Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Balance Before the Fall

So, this is the beginning of fall, Autumn Equinox, the official first day. Fall in Texas is different: we don’t have one. In other parts of the country, golden sunlight casts its fading warmth on the red and yellow oaks of autumn, lakes are adorned with bobbing flotillas of migrating fowl. Tractors cut vast fields of hay, farmers plow harvest stubble to fallow until the spring.

We define fall in a different way. It’s when the evening lows are no longer in the 80s. Rain changes from the mad thrashing thunderstorms of summer – that is, if we get rain in the summer — to the enveloping downpour that comes with cold fronts from the north. We tentatively emerge from our air-conditioned dens to see the sky, once a pale bleached blue, regain its deeper hue. Lawns come to life, changing to emerald green from parchment brown.

We slip into the leeward side of the seasons as the autumnal equinox arrives. Leaving the suspended state of summer, with its forever young feeling of long days, sunshine and growth, we rejoin the awesome river of change that is life. Fall is about falling, about tumbling from the high point of summer, returning to the flow, about releasing and letting go. It’s about believing that the way to leave a mark on this life is not through accumulating and controlling, to own or to possess, but through creating and releasing, from the children we raise to the works of art we create.

For us, this giving without obligation is a philosophy we come to after much consideration and beating up on our egos. To the natural world of plants and animals, bugs and fish, it is simply the way of life. Leaves separate from the trees, cascade to the ground and return into the Earth. Animals die and decay, their bodies fertilize plants that feed their children. Everything returns to the source, knowing it will return. The circle of life, the cycles of life. Regeneration through generations.

Autumn Equinox is the moment of equilibrium just before this fall. The Earth in its wobbly path through the cosmos is for a brief time spinning perfectly upright and the Sun is shining straight on at the equator—hence the name, equinox. Instead of leaning into the Sun like it does in summer or leaning away in winter, just a for a moment the Earth is balanced -- no, not so much that an egg placed on its pointed end will stand upright, like a lot of folks try to do on this day -- but enough to give us a metaphor to live by.

This momentary drift into balance and back out again is a reminder of how tentative life can be, how fleeting and how sweet. It reminds us to seize those moments, carpe diem, and live them fully, to embrace this life and all its mortality, to never go to bed angry at someone you care about. So we take this special day before we tip towards winter and the waning days of the seasonal year to celebrate the connections we make in this brief time together and honor the abundant gifts the Earth gives to us so willingly.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

And Then You Remember Why

Hardly a day goes by that don’t I wonder why I do this, or that I don’t worry that if another responsibility or expense is laid on me that I’ll just break to pieces. The Moonlady News community and other listservs, management of Earth Rhythms and all its projects, family and friends and on those seldom occasions that I have time, the writing.

So it was true insanity to take on all that and this land, too, even though logically it was right. Build our small rural retirement place while we’re young enough to enjoy it, and before all the good land parcels were taken and property values and building material costs skyrocketed out of reach.

Yet we were not convinced. There were moments of real regret, days of butt kicking and hand wringing and worry, worry, worry, about money mostly. Nothing drains your pocketbook like maintaining rural property. When things go wrong, they go wrong on a big scale.

Then you have a day like this that makes the long hours of work, the barely scraping by, all worthwhile.

The First Omen

Anytime we leave for Osage from Dallas, where we still live half the time, here’s usually some kind of surprise waiting for us. Are the neighbor’s cows wandering the place again? Marauding wild pigs? Fallen tree across the road?

When we last left Osage, we’d spread fresh dirt about the cabin and seeded part of a lawn-to-be in native buffalo and blue grama grass. Plantings were made and flowerbeds dug, finally surrounding it with a wimpy chickenmesh fence.

Yet we arrive to find that the feral pigs had not ravaged the fresh dirt, as they like to do. Birds had not eaten the expensive seeds, nor had they been washed away by rain. Surely the raccoons destroyed the flat of nursery plants we had forgotten to put up. But no!

While reveling in our good fortune, we looked down and noticed a most amazing thing. The undisputable imprint of a wild turkey foot! AND some smaller turkey feet beside it. A turkey family!

This was a bird bonanza, the grail of ground birds, the prize upon which our eyes had been set for years. Yet here it was, completely by accident, wild turkeys somewhere on our land. The tracks were headed south, toward our wild Back 40.

Clutches of turkeys are such a hoot. They wander meadows for seeds and bugs during day, and fly up into big trees at night to roost. Do not make a loud noise beneath a turkey tree. They scare easily and are big birds.

Storm Porn

We hear the phone ringing but just don’t care. We know it’s well-meaning friends and family letting us know that tornados are in the area. We’re on the balcony enjoying the show. When you live in a concrete cabin that can withstand objects thrown at 250 mph, you get cocky.

“Is that swirling?” I ask. A light fringe of cloud is being sucked upward, not fast, but definitely in a circular motion – a sure sign of a supercell storm that can become a tornado.

Beneath the storm looking up, we can only guess what we’re seeing. Are we beneath one of those towering cumulous clouds that bring thunderstorms torrents? Or is this a blanket of clouds, bringing in slow wet deluges

Hints arise as hail begins to fall. It takes a tall cloud to make hail, which needs distance to fall and accumulate ice. Now past the feathery leading edge, the storm feels dense, ominous, the weight of giant water-filled clouds pressing everything down. Bugs and birds are trapped low to the ground, zipping back and forth for one last meal.

Rain descends in sheets, rippled with denser currents of water and punctuated with great bursts of wind. We retreat to safer confines behind the glass storm doors, but are soon outside again, watching the storm rumble away to the northeast.

Redwing blackbirds, boldest of the birds, dart out to grab newly exposed seeds and bugs. Bossy cardinals soon follow, setting off a songbird feeding frenzy, much needed in this breeding season of spring.

We watch as another storm rolls across the eastern sky and beats the crap out of the next county over. Bold explosions of lightning fire the massive clouds a hot yellow-white, illuminating its tumultuous features.

A sharp whistling sound catches our attention, followed instantly by a cold wind, low to the ground. An updraft, the sign of a really large storm in the area. Though about 20 miles away, our storm porn is pulling from our land. It sucks all the pollen, dust and humidity out of the air, rendering an afternoon of polished brilliance.

The calls of the dickcissels in the north meadow shift from the strident proclamations of mating season, the sound track of spring, to the gossipy twitters of birds, curious to see who made it through the storm.

The last lingering haze is sucked away with another updraft wind, revealing a rainbow, seeming to arise from the neighbor’s field behind our barn, so close that its base appears as a huge, thick, vibrating light, its appearance one of the rewards of life on the edge.

May 7, 2008

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Party and the Party Crashers

Come winter, every cold front from the north pushes ahead of it swarms of songbirds – and the birds of prey that feed on them – into the relative warmth of North Texas.

By mid-January at Osage Moon, the party is rolling. The broad wooded bottomlands of McClung Creek shimmies with activity. Huge flocks of starlings take over the tallest oaks, acting like a league of New Jerseyites at a beer ‘n’ bowling match, all cackling chatter and avian arguments.

They’re mellow compared to the crows and ravens whose gatherings deep in the woods sounds like a political caucus, smaller groups intensely bickering among each other, merging, separating and reforming, in a great rabble of arguments.

Demure phoebes in the lower limbs pipe in with their strident call -- fee-bee! fee-bee! – as if expressing disapproval of the rowdy ones, while chickadees maintain a constant melodic nattering. The year-round resident cardinals, temporarily overwhelmed, stay in small groups and keep up their incessant peeping.

The Robin Invasion

Gregarious robins gather en masse in the large hackberries, poking crevices for hibernating bugs. In a day, they can strip every berry from every tree for a hundred yards. They spread across the ground, looking for more meals and basking in the sun.

Our riparian corridor of McClung Creek has become home for overwintering robins. Day-warmed air is held at night in the low-lying bottoms, where large cedars and other evergreens block the north wind.

January brings hundreds and hundreds of them, flying out at dawn each morning to pick the farmers’ fields clean of bugs, and returning before sunset. We call it “robin rush hour,” streams of birds coming to roost when the shadows grow long.

“Robin happy hour” comes next. On this day, the birds gather in the five-acre South Meadow, ringed by large trees. They fly in and then flit from tree to tree, looking for the most fun party, the best bird conversation, plucking the juiciest berries for a day’s dessert.

Some of the trees are avian hot spots, the calls insistent: “Come to my tree, the joint is jumpin’, all the hip birds are here! Our berries are fermented!” Night falls and the chatter subsides, each tree becoming a station of whispered chirping, birds gossiping and recounting their day, like kids after lights out in cabins at summer camp.

By February we may get a thousand robins, massing for the March return home. But they don’t stay in the South Meadow every night. There are other meadows flanking the creek corridor with hackberry, farkleberry and soapberry trees, somewhat to our disappointment.

Once at dusk, we stood in the South Meadow and watched robins heading east down the creek. One flock after another, going to that night’s gathering place, how it’s determined no one knows. It took 15 minutes for the entire group to pass over us. None responded to our pleas to stay.

Sometime in late March we will notice the silence, check the McClung corridor and they’ll be gone, having left all at once to go north. The cardinals, phoebes, dickcissels and various buntings will re-assert their domain, settling in for the long summer and fall until the robins return again.

Hawk Drama

Big Mama is our bird. She moved in a couple years after we got the land. The red tailed hawk favors the power poles that cross one corner of our land. The electrical right of way cleared of brush provides an open area for hunting. It’s a good strategy; she weighs five pounds more than other hawks in the area.

But in the winter, she gets field guests, other birds of prey following the songbird flocks in southward migration. The strange hawk that flies just feet above the ground, madly flapping wings to scatter rodents and other prey. The sleek peregrine falcon that dives the songbird flocks from above. The nighthawk that follows the barn swallows who work the bugs that rise up at dusk.

When the songbirds are distracted finding places to sleep, it’s easy pickings for the birds of prey. We watched a hawk divebomb the woods in a bend of the creek. Waves of songbirds flushed out of the forest, racing across the meadow to other trees. The hawk emerged from the woods after about four minutes, the time it takes evidently to eat a songbird.

It’s not like the birds of prey get a free pass. Our resident murder of crows mobs them relentlessly, cawing and harassing every one they see, flushing them out of hiding place after hiding place, ruining their chances to hunt.

One nightfall, after the robins had settled in, and the crows tucked into their usual place in the tall trees that grow at the confluence of Cross Creek and McClung, the hawk they had been mobbing all day flew in as the last rays of light faded, alighting high in the same trees as the crows. In avian affairs it pays to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

January 14, 2008