Category Archives: Nature

Hummingbirds 2021

We still have two of our three feeders up for ruby-throated hummingbirds, but it’s been a week since I’ve seen one, so will take them down tomorrow.

The first hummingbird arrived on May 12 and the last departed on September 12. We seemed to have more hummingbirds than usual this summer, though they are nearly impossible to count! I counted about a dozen around one feeder.

I’ve only tracked how much white sugar I’ve used to make the syrup feed since 2018, but the first three years I used an average of 13.75 cups of sugar and this year used 27 cups! There were a couple of weeks in July that I was filling one of our one-cup-capacity feeders three times a day, something I’ve never had to do. Must have been ideal breeding conditions.

I think of them often, so tiny, making their way to Central America. Those born this summer flying on their own, drawn by who-knows-what to keep flying forward just because that is the thing they should do.

Digging clams

Our river once had abundant soft-shelled clams, and you could dig a bucket in a few minutes. There was no fishing license required, but you could only take ones over a certain size, so we carried a homemade gauge to ensure we only took legal ones.

I wouldn’t eat them as a child, but grew to love them later, and I spent many hours swimming and playing in the water while my mother dug them. Most people dig on the beach at low tide using a garden fork, but this wasn’t my mother’s method as she said too many get broken that way, and that’s true. Another less common method was to use a homemade plunger made from a section of a car tire attached to an old broom handle, and dig them in the water, which was less destructive. But she was the only one I knew who dug them the way she did.

At our favourite spot, just a 5-minute row from our house, my mother would walk with bucket in hand in knee-deep water, looking for the holes that clams make with their siphons. She would then sit in the water and pat a hole with her hand, creating a vacuum that moved the sand and would start to excavate a larger hole. When she felt a clam, she would pull it out, examine it to see if it was alive and the right size, and then put it in the bucket beside her that was kept in place first by the volume of seawater it contained and then, little by little, by the clams.

Once her bucket was filled, we would return home, but we never ate the clams right away as they were gritty with sand. My mother would tie the bucket to the railing of the stairs that went down the bank in front of our house and leave the clams submerged in the bucket in the river overnight to clean out, expelling the sand that was in their system.

The next day the clams were placed in a large enamel pot with no water or anything else, just steamed as they were until they opened. Those that didn’t open were discarded, and the rest piled into a big bowl and placed in the middle of the dining room table. Everyone got their own bowl of melted butter, fresh homemade rolls and maybe potato salad.

We might dig a feed of clams every couple of weeks in the summer, and there never seemed to be any fear of them being overfished. Then commercial fishers started working on our river using mechanical vacuums a couple of decades ago, a similar idea as my mother’s manual method except they could dig out an entire bed in a few minutes. The last time we tried digging clams would be over 10 years ago now, and there weren’t any left, just empty shells. It will probably take decades for them to return in the numbers that existed before the commercial harvest.

You can buy clams, but they never taste as good as my memory of them. It was the whole process: rowing to the digging spot, having a swim, hearing the neighbour’s cows or dog, watching the clouds passing overhead, waving at a neighbour in a dory coming home from fishing oysters, looking back at our house, the little waves lapping the shore, the birds, the sun. The tang of our river, deeply salty and briny, alive with eels and lobsters and crabs and fish. The feeling that this harvesting had been done forever and would go on forever.

Mom and I digging clams somewhere on Foxley River, 1969

Epekwitk Quill Sisters

Today two Miꞌkmaq porcupine quill artists, Kayla and Noella, harvested white birch bark from the trees in the forest where I live. Kayla is one of the Epekwitk Quill Sisters, with Cheryl Simon, and I’ve been listening to their podcast since it started in May. It was wonderful to meet Kayla and see Noella again, as I took a quilling workshop with her on Lennox Island First Nation a few years ago.

They have mentioned in the podcast that it can feel unsafe to harvest birch bark in public places, that non-indigenous people can harass birch bark harvesters, so I told Cheryl and Kayla about the birch trees around our house. I was happy they could get some big, beautiful pieces of bark, which is used as the base of their artwork. They may return to harvest cedar and spruce roots, too, and will be back for more bark in future years. The trees will heal over the next few years, and then can be harvested again in 15-20 years, perhaps by Kayla and Noella’s children or grandchildren.

Bark harvesting can only be done for a few weeks in the summer, after the trees have drawn up nutrients from the ground in the spring. Harvesters know the bark is ready when fireflies appear, though this is starting to be a less reliable indicator than it once was due to climate change. I got to pull a piece of bark off the tree, and it felt like damp leather. The tree didn’t bleed because the cuts don’t go deep enough to hit the tree’s vascular system. The cracking sound was unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.

While I was watching them harvest, I picked wild strawberries, wild raspberries and the first blueberries I’ve seen this season. The forest is full of traditional foods and medicine.

Some of the birch trees in the forest now look a little different, but this is Miꞌkmaꞌki, and this is what the landscape should look like. Now if you see a tree that has been properly harvested in a public place, you will know it is not vandalism – it is anti-colonialism, it is culture, it is resilience .

I invite you to listen to the Epekwitk Quill Sisters, especially the episode about harvesting birch bark and a very moving episode about family.

Harvested trees
Lots of bark to be shared with other quillers
No harm done

Forever

I am slowly reading Wilding by Isabella Tree, an account of her family’s revolutionary transformation of the grounds of their English stately home from intensive farming to a wild natural landscape. The chapter I just finished saw them visit the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands to see how grazing animals were used to manage and improve the nature reserve.

Cattle, ponies and deer are allowed to graze freely at the Oostvaardersplassen, and the original idea was for the animals to be allowed to live and die as they would without human intervention. Some people were appalled at the sight of sick and dying animals, so a compromise was made that ailing cattle and ponies would be euthanized and their bodies incinerated, but the deer would be allowed to die naturally, their carcasses feeding foxes, birds and rodents, insects and bacteria, and the bones breaking down to release valuable nutrients into the soil.

When I think of my impact on the planet in my 54 years of being a consumer, the thoughtless way I have bought and discarded endless things, I am overwhelmed with the notion that in my infinitesimal amount of time on the planet, I have probably left behind more garbage than all the animals and birds and fish and insects that ever lived combined. Those creatures created nothing that would last forever, whereas I have purchased and tossed away thousands of pounds of plastic and metal that will probably never really disappear. I am simultaneously the most power creature in hundreds of millions of years and the most foolish.

I had the option to do good things with my life, to make good choices, and I chose to spend part of it creating a lasting legacy of greed and thoughtlessness, the sleepwalking loop of shopping and discarding, over and over. I think about this a lot. I wonder how I can do better now that I know better, and how can I make up for my past.

I can hear birds chirping their goodnight songs right now, the robins telling me about their day and their wishes for tomorrow, free of possessions beyond a temporary nest that will eventually dissolve back into the ground, and free of the shame of leaving behind things that never really mattered in the first place. Free to sing.

Favourite day

In late spring, we watch the different deciduous trees around our house slowly come into leaf, each type emerging when it is best for them. The first is always the willow, and the last is the red oak, which often still retains some leathery leaves from last year. It must have been explained to me in some biology class how leaves form inside a bud, but it still looks like a trick to me, like flowers coming out of a magician’s wand.

I noticed yesterday that the leaves on the birch and trembling aspen were quite large, but it was today that I was certain they were in perfect full leaf as it was a windy afternoon and I could hear the rustling of the leaves. This is by far my favourite day of the year, when I can once again hear the trees talking to me and to each other, to the birds and the sky, after a long winter of silent meditation.

The Christian God I was taught to both fear and worship has long ago slunk away to sit grumpily on a cloud after I ignored him for so long, while the Spirit of my choosing joyfully speaks to me through trees and birds and rocks and flowers. I am far happier in a forest than I ever was in a church, and the song of the leaves and the trees is the most beautiful sound in the world. How lucky I am to live surrounded by this choir.

Trembling aspen leaves, all perfect and new.

Ogham

David Sparks points out that the Mac special character and emoji list can be customized in some very cool ways. You can add dozens of sets, including divination symbols, Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform, and the mysterious Glagolitic and Ugaritic. I added the ancient Celtic Ogham set, which I first learned about from Diana Beresford-Kroeger. An alphabet based on trees is thrilling to me.

Trees speak to each other through chemical and electrical impulses, and they speak to humans, too, but we are often in too much of a rush and too loud to hear them. Find the tallest tree in a forest some moderately windy day (don’t try this in a hurricane!), something that is waving gently back and forth like a birch or poplar, and press your ear to it. You might hear the wind through the branches, the creaks and crackles of the vascular system, the roots and leaves, all of it. Trees exist at a different speed than we do, rooted in one place, reaching high, making the best of where they have landed, providing shelter, feeding and drinking, sleeping and dreaming.

We live with hundreds of tall teachers.

A little robin told me to breathe

I speak robin now. I’ve heard them singing outside my window my whole life. They wake me up and they lull me to sleep. It’s only this spring that I have finally been able to understand what they are saying. 

The dawn chorus is easy. They are calling out to find a mate, to show they own a patch of forest or meadow. I am here, where are you? I’m the best, bet you are, too!

Right now the robins who nested in the red pine tree in our yard are busy all day finding food for their newborn floppy-necked babies. They still find the energy to sing morning and night. This is who you are, you are a robin. Every ounce of me honours every ounce of you.

In this time when we are thinking and talking about breathing and not breathing – don’t get sick, don’t make others sick, I can’t breathe – I stop breathing, and then I hear my life-long friend the robin:

Look up, this is all there is. Now, this is all there is. See, it’s gone, but you can catch the next now. Now.

Breathe.

The river and sky and trees I share with the robins.

Snowshoe hare

We have always had “rabbits” in our woods, though they are really Lepus americanus, the snowshoe hare. Their lovely brown fur turns white in winter. They love to nibble clover on our lawn and tender plants in our vegetable garden à la Peter Rabbit. In the winter, they eat bark from young trees and tender spruce tips. Heavy snow is their ally as they can reach higher up on trees.

An increase in predators like bald eagles and coyotes in our area, combined with a natural cycle of population peaks, has meant that we haven’t seen hares for a few years, though I have found their tracks and droppings in snow. This little friend was sitting on my mother’s walk last night checking out the neighbourhood and wondering what to eat next (probably my lettuce!). Welcome back.

Canadianing

Over the past month I found a stubby beer bottle and evidence of our neighbourhood beaver hard at work in our woods. Now there are black flies. The most Canadian of times.

Can you see it? It’s been there a while.
I now have now found about three dozen of these. Not bad for a bunch of teetotal Presbyterians.