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Shortest Month

Sunlight is just beginning to creep down the western ridge., the day is bright at 7, the sky is free of clouds, save the few dark pink puffs of them, sailing along my southern horizon.

A small flock of juncos flits around the lilacs and explores the porch. We used to call them snowbirds since they seem to arrive before a snow. I’ve always imagined them flying in from some vast polar tundra, prescient harbingers, warning of rough weather. I like their creamy vests and 2 bright white tail feathers. The way they are always in a bunch.

A male cardinal is picking small somethings from the azalea right below my window. There is a pair of them. The female has flown up and is watching him from a lilac tree. She flutters back and forth from her tree to his bush. They sit together for a moment then fly off in opposite directions, he into the grape vine above the porch, she off towards the barn.

The bluejays have now arrived in force, cacophonous cries can be heard even from within this closed up house, they are jiggling branches, zooming everywhere. A chickadee makes her way along a lower branch of the maple next to the house The cardinal is back in the azalea, now exploring the ground along the house where the snow has melted.

All at once they are gone.

I’ve seen this before, many times: a fleeting convocation of birds. There may be a formal name for this sort of motley and various bird gathering that can melt away as fast as it forms. Sometimes one happens upon it. Like last summer when I was crossing the foot bridge across Fuller Brook and stopped to watch, (was stopped by!), an astounding gathering of warblers (warblers dress up in many colors, the black and white warblers are stupendous and dapper, and there are muted and bright olives and yellows, and blush pinks). Added to this mix was a flock of cedar waxwings. They (the birds) zipped and zoomed past and around me as if I didn’t exist. I could hear their sound of their wings as they passed within inches of my head. It would not have surprised me if one or several had paused to perch upon my head or shoulders, they were that close and familiar. Some were taking baths in shallow pools at the edge of the brook, others feeding on berries and insects, there was lots of socializing, conversation and song. I felt as if I had entered a fairy ring and was watching dancing frogs. Elves sitting on toadstools playing fiddles. It was that astounding.

Why these congregations happen interests me very little. I can imagine lots of mechanistic reasons for them to occur. I once watched the most diverse group of songbirds mobbing a screech owl, the cause of the gathering in this case was obvious. The owl sat within the apple tree cavity, eyes shut fast, still as stone. It was spring and the tree was filled with pale pink bloom, flowers and branches quivering, alive with little birds. I remember the morning well, I was late to work, but stood stock still, feasting on the sight. In general, I seem content to let mysteries sit unsolved or reveal themselves as they will. The difference between myself and ethologists such as Franz de Waal.

[How much better to watch a bud unfold than to pry it open? Just now I am reading some Descartes, (possibly the person most responsible for both the way “science” is defined and executed, and the way in which humans mentally and physically approach the world.)]

Today will be bright and there will be melting going on. Yesterday Zora, Baby, Mama, Laure and I tramped through the snow, across the field, along the brook, over the bridge, and into the woods. We sank and stumbled through the crusty melt. It was a struggle for the goats as well. At one point Mama began to complain in the quiet moaning way she has, so I headed back with them. Below the apple trees there had been some digging going on and an unearthing of rotten fruit. Rabbit, and deer, and bear (!) tracks were everywhere, great big piles of bear shit filled with apples! I wondered about whether this early emergence from hibernation was a concern, but mostly thought about the bear, and her particular life, the process of this huge beast finding some safe place to settle into such a long, deep and mysterious sleep. I believe that she must have dreamed, her brain running through past experiences, tracing the maps of her mind as dreams will do.

As bears hibernate, their hearts slow to as little as 4 beats per minute. They experience a profound sinus arrhythmia: when they breathe in, their heart stops. But during this period of winter stupor, they also experience periods of wakefulness, their heart rate may speed up to almost 200 beats per minute. When the sows give birth in the darkest part of the winter, they will awaken a little, but once their cubs are safely nursing, the mother sinks into the most profound part of her hibernation. The resulting stillness lessens the risk of her rolling on her cubs.

The brook ice is melting fast, water is rushing over the beaver dams. The beavers have made smooth paths with their tails. The paths have become deep troughs as the snow pack shrinks. They remind me of those worn in the soft stone of the New Mexico mesas by thousands…millions of Anasazi feet. At one spot along the stream there is an otter slide. With luck, someday, I will come across an otter sledding and slipping into the water.

The alder catkins are blooming. Somewhere I bet the bright yellow flowers of the witch hazels are unfurling. And outside, just now, I can hear the spring song of a titmouse.

Solstice Gifts

“…I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed

there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

–Henry David Thoreau

Close to dusk, I stop to watch at least sixty turkeys, sipping and grazing in the sun-slanted, evergreen woods. The flock is a shifting mosaic of iridescent browns, greens, and purples against the still, white ground. As they head uphill to my right, I pick out last year’s babies.

I walk into the Cheshire house on Solstice Eve, picking my way over the treacherous ice. The door opens and ashes, alight with glittering red-gold coals, are scattered out onto my path. Glowing lights to mark my way and keep me safe. Brilliance in the dark. I am reminded of bioluminescent phytoplankton shimmering in a black sea. I say to the being who was doing the scattering: A solstice miracle. “Yes,” the being answers.

On Solstice morning my Up-the-River neighbor Betty writes of the “marbleized end papers of pink and blue in the eastern sky, at 7:06.” She tells of a raven she saw yesterday wandering the field in back of her house. When Betty is outside and sees a raven fly over she calls out a greeting. As it flies over my house, on its way further down the valley, I do the same. In this way, the raven links us.

In our family, magic visits on solstice eve. I sleep in Cheshire in order to be present for gift opening. Tomorrow the day will be longer, and each day after, longer still. I will mark the sun’s journey north along the western slope behind my house. The crows wake me well before dawn. I can hear the children rustling around in the room next door, opening their stockings.

5 year old Itzel heard “big” footsteps in the night. Santa Claus is proclaimed to be bear.

8 year old Maple sends me her painting of Night giving birth to the Sun, “after she has rocked her, all night long.”

Her mother Dena sends me a picture of their solstice seed mandala, assembled by candlelight.

When we walk out of the house on this bright morning, my daughter notices that the hemlocks have opened their tiny cones and released their seeds. Hemlock seeds by the thousands pepper the frozen ground. It takes our breath away that this would have happened on winter’s brow. Small signals of hope in a hard time, a strewn offering to the future from our beloved, dying hemlock giants.

In nearby Cummington Stacey shows me a Cecropia moth chrysalis which hangs folded into a leaf on a young maple in her yard. It is waiting for spring. I imagine the giant Saturnid emerging from this modest brown package, unfolding its glorious wings, drying them in the warm spring sun. All the other leaves on the tree have long since fallen. The caterpillar, in its wisdom, has glued her own winter home to the branch.

Shortest Days

Sitting at the kitchen table, watching the sunlight pour down the western ridge.

A flock of fat bluejays explores the garden around the house, a titmouse, junco and cardinal are in the azalea by the porch. Now the cardinal is in the lilac. What a treat to see his deep, sleek red. This little feathered flurry around the house and porch, the exploring of its nooks and crannies seems like a morning greeting of sorts.

The sky before sunrise was a quiet, milky white. Transformed by dawn into pink, drifty clouds sailing against a sudden blue. Color bleeds from the southeast across the entire southern sky. A miracle of sorts.

But life seems increasingly fickle and fleeting, like the waning days. It is cold now. I watch the wood pile shrink. The circle contracts. Reality shifts. I live mostly in the kitchen. I tape up the doors against the wind. Hang blankets, lower blinds. Summer seems a distant world, a place where I once lived but can barely remember.

The sun travels a shallow arc, skirting the southern horizon. When clouds part, light pours into the house at a steep, sharp slant. Land glows with a brilliance that cannot be matched by the glare of midsummer. Clover the cat follows the light as it moves from window to window.

Daylight fails. It feels as if time is both sped up and stood still. A profound and sudden darkness settles over the landscape. The sunset colors are fierce. Stunning and brief. Soon the moon will be full. Well after sundown, she emerges from behind the hills across the river, a bent circle, white and cold. Stars crackle and spin in the rarified air. The Milky Way burns a path across the sky. Coyote song sets the constellations into a sparkling, shivering tremor.

First Snow

The barn is a big, rambling, rangy place of many doors and rooms, salvaged beams and planks jerry built onto an old stone foundation sunk against a hill. The barn swallow nests are empty now but the mice have moved in and a skunk lives under the floor upstairs. A wild rabbit sleeps in the hayloft. One can follow her neat snow path which leads under the door. When I brush her dry, marbley droppings off of the bales, they hit strings salvaged from an old piano. It sounds like the angels are playing their harps. In the late morning, if the day is clear, the sun pours into the stall and warms the paddock.

Mama goat rears her head, flicks her tail and flaps her big Nubian ears at me as I tumble bales of shavings down the steep barn stairs. She stands on her hind legs and tucks her chin, showing me her horns. I, in turn, rear up and dance around in what I assume to be a goat-like way. Mama looks baffled. Baby, meanwhile, is busy ripping open the shavings bag. He paws at it then tears at it with his horns then looks to me for a scolding. He jumps onto an unopened bale of hay. The mane on his neck and shoulders stands erect. He dares me to push him off. Until recently, the meningeal worm that infected his brainstem prevented him from jumping on things or even walking in a straight line. After months of treatment, he can now play, his coat is glossy and thick. He has regained his strength. Although he is a fully mature wether, and sports a ridiculous beard, Baby (aka Yarrow) still behaves like a baby. He hides behind his mother when he hears the coyotes howl.

I think that goats like the tidy sound of their hooves when they trip trap along on hard surfaces. In the fall, I would take them for walks in the forest. They loved to dawdle on the bridge, clip clop back and forth, pause to look down at the water below. I call them Billy Goats Gruff.

When they play in the grain room they rear at each other and gently butt heads. It is a precision dance, performed as a ritual: Each goat lands simultaneously after a threatened head butt. The landing accompanied by a bright, percussive sound. Recently I laid down a walkway of wooden planks across the muddy paddock so that I could push the wheelbarrow more easily. The goats love to travel this little boardwalk, I think they like the sound their hooves make on the wood. I listen to their busy footfalls as I work nearby.

When I leave after morning or evening chores, Baby and Mama bawl and call in plaintive, moaning tones. “Please come back! Come brush us! Come play! Take us for a walk! Stay!” This pulls at my heart. If they could sleep in bed with me, they happily would. There have been times they’ve come into the house. As chaos-making as it is, it’s fun to watch them jump onto the couch, pull plants from a pot, wander the house with pure curiosity and even climb the stairs!

It has been snowing since early morning. The temperature hovers around freezing and there is no wind. The flakes are big and coming down steadily. The day holds the softness and silence of the first real snow. The world holds its breath. It seems fitting that today is the day that the goats discovered that they love peppermint candy!

William the pony is an old hand in the business of peppermint love. His soft, furry ears perk at the sound of the plastic wrapper crinkling when I unwrap a piece. I enjoy his enjoyment, the sound of the hard candy shattering between his molars each time I feed him one, I remember how our big bay mare, Panga, would savor the candy for minutes and stick out the tip of her tongue as she sucked. I never once heard her crunch.

This is the time of the year when one yearns to give presents: peppermints to pony and goats, a walnut or two for the mice, a carrot for the rabbit who sleeps in the hay. Sunflower seed trickled down a chipmunk hole.

I come in for lunch but will go back out later into the dusky woods. The beaver families should be safely ensconced in their lodges, I know that they have been busy cutting saplings and storing food. It has been a halcyon year for beech nuts and acorns, fattening the bears, chipmunks, turkeys, grouse and deer. The blue jays are sleek and plump. Fallen logs in the forest dotted with tiny sit spots, marked by semicircular piles of nutshell fragments. I look out at the world from my warm kitchen; some smallish, fox-sized animal catches my eye as it disappears around the corner of the barn. I watch my neighbor’s daughter glide off on skis across their hay field. She is accompanied by two tail-wagging dogs.

As winter approaches I take note on how my own world curls around itself. I stay mostly in the kitchen now into which I have recently moved a couch. I put on a coat in order to play the piano in the living room. My bedroom is unheated and very cold. The bed is piled with extra blankets. Twenty-year-old Clover, sleeps the end of her life away in the chair by the fire that is hers. A whisker shivers, a paw twitches, an ear flicks. What is going on in her cat dreams?

In mid-December, the border between outside and inside hardens. Boots require warming, mittens drying. One cannot dash out on a whim. I keep a close eye on the woodpile, figure the weeks and months until spring, fire up the stove in the living room only on special occasions. Outside, life hides in hollow trees, beneath roots and stone walls, in tunnels that wind below a protective blanket of snow. Grouse make snow caves.

Zora and I set off on our walk. The world is mostly white now, no longer showing glimpses of purpley brown and green. Each and every twig and branch is edged in white. Still-standing sunflowers wear peaked snow caps. The mountains on the other side of Fuller brook are obscured by a curtain of white. The snow is coming down hard.

Crossing Paths

Last night a cat crossed my path.

I had taken the wrong turn and was lost somewhere in the middle of Berkshire County, driving through an unfamiliar river valley:

The mountains are black against a misty moon filled sky. The car’s gas gauge veers toward empty.

Directional instincts most always mislead me so I know that I am more likely to be heading in the wrong direction as the right. Above the steep valley walls, the moon divulges little hint of east or west. Somehow I trust that the way home will be revealed. And if not, I tell myself, I can always stop and wake some sleeping family and ask them where I am. I can even sleep in my car, covering myself with the dog’s blanket from the backseat.

The road gets smaller and more cobbley. I follow a sharp right curve across a narrow stone bridge then up a hill and into a winding town. Up ahead a white cat hurries across the road. I recognize it as a cat by her manner of motion: body and head ride still upon a rapid whir of legs; and her color: there are no white wild animals in this part of New England at this time of the year. From a distance, the cat looks like a tiny windup toy. As I approach, I expect her to speed to a trot or a leaping gallop, but she does not.

Closer up this cat is lithe, small and scruffy. She moves with deliberation, heading towards a specific place with a particular goal in mind. From her body type and attitude, I guess that she is connected to a human family that allows her to wander out into this moon filled night. Unlike myself, she is most certainly not lost.

If a black cat is bad luck then what is a white cat? What luck does a scruffy white cat hold for the passing traveler? Is she a talisman for my travels? Does scruffiness detract from luck? As I head up the mountain and out of town, my mind wanders from thoughts of this particular cat and her nighttime adventures to human beliefs regarding black and white, bad and good magic, and the prejudice that our own culture holds against the dark.

Darkness of depth, unknowable things, mystery, safe hiding places, a space for dreams. Cracks in a wall, a tunnel beneath the ground. Things you cannot see. Another way of seeing things, or feeling them: an alternative spinning of a story. What is it like to have whiskers, hear ultrasound, have magnetic sight, what if you were able to hear a hurricane from a hundred miles away? Or feel a mouse sneeze from behind a door? Darkness, a path from one world into another. The resetting of an inner clock.

What is path crossing anyway? Whose path is it? Does the path crossing occur before or after one has gone by? Did I cross the cat’s path or did she cross mine? It is a path crossing, boundary blurring time of the year. The sun is at a slant, the shadows are long and a day without clouds flashes with sudden brevity. Meanderings, wanderings, byways, lost ways. Low clouds drift by in the dying day, columns of mist float down the river like ghostly giants. Losing the trail. Losing one’s way. Rustling grass, skittering leaves.  A scratching in the wall. A knocking on the side of the house. Feeling your way in the dark. Hiding things. Stashing things. Forgetting where you put the things you’ve piled against winter’s cold.

Do we leave a trail of something behind us, a piece of ourselves behind as we zip or crawl, swim, run, wander, drift or fly through this world?  The tail of a meteor, the track of a bear. Thunder reports the collisions of clouds. An expanding ripple, the beaver’s dive. Water laps against the shore. Evidence of things no longer present; palpable memories that deepen and elucidate the mystery of time and space.

The cat who crossed my path dropped one white hair in the alleyway as she headed home. A deer mouse wove that hair into her winter nest hidden beneath a leaf filled drain by the crumbling brick wall of a house on East Main Street in a town whose name I do not know.

What does the moon leave behind as she passes through the night sky? A haze of excited photons or something more?

I did eventually find my way home, my car on empty. I encountered no other creatures, human or non. Fell into bed and read about moss until I slept. Woke up at 1 on a pile of pillows and turned off the light. Mosses do not have roots. They depend upon a micro layer of water to coat their leaves. Without this minuscule aquatic blanket the moss becomes dormant. It sleeps. Of what do mosses dream? They dream of water, of course, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of the book Gathering Moss.

Although the barred owls have stopped their hooting, the coy-wolves have been howling through the night so the dark is full of energy and sound, some of it alarming, all of it strange and supercharged with wild power. My cat rises up on the bed when she hears them. Tail bushed, hair up, she stares at the window, and her growl comes out as a low hum.  Zora my dog presses close and silent against my body. There is a skittering in the wall of my bedroom. It is a productive rustling, coming from someone bigger than a mouse. I welcome the company as I stir in my bed.

The crickets have fallen silent now and the tree frogs too. It is finally too cold for them. Last week’s torrential rains washed out the uppermost beaver dam. Yet again, as is always the case in beaver territory, the world of land and water has changed dramatically. The upper pond has drained, upstream the brook is now free flowing. Shores of sand and mud  are exposed. Islands emerge that have previously been under water, drowning trees are given a chance to live. Observing this rapidly evolving topography is like watching a time lapse movie in miniature of epochal geographic change. The beaver lodge is revealed to its base and will have to be abandoned, not a welcome prospect for a beaver living at the edge of winter.

Yesterday I found a nice fresh series of bear tracks on the sand by the stream. The great blue heron has forsaken my field for this newly revealed riparian environment. I go on my daily run along the stream.  A sudden flash of blue startles me as this giant bird flies up with a loud flapping. Navigating the trees with grace, she flies downstream. Low along the water, she sets down her long legs, folds her wings and settles to hunt a little further on. At dusk the wood ducks call and haloo in their pipey voices. The sunsets trend towards red, orange and crimson. The dark falls faster and more absolutely with each day. The woods are mostly bare now, save the oaks and beeches which continue their fade from green to gold. The moss by the path absorbs the cold mist that now cloaks our valley. It is at its most green.

The rushing sound of the river travels from across the road and penetrates the silence of the house.



It is becoming blustery. I am sitting on the porch watching a great blue heron in the field, willing myself to be as still and patient as she. Mostly she is motionless, but occasionally I am rewarded by a shake of the head, a turning, an opening and closing of the bill, a stretching or contraction of the long, sigmoidal neck. The bird’s long legs which allow her to wade through water and tall grass look fragile and awkward through my binoculars. When she flies from one spot to the next, they dangle underneath her like an airplane’s landing gear, tucked up close against her body only as an afterthought. But now she is standing still as a tree, head slightly cocked, watching for movement in the grass. The royal cascade of grey feathers from throat to chest and the cape-like hood over her muscular wings gives the bird a mythic, godlike quality. A bright yellow eye in the middle of a black stripe. A soft grey cap of feathers shoots backwards from a streamlined head adding to her fabulous style.

Clouds move high and fast across the sky. Shadows pass over field and forest like a time lapse film. Shape shifting as the light changes, valleys, hummocks and trees are illuminated. They seem to rush by as the heron stands still, at the center of the stage. When the sun hits her, she gleams.

The chokecherry tree in the field underneath which I buried my old cat, Daffodil, is clapping the last of its golden leaves. The forest beyond the beaver ponds is warm with orange, scarlet, pink, and copper.

Animals like the heron that are born to bide their time: what does she think as she stands motionless and waiting? What poise and concentration is needed in order to detect a scurried movement or a glimmer of scales? What is time to the heron? Does her mind wander? I find it challenging to watch and wait alongside this creature. I am a part time, partial observer:  I fidget, I write, I read. I think of other things. I look up to find my subject has moved. Now there is only a disembodied snake like neck poking up above the shoulder deep field grass, her head turns one way and then the other. Is she listening?

Yesterday my daughter Atalanta found five-year-old Itzel standing stock still in the middle of the kitchen, his eyes were closed. She left him to himself until he opened his eyes and began to move about. What were you doing? she asked. “I was feeling what it is like to be dead. Now I know.” He has been talking about wanting to know what it is like to die but without the staying dead part.

The crickets are still singing but their music has reduced from a symphony into a series of quiet songs. Last night the katydids still sang at dusk. The children and I notice bats at sunset, and a long line of geese high in the sky just after the sky turns a soft scarlet gold.

A chickadee has landed on a branch just above my head. She is singing a “who are you” song. Short trilling bursts. A black squirrel chitters as he approaches me, fingers splayed, descending the maple, jumping onto the porch railing. Down in the field, a porcupine follows the stone wall. Her gait is stilted and deliberate. She grazes among the brambles. I look up to see the heron take off. She circles in slow, beating flight then heads off down the valley.