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She hangs there, upside down, eyes fixed on me as I open the gate and ease into the garden. I leave it open behind me, a gateway to the wild air I hope will call to her. As I draw near, she unclamps her talons from the netting and explodes out of the corner. She bumps against the overhanging net, this oddly constrained sky, and latches on again. I try to herd her to the open gate, but she’s not having it. The yellow toes, tipped with tiny scimitars, cling even tighter. The sharp eyes, bright and lucid, do not blink. The beak–that deadly instrument–gleams and menaces.

I have to get her out, but how? How, exactly, does one extract a wild peregrine from one’s tomato garden without either party being wounded? Bird netting is supposed to keep birds out, not in, but here we are. Bees, I remember suddenly: my long-cuffed goatskin beekeeper’s gloves are just the thing. I fetch them from the house and slip them on, feeling anxious, desperate, and hopeful. Somehow, I have to manage this.

She lets me get right next to her, eyeing me intently but without complaint. I stand still for a moment, then reach out both hands and cup her body gently. The heart beats at the speed of light–hers and mine alike–and I feel her anger, fear, and hope. With one hand, I softly stroke her back and head, and tell her it will be alright. We stand like that for several minutes. Gradually, the toes begin to uncurl, and I pull her free of the netting. Her wings quiver once, twice, and I hustle to the open gate, my hands full of impatient, flapping falcon. At the threshold I open them, arms high. She soars away, without looking back.

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It’s more than a bit ironic that my mother died, quite unexpectedly, only a few weeks after my last post. As you might imagine, that’s a lot to deal with….and I will address it here in a while. Blogging hasn’t been foremost in my mind the past few months as a result but light is beginning to creep over the horizon. Here’s a piece I wrote yesterday.

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Bambi is relentless. Oh, sure, he’s cuter than just about anything–especially when he’s new and tiny, all decked out in bright white polka dots. Those enormous, outsized ears, the tender inky nose twitching at the slightest hint of danger or excitement, the dark, moist, long-lashed eyes, and endless spindly legs would make anyone smile and coo. Anyone, that is, except a gardener.

Bambi, it turns out, has a voracious appetite–and he’s not alone. Mother, aunts, cousins, and siblings join him on patrol, irregular brigades of Bambis fanning out along the edges of the day in search of anything, and everything, that might be tasty or digestible.

I know this, of course, having shared my forest home with Bambi and his crew for years now. I’ve got deer fencing around my garden beds, and the fruit trees are in their own secure enclave. Other plants are deer-resistant, or ample enough to share. The yellow plum, for one, bears way more fruit than we can use, and Bambi’s welcome to the windfalls and whatever’s hanging out beyond the fence. I’m thankful that I have this wild and lovely space, and glad for our (mostly) peaceful coexistence.

Recently, however, I transported a young Meyer lemon tree and left it–overnight–outside the fence. After breakfast, I found it barely recognizable–every leaf, bar none, nibbled to oblivion, branches utterly denuded and forlorn. It was my own fault, to be sure, but every single leaf? Talk about a low blow!

Fortunately, the tree–which I immediately moved into the enclosure–recovered, and actually looks better now than before its run-in with the Bambis. And I’ve relearned a lesson about being a good neighbor–sometimes, it really is about good fences.

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Photography is all about the light: chasing it, capturing it, using it to make an image that brings that light to life in someone else’s eyes. Light, good or bad, can make or break a picture–think the golden hour, that magic span of breaths before the sun goes down, or the low, soft light right after sunrise.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

How, then, to make a photograph at night, with no sunlight at all? And why would this be worth doing in the first place? Our eyes, it turns out, are but poor guides: things are happening at night that we can’t perceive, seeing as we do in tiny bursts of time that follow on each other’s heels but never quite connect to tell a longer story. At night, the long exposures needed to make images without added light stitch those fleeting bursts into a quilt of mystery, suspense, and revelation: you never know quite what you’ll see after the shutter’s been open 10, 20, even 30 minutes at a stretch.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The answer, often, is nothing like what you imagined. Over many minutes, moonlight, stars, and the play of shadows compress and combine to make a strange and unexpected beauty. Perhaps most surprising is the color: hues lost to our eyes in the dark loom extravagant in night-time photographs, luxuriant and ripe as orchids.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Next full moon, go out and find the night, wherever you may be. Sit, or stand, with no goal, desire, or thought in mind for 10 or 20 minutes–just listen, watch, and feel the night around you for a time. Let your ears take in its sounds, your eyes grow accustomed to its subtleties, and your skin absorb its complex texture. Now, if you’re really feeling bold, get your camera, a tripod, and a timer. Frame your shot, open up the shutter, and see what magic you and the night can make together.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

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Nocturne

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A few months ago, I discovered something amazing. I’d seen it thousands of times before, but never really paid attention–it was just there, a background as I hurried from point A to point B, a wordless blanket shrouding my house as I slept, an invisible backdrop to an outdoor concert or a rooftop drink with friends.

What is this wonder, so unquestioned yet so fascinating? It’s nothing fancy or exotic, and you don’t have to go far to find it. It’s no more or less than night itself—implicit, deep, and intricate. Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m talking about–we all know what night is, right? What’s the big deal?

Night isn’t just the absence of day, though it certainly is that. Night can be a time of freedom as we leave our jobs, commutes, and daytime stress behind. Other things fall away with the sun’s light too–colors are less bright, shadows become less sharply defined, and the busy noise of day fades quickly as the moon ascends the arc of heaven. In their place, night brings treasures of its own: softer and more subtle colors, richer and more complex shadows, and the music of its many creatures, varied and evocative.

Next full moon, go outside, stand still, and just be in the night for 10 or 20 minutes with nowhere to go and nothing to do but pay attention. No doubt you’ll notice something new. At first, it may be your own breathing, or the beating of your heart, sounds the busy press of daytime overrides. After a few minutes, perhaps you’ll be struck by the way the air moves and breathes, the way the stars and planets track overhead, or the way the moon’s glow transmutes ordinary into extra-ordinary. Make the night itself your sole intention, for a minute or an hour, and who knows what you’ll discover?

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Every gardener knows it, the special sadness that lurks in every season. It starts out small, so tiny you can easily discount it: no, it couldn’t be, I didn’t really feel that, that’s just crazy! But while you’re busy thinning out the seedlings, or hardening them off, or turning compost into beds with the new fork that fits your hand so perfectly, it’s there—waiting for you to look up, turn your head, let down your guard the slightest little sliver. That moment may not come for weeks, but one day you’ll be in the garden, in mid-summer, say–overwhelmed by squash and wishing it would just stop–when suddenly you’ll feel the wave wash and toss you like a bit of sea glass. Soon enough, you will know in that instant, and not be able to deny, it will stop, and the bounty you’re enjoying will be one more shade adrift in memory’s vast hall.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

That end, the familiar turn of seasons so rooted in us all, is certainly no mystery. We know it’s coming, it’s natural and inevitable, part of life’s cycles and all that. All things, and all seasons, must indeed pass. The knowing isn’t what hurts, though–it’s the feeling, and the letting go. The trick is to hold back the wave as long as you can, in whatever way you can.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

In late summer and early fall, that’s usually simple enough–there’s just too much doing to fret about the coming winter. Canning, drying, freezing, saucing, and pickling can fill a weekend faster than a wish, a thought, or a whisper. A long string of weekends can vanish into water baths, brine crocks, and slow cookers before you look up and realize it’s practically the holidays…again. And in any season, there are seeds to contemplate for the next: those tantalizing names and photos in the catalogues, with descriptions that lure and entice you, the eyes that are always bigger than your garden beds.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Once the seeds arrive, there’s lots more to keep you occupied–readying the flats and warming trays, nestling each seed in its new home, tending the trays like a broody hen till the tender shoots are up and sparkling. Not long after, it’s time for thinning, then repotting up a size or two, and before long they’re ready to be snugged into the soil you’ve prepared so carefully. This takes a lot of planning, and serves as a natural transition between seasons when done skillfully.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This year, though, I have no soft landing on the other side of summer. I’ve been traveling much more than usual, and perforce have found myself with less time for the garden–and for the succession plan that ushers fall out one door while winter steals in through the other. This isn’t a bad thing–quite the contrary–but it’s a definite departure (more on that as the time seems right), and sharpens the sadness I feel as the redwoods coat my deck with brittle castoffs and the days grow noticeably shorter. The air is crisp now, no longer languid with the lazy bliss of August or September, and the zucchini have indeed stopped: I ripped the vines out this very afternoon, after filling one final basket with bright, small jewels. As is their due, I will savor them, perhaps stir-fried with hot and sweet peppers, garlic, lemongrass, and Thai basil from the garden, and raise a glass to summer. The new season will find me hopeful, looking forward to the new life and challenges it will surely bring.

copyright 2008 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The squeals were incredibly loud, for such a small creature. The chipmunk who’d been despoiling my blueberries was in the planter munching away when I approached. She panicked, and somehow got neck and all 4 limbs tangled in the bird netting I thought was protecting the bush from just such meddling. My first thought was serves you right–maybe now you’ll leave my plants alone. The next was even worse: I could just leave her there, trapped, and put an end to the marauding. Maybe I’d get to enjoy a few berries myself, if she were out of the picture. After all, wasn’t that why I’d planted the bush, and nurtured it painstakingly? Then I drew that picture to its one possible conclusion–a slow, tortured death from fear and dehydration–and I couldn’t do it. I turned and went into the kitchen for a pair of scissors.

Holding the netting up and carefully untwisting it, I found the strands that bound her and cut them, each by each, taking care not to cut her or let her bite me. I could only imagine the terror she felt, and the bewilderment. Seconds later, she was free, and promptly scampered off to hide beneath the grill, chittering as she ran.

Will she remember our encounter? Will she be grateful? Will she and her progeny forswear forevermore my garden’s bounty? I have no reason to believe it. No doubt a day from now, or a week, or a month, I’ll search in vain for the plump, ripe purple berries I desire….and have second thoughts. Maybe I’ll wish I had left her there to die. I’m not a fanatic, after all: I do kill mosquitos, gophers, and other assorted pests. But this was a line I could not cross–I can’t say precisely why, but I can say I’m glad of it.

update: I’ve since started using Havahart live traps to catch and relocate the chipmunks, with some success. They sure do love almond butter!

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This essay aired on KQED FM as part of its Perspectives series on August 16, 2011. See their website for the downloadable MP3 file, as well as some interesting listener comments.

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

I suppose it was inevitable. After years of living in the mountains, I’d seen enough to know it was a matter of time, no matter how careful I was. Still, I thought I could escape.

It was dark, and raining, but that’s no excuse. I’ve driven in far worse conditions without an issue, though there have been some close calls. The most serious was due to fog: creeping 5 miles an hour up a narrow, windy road at dusk with zero visibility , I heard–and felt–a soft, fleeting thud against the left front fender. As I realized what had just happened, the deer sprinted off across the road, a brownish ghost emerging briefly from the mist. A second later, unharmed, it was swallowed by the fog again.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This time, I saw the blur of motion in the corner of one eye–a few erratic stops and starts off on the side of the road–and thought the animal had decided against crossing. I was wrong, and because I was in a hurry I did not slow down. The thump and crunch were sickening, not least because right before I hit it, I saw the little skunk run toward the road again–and knew it was too late. I’m so sorry, baby, I told it, wishing desperately for a different outcome.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One skunk more or less may seem insignificant, but I’d just contributed to the estimated one million vertebrates killed on US roads each day–one every 11.5 seconds. This includes wildlife from mice to moose, endangered species, and household pets. Human injuries and deaths result too, and pricey damage to vehicles. Fencing, signs, and wildlife crossings can reduce roadkills, and high-tech solutions may help in the future, but awareness and reducing speed are still the best bets for avoiding these tragic incidents. It’s a lesson I know I’ve taken to heart.

This essay was aired as part of the Perspectives series on KQED-FM on April 6, 2011

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

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