Monday, November 27, 2006

More Than Just A Tree

Our front yard Flowering Crab ceased being a tree several years ago. That's why it is still standing. And why it will continue to stand for at least as long as we live here.

What it has become is one of the principal meeting and eating spots for the birds and squirrels of our neighborhood. And this year it is being made into a permanent residence by one of the smaller of our avian guests.

The twenty foot tall woody perennial plant was in its present location, right outside of our family room in the prime viewing area from Marsha's and my favorite seats, when we bought this house in 1977. At that time it was just a tree. A tree that, quietly and without any fanfare, did its little tree things - growing its tiny year-around pomes, flashing its umbel racemes in all their pale pink glory near Mother's Day, showing its dark green above/pale green below leaves until October, and standing naked against the cold winter climate until its annual spring rebirth.

Then, sometime back, we added a bird feeder. I think it was one of the Droll Yankee plastic cylinders with several stories of perches. Birds came. We watched them. Squirrels came. We watched them also. Squirrels decimated the feeder. We replaced it. More birds came - finches, cardinals, jays and titmouse. As well as squirrels. And a seemingly endless series of replacement feeders.

And the tree never complained - not even once.

We added another food container - this one made of pottery. Birds that preferred to dine in small private rooms began showing up - like chickadees. Along with more squirrels equipped with different gymnastic skills than their predecessors.

At night we could hear our elm tree creaking and groaning. And listen to our oaks snapping their branches in anger at the squirrels that resided therein. But only total silence, perhaps stoic (who knows), from our faithful Malus hybrid.

Wind chimes were added. Plus a wooden helix decoration that spun at dizzying speeds given to us by our son. This temporarily distracted the tree rodents who felt that this new carnival ride had been added solely for their amusement. We also had the tree discretely trimmed, diagnosed, and injected by expert arborists. Nevertheless, year after year we continued to notice more and more branches drying and dying, and sparser spring floral displays - while our visitor population became larger and more varied.

Word must have gotten out about this welcoming set of branches that provide good food, a little shelter, a comfortable setting, and a place to meet old and new friends.

But not all of the visitors had fellowship in mind. The higher branches of the crab became a frequent resting spot for our neighborhood hawk that periodically would ravage and savage the pigeons that dined at the foot of the tree - although never within our sight. And just a couple of weeks ago did the same to one of the squirrels that supped at both the higher altitude and basement level banquet facilities.

But this time, thanks to the timely notification of our neighbor Becky on whose front apron the dismemberment was occurring, we were able to totally witness our own neighborhood Nova moment.

And now, largely thanks to the decaying state of the tree, it looks as if we will be having our first permanent tenant. A male Downy Woodpecker, initially drawn to our place by a suet feeder we added last winter and maintained throughout the warmer weather, has been busily burrowing his way into the largest and deadest of the branches and defiantly defending his penthouse from Nuthatches and other interested tourists.

At the moment he looks to be setting up a bachelor pad. But I suspect that a good looking bird like him, with a nice condo in a prime location such as this one, will pretty much have his pick of the chicks when breeding season arrives. Until then we'll probably have to put up with the normal noises you would expect from any other single guy castle.

But whatever hubbub this tiny member of the Family Picidae makes will be one hundred times more pleasant than the sound of the winter wind whistling through the empty space if our favorite horticultural hangout wasn't there anymore.
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Heaven is a place on earth

Millwoods Park is about one quarter mile from our house. It is not a large area but somehow it contains, among other things: two walking trails, a swimming pool, a wildlife pond, woods, a skateboard park, tennis courts, a play area with swings and other equipment, a picnic area, and a basketball court.

It also has (at last count) four hundred and seventy five softball fields, and two thousand eight hundred and four soccer fields - actually not that many, it just seems like it.

And, its newest addition, a Dog Park.

At ten-thirty last Sunday morning the only action at Millwoods was outside at the canine recreation area and inside at the Methodist Church that sits alongside the front entrance to the park - worshippers of each of the only two English language words that can be formed from those three letters of the alphabet.

Even though we currently are houndless we went for a walk over to the pooch playground to take in some of the action. Not being churchgoers we would have been spectators at either place so we picked the one that offered entertainment, exercise and fresh air. It was our second time at the facility having wandered over for similar reasons the previous weekend.

The "park" consists of two adjacent fenced in areas (small and large dogs) with a double-gated transition area that covers about one acre of the tree dotted land between the wildlife pond and some of the softball diamonds. When we arrived there were about twenty canines of various sizes, all within the large dog enclosure, and three others on leashes outside alongside the fence.

By eavesdropping I concluded that the outcasts were either unlicensed or, if they were, failed to bring their permits along with them and thus were excluded by the establishment's rules and regulations from the much coveted doggy inner sanctum.

We did not attempt to enter inside the compound but I suspect we too would have been turned away - not having a member in good standing with us to escort us in. The church probably would have been less restrictive. Copies of Baptismal Certificates are most likely not required and even strangers traveling without a practicing Methodist on their leash would, I'm certain, be readily granted entrance.

It was quiet - but not silent like in a place of worship because the people were chatting quietly among themselves. The dogs however, although busily interacting and cavorting, were absolutely, totally noiseless. Mars observed that humans talk to each other when they get together but that canines only converse when they are at a distance - either to get each other's attention or to threaten. When they are in close proximity like this they really have no reason to verbalize their thoughts and their other communication methods take over.

So while the owners and caretakers stood around in a loosely formed circle sipping coffee and puffing cigarettes, those for whom the park was intended ran and sniffed and nipped and nuzzled - pairing off and separating, and then pairing up again with a different partner. They twisted their bodies around and about each other in a spontaneously choreographed ballet of unleashed energy and canine agility - partaking in all, yes all, of the pas de deux that two dogs together can perform. Then suddenly they would break away from their pack to check in briefly with those who brought them. And just as abruptly return to the action.

Meanwhile up the street and inside the red brick edifice the Methodists partook of their bread, sipped their grape juice, and sang their hymns of praise. And shared the incorporeal joy that is brought to them by their otherworldly beliefs.

But even they couldn't possibly be as happy as the dogs of Wethersfield romping and rollicking in their own private Garden of Eden - also free of all their earthly cares and yet at the same time fully immersed in the aromas of the world and the affinity of their recreational family. And unlike the only two residents of that short-lived biblical paradise - if they get expelled for some transgression it will be only temporary (as it should be).

For earthbound hounds, and their similarly tethered viewers, it just doesn't get any better than that.

(Editorial Cartoon by Dave Rustad, Dog Park photos by Mars)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bene vixut, bene qui latuit*

I've always liked bumper stickers - reading them, not displaying them. I am pretty much of an introvert when it comes to sharing my opinions. Or having the viewpoints of other people pushed upon me.

But when those same beliefs are pitched with a pithy slogan on a piece of paper affixed to the rear of a motor vehicle, then I willingly and lovingly read what they have to say - sometimes even violating the laws of the road to do it. Unfortunately there don't seem to a lot that are worth taking those chances for anymore.

I checked the internet for the history of bumper stickers and didn't find much at all. According to

Evidently, the first bumper stickers came about before WWII and were attached with metal wire wrapped around the bumper. After WWII, bumper stickers became useful in political campaigns. Once it caught on as a popular way to "get the message out", advertisers grasped the concept for commercial purposes and then came the broad appeal to use them for all kinds of slogans, often just for a laugh.

The true "king of the bumper sticker" is Forest P. Gill, a silk screen printer from Kansas City. Gill founded 'Gill-line' in 1934 from his basement, and later realized the possibilities of replacing the bumper wire attachment method by experimenting with pressure sensitive stock, hence inventing the modern bumper sticker which is in use today. Gill-line has developed into a multi-million dollar corporation with modern production facilities adding up to 240,000 square feet of operational space. Today, bumper stickers are big business, with millions of bumper stickers being produced and sold every year.

The last statement is probably true, based on the number of sites listed in Google that sell them. But judging by what I see in my neck of the woods about ninety percent of them refer to the academic or social achievements of "My Child". Or are variations on that theme such as "My Rottweiler is Smarter Than Your Honor Student."

I conducted an unofficial survey of bumper stickers during my two auto trips today. Of the hundred or so vehicles that I saw only two had auto decals of any kind - a pickup truck that said "Dirt, Snow, Rocks for Dinner - US Army" and a 1990's compact car advertising the public alternative radio station at which Mars and at I happen to volunteer. (I didn't know the driver.) Maybe people today are more concerned with preserving the resale value of their cars than in using them as a billboard for their beliefs - especially with the ubiquitous availability of other venues such as talk radio, blogs, and chat rooms to convey their thoughts.

My own recollection is that bumper tickers were much more prevalent in the "good" old days, like the Vietnam War era - and much more clever. But forced to give actual examples all that I can remember is "War is Not Healthy For Children and Other Living Things" which I'm not certain that I actually ever saw on a moving vehicle (it is kind of wordy) and "What If They Gave A War and Nobody Came".

I'm sure there were more.

From that same era, one of my neighbors up the street was displaying a Kennedy/Johnson political sticker during the recent mid-term elections. Since there were no candidates by that name it was, I suspect, a not so subtle dig at the perceived quality of the current stable of office seekers.

Or at the utter unoriginality of their campaign stickers. Other than the "Stick With Joe" (Lieberman) decal - which I actually liked quite a bit because of its self-referential message - the rest were duller than the non-chrome bumpers to which they adhered.

All of which is a long way of explaining that when Mars and I do see particularly worthwhile or unusual bumper stickers we try to digitally capture them.

Such as the first picture above - decals for sale at a Classic Car Show in coastal North Carolina. As I was taking the picture the purveyor of these messages asked if I was with the FBI. I assume he was joking. I was going to ask him if you had to own a pickup truck with a gun-rack in order to display one of these signs but I decided against it - not being sure if he would realize that I also was kidding.

And the two different sets of opinions that we found displayed in northern New Mexico last autumn - one on the back of a Sports Utility Vehicle in downtown Santa Fe, and the other mounted on a motorcycle parked at the square in the Old Town part of Albuquerque. Although philosophically I agree more with the SUV billboard I think the chopper display wins hands down for its simple, direct message. And, like the Lieberman sticker, for the fact that its message and its display case just go so perfectly well together.

As for us - we have no true bumper stickers on either of our vehicles - just a blue "Save The Manatees" magnetic ribbon on our Jeep. If I did have one it would probably say: "My beliefs are too private to be expressed publicly - except one."

* "He lives well who is well hidden" - Rene Descartes

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Blood Bath and Beyond

On a recent Sunday morning at around nine, while we were relaxing with the morning newspaper, our across-the-street neighbor Becky knocked at the door. Mars answered, and a quick conversation ensued of which all I heard was "hawk is killing a squirrel in our front yard."

With a pounding heart and rapidly pumping adrenaline I was already in the process off getting up when Mars said excitedly "Jim, let's go!" And, as I reached full verticality, "Get the camera!"

By the time I came back down from our upstairs den both women were outside in the middle of the street looking intently at the nature drama unfolding on the nearby sidewalk apron. Apparently during that time Becky had said, "I thought that you guys would like this."

We do. In fact it is fair to say that we have been waiting to see something exactly like this - and more importantly get close enough to photograph it - ever since we saw the first hawk circling over our house several years ago.

Mars and I both grew up in the non-rural Greater Hartford area of Connecticut. At that time there just weren't any hawks around here, largely due to the extensive use of pesticides such as DDT. I myself did not see any wild hawks until I spotted one circling over the cornfields on a summer vacation that we took in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country around 1980.

In fact I think that my only previous sighting of any member of the Accipiter genus was at a falconry demonstration during half-time of an Army versus Air Force football game at Yankee Stadium in the late 1950's. It was also probably the first viewing experience for the terrified pigeons that normally ruled the skyways of the ballpark. Fortunately for them these performing peregrines only attacked the straw targets held by their handlers. I remember thinking briefly, and totally impracticality, that the sport of hunting with these birds would be really, really cool. And, in the illogical mind of a teenage boy, a perfectly sensible reason to join the U.S. Air Force - a motivation that did not stand up to the dovish beliefs of my early twenties, among other things.

We began visiting northern New Mexico in 1992 with, as far as I can recall, no additional raptor recordings and have seen hawks on pretty much every one of our hikes out into the high desert mountains. In some unforgettable instances we were able to look down at them as they floated below us on the updrafts created by the valley beneath them.

They seemed the ultimate image of freedom, the type of thought that occurs to someone who would have been sitting behind a desk almost any other week. Now that we are retired I realize they were probably just out trolling for food - just another day at the office for them.

And finally, hawks began appearing on our home front.

The tower building of our former employer Travelers Insurance (now St. Paul Travelers) became the nesting site for a pair of peregrine falcons in 1997. And they, or their offspring, have returned to this location every year since. Although we were disappointed never to see the heart-stopping sight of an absent minded actuary being carried away by a rapidly rising raptor. Nor to find the pinstriped remnants of any unwary underwriters. We did frequently witness "Amelia" and her mate circling the tall narrow building and faithfully followed the egg-laying and hatching activities of the pair on the internet-based "falcon cam" that was placed next to their nest for our entertainment (lunch times only of course).

At about the same time we began to notice hawks perched occasionally atop a highway light or roadside tree on our early morning drive into work. And even more infrequently, but nonetheless periodically, a raptor silhouette soaring over our very own house.

We also started to see evidence of the hawks' success at finding food in our own neighborhood - and sometimes within our yard. Dismembered pigeon parts appeared periodically on our front lawn when we returned home from work or were left on the community sidewalks on which we walked.

A few times the (or at least "a") hawk actually landed in the flowering crab tree right in front of our family room - and the site of our bird feeders. He twisted his head around in that disconcertingly hyper flexible manner that gets my head spinning whenever I see it, but never seemed to lock in on any potential playmates. Even though on at least one occasion a frightened furry food-gatherer hid close by in one of our cylindrical pottery feeders.

The most recent incident of carnage was splashed across the stone paver walk just outside of our family room door and was documented at that time (September 2006) in an earlier blog entry entitled "blood on the pavers.

And a few winters ago we did get a phone call from another neighbor alerting us to a hawk versus pigeon confrontation on the snow in their back yard. We could see the action from our kitchen window and maybe even, we convinced ourselves, actually see some of the exsanguination on the white stuff. But we were still tens of yards away and, for various reasons, not inclined to attempt to get closer. In any event, the hawk left with its victim a very short time after we received the tip leaving us still feeling excluded from the hawk's real world state of nature.

This time we didn't. (click to see photos)

For one thing the ravaging raptor seemed totally oblivious to us - that is to say he was not watching us like a hawk. When I arrived on the scene, Mars and Becky were watching the hawk from a distance of probably about fifteen feet. I took my first photos from that spot using the meager telephoto lens on Mars' camera. Sensing the big bird's lack of interest and encouraged by the two women (one of whom has a considerable insurance investment in me) I moved closer, and pointed and clicked, and closer, and pointed and clicked, and closer..... Until I was about one foot from the curb - at which point he finally looked up, and stared (I'm certain) directly at me.

As our eyes locked I waited eagerly for that moment of spiritual connection - the intense instantaneous bonding that occurs between the hunter and the hunted (even though my weapon was a camera). That magical empathetic event where the prey acknowledges his role in the cycle of life, accepts his fate, and gives permission to his brother-in-the-hunt to perform the ultimate act that one living creature can do to another. (Or in my case to take a close-up of the feeding frenzy).

Not a thing, not anything, nil, zero, naught/nought, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat - although I did get the feeling that if I got any closer he would probably rip my head off and then go right back to eviscerating his Sunday brunch.

I backed up a step or two and took a few more pictures. And then suddenly the hawk lifted his victim and flew to a low branch on a tree in the immediately neighboring yard. Becky, who had now joined in the photography frenzy, and I followed him. The raptor sat quietly within the shelter of leaves, with his breakfast draped languidly across his nesting branch. After determining that good photos were near impossible, and unwilling to attempt to move our subject matter to a more photographable location, we both returned to Mars and Becky's husband Mike who were standing back at ground zero.

"I think it's the same one that we saw this summer." said Mike, referring to an similar incident he had told us about that occurred in their back yard. "He's much bigger now."

"It's amazing what a pure protein diet can do." I suggested.

"Just keep fattening up those squirrels" Mike replied while looking over at to our corn cob feeder and frequently raided bird feeders.

With no hawk to watch we all suddenly became aware of the cold October morning, and decided to head to the warmth of our respective houses to check out our digital results.

And ponder our future relationship with hawks - which seems to be becoming less and less distant. There is an exhibition of falconry portraits by Michelle Elzay at one of our local art museums. I want to see them.

It's much too late in life to join the Air Force, even if I wanted to. But Mars and I will be moving to New Mexico some day. And retirement is supposed to be about doing things that you always wanted to do, but never had the time. Or better yet trying activities that you never thought you possibly could.

How totally cool would it be to look down from the top of one of those high desert mesas and see our own favorite raptor wearing his own little hawk uniform with the Meehan family colors circling below?

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Sense of Place. Or Not.

When I'm on vacation I spend a lot of time looking at wherever we are through my camera's LCD Monitor (or viewfinder in the not too distant analog past). Mostly I am looking for pictures that have a "sense of place", that portray something that is unique to the locale and tells the viewer something about what it is like to be in that particular setting.

I do not necessarily go to a location with any pre-planned themes in mind. And sometimes when I do, they just don't work out like I had hoped.

In Florence Italy I had expected to photograph lots of well-known works of art: Michelango's David, or Botticelli's Birth of Venus for example. Or perhaps several highly decorated church interiors. But most of these subject matters were either off-limits to photography, or overrun with tourists, or in too dark a setting to do them justice.

Meanwhile out of the corner of my eye I saw other subject matters - the ultra-fashionable footwear, the terra cotta tiles, and the less-mainstream public art (all documented in other blog entries) - that caused me to aim my camera lens off in different directions.

And then, as always happens, there were the quick little one-shot images that don't fit at all into any of the above categories. And actually they have no connection with their locale other than they happen to be there as opposed to a hundred and one other places where they could just as logically exist. In fact what makes these pictures interesting to me is that they don't even have any connection to themselves.

For example.

This one came upon me too rapidly - like sometimes at home when the words AMBULANCE, or TOYOTA, suddenly appear in my car's rear view mirror. For a brief moment I forget that I'm looking at a backward image, and become temporarily dyslexically disoriented.

But this one was not a reflection. So I quickly composed, pointed, and clicked - and was relieved to find when I later looked at the photograph that in fact, while most of the letters are correct, at least some others are skewed one hundred eighty degrees. Or at least I think they are.

And I still don't understand the connection between the two marquees, both of which seemed to be directing me into the same doorway.

Then there are some things that even though they really do belong together, my immediate reaction is feel like somehow they don't - like the price-tagged crucifixes that caught my attention in an Oltarno storefront window.

I definitely am not one of the top ten most religious people in the world. And I know everything has a price - and that craftspeople can't just give all of their work away. But crosses that are both cost-bearing and Christ-bearing? Dozens of individually hand-written, white, Euro-value announcements dangling weightlessly on a mob of images showing mankind's messiah suffocating to death under his own body's pressure was more juxtaposition than I could handle without capturing and reproducing it for others.

I once heard the author William Least Heat-Moon talking about how a writer strives to create the perfect sentence - "one that starts off in a single direction and then just goes.." He stopped talking and moved his clenched fists side by side - then turned his wrists outward rapidly as if snapping something in two.

Sometimes you can get the same effect by just noticing what's already there...

...but maybe shouldn't be.