Recalling Those Dandelion Days

Texas dandelion (Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus)

No matter which dandelion species comes to live in the neighborhood, everyone has an opinion.

Some consider them weeds, taking the emergence of even one flower as a personal affront. For them, the wildflower demands corn gluten, digging tools, or half-used bags of Weed-B-Gon® left from previous battles. Known to curse at the sight of dandelion fluff floating through the air, they need occasional reminders to stop yelling at the children who set the seeds a-flying.

Others consider dandelions wildflowers: sturdy little delights meant for the season’s first bouquets. Some call them dinner: happily boiling the young, tender greens and serving them up alongside ham and cornbread. Old-timers still bottle a sweet, light wine from the flowers, and lucky children still learn how to weave the flowers into garlands for their hair.

I’ll confess to loving the dandelions, and consider them more wildflower than weed. But above all else, those plump, yellow flowers bring to mind one very special experience: the year the squirrel went crazy.

Anyone who’s rescued and raised a squirrel as a pet has tales to tell – especially when the relationship lasts over a span of years. Inevitably, a squirrel in the house means pecans buried in the bedsheets, gnawed furniture, scratched limbs, and a full complement of creative mischief.

It also means providing a nice, balanced diet to maintain those bright eyes and that fluffy tail: a freezer full of acorns, fresh fungi in season, a full complement of assorted greens, and an occasional orange popsicle before bed. As everyone who’s lived with a squirrel knows, if the squirrel’s not happy, nobody’s happy, and popsicles made my squirrel happy.

 

One year, about mid-January, it became obvious that my squirrel wasn’t happy. He seemed bored and lethargic; none of his usual diversions gave him pleasure. He stopped lying atop the front door, scanning the traffic in the streets. He stopped dragging around his tennis-ball-in-a-sock, or demanding ear scratches. He even stopped watching Letterman, or begging for popsicles.

At first, I assumed creeping age was slowing him down, causing him to become crotchety. Then, he became a lot crotchety. The same critter who’d loved draping himself across my shoulder and nuzzling my ear suddenly took to flying off the refrigerator, grabbing hold of the nearest passer-by and biting their ear. He scolded everything that moved, and started chasing the bird. His silent, malevolent glare took on a certain intensity. Anyone who experienced it could be forgiven a shiver of fear, or an irrational belief that a two-pound squirrel intended to take over the house by force.

Eventually, after a fit of particularly bad temper, I snapped back. Surprised by my response, he ran to the back of the house and scooted straight into a closet, burrowing down among the hiking boots and coolers. That’s where I found him, digging into a plastic bag as though his life depended on it.

A strange but pleasant odor permeated the closet; it reminded me of a brewery. Puzzled, I pulled open the bag, and found mesquite beans that I’d collected, carried home as a souvenir, and promptly forgot. Thanks to their high sugar content and perfect closet conditions, the beans had fermented. My furry little darling was flying high on a South Texas version of home-brew, sometimes called atole by those who produce it for human consumption.

Even unfermented mesquite beans appeal to cattle, horses and goats, as well as to an assortment of wild creatures. When the beans ferment in the wild, cattle who’ve sampled them will do their best to keep bellying up to the bar.

In the case of my no-longer-free-range squirrel, closing the bar was easy. Getting him clean and sober required a little more effort. It took over a week for the effects of the beans to wear off, and during detox he was belligerent, contemptuous, and confrontational.

Unpredictably aggressive, he engaged in fits of foot-stomping rage. He became particularly fond of jumping up onto a bar near the kitchen, taking the phone cord in his teeth and daring someone to do something about it. Told, “No!” by one of his humans, the previously sweet little woodland creature would curl his forepaws into fists, stomp his little feet on the bar, and chatter away in perfect imitation of a two-year old throwing a tantrum.

Eventually, the aggressiveness ended. Still, he seemed lethargic; uninterested in life. Tempted with his favorite foods, he turned away. He slept a good bit, still refused ear rubs, and generally moped around in his log house. Despite everyone’s concern, the squirrel gurus counseled patience: and so, through the rest of January and all of February, we waited.

Finally, in March, as the sun rose higher in the sky and the grass began to green, the first dandelion appeared in the yard.

On impulse, I plucked and washed it, then carried it to the large aviary which served as the squirrel’s home. Whether sleeping or brooding, he was in his log, so I opened the door and rapped on his house. When I heard a rustle, I rapped again, and a tiny face appeared.

When I showed him the dandelion, he hopped out and sat on his feeding log, waiting for his treat. Once he had it in his paws, he sampled a petal or two, nibbled on a leaf, and then, as neatly as you please, bit off the end of the stem. As the milky sap began to collect at the bottom, he lapped up the drops with his tiny tongue, for all the world like an oenophile sampling a particularly fine wine.

I kept the dandelions coming, and within days he was back to his usual self, hanging out on top of the door and hiding pecans in my shoes. Was it the dandelion that made him happy? The coming of spring? The simple passage of time? There’s no way to know. Perhaps in the end it was a combination of all three, but it hardly mattered. The dandelion gods were back in their heaven, and all was right with the world: at least, all was right in the world of one previously miserable squirrel.

Today, looking around this soft, early spring, enjoying the already-blooming dandelions, waiting for the leafing of the mesquite, I take enormous pleasure in remembering my sweet, funny squirrel. I remember my belligerent, mesquite-bean-crazed squirrel somewhat less fondly, but the experience we shared leads me to wonder about people I see around me now: people who are behaving precisely like my poor, inebriated squirrel.

What have they gotten into? I wonder. What’s left them so belligerent, contemptuous, and confrontational? What could have warped their world view so badly that their life has been reduced to a clenched-jaw, foot-stomping rage?”

In truth, I don’t know. What I do know is that spring is coming, and the dandelions will bloom. The mesquite will blossom again, and the cycle will continue. Someone in West Texas will give atole a try, and vinters around the state will bottle dewberry, agarita and grape. They’ll all be good; there’s no doubt about that.

But if someone gives me a choice, I’m sticking with the squirrel. I’ll take the dandelions, any day at all.

Comments always are welcome.

Fear, or Flying?

Once upon a time, there came a gloomy weekend forecast — warm, but cloudy and drizzly — so a friend suggested we go into Houston for a concert. After Saturday fooled the forecasters by dawning sunny and bright, we began to reconsider our plans. We could spend the morning tending to chores, drive into Houston in ghastly traffic, spend a couple of hours listening to music, and then drive home in the company of more or less sober fellow citizens.  Or, we could stay home and find something to do in the afternoon sunshine.

Just after lunch we set out, with no destination in mind and no real idea of what we wanted to do. Halfway to Galveston, I said, “Have you been to the Texas City Dike?” My friend hadn’t. Neither had I, despite regularly passing it while sailing to and from Galveston. I’d heard plenty of fishermen extol its virtues, but apart from summertime drownings it rarely made the news, so I’d never found a reason to go.

Clearly, that needed to change. We turned toward the water, stopping first at Boyd’s: a distinctly down-home place reputed to have the liveliest bait, the freshest table shrimp, and the tastiest Cajun Po’boys in six counties. After a little refreshment, we headed out to the dike.

Originally constructed in 1915 to keep the Texas City Harbor from silting in, the dike increasingly functioned as a pleasure pier, until its structures were destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The rebuilt five-mile-long dike is a wonder, and not simply for the engineering and labor that brought it back in only two years. Thanks to the storm, there aren’t any piers, bait stands or restaurants on the dike. For that matter, there aren’t any gift shops, carnival rides or vendors working out of the trunks of their cars.

Today, you’re limited to the dike itself: a road, a few picnic shelters, some porta-potties, and boat ramps. It’s very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place, and the fact that you’re expected to amuse yourself gives the dike a distinctly old-fashioned feel.

Once we’d driven the five-mile stretch of dike to its end, we turned around and headed back to Boyd’s. Along the way, we decided to turn onto the three-mile-long levee which extends to the north. Apart from a few bicyclists and a birder or two, we saw few people until we noticed a small cluster of cars parked at the side of the road.

Not yet aware that we’d stumbled across one of our area’s favored destinations for windsports, we got out to see what was happening. There wasn’t enough wind for kite-boarders or wind-surfers, but conditions apparently were right for powered paragliders. One man preparing to fly seemed friendly enough, so I pulled my camera from the back seat and decided to try a little sports photography.

As he took off, his flight seemed effortless, and with good reason. Post-trip sleuthing revealed we’d been watching Andy McAvin, founder of TxFlySports. Established in 1999, it’s the oldest powered paragliding school in the state and has graduated hundreds of students. Andy himself has flown and taught the sport around the world.

Browsing his site, I was surprised to discover Andy and I have something in common. I began sailing in 1987, and by 1990 was beginning my own boat-related business. His first powered paragliding experiences took place in 1997, and two years later he established his school. It must have been an equally significant career change for Andy, who previously had established himself as a Broadway actor and voice-over actor for touring companies, animations and tv commercials.

What goes up inevitably comes down, and watching Andy land was pure pleasure. The landing was easy, controlled, and seemingly effortless. Of course, four thousand or so flights and several thousand hours of experience helped to make that easy landing possible.

Powered paraglider accidents do occur, of course. One of the most recent, involving a collision between a Cessna Caravan cargo hauler and a paramotor pilot took place just outside Houston. Other local mishaps have ranged in severity from scraped knees to injured ankles and wrists, as well as a few hands damaged by contact with a propeller.

But on our warm Saturday afternoon, there were no incidents. There was only sunshine, a light breeze, and the pleasure of watching someone who knows what he’s doing, do it.

Once he’d landed, we drifted back to the car and drove on. Later, an online search for ‘Texas City powered paragliders’ led me to the Texas WingNuts website and message board. A post from someone who’d been flying at the levee Saturday afternoon caught my eye and I replied, thinking it would be nice to send along any decent photos I’d taken to the person we’d watched.

That ‘someone’ turned out to be Andy, of course, who no doubt has more than enough photos of his participation in the sport. Still, he liked the pictures, and I liked the complimentary close of his emails. There was no ‘cheers’ or ‘ciao,’ no ‘regards,’ and no ‘yours truly.’ His emails ended with what surely must be the hope and joy of every powered paraglider: the short and simple expression, Blue Skies.

In an increasingly constricted world, in a world filled with people determined to eliminate every risk, every joy, every gesture of freedom, spontaneity, and independence in their pursuit of some mythical security, the self-reliance, attention to detail, sense of responsibility, physical conditioning, and pure joie de vivre represented by people like Andy is enormously refreshing.

I have no doubt that both Andy and his students have heard the plaintive cry: “You could die doing that!” I heard that same protest when I began offshore sailing, just as a friend heard it when he announced his intention to hike through South America.

Of course an aircraft of any sort could crash. Certainly a boat could sink or a hiker be murdered. On the other hand, any of us could choke on a peanut and die. I could step off a curb and be hit by an out-of-control car. I could be mugged while taking out the trash or shot dead in a grocery store. Even staying inside the house, avoiding all the dangers of the big, wide world, isn’t foolproof. I could be confronted by a home invader, or slip in the shower and crack open my skull.

As my more anxiety-ridden friends like to remind me, anything can happen. But most of the time it doesn’t, and even if it did, I wonder: could giving in to fear ever be worth missing the blue skies of life?

Annie Dillard has her own way of putting it:

There always is the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self-conscious, so apparently moral. But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous, more extravagant and bright. We are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

I don’t have a thing against a good tomato, but if we find ourselves slogging along, eyes to the ground, oblivious to birds and breeze alike, perhaps we also should be raising our eyes to those beautiful blue skies. It might be time to fly.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Flocks

A true murmuration — the mysteriously coordinated flight of thousands of starlings or other birds — is a wonder to behold. On the other hand, the sights and sounds of smaller migrating flocks stir the soul equally, inviting us to stop, and marvel.

Despite the winding down of our autumn migration season, birds continue to arrive: white ibis threading through clouds; unseen geese or cranes calling to their kind; a sudden upwelling of grackles; kettles of hawks rising into invisibility.

On the day after Christmas, newly arrived sandhill cranes browsed the prairies, while flocks of red-winged blackbirds mixed in apparent comfort with the snow geese feeding in harvested rice fields.

Snow Geese ~ Anser caerulescens

Elsewhere, the constant rising and falling of anonymous dark birds brought to mind a poem published by John Updike in the October 27, 1962 issue of the New Yorker: a reflection on a remarkable phenomenon titled “The Great Scarf of Birds.”

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.

“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
scarf.

Comments always are welcome.

The Messenger

 

Stiff,
cautious
on her branch,
she peers about.
Sweetly curious,
half-haloed, tattered, and
holding fast a captive star,
she heralds this angelic truth
laid in the heart of our broken world.
Every Thing counts. Every One counts. Always.
Blessèd
Christmas
To All

 

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ The ‘O’ Antiphons

Illuminated “O”

One of the most familiar and beloved Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” has its roots in Christian monastic life of the 8th and 9th centuries. In the seven days before Christmas Eve, a series of special antiphons — short phrases surrounding a liturgical psalm or canticle — would be sung. During that week, the antiphons were meant to point toward the Feast of the Incarnation, and to heighten anticipation of the celebration through references drawn from both Old and New Testaments.

Because their introductory phrases refer to various titles given to the coming Messiah, those last antiphons of Advent became known as the ‘O Antiphons.’

O Sapentia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Genitium (O King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (God With Us)

The last antiphon, ‘O Emmanuel,’ traditionally was sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve. Perhaps as early as the 12th century, it was given a Latin metrical form and transformed into a hymn. When John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the architect of the Oxford Movement and a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, discovered it in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,”  he included it in his collection of Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851) and it soon made its way into congregational settings.

Over the years, the popularity of the hymn never has waned. Stirring in a cathedral worship setting, it can be equally appealing when performed instrumentally. Now and then, an artist puts a personal stamp on the hymn in a way that is both faithful to the original and utterly new. Rearranging lyrics and simplifying their presentation, Enya has made a centuries old antiphon something wholly unexpected: both magical and memorable.

 

Comments always are welcome.