Nature & animals

First leaves

The shrubs that line our driveway are sprouting their first tender leaves, and I can’t resist photographing them, just as I do every year. J and I joke that there is nothing more cliched than taking macro shots of flowers, but that doesn’t stop me from photographing crocuses or the first green shoots to emerge from our winter-blighted yard.

Probably daffodils?

Yesterday Beth Adams posted a Facebook link to the Substack repost of her Cassandra Pages 20th anniversary post: yes, this is the convoluted way we read blogs nowadays, through mirror posts linked on social media. Regardless of how I found it, Beth’s post was filled with the slow, long-form writing she’s been doing all along, with photos of her botanical illustrations: a visual and intellectual delight.

First leaves, with hand to focus

In her post, Beth acknowledged how difficult it is to keep blogging for years without repeating yourself. This is a concern I abandoned long ago. I know I repeat myself year after year, just as the trees sprout the same old leaves in spring.

Allure, an orchid exhibition

Yesterday, A (not her real initial) and I met at the New England Botanical Garden at Tower Hill for their annual orchid show, followed by lunch at our go-to place for ice cream and fried seafood.

Orchid cascade

I arrived at Tower Hill about fifteen minutes early and found a quiet corner outside the Orangerie to read. At any given moment on any given day, all I want is the time and spaciousness to read uninterrupted: a simple pleasure to sustain a busy life.

After we looked at orchids and art and before we talked over fried scallops, French fries, and onion rings, A and I walked the woods at Tower Hill, the trails a patchwork of snow, hardpack, and mud. Whereas the indoor conservatory was thronged with people admiring a panorama of orchids, A and I had the woodsy trails nearly to ourselves, trees in winter being drab and ordinary next to the splendor and allure of hothouse flowers.

A and I braved the modest climb (listed as “difficult” on the indoor trail map) up stone steps to the top of Tower Hill, where we saw Wachusett Reservoir framed in a palette of winter grays. We talked of being Women of a Certain Age, where you can still climb rocky paths but let younger hikers go ahead as you carefully pick your way up and (especially) down woodsy inclines, mindful of things you didn’t consider when you were younger, like asthma and osteoporosis and the potentially dire outcomes of a twisted ankle.

Wachusett Reservoir from Tower Hill

Over lunch, A and I talked of reaching a point where we have virtually no more fucks left to give, the ambitions of youth giving way to more practical concerns. Orchids are pretty in their prime, but forest trees last ages, growing gnarly, gray, and increasingly rooted and immovable. I’ve reached the time in my life where I am more like a tree than an orchid.

Allure, an orchid exhibition

CLICK HERE for more photos from yesterday’s trip to Tower Hill. Enjoy!


We have just enough snow this year to frame the snowdrops. Our yard has two clusters of snowdrops: one under the eaves, and one in the tiny patch of grass between our Japanese maple and burning bush. Some years, both clusters bloom; other years, one or both are buried in snow. I often wonder what it’s like to be a snowdrop living an entirely subterranean existence for most of the year, waiting blindly for a spring that may never come.

What do the snowdrops do when they are blanketed in deep snow? Do they sprout regardless, bruising their leafy heads on an unforgiving ceiling of snow? Or do bulbs wake only when the sun herself warms the earth they sleep in, some slumbers lasting years rather than months while perennial hopes lie buried and waiting?

Carolina wren

This morning when I took the trash and recycling out to the garage, I heard a Carolina wren singing so loudly, I knew it had to be perched on the wooden fence along our driveway–and there it was, singing and flitting before dropping into our neighbors’ yard, out of sight.

These days, I do most of my birding by ear. Listening to birds is the ultimate form of multitasking, as you can keep an ear out while doing chores, walking the dog, or walking from house to car then from car to office. Any time you’re outside, you can keep an ear out for birds, and even if you can’t identify all the songs you hear, you can listen for anything different from the usual sonic backdrop. When you hear something unusual, stop and look around.

On this morning’s dog-walk, I heard the usual suburban suspects–blue jay, chickadee, titmouse, mourning dove, cardinal, house sparrow, house finch, song sparrow, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, and the aforementioned Carolina wren–all without the need to crane my neck or reach for binoculars. Birding by ear is a hands-free and completely immersive endeavor: you needn’t worry about looking in the wrong direction or having a bird sneak up on you since sound happens in all directions.

Many of the birds I see are ones I hear first, like a yellow-bellied sapsucker I saw earlier this year only because I looked up after hearing its distinctive squeal. It’s almost as if birds are trying to catch our attention.


Today was a sunny day, and the birds think it’s spring. This morning I heard both a tufted titmouse and a white-throated sparrow singing. The white-throat was whistling softly and tentatively, as if trying to remember the words to a tune he hadn’t sung in a while: “Old…old Sam…old…old Sam Peeeaaa!”

The titmouse, on the other hand, was singing emphatically–so emphatically, in fact, I didn’t immediately notice the urgent whistles trickling through my barely-open bathroom window: “Peter! Peter! Peter!” It’s a song I hear constantly here in the suburbs in the spring and summer, but not now–not recently–so it was a jolt when my consciousness clicked to recognize it. Titmouse!

Then on this morning’s dogwalk, I saw a large shadow slice across the street, followed by soaring wings overhead: four turkey vultures circling over a neighbor’s house, roused from their roost when he took his elderly Shih Tzu outside.

“Are they coming for Patchy?” he worried.

“Oh, no,” I reassured. “Their beaks and feet are too weak to grasp and kill live prey, so they’re looking for roadkill.”

More alarming than a vulture’s appetite, though, is their very presence so early in the year. Mass Audubon tells me turkey vultures typically return to New England in March or maybe February, but here we are in late January, and at least some vultures have returned: another sign of a warming world where the birds think January is Spring.

Holly in snow

If my eyes were a camera I could use while driving, I’d show you yesterday’s bald eagle soaring over Route 9, its path bisecting a flannel-gray sky fringed with snowy trees.

Two redtails with crow

On this morning’s dogwalk, I heard a murder of crows cawing loudly from a cluster of backyard pine trees. There were a dozen or more birds flying and calling, but I couldn’t see what was triggering their reaction. The crows were clearly upset, but instead of ganging up against a specific antagonist, their distress was unfocused, as if they sensed danger but couldn’t locate its exact location.

Suddenly a red-tailed hawk zoomed from the opposite side of the street, flying low with a fringe of crows on its tail. And just like that, the cawing stopped: once the hawk had flown out of sight, the crows quieted and returned one by one to the pine they’d claimed as their own: hawk gone, mission accomplished.

I didn’t capture any photos of this morning’s interaction, but years ago I snapped a photo of a single crow harassing a pair of red-tails: an enmity that goes way back.

Yanny lounges

We’ve lost three cats to old age over the past three months: Nina in October, Luigi in November, and Frankie in December. We euthanized Nina and Luigi after they each were diagnosed with a laundry list of ailments: pancreatitis and kidney failure for both, neurologic issues for Nina, and cancer for Luigi. In Frankie’s case, she died suddenly at home after having struggled with diabetes for years and mobility and incontinence issues more recently. Some pets save you the choice of deciding when it’s time to say goodbye by checking out on their own.

Whereas Luigi lived alongside the rest of our cats, Nina and Frankie lived in a spare bedroom with one-eyed Yanny. We’d established this “quiet kitty room” years ago when we’d adopted Gumbo, who had congenital heart problems and needed a calm environment. Gentle Nina was a perfect roommate for Gumbo, so when he died we adopted Frankie then Yanny to keep Nina company: three mellow cats who thrived in a quiet space away from Luigi’s big and sometimes bullying personality.

After both Nina and Frankie died, Yanny was the lone survivor in the “quiet kitty room,” and although a room of one’s own might be desirable for prospective writers, cats accustomed to roommates get lonely. In the past, we would have adopted new cats to replace the ones we’d lost, treating our household menagerie like a sports team where a new player gets called up whenever a roster spot opens.

But…after Nina, Luigi, then Frankie died in rapid succession, it became clear that neither J nor I wanted more cats. The emotional rollercoaster of adopting and acclimating a new pet, spending lots of time and energy on their care, and then saying goodbye is draining. After years of being the “crazy cat couple” who intentionally adopted cats with medical needs and then centered our lives around their care, both J and I want to spend less time on pet-tending and more time on travel and other pursuits.

So this week, we freed Yanny from the solitude of his room and introduced him to the housemates he barely knew he had: gregarious Hillary and Larry and secretive George and Gracie. We’ll care for these five remaining cats until the end of their natural lives, then we’ll transition to being (just) dog people. When Henry David Thoreau left Walden after living there for two years, he said he’d realized he “had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” After shepherding so many cats through medical challenges and end-of-life care, J and I are approaching a place where it’s time to live another life.

Gray squirrel

Surely I was a squirrel in a past life, for as the days get colder, all I want to do is squirrel away provisions, accumulate layers of fat, and hole myself away until Spring.

Hibiscus seed pod

After a full season of flowering, what quiet relief does a hibiscus feel to finally go to seed?

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