My big success for the day was capturing a phoebe fledgling at twilight with the new camera. Again, not such a crystal clear lens, but clearly a juvenile phoebe. Several of them and at least one parent were flying around the house this evening. If I should die tomorrow, I’m grateful tonight for my private success of raising at least one little bird, or helping to, anyway. We are a brutal species, in a brutal cycle, on this fragile planet. There were other quotidian delights today as well. These moments are not how society generally measures success.
I’m grateful today that Stellar had strength and stamina to walk all the way to the canyon this morning; that he has survived to see the cottonwoods leaf out again; that even though he’s lame and deaf and got cataracts, his sniffer still works great; and that he had such a good day we could take another walk this evening.
I’m grateful for a couple of quick cool showers, the first after I worked all morning in the yarden in brutal heat, and the second at the end of the day; I’m grateful I set up my shower so that the water flows directly out to the base of the birch tree and from there along a row of chokecherry and mountain ash, so I can shower without guilt even during drought; indeed, if I were to curtail showers I’d threaten the health of the ecosystem. I’m grateful for the water itself that flows from the high mountains, for the infrastructure to channel and hold and transport it and for the people through the years who made this possible.
I’m grateful the clouds moved in late afternoon and cooled off the yard and house, even though there was no rain; grateful that tomorrow’s high is forecast to be a temperate 90º instead of today’s 98º in the shade. Grateful also, of course, for nutritious food, including morning glory muffins that Garden Buddy brought the other day, and for cardamom cake that Deb couldn’t eat, for lettuce and peas from the garden, avocados and mushrooms from the store, and for a cheese sandwich at lunch, among other gustatory delights. And I’m grateful for other simple delights as well, such as Doe’s reactions to Biko, who stalked her a bit like he stalks the dog, and made her jump and leap a couple of times, which made me laugh when I recovered from being startled. I just love watching the expressions of the deer as they watch me and my pets move through our mutual yard.
I’m also grateful tonight that I noticed the dog food still cooking on the stove an hour after I meant to turn it off, that I didn’t go to bed with it still cooking, and that remarkably it wasn’t burnt. Through a particular lens, there is always something to be grateful for in any situation: it could always be worse.
I’m grateful that Stellar’s so agreeable. “Which way do we go? Which way do we go?!” He’s eager for anything we do together, but especially a walk.
“Do you want breakfast?” I ask him. “Oh, okay.“
“Do you want to come inside?” “Do you want dinner?” “Oh, okay.”
“Do you want to lie down?” “Do you want to get up?” “Do you want to go outside?” “Oh, okay.”
“Do you want to go for a walk?” “Where?! When? Now? Yesyesyesyes! Arooooo!”
Peaceable kingdom. “You pretend I don’t exist, and I’ll pretend you don’t exist.” We walk right through them, with barely a ripple, sometimes. Other times they scatter and flee. Who knows why?
Topaz walks with us every afternoon these days, up the driveway and back through the woods. This evening she walked all the way up beyond the top gate, the farthest she’s ever come. Usually she lags far behind and waits for our return. Show showers swept like walking rain along the south flank of Grand Mesa, driven by bracing west wind, some grazing the ground, some just snow virga not touching down. Do I need to take a picture of every cloud? Kinda.
I’m grateful for quotidian, tiny surprises in any day, like this. I set the breadcrumb box there while I was cooking, to remind me to add Panko to the grocery list. Later, I saw it from the other side under the orchid blooms which matched its palette perfectly. A candid color cluster, a fleeting delight.
I’m grateful for all these tiny surprises in a single day, and that all my hopes were met today: I woke up, Stellar woke up, we ate and walked and pooped; nothing horrible happened in our little world, there were no ugly big surprises; Sun shone, hot water filled the tub, fire warmed the house, internet stayed on, we both continued to breathe and love until bedtime. May tomorrow be as great a success as today!
I’m grateful today for mindfulness practice. The simplest definition of mindfulness that I can share after six months of in-depth study on the subject is: mind training. So that ‘mindfulness practice’ becomes ‘mind training practice.’ It’s still and always practice. You never get there, because of impermanence: ‘there’ is no fixed point, ever. It’s always changing, along with everything else including your means of locomotion to get there, the companions you meet along the way, your own fitness for the journey.
Most of us invest five minutes to an hour or more each day in our physical fitness, whether simply brushing our teeth and running hot water over our faces, or more: a weight training workout or a run, or a swim, or a yoga class three times a week, or or or… and a hot shower afterward. How many of us devote ten minutes a day to mental hygiene? I’ve always spent more time each day on introspection than I ever have on dental hygiene. The difference is, now I’m actually training my mind, instead of simply riding it. (Like a horse, right, cowgirls?) I also floss more often.
A key component of mindfulness practice is breath. Of course, breath is a key component of everything. We’re spending a lot of time practicing awareness of breath this weekend in our class retreat, but more about breath another time. Immersed in a weekend intensive, each exploring our own way of being across the four domains of body, mind, emotions, and spirit, the domain of spirit especially resonates with me today. This domain is comprised of one’s sense of purpose, one’s sense of worth, and one’s sense of connection, or belonging. Today, I’ve been examining these three aspects of my way of being whilst teetering on the brink of a yawning pit of existential angst. It’s fascinating. I’m so grateful for mindfulness practice!
How the young fawn knows to lay low when the doe steps away in alarm from a human strolling through the woods with dogs, old dogs that no longer give chase; and how now later, the older fawn, still spotted but fading, still more slightly built, less than half her mother’s size, how the older fawn knows to step lightly and exactly with her mother under similar conditions. They rise like a breeze from their bed west of the fence, already stepping diagonally away, the doe looking calmly, alertly over her shoulder at me, the fawn like a feather on that breeze a full stride behind, attentive only to the mother she knows at all costs to follow.
Another doe, the mangy old doe who kept the ground clean beneath the apricot tree now grooms the peach. We fenced it off again after she began pulling unripe peaches from lower limbs, shaking others to the ground with her tenacity, breaking branches. We waited that morning, watching, until she left of her own accord.
Is she spitting out the pits? Kathy asked.
It sure looks like it. But maybe she’s just dropping pieces.
Wouldn’t it be funny if she’s spitting out the pits?
After she left we rolled out the fence and secured a big ring close enough to the trunk, far enough out under the crown, that she’d be unwilling to jump inside it. She could almost reach the outer leaves. She looked sadly when she returned a few times, but then adapted.
Recent weeks have focused on monitoring the peach tree, gauging ripeness not only by both color and feel, but also by observing birds. A scrub jay keeps returning, pecking at one or another of some top fruits, a finch or two checks them out. I’m waiting, morning and evening, and sometimes lunchtimes, to see when a whole finch family descends on the peaches; then I’ll know it’s time to start picking.
It feels like the right time but it takes a few days to get the feel of which peaches to pick, which to leave on the tree to ripen a day or few longer. Hummingbirds have been using the cover of peach leaves to guard their feeder, and buzz close as I lean over the wire, reach into the canopy, and quick pull or twist a fruit off. Filling my shirt with a dozen bright peachy pink fuzzballs… gently settling them into a bowl inside the house, and suddenly they look so much yellower, so much less ripe, so much smaller, than they did when I picked them!
Within a week I’ve salvaged all the peaches I can. What’s left on the tree, besides a few untouched just too high or deep inside for me to reach, have all been pecked a little or a lot by various birds. This morning, the old mangy doe is back, looking longingly at the peach tree just out of reach.
Oh! I think, I’ll open that up for you. She steps a few feet away and nibbles on Rhus trilobata, watches out the corner of her eye as I switch the water to another sprinkler, she waits. I approach the peach fence from farthest side and she glides twenty feet toward the yard fence, not unduly alarmed. Walking under the tree I slowly roll up the field fence into a tube a yard across, hook its loose ends over the next layer in a couple of spots at the seam, and drag it to the side, all while murmuring to the doe, glancing at her then down and away, while she waits, relaxed and poised for flight if necessary.
I turn and walk the thirty feet to the patio; before I reach my chair she’s under the peach tree watching me. I smile, watch her watch me, until she too smiles in a way, her body releases a level of guard, she drops her head, and begins to feast on fallen fruit remnants.
Hmmm. I wonder if she’ll spit the pits?
After she’s had her fill for the time being, she strides cautiously across the yard to get her greens, a few mouthfuls of feral heirloom arugula, before leaping the south fence, leaving the yard.
With two big bowls of peaches on the counter and tomatoes rolling in, it’s time to get back into the kitchen and save some more summer for winter, coming all too soon. But first:
In a way, I’m glad the kittens have noticed the birds. They’ve spent their days the past week lurking in various windows, tensed, tails twitching in time with whatever music is on, watching juncos peck around the ground near the house for crumbs leftover from fall: dried rosehips, tiny purple-black foresteria berries, catkins scattered by the nuthatches and finches feeding in the birch tree, lavender; who knows what they’re finding in this deep and steady snow. I took down the bird feeders last summer, when I realized that I would eventually let these cats outside.
I vowed years ago not to have an outdoor cat again. Then Little Doctor Vincent showed up bleeding under a juniper three days after I buried Dia the psycho calico, and a couple of years later Little White Mikey arrived the night after we gave Little Bear his aerial burial. Both were happy to come inside but they knew their birthright, so I compromised by putting bells on them. Mikey vanished after only nine months, and was more like a ghost than a real cat anyway. Vincent lost a five-dollar collar about once a month, so after a year I gave up on that. He didn’t really hunt birds much so I was lucky. After Vinnie died I renewed my vow, tending only to my sweet old orange cat Brat Farrar, who had always been content to live inside, and refusing several offers of lovely indoor-outdoor cats.
Then the little hoes showed up. They both really want to get outside, and though I intended to let them loose after they were neutered in October, for various reasons that hasn’t happened yet. We experimented last summer and fall with a few short forays. Ojo would stick around and even come when I called, but Topaz made steady oblivious progress each time toward the perimeter fence, and the prospect of losing her into the woods unnerved me. So then we tried some leash walks, which went better than you might expect. Though Ojo objected strenuously at first, Topaz got the hang of it pretty quickly and could be led.
Keeping them in whenever anyone else went in or out the door became challenging. The mud room served as an airlock chamber for the front door, but the back door required agility and speed to prevent escape. Then I went away for a month, and when I returned they were out of the habit of trying (imagine here a whole paragraph of speculation as to why). A week later the snow came, and since then they’ve shown no inclination to leave the house. I try to brush each of them at least once a day, and vacuum a few times a week; still, the hair spills out from under furniture, piles into drifts on the stairs, tickles my lips when there’s no kitten near. They’re very skillful at rampaging through the house, from one end to the other and back, around the couch over the piano up the stairs off the wall and back, without knocking much down; occasionally the brass bowl crashes off the piano or an orchid tips over on the stone wall, but for the frequency and velocity of their chases incidents are acceptably rare. Still, they need more space to run.
So as the snow melts this spring, and before the garden foliage gets so thick I can’t see them, I will let them out. Therefore, I’m not feeding the birds this winter, and though I miss the sound and sight of their flocks at the feeder tree, I’m glad I have one fewer path to shovel in this big snow winter. With no bird feeders-cum-bait station, they seem to be finding plenty of natural food that perhaps they’ve ignored during previous years when they were provided with a bottomless supply of sunflower and thistle seeds.
The snow continues to fall, the cats run from one window to another focused on birds and occasional bunnies. I don’t wish them to catch the birds when they finally taste their freedom, but noticing them is the first step in learning to hunt, and I do want them to hunt mice and chipmunks, and frighten squirrels and bunnies out of the yard come summer. I’m hoping now they know there’s prey around the house they’ll stick close when I release them, and not go running off into the forest. We’ll all compromise: I’ll try bells again and the kittens will take only what their hampered abilities allow them, hopefully not birds; I will break my resolution and have outdoor cats again, but not lure the birds to an easy death with feeders.
The first few days after the crocuses opened there were no bees. When I was outside and I paused the noise in my head for a moment and just listened, the silence was eerie. I felt so sad. The naturalizing irises and daffodils began to open, and they were empty. It’s all starting for you, I’ve done everything I can to make it good for you, so please come! I thought to the bees I knew were somewhere near. I saw plenty of flies, even some small fucking grasshoppers. On Valentine’s Day! It was too weird.
Chris called that morning. I was just heading out to hand-water some things. “Already?!” she said, aghast. “Your damn onions!” I said. “They dried out over winter in that hoop house.”
In truth it wasn’t just the onions. The whole spring bed, the border on the south side of the house with the early bulbs and groundcovers (the crocuses, naturalizing irises and tulips, the thymes, veronicas, mat penstemons, mat daisies) was desperate for snowmelt. My approach to this bed in particular is “Prolong snowmelt.” This year I began prolonging snowmelt in earnest the second week in February. In previous years I haven’t had to water until late March or April, rarely as late as May. For all the fun of the balmy weather we needed snow badly.
We talked as I watered, and the conversation quickly turned to the bees. She said, “I thought you might tell me about your ambivalence.” I knew it was going to come to this, I’ve just been putting it off. What are my deeper, more complex feelings about the loss, the death of the beehive? What are and were my responsibilities? How did I succeed and fail? What did I learn? Shall I choose to feel guilt?
Chris talked about really learning to let go, and being amazed every day at how much she thinks she knows and then finding out how little she really knows. I think it was her way of encouraging me not to feel guilty, and it helps, but I still have this fundamental feeling that it was my fault the hive died because I didn’t know enough; going into this project, I acted in confident ignorance rather than in a “beginner’s mind” spirit of learning. I’m still unpacking my feelings. Meanwhile, as we talked, I saw a bee in a crocus!
“Gotta go!” I said, hung up the phone, and ran for the camera. For a few hours I was ecstatic.
The Bee Doctor told me two years ago that these bees chose me, and the reason was mine to figure out. All along my intention was for the hive to act as an incubator, to grow enough bees for them to swarm out into the forest and the canyon, year after year, to populate the wild. The experiment was to try to establish a hospitable habitat for wild bees, not for me to get honey. I hoped they would manage themselves appropriately with minimal intervention from me.
I forgot the beekeepers’ wisdom, “When in doubt, wait it out,” and I made a mistake at the end of their first summer. Their hive was pristine before I opened it that time. I flooded it with honey and dead bees, I stole their larvae accidentally, and they were righteously angry. I can’t help but wonder if I derailed their success in that one stupid move. They had been calm until then; after, they were defensive. I went in the following spring with the Bee Doctor, and he told me they were more ancient, more wild, than any other hive he’d seen around here. When we opened the hive he mentioned that some of their behavior was more like Africanized bees. “Don’t wig out,” he said, clarifying that it was just an example of their wildness, not that they were Africanized. But in that moment, they were cast in a more primal light for me. It’s the honeybee not the bear, but it’s still a wild and dangerous organism.
Perhaps I subconsciously arranged their demise with my reluctance to try again, to persevere with this hive. Last fall I did have, in the most private inarticulate place in me, the thought that maybe they would get honey-locked this spring and leave. I could start over with more mild-mannered bees. When I saw how few bees were in the dead hive, I hoped it was because they had swarmed. But then, a few days after pulling the last combs from the hive, I found this:
How did the mites get into the hive, anyway? Where did they come from? Unfortunately, as one local beekeeper said, “The mites win all too often.” From what I’ve read, these mites arrived in this country in 1987, and spread rapidly through the wild honeybee hives. Originally parasites on another species of bee, Apis cerana, the mites jumped species, and Apis mellifera has not been able to cope well with them. In combination with neonicotinoid pesticides and possibly other environmental factors, the varroa mites are wiping out honeybees everywhere. I’ve read that they can travel from one hive to another on the bodies of drones, which are apparently allowed to enter any hive. In a sense, the mites are like a sexually transmitted epidemic. Once inside a hive they reproduce inside brood cells, raising a whole family in the time it takes a larval bee to mature, and compromising that bee’s health.
It’s time to really let go. I know today how much I don’t know about bees and how to keep them. If I’m going to continue to try to help save them, I’ve got to do it with Beginner’s Mind, and a lot more courage and skill. I hope that more good than bad has come out of my first foray into bee guardianing. Either way, I need to forgive myself my assumptions and mistakes with them and move on. Forgiving and moving on have never been easy for me, but I’m learning, and not just with the bees.
I’ve got one loaded comb left to process. The honey is so thick it’s taking a long time to drip out of the combs. After slicing the caps off sections of comb and letting them drip, then flipping them over and letting the other side drip, I squish them and let them drip again. Not very efficient, but I get to lick my fingers a lot.
Meanwhile, outside I’ve been cutting back and raking paths and pruning shrubs and trees. This is the best place to be on any day in any season in the garden: I can look out with pleasure at what I’ve accomplished thus far, and simply sit with the joy of it, a dog rolling at my feet, far more done than undone at this point in the season, the whole garden vista ahead of schedule.
A bitter wind blew in a few days ago, ahead of the snowstorm that started yesterday morning. Evening grosbeaks peck in a frenzy at the sunflower feeder. The patio rug blows up with a thump against the table. I scramble to batten down the hatches. This constantly shifting spring weather heightens minute to minute uncertainty: A cold shadow falls over the yard with a bleak wind, the mood becomes more urgent; the sun blows free of the clouds and optimism surges. There is this apocalyptic deep fear: what will happen next? The clouds exacerbate that, the sun relieves it; being thirsty exacerbates it, a drink of water relieves it.
Twenty-four hours later we have eight inches of snow. All the little flowers and shoots are buried, and getting a deep drink. More snow is expected later this week. What do we call the spell of spring that lasted almost a month and brought so many species out of their winter sleep? If the warm weather that follows the first cold spell in fall is called Indian Summer, what is the name of the first warm spell that precedes actual Spring?
I never thought I’d be grateful to live in Colorado because of the mild winter! Though we loved this balmy break in our short winter, everyone is celebrating the return of the snow. We think about “percent of normal” snowpack in the mountains, and what it means for our water this summer. Skiers are ecstatic with feet of new snow in the high country. Down here at 6800′ we welcome the moisture in fields, yards, gardens that were already drying out. The almost non-winter this year is as eerie as the absence of the bees. So with deep relief, after a brief frenzy of garden cleanup, I settle back into winter pace. When the snow melts again the garden will be well ahead of itself, and maybe the grasshoppers will have frozen.