One Corner of the Earth

Click here to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more about bushtits.

Click here to read some pretty prose about bushtits by Dr. Frank Lang.



In the foreground of this shot from last spring is my new dogwood. Behind it is the white oak I raised from a pup.



This maidenhair fern was given to the former owner of our house by Helen, a neighbor. I have wild ginger, inside-out flower, bleeding heart, and yellow violets among the other native Oregon plants that love this bit of shade.



Last April I had a chance to visit my neighbor and dear friend Helen at her daughter's home in California.


5 February 2001 - updated 19 January 2015

This morning I stepped outside and it smelled like spring. It's pleasant but scary at the same time. They say we are on the thin edge of having power blackouts, like California, because we've had such a warm dry winter. The birds were singing and the sun was out, quite a lovely morning. All at once, among the calls of the robins and the rufous-sided towhees, I heard the chit-chit-chittering of bushtits.

The bushtits are my favorites of all the birds that visit here. So tiny, they are the sweetest things. They come in droves, flitting from tree to tree, eating little bugs. I love to watch them, and listen. How do they know when it's time to move on? First one, then another, then the camel's hump of the bell curve flocks to the next tree. Always there are the stragglers, but at last they go, too.

It's been several months since I've seen them. In other years I've seen them all winter. It's lovely to have them back.

On the wildlife watch, I haven't seen any coyotes for a while. Ironically, just today the Northwest Examiner has a front page article about how bold they are becoming, and debates about whether they can be a threat to children and small dogs. No one disputes that they have eaten many cats from the neighborhood. My next door neighbor saw her cat devoured in the middle of the night. The same fate probably befell our black cat, Lucille, who disappeared while the kids and I were in Russia in 1997, and was never seen again.

Perhaps the coyotes have found a better feeding ground now that our apples and pears have gone. Or maybe someone offed them.

I took a turn about the garden. Daffodils are already poking their snouts from the earth. Buds are swelling on the oak, and it seems it only just finished dropping all its leaves.

I do love my oak tree. It is the second in its spot. The first was a red oak from a nursery. I wanted a well-grown tree, and I bought a four-inch caliper oak -- which, I was assured, had been properly root-pruned. I was an exciting day when the oak came to our house, its huge ball of roots clasped in the jaws of the machine that dug it. Alas, the poor red oak, for whatever reason, was never happy, and at last it died.

The oak that took its place has a different history. It is a white oak, the native Oregon white oak, Quercus garryana [I learned in 2013 that this is not an Oregon white oak, but some other, fast-growing white oak]. I don't know where the acorn came from, but it sprouted in the back yard, and I saw the sprout just too late to avoid running over it with the lawnmower. I dug up the acorn with its stub of a stalk and planted in the garden. "No use," said my father-in-law, a great planter of trees, "it will never be a proper tree now that it's had its leader cut off." But the little stalk put out leaves, and grew and thrived, and eventually I moved it over to the side of the yard. There it grew to be a sapling, and after we removed our dead red oak, I decided the white oak sapling should go in its place.

It was a horrid cold rainy weekend when we moved it. My in-laws were visiting, and they pitched in. Everyone was covered with mud by the time we got through. The root ball was enormous for such a small tree. It was a project and a half.

But the white oak has been very happy. It is twelve years old now, and it is a full-fledged tree, putting out its first mature acorns last year. ("How does the tree know when to put out acorns?" asked my teenaged son. "Well, how did you know?" I retorted.) It will grow to be perhaps seventy feet tall and just as broad, rivaling the horse chestnut trees next door. [As long as I'm updating this, in 2015, I will just mention that the tree is now quite tall and broad, and certainly holds its own against the horse chestnuts.]

Around its base some kind of very large mushrooms grow in a ring, a larger ring each year. They look like flapjacks lying in the yard. I have no idea what they are; I've never been able to identify wild fungus. For all I know, they could be some incredible delicacy that sells for twenty dollars a pound in the store.

It is a magnificent tree, and it gives me such pleasure to look at it and to know its history. It has many layers of meaning for me. It satisfies the desire I've always had to plant things and see them grow. It stands for the relative permanence of my tenancy in this house. We were always moving when I was growing up. I lived in thirty places before this one, but at last, like this oak, I found a place to put my roots down deep. I love owning this piece of land, this house, these trees, this place, even if part of me understands that we can own nothing. With any luck, I'll be here fifty years from now to admire its broad crown in full maturity.

Walk around to the front with me, and I'll show you the maidenhair fern that was given to Betty Carrell, who lived in this house for forty-one years, by our neighbor, Helen. It is a beautiful lush thing with shiny brown-black stems to its fronds and lacy green foliage. When Helen lived on the block she frequently reminded me how she gave Betty the fern. Helen pressed many plants on me over the years. I have several lilacs that came from her yard, and, years ago, though I tried to refuse (on the grounds that with small children I had decided not to have any houseplants) she insisted on giving me cuttings from her begonias and her Christmas cactus and, most especially, the aloe. "Honey," she said, "it's good! For burns! Try it!"

She never tired of retelling how she rescued my son from disaster, years ago. As a toddler on his "ride-ride" he had opened our gate, scooted off down the block and was almost over the edge of the steep hill when she saw him from her second-story window. She tells me doesn't know how she got down the 67 steps to the street, but she did, and snatched him up. "Come on, let's go see Mama!"

Our lives are full of such moments, moments in which the universe could have unfolded in a very different direction. Moments where chance is on our side.

When I first posted this in 2001, Helen was ninety-six years old now, and spending most of the year in California with her daughter. She was still strong, and beautiful, and stubborn, but she could no longer live alone. In the spring of 2000 I was in California on pedestrian business, and I stopped to see them. Helen was well, and she had made her daughter plant figs, like those she ate as a child in Lebanon, and lemons and oranges and avocados. It was warm, and she would sit at the table on the patio and read the newspaper with a magnifying glass.

But she did not let go of her house in Portland, of her hold on this corner of the earth. The house stood empty eleven months out of the year. I would go over every few weeks to water her plants, and it was like entering a fairy tale where everyone and everything is deep in spellbound sleep. It was eerie; there was no dust.

And I know that, if I ever have to move away, I will have just as much trouble letting go.

Postscript: Helen died peacefully at the age of 101 years and five months, in August, 2005.

©2001 Ellen Vanderslice - this page was updated in 2015.
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