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.© 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.]

Inching Towards Oblivious

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my major mindfulness challenges is that, no matter what I’m doing in the moment, my brain is usually already on the next thing I need or want to do.  Or the thing after the next thing.

I have a strong suspicion this is because I’m a habitual list-maker. Rather ironic, because I became a devotee decades ago when I stumbled over and into an article evangelizing the power of lists to move the chores of an overbooked life out of short-term memory, allowing us to give full attention to the task at hand.  And while making lists does help me keep a lot of balls in the air, the article failed to mention a possible downside:  my focus switched from remembering the day’s tasks to thinking about checking as many of those tasks off said list as possible.

Daily walks with my terrier-guru are an opportunity, often missed, to pay attention.  Even when I’m lost in thought, though, my eyes are scanning for flora and fauna as we walk along the trail. When I spy a bright color or quick movement I snap right back into the here and now.

This morning I spotted an inchworm.

You know, I couldn’t say what I ate for breakfast an hour ago without ruminating. Yet, at the sight of a small chartreuse caterpillar in downward-facing dog on a fallen branch I immediately remembered, word for word, a tune from a movie I saw as a child in the 1960s:

Most days, I’m more worm than yogi. I meticulously inventory every leaf and petal on my calendar and forget to step back to admire the flowers.

But I did stop to sing to an inchworm this morning.

Better add that to today’s list.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Jessica Lucia and Diane Cordell.]


Third Time’s the Charm

Gray skies dripping precip have been the order of the May day here in Blacksburg. But under cover of darkness the clouds finally sloshed off to rain on someone else’s parade, leaving a bright blue wake overhead and a light, steady breeze at ground level, soft as down against my arms and face as Dash and I stepped onto the Huckleberry Trail this morning.

It began as a typical walk—my wanna-be rodent assassin ever alert, his hapless human companion with her head in the clouds.

One-third of a mile along the way a small, intense blur of light and dark flashed across the asphalt and my peripheral vision, a split-second before I felt my shoulder jerk, signaling a terrier in hot pursuit with no thought to the bipedal ballast dragging from his harness.

Even as my muscles braced for the impact of a 22 lb canine hitting the end of his literal rope, my brain was systematically sorting and categorizing the image my eye had transmitted:

Eastern chipmunk.

We’ve seen them on the trail before but they’re far less prevalent, and far more shy**, than their cousins, the abundant and impudent gray squirrels.

The grays toy with terrier-boy daily, pretending not to notice Dash as he stalks, cat-like, closer… and closer… and with insouciant flips of their opulent tails they scamper, unconcerned, to the nearest tree trunk. Then, hanging securely upside-down from pleats in the bark, shout the squirrel equivalent of “Neener-neener” as he stares with indignant frustration.

When a chippie sees us, though, it’s always a mad rush across the pavement, a headfirst dive into the leaf-litter or beneath a fallen limb.

I coaxed Dash away from the underbrush and back to the path, admiring his lightning reflexes, reminding him there would be other chances to prove his hunting prowess.

We set off just in time to see another streak of chestnut chipmunk careening past, a mere six-feet ahead.  Too quick for my hand to even move toward my phone much less capture the elfin speedster… not that it’s even feasible to hold a camera steady with a frantic terrier bouncing off of your arm like a paddle ball.

Maybe the chippies have been waiting out the rain in their burrows and, now that the sun has returned, they were hungry enough to risk grabbing some breakfast during the dog-walking rush hour. That’s the only explanation I’ve come up with for why, once we turned and retraced our steps homeward, a third chipmunk—or maybe it was one of the two we had already spotted—stood motionless for a moment mid-path, unsure of which direction to bolt.

It’s the last day of the school year, the sky is blue, the breeze is soft, and we saw three chipmunks on a single walk. Feels like the start of a charmed day… I’d better buy a lottery ticket.

**At least on this stretch of trail; I’ve had plenty of encounters with bold chipmunks while camping, hiking, and picnicking.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Gilles Gonthier, Mr.TinDC, and Jean-Pierre Bluteau.]