Summertime Falls Down

Dear Friends,

Happy fall! Lately I’m being told I’ve gotten lazy with pagan holidays.  I’m focusing too much on the Celts and should expand my cultural reach.

I confess I do love the Celts. But of course the autumn equinox has associations with harvest time in many cultures in the northern hemisphere. In China the Moon Festival takes place on the full moon closest to the equinox. This year the full harvest moon was on September 20. I am visiting cousins in Gig Harbor, Washington and we celebrated by watching the glorious moon rise over Puget Sound just to the left of Mt. Rainier while on a zoom call with my brother Don. A thoroughly modern pagan celebration!I

was introduced to Chinese philosophy in a class about Chinese medicinal cooking led by West County neighbor Briahn. What an eye opener! A whole different way of looking at nature and the earth. Each of the five phases or seasons of ancient Chinese philosophy carries associations with specific things. Not only spring, summer, fall and winter, but also the cardinal directions, colors, sounds, organs in the body, fundamental elements such as wood, fire, earth, metal, and real or mythological beasts.

In Chinese tradition, the autumn season is associated with the color white, the emotions of both courage and sadness, the sound of weeping, the lung organ, the metal element, and a white tiger. Autumn is also connected in Chinese thought with the direction west, considered to be the direction of dreams and visions. To the Chinese, nature means more than just the cycling of the seasons. Nature is within and around us, in all things. 

This summer I’ve been communing with nature by watching the night sky on clear nights. At the Ides of August I missed the Perseid meteor shower because smoke from fires in the Sierra mixed with fog to obscure the sky in Santa Rosa. But the clear sky has returned periodically.

I developed a bit of an obsession with the night sky and when I told neighbor Pam, she lent me a book by her husband, Jerry Waxman, who before his death in 2009 had been an astronomy professor at Santa Rosa Jr. College. It’s called Astronomical Tidbits: A Layperson’s Guide to Astronomy and it’s a perfect book for me, a layperson if there ever was one. Astronomy is explained and stories told in short short chapters, just right for my short attention span.

Jerry was forced to retire from teaching in 2003 after being diagnosed with Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA), a disease like Parkinson’s. He worked on the book the last two years of his life and Pam got it published. Pam told me Jerry’s doctor speculated that toxins in the environment caused the disease. He was a runner who daily ran through vineyards coated with pesticides. The doctor said farmers, too, have higher evidence of this disease than the general population.

Jerry’s death is a reminder that living in a semi-rural agricultural area does not save us from industrial pollution. I’ve wondered about the effects of pesticide exposure on my own health. I grew up in Yakima Washington in the middle of an apple orchard when DDT was sprayed liberally and crop dusters flew over with regularity. My mother had what would now be called environmental illness. She died at 70 after years of suffering from COPD.

I know that those crop duster pilots showed signs of memory loss in studies. Did exposure to pesticides affect my memory? I’ve suffered from memory problems all my adult life (although as a little kid I was a whiz). At some point I was helped by seeing this as a disability, although the cause remains a mystery. One way I have coped is to learn to let things go when I can’t remember. Another is to focus on just memorizing one thing at a time.

Stargazing this summer I have focused on the summer triangle because it contains three stars that are the first to come out after dark. The triangle is an asterism, made up of stars that are part of three different constellations. Vega, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, is the very first star I see and by now in September it is high in mid-sky. Seeing Vega blink on is comforting in this age of turmoil. The earth is still turning, my star is still there. The other two stars are Deneb and Altair, though I keep forgetting Altair. Gotta let that go. Then I will memorize it again tomorrow.

Here is another cool thing I learned from this book while reading about meteor showers. The best time to look for meteors is between 3 and 6 a.m. because we are on the side of the earth that is rushing forward in space! It’s called the leading edge. Jerry writes, “Earlier, around 9 p.m., the observer finds him or herself on the trailing edge, the backside of the Earth. Just the way your front windshield has more dead bugs than the rear windshield, so the leading edge of the Earth gathers more meteors.”

Now on a clear night when I awake at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m., I go outside, sit in a zero gravity chair and look up. Even if I don’t see any falling stars, it’s exhilarating to think that I’m on the edge of the Earth that’s rushing into space! And it’s humbling to remember that I’m just a tiny speck on a little planet in a minor solar system.

Wishing you a fabulous autumnal equinox!

Love, Molly (and Holly)

Happy Beltane to All

The Celts were a bunch of tree worshippers and their pagan holiday of Beltane featured a May Bush, decorated and shown off around town. The Celts celebrated the holiday with big smokey bonfires into which the May Bush was sacrificed at the end. Beltane, May 1, marks the Gaelic start of summer. 

Our celebration was fireless and smokeless and we didn’t get around to decorating a May Bush, although I love the idea and think we should adopt it. But we celebrate by appreciating the flora and fauna in our garden and neighborhood. This spring we’ve been particularly appreciating our birds.

This is our fourth spring living and gardening here at Hylandia, and we’ve watched the behavior of our local birds change over that time. Now we see that some birds just visit our garden and some live here year round, becoming family of sorts. They no longer fly high over our yard, but swoop fast and low over our heads. 

In the midst of our human pandemic the birds experienced their own pandemic, an outbreak of salmonella especially prominent among flocks of pine siskins. They migrated here because of a bird irruption, the greatest irruption of these birds on record, according to Audubon. The pine siskin is a finch that looks very much like a goldfinch, brown striped with yellow markings. But they were easily identifiable because they looked sick. Dying birds lay on the ground in our garden and the neighborhood.

On the advice of the Bird Rescue Center we took our feeder down, but now the pine siskins have moved on and Holly has put it back up. The fickle finches have returned to the feeder. They don’t live here, but they don’t migrate either. They roost elsewhere and only come in for eating and bathing. Robins occasionally drop in for a bath and jays are regular visitors.

Crows built a nest at the top of the big oak tree in the next-door yard and so we had crows visiting our garden often for about a month. By mid-April the chicks had fledged. The crows have disbursed now but for a time the crow noise was deafening. Baby birds don’t look babyish at all. They sometimes are even bigger than their parents. But you can tell the fledglings because they flap their wings asking to be fed. And very often we see adults feeding them. For the first time we saw crows coming down to our fountain to drink and bathe and just check out the yard. 

The crow noise must’ve also inspired the mockingbirds around here. One was singing all night for a few weeks. He would stand on top of a telephone pole–mockingbird territory. Then he would do an acrobatic dance, jumping up in a somersault before coming back down to the top of the pole, singing all the while. Mockingbirds are loud but not boring because they sing lots of different songs. They have learned the song of the titmouse: sweetie sweetie. They’ve also learned the sound of car alarms although their version is more songlike than the actual alarm. Leave your windows open and they might keep you up at night.

We were delighted that the titmice chose our birdhouse to nest in this year.  Once the nest was chosen the male’s call began to sound threatening and kind of rough, unlike his usual sweet song. He aggressively patrolled the yard, now his territory. Some people think crows in the garden scare away little birds, but nesting titmice and crows cohabited well here.

Oak titmice are year-round residents of the yard and so are California towhees. Here is something we have discovered this year: towhee sex is is violent and it happens in midair in a fast flurry of bodies and feathers. The birds make weird grunting sounds that we never hear from them otherwise. Their usual call is a boring and sometimes irritating cheep cheep cheep that can go on for hours and is loud enough to wake humans. Chimneys and rooftops are their territory. They scratch the ground, chicken-like, which to me is rather comforting. 

Ok, I must admit a slight irrational prejudice against the towhees. More than once I’ve mistaken one of them for a rat in the garden. They move in a devious way like rats, scurrying with heads down. And they’re a similar brown color to the rats that live here. I do know this unfortunate resemblance is not their fault.

We have learned the beautiful songs of the Bewicks wren this spring but we’ve only seen one and assume it’s the male. He likes to eat lettuce planted in straw bales in the garden, and he sometimes comes to the feeder for suet. We have been anxious for him to find a mate, settle down and live with us.

Mourning doves visit most often in the morning and evening at dusk. We know that their nests can be found in unlikely places. In my San Francisco garden the female laid eggs in a depression in a flower pot on the back stairs. We could see everything. Sadly, so could the crows; the eggs were stolen. Here in Santa Rosa we haven’t seen them nesting, though our neighbor Linda told us they nested on her electric meter last year.

One day I watched an elaborate dove mating ritual. There was wing flapping and feather ruffling and head bobbing and something that looked like passionate making out where they would grab each others’ beaks and hold on while moving back and forth. It went on for a while. Then another time they just did it with no ritual at all. The couple, it turns out, only has to court once. They are a pair for the season.

Lately we’ve been delighted to see a pair of hooded orioles taking baths in the fountain. They do migrate south for the winter but have nested in the last two seasons in a bottle brush tree in the neighbor’s yard. 

Bird behavior is so very varied, often we can’t even confirm our observations by looking these things up in our bird books or online (I couldn’t find anything written about towhee sex). But we are having great fun learning by observing.