Tag Archives: death

The Healing Rain

Rain, finally

After a record-breakingly dry, hot summer, the rain has finally blessed us with the sweet scent of moist soil. Desiccated trees and shrubs, having finally enjoyed a long-awaited drink, are releasing oxygen-laden sighs of relief. You can almost hear their joy as they perk up their leaves one last time before settling down for winter’s quiet herbal introversion.

Raindrop on salmonberry leaf

Rain-drenched cedar branch

Our bird life is changing too. This summer brought to the Salish Sea an extraordinary number of Caspian Terns, whose daily foraging route seemed to take them directly over our house while they filled the air with their raucous conversations.

Caspian Tern checking me out (Lowman Beach, West Seattle)

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of one of the last terns soaring high overhead, perhaps giving his summer home one last look before he heads south to Mexico for the winter.

One of the last Caspian Terns of summer

I’ll miss the terns’ elegant soaring grace. But while the terns seek winter refuge in the Baja California area, others birds are arriving to seek winter refuge here, bringing their own voices and flashes of beauty to the turning palette of autumn.

Male partner of first Varied Thrush pair of the season

Some, like this Varied Thrush, will be with us all winter, sweetening the days’ ever-earlier dusks with their mysterious two-toned calls.

Others are just breezing through, like the warblers I encountered yesterday at one of my city’s large parks by the lake. My dear friend Nancy and I walked in spitting rain along marshes and swamps, catching quick flitting movements through willows and oceanspray. With their quick movements and leafy colors, the warblers were almost impossible to photograph, but I managed by sheer luck, a large-capacity photo card, and a bit of stubborn persistence to get a couple in focus.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with spider prey (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

The warblers are en route from Alaska and northern Canada down to Mexico. Bug-rich waystations like these wetlands are crucial to their survival, providing  essential protein, fruit, seeds, and shelter. It’s only because of intensive preservation and restoration efforts that these refuges still exist; not too many years ago, this land served as a naval air station. Collaboration among government, private companies, and nonprofits is transforming much of the military facility into a vibrant wildlife habitat and sanctuary.

We also discovered small companionable flocks of American Goldfinches making their way through the trees. This one made me chuckle with his decorated beak. I can just hear him thinking “What’re you lookin’ at?”

American Goldfinch, probably a juvenile (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Just a few days ago, I’d had a similar flock at my feeder. A juvenile (on the left) seemed to be successfully begging from its parent—but perhaps the middle goldfinch was simply scolding her companion, since by now the young birds should be pretty self-sufficient.

American Goldfinches

Here at the end of September, young goldfinches gather in flocks of increasing size, chattering as they explore in search of the season’s abundant food. Goldfinches will be with us all year, though their numbers will gradually drop as autumn progresses and many disperse to new territories.

Season of abundance, season of change; summer’s treasures disappear and new joys arrive, some for a brief shining moment and some for a lifetime. Now is the time of transition.

This year’s September has been hard. Some loved ones have left us forever. Others’ light has flickered briefly but will return bright and strong. Some hover on the edge of darkness, and only time will unfold the rest of their story.

But as summer turns to autumn, with time’s horizon inexorably lowering toward winter, the darkening season brings the comfort of quiet. We light the candles for wisdom as we embrace both loss and love; we welcome those who bring their harvest gifts of color and their notes of hope: rain on the roof, a two-toned voice in the gathering dusk.

Varied Thrush

 

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Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.

https://i1.wp.com/ww4.hdnux.com/photos/20/23/42/4274339/3/628x471.jpg

Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl

.

In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart


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Time rewound, for a moment

After several cloudy, mizzly days, I woke up this morning to the stiff north breeze that carries the promise of blue skies all day long. Dazzling! I wasn’t the only one out luxuriating in it; almost as soon as I got to the path, an eagle soared overhead. Shortly thereafter, a gull circled repeatedly, apparently enjoying an invisible wave of cold Canadian air cresting over the bluff.

Gull soaring in north wind

Although there are still autumn colors in the woods, most of the leaves have undergone abscission and are lying quietly on the forest floor, beginning the slow journey into compost.

Autumn path near end of season

Always habitually scanning (consciously or not) for signs of birds, my attention was caught by a flicker of movement to my right, a flash of yellow soaring upward. A (very) late warbler? No.

It was like seeing time spin backward. A fallen Bigleaf Maple leaf had been retrieved by the wind and was spinning up the bluff, dancing upward in ecstasy through the mostly-bare branches, as if retracing its journey to its tree of origin.

I smiled as I watched it twirl through the tangled twigs, circle round a sturdy fat trunk, fly across my path. And then I laughed out loud when it actually managed to land upright on the thin branch of a young tree—it had made it back home!

Bigleaf Maple leaf, back in a tree for one brief shining moment

Did it feel, perhaps, that it had been granted a second chance, a new lease on life, a last chance before death to once again breathe in sweet carbon dioxide, feel the freshness of water flowing in its stem and the strength of sap surging out to its tree?

Maybe to fix a mistake or two: an occasional lack of generosity in sap supply, a desire to outshine its neighbor leaves with a particularly brilliant yellow?

Or possibly just to revisit the old home place, remember what it was like to be part of a tree, view again the vistas up and down, recall the soft vibration of a pair of life-mated crows grooming on your branch in spring.

Crows grooming on Bigleaf Maple, leaves in background

The leaf was only allowed to enjoy its time travel home for a brief moment (during which I was miraculously able to snap its portrait above) before the next gust returned it to the forest floor. But I wanted it to have just a little more time, so I picked it up and nestled it into a nearby trunk, a finger of bark holding it close, where it can imagine for a few more moments that it’s still part of a living tree.

Bigleaf Maple leaf held by a finger of Douglas Fir bark

We’re due for big storms this weekend, so the leaf will be back down in the duff soon enough. If you pass it while you’re walking through the park, please feel free to greet a time-traveler who was given one last chance.

What would you do with one last time-travel gift?

Abscission

It’s been pouring rain for two solid days now. Last night I kept waking up to listen to the drumming of rain on our roof, the wind humming through the trees out at the bluff, a lively air-river whispering something I couldn’t quite make out.

Soggy fall is a welcome respite after the exhaustingly beautiful bright summer, full of activity fueled by the knowledge that the perfect sparkling days won’t last long.  But now forest creatures are stuffing themselves nut-chubby, huddling wetly under dripping cedar branches, wiggling out of the saturated soil in search of pockets of aeration. A hummingbird braves pounding raindrops the size of his eyes to suck sugar water from my feeder.

This sense of “it won’t last long” is everywhere these days. A thick yellow carpet of cast-off bigleaf-maple leaves sends up a gentle glow from the forest floor.  The irises that were a housewarming present have gone to glorious seed, their brilliant orange berries brightening the kitchen window. A photo taken by a friend shows me for the first time that the top of my head is growing gray.

As winter nears, trees concentrate their efforts on their roots, branches, and buds. Their showy leaves, which have been so helpful in spring and summer in turning sunlight into tree food, now become a drain on the trees’ resources. If you look closely at the stem-ends of the fallen leaves, you can see their abscission zones: the cutoff area formed when shortening daylength triggers chemical changes that keep nutrients from reaching the leaf, weakening it so that it drops off. The tree needs to release its leaves to conserve its energy in the challenging season of winter.

Abscission zone in Bigleaf Maple leaf

I know the feeling. I’ve loved my active, out-in-the-world life and my career as a professor. Academics’ time of rebirth isn’t spring, but fall, when new students sprout in our classrooms and we start the annual cycle of the school year, watering and fertilizing our promising young seedlings throughout the winter months.

This fall, though, it feels like time for abscission, for cutting out and letting go of the things that don’t feed my roots. I need my nutrients now for writing, photography, time outdoors that feeds my intimacy with my beloved natural world. My roots need to grow more deeply into the soil, to tap new nutrients and to brace better against winter storms.

Because it won’t last long, this life of mine. Genetically, I’m likely to last well into my 90’s and perhaps even beyond. But the shadow of Alzheimer’s always lurks, and weakening bones, and fading vision: the gifts of body and mind that we give back one by one.

This is the season to choose soil over air; soul over show. Because now is never long enough.