The Summer Affair

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Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

***

Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

***

Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.

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The Poet in the Woods

Ice bubbles in a pond at Partridge Run, December 2014.

Signs of life–though frozen–bubbles in a pond at Partridge Run, December 2014.

I pictured a poet.

In my mind I saw her flowing, reddish-brown hair, loosely twisted into a bun to keep it from catching on low branches, wearing a green-and-white checked flannel jacket, and carrying a notebook and pencil. Poet or not, she was making her way ahead of us, up the side of the snowmobile path off the southernmost trailhead at Partridge Run, in early December.

I knew I was embellishing the facts with this mental picture—but that day in the woods, I could clearly see evidence of her narrow, well-worn hiking boots. I could tell The Poet was short (because of her length of stride) and curious (wandering some, clearly stopping here and there), and in good enough shape to climb the side of the hill, though she wasn’t particularly skinny, looking at the depth of her steps. Snow had fallen the afternoon before, so all the tracks were fresh.

At the near freezing temperatures, shards of ice and sunlight. Partridge Run.

At the near freezing temperatures, shards of ice and sunlight. Partridge Run.

My friend C and I had ventured out on a sunny day into the glittering white of Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, huffing and puffing while we followed the course of multiple snowmobiles, along with plenty of hunter boot prints and shotgun shells, dog tracks, square snowshoe indentations, and traces of quick light mice along with vole burrows. The hemlock- and red oak-lined path had been somewhat traveled after the snowfall.

Dried flowers, wild like the poet’s hair.

Dried flowers, wild like the poet’s hair.

After half an hour on the trail, we consulted our map.

“I don’t want to double back to the parking area to get to Pickerel Ponds. If we bushwhack over the hill to our right, we can hit Partridge Run Road instead of slogging the long way around.”
“Ok, I think I remember what the ledge looked like from the other side, when we were here in the summer. Let’s do it.”

As we trekked up into deeper snow, we were happy to see others had done this before, including a large-booted hunter (more shotgun shells) and the woman I was calling The Poet. Due to the hunter’s presence, I re-imagined her outfit, with a neon orange vest for safety.

My hiking partner struck out in front of me. “Look, she headed this direction, toward the fence. God, I love the old stone fences in the woods!”

Hip high stacked rocks wiggle and waggle all over woods and mountains in the Northeast, climbing up at near-impossible angles; in addition to stone fences, in the woods we often find evidence of rusting farm trucks, decrepit apple orchards and even the foundations of homesteads, with domestic bulbs and roses sprawling untended but lush in the middle of the overgrowth.

View through a late 1930s sedan on the W5 Trail, John Boyd Thacher State Park.

View through a late 1930s sedan on the W5 Trail, John Boyd Thacher State Park.

“She went over here! Boy, her boots seem awful pointy, for being in the snow! I wonder if she didn’t know it was going to storm.” The footwear pictured in my mind changed to western boots.

“This doesn’t seem to be the top of the hill we were thinking about. It looks pretty marshy down below.”

I followed one of The Poet’s side tracks as my partner veered left. The woman had scrambled over a tall pile of wiry brush. I half-wondered: why would she do that? If she were hiking over the hill like us, or even taking pictures or writing—none of those scenarios made sense with crawling like that.

I started to get a funny feeling; not sure why my heart had started racing, I called to my companion.

“Umm, I don’t think we are following a poet!”
Silence. Hiking Mate was obviously distracted.
“I mean, I don’t think these are human prints.”
“Huh?” She readied to climb over the wall to follow the recent steps.

As I hurried to catch up with my pal, following the prints between her and me, sunlight from the east glinted in the rapidly icing holes. I could now see distinct indentations at the front, of claws, and then the somewhat loping pattern of full and partial marks stretching out in front of me.

“Oh my gosh, stop right there! I don’t think it’s human—I think, I think—“
I couldn’t get it out fast enough— “I think it’s a bear!”

“What??!! Oh shit!”
“A small one. I think bear. If not, maybe wolf? Good-sized something….”

We didn’t stop to pull out our laminated Animal Tracks brochure to confirm one way or the other.

The lope and pigeon-toed angling of paw prints looks like a bear, but I am still not sure.

The lope and pigeon-toed angling of paw prints looks like a bear, but I am still not sure.

We once again experienced hightailing it out of the woods, sensitively aware how the energy changes when you believe you are close to an omnivore, even a probably-shy one. The tracks could not have been more than eight hours old. Maybe fresher.

A vague memory hovered in my mind, of something familiar about this situation, perhaps a news story I’d read long ago?

The details returned with the same increasing speed as our legs, which wheeled faster and faster back down to the snowmobile path—yes, that’s right, it was a report of people following with relief what they thought were human prints. Laughing and relaxed, they’d enjoyed themselves on the path back to civilization, only to find themselves instead facing a bear at its cave entrance. I don’t remember what the consequences were for them, didn’t want to actually, even when we were back on more well-traveled terrain. We could have repeated that story. Gulp.

The path of the fronds froze in ribbons.

The path of the fronds frozen in ribbons.

The rest of the day we joked about the bear, with a slightly nervous edge to our laughter. How tricky that bear was. How it wore such nice boots. How it sometimes switched to snowshoes just to fool us and left its shotgun shells behind to throw us off. How it rode the back of the snowmobile, hanging off the side and careening, breaking branches that we had to move out of the path. How it had tossed beer cans and candy wrappers out the back—what an ill-mannered bear! How it pretended to be a poet, just to get us up that hill.

I was glad we didn’t actually stumble across The Poet. Since she wasn’t a poet at all.

Winter sun over side of Pickerel Ponds, Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

Winter sun over side of Pickerel Ponds, Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

Part the Second: Wherein the Butterfly Drinks, And I Consider the Bugs in My Living Space

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

I’m still talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

February 12, 2015, later that day. Since she would not come to the tiny plastic feeder that I put out, this afternoon I spilled some of the honey water right next to her, onto the top of the air conditioner. She actually came and drank! It was fascinating to watch: antennae started waving once her tarsi (feet)—through which butterflies can “taste”—hit the liquid; her proboscis unfurled, so long it went under her belly, but into the fluid; and then she stepped away and curled the proboscis up again.

See the C-shaped, rolled up proboscis?

See the backwards C-shaped, rolled up proboscis in front of the green compound eye? The feathery looking bits above that are the “palps” which sense what is food and not-food.

Thinking about her survival, I flit between hard-edged City Woman and warm Earth Mother. Well, anyway, I say, there’s your honey water for a couple days. Don’t get stuck in it. Now she’s looking all satisfied, her previously flopped down abdomen—which is the hind end, with the center part actually called the thorax—bent up high.

Am I stupid to put out this sugary fluid for food? Aside from getting stuck in it, her wings might get wet! I blow gently; no, she can pull them up just fine. Nothing like a snack, I think. I could use one myself.

I am playing with anthropomorphism again, I realize, but am really, really clear I know I’m doing it.

****

The Dainty Sulphur is a small crushable creature, one of trillions.

I’ve stepped on, swatted and flattened probably hundreds of bugs its size and much larger: horrifying palmetto bugs and leaping hairy spiders in the Florida of my childhood, and hordes of German roaches in multiple student apartments. Even mice and rats were caught and drowned when they overran other living spaces. My mother always said to invading creatures as she squashed or sprayed them: You can live outside, but I can’t let you stay here. This is MY space.

I don’t mind sharing, but not with things that bite or sting me, or spread disease. I’m really allergic to dust spider bites and mosquitos, but understand that larger spiders and thousand-leggers eat such critters, so yes there is a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable bugs in my living space. I can whisk unwanted ones—bees, wasps—out the window but if they don’t go I can become insistent, and murderous—depending on how you define murder.

Luckily butterflies don’t hurt humans, though we can hurt them.

Chicago Botanic Garden.

Late summer Chicago Botanic Garden.

Carolus Linnaeus was the Swedish physician who established “binomial nomenclature,” the multitiered system of scientifically naming plants and animals. I recall the huge bronze statue (which, when my children were small, you could still belly up to and touch) of a kneeling Linnaeus at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Up close, Linnaeus’ roughly hewn figure was formed of creatures and plants alighted on him, under him, wrapping him; with the collecting bag on his hip and eyes open and curious, his eager hand reached out to touch and identify still more on the ground.

Dainty Sulphur Butterflies, in Linnaeus’ classification are truly Insecta, and moving more specifically down the entomological nomenclature, fall into Lepidoptera (moths & butterflies) and Papilionoidea (non-skipper butterflies; do you see the French word for butterfly “Papillon”?), Pieridae (whites, yellows, sulphurs), Nathalis (sulphurs) and her full name: Nathalis iole.

Like a softie, I’ll leave the sweet water there for a while, probably wipe it up and then put out fresh, for this particular Nathalis iole. (Boy I hope I’m right that it’s a Dainty Sulphur! I would hate to find out I am All-Wrong scientifically.)

I cannot guarantee this butterfly’s survival or quality of life. However, I don’t have to squash this insect either, “put it out of its misery.” She does not harm me, and in fact is a little company, on a cold cold day.

Because bitter wind chills, twenty and thirty below, cause me to hunker down inside, both of us are stuck in my apartment for now. And I am getting to know this creature better.

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn't it?

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn’t it?

To be continued.

A taste of full summer with fountains: Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit.

Remember summer? Fountains with Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit (Chicago Botanic Garden).

Part the First: Wherein the Butterfly Arrives

My unexpected visitor.

My unexpected visitor.

February 11, 2015.  I’m talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

At first I thought it was a moth. My internet research indicates it’s a butterfly, and might be something called a Dainty Sulphur. I have no idea how it materialized in an upstate New York brownstone in the middle of winter.

Could it have been hiding in my apartment and if so, where was its chrysalis? Could it have traveled from another part of the country, the pupa attached to the dried moss of my December birthday amaryllis? Or did I carry it in with my bags of produce from the Niskayuna Coop?—after all, bananas, grapefruit and even paper bags come from far away.

Further investigating Dainty Sulphurs, I find its arrival proves somewhat unusual—they are not native and don’t overwinter here or fly in every year like an immigrant species; in fact, they are considered a vagrant species, one that only rarely comes up from the south.

It seems to be a summer phenotype, too, because of the yellow hindwings. In a winter individual, the hindwing would be greenish-gray, with additional black patches to absorb solar heat.

Sun-seeking.

Sun-seeking.

If I were to anthropomorphize—which as a scientific person I tend to avoid—right now it looks like the perhaps-summer butterfly is perched staring out the window, yearning for the sun, a whole-insect-body aching for outside, to move and flutter and find nectar and other butterflies.

When I go to bed, the butterfly is still there.

February 12, 2015. I know if I let it outside, it would freeze. I know inside, it will not survive, though how long does a butterfly live anyway? However, it certainly won’t mate, and I don’t quite know if and what it needs to eat and drink.

My sentimental heart, in spite of my lack of knowledge about butterflies, caused me yesterday to put out a little water-honey mixture, like you would for hummingbirds. This morning she—further research indicated it’s definitely a Dainty Sulphur but probably a female because she doesn’t have the reddish-orange hindwing scent patch of a male—this morning she was still resting, midlegs and hindlegs on my peeling paint window ledge, forelegs on the icy glass, peering out with her compound eyes.

Do butterflies sleep? She’s in the same position, and hasn’t touched the honey-water I dripped onto a tiny flipped-over plastic cup. (I thought it was a perfect shape, like a birdbath with an edge to rest on.)

Inside, looking out.

Inside, looking out.

Her position looks like: Mom, Mom, I want to go out and play! Like my kids used to sit on the back of the couch, heads in palms and feet warm on the radiator, looking out into the snowy exterior, thinking of all the adventures to be had later in the day, once breakfast was done and snowsuits were put on.

But this butterfly has no snowsuit and I have none to offer it. If nothing else, I will at least accompany this creature as we both look out the window, into the deep snow, into the near future. I don’t want to be a well-meaning idiot, like those who “rescue” baby birds from perfectly fine nesting areas when they have ventured a ways from their nest. So I’ve gone online and further studied forms and colors, behavior, size (yes at 22 mm she is a Dainty), and learned that the honey-water is perfectly acceptable food.

Mostly I marvel once again at the variety of things I have not seen, or did not look for, that I am discovering now, thanks to my Dainty Sulphur.

To be continued.

(Many thanks to my favorite insect information and identification website, Bug Guide.net, and in addition, the North American Butterfly Association website. I invite comments, especially from lepidopterists!)

Holdfasts

Outside my kitchen window.

Outside my kitchen window.

It is September and the Boston Ivy has signaled autumn.

Stems went red in mid-August; now the big green dots of berries that popped out over the summer are deepening to blue. Shiny leaf umbrellas shade this transformation until breezes quiver the ivy and pull it away from the brick, revealing the ripe fruit.

Berries become obvious in the fall.

The part of the ivy that I ponder more deeply belongs to spring.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

For five years—five springs—I have meditated on a brick partition perpendicular to my kitchen window, along with the wall around my window and the next building over.

In March they are all covered with what looks like dried up vines.

First sign of growth.

First sign of growth–see it?

In April, from those ramblers, brown-horned growths issue, then beginnings of leaves, cherry and lime colored. Under the new foliage, tendrils creep that extend the plant’s reach; at the ends of those tendrils are what I can only see as little alien pod-feet.

Leaves and...

Leaves and…what are those?

Squishy wet, secreting calcium carbonate as an adhesive, they venture forward to attach the ivy to the brick, suction cupping step by step to climb the buildings and cover them with more and more leaves.

These sticky pads are called holdfasts.

Onto the mortar--

Onto the mortar–holdfasts.

Eentsy-weentsy gummed cushions, the only support for pounds and pounds and pounds of greenery.

Holdfasts.

The wind whips the moist leaves, pulls at the vines, and the holdfasts? They hold.

Walls of ivy

Walls of ivy

Every year, Nature’s prompt: What are the holdfasts in my life?

What are the things that, once I’ve ventured forth, clasp me firm and fast to my true self, keep me from blowing away?

—That don’t seem that strong but really are.

—That form even as I merely think about moving.

—That prepare in advance for the eventual step, wherever it takes me, whichever surface and direction.

—That understand (whether I am willing to acknowledge it or not) there will always be a next step.

hold on!

Wrapped around the old vine, growing new vine.

Whatever those holdfasts are, I need to identify and guard them, because they keep me stable and safe, and are absolutely necessary for growth and expansion, no matter how insignificant or odd they look to the rest of the world.

**

A visitor to the ivy.

A visitor to the ivy.

As summer marches in, bigger leaves follow the small ones, which expand to cover increasing territory; then those green berries appear while I am out in the mountains and going lake swimming and kayaking; next a smell of fall blows before I think it is due–while the petioles blush and glow from the bottom of each leaf to its base–which is right now, here in September. When I start to need a jacket for bike rides, the leaves turn red and brown and yellow-white, like Neapolitan ice cream, sometimes all on the same leaf.

Fall ivy.

Fall ivy.

Finally groups of birds arrive, luckily often on days I am home to watch. They fly at the walls, flapping crazy wings, picking at the berries. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, they attack over and over again, determinedly seeking purple-blue morsels and knocking the already loosened French vanilla, strawberry and chocolate leaves down to the yard below. As that group moves on, some berries are left, to be picked off by the next day’s migrating flock.

The holdfasts darken but remain. Empty brick walls are looped once again only with vines, where small clumps of snow find a precarious perch in January and February. Then the light changes again and signals the slow reaching out of buds and tendrils—and fresh holdfasts to join the others.

Winter light on old vines.

Winter light on old vines.

 

The Day of Slow-Moving Bees

Morning bee warming up at Partridge Run.

Uncoordinated morning bee at Partridge Run.

The morning of August 15 was cooler in the Helderbergs than it had been in months, only in the mid-50s by 10 a.m.

Bees at Newt Pond clung to the goldenrod, languid movie stars on incandescent chaise lounges. After the drama of previous weeks’ nectar gathering and pollen dispersing, they barely crawled around: aware they had scenes to perform, but disinclined to rise just yet.

It was The Day of Slow-Moving Bees.

Slow-moving bee.

Slow-moving, and decidedly fuzzy.

***

Queen Anne's lace, not yet open.

Queen Anne’s lace, not yet open.

A beaten down path through thigh-high wild bergamot and Queen Anne’s Lace led us to the dock on Tubbs Pond. My hiking partner and I were slow-moving bees ourselves, as we drove from pond to pond instead of walking, only gradually warming our muscles. The yellowing of trees across the water became obvious as we sat with tuna sandwiches, garden tomatoes, and a huge tub of cut up watermelon to energize for a trek into the woods.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond, before lunch.

***

It is of course the season to gorge on watermelon and tomatoes—and blueberries and corn on the cob and peaches, until we are sick of them and welcome apples and squash and cabbage.

Full summer now slides into September. The angle of sunlight is shifting again. On some days, like this one, air blows up cool from the ground while our scalps still bead with sweat.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

***
By afternoon, the bees had thrown off their weariness and the back leg pollen baskets plumped like egg yolks. They zipped around like heavily caffeinated actors, investigated each flower briskly and flew off faster than I could focus my camera.

The dull gold behind the bee is pollen on in its "baskets."

The dull gold behind this momentarily still bee is pollen on in its “baskets.”

As we hiked after lunch, we gathered our own nectar for winter, visions and experiences.

Thus that Friday also became known as The Day of Glorious Pink Joe-Pye-Weed and Glowing Blue Chicory.

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed-- Eupatorium

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed– Eupatorium

The Day of Burdock Opening Its Deep Purple Thistles.

And wild oregano flowering.

And wild oregano flowering.

The Day of Orange Slugs on Moss.

And on dirt, too.

On dirt, too.

The Day of White, Violet, Black, Brown, Orange, Yellow and Turquoise Fungus.

Yes, turquoise.

Yes, turquoise.

And The Day of Finding Variously Colored Aspen Leaves Every Few Feet.

Variously colored, yes.

Variously colored, all on one leaf.

Unexpected variations, at that.

Unexpected variations, at that.

***

Back in April, I mourned the coming of summer, the loss of bug-free walks and crunch of snow.

Here in August, I mourn the coming of jackets and long underwear, the loss of flowers and bees and green-green lushness.

However, the new season’s gifts will reveal themselves: leaves that burn then drop, an opening of the view when trees have slimmed to only trunks and limbs, crinkles of frost on chilly mornings.

Eventually I’ll mourn the fall passing, then the winter, and next spring.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day: coming to the end of the best summer ever for chicory and purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace.

***

For now, the theatrical bees know their lines, how the plot develops—this is the falling action. Autumn approaches. Steady drumbeats toward the denouement. No wonder the aspen leaves, the changed light, the final frenzied putting up of nectar.

Flowering before dying.

Here I am! Hurry up! the flowers call to the bees.

Surprises on the Path

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

It was small, strikingly bright in the winter sun, and rested on dried yellow grass not far from the pond. A rectangle of the softest gray and white fur shimmered in the January-thaw wind. Belly up. All four pinkish paws poked out of its luxurious coat and curled up off the ground.

And where the head should be, a tiny red triangle of exposed throat. And, well, smooth connective tissue of the neck, and a glistening, smaller than I anticipated, slightly flat brain. No face, no black bead eyes, no whiskered nose.

Whoever slashed the little vole had sharp, surgical tools. It was a quick move, irreversible, with no real struggle. Talons, we figured. An owl, red-tailed hawk, or raven. Interrupted at lunch-time, by us.

I didn’t want to take a picture of it.

On past hikes, we’d followed rabbit tracks out of the cover of woods, where scuffle-marks in the open snow were then followed on the cliff path by isolated splats of bright blood—the creature lifted high, bleeding in the grasp of a raptor. We’d also witnessed evidence of more obvious fights on a path from the winter meadow into the woods: a swath of fluff and blood and bits of intestine. Then drag marks.

Remains of a paper birch.

Remains, of a paper birch.

I never used my camera or mentioned these incidents in my writing. It seemed macabre, somehow. Or just that I didn’t want to make it more or less than it was; perhaps I’d feel the need to editorialize and thereby risk trivializing, just because I’d captured the image. So I didn’t.

But what we came upon this day was so anatomically precise, clear, not savage or frightening. It was open, like the vole’s throat. It was clean, but not scarily. At least, I didn’t think so. I wasn’t sure.

I could always delete the photos later.

I was drawn by the elegant structures exposed. Touched by the fragile exposed. Aware of the anthropomorphic draw to fuzzy creatures, the Oh no! factor where we prefer the cute and baby-like to the musky terrifying bigger-than-us, say bears or bobcats. But I didn’t experience that, either.

I took three pictures. Click, one angle. Move, another angle, click. The macro lens allowed an even closer view, the final click. Still, I felt odd. Reflective, and yet detached.

Maybe the photos would appear flat. Resembling a lab dissection. After all, I could make out bilateral glands at the base of what had been the neck and the thin intact membrane that wrapped the brain.

Maybe I would see it later as an horrific image—mammal with no face. Or voyeuristic. Too much like something a creepy abuser would enjoy, masturbating over someone else’s pain. Or a bystander to something you are not supposed to see, and it is made normal—such as a fellow soldier separated into body parts by explosives.

But the portraits on my computer were plain. Sun on intact downy fur and what was gone, and what was there. I felt merely the witness, witness to this after-death, un-devoured pose.

I didn’t have any nightmares that night, though I thought I might.

Viewing the pictures now, I think sometimes we feel like the little vole looked: laid bare, breakable. And also beautiful. Even in being torn open.

“Here it is. This is the way we exist, live, die. It doesn’t hurt too much right now—at all, actually—after the fact.”

Submerged tree: what you can't see, and what the ice reveals.

Submerged dead tree: what you can’t see, and what the ice reveals.