Stop the Presses!

Calico pennant with background blurred - w sig
Calico pennant male on equisetum (aka scouring rush)

This isn’t what I’d intended to write today, but something awesome has happened.

Last week I was expecting a long-awaited book, but it was lost in the mail and didn’t arrive on Wednesday as it should have. Aargh! A couple days later, Amazon re-ordered it for me and told me it would arrive on Sunday. Sunday came and went and no package. Double aargh! Why was I so frustrated, you ask?

Well, the book is Chasing Dragonflies, the newest work by my dragonfly kindred spirit, Cindy Crosby. She has authored or collaborated on about 20 books, and her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, was a big help to me in learning more about native plants. So I was thrilled last year when I had the opportunity to contribute some information for her new dragonfly book, and was anxious to find out if any of my stories had made it to print.

But let’s go back to last week for a moment. As I was doing my regular dragonfly survey last Thursday afternoon, I was approached by a smiling man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He reminded me that we’d met briefly once last year and that he’d subscribed to my blog. (Oops, sorry Ron!) He then told me that he’d read Cindy Crosby’s new book and that she had mentioned me several times and even quoted me. This little tidbit of information served to stoke my excitement further, and I conducted the rest of my dragonfly survey with a huge smile on my face.

Chasing Dragonflies book
Finally, in my hands!!

Cut back to today, when I had impatiently resigned myself to just waiting for the book to show up…eventually….  And then, suddenly, it was here!!

I’ve ignored phone calls, chores, and emails today so I could dive into it, and I’m loving it.  Cindy writes about the lives of Odonata, as well as the community of people who study them. I think it would even be engaging to someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in dragonflies, but just likes to read about the natural world. And who knows, it might motivate more people to join us in monitoring these under-studied insects and their habitats.

Over the past year as Cindy and I have commented on each other’s blogs, I’ve grown to think of her as my dragonfly-sister-from-another-mother. (Ha, this will be the first time she’s heard that one.) I feel a kinship with her through our shared concern for both native plants and Odonata. It’s so nice to know there are women being recognized for their expertise in the male-dominated world of dragonflies. She’s an inspiration to me in many ways.

If you haven’t seen her blog yet, I highly recommend that you check it out. You can subscribe so you’ll get an email each Tuesday with a link to her weekly posts. It’s called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. She walks her Chicago-area prairies regularly and photographs plants and insects, writing about them in ways that I can only dream of doing.

I’ve already found the places in the book where she used my material (pages 67, 108, and 117), and I have to sheepishly admit that I’m delighted to see myself quoted in print. That’s only happened a couple other times in my entire life.  Maybe I’m silly, but it’s something that has lifted my spirits a great deal today. In this time of isolation and social distancing, it makes me feel that I’m a valued member of a special community, and that my opinions matter. (Hmmm, I should write sometime about the strength of the human desire to be acknowledged and feel valued….)

What the heck, I’ll confess that when I saw that package in my mailbox today, I felt a little bit like Navin Johnson in this clip from the 1979 movie, The Jerk:

So thank you, Cindy, for a wonderfully captivating book and for allowing me to be a tiny part of it. And congratulations on such a successful book project!

26 Letters

{ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z }

There’s a lot of power in those 26 simple symbols. That small set of letters is our entire tool kit for communicating with one another in the English language. Every word we write or speak is formed from nothing more than these few building blocks arranged in various ways: letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Endless combinations to express innumerable thoughts and ideas. The U.S. Constitution. War and Peace. The Bible. Your grandmother’s love letters. The owner’s manual for your car. The script of the latest blockbuster movie. It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.

Kindle keyboard (1024x683)With these 26 letters we can convey our feelings upon witnessing something wondrous like the birth of a baby, or something horrific like a car crash. We can give names to each other as well as to every species of plant and animal on the planet. We can tell bedtime stories to our children.

We need no more than these 26 letters to explain why the leaves turn those brilliant colors in the fall, where birds go when they migrate, or how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. These same letters can be combined to form something as important as your birth certificate or as mundane as a grocery list.

We educate, entertain, compliment, insult, soothe, incite, encourage, and irritate each other with words made from this very small group of symbols. Think about some historic inspirational speeches: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” or John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Combinations of these twenty-six letters, that’s all.

There’s such power in language, whether it’s written or spoken. Because of our mastery of language, our species has been able to dominate the world. We’ve done good things with this power. And we’ve done bad things. I often wonder what the other animals would say to us if they could use our language. I’m sure they would teach us some valuable lessons.

I believe we have an obligation to use this powerful gift to make the world a better place for all of us, not just those like ourselves. I’m saddened when I see words used to tear down or belittle other people. So much potential is wasted by those words, so much unnecessary hurt inflicted. On the other hand, when I hear language used to uplift and encourage people, my heart smiles with hope. I push aside my doubts about the future, cast off the weight of my fears, and am inspired to try harder to be a part of the solution.

If you ask me, these 26 letters have the power to save us all.

Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂