Monday, March 23, 2009

The Unseen Gardener

The first night at a recent women's retreat we started off with an imagery exercise. We each shared a memory of a time and place where we had felt safe and protected. My place was the small flower garden my daughter and I discovered behind the herb shop in Cambria on the California Central Coast.

For weeks we had been hiking and walking the coastal hills with wild, wide open views of dramatic surf, cliffs, and rock formations, so different from the pastoral scenery of my native Maryland. For those same weeks we also had been dealing with medical testing procedures and a progression of ever sobering results. The day we visited the herb shop was sunny and beautiful, and only a few days after my daughter's mastectomy.

The warren of rooms in the fragrant shop led to a door opening onto another world. Imagine Dorothy's first glimpse of Oz. The enclosed garden with its messy profusion of flowering herbs, trellises, and lovingly placed benches felt welcoming and reassuring. My daughter and I were soon basking in the sun, out of the wind, hidden from the views of passersby. I also felt hidden from the hugeness of the coastal intensity, the hugeness of an impassive God's eye.

I noticed tiny bees lazily visiting each blossom of a low lying plant at my feet. The smallness, the delicacy, the friendliness of the scene soothed a sharp sense of helplessness. I had been feeling vulnerable and insignificant in the face of giant forces that threatened to overwhelm me--my daughter's cancer and the awesome seascape. But here was a human-scaled space where we could rest, breathe, and be at home. The garden maker's intention to delight and enclose with beauty felt nurturing, even though the gardener herself was unknown and unseen. I knew then that my daughter was going to heal. And she has.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pixie Cups in the Enchanted Forest

Tramping about in the spring woods, I was excited to look down and see this fruiting lichen on a rock next to a small pond. A little research on the net identifed it as cladonia carneola, also known as "crowned pixie cup." According to this lichen has a "squamulose" base. Squamulose lichens have scales called squamules that are usually small and overlap. The cups, called "podentia," are fruiting structures to dispense spores. Fruiticose lichens are more three dimensional--they grow upward or hang down.
Lichens grow extremely slowly. Some lichens are thought to be the oldest living things on earth. I found out that lichens are symbiotic organisms. The dominant partner is a fungus and so incapable of making its own food. It has to partner with another organism that can perform photosynthesis, such as algae or cyanobacteria. some fungi partner with both organisms at once. The spores that are emitted from these cups will have to seek out partners in order to survive. Kind of gives new meaning to the concept of "codependency" doesn't it?
Part of the thrill for me in learning natural history is with the new vocabulary words. How wonderful are these? Squamulose, fruiticose, podentia! And I'm loving the Latin-cladonia carneola, can't you hear the Italian lilt in those syllables?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Reading Thoreau and Edwin Way Teale. How thrilling to feel we are communing across the decades when I observe something of nature, try to describe my perceptions in words, then shortly thereafter read what they have written in the same vein that validates my experience.
On a birding outing on the Potomac recently I saw a young eagle fly overhead, and described its "princely glide" to capture its seemingly self assured and stately motion. Teale referred to sighting an eagle gliding back and forth in a manner so steady "it appeared as if riding on rails." On the same trip I spotted the facing silhouette of a bluebird perched in a faroff canopy, but couldn't identify it without using my glasses to see the blush breast and blue wings. Teale wrote of the bluebird's "round shouldered" attitude which was spot-on with what I saw. Next time I'll recognize it without my glasses! (Field glasses, that is, I will still need my prescription lenses or contacs!)
Reading "Walking" last night Thoreau comments on seeing ducks on the water in spring. First he "saw one bird, then suddenly there were three." That is exactly what occurred when I saw the Hooded Mergansers on the Shenandoah. One bird was visible since the other three were diving unbeknownst to me. I glanced down to raise my glasses, the divers had surfaced! It is reassuring to know these writers whom I revere saw and appreciated the same animal behaviors that are available for me to witness and enjoy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Predator

In retrospect, I realize why the crows may have been especially watchful. That day, I also saw a large black and white house cat emerge from the brush, carefully peer back and forth for oncoming vehicles, then cross the road, headed for "no man knows where." Through the binoculars, it did look very tigerish--well muscled and fully capable of pouncing on a crow!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bird Sighting on the Shenandoah

I went bird watching this afternoon along the Shenandoah River. A dank, dark and dreary day. The light filtering through the monotonous cloud cover was flat and made everything else look rather flat too. The river was slate grey lacking any blue or green to reflect. Wild life was few and far between but I did make a few sightings and practiced identification.
I used my car as a blind, pulled off whenever I saw motion on the water, and rolled down my window to use my field glasses. This worked well, as the birds seemed to feel totally unthreatened. I saw many groups of Canada Geese waddling along the shore, upending in the water, or standing motionless on the flat rocky areas midriver. I also saw two species of diving ducks.
Two pairs of Hooded Mergansers were feeding out in the middle of a wide expanse of the river. Each duck completely submerged beneath the water when it dove, but one drake was always left alert and watching, like the periscope on a submarine. The Hooded Merganser drake has striking black and white bars on his wings and shoulders. He has a sail shaped white crest flaring back from his black head. The crest can be that can be raised or lowered which was startling and confusing as I tried to make out the "shape" of the birds head--it kept changing! This was the most exciting find as these birds are "fairly common" as opposed to "common."
At one spot protected from the wind by high banks, several species were congregating in leisurely groups where a cluster of flat rocks formed an ersatz archipelago. Five or six pairs of Common Mergansers appeared to doze with their bills turned back and hidden under their wings, while other pairs paddled calmly back and forth nearby. Mingled in were the everpresent geese, and mallards. Mallards are "dabbling" ducks per Peterson, so now I have the word for their bobbing pattern of feeding, they quickly upend to snap a morsel than right themselves like a rubby ducky in a bathtub. I have seen them diving too when a tidbit is out of reach.
I saw one little shore bird skittering along nearby--It was pale colored and seemed to have 3 dark rings around its neck, but the most similar looking bird in My Peterson Guide of Eastern and Central North America had two rings: a Kildeer?
I tried to interpet the behavior of three crows that flew down to the rocks after surveying the scene from a nearby tree. They appeared to be honing their beaks on the rocks, or perhaps attempting to scrape some substance off of them? One crow would be "honing" while the other two kept watch in different directions. A small mess of starlings fussed around this scene as well, flying up to perch in the trees, then soaring across the rocks, alighting briefly, then back up again. The Mergansers, although "common" were very beautiful. The males had immaculate white breasts and flanks, glossy black-green heads and bright red bills and feet. The females had ruddy brown feathery crests that I found in very good taste with their dress of muted grey.

This site has a great photo of the Hooded Merganser and you can listen to its call. Sounds like a frog, very strange!
Here is some interesting information about the Common Merganser. They are the first duck to move north in the spring and the last to go south in the fall...