The Buzzards Are Back

Here’s another thing that’s sort of the same and sort of different between California and Michigan. The swallows come back to Capistrano about the same time the turkey buzzards come back to Ann Arbor.

The buzzards are better known for coming back to Hinckley, Ohio, which has a festival for them every year around March 15th. Hinckley is about 170 miles southeast of Ann Arbor, around the corner of Lake Erie, so you would think we’d get our buzzards about the same time. The Bird Count People would agree with you. When I count my buzzards in February, they’re dubious.

But there’s no mistaking buzzards – the cauldron-stirring flight pattern, the unfeathered red heads. They’re early, but they’re correct: the snow’s gone and it’s clean-up time. How did they know?

On Buzzard Sunday in Hinckley (March 18 this year) thousands of visitors welcome the buzzards back from winter break, but our birds here have beat the rush. I see from the Hinckley website that they will have hikes, skits, songs, stories, crafts, contests, and a pancake breakfast with sausage. I’m not sure I’d go for sausage on a holiday honoring vultures, though I guess that’s irrational. And according to The Ohio Traveler, a turkey buzzard’s digestive system kills any viruses and bacteria they ingest. Even their droppings, says Ohio Traveler, are disease-free. I hope some pharmaceutical companies are studying this.

As a sign of spring they aren’t exactly romantic, but they’re part of the pattern of renewal nonetheless. This is a poem I wrote about another vulture, the condor. California had condors, but the ones I saw were in Chile, where I spent many hours staring at the desert mountains to make some of the pictures you can see in my “Paintings” section.

The Condor

He is the grandee of birds,
like a sixteenth century gentleman of Spain,
white ruff around his neck,black wings spread wide
over the prey of the New World,
his head blood-red
but he does not blush,
full partner of creation,
his dark back patched
with a pattern of angels.


published in Cumberland Poetry Review

Snow Gardening

A nice big February snowstorm did roll in at last. Over the course of a few days it heaped and layered itself across the yard, stacked itself onto branches, mocked the cars, trucks, and buses trying to cruise around like they own the place, and wrapped

familiar objects in semi-disguise. Some features were emphasized and some obscured, recognizable, but surprizing.

The drag-footed deer trails made the backyard look like a freeway map

deer trails 2

tracks of deer, not people

drawn by cross-country skiers, and a new track ambled in among the others: possum, a neat line of single-file prints despite her waddle.

And now I have learned one more incredible feature of Michigan snow: you can plant native wildflower seed by throwing it directly onto the snow in February. Amazing, right? But these are seeds that need freeze-thaw cycles to settle them in, and enough cold weather to recognize the change when spring comes. I had tried a fussy process called cold stratification, involving baggies, wet sand, and a freezer, but frankly I have enough mysterious baggies in my freezer without adding Jacob’s Ladder and Milkweed.

Then I got an email from Prairie Moon Nursery with a picture of a woman in a big down coat flinging handfuls of seed onto a field of snow. Do this until March,

amusing deer trails

seeding site with amusing deer trails

it said. I had some packets of unstratified milkweed seed in hand, so out I went into the white, crunchy yard, where a cycle of thaw and freeze was expected to fill out the week. I didn’t have as much seed as the happy woman in the email, but it really was fun tossing it around like I was feeding imaginary chickens. In the imaginary barnyard. On the actual snow. I hope the neighbors weren’t watching.

I will let you know how this experiment turns out. I mean with the seeds, not with the neighbors.

January Thaw

Our nice layer of snow was completely destroyed by a patch of ridiculously warm weather bearing rain. What an outrage. The great consolation of winter is snow, its sparkle, its grace, the way it covers a multitude of discards and errors, its enormous blankness like a big, empty, brand new notebook. Dead grass showing through is an old draft. I want clean pages of deep snow, reflecting and magnifying the thin winter sunlight.

Because, come on, we know it’s not spring yet. Stop fooling around.

But this morning there’s a scrim of fresh snow on the ground, and cold enough to keep it there. I feel better. Seed catalogs have been sliding into my mailbox for weeks now, and as long as the snow’s on the ground all things are possible: tomatoes guaranteed to laugh at every blight, wilt, and virus known to man; pink marigolds, green zinnias, ruffled cosmos; long vines full of tiny jack-be-little pumpkins; roses safe from deer. The simple dreams of a gardener.

It’s easier to enjoy them, of course, while I sit on the warm side indoor winter gardenof the window, with my cup of cocoa and my indoor plants. The narcissus is about done and the amaryllis are starting. Geraniums, rosemary, and poinsettias are vacationing in their private tropical island, and will go home to the deck come May. But it’s that slice of snow you see in the middle distance that brings me a happy, settled sense that the world, despite all rumors to the contrary, is going on as it should.