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Our friend Finchley, as my wife calls our friendly finch, is back! At least, I think it’s him. I’m not much of a birder, but I heard a familiar chirping around the house that made me say to Joy just this morning, “I wonder when the finches will come back.” And there one was a few hours later, perching on the phone line just outside our kitchen window and flitting between there and a point below, closer to the house, and out of view that I assume is the tangle of morning glory vines that grow up the front wall.

We had a pair nesting there all last spring and summer, and the year before. While they are building the nest, which male and female do together, they fly between that wire and their hidden nest, and off to farther spots to get building materials, all day long. I identified the male despite my lack of birding savvy because of the distinctive reddish-violet breast feathers. The bird I just saw was mostly brown, with faintly yellow breast feathers. I think that probably signals “male,” as the female birds are always just brown as far as I can find out, while the males can vary in color quite a lot depending on their diet.

So if this is our friend from the last two years–and house finches do return to the same spot over and over, building a new nest each year in a place they have found amenable–then he has been eating something different than he was last year. In 2022, I didn’t notice his visits until later in the year, not having yet learned to watch for him, so maybe it is more about the time of year and he will get more red-breasted and -headed as the seasons change. I’m so glad he is back so we can see.

Also, I’m gratified because I was all set to get the house painted at the end of the summer, which would have required cutting the morning glories all the way down to the ground. The painter I hoped to hire didn’t get back to me, and it became clear that if we did it in 2022, we wouldn’t be done until late fall, and so the morning glories wouldn’t get to begin regrowing until then. I got more and more nervous about the timing, until I realized that there was no rush to paint, and that I could just give up on 2022 and line up a painter for late August 2023 instead, to begin work as soon as we’re pretty sure they have left that year’s nest. The only down side of this plan is that it means another year of having our garage door a different color scheme than the rest of the house: bright blue with yellow trim. That’s what the rest of the house will be when it’s painted, and we got the paint because the garage door couldn’t wait. As a result, our house looks like a very prominent statement of support for Ukraine. Oh well, we can be glad we actually agree with our garage.


Photo by Kevin Burkett, Creative Commons Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The excitement about the blue moon leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the moon is doing exactly what it always does. Every 29.5 days or so, it comes to the full, and the fact that it has done it twice this month is simply an artifact of the artificial calendar. Invent a solar “month” to intersect with the lunar month, and occasionally there will be two full moons in the 30- or 31-day period we have designated. It isn’t bluer than usual, it doesn’t look bigger or brighter or any different than any full moon. It’s just the moon. There have been nine full moons this year. There will be another one next month.

That’s the curmudgeon grumbling. On the other hand, I’m delighted to see my Facebook feed and other media streams so intent on getting us to look at the moon. It’s like my moon-phases watch, which is no substitute for the actual moon, but reminds me to stop looking at clock-time and calendar-time and turn my eyes to our beautiful sister planet now and then.

My own feeling whenever I look at the moon is that I’m very lucky to live on a planet that has one. Many don’t. (If offered a trip to another planet, I’d ask to go to one that has more than one satellite. That sky would be a sight to see.) One of the loveliest surprises of my life was the first time I turned a pair of binoculars on the moon. I had had no idea that there was anything much to see without a telescope. All the ridges and craters were unexpectedly beautiful, and yet they’d been there all my life. Like discovering that Grace Kelly had been following me around all that time and I only had to look over my shoulder to see her up close.

And of course, I’m always glad of an excuse to listen to Billie Holiday.

A lot of the items on my bucket list are natural wonders that might not even be termed wonders by many. Yes, I want to see the Grand Canyon before I die, and the northern lights, and a dolphin in the wild; but less spectacularly, I’d like just once to come across a lady slipper in the woods. Watching a spider spin its web on a branch above the church patio one Sunday, I was stunned by the realization that of all the hundreds of webs I’ve stopped to admire, I’d never seen one in the making. It felt almost sacrilegious to call people away to begin the service. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Yesterday, lying on a blanket at a blues festival with friends we’re visiting in northwest Oregon, I was watching a raptor overhead. It must be some kind of hawk with light head feathers, because it couldn’t be what I thought it was–aren’t they very rare? And only seen in, I don’t know, Alaska? So I pointed “that hawk” out to C., who said, “Yes, but it’s not a hawk, it’s a bald eagle.” Stirring. Another simple wonder I didn’t know was on my must-see list until that moment.

I took transit to work Tuesday, a slow way to get there, but it’s so great to let someone else do the driving.  And, although I can’t read on the train (motion sickness), I can think, and it was a nice way to begin the day.  Even nicer was the walk from the station to church on a fall day so perfectly representative of the season that I’m hard-pressed to describe it without words like “crisp.”  The colors seem particularly radiant this year, which is strange because it’s been a wet fall and the conventional wisdom where I used to live (Vermont:  Fall Foliage Central) was that dryer weather makes for brighter leaves.  No one’s told the Bay Area trees that, though, and this was just the kind of day that lit up every leaf like a piece of stained glass.

I walked under one tree I can’t tell you the name of, but its leaves were heart-shaped and almost uniformly yellow, and its canopy made a great round umbrella over the sidewalk.  I stopped a moment to look up through the leaves, and a murmur escaped me:  “O light come down to earth, be praised!”

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

(“Slowly, slowly they return,” by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir:  The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997.  It is set to music, with small and sometimes mysterious changes to the words, as #342 in our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.)

I’d pointed Munchkin to her classroom door, since she insists now on going by herself, before the service. I’d taken up my spot by the front door, robe and stole on, ready to greet people as they entered. But everyone who crossed the patio seemed to be stalling at a little cluster of people by the big tree who were staring at a spot about eight feet up.

I went over and saw something that I’ve never seen before: a spider actually in the act of creating her web. She had started from the outside and was spiraling in clockwise. At each segment she paused, attached a length of thread to the radial support, and moved on. The web had the sun behind it, and as it shifted in the breeze, different sections glowed iridescent.

We were all speaking of the web-spinner as “she.” It’s a nice change (I notice, eavesdropping in zoos and parks, that we usually refer to all unfamiliar animals as “he”), but I wondered aloud whether it’s true that only the female spider spins. Maybe it is just a figment of our cultural memory: Charlotte, Arachne, women as the community’s spinners and weavers. The crowd wasn’t sure. A little online research suggests that males do spin webs, but mostly when they are very young (pre-mating age). We didn’t ask this spider its age, but it was quite large, and the males are usually much smaller than the females.

The bell rang and we went into the service, but I already felt like I’d been to church.

1:  Two evenings ago, Joy called me and the munchkin over to the door to the deck, saying to hurry.  A young opossum was sniffing around our things (we still have some unpacked items there), maybe attracted by the lingering smells of the dinner we’d eaten out there an hour earlier.  The lights were on inside and outside, and the possum must have seen us, but it didn’t seem disturbed, and just went on exploring.  I had never seen one alive before, except running away from the sound of my approaching car.  It was cute.  Its ears were black and outspread, and we could clearly see the long fingers on its pink hands. 

Our cat Luna was out there somewhere, but I guess they avoided an encounter.  Luna is a non-hunter anyway–in a year and a half, she’s never brought home so much as a mouse–but in a fight with this opossum Luna would probably have come out the loser.

2.  I was perplexed by a strange erosion on my desktop blotter, as if acid had been dropped on it and had eaten away several layers of paper.  Then the stickers on my paper drawers mysteriously appeared partly peeled off, as if a vandal had come in and tried to remove the “New White Paper,” “One Side Printed,” and “Letterhead” labels just to create confusion for my next printing job.  It wasn’t until several days later, when I actually spotted a snail on one of the plants on the desk, that I put it all together. 

I was on the phone at the time, so I left it alone until I had a moment to put it outside–then I couldn’t find it.  Apparently it had used its speed and wiles to get away from me.  The next day, I saw it again and this time I took it outside.  By that time, the rampaging beast had also eaten a hole through several papers on my desk (nothing irreplaceable).  I hope it will be happier on a bush.

So went the title of an e-mail a man in the church sent me a few days ago, and to my delight it included these photos of a tree he and his wife saw in King’s Canyon National Park, which, he said, reminded them of the patterns in some of the images here.  Beautiful!  Thank you both!

(All photos by Paul Albertus.)

They liked “thinking about what this tree was up to through many cold and snowy Sierra winters and hot and dry Sierra summers to come up with such patterns.”  And that is what I love about things like strata in rock, the patterns the tide leaves on the sand, the marks that remain on agave leaves after the outer leaves have opened, the insect-munched trail on the oak leaf I found at Bass Lake last week:  the way they hint of a history that is mostly unknown to the observer who comes along later.  Each of us bears those signs too, some on our bodies and many more on our personalities.

Lots of tiles here, including those covering the downstairs of our house, are made of a kind of terracotta and, when they are made, are left to dry out in the sun, where animals can step on them.

The sharp-eyed munchkin found this one under our table:

And the other day, when we were in the living room (which we seldom use), she came over to me and said, “Mama, close your eyes.”  I did.  “Come here.”  I took her hand and followed her to the corner.  “Look!”  And this is what I saw:

And then I looked at her.  I took photos of the tiles (we’re going to see if we can identify them using our book on tracking), but I couldn’t capture in a photograph her face in that moment, lit from within at the delight of being able to share delight.  Fortunately, that’s something I’ll always have with me.

The attentive find that the universe has scattered gifts for them everywhere, and that’s something I hope she’ll always have.

(#7 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

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