Things that fall from the sky

One of the many Elecampane (Inula helenium) plants that I started from seed last year, now blooming in Boston.

One of the many Elecampane (Inula helenium) plants that I started from seed last year, now blooming in Boston.


I began this post from my steamy bedroom a few nights ago, in the aftermath of the neighborhood’s Roman candle blasts and even louder late night party cackles. Summer, that grand doozy of a season, had spent the whole week sitting on this city, stifling everything and exhausting me as I did anything. I’d go for days in a wilt before some kind soul would grant me a blessing spun with lemon, lime, or watermelon. Naked water sat within me uselessly, my body stubbornly refusing hydration as it tsk-ed me for having such a lousy electrolyte balance.  All was irate and fecund and full of color.

Arthur broke the everlasting sweat with his billions of raindrops, and now I can sit here in the backyard, an umbrella stretched over my little patch of sleepy, breezy afternoon, and feel pleasant and not at all sunstruck.

As I last wrote, June was a month of herbs. I taught several classes at Herbstalk, Allandale, and the Fenway Victory Gardens (of which there is YouTube proof). Herbstalk was especially amazing. I sold hundreds of plants and talked myself hoarse while trading ideas, tips, and techniques for growing and using healing plants with folks from all over the northeast.

Farmside, I sowed tulsi and am now watching it flower tinily, enjoying its fruity, spicy, sacred self as it wafts around the garden center and through the greenhouse.


The lovage and elder umbels in my victory garden.

The lovage and elder umbels of my victory garden.


In my own garden everything is amazing, or at least vigorous and vivacious. My favorite part at present are the umbels. Those beautiful wheels of infinitesimal blossoms are anchoring the space in the white of elder, the chartreuse of lovage, and the firm red (lightened with sweet little pale centers) of ornamental yarrow. I also had valerian, started from seed and glorious in its tiny blushing blooms, but something—rabbits, I’m sure—trampled it and now it’s tenaciously starting over again, about six inches tall after its towering 48, photosynthesizing and fattening sleepytime roots for the winter and fall.

I’m possibly busier than I’ve ever been before between the farm, landscaping, beekeeping, gardening, and general around-the-house-ing. And occasional socializing. And very infrequent resting. The living madness of my schedule has kept me from seeking out too much wildlife as of late, but I’m seeing tons of it incidentally which, really, is what I prefer.

The best bit of wilderness that I’ve lately encountered fell from the sky, tumbling suddenly into a tray of pots being carried by a coworker. It was a tiny, scowling, perfect fledgling of a swallow. The little bird, only slightly tousled, looked at us as we ogled and oohed, admiring its jaded gaze and amazing wings. Its wings were clearly its best feature. They were  so clearly those of a barn swallow—dark and beautifully preened in an almost violet, parallel tilt that met elegantly in a point.

The tiny thing was clearly startled and shook slightly but its stare was steadfast, so fierce for such a miniature thing. Eventually we set the tray down on the ground, or started to before, without warning, the bird took flight. Its downy self, so squat and crabby, was instantly gorgeous as it flew through the wide open air, taking a pretty, curved path to its nest along the garage. What a pretty Independence Day.

Tiny swallow staredown

Tiny swallow staredown


MudSongs 24 & 25: Lush with collision

—Joanie Mackowski

Bustle and caw. Recall the green heat
rising from the new minted earth, granite

and basalt, proto-continents shuffling
and stacking the deck, first shadows flung

from the ultraviolet haze. A fern
uncurls from the swamp, the microscopic furnace

of replication warms the world, one
becoming two, two four: exponential blossom.

Lush with collision, the teacup balance
of x and y, cells like balloons

escaping into the sky—then the dumbstruck
hour, unmoored by a river,

a first fish creeps to the land to marvel
at the monstrous buds of its toes. And stars

grow feet and walk across the years, into these dozing,
ordinary days, climbing the spine’s winding

stair, where crickets yawn and history spins.


Still Life with Three Bird's Nests by Vincent van Gogh (on his 161st birthday).

Still Life with Three Bird’s Nests by Vincent van Gogh (on his 161st birthday).


What birds plunge through is not the intimate space
—Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

What birds plunge through is not the intimate space
in which you see all forms intensified.
(Out in the Open, you would be denied
your self, would disappear into that vastness.)

Space reaches from us and construes the world:
to know a tree, in its true element,
throw inner space around it, from that pure
abundance in you. Surround it with restraint.
It has no limits. Not till it is held
in your renouncing is it truly there.

My Life as a Turkey

A west coast wild turkey. Source.

A west coast wild turkey. Source.


I created just a handful of resolutions this year and I think that they are all pretty attainable. Writing more is, as ever, one of them, but when I was mulling over what else to improve upon embracing the wild turkey wasn’t exactly at the top of my list.

This was before I spent New Year’s afternoon having a lazy, prolonged brunch of soda bread and butter with two of my favorite ladies from Milwaukee–Kat, mentioned in the last post, and Erin, who was a guest-blogger in 2013. We were sitting around discussing creatures we have known when Kat asked if I’d seen My Life as a Wild Turkey. I laughed and said no–it sounded like some coming-of-age comedy starring Steve Carell. But Kat insisted I find it. “This guy becomes a turkey mother!” she said. “The birds have their own language!” she added.

It’s impossible for me to say no to any episode of Nature, much less one that purportedly proves that turkeys can talk. So I made a note to watch it and told a few turkey tales of my own.

An amazing shot of a Boston bird by @Treasure_MA.

An amazing shot of a Boston bird by Nick Wilson, aka @Treasure_MA. More wonderful images of our urban turkeys here (with an invitation to submit your own!).


In my first draft of this post I mused that I didn’t know why I hadn’t written more about wild turkeys in the past few years, but now I understand their absence perfectly. In my full-time country farmer days I had some negative experiences with domesticated turkeys which I allowed to foolishly color my appreciation of their cousins. This confession leaves me feeling like Ben Franklin’s summation of the bald eagle: a creature of “bad moral character.” My prejudice was completely uncalled for; anyone that’s worked on an animal farm, or visited one, or ever learned anything about domesticated creatures, knows that intelligence is not something typically selected for in the barnyard. The turkey you had for dinner in November was likely the member of a variety honed for its pure white feathers and capacity for girth. Unless you chose your bird meticulously from a Portlandia episode it wasn’t prized for its high-functioning brain or, for that matter, given a healthy, sunny, non-stressful place to live.

But Wild turkeys. They’re fascinating. And, despite my lousy experiences with their watered-down cousins, they’ve manged to have a hold on me ever since I moved to New England in 2003. There I had friends who told me of the gaggles roaming their lawns and driveways, jogging and strutting through the grass like the Maine State Dinosaur. They sounded bizarre and wonderful and I longed to see some of my own. Eventually I did, but only briefly from car windows while riding shotgun.

The first time that I truly saw them I was on a bike trip in southeastern Wisconsin. I’d been pedaling along, lost in the aimless bliss of a long ride, when suddenly we met.

Wild turkeys are one of those creatures that really embody the eastern woodlands, and I saw them not for the resemblance to their agricultural relations but rather for that forest within. Their feathers, scalloped like mushrooms and smooth like a leaf-littered floor, were the colors of venerable bark and marked in an iridescence like foxfire or beetle shell. Their beaded eyes took in everything–us, the steel curves of our bikes, the roadside knit in prairie remnants and field weeds. The flock was about 15 deep, pecking and wandering in the autumn air. The  sun gilt on the tips of the soybean fields we sidled complimented the catching prisms, like petrified wood, wrapped within the wings and tails. I was starstruck.

Looking back, I recognize my time with those Waukesha, Wisconsin turkeys as one of those mystical first time experiences; a sudden, happenstance meeting between two species which for one was illuminating and, for the other, utterly ordinary. (But, you never know. Maybe I really blew those turkeys’ minds with my over-packed messenger bag and bright, red, long-gone bike.)

* * *

Here in Boston I see turkeys fairly often. They’ll walk down the sidewalk, along the river, around the hospital. But my favorite interactions with them occur while working in my clients’ gardens. Most recently I’ve enjoyed watching them wander a sweeping Brookline property. I was pruning a Siberian cypress with a friend when I found a Tom standing on a  small cliff that bordered the backyard. An exploratory group of hens surrounded him at distances. They’d cock their heads, lift a tenuous leg, and let it go along with their neck, streamlining their upper bodies for the epicurean rapture of some succulent slug or morbidly obese grub. Gazing at them I was tickled with the exhilaration of being allowed to observe another living thing. You see, turkeys let you really look at them. Unlike many creatures who are easily put off by humans, they’ll kindly allow you to keep an eye on them as long as you also keep your distance. This is a gift that I accept readily and enjoyably, watching their strangely wonderful forms swagger around the city.


Or, if you’re Joe Hutto, you can just snuggle with a turkey and it’s no big deal. Source.


If you’re interested in learning about turkeys, visit The National Wild Turkey Federation. And if you want to hear a deliciously cautionary tale as to why you should never, ever feed a wild animal*,  do yourself a favor and listen to one of the best This American Life stories of all time, all about Tom, the psycho killer of Martha’s Vineyard.

As for “My Life as a Turkey,” it’s wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking.  If you’re on the fence about whether to want to watch a few dozen minutes about a guy hanging out with a bunch of large birds, just think: this is a man obsessed. Joe Hutto raises the turkeys from scratch and, once they’re old enough to venture into the wild, follows them through backwoods Florida. He rarely leaves his property for fear that something could happen to the precious brood. Hutto learns how to coo the language of the jakes and jennys and finds love and brotherhood in the little flock. And…he’s a man; a human who seemingly longs to transform himself wholly into one of the surprisingly elegant and innately wild birds that he so admires. Aren’t you curious to see what happens to a grown man who attempts to fully integrate himself into a gaggle of woodland turkeys? Answer: Yes, yes you are. So watch, enjoy, and tell me what you think.

A second request: the next time that you see a wild turkey, or some other bird that you take for granted and make assumptions about, consider who that creature really is. How does it operate? Does it get by? Consider whether you really have any idea what this living being is all about. It may appear undeniably silly, but the bird before (or above) you may also be able to teach you something about themselves, their environment, and how you tie into all of it.

Wild Turkey by John James Audubon. Source.

Wild Turkey by John James Audubon. Source.


* Don’t worry, you can still have a bird feeder. Just not a turkey feeder. Seriously, don’t make a turkey feeder.

True Facts About the Land Snail

After reading my recent post about snail sex my friend Kat sent this hilarious little spoof. In it we learn that “The land snail is just like a tiny human…who happens to look like a disembodied tongue. And is covered in mucus. And has a shell.” If you love nature documentaries and are in the mood for a chuckle then press play and enjoy! (There are also some pretty awesome photos of love darts and footage of molluskian hanky panky.)


Saturday Silflay

watership down

A robin pranced around the skullcap patch.

I cut a bouquet of hydrangeas and found a cricket, its antennae at least as long as its narrow, translucent body.

A mockingbird again snacked in the elderberry.

Half a dozen rabbits enjoying a good silflay throughout the gardens and slim meadows of the Fens.

Also, I don’t want to be too redundant, but I somehow woke, right around four thirty, without a bit of cricket, katydid, or conehead in my ear. Was it too cold? Or were they merely weary?

The wilderness without and within

house sparrow

The majority of the nature experienced today was tangled in all of the wild hormones within, riling my uterus and, you know, my outlook on all things. 

There were also the house sparrows at work, hopping and cocking their inchy heads, going after a gummy on the floor and the birdseed on display. I fought them without violence, clapping my hands and ineffectively kicking away the gummy which moved slow, sticking with tenacity to the cement floor.

I also found some funky, Mardi Gras costume-wearing, mantis-like creature in the sacred basil during the morning harvest. And I was sucked on by mosquitoes. Lastly, I found a cabbage moth in the greenhouse and a green caterpillar, dead and composed halfway of orange slime, also in the sacred basil. Amazing that so much life, death, and violence can exist within the juicy branches of such a holy plant.

Caws, lilts, and the thrumming piano strings of a far-off August

Today was another beautiful day, filled with hazy blues and, once the air cleared, long, smooth clouds heralding in the gloaming. I have to come clean, though. Rather than observing any creature aside from Matt (and, fleetingly, one of the snails–Queequeg–in the terrarium), the animals that I really spent time with today were the Kaijus at the Saturday matinee.

pacific rim kaiju

What I did experience in the real live neighborhood was a crow crowing and a kid yelling back, “caw caw Caw CAW CAW CAAAW CAW!!!”

There were also the underwater pipings of bluejays and pretty adorable sights of house sparrows squatting on the thick cable just outside the kitchen window. One would fly out of sight to the roof, then another, and another. But they wouldn’t do it at once, instead keeping a choreographed cadence to their movement, with three seconds between one take off and the next. 

Because I don’t have much to say about my own observations of nature today (though I could write A Lot about the day’s chores and successful thrift shopping, as well as a a two-thumbs-up review of Pacific Rim), I figured I’d look up an August 3rd of Thoreau’s. So, here you have it: ecstatically Thoreauvian thoughts from the man himself.

young thoreau

August 3, 1852

The Hypericum sarothra appears to be out.

12 m. At the east window. –A temperate noon. I hear a cricket creak in the shade; also the sound of a distant piano. The music reminds me of imagined heroic ages; it suggests such ideas of human life and the field which the earth affords as the few noblest passages of poetry.Those few interrupted strains which reach me through the trees suggest the same thoughts and aspirations that all melody by whatever else had appreciated, had ever done. I am affected. What coloring variously fair & intense our life admits of! How a thought will mould & paint it! Impressed by some vague vision as it were, elevated into a more glorious sphere of life, we no longer know this, we can deny its existence. We say we are enchanted, perhaps. But what I am impressed by is the fact that this enchantment is no delusion. So far as truth is concerned it is a fact such as what we call our actual existence, but it is a far higher & more glorious fact. It is evidence of such a sphere, of such possibilities. It is truth & reality that affect me. A thrumming of piano strings beyond the gardens & through the elms, at length the melody steals into my being, I know not when it began to occupy me. By some fortunate coincidence of thought or circumstance I am attuned to the universe, I am fitted to hear, my being moves in a sphere of melody. my fancy and imagination are excited to an inconceivable degree. This is no longer the dull earth on which I stood – It is possible to live a grander life here; already the steed is stamping – the knights are prancing; Already our thoughts bid a proud farewell to the so called actual life & its humble glories. Now this is the verdict of a soul in health. But the soul diseased says that its own vision  life alone is true & sane.

Of course, no man was ever made so truly generous, was so expanded by any vile draught, but that he might be equally and more expanded by imbibing a saner and
wholesomer draught than ever he has swallowed. There is a wine that does not intoxicate; there is a pure juice of the grape, and unfermented. What kind of draught is that which the aspirant soul imbibes?

Some bits and pieces about my book-in-progress

Cows and elm

I have a confession to make: I’m writing a book.

I have been reluctant to write about it here, due to equal parts shyness and a desire to commit myself to blogging rather than advertising. However, my friend Lisa Taylor, a poet and the mother of naturalist Kira Taylor, asked if I would participate in a Q & A for authors who have either just published a book or on the cusp of doing so. I don’t want to disappoint an old friend, and I would like to start sharing this project with those outside of my family and Facebook feed. So, here we go! Lisa, by the way, also wrote of her up-and-coming collection of poetry, Necessary Silence, as well as a novel that’s in the works. You can read her words here.

* * *

What is the working title of your book?
My current working title is “Streets of Wilderness: A Song of the Urban Wild in Twelve Parts.” A bit redundant; I’m working on it.

Where did the idea come from?
Before I started living in Boston full-time I spent a growing season in rural Maine. It was difficult to make the transition from a wooded homestead to a residential neighborhood wrought with houses, asphalt, and the incessant ebb and flow of traffic. I quickly began to feel suffocated, but found hope in the plants and animals that I saw thriving in the city, domesticated and wild alike. I began writing little things about them in this blog, mentioned to a friend that it would be interesting to turn my observations into a book, and things bloomed from there.

What genre does your book fall under?
Nature writing.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
In my dream world Jacob Feiring directs the documentary and David Attenborough narrates it. I suppose that there would also be random glamor shots of, say, Scarlet Johansson walking seductively down a street while a raccoon scurries behind her, going after a bit of pizza crust.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A poetic exploration of a year in the urban wild.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About twelve months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In writing of various wild species, landscapes, and situations one month at a time, I have adopted the format used by Aldo Leopold in his Sand County Almanac. My book is also akin to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for its examinations of place, natural phenomenon, and the blissful, life-quenched realities of day-to-day life. (That’s what I’d like to think, anyway!)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Though I’ve spent significant time in rural areas, the majority of my life has been spent in the post-industrial landscapes of Milwaukee and the brick and glass neighborhoods of Boston. After years of uneasy ennui in these cities, I finally had the realization that, in order to thrive, I had to seek out the organic among the man-made, the places in the cracks where cells were photosynthesizing, dividing, and driving new life. I found, by mindfully observing these pieces of urban life, from trees breaking concrete to coyotes moving silently through cemeteries, I became more resilient, more fascinated, more able to accept what the city brings. This book is both an ode of thanks to the tenacious things that have helped me to survive, and is also a way to keep me awake and alive with curiosity.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
People are drawn to the untamed, and because the majority of us live in cities, it is becoming increasingly common that we only experience the undomesticated through an urban lens. Humans are naturally intrigued by our surroundings and anxious to understand them. However, it can be challenging to see what is around us, either because we don’t know where to look or because what we seek is so ubiquitous that it slips by. Hopefully those interested in finding and appreciating the nature around them will enjoy this book.

When and how will it be published?

My book will be published as an e-book by an imprint of Village Earth Press, and should be out sometime this year. I will post updates as I complete it and continue to traverse the mysterious landscapes of the publishing world!

Please come again next Tuesday as Erin Therrien will be a guest blogger here, doing her own Q&A on the recently published Wild Dyes: Natural Dyeing in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. She writes of many dye plants that just so happen to be found in lots of North American cities.


The drawings in this post and at the site’s header are the work of Laura Grover, a prolific artist currently based just north of Portland, Maine. These illustrations are all works that Laura has done for my book. Laura is also currently working on a graphic novel about the history of her family.

Coyote: the lithe, silent, and long-nosed huter

Here’s a wonderful little post from Coyote Yipps on the hunting habits of the coyote. It illustrates nicely the manner in which they jam their snouts into the earth (at, for example, 2:21) whilst attempting to root out rodents. (I never cease to be impressed by the strong schnozes of canines. I once met a dog, a wonderful border collie named Syd, who played basketball voraciously, using her nose to steal the ball from any human antagonist. I was always worried, but after seeing film of foxes, wolves, and now coyotes thrusting their faces into the earth, I can see that Syd knew that her lovely face was in no danger.)

Coyote Yipps

Note how gingerly this coyote initially pursues his prey in this video. He begins by listening for little scurrying sounds of voles in their vast tunnel network underground — he does not want to alert them to his presence. So he tiptoes around the spot, carefully positions himself and waits — all the while listening intently. He’s very smart about what he is doing: clever and shrewd.

The hunt then shifts from a mental strategizing to a more physical one — there is a pounce/punch with nose and forepaws, followed by digging, and then another punch of the forepaws, followed by more digging. Punching serves to force some activity below the surface — if the coyote is able to collapse a tunnel or scare the vole, the vole might move so that the coyote will either see or hear it. His last recourse is to stick his nose in a…

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News and Gratitude

If you’ve been following Spokes and Petals for awhile, you know that I really have a thing for skunks.

Happily, they occupied the front page of the NYT’s Science Times last week, along with some of their mammalian partners in chemical warfare. Natalie Angier writes… Continue reading

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