I came late to a love of birds

by Naomi Racz

I came late to a love of birds. So admits J.A. Baker in the opening of his book The Peregrine. It’s a strange thing to admit just seven paragraphs in to a book about a bird. Perhaps he was pre-empting his critics who accused him of making up parts of the book or of misidentifying the peregrine, because Baker claimed to have observed peregrines behaving in ways they had never previously been observed behaving. I don’t believe Baker made anything up, and besides, I don’t care if he did. Baker could have written a book about the Lesser-beaked Whistlefozz and I would have read it with just as much devotion. I came late to a love of birds. I loved that sentence the first time I read it and it has lodged itself in my brain. I too came late to a love of birds.

Like many children, I grew up learning the names and sounds of common farm animals and certain charismatic exotic species, such as elephants and lions. I visited the zoo and saw sheep and cows on trips to the countryside. One year I got a nature spotting kit for Christmas that included a pair of binoculars. I took up birding for one afternoon, but I quickly gave up when the only thing I spotted in our garden was magpies. Magpies were evil birds that ate other bird’s eggs and, when spotted alone, could bring bad luck and sorrow into your life. Other animals I commonly saw also had negative baggage attached to them. Pigeons were rats with wings. Squirrels were rats with bushy tails. Which I guess makes rats the lowest of the low.

The Peregrine keyed me in to the world of birds again. And I learned to stop saluting lone magpies when my American husband first set eyes on one and fell in love with their smart black and white suits and their iridescent tails. In Corvus: A Life with Birds Esther Woolfson writes about the various corvids she has rescued and shared her home with over the years, including a magpie whose intelligence and mischievous ways inspired yet more admiration. In The Secret History of a Yard, Leonard Dubkin writes a love letter for the yard outside the hotel he lives in. He writes about sharing the yard with his young daughter and about its many non-human inhabitants, including ants, spiders, robins, and Nutsy the squirrel. The Public Life of the Street Pigeon by Eric Simms showed me that common street pigeons are fascinating birds – they feed their young with milk and can suck up water through their beaks. Rats by Robert Sullivan taught me to admire the rodent’s tenacity and strength – they can chew through concrete, have one of the world’s fastest reproduction rates, and have learned to thrive in some of the most heavily urbanised places in the world. Any comparison to the rat should inspire admiration, not revulsion.

She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain. I spent most of my life not really noticing animals, or only noticing them as part of the background – cows in a field, a bird in a tree, the pigeons in the city square. Slowly, through books, I started to notice them more.

***

Six years ago I moved to Nottingham and started birding again. I was partly inspired by The Peregrine and partly by the fact that I was living near Attenborough Nature Reserve. Attenborough is a former gravel works and the land is still owned and worked by CEMEX. Once an area is completely worked out, the land is flooded and restored. It is a watery world, interlaced with green pathways, and dotted with perfect spots for watching the many birds that pass through or call it home.

At weekends I would cycle down to Attenborough on an old steel-lugged bike. I imagined myself as an heir to Baker, who also explored the countryside by bike, and Attenborough was my peregrine country. Instead of peregrines I saw great crested grebes, cormorants, egrets, and herons; I saw common waterbirds: mute swans and Canada geese and mallards. But my favourite spot was a flock of 150 lapwings. I never saw anything extremely rare, but I was not a good birder. I had to carry a copy of Collins Complete Guide to British Birds with me. I was constantly frustrated by my binoculars, which I could never seem to focus properly. In some ways I was impatient, not committed enough to track down rare sightings, in other ways I wasn’t impatient enough. I could spend a whole afternoon in the same bird hide, watching herons and Canada geese.

My life list is short, though I was lucky to spend four years in the Netherlands after Nottingham, where I saw spoonbills, storks (in my local park), and bluethroats. Now I live in Toronto and I’ve had to replace my copy of British Birds with a guide for North America. My life list is already growing, just by placing a bird feeder in my back garden and watching the common birds that land there to feed. Others take advantage of the bird feeder too: chipmunks, black squirrels, and raccoons.

The black squirrels were the first animal I spotted in my new home. I was waiting for a friend in Chinatown when I saw one disappear into a hole in the lid of a bin. Back in the UK squirrels weren’t an animal I paid much attention to, but after four years in the Netherlands, which only has a small population of red squirrels, I realised I had missed them. I missed their acrobatics and their flickering tails. I missed their defensive chatter and their constant furtiveness, never letting their guard down even while munching on a nut. Despite the fact that they have taken to my capsicum coated, anti-squirrel, bird seed with gusto – even attempting to gnaw down the bird feeder – I still watch them, and the birds, with equal pleasure.

The raccoons made an early appearance in our garden too. Just a few days after we moved into our new house, I was sat by the back door when a raccoon walked along the decking and down the steps on the other side. I immediately felt as though I had moved into the raccoon’s territory, and not the other way round. A few days later I spotted two raccoons, a mother and baby. My husband took a picture of them and posted it on Instagram and a Canadian friend commented that they looked hungry. I recalled how she had told me that people in Toronto hate raccoons because they are pests. Raccoons have also recently been identified as carrying rabies. But I was excited at the prospect of sharing my new home with these creatures. Then again, my first impression of raccoons had been formed years ago by Anne Matthews’s Wild Nights, a book about nature in New York City.

In the book Matthews recounts how, as a child, she rescued a baby raccoon from a research lab and named him Shadow, or Shad for short. On his first night with the family, Shad is locked in the basement, where Matthews thinks he will happily sleep. Instead, Shad bangs at the door. When she goes downstairs, she sees a small paw reaching out through a gap. She places a finger to the palm and the raccoon grasps firmly and falls asleep still holding on. Eventually, Shad is allowed to sleep in her bedroom and adopts various sleeping spots, including her sock draw, the canopy of her bed, and her pillow, from where he rests his paws on her eye lids, feeling her dreams through their flickering. Shad sounded like the perfect pet to me. His prehensile paws enable him to interact with the human world in a way other pets cannot. He rummages through the fridge, able to pop open jam jars, and switches between channels on the television set until he finds a show he likes. But Shad is also free to come and go, spending time away from humans in the woods, and Matthews describes him as ‘infinitely other’.

One morning I woke in our new home in Toronto to find the bird feeder on the ground, surrounded by bird seeds. The feeder is a perspex rectangular prism with a small metal roof, attached to the prism by a piece of metal wire. The prism and its seeds were on the floor, but the metal wire and the roof were still hanging from the tree branch. Removing the feeder from the metal wire is a dexterous task and I immediately suspected the raccoons, with their nimble paws. I should be annoyed, I thought, but I felt a thrill at the raccoons interacting with our world.

A few weeks later, I discovered that the raccoon’s method was slightly more crude. I was sat in the lounge one evening, reading, when I heard a sound outside. I turned on the outside light to see one raccoon at the foot of the tree and another one in a branch above. The feeder was swinging on its rope and I watched as the raccoon hauled the rope up, like a sailor hauling up anchor. I knocked on the patio door and the raccoon let go of the feeder. My husband went out on the back deck and banged on the garden furniture, but the raccoons stared back at us, as though stunned by the crazy intruders. The next morning the bird feeder was on the ground again, its contents spilled across the lawn. I realised they were probably lifting the feeder up and then dropping it, until gravity did the job for them. Little buggers. I was half annoyed at the spilled seed, half impressed by their problem-solving skills.

***

I spend a lot of my time sat at a desk in front of a computer. I go to nature to relieve my mind, when it starts to feel like chewed leather. In Manchester or Amsterdam or Toronto, I head for the nearest park. The park is calling and I must go. Nature is good for us. In Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace Sue Thomas even analyses the benefits of spending time with digital nature. But this idea has also been criticised because it treats nature as a means. In an article in Nautilus magazine, author J.B. Mackinnon wrote a critique of nature therapy, or the medicalization of nature. The article argues that the stacks of research extolling the benefits of nature for human health are actually bad for nature, since the kind of nature people find soothing doesn’t tend to include dense forests or arctic tundra. Mackinnon writes of the resistance in the Netherlands and the UK to attempts to rewild areas of land with forest. People don’t feel safe in these closed-in spaces, which induce anxiety instead of relaxation. Yet, spending time in wild, or even semi-wild nature can increase confidence and self-reliance.

The first time I felt afraid of nature was on a camping trip in New England. It was the long summer between university semesters and I was visiting my husband, then boyfriend, for a few weeks. His friend invited us to go hiking and camping with him in the White Mountains. We hiked up Mount Garfield and then spent the night at a large camp site by a mountain stream. I was used to British camp sites, which are usually open fields, but this camp site was a series of pitches carved out of the forest. It felt closed in and when my husband warned me about black bears, I imagined them lurking behind the trees. That night we packed all our food into the car, including our toothpaste, and went to bed. I woke several hours later, in the middle of the night, desperate for the toilet. I didn’t want to leave the safe confines of the tent for fear of those lurking bears. I tried to go back to sleep but the need to pee won out. I scanned the woods around me with my torch as I walked to the toilet block. Once inside, I checked all the stalls for bears, before doing my business and rushing back to the safety of the tent.

For the last four year, I lived in the Netherlands, a country that has been tamed and shaped almost entirely by humans. It’s a country that was reclaimed from the sea and where land is at a premium. Yet there is also a strong Dutch rewilding movement and the country is home to wild horses, wild cattle, and bison. Bears in the mountains of Romania makes sense. Wolves roaming the forests of Germany makes sense. I can even imagine the lynx in the Iberian scrub lands. But these animals are spreading their range, they are approaching the Netherlands, and some are being encouraged and introduced by organisations with a vision that is both forward looking and ancient.

From my apartment in Amsterdam I commuted by train to jobs on the other side of the country. These train journeys took me through cities, towns, farmlands, and along neat, tree-lined canals. I never saw anything I would consider wild or untouched by humans. That was, until I took a train from Amsterdam to Lelystad. The train line between the two cities skirts the edge of the Oostvaardersplassen (being able to pronounce this word is perhaps one of the bigger achievements of my time in the Netherlands). The landscape I witnessed that day was vast and flat, unbroken by canals, rows of trees, or clusters of little houses. Instead the winter-dead grass stretched out as far as I could see, and dotted in the grass were the skeletons of stunted trees.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a 56 square kilometre nature reserve, bordered on one side by the railway line and on the other by a large dyke across the Markermeer. Dykes, along with pumps and sand dunes, are how the Dutch control their watery land and keep back the sea. I like to imagine what this vast wetland would have looked like before the Dutch moved in and started draining and farming and raising cities. I imagine a vast stretch of water full of porpoises and giant carp. I imagine a land of long swaying grasses and reeds appearing from the water, and all the animals that live in that half-water-half-land zone. And I imagine peatlands full of soft, spongy sphagnum mosses and rich earthy soils. Across the grassland roam wild horses, deer, and large cattle. The same animals that now live in the Oostvaardersplassen.

The herds of animals were introduced to the area to ensure that the grassland remained open, which was why I saw so many dead trees from the train that crisp, winter morning. The animals are considered wild, they are not fed, though the management organisation does perform culls from time to time when they consider an animal might be experiencing a painful death. The culling started after the harsh winter of 2005, when news reports were filled with images of deer, encased in ice and slowly dying. The debate went all the way to the government and it was decided culling would be a more humane approach to the animal’s management.

I had the privilege of going on a guided tour of the Oostvaardersplassen (most of it is closed off to the public) and seeing the animals close up. Coming face-to-face with a wild horse transformed the way I think about wild animals. Earlier that same day I’d been on a tour of Kennemerduin National Park, an area of sand dunes that is home to a small herd of wild bison. Rangers used tracking devices to find the animals and we watched them from just a few metres away. There were two adults and a calf. They munched on the grass and barely seemed to notice us. But the wild horses were different, they were curious.

In Beyond Words Carl Safina writes about how animal behaviourists are reluctant to ascribe consciousness, thoughts, and feelings to animals for fear of sounding unscientific, of anthropomorphising. There are good reason to avoid anthropomorphism. As Safina points out, we’re not always able to assign the correct thoughts and feelings to other humans and trying to do so with animals is even more difficult. However, Safina feels that the calls of “anthropomorphism!” have gone too far and have in fact led to anthropocentrism and the belief that humans are somehow different and special. Yet as Safina points out, humans inherited their bodies, including their nervous systems, from somewhere and we can trace that evolution. Human bodies are animal bodies, and human emotions are animal emotions. From observing elephants and their group dynamics it is possible to deduce, for example, that elephants don’t experience romantic love – family groups are led by a matriarch, whilst adult males wander alone. But why doubt that an elephant that seems happy is happy?

I only spent half an hour with the wild horses of the Oostvaardersplassen, but the fact that they approached our group and stared at us made me confident in ascribing curiosity to them. Remember, they’re not fed by humans, so they weren’t expecting food from us. Unlike the bison, they didn’t ignore us. The smaller, younger horses hid behind the older horses but some were braver, more confident, and slowly approached to sniff our outstretched hands.

As well as wild horses, deer, and bison, there have also been recent sightings of wolves on the German border and the organisation Wolven in Nederland is preparing people for the possibility of a Dutch wolf population. When I spoke with Glenn Leleveld from Wolven in Nederland, he told me the Netherlands could support 200-300 wolves. It seemed like a high number for such a small, highly developed country. But the Netherlands is also home to the Veluwe, a 1,100km2 ridge of hills, much of which is covered in forest. Initiatives such as animal highways have helped connect up previously fragmented sections of the Veluwe, and there has been a push to connect it to the Oostvaardersplassen and forests in Germany. There has also been talk of re-flooding areas of the Veluwe that were once wetlands, but were drained to form heathlands. Glenn mentioned this possibility and the opposition: people like what they know, they grew up with heathlands so they think that is what is natural.

As it turns out, the town I worked in, in the east of the Netherlands, is part of the Veluwe and the office building was surrounded by some of its forest. I walked in that forest almost every day for over two years. Most of the time I stuck to well-trodden paths and passed many other walkers, most with dogs. I had a fixed route and some days I arrived back at the office, having barely noticed the forest, deep in thoughts about work or life. On other days I tried to pay attention to my surroundings, to the trees and the light, the birds and other living things. My favourite time of year was always mushroom season, when the forest came alive with strange forms that were there one day and rotting away the next. One autumn, the forest floor was littered with the bodies of dead beetles, a strange phenomenon that never repeated itself. Sometimes I explored further afield and one day I discovered a wildlife passage under a road. The walls of the passage were lined with murals of animals – deer, squirrels, wild boar. A colleague had once pointed out evidence of wild boar near the office. It looked like a patch of roughed up soil, but I took his word for it. I sometimes felt afraid of being a lone woman in the woods, but I had never considered the possibility that wild boar, or wolves, could be roaming the area.

Glenn reassured me there was nothing to worry about. He told me he’d visited the areas where wolves have been sited, that he’d cycled around them. Were you scared? No, he replied, all animals do is risk assessment, they don’t know us so we’re a risk, they stay away. Part of me wishes I’d seen a wolf – perhaps it is the part of me that once longed to be Mowgli. Part of me still clings to the other stories I heard as a child – The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood – and shudders at the thought of being stalked by a wolf.

***

Winter is almost over now in Toronto, ending months of snow and ice and -13°C. Temperatures have risen and storm drains gurgle day and night with melt water. The creek behind our house is flowing again, pushing ice break-up onto the creek’s banks. The squirrels remained active, but the raccoons have spent most most of the winter holed up, sleeping. The birds have reclaimed the feeder. Bright red male cardinals – I think of them as Christmas birds, they’re present all year round but they stand out against the snow – black caps and chickadees. The geese are returning, honking in flight. The hungry time of year is almost over. I think of the deer in the Oostvaardersplassen, trapped behind the train lines. I think of Baker, stalking that harsh winter of 1962-63, hungry for peregrine sightings. The long cold winters are part of what drew me to Canada. It was The Call of the Wild – a book I’ve never read, but whose title always makes me think of harsh, wild winters that never end. Winters that stretch out with snow and ice from November to April. Winters so long the animals turn white, in hopes of eating or avoiding being eaten. This winter hasn’t been quite that harsh and besides, I live in a city, in the most populous part of the country. I might see wolves, coyotes, and bears one day, but for now I have black squirrels and red cardinals, and I have the return of the raccoons to look forward to.

Naomi Racz is a writer, originally from the UK and now living in Toronto, Canada. She writes about nature and place and her work has appeared in The Real Story, City Creatures, and The Learned Pig. Naomi has an MA in Writing, Nature and Place from the University of Exeter.

Photo of Oostvaardersplassen horses by Naomi Racz.

Time-Series Analysis of Trumpeter Swans

by Robin Chapman

The New York cygnets are being trained to follow a man dressed up
as a robot wearing an aviation helmet, goggles, and carrying a boom-box
playing the sputtering sounds of an ultralight motor-mother they’ll follow
to learn a new migration route. The man has to chart a safe passage
through power lines, air corridors, hunting grounds to lead them down
to Maryland’s wild bird sanctuaries, where my brother’s neighbors
view swans as one more turf invader on their golf course. The website
pleads to give them a chance: they’ll drive the hostile mute swans out,
settle down peaceably with native neighbors. I forward the link to my brother,
who’ll speak to the board. The swans and the ultralight have taken off.

Originally appeared in Appalachia, 2006.

 

Robin Chapman is a poet living in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. She writes in her book the eelgrass meadow (Tebot Bach, 2011) about vanishing species; in One Hundred White Pelicans (Tebot Bach, 2013), about climate change.

Impermanence

by Anne Visser Ney

By the time the dogs and I arrive at the beach, the loggerhead is long gone. Only her eggs, telltale nest excavation, and crawls remain as testament to her migratory and evolutionary perseverance. It is a humid gray morning right after dawn during high turtle nesting season in west-central Florida. I have come to the beach early to enjoy the solitude and let my two Carolina dogs have the run of the six-hundred-yard long leash-free zone.

There are no other dogs or humans this early but I do not imagine that we are alone. Something as palpable as the humid Florida morning envelops the dogs and me although they do not seem to share my reverent sentiment as they bounce over the dunes like energetic coils.

The beach! The surf! The race!

I consider the dogs, myself, and the turtle, evidenced by the nest. It seems we could be arranged along a continuum of being. The exuberant canines, my more considered actions, and the turtle’s ancient deliberations: Canis lupus familiairis, Homo sapiens, Caretta caretta.

I smile at my thought, by the time the dogs and I arrive, which I only meant with respect to the moment of this morning, this day. But the phrase, like all things, is relational. What is time?

By the time the universe expanded from its seminal point. By the time stardust coalesced into the Solar System. By the time C. caretta refined itself over forty million years, H. sapiens over two hundred thousand years, C. lupus over thirteen thousand years. By the time the nesting loggerhead was seventeen or twenty-five or thirty-three; summer nesting season returned; darkness fell, then gave way to morning; by the time I loaded Hunley and Cotton into the CR-V and drove to Fort Desoto Dog Beach. By the time we arrived, she was gone back to sea.

By the time I reach the crawl near the far boundary of the dog leash-free zone, the ranger’s ATV headlights are bouncing along the dune line in its own slow crawl as the morning patrol looks for freshly dug nests.

ii.

I wait for the ranger nearby the nest hoping to witness a uniquely human action: conservation, expressly to mitigate damage humans have inflicted on another species. My dogs lack this compulsion.

Instead, in a nod to their recent appearance on the species stage, my Johnny-come-latelies display intense curiosity about the nest, maybe even hoping to find an egg or two to snack on. They snuff around and jockey to get closer to the already-crumbling hillock of sand between the nest and the water. As the ranger pulls up and parks her ATV I chuck a tennis ball down the beach to distract them. They race away.

The ranger and I exchange hellos as she takes two plastic boxes from the ATV; one filled with nest relocation paraphernalia, the other one empty. The cargo bay also holds plastic debris — I guess her morning rounds include nests and trash — amongst the trash pile is a child’s plastic shovel, the kind used to build sand castles, dredge moats, and tunnel to China. Its blade is a bright green turtle carapace topped by a dopily smiling turtle’s head with big, round, eyes.

“There’s an irony,” I say.

“Right,” the ranger says.

The uphill crawl is the turtle’s path from the water’s edge to the niche between beach and dunes where they become covered with vining sunflowers and tall, feathery grasses. Here the turtle turned parallel to the water and nestled in before clearing her nesting site in earnest with her back flipper’s claws. A side chamber is dug, once the larger excavation is deep enough, into which the eggs are deposited.

The ranger burrows down two feet before she feels around and locates the side chamber. She measures the chamber’s exact depth, records the data on her clipboard, and begins to remove the leathery tough but vulnerable eggs from the sand to the second plastic box. The clutch has a little more than half a loggerhead’s average, fifty-four in all.

I think of them: fifty-four lives, twisting themselves from zygote to hatchling according to genetic codes switched on and off in precise order. If visible as light their developmental sparks would make the flashiest firework display.

iii.

Loggerheads nest in all of the world’s tropical and subtropical oceans but the highest concentration of Atlantic nests is along the Southeastern United States and Gulf of Mexico beaches. They have nested here since the end of the Pliocene, three million years or so ago, when the isthmus between the Americas closed and the Atlantic and Pacific basins were no longer connected by temperate seas.

Carolina dogs, now registered as a rare breed of native domestic canines, arrived in the Americas with their dingo-like yellow coats, pointed ears, white shoulder patches, and fishhook tails, alongside Indo-Americans crossing the Bering Land Bridge some ten thousand years ago.

Logically, the dogs are natural predators of loggerhead nests.

And my forebears, economic migrants, Dutch and English and Irishmen, arrived in the Americas in the second half of the nineteenth century, nearly four hundred years after Hernando De Soto, after whom this county park is named, set foot in what is now Florida.

The dogs race back and forth along the beach a dozen times before the ranger pauses to tell me the nest will be relocated a few hundred yards up the beach, around the corner defining the end of the barrier island, and onto a dune facing the Gulf of Mexico proper. There it will be away from the busy dog beach and, importantly, removed from the shipping channel that carries large merchant vessels around the point to and from the Gulf and Tampa Bay’s commercial ports.

As if to emphasize the ranger’s concerns we watch as a merchant ship sails into view around the corner on its way to port. She nods toward it knowingly and stows her boxes — tools, precious life — and climbs onto the four-wheeler.

Hunley has also seen the merchant ship. He rushes to the water’s edge, dancing and barking with excitement at its appearance. He is a swimming dog and has learned that the ship’s passage means long, curling waves coming ashore on which he can surf.

iv.

Tampa Bay, one of the country’s largest estuaries, stretches twenty-six miles from Fort Desoto to Port Tampa and is wide enough that the far side is often visible only as a glow of light on the horizon at night. In terms of tonnage handled, Tampa is the country’s sixteenth and the world’s twenty-second largest port. The channel is constantly being dredged somewhere along its length, including another ten miles extending offshore into the shallow Gulf of Mexico.

Ships arrive at all hours of the day and night carrying goods to and from the world’s global economy: container ships laden with Chinese manufactures via the Panama Canal, tankers bringing Gulf oil to Tampa refineries, trampers carrying Central and South American produce to American markets. Outbound fertilizer boats leave with Florida phosphate headed for world agro-industry. Cruise ships ferry passengers to Cozumel, Cancun, the Caymans, Jamaica, and the Florida Keys.

A merchant vessel appears like two football fields rising seven stories above and four stories below its waterline, displacing tens of thousands of tons of water. It will have at least two engines aft and another one on the bow powering propellers twenty feet in diameter that drive water across twin rudders fifteen feet long by eight feet wide. It is pulled, not pushed, through the water by a vacuum created forward of the spinning props.

This vacuum indiscriminately sucks waterborne objects of all kinds into its stream and through the props where they will be chewed to pieces: plastic bottles, driftwood, lifejackets lost overboard, and shrimp, manatee, and turtles.

A nearby animal graveyard testifies to a ship’s destructive power: propeller-slashed manatees, mangled and stranded turtles, and, beneath one great hump of sunflower vines, palmettos, and dune grass, a fifty-foot Bryde’s whale that died of blunt force trauma when it collided with a passing vessel.

It takes about six minutes for the ship’s wake to reach the beach as a train of long, even combers. Hunley has swum out across the flooded shallows, turned, and is happily riding the surf back to the beach. Cotton, who is wary of water, rushes back and forth on the beach, barking, one pointed ear flattened back, the other on high, vertical alert, in the pose I have come to recognize as a dingo warning.

v.

Crawl and kraal are homophones but are not interchangeable terms. Crawl is the set of tracks a female turtle leaves along the sand during nesting. Kraal is a pen in which captive sea turtles are kept between capture and processing.

The turtle crawl is a distinctive mark, unique as a fingerprint. Biologists analyzing crawls are able to determine which turtle laid what nest. Each appears as a trail of two- or three-foot long imprints flanked by smaller, almost feathery sweepings made by the turtle’s sturdy, clawed, flippers as they propel the turtle up the beach.

A reproducing female lays two to four clutches during the short, summer nesting season; after her last clutch is laid her crawl may not appear again for several years. An average clutch holds one hundred and twelve eggs.

Florida has the highest concentration of loggerhead nests in the Western Atlantic; the 2016 census was 89,295, including four hundred twenty in Pinellas County where I live. I try to imagine forty-seven thousand hatchlings in my county alone, all of them struggling up from below, driven to the sea.

Like all sea turtles, loggerheads return to their natal beach to lay their eggs. Males do not return to land although nobody is quite sure whether insemination occurs close to natal beaches or much farther away: only that it happens at sea.

Before she heads away, the ranger takes the time to erase the crawls to and from the water. This ensures that other patrols — volunteers, or eager civilians — do not report a nest that has already been recorded and relocated to safer environs. The ATV idles while she scuffs back and forth across the turtle’s tracks.

I think of the Zen master Dogen’s words, that we must be deeply aware of life’s impermanence.

vi.

Kraal comes
from Afrikaans and Portuguese and means corral. To confuse crawl and kraal, as I once did, is to confuse life’s perpetuation with its demise.

Like many Florida transplants, my first exposure to the term kraal was by way of an infamous Key West waterfront bar named Turtle Kraals, which is a typical Keys establishment boasting lots of beer, twangy Jimmy Buffett style musicians, and open doors through which steady trade winds blow. The bar has a rickety old boardwalk leading out over the water and to the pens for which the bar is named.

Each pen is a rectangle composed of wooden pilings surrounded by wire fencing extending from just above the water’s surface to the bottom; each rectangle measures twenty-five by forty feet (or so). Today the four or so remaining kraals are used to sequester injured sea turtles belonging to any or all of Florida’s five protected marine turtle species: loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, and green sea turtles.

If you visited Key West a hundred years ago, at the height of its turtle fishery industry, you would have seen dozens of kraals lining this western embayment, each kraal teeming with green sea turtles awaiting processing in the adjacent canneries.

Green sea turtles are known scientifically as Chelia mydas: turtles of gold. The gold they brought to their human hunters was that of their rich, delicately flavoured, green-tinted fat, widely prized as a soup base by chefs all over the world.

The ship and its wave train have passed. The bay here is quiet again. The dogs and I study the crawl, or what is left of it, as the ATV lumbers on down the beach. I watch it leave and consider Dogen’s admonishment concerning impermanence. Surely nothing lasts forever. But as fragile and ephemeral as one life is, our many lives collectively seem to me to be as tenacious as the turtle’s will to nest.

vii.

Think of life: survival of the replicating gene over evolutionary time. Think of how tenaciously life has survived in spite of continental collision and drift; environmental cataclysms from Carboniferous hothouse through millennia-long glaciations; and population pressures from mass killings through mass migrations.

The Columbian Exchange began in the 15th century as European explorers opened the doors on the Age of Discovery. The Exchange was, and arguably is, the world’s first rapid-onset and most durable set of migrations. The world changed as a plethora of plants, animals, disease organisms, and technologies crisscrossed the Atlantic.

By the time Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513, indigenous peoples had well-established turtle fisheries, including C. mydas. That same year his crew took one hundred sixty green turtles in a single evening at the Dry Tortugas, at the western end of the Keys’ string of islets.

Six and a half million green turtles alone comprised just the Cayman Islands fishery by the mid-seventeenth century; when this population was exhausted a hundred and fifty years later, turtlers seeking fresh populations to exploit relayed that Central American waters were a turtle “mother lode”. I try to imagine turtles as far as the eye can see, crowds of olive, green, speckled, leathery turtles all quietly sailing through clear, shallow, tropical seas.

The U.S. turtle processing industry, centered in Key West, peaked at the turn of the last century but held strong through the 1950s. So many there were for the taking that initially they were fished from land. Hunters simply waited for reproducing females to crawl ashore. A man, or two or three if the turtle was old and large, armed with long-handled levers, “turned turtle” then waited for boats to retrieve the immobilized animals for transport to the kraals to await slaughter. The nests were raided; the eggs eaten or sold.

By the first half of the twentieth century the industry shifted fishery methods to netting turtles which could be landed live and held in kraals until the shoreside canneries were ready to process the slaughter into cans of meat, soup, or fat for export.

Loggerheads were also hunted nearly to extinction, for their tender flesh and edible eggs although green turtles paid the greater price for their delicacy. In 2016 the state recorded only 5,393 green turtle nests. Not one was in Pinellas County.

It is quiet again after the ATV turns the corner onto the Gulf side beach where the ranger will reverse-order her actions: rebury the eggs, mark the nest, and cover it up including with wire mesh in the hopes that other predators — raccoons, mostly, here — content themselves with tipping campground garbage bins and leaves the nests alone.

viii.

On average each hatchling will emerge eighty days after the eggs are laid, measure just under two inches in length, and weigh three-quarters of an ounce. A nest incubated in temperatures exceeding ninety degrees Fahrenheit will produce mostly female hatchlings while one incubating below eighty-two, mostly males. At eighty-six degrees, nature’s variations notwithstanding, the nest will produce half of each gender, on average.

By the time hatchlings break free, the mother’s crawl will be long gone. They will emerge at night when predation pressure is lowest, and flipper like twinkling sparks toward the sea, which they may recognize by its brighter sheen when compared to the land, as starshine and moonlight luminesce with the water’s reflection.

If they make it to the water they will be pulled offshore by the undertow current. If they make it to deeper water they stand a slim chance of growing to maturity, a feat for which they will have to avoid sharks, seals, killer whales, commercial fishing nets and lines, plastic flotsam and jetsam, human hunters, and the massive ships powering the global human economy. After running this gamut for two decades or so they may mate and, at least for females, return to their natal beach to perpetuate life.

I leash the dogs and follow the ATV past the leash-free zone signs to see for myself the difference that six hundred yards makes in hatchling terms. The difference is subtle, measured in degrees so small as to be asymptotic to the mother’s intent. At least the new location removes the ship channel obstacle from the young turtle’s path. And the wider Gulf beaches opening to sea may diminish backlight from seaside towns on the bay’s opposite shore, reducing the odds the hatchlings will become confused and swim toward brightly lit land instead of toward open ocean.

Yet there may also be more predators over there: ghost crabs, snakes, and seagulls. But maybe the importance lies in giving the hatchlings a chance to make it past the nest. To give them an opportunity to move: to try.

We head back to the dog beach where I unsnap the leashes. The dogs have run themselves breathless by now, though, and gaze quizzically as though wanting to know why our routine has been changed. I tell them all life is impermanence, including their regularly scheduled rounds. But they are dogs and do not catch my meaning.

They tag alongside as I return to the nesting site. The six-inch high bulwark that marked the water side of the nest is leveled; the hole the ranger dug to retrieve the eggs has been filled. I strip to my swimsuit and toss my tee shirt and shorts next to the evacuated nest then follow the erasures down the beach and continue their trajectory into the sea, which is flat and calm, recovered from the ship’s wake.

ix.

All things, living or not, are fated — or damned — to move. Heisenberg’s particles, which flit so quickly they cannot simultaneously be clocked and weighed. Einstein’s molecules with their Brownian motions that jostle dyes through water and smoke particles through air. The sand into which the crawl was etched in shield-like precision.

The obliterated crawl now dusted with the ranger’s waffle-soled sweepings.

Life became enclosed in self-replicating cells and the genetic material itself migrates through generations, time, and space. Robins return north in spring just as turtles arrive in their annual reproductive march. Migrations of all kinds are manifest impermanence.

I follow the crawl’s ghostly remains back to the water’s edge and wade along its trajectory into the bath-warm shallow bay.

x.

The water is lower than my knees for a dozen yards out. Hunley pads beside me and Cotton follows reluctantly, wanting to stay with the pack, wanting to warn us away according to her deep suspicion of the sea. I shuffle my feet to roust stingrays from the bottom lest I step on one and become lashed by its venomous barb.

The water reaches my waist, then bust. Hunley swims alongside in slow, easy dog paddles. We swim together as far as the line of buoys dividing the bathing from boating areas. It is an arbitrary line making no difference in the larger scheme of things than the six hundred yards across which the turtle nest has been moved.

I hesitate to swim farther although no boats large or small are in sight. Even if a ship were present, the channel is too far and the flats too shallow for any passing merchant to threaten the dog or me. No, I hesitate because of my healthy respect for wild things, most of which have, in species terms, far outdistanced me already. The stingrays, the bull sharks, even the powerful dolphins that are fishing back and forth another ten yards out.

Still, I swim into the deeper water as along the path I imagine the loggerhead took on her journey back home to the sea. She might have felt lighter for the fifty-four eggs laid and another migration completed. Or maybe she left with a heavy heart, weary for having given part of herself up to the unknown future, or because the eggs and their buoyant lecithin had been let from within.

In any case she must have felt newly powerful leaving the land’s cumbersome gravity. I breast stroke before diving deep, pretending I am an ancient turtle. I dive deeper than Hunley’s childish splashings, deeper than the humans’ Leviathan ship’s throbbing propellers, as deep as the place that sand grains ceaselessly rock as they are ground to silt.

On the bottom I stop and listen if to murmurings from a future time. Cotton barking faintly from the beach, my own heart thumping in my ears. I try to hear the mother turtle’s stately, powerful movements through time but they are beyond my hearing, beyond my understanding.

When I return to land, Hunley in tow, Cotton tosses her head to tell me it’s past time to go home. The Florida day has arrived as its own bright self. The palpable envelope I felt when I arrived is rapidly dissembling around me. It was impermanent, too, I realize, a dissolving convergence that existed when the ranger, the dogs, the turtles, and I all met in one singular moment in time.

Anne Visser Ney is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former fisheries biologist living in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Ruminate, and The Fourth River. She holds an MS in Biology (Georgia Southern University, Marine Ecology) and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Horse Tradition

by Mary Wlodarski

Like all tradition, a habit
becomes ritual. Soon humans forget
why we started.

It could be the practice of checking a gate,
or filling extra water buckets,
listening for the quiet contentment of chewing
before leaving the barn in the evening,
whistling to your horse that special set of notes
to call him in from the pasture.

Just the other day I learned
the throatlatch on our bridles
were put there by the cavalry.
When horses tired from miles of marching
hung their heads weary of explosions,
fell to their knees in desperation
sweat ceasing to pour
blood mingled with mud
stomachs empty of hunger
soldiers could drag horses behind them
and this way, the bridle wouldn’t fall off.

How will we know
which traditions we claim
and which we rewrite?

 

Mary Wlodarski has published poems in Texas Poetry Review, Sleet, Shark Reef and Spry. She teaches English and Creative Writing and completed her MFA at Hamline University. She lives in Minnesota with her two horses, husband, and two young boys.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion”

by Philip Strange

The cloud melted away during the afternoon, allowing a little hazy sunshine to cast pale shadows and bring welcome warmth to this early spring day. The car park was nearly empty and I was standing, gazing at the grassy bank bordering one side of the parking area. I was watching the bees, taking the occasional photo and had become so absorbed that I hadn’t noticed the young woman sitting in a nearby car.

Her voice punctured my reverie: “Do you mind me asking what you are doing?”

She wasn’t aggressive, just inquisitive, but I still jumped.

“I’m looking at the bees that live in this bank”, I answered.

“Are they rare?” She continued.

“Not particularly, but I’m fascinated by them. There’s an amazing natural pageant going on here, all you need to do is look.”

I showed her some of the bees and the flowers inhabiting the bank and she eventually drove off. I hoped she hadn’t been too surprised or too bored by my impromptu lecture on the ecology of the car park.

***

It had all started when my friend Susan Taylor told me how in the previous spring she had seen some wild bees living in a grassy bank in one of the town centre car parks. I know the car park well, it’s called the Nursery and I can see it from our kitchen window across the narrow valley. I see dog-walkers crossing the area early in the morning as the sun is rising and, on busy market days, I watch drivers jostling for parking spaces. It’s a large rectangular space defined by old brick walls clad thickly with ominously-dark, green ivy. Along two sides of the rectangle, there are wide, sloping soil banks coated by rough grass kept short by irregular mowing. The grass canopy is interrupted by scars of bare friable soil together with a few old bricks, hinting at some previous use and there’s a scatter of litter decorating the area. I was intrigued to hear that wild bees had taken up residence in this semi-urban space and was determined to see them.

It’s easy for me to walk to the Nursery Car Park so, from late February, I made regular visits looking for the insects. Despite the perceptible lengthening of days, there wasn’t much to see at the beginning, just a few flies and the occasional bumblebee prospecting for a nest site. Then, one sunny morning in mid-March, I walked through the old brick arch into the car park and found the south-facing grassy bank bathed in gentle spring sunshine. Just above the rough grass, about half way along the bank, I saw for the first time a cloud of small bees. There were a hundred or more of the insects flying back and forth, swinging from side to side, mostly avoiding collisions, a wonderful sight. They reminded me of dust motes dancing in a shaft of sunlight only this was no passive display, there was real intention and energy expressed in their movement. Susan Taylor has christened this behaviour the “sun dance” and their activity does respond to the sunshine, becoming increasingly urgent on a hot day, like water simmering, threatening to boil over. Occasionally, insects left the dance briefly to investigate the rough holes in the underlying crumbly soil or to bask briefly in the sunshine. I thought I could see pale stripes on their abdomen but they were moving about so quickly it was difficult to be sure.

Then I noticed the flowers, dandelions and celandines, scattered about the bank pushing through the rough grass like shining signposts of the new season. Dandelions are so common we tend to undervalue them but their sunshine-yellow discs provide important insect forage early in the year as do the buttery-yellow stars of lesser celandine. Some of the bees were feeding from the flowers, drinking sugary nectar, their head buried in the flower’s centre, their body curved in a tight crescent. Now I could see that they were quite small, perhaps two thirds the size of a honeybee but clearly marked with thin buff-white lines around the black abdomen.

The unexpected beauty of these small creatures is properly revealed, however, in my photographs. The four abdominal stripes are, in fact, rings of short, pale hair. Dark brown hairs cover the top of the thorax, whereas the sides are coated with a ring of pale hairs. There is more pale hair on the face below the prominent black antennae and between the eyes. The legs are covered with fine hairs, yellow in some lights and often decorated with pollen particles.

***

Over the next few weeks, warmer days would find the bees “sun dancing”, but, when the temperature dropped, or rain threatened, they kept a low profile, sheltering in their burrows. By the end of March, however, I began to see another bee on the grassy bank. It looked very like the “sun dancers” only it was generally chunkier and, when I looked carefully, I could see thick orange hairs on their back legs, resembling a psychedelic bottle brush. Some of these larger bees disappeared into the rough holes that peppered the friable soil underneath the grass and began to dig so that soil cascaded downwards away from the hole leaving a slew of grey particles.

On a few occasions, one or more of the smaller bees leapt on one of the larger bees to form a small ball, triggering an explosion of frantic activity. Other small bees now rushed to join the throng. The growing ball of bees throbbed with nervous energy previously expressed in the “sun dance”. I realised that, within the melee, mating was occurring so that the smaller bees were males and the larger bees were females of the same species. At the core of the mating melee there is one female surrounded by several ardent male suitors only one of which will be successful in being her partner. With some delving in reference books I was now able to identify these bees as Yellow-legged Mining Bees (Andrena flavipes).

Once the females have mated, the males have fulfilled their role. They continued to “sun dance” on warmer days but over the next few weeks they gradually dwindled away. For the mated females, however, their busy time has only just begun. They now spend their days foraging on the increasing numbers of spring flowers, gathering nectar and pollen, often chrome-yellow at this time of year, symbolising for me the energy of spring sunshine.

Back at the grassy bank, I watched mated females returning to the holes in the friable soil with the bottle brush hairs on their back legs loaded with brightly coloured pollen. Upon arrival, they entered the hole, disappearing beneath the ground where the next phase of their life cycle continued. The hole is the gateway to tunnels 20 cm or longer that they have excavated beneath the ground. Each tunnel has several side arms which the female provisions with pollen and nectar before laying eggs.

The eggs grow into larvae which consume the food stores and eventually transform into mature bees ready for the next emergence of males and females. Although these bees make their nests in groups with many nest holes in the grassy bank, each mated female works on her own to produce her next litter of bees. Unlike the more familiar honeybees and bumblebees, there is no cooperation, no social group and these mining bees are referred to as solitary bees.

I saw pollen-loaded females returning to their burrows along the grassy bank well in to May, after which everything went quiet, or so I thought.

***

I wasn’t the only one to show a keen interest in these bees. One sunny morning in mid-April, I was watching the pollen-laden females returning to their burrows when I noticed two other insects paying special attention to the nests. I thought, at first, that one was a bumblebee. It was ovoid, about the right size and covered with rich tawny brown hair. When I looked closely, however, I saw that it was flying about the nest area with a very thin, straight proboscis extended in a most un-bumblebee like manner. This was a bee fly, out to take advantage of the mining bee nests to propagate its own species. When it spots a mining bee nest, the bee fly flicks one of its fertilised eggs towards the hole, like a footballer kicking at goal. These eggs develop into larvae which crawl into the bee nests where they devour the host larvae and take over.

The second, very different kind of insect was flying about the nest area in pairs or, sometimes, even in threes. These were wasp-like with black and yellow-striped abdomens; photographs showed that they had orange legs and antennae and one reddish-brown band around the abdomen along with the yellow ones. They swung about the nest area inquisitively, furtively, looking at the holes in the crumbly soil, occasionally entering. These are cuckoo bees and like their avian counterparts, they have no nest of their own, rather they lay eggs in host nests where their larvae use the food stores for their own development after consuming the host larvae. The cuckoo bee that colonises the Yellow-legged Mining Bee nests is called the Painted Nomad Bee (Nomada fucata).

These sorts of parasitic insects don’t sound like good news but, paradoxically, their presence shows that the host colony is strong. The parasites and their host can only coexist and prosper from year to year if the host is doing well. Despite its urban situation, the car park grassy bank provides a gentle, insecticide-free, south-facing environment with soft soil and protective brick walls. The area is surrounded by public and private gardens growing plenty of flowers so that the bee and its parasites can flourish.

***

High summer is a glorious time in the south west of the UK with warm sunshine, vivid colours and buzzing insects. I hadn’t seen the car park bees for several weeks and thought that they had finished for the year. One late June morning, however, I was passing the area and curiosity got the better of me; I decided to pop in to check the grassy bank and got a big surprise. It was a beautiful sunny start to the day; the air was filled with light and a palpable warmth arose to greet me from the south-facing soil bank. Just above the now longer and drier grass, I found a cloud of male Yellow-legged Mining Bees flying backwards and forwards and from side to side in their usual nervy manner. Another “sun dance” was in full swing, fired by the strong sunshine and expressing what I now realised was a pent-up sexual energy. It felt as though I had stumbled across a bunch of teenagers enjoying themselves.

The dandelions and celandines of spring were long gone but there was a dense stand of tall ragwort growing along another car park edge. The brilliant yellow flowers were providing a welcome feast for both male and female bees, their distinctive markings enhanced in this strong light. Another full life cycle was in progress and I saw pollen-laden females returning to their burrows to prepare nests for egg laying. These eggs will develop into larvae and eventually into new bees that will stay in the ground until next spring when they emerge and the cycle will begin again.

The Yellow-legged Mining Bee is one of several solitary bee species that produces two generations of new bees each year. Males and females of the spring generation emerge from their burrows in March having spent the winter underground. Their mating results in the second, summer generation that flies and mates in July to produce the overwintering bees. This kind of behaviour is possible only when the species starts flying early in the year and isn’t too choosy about the flowers it uses, but it does make these bees valuable pollinators.

***

This was a fascinating, magical spring and summer for me, spending time with the bees, watching them going about their lives. Each time I visited the car park to view this unique natural phenomenon, I found myself almost completely absorbed in the moment. Time stood still and my attention focussed on the bees to the exclusion of the world about me, except when a car manoeuvred nearby!

But there was more to my experience of watching these insects. The bees taught me to be aware of the seasons and the rhythms of nature. Of course, I had some idea of the seasons before but the bees taught me to look more carefully, to pay attention. They taught me to look at the flowers at different times of the year; the bees will come only when there are flowers to provide food. They also taught me to look at the weather from day to day and from month to month; the ability of the bees to fly is very dependent on weather conditions. Finally, they taught me that, when autumn beckoned and they had finished their cycles, it would all begin again the following spring.

Philip Strange is a writer, scientist and naturalist who lives in south Devon. He may be found searching for unusual plants on Chesil Beach, or looking for rare bees by the south west coast path, or chasing up a story about science in everyday life in the west country. Or you can look at his blog: philipstrange.wordpress.com

Cinnabar

by Miranda Cichy

You might ask why this ragwort
finds itself piped
with striped icing –
liquorice and caramel
slinking in sync.

Why the eye snags
on that which harms it,
a police-tape of caterpillar
drawing lines
through the day.

Soon they’ll be gone
and the field will rise with moths,
vampires and Valentines –
the heart-splintered
shock of them.

You might ask how a tiger
turns poppy.

 

Miranda Cichy’s poems have most recently been published in Curlew Calling (Numenius Press) and Nature and Regeneration (Corbel Stone Press). She is currently working towards a PhD in ecopoetry and bird extinction at the University of Glasgow.

It Wonders Me

by Nadja Lubiw-Hazard

Opossums have thirteen nipples. I was unhappy with this asymmetry, picturing the two even rows of six and that lonely, unpaired, thirteenth nipple, until I discovered that the nipples form a circle, with a single one in the middle. A flower of nipples. How lovely, I thought.

I have been reading about opossums since I saw one last week. The Virginia Opossum, Didephis virginiana, is typically found living in woody vegetation along rivers and streams. My opossum, the one that I spotted as I was walking home from the bus-stop on the corner of Victoria Park and Bassett Avenue in Toronto, has traded in deciduous woodland for urban life.

It was dusk. In the imagination of my memory there was fog, low lying and wispy. I heard a sound, the scratch of a claw against pavement perhaps, and the swirling fog parted to reveal something moving, something low to the ground at the edge of the bungalow on the corner. Rat-like, but too big to be a rat; the size of a cat, but too low to the ground. Raccoon? But no, this animal had a coat that shimmered silver in the light of the streetlamp, a naked tail snaking behind a teardrop-shaped body. Opossum!

She paused and lifted her small pointed snout, sniffing the night air, before waddling away and disappearing into the darkness. I was enchanted.

I read on: the joeys wriggle their way up from the birth canal to the pouch, sensing and moving away from gravity, grasping on to their mother’s fur with their minuscule deciduous claws. Just like the discovery of the flower of nipples, I am delighted to discover the temporary baby claws. Only two weeks since conception – the shortest gestation of any mammal – and the tiny opossums, honeybee-sized and hairless, have developed rudimentary claws for the four minute journey to the pouch, claws that will be shed and replaced later by permanent ones.

I already knew that opossums have prehensile tails, but I learn that they can carry bundles of grasses in a coil of their tail. I knew too, that males have a bifid penis, like a forked reptilian tongue, and females have a matching doubled up reproductive tract, with two vaginas and two uteri. But there are new discoveries: opossums have fifty teeth; they are resistant to rabies and immune to snake venom; most are furred in grey or black, but there are rare cinnamon phase opossums with reddish-brown fur. A two-pronged penis! Fifty teeth! Cinnamon fur!

And of course there is the opossum’s pouch, the defining feature of any marsupial, lined with amber-coloured fur, where the joeys will live for 3 months, permanently attached to the same teat for the first sixty days.

*

I have an untamed exuberance for animals of all kinds. As I sit at my desk writing about opossums on my computer in a darkened room, a centipede scuttles down the wall to the floor and then freezes. I have a visceral reaction of fear to the centipede’s sudden appearance: to the rapid vertical descent I have just witnessed; to the multitude of darkly-striped, antenna-like legs on a creature that appears to be as large as a mouse. But after my initial shock subsides, I become curious. I watch as the centipede curls around and starts grooming each leg meticulously from the base to the tip, working down the row of fifteen legs on the left side of the body, sliding each leg through the mouth forcipules. I start to wonder: does he/she always groom the left side first? What is life like, moving about with all those legs? Where does this centipede actually live – is there a centipede lair somewhere in my home?

Animals bring me to wonder. What a lovely word ‘wonder’ is. An adjective or noun for marvellous things and miracles. A verb of astonishment and amazement, of curiosity. Wouldn’t it be nice if we reverted back to the Middle English way of saying “It wonders me that” instead of simply “I wonder why?” It wonders me that centipedes have so many legs.

The presence of this myriad-legged, nocturnal predator reminds me that my home is dug into the earth, that nature dwells within. There is no line that separates the city and the wild; nature is part of our daily lives, with us and within us, all the time.

It seems like an extraordinary gift that I can watch a coyote lope in a single-minded straight line across the quarry lands at Gerrard and Clonmore as I pack my groceries into the hatch of my car, that I can step outside to walk the dog and hear the hoarse keeeeee-arr of a red-tailed hawk soaring above my neighbour’s towering white pine, that if I pay attention, I can be a part of this wild life that exists here in my city.

Sometimes these wild moments are more fantastical than others: climbing up a steep and muddy ridge in Highland Creek Park last fall I was startled by a huffing sound, and I looked up to see a white-tailed deer standing, silhouetted against the pink clouds, his branching antlers reaching up like two giant, thin-fingered hands to embrace the sky. We were caught off-guard by each other’s presence, startled into a shared stillness. I stared up at him, awestruck and breathless. I was lifted outside of the incessant chatter that constantly fills my mind; I had a moment of pure and vast openness that contained simply the smell of musk, the pink sky and the twigged antlers, the blackness of the deer’s eyes. The boundary that surely exists between a stag and a human fell away. When the spell broke he turned and flashed his white tail at me before bounding away into the woods. I leapt after him, ready to gallop through the forest with him, to feel the give of the muddy ground under my hooves, the heaviness of those antlers anchored to my skull.

*

I saw my opossum again late one night, a few weeks ago. She was lying on the road at the edge of the curb. I was sure that she had been hit by a car, or mauled by a dog. I dashed forward, prepared to witness carnage. She was curled on her side, her scaly tail wrapped up to her nose, her mouth open in a half-grin, half-grimace, exposing as many of her fifty teeth as possible. I knelt down for a better look. Her small dark eyes were open, shining in the moonlight. A spray of whiskers bloomed from her pointed snout. Her ears were like the dark leaves of an exotic plant, cupped and leathery, tattered at the edges. There was no blood, no signs of trauma. Was she dead?

Opossums, despite their reputation for viciousness, are quiet and gentle. When they are frightened they hide; when they are threatened they crouch down low and try to intimidate by opening their mouth wide to show off all their sharp teeth. They will hiss, growl, and screech. But it’s a bluff. And if the bluff fails, they fall unconscious, feigning death in the hopes that a dead opossum will be less appealing than a living one.

Could my opossum have fainted in fright? Her front paws were tucked against her chest, the right clutched tightly to the left, as if she has witnessed a great horror. I have read that it is impossible to revive an opossum from this state, but I was still cautious as I reached out to touch her. All those jagged teeth, lined up like the blade on a handsaw, were intimidating.

The guard hair on her grey pelt looked like it would feel coarse, but her fur was luxuriant, soft and thick under my hand. Her body was warm to the touch, but I still wasn’t convinced that she was alive. She remained completely immobile and unresponsive to my touch. I crouched back on my heels, watching to see if her chest was rising and falling, but it was hard to see in the shadows. Maybe her breathing was slow and shallow; it would make sense if she was in a catatonic state. I rested my open hand lightly on her chest. I could smell her pungent odour: musky and fragrant, tinged with rot. This too is part of playing dead – opossums release a foul-smelling liquid from their anal glands, a smell that mimics a corpse and wards off predators that prefer live prey. A few more seconds passed. A single car drove by. A sudden thought occurred to me. What if she was dead, but she had babies in her pouch? I have read about live baby opossums being rescued from the pouch of dead, hit-by-car opossums, raised and released back into the wild. I leaned forward and lifted the back leg of my opossum to see the abdomen. There it was: a slit on her belly – the opening to a pouch! What if there were hairless, jellybean-sized baby opossums hidden within? The edge of the pouch had a thickened ring, like a rubber band. I pulled it gently open and peeked inside. The pouch was empty. I felt both relief and disappointment.

I waited again, palm against her chest, until I felt the slight of my hand as her ribcage expanded with an inhale. She was alive! I stayed a few more minutes, sitting on the edge of the curb, watching her from a short distance away. I wished her well, wished for her to be free from harm.

When I finally left, after I had lifted her up by the scruff of the neck and tucked her out of sight under a thick hedge, safe and sheltered, away from the road, I practically skipped home. I had been brought to wonder, astonished and amazed, by this encounter with a wild marsupial. When I returned an hour later to check on her, she was gone.

Several weeks have passed since my last opossum encounter. I think about her, worry about her, my city opossum. It’s snowy today, and the temperature has dropped below zero. Where has she holed up? Are her hairless ears frostbitten? How will she find enough food to survive the winter? And when will I see her again?

Nadja Lubiw-Hazard is a Toronto-based writer, an educator and a veterinarian. She holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Guelph. Nadja is a vegan and an animal advocate; she has volunteered for many years with Zoocheck, an animal protection group in Canada. She works part time as a veterinarian at the Toronto Humane Society. Her work has been published in Room, Canthius, Understorey and The Dalhousie Review. Her first novel, The Nap-Away Motel will be published in spring 2019 by Palimpsest Press. You can find her online at www.nmlhazard.com.

Image by Specialjake, CC BY-SAhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Didelphis_virginiana_with_young.JPG

Look, a Lizard!

by Rick Kempa

or rather, the lizard,
my neighbor (not my “pet”)
who, like me, spends the day
moving in and out of the sun,
I with my lawn chair, he (less laden)
from under his rock where he has

scooped out a nest of needles
in the soft dirt to the top of it—
cooling off, warming up: we
are serious about our work. I confess
I am envious of his rock. He’s
there now, gripping the granules

with his long toes, cocking his head
this way and that, exquisitely alert
to the fly buzz—heralding, he hopes,
his next meal, which is more than
I’ve thought through. Neighbor,
I have much to learn from you.

Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, USA, where he recently finished his thirtieth and final year of teaching at Western Wyoming College. An avid backpacker and desert-lover, he edited the anthology ON FOOT: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories and co-edited Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon. His latest poetry collection is Ten Thousand Voices. www.rickkempa.com

Porth Mawr, Pembrokeshire

by Rob Pickford

All summer the beach had rung to the sounds of children and witnessed the silent shouts of surfers. This evening a quiet stillness envelopes my walk. The first equinoctial storm has now fled east. Only a hint of breeze drifts a briny scent and what they used to call ozone across the beach. I see a few souls and their dogs scattered along the strand but my interest is in what is left along the shore.

The beach is arranged in lines. Furthest out the waves gather up their remaining strength then slide in intersecting films, before a fringe of white brocade melts into the sand. A hushed flop of waves leaves a sheen of water that paints the sand. It’s not the sea that holds the brush but the insubstan-tial light. Greens of fields, the black of rock, the browns of muddy cliffs shimmer across the wet. Only by my feet does the expected white tinted blue of sky take hold.

The sand’s still wet where the tide reached furthest up the beach. It is flecked with grains of slate and strewn with the dark greens of slippery bladderwrack. The seaweed humped in clusters mirrors ancient crabs that seek the sea. Sand-hoppers dance their urgent attendance. A myriad of holes pockmark the sand where air trapped beneath had been released by the tide. Feathers shine, rinsed clean. Small stones, grey, purple and marroon are set in clasps of sand, indented where the easy flow of water took another path.

It’s only now I see the twist of splintered scattered bones, empty-eyed, adored with ragged oilless feathers. The last evidence of shearwaters, cast along the shore. They lie contorted like fossils in a sandy flag of stone. Looking ahead I start to count the numbers left behind and think of how we play a part in their demise. Is this the price we make them pay for our affair with coal and oil? Of course there have always been storms but with this frequency and intensity? And now that rancid smell, too strong to come from these small birds, catches in my throat. There, up by the cliff, two juvenile Atlantic Grey seals lie half buried in the softer wind blown sand. Their off white coats still shining with a hint of grey, undemanding and unobtrusive now, waiting for the gulls.

Behind them in the low cliff, the slates and sandstones are twisted and splintered out of line by continents that shifted shape. I trace the rollercoaster lines of strata downward until the faults cast the rocks back into the earth. Higher up it looks as though a knife has sliced through them where, some time ago, the sea has planed these rocks flat. There, resting like the vertebrae of a long-gone leviathan, 23 white boulders stretch out along this ancient beach. The sea is rising once again. Biting into the shrapneled boulder clay it reveals the shapes from a long-forgotten time.

Walking back along the beach I see the setting sun pick out my trail of steps, here filled with water, there washed away, transient indents along the boundaries of the shore. I look out across the beach to the islands beyond and think that at first that it is just the sea that moves. However the totality of the landscape was and will always be in flux, each part coiling and uncoiling around the other. We too are part of that and have our say. The deaths along the beach show that ours is not a little say. The deeper rhythms however drive a longer song. Like the sand hoppers we dance with urgency and light up the day. We may dance well or we may not but we perform on a temporary stage.

Rob Pickford’s commitment to wildlife grew from many years walking the hills and coasts of Wales. He is Chair of the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales and is a student on the MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University.

Two poems by J V Birch

Bat

And then a bat

__________________swoops from a tree

_________________________________________its wingspan sharp

_________________________________________& the length of you

__________________bears down for a beat

broad & brooding

__________________like something not said

_________________________________________before losing its impact

_________________________________________pinwheeling away

__________________to punctuate the sky

with its dark

Weddell seal

It lives on ice shelves around Antarctica

we’re told

further south on the planet than any other mammal.

The known record for holding its breath is ninety-six minutes.

The video’s on a loop

opens with an empty breathing hole.

Pristine blue water rocks before up it pops

in a cold gasp

drawing lungfuls of breath for all its worth.

It has an old baby face

with liquid black eyes and a Mona Lisa smile

like it knows what we don’t.

Looks like a fat puddin’ ready for bakin’

a tourist sniggers to another.

Glasshouses I think

and take a step away towards this circle of life.

These poems are included in J V Birch’s new collection more than here.

J V Birch lives in Adelaide. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, journals and magazines across Australia, the UK, Canada and the US. She has three chapbooks – Smashed glass at midnight, What the water & moon gave me and A bellyful of roses – with Ginninderra Press and blogs at www.jvbirch.com