Speak for the Trees

I remember the moment it occurred to me that trees could be older than me. I was eight years old, in my grandparents’ yard, marveling at a (to me) giant tree that had a swing hung from one of its branches. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but I remember it had grayish corrugated bark, and it was too big for me to throw my arms around. I had previously considered that adults had seen things that I hadn’t, but that was the first time I imagined a tree living through a different historical era.

Many years later, my husband and I visited Elizabethan Gardens in Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and saw an ancient live Oak that horticulturalists estimate to be over 400 years old. It’s at the back of the Great Lawn, near Roanoke Sound, and of fame because its life intersected with the arrival of the first (and subsequently “lost”) English colonists. Though the gardens are beautiful and tranquil, that ancient Oak is, for me, the highlight. It has witnessed and withstood so much and it reigns over the place where it’s planted.

I’m thinking about all this today because, this weekend, I did some photography work for my realtor husband, and it involved me taking photos of some land for an out-of-country investor client of his.

The land is not far from where we live; it once held a mansion, a carriage house, a pool, a sculpture garden…so many trees. It was the sort of place you could *just* glimpse from the main road and, if you’re a reader, complete a mental picture of by drawing from your exposure to The Secret Garden and The Great Gatsby. I could, anyway.

The mansion was abandoned, fell into disrepair, was looted, flooded… someone bought the land and razed the building. Razed everything, actually. With no care even for the marble statues, which were bulldozed into a heap and left for anyone with access to a backhoe to salvage and sell or transport to their own properties.

This made the place tragic enough for me already, from a distance; my husband, whose work had allowed him to go on-site at various points throughout the estate’s decay, warned me it would get worse.

And it did.

I don’t know how many trees were cut down, exactly. I expect some of them needed to be cut…but I can’t imagine SO MANY of them needed to come down. Maybe 100? It made me angry…and then, it pierced my heart. Towards the back of the property, we saw an enormous Oak stump that was well over 4 feet in diameter. Even a conservative estimate puts its age at around 250 years old; that means that tree was not only older than me, than us…but that it was older than the U.S. itself, and now it has been decimated into nothing.

I don’t know how someone sleeps at night after cutting down, or ordering cut, a tree like that. I don’t believe trees can be haunted…but this stump was morally haunting.

I don’t care if that sounds dramatic.

I know there are plenty of things to decry in the world…and this is still one of them. In the wise words of The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Musings on Squirrels and on the Limits of Science

When ripe acorns start dropping off of the many Oak trees in our neighborhood, the squirrels mostly disappear from our garden for about six weeks. We still see them when we walk the dogs; working during all the daylight hours and into twilight, gathering acorns one by one and carefully burying them in different spots. But they rarely come to the feeders, and we no longer happen on them dozing in the sunbeams filtering through the leaves of the Dawn Redwood in the afternoons.

But once Squirrel Scramble Season (as my one daughter named it years ago) passes, they decisively return to our garden. Not only do they frequent the feeders again, but they venture onto the patio and beyond (one or two even come up and peer into our kitchen windows and make tail signals).

We put a mix of hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts out especially for them; some they bury, some they sit in the garden and eat. Some days, a morning feeding is enough to satisfy them, but if it’s really or suddenly cold, we put smaller amounts out at various times of the day (so their nuts don’t freeze). 

Last winter, we gave the regulars names and kept track of how often they visited. So far this year, our visitors all look like yearlings… but they seem more trusting, faster.  Maybe some of them were the young ones brought by their mother late this spring

Some people think of animals as having to learn every bit of not inherited behavior from scratch every generation, but there’s evidence that some species, like apes and crows, relay information across generations. Let me rephrase that: there’s evidence we humans have detected, collected, quantified. 

I greatly respect science…but the more I live in the world, the less it satisfies. Whether we want to acknowledge them or not, there are definite limits to what we can notice and understand into proving. In the natural world. In everything.

What if we met this shortfall by dwelling in possibility?

…As this relates to squirrels, what if we entertained the idea that squirrels too might have a tradition of passing down stories of friends, enemies, adventures and quests across generations…whether we could prove it or not? Whether we could interpret the stories or not?

What would it change if we spent time not just reading about scientific findings, but also considering the vast and astounding possible?

Lunch Break, with Chipmunks

While I was eating lunch yesterday, I noticed one of the chipmunks digging a shallow hole in the grout between two of our patio stones. Or, at least, I thought she was digging…really, she turned out to be uncovering a food cache she must have made some time before.

(A side note about chipmunk holes: what they dig up, they often re-cover…also, they’re aerating for free, so let them do their thing; chipmunk poisoning is terrible karma. *Ahem,* certain neighbors.)

Anyway, I watched the chipmunk unbury pieces of walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, and almonds; stuffing them in her cheek pouches and scurrying away to relocate them to another location. I remember seeing something similar last year, so I wonder if chipmunks engage in a sort of Fall pantry re-organizing?

This continued…

I grabbed my camera and knelt to take photos through the window. I focused on the hole at first, so it took me a few minutes to notice that the chipmunk was coming from two different directions. Because she was actually two chipmunks, not one!

I presume the first one was the original maker of the cache, and the second one- who I caught watching from a distance before darting in, once the first one ran off- was a little thief.

The second chipmunk alternated turns with the first, who it seems didn’t notice she wasn’t the only one re-pantrying…until she made one last trip…and found her cache already empty!

Her reaction? A deep-dive into the small hole, probably checking that everything was, in fact, gone; and then, a righteously indignant question-mark tail!

It was a lovely way to spend a lunch break.

In Which the Raccoons Steal the Show

Some mornings when we check the wildlife camera, we see there hasn’t been much, or sometimes any, action overnight. We haven’t been surveilling for long enough to tell if this is due to temperature, weather conditions, or some other variation (like the presence of a predator we can’t see, nearby street noise or traffic, the phase of the moon, or better offerings elsewhere). But other nights are the opposite!

In the latest wildlife camera montage, you can see some brief clips from the 26th, the 28th, and the 29th of September…but the real fun is the footage from the 30th.

We have Cougar the feral/outdoor cat; the appearance of a mysterious past-midnight bunny we’ve named Max (why is he out so late? is he a vampire? or just having a late-night snack?); Friday the young opossum; his mother, Star (she’s the larger possum with the leg injury; we have been following her for months and she is particularly dear to our hearts); and, finally, the dynamic duo of Bandit and Tanuki, raccoons at-large.

Enjoy the show!

Nighttime Visitors

My husband surprised me with an outdoor wildlife camera last winter. He knows my love of nature documentaries and of gadgets that allow a more intimate glimpse into the lives of animals.

Since then, I’ve regularly enjoyed setting it up in different spots in the garden and seeing who shows up. (I try to be an unobtrussive human when I’m outside with my regular camera, but I know some creatures might be too shy to show themselves at all in front of me).

My favorite time to watch footage from is nighttime. And, while I’ve shared highlights with my family and some friends, I’ve never posted them anywhere before today. I’m not a videographer, or even a more than halfway-decent video editor. The takeaway? This video montage isn’t slick, but it is interesting.

There’s a whole nighttime bestiary that most of us don’t know anything about; nocturnal animals who are rarely observed by the average person and, therefore, end up misunderstood or vilified. But they’re important to our ecosystems…and they’re pretty cute.

So, regardless of my lack of video skills, I’m going to do my part in showing you some of them.

Here are the nighttime visitors who showed up in the garden over the past week:

(In order of appearance in this highlight reel, and named by my family, because every creature deserves a name…and for the sake of clarity in our observation notes).

Raccoons: Bandit and Tanuki

Feral (or maybe just outdoor?) cats: Cougar and Tiger

Field mouse: Cheddar Cheese

Young possum: Friday (because he or she was first spotted on his/her own on Friday the 13th, under a full moon)

Meet our friends…

If there’s interest, I think I’ll make this a weekly thing. 😊

Weekend Getaway in Three Landscapes

We spent a long weekend in the Laurel Highlands, where the palette for this time of year is made up of shades of green and gold. I packed three books for three days (Well Met, Talking to Strangers, and The Dearly Beloved, in case you’re curious) but, sitting outside beside my coffee and my little stack of books, I couldn’t help but look out rather than down. I don’t normally shoot landscape photos because I’m usually drawn to the intimate rather than the bigger picture…but these views demanded an exception.

Some Philosophical Thoughts on Instinct

There’s something about this time of year, as (in the Northern hemisphere, at least) the Earth starts its tilt away from the Sun: the sunlight moves through the day faster; its angle bathes the greens in golden tones; the nights are cooler, clearer, starry; the morning dew burns into blue-skied sunshine by midday. On afternoon walks, I notice that the branches haven’t yet begun to burst into flames of color, but a few early-yellowing leaves have been blowing off our river birch. They speckle the lawn, not yet piles.

If Spring makes me feel hopeful, and Summer makes me feel centered, Fall makes me feel restless. At worst, this manifests in heightened anxiety and irritability…at best, in inspiration.

I’ve been thinking about this restlessness while watching the backyard animals and wondering if a part of my response to Fall is instinct. So far removed from the wild life, it’s hard to tell…but I’ve been thinking about what an instinct feels like to an animal. From the inside out, is it like an itch? An urge? A creative drive? 

One of the chipmunks that lives behind our garden boxes was spotted taking mouthfuls of leaf litter into its burrow recently. Beyond our ability to notice, his or her fur has already begun growing thicker. Instead of eating seeds in the sunshine, he or she has begun cacheing hazelnuts. I’ve noticed squirrels too, moving more purposefully than playfully this month. 

And the hummingbirds are a rare sight now. Theirs is the first migration I usually notice (by their absence), followed by the monarchs. The thought of just knowing when to go, and how, and where, when you weigh as much as a sheet of paper, is so awe-inspiring.

All this behavior is instinct. And, though we humans are more practiced at drowning it out, as fellow animals, we must have something of it, too, right?

So what’s the deep, wordless, magnetic wisdom our bodies direct us with this time of year?