Late Night Thoughts On Milkweed Pods

[Milkweed seed pod. Photo source: Me]

I’m not a collector, really.  I do have quite a few paperclips but I wouldn’t call it a collection.  My fondness for fountain pens and Moleskin notebooks is legendary, but I practice self-control…most of the time.  My grandmother’s barn was filled with a mountain of old tires, but they weren’t hers.  They belonged to my step-grandfather who was convinced that he was going “make a killing” in the rubber market when the next World War broke out.  Now, he was a collector.  I don’t think I own even one baseball card.  I do have several Bob Dylan concert tee-shirts, but they are never to be worn.  Somewhere among the many items I have from my father’s house is a Vote For Ike and Dick button.  I don’t know how we came about owning it since my parents were New Deal Democrats.  I don’t have a shadow box filled with butterflies stuck through with pins. (More on that later.) I have a fair number of CD’s but not nearly as many as my son-in-law, Bob.  He could open one of those booths in the court of a Seattle mall and make a fortune.

Bottom line here: you won’t see me on any episodes of Hoarders.

On one of our road trips I chanced to buy a rubber band ball.  I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out how this ball was put together.  It continues to baffle me.  If any of my readers know how they’re made, please text me.  If your explanation has to do with having a double life in Honduras or China, the secret will stay with me.

[My rubber band ball. Photo credit: Me]

But, I digress.

A few nights ago I was in my office/library pencil editing a chapter of my next novel.  I was tired and my creative juices were running dry.  (Actually, they’ve been running dry since 1959.)  It was then that I noticed something behind my Staples pencil holder.  It had been there, semi-hidden, for about six years.  I pulled it out and parts of it flew away.  It was a milkweed pod (Asclepias sp.) that I found in a field a year or so after we moved here.  I’ve always found the milkweed seeds and their bounty of fluff a miracle of nature.  Perfect dispersal method.  The wind.  These little puffs will drift about on the slightest breeze seeking a new home to grow up in.

One reason I brought the pod home was to give me a chance to look at the seeds through my new binocular microscope that I nagged Mariam enough into buying.  Hey, I was a Science Teacher for 35 years!  You can’t turn that off by relocating to the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks. (Note to husbands: if you nag her enough, your wife will get it for you.  Just don’t start with 1953 MG’s, Adirondack Guideboats or any kind of sailboat that sleeps 6.  Work up.)

[My binocular microscope. Photo source: Me]

I began to ruminate.  By my taking this one pod home that day six years ago, I had prevented the growth of a large number of new milkweed.  How many?  Well, I went straight to Google, of course.  I found that the average pod contains an average of 226 seeds (Wilson and Rathcke, 1974).  One doesn’t have to be Stephen Hawking (God Rest His Soul) to calculate that, if all the seeds were viable, I had prevented 1,356 potential milkweed plants from taking root.

The implications depressed me.  I had broken a natural chain of events.  I had disrupted a cycle of nature, a small one to be fair, but still I had to own the sin.

So, what’s the big deal? you may very well ask.

Well, once inside Google, you must stay inside Google.  Follow the paths of limitless information and you might be surprised where it leads you.

Who doesn’t love the Monarch butterfly?  Nature Centers around the country celebrate.  4-H clubs, Scouting groups of all kinds have Monarch activities.  (My daughter made a special study of them in her elementary school science class). And, here’s the bit that will haunt my dreams for years: the milkweed is essential to the life cycle of the Monarch!  The caterpillar stage eats only milkweed.  They can not survive without those little seeds.

And, (I can’t cite references on this) the Monarch butterfly is listed “at risk” on some nature websites.

My story, then, ends here on a dark note.  Have I contributed to the “at risk” factor of the Monarchs?

In some minuscule way, I did.  And, if my actions were repeated by even 1% of the rural population of the Northeast, the beautiful butterfly will find less to eat and more to die from.

The Monarch butterfly; the name by the way, in Homeric Greek means “one who urges on horses”.

That’s another blog post for another time.

[A Monarch butterfly. Photo source: Wikipedia]

But, there is something you can do to help right my wrongs.  Go to and explore.


I Heard The Secrets Of The Grackle’s Song


[Image: Google search]

A short time ago, perhaps a week, maybe more, I spent a few days in Austin, Texas.  We were visiting with a gentleman, William, that I had met during a writers workshop in Westport, New York in October, 2012.  He has been a good friend and faithful follower of my blogs since I began posting them.

Austin.  The home of the long-running pbs music show, Austin City Limits, the Skylark Lounge, a great blues club, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan that stands on the banks of the Colorado River (not the Colorado River).  Arguably the most famous dance hall in Texas, The Broken Spoke, is in Austin.  It’s where I “learned” to do the Texas 2-step and when my bones and legs couldn’t keep time with the music, I could sit and sip a Lone Star beer and watch the real dudes and drug-store cowboy’s do the dance the way it should be done.  Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played this city, while virtually inventing Texas Swing music.  A statue of Willie Nelson stands outside the theater where Austin City Limits is recorded.

Austin.  A town where the hills glow violet in the setting sun.  A vermillion hue in the afternoon sky.  And, in that afternoon sky are thousands of birds.  The Grackles of Austin.

The Grackle is considered by many to be a disease-carrying bird that is a genuine pest.  Cannons have been used to keep them from clustering in various city parks.  On my first afternoon, a late afternoon, when the sky had begun to redden, I saw black objects clinging to the power lines near the exit ramp of I-35.  I could make out that they were birds…but the numbers were staggering.  I can say one thing straight away: I have never seen such flocks of these starling-like, black-hued avians roosting on power lines in my life.  When they took flight from the trees, shrubs and high wires, they would fill the air and darken the sky.  When they moved, when they were on the wing, they moved as one.  I described this sudden turn of direction in my first novel, Standing Stone, as “one shared soul.”


[The swarming Grackles in Waco, Texas. Image: Google search]

These are birds of legend.  To a person unfamiliar with large flocks of crow-like creatures, these looked like something that was left on the cutting-room floor after Alfred Hitchcock decided he had gone too far.

Birds of Legend?

I was familiar with the real birds of legend.  The Phoenix, rising from the ashes.  The Ibis of Ancient Egypt.  The Dove of Noah.  The Eagle of American power and might.

But, the Grackle?  What legend?  What was it about this Raven-like bird that inspired such mystery and admiration…and contempt?

It seems that in the ancient days, back in the time when even dust was old, the Grackle did not make a sound…it had no call.  It was mute.  But, birds need a song to sing…to communicate a message of warning, spread the word about where water could be found…or to call to one another, to seek a mate…to make a nest…to pass on a new generation of life.  For nothing lives forever…

The Legend begins:

In Mexico, the bird were called zantes.  In Pre-Columbian times, it has been said, the mute birds began to seek a voice. They found a Sea Turtle and the zantes stole their voice from him.  They stole the archaic song of the Sea Turtle.  That was the mystical Song of the Seven Passions.  They now had their voice…their song.


[Image: Google search]

For eons, they have sung this most sacred of songs.  But, to the modern ear, it sounds like a common cackle.  The sound and the name stuck…hence, the Grackle.

Annoying and obtrusive to most people these days, I found myself alone in a quiet park one afternoon.  I listened to the cackling.  I listened for the song.  It began to clarify in my head.  I could make out intonation, nuance, emotion and meaning.

I began to hear the Seven Songs of Passion.

I heard LOVE…and I thought of my childhood.  My mother, my father, my brothers, my elders, my girlfriend, my lovers, my wife.  I thought of those I never knew… never knew I really loved them, and those who I never realized, once loved me.

I heard HATE…and I thought of killing in the name of God, killing those who are different, killing those who chose to love those we don’t think they have a right to love.  I thought of those killed by others who believe in another God than the One of our birth.  I thought of the death of the spirit in a child by withholding love, by hurting their tiny hearts and bodies.  I thought of those who hate because…they hate.

I heard FEAR…and I thought of a lonely snow-covered trail in the Northern Forest and the fear that I was losing a dear friend.  I recalled a phone call, and then another, followed by yet another, telling me that a parent or sibling was near death.  I thought of the fear that a woman I loved would simply walk out the door.  I thought of the fear of abandonment and the fear of being unloved.  I thought of the fear of dying, the fear of pain, the fear of being afraid.

I heard COURAGE…and I thought of the brave who have died for their beliefs, not for a flag or a symbol, but for  human dignity and the freedom from being a slave of any kind.

I heard JOY…and I thought of how I felt when my children were born.  How I love and respect my daughter, Erin and how she and her husband, Bob are raising my grandson, Elias, to be an inquisitive and curious and kind child.  I thought of how much fun I have when I sit and have a talk with my son, Brian, who is smart, witty and has the heart as big as Texas (with New Mexico and a good deal of Utah thrown in).

I heard ANGER…and I thought of the misspoken words between a married couple, between a child and a parent, between lovers, between nations, between religions, with oneself for not being able to accomplish something creative and meaningful, lasting and full of beauty.

I heard SADNESS…and I feel a billion tears from a million people crying, at a graveside for the soul of someone they will never see or touch again, at a wedding when a father says farewell to a daughter or a son, in an office when a husband or wife hears of the loss of a spouse or child in a misbegotten war, in the heart of a student when the teacher implies he or she can’t do something, in the doorway of a family home when a parent watches their child walk away into the life of adulthood, never to be a child again.  The sadness of those losses are overwhelming.


[Source: Pinterest]

I heard all these passions from the beak of that dark bird, the Grackle.  I was overwhelmed by this ability to hear these things.  It’s too much for one person to handle.  If more people just stopped and listened to the zantes, perhaps the burden would be spread out…and lighten the load for the few who stop to listen, not just to this one bird of Austin, but to all life.


[Image: Google Search]



The Impossibly Long Life of a Snowflake


It’s a simple act of nature.  A billion snowflakes drifting slowly earthward…sometimes rising, sometimes blown sideways…but always downward.  If they each made a sound like a bird, someone stepping out onto a frozen porch in the North Country of the Adirondacks would be deafened.  But each flake makes a sound only it can hear.

It all seems so simple…but it isn’t…not at all.

If a snowflake had a mind, it would have long minutes to think about where and how it would end its existence as a crystal.

Two Hydrogen atoms bond with an Oxygen atom.  That’s a water molecule.  You can do a great deal with one of these.  Boil it, freeze it, drink it, hydrate your body or pee it out.  It’s still H2O.  Nothing’s changed.

With the aid of the sun, the water molecule becomes agitated.  It evaporates and, defying gravity, ends up in the troposphere.  They find each other and cling to one another, like lovers often will.  A raindrop is formed.

It remains in the sky for an indeterminate length of time, but everything changes up there.  Nothing of the water that we see stays the same.  Sunsets come and go.  Sometimes there is a red sky in the morning.  The castles of cumulus clouds may take the shape of trees, mythical beasts, camels, people or…castles.  But, if you blink, it’s morphed into something else.  A cloud that looked to you like a rear molar can look like 3-masted schooner in 2.6 seconds.

But, something many people don’t realize is that every raindrop (and snowflake) has a nucleus.  Not like a living cell’s nucleus…but a microscopic kernel of something…maybe dust, maybe a Silver Oxide crystal, whatever.  The water molecule must have something to cling to…just like people.

If you catch a snowflake on your wrist and take it indoors, it will melt.  You would need a microscope to see whatever the condensation nuclei is.  And then you may have a hard time seeing it.  But, every falling raindrop has this tiny bit of something at its center.

Last night, over the North Country of the Adirondacks, trillions of these flakes fell.  Descending through the blackness that only a winter sky and a New Moon can provide.  In this world, there is no free choice (at least that we can discern), so the flakes can alight on anything.

If the snowflake falls directly onto the ground…its trip is over…for now.  When the melting of springtime comes its liquid water again and then its time to wait in a lake or pond.  Its waiting for the sun to start the process once again.

Nothing changes and everything changes.

In my front yard, some flakes have made me a fortunate man.  My visual world is made more beautiful by the flakes spending a day or two on a cedar branch or, finding just that one tiny surface to hold it in place, along with several million other flakes to make winter patterns that are so commonplace yet so sublimely awesome.

Funny how a stray twig or errant branch that would hit me in the face can become the bearer and framer of such an amazing art of nature.

Today, I stood knee-deep in the snow of what passes for our ‘lawn’.  I stepped close to a cedar branch.  I leaned forward to try to count the uncountable crystal flakes.  I got to ten and remembered that no two flakes could ever be exactly the same.  I didn’t want to count any twice so I backed away just as my breath began to melt tiny flecks of white.

It’s going to be -10 F tonight so the snow will be on the branches in the morning.  But soon a breeze will clear off the tiny cedar needles.  The sun will melt those that remained.

Everything will change.  But next week, it will all start over again.

Right now, as I write this, a water crystal is forming.  It’s just waiting for the Great Goddess of Nature to wave her hair or whisper a breeze that allows the cycle over my head to continue.




[Along our road with a forecast of -11 F]


What Am I Doing Down Here?

Hey, you.  Yeah, you with the walking stick.  You’ve gotta help me man!  I don’t have much time, so you have to do something and do it quick.

You look like you’ve hiked a few miles in your day…the way you favor your right hip and lean on your wooden staff when you step up on a rock.  You’ve got gray hair so you must be an old guy, right?  (By the way, what’s with the bandanna tied to the leather strap of your pole?  You look like an Old Testament prophet who just stepped out of Dick’s Sporting Goods.)

Well, you may be ancient but I’m not.  I young.  I’m still green.  But some gust of wind detached me from the tree behind me.  I didn’t fall fast, I floated back and forth as I drifted toward the ground.  You can see I landed on a tiny evergreen. (I hate these coniferous trees…they never drop their leaves).  But soon I’m going to be dislodged and I’ll be on the ground with all the rest of these…dead guys.


I know.  I know.  It’s Autumn and the leaves are supposed to turn color (at least my species does) and fall from the tree.  It’s all “part of nature’s cycle,” I get it.  But it’s too early for me.  The drop in temperatures and the decreased sunlight are supposed to trigger the breakdown of my chlorophyll and  I turn a beautiful color.  Seems like I’m going to end up a dull brown hue…not like those maples over there.  They turn scarlet.  Or the beech behind you…it’ll go to some shade of yellow.

But I’m still green.  I’m loaded with chlorophyll.  It’s too soon for me to go.  Can’t you stick me back on the branch…at least for a few more days?  Just a few days…week tops…so I can see the world around me until I just can’t hang on any longer.  I’ll know when that time comes.  No Super Glue is going to hold me to the tree then.  I’ll have to drop…and then it’s over for me.  I’ll be buried by the ten feet of snow they get here…and by Spring, I’ll be pretty well-rotted into the soil.  My only comfort is that my molecules will be rearranged in the earth and I’ll be back.  Just in a different form.

It’s anybody’s guess.  I may return as a poplar or an even a pine cone…or, heaven forbid, a fungus.  I’ve known a few fungi and believe me, they’re no fun to be around.  They don’t even have a chlorophyll.  And, they grow in the most yucky places you can imagine.  Don’t get me started.

But right now I’m an oak.  An oak, man!  Do you understand the implications of this?  I stand for solid, high, and proud.  I’m a metaphor  for strength and life.  My leaf is a symbol for eternity in many northern cultures and folklore.  I also tend to grow in groves in the Celtic countries…and the Druids thought I held weird secrets…and they held ceremonies in my groves–until Christianity arrived and the priests cut my sacred groves down.

I mean, I’m the mightiest and strongest.  When the storm winds blow, the oak remains.And, I come from a wee acorn.  There’s been poems written about me.  “From little acorns grow…” I forgot the rest.

But look at me now…

Perhaps I can share a few family photos from my album:


My mom and dad.


My uncle Burt.  We all told him he had to lose some weight.  He dropped early.


My family tree.


Wait, your leaving?  Wait!  Help me, help me.  You can’t leave me like this.  It’s too soon for me.  I have a few days left.  Please, please put me back on the branch…just for a little while.

Well, good-bye and thanks for nothing.  I can take care of my self…I don’t need you.  I’ll just talk to myself for a while.

Oops!  I’m on the ground now…it won’t be long.  But I can see the blue sky from down here…now that the rest of the leaves have mostly fallen.  Such a pretty blue.  I was much closer to the sky just a few hours ago, and now I can smell the fungus and bacteria that will soon began eating at me.


I won’t feel a thing, though.  They say it’s kind of like dissolving in water.  It’s a slow process.  First you’re here, you’re a leaf, then you’re atoms and molecules.

There’s no pain.

It’s just one big circle.  See you this coming Spring…or if not…some Spring in the future.


The actor Jack Oakie (1903-1978) seen here with Tina Louise. No relation.




I Am Ice

I was one of the uncountable snow flakes that fell that day.  Time was the same, it snowed, it rained, drizzle fell, fog burned off and the sunshine broke through the clouds.  Before I fell to earth I had my last glimpse of the sun.  Then all darkened with clouds and more snow.
The sun became a memory.
Miles away, the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were emerging from a dark past and beginning to see wood, gold, bark, ivory and sea shells as forms of art.  Ancient mythic images, older than time began to take on a form…meaningful to the soul of these people.
I was a single snow flake with a crystal form all my own.  There was never another like me, then or even now.  I did not feel loneliness; within minutes, I was covered with others that were similar to me but never entirely the same as me.  Deeper I sank. More snow fell on me. Deeper and deeper I was buried in my white tomb.
I long ceased to see the sun, sky, clouds and moon.  The wind ceased it’s motion for me.  It was all darkness and stillness; total aloneness among zillions like me.  Far above me, lone hunters slushed the snows.  An occasional mountain climber.  Once, and I could feel his soul, a lonely man with a troubled mind, went over me looking for his place to find his God.  He went to a nearby mountain and, crouched against the rain and wind, waited for his God to come and take him back home.
I was slowly losing the sense of what I was.  I was losing my “snowness” and ever so gradually becoming less of a tiny flake and more of a crystal.  The process was slow.  I united with others like me and we morphed into true glacial ice.
All this was not totally quiet.  There were distant moans and shrieks as the glacial ice began to move, layer over layer, downward…toward any depth that the terrain allowed.
After many, many years, I, now a part of a vast collection of other crystals, began to see the light above me.  The youthful summer snows were melting away and we, now the grand old parts of the glacier were visible.  I could now hear and feel the piercing of the crampons of glacial researchers as they made their way over my surface.  Nearby, an errant solo mountaineer made a slight misstep and slid into a giant crack in my surface.  He cried out.  He died quickly.  But I can still hear the echoes of his pain throughout the expanse of ice.
One day, a teenage researcher chopped me free from the bed I lived on.  With the point of his ice axe he isolated my as a single crystal.  He took me between his fingers and held me up to the sun.  I saw the sun again.  It was as I remembered it.  I proudly reflected and refracted the spectrum and allowed the rays to spread like starlight.  He turned me over in his hands several times before tossing me away.
Very soon I will melt away and join the icy flow down glacier to the sea.  I’ll be gone for a very long time, probably.
But I’ll be back.