees, alertly watching the screen the whole time I was typing. I told her I was writing about her, and I like to fool myself into thinking she understood.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 10: Forest

The devastation caused by a recent rain and wind storm became more apparent to me today when I was walking a conservation property in Lincolnville. As the landowner and I walked through one dense patch of mixed cedar and spruce forest, we came upon an ancient pine that had splintered about four feet up the trunk and toppled to the ground. This towering tree, with no apparent rot, boughs still green, had come crashing down in the storm, taking several neighboring cedars with it. We estimated the pine to be well over 100 years old. And there it lay in a giant tangle, felled by the wind.

Elsewhere in the forest we found maybe half a dozen other trees downed by the storm. Some were spruces,  their shallow root systems made all the more obvious when upended, just a flat circle of earth perpendicular to the forest floor. In the small stands of trees, the crowded trunks provide support for one another. But when one falls, it takes others down with it, a row of giant timber dominoes. Or if one happens to fall alone, it leaves the trees within the circle more vulnerable to the next big storm.

In an opening amid the trees, growing from a forest floor carpeted thick with rain-moist moss, we admired clusters of baby spruce trees, the next generation. It occurred to us that we were witnessing the entire cycle of life in this patch of woods: new trees reaching for the light, mature trees clustered around them, some dead trees still standing, fretted with woodpecker holes and studded with bracket fungi, the newly fallen trees piled in messy heaps, and the older deadfall melting back into the earth from which it came, blanketed with moss, ferns, mushrooms, forest duff, leaf litter. A rich tapestry of organic matter, the stuff of life and death.

Wind's toy, this old pine,
whose death enriches the soil,
this moss, these seedlings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November 7: Cattle Egret

I rode the morning ferry out to the island of Vinalhaven to spend part of the day birding with a friend who lives there. A naturalist by profession, Kirk knows where to find the birds, and despite the rather bleak, chilly, and eventually rainy day, we had a good time looking. I've gotten out birding so infrequently lately that being able to spend a concentrated amount of time watching any avian life is welcome. So to be shown  a bird I hadn't previously seen in Maine within ten minutes of getting off the ferry was bonus.

Cattle egrets are a small white heron generally seen well south of Maine. Until today, the only ones I'd seen were in Florida and North Carolina. How this one ended up on an island off the Maine coast is one of those mysteries of migration. As I disembarked, I ran into one of the ferry captains who is also a birder--a birder who particularly enjoys chasing rarities. When I explained that I was out there so Kirk could show me a cattle egret, he complained, "Kirk never tells me anything!" An island resident had recently described to him seeing a strange bird, like an "all-white gull with a big yellow bill." It suddenly dawned on him that she'd been describing the cattle egret. He'd have to try to see it on a future trip.

Kirk and I headed off through town to "The Ballfield," where he'd photographed the bird not an hour earlier right next to his car. A woman driving past stopped to tell us that she had recently seen the egret following Wizard. Turns out Wizard is her horse. That made sense to Kirk, because the bird had first been spotted on Greens Island following a small flock of sheep. They got their name because they follow livestock, eating the insects such animals attract. So we went off to see Wizard. Before we got there, however, we spotted the egret hunched over in the middle of a lawn. Kirk set up his scope and we got great looks at this southern visitor.

We were soon joined by a neighbor who knew Kirk and who may or may not have been slightly inebriated. Even though we were clearly already watching the egret, he wanted to be sure we saw the bird, gesticulating wildly at it. "I knew you'd want to see it, because I know you like birds and sh*t," he declared. He had seen the egret earlier standing in a ditch full of minnows, eating. "It looked to me like a f**king big white sandpiper!" he said excitedly. "Is this rare? Because I've never seen a bird like this here before." Kirk assured him that it was very unusual.

You'd think that the rest of the day's birding would have been anticlimactic after that. But although I didn't pick up any more new Maine species, every stop had its highlights. At State Beach, a big flock of pale and lovely snow buntings flew back and forth above the pebbly shore. Horned larks hung out in the road with a single late-migrating semipalmated plover. A great blue heron croaked loudly as it flew in to land on the opposite shore. At Folly Pond, we spotted eight eagles, including a pair of adults perched side by side on a spruce bough, and a couple of brightly plumaged male wood ducks drifted past with a pied-billed grebe. At a culvert called The Boondoggle, a lone yellowlegs stood knee-deep in what must have been freezing cold water while hooded mergansers drifted and bobbed. The Basin offered up hosts of Canada geese and several more duck species.

Even the ferry ride home was not without adventure. My ferry captain friend invited me to ride back to Rockland up on the bridge, which offered great views of flocks of Bonaparte's gulls, a zillion more loons, big rafts of eiders, some surf scoters, and one gannet. He recounted the day last summer when he'd seen an albatross fly across the bow. The passage across the bay was a rough one, with swells rocking the ferry hard enough to knock over a chair at one point. The spray of whitecaps corrugated the surface of the sea. Thanks to turning back the clocks last night, twilight (and a cold rain) were settling in over Rockland Harbor as we pulled into the ferry slip. As we got ready to unload, a seal popped its head out of the water just off the port side, giving us all a long look as if wondering what we were doing out in this weather. Cattle egret, I wanted to tell the seal. And eiders, mergansers, and crossbills. I don't think it would have understood.

Brisk island wind, rain.
Egret and I share a look,
both visitors here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

November 4: Flying Leaves

And the season starts to shut down. Yesterday morning I woke to the first heavy frost, rime on the lawn and a carapace of white lingering like snow on the neighbors' roof. I had to scrape my car windows for the first time since last winter. This morning before the rains began, the slopes of Ragged Mountain, where I was walking, were burnished deep bronze, the russet of dying embers, just one tone removed from dead brown. Birch bark shone starkly amid branches bared to the wind. Crisp oak leaves leapt through the air like small birds, skipping on unseen eddies and currents in the sky. Small birds, juncos, scattered amid the dry leaves. Things were aswirl in the calm before the storm. So the appearance of two ravens, hoarsely cawing and dipping amid the loose leaves, fit the day's mood. They flew swiftly overhead as if whipped by the wind, but they knew exactly where they were going.

Leaves skitter like birds,
birds scatter like leaves. Two black
ravens ride the wind.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

October 31: Halloween Rituals

I began my Book of Days blog last November 1, hoping to maintain the discipline to post a haiku every single day for a year. And I've somehow managed to do it! This posting, my 365th, marks the last day of a full year of haiku, a full year of sitting down each day and trying to write something somewhat poetic. Now that I've accomplished my goal, I don't plan on dropping this ritual altogether--it's become a stimulating writing exercise, as well as a satisfying sort of spiritual practice, to enter this space each day--but my postings will almost certainly decrease in frequency after this one.

It's appropriate that my poetic year comes to a close on Halloween, which for many contemporary pagans is regarded as New Year's Eve in the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain (pronounced "sow-en"). The holiday kicked off the dark half of the year (Beltane, on May 1, marked the beginning of the light half). I'm intrigued by the concept of a day marking our descent into the bleakest, darkest season as the beginning of a new year, but the concept of embracing that darkness in a celebratory way offers an admirable challenge. I imagine dancing around the ritual bonfire helped.

Now we practice different rituals, though many of these are deeply rooted in the original Samhain tradition. I've carved our pumpkin, a fruit of the season, into a Jack o'lantern--but not to ward off evil spirits so much as to attract friendly ones in the form of our neighborhood's children when they come trick-or-treating tonight. We've got bags of candy ready to appease these costumed "spirits," some of whom will be looking quite scary whether they intend to or not. And as I write, the sinking sun illuminates the red-gold leaves of the back yard maple, creating what will come as close to a bonfire as we're going to get.

It being Sunday, my husband and I are also enjoying another ritual, though not one specifically associated with Halloween: watching football. One might argue, however, that the crazy way some fans dress up for a game, with body makeup, wigs, etc., is indistinguishable from donning a Halloween costume.

Sunset, Halloween.
Light's last blaze before the ghosts
appear at our door.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

October 30: The Good Life

Thanks to Restaurant Week, my husband and I are enjoying a slice of the good life this weekend. And I'm not talking about the Nearings' version. I'm talking about staying in a luxurious inn and enjoying a three-course gourmet meal for a price that even we can afford. This is the "staycation" concept taken to its best extreme. My husband and I are currently ensconced at the Camden Harbour Inn in a lovely big corner room with a beautiful view of Camden Harbor, Shermans Point, and Mount Battie. Earlier I took a bath (while reading a book) in an old-style tub with the best view in town.

We just returned from our meal, which, if you count the amuse-bouche and intermezzo sorbet, was really five courses. (And the chocolates on our bed make a sixth.) We're now watching a movie on a big flat-screen tv from a huge comfy bed. For some people this is just how they roll. But for us, this is the good life, as good as it gets in many ways. We've never stayed overnight somewhere in our own town except for our honeymoon night, so this is also an unexpected novelty, a bit of a romantic getaway. I recommend it.

Romantic weekend:
food, oversized bed with rich
view of our own town.

Friday, October 29, 2010

October 29: Jack O'Lantern

Since we'll be away overnight tomorrow, tonight was the night to carve our Jack o'lantern. I've had a big ol' pumpkin sitting in the garden out front for a couple of weeks, looking decorous next to a pot of chrysanthemums and a Buddha statue. After work today, I hauled it out back and got to work. There's nothing like scooping goopy seeds out of a pumpkin shell to make you feel like you're really getting down and dirty. My cat helped, coming out on the porch to eat some of the pumpkin innards that were piling up. She likes zucchini, so why not pumpkin?

I carved the pumpkin in her honor. For one thing, she can be quite scary. Also, she's getting old, going on 17, so we're trying to honor her as much as we can these days. And she did help after all.

There's something about a messy creative task, like pumpkin carving or finger painting or making things with glue and glitter, that takes one back to childhood. Add in preparations for a holiday--it doesn't matter which one--and the fun really begins. I inordinately enjoyed carving my pumpkin. Makes me think I should be messy more often, might help me tap into the imagination of my inner child a bit more.

Of course those with children get the opportunity to do this every time their child wants them to sit and color or help make something with Play-doh. (Play-doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop, anyone?) While I'm sure that these crafts activities come to seem like a chore sometimes for tired mothers who'd rather be getting other things done, there's nothing like being able to look at the world vicariously through the eyes of your child. I, on the other hand, being childless, get to enjoy such things in the company of my squash-loving cat. And who's to say I'm getting any less pleasure from it?

I didn't expect
my cat to enjoy eating
carved pumpkin's innards.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October 28: Indian Summer

I had a few all-too-brief moments outside today, but from what little I experienced of the day, it seemed the epitome of Indian summer--unseasonably warm, blue sky, odd flowers blooming in otherwise dead and leaf-strewn gardens (did I see white irises in one yard?), with the late fall foliage burnished in gold, umber, russet, and bronze. All week it's been in the 60s, although we've also seen a lot of fog and rain (and even some thunder and lightning). By the weekend we're supposed to be back down in the 40s again, and the chilly slide into winter will probably begin in earnest. I already made an appointment to get my snow tires put on.

Driving around in the glow of the day, I was thinking about that phrase "Indian summer." Where did it come from? According to Wikipedia, the phrase has been used for more than two hundred years and might refer to the time of year when the native tribes would take a break from raiding colonial settlements, presumably to prepare for winter. Or, it might have meant the season when Indians harvested their corn and squash. In this part of the country, it seems a bit late to be harvesting corn, but maybe they dried it on the stalk. To complicate things, I found online an article by William Deedler, a weather historian for the National Weather Service, who has found at least one account suggesting that the phrase might actually refer to India, in which Indian summer may have described the mild period of the year when ships leaving India could carry more cargo. In any case, the connotation is a positive one--it's a time of peace or plenty. Truly, a calm, warm day like this one feels like that sort of gift.

In some European countries, this time of year is called "St. Martin's summer." In Spain and Portugal, says Wikipedia, they have big celebrations rooted in Celtic tradition in which "bonfires, roasted chestnuts, and wine have an important role." I like the sound of that.

And all this makes me now think about Indian pudding. Perhaps that's what I should make tonight to celebrate what may be our last day of Indian summer...

Landscape shifts to gold,
color of squash and pumpkins.
Indian summer.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 27: The Miracle of Fishes

You know how people say when it's raining, "Nice weather... if you're a duck!"? I was thinking tonight as  I drove over the Ducktrap River in a torrential downpour that it's also nice weather if you're a spawning salmon. Late fall is when Atlantic salmon--the few indigenous fish that remain--return to their natal rivers to spawn. The Ducktrap River is running high now with all this rain, so returning adult fish can more easily make their way upriver over all those shoals and stones to find the optimal gravel beds in which to make their nests or redds.

As I made my way along rain-slick Route One, I thought about this, and began to wonder how the salmon know which river to come back to. I remember reading something once about salmon being guided by their sense of smell. Maybe they simply swim along the shoreline until they smell home. Or is it a sense of taste? Nothing tastes quite like the waters of the home river. If any creature could sense that, it would be a salmon, a creature of both fresh and salt water.

According to Stephen D. McCormick of the Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Atlantic salmon may find their way from the feeding grounds in the North Atlantic, where they've been maturing for several years, to the right area of coastline using a magnetic or solar compass. But no one knows for sure--it's one of those mysteries of science.

Another mystery: why do Pacific salmon species die after spawning but not Atlantic salmon? Apparently the word for the type of fish that survive spawning is "iteroparous," although spawning takes such a toll on a fish's body that even Atlantic salmon don't always make it back to the sea afterward.

Rain fills the river,
spillway for spawning salmon
smelling their way home.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

October 26: Darkness

"The night is black. Black as night." --Melissa Etheridge

Tonight when I locked the office door and walked up the path to my car, I was plunged for several long moments into total darkness. It's been a long time since I've had to leave the office in that kind of dark and I was a bit startled by its sudden presence all around me. The night sky was shrouded in clouds that let no light through. And my eyes were slow to adjust after shutting off the lights in the well-lit office. Although I knew I was on the path, I couldn't see a thing and actually put my hands out in front of me to feel my way. Then I remembered that if I remotely unlocked my car, its interior light would enable me to find it in the profoundly black depths of the parking lot. It was only 6:20. In a few weeks we'll set the clocks back, and it will be this dark at 5:20. No wonder I came home tonight ready to just curl up with my cat and go to sleep.

Night's a starless cloak
lit only by the car light,
my personal moon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

October 25: On the Move

Released from the pair bonds necessary for nesting and raising young, most birds move in flocks during migration. This morning at my office I could hear a small flock of robins clucking in the trees at the edge of the lawn. Robins don't migrate far--usually a few hundred to a thousand miles or so south of where they nested--but they constantly shift around in itinerant flocks searching for food. Robins from northern Maine and Canada, sometimes even accompanied by bluebirds, will pop up here throughout the winter to feast on crabapples, winterberry, mountain ash berries, and other wholesome fruits. It doesn't mean spring's coming early. It means there's something to eat in your yard.

Later in the day a flock of a dozen or more juncos passed through, scuttling in the heaps of fallen leaves, trilling in the pines. Juncos are often accompanied by sparrows, but all I had were my lousy office binoculars, so I couldn't pick out anything but a junco in the bunch. These pert grey and white birds with pink bills will also appear intermittently throughout the winter. My grandmother used to call them "snowbirds."

A birder friend in southern Maine reported literally thousands of cormorants migrating off Biddeford Pool and Eastern Point this morning, including one single flock of 2,500 to 3,000 birds! Cormorants fly in big vees like geese, although often in much more dramatic numbers and more quietly--endless skeins of birds flapping their wings with purpose.

These crowds of feeding, flying creatures moving overhead or in the underbrush add to the overall restless and unsettled mood of this season of transitions. I find myself jumping out of my office chair, useless binoculars in hand, walking from window to window and then outside, wanting to follow the birds. Not far--just enough to get a sense of where they're going. Although as darkness closes in so early now and a chilly fog shrouds the mountaintop, heading south to warmer climes appeals to me more and more. I'm not prepared for winter.

Restless birds fly south
ahead of snow. How I long
to grow wings, follow.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

October 24: The Art of Local Food

Tonight the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) hosted a tasting party at Point Lookout atop Ducktrap Mountain in Northport. Point Lookout is always good for a visit because the mountaintop retreat offers a spectacular view of island-studded Penobscot Bay. And the event itself was a decadent indulgence in food, drink, and friends. In good spirits we waited in line for, well, good spirits from Maine, including Geary's and Allagash beers, Cellar Door Winery wines, and Cold River vodka (I enjoyed a blueberry-lemon vodka spritzer), and then we wandered through several rooms with tables offering delectable treats. Intense noshing interspersed with intense socializing made the two hours pass quickly.

What did I eat? A lot, so it's kind of a blur, and I don't remember who all made what. But highlights were seafood chowder from The Boathouse, duck carpaccio and beet salad from Natalie's, pumpkin and goat cheese tiramisu, apple baklava, shredded pork on sliced brioche from Lily Bistro, apple pie and caramel ice cream from Stone Fox Creamery, chili on cornbread from Home Kitchen Cafe, squash and Swiss cheese tart, an exquisite piece of tiramisu, Hope Orchard apples, samples from Heiwa Tofu, and a pastry-like ravioli from Paolina's Way. I had other things, and I missed a lot of things, but I definitely left feeling not only stuffed full of the wide range of delicacies Maine has to offer, but also satisfied to have connected with so many friends and acquaintances on such a festive occasion. "Aren't we lucky," someone said, "to live amid such wonderful food?" Mmm.

About halfway into the evening, longtime (and retiring) NRCM director Brownie Carson gave a speech as the pumpkin orange, just-past-full moon crowned the horizon over the bay. It seemed so perfectly appropriate, the Harvest Moon rising over a harvest of some of the best Maine has to offer.

Orange moon rising.
Cheese tarts, fig jam, pumpkin treats...
I'm full as the moon.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

October 23: Wind Power

After several months of taking a break from running to allow a strained back muscle to heal, I'm slowly trying to get my groove back. Slowly is the operative word, as I'm only running about a mile each time at this point, and not every day. While my back was recovering, my lack of significant aerobic activity combined with hard-hitting seasonal allergies has taken a toll on my lung capacity. Now I'm red-faced and wheezing as I jog a pitifully short distance. But, at least I'm back out there again, and I've optimistically set a goal of being able to run a 5K again by next spring.

This morning the bright sky, still-glowing trees, and lusty gusts of wind tossing up leaves encouraged me to put on my running shoes and just do it. I headed up the street, ducking my head as I ran right into the face of those energetic gusts. Fortunately, a peppy song was playing on my iPod and my legs felt strong, so I powered on into the face of the wind.

And then something cool happened. With my lungs burning from the exertion, I made my slow way up a hill, breathing through my mouth. The wind was blowing hard, and I realized that whenever I took a breath, I was inhaling the wind. It was blowing right into my mouth all the way to my lungs. It was like the wind was resuscitating me. So I opened wide and took in as much fresh air as the wind could give me. With the wind itself inside me, how could I not complete this short run successfully? I visualized the wind swirling in my lungs, in my blood, filling my body with vital energy. I think it worked.

Inspiring fall wind
gets me out the door running,
fills my mouth with air.

Note 1: The word "inspire" comes from Latin words meaning "to breathe in."
Note 2: The peppy song on my iPod, which I recommend for any workout/running mix, was "Silence" (Airscape Mix) by Delerium, featuring Sarah McLachlan. It's 8:37 minutes long, so when I'm back on my game, I should be able to run a mile while I listen to it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

October 22: Last Lupine

The Harvest Moon rises tonight, the October full moon, the light of which once enabled farmers to get in that last harvest by working into the illuminated night. My co-worker seemed to be perpetuating our connection to that agrarian past by mowing the field that is the office lawn this afternoon. Milkweed fluff churned in the brisk breeze, fallen leaves swirled in his wake, and the lawn is now corrugated with thick ridges of mown grass.

When he came in from his version of "haying," he brought us a gift: the season's last lupine. I haven't seen a lupine in flower since last June, I think, so this one was a true surprise. We wondered if it was a second round from a plant that figured it would try again, having bloomed a few weeks earlier than usual this summer. Or maybe it bloomed in response to the full moon. "Lupine" means "wolf-like," after all, so this could be the flower's way of howling at the moon.

This tall purple stalk now sits in a coffee cup on the window sill, the russets and ochres of fall foliage providing a contrasting backdrop: summer meets fall. Soon enough, our "last flower" will give way to our "first snowfall."

Out of season gift:
a single lupine blooming
under Harvest Moon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

October 21: Error

On my way to work this morning I watched a crow fluttering near a tree trying to land. The tree was tall, with thin, bare branches. The crow attempted to perch on one of the slender boughs near the the tippy-top, but its weight made the bough instantly bend all the way downward, and the bird lost its balance. Almost upside-down, it fluttered to hang on, but the branch was just too light for it, and it eventually had to fly off before it slipped off.

It's not often you see a bird make an error of judgement like that. In some situations, that could be a fatal mistake. Perhaps this was a young bird that hadn't yet figured out weight ratios. Or, because crows are naturally curious creatures, perhaps it was just fooling around, trying to see if it could successfully land on the branch despite all appearances to the contrary. Or perhaps it was a self-test of skill, in which the perfect approach or just the right landing might have worked.

It was a breezy morning, and I like to think the wind had instilled a sense of silliness into the crow. Let's see if I can land here, I imagine it thinking. And I was lucky enough to catch the moment it tried (and failed) as I drove past.

Branch won't hold you, crow.
I wonder what you're thinking
as you slip, fly off.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October 20: Bluebird Eggs

A friend with bluebird houses on her farm property said she opened one up to clean it out recently and found a nest inside with several eggs, some hatched and some not. The eggs were small and sky blue. We looked them up, and it seems they actually were bluebird eggs. Their condition, though, begs a narrative. Did a few birds hatch and grow up, with the other eggs being duds? Did something happen to the parent birds just after the first eggs hatched so that they couldn't brood the others? Did the parent birds just abandon the eggs after something got the first hatchlings? The life and death permutations multiply in the imagination.

But the eggs, as most eggs are, were small objets d'art: fingertip-sized, unblemished, perfectly shaped, robin's egg blue. (Robins and bluebirds are thrush relatives, so it makes sense that their eggs might be similar.) I had always thought that cavity nesters like bluebirds laid white eggs, because there's no need for camouflage it the eggs are tucked away in a hole. But a bluebird lays a blue egg, and both carry their color beautifully.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Cleaning the birdhouse,
some eggs broken, others not--
past summer's drama.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October 19: Soup

That series of inspirational books that began with Chicken Soup for the Soul and then burgeoned absurdly into all sorts of other Chicken Soup books--Chicken Soup for Christian Family Soul, Chicken Soup for Menopause, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul, etc. was onto something: soup does make us feel better. Some scientists have even gone so far as to test the health benefits of chicken soup, proving that its ingredients do apparently help alleviate the symptoms of the common cold by reducing inflammation and a stuffy nose.

I'm not a chicken soup fan, but I can tell you that when I'm feeling kind of achey and chilled--especially this time of year when days are shorter, nights are colder, and coming home from a long day of work in the pitch dark can be kind of depressing--there's no meal that I crave more than my husband's soup with warm chunks of a heated, buttered baguette. Part of it is, of course, the tangible physical satisfaction of warming oneself from the inside out with hot liquid and hearty vegetables. But part of it is the culture of soup, the age-old image of the cauldron on the hearth full of wholesome broth and herbs, stirred all day by Grandmother and ladled out to the family at the big trestle table. It's not just soup--it's a special brew to restore one's health and good cheer--at least long enough for me to make it to bedtime feeling a little more hale and hearty.

First frost this morning,
chilling dark by 6:30.
My husband stirs soup.

Monday, October 18, 2010

October 18: One Red Tree

It's hard not to get obsessed with the various colors of the foliage this time of year. Today I'm home sick, so besides sleeping, I've mostly been hanging out at my desk doing stuff on my computer, and therefore staring out the back window a lot. I have to say, the fall colors in my own back yard are not much to speak of right now. The ash tree lost all its lovely gold leaves in the recent storm. And the rest have either faded to a dull yellow-brown or remain green.

Except for one brilliant maple down by the river. And that's what my eyes keep getting drawn to. If I look through the natural fence of near trunks, this one spectacular tree shines behind them with a color that's difficult to describe--a sort of salmony, mango red-orange-pink. It's also ideally positioned so that it's currently catching the afternoon light, which transforms each leaf into a living flame. It would seem like that one tree could transform all the green trees around it by virtue of its effervescent presence alone, color leaping like fire from one branch to the next. Even when the sun goes behind a cloud and the sky suddenly dims, this maple burns with a true inner glow. In tree language, it's shouting for joy.

Moments like this, I really wish I were a painter rather than a writer, although I'm not sure one could convey this quality of color and light with mere pigment on canvas.

Maple's jubilance
enlivens a dim day home--
I can't look away.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

October 17: Ragged Mountain Brunch

A perfect fall morning, which was lucky for a group of nine of us who'd planned to ride the Snow Bowl chairlift up Ragged Mountain to enjoy a bagel brunch at the top. With backpacks loaded up with goodies, we slowly rode the lift in pairs, enjoying the fall color that seemed to have miraculously spread over the landscape since the previous days' storm. At the top of the lift, we gathered on a ledge with our decadent spread, which included a box of Rock City coffee, orange juice, bagels of all kinds from the Bagel Cafe, cream cheese, smoked salmon, various jams (including one made from some exotic Japanese citrus), Nutella, lemon curd, some ingeniously wrapped fried (and home-grown) eggs, apples, and chocolate hazelnut espresso cake.

After such a filling moveable feast, is it any wonder that we felt the need to hike a bit further up the mountain? Our hike was short but rigorous (and a bit muddy, given that more than four inches of rain fell on Friday and Saturday), as we were on a quest for a good view. I think we found it:
View from Ragged Mt. to Mt. Megunticook and Mt. Battie
Bright red maples and some glowing yellow striped maples punctuated the evergreen forest near the summit. Colorful leaves created picturesque tableaux where they had fallen amid still-green Christmas ferns, ruddy blueberry plants, moss, and hen of the woods mushrooms. Two vultures soared overhead, and a red-tailed hawk seemed to hover motionless on a thermal. A merlin shot past. In the distance, Penobscot Bay shone like a mirror in the sunlight, and we tried to name all the islands we could see.

When we stepped out onto a broad ledge near the summit, several of us exclaimed aloud as the breathtaking, panoramic view suddenly opened before us. A few in our party were from out of town, and one of them asked, a bit surprised, if we hadn't been up there before. Oh yes, we said. Many times. But it's just as amazing each time. 
Bald Mountain from Ragged Mountain
This view, this beauty.
Gold leaf the size of my head,
whole glowing mountain.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

October 16: Belfast Poetry Festival

I spent a good part of today in Belfast as a participating poet in the Belfast Poetry Festival. This spring, I was paired with sculptor and mixed media artist Beth Henderson. She and I have spent this past summer sharing ideas and each other's work in order to produce something for the Festival. The work was hung on October 1, but everything finally came together today as various teams of poets and various kinds of artists (dancer, photographer, several painters, sculptor, glass artist, and metal artist) presented the fruits of their collaborations in four different venues around town for the Festival's Gallery Walk. The exhibit that Beth and I put together is hanging at Roots & Tendrils Gallery through October.

Beth and I realized early on that we both draw from the natural world for creative inspiration. She created several works based on images in my poems about Bald and Ragged Mountains, and I wrote or adapted poems to go with some of her pieces. Some of Beth's pieces:

Of the work she showed me, the ones that spoke to me the most featured owls, a personal favorite creature of mine ever since my mom collected owls when I was a very young child. I respond to their charisma as cool and beautiful birds, and they also resonate for me poetically as symbols of great significance in many world cultures. So in response to her owl art, I challenged myself to create a mixed media piece combining my poems, various images and icons I've collected, quotations from other writers' stories about owls, and photographs. The resulting work is called Owl Stories. I created ten different pieces, which I then strung like prayer flags and hung from a branch I found in the back yard. I think it's one of the most truly creative things I've ever accomplished.

This afternoon Beth and I talked about our collaboration, and then I read several poems to a jam-packed house. The energy was high at all the galleries, and I was reminded of the boundless creativity that we each possess. In several ways--today's Gallery Walk being one of them--I think the universe has been reminding me lately to keep tapping into that creative spirit inside me and remain open to the creativity of myself and others. Sometimes when I get too wrapped up in the more dry aspects of my professional life I shut myself off from this energy or don't make enough time for it.

Today's poem is an adaptation of one I wrote as part of Owl Stories in response to this image created by Beth:
Snowy owl waiting:
a pale stone on the tundra
with fierce yellow eyes.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October 15: Birds in the Storm

The winds and rain hit last night and continue through today, dumping at least a couple of inches of rain on the Midcoast. I've seen a few trees blown down, though nothing damaging (unless you're the tree), and my peony bed was flattened as if stepped on by an elephant. Muddy streams of water are running down the roads--apparently Barnestown Road over by the Snow Bowl is actually underwater thanks to a nearby flooded wetland. When you're driving, the water on the road swirls and fans on the paved surface under the tires of the car in front of you. It's kind of mesmerizing. And the edges of all the streets are carpeted with leaves of all colors, including a lot of green leaves that didn't even get a chance to change color before being ripped off the branches. At the office we heard several claps of thunder, which made the deluge even more dramatic.

When I arrived at the office this morning, three goldfinches, barely visible through the rain, were huddled in my bird feeders. When they left, I decided to move the feeders from an exposed window to one under the porch roof. So I emptied them of sodden seed, dried, and then refilled and reattached them in the new location. Not two minutes later, a chickadee hovered in front of the window where the feeders had been. Then another chickadee came by, fluttering in place, as if to say, "Where's our feeder?!" So I quickly moved them back to the original location. And they were quickly revisited.

This afternoon I returned after a lunch meeting to find the feeders blown onto the ground. It's been a tough day to be a hungry bird. I refilled and reattached them yet again, and chickadees and goldfinches have been braving the elements all afternoon to feed, even in the half-dark of late afternoon. As branches and boats are being tossed around by the gale, a pert little chickadee is making that dash to the feeder to grab one more seed. And of course, many wild birds out there are getting by in stormy weather without the benefit of a feeder. It makes you realize how tough these little guys really are.

Leaves scattered, sodden,
branches flung, roadways flooded.
Yet, chickadee's here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

October 14: Fire Hose Rainbow

Every so often the Camden Fire Department tests their fire hoses on the river right outside my office. This afternoon they had several going at once--men having fun playing with hoses--and the plumes of spray were catching the light just right, forming a short, vivid rainbow. With a glowing backdrop of blue sky, reflecting water, and color-shifting foliage, this rainbow was quite a vision, even if it was man-made.
Even a rainbow
created by fire hoses
is still a rainbow.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October 13: Emergence

I haven't been closely following all the details of the Chilean miners who have been trapped underground for nearly seven weeks, but I knew they were being rescued ahead of schedule, with the first miners emerging today. I had also read one story about a miner who included both his wife and his long-time mistress on his list of three people he was allowed to invite to the rescue staging area. His wife said she was glad he was ok, but she was definitely not going to be there. I don't know what it says about me or the media that that's one of the few personal stories I know about any of these 33 men.

While running on the treadmill at the gym tonight, I caught about ten minutes of the CNN coverage of the rescue and found it quite moving. They were in the process of bringing the 27th miner to the surface. CNN was reporting that most of the miners were in good general health and in good spirits. The mood there was appropriately celebratory. Even the news guys sounded a bit awed and excited by the whole thing. The CNN team were evaluating what sorts of perks the miners would receive. Apparently, they've already each been offered $400,000 by media for their story. They've been offered opportunities to endorse everything from mining equipment to chocolate bars to sexual enhancement vitamins (now there's an ad I'd be curious to see!) A mining tycoon is giving them each $10,000, and the government has pledged to support them till they're ready to go back to work--though I can't imagine many of them intend to go back to the mines.

It's amazing the amount of trivial information you can learn from watching tv for ten minutes, even if you're watching an important news story. And we're so used to it that even the most emotional stories leave our heads more quickly than they should. So after I got off the treadmill, I forgot about the miners. Until I left the gym, emerging tired and red-faced from the humid basement locker room into the crystal clear evening. I took a deep breath of the fresh, clear air as I stood and slowly turned under the wide open, pristine night sky. There's no way I can imagine being trapped underground for even seven hours, let alone seven weeks, but for a brief moment, I felt an elation that might have been the very, very faintest fraction of an echo of what each of those miners felt as they emerged from the capsule. Air. Space. Room to breathe. Freedom. Relief. How easy to take all this for granted. Gold Jupiter shone brightly on the horizon, and a waxing crescent moon emerged from the trees. I thought of those miners all the way home.

Look at all the stars!
33 miners emerge
under a wide sky.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October 12: Red Zone

In football parlance, when you're in the red zone, you're within 20 yards of the opposing team's goal line, hot to score. In the language of autumn leaves in the Camden Hills, the current red zone is a strip of crimson trees on the highest visible ridge of Mount Megunticook, along the backbone of the mountain between the summit and the old landslide above Maiden's Cliff. Fall has left its strongest mark there so far--looking east from Route 105 along the river, that high, red line of trees is very distinctive. I don't know if it's the elevation or exposure that makes those trees more susceptible to phasing out of their green garb earlier than the trees on the ridge below them. But soon enough, the red zone will expand to encompass the entire forested mountainside--a touchdown on nature's terms, that gaudy display of incredible color that seems just as unbelievable year after year. I hope I never get used to it.

Autumn's carnival
is back in town: riotous,
red hot spectacle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

October 11: Back Yard Birds

This morning as I was sitting at my desk looking out upon the golden ash leaves shining in the morning sun, I noticed a bit of bird action back there, as well. Little birds were flitting and flickering among the leaves. So, still in my pajamas, I sat on my back step with my binoculars and tried to see what was moving through the yard. I hung out long enough that a leaf twirled through the air and landed on my back.

In order of quantity, here's what I observed:
Black-capped chickadee--hard to keep track of numbers, they were so active
Tufted titmouse--several moving back and forth from feeder to trees
White-breasted nuthatch--a pair hanging around the shed roof and nearby trees, occasionally on the feeder
Downy woodpecker--one female on the birch tree in the driveway, calling
Crow--one cawing down the street
The leaves are still heavy on the trees here, so I think a brown creeper may have been in that mix, too--the birds were hard to track once they got up in the leaves.

As is often the case, my favorite bird to watch was the chickadee. A small local flock seems to make the rounds a few times a day, and I always feel a little blessed when it's my feeders' turn for a visitation. These perky little birds are constantly entertaining, being both sociable and acrobatic. I watched one dangle from the end of a leaf to snap up an insect. Another landed on the lawn among the dead ferns and hopped up and down trying to catch something. All the while, they call to one another, like kids text-messaging.

I recently came up with an idea for a book I'd (jokingly) like to publish: The 100 Cutest Birds of North America. Chickadees are definitely in there. And titmice. And nuthatches. And probably the downy--our smallest woodpecker--too. Perhaps I'm a little biased toward these birds I see and enjoy every day.*

As the trees redden and leaves fall, it's somehow reassuring to know that most of those five species will likely be with me through the winter. The nuthatch may decide to head a little farther south, but the rest are locals. We're all in this together.

Small cove of my yard
harbors the local songbirds
through every season.

*Other birds I'd include: Gambel's quail, ivory gull, saw-whet owl, golden-crowned kinglet, least sandpiper, goldfinch, piping plover, puffin, yellowthroat, most other warblers, clay-colored sparrow, and Anna's hummingbird...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

October 10: Binary

Today's date is 10/10/10, which is a binary number. That much I know. Not being a computer programmer or a mathematician, I've retained little memory of how binary numbers work. But I've always had a good head for numbers, and I like it when ordinary sets of numbers--phone numbers, dates, and such--have a deeper significance. So I found an online tutorial on binary numbers and was reminded that they operate on a base 2 (hence, binary) system, while our everyday numbers are base 10. With the tutorial as a guide, I think I figured out that today's date translated from binary to everyday, digital numbers is 32+0+8+0+2+0=42. Which, according to Douglas Adams's highly entertaining Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, is the answer to the question, What is the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything? (Unfortunately, no one knew what the ultimate question was, exactly...)

In numerology, in which you add the digits of a significant number (for example, a birthdate) until you come up with a single number between one and nine, 1+0+1+0+1+0=3. At least one numerology website, Spiritual Numerology, says that the number three is the most playful of numbers. Was today a playful day? It had some pleasurable moments, for sure. The site also says that "writer" is a good profession if you're a three--and today my husband, a novelist, gave a great reading at the library in Kennebunkport. So that part sort of fit.

My favorite number has changed over the years, just as my favorite color has--which makes me think that such preferences have a connection to one's personality development. When I was a kid, I liked the balance of even numbers like two and four. Then, for years it was three, an odd number with a lot of symbolism. Now, it's 11, two parallel lines, neat and clean but also an interesting odd number. When I happen to look at the clock at 11:11, I take that as a sign of good luck. So it is with 10/10/10. There's a symmetry there, a pleasing pattern, that appeals to me. Today was a good day, in more ways than one (zero, one, zero, one, zero).

The power of two
is the key to today's date,
and of course, to love.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

October 9: Portland

My husband and I are spending the night in Portland in anticipation of having to be in Kennebunkport tomorrow for him to do a reading at the library there. So we're enjoying some time in Maine's biggest city, remembering what it was like to be young and living in places a little more cosmopolitan than Camden, Maine... Not that we don't love my hometown!

While Paul got a haircut at his favorite hair salon in the state, The Men's Room, I scored three awesome cashmere sweaters at Material Objects, my favorite consignment shop in the state. We had chai at Arabica and read the Portland Phoenix, learning about all the groovy events taking place around here that we were going to miss--Indigo Girls at Merrill Auditorium!--and joined the diverse crowds milling around the cobble streets and funky old brick buildings in the Old Port on a sunny Saturday on a holiday weekend. While I don't want to live here, sometimes I just need the social and cultural refreshment of visiting this small urban pocket in our largely rural state. The people-watching alone is a revelation, better than reading a fashion magazine.

For dinner we tried a fairly new Thai place near Longfellow Square called Boda: rich, Thai-style iced tea, crispy squid, skewers of figs wrapped in bacon, beef panaeng (beef with a curry and coconut milk sauce and jasmine rice), pork stuffed jalapenos, and crab fried rice.
Now we're in our room lying on the bed like beached whales, listening to traffic, sirens, and the occasional jet overhead, sated and happy from our few hours on the streets of the Port City.

City: traffic, noise,
food, coffee shops, buses, gulls,
ships, sirens, people.

Friday, October 8, 2010

October 8: Milkweed Fluff

This afternoon dark clouds rolled in on a wave of high winds, obscuring the sun. One minute crows were calmly grazing on the lawn. The next, birch trees were swaying wildly and the crows had spun into the air and sailed away. The air swirled with loose leaves that had been all ready to fall, along with what looked like snow flakes. I had heard this front coming in was supposed to bring us a chilly evening, but snow seemed a bit extreme.

I quickly realized that the answer blowing in the wind was milkweed fluff. Some of the many milkweed pods in the yard had begun to desiccate and crack open. The silken threads that carry the seeds far and wide were caught up in the strong gusts of wind and blown into the air in multiple explosions of starry white fluff--a gentle precursor of snow falls to come.

In trying to find a more scientific name for milkweed fluff, I learned some useful and interesting things. The silk seed "parachutes" are apparently waterproof. Also, they've been collected and used for centuries to stuff pillows and mattresses. During World War Two, kids amassed huge quantities of them to fill coats and life jackets for soldiers. A spinner says the fluff can be spun into a fine thread. I knew milkweed was valuable as part of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. But who knew how useful it could be for humans? In this age of synthetic fibers, I guess such knowledge is easily lost. In any case, it seems most people just refer to milkweed fluff as "fluff."

Hard to imagine
how this snow shower of fluff
will become a field.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October 7: Thank you, Rainbow

When one is a professional development officer for a nonprofit, responsible for raising money in this difficult economy, not every day at work is a walk in the park. Actually, some days are, literally. Some days I get to hike the land trust's preserves with donors--those are days that I love my job. But today, despite some bright points, by late afternoon I was feeling tired and discouraged. And when it started to rain yet again, that didn't boost my mood. But then, the sun suddenly came out, shining through the rain, and a brief rainbow arched over Mount Battie:
OK, granted by the time I ran outside to take this photograph it had already started to fade, so you can barely see it here. But the sight of that ephemeral band of colors, touching down in the autumn-tinted forest beyond the river and backed by a cheery blue sky, lifted my spirits. Some days that's all it takes. And some days it takes more than that, so today I feel especially fortunate. 
Yes, it's a cliche--
rainbow as symbol of hope.
But it worked for me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October 6: Local Color

On this dark, bleak, rainy night, I'm thankful we figured out earlier why our furnace hasn't been working for a few days. Now the heat's back on, but that's not enough to satisfy my soul. My hair's still wet. I'm wearing black. My husband's wearing black. What I really need are light and color.

There's something about the warm colors of fall that nourish the spirit as the forest begins to shut down for winter. They keep us going. Yesterday I took a few photos on sunlit Ragged Mountain of some fallen leaves and a group of bright orange, pixie-sized mushrooms. The mushrooms reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of clothing, a tangerine-colored down jacket that I wear almost year-round. I'm not sure what it says about my personality that what was once my least favorite hue--orange--is now one of those I'm most drawn to. I think the jacket's color warms me as much as the garment itself.
And favorite jacket aside, it was a cool-looking little cluster of fungi tucked amid fall's first tossed off bits of clothing. Soon enough the trees will be stark, naked, with only the remnants of their hot attire strewn riotously about. The autumn forest is a wild party.

Fall's a wild party,
one last orgy of color
leaving all naked.
Guess these leaves are inspiring--my friend Brian coincidentally posted a similar photo with his blog post today too.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October 5: Fall Fowl

As I was leaving work tonight, ducks quacked, flying past me up the river. I felt I'd come full circle since the morning.

My day began with a huddled cluster of roadside turkeys, presumably chowing down on fallen acorns. Five turkey vultures flushed from a tree over my car, as well, their dark, bulky bodies making it easy to understand how the bird got its name. Until it starts soaring, it looks an awful lot like a turkey. Once it takes wing, though, the vulture possesses a grace that the more gangly fowl just can't muster.

On a brief morning hike with a co-worker among the beeches and maples of Ragged Mountain, I heard a flock of geese pass overhead. Though leaves shielded the birds from sight, the sound alone was stirring (though it reminded my co-worker of a skirmish he'd had this morning with his ornery rooster).

Back at the office, we found a lone Canada goose hanging out on the lawn. It let me approach quite closely, not hissing at me like a typical wild goose would. Concerned that it might be ill, despite looking well-fed and moving easily, I called Ken Bailey, Lake Warden and Executive Director of the Megunticook Watershed Association. I explained that we had acquired a pet goose at the office and were wondering if it was a happy goose or not. "Oh, it's a happy goose alright," he replied, in a tone that let me know I was in for a good story. Apparently this particular goose had been taken to Avian Haven, the bird rehabilitation facility in Freedom, because it was found weak and emaciated on Freedom Pond. The young goose had some parasites, but was quickly nursed back to good health. When the time came to release it, however, Diane and Marc of Avian Haven didn't want to take it back to Freedom Pond. The goose--as we saw at my office--had become very used to people and would not have survived long on the well-hunted pond. So the decision was made to release it on the Megunticook River, where hunting is not allowed. Ken suggested that the best thing to do would be to herd the bird back into the river. So after I hung up, I went out and walked behind the goose, which calmly allowed me to herd it across the lawn, over the bank, and into the water. Hanging out on the lawn with a goose gave me pleasant flashbacks to my childhood, when I spent a lot of time with my grandparents' pet domestic goose Max. But even Max would peck at my legs and hiss at me on occasion. This goose was very mellow. As it silently drifted upriver, I wished it luck, told it to find some fellow geese and learn how to be wild again, and went back in to work.

Near the end of the day the goose was back on the lawn, feeding in the grass at the edge of the office parking lot. A co-worker shooed it back into the river. Hopefully some other geese will come along soon, adopt this youngster into their flock, and honk some sense into it.

Once more, geese fly south.
Their honking sounds jubilant.
So why am I sad?

Monday, October 4, 2010

October 4: Spot of Red

My visual touchstone on the east side of the office today was a small patch of red maple leaves so vivid that they made surrounding red leaves on the mountainside look dull. The leaves have just begun turning here in coastal Maine, so soon this bright little foliage brush fire will soon set the whole mountain aflame. But for now, it keeps catching my eye, this bindi on the forehead of Mount Battie, this burning bush revealing the revelation of autumn.
Mountain catches fire
leaf by leaf, a slow passion.
I see red all day.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

October 3: Autumn Light

I love this time of year when the rich light enhances the changing colors of the foliage. My back yard is looking rather unkempt these days, spangled with dead leaves and fallen branches here and there from a recent storm. I need to wind up the clothesline for the season, put away the lawn furniture. While I was away, the ash tree and a few of the maples began phasing into their yellow plumage. The low sun filters through the leaves, wantonly dappling them with light. And so it begins, the bittersweet season of beauty and death...

Late afternoon light.
Gold flash of a leaf falling
into the river.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

October 2: Last Day on Monhegan

My last day on Monhegan was a brilliant one, making me feel heartsick to leave the place I love so much, even though all my friends left before me. The lobster season began this morning with fireworks and fanfare, falcons soared overhead all day, and everything gleamed in that way it does when rich autumn sunlight shines on everything that was washed clean by fog and last night's storm.
The island recedes.
Sparkling wake and swirl of gulls.
End of vacation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October 1: Limbo

Today we weren't expecting to spend much time outside at all. A big storm was predicted. Ferries were cancelled. Trap Day--the opening day of Monhegan's lobster fishing season, which was supposed to start today--was postponed. The wharf is filled with stacks of traps piled five high, a maze of colorful wire, rope, and buoys. Half a dozen lobster boats bob in the harbor, loaded with traps, waiting for tomorrow morning.

We wandered around in the fog waiting for the rain to start so we'd have no excuse not to put away the binoculars and finally take a nap or read that long-neglected book. But instead the fog burned off and the sky brightened. We ate pizza al fresco (for about the seventh day in a row). Now the fog has moved back in and the wind has picked up. It feels like rain again. Tomorrow my friends and I are leaving the island on different boats. It's our last full day, and already that bittersweet sense of what it will be like to leave behind this idyll of birds, good friends, and incredible natural beauty has begun to take root. By tomorrow half my brain will be thinking ahead to what I need to get done when I step off the boat and head home. But today, no matter which way the weather turns and how few birds I see, I'm doing my best to be fully here.

Sun breaks through fog late.
Roar of the surf reminds us
of imminent storm.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 30: Webs

Monhegan grows some huge spiders. I'm told that most of the monsters I've come across out here are garden spiders, "like Charlotte." That still doesn't prevent me from shivering a little each time I come across one, which is often. In the morning when the dew is on the webs, you can easily see how many spiders have set up shop, their webs strewn among the spruce boughs like scraps of the finest lace. In a barberry bush next to the entrance to one building, four giant spiders with bodies the size and shape of strawberries have woven their webs, one behind the other. Last night when the spiders were on their webs and the strands shone, it gave the little colony an eerie three-dimensional effect. The owner of the inn is fond of one right outside her office window. She says she sometimes watches her (as with falcons, the female is larger than the male)for long periods of time instead of working. I can admire their handicraft and their good work keeping down the fly population, though I don't want to get too close to the creatures themselves. The other night a spider the size of a small rodent crept across the porch. Funny how I wouldn't have been bothered if it had been a mouse, but it being a spider freaked me out.

Complacent spider
oblivious to my fear
mends her perfect web.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29: 100

A haiku composed by my friend Amy Lake this morning on Monhegan:

In a parlor lit
six friends meet to play with tiles.
Laughter is the game.

This morning, after an evening spent playing Bananagrams by kerosene lamp in the Trailing Yew dining room, I was lucky enough to see trip bird species #100: a blue grosbeak. We had just admired a pretty juvenile white-crowned sparrow in a burning bush, its ruddy crown contrasting with the maroon leaves, when my birding buddy Bill spotted it in nearby bushes. A regular fall visitor to the island in small numbers, this large finch is not sporting its dramatic summer blue plumage. This time of year it's a warm, rich brown, distinguishable from all the other brown birds out there in the shrubbery by buff wing bars and large bill. A good find, which we were able to share with many--a big group came along soon thereafter and we all watched it at the top of an apple tree. Photos by my friend Brian to come...

It's all in the quest--
walking damp trails all morning
for that one quick glimpse.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28: Highlights

At the end of a day of birding, we sometimes ask each other, "What was your best bird today?" There's often some rarity or life bird that's an obvious choice. Today, it would be a toss up between another, close viewing of the yellow-throated warbler and a first sighting of a yellow-throated vireo, possibly a new Monhegan species for me. But what I really think about when I look back on the day are little highlights that can make even the most ordinary bird linger in my memory long after the lists and tallies for the day are forgotten. Like the rufous feathers on the wing of the swamp sparrow. Or the yellow spectacles of the yellow-throated vireo. Or the bright green body of the Tennesee warbler that caught the sunlight at the tip of an apple tree. Or the bright white squadron of a line of gannets passing over the surf of Lobster Cove first thing in the morning...

Blackbird's pale eye set
in cocoa face--the beauty
of subtle colors.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27: Yellow-throated Warbler

A couple of days ago a birder I know reported a yellow-throated warbler down by the Ice Pond here on Monhegan. I didn't see it then, but today we happened to be in the right place at the right time. The grey drizzle did not dim the glow of this bright little bird, although in the Maine chill this Southern species must have been wishing it was someplace else. A black and grey streaked warbler with a vivd yellow throat, this species shows up every few years here on the island. The only one I've seen outside of Florida was here, five years ago, in a lilac bush about five feet from my face. A memorable birding moment. Today's sighting was equally memorable, with the striking bird right out in the open on a branch of a plum bush, surrounded by fat purple beach plums.

Stray Southern warbler
in rain, on island plum bush.
We all long for sun.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

September 26: Peregrines at Play

A chilly north wind is blowing through the island right now, making birding a bit harsh. For some reason, though, lots of goldfinches are flying around. And falcons. While typing this on the lawn of the Yew, half a dozen merlins have zipped past and two have landed at the tip of a spruce tree about 100 yards away from our little cocktail hour gathering. We've seen a few kestrels, as well. But the most fun was watching two peregrines soaring over Manana Island. They were joined at one point by as many as four ravens, which they chased without serious intent. A flock of goldfinches flew across the harbor at one point, were chased by a peregrine, and quickly flew back to safety. The speed at which the world's fastest animal plays is breathtaking; we watched transfixed for almost half an hour. The birds would soar, barely moving a feather, and then suddenly transfix on something and go after it, just for fun. Even after we stopped watching with full focus and walked up to the lighthouse, every now and then we'd look out to Manana and see one falcon still dipping and diving over the island horizon.

Despite the cold wind
we watch them for a long time,
free-wheeling falcons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

September 25: Not Birding

Except for a couple of hours before my friend Diane arrived on the first boat, most of today I was not birding more than very casually. Instead, I reveled in girl time with Diane and Amy. After a long lunch al fresco at The Novelty, we hiked out to Burnt Head, sharing stories, admiring flowers, butterflies, and flickers, and laughing our heads off. As the surf pounded below us, we lounged on the rocks in the sun and just enjoyed being there together. Now I really feel like I'm on vacation. It was hard to wave goodbye to Diane as she left on the last boat on this still-perfect afternoon.

How can we not laugh?
Three women on Monhegan
in the sun, cliff's edge.

Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24: Anticipation

Last night at about 3 a.m., the full moon shone into my window bright enough to make it look like dawn was breaking. I woke up and, as often happens, could not fall back asleep. My periodic insomnia is always worse when I'm on a birding vacation. I start thinking about what I might see the next morning, hoping the wind shifted to carry in a fresh fall-out of warblers by dawn. I think about the birds I missed. I start to anticipate the morning--the early light on the harbor, mist rising off the meadow, flocks of small birds in the spruces... And I make myself more and more awake with the growing belief that today I will find a really cool bird or two.

About an hour later I got up and realized it was raining. When I came back to bed, I fell asleep with a weird feeling of relief, knowing that I wouldn't have to jump out of bed in an hour so as not to miss anything. When I did wake up, half an hour before the breakfast bell, I hit the trails, and almost immediately found a new species for this trip, a black-and-white warbler. Not an uncommon species usually, but elusive these past three days.

After breakfast, one of the first birds I found was a red-headed woodpecker--the first reported out here this season and the first I've seen in several years. In other words, a cool bird. And later today I was shown three black skimmers on Nigh Duck, the little island just outside Monhegan harbor--a first for me in Maine, let alone on Monhegan. I guess sometimes those middle-of-the-night feelings of anticipation are right on.

Awake with the moon
I anticipate the day
ahead--gifts of birds!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23: Question Mark

In addition to all the avian activity on Monhegan this time of year, you can't help but notice the butterflies as well. The wild purple asters especially are graced with the colorful beauty of monarchs, red admirals, painted ladies, skippers, clouded sulfurs, cabbage whites, and my favorite, the question mark. It can be mesmerizing to focus closely on a butterfly as it flits among the flowers, then lands, its wings slowly opening and closing as it sucks nectar and then lifts off to find the next perfect bloom.

I found my first question mark of the trip today while scrounging for birds. When I pointed it out to a fellow birder, he remarked that the fringed edge of its wings are the same pale purple as the aster it was feeding upon. Most of the upper wings are an elaborate pattern of bright orange and burnt umber with brown spots, with "frilly" lavender edges. The underwings are pale and brownish, like a dried fall leaf, with a mark on the lower wing in the shape of a question mark.

Often I come across these graceful insects feeding on rotten apples--a striking contrast of what is lovely alongside what is not. Or rather, what is lovely drawing sustenance from what is not.
Question mark feeding
on rotten apples: beauty's
brevity on show?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22: Island Night

The chirp of crickets blends with the background roar of the surf, punctuated by the occasional moan of the foghorn and the intermittent chime of a bell buoy just offshore. Today is day one of my annual fall vacation on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. I'm sitting in the dark on the lawn of my inn, the Trailing Yew, admiring the patterns of the clouds backlit by a full moon--the first full moon of autumn--while behind me the lighthouse beam sweeps the meadow. Earlier I saw a bat fluttering in the twilight. Now birds are calling as they fly overheard, about to head out over open ocean to continue southward.

It's been a full day so far and this is really my first moment alone. A crowded boat left Port Clyde this morning on rough seas. While the deep swells didn't bother me, many on the boat did not fare well. My friend Amy met my boat, and from then on it was a wonderful swirl of catching up with old friends and meeting new ones--all while trying to see a few migrating birds. The birding is a bit quiet right now, but the birding social scene is hopping.

Now it's bedtime, so I can rise early tomorrow and hit the trails in earnest, looking for warblers, sparrows, and hawks, the avian highlights of the season. As Calvin from "Calvin and Hobbes" once put it, "The days are just packed."

Once by this full moon
I hiked with friends through night woods
to surf-churned Burnt Head.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21: Flocks of Flickers

On this eve of the Autumnal Equinox, fall is making its arrival felt. For the first time I noticed a few patches of red amid the green carpeting the Mount Megunticook ridge. Mornings are chilly. And migrating flickers are everywhere. I think I saw or heard one every time I went out the office door. I heard them while enjoying lunch on a friend's porch in the lovely late summer sun in Rockport. I saw their white-patched rumps bobbing into the bushes here and there as I ran errands and watched one eating berries from a bush at one stop. And to top it off this flicker-full day, a friend sent me a beautiful photo he'd recently taken of a flicker:
Photo by Karl Gerstenberger: kegerstenberger.zenfolio.com
Derek Lovitch, a bird biologist based in Freeport, keeps track of migrating birds passing over Sandy Point, on Cousins Island in Yarmouth. He actually counts everything he sees each morning he's there. His previous high count of flickers on a single morning during fall migration was 105. This morning's total, during what Derek refers to as an "EPIC, Record-shattering Sandy Point Morning Flight": 1,092! Flickers made up the highest percentage of all the birds that flew over, with 334 cedar waxwings bringing up a distant second. So flickers are on the move en masse, and the falcons are right behind them... Can you feel that energy in the air?

Last day of summer.
Flocks of flickers flee the fall,
falcons on their tails.

Monday, September 20, 2010

September 20: On the Trail

Part of my day was spent tromping around various forested properties in Stockton Springs, Searsport, and Hope. At one stop, we hiked on an old logging road that now made a perfect trail through patches of dense deciduous forest mixed with stands of white pine that lent their strong fragrance to the crisp morning air. As we carefully stepped over a clump of blackberry bushes that were lying in disarray across the trail, my boss noted that a bear had probably made that mess while going after the berries. Further down the trail, I came across some scat filled with berry seeds that we agreed was that of either a bear or a large, berry-eating coyote. These were real woods. On the return walk, while paying attention to my footing, it seemed like every few yards a woolly bear caterpillar was curled up among the leaf litter. That time of year.

The clear blue sky, a few patches of early red maple leaves, and, once, a bald eagle soaring overhead made for some distraction from what was on the trail. But I was struck by how much could be seen by paying attention to what was right underfoot.

Already, red leaves
falling, animals thinking
of hibernation.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19: Merlin

In the King Arthur stories, Merlin the magician is the one who makes things happen. He sets the story in motion. In Weskeag Marsh, the merlin also sets things in motion--namely other birds, harassing them and generally creating chaos wherever it flies. It was quiet when I arrived at the marsh this morning around high tide, with just a handful of sandpipers shifting in the pannes and a line-up of snowy egrets in the distance. But friends I met there had earlier watched a peregrine falcon carry off a yellowlegs--a rather large sandpiper--and had also seen a merlin, a smaller falcon, zip through.

So when I set out onto the flooded, mucky path winding through the marsh grass between the pannes and canals, I kept an eye out. Fairly quickly I spotted the peregrine on a big dead tree that seems to be the favorite perch of peregrines, perhaps resting after digesting its big meal. Downriver a kingfisher perched on the right side of a duck blind, an array of snowy egrets in the water nearby. As I focused on my footing, trying to get further out into the marsh in hopes of seeing more birds, I heard the kingfisher's rattling call. Looking up, I noticed that the bird perched on the right side of the duck blind was now a small brown falcon. The kingfisher was now perched on the left side of the blind. The merlin must have decided it wanted that side and chased off the kingfisher, which held its ground enough to at least remain on the blind. They stayed in that detente arrangement for several minutes as I made my way further into the marsh.

Later I happened to notice that the kingfisher had left the blind for a fence post. A few posts away sat the merlin. I wondered if it had moved over there just to bug the kingfisher. Merlins are like that. For a bird of prey, it's small, about the size of a kingfisher, actually, but fierce beyond its size. A merlin will make a pass at just about anything--a gull, an eagle, a peregrine. It knows no fear, and its speed and size make it a difficult target for retaliation. At one point the peregrine left the snag and gave chase to something in the marsh, and the merlin somehow got involved. It was difficult to say which bird was chasing which, but the peregrine came up with nothing and the merlin went back to a fence post.

It remained there until I had left the marsh. Before I got in my car, I scanned one more time. And there was the merlin, darting over the marsh. A couple of crows noticed, as well, and loudly took up chase. The birds disappeared into the pines bordering the marsh. When they emerged, it looked like the merlin had turned the tables and was chasing the crows. They went around and around in the trees until the feisty merlin flew off to harass something else.

Merlin chasing crows
never doubts himself. For him
size doesn't matter.

Interested in learning a little more about merlins? Check out this recent post on merlins (with beautiful accompanying photos) by my birder friend Bryan Pfeiffer, who is currently out on Monhegan.