The Yearling

fawn-of-black-tail-deer-standing-in-grass-C1TK8WOnce spring brings new fawns, it isn’t long before the yearlings separate from the does and join the herd. I thought maybe it was the presence of a new baby that signaled to the yearling to leave her mother’s side.

Yesterday morning I think I saw how the separation actually occurs. A spindly-legged tiny fawn and her yearling sister wandered the field as their mother lay in the grass watching. The rest of the herd was grazing elsewhere.

Every few minutes, the yearling trotted up to her mother. The first time, the doe stood and chased the yearling off. After a minute, the yearling moved close again, as though she hoped for a little comfort after a rude rejection. Once again the mother chased her off, without violence, but with unmistakable firmness that I could feel from the top of the hill where I stood.

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Navigating beginnings and endings is a challenge for most of us. Relationships often have to change, sometimes they end. Even sending beloved children out into the world can be a tough transition.

After a couple more tries, the yearling seemed to accept rejection. For the next 20 minutes, while I watched, she stayed within eyesight but never moved in close to the older doe again.

One early morning observation isn’t science, but I think I know what I saw. The yearling needed a determined maternal push in order to move on. She had to come to terms with a change she wasn’t prepared for.

Whether the mother struggled with the change we will never know; but I do so envy her ability to know when, and how, to let go.

Playing Possum

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Taishou discovers something of interest in the garden (all possum photos by Sally-Lou)

The faint scent of blooming white lilac followed us as we walked through the side yard at Sally-lou’s house. When we reached her back garden, a paving stone path led to a garden bridge and a trellis covered in sweetheart ivy.

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Sally-lou has spent 28 years creating her peaceful garden, and it shows.

“Everything in this yard, every bush, pot, and decorative object, has a story,” Sally-lou said.

Like a happy little garden sprite, Sally-lou’s five-year-old grandson, Carter, skipped and hopped alongside us, followed closely by the handsome and gentle 100 pound Akita, Taishou (pronounced like cashew). The easy spirits of the child and the huge dog reflected the atmosphere of the quiet garden.

Sally-lou and I met when we were walking our dogs one morning. She’s a friendly, open woman with a beautiful smile. As we talked that morning, Sally-lou told me she once hated the lowly possum but now she’s changed her mind about the creature.

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Carter & Taishou

Last July, Sally-lou carried a cup of coffee and Taishou led the way as they enjoyed an early morning walk through the garden. Taishou became distracted by something and when Sally-lou investigated, she found the dog standing over a dead possum near the deck. Six squirming babies hung tightly to the back of the possum who, it turned out, wasn’t dead at all – was only playing possum!

The possum doesn’t intentionally play dead. It’s an involuntary response to stress (like a faint). Fortunately, Taishou was only mildly curious about the creatures, not overly excited or aggressive toward them.

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As homely and unloveable as Sally-lou may have found the possum, she wanted to give those babies a chance. She used a pink plastic garden bucket to shield mother and babies as she gently pushed the possums up against the opening under the deck. The little family could stay safe there until the mother revived.

This simple encounter made Sally-lou rethink her beliefs about possums being vicious and dangerous animals. A possum can reluctantly defend itself, if cornered, but the possum most often enters a sort of faint at the first sign of a threat. A frightened possum also releases a foul smelling liquid from its anal glands. How vicious is an animal whose first response to fear is fainting – and what appears to be a loss of – well, you know?

Carter, who was with Sally-lou that day, didn’t have any prejudices about possums. He saw little pink noses, tiny black ears with white tips, almond shaped eyes, and promptly named every one of the babies.

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Sometime that night, mother and babies slipped away safely and Sally-lou was satisfied she had done a good deed.

The Facebook pictures Sally-lou posted received more comments than anything she had ever before posted. Most people were amused by her tolerance. They were even more impressed with Taishou’s gentle and mild-mannered interest. Lots of people expressed the same prejudices most of us have had against possums; they are dirty and they carry diseases.

Most wild animals and birds can carry disease, as can our friends and family. Surprisingly, the possum is nearly immune to rabies and distemper. No case of rabies has ever been passed from possum to human. The possum is also a relatively clean animal. Like a cat, she uses her paws to wash her face.

The possum is an opportunistic omnivore and a friend to your garden. She will dine on ticks, insects, beetles, carrion, slugs, and small rodents. Possums love eggs and can bother chickens in an unsecured coop. Chickens are usually more vulnerable to raccoons. Naturally, a possum will help herself to food you leave outside for your cat or dog. The O’Possum Society of the United States calls the possum “nature’s little sanitary engineers.”

We humans equate the possum’s slow ways with stupidity. They seem to be in their own little world when they walk down the street, not even noticing automobiles.

An old joke asks the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The answer to that question is, “To show the possum it could be done.”

The possum might  be smarter than we think. In studies, possums scored consistently better than any other animal, including rats, cats, and dogs, at remembering where food was hidden. In fact, only humans scored better than the possum.

Possums don’t win beauty contests in the human world. To our eyes, they can appear homely, repulsive creatures. In actuality, possums are harmless and useful animals. As our only marsupial, they are also a unique addition to our wildlife heritage.

We should treat possums as Sally-lou does, we should allow them to move about safely and undisturbed as they go about their good and quiet business.

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Carter & Sally-Lou – Best of Friends

 

 

 

 

The Honeymooners

August 2015

The water sparkled with reflected sunlight, deep pink water lilies covered much of the surface, and goldfish of all sizes casually toured their own little kingdom.  After a few minutes of relaxing and talking quietly, Laura and I noticed something stirring on the other side of the pond. Two adorable little noses poked out from under the Japanese Anemones. After a moment, two cheerful little creatures hopped up on a large rock overlooking the pond.

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They were only 20 feet away, directly across from the bench where we sat. Our presence didn’t worry them at all. They looked at us and went on about their happy business.  In fact, they seemed to be smiling when they glanced our way.

They began taking turns diving into the pond. First one would dive in, swim down a foot or two, then nimbly hop back up on the rock and shake it off. Then the other would take a turn while his mate watched and waited.

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Sometimes the little animals stopped for a moment and watched the pond, exactly as Laura and I had been doing.  During those quiet moments they would touch noses and stand very close to each other. I don’t think we were imagining the bond between them.

They ignored us and focused on each other, reminding us of honeymooners. Their shiny little eyes glittered with pleasure and the joy of a hot day playing together in the water. Again and again they dove, and smiled, and played. We were enchanted.

We set about trying to figure out what sort of creature these cheerful little souls were. They had charming little rounded ears, big bright eyes and comical faces. They were not squirrels. Though they seemed nearly squirrel size. Maybe they were something visiting from Kellogg Creek. We’d had Jeremiah the bullfrog living with us for a while. He came from the creek. Whatever they were, they were certainly welcome to play in the sun in our little habitat.

After watching them for fifteen minutes one of the little guys turned sideways. This is what we saw:

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“Wait! They can’t be rats! That looked like a rat when it turned sideways!” I said.

We watched for a few more minutes. They were rats, in broad daylight on a hot sunny day! They showed no fear of us. They were perfectly at home!

Right now you are telling yourself that you would have known they were rats from the first moment. Chances are you have seen rats slinking along a wall or running in front of your headlights at night. Maybe you once saw a rat in broad daylight in your own back yard; but if you did, the rat probably flew across the lawn and out of sight the minute it saw you.

Think about what we saw that day; a pair of sleek little creatures in broad daylight, seemingly relaxing at Club Med, flirting with each other, frolicking poolside in the sun, enjoying vacation in every way just short of ordering a Pina Colada, If you saw the same thing, you might not be so sure they were rats at first.

When you did realize they were rats, your prejudices against the creatures might be just a little bit shaken. When you look at a rat’s face head on, the nose isn’t so pointed and the little round ears and bright shiny eyes are darn cute.  For just a moment you might wonder why calling someone a rat was an insult!

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Friends have occasionally whispered that they had a rat problem. It’s one of those shameful things people don’t like to admit. The truth is, there are rats all over Portland and the suburbs. I’ve seen them in the ivy outside my doctor’s fancy office and running in front of my headlights at night.

The adorable little creatures visiting our pond that day were ordinary Norway rats, the plague of our cities (where food is readily available), and once the carrier of the fleas that spread the plague. Judging by their obvious affection for each other they were likely to live up their species’ reputation of producing fourteen litters a year!

Now that we knew, we could not allow them to stay.

A day or two later I found their den –a convenient hole directly under the bird feeder. I was feeding black oil sunflower seeds at the time, a perfect lure for rats. Even if seeds hadn’t been falling to the ground, I learned that the smell of sunflower shells alone attracts rats.

We tried driving them out from under the bird feeder. We ran water full force directly into the hole. It didn’t matter.  Our little lovers were still openly entertaining themselves in the yard. They had become used to moving about in daylight – and they did so love the pond.

A little bit of research convinced me I had done everything possible to make our honeymooners feel welcome.

Dave and I removed all the spent sunflower seeds under the feeder, bought a new feeder with a central cone, and moved the feeder to the center of the lawn. We filled the cone with shelled sunflower seeds to prevent sunflower shells covering the ground. The cone kept the seeds in the feeder and off of the ground. As a bonus, the cone also keeps the food dry in wet weather.

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The metal skirt we had already installed on the pole had kept both squirrels and rats from climbing up to the feeder. With no shells and no seeds on the ground we had cut off the rat’s food supply

Just the same, it wasn’t long before they were digging under the feeder at the new location. They hadn’t had time to do much excavating, so we forced them out. Laura stood over the new hole and poured water from the hose, full force. After a few minutes up popped a dripping wet little face wearing an accusing expression that seemed to say, “What in the devil do you think you’re doing!” They gave up on that hole.

Since making changes, to the bird food and the feeder, the neighborhood rats have disappeared. Maybe not truly disappeared, because rats are all around us all of the time. What they have done is return to their nocturnal secretive ways. With no source of food, they will struggle to survive, as wild creatures must.

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It was easy enough to stop feeding and encouraging the rats, but we learned something else. We saw them once without prejudice, with clear eyes. They are clever, opportunistic, and sentient creatures, like us. Given the opportunity they will become a genuine problem.

Just the same, if a single pair of them silently crosses the yard to the pond one hot summer night, plays for a minute on the big rock by the anemones, and decides to enjoy a midnight swim, I won’t mind.

 

 

Skunked!

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If the fish in your backyard pond kept disappearing, you’d get tired of replacing them. You’d start focusing on getting rid of the character who was eating them, most likely a raccoon.

That’s why Debbie and Jerry bought a large Havahart live trap, set it up near their pond, baited it with tuna fish, and waited. Several mornings later Jerry stepped out the back door, saw they had something in the trap, and was immediately disappointed to realize they had apparently caught someone’s black and white cat.

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Fortunately, Jerry was approaching the trap from the rear when he realized what he really had in that wire cage.

 

The back end was all Jerry could see of the little skunk. That was good. It meant the skunk could not see him.

Quietly, Jerry backed away from the cage. He would much rather have dealt with a thirty-pound snarling raccoon than a five-pound skunk. He needed advice.

Clackamas County Fish and Wildlife said, “You have to release it. Take it five miles past the Oregon City limits and let it go.”

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“Don’t you have someone who can come out and help me?” Jerry asked.

It’s a skunk in a large wire cage. I won’t be able to get anywhere near it!

“We don’t do that, sir. You have to take it out of town.”

How about a humane way to get rid of it without getting close?” Jerry asked.

“No! You are required to take it five miles out of town.”

Jerry was running short of patience by then, “How about I take it to your offices and release it there?”

“No! Do not bring it here, sir and do not do anything to that skunk! We may send a officer out to your house and make sure you properly release it!”

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Jerry had to work that morning but he came up with a plan.

Debbie grew up on a farm in Colton. She knows skunks and she says, “If a skunk can’t see you, it won’t spray you.”

Holding up a large tarp so the skunk couldn’t see him, Jerry tip-toed quietly through the tulips, past the pond and right up to the wire cage. Still hidden, he carefully covered the entire cage with the tarp. Then he used several bungee cords to make sure the tarp was tied down tightly. Next, Jerry lifted the large cage to the back of their small Chevy pickup. The skunk was quiet.

Jerry planned to park the truck in a shady spot at his office and then, after work, take the skunk out of the city and release it.

Sailing down I-205, with the skunk in the back of his truck, Jerry was feeling pretty confident.” So far so good,” he thought!

It wasn’t long before Jerry noticed honking, a lot of honking. Then the driver of a white Toyota flew by and scowled at Jerry. Suddenly Jerry picked up the powerful scent of skunk. Panic took hold of him when he looked in the back of the pickup and saw the tarp flapping in the wind. People in the lane next to him flew by as fast as they could, some of them were gesturing toward the back of the truck. Many were making obscene gestures. Those who passed carried with them the scent of a terrified freeway-riding skunk.

They say that a skunk can spray about six times in a row to a distance of ten feet. But this skunk was really terrified and Jerry swears the skunk never stopped shooting until they arrived at Jerry’s work. In any event, the ten-foot range must have been extended to hundreds of feet behind the truck – what with the wind produced by the freeway speeds.

Jerry made it to work and parked in a shady spot far away from any other vehicles. He told his work buddy, John, the tale of his morning adventure.

“Skunks have never bothered me,” John said, “I’m a single man with a cabin in the woods. Bring the skunk out to my place and let him loose. He’s welcome!”

After work, Jerry carefully tied the tarp down again and followed John out to the cabin. In a pleasant wooded spot they slowly lifted the tarp from the front of the cage.

John stood behind the cage, held the tarp in front of himself, and lifted the door of the cage. The skunk could see nothing but freedom.

He waited. And waited.

Jerry couldn’t see any reason to wait for the skunk to gather courage so he went home.

Now it was just John and the skunk.

John continued waiting for several minutes.

Since he was hiding behind the tarp, John couldn’t see the skunk but he was pretty sure it hadn’t left the cage yet.

He continued to wait.

After a while, John peeked over the tarp, just barely, he was too nervous to pull it back far enough to see the cage.

He continued to wait. There seemed to be no movement from inside the cage.

Then he thought, “Maybe I looked away for a second, the little guy ran out, and I missed it completely.”

So he lowered the tarp a little bit more, peeked further over, and looked into the shiny black eyes of one mad and disoriented skunk. Before John could think, the skunk turned, fired, then proudly waddled off.

Too late John dropped the tarp and ran to his cabin.

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The skunk was never seen again.

As Debbie says, never let them see you!

 

Temptation

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For two week I’ve been walking by blooming lilacs, bushes loaded with fragrant blossoms. Their sweet smell reminds me of being a child in Spokane (the Lilac City), sitting in the back yard with my little sister, Christine, and sucking sweet nectar from tiny purple blossoms.

It should be enough to inhale deeply as I walk by those blooms every morning; but no, I’ve wanted a branch for myself, sweetening the air at home. There are places I could pull off a branch without leaving a hole for anyone to notice. But early morning walking means I can’t get permission from sleepy homeowners. It wouldn’t be right to take without asking.

For two weeks every purple bush I pass seems to be telling me it’s okay to take a small piece. Yesterday I lost a battle with my conscience – or did I win? I passed by a particularly huge blossoming lilac. I remembered the homeowners are friendly. I imagined asking them for permission to take just one small blooming branch. In my imagination, they said, “Of course!”

I stole a low branch hanging so heavy and rain-soaked  that it nearly touched the pavement. Nobody was around and nobody would ever notice anything missing.

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My kitchen smells wonderful! I’ll confess to those friendly people when I see them. I’ll thank them for sharing an intoxicating piece of spring.

I won’t say I’m sorry though!

 

Thank You!

 

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Bruce, a dear family friend, recently asked me how it’s been since I started my blog.

“Have you enjoyed it?” he said.

At the time, I wasn’t prepared to reflect. I expressed myself in a way that didn’t at all convey what this experience has been.

“It’s been ok. People have been kind,” I said to Bruce.

As if the experience hasn’t been so much more than that.

The truth is the last six months have flown by and it’s been wonderful.

When I imagined exposing my small essays to the public, even family and friends, I was sure it would mean constant grammar and punctuation correction. Sometimes I change tenses in inappropriate places, and I don’t even want to talk about how full of conviction, yet convoluted, my logic can be.

But the critics have been kind. Those of you who have responded to posts and those I have met have been delightful, open-minded, and engaging.

Sally must have recognized Teddy one day when we were walking. We stopped and talked for a while. Sally has an infectious spirit, and she shared some of her adventures with urban wildlife. Now I look for her beautiful smile when I’m out in the neighborhood. Sally is just one of the amazing neighbors I’ve met and had a chance to talk with.

Claudia is a writer and introduced herself with a beautiful comment on one post. In an email she once described a colorful picture of chickens as a ” bouquet of chickens.” Claudia makes a wonderful Monday morning walking companion and she’s not afraid of the rain.

Writing about my dear friend Marlena and her lifestyle helped me to know and appreciate her even better than I already had. She was so generous with herself. It was a joy to write. Debbie generously spent a couple of hours filling me in on skunks – yes, skunks. I can’t wait to share her story!

Many of you have written kind messages. Every one of you has refrained from offering the good advice I should probably listen to.

This is my thank you. Thank you to my writing partner, Cindi, who encouraged me to trust you. Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read. Thank you for your tolerance. Thank you for sharing yourselves and reminding me that there are a lot of great people out there.

Please consider allowing me to write about your urban wildlife adventures. It will be a privilege, and I promise to be as kind to you as you have been to me.

 

 

Blooming Bunnies

This week’s Wild City post is a gift from guest blogger, Cindi Brown.  Cindi is a professional writer and editor, my dear friend, and my writing partner. She is also the author of  the book, Poverty and Promise, the moving story of her time as a volunteer in Kenya. Cindi and her husband live in New River, Arizona near Phoenix. Check out her blog  it is a work of art.

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Spring has sprung baby bunnies across the desert. They’re more than adorable, the size of a dove, their tiny ears pointed skyward.

Apparently, baby bunnies go out on their own when relatively young. Brent spots one on the walkway in our courtyard and excitedly yells out, “Cindi, come here! Quick! It’s a baby bunny.”

We watch through the front window as the baby nibbles the only few blades of grass in the courtyard. The ground is dirt, but will soon be landscaped.

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In a minute, the baby runs under a large rock. If it stays in the courtyard, it might be safe, I think.

The next day, when I open the garage to go to work, I sneak out to the courtyard, practically tippy-toeing, to see if the baby is out and about. No signs. Crossing the driveway, I look at the yard between us and our neighbors. A large bunny sits quietly. Two babies scurry along their trails, oblivious to me. I watch them frolic.

In the evening, a baby bunny comes onto our back patio, under the table, while big bunnies and doves and quail peck away at the bird seed I just threw out. Brent and I watch the baby from the door leading onto the patio from our bedroom. We softly chant for the baby to get into the fray and eat some seeds. But instead, she hops into the little forest of potted plants that make up our nursery.

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For 20 minutes, we watch her move between the pots, sometimes looking out at the big bunnies and birds. Then she stops in front of our antique potbelly stove. Then she’s on her hind legs peeking into the lower open door of the stove.

“She’s going to get into the stove,” I say.

“No way,” Brent says.

She’s up and her little back feet pump up and down a couple of times before she is safely inside the stove. We’re giggling.

She hops out of the stove, and then back in, in one brave bound.

“I hope she nests there,” I say. “Then she’ll be a little safe.”

“A coyote could pull her out of that thing,” Brent says. Maybe. But several potted cacti sit very close, blocking the entrance to the stove.

“Put some strips of cloth in the stove,” Brent advises. “Natural cotton is the best thing for bunnies and birds, but since we don’t have any, the bunny can make a nest with cloth.”

“When they’re finished eating,” I say, “I’ll water the plants, fill their trough and throw in some cloth.”

I find a few quilt scraps of white and pink cotton fabric and place it carefully in the stove, after removing a rusted grate. The stove isn’t big at all, and the baby is climbing in the little compartment at the very bottom, not even able to get up to the larger door of the stove’s main compartment.

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For this morning’s 6:30 feeding, I scatter the bird seed on the lower patio and then drop a couple of tablespoon of seeds just outside the stove. In a couple of hours I check to see if the stove seeds are there. In the process, I scare the baby, who is at the back wall. But all the seeds near the stove are gone, and the fabric in the stove is flattened, as though she scooted the cotton around to suit her.

I follow the baby to the other side of the house and she is sitting in the dirt.

“Hey, baby,” I goo-goo. “Don’t run away. Come back and see me.”

She runs under a nearby board, still fully visible, and I continue to talk until she lights out for the bunny trails in the side yard.

Back inside, Brent is making pico de gallo and has shaved corn off a cob. “Throw this outside, will ‘ya,” he asks, handing me the corn cob. But he pulls it back quickly and cuts it into five smaller pieces. One piece I sit on it’s end just below the potbelly stove door. The others are tossed into the yard. Bunnies love gnawing on the cobs as much as they love apples.

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I’ll keep making sure there’s food and plenty of fabric for the stove, as long as the baby can fit into the door. I hope she stays in our yard and remains covered, safe from hawks, owls or coyotes. I wish all the babies could come into our yard and live in the stove.

Safe. At least until they’re a little bigger.

 

 

 

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)