Town is quiet these days. Most students are still at home or on summer internships, faculty and graduate students are using the break to slip away for some R&R or doing research at field sites.  Even so, it’s rare for Dash and I to have the trail all to ourselves for very long but today was an exception. We left home later than usual so maybe all the cyclists, runners, and other dog-walkers had come and gone.

Not far along on our regular route I heard a feathered fellow shouting his heart out from the power lines above. I peered upwards and saw the black, white, and terra cotta of an Eastern towhee. I’ve read descriptions of the towhee’s call as “Drink your tea!” Maybe so, but to my ears it sounds like, “Drink your tea-hehehehe!”

I stood still for as long as terrier-boy would tolerate, enjoying the sight and sound of such a serious sparrow with case of the giggles. Then we picked up the pace and continued walking.


Several minutes later… more giggling. Were we being followed? Most likely is was a different individual; it’s breeding season, after all, when males tend not to stray far from home base.



Further down the trail… more tea, more giggles. I felt like I was witnessing a musical baton being passed as part of an auditory relay…




Drink your tea-hehehehe!…






Drink your tea-hehehehe!…






Drink your tea-hehehehe!





It was a game of Telephone in which all of the players are excellent listeners who repeat the phrase exactly, with perfect fidelity and zero degradation… but since garbled messages are the whole point I didn’t know why all these towhees were laughing. But I’ve heard birds calls I couldn’t distinguish by ear, then saw the sonograms (graphical representations of sound) showing clear variations I didn’t have the acuity to notice. Maybe if I had bird ears I’d be in on the joke.

Meanwhile, I really need a cup of tea (and I don’t even like tea).

Who’s playing telephone in your neighborhood?  Share your experiences and comments below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Matt Stratmoen, Kenneth Cole Schneider, Jen Goellnitz, Keith Carver, Tom Murray, Kelly Colgan Azar, and Alberto_VO5.]

Bashful Blooms

Some wildflowers are as showy and extraverted as a Broadway diva.  Daylilies come to mind, with their brassy bugles clamoring for attention; cardinal flowers and bee balm shaking in their vivid garnet and fuchsia flapper-fringe; or heliotropic sunflowers, always mugging for the spotlight.

It’s easy to overlook the quieter talents on these daily walks with my canine companion. Our stretch of the trail is mostly shaded, giving the modest herbs an added scrim of concealment. Even so, I’ve been catching tantalizing glimpses in my peripheral vision and today I decided to allocate additional time so we could meander on and off the path for a closer look.

One strategy employed to cope with stage-fright is to stand in the wings, tucked in behind a leafy curtain. That’s where yellow and orange jewelweed quiver nervously on delicate peduncles, waiting for their cue.

Pokeweed, on the other hand, begins the season feeling shy with demure white and green florets spaced like pearls on a green strand peeping out from a classic sweater-set. By the end of the run, though, she’s wearing deep purple berries on a vivid magenta cord and projecting to the balcony… and the wild birds in the audience eat it up like candy! [Caution: the berries and plant are poisonous to humans and most other mammals, including dogs and cats.]

Mock strawberry is similarly inclined — she comes to the audition dressed in a prim outfit of five yellow petals separated by five pointed green sepals, then transforms for the performance and rocks a crimson-beaded get-up worthy of a femme fatale.

Small parts can add up to a winning career, as demonstrated by many of the blossoms I discovered along the Huckleberry.  Some blend into the crowd as extras, some are more visible but happy to hang out doing their own thing as “background” for the marquee performers.  Examined up close and personal, though, most are lovely, sometimes even stunning, in their own right.

Take nonesuch (aka hop clover), with its miniature (2-4mm) lemon-yellow flowers clustered above three oval leaflets…

or Asiatic daylily (8-10 mm), known to fans as Mouse Ears…

lesser burdock (2 cm), whose acting is understated yet sticks with you (and to your shoes, and your dog’s fur) long after you’ve left the theater…

funny-faced speedwell (5 mm) plays the clown, wearing lots of powder and a smile…

helpful fleabane (~15 mm) is there to offer a cup of tea or escort pesky hangers-on out of a star’s dressing rooms…

and when the production needs a villain, bittersweet nightshade is a poisonous beauty.

Then there’s wild chicory. Like those consummate actors-not-stars, this pale periwinkle blue pro turns it on when the curtain rises but doesn’t stay long at the after-party and never makes tabloid headlines. Once the sun sets and the show is over, they close up shop and become nondescript, blending into their surroundings like a chameleon. Chicory is an extraverted introvert or an introverted extravert, depending on your POV.  Thanks to a workplace questionnaire I recently learned there’s a name for that, and I’m one, too: ambivert. My hair isn’t blue (right now) but chicory and I share a common bond; we both need society and solitude in equal portions.

Is you wildflower kindred spirit an extrovert? An introvert? A little of both? Share a comment and photo below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: caligula199cosmic-anglerDM, Anita GouldSteve Guttman, j_arlecchinoJoyVitalii KhustochkaHomer Edward Price, Jon SullivanLinda Tanner, and zenbikescience.  © 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Clover Coronet

Gorgeous, sunny skies and slightly cool temperatures this afternoon were the perfect reason to stay outside as long as possible, so that’s what I did. A lush, dappled patch of green near the end of our one-mile out-and-back route summoned me to sit and revel for a spell.

While Dash rolled in every irresistible smell his inquisitive nose could unearth, my fingers reflexively combed through clover, selecting a stem long and flexible enough to knot beneath the white blossom at the end of another stem… spinning floral yarn.

This was a common activity during the endless, unstructured summer days of my childhood. I didn’t realize until today, though, it was my first informal introduction to meditation. Keeping my hands occupied with something pleasantly soothing and productive, I would process the wins and losses of the day, daydream and plan for tomorrow, or simply let my thoughts tumble over one another like rowdy puppies. I could fall into and through the nesting orbits of petals, landing in places I didn’t yet have the agency to visit in real life; I wasn’t allow to leave the neighborhood on my bike and hadn’t learned to drive a car.

An added bonus was that at the end of my castle-building I would walk away with something tangible—a clover necklace or bracelet or rings. Sure, by bedtime the day’s treasure was limp and tarnished but I didn’t care. I was so clover-wealthy that my botanical jewels, as carefully wrought and ephemeral as sand mandalas, were disposable as Kleenex®. Plenty more where those came from!

As I settled in beneath the infinite blue above I began to fashion a trinket from the stockpile of clover-pearls forming in my lap. For old time’s sake. Sizing up the terrier-prince stretched out beside me I decided he was overdue for a coronet. His pedigree is far more aristocratic than mine, the names of his forbearers annotated with various championships, but he’s too puckish to wear a formal crown. A simple shamrock and posey circlet was a good fit, I thought.

Dash tolerated the garland, and my attempts at photography, for maybe 5 minutes. Then he stood up, shook off the trappings of royalty, and began to pull insistently on his leash in the direction of home and dinner. He’s a simple sovereign.

Did you make clover chains or whistles from blades of grass as a kid? As an adult? Share you comments below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Elizabeth Fletcher, Kelly Teague, and Patrick Barks.  © 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Purple Stain

There are many paths to mindfulness. The one I’ve chosen happens to be a literal path, a former railroad easement called the Huckleberry Trail.

I’m not a purist, though, and I’ll occasionally incorporate one of the other methods into my daily dog-walking kinhin practice. Like, say… a mantra. A word or phrase or sound, chanted aloud or silently, to aid in focusing the mind, such as “Om…. Om….”

Wait — make that, “Dewberries…. dewberries…. dewberries… nom, nom, nom…”

No disrespect to the solstice but, for me, it’s not summer until I can pop a plump dewberry straight off the vine onto my tongue and allow all of existence to collapse into a dense sweet-tart burst of red-violet juicy-ness. Dash shares my fondness for this treat and because I tithe a generous portion of fruit to him, he’s patient when I detour to a ripe-for-the-pickin’ spot.

The Huckleberry Trail is aptly named I’m sure, but based on the number of common dewberry tangles I see each day, the naming committee could have easily and justifiably gone another way.

Harvesting dewberries requires its own kind of mindfulness: I need to be mindful of poison ivy mixed in with the other underbrush plants; I need to be mindful of thorns and transparent bristles waiting to grab cloth and skin as I reach in to pluck that single  nugget from a still-crimson cluster; I need to be mindful of spider webs and their tenants; I need to be mindful that while this is a treat for Dash and me, it’s sustenance for many wild creatures.

Keeping those songbirds, mice, rats, voles, chipmunks, box turtles, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and other hungry folk in mind, we limit ourselves to a dozen or fewer dewberries per day (ok, I’m the one who sets a limit; Dash’s mantra is “to the winner goes the spoils”). It takes discipline but there’ll be more than enough again tomorrow to stain my fingers and tongue purple and allow the terrier-boy to feel victorious.

What says “summer” to you like nothing else? The smell of a fresh-cut lawn? Fireflies? Share your favorites in the comments below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Paul Sullivan and Jim Something.]