Friday, December 23, 2005

Battle of the Swans

Recently I went for a walk along the river, and saw swans there for the first time in a while. (I wondered if they showed up for aesthetic reasons - because they look so nice against the white snow and black water.)

First I saw two swans, sleeping on the water. Their heads were tucked underneath their wings - you couldn't actually see their heads at all, just their long necks twisted backwards, looking slightly grimy and very odd. Floating, sleeping, headless swans.

On my way back, I saw that the two swans were awake, and spreading their wings in a most beautiful way, which I have never seen swans do before. They stretched their wings up above their heads, and kept them raised up. They curved their necks gracefully.

It turns out that this is some kind of threat display. Because two more swans had landed on the river, and the first two swans sailed towards them - one on one. The new swans swam away, keeping their wings folded. If any of them made any noise, I couldn't hear it.

The funny part was that the first pair of swans were only interested in defending a certain portion of the river. They chased the new swans away, each one in an opposite direction. After swimming a short distance, they got bored and went back to "their" spot. One of the new swans swam downstream. The other swan went upstream, but apparently wanted to rejoin its companion. It kept swimming back into First Swan territory, where it was immediately met and chased away.

But eventually the first swans gave up and let the intruder swim past them. Hopefully the second pair was reunited.

I've heard that swans are bad-tempered. Now I'm inclined to believe it.

Monday, December 05, 2005

First Snow in December

One of my favorite things is discovering that it has snowed in the night. I open the curtains in the morning, expecting to see black pavement, and see white snow instead. While I slept, the world has been changing itself, and I like that.

the sound of snow falling
scritch, scritch, swish
its pure whiteness

people say
"it looks so clean and fresh"
(only when it's new, of course)
the snow does not know that it is clean
the snow does not value cleanliness

the thoughtlessness of snow

Friday, December 02, 2005

Vagaries of the US Postal Service

I live in an apartment building, which means that there is a fair amount of turnover, and mail arriving for people who no longer live there.

A few months ago, one such letter arrived. It sat around on top of the mailboxes for a while. Eventually somebody wrote on it, "Moved," but this accomplished nothing.

A few weeks ago, there was a letter in my mailbox, addressed to somebody who must not have lived here for at least three years. Usually I throw mail like that out (neither personal nor important-looking), but this time, on a whim, I wrote "Moved - Return to Sender" on it and stuck it up next to the long-enduring letter.

The next day, my returned piece of mail was gone. Some intelligent person then wrote "Return to Sender" on the older letter. No doubt they confidently believed, as did I, that this would cause the letter to be returned to the sender.

But no! It's still there.

Monday, November 21, 2005

My Favorite Zen Story

(I'm not a Buddhist. I'm not even a Zen Buddhist. But, because nothing else blogworthy has happened this week, I will repeat my favorite Zen story.)

A friend of mine gave me a copy of the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. The first part of the book is a collection of cute little Zen stories. The rest of the book gets weirder and weirder, and I've never liked it much. But here is the story:

"No Water, No Moon."
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.

At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!

In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Down By The Lake

On Saturday I had some errands to run. I was walking in a direction I don't normally go, when suddenly I remembered, "The lake is nearby." (Officially, it's called a pond, but for me it's certainly big enough to be a lake.) "How close is it? Do I have time?" I was somewhat undecided - but then I looked to my left and saw it.

Walking along a four-lane city street, looking down a side road and seeing an expanse of blue, sparkling water that seems to fill the horizon. Some people might be able to walk on by, but not me.

It's been a while since I was down there. They are doing some refurbishment - quite a bit of it was fenced off, but right down by the water, three new benches were accessible, and I took one.

The sun was shining almost directly into my eyes. Soon I closed them. Sitting with your eyes closed next to a lake is not the same as sitting with your eyes closed any place else. You'd think it would be, but it's not. I could hear sounds of the city, but faintly. It seemed to me that I could smell the water. And when my eyes were open, all I could see was water, sunlight, trees, and houses among the trees. There's a small, tree-covered island in the middle of the lake. Evergreens, mostly.

After a while I got up. Walked along just a little way, into the shade. Leaned on the fence (this one was ornamental, black iron, not part of the renovation) and looked at a pair of ducks in the water. The smell of water is stronger in the shade . . . smell of mud, smell of cold.

Then I walked back up the street, four blocks, back into the city.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Weather of the past week

Last weekend it snowed (on October 29). It took me a while to remember that it doesn't usually snow around here before the end of November. The snow all melted the next day.

Most of the leaves were still green, but that snowfall was like an announcement: "Okay! It really is autumn now!" It seemed to me that every day the color of the trees was noticeably different from the day before.

There is something about autumn that just grabs ahold of me. The trees seem to catch on fire. Burning yellow, orange, red, consumed from within. As if they retain their heat, while the warmth goes out of the air. For a few trees, the change of color is more gradual - they seem only to become metallic. But in all cases it is a transformation that almost seems to have something desperate about it, and something proud as well. The sky turns a paler shade of blue.

I walked past a house with a tall evergreen hedge, and some very large evergreen trees. Among them was another tree, whose leaves were dark red. You don't often see leaves turn that color, and in this case it was all the more intense, the darkest of red against the darkest of green.

But aside from that one day of snow, I think the weather has been warmer than it usually is at this time of year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


I realized last night that I've never seen an animal having hiccups.

Why is that?

It hardly seems fair.

Monday, October 24, 2005

At this time of year

the sunset lies down
upon the curves of the river

the clouds turn pink
the water
turns golden

the fire
passes away

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Sun Came Out

Some people would say it has been raining here continuously for the past week. That is not strictly accurate. It has been continuously overcast for the past week, and frequently raining.

I saw the sun this morning, I really did. But it's gone now, and looks to stay gone for a few more days. One misses it when it's not around.

Monday, October 10, 2005

What kind of tree is that?

The kind whose leaves change color before any of the others. They are yellow now. The leaves look a little like beech leaves to me, but the bark is not beech-like at all.

None of the other trees have started to change yet.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Oh my god! Elephants!

I left my office to get some lunch, and found that the road was blocked off. I looked up and down and didn't see anything that looked like an accident. There were about half-a-dozen motorcycle cops spread out along the road, which usually means something like a parade, or a police funeral.

Then I noticed that a fairly large number of people had come out of their office buildings and were standing around. "They must know what this is," I thought, but I didn't know so I started walking up to the mall.

I looked down the road and saw something coming. It was large. At first I thought it was an inanimate object, like a boat (although it was not shaped like a boat.) Then I thought it was a large horse, or a team of large horses. Then. I realized. It was a bunch of freakin' elephants!

I pulled my sunglasses off to see better. Oh, elephants! Walking along, trunks holding tails, just like they are said to do. They had hair or straw or something on their backs - it was straw-colored, unlike their elephantine dark-gray skin.

I counted them. Nine elephants. Two were much smaller than the others - not quite baby elephants, but close. They smelled like elephants. I could smell them all the way on the other side of a two-lane expressway. (By which I mean, they smelled like plant-eating animals which spend most of their time in enclosed spaces and are not absolutely clean. They smelled a lot like horses. But they weren't horses, were they?)

They walked along. I could have walked along to keep up with them, but I didn't think about it. (And let's face it, I couldn't possibly have looked where I was going.) They walked along and started to move out of my sight. I was headed in the same direction as them, but I couldn't really keep up with them.

There were some people with them, but no signs or decorations, so I don't know why they were there or where they were going. If I have ever seen elephants before I don't remember it. Certainly I never saw them like this.

ELEPHANTS. And I was just thinking I didn't have anything to blog about this week.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Overheard (parents)

Teenage girl, talking on her cellphone:

"People wonder why I don't talk to my parents. The reason is that they're stupid."

Another Good Place

I blogged earlier about a squirrel who tried to store an apple in my bedroom window. That happened last year.

The other day I noticed a whole walnut (in the shell) stuck in my bathroom window, along with a few leaves for padding. I don't believe walnuts grow around here. I did have to remove the walnut.

This wasn't as funny as the apple, because I only had the window open for about two minutes before the aquirrel put its apple there. The bathroom window has been open for weeks. But it's still funny. I never knew that's what windows are for.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mourning Doves

Cloudy day, the lightest possible rain falling. Two mourning doves are exploring the ground outside my window. A squirrel runs down the oak tree - just as if they were in nature. Maybe they don't care that the ground is paved?

Mourning doves are brown, and generally travel in pairs. When sitting on the branch of a tree, or a telephone wire, they sit "back to back," each with its head pointing a different way, so they can keep watch everywhere. The "mourning" sound that they make is sad and beautiful.

Doves and pigeons are closely related, but in the city pigeons are considered to be a disgusting nuisance. Doves, as far as I know, have managed to hang on to their sweet reputation. I have not learned to hate pigeons, either.

There's the thought for the day.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

New Orleans 2005

I went there once
It's a city of ghosts
It's always been a city underwater

Now, the spectacle of gross incompetence
and utter lack of compassion
The haves and the have-nots
one set in the White House
the other underwater

Oya, goddess of the hurricane
sweeping through
is what's needed now
Bring that wind here
that water
to wash away
Bring transformation now

Oya dances in the cemetery

Oya dances in the cemetery

Oya dances in the cemetery

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Change of Season

the summer sky descends
it rests for a while inside the morning glories
and then moves on

Monday, August 29, 2005

Looking in a Mirror

I swore when I started this blog that I would try to avoid writing about my cats. Because once I start, I don't know if I'll be able to stop. But there's no way to avoid it now. This is the story of the week.

My cats sit in the bedroom windowsill night and day. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, they see something that makes them growl and snarl and make a noise that I can't even describe. It's sort of a bubbling wail of menace. I never got to see what was causing this.

Then, on Saturday morning, they started making the noise again. I thought, "Aha! Now that it's broad daylight, I can see what's out there." I looked out in the yard and didn't see anything. Then I looked at my cats, to see where they were looking.

My cats are black, with yellow or green eyes. One of them has a white spot on his chest. And when I looked at them, I saw a black cat with yellow eyes and a white spot on his chest - on the other side of the window.

"How did he get out there?" I asked myself. Then slowly I realized that it was not one of my cats. This foreign cat was sitting on the narrow ledge outside the window, and my cats were going nuts. He was quite calm, only snarling a little.

Ten minutes later I looked out the window again. The interloper was now lounging on the ground, about two feet away from the window, ostentatiously not looking in our direction. Every line of his posture proclaimed: "I am perfectly comfortable here, and I'm going to be staying a while." But I think he left about five minutes later.

This morning I heard cries of distress coming from the windowsill. The other cat was out there, rolling on the ground directly under the window - showing off again.

What a cute story.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Why I Became a Vegetarian

This blog was intended to be about "city nature" stories - interactions with nature (usually animals) in an urban area. The story of how I became a vegetarian has nothing to do with the city. Or maybe it does. You the reader can decide.

I grew up in the country, on a small farm. We kept various sorts of livestock, and provided ourselves with most of our own food. Every spring my parents bought a piglet, and every fall, when it had grown up into a pig, they killed it, chopped it up, and put it in the freezer. Then we spent the rest of the year eating it.

It was my job to feed the pig. How old was I when I started? Five, maybe. I understood that we were providing food for these animals, so that they in turn would provide food for us. Without ever putting it into words, I respected those pigs. They were giving their lives for us. I don't know of any way to repay a debt like that.

So I fed the pigs, both their regular food and treats from the garden. I frequently visited the pigs and scratched their backs. Pigs love that. They will leeeeann against your scratching hand until they're like to fall over. And when the time came for them to die, I never watched, but I wasn't really unhappy about it. That is what they were there for.

(We killed and ate chickens too, but it's hard to feel genuine respect for a chicken. I did enjoy looking at their multicolored insides, though.)

Time passed, and my family's circumstances changed. By the time I went away to college, we no longer kept any animals for food (although my mother bought sides of beef and pork from a local farmer, and had them butchered at a local slaughterhouse.)

College was where I first encountered vegetarian propaganda, which consists of two main points: 1) it is possible to be healthy without eating any meat (which contradicted what I had always been told); and 2) animals in factory farms are raised and killed under appalling conditions.

College was also the first place where everything I ate had come from "unknown" sources. I realized that I was uncomfortable eating meat when I had no idea where it came from - when I had never been introduced to the animal, as it were. It wasn't the first time I had eaten store-bought meat, by any means, but a steady diet of it began to disturb me. (Also, sometimes it did not taste entirely fresh.)

Gradually, over the course of a couple years, I stopped eating meat altogether. At this point I can't see myself ever eating meat again. I'm not prepared to kill my own food, although I wouldn't object to other people who do.

Now, what does all of this have to do with living in the city?

Note: See also Those who Died for Us, which I wrote about a year later.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Overheard (cows)

"My daughter told me she was thinking of becoming a vegetarian. I just about fell out of my chair.

"I'm like, 'Do you know what that means?'

"She says, 'Yeah, it means I don't eat cows.'"

Monday, August 08, 2005

Cat Hit by Car

I did not see the cat get run over. I turned around and there it was, lying in the middle of the road, kicking one hind leg. Then it lay still.

One of the people waiting at the bus stop with me walked out to take a look at it, and the person who ran it over actually stopped his car and came back to attend to it. But I am pretty sure it was dead. The young man carried it carefully to the side of the road. A small, thick bloodstain remained behind. Then the bus came and we had to leave.

Was it the same cat I have seen there before? It was orange and white, with a long fluffy tail. I think the other cat that lives around there is yellow. Well, one cat's luck ran out, all the same.

Death comes like that, suddenly, on a bright summer morning. So of course I had to dash off and write about it on my blog.

One of my cats got hit by a car once. He was not badly injured (comparatively), but it was still awful. His leg was broken, and he managed to get himself home. (I'm still not absolutely sure he was hit by a car. How could it have caused so little damage? But that's what the vet said.) Of course I felt guilty for letting him go outside, although I'm sure he enjoyed it, until the encounter with the car.

What really upset me, though, and haunted me, was the thought of his tiny body and all these big, hard, dangerous machines that move so fast and kill so easily. I don't blame the drivers. But looking at a road from a cat's point of view is truly terrifying.

There doesn't seem to be anything else to say.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"That Looks Like a Good Place!"

One of the strangest things I ever saw appeared in my window last fall. It was an apple.

There is an apple tree in front of my apartment building, and some oak trees out back. Perhaps because of this, there are always a large number of squirrels around. (We get gray squirrels around here. Occasionally I see a black squirrel -- Mirkwood-style.)

One cool autumn morning, I was wandering around the bedroom in my usual daze. I opened the window, and then left the room briefly. When I returned, there was something in the window.

These are the kind of windows that open vertically, with a crank (not the horizontal kind you push up). And while my back was turned, some squirrel or person unknown had placed an apple inside the window, right down in the corner.

I am not accustomed to things suddenly appearing out of nowhere, especially first thing in the morning. First there was no apple. Then there was an apple. I was amazed. Out of nothingness, something had been created.

I didn't really think it was a person. I had not noticed anyone walking by. It would be a pretty unusual thing for a person to do (I thought.) It would also be a pretty unusual thing for a squirrel to do. And yet.

I left the apple where it was for at least one day - maybe two, I can't remember now. Then I inspected it and saw many tiny toothmarks. Probability of squirrel upgraded to 99%. I finally had to move the apple. I put it on the windowsill for another couple days, but I'm afraid the squirrel didn't want it anymore.

That apple is long gone now. But it remains in my memory.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Zebra Finch Learns to Go Down

I used to live in a house with two zebra finches. They were not always the same two birds. Finches, as you might know, have a pretty short shelf life, and we often had to replace them (I am not going to tell you about the dangers they encountered.) But there were always two.

One day a new female zebra finch arrived. It soon became apparent that she did not know how to fly downwards. She would sit on the perch, lean over as far as she could - until she was almost upside down - and jump off.

But unfortunately, every time she jumped, she flapped her wings, and every time she flapped her wings, she went upwards. She did this over and over. It was horribly funny - "horrible" mostly because the food and water was on the floor of the cage. But she did manage to figure out how to get down there before starving to death.

A few months later, I observed her sitting on a high perch in the cage. She hopped down to a lower perch, and flew down to the floor. Then she flew back up to the highest perch, and hopped down from perch, to perch, to floor again. She did this over and over. It seemed obvious that she was only doing it for fun. She wasn't looking for food, or nest-building material, or anything. She just liked going down.

Is it possible that, somewhere in her tiny brain, a memory remained of the time when she couldn't get down to the floor? Maybe she was just practicing, to make sure she never forgot again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Big Ass Scary Spider

On Monday, I was wandering around in the usual early morning daze. It was a cloudy morning, and I didn't have the light on, but in the half-light I observed a rather large dark spot on the white wall. "What's that?" I asked myself, and flipped the light on. It was a gigantic spider.

Normally I like spiders a lot. I'm always happy to see one in my apartment, as long as it's not actually crawling on me, or trying to drown itself while I'm taking a shower. But this spider was not making me happy. It was too big, and it didn't look like a normal spider.

Most spiders have long slender legs and comparatively small bodies. Also their bodies are shaped in two lobes, like ants or wasps. This spider had a large body and fairly short, thick legs. In fact, I had to count the legs to make sure it really was a spider (and counting legs is not easy to do when you're in the usual early morning daze.) It was brown and had a large white triangle on its back.

I stared at it, counting legs, until it seemed to be aware it was being stared at and ran up the wall. That was even more scary. There's something about large crawling things that sets off an alarm deep inside a person's brain. I kept an eye on it for a while, but before long it disappeared. Then I realized that the only thing worse than seeing a big scary spider is not seeing it, and wondering where it has gotten to.

As far as I can tell from Google, it's not one of the brown recluse spiders that people say are really poisonous. I don't know what kind of spider it is, and I'm still not ready to kill it. But if I see it again, I believe I will catch it (with a glass and a piece of paper) and try to escort it out of the house.