Red Osier Dogwood: Winter Fire

This time of year, all the color seems to have drained from the world. No flowers yet, no  butterflies. Even the birds are hiding till the warm weather comes. In the early spring drabness, this shrub stands out like flame against the dried brown grasses.osier 025

Red Osier Dogwood–one of many species of dogwoods, with juicy berries much beloved by fall birds. The berries are long gone, but the twigs still glow like embers. It’s a native plant, a cold-weather-lover. It grows all over the US, but can even tough it out way up north in Alaska and the Yukon, where it does its best to warm the cold days with cheerful color.

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Native Americans used this plant in many ways, for food and medicine–the berries grow thick on the red twigs in fall, and have a lot of nutrition, although they don’t taste very sweet. But mostly this plant was beloved of basket weavers. The supple willow-like twigs add a stripe of color to traditional basket designs.

I’ve never actually woven a basket myself–it’s a craft I’ve always meant to try. But there aren’t enough of these scarlet bushes that I feel justified in stealing any branches. I’ll leave them in the meadow, to warm up these frigid April days.

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A Little Street Art

A while ago I was driving down a street in Albany, NY and happened to see this flash of red in the distance.

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I’m always a sucker for street art, so I had to do a U-turn and take a closer look.

Mind you, I’m not sure what it is, but it certainly brightens up a chilly, gray day.

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Crocus or Croak

An early April snowstorm, to make fools of us all. crocus 027

But see that little yellow dot in the snowbank? That’s a crocus.

Last spring, I had one lonely crocus in my long-neglected garden. Just one. And on the first warm spring day, the tiny yellow flower all but disappeared under a mob of hungry bees. Startled at their ferocity, I looked around and realized that nothing else was blooming. Nothing. Not even my beloved dandelions dared show a petal yet. And the bees were desperate for food. They had to find nectar or starve. And one crocus won’t feed a whole hive.

So last fall, I went to town on crocuses. I bought a bunch of crocus bulbs and stuck them in the fall mud, and hoped for the best. Planting fall bulbs is an exercise in frustration–I prefer immediate gratification. I’m the kind of gardener who buys tomato seedlings with little green tomatoes already on them. Even planting seeds tries my patience, waiting seven or eight days to get some action. Waiting seven or eight months is really torture.

But anyway, after a long cold winter, the crocuses finally got rolling. They poked up little green leaves and tightly rolled flower buds, and began to open up, and then bam! spring snowstorm. Buried in white.

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But those little guys are tough. They don’t care. Snow, sleet, wind chill? Bring it on.

No sign of bees yet. But when they finally stick a timid toe out of the hive, the food supply will be waiting.crocus 023

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Flocks: Guest Photographer Diane Hale Smith

Thanks to Diane Hale Smith for these beautiful photographs!smithcrow2

It’s spring. Really it is, in spite of the weather. The birds know.

They can tell because there’s more light in the world. The days are longer, the nights are shrinking, and they know it’s time to move.

Huge groups of starlings, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles are swooping around, back from their winter spent in warmer climates. They’re complaining loudly about the frigid weather up here. They’re waiting impatiently, like the rest of us, for the weather to warm up.

And my favorites, the crows, are still hanging out in their winter roosting spots at night. smithcrow4They’re restless, though. They’re staking out their nesting territories, out in the suburbs. Crows in upstate New York usually start nesting in the last week in March or thereabouts, so this cold weather is holding up their spring plans as well as mine.

A flock of birds in motion is a strange and mysterious sight. How do they do it!? How do they all manage to swoop and glide like one unit, never crashing into each other? They all rise from the trees at the same moment, and bank and weave in perfect  unison. It seems they must have practiced for years, like the Rockettes, or those drill teams you see at football games. Or maybe there’s one Major General bird up front, barking out: “Left! Right! Up! Down!”

Scientists have studied this unison movement, and determined, using slow-motion video, that there is no one leader in a big flock. The birds respond to each other. Any bird, making a sudden turn, can inspire others to instantly follow.

Here’s a really interesting science website, called The Straight Dope. (Their motto is: Fighting Ignorance Since 1973. It’s taking longer than we thought.) It has a really good explanation of how the flocking behavior works (funny, he also compares it to the Rockettes.)


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Spring on Wheels

march 173Spring is on its way! Being trucked in specially at the Carrot Barn in Schoharie, NY.

I went there for a welcome breath of spring in this month of endless cold. In their vast greenhouse, the air is moist and warm, and there’s a promise of flowers to come.

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It has to warm up sooner or later!march 165

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By the way, if you’re looking for a holiday plant as a gift or whatever, think about daffodils. Don’t buy tulips unless you enjoy battling mice and chipmunks–tulip bulbs apparently are very sweet (people used to eat them, sugared.) Daffodils may be the one species of plant on the planet that wildlife won’t eat. Not even deer. Even my voracious sheep won’t touch them, and she’ll eat anything, including rose bushes, ham sandwiches, or poison ivy.

After the daffodils are done blooming in the pot, just stick the bulbs in the ground. (If it ever thaws.) Daffodils tend to naturalize, which means that they spread all by themselves through the grass, not caring if you weed them. They’ll pop up year after year, more each spring. My kind of gardening–no work involved at all!march 172

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Crows: Science and Fiction

More and more, cities across the US are being discovered by crows as the perfect place for a slumber party. Crows love to roost in cities on winter nights. And the crows congregate in vast numbers–some roosts are made up of hundreds of thousands of birds.

They’re impossible to ignore. When twenty thousand birds are swooping over your house, it can make you a little…well…nervous. Every time I see dark clouds of crows swirling overhead I’m reminded–who could not be?–of the movie. The movie. You know the one I mean, right? Admit it, the thought crosses your mind every time you see a flock of crows.


The Birds.

And the screaming feathered mob circling over the city night after night certainly does seem to be cause for alarm. Any moment now, it seems, the crows will swoop down and start pecking out eyeballs.  Seems as though it could be…well, dangerous, to have thousands of crows roosting in such close proximity to humans.

You know how many humans have been killed in crow attacks?


None. None ever ever ever.

The movie is fiction. Science fiction, not science. It’s based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the brilliant British author who also wrote Rebecca. (Incidentally she hated the movie, which is set in sunny California and stars a sexy blonde socialite. Her story was set in rainy Cornwall and featured a hard-working farmer as the main character.)

Like most people, I first saw this movie as a kid, staying up way past my bedtime, and was so traumatized that I wouldn’t feed the parakeet for a week. It’s a really effective movie. Hitchcock knew just how to scare the pants off people.

The movie was made in the sixties, long before the Humane Society was on hand during filming to make sure no harm came to any animals. Tippi Hedren, the lead actress, endured days of prop men throwing live crows, ravens and gulls at her, their beaks taped shut. When you watch that scene, remember that the most terrified ones in it are the poor birds. Tippi was bruised and bloodied, and had nightmares afterwards, but at least she survived. Not so sure about her avian co-stars.thebirds

One reason they used crows in the movie for so many scenes was not only that crows are big and scary. They’re also smart. Michael Westerfield, a scientist who has studied crows for years, says “There is increasing scientific evidence that the crows are highly intelligent  animals, possessing a complex language and culture, capable of making and  using tools, and possessing sophisticated problem solving abilities.”

Hm. Maybe someday they will get fed up with us and start organizing attacks on humans. But they haven’t done it yet.

Crows can live a long time–the oldest crow on record was 29, and they can often live to be 15 or more. They’re highly social, families often working together to raise the young. They mate for life, and are monogamous–unlike Alfred Hitchcock, a famously unfaithful spouse.

Alfred Hitchcock made very scary movies, but I’m not a big Hitchcock fan, myself. He was much too fond of filming violence against women, for one thing. (“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints,” he once remarked.) And he may not have meant to, but he created a view of nature as evil and terrifying, that has lingered on for five decades now.

Every time a flock of crows heads to their nightly roost, or a group of red-wing blackbirds goes by on migration, someone looks up, shivers, and murmurs, “The birds…”

Perhaps we can look at crows in a kinder light than Hitcscarecrow2hcock did.

Relax, Dorothy. The wise Scarecrow could tell you that crows are nothing to be afraid of.

For fascinating information on crow roosts, see Michael Westerfield’s website at

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Burdock: Hooked Like Velcro

One day in 1941, a Swiss scientist was walking his dog, and noticed with annoyance, like so many other dog-walkers before and since, that his pet had blundered into the tall prickly plant called burdock. burrs 005And as he was picking the infernal little hooked seeds out of the dog’s fur, he had a bright idea. What if this idea–sharp curved hooks binding two things–was used by people? It took him years to get anyone to take the idea seriously, and even longer to develop a model that would work–not surprisingly, since he made his first attempts out of cotton. But finally he tried synthetic fabrics, like nylon, and the  rest is history. The guy patented the idea and made a fortune. Velcro was a simple, inexpensive way to bind two objects reversibly–the zipperless zipper. It’s used today by NASA, the US military, preschoolers who haven’t yet learned to tie their shoes, and anyone who goes camping or has pockets.

The really interesting part of the story is that it should have taken humans so long to figure out what dogs have always known–that nothing adheres to fuzzy surfaces more effectively than the tiny curved hooks of burdock.

When I wanted to take some photos of burdock, I didn’t have to look very hard. As any good botanist knows, it’s important to have a staff who can collect plants for you. burrs 010

My staff went out on a snowy afternoon on a squirrel survey, and as expected came back in five minutes with my plant specimens.lacrosse 017burrs 007







Inside those round barbed heads, of course, are seeds. When the bur is torn apart by the animal scratching the irritating hooks, the seeds scatter far and wide. The plant was originally from northern Asia, but it’s easy to see how it spread around the globe, stuck in pant cuff or animal tail. burrs 003

And burdock isn’t just a weed. It’s a crop. It’s been widely cultivated as a food, especially in Japan. Sauteed or julienned burdock roots are apparently pretty good, though I haven’t tried them myself yet. And burdock has many uses in herbal medicine, used for centuries to treat a wide range of ailments. It’s loaded with antioxidants, so it really is good for you.

My tolerance for non-native weeds is almost limitless. Most of them, dandelions for example, are more of a cosmetic problem than a real threat to the environment. But burdocks are one of those alien plants that can do some real damage. Their juicy leaves and fragrant flowers are an invitation to small insects, and therefore creatures that eat insects flutter close to burdocks. And if a ruby-crowned kinglet gets too close to burdock’s murderous little hooks, the tiny bird can get trapped–lethally. Little brown bats can also get snared. The summer’s purple flowers even lure hummingbirds, with unpleasant consequences.  wellshortonburdock

(Thanks to Wells Horton for this amazing ultra-close-up of burdock barbs.)

So burdock is one of the few plants I ruthlessly cut down when I see it growing tall in the back yard. In spite of my efforts, there’s plenty of it still out there, but I try to keep it in check. When the kids were little, it was the one plant they had permission to slay with their toy swords.

It’s not a “bad” plant. It doesn’t destroy hummingbirds with evil intent. I even have a grudging admiration of a plant so superbly adapted But it’s a plant we need to keep an eye on, keeping it under control before it spreads to the point where people start talking about getting out the herbicide.

Admire its ingenuity, and slay it with your sword.

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The Crow Show

They start moving as the sun begins to go down.crows 006

The first birds are so far away they look like grains of pepper against the gray sky. crows 012

The crows are heading into Amsterdam for their nightly jamboree.

Amsterdam, NY, like many cities and towns, is used by crows–mobs of crows–for their nightly roosting spot. And I’ve been wondering, just exactly how many crows are there?

The other day my husband and I decided to find out. Just before sunset, we drove to the Riverfront Mall and parked in the parking garage, facing south with a good view of the river. We had a front row seat for the spectacle of the crows coming in.

And what a spectacle it was! Honestly, the city should sell tickets.

It’s a magnificent sight. First the crows converge from all points of the compass, returning from the fields and roadsides where they’ve been feeding during the day. By ones and twos, they trickle in, and stage up in the trees across the river. More and more come, squawking as they get ready for the last lap, flapping and bouncing from branch to branch.

Then, all together, a cloud of birds lifts up out of the trees. They cross the river towards the city. It’s like a thunderstorm approaching—a storm of birds.

My husband, George Steele, is an enthusiastic birder with decades of experience, who often works with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Audubon Society on bird censuses. We used binoculars to do rough counts and estimate the number of birds passing a given point, recording every group of approximately a hundred individuals.

Mob after mob flew overhead. Some of the flocks had two to three thousand birds. As the sky darkened, more and more birds flew north over the rooftops, hundreds of crows swirling overhead in an insanely ominous way, like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. I expected to see SURRENDER DOROTHY scrawled in smoky letters over the skies of Amsterdam any minute.crows 023

They settled into small clusters of trees at the top of the Rte. 30 hill, squawking and arguing. It’s amazing how many birds can pack themselves into one tree—hundreds per branch.

It took about an hour and a half for all the birds to arrive. As it grew too dark to see, the last stragglers flew overhead and we counted up our totals.

We estimate that, give or take a few, approximately 24,000 birds had arrived in Amsterdam for their nightly visit.

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Stone on Stone

A few cold spring days at the Highlights Foundation at Boyds Mills, PA, for a writers’ workshop. A wonderful opportunity to learn and write.march 207

Recently the Highlights Foundation added a new building, using part of the foundations of an old barn. The new space is a cozy yet roomy classroom and meeting place on the inside. On the outside it’s a maze of intricate stonework.march 214

The lichened and weathered rocks of the old barn foundation support the newer stones. Enormous chunks of bluestone pave the classroom, the porch, even the bathrooms. march 198The walls are mosaics of rough-hewn stones, each piece with its own beauty.





It must have taken an enormous amount of work and time to balance all those stones on one another.march 205










Writing is like that–word piled on word piled on word. Sometimes it’s harder than hauling rocks.

Just around the corner from the Barn are more stones. Dozens of them lie scattered at random on the ground. I noticed odd scratchings on the tops of the flat stones. stones 010







When I looked closely, I discovered what these stones were for.

It’s a poetry garden. The perfect place to practice building with words.stones 021stones 004stones 007stones 019

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Sacred Tree

One morning in Sri Lanka. I happened to get up early, and wandered out of the hotel to see what was going on. It was in the small city of Dambulla, and our hotel was a few hundred yards away from the main road. At the crossroads, I came across what I at first thought was a park of some sort. Then I realized it was a temple.

And the heart of the temple was a tree.

sri lanka 068  A magnificent tree, an ancient tree. A double set of temple walls surrounded and protected it. You have to take off your shoes to approach the holy tree.

The temple is right in the mainstream of life, a few feet away from honking cars, snorting buses, and the zipping, tooting three-wheeled taxicabs called tuk-tuks. Morning commuters stop by on their way to catch the bus. They light a hurried stick of incense, or leave a flower in front of the small Buddha statues. Someone–a groundskeeper? A priest? was silently raking the dirt floor clear of twigs and leaves.

sri lanka 070The tree, like all trees, is filled with life. Leaves moves and rustle in the morning breeze. Birds flitter in the top branches. Every now and then the big branches move wildly, as if the tree was waving giant arms. The monkeys are here.

The monkeys crash through the branches and leap down onto the flat-topped temple walls. They skitter along the walls, and swing on the prayer flags. I expected the priest to wave his rake and scare them away, but he scattered some shredded coconut on the temple wall to welcome the monkeys.

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They say Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, and I can see why. I’ve never been in a church that was so alive.

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