Nature Conversations on the School Commute

Our school commute often turns into a nature conversation. We discuss the weather, the stage of the crop growth, the red-tailed hawks or eagles we see, and anything else we catch a glimpse of out the windows of the van.

The other day I mentioned that mourning doves reminded me of fluffy elderly women who might not be so sure on their feet anymore but provided soothing comfort to younger generations. This got us started on a theme and we jumped from bird to bird. Here’s what we envisioned:

Redwing Blackbirds — artists drawn toward Bohemian dress style

Goldfinches — young school children running back and forth on the playground

Hummingbirds — a young “dandy” — someone excessively devoted to dress and style

Red-tailed Hawk — an English gentleman all dressed up in a full tweed suit

Great Blue Heron — an older man who really just prefers to be alone and fish

Wren — a housewife with her apron tied around her waist

Mrs. Cardinal — all decked out and ready to go to town on family business

Mr. Cardinal — just a little too proud for his own britches

Turkey Vulture — a person who may appear to be scary, or unattractive, but in actuality proves to be a very helpful and necessary part of a community

This could sound silly, but it was a fun little game and it kept us amused and nature-focused as we drove home from school.

So who does your favorite bird remind you of?

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2 Responses

  1. Red-tailed Hawks make me think of my Dad. He was a carpenter & then a construction supervisor who still sawed, swung a hammer and helped the laborers dig a ditch and the plumbers and electricians install pipes and run wire when needed. His bosses used to chastise him saying, “you’re management now; you ought to be wearing business pants & not swinging a hammer. It doesn’t look good when the building owners or town inspectors come by & you’re dirty & climbing off a staging or out of a hole.” My Dad replied, “that’s the way I supervise. It gives me a chance to take a good look at their work and their work ethic. It helps keep the project on time, something the owners & inspectors should be grateful for, and it takes just a little ofvthe bavk-breaking work off of the other trades. It shows them i work hard and expect the same out of them. If you want a fancy pants super who sits on his butt in the trailer all day rearranging papers on his desk, I’m not you’re guy. And if you’re going to fire me, I’d appreciate if you’d do it early in the day so I can check out the fishing at this little pond I pass every day on the way here and back home.”

    He was hiker, mountain climber, nature photographer, camping enthusiast, genealogist, and stained glass budding artist. He loved all animals, but was especially fond of birds of prey and water birds like those you illustrated in your recent kayaking journal. Looking straight ahead while driving, he would yell, “look out the rear passenger window; there’s a red-tailed hawk! Look to the left and up–between the sun & the peak of the mountain, there is a pair of red-tailed hawks. Once, he took me hiking to show me the “abandoned” red-tailed hawk nest he’d discovered while “moseying around” a couple of days earlier. Well, it turns out it wasn’t abandoned. Two chicks who must’ve been eggs when he’d previously passed the nest were standing up in the nest, just barely visible, screeching! The, suddenly, a 747 flew out of the sky—OK, it wasn’t an airliner, it was Mama Hawk, but it may as well have been a plane for the damage it did. I heard my Dad groan (which he rarely did) and turned to see Mama strafing his head with her talons. “Keep going, to the car, FAST,” Dad yelled. He tossed his jacket, which he’d removed and stuffed through one of his backpack straps earlier to me. “Put this over you’re head!” As I turned to catch it, however, I realized Mama wasn’t chasing or strafing any more. She had landed on a branch in a tree several feet away from the nest tree and several feet above the nest where she could see her nestlings AND us, retreating. When we got back inside the car, Dad laughed and said, “Boy oh boy, THAT was fun, wasn’t it?!?”

    Shortly after my Mom died, my Dad developed two neurological diseases: Parkinson’s (he’d actually had this for a few years before Mom died, but it was worsening) and myasthenia Travis. The first, you probably know causes shaking and in later stages can cause an unsteady gait, difficulty swallowing, depression, and dementia among other things. Dad could no longer do his wood carving, photography or stained glass. The second, mysthenis gravis, affects chemicals and receptors that allow one muscle & the nerves associated with it to communicate signals/commands to the next muscle & its nerves to accomplish movement. And the more one moves, the more difficult it becomes to relay the signals and the weaker the muscles become. It can affect all muscles, including those you need to breathe. Dad could no longer hike or climb mountains. Dad would deal with the advancement of these illnesses for the remaining 9 years of his life. He never complained about his lost hobbies, he just occupied his time with genealogy research (for our family & for others through “Random Acts of Genealogy Kindness”), reading my nursing journals (we lived side by side), TV, his radio, and short, slow walks in our neighborhood. We shared supper most evenings in his house/yard or mine , and he’d report on all the “goings on,” including all the cardinals, blue jays, finches, mourning doves, herons, red-winged blackbirds and yes, even eagles & hawks that he saw in our suburban, edging on urban neighborhood. I would take him on drives, sometime local to a park or the cemetery and would hear the familiar “Look! 2/3rds of the way up that pine! A hawk! Maybe a rough-legged, not a red-tailed. Oh, over there–a Cooper’s hawk!” And on the highway, on the way to the ice cream stand after our nature adventure, he’d point to a big bird flying w/others over the highway: “What’s that?!? Oh, it’s just a turkey vulture. You can tell by the high dihevral.” (The dihevral is the angle of the wings. A word we’d learned together on a long road trip a few years prior as we scoured our nature guides to identify the birds we were seeing. But now Dad used the word as if he’d always known it & I let him.) Occasionally, I’d drive him to the White Mountains that he’d loved & climbed since childhood. (He and Mom even spent their honeymoon camping in a tent in the NH Whites; they upgraded to a cabin for the 2nd half of the trip in PA’s Poconos.) And in October, 2011, the year before he died, I took Dad to a Falconry School in Vermont where the falconer told Dad about all of his captive birds & even took a HUGE (but surprisingly light weight) golden eagle out so Dad could see it close-up. Then Dad was able to put on a falconer’s glove to hold a Cooper’s Hawk named Elmer by the jessies (little leather straps on his legs) and give him the signal to fly–where he’d usually try to find and bring back a rabbit or other prey), then have the raptor return to his glove. The first time the falconer demonstrated it, the hawk actually returned to Dad’s shoulder instead of Rob’s glove. Rob said to Dad, “he must be able to read that you’re a nature lover. That NEVER happens because he knows if he returns to my glove, he gets a small bite of meat as a reward, but if he lands anywhere else, he’ll get nothing.” Dad’s bright blue Irish (And Norwegian) eyes lit up like a child’s on Christmas morning as he launched Elmer several times, watched him fly across a large meadow surrounded by Autumn foliage, then return to Dad’s gloved hand. I got to “fly the hawk,” too, and it created a wonderful & happy memory at a time when I was seeing Dad’s decline, and was sad and angry as my formerly strong Dad was becoming more & more frail and I could see that my time with him would be short. But still, Dad never complained. As he just abandoned the things he could no longer do and moved to what he could still do. By a couple of months after our falconry trip, myasthenia had affected his eye muscles causing double vision that prevented reading and using the computer or TV; so he “cured” it by taping one eye shut. It had affected his chewing & swallowing, too, so this man who had loved fish, a roast and simple home cooking now had to have all his food ground up. He never offered a word of complaint, even though in my head I was cursing God, the moon, the world–whomever or whatever was responsible for this strong, hard-working, good, honest, kind man to suffer the lost of his strength, hobbies, independence and soon his life.

    That December, he went out to shovel the snow away from the fire hydrant near my sister’s house. He’d been doing it on his own street for 40 years & now that he lived with my sister (I had steep & plentiful stairs; she had a split level w/5 stairs then everything was on 1 level) he’d been doing it on her corner lot. He didn’t have his former strength, so in addition to his shovel he’d drag out a lightweight plastic lawn chair & a coffee. He shovel a bit, rest & sip a bit, then repeat until the hydrant & about 10 feet all around it was cleared. When a fire truck with 6 firefighters came by, they one said, “Oh, Sir, you don’t have to do that, we’ll do it!” My father replied, “What? And take away my fun and exercise? I don’t think so!” He was pleased as punch that evening when he told my sister & I the story.

    The following year, he continue to decline and passed away at my sister’s home on 8/27. A couple of days later his graveside funeral w/ military honors had just ended and we were saying goodbye to mourners who wouldn’t be attending the meal afterward. My niece came over and interrupted, “Auntie, Auntie!” I ignored her, almost finished speaking w/two friends. Her voice became more insistent & was joined by that of my youngest brother: “Auntie! Mary! Mary ANN…AUNTIEEEEE! LOOK!!!” IMY eyes followed to where they were pointing and a hawk was flying over the larger-than-lifesize sculptures of Jesus on the Crucifix & the two criminals on their crosses. Immediately above our heads, it spiraled down until it was only 15-20 feet above our heads where it sorted for several minutes then spiraled upwards & flew back to the crucifixion scene and then out of site. The departing guests had all stopped to eatch & someone said, “That was your Dad, letting you know that he’s in Heaven and all his illnesses and frailties have been healed.” So, everytime I see a hawk–which I did every single day for the first year after his passing, I try to take comfort in “a message from Dad.” (The daily sightings ceased on 8/26 of the following year, but that would have been like Dad, too. I could aĺmost hear his voice saying “OK, Mary Ann. You’re a big girl & you can do this on your own. But I’ll still be around when you REALLY need me.”

    Mom’s messenger is a dragonfly, but that’s a story for another time.

    (Sorry for the long-winded story & TMI. Cathartic. For me, anyway. ) BTW, Jenny Young’s idea for you to write & illustrate a children’s book based on your blog entry is a WONDERFUL one, Heather!

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