Category Archives: Environment

Red Rock Trail

Living in Utah, I have come to love what we call “red rock country.”  Bizarre twisted shapes dominate canyon landscapes, in every hue of red and orange, remnants of ancient tectonic upheavals and eons of erosion.  On the trails winding through these hills I have found inspiration and wonderment, pondering the forces of creation and nature.  I have held my young children’s hands as we scrambled over boulders and up screes.  We have marveled at the prickly-pear’s crimson bloom and the aromatic sagebrush.  We have laughed at the lizards and cottontails scurrying for cover beneath black brush and Mormon tea.  All, the stuff of awe and sweet memory.  In this poem I look back at an early red-rock-country explorer on horseback.  Enjoy the trail.

RED ROCK TRAIL

shod hoofs
stumble on stones,
leave glintings
behind, sparks,
scramble to rise
to the high red butte;
desert varnish trickles
below, springs
sprout cottonwoods,
beaver chewed,
beaver felled,
feeding, damming
all but flashing
floods from distant rains
beyond, where
snows melt
under desert sun
on the high red butte

Snow Canyon, Utah

Brown Oak Leaf

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Several years ago I joined an expedition of older boy scouts, including my son, Brian, for a winter campout between the Christmas and New Year holidays.  At the top of Settlement Canyon, we spread insulating straw over the snow-covered tent sites, then shoveled out a foot of snow around the edge of the tents so we could sink the steel tent stakes in the hard ground.  I grew restless after eating my tin-foil dinner and visiting with the others for an hour or so, and set off for a winter walk.  Though the sun had long set, the moon and stars shown through the leafless Gambel Oaks and Mountain Maples to reflect brightly on the white snow.  The utter beauty of my surroundings suddenly washed over me transcendently.  Later in the night, in my tent, bundled up against near zero-degree weather, I turned on my headlamp and scratched out this poem.

BROWN OAK LEAF

A brown oak leaf
dangles from a stray gossamer string,
spinning like a winter whirligig,
reaching down to her sisters,
intercepted in her journey
to the resting place of all deciduous foliate life.
The cool air caresses the brown oak leaf
with the sweet fragrance of powder-green sage
and the sweet fragrance of the fallen-leaf loam
that rests, decomposing,
yielding to the hard earth
its fertile essence
to bless Spring’s
purple taper tip onion,
elegant sego lily, and
infant leafy-green canopy.
The dry leaf’s mother oak,
dressed in velvety orange-green lichens,
clings with tangled roots,
like the tentacles of ten octopi,
sinking their tendril tips into the high stream bank.
She joins her bare branches
to a thousand denuded tree tops,
waving randomly like
the up-stretched arms of
so many entranced worshippers
flexing toward their god.

(“Brown Oak Leaf” was previously published in the Summer 2007 edition of Avocet: A Journal of Nature Poems.)

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Chapter 47: Big-Wheel Ecosystem

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–Rabbit Lane is a short nothing of a dirt road in Erda, USA.–

The air was crisp but warmer than a typical January day.  The sky hung gray, and pockets of darker clouds dropped round, soft pellets of dry snow.  Shades of orange accented the western mountaintops.  Feathers of unseen House Swallows rustled from inside Wild Rose and Willow bushes.  The scene made for an idyllic late Sunday afternoon walk on Rabbit Lane.  Idyllic and peaceful . . . except for Hannah (3) riding her big-wheel tricycle behind me.  The wide, hollow, pink plastic wheels ground over the disintegrating asphalt, radiating into the peacefulness the racket of an ore crusher.  I couldn’t hear my wife talk or myself think. Continue reading

Pavement

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Paving Rabbit Lane changed the nature of the country road so totally and quickly that my mind and emotions struggled to adjust.  Gone were the gravel, hard-pack dirt, and potholes.  In their place lay milled asphalt, the detritus of some other road mixed with new oil and laid roughly to rest on Rabbit Lane.  Some chunks still showed patches of yellow striping, so disjointed as to be of no use to the traveler, pointing in no direction and every direction.  As I saw it, the County had strangled the life out of Rabbit Lane.  I, also, found it harder to breath.  This poem portrays my early perspectives of this black-oil change.  (See the Chapter 38: Black-Oil Pavement post on the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog for a related discussion.)

PAVEMENT

It happened sooner than I expected.
ROAD CLOSED barricades appeared at either end.
They had paved Rabbit Lane.
They had paved Rabbit Lane with roto-mill from some other road’s temporary demise,
mixed the black rubbish with new oil
and plastered it flat upon the hard, living earth.
Now, after rain, Rabbit Lane reveals nothing,
no tracks of the earthworm pushing perilously slowly across the road,
no paw or claw prints of raccoons or pheasants.
No more wet pot holes for the children to ride their bicycles through with a whoop.
Instead, oil leaches invisibly into the ditch
to water cattle and crops some place too far away for accountability.
Pink-flowered milkweed and wispy willow bush cling to the asphalt fringe.
They transformed Rabbit Lane from a dirt farm road with country appeal
to another icon of the American Nowhere, with all the charm of a parking lot.
Rabbit Lane, of course, neither knows nor cares about the change.
But I know, and I am saddened.

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Snipe

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As an older Boy Scout I thought that a Snipe was an imaginary creature which younger scouts were sent to hunt in the Snipe Hunt hoax.  As a younger Scout myself, I never found a Snipe, whatever a Snipe was.  It was not until I was about 35 year old that I learned that a snipe was a real creature, a fairly small water bird with long legs and beak.  It spends its time meandering the irrigation ditch along Rabbit Lane, rising with indignant “peeps” as I trudge by on my walks.  I also learned that the Snipe was responsible for the eerie, haunting reverberating sounds I heard hovering like a fog over the fields at night.  Harvey told me to look up high for the source of the sounds: a Snipe, a brown speck in the high sky, diving and allowing the air to thunder through its wings.  I wrote this poem about this mysterious little creature.

SNIPE

Summer sun settles on high mountain peaks,
igniting heavy cumulus over a burning great salt lake.
A ghostly echo begins to move,
invisible, taunting,
low over twilight’s deep green fields
of pasture grass and alfalfa hay;
a lonely laughter
approaching then receding,
soaring then plummeting,
tumbling, veering,
in sunset’s golden glint,
in late night’s moon-glow,
to vanish at the new sun’s rising—
seen only by those who know whence comes
the haunting, moving echo of the snipe in the evening sky.

Chapter 37: Of Caterpillars and Birds

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–The Goldfinch is a splash of brilliant yellow against the white snow and brown earth.–

The ant hill is the sign of a delicate and sophisticated society, mostly unseen for its largely underground order.  The individual ant is tiny but far from delicate.  It is both formidable worker and fearsome enemy, taking on burdens and adversaries many times its size.  Yet its civilization is vulnerable to destruction by the careless shuffle of a shoe.

* * *

Every year we find Tomato Hornworms on our tomato plants.  The surest worm signs are bare branches, stripped of leaves, and large, barrel-shaped droppings.  When I find a fat caterpillar, I always call the children over to see.  Because of their tomato-leaf-green color and subtle markings, the hornworms are very difficult to see, even though they grow fatter and longer than my index finger.  Tracking them by dung and denuded branch is the quickest way to find them.

My grandfather Wallace, a part-time tomato farmer, detested these pests and hunted them doggedly.  Not needing to make a living from my tomatoes, I can afford to not mind a bare twig here and there.  In my garden, a bare branch is an occasion for excitement: a hornworm hides nearby.  The hornworms, earning their name from the stiff pointed horn on their tail end, don’t eat the tomatoes.  The children think the “callerpittars” are amazing, otherworldly creatures.  John (3) bravely held one in his open palm for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “He loves me!”

Unlike many moth and butterfly larvae, tomato hornworms dig into the earth to pupate.  They lie in the ground all Winter long and emerge in the Spring as tomato hornworm Hawk Moths.  Finding a hornworm, I have the children help me to prepare a shoe box with about two inches of loose, moist soil in the bottom.  We feed the caterpillars tomato leaves until their swelling, green bodies disappear to become dark-brown pupae in the soil.  We leave the box outside in a sheltered spot (where the cats won’t dig).  Occasionally we drip a little water on the soil to keep it from totally drying out.  In Spring, with the appearance of the first flowers, we put the box where it can warm in the sunlight, and we watch every day for the hawk moth to emerge.  To escape its pupa shell, the moth emits a liquid substance that dissolves a hole in the shell.  The new moth crawls out and spreads its wet, wrinkled wings and vibrates them rapidly in the sun’s warmth.  The vibrations pump blood from the moth’s body into the wing veins, causing them to spread open and smooth.  The wings quickly dry.  If this procedure is not completed successfully, the moth will never fly.

Hawk moths flit from flower to flower, sometimes chasing each other.  Their wings beat so fast that you see only the vague blur of wings.  The large moths look much like small Hummingbirds, and also enjoy the name Hummingbird Moth.  They feed while flying, like Hummingbirds, uncoiling their long, tubular, hollow proboscis to suck nectar from flowers.  Tomato hornworm moths are particularly striking, with soft red bands on their underwings.

We found a Hummingbird Moth floating in the children’s little wading pool.  We thought for sure that it was dead.  Putting a hand under it and lifting it from the cold water, I found that it moved its legs weakly.  We placed it on the sidewalk in full sunlight.  After a few moments, its wings dried and began to vibrate, circulating blood through the wing veins and warming the body.  The moth was a miniature, self-contained solar heating unit.  It suddenly rose from the sidewalk and flew away in search of nourishment.  We felt a hint of happiness at helping to revivify the moth.

I once gave a large Tomato Hornworm larvae, and a box with soil, to my nephew, Thomas (3).  Months later, he reported to me sadly that his moth had hatched.  Asking him why he was unhappy, he said, “I like the moth, but I miss my caterpillar.”

* * *

The children came running to me with alarm in their faces.

“A hummingbird . . . in the garage!” they gasped, trying to catch their breath.  Following them, I found the double-door up, the garage entirely open, yet the Black-chinned Hummingbird confounded and trapped inside.  Apparently, its instincts drove the tiny bird to fly always upward.  It buzzed around the garage with its beak to the ceiling, and could not see the obvious way out.  It stopped frequently to rest on the highest object it could find.  The bird looked at us nervously as we paced around the garage, but still could not discern the way to freedom.

I could see the hummingbird’s fatigue and hoped that, if I could catch it, it would have sufficient strength to fly away to find food and not fall easy prey to an opportunist cat.  I grabbed the long-handled butterfly net that stood in the corner of the garage.  The net was new enough to have survived active children chasing chickens and cats with it.  I raised the net and cautiously approached the hummingbird.  It jumped from its perch and flew to another resting place.  I quickly followed.  After repeating this for several minutes, I began to get a sense of its evasion pattern, remembering my old butterfly catching days.  Anticipating its next jump, I swung the net ahead of the bird, flipped the net to prevent the bird’s escape, and brought the net quickly but carefully to the cement floor.

Reaching my hand into the net, I wrapped my fingers around the bird tightly enough to keep it from flying away but loosely enough to avoid injuring the delicate creature.  The terrified bird peeped weakly and tried to flutter its trapped wings.  Bringing the tiny bird out from the net, I held it up for the children to see.

“That’s so cool!” one child exclaimed.  Then they all began to clamor, “I want to hold it!  I want to hold it!”

“Go ahead, touch it,” I invited, instructing them how to carefully stroke the iridescent, green feathers and to touch the wiry, black feet.

We walked out of the garage into the Summer sun.  Each child placed their hands under mine, and on the count of three we released the little bird.  It hovered erratically for a moment, then, gathering its bearings and new strength, it flew off to the south.  The hummingbird stopped for a moment at the feeder hanging from the arbor, full of sweet liquid, then flew high into the sky until we could no longer see it.  The children (and I) were thrilled at having touched and seen up close such a tiny, wild, beautiful creature.  We felt happiness inside knowing that we had rescued it and set it free.

* * *

An injured Western Kingbird flopped wildly on the pavement of Church Road near the intersection of Rabbit Lane.  It must have been struck by a passing car.  As I bent to pick it up, it opened its black beak wide and squawked in terror in a desperate but feeble attempt to protect itself from what it could only perceive as the attack of a giant predator.  I carefully folded the injured wing and cradled the bird inside my jacket as I carried it home.

I awoke Laura (9) and invited her help to dress the bird’s injuries.  We swabbed the wounds with disinfecting peroxide.  The bird still pointed its open beak at our awkward fingers, but had stopped verbalizing its protests.  We then wrapped the bird so that both wings were gently pinned against its body.  When the bindings were removed, we reasoned, the strength in the mended wing would match the strength of the good wing.  The wings would gather new strength in concert.  Satisfied that this was the best chance the bird had to heal, we carried it outside to a small, protected pen and set it down upon its feet in the straw.  We hoped we would be able feed and water the bird long enough for it to recover.  We would have to catch bugs, since its diet did not include seeds.

Releasing the bound bird, it immediately fell over onto its face.  The bindings had rendered it completely helpless, like you or I would be if wrapped from head to toe with only our toes exposed for mobility.  It needed its wings for balance as well as for flight.  Discouraged, Laura and I removed all of our careful wrappings and did our best to splint the broken wing.  This less invasive treatment allowed the bird to stand and walk about, but the bandage wouldn’t stay on for the difficulty of attaching it to the wing feathers.

Despite our well-intentioned but fumbling efforts, the Kingbird died after three days.  Still, I was glad we had rescued the bird and attempted to nurse it back to health.  The thought of leaving the frightened bird in the roadway to be smashed by the next passing car saddened me.  Also, handling the small but proud creature, and working to heal it, had worked a change in us.  We felt a greater awe in nature’s wild things and a deeper grief at their loss.

* * *

An old Warbler nest hangs, swaying, from a low willow branch like a balled up, gray woolen sock.  It clings to the branch through the strongest of winds.  Gusts topping 80 miles per hour have neither torn it apart nor pulled it from its suspending branch.

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A lone Crow flies south behind a V-formation of Canada Geese.  It caws loudly despite a large parcel in its beak, defiant toward the fable of the fox and the crow.  This seems to be a smarter, more talented Crow.  Is this Crow lonely or content in its aloneness?  Do the geese communicate, or do they merely find comfort in their raucous propinquity?

A cock Ring-necked Pheasant croaks unseen in the tall grass, nervous at my approach.  When I stop to search with my eyes, he seems to suspect me of bad intentions, and flaps inelegantly into a tree, landing clumsily in its top branches, his feathers thrashing against leafy twigs.  On Rabbit Lane, feathers from a Pheasant hen lay scattered about, chestnut brown barred with beige.  Nearby sits a pile of spent red plastic shotgun shells with brass caps.

When the Robin appears, pulling at worms, I know that Spring is near.  Hummingbirds whir and zoom looking for early flowers.  They light in me a tiny spark of joy that has lain smoldering all Winter.

The Killdeer scream at me, draw me away from their spare nests that lie hidden in the rocks and gravel, flapping their striped wings as if injured.

In a chaotic, white cloud of winged, shrieking voices, whirling and churning around me, charging my senses, thousands of California Gulls descend upon a newly ploughed field next to Rabbit Lane.  I perceive no order in their loose, gregarious grouping, unlike flocks of geese following a leader in formation.  Milling around in search of upturned earthworms, the flock calls raucously, sounding like a thousand tuneless New Year’s Eve noisemakers.  Despite their awful sound, the birds are beautiful: sleek white feathers with gray tips, a red dot on each side of the creamy yellow beak.  In flight, their streamlined bodies and powerful wing beats propel them through the air, with their black webbed feet tucked into their downy white undersides.

At Boy Scout camp at Lake Seneca, New York, the older boys sent me to ask another troop for a left-handed smoke-shifter, then took me on a snipe hunt.  I found neither the device nor the creature.  Only after moving to Erda did I learn that the Snipe is a real creature, a water bird.  Smaller than an Avocet, the Snipe roams the ditches and wetlands, poking its beak into the mud for insects and small crayfish.  On many an evening I strained to discern the source of a soft, ghostly, reverberating sound moving over the farm fields.  But I never found it.  Explaining this mystery to Harvey one afternoon, he told me to look high into the sky whenever I heard the sound.  There, I would see a small dot, the ventriloquistic Snipe.  Flying high, the Snipe turns to dive and roll at breakneck speeds toward the ground.  Wind rushing through its slightly open wings creates the haunting sound.  The Snipe throws the sound somehow from those heights to hover foggily over the fields.  I hear it less and less as the years pass.

The water from Rabbit Lane’s ditch crosses Charley’s pasture diagonally, bogging at the northwest corner.  Twenty or more striped Wilson’s Phalaropes cackle harshly at me as I walk by, their long legs sunk in the bog and their long beaks searching for insects and invertebrates.

Birds twitter in the willow bushes by the irrigation ditch.  Birds sing from the Russian Olive trees.  Birds call and screech and chirp from bushes and branches, from the tops of cedar fence posts and in flight.  How does one describe the song of a bird?  My National Geographic field guide to North American birds assigns all manner of syllabic writing to bird songs and calls, none of which words approach a satisfactory description of the music.  In English, the Crow is synonymous with the “caw.”  These meager descriptions are like saying a note played on the piano sounds like plink, like a model-T horn shouts ba-OO-ga, like a baby’s cry is waaaa.  No euphemistic reduction does justice to the genuine song.  Thanks to Cornell University’s ornithology lab, new bird books allow the reader to push a button and hear each bird’s unique song, sometimes a humble peep, sometimes a glorious, frenetic melody.

The Western Kingbird’s song resembles chaotic, unpatterned electronica.  A Bullock’s Oriole splashes its ember-orange on a canvas of blue-green Russian Olive.

The Western Meadowlark sings frequently from the tops of cedar tree fence posts.  Even driving at 60 miles per hour with the window cracked, I can hear its piercing but beautifully melodious song.  Attempts to whistle the tune bog it terribly down and omit half the notes, each critical, resulting in a sometimes recognizable but always shabby imitation.

A Black-chinned Hummingbird perches on a strand of stiff barbed wire, surveying vast fields of grass.  Its black beak points as straight and as sharp as the silver barbs, yet the bird possesses a softness and a beauty incongruous with the hard wire stretched tight.

A Field Crescent flits from place to place on Rabbit Lane’s asphalt, flying a low dance around my walking feet, making momentary spots of brightness against the ubiquitous gray.

Lucille

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Fifteen years ago we fended off the rerouting of State Road 36.  It would have cut through farms, a pioneer cemetery, wetlands, and historic homes.  It was in this context that I met Lucille, an 80-year-old Erda native with an undeserved reputation for orneriness.  She was, in point of fact, mild and sweet.  This poem tells of my brief but lasting intersection with Lucille.  (See the post Chapter 36: Shirley and Lucille for more about Lucille and her sister Shirley.)

LUCILLLE

Her cottage sits small
in the big shade of three
old cottonwoods that now, late
Spring, release bushels of cottony
seeds that ride the breeze,
settling in wispy blanketings
on roads and lawns, houses, and fields.
churned up by cars
in swirling white clouds
that float off to land where they will:
on the ground again,
on trees and flowers,
on barbed wire prongs,
and in my hair.

In the shade
the cottage’s weathered clapboards
glower dark, as if soaked
in creosote, matching the nearby privy
planks. A lifetime of bundling
up, kicking through feet
of newly-fallen snow, to sit
on the icy privy seat.
Firewood leans tired
against the cottage clapboards,
log ends covered in dusty spider webs.
The blackened chimney top
misses Winter’s fires.
New grass covers
the privy pathway.

Lucille did have running water.
I saw the chipped enamel sink once,
from the porch,
when she answered the door.
Water dripped steadily
from the rusted faucet head.
Her bed huddled in the corner,
a thin mattress pressing rusty coils,
opposite the sink
in the two-room shack.

Lucille hunched in the doorway,
against the frame,
her unkempt hair streaked gray and white,
matted from undisturbed sleep.

“We’re having a meeting tonight, about
the road.
You’re welcome to come,
if you want.
I wanted you to know.”

“Are these your children?”
Her hairy chin-mole moved
a little as she smiled,
revealing toothless gums.

“Yes, ma’am, these are my children.”

“You have beautiful children,” she crooned.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I offered meekly.

“Thank you,” she softly offered in-kind,
withdrawing gingerly,
with my letter and maps,
into the shadows of her home.

The new state road, I feared,
would destroy her old cottage,
would tear through the oat fields
that her nephews farm.

I regret
never visiting Lucille before.
I regret
listening to the neighbors
about how ornery and crotchety she was,
about how curmudgeonly she was
toward visitors.

We knocked on her door
and asked if she wanted to
buy some Girl Scout cookies
and she practically chased us
away scolding, ‘I don’t want any
cookies’ they had said.

As it turns out,
Lucille was just as nice as could be,
simply old and tired and lonely.
Perhaps she wished that someone
would come visit her,
someone that didn’t want
anything,
someone that might say,
Hello, Lucille.
It’s a beautiful day.
And how are you getting along?
I regret
that I never saw Lucille again.
She died and was buried before I knew.

We held the community meeting about
the road,
at my house.
Most of the neighbors came
and talked for hours.

“The road
will desecrate
an unmarked pioneer cemetery,”
one neighbor asserted.
“My grand-daddy told me once
where he thought it was.”

“The environmental assessment for
the road
is totally inadequate and entirely suspect,”
a man declared.
“It fails to account for wetlands and species mitigation,
and fails to identify potential alternate routes.”

“This is Erda!”
bemoaned an old farmer’s wife.
“We’ve been cultivating our ground
for generations.
The road
will take that all away.”

“It’s no use bickerin’,”
cranked a cynical old rancher.
“The State will put
the road
where the State damn well wants to,
and there’s nothin’ we can do about it.”

The old ranchers and farmers,
and the new-comers, too,
designated me their voice,
to write to the Governor about
the road.
He had proclaimed, after all,
this year to be
the year of the Utah farmer.
The new road,
as planned, would decimate
some of Erda’s best farmland.

I received no gubernatorial reply—
but Lucille’s cottage still hides
in the cottonwood shadows.
Some kin replaced
the weathered wooden door
with a new door painted white,
like a gaudy, too-big bandage
on a fairly minor bruise.
Otherwise, the cottage withstands time.
The little No Trespassing sign clings
crookedly to the rusty field fence;
the house gate long since fell off.
Artesian water squirts feebly
from the rusty yellow sprinkler,
lying always in the same spot,
growing a circle of lush green
against the adjacent dormant brown.
In the front lawn,
the finned ’56 Ford station wagon
has kept patient watch for decades.
Weeds climb past its flat, cracked whitewalls
and faded blue-sky paint.
The rear window is shattered still;
the others remain intact.
And after every Spring thaw,
the crocuses, daffodils, and tulips
rise through the turf by the thousands,
waiving yellow, red, pink, and purple,
perfuming the air and
bringing life and color
to the empty cottage
where Lucille lived.

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