Life Around You

I’m celebrating my first blogging anniversary by sharing my favorite posts. This was first posted October 14, 2016

When we moved to this property twenty-some years ago, the trees were sparse and the only birds that summer were a persistent flock of killdeer that landed in the front yard and poked around the yellowed August grass. I had never seen killdeer and had to look them up to see what they were. We had none of the other common Midwest residents and migrants you usually see. But the killdeer were just a promise of the life to come.

My husband planted more trees, then more trees, and put out a feeder. He piled seed in the driveway and watched out the window to see what would come and eat.

Nowadays we are rich with birds: robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches, chickadees, big flocks of black birds that might be starlings and occasional glimpses of hummingbirds. A pair of chimney swifts nest in the rafters of the garage every spring.  Recently, in the tree outside our open window at night, we caught brief glimpses of a big dark bird and heard a low hooting. We have had big flocks of mourning doves too (accompanied by one confused pigeon) but since the arrival of a red-tailed hawk the doves’ population has gradually diminished. We find scattered gray feathers of the occasional meal, but not enough to account for the missing and I have to think somewhere in their little slow dove brains they have finally realized there might be a better place to call home.

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Of course all the food my husband puts out doesn’t just feed the birds. When the first ground squirrel showed up, we started calling it his “little buddy.” Now his buddies have a series of holes and tunnels throughout the yard. In the spring they pop up out of their holes and chirp, grabbing my dog’s attention, before ducking down out of reach. When she catches them out away searching for food, she’ll race at full speed across the yard, but hardly ever gets to them before they hightail it to a nearby hole. Only once she caught one. As I ran up to save it, it lay on its back, little feet clawing the air, or her nose if it got close enough, baring its tiny teeth and squealing a high-pitched squeal. When I grabbed my dog, it flipped over and ran, disappearing suddenly in the grass.

The ground squirrels aren’t the only critters benefitting from the bounty. Rabbits creep around the yard in the early morning and at dusk. My dog, about the same size as the rabbits, loves to chase those too. Where she is satisfied to race toward the birds and send them flying, her rabbit chases may involve long zigzags across the yard or racing circles around the pine trees before she listens to my calls and stays long enough for me to jog over to pick her up and end the chase.

The rabbits periodically appear, multiply and disappear. This may have something to do with the coyotes that we hear in the summer out in the fields beyond our yard, baying at the moon. Once, sitting at the kitchen table, I looked out to see three strange dogs (coyotes!) trot quickly in front of the house in broad daylight.

One of my favorite finds in the yard is the occasional toad. I read somewhere that when environments are poisoned, the frogs and toads are the first to go. So those toads are my canaries in the mine, telling me that, surrounded by non-organic farms fields, I am safe.

Of course beyond the mammals, birds and amphibians are countless multi-legged critters. There are always crawling and hopping insects, buzzing flies, swarming gnats in the summer. There are worms, caterpillars and roly poly bugs. There are countless spiders after them all leaving glistening webs in the grass and across the doorway to the garage. The first summer, clinging to the window screen, we saw a huge corn spider with bright yellow bands across its back. The occasional praying mantis can be just as big. My dog’s favorite crunchy snack is crickets in the fall and she’s learned the hard way to stay away from the stink bugs.

As I walked my dog this morning in the early morning light I heard a few tweets from the trees, but all our usual visitors and residents were hidden. It’s so easy to walk through life oblivious to life all around you.

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Garden Life

A garden lives a lifetime in just a year.

There’s nothing quite like the bleakness of a garden in winter. The remains of dead plants and bare earth, a dreary combination of brown and gray. Bare trees trace stark lines across the sky.

But the rebirth of spring brings green shoots and seedlings, emerging, breaking through the upper crust of soil. Bulbs bloom early color. Trees and bushes leaf out, while lilacs waft fragrance in the air.

Through summer the green explodes to cover the natural world. Apple tree blossoms have fallen, leaving swollen bulbs that promise fruit and seeds. Strawberries and asparagus give early rewards. Vegetables form thick bushes and vines in preparation for the heavy bounty to come. Corn plants shoot higher and tomatoes begin their chameleon transformation from green to red.

But autumn is the reward. Just before the dormant death of recurring winter, come the sweetest apples, the juiciest tomatoes, the squash, the last of peppers and cucumbers. Picking the last of the harvest is a game of roulette, trying to guess the first killing frost.

As autumn color fades and brown winter returns, the garden withers and dies.

To be part of a garden is to have a taste of reincarnation, as winter again lies in wait for the spring.

Unfolding From the Fog

I am up before dawn, cursing this stage of life that doesn’t let me sleep late on a Saturday. I grab sweats from the floor and dress in the bathroom, while my husband sleeps on.

Downstairs, my dog prances around my feet, eager for her food and walk.

I bundle up for December, unprepared for the mild outside air. I step out the back door into another realm, my backyard transformed. Grateful now for an early awakening, we wander and linger as the sun rises through the fog.

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On the Brink

Here in the Midwest as November draws to a close, the winds blow colder and the rains fall harder. The ground squirrels and toads are tucked away for the coming winter and the warm weather birds have flown away. The last of the leaves float down from now bare branches. The grass holds on to its green for a few weeks more before the first snow falls, but morning frost scatters it with silver. In this Liminal zone between fall and winter, the visible world is laid bare, while the rest goes into snug hiding.

Like the world, I am on the brink of change. At my age I am peering ahead in time to the winter of my life, in a liminal zone between midlife and old age. I’m still a brunette, but with a scattering of silver.  I’m a little shorter than the petite I once was, a little rounder, a little more, shall we say, settled. Like the visible world, I’m not as active and out-and-about as I once was, but my inner world is far from hibernation. My random thoughts scatter like those last falling leaves, landing here and abroad with those who are kind enough to read them.

But unlike this late fall world, I choose to do more, not less. To grow, rather than lie dormant. To work, rather than retire. To move ahead, rather than look back. To seek change and opportunity. I choose to look forward to winter as though it were spring.

I Guess I Look Like a Raccoon

My friend, author/editor Jen Miller, recently started a blog called Thisandchat where she asks questions to make you think. Recently she posted this at Your-Animal-Twin

“Your features are uniquely chiseled. You don’t look exactly like anyone else on the planet. However, studying your face in the mirror, you have a likeness to a particular animal, and your personality even mimics some characteristics of that animal.

Study your face, give it some thought.

What animal do you look like?
What personality traits do you have that mirrors that creature?
If you suddenly became a creature, what animal would you be?

Are you BOP enough to say why? Here’s your chance to shine . . . .”

When I was young, I would have picked an animal Ostentatious For its beauty, strength or speed. But beautiful plumage, sleek fur and exotic abilities can lead to being endangered. Intelligence is valuable, but pair it with great strength and gorillas around the world are in trouble.

In high school I remember being asked a similar question and choosing a dolphin for its intelligence, and I’m not even very fond of swimming.

Now days I’m more practical. Raccoons are not endangered and they have some qualities I can appreciate.

Fur coat: Now that the days are getting colder, having a heavy coat that always travels with you seems like a real plus.

Hands: While I might miss opposing thumbs, having paws that can double as hands is a definite advantage when it comes to feeding yourself and getting in to tight places, which raccoons have to do. (Which is not to say I appreciate being on the receiving end of this. See my last post.)

Taking care of young: I just couldn’t be an animal that laid eggs and trusted nature and instinct to carry on my genes. I’m a mammal through and through, even if I had to turn into an animal. Plus raccoon mothers do more than serve as milk pumps. They teach their young where to find food and shelter, so they are ready for their independence when the time comes. Besides baby raccoons are adorable. (Still don’t want them in my human house!)

Intelligence: Raccoons are pretty wily. I read online that their intelligence is comparable to a rhesus macaque.

Agility: Raccoons are nimble creatures. (Climbing up the side of a house and climbing down inside a chimney take true agility. Again, see my last post!) The older I get and the less agile, the more I admire this.

Bulk: No one expects you to be thin when you’re a raccoon. Round is a shape.

The Mask: If you ever had a superhero fantasy, you just have to appreciate the mask.

What kind of animal are you like? For this and more mind-blowing questions, stop by This and Chat at Thisandchat.wordpress.com.

An Unexpected Visitor

Invaders: Part 3

One Sunday morning a couple of years ago I came downstairs and noticed a wastebasket overturned. When did the dog do that? I wondered.

My husband, coming down a moment later, saw another overturned wastebasket and called out, “When did she do that?”

A minute later from the kitchen I heard, “This isn’t good.”

I came in to find him looking in a corner at a pile of droppings too big for our tiny dog to have produced it.

Our best guess was that a raccoon had somehow gotten in the house. There was no evidence that it had gotten to the second floor and it was clearly no longer on the first floor. That left the basement.

Neither of us wanted to face an angry raccoon alone, so we crept downstairs together, each clutching a golf club and a flashlight. We tiptoed around the stacks of boxes, shelves and odd abandoned furniture that inhabit our basement, shining the flashlights behind things and poking around with our golf clubs. No raccoon.

After we called pest control, my husband went outside to see if he could see anything and I took care of the Filthy mess on the kitchen floor.

It had rained recently and outside my husband found tiny muddy handprints climbing up a corner of the house.

When Mr. Pest Control showed up he was sure he would find a hole where the raccoon had come in through the attic. But it wasn’t upstairs, we told him. Still he climbed his ladder and went looking around for a hole. My husband finally convinced him to look down the chimney. About halfway down, comfortably wedged and sleeping, was a raccoon.

Mr. Pest Control helped my husband block off the air hole at the bottom of the chimney. (Remember how the unwelcome-guests got in?) The working theory was that the raccoon wouldn’t be able to get back in the house and would climb out the top to look for food. Mr. Pest Control offered to rent us a trap. If we caught it, he said it would be up to us to get rid of it. We paid him for his time on the roof and said goodbye. Then my husband spent the afternoon looking online for natural pest control strategies to discourage our raccoon from climbing back into our warm chimney.

The next morning after my husband left for work, I was walking the dog around the yard when I came to the corner of the house where the raccoon had climbed up. My husband had washed off the muddy handprints, but now there were dark red smears going up four feet.

I pulled out my phone and texted him a picture right away. “I think the raccoon is bleeding!”

A moment later my phone buzzed with his return text. “The raccoon is bleeding hot sauce.”

Unwelcome Guests

Invaders: Part 2

In addition to all the animals that live in and around our property (see life-around-you) we have a variety that invade our man-made spaces. We have varying success in evading the invaders.

Every fall and winter we have the battle of the mice. They come looking for warmth and if we happen to be careless with food, they’re happy campers. Surrounded by fields and living in a house that is over 100 years old, there’s just no way to keep them out completely, so having mouse traps set in various places around the house is a way of life. A cat would come in handy, but our dog does a fair job. She has caught two mice in her little life, swallowing one whole before I could get it away from her.

We’ve had a couple of encounters with larger furry creatures with long skinny tails. Once when we were packing my daughter’s things up to move her to college, my husband dropped a folded tarp on the floor and woke an angry looking opposum that had been sleeping inside. We stepped way back to let him wander away. My husband woke up another one recently that was sleeping inside the gauge cover on the propane tank.

Some of the most memorable invaders have been chimney swifts. These birds like to nest in chimneys and our 100-and-some-year-old chimney has an air hole at the bottom. Apparently instead of resting on a Lofty perch, the birds fall all the way to the bottom of the chimney and have nowhere to go but out.  The first time one flew through the house desperately searching for an exit, my husband wasn’t home and I caught it with his fishing net and released it outside.

When one got in a year later, I went looking for the fishing net and then remembered that my husband was off fishing. That time I think we used a blanket to shoo it out the door.

Our daughters had a number of pets over the years, including a little blue parakeet that would sit on their finger or shoulder. I had come up the stairs from the basement and opened the back door just as a chimney swift flew past me and out the door. But then it hovered near the house and didn’t fly away and we wondered why. Not long later we realized that it’s mate was still in the house. Before we caught and released that one, we had the chimney swift and the parakeet flying laps around the dining room table.

The last time we had a chimney swift in the house, my husband was again on a fishing trip. This time the bird managed to fall behind a tall built-in cabinet in the dining room. I guess it didn’t have room to fly up and out. It had fallen too far down for me to reach it. I made various comical attempts to fish it out, including snaking a vacuum cleaner hose down to retrieve it. Finally I gave up. But the bird did not. We could hear it endlessly flopping around behind the cabinet.

I called my husband and explained the situation. At the time we had a man working on the house. My husband suggested getting him to cut a hole in the back of the cabinet through a cupboard at the bottom. So he did. I put on garden gloves and fished out the weak bird.

I took the bird outside and opened my hands. Suddenly it had a burst of strength and took off into the sky.

We haven’t had any chimney swifts in recently, though a pair still nest in the garage every spring. There’s still a hole at the back of my cabinet, but you can’t see it with the cupboard doors closed. The hole in the chimney has since been blocked.  But that’s another story….

Outsmarted

Invaders: Part 1

Of all the animals that live on or visit our property, squirrels are the designated fair weather friends. The first time a squirrel showed up was coincidentally the first year our pecan tree produced pecans. After about twenty years of growth we didn’t figure on ever growing any, but about the time we noticed a few on the tree, we saw the squirrels hanging around. Go figure.

That first fall we had a pair of squirrels. As soon as our dog came out the back door she would race toward the squirrels who would easily run up the tree. One would hightail it into the branches, but the other would Relish clinging to the trunk just out of reach of the dog’s leaps and chattering at her. I imagined it saying, Na na-na na naaa! (Or nanny nanny boo boo, if that was your childhood taunt.)

The squirrels typically arrive with the pecans and disappear again soon after they pick and bury them all. We have yet to eat any of them.

This year we again have a squirrel around. The pecans came a little earlier and the squirrel came a little late. Maybe that’s what inspired it to look around for other food sources. We noticed the driveway pile of birdseed disappearing a little faster.

For years my husband has been replenishing the driveway birdseed from a small metal garbage can he keeps in the garage. The lid is loose but is heavy enough to stay on, and except for the occasional marauding raccoon, nothing ever gets in it. Until now.

One night our latest squirrel figured out how to maneuver the lid off just enough to get into the seed. The next morning the lid was half off and there were scattered sunflower seed hulls on the floor.

My husband replaced the lid and added a brick on top.

In less than 24 hours, the squirrel figured out to get that off too.

I think my husband relishes the challenge. Now he has a large and smaller brick on top of the can and a leaf blower lying at an angle to block access. For now the seed is safe.

Until the squirrel figures this out too.

Makes you wonder. Is he outsmarting the squirrel or is the squirrel outsmarting him?

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Life Around You

When we moved to this property twenty-some years ago, the trees were sparse and the only birds that summer were a persistent flock of killdeer that landed in the front yard and poked around the yellowed August grass. I had never seen killdeer and had to look them up to see what they were. We had none of the other common Midwest residents and migrants you usually see. But the killdeer were just a promise of the life to come.

My husband planted more trees, then more trees, and put out a feeder. He piled seed in the driveway and watched out the window to see what would come and eat.

Nowadays we are rich with birds: robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches, chickadees, big flocks of black birds that might be starlings and occasional glimpses of hummingbirds. A pair of chimney swifts nest in the rafters of the garage every spring.  Recently, in the tree outside our open window at night, we caught brief glimpses of a big dark bird and heard a low hooting. We have had big flocks of mourning doves too (accompanied by one confused pigeon) but since the arrival of a red-tailed hawk the doves’ population has gradually diminished. We find scattered gray feathers of the occasional meal, but not enough to account for the missing and I have to think somewhere in their little slow dove brains they have finally realized there might be a better place to call home.

img_1373

Of course all the food my husband puts out doesn’t just feed the birds. When the first ground squirrel showed up, we started calling it his “little buddy.” Now his buddies have a series of holes and tunnels throughout the yard. In the spring they pop up out of their holes and chirp, grabbing my dog’s attention, before ducking down out of reach. When she catches them out away searching for food, she’ll race at full speed across the yard, but hardly ever gets to them before they hightail it to a nearby hole. Only once she caught one. As I ran up to save it, it lay on its back, little feet clawing the air, or her nose if it got close enough, baring its tiny teeth and squealing a high-pitched squeal. When I grabbed my dog, it flipped over and ran, disappearing suddenly in the grass.

The ground squirrels aren’t the only critters benefitting from the bounty. Rabbits creep around the yard in the early morning and at dusk. My dog, about the same size as the rabbits, loves to chase those too. Where she is satisfied to race toward the birds and send them flying, her rabbit chases may involve long zigzags across the yard or racing circles around the pine trees before she listens to my calls and stays long enough for me to jog over to pick her up and end the chase.

The rabbits periodically appear, multiply and disappear. This may have something to do with the coyotes that we hear in the summer out in the fields beyond our yard, baying at the moon. Once, sitting at the kitchen table, I looked out to see three strange dogs (coyotes!) trot quickly in front of the house in broad daylight.

One of my favorite finds in the yard is the occasional toad. I read somewhere that when environments are poisoned, the frogs and toads are the first to go. So those toads are my canaries in the mine, telling me that, surrounded by non-organic farms fields, I am safe.

Of course beyond the mammals, birds and amphibians are countless multi-legged critters. There are always crawling and hopping insects, buzzing flies, swarming gnats in the summer. There are worms, caterpillars and roly poly bugs. There are countless spiders after them all leaving glistening webs in the grass and across the doorway to the garage. The first summer, clinging to the window screen, we saw a huge corn spider with bright yellow bands across its back. The occasional praying mantis can be just as big. My dog’s favorite crunchy snack is crickets in the fall and she’s learned the hard way to stay away from the stink bugs.

As I walked my dog this morning in the early morning light I heard a few tweets from the trees, but all our usual visitors and residents were hidden. It’s so easy to walk through life oblivious to life all around you.

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