Four Ant Poems

Ant War, 1958

Two little generals
wage a little war:
the red ants against the black ants
in the black-ant ant farm.

With superior mandibles
the red ants sever the
black-ant heads
from the black-ant abdomens,

leaving the black-ant soldiers
lying in tangled mounds
on the black-ant ant farm
battleground.

The red ants charge down
the black-ant tunnels
to feast on
the black-ant young.

The two little generals
are satisfied:
One army lost,
the other won.

Everything is
as everything should be,
just like in the movies
and on TV.

Ant’s Load

He who hasn’t seen an ant
hasn’t seen the world—the ant,
who hauls with superhuman strength
the precise timber for a gate
or drags behind him
some hulking, wriggling meal
across a wilderness a hundred ant-miles wide,
all the way up his city’s ramp,
a hero returning
with a boon for his tribe.

Pushes, pulls, then flings it about—
hour after hour till the long day’s work
is finally over. If necessary camps beside it
through the black wet night, surviving floods
and creatures of the dark, hunting bugs.

In the morning heaves its great weight
up over his head then flips it forward,
the way Hercules threw the lion,
battling failure to the death.

Applies leverage, utilizes fulcrums, steps back
to ponder the possibilities, renegotiates
the rugged terrain, backtracks
with a kind of certitude.

Hour after hour,
without food or water.

For the tribe,
for the future,
to fulfill his nature,
makes a tiny but no less significant
contribution to his culture.

Who who’s watched an ant
can argue?

Ant Pastoral

Ants swarm under the first sun
of a summer day, as on the first day
of spring, glistening red and black
in their shiny new armor.

The day’s long tasks begin,
of a day as of a season,
to build, then rebuild,
the hill that houses them,

to further hump over
with the detritus of the woods
their precious queen
and her countless unborn children.

In teams and solo, workers struggle forward
logs of twigs and straw
to the top of the mountain
to lay them in tight.

They chop with the axes and saws
of their mandibles the timber grass sprung up
through the hillsides of their home,
notching trunks to fall away from their dome.

Some make the long but routine haul
to and from the compost pile
to place in store abundances of food
for the night and winter both.

Others make the longer journey
to the fluttering meadows of new green leaves
high up in the windy trees
to milk the aphid herds.

Forest Mound Ants

In fall I study up close
the forest mound ants
dwelling behind my house.
Where they stream
they’ve worn a groove through grass
that disappears into the woods beyond
(and not into the compost box,
as once I’d thought).

With what tribe do they trade?
Do they plan to move their mound?
Who decides? What force of Nature
determines their fate?
Is there too much light here
since I cleared away the trees?
Do they seek a territory un-trod?
Is the great tsunami about to crash?
I take great care to step over
the telltale arm of their race.

In Spring I see them
back to wearing their path,
busily clearing the byways,
gathering twigs and needles
to build up their mound.
Only this time I follow them
to the woods and sure enough
they’re building a new hill
around a clump of sedge
beneath a myrtle branch.
How happy my wife will be
to know they’re moving on!
(We needn’t argue any more
about my burning them out
or drowning them, dead.)

Or maybe the tribe’s grown
too big and the queen’s little sister
is building her own domain,
and we’ll have two tall anthills
in the garden instead of one.

Copyright 2016 by Rick Clark

My Heart’s Owls

I am no less under the thrall of owls than were the Ancients, no less than are the New Agers and Halloween Trick or Treaters of modern times. More than any other bird, they perch motionlessly, or near motionlessly, on a limb near the house and peer at the ground below for rodents or the unwitting small bird. Or they raise their eyes to peer at me, unblinking and unfazed, or so it would appear.

First to impress her power and stamina upon me was a barred owl. She arrived one Sunday morning and took as her launch a myrtle limb from whence she kept an eye peeled for a rat that regularly made the journey to and from our railroad-tie compost box. All day the owl watched—and I watched her, checking to see if she’d snagged that sneaky rat. Interestingly, I was all for the owl, not being fond of rats visiting my compost box, let alone our house. But she still hadn’t left her post by the time we packed up to return to the city.

First barred owl

First barred owl

When we arrived the next weekend, I hurried straight from the car over to the limb where she’d waited so patiently, and sure enough there was a bolus of rat bones and fur below the limb and a large splat of white shit on the limb. Apparently, she’d not only had more patience for the rat to appear than the rat had for her to disappear but she’d also had the extra patience to digest it right where she’d slain and ate it.

Then, because owls have a way of appearing out of nowhere then disappearing for months on end, I didn’t see or hear an owl for nearly a year till one early morning I heard crows cawing scoldingly and robins chirping angrily from the time I woke till sunset that day. Here’s the story, in a simple narrative poem:

Great Horned Owl

Crows, cawing,
wake me up early.
I shut the window,
go back to sleep.

Crows, cawing, make me
close the sliding glass door
as we eat our breakfast
and drink our coffee.

Maybe there’s an eagle perched
in the spruce, out of sight.
Maybe it’s just a young crow
who’s over-flown its boundaries.

Maybe it’s a murder,
a congregation or congress
of crows. But the robins are chirping too:
Maybe the crows have found a robin’s nest!

I step outside, sidle roundabout into the woods
till I stand beneath the spruce, look up,
see an enormous owl with ears,
perched unfazed on a low thick limb.

Chickadees, towhees, a solo wren
have joined in the melee
at their respective elevations
in the crabapple tree below.

The owl has seen me, stares at me hard,
and as he does is caught off guard
by a charging crow and flaps
over to a limb on the alder tree.

And there, all day,
crows and sometimes robins
yell and swoop at what I now identify
as a Great Horned Owl.

I watch it blink its wide yellow eyes,
its pupils contract amidst sunlit leaves.
The big bird stares at me but never flinches,
impervious to the flak from other birds.

Only night will get those crows
off that poor owl’s back, when crows
return to their regular roost and the owl
starts hunting in the dark

for rats and shrews,
perhaps a sleeping crow,
though tonight this owl will have to hunt
without a good day’s snooze.

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

My mother died on July 5th, 2011. On the eve of what would have been her 81st birthday, lo and behold a barred owl landed and perched till after dark on the three-man stone my father and I—he with a broken collar bone and I with tendonitis and bursitis in a shoulder joint—in other words with two arms between the two of us—hauled up from the beach and set on a mound on the south side of the house as, what turned out for me, a memorial to my mother that I’ve come to call the Mother Stone—or the Mom-olith. I’ve heard many stories about birds appearing at moments of death, funerals, and memorials. Now when I look at that shapely green stone, not only can I not help but think of my mother but also can I not help but re-envision that barred owl perched there so long that evening, looking at me. The next day, her birthday, Fran picked flowers that I placed on top of the stone, I said a few words, and then I spread a small urn of her ashes that my father had prepared for me for the occasion, around the base of the stone.

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Then, during the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13, we had major “irruptions” of snowy owls from the arctic tundra to the wide-open grassy areas of Protection Point. The first year, there were seven owls, the second year eight. They stayed from November to April, hunting for and devouring any small rodent that resembled their main prey in the arctic, the lemming. Theory has it that the older, bigger owls force these younger owls out of their birthright feeding grounds due to increasing numbers of owls and therefore decreased numbers of lemmings. So the younger birds fly south in search of similar hunting grounds. They perch on the drift logs stranded up in the grass and doze during the day in plain sight, making them a much-sought-out photographic subject. Tens of thousands of photographers, tourists, and nature pilgrims have worn whole systems of new trails through those tundra-like meadows. Fran and I were amongst those many seekers of an owl sighting. As many as eight times each year, we took yogis, photographers, birders, friends, family, and the “bird-curious” out toward the end of that long sand-accreted point. What great, weighty, mythical birds snowy owls are! Here are a couple poems inspired by their mystery and magnificence:

Snowy Owl

I do not want to make you
any wiser than you are.
But to stop and stare,
astonished by your size,
your snowy elegance,
your golden blinking eyes
(with what solidity
you perch upon a snag
overlooking winter seas!)
is to experience the love
of timelessness, to join
the wise in motionlessness
and mute austerity.

I bask in seeing and being seen by you,
being ransacked of all my pretensions
by your otherworldly purity
and penetrating gaze.

I stand for minutes richer than hours,
minutes enriching, adding to, my years.
I clothe myself in your downy feathers,
I breathe in the coolness of your soul,
I don the precious gems of your eyes
and through you see myself, as animal.

On strong wide wings you veer away
as I glide back down the beach,
clad in my new white robe,
the whole world glittering gold.

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Birders Flock

How reassured I feel
in a world where I find myself
standing amidst a whole flock
of birders, their giant lenses,
like tremendous beaks,
mounted on stork’s legs
of tripods, zooming in on
a single sleepy snowy owl
perched unimpressed
on a dune-grass drift-log,
their cameras chirping away,
clacking countless photos,
mesmerized for hours
in finger-freezing weather.
Now this gives me hope.

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Owl’s, because they’re often huge, have large eyes, and can appear human and wise, and because they generally hunt and hoot at night and seem to show up at auspicious times, are said to be mysterious, prophetic, meaningful birds. Owls were sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena, as a symbol of status, intelligence, and wealth. For the Egyptians, Celtics, and Hindus, owls were guardians of the underworld, protectors of the dead, rulers of the night, seer of souls. Owls have been honored as keepers of spirits who have passed from one plane to another, accompanying spirits to the underworld. As a result, owls have acquired a negative association with death (images of owls are a common sight at Halloween time, or All Souls Day). For Americans First Peoples, they were associated with wisdom and foresight and were keepers of sacred knowledge and forecasters of the weather. West African and Aboriginal Australian cultures saw the owl as a messenger of secrets, kin to sorcerers, mystics, and medicine people. In medieval Europe, they were thought to be priestesses and wizards in disguise. Their appearance announced change or death (or a life change). In general, they helped see that which was hidden from the view of others.

Interestingly, I never quite feel the same when I’m in the presence of an owl. Owls have abilities that far exceed any I can boast of: They can fly, of course, and can fly so stealthily that they cannot be heard by the unsuspecting small critter. They can see at night better than I can see during the day, and they are infinitely more patient than I am in their work to satisfy their needs. It’s this patience that sustains an owl’s life, a generally overlooked example I strive to emulate.

Leave Enough Deadwood

View of Seattle's Green Lake

View of Seattle’s Green Lake

with respect to Seattle’s Green Lake
Habitat Restoration

Leave enough deadwood
to feed the bugs,
enough bugs
to feed the birds,
enough small birds
to feed the big.

Leave snags and stumps
to rot and die, to silhouette
the Northwest sky
before the ants and termites
carry it all away
in the beak of a wren.

Lay in a few old logs.
Plant cottonwood, willow,
aspen, and birch. Spread ferns,
salal, and huckleberry.
Lay moss on soggy wood.
Skirt the lake with yellow irises.

Don’t rake up the leaves
in these hidden paradises.
Add the leaves from the lawn.
Let the cedars, redwoods,
pines, and cypresses slough
their glistening duff!

Hire a poet or two
to write what they see
in prose or straight haiku
to publish on a public site—
What old species return,
what new ones arrive?

What eagle, egret, or heron,
what wood duck, night hawk,
junco, sparrow, or vireo appear?
What red-winged blackbird,
what darting hummingbird,
what kestrel, owl, or jay?

Make the crazy world
a masterpiece, if possible.
Make way for all of life to live.
Leave us all the ground
upon which to sleep,
to eat, to play.

Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/

Stalking the Wild Mushroom: The Hedgehog and the Chanterelle

Note: I wrote this essay two years ago for my college composition students to demonstrate use of multiple strategies in constructing an essay (narrative, description, compare-contrast, etc.). But in fact, by the time I posted it here, I’d gone mushroom hunting three times this fall without finding more than one or two of either species. After posting this essay, however, I went a fourth time, to a different spot, and found enough of each species for two scrambled egg breakfasts for two. Still scant in my area.

Recently I went mushrooming as I always do in the fall. Some years ago friends had us over for dinner for an introduction to mushrooming and mushroom preparation. Dave is an expert mushroomer who mushrooms all year round for all sorts of mushrooms, and Gail has taken it upon herself—under the circumstances—to learn to cook them. The occasion was a complete fall mushroom experience for us: We went out and found mushrooms and returned to their cabin to cook them using several recipes. Since then, I’ve become an enthusiastic fall mushroomer.

Ground-view Chanterelle

Ground-view chanterelle

Dave took us across the road from the cabin they often rent to a trail circling through the woods. He showed us two kinds of delicious edible mushrooms: the chanterelle and the hedgehog (not magic “shrooms”). These fungi tend to grow in similar habitats around the same time of year, from September to November—sometimes later, depending on the weather, region, and altitude. Both of these mushrooms prefer to grow under “virgin” evergreen trees, salal, and huckleberry, usually after the first heavy rains of fall. They don’t like to grow under deciduous trees; the falling leaves cover them and prevent them from springing up or cause them to rot beneath.

Ground-view hedgehog

Ground-view hedgehog

The chanterelle, in its healthiest form, is a natural work of art. Yellowy-orange in color, the mushroom has gills that run down the stalk a ways. It’s heavy and dense, and sometimes the edges are frilled. It tends to grow in patches and can be found growing in the same spots every year, so it’s a good idea to memorize the landscape, down to the twig, for future mushrooming forays. The chanterelle is much sought after because it’s quite delicious and can be used in numerous recipes. It runs anywhere from $8 to $25 a pound in the supermarket when they’re available. In areas where it grows, buyers place the sign Mushroom Buyer in front of their homes or businesses, trying to draw pickers in to sell their mushrooms on the local market.

Note color and how gills run down to merge with stalk.

Note the color and how the gills run down to merge with the stalk.

The hedgehog is neither as popular nor as available in markets as the chanterelle, but it’s nearly as delicious as the chanterelle and sometimes more abundant. It consists of a white to pale brown irregularly shaped platform supported by a stiff white trunk. It likes to grow under salal and in sandier soil than the chanterelle, which prefers the rich wet peat directly under spruces and hemlocks. The hedgehog is fairly easily distinguished by the fact that, rather than having long striated gills running from the stalk out to the edge of the head on the underside, it instead has a type of gill that gives the mushroom its name: a soft white brush that resembles the bristles of a hedgehog. The mushroom can be quite stout and heavy, sometimes reaching two pounds in weight. It breaks more easily than the chanterelle, which is more sinewy and fibrous (and which itself can reach a pound or more), and the so-called “bristles” break loose and scatter in the frying pan, but both are tender to the palate.

Note soft hedgehog-like bristles instead of "gills."

Note the soft hedgehog-like bristles instead of “gills.”

Many pickers carry a paper bag, a pocketknife, and a mushroom cleaning brush with them when they set out mushroom foraging. The paper bag keeps the mushrooms from becoming gooey. They use the knife to cut the stalk off at the ground in order not to harm the root system below. Keep in mind that the mushroom is merely the fruit of what is often a vast network of roots called a mycelium, which can live for centuries, conditions permitting. Mushroomers also use the knife, along with the brush, to do some preliminary cleaning before dropping a mushroom into the paper bag. One dirty mushroom can make a whole bag of mushrooms dirty, making for more cleaning work back home. It’s hard not to keep picking when the mushrooms are abundant. In fact, mushrooming, like other kinds of highfalutin foraging, can cause a gatherer to experience a kind of “gold fever.” Appropriately, both kinds of mushrooms can look golden in color, especially the chanterelle.

Free gold!

Free gold!

It’s no myth that mushroomers are secretive about and protective of privately discovered mushroom grounds. If the novice is lucky, a friend, relative, or professional mushroom hunter or mycologist will reveal or share an otherwise secret spot. More often than not, a mushroomer stumbles on a spot quite by accident. This was the case for me, when I discovered my second mushroom grounds. Shortly after our mushrooming lesson with Dave, my wife and I and a friend were walking in the woods when it occurred to me that I should keep an eye peeled for mushrooms. Sure enough, I found a single chanterelle under some salal beside an overgrown backwoods road, and I knew that where there was one there would be others. Before the day was done, we’d found several pounds of hedgehogs and several more chanterelles in the near vicinity of that first chanterelle. As far as I know, the three of us are the only ones who know about this spot, and I’m pretty sure our friend, who’s from Canada, could never find it again. As for my wife, she has no reason to return, because, in the fall, her husband regularly fetches home several pounds of the scrumptious creatures.

Pounds and pounds to saute and freeze....

Pounds and pounds to saute and freeze….

When I arrived at my secret spot this afternoon, I felt dubious about whether I’d find any mushrooms at all. It’s been an off year. We had 75 days of dry weather starting in August, taking us deep into fall without rain, which makes for terrible conditions for mushrooms, who need a good “spill” to “blossom” (which they can do overnight). When I went there two weeks earlier, I found a mere pound of chanterelles—and no hedgehogs. Typically, I find about four pounds, and maybe another two pounds later—a mix of the two species. And most of the mushrooms I found two weeks earlier were soggy. Some had white mold on their gills; these I threw away, not wanting to risk an accidental psychedelic journey.

I heard on the radio that it’s been a universally bad year for mushrooms in the Northwest and that restaurants are desperate for a supply in order to keep favorite menu items available to customers, a fact that points to just how popular wild mushrooms are and how obsessive the connoisseur can be about eating them. In fact, our friend Dave eats them as if his life depended on them. He believes that mushrooms have health-enhancing, life-extending powers, and now that he’s bought into that belief, there’s no stopping eating them now.

So, as I ducked into the woods this afternoon and up along a bank where the deer traverse and leave droppings in abundance, I didn’t expect to find any more mushrooms, at least not chanterelles. The alder leaves had already fallen and no doubt smothered those few mushrooms that never saw the light of day or had rotted those few that had. Yet, as I’d scrambled under and over and around rain-wet bushes and branches, wending my way along crisscrossing deer paths, I spotted that familiar orange color that stands out even against the yellow of fallen alder leaves. By the time I’d walked my usual route, I’d found another pound of chanterelles, many, again, gooey with rain and leaves. My hope is that the hedgehogs will make an appearance later in the month, once we have some colder, dryer nights.

Ah, the perfect hedgehog!

Ah, the perfect hedgehog!

As soon as I got home with my skimpy pickings, I poured the mushrooms out on a large cutting board. I used a knife tip and a dry brush to remove bits of leaf, spruce needles, peat, and sand. For the first time in my fall mushrooming career, I used the kitchen tap to clean some of the gooier mushrooms. They were so wet already that it didn’t matter. However, expert mushroomers prefer to dry-clean these—if not all—species of mushrooms. What’s great about finding only a few mushrooms is that it takes only about ten or fifteen minutes to clean them, whereas it might take an hour to clean four pounds.

Just enough mushrooms for scrambled eggs in the morning, I thought, as I placed the cleaned mushrooms in a new dry bag and then in the refrigerator for the next morning’s meal. Fry them up for scrambled eggs, make them the meaty heart of a thick soup, sauté them for either a white or red pasta sauce, or dice them fine to mix into rice. The flavor of both hedgehogs and chanterelles far exceeds that of the standard issue grocery store mushroom.

Just enough for scrambled eggs....

Just enough for scrambled eggs….

The sensation of finding, cleaning, stashing away in the refrigerator, or sautéing and freezing such valuable natural gifts as wild mushrooms is deeply satisfying. We don’t even need a license to pick wild mushrooms! But watch out about mushrooming on private property or even public property already staked out by possessive mushroomers. Stories abound about shotguns going off and a few pellets piercing the unsuspecting rear end of an overly enthusiastic fungus gatherer.

Will the real hedgehog please stand up?

Will the real hedgehog please rise?

Bats in the Roof of My Brain

The world is magic enough, without adding the supernatural, if only we’re observant enough to see the beauty, mystery, and meaning that we otherwise miss when we don’t look, which we rarely do, we’re so busy, so hurried and harried, so preoccupied. All the colors are contained by the world around us, all the patterns and shapes, and especially the stories. And ours aren’t the only stories, those of us humans. No, stories are unfolding all around us, with every bit as much drama, depth, and weight.

Bats, or maybe squirrels, or both, have taken over my roof. I hear them at night, coming and going, and particularly during the day, the late afternoon, when they become restless, prematurely hungry, or uncomfortable—crowded, perhaps. I’ve watched and listened closely enough that I know it was a flicker that helped the bats find their way into my roof. That one handsome fellow pecked at the joint where the fascia boards meet at the gable of the roof, till the joint grew into a hole.

Red-shafted Flicker, Master Penetrator

Red-shafted flicker, the master penetrator

Once a bat enters, the story begins. Once they make a roof a home, they return every year, meaning to enter that roof as they did the season before. One leads another into the dark insulated interior of the raftered roof till a family grows into a clan and a clan grows into a colony—and the colony becomes a cacophony by late afternoon as the young begin to get hungry and anxious to try their wings.

Little Brown Bats Owning a Rafter

Little brown bats, owning a rafter

Meanwhile, I sit at my usual spot at the end of the table nearest the kitchen, where I can keep an eye on the many other stories unfolding at the bird feeder beyond the window. The bats are getting restless, they’re scratching, creaking boards, skittering along between the insulation and rafters and sheet rock. I begin to wonder if they’re not bats but squirrels, the ones I see trying for hours to leap up, over, or down to the bird feeder housing, in order to eat freely of the abundant bird seed I so graciously provide for the small birds I love (I seem to pick and choose the creatures I’m willing to love) rather than scrounge about for a few microscopic crumbs of seeds fallen to the ground below. But how can bats make so much noise? How can they alter the shape of my house, which I assume they’re doing when they make whole rafters squeak and bang?

Bird Feeder in Housing

Bird feeder in housing

Last year I waited patiently till late October, till the time Orkin Pest Control told me I should wait, to haul the big ladder up out of the crawl space and lean it up here and there to fill the holes and crevices that might lead into the dark cozy depths of the roof—late October because, by that time, the bats will have made their great en masse journey back up into the mountain caves to hibernate for the winter. Any time before then and I might have sealed the young, the whole clan, up inside my roof so they’d die as in an Edgar Allen Poe story, after which I’d be plagued by guilt and ultimately reveal my crime, although I’d hate to admit that not only have bats been pissing and shitting up there over our heads but also dying and decomposing up there, I admit again, just above our heads. I don’t like the thought myself.

The Sneakiest of All Intruders: The Squirrel

The sneakiest of all intruders: the squirrel

Yet for all the careful work I did to the roof with the liquid spray foam I sprayed and the small boards I nailed, the bats have returned with a vengeance, and I wonder how they’ve gotten in. I can see that the one knot hole I filled with foam the swallows seem to have pecked open again, inviting the bats back in. And while my imagination may carry me away to think the squirrels have managed to take over the inner recesses of my roof, they may have at least reopened other crevices to the bats, knowing that the bats themselves will eventually open the way so the squirrels too can make themselves at home in my roof. There seems to be a plot, a conspiracy of bats, squirrels, swallows, and flickers, to blast open my roof for general occupancy, for indeed there’s plenty of room for all.

Barred Owl, Waiting for Her Chance

The barred owl, waiting for her chance

The fact is, I love all these beautiful creatures, but do they know my house from their house? To them my house is just a big tree or a slowly decomposing stump. Nothing on those roof tiles says Keep Out. There aren’t any No Trespassing signs—no booby traps, no iron walls, no guards with pikes standing by. My beloved creatures know nothing about property ownership or the money and work it takes to build a house and make repairs. Nor do they have any sense that their excretions are worthy of concern to us humans, not to mention the eerie noises they make like ghosts at night.

The Rabbit, More Interested in the Garden

The rabbit, more interested in the garden

Today, I caught myself tearing my hair out, as the ruckus up there got out of hand. I imagine young bats arguing with their parents about going out in the world, about trying their wings, about catching and eating mosquitoes firsthand, while their parents fight them back to their roosts. They scrapple and scratch, scuffle and bump and begin to distract me from my thoughts, from my precious writing time, and I imagine cutting a hole up there where I think they’re hiding and driving them out, patching the hole, then scrambling all over the roof, here in the month of July, and sealing it with concrete and the latest rocket-science epoxies. When I realize I’ve jumped to my feet, I have to talk myself out of lighting the house on fire and being done with the whole nerve-wracking mess.

The Coyote, Wanting Nothing to do with me

The coyote, wanting nothing to do with me

I remember a cartoon in which the main character is driven to blasting his house to pieces with a shotgun trying to shoot a fly that’s driving him nuts and distracting him from his favorite television show, until the house lies in ruins at his feet. Then I feel silly and console myself with the thought that late October’s only four months off and they’re only bats, after all, although I’m beginning to think they could be raccoons (or something bigger), and I sit down to write my evil thoughts and not-altogether-unjustified paranoias away. I begin to feel grateful for the story they provide me, a story that is inherently theirs as much as it is mine, and I start listening and hearing the plot line in the scratching. I decide I’d rather dwell in a work of realism than in a cartoon, so I simmer down and start talking to the kids upstairs and urge them to obey their parents. Freedom and full participation in the story is not long off.

Wrenzai in the Woods

The light is dying, the woods growing shadows, a few last birds feeding at the feeder or on the ground below, a few last scrappers willing to risk the terrifying beak of the low-flying, twilight merlin.

The house looms tall, with its chalet front and barn back, up on its four-foot foundation, dwarfing the willows and myrtles while paying homage to the alder and spruce. Many stars have swept over the house’s head, many seasons of birds fluttered by.

Night House

Night House

Wrenzai got it in his head he wanted to build a house. It was the next big adventure. His father joined him to frame it out and dry it in during the summer of 1997. Wrenzai feels grateful. By September 1999, Wrenzai had finished the house and called it done.

Wrenzai and his wife, with hand tools and determination, gradually snipped and clipped the woods back, making the distance greater for the mosquitoes and the moles.

A house is a demanding spouse, requiring new clothes and accessories. Or new jeans—so be it! Rough-hewn and weather-beaten, scrubbed by wind, rain, light, and brine and pierced by bugs, birds, bats, and raccoons, the upkeep is constant, but meaningful.

Raccoon: Inside or Outside?

Raccoon: Inside or Outside?

Pill Bug’s MissionWrenzai, for the first time, put down his own deep roots. It was in the cutting of the woods, the pouring of the concrete, the piecing together, board by board and nail by nail, of a sanctum sanctorum.

Wrenzai sits at the west end of the dining table with the kitchen behind him and the bird feeder out the window to the left, where over the years he’s observed dozens of species of birds feeding, seen others drawn happily to the commotion (though interested only in bugs and grubs), or turned to follow with his eyes those who merely sail by above.

Storms buffet walls and windows, thrash the willows and myrtles as they flail about like confused green waves, the woods a green sea of chaos.

Head of WindWhen the sun breaks through and lights and warms every recess of the woods and the flowers gleam with the storm’s last rain, there is no doubt this is Paradise, the kind of paradise that can only be experienced stepping out of a dark and raging storm into a halcyon bubble of bliss.

Red-shafted Flicker and Sunny Day

Red-shafted Flicker and Sunny Day

Wrenzai sits at the head of his table, overseeing the birds, clicking away at his keys, writing through sunshine and storm. Millions of words fly through his fingers into reams of digital pages, each word a tiny bird, carrying a tiny message. Some words fly off in tremendous flocks, carrying with them, he likes to think, messages of greater import.

Art of Breathing