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Writer’s Block

27 Mar

I really need to get rid of this block. CA595853-ED63-47D8-9C69-FBBAC89A0B8D

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2018 Year of the Birds

8 Feb

Like Jonathan Franzen (author of this article), birds were just simple pleasures in my life until my fourth decade. Watching groups of evening grosbeaks chatter and bully each other in the large feeder outside my cabin’s picture window was often the amusement of my winter days in Maine. As was observing parental red-tailed hawks on fir tree branches teach their fledglings to fly by taunting them next to the pastures in Oregon.

Thinking back, the enchanting swans in the fog that occasionally visited the small ponds of spring melted snow in the field next to the house I grew up in, the majestic snowy owl that often perched on a large tree branch in our back yard looking at me while I sat in my snowsuit and looked at it……. These are still vivid memories that probably contributed to my path to become a biologist so many decades ago.

Learning about their evolution (and ties to dinosaurs), their adaptive biology and physiology, the unique complexity of colorful plumage, the often amusing social interactions with each other and within their ecosystems, their impressing tenacity to migrate thousands of miles, their inherent traits that we covet as amusing (such as the burrowing owls clownish movements), and even ornithologist’s taxonomy, which reveals more about ourselves than the animals; it all deepened my respect and wonderment for the world of birds.

Now, in my retirement and no longer in the whirlwind of academic life, birds have become more personal and intimate, which has increased my passion for them. Holding a six-week golden eagle nestling while working with two USFWS biologists to band and collect data was like holding an angel in my hands. Bird surveys allow glimpses into aspects of their lives: breeding, migrating, feeding, competing, parenting, and housekeeping. Handling birds while banding them with metal ‘bracelets’ is more than just data collection; it is a rare and privileged opportunity to share a moment of respectful interaction between bird and human.

This winter by a lake in west-central New York State has provided me with the same fascination and enjoyment of my childhood. Instead of purposeful counting, naming, banding, and poking, I have been simply a bystander observing and enjoying that simple delight. When the small group of four trumpeter swans expanded to 19 swans, I was out on the edge of the lake with binoculars searching for them every day. When an adult bald eagle swerved down from the air to instantly grab a fish from the water barely 25 feet from the side of my kayak, I was a giddy kid again. Watching the antics of house finches play hide and seek in the weeping elm tree next to the deck made me smile and laugh. While I stood on the edge of the Genesee River gorge this past fall, a male American kestrel flew and kited below me with the sun gleaming off its blue feathers. It was like watching a ballet in the air.

Many people share a passion for birds. For some its about ticking off names on lists, some fans have favorites and spurn other non-favorites, others travel around the world to see exotics, and many colleagues think about them mostly when they are a component of their research. Others delight in watching birds out their windows, and I know a few that give them their own names. Many avid birders organize and participate in bird watching groups, which sometimes amusingly reminds me of bird social behavior.

We all have our own source of what birds bring to our lives. And there is a growing number of us that work towards improving the world in which birds live. In today’s human-contructed world, we attempt in diverse ways to protect them from disappearing. Part of this mission entails educating people on how wonderful and important birds are, part is “boots on the ground” activism, such as volunteering with groups that rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds, or participating in bird counts that provide numbers from which we can estimate populations and movement. The importance of the latter is information to help us manage and improve habitat for birds.

This year is dedicated to the birds. Learn about birds, all birds. Let birds expand your world and share it with others. You don’t even have to learn their names. It’s just that simple.

Coyote Woman

21 Jan

We, the Coyote Women, stand together today.
Viva la donna selvaggia!

Coyote Woman
by Carolyn Dunn

From the deep hills
and dark wet
earth,
a bay moon of time
and after-rain, she moves glistening
past wild alata
jimson smoke, cedar
and sage.
He has called her
one last time
and it is in her blood
to answer.
Woman,
he calls,
will you ever
heed me?

Laughing,
baring her eyeteeth,
she moves the rough
the burning sky
cloaking the black earth
with fur.
Tell me a story,
she whispers,
a sound only
he can hear,
a sound about the crying
of last night’s
feast.

coyote-woman-waits_1993

Coyote Woman Waits, artist Susan B. Boulet

A story,
he says,
about a dog of a woman
who won’t answer
the call
of the one who
tamed her first
by voice,
then by touch,
then by song.

A story,
she whispers,
of land
and longing
and winds
that terraced over mountains,
across plains,
bringing madness
from the land
of our birth.
These are our worlds,
formless,
yet from within
the story of my heart,
the part of me
you could not take
away.

I’m dying,
he said
and there will be nothing
left but willows,
palm bark,
and voices
in the trees.
What will you sing
when my bones
in the ground
turn to dust?

img_4929-1
A cry to the moon,
she answered,
the wind
a breath from
a fire’s touch
upon your skin.
I’ll sing a song
of death,
a toll for you
who trapped my voice
with your pale touch.
My voice is my own
and no wax,
no sealing string,
no empty hole
can keep it from moving
on the wind
across simmering
black canyons, pine, and
chaparral.

And my voice
will never leave
this land,
lighting fires
and fountains,
from here
to your
soul.

From The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

Creation Turtle

15 Jan

Wiley, the Midget Coyote, and She took a break in their routine to hike in Closed Canyon along the Rio Grande del Norte.

“Wow! This is a neat place!”

“Yup. Canyons, like many land forms, are like books. When you open a book in the middle and read the two flanking pages, you might wonder just how the story led there and where it goes. You might thumb through previous pages, or perhaps those leading to the end. Unless you read all the pages, you are left with pieces of narrative, dialogue and pictures that lie in wait for the whole story. That is what canyons are.

Canyons are slices in the upper layers of the planet we live on. Yet these levels we see were once buried deep in the earth’s crust, flowed from places  far away, or crashed into by other layers and heaving them up. As in Santa Elena Canyon,  there may be bumpy levels of stone made of accumulated bodies of minute sea animals. Or, as in Closed Canyon, they might be hard sleek cliffs of what was once flowing molten rock.

In essence, Wiley, canyons are open books, their steep cliffs pages of time and accumulated activity, far far greater than we can imagine. Layers of differential stone and rock, colors and form, tell us pieces of stories, events long before mammals and humans walked the surface. Remains of living entities that precede us may lie in wait to provide a dialogue enriching the story. Canyons talk to you if you listen.”

Wiley stood still. “Well, I hear things, but not sure what canyons talk like. Do they growl like me? Yip? Grunt like Josephine? This is like my Home where I was a pup.  Sort of.”

“The canyon is a bit different than those you remember, aren’t they?”

“Yup. This one is only big enough for two of us coyotes to run in side-by-side.”

“It’s called a slot canyon, Wiley.”

“Hey, remember I am ‘Coyote‘!”

Sigh. “Yes, Wiley; you are that, too.” She and Wiley sat on a big boulder.

Wiley took a deep breath and then……. “Okay, so this is my turn to tell a story. They say…..  Are  you writing this down? I can’t hear talking pages, you know.”

“I am writing your story, Wiley.  I will read aloud the talking pages to you so you can hear them.”

“Okay. So.

They say this is the way it was, long ago. When Sky  Woman fell from Sky World and down towards the Great Water world, Turtle saved her. He swam underneath her and she fell on his back.

When she did, Turtle’s feet pushed mud up underneath him so they would both not drown. The mountains, valleys and oceans formed underneath them. Where his claws dug into the mud, water flowed and they grew into rivers. So the world grew from Turtle’s back, the mud underneath him, and Sky Woman’s songs.

Some of those claw marks in the mud lost their water. Some are narrow, like this here, and some are wider, like those where I grew up. Yet, when waters fall from Sky World and call on Turtle and Sky Woman below, that water will run through these gashes in the mud that is now rock. They look and search for Turtle and Sky Woman. And they take pieces of the rock mud with them when they go. That is how they remember how this world was created.

That was how it happened, they say. A long time ago.”

“That was a good nature story, Wiley.”

“What is this ‘nature’ ? What do you mean?”

“It is many things. It is the water in the well that was there before any of us came to be. It is also the bucket into which we put things, or ‘the’ things we call ‘Nature’. And it is a leaky  bucket.”

“What do you put in the bucket?”

“We put in things we meet: lions, thunder, wind, water, rocks,  you. Some people see only a bucket with one thing and call it ‘Nature’. Or they see only certain things in the bucket that they call ‘Nature’. Or things that have already been called ‘Nature’. ”

“But how did all those things get in the well?”

“Ah, well, that depends on who you ask, or who is looking. Some of us humans believe that things have been in there long before we could see them, and probably many things that we can’t see or even know about. Yet.

Many of these things were not created in the human mind, or in any living thing’s mind. They just ‘are’. Or ‘are not’. ”

Wiley said, “I don’t know about this ‘Nature’ thing. I only know I have to find food to eat. If I don’t, I may starve, maybe even die. Or I might become food for something else. Is that in the well, too?”

“Well, that is more an interaction with other things in the well. That tends to be put into the bucket, too, sometimes. Just as sometimes that tends to leak out,” She replied.

Wiley paused, then asked, “So, is Nature only those things that we see, touch, smell, taste, hear, and….?”

“Yes and no. It is all those things. We put all those things we encounter matching our world into a container. But Nature also does things on its own – with no containers. It did so long before we arrived with our buckets and it will continue to do so long after we are done with our looking and investigating and leaves it alone. Because it is a only word in our language. And a very leaky bucket.

Shall we continue on our hike?”

“Yeah. But can we leave the bucket behind for now?

I’m going to teach you how to stalk. You need to learn how if  you are going to hunt rabbits like I do. First you have to get low to the ground. Then move slowly and quiet, so the rabbit won’t know you are there. Hide behind a rock or tree, or slide along side this canyon side. See those rabbits up there? I’m watching your back.”

 

“Those aren’t rabbits, Wiley. Those are people.”

“So! You can pretend they are rabbits! That way you can practice for when you do see a real rabbit.”

“Okay, Wiley. Can I get up now?”

“It sure took them a long time to crawl around that deep pool of water. I’m getting thirsty……”

“We’ll just sit here and watch them. Here, have some water from my bottle.”

“Good, ’cause I don’t think I could get out of that pool. I wonder if Turtle is in there……”

(Original story written by this author in 2011 and published in issue of ‘Alpine Daily News,’ Alpine, Texas, 2013)

Heading to the moon

16 Sep

This morning
Songs of geese
heading to the moon.

sunrise-mnwr

Night Angels

12 Jun

I am surrounded by hundreds of fireflies.
They are the stars and angels.
I am in the heavens of the universe.

Nature in Photography

6 Feb

A week or so ago on FaceBook I was nominated by two friends to participate in the #challengeonnaturephotography meme. Although I rarely participate in these memes, the thought “Why not?” prompted me to give it a try. The protocol is to post a nature-themed photograph, include the hashtag, give kudos to the friend that nominated you, and then nominate another friend in the caption.

I played by the rules for three days. Then life got in the way (long days in the field), and I got lazy. I posted when I had time, dropped the official hashtag, the nominators, and ran out of FB friends to nominate. I keep my FB friends to a relatively small number (up to 50 now!), and friends who are into photography have already participated once or twice.

Now I submit a story with the photograph instead. Why? Because photography to me is a storytelling medium. Today’s photograph is a glimpse into the secret lives on the ‘little people’.

Nearly every day for three months last summer, I was privy to an entire world few of us see in depth and detail. I felt like a giant studying, learning, and enjoying a network of soil, water, plants, and insects……….at their level. Sometimes I was so giddy with childlike delight, I forgot who and what I was. And I was full of anger and intense sadness when part of this magical world was destroyed by humans. That, too, was a lesson I won’t forget.

Revealed below is a monarch butterfly larva and several cobalt blue beetles all ‘doing their thing’. They use milkweed as a common food source. Yet they tolerate each other. I have watched members of both species consume leaf material, side by side without conflict. Here, two beetles are copulating, undisturbed and unfettered. While the monarch voraciously chows down, preparing to form its chrysalis. This, however, is only one tiny window into the lives that live in the ecosystem in which I immersed myself.

Most nature photography depicts landscapes of empty agents and actors. Or portraits of animals, still and silent in pose like a person sitting for a photograph. To me this is an injustice to the inhabitants of the landscape as they live out their drama and narratives in those spaces. Few ‘nature’ photographs reveal the complex interrelationships within the landscapes and with their fellow animals. They fail to show the communities of life in places other than within our own human preconceptions and expectations. As if we strive to capture and show only a snapshot in time and space that suits what we want to see.

In addition to the beauty, the silence and solace depicted in landscape and wildlife portrait photography is a dynamic world of creatures living their lives just like we do. The drama, the beauty, the good and bad, birth and death, at every level; from micro to macro. There are stories out there that are not of our own.

And we can learn from them: About their lives, their interactions with each other and how we interact with them. We can even learn about ourselves.

Think about that the next time you are out in the natural world. Take time to observe before you press on that shutter release button. You never know what you might find.

image

Fifth instar monarch larva and cobalt blue beetles on showy milkweed.

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