Soul Time

One of my favorite destinations in neighboring Teller County had been beckoning for several months until I could wait no longer. Arriving at Manitou Lake at 7 AM on a weekday in early June, I shared the parking lot with only a few other early risers, most of them here to fish.

My goal was to get away for the day, to this marvelous setting, where Pikes Peak’s north face looms large, to allow my soul to “dangle its legs,” in accordance with the lovely German saying “die Seele baumeln lassen.” After an extended stroll around the lake and the adjoining woods, both replete with animal encounters, I searched for a solitary spot where I could read and write.

As the sun moved across the sky, so did I across the earth. Different picnic tables served me for a while, as did a soft spot on the ground covered with pine needles, next to a flat slab of rock, which became my writing desk. Eventually I found my refuge at the far end of the recreation area, away from the growing crowds which included not only anglers, but also kayakers, and a large group of people who preferred to listen to music, instead of the birds and the wind in the tree branches.

Canopied by Ponderosa Pines that were bearing their sexual organs without shame, and pollinated by a yellow powder each time a breeze breathed on their boughs, I listened to the whistling of Red-winged Blackbirds, the humming of myriad insects, and the buzzing of hummingbirds, while the man-made noises receded into the background.

On a bench in the shade of the venerable pines that provided respite from heat unseasonable and folks unreasonable, I was able to let my actual and proverbial legs dangle.

My Name Is Prickly

My name is Prickly.

Glad to make your acquaintance.

People throughout the ages have mistaken me for a pig, with spines attached, as my name, in several languages, attests. In German, it is “Stachelschwein” (Schwein = pig, Stachel = spine/quill), in French “porc-épic” (porc = pig, épic = spine/quill), and my English common name, porcupine, is thought to be derived from French.

I am here to tell you that I am not a pig, but a rodent! My scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum, is more ominous than quill-pig, as it translates into “one who rises in anger,” or “one with an irritating back.” Let me put one thing straight. I am NOT one who angers easily, but when provoked or threatened, I might lash out at you with my tail. My quills, though entirely soft and pliable when I am born, harden within thirty minutes of my beholding the light of the world. They are only loosely attached to me, but when slapped onto your skin, will embed themselves with the help of tiny barbs – a painful ordeal.

I did not think this up, so please, don’t blame me! But – if you or your canine companion corner me, I have no choice but to deploy this weapon.

If left alone – and I prefer to be solitary most of my life – I am busy eating my vegetables (my mother would be proud of me): fresh greens in summer, dry bark in winter. As a matter of convenience, my grocery store and bedroom are often identical. You might call me lazy, because I move very slowly, but I get ample exercise climbing up and down trees.

As I am nocturnal, I am active mostly at night, so you might not spot me often. I suspect that you notice me predominantly during the day, when I rest from the night’s labors. Since I am a good climber, and not afraid of heights, I often seek shelter high up on a branch, where you might see me snoozing. One so handsome as I needs plenty of beauty sleep.

I prefer to stay out of your way, so PLEASE stay out of mine, and admire my impossibly cute face from afar.

 

Dedicated to our pooch, who did not get Prickly’s memo, and who once suffered the consequences of his spiny encounter. RIP, Teddy, and stay away from those barbed beings in doggie heaven.

 

Colorado’s Prairie

“Colorado” evokes tall mountains, alpine activities, winter wonderlands. While our fifty-three 14ers are magnificent landmarks, at least one third of our state consists of prairie and forms part of the High Plains. On a map, these predominantly eastern areas are customarily depicted in white, suggestive of emptiness. Most travelers who spend long hours traversing these vast stretches in their cars might share this impression, which was the case for my husband and me, until we decided to explore this seemingly “empty” portion of our state during repeated excursions.

The plains landscape is no less impressive than the remainder of the state, if only at closer inspection. While today’s prairie differs from its one-time state, and while agricultural fields and livestock pastures predominate, shortgrass islands survive, or have been restored. Woven of wild grasses and wild flowers, they thrive on little annual precipitation. Sundry spring and summer blooms are outlasted by enduring sunflowers whose yellow petals enliven the fetching, if muted, fall attire. During periods of drought, the hues might be subdued year-round. I see parallels between the prairie and Colorado’s upper elevations. Splendid cottonwoods along waterways are equivalent to the aspen trees of the montane zone and, like them, turn a luminous gold in autumn. The wide-open grassland is not unlike the tundra above treeline.

This predominantly flat world whose altitude gradually and imperceptibly drops from about 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs to 3,400 feet at the Kansas border seems to consist solely of two elements: earth and sky. The latter might be as blue and friendly as the cornflowers that line the roadsides in summer, or assume a threatening gray. Thunder, lightning, and the potential for tornadoes are fearsome reminders of nature’s less benignant powers. Breezes, common if not constant companions, contribute to an ever-changing cloudscape that seems to arise out of the blue. They also propel ubiquitous windmills to pump ground water into holding tanks for domestic and feral visitors. Emerald ribbons on the capacious canvas indicate streams. Rivers, like the Arkansas and South Platte, with their tributaries, equal life. Without water, there would be no reservoirs, no successful settlement, no farming, no animals.

In fact, the fauna is plentiful and varied. Pronghorn browse on nourishing forbs, always with a suspicious eye on humans who nearly blasted them into oblivion before their numbers recovered. These fastest land mammals in the western hemisphere supposedly developed their speed to outrun the now extinct American Cheetah. The estimated sixty million bison that once roamed these reaches were less fortunate, and if and where reintroduced, are confined by fences. Pointed ears among the grasses might belong to a Swift Fox, or a jackrabbit. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs linger near the entrances to their burrows, which are frequently shared with Burrowing Owls. What might appear to be “a flying dog” will, at closer inspection, prove to be a an owl with lengthy limbs and expressive eyes.

Thanks to low population density and little light pollution, glimpses into the Milky Way and more distant galaxies are afforded the stargazer. We love to camp, and the thin fabric of a tent allows greater awareness of nighttime sounds. Quivering leaves resemble falling rain when stirred by a breath of air. The nocturnal silence is punctuated by the hooting of owls, the croaking of frogs, the multifarious vocalizations of coyotes. Few creatures epitomize the West like these wild cousins of our beloved domestic animals, and few creatures polarize as much – esteemed by some, despised by others.

One of the main motivations for most of our journeys nowadays is my desire to acquaint myself with inhabitants of the avian kind. Because eastern Colorado is part of the Central Flyway, numerous species pass through it. Thanks to its high numbers in this environment, the Lark Bunting was chosen as Colorado’s state bird. Flocks flutter alongside the car, similar to Horned Larks who risk their lives, darting in front of speeding vehicles. Orchard and Bullock’s Orioles, Brown Thrashers, and various sparrows abound, similar to Western and Eastern Kingbirds who owe their common names to their regal appearance, and their scientific name, Tyrannus, to their aggressive territorial behavior. The Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos (literally many-tongued mimic), likewise lives up to its reputation and impresses with a repertoire of musical scales copied from any number of feathered fellows.

Since those first encounters a few years back, I have discovered almost every one of these species in eastern El Paso County’s own prairie habitat, much nearer to our doorstep, in corroboration of the old adage that one only notices what one knows. Far away or close to home, the Western Meadowlark is among my favorites. To assert that one is never out of earshot between the edge of our town, and the edge of our state, is no exaggeration. Its full-throated melody brings cheer to my heart every single time and reminds me that Colorado’s prairie, rather than being empty, is filled with lovely sounds and sights.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/06/06/colorados-prarie/

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.