The Living Among the Dead

The Living Among the Dead

Paterson has two cemeteries in its southeast corner. My mother and father are buried in one. My maternal grandparents and Aunt Rose (Rosadee) are buried in the other. I don’t visit often and I plan to write a bit more about that in an upcoming post. Today I did visit and brought a notebook and, happily for the purposes of this blog, my camera. I had begun to scribble a few notes for the aforementioned post when something or someone about 100 yards away caught my attention. It was a deer. Actually it turned out to be a small herd of deer.

I walked in the direction of a herd, but a car was also approaching and they scattered and fled. Once the car left the vicinity their movement slowed, although as I walked closer they continued to move away. I was able to take this one photo from a distance of about 70 feet or so. They continued to move along the fence line until they came to the break in the fence that separates the two cemeteries.


As the deer moved out of sight I found the groundskeeper sitting in his pickup truck speaking with the driver of a another truck of the type that is used to deliver concrete in-ground burial vaults. The groundskeeper told me that the herd has lived in these two cemeteries for eight years. There are now sixteen deer in the herd, including two fawns who were born this spring. During the growing season they eat the ornamental foliage that visitors plant near the graves of family members. During the winter the groundskeeper feeds the deer stale rolls that a local deli owner provides him.


It does make sense that these deer can thrive in a cemetery. It’s quiet and the few vehicles that do travel the roads don’t attain the speeds that would make them a threat to the deer. There are no predators. The primary threats to the deer are disease and malnutrition.


One can imagine some bereaved family members smiling at the thought of the graves of their loved ones being visited by deer. As long as the deer don’t eat the geraniums or hostas that they plant to decorate the graves. When one life ends, other lives go on, both human and otherwise.


One might wonder how big a herd these two urban properties could support in the long term. One also might wonder what means might be available to control the population should it grow beyond what can be sustained in that environment.


I hope to learn if the local newspaper has ever carried a story about this herd of deer in these two cemeteries. If no story has ever been written, perhaps I can write one. For now I am happy to be able to report on them in this forum.

Robin’s Nest, Memorial Park

Robin's Nest, Memorial Park

Several days ago I saw a robin fly into a small tree in Memorial Park, drawing my attention to a nest in a crotch about seven feet off the ground. The tree was fairly young and appeared to be some sort of ornamental fruit tree, perhaps a pear tree.

I wasn’t surprised to see the nest in that location; robins often build nests only a few feet off the ground. A pair of robins built a nest just above eye level in our pussy willow tree a few years back. They also attempted to build a nest atop the back porch light but abandoned the effort before any eggs were laid.

I was surprised to see that the robins that build the nest had been successful, at least so far, in raising a brood in the nest. The tree is located in a section of the park that gets a lot of human visitors. Not that I think many people would deliberately disturb the nest, but the robins might be spooked by the presence of so many large, threatening creatures. Also, being an urban park, Memorial Park is visited by neighborhood cats and other predators. Blue jays and grackles, both of which are known to prey on nestlings, also abound in the area.

Shortly after I took this photograph the male returned to the nest. He did not seem to have food for the chicks, so I wondered if my presence drew him back to the nest so that he could attempt to lure me away from it. Some birds are known to flee their nests when threatened to draw attention away from it and thus from the young in the nest. I backed away and the female made her appearance with food for the chicks. I counted three chicks; there may have been more.

In this photo, among the immature feathers and bits of fluff, at least two beaks and an eye are visible.

Psalm 104 is a great hymn of God’s sovereignty over creation. In verse 13 the Psalmist writes these words about the birds and the benefit they receive from the springs and streams that spring forth in the valleys: “Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.” I look at these robins, and their nest in the branches of a small tree beside the pond in Memorial Park. God’s mercy and grace shown to His creation are great indeed.

Iris in the early-morning sunlight

Iris in the early-morning sunlight

Two years ago I dug up all of our iris tubers, or corms. I separated and replanted as many as I could fit into the original bed and an adjacent bed, and last year they grew, but there were few blooms. This year the stems are full of buds, some of which have started to bloom. Iris blooms are delicate and do not last long, so when the combination of clear skies, fresh blooms, and early-morning sunlight came together, it was clear that this was the opportunity to attempt a photo.

This iris is facing directly toward the rising sun in the east-northeast.

These irises have a history that evokes some memories. The corms that we planted some thirty years ago came, as most of our hand-me-down plants have come, from Aunt Rose (Rosadee). She grew irises in the backyard of the house where I spent my childhood.

The corms that Rosadee first planted many years before were given to her by Hans Engel, our next-door neighbor for much of my childhood. Although I never thought of him this way when I was young, Mr. Engel was in some ways a surrogate grandfather. Both real grandfathers had died many years before I was born.

Mr. Engel had been a chemist but I believe he had retired by the time I got to know him. He grew grapes. He had a compost pile. He had a small collection of beer steins. Once, when I was watching him turn his compost pile, he disturbed a nest of yellow jackets and one of them stung me on the temple. My father chided him for exposing me to that risk but I survived that and many subsequent stings from yellow jackets. Mr. Engel had an enormous pet goldfish and a boxer named Ginger. His wife Viola and he looked out for the four of us, but for some reason I spent more time with him than my brothers did. He drove a large GM sedan, vintage early to mid-1950s, and then he bought a light blue 1964 Chevy II.

One day, when I was about seven or eight, Mr. Engel took me on a road trip to Sussex County. He collected and studied rocks and minerals and so he took me to the Franklin Mine. He also took me to the Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg and bought me lunch. I think we also had other outings but the trip to Franklin and Hamburg is the one that I remember best.

The Engels’s daughter Evelyn was married and had a son, Billy. One of Billy’s favorite activities when he came to visit was to sneak into the corner grocery store, which we knew as Cavvie’s, and see how far we could get by crawling around the store behind the counters and display cases before the proprietor caught us. He would then come after us with the grasping tool that he used to reach the cans and boxes on the high shelves. I don’t recall him ever catching us; I don’t know that he tried very hard and I don’t know what he would have done if he had caught us.

I can’t remember a lot of contact with the Engels during junior high school and high school. Mrs. Engel died at some point during those years but I was oblivious to it. I think it shook Mom up a bit. Mom’s own mother had died in the 1940s and I think she cherished Mrs. Engel as someone whom she could trust and confide in. Some time after Mrs. Engel died Mr. Engle hired a housekeeper, although I remember very little about her. My brothers probably remember more.

One weekday when I was in college I was home in the middle of the day. The housekeeper came and rang our door bell in a rather agitated state. Mr. Engel had fallen and was not responding to her attempts to rouse him. I went to the house to see if I could help and found Mr. Engel lying face down on the living room floor. I could find no pulse, however. The police and EMS were called and they confirmed what we suspected. An autopsy determined that he had had a stroke; he was probably already dead when he hit the floor.

I’d like to think that I learned some things from Mr. Engel. He was a good neighbor and friend to my parents and to me and I’m glad that I have these irises to remind me of his generosity.

Hawk’s Nest, or What Else Have I Been Missing?

Hawk's Nest, or What Else Have I Been Missing?

A National Park Ranger once told a group she was leading, of which I was a part, that bird watching is all about peripheral vision. I agree to a large extent. I also believe that good listening skills are important.

It was peripheral vision, however, that brought this hawk’s nest to my attention. Walking through Memorial Park yesterday afternoon (Thursday May 1) I caught a glimpse of a large bird in flight directly ahead of me and up in the canopy. The leaves not being full yet, it was not difficult to spot this bird as it landed on this nest.

The bird is a red-tail hawk. These large hawks are common in northern New Jersey and have adapted quite well to the presence of humans in their territory. One of the more famous instances of this adaptation is the nest built by a pair of red-tail hawks on the decorative stonework of a luxury co-op building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

The difficulty in writing this post is the acknowledgement that this is the first hawk’s nest that I have observed in our neighborhood in thirty years of living here. As noted in the previous paragraph, hawks are common in this area. With so many tall trees throughout the park and the surrounding neighborhoods, there is no doubt that many pairs of hawks have made nests in the area over the years. Why is this the first one I’ve observed?

Verlyn Klinkenborg, in Several Short Sentences about Writing includes a section on what he calls “noticing.” He writes that noticing “means thinking with all of your senses.” Noticing is essential to writing. I’ve fancied myself a writer for some time now. Hence this blog. I’m not sure I have sufficient observing or noticing skills for my writing efforts to be sustainable.

Please excuse a greater amount of introspection than usual, and a less-than-optimal photograph of the hawk on the nest. Thanks for stopping by.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

This afternoon we took the opportunity afforded by an open house at our home to visit Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange. It was a beautiful day to be out of doors with clear blue skies and temperatures in the upper 50s. We probably walked a little over two miles on the yellow-blazed Lenape trail, along the section that runs roughly north and south near the crest of the ridge.

We heard numerous birds, including a nuthatch, a flicker–which we also saw–and a tufted titmouse among others.

On the return trip to the car I was surprised to see a butterfly. It seemed too early to see any butterflies, and yet there it was. It rested long enough in one spot on the ground that I was able to take several photographs. A few yards further on we actually saw a second butterfly, smaller and red-orange in color, that would not alight long enough in any one spot for me to photograph it.

This evening I searched Google for butterfly identification resources hoping to be able to identify the butterfly that I photographed. It is a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa). The Mourning Cloak is the state butterfly of Montana, which gives some indication of the kind of climate the butterfly will tolerate. Unlike Monarchs, for example, which are well known for the distances they migrate, Mourning Cloaks overwinter in one location and do not migrate. This means that they are among the earliest butterflies to be seen in the spring.

It occurs to me that an insect that overwinters in a cold locale must be able to tolerate being frozen. How is that possible? How are insects different from mammals in that regard? Some insects are freeze-tolerant, which means that the water in their cells actually freezes, and some are freeze-susceptible and must somehow produce sufficient antifreeze compounds to prevent the fluid in their cells from freezing. The antifreeze compound most commonly produced by freeze-susceptible insects is ethylene glycol, the same compound that is used as an antifreeze agent for automobile cooling systems. (Source: viewed 6th April 2014)

Leaving the Backyard

Leaving the Backyard

After thirty years in this house, we have put it up for sale. We are planning to leave Passaic. We spent part of the day today looking at other homes, other backyards. A song sparrow was singing in two of them. Another had been certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Wherever we go I will be looking for opportunities to observe the local fauna and report on it here. I’m sorry that this is a relatively lame post but I missed last week and I don’t want to let it go too long. More to follow. Thanks for visiting and reading.

Spring is really coming.

Spring is really coming.

Despite the deep snow that has only recently retreated from this area and bitter cold of the past few nights, these daffodils have pushed their way through the debris from last year’s flower garden. The flower bed where these plants have emerged is on the south-east side of the house and is warmed by direct sunlight and by light reflecting off the light-colored wall behind it.

Creation is accustomed to dealing with the kind of freeze-thaw cycles that these bulbs have been through. Sugar maple trees, for example, need nights with temperatures below freezing followed by days with temperatures well above in order for the sap to begin flowing. We benefit from that phenomenon when we pour maple syrup on our pancakes.

Today my attention was drawn to Ecclesiastes 3:1 in the context of the beginning of Lent: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The transition from the austerity of winter into the beauty and abundance of spring is flipped on its head when Fat Tuesday turns into Ash Wednesday. Feasting and fasting, celebration and mourning, all have their proper time in our lives. Soon enough we will return to feasting and celebration when crucifixion and burial are overtaken by resurrection. For now, we submit to the discipline of reflection on our frailty.

Music Is Not a Spectator Sport


Singer-Songwriter Beck Hanson (known simply as Beck) published a book recently entitled Song Reader. In a review in the November/December issue of Books and Culture the reviewer, Jeff Johnson (himself a recording artist) made this comment: “Music is not just a soundtrack for whatever it is we are doing; if we participate in it instead of simply consuming it it will make living richer.”

The Christmas season is an appropriate time to think about our participation in music. My involvement in making music rather than consuming it came about because I wanted to do something that would cause people to think well of me. I thought and still think well of people who make music, the same way that I think well of people who are exceptionally intelligent or creative or have dedicated their lives to becoming really good at something such as a competitive sport.

As a high school student I thought that playing the guitar might serve this purpose and so I located a guitar teacher and began taking lessons. Sadly my guitar-playing career was short lived. Around the same time I observed that my peers in the church that I was attending who were part of the high school singing group were something of an elite, and so I began thinking about singing in a group setting as a way of accomplishing my goal. I didn’t act on that until I was in college, then one Thursday evening I showed up at the senior choir rehearsal. These were the people who wore the robes and sang in the Sunday morning services. I was welcomed in, despite my having no musical or voice training. To my surprise I found myself wearing a robe and singing from the choir loft the very next Sunday. Within a few months I was invited to join a smaller group, comprising mostly the younger members of the senior choir and a few others, who sang mostly in Sunday evening services. When that group held a reunion in the 1990s as part of the church’s centennial celebration I could still sing some of the music from memory. I have sung on and off in church choirs since then.

Anyone reading this probably understands that singing in a church choir doesn’t necessarily cause people to think well of you. I’d like to think that I’ve outgrown the need or ambition to have people think well of me, but the truth is that I probably haven’t and never will. That said, it is still worth observing that singing with a group is great fun. It’s also often a great challenge. The choir with which I currently sing, at Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, NJ, sings Bach cantatas in German, contemporary Gospel music, and classic choir repertoire by a wide range of composers.

In 2003, as the last tuition payment for our children’s undergraduate educations was in view, I saw the opportunity to fulfill another musical dream and begin studying an instrument. With the help of a friend and fellow church member I took up the euphonium and later joined the Bloomfield, New Jersey Civic Band. The photo at the top of this post was taken this morning (22 December 2013) as I prepared to play as part of a Christmas Carol sing at Grace.

Many people will say that they can’t sing. I know some people of whom that is actually true, but I think for many others it’s more a matter of being too self-conscious to sing in a setting where others might hear them. That’s sad. Like the highly processed foods that fill the shelves of our supermarkets, highly produced and highly commercialized music might satisfy our senses for a short while, but participating actively in locally produced music, even if it’s just singing hymns, feeds the spirit wonderful, nourishing food.

Take a chance. Sing. Whistle. Take up (or take up again) a musical instrument. Make a joyful noise, at the holidays and at all times.

Bird-Brained Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Stupid


Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Since we spent much of the day in the kitchen preparing the meal that we would enjoy with my family and Jody’s Mom, I got to keep an eye on the visitors to the bird feeders.

By about mid-day the suet block was gone. The house sparrows and starlings have had more than their share of the suet block this fall, leaving less for the downy woodpeckers that I want to attract to the feeder. I would not be able to get out to the store to buy another suet block until some time today (Friday) and so it remained empty for some time.

Not to be undone, the woodpecker seems to have figured out a way to deal with the sunflower seeds from the tube feeder, which he does not seem to be able to handle normally. He appears to take a seed and carry it back to the pussy willow tree where a good size branch was cut of at a 45-degree angle. He then appears to anchor the seed on that surface and peck at it until he can get at the meat.

Yesterday’s (Thursday 28th November) Herald News included a letter to the editor from Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation ( The letter is also posted on their Web site. It corrects a long-held believe of mine that robins migrate away from this area in the fall and return in the spring. It turns out that robins live in New Jersey all year long. When they are no longer able to pick up worms and insects they move to areas where berries such as hollies are found and feed on them instead. Then, in the spring when worms and insects become available again, robins move back to our neighborhood (and others like it) to mate and build their nests.

That still doesn’t explain why the mockingbird is still around this week, but that answer will have to wait for another day.

April May Be the Cruelest Month, but November Can Be Pretty Strange

April May Be the Cruelest Month, but November Can Be Pretty Strange

The rain originally forecast for today apparently fell Thursday and Friday instead. Today’s clear weather provided an opportunity to finish getting the gardens ready for winter. That meant cutting the butterfly bush and the hydrangeas down to the ground. Cutting away the butterfly bush revealed this Saint Patrick rose.

This is actually one of the most well-formed blossoms on this rose bush for the entire year. The sun in mid-afternoon was low enough to cast long shadows.

Within a few hours winter this last rose of summer was buffeted by winds and lake-effect snow. The lake offering its moisture to this snowfall is Lake Erie, about three hundred miles to the northwest at the closest point.

T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” which begins with the words “April is the cruelest month,” is a reluctant admission that hope is always present. Hope, in the sense of a confident expectation and not just wishful thinking, is always present for the believer. Circumstances, like the weather, can change dramatically and with little warning. The Christian understands that our confident expectation, our trust in God’s grace and mercy, sustains us regardless of how circumstances ebb and flow around us.

I also read a review today of Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. The review had a line about the Adagio movement from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto: “[T]he novelist Rchard Powers once commented [that it ] is what mercy would sound like.” The review also says that the book can be summarized in the sentence “Far more can be mended than you know.” The review itself was enjoyable reading. I am looking forward to reading the book as well.