Category Archives: Nature

Kingfisher

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(Belted Kingfisher by Caleb Baker-2015)

Driving to church one morning, I noticed a Belted Kingfisher perched on an electric wire suspended over Stansbury Lake.  What a strikingly beautiful bird.  I wondered about his perspective on the world from that perch.  All through church I thought more about the kingfisher and what he saw than I did about the sermons and what they taught.  I wondered what he saw, what he felt, what he thought about, what it must be like to dive like a missile into the water, then rise with a writing minnow.  Sitting in my pew I wrote this poem.  My family thought I was taking copious notes on the sermons.  (Thanks to my son Caleb for this excellent drawing of a Belted Kingfisher.  The smudge is from the best of many scans, not his pencil).

KINGFISHER

Kingfisher,
watching from your high-wire perch,
looking down upon the world,
upon the water—
what is it that you see?

Kingfisher,
diving from your elevated view,
wings folded,
a yellow-beaked torpedo—
what was it that you saw?

Kingfisher,
fluffing your feathers dry,
back at your vigilance place,
the minnow having slid down your gullet—
what was it that it saw?

Kingfisher,
flying on your blues and blacks from your high-wire perch
into the nook of a sheltering tree,
the waning sun still warming—
what will you see tomorrow?

Dove Season

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In September I hear the plinking of low caliber (but still lethal) rifles through Erda’s country neighborhoods as hunters harvest pretty Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves from where they sit perched on power lines, fence posts, and tree branches.  I find it hard to believe that the State and County governments allow and even license such hunting.  I find it hard to believe that people still go to the trouble of making pigeon pie.  I believe the birds are simply killed.  To these hunters I say, please leave my pretty doves alone.  Let the hawks and falcons do the harvesting.  This poem further expresses these sentiments.  (See the post Of Boys, Pigeons, and an Evil Rooster for more on doves and pigeons.)

DOVE SEASON

A soft crying floats down
from the cottonwoods and power lines
to mingle with the morning mist:
a penetrating, mysterious cooing,
haunting calls of ghosts in the trees.

Pushing off from tree branches and the tops of fence posts,
doves’ gray tails fan wide with white-border bands,
wings beat powerfully with percussive whirring.

A .223 rifle cracks, pop, pop-pop,
plinking doves off power lines like cheap arcade prizes.
A shotgun shouts its BANG!
obliterating delicate birds in a whirl of flying
feathers twisting in air as they fall.
Another open season
to “harvest” my pretty mourning doves.

I think that I may write to the County government,
ask my elected officials why:
Most Honorable Commissioners:
Is there such an overabundance of doves,
as to create an unbearable nuisance,
as to pose an unarticulated threat,
that you feel compelled to countenance this slaughter?
Or do you dispense merely a license to kill,
a tolerance found in pioneer history that
modern man delights to perpetuate?
Please consider
shooing the rifles off our roads,
chasing the guns from so near our homes.
Please consider
letting the harmless doves alone
to grace my morning walks
with their woeful cries that take me
to the edge of somewhere sweet and tender,
laced with loss and mystery.
Sincerely, your humble constituent (voter).
I may write.

Mornings seem quieter than they ought to be
September-time.

Vultures on a Fence Rail

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I looked southward from where the wind had brought the brief summer rain, and was astonished to see a row of about two dozen turkey vultures perched atop a fence rail, their featherless heads almost glowing red above their black-feathered bodies.  A sight strange enough to inspire a poem.

VULTURES ON A FENCE RAIL

Vultures on a fence rail,
Heads bent low,
Sitting still and bundled
Through a fierce summer squall.

Vultures on a fence rail,
Heads pointed high,
Wide wings spread and warming
To the rainbow and the sun.

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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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Chapter 43: Trees

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–Boogers are sticky!–
(Hannah-3)

Dead and dying poplars stand along the ditch bank on Rabbit Lane, like sentries propped up against battles long ago lost and won.  Many branches, devoid of leaves, poke absently out and up like ten thousand fingers on stubby arms.  On the oldest, the only leaves huddle close to the trunk, near the base.  Finches and sparrows hop happily amidst the morass for some purpose unknown to me, or for no purpose.  Their nests lie hidden somewhere in dense bushes; no seeds or insects can be found in the spiky tree stubble.  But safety from cats and falcons the branches certainly provide. Continue reading

Chapter 42: Birdhouses

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–There is no sweeter sound than raindrops on the rooftop.–

I love birdhouses and birdfeeders.  Probably because I love birds.  Their often sweet, sometimes cacophonic, twittering and chirping brings me happiness.  Providing them with an endless supply of seeds brings me happiness.  They gather at the feeders on my grape trellis by the hundreds: House Finch, House Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Redwing Blackbird, Mourning Dove, and on occasion some less-often-seen species like Brown Cow Bird, Indigo Bunting, Black-headed Grossbeak, Bullock’s Oriole, and Towhee.  One common sparrow shares the same general markings as its hundred cousins, but appears to be an albino morf, nearly white.  The Western Meadowlark, Western King Bird, and American Robin sing, fly, and hop around nearby, but don’t come to the trellis, being insect and worm eaters.

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But beyond the birds, I enjoy the sight of the little wooden birdhouses mounted on the beams of my grape trellis.  I call it a grape trellis not because it grows grape vines, but because I built it for grape vines and wish it grew grape vines.  For reasons peculiar to the Erda soil, or to my cultivation of that soil, grapes have never grown up my grape trellis, though I have tried many times with several varieties.  After ten years of false starts, the only thing growing on my grape trellis is bird houses.  Each of my children has assembled one or more birdhouses and attached them to the trellis.

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I decided one year to make large bird houses and mount them on poles throughout the yard.  Not content to purchase plastic models from Wal-Mart, and unwilling to pay for more expensive wooden models, I resolved to construct my own.  I drew out several designs that departed from the standard models.  In other words, no squares or rectangles, but unusual trapezoids and even a circle.  I constructed interior frames on the workbench in my shed, then attached gray, weather-worn siding harvested from discarded pallets.  No master woodworker, I awkwardly attached the siding to the frame, and the roof to the house.  Before attaching the roof, I drilled a hole in a bottom frame cross member, inserted a 4-inch-long bolt-head screw, and with a ratchet secured the house frame to the post.

The posts came in various forms from several places.  We found one while on a drive by Black Rock, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.  The post had washed up on the rocks, worn smooth by years of buffeting by wind, sand, and salt water.  (The salt content of water in the Great Salt Lake exceeds 25%, while the oceans average about 5%.)  We tied the post to the top of our car and brought it home.  Another was an old cedar fence post I found lying broken and discarded in a ditch by the side of the road.  Four-by-four lumber also makes excellent posts.  I made a post for each of my four birdhouse models, cementing three of the posts in a cluster in the bird house garden, with the fourth nearby behind the picket fence.  The fence runs 40 feet from the grape trellis along the garden border to the birdhouse garden.  I made the pickets from old pallets, too.  I seem never interested in building the same thing twice, and built only one of each birdhouse model.  But seeing them each morning on their tall posts as I begin and end my walks on Rabbit Lane brings to me a simple satisfaction.  I would be happier were they inhabited by more birds and fewer yellow jackets.

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Wind (Poem)

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Summer winds rip through the funnel of the Stockton bar and down across the Tooele valley floor where we live.  Or they fly in from the north across the Great Salt Lake.  Either way they tear at the siding and roof shingles and rattle the house, making sleep impossible.  Frightened children wander to the foot of our bed hoping to be welcomed up to sleep with us, happy even to sleep on the floor curled up in their quilts.  This poem describes how nothing frightens me like the wind.

WIND

Nothing frightens me like
Wind:
a million whispers rushing
through a million forest leaves,
coalescing into crescendo and
a horrifying howl,
a gusty, sibilant scream,
a prolonged and violent accusation.
Wind
rattles my home,
shakes my bed,
shivers my nerves.
Wind
disturbs my well-gelled image,
exposing me: unkempt and scattered.
Wind
bellows dirt into my eyes and nose and throat;
I squint and cough and curse.
Wind
batters and tears as
I fight for footing.
Wind
whips up the storms
that stir the deep and hidden things,
monsters that slink mysteriously about,
revealing themselves in
cursings and covetings, in
lashings and lustings.
Give me
driving Rain,
booming Thunder,
sizzling Lightning,
desiccating Sun:
I embrace them.
But keep away the
Wind.

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Chapter 38: Black-Oil Pavement

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–Hold on by letting go.–

Toward the north end of Rabbit Lane, the ditch crosses the road through a 36-inch culvert pipe, where the water flows diagonally across Charley’s pasture in a shallow channel.  Charley was losing too much water through the informal channel and decided to install a new culvert a hundred yards or so further south.  He cut a new crossing in Rabbit Lane with his backhoe, dropped in a new section of black pipe, and backfilled around the pipe, restoring the road.  The water now flowed directly west in a deeper channel following a fence line. Continue reading

Birds

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One of my greatest life’s pleasures is seeing birds in all their colors, hearing birds of all songs and calls.  Though my grapes never grew, I am happy that the birds have come to my arbor.  These Red-winged Blackbirds and House Finches are happily cracking black oil sunflower seeds in the simple feeder Caleb made as a Boy Scout for his Nature merit badge.  I wrote this poem about feeding the birds.

BIRDS

Bird feeders swing empty from nails pounded in the arbor.
After years of compost, fertilizer, water, and iron,
the vines still grow sickly and yellow, vines that grow no grapes.
I once dreamed of the arbor covered in a dense green,
with plump, hanging clusters of white and purple grapes.

Bird houses nailed to the arbor sit vacant,
the entrance holes too large or two small, too high or too low,
or too exposed to climbing cats,
vacant but for teaming yellow jackets that relish dark nooks.

The finches prefer the spiny blue spruce nearby.
Who knows where the sparrows and blackbirds live?
But they visit by the hundreds, chirping and chasing, cracking at shells.

I must fill the swinging feeders
for the little birds that descend to my empty arbor.

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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.

Chapter 36: Shirley and Lucille

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–Please help us to not be mean.–
(Hannah-3 to God.)

Lucille, in her 80s, still lived in the tiny clapboard shack in which she had birthed her children, surrounded by her family’s historic grain fields, next to the small brick house in which she herself had been born.  The shack’s “facilities” were to be found in a one-seater outhouse 30 feet behind the house.  One very cold morning after an even colder night, a neighbor found her sprawled on the icy ground, her body frozen.  She must have slipped or tripped returning from the outhouse, was unable to get herself up from the ground, and slowly went to sleep as the overpowering cold seeped into her warm body.  Continue reading

Listen!

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At virtually any time of the day or night on Rabbit Lane, I can hear birds singing or cawing or screeching or chirping.  This evening, as the sun set over the Great Salt Lake, I heard Ravens, Red-winged Blackbirds, an American Kestrel, House Sparrows, and House Finches.  Opening our ears to the sounds of birds is enriching enough, but opening our hearts to their beauty is a meditation, an uplifting of the soul, a catharsis.  Do you listen to the birds singing around you?

LISTEN

Listen!

A robin! A robin!
Chirping on the branch.

A king bird! A king bird!
Whistling on the fence post.

A finch! A finch!
Twittering on the feeder.

A lark! A lark!
Singing in the meadow.

A dove! A dove!
Cooing in the morning.

A snipe! A snipe!
Tumbling through the evening sky.

An owl! An owl!
Screeching from the snag.

Can you hear them, too?

Here Come the Geese

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Gaggles of Canada Geese flying in “V” formation are a quintessential site over Erda.  The geese fly from Canada to the Great Salt Lake shore land preserves and Fish Springs conservation area, continuing on south.  Some stay all winter long.  I am happy to see them at any time of the year.  And seeing them always comes with hearing them, for they all honk to each other as they fly.  This short poem celebrates these geese.  (See the post Chapter 34: Of Ducks and Geese for more on geese and Rabbit Lane.)

HERE COME THE GEESE

Here come the geese
in noisy, rough formation,
beaks pointed and necks outstretched
in determined expectation,
pushed on by shorter days and cooler nights,
singing their single purpose,
to flee the north for warmer climes.

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Away I Must Fly

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I thrill with each dash of color, each beating wing, and each trilling song from Rabbit Lane’s abundant bird life.  I admire the Red-tailed Hawk couple regarding me with nonchalance as they mind their nest.  Barn owls shooting from their tree holes at sunset fill me with mystery.  The tweets, chirps, and twitters of little songbirds never fail to lift my spirits.  At times I regard their cheerfulness and freedom with envy.  I wish I could flit and fly and sing like they do.  This little-boy yearning, coupled with man-sized troubles, inspired the following poem.

AWAY I MUST FLY

Away
I must fly,
sang the restless little bird,
Away
I must fly.
Away.
Only for a moment.
Only for a day.
Only for a season.
Then back I’ll fly,
to stay.
But today,
sang the restless little bird,
I must fly
Away.
Away.

Chapter 34: Of Ducks and Geese

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–Away I must fly.–

From over a hundred yards away, I hear the enormous sound of what surely is a hundred geese cackling in loud cacophony.  I cannot see them in the pre-dawn darkness.  But in the growing light of my return walk, I make out the small gaggle of only a dozen very loud domesticated white geese as it mills under the venerable Cottonwood in Craig’s pasture, making its only-as-a-goose-can-do honking. Continue reading

Songs of Spring

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How delightful are the sights and sounds of Spring.  Winter has lain upon the land so long that we have almost forgotten the sounds of warm-weather life.  With the melting snow, the greening grass, and the budding trees, we know that Spring is coming.  Best of all, the migrating birds are returning and singing their beautiful, unique songs.  The yellow-breasted Meadowlark is a favorite, with its complicated melody.  I hope you enjoy this poem about the songs of Spring.

Songs of Spring

Ice and snow begin
to yield to a longer sun.

Meadowlarks have returned
singing melodies:
sogladwearetobeback!
arentyouhappytohearus?
sogladwearetobesingingandsingingandback!

A hundred little blackbirds
in a bare tree top prattle,
zippatappazaptap!
zikkatikkazakkatat!

Robin hops quietly
in the greening grass,
stops to reconnoiter,
searching,
one eye for juicy brown earthworms,
the other for the cat.

Life Ethic

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To me, the butterfly is the most beautiful of all the earth’s creatures.  To me, the butterfly represents the height of beauty, virtue, and innocence.  Still, I once hunted butterflies.  I collected one of every species I could find.  I knew their names, colors, diets, habitats, and flight patterns.  (I never knew their Latin names.)  I collected them, as I understand now, in an attempt to grasp and bring into myself their beauty.  Of course, over time they disintegrated into dust.  Now I thrill to watch them fly.  Now I understand that I cannot find beauty by killing it and displaying it on a wall.  Beauty exists outside of us in creatures like butterflies, and arises from within us as we are kind and true.  This poem is about my son’s choice, from the beginning, to let the butterflies live.

Life Ethic

“I caught it! I caught it!” cried the boy
over the weed-whacker whir
after waving his pole-clamped pillowcase
across the sky.
Two wide eyes and a victory smile
raced to the porch where
two trembling hands
coaxed the delicate creature
through the screened bug-box door.
A bundle of awe,
the boy sat still and stared
at this astonishing bringing-together
of color and form,
at this life.
Father watched from the garden rows,
remembering his own youth’s hunt
for small, helpless prey,
whose fate was to rot
with a pin through the thorax,
and a tag with a name and a date.
But the magical fluttering rainbows had faded
fast behind their showcase.
“Nice catch, son,” father admired
with a pat and a ruffle.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“Well, I think I’ll watch him for a while, and
then I’ll let him go.”
Good boy, father sighed, as
a boy released his heart’s hold and
a captive rainbow again
graced the sky.

Look Out the Window

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In a safe environment, a child can see the world with wonder.  He or she encounters the smiles and waves of a parent, loose garden soil between the toes, butterflies on flower blossoms, and being tucked into bed with a story or a lullaby.  I wrote the song “Look Out the Window” after one of my children called to me from an upstairs window while I worked in the garden.  She was happy to see me–“Hi Daddy!”–and raced down the stairs to join me in the garden.  Every child deserves to be safe and to be loved, and to see the world with wonder.  Here is the link to the sheet music to Look Out the Window.

Summer Night (Lullaby)

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Nature’s creatures make beautiful music, especially on a Summer night, whether it be crickets or katydids, Canada Geese in formation or a clucking hen settled on her eggs, the wind in the leaves or the rain tapping on the rooftop.  And lullabies comfort the sleepless, fretting child.  My Hannah turns nine years old today.  In honor of her birthday, I am posting her favorite of all my songs (so far), called “Summer Night,” which celebrates nature’s music in a lullaby.  Sing it to your children or grandchildren, or just hum it to yourself, and let me know how you like it.  Here is the link.

Summer Night

Summer Corn

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On many a summer evening, as the dry air began to cool, the children found me in the garden sitting on a picnic chair hidden between rows of corn stalks, munching on cobs of raw sweet corn.  That is as close to bliss as I’ve ever come.  One day I yielded to the impulse to lie on my back in the dirt between the corn rows, close my eyes, and just listen.  It took me years to put the experience into words, but I finally managed (hopefully) with “Summer Corn.”  As the poem seeks to share with an anonymous companion, so now I share with you.

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Summer Corn

Lie with me between the rows of summer corn.
Don’t speak, yet.
Listen:
to the raspy hum of bees gathering pollen from pregnant, golden tassels,
to the hoarse soft rubbing of coarse green leaves in the imperceptible breeze,
to the plinking rain of locust droppings upon the soft soil.
Listen:
to the neighbor’s angus wieners bemoaning their separation,
to the pretty chukars heckling from the chicken coop,
to the blood pulsing in your ears, coursing through your brain.
Don’t speak, now.
Reach to touch my hand.
Listen to the world
from within the rows of summer corn.

Summer Song

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I could hear them as I approached the north end of Rabbit Lane.  Ka-swishhh ka-swishhh ka-swishhh ka-swishhh–swika swika swika swika swika.  With the blue sky above, the fields and pastures all around, and the butterflies and bees winging in warm air, the sound of the ground-line sprinklers was true music.  A summer song.

Summer Song

Ground-line sprinklers in the green alfalfa hay
make such pretty music,
like the field song of crickets and katydids
on a hot, summer evening.
Cows’ tails swishing in the tall, dry grass,
and the breeze fluttering stiff poplar leaves,
add apropos percussion
to the sublimity and song.

Chapter 21: Cricket Chorus

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Hyrum, you’re my little bug.

Under low, heavy clouds and a light, misty rain, the lighthouse beam shines in a shaft for miles as it slowly sweeps the sky. Continue reading

Speak, Spirit

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Snow Canyon called to me.  I could not wait to finish my law classes in nearby St. George and head into the canyon for an evening hike.  I chose the Hidden Pinyon Trail, a popular trail over and through twisting redrock slots and boulders, past blooming prickly pear cactus, Mormon tea plants, black brush, and flowering yucca.  I felt lonely and disconnected in my relationships, wondering who I was and questioning about god and life.  Arriving at a ridge line 300 above the canyon floor, I sat cross-legged on a patina-stained ledge, raised my staff with both arms to heaven, and called upon the universe for answers.  This poem attempts to convey the experience that followed.  The photograph above is a Utah Agave plant with its bloom growing seven feet tall in Snow Canyon.

SPEAK SPIRIT

Great Spirit,
Father of earth and sky—
manifest Thyself unto me.

Spirit Son,
Child of earth and sky—
see my writing in the rock,
in the swirling veins of cemented sandstone,
in the lichens’ greens and grays.
Hear my voice in the warbles and trills of song birds,
in the lonely quail call.
Smell my wisdom in the breeze-born sage
after desert’s summer shower.
Taste my nature in the pure water
pooled in pocks etched in stone over a million years
by grinding wind and splintering ice.
Touch my mind as you touch with whisper touch
the stunning, delicate cactus bloom,
as you cause the fine red sand to sift through wondering fingers.
Feel my heart as you cry
and reach for the sky
at sunset.

4 degrees F

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My phone registers 4 degrees Fahrenheit as I walk this New Year’s Eve morning on Rabbit Lane. I do not enjoy the cold, but I know that I will find beauty on Rabbit Lane, despite the adversity, or perhaps because of it.  I am wearing as many layers as my boots, pants, and coat can accommodate.  Brisk movement is my best protection.  Also, the air is still, and the brilliant sun shines warm on my back, cutting through the cold.

Despite having completed the manuscript of my book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road, which I am posting on this blog one chapter at a time, I know that the true story will never be fully told.  Beautiful things will happen every hour of every day that deserve telling.  The spirits of people passed on will whisper, You forgot about me.

Today, I come upon Russian Olive trees still sporting abundant fruits, burnished by months of hanging in the sun (photo above).  A Red-shafted Northern Flicker launches from a tree, flapping furiously, then torpedoes through the air without wing-beats, then flaps furiously again, sporting its white tail patch and orange primary underwings.  Torpedo.  Flap.  Dive.  Beat. There is always something new, something beautiful.

This poem attempts to capture the paradox of having completed something that can never be complete.  I hope you enjoy this last glimpse of Rabbit Lane from 2014.

POSTSCRIPTS TO A PARADOX

My manuscript is finished.
Everything there was to write, I wrote.
All the notes have been transcribed, expanded, and stitched up.
I proofread it, twice, and double-checked the formatting.
I capitalized the name of each Bird and Butterfly and Tree and Flower.
Now there is only rejoicing, recounting, and remembering.
But nothing new can happen.
My manuscript is finished.

PSs.
Bruce told me a story,
a good one, about Harvey,
that I hadn’t heard before.

Horses ran to the fence to greet us,
cheerfully, kicking up snow
and snorting steam.

Long after sunset
a thinning patch in heavy gray snow
clouds still held light, Hannah (8) pointed out.

Witch’s Tree is rotting,
her skin and flesh flaking off
into the dry waste of Witch’s Pond.

Old Cottonwood has unquestionably grown
beyond his once 17-foot girth,
though his tree-top branches languish.

(But nothing new can happen.)

Chapter 15: Of Foxes and Hens

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You are my best friend and my big buddy.
(John-3 to Dad)

The day-old chicks arrived at the store in a box delivered by U.S. mail.  While I had ordered only half-a-dozen specialty breed pullets, they came boxed with two dozen unsexed White Leghorns for cushioning and warmth.  I had hung a heat lamp—a warm if impersonal surrogate for their mothers’ downy breasts—in a makeshift pen because the chicks were too tiny and frail to generate enough of their own body heat against the chilly Spring nights.  The hanging lamp radiated light and heat downward to make a spot of warmth in the straw where the chicks gathered close to rest.  I don’t think they ever fully slept, for the light.  But they were warm and safe and comfortable. Continue reading

Chapter 14: No Trespassing

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–A butterfly graces equally the idyllic mountain meadow and the urban flower box.–

On a cedar fence post near Rabbit Lane an old sign announces “No Trespassing.”  The letters were burned or carved into the worn and weathered plank.  The sign has been cracked by the black head of a rusting iron nail driven into the cedar post.  The sign has long ago lost any intimidating aspect, and it now resembles the endearing smile of a gap-toothed old man. Continue reading

Chapter 12: Worm Sign

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–A sincere smile can change the world.–

The night’s rains have turned the hard-packed-dirt surface of Rabbit Lane into a thin slick of mud, with small pools in the valleys between washboard peaks.  Long earthworms, flushed from their deluged burrows, make their tedious way across the muddy film, seeming to wander without any sense of where they need to go.  Slight worm tracks criss-cross the slick: shallow smooth ruts, their directions and intersections chaotic, random, crossing over and following each other without discernible pattern.  They leave only faint signs of their humble existence. Continue reading

Chapter 9: Witch’s Tree

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–Desire teased spawns vice.–

My boots crunch loudly on Rabbit Lane’s loose gravel.  The noise reverberates in the air and in my brain and distracts me from the peaceful quiet of my surroundings.  I imagine the noise to be similar to that of chewing crisp carrots with tight earphones on.  I find myself wandering within the roadway in search of the path of least noise generation potential.  Part of me doesn’t want to startle the wildlife, which in turn startles me with a sudden rustling of wings or splashing of water.  I also don’t want to interfere with nature’s soft voices.  A bigger part of me simply doesn’t want to draw attention to myself, not even from the animals.  On Rabbit Lane, at least, I can be free of critical eyes and voices.  Still, even here, alone, I instinctively avoid the noise that would bring the attention of looks and whispers in other places. Continue reading

I Left the House

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While I don’t care for the cold of winter, I find that winter walking reveals unparalleled beauty despite the leafless trees, and brings unique pleasures and insights, such as those discussed in this poem.  And winter mornings are quiet.  So, as much as I prefer the warmer seasons, I still enjoy bundling up and heading to Rabbit Lane for pre-dawn winter walks.  (For more discussion of winter walks in the snow, see the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, Chapter 8: Tracks in the Snow post.)

I LEFT THE HOUSE

I left the house
to walk a long walk
through the uncertain silhouettes
of morning’s pre-dawn dim,
and found that
Heaven had graced Earth,
silently,
magically,
with a covering of snow,
soft on the hard, frozen earth,
pale gray in the lingering starlight.

On the farm road,
tire tracks sliced and sullied the snow,
leaving long, undulating ruts
to follow.
I quickly chose the ease of the rut.
Then I found the tracks of
other travelers—mice, rabbits, a raccoon—
meandering, veering, crossing,
as necessary or desirable.
Then I, too, left the pre-established path,
and made my own way through the snow.
The frozen crust crunched and gave way
under the weight of my boots;
each step sent up a small crystalline cloud;
white snow caps clung to my toes;
my legs protested with burning fatigue at
the effort of resisting the rut.

The snow turned from gray to white with the fading of night,
tinged with the pink of impending sunrise.
In the undisturbed snow beside the rutted tracks,
the sun’s first rays revealed an infinity of microscopic prisms,
sparkling brief flashes of rainbow color.

In the distance behind,
the house waited patiently for my return.

Chapter 6: Harvey

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–Small acts of kindness soften the soul.–

“Let’s go over to Harvey’s,” I suggested one Sunday afternoon soon after moving to the country house.

“Who’s Harvey?” asked Brian (8).

“Harvey is our neighbor,” I explained.  “You’ll like his place.  He has lots of animals.”

We walked down Church Road toward Rabbit Lane, past Russell’s arena, and turned up the dirt drive to Harvey’s log-sided house.  No one answered my knock at the door, but I thought it would be alright if we looked around at Harvey’s animals.  We smelled the animals before we saw them: skunk.  No doubt about it.  A wrinkled, water-stained sign wired to the cage read, Stay Away. Continue reading

Old Cottonwood (Poem)

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A century ago, Erda’s church-going farmers planted a row of Cottonwood twigs behind the clay-block church building.  A decade ago, a bald eagle stared down at me from one of these Cottonwood tree’s 50-foot height.  Today, the Cottonwoods are gone, felled by my saw, replaced by the neighbor’s new barn.  I can still see the majestic trees in family photos and in my memory as I walk home from Rabbit Lane, past Old Cottonwood, a 17-foot circumference behemoth.  This poem is for that and the other great pioneer trees that sit split on our porches and burn in our stoves.  (See the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, Chapter 5: Old Cottonwood post, for more on Cottonwood trees.)

OLD COTTONWOOD

The old cottonwood is dead,
dead for many years.
Leaves have flown to join with new soil.
Sun-bleached bark has sloughed and fallen.
But the aspect of its reaching is preserved.
The trunk holds steady, the unseen roots entrenched.
A thousand branches reach sharply upwards,
spiny fingers feeling upwards,
still swaying, though stiffly.
Red-tailed Hawk still reconnoiters from a favorite high branch.
Great-horned Owl still softly calls its mate.
And Kestrel now rests in its cavities.

Chapter 5: Old Cottonwood

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–Engage your mind or others will engage it for you.–

Cottonwood trees are the legacy of the departed farmer.  Once mere twigs, they grew quickly to become giants of the valley landscape.  The oldest Cottonwoods are slowly dying.  Each Spring the emerging leaves draw in closer to the trunks, leaving more of the outstretched branches as bare as skeletons.  More and more bark sloughs off, leaving the trunks to bleach in the Summer sun.  Dead Cottonwood trees resemble the ruins of medieval cathedrals.  The bare branches seem sculpted and shaped, like the flying buttresses that once supported a stone ceiling but that now lift up the ceiling of the sky. Continue reading

Silent Spring

As I walked along Rabbit Lane in the dark of early morning, I could hear only the distant hum of thousands of cars commuting to the Salt Lake valley.  The birds and crickets still slept.  The air hung still and silent over field and pasture.  I pondered Rachel Carson’s fearsome prediction in 1962 of a future where the wanton use of chemical poisons would wipe out the world’s singing, croaking, and buzzing creatures.  With a touch of irony, or sarcasm, I penned this poem, a mixture of hope and foreboding.  Visit the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog to read more about places of peace and hope, and to ponder how you can contribute to the world’s beauty and diversity.

SILENT SPRING

Spring,
Rachel:
not silent quite.
I hear,
distinctly:
the growing hum
of humankind.


Roger Evans Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The non-fiction book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  Rose Gluck Reviews recently reviewed Rabbit Lane in Words and Pictures.

Chapter 4: Desert Lighthouse

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–Only small people seek to make other people feel small.–

Our first night in the country house, the children all slept in mom’s and dad’s room.  We offered this arrangement until they felt comfortable sleeping in their own rooms.  One night several weeks after moving to her own room, Erin (5) couldn’t sleep.

“Daddy,” Erin called in a loud whisper.

“What?” I moaned groggily after a moment.

“The lightning is keeping me awake.”

“What lightning?” I yawned.  “I don’t hear any lightning.”

“No—look—it’s flashing right now, without thunder or rain,” she persisted.

I pushed myself up onto an elbow with a groan. Continue reading

Chapter 3: Hawk

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–In the presence of goodness, good people rejoice.–

My boots crunch loudly on the loose and frozen gravel, rousing common sparrows from their cold roosts in the willow and wild rose bushes.  Despite being leafless in December, the bushes seem an impenetrable tangle of twigs and dead leaves.  I hear, rather than see, the birds fluttering and tweeting within.  I have bundled myself against the bitter cold, and wonder how these almost weightless creatures survive Winter.  I imagine them huddled in their houses, mostly protected from the wind, their feathers puffed out to gather insulating air, with temperatures sinking to just above zero.  I marvel that these birds constantly peep and sing, fluttering about with the energy of jubilation.  I envy them their unconditional happiness.  I have come to appreciate their enthusiasm, to rely upon their unassailable cheerfulness. Continue reading

Chapter 2: To the Country

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–You deserve a palace made of gold. (But even a gold palace needs to be kept clean.)–
(Dad to Erin-8)

We moved to the country in the Spring of 1998.  Our new home offered so much room for the children to explore and play and run around.  They tromped through the tall, tan field grass making twisting paths that were not even visible from the house.  Once the children entered the grass they couldn’t see out (or be seen from without).  They were pioneers, blazing new trails in the wilderness, whacking at the grass with stick swords. Continue reading

Chapter 1: First Walk

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–Never betray inspiration with hesitation.–

Sleepily down Church Road I walked, past an unmarked dirt lane traveled most often by farmers on tractors.  Somehow I had tumbled out of bed and out the door.  I would much rather have continued my slumber under warm covers.  Crisp darkness and the ripe fragrance of dew upon cut hay greeted me as I stepped onto the covered porch.  I could see only silhouettes in the lingering darkness: old trees planted by farmers perhaps a century ago; the Oquirrh mountain range; cattle chewing mechanically on coarse grass. Continue reading

Introduction to Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road

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Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road tells the story of a humble country dirt road, of its human history, of its natural beauty, and of its ability to bring insight, understanding, transformation, and healing to those who walk it.  The book contains stories and poems, music and nature observations that will amuse and inspire.  Rabbit Lane helps us to slow down and pay attention to the beauty around us and within us.  The prefatory poem, Silent Spring, honors the vision and hope of Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 classic book by the same name, for a world filled with the music and beauty of nature.  Enjoy each of the many chapters, stories, poems, and songs as you walk with me on Rabbit Lane.


SILENT SPRING

Spring,

Rachel:

not silent quite.

I hear,

distinctly:

the growing hum

of humankind.


Roger Evans Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The non-fiction book is available for Kindle (full color) and in print (black-and-white) at Amazon.  Rose Gluck Reviews recently reviewed Rabbit Lane in Words and Pictures.