For this week’s Creative Friday post, I would like to tell you about my brother, Jim. [JamesCoe.com] It happens to be his birthday, so please feel free to wish him many happy returns of the day.
Jim is a painter. He started painting when he was all of fifteen years old. At that time, he was drawn to painting birds. Birdwatching had become a sort of obsession for Jim, Bill, and me, and Jim had a preternatural ability to capture not only correct plumage and structure, but also attitude and mannerism. His early works were stunning, the work of a prodigy.
For a time, he worked as a bird illustrator, and you can still find field guides and even an ornithology textbook with his work in it. Eventually, though, he wanted to get away from the limiting world of illustration, and he turned to plein air painting. For more than twenty years now, he has been painting landscapes, some with birds in them, some without. His work is known throughout the world. It hangs in galleries and museums. He has been honored again and again by fellow artists and art aficionados.
And never once has this praise gone to his head. Because that’s the other thing about my older brother: not only is he the creative person I admire most in this world, he is the kindest, gentlest soul I know.
His art has been a presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was young, I tried to emulate him, hoping that I might be an artist someday as well. How did I do? Well, I write fantasy now, so that should tell you…
We have Jim’s work all over our house, and I am always eager for another of his pieces. They’re just that good.
But more important still is the fact that, outside of Nancy and our girls, he is the best friend I have in the world.
Earlier this year, in the midst of spring bird migration, I wrote about my lifelong love of birding. I shared with you what birding has meant to me over the course of my life, and at the end I made a half-hearted attempt to encourage those interested to start birdwatching.
The truth is, though, that’s a pretty heavy lift. I love birding and I’ve
been doing it long enough that I’m pretty good at it. But for most people, finding the time in their lives for a new hobby, one with a fairly steep learning curve, can seem a bit intimidating. Fortunately, this time of year there’s an easy way into the hobby, one that helps the birds AND offers hours of entertainment.
To quote from Mary Poppins, “Feed the birds!” (“Feed the birds and what have you got?! Fat birds!”)
With the arrival of fall, usually around mid-October here on the Cumberland Plateau, I put out our various bird feeders and fill them with sunflower seeds and suet blocks. I have several feeders mounted on poles in the back yard, and often within a few hours of putting out seed for the first time, my feeders become an all-they-can-eat buffet for titmice, chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers, wrens, finches, sparrows, and others. From October until mid-spring, our yard is filled with birds darting to the feeders, taking a seed and flitting to a branch to break it open and have at the morsel inside.
You can find simple feeders in the garden sections of most home and hardware stores (Lowes has a decent selection) and even in the pet sections of most grocery stores. You can also find them online. Duncraft, Wild Birds Unlimited, Backyard Chirper, and BestNest.com all sell a wide variety. Some can be pretty pricey, but the truth is, the cheap ones often don’t last long. To my mind, the best feeders for those looking for something durable and low-maintenance are the No/No Steel Wire Mesh collapsible feeders. They hold black oil sunflower seed, which is popular with a wide variety of bird species, they’re tough (I have a couple and one is at least ten years old at this point) and won’t be chewed up and ruined by squirrels, and the larger ones hold a good amount of seed, so I only have to fill mine once a week or so.
I also have a small plastic satellite feeder (it is shaped like Saturn, with a small opening), which is nice because only small, acrobatic birds can access it. Due to its size, it runs out of food too quickly, but it attracts titmice, chickadees, finches, and nuthatches. Larger birds can’t perch on it.
And I have a hopper feeder which basically looks like a small house. It’s made of wood and has one big compartment that I fill weekly. The feeder is mounted on a pole, and I have modified it slightly since buying it. I removed the cheap plastic sides that held the seed in place, and in their place attached metal mesh — also known as hardware cloth. I used a staple gun to set the mesh in place. The result is a more durable feeder that holds slightly more than it would have otherwise.
This feeder attracts everything from the smallest species — chickadees, wrens, titmice, finches, and wrens — to larger birds like woodpeckers, Cardinals, and Blue Jays. In the spring I often get flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks on the hopper feeder.
All my mounting poles are equipped with squirrel baffles, which do a decent, if not perfect, job of keeping the critters off the feeders. Don’t worry: the squirrels don’t starve. The dirty little secret of feeding our feathered friends is that birds are slobs. For every seed they get from a feeder, they often knock two or three to the ground. Squirrels get plenty of food just from the spillage, as do ground feeding birds like sparrows, juncos, and doves.
Finally, I also have a suet cage on one of my feeder poles. A suet cage is essentially a rectangular wire box that holds those suet cakes you can buy at grocery stores, hardware stores, and garden centers. The cakes are not perfect, but they’re cheap, they’re easy to load into the feeders, and the birds seem to like them. My brother, who lives far north of me, uses actual suet from the meat department of his grocery store. We can’t do that here in the Southeast. Even in winter, we have too many warmish days. The fat would turn rancid. The cakes are a good compromise. They attract a variety of woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, even the large, crested Pileated Woodpeckers — think Woody Woodpecker) as well as nuthatches, wrens, and others.
I should also mention that starting in April and continuing throughout the spring and summer, Nancy puts out hummingbird feeders in her garden. This is a more work intensive endeavor than seed feeding. She blends water and refined sugar at a ratio of about 3 1/2 to 1, boils it to make it safe and to fully dissolve the sugar, and then lets it cool before filling the feeders. She has to do this three or four times a week, sometimes more. We go through a lot of sugar (we buy two kinds of sugar during the warm months — sugar for baking and such, and cheap, store-brand “bird sugar” for the feeders), but we usually have at least two pairs of hummingbirds breeding in the yard. At times, we’ll have as many as ten or fifteen birds fighting for access to the feeders.
For more information on feeding birds, please visit All About Birds, the website of Cornell University’s marvelous ornithology lab. They are a great resource and do wonderful work protecting birds.
I wrote about this today, because our feeders have been up for about two weeks and already I have derived so much pleasure from all the birds hanging around in our backyard. Putting out feeders is great way to start learning about birds — keep a pair of binoculars and a simple field guide handy, and you’ll soon be identifying all of your hungry visitors. And, of course, you’ll also be helping the birds endure the cold months.
Three years ago this weekend, we were in Massachusetts at Wachusett Meadow, a Massachusetts Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary, for a memorial service honoring my brother, Bill. This glorious site was one of his favorites in the world, and we dedicated a bench with a brass plaque commemorating him. He died earlier in 2017, but this weekend coincided with his birthday, and seemed the perfect time to say goodbye.
As you can see, it was a gorgeous fall day — cool, breezy, brilliantly sunny. This was at the height of autumn hawk migration, which Bill loved. He and his love, Sandy, used to come out to the sanctuary to watch for Broad-winged Hawks, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, and other raptors. I had a sense all that morning as we prepared for the service, that Bill would find some way to make his presence felt during the day. I’m not usually prone to such thoughts. It was pretty uncharacteristic for me to believe such a thing.
But sure enough, as we concluded the service, a Cooper’s Hawk swooped over a nearby ridge and down to this lake where it began to circle and climb, its wings still, sun angling off its tail. I had held my emotions pretty much in check throughout the day, but seeing that hawk, feeling my brother’s… I don’t know, spirit, I guess, in its arrival, I fell to pieces. It was good for me, really. Cathartic.
It was a hard day, but a special one — a day I’ll never forget.
Have a good weekend all. Be kind to one another, hug those you love, and stay safe.
Pray for the forest, pray to the tree,
Pray for the fish in the deep blue sea.
Pray for yourself and for God’s sake,
Say one for me,
Poor wretched unbeliever.
— James Taylor, “Gaia,” from Hourglass
This is what it looks like when a planet dies
Cataclysmic fires along the American West Coast and the Australian East Coast, in the Amazon and on the Steppe. Once-in-a-millenium events occurring annually. Orange skies over California and the Pacific Northwest.
Storms of unprecedented destructive power striking with unnerving frequency, rendering the term “storm of the century” essentially meaningless.
Deepening cycles of drought and flood. Cities across the world literally being inundated by oceans and seas. Glaciers vanishing faster than even the most aggressive projections told us they would. Coral reefs dying. Species going extinct.
My older brothers turned me on to birdwatching when I was seven years old — a gift that has enriched my life for half a century. And over those same fifty years, North America’s population of birds has declined by nearly 30%. Habitat loss, pesticide use, careless architecture, and, yes, climate change — all have played a role. The result? Three billion fewer birds.
In the spring of 1985, my senior year in college, I took an ecology course for non-majors. It offered a survey of critical environmental issues facing the world, and discussed them in terms history and literature majors could understand. At the time, a scientific consensus had long-since formed around what was called at the time “the Greenhouse Effect,” what we later called global warming, and now global climate change. That was thirty-five years ago.
In 1896, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius theorized that the unfettered burning of fossil fuels, and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would lead to a warming of the planet. Four years later, in 1901, his colleague, Nils Gustaf Ekholm, coined the term “Greenhouse Effect” to describe the phenomenon. In fairness, Ekholm thought it might be a good thing, as it would stave off future ice ages. But the concept is not a new one.
For decades, global temperatures have been rising to record setting levels, only to be topped the following year. Global temperature records were first kept in a systematic way around 1850. Of the 170 or so years for which figures exist, nineteen of the twenty hottest have occurred since 2000. 2020 is on pace to join the top five.
I am willing to engage on most political and social issues. I enjoy a good discussion, a vigorous debate. There are, though, a few topics on which I will no longer engage. First among them is bigotry of any sort — racism, sexism, homophobia, trans bias, religious bias, etc. Climate denial is a close second. (And this year, Covid denial has joined the list.)
This is no longer theory. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. Climate change is real. Our planet is dying. If we do nothing — if we as a global community continue on the path we’re on now, we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a burnt husk of what was once earth. Future generations will live in a world that staggers from ecological crisis to ecological crisis, from catastrophe to catastrophe, from flood to drought to famine to pandemic and back again.
We have had ample opportunity to address the issue, and we have squandered one after another. We have absented ourselves from vital global treaties and doubled down on the sort of short-sighted consumerism that got us into this mess in the first place. Like James Taylor in the song quoted at the beginning of this post, I have no faith in our ability to save ourselves. We are a society that cannot bring ourselves to wear cloth masks for the common good. How are we supposed to make the economic transitions necessary to change economic course?
And the tragic thing is, addressing climate change could be a tremendous boon to our standing in the world, to our economic fortunes, to our commitment to education. This is the challenge of our time. It demands bold thinking, new industries, innovation and invention. Implementing the necessary changes would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, replacing and more the jobs lost in the coal and oil industries. Fitting ecological imperatives to our national love affair with cars and trucks could revitalize the American automotive industry. Does anyone really believe that the internal combustion engine, invented more than a century ago, is the be-all and end-all of technological ingenuity? Of course not.
But we have to have the will to change, the courage to say “Saving our planet for our children is worth whatever sacrifices we might have to make.” And, from what I can see, we don’t.
I wish I could end on a more hopeful note.
November’s election is about more than ending corruption, about more than beating back hate and prejudice, about more than the Supreme Court, about more than taxes and health care and social justice. It is about saving our planet. It is about keeping ourselves from a slow and painful march toward extinction.
As Jaryd and Alayna reached the bottom of the marble stairs and stepped onto the cobblestone street, people from the crowd approached them. The first to reach the pair was a young girl, accompanied by her mother, who stopped in front of Alayna and dropped a small feather into the woven basket the mage had been handed moments before.
“Wear your cloak well, Daughter of Amarid,” the girl said softly, with a glance back at her mother. “May Arick guard you.”
Alayna had no time to thank the girl. A young man placed another feather in her basket, and said solemnly. “Wear your cloak well, Daughter of Amarid, and may Arick guard you.”
An elderly man placed a feather in Jaryd’s basket. “Wear your cloak well, Son of Amarid, and may Arick guard you,” he said with a wink and a grin.
So it went for the entire journey around the Great Hall and through the streets of the city to the First Mage’s home. The procession wound through the darkened streets, which were lined with crowds of people. And as they walked, literally hundreds of men, women, and children approached Jaryd and Alayna, dropped feathers in their baskets, and welcomed them to the Order with the ritual greeting. Some smiled, or even laughed, while others remained serious, but all seemed sincere in wishing the mages well.
I’ll admit it. Since writing Children of Amarid, my first novel, I have thought of the feathers I find as “gifts from Amarid.” For those unfamiliar with the LonTobyn books, my mages, the so-called Children of Amarid, drew their magic from the psychic bond they formed with avian familiars — usually hawks, eagles, falcons, or owls. With every act of magic they performed in service to the land, they left a single feather as a token of their devotion.
This particular feather, which I found on my morning walk yesterday, originally belonged to a Blue Jay. I’m grateful to him or her for leaving it for me.
I wish you a weekend filled with unexpected wonders, large and small. Stay safe, be kind to one another.
Sometimes my Monday Musings posts are pretty easy to write – a topic comes to me and I riff on it or rant about it. Other times, nothing comes to me at all, and just getting started is next to impossible.
And there are days like today, when I have about 20 things to say and not a lot to say about any of them.
So, welcome to the Monday Musings Lightning Round!!
This coming week, Joe Biden is expected to announce his running mate, and in the lead-up to the announcement, things in the upper echelon of the Democratic Party have been getting surreal. Seriously. First of all, why Biden would have angry old white men on his VP selection committee is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong. I like Joe. I will vote for him with conviction if not enthusiasm. But doesn’t he pretty much have the angry old white man demographic covered on his own? Does he really need Ed Rendell and Chris Dodd to be part of this conversation?
And what the hell is the matter with those two? Rendell complains that Kamala Harris, a leading candidate for the VP slot, and my personal favorite, is “too ambitious,” a charge only ever leveled at women. Ambition in men is seen as a good thing. Why not Kamala? And excuse me, but every person who has ever run for President or announced their willingness to be VP is, by definition, ambitious. What the hell am I missing here? This would be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but sadly Dodd has him beaten. Old Chris has been complaining that Harris hasn’t been “contrite” enough in conversations about her primary campaign attacks on Biden. When in the history of politics has any male candidate for ANYTHING ever had to express contrition as a prerequisite for a political post? I’ve been a Democrat all my life, and so I feel funny saying this, but Chris Dodd and Ed Rendell need to shut their fucking mouths.
The other night, Donald Trump announced that he was going to issue an executive order requiring that health insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. He called this “a big deal” and said it had never been done before. Which, of course, is not at all true. This was, and still is, a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a law that even now the Trump Administration is trying to convince the Supreme Court to overturn. Is he just that ill-informed? Is he just that cynical? Is he both? Is he just a moron? Inquiring minds want to know.
The continued viability of Major League Baseball’s abridged 2020 season is balanced on a knife’s edge. Outbreaks among several teams, most recently the St. Louis Cardinals, have caused game cancellations across the league. This abbreviated season, scheduled for 60 games rather than the usual 162, is only about two weeks old, but already I find it hard to imagine how it lasts more than a month. Other professional sports leagues, notably the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, have created “bubbles” in single venues – places where players, team staff, and press are isolated from anyone else. MLB, on the other hand, has allowed its teams to travel to their home cities. The results have been predictably poor. Seems like it’s just a matter of time before the season is called off.
As you might have guessed, I’m a baseball fan, and I am getting my baseball fix not from watching games on TV, but from playing in an online Stratomatic league with a group of friends and acquaintances. Basically, we all get to draft our teams from a large pool of all-time greats, our choices limited by a strict salary cap, and then the computer plays out the season while we tinker with our lineups, pitching rotations, and strategies. SO MUCH FUN! I know: It’s entertainment for nerds. But I love it. This is our second league since the pandemic began. In the first, my team was middle of the pack. Not great, but not terrible. I was in the hunt for a wild card playoff spot until the last two weeks, when the proverbial wheels came off. This new season, with all new teams, is going pretty well for my crew (which includes Ted Williams, Tom Seaver, and Joe Morgan), but it’s too early to draw any conclusions.
Like all of you, I’m sure, the pandemic is getting to me a bit. I would love to go out for dinner, or have a get-together with a bunch of friends. I miss my daughters terribly, having not seen either of them for way, way too long. But I count myself so fortunate for the simple reason that I love my spouse and she, for reasons surpassing understanding, seems to love me back. She goes to work every weekday, and I am working on stuff at home, but in the evenings and on weekends we basically have each other. And that’s enough. We cook together, watch TV or movies together, sip wine or Scotch or beers together. We talk a lot. We also sit next to each other on the couch reading our books or playing on our phones, saying not a word. And that’s nice, too. Here’s a phrase I never thought I’d type: There is no one with whom I would rather endure a pandemic…
I’m writing this outside on our porch (she’s working on the porch as well). It’s hot, but the breeze is picking up. We have one hummingbird feeder in the garden fronting the porch and another hanging off the porch to the side. And there must be at least ten hummingbirds harassing and chasing each other around the feeders, facing off in midair like hovercraft, buzzing past us at breakneck speeds, their wings whistling. I’m no more than ten feet from the nearest feeder, and they’re so intent on one another that they couldn’t care less about me. It’s quite entertaining, although now and then they buzz by so close to my head, that I duck belatedly.
And with that, I will wish you a wonderful week. Thanks for playing Monday Musings Lightning Round with me!
Those who know me well, know that I am an avid birdwatcher. My older brothers got me started when I was just a kid. And when I say just a kid, I mean that – I started birding when I was seven. For Christmas just before my ninth birthday, my brother Jim created a whole set of life lists and year list templates (before templates were really a thing) and bound them in a notebook. Totally geeky, right? To this day, it remains one of the best presents anyone has ever given me.
I bring all of this up because we are now in the middle of spring migration, when the forests of North America become a byway for returning songbirds heading north to their breeding grounds. Yes, there are migrations for other types of birds as well – certain species of hawks return to our area in the spring, as do shorebirds. But for those birds fall migration is the more significant event. Spring migration is all about birds from the neotropics.
Warblers, tanagers, orioles, certain grosbeaks (Rose-breasted and Blue), flycatchers, thrushes vireos. These are among the most colorful and beautiful birds we see in the States. Brilliant yellows and oranges, deep reds, stunning blues. Many of the birds have gorgeous songs – the thrushes in particular. Most of the migrants are very small; the warblers tend to be only four or five inches from beak to tail. And many of them hang out at the very top of the forest canopy, making them very difficult to spot, much less identify, and leading to an avocational malady known as “warbler neck,” which is pretty much self-explanatory.
For serious birders, spring migration is New Year’s, Mardi Gras, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. I know that it is my favorite time of the year and I am pleased to say that despite the pandemic, it is something I have been able to enjoy fully this spring. Every morning I walk a few miles on a rails-to-trails path near my home. I get a bit of exercise, and I see my favorite birds. Just about every day I am reminded of a birding experience from my childhood, of a moment with my brothers or an early sighting while alone that convinced me I could identify species on my own. For me, spring migration is about more than seeing the birds. It is about reconnecting with nature, and also with a passion that has remained with me for literally half a century. It is about memory and family. It both calms and invigorates me. A single good sighting on my morning walk can buoy my mood for the entire day.
As a kid, I was self-conscious about my interest in birds. A few of my closest friends knew, but otherwise I kept it to myself, fearing that I would be teased. I was already a nerd. I was short. I wasn’t the best athlete. I was usually in the school play. So already I had a lot of geek cred. The birdwatching, I feared, would be one nerd-attribute too many. Looking back on this, I regret how shy I was in this regard. It has always been so important to me. And yet, even to this day, I feel a twinge of embarrassment when I’m out with binoculars in hand, searching the foliage for a warbler or wren, and someone I know happens past. Old habits die hard.
On the other hand, I once had someone ask me for an interview what my superpower was. And the truth is, my superpower is that I can identify by song almost any bird native to my area. I’m sitting outside as I write this, and just in the moment I pause in my typing I can hear a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Carolina Chickadee, a Tufted Titmouse, a Summer Tanager, a House Finch, and a Nashville Warbler. Yeah, I know – as superpowers go, it’s not much. But really it’s all I’ve got.
In any case, I wasn’t sure what to write about today, and given how much of a balm birding has been for me these past few weeks, I thought I would share this.
For those who are interested, birding is an easy hobby to pick up and a rewarding one to pursue. All you need is a pair of binoculars, a good field guide, and a willingness to learn.
This is one of those posts. And by one of those posts I mean a post that is going up for the sake of keeping alive a promise I’ve made to myself to try to blog about something every day.
Thing is, I don’t have a lot to say. I worked today. I got out for a walk and saw a few birds (a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk and a small flock of Swamp Sparrows, which happen to be among my favorite winter residents). I watched a little football. When I’m done with this I plan to play a little music. A relaxing, quiet day, of which I have had way too few recently. And I don’t see too many more such days in my immediate future.
So I’m going to enjoy this one. Forgive the brief, pointless post. See you tomorrow.