Barred owls

Barred owls

I’ve been married now for over 21 years and last spring I fell in love. My marriage is safe, however; the objects of my devotion live in Indiana and I’ve never seen them in real life. One day into my Twitter feed came a tweet about a barred owl camera, I clicked on it, and that was the end for me. This year I was delighted to discover that the same owl parents were using the same nesting box. The three eggs have not yet hatched.

Last spring the nesting box was inhabited by a mother owl, her three owlets and the shadowy figure of the dad, who made occasional appearances with crayfish and worms in the dead of night. When I first met this family, two owlets had hatched and the third egg was still sitting there. When the mother owl left briefly to hunt, the tiny white owlets snuggled up to the sibling egg and slept. Then, on April 10, very early in the morning, the smallest owlet was born.

In those early days, the mother owl stayed with her young almost all the time, leaving only briefly to hunt. I left the owl cam open on the computer, with the volume up, so that I could hear if anything were happening. As I went about the house, I could occasionally hear the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” hoot of the owl, in response to her mate. They would chat briefly, with the female puffing up her feathers every time she called, and then she would settle her wings carefully around her owlets and resume her rest. 

Barred owls are mainly nocturnal, so much of her hunting took place at night. Tiny owlets need frequent feeding, so she and her mate would stock the larder overnight and then she would feed them about every 3 hours all day with the rabbit, or frog, or fish that lay in a corner of the nesting box. She snoozed much of the time, but occasionally would have her gorgeous huge dark brown eyes open. She changed position from time to time, allowing me to admire the lovely fluffy white feathers that are usually hidden under the stiff striped feathers of her tail.C9ovjVXXoAMsR95.jpg

It turns out it’s actually pretty loud inside a nesting box 30 feet up a tree in Indianapolis. The day shift is busy outside, with the jays calling, the woodpeckers hammering and the male cardinals singing enthusiastically to their modest brown mates. I already hated loud landscaping equipment, and when I heard the sound of a two-stroke engine as it is experienced in a nesting box,  my rejection of such machines was confirmed. That this poor dedicated mother, trying to snatch a nap in between feeding sessions of her young, should be so disturbed!

I was much taken by the beauty of the birds: the striped softness of the mother, the white down and tiny winglets of the infant owls, and now their brown and white fluffiness. The facial disk so characteristic of many owls, in which the feathers are arranged circularly around the large eyes, were evident even when the owlets were tiny. It has been a pleasure to see the daily activity of animals so close up.

But it’s not just a question of beauty and biological observation for me. I realized as I watched this mother that I was experiencing profound fellow-feeling with her.  I was remembering my experience with my babies as a physical experience, as a creature. After she fed her tiny owlets and preened them carefully, she settled her wings around them to provide warmth and shelter, and closed her eyes. (Click on the link for an adorable video). I remembered sitting in the nursing chair, nursing my infant, both our eyes closed and peace all around and between us. We were warm and dry and fed, and nestling together was all there was to do.

I saw the owlets, usually huddled together when the mother is off hunting, hear her approach. They stretched their wings, often almost toppling over, shot out their necks and generally got terribly excited. I was reminded of walking up the stairs to get the baby out of bed, after a nap, and hearing a sudden rustling in the bed clothes and shaking of the crib against the wall as the child wriggled in joy at my impending arrival.

I saw the frenetic motions of the owls as they eat, and the stillness of their bodies as their mother preens their tiny feathers, and I remember one day when my youngest was one or two. She was profoundly upset, her body shaking and hot, and I opened my arms to her. She came into them, pressed her trembling body against mine, and was suddenly quiet and still. I thought, “Only I can do this. Only I can be her mum.”

I saw how busy this mother owl was. When the owlets are about three weeks old, they are much more active in the nest. They eat much more, and she and her mate spend a lot of time hunting, leaving the owlets alone. As they have done from the beginning, they snuggle up to each other to keep warm. The smallest owlet is often jammed between the elder two. As they sleep, they sway on their feet trying to keep their balance. Often they lose the battle, flop over and then right themselves. This swaying motion reminds me of nothing more than graduate students trying to stay awake during an afternoon seminar. The mother is so careful with them, and takes such good care. This reminds me of the incredible amount of energy it took for me to care for my human babies. Sometimes it was hard to put their needs above my own. The mother owl spent a long time feeding her young one rainy day with the feathers on her own head wet and bedraggled. Once they were settled, she preened herself.stretched out

I admire this barred owl mother so much. She shows me that I am an animal mother too, and that my focus on the children to the virtual exclusion of all else when they were very young is natural. It makes me feel better about my extreme discomfort at leaving my babies for longer than a few hours when they were very small, and my reluctance now to have them away from me now for much longer than the length of a school day. When they come home, although they are all so much older now, they each want a hug and a cuddle and some quiet time. We all like to be near each other.

It makes me feel better about my initially astonishing lack of desire to pick up my intellectually-based ambitious busy life after the children were born. The physical reality of motherhood is more profound than I had ever dreamed. Thank you, barred owls.


Zero Waste: Toilet Paper

Zero Waste: Toilet Paper

Of course these two things are a contradiction in terms. Toilet paper is perhaps the ultimate in waste: a single-use item that gets flushed down the toilet. Talk about mindless usage. Recently I’ve been rather fixating on how to improve our consumption of toilet paper. Costco stopped selling Cascades recycled toilet paper and so I decided to stop buying vast quantities of TP from there. Instead I bought PC Green from the Emporium of Bread Swindling. This assuaged my conscience about using virgin wood pulp (hello, songbird habitat!) to wipe our bums.

In an ideal world, one would use not have to dispose of a manufactured product every time one relieved oneself. I have been informed by a reliable source that any suggestion of reusable wiping technology would immediately void my marriage vows. I’m rather attached to my marriage vows, so I’ll avoid that solution. We have to buy something for this purpose, and I thought PC Green might do the trick. But not quite.

20180209_133506The spouse is the designated toilet paper fairy in the house. We have one nice main bathroom and one horrible basement bathroom that is strictly used as a last resort. He is responsible for keeping the TP stocked in the bathrooms. Our stash lives in the basement pantry and he keeps an eye on supply in the loos and refills as necessary. When we redid our bathroom, he built in a little shelf for it so that if the roll ran out, you could actually reach it from a seated position, as it were. If the nook is full, we can have 4 rolls in the bathroom at the same time. It turns out that the change from acquiring 48 rolls at a time to 12 rolls at a time undermines the toilet paper fairy’s sense of security. All of a sudden I was fielding a lot of questions about whether I was planning to buy toilet paper that week. Are you mad, spouse? We still have five rolls.

The problem is that PC Green does not come in massive packages, so if I want to buy 48 rolls at a time (no problem with the cargo bike, or if I take some children as donkeys with me on a pedestrian shopping trip) I end up buying a lot of plastic packaging instead. Thinking about the plastic made me consider whether I could find a solution that involved no plastic at all.

Now, if everyone would just use moss or leaves in a composting toilet, then I could have everything, but we’re not there yet as a household. The teenager is already accusing me of conspiring to get rid of our running water. No chance. I’m very fond of the bathtub and the washing machine.

I believe I have found a solution that fulfils all the criteria:

1. No using songbird habitat for “personal care”.
2. No limping by on stingy little packages of twelve rolls each.
3. No reusable, washable cloths.
4. No plastic packaging.

Sadly the solution involves the retailing behemoth that purveys many goods online, but I can’t have everything and that’s not on my list of criteria. It’s rather alarming to blow almost $100 on TP at once, but it’s not going to go off, is it?

Lo! A box containing 80 rolls of toilet paper, wrapped in paper, delivered to my house. The toilet paper fairy can have the security of abundance and I can stop thinking about sourcing toilet paper every ten minutes. There is one slight drawback: the texture of this paper is slightly “Memories of the Public Library”. Sigh.

Peace and porches

Peace and porches

Or, stop cutting illegally through other people’s neighbourhoods.

I spend a lot of time working in my garden. Planting, weeding, pruning, dead-heading — there’s always a great deal to do. Recently, though, I’ve been trying to go into the garden and just be. I have made the garden in order to be a refuge and a place of peace, and I’m attempting to find that peace there. I look closely at each individual blossom and leaf to appreciate the complexity and beauty of even the smallest thing. I pay attention to the butterflies and bees and other winged insects that work so busily there.

Lately I’ve been especially enjoying all the birds in the front garden from the vantage point of our new porch. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve planted six trees in the front and side gardens in order to provide us and the sidewalk with shade, and to provide the birds with habitat. Until our porch was built, I hadn’t realized how successful that bird-focused project had been. Now, there is always “a melodious noise of birds among the spreading branches” (Wisdom of Solomon, 17:19): goldfinches, robins, cardinals, sparrows, cedar waxwings…we can just sit quietly and gaze as they fly about.

The front porch also gives us a lot more contact with neighbours. Most Overbrook front gardens are fairly shallow, and the sidewalk (or road, for those streets without sidewalks) is not far away. People frequently bike or walk past our house, and if we’re sitting on the porch we often exchange friendly greetings. Sometimes it’s no more than a “hello”, but often people stop to introduce themselves and their dogs, to chat about the new porch or the garden, and to talk about how they’re going to the lovely park by the river and how much they love the neighbourhood.

Both these vehicles are making illegal turns at around 4:30 pm

The porch is a place for us to enjoy the peace of the garden and has also become a place for us to enjoy the fellowship of the neighbourhood among the trees and flowers. It is difficult for us to enjoy these chats against the frequent noise of the traffic that comes down our street. We have to pause in our chat until the racket has gone away. Some of the cars drive sedately, but others roar past. I have even seen an enormous car-carrier truck on our street waiting at the light at the end of the road.

As far as I can tell, no part of Overbrook is protected from commuter and commercial traffic cutting through the neighbourhood. Some signs forbidding turns at certain time of day serve as acknowledgement of the disruption this causes, but have little to no effect in reducing the volume of traffic. I have noticed that other neighbourhoods, like Kingsview Park, are protected from through traffic. Overbrook is almost entirely a residential neighbourhood. I wish we had more front porches here, so that chats between neighbours could turn into conversations between friends. I wish that Overbrook were protected better from traffic, so that we could all find peace and quiet in our gardens


Escape from the school bus

Escape from the school bus

Three weeks ago: “Mum, there’s a lot of swearing on the school bus. You know, the f-word” (in hushed tones).

Two weeks ago: “Mum, someone swore at me in the school bus. He said to sit the f down” (in tears).

Last week: “Mum, people were hitting me on the school bus because I didn’t want to open my window and they were trying to make me” (in tears and trembling).

Right. I called the vice principal, who promised to reiterate to the children the rules of the bus. Now, the only adult on that bus is the driver and she actually has to drive.  I was skeptical how well these admonitions would work.

The child spent a very subdued weekend and told us frequently that he was afraid to ride the bus.

On Sunday night we decided to ditch the schoolbus. We’re carfree, and it’s spring, so the obvious choice was the bike.

And what had been holding us back from biking before this? Mainly the crappiness of the route to school. It starts well, on the path along the river. Then one gets to cross four lanes of traffic on a very short light and bike a meandering route through a neighbourhood, up a big hill and down another one, this last on a very busy road. Then the crossing of  another busy road with lots of cars turning left, and then, tada, at school.

The meandering route is caused by having to skirt around a cemetery with no access along its entire southern boundary, and by the horribleness of the direct route. The most direct way is along a busy road with lots of parked cars and those most useless of street markings, sharrows. Then there’s a bike lane marked by paint along the side of the road but no sidewalk next to it for Little to bike on. Not safe enough, not by a long chalk.

There are plans afoot to improve bike access along that route but they had not occurred magically over the weekend.

In previous years, distance had been a factor. The school is about 5k away, which was a little far when Little was in grade one. Now she can handle it easily.

For me, time is still a factor, since the children do the round trip once and I do it twice. It ends up being three to four hours of my day on getting the kids to school and back. The voluntary simplicity project we’ve got going in our house makes it possible, but it compresses the work of my day quite a bit. On the other hand, biking 20k may have some effect on the middle-aged-fatness reduction project which we’ve also going here.

So how was the ride on the first day? Fantastic, wonderful, awesome. The kids were so excited to get on their bikes and to get out by the river. After many years of biking with Middle I know I have to build birdwatching time into every journey. We stopped twice, once to gaze at gorgeous wood ducks, and one to look at a large hawk grooming herself. Little remarked on all the dangerous bits on the ride, tsked, and said, “There are too many cars on this road.” We arrived in the schoolyard in good time, all of us flushed and cheerful. They scampered off to class and I rode to Loblaws on the big orange bike to buy some mulch.

Middle put himself to bed that night at 7:45 after his 10k day. First question the next day: “Are we biking? Yay.”