The ducklings have things to say.
The ducklings have things to say.
Wildfire smoke in British Columbia made sunset unearthly and weird at the Salt Creek Recreation Area on Washington’s Olympic coast. I kept hoping the sun would sink below the curtain of smoke and explode onto the water, but the haze swallowed it entirely.
My favorite nature writers are the ones who ground themselves in the rational, but stay open to the mystical. Too much rationality and you’re reading a dry, scientific observation. Too little and you’re reading overwrought nonsense. Terry Masear hits the sweet spot in her memoir Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, about her experiences as a hummingbird rehabilitator in Beverly Hills. (The book was published in 2015; thus its qualification for my “late to the party” designation.) I loved this book – really loved it, so much that I read all but the two final chapters last fall, and simply set it aside because I couldn’t bear for it to end. This week, with the hummingbirds due back in less than a month, I decided to read through the whole book again, and this time, face the reality that all good things must come to an end, and finish it.
Masear began her slide down the slope of hummingbird rehab in the spring of 2003, when her Abyssinian cat walked into her house one morning and gifted her with a nestling, depositing the unharmed baby gently on the floor in front of her. After calling around, Masear located Jean, a longtime hummingbird rehabilitator who would become her mentor and colleague, and brought the infant bird to her. One stormy morning the following spring, destiny issued yet another call. Late to teach a class at UCLA, Masear stepped out in a downpour on the way to her car, only to catch sight of another chick dangling by a single claw from his wind-destroyed nest in a nearby ficus tree. And back to Jean’s she went, baby in tow.
This time, the hook stayed in.
Before long, Masear was taking a break from her teaching during the summer to focus exclusively on hummingbird rescue. Fastest Things on Wings loosely follows the 2008 hummingbird rehab season, and two particular hummingbirds, Gabriel and Pepper – a familiar-looking male who collided with a limousine during a courtship flight display, and a wounded female who was found in a chafing dish during an outdoor luncheon, respectively. But the narrative is not very linear, and jumps back and forth in time, as one rehab experience calls to mind another from the past. But it works, and if you can hang on as the story darts about like, well, a hummingbird, you will absorb more information about the species than you ever imagined, as Masear brings the reader into a kind of fascinated intimacy with the diminutive birds.
We learn about hummingbirds’ outsized intelligence, and their astonishing memory, both geographic and temporal – they’re known to return to the same spot, within feet, on the same date every year – as well as the hummies’ astonishing physical abilities. Masear shares the stunning feats of migration achieved by hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated’s all-at-once, eighteen hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, and some rufous hummingbirds’ seven-thousand-mile round trip from Central America to their breeding grounds in Alaska, and back again.
But it’s the interplay between the birds and people that takes the story to its deepest places. Human beings are both a blessing and a curse to hummingbirds; their populations have skyrocketed in recent years thanks to human’s adoration, which has manifested in gardens planted solely to attract hummingbirds, along with countless backyard sugar feeders. But at the same time, the human world is incredibly hazardous to the tiny creatures. The book recounts stories of hummingbirds trapped in houses with skylights, stranded in swimming pools, and caught under windshield wipers.
Even when people try to help hummingbirds, they often fail them – though unintentionally – simply through ignorance. Dirty feeders can cause agonizing deaths by fungal infection; delicate claws can be ripped out by the loops in terry-cloth towels rescue birds are too often placed on for the trip to rehab; rescue birds fed the wrong thing – or the right thing for too long – can die easily.
And paradoxically, the same human love that has enabled the growth of hummingbird populations can be hazardous when taken to an extreme; indeed, Masear notes that managing the emotions of the people who call her is an enormous, and taxing, part of her job. Masear’s callers are routinely hysterical, especially if they share some blame for the hummingbird’s predicament.
Worse still are the people whose emotions cannot be managed, like the social worker who, abandoned by her own mother, became convinced that the female hummingbird who nested in one of her trees was “not a responsible mother.” The caller refused to be persuaded by Masear’s patient lecture outlining a hummingbird mother’s modus operandi: leave the nest when the chicks are a few days old to deter predators, and return every half hour to feed the growing nestlings. Insisting that she knew better than Masear, and no doubt projecting her own trauma onto the baby birds in her yard, the woman cut the nest for no reason, and delivered the chicks to rehab. Her refusal to manage her own emotional life thus deprived an adult hummingbird of her chicks and added unnecessarily to Masear’s already crushing workload in the middle of rehab season.
Masear’s struggles with the human element are a constant in her journey as a rehabilitator, particularly the public’s decidedly non-scientific view of her charges. In one breath she marvels at how everyone seems to think hummingbirds are messengers from their dead relatives, but then acknowledges the serendipity and mystery of her own introduction to the birds. But to Masear’s infinite credit, though she is open to the unanswerable, she never wavers from the view that the observable, quantifiable hummingbird universe offers plenty of wonder on its own; there is no need to turn them into spiritual messengers, or anything other than what they are.
In the third chapter from the end, Masear finally works out the human obsession with hummingbirds: they are, she realizes after an agonizing discussion with a distraught caller, a mirror for our own mortality and vulnerability. “Their deaths,” she writes, “as small and insignificant as they seem, have the power to drive the hard truth of our own mortality straight home. Because in the end, as much as we work to deny it, our fundamental condition is not so different from theirs.”
Fastest Things on Wings isn’t just a beautifully, expansively, and humorously written memoir, though it is certainly that; it’s a book that feels necessary to anyone who loves hummingbirds and undertakes to feed or observe them. As Masear explains in the book, hummingbirds are increasingly a primary player in the world of urban nature. Having drawn them in, we ought to learn as much about them as we can in order to minimize the risks we pose to them. Fortunately, Fastest Things on Wings is a delightful and absorbing way to gain that education.
I was eating a banana at my kitchen table this afternoon when my 15-year old son walked in. I’d been planning to transport this piece of fruit to my sewing room where I could eat it in relative solitude, but I paused when I saw him carrying a giant container of Parmesan cheese he’d been hoarding, for some unknown reason, in his bedroom. He opened the refrigerator door, put the cheese back in, and took out a squirt bottle of chocolate sauce.
“Mom, there’s this girl on Youtube who emptied a bottle of this and replaced the chocolate sauce with water, and took it to the gym to drink out of,” he said as he pantomimed the drinking motion.
“That’s a good one,” I acknowledged. I took another bite of banana, suddenly aware of how rare it was to see him out of his room on a weekend.
“You know, I barely ever see you on the weekend anymore,” I observed.
“Yeah,” he nodded, clearly not understanding my implication that this wasn’t a good thing.
“Well, I like seeing you,” I responded.
“You’d better get used to it,” he advised. “When I’m grown and I’ve become a herpetologist you’re going to have to handle knowing that I’m working with cobras and elapids and stuff.”
“That won’t bother me,” I said, “as long as you know what you’re doing, and you come home occasionally.”
“It’ll bother my dad though,” he said with just the beginnings of a malicious, teenage grin, thinking of his extremely reptile-phobic father. “I can’t wait to take a selfie while I’m holding a cobra and send it to him.”
“Okay, I will be pissed if you get killed trying to freak out your dad,” I informed him.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, popping his earbuds back into his ears and heading back to his room.
I looked to the dog for his opinion on all this. He was staring at me intently, but offered no input; his dinner was half an hour overdue. He is as reliable as Old Faithful when it comes to his second daily meal. He never forgets it, and if he’s staring at me or whining in the late afternoon, it’s either because he hasn’t been fed or because he’s trying to persuade me he hasn’t been fed. This routine is one of the most predictable parts of my life, as reliable as seeing my kid’s mop of blonde hair bobbing about my house. All of a sudden a wave of understanding came over me.
“Listen,” I said to Thomas. “I feel like right now is one of those magical times you have in life. I have you here, and I have him here. In five years, I won’t have either of you. And I’m going to look back on this time and remember it, wistfully, and wish I still had it. So let’s just sit here and enjoy this moment.”
He continued to stare at me.
“You just want your dog food, right?” Answering in the affirmative, Thomas got up and pranced toward his dish, thrilled finally to have heard the magic phrase. I popped the last bite of banana in my mouth and got up to feed him. After I set the bowl of food down, I turned back toward the table. There sat my kid’s comedic prop, the bottle of chocolate sauce abandoned once it had served its purpose by a teenage brain not yet wired to remember to put any goddamn thing back once he’s finished with it, except maybe an economy-size bottle of Parmesan cheese that’s been in his room for two days.
I picked up the chocolate sauce and opened the fridge, taking comfort for just a little while longer that he is still at home, still too young to go, because he is not quite ready to reliably put things away when he’s done with them, or to understand he shouldn’t take selfies while handling the earth’s most venomous reptiles. For now.
Thomas grabbed the last few bits of kibble in his dish and tailed me into the sunroom, where we sat together, for a few sweet minutes, in the warm light of a late afternoon.
After spending a week in Santa Fe, we drove south to White Sands National Monument before heading home. I’m a fan of strange landscapes, and White Sands has been calling my name for some time.
The national monument is a collection of gypsum sand dunes corralled in a mountain-ringed basin. The alkali flats are a vast, sixteen-by-nine mile sea of white sand, some of it very soft, and some of it crisped by the wind. Gypsum is highly soluble in water, and so rarely organizes itself into dunes. But in the contained Tularosa basin, when rain falls, it simply turns the gypsum into crystals, and the wind turns it into sand, forming dunes.
We arrived at White Sands on a still, windless day, and a dense silence prevailed out on the dunes. You could see other people on distant mounds, but could hear nothing more than your feet on the sand. It was as if the sand caught all sound and swamped it, as it does everything else.
The sky that afternoon was overcast, and at times foreboding. The temperature was about 50 degrees, which created a delightfully discordant feeling; after all, when everything around you is white, you expect it to be cold. This created a sense that I was living in a kind of hologram.
I started to feel better out on the dunes. The weight of death, sadness, and loss shifted a little, and I’m still not sure why. But I do know that the thickness of the quiet felt like the first time the universe had acknowledged the people it had swallowed up. Loss can feel like gaslighting at times. The author Elizabeth Lesser wrote that when someone close to you dies, it feels as though a hole opened up in the universe, swallowed your person, and stitched itself closed again without a trace. The world carries on as if nothing happened. Those who remain behind are left to reconcile an egregious personal loss with a world around them that doesn’t see it.
For some reason, the dunes, with all their silent drama, felt like a place willing to admit the seriousness of all this.
From there, we went to a New Mexican restaurant in Tularosa, where the enchiladas were plentiful and the red sauce cauterized my tongue. That same day, I began to feel what would be ten days of a feisty flu gathering in my bones, an illness that would remind me that I am still a live organism, still in the world, still — as my doctor said this week — “on the right side of the dirt.”
I’m still not sure which is the right side of the dirt, though. Or sand.
But that feels more okay than it did before.
The week after Christmas, we drove out to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We went to see my husband’s family, including my sister-in-law, whose partner died during Thanksgiving week. Mary was a small, compact woman with a much larger spirit, and her absence was palpable from the moment we walked in the door.
The deaths and illnesses of people close to me this year has left me sad, reflective, and a bit depressed. My photography has suffered. I even forgot my tripod on this trip.
My father-in-law, though, ever resourceful, called a photographer friend of his and asked if he had a spare to lend me, and he said that he did. When we went over to get it, I said “Thank you. I’ve never done this before.”
He cocked his head, confused. “This is the first time you’ve used a tripod?” He’d been told I was an experienced photographer.
“Oh, no,” I laughed. “It’s the first time I’ve forgotten mine.”
One morning, early, I looked out the window and saw the supermoon setting over the mountains in a sky with strange, golden morning light. I grabbed my gear without thinking, and my father-in-law came behind me with the tripod. Although the afternoon temperatures in Santa Fe reached the 50’s that week, the dry air has nothing to hold the warmth after sundown. The air that morning was piercing.
I shot it with the wrong lens, but it’s a start. Maybe my head will come back together eventually.
This year has been the least prolific photographic year I’ve had in more than a decade. I lost two people close to me this year — the second diagnosed a week before the first passed away — and someone even closer has been diagnosed with a serious illness (with a much better prognosis, thankfully.)
In twenty years of shooting I’ve learned that in times of sadness or distress, the engine behind my writing and photography stalls. It can feel scary sometimes, but it will pass. This is all just life, and you have to go with that.
So when the prompt was to share the most meaningful photo of 2017, this one bubbled up. I took this in June, in the middle of the year, on one of the few days I felt that old familiar magic about being outside. I did travel this year — to Florida, the Badlands, and out to the Pacific Northwest. How funny, though, that the most “meaningful” image came from home, here in Indiana.
My husband and I closed on a new home at the end of July, and we love it. We have an acre and a quarter of land. There are dense trees on three sides in the back, with a seasonal creek cutting through what we call “the back forty”.
The night we got the keys, we stood in the large, glass-walled sunroom looking out at all this, and saw a deer bedded down between the trees. Later on, a great-horned owl stopped by. The next night, a red fox zipped through the yard. And a week later, a white skunk trotted through, tail aloft.
We were thrilled, as you can imagine. “There’s so much wildlife!” we exclaimed. And we do like wildlife. I spend a lot of my time photographing wildlife.
The dog likes it too.
Last night I was out with my cousin for a late evening snack. She has been staying with us for a few days on her autumn vacation, and as we do when we visit, we had repaired to a restaurant to eat and talk and discuss our lives, problems, and goals. We left my husband to the Astros game and my son to his Xbox, and began driving toward a local deli. After an hour or so of conversation, I visited the ladies room and she began idly scrolling through Facebook. “Um, Travis posted on Facebook,” she said before trailing off with a wince.
Oh shit, I thought. My phone is dead. She turned hers to face me.
While I had been eating tomato bisque and discussing current events, the dog had engaged in a little light diplomacy with a yard intruder near the lettuce patch; specifically, the skunk.
We abandoned ship quickly and called Travis, who asked us to please bring home something “stronger than Rosemary-Mint Suave.” After careening into the parking lot of a pet store one minute before closing and prevailing upon the good will of the cashier, she directed us to a bottle of “Stinky Dog Shampoo.” From there, we screeched out of the parking lot toward home.
The path home involves a right turn about half a mile away from the house, and the smell hit us like a wall about two feet from the stoplight. “Oh my God,” we exclaimed in unison. This was half a mile from the house. Nature, in all its terrible efficacy, has created a creature capable of befouling such a huge territory that the remaining wildlife has made a tightly-enforced pact to avoid it. Thanks to this pact, skunks are the merrily-striped assholes of the natural world, trotting arrogantly across the landscape with utter impunity, tails aloft, just as a reminder of its power.
But that pact does not apply to domesticated dogs.
Before last night, I had only smelled skunk spray in a diluted fashion – along the road, and temporarily, as I drove through it. It’s an unpleasant odor that makes you wrinkle your nose, but it’s not overwhelming. It won’t ruin your day.
But when your lettuce patch is ground zero, and the smell T-bones you like a semi half a mile away, the stench becomes something altogether different. As I entered my home – my new, formerly fresh-smelling home – I realized that up close, skunk doesn’t smell so much as it simply burns. What there is of smell calls to mind a combination of highly concentrated perm solution mixed with rotten eggs and death. And this makes perfect sense; the chemicals in skunk spray, called thiols, are sulphur-based compounds present in perm solution and putrid flesh. This smell will literally curl your hair.
When I entered the house, Thomas didn’t greet me as usual, electing to remain on the floor looking dejected, traumatized, and wet. Because it was the first really cold night of the season, Travis couldn’t bathe him outside. My husband limped over to us, his spine twisted like a question mark from lifting a panicked and flailing 75-pound dog into our tub with only the help of a protesting teenager. Afterward, my son had locked himself in his basement bedroom.
All so the dog could mark off a bucket list item in his eleventh year.
This is an animal that was once so well-trained I was able to call him off a black bear on a remote trail in West Virginia; who had once left behind a snarling raccoon on my stern command; who spent a lot of time on our Montana property without any such incidents. But there comes a time in every old man’s life when his supply of shits to give about anything runs dangerously low. And that time, for Thomas, was last night.
For your future reference, I can tell you what worked: Stinky Dog shampoo was a winner, even though the second bath of the night almost caused lasting injuries to both arthritic dog and humans. Boiling vinegar for an hour or so removed most of the ambient stench in the house. Soaking his collar in a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and detergent worked like a charm. (But don’t keep this around, because it can explode in a closed container.) For my bedroom, which the dog had tried to hide in and was too far away from the vinegar steam, a friend with previous Skunk-And-German Shepherd experience recommended a few drops of vanilla in a small bowl of warm water. This worked surprisingly well, given the mellow scent of vanilla.
Do not use tomato juice, because it won’t work and your bathroom will resemble the shower scene in Psycho.
As it turns out, skunks carry enough spray in their glands only for five or six shots. After that, it can take up to ten days for the little stink goblins to replenish their supply. I have no idea how many shots Thomas took. So it could be out there still, locked and loaded. And lurking. Meanwhile, our entire neighborhood probably hates us, the skunk-provoking newcomers.
But, hey; we love the wildlife!