A Seasonal Gift

It’s funny how our ideas on the best things in life change as we age. When I was a little girl, the best thing in my life was Christmas time. My Decembers were filled with anticipation for celebratory things like decorating the Christmas tree, family gatherings, sledding parties, and exchanging Christmas gifts.

But things have changed. While I still enjoy the sparkle and giving traditions of the season, I have discovered other enjoyments that I treasure during this time of year. My December thoughts now turn to the landscape and the hidden gifts within. My hungry eyes drink in scenes of fleeting natural beauty, and I ponder the miracles of their making, such as frosty fog or the intricate details of a snowflake. 

Winter months where I live on the flat, “tablelands” of Illinois can be pretty stark-looking. But I’ve learned that the barren appearance of the landscape can be deceiving.  All is not as it seems. There are treasures to be found.

About ten years ago, just 3 days before Christmas, a friend, who shares a love for birding, reported seeing a Snowy Owl on top of a telephone pole on her drive to work. When my husband and I learned this, we tore out the driveway. Then, we followed her directions to the site where this great creature was last seen.

The day was cold, foggy, and a bit drizzly. Visibility was not good. As we drove down the country highway and I looked out across the fields and the long line of telephone poles, I thought locating the owl would be like finding a needle in a haystack. It could have flown off anywhere since the hour it was first spotted, and our chances of seeing it were slim.  But then suddenly, there she was. High atop a pole, watching cars pass by. We held our breath as we slowed down the vehicle. We couldn’t stop because there was traffic behind us. So we drove a short distance and turned around to head back. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road, where we could take a closer look. But when we got closer, the owl grew wary and took off, gliding over a field –disappearing into the fog. 

The entire experience lasted perhaps only a minute or two. But it was a minute of complete mystical magic. We had been given a tremendous gift – the opportunity to come face to face with a visitor from the Arctic reaches of our continent — a brave and beautiful creature, driven on a thousand-mile mission for a lemming — an animal that no doubt had also laid eyes upon polar bears, arctic foxes, and the dancing northern lights of the Aurora Borealis.  All other traditional thoughts of the Christmas season went out of my head at that point, and Decembers have never been the same since. What we experienced that day touched me profoundly and helped me realize that there are so many magnificent everyday gifts surrounding us.

Since that incredible first sighting, I have been privileged to have two other Snowy Owl sightings over the years. So, for me, December now marks the beginning of a 4 month-long quest to find Snowy Owls.

My husband and I go for drives in the country, scanning the ground for white lumps, which our spotting scope often reveals are plastic shopping bags littering the countryside.  We also check out the tops of every telephone pole and fence post.  So many times, we’ve raced to a place where a snowy owl has been spotted, and then we can never locate it. Often we return home and learn that someone else was in the same place and photographed it just minutes before or after we were there.  Snowy Owls are the elusive pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

It has been about six years now since I’ve seen one. And though I am frustrated that I haven’t seen one in a while, I know I will have the privilege again. Diligence will pay off. In the meantime, while I search, I will enjoy other precious December gifts.  There will be snow buntings eating grain spilled along the roadsides, bald eagles perched high in naked trees, and prairie grasses preserved in crystal. These are just some of the wonders the season gifts to us. We only need to train our eyes and minds to receive them before they disappear.

Turkey Terror

One of the things I’ve always loved about driving across the Illinois countryside is seeing large flocks of wild turkeys in spring and fall.  When I was a girl, turkeys were the stuff of legends. We read about them at school associated with the pilgrim’s thanksgiving stories, and the turkey was special meat served just once or twice a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. I never saw wild flocks of them when we drove through rural areas to my grandparent’s homes.  Turkey populations were possibly threatened or in decline at that time, as were the bald eagle and whitetail deer. But since then, conservation efforts have helped them to make a comeback. 

People’s views on eating turkey have also changed. It is now favored as a low-fat, heart-healthy eating option. People eat turkey meat all year long, but roasting an entire large turkey is still a holiday tradition.

Seeing flocks of turkeys grazing in fields always transports my mind to another time. I try to imagine living long ago as a pioneer. What must it have been like when the head male in the family proudly dragged home the large bird, tossing it at his wife to dress for supper?  I know from having turkey-hunting friends that there is more to hunting a turkey than pointing and shooting. Turkey hunters rise early and are in the woods by sunrise, hidden by their camouflaged gear, near turkey roosts in trees that the hunters staked out and observed months in advance.

Turkey hunting is only permitted at short and very specific times of the year. Hence, hunters have limited opportunities to take them. And the weather is often a challenging factor on these hunts. While some hunters may take a turkey in optimal conditions, fickle November and February are often rainy, snowy, windy, or sleeting, affecting their abilities and success.  Nevertheless, determined hunters pursue the great birds by hiding silently, waiting, and enduring whatever conditions until the turkeys descend from the trees to begin their day. One friend told me of waiting for turkeys to wake and having one fly out of a tree at high speed, knocking him over. He said it was like having a 40-pound bowling ball hurled at you.

Spring-time turkey hunting is possibly trickier as male turkeys gather up their harems for mating season and can be pretty protective. Their large bodies can be quite formidable, and their spurs can do some damage if they are feeling overly defensive.  A male turkey won’t hesitate to chase a perceived threat.

About a decade ago, I learned first-hand about turkey aggression.  My husband and I enjoyed a small flock of fifteen wild turkeys that started passing through our little farm.  Sometimes they came very near the house, inspecting our flower beds and fire pit area. I could stand just a few feet away watching them from the kitchen window, amazed at their size and lack of fear in a human habitation area.  While the flock eventually moved on and stopped coming around, three of the young turkeys – a male and two females, decided to remain in the woods near our home. They frequently hung out with our neighbor’s free-ranging chickens across the road. We all found this amusing and the neighbor, a hunter, was quite happy to welcome them to the chicken yard. 

What was most amusing is that our neighbor had a few dogs that ruled the neighborhood, and the dogs accepted the turkeys and vice versa. Soon when the dogs chased cars down the road, these turkeys learned the trick, and they too could be seen chasing vehicles coming down the road. “Those turkeys think they are dogs!” I said to my husband. But those turkeys weren’t chasing cars for fun. Instead, they grew up on our road and regarded the area as their territory.

When mating season rolled around about a year later, the male turkey became possessive and protective of his tiny harem.  He was determined to see that no one came within 200 feet of them.  I couldn’t go out to retrieve letters from the mailbox without him barreling down on me, chasing me back into the house. I was alarmed by how fast a speeding turkey can move.  I got so nervous about getting the mail that I would watch out the window for a while, making sure the coast was clear before venturing outside. Ultimately, when turkeys lurked, I drove my car to the mailbox, grabbing the mail from my window. 

The little gang of turkey toughs then decided to claim our yard as part of their territory.  They would wander over to graze around our patio area in the early morning, then jump up on the roof over the kitchen. They would walk around the roof from one side of the house to the other. If you exited out the back door, they could hear you open the back door and would run across the roof, then come fluttering down after you if you tried to step out of the house. We literally had to run to our cars for safety.  The situation was rapidly becoming unbearable. I had never imagined being challenged going in and out of my home at will by a threatening wild animal.

One day, I got home from work, and my husband had not yet arrived home.  When I pulled into the driveway, I had a lot on my mind and forgot about the turkey situation.  I parked the car, grabbed my purse, and was about to open the door, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there staring back at me was the threatening male turkey. “You go home!” I shouted at him, but he just kept standing there staring. I could not open the door without it touching him, and he could easily have pinned me into the car.  So I just sat there.  I honked the horn a few times, trying to scare him, to no avail.  I then thought, surely these creatures with brains the size of a pea have short attention spans and would wander off, bored in a few minutes.  So, I laid back my car seat to be out of his sight, and I decided to be real still, so he would think I’d gone away and he’d go home.  I laid there for 20 minutes! And when I sat back up, there was his face, looking at me through the window!  He was a turkey not to be reckoned with.

‘This is nuts!  Be a woman. Use your superior brain and shoo him off!’ I said to myself.  I looked around me for something – my MacGyver moment.  In the back of my SUV, I had a sheet of foam core that I’d purchased for a project. I would use it as a shield. I took a deep breath and slowly opened my door, sliding the foam core between myself and the turkey. As I got out, I pressed the foam core up against him so that all he could see was the mass of white, and I kept pushing him away. I had to turn a bit, then walked backward toward the house, holding the foam core up to block him. He was puzzled but kept advancing, like a bull determined to gore a matador with a red cape. I yelled and cussed at him, but he was undeterred. At last, I made it to the door and managed to slip into the house with a racing heart. 

This aggressive turkey nonsense could not go on much longer. So, I started googling how to hunt a turkey and where and how to get a hunting license. I even went so far as to read about how to pluck and dress a turkey.  Fall turkey hunting season would soon arrive, and Thanksgiving was not far away.  I began to form a plan. Then I came home from work one day, ready to do battle, and there simply were no more turkeys.  I never knew for sure what happened, but I strongly suspect that while I was at work, my neighbor, who had welcomed them into the chicken yard, took matters into his own hands. He was perhaps home, happily preparing them for his Thanksgiving dinner.

You would think I might dislike turkeys after these experiences, but I don’t. I still thrill at seeing them. Now, I’m just a little bit wiser and more respectful of their intelligence, habits, and stealth abilities. Benjamin Franklin suggested a turkey would be the perfect national symbol of strength.  He likely had seen them in action to come up with this notion. Frankly, Mr. Franklin, I know where you were coming from. But in the end, I’m happy we instead bestowed that honor on the Bald Eagle. And I am quite pleased to eat turkey on Thanksgiving and throughout the year!

This week’s Recommended Read for little ones is Turkey Trouble written by Wendi Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper.  And for some holiday fun, under the Activities section of the blog, you will find a Find the Lurking Turkeys challenge and A Thanksgiving Turkey Coloring Sheet.

A Love for Leaves

Although I treasure the beauty of each new season, fall and spring are my particular favorites. Flowers, shrubs, trees, berries, fruits, and vegetables all burst with color at this time, turning the landscape into a virtual kaleidoscope.

When autumn trees explode in their last hurrah of yellows, reds, and oranges, I am reminded of some of my happiest childhood memories. As a kid, I loved helping to rake the backyard leaves into massive piles. My brothers and I would dive into the sea of crunch and color and take turns burying one another in a leaf pile. I can still feel and sense the magic of being enveloped in leaves, deeply inhaling their smell and absorbing the intensity of their colors as sunlight filtered through them. I must have only done this a small handful of times when I was small, yet the memory of it all was so satisfying and remarkable that it is with me still today. I would dive and bury myself in a leaf pile now if it weren’t for my age and the worry that my neighbors would think I was insane. Honestly, though, what if? Would it be so ridiculous to see a senior citizen reliving her past, lying on the ground while her husband buried her in leaves?

Years ago, I watched a PBS fundraising presentation of author Leo Buscaglia, giving a lecture on LOVE. Leo is a lover of everything and talked about teaching his students to not miss an opportunity to live in and love the magic of every moment we get. He would make his students gather up leaves and dump them on the floor of his living room and walk-in them, smell them and bask in their glory. At the time, I thought, what a mess to clean up! But now I get it, and I can only love him more for it. Why not do such a thing? It would be an opportunity to make a beautiful memory of a fleeting gift from nature. And as for the mess, that would be fleeting too. Making time to savor the beauty of something is not only a way to heighten your appreciation for nature’s magic, but it’s also a way to love and nurture yourself. I, for one, feel healing and power when I surround myself with Mother Nature’s wonders.

I suspect my love for fall leaves has been inherited from my mother. For as long as I can remember, she was a leaf-presser. All of the biggest, heaviest books on her bookshelf contained pages stuffed with leaves and flowers sandwiched between sheets of paper towels. She would press the leaves then later craft them into pictures that she framed. 

She didn’t restrict this hobby to just pressing fall leaves. She also pressed flowers from her perennial garden as well as charming little weeds. Over the years, she and I have visited her book-pressed leaves many times. We’ve mined them to craft notecards or pictures or just look at and reminisce about favorite trees she and Dad planted in the yard. In her dining room, there is a wall with six large framed pictures featuring her leaf-designed art.

Today, it is chilly, and fall colors are at their peak on my street. I will walk down to the little park at the corner and collect some of the prettiest leaves I can find, then press them in her honor. I will carry on her tradition of keeping the best pieces of fall preserved to enjoy throughout the year. I will try to recall the species of trees each leaf comes from and use some for crafting. Lately, making nature impressions in clay has become one of my favorite activities.

Fall is only here a few short weeks, so grab your loved ones and get out there to wallow in it. Toss and shuffle through the colorful leaf confetti that nature has blessed us with. Collect some of the best leaves you can find, and press them for crafting. Make a point of learning what trees the leaves come from. Make leaf mandalas, leaf crowns, leaf rubbings, or press them in clay to always remember them. Savor this spectacular seasonal celebration of life and color before all becomes dormant. It will all be gone way too soon.

For a fun fall activity, check out my Activities section of the blog to learn more about making leaf mandalas. This project can be done anywhere, by anyone, at any age, with leaves or any natural materials of your choice. This week’s Recommended Read is on The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming, illustrated by Nicola Slater.

Weathering Storms

I’ve fallen behind in posting blog entries lately, as my energies have focused on assisting my mother. She has been battling numerous health issues.  It is a rather dark period for us as many of her ailments are chronic, and our questions about the causes of her symptoms go unanswered.

At times like this, it’s hard to know what to do for a loved one. What words should be spoken? What acts of comfort can be offered?  I remember so many times when I experienced illness as a child. My saint of a mother spent sleepless nights holding up my head over a bucket or stroking my hair, tenderly whispering that she loved me.  When I felt my worst, she was always there to reassure me that this would pass and she would not leave me.

Now it is my turn. And though I am limited in what I can do for her, it seems to be of comfort, to just be near sharing in her periods of quiet distress and prayer. No matter how old we are, we all want our mothers when we are ill. Even our mothers long for their mothers and to be mothered from time to time. It’s hard to be an eternal pillar of strength. We may grow up and grow old, yet the children we once were still live inside us. So when we feel vulnerable, we long for the protection and even guidance we once received from a parent.

How can we help our children when they are ill or feel frightened and vulnerable when their loved ones fall sick?  Perhaps it is just time, being still with one another — and facing life’s trials together, that is most helpful.

This week, I listened to an interview with Jane Goodall on the radio. She is soon to release a new book about hope.  When asked what gives her hope, she said that human intellect and our ability to change the way we think and approach things give her hope that the world can become a better place.  She then explained that we are constantly conditioned to think outward, look at the bigger picture, and place our actions in a broader context. That’s all well and good, but sometimes the big picture can overwhelm us and feel like a tornado coming at us. Instead, Goodall prefers to look at the small picture, the good things that an individual can do, or the small accomplishments we can control. These things surround us, and if we start to focus on one small act at a time before we know it, we begin to see that all the little acts can come together, forming something positive. We can think of our best energies growing out of us, spreading out to the broader world like a “tornado in reverse.” 

I pondered her philosophy as a coping strategy for facing illness.  Today, when I visited my mother, after listening to her express her sadness and stress.  I said, “Hey, I know something good today, Mom.” She raised her eyebrows, “What?” she asked.  And I said, “We are still here, and we get to be together this day.  We are warm, clean, fed, safe, and stable for the moment. This is a good place to be right now. Let’s not think of lovely yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows. Let’s just focus on the blessing of today and this moment.” 

If we practice this every day, maybe we can make a “reverse tornado,” preventing a storm of destructive thoughts and emotions from tearing us apart. Perhaps, by focusing on the small blessings we see around us, they will encircle us, forming an invincible whirlwind force of strength, helping us to face the days ahead.

This week’s book review is A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. It’s the perfect story for young readers who feel ill or know someone going through an illness or challenging time, highlighting the importance of being there for those we love.

Pumpkin Time

It’s that time of year again when trees turn brilliant colors, and autumn leaves begin to fall like confetti.  Like so many people, one of my favorite things to do this season is visiting the pumpkin patch at our nearby apple barn.

I always looked forward to when my parents would take my brothers and me out to pick our Halloween pumpkins as a child.  There was only one kind of pumpkin everyone could buy in those days – the traditional Jack-o-lantern pumpkin.  But today, there are so many more varieties available. Blue, white, pink, green-striped, yellow, splotchy, warty, jumbo, minis, you name it.  In all, there are 147 varieties to consider. 

Pumpkin decorating techniques have also changed since I was a child in the 60s. When I was young, you simply carved your pumpkin with a steak knife. Now, people carve them, paint them, glue things to them, decoupage, or stack and dress them. There seems to be no end to what you can do.

The memory of agonizing over the perfect pumpkin to take home is still fresh in my mind. Once we made our selections and lugged the great orbs home, we dived into the delightful mess of scooping out the seeds and goop from the pumpkin’s innards.

We planned out our pumpkin’s faces by drawing patterns on paper and left the handling of knives and carving to our parents.  Our pumpkins’ faces were simple, with triangular eyes and big happy grins. But, again, this is unlike how pumpkins are carved today, with special miniature scoops, punches, saws, and elaborate designs.

Besides enjoying the magic of making a Jack-O-Lantern, we equally enjoyed roasting and eating the pumpkin seeds. In those times, pumpkin seeds or “pepitas” were not readily available in stores.  So eating fresh roasted pumpkin seeds was a particular treat.

I like that traditions change and expand over time. I like that you can choose from many pumpkin varieties and decorate with them in imaginative ways. I like that pumpkin spice coffees, donuts, pies, candles, air sprays, and hand lotions are now offered throughout the year but are especially celebrated in autumn.  And perhaps most of all, I love that it’s okay to be an adult and still love picking out a pumpkin to decorate and put out on the front porch.  Pumpkins stopped appearing on my parent’s porch after we kids grew up and moved away. Today, it’s common to see just as many adults as kids in the pumpkin patches.  We don’t have to stop loving pumpkins because we grow up.

I no longer buy just one orange pumpkin for the porch. I now buy a variety of types and disperse them throughout the garden and front and back doors.  Even though I now have six pumpkins, I still want to buy more.   In my view, it’s not a waste of money. When the season is over, I can crack them in half and put them in the backyard for the squirrels and other neighborhood critters to feed on. 

The availability of more pumpkin varieties encourages me to revisit one of my happy childhood memories.  But this time, I get to expand on the fall ritual; I am in charge. I am the child and the adult, with money in her pocket, a driver’s license, and the ability to decide when I need more pumpkins and when I’ve bought enough. And really, I never get enough.

This week’s recommended read for children is, Little Boo by Stephen Wunderli, illustrated by Tim Zeltner — a tale about a little pumpkin seed that can hardly wait to grow up to become a Jack-O-Lantern. And be sure to check out my Activities section for some seasonal Pumpkin fun.

An Introvert’s Path

I love children’s books that can provide a snapshot of familiar feelings and situations in our lives and offer ideas on how one might navigate these experiences.  This week’s blog is about introverted personalities.  I was inspired after reading a picture book that never labeled its main characters as introverts. But being an introvert, I immediately identified with them.  You can read the review for On the Night of the Shooting Star by Amy Hest under the Recommended Reads section of this blog.

For the better part of my life, I have longed for acceptance and closeness with people.  I mean, who doesn’t?  Right?  And yet, despite this need, I am often drained and overwhelmed by people, feeling the need to pull away and be alone. It turns out that this odd paradox is normal behavior for someone with an introverted personality.

Being an introvert can be a challenge for a child. We are conditioned to believe that the cogs that turn the wheels of this world must function in the same way to operate machinery most efficiently. As a result, introverts are pushed to be someone else or do things that don’t feel natural. We are often mislabeled as being shy. While introverts can appear to be closed off or even bashful, they are quite capable of being team players and performers. But introverts also always need to balance social demands with a fair amount of space and quiet time for introspection. 

As an introverted child, I often felt different from other kids in my classrooms and even my own family. Honestly, the norm was to feel out of sync with others, though I tried to be pleasing and what I thought people expected of me. I followed all the rules, got good grades, did my chores, said my prayers, and played nicely with others.  But still, I would have to say that my overall impression of childhood was feeling tremendous pressure to conform to be accepted and feel loved. 

Because it was difficult for me to be all things to all people, I struggled with fear of failure and doubted my abilities. Low self-esteem is another common trait found among introverts.  You know you can bravely be what is expected, but for only so long until your mind and body say flee.  The pulling back is hard to explain to people. Introverts can shine bright, but like candles that burn down to a nub, they can reach the end of their wick.

Introverts can also sometimes have difficulty making lasting friendships. Fortunately, introverts aren’t rare. They’re everywhere! But often, they are challenging to find and connect with because they wear the required masks and perform the required dances we all do to get through life.  I’m happy to report that I have enjoyed many wonderful friendships with both extroverts and introverts over the years. However, these relationships did not always happen quickly or easily. It took a long while and many uncomfortable experiences before I learned that I didn’t have to make myself into someone I wasn’t and follow the crowd to have friends.

People, if you have a child, or know someone who tends to be quiet, unsporty, unjokey, tends to be a loner, or refuses to be part of the clique- be patient. Be kind. Trust me. They want to please you. But they also need to be true to themselves.  They are processing.  Introverted personalities are common and not defective. Introversion is not a mental illness. Instead, it is a trait that we can be born with, as integral to our individuality as the color of our eyes or skin.

If there is one thing I can say to the parent of an introverted child, it’s don’t push too hard. And don’t worry.  Love, friendship, and opportunities will find a way. Just be there along the sidelines and keep telling them you love everything about them. Honor their quiet and space. Reassuring love is all they need to be encouraged to step outside of themselves when the time and need are right.

A Turtle’s Tale

Recently dog lovers everywhere celebrated National Dog Day on August 26th. My Facebook feed was plastered with photos of my friends’ and family’s dogs.  I no longer have a dog in my life, nor do I have cats, chickens, ducks, goldfish, or rabbits, as has been the case in the past. There have been so many beloved furry, feathery, and scaly friends. Some were so easy to love and bond with and were important members of our family. Others were more challenging at times, and then some passed through our lives very quickly. But all left an imprint on our hearts. 

Our decision not to have a dog or cat right now is based on many things happening with my husband and me. Pursuing some of our other interests gives us little time to be attentive to a pet’s needs.  So, for now, we have no dog to celebrate on National Dog Day. Seeing everyone’s pictures makes me remember what fun and comfort a dog can be, and we miss having that in our life.  But we are not a pet-less household.  In fact, if there was a National Turtle Day, we would be plastering photos of our dear pet Tootles all over Facebook.

I honestly never wanted a pet reptile, and I didn’t go looking for Tootles. She literally just showed up at our doorstep and seemed to need some help.  We own an old fishing cabin along the Illinois River. The house sits on the outskirts of Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. For the ten years that we’ve owned the property, we have been blessed with countless incredible wildlife sightings.  About a year ago this month, we were at the cabin, and Tom and I were picking up sticks and sweeping leaves from our patio and sidewalk. I was just about to put my foot down on something small, bright green, and perfectly round when my inner voice screamed, ‘What the heck is that?’ Closer inspection revealed a very young red-eared slider turtle– perhaps only a day or so old. If I hadn’t been watching where I was walking, I would have crushed it. But, instead, I quickly picked it up and called Tom over to see.

Our cabin sits upon a steep hill overlooking the river. The journey down the slope would be pretty treacherous for a newborn turtle. It would have to pass through woods with fallen logs and rocks or pass through the mown part of the property with concrete steps and eventually a riprap terrace before reaching the beach before the lake. As I held the quarter-sized creature in my hand, I was doubtful it could safely make the journey without toppling over or becoming wedged between rocks. Plus, there are a fair amount of predators on the property that would quickly swoop up such a delectable meal. “There must have been a hatching from a nest around here,” Tom said. And we looked around to see if we could find any more baby turtles. But there were none. Was this one a lone survivor? Or simply the one that didn’t make it to the river?  We were unsure of what to do.  I thought about walking it down to the beach and letting it make its way to the river, and I just couldn’t do it.  I didn’t know what the mortality rate is for newborn turtles. All I could think was that I held a creature that was maybe one day old in my hand, and how could it survive all the treacheries of the world and make it into adulthood.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of letting nature be what it is and not interfering, except for instance, when raccoons try to move into your garage.  But here I am, a hypocrite as I keep a tiny turtle from doing what it needs to do and what little turtles have done since the beginning of their existence.  I interfered. My human motherly side could not be reasoned with by my nature-loving let-it-be side.  So I put her in a container and hauled her home.

As soon as we got home, I headed to the pet store to purchase all the necessary supplies to set up a home for our new pet, which we named Tootles. Her full name is Tootle Lou Lerczak, in case you were wondering. Next, I began googling information on turtles. Keeping a turtle has taught me much.  I learned how to tell if a turtle is male or female, her species, what she would eat, how fast she would grow, that she needs warmth and light, and time to bask. I learned that turtle shells can shed in pieces as the body increases, and turtles can hiss if they don’t want to be picked up. That indoor turtles don’t hibernate in winter months but go through a semi-hibernating state called brumation.  I also learned that when Tootles is of reproductive age, she might possibly lay unfertilized eggs and try to bury them in her gravel.  Most surprising of all, I learned that in captivity, turtles can live longer than in the natural world, and Tootles could well live to be 20 or 30 years old.  If I took excellent care of this turtle, she could outlive me, so, therefore, we had to think about providing for her future in the event of our demise.  Anyone with common sense would have released her to the river and wished her well. But common sense has never been my strong suit.

Here we are a year later, on Tootle’s birthday week. She has gone from being the size of a quarter to the size of the palm of my hand, and by no means is she a lazy little lump that sits on a rock all day. In fact, she can be pretty lively. She swims and digs, moving gravel around here and there. She dives off her floating platform, tries to climb up the sides of the aquarium. She occasionally falls backward and can flip herself over. She watches us, and if we come up to her aquarium to visit, she floats toward us, begging for a piece of dried shrimp which she’ll take from our hands.  She loves to bask in the light of her heat lamp, splaying her legs, and turning, and fanning her feet in hilarious poses. She is curious about the world around her.  Often she stands on her hind legs, craning her out-stretched neck, and blinking her teeny little black eyes. 

We refer to Tootles as our daughter, and both agree we can’t imagine life without her. It turns out that we are turtle people, and in this for the long haul, much to our surprise.  If we should die or be unable to provide care for her, we plan to have her go live with her sister (my daughter) and her niece (my granddaughter). If she can’t be with them, then a dear friend of ours runs a nature center with a large aquarium with an 18-year-old turtle that may one day be gone or open to a friendship with a lively young gal.  One thing is for sure.  Wherever Tootles winds up, she’s sure to turn someone’s life around.

The Sounds of Summer

It’s hard to believe, but summer is almost over.  Some of the trees and shrubs in my backyard have already started to shed their leaves. And soon, kids will be returning to school.  I knew it was coming.  I just haven’t wanted to accept it. Another season in my life has too quickly gone.

Although I love autumn, I’m always a little sad when summer comes to an end. Winter arrives so soon. And there will be months of longing for green grass and trees, the yellows, pinks, and oranges of my flowers, and the purples and reds of my eggplants and tomatoes.

What I perhaps miss most on those seemingly endless winter days are the sounds of summer evenings. For me, nothing is sweeter than the croaking of frogs and toads; the hissing of cicadas; the whistling of lacewings; the cricketing of crickets; and the creaking of nighthawks. These are all sounds I memorized after years of country living.  I slept with the bedroom windows cracked open most nights for close to thirty years, from late May to early October. And the sweet sounds of summer serenaded me into my dreams. Now, living in the city, I don’t sleep with my windows open at night, as I used to.  

The paradox, of course, is that you can be saddened by the end of one season and yet so excited to see another one ushered in. Our beloved farm stands will soon stop offering produce, making way for gloriously colored pumpkins and gourds. Next, the local garden center will start selling mums.  And then will come, the sounds of fall – the wind rustling through dried crunchy leaves, the sounds of farm machinery harvesting in nearby fields, and thousands upon thousands of migrating geese.

Even the sounds of students returning to school are there to delight me during this transition from summer to fall.  As I pick the last vegetables in my garden, I hear the high school marching band playing just blocks away.  Students are practicing their songs for the homecoming parade and chilly evening football games.

So, once again, I’ll take the changing season as though it were a necessary pill.  It is a time to absorb and be grateful for precious things like colors, smells, and sounds. I encourage everyone to take some time to sit outside in the evening, or go for a walk around dusk. Listen for these magic songs of the summer nights. Seasons must come and go, the world must spin, and time must march on. Perhaps the sounds of summer nights are meant to be recorded in our minds, bolstering us for the cold grey nights ahead and keeping us looking ever forward.

To Bee or Not to Bee

When I was young, my parents owned a vacant lot next to our home. My brothers and I, along with other neighborhood children, used the space as our private park.  There, we played kickball, baseball, and chased fireflies.  When my brothers were older, they raced go-carts around the perimeter. 

Our neighbor, “Jim,” told my dad that a school in town was replacing their football goal posts. He thought it would be fun to put the old ones up on the lot so we kids could play football.  So they did.

One summer evening, my brothers and I were playing, and I wandered over to a goal post. There was a small hole in the pole where I could hear some high-pitched buzzing, whining, and whispering coming from the spot.  I was 8 or 9 and very naïve. I think I still believed fairies like Tinkerbell were possibilities. Though I knew the sound was not human, I wished it was from something magical.  I stuck my finger in the hole and felt something crawling on my finger. Panicked, I quickly pulled out my finger and what ensued was nothing short of a nightmare.

Instantly bee after bee came pouring out of the hole and began stinging my face, neck, arms, and chest. I tried to cover my eyes and run, but couldn’t see where I was going.  I screamed for all I was worth.  It was supper hour, and Mom was indoors cooking. Dad was in the backyard working. Everyone heard my screams and my brothers ran for help.

Dad started running for me, yelling to Mom, “Get the hose!”  The stinging continued, and I was never so afraid in all my life. I kept running and swatting, as Dad ran to me.  He took off his t-shirt, and began batting the bees, wiping them off me and covering my head.  Then he picked me up and ran—making, himself the new target, and taking the stings.  When we reached the house, Mom was ready with the garden hose turned on at full force.  She aimed and blasted away our attackers. 

Injured and sopping wet, we made it into the house, where Mom proceeded to nurse our wounds.  She carefully inspected us and found no stingers meaning our attackers had not been bees but likely wasps or hornets.  If a bee stings, their stinger gets stuck in your skin, and when it tries to extract its stinger, its abdomen comes apart, killing the bee. Wasps don’t do this and can sting repeatedly.

Mom made a paste of baking soda and water and applied it to our welts, as we sat in total shock. My little brothers watched with curious and frightened eyes.  Fortunately, Dad and I weren’t allergic to stings. Otherwise I would not be able to share this story.

Not long after the incident, the goalposts disappeared.  I never again stuck my finger in holes, and whenever a wasp or bee was near, I gave them a wide berth and sought cover.

At mid-life, I became a Master Gardener. One member of my Master Gardener group was an old beekeeper who also ran a Beginning Beekeepers Club.  Glen would come to our meetings and talk about bees. Then, he invited us to his farm to learn more about beekeeping.  I was curious but apprehensive.

I told Glen my story about the stinging incident.  He didn’t think I’d been stung by bees but some other insect. He encouraged me to learn more about honeybees and explained that bees and wasps react for specific reasons. By learning more about bees and their behavior, I could be better prepared and more appreciative of them.  Glen was old and had a happy, calm demeanor.  If he could be positive and fearless about bees, maybe I could learn to be so too. 

I attended the meeting at his house, and he made beekeeping seem so easy. With just a little smoke, and slow, gentle handling, the bees were utterly docile as he pulled the honey-filled frames from the hive.  I wrestled in facing my fear of bees and all things that sting. But, I appreciated these little hard-working pollinators and wanted to know more.

Seven years passed. My husband and I were newly retired. I mentioned the idea of us becoming beekeepers.  At first, he balked and suggested we should research it for a year or so and then decide.  I soon saw a notice in the paper inviting people to an informational meeting about beekeeping.  I thought, why not?  We wouldn’t be committing; just researching.  So we went.  It was fascinating listening to enthusiastic beekeepers sharing wondrous tales, and we saw that they were participating in something magical.  At the end of the meeting, the Bee Club president announced they would be taking orders for packages of bees for the spring.  People were rushing to fill out their orders.

We went home and talked about it. It’s now or never, I said. Why wait? So we called the club president to place our order, and within a month, we were beekeepers.

Four years later, we still love this pastime and the other beekeepers we meet. We gather loads of honey, share it with family and friends, and have sold some at a fall harvest event. I also make candles and lip balm from the wax.  In partnership with our local park district, we’ve established a community apiary and have plans to offer public education opportunities about beekeeping and the importance of pollinators.

It all started with some stings and a need to face my fear.  I still get stung from time to time. But honestly, it’s okay.  I forgive my bees, because overall, they make our lives so much sweeter.

(There are a great many books on honeybees and beekeeping, but for a beautiful and moving story, I recommend the children’s book Honeybee: The Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming. Illustrated by Eric Rohmann. You can read more about it under Recommended Reads. I’ve also provided a bee craft activity for children under the Activities section of this blog.)

Wonder Lake

Last weekend at a family fish fry, I was cozied up next to my granddaughter, hearing about her summer camp exploits. Her fun times in water– swimming and kayaking kept popping up in the conversation.  She reminded me so much of her mother about the same age and all the fun she once had in a farm pond at a summer bible camp she attended.  Whether it’s a pond, a creek, a swimming pool, or a river, it seems everyone in our family is drawn to water.

Both my husband and I formed deep emotional attachments to lakes when we were children. Tom grew up in Chicago, where his family lived in a bungalow, on a street full of bungalows, in a town filled with pavement, buildings, and very little green space.  Friends of his family owned a cabin on a lake – Wonder Lake, a few hours north of the city. For several years his family vacationed there.  His days at Wonder Lake left lasting impressions that influenced many of his life choices.  At Wonder Lake, there were no skyscrapers in the distance, just beautiful and abundant trees offering shady canopies. He got to witness sunrises and sunsets for the first time and spend hours splashing and playing in the water, swimming like a fish with the fishes and feeling the slippery moss on rocks as it squished between his toes. There was no constant hum of traffic, but instead the songs of birds, frogs, insects, wind, rain, and the rustling of leaves.  Nighttime was for chasing fireflies and listening to cicadas’ songs.  Wonder Lake was a place to feel free and explore mysteries of the natural world.

 It’s no coincidence, I think, that when Tom grew up, he fled the city, seeking a career in environmental preservation.  Soon after that, he bought a canoe, and to this day, my wandering boy loves to sneak off in early morning hours or late afternoons to lose himself in the Illinois River backwaters.

In my own family, there was also a beloved lake – Lake Warren.  My cousins had a home on this lake, and every summer invited the extended family to come for swimming, fishing, and cookouts.  Many times these fun-filled days concluded with a sunset boat ride around the lake. As my cousin Max steered the boat, my brothers and I dragged our fingers across the water, making tiny ripples on its surface. Friendly families sitting out on their lawns and decks waved as we cruised by. I remember the smell and shimmer of the lake, and its peace fills me still.

Several years ago, Tom and I learned that a friend’s river cabin was up for sale.  We had visited it only once, but the place had such a pull that we knew we had to make it ours. We successfully acquired it, and it has been our “Wonder Lake” place ever since. The cabin was built in 1950 by a World War II veteran who used it as a base for duck hunting and fishing. For three generations, he and his family escaped there to relax and make memories. The house is a 3-season cabin, meaning there is no central heating – only a fireplace to warm up.  So we only use it from April through October when temperatures are warm enough that the plumbing doesn’t freeze. 

Unlike the previous owners, we don’t have huge gatherings of family and friends there. It is more of a creative space that we use to escape the world’s noise and indulge ourselves in writing, painting, and reading.  It is one of the few places we can easily and quickly access where life’s chaos cannot interfere. We can sit and watch migratory warblers and waterfowl, deer, fox, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, and otters in quiet seclusion. In late fall, we’ve set up chairs and counted hundreds of monarch butterflies heading south for the winter.  And in flood season, we monitor water height and watch what the waves deposit on the beach.  Often we find old medicine bottles and pottery sherds from the 1800s.  Neighbors tell of finding prehistoric artifacts, which we have yet to discover.

If we aren’t at our lake cabin, it seems we are vacationing to other bodies of water. There have been countless sacred times walking Lake Michigan shores collecting sea glass, agates, and searching for Petosky stones. And along the Atlantic and Gulf shores, we’ve delighted in shell hunting and finding horseshoe crabs, ghost crabs, and beautifully weathered driftwood that we drag home and don’t know what to do with, but keep because it is our connection to a special place.  In the past, at separate times, before we ever even knew one another, Tom and I both found wedding rings on beaches.  We can well imagine the trauma their owners experienced at losing their rings to the waves, as Tom lost his wedding ring to Lake Michigan just months after we were married.  It felt like losing a piece of our hearts. To comfort ourselves, we tell each other that a part of us will always live there, and so we must return every few years to revisit the beach where the ring was last seen.

You would think I have enough beautiful memories of lake magic to last me the rest of my life, but no. I’m an Aquarian. The water still calls. And I’m sure there will always be more to discover.

For this week’s book review, I have chosen Kate Messner’s  Over and Under the Pond, which you can check out under Recommended Reads.  Also, see my Wildlife at the Pond, a children’s worksheet, under Activities.