Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: winter

Flight of Unknown Birds

For Lent I gave up writing, and being a writer, and talking and writing about writing. A friend asked why, and I told her I couldn’t tell her until Easter. Truth was, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. But it turns out I’m not that good at keeping a Lenten vow, so here’s my answer.

The Flight of Unknown Birds

Coming over the ridge in the winter-golden hills
light angling toward the endless horizon
as it only does in late winter in Kansas.
How is it I have come to love this place
so deep in my viscera, rooted in me
in a place before words. Bald eagle lifting
into flight. Blood splattered on the road.

I should hit the brakes, grab my camera,
shoot, but I’ve done that before at this very spot,
more than once. No photo ever satisfies.
Only this moment itself can express
this moment. All beauty is unspeakable;
truth, inexpressible. In the back seat
my daughter bends her head to a book,
oblivious.

I have tried to quit writing for the spite of it.
Even walking away from certain failure,
I know I’ll come back. The light in winter,
the flight of unknown birds: all existence
is poetry. There can be no being apart from it.
I’ll write long after I’m dead, until my bones
disintegrate into the earth.

Winter Prairie 3

Veronica on Winter’s End

Rachel’s had a difficult week, and doesn’t feel like writing tonight. There’s so much writing to be done, but so many expectations to fulfill (though, strangely, when I ask her who holds such expectations, she can never seem to provide a name). She didn’t have a vehicle much of the week, and she’s been trying to get someone to dig up her sewer pipe and replace it, with snow on the ground. So she asked me to write tonight in her stead.

At first I thought, not much happening this time of year. Every creature is still holding its breath, waiting for the days to get just a little longer, just a little warmer. But that’s really not true at all. The juncos (Junco hyemalis), also called snowbirds, have been active and visible all winter, and they are still here for a couple more weeks. The cardinals are nesting, as evidenced by their cheery song. A flock of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) flew over, in a northwesterly direction, marking the full moon. I’ve always wanted to see them on the ground, but to date they have invariably eluded me, rising up and continuing their long migration before I arrive at whatever avian rest area they’ve been reputed to frequent. Nevertheless, it’s a privilege to see them over my head, as they fly to the far north to nest.

And the garden? Well, if you’d leaned close to the ground at just the right moment, after the snow melted, you might have been injured by a garlic sprout shooting up so fast you wouldn’t see it until it poked you in the eye. They’re fully two inches tall now. Well, they were yesterday afternoon, who knows, by now they may be two or three times that height. When the year is winding down, I have to force myself to plant garlic; but its appearance in the early spring brings tears to my eyes, it’s such a relief after the interminable winter.

So that’s what we have this week. Rachel will be back next week, one way or another. The current difficult lunation will pass, she’ll get her meds straightened out, and spring will save us all, eventually, as it always does.

What signs of life are stirring in your neighborhood?

I don't have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

I don’t have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

Lambsquarters, Christmas Tree, Feline Birdwatching

With the Christmas tree in the patio door, Wildfire and I can watch the birds in the yard without being seen. Normally, they see me through the door and scatter. Today I got a good long look at four juncos (Junco hyemalis) and a sparrow, which I think was most likely an American tree sparrow, Spizella arborea.

Somewhere on the internet, I once saw a story about an old farmer who lamented the fact that his son, in taking over the farm, had hired someone to spray all the lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). The old man said that there had been bad years when the crops failed, so lambsquarters were all they had to eat. But they survived because of it. (In another reading of this story, we can imagine why the son, in the brash way of youth taking over from the older generation, would be inclined to destroy all lambsquarters in a violent and toxic manner.)

With this story in mind, I’ve let lambsquarters grow in my back yard. The first year or two, it was because they’re such a terrific source of nutrition. They’re really only tasty in the early spring, though I could still steam a few leaves with spinach through the summer; but we don’t actually get much overall from this so-called weed. Maybe I should be like the sensible gardeners, who take out even nutritious weeds to make space for the more desirable cultivated vegetables. But then, in winter, I saw the black-capped chickadee return day after day to munch on lambsquarters seeds, while perching on stems that poked up above the deep snow. The fantastic source of nutrition for humans is also a lifesaver for birds.

That was all the impetus I needed. I let lambsquarters have part of the vegetable patch. When I took them out in the fall, instead of tossing them into the compost, I bundled them up and tied the bundle to the leg of the treehouse. Naturally, this year I had a nice patch of lambsquarters under the treehouse, and at this very moment, four juncos and an American tree sparrow are having their way with it. Why buy birdseed when you can just let the weeds take over?

Sure, it’s a bit chilly lying here on the floor under the Christmas tree, but true birders put up with way worse conditions than this.

Happy winter, dear friends.

Autumn Hiking In the Flint Hills

We’re having an unusually early and very deep cold snap, but last week capped a lovely autumn. At the end of the kids’ Thanksgiving vacation, we went for a prairie walk with their grandma (“Baba”) at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Right away Kiran insisted she’d had enough of being with me and her sister over the previous five days, so I was free to walk ahead, listen to the quiet, and take photographic advantage of the prairie and the angle of the sun to the hills. The writer in me thinks I should tell a story, but all I seem to find are expansive horizons, light on grasses, dormant prairie flora in intimate contrast to distant, vibrant children. Reflections on a creek, more vivid than the tiny living fish hiding below the surface. It’s a story for pictures, not words.

Two Winter Haiku

big icicle

Icicles cold and
hard as glass   lose form and threat
infused by sun’s light

Kiran snowball

Seems so powerful,
winter; but spring overcomes
and everything thaws.

The Cartographer’s Daughters Part I

When Rachel’s sister Melora read about Rachel’s book, she wondered if one of the characters were based on herself. We’ll let you guess which one she was hoping for. Sadly, Melora doesn’t appear in any form in Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. But the question inspired Rachel to write a dream she’d had once, which was about Melora, and she thinks she’s pleased with it. (Though one never knows with Rachel, she’s likely to changer her mind tomorrow).

This story is too long for a reasonable post, so we’re going to serialize it. For part II, click here.

Rachel tried to get a photo that would evoke woods at twilight; however, there aren't any woods readily available. She couldn't catch a shot she liked, especially as she was in a hurry to get on with feeding her children dinner. But I've decided to show you this picture of a large gaggle of geese who flew overhead in the process.

Rachel tried to get a photo that would evoke woods at twilight; however, there aren’t any woods readily available. She couldn’t catch a shot she liked, especially as she was in a hurry to get on with feeding her children dinner. But I’ve decided to show you this picture of a magnificent gaggle of geese who flew overhead in the process.

The Cartographer’s Daughters

The best time of day to walk was twilight. Wearing all black, I could blend in with the elongate forms of the trees, stark against the snow in the bareness of winter. No colors could deceive me. There were only black, white, and the velvety indigo blue of twilit shadows. I felt safest in the woods. I could readily see any person who might be present to watch me. The constant flux of weather and the wide openness rendered it impossible that there could be hidden surveillance, not everywhere I could possibly go, and I varied my path daily. I walked as much as possible out of sight lines from the stately residence, which rose out of the woods like a tasteful monument to civilization.

Not that I did anything that could call attention to myself; I never did. But I carried a basket on my arm, for useful herbs, edibles, small treasures that might present themselves, whose nature I would not know until I saw them. I prudently carried water and perhaps a biscuit or some dried fruit, though I knew the woods well and could never be lost there.

My father was a cartographer, but the earth was my home, and I had no need of maps.

As I walked, I was always listening. I heard the crunch of snow under my feet. I heard the chip chip of juncos, and patting of little wings on snow and air. I heard the occasional plot of a bit of snow falling from a twig to the white-blanketed earth. If I froze, stilling even my breath, I could hear between the thumps of my heartbeat the scritch of a mouse below the snow, or the flick of a dreaming squirrel’s tail in a hollow tree.

On this day I heard a new sound. Or rather a sound not heard in these woods for many years, but one I could almost remember having heard once. It was rhythmic, and emanating from deep away from the residence, in the low spot by the stream at its widest, just before it runs into the river. The sound was too rhythmic to be natural, and, like a hawk surveying his territory, I was compelled to investigate.

The woods were denser here, and I didn’t often come close to the water. But I followed the chunking sound, which grew louder as I pushed saplings out of my face and stepped over the sharp, dead stems of hemlock. I knew by now that someone was working wood, here, in the remote, far from any settlement. Finally I saw her. It was my sister.

She was standing atop a large drifted log, wielding an adze, her long cloak pushed back over her shoulders out of the way. I could see her breath puff out in time to the swinging of the tool.

At the sound of my thrashing through the underbrush, she looked up, smiled, and hopped lightly off the log, laying the adze carefully against it. Her booted feet stepped through icy mud as she met me in an embrace.

“I knew you’d find me here.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You’re in danger.”

She pulled back and looked at my face. Her smile flickered and faded, but her eyes remained bright. “It can’t be helped. I’ll work as fast as I can, then move on. I know how to lie low.”

I grimaced reprovingly. “I can hear you half a mile away.”

“Should I burn it out instead? The smoke would be visible for miles. Besides, who’s in a half-mile range, who would notice?”

She had a point. Our father certainly wouldn’t take notice of a far-off noise, if he were to leave the house. More likely he’d be in his study with the maps, oblivious to his enemy so close, on his own property. The only other person within a dozen miles was the housekeeper, Mrs. Horton, and she was so deaf, wild coyotes could howl by her bed and she’d sleep undisturbed.

“It would be faster to make a kayak,” I said.

“I don’t have skins for it, and a tarp wouldn’t be durable enough. I’m going to be on water for a while. It’ll have to be a dugout. I guessed there would be a log around here, after those floods last spring, and fortunately, I was right.”

So wherever she’d been, she’d been following the weather. Where we were standing would have been underwater last spring, and this log had washed down then. I’d known about it, stranded after the water went down, though I hadn’t expected any particular use to come of it, not for humans, at least. But it had been waiting here for her all these months.

“It’s been so long since . . .” I couldn’t finish.

“Yes. But things will change. That’s what I’m doing this for.”

I knew not to ask her to tell me more. It could only increase the danger for both of us. “How can I help you?”

She nodded. “You can bring me some food. Of course I can fend for myself, but the less I have to stop to forage or hunt, the safer I’ll be. Foods that can be transported, that won’t spoil, that don’t need cooking.”

“Surely I could do more for you than that?”

She hesitated. “Yes. There’s one other thing. I need to get into the house.”

I froze. My heart even stopped beating. “There must be another way.” And then it beat again. “Whatever you need, let me bring it to you here.”

“It would be neither feasible nor safe. What I need is for you to find a way to unlock the French doors to Father’s study. I’ll come in late in the night.”

“But–” She knew all the objections. I wasn’t allowed in his study. He would notice anything amiss. He spent most of his waking hours there. If she were caught, what it would mean for her, for both of us– she knew all the objections, yet still she asked. The need was that great. “Yes. I’ll find a way.”

“But tonight I must rest. I’ll continue my work here tomorrow, and come tomorrow night after midnight.”

For the first time I noticed the hollows around her eyes, or was it only the shadows deepening around us?

“Yes. I’ll come tomorrow.”

We embraced again, longer this time. I clung to her like a child, feeling the strength of her heartbeat against my own, wanting it to sustain me as it had in the past.

Alchemy, the oriole, and the bagworm

The ancient alchemists, following the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, had a principle, often stated simply “As above, so below.” Oh, I must be fully honest and confess that I really don’t understand philosophy or these esoteric ideas, but this one is so beautiful and so beautifully illustrated in nature, that I feel a certain affinity with it.

What is it about nature that makes it so immense and intricate? Human creations never approach the beautiful complexity found in forms created by the earth’s powers. There is so much to witness in nature, that it is impossible to comprehend it all. One’s only hope is to be as still and receptive as possible, to let in the greatest number of details. Many such details are only visible in the spring or summer, when life is at its peak of vitality; but keep looking and waiting through the fall and winter to see other things, only visible when summer’s explosion of life has died back.

This week I saw an oriole’s nest, which is often best viewed in winter, when its inhabitants are far distant, and the sheltering leaves have fallen. http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Baltimore-Oriole.html The uniqueness of the oriole’s nest is that it hangs from the branch or branches of the tree, rather like a lady’s purse full of eggs; or, later, baby birds. Presumably the hanging nest affords the best protection from the predators that might prey upon the helpless young, if they could.

Orioles like to eat insects and nectar. It is often said that half an orange will attract orioles to a feeder. Another favorite food of orioles is the bagworm (really a caterpillar). My friend Melch has an elm hedge running the length of his property, and if he neglects to trim it, invariably late summer finds the bagworm population in a state of excess. But he is rewarded for his failure by the brilliant orange and black of a summer visitor, the Baltimore oriole. Oriole comes daily to feast upon the smorgasbord of bagworms, which he apparently has no difficulty extracting from their cases. Here’s a series of pictures of orioles with bagworms.

http://www.cameron-digital.com/posted/oriole/b-oriole-male-1.jpg Here the male perches near a bagworm before eating it, perhaps to say a little grace?

http://www.cameron-digital.com/posted/oriole/b-oriole-male-2.jpg In this photograph, he’s grabbed the bag.

http://www.cameron-digital.com/posted/oriole/b-oriole-female-1.jpg Finally, here’s a shot of his mate, victoriously holding the prize in her beak, having ripped a “worm” from its bag.

And what is the point of all this? Perhaps it’s a stretch, at best, but when I saw the hanging nest, my first thought was that it was an oriole’s nest, which I had seen only in pictures before that day. My second thought was that the nest bore a remarkable similarity to the protective case of the oriole’s chosen food, the bagworm. The similarity doesn’t run deeply, so it may well be a flight of fancy to imagine some kind of symmetry reflected through the behaviors of both predator and prey, as they shift places in the intricate dance of the living earth. It probably is, just as the alchemists have been long discredited. But I’ll like to think that in this little piece of the puzzle of nature, I can see a mutual reflection between the “above” and the “below,” the prey and the predator who becomes prey to some other larger predator; and that the alchemists would have approved.

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