Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Part of the Woods

I spent some time in the woods last week, a camera I hoped to use judiciously hanging from my neck and a gun I wasn’t thrilled about firing idle on my lap. I am usually enthusiastic come deer season because I like venison and being outdoors even on chilly days. But my objective this year was to shoot a buck with my camera.

The woods woke up around 6:30 when gray squirrels began to emerge from nighttime hiding places and forage for food. At least foraging was what they were supposed to do. They played instead, amusing themselves with a game of chase and the sounds they could make while clambering on and around the hollow trunk of a dead tree.

Squirrels are a lot like children. One leaped from a thin branch high above the forest floor to another equally thin branch. The squirrel that was tailing thought twice about making the jump and acted as if he had heard something, likely to buy some time and hope his compadre came back over. That didn’t happen and, with some hesitancy, the second one finally crossed the span. Later, the two met face to face while chasing and one thumped the other across the shoulders. Twice. Either a way of saying “I can’t belive you made me make that jump,” or “I can’t believe you didn’t follow me right away,” since I couldn’t tell who was who in the conversation.

Around eight, does began to wander through the area. Three came toward my stand, stopping about twenty-five yards away, acting as if they felt something was wrong, something they couldn’t quite place a hoof on. They carefully stepped toward some brush, often glancing at me in my stand, sixteen feet up the side of a tree. They disappeared into the brush.

I watched a brown creeper scale a tree next to mine and looked across the hills to spy Canada geese patrolling the skies. Crows had begun holding conventions in other trees nearby, their calls like speeches from windy keynoters. A runt squirrel was playing alone, away from but in sight of others. He had probably heard that he was too young for squirrel games so many times that he had created his own versions.

The deer trio came back after being gone just ten minutes or so. This time they snorted at me in unison, and I snorted back. I’ve done this before and can hold a deer in rapt attention for a few minutes while they try to decipher my broken whitetail. They finally gave a last, hearty bellow and ran up the adjoining hill, out of sight.

They were young deer, traveling with their momma and were in no danger from me. Even if I had been there for venison, I would have looked elsewhere. Still, I’m sure their conversation at deer camp that night was how brave they had been in the face of danger, and the fact that I never picked up my rifle probably never made it into their version of the story. They were likely great heroes who had thwarted the efforts of a human perched way up in a tree.

I never did see a buck, although I had come across a scrape line that was active. But the stories I saw being told, the communications I got to see, the conversation I got to make, made this deer week rank up with one of my best. There is something about being in a tree when the woods wake up that makes me feel a part of the scene instead of a mere observer.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I awoke at 3:30 this morning, dreaming my backyard was filled with deer. In my dream, I stepped out onto the deck to find a couple of fawns playing, then looked to my right and discovered a few does and three or four more fawns. I could hear a buck snorting as I watched another doe squeeze her way through a small hole in the privacy fence. Just as I thought to go back inside to fetch my camera, the deer lined up for a march through another hole in the fence and they all disappeared.

But deer slipping down the rabbit hole wasn't what woke me. I wanted to catch the Perseid meteor shower, something that had eluded me during normal waking hours.

When I stepped out into this summer night, it wasn't deer that greeted me but a symphony led by a large and boisterous cricket section with a much smaller but very resonant group of frogs croaking the rhythm. Car tires on a highway in the distance tried to solo, but only managed to lend a meager humanized voice to melodic chirping.

I am no stranger to stargazing and have learned that it works best to claim a section of sky and scan it continually by moving my eyes only, not my head and neck. It isn't much different from fishing in that regard. If a spot in the pool of stars is unproductive, try a different spot. You know they're out there, just be patient.

As I waited, I was astounded at how many commercial aircraft were in the air even at this hour. So many red-eye flights. Flashing lights that crept quietly until they passed overhead and the hiss of jet engines caught up with them.

Satellites appear with stealth and cunning. A surprise movement in a sea of stillness, they creep along, unannounced and sudden, like a deer that makes a mysterious entrance in the woods. I have often had dreams of staring into night skies, looking for something, only to find all the stars rearrange themselves right before my eyes.

Not the peak time for Perseids, this hour, but I saw a quick flash in my peripheral vision. Then another. A third was nearly transparent, a ghostly apparition in the pre-dawn hours of, Friday the thirteenth. Not that I see that as a bad thing. I turned thirteen on a Friday the thirteenth. And that was, well, a bit more than thirteen years ago.

When my kids were young, they liked for me to wake them on peak meteor nights so they could join me on the deck, or on the trampoline at the time, where we would gaze in different directions until we pinpointed where all the meteors were most likely to be spotted and we shared our finds. We talked about astronomy, Einstein, forever, vastness, time and space. Topics difficult to grasp in daylight hours and especially tasty to discuss in clandestine hours when children should be fast asleep.

A bright meteor parted the sky, leaving a contrail behind. A wispy line of vapor to mark it's brief presence in the world. Then it was gone. It seemed so close, close enough that I should have heard some sound as it passed, but only the orchestral interpretations of my nighttime friends played on.

Another long streak, this one glowing bright in a final gasp as it dissolved into the atmosphere. A few more, some quick bursts, several long shimmering tails, but no others leaving behind visible vapor maps.

Four thirty. I had seen about sixty dust particles burn in brilliance as the band played on. An hour nothing shy of amazing for me. I am a stargazer and always have been. I always will be. Flashes of fleeting light, grasped for a moment by my eyes to play in my mind forever.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Winds of Change

At the pinnacle of my career success, I knew beyond any doubt that everything I had ever done toward my chosen field had prepared me for the precise moment I was living. My education, the people I had worked with, failures, successes, all the experiences I had collected were part of this knowledge storehouse I could tap into at will and find something that applied.

I was given the keys to be very creative with our policies and I took full advantage of my time in the driver's seat. I was a trusted advisor to peers and superiors, the go-to guy and the face of the company throughout a long slog of a battle against a union that some of our employees were fighting hard to bring in. After that two year battle to oust the Teamsters, a battle that was in many ways similar to a political campaign, I was tapped to usher in a new direction for the plant's employee involvement process. We started Kaizen teams and worked together to make rapid improvements in the manufacturing process.

And then, it all ended.

Rumors and speculation were rampant as to why the company would choose to close its most productive, most efficient, lowest cost producing plant. But the reasons didn't matter as much as the fact that it had happened and I was tasked with dismantling the lives of over 500 people who had come to earn a living making plastic toys. Even in that dismal time, I could see how my past experiences had prepared me for that moment, that time, that era. I reconstructed my department - human resources - into an outplacement service for our people and I went about trying to keep spirits afloat while we tore apart all that had become familiar.

After the doors closed, I lost my way career-wise. Like an ant scuffling as it tries to find its way back to the trail, I tried to grasp something that made sense for me. I consulted in human resources for a while, tried out another company or two, but HR no longer held an interest for me. I had grown weary of it all, I suppose. I owned a small business for nearly a decade, but I don't think I was all that good at being a businessman. Too many big ideas and too little budget to stretch over them.

But, finally, the winds are shifting again. I'm starting to see how all those experiences I've collected are once again pointing me to forge a new trail and see where it leads.

My first love always was producing the written word. I abandoned that dream to do something sensible and stable, like managing human resources in manufacturing companies. It's a return to my roots, an exploration of my faith in me, and a quenching of the dream I have always adored only to shove back into the closet like a once favored childhood toy. Only this time, it isn't a toy. It's for real.

And for the first time since those days of campaign tactics, new directions, inspiring others and trying out whole new concepts, I feel that everything I have ever done toward my new chosen field has led me to this very moment I am living today.

I think we all have to face a world that looks very different than it did when our lives began. The old securities are no longer valid. The trust that one could spend an entire career with one company is now so fragile it is a rare exception if it exists at all. So the only other option is to remake ourselves. It isn't a big deal because we do it all the time. We were students, who became workers. Maybe we were college students once. We got that promotion, changed industries, changed careers, our companies were sold, broken up and resold. It is how we survive, how we learn, how we continue to collect those valuable experiences that will prepare us for the next leg of the journey. We choose, we learn, we grow, we choose again. There are no assurances that all our choices will be good ones, or that we will prosper because of them. In a recent movie, Clint Eastwood's character said, "if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster."

I think I'll eat my bread untoasted, thank you, and follow my dreams instead.

Friday, July 30, 2010

One Hour on a Lake

A summer weekday with humidity levels and air temperatures both in the mid-eighties led me to believe it was a perfect day to grab a kayak and explore. So, I headed out to Springfield Lake where the city’s parks department runs a nice pavilion and rents kayaks for $8 an hour.

Life jacket on, paddle in hand and an eight-foot Old Towne that still had the slight scent of sunscreen as a lingering reminder of the last renter, and I was ready to shove off. Once I made it past the vegetation growing along the shoreline, it was clear paddling. I headed toward the upper end of the lake, toward the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Nature Center.

Almost as soon as I passed the boat launch, I began to feel the calming influences that only a journey into nature can bring. Fish were jumping everywhere I looked and it made me wish I had thought to bring my angling gear along. Most of them were baitfish, but a small bass surfaced every now and then and could have fallen for a top-water Zara Spook.

The lake narrows between a tall bluff and a small island dense with vegetation, and with pink and white hibiscus in bloom in thick patches. I had spotted a heron there on my last trip and was able to get within 15 feet or so of him, the low profile of the kayak perhaps making my human shape seem less threatening. This time, I heard him crying out with a prehistoric voice from the other side of the island. The trees and brush blocked my view but added to the sense of being somewhere far away in time and place.

Homes dot the top of the bluff but are often obscured by trees and blend with the landscape. I saw a groundhog work its way out of a crevice in one bluff and followed its gaze to the backyard of a home where a man in coveralls was digging into another crevice, probably looking for that same ground hog. I wished I had brought my camera, but without a dry-bag on this trip, I did not want to take the chance of flipping my craft and losing my gear to the bottom of Springfield Lake.

My trip continued past the nature center’s photography blind and under an old railroad bridge, all the while accompanied only by the sounds of birds and bugs, the splash of fish. I did glide past a grandfather gently rowing a canoe while his excited eight year old grandson cast a line and bobber toward shore. They waved “hello” and said it was awfully hot, but they had landed one fish. Not bad for an overly eager young boy.

Not long after I passed them, a doe and a fawn slipped out from near a nature center path and hastily sipped from the lake before easing back into cover.

Paddling past the pylons of that trestle bridge, the sounds of nature were soon drowned by the roar of diesel engines and by hot tires on baked asphalt as I neared the Highway 65 bridge. Clearly, it was time to turn around.

Behind me, clouds were building quickly to form a pop-up shower that would instantly relieve the heat but leave its signature on the humidity. I estimated I had time to make it back to the dock before that happened, even with a brief side trip into the marshy area near the little island.

As I passed the nature center grounds on the return leg of my journey, I faintly heard at least twenty-seven of the forty questions being posed by a young voice that seemed to be filled with awe. I didn’t hear the adult responses, but there was not much room in the monologue for replies.

By the time I reached the marsh area, I glanced at my watch and realized I still had about ten minutes left on my hour of rental, so I steered into the grasses. The water was shallow and mud swirled from the bottom, maybe stirred by turtles and other creatures looking for a meal. Tufts of grass in green and gold poked up through the water and a red-winged blackbird took flight from one of them to signal my approach.

The clouds were beginning to thicken like gravy and my time was just about up, so I headed back to the dock, turned in my equipment and reminisced a moment about how easily an hour on the water could melt away any cares or troubles.

I closed my truck door, grabbed my notepad and began to jot down a few reminders of my kayak journey just as the first few sprinkles tapped on the windshield.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I am convinced that the hummingbirds frequenting my feeders communicate with me. No, the heat hasn't affected my good senses. After all, it's not like we discuss politics or Proust or trade jabs. The conversation isn't spoken, so I don't hear tiny voices, but the topic is something very dear to a hummingbird's heart - food.

Over the years, I have observed hummers check the feeder, not sample the sweet nectar inside and simply fly up to the window, then move horizontally in a deliberate, sometimes jerky pattern. They do this once or twice before flying off. Sometimes they return and follow the same pattern.

Actually, it did not take long to discover why they did this little dance. The nectar wasn't so sweet after all. It had become soured by the heat of day or had disappeared completely and the fluid needed a refill. So, I made up new batches of sugar water, cleaned the feeders and refilled them.

Happy hummers. I know that because they returned, took a long drink, then hovered in front of the picture window and moved vertically a few times before flying off to another location. Side to side = "bad food," up and down = "we like this snack."

Scientists have discovered that communications does occur across species, and we are aware of that to some degree, too. Bats are known to be able to send out a sort of radar signal, and decipher the echo as their own, a colleague's or a sound emitted by an insect, or some other creature. And numerous studies have discussed the way dolphins communicate with humans. Same with pets - dogs, cats. When they need attention, pet owners know it by the animal's body language or by their whimpering. When those pets are hungry, they let us know.

In an ultimate example of cross-species communication and cooperation, I once heard a story about a fishing village that had a unique relationship with a pod of killer whales. It seems the killer whales knew where the larger whales were, the ones the fishermen were after. Not having the means to bring down these larger beasts, the killer whales showed fishermen the location. Their quest was simply for the tongues, leaving the rest of the animal to feed the fishermen and their families. A symbiotic relationship constructed through communication.

My hummers are not unique. I have heard of others in different states that hover inches away from a homeowner (the food provider's) face, but buzzing close to the ears of visitors they do not recognize, apparently to say "hello," or "who the hell are you?" I am certain there are plenty of other examples of hummingbird antics that really are means of communicating with humans.

Communications itself is a fascinating subject. The thought that I can write this with a series of symbols and you can look at them, decipher their meaning and maybe even create your own group of symbols in answer to mine is heady stuff. And that doesn't even begin to touch communicating through the spoken word, or art, photography, video, sounds or dance. But the concept of communicating with animals outside the human realm is, to me, nothing short of incredible.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Descendants

Poised like paratroopers on D-Day,‭ ‬we waited for our signal to jump,‭ ‬to make the leap of our lives,‭ ‬the one we had trained for and from which we would not return.‭ ‬I could feel the wind in my face,‭ ‬all of us could,‭ ‬and our anticipation grew stronger.‭ ‬We had been told countless times not to look down because the act could stir panic in our hearts,‭ ‬and our instructors would have no choice but to shake us loose and let us drop.‭ ‬I tried to resist,‭ ‬but I couldn’t stop myself any more than a child could keep from reaching for a cookie in a forbidden jar.‭ ‬I looked down.‭ ‬Below me and as far as I could see,‭ ‬hundreds more of us who had already taken the leap were standing tall with hands raised in triumph like a classroom filled with students who already knew the answer.‭ ‬Instead of fear,‭ ‬I felt excitement.‭ ‬Soon,‭ ‬if all went well,‭ ‬I would be joining them on the ground,‭ ‬my own arms raised and beckoning those waiting for their turn to come join our noble cause.

Drilled into my brain and now as much a part of me as my own genetic code,‭ ‬I could still hear the words barked at us for what seemed like forever:‭ “‬Stick the landing,‭ ‬troops.‭ ‬It’s the most important thing you’ll ever do.‭ ‬Stick the landing and everything else will work out the way it’s supposed to.‭” ‬I wondered how many times I had heard that in my young life.

Soon,‭ ‬a rattle of conversation rode through the group in front of us and I knew their time had arrived.‭ ‬A wave of anxiety flowed through my team as we heard the commands,‭ “‬Get ready,‭ ‬now.‭ ‬It’s almost time.‭ ‬Be strong,‭ ‬don’t look down.‭ ‬Stick the landing.‭”‬

The wind seemed somehow stronger,‭ ‬and the group about to leap shook as they assembled into position.‭ “‬Let’s go‭! ‬Let’s go‭!” ‬And off they went,‭ ‬cut free and surfing the wind,‭ ‬cascading down,‭ ‬each one gently yet,‭ ‬as a group,‭ ‬feverishly like a winter flurry.

The wind was in their favor and the ones who had stuck the landing stretched their arms further,‭ ‬welcoming the torrent of newcomers descending though the spring air.‭ ‬Suddenly and unpredictably,‭ ‬the wind shifted.‭ ‬The group attempted evasive maneuvers as they had been taught to do since the early days of our training.‭ ‬I watched as they tried one stunt after another,‭ ‬exhausting their resources as they drifted further,‭ ‬further off course.‭ ‬A few,‭ ‬just a few,‭ ‬were successful and they were greeted warmly by those who had stuck the landing.‭ ‬But the rest were blown too far away for us to even hear them cry out or curse,‭ ‬if they had been doing either.‭ ‬Those were the ones who ended up falling on hard ground.‭ ‬They didn’t stick the landing,‭ ‬their arms weren’t raised in triumph and,‭ ‬instead,‭ ‬lay motionless at their sides.‭ ‬The anxiety on my team grew and a murmur soon arose that had to be quelled.

The instructors were on it.‭ “‬Listen up‭! ‬Listen up‭!” ‬they said.‭ “‬Some of them will make it,‭ ‬OK‭? ‬A great many will not,‭ ‬but we all know the odds don’t we‭? ‬Now look,‭ ‬it doesn’t mean that’s going to happen to you.‭ ‬Remember your lessons,‭ ‬don’t panic.‭ ‬You feel the drift,‭ ‬you start reacting immediately.‭ ‬You got that‭?”‬

We said yes,‭ ‬but they made us say it again,‭ ‬louder and with more vigor so it sounded like we really meant it and I suppose that effect was to console and encourage each other whether we believed what we were saying or not.‭ ‬It didn’t matter.‭ ‬We had little time to ponder sincerity when our own time for a jump was at hand.

I looked down again,‭ ‬at the hard place where most of the last group had landed,‭ ‬and down below where many more of the ones before had ended up.‭ ‬There were more of the latter and I convinced myself that the odds were in my favor.

“Let’s go‭! ‬Let’s go‭!” ‬And with that,‭ ‬our turn had finally come.‭ ‬There was no more time to worry,‭ ‬to grieve or to wonder.

We floated majestically and I looked around me to find a cadre of butterflies riding the breeze,‭ ‬laughing at the sheer delight of being airborne at last.‭ ‬The wind did not turn,‭ ‬remaining in our favor,‭ ‬away from the hard ground.‭ ‬We drifted and I looked down again.‭ ‬The others were waiting,‭ ‬and I was almost close enough to hear them call out a hooray.‭ ‬But the wind was not finished with me yet and I glided along a gentle current,‭ ‬actually floating up for a moment before cruising close to the ground.

Stick the landing‭! ‬I had almost forgotten the most important lesson of all.‭ ‬The one that meant a chance at success or the death of failure.‭ ‬I looked around.‭ ‬I was in position.‭ ‬I was almost there.‭ ‬Almost.‭ ‬There‭! ‬Softly into the grass,‭ ‬a spot all my own,‭ ‬near enough to be within sight of the others but far enough away that I had a chance.‭ ‬I had made it,‭ ‬and I had stuck the landing.‭ ‬The single most important journey of my life,‭ ‬a journey now at an end.‭ ‬I felt a melancholy ache,‭ ‬a memory made from what had become a quest fulfilled.‭ ‬There was little time to think about the past,‭ ‬for now it was time to dig in and allow a new adventure to take root.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fearless Finches

My bird feeders are hubs of activity each winter and into the early days of spring. Every year seems to attract new animals. There are always squirrels who never understand that black oil sunflower seeds are meant for birds, but are nonetheless entertaining to watch. Doves have been frequent visitors the past several seasons and are quite content to peck away at scraps and fallen seeds although I do admit to spreading bucketfuls of food directly on the ground especially for them. This year, finches have come to the feeders in large numbers. At times, as many as forty purple and gold finches have showed up at once to dine on the most tasty treat seed-eaters relish.

I don't know why so many finches suddenly found my feeders, but I have been very grateful to have the opportunity to watch them during this longer than usual winter season. They fly in and out quickly and occupy the branches of a maple tree where the feeders are hung, taking turns swooping onto a feeder or joining the doves in a picnic style meal on the ground.

For a small bird, I have discovered the finch to be fearless when it comes to watching over the food supply. They are not protective or territorial, sharing the harvest with sparrows, juncos, even blue jays. But they tend to give a gentle nudge when it is time for these other species to move on. I've watched blue jays eat while under the watchful eye of several finches until the smaller birds decide the big guys have had enough. A finch or two will fly in and kick the jay out, apparently asking him to kindly find other venues. Even ruffian black birds act intimidated by the presence of a dozen or so finches and have not bothered to stop by my feeders until recent days when the finch population has begun to seek seeds elsewhere.

Why such a small bird, even in large numbers, seems to control the behavior of bigger, more aggressive birds, I do not know. But I have watched the choreography all winter long as each species gets a turn at the feeders while minding the policing action of a few finches who have accepted a role as the ones in charge of keeping the lines moving and making certain everyone gets their share. No more, no less.

As winter's dull plumage gives way to the striking colors of summer, as natural food supplies blossom and mating season begins in earnest, it will be interesting to watch priorities change and see what these little critters do next, if they stick around. Whatever happens next, for me, it's great entertainment.