We’ve had a bit of a heatwave here in Oregon this past July. Temps hovered in the high 90s to 100 degrees for over a week. Even though I had AC installed in the house as a result of the catastrophic heat dome a year ago in June, Raymond and I were feeling a bit housebound. For a reprieve from the heat we headed out to Netarts Bay on the coast to kayak for the day.
Coincidentally, also seeking the bay’s refuge was a population of brown pelicans who were aerial feeding- quite a sight. Watching them was the highlight of my day. This poem came to me shortly thereafter.
There was this magnificent great horned owl that lived in the hayloft of the barn, part of the old farmstead that became the Nature Conservancy field station on the Zumwalt Prairie in NE Oregon. A month ago I spent a week there as a participant of the Outpost writing workshop sponsored by Fishtrap, a non-profit writing organization located in Enterprise (see my previous post, Writing the Zumwalt Prairie).
Occasionally we would see this stately bird from its perch at the hayloft’s opening scanning for prey and looking down on us sternly from above.
Owls are unique in that they can rotate their heads 180 degrees in each direction. Their feathers are constructed in such a way to facilitate silent flight and their eyes are 35 X more sensitive than the human eye needing only 5% of the light we require. Add to that their extremely acute hearing and you have an extremely adept hunter.
Since owls typically swallow their prey whole, they have a daily ritual of regurgitating a tidy package of fur, bones, feathers, and the like into one tidy package known as an owl pellet. When one dissects an owl pellet you can piece together the skeletons of the small rodents, and birds they consumed.
During our writing circles with our teacher /poet Kim Stafford, he encouraged us to always be paying attention with all our senses as we experienced the prairie around us, being mindful not to disregard the other visitors to our psyche as well. He stressed to capture those thoughts and inspirations on paper or voice memo before they escaped us- much like the owl and its prey. These morsels of observation are what feed us as writers. Kim is never without a small notebook and pen. I often saw him jotting things down as he went about his day.
To be any kind of creative it is important to pay attention from wherever our perch may be. Writing, (or sketching) like an owl is the essence of personal expression.
by Alanna Pass
I am learning to write like a great horned owl
I sit on a high perch
so that I may swivel my head in all directions
observing, listening, smelling
for inspirational prey
I leave my perch at a moment’s notice
a presence detected
with a silent swoop I spread my wings
extend my outstretched talons
and snatch my prey before possible escape
I bend head to toes
open my hooked beak, extract this morsel
and swallow it whole
repeating this routine until I feel a blissful sense satisfaction
Then I rest
to coalesce all my inspirational prey into one tidy parcel
I project my written pellet into the cosmos
to land at the feet of others
with the intention that they may also
experience the wonders, the truths, the inspirations
that I have lovingly collected, digested, and presented
We were driving back from a blissful writing workshop up in a remote area in E. Oregon when we came back into cell service. I’ll never forget my friend, Linda saying “Oh my god- there’s this thing called a heat dome that’s moving into the Pacific NW. It’s going to get up to 116 degrees F!” Seriously I thought she was joking until she insisted it was true.
We live in a place where occasionally we will experience triple-digit temperatures in the low hundreds but not this. These are Death Valley or Phoenix temps.- not Oregon. Another blow- last year it was the forest fires and now in late June extreme heat. Add to that the pandemic, politics and it’s beyond cataclysmic.
My house has no AC. There have been few times we have needed it as it is well insulated. This time, however, since it only dropped into the high 80s at night the house would not cool off and remained at 89 degrees inside. This was intolerable- especially for me as I am highly sensitive to the heat and can get ill.
I live ten minutes from Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. The order of monks that reside there have been so gracious to share the trails of their large natural area with the public. It’s a treasure- one of the few places left closeby where one may take a quiet ramble in nature. I set off solo early in the morning for an Earth Day hike. It’s pleasant with friends but by oneself you have the opportunity to notice so much more and the birds and other wildlife are much more willing to present themselves.
The main Guadalupe Loop is a steep one- about 1.5 miles up. At the top of the mountain is a primitive shrine to Our Lady Of Guadalupe where visitors can meditate, admire the view, and leave offerings- Catholic or not. It’s the kind of a hike where you can leave with a storm in your brain and then come down with head full of sunshine.
It’s good to remember where we come from especially now- the earth needs our attention and love more than ever.
Some of you may have witnessed this event called a “murmuration” of starlings- thousands of starlings swirling through the sky in a grand, seemingly coordinated performance. If you haven’t, do watch the video included with this post. I have noticed them more this year than in years past.
With technical photography, scientists are understanding more about the phenomenon. I think its one of natures “trade secrets.”
I am not fond of starlings
But in late autumn
Sometimes they crowd in the treetops
In a chirping chorus
Like a reunion of relatives
With an abundance of news to share
Who knows what stirs these rather uninspiring birds
To gather in in such a cacophony
Then on queue as if the din is too much
They rise from their perches to find positions
In an undulating dance that wafts over harvested fields.
If you have country property here in my corner of Oregon, you have probably noticed an explosion of small mammals, including ground squirrels, rats but especially voles this year. Rodents have population cycles peaking every few years and then falling after the predator population catches up to them. This is a banner year for voles
Voles are rodents, bigger than mice with smaller ears and short tales. They are chiefly vegetarians munching on roots, nuts, young plants, and bulbs. They are proficient tunnelers. You don’t want them in your garden.
On the positive side, they aerate the soil and distribute nutrients in the soil layers. My inner biologist recognizes their role in the great circle of life but my outer gardener is extremely frustrated. I am perhaps the first person to write a poem about vole holes?. Adding a bit a humor has made the situation in my lawn more tolerable.
This is a departure from my usual content. I just posted this on my other blog, One Sweet Earth but I thought it might be of interest to my readers here with an added poem…
I have always been fascinated with the unseen world of nature that exists beneath our feet or is too small for our eyes to see. Some years back on a forest field trip for my 6th-grade science students, the guide pointed out small mounds covered with small bits of debris on the muddy parts of the forest floor. I’d seen these before, never giving them much thought. “Those are earthworm middens,” she said. HUH? How did in all my years of natural science and ecology did I miss this one?
The guide informed us that earthworm middens are the entrances of earthworm burrows. The reason they are built up like little volcanos is they pile their casings (poo) outside and alternately store bits of organic material at the entrance to later come up and feed upon. In January I came upon in one in the yard with a magnolia leaf sticking straight up from the entrance like a rock from Stonehenge. It appeared that this leaf was too large, tough for this worm to manage.
There are many species of birds around the acreage of our country home. I feed them and provide some housing but some find shelter in unlikely places. Recently at dusk, we spotted an avian form fly down and slip through a crack in the slats of our well-house. “That better not be another starling, “I remarked. Starlings harass the native birds and we often block their nesting sites. We investigated but could not see in the dark recesses. With a gooseneck flashlight made for engine repair, I spied a female nuthatch sitting on her nest looking up at our invasive bright light…
My university education steeped me enough ecology and natural science where I developed a different view about modern humanity and our dismal treatment of our natural environment. A couple years back I wrote this poem to give myself some comfort (in a sciencey kind of way) that the Earth will be just fine without our presence. I never shared it until now as it seems so appropriate to the times…
Beyond the scope of our perceptions
They live, thrive even
The precursors of life
That once rose out of primordial goo
Giving rise to our modern-day selves
In the span of millennia
Now they keep house
In the dark soil
In the lining of our guts,
Or riding on the currents of air and water
They are the good guys and the bad guys
Working the magic of digestion, decomposition, disease
Keeping life on Earth in a delicate balance
As they go about their quiet business
While we humans multiply and innovate
Thinking the planet is ours to consume
And ours to fix
In the end will come the justice of Nature
Indiscriminate of zealot, terrorist, or model citizen
From microbes, having no other intelligence
Than the genius of mutation
A plague perhaps, unleashed with a single sneeze
Our technology, heroes, and gods will not save us
The Earth will rest, then heal in its time
Nature will learn from her mistakes
And new life will rise
Our presence recorded in a layer of rock
Six inches thick
On that note…
Be well everyone and make the most of your social isolation!
It is the height of summer blooms. Bumblebees are to be found everywhere about my yard. I find them in the cool of the morning sleeping in flowers, drunk from the previous day’s feeding. As the day warms I pause to watch them at their work, mindfully probing into pistils within blooms sucking out nectar.
They are especially fond of compound flowers, those in the genus, Compositae, the daisy family, the largest example being a sunflower. These are flowers within flowers. Look closely in the middle of a dahlia, zinnia, daisy, dandelion sunflower, etc. and you will find multitudes of tiny flowerets surrounded by showy petals. It’s like one-stop shopping for bees.
Bumblebees make up the genus Bombus with 255 different species. Generally, they are black with varying stripes of yellow and sometime red. They make nests near the ground under logs, duff in small colonies. They are honey producers but in smaller quantities.
Though bumblebees don’t get as much press as their smaller cousin, the honey bee, they are extremely important pollinators. Bumblebees are particularly good at it. Their wings beat 130 times or more per second, and the beating combined with their large bodies
vibrate flowers until they release pollen, which is called buzz pollination. Buzz pollination helps plants produce more fruit. Bumblebees flap their wings back and forth rather than up and down like other bees. Researcher Michael Dickinson, a professor of biology and insect flight expert at the University of Washington likens wing sweeping like a partial spin of a “somewhat crappy” helicopter propeller,
They are gentle bees, single-minded in their work and rarely sting which is good because their sting can be particularly nasty. I have never been stung even though I sometimes gently pet their fuzzy backs then they are immersed in feeding. Such sweet bees.
In Praise of Bumblebees
They probe dreamily in the center
Of pie sized yellow flowers that nod towards the east
Keeping me company
As I work in the garden
These tiny winged beasts do their work
Heads up down, up down
Placing in precision their needle-like proboscises