I submitted the last of my spring semester grades on Sunday night, which means I’ve spent much of this week catching up with things that fell by the wayside while I was grading, like keeping track of who’s been spending time in our backyard.
Nature & animals
May 2, 2013
Today was my last day teaching spring semester classes at Framingham State: on Saturday morning, my students will submit their final essay portfolios online, then on Monday and Tuesday mornings, I’ll proctor their final exams before spending the rest of the week grading, grading, grading. Through long experience, I’ve learned that semesters move forward as inexorably as seasons: in some ways, it feels like the end of the semester has been a long time coming, and in other ways, it feels like the end of the semester has come (again) before I’m really ready for it.
The last week of classes is always a bittersweet time. On the one hand, I’m always tired and eager for the (brief) respite that comes at the end of the semester; on the other hand, I’m always mindful of how much grading stands between the last week of the semester and Done.
When I taught at Keene State, the last week of the semester was typically when I’d find myself looking out my classroom windows at Old Silver, the sprawling silver maple I’d nicknamed the Failure Tree before he collapsed with an earth-shaking thud three years ago.
Old Silver had a lot of help in his final years from the Keene State College grounds crew, who tethered his trunks together with wire cables, and I always took quiet encouragement looking out the window at him during the final weeks of the semester, when I was daunted by my paper-piles and unsure whether my students had really “gotten” anything I’d tried to teach them.
Old Silver stood alongside me for most of my teaching career at Keene State, but he never really listened to any of my lectures, preferring to figure out his own approach to “tree-ness.” Sometimes the most lasting lessons happen despite everything a teacher does—or fails to do—in the classroom, and the last week of the semester is when I find myself quietly hoping that my students got something useful out of my class, if only by osmosis.
I haven’t (yet) found an acceptable equivalent to Old Silver at Framingham State: I’m still getting to know the trees there. The closest candidates are the two massively sprawling oak trees on Larned Beach, the grassy patch of real estate between Hemenway Hall and Whittemore Library. Both of these oaks are estimated to be a couple hundred years old: one is hale and hearty, the other is dying after being struck by lightning, and both are slated to be felled later this month to allow room for new construction.
If you’ve been alive and paying attention long enough, one of the lessons you eventually learn (if only by osmosis) is that even the oldest and sturdiest trees eventually fail and fall. Some, like Old Silver, choose their own time, defying gravity with a little help from attentive groundskeepers. Others, like Framingham State’s two massive oaks, have their times chosen for them, progress moving inexorably whether you’re ready for it or not.
Apr 19, 2013
You’ve probably heard the Boston area is on lockdown while authorities search for the second suspect in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing. Luckily, our cats are highly practiced when it comes to hanging out, hunkering down, and otherwise doing a whole lot of nothing, inside, so we’re spending the day taking lessons from the lockdown experts.
Apr 10, 2013
One year ago today, we put Reggie to sleep. I’ve been anticipating this one-year anniversary, wondering whether it would feel like a momentous occasion or just another day, and now that the day is here, it somehow feels a bit like both. In many ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago—far more than one year—since I spent so much time carrying a thin, increasingly decrepit old dog up and down the stairs, helping him get settled comfortably when he wanted to lie down, helping him turn over when he grew stiff or sore, helping him to his feet when he wanted to eat or drink, and plying him with treats and tasty bits at all times, trying to coax nourishment into a creature who was gradually fading away to fur and bone.
The first few months of last year, my entire life revolved around Reggie and the routine rituals of his care: the feeding and cleaning and medicating and relieving. On days when I taught in Keene, J was in charge of Reggie-care, and the first thing I’d do when I got home was climb the stairs to the second floor to check on Reggie: was he resting comfortably or restless? Long gone were the days when Reggie would meet me at the door of my apartment in Keene when I came home from teaching, his entire body wagging with gladness to see me. In his final months, Reggie could no longer stand up on his own, much less jump and prance around. In his final months, Reggie couldn’t even wag his tail, that once-emphatic exclamation-point having grown limp and lifeless from a debilitating combination of spinal arthritis and degenerative myelopathy. Given how much emotion a dog expresses through his tail, this particular indignity of Reggie’s old age seemed particularly cruel.
One of my most vivid memories of Reggie’s final months was an otherwise unremarkable morning when I’d gotten him comfortably settled after our morning walk. I was stroking his fur, rubbing his belly, and feeding him bits from my breakfast granola—our usual morning ritual—when suddenly Reggie rested his head in my lap and wagged his tail, thumping it firmly on the floor as he had when he was younger. Both arthritis and degenerative myelopathy are incremental in their onset: you don’t notice gradual impairments until your pet can no longer do things he always used to do. At that moment when Reggie thumped his tail, I burst into tears, realizing how long it had been since he’d been able to do something so simple. When your pet can no longer energetically express his gratitude, you focus on more subtle cues: a kind of quiet communion. When Reggie’s body permitted him to wag his tail on that otherwise unremarkable morning, I accepted it as a kind of gentle reassurance: inside, he was the same dog with the same gentle spirit, and it was only his body that was faltering.
The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep isn’t the simple reality of his absence, as you can (and do) brace yourself for that. The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep is the massive gap that’s left in your schedule, your life no longer centered on the mundane, almost liturgical routine of caretaking. In retrospect, it’s been helpful to have other pets to tend: had Reggie been our only pet, J and I wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves in the immediate aftermath of his passing, when we suddenly didn’t have an old dog to tend to constantly. These days, the energy we’d devoted to Reggie’s care is divided among our other pets, with our twelve-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, showing the first signs of arthritis, too. As the Buddha knew, old age, sickness, and death are an endless cycle: the wheel of life and death never stops turning. One year after Reggie died, we’re re-using with MAD the oral syringes we’d used to give Reggie his arthritis medication: same malady, same medication, different dog and dosage. For now, MAD can still wag his tail, jump to his feet, and otherwise prance around, but his days jumping on beds and racing up the stairs are over: different dog, similar story. As J remarked when the movie “Marley and Me” premiered: “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.”
Today’s photos come from Hemlock Gorge, which I’d first explored in 2008, when Reggie was showing the first signs of old age.
Mar 17, 2013
I haven’t known the massive oak tree that stands in front of the library at Framingham State University long enough to give it a name, as I did with “Old Silver,” the multi-trunked silver maple that used to stand on the corner of Fisk Quad at Keene State. But the first time I visited Framingham State, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the massive oak that stands on the grassy slope between May Hall and Whittemore Library: such a large, sprawling, and admirably craggy fellow!
Because Massive Oak’s branches sprawl so wide, it’s difficult to fit him into a single photographic frame, so before this past Thursday I had only two pictures of him, both taken this past November, when a friend and I held an informal writing retreat on campus. When we arrived at Framingham State on that November day, my writing partner remarked how pretty the campus was, and since we were walking past Massive Oak at the time, I assumed she was commenting on how wonderful it is to teach on a campus with large, mature trees on it: craggy characters who refuse to be contained in a single photographic frame, deciding instead to spread into every inch of available space.
Because Massive Oak is both large and sprawling, taking up a large area of prime campus real estate, my heart sank on Thursday morning when I saw his huge trunk circled with pink utility tape. By Thursday afternoon, others had noticed the tape and drew the natural conclusion: Massive Oak is marked for removal.
On Friday–the Ides of March–an email confirmed our worst suspicions: trees wrapped in pink tape will be removed, trees wrapped in orange tape will be spared, and trees wrapped in both pink and orange tape will be transplanted, all to make way for a new Science Building that is planned for the site.
As much as my inner-Edward Abbey immediately considered an act of eco-terrorist sabotage–how simple it would be, I thought, to switch pink tape with orange, or to yarn bomb the whole damn tree–I’m old enough to know better. Massive Oak is too large and gangling a fellow to coexist with a sprawling new science building: new buildings prefer small, easily-contained trees, not a craggy behemoth whose roots and memory both reach deep.
Tree-removal is scheduled to begin soon after graduation in May, which means I and other tree-appreciators have the rest of the semester to take pictures, rest in the shade, and otherwise enjoy Massive Oak while he’s with us. We’re all destined to die eventually, and a terminal diagnosis–death with a date–reminds us to appreciate time with trees we might otherwise walk right past.
Mar 1, 2013
Some mornings, our beagle, Melony, is mellow enough to pose for photos, either by herself or with a cooperative cat or two.
On most mornings, however, both Melony and our Labrador retriever, MAD, are antsy to go outside, which means all I get for morning photos are shots of blurry fur.
Jan 17, 2013
This month I’m participating in the Mindful Writing Challenge, which basically means I’m trying to note and record one interesting thing every day, using my Twitter account to post these “small stones.” Noticing and recording one small thing every day sounds easy enough—just open your eyes—but of course, simplicity is never as simple as it seems.
I’ve settled into a routine for generating each day’s small stone. In the morning when I take the dogs to our backyard dog-pen and back, I try to notice one interesting thing I can describe in a single arresting image. My walk to the dog-pen is short: from the back door to just beyond the garage. During that short stroll down the sidewalk, across the driveway, and back—something not long enough to count as a proper dog-walk—I watch for birds at the feeder, hawks in the trees, stars in the sky, or anything else that seems noteworthy: something seen in the brief backyard space between here and there.
Because I’m using Twitter to post my daily stones, I can’t be wordy: instead, I have to boil things down to their essence. On Twitter, I don’t have room to mention how this morning’s squirrels reminded me of other times I’ve seen squirrels romping and chasing; instead, I have to determine what makes this morning’s squirrel-spotting interesting or unusual. What is the kernel of experience that makes this squirrel stand out as remarkable or noteworthy? Specific details, I tell my writing students, are what make your writing believable: you want to capture the essence of “squirreliness” in your description, proving how attentive an observer of squirrel-nature you actually are. You don’t want to describe a squirrel as if you’ve never met one outside a book; you want to describe a squirrel as if you know it.
This morning’s squirrels were romping and scurrying, scrambling from all directions down one of our backyard maple trees onto a weathered picket fence, running along the top of it one after another. That was the central image in my head when I crafted this morning’s Tweet: squirrels rapidly converging as if from all directions, scrambling down a bare, branching tree and then chasing one another, one by one, along the top of the fence—one, two, three, four.
I just spent an entire paragraph describing this morning’s squirrels running from tree to fence, and I still don’t think I’ve provided an accurate picture. I haven’t mentioned the tail-twitching, the scrabbling claws, or the sharp chits of four squirrels chattering amongst themselves. I also didn’t mention how later, I saw even more squirrels—these same four, I’m guessing, and one or more additional ones—chasing and tumbling in the tall pines that fringe our backyard. Describing one squirrel encounter is difficult enough; describing two is infinitely more complex.
Having failed in two paragraphs to describe for you these squirrels, I give up, opting instead to create only the sketchiest of outlines: a Tweet that implies more than two paragraphs of prose could ever tell. When I craft each day’s Tweet, I first notice something as I’m taking the dogs out and in, out and in. Then I think about that noticed thing while I’m washing the previous night’s dishes, rinsing the recycling, and taking out the trash. Given what I saw, what can I say about it? Only then do I actually try to commit words to paper, except there’s no paper involved. Instead, I log into Twitter on my iPod Touch, then I skim a few Tweets before typing a short, condensed description of what I saw, ignoring how many characters I’m using and only trying to describe one central image that might express or explain the whole experience.
I do this with my thumbs because that’s how you type on an iPod Touch, as if you were texting on a phone. I never thought I’d use my thumbs to compose miniature bits of nature writing based on things I see in my suburban backyard, but I’m finding my Touch to be a perfect compositional tool for the simple reason that I don’t have to turn on my laptop to use it. Before I’ve written my morning journal pages much less turned on my laptop for the day’s work, I’ve composed the first draft of my daily Tweet, which I then whittle and hone so it fits Twitter’s 140-character limit. This act of winnowing words is what makes such Twittering useful to me as a writer: a daily exercise in concision. When you don’t have room for all your words, you pare down to your best words. This and this and this, and not a jot or tittle more.
This morning’s result? A single sentence that took me five minutes to get just so:
Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.
Jan 12, 2013
On Thursday afternoon, Leslee and I walked at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, where I’d somehow never been. When I lived in Cambridge years ago, I didn’t have a car and thus relied on public transportation, my bike, and my own two feet to get around; daunted by the traffic that converges near Fresh Pond, I’d never ventured there, preferring to make the longer, less-hectic pilgrimage to Concord to visit Walden Pond when I was in the mood for shore-side contemplation.
There are many ways that Fresh Pond in Cambridge is unlike Walden in Concord. Fresh Pond is a reservoir providing drinking water for the city of Cambridge, so you can’t swim there in the summer, as you can at Walden. Fresh Pond sits next to a busy intersection across from a shopping mall, and the trail around it is paved, unlike the wooded trails at Walden. You can pay to park at Walden, although the lot regularly fills in the summer, when locals come to swim and tourists come to visit Henry David Thoreau’s house site, but if you don’t have a City of Cambridge parking decal, you can’t park at Fresh Pond any time of year. The thing that Fresh Pond and Walden have in common, however, is ice: not just the present-day ice Leslee and I saw (and heard) on our Fresh Pond walk, but a history of ice-harvesting.
During our walk around Fresh Pond, Leslee and I saw a loon in drab winter plumage, two soaring red-tailed hawks, and a handful of scaups: I couldn’t tell with my bare eyes whether they were lesser or greater. We also heard the ice that remains after an unseasonable thaw chiming and knocking: chiming as bits of broken ice jingled in the water like rows of wine glasses tinkling in a rickety china cabinet and knocking as wind-blown waves hit the bottom of thin ice sheets near shore, the percussive sound amplified through melt-holes in the surface. In Walden, Thoreau observed how a frozen pond thumps like a drum when struck, and at Fresh Pond Leslee and I heard a partially thawed ice-drum struck from below by the watery slap of the pond itself: a wintery percussion section of ice drum, ice marimba, and ice chimes.
This ethereal ice-music is the kind of thing Thoreau himself would have been fascinated by: Fresh Pond’s own original composition. Ice groans and grunts when it breaks up in spring, and Thoreau describes the whooping and booming of Walden ice at various times of day as it warms and chills with the sun’s diurnal passing: “Who would have suspected,” he wrote, “so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?” These rhythmic sounds remind us, Thoreau suggested, that ponds are living, breathing things, with their own songs and calls as they molt from one watery plumage to another:
I also heard the whooping of the ice in the pond, my great bed-fellow in that part of Concord, as if it were restless in its bed and would fain turn over, were troubled with flatulency and had dreams.
Leslee and I saw lots of dog-walkers at Fresh Pond—that is what the pond is most renowned for today, featuring prominently in both Caroline Knapp’s A Pack of Two, which celebrates the bond between humans and dogs, and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, which commemorates Caldwell’s friendship with Knapp, including their many walks at Fresh Pond with their dogs. In Thoreau’s lifetime, however, Fresh Pond wasn’t a place to walk your dog; instead, it was renowned for its ice, as was Walden itself, both ponds growing a thick winter rind that icemen harvested and shipped to cities by the slab:
Southern customers objected to [Walden ice’s] blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds.
Today, when we want to ice a beverage, we go no further than our refrigerator, but during Thoreau’s lifetime, northern ponds were the appliance that supplied massive blocks for city-dwellers and southerners, who had enormous cakes of ice shipped in to be stored in cellars and iceboxes:
Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation. They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever?
In the age of global warming, I doubt that either Fresh Pond or Walden freezes thick enough to yield the harvest Thoreau described, when “in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre.” On Thursday, most of Fresh Pond was open water, with only the frozen fringes singing an icy song. But after hearing the rhythm of wind-swept waves amplified through ice, I can easily imagine the tinkle of Fresh Pond ice cubes in 19th century tumblers, the sound of cool summer beverages echoing across the ages on a warm January day.
Click here for Leslee’s (illustrated) account of our afternoon walk around Fresh Pond. I shot several short videos of the wind-blown water and ice in an attempt to capture the chiming and knocking sounds. Although the sound quality is disappointing, you can check them out here and here and here.
Jan 7, 2013
I’ve chosen a favorite among the birds who frequent our backyard bird feeder: an intrepid white-breasted nuthatch who is invariably the first bird to return to the feeder after a flyby-hawk scare. I don’t know whether it’s always the same nuthatch—I haven’t watched our assortment of feeder-birds closely enough to tell members of a particular species apart. But I know there’s always a lone nuthatch who ventures back to the feeder before the other birds do, as if he knows the food will be his, without challenge or competition, if he’s a bit bolder than the rest.
Boldness is a brash and typically stupid move: bold birds make easy meals for predators, vulnerable as they are in their lonely, exposed spots. As much as I’d love to see our resident Cooper’s hawk in action, swooping down from a nearby limb to snatch an inattentive bird at or near our feeder, I don’t want to see a hawk pluck this particular bird. Not a nuthatch, I find myself silently praying to a predator as lightning-fast and invisible as God. Take one of the juncos, or a dim-witted dove, or as many house sparrows as you can stomach, but leave my intrepid nuthatches to live another day.
I’m not sure what it is I find so endearing about nuthatches. I’m charmed, I think, by their jerky, wind-up motions, especially the way they scoot down tree trunks and stiffly hop from limb to limb. I like their honking, almost-cartoonish chuckle, and the assortment of soft squeaks and toots they make among themselves when they’re neither calling nor singing: conversational chips among familiars, like an elderly couple’s mundane chitchat at the breakfast table. I’m cheered by nuthatches’ squat, cigar-like shape and by the fact that they are like chickadees in color but entirely different in posture and demeanor. Chickadees are round and cute—adorable little balls of birdish good cheer—whereas nuthatches are oblong and stubby, clownishly quirky and jerky. Chickadees chatter while nuthatches chuckle; chickadees flit and flutter while nuthatches scoot and jerk. Chickadees are what you’d want a pert and alert bird to look and act like, and nuthatches are comedic caricatures of awkwardly avian behavior: fleet and agile flyers who become clowns on the ground.
J has a short video he shot when we first set up our bird feeder and he trained his camera on it, using a tripod and long lens. The video shows a nuthatch feeding alone on the feeder—my intrepid favorite, or another like him—when a male cardinal lands next to him, sending the hanging feeder spinning with the impetus of his lighting. The nuthatch doesn’t flit away; instead, he clings to his perch and flips upside down, flashing his wings at the cardinal in an aggressive display: back off, I was here first.
Who wouldn’t root for a bird who stands up to a bullying newcomer twice his size?
I don’t have any photos of the white-breasted nuthatches that frequent our backyard feeder, so today’s illustrations come from my photo archives: a white-breasted nuthatch on a colorful feeder behind our neighborhood elementary school, an immature Cooper’s hawk in our backyard, a chickadee near the feeder shown in the first photo, and a red-breasted nuthatch in the tall pines that border our backyard.
Dec 21, 2012
Today’s Photo Friday theme is “Best of 2012,” which gives me an excuse to review the photos I took in 2012. This past year wasn’t a particularly photo-rich year for me: for the first few months of 2012, Reggie was so frail, we didn’t go far on our daily dog walks, which meant I didn’t take many pictures…and after Reggie died in April, I walked even less, which again meant I didn’t take many pictures.
My favorite photo from 2012 comes from an August trip to the Columbus Zoo, which points to how few interesting photos I took close to home last year. Taking photos at a zoo is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel: you have a captive subject, so it becomes a matter of choosing which angle on which flamingo is your favorite. The Columbus Zoo has large, grassy enclosure where flamingos wander freely around an artificial pond, and the flamingos were vigorously flapping, squawking, and fussing when J and I saw them: captive subjects that were nevertheless moving and active.
Given how many and how active these birds were, it a bit of a challenge to choose the three flamingo pictures I included in that day’s photo set. When you are blessed with abundance, you can afford to be picky, and the photos I ultimately picked showed solitary flamingos at rest: not the entire flock, but a quiet moment experienced within the flock. Apparently I like my flamingos calm and elegant, not fussing and squawking.
One of my resolutions for 2013 is to walk more, which also means take more pictures. Only time will tell how the “Best of 2013″ compares with the “Best of 2012.”
This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, “Best of 2012.” I originally blogged that first flamingo photo at the beginning of this post. Here are links to past “Best of” posts: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004.