Monday, January 30, 2017

Needing a musical massage

I was driving home from Orlando listening to NPR but the news, as it often is of late, was too depressing. So I turned off the radio and switched on a music file from my phone.

Much better.

Before long I was being serenaded by one soothing song after another. Instead of hearing repeats of the same upsetting news stories I’d been listening to all morning, my playlist of favorite tunes filled the air. Like a musical massage, melodic messages of hope and encouragement began to untangle my mental knots.

I didn’t grow up in a musical family. Neither of my parents listened to music or played an instrument. Although I took guitar lessons for a while and briefly attempted to play cello in high school, I failed to achieve a level of competence on either instrument.

Nonetheless, I’ve always been drawn to songs. Every night during my teenage years, I’d stack three LPs on the turntable in my bedroom and drift off to sleep before the last track of the final record finished playing. It was during those formative years that my love of folk music, show tunes and musical satire took root. Like a seed in fertile ground, it grew with gusto.

Shortly after my first child was born, I began writing songs of my own. While uncomfortable singing in public, I was completely at ease sharing homegrown story-songs with my family. Music poured out of me during that tender period of sweet baby hugs and sticky toddler kisses.

Somewhere along the way, the kids grew up. New songs were written, but not nearly as many. More often than not my musical cravings were fulfilled by others. Troubadours like Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Bill Staines, Tom Rush, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Dundee, Chuck Suchy, Priscilla Herdman, Kate Wolf, Anne Hills, Carole King and so many others became the backdrop to my life. I listened to their heartfelt lyrics while working in the kitchen, driving in the car or working in the garden.

Pete Seeger at the Clearwater
Festival several years ago
During the ‘70s and ‘80s when we lived on Cape Cod, Ralph and I were regulars at First Encounter Coffeehouse, an intimate acoustical venue in Eastham, Mass. where local and national artists performed to a small but appreciative audience. Forty-three years later, First Encounter still remains a sought after venue for both listeners and performers and while I haven’t been back on the Cape for years, memories of those long-ago concerts remain an integral part of my musical background.

Since moving to the Sunshine State, Ralph and I have continued to attend live concerts whenever one of our favorite folksingers come to town. Most frequently, we go to the Third Saturday House Concerts sponsored by Lake Eustis Folk at Trout Lake Nature Center, but we’ve occasionally traveled to Orlando, St. Pete or Gainesville for a special concert if a performer we like is in the area.

Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette playing to an
appreciative crowd at Trout Lake Nature Center
It’s through these type of intimate, low key ‘house concerts’ that we’ve enjoyed the work of songwriters like John McCutcheon, David Roth, Carla Ulbrich, Mike Jurgensen, Dave Mallett, Amy Carol Webb and Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen. What a joy it has been to see these talented individuals in person and to leave the venue with their wonderful songs running through our minds.

It’s the need for soothing, uplifting music that brings me back to the playlist on my phone. As much as I’ve always been a supporter and loyal listener of National Public Radio, my need for sanity in an increasingly insane world finds me turning more and more often to songs instead of news stories.

“I’ll take the back roads home through the open countryside,” sings songwriter Kate Wolf as I travel back from the city along I-4, “Letting things slip by in drawn-out time. I’ll take the long way home on the back roads of this life. Taking time to see what goes by…”

I needed that. Thank you, Kate and Tom and Bill, Priscilla, Anne, Steve & Cindy, Pete and Arlo and all the rest of the acoustic songwriters whose music and melodies have given me so much over the years. As Kate Wolf continues so simply but elegantly, “Anyplace you’re bound, you’ll get there someday. You’re the one who chooses what to see along the way. And when the heartaches seem too much for you to bear, There’s a back road winding everywhere.”

Back Roads

Words and Music by Kate Wolf

I’ll take the back roads home through the open countryside

Letting things slip by in drawn-out time

I’ll take the long way home on the back roads of this life

Taking time to see what goes by

Coming and going, there’s no dividing line

What you’re headed for, someone left behind

And the shortest road ain’t always the best

Sometime let a back road take you home

A back road is so easy, it just rambles on and on

Take it or leave it as it rolls along

Drifts through things it cannot change, and doesn’t even try

Wouldn’t that be something for you and I


Anyplace you’re bound, you’ll get there someday

You’re the one who chooses what to see along the way

And when the heartaches seem too much for you to bear

There’s a back road winding everywhere


Saturday, January 28, 2017

A few shots from my morning row

I hadn't had a chance to go for a pre-sunrise morning row for several days but this morning I got up in time, the lake was calm and it wasn't too chilly so...

The sky just before I pushed my boat into the water

By the time I rowed down to the south end of the lake the sky had become a little brighter

Rowing back from 'Little Bare' into 'Big Bare Lake' with our house and the mulberry orchard to the west

By the time I reached the north end of the lake the sun was beginning to shine on the trees on the west side of the lake 

I stopped for a few minutes to look back at our house nestled among bamboos and trees

Watching the sun peek over the pines along eastern shoreline from my 'secret spot' along the northern shore

Another shot of the eastern shoreline

It is so much brighter on the western shoreline as the sun rises higher from the east

A slideshow of all the images taken during my morning row

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pelican, manatee and dolphins, oh my!

The other day, while Ralph was working on a landscaping project, I drove over to the Mary McLeod Bethune Beach Park, a six-acre strip of land and boardwalk along the Indian River where dolphins and manatees often congregate.

It was a chilly, windy Monday afternoon so few people were around. I zipped up my fuzzy vest, reached into the back seat for my camera only to realize I had forgotten to take it with me when I left the house.

Darn!  Oh, well.  At least I had my cell phone.  Not much of a zoom, but maybe I wouldn't need it.  I got out of the car and walked onto the boardwalk along the water.

Although the weather might have kept kayakers from paddling into the cove like they usually do, and probably was why fishermen weren't on the dock, it didn't prevent a pair of dolphins from frolicking in the brackish water or manatees from munching on sea veggies or pelicans from diving for a fresh caught meal.

With so much wildlife action taking place, I had to take a video. I picked up the phone and pressed record.  While I was filming, a brown pelican left its perch atop a piling, dove into the water and caught a fish.  It then tried to land in the water to eat its catch but...

Let's just say its choice of a landing spot wasn't exactly what the pelican expected.

Watch the video and let me know what you think happened.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Let the moon light the way...

I’m writing this column on the night of the full moon. If I look out the window or step into the open air, I can gaze upon the same glowing orb that people have been staring at for as long as human beings have existed on this planet.

Looking at the moon, whether it is completely full or a mere sliver, is one of many physical phenomena that unite us as a people. In a world that has become increasingly divisive, I find it helpful to remind myself of things we have in common.

We have the moon and stars, sunrises and sunsets. Snowflakes. Raindrops. Wind blowing through leaves. Trees. Flowers. Butterflies. Bees. Wildlife of all kinds on land, in the air or in the sea. Oceans and lakes and rivers and streams. Water — precious water — and the air that we breathe.

Regardless of differences in our political views, religious beliefs, age, race or sexual orientation, each one of us is a person sharing the same planet. Despite different degrees of education, contrasting financial status, the type of work we do or our lack of a job, we all look upward at the same sky.

Some of us are strong while others are weak. Some of us are in good health while others are ill. Some of us glide through life without care or woe while others suffer seemingly insurmountable physical and mental challenges. Yet, despite these many differences and struggles, the ground beneath us gives us all support. Each of us is the beneficiary of gravity, a force that forces us to maintain our balance.

The older I get, the more drawn I become to those elements of commonality that define us as a people. Sure, I get upset — very upset at times — by what I see and hear. I shudder at the loss of dignity, respect and honor in our culture, at the public acceptance of bullying, lies and greed. I worry about the future of our planet under the leadership of people who value personal profit over public safety and scientific fact.

Despite the direction our country — our world — seems headed, I am buoyed by the knowledge that I am not alone. Looking at the moon puts life in perspective. Doing so reminds me that I am one of many billion inhabitants of a world that has withstood catastrophic challenges. I like to think that, as a people, we have learned from our mistakes. I like to think those things that unite us — our humanity, our ability to love, care for others, hope and dream, our existence in the world of nature — ultimately will triumph over political agendas and private gain.

I look up at the night sky and feel the wonder of life on a planet populated by people who often forget their connection to the bigger picture. But our world is too precious to be forgotten. Our world is too important to disregard. Our world is too essential to take for granted. Just as moonlight illuminates darkness, each of us has the power to brighten the path of tomorrow.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Enjoying birds even if I don't know what kind of birds they are

Birds come, and birds go from our lakeside property.

When a specific species arrives, it might stay for several days, weeks or even months at a time. That’s been the pattern with a variety of herons, sandhill cranes, ospreys, eagles, belted kingfishers, pied-billed grebes and other avian species that frequent bodies of fresh water in Central Florida.

A pair of sandhill cranes have been seasonal regulars to our lakeside property

Lately, I’ve spotted a new “regular” trolling the shallow water and reeds along the shoreline in search of prey. With its white plumage and fairly large size, this most recent visitor has been easy to notice. What hasn’t been so easy, at least for an inexperienced birder like me, is to confidently identify exactly what species of waterbird I’ve been watching.

The bird's white plumage stands out but IDing this new visit hasn't been as obvious

My first thought was that I’d spied a great egret, a white-feathered, yellow-billed, three-foot tall beauty with long black legs and an almost five-foot wingspan. But I wasn’t sure. Although tall, the bird I kept seeing didn’t seem quite tall enough to be a great egret.

In addition to its slightly smaller stature, the bird I was watching didn’t have the right color bill or legs. Its bill was two-toned, neither completely black nor yellow and its stilt-like legs looked like they were greenish-yellow instead of black like a great egret.

Great egret in the sunlight

From time spent at the beach, I knew it wasn’t a snowy egret, another white-plumed wading bird found in our region of the state. Not only do snowy egrets have distinctively colored legs, feet and bills — black legs, black bills and bright yellow feet — they also gravitate more toward saltwater locations than freshwater habitats. I regularly see snowy egrets by the ocean and lagoons in New Smyrna Beach but, I’ve never seen one hunting in our lake during the 25 years we’ve lived in Groveland.

Snowy egrets are a common sight at the beach where they often hang out by fishermen in hope of gaining an easy meal 

Another white feathered bird I confidently eliminated was the cattle egret. Much smaller than the bird I was watching, a cattle egret is a terrestrial feeder inhabiting newly-mown fields, pastureland, roadsides and dry upland areas. In addition to not being a wading bird, cattle egrets also tend to travel in flocks, and this white-feathered visitor to our lake was traveling solo.

Cattle egrets are small white, land birds that congregate in pastureland, lawns and fields 

Because of its two-toned bill and light-colored legs, I disregarded the possibility that the lake’s newest resident was a reddish egret, which, like the snowy egret, has dark black legs and a matching bill. Although its name suggests otherwise, an immature reddish egret goes through a white-plumage stage. However, reddish egrets are primarily saltwater birds, not commonly found on small inland lakes.

Mature reddish egret

So what kind of bird have I been seeing? Feeling stumped, I sought out answers in reference books and online sites. My research led me to the surprising conclusion that the medium-sized white bird I’ve been observing is an immature little blue heron.

My latest avian visitor might well be an immature little blue heron

At slightly under three-feet tall with a 41-inch wingspan, an adult little blue heron has bluish-gray plumage with a red or purple toned head. However, during the first year of its life, immature birds go through a period when their feathers are completely white. Both adults and juvenile birds have greenish-yellow legs and two-toned bills. And, while they can be found frequenting saltwater locations, they are commonly seen in freshwater as well.

Mature little blue heron

When it comes to matters of plants and animals, I like to think of myself as an aware person. I try to pay attention to my surroundings and learn as much as I can about my wildlife companions. But, as much as I’ve learned over the years, I’m wise enough to know how much more there is to discover.

Birds may come, and birds may go from our little tucked away nature preserve, but the one aspect of country life that never changes is my fascination for all things wild, free and independent.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Sycamore tree: Love it or hate it?

It is already the second week in January, yet quite a few brown sycamore leaves remain stubbornly attached to branches. Don’t they know autumn is over?

It’s past time for the last lingering leathery, gutter-clogging leaves to let go. Detach. Release that grip and drift gently to the ground. All the other deciduous trees in our yard dropped foliage months ago. But not the sycamore tree. Sycamore trees are the ultimate hangers-on, steadfastly maintaining at least part of their leafy headdresses well into winter.

Still a few sycamore leaves remain even in the 2nd week of January

I don’t like sycamore trees, although I used to. I used to think these tall symmetrically-shaped shade trees were pretty. I suppose I still do as long as they’re in someone else’s front yard — just not in mine.

In addition to being delinquent leaf droppers, sycamore trees make messes in other ways too. The multi-colored bark I used to find so attractive doesn’t look nearly so nice when it peels off and falls to the ground. Neither are the copious amounts of brittle branches that break off more readily than those of any other tree I’ve ever encountered.

Brittle branches, peeling bark, thousands of seedpods and leaves that keep falling well into winter

And the seedpods! Oh, my goodness! For months, brown seedpods the size and shape of ping-pong balls fall to the ground only to become hidden beneath leaves. I wouldn’t mind these hard orbs so much if it didn’t hurt to step on them with bare feet, which I inevitably do whenever I’m outside in the yard.

Sycamore seedpods and the moon

I realize there are far more serious problems to concern myself with than the misplacement of a single tree in the landscape. But this is a problem for which I am completely responsible.

For years, I lobbied my husband Ralph to plant a sycamore tree in our yard. I told him how much I loved the tree’s symmetric shape, its towering height, multi-colored bark and dangling seed pods. I was so pleased when he finally agreed to plant one about 20 feet away from our house.

I knew if my green-thumbed spouse planted the tree, it would grow — and it did. One of a sycamore tree’s most appealing characteristics is its rapid growth rate, and the tree my sweet partner planted for me was no exception. It grew and grew and grew some more. Since its planting many years ago, the once-tiny sapling has become a mighty tree towering over the second story of our house and just about as wide as it is tall.

The sycamore tree by our house 

For the first few years, I was pleased. In springtime, flocks of cedar waxwings use the tree as a way station between gluttonous feasts at a nearby stand of mulberries. 

Too many cedar waxwings to count!

During daytime, songbirds scour its leaves for insects while at night, collared doves fall asleep on its slender branches.

Male bluebird in sycamore tree

Dove perched on a sycamore branch

As the tree’s girth increased, the sycamore attracted yellow-bellied sapsuckers, birds that methodically encircle the tree’s trunk with small holes to sip its syrupy insect-rich fluid.

These positive attributes made me happy.

But then leaves began to fall. Lots and lots of leaves.

Leaves on the walkways. Leaves in the garage. Leaves on the flowerbeds. Leaves on the yard. And most annoyingly, leaves in the gutters. The bigger the tree became, the more leaves it dropped. It soon became obvious that cleaning out the gutters was useless because more leaves keep falling well after other deciduous trees were bare.

Leaves, leaves and more leaves!

Of all the landscape mistakes I’ve made over the years — I’ve made many — planting a sycamore tree close to a house with gutters is near the top of the list. But my husband disagrees.

“I like it. It’s pretty,” he repeated again this morning as I, once again, tried to convince him to cut the tree down.

When you are married for a long time, you figure out which battles to pursue and which ones to let slide. My husband, who usually doesn’t express deep feelings for any plants other than those growing in his beloved vegetable garden, favors that sycamore with unwavering affection, and while I don’t have to agree with him, I do have to respect his opinion.

Ralph in his beloved vegetable garden

Life is all about compromise and finding the good in the bad. For now, I’ll try to make more of an effort to focus on the tree’s positive attributes and ignore its unpleasant ones. I may be responsible for the sycamore’s existence in our yard, but that doesn’t mean I have to be like the tree and let my mistake linger on long after others have been let go.

Nor do I have to clog up my mental gutter with frustration or annoyance. It’s time to get out the rake and clean up my act. Love it or hate it, the sycamore tree in our yard is here to stay.

Monday, January 2, 2017

One day after another

Although I never know exactly what to expect when I head out for a row, I always know I’ll encounter something special. On some mornings, I’m struck by a beautiful sunrise, a colorful cloud show or the rising mist over calm water. 

Calm water and serene sky shows await me in the early dawn hours

Other times, the sound of birdsongs fills me with joy. The plaintive call of an Eastern phoebe, the chattery voices of bluebirds or the crass caws of crows sounding the alarm to other birds that a human has invaded their space. 

I think of crows as guard dogs of the avian world, letting me know with their loud cawing when potential threats are present 

As I methodically stroke through clear water, I might catch a glimpse of a soft-shelled turtle swimming by or fish guarding its round sandy nest on the lake bottom. Once I looked over the edge of my boat and saw a young alligator, a surprising find in a lake in which gators are seldom seen.

Alligators lose their striped bodies as they mature  

Seeing unexpected wildlife is one of the things I like best about being in my boat in those in-between hours when it’s not quite light yet but neither is it still dark. 

A bobcat sitting by the lake lets me know he's had enough of being watched and photographed 

Some of my most memorable moments during those early morning rows include chancing upon a pair of great horned owls perched in a pine tree near the shoreline, a coyote strutting across a field before disappearing back into the woods and a bobcat sitting calmly by the water’s edge as if it too was enjoying the morning view.


From my rowboat, I’ve seen feral hogs nesting in muddy wallows, and bright colored cardinals trying to divert my attention from their own nests in bushy plants. 

I’ve sighted many belted kingfishers, osprey and the occasional bald eagle. 

I’ve observed sandhill cranes, common yellowthroats and palm warblers. Every now and then I notice a raccoon but more often I see their footprints in the soft sand where my boat is launched.

Footprints in the sand by my boat

A few days ago, I was taking yet another early morning row through the still water when I chanced upon a great blue heron, the largest heron in North America, with a six-foot wingspan. The heron was hunting in the shallow reed-filled water along the southern shoreline. It was very misty that morning and, although herons frequently visit our lake, I hadn’t seen one for several months and was not particularly anticipating its presence. The long-legged, grayish-blue-feathered bird probably wasn’t anticipating my presence either. I think we both surprised each other when my boat skimmed along through the mist only a few yards away from where it was hunting.

Hello welcome friend!

Fortunately, the heron stood its ground and I averted my eyes so I wouldn’t startle the bird any more than I already had. I’ve learned over time not to look directly at wildlife. Furtive glances are fine but blatant staring seems to incite nervousness in most wild animals that often leads to lost opportunities of prolonged observation.

With that in mind, I moved slowly, picked up my camera and began taking pictures. With my boat no longer in motion and my eyes looking into the camera instead of staring directly at the bird, the heron overcame its anxiety and continued its steady patrol through the shallow water in search of prey. 

With its long, sharp beak and strong mandibles, a great blue heron is an adept hunter that prey upon frogs, snakes, fish, lizards, moles and small birds. Adaptable to both freshwater and saltwater habitats, it often hunts alone although it tends to gather with others to roost in the evenings. 

"My, what a long beak you have"
"The better to catch me some fish!"

Although I didn’t see the heron catch anything during that morning, I have observed such moments in the past.

Great blue heron meets snake
Heron wins

This time, however, simply seeing an unexpected bird during my morning row was satisfaction enough. Small person in boat meets large bird in water. A fine way to begin yet another amazing day.