Close to home


Male hairy woodpecker

When I pulled into the faculty parking lot at Curry College this morning, I wasn’t surprised to see a male hairy woodpecker clinging to a nearby tree, as last week I’d seen the holes he’d hammered. Sometimes birds reveal themselves directly, and other times they reveal themselves by what they leave behind.

Here be woodpeckers

This particular hairy woodpecker wasn’t shy, continuing to cling to his tree while I rolled down my car window and took a picture from the driver seat, using my car as an impromptu bird-blind. (I can tell this fellow is a male by the red spot on the back of his head, and I can tell he’s a hairy rather than downy woodpecker because his bill is as long as his head is wide: a downy’s bill isn’t nearly as long.)

Only after I’d gotten out of my car did the woodpecker startle and fly, scolding me with emphatic call-notes: “Peeeek! Peeeek!” Now that I know who’s been drilling the trees by the faculty parking lot at Curry College, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for him and his mate.

Something green and growing

Temperatures stayed above freezing for much of last week, so the snow pack is gradually shrinking, with patches of bare ground appearing on the edges. We saw these brave perennials starting to sprout from a sheltered spot alongside a building in Waltham yesterday…but in our yard here in Newton, the snow is still knee-deep, with an additional inch or two of fresh snow (enough for Boston to break its record for the snowiest season on record) falling last night.

Artificial flowers in snow bank

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since it will be weeks, at least, until most of us see tulips or daffodils blooming in our still-buried gardens, some folks are taking matters in their own hands, sticking cut or even artificial flowers in the snow banks in front of their houses: a welcome spot of color. When you can’t enjoy the real thing, a reasonable facsimile will have to do.

Cut daffodils in snow bank

Out of the snowpack

Inch by inch, we’re reclaiming our yard from winter’s occupation. Yesterday a desk-sized slab of ice slid off our roof, taking part of the gutter with it; the day before that, an avalanche of roof-snow tore a cable from its mooring on the side of our house. Considering the damage many of our neighbors and colleagues have suffered–collapsed drywall ceilings, peeling paint, and warped kitchen cabinets, all from roof leaks caused by ice dams–J and I have gotten off easy, with only a bit of indoor dripping and seeping.

Overhang

Yesterday J and I walked to lunch, and shoveled sidewalks were bare…but those sidewalks that hadn’t been shoveled were treacherous, with alternating patches of ankle-twisting snowdrifts and slippery-as-sin ice patches slicked with snow melt. The most reliable place for pedestrians to walk is still (unfortunately) the street, turning a simple lunchtime walk into a game of chicken with passing motorists.

In the afternoon, I drove to Lexington to stock up on office supplies, and the town center was well-shoveled, with wide, clear sidewalks. It was sunny and mild, with temperatures in the mid-50s, and anyone who didn’t need to be inside was outside, walking. After so many weeks of snowstorms and cabin fever, it felt like an unheard luxury simply to walk outside, reclaiming the cleared sidewalks as our own.

The top photo shows our formerly-buried patio table and chairs emerging from the melting snow, and the second is the last photo I took of the overhanging roof-glacier that hung over our back door before it fell.

Buried shopping cart

The forecast calls for daytime highs in the 40s all this week, which means we’re beginning to see buried things surfacing out of the snow. It will be weeks before we see our lawn, but the top of our backyard birdbath has emerged, and in a nearby parking lot I saw the edge of a shopping cart peeking out of a head-high snow pile: the last place, presumably, a snowplow had pushed it.

Plowed pallet emerges from snowbanks

People often talk about how pretty snow is, and that’s true when it’s fresh-fallen and white. These days, however, the salt-blanched roads are lined with exhaust-blackened snowdrifts that have hardened and eroded into irregularly jagged shapes, more like sedimentary stone than anything akin to water. Like swords from a stone, all manner of random things are surfacing from beneath the snow: plow-battered pallets, smashed trash cans, and broken and uprooted park benches.

Stone wall emerges from melting snow

Spring is coming, the warmer temperatures and lengthening days suggest…but first we have to weather an awkward adolescence where the snow is ugly and ice-bottomed puddles are more treacherous than ice or snow alone. On Saturday, I ventured to Home Depot in search of ice melt, and everyone else in the store seemed to have the same idea, stockpiling what we hope is our last stash of the stuff. On the drive home, there was a mild traffic jam as a queue of cars at a popular car-wash snaked into the street: as reliable a sign of spring as any other.

New bathroom bud

The peace lily in my bathroom has sent up a tightly rolled bud, as it does every March and September: the two times of year when the hours of available daylight suggest “spring.” It will be a long time before any flowers bloom outside–our snowdrops are still buried in a head-high pile of snow, and I’ve abandoned all hope for crocuses–but it’s heartening that even a potted plant can sense the eventual arrival of spring.

Circles in snow

I’ve been around the sun enough times to know how New Englanders cherish even the smallest signs of spring. Our backyard cardinals have been singing in the gradually brightening mornings, it’s still light after 5:00 pm, and we can once again see the top of our backyard birdbath above the shrinking and settling snowpack. Last night we got a couple inches of new snow, but it was sloppy mix of ice and rain: the sludgy stuff that falls in autumn and spring, when temperatures are volatile.

Venusvine with stones, snow, and fog

Sometimes during these tenuous in-between days, I wonder how prehistoric humans handled those early winters before the sequence of seasons was a known, predictable thing. Before calendars tracked the pattern of the seasons, did those early humans give up all hope of winter ever ending? Even a potted plant somehow counts the hours of available sunlight, and even backyard birds know when to sing in spring. We humans, though, rely upon our big, ponderous brains, which equivocate on this and other important matters.

Snowy field with two hearts

In March, we humans waver in our hopes, uncertain whether spring will ever come. We doubt and we question, our fluctuating moods as indecisive as weather. But both the plants and birds know the light is lengthening and the season shifting, snow gradually giving way to sun as the earth leans into another turn. While we humans waver and wonder, the birds and plants simply know.

Apart from the peace lily at the top of this post, today’s photos come from a January trip to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, when the snow was as dense and sludgy as today’s.

Staircase mural

Last week, I went to City Hall to drop off a red plastic container of used hypodermic needles. One of our cats, Snowflake, was recently diagnosed with diabetes, so since January we’ve been giving him twice-daily insulin injections. Used syringes (or “medical sharps,” as they’re officially known) are a health hazard and can’t be tossed in the trash, but the local Health Department accepts puncture-proof containers of used needles for safe disposal.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere

It took a lot of wandering inside City Hall to find the Health Department: the building is literally a bureaucratic maze. Newton’s City Hall also doubles as a War Memorial, so while I was lost and wandering, I had ample opportunity to admire the dioramas in the hallways, each depicting in miniature a significant scene from American military history.

Pickett's Charge

Dioramas are like windows into another time or place, depicting a particular moment frozen in time, but they are also a kind of box, cleanly containing a discreet moment that exists separate and apart from the present. Viewing miniature models of soldiers dying on the battlefields of Gettysburg or France, for instance, I can imagine what it was like to be there…but I’m not there. The pane of glass between me and a diorama scene safely contains the story it depicts, so I can peer into the box of another’s pain without having to touch it.

Somewhere in France

Once I found the Health Department, I was surprised I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork or show identification to prove I’m a resident. Instead, when I announced I had medical sharps to dispose, a man silently rose from his desk and barely made eye contact as he solemnly walked me down the hall to a locked closet where a large, deep box—large enough to curl up in—was filled to almost-overflowing with red biohazard canisters and used detergent bottles, each filled with puncture-points of pain.

Valley Forge

After adding my contribution to the box, I got to wondering about its contents. The box, like a diorama, was both a window and a container. As a container, it safely held sharp, potentially infectious things that need to be handled (and disposed of) with care. But as a window, the box offered a glimpse into the pain of my anonymous neighbors. Behind each needle-prick lies a story of suffering: patients and caretakers, sickness or addiction, pain and relief. Maybe this is why the man with the closet key averted his eyes, in part to preserve my privacy (needles freely accepted: no questions asked) but also to protect the sanctity of an unshared story.

The diorama of daily life contains so much suffering, a jaw-dropping accumulation of countless pricks and jabs. Who among us has the courage to look it in the eye?

Great Blue Hill

I got stuck in traffic on my way to Curry College this morning, so while I sat in my car on Interstate 93 waiting to exit onto Route 138 in Canton, I shot a handful of photos of the dusting of new snow on nearby evergreens as well as the snowy summit of Great Blue Hill: a landmark I pass every time I drive to Curry, but I seldom slow down and study.

Frosted

Years ago when I lived in Randolph, I used to regularly climb to the summit of Great Blue Hill, parking at the Trailside Museum and taking the Red Dot trail to Eliot Tower and beyond. Eliot Tower affords good views of Boston, and if you continue further on the Skyline Trail, the views are even better, the wind-swept patches of exposed granite making you feel as if you were atop a mountain rather than a hill.

Just a dusting

In the summer, I’d hear prairie warblers singing atop Great Blue Hill, as the short, scrubby trees there are their preferred habitat. Prairie warblers have a distinctive buzzy song that ascends the chromatic scale: a song I’ve never heard anywhere else and thus associate exclusively with Great Blue Hill.

How far the mind can wander while one’s body is stuck in traffic, thoughts ascending up the chromatic scale like a brilliant buzzing bird.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,557 other followers