Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 28: Florid Birds

There's nothing like some tropical color to lift the spirits. We spent most of today soaking up sun and local color at "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge here on Sanibel Island: herons of all shapes and sizes, white ibises, wood storks, brown and white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, ospreys, shorebirds, ducks, gulls... We took it all in--ibis's scarlet bill, yellow-crowned night-heron's golden eye, snowy egret's "golden slippers," spoonbill's unreal pink--and then capped off our day with an incredible sunset over a sandy beach on the Gulf. One of those days that's difficult to put into words, so I'll throw in a few photos after my haiku:

Don't hide those hot pinks
amid twisted mangrove roots--
bring us rose glasses.

White Ibis
Snowy Egret

Roseate Spoonbills

Saturday, February 27, 2010

February 27: Arrival in Florida

We are currently enjoying evening one of our week on the southwest Gulf Coast of Florida. Since we arrived in the dark, our only clues that we're not in Maine anymore, Toto, were the roadside palm trees and the flat landscape. Clear night skies, too--Mars straight overhead and a bright waxing moon. It's unseasonably cool--mid-60s now--but compared to the Northeast, we aren't complaining.

We'll spend our first three nights on Sanibel Island, a place we've enjoyed in the past very much despite the touristy build-up over the years. You reach the island via a modern toll bridge, but a friend has told us of the good old days when you had to take a ferry to get here. The lighthouse blinked to the south as we crossed the bridge in the dark, and then we turned onto the main drag to get to our little motel, a typical beachy place with a giant bed and a tiny bathroom, within striking range of a restaurant where Paul has indulged in the past in the all-you-can-eat shrimp special. True to form, he consumed three rounds tonight and we both left happy.

The seas, as best as we could tell, looked calm here--it's so strange to think of the tsunamis hitting Chile, Mexico, Hawaii. How blessed we are to be here with few worries, blithely planning a day of birding, beach, and maybe some fishing for Paul tomorrow.

Wake to snow in Maine.
By miracles of travel,
palm trees in the dark.

Friday, February 26, 2010

February 26: Aftermath

Two of my co-workers driving in this morning on Route 105 had to pass under a fallen tree that was only held up by power lines. One of them didn't have power when he left home. Many homes in Camden also don't have power, and Internet service is down at the office, my house, and according to Time Warner, "all across Maine and New Hampshire." Roofs blew off buildings in Rockland. Tree limbs of all sizes lie scattered across the landscape, wreckage everywhere. My neighbors lawn once again hosts an intermittent branch of the river. The deluge of rain washed away almost all the remaining snow, leaving behind muddy lawns full of sodden leaves, road gravel, and wind-blown bits of trash. It's not a pretty sight.

But as I drove to the library (for an Internet connection), a big patch of placid blue sky peeked out from behind the clouds. The harbor, too, seems to be at rest now. A hint of calm after the chaos.

The sky's calm blue eye
looks down on this mess below,
unblinking, removed.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25: Waterfall

When I was a kid, I loved to be allowed to stay up late and watch "Fantasy Island." I loved the combination of drama and magic, knowing each couple would leave the island with everything all worked out thanks to the mysterious powers of the dashing, exotic Ricardo Montalban.

Driving below the western slope of Mount Battie this afternoon in the (still) pouring rain, I noticed a torrent of water streaming down the steep rocky slope to fall on the talus below. I was immediately brought back to the opening credits of "Fantasy Island"--the aerial view of the island that featured a breathtakingly long waterfall cascading through the lush green tropical forest. The bare, cold rock face of Mount Battie is hardly equivalent to that snapshot of Hawaii I used to savor every Thursday night. But for just a moment, Mount Battie offered up an epic bit of landscape.

Rock-skin shedding rain,
day's dramas washing away--
mountain waterfall.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 24: Snowdrops

Photo by David Paloch via Wikipedia Commons.

I didn't see the flowers myself, but a woman I was visiting today said that snowdrops were already blooming in the shelter of her house. She also said that she'd discovered little Johnny-jump-ups still blooming under a thin crust of snow. Outside her window, a continuous stream of chickadees buzzed her bird feeder and cracked open seeds in the shelter of a rain-darkened apple tree. Rain washed the windows. The chill drear of the weather made the rocking chair set by her old cast-iron cookstove feel like the most perfect place in the world to be at that moment.

Her son had been out on the lake on his four-wheeler earlier that day, and she'd been very anxious for him--our recent warm, wet weather has made the ice rotten and unpredictable in spots. But now he was back on land, safe for the day. I noticed some ice fishermen standing out on the ice in the pouring rain, waiting for their flags to pop up. Not quite sure what the fun is in that. Maybe it was made exciting by the tinge of danger offered by the wide strip of water that had opened up along the shore's edge.

One of my neighbors around the corner tells me that she too has snowdrops blooming near her mailbox, and that come spring she'll divide some to share with me so that next spring I too can enjoy the wonder of flowers blooming while there's still snow on the ground.

Snowdrops in the mud.
Last fishermen on the lake
brave the rotten ice.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 23: Red Birds

A twelve-hour workday doesn't leave a lot of creative brain energy left. I just got home, and all I want to do is go straight to bed. But first, this haiku...

The highlights of my day: a cardinal wolf-whistling from the bushes when I got out my car at the office this morning, and a rosy-breasted robin cluck-cluck-clucking away from the top of a tree when I left the office for a series of meetings late this afternoon. My daylight hours were bracketed by these red birds, and despite random flurries of snow throughout the day, I couldn't help but think of the birds as signs of spring.

Chortling robin,
lusty, lipstick red cardinal,
unfazed by snow squalls.

Monday, February 22, 2010

February 22: Gray

Color of the sky: soft billows of cloud starting to darken with rain. And the river, rushing onward in the flat gunmetal light of the afternoon. And my cashmere sweater, donned today to soothe my spirit after I woke up feeling tired, cranky, and achey but not quite sick. Gray has always been my favorite color to wear when I need a lift, my comfort clothing. To accompany comfort food, which tonight will be macaroni and cheese with lobster bits mixed in. 

In this mood on this kind of day, I think of the James Taylor song "Another Grey Morning" from his album "JT," the first record I ever bought. A portion of the lyrics, which capture a gray mood so poignantly: 
She hears the baby crying downstairs
She hears the foghorn calling out across the sound
Repetition in the morning air
Is just too much to bear
And no one seems to care
If another day goes creeping by
Empty and ashamed
Like an old unwanted memory
That no one will claim
The clouds with their heads on the ground
She's gonna have to come down

The woman in that song is clearly depressed, and I most definitely am not, but I'm tired enough that I can sort of relate. I left work a couple of hours early today to take a nap and recharge a little, to make it through the rest of my work week--because it's not good when you're exhausted and it's only Monday. So now I'm going to curl up in my sleeping bag with my snoring old cat and let my thoughts drift away with the day's last gray light. The clouds look like they would make good pillows.

Not winter, not spring,
not sunny but not raining--
year's gray area.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 21: Merganser Trifecta

Because he had surgery recently, my birding buddy Brian wasn't up for any hardcore hiking today. So instead he suggested a drive down the St. George peninsula to Port Clyde, via Weskeag Marsh in South Thomaston, to see what we might see. Other than a lone bald eagle soaring over the marsh, our biggest excitement of the day was seeing all three merganser species: hooded, red-breasted, and common. You know you're a true bird nerd when this is a day's highlight. But this is probably one of the few times of the year when this is feat may be accomplished. The hooded mergansers we saw are probably early migrants or strays from just south of here--they don't normally hang out in this area through winter. And while the hooded and common "mergs" both nest in Maine during the summer, the red-breasted merganser breeds far north of here. So today was our lucky day in this in-between, cross-over season for these diving ducks.

First, we stopped at Weskeag Marsh, where Brian spotted three female hooded mergansers in the river in the company of three black ducks. Before the eagle flew over and spooked them, we got good looks at their pretty brown crests, which were raised like feathered fans. I couldn't help but think of coy maidens of the bygone era when the way a woman deployed her fan conveyed more than words to a would-be suitor. Unfortunately there were no males around flashing their big white crests in return, so Brian and I were their only admirers.
Male hooded merganser with hood raised. 
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, courtesy of Benutzer: BS Thurner Hof.

The red-breasted merganser was a lone male off Marshall Point in Port Clyde. The red-breasted merg is notable for the crazy punk hairdo of its shaggy crest, which looks downright unruly compared to the smoother, rounder head of the common merg. In both species the female has rusty reddish-brown head feathers, while the male's head is green. Our common merganser was a solitary female spotted near two common goldeneyes off Drift Inn Beach in Martinsville. This sighting, which completed our trifecta, was unusual because common mergs don't usually hang out in the ocean. But there she was. And we were happy.

Even the spring ducks
wave fans, rearrange their hair,
trying to attract.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

February 20: Birthday

Both my feet are now firmly planted in middle-age: today I'm 43. My family has fortunately always been one to celebrate special days, rather than mourn getting a year older, so I'm OK with this. And I couldn't have asked for a nicer day on the anniversary of my birth--blue sky, the river sparkling in the sun, temps in the 40s, chickadees singing their love songs in the bare branches. My mother tells me I was born during a blizzard, so by comparison this is a virtual spring to commemorate what might perhaps be called the late summer of my life. I'll take it. Beats the alternative, in terms of both weather and life.

As you get older, people make much less of a big deal about your birthday unless it's a milestone year. My husband was working all day, so I had no real plans other than a visit with a friend recovering from recent surgery and dinner out tonight with my husband and parents at Lily Bistro. Future plans to connect with friends will drag out the celebration a bit, but I think it'll be another seven years before I'm getting a real party.

So I have to say, as much as people criticize electronic technology for depersonalizing our relationships, e-mail and Facebook have totally made my birthday a funny kind of virtual party. I received maybe half a dozen moving e-mails today from family and friends (including a wonderful horoscope telling me that, like Poland in 1918, the return of my sovereignty in imminent). And I've gotten a gazillion good wishes on Facebook--from family and friends all over the country, including one currently in the Galapagos Islands. Sure, Facebook is reminding them that today is my birthday. And OK, a couple of them I hardly know. But they didn't have to say anything. Most of my birthday wishes were sincere and heartfelt sentiments from friends from whom I would otherwise not have heard from in the normal course of events. I felt the positive vibes. This is a good thing. Thank you, everyone! (And for all of you who wished me good birds, I hope to take advantage of that tomorrow.)

Also, my mother called to sing "Happy Birthday" to me, which she does every year. It's not really my birthday till I get that morning call from Mom.

One year older now,
I'm still a child when Mom sings,
grateful to be here.

Update: Right after posting this, my sister and niece called to sing "Happy Birthday" to me too--another gift!

Friday, February 19, 2010

February 19: On the Cusp

Today is the last day of the astrological birth-sign Aquarius, the Water Bearer. Tomorrow, my birthday, is the first day of Pisces, the Fish. When you're born on the first or last day of a particular sign, you're considered "on the cusp," possessing traits of both signs. While I think for the most part I'm a typical Pisces--introverted, creative, sensitive--I can also be extroverted and very rational like an Aquarius. (On the Myers-Briggs personality test, I scored equally for I, introverted, and E, extroverted.) And although I take a lot of this astrology stuff with a grain of salt, I have always felt that dichotomy in myself of the creative vs. the intellectual, and the passionate, emotional person vs. the obsessive control freak. (Though, really, we probably all do!)

Pisces the Fish is a water sign, of course, governed by the planet Neptune (Neptune being the classical Roman god of the sea), and I've always felt an alignment with water and the ocean. (Growing up on the coast of Maine plays no small part in that, as well.) Interestingly, though, the Water Carrier Aquarius is a "fixed" air sign. I guess it makes sense that you would want something fixed to hold something flowing.

My being born "on the cusp" of these two different but somehow congruent signs might explain in part why I collect pitchers. I learned on Wikipedia that in Hindu astrology, Aquarius is kumbha or pitcher. I have no idea what attracts me to pitchers--perhaps the fact that they can be beautiful, works of art sometimes, but are also vessels with practical value as holders of liquids. The act of pouring from a pitcher is a lovely, graceful gesture. Being part Water Bearer and part water sign, perhaps it seems only natural that I would be drawn to pitchers in this way. I think in general that I connect strongly with things that are both aesthetically pleasing and useful--frivolous tchotchkes don't do much for me unless they have some personal meaning in and of themselves.

While of course several of my pitchers feature birds, one of my other favorites is the fish one in the center.

In a graceful arc
water flows from a pitcher;
words pour from my mouth.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February 18: Stained Glass

I attended a reception today for my friend, glass artist Janet Redfield, at the University of Maine's Hutchinson Center in Belfast, to celebrate the recent installation of her 49-foot stained and fused glass piece in the Center's lobby. The back wall of the lobby--what you see across the room when you enter the building--is all windows. Janet's piece, which took her six months to complete, borders the top of that entire section. The two interwoven wavy blue lines represent the two main rivers of Belfast: the Passagassawakeag and Little Rivers. The Passy opens into Belfast Harbor, while Janet tells me that the Little River was the City of Belfast's first drinking water supply. The circles within are abstract. Janet likes to play with color and shape, and wanted to create visual joy within the dynamic, organic lines of the waters that literally brought the city to life. Now, students coming into the Center for classes can't help but notice this incredible panorama of light and color and glass stretching in front of them. They're confronted by art, by something beautiful to brighten their day, perhaps even inspire them, whether they want it or not--you've got to love that.

Intertwined rivers
of glass, interplay of light--
vivid stuff of life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 17: Mob Scene, Part Two

A tree full of crows caught my eye this morning. While driving through Rockport on Route One, I noticed a big bunch of crows--technically, a murder of crows--scattered through the roadside woods. So I could see what all the fuss was about without causing an accident, I quickly and prudently pulled over for a closer look. I was able to walk a short way off the road into the trees, where I soon realized that there were more crows than I had originally thought. As best as I could count, 40 or more crows had gathered in this one little area, some flying from tree to tree, some "barking," as crows do, others just hunkered down on a branch waiting for something to happen. None of them seemed frantic or alarmed. A large building blocked my full view of the woods, so short of climbing a tree for a crow's eye view, I can only imagine what they were all up to. All I know is that crows are always up to something. Which is why I love observing their comings and goings in my back yard and around my office. Well, that, and the fact that some days they are the only birds I see.

Owl courtship season has begun. These crows were not far from Merryspring Nature Park, where barred owls are often seen. So perhaps a few crows had found a hapless sleeping owl, sounded the alarm, and now they were all hanging out waiting to see who was going to make the first move. Or maybe they'd already harangued the owl enough to make it fly away, and now they were just rehashing yet one more cool victory over an evil raptor. Only the crows knew what was going on there, and they weren't telling in a language I could understand. O to fathom the mysteries of another species!

Of course, we can't even fathom the mysteries of our own species. But that's another story altogether.

An owl's daytime dreams
must be full of caws, black wings--
but does it notice?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

February 16: Calm Before the Storm

As I look out the window at the crisp cornflower blue sky, sun still shining, it seems hard to imagine that the next couple of days will be punctuated by a new spate of snowfall. Depending on what report you read, we're due to get anywhere from 3 to 8 inches. Other than a sudden flurry of chickadee activity at my bird feeder this morning, I've had no presentiment of bad weather on the way. The few clouds beginning to accumulate in the west seem fluffy and insubstantial as yet. If it weren't for TV or the Internet, the snow flurries that are supposed to begin later this afternoon would be taking me completely by surprise. If I had an outside job that required me to be more in tune with the elements--as a fisherman, for example--I'm sure I'd be noticing signs now that would be tipping me off to the impending storm. But most of us are out of touch with that knowledge these days. Most days my innate weather sense is limited to what I'm actually experiencing first-hand (and, also, if my arthritic thumb aches, it's probably cold outside). So tucked away safely in my office with no travel plans to get anxious about or frantic supermarket crowds to contend with, I can calmly enjoy these final hours of sunshine and blue sky--as well as look forward to soon seeing the winter landscape renewed.
Photo by Shannon Thompson

Placid, perfect sky
gives no hint of coming snow,
gives nothing away.

Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15: Snowshoe Hare

Around here, when we talk about wild rabbits--as in, "I'm going rabbit hunting with my beagles this weekend"--we aren't really talking about true rabbits. The only native Maine rabbit is the Eastern cottontail, which doesn't live this far north in the state. And even in southern Maine its numbers are severely declining. What we do have are snowshoe hares. Hares are not rabbits. Many of the differences are subtle, but basically the hare is larger, with bigger feet and longer legs, and its young are precocial--that is, they're born with fur and open eyes, unlike the more helpless rabbit kits. (Interesting side note: baby hares are called "leverets." Probably less interesting side note: this factoid once helped me pick up a cute Harvard guy at a party way back in my college days; he lived in Leverett House and was impressed that I knew what the word meant.)

The snowshoe hare also possesses the neat trick of growing in a new coat each fall, so that by winter it is all white (except for black ear tips) and can easily camouflage itself in the snow. As the snow starts to melt in spring, the grey fur grows back in patches so that the creature still blends in with the mottled ground cover. The cottontail doesn't do this, though its tail does look exactly like a white ball of cotton.

All that aside, old habits are hard to break. So for the rest of this post, every time I say "rabbit," know that I really mean "snowshoe hare."
Winter morph snowshoe hare. Photo courtesy of US Forest Service.

Rabbit tracks are the first animal track I ever learned. I distinctly remember my father pointing out to me the pattern of their tracks in the snow behind our house: two little indentations from the front feet and then prints of the longer, bigger hind-feet ahead of them in the snow. I was only about four, but I've never forgotten this lesson, in part because we see so many rabbit tracks criss-crossing the woods around here. And droppings, and nibbled young trees. By all accounts, we should see as many or more rabbits than we do deer. Yet I've only seen the occasional rabbit in the woods or dashing across a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

That's why I was so excited yesterday afternoon to see a rabbit bounding through the woods right across the trail in front of my friend Brian and me on Beech Hill. We had seen plenty of tracks in the snow. One day a few weeks ago we had even heard rabbit-hunting hounds in baying pursuit of their quarry, and a little later, gunshots. Between the two of us we've probably seen close to a hundred bird species on the hill. But neither of us had seen a rabbit there. And this one was almost entirely white, in prime winter pelage. If it hadn't run right in front of us, we'd never have seen it in the snowy woods. So it was a particularly gratifying sighting of this very common but elusive species: the "rabbit" / snowshoe hare.

Startled white rabbit,
the snow keeps all your secrets
except your flight path.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

February 14: Love Is in the Air

Today you might well ask, Who is St. Valentine and why has "his" day become a romantic holiday? Valentine's Day, drily described by Wikipedia as: "traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards," doesn't really seem like a holiday that would receive traditional Christian support. No one seems really sure exactly who Valentine was beyond his being a Roman Christian who may or may not have performed what were then illegal Christian marriages. There's the tenuous connection, I guess. Apparently Geoffrey Chaucer was the first one to reference St. Valentine's Day in English in his poem Parlement of Foules, which I mentioned yesterday. An excellent prose translation of this poem by Gerald NeCastro of the University of Maine footnotes this fact. So perhaps we have Chaucer to thank for the romantic tradition, which later bloomed more fully with the exchange of greeting cards in the Victorian era and has now become an excuse for couples to go out to dinner and buy each other sweets and florid cards with messages made up by a bunch of people in cubicles in Kansas City. (For sweets, I highly recommend Maine-made chocolates by Black Dinah Chocolatiers.)

In his poem, Chaucer defined Valentine's Day as the day when birds choose their mates. The poem itself is an entertaining discourse on love, in which the narrator falls asleep and is taken in a dream to the halls of Venus, where all the birds are gathered around waiting to pair up. You can imagine the noise level and sexual tension. The day's proceedings get off to a bad start when three eagles get into an argument over who gets to choose the comely female eagle perched on Venus's arm. The day drags on as other birds, anxious to find their mates, debate in parliamentary fashion how this decision should be made. The goose thinks the female should only go with a mate she really loves; the dove believes in being true to his mate until he dies, etc. Finally the female eagle asks if she can wait till next year to decide. All that debating apparently gave her a headache. I'm not sure if I would recommend this as a romantic poem to share with your lover today (Pablo Neruda and e.e. cummings, for example, have better love offerings), but it's a fun read--keeping in mind that I was an English major and "fun" might be a relative term.

Chaucer or not, just looking out my window I see signs that love is in the air. Squirrels spiral after each other around trunks, bushy tails waving enticements. The insistent "peter, peter" song of the titmice rings out through the trees. The male downy woodpecker knocks on the old birch tree, an early territorial announcement. And owl courtship season is fully underway--friends report that they've been hearing great horned owls this week in the woods around their house, and others have been seeing barred owls on the move. That restlessness that leads us slowly and agonizingly into spring has begun to stir in the woods as surely as the still-chilly breeze. Brace yourselves, everyone. This isn't an easy season.

Husband who chose me,
may our bond be as solid
as that of ravens.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

February 13: Mob Scene

As soon as I stepped out the door for my run this morning, I heard them: the yelling mob. Raising my eyes to the curve of Mount Battie--the profile of which seems to echo the arc of the earth's horizon--I saw them: a scattered pattern of darting crows. Just as I was thinking to myself, The red-tailed hawk must be up there, a red-tailed hawk soared up out of the swirl of black forms. As I watched, feeling a smug satisfaction at having so quickly figured out what was going on, another red-tail separated itself from the flock. I hadn't known there were two! For a moment I could see both hawks circling the squalling horde of crows, and then they all dipped behind the rim of the mountain.

I could still hear the crows as I began my run. My rather labored outing was punctuated by birds: cardinal's pip, chickadees, several singing house finches making it seem like spring, downy woodpecker, flock of doves, a herring gull carrying a chunk of bread, black duck flushed on the river, goldfinches, beeping chorus of nuthatches. As I warmed up from the exertion and sun, I allowed myself to feel really excited about spring for the first time and to imagine how I'll soon be hearing more and more birds on my run.

But I was also thinking about the hawks. A pair of hawks. I've been seeing a hawk regularly along the river from my office up the street. But I hadn't realized there was a pair. Two hawks wouldn't be hanging out together unless they were a couple. (I just remembered that Valentine's Day, tomorrow, is the traditional day when birds find their mates, according to Chaucer's Parlement of Foules. The red-tails apparently got a jump start on ritual.) A pair of hawks in the vicinity of Mount Battie has some interesting implications for other resident raptors--including the pair of peregrine falcons that have nested  on Mount Megunticook for the past three years. They should be back in early spring, by April. And I think they'll have something to say about having red-tails as neighbors. Red-tailed hawks might be bigger, bulkier birds, but I'd bet on that avian torpedo, the peregrine, against just about any other raptor out there. So things could get interesting in the 'hood come spring. And the ever-vigilant crows will have even more to get worked up about.

Two hawks mobbed by crows--
the things one has to endure
as a mated pair.

Friday, February 12, 2010

February 12: Friday

It's been a long work week, and while I don't usually pull the "TGIF" thing, for some reason I'm particularly happy that this week is over. Not that I don't enjoy my job. To the contrary, I accomplished some satisfying things since Monday: I attended a valuable, day-long seminar, submitted a grant proposal, edited the Land Trust's Spring newsletter, and had a few great one-on-one meetings with board members. All stuff I find gratifying, but adding up to a full schedule. In addition, my husband has been sick with a bad cold that has caused him to hack loudly all night long, so my sleep hasn't been uninterrupted. To add to the week's excitement, I got a glimpse of a beautiful little poetry anthology that includes one of my poems: Maine in Four Seasons (Down East Books, June 2010). And to top it off, I went out after work three nights out of five this week--incredibly social for me. And the Winter Olympics start tonight! So between the busy-ness, various excitements, and spotty sleep patterns, it's been a full week, and I'm relieved to know I can sleep in tomorrow morning...

This isn't really the stuff of poetry in itself, but that ephemeral feeling of gratifying relief--combined with the simple pleasure of being able to sit down now and lose myself in Olympic fervor--is one to savor:

End of the work week,
start of Winter Olympics--
torches lit in snow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

February 11: Oysters

Tonight we went out to a raw bar with friends, and the four of us got at least a half-dozen each. I love oysters. There's the obvious sensual appeal of slurping the salty fleshy scrap of mollusk off the gritty half-shell. And there's also something deliciously elemental about eating this fruit of the sea--it tastes like the very ocean made tangible. We were enjoying Pemaquid oysters, grown locally not far from the very waters outside the restaurant windows. A medium-sized tasty oyster, made in Maine, they're one of my favorites. Confronted with an open oyster bar, I have been known to consume several dozen Pemaquid oysters in a minutes. I've never found myself too full of oysters.

I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit several times an amazing private collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, which includes such classics as a Brueghel winter village tableau, an Averkamp skating scene, and a van Ruisdael landscape with windmill. But the one I really enjoy looking at up close is a beautifully detailed still-life of food on a table by 17th century Flemish painter Osias Beert. I can't tell you what other food items make up this tableau--a peeled lemon, maybe?--because front and center is a plate of oysters on the half-shell that look so real you want to just reach out and grab one. Now that's a work of art!

Oyster: sea made flesh
slides easily down the throat,
mouthful of ocean.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

February 10: Ghosts

Driving home from the gym tonight on Park Street, I passed the house where my grandfather died. The house doesn't always consciously register in my mind when I go by it--which is fairly often, being my main cut-across route from the Y. He only lived there for a few years before he passed away. While I spent a lot of time with him there when I was home from college, mowing his lawn and helping with house-cleaning, it never really felt like his true home to me. My entire life before that, he and my grandmother had lived on a saltwater farm with sheep, chickens, a pet goose, and a big organic garden in Lincolnville. After my grandmother died, he down-sized to the house in town as a way of making his daily life easier and renewing his social life. By his choice, it ended up being where he eventually succumbed to cancer. 

The few times that I think about this as I drive by, I wonder if the people who live there know that someone died in that downstairs room. And I wonder if there's anything of my grandfather's spirit left about the place, if the house is haunted. But if my grandfather's ghost is anywhere, I don't think it's lingering in that nondescript ranch house on Park Street. I would think if his spirit were going to linger, it would be hanging out again at Sea Bluffs, the old farm that was his life's joy... which has now been transformed into a luxury inn. You can sleep in my old bedroom (or his)--both utterly transformed--for $385 a night. My grandfather would have been amazed and delighted by that. 

My grandfather once told me that gulls were his favorite bird. A herring gull would hang out on their chimney, coming down to feed on table scraps strewn on the lawn when called (his name was Joseph). Joseph and his buddies were a constant presence, and my grandfather loved to watch them soar on the sea breeze. He said that it looked like they were sailing around just for the sheer pleasure of it, and that after he died, he'd like to come back as a gull so he could fly like that. Sometimes when I see a flock of gulls in the air, white wings illuminated by sun in a way that renders them positively angelic, I think, Maybe he's up there now, enjoying his wings

After passing his house this evening and remembering him thus, I arrived home to find a pre-pub copy of a Maine poetry anthology that includes one of my poems. The poem is an homage to my grandparents' kitchen--a place I remember in the minutest detail and with much love. Sadly, my name is misspelled in the book. The poem doesn't even properly carry my grandfather's surname--pretty much the only tangible thing I have left from him. But my grandfather loved me and was so proud of everything I ever accomplished. Even though they got my name wrong, his unshakeable support of everything I did would have made it seem okay. And he would have been so thrilled that a poem about his kitchen was published in a such a lovely little book. Here's the poem published in the anthology:

There is the ritual of icing the sugar cookies,
the sacrament of eating them:
sheep, reindeer, turkey, tree, little man.
There is the prayer of the old pressed tin ceiling,
litany of the clock with its waxing moon face,
blessing of the cast-iron potbelly stove
fragrant with coffee and rising bread.
The hymn of certain knowledge.
The psalm of bringing it back.

Whether he's a ghost or a gull or simply life essence in the ether, I know he's still with me somehow.

No longer a child
yet still missing what was lost,
I talk to your ghost.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February 9: Leaves in Buddha's Lap

As I left work tonight, enough of a glow remained in the sky that I didn't need a flashlight to find my car. Yet it was dark enough that I could clearly see the two brightest heavenly bodies in the sky--Mars and Sirius--bracketing Mount Battie. (The waning moon had not yet risen.) They were my celestial escorts as I headed into town on my way to the Y. When I got there, I realized I'd forgotten to bring my running stuff. I took that as a sign that I wasn't meant to run tonight and turned around to head home for an unexpectedly free hour. Back between the Red Planet and the Dog Star I went, my mind still churning on work.

As I walked up the front step of my home, a nearby streetlight illuminated the statue of Buddha in my flower bed. He's been buried under snow most of the winter. While the mid-Atlantic states have been getting dumped on the past week or so, our snow has been disappearing, sublimating into the sublime blue skies of these sunny days. So there was Buddha, half-heaped in snowy dead leaves. I thought about clearing away the detritus but decided to let it be. His mildly amused expression caught by the light, Buddha looked completely at peace sitting there with that lapful of dead leaves and ice.

Leaving Buddha, the war god, and the twinkling dog star behind me, I unlocked my front door and suddenly felt a complete sense of calm. Some things ease our minds by drawing us outside ourselves--calling our attention to the infinite reaches of the night sky, for example. Others help us empty the mind and think less: be here now; shut down busy thoughts by briefly meditating on an object of beauty. And then open the door and cross the threshold into the next moment.

Leaves in Buddha's lap--
dry offerings of winter.
Remember: life's short.

Monday, February 8, 2010

February 8: Pint o' Beer

Some days it's hard to find poetry. I spent the entire day in a seminar, rushed through my e-mails during the breaks, and then, when I got home, finished up some other work that had been put off because of the seminar. Where does one find poetry amid all that busy-ness?

I guess I'd have to say I found it in the glass of beer I ordered with my dinner: a pint of Geary's Hampshire Special Ale. I can't remember when I last had a beer, and it tasted really good. Made in Maine, too.

Also, then I read this article about how drinking beer enhances bone density. And Wickipedia tells me that it's the oldest fermented beverage. So by downing my beer tonight, I was staving off osteoporosis, enjoying a brief flashback to college, relaxing after a hectic workday, and carrying on a tradition enjoyed around the world for millenia. (And--though I didn't realize it at the time--toasting my 100th blog post to my Book of Days.) All that in one 16-ounce glass.

Tapping liquid bread
like erudite monks of old,
I channel the past.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

February 7: Fireworks

As part of the US National Toboggan Championships held in Camden this weekend, last night there was a fireworks show over Camden Harbor. When told we were going to see them, my niece, who was born on July 5, was confused. "Is tomorrow my birthday?" she asked hopefully, if a bit confused. "Am I going to be four?" We had to explain that these were special fireworks, not like the ones she remembered seeing in Marblehead Harbor this past summer the night before her birthday. Fireworks are fireworks, so even though her birthday wasn't involved, she was still excited.

Bundled in many layers under her little down parka (the bottom layer of which was her shiny blue, pink, and silver-spotted princess dress), Fiona was probably warmer than we adults were. In fact, I offered to carry her on my shoulders just for the added body heat. And perched there amid the small throng gathered at the public landing, she had a perfect view of the display.

Unlike most nights when Camden plans fireworks, last night was perfect (OK, it could have been about 30 degrees warmer, but other than that...) After a striking pink sunset, the night sky was crystal clear, Orion shone bright over Curtis Island--I was able to point out his belt to Fiona--and Mars hovered above the plastic-wrapped windjammers. The walkway at the public landing was lit by pretty ice votives. And the fireworks went on just long enough to make it feel like a worthwhile outing, while not so prolonged that we risked serious frostbite.

When we watched the Fourth of July fireworks this past summer, Fiona was too sensitive to the loud bangs they made to enjoy the spectacle of the light show. Now she was just enough older that she was able to appreciate the bursts of color despite having to cover her ears. Watching fireworks with a kid reminds you how much fun they are. We all "oohed" and "aahed" right along with my niece as we admired the sparkling greens and pinks, the blossoming flowers of sparks and sizzling streamers spread out over the water of the outer harbor. The crowd cheered more than once after a particularly prolonged burst of pyrotechnics, and the grand finale sent us all on our way aglow with the shared fun of small-town pleasures. Now, time to hit the pizza place...

Over the harbor
winter fireworks burst and bloom.
Little girl's face glows.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

February 6: Eagle Visitation

As I sat down at my desk this morning and looked out the window, a bald eagle soared through my backyard. A bit startled, I heard myself exclaim, "Whoa!" as it sailed past, following the river's course. It was probably on a mission to terrorize the ducks that congregate downstream at Megunticook Market. The sighting seemed auspicious--keeping in mind that the word "auspicious" derives from the Latin word "auspice," defined by Merriam-Webster as "observation by an augur especially of the flight and feeding of birds to discover omens." An auspex translated patterns of birds. As oracles go, that seems a big step up from reading tea leaves. And as a way to start the day, having a eagle fly by seemed like a positive omen to me.

I also couldn't help but think of the trained eagle that sometimes flies around the stadium at the start of the Super Bowl. Today is the first day of the National Toboggan Championships at the Camden Snow Bowl. Maybe this is our own, wild version of that sports ritual. I confess that I'm always moved to see that eagle soaring around during the pre-game show, though I secretly root for it to keep going and head for open sky instead of back to the arm of its handler. Even though the eagle is by now a tired cliche of freedom, the sight of one flying never fails to stir me. For the eagle's own thoughts on being appropriated as a patriotic metaphor, however, read this recent article from my favorite fake news website, The Onion.

About ten minutes after it flew downriver, the eagle returned. The eagle has landed, I thought. What is it about eagles that elicits these cliches? But land it did, in a tree right in my backyard maybe 50 feet away from my window. A pair of crows gallantly harassed it for a while, forcing it to hop from branch to branch till it found a sturdy one where it could perch securely. The crows were sometimes so close their bodies actually buffeted the eagle, but their bombardment had no effect whatsoever on the larger bird, which never even registered their presence. Eventually they gave up and flew off. 

While I ran from window to window with my camera trying to figure out how to get a photo, the eagle spent several minutes wiping its bill against the dead wood of its perch. Perhaps it had recently fed? Through binoculars, I could see that the top of its head looked a little dirty. That must be a difficult spot for a bird to keep clean. When the eagle stopped its bill-wiping and simply sat there, looking dignified and, well, big, I had to laugh: its expression was exactly that of Sam the Eagle from the Muppet Show. Eagles have a way of paradoxically looking both noble and slightly comical at the same time.

By holding my digital camera up to the eyepiece of my binoculars perched on a windowsill, I was able to take a few blurry shots of the eagle through the screen window. I share them here with some embarrassment:

There's today's eagle, in all its blurry, pixilated glory. It headed back downriver a few minutes ago. Happy hunting! (And if you have some time, would you flap over to the Snow Bowl and circle over my brother-in-law's toboggan team a couple of times? They could use some avian blessings this morning.)

Bird of good omens
pauses here to wipe its bill.
My yard is honored.

Friday, February 5, 2010

February 5: Constellations

Some nights when I look up before going inside each evening and see the constellation of Orion tilting above my house over the southern face of Mount Battie, I feel lucky. It's as if I have a heavenly guardian or something, to see that familiar figure in the profound celestial blue of the winter night sky.

It's human nature to make sense of things, to create patterns out of things, delineate them. Most cultures have their own star stories. We're just trying to shape that vast distant ether, that unknowable vacuum of space pricked with the cold light of millions of distant suns, into something knowable. So we draw lines between different stars and create Orion, the big hunter, or Gemini, the twins, or Taurus, the bull, or Cassiopeia, the queen on her thrown. And we note the singular stars, the ones that stand out: Polaris, the North Star; Sirius, the brightest; Betelgeuse, a red giant.

But really, Orion is no sky king or starry god. And he's certainly not watching over me. "He" is just a collection of stars that in reality aren't anywhere near each other. Seen three dimensionally from somewhere out in the galaxy, the three stars that line up so nicely to create Orion's belt aren't lined up at all. They're light years apart any way you look at them. Really, there's no order out there. The stars, as I understand it, are just particles hurtling away from the Big Bang that started it all--shrapnel. And we're all just along for the ride.

We tell stories to comfort ourselves. But some nights, I don't see any stories in the sky overhead, just an unfathomable emptiness, space stretching infinitely away.

Fathomless night sky
shines with our made-up patterns,
offers cold comfort.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

February 4: Soaring Hawk

Tired and a little stressed, I walked into the office this morning huddled against both the cold and the day ahead. Fortunately, I looked up before heading inside. There, in the perfect blue sky above sparkling, snow-powdered Mount Battie, soared a red-tailed hawk. Broad wings spread wide, red tail shining in the morning light, the hawk cut several broad circles in the air before sailing out of sight behind the mountain. Yesterday's all-day storm would have forced it to lay low; today it was free to fly (and hunt). I realize I'm projecting my own feelings onto the bird, but its flight seemed to contain a certain measure of delight as it lifted in the wind.

My guess would be that this is the same red-tail I've observed along the river this winter, the one that keeps agitating the local crows. Today I embraced the sight of it as that of a familiar friend, my spirits momentarily lifted.

Wind-driven red-tail,
thank you for lifting my mood
on your wide-spread wings.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February 3: More Snow

"A dusting of snow." That was today's forecast. Yet a couple of inches of light fluffy snow had accumulated on my car before I'd even left for work. Snow fell all day and it's still falling. Huge flakes drifted in mesmerizing three-dimensional flurries. I hardly needed a shovel to clear the driveway tonight--I might have just swept the driveway clear with a big broom. Though deep, such snow feels harmless, even comforting, softening the landscape. Once again the street grit, frozen sludge, and fallen branches are hidden from sight. All is fresh and pure again.

Wanting to honor the snow, it seemed appropriate to consult my favorite book The Tale of Genji, the complex emotional narrative of which is advanced by tanka--five-line, 31-syllable poems (the first three lines of which eventually evolved into haiku). The characters regularly communicate via such poems, which convey many layers of meaning through evocative word play. In addition to the words themselves, poems were also judged by the type and color of the paper they were written on, the handwriting of the poet, the way the paper was folded, and what type of flower or branch the poem was attached to. This was a culture that valued the poetic aesthetic to an extreme.

For example, the hero Prince Genji must reply to an invitation by the emperor to go hunting in the snowy mountains. He doesn't want to go because he's mooning over a pretty young woman, so he sends his regrets with a flattering poem:

The falling of snow
in fine weather is splendid,
as magnificent
as jewels on the palanquin
of the finest emperor.

translated by Jane Reichhold with Hatsue Kawamura

In response the emperor writes his own poem about the day's hunting and sends it to Genji with a brace of pheasants. And his poem triggered my own:

I dreamed three pheasants
sat on the snowy feeder--
gems set in crystal.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

February 2: Groundhog Day

With this kind of crusty snow cover, I don't imagine there were too many groundhogs venturing out on this chilly Maine day, despite it being Groundhog Day. Working at home, I did however observe several very active squirrels in my backyard throughout the afternoon. Not quite marmots, but they'll do in a weather prediction pinch. Alas, the squirrels frolicking through the treetops, and apparently up on my roof from the sounds of it, were definitely seeing their shadows on this crisp, clear, sunny winter's day. So six more weeks of winter it is. I'm resigned to it.

Now that I'm thinking about groundhogs, however, I'm reminded of the yellow-bellied marmots in Rocky Mountain National Park. These fat rodents lolled around on the alpine slopes, whistling like sailors, posing for photographs, and otherwise just hanging out enjoying what looked like quite the life. In summer, at least. I'm wondering what those fuzzy guys are up to now, with the Colorado Rockies buried in many feet of snow. They must have to take their hibernation much more seriously than our woodchucks here in the relatively milder climes of New England. After all, snow lingers up there through June most years. Definitely no venturing forth on February 2. It would probably burn off all their stored fat just to dig their way to the surface. While Punxatawny Phil poses for TV cameras and we're already thinking ahead to spring's arrival--whenever it may come--the alpine dwellers merely turn in their sleep, curl up a little more tightly, and settle in for five more months--not weeks, months!--of winter. Talk about a long winter's nap.

Groundhog buried deep,
who can blame you for sleeping
longer in the dark?

Monday, February 1, 2010

February 1: Brigid's Day

This afternoon as I was getting ready to leave work I was amazed to see that the sky was still light. Light! The days truly lengthen at last. Even as snow still covers the ground, hardened into a tough crust of ice.

Today is Brigid's Day. (Catholics have co-opted the day as Candlemas, the feast day for St. Bridget of Kildare, one of the patron saints of Ireland.) Brigid is the Celtic goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft--the common element of the three aspects being fire, of course: the fiery spark of inspiration, the warmth of good health, and the flame of the forge. And fire brings light, the growing light and deepening power of the sun as the days slowly, slowly but surely, lengthen.

In the pagan calendar the day is also called Imbolc, meaning "in milk," the time of year when sheep and goats give birth. Perhaps a little early here in Maine, but at Aldermere Farm in Rockport it won't be long before the Belted Galloways start dropping their calves. Whatever you call the day, it's all about light and the hope of new life.

One ritual I have heard recommended for the day is to light a candle and walk through each room of the house, purifying each with the candle's small flame. And since I can't hammer on a piece of metal, or perform any medical miracles, another ritual that seems appropriate for the goddess of poetry would be to write a poem, of course, if but a small one.

Inspiration's spark
heats the deep cauldron of words.
May they rise with light.