Hug a Crow This Earth Day

Not literally, of course. Crow hugging is fraught with peril at the best of times, but especially in spring when nesting season has them a bit tense.

Baby Face Crow © June Hunter Images

Please, do not hug me.

But I do suggest that you give the crow (or pick your favourite bird, plant, patch of moss or mollusk) a special thought today.

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coral bark maple © June Hunter Images

mussels at Botanical Beach © June Hunter Images 2016

It’s Earth Day so, ideally, we should be extending our love to the entire planet.

But that’s a hard thing to do, particularly when what the planet needs from us right now is massive change —change that is going to be really tough for us to make.

John Marzluff quote2

The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, where we often feel very cut off from what we think of as Nature.

Lyanda quote

So, given that most of us are urbanites these days, how are we to develop the necessary connection with nature in order to care enough to make change and move towards saving the planet?

As my dear mother used to say, “wherever you go, there you are.”

And where you are now, even if it’s in the heart of the city, has tenacious bits of nature thriving in it.

It just takes a slight focus shift to start becoming aware of, and amazed by it.

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This crow is tending a nest at Hornby and Robson in the heart of downtown Vancouver, right by the Art Gallery. A friend who works at the gallery told me that it’s probably the same pair who nested there last year and caused a traffic kerfuffle when one of their babies flew into the back of someone’s convertible just outside of Café Artigiano.

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Collecting nest furnishings in the heart of downtown Vancouver.

Often the thing you tend to notice first, just because of its size and boldness, is a crow.

CameliaCrow ©June Hunter Images 2016

I find that the crow is your gateway bird, leading to the habit of noticing the bird world as a whole. Once you’ve started to look up to see what the crows are up to, you can’t help but start to notice the robins, sparrows, bushtits, chickadees and hawks going about their more subtle, but equally fascinating, avian business.

Bushtit in the Rain © June Hunter Images 2016

Coopers Hawk on William © June Hunter Images 2016

Chickadee in the Snowbell Tree © June Hunter Images 2016

And noticing birds is, in turn, a gateway to the wonder of nature in general.

Colin Tudge quote

The task of saving the earth often seems far too big and therefore hopeless.

The tools we need this Earth Day are empathy and hope.

Someone who embodies both of these qualities is 87 year old Jean Vanier, who created L’Arche — a unique and loving community for mentally disable adults. Here are some of his thoughts on birds, as told to columnist and writer, Ian Brown in a Globe and Mail interview.

Jean Vanier quote

Eric and Erica on Roof

Hmmm, something to think about …

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Some notes on the author’s quoted in this blog post:

John Marzluff’s Wikipedia page says this:
“John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of In the Company of Crows and Ravens, Gifts of the Crow, and Welcome to Subirdia. His lab once banded crows with a Dick Cheney mask.”
— so you know he’d be fun guy to know!
Subirdia is his most recent book about the amazing adaptability of birds, their importance, and what we can do to help them survive in our urbanized world.

I first discovered Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt when I picked up a copy of Crow Planet several years ago. It remains one of my favourite books, combining science, poetry and humour  in a way that I could read all day. She’s also written a wonderful book on city wildlife in general (The Urban Bestiary) and I look forward to her next one on the subject of starlings. And she has a blog: The Tangled Nest.

Colin Tudge is a British biologist and entertaining author, The Bird is only one of many books he’s written. I next want to read his book The Secret Life of Trees.

You can read more about the life and work of  Jean Vanier on his website.

Ian Brown is an author and  columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper. His books include Boy in the Moon, about his severely disabled son and his latest, Sixty, The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?  That one’s also on my reading list.

 

Hop-Along Hank

Sometimes I wonder if there’s a crow memo circulating, directing slightly invalided birds to my place. There’s George Brokenbeak and also Hop-Along Hank.

Hank walks with a limp because of a problem with his right foot that he’s had for as long as I’ve known him. Flying is no problem for him, but I can spot him on a roof top from quite a distance because of his distinctive stance, favouring the sore foot. That and his slightly hooked beak.

Hank and Vera have been around since last spring. I wrote about them in an earlier blog, Here’s Hank, charting their failed effort at parenthood last year. I have a feeling that Hank is one of Eric’s offspring. Eric has seemingly ceded our backyard territory to Hank, in favour of a superior nesting spot in the tall poplars at the end of the street.

Hank and Vera paying an early morning visit. You can see Hank's slightly deformed foot on the far right.

Hank and Vera paying an early morning visit. You can see Hank’s slightly deformed foot on the far right.

Now Hank and Vera and George and Mabel vie for my attentions. The four of them often sit together peaceably on the wires in the alley, but as soon as there are peanuts, it’s game on. The two pairs will never cooperate and share the food. Much ferocious cawing and occasional dive bombing ensue if I put nuts out when both couples are nearby.

We seem to have worked out a more or less harmonious system where Hank and Vera come first thing in the morning. George and Mabel take the later shift, coming later in the morning , and sometimes in the afternoon too, for a last minute snack  before the nightly journey to the Still Creek roost.

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Hank (left) and Vera (right) vociferously stake out their claim to the peanuts.

Most of the time, Hank doesn’t seem too bothered by his foot problem, but when the weather is cold and wet, I sometimes see him standing forlornly on one leg.

Hank the crow stands on one leg

Another one of Hank’s characteristics is that he seems to like to yawn. I don’t know if crows actually do yawn, but he often opens his beak very wide without any sound coming out — so it looks very much like a yawn.

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Y-a-w-n

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Hank’s limping gait gives him a rather model-like pose. Auditioning for a part in Zoolander 3?

Hank Close Up

So, this is Hank, as I know him. I’m sure Vera could tell some tales too!

And I’ll be writing another Vera update soon.

And, for those of you wondering about Eric — he’s still fine. I just saw him in the leafless poplar trees, swaying gently in the wind, from my dining room window.

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www.junehunter.com

George’s Tough Year

I would describe George’s 2015 as “catastrophic”. Still, there are lessons to be learned from his persistence.

His year has been so awful, it’s taken me a while to prepare myself to tell the story, and look again at some of the images.

George Waiting

George appeared in my garden about midway through the long, hot, dry summer last year. He was waiting for me one day when I came out of the studio, resting on a branch and looking at me as if we were already well acquainted. It turned out that George had a family — a mate (Mabel) and one fledgling.

Mabel and Baby

The baby crow at first seemed like the average disheveled juvenile, doted upon my both of his parents. But as the summer continued, it became clear that all was not well with Junior. Lumps appeared on his face and then on his feet. He had avian pox, which is often fatal and very contagious to other birds of many species.

George preening baby

I had a crisis of conscience. Fearing for the health of all the other birds that come to my garden, I considered ignoring George’s pleading looks so that the family might start to seek food elsewhere and leave the area. Easier said than done.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

After a couple of miserable days of looking at George’s expectant face through the studio window, I moved to plan B. This consisted of a rather rigorous schedule of feeding George and family at only one spot on the deck and then, after their visit, immediately cleaning the area with bleach and rinsing thoroughly. I also bleached the birdbath daily, and emptied and cleaned all the other bird feeders every few days. I went from crazy crow lady, to crazy bleach lady!

Of course, when I noticed the sick baby and family perched on the hydro wires all over the neighbourhood, I realized that there was a limit to what I could do in the sterilization department.

By the end of the summer, George and Mabel looked completely worn out. All Vancouver wildlife had a tough time dealing with the drought, and many birds started molting early in the summer. George looked thoroughly bedraggled by the time new feathers started to come in for the fall.

Bedraggled

Finally, in early fall, his new feathers came in and he looked much more handsome. More importantly, he and Mabel showed no sign of having developed avian pox symptoms.

George in new winter feather finery.

George in new winter feather finery.

 

A little more on Mabel: she’s a lot more reluctant to get close to me than George. A problem with her right eye probably causes some vision impairment,  naturally making her more cautious. At times the eye is completely closed and, at other times, it looks quite normal. Mostly it doesn’t seem to cause her great problems.

In this photo you can see Mabel's eye problem.

In this photo you can see Mabel’s eye problem.

Moments later, Mabel's right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Moments later, Mabel’s right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Sadly, the baby crow grew sicker, although both parents continued to feed and preen him with single-minded dedication. He could still fly, but his damaged feet made it hard for him to land and rest. We could hear his plaintive cries for food from one end of our alleyway to the other.  Then the weather turned suddenly cold and he fell silent.

George’s bad luck did not end there.

Shortly after the sick baby crow died, I saw George waiting for me as usual in the garden and went out to say hello.

I gasped in horror. My brain couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. George the magnificent, was missing half of his top beak.

George - still magnificent.

First of all, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how this happened.

I still can’t. If anyone has ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Then, I was grief stricken. After all that George had been through, this new catastrophe seemed so unfair.

I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to survive this new challenge. I didn’t post anything about it on Facebook because I was still mentally processing both the event, and my reaction to it.

I struggled with whether it’s wrong to be so very upset about the difficulties facing a crow — given all the terrible things going on in the world.

There’s a whole other, more thoughtful, blog post being pondered to answer that question. Until then, in brief, I’ve decided it’s OK. And even if it isn’t, I can’t help it.

Jaunty George

George's injury doesn't seem to have made less confident. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected his confidence. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

It’s been several weeks now and I’ve become accustomed to George’s new look. I’m cheered by the adaptability he’s demonstrating with his food collection methods. When he comes for peanuts he turns his head almost upside down for better “shoveling” action. I try to help out by putting the nuts in contained space so he can trap them. It’s rather amazing how efficient he’s become.

Modified Technique 2

Modified technique 1

And, happily, Mabel seems to be standing by her crow. George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected her loyalty – the two of them remain a fierce team when it comes to protecting their territorial rights.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

Clearly Mabel still thinks that George is the top crow, so I’m hoping the two of them together can survive and thrive. I’m full of admiration for George Halfbeak and his resilience. I’m even starting to see a certain dashing charm in his new look.

George this morning, braving the think frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

George this morning, braving the cold and frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

He had a pretty devastating 2015, but looks set to take on 2016 with typical crow determination. Good luck, George and Happy New Year.

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How to Keep Your Cool

As usual, the birds have the best idea. When the temperature soars, head for the water.

I’ve been employing my own “beat the heat” strategies, most notably, getting up at 4am to get all of my “active” duties out of the way by early afternoon. It’s just too hot to be in the studio after 2, but getting up very early means you can have a lot of things done and dusted by noon! Of course, it does mean going to bed around 8pm, so not so great for the social life …

When it’s really hot, I love to watch the birds having fun with water in the garden – in the birdbath, the sprinkler and now in my new “mister”, purchased this week. Note: the mister is also great for spraying on yourself!

Here’s a selection of some of the visitors to the garden “water park”.

Sometimes a moment in a bath is the only peaceful time you get to yourself all day ...

Sometimes a moment in a bath is the only peaceful time you get to yourself all day …

And sometimes you just can't get the place to yourself. Sigh.

And sometimes you just can’t get the place to yourself. Sigh.

Best to get your feet wet first before plunging right in.

Best to get your feet wet first before plunging right in.

This little chickadee was waxing quite operatic at the birdbath.

Singing at bath time is traditional!

This little golden crowned sparrow had a sticky bit of rhododendron bud stuck to his foot, so he hopped in the birdbath to rinse it off.

This little golden crowned sparrow had a sticky bit of rhododendron bud stuck to his foot, so he hopped in the birdbath to rinse it off.

Everyone ends up at the birdbath

The birdbath gets some very elegant visitors.

Crow Stands on Birdbath

… and some very handsome visitors!

... and some just very, very happy visitors!

… and some very splashy visitors!

 

Hummingbird in Sprinkler

And some visitors prefer the lawn sprinkler!

May everyone stay cool and happy this weekend. And remember to put some water out for the birds if it’s hot and dry where you are. If you don’t have a birdbath, a plastic plant pot tray with some water in it will do. Just change the water daily.

To see my collection of bird prints, visit my web site.

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spa crows

Crows enjoying the pools near the Royal Museum in Victoria. It was a very social and happy affair that went on for hours.

Here’s Hank

First there was Eric. Then there was Hank. Now there are Hank and Eric and Vera and Eric’s mate and some babies. That’s a lot of crows for a small area, but they seem to have worked out a way to keep things civil.

They key is that certain rules have to be adhered to. Eric and his family have the run of the front street and the large poplars at the end of the street.

Hank and Vera rule the back garden and the alley. They still seem to be tending to a nest in a big tree in the alley.

Hank is responsible for feeding Vera while she's nesting.

Hank is responsible for feeding Vera while she’s nesting.

Harmony exists as long as no-one forgets to cross the unseen borders. If they do – holy moly, there is trouble.

The other day Hank was on his usual perch on the neighbour’s roof when Eric came a-calling. After all, the back yard used to be Eric’s domain, so I can see how he might be confused. I was photographing Hank at the time, so I was able to catch the instantaneous transformation from relaxed, rather gormlessly sunbathing crow — to puffed-up (look how big and scary I am!) tough-guy crow.

On the left, Hank is in relaxed, sunbathing mode. One second later, sensing intruders into his space, he's in tough crow mode.

On the left, Hank is in relaxed, sunbathing mode. One second later, sensing intruders into his space, he’s in tough crow mode.

I can easily tell the difference between Hank and Eric because Hank has a rather distinctive “over beak”. His top beak curves over the bottom slightly. They engaged in a few minutes of angry cawing and a touch of dive bombing action before Eric relinquished the territory to Hank.

Hank Close Up

Ruler of the backyard.

It’s lucky the trouble was short lived — because Hank really seems to enjoy just hanging about and soaking up the sun. Here he is later that day doing some more sun bathing on the studio roof. He likes to relax with his beak open and wings spread out. He’s a real West Coast, laid back kind of crow.

Wings spread, beak open - I think it's like dogs panting, it must create some sort of cooling effect.

Wings spread, beak open – I think it’s like dogs panting, it must create some sort of cooling effect.

More wing spreading.

More wing spreading.

He probably does yoga when I’m not looking. Actually, I think I may have caught him a hula hoop practice in this picture.

Check out that hip action!

Check out that hip action!

I am getting quite fond of Hank and he is getting less nervous around me, and therefore a more willing model for my photographs.

If you’d like to hear more about what goes on with the local crows on a daily basis, check in at my Facebook page. 

I post lots of pictures there and keep you up on latest in the ongoing crow soap opera.

And if you’d like to see my collection of crow portraits for sale, check out my website.

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Winsome

 

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Crow Gifts of All Kinds


PNW-Scavenger-Hunt-Logo

Read this blog and the others in the scavenger hunt, find the answers to the questions, and race to win fabulous prizes (including one of my raven pendants)!


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I have to admit, I have been a bit envious of the little girl in Seattle* who has received so many fabulous gifts from the crows she feeds every day in her garden.

My local crow, Eric, and his family don’t usually leave me anything, except that which is white and rather slimy.

But the more I think about the nature of gift giving and receiving, I realize that I’ve gained many things, large and small, from my relationship with crows.

Some things are both large and small at the same time.

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Take the feather, for instance.

I was busy. I was putting out the recycling in the lane behind my studio. I noticed a small fluffy crow under-feather on the ground by the blue box. I picked it up and looked at it.

It was really beautiful. But I said to myself, “June, pull yourself together, you have book-keeping to get to. You can’t get distracted by every feather you find.”

I let go of the feather and it floated in the air. I walked back to the gate and re-entered the garden. The feather wafted along with me. As I closed the gate behind me, the feather snuck in.

At that point I felt that being actively followed by a feather must be a sign that the book-keeping could wait.

feather photos

I spend an hour taking detailed photographs of that feather. The images are integrated into many of my favourite compositions. To most, it just looks like an interesting texture. But to me, it’s a little reminder that the book-keeping can always wait.

A lesson and a gift from the crows.

shopify yoga crow banner

 

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Eric’s greatest gift to me is that he allows me to take his picture. There is a reciprocal agreement, of course, with peanuts being involved. Still, Eric is exceptional in his willingness to be photographed. I have been a crow observer and photographer for years now, and found that most crows are immediately terrified and/or evasive when something is pointed at them, peanuts or no peanuts. No doubt they have strong ancestral memories of being shot at by things other than cameras.

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Eric, perhaps because he’s seen me out with my camera so many times, is far less fearful. Which has given me the priceless gift of getting to “know” and capture images of an individual crow and his family ties and foibles. Eric has a “sliding scale” of how close I can be to him, based on the offerings I present. For the usual peanuts, I can be two feet away. For mouldy cheese or slightly stale sausage, a foot or less is permitted. He is the dominant bird among his group, always grabbing the biggest and choicest pieces of food before the others dare to sneak in. But he’s also an affectionate partner and parent.

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In some ways, the crows’ greatest gift is their potential role as a “gateway” to appreciating urban nature of all kinds.

In her wonderful book, Crow Planet, author Lyanda Lynn Haupt points out that these birds are “the most oft-encountered native wild animal” in most peoples’ lives. Learning to appreciate their intelligence, humour, agility and essential crow-ness can be the first step along the road celebrating all of nature, in the city and beyond.

As John Marzluff points out in his latest book, Subirdia, it is critical that humans maintain a “thirst to remain part of nature” in order to moderate our competing hunger for development, expansion and the continued degradation of the natural world.

So, while I still dream of some day receiving a little trinket from Eric as a token of our “friendship”, I’m happy just to enjoy his company each morning. Every day I notice some new things about the crow life he leads. While I watch him, I also soak up the beauty of the sky, the trees, and the light in the chickadee’s eye.

And I always keep any eye open for any crow feathers that might float by.


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If you’d like to read more about Eric, check out my earlier blog post Who Is Eric?

*More on the BBC story about the Seattle girl receiving gifts from her local crows.

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Just Another Day

It started as a normal Monday in East Vancouver. The dawn made it’s spectacular appearance (an hour late due Daylight Savings).

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Birds began to reappear in the sky, taking their posts for the coming day.

Dawn bird

Eric and his family arrived at their spot — in my garden, waiting for the first peanut handout of the day.

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I was thrilled to see the first downy woodpeckers had returned from whichever winter destination they’d chosen.

Downy Woodpecker male

I noted that the house sparrows were collecting nesting material. And giving the pine siskin some interior design ideas at the same time.

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Suddenly, trouble in paradise.

Eric and his family of crows dove into the lilac tree where all the small songbirds like to be.

I thought the crows had suddenly and unexpectedly decided to start dining on full-grown sparrows and chickadees.

But no — the crows had spotted a juvenile Sharp Shinned Hawk darting into the lilac.

No doubt the hawk had certain designs on the songbirds, snack-wise.

Sharp Shinned Hawk

The hawk fled, pursued by Eric, his family and the neighbourhood watch committee of concerned crows. They flew around the neighbourhood all day.

Hawk soaring, crows cawing.

Hawk on High

A crow keeps a wary eye on the hawk from the top of street sign.

 

So, now we have a new kid on the block, adding to the daily excitement. Another hazard for smaller birds, like the bald eagles and ravens that already cruise the skies. But another thrilling ingredient into the mix of wildlife that calls East Vancouver home.

Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry

Occasionally the most ordinary of days is transformed out of all recognition.

It started with a dawn trip downtown for an early morning physiotherapy appointment (tennis elbow: even less fun that it sounds).

Post-appointment I popped into the Vancouver Art Gallery to drop off one of my bracelets, ordered by the gift shop. It was still so early that the gallery wasn’t open yet, but my friend was there so we went out for a quick coffee. Already the day was on the upswing!

After coffee, I decided to go back once again to the gallery with her to take a photo of my work on display in the shop. As we reached the entrance it was hard to miss the massive crow commotion going on in the tree just outside. My friend immediately guessed it was the barred owl that she’d seen several times over the years, usually in the evening. I guess this time the owl had pulled an all-nighter, because there she was, high in the tree, with about two dozen crows flapping around and cawing furiously.

Crow-owl stand-off.

Crow-owl stand-off.

 

Quite a large owl with big, soulful eyes, she was a breath-taking sight and not at all something you expect to find in downtown Vancouver on a Friday morning. Miraculously having my camera with me, all other plans for the day were put on hold.

Barred Owl at VAG

Barred owl on branch

The crows came and went … and came back again. The initial twenty or so dwindled to a skeleton crew of two dedicated owl harassers. For about 15 minutes even they left and all was quiet. Then they were back and the furious cawing resumed. Mostly the owl was able to ignore the hullaballoo and, secure in a particularly dense part of the tree, she seemed to nod off for a while. Then a crow would get too close and she’d make a lunge for it. Crows would explode from all sides of the tree. The owl would relocate to another branch and the game resumed.

The owl finally found a spot where the crows couldn't get too close.

The owl finally found a spot where the crows couldn’t get too close.

The Barred owl attempts to get some shut-eye in spite of the crow racket.

The Barred owl attempts to get some shut-eye in spite of the crow racket.

During the course of this I spoke to many people who were curious about the goings on – a couple who came equipped with binoculars, people who worked in the gallery, tourists, school children going in to see a show, a nice man from Ireland. Opinions were exchanged, stories told.

The Irish gentleman had a particularly memorable corvid tale. Back in Ireland, his aunt lived in a cottage close by a rookery. The rooks were very noisy and she tried to get rid of them by smoking them out – and in so doing, burned her own house down. The ultimate in “why you shouldn’t be mean to crows” stories.

Then a woman came to join the conversation and I noticed she was wearing one of my pendants. I commented on that and it turned out that she has several of my pieces and is a poet. She told me that she loves crows. We exchanged cards. Her name is Daniela Elza and her newest collection, milk tooth bane bone, explores her fascination with crows. I have just read a wonderful review of it here. I am seeking a copy immediately!

She also has a wonderful blog called Strange Places.

So, it was a day of multiple wonders – owls, crows, rook stories and poetry. Who could ask for more!

An hour of looking up into the high, high tree branches has left me in need of a new string of physio appointments, but so worth it.

Barred owl and tree trunk

Looking down

What Did You Wonder Today?

If you’re anything like me, the list goes along these lines:

  • Why is my computer displaying that “fatal error” message?
  • Where the heck did those extra cell phone charges come from?
  • What should I pick up for tonight’s dinner?
  • How soon, exactly, will the world arrive at hell in a hand basket?

These are all very worthy concerns. I am an expert worrier. Just ask my children. However, each time I board a plane I am reminded that, in the event of an emergency, I need to put my oxygen mask on first. In other words, I can’t help anyone else if I’m not functional. I discovered this a few years ago during a time of major stress and sadness.

Taking a small “wonder break” can be the most instantly relaxing and restorative thing you can do for yourself in five minutes or less.

Just some of the many things I like to wonder about:

  • What do birds think about?
  • Where do they go at night?
  • Does the rain bother the crows?
  • How come moss grows everywhere?
  • What, exactly, is lichen?
  • Why is rust so beautiful sometimes?

Rainy Day Crow

Portmeirion Red Lichen

I think we all followed such thought paths as children, but somewhere along the way, musing-time gets left behind. Mental meandering is frequently written off as daydreaming, a waste of time. But those tiny moments can be the start of bigger things.

Once you start, the wondering can take off in a couple of directions.

Path one: I wonder … (lower case ‘w’)
Once you start noticing birds, moss, plants, animals or old rusty signs, you may find yourself driven to find out more. You can talk to people who know more than you, read books or magazine articles, watch documentaries, do some online research. There might be just one question you’d like to find the answer to, or you can end up with a lifelong passion on your hands.

Vintage Books

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Path Two: Wonder (with a capital ‘W’)

This world is not perfect. Let’s face it, it’s far, far from perfect and we shouldn’t ever forget that or stop working to make it better.

But, there are those moments when you step outside of the door and notice some little, inconsequential thing and everything seems to stop just for a moment. Sometimes you say to yourself (or even out loud) “wow”.

Just for a moment we can live in pure wonder. It’s just a moment, but that feeling rides along with us as we rejoin the daily battle — whether it’s sorting out the cell phone bill, or saving the world.

A rusty shopping cart at Rona hardware store.

A rusty shopping cart at Rona hardware store.

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Whiskey Jack on Dog Mountain