Friday, June 10, 2011

White Noise

Here I am, cliffside along the north fork of a Washington river, one touted as the least polluted in the state. The setting is idyllic: comfortable home balanced on a cliff above the river, surrounded with rain forest cedars, fir, and ferns. A bald eagle flies by at eye level, her nest a quarter mile up-river. Osprey screech, patrol and perch along this stretch of water. They fly below my chair here on the deck. Great blue heron drags his ceremonial grey through the shallows next to a deep pool, turning fishing into an artform. Blue-black stellar jays jump and sprint and zip through the woods, balancing here, stabbing there, in a frenetic forage quite out of place with this spot's serenity. A water dipper does her amazing snorkel tricks in the rapid river below me.

One of the many reasons I love this spot is the ambient noise of the river. The river is omni-present, day or night, with windows open or closed. The river's noise blocks out other, less serene, sounds, like the many trucks hauling rock and soil up the hill just yards away from the house and the whiney motorcycles on the river road below me.

The river sounds mask all that I don't want to hear, all the sounds of my fellow humans who also savor this precious part of the planet. It's "white noise" for this serene spot.

I really like the phrase "white noise," as it connotes a sense of purity and good intention. It conveys the idea that this noise will sooth, not harm, the listener. That's very different from the outrageous blast of ad that shatters my calm while watching a television show. That is not white noise; that is the blackest, most evil, most treacherous noise I know of. White noise is very different from the deep thump of base coming from a low-riding Honda two blocks from my house. It's very different from the inane chatter spurting from a truck's radio, blather I cannot escape at a downtown intersection.

I like and use white noise. My white noise machine offers several choices. I can zone out with crickets, light rain, surf, heart beat, or non-descript steady burr. Any of these can wipe out for me the distractions of intermittent rattle from my environs. I can pretend I'm somewhere else or just lose myself in the redundancy of the vibrations coming from this small device.

White noise is, I think, big business. Searching for white noise info, I came across a site that offers these white noise water options:

Spring Water
Big rushing waves of water in a stream
Lapping water and engine noise as longboat cruises down river
Water filling sink at rapid pace
Big rushing waves of water in a stream
Water dripping at a medium pace
Big, frothy splash in an indoor swimming pool
Water lapping and splashing against boulders
Ocean surf sound with whales singing.
Medium rain on concrete or pavement in a quiet city
River, rooster and birds
Early morning by a river with dog and birds.
River flowing over rocks
Ducks quack and splash around in a pond
A chorus of frogs in a pond
Creaking boats, lapping water
Trickling water from a mountain spring
Forest ambience after rain shower with ocean surf in the background
Slow single drops of water
Waterfall (many sizes)
Rain dripping onto a rain gutter with the sound of cars driving on wet street
Waves (waves can jump, soar, surge, swell, spray, drip or pound)
Water trickle (with sewer / car sounds)

I'm thinking I can find just about any white noise related to water that I want. I'm thinking I won't order the white noise of water trickle with sewer and car sounds. It's true: I prefer the original white noise, the cascade of river I'm enjoying right now, but I feel comforted understanding that so many options of white noise are available to me. I'll sleep better just knowing that.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why Flowers?

After a trip to two cemeteries this Memorial Day weekend, I started thinking. Each cemetery was fastidiously prepped for its annual cascade of flowers. Greens were intense. Edges were sharp. Walks were swept clean. The stage was set. Bring on the blooms.

But why flowers? Why do we make this annual tribute to the memory of our loved ones with flowers? Why stake out the cemeteries with baskets, vases, shapes, and sprays of roses, carnations, lilies, daisies, delphiniums, iris, lilacs, and peonies?

Blooms are, in fact, a part of most of life's important rites of passage: births, confirmations, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, illnesses, awards, and deaths. Why, I wondered, are these fragile creations are such integral parts of our stay on this planet?

I read lots of pieces about the topic, learning that flowers were deemed to be important to human health in the first century AD. A few centuries later, flowers of certain colors were thought to be effective in healing specific ailments, with red blooms helping blood-related maladies and blue blossoms helping to calm patients. Even now blue blossoms are thought to aid in the resolution of stress and addiction issues.

Much research has shown the benefits of having flowers in healing situations, such as hospitals and sick rooms at home. Some research has shown that flowers can assist in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Workplace studies have shown that the addition of flowers and plants can reduce stress and increase productivity.

And some research I read found positive impacts of floral arrangements in helping a society deal with trauma. Evidence came from Japan, after World War II, and the United States, after the September 11, 2001 attacks. This doesn't surprise me. Images of the massive flower banks following the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana attest to the value of floral expression of a group's grief.

Flowers at funerals are common in most religions, I learned, with the exception of orthodox Jewish ceremonies and those of some Islamic sects. One explanation I read of blooms' absence in Jewish funerals is the requirement that burial comes immediately after death. Since the body would not linger and decay, there was little need for strongly scented flowers to mask unpleasant odors. So a logical reason for massed flowers at funerals was initially for the comfort of the living, so that the smell of decay would not mar the ceremony.

Research conducted by the funereal floral industry has strong data (surprise) supporting the positive impacts of flowers on survivors. Flowers provide a reminder of the transitory nature of life, of the beauty of the departed's character, and of the promise of the bliss of the hereafter. Plants are deemed to be especially valued as long-term reminders of the loved one and as markers' of the solace and support offered to the grieving family.

So the vase of deep purple iris and the cheery basket of tulips and daisies that I placed on my father's gravestone and memory marker comfort me. They remind me of his dedication to his family, of his desire to create fun experiences for us over and over and over, of his devotion to his lovely wife Mary.

And the stunning arrangement I lay gently on my husband's marker at the veterans' cemetery strikes deep. The spread of white mums and carnations is reminiscent of his incredibly sweet innocence. His mother once told me that he didn't believe that people would ever lie and I found evidence of his deep trust in other humans. He was shocked and hurt when people he trusted were deceptive. The stunning dark blue larkspur sprays in this arrangement epitomize for me his reverence for the natural world, his dedication, both at home and work, to preserving the resources of this planet. Center stage of this arrangement are star gazer lilies, their deep pink petals in shocking contrast to their white surround. These are my favorite lilies, as they are fun, vibrant, and strong. Their aroma is a spicey clove blend. Like my late husband, these lilies turn heads, make gazes linger. They testify to his humor, his brilliance, his good looks. He was an incredible astronomer, a stunning star gazer, he was.

Joined together with millions of others this holiday weekend, I offer up the delicate, transitory glimpse of floral beauty. I am so grateful for the chance to mark joyful memory with delicate bloom, so glad I can grieve serenely with flowers.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Sacrifice of Buntings

Last spring lazuli buntings visited my yard and they were spectacular. Their intense blue feathers, set off by a bib of rich bronze, transformed them into flying jewels. A year ago, I wrote about them:

"In the past few days I have been blessed to watch brilliant lazuli buntings peck good seed from my feeders and drink clean water from my bird baths. I am sorry if you have never seen a lazuli bunting up close. They are stunning: tropical turquoise, coral, and white dress these sweet finches. Their flash of blue through the garden is absolutely hypnotic. I've stationed myself at windows, perched myself on a futon in the sunroom, peered from behind living room drapes, just so I could gaze at these gorgeous birds."

This year is different. This year I'm enduring birder envy, as a dear friend a couple miles away is posting pictures of the eleven lazuli buntings visiting her yard and I am seeing none in mine. I find myself sitting in the sunroom while knitting, glancing up between stitches to see if any are at the small feeder or splashing in the birdbath. None. I move to the kitchen and spy to see if any are perched at the large feeder. None. The giddy antics of American goldfinches are delightful to watch, as they fly a roller coaster track through the yard and hang their beautiful yellow selves upside down on the thistle feeder. Beautiful. But they are not lazuli buntings.

My lucky friend who's hosting eleven buntings gave me a valuable tip: she said that a collection of buntings has been labeled a decoration, a mural, and a sacrifice. How wonderful and mysterious to have such vivid collective nouns for these gorgeous birds! Who makes these terms up? Who decides which labels will stick?

I did some study and found verbal delights. Some collective bird nouns are very apt. For example, a group of starlings is called a chattering or a murmuration; a group of geese in flight is called a wedge and that same group on water is called a gaggle. Jays gathered together are called a party and chickens, a peep. A group of turtle doves is called a pitying. These terms make sense.

Some collective bird nouns are lyrical and lovely. Have you ever seen a bouquet (of pheasants) or a charm (of hummingbirds) or a wisp (of snipes) or an exaltation (of larks)? But others are less favorable. When ravens gather, they are called an unkindness or a congress. I wouldn't want to be tagged with either label. Gathered crows are called a murder, while a group of herons is named a siege. Peacocks together are aptly called an ostentation.

Other terms I looked at didn't seem to have clear reasoning related to human views of the birds. Would you name a group of raptors a cauldron? Would you call gathering of parrots a company? Would you think that kettle is a fine label for a bunch of nighthawks? How about the word knob? Would you apply that to a group of widgeons? Not sure I understand...

I'm enchanted by these collective nouns, these group names given to birds by curious and imaginative folks over hundreds of years. And I am ever so grateful for the lazuli bunting, whose presence in my birder friend's yard spurred her to share bird words, which started this linguistic quest. I think I'll step outside now and scan the yard for a sacrifice of buntings.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Time Lapse

I left the house on Wednesday afternoon and returned the following day, about 27 hours later. What the heck happened while I was gone? Changes were so significant that I really wanted a time lapse photograph of my yard for that brief period.

You see, spring's been reluctant this year. Teasing sun one day, then growly clouds and wind and rain and even snow days thereafter. Warm afternoons, then frosty nights. Unevenness, but consistent in that spring remains in the lower realms of temperature and pleasure.

So when I trekked to the airport this week, I expected to return to the status quo. Yard perched on the edge of spring, ready to jump into the grand excess of bloom but not quite there. When I returned, I saw that my yard had moved ahead without me.

The small aspen grove was just grey and white when I left. The catkins had come and gone. The heart and initials I'd carved five years ago were clearly visible, right behind the upright log I use for a seat inside the grove. The cotoneaster spread its gawky branches on the north side of the grove, with no indication of brightening up for a spring show. The pine behind the grove stood somberly, as it has since I planted it.

But when I returned the aspen grove was a dazzle with that delicious green of new leaf, a green so intense that it almost hurts the eye! All the aspens grinned with their heart-shaped green baubles; they just looked giddy. I sat on the log seat in the grove and was covered by canopy, a salad-green duvet of brand new leaves.

The flower bed lining the south side of the house was all about anticipation when I left. Gladioli spears were poised for action. Violas had completed their debutantes' dance; the novelty of being first blooms out was gone. And the peonies, all seven of them, just looked a bit grumpy, like they were tired of doing this annual climb from dark soil to bright light.

But when I returned the flower bed was invigorated, primarily because of peony action. Looking along the long narrow bed, I saw monsters, deep burgundy claws climbing skyward. The fingered peony leaves were stretching higher and higher, opening up like sharp-nailed limbs of prehistoric beasts. I could not believe how the plants had grown in just one day. I wondered if I could catch some of that movement if I just sat there without blinking, staring at these amazing plants seeking the sun. I've pondered similarly in Decembers when an amaryllis bolts out of its pot, hellbent for the sky. Would it be possible to actually see the inch or two being added each day? Should I invest in a flower bed web cam to capture this miracle?

Like the aspen grove and the peony bed, the rest of my yard also amazed me on my return. When I left, a fan of green leaves filled one side of an island meandering across the lawn. When I returned, the buxom buds of white tulips huddled among the leaves like peasant women. They are now ready to burst open, to take off their kerchiefs and display dramatic cores of buttery yellow and black.

The spirea shrubs were nondescript when I left. When I returned, one was ablaze with rufous-colored leaves, while the other was sporting tiny banners of chartreuse. The four Cecil Bruner climbing roses were just tatters of thorned branch and dessicated leaf when I left. Now they are looking energized, with some green rising in their rusted limbs. The vinca minor along the berm are now laden with deep violet blooms and hundreds of bright leaf buds raising their hands in answer to an invisible teacher's question of "Who wants to bolt across the berm first?"

And, yes, the dandelions arrived while I was gone. Of course they were here when I left, but their glorious spikey faces were hidden in tight buds. Not now. Now they are impudent punks blaring their defiance at me.

The bolt of springtime that hit my yard in my absence makes me grin. It seems I never tire of checking out the performance in my yard. Who knows what I'll find out there this afternoon?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Buds...the Rest of the Story

What a difference a few days, some sun, and some heat make! Last week my writing about buds was pretty much cerebral, exploring them, not so much in the vivid circus of their home, but in the quiet of the library inside. Today it's visceral. What a difference!

The season has popped at my house. Last Sunday's tight fist of lilac bud is now a community, a choir of purple blossom doing its final dress rehearsal before the Big Show. Last Sunday's knobby pear tree now can't wait to prance its fluffy stuff; each bud is swollen with anticipation. Last Sunday's forsythia was a gawky bundle of sticks against the fence. Today it's a spray of yellow sun.

And the hellebores! Where last week, dozens of burgundy buds were hanging their winter-worn faces, this week the blooms are fanned in a delightful parasol of mauve and pale yellow-green. The bold pops of crocus now have their brazen daffodils buddies, punctuating the green expanse of front yard.

In this delightful week I've spent about six hours pruning, raking, mowing, and trimming in my own yard and a half hour planting my mom's early vegetables. My hands have loved getting down and dirty. I thought, this week, about the research my daughter shared with me, that kids who grow up in rural areas have fewer allergies as a result, it's thought, of lots of contact with soil, thus buiilding immunities. Adults who garden may see the same benefits. Gardening can be more than a psychic healer. It can keep the body well.

On Friday my skin loved the contact, not just with soil, but with sun: tank top and shorts were my uniform as I worked on correcting any vitamin D deficiency. For decades we've been trained to prevent Old Sol from making contact with skin and now we're being told that many of us have too little vitamin D and need to get out more. I can do this. Lizard I can become, basking away winter's indoor weariness in spring's lovely sunshine.

Ah, popping yellow flowers, deep brown earth, toasty sunned shoulders. What an incredible week it's been! What sweet pleasure the first real week of spring brings. It's no longer just thinking about the potential of a blooming yard. It's seeing, smelling, hearing, and feeling reality, a gorgeous reality. I give thanks for these abundant April blessings!

Sunday, March 27, 2011


I'm getting antsy here for some serious spring weather. This morning's run with my golden retriever was lovely but frosty, with a view of fresh snow dusting the foothills. I think it would be okay if winter signs faded, allowing buds to really pop.

I am intrigued by buds. They embody potential, what might be, enthralling possibility. As I wander my yard, I peer at the buds of dogwood, magnolia, aspen, pear, and willow. Each wrapped bundle is a gift: a present that will soon make its grand entry.

I go inside and read about buds. Botanists talk about buds in intriguing ways. For example, calling buds terminal, axillary or adventitious is just referring to where they choose to land on the plant, whether at the top of a stem, in the axil of a leaf, or elsewhere, like on a trunk or a root. If I were a bud, I'd prefer to be described as adventitious rather than terminal. Wouldn't you?

The appearance of buds is set forth with a vivid set of descriptors. Buds can be scaly, covered, naked or hairy. Buds that are hairy can be either scaly or naked. Now, I don't think being described as scaly is a good thing; it sounds too reptilian which, in our culture, is not positive (apologies to my herpetologist friend Frank). But to be both scaly and hairy just doesn't sound attractive. If those adjectives described me, I'd be looking for some laser removal pro, followed by good moisturizer.

Buds' status also determines how botanists describe them. Buds occupy roles described as accessory, resting, dormant, latent, or pseudoterminal. I'm thinking that none of these titles enhances self-esteem. If you were to choose your status from this selection, would you really be satisfied with dormant or latent? I cannot ever see myself happy with the status of "pseudoterminal," even if I knew it meant that I might be like a persimmon bud, having sympodial growth in which a terminal bud dies and is replaced by a closer axillary bud.

And then there are bud functions. I thought I understood what buds do: they get things ready for the show of flower, fruit, leaf, et al. Guess it's more complicated than that. Some buds' function can be described as "vegetative," which means they only contain vegetative pieces, like an embryonic shoot with leaves. Okay, but I thought all buds, in fact, all plants, are made up of vegetative pieces. I'm puzzled and so read further.

I find that, if a bud isn't functioning in a vegetative manner, it could be doing so in a reproductive manner (having the embryo of a flower) or it could be functioning in both a reproductive and vegetative manner at the same time (having both embryonic leaves and flower). This is making some sense to me, as I conclude that some buds are really good at multi-tasking.

My bud-study is clouding my head, confusing me, messing with years of intense bud observation. I think I'll quit reading. I think I'll just go back outside and peer at the buds in my yard. I really don't care if they are they are pseudoterminal or adventitious or hairy or scaly. I am just excited about the gifts that they are set to unfold.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sea Thoughts

Just spent four days on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The surf below our cabin was a frothing cauldron the entire time we were there, with car-sized rock being pummeled non-stop by rolls of sea. We could see sea from the deck, the yard, the hot tub, the dinner table, the living room, the bedrooms, the "office" and the guest house. We could hear the rumble of surf all the time, a soothing white noise, occasionally punched with the crashing roar of a surfer's dream.

Since we were 150 feet above the water, we didn't fret about tsunamis. But in transit, in town, we were very aware of the threat that coastal folks face 24/7. Signs broadcasting hazard zones and escape routes and instructional brochures reminded visitors like us that complacency about the ocean could be a fatal error. Baristas compared their preferred routes if an alarm blared. Volunteer emergency workers reviewed a recent drill.

Sobered me out my dreamy idealization of the sea. The astounding videos and satellite images of Japan seared my mind, reminded me that this incredibly soothing waterbody can be a giant of unimaginable destruction. Each wave that I tracked to its foamy dissolution took on a duality, a polarity of beauty and ferocity. Annie Dillard's writing came to mind, as she zeroes in so often on that dichotomy of the natural world. Her introduction to "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," in which she describes the bloody pawprints of her cat tracking across her nightgown, exemplifies that contrast. The pawprints, evidence of a recent kill, look like roses. Nature is incredibly beautiful and incredibly cruel.

The ocean is incredibly beautiful and incredibly cruel.

That thought stays with me. Yes, I was blessed this week to savor images of this amazing union of water and continent's edge. Yes, I'll turn to those images in memory and tiny videos when the land-locked location of my high desert home seems too confining. And, yes, I'll be reminded again of both the demonic and soothing character of the sea.