On one of the lovely sunny days we had last week, before this nasty-ass heat wave, I looked out the back window to where my mom was pointing. Two fairly hefty brown birds were pecking at the ground. Turned out they were woodpeckers, but a kind that often looks for ants on the ground instead of (or in addition to, I suppose) in trees: Northern Flickers. This appeared to be a male and a female because only one had any colored markings on it, a stripe of red on his back. I think that would make them Red-Shafted Flickers, but I didn’t look at my Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America until now, so I didn’t know about this variety. They were neat looking and had some real size to them; my book puts them at 13 inches long.

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I just got back from a lovely, relaxing, and mostly Internet-free week at the Jersey shore. It’s built up, congested, and crazy busy there this time of year, as people from all over New Jersey and suburban Philadelphia make the trek to the beach. Even still, there are many wild things and places there. I love New Jersey and stick my tongue out at people who say it’s nothing but malls, because they’re wrong. Yesterday by the side of the road, alongside a small lake where I rode my bike, I saw a Great Blue Heron, this amazing dusky-blue 4-foor-tall animal that seems to be all legs and neck until it takes flight and you see those wings. I also had a hair-raising encounter with a snake INSIDE THE HOUSE. I’ll tell you about both of those things tomorrow because I need to get to sleep soon, but for now I’ll tell you about some of the creatures I saw on a marshlands walk on Saturday morning, before it got blistering hot.

* Looking down as I walked over the sandy path, I spotted two tiny grey speckled toads, one slightly darker color than the other. I don’t want to brag but catching toads is sort of my specialty. I don’t always grab them up though because it usually scares them. I scooped up one of these little guys in my palm for a moment, and sort of communed with the other. They were smaller than one joint of my thumb, and I have weirdly small hands. They were so lightweight that as they hopped around they would land in small tufts of grass and only slightly bend the blades and get stuck there before scrambling and hopping back out. I love those little guys.

* Spotted one duck with seven babies swimming behind her as a little human family of two parents and one bespectacled kid sat on the bird watch platform and looked on.

* Set back a distance away from the path is a large pond, surrounded by rushes, where you can often see a big white trumpeter swan or two gliding around. Today there was a ton of them; I counted 30 but there may have been a couple more skinny necks in the fray that I missed. I have rarely if ever seen this many swans together at once and sure enough our Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America says that they are usually found in pairs or family groups. Wonder what they were all doing together like that.

* Also saw a few lone and young rabbits back in the scrubby underbrush. One was so small and young and unwise to the ways of the world that he hopped toward instead of away from me.

* A family of two parents and a shy young teenage daughter pointed out a black snake about two feet long with a faint diamond pattern on its back gliding over the surface of the water.

* Here’s the best thing of all. We kept seeing beautiful butterflies that are just the same kind as ones my mom is stitching in a counted cross-stitch design. They have a bright orange bar across the top of their wings, contrasted with a patch of black above it that’s flecked with white. I think they must have known my mom was immortalizing them in stitchery because one landed on her t-shirt and we watched it open and close its wings a few times in that slow rhythmic way that reminds me of breathing. We looked at it closely and smiled, thinking the same thing: it’s the butterfly! These are Red Admiral butterflies, according to our Dorling Kindersley Butterflies and Moths identification book. It’s interesting because the picture my mom is stitching is by a British designer, and sure enough the book informs us that we have those same kind of butterflies here. Red Admirals range from southern Canada through the US down to northern Mexico and throughout Europe to North Africa and northen India. Looking at an artistic representation of something in nature is a neat way to learn about it—perhaps teaching you even more than you’d learn from seeing it in its habitat alone.

Just saw on the news that a ton of dead fish, frogs, bugs, and a few dead ducks were found in Pennypack Creek, which runs through Northeast Philadelphia. Nearby residents said they’ve smelled something toxic near the water for a couple of days. Another nasty spill, looks like.

Have you ever heard of The Foxfire Book? I hadn’t until a few months ago, when I saw a new copy of the updated repinted version that had been sent to the newspaper office where I sometimes go to work. It looked interesting to me then but I didn’t spend much time with it. Then just a couple of weeks ago I was at one of my beloved garage sales. It’s the season for those again and I couldn’t be happier. In amongst a pile of old books was a faded, slightly grubby paperback copy of the original one, published in 1972. The person who’d owned this one wrote his name, Brian, neatly in red ink, with the year 1973 underneath it.

Foxfire was a project undertaken by a high school teacher and his students in the Appalachian Mountains during the 60s. They were rowdy and wouldn’t settle down long enough to learn anything so he suggested they start a magazine instead of using their stupid boring textbook. The people in this part of the country were living then as they had always lived, but their kids, these high school students, were losing the old ways. This teacher, who wasn’t from the area, was curious about some of their habits, such as the way they used the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon to know how to plant their vegetables, but the kids didn’t know the answers. So they went home and interviewed their parents and grandparents, who turned out to be an incredible wealth of knowledge of all kinds of things: home remedies, religion, making clothes, making soap, preparing for winter. Simple plain living in sometimes difficult, bare circumstances. They made their magazine out of these interviews and eventually turned it into a book, which as you might imagine was popular with the people of the mainstream culture in the 70s who were trying to figure out how to live more simply themselves.

Some of the stories just make for interesting reading, especially because they use so many direct quotes and an effort was made to transcribe the language the way the people actually sounded. Some of it is fairly arcane but plenty of it could be adopted by us modern city living people. Not slaughtering and dressing a hog, maybe, but preserving vegetables and fruit, learning to understand the signs the weather gives us, and making soap and sewing quilts. I know from my own experience how satisfying it is to make something yourself—books, zines, embroidered pictures, knitted clothing—and this is something many modern people can’t relate to. It’s bad for your soul to have an entirely passive existence: being carted through the streets on various conveyances, letting machines help you do your work, then sitting in front of a TV or a computer for hours for entertainment and “relaxation,” which is also passive. You don’t have to go bananas and go live off the grid to rectify this. If you shuffle a few simple things into the mix of your life, and take a few of the unsimple ones away, you’ll start to feel happier. I promise this is true.

batonophobia=fear of plants
melissophobia=fear of bees
rupophobia=fear of dirt

I live in an apartment, which has its pleasures. Living in a house is nice too and different, because you have a porch. My mother has a front porch and a small back porch on her house. For many years now birds have built their nests in the eaves of these porches every spring. This year there’s a bumper crop: a long mourning dove with long tail feathers and a black marble for an eye who’s shaped like a smoking pipe when she sits on her eggs, sparrows on the other side, and purple finches out back. A pair of purple finches has made a nest on her back porch every spring for as long as my mom can remember. The mother birds have to get used to us coming and going from the house, of the shhhhh-WAP of the back door and the gunshot of the heavy front one being slammed. Once they do, and realize we mean them no harm, they’ve got a plumb spot, tucked up under our house and out of the sight of predator birds who would eat their eggs before they’re hatched. Once they do hatch it rains baby birds every time we open the door. Within a couple more weeks from now I’d say they’ll all be gone.

A few naturey things to blog about today.

First, it’s a full moon. The second full moon of the month of May, which is a phenomenon we call a “blue moon.” May’s full moon is called the Full Flower Moon. Coming up in June is the Full Strawberry Moon. It’s a draw which name is lovelier, I think.

It was blazing hot and humid here today but I had to run a few errands and since I don’t drive that meant I had to do some walking. After I hit up the library and the post office I dragged my sweaty carcass back to my apartment building. When I stepped into the courtyard what did I see but a rabbit lying in the grass on its belly with its front feet straight out in front of him and his back feet behind him. Like a housepet. He didn’t even look especially terrified to see me so near to him. Beginning last spring I starting seeing tons of rabbits near here and I occasionally saw them acting like this—totally relaxed, seeming to feel very safe. I wonder if they don’t really have many predators here. In the cool grass in the shade this one looked very sweet, and cooler than I felt.

The third thing is this. I saw my sister today, and she told me that the arboretum where she is a gardener got a phone call this morning. It was from a woman in the area who had found a tiny fuzzy baby owl on its own on her front lawn when she left her house to go to work. Why did she call an arboretum? Guess she didn’t know what else to do, and as my sister’s boss figured, she thought owls–>trees–>arboretum. Anyway, they called the
TriState Bird Rescue and Refuge who came to get him. TriState is awesome. They do a lot of good work on a small scale like with this baby owl and on a much larger scale, whenever there is an oil spill or other disaster that has injured birds or destroyed their homes. They also run an adoption program which allows you to give a little money to support either a species or a resident bird that lives at the refuge because they were unable to be released back to the wild. I have given this to my mom for Christmas for the last few years; she’s been the “proud parent” of peregrine falcons and brown pelicans in addition to me and my sister.

“There’ll be white black birds before an unwilling woman ties the knot.”

This is an old Irish saying, according to a bunch of sources I’ve read. I’m interested in language and such, so I was poking around looking for proverbs one day—I actually don’t remember why now—when I found this interesting expression.

The image of a white blackbird has stayed with me, and I’m using the phrase for a new zine project. I’m collecting interviews with women and girls who have decided to remain unmarried, asking them about themselves and their choices. So far the responses have been fascinating and surprisingly varied.

Also, to my surprise, some bushwacking through the wilds of Google revealed the fact that there are REAL white blackbirds in the world. This site called UK Safari has a picture of the albino blackbird that can be found in the British Isles. http://www.uksafari.com/blackbirds2.htm

One of my favorite writers—and people—is Stevie Smith. She was English, born in 1902 in Hull and raised in the London suburbs where she spent the rest of her life. Stevie wrote radio plays, essays, book reviews, and lots of poems. Her unique voice and perspective seemed to resonate with a whole generation of readers and still does to this day. One of her poems, “Not Waving But Drowning,” has entered the collective consciousness; younger people might recognize it from song lyrics and myspace profiles and not known where it came from. This is where it came from. Stevie Smith.

One of the things Stevie (I know it’s probably incorrect for me to refer to her by her first name but she’s so dear to me I can’t bring myself to use only the last) often wrote about was her “suburb.” She lived there all of her life with the aunt who raised her after her mother died. The aunt looked after her for many years and then when she became elderly Stevie looked after her. Stevie’s home was in a “high-lying outer northern suburb” of London and she called it “beautiful kindly bustling.” I got these quotes from the introduction of a wonderful out-of-print anthology of her work called Me Again.

In “Simply Living,” one of my favorite essays—not only by her but by anyone—Stevie talks a bit about her quiet life in the suburbs. She talks about the simple pleasures of her life, such as looking. “I like food, I like stripping vegetables of their skins, I like to have a slim young parsnip under my knife. I like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Looking out into the garden where the rat has his home, and the giant hemlock is now ten feet high. …The roof colors opposite are like the North Sea, in rain they are sapphire.”

Looking. That’s all. It’s plenty.

over my laptop,
through this window anyway,
nothing but treetops