Nature & animals


Late afternoon at the place of pines

Today after running errands and attending a meeting on campus, I came home and walked Toivo to the place of pines and back. You won’t find the place of pines on any map: it’s my name for a segment of the Cochituate Aqueduct that snakes behind suburban backyards, with a trail that follows a shady ravine carpeted with pine needles.

I started calling this particular segment of footpath “the place of pines” when I used to walk Reggie there on hot summer days. We’d walk to a place where the trail climbs up the ravine, then we’d return on a path that skirts its upper ledge.

It’s a short walk there and back; the whole time, you can see houses, garages, and treehouses in neighboring yards, and you can hear passing cars and planes overhead. The appeal of the place of pines isn’t that it’s wild and remote, but that it’s near and handy. During a spare half hour, you can walk to a place with tall trees, indulging in a brief break on a day without much time for breaking.

Ready to go outside

As Reggie grew older, our trips to the place of pines changed. First, he struggled to climb the ravine, so we’d walk the level part of the trail and then retrace our steps when the way got steep. Eventually, Reggie couldn’t walk even that far: our walks got shorter and slower, and eventually he couldn’t walk at all.

Walking Toivo to the place of pines today, there was a thought at the corner of my mind: someday, this spunky girl who tugs at her leash, eager to sniff and chase after squirrels, will be too old to make it this far. But today the way is smooth and easy, and it would be a shame to stay inside.

Just chilling

This past weekend, just over a month after we’d put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep, J and I brought home a three-year-old black Belgian Malinois named Toivo.

Neighborhood watch

When we put Cassie to sleep on New Year’s Day, I was ready to spend a good long time grieving, but J believes in quickly moving on. It’s impossible to replace one pet with another, but welcoming a new pet provides a welcome distraction from the empty feeling you experience when you still expect your old pet to be there, but they aren’t: a phenomenon J and I call “phantom dog.”

Waiting to walk

Toivo wasted no time settling into her new home, hopping right onto our bed and lounging at full length. When we open the door to her crate, she walks in without any prompting, and when I ask her to sit while I put on my coat before our morning walks, she duly complies while looking at me with an intent stare: “Hurry up.” Best of all, Toivo has quickly befriended Djaro, our other dog, racing around with him in our fenced dog pen, each of them intent on their favorite toy.

Djaro and Toivo

Toivo is not a replacement for Cassie: their personalities are completely different. Cassie was affectionate with people but anxious around other dogs, barking and lunging and making it nearly impossible to walk her in a neighborhood full of dog-walkers. Toivo, on the other hand, is hyper but stable. She is completely unfazed by Djaro, and she is eager to DO SOMETHING the moment either J or I show any indication of moving. But the moment I sit at my desk, she calms and quiets, as if turning a switch.

Enthroned

You don’t get a new dog to replace the old one. You get a new dog to fill the emptiness the old one left behind. Our phantom dog isn’t entirely gone: both J and I occasionally call Toivo “Cassie” by accident, and she doesn’t seem to mind. One testament to how much you loved your old dog is your willingness to open your heart to a new one, despite the empty hole you know they’ll eventually leave behind.

Cassie with chew bone

On Monday morning–New Year’s Day–we put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep. She’d been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressively metastatic cancer, the week before Christmas, after our vet found a large mass on her spleen. When we brought Cassie home after having her spleen removed, we knew our task was to make the rest of her life as comfortable as possible, no matter how long or short.

Cassie at home

J and I have ushered too many pets from this world to the next: countless cats and now four dogs. Our commitment to stay with a pet until their final breath–to be present during their passing rather than handing over the leash and walking away–is one we both take very seriously. We’ve grown all-too-familiar with the the euphemistically named “Meditation Room” at the Angell Animal Medical Center, where families can gather on couches or on the floor while their pet slips quietly away. We know the Meditation Room and the routine that goes with it because it’s a scene we’ve repeated with pet after pet after pet. After spending so much time, energy, and worry tending to an ailing or elderly pet’s final days, suddenly they are gone.

Someone won't let me make the bed. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

When Cassie was in surgery two weeks ago and her surgeon saw her cancer had spread, our vet called and gave us the option of euthanizing Cassie right there on the operating table. Without batting an eye, I said no. There is no need to prolong the inevitable–neither J nor I believe in extraordinary measures–but there also isn’t any reason to hasten it. After her surgery, Cassie had a good, comfortable week at home surrounded by the familiar rituals of her daily routine. Without a bleeding mass on her spleen, she felt more energetic than she had before surgery–almost as good as new–and we plied her with cold cuts for Christmas and spent a lot of time petting, brushing, and fussing over her.

Cassie at Angell

Instead of dying on an antiseptic operating table, Cassie left us at the fullness of time, after we’d spent a week consciously, intentionally loving her to death. Past midnight on New Year’s Eve, she was her usual alert and affectionate self; on New Year’s morning, she was listless and droopy, with white gums indicating an internal hemorrhage. Having discussed this inevitability with our vet–ultimately, we knew, hemangiosarcoma always wins–a difficult decision wasn’t difficult at all. Although Cassie didn’t know much less understand her diagnosis, her body told us it was time.

Puffed and strutting

Yesterday morning as I left for campus, there was a throng of tom turkeys strutting and puffing in the street at the end of our driveway. When I was a bird-obsessed kid growing up in central Ohio, wild turkeys were wild and rare: something to be seen in the deep and distant woods, if at all. You could see deer in the suburban outskirts of the city–nearly any grassy field would attract them at twilight–but turkeys were creatures of deep wilderness, as secretive as bears.

Turkey trot

I still haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of wild turkeys in the Boston suburbs. They are almost as prevalent as rabbits and infinitely easier to see than raccoons or opossums. Turkeys are widespread here–in winter, we frequently see small flocks strolling down streets and sidewalks; in summer, we see hens singly or in pairs leading straggling lines of poults through our backyard; and in October, we see roving gangs of tom turkeys fluffing their plumage and fanning their tails, practicing on one another the displays intended to impress females.

Quartet

These birds aren’t shy; they don’t need to be. Suburban turkeys are large and savvy: they know dogs are leashed or contained behind fences, and coyotes are elusive and largely nocturnal. This leaves turkeys to rule the backyards of Newton, Brookline, and Cambridge: yardbirds with a stately strut and little need to lurk or skulk. Until Thanksgiving at least, the not-so-wild turkeys of suburban Boston have no need for secrecy.

Countless steps

On my way to a meeting at Framingham State last week, I stopped to take a handful of pictures. Behind one of the academic buildings, a green vine was climbing a brick wall, and below that was a tall, lush stand of Asiatic dayflower abundantly blooming.

Climbing

Dayflowers are so named because each blossom lasts for only one day: bloom today, gone tomorrow. But you’d never know that by simply looking at any given cluster of dayflowers, as each plant blooms with fervent, verdant abandon. Tomorrow, there will be new dayflowers to replace today’s: one cohort arriving as another retires, a rolling legacy of bloom after bloom.

Admiring a patch of dayflowers is kind of like teaching first-year college students: every year, a new crop of youngsters arrives, the whole world new and full of opportunity. College campuses stay evergreen through a continual influx of new students, and this is one of the things that keeps me from becoming too jaded. What’s old-hat to me is new and exciting to my students.

Asiatic dayflower: blooms for only one day.

The strange thing about teaching, however, is the simple fact that I grow old, but my students never do. The freshmen I teach today, more than two decades after I started teaching, are just as young and green as the ones I’ve ever taught. Whenever I grow frustrated with the feeling of having repeated myself over and over and over on some incredibly basic point, I remind myself that this is the first time my students have heard this lesson from me, or possibly at all.

Butter and eggs among clover

I wonder if dayflowers have any idea how short their flowering lives are, or if they have any idea of anything at all? Is any blooming day a good day if you’re a dayflower, or are some days simply better and more sunny than others?

Today was, I’m guessing, a good day to be a dayflower–sunny and warm, but breezy and comfortable in the shade. If you bloom for only one day, what basis would you have to compare your life with any other? Any day is a good day if you’re young, green, and open to the sun.

Yes, we'll be watching.

Yesterday was the much-awaited Great American Eclipse, a celestial event that spanned the continent and consequently garnered a great deal of media buzz. Although New England was outside the path of totality, partial solar eclipses are interesting in their own right, so months ago I bought eclipse glasses, looking forward to an opportunity to let my inner science nerd shine.

One of the things that struck me about yesterday’s eclipse was its (literally) universal aspect. The sun shines on rich and poor alike, white and black, left and right. Everyone looks funny and feels foolish wearing eclipse glasses, and everyone’s first remark upon seeing a bite bitten out of the sun is some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Eclipse watching

Eclipses are wonderful but not surprising: these days, we know far in advance when, where, and to what degree an eclipse will occur. But much of the wonder of any eclipse is the very fact that it happens just as predicted. We say “Oh, wow” because the bite nibbled out of the Vanilla Wafer sun happens just as expected and right on schedule. It’s the wonder of holding a newborn infant and counting her tiny fingers and toes: exactly ten of each, just as it should be.

It comes as news to no one that we are a divided nation, but as soon as we step outside and look up, we find something we all share. Yesterday here in lush and leafy Newton, neighbors spontaneously gathered at the local ballfield, each of us drawn to its wide, unobstructed sky. And just like that, a set of suburban Little League bleachers was transformed into an observation platform peopled by armchair astronomers.

Colander crescents

Some of us had eclipse glasses and others had homemade pinhole viewers made out of cereal boxes; everyone shared. One boy showed off a richly illustrated National Park Service booklet about eclipses, and I held aloft a kitchen colander I’d brought, casting a constellation of pinhole crescents onto a piece of cardstock. It was, I’d guess, the kind of ragtag gathering that happened in lots of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces across the country yesterday: a spontaneous gathering of strangers that fell into place because word had gotten out that something special was happening. All you had to do to join was go outside and look.

And here’s the shocker: the sun is there every day, and so are your neighbors. Yesterday offered a rare and special light show, but every day there are weird and wonderful things happening in place you might not expect, but can readily see if you’re outside and looking.

Cicada killer

Yesterday as we were sitting on the bleachers gazing skyward, an enormous bug suddenly zoomed and buzzed us. It was an aptly named cicada killer wasp carrying a cicada that looked twice its size. Nobody could have predicted a two-inch wasp carrying an even bigger bug would fly by at exactly that moment, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Cicadas, like the sun, are almost ubiquitous in August, and so too are the wasps that sting and paralyze them before dragging them underground to serve as living larvae-food.

Cicada killer

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there: sometimes we’re expecting signs and wonders, and sometimes they shock and surprise us, buzzing right by our upturned faces. As the sun gradually grew back into its usual round shape, J and I walked toward home with a neighbor, startling a pair of strolling turkeys before meeting up with another neighbor walking the other way.

He’d viewed the eclipse at home with a pinhole viewer with his kids, he said, but he hadn’t seen it directly. Leaving him with a pair of eclipse glasses, we told him to wait until the clouds cleared and then look up. Although we left him there alone, I can predict what he said the moment the clouds parted: some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

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