A lifelong focus on birds, critters and the gifts of nature

A lifelong focus on birds, critters and the gifts of nature

As summer draws near, I can’t help but remember Thoreau’s comment, “Time is but the stream I go fishing in.”

The stream, however, is a well-known reality that has guided my whole life: a love for nature – the forest and all its creatures, the chirping of birds, the buzzing of bees, the strange bugle of the elk calling to a companion, and more.

The stream in question was a tiny, chattering stream that descended a miniature cobble-bottomed “ravine” decorated with mossy rocks that nurtured heavenly-scented pink Linnaea or twin flower – whose little bells and shiny leaves also crawled along the banks. Surrounded by cedars and hemlocks – one of nature’s most beautiful partnerships – and filled with the exquisite trillium of the Swainson’s Thrush, it was fairyland for a 5-year-old girl. I had to kneel almost upside down to sip the ice cold water and the clean, clear taste had a hint of fir and blackberry roots, wild rose scent and pine needles.

I was taken for good. I have never forgotten this place – nor this drink that forever baptized me as a child of nature.

These are the years when, as an only child, I was the companion of my father – who I realized was a real naturalist. We rode for miles into the mountains, along the shores of Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille lakes, to the flyways around Clark Fork, and to the Cataldo area during spring and fall migrations. Thousands of ducks and geese flew above and in the water – mallards and pintails of course, canvasbacks, shovelers, black ducks, old squaws, redheads, buffleheads, tufts , blue and green and cinnamon-winged teals, mergansers and shorebirds such as sandpipers, curlews and snipes. And more: The cacophony was magnificent.

As a result of this education, I became an attentive and enthusiastic observer of nature. Our summer cabin at Twin Lakes made possible “alone but never lonely” wanderings during which I discovered Bitterns (called “Sluepumpers” because of their strange call) hiding in their cattail nests; a colony of great blue herons in a giant poplar; gelatinous ropes along the shore dotted with black specks that turned into eggs and one day became a million darling wriggling tadpoles. I sat in the water among them day after day, letting them swim between my fingers, and watched as they began to metamorphose into frogs with the appearance of legs.

Back in town (Cd’A), I joined the Camp Fire Girls who brought me into the company of like-minded girls, some of whom remained friends for decades. Later in college, while majoring in Journalism with minors in Speech and Drama, I took Ornithology, Forestry, and Geology as electives to broaden my knowledge of the environment. .

My “connection with nature” has never ended and has included many wonderful and meaningful events over the years. My favorite, one-on-one communication looking into the amber eyes of a seated cougar who simply watched me walk through the woods about 30 feet away: “How beautiful you are.” I said out loud (and I sincerely meant it) as I continued to slowly move forward on my path; He/she acknowledged my compliment, got up, spreading his paws in a big stretch – turned around and casually walked his/her way. Since then, I’ve seen nearly 30 cougars over the years, including about three meaningful and respectful encounters of looking at each other and agreeing to at least a wedding ring if not outright friendship. I love these beautiful felines and wish some people weren’t so willing to kill them out of hand.

After I got married, I became a campfire leader for a group of third graders at St. Joseph Catholic School in Coeur d’Alene and we stayed together until they graduated from high school – 10 delicious years. I never taught them the intricacies of “sewing a fine seam” (to this day, I can’t thread a needle.) But they were all proficient at swimming, canoeing, building a campfire, and properly rolling a sleeping bag.

After years of babies, divorces, work and life, I “retired” to Sandpoint in 1980. The first 10 years were spent in a large log home on Smith Creek Road near Wrenco Loop, then I moved to my current (and probably permanent) home at the Schweitzer base. What a sky. I started a small “sanctuary” garden of native flowers and their cultivars in a natural environment under native maples, silver firs, poplars and a giant serviceberry shrub: Pulmonaria, Foxglove, Monkshood, Columbine, Iris, ferns, wild clematis, coral bells, sweet woodruff, violets and shady but welcome natives like canadian dogwood, solomon’s seal, turkish cap lily and many more.

The soil, naturally mulched, allowed the beneficial appearance of garden snakes, toads, salamanders and, of course, snails and slugs. Stewardship of countless chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, tows, sparrows, creepers, finches, wrens, tanagers, thrushes, hummingbirds, robins and other birds kept things tidy. Bees, butterflies, ladybirds and dragonflies pollinated and/or “tended” and in the evening the eerie cry of the nightjar echoed in many throats as these wonderful birds feasted on mosquitoes and moths. Spring brought Thoreau’s “Toads’ Dream” to my home with the ethereal song of springtime peepers like a vibrant chord of music in the evening air — what a primitive, thrilling sound. In winter, at least 100 chickadees along with other cold-weather visitors swarmed my baskets under the eaves of black oil sunflower seeds. All was well in Heaven.

In 2016, 26 years later, there was a pair of Rufous-sided Towhee; 23 chickadees and 12 nuthatches sharing the seed baskets. A single brown creeper came to her tree. There was NO ruby-crowned kinglet, and only one golden-crowned kinglet. Where the hummingbirds fought their feeder battles in numbers, only one pair came to the feeder. I hadn’t heard or seen a nightjar (nor a red tanager) for 10 years. Where the pink/pink/purple finches once congregated, the last was seen in 2013. I housed three toads: two red-striped green toads and a western toad.

Human greed did it with vicious pesticides and neonics. It’s too late? Thoreau said “As I live now, so shall I reap” – I’ll keep trying, but it’s an uphill battle. Please some of you join in.

Editor’s note: For many years, Valle Novak has written gardening and cooking columns for the Daily Bee. “Weekend Gardener” and “Country Chef” have become famous for their humor, information and common-sense advice on how to do everything from planting to cooking. As she has just retired, she has shared several chronicles to delight her many fans. This is one of those columns.