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!

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? 

Planning Trees

Before we built our house, there were two dead Oak trees on the lot that we had to have cut down. They were in the way of where our house was going to sit and seemed like a magnet for lightning. Even knowing that, having them cut down pained me. Now, a dozen years later, we have about 30 trees of different kinds on our third of an acre (arborvitae, Japanese maples, Cleveland pears, smoke trees, a redbud, a flowering crabapple, a maple, an oak, a hydrangea, and a river birch). And this fall, we’re planning to plant more. 

There are so many reasons to plant trees– you only need one to spur you to action. (Incidentally, even if you do it yourself, it’s easier than you might imagine. I speak from the experience of, when our kids were tiny and our daylight hours were super busy, planting a tree by flashlight around 11pm at night.)

Trees purify the air we breathe, exchanging the carbon dioxide we exhale for the oxygen we inhale, and filtering dust and pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife, each one nourishing and hosting communities of fungi, lichen, insects, birds, and mammals. They help the watershed by capturing rainfall and releasing it back into the atmosphere through evaporation…instead of letting rainfall run off over roads, eroding them, and picking up pollutants before going into streams, rivers, and lakes. Trees offer shade, cool the air, and reduce wind speeds. They reduce noise pollution, transforming the whoosh of traffic into the whisper of leaves in a breeze. As far as making a positive environmental impact, planting a tree (or ten) is probably the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally significant thing most of us can do in our lifetime.

It’s also a good health decision. Trees help lower blood pressure and heart rate. They improve stress and anxiety, and help lift depression.

And undeniably, they stimulate our imaginations. When I was little, each tree was a castle I could climb into, play under, daydream in…I remember some favorite trees in as much detail as I do former houses. I even have favorite animated trees (the ones from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro). I still daydream under trees as often as I can (and, honestly, I still climb into one when the opportunity presents itself).

And unapologetically, I hug them.

Recalibrating

I’ve been quieter than I’d like to be here lately. Last month, my grandmother died. She lived to be 96 (and a half) years old, and died peacefully at home. Her death was not unexpected, but it was still a loss, and in the weeks since, I’ve been experiencing time in that weird, sometimes-lengthened/sometimes-compressed way you do after a big event or transition. I feel like I need recalibrating.

Being outside usually helps my body snap back into sensing the season/month/day/time correctly, independent of a schedule, but I haven’t been spending as much time outdoors as I’d like either. After my grandmother’s passing, there were the arrangements, the visitation, the funeral, the luncheon…; then, a week-long parade of back-to-school season check-ups and appointments for me and my kids; I developed a skin issue that forced me to stay out of the sun and the prickly heat; then, it rained. I’m getting back to it, but I’m out of my usual rhythms.

My grandmother would not have ever thought of herself as an outdoorsy person, but (like a lot of people) she probably enjoyed nature more than she realized. When she was young, she loved lying in the sunshine and working on her tan; as a wife, mother, and grandmother, she planted flower beds and hosted backyard picnics; when she became home-bound, she loved to hear about my garden and its wildlife, and we set up a feeder outside her living room window so she could watch the birds (and deer, and squirrels) from her favorite chair.

Her favorite bird was the cardinal– I don’t know if because of its personality or its plumage…or just the fact that it is easily identifiable.

The other day, I saw one in the dawn redwood tree and, in spite of feeling out-of-sorts, I felt compelled to follow and photograph it. It kept finding great pockets of light, and it struck me as scrappy and cheery. I don’t believe it was a gift from my grandmother (what do I know?) but I do believe it was a gift, that a reminder of her visited me and recalled her.

A Charm of Hummingbirds

Last year, at a bird banding at our friends’ home, I had the experience of hearing a hummingbird heartbeat against my ear. It was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime experience and so awe-inspiring that I haven’t found the perfect words to convey all my feelings about it yet.

What I can say is that that moment sparked a great interest in hummingbirds…in learning more about them, in feeding them, and in photographing them.

This last bit is the hardest. It’s not just that they’re incredibly fast, it’s also that they’re small, and iridescent…and so fairy-like that they cast a spell of reverie on me; it’s hard to switch from eye to camera as fast as I need to because I’m just…so…entranced.

We had one hummingbird visit the garden occasionally from the end of May on, but recently, we’ve had two visiting regularly. They sip nectar from the feeder and the flowers (especially the butterfly bush and the lilies), and they call and chirp to each other while they flit and dive and whirl through the air.

I hunch beside our above-ground pool and wait, eyes on the feeder, listening for the buzz of their wings. And when one shows up, I count. So far, the time they hover at the feeder is between 15 and 35 seconds. Long minutes pass between appearances.

It’s worth being patient though.

I keep saying I just want to take one “great” hummingbird photo this summer, and so I show up and shoot a hundred outtakes. With another subject, all these little failures might be discouraging; with the hummingbird, they’re addictive. Every little failure feels like I’m closer to really capturing their magic.

And what do I expect then? To be bestowed iridescence? Flight? A charm (their plural) of guardian hummingbirds? I don’t know…but something of great delight, certainly.

Summer Light Seeking

It’s the first week of July and it feels like summer has finally hit. After days and days of cool weather and rain, we went directly into oppressively hot days without hardly any transition. Everything is green and swollen with humidity.

We harvested the spring peas and carrots from the kitchen garden. The lilies, daisies, balloon flowers, and butterfly bushes are blooming. After only occasional sightings last month, the hummingbirds are regulars throughout the day now (also: two of them might be an item, stay tuned).

Every morning, in addition to setting out seeds and nuts in the feeders, my older daughter and I fill various bird baths and dishes with ice water, so the garden birds and animals have something to drink when the heat’s at its worst. We humans hydrate and eat ice cream and swim…but sometimes the only thing to do is retreat into the man-made shade and air conditioning. The least we can do for those who can’t is offer some water.

I’ve been taking photos and thinking about writing, but haven’t been doing much editing or blogging. I want to get things done (shot/edited/written/published), but there is something so restorative about just lying in the sunshine. And there are so many cloudy days the rest of the year…so I’ve been sun-seeking and sunbathing as much as possible.

My kids joke that, being named after a flower, I can’t help but require sun like this. But it does feel like an essential need to me, physically and psychologically…it has for as long as I can remember.

I think that’s one of the things that attracts me to photography: the way its magic hinges on the light; it’s ability to illuminate something, save and separate it from the shadows. Every frame’s purpose: light.

It lights me up even away from the summer sunshine.