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Magnetic North: What Are We Here For?

Buff Orpington
Buff Orpington

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MagneticNorth_20140830_WhatWeAreHereFor.mp311.83 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where change is not only in the air, but in the bird nests as well. My chickens and geese have finally called their summer vacations from laying eggs over. And am I ever glad!
 
Not only do I cheer over every huge goose egg and a nice clutch of chicken offerings daily, but my birds’ molt is done. For weeks the chickens and geese looked like they’d just gotten off a roller coaster - bare patches of skin, feathers askew, a punk look gone goth. Now, they look pretty again, and do they ever know it.
 
The Buff Orpingtons and shiny Black Australorps fairly parade around in the autumn sunlight inside their run. Vying for the attentions of Mr. Fancy, the huge grey/blue Cochin rooster, and suffering envious pecks from their dowdy stepsisters, the skinny, prolific egg laying, White Pearl Leghorns. Their muted clucks might well be translated as “Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful.”
 
The three gray and white African geese seem to want their kiddy pool water refreshed every day now. Those sleek new feathers simply cannot be allowed to gather any dust! Ziva, Ducky and Abby dip and dive for half an hour at a time several times a day. I watch them go under and torpedo each other, then stand up on the tips of their big orange feet and flap their huge wings. I could watch for hours. And I do.
 
But my domestic bird watching got cut way back early this month when I noticed the absence of two guinea hens, a black frizzle bantam rooster and three ducks from the flock. The culprit was a goshawk. I didn’t catch him in the act, but caught sight of the unmistakable 4-foot-wide wingspan as the bird sailed off over the trees on the west side of the meadow.
 
Thus, the chicken run stays shut. I go in every day to scatter leftover salad greens and scraps and fill their kiddy pool, but they want to go out on the soft green grass so badly. They are dying to scarf up all manner of bugs and buds and scritch-scratch wherever and whenever they please. And let’s not forget the chicken spas, those delightful little shady depressions in the bare earth where one or two lucky ones take dust baths.
 
Some would say, “Why deny them? Going out of the run is their decision.” Ah, but it is an uninformed decision, I shoot back. 
 
Meanwhile, the remaining guinea hens and banties stick close to the hay storage area of one garage where they have taken up occupancy. No doubt the fate of their brethren registered somewhere in their Cocoa Puff-size brains, for no longer do they venture forth down the driveway.
 
The other change hereabouts seems to be the universal cessation of visiting families. My daughter and grandkids came in late July and I played tour guide for a few days. We did the usual stuff, swimming, the Alpine slide at Lutsen and just hanging out while the kids played with chickens and rabbits and set up handmade targets for BB gun practice. As fast as the summer days passed in general, that handful of days with my little family flew the fastest. So fast, that within hours of their departure for home in L.A., I’d booked flights to visit them in September.
 
Aside from family, I remember the strangers encountered most vividly. 
 
There was the 60-something couple I spied beating the bushes down by the turnoff to Paradise Beach in mid-July. Both dressed to the nines in khaki from head to foot, they appeared to be searching for something. So I stopped my car and called to them, “Lost your dog?”
 
The man, bespectacled and carrying a notebook and camera, came up out of the wild rose and rangy dogwood underbrush first. Panting slightly, he immediately began telling me that he and his wife had just found no less than three wild orchids in that little patch of brush. She followed and nodded excitedly as he ticked off the varieties. 
 
“Well, well,” was all I could offer in reply, having never so much as looked into that triangle of brush on my way down the short turnoff to the lake shore. “I’ve lived here for 25 years and never knew there was such a find,” I said, somewhat sheepishly.
 
Asking if they were staying in the area and finding that they were, I decided to give them a tip that just might net them even more wildflower finds. If they could spare a day to travel to Isle Royale, I told them that they would not be sorry. 
 
And then I told them about the little used bog path from the highway to Paradise Beach. Paul and I often went there along and with guests to picnic and search for pretty stones, almost always having the beach all to ourselves for as far as the eye could see in either direction. 
 
But the real area of interest to my botanically minded new acquaintances would be, I guessed, the boardwalk winding through the bog between beach and road. It’s a spur of the Superior Hiking Trail. Muddy and buggy even in drought years, but worth the struggle. And for this couple, I figured they might never even reach the beach, yet have yet another thrilling expedition.
 
My secret beach, as Paul and I called it, is no secret now. I told a couple that was also watching their grandkids whoop it up on the Alpine Slide about the bog path. “Wear shoes that can get really muddy, take bug spray and a bucket for agates,” I said. “You’ll love it.” Their eyes fairly glowed with the “inside tip” they’d received.
 
Recalling these moments from summer brings to mind a snippet of a poem I came upon in a novel this spring. When I found it, I was in Yosemite National Park, oohing and ahhing over mountains and sequoia groves and feeling so very grateful to the people who saw to it that this wondrous place had been preserved for all the peoples of the world to enjoy.
 
Bearing camera, sketchpad and all to capture what I would see and experience, I was at a loss to know where to start. And found myself just simply staring about or taking dumb shots of the ubiquitous squirrels that haunted eateries begging for treats.. 
 
And then, tucked inside the novel, “The Painter,” this T.S. Eliot verse came to me. It goes like this:
 
                             “You are not here to verify/
                             instruct yourself or inform curiosity/
                             Or carry report. You are here to kneel/
                             where prayer has been valid.”
 
I was so taken by this that I used my drawing paper to copy the lines a few times, leaving the poetry on tables, or tucked into the crook of a tree branch around the park before I left. And I’ve passed it on to others now that I’ve gotten back to the North Shore.
 
I think of these words as I look long at my geese bathing and my chickens preening, or when I find eggs where just a week ago there were none, and remember strangers who might even now be recalling something wonderful in a place so special to me and to Paul.
 
There is such an urge for me, for us, to capture our treasured moments and people and things, to stash them away in photographs, poems, even radio commentaries. And that’s all good. Better though, perhaps is the simple act of seeing the grasshopper, or pumpkin blossom or centuries-old tree. Seeing and saying a silent thanks…even if kneeling is no longer in our skill set.
 

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