Birds of “Paradise”

If winter in Wisconsin is as cold as Dante’s 9th circle of Hell where Satan dwells, then summer in Wisconsin must be paradise.

This summer has been particularly lovely, especially if you love hot weather or are from the South like I am. We’ve had lots of rain this year, mostly in the afternoons and evenings, enough to keep me from having to water my plants and vegetable garden too much. All that rain has made the yard and landscape look almost tropical it’s so lush and green.

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View from the end of my driveway of an imminent storm.

Unlike the South, however, we rarely worry about terrible humidity. Our dew points regularly have been in the mid-fifties to low sixties, except for a few days. Warm enough to go barefoot, but cool enough to wear a sweatshirt from time-to-time and sit by a campfire without sweltering and getting eaten up by mosquitoes. That’s paradise!

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One of my favorite things in summer here is to open the windows and let in the warm air, sweet smells, and birdsong of summer. We sleep with our windows open from late spring until about the end of July usually or until it gets too hot. That means we wake to Aldo Leopold’s “dawn chorus” of songbirds claiming their territory. A sweeter sound I can’t imagine. Unfortunately, summer is ending soon. Many of the songs we usually hear have disappeared from our early mornings. Some birds remain, like tree swallows and cedar waxwings. They still visit each afternoon to bathe and drink from the stream and pond behind out house and fill the air with their whistles, pops, and clicks.

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cedar waxwings

But most of the birds have raised their young and are gathering food to ready themselves for the trip back south. The maple tree my hubby saved after a storm packing high winds partially uprooted it is standing upright again, but we no longer hear the baby robin that he put back into its nest high up in that maple. Even the sandhill cranes aren’t trumpeting their prehistoric calls much these days. They are still fiercely protective of their young. Here is a family of three that I saw in the field I pass when I walk my dog. Sorry the photo is a bit grainy, but they are fierce so I kept my distance.

sandhill cranes

Other birds that we regularly see and hear at our stream are indigo buntings, goldfinches, yellow warblers, rose-crested grosbeaks, gray catbirds (usually just outside our window), and just two days ago, a rarely sighted scarlet tanager. I wonder if this fascination with birds is a sign of my getting older. My grandmother and Aunt Marion used to watch birds too. I still remember the rimmed baking pan filled with birdseed they set out on the window unit air conditioner. Watching the birds feed there was my first experience of birds up close. Maybe I’m not getting old; maybe I’m only taking time to notice what I once didn’t take the time to see.

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male indigo bunting

One day I will fly south along with these birds. On the heels of summer I will arrive someplace arm to spend the winter snug in my southern home while Wisconsin lies buried under a white blanket and awaits the colorful birds and warm temperatures that turn an icy landscape into a summer paradise again.

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male scarlet tanager

 

Nature Feeds the Muse

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Water Lilies and Cattails in the Pond

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

My life this week has been a reawakening, a slow revelation of moments of natural beauty I have missed buried in student papers and teacher preparation as I was for so long. With my hubby’s help my neglected gardens are coming to life once more, each day showing more of “the pretty” Leopold talks about. False indigo flowering, Onondoga Viburnam and pagoda dogwood flowers, potentilla, dianthus, and roses unfolding.

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Pagoda Dogwood Blossom

This past weekend thunderstorms rolled into my area of Wisconsin and reminded me what true power looks and feels like. Raccoons, chipmunks, deer, hawks, snakes, mice, butterflies, and songbirds too varied to mention are making my backyard home. The river is full and fast, and the deer flies and horseflies are plentiful. These days I smell like a piquant combination of Coppertone Sport sunscreen and Deep Woods Off just to keep my skin from burning and the bugs from biting. Stella and I are fixtures on the roads in the morning  where we routinely walk 5 miles, and I’m sure the bugs expect a free meal.

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After the storm sunset in Wisconsin

For the first time since I left school, I finally don’t feel like I have papers to grade or the coming week to prepare for. I have had time this week to see, to notice, to experience my corner of the world without preoccupation. I have paid attention both to my surroundings but also to my writing, my art. One feeds the other. I feel inspired to write when I’m running or gardening, and those moments of introspection feed my writing. I can think when I’m engaged in a repetitive activity or one that only requires  the body to be engaged and leaves the mind to wander and romp. Through gardening I create gorgeous natural scenes, flowers and trees, frequented by birds and butterflies, hummingbirds and deer. Nature feeds the muse.

What at first drew me to writing was, in fact, the same thing that drew me to gardening, “the pretty” that Leopold talks about.  I tried to understand how to craft a beautiful turn of phrase. When I was in college, I majored in English. I read A LOT: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Alice Walker, Faulkner, Shakespeare. These authors expanded my mind and allowed me a glimpse of what was possible with the written word.

But the book that spoke to me was Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s writing blew me away, so much so that I committed passages of it to memory, particularly this one: “His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

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Onondaga Viburnum Flowers

“The pretty” of Fitzgerald’s words and Shakespeare’s and Thomas Hardy’s and countless others initially pulled me into the world of words and communicating ideas through writing, but something happened to me when I began to appreciate what authors did. I found myself wanting to become one. Over and over I would read and try to figure out what authors I admire did to involve me in the stories they wove. Reading became a study in technique, but often I became so immersed in the stories  I lost myself there. I ended books without a clear idea of how the author crafted scenes, characters, or dialogue. Now I work to remain aloof from the story to understand before I become emotionally involved. Sometimes it is harder than others to do so. That is when I know I’m reading a masterful writer.

I don’t know if writers, the really good ones, understand what they are doing when they write. I’m still finding that out about myself and my writing.  When I feel the muse take hold. I itch to get some niggling thought out of my brain and express it. Where I believe the muse and craft of writing come into play is in the transcribing of whatever the idea is into eloquence. How do you take a raw idea, even if it is just a whiff of an idea and translate its essence into words?  That is the task, one which is utterly difficult and ultimately fulfilling.

Here is how  Wisconsin author, David Rhodes, describes the feeling of a writer–this time a songwriter–trying to express an original idea in his book Driftless (one of my favorites).  “The feeling inside her had never been expressed before, yet it longed for expression and had chosen Gail to accomplish the deed. It was jiggling out of the primal psychic strands of whatever memories and passions made her. She had been chosen, and though she couldn’t quite hear it yet, she felt the inspiration trying to make a sound through her. It wished to be born.” He pretty much captures it.

Grappling with ideas that have chosen me is what I’ve chosen to commit my life to. I will still try to express “the pretty,” (that’s the seductive, fun part) but even the ugliness of life will find expression in my prose. I want to be a faithful steward of words, to capture the ineffable yearnings of the human spirit to make them accessible to all, to transcribe the smells, sights, feelings, tastes, and sounds of my corner of the world so that through my words others can find their way into the beauty of art but also through  their own poignant struggles, recognizing those “values as yet uncaptured by language.”

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False Indigo