The Secret Birder

living, traveling, reading & birding

November 14, 2017

Not just a Caterpillar

 

For the last few months we’ve been housing monarch caterpillars inside our home. We find them in our small butterfly garden out front – where the milkweed wildly blooms. We watch them grow and transform over time (two to three weeks), until a butterfly finally emerges from its chrysalis, unfolding it’s wings, drying them out until it’s ready to re-join nature.

The California Natives

Torrance, California, California Poppies, Butterfly Garden
California poppies, grown from seed.

After removing the front lawn, we planted several California natives: A Western Redbud tree (cercis occidentalis), yellow and orange Kangaroo paws (anigozanthos), Sea Lavender (limonium), Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima), Lion’s Tail (leonotis), sunflowers, California Poppies (from seed) and several milkweeds (asclepias curassavica) in scarlet, silky gold and “balloon”. Because we also wanted it to be a functional garden, there is lavender, parsley, oregano, basil, purple basil, fennel, te de  burro, lemon verbena, mint, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, a few hot peppers.

Within a few days, the butterflies began visiting.

Seeing monarchs swirl around was beautiful. A friend showed us how to find the eggs and caterpillars and how to care for them indoors. It was a fun project to share with my 5yr-old son (who also loves observing and releasing them), but over time, it’s been me who has become fascinated with their movements, patterns, and extreme body changes, following the development of each and every one (unfortunately not all make it, for different natural reasons.)

Butterfly garden in Torrance, CA
Our little butterfly garden in Torrance, CA

As I work on my next book project, I find myself relocating to the living room table everyday, close to the tall backyard window where we keep their little habitat. It’s become a source of mindful entertainment, relaxing, ever changing, and allowing me to gather my thoughts when looking at the dialogue on the screen gets tiresome.

Who knows what more will come of this experience, but so far, it’s incredibly rewarding.

 

Plant the natives, and they will come.

Monarch caterpillars in different sizes at home
Monarch caterpillars in different sizes
September 29, 2017

The Story Behind “Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin”

Green Lake, Wisconsin

Green Lake, a small city in rural Wisconsin
Ed and Sherry’s house

Late in the Fall of 2014, Ed was out on one of his daily walks, while I was working in the garden. The setting: Rural Wisconsin. I was probably weeding with my then 2 year old in tow, who was (most likely) eating tomatoes off the vines. When I saw Ed heading back, I met him halfway between our yard and the street to say Hello.

Our properties were the last two of a very quiet little cul-de-sac, in the immediate outskirts of downtown Green Lake. We each had an acre lot, and Ed’s garden was always immaculate and beautiful. There were seasonal flowers, a manicured green lawn, and a tall pole in the middle of the yard with flags that changed according to national holidays.

wildlife in rural Wisconsin
Nicolas follows a snapping turtle down the street

I was an avid gardener too, with a native Wisconsin landscape in our front yard and a fruitful 15’ x 20’ vegetable plot on the south side. Ed and I would often admire each other’s garden work, talk about new tools, yard problems/solutions, and about our endless encounter with backyard wildlife (deer, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkeys, migrating birds and the occasional snapping turtle passing through, on its way to the lake.)

wild turkeys in Green Lake, rural Wisconsin
Wild turkeys visit the backyard deck in their daily afternoon stroll

Ed Writes a Book for His Wisconsin Family

Ed was born and raised in Ripon, Wisconsin and now lived in Green Lake with his wife, Sherri. Both recently retired, they enjoyed life, traveled locally and took excellent care of their home. What surprised me about Ed was that at 76 (when we met) he drove a very stylish 2012 BMW 135i convertible (which he later changed to a decked out black Camaro), while Sherry drove a two-door Jeep Wrangler. Pretty hip retirees!

We, instead, were California and Italian transplants, having moved to rural Wisconsin because of C’s work. I found a job as director of the Green Lake Country Visitors Bureau, and Nicolas had just turned one. The three of us lived in our quiet rural community, surrounded by the freedom of nature and the wonder that only a country landscape can give (for Nicolas, who spent years 1 through 4 here, this was a truly priceless experience).

In one of our weekly talks Ed mentioned he had written a book for his family, and offered me a copy. Being an avid reader (and freelance editor and writer myself), I was very curios to read it. The booklet had lots of photos, personal recounts, and a lot of technical land transactions. In going through the chapters and looking at some of the photos, many more questions came up for me. Questions that likely required research, but that were answerable. Facts and information that a college-educated, west-coast, city-raised person like me, knew absolutely nothing about.

 

The Annotations Begin

manuscript about Rural Wisconsin life
The original manuscript

Though the story was not a novel, or had a solid plot, I related to many of its themes: His great grandparent’s immigrant story from Prussia to the Midwest (mine emigrated from Italy to Argentina, then my parents emigrated from Argentina to the U.S.); the fond memories of visiting our grandparents, Grandma’s home cooked meals (always memorable), the strange tools and artifacts we’d found at our grandfather’s workshops, etc. What’s more, the farm life Ed’s grandparents had (to sustain themselves financially and to produce enough meat and vegetables to feed their family) was in line with my own passion of having a sustainable vegetable garden that could nourish my own family.

At every turn of the page there was always more information I needed. I specifically remember reading a line that referenced the size of the land his grandparents lived on as insufficient: “…assuming the area taken up by the buildings was approximately ¾ of an acre (home, barn, tool shed, stalls) that left only four acres of tillable land, hardly enough to grow crops and provide grazing land to support the amount of income producing cattle a family this size (7) would have needed.” What? What did he mean four acres of tillable land were not enough to support a family?

 

The Proposal

Rural Wisconsin NewspapersI nudged Ed to turn this into a longer, more thorough book, and open it up to a larger audience. If we both continued with the research that was needed to fill in the gaps, I could help co-write it. I wanted to learn more about that time period, and Ed’s simple family story was the gateway, making those lives tangible, real. I was also certain there were people like me, who would be curious and receptive to this historical past, if only we had a chance to read something interesting without having to follow ten different Wikipedia links to get information, or dig up a four-hundred-page tome at the library and sift through the interesting parts (which honestly, would never happen).

Rural Wisconsin Newspapers
One of my favorite project days was reading newspapers from 1914-1917 at the Ripon Commonwealth Press

Ed’s grandparents could be both the main characters and the medium through which we could see the world and learn about a period of time that was long gone.

 

Valuable Rural Sources

By that point (because of my job at the visitor’s bureau), I was facilitating monthly meetings with twelve local historical societies (to promote Heritage Tourism, a valuable niche group within the tourism industry.) The more I got to know each Historical Society, and visit their museums and exhibits, the more I discovered about their areas, their people, their pasts and learned to appreciate their efforts to preserve each towns history (most historical societies in rural Wisconsin are run by very hard working volunteers).

vintage hats in rural Wisconsin
Markesan Historical Society Hat Collection

I came across hand-made dresses, beautiful hats, shoes, photographs, kitchen utensils, entertainment items and toys used during the 1800s. Each single piece, effortlessly transporting me back to that time period. Seeing these items (and touching them where allowed) let me visualize myself walking those streets, meeting those people, being part of that reality. Side note: the Green Lake Country area is rich with Native American artifacts too, beautiful and sad  memories of the Mascoutin, Winnebago, Ho-Chunk tribes that once lived there (just to name a few) along with the fur traders who visited their areas (fascinating characters.) We needed to share this information and the discoveries we were making along the way.

A New Book about Wisconsin Life

In what to Ed must have seemed like a never-ending journey (how long can you research your own family history without getting tired?) at some point we finally had a two-hundred page, solid manuscript that we liked, telling the story of Grandpa Charly through a series of vignettes, making sure that each piece had a historical context to be placed in and reliable sources we could depend on.

Book about small town charm
Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin – released October 2017

After many reviews, we sent it out to a few history buff friends who offered their time, uncensored insights and comments (thank you Genevieve, Bobbie and Gayle!) . The manuscript was well received and motivated us to keep going forward and finally put it in the magical hands of Amazon’s CreateSpace team. There is nothing more rewarding when after 3 years of hard work, you can articulate your concept to a stranger (like our book cover designer and our interior layout designer at CreateSpace) and see all those efforts come to life into something tangible.

This coming October, Stepping into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest will be available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle and local print on demand (for other countries).  We were lucky enough to have rural historian Jerry Apps (author of “Every Farm Tells a Story” and “Cold As Thunder”) positively review our book, allowing us to use his words on the back cover. The notion that Ed and I could collaborate and make it possible for one rural Wisconsin family from the 1800s come back to life, is an incredible, rewarding feeling. I hope Charly and Hulda (and Agnes – for whom I have developed a very fond memory) are somewhere up there, happy with what we’ve written and smiling right back at us.

Celebrating Christmas on the farm
Ed’s Aunt Agnes and Grandpa Charly.

 

May 17, 2017

Visiting Mom – Part 1

Picture of mom and me at the LA Zoo in May of 1979
Mom and me at the LA Zoo – May 1979

I’ve debated long and hard whether or not to post the following account, a snapshot of a one hour visit with my mom, but I wanted to put it out there and see where it lands. It is based on my personal experience, and how I saw and perceived those moments. I’ve changed the names of people I mention, and the recount is meant to enlighten and not disrespect anyone.

 

Visiting Mom on Christmas Day (Part 1) 

A one hour snapshot of what I saw, heard and felt.

“Come on Robert” says Sylvia, “it’s time to go and eat, lunch is ready.”

Robert is a tall black guy, with grey pants that rise above his waist. The remnants of who must have been an elegant man are visible in his posture. A smooth blue dress shirt neatly tucked in, and a pair of sturdy shoes complete his outfit. It’s hard to tell how old he is, 60? 70? His hair is short and kinky, with threads of white woven in here and there. His face is smooth, his lips pursed and his blue-eyed gaze lost somewhere else – in that distant world that Dementia and Alzheimer’s takes them to. He must have been quite a handsome man when he was younger.

Cynthia takes his hand and walks with him slowly, helping him shuffle down the hallway into the dining room. Cynthia is his aid for the day. She’s in her late 40s, early 50s – and looks tired, very tired, beaten down by minimum wage, long hours and an unforgiving job. Her eyes droop, her long black wavy hair is that of an aging woman, too tired, too poor, too busy to spend time getting it colored and styled.

This is not a job for the lighthearted, or for those seeking recognition. “Thank you’s” are hard to come by, if hardly ever heard.  The aids are here to do a job, a great one – a job the rest of us weren’t up to the task to do. When I started coming to this place, over five years now, I understood very quickly that it’s not just work to them. They have an enviable level of human compassion and patience that most of us will never know – qualities that many family members and friends never develop because there was never a need to.

Edie has already made it to the dining room. She quietly sits at her table, with her red Christmas sweater on, an always present scapular necklace and her long white hair, braided in the back to perfection. Her hands have started shaking now, making it hard to keep the food on her fork steady enough to make it up to her mouth. Eating on her own is one of the few independent functions she is still able to manage. She’s been wheelchair bound for a few months, a natural progression when we’ve lost our ability to walk steady, and when we know a fall of any kind could mean the end of our life (more on this on a later post). She still converses and understands people, and always asks me about my son when I stop by her table to say hello. Panic and anxiety attacks have taken the best of her soul and who she once was. Her mind is still there, but her body hasn’t followed. At seventy, she is dependent on everyone else for the simple everyday tasks we take for granted, from getting out of bed, to getting dressed, using the bathroom or brushing our teeth, and  getting back into bed after a long, slow day at the nursing home.

The dining room is colorful and lively, always decorated to welcome whatever festivity is next on the calendar. One by one the residents settle in and take their usual spots, as Sharon, the head nurse makes her rounds, leaving little pill cups at some of the tables for the mobile ones, or giving the medicine to others by scooping up some yogurt in a spoon, hiding the small pills inside, and feeding it to them. Edie takes her medicine cup, says thank you and smiles back at the only nurse in the facility – a strong Eastern European woman whose size and demeanor intimidates many, but who hides a knowledge of the elderly, and a level of compassion, that I’m secretly in awe of.

I’ve known Edie for over four years now. Who would have thought we’d meet here. Frank, her devoted husband, comes to see her after lunch every afternoon. I cross Frank in the dining room area when I visit my mom at lunchtime. As I’m leaving to take my mom and brush her teeth, Frank is coming to take Edie to her room for a nap, where he’ll read to her their mail, a book or magazines to keep her informed about the world outside. But today is Christmas Eve and “Frank won’t be coming” she says with a sigh, “he doesn’t like driving in the dark anymore – so he’s having dinner with some friends from Church.” I touch her shoulder, and smile, cringing inside for both of them and realizing at some point, this is what life comes to. I’m sad for Edie because no family member or close friend will share dinner with her on Christmas Eve; and for Frank, who probably wanted to be here with her and can’t because he didn’t feel safe to drive, too old and insecure to deal with taxis let alone take an Uber.

“Well, you know it’s raining quite a bit outside, and it’s pretty cold too so maybe it’s best that Frank isn’t out in this weather” I tell her, trying to make her (and myself) feel better with small talk. “As usual Edie, you look very nice. That red sweater is beautiful.” I speak in clichés, I know, but in my heart I want to her know I’m present right there with her, if only it’s for a few minutes.

Bill[1], a new resident, is sitting next to Edie at the table. He has these large beautiful blue eyes, and a great smile. Though he’s unshaven today, and looking a bit scruffy overall, his smile and the glow in his eyes tell me he’s ok and having a good day. He wears a red university sweatshirt and colorful Christmas pajama pants with bedtime slippers. I tell him it’s nice to see him again and gently squeeze his shoulder. I’m still sporting a huge smile because smiles are contagious, and I’ve just picked up on his, which makes me smile right back. Bill is in his late 70s, also suffering from Alzheimer’s, but in the initial stages it seems. His wife, who I met the first week Bill moved in, is at home, nearby. She took care of him for as long as she was physically able to, and then it became too much for her to handle. It happens to all of us. You think you can do it all, and you “do it all” for a very long time (in my case my father did it all, and I helped when visiting them or from far away as a “long distance care giver”), until you can’t do it anymore. And it’s not that you don’t want to. And it’s not that you are exhausted (because you are, and it doesn’t matter anymore), but it comes down to realizing the person you love can be cared for better and will be safer in place with amenities and comforts you don’t have at home. That the one you love can and will be cared for by someone who has training, who you can hopefully learn from too. And you make that heart-wrenching decision and don’t look back, because it hurts too much to recognize and accept your physical and emotional shortcomings.

Picture of mom and me holding hands in 2016.
Mom and me holding hands – 2016

The menu for tonight is enchiladas with black beans and white rice, and it looks delicious. My dad brings my mom in after a few walks around the building (since it’s raining outside, we take her for a walk all around the perimeter of the facility, which is shaped like a square and allows for endless walking – and ideal activity for certain stages of Dementia and Alzheimer’s when they start “wandering”). My dad tells her it’s time to sit down, and he slowly lowers her into her chair (it’s like handling dead weight, so you have to be sure where and how you’re going to sit your loved one). Once she’s safely in place, sitting all the way into the chair, with her back against the backrest, he then pushes her in towards the table, positioning her at an angle where it will be easier to feed her (he likes to sit to the right of her). It’s also imperative that there be nothing immediately in front of her that she could grab and that could distract her from eating or fall to the floor. It takes about an hour to feed my mom these days, as her food has to be cut or shredded into tiny pieces[2].

The dining room tables are covered with a thick protective plastic, à la 70s decor, showing a lively flowery yellow tablecloth underneath. Miss Gloria, an older African American woman, sits to the left of my mom, at the same table. Her eyes are always half open and she is slightly bent over and wheelchair bound, with a burgundy shall draped over her legs to keep her warm. Today she is wearing a burgundy sweater with little sparkles and two very ornate bracelets. Her nails are done in the color of lilac, most likely by CJ, one of the activities aids on site. Miss Gloria is always quiet, but if you talk to her, she will answer and is completely coherent. Her food comes pureed, and she is able to eat on her own, albeit very slowly too.

Edison is here today helping out too. He is 17 and works part time at the center after he gets out from school. The athletic son of one of the Jamaican coordinators, his manners, kindness and compassion amaze me for someone so young. “Can I offer you some wine, cider or juice tonight?” he says as he pours water into my mom’s glass. Edison is another person I’ve come to admire here. After he finishes getting drinks for everyone from the push cart, he will start feeding some of the residents whose family members aren’t present. Jesús walks in, always well kept in his impeccable crisp blue scrubs, bringing the remaining residents in from their bedrooms or the wanderers who refuse to settle down for lunch. Earlier I heard him peek into my mom’s room and tell her María – her roommate – “María, vamos ya, es hora de almorzar. Por qué no me acompaña y vamos juntos?” (María, let’s go, it’s time for lunch. Why don’t you accompany me so we can go together?).

Picture of María, wheelchair bound, watching traffic pass by outside.
María watching traffic go by outside.

A few minutes later, he wheels María into the dining room, setting her at the table next to my mom’s where three other residents have already arrived. A lady that is bed-bound who doesn’t move and needs to be fed, another woman who has recently arrived, and Clinton[3], a very astute and funny black man, will share the table.

María’s children or grandchildren are not here today either– but her bedside table beams bright with two elaborate flower arrangements that take the place of a too busy family member…

(To be continued in Part 2).

 

[1] Sadly, Bill passed away suddenly after being at the nursing home for just a few months.

[2] My favorite (funny) memory of Clinton is of one day when one of the staff members came by his table and said to María in Spanish “María coma” (María eat) to which Clinton replied in his deep voice “What, María is in a coma?”. 😊

January 17, 2017

That Log in the Path – a reflection

Last year I took a walk down this amazing man made path in a little “secret area” called Mitchell’s Glen in Green Lake County, WI. This glen was a place local Native Americans would visit in the summer (back in the 1800s and earlier), to reach a beautiful spring and plants that only grow in the unique micro-climate that establishes itself here.

Picture of a wooden path through the luscious green glen
Wooden Path at MG

On that morning walk, we came across the trunk of this large white oak that had fallen, probably days before, right across the boardwalk. I got to know the person who built this boardwalk really well (and consider him a true and treasured friend.) I’ve learned the care he brings to his work, and his respect for all things living or dead, so that others can walk along this path and experience the creek, the glen and this little sacred space in nature.

But that fallen tree trunk, that log in our path that very vivid spring day, seemed to symbolize so much more… like…

 

  • The strength in Nature
  • The cycle of life
  • The obstacles in our (life) paths
  • That maybe removing the large obstacles in our way can take more than 1 person
  • That we never know when it’s our time to fall/go – nature will have its way
  • That sometimes we can just walk right over some obstacles to get to our destination, but the obstacle will still be there when we look back
  • That nature can be incredible, forceful, beautiful, sad, and destructive all at once
  • That we should take pause in our own glen and take it all in, seeing both obstacles and beauty at once, for what they are and for what they may not be.

That log in our path turned out to be anything but a log.

 

December 20, 2016

A Walk in the Botanical Gardens (Palos Verdes)

These amazing colors were on display last week at the botanical gardens in Palos Verdes. Looking at that space (located within the Rose garden) I felt the only thing missing was me, my Argentine mate (con yerba mate) and a May Sarton book. #everythingisbetterinnature #solitude #solitudine #botanicalgardensrule #botanicalgardens #parraotoño