Friday, June 29, 2012

If I could talk to the animals

Atop my pigeonhole desk is a 15-inch wooden statue of St. Francis of Assisi with a bird perched on each shoulder and a dog nestled against his leg. His hand is open, outstretched.

Another stone garden statue of the saint sits in my kitchen garden.

One of the most venerated religious figures in history, St. Francis was an Italian friar and preacher who founded the Franciscan order.

The saint believed that nature itself was the mirror of God, and there are many stories about his great love for animals.

According to the “Fioretti” (Little Flowers), one day while Francis was travelling with companions, he told them to “wait for me while I go preach to my sisters the birds.” Surrounding him, the birds were intrigued by the power of his voice.

He also made the sign of the cross over a wolf that was terrorizing the city of Gubbio.

“Brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people,” said the saint.

The wolf laid down at his feet.

Inspired by the example of the saint, I have learned to speak to wild animals.

A chipmunk took up residence under our deck, which is prime real estate located next to the raised bed filled with ripe strawberries.

Bold as brass, the tiny animal munched on the fruit time after time, as he dared me to come closer and chase him away.

We bought netting and draped it over the plot, and I approached the little creature sitting safely in the gutter pipe. Standing a couple of feet away, I was amazed how cute he was.

“Brother chipmunk,” I said in my softest, sweetest voice, “I am sorry, but the kitchen patch is off limits. You are welcome to the wild bird seed that falls from the feeder and to the bounty in the woods, but no more strawberries.”

Seemingly rooted to the spot, he looked and listened attentively, as if he understood every word. We stared at each other for a while longer; then he scampered away. But I remained there in awe that I had communicated with a rodent.

Drizzling water around the edges of the hanging pot of geraniums, I was careful not to disturb the house wren that had built her nest in the plant. But one day I peered into a hole and saw a baby bird nestled in the straw.

“Sister wren,” I said looking straight into the beady eyes of the newborn, “Welcome to our world!”

Over the next couple of weeks, I spoke to her. Mere inches apart, she never rustled a feather, as if our conversations were expected and enjoyed.

She started to test her wings, flying to the rhododendron bushes nearby and sometimes perched on the stair railing.

Then I heard her singing, “chuurr … chuurr … chuurr” on the roof of the deck and farther away in the pine trees.

This past week, she moved out. Every time I pass by, I stare longingly at the nest, missing her tiny beak … trusting eyes … the sound of her voice … our frequent talks. I think I have empty nest syndrome.   

Friday, June 22, 2012

To be a child again

I never want to grow up. There is a part of me that will be forever young.

To celebrate summer, I went horseback riding on a prancing pony aboard the carousel at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass.

Housed in a majestic Victorian pavilion perched over Heritage State Park, the carousel offers panoramic views of the harbor and fleet of World War II ships.

With a look of pure bliss on my face, I circled the waterfront and galloped back in time to that place in childhood, where my parents waved to me on each successive rotation.

Growing up in Southern New England, I spent many delightful summer days on this carousel at Lincoln Amusement Park in nearby Dartmouth.

Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1920, Carousel #54 was the crown jewel of Lincoln Park for 70 years.

In 1991 the park foundered, as its owner flailed for capital to keep it afloat. However, a group of Fall River business leaders lobbied to bring the carousel to Battleship Cove, and the community rallied around the purchase, refurbishing it at a cost of $250,000.

Consequently, the carousel is not only a fond memory but a real and tangible destination, where children of all ages can take a magical spin.   

Yet even more evocative of my youth is our summer house by the Sakonnet in Tiverton, R.I.

I still remember the joy I felt that first day at Fogland, looking through child’s eyes at the private beach that would become our playground.

My brother and I raced each other down the shoreline. When we reached the cliffs, we gazed up at the magnificent jutting rock and slowly climbed the path which wound its way up the steep slope.

We could hardly believe our eyes. Surrounded on three sides by the shimmering river, we had a bird’s-eye view of stately Portsmouth mansions with well-trimmed lawns, the Sakonnet Point Lighthouse in Little Compton and the open rolling seas beyond.

Grandfather and I used to stroll arm-in-arm along the wet sand, as the receding tide let us pass. A big man with warm brown eyes set into a handsome rugged face, he walked with a slight limp but was very strong.

No one loved the sea more than Grandfather. He knew every good fishing spot along the coastline and was respected for this wisdom.

Overturning wet rocks, we’d search for bait; and an agitated crab would grope for cover. Grandfather would carefully grip the back of the shell and deposit the many-legged creature into the pocket of his navy-blue sweatshirt.

A half-hour later we’d return with jumping, bulging pockets to the summer place.

Thirty years ago he left us, yet I marked his birthday this past week, as always.

Sometimes when I walk along the seashore alone, the wind caresses my face, and I feel him beside me. My ten-year-old hands flip over a stone, and a crab scrambles; but we let this one get away.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Home is where the nest is

Rising at dawn, I am never alone. Outside the window, I hear the long, pleasing, descending gurgles – “chuurr … chuurr … chuurr” – from the beak of my constant companion.

House wrens recently took up residence in a hanging pot of hot pink geraniums that I received as a Mother’s Day gift.

I discovered the squatters when I drizzled cold water on the flowers and an angry bird. I screamed as the mother wren exited her nest whizzing past me.

A common New England species, house wrens are five-inches tall and have a light brown head and back, dotted wings and cocked tail.

Couples build their nests anywhere handy, even in open mailboxes and flower pots.

Their nesting habits are poked fun at in the old limerick:

“There was an Old Man with a beard, / Who said: ‘It is just as I feared! / Two Owls and a Hen, / Four Larks and a Wren / Have all built their nests in my beard.’”

These days, our summer house at Fogland Beach is ablaze with hot pink beach roses.

Known by its Latin name rosa rugosa, the beach rose is a flowering plant that thrives in seaside thickets, dunes and salt marshes along the Rhode Island coastline. Tolerant of salt spray, they bloom from June through October.

The dark green bushes or hedges, ranging from three-to-six-feet tall, produce white, pink and red flowers, as well as orange-red fruit called rose hips. Their brown bark is densely covered with straight, sharp thorns.

They are also home to a menagerie of small animals, including many birds that nest within its dense foliage. The fruit, which resembles small crab apples, provides sustenance to all sorts of creatures.

Beach roses are so common here and such a familiar part of our landscape, yet they are not native to New England. The species was brought to the United States from eastern Asia in the mid-1800s.

Nineteenth-century New England-poet Lucy Larcom wrote about them in “Wild Roses of Cape Ann”:

“A rose is sweet / No matter where it grows; / But our wild roses, flavored by the sea, / And colored by the salt winds and much sun / To healthiest intensity of bloom – / We think the world has none more beautiful.”

Nesting for the past nine months, our daughter gave birth to a son this week. He is rosy pink, his hair is as soft as feathers, and we think there is none more beautiful.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A tale of two seaside towns

Most of life’s lessons I learned by the sea.

Living along the Sakonnet River, an inlet that stretches to the Atlantic, I measure my days by its currents.

Every summer I reread “The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett, a story about an unnamed sojourner who relates a series of episodes taking place in a seaside town.

It speaks to me because Dunnet Landing resembles my home port of Tiverton and fires my imagination urging me to tell our tale.

“After a first brief visit made two or three summers before …, a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all that mixture of remoteness, and childish certainty of being the center of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told,” Jewett wrote.

Returning to the summer house each season, I rejoice in coming home to our sanctuary by the sea. Surrounded by the Sakonnet on three sides, the tiny peninsula is populated with cottages and carefully tended gardens brimming with colorful flowers. Beach roses adorn the shoreline, and the water beyond beckons, encouraging us to walk along its contours or sit a spell on a boulder strategically placed for this purpose.

“For various reasons, the seclusion and uninterrupted days which had been looked forward to prove to be otherwise in this delightful corner of the world,” Jewett wrote.

Seeking solitude I come to the summer place, but its beauty shouts at me; and I cannot keep this to myself, bottling up these experiences rather than pouring them out: the intense blue of the sky and puffy white clouds that float by, the heady fragrance of the whispering wind, the music the breakers make as they caress the shore.

Jewett creates the perfect space in this beautifully crafted novel:

“On the brink of the hill stood a little white schoolhouse, much wind-blown and weather-beaten, which was a landmark to seagoing folk; from its door there was a most beautiful view of sea and shore … and I spent many days there quite undisturbed, with the sea-breeze blowing through the small, high windows and swaying the heavy outside shutters to and fro.”

Wandering around this little corner of the world for decades, my eyes rest on sights that I first viewed through child’s eyes, yet seen so differently through the lens of time. This sojourner welcomes each day as a gift and with thanksgiving perceives the natural world as the sublime artistry of the Creator.

“It had been growing gray and cloudy … and a shadow had fallen on the darkening shore. Suddenly, as we looked, a gleam of golden sunshine struck the outer islands, and one of them shone out clear in the light, and revealed itself in a compelling way to our eyes,” wrote Jewett. … It gave a sudden sense of space, for nothing stopped the eye or hedged one in, – that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Say it with flowers

“Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men or animals,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher in “Star Papers: A Discourse of Flowers.” “Some seem to smile; some have a sad expression; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest, and upright.”

I think our rhododendrons are laughing. In brilliant hues of hot pinks and purples, they even light up the front yard at dawn and twilight.

Nature is wearing her happy face these days. There is greenery cropping up everywhere, and if the natural vegetation is not enough, we add our own garden brand variety.

This week my husband’s friend dumped a truckload of topsoil near the raised bed, which is filled with strawberry plants, chives and parsley. Another raised bed will be constructed to house a season’s worth of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, beans, peas and herbs.

I draw the kitchen garden in my journal, moving the vegetables around like furniture in a room; and I envision the plants heavy laden in August, the air perfumed by the scent of basil and thyme. 

“I used to visit and revisit (my garden) a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in “Mosses from an Old Manse.” “It was one of the most bewitching signs in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.”

A perfect balance of sun and rain this spring is responsible for the incredible growth spurt of the lawn. Verdant and as thick as a carpet, it seems to change overnight into a meadow of weeds if it is not consistently trimmed.

So my husband cuts our grass yet again, and then cuts our neighbor’s whose mower is in need of repair.

Last week, we loaded the old mower onto our trailer and headed to the summer house. Forty-five minutes later, my husband turned the key to back the mower onto the grass, and it would not start. For an hour he toiled over the engine, giving the battery a boost, cleaning the sparkplug and checking wires but to no avail.

Dejected, we went home with the foot-long grasses and wildflowers waving in the wind.

Later that afternoon, we drove to my parents’ house and hoisted their new lawnmower onto the trailer.

The next day my husband headed back to the summer house, but when he arrived, the lawn had already been cut. A neighbor had seen the drama enfold the day before, and when we left, he mowed our lawn.

Surprised, my husband surveyed our neighbor’s handiwork, and the blades of grass chuckled.