Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight

A Grebe Hides...Somewhere
What Are the Geese Hiding?
Yellow Babies!
Hard to See
A Cluster of Babies Between Parents
Spring is Yellow
Look -- over there by the clump of blond reeds. A pie-billed grebe. Two! Do you -- they're gone now.

For three pond seasons in a row the pie-billed grebes have hid in plain sight. I can't tell the male from the female; both are drab and gray. Their most distinct attribute is a gray bill. A light gray bill and a dark gray duck that doesn't even weigh in at one pound.

Yet, they sink out of sight like feathered stones.

Often I'd see the grebe or the female hooded merganser. I became convinced that they were the same. Mergansers are only a few ounces heavier tipping the one-pound mark on the scale. Thus they are similar in size.

Some days the merganser's light cinnamon crest sparkled with water droplets and other days I'd think she was homely as a chicken.

The grebe is the one who looks like a chicken.

And like chickens, the new hatchlings of the Canada geese have arrived! They are fluffy and yellow like baby chicks.

Why yellow, I wonder?

As if Elmira Pond wanted to teach me a lesson, I've struggled to spot those baby geese among her many hallows and islands. I stared hard at both parents with the binoculars and a movement caught my eye. Then another. The babies! Four of them.

Yellow hides them in plain sight.

We think of spring as the greening. Focused on green we ignore the dwindling thatches of last summer's dried grass bleached blond by winter. Truly, spring is yellow. Try to find yellow babies and you'll understand.

Today, the wind howls, the water ripples and all the Elmira seasonal residents hide.

Linking up with Abracabadra for Wordless Wednesday. Photos of unseen things by Charli Mills.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day Gift

Ralph, From A Christmas Story
Hopping Fences to Graze, Even in Snow
The Goose Couple
Resting in Green Pastures
Flying Over the Pond
Geese in Blue Skies
Goose Island
Mini Goose Island
Paddling Among Ducks
A Popular Place
Nest Building
Remember that scene from A Christmas Story when Ralph steps on his glasses? One lens is cracked like thin ice and the frames no longer square to his face. He thinks, they'll never notice. Then groans at the impossibility.

That has been me with my birding binoculars. They are actually the Hub's hunting binos, but given that we no longer hunt they are now part of my daily scoping of the pond. Except they no longer square to my face and the pin that once allowed adjustment has worn out.

I feel like Ralph every time I try to use them.

Then, my dog in a fit of how-dare-you-leave-me-home-alone, got down my birding bag from atop my desk, pulled out the binoculars and chewed off the right lens cap. She left it in the middle of my office floor as if I'd not notice.

I noticed.

So the Hub gifted me with another hand-me-down pair of binos and they are spectacular! I can adjust the distance and fine-tune the clarity with one finger, and they are half the weight of the other pair. I never could figure out the distance on the old pair so now I can see Elmira Pond up close from my viewing station under the apple tree.

The gift of sight!

I've been tracking the activities of the Canada goose pair. Rain, snow or shine they reside here daily. Somewhere they nest. Each year they show up with goslings. As if Elmira Pond uncorked the Proseco for Earth Day, I found the goose nest  and bubbled with excitement.

Every evening I sit beneath the apple tree while cooking dinner on the BBQ. Bootsy the barn cat sits on my lap and we watch the pond. With these new-to-me binos I can see more than I ever have. That's when I spotted the nesting goose on Goose Island.

Elmira Pond is an inland wetland; a peat bog. It may look unimportant, a watering hole in a wet meadow, but inland wetlands have a vital role. They act as water repositories, catching rain, snow-melt and fog to recharge the great unconsolidated aquifer beneath our peat, clay and igneous gravel.

My chair, BBQ and house sit on a gigantic lake 50 to 200 feet below that far exceeds the size of Lake Pend Oreille.

The pond with all its natural grass and aquatic plants acts as a filtration system. I observed this phenomenon in Minnesota when I wrote about a multi-generational dairy farm. They practiced organic standards, yet the farm was surrounded by conventional farms. Pollutants flowed through the wetland system but the organic wetlands cleaned the water and left no impurities. Test after test stunned scientist. The ecosystem in its most natural state could clean itself.

Without a doubt I know Elmira Pond is clean and healthy. Frogs and insects are big indicators of health, and this I learned when I reported a story about an organic cranberry grower in northern Wisconsin. The cranberry farmer told me how silent the bogs are. When he transitioned to organic, he began to notice the buzzing of insects, and then the return of frogs. He now has a thriving ecosystem of cranberries and natural life.

The geese nest here because the leopard frogs are prolific. Catis flies hatch and frogs and trout feed, rising from aquatic plants that form floating and anchored islands in Elmira Pond. The geese graze the wet meadows and they nest on an island. This dull pond that locals call the "bog" is vibrant and bursting with life.

Occasionally Blue Heron flaps over from his hidden nest to gobble a frog or two, as if Elmira Pond was his evening pub. The three ringed-neck couples dive and feed on aquatic plants. A newly identified resident -- a yodeling pie-billed grebe -- feeds on aquatic insects and crustaceans. The merganser couple feast on frogs and fish. Soon, the osprey and kingfishers will return to hunt fish, too.

And the ever-present danger -- the resident bald eagles -- can drop from the sky and feed on the residents of Elmira Pond.

A disconcerting thought, but part of the balance that begins with gathering moisture off the Pacific Ocean.

For now, I enjoy my gift of sight this Earth Day and ask that you pay attention to your own backyards. Care and cultivation of a healthy planet begins at home.

Linking up with Abracabadra for Wordless Wednesday. Photos by Charli Mills with the exception of the Ralph photo (follow link).

Monday, April 20, 2015

Nurturing the Heart

Feeding Mason Bees
Making Wishes
Makes Me Grumpy, Sometimes
Small Acts
Not a Road for the Car
Dandelions in the Valley, Snow in the Mountains
Eyes on the Pack River
Rushing Snow Melt
Cavorting Dogs
Watching the River...Moose...What Moose?
Danger Lurks in Mossy Trees
The Man Cares for His Dogs & Wife
Watching Dandelions & Mason Bees
Commit Acts that Nurture the Heart
Mason bees flit from dandelion to dandelion. Their golden wings and small bodies are easy to overlook. Sitting in the grass affords me a closer inspection

I can't understand why anyone would consider dandelions weeds. The blossoms scatter across meadows and lawns like tiny returning summer suns. Often, these blossoms provide the first food for pollinators, like these silent mason bees. Pluck the flowers and you can make dandelion wine. Pluck the feathery globe of dandelion blossoms gone to seed and you hold the power of making wishes in your hand.

The leaves are slightly bitter and edible. Salad season is nearing and already I have greens to add to the mix. Those who do not understand the gift that is a dandelion curse the tap root. Home improvement stores even sell a special tool to dig the roots, not to mention dangerous chemicals to kill the plant. Yet the root and leaves are most beneficial; they detox the liver, prevent diabetes, boost iron and strengthen the heart.

I'm sitting in grass surrounded by mason bees and heart-toners. If not by dandelions, then how do we nurture our hearts?

I've been grumpy with my husband lately. As we approach 28 years of marriage, I recognize a dip. The path to longevity in relationships includes highs and lows. Couples who want to forever be in love are shocked the first time they hit a dip. The heart might recognize love, but we have to do the nurturing. We have to keep our relationships heart-healthy.

Dandelions don't bloom every day of the year and neither does our heartfelt love for one another.

The grumpiness will pass if I practice patience and loving acts. My loving acts are simple and constant, mostly. I cook his breakfast before he goes to work, and most days I cook his dinner, including fabulous BBQs now that the weather is sunny for such outdoor cooking. If I withhold these simple acts, I can almost feel my heart shrink. Yet, I want to experience something other than grumpiness with my spouse.

Some couples renew their wedding vows. I've known people to take elaborate renewal vacations to Hawaii or on cruise lines. Other couples have thrown big shindigs with gaudy party favors and elaborate invites. And some have paired up for high-risk adventure such as zip-lining through the Amazon jungle to re-spark the heart.

For us, the moment simply happened, unplanned without invites or plane tickets. We renewed our vows of commitment through a shared near-death, heart-stopping experience.

With the return of dandelions and mason bees, the roads to the upper Pack River are free of snow. Well, almost. It started out with me feeling grumpy toward him because he was driving our car up what was more or less a muddy two-track winding higher and muddier into the mountains. We reached a spot rutted by 4-wheel drive trucks and I said, "We can't go through that."

He grinned and shifted the car -- a car, not a truck -- and said, "Yes we can."

Gripping my seat, grumpiness flared into full marital fury. Why had I married a three-year-old? When would he grow up?

We made it through only to get high enough up the road where the snow was yet drifting and melting. Beneath a tall span of pines was a clear patch where we could get turned around. I could see the roaring Pack River coursing with spring snow melt and I wanted photos. Once turned around, we stopped and I headed to the river.

The silts in the Selkirk mountains are blue-gray. When the snow melts and silts churn, the water doesn't look muddy, it appears glacial blue. With huge frothing rapid over boulders that range in size from pumpkins to smart-cars, the river echoed down the forested canyon. With eyes only for the river, I didn't heed my surroundings.

Our dogs -- his dogs -- cavorted like children and stepped into the churning waters. They galloped upstream and I snapped my camera doing a full circle and when I saw my spouse coming at me he looked grim and determined. Had he grown heart-weary of our relationship, too? He seemed on course to push me into the river.

In a low and calm voice he said two words, "Charli...moose.."

How I missed walking right past a moose, which is as large as a horse, is beyond me. Even the dogs zipped past her. Her. The worst gender to meet on the trail when dandelions are in full bloom in the valleys below. A female moose is deadly.

Just then, my husband did an incredible thing; he stepped between me and her. That one act was greater than 28 years of cooking breakfasts. That one act renewed our vows of love, commitment. That one act nurtured both our hearts. He took on til death do us part. And we were looking at it.

Incredibly, our dogs returned from up river and saw the moose and gave her chase. His dogs -- our dogs -- stepped between us and her. What happened next is unheard of; the moose turned and ran. Moose do not turn and run. Moose kick, charge and stomp. They hold their ground. This one did not, and Todd told me to run to the car. He went after the dogs.

Once at the car, which is not necessarily safe as moose are capable of destroying a car, I called for those dogs like a desperate mother calling for a lost child. Todd trailed them for almost a mile before they turned back miraculously unscathed. It was a miracle that none of us were injured.

My husband knows he has hero status now. I don't doubt his love. Nurturing is vital, big or small acts. We have to nurture our own hearts to be able to love another. We have to practice that love when it is difficult.

Those dogs mean the world to my husband. I know that without a doubt. But I know that I mean the world to him, too and he to me. So when I feel stuck with a special needs dog, I remember what we all mean to one another.

So here I sit among the dandelions and mason bees holding my dog -- our dog -- in the throes of a full seizure. It's a little act, one he knows I'll do because I love him and these two dogs. The other dog waits patiently by the door understanding that his sister is helpless but being helped. He'll lick her face when we return inside.

Nurturing the heart is never easy, but we can't mistake dandelions for weeds. Sometimes the very things that annoy us, feed us. Embrace a life full of dandelions and live the big and small moments fully.

This post is part of a #1000Speak movement happening every month. Learn more at 1000Speak for Compassion.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bootsy Goes to School

Bootsy Followed Me to School One Day
The Dirt Road to the Schoolhouse
Chimmney & Bell Steeple
Backdoor Where Teacher Would Have Stood
Remains of Gold & Red Paint
Crack From Train Vibrations
Bootsy on Teacher's Back Steps
Girls & Boys Outhouses
Old Mossy Four Square Pad
Scratching Claws n the Boys Outhouse
View Across Train Tracks of Older School
Original Teacherage
Something Bristled the Cat
Memories Linger Next Door
It's attractive.

Even in the rain, two young women from Seattle pull their car down the dirt road that separates my property from the old Elmira Schoolhouse. I'm piddling the dogs in a broad brimmed hat, rain-slicker and Todd's boots.

"Is that yours?" One girl leans out the passenger window in the rain, shouts her question and points back to the school.

"No," I shout back. I walk over to the fence where they have stopped their car. "But I can tell you about it."

"Can we look?"

"Sure. You can look."

Elmira Schoolhouse, built for the children of immigrant Italians working on the railroad and the children of loggers and ranchers, stands in the rain 105 years old.

How many rainy, snowy or sunny days greeted the teacher and students?

It closed down after 45 years of service, following a population decline. Kids in the area were bused to Colburn, a beautiful two-story brick schoolhouse now someone's house.

Today, children are bused all the way to Sandpoint, almost 40 miles round-trip, not to mention the miles of winding through the hills and forests of this area to pick up the scattering of students.

Yet the school continues to attract attention. People stop, take photos, look at the outhouses and some eat their lunch on the front porch. The owners live north 15 miles in Bonners Ferry. They keep the place mowed and accept the attraction of their unusual place.

Today is my turn to gawk and poke around the school grounds.

It's sunny, following a week of cloud cover and rain. Bootsy, the resident barn cat, escorts me to the double gates which I unchain and let them swing open. I step out onto the hard-packed clay of the dirt road that goes to three neighbors behind my property and the school's. Gray puddles pool.

And Bootsy follows.

I start to hum, "Mary had a little cat, little cat, little cat. Mary had a little cat whose coat was black as coal. It followed her to school one day, school one day..."

Bootsy pads behind me, meowing so I know she is there. When I first arrived to Elmira, I'd often see Bootsy slinking in the tall grass between our house and the school. I think it is part of her kitty territory. She seems at home while I look at the concrete blocks, the buttresses, the roof that is half metal and half original cedar shakes now grown over with moss.

There's a vertical crack caused by train vibrations, or so I've heard. At some point after the building was erected, buttresses were added to protect against the vibrations that rock me at my desk in my own home next door.

Bootsy sits on the back steps and I look closely at what remains of faded paint. At one time the wood was was painted  the gold color of school buses and trimmed in barn-red. I try to imagine it in fresh colors.

I close my eyes and can hear children racing down the backsteps. Some run for the two double-seater outhouses and others head to the cement pad to play foursquare. The top step creaks as Teacher stands and watches over her charges.

I imagine Bootsy going to her. "Hello, Cat." Teacher in her dress carefully squats down to scratch the ears of a now purring cat. I open my eyes and it is silent.

The peat has been growing here for so long it feels like I'm walking on sponges. From behind the school I can see Elmira Pond, glistening dark blue.

Did Teacher watch the pond like I do now? Did she point out different ducks to the children? I can imagine an exuberant Pollinick boy saying, "That's where I live!" Were Italian accents still heard? Did any of the Kootenai tribe sit in desks here?

According to an historical report made by J. W. Ramsey, Bonner County Superintendent, "The population of Bonner County has increased very rapidly, as two years ago we had a school population of 2,781 and in 1910, 3,625." That was the year that this Elmira Schoolhouse was built.

Across the road and BNSF train tracks I can clearly see the old log cabin that was the original Elmira Schoolhouse.

Ramsey reported that the county was able to pay teachers a "very good salary" of $74.50. They could offer "long terms of school (8 months)." That would come to $596 for a school term. Ramsey claims this attracted qualified teachers from the eastern and central states.

It's not clear if the teacherage was included with the wage or not. The house provided for Teacher was next door and has its own private outhouse. I chuckle at the lock on the outside of the door.

Was that ever a temptation to lock Teacher in the privy? Or was the lock a later addition to prevent use? Most likely the latter although I hear children giggling in my imagination at the thought of the first.

Bootsy and start back toward home, and as we reach the road something unseen spooks the cat. She tucks and runs with a bristled tail as if one of our imagined school boys shot a marble her way.

I turn back to the school and waggle my finger at the ghosts of the past. I can almost hear Teacher chide, "Master Pollinick that was unkind. Hand me your marbles."

Every year that I have lived here, I have found an old marble. Beneath that peat, sod and pine needles there must be many, many lost marbles. But I agree with Teacher, no tossing them at the cat.

Bootsy and I continue, leaving marbles and memories next door.

Linking up with Abracabadra for Wordless Wednesday. Photos by Charli Mills.