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Guest Posts, Nature

Animal Solitude

May 15, 2024
bird

I’m standing in a meadow, an old woman swinging meat on a string.

Whop! A big bird slams down from a tree, whacks me with his wing.

Instantly he’s back in his tree.

“So what was that?” He didn’t taloned me, though he could’ve. “Yes, I left you out all night. In the dark. Alone. HUNGRY! Didn’t you ask to be free?”

We look at each other. As we always do. Eye to eye.

***

My first close sight of a hawk was 68 years ago, a bird tethered in my science teacher’s backyard. Unmoving, huge, regal. Infolded power, I think now. But then I just felt it – power waiting in those great wings and killing feet. My teacher, a falconer, reached down, removed her hood, and amber eyes locked onto mine. We sat, bird and girl, studying, ignoring the sillies who gawked and giggled. When we left, she watched me go. My teacher gave me a book called Hawks.

So I learned about them, how to look for them, how to tell one from another. I’d whisper to myself, “Red hawks, buteos” beauties – reach up into the wind. Fly! Be the hawk. “But remember,” the book chided, “humans and wild animals are far too different to connect. You can only study them from a distance.” Or from dead things, cut-off parts that made me feel hollow.

But I only half-believed the book, so I became a falconer. I used the falconer’s tricks, withholding food until the birds got hungry and did what I asked. The birds and I each did as we were taught.

But it was never the real thing, wild, free beings in charge of ourselves.

What did the bird think, what did it feel? Were we just playing with death?

***

This young rascal, though! A pistol from the start. He came to me from the local avian specialist. “Zorro, we call him,” he said. “Four months old, brought in with a virus.” Could I monitor him, watch to see if his disease recurred? Make sure he could support himself?

“Well, actually,” I said, “I’m retiring. I’m 80, got no business chasing after a fat hawk.” My joints hurt all the time, and so on.

“Oh, he doesn’t need raw strength,” the vet said. “That’s why I’m asking you – he needs subtlety. This time, you can’t use hunger, you’ll have to invent.”

Subtlety? Oh my!

***

I started by sitting on the floor in my spare room, near his perch but not too. Studying him while he studied me. Thinking of that first magical bird, eons ago.

“Zorro?” That wasn’t a name. “Bird – that’ll have to do till you name yourself,” I said. “Meanwhile we need a language.” Chunks of quail lay on the floor between us. “You know meat. I know meat. Let’s talk flesh and blood.”

So there we sat, looking at each other, looking at the meat. After a time, I left one piece of quail in his reach. In the morning it was gone.

I moved him outside to a room of his own, a mews. Twice a day, I gave a soft whistle, and stepped in, offering him a piece of meat on my glove. “A-B-C-D,” I said, to say something. “ABCD goldfish. No, make it mouse. ABCD mouse. Now you say, LMNO mouse.” With the white walls and one window, there was enough light to see a little. He looked away. Sneered.

The second day, I didn’t leave the meat. The third day I did. The fifth, a meat day again, he was a little hungry. Just a little. I wasn’t hurting him by all this, but I knew what it was to feel a little weak and afraid.

In full light, he edged along his perch toward me. He leaned forward, eyeing me, Come closer, come closer! When I didn’t, he eased one foot onto my hand – paused. Eye to eye. Then the weight of the body, the other foot. He bent his head to eat. “Ah, gorgeous creature!”

Dark head – young, golden eyes. Brown and cream breast, wings with that dark under-patch at the bend that says “Red-tail” when they’re soaring. His tail, not yet orange, was striped brown, white, and salmon. Salmon? Definitely a fancy-pants!

Two days later, he jumped to my glove.

“Now we’ve been properly introduced,” I said, “let’s go out on a date.”

“This is called a creance.” I clipped a long leash to the jesses on his feet. I am much alone, these days, and my own voice is a comfort to me. To Bird, too?

“This is the lure. From old German, luder, bait. You’ll itch to chase it, like a hungry fish.” I bobbled the lure on a string through the tall grass. He leapt, caught, ate. In an hour, he was addicted – flying 100 feet, all the force of his passion in those razor-tipped feet. “Aren’t you the genius!”

***

Every morning he called me from his mews: “Let’s gooo! Go-gooo!”

Out in the air, I tempted him with live mice I’d trapped in the barn. He caught them, every one. Too bad, too bad for the little pounding hearts, flashing feet. “Death and life,” I said to him. “I didn’t invent it. But you. Suave, elegant murderer! You should be in the movies.”

We were ready for the second big test. “I take off the leash, you follow me.” He stared at my hovering hand. “I’ll be a good birddog, kicking up hot, wiggly things. Well, let’s hope. I’ve gotten pretty slow.”

I really was too slow for this work. My falconer pals were scornful. “He’s not hungry,” they said. “Look at him, he’s fat! You’ll lose him. You can’t run after him for miles and sleep under a tree to lure him down in the morning!”

Can’t? What stick-in-the-muds! I hope, I was thinking, not very specifically. Hope, hope, hope.

In the meadow, I unclipped the leash. Bird – that would do till something better came to us – flew into a tree. He was a bit slow, too. “Fine pair we make!”

I swung the lure. He looked away. I swung again. And again. Just when I was about to give up, he dropped down, gulped a treat – then back to his tree. I kicked over a stump, a lizard zipped out. He attacked, missed. Back to his tree. His bright eye met mine. Laughing! “Ah,” he cried, “a game!”

“Just like your ma would have done with you,” I said.

Finally, I whistled for him to come in. And glory be! He came and we went home.

Next, Bird in his box, I drove to an abandoned farm. There, in this new place, he changed. When I took him out on my fist, he trembled, hesitated. Looked all around, stared long up into the sky. Then – a rabbit! He was off, swooping low, twisting, dodging. Oops, clear through the falling-down barn – smack into an old tire. He scrabbled with his feet, yelping, dragged the poor rabbit out at last – it was twice his weight.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

He squeezed, squeezed, squeezed. Turned his back to me and gave a killing crunch. And ate.

We made our way to the car, leftovers in one powerful foot. Meat was indeed the subject.

***

From December to March, we hunted almost every day, and at night, both slept, exhausted, me from age and strain, Bird from excitement and a hundred flights. He was getting strong, fast, sure. I was getting slow, achy, tired tired tired.

I began eating my dinner in his mews, while he ate his. Sometimes I’d roll up in my sleeping bag, while on his perch above, he rested his head on his scapulars. A down pillow, I thought, envying. In the morning, I said, “Yo, Bird,” and he landed like a breath on the glove.

Once I got careless, moved my ungloved hand too close. In a blink, my fingers were locked in his talons. How easily they could plunge through the flesh! He looked at me, that way he has. Gave me a quick squeeze and let go. “Thank you, Bird!”

By now my falconer friends were urging me to release him. “Fatten him up. Wish him godspeed. He’ll have about a 40% chance – good as it gets.”

The veterinarian said, “No, no. Keep him through his first molt, two more months.”

“Can you manage another two months?” I asked Bird. “Can I?”

***

I got up every morning at dawn, took him hunting, came home at dusk, aching aching. Slept until dawn. “I’m fading on you,” I said. “I’m your old granny, living on aspirin. But you, young Bird-invar, what do you care?”

Driven by some internal force, he cared about something. He began flumping about in his mews, calling, calling. Reminding me of our third – private – covenant, just between us. To listen. We were clearly beyond meat. Beyond that fundamental, that home note. “What do you want?” I asked.

Let me go, he said, shivering his whole body, clattering his feathers. Let me go.

So I did. Removed everything that held him to me physically. And he flew.

That night, alone, I read my notes aloud for the feel of words in the air. Then slept. Long past sun-up, I strolled through our meadow, past the lovely knoll where a breeze always blows, past the rabbit paths, past the gopher holes, down to the pond with its throb of frogs. “Where are you?” The trees were silent. “No, I won’t worry.”

Liar! Did he know enough to hug the bole of the tree at night so Great Horned Owl, laser eye and ear, wouldn’t find him? I’d taught caution about cars – but owls?

This was very moment when he hurtled down and whacked me.

***

For a month, we played. I whistled. He grabbed tidbits in midair. He perched where he could see my eyes, and we held there, for our long, sweet minute. With a message oh so clear: “I can live without you!”

Oh, yes. We’re way beyond meat. And the leash is now on me!

***

Today, eight years later, Bird has a mate, and years of younglings. Convention says never ever look a wild predator in the eye. But Bird looks long into my eyes. Our eyes are doors.

Sometimes, he plummets out of the sky, a battalion of crows on his tail. If I’m not waiting, he may call. Or fly past my window. I’ve stopped whistling, that only attracts his tormentors, but I’ll point to a certain tree and he lights on the top, like a Christmas-tree angel. Or I step outside and in a fiery swoop, he passes low, wind ruffling my hair. He’ll never touch me again. Dear Bird!

From me I believe he’s learned something about community. From him, I have learned a different solitude.

One day, he won’t come. The next day the next the next – no Dear Bird. How long before I stop waiting?

Perhaps, since I’m the old one, I’ll be the first to go.

Will he feel it, that hole in the world where we were?

Every day is a rehearsal, a dance in the dark.

When his eyes slip into mine, we cross a border, our minds touch.

For a breath!

One breath . . .

Sallie Reynolds is a writer of fiction and essays, living in Northern California. Her stories have appeared here and there, recently in Writers of Mendocino County anthologies, and Dorothy Parkers’ Ashes, in press.

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Guest Posts, Letting Go, Nature

Waterfalls

February 26, 2024
nature

Across the river, I catch a glimpse of High Falls peeking through the trees, all one-hundred-and-fifty magnificent feet of her. White water cascades down her granite face before crashing into the pool at her feet. The water settles as it makes its way downstream to meet up with her more famous sister, Triple Falls—the most popular waterfall hike near Asheville and where the movies The Hunger Games and The Last of the Mohicans were filmed.

As my ten-year-old golden retriever, Hope, and I rest on a rock at the river’s edge, the summer sun warms my face. Hope pants softly as she watches hikers hopping boulder to boulder beneath the towering falls. We’re midway through our Saturday hike on an August morning that feels more like fall. The weather is sunny and seventy degrees with a welcoming breeze. This is one of my favorite places to hike with Hope. Popular enough I don’t have to worry about hiking alone and still doable for my aging girl. The sound of running water permeates the trail. It’s a soothing soundtrack for this solo outing with my dog. A chance to escape life and get lost in nature for a few hours. To ground myself. To remember why I left suburban, stucco Southern California and moved here, to the mountains of Western North Carolina.

* * *

I’ve always felt drawn to the mountains, often quipping they’re my happy place. I feel different when I’m surrounded by nature. Calmer. Like I belong. A feeling that often escapes me in life and around people. When my kids were young, family vacations meant trips to National Parks where we’d submerge our suburban selves into nature. Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Zion, and Bryce Canyon are among my favorites. Those vacations were like a cleansing for my soul. A much-needed break for a busy working mom who struggled to balance her career and motherhood. A chance to spend time with my kids and husband doing something we all enjoyed, together.

When we visited Glacier National Park in Montana, my son was ten years old and he had us in stitches the entire trip. On every trail—except the last day or two when he’d had his fill of hiking—he belted out, Alamo! I can still picture his young face with eyes wide, brows raised, and lips pursed as the word escaped his mouth and echoed across the trail. What was that? Why did he keep saying it? Whatever it was, he was having a good time. Maybe he was simply expressing joy. Happy to be on vacation, in the mountains, or at least out of school.

Twenty-one years later I can still hear his child-like voice in my head, belting out, Alamo! It makes me chuckle. I asked my husband if he remembered the trip and if he knew what our son was saying, “I think he was saying a la mode,” he replied.

“Like pie with ice cream?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

I decided to text my son and ask him, “When we were hiking at Glacier and you kept yelling out Alamo, were you saying Alamo or A la mode (like ice cream on pie) or something else?”

“Alamo like the battle in Texas,” he replied.

“Do you remember why you were saying it?”

“No idea why I did it at the time. I think I just thought it was fun to say.”

Still curious, I decided to do some research. At ten years old, he would have just completed fourth grade. It turns out fourth graders study The Alamo. Mystery solved!

My silly fourth grader is now thirty-one. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, in an old house, surrounded by pine trees. He, too, prefers the peace, quiet, and elbow room to the crowded, hustle and bustle of Southern California.

* * *

Like my son, my dog Hope was born and raised in suburbia, but as soon as we arrived in Western North Carolina shenature settled right in like she’d been a mountain dog her entire life. Perhaps like me, and my son, she realized where she was born was not where she belonged. I’m quite confident if she could talk she’d say, Thanks for bringing me home. The same words my soul speaks. And a sentiment that’s still difficult to explain when people ask why we moved here. I don’t understand it myself sometimes. How do you, how can you explain why you feel more at home in a place where you have no roots than in a place you lived your entire life?

Sitting here at the base of this roaring waterfall, with the pine and poplar trees soaring above me, their arms reaching high into the clear blue sky, I feel small. In a powerful, positive, humbling way. I felt that same smallness on those family vacations. Being surrounded by the immensity of nature provides perspective. Its beauty, grandeur, and steadiness are grounding, reassuring, and comforting.

As Hope sits next to me on our rock perch, the corners of her mouth are curled up in that quintessential golden retriever smile. The sun reflects off the water and onto her face, casting shadows that dance on her white muzzle, a feature that’s earned her the nickname Sugar Face. She, too, seems to enjoy this place. As I stroke the top of my old girl’s head, I contemplate the timeless beauty before us. I don’t know what it is about the enduring nature of nature that affects me so deeply. Perhaps there’s a sense of security in knowing it’s always there. Regardless of the ups and downs in life or the state of my psyche, nature is a constant. Always peaceful and beautiful. Always there to provide respite. And always ready to refuel my soul.

Perhaps that’s what drew me to these mountains five years ago. To a place where I don’t feel the weight of the world resting on my shoulders but that invites me to sit softly in her lap. With Mother Nature’s gracious arms wrapped around me, enveloping me, cradling me. Reminding me I don’t have to work so hard to make life happen.

I can let go, allow, and just be.

Debbie LaChusa called suburban Southern California home for fifty-six years before retiring and relocating to the mountains of Western North Carolina. She has written and self-published four books and is currently writing a memoir about the unexpected rewards and challenges of moving cross-country and leaving her family and hometown behind.
Guest Posts, Nature

Where Do We Go?

June 28, 2021
forest

by Kristine Kimmel

I live near an ancient forest. I know that it’s ancient because there is a small placard as you enter that reads “Ancient Forest.” My favorite species are the Coast redwoods, which tower over Sago palms spreading their stiff green arms, and the Australian tree ferns, which show off feathery plumes like proud strutting peacocks. Even through my mask, the woodland balm- a mix of warmed bark, musk, and spice- (a scent I am continually searching for in perfumes) loosens my shoulders and untangles the knots of my mind.

As a forest dork, I am fortunate to be tucked into a hillside with an abundance of nature. Monterey pines in which hawks nested for the last three mating seasons and a Coast live oak, recognizable by her razor-sharp leaves that resemble dead beetles and make going barefoot impossible. But it’s those redwoods in the ancient forest that inspire me to use words like transcendental, metaphysical. Spiritual? I’m going to stop because I’m starting to sound like a box of tea. But only when I walk among them do I think to myself, Okay, maybe there is something to this God business.

In Japan, a researcher named Dr. Qing Li studied the benefits of spending time in the forest. He encouraged something he termed “shinrin-yoku.” “Shinrin,” means “forest,” and “yoku” means “bath.” Forest-bathing is “taking in the forest through our senses.” According to his research, trees release phytoncides- antimicrobial essential oils that purportedly boost the immune system. In the early days of Covid, I placed a blanket on our front porch and asked my two eight- year- olds to join me for forest bathing. They were perplexed. This is boring. Can I bring my iPad? When does the bath part start?  It reminded me of a time years ago when a friend in Austin sent me some Reiki to help with my neck pain. A few weeks later, I called her: “Did you ever send that Reiki you were talking about? I haven’t gotten anything in the mail.”

In August, my husband and I rented an RV and took our two kids on a four- hour drive north to Santa Cruz to stare at something other than screens. The kids loved the RV, but I advise parents to skip this house on wheels set-up. There is a kitchen and, with that comes a constant expectation of food preparation. The sleeping quarters are akin to folding yourself into half or thirds origami-style, so you might fit into a suitcase or the trunk of a Toyota Corolla. As we walked among the old-growth coast redwoods, I felt humbled and awed in the presence of these venerable elders. Coast redwoods are a deep rich auburn, and their bark resembles fur. They are impossibly soft like a fuzzy sweater or an animal’s downy coat. I said to my kids, “You know, the next time we come up here, these trees could be gone.” My daughter looked up at me and said, “Can I look at your phone?” Less than a week later, one of California’s massive wildfires swept through Big Basin Redwood State Park and threatened some of the trees, which are among the tallest on earth. Luckily most of them survived, but how much longer can these ancient trees withstand the devastation of these annual fires when 2020 saw over 4 million acres burned? And how much longer can I?

I worship California. Despite the crushing traffic, the constant threat of “the big one,” and years-long droughts, she has been my purest and most enduring love. I’ve never, in nearly two decades in my adopted state, thought, “Gee, I wonder what it would be like to live in “FILL IN THE BLANK.” Never once have my eyes wandered from her blooming jacaranda and palm-lined sunsets.

That is, until last year, after our third time nervously eyeing Twitter updates on the latest giant fire’s progress. All the while, thick yellow smoke obscuring our mountain view, our car nose- out in the driveway, go-bags packed. We’ve never had to evacuate, but we’ve had more close calls than I’m comfortable with- my comfort level on close calls with evacuation orders being zero close calls. Many nights, struggling to sleep, I’ve turned to my husband and asked, “Are we doing this wrong? I feel like we might be doing this wrong.” This year, the wildfire season and the pandemic brought a double quarantine. We couldn’t go outside because the air was at toxic levels, and the entire state was in the same predicament. Oregon, which I’d always considered my backup state- aka California Two- had it even worse. Climate scientists predict a growing number of autumn days with extreme fire weather over the next 80 years. Am I on board for keeping my children inside days and weeks at a time because of toxic air? Or scarier scenarios I’ll imagine tonight at 2 am when everyone else is sleeping?

I’ve noticed I have friends in two camps. The ones who don’t want to face this. I see their eyes gloss over or a slight tensing of their jaw. Why is she talking about this? I imagine them thinking. I don’t want to worry about this right now! I am worried enough about Zoom school and my marriage and Covid, and it’s not fair of her to bring up this climate catastrophe crap when I just want to drink my rosé and talk about how hot Adam Driver is! Yes, I am the bummer Zoom hang; I am a surprise screening of the documentary Blackfish when you thought you were going to Sea World. Then there are the other parents who are putting their houses on the market, reconsidering moving back to the states where their parents live, trying to convince themselves how hip Toledo is now.

I’m researching Vermont lately and Maplewood, New Jersey. I’ve never been to either place. Vermont because I suspect it might be the second most beautiful place in the United States and Maplewood because my friend Jen is moving there with her family, and she says it’s “the new Brooklyn.” I already don’t want to leave California, so New Jersey is a hard sell. Leaving California feels like breaking up with my boyfriend for him because he doesn’t have the guts. “California, I hate that you are making me do this,” I’ll say through my snot and tears. California, head hung low, like a dog that just peed on the rug, will reply, “I know, I’m the jerk. You’re great.”

I realize how lucky I am that I can worry over this. I’m not standing in line at a food bank, worrying about how I will feed my kids. I’m not forced to put myself and my family at risk as an essential worker. My family is safe, so far.

The night Pennsylvania was called for Biden, a heavy downpour drenched our region. The next morning, shrouded in a comforting fog, I pored over the news on my phone. Maybe the fire season was finally over. I threw on a warm coat and returned to my ancient forest, with an eight-year-old in tow. As we entered, we pulled down our masks, but the familiar smell I longed for was gone. Instead, crisp cold winter invaded my senses. I could see my breath. I pulled my daughter’s hood over her head. She promptly pulled it down, because don’t you try and tell her what to do. I placed my hand on the first redwood we encountered in greeting. My daughter joined me. I asked her what she thought. “Feels like a puppy.”

We found a bench, and she opened her notebook and began sketching. Mine remained tucked away in my backpack. I allowed my thoughts to float freely with the wind rustling through the treetops. I was bathing in the forest just as Qing Li advised. I focused on my eight-year old’s sun-lit copper tangles as she huddled over her aquamarine flip sequin notebook. A shift had occurred, and it was beyond the temperature change. The forest felt more settled, more secure. On a rational level, I knew that none of the West coast’s forests are any safer in the coming fire season than the last five seasons. But a tiny voice inside me looked upon my ancient forest and thought, you are protected. I had the sudden urge to throw myself on the soft earth and sob in relief because it no longer felt like the fate of this forest- all the forests, all the people suffering, my own children’s safety, and my own mental health- was all on me.

“Look, Mama, I drew a redwood.” A giant tree took up the entire page. At the bottom, two tiny stick figures spread their skinny arms wide on the redwood’s massive trunk.

Kristine Kimmel is a Los Angeles based writer with multiple television credits. She has an MFA from Antioch University and a memoir currently out on submission. Her work has been featured in Dame, Mommyish, Motherlode, The Establishment, and more.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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