The Rice Owls football team won a big game last weekend, half-grown owls have been adorably perching in the trees just outside the Library west entrance, and I wonder how many other university mascots naturally occur on campus? Cougars, mustangs, longhorns, Razorback hogs, tigers? No way. Yellow Jackets, Bulldogs? Maybe, but flying wasps and roaming bulldogs are not exactly welcome on a college campus. Then there are the University of California – Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. The UCSC website says, The Banana Slug, a bright yellow, slimy, shell-less mollusk commonly found on the redwood forest floor, was the unofficial mascot for UC Santa Cruz coed teams since the university’s early years. The students’ embrace of such a lowly creature was their response to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities. In a low-budget-sci-fi-movie-prop-ish way, banana slugs are as cute as fledgling owls. Go owls and slugs.
With the prolonged drought, a lot of creatures are turning up inside buildings where they try to find shade and water. Over the weekend we had a bat in the library. It flew around creating much excitement. “Bat!” “Bat!” “Where?!” “Over Current Periodicals!” “There’s a bat!!!”
I’ve never gotten such a good look at a bat in flight. It was pointier than a bird, and absolutely silent in flight. “Very good Library conduct to be that quiet,” my colleague observed. We called Facilities, which said they’d send somebody over, whether with a net or not and whether to evict the bat or kill it they did not say. As it turned out, a tall Library patron solved the problem with a borrowed sweater. He swept the bat out of the air with the sweater, carried the bundled bat out the West door and unfolded the sweater on the sidewalk. The poor frazzled bat lay there for a minute, panting and blinking in the sunlight. Then it levered up and flew off into the trees. I didn’t know bats could launch from flat on the ground. Way to go, bat!
At church yesterday we had the reading from Acts about speaking in tongues. As is the custom in many parishes on Pentecost, people stood up to read the same text in different languages to great dramatic effect. Every Sunday we have an American Sign Language interpreter, and thus there was another native tongue to underscore the drama of the reading!
Parishioners wore red, orange or yellow to commemorate the tongues of fire distributed by the Holy Spirit. The nave flamed with everything from flamboyant dresses and shirts to bright accents on the tasteful ties of business suits. Sometimes in the Christian life, the fire is more of a touch than a blaze. And sometimes the world-including language is more of a single, right word than an outpouring of speech. Witness the impact when “gay” is among the people included in Church and “partner” is among the family ties celebrated and the pronoun of God is simply said as “she.”
Yesterday’s Easter Vigil at 6 AM was rather too early for me. I made the 10:30 service, and amid the song and incense of Eastertide I realized that the Resurrection didn’t happen with everyone waiting for it. It happened while many were sleeping, some were on guard duty like any other night, and those most in grief and shock cowered in a locked room. While they despaired the Resurrection happened. May it be so for everyone today who sees hope crucified.
This Easter, it occurred to me that there are people who might be called Good Friday’s children. Some parents single out one of their children for vile abuse. Often it’s a good sweet child they torment. That’s murderous to the spirit. And yet there are Good Friday’s children whose lives and spirits are resurrected in ways that register on them and their friends as miraculous. May it be so for them all, again and again.
The day between Good Friday and Easter has a kind of shocked, sad silence to it. Not so much in my neighborhood with birds singing on every twig and an elementary school having an Easter egg hunt. But in churches where yesterday the altar was stripped of cloth and ornament and now there’s nothing on the bare altar, or only a plaited crown resting on its long thin thorns, there’s a sad silence, a gentle echo of the aftermath of old violence.
There’s a rawer silence in an old-growth forest somewhere. Trees are mortal and they die, bugs get under the bark and woodpeckers drill out the bugs and make holes to nest in and it’s still a part of the fabric of life. But a hale old tree logged and turned into upscale furniture leaves a tree-sized fissure in the forest. There’s a silence in an oil-smothered Louisiana marsh. There’s shock in the sea behind a trawl net that just scraped up everything like a watery bulldozer. And infinite sadness in the extinction of a species that was flourishing in its ecosystem but inconvenient, or like the passenger pigeon too conveniently easy to kill. By profound coincidence, yesterday was both Good Friday and Earth Day. A facetious quiz went around, asking “what are you doing to celebrate Earth Day?” with answers like “wear Birkenstocks.” My answer would have been “go to Church to mourn the ongoing crucifixion of nature.”
What the pigeon in the planter on my porch and the eagle on the nest in the Decorah Fish Hatchery Eaglecam have in common: settling down on the nest with exquisite care. The eggs or baby eagles are ever so tenderly covered and cocooned. The adult bird’s belly feathers look as soft and fringy as the underside of a cumulus cloud. The pigeon even has cloud-bottom-gray feathers; the eagle has brown underfeathers or, toward the tail, pure white.
The pigeons are not happy with me. Well, I wasn’t happy when a second pigeon couple (or threeway or whatever it is they’re doing with all that cooing and cuddlng…) amassed twigs and leaves in the corner of the balcony. That is what passes for a pigeon nest, followed soon by eggs, followed by incredibly messy and increasingly numerous young. So I removed the twigs and leaves. The birds retaliated by laying an egg in the planter right outside my balcony window – all of four feet from my computer. Five days later – two eggs. So today I snatched the eggs at an untended moment, and hard-boiled them. When I went to put the eggs back, the mom pigeon was back in position and all bunched up with tense suspicion that Something Was Wrong. I put the eggs back in the planter and used a (clean) paint-stirring stick to tuck the eggs back up under her. Seriously ruffled feathers ensued. But she’s still there with her feathers slicked back down. I’m pretty sure pigeons don’t really know the difference between a dud and a live egg. (But *I* know the difference between a garden balcony and a rookery and I prefer the former!)
Here is a lavishly illustrated new book: WEEDS OF THE SOUTH. Published by the University of Georgia press, this looks like a highly reputable reference work. Which is deliciously ironic, because the subject matter is rather disreputable.
The English language has amazing names for weeds.
- Lesser Swinecress. What a name! Presumably pigs find it tasty. It’s a native of Europe.
- Daisy Fleabane. It’s native to North America.
- Annual Fringerush.
- Blessed Milkthistle.
- Henbit. Cute little purple flowers. Originated in Eurasia.
- Beaked Cornsalad, a North American member of the Valerian family.
- Purple Deadnettle. It’s a relative of henbit.
- Jimsonweed a.k.a. Purple Thornapple.
- Bitter Sneezeweed.
- Catchweed Bedstraw.
- Clammy Groundcherry. This belongs to the nightshade family, other members including Horsenettle, Silverleaf Nightshade, (ahem) Nipplefruit Nightshade, and Hairy Nightshade. Most of this family is prickly, toxic, or both.
- Nightflowering Catchfly.
- Morningglories – a pretty name for delightful plants (although my friend who grew up on a farm weeding these out of the corn field would disagree.) Well, well, well. Here is one called Cypressvine Morningglory. Mom used to have this in her front yard. She said it was called Cypress vine; it atttracted hummingbirds. I’m glad to know more about this nice little vine!
- Common Chickweed a.k.a. starwort and winterweed. It’s a native of Eurasia. Under Toxic Properties, the book says “None reported.” I certainly hope not – I’ve had this stuff in a salad.
- London Rocket a.k.a. London Hedgemustard. So that’s what the mystery weed in my front porch planter last year was!
November 2 was All Souls’ – the Day of the Dead for people in Mexico and their descendants in North America’s Southwest (and around the world.) One way it’s celebrated is by making an ofrenda in the home. Ofrendas honor one or more deceased ancestors, family or friends.
This one was for my maternal grandmother, Nannie Ruth Thomas Howard, who was variously known as Ruthie, Ruth T., and to her grandchildren, Mompsie. Que Dios la tenga en la vida eterna. May God keep her in the life eternal.
Ofrendas include pictures, flowers, candles, salt, water, religious symbols, things the deceased person owned, and food and drink they liked. Traditional flower colors are yellow and orange. Traditionally there is papel picado, the Mexican art of cutting detailed designs in tissue paper. I substituted doilies (!). My grandmother being an Alabama lady, that seemed apt. Where traditional ofrendas have a plate of tamales or even chicken mole with side dishes, I put some fried chicken in the cast iron frying pan on the lower level. With a can of collard greens and a can of peaches on the side. Ofrendas always have pan de muertos, bread of the dead – a slightly sweet yeast bread with bone-shaped decoration on top. This was the first time I’ve ever made pan de muertos. It caused me to remember how my grandmother taught me to separate egg yolk from the white by pouring the yolk back and forth between the halves of the broken shell.
In making this ofrenda, I discovered that imagining, collecting and handling all of these things and placing them just so is the most powerful way of remembering a loved one that I’ve ever experienced.
I love you, Mompsie.
Yesterday I saw a hawk circling almost right over my condominium complex. He must have been finding some traces of thermals – air warmed by the ground – because with very little flapping of wings, he gained some altitude. The hawk’s tail was rusty red in the clear October sunlight, and his flight was so beautiful that suddenly I could understand tribal people looking up into the sky and feeling awe at the sight of such a creature, feeling that flesh and blood intersects with supernatural spirit in a bird like that.
Then I brought up a pot of yellow mums, and put it on the balcony. Immediately a honeybee buzzed up to briefly light on one of the bright yellow flowers. It was almost as though the bee blessed the plant. I would like to think so. This potted mum is going to play a part in an ofrenda in my home. Ofrendas are traditional Mexican and Mexican-American home altars where departed loved ones are honored on All Souls’ Day, November 2. My ofrenda will be in honor of my beloved grandmother. She loved all kinds of flowers, and gardening and growing vegetables. She was also an Alabama country Methodist who probably never heard the word ofrenda in her life. Creating this one is going to be interesting.
On the other hand, my grandmother sometimes saw spirits. Don’t get me wrong. She was no flake. She was level-headed as the day is long – and occasionally saw spirits or had clairvoyant visions. And she was part Cherokee Indian. These things may put her closer to Native American spiritual sensibilities than her identity would otherwise suggest. For that matter, though, she had some Welsh ancestors; and the Celts had their own sense of spirits and “thin places” between this world and the supernatural.
So the two days, All Saints and All Souls, follow All-Hallows’-Eve, i.e., Halloween. Thin times all, at least if you ask the Celts or the Aztecs and their Mexican and American descendants. I think my own home, the complex and the balcony and hopefully the wall where the ofrenda will be, is a thin place, at least some of the time. As the Wiccans say, blessed be.