Intrinsic Wildness

(According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, Intrinsic is an adjective defined as belonging to the essential nature of a thing : occurring as a natural part of something.)

Three crows sit on the branch of a cottonwood tree alongside the Highline Canal. They are there most mornings when I do my three-mile walk on the pedestrian/bicycle path that follows the man-made canal.

I walk at the same time every day. The same route. It is a walking meditation.

Listening for bird song, I ignore the sound of the highway to the north and east of me. I focus my eyes on generations-old cottonwood trees hoping to glimpse movement that may indicate a flitting bird. If the sky is bright blue and cloudless, black-capped chickadees, Eastern bluejays, Northern flickers, black-billed magpies, and American robins swoop and call and crash around in the bare and brittle branches. Rufous-sided towhees call drink your tea, tea, tea from low shrubs. Other birds have made occasional appearances: downy woodpeckers, red-napes sapsuckers, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, red-tail hawks, Northern harriers. Near a herd of several hundred Canada geese, a bald eagle perched in the top of a Ponderosa pine one morning. The low murmuring of the geese implied their discomfort with the situation. Before long though, a handful of crows harassed the eagle sufficiently to drive her off.

On days where the sky is cloud-shrouded, I see and hear very few birds. They apparently like the sunshine as much as I do. Mallard ducks dabble in what little water may be in the canal no matter the weather. Usually there are seven: four males and three females. They are always absolutely silent.

The half-way point of my walk is a tunnel underneath the very busy Interstate 25. Here, the sound of traffic is so fabulously loud, that I turn around. On my return I remind myself that these trees, these birds, the water, the squirrels that acrobat from branch to branch and perform their high-wire act, the cottontail rabbits that scoot through leaf litter, have been thriving in this somewhat urban environment for decades. Some of the cottonwood trunks are so huge they can be encircled only by multiple people with outstretched arms. Woodpeckers and flickers, squirrels and robins, even hummingbirds, make their nests amid branches and in hollowed out holes in the trunks of these wonderful old trees. Ponderosa pines reach 80-100 feet in height; warmed by the sun, the vanilla scent of their bark permeates the air. Oak, elm, ash, chokecherry, wild rose, and huge old junipers have set their roots into the soil along the canal.

These walking meditations are essential to my soul. My connection to our natural world informs my painting and my writing. The Highline Canal Trail is what passes for the “natural world” here in urban/suburban Denver. The term “natural world” is a human construct. It implies the hand of man has not sullied a particular place. The Highline Canal Trail where I walk is bordered by homes and yards on one side — the narrow riparian ribbon of the canal is on the other. Even this ribbon backs up to more homes and yards, leaving only the ten-foot-wide canal to provide water and refuge for birds and plants.

Yet, as artificial as this “natural” place may be, birds still hunt for food, build nests, reproduce. and forage for seeds, rose hips, beetles and bugs. Trees energize juicy new leaf buds and grow to loftier heights and girths. Squirrels store Ponderosa pine seeds and acorns from oaks.

I will continue my walks throughout the year, relishing the changes the seasons bring, nourishing my soul with the knowledge that life, in all its forms, will find a place to thrive — to continue the cycle. As I must.

Afield in January

I’ve been nearly five weeks in one of those orthopedic boots given to one when one has a fractured bone in one’s foot. IMG_1162Allegedly one can walk in these boots, but let me tell you, one really don’t want to walk very much! It’s heavy and awkward and you end up with hip pain, lower back pain and knee pain because you are essentially hauling around a big rock and walking unnaturally. It has definitely clipped my wings and that has not been easy for me. I’ve done a lot of sitting around looking out the window.

Jim’s brother to the rescue! He lent us his pickup truck for 10 days which enabled me to temp for a week without having to gimp to the train and the bus, and best of all, to go on a little field trip to Cherry Creek State Park.

It was a beautiful 48-degree day, with a light breeze blowing around a few wisps of clouds. It’s been quite cold in Denver this past month so the lakes and ponds in the park were nearly frozen shut, but a couple of open leads were filled with ducks: common mergansers, hooded mergansers, common goldeneyes, coots,and a few mallards. Bald eagles stood at the edges of open pools, their white heads lit by the sun. We spotted three adults and four or five immature eagles, all of them just standing on the ice and waiting.

A prairie falcon perched in a bare cottonwood giving us a rare opportunity to observe her for quite a long time. We had our spotting scope with us so we got a good look at her. Redtail hawks are common at Cherry Creek in the winter, and we saw a few of them in trees and soaring high above us. An uncommon winter visitor to the area was a Swainson’s hawk – perched on a branch in easy view of our binoculars and scope.

While picnicking on the edge of the lake, magpies flew in, appearing to wait for a bit of food to fall from our hands. They perched in the trees around us calling and vocalizing with one another in a most conversational way. Song sparrows flitted among shrubs and scooted their feet in the soil – a little back and forth motion that probably brought some edible seeds or insects to the surface. It’s delightful to watch them do this. Crows and starlings are ubiquitous at the park, but a belted kingfisher surprised us near the marina at the lake.

The day was not without a few mammal sightings: coyote, mule deer, and prairie dogs were apparently enjoying the warm sun as much as we were.

It was a lovely day and so good to out in it. Twelve more days and I can burn the boot!

For the Love of Crows

December 14, 2015

In a week’s time, winter solstice will be upon us and, although we begin to gain minutes of daylight every day, winter temperatures and snow will prevail for the next three months.

Songbirds have flown to warmer climes where more food sources are available, but crows and magpies remain behind for the winter.

Crows and magpies are members of the crow family of birds. Latin nomenclature labels them the Corvidae, or corvids. There are 103 species of these crow-like birds, but only 40 of them are true crows and bear the genus Corvus: crows, jackdaws, rooks and ravens. Magpies and Jays are another branch of the Corvidae tree. Corvids populate all of the world except for Antarctica.

Living on the edge of suburbia as we do, crows are the most common bird I see and I have grown a great affection for them. Looking out of our apartment window we have watched adult crows demonstrate the art of flying to their fledglings. When the youngsters get too big for the nest and are sporting their first flight feathers, their parents begin flying lessons. The adults have lined them up, between four and six of them, on the roofline of the garage across from our balcony. The adult birds will fly off aways and then repeatedly call to their offspring to come over here, come over here. Meanwhile, the fledglings are cawing and cawing and cawing, begging to be fed and not wanting to take that giant leap of faith. This has gone on for quite some time as the adults cajole the young birds with food and crow-words of encouragement. The youngsters, already as large as their parents but with slightly shorter tails, still show a reluctance to take off.

However, when one young bird dares to leave their rooftop perch, one by one the other fledglings take the leap. Mostly they fly a short distance and land on the ground where they proudly strut and announce their success. At that point, serious cawing and flying attempts ensue. Congratulatory caws and food rewards from the parent birds continue, until the young birds are stunt-flying from roof to roof and tree to tree. It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch this all transpire each summer.

While their call is loud and raucous, they can be quite stealthy and very quiet when necessary. Their black color, the ability to swoop soundlessly from perch to ground, their flocking behavior, as well as their practice of scavenging dumpsters and sidewalk litter, make them seems despicable and illicit derogatory responses in people like, “I hate crows; they scare me.”

Corvids have earned their dark bandit reputation by the practice of raiding farmers’ crops, harassing livestock, raiding other birds’ nests of eggs and young, and their raucously unmusical calls. These behaviors are testament to crows’ exceptional ability to adapt to their surroundings, and to changes in those surroundings. Research has shown that crows cannot only use tools, but can devise tools from found objects. They can mimic sounds around them including that of barking dogs. Where the acquisition of food is the objective, they learn the nuances of human behavior in order to seize any morsel of food accidentally dropped.

Crows are considered among the most intelligent creatures on our planet. They are very social, live in tight family groups and mate for life. With more than 250 different calls, they are in constant communication with each other. They will share good locations for food, warn each other of danger, coo to their nestlings, and whisper to one another while courting. Scientists find them endlessly fascinating and invent methods to test and evaluate their intelligence regularly.

It’s all well and good to read about the amazing discoveries science has made regarding how smart crows are, but I just find them beautiful: the way their black feathers glisten in the sun, their graceful gliding and flying abilities, their devotion to family and yes, even their raspy voices.

 

An Autumn Retreat

Denver’s trees are dressed in their vibrant autumn colors. The sky, a perfect clear blue is a splendid backdrop. Daytime temperatures are in the 70s and 80s and the autumn air is softly caressing. Halloween is two weeks away, after which we enter the dark time. As lovely as autumn is, I always have a sense of foreboding about the shrinking hours of daylight.

Last week, Jim and I celebrated his birthday and our wedding anniversary by spending a couple of days in our beloved Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow had not yet closed Trail Ridge Road, aspen leaves were golden, and it was elk bugling time.

We booked a rustic room at an inn on Fall River for two nights, intending to settle in for a couple of lazy days. We got up late, had leisurely breakfasts in our room and watched dippers hunting for juicy, larval tidbits in the rocky eddies of Fall River. Dippers are such extraordinary birds. They are always found near clear, fast-moving streams with rocky bottoms. Standing on exposed rocks, they gaze into the water, all the while bobbing up and down in order to catch sight of an unsuspecting bug beneath the surface. They may poke their head into the water to grab a meal, or they may dive right into fast-moving water, completely submerging themselves and swim for their food. Hopping back onto a rock, water beads up on their feathers and rolls down their backs leaving them totally dry. The dipper’s song is a sweet, complex warble that sounds to me exactly like water bubbling over rocks. The name “dipper” comes from the bobbing action they use while food shopping.

In the afternoons we meandered into the Park to see what we could see. Mule deer grazed the forest edges — big males with polished antlers and females with their young-of-the-year. About seven bighorn sheep males settled amid the rocks high on a rocky slope; their curled horns glinting in the late afternoon sun.

On our first day, as dusk crept into the valley, whistles and grunts of bugling elk began to fill the air. This is what we have come for.

With our binoculars, we spied several bull elk across a willow-encircled meadow. One especially large male gathered up his harem of a dozen females, stiffing their rumps to determine their readiness to mate. Slowly, five other males emerged from the willows, posturing, whistling and grunting their intent to challenge this male’s dominance. What could only be called “a bugle-off” ensued, with all the bulls ardently exerting bugling prowess and virility. They strutted around in circles, showing off their antlers, stretching to their full height and girth, urinating on their own legs to enhance their musky smell. The big bull’s harem never strayed too far from him. Seriously, how could they resist this show of masculinity!

(This male-dominance show brought to mind the latest Republican debates; all the male candidates puffed up with testosterone, polishing their antlers and vying for dominance, while the one antler-less female tried to muster up some testosterone of her own.)

It was growing darker and visibility was quite low as the biggest of the elk males began to herd his harem across the meadow in our direction. One of the other males moved along behind the big male, urging him farther across the meadow toward us and the road. Our binoculars were beyond their light-gathering capacity and we strained our vision to watch this drama play out. At this point we were surrounded by bugling elk, some close by, others far away. We drove back to our room feeling extremely lucky to have witnessed this primal animal display and to have heard these wildest of animal sounds.

I’m attaching a photo of aspen trees that have been girdled by elk. Elk chew the bark off of the aspen trunks

Aspens with scarred trunks

Aspens with scarred trunks

and rub their antlers on the trunks to polish off the velvet.

Camping in July

Jim said, “You know you’re camping when there is dirt everywhere, hordes of mosquitoes, and it’s a long walk to the bathroom”. So we must be camping!  It’s been a long time since we camped and now we are at Golden Gate State Park in site 14. This park, located an hour drive from home, is situated amid aspens, Ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines and Douglas fir – a Colorado montane life zone forest. A lush under story of Colorado blue columbine, magenta fireweed, raspberry, wild rose, camas, cow parsnip, giant angelica and an artists palette of smaller native flowering plants. We arrived at noon yesterday and set up camp during the hottest part of the day. Golden-mantled ground squirrels scurried around, sensing new possibilities for food scraps. Alas, they were a disappointment.

The orange tent lives!

The orange tent lives!

The montane life zone is richly diverse, providing abundant berries, seeds and insects for countless bird and mammal species. Broad-tailed hummingbirds buzzed us from every direction throughout the two days we were there. Mountain chickadees called from the pines while Stellar’s jays and huge black ravens flew in periodically to squaw their presence.

Jim hanging clothesline

Jim hanging the clothesline

We both needed to be in nature again. It is where I get my inspiration, and information, for painting and for writing. Jim relishes the opportunity to entertain his proclivity for camp chores…infinitely relaxing to him.

Between swatting mosquitoes and swatting more mosquitoes, I spent a couple of hours sketching aspen trees and native grasses. Hopefully a couple of new works will be coming to life soon. Go to my web site:

http://rosehipdesignstudio.com or to my Facebook page. It is now possible to purchase my cards on line!

Sketching aspens

Sketching aspens

A Blessed Event

It was a true summer day in Denver yesterday. Flocks of fluffy white clouds meandered across a bright blue sky; temperature of 82 degrees, light breeze from the southwest. I was on my computer fine-tuning my new web site – all windows open – when rowdy, insistent bird chatter drew me out onto our balcony.

A countless number of house sparrows build nests in the cement fretwork of the balcony surrounds of a 10-story building 30 yards across from ours. The birds have been waking us before dawn for months now, and neither of us can think of a better alarm clock. For the past month, the constant soft peeps of begging nestlings have added to the bird chorus. The adults have had rigorous feeding schedules, but yesterday, newly fledged house finches lined the tops of the balcony surrounds. They squawked ceaselessly as the parent birds flew back and forth calling to their young, encouraging them to trust their wings and launch. It must have looked mighty scary to those babies as they looked down at the pavement far below.

This was truly a blessed event for this urban naturalist. I would have photos to add to this blog, but I fear that aiming a camera at the domiciles of my neighbors would not go over well!

Solstice 2015

We are nearing the 5th anniversary of the beginning of Jim and Sharon’s Big Adventure. July 4, 2010 we left the life we had become so comfortable with and struck out to experience what the bicycle life had to offer us. That year “on the road” formed the lynchpin around which our life has revolved since settling in Denver in 2011. We learned that we had the strength, both physically and emotionally, to hurdle obstacles.

The past two years since Jim’s cancer diagnosis have tested us in ways that, we believe, life on the road prepared us for. We learned that we had the humility to open our hearts and minds to the kind people we met along the way. We expanded our capacity for compassion, honed our patience, learned to trust our instincts, and achieved a kind of grace that came from flexibility and good humor.

Urban life is a long way from the twenty-five years we spent living and working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but we take pleasure in the fact that Denver takes pride in its sturdy old trees. Even in this urban environment, we perk up to the songs of house finches, blue jays, nuthatches, robins, crown, flickers, and swallows. Red-tailed hawks still soar above our apartment building, cormorants fly between reservoirs and rivers, skeins of Canada geese traverse the sky, mallards patrol the Highline Canal, Cooper’s hawks hunt pigeons, and sharp-shinned hawks dive for the dickey birds in our neighborhood.

Herbs in clay pots

Herbs in clay pots

Ruby Begonia

Ruby Begonia

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My little garden

Flower gardens brighten our walks through the neighborhoods and we have livened up our balcony with flowers and pots of herbs.

Our Ego Car Share membership enables us to drive the two hours to Rocky Mountain National Park. We drove up to RMNP twice in the last month to do some birding and wildflower peeking and came away with nice lists of both:

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Flower book in hand

BIRDS: Wilson’s warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, brown creepers, pygmy, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, Stellar’s jays, red-naped sapsuckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, song sparrows, yellow warblers, house and winter wrens, water pipits, robins, juncoes, and chipping sparrows Most exciting was spotting two down-puffed great-horned owl chicks crowding their nest in a ponderosa pine. They chicks peered down at us curiously, snapping their beaks. FLOWERS: blue phlox, alpine avens, buttercups, rock jasmine, pussytoes, yellow draba, yellow alpine parsley, alpine bluebells, fairy primrose, alpine clover, candytuft, wallflowers, golden banner, thimbleberry, penstemon, white vetch, chokecherry, and blue flax, to name those that are blooming now. As late-lying snowfields recede, many more posies will be revealed! We will go back in a week or so and see what has emerged.

The stories told by events in our natural world are our inspiration. The stories of Life celebrating itself in all its forms, in the forest, on the alpine tundra, on mountain trails. To quote Enos Mills, the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year: “This is a beautiful world, and all who go out under the open sky will feel the gentle, kindly influences of Nature and hear her good tidings.”

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A typical day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Winding down winter

While winter weather continues to assault the Upper Midwest and East, spring has come to us in the West. Although we love temperatures in the upper 70s, the severe lack of moisture the western states have endured this past year portends a dangerous forest fire season. I tell myself that it’s still only March and if we have some late snow and good hard rains, it could moisten things up a bit. I’ve noticed since we’ve been back in Colorado that just after the tulips push through the soil and the cherry trees blossom, we get one last heavy, wet snow that bends the newly-leafed branches down to ground, so I’m hopeful.

Jim and I went for a bike ride on Saturday and searched the Highline Canal for early spring birds. We saw chickadees, nuthatches, flickers, Canada geese, magpies, mallards and squirrels — no spring migrants yet.  Grasses are greening up and buds are swelling, but only Corispora tenella  (commonly known as blue mustard or purple mustard) was blooming and perfuming the air with its sweetness. Crocuses and daffodils glowed in front yards and some aspen trees bore seed-heavy catkins. It was a lovely day. Here’s a picture of Jim on the vast and beautiful acreage of a school, adjacent to the Highline Canal trail.

Jim on the Highline Canal Trail

Jim on the Highline Canal Trail

House finches are back in full force in our neighborhood. They start calling to each other before the sun rises; their busy little chatter is all the alarm clock we need! Last weekend we went to Cherry Creek State Park and saw about a dozen bald eagles on the lake ice, accompanied by seven white pelicans. We spotted pygmy nuthatches diligently tweezering insects out from under Ponderosa pine bark with their sharp little beaks. I painted a portrait of one of them for a new addition to my Rosehip Design card collection.

Things are looking up for us this year. I have had more temp assignments and Jim is feeling well enough to get a part time job at a bike shop. When I’m not temping at an office in Denver, I work on my card business and continue to send queries to publishers and agents whom I hope will be interested in reading my manuscript. Jim spends a lot of his free time helping to market my cards and has built a Facebook page for me (since I won’t do it myself). Thanks to the help of an old friend, I have a new web site. Please check it out: http://rosehipdesignstudio.com and see the new cards I’ve added. My old site, rosehipdesign2014 is gone!

Keep smiling and think of spring!

Gettin’ outta’ Dodge

Jim’s lawsuit against the driver who hit him while he was on his bike has finally settled so we are celebrating with a two-night getaway to Estes Park. Rocky Mountain National Park has just enough snow to flock the trees, and hide the rocks, but not so much that we can’t walk around in our hiking boots. The white snow and solid blue sky look fresh and beautiful. Here are a couple of photos.

Horseshoe Park Overlook

Horseshoe Park Overlook

Mt. Ypsilon and Me

Mt. Ypsilon and Me

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Jim and perfect snowball snow

Three huge bull elk, along with a few wanna be young spikes, graze in Horseshoe Park meadow. A herd of a couple hundred elk are hanging out in the meadow in Moraine Park, but we’ve seen no bighorn sheep or deer. Birds are pretty scarce too, although magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers and Stellar’s jay are calling from high in the ponderosa pines. We are staying in a cozy little place on the river — very rustic — with a fireplace and a patio. The snow is perfect for snowman building so we built a little one along our stretch of the river.

Sven the Snowman

Sven the Snowman

As I sit in our room writing this blog, the predicted winter storm is blowing in. Through the sliding glass doors I can watch the wind send up spirals of snow and whip tree branches.

This is the Centennial year for Rocky Mountain National Park. Enos Mills, “The Father of Rocky Mountain National Park” served as master of ceremonies for the dedication of the park on September 4, 1915. Celebrations are planned throughout the year to commemorate not only RMNP, but also the Organic Act of 1916 that created the National Park Service.

In 1973 I left New York and drove to Colorado, specifically to see Rocky Mountain National Park. It was the first national park I had ever visited, so it occupies a very special place in my heart. I saw my first elk here, my first mountain lion, my first bighorn sheep, my first bobcat, and my first mule deer. It is also where I had my first experience with an alpine environment: the tiny flowers and plants, the late-lying snowfields, the fragile yet resilient alpine meadows. I feel like this is where I was born.

I shouldered my first backpack here, broke in my first pair of hiking boots, climbed my first mountain and forded my first cold mountain stream. This is where I learned botany — hiking the foothills and mountains with William Weber’s Rocky Mountain Flora in one hand, and Beatrice Willard’s Land Above the Trees in the other. This is also where I learned the joys of birding, thanks to the Evergreen Naturalists Bird Club. I wrote a magazine article several years ago describing my first experience in the annual National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count — an experience that was life-changing for me.

My love for this park and its great diversity of ecosystems, flora and fauna, informed my appreciation and understanding of the West’s other national parks, especially Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Zion. America is wise to have had the foresight to preserve these magnificent lands; I hope we continue to fight to keep them safe from further human predation.

The Spice of Life

I was riding the bus the other day when I noticed the man in the seat in front of me was brushing his teeth. He looked to be in his 40s, dressed in jeans and an unremarkable jacket. His hair had not seen barber’s shears in a while, and he could have stood a little closer to a razor. He carried a small pack that looked like it had some miles on it which he slung over his shoulder as he exited the bus, spitting out a mouthful of tooth debris on the sidewalk.  Since we’ve been in Denver and living without a car, we use public transportation a lot. The crosstown buses, either east-west, or north-south, are usually the most crowded with a cross section of Denver’s diverse population of souls.

After 25 years of living in small mountain communities whose populations were mostly white, and mostly upper-middle class and super wealthy, I find witnessing the multicultural, multi-socio-economic strata represented in Denver sometimes jarring. Every bus ride presents fodder for a short story, a novel, a journalistic exposé, social commentary. To say that the bus-riding population is colorful, is an understatement. Most passengers are quiet, orderly, keep to themselves by reading or with earbuds plugged into music players. It’s the others, the ones who have long, intense conversations with themselves or an imaginary friend, those who chat up the passengers seated near them delivering their personal views on politics, religion, or describing the injustices that have been delivered upon them, that remind me of how blessed my life is.

Passengers who are able-bodied and seated in the front of the bus, willingly relinquish their seats to those who shuffle on using walkers, drive on in wheelchairs, and limp on with canes. This is as it should be. Then there are folks with groceries, multiple shopping bags, huge cartons, machine parts, children in tow and on hips, women in burkas, men in uniforms, commuters in suits, school kids in backward baseball caps snapping gum and hauling computers. Men and women who are homeless by choice or by chance, wearing ragged clothes and carrying bulging plastic bags, riding the bus to get out of the weather. People of differing colors, languages and customs, people of differing professions and a multitude of circumstances — people whose stories we do not know. Sometimes I am on a bus filled with so much diversity of the human condition that I have to get off just so I can breathe.

This is not a bad thing. To live in an urban environment brings the world into sharper focus. I feel it has made me more empathetic, more forgiving of myself and others, and more appreciative of our multicultural country.