Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Sound of Spring

I awakened one morning this past week to the sound of spring -- a single note -- perhaps mezzo soprano with just the hint of a trill -- maybe a second in duration.  Pause.  Repeat.  Pause.  Repeat, often in alternating frequencies.   In human terms it could have been a distant child blowing a whistle, albeit one tuned to a lower range than the kind we might wish someone had not handed out as a birthday party favor.

A varied thrush, a close relative to the American Robin had returned to our wood lot.  Was it staking out our
tiny forest as it’s territory or just sending a greeting as it passed through on it’s way further north?   Either way, to me it heralded the official arrival of spring in our neighborhood.

Our house is surrounded by the kind of habitat that attracts varied thrushes -- trees -- tall conifers -- Sitka spruce, hemlocks, yellow cedar, even a shore pine I dug up as an “infant” to plant at the road end of the walkway leading to our front door.  At the edges, less shade tolerant species -- alders, mountain ash and elderberry add to the privacy of our lot.  My favorites are a pair of cottonwood trees that have merged at one side of our front lawn.  I planted them there and now they tower above our roof.  They’re the survivors of four branches I broke off from cottonwood trees at the Juneau airport while waiting for a plane one spring day back in the late 1980s.  I had heard cottonwoods could be grown from branches.  My science experiment worked. 

The cottonwood trees and other nearby deciduous trees have a pronounced impact on our lawn that draws the varied thrushes, robins and even hermit thrushes in the spring.  They shed leaves -- lots of them.  If I don’t rake the lawn, birds have a grand time flipping them over in spring --  in quest of worms, beetles and even slugs that take refuge under the litter.  We couldn’t buy a better bird feeder.

Of course there is a down side to those cottonwoods.  Think roots.  With our house built on muskeg soil -- peat -- trees do not sink their roots deep into the soil.  Rather, they run along the surface -- in the case of the cottonwoods -- all over our lawn.  We can trace their structure by the sinewy tendrils that make mowing the lawn in summer a bit like driving a car through tundra pock marked with Arctic ground squirrel holes.  But, oh, the birds and smell of cottonwood leaves in spring make the challenges of lawn mowing a small price to pay.

I so enjoy the cottonwoods that I once figured that if Johnny Appleseed could make roadside apple trees a feature that traced his wanderings, I could make cottonwood trees a feature that delineated my walks.  Fail.  Not one of many many branches I thrust into the ground survived.  But a least we have the  united pair at the edge of our lawn to help provide sustenance to our heralds of spring, varied thrushes.

                                 Karen's painting:   Winter Guest  7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches  Watercolor

During several winters a varied thrush or two has over-wintered in Petersburg.  We hope they made it.  Such "decisions" carry a risk for birds.  While migrations expose birds to the threat of becoming dinner for predators -- including  cats -- in unfamiliar territory, a severe winter carries the risk of starvation.  Such was the challenge one of those winters posed when a pair of varied thrushes showed up in our yard in mid-winter, honing in our our bird feeder.  Although they were very wary (thankfully because a neighbor's cat insists our feeders were set out for it's amusement) Karen was able to document this male varied thrush with a watercolor painting.

                                                 Karen's paining:  The Hermit  4x 6 inches  Watercolor  

Another quite secretive thrush that we mostly hear in our woods in summer is the Hermit Thrush.  However, the ripening of our red elderberries is enough to lure these birds to a bush (planted by birds no less) right outside our kitchen window.,

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Angel to the Rescue

I volunteered to occasionally read the lessons at Petersburg Lutheran Church.  My turn arrived on the last Sunday of March.  With a tendency to fumble my words, I practiced.  I was glad I did.  Guys with names like Abinadab, Shammah, and Eliab are not in my circle of friends and of course I wanted to sound like I personally knew those brothers of David. 

                                 Karen's fresh watercolor painting of Petersburg Lutheran Church  4 x 6 inches

The routine at Petersburg Lutheran is for the reader to narrate the first lesson -- something from the Old Testament Bible, sit down behind the lectern while either the choir or congregation sings a hymn and then rise to read the second lesson -- usually something from a letter Paul wrote to encourage congregations he had previously visited.  Easy!

I didn’t even trip getting up to the lecturn and there it was just as I expected -- a Bible opened to the first reading.  Good.  In the past the lessons I read were printed on the Church bulletin so I just read from that.  Not this week.  The reading from the New Testament took up the entire page.  All that was printed for my part were the words “Not Printed.”    I had to read from the Bible on the lectern -- the one with big print.  Perfect. 

The first lesson went off without a hitch.  I rattled off Eliab, Abinadab and Shammah like they were old high school buddies  As the choir master (Lila) raised her arms to launch the choir into their piece. I closed the Bible and started looking for a tab to guide me to the second lesson. 

Oh, no!  This is not a regular Bible.  I soon discerned it was arranged by weekly readings.  I just had to get back to where I was.  The choir launched into song. 

OK, where were we?  Ah, I see some dates.  I’ll just rifle back to the last week in March.  Oh oh.  This is Lent -- the part of the Church calendar leading up to Easter.  Here the lessons were named by weeks in the Church year.  I broke into a sweat.  I don’t know the names of the weeks in the Church calendar.  Please, dear God, may this be a long hymn.  The choir sang on.

By now the stress had me really fumbling -- totally rattled -- my search almost becoming random.  I think I found the first Sunday of September four times.  Oh, please, Lila, keep the choir singing.

I was losing it.  I started imagining the humility of having to tell the congregation I don’t have the lesson.  Then -- there it was.  An Angel must have left a pew Bible under the lectern just for me.  The choir sang on.

Frantically with shaking hands I thumbed through the pages desperately seeking Paul’s letter.  What order were they in?  Yes, at least I remembered near the back of the Bible.  The choir finished singing as the congregation did the most un-Lutheran thing.  They clapped to give me ten more seconds.   I didn’t even know what the choir had sung, but I knew it must have been wonderful.  And then, there it was -- YES the passage.  Thank you God. 

I stood up and read from the pew Bible, "For you were once darkness..."  I don’t think anyone even knew how much those words rang true that Sunday morning.

I painted God's View, Sunday Morning Second Pew from the Back of the Church based on several photos Karen took during a Sunday School Rally day to herald the beginning of the fall Sunday School year.  We had been asked to record the event with our cameras and this was our big bonus.  This piece is 48 x 15 inches and is painted with alkyds on stretched canvas

Lifting Fog   12 x 16 inches   Alkyd on Canvas  Karen and I have a number of photos of Petersburg Lutheran Church in our files.  We see our favorite view looking down the road (Excell Street) from up at the ball park.  I took the photo on which I based this painting during a morning walk as fog lifted  over Petersburg to reveal another glorious day.  The figure -- it's of our daughter Amanda from a photo I took several years later walking out to Blind Slough Rapids.  Oh, and I changed Mandy's clothes to the outfit Karen was wearing that day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The French Hitchhiker

Growing up the son of an FBI agent, my dad drilled one lesson into my brain.  Never pick up a hitchhiker.  He claimed a high percent of them were felons and you can’t tell what’s inside the package from the outside.   A corollary he included  -- never hitchhike yourself.   Thus, I obediently spent most of my youth following dad’s admonitions. Until he sent me off to college.

Most young people have to rebel from their parents authority at some point in order to establish their own identity.  I chose hitchhiking to make my secret statement.  And so, after semester breaks, dad took me to the bus station and handed me money for the bus fare back to Middlebury.  With that I would bid him farewell and simply purchase a ticket to the next town.  Hopping off the bus I’d stick out my thumb and chart my own course.  For return trips I’d hitchhike all the way.

I only had one reason to reconsider my choice.  The Vermont driver and his lady companion in the front seat had a love affair with beer and speed.  Fortunately their wheels clung to the road at every turn, but I exhaled a sigh of relief when they dropped me off.

My last day on the road, driving along Canada’s Yellowhead Highway between Smithers, British Columbia and Prince Rupert I saw at least one sign warning motorists not to pick up hitchhikers.  But, there he was, a young man wearing a beret with a big backpack holding a neatly lettered cardboard sign -- Prince Rupert.  

                         The Bulkley River below the falls in Moricetown Canyon, British Columbia

With Karen back in the midwest, lonesome best describes my feelings.  Without her or my former favorite travel companion (Niko), for the first time I had room in the car.  Canada always seems safer than the US and I remembered another time after college when, in my mid-20s, I held up a similar sign while carrying a back back as I hitchhiked through New Zealand.  I pulled over to meet Jordan, a Frenchman hitchhiking across Canada.  Prince Rupert was his finish line.

                                       Clouds partially obscure one of my favorite views near New Hazelton, BC

Jordan, it turns out, is a world explorer who will work for awhile until he has saved up enough for his next big adventure.  His cross-Canada odyssey was a chance to improve his facility with the English language.  I had an entire day to cover a half day’s distance, so having driven this route numerous times over the years, decided to play Jordan’s personal tour guide.  We didn’t miss any of my favorite landmarks. 

                  Seeley Lake Provincial Park includes a campground where Karen and I have camped in the past.

                     Another place where Karen and I once pitched our tent is Lakelse Lake near Terrace, BC.

Success -- Jordan made it all the way from Montreal to Prince Rupert. You can see more of Jordan's travels on his blog:

In the end, as I dropped my new friend off at the hostel he would stay in,  I figured it was a fine way to end my autumn road trip.  Thus, at 2:30 AM the next day I once again sailed off for Petersburg on an Alaskan ferry.  Karen and I would soon be reunited.

                              A fine sunrise greeted me as the Alaska ferry motored north to our Alaskan home.

Meanwhile Karen began her long travels home -- although not necessarily a straight line -- chauffeured by cousin Connie from Three Lakes, Wisconsin to Solon, Iowa -- flying from Iowa to Minneapolis, Minnesota -- change planes to Seattle, Washington, overnight with our Mandy in Seattle -- fly from Seattle to Petersburg.  Whew.  

                                     Karen bid farewell to her beloved Four Mile Lake, Wisconsin cabin

                                      Farewell until next summer to her cousin, Connie Mutel and Sandy...

                            And Connie's Iowa home that she works so hard to maintain in it's natural state.

     And on to the highlight of the return trip for Karen -- an overnight with daughter, Amanda -- a student in Seattle.

     Amanda with her faithful Gigi and a tile she made this past summer.  Yes, Mandy has inherited Karen's art gifts.