A blog about discovering and treasuring the wild creatures thriving alongside us
Author: Susan Iwata
I am a reader, a writer, and a fool for urban and suburban wildlife. Writing every day for almost a year has exposed my real passions and inspired me to want to share my love and desire to protect urban wildlife. I would love to hear about the experiences of others. My husband and I have four wonderful adult children and two grandchildren.
In chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes dry vacant land along the highway, grasses and weeds, ants, grasshoppers and sow bugs, “…like little armadillos.” But the land turtle has the starring role in this chapter.
I’m haunted by the turtle, by Steinbeck’s writing. In bed, before I go to sleep, the chapter comes back to me. When I’m making beds or vacuuming, I think of Steinbeck’s words. On my daily Wild City rambles with Teddy, I think of the little turtle.
Steinbeck’s writing is gorgeous, rich, lush, full of metaphor, and brutal. Rereading the chapter this morning made my heart beat faster, just like the first reading.
We don’t know where the turtle is going, or why, but he is single-minded, intent on heading one direction. Carrying his heavy, awkward shell, he struggles up a steep embankment, slips back, but continues relentlessly in exactly the same direction. He tackles a four-inch concrete curb – a formidable obstacle for a creature with short legs and the heavy burden of a shell. He never thinks of taking an easier route.
The poor thing suffers from an encounter with red ants. Still, he forges ahead. He becomes entangled in weeds, frees himself, and continues to the highway – a smooth concrete highway that could make his travels easier. A car passes and swerves to miss him. A truck follows and attempts to run over him. He hasn’t been killed, but he is flipped on to his back and must struggle to right himself. As this chapter ends, the turtle is continuing his slow and perilous journey.
In chapter four, Tom Joad picks the turtle up, wraps it in his coat, and plans to give it to his young siblings as a pet. But Tom, who is just out of prison, finds the family gone and the home abandoned. He puts the turtle down far from where the creature was picked up. Undaunted, the turtle begins his journey anew, turning toward the southwest direction he’d been headed all along.
The harrowing journey of the little turtle foreshadows the dangers of the journey the Joad family is about to take as they leave a hopeless life in Oklahoma toward dreams of a better life in California. It’s a journey that could be a metaphor for my life…and maybe yours.
But Chapter three is something else too.
Chapter three is a beautiful thing by itself. It’s a perfect symphony, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the Moonlight Sonata, or any painfully beautiful piece of music.
You don’t need to know the words to have the music bruise your heart.
Steinbeck’s words tell a story, but they are also one note following another, each note exactly where it should be in the composition. If you didn’t know English, I could read chapter three aloud and you would hear the melody, one note following another. You would instinctively respond to the major and the minor chords.
Through the music of Steinbeck’s language you would understand the courage of the small creature and the near-impossibility of his journey.
In the end, you might be just a little bit broken-hearted.
Just the same, you would say, “Thank you for the music.”
Several mornings lately I’ve taken my early morning walk intending to experiment with listening more. I wanted to pay attention to the sounds of spring.
As I walk, bird song and other natural sounds often fade behind everyday preoccupations. Last Tuesday I found the concentration to sharpen my listening. It was a wonderful exercise.
I stood at the top of a hill and marveled at the variety of birds I was hearing. Many of the songs and calls were easy to identify. All of them together were wonderful.
Bird song was coming from four directions. Some was produced only a few feet away and some was coming from at least a half-mile away. Using my phone, I began recording. I made four 30-second recordings.
All four recordings establish, without a doubt, that I breathe. I had held the phone near my right ear and the sound of my heavy breathing (I had just climbed the steep hill) drowned everything else out. A rookie mistake.
Never mind, I tried again. This time I held the phone as far away as my arm would reach. Playing that recording I heard a small quartet, not the symphony that was actually going on. I decided to simply enjoy the music and try to record another day.
On my way home I was able to capture the love song of a Song Sparrow . Turn the sound up!
A day or two later I stepped out our back door and captured the music of the
flicker, robin, bush tits, chickadees, crows, and many more. There was the symphony I’d been looking for– in my own back yard.
(Turn the sound up and pay no attention to the little red dog – he has a dog’s sense of decorum)
It’s twenty years since we built the pond and this was the first winter we’ve had a net over it. The net was great for keeping fallen leaves out, but we were mostly trying to protect our ten-for-a-dollar feeder fish from the Great Blue Heron.
This makes no sense. We built the pond for the heron, not for the fish. The fish are food. We throw the tiny things in the pond every spring and they spend a relaxing summer eating and growing. The heron always gets most of them before the next spring.
And when he does, I feel bad.
The problem is that the fish become pets. By the end of summer they have come to expect to be fed when they see us near the pond. We take pride in their beauty, their health, and their growth. Some of them have interesting and distinctive markings. This is where our priorities get confused. We start with the intention of nurturing wildlife but end up nurturing the food.
Dave wanted to protect the fish this spring and summer, but I thought we should stick to our original intent – welcome the heron and his appetite. Then we took the net off last week and I saw the fish! Tiny babies from last spring have grown. Some of the babies actually hatched in our pond. I recognized the gold one with the large black oval on his back and I saw the white fish that has been around for three years.
I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let them be eaten. The last several years I’ve been lashing four long pieces of bamboo together forming a tic-tac-toe grid. I toss several of the bamboo structures in the pond and hope they discourage the heron. It hasn’t worked so far.
I’m trying something new this year. I attached the bamboo to stakes in the ground near the edge of the pond. That way the heron can’t use his trick of pushing all the bamboo to one end of the pond while he dines.
This morning we were delighted to admire a flock of robins bathing while standing on the floating bamboo.
When the heron comes, it’s a wonderful thing to see. He makes a deep croaking sound as he stalks around the pond. It’s a prehistoric noise straight out of the Jurassic Park sound track. Once in a while one of our clever ideas slows him down for a while, but eventually he will outsmart us. He always does.
Until then, the fish are happy and the robins are loving the bamboo!
Last Saturday morning I drove to my daughter and son-in-law’s home in Newberg. The sun was shining, the sky was a brilliant blue, and the thermometer was edging toward 65, warmer than it had been in months. I flipped the car radio from NPR to KMHD, my favorite jazz station and rolled my window down. I turned up the volume, and sailed down the highway under the spell of a beautiful early spring day.
When I got to Josh and Laura’s house, I was a little bit high on the idea that spring had arrived, and I couldn’t wait to get out in the sunshine. I took Laura and Josh’s little dog, Oz, and my own small dog, Teddy, for a long walk.
Everyone seemed to be outside; walkers, joggers, and some folks standing in their yards visiting with neighbors. One woman knelt in her front yard planting pansies. The air was filled with friendly good will. People smiled broadly and said, “Good morning! Isn’t it a Beautiful day!”
We were all just a little bit giddy.
As I passed a man and woman smiling and chatting in their front yard, the man looked up and said, “Good morning! Nice job you did ordering the weather today!”
“Thank you!” I said.
Sunday was as beautiful as Saturday had been. Laura and I decided to visit Al’s Garden Center in Sherwood. We wandered the aisles for quite a while, enjoying the plants and flowers, inhaling the sweet, earthy smells, and sitting on nearly every patio chair Al’s was selling.
As we left Al’s and headed to the car we were startled by the loud honking of thousands of low-flying geese. They weren’t Canadian Geese, but neither of us could identify them. In dizzying waves, they passed overhead and spread out half of a mile in every direction.
We could have sought protection in the car but we just stood there in awe, directly under the large birds, taking our chances at what they might drop on our heads. I doubt I will ever again see so many geese flying at once.
When the birds had passed, Laura said, “If we had left three minutes earlier or three minutes later, we would have missed the entire thing!”
Later that afternoon I drove home from Newberg with the window down and the music playing.
With the sun, a fresh breeze through the open car window, the music, smiles from strangers, the urge to visit Al’s, and wild geese flying overhead, this must be spring fever.
In this post I explain why I choose experiencing a great moment over taking a great photo. Please see my invitation at the end of this post and seriously consider sharing your story. I look forward to hearing from you!
Last year my family and I had the incredible good fortune to be on a whale-watching tour in Kuai. It was a dream-come-true. Eight of us perched on a yellow rubber boat that seemed too flimsy for hanging around humpback whales, but it worked fine.
Our guide gave us a great piece of advice, “Don’t bother with your cameras. Don’t try to take pictures. You’ll ruin it for yourselves. Just enjoy!”
We watched mama humpbacks with their babies. Because they are in the ocean, we were seeing a lot of exciting flukes and backs.
After two hours, our guide began to turn us back toward shore when a sudden explosion of water erupted directly in front of us. One whale had burst out of the water and seemed to stand on his tail before dropping back into the churning sea. It was breathtaking, a stunning end to our tour, and it lasted less than ten seconds.
I have the picture in my mind, and it will live there as long as I live.
Still, I sometimes regret the photos I never got, the pictures I’ll never be able to share. After years of wandering the neighborhood and wildlife refuges, I have plenty of mental snapshots:
*A morning at Oaks Bottom when I watched a coyote chase down a fat nutria, catch it, and carry it off into the bushes.
*The summer night I saw the great horned owl looking down at me from the top of the redwood next door.
*Dozens of ducklings trailing after their mothers every spring at Oaks Bottom and the Rhododendron Garden.
*The July morning I watched a mama raccoon lead her three little ones into the creek and teach them to turn over rocks and hunt for food.
*The very young coyote pup who jumped out of the bushes, cocked his silly little head, and watched the dog and I walk down the street.
*Every spring when the does finally bring the fawns out and show them off.
*Another July when I accidently confronted a mama raccoon and her babies on the trail at the refuge.
My head is full of delightful fleeting encounters. Maybe yours is too. Photographs are wonderful, but if you have to choose between a great shot and relishing the moment, choose the moment.
Then you can tell everyone about it! That’s what I do.
AN INVITATION: If you have a memory (with our without a photo) please consider sharing it here. Your stories are a gift only you can give and they are more interesting than you may realize. Send me an email or leave a comment here. We can talk on the phone or, if you’re willing, we can meet. I can’t wait to hear your story.
I call her Lily now, which doesn’t make any sense because I didn’t name her until she disappeared. Besides, I don’t name wild animals. I first saw her three years ago when she was just a spindly-legged new fawn. She was a pied fawn, more white than brown. There were no other deer so conspicuous in the herd. Tiny fawns are left alone when their mothers are feeding and I worried she would be easy prey for coyote.
Near the end of her first summer, I spotted her from a quarter mile away one morning. She seemed to be alone in a grassy field. When I got closer, I realized the entire herd was there. The pied had been easy to spot while the others blended in and were only visible when I was very close to them.
She stayed with her mother that first winter. They grazed quietly together, sometimes only a few hundred yards away from the herd, often completely alone, as though they weren’t part of the herd.
I saw Lily the next spring with her mother and a new fawn.. They made a pretty trio, the lovely doe, the pied, and her little brown baby sister.
That summer I saw her every week or so, but not with her mother; she was always by herself.
I came to believe that the rest of the herd didn’t want her near. It seemed like common sense. Her pretty white coat reflected brightly in sun or shade. Surely her presence endangered the whole herd.
Winter came again and I didn’t see her at all, though I often saw the other deer. Eventually, I decided something might have happened to the little doe. Then, a year ago, on a foggy early spring morning, I turned a corner near the fields. There she stood, fully grown, filled out, and healthy-looking.
She was pulling on the new buds of a rose bush. Many people hate the deer for their rose-loving ways. I glanced at the window of the house, half-expecting to see an angry homeowner, but a woman stood in the window wearing a blue bathrobe, watching the first of her rosebuds disappear, and smiling broadly.
There is nothing like starting the day with good news. The pied doe was alive and well!
I thought her story would stop there, with a known and happy ending. She was separated from the herd, probably because of her conspicuous color, yet she was near, and well. Then I saw her once more.
Last fall, in the middle of a warm afternoon, she was in the street in front of my house. The neighbors across the street have an old apple tree and I often get to watch the deer enjoy fallen fruit. But Lily wasn’t eating apples. She was moving back and forth restlessly. Turning to start back toward Kellogg Creek where the rest of the herd would likely be, then turning anxiously in the other direction. She didn’t seem to know where to go.
I have seen very young bucks doing the same thing in late summer, just before breeding season. I was told the bucks have been turned away from the herd and must move on. They act confused and upset. Its the only comparison I can make to the way the doe was behaving that afternoon.
I saw her make a decision that day. She marched forward, into the unknown, down Snowberry toward Briggs. If she stayed on that path she could only end up on Oatfield Road and, perhaps, McLoughlin. A doe was killed on Oatfield a few years ago. McLoughlin Boulevard would surely kill her. There was nothing I could do but watch. Maybe she went around the block and back to Kellogg Creek, but my gut tells me she was leaving.
I like to think the cars stopped on McLoughlin and watched her make her way across the busy highway and on to a new home. That happened once for my old blind dog, Jasper. I heard about it later, how all the cars stopped because the drivers seemed to understand he was trying to find his way home. He made it too, with a little help from a stranger.
Why did I name her after she was gone? I’m not sure. I was able to pick her out of the herd. I was able to follow her story. I came to know her, so now I call her by name.
Marlena and her twelve-year-old son Thor live in a 1910 farmhouse only two blocks from the busses, trucks, and traffic of busy McLoughlin Boulevard.
By far, it is the most charming home in the neighborhood.
Hanging on the wall in Marlena’s living room is a 1970s-era aerial photo of her home and surrounding land. The oak tree standing over the house was already huge fifty years ago when the acreage around the tiny house was being farmed. Today the acreage has shrunk to a small suburban lot in the middle of a crowded landscape of homes and apartments.
For years, Marlena worked as a Physical Therapist Assistant in Portland but she recently left her job to concentrate on being a full-time licensed massage therapist in Milwaukie. Now that she’s fully self-employed, her more flexible schedule will make it possible for her to pursue her next goal, a nursing degree.
Marlena is a healer at work and at home.
When she’s not working, she has her own tiny homestead. I don’t know anyone who lives a clean and green philosophy more faithfully and authentically than Marlena. Her small farm is a reminder that living a sustainable clean and green life isn’t hard. It just takes common sense; the kind of common sense that is second nature to Marlena.
“I always wanted to be where there was dirt,” Marlena told me. “When I was a kid, I would lay in the back yard of our Milwaukie house and just imagine myself sinking into the ground. Ever since then I’ve always wanted to be near dirt.”
Charming eccentricities in Marlena’s yard attract the attention and comments of passersby. Most people love it.
When they catch Marlena working in the front yard, people holler over the white picket fence, “It’s a treat to walk by your house, there’s always something interesting going on and I always want to know what you’re doing.”
A woman pushing a stroller says, “It’s such a joy to walk by your house! I wish more yards were like yours!”
In the summer, a profusion of daisies and a large fragrant patch of lavender crowd the sidewalk. Marlena remembers a young couple walking by one day and the young man bent down to pick a daisy for his girl friend. Apparently he didn’t know they have tough woody stems. His girlfriend kept talking and walking down the street while the boy yanked and yanked on the flower. Marlena was tempted to take a pair of scissors out to him.
Passersby are often tempted to grab a piece of lavender, put it to their noses and inhale deeply. Marlena doesn’t mind if they do. Most people ask politely, except for one woman, who dropped by with a large paper bag and her own scissors. She proceeded to fill her bag with the fragrant herb and never bothered to knock on the door with a “please” or a “thank you.”
If you first see Marlena’s garden in the winter you may not realize it’s actually a well-cared-for and loved piece of earth. Don’t worry, Marlena knows exactly what she’s doing. She leaves spent vegetation and flowers through the winter. Those dead-looking materials provide cover for insects and birds in winter, and seeds for the next season of growing.
Her yard has no wasted space. She grows vegetables in hand-made raised beds in the back. She also built a fence to protect the plants from Rollo, their huge Shepherd/Great Pyranese mix, the cats, Twister and Tornado, and the chickens, of course.
Marlena and Thor have had as many as six or seven chickens. Marlena wanted to start out with three chickens and so she asked a farmer’s advise. “If you’re gonna get three chickens,” the farmer said, “you might as well get five, because three and five are the same. Then, if you are gonna get five, you may as well get seven because seven and five is the same.” Marlena calls that Farm Math.
Today she has three chickens: Tini, Gertrude, and Ethel. Three is perfect for the small backyard coop she built to safely lock up the chickens at night. They have a roomy, fenced enclosure but are often out roaming the yard during the day, hunting and pecking. I was surprised to see how Marlena trusts them to stay in the front yard. When they stop laying eggs, the chickens enjoy a pleasant retirement with the flock.
Early in her years of keeping chickens, one hen got sick. Marlena called her grandfather, a life-long rancher in Klamath Falls. She knew he would be able to give her advice on how best to cure the bird.
When she told him Sunflower was sick, he said, “Who is Sunflower?”
“One of the chickens,” Marlena said.
“You named the %&^*)@# chickens!,” he said.
“Well, yeah,” she said, “after all your years of taking care of them, I thought you’d know what to do for Sunflower.”
“Yes, I’ll tell you what you do,” he said.
Marlena found a pen and paper to write down her grandpa’s instructions.
“Get a construction cone,” grandpa said.
“Nail it to the fence small hole down.”
“Put the chicken in head first.”
“Get a sharp knife and a bucket.”
She stopped taking notes at this point, thanked her grandpa and continued to nurse Sunflower.
Marlena is not afraid of the tough responsibilities of keeping farm animals. When Sunflower got much worse and was suffering, she put her down, quickly and humanely.
According to his mom, Thor is most helpful at harvest time, and definitely enjoys eating the vegetables their large garden produces. He’s a growing boy, after all. Living with the cycle of growing and harvesting has taught Thor how things work. He often asks his mom questions such as, “Isn’t it about time the peas should be ready?”
Marlena knows something we bird lovers forget. Birds love bugs. Keep the bugs happy and you have more birds.
“How is it you keep your grass green all year long?” a neighbor asked.
“It’s not grass. I mow it because of people with allergies, but it’s clover and whatever else wants to grow there. There are lots of bugs out there.”
Since it’s not grass, it doesn’t dry up in the heat of August and it’s naturally green. Without Marlena’s common sense, someone would have planted “real” grass, watered it all summer, fed it, killed the weeds, and deprived the bugs and the birds.
Some people might wonder why Marlena doesn’t rake up the few leaves left under the big Oak out front. She has observed crows coming at a certain time each day and turning over every leaf to capture small creatures hiding there. When the crows are gone, the chickadees and other birds come. As always, Marlena knows what she’s doing.
The houses around Marlena’s place have neat lawns and tidy shrubbery, a contrast to her wildly-growing space.
Not everyone understands Marlena’s little farm. Many feel they are entitled to an explanation.
Someone walked by the house one day and said, “When are you going to burn that stack of wood over there?”
“Never,” Marlena said. “That stack of wood is a great hiding place for insects, newts, and other creatures. That’s why it’s there.”
Many of us have hummingbird feeders in the summer, but Marlena’s feeders are scarlet runner beans planted in every available spot on her lot. The hummingbirds love the brilliant red blossoms.
She was lifting a heavy shovel full of gravel in the front yard recently when a man asked, “Why didn’t you put a second coat of paint on this fence?”
Marlena was courteous, but I would have been tempted to point to the gravel and hand him the shovel.
While Marlena was still shoveling gravel, a woman passed and said, “Why not grow something on that trellis?” She was pointing to a decorative metal trellis Marlena had acquired from a friend.
Digging her shovel deeply into the pile of gravel, Marlena said, “Good idea, I should do that.”
“Yes, it would be really nice if you’d grow something on that trellis,” the woman said.
Marlena likes the trellis fine the way it is.
Every year, Marlena and Thor have separate and multiple entries in the Clackamas County Fair. They’ve entered and won prizes for sewing, baking, canning, photography, and more. Thor has entered his own cheesecake and incredible Lego construction projects. Marlena won the People’s Choice award one year with a cookie jar she made out of corn husks and shaped like a chicken. The cookie jar “lays” cookies. The Clackamas Review featured her unique creation in a story about the fair.
Shortly after Marlena moved into her house ten years ago, her dog Grub started jumping up on kitchen counters and stealing food. Grub was an older dog and this new behavior baffled Marlena. She tried erecting barriers to keep him out of the kitchen and scolded him when she caught him in the act. Nothing seemed to help.
Finally, she consulted a pet psychic.
The psychic spent some time “listening” to Grub, and said, “The move has unsettled Grub, he needs a small job, small because his intellect is limited.” Marlena knew that was true and explained to Grub in simple language how she needed him to guard the front door. Grub began guarding the door and the problem was solved.
“Have you ever listened to what chickens have to say?” Marlena asked the psychic.
“Yes, but there’s not much going on there,” the psychic replied.
When Marlena first told me about the pet psychic I was surprised. How could someone so down-to-earth and real consult a pet psychic? Then I realized that a woman like Marlena, a woman so closely connected to the earth and the earth’s creatures, would have an open mind about finding a unique and organic way of getting in touch with what was bothering Grub.
Like the genuine Earth Mother Marlena is, she stays closely attuned to the earth she once dreamed of sinking into. Faithfully, whether at work or at home, she nurtures the earth and all the earth’s creatures.