Driving through Wisconsin last week to the MOSES organic farming conference was hard on me. I didn’t expect it. Maybe some of these feelings happened in a small dose last year when driving through Wisconsin, but this year sad feelings came to the surface in spades and spilled out as we drove.
I love Wisconsin, everything about that State. My deep love started as 'love at first sight' the first time I saw the golden dome of Wisconsin’s beautiful State Capitol building glowing (just glowing!) in the sunshine when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old while my family drove by the east side of Madison on our long, long drive (before interstate expressways were built) 'up north' to my grandparents' small resort on a lake. I cannot fully explain why that image became (and is still) burned into my brain and heart, but the memory feels like what the sudden appearance of a beacon from a lighthouse in the dark night must feel to a lost sailor.
That experience not only started a love affair, it anchored me. Sometimes the love I feel for Wisconsin is so 'real', so deep, that it just envelopes me in a comforting embrace like a favorite quilt. Even though I was not born in Wisconsin and did not grow up there, I have spent some time in Wisconsin nearly every year of my life. It would be an accurate statement to say that Wisconsin has been my emotional center, where I have felt at home, no matter where I lived. It has not mattered what part of state I visited over the years, from the magical northern woods and inland lakes created by the glaciers to the drop-dead gorgeous southern farms, the rugged Wisconsin shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, the winding Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, to the bustling city of Milwaukee and exciting campus life of The University of Wisconsin in Madison. I love it all, no matter what season. I even grew up a Green Bay Packer fan, living in Ohio and knowing nothing about football. :)
I was fortunate that I had many choices for attending graduate school to study nutritional sciences. I turned down several really 'big name' schools to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison (also a ‘big name’ in that field, just not ‘East Coast Big’). I cried with happiness crossing the state line into Wisconsin as my husband and I moved to Madison in August 1973, and for years and years, until last spring, my computer’s screen-saver photo has been one of me and Bucky Badger arm in arm!
As my husband and I crossed the state line into Wisconsin this year, I felt myself get crabby and sad and cynical. I was grouchy beyond compare, I was ‘beyond the pale’, and I could not stop myself. I was lashing out, doing and saying anything, which I finally realized I was doing instead of crying. I was taken aback with surprise by the depth of what was happening inside of me as we drove across the state. I finally told my worried husband, “I am so sorry. It’s not you! I have to do something, I don’t know what, I need to regain my composure, my center, before we get to this conference, or it will all be a waste of time and money for me.”
The title of this post is “I love cranes and phoebes”. So where am I going with this rambling about Wisconsin and my sadness? Fortunately, I’m going to a bridge, to another anchor, my new anchor, my new center(s). :)
We were driving on backroads instead of I-94, more-less following our nose west without a clear roadmap or plan, and found ourselves in front of a sign for the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. “OH!! OH!! Stop!! Let’s go in!”, says Diana. This NRW is where the whooping crane chicks are being raised for their re-introduction. (I LOVE cranes! - the first part of my post title.) Of course, it was still too early in the year for any/many cranes to be back. It definitely was the ‘off-season’, which is always my favorite time of the year anyhow, anywhere. Most of the marshes were still frozen over, and it was very soothing, centering to just stand outside and look, feel, breathe in the smell of the pines in the still, cold Wisconsin air, and listen to the silence (I was listening for red-headed woodpeckers, but none came within my hearing range), imagining what these marshes will sound like filled with life, the cranes and geese, other waterfowl, and more back for the summer, but right now just enjoying the quietness. That was enough for me. :)
But wait, no, apparently that wasn’t enough. As I wandered through the Visitor Center, looking for a small souvenir Necedah NWR pin to buy for myself, hoping to find one with an image of a whooping crane as a reminder of this unexpected beautiful and soothing place, I found a friend on the bookshelf. I found a book by Julie Zickefoose, an artist and writer who brings joy to my heart with everything she does.
Julie was in the right place at the right time maybe 10 years ago for me. I consider myself only one of her many zillion long-time ‘fans’ and quickly said yes when a friend asked me to drive over to a Bluebird Festival in Jackson, Michigan where Julie was the keynote speaker, the festival’s ‘big draw’ that year. (And yes, Julie alone is a reason to find and attend a birding festival where she is speaking. Check out her website www.juliezickefoose.com for her appearances and updates and her blog for a dose of her daily writing http://juliezickefoose.blogspot.com/ - Julie is prolific, and I read every word, in large chunks, not every day.)
I’m going to try to keep the remainder of this post as short and succinct as possible by simply saying that Julie said ‘the right thing’, to remind me that my dream was land, a pond, a farm. Yes, life had gotten in the way, cancer seems to do that in a very big way, more than once, but it was now time to remember, to revisit, and move toward that long-held dream that started so long ago in Wisconsin when my husband and I were young and starting our life together.
Since the day I met Julie, I have been moving, step, step, step to my new anchor, our farm here in Michigan. So seeing her book Letters from Eden (yes I bought it and will get her to sign it the next time I meet her, whenever that might be) brought tears to my eyes, tears of happiness, tears of knowing I have a home I love, my own Eden, not the tears of sadness or tears of loss that I had been wanting to cry while crossing Wisconsin this year.
Thank you, Julie, thank you for being in the right place at the right time, again, for having words to say again, just when I needed you, again.
I know I have my own Eden on our farm, here in Southeast Michigan, even with its 40 years of needed ‘projects’. Since my husband and I made the difficult, lengthy, and entirely rational decision to stay in Michigan to start our farm, our new life, I have slowly begun to see everything about Michigan with new eyes, new hopes, just like a new love. Not the ‘hit you between the eyes’, straight into the heart love like that ‘love at first sight’ and long love I have had with Wisconsin, but more like love late in life that slowly builds within you so that one day you realize that you cannot imagine life any other way. :) My husband and I have deliberately chosen to finally put our roots down, deep into Michigan soil, building our farm and sharing our love and happiness here within our community. I am guessing that I just needed the chance to grieve one last time while driving across Wisconsin to both identify and acknowledge what I let go with that choice.
I could easily end there, but isn’t there also something in my post title about phoebes? What is a phoebe? Oh, an Eastern phoebe is the most plain-looking little bird if you only want to look at color, nothing that would say ‘look at me’, ‘look at me’ just by glancing at it. But look again, really look at a phoebe and you will see subtleties in color that are spectacular and would certainly entice and challenge a watercolor artist. Really look at a phoebe, watch it, and suddenly you notice that it wags its tail up and down.
Really look at it, follow it in flight, and if you are lucky, lucky, really lucky you will find its nest, probably somewhere on your house or barn, under your deck or a nearby bridge, someplace where it is your neighbor, living right with you. Really look at it, look at it long enough to listen, and suddenly you will hear it calling its name “Phoe-be”, unmistakably, like it is introducing itself to you, over and over. Keep looking and you will see its beautiful, alert black eyes, its ‘chunky’ head, its quick flight to catch an insect (snap!) and, if you are still watching, you will be amazed as you see it turn in the air on a dime to head back to the same branch.
Have I said yet that I LOVE phoebes? :) I loved listening for them at our family’s home in northern Wisconin each summer. I counted it as a ‘banner day’ last spring after finally moving to our farm when I saw our farm’s first Eastern phoebe in one of the apple trees in early spring (the leaves were not out yet). I knew what it was on sight - there was instant recognition, like love at first sight when eyes meet and speak from across the room! “Oh, where have you been? Thank you for coming to see me!” The joy went straight to and deep into my heart. :) You can see and listen to an Eastern phoebe here http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id/ac
I never found a nest, but later in the summer, I saw a ‘different’ bird near our bird feeders with all other ‘usual suspects’. This familiar but different bird was just ‘hanging out’ on a branch, not eating at the feeders. I studied it, looking carefully, and then I saw it fly out a short distance, “Snap!”, and quickly fly back to the same branch. Oh, it was clearly a member of the flycatcher family, but could that be a phoebe? It is the right size, but just doesn’t look quite right, there was extra color on its tummy, which led me to read in and look more deeply at my dozens of bird identification books. Is it a different type of flycatcher? No! A young phoebe! Yes, that is why it was familiar but also different. So this young phoebe either just showed up from who knows where or my spring phoebe had found a mate and nested nearby without my finding it.
Wait, wait, I am coming to the end here and tying this all up - really. :)
Back to Julie Zickfoose. During her talk at the Bluebird Festival where I met her so many years ago, Julie showed slides of her beautiful young daughter who she named Phoebe because of her own love for this bird. Oh, how secretly envious I was that Julie had a daughter who she could name Phoebe. I would not have that chance, and I wondered how I could have a Phoebe in my life. Could one ever name a pet of any kind Phoebe? I remember smiling and wondering as I sat listening to Julie’s talk and then forgot about what seemed like just a silly, passing thought.
…………..until several weeks ago (before my trip to Wisconsin where I bought Julie’s book) when I suddenly woke with a start, sat straight up in the middle of the night, and said “Phoebe!!” That is it! That is the name I will call our new dog, our beautiful new dog who came to us as with a seemingly incomplete name, which is “ ‘B’, the dog”. Thus my husband and I have been playing around with different names for the past several weeks, and our dog seems happy to answer to anything that has a “B” sound in it. So my husband can call her whatever name he enjoys, but I have begun calling her Phoebe. I love the sound of it, I love the images in my mind of a sprightly little bird when I watch my active and very busy new dog.
Imagine my surprise and pure pleasure while reading Letters from Eden to find Julie writing about her love for Eastern phoebes. As I read that essay last night, I was able to remember the part of Julie’s talk so many years ago in which she described how that love for phoebes led up to naming her daughter, along with remembering my ‘silly’ thought about using the name Phoebe for a pet. :)
Julie, thank you, thank you for being who you are, thank you for sharing your many gifts, your own life’s journey, and your family (including your own dog) with so many, indeed the universe. Your images from both your brushes and words have brought me so much joy over the past 25 years (likely more, I don’t clearly know). I am sure you don’t meet most of your fans, so I count myself among the lucky lucky ones. I cannot say thank you enough.
You brought me back to my center. You are a part of my dreams, our farm, my life and happiness today, and now also a part of our new dog, Phoebe, bringing even more happiness. That is a pretty large and solid center. You brought me back more than once and in more than one way. I am deeply grateful.
I recently read a beautiful quote about thanks, happiness, and gratitude that seems perfectly appropriate here:
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought,
and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
~~ G. K. Chesteron
I know this post is lengthy. I am sorry. I don’t expect anyone to still be reading at this point, as I wrote mainly for myself tonight. Believe it or not, I could have written so much more, but to write any more about my reasons for sadness and sense of loss would not have added anything to the overall gist of what I am experiencing and saying in this post.
It has been at least 15 years since I did an ‘inventory’ when finishing my breast cancer therapy in 1995, finally giving myself permission for the first time ever to identify and grieve a lifetime of losses experienced due to my childhood cancer with its multiple after or late effects, which does include my two subsequent breast cancer diagnoses and all the multiple and on-going health complications that I manage with a combination of good medical care, vigilant self-care, and duct tape (just kidding here!). I know I am one of the lucky ones, but I guess the need to find the time to ‘take inventory’ periodically (which of course includes more than grieving losses but also making intentional choices about what to keep and what to change in one’s life) just snuck up on me during that recent road trip. Maybe being away from the happiness and security of my new-found centers was needed to allow these feelings to all come to the surface and wash away.
Spring is here, spring with all its attendant hopes and joy. A pair of Canadian geese are swimming on our new pond, as is a pair of mallards. Bluebirds are looking at houses, pairs of chickadees and nuthatches are visiting the feeders together, red-wing blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds are back (which means they will be pigs at my feeders), robins seem to have stopped their chortling and roving through the farm as a ‘gang’, and I have a ‘mission’ of listening for the woodcock I heard PEENT! earlier this week and hopefully finding a section of our farm where it will do its sky dance.
We still have mud, mud, and more mud everywhere (including paw prints throughout the house and on the bed). We don’t know how the garlic will make it through this warm winter (the 5th warmest in our county since records began). The paths between the raised beds are still flooded, as are many spots in our newly opened up fields.
However, I am now at peace and cannot wait, I cannot wait! until I hear the sandhill cranes bugling as they fly overhead to their summer homes, which should happen any day. I also cannot wait until a phoebe shows up in our apple tree again this year. I will be looking for it and listening, remembering not what I have lost, but seeing and feeling the joys and wonders I have everywhere, all around me, every single day.
I keep a permanent bookmark at the beginning page of the chapter called March in A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The opening sentence is one of the first ‘quotes’ I memorized because I loved it, not because it was an assignment:
“One swallow does not make a summer,
but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw,
is the Spring”
Since geese seem to stay all year now, I have changed that opening line to say ‘one skein of cranes is the spring’. This year, I will further modify that opening sentence to say:
One swallow does not make a summer,
but one skein of cranes, cleaving the murk of March thaw,
plus the sight and call of one Phoebe,
is the Spring.
Welcome Spring :) :)
Cultivate your life - you are what you grow - inch by inch, row by row,
Diana Dyer, MS, RD