Nature Archives

Monday Morning Inspiration: have some clouds with your coffee


“Years ago I used to drive a cab for a living. There was a blind woman I used pick up at one of the local universities. She was taciturn, proper, almost British in her sense of propriety and reserve. And though she seldom talked, we gradually became friends. One day I asked her what one thing she would wish to see if, for only one minute, she could have the gift of sight. She smiled and thought a moment. Then, she said, “Clouds.” The answer surprised me. Of all the choices in the wide breadth of the world, she had chosen one that would never have crossed my mind. “Why clouds?” I asked. “Because I can’t imagine them,” she said. “People have tried to explain them to me. They tell me they are like cotton. The tell me they look like fog feels. They spray whipped cream in my hand. They move my fingers over paintings of skies and let me feel the shapes of clouds painted on canvas. But I am still no closer to an understanding. Yes, it would be clouds.” […]

As I drove along I pondered her words. I, who saw clearly, spent each day wishing for some distant object — a place, a person, some prize of life I hoped to win. But one who valued sight the most — one to whom it was denied — knew that the greatest gift her eyesight could bestow was before me, unnoticed and unhallowed, at that very moment.

“Clouds,” I thought. Of course. What else in this great universe so eludes description, so fills the spirit with wonder? What else floats gossamer and ethereal above our lives, never touching down but always present with us, a reminder of the majesty of an unseen God? As a child we are alive to their magic. We lie on our backs on summer hillsides, make up stories, find giants and dragons in their forms. They are God’s sketchbook, the measure of our capacity to dream. But as we grow, they fall victim to numbing familiarity. Their poetry and majesty, though still alive in our hearts, is easily overlooked, easily ignored.

“Now, let me ask you,” she was saying, “What is a cloud like?” I returned from my reverie. The traffic was churning angrily on the rush-hour streets. Far above, the clouds were moving slowly, like horses, like carriages, like elephants holding each other’s tails. “They’re like God’s dreams,” I said. “Thank you,” she responded. She did not speak again. But her still, small smile filled the cab with the eloquence of peace.

-Kent Nerburn, from Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life:

The curbside flower beds on Winnequah Road (day 2 of staycation)

DSC00059I like curbside flower beds very much because there is something so generous and inviting about them; they are a distinctive feature of Monona. One of my goals during this week’s staycation was to leisurely stroll down part of Winnequah and gaze at many of the curbside flower beds. I accomplished that today. These photos should help cheer me up in the winter.

As much as I enjoy the more manicured flower beds, I’m quite taken by these front yard daisies and have fantasies about doing the same in the way back of our yard:







The delphiniums here are particularly stunning:




Of course I had to get a close up of the bird bird bath:


This flower garden is all kinds of wonderful and this photo doesn’t begin to do it justice:




A few more:













Last night’s strawberry moon (with a side of Questions Before Dark)

Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down,
consider your altered state:
has this day changed you?
Are the corners sharper or rounded off?
Did you live with death?
Make decisions that quieted?
Find one clear word that fit?
At the sun’s midpoint did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites the possible?
What did you learn from things you dropped
and picked up and dropped again?
Did you set a straw parallel to the river,
let the flow carry you downstream?

– Jeanne Lohmann, Questions Before Dark, from The Light of Invisible Bodies: Poems

Photo credit: Mike McDowell

My answers to the above:

Are the corners sharper or rounded off?   Rounded off

Did you live with death? Yep. My fleeting thoughts of death prompted me to make a mental note to take my vitamins more frequently.

Make decisions that quieted? Hmmm. My decision to buy water balloons for the kids quieted them. Does that count?

Find one clear word that fit? Sprezzatura

At the sun’s midpoint did you notice a pitch of absence, bewilderment that invites the possible? I did, actually, as I was sitting outside at noon eating lunch at work. 

What did you learn from things you dropped and picked up and dropped again? That I really should call the help desk because the spreadsheet didn’t save correctly even after I picked it up and dropped it again, so to speak.

Did you set a straw parallel to the river, let the flow carry you downstream? Yes, while youngest daughter’s flurry of texts came after school seeking approval for spontaneous park excursion with her friends. Just went with the flow of her energy. 

The tree’s way of being

treeEight or so years ago my late father planted this redbud tree in our front yard.

The tree went on to house several American Robin nests over the years, provided shelter to the birds that visited the feeders, and gave me shade as I sat under the tree and read or worked on the laptop. A pet parakeet, gerbil, and hamster are buried beneath it. It was a faithful tree friend.

Unfortunately the last couple of springs took a toll on the tree. Early warm weather followed by a cold spell resulted in fewer blossoms and leaves. This spring the tree had no buds at all. It died the same spring my dad died.

“I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted, perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.”

-May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal


Monday Morning Inspiration: Bird Happy Hour

bird torpedoI very much enjoy this time of year when the bird happy hour begins around 5:15 a.m., usually with a Northern Cardinal kicking things off. May Sarton describes it well in The House by the Sea: A Journal:

I am in an ecstasy of birds and their plummeting flight past the terrace. It is very thrilling when a bird closes its wings and shoots along like a torpedo through the air. The elusive oriole is everywhere now, in and out of maple flowers and apple blossom. But I rarely catch sight of him. I miss the white-throated sparrow…has he not returned? The mourning doves settle under the bird feeder, half a dozen at a time, and when disturbed make a lovely rustling whirr as they fly off. But it is now no single bird but the sense of congregations everywhere in the air and in the trees that makes the thrill. Out in the field the killdeer give their sharp peep, and the tree swallows go scooting around in the evening. The air they inhabit with such grace is intoxicating in itself, cool and gentle. What days!”

Sunday afternoon reflection on irises and plastic pink flamingos

mailboxToday neighbor Tom posted on Facebook this photo he took of our mailbox a few years ago. It is nice to see the irises (yes, those are irises painted on the mailbox too), because this year these irises aren’t blooming. It seems I inadvertently mowed over them while mowing around the mailbox earlier in the spring to try to mow down weeds. Oops. Fortunately the backyard irises are doing fine.

The irises in the photo are from a batch of iris bulbs we acquired from the parents of my high school best friend after attending her high school graduation party. At all the residences both my parents and I and my family have lived since then, even including one of the college rentals I lived in, we have planted iris bulbs that are descendants from that original batch. The irises have lasted longer than that friendship, but they still symbolize friendship for me, and bring to mind what David Whyte wrote about friendship in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

..Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding not only of the self and the other but also, of a possible and as yet unlived, future.

…Friendship transcends disappearance: an enduring friendship goes on after death, the exchange only transmuted by absence, the relationship advancing and maturing in a silent internal conversational way even after one half of the bond has passed on.

…the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

We planted these irises back in the early 1990s in Madison at the flat my husband and I lived in at the time. The wife of the landlord saw the irises in bloom one May and told me that irises are the national symbol of mental health. Their son was bipolar so irises were meaningful to her. After she told me that I started looking at her son more compassionately (he was a neighbor that wasn’t always easy to get along with) and it also gave me a greater appreciation for the irises.

V__ADE7Finally, these irises remind me of endurance. The mailbox irises will show “tolerance and mercy” and bloom again next year, so I don’t have to berate myself for this year’s sloppy gardening. In the meantime, these pink plastic flamingos my daughters gave me for my birthday today will pick up the slack.



The birds have chosen us

wtsThis explains perfectly why I put far more effort into watching the birds in and near our yard, – we keep a family bird register by the picture window for jotting down the comings and goings of bird visitors – rather than into going out yonder to look for rare birds:

“It is afternoon — the time of gathering. The long shadows of the day stretch out behind us. I am watching the birds land on the feeder outside our window. Grackles, chickadees, songbirds, and jays. Why have they chosen us? Despite cats, squirrels, noise, human intrusion, they brave everything to return here. I marvel as they make their peace with each other and share this common space…

They take their turns. The songbirds flutter, alight, grab a few grains, and retreat. The jays strut and preen. The grackles swoop down with impunity, take what they will. Far in the background, perched in a small pine tree, the chickadee sits patiently…[and then] swoops in and takes a small grain of corn…The chickadee flutters upward and disappears into the orange glow of evening. She was the last, and now she is gone. But she will be back. They will all be back. Though they have the freedom of the air, they have chosen us.”

-Kent Nerburn, Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life

Photo credit: Mike McDowell

The white-throated sparrows are in Monona

16611860084_628b134184_qThe white-throated sparrows arrived on Wednesday, April 22, for their annual spring visit.

I’ve been hearing their whistles every morning. They will remain another week or two before heading north for the summer to raise their young. I scattered millet in the backyard for them to feast on as they replenish their energy stores for the final leg of their spring migration.

The Baltimore Orioles will arrive in a week or so. Today my youngest daughter and I perused the various Oriole feeders and nectar at Mounds and may invest in a new Oriole feeder this year.

Now that the white-throated sparrows are here, it means that, for me, spring has officially arrived. I always mark the seasons by the comings and goings of birds, rather than by flora.

Speaking of flora, the redbud tree that my father planted in our front yard several years ago is dead. The last couple of springs were hard on it; it would begin to blossom during early spring warm days and then inevitably the weather would turn cold again. Last year this had the effect of the tree not fully leafing out.

It seems its optimism did the tree in. If only it had known to wait until the arrival of the white-throated sparrows each spring, then it could have blossomed in safety each year.



Any Monona birders out there?

Thanks to my recent discovery of the Wisconsin Birding group on Facebook, I’ve become more aware of the wide variety of birds in the area.  People post photos  and the whereabouts of the birds they see. For example, in early November there was a post about a Snowy Owl that made a cameo appearance in Madison. Unfortunately I didn’t see the post in time to go visit the owl before it moved on. I’m still kicking myself over that.

I’ve also discovered that birders like to use the eBird site to keep track of the birds they see. You can view these lists on the map.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the Monona map doesn’t have many postings even though there must be a lot of people here interested in birds.

If you’re a Monona birder I hope you’ll check out eBird and/or the Wisconsin Birders group and let us know about the Monona birds you see.


By this point in the summer I’m always on the lookout for interesting local activities to take the kids too that are free or very low cost.

I found out about Pope Farm Park in Middleton from Joleen’s photo blog (she’s a local blogger who posts photos of birds). There’s a huge sunflower field there and I spontaneously decided to go there on Monday, even though the heat index was 99 and the car available to me at the time has a broken A/C.

My oldest daughter took the photos (you can click on each one to see larger version):

There is also a huge wildflower field and a corn field.  The farm is on a hill and you can see Lake Mendota in the distance. One of my favorite things about  living in Monona is that you have easy access to countryside like this.

Pope Farm Park is on Old Sauk Road, two miles west of the Beltline. I highly recommend it. The sunflowers will probably be at their peak in a week or so.

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