11 July 2012

Misamssootaa... The Long Rains

Preface Note: Tawny is a magpie who we became very close with last summer, when her parents began bringing her and her siblings to our house for babysitting, while they went flying throughout the neighborhood to catch enough food. Her parents trusted us, because they had come to know us through observing our associations with Derrick, our pet magpie. Tawny, however, being just new out of the nest and deposited with us throughout the day, became somewhat imprinted. She would sit on us, and felt comfortable coming and going from inside of the house as well. We half-thought she would end up mated to Derrick. But while she made some efforts at gaining his friendship, he always denied her coming too close. Eventually, she found a different mate, and began bringing him over to the house, so that he could get to know us too. This summer, the couple chose their first nest site less than a block away, beside a small pond at our neighborhood park. Up until this moon, Mahoney and I had been going to the park every morning to meet with them, and bring them some beetle grubs. We were very much looking forward to learning what would happen in terms of our relationship with Tawnys children

II Near-Fledgling (18Jun12)

0749 Was a little concerned this morning when Tawny and her husband were more interested in kibble than grubs, and caching everything instead of bringing it over to the nest. So on my way out of the park, I crawled into the brush to find out what was going on. I suspect it might be a little bit of tough love. From what I could see, which wasn't a lot because the nest is so incredibly protected, there's at least one very large baby, mature enough to stand and look out over the rim of the bowl at me. This one should probably be starting to explore at least on the branches around outside of the nest, and maybe that's his parents are trying to prompt him toward. Kind of like what we've been doing with our big kid

IIII ) llll Death Of Tawnys Babies (23Jun12)

0810 Terrible discovery this morning. I've been expecting to meet Tawny's babies. When she stopped bringing food to the nest a few days ago, I even crawled into the brush and looked up at it from below to see one alert face peering down at me. But when this little one failed to appear outside the nest with Tawny and her husband the last couple mornings, I started to suspect something bad had happened. This morning the pair were acting aloof, sticking to a small tree on the opposite side of the park from their nest, not coming to get grubs from me until I had been there with the gulls for about an hour, and then only taking a few before returning to the tree. So I decided it was time to break protocol, climb the bulberry bush housing their nest, and really investigate what was going on. It was a very sad sight, four baby magpies dead, damp from the recent rains, and flecked with dirt. One of them, no doubt the one I'd seen a few days ago, passed while sitting upright at the edge of the nest bowl. Were they victims of eating food that was recently sprayed with Round-Up? (I noticed the city workers spraying weeds the last few days) Did the weekend fishing folk crowd the nest too much, so that Tawny and her husband were afraid to bring food? Or was it just the hardship of our recent storms, bringing them hypothermia? No way to know. But this is the conclusion of one chapter in Tawny's story, the unfortunate end of her first nesting attempt in the second summer of her life

IIII ) lllll Continued Absence Of Waterfowl (24Jun12)

1248 Sspopiikimi - It's a nice overcast day in the first quarter of Misamssootaa, the long rains, and indeed we have been receiving a lot of moisture, the most recent downpour having occurred last night

Mahoney and I have just arrived, and are feeling very out of touch. It's been at least a couple weeks since our last visit, far too long to have much context (other than prior years' experience) to understanding what's going on

The first thing I note, on our walk from the parking area to north-pond, is the absence of flowers on the brome and crested wheat grass. I am used to seeing their yellows and purples, respectively, during this moon. It doesn't seem we're too late for this bloom either, otherwise we would see at least the remains of their tiny flowers dangling here and there. But at present, nothing

North-pond itself is very quiet, the waters anyway. Not a duck, or coot, or goose in sight. There's the odd redwing blackbird across the way, on the reeds of the wet meadows. Their wives are no doubt incubating eggs right now. We can also hear magpies, flickers, robins, and chickadees in the forest somewhere

The yellow salsify are in flower, as they were beginning to do during my last walk here. Perhaps because I was already aware of this event being underway, I don't direct much of my attention to these flowers. Mahoney, on the other hand, does and is rewarded for it. There are mid-sized (by local standards) black and white striped ants herding and harvesting from aphids at the base of at least one leaf per salsify plant. The only plants excluded from aphid pasturing are those with curious little white egg sacks on the leaves. I suspect these eggs belong to spiders. They are wrapped in silk, flat and disc-like, similar to those of several wolf spiders, but much, much smaller

1230 Speaking of spiders, it seems we've entirely missed the brief event when the 'absinthe spiders' (my name for them) set up cottony-looking webs at the tips of all the previous year's dry absinthe seed-heads. They do this in conjunction with the cottonwood seeding, which is just about over now, and in this manner trick lots of little insects into their fluffy white webwork. I can see the remains of this year's webs on all the old absinthe, as well as on a few other plants, including the big asparagus of north-pond

The asparagus, for its part, is maturing, though a bit more slowly than I'd anticipated. The north-pond plant is still in flower, where normally it would have green berries by now. Conversely, the okonoki (saskatoon) is maturing at an accelerated rate, probably owing to this year's early bloom. Their berries are red already, and I imagine it won't be too long now until they're tolerably ripened to harvest

In terms of animal life at this extreme end of north-pond, we've been seeing a few birds... a flicker, a handful of cedar waxwings, a juvenile robin attempting to bathe in an all-too-shallow puddle. There are also turtles out on the drift logs

1242 At the end of north-pond, we climb the levee and move to the river bench for a break. Along the way, I notice that the clematis are starting to vine-out fairly well, and the sunflowers are reaching now about a foot in height. There is peppergrass and hounds tongue in seed, flixweed and prickly rose in flower

Above the bench, in the cottonwoods overlooking the rain-swollen river, we can hear yellow warblers and house wrens. Mahoney manages to prompt a catbird to us from a ways further upstream by using its 'ow-wee' call. The bird flies over, perches in some brush below, gives a few agitated 'waah' calls, then returns to where it came from

1258 From the river bench, we cut southwest, down to the duck blind. We were expecting to find all the resident waterfowl here at the wide south pool. But very surprisingly, all we see is a single redhead female. No geese, no mallards, no coots, no teals. Very odd, this almost total absence

Of course, it could very well be that we're just overlooking them. After about three weeks of on-and-off rains, everything is extremely lush here. There's a lot of places to hide. It's humid too. We hadn't noticed so much on our arrival, but now after walking we are definitely feeling a bit uncomfortable. As Mahoney put it, "I feel like a limp piece of sweaty toast... you know, like toast that was put in a bag while it was still hot." I do know. I feel the same way. Curiously, given these conditions, there are very few mosquitoes to be reckoned with. I would have thought we'd be completely swarmed by now. I hope the city hasn't, in all their ecological wisdom, undertaken to spray insecticides here at the pond

If so, it doesn't seem the honeybees have been much affected. They are all abuzz around the leafy spurge plants at the moment. But in the hour or so we've been here, Mahoney and I have seen only one damselfly, no dragonflies, very few airborne insects at all, to be honest. Perhaps it's the moisture. All the plants are still beaded with last night's rain. Let's hope

1316 Next we hike back north through the middle corridor of the forest main. Our walk could hardly be less eventful, given the season. I mean... yes, we are able to stop and watch a pair of tree swallows and a pair of house wrens feed their hatchlings at the one snag they share for nesting year-after-year. But otherwise, we merely hear, but do not see, the birds of the forest. There are eastern and western kingbirds, robins, house wrens, chickadees, flickers, least flycatchers, cedar waxwings, downy woodpeckers, grey catbirds, tree swallows, yellow and yellow-rumped warblers, and probably northern orioles here. Many of them alert us of their presence, vocally. But beyond that, they are keeping incredibly hidden. It is, after all, nesting season for these small passerines. I've no doubt that were we to poke around seriously, we'd find them and their nests. But the humidity is now really getting to us, and all we want to do is climb back up on the levee into a bit more open air

1348 We hike south again, now up near the level of the forest canopy, and stop to rest for a few minutes at the river bench by the owl wood and old garter snake hibernaculum. Here, we are visited by yellow warblers, catbirds, and cedar waxwings, all apparently curious what we were about. I busy myself collecting large mullien leaves which, though it seems counter-intuitive, are reportedly very useful, when smoked, for clearing phlegm from the pipes and lungs. I'm personally on my way to rescinding my participation in the commercial tobacco trade... cutting way down on the frequency of my smoking, and growing my own nicotine plants from ancient Blackfoot seeds. Before the summer's end, if not much sooner, I'm aiming to have my smoking completely under control, rather than having it remain the daily, nay hourly, habit that I had built of it. Real tobacco, that which I grow, never has the brown, chemically-drenched appearance or taste of the commercial varieties, even those that advertise as 'all natural'. I figure, mullien will make a good addition to the small stash of pipe-smoking mixture which I intend to keep, both for ceremonial and secular purposes

1432 From the bench, we travel around the perimeter of the wide south pool, again spotting no waterfowl, to walk the shale trail of the west length back to our vehicle

When we get to the brush above the peninsula, we check on the state of the currants, which we fully intend to harvest when ripe. There are berries here, but very young and green still. It would not be surprise me if, this year, the saskatoons came ready a hair ahead of the currants

We have also encountered, here above the peninsula, two brilliant butterflies. The one is a viceroy, looking every bit the part of a monarch, and like the birds we too are fooled at first (the showy milkweed are in bloom). The other is a brilliant little pearl crescent, landing amidst the early-blooming alfalfa, who poses calmly for my camera

Up ahead, we can hear the unmistakable cries of hungry fledgling magpies. Believe it or not, this is an event we really want to witness. Magpies, for Mahoney and I, are extremely precious allies. At the little conifer of the golf greens closest to the shale trail, we get our wish. There are two fledglings perched and begging in a cottonwood above, and two more quiet and humble near the nest. Like our own Derrick magpie in his infancy, these birds are working on stretching and strengthening, standing tall every few minutes and reaching as high as they can with their wings. It won't be long until they can join their siblings in the cottonwood. Derrick was born not a hundred meters from this site, and is very likely their consanguineal kin

1440 Having made our initial greetings to these new magpies, Mahoney and I are satisfied with today's round. We hike the remainder of the west length to our car without further event to note. All we are concerned with now are the absences. Where, for instance, are the young mallard families? Or the now two-month old aapsspini goslings? We have never had a summer where these fowl abandoned the relatively safety and rich resources of this pond for other places. If they have done so this year, it can only be for very good reason, and that being a threat I would imagine to be chemical, rather than blatantly predatorial. Our next visit may better inform us

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Fitness And Displacement (10Jul12)

1356 Sspopiikimi Its a relatively hot day, and Ive come to scout out whats new here, in preparation for guiding a cohort of M.Ed. students from the University of Lethbridge tomorrow, introducing them to my form of what their instructors are billing as alternative literacies. Its been a couple weeks since my last visit, and at that time I noted that neither the brome nor crested wheatgrass had flowered. Now, walking in, I can see that in just the short period since my last visit, Ive missed these events entirely. The blooms on these grasses are already shriveled and falling. Thats the pace, when it comes to phenology. Nature is in constant flux and, especially in the summer season, significant changes can unfold daily

1401 I begin my survey by hiking the west length. Right away, at north and mid-pond, I note that the water milfoil is high. Many plants along the shoreline along this stretch are in bloom, including alfalfa, prairie coneflower, field bindweed, yellow and white sweetclover, and showy milkweed. Canada thistle is getting ready to bloom. There seem to be lots of bluet damselfies around. There are also pink-edged sulfurs and viceroy butterflies, as well as a few mallard drakes in the reeds by the wet-meadows

1406 Reaching the ksisskstakioyis, theres a few more blooming plants to mention. Ive seen some scarlet globemallow, western clematis, yarrow, and yellow evening primrose, as well as lots of flowers on the dogbane and buckbrush. Hairy golden asters are just starting to blossom. There are a few robins on the golf greens, and the ever-present red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds in the reeds. Ive been listening for the magpies. During my last visit, the new arrivals were just fledging, and Id like to follow some of these young families, but I havent heard any of their calls as yet

1414 Further along, toward the wide south pool, I begin encountering lots of viceroy butterflies, far more than Ive ever seen in any previous year. I dont know if it is the milkweed or hoary cress thats attracting them at this area, but one thing I do wonder is whether their abundance could be another signal of climate change. This is pretty much the northernmost range for both the viceroys and the similar-looking monarchs, so I always spot a few during the summer season. But what Im seeing today is unusual, a breeding population

On the water of the south pool, theres a mallard couple. The golden currants along the cutbank here are absolutely drooping over with berries. This is good news. Last year we didnt get many berries. I stop to pick some right away, and find they are actually just coming into their full ripeness, that there will be several weeks more to take advantage of them. All the same, the experience gives me an idea for one lesson I can share with the M.Ed. cohort tomorrow that in my alternate literacy of reading this place, we have to be willing to respond as human beings. When there are berries in season, we pick them, we eat them. Thats part of our relational role here, our fit into the local ecology and phonological cycles

1426 As I continue to pick currants, the cedar waxwings come to investigate, probably wondering how much of their claim Im going to make off with. I can hear one of the magpie families high up on the coulee slope, out of the way of my intended round today. I have to focus on the areas where I might take the students. The brush around me is thick, lush, difficult to penetrate with the eyes. This calls to mind another lesson I might share, regarding some of the potential dangers that a person should be aware of. A lot of times, thick brush like this can conceal large hornet nests, so you should always have your ears alert. This helps also for the odd rattlesnake who might be encountered here. But none of your senses will help you avoid the wood ticks who proliferate in this same brush during certain periods of the year. Luckily, now is not one of those times

Down below my picking spot, I can see apaksskioomi (wide-face), the northern pike, lingering just off-shore of the peninsula. Though I observe them in this behavior every year about this part of the season, I have yet to figure out what meal theyre waiting for. Usually, Im too busy snatching them up myself. They dont seem at all interested in the mating swarms of water beetles nearby. Nor are any of the mating damselflies pitching down onto the ponds surface

1452 Moving on, I round the wide south pool and drop into the forest main, where there are today lots of sisttsiiksi, or small passerines, including among them the northern orioles, iinohpinsoyii. They are leading their new fledgling around, keeping a safe distance from me. I also see yellow warblers, what looks like orange-crowned warblers, catbirds, tree swallows, least flycatchers, and downy woodpeckers. All the usual summer breeding crew are here. From a bit of silverberry, beside the trail, shoots a cedar waxwing who let me come too close. Inspecting this bush I find, as expected, her little nest, a cup of grass beautifully decorated with cotton from the trees. It contains four grey-blue, black-speckled eggs

1512 A conspicuous absence here this year, in addition to most of our waterfowl, are the swainson hawks. They have nested in the same tree for as long as Mahoney and I have been visiting the pond, and I saw them bringing in sticks earlier in the season to make repairs, but in the end they decided to go elsewhere. Im not sure why this is. The cause is probably related to what has kept the waterfowl away. My suspicion, at this point, is that it has something to do with the construction that went on in the absinthe field near north-pond over the winter. There was a lot of waste-water from pipe-drilling spilling into the pond, and I dont know whether this may have been contaminated. Equally likely, just the barren field alone could have been enough to scare them off. Certainly there are less rodents to hunt as prey now, though this wouldnt have affected the ducks. I think it may just be plain old disturbance of an environment that had come to know very intimately. Somethings different now, somethings wrong cant trust that things will be stable here all season while were nesting best to relocate

1524 At the north end of the forest, just before I climb the levee back out, the tall goldenrod are getting ready to bloom, and a pair of house wrens scolds me bitterly. I think they must be feeding a hatchling in some hidden cavity nest nearby

Up on the levee itself, the first rhombic-leaved sunflowers are opening. The rivers still pretty high, from the combination of late snowmelt and a few weeks good dousing. But this is the first time in three years it hasnt risen so high as to drown-out the bank swallow nests. Which is good, they need a break

1532 Just a couple of endnotes, as I head back to my car. There are bull thistle blooming at north-pond. Very few turtles out, though it is really too hot to expect to find them basking. Whats strange though is the lack of mosquitoes. I got a few bites, moving through the forest today, but nothing like during previous summers. We just have not had many mosquitoes at all yet this summer. This too causes me to wonder, what kind of toxins might have spilled into the pond during all the winter construction

1635 Tomorrow I'm teaching a cohort of M.Ed. students, most of whom work in literacy with non-English-speaking students, about what is being framed as alternate forms of literacy and text... namely, in my case, learning from a place and its inhabitants, becoming fluent in their languages, social relations, phenological cycles, etc. I don't know how much I agree with casting anything like this as literacy. To me, literacy is here to parasitically replace these natural awarenesses and relations. And I will surely share that opinion, because there are some rectangles where we are going, Sspopiikimi

Today, I took a walk around, just to kind of prep for this session. Something that was on my mind, part of a discussion my friend Darin and I were having the other day, was the notion that ensuring the persistence of a species is not enough, that the living are more than this, that they embody webs of relations. Looking around today, I'm not so sure I agree that preserving a species is not enough, at least if that species is allowed to live out amongst the rest of reality, rather than in one of the dead places we construct. At Sspopiikimi, I see starlings, house finches, alfalfa, absinthe, asparagus, honey bees, the list can go on fairly extensively. All of them are recent arrivals here in kitawahsinnoon, yet they are extremely integrated into complex relational webs with the others who have been here far longer. This occurs simply as a result of them being themselves in the context of the broader eco-social matrix. And in this respect, they are greater than we who have fairly forgotten ourselves, strongly resisting just being alive here. Even the leafy spurge have us beat in this respect

As for our present condition, it is not as though we are disconnected from the web. The magpies remember who we are, and continue to stay wholeheartedly allied, even though many of us, in our confusion, now hate them, our best friends. The mosquitoes, the ticks, the rock doves, jewel spiders, hobo spiders, and a whole host of plants all believe in and engage us regularly, and we pretty much express hatred toward them for it. The point is, there are many close relations who have kept with us, or adopted us, despite our insanity. And I suspect that if we want to enhance these relationships, develop many others, and become a better fit, we have only to behave more like human beings. It's really that simple. To the degree that we refuse to do so, we will continue to feel like there is something wrong with us, we will feel ecologically unhealthy and in danger. And we will be correct in that diagnosis