Nature, red in tooth and claw

January 21st, 2011

Nature put on quite a display for the boys today. In the morning, the Boychen and I went into the woods to feed the mallards. It has turned cold again and the pond is frozen over except for a small patch of open water where a creek empties into the pond; well over a dozen mallards were clustered there. They hung back at our approach, which is unusual for them. They are not shy ducks – many people walk in these woods and many people feed the ducks – and ¬†they know my boys’ voices well; the bolder among them start swimming for shore as soon as they hear the boys calling “Enteli! Enteli! Mir hai Brot!” (“Ducks! Ducks! We have bread!” They always call to the ducks in German because, as Small Boy tells me, being Swiss ducks they do not understand English.) But today they were hanging back and even when we started throwing bread into the water they remained still. Even Boychen noticed and asked me why they weren’t coming.

Then I heard it, a squawking, a yipping, a howling almost like a cat, more squawking. On the other side of the pond I saw three foxes flashing through the underbrush. More squawking. Boychen and I went to investigate but were hampered by the fact that I was pulling him on a pedal tractor, and the pedals were squeaking. We saw one fox again, but never did find the scene of whatever it was that happened. I’m assuming the foxes succeeding in killing a duck.

Then at lunch time I picked the Small Boy up from Kindergarten. The kids were all outside already, bundled up in their winter clothes and heading into the playground with the teaching apprentice who is spending this week in Small Boy’s classroom. They were hanging up a bird house or bird feeder. Suddenly two birds of prey – I think they were red kites but it happened fast and I’m not good at distinguishing between the kites and the buzzards that also live around here – fluttered and swooped and one of them nabbed a bird and flew away. They were about ten feet away from the kids. Small Boy went running after it, yelling “Hey, Vogel, los lo! Los lo!!” (Hey, bird, let it go! Let go!) but predator and prey were gone.

They boys know about nature. They know that animals eat other animals. They know that things die and they know that things get killed. I’m not entirely sure they needed such a close-up display though.

Bird foot

January 5th, 2011

The boys and I went into the woods this morning to feed the ducks. On the way, in the middle of the path, we came upon a pile of black feathers and, upon closer inspection, a complete bird’s foot. Small Boy immediately asked if he could keep the foot; he’s “always wanted one.” I said sure, he can have the foot. It’s funny: R is the one who grew up on a farm but he’s reluctant to bring into the house all the birds’ nests and feathers and spotted cracked bird eggs we find in the woods. I’m the one who says sure, take the foot. Small Boy picked it up and walked along a bit, and we wondered if it was the fox that got the bird – I think it was a blackbird – or one of the kites or buzzards that live in the woods. Small Boy held the foot carefully and said “I’m sad for the bird because it had to die. But I’m glad I found the foot.”

I love that he thinks the bird foot is cool and not gross. I love that he takes a moment to be sad for the bird. I love the way he is part big boy and part small boy, part crazy wild kid and part sensitive soul. The kind of boy who thinks a bird foot is totally cool, but kind of sad.

Field guide to right here

December 16th, 2010

One of the many bits of advice Marge gave in her workshop was to buy field guides. Star maps. Tidal charts. Anything that helps you name the world in all of its specificity. The act of naming – that is not a songbird feeding outside my kitchen window right now, it is a great tit – in turn teaches you to notice the details, to play closer attention to differences. That other bird, that is not a great tit although it looks very similar – it is a blue tit. And really, there is a world of difference between telling you there is a bird standing on the bench outside and telling you there is a jay standing on the bench outside.

We live on a farm, next to the woods, and my mother-in-law and I put out feeders for the birds in the winter and they stay here, all winter, flitting from her trees to mine to the high limbs of the willow when one of the two half-wild cats on the property comes prowling by. (Half-wild because they live outside and hunt things but my mother-in-law also puts out food for them and manages, somehow, to get them to a vet every year; as cat lives go, I’m thinking these two have got it made.) I want to name these birds and the water fowl in the pond in the woods. That is going to be my winter project, to come to know the farm and the pond in the woods next to us as well as Thoreau knew his Walden Pond. To name things.

A few years ago I read the novel Letters From Yellowstone. It tells the story of a field study in Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the century; the main character is an amateur botanist who manages to get herself attached to the team (no small feat, in 1898, given her gender; she goes by her initials and the leader of the team of course assumed that such an accomplished botanist would be male). She collects, identifies and sketches the local flora; she is precise about using scientific names because she believes that using common names leads to confusion and misunderstanding when two people have different names for the same plant. Thoreau, too, knew the Latin names for the things around him and I think I am going to try to learn these too, or at least take note of them.

Outside my kitchen window I can see a jay (Garrulus glandarius) and he is my favorite – I have a weakness for the Corvidae, after all – half a dozen or ten great tits (Parus major), one blue tit (Parus caeruleus), blackbirds (Turdus merula), one robin (Erithacus rubecula), and a mob of house sparrows (Passer domesticus). I caught sight of a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging a hole in our yard at lunchtime; I’ve never seen him before. Or have I simply not noticed? But now I have noticed him and looked him up in a field guide and named him. We honor the things around us by allowing them to have their names, to take up space on the page. To be seen.

There is a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging in my front yard, and I would like to thank him for visiting. For giving me the gift of him.

UPDATED December 17 to add: I’ve spotted the second jay. I knew there had to be at least one more…