Tag Archives: tree birds

Late to the Harvest


Many years ago, the small daughter of some friends surprised us all at Christmas by taking a single bite from the hidden side of each perfect apple her parents’ had hung on the tree. Just a single bite that didn’t show from the front, but which quickly withered each apple.

I thought of those secretly claimed bites while picking the few remaining apples from our garden tree.

Photo: PKR

It’s been a little more than a month since I slipped while on a mountain hike, and one of the most difficult challenges of spending a few weeks with two broken wrists has been staying away from garden work. I’ve been watching the apple tree from my window, watching the apples ripen and drop, feeling awful about not doing anything about it.

Our apple tree was planted at least fifty years ago, and most years, it faithfully produces far more than we can use. I’ve been inviting people over to gather what they can, but then a major storm blew through, a few hundred apples hit the lawn. Fortunately, I also haven’t been able to mow the lawn in weeks, so the landing was soft. Yesterday, I finally felt able to clear the lawn of fallen fruit, and to pick what was left from the tree.

There were apples in every state of being, from fresh and flawless to dried studies of their former selves – this doesn’t bother me. Even without broken wrists, I tend to leave fallen fruit out rather than gather it every day, just because so many birds, insects and small mammals can feast on what we can’t use anyway. It’s a consolation to watch the various ravens, sparrows, thrushes, starlings and songbirds stop by for a reliable meal.

Apples salvaged – around 7 kgs (15 lbs.) Apples on the ground: At least 30 kgs (66 lbs) Photo: PKR

But what surprised me was that almost every apple still on the tree, especially the fine, fat, smooth ones, had been pecked at from behind. Just a little, just enough to render the apples someone else’s property instead of mine.

We don’t do much to earn these apples – we prune the tree back every couple of years, and if the summer is really hot and dry, that tree is the only one I water. And every year, it repays our benign neglect with a bounty, not just of fruit but of beauty, as a roost for countless birds, and a haven of shade. My guess is that in their own way, the birds do more for this tree than I do.

It seems only fair to leave the juiciest pecked apples from the tree on the lawn for the culprits to finish off.

Running Evensong


The bad news today was that I spent most of it trying – with the assistance of an electrician and a building contractor – to figure out why the electricity in our house kept going off for no apparent reason. One of those unnerving household events that I’d almost rather attribute to a poltergeist than to an impossible-to-locate shorted cable buried somewhere in one of the stone walls of this old pile we call home.

My morning run got delayed past noon, and then past evening, and then it was nearing sundown.

The good news today was that when I finally got out for a run, the air was still warm and fragrant with the scents of cut grass, the sweetness of wild flowers that line the roads, and this, the evening chorus of birds.

The run was also punctuated by cowbells, low sunset calls between free-range cattle, a carpet of amorous crickets, and the occasional whoosh of large mourning doves flying past.

The lights in the house are back on, but that’s not what recharged my batteries.

Spring Unfolding


Today marks the vernal equinox, and looking out at my garden, I’m eager to get outside and be a part of the day by getting my hands dirty.

The air over the past few days has been soft with warmth, spiced with the scents of new grass and turned earth, sweet with birdsong.

Nomadic harvest dress.
Artist: Nicole Dextras

My garden and I will be engaging in our usual dialogue, the one that starts when the snow melts and goes on until the snow starts falling again, usually some time in December.

It’s not a one-sided conversation; the garden talks more than I do, tells me what it wants or doesn’t want, and I try to come up with a witty or timely response. We don’t always speak the same language, and I know that’s my fault.

Cutting down a line of long grasses yesterday, I found the winter nest of some small mammal hidden beneath a particularly imposing clump. There was a thick ball of moss, leaves and grass that had been a home. I had just been telling myself that I should cut back these grasses in autumn for a tidier look; now I’ll be sure to leave them long as an invitation.

Artist: Nicole Dextras

I’d like to think I have some say in shaping the garden. Often enough, the garden laughs me off and does as it pleases. Mostly, the garden shapes me.

I wouldn’t call us friends, because I impose myself on the hospitality of this small space. I try to listen. I try to be companionable. I don’t always succeed.

I suppose that’s true for my life outside the garden, too. We are a work in progress.

Artist: Nicole Dextras

Hoarfrost Quietude


Throughout winter, our little village can often be found directly on the fog line of the milky blanket that covers the Geneva basin for weeks at a time. We are just high enough in altitude (490 m/1600 ft) to catch a glimpse of blue above, not quiet high enough to see out over the fog itself.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

The freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight coat most surfaces with an ever-thickening layer of ice – hoarfrost – as the fog lingers and becomes solid. The garden, the roads, are obscured by a moving veil, with visibility down to a dozen yards or so, and then suddenly, like the revelation of a hidden truth, the fields and mountains and tree-tops reappear.

When the sun bursts through, there’s a brief, wonderful space of time when the hoarfrost falls from the trees and bushes in chiming shards. And the birds, mostly silent in the fog as it’s an eternal evening, suddenly begin to sing again.

I went for a run today at just the right moment. The fog broke, and though I could see the borders of the fog bank just below our own property, above was all soft light. I could hear raucous birdsong, and the gentle tinkling of frost rain.

A Multitude of Voices


I had the windows open last night and listened to the wind blow through the trees and hedges around our home. We have a small stand of bamboo on one side of the house, a few fruit trees in the garden out front, and to the back, a high hedge of yew.

Not far down the road, old oak and cypress line the path down to a nearby river. photo-1_3From my window I can see stands of pine, alder, and until recently, an orchard of massive cherry trees left to grow to their full height.

The soft rustle of the fruit trees, the rush and creak of the oak and cypress, the whisper of yew and the rush of bamboo. Each of them has its own voice in the wind.

There were many more when we moved here. A wonderful old cypress that was cut down early one Saturday morning, illegally, a fine paid to the authorities so that a new house didn’t have the nuisance of an old tree where a straight hedge might be. Beech trees that were lost to a long, hot summer. Half a small forest to thirty new houses.

The cherry orchard was cut down this year to make way for ten townhouses.

The sheep next door in the cherry orchard. Photo: PK Read

Sheep last spring in the cherry orchard.
Photo: PK Read

At least we are still surrounded by a multitude of other trees that sing a raucous chorus.

There are 7.4 billion people on the planet today, and we take up a lot of space.

Today, from the Worldometer. Source: Worldometer

Today, from the Worldometer.
Source: Worldometer

The multitude of us has cleared multitudes of trees, and even when we replant trees, we tend to farm in tidy rows of mono-tree plantations that all whisper in a single voice.

The Worldometer, a constantly updated stocktaking of human population and impact, displays all 7.4 billion humans as if they are crop trees popping up on a tree plantation, each just like the other, with only empty space between, devoid of real life.

Hardly a representation of the messy, complex cultures and interactions that make life worth living.

A tiny section of the endless human population scroll of the Worldometer. Source: Worldometer

A tiny section of the endless human population scroll of the Worldometer.
Source: Worldometer

There are calls for the replanting of 7.8 billion trees, or just a little more than one tree per person on the planet. And not just any tree, but a whole bouquet of trees.

If I tend to write often about trees, it’s only a sign of just how important they are to us, and to our world.

After all, if we like to think that we value the different voice of each person today, why shouldn’t the trees have the same variety?

Earth Day, 22 April 2016.

Plant a tree. Or a few. Or help someone else do it.


Forest Vs. Trees


Humankind owes its origins to forests. In return, we have been reshaping them for our own uses ever since we learned to use tools and fire.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Image: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Image: Jeffrey James

I’ve told the story before of how an Indonesian palm oil trader once explained to me, many years ago, that I needn’t worry about deforestation in Indonesia. Why? Because the indigenous forests had been mostly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. There was nothing left to worry about any more.

I’ll say one thing for the trader: He knew the difference between a forest and just a lot of trees. One is a habitat, the other is a plantation. Besides the fact that both include life we call trees, there’s not much similarity between the two.

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture. Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture.
Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

I lived deep in a forest for part of my youth, on a property bordered on two sides by national park and on the other two by undeveloped forest land. The forest was mostly old growth, a rich and varied recipe of bay laurel trees, madrone and manzanita, coastal oak, and the higher one went up the ridge, Bishop pine. The undergrowth was thick and we made paths through hip-high ferns draped in spiderwebs and huckleberry bushes that stained clothing and skin purple. In the spring, small clearings that received direct sunlight would burst forth in carpets of wild iris and forget-me-not.

The forest was only in this condition, more or less untouched except for the occasional dirt road or small cabin, because of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In the 1950s, rather than open the coastal ridge to logging, the government declared it a park. When I was growing up, most of the land that had remained private was still unbuilt. It was idyllic and the experience of living there has stayed with me for life.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

California has a wealth of old growth forest, but as elsewhere, many of the original forests have been logged and replanted, clear-cut for commercial use, or obliterated in mountain-top removal mining . Like greed, deforestation and (sometimes) reforestation are a human habit. When we look out over temperate forests these days, what we usually see is a sea of dark green conifer – undemanding, quick-growing, commercially useful. Other climates see, well, palm oil plantations. Or farmland. Or oil and coal fields.

Land use choices are often offered up as decision between economic prosperity or stagnation; a forest is all that’s in the way of progress, and anyway, ersatz trees can be replanted elsewhere.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

But reforestation can’t just be a buzzword used to placate or fulfil regulatory requirements with false forests. I’ve written before on the progress of industrial reforestation – this approach only takes on real value if the re-established forests are diverse. And that diversity is exactly what most ‘tree replacement’ projects are lacking. As it turns out, we aren’t as good at recreating nature as we’d like to believe.

A recent study, limited to Europe, suggests that the conifer forests planted in Europe over the past two centuries contribute locally to warmer weather because the dark needles of conifer trees absorb sunlight more than the lighter leaves of a native mixed deciduous forest.

The old saying, you can’t see the forest for the trees, was never so true. Once you’ve known a real forest, you can’t be fooled.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

Just Passing Through


A flock of homing pigeons has taken up residence on our roof. How do we know they’re homing pigeons? They’re all banded, they’re very sleek and well-fed, and they seem a bit lost.

They stand on our skylights and look down at us with beaky expectation, as if we know what to do better than they. I think what they’d like to do is move on, but they’re not quite sure to where.

It’s migration season all over the world, creatures on the move. And whether out of habit, necessity or instinct, migration is always a dicey venture.

Billions of birds migrate every year, and every year it gets a little harder for them. Ornithologists at the Max-Planck Institute estimate that up to 10 billion migratory song birds don’t make it from their point of departure to their destination, and statistics are pointing to a 50 percent overall loss of the world’s songbird population in just the past 40 years.

Five of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps. Photos: PK Read

Four of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps.
Photos: PK Read

What’s happening?

There are the old culprits of hunting, with some cultures clinging to archaic trapping methods of capturing tiny birds that make barely a mouthful.
I think of these habits, which are worldwide and involve different birds in each region, and when they must have begun.
Was it out of a sense of longing, that the eating something so delicate and that sang so sweetly would somehow impart some of that fleeting beauty to clumsy, earthbound humans? Was it out of basic hunger and the seasonal availability? Was it out of a sense of plenty, just so many of damn things that putting a few dozen in a pie would make no difference?
These days, it seems like people do it just because they can. And old habits die hard.

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Source: Movebank

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Click here for a beautiful film of routes across Eurasia.
Source: Movebank

But beyond hunting, there are the bugaboos of climate change and, probably most relevant, habitat loss. Not just the habitats where the birds overwinter or breed, but the flyover areas. The navigational abilities of the migrating flocks are considerable, but can’t necessarily account for all the new human settlements in areas that used to be resting zones, or dark areas now illuminated by city lights, or absent wetlands, or all those windows that look like sky.

The good news is that there are a number of technological innovations and legislative solutions underway to try and stop some of the songbirds from ending up against a window instead of their summer home, or being confused by light smog.

What will our visiting pigeons do to find their way home? I wish I knew where they needed to go – they certainly keep looking in at me as if I do.

Hopefully, they’ll just be circling, as they do right now, and the right flight path will suddenly occur to them.IMG_1857


Speaking the Language


I went to bed late last night, it was easily midnight or beyond, and as I lay there on the edge of sleep, I heard an unaccustomed sound. It sounded like…birdsong. I listened closely. It was, indeed, birdsong. And not just little chirps or the otherworldly radar sounds of an owl.

There were two birds, calling to one another, long, complicated tunes that sounded like they were being played on a glass harmonica.

My first thought was: Nightingale.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale. From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale.
From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book

I thought of those lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east…

Imagine knowing, eyes closed and in a darkened room, what time of day it is just by the type of birdsong on the air.

I thought to myself that I had no real idea what a lark sounded like, nor for that matter, a nightingale.

Rather, it was night time, the birdsong didn’t sound owl-like. It wasn’t the sharp chirps of the ever-present flock of sparrows that live in the vines on our house, and I know nightingales sing at night. Deductive reasoning, not actual familiarity.

The above video shows 3-D digital sound sculptures of nightingale and canary song, created by Australian artist Andy Thomas, who begins his work “by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound.”

But do they sing in autumn?

Yes, apparently, because they are on a migratory route to the south for the winter.

Research has shown that songbirds share similar ‘gene products’ for vocalizations that humans use for speech. So what we hear as song might be, for the birds, a rich conversation, good as a book, engaging as a movie. Better, probably, because it’s theirs.

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation. Artist: Andy Thomas

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation.
Artist: Andy Thomas

After all, other research has shown that dolphins call each other by name, using a ‘signature whistle’ to identify themselves, and using others’ signatures to call individuals. And let’s not forget the mice who ‘sing’ to each other in ultrasonic melodies, and have vocalization brain patterns that resemble humans – and songbirds.

Think of all the conversations we are missing because we either can’t hear them, or don’t speak the language, or have forgotten how to listen.

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends


The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4


And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Forest Reverence


“A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great or beautiful cathedral.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Tree Cathedral, a living installation in Bergamo, Italy. The foundation was laid in 2001, and following Mauri's death in 2009, the Cattedrale Vegetale has been completed as a monument to his work and life. Image:  Virtual Sacred Space

Tree Cathedral, a living installation by Giuliano Mauri in Bergamo, Italy. The foundation was laid in 2001, and following Mauri’s death in 2009, the Cattedrale Vegetale has been completed as a monument to his work and life.
Image: Virtual Sacred Space

Through history, private family ownership of vast land tracts has had both merits and drawbacks.

When it comes to forests in the United States, almost 60% is under private ownership, 766 million acres of land. For more than half of that land, the average age of the owner is 62.5.

What this means, according to a 2014 Associated Press article, is that as owners pass their land on to younger generations, the land tends to get divided, sold, parcelled into smaller lots and developed in ways that don’t necessarily reflect best forest management or maintain a working forest.

Image: Santino/Flckr

The Tree Cathedral is made of 42 different columns that form five aisles. The columns incorporate 1,800 spruce trunks and 600 chestnut tree branches woven together with 6,000+ meters of hazelnut twigs. Nails, string, and local traditional methods for intertwining and weaving were utilized in order to secure the columns around the trees. Text/Image: EarthPorm/ Santino/Flckr

One of the issues faced by private owners who have worked to protect woodlands is to convey their conservationist commitment to younger, more urbanized generations.

It’s one thing to be deeply affected by forests and enjoy woodland hikes; it’s another altogether to be a private landowner responsible for a long-term forest management plan that encompasses unborn future generations.

As the hornbeam trees within the columns grow and mature, the original support structures will age and fall away, leaving a small forest in the shape of a cathedral. Image: Arte Sella

As the hornbeam trees within the columns grow and mature, the original support structures will age and fall away, leaving a small forest in the shape of a cathedral.
Image: Arte Sella

There are now organizations that offer support to families in woodland legacy planning – first and foremost, projects like Oregon State University’s Ties to the Land help families talk to one another about their land priorities.

I assume that Giuliano Mauri’s Tree Cathedral, shown in the images here, was planned (at least in part) to remind visitors that a forest is a place of reverence. It is installed in the Italian Arte Selle sculpture park of earth art and natural architecture.

With commitment and communication, some families have done a phenomenal job of protecting forests over decades and even centuries.

It’s a little unnerving to think of the majority of any nation’s woodlands being at the mercy of uninterested successors, because once a natural forest cathedral, or even a forest chapel, has been parcelled and developed, it is changed forever.

Experiencing the forest as a sacred space shouldn’t be something that only happens in an art installation.

Image: Aldo Fedele (left) / Arte Sella (right)

Image: Aldo Fedele (left) / Arte Sella (right)