Before Red

     The cardinal has always been my favourite bird. We are able to converse a bit. I can mimic the song of the cardinal. Often, I can even fool them. Hearing their piercing cries outside in the mornings at the clothesline, I often sing back to them. Soon, a little blur of red can be seen darting overhead, coming closer and closer. Finally, seeing that it’s only me, he flies off in disgust.

     This morning, I saw an odd bird in the hydrangea bush while I was out on the deck eating my breakfast. It was tinged in red, with a bit of a tufted crest on its head, and sported a very bright orange beak. It beep-beeped at me and flew over the fence. My husband suggested it was a female cardinal, and I disagreed. I know what a female cardinal looks like, and that wasn’t it. After some discussion, I conceded that it could have been a partially mature female.

     Later in the morning, my husband called me out to the hydrangea bush and told me to look in the centre. There, perched on long yellow legs, a black-eyed, dark grey little fellow with the beginnings of a crest on its head, peeking out boldly at me as it fluffed its new feathers. A plump little handful of baby cardinal. “Bee-beep,” he suggested to me. Overhead, the mother flew fretfully from fence to roof to branch, her bee-beep much more filled with alarm than her mild offspring’s. The mother was a fully mature cardinal, full-crested and edged in scarlet. How did I get through a whole summer without knowing that my back yard has become Grand Central Cardinal Station for cardinals in all stages of development?

I settled nearby in my lounge chair, close to the hydrangea bush, where my little friend and I could regard one another. I read my book while he bee-beeped friom the snowy-blossomed bush and regarded me with his bright black eyes. I much liked the funny little line of his closed beak; it looked a bit like a sheepish smirk. Half an hour later, I was dozing off a bit, when there was a sudden whirring in the air in front of me. I opened my eyes and saw a mess of feathers in front of my face, and then it dropped. On my leg sat the baby cardinal, who blinked and beeped at me while his frantic mother circled above.

“Well, there you are, you silly,” I told him. “You know I can’t pet you, though. Your mother won’t feed you any more.”

“Bee-beep.”

He ruffled his wing feathers and shifted around a bit. We visited for a minute or two. Then, he lifted his wings and flew neatly back into the bush.

Before red, cardinals are the same bunch of grey feathers as any regular bird. But I’ve never had a regular bird find a roost on my leg and bee-beep his opinions to me before. I like to think he was out there in that bush, just waiting for me. 

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August Woods

The ditches are overflowing with chicory, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace. The sky has deepened, and the mountainous cloud formations are massive and snowy, tumbling across a panorama of pure blue. August, in all its glory. I headed out to the woods at noon, sunlight drenching the fields and clear breezes sweeping through the treetops.

The breezes followed me into the thick foliage of the forest, carrying with it a  confetti spatter of yellow and white moths. They danced before me, drunken and joyous, fluttering from flower to flower, staggering up into the air to flop around briefly before falling back into colour and pollen. Joining in their erratic dance, a quiet dismounting of tiny yellow leaves. An almost unseen, silent descent, a brief whir of yellow. The first exhale of autumn, almost imperceptibly breathed. Barely noticed, there all the same.

The fresh air has swept the mosquitoes and the deer flies off the trails, leaving in their place a massive chorus of crickets and cicadas and all things buzzing and shrill. Their thick droning came from all directions–up out of the long grasses and down from the thick canopy of leaves.

Green and gold, August has a colour scheme. Everything at the height of its growth, anything floral hidden behind masses of leaves and brush. The trails all crowded with long grasses, a thinning thread through the trees. Off in the distance, the cries of children, calling for one another through the trees. The creek lay green and calm beneath the bridge, the heavy branches overhead leaning forward, bending down. On its placid surface, the thready rippled footprints of water bugs, tiptoeing on the water.

In the thickets, the heavy foliage above completely blocked out the sun, giving an odd twilight feel to the forest. The church’s cobblestones of light were sporadic underfoot. The feathery firs stood in soft shadow. I walked up the hill to the tall pines, bathed in cool shade. Once I was up beside the creek again, full sunlight dispelled the shadows and edged everything green. The cicadas’ song swelled, bird calls pierced through it. The trail twisted back towards the bridge. Reluctantly, I followed its lines back over the creek and up the main road, to the mouth of the forest. The yellow and white moths hung back for an encore of their lopsided dance, and the cicadas sang me off. The last of the summer played out in the wind and golden light. The forest is building a threshold for autumn, drawing me back into the next lap of the cycle. August marks twelve months of my wanderings in woods.

The Sand Hills

I’ve called it “The Sand Hills” all my life. Its name, technically, is “Sand Hill Park.” I usually get there at least once every summer. Today, all six of us were there, with the addition of my nephew and the boyfriend of one of my daughters. We had to take two vehicles to get us all there.

The drive to the Sand Hills is about an hour long…a relaxing meander along winding highways past herds of  quiet cows in green fields, pastures dotted with golden rolls of newly mown hay, orchards already starting to yellow in their foliage, enormous farm gardens at the peak of harvest, and roadside stands where you can stop for sweet corn and leave your money in a jar. The lake road is especially lovely, the lip of the horizon misty and blank where the lake hovers just beneath it.

The wind turbines stand looming above the trees and fields, like odd giants, quietly surveying the activity that unfolds beneath them. Each has its own laneway, and we drove past several of them, craning our necks to look up at the massive propellers moving swiftly against the blue summer sky.

A permanent detour takes drivers away from the lake for a little stretch, past farms and fields and brush. Erosion has encroached on the highway, forcing vehicles onto the back roads. Every time I see that barrier across the highway, I wonder about the farms behind it, if people have been forced from their land and houses as the lake creeps closer and closer.

Inside the park, we parked in the shadow of the enormous dune, 450 feet of sand rising over the tree tops. Some of the kids began scrambling up it; the rest of us headed for the slightly less intimidating trail that led down to the beach. A gradual inclined climb takes beach-goers to the summit. There is a bench there, and you can pause to look down  across the panoramic view of Lake Erie on a perfect summer afternoon, the waves catching shards of sunlight in their crests, and the enormous blue sky, threaded with wisps and sweeps of cloud, meeting it at the horizon. The rest of the journey is a steep drop. Ankle-deep in sand, gravity pushes you down the path until you stand wobbly legged on the beach.

We used to go to the Sand Hills with the kids when they were small, and Grandpa would usually come along. We have pictures of him with one, two or three laughing grand-daughters hanging off his arms, in various degrees of elevation, going up the massive sand dune towards the beach.

Other pictures mark the years as the kids grew–many of them with one or two Austins, slathered in clay mud. Until recently, the beach stretched for miles in either direction, but collapsing cliffs and dunes have made beach wandering a dangerous proposition. The park owners have closed off the east stretch of the beach. This is the part of the beach where most of the clay baths were located–entire natural tubs of slippery grey mud that you could bask in for the best natural spa treatment of your life. Hunks of clay could be dragged out for clay sculptures later in the afternoon. We’ve missed that part of the adventure the last few summers.  Beach artists have turned to sand sculpture for their creative outlets, and the beach was littered with them today.

The swimming is perfect at the Sand Hills. Sand bars go out forever, and you have to work awfully hard to get anywhere near deep water. It was ideal for the seven-year-old in our party. We had some good waves today, a few of them catching us from behind and crashing over our heads. One especially tall one caught two of my daughters unawares, and I can still see their sputtering faces. Great fun!

The sun started casting late afternoon shadows, and it was time to face the hill. The climb back up to the parking area is brutal, and I cannot think of a more apt word to describe it. It remains the singular greatest challenge of my summers. I always let the others go ahead of me, because I cannot bear to think of them stuck behind me as I struggle up the steep pathway, the sand dragging at my feet like cement overshoes. The trick, I have found, is to not look up. The mountain is too tall, and the prospect of scaling it too daunting. It’s best to keep your eyes on the sand, slide your feet into the imprints of others who have struggled up before you, one at a time.  Pausing and turning around to survey the lake view at various points helps, too.  I made it up, as I always do, and not too far behind the others this time.

We always stop in Port Burwell for a perch dinner, and this time, there were eight of us. That’s a lot of perch, and we enjoyed it immensely (except for the seven-year-old, who ordered a grilled cheese).

We headed back home via the winding highway as thunderclouds gathered and rumbled above us, arriving home just in time to get the laundry off the line–and do another three loads of sandy towels.

God’s Mailbox

On the drive out to my woods, there’s this mailbox. It’s nothing fancy. Just a plain, slate-grey mailbox with some numbers on it, and a hinged door on the end, like any standard country mailbox.  It sits at the edge of the road attached to its pole,  in an attitude of waiting, through all seasons. Right now, it is surrounded by long grasses and the tall flowering weeds that wave around in the common August breezes. Cars fly past it, the dust sinks through the air and back onto the gravel road. Butterflies light on the chickory and Queen Anne’s Lace that congregate around it. Red-winged blackbirds chortle from the wires. The dew mists over the mailbox’s metal surface in the early mornings and then evaporates again. Sun rises, sun sets. Fireflies blink in the ditches along the road in the darkened summer hours. In autumn, leaves blow around the mailbox, catch against the pole and are swept off again in a current of heedless wind. The mailbox stands stoically through rainfalls and fogs. Then come the snows that fall and lay a sparkling blanket over the top of the mailbox, drift around the pole. Just a common mailbox among thousands of common country mailboxes, nothing that stands out. Except for one thing: it doesn’t belong to anyone. There is no laneway anywhere near the mailbox, nor does it look as though there ever has been. No house lurking by, occupied or otherwise. It’s just a lonely mailbox without a home.

What does it mean? We stop once in a while, if there are no cars behind us. We pull up to the mailbox, and open the hinged door, peer inside. Empty. Always.

The kids used to speculate that it was God’s mailbox. That maybe, we could write letters to the people we’d missed since they made their journeys outside of earth’s boundaries to a place where we couldn’t reach them any more. And, another maybe– that those people could then send letters back to us in return. Imagine… that gentle hand, the fingers cradling the precious envelopes, sliding them carefully into the mailbox, the fragrance of heaven still clinging to the paper..

I had another thought. On those days (so many of them, for me) when prayers cannot find form in the chaos of our muddled, frightened minds…the days when we can only find order on paper, with clutched pen and clenched teeth…we could scrawl out our messages, stuff our words into the empty, waiting confines of God’s mailbox. And maybe, lift the hinged doors of our own hearts, and find answers, in ribboned piles, in the comforting slant of familiar handwriting…handwriting we thought we’d forgotten. But never did.