Memories of Birds

I heard a flock of robins this morning, murmuring softly to each other in the silver maples and hackberries. A male cardinal, tucked into our arbor vitae, whistled his “what cheer” melody. They sang memories of my dear friend Cathy, who died one year ago today.

Cathy loved birds and, as I held her hand in the silence of a January evening, a flock of robins filled the trees outside her window at Our Lady of Peace hospice. She would have loved seeing the robins. Though she wasn’t conscious, she stirred when I described their rusty breasts, black heads and charcoal backs, and how they picked berries in the twilight.

I spun tales of steamy summer afternoons when we hiked the woods and fields of Eagan, just a small city at that time; of goldfinches collecting thistledown to line their cozy nests, rose-breasted grosbeaks flashing their lovely badges along the hiking trail, and tiny common yellowthroats calling “wichity-wichity”in the willow scrubs.

An American goldfinch spreads its wings in the bee balm patch.

An American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) spreads its wings to fly from the garden.

The birds continue to awaken beautiful memories. One night last November, when the “moon of freezing over” shone full and close, a great-horned owl hooted from a spruce in our front yard. I eased open a window to listen to its soothing call and remembered evening bike rides with Cathy in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  We rode wooded trails where barred owls with liquid black eyes watched us from tree limbs overhead, a hen turkey and her flock of fuzzy poults scurried about the path in front of us, and night herons croaked their calls at dusk.

Black-capped chickadees are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Perhaps it’s the tiny black-capped chickadee, Cathy’s favorite bird, that most often brings her to mind. One fine morning last spring after a night of thunderstorms, chickadees whistled to each other in my garden and the year’s first lily of the valley opened, covered in rain droplets. (She loved these flowers and tried to grow them for many years.) Cathy would have rejoiced in the antics of the chickadees, in the abundance of my lily of the valley garden, and in the beginning of a new day so fresh and lovely.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

January Thaw

The week’s mild air and slow, steady melt have given voice to the first cardinal songs and chickadee whistles. Robins also call softly throughout the neighborhood. It’s too early to look for bulbs and other new life in the garden, but there’s a lot happening under the snow. I’m excited about the thaw and had a peek at what goes on under the white blanket during the winter!

Where the snow melted away from the lower stalks of a climbing rose, I found bracket fungus growing on the remains of an old stalk that died several winters ago. I hesitated to cut it down (for fear of damaging the plant) and left it alone. Now, nature is returning it to the earth on its own schedule. The fungus, also known as shelf fungus, breaks down the main components in the dead wood and returns them to the soil.

Bracket or shelf fungus, with their striations, remind me of freshwater clam shells.

Bracket or shelf fungus, with their striations, remind me of freshwater clam shells.

I also found a few patches of bright green moss exposed by the melt. I think it is fire moss (Ceratodon purpureus), which remains green under the snow throughout winter. Like the fungus, it is an ancient plant that evolved more than 500 million years ago. The moss breaks down rock and other components that enrich the soil. Moss also helps prevent erosion by holding water and soil in place. Its fresh spring green is a beautiful contrast to winter’s formal black and white.

Fire moss stays moist and green under the snow. It builds soil and helps control erosion.

Fire moss stays moist and green under the snow. It builds soil and helps control erosion.

Both plants replenish the earth and prepare for spring growth. So, in a few months, as you enjoy the beauty of spring bulbs, budding trees and blossoming perennials, remember the lowly fungi and moss that return nutrients to the earth and restore soil to nourish the circle of life.

Living things like this mourning cloak and common milkweed, benefit from the hidden actions of fungi and moss under the snow.

Living things like this mourning cloak and common milkweed, benefit from the hidden actions of fungi and moss under the snow.