Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 31: Rattle and Hum

Last day of August. The evening air throbs with the music of crickets and other insects. Slowly the sun sinks behind the trees, but heat lingers. The air is very still as if it, like me, is too hot for movement. As I refill the bird feeders (the birds, at least, were active today, draining the thistle sock of every last little seed), a kingfisher rattles not far off, above the river. The river flows through a shaded tunnel of trees, and I imagine how deliriously wonderful it must feel for the bird to dive into that cool water.

Joy is everywhere:
in kingfisher's noisy dive,
in twilight's soft hum.

Monday, August 30, 2010

August 30: Calm

As I look out the window at a perfect blue sky and feel the warm breeze on my bare arms, hear the rustle of leaves and the pulse of the crickets, it's difficult to imagine that a few thousand miles away down the coast, Hurricane Earl is gathering force. Declared a Category Three storm this morning, with sustained winds of up to 120 MPH, Earl is on track to hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the next few days. Up to 12 inches of rain is predicted for some of the Caribbean islands, in addition to the storm surge caused by the high winds. By this coming holiday weekend, we could potentially be seeing waves and residual rain from Earl on our coast. But right now, on this beautiful summer afternoon, all that turmoil seems unfathomable. It feels more like tropical siesta time.

With a major storm like Earl brewing to the south, I think of the migrating birds. Many meteorologists predict that global climate change will bring more frequent tropical storms and extend the hurricane season. So these storms are going to overlap more and more with clouds of southbound birds headed right toward them. Birds have a good sense of air pressure and know enough not to fly into the face of a hurricane, but when a hurricane is heading toward you, staying perched doesn't help. So in addition to the obvious human impact, these weather patterns will affect migrating birds, bats, and butterflies, as well. As if they didn't have enough trouble on their journey negotiating the gauntlet of skyscrapers, cell towers, highways, cats, and oil spills...

Serene summer beach.
Yet in this same ocean brews
hurricane turmoil.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

August 29: Spider

When the weekend days are steamy like today, the last thing on my "to do" list is anything that resembles a household chore. That includes sweeping up spider webs outside my front door, as much as they creep me out. I know, as a naturalist I shouldn't be bothered by any of nature's wild creatures, but a few things just get me: especially tent caterpillars, earwigs, and big spiders. So when I stepped out the front door this morning and noticed a medium-sized spider perched on a thick tangle of cobweb tucked between the door frame and the porch rail, right under the mailbox, my first inclination was to brush off the web. But as I brought my hand down, the motion scared a much larger spider, which I hadn't seen at first, into the back of the web. The smaller spider turned out to be trapped prey. The big one was in charge. That in itself startled me so much that I left the whole thing intact. And it's still there.

Coming back from a walk into town just now I checked out the web. Smaller, probably paralyzed spider still hangs in the middle of the web. (I can't help but think of Frodo caught by Shelob the spider monster in "Lord of the Rings"). And, well, Shelob herself is still hanging out in a sort of funnel-like cave in her web. The web's in a good spot--lots of flies and other insects are drawn to our porch light. But it's just a little too close to the front doorknob. Some cooler day when I have more energy, the web will have to go. Hopefully Shelob will easily relocate herself to some less obvious spot. And not feel the need to take any kind of revenge on me. 

Sorry, big spider.
You're not trying to frighten.
Webs are what you know.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

August 28: Orange Moon

Although the moon has begun to wane, it is no less impressive when it rises, as I discovered last night on my drive back from dinner in Rockland. Tired, I was only thinking about getting home when I started up Powerhouse Hill on Route One in Glen Cove. For a few seconds you get a glimpse of the bay over Clam Cove, and there was the moon: huge, orange, slightly lopsided, still low, rising just above the water. I gasped and almost pulled over. But then I decided my one awestruck moment was enough and continued home with that image of the moon burned into my head.

A glimpse of the bay,
and--oh!--orange moon rising,
almost full, all mine.

Soundtrack: Erykah Badu, "Orange Moon"

Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27: Loon at Noon

Although it's not unusual to sometimes see loons on the river near my office, I don't usually hear them here. At high noon on this sunny late summer day, however, the repeated calls of a loon rode the breeze down the river and in through my office windows--a nice reminder for me that while I work away inside, water and birds are not too far away outside.

Of course I instantly began to play in my head with the words loon and noon... The loon calls at noon near the full moon. Too soon? The mouth loves making those long "oo" sounds. No wonder kids learning to talk like "Goodnight, Moon" so much. Or books about loons. Around here most children know what a loon is and can imitate for you what sound it makes as soon as they're old enough to talk.

But beyond the wordplay, I also enjoyed the fact that this timely loon served as my lunch bell today. I don't know what made me check the time when I heard its calls, but when I did, I was surprised to see that it was noon. I'd thought it was much earlier in the day. I was reminded how when the woolen mill was still operating in downtown Camden, its whistle for lunch breaks and shift changes set the schedule for the whole town. When you heard it go off in the afternoon, you knew it was 4:00, for example. Perhaps this loon is the same punctual bird that calls while flying upriver every morning at 7:30.

Flute-song of the loon
celebrates the sun at noon.
And wind, and crickets.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

August 26: Hypnotic Hummingbird

As I stood on the outside deck of a friend's mountainside home today, hummingbirds swarmed and screeched below me. Ten or more of these feisty little birds zipped around the feeders, chasing each other, perching nearby, feeding on the sugar water, and otherwise buzzing in and out of sight within the leaves of the surrounding oak trees. I haven't seen this many in one place in a long time. My friend says they have to refill their four feeders every two days now. Activity around the feeders has picked up in the past couple of weeks, and he and his wife think the birds must be fattening up to get ready for migration. We all marveled over how amazing it is that such little creatures can travel so far--although if you watch them in action, they certainly don't seem fragile in any way other than size. They can hold their own.

A chipping sparrow flew onto a branch below me. As I watched, a hummingbird hovered in front of it and dipped back and forth, tracing an arc in the air like a pendulum, over and over. I've seen hummingbirds perform territorial displays like that with each other, especially species out west, but I don't recall seeing one pull that on a bird of another species altogether. Perhaps it was simply checking out the sparrow, but it seemed more deliberate than that--like the hummer was trying to make a point with its ritualistic repetition. It swung in front of the sparrow a dozen times or more, but the larger bird didn't even seem to notice, and it certainly wasn't scared away by the hummingbird's display. Perhaps, as I was, it was simply fascinated.

Swinging a green gem,
your body, you hypnotize
a watching sparrow.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

August 25: Field in the Rain

In the middle of a torrential rainstorm, I await my co-worker (who has the key) at the Tranquility Grange in Lincolnville. I'm sitting in my car, listening to music and admiring the raindrop-distorted view out my windows.

I could sit here for hours, I think, contemplating the wild beauty of these fields and the old, shingled grange hall, inside of which, I know, all is dry, warm, and a little musty. We will sit on long, numbered pews with horsehair cushions within walls featuring historic plates and old letters, while outside the rain will continue to fall. This is the rural Maine I love. 

Fields in a downpour--
lush, wet, beautiful tangle.
Me, dry in my car.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August 24: Woodpile

My neighbors have finished stacking their wood. Across the street several cords are neatly piled about eight feet high on a wooden platform. There's another tight stack on pallets alongside their porch. And yet another one next to their shed. By virtue of many hours of splitting and stacking by our energetic neighbor, minimally assisted by the older of his five kids, the heap of loose logs that was dumped in their driveway in midsummer has been transformed into these ideal symbols of a traditional New England lifestyle. And our neighbors probably feel pretty good when they look out the window, too. They're ready for winter before summer's even passed. (And they're relying on a renewable resource to heat their home.)

We heated with wood when I was growing up, and I have many memories of my dad splitting four-foot lengths into logs that would fit into our wood stove while my sister and I stacked. I can't say these are especially fond memories, though we were able to appreciate the tangible results of our work at day's end: a neat woodpile. I was even less fond of the chore of filling the woodbox. Bark would scrape off on my arms or my clothes, spiders would crawl off the logs, or I'd get an awkward load and drop everything in the snow. I didn't realize it at the time, but it turns out the wood smoke also exacerbated my asthma. So fortunately for my arms and my lungs, my husband and I heat our house with propane. But somehow I don't get the same satisfaction looking at the two white tanks out back as I do when I look across at my neighbor's woodpiles.

Neatly stacked woodpiles
surround the house, awaiting
winter's arrival.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23: Crow Neighborhood

A family group of five crows lives in my neighborhood. Every morning when I wake up I hear them conversing along the river, cawing back and forth. They seem to have a lot to say first thing in the morning, and it involves a bit of whining from the young crows. During the day they periodically get worked up about something outside my office and make a big racket that, like today, often gets the blue jays involved, but I haven't been able to see what they're all yelling about. Sometimes I'll drive by a lawn and see five black crows scattered across the mown green grass, calmly grazing. One big happy family. I tried to leave some over-ripe peaches out on the office lawn for them, but of course they all flew off as soon as I opened the door.

Aware of the crows,
I listen for them all day,
offer them peaches.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22: Scarborough Marsh

Change is in the air at Scarborough Marsh. Along Eastern Road trail, the leaves of some of the wild cherry bushes were already turning red. At high tide with little of the mud flats exposed, shorebirds weren't easy to see. They flew overhead, moving from one low patch to another, their high-pitched calls drifting across the marsh on the warm air.

Above the marsh grass, the white heads of egrets catch the eye. From Eastern Road the view is wide enough that we could see a harrier dipping above a field of goldenrod on the far side of the marsh. Over another part of the marsh 14 crows returned to the trees, having successfully escorted a red-tail out of their airspace.

We walked out between the pannes on a beaten trail and got close looks at some bright young least sandpipers. A snowy egret ran back and forth in the shallow water. A Canada goose raised its head from behind a hummock. On the walk back, in a pool on the other side of the road we picked out a little blue heron among some egrets. A few crickets hummed in the faded grass. Only a couple of salt marsh sparrows remained, scuttling from tuft to tuft, and the swallow nesting boxes are empty now.

Some leaves reddening.
Plaintive calls of sandpipers
shifting with the tide.

August 21: For Charlie

We spent a good portion of the day at the Wellesley Country Club celebrating the life of Charlie Palmer, who would have been 76 today. The father of my best friend, he was one of the kindest, most generous-hearted human beings I've ever known. The event was a true celebration--not without tears, but also with a lot of laughter because that's the kind of person he was. Around him there was always laughter, stories, and genuine caring for whomever he was with.

The photo on the back of the program featured Charlie standing up on a chair giving an extravagant toast at our wedding. We felt like family with Charlie, as did, I think, everyone in that crowded room, only some of whom were actual family. Charlie, my man, we miss you. You have left a large void in our lives, and we're all going to have to be better people to help fill it. This one's for you:

Charlie, your friend dreamed
where you are there is baseball.
That is excellent.

Friday, August 20, 2010

August 20: Waterfront

Friday after work, having a vodka tonic on the deck at the Waterfront with two friends I've known since high school. Sun shining on the harbor, sailboats drifting past. Osprey circling overhead. Mount Battie catching the day's last, rich rays of light. Sometimes I just feel so grateful to live here.

Rich afternoon light
falling on the harbor, boats.
I'm here. I'm happy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19: The Fog

My sister and her family are visiting from Massachusetts, so tonight we organized an al fresco lobster feed at my parents' house on the river. It was a warm evening with no bugs, and we hung out on the back lawn with beer and chips while the baby was put to bed, catching up. Paul saw a huge fish jump. A raven croaked nearby. I tried to teach my niece how to throw a frisbee. Good, relaxing family time.

Just as dinner was ready to be served, we noticed a fog creeping up the river. Actually, creeping is not the right word, as that makes it sound like this was a slow, gradual progression. The fog was speeding up the river like something possessed. I half expected ghosts of pirates to jump out of the mist. Before we'd even finished cracking open the first lobster claw, the river backdrop was completely blanked out. A white screen. From within that whiteness we heard loons call. At one point my mother's sharp eyes picked out the silvery wake of the beaver on its habitual evening swim upriver. A flock of geese flew noisily past, but we never saw them.

On the drive home, the sky was clear over Mount Megunticook and Mount Battie. We could see a planet hanging bright and low over the ridge line to the east, and thanks to the Planets app on my iPad, we learned that it was Jupiter. Clear to the east, fog bank clinging to the course of the river to the west.

Fog whites out our view:
no sunset, no loons, no geese,
just calls in the mist.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18: Turkeys

Early this morning on my way to Beech Hill I had to stop for traffic. Although in a few hours the steady line of cars would once more be streaming along Route One, at 6:30 a.m. on a back road in sleepy Rockport, Maine, it wasn't cars that were holding me up. It was a flock of turkeys. As I stopped the car and watched several hens rush out of the way, a small flock of poults scattering behind them, I was reminded of a childhood visit to Scotland when we frequently had to stop the car for a flock of free-roaming sheep, or--my favorite--Scottish long-haired cows. There's something special about living in a place where one has to stop for animals on a regular basis.

The turkey flock looked healthy and certainly moved off the road with agility for such large birds. They're such odd-looking creatures, especially the young ones with their skinny necks and awkward bodies. But they can run. The acorns and beechnuts are beginning to drop onto the forest floor, and these mast crops make up a big part of a turkey's diet. So I imagine I'll be stopping for more than one flock of foraging turkeys in the weeks ahead.

Morning turkey trot
as my car scatters the flock.
An excuse to pause.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17: Milkweed Pods

In the field out back the milkweed pods swell on stalks like oddly-shaped cucumbers--strange, pregnant fruits of late summer. It seems like just last week I was writing about the perfume of the flowers. Now all that remains of those flowers are darkened curls of dried up stems. Upright like tiny ears of corn, the green pods ridged with soft "spikes" grow fatter and fatter on the plants. Come fall these pods will burst open to release seeds attached to silky little streamers that disperse on the breeze like down. But for now they're ripening in the sun, maturing for that future harvest by the wind.

Milkweed pods swelling,
preparing to celebrate
summer's end with Poof!

Monday, August 16, 2010

August 16: Hummingbirds

When my friend Diane calls me at an odd time at work, I know she's seen a cool bird in her yard. This afternoon was no exception. "I've got a rusty red hummingbird with a red throat here," she said. I was at her house in minutes.
Rufous Hummingbird, male; Rockport, Maine
And there he was, a male rufous hummingbird in all his shining red glory. He spent most of the hour I was there perched in a tree, where he stood out like an autumn leaf. He perched in full view with an eye on her hummingbird feeder. I only saw him approach it to feed once, when I took the above photo. But whenever a ruby-throated hummingbird, the native species you'd normally expect to see here, tried to feed, he would swoop down and chase it away. He was slightly bigger and puffier than the natives, which apparently made him somewhat of a bully.

For reasons other than his obvious beauty, seeing this hummingbird is a big deal. Look in a bird book and you'll see that rufous hummingbirds live far west of the Mississippi. The only other ones I've seen have been in the Rocky Mountains. But occasionally one will go astray during migration and show up in New England. I've never heard of one being seen around here, though, and I've certainly never been so fortunate as to see one in Maine. 

While we were watching (and trying to photograph) the rufous hummingbird and the comings-and-goings of the resident ruby-throats, our attention was drawn to movement in a potted jasmine plant on Diane's porch. At first we thought it might be another hummingbird, but we quickly realized that it was an insect. A hummingbird moth, to be specific--a very cool moth that looks just like a hummingbird. I think I've only seen one or two of these before, so it was almost exciting a sighting as the  errant rufous hummingbird.
Hummingbird Moth
This afternoon's sightings reminded me--you should always keep your eyes open on what's buzzing around your back yard!

Hummingbird--so small
your body, so fierce your heart.
May you burn brightly. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

August 15: Perfume

These humid days when I'm puttering in the herb garden plucking and trimming, aromas of the bruised leaves hang heavy in the air. Imagine the licorice fragrance of fennel mixed with the tang of lemon thyme. Or the sharp pungency of chives blended with the soothing tones of lavender. Or parsley, sage, and mown grass. The palette of potential perfumes is endless and ephemeral. Like these fleeting weeks of summer when I can spend a morning in my garden with the sun hot on my hair, breathing the scented air deeply and with great joy.

No better perfume
than these crushed leaves of thyme, mint,
rubbed on my warm throat.

Speaking of herbs and summer, when I was in Portland on Friday a friend recommended the new Mount Desert Island Ice Cream shop on Exchange Street. "You've got to get the blueberry basil sorbet," he said. Intrigued, I passed up other unusual ice cream flavors like lavender, salt caramel, and Jack Daniels and got the sorbet. If ever a flavor embodied summer, that was it. Think a mouth full of juicy berries with the fresh, green after-taste of basil. No wonder this is where President Obama went for his infamous ice cream cone when he and his family vacationed on Mount Desert Island last month. (According to a sign posted in this new offshoot of that original Bar Harbor shop, he ordered coconut.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

August 14: The Call of the Sea

It's rather ironic that as I sit on my back porch about to write a post about waking up this morning to the sound of an osprey chirping overhead, I can hear the cheesy carnival-esque music of an ice cream truck making its slow pass through our neighborhood. There's something about ice cream trucks (and clowns, for that matter) that creeps me out, although I'm sure to children with more innocent minds the music is as saliva-inducing as Pavlov's bell was to his dog.

When I awoke on yet another perfect summer morning today and heard the osprey before I even got out of bed, I thought to myself that I don't think I could live where I wouldn't hear that, or at the very least, the sound of gulls. That reminded me of something in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books, when Legolas, a prince of the wood elves, is told that if he hears the gulls, he'll never return to his forest realm. I'm not sure if that was meant to be a straightforward prophecy--for he does hear gulls when he reaches the sea and ends up spending his life traveling Middle Earth with his dwarf companion--or if there was something more implied.

Personally, having grown up in midcoast Maine, I think there was more to it. I wouldn't want to live for any amount of time away from the ocean and the cries of the gulls and ospreys. I like to imagine that once Legolas saw the sea, its lure was inescapable, so that he could never be satisfied with life in Mirkwood Forest again. Of course, coming from a place called Mirkwood, it seems like the attractions of  the sea would be obvious--sunlight on waves, the expanse of the open water, sea birds twinkling overhead... I guess what I love best about this place that is my home is the perfect combination of waterfront and woods--I can wake to ospreys as well as to a cardinal's whistle and the rustle of wind in the leaves. I can hike for several hours on mountain trails shaded by big old trees and be rewarded at the top with an ocean view: the best of both worlds.

A few minutes ago, my husband (in a nearby lawn chair) told me that he could smell the sea. He too grew up near the ocean and understands how fortunate we are to be able to sit beneath an ash tree alongside the river, breathing in salt air--and also, how inevitable, as if we could bear to be anywhere else.

With an osprey's voice
the sea wakes us up, beckons,
its blue doors open.

Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13: Perseids

The Perseid meteor shower peaks today. This summer shower always carries a festive connotation for me, because it coincides with my friend Woody's birthday. Woody and I used to work at a writers conference in Vermont together every August, the dates of which always overlapped with his birthday. However we chose to celebrate (and being writers, we were creative--think pinatas, night swimming, tequila), the evening was never complete without a viewing of the meteor shower from some strategic point on the conference's rural campus. I don't think there's a better place to watch falling stars than one of the Bread Loaf hayfields surrounded by the profound dark of the Green Mountain National Forest. Our viewing was often punctuated by the howling of coyotes hunting in the river valley. Their wild yipping and the usually dramatic meteor show seemed the perfect birthday celebration. (As I said in my post two days ago, sometimes when it's your birthday, good things seem to revolve around you.)

After the Red Sox hit their fourth home run against Texas tonight (and their third in a row!), it seemed safe to leave the game for a few minutes to step out back and see if the sky was clear. It was, so I decided to stay out long enough to see one falling star. Perseus rises directly over our roof, so I had an unobstructed view. What I at first thought was a faint haze was, I realized when my eyes had adjusted, the Milky Way. My celestial observations were accompanied by an acoustic guitar sing-along on our neighbors' back porch tonight, creating an enjoyable if unusual atmosphere in which to watch the night sky. I was reminded a bit of those past summers at Bread Loaf.

I saw a falling star in less than five minutes and realize now that I should have made a wish on it for the Red Sox: Texas has since responded with three home runs of their own. Friday the 13th does not appear to be our star pitcher Josh Beckett's lucky day. But I'm happy nonetheless and look forward to going out to the back yard to rack up a few more wishes after the game.

Meteor shower:
Perseus tosses out stars,
each pitch a bright wish.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

August 12: TVs on the Tower

Yesterday on a hike up Ragged Mountain we emerged from the woods onto the rocky ledges of the ridge to the sight of four turkey vultures (known in birder parlance as TVs) soaring past at eye level. They then made such a close pass overhead that I wondered if they could smell the tuna sandwiches in our backpacks. Like us, they seemed to be enjoying the beautiful day, tilting and circling on the thermals--the hot air rising off the mountain--with what looked like acrobatic joy above the summit. TVs are skillful fliers, and to watch one at such close range makes one imagine leaping off the rocks, arms spread wide, to give it a try. It's worked for me in dreams, at least.

A radio/communications tower stands at attention rather incongruously on the otherwise rugged and wild heights of Ragged. I couldn't help but laugh when I observed one of the vultures soar close to the tower and then land on it. Of course its many crossbars makes an ideal perch, and at one point as we skirted the ridge line I counted eight vultures perched at various levels on the tower and more flying nearby. It looked like they were making the most of this human-made structure that had sprouted on their mountaintop. I guess vultures are opportunistic in more ways than just as carrion eaters. I admire their adaptability.

Mountaintop tower--
to us, ugly; to vultures,
a convenient perch.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11: Loon Birthday

When it's a special day, a birthday, it can sometimes seem like every good thing that happens is for your benefit. The universe revolves around you, celebrates your very existence. That's a good birthday.

Today is my mom's birthday, and while she was relaxing in a lawn chair out on her float on the river this morning, she got her gift: the two resident adult loons and their fuzzy brown chick approached within ten feet of her. My mom has been watching this baby loon's development since it was hatched, so it's virtually part of the family at this point. If she doesn't see it every day, she worries. The loons, of course, were wishing her a happy birthday. And the parents were teaching their youngster a lesson, catching a fish and dropping it in the water in front of the chick so it could learn how to catch fish for itself. The true gift was their letting my mother observe such intimate animal behavior up close.

Thankfully, the universe continues to revolve around Mom tonight, as the Red Sox, her favorite team (and mine), seem on their way to another victory versus Toronto.

A touching side note about my mother's birthday: when my sister told my four-year-old niece Fiona that today was Nanny's birthday, she burst into tears, upset that Nanny was "getting old and would die." My niece's universe revolves around my mother for sure!

Loon family visit--
river offers up this gift.
Happy birthday, Mom!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 10: Dwellings (of sorts)

Who lives here? On a hike through the woods today on a conserved property in Lincolnville, I came across this den. Do groundhogs live in the woods? It's about the right size for them. A little discovery like this always gives me pause, makes me wish I were more woods-wise. And there's that part of me that wants to stick my arm in the hole and see what's in there...

Deeper in the woods, near some of the largest trees I've ever seen in the Midcoast (ash, pine, aspen) and a striking patch of glowing white baneberry, we came across this interesting stone structure.
No one had a clue about what it might be. The opening doesn't go in more than three or four feet, so it doesn't look like a place where something would have lived, but perhaps the rocks at the back of the opening caved in at some point in the past.

Here's a photo with people to give some perspective:
Property owner Rick Ledwith (top) and Orvil Young
Others on the outing suggested that it might be a lime kiln or even a burial mound of some sort. It made me think of purported sacred sites made out of stone that I remembering hearing about in Vermont: "megalithic mysteries." I was reminded of Skara Brae, a prehistoric stone village I visited in the Orkney Islands of Scotland when I was a kid. There's probably a more practical explanation for this interesting structure, such as its being a crude farming shed: these woods were lined with old stone walls indicating that the area had been pastureland around the end of the 1800s. But I prefer to imagine that inside that south-facing opening one might find runic carvings on the stones or perhaps discover that it aligns with the sun's rays on the Summer Solstice.

Or, really stretching my imagination--maybe it was a dwelling for wood elves. Maybe it still is. Such crazy thoughts added a little more mystery, a little more wild magic to these woods so close to a major road and several houses, bisected by a snowmobile trail and power lines. And that feeling was only enhanced by the haunting call of a loon on nearby Megunticook Lake.

Never really tamed,
these woods still harbor strange caves,
poisonous berries.

Monday, August 9, 2010

August 9: New Moon

No, I'm not referring to Stephenie Meyer's vampire book. Tonight the Current Moon Phase gadget on my Google home page tells me that the moon is 0% full: a new moon. Although I guess technically if the new moon is the thin slice of moon filling up again tomorrow night, tonight is really "no moon." The lack of moonlight would make this a wonderful evening to check out the stars if it weren't cloudy.

The new moon, when the moon is a big black zero in the sky, happens once a month when the moon is in direct conjunction with the sun, meaning that the earth, moon, and sun are aligned in such a way that we see no sunlight reflecting off the moon. We're reminded that the moon's phases are all a trick of light and mirrors, that the dry moon itself gives off no light of its own. Our faithful satellite floats invisibly in the dark void until the earth and sun shift enough for us to see that sliver of reflected light again. Day by day the area of light grows--the moon waxes--until the full moon. Then it wanes till there's no moonlight at all--the new moon again. A lovely cycle, setting up a perfect metaphor of the cycle of life, birth and death, beginnings and endings.

Perhaps this is why in so many religious calendars around the world--Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist, and Jewish--a new month begin on either the day of the "no moon" or that of the brand-new moon, when that first crescent shines along the moon's rim. The Muslim month Ramadan, a deeply spiritual time of fasting each day from sunrise to sunset, begins with this new moon, for example. For Hindus, the new moon is Amavasya, an auspicious day, a time to pay respects to one's ancestors and make offerings. A new moon on Monday, the moon's day, like today, is particularly significant and various Hindu rituals are performed depending on where one lives. There's something I find particularly intriguing about celebrating the dark, a time when the moon disappears and we have only the stars left to guide us.

No light of its own,
new moon is no moon, blank disk
awaiting the sun.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

August 8: Morning on the Marsh

Starting in early August each summer I try to make regular visits to Weskeag Marsh, a significant salt marsh in South Thomaston, to observe the shorebirds on their migration. Believe it or not, this southward movement is already underway.

Weskeag is an experience for the senses. On this still, sultry morning, the salt pannes were low, with fragrant marsh mud exposed around the near-dry pools. Mosquitoes swarmed each time I paused, but not enough to distract me. Cicadas whined in the trees, and crickets chirped in the grass. The marsh is a dynamic place always, thanks to the cycles of tides and the movement of birds. Although relatively quiet today bird-wise, it never disappoints. In the pannes closest to the parking lot, several killdeer milled in the reeds, occasionally calling with strident voices. Further out, tiny fish called mummichugs churned in the deeper channels cut through the mud. I was thankful for my knee-high rubber boots after stepping off the path at one point and sinking into about six inches of the mucky black silt. Bird tracks were etched onto the drying surface of the pannes, ranging from what looked like turkey tracks to webbed duck tracks to the tracks of little sandpipers almost too light to make an impression.

In the wide pannes, yellowlegs moved through the shallow water, feeding. Their three-note "too too too" call never fails to stir my heart a little, as it evokes this special place so well. These larger sandpipers are absent from the marsh only a few months a year, as they pass through heading north to their Arctic breeding grounds in early spring through late June, and can be seen on their journey back south in late July through November.

Swarming around the feet of the yellowlegs were several dozen least sandpipers--adults on their return trip and young birds on their first migration. You can tell them apart because the adult's feathers are worn, making the bird look faded next to the "freshly minted copper penny" plumage of this summer's youngster. These tiny birds have a journey still ahead of them, which accounts for their near ceaseless feeding as they fatten up for the long haul. In the back of the marsh a few dozen shining white snowy egrets and a handful of  great blue herons stood amid the higher marsh grass. Every now and then one would rise up and fly to a new spot, reminding me that these beauties were tucked away back there.

As I paused with my spotting scope to check out some sandpipers, I heard something crashing in the woods beyond. I looked up from the scope, and to my surprise three deer walked out into the marsh--two sleek does in their warm brown summer coats and one spotted fawn. I tried to be still as they picked their way along the edge of the marsh and looked up repeatedly. Even the fawn had already learned to be on heightened alert. One doe calmly turned and went back into the trees, but the other doe with fawn moved along until I lost sight of them in the tall cattails. Beautiful animals. May they remain wary and survive.

Just for being there
I was blessed with this: three deer,
unafraid, and birds.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

August 7: Sleeping in the Car

My mother has told me that when I was a baby the only way they could get me to fall asleep sometimes was to put me in the car and drive me around for awhile. I guess old habits die hard, because if I'm in a moving vehicle for more than 45 minutes--and I'm not the one driving, of course--I very often fall asleep. Yesterday I fell asleep on the ferry back from Vinalhaven (and woke just outside the Rockland Breakwater to see the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes in full sail). This afternoon I fell asleep as Paul drove us home from Freeport. (I woke up to the much less picturesque Rt. 17 & 90 intersection.) I'm still a bit groggy, but better rested, thank you. There's just something so soothing about sitting back in the passenger seat as the miles roll by, knowing I'm in safe hands with my husband at the wheel, and closing my eyes...

Drowsy in the car.
Even fields of goldenrod
can't keep me awake.

Friday, August 6, 2010

August 6: Pelagic

Three birder friends and I had picked this day several months ago for a seabird trip from Vinalhaven with biologist John Drury in his boat Fluke. Who knew we'd have such luck? Today everything came together for the perfect pelagic outing: good people, clear skies, relatively calm seas, and lots of birds*.

There's something special about the birds you see when you're on the open ocean with no land in sight. Wilson's storm-petrels, small brown seabirds that dart among the waves like swallows, seemed to appear out of nowhere to flit past the boat and then disappear beyond the swells. Young gannets dropped from height, plummeting after fish head-first, straight down into the water like shining white arrows that always hit their target. Terns wheeled acrobatically on slender white wings, dipping into waves right alongside the boat for little fish to bring back to almost-fledged young. At one point we saw two jaegers in the distance and gave chase, but these big, gull-like birds that like to steal prey from other birds were quickly out of sight.

Sometimes we passed a lobster boat pulling traps, and each swell would half-hide the other boat from view. But these were long, smooth swells, no white-caps in sight, so not scary, just a little disorienting. It doesn't take long to get into the primal rhythm of the water, the rise and fall that every so often seems to come to life in the form of the dark fins of porpoises. A day like this makes me think owning a boat would be really cool, until I remind myself that days like this are truly rare.

Fog lifts. Swelling sea
carries us on its grey back.
We leave land behind.

* I would be remiss if I didn't somehow get in here that the real highlight of this pelagic trip was seeing a red-billed tropicbird on Seal Island, a life bird for me. This tropical vagrant is spending its sixth summer in Penobscot Bay, which it has apparently chosen as its home. John Drury, who knows the location of the bird's lair on the island, says he thinks it thinks it's a tern, but the terns don't want to have anything to do with it. This exotic summer visitor is, I fear, doomed to lead a lonely life, unless a fellow tropicbird of the opposite gender also happens to wander this far off course...

Tropicbird in Maine--
despite your lonely summers,
you keep coming back.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

August 5: Birding After Dark

As I carried our supper dishes to the sink tonight, I was surprised to notice a hummingbird visiting the bee balm outside the kitchen window. Dusk had fallen, and it seemed way past that bird's bedtime. Perhaps visiting our garden was like "last call," a final pit stop before roosting for the night. The bird had to be a neighborhood regular that had fed at these flowers before, because in the half-dark, it obviously wasn't the red of the petals that had attracted him.

Even later I was surprised to hear the distinct "pip" call note of the cardinal, making his evening rounds. As my husband pointed out, he's still showing up at around the same time at day's end, but it's getting darker earlier so it seems like he's here later. If that makes sense. In any case, when he made his last visit to the window feeder tonight, I could barely see him. If he weren't so loud, announcing his arrival with such advance fanfare from across the street, we'd never have noticed him on the shadowed feeder.

His voice precedes him.
Cardinal's last visit at dusk--
dark bird, red hot song.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

August 4: Haze

A soft haze clung faintly to the landscape as I left work this humid evening, muting the edges of trees and lawns. The overgrown field of milkweed, goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, fern, and timothy surrounding our office lightly perfumed the air with the scent of hay. Besides the background whirr of crickets, several goldfinches chirped merrily as they dipped over the tall grass. The moment was dream-like, made even more so by that dazed feeling one sometimes has at the end of a long day of work in a hot office: a high summer's afternoon dream.

Hazy, drowsy field.
I could curl up and sleep here
amid these soft ferns.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

August 3: Blackberries and Poems

Hiking up Beech Hill in Rockport I noticed that the blackberries growing along the trail were red and ripening fast. I was reminded of one of my ongoing, slow-growing collections: blackberry poems. Over the years, I've accumulated my own personal anthology of poems that include blackberries as the subject or key image. The poets include Sylvia Plath, Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Yusef Komunyakaa, Mary Oliver and, inspired by aforementioned, myself. (I'll include a complete list below.)

There's something about blackberries that render them good subjects for poetry. Back in my grad school days, I probably would have tried to write an essay on the topic, describing how the staining black juice of the berries is irresistibly similar to ink, how the ephemeral ripeness of the fruit is the perfect metaphor for the fleeting joys of summer or life or a relationship. Or how plucking the delicious berries from amid the thorny bushes is the perfect metaphor for life or a relationship. You get the idea. Blackberries are quite literally food for (poetic) thought.

But these days, inspired by the discovery of a new blackberry poem or the sight of a real live blackberry patch, I simply re-read my collection, picking through the poems with pleasure, as if eating berries from a basket.
Photo by Brian Willson
Blackberries don't last.
But their purple ink lingers
in printed poems.

Blackberry Poem Anthology
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, section of "Aurora Leigh"
Robert Hass, "Meditation at Lagunitas"
Seamus Heaney, "Blackberry-Picking"
Jane Hirschfield, "August Day"
Elizabeth Hobbs, "Blackberry Picking"
Galway Kinnell, "Blackberry Eating"
Yusef Komunyakaa, "Blackberries"
Mary Oliver, "August" and "Blackberries"
Sylvia Plath, "Blackberrying"
Henry Taylor, "Blackberries," section from "Three Snapshots"
Jack Turner, "The Plan"
Allison Childs Wells, "In the Blackberry Patch"
Douglas Woodsum, "A Country Awakening," "Poem for Stephen," "Mental Health Diet," "Blackberry War," "Fourteener #301," "Fourteener #37," "Fourteener #28," and "The Black Way" (a poet friend who clearly shares my enthusiasm for the poetic potential of blackberries!)

Monday, August 2, 2010

August 2: Big Dipper

We got home late tonight after seeing a movie, and the clear, starry sky curved over our heads as we stood in the driveway unloading our stuff. There was the Big Dipper with its ladle full of night, poised upright above the house, reminding me that north is "up the street." Whenever I see the Big Dipper, by habit I follow the imaginary line made by the two stars on the right side of the cup up to Polaris, the North Star, my touchstone in the night sky in any season--all the other stars pivot around it as night and the seasons progress.

I paused a moment in the front lawn to take it in, all that celestial beauty, and the background humming of crickets seemed to be the music of the spheres, emanating from the heavens themselves.

August night, crickets--
stars dance around Polaris.
Supernal music.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August 1: Predators

Today is the pagan holiday of Lughnasa or Lammas, the first harvest holiday of the season. I celebrated this perfect summer day on the Elizabeth Ann, watching seabirds in Muscongus Bay under blue skies and on calm seas for Friends of Maine Seabird Islands' fourth annual seabird adventure. We cruised out to Eastern Egg Rock with about 120 people on board, most of whom hoped to see puffins. And puffins we saw, though not in great numbers. Puffin Project researchers on the island counted record 109 pairs this summer, but only a handful of the colorful little birds were hanging around offshore today. What we did see: black guillemots, laughing gulls galore (1,500 pairs of those on the island!) making a racket along with the clouds of terns (common, Arctic, and endangered roseate all nest on the island), cormorants, eiders, a big cluster of ruddy turnstones, a couple of Wilson's storm-petrels dancing on the waves, a few gannets in the distance, some "peep" sandpipers, several great black-backed and herring gulls, osprey, bald eagle, harbor seals, and harbor porpoises.

And a peregrine falcon, which strafed the island, flushing every bird into the air in a screeching, swirling mass. It stooped, the fastest bird on earth, and when it rose into the air again we could clearly see it held a tern in its talons. The falcon flew off trailing an angry mob of terns dogging it like silvery wasps, but it did not relinquish its prey. Early harvest.

The cruise began to feel like a Discovery Channel nature show when around the next bend we came upon a great black-backed gull attacking a young laughing gull headfirst. While we watched in awe, the gull killed this bird almost half its own size and dragged it off to tear apart for a meal. Another early harvest. As Sue Schubel from Maine Audubon reminded us over the boat's speakers, "It's not being mean, it's just eating dinner." I've never seen anything like it. But apparently the birds nearby had, as they barely even noticed the commotion just a few feet away.

As we circled the island several times we also were able to observe many guillemots catching rock eels the same vivid red-orange as their feet. Terns and puffins flew in to young with beaks full of fish. A riffle on the water chased by a gull revealed where a school of fish was driven to the surface by larger fish. And just before we turned away to head back to Port Clyde, a peregrine scared up the birds once more...

A lot of harvesting going on, the bounty of the sea made visible by this island teeming with healthy bird life. And a joyful day overall, which we celebrated by enjoying our own harvest from the sea at Cod's End in Tenants Harbor on the way home.

Not gull's prey this time,
cormorants look away, calm,
dreaming of herring.