Seabird Congregation

We were walking at dusk on a long spit north of Bellingham Bay when we saw them and stopped–several swarms of seabirds, flying over the water close to shore. Each swarm (or as I have since learned, a “stand,” a “wing,” or a “congregation”) contained hundreds of small birds, likely sandpipers or plovers. Each group swept back and forth as a single unit, staying in formation.

When they made a turn, the whole group flashed from a dark gray to a bright white, showing a side or upper part of their bodies. Like synchronized flashing cards in a football stadium–except these birds were much more precise. The setting sun, Lummi Island across the bay, a tanker just barely visible on the horizon–they all faded away as we stood on a low bank beside the water and watched the show.

And then we heard them also–we were close enough to hear just a slight rustling of their wings, a soft whisper, as they passed. Occasionally one would pop out of the top of the group like a kernel of popcorn being tossed up and out of the group, but eventually would make its way back into the cloud.

The tide was high, covering the huge expanse of mudflats visible earlier in the day. They feed on those mudflats at low tide. We have since learned that this flying is largely a defensive action. The group will tighten into a small core when threatened by a raptor–and no raptor would dare attack such a unit. With no danger in sight, it still appeared to be a “comfortable” formation for them.

For me? Yet another picture and sound I’ve fixed in my memory!

In the fascination of the moment, I didn’t think to grab a camera, but here’s a beautiful video (with music) from a cameraman in England capturing the same kind of experience, but with starlings instead of seabirds. It’s worth watching!

A Flock of Leaves

Madrona trees skirting a saltwater beach and holding back a stand of fir trees.

Madrona trees skirting a saltwater beach and holding back a stand of fir trees.

I couldn’t make sense out of it. How could a young man shoot down ten people in a church, killing nine of them, simply because of the color of their skin? Simply because they were different from him? Setting aside the loss and horror, the act was strange, unnatural, and it unsettled me. And yet as I thought about it, I could see similar symptoms in other parts of our country.

The next day, two days before the solstice signaling the start of summer, I took my walk along the bay. I was glad I’d worn a sweater–the morning had missed the Summer’s Here! message and it was chilly.

Suddenly I stopped–just ahead of me was a huge old madrona tree beside the water. A gust of wind had shaken just the top of the tree and what looked like a flock of hundreds of birds flew up into the air and over the water. Were they birds or leaves? This was not a falling leaves season. They hovered high in the air, even above the tree, for just a few moments. Would they fly off to a friendlier beach? Then they fluttered down ever so gently onto the water, answering my question. I stood there for a minute or two, wondering at what I had seen.

Several diseases have hit many of our madrona trees in the past decade or two. These beautiful trees, our only native broadleafed evergreen tree, are often found beside saltwater bays. They have a shaggy, stringy bark that falls off to reveal a glossy, smooth, golden brown trunk. It’s sad to see them start losing leaves, then limbs, until only an old stump remains. I’ve noticed several dead ones along my walk over the years, including one on my beach.

Was this just a normal dropping of leaves or was it the beginning of the end for the tree, one of the few healthy ones remaining on this stretch of beach?

Diseases can spread and kill–a tree or a group of people.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Lopez Island point</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;


Everyone wants to make connections, even an introvert like me. And yet we rarely meet many of our neighbors–those people who live closest to us. That may all change here in my neighborhood. Some thoughtful neighbor hooked us up with an online neighborhood network. People passed the word, started to register at the site, and we soon passed the 50 member mark. Now we’re at a whopping 87 members. This particular network uses for each title the first word, “Nextdoor,” followed by the name of the community. I’m guessing there are other similar neighborhood network sites as well. I think it’s a terrific idea!

Sure, it’s a way to get acquainted, to make friends, but it also serves as a neighborhood crime watch, a lost and found site, a spot to advertise your garage sale or old truck, and a place to bring up matters of general concern for the neighborhood. And I’m loving reading the messages from these interesting people!

One of the first was a man who had found a shoe at the high tide line on his beach, “brown, strap, covered toes, and a marking on the sole, Primo.”

One neighbor described her year-old-puppy Oscar and asked that should anyone find him out wandering from time to time to please call her. It was a vivid description of the pup and her problems with restraining him, and then she added, “That being said 1 more important request if anyone has found 1/2 of blue glass dangle earring….”

My favorites, though, were this trio of comments about a deer wandering through our neighborhood:

“Just saw a yearling Doe walking on the road by my house on Tukwilla and Brauer! I ran out to my field and sure enough, it had jumped my fence and walked thru the field into the woods.”

“Awesome!! We see deer hoof prints in our front yard. An occasional nibble on the rose bushes. One night we looked out and there were two in our front yard. We love the wildlife here! So beautiful!”

And then a comment from another neighbor, not so enchanted with the doe’s beauty:

“That dang deer has now eaten every single apple off our two trees and won’t stay out of our garden…..” I was sympathetic–that doe had wandered through my yard and nibbled off the top of my favorite rosebush!

The potential for socializing is amazing. One couple offered to host a wine-tasting in their home. Another, the owner of wandering Oscar, suggested a big clambake, or maybe a “beach crawl,” where people could walk the beach meeting and visiting with neighbors along the way. At the end of this, she added, “Seriously, no one has seen my Egyptian glass earring…..?’

Me? I put in a notice about a big sealed bid auction in my garage and carport this weekend. Not sure how many neighbors will show up, but eight people thanked me for the notice!

We complain loudly about how online communication has separated us. I will be waiting to see if this online communication site will bring us together.

Creepy Crawlies

We’ve got some hungry caterpillars around here, but they’re not Eric Carle’s caterpillars. Remember his story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar? That little cutie eats more and more food all week long until Saturday when he puts away so much junk food that he ends up with a tummy ache. What happens Sunday? He eats one big green leaf and is all better, builds a cocoon, and turns into a beautiful butterfly.

All caterpillars are generally voracious feeders (they’ve been described as “eating machines”) and they’re usually “herbivorous,” or plant-eating. Carle’s idea for his story was a good one.

Our tent caterpillars,, herbivorous and extremely voracious eaters, don’t turn into beautiful butterflies, however. Every 10-12 years or so, we have an invasion and they can defoliate a tree in less time than it takes to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar–or so it seems. They especially enjoy birch, alder, willow, ornamental and fruit trees, as well as rosebushes.

Instead of building cocoons, they build silky tents in the trees where they hang out at night. They spend their days munching on new green leaves. A friend’s daughter, Lisa Iaroslavtsev, shot this great photo on Marrowstone Island a few weeks ago.

Lisa'scaterpillarsWe go into lock down mode when we see an invasion on the horizon. It generally lasts two to three years, although they’re only feeding on our trees in the spring and early summer, just as the new leaves emerge. The first year is manageable–maybe a nest here and there. This year was a second season for us. I went out every other morning before the caterpillars were out of bed and picked them off with my fingers or clipped off a few small nests, or “tents.” Occasionally I needed to use the long-handled pruner to get a high nest. Next year, unless this was our big year, will be full scale invasion and I’ll do an every morning inspection.

Chemical sprays can harm beneficial insects and birds, but many people use some of the safer biological sprays that have been developed. Some untreated wooded areas become caterpillar jungles. Friends tell stories of caterpillars so thick in a more remote area of our county one year that the roads were brown and slippery with them.

Next winter after the fruit trees are pruned, I’ll go through and look for their egg cases. They look like small gray Styrofoam patches on the branches, easy to peel off and throw in the garbage (they can survive and hatch if left on the ground).

I turned over the alder trees down by the bay to the critters this year. The irony is that by simply letting them live and defoliate the trees, they can run out of meals–and their predators (a small wasp) will develop and then kill them, and the infestation will end. The defoliation doesn’t usually kill the tree, but it can alarm the neighbors.

Nests in the upper branches of trees by the bay

Nests in the upper branches of trees by the bay

And it can make us go just a little crazy. Last year when six-year-old Tessa next door proudly showed me her “pet” caterpillar she was carrying around, it was all I could do to not grab it, throw it to the ground, and stomp on it.

Give me a wooly bear any day–now there’s one cute caterpillar!

The Sun, the Moon, and Cucumbers

If you’ve ever admired the classical statue of a young nude man, you might have been admiring Adonis. This demi-god the Greeks inherited from the Phoenicians was a very handsome young man with quite a complicated history, but what interests me today is that he was a god of fertility, connected with vegetation. Adonis has obviously been smiling on my one little cucumber plant, which is coming along quite nicely–unlike previous years’ pathetic efforts.

The Potter has always had an uncanny gift of finding books I would like at garage sales. When he recently gave me Sacred Voices: Essential Women’s Wisdom Through the Ages, I wasn’t so sure. As I started reading, however, I realized he’d picked another winner.

Mary Ford-Grabowsky, the editor who gathered all these quotes (arranged in chronological order), revealed in her introduction that she had for many years collected wise quotations, sticking them up inside her cupboard and closet doors. After several moves (and dismantling the sticky notes), she realized that almost all the authors were men. Why?

You’re right–for centuries, men believed women had nothing worth recording, so very few of their words survived.

But one early recording she quoted really caught my eye. Praxilla was a Greek poet in 450 B.C. In her poem “Adonis,” she voices Adonis’s answer to the question put to him by the Shades of the Underworld when he dies: “What was the most beautiful thing you left behind?”

Most beautiful

of all the things that I have left

is the light of the sun;

next, gleaming stars

and the face of the moon.

Then cucumbers in the summer,

and apples and pears.

What wonderful images of cucumbers, apples and pears as connected to the stars and the moon. And, of course, the question posed to Adonis, “What was the most beautiful thing you left behind?”

Praxilla was a prolific poet, but almost none of her poetry survived, which I find incredibly sad. This poem did. Why? Because, as Ford-Grabowsky explains, “These lines endured because Zenobius quoted them in his dictionary of proverbs to explain the maxim ‘Sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.’ Only a simpleton, he added, could put cucumbers in the same poem with the sun and the moon.'” A simpleton? Or perhaps a gifted poet, you silly man.

And what will be the most beautiful things you leave behind?


Orchard Spirits, Spinster Sisters

“Spinster” simply doesn’t do it anymore. Did it ever? Somewhere out there floating around in Etymology Land is a yet-to-be-born word that will describe women who choose not to marry. These women often live vibrant lives, sometimes devoted to careers they love, to close friends and family, and to a sense of fierce independence and adventure.

When we moved into our house 45 years ago, I had two different sets of spinster sisters who lived close by to demonstrate to me that the word “spinster” simply didn’t cut it. Both sets were Norwegian.

Mabel and Aleda were older. They both had retired from careers–a nurse and a teacher, as I recall. They wore their waist-length gray hair in buns or braided and coiled up on their heads. Kind, spritely, they became just a bit eccentric as they grew older. Aleda called me a couple times to come over and wash dishes for her–she had fallen behind and couldn’t catch up. Frankly, as I grow older, I don’t identify this so much as “eccentric” anymore–I recognize that feeling of being overwhelmed!

Janet and Alice, however, are the spinster sisters who have been on my mind. They lived next door to Mabel and Aleda, and only two houses away from us. Actually, they lived in Seattle, but their father, when they were children, had bought a five acre piece of property here on Liberty Bay and built a small vacation cabin for his family.

We only saw Janet and Alice during the summers when the weather was warm. They’d arrive in their big blue Volvo station wagon that they’d bought while on a European tour. They were still working jobs, so they took “vacations” over here–sprucing up the cabin, pulling weeds, and mowing the grass around the cabin with a push mower. Sometimes they planted a new little fruit tree. They always had time to visit. They plodded over in their old work shoes on a narrow path that connected our houses. We talked about how much the beans had grown, whether the little fig tree would bear this year, and the Stellar’s Jay that kept them company. Sturdy women! We would see them in their old swimsuits, heading for the cold water of the bay after a warm day of work. As the years passed, however, they came less often. They hired a neighbor boy to mow occasionally.

Mabel died first, and then Aleda. A few years later, Janet was gone, and then Alice. A young family moved into Mabel and Aleda’s house, but the blackberries, ivy, and weeds grew up and took over Janet and Alice’s five acres the next few years. The path that I used to take to get to their cabin grew impassable with blackberry vines.

A birch tree Janet and Alice brought from Europe.

A birch tree Janet and Alice brought from Europe.

Within the last two years, however, their nephew, not a young man, has begun clearing the property–but in no way is he “clear-cutting.”

“I’ve had people tell me I just need to bulldoze it, but I’m not going to do that–I want to see what my ancestors planted,” he told me. He estimates he has about 30 fruit trees there. He’s grubbed out around them, dug out dozens of thorny little Hawthorn trees and piles of blackberry vines. He’s pounded in fertilizer spikes around the old fruit trees and started to prune them. Like his aunts, he seldom comes during the wet winter months, but when the weather turns warm, he shows up–driving that old blue station wagon. He has gradually reclaimed the orchards.

You can see where the brush has been cleared and even some grass planted.

You can see where the brush has been cleared and even some grass planted.

I’m sad to see the wilderness go–it likely was home and protection to a lot of birds and small animals. This spring, however, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I glanced out the window and saw fruit tree blossoms between the bigger fir trees. The spirits of his aunts move among those blossoms.

I'm grateful for a few areas he has left wild.

I’m grateful for a few areas he has left wild.

Garden Poetry

Do you grow poetry in your garden? I’m guessing you might. One of my favorite poems to read to my children when they were young was “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear, famous for his nonsensical but lyrical creations. Do you remember these lines from it? They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon; And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon…. OK, so that poem isn’t precisely growing in my garden, but every time I glance at my flowering quince bush this time of year, I can see the owl and the pussycat dancing around it. And I don’t even have a quince that produces anything you can eat.

A branch from my quince

A branch from my quince

The actual quince TREE is a cousin of the apple and pear. Bright yellow when ripe, the fruit is more like a twin to the pear. I’ve heard people mention quince jam in novels. They figured occasionally in Greek mythology and were also treasured by the Romans.

Quince fruit

Quince fruit

My flower quince BUSH doesn’t produce edible fruit, but it’s one of my favorite plants because it’s almost the first bright splash of color as winter eases. In February or early March, when everything is still drab and gray-green, a few daffodils show their bright yellow, and then this quince bush along the fence bursts into a bright salmon-pink color. The flowers are dense, almost rose-like, and the leaves are dark and shiny. It prefers a spot with full sun. Michael Dirr in his plant encyclopedia described it as “oafish,” and a “tangled mess of stems,” and some people think it looks messy. My plant is young, so I’m going to continue to prune it when it becomes aggressive. I think it’s elegant–and so do the hummingbirds. The flowering quince is native to China, Japan, Bhutan, and Burma. It usually bears red, pink, orange, or white blossoms.

Flowering quince bush

Flowering quince bush

And the owl and the pussycat eating quince with a “runcible” spoon? Edward Lear coined that word in 1871, the year the poem was published. He used it freely, “a runcible hat,” a “runcible cat.” A runcible spoon has come to be identified as a spoon with 3 prongs at the point, used to eat pickles–or slices of quince.   Photo credits for fruit and quince bush photos: <a href=””>(license)</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

Moving Houses

Moving the furniture around was always a piece of cake, but now I need to move the whole house. For years, I planned on laying a carpet, painting some of the walls, maybe even wallpapering a couple of other walls, but it’s too big and too much upkeep and it needs to go. It’s heavy, but I think I can manage it. It’ll be a piece of cake. Dollhouses aren’t all that heavy.

The granddaughters have long since quit playing with it, so I’ll put it up for sale at the big garage sale this summer. I’ll need to come to an agreement with the girls on the asking price. Will they object to this real estate transaction? Will the toddler memories of painting the chairs and tables and refrigerator a robin egg blue and dark rose pink tug at their hearts?

Toshiba Digital Camera

I let the chicken house go about 20 years ago. The neighborhood weasely thugs had finished off the last chicken. That nesting house sat empty for a year or so, reminding me of fresh eggs and a feisty rooster until a neighbor offered to take the whole structure. This house was solid, engineered for easy access to nested eggs, and big enough to house two or three goats.

They hauled it away on a flatbed trailer the distance of about one half block, the whole operation taking up much of the road. When they later moved from this rental home to their own home some 20 miles away, they hauled the chicken house with them. Piece of cake.

But the house down the road from me is not a piece of cake. I’m sad to see that stately old neighbor go, a house I  assumed would always be there. The last two weeks has been a crescendo of activity. The area around the house has been filled with cars and trucks.

Toshiba Digital Camera

Almost overnight, the house rose up and floated free of the foundation, only anchored at critical points. Within that same week it moved off its foundation completely, and over onto the driveway, where it will reside until the ground dries out and it can be moved up the hill, several lots away, to a new foundation. Meanwhile, the workmen have started work on a new house on the old foundation, adding insult to injury to the old house.

Change! We all deal with it all our lives, but it’s not always a piece of cake.

Come quickly–as soon as these blossoms open, they fall.
This world exists as a sheen of dew on flowers.
–Izumi Shikibu
Mid-Heian Japanese poet

Dead Zones

His back ached and he could still taste grit between his teeth, but as he rocked in the porch swing at the end of the day and looked out over the land, he could see it going on for years and years. His children and their children would continue to grow the small herd of beef cattle and the vegetable crops for the local market. Perhaps they could pick up that piece just west of them, near the salt water canal, and expand their holdings.

He didn’t know about dead zones.



The years passed, and he passed, too. His children went to war and wandered to the cities. The land was divided and sold. The years passed and the land was divided again and sold. And then again.

And when my friend Connie and her husband bought one of those much smaller pieces, just a fraction of the farmer’s, they hauled in rich topsoil all around the house. They set about developing beautiful gardens–a small orchard down near the road, raised vegetable beds behind the house, flowers for every season surrounding it, and a lush carpet of lawn in front.

Connie doesn’t have a green thumb–she has ten green fingers. Past president of the garden club, she can grow anything.

Almost anything. Connie didn’t know about the dead zone.

She planted a plum tree by the side of the house with a good southern exposure. It died. She planted another fruit tree nearby. It too died.

In frustration she finally contacted the county extension office. They weren’t surprised at her question. They’d heard this complaint before. Farmers years ago often kept one area, perhaps a corner, away from the house and animals, as a dumping ground for any chemicals, old fertilizers, or poisons. This, a dead zone, passes on and on for generations.


Dead zones also exist in the oceans, areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animals can’t live there. These areas can occur naturally, but human activity can also create or enhance them. Excess fertilizer runs off the land (hence the concern about septic tanks or farm animals close to streams, rivers and salt water) and then into the sea. Those nutrients promote algae growth. As that algae decomposes, the process consumes the oxygen in the water that’s necessary for marine life.


Connie’s farmer had neglected to visualize that division of his land, the population growth, the loss of the farm. Connie dealt with her dead zone by planting grass whose shallow roots don’t run beneath the rich topsoil.

Today we know about the dead zones, in the water and on the land. We know that whatever we spray or sprinkle on our little patches of ground will stay there. We know the lawn chemicals won’t magically evaporate or sink into nothingness, in spite of what the manufacturers claim. It accumulates over the years, over the generations.

We know all about the dead zones. What will our descendants inherit?

“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”                      –John Muir

Photo 1 –

photo credit: <a href=””>Charlie Essers</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

Photo 2 –

photo credit: <a href=””>vintage_queen</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;


What’s Your Significant Tree?

December brings scrawny, spidery trees. Naked trees. Suddenly I’m able to see a neighbor’s house several lots away that was hidden in the thick, green summer.

Trees and their leaves were on my mind when I ran across a leaflet a friend had given me, “Significant Trees” of our town. Our town has “significant” trees? That term so fascinated me that later as I thought about it, I remembered it as “Signature Trees” or “Specimen Trees.”

The brochure listed 15 trees, some from private homes, some around businesses, churches, and parks. The list included almost all different species, so it was an impressive variety, and it also included a map guide to follow in order to see all of them.

I started wondering if I had any “significant” trees in my yard. The brochure for my yard would include my fig tree, of course (for its luscious fruit and profuse growth), my persimmon tree (for its bright little pumpkin-looking fruits that hang like orange bulbs long after the leaves have fallen), and my new birch tree (for its rapid growth and graceful shape).


I’d also have to include my pear tree and little peach tree (for their dripping sweet fruit year after year) and my pussy willow bush for its audacity–it thinks it’s a tree, and grows as big as one.

My Little Leaf Linden on the bank above my house is truly “significant” for just a day or two every summer. It has a fragrance that drifts through the whole yard and can make you stop in your tracks and forget what you were doing. I wish I could capture that heady loveliness and save it somehow. Next summer on the day that I first notice it, I’m going to take the rest of the day off and find a spot to park a lawn chair downwind of it and just enjoy it.

So do you have a significant tree in your yard or neighborhood? And why would it make it onto your list? If you wanted to plant a significant tree, what kind would it be? Do you think there is such a thing as an insignificant tree?



Photo credits:

Persimmon photo credit: <a href=””>Nuevo Anden</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

Bare tree photo credit:  <a href=””>Sky Noir</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;