Beaver sketch, painted with acorns, wild grape, avocado pits and oak galls. Based on a b&w photograph by Hope Ryden. // For 2024, I’ve resolved to be busy as a beaver.
But not busy as the beavers in my cartoon-simple conception of them, but busy as wild beavers are. And it seems I need to practice a very different way of being busy, if I would like busy beavers to recognize me as kin.
Thanks to these beautiful observations by Hope Ryden (from her book “Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers”), I have some idea where to start:
“…Despite the descriptive epithet often applied to the species, beavers are not ‘busy’ animals. On the contrary, they normally proceed at a leisurely pace, unburdened by outside pressures. One stick at a time they drag up on their house, one load of mud at a time they push onto their dam. After doing a certain amount of work, they take a break to feed or groom or play or just float about in the water. … Few species, in fact, appear so oblivious to stress as does Castor canadensis. House wrens, for example, build their nests in a kind of frenzy, as if tyrannized by their seasonal timetable. Not beavers. … One handful of mud at a time, they scooped from the bottom of the pond. And, pressing this against their chests, they paddled slowly to the dam, and shoved it up into the crest. As unhassled as they appeared, however, they were in fact accomplishing two tasks at once–deepening a channel and raising the height of a dam.
Beavers work like that. Interrupting one operation to transport its byproduct to a site where that debris is wanted…
All waste products are recycled: dredged mud becomes house insulation or dam sealant; debarked food sticks become house or dam lumber; wood chips (fallout from a tree-felling operation) are brought to the lodge and spread on the floor for bedding. In this admirably relaxed manner, the efficient beaver accomplishes an enormous amount of work. Watching [beavers] is like attending a morality play, and I often thought I ought to take a lesson from it.”
Great Horned Owl. Painted with oak galls, acorns, and saffron (locally-grown). // When I was a kid, my favourite book was “Granny’s Gang” by Katherine McKeever. It’s the story of Kay and Larry’s life with various injured/orphaned/recovering owls. (The titular “Granny” is a spectacled owl.)
I grew up in the ‘burbs of North York. First in a townhouse, then a house for awhile, then a townhouse again. There were a few wild pockets scattered around the cul-de-sacs and train tracks. And I was lucky to have them. But if there were owls around, I never encountered them.
Owls lived in dreams and imagination, not my neighborhood.
Forty years later, I live in a different habitat. Here, owl song signals the start of winter. I’ll dash outside some night in December. Taking out an overripe compost bucket, or doing a final chicken check. And though I’m probably not wearing a coat, I’ll take a moment to look up at… 🎶hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo🎶 …the stars.
The call interrupting my thoughts announces the magic is happening again — the owls are picking their partners and territories. Baby owls are just around the corner… Literally.
For some, winter is a time of rest. For others, deep struggle and hard won survival. For the great horned owl, it’s baby-making time. They are very early nesters, and in Ontario, by January-February, proceedings are well underway.
For now, the owls can call this place home. Humans too. Though both our perches here are fragile.
Whatever else we do here, our life’s work is the protection and encouragement of the little forest where we live. To try and pass a healthy woods forward for the humans and critters we hope come after us. Full of big trees and baby owls, and all the critters we see and hear — and all the ones we don’t. // 🦉📖: In my 30s, I learnt Kay’s centre is in Vineland Station, Ontario. It still operates today, as The Owl Foundation. It was a dizzying discovery, like learning The Jungle Book was real and you could get to it by TTC. I was incredibly fortunate to meet and thank Kay before she passed. Secondhand copies of Granny’s Gang can still be found, renamed “A Place For Owls”.
A commission for the wildly wonderful Jess to end off the year. 💜
We take our big break in the winter. Our kerchief and our cap, the woodstove, the furry animals, and the snowy woods have all been waiting patiently for us. Our invisible internal batteries — brains, hearts, and spirits — are blinking red. Time now to rest and recharge.
Happy Winter Solstice everyone! ❄️ Have a wonderful holiday season and see you in the new year 💙
Ornaments made with just cornstarch, baking soda, water, and… a 3D printer? 😉
🐦🔧: Everyone and their brother sent me Woodlark‘s cornstarch ornaments — and I’m glad they did! 😂 Beautiful DIY ornaments made from the pantry?? Count me in! But instead of making a star garland, I fancied bird ornaments. Only trouble is I didn’t actually have bird-shaped cutters…
🐦🧠: I like to say Maker’s Dozen’s favourite place to work are the places where art+tech+nature intersect. There’s nothing I like more than smooshing different parts of my brain together… Sooo let’s do this!
🐦📝: I started by drawing a few bird silhouettes in Affinity Designer*, imported them as SVGs to Tinkercad, did some tinkering and extruding to make them 3D cutters, then exported them as STLs for my Prusa to slice, dice, and print. Perfect! Time to make some cornstarch birds!
🐦👩💻: Bonus — My office is far from the woodstove, but the dehydrator lives in here, and running it makes the room nice and toasty. So instead of baking the cut ornament shapes in the oven, I dried them in the dehydrator. Whipping up a nice batch of ornaments, while also keeping your computing fingers good and toasty — win-win!
🛒📏: I love working with raw materials that are solid enough to be real, but ephemeral enough to go back to the earth when their time is through. And to let my brain cross-pollinate between what can be computed, grown, baked or built. It makes sense the lines between all these endeavours are more porous than they first appear. After all — as maker Felix Schelhasse once so beautifully put it — the kitchen is actually just a workshop for groceries.
Have a good one folks! //
// *I left Adobe in favour of Affinity a few years ago. Subscription model software is often unnecessary, frequently insidious, and rarely in the customer’s best interests. Fortunately solid alternatives are still out there, if you look for them. 👍
Trail camera footage of two does fighting, captured on a trail camera while steward of the Northumberland Land Trust’s McColl property.
We have a standing rule in our house, and it’s that Neil can and should wake me up for animals. If the motion light comes on, or there is an unusual scurry across the roof. Neil goes to bed much later than I do, so if he hears a nighttime critter, I want him disturb my slumber. I can always get more sleep later, but a flying squirrel perched on the window is right now. And if it stars a flying squirrel, I’m happy to have a waking dream. (Unfortunately our cat Oliver also observes this rule, occasionally jumping into our bed with a mouse in his mouth at 3AM. I prefer the flying squirrel dreams. The Oliver ones drift a little closer to nightmare…)
The same “come and get me for critters” rule applies during the day too. If an excellent caterpillar like an Imperial is spotted in the yard. Or a porcupine shuffles through the woods. Or a ruffed grouse is tightrope walking the poplars. The wildlife here is both abundant and secretive, and I don’t want to miss the glimpses.
The rule applies to all critters. The “good” and the “bad” ones. Whether it’s an opossum triggering the motion light, a baby raccoon discovering the bird feeders (I must remember to bring those feeders in at night…), or a possible sighting of a saw whet by the chicken coop. I want to see them all.
The line of good and bad animals is drawn in different places for different people. Those who have lost chickens to fox may have more trouble seeing a canid’s russet beauty. You’re probably not delighted to encounter a milk snake if you have a fear of things that slither. A bad childhood experience with a domestic dog could easily leave a person wary of coyotes.
And then there are the cultural baggage, biases, and bruises we carry of “good” and “bad”. Painted turtles good, snapping turtles bad. Dangerous animals and tame animals. Clean animals and dirty animals… Cute animals and ugly ones. Even “predator” and “prey”. But the more critters I encounter and observe, the more I learn about them, the less these divisions hold meaning for me.
I structured so much of my understanding of the world around models that aren’t just out of date, not just expired, but were never true. Bears growl, bunnies are sweet, the tiny are afraid of the large. “Not so”, nature keeps gently reminding me here, “not so”.
Take the alpha wolf. Dr. L. David Mech, the scientist who popularized the concept of “alpha male” wolves in his 1970 book “The Wolf”, has devoted a sizable part of the rest of his career trying to explain he was wrong, and requesting, unsuccessfully, that the publisher stop publishing his earlier work:
The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” … Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today…”
As for growling bears, ask someone who works with bears and they will tell you that bears hardly ever growl. It’s just not how and when they vocalize.
As Mike McIntosh who runs the bear rehabilitation centre Bear With Us put it (here): “They don’t make a lot of sounds that we often hear and think they make. Bears are usually only vocal when they’re either afraid or in pain. Most of the time they’re quiet”. The cartoon version, it’s not just a caricature, it’s a lie.
Like the lemmings who were dumped over the cliff in the fake “documentary” that shaped so many of our understanding of those rodents — it was not, is not, and never was true. Sweet little rabbits will fight each other, as will docile does. Father birds will sit on eggs, mothers will build nests. We either just didn’t look, or didn’t see.
Similarly, the tiny are not always intimidated by the large, and prey don’t always give ground to predator. One spring evening we were having dinner when the character of the birdsong out the window suddenly changed, like someone had abruptly clicked to the next song, mid-track. I looked out the window and saw a feathered kerfuffle unfolding in the large maple tree in our yard. A sizeable hawk was perched on a branch, but not for long. It was being pelted at all angles by tiny birds. A variety of tiny birds. Nearby small nesting moms and pops and various bystanders were having none of this large bird in their midst. Now that we’re aware of it, we’ve seen this “mobbing” behaviour many times since.
It is not uncommon to see a group of blackbirds or swallows chasing a hawk or eagle, or a group of songbirds fluttering and calling around a perched owl.
Such “mobbing” behavior is probably the most frequently observed overt anti-predator strategy. Nevertheless, the exact purpose of such noisy group demonstrations remains a matter of some debate.
…one function of mobbing may be educational–to teach young birds… Another may be to alert other birds to the presence of the predator, either getting them to join in the mobbing or protecting them, since a predator is unlikely to be able to sneak up on an alert victim.
Much is lacking in our understanding of mobbing. It is not clear why predators don’t simply turn on their tormentors and snatch up one or two of the mobbing birds. If they did, presumably mobbing would quickly disappear; that it persists suggests that surprise is an essential element in raptor hunting.
~The Birder’s Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye
But this isn’t about a victory of tiny birds over the big mean hawk either. David and Goliath stories stir the soul, but no one is the villain in their own story, and the tale is of course different from Goliath’s perspective. A “predator” has its own beautiful babies to feed. Its own soaring life to support. Life-Death-Life, around and around we go. The fierce and the delicate, wrapped up in one package.
I met my wise and wonderful friend Tess Miller when I was a volunteer at Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre, where she was a member of staff. She’s cared for a wider variety of animals than most of us will encounter at a distance, in a lifetime. While we were mucking out enclosures and hand-feeding critters, Tess shared a lot of insights into animal behaviour. As she put it: “Once you have the chance to work with or observe any animal, you will grow a strong admiration and appreciation for its abilities to survive, regardless of what those abilities are.”
I have a theory that so many of these good/bad, cute/ugly divisions come from a discomfort with our own complexity. Our own times of growling, or being dirty or disheveled or annoying. That we think creatures have to be cute to be loved, or “alphas” to be worthy, because of our own deep-seated fears. When we can’t completely accept our own shades of grey, we pedestal some animals as ideal, and pretend they are something they’re not. In doing so, missing the beauty of their — and our — complexity. How beautiful the “ugly” animals are, and how gentle the giant beasts. The shining texture of a snake, an earwig mother doting on her babies, two does striking at each other with their sharp hooves.
“It’s not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades.”
~Clarissa Pinkola Estes
A world without good and bad guys, with no alphas, no roaring bears or ever-sweet bunnies is a more confusing and beautiful place to be. Up is down, down is up and sweeping statements just sweep away the truth. When the truth, it turns out, is so much stranger than fiction. So much more interesting. So much more beautiful and compelling and frightening. So much more… hopeful.
A version of this article also appeared in the OWA‘s The Ontario Woodlander.
🍼🍂: Some critters have babies in the spring, and then again two or three more times before winter comes. Which explains why, when I went for a run the other day, I ended up with this baby chipmunk on my shoe!
🐿️🍂: Coming around a corner in the forest path, I heard a small unfamiliar rustle in the leaves to my left. On closer inspection, I discovered I was surrounded — by baby chipmunks! Their ears and feet too big for their bodies, like little stripey puppies. So a chipmunk, but with the cuteness dial cranked to 11. I’d chanced by a chipmunk burrow just as the babies made their first explorations of the aboveground world.
From Hinterland Who’s Who: “at four to seven weeks old, the young chipmunks begin to leave the burrow to forage. At first they are unafraid, but after a few days above ground they are more wary and escape quickly if disturbed…”.
🌰🍼: It’s a little unusual for chipmunks to have a second litter in the fall, but they’ll do so in a favourable year. And this does seem to be a good year for acorns…
Though this particular baby was very bold — it ran over to me on the path, had a chew on my shoelace, and then ran off again — it didn’t show any signs of distress. A baby critter that is human-clingy or acts in a “are you my parent?” way is showing an unnatural behavior that may indicate they’ve been orphaned.
🐿️🤹: But these baby chippies seemed healthy and rambunctious. I encountered them again in the same spot a few days later, and this time everyone was too busy trying to climb twigs and sedges and check under every leaf to be fussed with me. Perfect.
🐸🐰🦌: In the past couple of weeks we’ve also had encounters with baby tree frogs, baby cottontail bunnies and seen a young fawn with its mom on the trail camera. My own attention may have turned to stacking this year’s winter firewood, but it seems fall baby season is still in full swing!
Little gray treefrog we relocated to a red oak(it was on the BBQ and we were about to make sausages…). It was on the tree for about 2 minutes before we had trouble spotting it again, and we put it there.
Woodburned this little scamp on the weekend. I wasn’t sure what to draw, then I looked out the window and fifteen thousand chipmunks went running by…
There are so many chipmunks here that I suspect our home sits on a bedrock of swiss cheese.
It would be so wonderful to know what goes on here, under my nose, beneath my feet. The rabbit warrens and chipmunk tunnels. Where the voles and moles and mice live. Snake dens, toad hidey holes. I glimpse only little flashes of tails disappearing, a crevice that doubles as a front door, a dug out doorway into a slopeside home. The original earthship builders.
The presence of chipmunks reminds me that I’m perched on an iceberg. The earth below is teeming with life, and I walk obliviously on a hundred rooftops. Tunnels and dens and caches and retreats and sanctuaries. Under my feet, life goes down and down and on and on…
Burned on local cherry wood, an offcut from the work of @mysticwoodcarving (now @rhizaecosm).
I found a pretty perfect coyote paw print in the mud yesterday, and thought I’d have a go at casting it!
2 parts plaster of paris mixed with one part water. I cut the bottom off a plastic ricotta pot to use as a retaining wall for the plaster goop. Carefully poured in the plaster mix, and left it to solidify for 24 hours. I returned this morning to find well preserved wild canid toe beans! I think I’ll mount it by the front door so I can hi-five a coyote whenever I leave the house…
//🦊❓🐺❓🐶❓ FOX, DOG or COYOTE — How can you tell?
Here are 3 tips to help tell whether a single print belongs to a wild canid (fox/coyote) or a domestic dog. (NB There are exceptions to every rule, hence my liberal use of the word “tend”… 😉 )
1 — 🌕🥚 Round vs Oval. Domestic dog prints tend to have a round shape overall, with toes more splayed out. Wild canid toes tend to all point forward, and the overall shape is more oval.
2 — 🗡️🥄Claws. Wild canids tend to have sharper, pointier claws than domestic dogs. They spend less time walking on hard surfaces like pavement and floors.
3 — ✖️🐾 The X Factor. In a wild canid track, because of how the various pads relate to each other, there tends to be an ‘X’ shape through the middle of the print. See if you could draw an X through the print, and not touch any pads.
My ID: I believe this track is the front paw of an eastern coyote. The dimensions are bang on for a coyote’s front paw, ~2.75″x2.5″. Fox would be a little smaller, closer to 2″, even allowing for fuzzy mud measurements, and it lacks the callus ridge I’d expect to see at least a hint of in a clear fox print. Let me know if your eyes see otherwise, and you have a different ID!
I’m really chuffed with how well this first attempt at casting went. You betcha I’ll be trying this again!
Have a great weekend folks! Don’t forget to set aside some time to play in the mud.
❄️⏳: There’s a lot to love about a snowy winter. For one, it gives everybody a superpower — the ability to look back in time.
❄️📝: Because snow’s crisp white pages note every passing. From the stealthiest critter to the tiniest one, in snow, they all leave their mark. Even when their paws or hooves move in total silence, the snow records it. A fisher went this way, a fox went that. Mice scurried back and forth and back and forth and back and forth under this fallen tree. A weasel wandered along the ridge, and a deer did a u-turn.
❄️📚: It all happens before I get there. But snow is a great storyteller, always ready to share its tales. An otherwise quiet walk is enlivened with a cast of dozens, story after story, chapter after chapter.
👃👀🔍: In other seasons, the stories are often written in invisible ink. One day perhaps I will learn how to read the missing moss, smell the earth more thoroughly, notice crushed grasses, follow gentle tracks left in morning dew.
But for now, in the winter, I’ll revel in the bright bold text of these frozen moments. This peak into the recent past. There are still plenty of mysteries — the snow doesn’t do spoilers — but it’s enough to follow some of the plot, meet some of the characters.
It’s storytime. 💙 // Wishing you all well in this first chapter of 2023 ❄️