Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June 30: The Poetry of Dragonflies

I've been told by a very reliable source that this handsome fellow is a male Celithemis elisa, or Calico Pennant. I came upon him today while tromping around the milkweed patch at my office trying to photograph butterflies. I saw my first monarchs, a red admiral, and a few things I couldn't identify, but this guy was the only thing that would hold still for my camera. The Calico Pennant first emerges in late May to early June and is apparently very common throughout the summer here along the Megunticook River. It's also easily recognizable, as its all-over red appearance is noticeable at a distance. Right now several of them proudly wave their red selves above the overgrown lawn. 

I know next to nothing about dragonflies, but several birder friends are also avid odophiles. (These same friends are also very good at identifying butterflies--I guess once you start paying attention to one set of flying things, you just start noticing the others.) I like to watch dragonflies flit and dart through the air, wings shimmering, iridescent bodies glistening like jewels. But my real interest in them is not as a naturalist or observer, but as a poet. Check out these common names of some dragonflies found in Maine: Ebony Jewelwing, Violet Dancer, Lilypad Forktail, Sedge Sprite, Sweetflag Spreadwing, Spatterdock Darner, Unicorn Clubtail, Riffle Snaketail, Stygian Shadowdragon, Ringed Boghaunter, Seaside Dragonlet, Cherry-faced Meadowhawk, and Black Saddlebags. They sound like creatures from a fantasy novel! Naming really doesn't get any better than this unless you're an elf or fairy.

Jewelwing, sedge sprite--
dragonfly or elf, your wild
Maine magic shimmers.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 29: Death and Life

Driving to an errand in Rockport this afternoon, I saw a dead grey squirrel on the side of the road. Not an unusual sight, and it's not like there's a shortage of squirrels in the world, but I'm always saddened to see any road-killed animal. I gave some moments of thought to the short but probably lively life of the now-squished squirrel and made a silent wish that its body would at least now make a positive difference to the life of some crow, vulture, or fox. 

On my return to the office, I passed by a house with lots of bird feeders hanging in the yard. One tube feeder was completely obscured by the furry body of a grey squirrel curled around it, its tail waving like a plume. I had to laugh. This squirrel was very much alive, doing what squirrels do best. It was somehow reassuring to see. Life goes on, even as we are confronted with deaths large and small on a daily basis.

Draft of passing car
flips the dead squirrel's tail. Live
squirrel flicks his too.

Monday, June 28, 2010

June 28: Milkweed in Bloom

At my office we don't mow most of the lawn, instead allowing the native vegetation to take over in a sprawling but natural way. A good portion of it hosts a rather dense patch of milkweed, which has just begun to bloom. We tend to stop paying attention to what we see all the time, so I hadn't realized the milkweed was blooming until I walked from the office to my car this afternoon after a torrential rainstorm had passed through. The humid air was redolent with a sweet fragrance that literally stopped me in my tracks. What was it? I looked around the thicket of plants I had just walked past, and the only flowering plant nearby was milkweed. Ordinary milkweed. I sniffed a cluster of the unprepossessing pink blossoms... and that was it! I had no idea milkweed could smell so wonderful.

What I do know about milkweed is that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the plants, and the resulting larvae feed entirely on milkweed. Milkweed sap is toxic to what might eat a caterpillar; by eating milkweed leaves, the caterpillars become toxic too. I've seen a merlin catch a monarch and spit it out--clearly, the butterflies don't taste good either. So monarch and milkweed have a close relationship, with the aromatic plant being essential to the early life stages of the butterfly, as well as increasing the insect's chances for survival against predators. And I'm sure the monarch plays a role in pollinating the milkweed in turn.

After the rainstorm
milkweed sends perfumed love notes
to the butterflies.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 27: Repetition

The red-eyed vireo may repeat his song 20,000 times during the course of a summer day. I was thinking of that as I heard one singing off in the trees, as I picked what felt like my 20,000th strawberry in my friend's garden today. We've had perfect strawberry weather this June, and my friend's patch was overflowing. She needed help. After enjoying a breakfast of Belgian waffles with strawberries, the two of us picked 23 quarts over several hours--punctuated, of course, by a lunch of yogurt, honey, and... yes, strawberries.

There's something lulling about repeating a gesture over and over, even as your back and legs ache. It was warm but not overly sunny, either, which made it a pleasure to be out doing something productive in the garden. And of course, knowing I was going to take home some of these luscious fruits was added incentive. I lost myself in the activity, only occasionally (because I'm a birder and can't help it) becoming aware of birdsong in the surrounding woods. The red-eyed vireo, for example. Or the robins nesting nearby. Or a bluebird. Once I looked up and saw a hawk circling overhead. The setting was bucolic--peas in bloom, corn almost knee-high, terraced perennial beds in full bloom, butterflies fluttering over fields spangled with wildflowers. Who could call this work, this crawling over strawberry runners, squatting in the dirt, plucking ripe berries from amidst the foliage and dropping them with a plunk in a pail?

The real work started when I got all those berries home. I dropped off a bowlful at my parents' house, and gave away as many as I could to my neighbor with many children--those growing bodies need the vitamin C. But even after putting some aside for my cereal over the next couple of days, I still had a heap. These I rinsed, spread out on a towel, hulled one by one--the repetition less enjoyable than the picking but meditative nonetheless--and bagged for the freezer. Two quarts that will undoubtedly form the base of some wicked good smoothies later this summer.

For each berry picked,
vireo sings one more phrase
in praise of summer.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

June 26: Backyard Birds

After mowing the lawn today, I did something unusual for me. I sat on the back step in the sun and... well, that's it. I just sat on the back step. For about ten minutes I did nothing but just sit there and live in the moment. My cat, who is strictly an indoor cat occasionally allowed supervised visits onto the porch, came over and, instead of trying to make her usual escape attempt, curled up in my lap. Apparently she wanted to live in the moment too. She purred and dozed, while I looked around and thought about how much I love my back yard.

Back yard, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love the ever-present rushing music of the river that passes over your feet. I love the canopy of oak, beech, ash, and maple leaves that surround you, leaving just the right-sized opening for sky and sunlight. I love the frilly fans of ferns that border your edges and the tall goldenrod along the porch steps. I love your view of my neighbor's orange day lilies. I love how you keep my flowers healthy, even the wild ones. And I love how the combination of water and tree cover brings birds into your sheltered embrace.

If you don't go looking for birds, sometimes they have a way of finding you. While I sat there enjoying my yard in all its early summer greenery, I heard the following:
cardinal whistling up a storm in the neighbor's yard
squalling group of crows upriver
broad-winged hawk high overhead
pileated woodpecker cackling somewhere downriver
loon calling in flight
warbling vireo moving through the trees above the river
several robins singing throughout the neighborhood
song sparrow across the street
hummingbird squealing through the yard, hopefully on its way to my bee balm

I've found fewer birds than that while out actually looking for them! And my cat was oblivious to it all.

Sometimes sitting still
turns out to be the best way
to hear birds, here, now.

Friday, June 25, 2010

June 25: Return of the Merlin

For the fourth time in a week I heard a merlin calling outside my office. The first couple of times I heard that fast, high-pitched call, I thought it was a blue jay pretending to be a merlin. The third time, I saw the bird flying. It was indeed the small falcon, not a cheap imitation (or a jay). And today, when I proclaimed that I could hear the merlin again, my co-workers rushed to the door and we all got to watch the bird, which had very conveniently perched in plain view atop a snag at the end of our parking lot.

Despite all his yelling, he sat quite calmly in the dead tree, preening and looking around a bit before flying off. He seems to make a ruckus when dogs are around, I've noticed. But then again, it doesn't take much to rile up a merlin. They're very vocal birds on territory, which makes me wonder if this bird has a nest somewhere nearby. They're also very fierce, diving at just about anything that annoys them--even a much larger bird like a crow, gull, or peregrine. If this bird has a nest in the neighborhood, it's not too near though, because I've never seen him actually chasing another bird. I think he just shows up to yell a bit, let everyone know who's boss, and push the limits of his controlled air space.

Even from afar
we can see hooked bill, fierce gaze--
merlin on patrol.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

June 24: Young Woodpecker

Yesterday I heard a red-bellied woodpecker calling outside the office. This afternoon I happened to spot one hanging out on a tree about 20 yards away from the window. Except for its black and white checked back and wings, this bird was dull brown all over, with just the faintest wash of red on the back of its dusky head--obviously a juvenile, probably a female. This is a species that only made a serious incursion into Maine five years ago, so it was exciting to see living proof that at least one breeding pair nests in my neighborhood. And here she was, on her own, a youngster loosed into her first summer.

I sat and observed as she loafed on the tree trunk in one place for about 20 minutes, a typical lazy teenager. For a while she seemed to contemplate the tree trunk, looking at it from various angles. Then she wiped her bill on the bark for a minute or so. She picked a few bugs off the trunk. Then she spent about 15 minutes casually preening. Chickadees hopped around her, and a flock of waxwings passed through the trees. A catbird sang a few odd phrases, mewed, then flew into the woods. But the young woodpecker clung to the side of the tree, her stiff tail feathers bracing her against the trunk as she pecked and smoothed her feathers. What does it feel like to have real feathers for the first time?

Eventually she flew a few trees closer, to a shad bush laden with berries. She began acrobatically eating some of the berries, looking a lot like a waxwing as she twisted among the branches, craning her neck to nab the plump red little fruits. Duty called, so I left off watching at that point, but I felt privileged to have been witness to half an hour in the life of this young bird.

Woodpecker pauses;
I pause to watch--a young bird
preening new feathers.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June 23: Bee Balm

This summer the bee balm has become King of the Garden. A self-propagating perennial, each year it pops up in different places and in varying density. This year, however, it's outdone itself. Usually the tallest stalks are just visible at kitchen windowsill level. Today I noticed that the tallest plant is gaining on the top of the window, and its red buds haven't even fully opened yet. It's sort of like an out of control, seven-foot tall adolescent boy. And there aren't just a few plants scattered here and there--there are dozens. This is one patch of happy, dominating flowers.

The bee balm was given to us as a house-warming gift five years ago, and I was thrilled to receive it because I know it's a favorite of hummingbirds. My grandmother always had a patch, along with a yearly mass of nasturtiums, half a dozen hanging fuchsias, and about as many hummingbird feeders. Dozens of ruby-throated hummingbirds screamed around my grandparents' house all day long. Things are a bit less dramatic at our house. When the bright red bee balm blooms, I occasionally watch one hummer at a time visit the flowers while I'm eating at the kitchen table. A small excitement, but one I look forward to nonetheless, especially that moment when the male hovers in front of the window, flashing his ruby-colored gorget. (That's his throat, lest you think I'm being obscene.)

With this year's plants stretching more than halfway up the window, we should have a pretty good view when the hummers arrive at our one good nectar station. I've heard them buzzing around the neighborhood, but the only other flower blooming that might have attracted them thus far is a lobelia that's not visible from inside the house. So we have high hopes for our super-tall, super tempting, majestic bee balm.

Allure of ruby
flower draws the ruby-throat,
living gem itself.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22: I Can See My House from Here

Today I flew a plane! A friend of my husband flew into Owls Head from Portland this morning and took us each up in his rented Cessna. Hugh served three tours in Iraq with the Marines, flying "anything that flies," as he put it, and is also a flying instructor, so I felt like I was in good hands. I wasn't nervous, but when you grip the steering handles to turn, and the plane responds, it's quite a feeling.

I love to fly, love to see a landscape that is so familiar on the ground from that new, lofty perspective, trying to guess what's what from the new angle. A hawk's eye view. We flew over Beech Hill so I could take some photos, turned inland to fly over Ragged and Bald Mountains, followed the Megunticook River to Camden Harbor, then followed the coast over Rockport and Rockland Harbors so we could check out the giant drill ship moored and awaiting repairs out beyond the Breakwater. I felt a surge of love toward the beautiful patchwork of green forests and fields bordered by the blues of the bay spreading out below us: this is my home. And I literally picked out my home (and my office) as we flew along the river. Funny how we always need to find ourselves in that way. It was like playing with Google Earth only in real life.

Hugh let me take the "wheel" for a few more minutes as he lowered the flaps and flipped switches to prepare for landing. It was kind of like driving a car, only different. An uplifting experience (pun intended), and even more so, I think, for my husband. I was trying to photograph everything I could see, but he was intent on really experiencing what it was like to fly a plane. Judging from his ecstatic expression as he stepped back to the ground, I think I'm thankful that there's no way he has the time for flying lessons.

Is this what hawks feel
as they soar over forests,
spying that one tree?

Monday, June 21, 2010

June 21: Summer Solstice

This afternoon as I was driving home from a meeting, the car thermometer read 90 and the sun was high in a deep blue sky. Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. After this, as one friend put it, it's all downhill till the Winter Solstice. I reveled in the lush steaminess of the day.

Besides being significant on the world's seasonal calendar, this day is also important as my niece Nola's first birthday. What a powerful day on which to be born, the day when the sun god is in his prime, when the sun has reached its apex. Surely she will go through life fired by an inner solar power.

I was musing on the luxurious heat and light of late afternoon, the richness of the foliage on this humid Midsummer's Day, when I noticed an odd-shaped cloud scrawled on the sky's blue screen stretching over Mount Battie. The cloud looked like a big, white C. Immediately I thought of certain mountains I've seen in Arizona desert country (and in other places out west) upon which proud locals have painted the first letter of their town's name. A mountain right outside Parker, Arizona bears a large white P, for example. This seems to be a common practice, and rather than defacing the mountain, it serves in its way as a link between landscape and community.

So even though Mount Battie bears no resemblance to the arid, patchy hills of the west, today the weather  shaped a fluffy C to perch on its craggy, pine-covered summit, just for Camden, just for a moment. I looked up later and it was scattered. (I guess it was too much to ask for an N for Nola--nature's sky-writers would have a real challenge with that one.) Ephemeral as it was, however, that special Solstice cloud bridged a gap in my memory between two places I love: Maine and the Sonoran desert of Arizona. And today both of them were hot and sunny for the first day of Summer.

Strange how even on
a humid Maine summer day
I think of desert.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 20: Dove

It's Father's Day, but my dad's away today and I haven't come across any inspiring paternal images to write about in his honor--except for the pileated woodpecker (a bird my dad always enjoys seeing), which has been insistently calling up and down the river today for some unknown masculine purpose. If he were home, my dad would probably be hearing it too, as my parents and I live about a mile apart on the same river.

The report called for rain this afternoon, so I spent this sunny morning working in my garden, trying to create a bit of order in the chaos of the flourishing beds. While I clipped and deadheaded and weeded, I could hear a neighbor's chicken clucking and cackling, apparently having just laid her morning egg. I love that we voted to allow people in town to have up to nine chickens--it just makes so much sense in this age of sustainability and trying to eat locally. And I love that several of my neighbors have chickens, even though we don't directly benefit. When I was growing up, my grandparents kept chickens, so I have fond memories of caring for Henrietta, Betty, Harcourt et al. and collecting their eggs. The clucks and cackles of chickens are soothing noises. I'm currently reading Sy Montgomery's new book Birdology, which begins with an excellent chapter on chicken culture. You'll never look at a chicken the same way again.

All my co-workers except one (who's building a coop next summer) have chickens now, but I have no desire to own any myself, so enjoying the clucking of the neighbors' birds a block away will have to do. But then I noticed a pert brown mourning dove pecking away in the gravel of our driveway. There's my chicken, I thought. Doves are like miniature chickens, soft and gentle, always hanging around the yard or on the driveway. This one even flew to the sidewalk behind me for a while as I was puttering in the garden just a few yards away. Granted, we aren't eating any dove's eggs for breakfast, but their presence, like that of a flock of smooth little chickens, is a small comfort.

Not tame, but the dove
on my lawn brings as much joy
as a flock of hens.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

June 19: Solar Power

This afternoon my husband and I assembled our solar clothes dryer, otherwise known as a clothesline. I already had a small one on the back porch, but I wanted a bigger one on which to dry a blanket and some towels in today's sun and wind--it's a perfect clothes drying day. It took some doing, as there was no obvious anchor on the end away from the house, but we finally found a workable tree and now it's up. My view from desk to river is filled with a colorful string of swaying towels and assorted clothing items. In a funny way the clothes on the line echo the prayer flags strung up on the shed and the porch--really big flags sending their own blessings for energy efficiency and more of these beautiful summery days. And soon we'll be able to enjoy the brisk feeling of wind-stiffened towels smelling of outside.

Clothes on the new line
soak up sun and wind. Flapping,
become bright pennants.

Friday, June 18, 2010

June 18: Eiders

In the middle of the night I half-awoke and was vaguely aware of my cat's soft snoring at the foot of the bed. It occurred to me that the sound was kind of like the cooing noises I've heard from flocks of common eiders. I let myself imagine the eider hens gathered together in the waters around their nesting islands with all their babies among them. Eiders tend their young communally, with many females (even those who didn't have a nest that year) caring for the ducklings in groups called creches. Having many eyes watching over the flock is a big benefit for a species that's heavily preyed upon by gulls, eagles, seals, and other pelagic predators.

The word "creche" brings to mind cradles and Nativity scenes--and I think the image of these fluffy baby ducks swaying in the waves, watched over by their many mothers, was what lulled me back to sleep at last.

Cat's midnight snoring
reminds me of eider ducks'
soft calls in the creche. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

June 17: Oak

My neighbor across the street has a big oak tree in his backyard, and its leaves are shimmering right now in the late afternoon light--many-fingered green hands fluttering in the breeze. Oak trees have long been associated with spiritual power, most particularly with those gods who wielded thunder and lightning. The Druids believed that oak trees had a particular magic, as well, and held sacred rites in oak groves. To the right ears, the sounds made by rustling oak leaves were supposed to be some kind of augury, an arboreal oracle. To me, there are few trees more majestic than an old spreading oak laden with twisting, leafy boughs, standing in the middle of a sunny field as if overseeing its domain. The King of Trees. The King of Summer, just four days from his Solstice coronation.

Broad oak leaves whisper
of centuries of sun, wind,
and acorns to come.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

June 16: Begging Crow

I could hear the cawing outside my office window for a while before I finally got up to see what was going on out there. As soon as I saw the two birds, that incessant calling made sense. On the lawn a juvenile crow was begging from an adult bird. If it hadn't been begging, I might not have recognized it as a "young of the year." It was just as large as the adult, but a little bit of red gape still overhung the smooth edge of its bill, giving it away as a youngster. Also, it was close enough that I could see its eyes were still blue-grey, unlike the dark eyes of the sleeker-looking adult that appeared to be studiously ignoring this big, loud crow baby despite being closely followed by it.

The whining of hungry young creatures seems universally understood. There was no mistaking what that bird wanted. I have heard them beg and cry on the lawn like that for half an hour at a time. Crows are a very family-oriented bird. Because they don't reach full maturity until around four years of age, young from past years will hang around and help raise their parents' young of subsequent years. The family group around my office seems to contain about half a dozen birds, probably of varying ages. The adult being harassed by this young crow may not have been one of its parents, but could have been an older sibling.

I was hoping to see the adult eventually feed the bird--surely the impulse to shut it up by stuffing some food down its throat must have been strong. But they soon noticed me watching from the window and flew off.

Even I want to
respond to the begging crow,
quiet it with food.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June 15: Bird at the Bank

Sometimes birds will make their presence known in unusual places. A shift of focus, and suddenly I'm aware of birds around me where I wasn't looking for them. Like today, while I was paused at the bank drive-through window. Because it was going to take a few minutes, I'd turned off my car engine and was just sitting there with my window down, waiting for the teller to process the deposits. Turning off the car meant that my car stereo was also off, so I was waiting in quiet. Gradually I realized that a red-eyed vireo was singing in the trees at the edge of the pavement. Red-eyed vireos will sing all day long, each warbled phrase sounding just as merry as the last. This tireless bird brightened an otherwise dull moment. As I listened to him, I became aware of other birds singing in the distance: goldfinch, house finch, crow.  (Isn't there always a crow?) It was a simple matter of quieting the rest of my life so that what had been pushed to the background could come forward. And most of the time I think I'd rather have birds be in the foreground of my daily life.

Like the song sparrow that's been fluttering around my office windows for the past two days. He seems to just want to rest on the slim edge of the window frame, because he stops fluttering once he gets his balance. Then he looks in at me and pauses a moment before flying off. A while later, he's back at it, my companion throughout the work day, keeping an eye on my progress in his frenetic way.

Silence, then birdsong--
quieting body and mind
reveals what is there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

June 14: Dawn

This morning I awoke at the ungodly hour of first light, sometime around 4 a.m., and for some reason was wide awake for almost two hours. The overcast sky was just whitening through the screen of leaves. I tried to let the soothing rush of the river lull me back to sleep, but I was just too alert.

While I lay there trying to will my mind to emptiness, I didn't hear any birds for a long time. No dawn chorus. The spring fling is over. I became aware of the avian silence because I realized that I could hear the distant call of the foghorn, such a poignant early sound. I don't think there's a foghorn in Camden, so sound was resonating well on this still morning.

Eventually a crow flew through the back yard, cawing briefly and softly. A bit later a titmouse whistled repeatedly for a few minutes, then stopped. Later still, as I was contemplating whether I should just get out of bed for the day, I heard the tremolo of a loon flying over the house on its way upriver. Finally, as I was drifting back to sleep at last, I heard a sharp thump on the roof and then the patter of little running feet--one of the many neighborhood squirrels was up and at 'em. Good morning! The last thought I remember was wondering if flying squirrels live in our neighborhood, gliding unseen among the trees in the half-light of these early hours.

Distant foghorn moans.
Even the crow sounds muted
on this grey morning.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

June 13: Under the Skylight

Last night I stayed at a friend's house in a guest bedroom with a skylight. After margaritas, a late dinner, Moroccan rosebud tea, and much talking into the wee hours, I retired to my loft under the stars. The clarity with which I could see the vast clusters of bright stars made me realize how different--how utterly profound and amazing--the night sky can look in a place with no light pollution. There were so many stars swarming in my field of vision that I couldn't even pick out constellations, but just let my eyes enjoy the spectacle above me. A little later, as I was drifting off to sleep, the call of a loon drifted in from a nearby pond. I fell asleep feeling blessed by these things, and even more so when I awoke this morning to hear hermit thrushes singing in the woods just outside my room, and off in the distance, the cries of ospreys fishing in Somes Sound.

Loon calls in the night.
I sway in sleep's open arms
watched over by stars.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

June 12: Night

When I was out for a run this morning, I noticed the plant deadly nightshade blooming along the side of the road. As a kid I was fascinated by this plant with its garish purple and yellow flowers and colorful berries that looked like tiny tomatoes (nightshade is in the same family as the tomato). We used to collect them, imagining ourselves as potential poisoners in that macabre way that kids have of focusing on creepy things.

As I was running and musing on nightshade, my mind made the perhaps logical verbal leap to thinking about the night-heron, a big brooding bird that is creepy in its own right. Night-herons are indeed nocturnal, and they use the cover of darkness to stalk their prey. One night-heron can come in and wipe out most of a nesting tern colony's chicks in a night. The bird is the bane of seabird island managers. But to birders the night-heron's also fascinating, hunched over with a dark look in its red eyes, beautiful in flight.

And what about night crawlers? We used to collect them from the front yard at night to use the next day as fishing bait. They're just big worms. And yet, Night Crawler is a popular comic book superhero, a mutant who fights bad guys alongside Wolverine and the like. He has powers of teleportation and being able to crawl up things, but there's still that dark edge to the fact that he too can kill.

Such were my musings on this humid June morning. Isn't it amazing where your own mind can take you, as your feet simply follow their usual route through the neighborhood?

My bright morning run
somehow inspires thoughts of
deadly night creatures.

Friday, June 11, 2010

June 11: Ripening Fruit

My co-worker Joe returned from the Beech Hill Preserve today with what he called "something scary": a sprig from a blueberry bush containing a few berries already turning blue. Coastal Mountains Land Trust manages about 20 acres of fields on Beech Hill as a MOFGA-certified, organic blueberry farm. We sell 10-pound boxes of berries by pre-order, and the profits are used to help manage the preserve. Normally our blueberry harvest takes place in early to mid-August. The fact that Joe is finding berries already ripening indicates that the harvest will be several weeks ahead of schedule this summer. (That's the "scary" part, because it also means he may have to pull together a crew of blueberry rakers and packers a lot sooner than he thought.)

This morning a family of Canada geese was grazing along the edge of the Land Trust parking lot: the two parents and three half-grown goslings. They were big enough that I had to look twice to pick out the adults.  These too seem ahead of schedule. I guess early berries and big fat baby geese are the benefits of the beautiful warm weather we had for much of this spring. It gave a few things a head start. Other flora and fauna--many songbirds, for instance, and sea birds--seem to be on schedule, so there hasn't been a complete shift of the natural order. But enough for nature observation to be particularly interesting right now.

Ripening to blue--
handful of crazy berries,
this early June sky.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 10: Cardinal Love

The last lines of a favorite bird poem, "The Cardinal," by Henry Carlile:

In the bar's dark I think of him.
There are no cardinals here.

Only a woman in a red dress.

And now when I see cardinals I think of that poem, with its wonderful, racy final image. I thought of it today, in fact, when a pair of cardinals was at my office window feeder. I looked up from my desk to catch the male cardinal passing a seed to the female. A simple, romantic gesture, almost like flirting. Then he flew off, leaving her to eat alone, her rouge-red bill bright against her drab khaki plumage and the black sunflower seeds.

Red feathers, rouged beak--
there's just something sensual
about cardinals.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June 9: Cuckoo

My co-worker Joe, who spends most of his time these days working at the Land Trust's Beech Hill Preserve, reported that he heard two cuckoos calling while he was on the hill today. The cuckoo is traditionally found on season-lists of words (kigo in Japanese) used in haiku that are associated with summer. Hototogisu, the Lesser Cuckoo, was used so often throughout many centuries of Japanese poetry that it became a cliche, standard poetic shorthand to indicate summer.

Here's an 8th century cuckoo poem by Otomo no Yakamochi, from "A Haiku Menagerie" by Stephen Addiss, in which the use of the cuckoo resonates beyond that of poetic device:

In the summer mountains
on the leafy treetops
the cuckoo sings--
and echoing back from afar
comes his distant voice.

And a lovely haiku by Ryota, written a thousand years later (causing me to pause in awe as I consider the tremendous history and tradition of poetry in Japan):

The cuckoo
with a single call
has established summer.

On Beech Hill cuckoos aren't heard often enough to become a cliche. Perhaps the ones Joe heard today were trying to tell him something: time's passing and summer's almost here. The passing of time and the ephemerality of life are often the Zen-like essence of haiku. And one thing we understand here in Maine is the brevity of summer.

Draw one more poem
about cuckoos and summer
from that deep old well.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

June 8: Waxwings

Even over the sounds of my washing machine, the neighbor's lawnmower, the Red Sox game on t.v., and the crunching in my mouth of a handful of Annie's Organic Snack Mix Bunnies (my new favorite junk food!), I can hear the high-pitched lisping calls of a small flock of waxwings somewhere in the vicinity of my front yard. This time of year cedar waxwings are primarily flycatchers, switching from an off-season diet heavy in berries and fruits to insects. Birds need protein too. And here along the river, we've got plenty of flies. So thankfully, we're graced by the presence of these beautiful birds. It (almost) makes up for all these damn flies.

Yesterday evening I could hear waxwings while I was gardening, but try as I might, I couldn't see them as they moved in the shadows of the leaves. I was reminded of the resonant final lines of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Brazil, January 1, 1502," in which she describes Portuguese soldiers chasing through the jungle "those maddening little women who kept calling, / calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?) / and retreating, always retreating, behind it." I like to think of the waxwings flitting and whispering behind the green tapestry of leaves as feathered natives teasing me from the jungle of my yard. Unlike the conquistadors, I don't want to catch them. I just enjoy knowing they're there, hearing their gentle calls as they glean their dinner.

Soft voices in trees--
flitting, gregarious birds.
It's a lawn party!

Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7: Bowl of Peonies

Before the recent rains began, my peonies were little round balls of buds. Apparently the deluge inspired them to burst into full bloom. The top-heavy plants were then pounded by rain. This morning the stems and blossoms were splayed on the lawn.

After work I was finally able to mow the back yard and pay my garden a little attention. The first thing I did was string up the peony plants. So now they're upright once more, releasing the day lilies that were crushed beneath those thick stems and giant white flowers. To help keep them up, I trimmed some of the damp, frowsy blooms to display in a glass bowl as a table centerpiece. Their heady scent released by the rain and their pink-fringed frilly petals make them a most romantic addition to my kitchen decor.

Interestingly, the peony is a very common masculine tattoo image in Japan, associated with gamblers and warriors. The Chinese regarded the peony as an important symbol of wealth and prosperity, and it was the national flower of China at the turn of the last century. In Catholic European tradition, the peony is one of the many symbols of the Virgin Mary. After watching several episodes last night of "The Tudors," however, I'm thinking of them more as blushing young ladies-in-waiting, skirts and petticoats akimbo. Yet my haiku is more affected, I think, by the unexpected passing this morning of a friend of my parents.

My bowl o' peonies. Additional blossoms visible out the window in the background.

Dancing girls and kings,
peony petals--these too
must all pass away.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

June 6: Soaked

I did actually bring my raincoat on my shopping excursion to Freeport late this morning, but, as it was only sprinkling when I got out of my car, figured a sweater and a hat were good enough for walking around town. Wrong!

LL Bean must have a metal roof, because from the second floor, the downpour--which contained hailstones--sounded like a big freight train of a storm roaring through. A more sensible person would have hung out inside waiting for the deluge to subside. Or bought an umbrella, at least. But I was tired of shopping and wanted to get home. It looked like it was brightening in the western sky. How bad could it really be out there?

Pretty bad. Well, at least it wasn't cold. But ankle deep water running in wide streams down the streets, heavy rain increasing in intensity, and thunder and lightning so loud and close that a few timid tourists actually screamed (don't they have thunder in New Jersey?) added up to me getting utterly soaked to the skin. I find a warm rain invigorating, so at first it was kind of fun. But I had a long ride ahead of me with no spare, dry clothing to change into. So the goosebumps and clinging jeans got old fast. At least there was a great blue heron winging overhead and several ospreys to distract me--every river crossed by Route One seems to host an osprey or two keeping an eye out for late-arriving alewives, and the nest on the median in Bath was definitely occupied.

Despite blasting the heat all the way home, I was still soaked and chilled 1-1/2 hours later when I pulled into the driveway. My husband seemed confused and intrigued as I began stripping off my clothes inside the doorway. He was less intrigued when I then immediately donned about four layers of fleece and flannel.

And it's still raining. The river's running high and brown. If anything, these few wet days have made the green outside more vibrant and intense than ever. The joy I feel at the beauty before me out the window now is finally starting to warm me up.

Undaunted by rain
ospreys hang over river's
brown, fish-filled torrents.

The river after the rain stopped this evening

Saturday, June 5, 2010

June 5: Thunder

A real storm rolled through early this morning, the loud peals of thunder waking me and the cat several times (my husband sleeps through almost anything). At one point the lightning was flickering so frequently that I got up to make sure that a streetlight hadn't been struck. It was like a strobe light on the wet, pre-dawn streets of the neighborhood.

Thunder doesn't frighten me as it did when I was a child. I remember my father telling me when I was very young that even though the thunder sounds like it's booming right over the house, it's really far away. He explained how sounds travels more slowly than light, how if he rang a bell at the end of our street, I'd see the bell move before I heard it ring. For some reason it reassured me to know that there was some science behind the rumbling roars that startled me in the middle of the night. Maybe thinking about the bell just gave me something else to focus on.

Now when I'm awakened by a thunderstorm, I think of other things: how my husband was struck by lightning once and for years was terrified whenever a storm crashed overhead. Or how the sky gods were always the rulers in ancient pantheons, wielding their lightning bolts and thunder claps to keep humans and fellow deities in line. Or how we've really needed this rain after weeks of perfect, sunny weather, to renew the earth and maintain this lush green with its abundance of early blossoms that we've all been enjoying so much. We relish it because it's so strange to us here in Maine--the true spring that we always deserve after winter but never really get.

And now our first big thunderstorm ushers in summer, just two weeks away, with a bang.

Thunder beckoned forth
riverside iris, yellow
as summer sunlight.

Friday, June 4, 2010

June 4: River

After an excellent early dinner at the new restaurant Shepherd's Pie in Rockport village, I arrived home with a sated belly and an urge to take a brisk walk. (Listening to the Rolling Stones on the drive home also helped get me jazzed up for some activity.)

As the days lengthen, it feels like such a luxury to have sun and blue sky after dinner. I tied on my sneakers and hit the pavement. The birds were still singing: house finch, black-and-white warbler, robins, cardinal. Flowers are bustin' out all over the neighborhood, including a lawn full of purple lupines up the street at my office. On Washington Street I followed a young man as he carried a six-pack two houses down, obviously ready to jump start his weekend. It feels like mid-summer already. It smells like summer--fresh-mown lawns and someone grilling on the next block.

As I crossed over the Megunticook River, I breathed deeply. This time of year the water smells clean, like fresh-caught fish and swimming. Now back at home, that same river rushes past the house, beautifully audible through the open windows.

River carries light
on its back, silvery fish,
birdsong's liquid notes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June 3: Strawberries

After several months of eating those pale, oversized strawberries "from away," I was in raptures this morning over my first taste of the first summer strawberries from Beth's Farmstand in Warren. Nothing beats a sun-ripened, locally grown berry eaten right from the box--a true mouthful of ambrosia. I was immediately carried back to my childhood, when it was considered a privilege to be allowed to pick the strawberries in my grandmother's carefully tended patch. And of course my sister and I ate our fill while doing so. If I close my eyes, I can feel the heat on the pine needles spread on the berry beds, hear the sharp chipping of the chipmunk waiting for its share, and taste that sweet, perfectly ripe berry on the tip of my tongue. (My sister turns 40 today, so the memory broadens to include the long summer days we spent playing on our grandparents' saltwater farm so long ago...)

Some native Americans referred to the full moon in June as the Strawberry Moon. I can only imagine how amazing those tiny wild strawberries must have tasted to them after months without fresh fruit. They're only the size of a fingernail, but those berries pack a lot of flavor.

Once on a birding field trip in the boreal forest of Downeast Maine, we were walking along a dirt road looking for black-backed woodpeckers among the spruce trees, and I paused to pick a few wild strawberries. Who can resist? The trip leader snapped at me, "Leave those for the birds!" I could only laugh, feeling pretty certain that if the birds were that hungry, they'd have beaten me to those two or three little berries before I was even awake that morning.

A friend told me today that his berries are starting to ripen, early for his garden. He said his first berry was ripe on May 31, the earliest he'd ever eaten a home-grown strawberry. He's already daydreaming about the first strawberry shortcake of summer.

Still warm from the sun,
ripe strawberry disappears
into the child's mouth.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

June 2: Home

I was away for three days on Monhegan, spent a night at home, then drove to Massachusetts the next day for an overnight in Marblehead (and an evening at Fenway) with my sister and her family. So when I pulled into the driveway this afternoon, stepped out of my car, and heard the familiar warbling song of the neighborhood red-eyed vireo, I felt a reassuring sense of home-coming. There he is, where he's supposed to be, singing the song I'll probably hear all summer long. And I too am thus welcomed back to where I'm supposed to be.

He sings of mown lawns,
irises blooming, foggy
mornings: vireo.

June 1: Night at Fenway

Midnight, and we just got back to my sister and brother-in-law's house from watching the Red Sox win a come-from-behind victory versus the Oakland A's. Despite thunderstorm warnings, we enjoyed a beautiful night--in a t-shirt on June 1!--with amazing field box seats looking right at home plate. It seemed like it was going to be an Oakland blow out, but then the Sox rallied in the sixth with Beltre's home run into the Monster seats and ended up winning 9-4. Also cool was the pedicab ride to and from Fenway. Our first cyclist was coincidentally the son of people my sister and I know in Maine; the second was a stand-up comedian in his free time (and apparently also on his bike).

Hot night at Fenway:
Beltre's belting made up for
Lackey lacking strikes.