Zinnias

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Zinnias. They’re not native to Maryland, preferring the hot, dry locales of the southwest and Mexico, but I love to plant them in my garden. In the early spring, I buy a few seed packets, pull my own baggies of last year’s seeds out of storage, and spread them over bare soil that will be dry and hard by August. I rake the dirt over them a bit (maybe), sprinkle some water on top, and leave them. As the tulip and daffodil leaves begin to shrivel, the zinnias begin to sprout, and when the butterfly weed has begun to wane, the zinnias grow taller, and as the coneflowers think of fading, the zinnias bloom. I plant a variety of low-growing zinnias so close together that they create busy bouquets

as well as the more classic, tall varieties, some so tall that I need to stand on tiptoes to photograph, which bloom in a plethora of color and a profusion of petals.

They’re a favorite of bees and butterflies,

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but it’s the resident hummingbirds that draw the most attention, zooming between our honeysuckles and vegetable garden out back — ceding the sunflowers to the goldfinches for the most part — and the zinnias out front. One morning our old labrador, Poppy, startled one when she stepped outside for her morning constitutional. It zipped away momentarily but soon returned to consider this bear-shaped, heavy-breathing mammal. Poppy, either sensing its superiority or hoping that it might want to play, promptly rolled over for it. The hummingbird simply ignored her and tended to the flowers, but, really, what else could it do?

Huh. Now that’s a book waiting to be written.

On Seeing Everything

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As a trash collecting hobbyist, it is difficult to look away from unpleasantness. It is difficult, in fact, to look away from anything at all, as I am always looking at everything. My only way, then, of not seeing unpleasantness is not to write about it. And I am guilty of that.

Whether because of the early loss of my mother or the natural human aversion to reminders of mortality, I am affected for days after encountering the body of an animal, particularly if it is young. For years, I said a prayer for every dead animal I passed on the road. Although my faith has gotten shaky, I usually still say my roadkill prayer; it seems to absolve me from some of the pain and grief that witnessing death usually invokes in me. The sight of vultures and crows over a carcass offers me even more comfort. They show a way to truly see a purpose in the animal’s death, if not in its life.

There are moments, though, when this is not quite enough. The time, for instance, when I saw a car strike a bear cub, and for weeks and months (and even years now?) could not stop imagining the bereaved mother bear somewhere in the woods on the other side of the road. Or, last year, when I found an older fawn lying in the woods along the Monocacy River, clearly dead but without any signs of trauma, and a few days later encountered another fawn of the same age, only a short distance away, looking slow and weak, its ribs showing and rear smeared with diarrhea. It stared at me for a long time, unconcerned with my curious old dog, before tottering back into the tall brush. Again I imagined a mother, but this time she was the one dead on the side of the road, and her children were lost without her. Lost children: our fears and histories seem to circle back on themselves, and our imagination never wanders too far from us.

Yesterday I found a young fox kit on the island path. It was lying on its side, its small mouth just open, its eyes just closed. It was dead, of course, but only just so. Its gray fur was downy and its body soft as I lifted it, checking for signs of life and death. The head lolled, its neck broken, and a tincture of moist blood stained its right ear. There was nothing I could do but move it from the path to the forest floor, where it could decompose in relative peace, shaded and surrounded by the bluebells, celandine and violets that have transformed the Monocacy into a wonderland. I covered it with a few damp leaves and noticed a trout lily blooming nearby.

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I know that death is vital to life. Predators kill and prey feed, diseases weaken, the strong survive and reproduce. I get all of that. I appreciate it. With an intellectual and scientist’s objective eye, I can say, “This is Good.” But sometimes my soul is just a little too sensitive for this world.

An Icy Ides

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On my walk to the river this morning, I stepped off of the main path in order to avoid meeting anyone; it was an altogether unnecessary move. Yesterday eight inches of wet, heavy snow fell, which closed the schools and brought all sorts of revelers and shovelers outdoors, but last night the temperatures plunged and winds whipped up, which is always enough to drive people back indoors in this part of the world. As I walked, my boots barely broke through the surface of the snow, which had frozen overnight, and the only other tracks I encountered were those of the deer who had bounded off a few minutes before.

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The sun was a weak light through flurry-bearing clouds, more of January than March. A week ago, I was taking pictures of Virginia spring-beauties, celandine, and bluebells, but today the most notable flora was wind-blown grass lying flattened across a dune of snow.

For me, there is beauty in both views.

Begin Again

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There is a special time in early spring (or late winter, as it so happens) when this year’s young sprouts meet last year’s faded ghosts. The dry, burst seed pods of dogbane and the gray-headed husks of brittle goldenrod intermingle with the round, new buds of a dogwood. The delicate leaves and blue blossoms of bird’s eye speedwell break through a thick, crusty layer of leaves that last year crowned the branches of nearby hickories, oaks, and maples. Yesterday: meet today. Or is it the other way around? To me, it is a reminder that time is not a straight line, that there are few clean endings or beginnings, and that what is behind us is never really left behind.

 

Faces in the Wood

Especially when it’s windy, as it has been the last few days, the woods can feel alive. I think I hear a door creak, only to turn and realize that it’s two trees rubbing against each other. Or a rustling in the leaves beside me suggests footsteps, but it’s only a fallen branch. Occasionally, of course, there really are deer watching me or squirrels racing through the brush, but usually I’m alone, surrounded by the tall, silent sentinels of the forest. Perhaps that’s why it’s eerie when they do seem to come alive. I suppose, to some, faces on trees are whimsical (hence those kits that can be bought in gardening catalogs), but in fiction they are just as likely to be foreboding. So what am I to think of this?

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To me, that tree looks a little angry. Perhaps I would be, too, if a woodpecker — likely the prehistoric-looking pileated, no less — had been pounding on me. In another part of the woods, I found some sort of mythical beast, too nondescript for a hydra, but fantastic all the same. It’s not hard to remember being five when I encounter such things.

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But, as when I was small, I have only to step into the light and remind myself of who I am. It’s like a variation on a favorite rhyme: “I see the tree, and the tree sees me.”

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A Cold Peace

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I like snow. While our first fall of the year didn’t amount to much, I made the most of it. My old labrador’s response pretty much sums up my initial excitement:

A  little later in the day, after rounding up my fellow explorers, I found a flock of Canada Geese loitering on the river. Usually we see them flying overhead in formation, raucously honking, bringing in the cool blue haze of a winter dusk, but last Friday afternoon they were merely drifting, skirting the light ice along the river’s edge. Eventually a small flotilla ventured over as if to investigate us, which made me wonder whether they were used to living in ponds where people fed them, but when I approached they backed off. (Which is just as well, considering I had one dog on leash who just loves water birds).

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The snow ushered in the stiff, still cold of mid-winter that settles onto me an almost inexplicable peace.As I walk, I smile at the flock of black vultures hunched in a gnarled, bare tree. I quietly watch a herd of six white-tailed deer cross the trail in front of me, leaving behind them a mess of hoof-prints in the snow. I wait for the red-tailed hawk standing sentry over the floodplain to soar from its post. It can be tempting to run from the cold, dashing from car to front door, but it’s so rewarding to hunker down and live in it for a moment.

Predator and Prey

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As I’ve mentioned before, birds of prey are cool, and particularly noticeable in the winter, when they perch atop the barren branches of leafless trees. Most often I see red-tailed hawks, their voices as sharp and breathtaking as their angular profiles.  Many other predatory birds make their home along the river, some scanning the waters for fish and others prowling the banks for snakes, rodents, and even other birds. So, while I think that they’re cool, there’s a rather large population of living things who most certainly do not.

I rarely see these birds make their kills, but it’s not uncommon for me to find the evidence of them, most often a clutch of feathers and nothing more. They do, however, leave something else behind: the “pellets” of undigested fur and bone that they regurgitate about 10 to 12 hours after their meals. While middle school biology classes seem to dissect only the pellets of owls, all birds of prey produce them, so I’m unsure who produced the one that I found last week, which, on cursory examination with a stick, contained the remains of a shrew.

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As a caretaker of many rodents – from the trio of mice I kept when I was eleven (Nicholas, Timothy, and Sebastian, because such little gentlemen deserved long and formal names) to our family’s current pair of white rats (the ladies Sugar and Anastasia, themselves temporary caretakers of other rodents; I’m sure that you can guess which one I named) – I have compassion for all of these souls who ended their lives as meals. But I have equal compassion for the birds, who need to eat to survive, feed their young, and go on being the cool creatures that they are.

It’s a difficult balance and heartbreaking at times, but there’s life there, asking to be seen and acknowledged and treasured in all of its terror and delicacy. I can see the void or I can see the life that void has made. Fur, bones, feathers and a beating heart.

Happy new year, from me to you.

 

A Cold Wind

Winds gusted up to 41 miles per hour over the weekend, ushering in colder weather and, as it turns out, lots of plastic bags.

I used a large one from Pier 1 to gather up all of the others, as well as some wrappers (evidence of Halloween is still out there!) and scattered pages of newspaper. The wind also scattered some more natural debris, like this little nest of grass and cottony seeds:

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It likely belonged to a mouse or some other small rodent sheltering in the tall grasses just beyond the floodplain. Last week my younger dog managed to stir one out of a hollow log along the sandy banks of the river. Although I didn’t get a very good look before it disappeared, I saw enough to know that it was a long-footed mouse.  There are several species of mice in Maryland (see Maryland’s DNR mammals page for a list). This one, I hope, was able to make a new home for itself (if a hawk didn’t get to it first).

Yesterday, as the winds were calming, I discovered the first ice on the river. It was thin and only very spotty, but still a sign that winter is coming.

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I like winter, so that is something to be thankful for.

Fun with Fungus

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I’ve been reluctant to address fungus in this blog, not because I don’t appreciate it but rather because I know so little about it. Classifying it is well beyond my ken. (Although I suppose I could ask my uncle, who just retired from the USDA and for years drove a van with a bumper sticker that read, “Mycology is Mushrooming.” When I say that I think of my uncle when I see fungus, I mean it in only the best way.) Sometimes, though, I just can’t resist making a foray into another field. Because, let’s face it, fungus can be fun.

This week I encountered some puffballs growing on a felled log. They are the funny little fungi that squirt out greenish spores when you touch them. My boys love to squish them and watch the “smoke” disperse into the air, and, honestly, so do I.

After some research, I discovered that these fungi are called Pear-shaped Puffballs, or Lycoperdon pyriforme. I used various resources to confirm my identification, but perhaps the most helpful was the Maryland Biodiversity Project website (see http://marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=5036), which is concerned with cataloging all the living things in Maryland. I wouldn’t say that my puffballs were pear-shaped, but I’m not going to get into any body-shaming here. They puffed as well as any other puffball I’ve encountered.

Go have some fun with fungus!

Invisibility

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I’ve posted about the wonders of nature’s camouflage before, but a chance meeting with a mantid (stagomantis carolina, I think) persuaded me to revisit the topic. I’m sure that you can see the marvelous bark-colored creature above, but can you see it below?

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Much more difficult, isn’t it? It’s a miracle he didn’t get stepped on. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize I was taking a picture of this insect, a Green Stinkbug nymph (5th instar, chinavia hilaris):

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I simply meant to take a picture of the touch-me-nots. But he matches perfectly – clearly a cool pre-adult with style. He needs to give this grasshopper nymph (a schistocerca nitens, I believe) some tips on not being quite so matchy-matchy monochromatic:

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And they all need to explain to this mylar balloon that its attempt at camouflage is an absolute fail:

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That green is too bright, and it’s altogether too shiny.