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Friday, June 28, 2013

Bullbats Visit the Valley…

cotton candy clouds                  Summer

At evening, nighthawks, as if on roller coasters, climb through the bleeding sky, hang a moment upon it, then hurtle earthward, wrest a sonic boom from the startled air, and soar aloft again.

Growing Up Riparian

T.M. Johnson

I’m in the habit of observing birds that visit our property; however, you would be mistaken if you think I’m an avid birder: I own no spotting scope, safari jacket, or take to the field, binoculars swinging from my neck like an ocular pendulum. I’m not preoccupied with compiling a “Life List” of birds I’ve seen. In general I’m just fascinated by wildlife (less so, I’ll admit,  if it’s twice as big as I am) and that includes birds, certainly. In my pictorial field guide Birds of Washington checklist, I have checked fifty-two avian species observed at our feeders, in bordering trees and shrubs, just passing through, over, or in the case of a terrified wood duck hen, in our chimney flue. Late fall, winter and into spring we hang feeders and keep them well-stocked with birdseed. A year ago, spring ,we added a finch sock which attracted pine siskins and led to one more check mark in the field guide. The hummingbird feeder is on duty year round except for winter days when the temperature is below freezing. Those nights I bring it inside so it won’t freeze solid and break.

My checklist grows annually, it seems. Two years ago a male Lazuli bunting had a three day stopover at our feeder (haven’t seen it since). L. BuntingLast summer I stepped out on the back deck and was startled by a large, hulking turkey buzzard squatting in the backyard. Immediately I retreated inside, quickly took my pulse and temperature and when nothing seemed amiss, I took out my field guide checklist and checked the box “Buzzard, Turkey.” For two months this spring a male red-breasted nuthatch darted back and forth between feeder and maple tree, and I checked off this little streamlined darter, also.r.b. nuthatch

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9:00 p.m. I’m strolling the garden. Deluges of Biblical proportions have kept me housebound the past two days. This evening the air is fresh and still. A cotton candy sky coats the horizon a gauzy pink, spinning wisps of pastel across the blue. Then I hear it…somewhere overhead a faint “bwwooooooooom.” The sound is not concussive, but a gentle sound, like something softly tearing a strip of sky. The noise does not disturb but complements the evening and the peace of the garden. The sound echoes in memory; I recognize it instantly and scan the sky for its source. For some moments I see nothing. Then suddenly the familiar flutter of wings high in the sky off to the west and I see the bird. Higher it climbs with erratic wing beats, spiraling upwards and upwards as if ascending an invisible staircase. As the bird strives higher, I know what is about to happen: a bit of suspense, then the bird tips over, folds its wings and plummets downward in a steep arc. Down, down it falls, buzzes another erratically flapping bird and abruptly swoops skyward again, away from its mate. I listen for the booming noise as the bird brakes and the wind whooshes through its wings but the distance is too great and the sound is not repeated. I hear it only once. But once is enough to jolt the memories loose….

…of those still summer evenings in Eastern Washington when we  were kids and sought reprieve from the day’s heat and our oven-like bedrooms by hiking a half mile to a vantage point on a hill above the riverbank. There we’d stand as the air cooled, gaze into a sky afire with sunset, and watch the nighthawks swoop and boom. High above our heads the birds would climb, their distinctive “peeeenting” cry signaling their location like a beeping satellite. We would enjoy their aerobatics until the sky grayed and the stars winked on, and then begin the slow walk back home to our simmering bedrooms.

“Bullbats,” they’re called in some regions of the country, perhaps because of the booming sounds they make. In ancient times nighthawks were thought to be goat suckers, to suckle and feed on goat’s milk at night. A bird about the size of a robin, the common nighthawk has a tiny beak but a mouth like a scoop, frog-like, into which they funnel insects as they swoop about the sky, feeding in much the same way a baleen whale screens mouthfuls of krill as it glides through the sea. Akin to whip-or-wills and nightjars, the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is termed in the field guides as a“crepuscular” bird, meaning most active at twilight and dawn. At night on the way home from our dates, driving along dusty county roads, oftentimes nighthawks would dart into flight from the middle of the road, startled by our headlights. Sometimes in broad day as we hiked the sagebrush flats, we in turn would be startled by a nesting nighthawk whose nesting habits are not to have one, but instead lay its pebble-colored eggs among stones on the bare earth. The bird, mottled and camouflaged itself, would burst into flight nearly from beneath our feet, and our breath would come faster for the next couple of minutes.

In all the years I’ve lived here in the Valley, I’ve yet to see a nighthawk. But this evening, if only for a moment, I saw a pair them. Their presence was fleeting; they were here and then they were gone, swallowed up by the west. Sometimes an instant holds more than an hour, a day, a month…but in that brief moment the nighthawks’ playful aerobatics this calm evening went beyond my mere tallying of avian species number fifty-three and checking the box before “Nighthawk, Common,” page 309 of Birds of Washington, .

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Apostrophe to a Sign: From the Editor’s Desk…

Broers' new signAn editor’s job is pure drudgery, in part, I guess, because writing involves an uncommon amount of editing in order to arrive at where you want. The fact the writing is your own only increases the boredom, and just for that very reason even more care must go into the scissor work—the cutting and pasting—required to tweak the post into some semblance of perfection. After all, you can’t be “peddling” Gladys around the Valley as I was doing in a prior post. Think of the possible ways that statement might be misconstrued, especially if a new reader to The Ripple didn’t know Gladys was my vintage 1976 Columbia lady’s bicycle. Fortunately the editor caught the homophonic faux pas and was able to backpedal the “peddle”out of there. If it’s your writing, there’s ego involved, certainly. I used to tell the sophomores, “What you write is who you are; your writing sets you up for scrutiny, puts you on display—even if it’s “Dear Diary” you’re writing to or for.

Then there’s the matter of punctuation, those little black sprinkles of ink strategically placed here and there in one’s writing. Punctuation according to Webster is: “The act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs in written matter to clarify the meaning and separate structural units.” The voice does this for us in oral expression but text is mute. No rising or falling inflection for questions or statements, no pauses to separate one idea from the other, no volume for emphasis, just little marks here and there to clarify context. Basically we salt our written text with those standardized dots, curly-cues and squiggles because the eyes have no ears, and a comma here and there can make a world of difference in meaning. Consider the sign posted by the ol’ swimmin’ hole: “No Swimming Allowed!” Use the local pool instead. “No, Swimming Allowed!” Dive right in.

Punctuation was so fascinating to the biologist Lewis Thomas that he wrote an essay about it in his book  The Medusa and the Snail. If punctuation seems dull to you, read Thomas’s “Notes on Punctuation”and the subject becomes,  if not exciting, at least interesting. In fact Thomas even has his favorite punctuation mark. “I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years,” His reason:

“It is almost a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted, or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”

For Dickens, too, the semicolon reigned supreme; entire paragraphs are sentences strung together, like a Conga line, with semicolons. (Consider this from the printer’s perspective:  how many extra sheets of paper would be needed to print countless semicolons instead of periods, say if the novel was the length of seven to eight hundred pages?)

Thomas declared the exclamation mark to be the most “irritating of all” and likens the use of them “to be[ing] forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention….A single exclamation mark in a poem, no matter what else the poem has to say, is enough to destroy the whole work.” Whenever I’m tempted to “exclaim” something in a piece of writing, Thomas’s words always come to mind. I wonder what the old biologist would think of today’s Facebook postings or the exclamatory tweets? I imagine with all the exclaiming going on, Thomas’s eternal slumber is restless!!!

As far as punctuation goes, it’s the apostrophe that has its work cut out for it, and for that reason I think it odd that “Notes on Punctuation” has nothing to say about its use. Thomas likes commas well enough, and as I used to tell the sophomores, “An apostrophe is a helium-filled comma.” An apostrophe must multitask— serve as a proxy for a missing letter or letters ( o’clock: of the clock); to indicate possession, or to quote your junior high language arts teacher, “ownership,”(hens’ teeth); or to show the plural of a number or letter (four  i’s in Mississippi, ten 10’s in one hundred). I always pay the apostrophe union scale because it faithfully gives 110 %.

While it may be the most overworked punctuation mark, the apostrophe is also the most abused. Perhaps because the apostrophe floats above the line, it is difficult to tether it to the correct spot. To a large degree apostrophe confusion stems from the fact that at times the majority of nouns end in S, the plural form of common nouns in English. Most adults, children even, can count and know if you have more than one cat, you have cats. But what if that cat has a tail? Now you have a different situation, and the apostrophe is supposed to make that distinction: cat + its tail= cat’s tail. Now if you have a kindle of kittens, each with its own tail, you have cats’ tails. So it’s the S that’s the problem: either your language arts teacher didn’t make the distinction that TWO separate things were going on here, or you were watching the clock, not paying attention to this hum-drum stuff, thinking about your girlfriend, waiting for P.E., lunch, or the school bus. That explains why folks are so inclined to insert an apostrophe before the S whenever a plural noun shows itself: “kitten’s for sale; cherry cordial’s $1.99 a pound; pumpkin latte’s now in season….”

Apostrophe confusion also occurs with the contraction it’s, where the mark is a place holder for the missing “i” (it is) and the simple possessive form its (belonging to it). Just a little attention to these two words: “It’s tail was caught in the door”…do I really want to say, “It is tail was caught in the door,” which makes little sense. No, what I want to say is “the thing’s tail was caught in the door.” With a little attention it’s/its is an error easily avoided…unless the problem occurs in neon tubing such as the sign in the window of  Hill Street Cleaners which fronts Lewis Street in town. The establishment boasts: “Tailoring at it’s best!” How would one edit a neon sign anyway? Call Dale Chihuly, I guess.

All this apostrophizing brings to mind the classy new sign at the head of Ed Broers’ driveway. It is a wonderful sign, tastefully painted, trim and crisp—certainly in keeping with the Broers ’ meticulous attention to neatness, whether it be home, barn, or berry row. Such a well-crafted piece of carpentry like that should have a precise message, in my opinion: I would be proud to announce theirs was “my” farm if I were the Broers. Now if the sign read “The Broers,” that would be different, a simple matter of “the Broers live here.” But “Broers Farms?” Maybe the apostrophe was omitted because of modesty. Maybe it seemed an unnecessary adornment to craft a wooden apostrophe and float it after the S in Broers. Maybe the sign maker was unsure how to form the possessive of a plural noun ending in S: “Do I simply carve and add the apostrophe or should I carve the apostrophe AND an additional S?” (Only if Broers is pronounced Broers-ez…) Or maybe I should mind my own business, stop trying to edit the Valley, get back behind the editor’s desk, and just tend to the business of The Ripple.Pick a peck of berries

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father’s Day…

P. rutulus on delphs“It’s like a Roman holiday,” the old saying goes because of the Romans’ penchant for festivity and celebration; more days of the Roman calendar were a  holiday of some sort than the mundane, daily routines of life. We Americans love our holidays, too, and add them to the calendar at the drop of a hat. (Ever wonder why the public schools are in session until nearly the end of June? ) Much of this holiday questing, of course, is commercially driven: the Father’s Day cards, the Father’s Day commercials (“Surprise Dad with an RV of his very own!”), Father’s Day meals, Dad’s favorite electronic gadget. Neckties (although I’ve never been gifted one, but I’ll take the tie over the RV any day). Don’t know what to get Dad? Waited until the last minute, did you? How about an instant gift card from

Along with their holidays,  Americans love equity and so two years after the formal observance of the first Mother’s Day in 1908, someone thought, “Hey, one can’t really exist without the other (biologically speaking), so why not honor dear Ol’ Dad, too?” That “someone” was Sonora Smart Dodd, an uprooted Arkansan who settled, of all places, in Spokane, Washington,where the day was first observed, fittingly so, at a Spokane YMCA. Ms. Dodd thought fathers had been given short shrift and should be celebrated for their role in the family unit. (Given the fact that today’s dads, on the average, spend seven hours a week on childcare, up from the two and a half hours a few years ago, fathers’ celebratory day seems a bit undeserved.) Actually, then, Father’s Day is just an afterthought, which, it seems to me, “cheapens the gift”somewhat. The afterthought languished for about twenty years until once again Ms. Dodd, recruiting the help of retailers who would benefit most by the observance of a Father’s Day, once again pushed her crusade and the holiday finally stuck.

Far be it from me to speak for the other fathers out there, but on this day, June 17, 2013, it’s not so much my own paternity I think of but that of my dad’s. I remember how strange it seemed the Father’s Day after his passing. As with any other holiday, it’s in your face marketing the month, week, day before the holiD-day. No matter what the store, when I passed the greeting card display with its special section of Father’s Day cards, I was struck by the fact that I would never again visit that card section prior to Father’s Day, carefully read through the selections for just that perfect sentiment, that message with words meant from the heart of a son to a  father who in so many ways was a larger than life figure .

Due to a number of issues currently involving our family, circumstances so played out ( more specifically: life happens) that I would be by myself this Father’s Day…just the cat and me (and the cat only wakes at 4:00 p.m.  for his treats). Thirty-four years and four months I’ve been a father and on this day I would be alone, separated from my immediate family, especially from my wife, daughter and grandson. I’ve been thinking about that the past few days and tried to tell myself it was no big deal, that it’s only a day, a day that is of more import to retailers than its proxy celebrants. I think of my dad, who I’m sure relished his infrequent opportunities to be alone, welcomed the slightest respite from six brawling children. Dad even preferred doing up the Sunday morning dishes to chaperoning six children to Sunday school and church. I think, also, it was our family tribe that made my father want to escape a hectic household and flee to the solitude of the riverbank; whether he caught a fish or not was secondary to a momentary reprieve from being the family man. But as far as I know, Dad was never alone on Father’s Day.

Again, on this day I think of my father, my failings as a son, my desire to learn about the hopes and dreams he had for his life. These are questions you need answered. Ask them when you have the chance; don’t let the moment slip away. I missed that opportunity. The chance was there. Dad and I were alone one afternoon after lunch, sitting together in the living room of my parents' house. “I should ask him now,” I thought, “ while the two of us are here alone.” As I was phrasing my questions, I looked up, and Dad was napping. “Let him sleep,” I told myself, “he deserves it,” and the opportunity and the moment slipped away and that was that.

There must be a current in the ether that signals those we love that their company is needed; blood is thicker than water, I’ve heard. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Today around noon I received a phone call from my daughter. Turns out “Life” has happened to  her, too. Would I mind if she spent the afternoon with Dad on this Father’s Day? And could he spare some time for his grandson? You know my answers—especially if you, on this Father’s Day, are fathers yourselves.

I’m currently reading a biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. A passage in the book was, as a father myself, heartrending to me. Edna’s father, Henry Tolman Millay, was estranged from his wife and three daughters for a good part of their lives. All his promises-- sincere, I believe--were never kept: sending money to support a struggling mother and wife with three daughters. Promises to visit “his girls” when he could afford it, proved hollow. Before he died,  Millay requested his celebrity daughter Edna send him a few dollars for his medical care (amounts no greater than those he’d promised his daughters he’d send them) because his pride couldn’t bear state assistance.

Henry Tolman Millay died 20, December, 1935. None of his three daughters attended his funeral. Sad, so incredibly sad….