Last April, at my home in Milwaukie, I enjoyed one particularly wild and stormy night. I slept better than I had in weeks that night. It wasn’t that the storm didn’t wake me; but each time I woke I went back to sleep enjoying the thunder, the wind, and the pounding rain.
My neighbors at the time had two or three tall fir trees in their yard. If those trees had lost their footing in the soil, they might have destroyed one end of the house. That could have been unfortunate for Teddy and me as we slept in the shadow of the firs. But a small group of healthy firs are safer than a lone tree. They entangle their roots and protect each other from the elements.
I relaxed in my bed that night and enjoyed the staccato of fir cones bouncing across the roof, and branches hitting the shingles then rolling toward the ground, or catching in the gutters. The relentless rain, so dreary in daytime, is just a lullaby at night.
A week ago, here in Newberg, we had a small thunderstorm. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the spring storm, but it was a pleasure.
I was eight years old when I first remember a thunderstorm. My mother came into the bedroom late one night and shook me awake.
“Get up and come with me!” she said, “I have something to show you.”
On our tiny covered front porch she had set up two chairs.
“I wanted you to see the thunderstorm!” she said.
We sat there, watching lightening fill the night sky. The storm seemed to be directly overhead. I don’t remember if there was rain.
My mother’s face was lifted to the spectacle over our heads. She was smiling and full of awe. The mental torments she lived with were absent that night. She was happy and she wanted to share it with me.
David and Lenda Black worked side-by-side on their Woodburn home for thirteen years. As they worked, they turned a modest 1970’s home and lot into a one-of-a-kind garden showplace. They have artfully blended the tidy look of a formal garden with the relaxed warmth of home and garden; a place where one might wander and lose track of time for hours.
Tall fir trees surround parts of David and Lenda’s back yard, making a lovely backdrop for flower beds and providing home to a pair of large hawks (possibly Northern Harriers). While Lenda and I savored lunch on the patio, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and tree squirrels, enjoyed sunflower seeds at their nearby feeding station.
Although there is plenty of plant variety in David and Lenda’s yard, it’s not hard to guess that Hydrangeas are Lenda’s favorite.
“If I could have only one flower in my garden, it would be Hydrangeas,” Lenda said.
Hydrangeas bloomed in many colors that day, some varieties with flowers so unusual Lenda had to tell me they were Hydrangeas.
Like most gardeners, Lenda admits that she sometimes sees only the weeds that appear overnight and forgets to appreciate what she and David have created.
Every corner of David and Lenda’s garden is well-loved. The side yards are tended and cultivated as lovingly as the back and front yards. Every bed is home to many happy plants, and flower beds have pleasing shapes and soft edges. The beds seem balanced, with each plant seeming to belong exactly where it is, though Lenda says they didn’t plan the garden in advance.
As Lenda and I walked, I realized what a generous source of life a well-loved garden can be. Everywhere I looked there was movement; hummingbirds, bees and other insects, tiny white butterflies moving from bush to bush, and huge yellow and black Swallowtail Butterflies. The garden was teeming with creatures dancing quickly from plant to plant, and flower to flower, while colorful Goldfinches took turns at the feeders.
As we walked through the yard, I couldn’t help but imagine the balance of heavy labor and tenderness that created Lenda’s garden.
“I look to the garden for peaceful reflection and to keep the body in motion,” Lenda said. “David considers himself a Jack of all trades, master of none; yet he constantly amazes me with his ability to learn new skills.He has done all of the remodeling of our home and has built all of the garden structures.”
David created the door that leads from the house to the covered patio and the back garden. It is simple and lovely, made of straight grain fir, which I will admit means absolutely nothing to me. I only know that I find the door very beautiful.
The first time I saw that door it seemed to speak me, “Welcome, I am an invitation, a promise that you will be delighted when you walk through to the garden beyond”
David recently created a beautiful clear cedar tongue and groove ceiling for the covered patio. He also screened in the patio, which in no way inhibits the view of the garden, but did enable a delicious, yellow-jacket free, fresh air lunch the day I was there.
Lenda and David are modest about the beautiful home they have remodeled and the amazing garden they have built from scratch, though they confess it was, “an awful lot of work.”
A few minutes before I left their home, David, Lenda, and I were admiring a large blooming white Hydrangea in the back yard. Only a few feet away from where we stood, a bunny was busy collecting grass in her mouth. She didn’t seem to mind us as we watched her carry the grass under a large bush where she settled down comfortably on her nest. She was just another example of the richness of David and Lenda’s garden, and she was a delightful end to a lovely afternoon!
The back yard before David and Lenda began their gardens:
The lazy, drone of bullfrogs follows Teddy and I up and down the Cedar Creek Trail during our early morning walks. Bullfrogs, merciless hunters of our native wildlife, are with us to stay, so I allow myself to enjoy their tuneless call.
Several weeks ago, my dog Teddy and I stumbled upon the Cedar Creek Trail behind the YMCA in Sherwood. Stepping into such a peaceful world so near the busy highway was a delightful surprise.
The paved trail is surrounded by lush greenery; lovely suburban homes sit on one side and natural wetlands and wildlife haven stretch the length of the other side. In quiet places along the creek, red wing blackbirds sing from the top of old snags, and impressive stands of tall fir trees create a forest habitat where chipmunks play amidst fallen logs on the forest floor.
In the busy days since recently moving from Milwaukie to Newberg, I’ve missed the small daily adventure of immersing myself in the sight and smell of the outdoors and quietly observing the ordinary lives of suburban wildlife. Fortunately, I’m learning that this area has many opportunities for outdoor exploration.
Our first morning on the Cedar Creek trail I kept expecting the path to end around the next corner, but it continued through several neighborhoods with side trails giving access to the main trail. I followed the path as it snaked alongside the natural habitat, stopping to listen to birdsong, smell the fresh air, and pay attention to occasional rustling in the brush.
Along the trail I heard the buzz-trill of busy Towhees calling and flitting about in the low branches. I’ve never seen so many Towhees in such close proximity, though it is the busy nesting season. The songs of many birds fill the air and every few feet a robin hops about carrying a worm or grub. We would marvel at the beauty of the robin if we didn’t see them so often.
The creek flows evenly and gently in some places then stalls for a while, flattening out and providing quiet habitat for water birds and other creatures before turning into a gurgling, free-flowing body of water.
Three tiny bunnies hopped about on the trail ahead of me one morning, then they dashed toward the brush when they saw me. One bunny allowed me to stand only a few feet from him while he held still and silent, hoping he had become invisible. In silhouette he looked like a little piece of yard art. As soon as I tried to get his picture he made a dash for the underbrush.
Two weeks ago, I watched a pair of quail moving in and out of the bushes and, a week later, saw the older birds with several recently hatched babies.
I have yet to see a dog loose in the protected habitat, though there are plenty of dog walkers on the trail in the morning. Joggers, and dog walkers, birdwatchers, and day dreamers all seem to understand the importance of leaving the habitat to the wild creatures.
I’m just beginning to learn about the Cedar Creek Trail and other remarkable ways that the community has integrated wetland and natural habitat in the middle of human habitation. It’s a unique and extraordinary sign of a healthy community.
A few weeks ago, a new frog made the pond his home. He wasn’t a bullfrog; Jeremiah had a very distinctive sound. He didn’t sound like one of the lovely little Pacific Tree Frogs that are the size of my thumbnail but sound as though they’re the size of my dog, Teddy. I was hearing something different, a frog I’ve never heard before, but definitely a frog.Continue reading “Serenade”→
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!
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
“…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.
Sometimes an insignificant event turns into a memory you can pull out and enjoy all over again.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
“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.
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.
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!
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
“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.