copywrite 2015 Patricia Stachelski
Prayer for the first day of snow.
Icy streets, slippery bridge, slushy sidewalks for pedestrians. Fill up the bird feeder if you have the means, get ready for the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Consider how you can make this world a better place for all, for Syrian refugees, for the neighbor who lost her home, for the people who don’t have health insurance, for families who lost someone, for people disowned by their families, for people in transition, people who don’t know where to go. Winter is harder when there isn’t a warm place to retreat to for food and human love. Sunshine in short supply makes us all needier. A need can’t be fulfilled by new products such as a phone or a car, but by human comfort, forgiveness and assistance.
Longfellow Farmer on Patrol suggests a police officer, in the male role of law enforcer. The Matron of the River Gorge, on the other hand, suggest a mother figure who watches over and takes care of others. Both men and women play these roles. I use both titles to describe myself as I walk along the river gorge.
This morning as I walked the river gorge, I noticed tents set up along the most beautiful bank of the river, the part that offers a great view up and down the river. Marsh grass grows along it, and there is obvious signs of beavers’ work, gnawed and felled trees. Somewhere, no doubt, is a beaver dam/house. What disturbed me on my walk was the plastic bags and bottles strewn about by the campers. The obvious disregard for the beauty of the environment and the assumption that this was a place where these people could homestead here and trash it bothered me greatly. As the self-appointed patrol officer and matron of the gorge, I said out loud to the two tents which I assumed held sleeping revelers: “Hello, anybody here? ” No answer so I asked again. Finally someone in a very quiet voice answered me. I then said that they were causing a lot of pollution here in this spot. I informed them that this garbage would end up in the river and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. I then issued a threat: I said that if it wasn’t cleaned up by tomorrow when I returned, I would report them for camping in a national park where it is prohibited to camp.
The river gorge is part of the national park system. It is the only true gorge along the river. Over and over again in the spring, I have seen people leave their garbage, including human waste in seeming ignorance of the ramifications of their actions. This lack of self-discipline is indicative of the apathy and lack of global awareness that people in this country have come to represent around the world. As a patrol officer, I remind them of the law. As a matron, I look out for the gorge and its needs. We need beauty in our lives. Without beauty and places of beauty we can physically visit, we humans lose our sense of humanity. Beauty keeps us connected to higher values. It encourages love and a vision of ourselves in our world.
Below is my letter sent to Governor Dayton regarding the new Vikings Stadium that is still in the construction stage:
Dear Governor Dayton:
I am a resident of Minneapolis, a sports fan and an aware citizen who cares about environmental issues. I am perplexed why the new sports facility for the Vikings football team is not taking the easy and economical steps to utilize bird safe glass. Many fans would love to see the Viking Stadium represent the cutting edge of environmental alternatives to the old glass where research and documentation proves millions of birds have died by flying into it.
Since the stadium will have the prestigious location situated in a park on the Mississippi Flyway where residents and tourists flock to see the migrations of endangered and protected birds, why not have them also look up and see the amazing stadium that has set the stage for others to follow in its choice of bird safe glass?
The stadium authority has the opportunity right now to change the public sentiment towards it and offer a new direction, an important direction that takes into account what the people of Minnesota value. It also has the opportunity to offer a hope for our children and grandchildren to be able to observe amazing creatures who migrate great distances to live and reproduce in our state. It is an opportunity to embrace the fans at many levels and make them proud to live in Minnesota.
Please take the time and consider the Viking fans who love birds and want to celebrate the new stadium because it is not just beautiful, but it represents a future we can all appreciate.
The big attraction is the bald eagles who have returned to their nest in the gigantic pine tree near the river. People come from all over to peek at the couple as they take turns sitting on the nest. While one sits, the other roosts on the branch nearby or fishes from the Mississippi River. Perhaps we see ourselves in the nesting habits of the birds. We look for affirmation of home-making and relationship building in the behavior of other species.
The koi swim as a couple, touching fins and keeping within each other’s current. When I move them from their winter aquarium in the basement to their summer pond, they frantically swim and sway to touch and find the other in the new environ. Each morning, when I go to feed them, one follows the other within a fin’s distance to ascend and pull a pellet from the surface of the water.
When one cat comes in the door, the other is there to greet her nose to nose and give a few short licks on her furry face. The cats must reacquaint with each other again before they can peacefully share the space of our home. These are all examples of how couples keep track of each other in the animal world. Similarly, we humans also need to touch, first with eye contact and then a handshake or kiss of familiarity and endearment. This first when we come in the door after a long day of work or childcare, before the problems of the day are laid out for solving. The need to touch is what makes us human and what defines us as animals.
I am always amazed by the flocks of robins that remain into the frosty midwestern fall, and winter over in the river gorge. Their plumage is less vibrant than in summer, a dull orange brown rather than red, and their song is not the usual “cheerily, cheerio.” Rather they emit twitters as they burst in flight from the path strewn with red and gold maple and oak leaves. The bird known as the harbinger of spring plays a trick on us.
Most songbirds migrate south at the end of the midwestern summer. They navigate using stars and landmarks and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field and patterns of polarized light humans are unable to see. ( Chu, Songbird Journeys) While migrating across vast distances of ocean and land, birds that don’t migrate face greater challenges. According to Miyoko Chu “The birds that reside in cold wintery places are likely to have even shorter lives than the migrants that travel thousands of miles back and forth each year. To beat the odds, they rely on their innovations–their snowy excavations, their hypothermic slumbers, their deft harvest of seeds from pinecones, their astute memories for recovering stored food, their tricks for digesting waxy sustances useless to other birds. They take the gamble that they will survive, that they will be able to choose a place to breed perhaps even before the first Neotropical migrant crosses the Gulf of Mexico, and that they will soon harvest the gifts of summer for their young” (214).
In our busy lives we don’t think about the decisions birds are making as the cold sets in. Do I stay or do I go? It seems that birds do things out of habit. Migrating birds prefer to migrate to the same place each winter and return to nest in the same place in the spring. I suspect the wintering robins in the gorge are the same flocks from last year, perhaps with the new additions. Most songbirds only live about 2 years. As long as there is food and water and shelter in the trees, the flock has a chance to survive. After enduring the Minnesota winter, their red breasts and cheerily, cheerio mating calls truly earn them the title of “harbingers of spring.”
Chu, Miyoko.Songbird Journeys. Walker Publishing Co., 2006.
The rocky cliffs and forests of the river valley embrace the lone traveler in the Mississippi River gorge. Old poplar trees, leaning cottonwood, red twigged dogwood, chickadee, downy woodpeckers, crows and eagles provide assurances of the constancy of the natural world. Flocks of robins winter in this micro-climate.
I cross over the frozen inlet where the culvert empties street run-off. The culvert is a huge, aluminum cave, a silent gaping mouth in winter. In spring it roars with street run-off and emits the odor of sewer gas. I stay clear of the still-open water just under the culvert. As I walk, the ice creaks and groans. The other tracks in the snow and ice tell the story of previous travelers; the ice is solid enough to hold. I reach the other bank. My dog dances ahead, returning in an exuberant gallop to check on me. She gets twice the exercise I do. I have heard it said that for dogs running is like dancing, pure joy. I can’t help but laugh at this doggy display of intense black eyes with tongue hanging out, her lithe black and white body airborne for a moment before she turns on a dime to disappear into the woods ahead.
I approach the river bank of the main channel. The river is open in the middle. A silhouette of trees on the bluffs across the river envelopes the valley. Trapped air pockets pop and ricochet sound under the ice. It is an unusually warm day for mid-January in Minnesota. I am hot from the walk so I take off my hat and scarf and wool coat. I sit in the sun on a fallen tree. This icy river, this land is big enough to hold me. In the near silence, I am made small.
All posts copyright Patricia Stachelski 2012
Crosby Farm Regional Park began as a 160 acre farm in1858 by Thomas Crosby whose family raised cattle, dairy cows, horses, pigs, and chickens as well as crops of potatoes and apples. They farmed the land until 1886. It was farmed by other families until the 1960‘s when the Saint Paul Port Authority obtained it and leased it to the City of Saint Paul as a park. The 763 acres of park is the largest natural park in the Saint Paul system of parks. (National Park Service) It is now one of the most beautiful urban parks, a good place to catch sight of native animal species such as the fox snake, the snapping turtle, owls, hawks, deer and birds on their spring and fall migrations. According to the National Park Service web site, “The park protects mostly floodplain forest and adjacent steep, wooded slopes cloaked mostly in oak forest, a scattering of wetlands and small lakes (Crosby Lake and Upper Lake), and the Mississippi River shoreline. When the Mississippi River floods, fish and other aquatic animals gain access to the small lakes which act as nurseries for their offspring.”
This morning a usually quiet walk through the floodplain forest was interrupted by the frantic chirps of chickadees and nuthatches. I looked up to see a barred owl with dark luminous eyes staring down from a poplar. The song birds were not afraid to swoop and dive at the stately owl. Barred owls typically eat rodents though they have been known to swoop at birds eating from feeders. They begin their courtship in winter and make their nests in hollowed out trees, sometimes taking over the nests of other birds such as the pileated woodpecker. They lay their eggs in February or March. They are nonmigratory. (Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center, Marine on St. Croix, MN) More and more they are establishing themselves in suburban neighborhoods. Their main predators are larger owls, and as a result of urbanization of habitat, they are at risk from cars.
In Greek mythology the owl, along with Athena is considered to be the guardian of wisdom. In Christian Gnostics, it is associated with Lilith, the first wife of Adam who refused to submit. Many people believe that when an animal appears to you, it comes with a message from the other world, the world of the unseen. What wisdom did the owl, creature of the night come to impart? Perhaps its steadfastness is a reminder to stay focused or perhaps its ability to adapt to the influences of human development and urbanization is a warning that we are all at risk of losing our lifeblood, natural habitat. To me the owl’s presence suggests the importance of cultivating my connection with what is wild. The owl and the walk through the ancient woods reminds me I am of the wilderness too. In the next moment, it spread its great wings and flew to a higher perch. I walked to the river edge; my dogs leaped and frisked on the beach. There was a small sheet of ice beginning to form at the shoreline. Everything was quiet again, just the crackling of ice and the distant roar of the freeway.
The Robins of Longfellow
The robins of Longfellow winter along the Mississippi River shoreline and Minnehaha Creek. When I first noticed robins in the winter, I was surprised. I had always associated them with spring and summer. As long as they can find their main winter food, berries, they can survive. Robins are not a bird that will typically eat from a bird feeder. They learn early on that berries grow on trees! However, they have been known to eat mealworms from feeders.
Along the rocky shore of the Mississippi River, robins drop down to drink then chirp to alert others. Several more robins fly to join them. After sipping the river water, they each fly up to the top most branches of the barren maple trees to catch the morning sun. A kingfisher flies and trills along the shore.
Ice pockets of swirling water rush and spill their way to the river underneath the footbridge of Minnehaha Creek. In this sheltered wooded habitat, robins fly up as you walk the path. Their dull brown winter plumage aids in keeping them hidden from predators. The “chick a dee dee dee” of the chickadees adds more music to the scene and occasionally you can hear the one syllable “er er” of the junco. Winter is just beginning, and the river bottom offers surprising possibilities of sound and beauty.
Riding the Amtrak along the Mississippi River is a fantastic way to see the river especially if you are not in a hurry. Along with the open views of marshes, sky and sloughs, I discovered that the Empire Builder between Minneapolis and La Crosse included an oral description of the area provided by a National Park Service ranger. As we rumbled over the trestles and shorelines, I learned that the town of Pepin made its fortune in buttons by raking the river for mussels. The mussels’ pearls and gorgeous irridescence was a form of gold for many towns along the river.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, “it was common for people in the 1800’s to collect mussels and look for treasure on the Upper Mississippi River; that treasure was freshwater pearls found in native mussels. Some historians have compared this treasure hunt to the gold rush in California.” In addition, “Sixty button factories were located on the Mississippi River Valley by 1899–these factories harvested over 21,000 tons of shells.” The button industry delcined rapidly after 1930 due to overexpoitation. “In Lake Pepin, the harvest dropped from more than 3,000 tons to just 150 tons between 1914 and 1929 as mussel beds were literally wiped out” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Today “In the Upper Mississippi River system, at least 18 species, half of which are considered endangered, threatened or a species of special concern by at least one of the states bordering the Upper Mississippi River, presently have some commercial concern” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
It’s still possible to find freshwater mussel shells along the beaches, perhaps the discards of a raccoon or heron’s meal. On the shore of the St. Criox River, I discovered a sign that read it is unlawful to take live or empty shells. To me, the mussel symbolizes the purity of the river. They act as the lungs of the river, sifting and cleaning the water as they pull out the nutrients they feed on. The study of the mussel and its over harvesting is a reminder of human greed and the delicate balance of life on the river.