Where do we go from here?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Remarkable Creatures

Neither prehistoric creatures nor strong-minded independent women are unusual or surprising to us in our current time period. But the remarkable creatures of the title of Tracy Chevalier's latest novel are just those two life forms: prehistoric marine animals and the fossil hunting women who first discover them. Remarkable Creatures is Chevalier's sixth published novel, although only the second one I have read. I loved Girl With a Pearl Earring, and can't imagine why I stopped reading her after that.This book gripped me from the first page, and didn't let go until I finished it several nights ago. Even Apolo Ohno and Lindsey Vonn couldn't tear me away from the spell of this story. For maybe the first time in my winter-Olympics-loving life, I watched the athletes with one eye from time to time, but my real attention was on Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot as they dug and toiled on the beach at Lyme Regis, then toiled even more fiercely to have their discoveries acknowledged by the "learned gentlemen" of their time. Their time being partly the Georgian Period and partly the Victorian, hardly good years for outspoken intelligent women. Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, twelve years after Mary Anning died, but as Ruth Padel says in her enthusiastic review of the book in The Guardian:

New life is formed from extinction and death," wrote Darwin in 1838, in a private notebook. Some 20 years later, he based The Origin of Species on the fact that fossils document a continuum of life forms, demonstrating that millions of species died out as others took their place. A generation earlier, however, when Tracy Chevalier's rough-petticoated heroine was pulling out of cliffs in Lyme Regis the evidence that would go into this insight, nobody wanted to believe that God did not, as one of Chevalier's characters puts it, "plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created.
On the book's website the story is summarized quite briefly thus:
In 1810, a sister and brother uncover the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs on the south coast of England. With its long snout and prominent teeth, it might be a crocodile – except that it has a huge, bulbous eye.

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world.

Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils.

The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and and jealousy.

So, yes, that's sort of a fossil version of the story, but if that was all I had to go on to entice me into reading it, I might not have done so. This summary doesn't give the reader any idea of the richness, the historical texture of the novel.  So many strands of what was happening in science, in religion, even in literature (Jane Austen is briefly an offstage character), are woven into the tapestry of this story, yet it remains vibrant and alive, never stuffy nor boring - as historical novels can often deteriorate into being. Chevalier's forté is taking historical events and characters, then using her own magic as a writer to put them into novels.The bones of her stories are factual, but the magic lies in the way the author can imagine the characters' interior life, motivations, emotions, interactions.Mary and Elizabeth are entirely real to me, I hated to say goodbye.  Spend some time exploring the book's website, a rich resource; read Padel's review linked to above, and see if this doesn't sound like maybe your next read.  I promise it will be an engrossing one. And I intend to put Chevalier's unread novels into my library queue at once.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

La Curandera, Part One

In my post yesterday about my afternoon at the Biopark, I mentioned the Curandera's Garden. This bas relief is the centerpiece of that garden, and one of my favorite elements in the Biopark landscape. It shows the Doña arriving at a household laid low by illness, being welcomed by the very worried Señora of the house, showing her where the patient waits. The Curandera is laden with bundles and bags containing the healing items, plants, and herbs of her trade.

So then, who is she, this woman laden also, as her face tells us, with the burden of her years, the sorrows and ills she has seen and cured, or not, during her life?  She is the the Hispanic American version of what in medieval Europe or Colonial New England would have been called a witch, has been and is still, in other societies, known as a shaman. She is a traditional healer, of both bodies and souls, called upon to treat both physical and spiritual maladies. She uses medicinal plants, herbs, and flowers, which she grows herself in rural areas, or anywhere she can have a plot of land.  In cities or towns she may purchase her materials at a botánica,  stores that sell medicinal herbs and items used in folk traditions like curanderismo, santería, macumba, still alive and well in contemporary North American areas with Latino and/or Caribbean populations. The curandera of early New Mexican tradition in the Biopark sculpture would have had an extensive garden containing such plants as the wild datura, maguey, prickly pear, various sages, apache plume, ocotillo, agaves, mints, uña de gato, buffalo gourd, mallows, indian tobacco, and many more. She would have grown, harvested, dried and prepared them herself or with her daughters.  Her patients would have suffered from bodily ailments, such as heart disease, gout, diabetes, menstrual pain, pregnancy complications, or from diseases of the spirit, such as depression, mal de ojo (the evil eye), susto (fright or most likely, panic attacks). or grief. For these spiritual maladies she might perform a limpia, a ritual cleansing of the soul to rid it of "lingering clouds" and "festering wounds" from the many slings and arrows of human life experience.

One of New Mexico's most popular native writers is Rudolfo Anaya, and his most popular book is his first, a novel called Bless Me, Ultima. It is the story of a young boy, Antonio, whose 1940's childhood and spiritual development is greatly influenced by a curandera known as Ultima who comes to live with his family in rural New Mexico. The link I've given here has an extensive summary of the book, but if you can find it outside of the Southwest, I advise that you simply read the book itself. Curanderísmo has never gone underground in Latin America, and in these days of expensive medical insurance/ care and waves of immigration from the south is thriving all over the USA. This article by Patricia Rivera from the Wilmington News Journal, Curanderas Offer Traditional Help, gives an interesting glimpse into how the ever-growing Latino population of Delaware is using Curandísmo instead of, or as a supplement to, modern Western medicine.

Although I have a wealth of further information and thoughts about this subject, instead of letting this turn into another of those lengthy posts that no one reads, I'm going to close out this first chapter, and return to Las Curanderas tomorrow. In the meantime, benditos sean. 

Post Script, March 1. 2010 - I really am going to continue writing about curanderísmo.  My research has gotten out of control, and I'm well on my way to a fullblown article,  maybe a Master's thesis. Gotta decide what I'm doing here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Walk In The Park

One of the conclusions drawn from the research I wrote about a couple of days ago, was that we'd all feel better more, and be better people, if we got out and took a walk more often.  I walk for exercise as close to daily as possible, most often on the mean streets of my city.  But that's not what the article meant.  It meant get out into the trees, the wildflowers, the birds, in other words, Nature. I had no classes yesterday, and after working in the house (laundry, getting a strata ready to bake for supper) all morning, I really wanted out into the emerging sunshine.  It's been so cold and grey, so unlike New Mexico, that I just haven't been inspired to make an effort to find good places to walk. 

Although the sun was shining, it was still quite cold, and I wanted someplace I could enjoy the bounty of Nature, yet have someplace to warm up if I really couldn't take the cold wind.  And, in fact, I was inspired.  I thought of the Albuquerque Biopark, a facility that comprises the Zoo, the Aquarium, and a wonderful  Botanic Garden.  I did some errands along the way, and arrived at the Biopark about three - only to find, to my horror, that it had been invaded by hordes of people and equipment filming for the TV show In Plain Sight. Once I got through the active filming area and into the gardens, I was almost the only human out walking the paths on this cold sunny day.  So I walked for over an hour, visiting the Curandera Garden, the Desert Garden, the Heritage Gardens, and a long time in the Japanese Gardens.

When I got too cold, and wanted to see some blooming plant life, I went into one of the glasshouses, full of green, and brightly blooming, tropical plants.  I couldn't stay long, because my cold glasses fogged up ferociously and I soon became much too warm. It was either take off many layers of clothing or head back out into the cold.  I did another tour of the Japanese Gardens, the newest feature of the Biopark, and a place of such tranquillity.  These gardens are full of water features, the sound of falling, rippling water everywhere, the sight and smell of water a boon to my dehydrated desert soul. I meandered back by the big pond in the middle of the park, where wood ducks and mallards were having a wonderful time, a few mothers with strollers were sitting on the rocks letting their children enjoy the birds and the water.  Despite having to thread my way through the filming business again on my way out to the parking lot, I left feeling like I'd had a brief vacation, from daily life and chores.  It's so easy and close, I need to remember to get back there more often.
(More photos from the Biopark on my Flickr photo storage site.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Personal Foods

Just want to point out for those of you who may be unfamiliar with Deborah Madison, that she has a little article in the current AARP magazine bearing the title of her latest book: What We Eat When We Eat Alone.
The subject of the book, and the article, is what Madison calls "personal foods" and describes her own in this lovely paragraph: 
Weird foods notwithstanding, when Patrick and I started posing the eating-solo question to friends, we discovered that most people have one or two dishes (what I call "personal foods") that they cook for themselves alone. Personal foods do more than satisfy hunger; they nourish us in a deep and even spiritual way. My personal food is toasted rye bread covered with a thin layer of cheddar and marmalade, a treat my grandmother enjoyed daily with a cup of dark tea. We shared this toast when I visited her as a child, and I've always been drawn to its pungent flavors.
One of the reasons Deborah Madison has become my food guru shows up in the above description - she recognizes and is not afraid to talk about the "deep and even spiritual" dimensions of food. Her cookbooks speak to that need within us all to be nourished by what we eat at exactly that deep and often spiritual level.

Deborah's  husband Patrick's personal food is shown, in an improved form over the Arkansas original, in the photo: grilled pimento cheese panini, which the couple sometimes has for dinner, with a glass of French champagne.  My current eat-on-my-own food, what I often have for lunch before leaving to teach my afternoon class, is a flour tortilla with strips of roasted green chile, a shredded Mexican cheese sprinkled over them, then grilled in the toaster oven until the cheese melts and I can smell the chile.  It's a sort of quesadilla, I guess, though much less trouble to make.  I don't know how spiritually fulfilling it is, but it's mighty good, and keeps me going through an afternoon of trying to get across the difference between direct and indirect objects to my adult ESL class.

Anyone have some personal or solo-dining favorites to share?  I'd love to hear them.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Can Nature Save Our Very Souls?

I have long thought that one of the things most wrong with contemporary society is the distance from Nature at which most of us live.  It has seemed to me that the materialism, greed, lack of community, lack of empathy with both other humans and with our planet that mark our society so strongly must result from living and working in a built environment, bombarded by relentless media and the advertising that comes with it, constantly immersed in commercialism, financial worry, the acquisition of "stuff" and all the dehumanizing effects of life in this environment.  In a previous post I wrote about my own personal restorative experience as a volunteer at the Rio Grande Nature Center, an experience that continues and only gets better with passing time.  This place and the time I spend there, as well as many other natural places and experiences in my life have taught me that Nature is for me a deep healer, the place I go to pull the fragments of my life, my soul, back together, if only temporarily. And, it often is temporary - we all have to return to the traffic, the jobs, the griefs, the bills and worries of daily life in the 21st century, but some of the effects of time spent on a beach, a riverbank, a mountainside, in a forest or wetland, observing birds and other creatures, listening to the wind, the waves, birdcalls, coyote howls (Nature is never really silent, I have found) - some of the transformative power of this time stays with me for a good while, at a core level. 

So, I knew that nature makes me, and probably most of us, feel better.  But one of my ranger friends at the Nature Center passed along this press release from the University of Rochester on the results of a study researched and written by a team from the university, and published last September in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. ( available only by subscripton) . Titled Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Results of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations,  the study reveals the surprising fact that  experiencing our natural surroundings can have social as well as personal benefits.
Richard Ryan, coauthor and professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester goes on to say: "While the salubrious effects of nature are well documented, from increasing happiness and physical health to lowering stress, this study shows that the benefits extend to a person's values and actions. Exposure to natural as opposed to man-made environments leads people to value community and close relationships and to be more generous with money."

The four experiments in this research interestingly show that exposure to nature can affect our priorities and alter what we think is important in life. In short, we become less self-focused and more other-focused. Our value priorities shift from personal gain, to a broader focus on community and connection with others. The researchers explored responses to extrinsic life aspirations, such as financial success, or being admired by other people, and intrinsic aspirations, like deep and lasting relationships or contributing to the betterment of society.  The research subjects exposed to the nature images scored significantly lower on extrinsic life aspirations, and significantly higher on intrinsic life aspirations.Good explanation of the research methodology here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Love Poem For Haiti

One of my sisters sent me the link to this last week; Nelly Lambert, the author, is the daughter-in-law of a friend of ours, she's  a Ph.D. student in English and American literature at Catholic University who lived in Haiti as a child, from 1983-1987. The poem was published last week on Politics Daily. I was so deeply impressed, moved and  delighted by this:  the images, the language, the feeling of the love of a sensual child for the place that formed her, that I wanted to share it here.  Another of my sisters who is a historic preservation architect went to Haiti last week, with a team assessing the historic government buildings for restoration, and her comments to me about the resilience and strength of the Haitian people at this moment in time echo Nelly's words in this poem.  Haiti's people are indeed stronger than her buildings. 


Desire....The opposite is death. So do you wonder? How could you possibly wonder!
-Blanche DuBois

Dear Haiti,

I thought I would write you as
A beautiful but destitute woman:
Everyone wanted you; no one would marry you.
No one dared marry you,
Not that you cared for marriage.
But you are not that woman.

So, then I tried Hemingway-
No, better Graham Greene-
Breakfasts of kumquats and rhum-coke calm;
A strange epoch in which time stood still
Save for the slow decay of the gingerbread porch.
But that was all just picked up from what I read later.

Next, I looked for something in your shapes:
There was your physical form, a Siamese twin
Trying to wrest herself free, to be on her own;
Or, there was the way your name sounds like Hades in English,
And in French, like high,
And when you say it, like I.
But no accent or point of view quite captured you.

The truth is I don't remember you in a word or a story.
And, being away from you for so long,
My memory has had to filter through all the talk
Of impatient longings to write your ending.
I thought I would write you tragically,
But that too was a borrowed impulse.

Still, there is a tone, a quality of sound,
Of air, a sensibility that stays with me.
You taught me to see colors
I cannot find anywhere else.
The closest I've come-
A dusty turquoise, let's say-
Is always slightly too muted or too dark.
The pinks are too aggressive - not your pink.
But sometimes, when the daylight is warm and wide,
I'll notice I'm wearing your colors,
Painting the streets with them,
Giving them away to friends.

You are a gorgeous one. Everyone agrees.
I remember your beasts and your flowers,
Though I can't recall their names.
I can still hum pieces of your lullabies,
Though I couldn't sing them from start to end.
Even now I can ask for ice cream in your creole,
But I wouldn't know how to write it down.
And, after all this time, I can still picture
Your steamy mountains,
Your beaches of black sand
Sparkling like powdered onyx,
Your women carrying
Heavy loads on their heads. No hands!
In your care, I learned to do it too.

Now I see you. There you are
Walking up the hill
Balancing a basket of fruit on your head.
You cannot find your children.
You will keep looking, I know.
I was a sensual child in your lap.
We are all like that with you.
We all love to touch your world.
You will keep walking up the hill.
I have seen you do it before.
You are stronger than your buildings.
Your head is level. Your babies are laughing.

(Photo of painting by Carlo Valtrain, Girl With Water Jugs, from  Haitian Art Online.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Makin' A List, Checkin' It Twice

In the deeply unlikely event that anyone is looking for the piece I posted on Tuesday: "Turn Turn Turn, A Shrove Tuesday Meditation" just to let you know, I moved it to a private blog.  It seemed, on consideration, a little too personal for public consumption.

I am currently doing a little housekeeping on this blog, it was beginning to feel extremely cluttered and messy.  So I am moving all those link lists on the sidebar to their own separate pages, which will show up in the PAGES section, to be found, for now anyway, at the top of the Home page under the Moon Phases widget. I just discovered this feature, and think I will be happier with collecting my links this way. Those link lists grow ever longer, and doing this will make whatever I leave on the sidebar much more visible.  Let me know what you think.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Place That Saved My Life

Well, maybe that's a little dramatic, but it's really how I feel about this place.  The place is the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, on  the banks of the Rio Grande river, on the western edge of the city of Albuquerque. It's a small park, no camping or boating, the main purpose of which is education.  School groups, senior citizen groups, scout troops and others, all visit the park and are taken on guided educational tours of the facility, learning about the river, the woods and ponds, the birds and creatures that  live there.  Educational volunteers also go to the schools and give classroom programs with hands-on materials, (Pond by Visitor Center)

There's an architect-designed Visitor Center, native plant gardens, cottonwood trees full of birds year round.There are beavers and porcupines in the woods, coyotes from time to time.  Sandhill cranes winter in the fields and on the wetlands,  wood ducks and Canada geese build nests along the edges of the pond pictured above, and red-eared slider turtles bask on logs in the sun. It's a place close enough to the city to be an urban getaway, yet with a feel of  being far away from the freeways and shopping malls.

Two months after my partner and I moved out here to New Mexico in early summer 2006, there was a tragic death in my family back east, and I spent that fall and winter immersed in grief, the inability to function in any normal way.  During that time Gail and I would go out to the Nature Center as often as we could, for long quiet walks and birding.  It came to feel like a haven to us us both, a place of peace and healing.  I hadn't found a job yet, and felt incapable of looking for one. When I discovered that volunteer training was about to be offered at the RGNCSP, I signed up immediately and spent six weeks of early spring attending classes every Saturday.  The group (Old cottonwoods self-pruning) of  volunteer trainees was friendly but low-key, mostly about my age, many of them retired teachers, not overly interested in the sort of personal questions and chat that I could absolutely not handle; and the educational rangers just interested in how much we could learn.  I looked forward to the classes as an occasion to get out of my own pool of mourning briefly once a week, learn the native plants and animals in a uniquely stressfree fashion, connect with the natural world and even endure some human companionship that didn't ask anything of me I couldn't give.
 We walked the trails, discovered where beavers had gnawed down trees, found their burrows in the river bank, found gopher and rabbit holes, hawks' nests high in the trees, tried to identify forbs and shrubs that were barely leafing out. We concentrated on what we were learning, and at the end of the six weeks had a potluck, met many of the old volunteers, and signed up for the work committees of our choice. (Opuntia in native plant gardens.)
I signed up as a front desk greeter in the Visitor Center and a gardener in the native plant gardens, and began working at these tasks pretty much immediately. In the gardens it was hard hot work that kept panic attacks and bouts of sobbing in abeyance; at the front desk it was harder, because I had to manage a semblance of normalcy: welcome people to the park, answer questions, convey information.  And I got better at it every time I put on my volunteer vest and nametag and took up my post.  it was impersonal, yet it felt very good to share a place I loved so much with visitors from all over the country, all over the world in fact.(Outdoor classroom in the cottonwoods.)

Once I was able to face looking for a job, then finding and holding the one I found, I had less time to spend at the Nature Center, so have temporarily dropped work in the gardens, as my own gardens now take up a great deal of my spring and summer available time.  I have been at the front desk for the past three years though, usually for an afternoon a week. I've welcomed hundreds of visitors, showed children the exhibits in the Center, had a chance to use my foreign languages often, directed people to the trails, birding sites, and gardens; in general felt like the Ambassador for the Center on my afternoons at the desk.  I take a short walk somewhere on the grounds whenever I am there; and Gail and I go for longer hikes by the river on the weekends.  Some of the rangers and other volunteers have become friends, and it feels to me now like not only a personal haven, but a community, a sort of home. A sanctuary. A place that saved my life when I really didn't know if I would be able to keep going on my own.(Snowy Sandias, Candelaria wetlands in foreground.)

There is a new class of volunteers in training currently, and the Volunteer Co-Ordinator asked me if  I would be interested in giving a "testimonial" at this coming Saturday's class.  A short talk on my own experience as a volunteer at the Center, why I started, why I continue, what they can expect if they complete the training and actually put on a khaki vest and a Volunteer nametag. This post is a sort of preparation meditation on what I might say Saturday morning.  I'm not sure if I'll tell them that this experience saved my life. It might be Too Much Information for most people.  But, then again, perhaps I might. We never know, do we, when we are in the presence of someone whose life might be in tatters, might need to know there can be, sometimes, salvation. In so many unexpected ways. In explaining to children about nurselogs or hummingbirds, telling people where to find a hawk's nest high in the cottonwood canopy.  In weeding and sweating in companionable silence in the bird garden on a summer morning; in walking a trail to check for fallen branches or trash.  In being a part of a place that is sanctuary for so many species of creatures and plants.(Panoramic view of Rio Grande and RGNCSP)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

His Feet Are On The Noble Path

Ah me! Despite the pile of library books waiting by the couch, I find myself unable to settle for reading any of them. The reason for this is that I recently finished The Godfather of Kathmandu, and am finding it hard to leave Krung Thep (the Thai name for what we farang call Bangkok) and Nepal,  for any less exotic locales, and Sonchai Jitpleecheep for any less endearing character.

  This novel is the fourth in John Burdett's series of mysteries set in Bangkok.  Burdett's protagonist is  Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, son of an American father and a Thai mother.  Sonchai is a devout Buddhist, he calls himself a monk manqué, and it is this aspect of the novels more than anything else that keeps me waiting for the next one.  These novels are gritty, to say the least, grisly is actually more accurate.  The strange thing is that they are also quite spiritual at the same time.  Sonchai's quest  to become ever more enlighted, to be a good person, making merit, living according to the teachings of Theravada Buddhism is not easy, living, as he does, in the midst of such astounding corruption and squalor, in a city awash in the sex and drug trades, a police force that aids and abets both undertakings,  Sonchai's efforts towards his spiritual goals are every bit as absorbing (possibly even more so)  as his efforts to solve the fantastically horrible crimes he is assigned by Col. Vikorn, at once his boss and nemesis.

It is the character of Sonchai that makes me love these books. John Burdett's own essay on how he came to write this Bangkok series explains a lot. It is clear that he has immersed himself in the life of the city about which he writes, and the philosophy of his main character.  Theravada Buddhism is an ancient study of human consciousness,"a radically honest and penetrating assessment of the human condition" which I find fascinating, even inviting.  Sonchai finds in it a way to cope with the moral ambiguity of much of his life, with the pain and suffering that surrounds him, with his own divided nature, being half Thai, half farang. The story in this book wanders around Asia, introduces way too many fantastical characters, and is, ultimately, quite farfetched.  Nonetheless, Sue Grafton's newest alphabetical mystery starring Kinsey Milhone in coastal California just isn't grabbing my soul by the neck and leaving me panting for more the way that Burdett's anguished detective always does.

Read more about Burdett and his books in this NYT article: John Burdett:  Detective writer at work in a seedy Bangkok district. (Photo from Photo Gallery at Burdett's website.)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Oh What A Beautiful Morning

We have been feeling quite put out and envious of the snow that the rest of the state has been getting storm after storm since early January. We can look up into the foothills and the Sandias themselves and see the covering of white, while we have just grey cloud cover and unremitting cold. But, last night we finally got a dusting here in the city ourselves, and it certainly brought the birds into our yard.  The hanging feeders bring in tons of sparrows, finches, juncoes, chickadees;  and the seed dropped from them onto the ground brings several different kinds of doves (as well, unfortunately, as that urban species of pest, the pigeon). (Photo: Male Downy) But it's the suet feeders on the cottonwood that bring the woodpeckers, and this morning I couldn't tear myself away from the kitchen window, where the cats and I do our winter birding.

There was a pair of ladderback woodpeckers, and a pair of downies, bopping up and down the trunks and branches, flashing to the suet blocks for a bite, then back up into the branches to check for insects. They are in fact all still there as I write this now. It's a marvelous show, as the males flash their red patches.  There has been a curvebill thrasher on the cottonwood suet feeder for the past weeks, but I didn't see it this morning. The snow brings that wonderful negative ion feel-good high, and I'm looking forward to going out for my Thursday stint at the Rio Grande Nature Center shortly. (Photo: Male Ladderback)  Both photos in this post are from the pricelessly fabulous Western Views US photoblog.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Visiting the Cranes, Part 2

Saturday morning we reluctantly dragged ourselves up and out of bed somewhere between five and six a.m., put on many layers of clothing, and stumbled out to find Julia already on her second cup of coffee.  The birds which have overnighted on the ponds fly out for the day's foraging in the fields at sunrise, at this time of year a little before seven.  I grabbed one of Jana's homemade granola bars, we struggled into our muddy boots, and set off to watch the morning's fly-out.  Jana came with us this time; she is herself a photographer, (Scroll down thru this site to Jana's Snow Geese photo at the bottom) so came armed with her lenses and tripod.  It was another morning of early thick grey clouds, and the birds were in no hurry to fly out of bed either.  They tiptoed around, murmuring and squawking, getting into various formations and lineups preparatory to taking off.  Something I find extremely interesting about the sandhills is the great variety of their vocalizations,  something that made me wonder if anyone is doing research on their use of voice communication, as that is what it clearly seems to be. A little googling once home at the computer led to the discovery that scientists working with Operation Migration and other crane projects' work (with both Whooping and Sandhill Cranes) have found seven communicative vocalizations:  a basic call, the Contact or Brood call,  Flight Calls: "Attention, please! Danger!"
"Do not land here! Keep flying."
"No problem."
"Come here. There's some food."
The Guard Call: "Do not enter. This is my territory!"
"The unison call: We are a pair. We belong together and this is our territory."

As the light rose behind the mountains from the east, small groups of sandhills began to lift out of the water into the brightening air, making such a wonderful rushing sound with their great wingbeats.  Then, group by group they rose, as the sun fought its way through the clouds to color the pond water with faint pink and the sky filled with the huge birds.  The snow geese were the last of the overnighters to leave the ponds. We were unable to tear ourselves away from this spectacle of liftoff until at last it was full daylight and the water emptied of all avian life save for some ducks, who clearly intended to spend the day right where they were. When even Jana was willing to pack up her cameras and head home, we all went back to The Dancing Cranes for coffee and more of the previous night's apple cake.  Before we left the B and B, we went to Jana's studio to see the her photos and jewelry (she does both).  Julia bought a lovely silver clay pendant, I lusted after several photos and pairs of earrings, but we are on an austerity budget, and the trip itself was an enormous luxury for us.

At last we headed back up the road, stopping in Socorro at a most unlikely find, a coffee shop worthy of a place in any urban setting, where we augmented our breakfast with heartier fare to sustain us for another trip to the Bernardo Wildlife Area.  The gates were still closed, "due to bad weather," though the sun was now shining brightly. Despite the sun, there was a brisk and very cold wind, but we set off on foot again, so Julia could get some pictures in a better light than she had the day before.  The mud was still all-encompassing, but thanks to that mud, Julia was able to get wonderful shots of the cranes' impressive footprints.  The bluebirds were still flocking around us, and we saw several hawks which I think were redtails, sailing above us on the wind. We had to cut our birding through the mud shorter than we wanted, as we had to return to Albuquerque for a memorial celebrating the life of our wonderful neighbor, Betty Evans, who had died early in the new year. The drive up I 25 took us through snow, sleet, rain, and a mix of all of them, not to mention that ferocious wind.

We pulled into our driveway in pellets of sleet resembling mothballs, pulled off our boots, which by then weighed twenty pounds apiece, I'm sure.  Gail and I changed into respectable clothing, while Julia settled down for a cozy read with the cats. The Bosque is birding heaven at any time of year, but it gets pretty hot and full of mosquitoes in the warmer months.  We may make it back down in the spring for warbler migration, but the big birds will be leaving for their northern grounds later this month, so I'm most grateful for this cold, muddy, wonderful visit.


All photos in these two posts were taken by JuliaOsgood.  She has many more of them, which I hope will soon be posted to her blog (link above). Here's Julia and me in the Bosque. Gail took this one.

For more information about Sandhill Cranes, check out these links:
International Crane Foundation
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

For completely mind-boggling photography of the area and birds I've written about in these posts, check out this site from a guy who has spent the past three years traveling around the western USA taking photos of wildlife, many of them of birds.  Scroll through the link I've given above, all the way to the end.  Here is the link to his whole site, Western Views U.S., which has marvelous indices and archives.  This is a labor of extreme love, a site for naturalists and photographers to return to time after time.

For anyone truly interested in the subject of the lands and life discussed in these two posts, I recommend this book from the UNM Press, Desert Wetlands,  Photos by Lucian Niemeyer, Text by Thomas Lowe Fleischner.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Visiting The Cranes,Part 1, At Last

Before it gets just too far behind me, I'm going to tackle writing about our trip down to the wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande last weekend. The Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex encompasses four waterfowl areas located between the towns of Belen and Socorro run by the New Mexico Dept. of Fish and Game. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge just south of Socorro near the tiny village of San Antonio is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There is another NWR along this corridor, Sevilleta, that is less accessible to the public, and is largely a research facility. As you can imagine, this Rio Grande corridor is an amazingly rich area for many different recreational wildlife activities, such as hunting, fishing, and the one in which I engage, birding. These areas are managed to provide food, water, shelter and space for many species of wildlife, but are perhaps best known as the wintering grounds for many bird species, most notably the Sandhill Cranes and Arctic Geese, but including birds of prey, many species of ducks, as well as irruptive flocks of smaller birds.

My partner and I have been visiting this part of New Mexico for many years, long before we had any thought of moving here. We fell in love with the landscape, and the magical dance of the wintering cranes on our first exploratory trip out here, and have been returning as often as possible ever since. This trip was to introduce our friend Julia, from Austin, to these Big Birds. As she had begun the year with a trip to the Texas Gulf coast to see the Whooping Cranes who winter there (my post on that same experience here), she was delighted to complete the circle in this way.

The weather promised to be dreadful, and up until the moment we got in the car on Friday we were not sure if we were really going to do it. But we bravely packed our foul weather gear, binoculars, trail mix, Julia her cameras, and set off down I 25 for our first stop at Bernardo. This area is part of the Ladd S. Gordon Complex, with a driving loop supposedly accessible to the public. It had rained ferociously that morning, and we pulled off the access road into deep mud, only to find the drive-in gate closed and chained, with a sign stating "CLOSED DUE TO BAD WEATHER." There was no bad weather that we could see, and we could hear cranes calling from just around a big clump of brush and trees. So, we set off walking along the trail through ankle deep mud. After fifteen minutes of walking, we were past the obscuring brush and walking along open fields full of cranes and snow (arctic) geese. There are two observation towers on the trail, and while Julia took her time taking photos along the edge of the fields, Gail and I explored both towers. It was just entirely too muddy to walk the whole loop, and after about forty-five minutes we were quite cold and hungry. On our way back to the car we started seeing bluebirds darting in and out of tree branches, down to puddles on the ground, and up to the top of the observation towers.There are three possible kinds of bluebirds here right now, eastern, western and mountain. We finally were able to focus on a couple of them closely enough to decide it was a flock of mountain bluebirds, with perhaps some western bluebirds mixed in.    

Terminally hungry and cold by now, we stopped in Socorro at a small Mexican café for a warmup and lunch. From there we went on to San Antonio to find and check into our Bed and Breakfast, poetically called The Dancing Cranes (They don't yet have a website I can link to, alas, as it is a lovely place.). It had been recommended to me by a friend, an artist who spends a lot of time birding in that area, and we were most grateful for her suggestion. Our hosts, Jim and Jana, were very welcoming and had helpful suggestions for where to go for the evening fly-in. At the Bosque we explored the Farm Loop by car and by foot, seeing hawks, flocks of pine siskins, more bluebirds, a bald eagle; then headed for the North Ponds to await the Main Event.  Fly- in happens more or less at sunset when the cranes and geese fly in to the refuge ponds to take shelter there for the night. It is usually an occasion for hordes of people with cameras sporting lenses the size of antiaircraft missiles to line the banks of the ponds and photograph the landing birds. The weather was so cold and windy, so threatening of snow or rain, that there were very few of this human species that evening.  We stayed watching and listening to the birds flapping in and settling for the night, as the sun managed to break through the thick grey clouds and give an approximation of sunset behind the mountains, stayed until total darkness fell on all avian and human life. Back at The Dancing Cranes Jana had a delicious vegetable bake, red wine, and apple cake waiting for us.  Weatherbeaten and exhausted, we all went to bed about nine o'clock, knowing we'd need to be heading for fly-out predawn.  (To Be Continued)