Nesting Season

When you’ve been married as long as I have, there is a tone of voice your spouse occasionally uses that you know means trouble long before sentences are exchanged or completed. When you hear its decreased volume and subtle waiver, your heart races and attention pinpoints while you wait to hear the subject of whatever potential emergency that is about to redirect your day. In the 25 years I’ve been married to my husband Brett, this voice has announced rebounding cancer, car crashes, broken collar bones, lost contracts, and any number of other calamities that thread their way through a physical life.

Most recently, alarming phone calls involve the daily crises that are associated with running a restaurant alongside my oldest son and husband. In the past, I frequently heard the hushed voices of partners calling about laboring mamas, working as a midwife. These were happy calls, but always required nimble thinking and revised plans.

Today, I don’t like this voice. At about 8 AM on May 18, 2017, my beloved telephones when I know he is supposed to be returning from taking our daughter to work in Oak Glen. When I answer, he calls me “Jessica” instead of my nickname and begins to talk in this tone of dread. I demand that he spit out the bad news loudly enough, that my son Ashton overhears and immediately comes to my room to help.

The morning is supposed to be unfolding with scheduled precision, as my teen’s charter school representative is coming to facilitate this year’s standardized tests. The house is company tidy and my home-made breakfast and lunch are both warm on the stove to ensure our day is smooth and hospitable for the kids and teacher taking her time to help out my homeschoolers. In my bathroom, where I’d answered the phone, my hair is half curled, but I am right on track to make everyone’s day seamless and productive. Our conversation is about to change this day and all the days that follow.

With Ashton commanding me to “please stop freaking out”, time slows while I listen to Brett and realize that his tone is not because of some nauseating catastrophe. Instead, his muted volume is actually because he is holding a taloned beast that, if completely healthy, could scalp him. He says “Honey, I found a juvenile Red-Tailed hawk on my way home from dropping off Alexis. It doesn’t seem hurt, but it’s weak and needs help.” I tell him to hold tight and get off the phone swiftly, making Ashton swear not to tell his raptor loving, sister Audree until I make some calls to figure out what in the world to do.

I call Fish and Wildlife but can only leave a message at this early hour and also call the teacher that’s on her way, to beg forgiveness for needing to reschedule. In the ten minutes that follow, I struggle to figure out the legal next step to find care for the bird. They are a highly protected species with both federal and state laws ensuring their safety and protection. You can’t just take home a hawk and turn it into an exotic pet for good reason.

While I wait for returned phone calls, I beckon Audree into my room and tell her that dad found a young hawk that seems to have left its nest too soon. I attempt to quickly finish my half-done locks, with hands shaking, while Audree races around grabbing supplies. She finds some gloves and packs a helmet. Yes, her adrenaline-fueled mind thinks that we might climb a tree and put the bird back with its mom. The helmet will protect us while we invade her territory. I didn’t know this detail until much later and it still cracks me up every time I envision the story she had to play out in her head to think up these details.

While we hustle around, BRETT LOSES THE BIRD. Now I’d already told the girl, and wheels are turning in a new direction, far away from the seamless agenda I had once awoken to direct. When he tells Audree the bird has hopped out of reach, I snatch the phone from her and say, “You go get that damn bird!”

I decide that since I haven’t heard from Fish and Wildlife and we have no idea if Brett will even be able to get to the hawk again, that the most logical thing to do is tell the teacher to go ahead and come, though my heart (and now Audree’s) is still with the bird. The very second I hang up from organizing the day’s second change of plans, Brett rings and says he has the bird safely captured and to “HURRY UP”. Ughhhh!

Audree and I decide to leave Ashton for the standardized testing and take off, figuring out the right plan on our way. Now Mrs. Bennett will know rather than wonder if we are crazy as she passes us driving up the street to our house. Audree and I rush up the hill, hoping for the phone to ring, listening to Sia sing Angel By The Wings… because, why shouldn’t you give your wacky life the proper background music? The chorus says, “You can, you can do anything, anything…You can do anything” over and over. I have no idea how much I’ll need this mantra in just a few minutes.

My family and I haven’t always been enthralled with raptors. Nature, yes. Animals, for sure. We’ve trudged through muddy rain forests, blanketed with insects to see Capuchin monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica, and had close encounters with gentle-eyed, giant bison and tiny foxes in Yellowstone. I adore hummingbirds and would rather spend the night sitting with the kids watching and hand feeding them, than at a 5-star hotel. We’ve discovered that we need nature as fuel and have had so many awe-inspiring, hilarious, and dangerous moments enjoying the innumerable wonders that exist on our planet.

It wasn’t until we moved to our home in Beaumont that hawks and other raptors captured our fascination. Very soon, after settling into our new residence, I realized that a mating pair of Red-Tailed hawks nest in the electrical pole directly across from our backyard. With almost no effort, we could watch them hunt, mate, and raise their young each year. It is really like having a National Geographic documentary happening right outside every day. Once we started watching, we noticed them everywhere. They are on freeway light posts no matter where you go in this country, and often swoop in front of our (and anyone’s) car, showing off their impressive skills. The more we watched, the more they seemed to be showing up all the time. And because I always look for life messages in nature, I thought they might have something essential to share.

Red-tailed Hawks are large raptors with broad, rounded wings and a wide, short tail; Buteo jamaicensis to be more scientific. They use invisible air currents to travel and hunt by soaring and hovering over their prey. Once they are aligned with the natural flow in the sky, they can travel at incredible speeds with very little effort.

This example of surrender to external circumstances to progress at the greatest possible pace became an imperative message for my daily life. As I enjoyed them coming incredibly close to the yard or noticed them circling, and soaring overhead while we hiked or enjoyed a day outside, it seemed like they were constantly reminding me that resistance and worry are useless and even counterproductive. On a particularly challenging day, I would send out some hawk vibes and they would appear almost magically, swooping and swirling above, giving their bird sermon on surrender when I needed it most.

One summer, the Hawks showed me a lesson about what to do with fear. I guess this could be called chapter two in the Hawk Instructional Manual for Humans. This fourth of July, I was totally dressed and ready to leave for work at our restaurant when my oldest son Andrew, the chef there, called and said I didn’t need to come in. Fourth of July is a BBQ holiday and people don’t really come out to malls so it was an especially quiet day at N7 Creamery. I firmly resisted his suggestion because I really like to show up when I’ve said I’ll be somewhere, but he said he’d lock me out if I tried to come to work. He can be bossy like that. When I finished our conversation, I went to sit on my balcony and rethink my day’s plan.

Outside, I noticed that this year’s three Red-Tail juveniles were perched on some identical, track home chimneys just across the golf course fairway. We’d been watching them, enthralled with their rapid development for several weeks, and noticed that they could really hop and glide with style now. Although, what they’d been doing certainly couldn’t be called flying yet. I wondered how they had gotten down here, so far from the nest, and wondered how in the world they would get back, given the lack of skills I’d observed just the day before.

As I watched and worried a little (like there was anything I could do to help), a huge raven started dive-bombing the babies. Within seconds, their mother came out of nowhere to save the day. She flew, barreling with feet tucked, torpedo style toward the raven at top speed. Mrs. Raven decided it was best to take her leave but moved toward the fledgling instead of away, to avoid a collision with the angry hawk mama. Just before the juvenile was toppled off the chimney by the raven, it lifted up, caught the air stream its mother was in and SOARED right alongside her. Its two siblings immediately followed as I watched their first real flying and hunting lesson. Observing the whole scene was extraordinary, especially since I would have been in the car driving had Andrew not called to say I wasn’t needed at work just minutes earlier.

Upon reflection, I realized that this hawk and its nestmates had taken flight for this first time as the result of getting into a pickle, plus a generous measure of fear. And isn’t that how life often goes? Difficulties, discomfort, or fear are often the impetus for us to make a great leap into something new. And when we are willing to just make the smallest shift forward, afraid or not, we are soaring.

Brett and Audree really caught the raptor bug with me and eventually, we got to visit a place in San Diego called Sky Falconry where we could free-fly Harris’s hawks with seasoned falconers. Harris’s Hawks, Parabuteo unicinctus, were named by John James Audubon, the most famous nineteenth-century ornithologist, after his friend and fellow naturalist Edward Harris. Called wolves of the air, they are often seen in groups of three or more, perching on cactus and hunting collaboratively, rather than the more solitary behavior of most other raptors. Their relatively calm nature and pack behavior make them wonderful falconry birds. They are absolutely stunning animals, who seem to have so much going on in their raptor brains behind their warm, chocolate eyes.

During our first visit, it made a great impression on us that these birds choose to stay with the humans they hunt with. They retain all of their wild instincts and abilities but decide that the falconer is a good hunting partner and come back to live in the mutually beneficial relationship. Audree solidified her previous notion that she wanted to start to study falconry and raptor rehabilitation after our visit. She sees that close encounters with animals can have a great impact on how people think about nature and chose to behave on this spectacular planet and starts to dream about carrying on our family lineage of working with animals directly instead of just being an enthralled observer. Since I can turn nearly anything into a homeschool learning opportunity, I immediately started putting together a course for her to get high school credit studying something she loves. We order books and make hundreds of flashcards to begin learning the facts and laws… all things raptor.

The day before Brett found the juvenile Red-Tail on the ground, while Audree and I were working on school, we heard tiny squawks coming from the electrical pole across from our house that can only mean one thing! This year’s eyas had hatched and were telling their parents they were hungry. We jumped in the car to get a closer look. At the nest, we could see at least two, if not three eyas bouncing around and making an incredible racket. We sat and watched as their parents delivered a meal and they struggled to get the biggest bite for themselves.

Several times, they got very close to the edge of their enormous nest, looking like they might fall out. Audree laughed and said, “Hey hawk babies… If you tumble out of there, I know some people who would love to take you home and take care of you”. She knew this was not only illegal but that we also had very little idea of how to care for a young hawk. We laughed and dreamt of how cool it would be someday when we had the right contacts for training and licensure to make something like that possible. We had no notion that someday would turn into tomorrow!

Driving up the familiar, twisty road to Oak Glen, we both think that we are just going to go sit with Brett and the hawk until the proper authorities arrive to take the juvenile to a rehabilitation center. Even though we had flown the hawks at Sky Falconry, we had never touched a hawk before since they sit on your arm covered by a thick glove. This was going to be a huge honor to participate in getting this bird to the right people to care for it and just flipping awesome to be so close to an animal that we are so captivated by. When we arrive, we wrap the bird in a jacket and start trying to make phone calls again to figure out what to do.

Licensed rehabilitators are very careful handling the animals they work with. Different than education and falconry birds, who benefit from having a rapport with their handlers, rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild. In fact they are still considered wildlife by the state. This is why it is essential that they not become habituated to humans in any way while we help them. So let me make a little disclaimer about these pictures. I LOVE THEM! Audree’s dream was coming true before our eyes. She wasn’t a rehabilitator yet though! This kind of contact is not appropriate in a rehab setting. We just didn’t know that yet.

It is absolutely surreal to observe all of us handling this bird with some degree of confidence even though we’d never done anything like this before. I find that there is always a measure of grace in extraordinary situations like this that give us the ability to do things we never knew we could. Adrenaline doesn’t hurt either. The hawk is an absolutely dazzling animal. The baby down that still remains on her head is incredibly soft and her taloned feet are much more supple than one might expect and toasty.

She smells like warm leaves in the summer sunshine, looking us right in the eye as if to thank us for helping her. She isn’t in shock or frozen from her natural fear of humans. I’ve seen plenty of animals with that paralyzed deer in the headlights look. She is inspecting us just like we are her, and none of us are afraid.

Brett finally has some success at getting Fish and Wildlife on the phone and they provide the name of the local raptor rehabilitator who happens to be just up the street. When he rings her, he is disappointed to learn that she doesn’t have space for another rescue because it’s nesting season and she is already full. There is no room in the inn. As he gets off the phone, he mentions that Audree and I are working on our falconry license and, though he doesn’t want to impose, that we might offer our help to her if it would allow her to work with this bird. He also shares that my dad is a veterinarian and that I’d worked as a midwife so we have some grit and minimal skills to offer. She says she doesn’t usually invite people to her house, but that we should buzz up the road and meet with her so that she could asses the hawk’s condition.

The equipment that Audree didn’t think of when she was packing her bike helmet, was a box! The hawk is weak so it’s easy to get Audree seat belted in, with the bird secured in her lap, but this is nowhere near ideal. Thank God we only had a few miles to travel to the rehabilitator’s farm. With this most precious cargo in the back seat, I gently pull out onto the narrow, winding highway.

When we arrive at our destination, we make quick introductions and get straight to checking out the bird with the rehabilitator Kandie. She handles the bird with grace and ease that really impresses Audree and me. Audree thinks, “Someday I want to be able to do that. What an amazing lady”! The hawk’s keel (a ridge along the breastbone of raptors to which the flight muscles attach) is poking way out, indicating that it has been a long time since she’s had a meal. Other than this, she has no injuries or broken feathers and seems to be healthy. She is just starving.

It is common during nesting season, to find raptors who just accidentally leave the nest a little early. If they can’t quite fly, they can’t get back to their parents where the food is served up all day. In some cases, the parents will continue to feed them on the ground but it is clear that had not been the case for this girl. We wrap her back up in the jacket that we’d brought her in and start a long chat with Kandie to decide what to do. She shows us a barn owl and some great horned owls that she is working with and we realize that her granddaughter-in-law is a good friend and even someone I had done births with. The threads of connection between us seem divine rather than just “small world” coincidences.

After much discussion, Kandie asks if we would like to learn to rehabilitate this bird under her license and start working to become rehabilitators. This is a two-year process that can only work when an individual finds someone to proctor them. We had every intention of starting this journey at some point and had already started researching who might help us while simultaneously studying for the falconry exam. Now, with no effort of our own, someone was offering to be our mentor. Wasn’t my biggest hawk lesson that when you surrender and align to the natural flow, the greatest possible progress can be achieved? As Kandie talks about how we might go forward together, Audree reaches behind me and squeezes my hand HARD, saying “Holy crap mom. I can’t believe this is happening right now”, in mother-daughter sign language.

Kandie gets us all loaded up with supplies and food. She provides us giant, stainless-steel tweezers, gavage tubes, netting, electrolytes, potty pads, and a box to get the hawk home in. We seat belt the bird into the back seat next to Audree and travel home totally stunned and soooo nervous, but ecstatic. I say my silent prayers that I will be adequately equipped to support both my girl and this bird in this unexpected miracle.

When we get back to casa Bingaman, Ashton and Mrs. Bennett are expecting some super cool pictures and a great story, not a box with a bird inside! What a nutty life. Audree eats the beans and rice that I’d prepared for the day I thought we’d have and does as much testing as she can squeeze in while I figure out how to get the bird settled.

The first thing I do, as directed by our new mentor, is give the hawk some electrolytes with a little glucose syrup added. Just like it’s too hard on the human body to feed a child a steak first thing after they’ve had the flu, animal’s bodies also need fluids and a tiny bit of energy before they can start digesting food. Using a special tube, we can deposit the fluids right into the bird’s crop and avoid getting them in or around her airway. Practicing neonatal resuscitation and tubing babies helped prepare me with some skills to do this pretty easily. I just have to add a healthy dose of courage and get on with it.

The next thing I need courage for is cutting up the meat that we will offer later in the day. I want to get as much done as possible while Audree finishes testing so that we can get to helping this bird with four hands instead of two ASAP. Let me preface what I’m about to write by saying that I don’t label myself as girly or wimpy. I love nail polish, and fashion, and bubble baths, but if there is a nasty job to take care of, I just go after it. I have gone to the bathroom in cockroach-infested huts in Africa, cleaned milky coffee sludge out of the drain of my restaurant, and been barfed on and sprayed with amniotic fluid more times than I can begin to count. I don’t gross out easily.

This is why I am so very humbled when I find myself retching over a half-cut up rat on an old cutting board at my laundry room sink. The smell, the sounds, and the newness of it all of take me DOWN. I pray my silent students can’t hear my travail in the next room. I hope that I will learn to prepare the hawk’s food quicker and that I will eventually grow desensitized to it. Audree and I will definitely have to take shifts on this particular task. Wow.

The house is still while the kids finish up and the intensity of what has just occurred finally catches up with me. I look at this massive, pitiful bird peering at me from its box and feel all of the pressure of keeping it alive. This coupled with the idea that Audree’s very first rehab experience should be positive, hits like a ton of bricks.

What in the world have I gotten myself into? My brain races in every direction to see if there is a way out of the responsibility. I question whether I have taken my love for these birds and my desire to help my kids follow their dreams one step way too far. It’s so hard to know when things just fall into your lap if they are an incredible gift of grace, or an opportunity to exercise clear thinking and self-control. But here we are. I say my silent prayers for guidance and give thanks for the fact that there is a HAWK IN MY HOUSE.

After more fluids and getting an indoor rehab space prepared, we get this hawk that Audree decides to call Finnick into a safe spot for the night. *I feel it necessary to add a little side note here for my reader – Many if not most rehabilitators band or tag animals they work with to keep track of them instead of naming them. There is much controversy around whether a name creates an attachment for the rehabber or makes us more apt to anthropomorphize. I will remind you here and maybe many other times throughout this work that I am telling the tales of brand new, baby rehabilitators. What I share is in no way intended to be the definitive guide on wildlife care. This season our animals got names. In the future, many will not. If you are a scientist or involved in wildlife management in some capacity, I encourage you to enjoy the optimism and naivety of some very new individuals finding their way in your world rather than critiquing anywhere you think we went wrong. All experts start as novices.  

Right before bed, we offer a few small bites of the cut-up rat. The hawk doesn’t have the strength to bite them off the tongs yet, so we wrap her gently but firmly, like a giant bird burrito, and pull her mouth open, depositing the food inside. She gulps them down into her crop and then perches when we let her go. We find her in exactly the same place when we check on her later. It looks like she is using all of her energy to digest the food.

In the morning, we start off with more fluids which she opens her mouth for and drinks down herself. After a bit, we try some more rat and she takes it easily off the tongs. Now that she has the tiniest amount of energy, she is hungry! As Audree feeds her, she squeaks between bites like she is saying “more”. We haven’t heard her vocalize yet so this little peep is the sweetest sound to hear. The iconic eagle and hawk sound in every commercial and movie EVERYWHERE is the screeching call of a Red-Tail, but we’ve never heard these quieter communications.

We also find lots of mutes (poop) in the space where we have her. It looks like a normal color and volume so this means that the food we are offering is getting digested. We just bubble with joy that she has made it through the night and all signs seem to be reassuring. This all just might work out.

Throughout this second day with us, we continue to offer Finnick food every few hours and bring a water pan out to her in case she wants to drink or bathe. Hawks don’t require extra water in nature since they get much of their necessary fluids straight from the prey they ingest. They enjoy bathing and drinking though, and look as silly when they take a dip, as they do majestic when they fly.

We see her preen a little and perch with one foot tucked up into her downy abdomen. These are both such reassuring signs that she is doing well since one of the first things a sick bird stops doing is preening. Perching on one foot is a sign of relaxation and contentment. We feel that since she is eating heartily and exhibiting signs of wellness and relaxation, maybe we can take a couple of enormous, deep breaths. Even the dreaded rat preparation is getting a tiny bit easier once Kandie explains how to remove the intestinal tract whole which really helps the smell. The next important step is getting her into an outside enclosure.

Finnick spends one more day inside the space Brett prepared in the garage while he and Audree build a mew (hawk enclosure). We still haven’t seen a pellet, but there is so much mute that we have to clean her indoor space twice a day. When the new structure is finally ready, it feels great to get her outside. When we release her in the mew, she runs the perimeter, checking out her boundaries.

We also see her drink from the water pan so it seems safe to stop the fluids now. We continue to feed her the cut-up rat three times a day and she eats until her crop looks like it will burst. She is already plumping up a tiny bit and it’s only her third day with us. It seems like she is coming around really fast.

On Monday, day four, the weather is incredibly hot. Audree and I sit outside most of the day to watch her, partly because she is so magnificent and partly because as beginners, we are a bunch of nervous control freaks. As the day heats up, Finnick starts to pant. At first, I reason that it is just because of the balmy temperature but as it continues, I start to fret since this is also a sure sign of stress in raptors.

I text back and forth with Kandie for more information (It’s a good thing that we don’t have to pay per character!), but she can’t be sure that it’s not a distressing sign either.  I feel panicked that after we have come this far, things might be going badly all of a sudden. I’m having the most intense “What have I gotten myself into?” doubts again. I am certain that if Audree rehabilitates birds for any length of time, that some of them will not live. They will come to us for every variety of reasons, and some will just not pull through. But not THIS bird, and not her very first experience. She is a mature kid who can handle pretty much anything life deals out, but I want so badly for this to go well for her. Plus, I have let this bird have my heart. I know it’s not very scientific of me, but I have, come what may.

I have already tried misting Finnick with water but when Kandie brings it up again, I wonder if I got her wet enough the times I tried before. I change spray bottles and really douse her this time. She snatches water in her beak and swallows while I spray her, squeaking happily. She also stops the panting the very second her head is soaked. I laugh wishing I would have tried that three hours ago. She was just hot!

Audree and I keep spraying her throughout the day whenever she pants. She is as well taken care of as a bird princess in a children’s movie! Finnick is such an incredibly sweet animal though, you just can’t help it. In the days since she has been here, she has not exhibited one single aggressive behavior in our presence. We know she has it in her because she mantled and put her hackles up when our husky first came around to inspect the mew. She is just never like that for us.

This hawk has felt like she was half-hawk/half-angel from the minute Brett found her. Or maybe more correctly, all-hawk/all-angel.  Even as she heals and gets stronger, she never shifts to being either aggressive or timid with us. She would make the absolute best partner for a falconer but fate has decided that she will be released to enjoy life as a wild hawk very soon. Maybe too soon for us.

The next step in Finnick’s rehabilitation is to leave her food to find for herself instead of tweezer feeding. We put some meaty pieces on a tray and leave her alone to see if she will find and eat them independently. When we return, every scrap is gone. Success! In the following days, we offer an entire rat, broken open at first, and then whole. She passes each milestone with flying colors.

On the sixth day, we find our thriving babe sitting on the cozy nest Brett put together for her, just like a chicken. She continues to sleep here each night until her release. We see her attempt to fly more every day, practicing gliding between perches on either side of the mew. She has already lost much of the downy fluff on her face and her tail feathers seem like they lengthen nightly while she sleeps. She is looking more like a majestic, full-grown hawk every single day. She is also doing a great job bathing and preening. Her feathers glisten in the sunshine, a great sign that she is healthy and flourishing.

Although things are going even better than well with Finnick, neither Audree or I have any concrete notion that we will be trusted with any additional birds. Since we leaped into this situation rather serendipitously, she and I haven’t had any expectations about what should come next. We just do our best each day and give thanks when it works out.

It feels a little like being a brand new parent. I remember getting my oldest son ready to leave the hospital after he was born. Brett and my mom were coming to get us so I had him dressed in his adorable “going home” outfit, with matching pacifier and a fresh diaper. While I waited, I looked down at him, all buckled into his car seat, and had the most visceral thought. “It is up to me to keep you alive”. This is the same thought I had about Finnick during my mini-breakdown while the kids tested. We have been so busy keeping this winged beast growing, we’ve thought nothing about the future!

On May 27, While I’m, working away at N7 Kandie calls about another juvenile Red-Tail who has fallen from its nest in Redlands. Since Audree is home caring for Finnick, Brett and I decide to keep our plans to pick it up on our way home a secret and surprise her. She calls me off and on all day to check in so I have to tell a hundred little, white lies to keep from revealing what I’ll really be up to after work. I’m so excited that I feel like a kid who can barely wait to go to Disneyland in the morning while I try to pay attention to my tasks and customers. It’s hard to surprise kids once they get older, so this is going to be super fun.

Brett and I make our way up the apple tree-lined highway to Oak Glen the minute we get our work finished. Kandie gives instructions and encouragement, and we get this new bird situated in the car, knowing immediately he is not Finnick. This hawk screeches and squawks at us if we even look toward the crate in the back seat to make sure we are abundantly aware that he is not a friend of humans.

When we pull up to the house, Brett puts the pet carrier, with its secret occupant inside, at the front door and rings the bell before hiding around the corner. We’ve called ahead to make sure none of the other kids open it and ruin our fun. When Audree answers, she laughs and exclaims, “I knew it!” This new rescue, we come to call Rue, repeatedly screams back his answer. Audree says, Oh my! This is NOT Finnick.”

We hustle the carrier through the house avoiding the canine and feline welcoming committee and go about trying to introduce Finnick to Rue. We give them lots of time to inspect each other through the door of the carrier and eventually let Rue out to see if they will get along. Rue pops up onto Finnick’s favorite perch and she unceremoniously plinks him right off, sending him tumbling to the ground. After we get them some dinner, whole rat for Finnick, and cut chunks for Rue, we put him back in the carrier so that they don’t tussle in the early morning before we get up.

Finnick and Rue do a little more posturing the next morning but work out their business early in the day, deciding they will get along. We try offering a whole rat to Rue as well since he seems so feisty, and he eats it easily sitting next to Finnick on the nest. They mantle a little to protect their meal but there is no longer any competitive behavior going down.

Rue is much, much smaller than Finnick (suggesting a male hawk) and is covered with the cutest fluffy down. When he rouses, little bits of it poof off of his body and fly into the air, sticking in the mew. Several times I notice that hummingbirds are coming and grabbing the stuck down, taking it to a nearby tree where they nest. It’s maybe the sweetest, little example I’ve ever seen of the perfectly designed, cycle of nature wasting nothing and working seamlessly.

Rue is growing stronger every day but still isn’t flying. Finnick, on the other hand, looks full-grown all of a sudden with new, sleek feathers and is flying overnight; and I don’t mean the expression “overnight”. I mean she is actually flying overnight. Yesterday she was hopping and gliding and today she is pumping her wings between perches. It’s bittersweet because, after some more practice and another milestone or two, she’ll be ready to release.

The next test that she has to pass is capturing her own food. This will be a test for Audree and I as well since it’s obvious that we prefer to be in the business of keeping beings alive, not setting up their demise. Nature doesn’t apologize for being equally beautiful and grisly though. The perfect symbiosis of life and death is what keeps our world spinning.

It would be inhumane for us to release Finnick or any raptor without knowing that they can kill their own food, so we take off to get the needed supplies as directed by Kandie. Once home, we set Finnick up with her live prey and wait. She wastes not even a second, capturing her meal and eating it up hungrily. Audree punctuates the whole scene with an utterly appropriate curse word, lightening the mood and making us laugh.

Now that Finnick is both flying and a successful huntress, we are all pretty overcome with emotion. We are proud of ourselves and her. So proud. But we are also sad because she is ready to go. In the weeks prior, we haven’t noticed her trying to break out of the enclosure very often. In the last few days though, she calls out to our local hawks when they pass over the yard at maximum volume and flies toward the ceiling to test if it will hold her inside. We know it is time.

We eat dinner outside this night so that we can spend the last few minutes saying long goodbyes. Brett puts Sia’s other bird song, Bird Set Free on Spotify, maybe to be a little silly, but it makes me bawl like an idiot. So much for mom being a pillar for the children. These releases will get much easier, but letting this first angel-hawk fly free is rough.

In the morning our neighbor has caught another live specimen. He brings us regular offerings over the fence like “Tim the Tool Man’s” neighbor now. Finnick successfully captures and eats the mouse with Rue watching her dexterity. We let her eat her fill of other food and get her ready to release.

In true Finnick form, she doesn’t streak away once she free but stays close to us for a good while before she flies to a fence and then a high tree. It feels easier on our tearful souls that she doesn’t disappear into the distance instantly.

We watch her for a long time while she acclimates herself to the new, wide-open, space. She preens and vocalizes, and even sits in her chicken pose, leg dangling like a kid on a church pew.

Eventually, we feel that it’s necessary to give her a little extra nudge to move farther away and find a good space to hunker down. Her connection to us is special, a miracle really, but it will not help her to be a successful wild hawk. Her instincts and natural abilities are what she needs to guide her now. We’ve done our part. She finally takes off and flies far out of our sight. Over the next few days, we check in to see that all is well. Audree and I observe her flying strong and Brett even sees her hunt. We did it. And she did it. I say my silent prayers with my whole heart that she thrives, finds a mate, and makes new, little baby Finnicks during next year’s nesting season.

Birthday Thoughts

Birthday thoughts for my 43rd year around the sun 🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞

Everyone knows I like to hike. As feet smack muddy, dusty, or green covered earth, one purposeful step at a time, stress and confusion rearrange into productive plans. The forest revives the human and she can return to civilization balanced and energized. This is absolutely vital for me….

When I was a kid, I used to frequently attend church services by Pastor Paul Tsiki. He often told his audience that he had written a poem that was the direction manual for life… After much drama leading into the value and complicated nature of the poem, all were on the edge of their seats as he cleared his throat and began. He would softly at first, and then with the increasing fervor of a Baptist minister, bestow his wisdom. “Plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on…. Plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on”. “Are you getting it yet?” he would ask. Then right back to it… “Plow on, plow on, plow on, plow on.” Then the audience would join in, chanting these simple words and people would weep as he preached that this is really all there is to it. No magic pill.

I’ve carried those words, his poem, all my life. They are what I think about walking in the forest, one step followed by the next. On my birthday I have a few thoughts to add. I make no claim to mastering any of this. If I had, I’d have nothing left here to do 💛

Plow on ONE step at a time. Staying grounded in the moment increases joy when things are lovely and keeps me focused when things suck. Anxiety comes from worry about the past or future and is totally unproductive. Taking the next right step stops this internal spin.

Plow on listening to intuition. The times that life has sucked is when I’ve ignored my gut. She ALWAYS speaks integrity and truth.

Plow on looking for the the love and beauty. Even when things suck, there is always something beautiful happening. When I look for it, it sees me through every time.

Plow on saying yes to miracles. It’s often scary when the things I have been praying for actually show up in physical form. It’s OK to say yes and take a leap even when I’m afraid.

Plow on letting others be human. We are all trying our best and make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are giant. Forgiveness isn’t just a gift to a loved one. It’s also essential for my own soul.

Plow on with humor. Laughter is absolutely the best medicine.

Plow on in style. Everything goes better when I feel good about how I’m presenting myself in the world.

Plow on in gratitude. Every breath, every minute, every hour, every year, always.

I thank pastor Paul for this incredible gift all those years ago and to everyone who joins me in this crazy life. Plow on 💛💛

Hummingbirds are Kindergarten Teachers

A rest stop in South Dakota holds a little gift that will change what I think is possible with animals forever.

In 2010 my husband Brett and I had the bright idea that the most prudent way to get our family to a wedding in Minnesota would be to drive cross country. We thought that we could both be economical and turn the trip into an epic homeschooler’s adventure by stopping at landmarks like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, ending the trip at our summer camping spot in Beaver, Utah with my parents before heading home. We mapped our route and headed off with ridiculously optimistic expectations.

The trip was epic, to say the least. One needs little imagination to envision the calamities that might await two adventurous and well-meaning parents with an SUV packed to the gills with luggage and kids smashed in like sardines. Before we even arrived at the wedding, we lost my son Ashton’s Heely shoe in a labyrinth of corn fields during a potty stop. Why had I only packed the child one set of decent shoes for a two-week trip? And how was the shoe still in the road waiting for us after 45 minutes of backtracking?!? I also left Brett’s suit for the wedding in a perfectly packed luggage bag, at home, in our closet, 3 days drive away.

Somewhere close to Mount Rushmore, the computer in my car showed that we had a major transmission failure when we were packed to take off at 6 AM. We were hours, or maybe days from a Land Rover dealership (or anyone who had ever seen a Land Rover for that matter), but were saved when we discovered that it was really just a battery problem. My daughter Alexis also had an altercation with an ATV during this trip that could have ended with an ER visit or worse instead of just revised rules of operation. Woven between these moments of resistance though, were some of the most beautiful, life-changing moments of this season of our lives. I continue to notice that life requires me to overcome obstacles with integrity before some amazing grace pours in.

We call this work of art Geyser with Brooding Teenager
That’s a mini buffalo nursing!!

Everyone has different desires and expectations for what makes a road trip excellent. Some people want to see rich history or meet new people. Some want to eat great local food. I like all of this a LOT, but what I want most is to see wildlife! This trek was brimming with close encounters. After visiting Yellowstone National Park, my animal interaction tank felt full to bursting like the geysers we had marveled at there. We’d seen creatures of every kind who were quite relaxed with humans and so abundant that it was like Disneyland for nature lovers.

Little did I know that something so special was still waiting for me at a rest stop in South Dakota. After driving all night to make our way to Utah and meet up with my parents for the last leg of the trip on-time, Brett pulled off the highway for me and our waking kids to stretch our legs (and pee!). There were dew covered hummingbird feeders scattered around this mountainside rest stop and it was very early so the birds were coming out for their first sips of nectar. There were just swarms of them! The kids and I ran to stand in the middle of the frenzy even in our morning haze.

Brett, always encouraging me to up the ante where animals are involved, silently removed a feeder from its hook and put it in my hand, positioning my fingers above the tiny perches. Inside, I was momentarily hesitant thinking I might be breaking a rule of some kind. But before I could protest, there was a hummingbird eating breakfast from my finger. The kids gathered around and also held feeders, feeling the vibration of wings by their cheeks and tiny claws on their thumbs and forefingers. We stayed at this rest stop for at least an hour taking pictures and drinking in the awe. I’m pretty sure I didn’t need my morning coffee that day. I was buzzing all on my own.

I think Brett and I should publish a coffee table book called “The Crazy Faces Of Jessica Bingaman When She Plays With Birds”

When we got home from our great, cross-country expedition, ripe with lessons and wild nature experiences, I became obsessed with the idea of getting hummingbirds to come to my balcony and yard to eat. Brett helped me get feeders set up all over the yard and the whole space turned into a hummingbird haven for a long season of our life. It took a tremendous amount of work to keep the feeders clean and full, but like anything that we have an internal drive to do, it nearly always felt like pure joy to keep it all going.

Audree uses an Audubon app to call birds to the balcony. This works!

At first, we just sat in awe of the tiny bird’s beauty when they came to visit. We looked for personalities in the “regulars” and named them. Scruffy was a beat up, older, magenta headed Anna’s that commanded the yard. He tried with all of his tiny might to keep the territory clear of other birds. Blueberry, whose gorget sparkled deep violet, was a little Costa’s male that was much more gentle. He had no natural fear of us, knowing that he could speed away at even the slightest hint of danger. He would sit on the feeder and go back and forth between eating and looking at us with curiosity, tipping his head from side to side like he was solving a complicated puzzle.

Eventually, the bird word got out that there was abundant food at Casa Bingaman, and the numbers of visitors skyrocketed. Every evening that we were home, I sat with Brett and the kids in complete stillness as we watched them come for their last feedings before sundown. This time we spent felt so important and even reverent because of the awe it produced in all of us. We began to make it a priority every single day.

I later learned that we weren’t just craving the rejuvenation and wonder that was created by these magical evenings, but there was actually something happening to our brains in this state of stillness. And it wasn’t just happening to one of us. We were sitting each night together, syncing up on the very same joyful, wondrous wavelength of rapture!

Awe finds all of us and can come from an endless variety of sources. As I’m sure you have already gathered, these moments are often fueled by animal encounters for me but I also love delicious food, music, wild places, and reading other’s inspired work. You surely have felt awe many times singing a favorite song in church or in front of the mirror as a kid, watching the full moon rise over a mountain horizon, or reading a poem that seemed like it was written just for you. Time stops, attention to the physical world around you ceases, and rapture takes over. Sometimes it’s punctuated by getting the chills or truth bumps. Then at some point, you find yourself back in your body, feet on the ground thinking, “Where am I”?

Biochemically, the brain creates a surge of nitric oxide and a chain reaction of other feel-good hormones whenever we are overtaken by rapture. This produces an incredible sense of well being, wonder, and delicious relaxation that is healing medicine for a human. Once it’s released into the system, nitric oxide works with anticoagulants in the blood, increasing its flow, signaling white blood cells to fight infection, balancing neurotransmitter levels in the brain, reducing cellular inflammation and even preventing heart attacks and strokes. Our urge to satiate this craving was more than just looking for a fun time! We were under the spell of beautiful brain chemistry which was creating deeply rutted neural pathways to help us learn to purposefully create awe in the future, healing our bodies and minds with nature.

All of this nightly hummingbird observation was pure bliss, but I always had this little voice reminding me that they ate from my hand on our trip and I wanted a redo of that. Audree and I tried quite a few times but our birds seemed a bit more skittish than the ones we’d first met. We could get very close to the feeders where they would inspect us, eating right within reach, but never perch on our hands.

One blustery, lazy afternoon I resolved to figure out how to get them to sit on my finger until it worked. I took all of the feeders down and hid them away so that the one I held was the only possible option for food. The birds would come to investigate but then look me in the face and zip away. Moments later, they’d be back to see if the crazy lady had reassembled their nectar buffet. They just weren’t falling for it.

This went on for some time. They’d fly up and I’d think, “Please just eat on my hand… please!” As my arms started aching, my brain started problem-solving. Physical stress is often the impetus for a new thought. I questioned, “What is the element keeping them from just sitting down?” It occurred to me to try changing my internal dialog from “please” to “thank you”.

Instead of thinking “Please, oh please sit on my finger” when they buzzed up I’d purposefully think “Thank you for sitting on my finger”, wondering if I could cultivate the outcome that I desired before it happened with more inviting thoughts. Sure enough, it was only seconds until Scruffy perched on my thumb, drinking up his lunch. I was elated! Could their willingness to light on my hand be that directly tied to my own thoughts and the messages my body emitted?

Scruffy wonders if he can trust the freezing bird lady enough to sit down for a sip of nectar.

I ran inside and got Ashton and my daughter Audree to help me experiment with what I’d discovered. I gave them each a feeder to hold and asked them to think and try to feel the word love or welcome in their hearts and bodies to see if the birds would feed. Within just a few minutes, they did. Then I asked them to imagine and feel the word want or need. The birds zipped around the feeders but wouldn’t stop to eat. We tried other feeling states like contentment, fear, desire, and lack. Sure enough, the negative feelings repelled the birds, and the positive ones attracted them. We sat outside and played with the experiment until our fingers were freezing off, giggling with excitement that we’d figured out the puzzle.

Success! Those tiny feet feel awesome.

The dramatically obvious results of our little hand feeding experiment were the perfect material for contemplation at this particular stage of my personal development. Later, I’d discern that all of these animal lessons always came to me perfectly timed containing a divine direction manual that I could learn to read based on each animal’s meaning historically and by observing their behavior.

Once I learned to watch and listen closely, animals became more than a simple fascination. Instead, they began to help me work to heal old patterns and move through some furiously intense times in the coming years. At this moment though, all I knew is that I had physically been able to act out a concept that I’d previously understood but had never effectively integrated.

“External circumstances do not create feeling states, feeling states create external circumstances”.

~Martha Beck

I have always been a highly sensitive, feeling, loving, grieving, empathetic little human! I am never just happy, but elated, never just sad, but devastated. My emotions don’t naturally hang out near the center where balance is found. I also could always feel the mood of the people around me with reliable accuracy. I knew exactly what state my parents were in when I hopped in the car each day after school or the mood of my co-workers as they walked through the door to begin a shift.

This empathetic perception gives me tremendous insight and makes me a sensitive parent and friend but also has a troubling downside. Without a mature understanding of it, I could allow myself to be too easily influenced by others emotions. If one of my friends was sad or upset, my mood synced right up with theirs, seemingly without my consent. Equally, if a close friend was feeling excited or my family was buzzed about some future fun we were planning, I found myself surfing on good feeling waves. I spent my teenage and early adult years stuck on a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, tossed around by whatever was going on with those I loved or even whomever I chatted with in a grocery store line.

By the time I found myself feeding these hummingbirds out on my balcony, I had a nearly desperate desire to be more in charge of my internal ecosystem. I grew up surrounded by adults trying to effectively use positive mental attitude principles and read people like Wayne Dyer and my beloved Christiane Northrup’s writing about staying present and in love and gratitude as a young mother. It’s not that I had a lack of good upbringing or material for growth to construct a balanced internal life. I just struggled intensely with putting it all to use while adulting. By now, I yearned to find a way to stay more centered without giving up my effervescence in the process. I knew if I could solve the puzzle of how to master my emotional states it would stabilize my daily living and also create and attract better future experiences.

But what I knew just made me feel like I was going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I constantly watched myself roll down into the pit of anxiety, or depression, or fear, all the while knowing I was the only one who could stop it. When I was on the joy upswing, it was contrasted by the reality that it would soon pass and I’d be cast back into my internal struggle as soon as the momentary high ended. I tried cognitive/behavioral techniques like the Sedona Method, read voraciously about the mind-body connection, and tried till I sweat to take charge of my feeling states with no lasting success. I understood that there was no magic formula that an author or scientist had recorded that I could follow for instant healing. What clicked during that moment on the balcony is that I was able to intentionally control and create my desired experience by feeling it first, instead of waiting or begging for it to come to me, for the very first time.

Hummingbirds are excellent kindergarten teachers because we can practice these concepts completely unattached to the outcome. The kids and I easily found this flow because there was no real risk. The worst thing that could have happened inside of our experiment was that they wouldn’t sit to feed; certainly not a life or death scenario.

This experience created a brand new neural pathway in my brain which I would continue to work with for years. Animals were always willing to help! The effort created so much fun in me and my family’s life that it didn’t feel like therapy, but ultimately it would be the exact the medicine I needed to master my own energy, healing the fear, anxiety, and sadness I’d had running the show in my head.

The hummingbird kindergarten lesson is that grasping, begging, feelings create resistance to what we want and need and therefore repel the very solutions to difficulties that we are trying to create. Just like the “Little Engine That Could” had to change his mantra from “I think I can” to “I know I can” to make it up the hill, these little, winged gems teach me to master internal dialog and begin to form what I desire from knowing to being.

adventure clan
The children survived! Even the ATV scrapes were evidence of tremendous gifts.

Hawk Teachers


Whenever I spend time in nature or with animals, I come away with lessons and direction. Sometimes they are just for me but more often, I get waves of insight that could apply to anyone watching. Last Fourth of July when the young hawks living close to my house took flight for the first time as a result of some ravens pestering them, I was reminded that fear is often the impetus for growth and transformation. So you might imagine that I was overwhelmed with insights on Sunday when Brett and I visited Sky Falconry. I’ll share one here.

The amazing thing about the sport of falconry and the raptors we worked with Sunday, is that the relationship between bird and human is totally cooperative and ultimately up to the raptor. Hawks and falcons who work with humans are flown un-tethered quite quickly. Sky Falconry’s newest member “New Kid”did his second free flight with us and he had only been with them two weeks. Every single time these birds fly, they DECIDE to come back. This occurs because the human creates a safe, enriching environment and guaranteed meals, so the animal chooses to continue the relationship instead of flying away.

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Steam Punk is going after a small tidbit that I threw high into the air. She was so excited to play this game that she took off into the air and then back to her perch over and over before we started. Also note my ridiculous statue posture. If you give me a rule about how to do something new (like “keep your hands to your side”) I follow it! I didn’t notice my “hawking statue” pose until Brett and I saw I was in the exact same position in every picture and cracked up.
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She’s got it!
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Now time to enjoy her prize.

For me this illustrates the potential for humans to live much more cooperatively on this earth. In 2016 the ideas for living with less negative or even positive impacts on nature are truly endless. Solar roadways, backyard beekeeping, small plot farming… These aren’t even the wild ones. Do you know that technology exists to mop up oil spills and nuclear waste with mats made of mycelium (the vegetative part of fungus)?

Historically there seems to have been two sides to the conservation conversation. Either humans are a useless drain to the planet and should put nature over their well-being for everyone’s survival, or nature is simply looked at as a bottomless resource for humans, the planet’s rulers. I see that the potential for a whole new view. We have technology, ingenuity, and drive for both nature and humans to flourish collaboratively. We can make win-win choices that vastly increase human well-being while simultaneously honoring and enriching the nature we depend on. The hawks decision to stay with their humans illustrated this concept to me as they waited expectantly to play games, took the risk to work with strangers, and returned back each and every time. They showed me that they WANTED to work together. What can we accomplish if we approach our decisions from that foundation? How much good could we do one tiny choice at a time?

Stay tuned for more hawk talk coming soon. There is lots more to share!

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Lanner falcon Habibi with Denise
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Nice to meet you!

Spring has sprung!

My love for animals and flowers was certainly cultivated my Grandfather Lapp.  He also started me reading Julia Child but that’s another post altogether.  Today to celebrate the first day of my very favorite season, I’m posting a few of the beautiful blooms that he tended on his ranch in Auburn California.  The time and love invested is evident in their beauty.  I’m grateful that I took the time snap these photographs and that his spirit is always near when I recharge my mama batteries by enjoying nature.


Spring makes its own statement, so loud and clear that the gardener seems to be only one of the instruments, not the composer.  ~Geoffrey B. Charlesworth


The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven –
All’s right with the world!
~Robert Browning


That God once loved a garden we learn in Holy writ.
And seeing gardens in the Spring I well can credit it.
~Winifred Mary LettsDSC_0112

The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s kiss glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze.
~Julian GrenfellDSC_0111

Spring has returned.  The Earth is like a child that knows poems.  ~Rainer Maria Rilke

Countdown to Spring: Day 3

Last week I posted about my mom’s green thumb.  Today, with only a few winter days remaining, her blooms are reaching their slender necks for the sun and smiling!

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People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.  ~Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

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With daffodils mad footnotes for the spring,
And asters purple asterisks for autumn –
~Conrad Aiken, Preludes for Memnon, 1930

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I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden.  ~Ruth Stout

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God loved the flowers and invented soil.  Man loved the flowers and invented vases.  ~Variation of a saying by Jacques Deval (God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.)

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The front door to springtime is a photographer’s best friend. ~Terri Guillemets

Countdown to Spring: Days 4 and 5

In honor of the amazing weekend weather and celebration of Saint Patrick’s day I’m posting one of my very favorite green blooms.  Though they are not four leafed clovers (which are also poking their heads up everywhere), I think Saint Patrick would have loved their heart shaped leaves!

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“When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd’s purse.

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.”



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Countdown to Spring: 6 Days

Today’s photograph is of the flower I think my mom my loves best… Although, to a flower lover this may be sort of like saying you have a favorite child.  There is a green thumb gene somewhere is her Lapp family heritage that she and her sister have carried on from my Grandpa but just never really took hold of me.  I guess I photograph the blooms instead of plant them!Countdown 6

Thou art the Iris, fair among the fairest,
Who, armed with golden rod
And winged with the celestial azure, bearest
The message of some God.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from Iris

Countdown to Spring: 7 Days

Abundance!  With only one week to go until the official start of Spring, there are new little  blooms everywhere.  Today’s photographs are from a quick stop at my midwifery teacher’s home yesterday and taken with my iPhone.

Countdown 7 Daffodil 1

How can one help shivering with delight when one’s hot fingers close around the stem of a live flower, cool from the shade and stiff with newborn vigor!  ~Colette

Countdown 7 Daffodil 2

Flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.  ~John Ruskin

Countdown 7 Lilac

Perfumes are the feelings of flowers, and as the human heart, imagining itself alone and unwatched, feels most deeply in the night-time, so seems it as if the flowers, in musing modesty, await the mantling eventide ere they give themselves up wholly to feeling, and breathe forth their sweetest odours. Flow forth, ye perfumes of my heart, and seek beyond these mountains the dear one of my dreams! ~Heinrich Heine, “The Hartz Journey” (1824), Pictures of Travel, translated from German by Charles Godfrey Leland, 1855

Countdown 7 poppy

Summer set lip to earth’s bosom bare,
And left the flushed print in a poppy there.
~Francis Thompson, “The Poppy,” 1891

Can you find the tiny little spider friend in this photo???
Can you find the tiny little spider friend in this photo???

Let us dance in the sun, wearing wild flowers in our hair…  ~Susan Polis Shut