Nature blog: Heaven at dawn

This post originally appeared on April 2, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Eastern redbud blooming

Some kind of pink blooming tree visible through the tangle.

I woke up before the sun, hoping to see it crest over the rows of houses in my neighborhood and wash my yard in red or golden or pink light. Instead, a gray morning greeted me, and all I could see of the sun was a gradual lightening of the sky. Not even a robin or sparrow sang, and I wondered if birds also suffered from cases of the Mondays.

Then, just after seven, all the birds on the hillside seemed to explode into song at once for a few minutes before falling quiet again. A robin kept up his song, and a few other birds chimed intermittently. As I was writing this, the cardinal pair  hopped on top of the wood pile, pecking around together  presumably looking for food. They peeped at each other like my grandparents used to do. The male ate some of the Eastern redbush seeds, then flew away.

The stinging nettle has started coming up at the base of the woodpile. Nettles are apparently good in soup, and I’ve been meaning to try it, but I’ll admit I’m a bit apprehensive about eating something that can raise huge welts on my skin. Supposedly if you pre-boil them, the stingers come out. The tree of heaven sapling grove looks like a tiny palm tree grove, with its developing leaves starting to spread out.

White hyacinth

Another hyacinth from the abandoned yard.

Every spring, I get the itch to garden. And I do garden, albeit in various pots spread across my porch and patio (they seem to multiply every year). I haven’t done much this year, just groomed my potted perennials that started coming up much earlier than usual: a hosta, a bleeding heart, tulips, daffodils, and then a blackberry bush. The mint from last year that I never bothered to compost has come back with a vengeance, and I’m glad its in a pot so it can’t take over anything (but I’m also glad it came back, because it’s delicious in yogurt).

I’ve also got a hemlock sapling and some kind of tree/shrub that I liberated from the empty yard next door (its pot had disintegrated, leaving its roots exposed, and it would have died if I hadn’t re-potted it). My nebby neighbor, the one who thought I was some kind of hooligan, suggested I also take the daffodils from the empty yard before a developer buys the house. I think I’ll leave them. How many daffodils does one person need?

Imaginary Map of My Yard

As a renter with a reasonable landlord who so far doesn’t seem to care what we do as long as it isn’t destructive and as long as our check arrives on time, I could probably work out a deal to clear the hillside and turn part of it into a garden. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for the past several years. But now, as I watch the chickadees chase each other across the back of the yard, I wonder if I still want to.

I can still see the skeleton of a garden here, and I don’t need the whole hillside. Just enough for a small raised bed, and some room for my dogs to sniff around and do their business. If we had our own set of stairs leading up here, I could install a bird feeder, too, and we’d all win.

Read my flash essay about Vietnam in Watershed Review

The latest issue (Spring 2015) of Watershed Review features my flash essay about Vietnam, “Crossing the Street in Hue on Buddha’s Birthday.”

I visited Vietnam as part of the Chatham MFA program’s 2012 field seminar. One requirement of the “class” (two weeks in Vietnam can hardly be called a class) was to keep a detailed travel journal.

I dedicated myself to that journal, even going so far as to create my own out of cardboard, an old tank top with an elephant print for the cover decoration, and pages from half-used composition notebooks.

But when I came home and the deadline for our twenty pages of fiction or nonfiction crept closer, I froze. I didn’t know what to write. The deadline stressed me out, and my head hurt all the time. I felt I had barely had time to process the experience of visiting a country with which we had so recently been at war, in which a family member fought.

Finally, I knew I had to just write. So I did, one night, in a frenzy. “Crossing the Street in Hue on Buddha’s Birthday” was the last of the three post-Vietnam essays I wrote. My others focused on the war and my experience of being in the country and being a tourist.

I had to get those feelings out, down on paper, before I could embrace the love I felt for the country. Because I did love it. I loved being there. I loved the food, the jungle, the people, the little clusters of incense sticks tucked into any and every available space.

That love came out in the form of this flash essay, a tiny sliver of the joy and excitement I felt. I am glad I get to share it with you.

Nature Blog: Spring on Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on March 17, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Early daffodils.

I knew it would be an early spring when my daffodils started peeking out of their pots in December. Although my tactic of covering them with more mulch worked pretty well to stunt their growth, the daffodils growing wild on Heaven’s Hillside are already blooming, and green is creeping back over the brown.

I’m not going to call the green things poking out of the dead leaf carpet weeds, since I think grass is a much worse idea than “weeds,” for how much water it needs. But that being said, I’ve always liked the word “weed” itself. It starts with “w,” like “wild,” and that’s what weeds are, after all. Wild. I make it a point to kick dandelion seeds as far as I can when I see them. I think they’re beautiful.

At least half a dozen birds that I haven’t heard before have been singing insistently outside my window, sometimes making it hard to concentrate on my work. Both male and female cardinals have been active the past few weeks, though I wonder if the male is the same one I saw over the winter. He looks skinnier, a little brighter, with less black on his wings. It could be a new bird, or perhaps it’s the same one with his summer plumage. The female certainly has been more active, and I see her most days foraging for food, presumably in preparation to lay a clutch of eggs.

An inkling of spring

Yesterday, I saw what I think was a Carolina wren, a little cinnamon-colored bird with a beautiful (and very loud!) song. He hopped along the top of the wood pile in the yard, then ducked into the thicket. Carolina wrens are shy and like dense vegetation and wood piles, and sometimes nest there. I wonder if the mystery birds I saw with white eye stripes a few months ago were actually Carolina wrens?

Being the musically challenged person that I am, it’s difficult to pick out the different bird songs. I can usually distinguish sparrow and robin songs now, and last week I heard a white-throated sparrow. But when all the birds start up at once, it’s hard to pick out individual notes within the cacophony. Since sometimes I can’t even pick out piano versus guitar in regular music without an incredible amount of concentration, I doubt I’ll make much progress in this area.

Clearly alive!

Today, after noticing with bemusement two small tree of heaven saplings coming up by the “wild” daffodils–remnants of when this place used to be a real garden–I was surprised to see the top of my dead tree crowned with green buds. I got as close as the Japanese honeysuckle vines would let me, and it looks like my dead tree may not be quite as dead as I had thought. At least one bird’s nest rests in the upper branches, and another clump of twigs and leaves could be another. I wonder if any of the birds I’ve heard singing will take one of these nests over for the summer?

I’m amazed that although I’ve lived in this house for nearly three years and have “paid attention” to the yard, I didn’t notice something as simple as life in this tree.

Bird List, March 1 – 17, 2012

  • Male and female Northern cardinals
  • Song sparrows
  • American robins
  • White-throated sparrow (heard)
  • Crows (heard)
  • Carolina wren
  • At least half a dozen other bird species (heard, un-identified)