Fondren Library’s most recent Staff Recognition event had an an Owl Recognition element with the screening of videos taken by Jay Gillen of the screech owls roosting in the trees by the West entrance. These have been very exciting owls, seen by numerous Library visitors and Rice people as well local Fox News station viewers. Jay staked out the roost with a video camera on a tripod and caught the owls staring, vocalizing, preening, and falling asleep, as well as having plumage that looks remarkably like tree bark. According to OwlPages.com, “When threatened, an Eastern Screech Owl will stretch its body and tighten its feathers in order to look like a branch stub to avoid detection” – but these two have apparently decided that being detected by humans is OK given such lovely trees in which to roost.
Today I saw what I took to be a large flock of small birds way up in the sky under a cloud. However, they weren’t flapping their wings. It turned out to be a large flock of large birds: a kettle of hawks. There were a couple hundred hawks circling under the most handsome cumulus cloud in the sky. Because the size of the kettle seemed to change – at one point the apparent number of hawks doubled – I think they were at cloud base with some of the kettle in and out of mist. I’ve thermalled at cloud base in gliders and I know what it’s like. The updraft holds you up with no effort at all, and the gray fringe of the cloud keeps you blessedly cool. The hawks found a cloud-gray oasis in their fall migration across Texas.
Rice University alum and adjunct professor Robert Flatt has been photographing the Great Horned Owls on campus ever since a pair were discovered last March with babies in a nest in the trees behind what used to be the President’s House. Mr. Flatt is a darn good photographer: witness the Web page devoted to these owls. Not only that but he has a book going to press with owl photos and remarks by Rice luminaries including President Leebron and former President Gillis.
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!
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!
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.