Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Greening of The Crooked Little House

After countless days of wind and rain, I awoke one morning this week with a feeling like my house had been dropped Oz style, over the rainbow into another world, sunlight flooding the bed covers and a hundred shades of green coloring every leaf and bud outside my door. No wicked witch lurked underneath the foundation and to the best of my knowledge, no Munchkins were hiding in the bushes. But the Green Man had definitely returned to my island.

I have two architectural elements in the form of Green Men on my hearth, flanking my fireplace, a splurge I made a few years ago. They are large and made of heavy stone with hollowed eyes and oak leaves sprouting out of their strong faces. The story is, they used to adorn an old house on a rather large estate. I have always loved the idea of a nature god that represents man's longing to get back in touch with the natural world. The earliest known example of the Green Man, or Jack in the Green, is from 400 AD, and they are more common in northern Europe where they adorn churches as well as other buildings.

In Celtic folklore, the Green Man is the god of spring and summer, when plant growth is at its peak. Because he disappears and reappears year after year, he is also thought to represent the spiritual theme of death and resurrection. Even Sir Gawain, the Green Knight, is considered to be the image of the Green Man from the Middle Ages. He wore a green helmet, green armor, carries a green shield and sat atop a green horse. When decapitated, one story says he came back to life the way spring brings new growth. And the Green Man still lives at TCLH.

Forgive me for not knowing a lot about plants. I try, I really do, but there are just so many of them. I consult my books but when I find no results that satisfy me, I decide to just enjoy what appears, trusting that each one has its own purpose in the whole scheme of things. And no two are sporting the  exact same color of green, ranging from Sap Green to Cobalt Turquoise, to Kelly Green, to Viridian, to Thalo Green, to Hooker's Green, well, you get the idea. So today I offer up a palette of greens flourishing in my little yard where happy little bluebirds fly.

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."            
 John Muir

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Elusive Creatures

Lifting my eyes from a refuge map to speak to my son, I glanced out the window and something caught my eye, kind of like when ET was nestled among the stuffed animals. Something didn't quite fit in. As my heart squeezed up into my throat, I softly told my son to slowly turn his head and look to the right. I could see a trace of anxiety flit across his face as he wondered what might be waiting on the other side of the glass, just a few feet away. This is bear country after all.

My children don't live near me. One resides in Florida and the other is four and a half hours inland. They are elusive creatures. But when we do get together, extraordinary things always occur. By chance, my youngest son was doing some work in Stumpy Point, a tiny village on the mainland in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by swampland and canals that line the desolate road in and out. The only living creatures one encounters are heron, frogs, turtles and masses of robins that play chicken with your car. So this was the perfect chance to spend some time together each day after he was finished with work.

We always make time to get into the "wild" and see what nature is highlighting this time of year. And on one afternoon we saw something neither of us had witnessed before, an American Bittern, standing about 10 feet away in the tall marsh grass along a canal next to the road. Many people have heard them but few get the chance to see them, especially this close. Many states have listed the Bittern on their endangered lists. I managed to get a sketch done but when I took out my camera, he heard the beeping and flew off to land further back into the swamp.

When the Bittern feels he is in danger he becomes rigid and points his bill skyward, trying to mimic the reeds and grasses. With his brightly striped body and coloring, he would easily have been missed if I hadn't stopped the car in that particular spot. This bird has been know to sway with the grasses if there is a wind or stand at an angle to match the windblown reeds in an effort to blend in, earning him many nicknames such as the Stake-Bird, Look-Up, Sky-Gazer, Sun-Gazer, and Thunder Pumper because of the call they emit that can be heard up to a half mile away. This is accomplished by gulping air and forcing it out from a distended esophagus. This member of the heron family is a rather large bird, 24 to 34 inches in height and their foods of choice are frogs, salamanders, crayfish, eel, beetles, dragonflies, meadow mice and other marsh inhabitants.

The rest of the afternoon was spent watching Coots and Yellow-bellied Sliders. Every so often we would look at each other and just shake our heads, that image of the Bittern having been permanently etched into our memories next to the joy of being together again. I was given some rare gifts this week, visits with elusive creatures, making my time all the more precious. I am grateful.

"At the moment you are most in awe of all there is about life that you don't understand, you are closer to understanding it all than at any other time."
                                                                   Jane Wagner


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Rooms With a View

Some of us dream of leading a simple life by the sea. But finding affordable housing in a popular seaside community can be difficult, and along with a water view, nearly impossible. But at The Crooked Little House, there are still vacancies, at least for the moment. Bird houses are still available in the cherry tree, by the kitchen door and hanging from the mimosa tree. There is also a bumble bee box nestled at the base of the trumpet vine near the pergola, all courtesy of my fabulous brother who makes them and ships them down to me from Massachusetts. I am envious of the birds this time of year as they search for a mate and play lover's games of catch me if you can, then select their dream home to raise their families. I fondly recall doing all those things many years ago yet still miss each aspect of these spring activities.

Just this week, the bird house nearest the pergola has taken on tenants for a short term lease. The last "renters" were house wrens who left a disheveled nest when they departed, littered with bits of shell. But now Carolina chickadees have moved in, reclaiming what was once a chickadee house in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I adore wrens, but I am excited about the chickadee nest that will be left behind as a landlord's payment. These nests are lovely, silk-soft and filled with kitty hair which I put outside after brushing Buddha and Erb. Last year, I felt fortunate to have flycatchers residing in the house by the back door, constructing a nest with beautiful moss woven into it. I can't imagine where they found that.

Soon I will hear peeping coming from the houses and strict warnings from the branches above to keep my distance. So I will sit on the deck and quietly watch the parents make endless trips bringing food to the babies. By early summer it will be time to clean out the houses once again to make room for the next happy couples who will raise the next generations to sing and flit about the yard to the delights of Buddha and Erb as they watch from the windows. And I will document this year's group in an accordion folded booklet I have made, proof that while there was still land to be found for the wildlife on this barrier island, they were here.

"Only the birds are able to throw off their shadow. The shadow always stays behind on the earth. Our imagination flies. We are its shadow on the earth."

                                                                                          Vladimir Nabokov

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Feeling Sluggish this Winter?

My neighbor keeps a pristine yard and a wary eye on mine, occasionally commenting on the wild hedgerow at the back of my property that borders his perfectly manicured lawn. When he told me he was going to remove the small pile of logs I keep on the back hill, I stopped him by explaining that this pile makes a refuge  for the smallest of creatures, providing shelter from the heat of summer and cold of winter, not to mention that it's not his property to mess with. I have introduced him to Silver in an effort prevent an unfriendly encounter that would surely end badly for the opossum and to educate him and his wife, who once insisted she had seen snakes with legs (skinks). I felt if he saw firsthand the bounty of animals we are so fortunate to have in our yards, he might be a bit more understanding of my passion to keep a little land set aside for the lives that lived here before we took over. But like most people, he would be appalled if he knew what I was studying this winter under those logs - cold, sticky pillows the color of molasses. In other words, huddles of hibernating slugs.

I wonder what it's like to be viewed as repulsive when your cousin, the snail, is at times considered beautiful because he/she sports a shell and you don't. (Yes, they can self fertilize in case you're interested.) Slugs are fascinating creatures, eating up to 40% of their body weight each day and are most active in the early morning hours, unlike me. In dry soil like mine, they will bunch up when hibernating. You can see a photo of my group in the November 11th post of last year. It's been hard to count how many there are since they all look alike.

So throughout the winter months I've been peeking under their log, checking on the health and activities of my fleshy tenants. Finally, this week I noticed all but two of the slugs have either relocated or have met their untimely demise, and with vacancies at the log, two cousin snails have moved in. The slugs are now going out to forage each morning and are safely back into their leaf litter beds by mid afternoon. I'm thinking since it's Spring, and a young slug's fancy turns to love...

"You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures."   Thomas Pynchon

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Spring and Birthdays, sort of

After a long, cold winter, I finally managed a couple of days outdoors hoping to catch a glimpse of the last of the visiting birds before they take flight and head back up north. The last time I was at Pea Island, the ponds were filled with sand from recent storms so this time I headed to the mainland, first to Lake Mattamuskeet, the largest natural lake in North Carolina, and then to a regular haunt, Alligator River.

Monday was raw and windy and a fellow artist and I headed to Mattamuskeet where I was cold slapped with the fact that the Snow Geese and Tundra Swan had already begun their return flights. But we did see herons in all their breeding plumage, hunkered down against the cold, end-of-winter winds, their heads disappearing into feather boas. One male was so dug in we got fairly close to him and he never flinched a feather. Shovelers zigzagged across the canals along with straight swimming nutria and bunches of duck-like birds called coots everywhere we looked. At this refuge there is a short boardwalk that winds through a cypress swamp with some of the largest "knees" I've ever seen and two fairy tale trees I must include in a painting one day. Years ago, the powers that be tried to pump the lake dry in an effort to create more farmland. Luckily that failed but the pump house still remains and at times is open to the public. I remember years ago, climbing the narrow stairwell in the tower to be rewarded with a magnificent view, but now the tower is closed off.

On Friday, I headed to Alligator River, my sketch bag holding my constant desire to spot a bear or two, but once again there were none to be seen. With all the rain we've had recently, the fields were flooded, leaving only a small, dry area that some ibis had found, chalk white against a sepia background. I'll admit to being a bit disappointed with the lack of critters, but when I returned home I found packages gracing my front steps since it was my birthday, sort of, being born on Leap Year, Feb. 29th. These thoughtful gifts more than made up for the lack of creatures at the refuge.

I received a packet of luminescent butterfly wings (collected from dead butterflies found on the ground), a loosely woven nest of either a catbird or mockingbird, the sweetest opossum finger puppet in honor of "Silver", two great books,  A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection, and a pottery crow with a key and heart. And to top it all off, a huge box of my favorite spring flowers - tulips, in Wizard of Oz Technicolor. A birthday brimming with nature, who could ask for more?

"The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been."
                                                                                        Madeleine L'engle