I am struggling with writing this month’s blog. I don’t think I can write a coherent essay about my feelings during this time of craziness because they are all over the place. So many things in opposition. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”*
Staying at home or going out with a mask vs. pretending it is all a hoax and chastising mask wearers (as happened to a friend of mine in the grocery store)
Staying at home or marching in the streets
Protestors with masks can still be heard
You can breathe in a mask but you cannot breath with a knee on your neck
Fever of the current corona virus and the fever of rage and protest
I heard some interesting words on a recent PBS News Hour. An African American woman comparing the crime tool luminol to the corona virus. Just as luminol under UV light will show blood that was invisible before, the virus has helped in exposing the underlying racism in our country because of how disproportionally the virus is affecting the black population.
The multiracial crowds standing tall with arms uplifted in protest versus African American, George Floyd, handcuffed on the ground with a white policeman’s knee on his neck
The best of us: George Floyd was described as a “gentle giant” (The Guardian.com)
The worst of us: The white policeman holding him down
The best of us: The protestors being there and giving voice to what needs to be heard
The worst of us: The anarchists fomenting violence and destruction
The sadness and pain and fear and outrage in me giving way to the joy of seeing Astronauts Bob Behnken (age 49) and Doug Hurley (age 53), flying away from Earth in the Space X capsule called the Dragon atop the Falcon rocket, filling my heart with pure joy at the fantastic images of the launch
Bob and Doug (both white) hurtling into space, their second stage engine cutting off at 8 minutes and 47 seconds
A knee on grounded, George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, his soul flying into the ether too soon (he was 46 years old)
I like keeping up with the news of the world most days and especially during this time of our Covid -19 stay at home. I watch the daily White House Corona Virus Task Force press conferences live so I can hear what they are saying without it being chopped up into incomplete sound bites later on. Watching from a comfy chair in my bedroom while playing solitaire I often glance away from the puffed up orange haired human on the screen and check on the scene outside my window. I distract myself from the insanity with the natural calming beauty of my backyard. I can see red admiral butterflies and monarchs sipping nectar from the pink and yellow lantana blossoms. There is also a hummingbird feeder with a lovely black chinned hummingbird in attendance. I scold the humming birds for fighting each other over the feeder. “There is enough for all of you!”, I tell them, at the same time knowing that it is in their best interests to be territorial. The butterflies calm me and the hummingbirds distract me. But, the creatures that bring me the most pleasure lately are the little green lizards who are in abundance this year.
Almost anytime I turn away from the puffed up man on the screen I look out and spot these guys puffing up their bright, pink throat pouches (dewlaps). They move along the tree branches or fence top and stop. Then they puff out the pink pouch a time or two and then move on. Then they stop and do it again. This behavior in these male Anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis) is to attract a female. My grandmother used to say they were “showing their money.”
They are among many Iguanid lizards in the Family Iguanidae. They range throughout the south eastern United States from Oklahoma south through much of east Texas and east to Florida. They are not true chameleons, but change color from brown to bright green.
Just like the ubiquitous face masks and empty store shelves, these little lizards seem to be everywhere. I see them on walks in the neighborhood. There is one that hangs out near the front porch and I have seen at least three different ones at the same time in the back yard. Or maybe there were always that many of them around. It is just that now I have more time sitting at home enjoying nature from my window. Making lemonade out of pandemic lemons.
*Photos taken by author
*Reference: Texas Monthly Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Texas-by Judith M. Garrett and David G. Barker
Ah! Spring! I don’t like winter. I need the promise of coming warmth, new growth, and renewal to get me through the cold, dreary days. I always look forward to visiting local parks to see the beautiful displays of wildflowers in central Texas.
Well, spring is here, but this year it will be different for all of us. We are now under city of Austin/county of Travis orders not to leave our homes unless it is for essential reasons. Buying groceries, walking our dogs, and exercising are considered essential. We are not allowed to gather with non family members and must remain 6 feet apart from all others when we venture out. This is new and scary territory as the number of coronavirus victims rises. As of this writing there are 179 cases in the county (up from 160 the day before) and there has been 1 death. I note my physical state each day and try not to leap to the conclusion that I’ve got it. I try for some sort of normality, but these are not normal times.
Last Sunday, March 15th, I ventured out to a nearby grocery store. There were too many bare shelves. I had seen some the week before, but somehow I thought those were anomalies. The bread shelves were bare. There was no milk at all in the dairy case. There was no cheese. No ramen. The frozen pizza area was picked almost to the bone. I walked around the store in awe. I did buy a few things. But, the only things on my grocery list that I actually found were wine and toothpaste. Driving out of the parking lot I started to cry and was pretty blue the rest of the day. At least we had some food at home. We are lucky. So far no one I know has gotten ill.
I am still trying to get used to the lack of freedom. At first I was sure that I would be able to go out and walk among the flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Then they closed some of their facilities (gift shop, cafe, classrooms, etc.). Okay. No problem. The grounds were still open and I planned a visit. I would get to see the owl, Athena, who had recently returned to nest near the entrance. Maybe her owlets had hatched. But, No! The Wildflower Center decided to close their grounds to all but essential staff.
Okay, I thought, I can still go out to my favorite nearby state park, Mckinney Falls, and indulge my wildflower and birding passions. Their grounds (400+ acres) were still open when I checked their website on March 19th. The site suggested reserving a park day pass online to minimize park staff interacting with the public. I planned a trip to the park with my husband. On March 22nd I checked the website. No! The park was now closed too!
Okay, I know I am whining. So many people are getting very sick and many are dying. Even doctors and nurses are dying. Celebrities and heads of state are getting sick. I am in the older than 60 group that has a greater risk of dying of the virus and I am grasping at focusing on Nature’s beauty and not on Nature’s ugly.
I can’t go see the park flowers in person during this pandemic, but I have photos from past years. I can do a virtual park tour. I share a few here for you to enjoy. Stay safe and I hope to join you next spring among the flowers.
**All Photos taken at McKinney Falls State Park by Betty McCreary
My right hip is starting to ache a bit from the walk and my legs move stiffly. I am thinking that much of my life seems to be a chore these days. Simple things, like walking, I no longer take for granted. We come upon a pretty tree. I hand the dog’s leash to my husband and walk up to the tree. I want to get a closer look at a flowering branch. It is a Redbud tree, although the small flowers are not red, but purple. The Redbud is an early bloomer. It is only February, but spring is here.
I wonder what it would be like to be a Redbud tree. I could go dormant in winter instead of feeling the depression that kicks in with short, dreary days. No thinking about everything I have to take care of each day. No laundry! No insomnia. No worrying about family and old pets. I would just “be.” I would be rooted in one spot. I could grow tall and wide and my roots could stretch deep into the earth. Bunnies might munch grass and cavort below me. Coyotes will move past me looking for prey. I could be a home to birds and squirrels. My flowers could provide nectar for butterflies and bees. My beauty would fade, but then return again each year. I could live a long time, longer than any human. There is an Oak tree on the coast that is estimated to be at least 1,000 years old. Redbuds are prettier than Oaks, though.
I am a Redbud tree. The air is cool and the sun is warm upon me. I am nourished by rich soil and spring rain. Beautiful purple flowers adorn me. My green leaves are shaped like hearts, but I cannot love. I will give birth to more trees like me as my flowers become seeds in sturdy pods. Someday I will get old. My grey bark will become scaly. I will topple into the dust and will become a log. I will be a bench for nature lovers and a home for little creatures. I will be gnawed by beetles and ants. I wil rot.
My husband is impatient, so I say good bye to my tree and my fantasy. When I get home I pull my field guide to Trees of Texas* off the shelf. I read that the life span of the Texas Redbud is only from 50-75 years! The length of their lives is the same as humans. And trees cannot love. I would miss loving if I was a tree. Oh, well. I will be cremated when I die and my ashes will be spread outdoors. I will become one with all life, Redbuds included, and I will be at peace.
*Trees of Texas Field Guide by Stan Tekiela (Adventure Publications, Inc.; Cambridge, Minnesota)
A family member recently sent me some photos of her husband sledding down a sand hill at Monahans Sandhills State Park in west Texas. This brought back memories of climbing up and sledding down the white, gypsum dunes at New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument. We humans love playing on Mother Earth. We have our special accessories: sleds for snow and sand; pieces of cardboard for tall, grassy slopes or ice covered streets; skis and ice skates for snow and iced over ponds. We let gravity and friction take us on a ride. We go to the ocean to surf and sail. We go to the lakes and rivers to canoe or kayak. And then there is the fun of tubing on a river using the flow of water to power our ride.
But, we also have fun on earth without the accessories between our bodies and the elements. I remember rolling over and over down grassy hills when I was a little kid. And I had great fun jumping in puddles and leaping into piles of leaves. Maybe you made angels in the snow. Have you ever climbed a tree or gone up a cliff with only your hands and feet?
Here is a photo taken by my mother as I went hurtling down a slick, limestone incline at Pedernales Falls State Park in July of 1975*:
Last year I injured my back and right leg. I spent 5 months in chronic pain and outpatient physical therapy. I am much improved and can go on walks as long as the terrain is fairly flat. But, I don’t think I can do much physical playing on Mother Nature’s playground anymore. Just the idea of climbing up a steep hill seems impossible these days. I am mortal and age has caught up with me. I can’t do all I could do as a little girl or as a young woman, especially without some arthritis pain. The water is still my friend though. I can still float down the river on the current and swim in the lakes.
It is said that we evolved from the oceans and became land creatures. If I am lucky enough to get down to the coast this year I will body surf in the Gulf of Mexico. Guessing how the waves will break, I will try to be in the right place to float gently over the wave and down the other side.
*Swimming is no longer permitted at that part of the Pedernales River
Humans are an integral part of the web of life on earth. We have a great impact on and responsibility for the future of all forms of life here. I was planning on this last blog of the year to be about human’s deleterious effect on the rest of the natural world. I would share a photo I took of a duck with a 6 pack ring caught in its bill and around its neck. I would list numerous nasty things that animals and their habitats have suffered because of us. And then I would throw in some words about global warming and our impending doom. But, I froze like a deer in the headlights. I don’t really want to talk about gloom and doom. Plenty of other people are already doing this (Greta Thunburg we are listening!).
“We should change the narrative from one of fear and despair. Despite the bad (climate) news, people are still very optimistic. Optimism in this case is essential, because hope beats fear every time.”- Hillary Tam, Strategy director of global change agency Futerra” (news.globallandscapesforum.org)
To follow the lead of Mr. Rogers, I want to look for the helpers. There are plenty of helpers out helping to make our world cleaner and safer for humans and other life forms. There are national organizations that have local chapters like the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, etc. They can help people find a way to help locally and beyond. Individuals can help clean up a river, plant native trees, take samples from local waterways to monitor pollutants, survey area plants or fauna, remove invasive plant species, etc. If a person can’t physically get out there and do boots on the ground chores, most of these helper groups need office help and money. There are so many organizations that are helping and it can be overwhelming to choose which one to get involved with.
If you like to write, write articles or write your congressperson. If you are tech savvy, help design a new website or media campaign. Start a carpool at your workplace or school or church. If you are good at speaking before groups you can help spread the word this way. One thing I do is help with a local fauna survey. I go out to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center and join others in finding and recording every living thing that is not a plant. I cannot identify all the birds and insects I find, but I can help find them. And this is fun. We chat and laugh a lot as we work and learn. I encourage everyone to find a way to help our planet. I especially encourage you to find a way to do this that is fun for you.
I leave you with a quote from Dr. Jane Goodall:
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
I look at trees every day as a birdwatcher, but I don’t really “see” the trees. Recently, a friend from Colorado has been e-mailing me of her encounters with various trees and this has prompted me to look at trees a bit closer. Our native trees have been beautiful this fall. Not just beautiful, but spectacular: the brilliant yellow of the cedar elms and the big tooth maples; the reds of the cypress and the Texas red oak; the intense scarlet of the aptly named flame leaf sumac.
I had intended for this month’s blog to be a celebration of central Texas trees showing the rest of the country that: “Yes, we do have seasons down here.” Driving down nearby streets, the colors would catch my eye and I would tell myself, “I will come back tomorrow and take photos of that tree.” I kept telling myself I was going to do this, but I kept putting it off. Then, a few days ago I noticed that the tree colors were less vibrant and more leaves were falling off the trees. I realized I was missing, may have already missed, my opportunity. I thought I had already learned my lesson years ago when I did a lot of nature photography: Take the photo now! “The sky will not look like this tomorrow.” “That bird may not be in this spot tomorrow.”
This is a pattern of mine throughout my life, to plan to do something and then not follow through and then the opportunity has passed, never to return. There is a feeling of shame associated with this habit of procrastination, and a feeling of sadness.
On the 13th of this month while surfing the internet, I learned of the death of author Gary Svee. He was someone I had intended to contact. I wanted to ask him about why he wrote what he did about an ancestor of mine. I had been given a phone number of someone who knew him and was so anxious about calling a stranger out of the blue that I kept putting this off. I put it off for a year and a half. Now it is too late.
I went to his online memorial page and left a note. On the page it said that people were being asked to donate money to plant a tree in his memory. So, I did that. There is some sort of meaningful connection between the tree leaves transitioning and people transitioning that I am trying to grasp as I write this. The book of fiction this man wrote was entitled Single Tree and painted a sympathetic portrait of part of my family tree, a great, great uncle. I wanted to thank him, whether or not my thanks would have been welcome by him. But, I didn’t do this. He will never know what his book meant to me. Maybe he wouldn’t have cared. I cried when I read that he had died even though I had never met the man. I think maybe I cried more in disappointment at myself.
So, I share with you here some of Austin’s color and my advice to take action. Colors don’t last. Lives don’t last.
On a day in August, many years ago, two out of town friends and I decided it would be fun to rent a paddleboat for a short cruise on Town Lake in Austin. *Kay and I seated ourselves in front of the paddlewheel, while Mikey sat between us by the rudder. The adults would provide the muscle and Mikey, age 7 (almost!), would steer. We were all wearing life jackets. It took a little while for Mikey to get the hang of steering, so we didn’t get very far from shore at first. We paddled around in the area underneath the South 1st street bridge. We saw ducks near shore and people catching lots of fish from a short pier. We also saw abandoned Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge, along with numerous pigeons roosting on the bridge supports. I pointed out to the others that the high pitched sounds we were hearing were the sounds of baby pigeons.
Eventually we got ambitious and decided to paddle across the lake and over to the Congress Ave. bridge. Way up ahead we saw some sort of water bird out on the lake near our goal. As we made progress towards the bridge we saw the bird splashing around in the water. Kay said she thought it was diving for food. When we were about 50 feet away I realized that the bird looked more like a pigeon and that it was fluttering around so much because it was trying to stay afloat. I said that we had better pick it up or it would drown. Easier said than done! Kay and Miguel both tried to steer while I paddled and yelled at Kay to hurry up or the bird was going to drown and for them to get us up alongside it on my side where I could grab it and that even though I was wearing a life jacket, I didn’t want to have to go into the water after it!
Well, we rescued the pigeon. We still had half an hour left in our hour rental of the boat, so I kept the bird pressed to my side and we paddled on. Out of the cold water of the lake, under my arm, the bird was warming up nicely. At one point, I happened to look down to check on his condition and noticed mites running all over my arm! Grey mites. Red mites. All I could do was lean over and wash them off with lake water. Kay and Mikey and I enjoyed the rest of the trip, but half my concentration was on the mites. Back at the dock, one of the guys who ran the boat rental said that someone brings in a pigeon every other day! The one we had rescued appeared to be a juvenile with feathers long enough to fly. Perhaps the young ones do not know enough not to land on the lake.
The pigeon was dry and eating by the next day and was turned over to a volunteer with Wildlife Rescue for observation and eventual release. Thanks to Kay and Mikey for their part in the rescue! If anyone is interested, the paddleboat rental is located on the south shore of the lake near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Have fun, but be prepared for the unexpected.
My husband and I live with two old dogs and an old cat. One of the dogs, Dash, we inherited from a deceased family member. We had always said, “If any thing happens, we will take care of little Dash.” Dash is 13 going on 2. He is short and looks like a fuzzy tater tot. In July Dash went blind in one eye. Three weeks later he went blind in the other eye. I have never had a blind pet before and it is a challenge. He responds to our voices and he knows the house and yard pretty well. We are careful to not move things around.We keep track of Dash’s whereabouts so he doesn’t hurt himself. When he starts to rock and roll in the early morning, one of us has to take him outside to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I feel a bit trapped with the care routines between him and our other ailing dog.
But, last week I took Dash out at dawn. Groggy and a bit resentful, I looked up to see beautiful streaks of pink jet contrails and a silver sliver of moon. This was a special dawn sky that I would have slept through. I am grateful for getting to see this awesome scene, that except for Dash, I would not have experienced. Our little, blind dog is my guide these days.