Fall foliage is well past peak color here on the Cumberland Plateau, as it is in most parts of the country. But there are still vivid splashes of red and yellow clinging to branches. This Red Maple, a species also known around here as Swamp Maple, is close to our home. It caught Nancy’s eye last weekend on one of our walks, and I went back out the next day to snap a photo or twelve. It was breezy, so several of the images were blurred, but the setting sun was angling through the forest, gilding the leaves’ edges.
It has been a fraught week. Too many people are getting sick. Too many people are dying. And Washington is consumed with a dispute over an election that was won more than a week ago. It’s tragic and depressing and utterly infuriating. But there is still beauty in the world. It’s a little harder to spot right now, but it remains. I promise.
Now, as much as ever, I beg you to be safe, to take care of yourselves and your loved ones, to be kind to one another. We’ll get through this. A better day is coming.
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.
Yesterday, I hiked out to a pair of lakes near our house — ones I have photographed several times before this year. I was hoping to find calm waters, interesting clouds, and a bit of fall color. I wasn’t disappointed.
Fall in the South is… different from what I’m used to. On the one hand, compared to the foliage I saw in my youth, living in New York and then in New England, the colors here are somewhat muted. We just don’t see the fiery reds and oranges that my brother boasts of in Upstate New York. On the other hand (there is ALWAYS an other hand), I also recall autumn in the north being fleeting, a moment of brisk air and clear skies and stunning leaves, which all too quickly gave way to the drear of winter.
Most years, that’s how spring is down here. It’s winter, then we get a couple of lovely warmish days and everything blooms, and then, too soon, it’s 85 degrees and humid. But fall in the south seems to last forever. It may not be as colorful, but we have week after week of cool nights, pleasant days, and brilliant blue skies. Certainly that has been the case this year. The lingering fall has offered some solace and pleasure in an otherwise difficult year.
In any case, I took a bunch of photos and these were, if not the absolute best, certainly representative of the most successful images. I hope you enjoy them.
Have a wonderful weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.
I’ve written about politics and social issues a lot in recent weeks, and I want desperately to avoid doing so again this week. It’s not that I don’t have more to say. I do. But I feel as though I’d be going over familiar ground, raising the same objections to this Administration, calling attention to new outrages and failings that are simply echoes of the older ones I’ve already criticized. I am weary of outrage, sick to death of this campaign, ready to reclaim the emotional energy and brain space I’ve ceded to it for so many months.
There is more to life than this. I know there is, and recently, as I have pulled back from political websites and social media, I have been taking pleasure in the small things that I enjoy most. Here’s how I’m coping:
Music: Making music and listening to it. The former has been particularly rewarding because for a time earlier this year, a shoulder issue — terribly painful, basically untreatable except for physical therapy, but not truly serious — kept me from being able to play my guitars. I am happy to report that my shoulder, while not 100%, is much better. I’m playing again, learning new songs, building up strength in my arm and hand. Again, I’m not all the way there, but I’m playing again, and that gives me such pleasure.
I’m also listening a lot, mostly to old rock, even when I’m working. In the past, some of you know, I have strictly limited my work-time listening to instrumental music — jazz and bluegrass mostly. But somehow, right now, with all that’s going on in my head, I am able to work and listen to rock at the same time. I honestly don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.
Work: I’m getting work done on several projects, which is gratifying. I have been working on a pair of trunk novels, one that needed editing, and its sequel, which needed editing and an ending. I’m making good progress on those, but I am not pushing myself too hard, and that seems to be a good thing. I’m the first to admit that I am not at my best right now. So rather than beat myself up for not being efficient, I am accepting the limitations imposed by my current emotional state. I work when I can, and when the work doesn’t flow, I take care of other things, be they work-related or house-related or whatever.
I also have a novel that my agent and I are trying to sell and a set of Thieftaker novellas that are in production. And I have other projects at various stages of completion and readiness. On the one hand, I’m impatient for forward motion on all of them. At the same time, I understand that I can only do so much, and that the publishing world is moving even more slowly than usual. I am doing my best to be patient, something that doesn’t come naturally to me.
Getting outside: Fall has been brilliant this year here on the Cumberland Plateau. Shimmering, clear days, cool nights, stunning mornings. I have been birdwatching, savoring my morning walks, taking extra hikes later in the day, taking photos, and generally forcing myself to get away from my computer. Idle moments at my desk lead me to bad habits — social media, political sites, etc. In short, all the stuff I’m trying to avoid. To the extent possible, when the siren call of the web grows too strong, I escape it by going outside and doing something else.
Comfort food for the brain: Throughout the pandemic, I have found it hard to read. Except for political journalism, which, of course, I want no part of right now. The exception is old favorite novels by authors I love. So I’ve been re-reading the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, and have it in mind to read some other old works after that. They are comforting and comfortable, which I really need right now.
Along the same lines, I have been enjoying the television shows of Aaron Sorkin. Most of you probably know about The West Wing and The Newsroom, and I’ve been watching plenty of West Wing, happily retreating to a world in which Jed Bartlet is President. I have also been watching Sports Night, a short-lived half-hour comedy/drama that aired for two years before being cancelled. It was a terrific show about a sports show along the lines of ESPN’s Sportscenter. It was funny and poignant and smart, like all of Sorkin’s work. The network never knew what to do with the show. They tried a laugh track with it for a while, but that didn’t work. And by the time they figured out that they just needed to leave it alone, the show had been mired in a ratings slump for too long to be saved. If you can find the disks, I recommend it highly, particularly season 1.
Nancy: The one constant for me during this pandemic is that Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together. We have been cooking a lot, taking walks together, sipping whisky on the front porch as the sun goes down, and generally counting ourselves so very fortunate to have each other. There’s really not much more to say about this, but as I struggle to maintain my emotional health, I have to acknowledged that I would have broken a long time ago if not for her.
I know how lucky I am — lucky to play guitar, to have music at my disposal, to have a job I love, to have books to read and old DVDs to watch, to live in a place that is beautiful and that offers easy access to wilderness, to have a happy marriage. Please believe that I take none of this for granted. That wasn’t always the case, but this year has shown me the folly of doing so. I won’t fall prey to that particular mistake again.
I wish you health — emotional and physical — and I hope you have a wonderful week. See you Wednesday.
Earlier this week, after working for much of the day, I went for a short hike with a dear friend of mine, a fellow photographer. It was late afternoon on a cool, crisp, exquisite day, and we went down off the bluff to a stream and small waterfall we’ve visited together several times before. The trees were starting to show some color, as were the downed leaves in the stream bed. We masked, of course, and we maintained proper social distance.
But after so long without seeing other people, it was a special treat to get out with my camera AND to do so with a close friend.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been struggling lately. I needed this day. I needed to remind myself that there is more to life than polls and Twitter rants, Covid fears and isolation. We all cope in different ways, and the truth is I am fortunate beyond reckoning. I have children I adore, a life partner who loves me and whom I love, a comfortable home, a job I enjoy, and friends near and far. I have little cause for complaint really. That doesn’t mean my struggles aren’t real, but it does mean that they will not defeat me.
Others are dealing with far greater problems. Maybe some of you. Please know that I wish you all the best, that there is still beauty and joy in the world, that we will emerge from this.
For now, I wish you a wonderful weekend. Stay safe, do something nice for yourself and your loved ones, be kind to one another. I’ll see you next week.
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.
Good morning. I am welcoming the end of what has been a difficult week. I am distancing from some news, though certainly not all. I am avoiding some social media, but again, not all. And I am trying to find my own personal equilibrium, an emotional place from which I can function and observe and comment without tipping over into obsessing and panicking. Not easy in today’s world.
Fortunately, I still live in a beautiful place and I still have my morning walks. Recently, on a cool, wet, foggy morning, I found this droplet-covered bloom of what I believe is Grassleaf Golden Aster. Wonders, large and small, are all around us, if only we pause long enough to see and appreciate them. I try each day to remind myself of this.
I wish you all a lovely weekend. Stay safe, be kind, keep the faith. See you next week.
It’s not quite fall here on the Cumberland Plateau, but the days are cooling off, the nights are crisp and lovely, and the sunlight is taking on that autumn quality.
Earlier this week, late on a still, golden afternoon, I walked down to the pond near our home and snapped this photo.
My life does not feel very peaceful these days. I am struggling, to be honest, and I am desperately in need of the sort of calm conveyed by this photo. I wish I could bottle it, and give myself a small dose whenever necessary. Sadly, life doesn’t work that way.
I wish all of you a peaceful weekend. Be safe, be kind to one another.
Butterfly season is winding down here in Tennessee. We may get a few fall species before the weather turns cold, but many of the summer regulars are gone now. We had a slow start to our butterfly watching, but in the last few weeks of summer we made up for it. I’ve posted other photos already, here, here, and here.
Today, I offer one more collection of images. The butterfly with the bold eye spots on the wings is a Common Buckeye, one of my favorites. The small yellow one is a Sleepy Orange, and the butterfly with the complex pattern has a name to match: the Variegated Fritillary.
I hope all of you have a wonderful weekend. Stay safe, be kind to one another. See you Monday.
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.