Who Is That Man in the Mirror? When Did He Become a Gnome?

Can that really be my own reflection that I see each morning in the mirror? Surely that’s not the way I look now. When did I turn into a gnome? The person I see before me doesn’t match the mental image I have of myself.When we see something daily like a landscape or a town, we are less likely to be conscious of the little changes that result with the passage of time. If a few weeks or even months have passed, we might only notice fairly obvious differences. A year passes and lots of things have been transformed—the trees and plants around a house have grown dramatically, new buildings and roads have appeared in the town. But when thirty or forty or fifty years intervene, landscapes and towns can become strange and unfamiliar places. It’s the same with people. Daily contact means only big changes are apparent: a different hair style or a new outfit. Meeting an old friend after a year, we might be aware of more wrinkles and less hair. However, the passage of fifty or sixty years can make a once well-known face virtually unrecognizable, even when the person happens to be oneself.

I’m not sure what age I actually perceive myself to be. It seems to depend in part on my particular activity at the moment. I know that I am now seventy three years old, so I’m in my seventy-fourth year of life. Yet when my muscles and joints are cooperating and I’m fully engaged in an enjoyable pursuit, I may feel like I’m thirty or forty years younger. On the other hand, at the end of a particularly difficult day of hard physical labor, I probably feel more like I’m several years older than my actual age. But my picture of myself, the image of how I think I look to myself and to others, does not seem to be altered as much by my activity level. I believe that image is stuck somewhere between my thirties and my fifties.

A photo of myself from years past compared to a more current picture or my daily looks into the mirror give undeniable evidence of my present appearance. Obviously I have changed physically over time, as well as in so many other ways. It’s a real challenge for me to recognize the younger me in the present me I see in the mirror. Did I ever really look like the much younger person in those early photos? How is it possible for one’s physical features to be altered that much over the course of a lifetime? But it does seem to happen to most of us. A recent reunion of my high school class was attended by some fifty people, many of whom I had been with daily during our years of elementary and high school. A few of my former classmates were easily identifiable even though I had not seen them for fifty five years. But outside of the context of the class reunion (and without the great assistance of name tags) I would not have recognized most of those present and they would not have known me. Over the course of the evening there were various signs that stirred memories of our years together: the look of someone’s eyes, the sound of their voice, the way they acted. Some of the physical characteristics from long ago were still familiar even after all those years.

Yes, I am the man facing me in the mirror. I’m well aware of all the physical transformations that have taken place in my body. It is easy to see and feel the changes that the years have brought. But the person within has also changed throughout my life. Those inner changes are impossible to see, but I know they are there and I know they have been even more dramatic than the physical ones I view in the mirror. I’ve been shaped by the forces and environment surrounding me throughout my life. But more importantly, I’ve made choices and taken actions which have determined who I am today. Every experience has influenced my development: the events I have lived through, the things I have seen, the people I have known, the lessons I have learned, the values I have found. There have been so many differences and departures from what I expected to be the course of my life so long ago as a teenager. Many of the things I once thought were most important in my life have been replaced by different values. The goals I wanted to pursue were altered long ago. The decisions I made have led in directions I never imagined at the time. But the paths I chose to follow led me to become the person I am today. I would not change them even if I could. I am who I want to be and I’m in the place where I want to be.

Attending the high school reunion mentioned above was the impetus that started me thinking about my changing appearance over the years. I thought the title “My Transformation into a Gnome” would be appropriate, with a collection of photos showing my looks from then to now. I am including some of those pictures below so you can see the changes for yourself; most people reading this could probably assemble a similar gallery of their own transformation. But why describe myself as a gnome? I first used the term when I looked at some photos of myself taken at the time of Carole’s retirement. “I look like a gnome,” was the description I voiced at the time. Even then, now eight years ago, when we first used the term, I saw many photos of myself looking rather gnomish, an impression I think has only become stronger over time. The story is summarized in a blog post by my wife Carole entitled “The Origins of the Gnome and Crone” in which she writes about herself as the Crone (a wise and experienced older woman—an excellent description of her) and me as the Gnome.

The Gnome and Crone when we first named ourselves

Most people are likely familiar with the images of gnomes that appear frequently in garden shops, greeting cards, and many other places. Some gnomes have more appealing appearances than others. I don’t really claim to look much like the cute little garden gnome in the picture below, but when we were given this small garden sculpture a few years ago, we loved it. We’ve adopted it as representing Carole and me as the Gnome and Crone.

I made a brief search to learn more about this being whose name is now associated with me. Various dictionaries identify a gnome as “a diminutive spirit”, an “ageless dwarf” who usually guards treasure, or a “small creature with an affinity for the earth.” One source says “they are known to be cheery, if not slightly mischievous.” Many of those words seem to fit me pretty well. I’m small, love the earth and all the natural world around me, am generally cheerful, and am frequently mischievous. Each of us can decide whether the one definition of a gnome as “a small ugly person” applies to me as well.

While I have some of the characteristics of a gnome, at least one image of a troll also bore some resemblance to me. When we first came to our place here on the mountain, we chanced upon the picture postcard below which shows a painting by Rolf Lidgren. It depicted a troll family on a mountainside with the adults preparing a meal while the two children were busily picking and eating wild berries. We thought that image showed our idyllic life here pretty accurately, except we don’t have pointed ears and long tails. Maybe I’ve developed into part person, part troll, and part gnome.

Trolls by Rolf Lidgren

An article about the history of gnomes provided some additional tidbits about the origin of garden gnomes. It seems the idea may go back almost two thousand years to the Roman emperor Hadrian who had quiet hermits living and helping in his garden. And wealthy English landowners in the eighteenth century decorated their gardens with bearded “ornamental hermits” who were hired to live in rustic, unheated buildings on their land, thereby providing a certain unique character to the place. Again there are similarities with me, especially during the time since we came to this mountainside. I’m bearded, generally quiet, and something of a hermit by nature. I also love working in our garden and we certainly lived in a rustic, unheated building during our early years here at our homeplace. Whether I can be considered an “ornamental hermit” is debatable.

So who is that man in the mirror and when did he become a gnome? Well, he’s definitely me, just me with whatever qualities and characteristics and physical features have been developing over the years. Maybe I’ve always been evolving into a gnome. So if I do look like a gnome and possess some of a gnome’s other characteristics, it’s just fine with me to continue being known as The Gnome.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’m not sure about the dates of some of these photos, but my captions should be pretty close. The quality of the pictures also varies because the originals came from different sources and were gathered over many years, but they still give a good idea of the changes that have taken place.

1947?

1951?

1965?

1967

1968

1970

1971

1979

1984

1990?

2006

2008?

2010

2013

2014?

2015

2017

2019

 

An Exciting Day

We had an exciting day yesterday here in the mountains. A week or so ago I wrote about all the bird nesting activity we’ve been having around our home. While the phoebes and juncos had finished with their nests, the wrens nesting on our deck were still very active. The adults had been busy with their non-stop food delivery to the young ones we could hear cheeping in the nest. A little head or two had begun peeking over the top of the board in the roof structure which hid the nest from our view. Then during this past week one or two of the young wrens sometimes climbed up from the nest to sit briefly on the board, surveying their surroundings before diving back into the nest when their parents approached with food.

Yesterday Carole and I had to go out of town for an appointment with our departure planned for 11:00 am. We ate breakfast in our usual spot where we could enjoy watching the coming and going of the wrens. Two young wrens we had seen before seemed even more active than on most days, coming up from the nest after every visit by the parents. Sometimes one would even stay sitting on the board when the adult returned with food and fed the eager young one. Once or twice the boldest young wren hopped along the board until it was about a foot away from the nest, sat for a few seconds, and then hurried back into the nest again. On some of its ventures out this wren would grip the edge of the board with its feet and lean over to look down to the floor eight feet below, occasionally flapping its wings for a few seconds but still holding tightly to the solid wood under its feet.

We wondered whether all this activity meant the young were getting closer to the time when they had grown enough to be ready to leave the nest. Surely it must be getting crowded in their tiny home since they now appeared to be about the same size as the adults, if not slightly larger. As we continued to watch, the two little heads we had seen peeking from the nest area became three little heads for the first time. After a few more minutes all three babies decided to climb up and perch on the board. Three little wrens, all sitting side by side and looking at their larger world. What adventurers they were.

By that time we needed to be getting ready to leave, so we reluctantly took turns away from our viewing location, calling activity reports to each other. I was still upstairs when Carole excitedly yelled, “Ron, there are four of them out of the nest. Now there are five! Now there are six!!” Needless to say, I hurried downstairs in amazement and delight to see this wonder. Before I could get there the first bold little wren had flown away from their perch and a second had flown a couple of feet to a nearby beam. I did see that second wren fly down to the lower deck rail and then later fly off into a nearby tree. And I did get to see the four remaining wrens sitting together and then one by one fly away from the nest site in different directions. We could hear the adults chattering their messages to their babies and we were excitedly doing the same as we urged, “Come on. You can do it. You can fly down and get your own food now. It’s not so far. Yes! That’s the way. You did it.”

The last of the six was the smallest and the most hesitant. Its big leap was more a flutter than a flight as its tiny wings slowed its descent to the floor of the deck. But then after a brief rest it actually flew fifteen feet and disappeared into the leaves of the trumpet vine at the corner of the deck, its short little tail clearly visible as it moved away from us. Now they are all off with their parents or on their own. We haven’t seen them since yesterday, but hopefully we will see them around from time to time. Maybe they will even grace our home with a nest of their own next year.

Carole had seen all six of the baby wrens make their first flights and I had seen five of them. We both had beamed with excitement and joy, ecstatic at our good fortune. An hour later and we would have been driving down the mountain and would have missed this big moment. The rest of the day was good as well. A few minutes after leaving home we passed a few feet from a mother turkey and at least three young turkeys a foot or so tall. As we came home in late afternoon, an older fawn, still spotted but much larger than a newborn, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods. And once we were home, the two mama raccoons came to our yard and our deck to get some needed nourishment; both are no longer as skinny as when they first started visiting. It was a very good day, an exciting day, made especially great by the flight of the baby wrens.

There wasn’t much time for pictures, but here are a few.

And then there were three.

And then there were two.

Come on. You can do it too.

And then there was one. But not for long.

Bursting with New Life: An Update from the Mountain

Last month I wrote about the nesting activity of the phoebes and the wrens around our house. Since then there has been a virtual explosion of bird nurseries, so I thought it appropriate to provide an update on some of the bird and animal happenings during the interim.

After the phoebes’ first brood had flown the nest, the adults did take a brief break. Both the adults and the young phoebes stayed around our area, but they didn’t come back to the nest at all. The adults finally did start working on the nest some more, so we thought they were probably preparing for a second brood. They seemed to be doing some cleaning and repair work and even built up one side of the nest a bit higher. Occasionally one of the birds would sit in the nest for a while. However, after a few days they stopped hanging around the nest. We still see them nearby, but they have apparently decided that raising one family was enough for this year.

Meanwhile on the other side of the house the wrens have been busy for weeks, working and singing. At first we couldn’t tell for sure what they were doing since it appeared that they might have been working on nests in the hidden spaces at both ends of the deck roof. Plus they were making frequent trips into a nearby brush pile; could they possibly have been building a third nest?

We finally decided the wrens must have settled on one of the nest sites, because we observed them going in and out of that one quite a bit. After a couple of weeks we saw them carrying food into the nest area, a sure sign that eggs had hatched.Then a week or so ago we saw a couple of young wrens coming out of the nest area, being fed by the adults, and then hanging around begging to be fed more. The strange thing is that we have continued to see the adults carrying food into the nest site; obviously there are still baby wrens in the nest. Had there been two broods in quick succession? We don’t know. We can hear little cheeps now coming from the nest when the adults bring food, so I guess before long some more young ones will be emerging. We should have a sizable colony of wrens for the rest of the summer. That’s just fine, since you can’t ever have too many wrens with that lovely song of theirs.

On the side of the house opposite from all of the wren activity we had placed a hanging basket of fuchsias about five feet from the phoebe nest. After being away from home for several days the plants were quite dry. When Carole took the basket down for watering, she discovered a neat little nest had been inserted into the center of the fuchsias. In the center of the nest was a single egg. Apparently, while we had been away, a pair of birds had decided that was the perfect spot for their new home. We hadn’t seen any activity around the nest site, but I was really surprised when I got up on a step stool a day or two later to water the flowers and was greeted by an equally startled mother junco. In the nest by then were two small eggs, followed on subsequent days by a third and a fourth egg.

The next several weeks were exciting for both people and birds. We couldn’t avoid disturbing the juncos at least occasionally since the nest was located just about three feet from the door we had to use anytime we were going to town, but we used the door onto the deck whenever possible. The male junco sat in the witch hazel plant a few feet from the nest to raise an alarm anytime we came near the door or were outside in sight of the nest. If we came too close, both juncos scolded us with their constant chit, chit, chit sounds. When we looked out the screen door to check on the birds, one of the juncos would fly frantically from the nest to the door to the porch railing to the tree and back to the nest. One day as I was making more noise than usual at the sink while washing dishes (the kitchen window is only about ten feet from the nest’s location), the male junco came and sat on the window sill and fussed at me. And then suddenly one day they were gone. The nest was empty. The whole family had slipped away quietly without even letting us know.

The phoebes, the wrens, and the juncos are the birds we have been able to observe most closely during these past few weeks, but we know they are just a small part of all that’s happening. We also have seen catbirds carrying food into an area near the garden where we feel sure they have nested before and into spots closer to the house. Cedar waxwings are not common around our house except when migrating, but I did see a pair gathering nesting materials from a tree by our deck. A turkey and several very small chicks (poults) strolled down our drive and into the meadow a few days ago. A female cardinal perched in the front yard recently holding a very long stem of grass before flying off into the woods, presumably for some nest-building activities of her own. Every drive into town reveals many groups of recently-hatched birds of every variety, testing their wings and exploring their new world. If all the nesting we’ve seen is indicative of what’s going on with the rest of our mountainside bird population, we should have plenty of new residents around us by the end of the summer.

After our visit from the bear earlier this spring, we decided we should not be putting out bird feeders or otherwise feeding all the creatures who share this place with us. That was a difficult decision since we’ve been providing food for many of them for a long time. Over the years we’ve provided black-oil sunflower seed and/or corn, intended primarily for the birds, but also consumed in varying degrees (and frequently in very large amounts) by red and gray squirrels, rabbits, deer, possums, skunks, and especially raccoons. We do very much enjoy having them close around so we can observe their activities. But we also realize it’s not good for them to become overly dependent on having people supply food for them; they need to be able to forage for themselves within their natural environment.

But about a month ago one rather skinny raccoon (we believe she’s a young mother) started coming around each afternoon, seemingly thinking she might find some food on our deck. We believe she was probably one of the baby raccoons who had been brought to our deck in previous years to learn about one of the good local food sources. Seeing how thin she was and recognizing that she was probably providing sustenance to several little mouths back home, we thought she needed to be an exception to our no-food rule. We did a little research, got some nutritious dog food suggested by several sources, and began putting some out for her on a random basis to supplement her natural food gathering activities. She generally comes up to the house in mid to late afternoon. If we haven’t put any food out yet, she retreats to a nearby spot and waits for us to put something in a pan on the deck or in the yard. When she has finished eating, she usually comes up on our deck and looks in at us through the glass doors, seemingly wondering whether there might be more. Then she heads off on her own to search elsewhere.

Last week Mama Raccoon honored us by bringing her three babies to visit with us. They are still extremely skittish, spending most of their brief excursion hiding among the ferns, chirring to each other or to Mama, and running out quickly to grab a few morsels of food. Thus they have continued a long tradition of young mother raccoons introducing their young ones to our place here on the mountain and showing off the next generation to the folks who now live here. It’s a tradition we’re delighted to share with all these very special neighbors of ours.

Here are a few pictures of our newest visitors.

Mama raccoon and her three babies

Mama and two babies eating, one going to hide

Two baby raccoons exploring the deck

So adorable!

The Garden—Planted and Unplanted

I’ve described the evolution of our gardening activities in an earlier blog entitled The Garden. In its current incarnation our vegetable and fruit garden encompasses a ninety- by sixty-foot area enclosed by a seven-foot-high deer fence installed to prevent our deer, raccoon, possum, rabbit, and other animal neighbors from helping themselves to our produce. We still have provided some food to the animals, but have placed it outside the fence. Most of the planted space is now within wooden raised garden beds of various sizes. We’ve raised a wide variety of vegetables and berries over the years—over twelve hundred pounds worth in the one year we actually measured the crops produced.

The contents of the garden have changed from year to year. We decided within the past couple of years to be more selective in our plantings, limiting them to the crops we especially want to grow for ourselves and eliminating the plants that require more space or energy than we choose to devote for the returns received. We will rely on the local farmers’ markets and the generosity of neighbors for the items we do not produce ourselves. We also have begun planting more berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, honey berries, and high bush cranberries) and fruits (grapes, plums, pears, apples, apricots, Asian persimmons, figs, and hardy kiwis so far) which hopefully will produce their fruits without the same effort required by annual crops. And we do have thriving beds of asparagus and rhubarb that keep us well supplied with minimal continuing effort on our part.

The garden space last year, ready for planting

This year, however, we decided that our garden would be different, very different. We wanted to spend major amounts of our time on some other important activities we’ve had on hold for too long: more writing, planning and preparing for an addition to our house, various landscaping and building projects, some additional travels we’ve talked about, art and photography projects, and spur-of-the-moment fun time spent together. So we decided not to plant a garden this year. After clearing out the garden remnants from the growing season last year, we intended to put the garden to bed and let it rest for a year.

However, nature had other ideas. Nature never rests. Over the course of the winter when nothing appears to be happening in the garden, much is in preparation for the coming spring. Spring comes to us late here on the mountain. Our last average frost date is about May 25 and we’ve seen three inches of snow here on Memorial Day weekend. But, even though spring may be delayed, it comes finally with great enthusiasm. Seeds and roots that have been waiting patiently for warmer weather burst forth when those warm sunny days arrive. Patches of ground that had seemed empty a few days ago now are covered with the green of new growth.

The edge of the garden is no more than thirty feet from our deck, so we can see it easily from the house. We’ve been harvesting asparagus for weeks now, so we have been into the garden at least every other day. But when I made a more thorough survey of the entire garden a few days ago, I was overwhelmed. Most of the beds, which we had really intended to cover with black plastic last fall, were now covered instead with masses of chickweed, wild sorrel, dandelions, burdock, curly dock, various grasses, wild asters, daisies, and dozens of other kinds of plants. It has always been difficult to control the vegetation in the pathways and border areas because of the sloping, confined area, not to mention the problems I have keeping mowers and weed eaters functioning. The pathways now were were knee-deep in plants of every sort and much of the border area had grass that was shoulder-high. It was a depressing sight and one that called out for some immediate attention.

Several days of torrential rain in our area had finally come to an end, so Carole and I started on the task of reclaiming the garden from the profusion of growth that spring had brought. She really needed to be busy with the finishing touches of the book she has been working on for the past two years, but recognizing my distress at seeing this unexpected garden project, she put her project aside for a time. I settled down to work at clearing the weeds from the asparagus beds, since the still emerging asparagus spears were about to be overrun. Carole tackled several of the beds that supposedly held nothing but weeds, though we did discover some cilantro, dill, potato, and tomato plants that had managed to find themselves a spot here and there—volunteers or self-seeders as they are called. We probably worked for five or six hours before a late-afternoon shower ended our efforts for the day. At least we were able to get a few of the beds cleared out.

The following day I resumed the garden activity while Carole returned to the more pressing matters of the book and some other tasks, including pressure washing part of our deck and siding in preparation for painting later in the summer. The planting beds on which I was working are either three or four feet wide and about twenty-four feet long. I would work the length of each bed on hands and knees or sometimes sitting down, reaching halfway across the bed, then returning along the other side of the bed to get the other half. For most of the beds the weeds had to be pulled individually, being sure to get the roots to avoid re-sprouting. Each of the larger weeds that was pulled revealed several dozen minute pairs of leaves marking another weed seed that had sprouted, waiting for its place in the sun to start growing. The soil then had to be stirred to dislodge and bury each of these tiny plants, hopefully not to re-emerge. Occasionally there were burdock or curly dock plants to be removed; their long tap roots extended a foot or more into the ground and had to be dug out—pulling was not an option.

Six or seven hours of work found all the beds on one side of the garden cleared of weeds, probably a fourth of the overall area that needed to be dealt with, and not necessarily the most difficult part of this project. Yet it was very satisfying to see the results of our two days of labor. It wasn’t just the end result that was rewarding. The process of working in the garden, like many repetitive tasks that might be considered tedious and meaningless, is filled with opportunities. The work requires that I get up close and personal with the plants; it can’t be done at a distance. The physical acts require focus, removing tiny plants that are unwanted (at least in the spot where they are growing), re-locating garden spiders and worms to continue their activity away from my digging, replacing and smoothing the soil disturbed by my weeding. The process allows for quiet meditation as I am quite literally absorbed in being just one part of this natural world.

What a marvel is the abundance of nature, filling every available space with a profusion of plants, small animals, insects, and life forms beyond our ability to see. All around me the life of our meadow goes on. A thrush flies through the garden and stops to sit on the fence, perhaps wondering what I am doing in this place. Two fritillary butterflies sip nectar from the blossoms of red clover plants a few feet away. A catbird carefully examines the areas I have just cleared, comes close to see if I’ve uncovered anything of interest, then hurries off with a new morsel of food for the young ones in the nest nearby. The breeze sings quietly through the grasses and trees as clouds drift across the sky. Probably new clouds will bring rain again tomorrow, but not today. Mindful of all that has surrounded me, I have had another good day.

When we first came to this place, it was a beautiful misty meadow. We were amazed then at the daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, flame azaleas, wild geraniums, mountain laurel, wild asters, tall coneflowers, and numerous other plants that filled the meadow and the woods. All those plants are still here, an unplanted garden that we enjoy throughout the year. We have simply placed our fenced fruit and vegetable garden in the midst of this natural garden that was here long before we came. Seeing how quickly the native plants have spread throughout our garden area during the brief time we have left it unplanted this year, we realize it would not take long for our garden to revert to its natural state. A few markers would remain to show our impact upon the land: a patch of rhubarb, some clusters of asparagus stalks, thornless blackberries, Concord grapes, and non-native fruit trees. But for the most part the unplanted garden would return after a bit more time and our meadow would again be a field full of daisies. A garden, planted or unplanted, will likely be here for a long time to come.

Fritillary butterfly

Tall coneflowers

An abundance of daisies

The Phoebes and the Wrens

We had an exciting day here on our mountainside a few days ago. After being with us for more than two weeks, the children have finally decided it’s time they ventured out on their own. No, I’m not writing about our own children; they made that big move many years ago. Now it’s the eastern phoebe young who have rapidly outgrown their nest, covered their fragile little bodies with feathers, exercised and strengthened their wings, and made that first (surely somewhat scary) leap into the air, thankfully coming down to a safe landing on the porch rail about ten feet away. What excitement that must have been for those little ones.

Adult phoebes first built a nest on the crossbeam close under the roof of our small entry porch five years ago. Their chosen spot is only about five feet from a good viewing place just inside our glass storm door. We happily spent many minutes each day watching their progress as they built their nest. For anyone who doesn’t already know, nest building is a time-consuming, complicated, and messy process made more difficult by the fact that the only tools involved are beaks and tiny feet. The nest was anchored to the beam with bits of mud, hard to come by during stretches of several days without rain. The bulk of the nest was an incredible mixture of small twigs, bits of dried grass, soft mosses and lichens, and other materials that caught the eye of the female nest builder. It’s not a straightforward process either. Decisions have to be made about where each piece goes. We’ve watched as the phoebe brought tiny strands of grass, studied the partially-built nest, apparently decided those particular materials were not suitable for the next spot in the project, tossed them aside, and flew off to find something better. The rejected debris scattered over the corner of the porch were clear evidence of the search for just the perfect materials. Some days we could tell the nest walls were a bit higher; the next day part of the wall had been removed as a new plan was developed.

Eventually the nest was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and the female settled in for her extended sitting spell. We’ve read that the incubation period for phoebe eggs is about sixteen days, but it seemed additional time might be needed for getting comfortable with the nest and actually producing the eggs. We all had a long wait ahead of us. Although we tried not to disturb the birds any more than absolutely necessary, we found it hard to resist taking a peek whenever we passed near our viewing spot during the day. Mama phoebe would greet our approach with any icy stare.

Mama phoebe’s icy stare

Whenever we had to exit the house by way of the entry porch door, the phoebe would fly ten or fifteen feet to one of several nearby azaleas or a witch hazel tree, where she watched closely until we had moved the appropriate safe distance away from the nest area. During the entire incubation period the male phoebe could usually be seen sitting on one of several perches from which he guarded the area, leaving only occasionally to get food for his mate or himself. When the female left the nest to take a break, he continued duty at his watch post. Watch and wait, watch and wait.

Adult eastern phoebe, always on alert

Each year the basic process has been the same for the birds and for us. This year was slightly different because a lot more nest building was needed. The original nest deteriorated a bit during the seasons it was unoccupied so each year has required repairs or remodeling. After some storms this past year the old nest was pretty much gone, so the new builders had to start from scratch after removing the debris remaining from the old nest. This beam on our porch must be a good site for a nest since this is now the fifth year it has been used. It’s well sheltered from the weather and fairly inaccessible to any intruders who might attempt to disturb the nest. We have no way to know if the same pair has returned each year to their original nesting spot or if the current phoebes are the great-great grandchildren of the original pair coming back to the old homeplace. It’s exciting to see the phoebes when they arrive after being absent for most of the year and it’s fascinating to observe the adults repeat the now-familiar patterns.

We had to be away this year for a few days at the time when we expected the hatching might occur. We were concerned when we came home and did not immediately see the female phoebe sitting on the nest. Surely the young ones had not already hatched and moved away. But we soon saw the adults busy at their new activities, constantly going back and forth finding food and bringing it back to the hungry babies. Such a demanding time for both of the adults. At first we knew the young ones were in the nest because we could see the adults carrying food, looking down into the nest, and then poking something downward before flying off again on the next mission. Eventually we saw little beaks lifting above the edge of the nest and, a few days later, two small heads rising into view. Phoebes commonly have up to four young at a time, but we were only aware of seeing two this time.

An earlier year. See the little beak on the left.

It’s amazing how quickly the babies grow. We read that the young typically remain in the nest about sixteen days after hatching, but within a few days the two were looking almost as large as the adults and their bodies were beginning to extend past the boundaries of the nest.

Two almost grown babies in an earlier year.

Then came the magical moment. I happened to be walking toward the door when I luckily saw a little one flutter—not fly, but flutter—from the nest to the porch rail. I had never seen a young bird make its first flight. It was almost as great as seeing one’s child or grandchild take those first baby steps. The young phoebe seemed as surprised as a child does when stepping out unassisted for the first time. It sat motionless on the rail for perhaps twenty minutes, glancing around as if wondering, “What do I do next?”

I’m out of the nest. Now what do I do?

When we passed by after those twenty minutes, the young phoebe was no longer on the rail, the nest was empty, and the new family was off somewhere with the adults apparently helping their young ones adapt to their new life out of the nest. We haven’t seen the babies since they left, but we did spot at least one of the adults. Hopefully they are taking a bit of a rest break before doing it all over again with a new brood, as is their custom each season. Wow! What a tough way to spend the summer.

As the phoebes have been finishing this round of their family life, there has been some activity on the deck on the other side of our house. For several years Carolina wrens have found a couple of cozy little spots for their own nesting activity. Their chosen locations are also under the protective roof in little pockets only about an inch and a half wide between two of the structural boards. A similar niche is located at each end of the deck roof and each has been used at one time or another over the years. Our first indication that something was happening this year was the discovery of twigs, grasses, and mosses scattered over the deck under the potential nest site. Someone had been clearing out the old nesting materials in preparation for something new. We soon spotted the male wren hanging around the deck, flying up to the nest area, and going down into it with bits of material. When not busy dealing with the nest, this tiny little fellow sits of the branches of the mountain ash tree adjacent to the deck. There he sings his lovely song for all he’s worth, apparently letting his mate or potential mate know that he’s working on a new home. And we do hear songs coming back from nearby as they “talk” about the possibilities. We read that the male wren starts the nest and then the female does the finishing work on the new home; seems like a good way to share in the process. One of the male’s chief activities now appears to be keeping unwanted visitors at a distance; we’ve already seen him very effectively chasing squirrels away from the deck in spite of their great difference in size. The wrens are still early in their building process, but we’re pleased to have another opportunity to share in their adventure as we watch through our living room door.

The wren was even singing for us just now as I was writing these words. What a joy to share this place here on the mountainside with such wonderful neighbors.

Maybe We Can’t Do It All; Maybe We Just Need a Change of Plans

About eighteen months ago I posted some thoughts about my lifelong love of learning to do things for myself in a post entitled We Can Do It—And We Did.

Beginning at an early age, I have spent countless happy hours randomly browsing library bookshelves, magazine articles happened upon in waiting rooms, old encyclopedias in family homes, and in more recent times the treasure trove of information (and also much misinformation) found on the internet. Sometimes I had one of my many particular interests in mind to guide my searches. At other times my quest relied on serendipitously stumbling upon books, articles, ideas, and bits of information that I had not been expecting to find, but that I knew were important to me, if not immediately, then at some unforeseen time in the future. As I wrote in that post:

That early experience of mine set the stage for a lifetime of learning and doing. I knew that information about everything was readily available. I could find details on any subject, study it, absorb it, think about it, and make it a part of me. I came to see that I could learn about anything and to believe that I could learn to do anything I really wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily think I could do everything as well as an expert or professional could do, but I did believe I could do the things I wanted adequately and satisfactorily for my purposes and needs. I also knew that doing things for myself would bring great satisfaction, the joy of seeing the finished project and knowing I had accomplished that.

That experience and the things I have learned over the years have served me well, especially since we moved to our place here on the mountainside. Except for tasks that required specialized equipment like bulldozers, dump trucks, or backhoes, we’ve pretty much done everything ourselves on our homeplace. We’ve frequently told people who ask about our home and our life here, “If there’s anything you can see here, we did it”. Many things we’ve done ourselves because we couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for us or we didn’t want to deplete our limited resources by hiring the job out. Sometimes we wanted a project completed in some unconventional manner and didn’t trust that a contractor would be willing to depart from their standard way of doing things. Much of the time I simply wanted to be sure that I knew the task was done the way I wanted it to be done. And after years of doing all this work ourselves, there is a sense of pride (some would call it stubbornness) that makes me not want to give up the ability to say, “We did it all”.

I know the time is coming when my ability to do many of the tasks around our homeplace will decline with the limitations which will result from physical changes as I move beyond my current seventy three years of age. Sometimes the inability to handle certain tasks isn’t the result of aging, as I was reminded a few days ago. While there are many things I have learned to do, I’ve never had much success in trying to deal with small gasoline engines and the tools they power (mowers, weed eaters, and chain saws), tools that are much needed with several acres of field and forest to maintain.

Various projects and trips recently had taken time away from routine mowing and related activities. One of the features we love about our home here is the fact that we are surrounded by the abundance of nature. That same abundance can very quickly result in grass in our misty meadow reaching knee-high levels, blackberry briars popping up everywhere, and locust and other tree seedlings claiming their place in the sun. When I went out to try to deal with the situation, I knew that neither of our two riding mowers would be available, one having quit functioning at the end of last summer and the other never having started since we acquired it for free, used but non-working. Several push mowers had either become unstartable or had died when I had pushed them over a hidden rock or tree stump. The remaining push mower (new a year ago) sputtered for a few seconds after pulling the starter cord several dozen times, but refused to start no matter how many times I went through that process. Deciding to resort to mowing with a weed eater, I tugged the starting cord repeatedly with no hint of the least positive response from the engine. I realized there was a second weed eater I had forgotten about and was delighted when it leaped to life on my first pull. It ran great for about fifteen minutes, but never started again after I refilled its fuel tank.

I had run out of options on my gas-engine tools, so I decided it was time to try an alternative I had used in a few other situations: an electric hedge trimmer. It’s sort of like the sickle bar hay mowers used on farm tractors, except it’s much smaller and for grass cutting requires the user to bend over, holding it parallel to the ground while moving it back and forth. After a few minutes of that uncomfortable bent-over position, I decided it was much better to sit on the ground, cut the section that was reachable from that spot, and then slide over a few feet to cut another section. A few hours later I had finished a couple of sloping banks that I had been particularly eager to get cleared. The hedge trimmer was willing to continue as long as there was electricity, but I was pretty well worn out.

When one of my plans gets overly complicated or doesn’t seem to be working out as anticipated, Carole and I have agreed that a valuable service she can perform is to say, “Isn’t there an easier or simpler or better way to do this?” Unfortunately Carole was away from home at a meeting, but as soon as she got home, we started thinking to find a better way to get the work done. Possibly we could find a way to get everything done that we wanted to do, but did we really need to? Maybe we don’t need to attempt to maintain all of the grassy area of our yard and meadow; after all, when we first saw our place, the non-wooded area was a gorgeous open meadow filled with daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, and tall grasses waving in the breeze. Maybe we can allow our meadow to be a meadow and only clear a few pathways through the grasses to facilitate strolling through its beauty. Maybe we can rent a mower once a year to help keep out the briars and trees and not have to bother with mowing everything and keeping a functioning mower thoughout the year. Maybe we can get rid of all the non-working pieces of equipment we have kept around, feeling the necessity to try to get them working again one of these days. And if we don’t need to frequently work at maintaining the whole area, maybe a smaller electric mower would be sufficient to keep up the area closest around the house. We bought the electric mower the next day; it started with the push of a button and did a great job of cutting the grass in our prime target area.

So we made a new plan which appears to have solved our immediate problem. But this situation has raised another question for us. What are the things that are really important to us, the activities that we most want to spend our time and energies on during this latter portion of our lives. We have no intention of becoming morbid and fixating on the prospect of death as it seems many people in our age group tend to do. Instead, we want to focus on life with the intention of making full use of our time whatever it may turn out to be. We both have sufficient interests to keep us occupied for another fifty years or more, but in all likelihood we won’t be able to accomplish all those things. Even if we could, we would probably come up with another fifty years of projects to follow those. So we’re going to do some re-evaluating, see if we can figure out what we need to do and what we want to do and what can be set aside for the next lifetime.

We’ve already done many of the things in our lives that we’ve wanted to accomplish. But I can’t imagine anyone being able to do everything they might want to do in a lifetime; there are just too many interesting things out there to experience. So we’ll plan to make more time each day for those special activities that are most important to us. What better way could there be to spend all the wonderful moments we have?

Look Who Came for a Visit

We don’t frequently have guests visiting at our homeplace for meals. Our children and their families live a few hours drive away, so their visits happen only a few times each year. Other relatives and friends are scattered far and wide around the country and find their way to our mountainside home rarely to share a meal. However, we do have lots of friends and neighbors who stop by daily for a visit and a snack as I’ve written before.

Yesterday we had a new visitor, though some of our guest’s family members have come to share our food on other occasions. When we looked up from our computers, where Carole was working on writing her book and I was busy drawing plans for a home addition, we saw this youngster standing at one of our bird feeders enjoying a snack. She/he may have been here the night before; one of our feeders had tumbled to the ground overnight, but we thought that the weight of a fat raccoon might have caused the worn support wire to finally break.

Looks like this could be a snack

This young bear examined the almost empty feeder for a while and then decided the seed I had spread on the ground was much more accessible. Settling down into a comfortable position in the grass, the bear proceeded to eat as much sunflower seed as it could find. Meanwhile, I had grabbed the camera and Carole and I moved out onto the deck for a clearer view of our visitor.

The feeders are thirty to forty feet from the deck.

The bear was only about thirty to forty feet away from our position but it was undisturbed by our presence. From time to time it looked around to glance at us, but quickly turned back to the snack at hand—or rather at paw. What a beautiful, gentle animal, its thick fur lustrous in the bright sunlight. We would watch it for as long as it would choose to stay with us.

It’s nice and peaceful here.

Occasionally it rose and moved to a different spot to find more seed, moving slowly on its big, padded paws. When the bear had finished eating all the seed there was, it turned toward us, moved a couple of steps closer, and studied us for a few moments. Perhaps it was wondering if the two beings eyeing it from the deck had provided it with this afternoon snack. Then our visitor headed up the hillside and off into the woods, moving quickly, but loping as if in slow motion—an incredibly graceful movement for such a large animal.

Are you the folks who put out this food?

Thanks! I’ll come again some other time.

The bear probably came back again during the night, though we were not aware of its presence. This morning we found that the metal bird feeder pole from the previous day was now bent at a forty-five-degree angle. And the larger feeder which normally hangs about three feet in front of our living room window and at least six feet above the ground was lying amidst the periwinkle vines. The feeder and the lightweight chain holding it had been pulled down, the metal mesh was crumpled and showed two holes about three-eighths of an inch in diameter—perhaps tooth marks. It surely would have been interesting to have witnessed that episode.

We don’t make an effort to feed the black bears or to attract them close around the house. We realize it it is much better for their well-being and for their safety to stay mostly in the woods and not venture too close to their human neighbors. But we do delight in observing them and all the other creatures around us whenever we can. Many years ago we twice got to see a bear enjoying the contents of our bird feeders while lying among the flowers in our front yard in the middle of the night, only about fifteen feet from the house; we watched excitedly from an upstairs window. And there was the time a bear and I surprised each other when I turned to see it on our deck about ten feet away on the other side of the sliding glass doors of our living room; we both quickly moved to different locations.

Some people have wondered whether we are afraid of the bears and whether we should be doing something (I’m not sure what) to keep them off “our property”. But the bears aren’t bothering us and we have no intention of bothering them. We each go our own way and do our own things, respecting each other’s presence, but not attempting to fraternize too closely. Regarding the question of “property”, it seems that we humans are the intruders here. The ancestors of these bears and all the other creatures of this place were here long, long before we showed up and, unless we and others really mess things up, hopefully they will continue to be here long after we are gone. In the meantime we’ll enjoy seeing each other from time to time and we’re happy to provide a snack or a meal during a visit.

Here are a few more photos from yesterday’s visit:

I know you’re watching me.

You might prefer this profile for a photo.

I think I hear something in the woods.

Maybe it’s time to leave now.

Brief Encounters on a Saturday Morning

We made a short trip to town this morning to get a favorite breakfast and take care of a few errands. We were gone for about three hours, not enough time for much to happen.

Along the road new patches of daffodils were opening, seemingly around every curve. Pairs of doves were searching for food on the roadside in many places. In recent years many doves have found their way farther up the mountain to treat us to their gentle cooing calls and the whistling of their wings as they fly.

The driver in a red pickup truck was in a great hurry today as he pulled up no more than twenty five feet behind me. He stayed there all the way down the six miles of curvy mountain road until we got closer to town.

At the local Waffle House, our favorite place for a wonderful breakfast, the familiar staff were as delightful as always, working quickly in crowded quarters, all the while smiling, laughing, and enjoying each other and the customers.

At the next table were a father and two young teenage girls, one with blue eyes sparkling even more than her excited conversation.

At the local big box store I proceeded to pull a shopping cart from the mass of waiting carts. A woman even older than I am had gotten out of a car at curb and walked with difficulty into the store. I passed my cart to her and was greeted with a big smile and a surprised, “Oh, thank you”. I heard her later inside telling her companion, “I had wanted to get a smaller cart, but I didn’t see any.” Hopefully I didn’t keep her from getting the cart she wanted.

The next cart I pried loose had a noisy, wobbly wheel. As I was putting it aside, I told a woman who was getting her own cart, “I got that wheel last time. I’m not gonna take it again”. She cheerily responded, “I always get the worst one”.

Seeing a college-age woman coming into the store with a worried look on her face, I wondered whether she was troubled about something or just deep in thought. That made me imagine what might be the concerns of each of the hundreds of people in the store at that moment.

Traveling to our next stop we passed an ancient oak tree, its gnarled branches twisting outward in every direction. It stood alone in the edge of a pasture, drawing our attention and a comment, “That’s a great tree.”

Driving the road from town to our homeplace we passed several old, abandoned houses along the way, several collapsing into piles of decaying lumber. One somewhat leveled spot in the edge of the woods had a small clump of bright yellow daffodils marking this as the site of the long-ago house of a long-ago family.

We noticed a new fence in the back yard of a house that had been vacant for several years after the child moved away and the parents died. The large shaggy dog lying in the yard was gazing off into the distance across the creek. At that moment the Carrie Newcomer song “Learning to Sit with Not Knowing” was playing on the car CD player. That reminded me of a drawing depicting “mindfulness” which showed a man and a dog walking toward a wooded landscape with the sun setting beyond. The thought bubble above the man showed his concerns about all the tasks he needed to be doing, problems with work, money worries, etc. The bubble above the dog showed the scene before them: the trees and the setting sun.

We passed a neighbor’s young dog who seems to spend all his time chained outside a small shed beside the road. He was probably a rescue dog, skinny and fearful-looking when he first came to this place. He’s more robust looking these days and always appears happy to see us when we pause to greet him. Today he was lying outside his shelter, basking in the warm sunshine after a few cold, wet days.

At home again we put up three bird feeders filled with the black oil sunflower seed we had just bought in town. By the time I got back inside, two young deer who visit frequently were looking quizzically at the feeders and checking some favorite spots for the corn I sometimes put out for them. I quickly got some corn and took it out; the crows found the new treat first but there should still be some left when the deer return.

While putting out the food for our visitors, I noticed that periwinkle blooms are beginning to show in the front yard, small, bright blue flowers on evergreen vines that continue to spread. We have seen periwinkle patches along roadsides or in wooded places where once there were homes. Our plants came from Carole’s parents’ home and from the long-ago homesite of her third great grandparents which we discovered some years ago in the woods alongside a creek named for their family. We’re glad that now they mark the site of our homeplace here on the mountain.

These were our few encounters on this Saturday morning—moments of meeting and moments of meaning.

Running Out to Get a Bag of Flour

We just ran out yesterday to get a bag of flour. But this was not just any flour. It is supposed to be “soft” flour. We weren’t really sure what that meant, but a little research showed soft flour is made from soft wheat which has less protein and lower gluten content. It is generally what is used for cake flour and for great biscuits. We didn’t especially care about those facts. This was a good excuse (as if we needed one) to take a break from several days of writing and house addition planning. It also was good reason to get out into the bright sunshine on a warmer-than-it-has-been day and drive seventy-five miles or so to Boonville, North Carolina to the Boonville Flour and Feed Mill and its companion store, both built way back in 1896.

The store had lots to choose from and we didn’t resist getting more than just the flour, as can be seen from one of the accompanying photos. In addition to multiple types of flour and baking mixes, there were candies, pickles, canned veggies, sorghum molasses, and almost any type of preserve, jelly, and jam one could possibly want. There was even one jar labeled “Traffic Jam”; I meant to check the ingredients on that one, but unfortunately got distracted.

While the flour mill store was great, a trip off the mountain at this time of year is always a treat. We got to see spring working its way up the mountain as we drove to the lower elevation. And when we got down to Wilkesboro and beyond, it was delightful to see how many plants were in full bloom and how much more the trees and shrubs had leafed out in the short time since we had been there on another day out. Of course taking a few pictures is always part of our travels. Here are a few.

Some of our flour selections

We saw Bradford Pears everywhere in splendid bloom.

One of numerous fields carpeted in lovely “weeds”

I can’t resist an old farmhouse.

One gorgeous landscape!

These beauties watched us while we were watching them.

Oh, those lovely dark eyes!

We even found a few ladybugs for the wall of our little barn.

The Robins Have Landed

As I was driving home from town a few minutes ago, I saw several flocks of robins along the way, some within a half mile of our homeplace. These are the first flocks I’ve seen here this year, though I have noticed a couple of isolated individuals during the past week or so. Flocks of robins are a sure sign for us that spring is coming; unfortunately it means that spring is probably still at least a couple of months away. The robins always seem to come too early up here, usually after a period of mild weather and just before some more snow. In fact, as I am writing this, big flakes of snow have begun pouring down and the ground has been quickly covered. Only an inch or two is expected with this system, but many of our biggest snows have come in March or April. There surely will be more winter weather before spring actually arrives at our homeplace, probably sometime in May. Maybe the robins will fly to more hospitable locales not too far away for a few more weeks.

One of the benefits of living on this mountainside is that we get to enjoy the changes of the seasons each time we leave home. While the snow covers the ground here today, there may be no snow at all in Boone which is about a thousand feet lower than our homeplace. We won’t see flowers and leaves on our trees for at least two more months. But when we go into town now, leaf buds are showing red on maple trees, hints of green are visible on willows and shrubs, and even a few flowers are peeking out. We went off the mountain (another couple of thousand feet lower) for a few days earlier in the week and were treated to blossoms of cherry and pear trees, redbuds, flowering quince, and lots of daffodils in full bloom. Returning home we get to enjoy the changes in reverse. In spring we are able to see the greening of the mountains as it works its way from bottom to top. In autumn the changing leaf colors progress from top to bottom. When we want something different, we just go higher or lower.

Spring is truly a delightful time of year, but so are the other seasons. Each has its own unique experiences and treats for us to enjoy. Some people definitely prefer one season over the others and winter is not usually the top choice for most people, especially after long spells of too cold winds and too much snow and ice. But for now I’ll enjoy watching the falling snow. The coming of spring will be that much more spectacular in contrast.