The Land Turtle

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.”

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Listening to the Season

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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)

 

 

 

Misplaced Priorities

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

August 2015

Celebrate the First Day of Spring!

It was nearly freezing this morning, but it was the first day of spring! So I spent a few hours  on “safari” at the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.

I missed getting a picture of a couple of deer and the Blue Heron were huddled together in the sunshine – too far away to capture with my phone.

Wishing you a beautiful spring!

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This is a favorite of mine because it’s a bit of old Portland and today’s Portland in the same picture.

 

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Under the Influence

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.

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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.

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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.

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This picture was taken a few weeks ago. Imagine this sky filled with thousands of geese – that is what we saw last Saturday (I was too stunned to think about taking a picture).

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.

An Invitation

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.

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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.

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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.

Lily

 

 

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This pretty lady could be Lily’s mother.

 

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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This  photo of Lily and her mother was taken in a hurry through my living room window, I share it just to give an idea how conspicuous she was. My apology for the appallingly poor quality of the picture!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Sights

 

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Handsome Red-Tail posed outside my window one January.
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…then left with a squirrel.

 

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Chickens have become a part of our urban landscape. (Picture by Marlena Rae)

 

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Tiny January surprise in the grass.
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Another Flicker – so common it’s easy to forget how beautiful they are!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Saturday, January 27 – Watching the Bald Eagles at The Dalles Dam:

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Native American fishing platform
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Touching picture for me. The dam behind the tired remains of what had been Native American fishing village.

Learning to Walk

I had barely noticed the fields across the street from our house. Up until then, my world had been school, home, bus stops, streets, and my part time cafeteria job. If you had asked me what was in those fields, and not seeing any structures, I would have told you “nothing.”

But I had one last biology project in the spring of my high school sophomore year; collect and identify wildflowers.

Dusty looking yellow flowers in the ditch across the street from our house proved to be yarrow, my first wildflower. I realized I needed to go beyond the ditch and into the acreage and fields. Carrying the Guide to Washington Wildflowers, I walked a little farther every day. Every day I found more wildflowers. I found blue lupine, wild strawberry, and chickweed. I began to feel tenderly toward tiny blossoms I would once have crushed beneath my feet.

In a few weeks I finished the project. School ended but I kept walking. I had been bewitched by fresh air and sunshine, by birdsong, the peaceful drone of insects, and a meadow full of wildflowers. I caught myself welcoming the occasional early morning scent of skunk.

Those fields were mine that summer. I never saw another human being.

Every day I discovered something wonderful. One morning a sudden and terrifying explosion burst out of the grass only a few feet in front of me. A large bird, bigger than any I had ever seen, was furiously objecting to my presence. She fluttered and protested loudly when I moved closer and leaned over to see a dozen warm brown eggs nestled tightly together in a small earthen depression. I learned to watch for pheasant nests.

Each time I walked I pushed a little bit farther. Every step aroused my curiosity. What would I see over that next small hillock? What would I find if I climb down the steep bank and explored the brush? Where is that bird, the one serenading me from a hiding place in the bushes?

By mid-summer I had reached the forest. It was probably only five wooded acres, but it was forest to me. I’d been working my way closer for a while, hungry to know what secrets hid in those piney Spokane woods. Stepping out of the sun, through the dry underbrush, into the gentle shade, was pleasant relief on a hot day. Not twenty feet in, I stopped abruptly.

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Standing silently, I watched and listened to the soft twittering of tiny birds as they flitted from branch to branch, from tree to tree. I wasn’t an offense to their world as long as I stood still and watched. Their very indifference was enchanting.

A busy hum hung over the entire kingdom. I heard a loud jay, and the steady loud buzz of an unknown insect. I wanted to be quiet, to know this place through all of my senses.

Bright flashes of insight are not every day events for me; but that day I suddenly understood why I had walked all summer.

The fields, the woods, these creatures, had always been there. They weren’t waiting for me to discover them. They didn’t care. When I wasn’t there to observe, they were still going on about their lives.

That simple, obvious, observation comforted me. Through the spring and summer I had found peace, mystery, and a kind of order as I walked the fields and forest.

I’ve never stopped watching and walking. Eventually I saw that nature’s peace was visited by occasional tragedy. Accidents happen and predators take what they need; but there is no ill intent, and no time to dwell on misfortune.

There is only the beauty of abundant life, the will to survive, and grace.