Walk in the Dark

 

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It was thirty minutes before sunrise when I pulled in to the parking lot at Sellwood Riverside Park. I was planning to walk Springwater Trail to the wildlife refuge.

Since it was dark, and I was counting on being alone, I sat in the locked car for a minute or two, assessing the safety of the early morning. With the engine turned off, and the windows rolled up, I heard something. Someone must be out there disturbing the early morning with their music, I thought. I rolled the window down an inch or two and the mellow tones of a flute filled the car.

Long, low, rich tones floated gracefully from the direction of the river. I wasn’t hearing a familiar tune it was a series of slowly played tones that blended with the darkness and the night sky. I took in the very light blanket of fog, the dark quiet of pre-dawn, and the  flute; I knew I was receiving a gift. The gentle music was drifting above the vast lawn in the park and filling the nearby woods. I was enchanted.

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I set caution aside and let my feet guide me in the direction of the music. I couldn’t have done anything else. As I neared the river, I saw the outline of a lone figure sitting in the the dark on one of the picnic tables. The stranger’s feet were on the bench, and his peaceful song was coming from a wooden flute. His dark hair was loose and fell well past his shoulders. He wore jeans, I think, and a jacket against the morning chill. He raised his head slightly, saw me, but did not acknowledge me. I chose to widen my path around him; not out of fear of a lone stranger in the dark, but out of fear that the music would end.

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Not ready to leave the experience behind, I took the longest path to the Springwater Trail. I walked past the stranger, through the grassy field that would be filled with people and dogs in a few hours, into the woods by the frog pond, and finally up to the trail where the music gradually faded and the sun was beginning to rise.

 

One Step Too Far

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Japanese Anemone one of my favorites (photo by Shutterstock)

I stepped into the middle of my Japanese anemones the other day, intending to cut off blossoms and stems past their prime. I had cut a few stems when I took one step closer to the center of the spent blooms and was immediately surrounded by an angry buzzing horde of black and yellow striped demons.

I ran, of course, but they flew faster. I felt a sting on my shoulder and another on my arm. I ran some more. One or two stings wasn’t good enough for them. They kept coming. I flew across the front yard screaming, unashamed of humiliating myself in my own yard, swatting myself all over.  I felt another sharp pain in my shoulder, then another, then a pain on my hand. 
They were relentless!
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I screamed some more and shook my left hand as a Yellow-jacket clung tightly to the space between thumb and fingers. Shaking him off was impossible with that business end so deeply imbedded.

The neighbors weren’t outside. If they had been, they would have heard me uncensored.

“No, get off of me you monster!” I screamed.

I’ll be honest. I never used the word ‘monster’ that day. Instead, it was a word that burned the end of my tongue when it flew out of my mouth, a word I don’t recall ever using before. I’m not proud of myself; but please, judge me when you have a dozen yellow-jackets riding and stinging you all at once.

At the same time, more ‘monsters’ had formed a buzzing cloud around me as I pumped my legs and prayed they wouldn’t follow me into the house. 
Yes, I was also praying.

Finally, I brushed the Yellow-jacket from my hand and ran for the door.

A split second of relief hit me as I closed the door behind myself and stood in the kitchen.

Then I felt a sharp pain in my right shoulder again, and another on my left upper arm. A yellow-jacket flew off my right arm for a second then settled back down to deliver more punishment.

Teddy had been watching me through the front window as I screamed and flailed across the yard. Now that I was in the house, still screaming, the little dog looked confused and worried. He quickly decided there was nothing he could do. Much later, I had to coax him out from under the bed . I don’t blame him. Not even Lassie could have helped.

It turns out that when I’m desperate, my mind can work fast.
I ran into the laundry room and slammed the door to confine the little demons. Yellowjackets still clung to my shirt. I closed my eyes and held my breath as I pulled the shirt over my head and past my face and hair. Then I threw that shirt in the washer and slammed the lid down.
Now the tables were turned and I was feeling murderous. I turned the water setting to hot. 
I let that machine run for a full cycle.
An hour or two later, I felt a little braver and cautiously opened the machine. Carefully, I  lifted and shook the shirt. Dead Yellowjackets littered the bottom of the washer.
Benadryl and ibuprofen helped with the eight or ten stings I had. My left hand swelled to the size of a baseball mitt. I also visited the doctor for one dose of steroids to help the swelling.

This unusually warm and sunny fall weather has kept the Yellowjackets active so far, but the nest should die soon. It’s in a spot that endangers only me, the family gardener. 

Yellowjackets aren’t active when it’s cold, and the early mornings are very chilly lately. If the cold doesn’t get them soon, I have a plan.

Blackberry Pie and a White Horse

In August, blackberries are plentiful and free, if you know where to look.I missed the ripe blackberries this year; but I plan to find a great patch of them next summer. Warm blackberry pie, topped with a scoop of ice cream, is well worth wrestling with the vicious thorns

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My daughter Jennifer was a baby when I carried her, and a plastic bucket for berries, to a small blackberry patch in our back yard. Picking berries with Jennifer had seemed like a great idea but when I got to the back of the yard I couldn’t find a good place to lay her down. The brushy ground was rough, uneven, and studded with a low-growing tangle of blackberry vines.

I noticed a huge stand of blackberry bushes across our back fence and in the middle of a pleasant field of grass. Big, juicy berries practically dripped off the vines and the grassy field was a perfect spot to lay the baby on her blanket. I had never seen a soul in that field and it was would be a shame to let those berries go to waste.

Holding the baby, I stepped carefully over the fence where it had been crushed by a fallen fir limb. I lay her down on her blanket just two feet from the edge of the blackberries. She was happy there, rocking on her chubby tummy, waving her arms, and gurgling.

The August morning was beautiful. We were all alone and at peace, surrounded by an occasional bird song or buzzing insect. Every minute or two, I glanced at the baby as I quietly filled my bucket. No need to get too close to the vines and risk the thorns because the outside vines were covered in berries. I worked contentedly to about fifteen feet from the baby, who was still gurgling and exercising her limbs.

Only a minute or two went by when some small noise caused me to turn my head. When I did, my stomach lurched in terror.Out of nowhere a huge, white horse had appeared, and was standing directly over the baby. How had it come to stand over the baby while barely making a noise? What should I do?

 

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This horse was thick bodied, tall, and heavily muscled; much larger than horses I’ve seen in fields or those once ridden by Portland’s mounted police. Instinctively, I knew this was a working animal, an animal who could pull something huge and heavy. Chilled to the bone and frozen in place, I stared at my little girl lying under that animal’s front feet.

In mere seconds many thoughts crowded my mind. Why had I stepped over that fence onto this property? Where had this horse come from? Even from this side of the fence I couldn’t see a house or a barn. How could I have been so stupid? How would I live with myself if something happened to the baby?

I wanted to run and grab my child, but she was directly in front of those huge front hooves. If the animal panicked or put a hoof on the baby’s back it would kill her.I couldn’t risk alarming the horse.

Jennifer was a good-natured and easy-going child. Thankfully, that was her mood as she lay there oblivious to the horse and my terror.

The horse seemed calm. I decided not to move. Softly, gently, using a tone I hoped was calming, I pretended I was pleased and comfortable with the animal.

“Hi there, honey. Do you see my baby at your feet?”

As I spoke, the horse stood still, assessing the situation. His ears twisted back and forth as I explained that I was a friend and only wanted to bake a blackberry pie that afternoon. 
 
I hoped he was moving his ears because he was interested in our conversation, not because he was irritated. He didn’t seem alarmed and stayed quietly in place except for his ears, tiny twitches in the muscles of his legs, and the occasional slight flick of his tail.

After five minutes of one-way conversation, my heart stopped as the horse began to move. The huge creature then stepped calmly, daintily, over my baby, turned his back to us, and quietly wandered off. Stunned for a moment, I then snatched up my baby and took her back across the fence… where we should have been all along.

For a few minutes in that sunny field, we three souls were my entire world. There was the innocent child, the trespassing blackberry picker, and a mysterious white horse who controlled every important thing that could happen that day. 
 
I wouldn’t repeat the experience, but there was a little bit of magic in it.

 

Friends and Thunderstorms (With Gratitude for Both)

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Photo by Shutterstock

I haven’t been on Wild City since I lost my husband, Dave, on August 10.

Dave had a gift for making life-long friends. He had friends from elementary and high school days, and from his first jobs out of college. He made good friends everyplace he went in the insurance industry. Golfing wasn’t just a frustrating pastime for David, it was also a time and a place for cultivating friendship.

During those first numb and shocking weeks after losing Dave, friends stepped up and offered to help.

Again, and again I said, “Thanks, thanks so much, but I’ll be fine.”

I was wrong.

Thankfully, our friends knew I was wrong.

I couldn’t think. I secretly worried that something had happened to my brain. I talked to people and couldn’t recall conversations, I tried to make plans but couldn’t reason, though many issues demanded immediate attention.

Our children were amazing and supportive, even while they were in the middle of their own grief.

Friends and family stepped up for us. Ever-conscious of not being intrusive, they reached out and they helped. They anticipated how deep the water was and took it upon themselves to hold me up, to keep me from drowning.

I hope I can be worthy of the kindness and generosity I’ve experienced. I hope to carry that knowledge into a future where I can be there for others.

Lately, I’ve begun missing my blog, the fun of traveling the neighborhood or the wildlife refuge; the joy of sharing a love for urban wildlife. Yet, I’ve been frozen and unable to understand how I might reconnect with that passion.

A week ago, we had a day of wild fall weather, a beautiful storm which seemed to break the grip of a hot, dry, summer with thunder and lightning, torrential rain, and hail. In the late afternoon the sun came out and a brilliant rainbow spread itself across the sky. I saw it, but it took a sweet gift from our old friend Bruce to give me permission to love it.

Bruce and Nancy have been friends for many years. Bruce sent an email that helped me out of a foggy haze.

Bruce wrote:

“…I have just been sitting on the patio listening to the thunder, watching the rain, smelling the fresh air, and having a drink. So much fun just sitting back, watching, smelling, and listening to nature do its thing while resting my back. The thunder and rain make their own great melody. I decided to check my weather station. Two days ago, we got 0.25 inches in 24 hours. Today we got 0.36 inches in one hour. It sure looked like more when it was coming down.

I feel as though I am waking up, stepping back into this world. While there is still sadness, there are also glorious thunderstorms; and there are friends.

 

A Game of Cat & Mouse (and Dog)

Sometimes an insignificant event turns into a memory you can pull out and enjoy all over again.

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Jasper

Only a few feet in front of me, a black and white cat tore across the street carrying something in its mouth. The hot July day had cooled after dark. Jasper and I could enjoy a quiet evening walk.  The sweet old dog didn’t pay any attention to the cat and probably wouldn’t have even if he hadn’t been blind.

I recognized the cat. She usually hung out on the porch of a house on Cardinal Street.

Once she reached the front lawn of her own yard the cat dropped a mouse on the grass. Then she settled down in front of her still-living prize and contemplated the many ways she would enjoy toying with the tiny thing. The porch light spilled on to the lawn, illuminating the scene.

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The mouse spent a few seconds quivering and gathering his senses. Perhaps he had been snatched so suddenly, and carried so swiftly through the neighborhood, he didn’t yet realize what had happened. Perhaps he was simply surprised to still be alive. The cat, cool and calm, narrowed her calculating feline eyes and watched

Tentatively, the mouse moved a few inches to one side. The cat calmly stretched her paw out and batted the mouse back. Then she relaxed again and waited for the unlucky rodent to play some more. She was in no hurry.

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Again, the mouse moved, this time in the opposite direction, and this time more quickly.

Kitty just slapped him back to center stage. The mouse was confused and disoriented.  He began frantically attempting to escape. Time after time the cat batted him back, sometimes rolling the mouse over in the grass, then sitting back to continue watching her little toy. It seemed the game would continue for some time.

I had just about decided to intervene. After all, this well-fed cat was cruelly entertaining herself. Suddenly a front door across the street opened. Yellow light spilled out the door and a small schnauzer followed. The dog spotted the cat and immediately tore across the street. For a minute it was a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the cat holding the mouse at bay and the dog in hot pursuit of the cat.

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Then kitty turned from her prey and raced to the porch of her home with the dog following. Before the dog could reach her the cat turned, humped her back, and hissed menacingly.

The schnauzer, who must have been familiar with sharp kitty claws, skid to a stop just out of the cat’s reach. He suddenly lost interest in sport, turned, and headed back to his home where a woman was still holding the door open for him. Only seconds had passed since she had let him outside.

The cat seemed to have forgotten her tiny plaything. She calmly lay down on the door mat and folded ladylike paws in front of her as if to say, “Nothing to see here.”

The mouse had disappeared.  He was headed home with quite a story to tell.

Suzy’s Gardens

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Suzy and Russ have lived in their home for 35 years. Suzy has spent thousands of hours creating a beautiful garden. Flowers spill out of dozens of pots. Plantings form several green “rooms,” each with its own ambiance. Every window in Suzy’s house looks onto a carefully thought-out view.

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An early morning visiter in Suzy’s Oregon City Garden (photo by Suzy)

Although she’s modest about it, Suzy became a Master Gardener after she retired.

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Trail cam photo

 

Their Oregon City home is less than ten minutes from Clackamas Community College and the Molalla Avenue business district. They enjoy plenty of wildlife; deer, raccoon, and birds.  Last October their next-door neighbors lost a goat to a cougar and the guilty party was caught on a trail camera. Fortunately, it was a rare visit and the cougar moved on

 

Before Suzy and I left for a day trip to their coastal cottage, we took a tour of her home garden while I snapped pictures.

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“You’ll find another ‘jungle’ at the beach house,” Russ said affectionately. I’m sure he meant to say, “another beautiful garden.”

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Along the way, we stopped at Cannon Beach, Haystack Rock, Arcadia Beach, and Arch Cape. Suzy grew up playing on Oregon’s beaches and she knows them well

We walked barefoot in the sand, dipped our toes in the cold Pacific, and breathed the sweet coastal air. Never mind that I grew up in eastern Washington, the Oregon coast always makes me feel as if I’ve found my way home.

Russ was right, Suzy’s coastal garden is as lovely as her home garden.

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After lunch at the beach house, Suzy watered her outdoor pots and shared family stories in anticipation of spending July 4 in Nehalem with her grandkids.

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A large elk herd frequently visits the beach house and I sensed that Suzy was eager for them to show up while we were there. I hoped so too. As it turned out, they showed up in large numbers, along with nine calves, about two days after my visit.

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Photo by Suzy

Even though the elk dine on Suzy’s flowers and pull inedible plants out of the ground and toss them aside, Suzy has patience and an abundance of affection for the animals When she’s not there, the huge creatures boldly walk onto her large deck to pick and choose amongst her favorite plants

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Another photo by Suzy – One of her favorites

Late one night Suzy woke to a noise at her window. Opening the shade, she looked straight into the face of the “peeping Tom” who was scraping his antlers on the window! She just laughs about it now.

Some of Russ and Suzy’s neighbors resent the careless animals and use brooms to shoo them away from their carefully tended gardens. Not Suzy. If they pull up her flowers, she simply plants them back in the ground.

Though Suzy  is a friend and we worked together for years,  I had never before spent a full day with her, in her world. It was a day for observing the peace and beauty Suzy has created, sensing the love she has for her family, and appreciating the good-natured way she tidies up her garden after the elk leave. I’m glad I know her better.

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Suzy likes to share the things she’s learned about the elk.  She remembers seeing a badly limping cow elk in the middle of a protective circle of the animals. The same thing happened to a cow who began to give birth in the sea of grass in front of their house. The other animals encircled and protected her while she labored.

 

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Recently, Russ and Suzy celebrated their 50th anniversary around a small bonfire with two other couples, relaxing and reminiscing. While they were enjoying the evening, the elk came out of the woods, lay nearby in the grass, and made themselves part of the celebration.

 

Obviously, they appreciate Suzy’s patience and affection.

Bald Faced Hornets!

This is an update to my July 5 post (Hornet)  about the fascinating hornet’s nest in our back yard. We had second thoughts about protecting the nest:

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Bald-Faced Hornet Nest (not ours)

Ryan, from Pete’s Pest Control, came over to take care of a Yellow jacket nest we had in the back yard. We used to take care of Yellowjackets ourselves but last year we started reacting to stings more intensely than before. More important, nobody gets stung when we call Pete’s!

Yellowjackets usually get aggressive later in the summer, but with the hot dry weather they started getting cranky in June this year.

Chatting with Ryan from Pete’s, I mentioned our hornet’s nest.

“They don’t seem to bother us if we stay away from the nest,” I said, “so I don’t need you to take care of them at this point.”

“They aren’t Bald-Faced Hornets, are they?” Ryan said.

“Well, I don’t know. I googled hornets and tried to figure out what they are, but they don’t seem to like me staring at the nest, so I didn’t hang around enough to get a good look!”

Ryan wandered over by the rhododendron where the hornet’s nest was. We carefully peeked at the nest in the middle of the bush.

“What! I said, “I can’t believe it. That nest is twice the size it was when I looked last week!”

There were many more hornets crawling around and buzzing around the outside of the nest. They seemed very cranky.

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Ryan cautiously peeked a little closer then jumped back, “Those are Bald-Faced hornets!” he said.

Ryan has been to our house a couple of times. He’s fearless in the face of a large nest of furious Yellow Jackets. Nothing much seems to scare Ryan, but he quickly backed away from our Bald-Faced Hornets.

“You can keep them if you want,” he said. but the nest could get to the size of a basketball and it’s only two feet off the ground. They can be aggressive, and they have a nasty sting. If your dog or a child accidently disturbs them they are dangerous! If you decide to get rid of them, there’s no extra charge since I’m already here. It’s up to you.”

“Really?” I said.

I was thinking about my neighbor Scott’s grandkids who play on the other side of the fence and my little dog, Teddy.  About that time, as if on cue, a couple of agitated hornets flew our way

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“Okay!” I hollered as I ran toward the house.

Yes, I am a bald-faced coward.

Once I was safely inside, I silently said, “sorry” to the creatures who couldn’t help being what they were.

Ryan said he doesn’t always bother with his bee suit when he takes care of yellowjackets, but for the Bald-Faced Hornets he was covered from head to toe.

Dave and I watched Ryan from the safety of the back window. Ryan had taken care of the Yellowjackets in a couple of minutes. For the Bald-Faced Hornets, Ryan worked slowly and very carefully.

Since then I’ve heard several stories from people who have had miserable experiences with the bald-faced hornet. Check YouTube if you want proof!

I hope none of you have followed my example and tenderly protected a Bald-Faced Hornet’s nest.

They have a place in the world, but it’s not in our back yard.

Never Look a Hornet in the Eye

 

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While trimming a large rhododendron bush in the back yard, I discovered a hornet’s nest. It’s a clever paper structure, built under a shelter of leaves and somehow actually attached to a couple of the largest leaves. You can’t see it very well in the picture below because I’m not brave enough to get closer.

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I wasn’t even near the nest with my clippers, just trimming a couple of limbs that were stretching out over the lawn creating an obstacle for the mower. Moving the branches disturbed the nest. One insect began circling my head, then two, then six. Like any sensible gardener, I quickly left the scene

Once the insects settled down, I went back to look for the nest. Wasps have been building small paper nests under the covered patio for years, but this nest was much larger. It piqued my curiosity.

Dave and I talked about whether we should destroy the nest. If we did decide to destroy it, the answer to how it should be done is the punch line to an old joke, “Very Carefully!”

We decided to let them be. They seem to leave us alone as long as we don’t disturb their home and they are valuable predators of flies, grubs, and other insects.  I’m anxious to study the nest up close,  but I’ll definitely wait until this fall when it’s empty!

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Yesterday we watched hornets flying in and out of the opening on the bottom of the nest. Curious to get a good look at the creatures and their home, I bent down and looked through an opening in the tangle of leaves and branches. I was able to do it without disturbing a single leaf and I had a perfect view! Exactly what I wanted.

Dave was studying the nest from another angle. Suddenly I realized one of the creatures was sitting in the opening looking straight into my face

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“Hey Dave, see that guy hanging out at the opening? He’s actually looking me in the eye!”

It felt very odd. Insects are so much smaller than us that we don’t get a sensation of their consciousness. I don’t think of them as having a consciousness, but for a split second I saw the creature register my presence.

A second later his big fat body took off headed straight for my face! I only screamed a little bit, but I ran really fast!

I may have thought of him as a tiny robot, but he had taken a moment to look me in the eye, and he didn’t like what he saw.

 

One Goose

Oh Canada goose! How often have I cursed your multitudes. You spread across grassy fields leaving slippery bullets everywhere. One woman and her small dog can barely navigate without falling into the filth. I have wished you into a stew pot or the centerpiece of a Dickens Christmas dinner.

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Yet I cannot look at you without smiling. Sitting alone, at the highest point on the roof, you look down on humans walking the paths in Crystal Springs. You cackle and croak, offering us a cranky tongue lashing perhaps, or quoting scripture and spreading the Good News. Maybe you are cursing us, wishing us into stew pots.

You are a cocky fellow, confident and handsome Without your friends and relations, I see how beautiful you are, a living bright-eyed study in black and white and cream. You have something to say and you are a fine dressing for the top of that roof.

I’ll curse you and your friends and relations again, but this morning I bow to your singular spirit.

Mole Wars

UnknownEvery spring, as soon as the first molehill appears, David goes to war. His diligence has resulted in experiments with many repellents, a variety of traps, and more than one explosion.

He was bound to notice the two or three small mounds that appeared in the back yard this week.

“Oh, I’ve got to go get that mole!” he said this morning

Dave isn’t alone in his summer obsession. Our neighbors Bob and Mike are sensible men, but they have also enlisted in the war against the tiny creatures. Just the other day they were standing on the street shaking their heads with concern as they discussed this year’s invasion.

The suburban American male was bred to fight moles. They cannot help themselves.

From my point of view, moles are interesting and harmless little mammals. They are trying to survive. They’re not all bad. They take up very little space, they eat insects and slugs, and they aerate the earth. Their fur can flatten in either direction enabling easy backward or forward passage through their tunnels. The tunnels can be up to six feet deep. Moles are highly territorial, battles between males are frequently fatal. It may seem as though you have a dozen of them tearing up the lawn but it’s usually just one

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For a while Dave tired of traps and switched to unorthodox methods. There was the Juicy Fruit gum trick. You shove a stick of gum deep into the mole run. Suburban legend said Juicy Fruit is lethal to moles. I don’t know who started that rumor and I’m pretty sure Dave never really thought it would work, but why not try? For a few weeks the moles were underground gleefully smacking Juicy Fruit.

One summer the crows were catching moles when they were near the surface, and – well, you know the rest. Unfortunately, moles were a snack the crows craved for a while, before moving on to something else. I recently did the same thing with pistachios.

In frustration, Dave once turned to explosive mole eradication. Men like explosives as much as they hate moles. Unhappily for the moles, the explosions were usually tiny but highly effective.

Fortunately, there were no arrests the day Dave’s explosive experiments came to an end. I’m reluctant to say what he used that day lest somebody’s husband be tempted.

We were in the front yard. I stood in the background fearfully waiting. Dave was in a great mood, thrilled with the excuse to create an explosion. He dropped a match in the mole hole he had already prepared.

A huge BOOM resulted. I screamed. The ground shook and seemed to shake for moments after the initial explosion.

It was midsummer, not fall, but the small flowering cherry tree in the front yard shook violently and dropped all of its leaves. I don’t need to exaggerate about these things. Doors up and down the street opened and worried souls scanned the neighborhood for the bomber.

Standing behind the five-foot fence, Dave and I froze for a moment. Then I peeked over the fence and scanned the street in both directions, hoping my expression looked more curious than guilty.

It was back to traps after that. I’ve tried to talk Dave in to letting the creatures have their way for a while, but he believes in defending the home front.