“Is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.” — G. K. Chesterton
I don’t own a microscope; if I did, I’m sure I wouldn’t know what to do with it. If I remember correctly, the last time I used one of those instruments was in a high school Life Science class. I was supposed to draw what I saw, presumably on a slide or some such. The result was, predictably, a disaster. Sort of like that old joke where the professor says, “Sidney, you’ve just drawn your own eye.”
Microscopes and other instruments whose charms elude the inept notwithstanding, I can visualize the quiet thrills to be found in a drop of ditchwater. They are merely a microcosm (is that a pun?) of what we can view on a larger scale if we look for it. The great naturalist Konrad Lorenz shared his wisdom on the beauty of that drop of water, the raising of greylag geese and the verbal skills of ravens with the world. Men and women like Lorenz have done us a great service, aside from their amazing discoveries: they have shown us how much pleasure can be gleaned from Nature. All it takes is some quiet observation.
As I write this it is a lovely and warm fall afternoon. Awhile ago, I heard the call of a Pileated woodpecker. Though their elusiveness makes viewing them nearly impossible, I’m always ready to try. Armed with my handy binoculars, I headed for the pond side of the deck. There were no more woodpecker calls, and of course, no sign of them either. I was struck, though, with the profound difference between the cacophonous sound level of September and the barely punctuated composure of October.
As I stood on the deck enjoying the soft sunlight and the scent of trees and grasses drying after a light rain, I became aware of a group of finches busily working over the bright red berries on a honeysuckle vine. Those shiny berries attract me every year also. They are so Christmasy right about now; by Christmas they are dark, drippy and ugly from frost. As I was thinking about that, a movement in the grass below the deck caught my eye. At first, I could see no cause for the movement, but the binoculars allowed me to home in on the patch of activity. There was a bird, who looked vaguely familiar, moving back and forth. It was definitely in pursuit of something. I was puzzled as I couldn’t identify the species, which didn’t look much like other ground feeders around here. Its behavior was the giveaway; it was a shrike.
After a couple more rustlings, the bird flew to the edge of a scraggly wire fence and impaled something small and furry upon the edge. Then it descended back to its patch of grass and got very still, looking for all the world like a tiny feathered cat. The last time I actually saw a shrike ply its trade was many years ago, when I first moved to Anderson Valley. These handsome birds are the only truly predatory songbirds. They are not very common. They prey upon all sorts of small vertebrates, including other birds. Aside from their striking looks, shrikes have a bold signature; they stick their food on handy nails, wire, twigs and fences. Some “larders” can be quite full of critters, ranging from mice, snakes and sparrows to various insects. When I learned about shrikes in the field, the instructor called them by their common name, which is most appropriate, I think: Butcher birds. The one today had killed a small vole. I admire these birds as another of Nature’s efficient ways to cull the weak and pesky.
My resident deer are still showing up each day to rest beneath the silk tree. I have noticed that with the shorter days, their visits are not as long and the time of arrival varies. They often don’t come until early evening. If the visit is late, the largest of the three does brings last spring’s twins with her. She only brings them on late visits, and I have thought about that. I wonder if it has to do with the coloring of the larger twin. One of the youngsters has lost its spots and is nearly the deep taupe color of Mom. The other is much bigger and a very pale beige. She still has her white spots. I suspect her coloring makes her vulnerable; she blends poorly with the vegetation on the hillside.
For the past few days, the largest doe has had a constant companion, and he is extremely handsome. He carries a rack of 10 total points, which he supports on a formidably muscular neck. He is very attentive and when he is with Mom, there is no interaction with other deer — or the kids. If anyone so much as approaches, that rack comes down and is thrust in a menacing fashion. There’s no doubt who next spring’s Dad will be!
The dogs still do not bark at “our” deer, and Mandy the cat’s reaction to them is surprising. Last evening, I noticed she was sitting on the deck rail looking down at the ground. I went out to see what had her attention. She was riveted on the deer as they munched some fallen fruit I’d thrown out for them. She was purring. I think I know what was going through her feline mind, but in truth, I probably don’t have a clue.
Other sightings of the “quiet fun” variety have been numerous this month. One morning last week, as I was driving past the Methodist church in Philo, something burst out of the trees lining the road. A whole flock of turkeys on their way from one side of the highway to the other. It amazes me how well such bulky birds can fly.
Driving up my road at night probably affords me some of the best glimpses of wildlife. One recent night I had four delightful sightings. About a mile up from the highway a pretty fox sauntered along the side of the road, pretending I wasn’t there. A little further on, a Great horned owl streaked across the road. As I was about a mile from home, my headlights caught two pairs of eyes, right on the road. I stopped the car and saw my neighbor Lynn Roman’s big fuzzy cat literally nose-to-nose with a fluffed-up screech owl. There was a dead rodent beside them. It was obvious to me that this impasse would spell trouble for somebody, so I rolled down the window and hissed like a snake. The owl took off immediately; the cat gave me a dirty look, picked up the rodent and sashayed into her yard and I drove home. Well, almost. More eyes at the entrance to my driveway. The comedian toads again, of course. These guys are big. One of them is the size of my hand. I stopped the car again, got out and moved them off the road. They both peed in my hands as thanks for my considerate act. The drive home is never speedy, but I call it fun.
Betty Lewis called to tell me that she recently opened the front door to let her occicat, Shadow, in. Following close behind him was what, at first glance, looked like another exotic domestic cat. Not! She closed the door in time to prevent Shadow’s shadow from entering too. A young bobcat!
Neighbor Monica Schulte-Bisping tells me that she and Franz were sitting in the garden chatting recently, when they noticed something that was way too interested in one of their young hens. Yep. A bobcat. It walked right into their yard.
I have a grizzled old bobcat who likes to nap in the sun on my driveway. I have to honk to make him move. Interesting that in the many years I had chickens, I never lost a one to predation. Old age got them all.
Do you remember bedspreads? The last time I bought one, that’s what they were called. Quite nice ones could be purchased for a moderate sum. Not anymore.
We now have the ubiquitous bed-in-bag. This item usually consists of sheets, pillowcases, a bedskirt (which I HATE), a pseudo quilt and two pillow shams. It sells for roughly the cost of a kidney transplant, and can be purchased in designs by Laura Ashley, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. To be fair, one can also purchase the pseudo quilts and bedskirts separately. At a likewise exorbitant price.
I don’t want a designer pseudo quilt; I don’t want a (God forbid) bedskirt, and I sure as hell don’t want the sheets that go with ’em. I just want to buy a plain bedspread that won’t preclude my having nourishment for the next month. In pink, please.
I have made a large bag full of pesto cubes for winter. The basil plants on my deck were very prolific, so I was able to make the yummy stuff every couple of weeks. I have found that if I freeze the pesto in ice cube trays it doesn’t discolor, and I can take out whatever I need for a fresh basil taste any time of the year.
The cherry tomato plant produced many tasty fruits for salads all summer long, but gave up about three weeks ago. Ditto the gypsy peppers. Then, the afternoons turned hot again, and we haven’t had a freeze up here. Darned if the tomato and peppers didn’t start to bloom again. I actually have tiny fruits on all of the plants and many blossoms. Of course, they are doomed. But I just can’t cave in; I gave them some fertilizer today.
In these times of rapid communication it often seems there is not much but doom and gloom in our world. Bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere are ceaseless reminders of how cruel life can be. The vacuous remarks of myriads of politicians only serve to compound the insanity. It is in the interest of our humanity to care about these things and to tend to the affairs of our own communities with diligence. Fortunately, there is a balance to the ugliness that appears so everpresent.
When it all seems too dismal to bear, think about a world that has given birth to a Helen Keller, meerkats, elephants, swans, sea stars and Fuji apples. A thought that just might bring a quiet smile to the disillusioned soul.