Stellar’s Jays

If I had to choose a favorite bird I probably wouldn’t be able to.  We’ve had a tiny ruby crowned kinglet trying to get into our house for the past few days and it is charming with its petite round body and its bright red crown.  It flits about the blackberry brambles outside our kitchen windows calling chit, chit, chit, picking spiders and insets from the webs draped between thorns.  It could be a contender for favorite bird but it’s awfully new on the scene.  There are bushtits which were one of the first birds I ever saw after moving onto the farm and they are the epitome of charming.  They are as small as the kinglet but putty colored and lacking the red crown. They arrive by the dozens, flitting through the hazelnut trees like musical notes falling from the business end of a jazzy clarinet. Their call is an abbreviated little tick, tick, tick and they disappear as quickly as they arrive. 

Then there are the mourning doves, also the same putty color as our gravel road is when its dry in summer. They blend right into it and sometimes they fly up from the road as I speed past startling me enough that I slow down and watch for their bobbing gait along the side of the road. That they are beautiful almost goes without saying but it is their mournful call that is so enchanting to me.  I remember the first time I heard it waking up slowly in Long Beach, California after a night of heavy drinking.  The room was dimly lit by the sunlight seeping in through the cracks of the venetian blinds which were mercifully closed tight.  The bed and walls were done entirely in white and in the pale light I felt as though I was waking into a cocoon. Outside the mourning doves called coo, coo, coo. I wondered briefly if I had made it to another day or I had died in the night and was waking to a sort of weigh station on my journey to wherever I was meant to go. Mourning doves can sound so otherworldly it was difficult to determine my status for a few minutes until I tried sitting up and the room began to spin, then I knew I was alive.

In the fall when the days grow shorter and cooler and the leaves turn orange I would tell you my favorite birds are the Stellar’s jays which make their triumphant return before winter sets in.  It’s not so much their startlingly blue bodies, deep like lapis, iridescent almost, or their sharp black crowns, though those are something to look at.  What I like best is their voice.  Mostly they screech and call to each other which I find amusing and somewhat comforting in the stillness of the gray winter.  It lets me know someone’s out there keeping track of things, someone knows what’s going on, even if it’s just about what’s going on with the supply of black oil sunflower seeds in the feeder.  Someone’s paying attention.  If the situation threatens to get out of control they’ve got a handle on it and that’s a comfort to me, sitting inside in my warm house, avoiding the travails of the unpleasant weather they relish. The other thing they do with their voice is they mimic.  They listen to the sounds the other birds make and they make those sounds themselves.  So when I jump up from the couch and run to the window excited to see the raven in my front yard I will inevitably be met with a much smaller, much bluer Stellar’s jay standing on a fence post doing his best raven impersonation for no reason that I can see other than for the fun of it. Sometimes while I stand there watching, he’ll throw his voice back and forth between a raven and a crow or a raven and a scrub jay as though a soloist warming up for a concert. A Stellar’s jay will also participate in the much beloved sport of ambushing smaller birds from their place at the feeders, again for the seeming fun of it as it often doesn’t even bother to eat once it’s scared everyone away.

Maybe it’s just because it’s early winter now or because I saw one this morning standing in the corkscrew willow, screeching a speech about some kind of imminent peril the towhees at the feeder were facing, I’ll put my money on the Stellar’s jays as the odds on favorite.

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Outage

The other night the lights went out as though someone had flipped a switch which it turned out someone had.  The power company had to do some maintenance so a crew had parked themselves up the road at the breaker box and just shut us off without warning.  This type of thing happened all of the time ten years ago and we were hardened to it, we had our routine.  The camping box was handy; the lanterns were charged and waiting; the fuel for the camping stove was full and we always had an extra canister.  But the power company has virtually solved the power outage problems over the last decade and we’ve gotten soft so it was lights out; we didn’t know where to start.  The darkness was total.  We’d had a full moon the week before so the moon was waning and was only a sliver; not putting out enough light to cast anything in through the windows.  It was so dark the air felt thicker than usual so that I could feel it like a film on my bare arms and the silence filled my ears until they felt stuffed. We made our way to the living room and laid on the floor to watch the stars through the living room windows. Without any ambient light they seemed to multiply the longer we looked.  When the air began to chill from the lack of heat, we turned on our lanterns and made our way to our rooms.  We brushed our teeth without water as our well pump doesn’t run without electricity.  I picked up my pajamas from the chair where I’d left them that morning.  However I didn’t shake them out as you are always to shake out clothes you’ve left sit out- a rule of life in the country, where there are a lot of things that might crawl into them.  We took our lanterns to bed and set them on our nightstands, turned them off and crawled under the covers to warm up and go to sleep until the lights woke us up when they came blaring on in the middle of the night when the power would come back on.  I was just about asleep, drifting lazily toward the deep sleep that is only possible when there is no light around the edges of things to disturb me, when I felt something crawling against my bare leg under the covers.  I immediately began to thrash about beating whatever it was against the mattress with the flat of my hand until there was no movement then I scrambled to grab the lantern and pulled the covers back to reveal a spider, its legs shriveled in death, lying beside me. I flicked it onto the floor, turned off my lantern and let the total darkness envelop me again. I slept immediately and deeply until the lights came on a few hours later and we got up to go around the house turning everything off. It took awhile to get back to sleep then. Maybe it was the eerie green glow the clock radio cast onto the ceiling or the sound of the furnace kicking on every few minutes to heat the cold house. Whatever it was I didn’t sleep as I had during the outage.

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Chrysanthemums

Yesterday was a bright autumn day cool but not cold, white light surrounded everything making the edges crisp. The traffic was light as I drove to the store.  I took the same route as always but somehow managed to not notice the Buddhist temple on my way past when I drove to the grocery store. Maybe it was the sun in my eyes; I lost my sunglasses and the prescription on my glasses is old so my vision isn’t the best when driving these days. It wasn’t until my return trip from the grocery store that I noticed the chrysanthemums bursting through the bright green chain link fence surrounding the Buddhist temple. They must have stood three feet high; their stalks were bent under the weight of the enormous yellow curly-tipped blossoms; they looked like little suns glowing there against the green at the feet of the giant concrete Buddha. The gold Korean characters on the reader board shining in the sun I wished, not for the first time, that I could read the sign but I imaged it said the name of the temple and the community that supports it. After I passed I imagined there wouldn’t be anything else to take note of as I have previously mentioned the orange leaves falling off the trees and collecting in the gutters along the sides of the road and the bare branches standing out against the clear blue sky.  There are fewer birds as most have flown off for the winter to warmer locals and the Tundra swans that inhabit the fields on either side of the highway, despite the coyote decoys the farmers put out, have yet to arrive. I noticed though that the longhorn rancher at the corner of Highway 47 and B Street managed to get the roof of his barn repaired before the rains begin in earnest which I imagine must be a relief.  Our barn is so far past the point of repair the floorboards grow lichen and moss, perfect bedding for the mice who call it home. Further on, past the detour signs, deep on to the gravel I noticed the fields that were turned and bare a few weeks ago now sport the bright green stubble of cover crops growing in like a teenager’s spotty beard.  They will thicken though over the coming weeks and soon the fields will be full again and will hold the topsoil in place when the really heavy rains begin. The afternoon light had begun to thin and the air grew cool enough that the edges of my windows began to fog. The broken seal located somewhere between my backseat and trunk lets in just enough moisture that there is a low level of fog in my car most of the time.  The kitty litter the man at the auto parts store told me to put in a tray on the floor of my backseat doesn’t seem to be helping much but I’m not giving up yet.  I turned the defroster on high and turned the radio up so I could hear it over the fan.  As I looked up from the radio, I caught sight of the red sugar maple at the bottom of the hill.  The last of the afternoon sun was caught amongst its bright red leaves so that it glowed.  I slowed to a stop and rolled down my steamy window to get a better look.  Cool air poured in and mingled with the warm air from the defroster. Somewhere someone had a fire going, the air smelled of woodsmoke. A truck pulled up behind me but seeing me parked there was quick to pull around me and speed past leaving me in a cloud of dust.  I rolled up my window to avoid it, took a last look at the tree and began to make the drive up the switch back. I drove through the tunnel made by the overhanging maples, through the last of the day’s dappled sunlight toward home.

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Bats

A few months after relocating to the country from the city some friends of ours made the hour-long trip, a significant portion of which included a lumpy trek along our gravel road, to tour the farm and have dinner with us.  We had a great visit catching up on Portland news and hearing about their latest exploits rescuing feral kittens from the huge laurel hedge that rose up next to their apartment complex blocking their view from the road.  We had one of those kittens with us on our farm; she was now a young cat and tended toward the wilder side of things, though we had raised her as a house cat until we’d moved to the farm.  Our Australian cattle dog liked to run cats and anything else that would give chase so we left one of the bedroom doors closed and the window open that way the cats could come and go as they pleased without fear of the dog chasing them around the house.  It had worked well up to the night of our friends’ visit.  We barbequed garden burgers for our vegetarian friends and I made our favorite potato salad recipe then we retired to the front deck to watch the sunset behind our neighbor’s eighty acres of timber. As the dusk thickened the bats began to appear in droves, weaving and dipping in the purple sky above us.  We cheered them on in their quest to hunt the mosquitoes that had been biting us since we had moved away from the barbeque.  Soon it grew too dark to see them and we watched the stars begin to emerge onto the backdrop of the darkening sky.  Without any ambient light there seemed to be an unlimited amount of stars; there was even a trace of the tail end of the hazy Milky Way.  We guessed at constellations which none of us really knew except the easy ones like the Big and Small Dippers.  Of course Venus is always easy to spot in the high summer, glinting in the southern sky so we were able to name it. Mostly though we just marveled at the immensity of the space stretched out around us.  The air started to chill as it grew later and the crickets’ song grew louder as the darkness set completely.  Our friends began to think about the long drive home, they had kittens to feed, which reminded them they meant to buy some prints before they left.  I was printmaking at the time and had set aside some for them.  I got up to fetch them from the cats’ room where I kept them.  The house was pitch black but we’d lived there long enough for me to know it so I easily found my way to the back bedroom.  When I opened the door I could feel the cool air coming in through the open window.  I turned the light on without glancing at the switch and walked over to the desk where I had set the prints.  That’s when I felt the first bat fly past me toward the window.  I leapt back and looked up to find another clinging to the far wall.  I dropped the prints and ran out of the house.  “Bats!” I cried when ran out the door.  Without pause everyone leapt up and ran past me into the house.  I paused to catch my breath before slowly retracing my steps.  Everyone was standing in the middle of the bedroom looking at the bat on the wall.  This was in the days before the smart phone so no one was distancing themselves from the experience by taking pictures of it, we just all stood there and watched the little brown bat until it finally loosed itself from its perch and flew out the window into the black night.

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A Day of My Own

Standing in a tee shirt and shorts in the gray drizzle watching the puppies run in circles around the yard, I was struck by what a mess our country is in and sadden by how little light there seems to be left in our daily dealings with each other.  While I prefer a gray November drizzle to a hot sunny summer’s day, I would much rather there be light in the things people think and say, in the things they write and publish, not all this hate speech and viciousness.  I don’t know how all the darkness has seeped into our culture and now threatens to overtake us. It can’t be the fault of one poor, sick man, no matter what position he holds, though granted he’s done nothing to help us rise above it. Then I felt the damp kiss of a wet puppy’s fur against my bare ankle and I looked down to find Arlo, the puppy we are keeping, struggling to drag one of the little yellow striped white pumpkins our daughter grew this summer across the muddy lawn and up the steps.  I guess he thinks he is taking it in the house, I thought, the joy of which struck me like a ray of light.  The day after the election quickly becoming a day of my own, one in which I see the brightness around the edges of things; the last of the small, orange leaves flapping in the breeze like tiny banners hung from the nearly bare linden branches; the tall dark fir trees standing like sentinels at the edge of the clear cut; the bright blue Stellar’s jays screeching from the treetops, stretching their black crowned heads to search for each other.  In the quince tree above the yard where the puppies are alternately chasing each other and pulling on the wilted pumpkin vines with their little needle-like teeth, the towhees are puffing up their copper colored bodies and flapping their white spotted wings in protest, they want to be on the ground searching the leaf litter for insects.  I will call the puppies to me soon enough and the yard will return to the birds but for now I will let them run and chase and maul whatever plants are within their reach.  I will stand out here and let the drizzle accumulate in tiny drops on the hairs on my arms and form a soft net over my head, I can always dry off inside.  When the puppies discover the pit, the hole our daughter dug this summer when she had visions of installing a goldfish pond, and they begin to dig in earnest, their white paws turning brown, I will cross the yard and pick them up letting them mark up my clean shirt with the mud they so proudly earned. I will carry them inside to dry the rain and mud from their baby soft coats and put them down for a well-earned nap. Then I will sit on the couch and watch them sleep, these little beings of light, and let them remind me of what is important.

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A Drive Through the Country

Driving home from town eating salty potato chips from a greasy foil bag, drinking a Diet 7-Up, I had to swerve to avoid running over a long garter snake stretched out on the asphalt sunning himself in the white autumn light.  I was speeding so my sudden shift into the other lane caused my car to rock and sway a bit.  I was able to recover before the oncoming curve and was gliding along nicely under the cloudless sky wondering what they’re planning for the newly tilled field near the place on Pike Road when I turned off the asphalt onto gravel.  About a mile in, past the cemetery and the fork in the road, I passed my next motionless animal.  This one was dead.  A ground squirrel lying flat on its back, its thick tail stretched out behind it, all four of its busy feet silently pointing into the air.  You’d think the way they dart out in front of the cars which speed down this stretch of gravel there would be more of them lying prone but this is the first I’ve seen all season.  I glanced up from its dusty body at the hills rising above the road, the maples bright yellow amongst the copper toned oaks and dark loden firs.  Soon all but the firs will be bare and the blue skies will be gray, mistletoe hanging high in the oaks, but today everything radiates the crisp light of autumn. Even the dust I kick up seems to glow when I glance at it in the rearview mirror and the sound of the gravel under my tires sounds like the tinkling of lore drifting out of the wood, warning of the approach of the faerie queen and her entourage.  But it is only gravel and up ahead, stepping out of the brush is not a faerie but a timid doe, her rust colored coat bright in places from the dappled sun. She startles when she sees me, stops in the middle of the road as do I and we look at each other through the windshield while Ella Fitzgerald sings What a Little Moonlight Can Do on the radio.  The doe looks away, then back again, her large black eyes wary,  before tentatively resuming her walk across the road where she disappears into a stand of young firs and I continue my drive through the country.

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Salty Feathers

Salty feathers littered the beach where they’d fallen from the gull’s wings during molt when the birds were grounded and had to scavenge without the benefit of a bird’s eye view, there were always crabs and clams and trash left behind by the people who crowded the beach on the weekends and there was plenty of food to scavenge in their discarded wrappers.  Sometimes during the week when things were quiet a person or two would come to walk the beach and one of them might collect some of the salty feathers, smooth them between her knotty fingers brushing the sand and salt from them, feel the shaft where it comes to a point and hold it up in the air, pretending to write with it.  Sometimes she said “this will do” and carefully placed it in the cloth bag hanging from her shoulder, other times she shook her head, let the feather fall to the wet sand, continued her walk down the beach stooping every now and then to pick up a rock worn smooth by the sea or a shell fragment jagged and colorful but most things she left on the beach and walked until the rain began in earnest. Then she ducked behind a driftwood stack piled high, waited out the rain, using charcoal from an abandoned bonfire to write words on the pale smooth sea-worn wood.  Not “Edith was here” as someone younger might have but “marvel” and “mourn” ideas she tossed about the way the wind tossed the rain about her head and shoulders until it let up and she brushed the sand from her knees, slung her bag over her shoulder, began the long walk home against the last of the wind. Wet gritty sand slipped into her shoes pooling around her heels, clinging to her late husband’s thick rag socks, making a general nuisance of itself.  The rain had washed the salt from the air but the wind had churned the waters, thick sea foam covered the dark sand in a veil of frothy white mimicking the foamy white clouds scuttling out to sea. Soon there would be sun, just in time for it to set, casting the dirty white salty feathers pink in the last of its light.

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Guide Dog

“Chewie” Pet Portrait by Grace Hansen

The paths in the woods behind our house have different qualities that make them special the smaller of the two has a large population of house wrens that sound their alarm calls in the spring when we hike past their invisible nearby nests and a much smaller patch of hard to find fawn Lillies their pale faces nodding over their deeply mottled spear shaped leaves, each year there are more of both though I’ve never seen a single fawn lily on the other path which is found on the other side of a large clear cut depressing but for the wild Columbine their fiery red and yellow blossoms dancing on thin spring green stems and the morels in spring that path is an animal trail cut into the forest by the elk through a stand of blackberry brambles our stock dogs are the first on both trails followed by our terrier then the chihuahua, my husband, daughter and finally me though the trail is well used by the elk it is not particularly clear vegetation laps over our feet like waves at the beach and I don’t hike it often also I am heavy and easily winded so I am slower than everyone else, soon I find myself alone in amongst the fir trunks like columns in a mosque stretching out in every direction above a surface of vegetation as thick and impenetrable as a floor of marble, there are so many switch backs leading up the hill soon I can hear but not see the others I stop now and then to get my bearings, to recognize a leaning maple sapling, scan the false Solomon’s seal to catch a glimpse of the trail amongst the heavy growth, brush my fingertips against the shining yellow faces of the sunny wood violets, tap the delicate lavender twin flowers making them dance, pick up clumps of lichen and place them gingerly into the pockets of my sweatshirt so I can take them home and draw them later the air is so still and quite I wonder what I would do if I couldn’t find my way out but then I hear one of the dogs bark and another then my husband call to them the stock dogs get all the credit for their herding abilities, their athleticism, their smarts and the terrier earns all the accolades for her voracious hunting prowess, her wildness, her ability to find us no matter how far we’ve gone from where she left us but it’s the chihuahua who’s thought to be good for nothing but sleeping and barking incessantly who comes racing back down the path pushing through the sword ferns that grow over his head to find me standing alone breathing heavily with the elevation trying to remember the next turn he’s the one who’s noticed I’m not there and finds my absence unacceptable, he’s the one who’s come to guide me out of this lost place.

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The Tree of the Bird

This afternoon as I sat at the dining room table eating my pastrami and egg sandwich looking out at the corkscrew willow a little brown house wren her uplifted tail flicking as she leapt from a twisted branch onto the window ledge where she tapped on the window as she picked insects from the spider webs that stretch from frame to mid-window and back causing a gauzy haze tap-tap-tap, her eye stripes glinted in the crisp white sunlight as she skewered tiny flies and spiders on the end of her pointed beak, then she was gone, the webs empty and the tree fell silent I waited though because it is never silent for long, soon the branches danced and swayed with the weight of the heavy blue Stellar’s jays pouncing through the canopy using the massive tree as a lookout for the surrounding property, they don’t come for the insects that cling to the backs of the long curly leaves like the warblers do in spring filling the tree with their lithe yellow bodies their drab olive wings as camouflage among the fresh green leaves or root around in the dry leaf litter below as the towhees do in the fall searching for ground dwelling insects with their bizarre red eyes, even the juncoes hop through the blackberry brambles that climb up from the ground into the lower branches of the tree and make their way onto the twisted branches to cock their coal black heads and pick insects from the aging bark with their pale beaks, often I sit long after I’ve finished a meal and wait to see who will appear I’m seldom disappointed, most recently I was startled by the small brisk movement of a black and white body with a flaming red crown walking sideways down the old trunk beside the huge gash where one of the large branches tore off in the ice storm we had a few years ago, a downey woodpecker a sure sign that the tree we like to think of as a little worse for wear is actually ailing and will soon need to come down, he tapped and walked and tapped his way down then up then down once more and was gone I waited for him to return until the light through the curtain of leaves began to thin and dim slightly and the little bit of blue sky that shone through grew somewhat darker, one of the copper colored rufous hummingbirds that frequents our property flew into the tree and settled on a curly branch unmoved by his slight weight the last of the sunlight illuminating his bright red throat, the Garden of Eden had the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which had it upside and downside as we well know but we’ve got the Tree of the Bird and I’ve yet to find a downside to it.

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Three Miles of Gravel

This afternoon when I got tired of watching the jays chase the smaller birds from the feeder while the puppies pulled at the cuffs of my jeans I took the keys from the rack and headed out into the cold sunshine the dry yellow locust leaves crackling under the soles of my muddy farm shoes, the gravel was dark where the morning’s frost had thawed and dripped off the tips of the few remaining oak leaves that over hang the road, I checked for bucking pick-ups before pulling onto the road in my little blue import the tires churning in the gravel where it has accumulated in furrows at the bottom of the driveway washed there by heavy winter rains large hand shaped grape leaves in the vineyard across the way have begun to turn yellow along their edges still no grapes on the young vines from this point on none of the neighboring properties are visible from the road giving one the sense of isolation that attracts all of us to this little foothill large leafed maples and aged live oaks create a canopy over the road opening every few hundred yards where a driveway dips down through the blackberry brambles to the East or rises into the heavy undergrowth to the West just before the road drops down the switch back toward the donkey farm the canopy opens revealing a small pasture planted thinly in immature firs but the far corner is bare revealing a carpet of yellow-green grass where three horses graze most days, two are plain, one black the other camel colored but the third is pale gray covered in black spots of many different sizes some as large as your palm some the size of ripe plums others as small as postage stamps scattered all across its flanks, they all have long black tails which they swish up and over their flanks flicking the black flies away, often I slow to a stop and watch them move languidly through the lazy space imagining their musky smell and velvety muzzles in the palm of my hand, they’re not there today in their place is a large pile of scrap wood burning a cloud of white smoke unfurling into the air above the road and I continue on my way down the hill around the switchback, where it lets out the newly planted sugar maples glow bright red as if lit from within on the property where the purple-blue flowers of the leather leafed ceanothus attract clouds of bees in the summer and the sign that last week read $4 a dozen now reads $3 a dozen, tawny ground squirrels run out in front of my car as I trip along the potholes but I don’t slow for them as my speed and their dashing from it is part of the game further the patch of road where in the spring the gold finches cover the gravel like so much fairy dust is bare now except for dried leaves like balls of crumpled parchment paper skittering across the road in the light breeze and the thin white clouds skitter across the pale blue autumn sky, the telephone pole covered in moss from ground to tip where the barn owl perches in the dark rises over the pasture where the bobcats hide in the blackberries too dense to pick, I follow the road where it curves toward the immaculate property where the rancher raises calves until they’re cattle then sells them to slaughter and brings in a new batch, brown black tan white without or without spots, sometimes they have horns sometimes not, and always there are a couple of bison thrown in for good measure, I wait here at the stop sign and watch them graze silently before turning onto the blacktop where the asphalt makes the ride smoother and less wild.

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