In Memory of Mary Oliver

by Mary Oliver


In winter
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
but he’s restless—
he has an idea,
and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
as long as he stays awake.
But his big, round music, after all,
is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
In the pine-crown
he makes his nest,
he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
I only imagine his glittering beak
tucked in a white wing
while the clouds—

which he has summoned
from the north—
which he has taught
to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
into the world below
like stars, or the feathers
of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
that is asleep now, and silent—
that has turned itself
into snow.


American poet Mary Oliver died yesterday, 17 January 2019, at age 83. We who loved her still have her books to read and treasure. May she rest in peace. ~ JO



As a follow-up, perhaps this reblogged post from two years previous will amuse you. ~ Jo

Invitation to the Garden

HONK is today’s word prompt from “The Daily Post” on WordPress. Honk if you love Jesus, the bumper sticker on the car in front invites me to do. I don’t. I love Jesus, I do, I just don’t honk to create confusion in other drivers’ minds, causing them to look around and question what they did wrong. They didn’t do anything wrong.

So, what do I do with this silly word?

One day last fall, I heard urgent honks outside. I abandoned my peach chutney, left simmering on the stove, and dashed outside to see what was the matter.

Must be a fire truck, emitting a series of deep blasts from its horns instead of the usual wail of siren. However, no traffic at all drove down our street, only Canada geese streaking above my head, barely clearing the peaks of houses in our neighborhood. I was the only person…

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Wild Geese

NOTE: This blog post is dedicated to the poet Mary Oliver who died as I was editing it. ~ Jo

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As morning broke and fog began to recede, I opened the draperies in my study just in time to see a flock of Canada geese sailing past, like a whisper, with nary a peep, let alone a honk like a diesel horn. I gasped in utter surprise and nearly spilt hot tea on my desk. But these geese were flying north, and in mid-January, not migratory season at all. Where were they going? I suspect they probably had left “foggy bottom” pond in Randall Park for drier feeding grounds in an apple orchard or on a harvested corn field.

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In Washington State, Canada geese (Branta canadensis moffitt), which is the largest  subspecies, derive from two groups: migratory and resident or non-migratory. The resident group populates areas with a dependable year-round source of food and water, legal prohibitions against hunting, and few predators. The adult gander tends to be larger than his mate, averaging 30 inches long, with a wingspan of 60 inches.

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The Giant Canada Goose most common in Canada and the United States is characterized by a black head with white cheek patches and chin strap, a long black neck, and a brown back. Its underparts range in color from pearl-grey to chestnut, sometimes blackish-brown. Adult males and females look the same. Their loud honks while in flight can sound like deep-throated blasts of diesel engine horns mounted on transport trucks barreling down the highway — rather loud when they fly south right over my garden, as they did one morning this past October.

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The flight formations of vees that we all recognize help geese save energy by flying in the air currents created by the lead bird. These air currents enable the geese to fly quite long distances. Without stopping or pausing, the lead goose will drop back to the end of one of the tails, allowing each goose in turn to lead the flock. Thus, a flock flying from 40 to 70 miles and hour can travel up to 1,500 miles in a day if the weather is good — say, from Quebec down to the Atlantic seaboard. That’s a lot of mileage!

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The North American range for Canada geese extends from Alaska, through Canada and upper half of the United States, down to the southeastern states, including the Florida Panhandle. Fall migration southward begins when soil and water in northern Canada begin to freeze on breeding grounds.

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The geese congregate in flocks of several hundred to several thousand birds, whether migrating or settled in wintering areas near wetlands — wet grassy meadows and prairies with pothole ponds, lakes and rivers, as well as urban parks and even golf courses. Agricultural lands offer cereal grains for food.  They mate for life, nest in the same area as their parents had nested, and often in the same nest, every year. And they mourn the death of a mate, although after a period of time they may take another.

To me, there is nothing quite as exciting as a sudden appearance of wild geese, as Mary Oliver describes in her poem Wild Geese, ” . . . moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.”

Renowned American poet Mary Oliver, age 83, died earlier today, 17 January 2019, at her home in Florida. Coincidentally, I had already completed the first draft of this essay when I received the news. Therefore, I dedicated this blog post to her in her honor. Thank you, Mary, for leading me over your prairies and trees, down the mountains to the rivers and seashores. May you rest in peace.



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Barnacle Goose Canadensis 


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Branta Goose Canadensis


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Cackling Canadensis Goose


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Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca)


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Greylag Goose (anser anser)


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Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens)
















Birds of a Feather

Do they really flock together, those migratory birds of a feather? I suppose that depends upon the particular feather, doesn’t it?

The little winter birds do. I find them flitting about our hanging wooden feeder my husband built in the shape of a gazebo. They don’t take turns, but they don’t fight each other, either. Some peck among seeds spilt below, rather furiously, it seems to me. All these little birds are chickadees and juncos, buntings and finches come down from the mountains of when the weather turns to winter. They are small enough to hold in your cupped hands. If they spy me spying on them from my library windows, however, they fly away.

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The occasional pair of California quail that visit keep to the lawn. They are ground feeders, of course, like my white ring-necked doves. Often, both species fly up to the roof line to peer over the edge, like spectators high in the bleaches following sports events below. A magpie, however, is a jealous creature. All that he surveys from rooftops is his own domain. The other birds had better get out of the way — and quickly — or risk a sharp peck on the head.

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About ten years ago, I agreed to participate in the local Audubon’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count in our adjoining neighborhood backyards. We “over the garden gate” friends had been developing a bird sanctuary to meet habitat guidelines. Prominent in our yards are trees and shrubbery that produce berries in fall and winter — dogwood and elderberry, flowering cherry and yew hedges. Other deciduous trees include birches, a large maple and a saucer magnolia. An occasional pine and spruce provide heavy shelter in snowy conditions. Perennials are allowed to go to seed. Additionally, we keep hanging feeders filled with wild bird seed. Of course, a water source is mandatory as much in dry winter air as in hot summer weather.

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That day I counted a dozen different migratory species in my garden alone:

  1. Bunting — brown/grey
  2. Bushtit — tiny; grey/brown
  3. Chickadee — Mexican;  grey breast
  4. Chickadee — Mountain; light grey breast
  5. Finch — Cassin’s; grey-brown streaks; reddish head
  6. Finch — House; similar to Cassin’s but drabber
  7. Junco — Oregon; black hood
  8. Magpie — highly unusual appearance in January; this pair may have gotten lost
  9. Nuthatch — white-breasted; discovered in my pine tree
  10. Pine Siskin — looks like a goldfinch but with brown markings on plumage
  11. Pitpit — bold streaks; red throat
  12. Quail — California; larger than the Eastern woodland quail

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That spring, ten years ago, a Cooper’s hawk began to swoop through our backyard gardens. When he wasn’t attacking small birds and robbing feeders, he nested in my Colorado spruce, surveying the landscape. In my native South, we called these medium-size birds of prey chicken hawks or hen hawks because they attacked poultry that failed to make it to safety inside the hen coop. These hawks have been known to attack small animals, too, such as domestic cats.

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Last week, I wrote about the starlings that swept through my north lane of ornamental cherry trees loaded with red berries for our little migratory birds. Horrid creatures! Not a berry was left when they swooped away with a “brzz” ringing in the air.

Grackles and blackbirds are usually not a long-term problem overtaking feeders, as they tend to visit for a short window of time and then move on. Photo by Bob Vuxinic via Birdshare.

For further reading, check out online or your book store for titles such as the following suggestions:

The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd EditionPeterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 6th Edition (Peterson Field Guides)Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

Of Bugs and Berries

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Outside my window snowdrifts

lean against brown wood fences

and cover bare birch branches

like frosted whipped cream

pretty to look at but not to eat.

Where are all the chickadees

after starlings stole the berries

and the birch seed pods

in yesterday’s damp fog

given way to all this snow

now that Christmas is gone?

This is part of a poem I wrote one January day several years ago. I was home with the flu after a week with my sister in her beach cottage on Alligator Point. The ambiance of a quiet winter beach in the Florida Panhandle is nothing like Palm Beach high living. Its simplicity inspired me to write a number of poems that winter which later I gathered into a chapbook, rather aptly titled Winter Musings.

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The setting of “Of Bugs and Berries” is far away from salty beach air, home alone, my sinuses snuffed up by a virus bug. That day, I stood at my bedroom window, facing a row of what I called our berry bushes — four ornamental cherry trees (one of a species of flowering prunus). This particular species produces prolific red berries in late fall. Wild birds love to snack on the berries when they flock down from the Cascade mountains west of us in Central Washington state. Here, a chickadee perches on a cherry branch.

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That particular day, however, I was startled by a swarm of starlings that swept through the branches and grabbed every single last berry.

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I banged on the window glass. I yelled. I threatened to call the police.

They paid me no attention but swooshed away as quickly as they had appeared, leaving  nothing behind for the chickadees and juncos, only a mock snowfall that melted in a matter of hours. I never saw them again.

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) was introduced to New York in the late 1800s. Today they can be found almost anywhere in North America.  Their song is emitted as a disjointed mushy, gurgling hissing chatter with a high-pitched sliding whistle. What I heard through my window glass was simply a mid-pitched sort of growl that ended in a wrrsh sound.

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According to the Audubon Society, no bird “has been more destructive to native wildlife as the European Starling. They push out native cavity nesters like bluebirds, owls, and woodpeckers. Large flocks can damage crops, and their waste can spread invasive seeds and transmit disease.” No wonder we don’t like starlings!

On the other hand, a murmuration of starlings wheeling and darting through the sky in tight, fluid formations can produce quite a visual show.

NEXT WEEK: Winter Birds in My Garden






A Smithsonian Treasure to Be Gutted?

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This week I was all set to take ourselves off to a tour of a somewhat smaller garden than we’ve been visiting before I realized I may have to gut this story.

Only a bit over four acres enclose the Enid A. Haupt Garden at the iconic Smithsonian Castle, Washington, D.C. Designed to be a modern representation of American Victorian gardens of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it opened in May 1987. It is named for the American philanthropist and patron of the arts and humanities (b. 1906 d. 2005). She supported not only horticulture but also architectural and historical preservation.

In its prime, the garden’s center features a parterre flanked by Moongate Garden on the west and the Fountain Garden on the  east. Measuring 144 feet by 66 feet, the parterre was designed as a series of diamonds, fluers-de-lis, scallops and swags filled with low-growing plants changed twice yearly. Granted, quite a bit of back bending work for only a couple of grounds keepers.

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Saucer and tulip magnolias edge brick walks surrounding the parterre, and cast-iron garden furnishings and fountains coordinate with the front carriage gates.

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The Moongate Garden entrance features this rather playful stone gate.  Let’s see whether we’re long enough to sit on one edge and stretch legs over to the opposite edge.

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Nearby is a pool garden with paths and bridges, like a piece of art.

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Fluffy pink and mauve saucer magnolias in mid-to-late spring soften the castle’s brick angular edges.

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Urns overflowing with dracaena and summer annuals stand on tall pedestals alongside the parterre’s scalloped swag edging.

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How long the Haupt Gardens continue into the new year (2019) remains to be seen, however. I only this week learned that the Smithsonian Institution has been planning, since at least 2016, to redevelop this area in order to increase its visibility from the Washington Mall, as well as to connect buildings and other gardens.

But why demolish the Haupt garden?

It’s that parterre, proponents of the plan insist. The garden as is demands too much work and constant care. “It isn’t worth it,” according to a Washington Post story last winter (February 16, 2018). Besides, the parterre is out of touch with modern horticultural ideas of more naturalistic design.

On the other hand, the parterre and its landscape elements have become such a part of the Smithsonian’s historic continuum that gutting it would leave a mighty big hole. And not just in the ground but also in people’s imaginations and memories.

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Moreover, this cultural landscape has become a sacred space for many people, visitors as well as those living and working in the D.C. area.

I can’t help but wonder: What would Enid A. Haupt herself would think?

What do you think?

The Downing Urn in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

Tour of the Enid A. Haupt Garden at the Smithsonian Castle
Wednesdays at 10 a.m. May 16 through September 26 
Meet a Smithsonian Gardens’ docent by the tour sign near the entrance to the Smithsonian Castle in the Enid A. Haupt Garden for a tour of the garden’s history and design.


A blessed and holy and merry Christmas week to all my readers on WordPress and beyond!

~ Jo Shafer





Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks

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Today we visit Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. This  Federal-style house is situated on part of a 1702 land grant to Colonel Ninian Beall as the “Rock of Dumbarton.” One of his descendants built the mansion about a hundred years later and, in 1920, a prominent U.S. diplomat and his wife bought the farmland estate — Robert and Mildred Bliss. Together they worked with landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to transform and expand the grounds to some fifty-four acres. Today, Dumbarton Oaks is one of Georgetown’s most outstanding residences, now owned by Harvard University for a humanities and research library. Its dignified front facade, however, conceals the grandeur of its terraced grounds and various gardens extending beyond.

The South Lawn

South Lawn

This site of the old driveway leads through an expansive lawn up to the house. Screens of trees and shrubbery allow passersby to view glimpses beyond, yet securing privacy.

Green Garden

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At the highest elevation stands a grassy terrace called the Green Garden, designed to showcase a panoramic view of the garden terraces below. From here paths lead to each garden “room.”

Beech Terrace

Beech Terrace, facing north

This terrace was constructed around an existing Fagus sylvatica ‘Riversii’, the darkest of the English beeches. Despite careful planning and preventive measures, however, the original tree declined and had to be removed. In 1948 a green-leaved American beech, Fagus grandifolia, replaced it.

A brick and flagstone wall surrounds this terrace to offer a sense of enclosure, one of several basic principles of garden design.

Beech Terrace, Bench


Urn Terrace

Urn Terrace

Its beds covered with English ivy, the Urn Terrace is both transition from the Beech Terrace and introduction to the Rose Garden. The urn itself is a copy of an eighteenth-century terra-cotta urn that Mrs. Bliss had purchased in France.

Rose Garden

Rose Garden

The largest and flattest terrace in the Dumbarton Oaks series, the Rose Garden was inspired by Italian and 18th-century English design elements. Approximately 900 roses fill this sunny area. Most of the roses are remonstant; that is, they repeat a secondary blooming after the initial spring burst. Others are once-bloomers. Low boxwood edges the beds, and a blend of evergreens provide a seamless transition between seasons.

This terrace became the Blisses’ favorite garden room. In 1932 they placed a Doria stone bench in the eastern wall overlooking the fountain terrace. The Bliss family motto, Quod Severis Metes, (“As ye sow, so shall ye reap”) is carved into the back. Their ashes are interred in the crypt beneath a lead canopy set into the west wall.

Vegetable Garden
Kitchen Gardens
My own favorite, next to the Blisses’ Rose Garden, is this working vegetable and herb garden. Enclosed by brick garden walls, it reminds me of Mount Vernon’s upper garden. It became during World War II a Victory Garden where gardeners gave demonstration to the leaders of the American Women’s Voluntary Services. Eventually it evolved into a cutting garden, providing fresh flowers for arrangements in the main house.
Prunus Walk
Prunus Walk
Near the vegetable and herb garden is the Prunus Walk and a small orchard. The prunus x blireana replaced an earlier allee of yew. A cypress garden bench sits alongside the path.
Prunus Walk, Bench
Lilac Circle
Lilac Circle
A mix of lilacs, spring bulbs, annuals, and perennials surrounds this roundel to offer a space of seclusion for rest and contemplation.
Box Walk
Box Walk
Inspired by Barrington Court in Somerset, England, this terraced brick walk descends the steep hill’s forty-foot drop from the Urn Terrace to the Ellipse. English boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, ‘Suffruticosa’ lines the walkway.
Pebble Garden
Pebble Garden
A terrace of pebbles imported from Mexico and set into “distinct patterns and colors in the Italian manner” replaced what was originally a tennis court. Three lead 18th-century French sculptures stand in the pool at the northern end.
And there is more to explore . . .

Regular Season (March 15–October 31)

2:00–6:00 p.m.

Admission to the garden in the Regular Season is:

  • $10 Regular
  • $8 Military (with valid ID)
  • $8 Senior (60+)
  • $5 Students and Children (ages 2–12)
  • Free for Harvard faculty, students, and staff (with Harvard photo ID)
  • Unlimited access with a Season Pass

Winter Season (November 1–March 14)

2:00–5:00 p.m.

Admission to the garden in the Winter Season is free.


Green Garden, inscription


Dumbarton Oaks
Research Library and Collection
1703 32nd Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007