We haven’t reached June but are almost in full-blown summer. I do not remember a May, of the ten we have lived at Flat Iron Lake, in which flower bushes like columbine and lupine were so full of blooms, the little bluestem so tall and the invasive plants so showy. I’ve already been hunting garlic mustard, blue phlox, and this morning the bouncing bet is gyrating everywhere. Because of an early warm spell, the perennial garden (our only non-native plot) blossomed overnight and the clematis is already tall enough to cling to the floor of the deck above. The asparagus is going wild, yielding about four pounds a day. As the picker and the distributor—I’m busy.
I always thought of July as the month of fullness, but this year the prairie has startled us with its early growth. High temps have broken decade-old records. Being so seasonally oriented here in Michigan, it seems that the body and psyche must make an adjustment. Is this the new normal? Or just an expected variation? Maybe the animals will give us a clue—I’ve heard that they are the first to know if disaster is coming. Except for the swan without babies and the beaver not swimming by in early spring to dam the lake, there are no signposts. The bumblebees are gathering nectar; turtles are laying eggs in the sandy places. We’ll just have to wait this one out.
This morning I glance out on Flat Iron Lake at the swan pair that has called this place home for many years. I recall that our initial delight at seeing the swan ten years ago, was tempered when a friend said that swan would scare away other waterfowl. So far many duck, including the mallard, bufflehead and wood duck thrive and thankfully only the Canadian geese are frightened away.
I watch the swan pair glide by but I know something is terribly wrong. Until now only one parent has left the nest at a time. Now they are together—but alone. No cygnets follow closely behind. Nesting season is past—there will be no babies this year. We are left to wonder what went wrong.
Swan eggs and newly hatched cygnets have always been vulnerable. Over the years we have watched a clutch shrink from five to two, likely snatched by a snapping turtle. We’ve discovered the white feather remains of babies far away in the woods, prey to fox or hawk. Once we watched a baby swimming on his side and learned later that he had eaten too much alga that he could not digest.
We’ll miss watching the youngsters grow this year: learning to dive for water plants, growing and changing from grey to white. We’ll miss the amazing early fall spectacle of the parents patiently teaching their young to fly. But mostly there will be this pang of sadness each time the stately white pair swims by, knowing that grief from loss will mark this season for them and also for us.
Yesterday our pastor continued her series on the Apostles’ Creed, concentrating on the phrase, “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” The sermon title: When. She used the Lectionary text from Matthew 25:31-46 about clothing, feeding and visiting those who are naked or hungry, sick or incarcerated. “Lord, lord,” cry the people. “When did we see you in that state?”
I love that passage with its poetic repetition but the meaning stops me short. How can the writing I do, count as serving flesh and blood neighbors in need? God calls for action, not meditation. Will the judge find me guilty of negligence? “Lord, lord when did I…?
I’m burdened as I walk from the sanctuary—until a friend comes up to me and breathlessly says, “I just finished All Nature Sings. Where can I get another copy? My friend is dying—I know your book would comfort him.” I have one in the car so we walk out together. As he hurries away, I reconsider: maybe words of hope are the only food and drink for a dying man, especially when offered by a friend. Perhaps, when is now.
“The last one to leave the nest,” took on a whole new meaning this morning as we watched a nest of robins on the white pine tree below our window. From our perfect vantage point we could see the eggs, then the scrawny featherless forms and then an increasingly crowded nest. We missed the leaving of the other siblings, but have watched far too long for the last one to jump. He sits perched on the edge of the nest and occasionally stretches his legs and ruffles his feathers as if thinking about it.
His parents are hopping and clucking on the ground below and occasionally one comes to the nest with a quick worm snack. Now one perches above him and the other flutters by as if to say, “It’s easy, just go ahead and try.” But he is “chicken” or “robin,” and can’t give up his grasp on the edge.
We have waited so long with camera in hand. The best view comes with the window open but after the overnight frost, it is soon too cold. We watch until the work of the day calls. But by then I’m hooked and take my laptop to the kitchen table and begin to write. For some perverse reason I want to say that I was there when he finally flew away, noting the hour and where he spent his first moments on land. When I was young I thought birds lived in nests, but no, when they leave the nesting place there is no turning back. The little ones will have to find their own food, foraging for worms and insects.
Within a week, two granddaughters found baby birds struggling on the ground—too early falling or being pushed from the nest. They both wanted to rescue the birds, finding earthy food for them and moving them without touching to a safer place. We know and I think they do too that the birds will not survive but they do what they can to make their parting comfortable.
My thoughts go to last children when they leave the proverbial nest. Mine did not seem particularly reluctant to leave—she longed for a different scene than the one we had imported her into. But over the years, both of us hover around the nest from time to time when one of us needs the other for the comfort of home. My parents raised my siblings and me to fly from the nest and I was like that mother robin cheering and trying to convince my own kids that they could fly.
In the next few years, our last-born child will be sending her children out to test their wings. Yesterday they watched her walk across the stage to receive her fine arts degree, while the picture of one of her oil paintings flashed on the big screen behind her. She remembers all the times she hesitated, wondering if it was all worth it. All the sleepless nights with a paint brush in hand. But her children will carry the picture of her success with them as they search for food for their own souls.
Little bird, you don’t have to be in hurry even though I’m watching and waiting. There is plenty of time to make your move. I know you are scared—we all were once there on the brink. But if you are able, fly away, carrying the comfort of home within you until you raise your own young next spring. Perhaps you’ll come back to this white pine so we can watch as you cheer your own children to take flight.
It can’t be happening already. Just as the first signs of spring delight, the enemy is also in sight.
She comes dressed as brightly as any flower of the field; she makes the landscape take on a luster not seen since the last of the falling leaves. Along every newly plowed field, in road ditches and even dotting the prairie are the brilliant but destructive plants with rich green foliage and yellow flowers. My momentary thanks for a landscape that is no longer monotone, gives way to dismay, that this evil invasive plant is back again with such gusto.
At first they are manageable. I pull the wild mustard from swath alongside the driveway on my way down to the mailbox. After dumping those over the guardrail I come back and catch more as I go. Soon they are popping up all over. Stoop and pull every few feet; instead of beauty I see perversity. After the rain they pull out more easily but they grow faster, too. I’ve heard that they are edible, much like greens, but I have no taste for them. In the water garden near the house another yellow plant wants my attention.
On tall, skinny stalks shine daisy-like flowers—golden ragwort. This one is native and deserves his place in the moist fertile ground. Both are beautiful, I have to admit, but beauty is only petal deep.
4/30/10 - It is the last day of the month in a year that brought us one of the mildest April’s on record with this delicious sense that cold, ugly days are history. Then come the dire “scattered frost” warnings and reality sets in: this is Michigan after all and traditionally Memorial Day is the beginning of the safe planting season. The asparagus plants that come up from last year’s roots don’t know that and despite giving us an early taste, the next night some heads froze and drooped. We pitched straw over the patch but then were lured into removing it by a string of warm days.
Early each morning, I stir with the sounds of “smudge pots” in nearby orchards, an attempt by the growers to save the delicate blooms programmed to become apples and cherries. Their stakes are much higher than mine. We sense that our climate is changing but our history in this place only goes back ten years. Only when the meteorologist announces a record breaker of heat or cold do we get some sense that change, though piecemeal, is real.
When spring unfolds gradually rather than in fits and starts, daily observers like me see the progression of plants as they push up through the thatch of last year’s dead grasses. Lupine is one the earliest in the field, almost begging to be noticed, not for flowers but for foliage. The slightly darker green leaves form a mound that is easy to spot from a distance. Looking more closely, one sees the unmistakable 7-9 pointed palmate leaves. I began looking for it early in April because during last year’s burn I made quite a fuss about saving one plant from the flames.
Since we are not burning this year, I have no such fears, but spotted them early in that familiar place. “I wonder how they propagate?” I asked Fritz one morning. Together we began looking for the lupine “children” nearby. Sure enough there was one still hiding beneath the thick straw. Now we see some in familiar places but many more on the ridge and along the path. I still don’t know much about propagation but am heartened to know that this queen of the field will show her lovely purples and pinks in many places this season.