May Flowers

In the midst of winter, when daylight is fleeting and nature’s attire muted, I thirst for more sunshine and color. It is almost inconceivable that the vegetation that appears lifeless will revive once more. Even though winter solstice holds the promise that daytime will lengthen and nighttime lessen, those changes are imperceptible for nearly a month. The longer days do not translate into Flora’s reawakening immediately, and despite a glimpse of some green here, or of some pink or yellow there, the lifeblood arrives only in a trickle, not a steady flow. At this point I am grateful for the precocious hyacinths and daffodils that peek their little heads above ground, even if it is still blanketed in snow.

When I blink again, it is May, and the trickle-flow has swelled to a flood. Previously leafless trees don first a gauzy veil, and next an emerald robe. Where last season’s flower stalks still stand brown and desiccated, new green shoots suddenly appear, and before I turn around, bear candles of purple, cups of orange, clusters of red.

I am not an ardent gardener, but I like to get soil under my fingernails now and again. Having inherited a patch of soil, we try to keep it up for the birds, the bees, and the butterflies. Previous caretakers left their own touches, and we encourage their legacy, while seed by seed, we add our own. Permissive gardening might be our maxim, and our lawn is the antithesis of immaculate, and our flower beds the opposite of ornamental. We stopped using herbicides a few years back, and other than the occasional digging of dandelions and pulling of other so-called weeds, anything goes.

Where the grass dies, we sow wildflower seeds. Silvery Lupines have established themselves well, similar to its neighbor, Western Blue Flax. Whoever makes its acquaintance learns to marvel at its daily pattern. Come morning, it forms a lake of blue saucers, come evening, its wiry stems are nearly bare. Repeat performance the following day. Every year, the sea of blue extends slightly more beyond the shore, and we look forward to our future backyard ocean.

Various strains of roses, peonies and irises are our only claims to respectability. The yet-to-bloom lilies might qualify as well.

California Poppies tilt their smiley faces toward the sun before wrapping themselves in a tight cone in the course of the day. Goat’s Beard (aka Yellow Salsify), a European import, follows suit, before it transforms into a blow ball reminiscent of dandelions. Johnny Jump Ups are content with their rocky residence at the south side of the house. My favorite childhood flowers, snapdragons, rear up in a variety of locations.

Among our much loved floral companions are columbines. Years ago, a handful of seeds germinated, and what started with a few isolated plants has spread like a joyful riot among the juniper, rose bushes, and cinquefoil. The Colorado Blue Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) happens to be our state flower, and in our yard it coexists with its many variants. Whoever chose its genus name, Aquilegia, saw in its blossom an eagle’s claw (aquila is Latin for eagle); whoever named it columbine, envisioned a dove (columba is Latin for dove).

“Earth laughs in flowers,” Ralph Waldo Emerson concluded. I gratefully join in its laughter.

Pikes Peak

The highest heights have inspired humankind since times immemorial. In Colorado, we are spoiled not only with lofty mountains, but with a generous number of 14ers: at least 53 stretch above fourteen thousand feet, though the actual number is still debated, depending on the definition used. That Colorado Springs was put on the map had much to do with the proximity of one of these giants. The city’s founder General William Jackson Palmer thought it the perfect neighbor.

American Indian tribes knew this mountain, venerated it and its spirits, and called it by different names. Other early visitors to the region likely laid eyes on it, and chose their own appellations. We know that the local band of Utes thought of it as “Tava”, meaning sun, and they were known as Tabeguache (People of Sun Mountain). It is ironic that the man for whom the mountain was named was not among the summiteers, but also understandable, considering that Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) and his men were ill-prepared for a winter ascent in November 1806, when they explored portions of the new United States territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Before designated trails, attaining the mountaintop at 14,115 feet on foot must have been an even greater physical challenge than it is on existing paths today. The most popular approaches are the 12.5 mile Barr Trail from Manitou Springs up its east slope, starting at an elevation of 6,800 feet, and the shorter, 7 mile hike across the northwest slope beginning at an altitude of 10,000 feet near the Crags. Both are worth every drop of sweat and every rise in heartbeat.

As some are not inclined or able to cover such distances on foot, soon after settlement of the region other means to arrive at the summit were contrived. A crude carriage road was completed in 1887, and a railroad in 1891. Improvement on the road commenced in 1915, in order to make it more accessible for automobiles. Eventually, the nineteen mile Pikes Peak Highway between Cascade and the top was paved all the way.

A remarkable woman who challenged herself before the existence of trails and who did not mind the perspiration was Julia Archibald Holmes (1838-1887), one of the Bloomer Girls, and the topic of a previous post, who summited on foot in the summer of 1858. Another visitor particularly entranced by the summit experience was Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), English professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1893, she taught at Colorado College during the summer semester. Unlike Julia, she chose to ride to the roof of Colorado in a carriage. Notwithstanding her breathlessness, the superb vistas moved her to wax lyrical. Her poem was later turned into a song many Americans consider an alternative to the national anthem: America the Beautiful. A bronze plaque at the summit is engraved with the first two stanzas, and a bronze statue of the author gazes at the source of her inspiration from in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum downtown.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties,

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

 

The Lowly Sparrow

House Sparrows might be among the most successful bird species. Originating in Europe and Asia, they were introduced to North America in 1851 by Eugene Schieffelin in an attempt to combat a caterpillar-caused tree infestation in New York City. According to lore, he was also responsible for the release of 100 European Starlings in Central Park in the early 1890s as part of the romantic effort to introduce all Shakespearean birds to the New World. Both species took one look around, and decided to stay. It is estimated that today there might be as many as 500 million house sparrows, and 200 million starlings in North America. Ironically, their declining numbers in parts of Europe have been cause for concern.

From New York City, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) conquered the majority of the North American continent, except for Alaska and parts of northern Canada. It has also spread to portions of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. A gregarious, garrulous bird, it nearly always flocks with its confrères and consoeurs. Many dislike the sparrow, consider it a pest, a rival of native species with whom it competes for food and nesting places. I am of the opinion that non-native animals and plants have always followed in the wake of human movement, and that to try to fight this reality is a battle predestined to fail.

Male House Sparrow

Female House Sparrow

I find it hard not to be cheered by this lively, inquisitive, and intrepid little bird that weighs no more than an ounce (30 grams). Despite a limited color spectrum, its white, gray, black, and brown to reddish feathers are arranged in an attractive pattern. What its voice lacks in melodiousness, it makes up for with nearly incessant chattering and chirping. The resourceful species has thrived in many an environment, but as the name suggests, it has a tendency to stay close to human habitation. Its natural diet consists chiefly of seeds, supplemented by insects, but in reality it is an omnivore, and I worry slightly about its appetite for human junk food. Whether at backyard feeders, in city plazas, at train stations (or airports), where there is chow, sparrows abound.

Not so long ago I experienced – and enjoyed – a personal reminder of their ubiquity. While awaiting my departure from Denver International Airport last November, my husband and I were surrounded by sparrows, in the dining area, inside the terminal! They kept a close eye on the goings-on and were quick to swoop down for any sign of dropped or discarded food, fluttering from roof to floor, from floor to chair, from chair to table, from table to roof, where they must have found openings that allow in- and egress. Despite all the valid and valuable arguments against this type of scenario, I simply smiled, and clicked away with my camera.

Cheers to the omnipresent, adaptable, and always-in-a-good-mood house sparrows who have made my day more than once!

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/05/16/der-bescheidene-spatz/

Lessons Of Nature

The morning hours of May 1 have been among the best so far this month. I passed them at a favorite local park, al fresco, with avian and other critters, away from humans. Birds do not make rude remarks, cut or flip me off in traffic. Squirrels do not show me the cold shoulder because I don’t share their religious or political convictions. Prairie dogs do not snub me on account of my eye, hair, or skin color, inadequate attire, awkward accent.

My need to be outdoors is inversely proportional to my level of frustration with (wo)mankind. Whenever it reaches a high (or low) point, as happens increasingly frequently, nothing helps restore my equilibrium, or at least inch me toward that elusive state, as simply being present in nature: seeing the sun rise, hearing the birds greet the new day with crystal-clear voices, watching the flowers open their faces to the light (or close them, as is the case with the dazzling night-blooming evening primrose whose petals curl and turn pink in the morning).

Monumental mountains grounded since times immemorial, trees rooted deeply in the earth, banks of condensing and dissipating clouds, the sun’s arc across the sky. They recall to me the big picture, put things in perspective. They help ground me, remind me that nature is cyclical, human nature included. That my own existence is ephemeral, that my real or perceived grievances are insignificant. We are here one moment, gone the next.

All I can do is savor the NOW, let go of matters vexatious, appreciate all that is good and beautiful: the cycles of the cosmos, the loveliness of the land, the verdant veil that finally adorns arbors after a long winter, the bright blossoms that beckon bees and butterflies, the birds that never fail to gladden the heart.

Meet The Cat

May I introduce Spunkmeyer, ferocious feline I recently cared for during her owners’ vacation. Even though the name evokes a lad (at least in my mind), Spunky is a lady – an old dame at that – preparing to celebrate her fourteenth birthday in the not too distant future. Up until this cat-sitting experience, I had encountered these capricious creatures only intermittently since my childhood days, when we “owned” a series of them. As any ailurophile (thanks to Merriam-Webster for featuring this delicious Word of the Day a few years back) will attest, it would be more accurate to say that they own us, one of the facts I was reminded of.

Another was the independent character of domesticated tigers. Whereas our former dogs anxiously awaited our arrival after an absence, and greeted us happily and wholeheartedly, Spunkmeyer only showed her fuzzy face upon my return to her realm after an interval deigned appropriate by her, though this lag time diminished, the longer our acquaintance. Rattling a bag with her favorite snack, freeze-dried minnows, also hastened her appearance. At least in this regard she acted predictably, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Unless I twist logic by stating that what was always predictable was her unpredictability.

I could neither anticipate her mood, nor her food preference, though I quickly learned what ranked last among the collection of canned food, as beef remained untouched in her bowl most of the time. Once she was over the initial shock of seeing me enter the house, rather than her two favorite humans, and once she accepted that I was the only warm body for the time being, she actually demanded attention, typically by sitting on her haunches, prairie dog-like, and by staring at me intently. This plea for petting did not preclude a dramatic reversal of temper, and I was unable to foresee if and when she would give me the evil eye. One moment she rolled onto her side and frolicked under my caresses, the next she swatted at me. She finally made me understand that she expected me to sit in one of her armchairs, preferably with a soft blanket on my legs, so that she could snuggle in my lap. In those idyllic instances she expressed her contentment by a constant kneading motion of her velvety paws, and by a perpetual, pervasive purr. This manifestation of feline pleasure and relaxation also translated into mine, as I was receiving a massage while simultaneously listening to a soothing tune. However, as if to reassert her reputation of cantankerousness and independence, a slight shift or leg movement on my part annoyed her highness, caused her to growl, to hiss, and to throw me a fierce glance. A lion-like roar generally signaled the abrupt end of this harmonious scene. These times of mutual delight, however brief, might be the (only) reason why we humans still cling to the myth that we can “tame” cats.

Thank you, Spunky, for abiding my presence in your queendom, and for blessing me with at least a few blissful moments, when I indulged in the illusion that you actually liked, rather than simply tolerated me. If there is a next time, I will try to be a better human being and live up to your standards.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/05/02/alles-fur-die-katz/