Familiar Things

At last, a summer that doesn’t blister the skin. We have our hot days, but they come and they go. A weekend prickly with white-blue heat, a few sweater-cool mornings, then a whole week of those bell-curved Goldilocks days when you never want to be indoors. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like, these past four drought-dogged summers. In August now, I feel safe giving thanks for the most normal hot season we’ve had in years.

Not including the occasional precipitation, the back-patio-sitting has been particularly fine. I’m sure I ought to be out walking, but there’s something about summer and sitting on the porch. I always have a book, as often closed as open. There’s occupation in the shifting patterns of leaf and cloud and sun, the breeze-stirred shadows playing over my skin. And wildlife watching has the lazy woman’s advantage – the animals come to me.


A ragged-edged squirrel spends his afternoons foraging in my maple tree. Most of the time he hunts obliviously over my head, but every so often a turned page or a cat’s tail talking in the window startles him to battle frenzy. For a tense few minutes, he bulks up and squares off and chitters forth a murderous stream of consciousness. My favorite part is watching him visibly lose interest, turning away suddenly to his maple seeds. He remembers several times a day there’s a chip on his shoulder, but he just can’t hold that grudge.

The ospreys that nest across the street have small ones, and they spend most of their time either fishing for or shouting at their young. Either way, it’s not a quiet process: when I can’t see them, I can hear them. As long as they swoop and screech from my Doug firs during daylight hours, I love their boisterous family dynamics. At 3am I curse them as though they were robins.

Those last have gone mostly silent – for which I am willing, finally, to praise them – but towhees still shrill from the shadows of the sprawled rhododendron at patio’s edge. Breeds of finch I can’t yet tell apart hop aggressively from cover across open ground laced with dry roots. I think of prehistoric raptors, and I’m grateful for the luxury to imagine these razor-edged passerines are cute.


On another porch, a few weeks back, I watched a finch land on the lip of a hanging basket, then thread her way through swollen stems of Angel-wing begonia. (You can tell it’s someone else’s porch because I couldn’t grow an Angel-wing begonia to save my life.) A storm of frantic peeping swirled up from the dimness, abruptly silenced when Mama Finch reappeared and headed out to work again. I watched her coming and going – 20 minutes, then 35, between visits – before I stood on a chair to peer through the scarlet blossoms at her young.

I might never have seen them if they hadn’t been so hungry. Skinny and dirt-colored little things, they possessed a dozen feathers between them, just enough to make them look very much like potting soil. Four heads, though, telescoped automatically upward as the branches parted, like paper nestlings in a children’s pop-up book. Triangular beaks stretched wide for sustenance. Those ravenous beaks are huge and yellow, clearly the most important facial feature at this stage. Their owners cut the peeping almost instantly – you’re not my mother – and melted silently back into the soil.

That was July. The begonias are still weeping crimson blooms, but the mother finch has done her job, and her brood is fledged and flown.

If afternoons are for porch-sitting, early mornings are the best for summer strolls. By the bay, the resident Canada geese still trail teenagers, but the lines between child and adult blur more each week. The young geese are slightly smaller than their parents, with necks a soft chocolate brown shading into their breast feathers, instead of cut-crisp black. The mallards have grown up, too, with one exception: just yesterday, I spotted a single duckling still golden-brown and fluffy, tearing about in mad pursuit of something only she knew. Her extended family dabbled all around, unconcerned.

Summer birdwatching is less exotic than winter. The lake at Crystal Springs, flocked with hundreds of gabbling waterfowl in January, is a poverty of ducks now, measured in both diversity and sheer numbers. Only the resident mallards hold court among the round-humped rocks beneath the entrance bridge, between willow-fingers trailing in the shallows. I rarely return in the warm season, but I’m glad I broke my routine, wandering slowly with my mother through the early morning garden. The ducks aren’t advertising. But now I know what to look for, their world is full of things I’ve never seen.


The furtive miracle of eclipse, for example. I learned of it only months ago, and here it is in the flesh and feathers: a summer gathering comprising about half male and half female mallards – yet they all look the same. Or not quite the same: up close, males have muddy yellow bills and plumage blurred and tattered. The ladies look much as they always do: neat orange bills, bodies distinctly shingled in brown and cream. I needed a second look to confirm, and then I stood beside myself with the thrill of discovery. I’ve simply never noticed a drake without his iridescent headdress and grey and white suiting, yet here were dozens in their summer casuals, dabbling under the radar. A hundred yards on, a family of wood ducks slipped from the cover of the cattails. I looked twice and sure enough: the owners of those piercing orange eyes were males, sporting the understated grey mohawks of eclipse plumage.

The miracle here is how I never saw this fact of nature until I had a name to call it down. The idea that names are power informs many a fantasy novel. Its application in the realist fiction of our own lives is less obvious, if no less dramatic, and played out on a smaller, daily scale. Names are a key to the senses. A kayak instructor once pointed out the clattering of a kingfisher, a sound I’d certainly heard but never trained my hearing on. Now my river mornings are alive with stocky, point-beaked birds eyeing slippery bodies below – though often enough I never see them.

I like the phenomenon of eclipse for the precision of its naming as well. To eclipse is to overshadow, and this is exactly what this change of feathers does to male ducks. Briefly, during their post-parental molt, they cannot fly, and our human speculation is that their less exultant non-breeding plumage helps them hide from predators during these summer weeks. I wonder if it’s a welcome break for them, or a time of flightless worry.

I stumble on this sort of information as often as I seek it out. Every time, my map of the natural world draws new lines, etch-a-sketch style, and slowly – or sometimes startlingly – colors them in. It’s an addictive sensation. I can’t force it – which is maybe a good thing for any activity I’m willing to bestow such an adjective upon.

The most fledgling of naturalists, I am trying to teach myself to ask better questions of my senses. I’ll be here on the porch for months yet: watching and listening, reading and researching, every so often, unfocused and unnaming. Between these things, I learn more of the world than only myself. Though it is impossible to claim that my self is not the point: it is I who will carry these observations forward, shaping them, with everything else I learn, into a life of familiar things.

To notice with care is a skill I admire in others. It is hard for me to practice with humans; I’m distracted by the complex emotional screens we erect around every conversation. Ducks, squirrels, moss, and rhododendrons do not filter themselves – that I know of – and it is not a stretch to respond in kind. Disinterested intimacy flows easier. It’s beginner practice for the complexities of attention to my own species, possibly; also a simplified pursuit with its own harvest of familiar joys. I find, either way, the greatest wonder in the things I thought I already knew.



One thought on “Familiar Things

  1. Was great to be there with you at Crystal Springs, and have you point out to me the eclipse plumage of the mallard drakes, and the wood ducks. Thanks for the week of beauty, quiet and discovery, always more pleasant in your company.


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