Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Signs are Starting!

I just love setting up for my classes in the morning. I get to go out, alone, which I really don't have time to do before work and [honestly] may not be motivated to do if I didn't have work. I experience the morning while hanging signs or leaving props in their places for later. It starts out as a pain, I'll admit... it makes my morning rather rushed... but once I get bundled up and get out there, it seems like every morning something wonderful happens.

Today, I brought my camera. I know... before I was all about my larger moment with the universe... but forget that. I want evidence. I was keeping an eye out for my bluebird friends. I didn't see them, but that's OK. Besides my daily chickadee and crow companions, this morning I also saw a robin -- the former harbinger of spring -- and a red wing blackbird -- a more accurate harbinger of spring.
This is he in the tree top. The visual may have been somewhat distant and not great, but the audio was crystal clear. I heard his call before I spotted him, a tiny bit... out of place on a cold day in the snow, perhaps... usually the first one is on one of those anomalously warm and sunny days... but there it was. (A friend reported seeing one on Tuesday, I believe, but this morning was my first. And second and third. When they come out to play, they really come out to play!)

Last night's dusting of snow (or sleet, more accurately) left quite a story to read in the morning. It's always just crazy to me to see how many animals are out and about in the night, and where they've gone... this morning I was on the same path as a skunk for most of my route... I must've stepped over the trail 10 times.
Skunk prints.
The skunk crossed paths with a coyote (actually, several)...
...and some squirrels...
And just to complete the circle, the coyotes also crossed paths with the squirrels, though clearly not actually at the same time. I also saw vole tracks out there. All these in 20 minutes and within a couple hundred yards of the school! It was a good morning...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feeling Blue?

I guess I need to start remembering to carry my camera again. Last week, among other things, I missed the most perfect raccoon tracks and some spectacular ice formations. This morning... this morning...

I was out setting up, alone, my tracks the first ones in the thin blanket of freshly fallen -- falling, really -- snow. Though there's not much of it, the new snow is lovely, gently falling, large crystalline flakes. Like the blanket in the snow metaphor that has become cliche, the snow seemed to muffle sounds. It was a peaceful morning. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement in a tree. I assumed, when I looked up, that I would see one of the chickadees whose spunky black caps and mournful two-note calls have accompanied me on my morning journeys for the past few weeks. This, though common, would have made me happy. I love my chickadee companions, respect the way they bravely take on winter. But this time, it wasn't them.

Perched not 15 feet away from me were a woodpecker and four bluebirds. Yes, four. Two males, a striking blue, unmistakably bright, with rust colored sides and white bellies, were accompanied by two females dressed in more muted tones. We shares a moment, these four and I, when all of us stopped our actions and just looked at each other. They weren't scared, didn't fly, just sat there, slightly puffy, trying to take in this new creature that wandered into the area. I was close enough that if I'd had my point-and-shoot camera, I could have taken a photo that would have looked like more than just dots in branches... but I didn't. Perhaps this is the universe's way of reminding me that these are special moments meant only for those who are lucky enough to be there, in the perfect time and place, to have them.

Meanwhile, the little downy woodpecker didn't even bother to notice me or the bluebirds in his tree...

Eventually I had to move on, and the bluebirds flew with me for a short while, stopping at trees just ahead of me but not letting me pass. When I turned, they stayed, and I continued my set-up, joined by some chickadees.

(You will note on the range map that the Eastern Bluebird does not spend the winter in northern Illinois. A sign of spring? And another sign of spring... this is the time of year, every year, when I notice the flowers buds of maples (silver, especially) swelling to huge red orbs, and I wonder, were they like that all winter but I wasn't paying attention until now, when I start to look for spring? Or have they really enlarged?)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ice Skating, Anyone?

(Ok, that's all I really had to say...)

Monday, February 14, 2011


(You all know how to read that, right?)

Sadness. It hit 50 yesterday, I think.
Valentine's Day promises to be drippy and wet, muddy and dirty. There's still a lot of snow in a lot of places (since there was so much of it) but a lot of it is looking brown. Places where there were valleys (as opposed to drifts), I see grass...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are We There Yet?

This morning, kept inside by the brutally cold weather, I read the book I'm in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor/Peter Parnall with my kindergarten students. (Interesting... I obviously recognize the importance of using children's literature, and I love reading myself... but I only see each of my classes once a week, for 60 or 90 minutes. And I want to get the small people outside (also the Naomi outside). And I'm not a reading teacher. So I don't use that much children's literature in my classes... maybe 10 books per year over all the grades. And a really high percentage of them are Baylor/Parnall books. I have used at least 4 so far this year. Their style -- both writing and drawing, just really appeals to me.) Do you all like my nested parentheses? I write like I think... which is, apparently, randomly.

Anyhow. If you're not familiar with the book, it's about a girl who creates her own holidays based on the spectacular things she gets to witness in nature. Written long before Last Child in the Woods, the narrator points out more than once that if she were inside, instead of going outside in her free time, she would have missed all those things, and she must be the luckiest person...

After reading the book, each student creates their own "nature celebration" -- some really memorable thing that they experienced in nature that they "plan to remember the rest of [their] life," as the book says. Kids come up with all sorts of things... from Snow Drift Day that just happened last week to Rock Collecting Day that clearly occurred in the summer sometime (based on the illustration), things they saw in their back yard (Opossum Day) to things they saw on vacation somewhere distant (Giant Wave Day).

A few kids always get stuck (they're kindergarteners, after all) and need to be coached to think of things to celebrate, and today, that conversation nearly transported me. "Do you remember a time when you saw the first spring flower, maybe? Or got really close to an animal?"

And, all of a sudden, in my head... it's last spring, First Dragonfly Day. A favorite day of mine because I love dragonflies so, and miss watching them terribly during the winter months. In a stuffy classroom on a frigid day, I can feel the warmth on my face. I squint my eyes to protect them from the sun sparkling on the pond water. And I watch the green darner swoop, turning and gliding, close to me and then away again. I lose it in the cattails, search, find it again as it darts about. It is huge (for an insect, I mean) and colorful. Time stops in that moment... whatever I was doing, wherever I was going, doesn't matter anymore.

Too often I'm focused on getting things done, checked off, moving on to the next thing, making each class work and getting my schedule to work with 25 other teachers' schedules. I celebrate that while I can be a very focused person, I can also get sidetracked from my focus by a soaring odonate... a flock of chickadees whistling through the still winter air... a fortunate argiope wrapping up a rather unlucky grasshopper... a perfect squirrel track... and a million other extraordinary everyday things that I am lucky enough to run into.

That's the optimistic take-home lesson. The less positive version? I have loved this snowfall. A week later, the world still seems magical and new and fresh and exciting, especially after 2 months of mostly snow-free coldness. But I, despite my upper-Midwest history including 5 Minnesota winters, am not as big a fan of winter as I feel like I should be... or as I used to be... or as I used to pretend, even to myself, that I was.

I hate having to wear multiple layers each day, and feeling constrained and puffy. I don't enjoy being boiling hot in indoor spaces that are heated to feel like summer. (Granted, this happens with over-air conditioning in the summer, but it's a lot easier to carry a long sleeved shirt to put on indoors than to get my long underwear off from under my clothing.) I am inconvenienced by having to spend 10 minutes getting ready to go outside. I feel oppressed by waking up in the dark and eating dinner in the dark. And I just miss the delicate veins of leaves, the pools of color in flower petals, the soaring dragonflies.

I definitely feel the need for at least some winter. I lived for a year in southern Georgia where it never froze and there was green algae growing all over my car, which didn't live in a garage and which I didn't wash (very often. There was this one time, when I went to a carwash, but one of our cats had decided to nap in the warmth of my car, unbeknown to me... and he freaked out like I have never seen a cat freak out before or since, and did some damage to the interior of my car and probably his shaky cat sanity. But that's another story for another time). Anyhow... The palmetto bugs -- which is just a code for native roach -- got huge and crawled everywhere. And in general, nature seemed inhospitable in the more temperate climate... there were all manner of poisonous, biting, stinging things that can't survive a cold winter, and that seemed to never die and nested in very inconvenient places. Here I am referring mostly to the large black spiders that kept crawling out of the air vents in my car. So I want a good killing frost. (Or alternately, a car-free life.) More than that, even. I like how a good long snow cover erases my failures to trim back the garden. Winter wipes away the old and allows for spring to feel like renewal...

But people, I am ready for spring.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Whole New World

I'm back with my Blizzard of 2011 Saga...

So. Tuesday night, after an early release from school due to the catastrophic blizzard warning that began at 3 pm, just in time to really mess with afternoon carpool, I kept looking out the window at the car in the driveway to gauge how much snow had fallen since the start of the warning. Hour after hour, snow churned in the wind, blowing almost sideways, but none seemed to be landing... the car had less than an inch on it. Finally, I went out to shovel before bedtime, anyhow, figuring... if the predictions were correct... I'd want a fresh start in the morning.

I had waited entirely too long. I hadn't accounted for the blowing and drifting that kept the snow from landing on the top of the cars and roofs. I had well over six inches to shovel, as task at which I persisted for an hour before help came out and we made short work of the bottom (and easiest) portion of the driveway. By that time, by the way, the top of the driveway already had about 2 additional inches of snow on it. I couldn't bear the thought of starting over at the top of the driveway, where the wind was coming in from over the roof and then circling down and around, like a perfect surfing wave, blowing snow up in my face. Totally tubular, dude. But this is all my way of telling you that my shoulders were already a bit sore, the skin on my palms a bit red, when I came downstairs Wednesday morning.

School had been cancelled the day before, so we set no alarm. I awoke with the sun around 7, which is quite a bit later than my normal weekday schedule, and went downstairs to find a changed world. I opened the garage door to find a wall of snow with a perfect garage door print in it. Donning all my winter gear -- which does not include snowshoes, because usually they aren't necessary here -- I climbed through the snow barrier and emerged alone into the still-falling snow. No one else in the neighborhood, human or otherwise, had ventured out yet.
The depth of the snow varied from a foot in some places to drifts taller than me in others. Above, our snow gauge, which I believe has numbers up to 2 feet, is covered almost to its top numbers. (Today, just due to compaction, it's already a few inches lower.)

The wind had sculpted some amazing features into the ephemeral white landscape... fins and twists, hills and valleys... it was... is... magical, beautiful, transforming. Clean and sparkling, it was like an empty canvas when I first ventured out. So lovely and inviting.

Until, that is, you realize that you are in charge of shoveling it. Then it becomes somewhat of a pain in the... shoulders, arms, and lower back. I spent an hour digging out one trail from the garage to the street, just the width of a snow shovel . An aisle to freedom. And then, "rest," cried the chief shoveler. And I took a break.

During my rest, I discovered that our heater was not actually producing any heat. Um... Sucky any time, really sucky when no one can get in or out AND the predictions for the following night were sub-zero. Turns out, the pipes to the outside world where the heater gets and releases air were underneath the lovely snow sculpture shown below. My husband put on his snow gear, which does include snowshoes, and proceeded to dig out the 6-foot drift that blocked the pipes. The heater works again, thanks to him, and only at the cost of one screen... a small price to pay for heat in the weather we're having!

Heat functioning, I went back out for shovelfest: round 2, over an hour of excavating, but the problem was, there were no places left to move the snow to. The piles on the sides of my driveway were taller than I, and definitely taller than I could continue to lift snow. I watched as neighbors emerged, everyone digging, stopping to chat and watch the kids and dogs creating a snow playground out of the 15-foot pile that the plows had left in the cul de sac center, and then resuming the toil. Other people pulled out snowblowers after they had made escape routes, but we have always liked the scrape of the shovel, the exercise, the rhythm, the accomplishment of manual snow removal. My parents passed on their old snowblower to us years ago, but it's broken and we never bothered to fix it to a state functionality. (Oops. Lesson learned, sort of.)

At any rate, round 2 got frustrating. Feeling a burn with every load of snow removed, it seemed like I was getting no where. I would be at this all day and never get a swath wide enough to get the car out by school the next day. (At this point, I still believed there would be school the next day, today.) Eventually, help arrived and, once again, the shoveling was finished in somewhat short order. Well, it did take a while to deal with my dad's car, which we sort of got stuck in a snowbank due to our trying to carve the narrowest path possible for it to curve out of, backwards. But it wasn't stuck too badly and we got it out, no harm done, in case he's reading this.

And then, we had a day and a half left to enjoy the winter wonderland. Or to cuddle on the couch with a book.

So this storm? Not a bust. As my young neighbor friend put it as he jumped off the top of the snow structure, (yes, onto the pavement) "BEST SNOW DAY EVER!!!" I find myself hoping more will fall. I like holing up. I like the quiet. I like the admission -- by me and everyone -- that nature has out-powered our technology and our whims and we're changing plans and staying in. I like the adventure...)

I should mention, my husband is not normally the type to allow me to toil away alone for hours on end at something like snow shoveling, but he, like many at our school, caught a bug that sort of knocked him out.
OK, must go drink the last how cocoa before the single work day tomorrow (and then, it's the weekend! Crazy!)