‘Tis The Season

‘Tis The Season… /Es ist die Zeit…

… for the days to shorten, and the nights to lengthen…

… für kürzere Tage und längere Nächte

… for the summer heat to be replaced by cool days and even cooler nights…

… in der die Hitze des Sommers mit kühlen Tagen und noch kühleren Nächten ersetzt wird

… for a last burst of color, before the plants shed their habiliments and show their equally attractive skeletons…

… für die letzte Farbexplosion der Pflanzen, bevor sie ihre Kostüme abwerfen, und uns ihre ebenso attraktiven Skelette zeigen

… for the decaying vegetation to transform itself into fertilizer and a rotten perfume that is nonetheless pleasing to the olfactory cortex…

… in der die Vegetation verrottet und sich in Dünger verwandelt, und trotzdem ein dem Riechhirn angenehmes Parfüm versprüht

… for the ripening of fruits and seeds that help nourish animals and humans alike…

… der reifenden Früchte und Samen, die Tiere und Menschen gleichermaßen nähren

… to mourn the disappearance of migratory birds, but to warmly welcome our winter guests…

… um das Verschwinden der Zugvögel zu betrauern, doch gleichzeitig unsere Wintergäste mit offenen Armen zu begrüßen

… to remember Colorado Springs resident and farmer, Nick Venetucci (1911-2004), aka “The Pumpkin Man,” who derived great pleasure from giving away thousands of these most iconic symbols of fall to local children each year, and who was commemorated with a beautiful monument adjacent to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum…

… Herrn Nick Venetucci (1911-2004) zu gedenken, der auch als „der Kürbisherr“ bekannt war, und dem es großes Gefallen bereitete, jahrelang diese ikonischen Herbstsymbole tausendfach an Kinder zu verschenken, und der mit einem wunderschönen Denkmal neben dem Colorado Springs Heimatmuseum geehrt wurde

… to wish happy autumn to us all…

uns allen einen schönen Herbst zu wünschen…

Squirrel Talk

If we squirrels spoke human, we might have a lot to say. We chatter all the time, and if you don’t understand squirrelese, that’s your problem. But to foster interspecies communication, here are some possible interpretations of our profound thoughts.

“We squirrels are gourmands by nature. We love to eat. That’s a dilemma on a frigid January morning, when we might have to resort to stripping bark from trees to fill our tummies. So it comes as a very welcome surprise to receive donations from you kind two-legged creatures. We like sunflower seeds, and they sate our appetites for a while. Thank you kindly.”

Wenn wir Eichhörnchen die Menschensprache sprächen, hätten wir viel zu sagen. Wir schwatzen die ganze Zeit, und wenn Ihr uns nicht versteht, ist das Euer Problem. Aber um artenübergreifende Kommunikation zu fördern, gibt es hier einige mögliche Interpretationen unserer tiefgehenden Gedanken.

“Wir Eichhörnchen sind von Natur aus Feinschmecker. Wir lieben es, zu futtern. An einem kalten Januartag kann das zu einem Dilemma führen, wenn wir uns dazu herablassen müssen, unsere Bäuche mit trockener Baumrinde zu füllen. Deshalb akzeptieren wir liebend gerne eine kleine Gabe von Euch netten Zweibeinern. Wir mögen Sonnenblumenkörner, und sie stillen unseren Appetit eine Weile lang. Herzlichen Dank dafür”.

At times we, too, get in a slight huff.

“I found this peanut, and I dare you to try to get it back!”

“What are you looking at? Just because my coat is slightly darker, I am still a squirrel!”

Manchmal ereifern auch wir uns ein wenig.

“Ich habe diese Erdnuss gefunden. Untersteh Dich, sie mir wieder abzunehmen”!

“Was glotzt Du nur so blöd? Auch wenn mein Fell etwas dunkler ist, bin ich immer noch ein Eichhörnchen”!

Did we mention we were gourmands?

“I simply love baguette. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. I think it makes my tail look elegant and fluffy. Don’t you agree?”

Habe ich schon erwähnt, daß wir Feinschmecker sind?

“Ich liebe Baguette. Außen knusprig, innen weich. Ich bin davon überzeugt, daß es meinen Schwanz elegant und flauschig aussehen lässt. Stimmst Du mir nicht zu”?

At times we overindulge.

“I don’t feel so good. My tummy is sooo full. I think I am getting sick.”

Manchmal übertreiben wir es etwas.

“Mir geht es nicht so gut. Mein Bauch is sooo voll. Ich glaube mir wird schlecht”.

We are highly adaptable. We even use other creatures’ homes.

“I think I will go for a walk. Wait! Someone seems to be watching me. Better not leave the house yet. Maybe if I sit still and don’t move, she won’t see me.”

Wir sind sehr anpassungsfähig. Wir benutzen sogar die Wohnung anderer Wesen.

“Ich glaube, ich mache jetzt einen Spaziergang. Moment mal! Jemand scheint mich im Visier zu haben. Ich warte besser noch eine Weile. Vielleicht wird sie mich nicht sehen, wenn ich mich nicht bewege, sondern mich ganz ruhig verhalte”.

We know that rest and relaxation is good for our health.

“The unbearable lightness of being a squirrel.”

Wir wissen, daß Erholung und Entspannung gut für die Gesundheit ist.

“Die unerträgliche Leichtigkeit des Eichhörnchenseins”.

Aiken Canyon Preserve

About eighteen miles south of downtown Colorado Springs lies a unique sanctuary, designated as a nature preserve in 1993, when the Nature Conservancy signed a 99 year conservation lease for 1,100 acres of public land with the State of Colorado. The subsequent purchase of additional private land expanded the total acreage of Aiken Canyon Preserve to 1,600. It was named in honor of Charles Edward Howard Aiken (1850-1936), who grew up in Vermont and Chicago. After Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, he relocated to Colorado with his family, where they ran a sheep ranch a few miles south of the future preserve. Charles, a bird collector since a young age, had been apprenticed to a taxidermist in Chicago, and continued this profession in Colorado. As was common in the days before widespread photography and use of binoculars, the sad method to learn about birds was to shoot and stuff them. Aiken became a taxidermy expert and operated his own shop in Colorado Springs. He contributed greatly to the knowledge of the avifauna of Colorado, and through his travels, of neighboring states.

As Aiken Canyon’s water is supplied only by an intermittent creek, it never saw any significant settlement, logging or grazing, and still harbors an intact, original Rocky Mountain foothill ecosystem attractive to a varied fauna. Mammals include raccoons, black bears, deer, elk, and mountain lions, though I have only seen squirrels and rabbits during my repeated forays. At least 142 avian species have been documented, according to eBird. Bees and butterflies join the birds in the warmer months, as do other insects, lizards, and snakes. It was here that my husband and I had our encounter with a Prairie Rattlesnake, stretched out across the trail one July day. Luckily, it simply slithered across and curled up behind a rock for a siesta. We parted peacefully, but with an increased awareness on our part of the potential of reptilian appearances.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

In 1996 a field station was constructed, with walls fashioned out of a straw core, and a stucco surface the color of the surrounding soil. For two decades, volunteer staff provided information about the land, its history, and its denizens. Because of fungal contamination in the straw, it was torn down in the autumn of 2016, much to the chagrin of helpers and visitors alike. The space sat empty until the completion of a covered pavilion with picnic tables in the spring of 2018.

Access to this pristine parcel is afforded via an easy to moderate four mile trail that bars pets, bikes, and motorized vehicles. The first portion of the narrow path meanders through a grassy meadow and a dry creek bed that carries the warning to seek higher ground during flash floods. The greatest challenge is trying to decide whether to hike the steepening loop in a clockwise, or counterclockwise direction. There is much for the eye to gaze at. The red ground is littered with leaves, pine needles and cones, and sprinkled with cactus, yucca, and additional wildflowers. Scrub oak and mountain mahogany make up the tangled understory, medium-height junipers and pinyons are dwarfed by tall Ponderosa Pines. Islands of whimsical sandstone formations jut out of the verdant canopy and tickle one’s fancy. A short side trail leads to a promontory with views of the expansive plains in the east, the Wet Mountains in the west, and the Spanish Peaks in the south.

A three-quarter mile spur veers off the main loop and leads to the ruins of a log cabin that owed its existence to a local natural spring. The dwelling was likely built in the 1920s or 30s, but has long since collapsed. A seeming contradiction to the statement that the canyon was never settled, it left such a small footprint that it did not significantly change the geology or biology of its environment.

This site, surrounded by trees 50 feet tall, never fails to stimulate my imagination. Remnants of the wooden building, its metal roof and pipes lie scattered next to timeworn utensils – a tattered bedspring, threadbare shoe soles, glittering glass shards, rusting cans. Just beyond this former domicile, a tall rock provided the side wall of a small corral for domestic animals. Spikey leaves reminiscent of iris suggest the tender care of an erstwhile gardener. While I have never seen them in flower, my mind is tantalized by the potential and prospect of luminous blooms in this sheltered vale. Who once called this spot home, far away from town, with bears and mountain lions as neighbors, when the promise of colorful spring blossoms brightened the long, dark, cold winter nights?

Beware The Rattle

Throughout our two-plus decades of married life, my husband and I have hiked many miles in many locations. Wildlife encounters have generally enriched the experience and have, mostly, been of the harmless, and feathered or furred kind – birds, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, coyotes. Our somewhat more borderline interactions with brown bears in Alaska are a different story, but will have to wait for another time. With regard to encounters of the scaly kind, we have made the acquaintance of turtles, lizards, and snakes – the latter predominantly nonpoisonous individuals.

Even though many trailheads in Colorado’s foothills and prairie bear warning signs about poisonous rattlesnakes, it was only three or four years ago that we saw our first, when we nearly stepped on a “baby” that sunned itself in the middle of the trail. I had barely enough time to take a few photos before it shimmied away.

Baby rattlesnake. It is difficult to gauge size in this photo, but it was no longer than a foot.

Just a few weeks back, we had our second sighting (or our third, if we count one we saw through the car window during a May trip to northeast Colorado). When my husband suddenly stopped in his tracks during a hike at a local nature preserve, I nearly ran into him. He pointed to a shallow gully about fifteen feet ahead of us, which we had to cross and where we recognized an elongated albeit slightly stocky form. Even though my partner in crime is colorblind, his ability to discern patterns, especially on the ground, is better than mine, and he often notices amphibians or reptiles before I do. “Look at the triangular head,” he said. “That’s a rattlesnake.” A second glance confirmed his impression, as it revealed rattles at the distal end, and pits underneath the eyes. These house heat sensing organs and are responsible for their classification as pit vipers. We were most likely facing a Prairie Rattlesnake.

Three to four feet long, its body extended instead of coiled, and not in striking distance, it did not pose a threat. We watched it closely, as it did us. When three more hikers approached from the opposite direction, we alerted them to the snake’s presence, and they, too, paused, to catch a few glimpses. The reptilian head swiveled back and forth, between them and us, but the cold-blooded creature neither hissed nor rattled, merely flicked its bifurcated tongue from time to time (though never when I took a photo). After I made a wide arc around it to reach the other side of the gully, it, too, made up its mind to move on, though not far. It slithered behind a sun-warmed rock ten to twelve feet adjacent to the trail and curled up, seemingly ready for a siesta, perhaps to digest a recent meal.

We are convinced that we have been scrutinized by wild critters countless times, without ever knowing about it. Their usual modus operandi is avoidance of large animals, humans included. This fortunately peaceful meeting served not only as an opportunity to admire the greenish hue, white facial, and gray dorsal markings of this specimen that seemed particularly unperturbed, but also as a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. It is possible, not to say probable, that on our way back to the car, we looked behind rocks and over our shoulders slightly more frequently than usual. 🙂

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/vorsicht-rasseln/

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!

 

Stratton Open Space

Near the former Stratton Park put onto the map by and named for the remarkable Winfield Scott Stratton after his death, Colorado Springs set aside precious land to preserve and protect from development. Surrounded by human habitation, Stratton Open Space was created in 1998 and represents one of nine open spaces under the city’s jurisdiction.

The 306 acre parcel in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is among my favorite spots for running, hiking, and birding. A maze of trails measuring a total of eight miles welcomes visitors on feet, paws, hooves, and wheels (though a few paths are off-limit for bikes). The relatively compact area encompasses five ecological zones: a riparian corridor and wetlands, prairie-like meadows and a scrub oak/juniper plant community, as well as a ponderosa pine/Douglas fir forest.

With the exception of rows of peaks rising in the west that are best seen from lower altitudes, the higher the vantage point, the broader the panorama. The hulk of Cheyenne Mountain dominates the south, beloved view and destination of Helen Hunt Jackson, one of my favorite historical personalities.

Cheyenne Mountain on a clear day

…and on a not so clear one…

The sonorous chimes of the Will Rogers Shrine on its flank divide each hour and might also rattle the remains of Spencer and Julie Penrose, who built the tower and chose it as their final resting place. Philanthropists and benefactors, they also founded the Broadmoor Hotel, easily visible from the park. It celebrates its centennial this year, having accommodated its first guests in 1918, and prides itself of having received a five-star Forbes rating for 57 consecutive years.

The Broadmoor Resort

Will Rogers Shrine

In the east the ever-expanding suburban space adjoins Colorado’s High Plains which eventually merge with those of our neighboring states, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Eastern sunrise

Eastern balloonrise

As pleasing as the wonderful vistas are the local flora and fauna. Each season has its charms, and even when flowering plants are absent, the dormant vegetation creates color and contrast. At the height of summer, a multi-hued carpet of wildflowers provides a feast for the eyes, and golden tapestries of sunflowers persist well into autumn.

Penstemon

Indian Paintbrush

Mariposa Lily

Purple Prairie Clover

Avian activity abounds year-round, but other critters can commonly be seen as well.

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

Expected

Unexpected

For the last two to three decades, Colorado Springs has been in the throes of rapid, unchecked urban growth. The more buildings, people and traffic, the more indispensable and treasured are oases like Stratton Open Space where, despite a degree of human management, nature still has a chance to run wild.