How To Sweep A Garden Path

garden pathPerhaps you know the story about the Zen master and the student, whose task was to sweep the garden path. Again and again the student washed and swept only to have the Master say it was not done properly. Finally, when the student was sufficiently confounded – and the path totally sanitized – the Master reached up and shook a branch and let a few leaves fall where they may on the stones.  The task was not to erase nature from the path, but to appreciate and make room for its contributions to our lives.

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This morning, the hollow-reed plaint of a mourning dove, rusted trill of a redwing blackbird and the high, chittering glissando of finches quilt their calls in a syncopated patchwork of sound. Cardinals, robins, jays and wrens race along the invisible highways in the air above the lawn while the squirrels flex their bodies like furred muscles around the trunk of the tall cedar behind the house.

I’m sitting on my backyard deck in the hot-sun, cool air of an early May morning, watching spring arrive; everything pushing up, leafing out, letting go with abandon. Almost perfect. Almost.

Beneath the lively scene, underpinning the warm embrace of the sun and breeze, the faint odor of my resident skunk persists.  It’s gone, now, but not as I’d expected it would go – trapped and removed, to be released elsewhere, or humanely (I hoped) euthanized.

I thought I was being so clever – dusting the deck with flour for several days to track its coming and going so I could block the gaps after he – or she – had departed for the evening (see previous post). I thought I was being so clever.

DSC00639An urban critter-trapper laid baited ‘have-a-heart’ traps around the deck and reinforced the blocked entrances, except one where he affixed another cage. If the skunk was still under the deck, this would be its escape route where it would surely be trapped, he said, though he warned it might take a few days “if it’s trap-savvy.”

For weeks there persisted a mild, skunky odor around the deck. But we caught nothing. The odor faded then for a few days until one morning – 3 AM – I woke to a powerful and sickening smell. I knew instantly what had happened.

The deck was already part of the house when I bought it, so I had no idea how it was constructed. Although we’d left the skunk an escape route, it had settled in a section under the deck that was blocked from that exit.  We had trapped it in and it had died. Its fur was still glossy and soft when the trapper removed it from its nest under the deck.

If I am honest, I must admit having a descending order of tolerance for my yard’s co-habitants, with skunks at the bottom of the list. Still, I have remorse over my actions, however unknowing, that caused this painful end to a small life. It reminds me of a beautiful poem, Snake, by D. H. Lawrence in which the narrator regrets the pettiness of his reaction to a creature which, upon reflection, he recognizes as having its own beauty and nobility within the realm of its ‘otherness.’

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finchesTwo days ago my resident house finches left me. It was a Saturday morning and I was in my customary seat in the living room watching the male and female busily feeding their chick in the nest they’d constructed in the wreath on my front door (previous post). But they kept hopping away to perch, chirping loudly, on the chairs on my porch.  Back and forth, nest to chair, while the chick stretched and flapped its tiny wings, chirping back.  This exciting display went on for a good quarter of an hour. Needing another cup of coffee, I left my post for a few minutes, and when I returned – no chick.  It had found its way out into the world.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

I confess to feeling a bit bereft.  The finches had become part of my everyday.  I felt privileged to be a small part of their lives and to be so close to this little bit of nature, even though it meant giving up access to my front door for a few months.

I left the wreath with its nest in place through the week-end – just in case anyone came back, but there were no visitors. When I finally removed the wreath,  one tiny, unhatched egg lay at the bottom – pale blue, with a touch of fuzzy down stuck on. I’d read that house finches often use the same nest and can have up to three clutches a season, So I found a high, protected spot for the wreath  out of the human traffic pattern – again, just in case. 

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Finch egg, dime and Cheerio.

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The trick, I think, is to figure out how to live with nature – not against it. So hard to do both at the global level but also on the small stage of a suburban back yard. Last week I put in two small raised beds for herbs. I put up a fence and attached mylar ribbons to float in the breeze. Whether these measures will discourage deer, rabbits, chipmunks and birds I cannot now say. But I am preparing to accept that one morning I will look out my kitchen window and be greeted by a bed of headless herbs. If so, I may re-plant – or not, and try to remember to accept letting the leaves  fall on the swept path however they will.

 

Staying Surprised

I’ve never really understood the choreography of the orbits of the earth and moon. Friends in tune with such things send me lunar calendars each Christmas, and for a while I try to follow phases and anticipate the moon’s appearance in the evening or the morning sky.  oreo moonsBut I am always glad to give it up.

A few nights ago, just before its fullness, the moon awakened me at 3 AM, shining in my face through the skylight in my room.  It was a lovely moment, a private and surprising moment between the moon and me. By the time I rose at 6, it had almost set—just hovering amidst the trunks of neighbor’s trees at the back of my yard.  But today, it still rides high above my roof at 7 AM while the sun begins to flush the sky behind the houses across the road.

I could consult the website, www.earthsky.org on my phone before I go to bed, I suppose, to know what to expect. But I love the mystery, the surprise.  It’s another version of the adventure of discovering my neighborhood and how it subtly changes day to day.

Last week, in this unusually warm November, I sighted a wooly bear crawling out from under a bright red leaf.  I tried to remember what weatherman Dick Goddard said about its bands of black and rust that could predict the fierceness of the winter yet to come. Was it the wider the central band the harsher the winter, or the milder?  No matter.  It was fun to watch its furry inching walk, like a child’s wind-up toy.  wolly bear

So much of the world is predictable – can be known.  The changing of the seasons is no mystery. Neither is the movement of the stars.  But I want to be surprised, retain the air of wonder at the little shifts, the things I may have seen a thousand times before, but now are new.  “Pay attention!” the zen master says, as he whaps you with his staff to wake you from your state of mindlessness.

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Today I see the frost has finally come, and a little snow.  My skylight is rimed with the alchemy of cold and condensation.  As I step outside I see that in a shallow puddle on the sidewalk, tiny needles of ice have begun to cast their tatted nets of lace outward from the shore.

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