Bird Poop on My Railing

We all know that myriad worlds–animal,insect, plant–go on beneath our notice, and it’s often only the traces that let us know that we share this space with others. Tonight as I sat outside on my rain-wet deck, I noticed that my railing is littered with bird poop. A biologist (scatologist) might be able to tell me for sure which of our backyard feathered creatures are frequenting the railing, but I can only suspect it’s sparrows, since I see them flitting around the dead branches of the wisteria vine we had to kill before it turned our deck . . . and next our crawl space . . . into our own version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Trying to take note of the little creatures that inhabit my world, I have to say that when I look out the window they are never lined up there, like birds on a wire, so I don’t know when these 100 or so little droppings got left, but clearly these birds are turning our porch into their daytime chat room. There’s nothing above the railing–no branches hanging over from a nearby tree. No, this is a new hang-out. By day when the humans are gone, little brown birds are walking or hopping up and down the railing, near enough to the bird feeders to grab a bit, litterly (!) a kind of gang plank jutting out from the wisteria trunk. A bird walk. The local bar.

Today, when Leslie and I were dropping off Brandi at her 5-acre farm near Glasgow, we strolled around and studied the end-of-season garden. A huge expanse of deeply mulched rows of end-of-season sweet potatoes and frost-blackened basil, to name just two. From afar I noticed a sea of white spider webs speckling some fall greenery. Beautiful clusters of spider homes–the only evidence of an apparent urban sprawl of arachnids….See here:

Spiderweb Clusters in Glasgow

Spiderweb Clusters in Glasgow

We didn’t see any spiders, but is anyone in doubt? A little further on, we saw a rose drenched in raindrops with a loan spider cluster . . . far enough away from the urban setting to suggest that this was a little spider suburb, or perhaps an intentional community seeking some more aesthetic location to start their own burgeoning population. Still no spiders, just the sign that we have no shortage of spiders. We talked some about how many spiders and spider webs there seem to have been this summer, from the Hunter Spider (big hairy harmless thing) that kept stringing its trap from one bush to another right in front of my doorway, turning me into a Ninja expert every morning I walked into it (thanks to Julie for the cartoon that gave me this image of myself), to the spider bites that freckle my legs and arms and neck every time I walk under a tree or across a path.
Brandi's Rose and Spider Cluster

Brandi’s Rose and Spider Cluster

They’re everywhere! The signs are everywhere: the spiders are coming. We were talking about who our spirit animals are and how you are to know. Is it because they come to you when you don’t expect them? In your dreams or as you’re sitting and meditating in some new place, away from home, unprepared for the visitation? Spiders are weavers, storytellers.

I found this about the GBH: “Heron links two worlds: the waters of life—the Unconscious, and the air—the realm of the conscious mind. He feeds on fishes, which symbolize the treasures of the Unconscious mind: spiritual nourishment for the Seeker. Yet he is also a creature of the Earth, so he is a grounding influence for people who spend too much time in their minds and who are called to ‘fish’ in the waters of the unconscious.” On this website:

I wrote about this in my “Meditation and the Great Blue Heron” because that first visitation had a profound effect on me–that’s why I was stunned when I opened my eyes to see another nearby the other day when visiting Paynes Prairie. I have dreamed about bears–seems obvious that the fact of their hibernation means they symbolize the deep unconscious, the transformative power of going within and emerging after a time.

Leslie said, “If spiders are my spirit animal, then I feel bad for killing them!” Well, yes, one never knows. (I’d hate to think what a fly or a cockroach mean.) I do know that a spider is a wonderful creature and we do well to appreciate it. I’m just glad spiders don’t leave poop along my railing. I like it that their “evidence” is their houses, their kitchen tables. And that those webs let the rain linger before trickling down into the deep unknown.

What I Know About Pigs

More about that in a moment. But first I’d like to share something of my two hikes to Paynes Prairie, outside Gainesville, Florida, which have given me a break from computer and email work. Paynes Prairie is an “ecopassage” that offers a path through an open marshy prairie, which you get to after first hiking through a beautiful light-strewn woods. I’ll present my two trips in reverse order, the better to get to the pigs a little sooner.

Thursday, October 24
I did not expect today’s trip to be so different from Tuesday’s. The leaf dangling from a spider’s thread at the entrance to the prairie path was gone, so I’m glad to have been there to see it on my first visit. Something about that gently turning leaf with the opening into the prairie seemed to invite me in:

Leaf in the Breeze

Leaf in the Breeze

But that missing leaf is only the first example of how today’s trip was not the same one I took two days ago. The path, which you can perhaps see in the photo above, was unmarked last time, except for piles of what I thought were cow poop. If you look very carefully into the distance, you’ll see a flying white egret (I think–it was bigger than most egrets, so I wonder if it was a white heron) and beyond that a big boulder. Only it’s not a boulder!

Paynes Prairie with Egret & Buffalo

Paynes Prairie with Egret & Buffalo

I saw 7 in all. First, one loan buffalo moved from the path as soon as she saw me. Then, I came upon three and being unsure about whether buffalo have the same ill feelings toward the color red as I’ve heard bulls do, I put my gray sweatshirt on, just in case . . . I was not really fearful since I figured that Paynes Prairie would not allow such easy access if these beasts were a threat. I did notice that the two people who were behind me had turned back. These three also lumbered off the path before I got too close. I talked to them in what seemed like a reassuring tone, and took some pictures. Finally, thinking that I would make my way now to the observation tower, I headed on, only to see my final two buffalo, one standing, the other lying on her side. I approached but decided not to make them move. When it seemed I’d gotten close enough, I turned around, looking over my shoulder in time to see the standing one lie down. I was glad I hadn’t made them move.
Three Buffalo Consider Me

Three Buffalo Consider Me

I was feeling very satisfied with my animal encounter, when I heard a splashing to my left. I paused and then saw what it was–a wild boar! He had a very surprised look on his face when he saw me in front of him, seemingly out of the blue. Now what I know about pigs is that they can be fierce and aggressive fighters, so I froze more than mulled over my options. As soon as he saw me, however, he plunged back into the watery marsh dense with vegetation. I’m pretty sure I could hear at least two of them and strained to see them. No luck, so I just imagined them based on the mucking that was going on and light sounds of water disrupted. I had also disturbed the egret and she was in there with the pigs looking for food–isn’t that what birds do all the time, when they’re not mating? I could see flashes of white in the dense green and brown.

Now the other major change in my journey began to make sense. The smooth prairie path was strewn with gouged soil. Huge patches all along the path that yesterday offered only buffalo pies to dodge. What I know about pigs is that they like to root around in the mud and make a mess (hence, “pig sty”). I thought to myself, “I got an A in Biology 100, so clearly I could have followed a very different career path had literature not snared me with its wily plots, delightful characters (even the awful ones), and gorgeous language.

Wild Boar Pig Sty?

Pigsty without the Sty, at Paynes Prairie

Pigsty without the Sty, at Paynes Prairie

My two walks in Paynes Prairie have been a harvest of animal encounters. I feel lucky. As I mentioned, I’m using reverse chronology, so here’s my photo journal from my first visit. . . .

Tuesday, October 22
After Susan came by to stay with her mom, I was particularly hungry for a people-less environment after learning of a crappy administrative tantrum that is going to affect my MA program and one of the co-founders and loyal supporters. So, I parked and walked along a sandy, leafy path until I came to a bench in a little clearing. I sat here for awhile and practiced sending lovingkindness to my mother-in-law, a friend, one of the nurses at the hospital, a certain department head, and finally all the critters in PP and the world. I was moderately successful. And sweaty.

By now I had emerged from the woods and was walking along the grassy path surrounded by prairie marsh and side-stepping drying piles of cow manure (I presume—big, spotty—good BMs, as we say in hospital-talk). I made my way to the look-out stand at the end of the path and climbed it and sat. I continued my meditation, this time just listening to the birds and other sounds. Not for very long, as my eyes were restless and kept popping open. I looked to my left and there, about 100 feet away, stood a Great Blue Heron, immersed in the business of looking side to side for tantalizing movement in the water. Given my encounter two months ago when a Great Blue almost brushed against me as I was meditating beside my friend’s pond (“Meditation and the Great Blue Heron”), I’ve decided that the GBH must be my totem animal. Two times must mean something! What splendid creatures.

I now made my way back toward the woods I’d left 40 minutes before, enjoying the sounds of things leaping away from me. No alligators, probably because the plant life was too dense. I really liked these Yellow Podded plants and took a couple of pictures of them.

Yellow Pods that must delicious to someone

Yellow Pods that must delicious to someone

Finally, back in the woods, I strolled along just admiring the trees and the draping moss and viney branches….
Such beautiful light gets tossed around in these branches
When I saw a deer . . . No, two deer . . . No, three. I got quite close to them, considering they’re deer and I’m me and wearing my bright purple tie-dye shirt and treading every way but gently along that good leaf-strewn path. A little blurry, but you get the idea:
Deer considering what I'm up to

I got to the car, headed back to the house, better off than I had been 90 minutes ago.

Addendum: I learned today that my father-in-law, when he was in the Florida legislature, co-authored legislation that provided a way for animals to cross beneath the road–there had been a lot of problems with the prairie creatures getting killed. I’m glad to know that. I’m glad to know we aren’t slaughtering them in their living rooms.

Tender Moments

I am midway through the second week of helping out my mother-in-law, who is in recovery from major surgery for cancer. My sister-in-law Susan hasn’t been home for 3 weeks, and Evelyn’s other children, husband, and in-law children have been here as best they can to help her and to spell Susan. This has been a harrowing time for the family, especially her three children, but also those whom she has folded under her magnificent wing.

Thinking a lot about health, illness, age–how when we put “illness” and “age” into the same sentence we have an instinct to turn away. If we were skimming through a Table of Contents and saw both “Illness and Age” and “My Encounter with a Grizzly,” we’d turn to the bear story . . . Even something “Transition and Birth,” which I’ve had enough of, would draw me in first. We think of age as a necessary evil and illness as its unfortunate partner. But this kind of cancer, leiomiosarcoma, is rare and most common among children, an assault on any sense of fair play.

But illness, which is not really the same as the trauma of surgery, has no sense of justice, unless it’s a perverse kind, and then only in someone’s imagination. It is not a payback for this or that bad choice, except in someone’s imagination. It may be that illness is just a riotous adventure for microbes on a playing field that just happens to have feelings. Bad ones. Surgery is an assault of another kind–still amoral–but not some romp in the woods, more like each muscle, tissue, cell of the entire body struggling to rise after a terrible knock-down–but all working in sympathy with each other, united in common cause. There, I have anthropomorphized. . . . but that’s what we do.

I wanted to share something about tender moments–small though they may be–and how precious they are when we are in times of pain. Both these incidents happened several days ago, around the time when Evelyn was having bouts of respiratory distress, as many as three times a day, due to mucus plugs blocking her trach tube. One morning (or was it afternoon?) my father-in-law and I were at her side when she became increasingly pale, breathing heavily. “I have never been so fatigued in my entire life,” she said, and then a few moments later in a broken voice, “I am utterly miserable.” She tapped her trach and mouthed “respiratory.” I made the request, the CNA came in and she requested RT as well, calling down the hall. 30 minutes after the first call, RT arrived, but during the wait, Bob and I stood at her side, each of us holding one hand and watched her belly rise and fall, her throat rasping, her skin pale, her eyes anguished. Once the RT suctioned her and cleared out the tube, she recovered. Bob and I had exchanged glances twice during this ordeal–nothing said, but our faces spoke volumes. Afterwards I said, “That was enough trauma for one day.” “Yes, it was!” he responded. These moments of solidarity, unexpressed except in the most nonverbal ways, were unlike anything my father-in-law and I have shared. I’ll never forget it.

That day–or the next–all these days run together–Evelyn gestured for me to come closer, reaching for my hand. We were alone. Sometimes she likes to hold hands, so I thought that was all she wanted. But she gestured for my other hand then pulled me close. She pressed her face against my stomach as I stood before her, patting her back and then just hugging her. This lasted a full minute, and I felt blessed. She seemed better, too, as she settled into her pillow to await sleep.

Here’s the note she wrote this morning, several days later and after much progress, after the best night’s sleep she’s had in the past 3 weeks. “It was so deliciously wonderful to sleep last night.”

Thinking about my in-laws

In-laws have a bad rap out there in Trope Land, and I wonder why it’s so easy to vilify the people who enter our lives through marriage, or in many cases, through partner relationships that may or may not be permitted access to that (ig)noble institution of marriage. There are, I believe, social traditions where mothers-in-law are culturally permitted to dominate their daughters-in-law, but are they really so omnipresent that these nasty stereotypes about in-laws should be so rampant? The folk tale tradition has certainly added its two cents when it comes to in-laws, evil stepmothers standing in, perhaps, for the domineering mother-in-law. Maybe all mothers except for the True Mother (elusive as she is) are suspect. We can never measure up.

But I have wonderful in-laws. And right now they’re in trouble, and that makes me want to do something. Brush aside the miles and wrap my arms around them and lift them toward the light. Call for the true spirit of “in-law” and give narrative space to the gift of a loving family made larger and warmer and safer because we are connected by our relationships with each other. Put in writing why we need more ever-lovin mothers and sisters and brothers, widening our family circles. And they don’t have to be official. I call the mothers of my two granddaughters my daughters-in-law, though they never married my two sons. They are mine and I am theirs. That’s “law” enough for them to be “in.”

Two of my sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law are right now at the side of my mother-in-law, as she struggles to breathe, to cough out that fluid in the lungs. Four days ago she had surgery to remove a sarcoma attached to her sternum and a spot on one of her lungs. The doctors successfully removed the tumor, but the “margin was marginal.” This “other mother,” under the trauma of surgery and medication, has had some delusions. She has been restrained. Her son is worried from afar, though the ticket is bought and we will go in a couple of weeks to step in with the next stage of recovery. I think of my sisters, her daughters, at her side, day and night, comforting, appeasing, caring for her. They are tired and worried. My brother-in-law is helping them help her. My father-in-law–what must he be feeling right now, his wife of well over 50 years so unlike her usual strong self, so little to do but trust in that strength, pray, trust.

Tonight she is sedated. Tomorrow they put in a pace maker to steady her heart.

So who is this mother, my mother, my mother-in-law, Evelyn, whom we all adore? But no one more than her children, her grandchildren. You hear sometimes about someone’s being the “glue” who holds a family together. The “rock,” perhaps. I don’t think of Evelyn as glue or a rock, though she is a powerful force of adhering–to her principles, to her unmitigated love for her family. And she is as strong as any rock. But she is more like the spirit of love that infuses our family and teaches us how to be our very best selves. My youngest son said of her, “You know what I love best about Grandma? She doesn’t judge people.”

When I think of unconditional love, it is Evelyn’s face that comes to mind.

My mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law, Evelyn and Helen

My mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law, Evelyn and Helen

Recently my oldest son wrote her a letter to express his appreciation of her, and I share it here.

So, take your tired, ugly, woman-blaming tropes about wicked in-laws, and bury them. Let the headstone read: “You lied.”

And to my mother, Evelyn, be strong, take that glue, that rock, that loving spirit and wrap it around your body. Breathe into it, say, “not yet, not yet. My family is calling me, my daughters, my son, my husband, my daughters-in-law, my son-in-law, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, they’re calling me, and I am eager to rejoin them.”

For updates, you can visit Caringbridge and look up Evelyn Casey: