Monday, December 24, 2012

arriving daily

arriving daily
thousands of Canada geese
refueling for flight

Arriving Daily, the billboard announces, and underneath is the proof: thousands of Canada geese foraging in the snowy cornfield, refueling for their flight to warmer climes. It's a white Christmas Eve, fat frilly flakes falling gently, and the wild geese finally migrating in huge flocks.

One of the geese is limping and we wonder whether it should check into the emergency room at Ottumwa Regional Hospital.

This enormous flock of geese have landed on a narrow strip of a cornfield wedged between the river and the highway. They seem oblivious to the traffic speeding by, but become wary when we stop, not alarmed enough to take flight, just waddling slowly away.

Another group favors the fenced-in ballpark.

Off they go, but why are they headed northwest?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

gingerbread hobbit

gingerbread hobbit 
house waiting for its owner
off on adventure

Gingerbread houses adorn storefronts and street corners around the town square. And the grand prize in Fairfield's annual gingerbread house contest goes to the Hobbit House.

snow piles puffy pillows

snow piles puffy pillows
on limbs, plasters black tree trunks,
cloaks the bowing cedars

Late December surprise, lightning and thunder at night, heavy rain drumming on the roof, freezing by morning, turning to sleet, then driven by a northerly into a ground blizzard all day. I crawl into town, squirreling around corners and sliding through an intersection. On the way home, the wind blasts the snow into opaque billows, obscuring the road. I'm the only one on the road, so I creep down the yellow center line, barely visible under snow on top of ice. At our turnoff, the truck starts up the first gravel hill and stops halfway, wheels spinning in place. Slowly, carefully, I back down, trying not to slide off into the ditch, and park the truck by the mailboxes. I'm not dressed for trekking in a blizzard and the wind quickly cuts through to the skin. But cold, wet hands don't stop me from pulling out my camera to record the beauty of the snow -- white plaster on the north side of black tree trunks, puffy white pillows piled on every limb, cedars bowing under white cloaks. Half a mile from home, I hear a strange roar. Could it be the wind? Well, in a way, yes. It's our wind turbine, the blades a blur, the tail cocked sideways, the tall tower bending in the gale. My thin socks have slipped down inside my boots and when I take the shortcut to the house through deeper snow, I quickly get snow on my bare ankles. So I'm really glad to get home to our warm soapstone wood stove and a hot cup of peppermint tea.

Friday, December 14, 2012

a line of wild geese

a line of wild geese 
streaming away from the pink
and orange-gold sunset

Everything's a bit out of whack these days. Maybe it's the perfect lineup of the Sun and Moon. For sure, that's causing king tides in California, but there's also been an earthquake off the coast. Unseasonable weather is confusing plants and animals as well as people. Canada geese have been migrating later, just a couple of weeks before winter solstice.
          I'm driving into town on our rural road, gawking at the flourescent pink and orange and gold clouds lit by the last rays of the sun, when I spy a long line of wild geese flying away from the sunset. Instead of the classic V, they're almost all lined up like train cars, except for one branch of a half dozen birds off to the left, forming an elongated Y. Usually, I'm too slow to catch them with a photograph. But this time my camera is sitting on the seat next to me. There's no place to pull over, not even a small shoulder on this country road, so I just stop in the middle of the pavement, hoping no one else is behind me. Quickly I roll down the window, zoom and focus, and manage a couple of clear shots. Amazing!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

fox squirrel harvesting

fox squirrel harvesting
red viburnum berries -- 
grasp, nip, nibble, stuff

Cold, rainy days, familiar November weather. Too dreary for a walk, so I head to the indoor pool for a mile of laps. As often happens when I'm destination-bound, I literally get flagged down by Beauty, which stops me in my headlong rush. This time it's a fox squirrel in a viburnum tree right outside the Aquatic Center, stuffing her cheeks with red berries. 
          I approach slowly, expecting her to scamper away, or at least flick her tail and chitter her annoyance at my intrusion on her space. But even when I'm standing almost directly under her, she continues to feed, moving from branch to branch to snatch a cluster of berries and nibble until her cheeks are full.
          While I'm engrossed in trying to keep the squirrel in focus with my telephoto as she moves about, I notice a person approaching and he's not headed for the door. Go away! I think in his direction. You'll scare off my squirrel! But he either doesn't hear or ignores my silent admonition, for he walks right up to me and plucks me on the sleeve. This startles me out of my fixation with the squirrel, so I turn my eyes away from the viewfinder to see a plump man with a round face, red cheeks and a wispy white beard, like Santa Claus in bib overalls.
          "That's a pretty red sweater," he says.
          "Thanks," I say, smiling because he's been flagged down by my bright red sweater in the same way that I got stopped by the squirrel eating red berries.
          "What are you looking at?" he asks.
          "A squirrel," I reply, pointing to the squirrel, which still seems oblivious to our presence.
          "Pretty," he says, and walks away.
          The squirrel continues gorging. She must know that the berries are to be eaten at once rather than buried in the ground like nuts or stashed in a tree to dry like mushrooms. The squirrel is inadvertently performing a valuable service for the viburnum, when the seeds inside the berries pass through her digestive system intact and are deposited in another location. Squirrels also fill this delivery service when they forget where they've buried some nuts, which then sprout in the spring far from the parent tree, as well as when the spores of the dried mushrooms they've stored in treetops float down to begin life in new territory. In this magical way, trees help animals and animals help trees. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

orange mushroom fallen

orange mushroom fallen 
among dead brown leaves succumbs 
to a gnawing squirrel

Uprooted from the ground where it was ingesting its surrogate mother, a mushroom lies on a bed of dead brown leaves, its orange skin and white flesh flashing a spot of brightness in the somber autumn scenery. The mushroom cap is littered with a sprinkling of dry dirt that clung to it when it pushed up through the soil, and dirt still clings to the curved tip of the fluted stem.
          The mushroom appears to grow like a plant, rooted in one spot. Yet in some ways it is more like an animal than a plant, for it does not make its own food by eating light, as plants do, and in fact can live quite well in total darkness. Instead, it absorbs food from its surroundings, filling the crucial role of recycler by decomposing dead plants, like the fallen leaves it has fallen among.
          This particular orange mushroom is itself being recycled. It lies uprooted and the orange cap bears the tooth marks of a squirrel on one edge. After consuming nutrients from plant detritus and then providing a snack for a plant-eating animal, the mushroom will now rot among the dead leaves on which it was feasting, bringing the cycle of life full circle.

Monday, December 3, 2012

red scars on red oaks

red scars on red oaks --
signs of a buck in rut
rubbing his antlers

Iowa hunters accidentally shot and wounded five of their fellow hunters during yesterday's fog that so effectively concealed the deer. I'm glad I didn't go for a walk in the woods on the second day of hunting season. Even though our area is posted, a hunter might not have seen the No Hunting sign in the dense fog.
          Today the fog is gone, replaced by blue rain clouds. It's two weeks before the Winter Solstice but it feels more like the Spring Equinox, with the temperature peaking at 70 F/21 C. Along Pilgrim Creek I find fresh signs of a buck rubbing his antlers on some red oak trees. In early fall bucks will rub small trees to remove the velvet on their antlers, and in late winter they will rub bigger trees to help shed their antlers. At this time of year, late autumn, the bucks are in rut, competing with each other to win does, and rubbing trees is the buck's way of marking his territory, showing his dominance and intimidating other bucks. 
          This "rubbing" causes serious injury to the tree. The outer bark has been shredded and scraped, exposing the softer red inner bark and the underlying white wood. Fortunately, the bark has not been stripped all the way around the trunk, girdling the tree, which would cut off the flow of water and minerals and most likely cause it to die. But it's still a nasty wound which will take time to heal, leaving the tree with a weak spot and an ugly scar.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

fog swallows the deer

fog swallows the deer,
wrapping all forms in a swaddling 
of soft white light

On Advent Sunday "the fog comes on little cat feet," as Carl Sandburg says, rising from the moist ground and cloaking the trees in ghostly light. Our cats go out in the morning and quickly vanish into the obscuring gloom, which hangs around all day.
          Advent season for Christians in the West is a time of preparation before celebrating the "coming" of Jesus on December 25. However, most historians agree that this date is not the actual date of the birth of Jesus, based on two factors, one astronomical and one political. The Star of Bethlehem that hovered over the city may have been a comet that appeared between March 9 and April 6, 5 BC. And the census that brought Mary and Joseph to his hometown occurred before the death of Herod the Great, which was in 4 BC. So it seems from historical evidence that Jesus was born around the time of the Spring Equinox, during the Jewish Passover, rather than around the time of the Winter Solstice.
          So how did Christmas come to be celebrated on December 25? Roman pagans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia, a time of lawlessness, between December 17-25. During the 4th century CE, Christian leaders hoped to metamorphose pagan holidays into Christian ones. They succeeded in converting pagans by promising that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia festival as Christians. So the Christian leaders named the last day of Saturnalia, December 25, to be the birthday of Jesus.
          The beginning of December also marks the start of hunting season in Iowa. This morning I startle a young buck and his train of six does. They leap into the trees, white tails flashing like exclamation points, and are quickly swallowed up by the fog. The deer seem to know that this area is a No Hunting zone, so they congregate in our meadows and woods. Today, on this first day of Advent, they are aided by the dense fog, which wraps all forms in a swaddling of soft white light.

Friday, November 30, 2012

fiery cloud dragon

fiery cloud dragon
chasing the setting sun
into the maw of earth

Amazing sunset cloud dioramas during these late autumn days. One looks like a dragon with wings of fire chasing the golden orb. Another looks like a river of vermilion fire, while yet another looks like little wavelets on the ocean. Nature-made and man-made clouds combine to create an effect like the streaks and squiggles in stained glass. And in another scene, one layer of inky clouds is raining wispy virgas, while the layer below it is sending streaks of rain upwards. How strange is that?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

red-tailed hawk perching

red-tailed hawk perching
on an old wooden tailgate,
scanning for a meal

The red-tailed hawk doesn't immediately fly away when I stop the truck, posing just long enough for me to go from landscape to closeup. It looks like someone set up a perfect still life, the triangular red and white slow-moving-vehicle sign, the weathered wooden boards of the old tailgate, the stripes of the gray metal shed and the roundness of the turquoise disk, all contrasting with the soft curves and vibrant aliveness of the hawk. I'm still in zoom mode and not fast enough to follow when my model finally takes flight, displaying its distinctive red-orange tail.
          Red-tailed hawks will perch on anything that gives them an elevated view as they scan for prey, whether it's a bare treetop, a signpost or a telephone pole. Usually they prefer open fields, but last spring, a red-tailed hawk built a nest in a tree by a creek on campus and began attacking pedestrians who crossed the nearby foot bridge, dive bombing and pecking heads. Soon an urgent email went out warning students to avoid the bridge while she was nesting. 
          Then this fall, a red-tailed hawk, perhaps the same one, bashed into one of the glass windows of the golden dome while a group of us were meditating inside. I jumped at the sound and ran to the window to see a very large bird standing on the ground, looking a bit dazed, but she quickly flew off. Then a week ago she was perched on the low fence outside the student center, peering into the bushes. Bunny rabbits, beware!
          Must be tough to raise a family and hunt for food with so many humans around, but she seems to be prospering. A good sign, when wild creatures and tame ones can live together in relative peace.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

frost moon, alone again

frost moon, alone again,
the little black horse wandering
the empty pasture

Frost this morning and a full Frost Moon tonight. Furry animals are putting on more fur while those that live on plants have to graze or gather longer. Americans have just celebrated Thanksgiving, packing on extra calories in one day of feasting, an ancient practice designed to store fat for winter.
          As the grass dries up in the fields, farmers are bringing in big round bales of hay for their livestock. I drive by the horse pasture with four apples, hoping to find the four horses near the fence so I can give them a treat. But I am shocked to see only the little black horse, grazing close to the red shed at the far end of the field. The three big horses have vanished, leaving Cocoa Bean alone again.
          What happened? I can only guess. The farmer's actions are a mystery. One winter, the little black horse has a big black bull as a companion, but he disappears before spring. The next winter, Cocoa Bean shares the pasture with a pair of Jersey cows, but they, too, are gone by spring. And now this year, the two American Quarter horses and the Clydesdale have suddenly been spirited away. I feel very sad for my little friend, facing another winter without a single companion.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

face on the blue boulder

face on the blue boulder
overlooking the dry creek,
eyes closed, smiling

Walking the path along Pilgrim Creek, dry as the dead leaves lining its bed, I pass the blue boulder overlooking the creek. As always, I stop to marvel at its presence. It looks like the serene face of a meditating Buddha wrapped in a shawl of moss. From what far region did this erratic hunk of granite hail? When did it hitch a ride on a glacier to this spot on the steep side of a little stream feeding into the creek? How many eons has it been lying there, witnessing the cycle of seasons? The blue Buddha holds enigmatic memories behind closed eyelids. But its small smile seems to say, why worry your head over such questions? Relax, be still, enjoy!

Monday, November 12, 2012

pressed between two boards

pressed between two boards
a nest of black ants guarding
white eggs through winter

Saturday, it's summer again and I'm down on my knees, digging holes between the still-green musk strawberries to plant daffodils, 125 bulbs, more if you count the little ones clinging to their mother's sides.
          Sunday, it's back to autumn with a cold rain that hangs on all day. Most of the daffodils are still hanging out in their little mesh bags, but it's too cold and wet to plant bulbs. 
          Monday, it's early winter with a hard frost. I plant a few more bulbs until my hands and knees get too cold and wet, so I do a little yard clean up. 
          When I pick up some loose boards, I uncover a nest of black ants pressed between two boards toward the bottom of the stack. They have made a wall out of bits of bark, shaped like a shield, to guard them from the cold. When the boards separate, half of the ants remain on the bottom board, the other half cling to the top board, as if they have been hibernating upside down. Their shiny black bodies are packed together in an elongated heart shape, interspersed among a scattering of white eggs stuck to the bottom board.
          At first the ants don't move when exposed to the cold and light, but slowly some of them stir and begin to crawl away toward the edge of the board. However, they are not carrying their eggs to safety, as ants usually do when their nest is disturbed. Perhaps they're too cold to do anything except move away from the cold. 
          Carefully, I replace the top board on the bottom board, hoping I haven't smashed any ants or destroyed their little bark barrier, and that they can find their way back to their long winter's sleep.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

signs of celebration

signs of celebration
on the lawn of a blue house 
after the election

Iowa, a swing state in presidential elections, swung blue again on 6 November 2012. The following morning, a proliferation of blue and white Obama-Biden election signs sprang up on the lawn of a blue and white house, signs of celebration for those who campaigned for the incumbents.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

on a golden pond

on a golden pond
pink and white water lilies
float among round green pads

How Jack planted water lilies in the pond across the road, I do not know. I imagine him diving bottom up like a duck and carefully tucking the roots into the soft mud. Every year the lilies send up pale umbilical stems from their muddy womb. When the ovoid buds breach the surface of the water, they unfold into a fanfare of pristine pink and white petals floating among round green pads. 
          Jack left us in June and now Toni lives alone by the little water lily pond. In September we had a memorial for Jack in the midst of an especially long Indian Summer, replete with a festival of gold and copper leaves. Two water lilies -- one white, one pink -- continued to bloom among leaves like verdigris medallions strewn on molten gold, a veritable Autumn Monet. 
          Today, a cold, wet, windy front moved in, dropping the temperatures from summer to winter in a few hours. The last two lily blossoms are gone, though the green pads still float among brown oak leaves on the rain-dented surface, maintaining a tenuous connection between the dark mud and the gray light.