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High-Low

14 and 41, low and high today.

I’m grateful for this high-low thermometer. I’ve been keeping track of the temperatures with it for 21 years. Twenty to thirty degrees between high and low any given day is pretty normal, winter or summer. One of these days I’m going to sit down and transcribe all the data from the past two ten-year garden journals, in which temperatures and general weather conditions are recorded. I’m grateful I started keeping track all those years ago. There have been some changes in the weather patterns, and I look forward to charting them.

I’m grateful that the crocus leaf tips emerged undaunted from beneath the last big snow, which snow brought much-needed moisture to the mountains as well, raising the current snowpack to 87% of normal: not nearly enough to combat the drought, and less moisture than normal is expected through spring, but better than it’s been for most of the winter. We’re staring down the barrel of another desperate drought year. But for the moment, the high country is buried in snow, and the low country down here at 6800′ is warming into mud season. I’m grateful even for mud season, which makes a mess of everything but signals the coming of spring! Spring is in the air, despite uncommonly cold nights, and we’re up to about an extra hour of daylight since deep winter. I’m grateful for these little natural gifts, snow, mud, light, and a balmy hour or two on sunny days.

I’m grateful that Stellar, wobbly as he is, can walk through the woods again after a couple of days where the snow was just too deep for him.
We both wobbled these past couple of days, punching through uneven crusty snow that grabbed at our feet, compromising our balance. I’m grateful we can both still amble through the trees despite our feeble knees.

Occasional Beef

Grateful for a simple and delicious dinner including a small filet, and salad with homemade ranch dressing. Grateful for good food!

I’m grateful, as an omnivore, that there are neighbors who raise beef, and that I’m able to contribute to their well-being and my own by purchasing their grass-fed, homegrown meat. I wish I could be a vegetarian, sometimes, because it’s better for the planet. But I need meat, and I like it cooked just so, with a little salt. Tonight I’m grateful for the last filet of some grass-fed, grass-finished beef I bought from Wrich Ranch just down the road. And yesterday, I was grateful for ground-beef of the same caliber from right next door, which I buy for Stellar’s homemade dog food, and grateful for the neighbor who delivered it in the snow and packed down the driveway. I don’t eat meat often, but when I do it’s only locally and humanely raised, purchased from people I trust.

The problem with red meat isn’t red meat, it’s our culture’s insatiable appetite for it. We all know that our bodies are healthier with occasional beef than with daily doses, and that factory farming is unsustainable for the planet. Eat less meat less often, savor it more, and grow your own or support local farmers and ranchers whenever possible. I’m grateful it’s so easy and so reasonable in this valley to satisfy my meager, and my dog’s eager, appetites for meat.

I’m grateful we are not experiencing here the catastrophic cold front that has much of the country in its grip, and is devastating cities like Houston. This freak weather pattern, which will become more common, and this freak pandemic, which won’t be gone soon, are both linked to the problem of our gluttony, and not just for meat. We quit calling it global warming years ago when climate change was deemed more accurate, and now it’s time to officially label it climate chaos. We are all connected, all humans, all species, every inhabitant of this earth depends upon the rest. It is my fervent wish that everyone wake up to this simple truth, and start to cultivate more gratitude for what we have and less grasping for what we want. Only through a change in human consciousness will the world be transformed, and thereby saved.

Skin Care

Stellar enjoying his morning walk (after my morning skin care regime).

We girls are taught from a young age to spend a lot of money on skin care, buying all sorts of products in countless fancy brands. I’m grateful that I’ve learned at long last how to take care of my skin, the body’s largest organ, fairly efficiently with just a few items, in this arid desert climate. The most important thing we can do for our skin (and our hearts) is to stay hydrated, simply drinking more water each day than we think we need. I’m grateful, as I am every day, for potable water at the turn of a tap. But beyond that, in this harsh climate, I do use just a few products.

Oil, sunscreen, lip exfoliant, and lip balm make up my skin care regimen.

First, I almost never use soap on my face anymore, and I’m grateful for figuring out I don’t need it. Once I’ve washed my face in the morning with hot water, I squirt some avocado oil into my palm and smooth it all over my face and neck. Just regular avocado oil from the grocery store, organic when possible. It’s much cheaper than fancy lotion, without unnecessary chemicals, and moisturizes better than anything I’ve ever tried. Once I’ve rubbed that in, I apply a layer of Elta MD physical sunscreen which uses zinc instead of chemicals to protect from UV rays. I’m grateful for the aesthetician who recommended that to me many years ago.

I keep several jars of Hive Magic moisturizing cream around the house for lips and hands, and use it on my face at bedtime. This rich, handcrafted, small-batch cream contains organic plant-based oils, beeswax, honey, propolis, and pollen, period. It’s great for extra-dry skin, it keeps those fingertip cracks at bay in winter and summer, and can be used anywhere, hair, face, hands, lips, heels. I suffer from dry lips, especially when I don’t drink enough water. After trying a number of recipes with multiple ingredients, I finally made a great exfoliant by adding fine caster sugar to this cream. Rub it gently on my lips every morning for about a minute, then rinse as I wash my face with hot water. After that, I apply the cream plain, or use some other kind of lip balm, and reapply throughout the day.

I sometimes use another lotion aprés-shower on arms and legs, and that’s about it. After forty years of spending too much money and suffering the assault of random fragrances, I’m grateful that I can get my most important skin care at the grocery store, and with a few extra items keep this aging skin in pretty good shape. I’m grateful I no longer have to think about it! No more manipulation by advertisers, no more costly gambles, just functional, affordable skin care. I’m grateful there are still avocados. I don’t expect avocados, almonds, chocolate, or coffee to be readily available later in my life, as climate chaos wreaks its havoc, but I’m grateful to have access to them now, and intend to make the most of them for as long as I can.

Grateful for a cord of firewood delivered yesterday, and stacked this morning by Mr. Wilson in anticipation of a much-needed, very welcome week of precipitation ahead.
And finally, grateful for the garden, which I can sense quickening as the last of winter’s snow melts. Spring snows from here on will melt quickly, and soon (though I’m thoroughly grounded in the present moment) tulips will emerge and I’ll be planting vegetables among the flowers in the raised beds, spending much of the day outside in this sacred space.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

I mentioned my gratitude for the Bibliofillies a couple of weeks ago. Today, I’m grateful for our February book selection, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Several of us had read it before, but I chose it anyway, after our grueling January read put me off of my original selection, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, another “gripping” dystopian novel about a woman fleeing Los Angeles as America spirals into chaos” (The New York Times Book Review).

Well, 100 Years also involves some spirals into chaos, but isn’t that what life is ultimately all about? Everything changes all the time, and the inevitable result of something being born, created or arising is that it will die, dissolve, or fall apart. This is the ultimate truth. So while the trajectories of those two novels might be similar, I chose the one I’ve already read at least twice, maybe three times, and which a hundred years ago in my own life I chose as my ‘desert island book.’ There is simply no better paradigm of magical realism ever written. I’m almost done with this read-through, and there’s at least one sentence on almost every single page that I read twice, for the sheer beauty and brilliance of it.

Starting with the first line and unfurling with relentless imagination, here are some examples:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice…. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

“Science has eliminated distance,’ Melquiades proclaimed. ‘In a short time, man will be able to see what is happening in any place in the world without leaving his own house.”

“Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.”

“It was an intricate stew of truths and mirages that convulsed the ghost of José Arcadio Buendia under the chestnut tree with impatience and made him wander all through the house even in broad daylight.”

“Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.”

“He saw the clowns doing cartwheels at the end of the parade and once more he saw the face of his miserable solitude when everything had passed by and there was nothing but the bright expanse of the street and the air full of flying ants with a few onlookers peering into the precipice of uncertainty.”

“The indolence of the people was in contrast to the voracity of oblivion, which little by little was undermining memories in a pitiless way…”

“…and then they understood that José Arcadio Buendia was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.”

These examples are essentially random and can’t come close to capturing the rollicking wonder of getting swept away page by page in this marvelous family’s tragic saga from nothing to everything to nothing again. Nothing I write can do it justice. After forty years, it’s still my ‘desert island book.’ I am grateful for this extraordinary novel, and for others in the magical realism genre by authors like José Saramago and Salmon Rushdie; grateful for the fictional escape from actual spirals into chaos, and also for the fundamental human truths illuminated in all the best novels. I’m grateful for the precision and beauty of words, and grateful that I have time in my busy days to explore worlds real and imagined through the simple act of reading.

Chocolate Ganache

Who knew it was so easy? Melted chocolate, whisked with warmed cream and butter. And in this case, a couple of tablespoons of Grand Marnier. The second ganache I made far surpassed the first: I clearly did something wrong the first time.

When we made the chocolate éclairs, I knew I’d done something wrong when I ran out of ganache halfway through dipping the mini two-finger, first-time choux pastries; and it was so thick. I froze the un-chocolated ones and pulled them out the other day to thaw, so I whipped up a second batch of chocolate ganache. I used Ghiradelli semi-sweet chips, heavy whipping cream, unsalted butter, and a splash of Grand Marnier from a bottle with a broken cork — it had to get used up.

I had so much ganache left over! But I made it for the éclairs knowing that I’d be baking Lebkuchen shortly. The one incentivized the other. Lebkuchen, cookie of my childhood. I was raised on Lebkuchen growing up in Germany. Back in the States, we got it only at Christmas. It’s the ultimate spice cookie, in my book, and was always completely dipped in dark chocolate, cut in stars and crescent moons, a thick texture with just a hint each of crunch and chew, and (did I mention?) covered completely in rich dark chocolate. Seems like it’s hard to come by these days, but I’m sure I could find something online.

My first pursuit of the classic Lebkuchen flavors was delicious, but mild: Lebkuchen cake.

Instead, I searched recipes, and baked first a Lebkuchen cake, and then a couple of weeks later, Lebkuchen Honey Bars. I assumed this second recipe would resemble the cookies of memory, but turns out it’s more of a brownie type treat. No worries, I’m adaptable. The recipe (Joy of Cooking) says “Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to 1 month.” I set it in the cold mudroom for about 27 hours. Then, the recipe says, “If possible, let the cookies age for at least 2 weeks to allow the spices to ripen. What??

I did not used to be a person who used a lot of sugar. Just when I need it least, during Covid, I’m using it more than ever. Making the lemon glaze, with lots of confectioners’ sugar and fresh lemon juice.

It called for a lemon glaze, so I made that too, and poured it over the semi-fallen pan of this delectably flavored – brownie, for lack of a better word. Turns out, brownie defines a particular texture more than a flavor. Huh! Learn something new every day. For that I am also grateful. It keeps life perpetually fascinating. Exciting, one might even say. It could have baked a few minutes longer, though even so it definitely wasn’t a cookie; that will have to be Lebkuchen chapter three.

Lebkuchen bars, glazed, then drizzled with chocolate ganache. Chocolated. (“I can chocolate you some,” said the Southern Maid.) Of course I ate a couple, but have put the rest in cold storage to cure for two weeks, I mean for as long as I can.

And still I had leftover chocolate ganache! Looking for room in the freezer to save it, I found apricot cookie dough from a month ago, so I pulled that out to thaw and bake. Cooled, I rolled one side of each cookie in ganache microwaved just enough to melt it completely, not to heat it up; then stuck the cookie sheet in the mudroom to chill and set overnight.

Apricot chocolate crescents, an unintended consequence of excessive ganache. (First-world problems, gourmet solutions.)

And still there was a cup of chocolate ganache left over! “I like it as fudge sauce,” texted Amy. Like she was reading my mind. Mmmmm, was that good! Just now, finishing a long four days of work and zoom meetings, keeping the woodstove fed, the snow shoveled a couple of times as it accumulated, keeping cat and dog wherever they want to be in or out, never sitting too long at a time so the old sciatica bug don’t bite too hard…

Then suddenly there was a bug, dropped from the sky onto the desktop. I watched it for awhile, til I forgot it was there and almost smashed it with the bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate ganache I set down.

Is it some kind of stinkbug? I didn’t want to upset it, just in case, the skunks of the insect world.
I took a Buddha glass upside down and scooped it out to the porch, where I let it drop in a safe dry place by the house. I’m grateful for quotidian late-night adventures.
And finally, the last reason I’m grateful for chocolate ganache. Tomorrow, the last of it, on the last of the birthday coffee gelato.

Making the most of simple things, in this one precious day that will never come again. I’m not so sure we’ll have chocolate for the rest of my life, either, given the ravages of climate chaos on cacao tree countries. So I’m gonna seize the day, while it’s here, to indulge in chocolate while I can. And now I have a new way to play with it. You can even whip it into frosting. So today, just this moment as its taste lingers in my mouth, I’m grateful for multi-function chocolate ganache.

Inauguration

I Can See Clearly Now

Like at least a hundred million other Americans, I’m grateful today for the new President and Vice President of these United States of America.

President Biden is not a flawless human being. Vice President Harris is not a flawless human being. They are both bound to make some mistakes, and I’m sure they’ll take some decisions I’ll disagree with. However, they each have more integrity in their little finger than their predecessors.

Truth matters a lot to me; it’s one of my highest values. I strive for honesty in my every interaction, and even in my thoughts. Biden’s words today made my heart rejoice: “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

Like many people I know, there was some anxiety around an outdoor inauguration. Several friends have expressed today their relief that there was no kerfuffle. We’re all grateful for that! Although when you have to give thanks that no one was shot during ‘the peaceful transfer of power,’ it remains something of a dark day. May we settle in to a brighter future for our country, for Americans suffering from the pandemic and all its fallout, from years of gaslighting and all that fallout, from racial, social, economic, and medical injustice, and from decades of eco-anxiety, all stirred up by the toxic hurricane and wildfire lies of the past administration.

As former President Barack Obama said last fall, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.”

Let us all learn to see truth clearly. Going forward, let us shop in the marketplace of ideas walking and talking in the sunshine of truth.

Toilet Paper

A single Christmas cookie and the new Christmas glass, half full

Not that I don’t enjoy my hedonic pleasures… It’s attachment to them that’s dangerous, living a life of grasping for them at all costs. Blessings rain down upon me, and I feel obliged to appreciate them. Heaven forfend the day that I lose them, but I am prepared to live the rest of my days in a solitary jail cell should that ever come to pass, having relished each day until then.

Today, besides waking up alive, and all the other blessings of this life, I’m grateful for toilet paper. Think about it. How much nicer than mullein leaves or a rock! But what a colossal cost in trees. Millions of people across the planet don’t even have toilets, much less toilet paper. I’m grateful for the ability to look up the history of toilet paper with the tap of a few buttons. We are so fortunate that we can relegate our bodily waste to the backseat of our daily awareness, no muss no fuss. It’s an area where I’ve pampered myself, always springing for the cushy kind instead of cheap rough stuff; I figured solar power offsets a few other anti-planetary ‘consumer’ indulgences.

I’m grateful to Julie for introducing me to a socially and environmentally responsible company that makes bamboo (i.e., sustainable) toilet paper. Last spring when the paper-product shelves were bare in the stores, I ordered a case from Who Gives a Crap? It really is soft enough, and perfectly adequate in all other ways. It comes in bamboo-paper packaging so no plastic waste. I use the wrappers for fire starter. And they’re attractive enough to stack storage overflow on top of the toilet! These folks have a sense of humor, and they also donate 50% of their profits to a variety of charities that build toilets in the developing world, providing sanitation among many other benefits. I’m grateful there are companies like this one who put the well-being of people and the planet in the forefront of their business plans.

Patience… Heavy Sigh

Ojo in early August, living the prime of his life.

At last, another one of those recently-all-too-rare days when I can heave a sigh and enjoy the benefits of months of practicing the skill of relaxation; awareness that there has only ever been and will only ever be one thing in Life that I can control: my response to anything. This is true freedom.

A negative Covid test has released me from four months of holding my breath. From Covid only incidentally, the pandemic being one equal part among many distressing external conditions that have cascaded over me this year, and that’s only the overwhelming sadness of a single particle of humanity, the insignificant itchings of a lone flea on a small dry patch of the planet’s skin.

I’ve tried so many ways to say this, and it’s kept me silent since August. Ojo was eaten by a mountain lion.

Lots of Life went on, as usual and unusually, all summer in the garden and the forest: the roller coaster careened through weeks and months of joy and sorrow, contentment and compassion, and the grueling, rewarding practice of mindfulness. Bees pollinated, flowers bloomed and went to seed.

Life began and life ended in the wild.

Don’t look closely if you’re squeamish. If you have a scientific curiosity, however, about the wild world…

All summer long I have accepted deaths, and threats to the lives of others, those I love and those I’ll never know, with equanimity. Years of practice have really helped develop a calm abiding, regardless of what happens. Ojo didn’t come home on August 24, and two mornings later, after numerous searches, I followed a magpie and Stellar’s nose to a grisly scene not far beyond the yard fence in the woods. I felt calmed, knowing what had happened to him, and that it was quick, and he probably didn’t suffer. I suffered less, knowing, than I would have wandering the woods for weeks, months, years, looking for some sign of him.

I gathered up what I could find, three legs stripped of muscle, and his sweet, perfect head, and brought them home to bury under the apricot tree. The shock of finding his remains. The finality of it. A small black cat left a huge black hole in my life, into which, in my darkest moments, all hope and love and light vanishes. On the surface, I’ve kept my sense of humor, and joy in the fawns growing up, satisfaction in the garden harvest, pleasure in connections with friends and family mostly online, interest in my vocation. I’ve rejoiced in Stellar’s unexpected improvement with a new magic potion from his holistic vet, and Topaz has grown fatter and furrier than ever in her brother’s absence.

For weeks I saw him everywhere in the house that he used to perch or sleep. He filled the house and the garden with his remarkable energy. I struggle even now to write any more about him because when I do the ache swells inside and mutes me. One might say, the cat got my tongue.

Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, infecting more and more people I know, taking the lives of friends and relatives of friends, and as of today more than 1.6 million others around the globe, including 2500 Americans just today. The malice and ineptitude of the Trump regime’s lying, denying, misguiding, and dividing also renders me speechless. Thank god for the integrity of scientists the world over, for the dedication of healthcare workers, for the kindness, compassion, creativity, and fortitude of people everywhere, delivering the best that human beings are capable of during this monumental crisis.

Add to the current regime’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic their escalating onslaught eviscerating environmental protections: It’s been hard to grieve the death of a single cat in the midst of such overwhelming human and planetary suffering. I search my soul for something I can do. I meditate. I pray. I try to offer help and comfort where I can, and fight as I am able. I cherish the wild world that surrounds me, I love the lion that ate my cat, I surrender my self to the larger body of the living Earth who spawned us all. I wake up each morning determined to celebrate the miracle of being alive, choosing to turn my attention to gratitude for all the beauty and joy that each day offers, even in the midst of suffering and loss.

I listened to an interview with Joanna Macy that reminded me that Hope is a verb, Apathy is the refusal or inability to suffer, and “Unblocking occurs when our pain for the world is experienced and expressed.” I recommend it as an antidote for anyone else who feels despair at the suffering of the planet, panic or paralysis induced by this pandemic or the climate crisis, or the isolation of living in a fragmented world. We belong to this Earth, our mother. Hang in there. Happy Solstice.

Phenomenal Phoebes

A Say’s Phoebe, my summer joy

Wrapped in melancholy as thick as the smoke that obscures the northern horizon, I sit inside in the cool house, in the recliner, just thinking. A flutter outside the window, and a phoebe lands on the cable where the parents perched for months while nesting, where the babies learned to cling as they were fledging. It gladdens me to see her there, after a long hard summer. It’s mid-August, and soon the phoebes will fly south to their winter range along the US-Mexico border and beyond. 

My little phoebe family. It was an emotionally arduous journey, wrapped up in so many other journeys of love and loss, to get them to this point! How funny, to think of them as ‘my’ phoebes, but I do. They’ve been a lifeline for me during this season of profound loss, and there was a week at the end of May when I thought I’d lost the phoebes too.

Feathering their nest

They began plumping up last year’s nest under the east deck in early April, singing, chirrrrrrupping, and both swooping in from the yard carrying bits of fluff from the weathered patio rug, wool from the garden fence, prayer flag tatters, bits of grass, and other soft scraps. The nest was pretty large for the two-inch deck joist it was resting on, tucked into the corner with the wall and the foundation beam.

On April 20th, I found the nest fallen into the geraniums below. It was upside down, but it was barely disturbed. Without thinking, I got the ladder, a 1×6 board scrap, screws and screw gun, built a wider ledge, and tucked the nest back into the corner. The next day they were back at work. By May 9, she was sitting on eggs.

The first rebuild, on top of the ledge just below the joist corner where the original nest sat precariously.

I watched with delight as Mrs. Phoebe sat on her nest, and her husband bird flew and sang and hunted the yard. I worried when a whole day passed and I didn’t see him, but he’d invariably show up in the evening, perching in the birch tree, before flying down to check on her. 

Since the phoebes arrived summer before last, I’ve not had a grasshopper problem. They also eat flies, wasps, and moths, some of which lay eggs of potential garden marauding caterpillars. We have a symbiotic relationship. I do what I can for them. But sometimes it’s not enough. 

Every day I’d sit as much as possible at the patio table or under the nest, for morning coffee, lunch, midday break, and happy hour, as the phoebe father flew around me. She would take breaks too, to hunt for herself, then return to the nest. They perched on everything upright in the vicinity, from the shepherd’s crook where the hummingbird feeder hangs to the dead locust sapling, to the back of a chair, to the candlestick beside me, so close I could identify their prey without binoculars. 

I was amazed with their dexterity: one flew straight at the tower wall, I was sure it would die from the collision, but it snagged an insect off the wall, banked steeply, and flew off unharmed, well fed. One evening I sat sipping a martini with my bare legs up on the patio table, enjoying Phoebe TV. A fat black fly landed on my thigh. A phoebe swooped down and plucked it; all I felt was a rush of air, not a thing more, in that split second thrill.

On May 25, I noted the chicks chirping; they are silent, or at least below my hearing range, for a few days after hatching, so these were at least a few of days old. On the 27th, I saw three fuzzy, barely-feathered heads popping up above the nest edge! Success!

Feeding the first clutch, just a few days old.

The next day, I had to take Stellar to the vet in Montrose and since I’d be gone all afternoon, I shut the cats in the house, a precaution to protect the phoebes while I couldn’t keep an eye on them. Just in case. Mostly, the cats feared or at least respected the phoebes, who would swoop down clacking at them when the cats crossed the patio or, phoebe-forbid, lay down under the nest. But since they were still hanging out on the patio, I didn’t want to take a chance that one would snag a phoebe mid-clack in my absence. The poor kitties were also being chased around the yard by magpies, who were raising chicks in a juniper on the other side of the house. 

When I returned, I released the cats and fell asleep in the recliner. That evening, I sat down in the deck chair outside the window, under the nest. The phoebes flew and perched and chattered nearby. Ojo jumped up on the bench behind me among the geraniums. Hey! get outta there! I scolded, turning to look: he was intently peering at something on the bench, and to my horror I recognized it as the phoebe nest. It was upright and empty. I was crushed. 

No sign of a chick anywhere. I assessed the possibilities, and concluded that a cat couldn’t have reached the nest without an extraordinary acrobatic feat involving the ladder, the hanging orchid, and an advanced rock climbing move called mantle. The obvious culprit was a magpie, who could easily have swooped in to grab the chicks, and knocked the nest off the ledge. What to do?!

I gathered ladder and tools again, a curved juniper stick, and some 1×2 scraps, tidied up the nest and replaced it, braced it with the juniper, and screwed in some baffles spaced so that, I thought, the phoebes could get in but not the magpies. The poor phoebes flew around confused for a few days, until I realized the baffles obstructed their entry. A desolate week after I removed the baffles, the persistent phoebes began to tidy and fortify their nest again. Around Juneteenth, she settled onto her second clutch of eggs. Joy returned to me.

Sort of. In the meantime, Raven had died in mid-May, followed closely by Auntie’s stroke; Michael had a stroke in early June and died ten days later; Diane entered hospice, and another friend received a scary diagnosis. Around July 5th, new phoebe babies hatched, providing solace as Auntie continued to decline, while Diane died in mid-July, the same day a next-door neighbor also died. 

The phoebe feeding frenzy ramped up, and consumed me. Again, I spent as much time as possible outside watching, or watching through the window in passing.

Most songbirds keep impeccably clean nests. Shooting images of mama feeding babies, I also captured a couple of her carrying away their fecal pellets.
Stretching and strengtening brand new baby wings
A short week later: One by one, chicks fluttered the few inches to perch on the joist above the nest.
All in a row, she feeds and cleans them one by one.

July 25, the first baby flew over the nest from one deck joist to the next and back a few times. The next day it flew from the nest, following mama onto the wide-open window frame, about a four-foot flight with a one foot drop; then mama flew back to the nest and baby followed. I saw the first flight of the first phoebe baby! 

I watched like a hawk from then on, and kept the cats inside if I couldn’t be outside to supervise. I couldn’t bear it if one of them caught one of these dear birds we’ve all worked so hard all summer to bring to maturity. By ‘we all,’ I mean myself and the phoebe mama and mr. husband bird, and of course Stellar. It’s been a lesson in perseverance.

As I sipped coffee, I watched mama fly from the ladder to the nest and back, calling, encouraging them to follow her. At lunch, I spied the eldest chick perched on the garden cart handle, where mama fed it. Mama lured it around the yard from tree to tree with a fat grasshopper in her mouth, while the other chicks perched on the joist, peering at the activity beyond, screeching for food.

Within a day, all three chicks had left the nest.

The next 24 hours were filled with excitement, as the remaining chicks took their first tentative flights to joists, the window frame, the ladder, and finally, nearby trees. 

Phoebe fledgling in chokecherry
Phoebe fledgling in juniper

For a couple of days, they returned to the nest to roost overnight. During the day, I could hear the parents calling in the woods beyond the yard, and occasionally spot one of the five flitting through the trees. A week later, I noticed mama, with a full beak, flying to the ground outside the bathroom window. I ran outside to see what was up, and all three babies flew up and away. I think she took them away from the house that first week, far from the cats, to teach them flying skills, and then returned to the insect-laden yard to teach them to hunt for themselves.

Since then, I’ve spied the three chicks along the driveway fence, hunting in the field; noticed occasionally one or two phoebes returning to the house in the evening; seen them perched and flying around the yard day to day; each siting a delight. 

On August 6, Auntie died. I lost myself to grief for the next week. Compounded by the global loss wrought by Coronavirus, a devastating fire season from the Arctic to the Book Cliffs, mind-boggling corruption and democracy-dismantling by the US government, shredded environmental protections and climate chaos denial, I struggle daily to keep my chin, and my spirits, up.

To see a phoebe last night, still coming home to roost, gladdens my sorry heart. I know they’ll leave soon, but the good Lord willin’ and the climate don’t rise too much, I’m confident they’ll be back next spring. 

Cultivating Joy in a Dark Spring

How is it that with all this extra time on my hands I still can’t unclutter my house? Oh yeah… the garden is waking up.

First to bloom in early March, purple dwarf iris.
As the purples fade, these new Iris reticulata ‘Eye Catcher’ bloom for the first time.
Then the first native bees take advantage of grape hyacinths…
… including Muscaria azureum, a delightful surprise this year, which only grows to a couple of inches tall.
Here they are just sprouting from bulbs planted last fall in my Blue Bed.
The first butterflies come to these early spring bulbs.
And also the first bumblebees!
Last week European pasqueflowers began opening, attracting an early digger bee…
… and one happy spider with a not-so-lucky little sweat bee.
This one fares better on a little yellow tulip.
This tulip is an accidental hybrid between Tulipa tarda, the ground-hugging wild tulip, and a tall coral-colored cultivar I planted many years ago. Told I should name it after myself, I just did: Tulipa ritala.
Meanwhile, Stellar wobbles along on his last legs, filling my heart and breaking it at the same time.

I simply don’t have words to convey the maelstrom of emotions that swirl within like March winds this spring. Above all there is gratitude for the many blessings this life has given me so far. I’m grateful to be an introvert who works from home anyway. I’m grateful that I have a reasonably healthy body, though my immune system is not robust and neither is my right lung, which never quite fills all the way. I consider myself to be fairly high risk, and so I’m grateful I have friends willing to shop for me and deliver necessities. I’m grateful I’ve worked hard for nearly thirty years to create this beautiful refuge, which now offers solace and peace amid global turmoil, and I’ll be grateful when I am again able to share it with people.

Other emotions may be less healthy but are also valid: rage at the rampant greed and graft manifesting at the highest levels of government during this pandemic when all humans should be working together to stave off despair and death; disgust at the ignorant response by trump cult believers that is causing so many more Americans to sicken and die; despair that the dying petroleum industry and the politicians that subsidize and profit from it take advantage of our distraction to rape and pillage even more egregiously our fragile planet. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention: Broaden your information horizons.

Meanwhile, the Say’s phoebes are back shoring up at least two nests around the house. A day after they first fluttered into the yard, I took last year’s nest off the top of the ladder leaning against the north wall, and lay it down so I could use it this summer if I needed to. The next day I felt so bad that I gathered scrap wood, tools, and screws to build a little shelf in the same spot where I could replace the nest. But once I stood there with all the materials I realized it would be way too complicated, so I propped up the ladder against a joist to provide corner stability, and tucked the old nest securely back into place. It’s one small thing I can do…

Like Biko emerging from hibernation, I take advantage of every sunny day to appreciate the rich beauty of this particular spring.