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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Blooms of Christmas

We were fortunate enough to spend several days recently in Brevard County, Florida, in a sweet 1960’s motel right on the Atlantic Ocean (which happened to have such erratic wifi that I decided to abandon the computer for a few days and just enjoy being, for a change). We left two inches of snow on the ground and arrived to temperatures in the low seventies that rose to an eighty-degree afternoon on our last day in the area. After what had felt like weeks (but was actually only a few days) of cold grayness in Toledo and Parkersburg, I at least was ready for warmth and sun. Brevard County delivered.

That warmth and sun mean that some flowers bloom through the winter, even though we were above Florida’s frost line and not in the tropics. Genuinely tender things were done for the year, and deciduous trees had lost their leaves, but the blooms of Christmas were there for the enjoying. Some were exotic to my northern eyes, like this Chinese hibiscus growing in my in-laws' yard. While I know that they really provide no benefits to wildlife, it is difficult to resist the allure of something this outrageously gorgeous.

Also in bloom were familiar summer annuals long frozen out in our area, like this morning glory

and this pentas, blooming at the botanical gardens of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

Our beachside motel was landscaped with sand-tolerant succulents. I had never seen aloe in bloom and had no idea that the familiar kitchen burn remedy is likely a hummingbird magnet. 

And while there were agaves at the beach when I grew up,

I had no idea that their flower spikes are taller than any house in which I have ever lived.
Of course, the area boasts more common, close-to-the-ground things. Sand marigolds were everywhere, providing nectar for the butterflies that were still fluttering around, even at the close of the year. 

 I know that winter's just arrived, but spring can't come soon enough for me.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


As a writing teacher, I struggle with my students' struggles with revision. Too often, many of them think that revision is a matter of fixing the commas (which are of course the most important aspect of writing, followed closely by the semicolon). Every year, I point out the parts of the word, leading some brave soul to note that revision means "to see again," and, eventually, a few of them get it. Today, I had my own experience with revision.

A confession: I tend to be disorganized with objects (with the fortunate exception of student papers, which I have managed never to lose). Walking from someone else's office to mine, whatever was in my hand can vanish, even if I don't stop anywhere. Whenever we host a social gathering, the last minute scooping-up-of-stuff leads to something semi-important vanishing, at least for a while. Yesterday, sorting through boxes of scooped-up things from the last pre-sabbatical gathering, I found the good binoculars, the ones I wanted but didn't have for all the hiking I did on sabbatical. They had, of course, been in the plant window overlooking the bird feeders all last summer, but instead of going into the box of field guides that went with me to Toledo, they were buried in the guest-room closet with miscellaneous things from that corner of the living room. Sigh.

Not having had decent optics for a while, I of course had to try them out, and the feeders were busy at that moment with a titmouse, a chickadee, a female cardinal, and something I couldn't quite identify, an LBB with a lot of red. My first tentative ID was house finch, but the binoculars revealed such intricate markings that I thought the bird had to be something less common, perhaps something I'd never seen before.

This little bird had a red head and a light but noticeable white line leading back from the eye and a half-ruff around its throat. The belly bore streaks of rich brown and white, and the wings were distinctly barred in the same colors. They revealed a red patch at the base of the tail as the bird fluttered around the safflower seed feeder. He (no female songbirds around here carry that much red) was so gorgeous that I had to stand and watch until he flew away.

A check of my trusty Peterson field revealed that my first thought was correct: this little guy was a house finch, one of the Western migrants now common all over the East. It had been so long since I had really looked at one, though, that I had forgotten how beautiful this common bird is.  Note to self: take more time for revision.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's here

The first day of winter this year was definitely winter. We woke to a dusting of snow on the ground and a wind that's kept snow whirling around all day. The last time I looked, we officially had more than a dusting, with snow predicted to keep falling into tomorrow. Winter ys icumen in, as Ezra Pound said.

As much as I love the Valley, I'm ready for sun, something we haven't seen for a week. Note to universe: sun on snow is perfectly acceptable.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Return visitors

I am pleased to report that Stumpy the nearly tailless squirrel is still around.(In case you missed it, Stumpy was the subject of an earlier blog post.)  Having been away for four months, I had occasionally wondered how our somewhat-incapacitated rodent friend was doing, but today he was scampering away from the tray of shell corn, as frisky as ever.

Tha afternoon brought one of our several pairs of cardinals close to the house. The female was browsing the berries of the lonicera sempervirens near the dining room window, bringing entertainment to Mittsy the six-toed cat. The male was at the safflower feeder, further away from observing felines.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A different December

For some reason, this week my mind has been wandering back to my first December in the Mid-Ohio Valley. So far, this one has been nothing like it. In 1983, there was SNOW on Veterans Day! Okay, not much snow, but to someone who had only arrived from Florida in April, snow in what was still officially fall was enough to make me wonder what I'd gotten myself into. December was even colder.

Living in downtown Marietta at the time, I walked just about everywhere, partly because I was dubious about driving in snow on brick streets. By Christmas Eve, it seemed to me as if I were wearing everything in my closet in order to keep warm, with an enormous Doctor Zhivago-ish hooded wool cape as the top layer. Walking to a candlelight service through gently falling snow had a nostalgic appeal, but when the temperature on Christmas morning hit minus 10 (according to the Weather Underground's weather history--my memory is that it was colder than that, but I may be remembering the wind chill), staying home and eating scrambled eggs for Christmas dinner because my car had frozen had no appeal at all. But that was what I did, though I did bundle up and walk the mile or so to a friend's house a little later when the wind died down. I remember thinking at the time that I could do without another Christmas of that degree of whiteness--or cold.

And over the last twenty-nine years, we haven't had one. 1989 saw below-zero temperatures, but a glance at the weather history indicates that such cold has become an anomaly, even though our placement in USDA hardiness zone 6 indicates that most winters should see at least a few nights of 10 below. Actually, the most recent zone map, released just this year, indicates that our area is now borderline zone 7, a full ten degrees warmer than zone 6. 

I'm grateful for the decreased cold, but this degree (no pun intended) of climate change in a single human generation does not bode well for the places that we in this country have always considered the South. If north-central West Virginia is soon to have the winter temperatures of the Carolinas, what will happen to Florida?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Several soggy days

Today is my last day in Toledo. There will be a few days at the Cleveland Clinic with a relative who's having surgery, but then it's back to Parkersburg, where a new semester will soon begin. I have so fallen in love with the ecosystem variety of northwest Ohio that I feared leaving it would be a wrench, but the universe has made the transition easier by sending several days of cold rain, possibly my least favorite weather. A colleague who taught in Maumee decades ago had issued dire warnings about Lucas County, assuring us that we would hate the permanently gray skies (this colleague seems to have missed the summers entirely), and a native of the area last week responded to my asking "What's the percentage of gray days in winter?" with "about ninety percent." Given that the first snow is predicted for tomorrow night, I seem to be heading south just in time.

However, even gray days have their amusements. When we forgot to fill the squirrel feeder, one of the neighborhood rodents quickly solved the problem.
I do rather hope that fox squirrels find their way to West Virginia.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Noticed on today's walk

  • Tufted titmice have orange shading on their undersides.
  • Beech bark has a blue tone.
  • Female mallards have blue wing feathers.

Friday, November 30, 2012

(Not quite) a massive murmuration

Walking home today through one of my favorite 1930's neo-Tudor neighborhoods (and feeling just a bit sorry for myself that soon I'll be back in my own 1950's subdivision, where there's not a single diamond-paned window to be found), I was drawn out of my funk by the sound: the twittering of quite a large number of birds, species unknown. No birds were visible in the immediate area, so I knew that the sound had to be coming from a large flock of something.

Finally; a few hundred feet away, I saw them: dozens of starlings in the upper branches of two enormous, spreading trees, probably oak or maple of some kind, their cheerful chatter drowning out the traffic from a busy street only a block away. It quickly became obvious why a group of starlings is called a murmuration, which dictionary.com defines as "a low continuous indistinct sound; often accompanied by movement of the lips without the production of articulate speech." Starlings have no lips, but the sounds they were making were continuous, and as much as I would have liked to know what they were saying to each other, their speech was not articulate from a human perspective. But it was a delight to see and hear so many birds congregating and murmurating on a grey November noon.

"Murmuration" also describes a specific kind of flocking behavior: the tendency of starlings to swoop in huge groups shortly before roosting in the evenings. If you want to see a real murmuration and have a shortage of starlings roosting in your neighborhood, you can watch a video of an enormous Irish flock here.

Closer to home, near the drainage ditch that has become a protected stream, I could hear the twitters of large numbers of much smaller birds. Not even meandering along the margin gave a good look at the flock, which was hiding in thick vegetation that included way too much tatarian honeysuckle. Based on the two individuals brave enough to venture into the stream, I suspect that I was hearing a spattering of sparrows.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

More November delights

  • Robins in a fully-loaded (though not for long) hawthorn
  • A red-tailed hawk making lazy circles in a surprisingly blue sky (scouting the robins, maybe?)
  • Juncos and chipping sparrows at the feeder

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Late fall color

October is generally the best month for fall color in the places I have lived, but autumn is taking its own sweet time saying good-bye this year. (No complaints from me.) These pictures were taken in the Old Orchard neighborhood of Toledo on November 20.

First, of course, is the ubiquitous Bradford pear.

This now-invasive non-native is not a favored tree of mine, but it definitely has fall color. Luckily, the same block includes several red maples that have hung on nicely this year.
as have a few sugar maples.

I've no idea what this tree is, but its color really popped on a gray afternoon.
On the same block, these pastels lightened a shady grove next to the sidewalk.
And lest we forget what November usually looks like, the tracery of branches against an afternoon sky.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Delights of a November afternoon

Warm weather keeps returning to Toledo, necessitating park rambles. Sunny November days with light jacket temperatures are not to be wasted indoors (even though my course projects have come along nicely).
There was a time when I found late autumn depressing. Nothing much is blooming, most of the trees have lost their leaves, and the dominant colors are generally variations of brown. I'm not sure how I managed for so long not to notice the colors of a field of little bluestem,
especially when the plants are backlit by afternoon sun.

It's easier to notice details of trees when the leaves are gone, like the nearly iridescent bark of some members of the genus Prunus.
Sycamores for me only come into their own when bark is their dominant feature. (Of course, sycamore fruit makes my eyes water, and the leaves take forever to break down, so I'm biased.)

This white oak is possibly the most magnificent tree at Wildwood,

but this young one and several of its friends were partnering with the breeze to drown out traffic noise.
Today was a good day for birds. The woodland edge of a prairie trail featured four bluejays squawking, and while I couldn't get a decent picture of the jays, I did get the bittersweet berries that had attracted them to hold still for a photograph. 
This was a good afternoon at the feeders, too. While the goldfinches have lost their breeding plumage and the fall migrants seem to have migrated south, there's nothing boring or depressing about our regulars. Today's visitors included this titmouse
and a nuthatch or two.
So maybe the flowers and butterflies are gone for a few months. There's still plenty to see.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Park Pleasures

It's no secret that I think public parks, especially nature preserves, are one of civilization's best inventions. Parks with playgrounds and ball fields are good things, too, but they just aren't as interesting as the miniature wildernesses in our cities. And even though places whose trails can all be traversed in an afternoon's meander aren't REAL wilderness (Aldo Leopold, one of the patron saints of wilderness preservation, said that a wilderness needed to be "big enough to absorb a two-week's pack trip" and free of all signs of humans, including obvious trails), they do give the imagination room to breathe. 

Prairie patches open out at the edges of woodland.

Little bluestem going to seed catches the light,

as does the Maumee River.

A dead tree helps to nurse the forest's next generation
like these young sassafras.

October paths are sometimes covered by maple leaves,
and sometimes they just leave us wondering what's around the next bend.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Beautiful but bad

I was walking along the Upland Woods Trail in Wildwood Metropark yesterday afternoon when I spotted it: burning bush, euonymus alatus.
Euonymus alatus in oak-maple woodland
It looks innocent, doesn't it? And even I have to admit that the late color is welcome, for all the fun of crunching through brown, dried leaves.

leaf close-up
Many of us have this plant in our yards. The college where I teach has planted a hedge of it, and the bright red shrubs are a showstopper in early October. But there's a problem.
This particular euonymus is an Asian native and has no natural controls on this continent. Insects leave it alone, deer have no interest in browsing it, and birds like the fruit. Check out the following USDA publication: http://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/references/public/VT/JS314-Burning_Bush.pdf

Yes, each of those red berries contains at least one seed that can turn into a bush. This single specimen bore hundreds of berries, and the woods were full of this plant. Burning bush can grow in shade and is invading woodlands throughout the eastern US, crowding out native shrubs and spring ephemerals like trillium.
As beautiful as burning bush is and as easy as it is to grow, if you have it in your yard, do consider taking it out. Our woodland wildflowers will thank you.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

And then it changed

This started out to be a very different kind of post, one about the joys of an unexpected 70-degree November afternoon in northwest Ohio, and that post will probably eventually get written, the Maumee River being as lovely as it is.

But after a few hours of delighted trail-wandering with my spouse, we decided to detour past the Battle of Fallen Timbers monument on the edge of the Metropark where we'd spent the afternoon. Even before we left the parking lot, I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the wind off the river. The monument area is filled with spirits not yet at rest.

I have to confess that the history of battles has never been my thing. I love history and subject my students to lots of it in our literature classes, but generally ignore the "kings and wars" aspect of the subject. In today's Lucas County, Fallen Timbers is a mall, Ottawa a river, and Anthony Wayne a highway and a school district. In 1794, however, on that bluff overlooking the river, the Western Confederacy of Native nations made a desperate attempt to hang onto the rich territory that today is Ohio at the same time that a new nation was encouraging land-hungry immigrants to establish farms and schools. The earth we walked across to get to the monument was once drenched in the blood of members of Wayne's Legion of the United States and a group of 1500 Shawnees, Delawares, Miamis, Wyandots, Ojibwas, Ottawas, Potawatomis, and Mingos led by Blue Jacket and Little Turtle. Looking from the bluff to the rich river bottom below, the contrast between today's peaceful parkland and 1794's clash of cultures is nearly overpowering. So much beauty. So much suffering.

The development of the monument itself demonstrates cultural clash and shift. The first memorial on the site is a flat stone where offerings were once made to the spirits of the Native leaders who perished in the battle. Then in 1935, the Ohio Historical Society erected a white marble monument to the 33 members of the Legion of the United States who perished and the 89 wounded in the battle. A brass plaque lists the names of the officers but states that the names of the privates and musicians among the casualties are unknown. There is no mention of the Native participants in the battle. A contemporary statue on the site includes a Native warrior among the figures depicted, but gives more words to the settlers "massacred" between 1783 and 1794 than to the peoples who did not recognize British authority to sign away their territory. Only in 1994 was a monument--in white marble, matching the original 1935 slab--created to honor the Native participants in the conflict.

And yet--the National Park Service is making an attempt to commemorate the whole story. In a single human lifetime, our society has moved from the erasure of the original human inhabitants of the Maumee Valley to a recognition of their role in the history of the place. For the second time, a person of (mixed) African ancestry has been elected President of the United States, and we are discussing his policies on their merits, not simply as originating from a person of his particular ethnicity. Whether one supports this president or not, it is possible to discuss his ideas as ideas; such discussion would not have been possible in the years when abolitionist Frederick Douglass was described as "a representative colored man."

The monument park does not yet feel like a peaceful place to me, but it may be that some of the ghosts of our past are being laid to rest.

More of them!

Regular readers of this blog (if such there be) may remember how delighted I was when the Black Squirrels of North Parkersburg migrated to our neighborhood, our block, and finally, our yard. Having waited for them for what felt like forever (and was in fact a year or so after my first sighting of the little creatures), I was surprised to learn that melanistic squirrels are in fact fairly common. This last week, I spent time in a place in which black squirrels were the only squirrels in town (or at least in the immediate area).

The vicissitudes of life necessitated spending several days hanging around Union Hospital in Dover, Ohio, part of a sprawling medical complex that includes nicely wooded parking lots. Since I get antsy sitting for too long, I walked around most of the parking areas at one time or another. As is typical of Ohio in late fall, squirrels were busily locating and burying acorns and other winter foods (on their breaks from stuffing their little faces). What was not so typical, at least not in places more familiar to me, was that all the squirrels in the complex were solid black--not a gray squirrel in sight. The oak trees directly in front of the main entrance boasted a whole herd of melanistic rodents. These squirrels looked healthy--they were active, their fur was shiny, they were alert in the way of squirrels--but they were uniformly tiny, somewhere between the average gray squirrel and the fairydiddle in size. I did not expect to discover a distinctive local race of squirrels while waiting around a hospital, but that was in fact the entertainment of the week.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A new favorite

My time in Toledo has introduced me to another (supposedly common) northern bird that is rapidly becoming a favorite. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the red-breasted nuthatch as "an intense bundle of energy," and if the one visiting our feeder is typical of the species, the description is accurate. A few sightings were required before I could ID the bird because it was so small and moved so fast (and the ground-level window is so in need of washing). I also suspect that our regular visitor is a female as the red is really more of a washed-out orange. Still, whether the name is accurately descriptive or not, the sight of one of these tiny dynamos flitting around a feeder is one of life's more cheering sights.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

It's official

Even as far north as we are here, the weather allowed the illusion that winter was a long way off. Afternoons in the seventies were common throughout much of October (not what I expected of Toledo, Ohio), and flowers continued blooming in all the yards around here. We've still had no frost in the neighborhood, and a few roses were hanging on yesterday (at Halloween!), but winter is officially on its way.

How do I know? The juncos are here in droves (or flocks, or gaggles, or whatever groups of juncos are called).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ohio Fairydiddle Sighting

Today my spouse and I were surprised and delighted to see a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus husonicus) utilizing the feeding stations at Wildwood Metropark in Toledo. My only previous encounter with one of these little guys was at Blackwater Falls in West Virginia, where these mid-sized rodents are called fairydiddles. If you've ever seen their hyperactive behavior, you know that they hardly seem real.

Like the fox squirrel, the red squirrel has (no surprise) a lot of red, but its belly is white, like that of the eastern gray squirrel. It is also a good bit smaller than either, maybe half the size of the fox squirrel.
fox squirrel

red squirrel

gray squirrel
The red squirrel also has delightfully pointy ears and a distinctive white eye ring.

I had always thought of fairydiddles as creatures of the mountains, and a quick search for "red squirrel" on the internet revealed that they are (or were) residents of coniferous forests with a preferred diet of spruce and pine seeds.  In recent years (obviously), they have moved into hardwood forest areas and backyards and become more omnivorous. They are supposedly also more aggressive than other squirrels, but this one never got that message. It was repeatedly driven into hiding by the herd of fox squirrels domininating the Wildwood feeding area this afternoon.

I suspect it will be back.

Friday, October 26, 2012

An embarrassment of riches

While western West Virginia has its own beauty and is no slouch in the biodiversity department, Northwest Ohio has a range of ecosystems that we don't. Here are a few that I'll miss when I go home:

oak savannah at Kitty Todd Preserve

tallgrass prairie at Wildwood Metropark

sedge meadow at Irwin Prairie

more sedge, this time under trees

glacial dune at Secor Metropark--yes, the remnants of the mile-or-so-deep ice that used to be here
Magee Marsh
the Crane Creek estuary

another view of Crane Creek as it empties into Lake Erie
and of course
Lake Erie.