What could you learn about leadership and teamwork from geese?

Out visitors were similar to this gaggle. http://10000birds.com/the-canada-goose.htm

Out visitors were similar to this gaggle. http://10000birds.com/the-canada-goose.htm

Unexpected visitors to our home last night brought the delights of nature and deeper lessons in leadership and teamwork.

As darkness fell, a gaggle of Canadian geese came walking up our drive. Four adults and six goslings who could not yet fly made up the troupe.

An adult led the way, followed by three young, another adult, and three more young. Two adults brought up the rear. They kept a straight line. No one broke rank.

We expect the geese were headed for the pond on the next property, but they were stymied by the woven wire fence that marks the border between our land and the horse pasture behind us.

The leader led his cadre up to the fence, surveyed the situation, and turned right. They followed the fence only to be stopped by the north fence. They returned and followed the fence in the other direction. Dogs in the next yard caused them to reconsider. They tried the north route again, as though the leader thought perhaps they missed something on the first try.

Soon they were back. They stood by the fence for a few moments. The adults could easily have flown over the fence, but their young could not. And they would not leave them.

Watching these geese, I could not help but think of the lessons in leadership and teamwork this little group demonstrated.


  • Decide a course and lead your team with confidence
  • Adapt the plan if you run into obstacles
  • Watch out for the team and take into account their capabilities
  • Don’t be afraid to chose another course of action if the first doesn’t work out

Team members:

  • Have confidence in your leader
  • Know your own limits
  • Don’t go wandering off

Finally, everyone stay calm.

Unable to find a path to the pond on our property, the leader turned and led the group back down our driveway the way they’d come. I had no doubt the leader would eventually find a way to the pond. If it took all night.

Bears, turkeys, deer & butterflies

Great Smoky Mountains make “amazing” an overused word

My friends told us to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife as we drove along the Cades Cove loop in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We could see deer and wild turkey. If we were really lucky, we might spot a bear. Cars stopped along the road would be a sign something was up.

Black bear and cubs

Black bear and cubs

We hadn’t been in the park a half hour before the first cluster of cars brought us to a stop. We searched in the direction all the cameras pointed and spotted a black bear foraging in the leaves, digging for something to eat. The bear was a good distance away and paid us no mind. How exciting to check bears off our wildlife list so early in the day. Amazing, we said, and drove on.

In quick succession, we spotted turkey in an open field and deer in the woods.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove

We drove on, stopping periodically to see the log cabins and churches of the people who settled in Cades Cove in the 1800s. The valleys traded beautiful views, abundant clear water, and plentiful wildlife in exchange for what must have been a hardscrabble living scratched from rocky fields.

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The cemetery stones told us stories of the first settlers, wars fought, and the challenges of living past childbirth.

We hiked to a waterfall. Five miles roundtrip, over log bridges, up increasingly steep hills. Billed as a moderate hike, I realized the past few months of more limited activity due to my broken wrist have taken their toll. The waterfall was beautiful, though, and the diversity of wild flowers, tiny black rat snakes and startling blue-tailed lizards were a bonus.

Great Smoky Moutain, Cades Cove, church, cemeteryBack in the car we continued the loop only to be stopped by another cluster of cars. A woman gestured “five” and waved toward the woods. We scanned the trees and were rewarded with a mother bear followed by two cubs. They were coming toward us. I had my window down and camera clicking.

The mama bear kept coming. Without a look in our direction, she sauntered across the road and climbed the hill on the other side. She looked back for a moment to ensure the cubs followed, then they all disappeared into the woods. Amazing!

My friends could not stress how unusual it was to see these bears. In their many trips to the park over the last decade, they’d never seen so many bears, so close. We drove on and spotted two young deer with velvet antlers resting in deep grass twenty feet from the road. From time to time, we’d spot deer in the woods. One bounded across the road amidst the cars. Wild turkey were abundant.

Butterflies clustered on the ground

Butterflies clustered on the ground

As if we needed more to entertain us, clouds of butterflies were everywhere. As we headed out of Cades Cove at the end of the day, we were rewarded with one last bear sighting. He was quite a ways away, but the now familiar black against green was easy for us all to spot. The crowd of stopped cars helped.

Whether it was the pleasant temperatures or the time of year or serendipity, who can tell? But the day, the weather, the wildlife, were all amazing.

The Art of War – The Art of Loving

Movies, reading & walking across Iowa uncover surprising connections.

Art and history, love and war intersect as I continue my virtual trek across Iowa.

There can’t be many who haven’t heard about the movie Monuments Men, George Clooney’s film about the men who set out to save art during WWII. Here in Iowa, we’re getting special insight because the real Monuments Man, the man on whom the movie is based – George Leslie Stout – was born and grew up in Winterset, Iowa, and later graduated from the University of Iowa.

I’ve looked ahead as I continue my walk across Iowa, looking for just the right point to cross Interstate 80. (As though that would be really hard in my virtual world.) Nonetheless, when I realized I could pass through Winterset before heading north to cross the Interstate barrier, I thought why not? 

Now that The Bridges of Madison County (a book and a movie) has been made into a Broadway musical, and received some critical acclaim, I better see the bridges again before the tourists take over!

140px-34th_'Red_Bull'_Infantry_Division_SSI.svgAs I head toward Winterset, I’m enjoying other military history as I walk along the Red Bull Highway. The 34th Infantry Division of the Army National Guard, made up of military primarily from Iowa and Minnesota, served in World War I, World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. The insignia of the division is a Red Bull designed by Iowa artist Marvin Cone.

As I look back on the titles that have passed through my hands this month, the overriding question is, What does it mean to love? Appropriate, don’t you think, since this is February, the month of love?

Setting the stage is a non-fiction work, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. A psychologist, Fromm explores love and loving in 120 pages packed with explorations of love in all its forms – parents for children, brotherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God.

Fromm proposes that true love holds four elements in common: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. The other books I read – both fiction and non-fiction – show how difficult it is to find true love,


  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – This seriously disturbing novel explores the idea that “Marriage can be a real killer.” In alternating chapters, we come to know the husband in real time and the wife through her diary entries. Did he kill her or was she kidnapped and murdered? The tension in this novel is palpable and all of us can only pray we do not encounter a love like theirs.
  • safe keeping sisselSafe Keeping by Barbara Taylor Sissel –  “My son is a murderer,” begins this family drama. Emily tries to say these words about the son who has given their family so much heartache. But she doesn’t believe it. Her mother love could never believe it. They just have to prove it. Sissel draws characters with depth and a plot with complexity. She is a master at dropping clues that inform and confound. Her cliff-hanger chapter endings compel you to keep reading. (I was fortunate to receive an advance review copy. The novel is due out in late March.)

Non Fiction

  • Twelves Years a Slave by Soloman Northrup – I have yet to see the movie and I grabbed  the e-book when it I saw it in a promotion. This first-person account of a free black man who is kidnapped and thrown into slavery causes one to despair of man’s inability to love his fellow man.

Late-breaking news (literally): I end this post abruptly because winter has taken its toll. I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist. As a result, I am reduced to typing with one finger, so my blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks. When I return, I trust spring will be here. In the meantime, happy reading and safe walking!

What can we learn from Fall? New book shares wisdom & gratitude

TIYG_FallCover_Press1_WDo see fall as the end or the beginning? For me, it’s both.

The fall equinox arrives this weekend and with it, the end of green leaves and grass and the beginning of reds and golds. I see the end of the flood of produce coming out of our garden (just as I am running out of stamina for dealing with it!) and the beginning of days when I make meals out of produce in the freezer. I feel regret that we are at the end of long sunny days and gratitude that my morning walks will happen in the peaceful quiet dark.

The equinox also marks a yearlong publishing venture by Tending Your Inner Garden. Today they launch Fall: Women’s Stories and Poems for the Season of Wisdom and Gratitude – the fourth volume in a series celebrating the wisdom of each of the seasons. 

I’m honored to join 80 other women from across the globe who wrote essays and poems for this anthology.

My essay tells the story of my struggle to let go of my older sister who took her own life five years ago. This, too, is a story of endings and beginnings. It took years for me to come to some level of peace with her death and to begin a new way of seeing life without her.

Writing this essay helped with my healing. In the writing, I continued the long journey toward letting go of anger, guilt and sadness. In the writing, I also experienced the gratitude of the fall season as I grew to treasure my sister’s life, hold on to love, and embrace the joy of today.

If you’re seeking a feeling of community with women on a deep spiritual level, you’ll find it in the pages of this volume. Plus, it’s a wonderful gift for anyone going through “fall” in her life.

To learn more about Tending Your Inner Garden and to see the Winter, Spring, and Summer volumes in this series, visit the TYIG website. All of the books in the series are available at the Tending Your Inner Garden Bookstore and on Amazon.

Forging paths in the prairie and in writing

Hannah Prairie 3Since my granddaughters were born, I’ve taken them to the prairie every time they visit us. As little ones, they were carried in. As they grew older, I led the way.


On her last visit, I encouraged my oldest granddaughter, now four and a half years old, to take the lead. She hesitated. “You’re an adventurer,” I said. “I know you can find a way. You go ahead. I’ll follow.”  With that encouragement, she pushed ahead.


Her experiences in the prairie that day reminded me of my own journey in editing my novel. After an advanced novel workshop this summer, I got serious about editing my 118,000-word historical novel. Here’s what she learned about prairie exploration and what I’ve learned about editing.


Don’t be afraid. Just start. Seven-foot-tall prairie grasses and four-foot-tall flowers can be mighty intimidating to someone three-foot tall. The unknown can be scary, but once she got going, she thrived on the adventure. Having never edited a novel, I was hesitant about how it would go. But, really, there was nothing to do but start. Every day do something. The more I did, the easier it became to do more.


Accept help from someone who’s been this way before. When my granddaughter hit a wall of foliage, she looked back to me. I could point her in a new direction, just as other editors pointed me. While blogging about my “crutch words,” I learned about Sharla Rae’s list of “echo words.” Going word by word down her list, I was able to cut literally thousands of words from my manuscript. The result is infinitely better.


Trust your gut and affirm your own actions. My granddaughter might be blocked by the dense foliage, taking advantage of the paths made by other prairie visitors. or finding her own way, but the more she explored, the more excited she became. “I’m an adventurer,” she said with delight, happy to claim her title. As I launched into editing, another writer made an off hand comment: “It all comes back to the author to decide what she wants.” I’ve recalled that comment repeatedly as I learn to trust and act on what my gut tells me. I know these characters. I know the story I want to tell. I know when an entire scene needs to go. No one knows that better than I do. The editing experience affirmed me as a writer and as an editor.


Hannah Prairie 2Take joy in the moment. The prairie is a joy-filled place for my granddaughter, heat, bugs, scratchy plants and all. Editing can be tedious but there are joys to discover. Finding a really right word or phrase to replace the easy one I’d started with. Recognizing that letting one character use a word repeatedly creates a character trait; letting several characters use that word is lazy and the word loses its power. Discovering that fewer words can have infinitely more power.


Once isn’t enough. Each time my granddaughter emerged from the prairie, she was ecstatic. Then, she’d look for a way back in.When I finished one form of editing, like my granddaughter, I jumped back in with another approach. I searched out crutch/echo words. One at a time through the entire manuscript. After doing a word-by-word edit, I  read the whole manuscript through to see what had happened to the sense of it. More words and parts of scenes hit the cutting room floor. Then back to the beginning for a read-aloud edit. 


The editing journey has built my confidence, just as adventuring in the prairie build my granddaughter’s confidence. In the process, I cut 15,000 words no one will miss.


How about you? When you’ve taken on new tasks, whether they be editing or otherwise, what have you learned from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


A bird’s eye view of hawks

Two Red-tailed hawks in ta pine tree

Two hawks in a pine tree

Five years ago, we planted a prairie patch in our front yard. Since then, we’ve noticed an increase in raptors. We hear more owls hooting in the night. We see more hawks soaring high above.

Frequently, I can look to the dead branches at the top of the willow tree and see a hawk sitting there. The lunch-time picking is easy with the abundance of wildlife in the prairie below.

In recent weeks, the piercing “kee-yeer” call of hawks fills the air each time I walk down the driveway to pick up the paper or take my morning walk. I’ve been startled to have hawks fly out of the lower branches of the evergreen trees by our driveway, swooping in front of me at near eye level. I found it odd to see two hawks sitting on the edge of the driveway one morning.

All of these occurrences got me looking around more closely. When I saw several hawks in the willow tree, I determined that the increased food supply of the prairie also made this an appealing nesting area. I surmise that the two hawks flying out of the low branches and sitting on the ground are just learning to fly. The repeated kee-yeers are the adults and young calling to each other.

Juvenile, San Joaquin Marsh, Orange Co., 1-07. © John  C. Avise.

Juvenile, Red-shouldered Hawk © John C. Avise.

Yesterday, one of the hawks perched on the backyard playground set long enough that I could identify it as a Red-shouldered Hawk. My Audubon bird book says these hawks hunt “by sitting quietly on a low perch, then dropping down to capture snakes and frogs. They also eat insects and small mammals.”

Since my office looks out on the front yard, I have a first class seat for hawk watching.

The ones I believe are younger hawks spend a lot of time swooping back and forth from tree to tree. While adult hawks always seem to be high in the sky or at the top of threes, these youngsters spend most of their time flying less than 15 feet off the ground.

Recently, they practiced their hunting skills on a squirrel, chasing it from tree to tree. It appeared they were trying to corner it between them. At one point, one hawk landed in a tree to the north. The other hawk perched in a tree 40 feet to the south. The squirrel clung to a tree between them, looking back and forth, unsure which direction to go. The hawks did not go in for the kill and eventually flew off.

This situation reminded me of a video clip I’d seen recently recording the life of Bald Eagles. In the show, one young eagle snatched a duck off a lake and flew off. Other eagles joined him and they appeared to play catch with their prey, one tossing the duck and another swooping  in to catch it. The narrator commented that this was a big moment in the life of the eagles when they learned to capture their own food.

These hawks must be at the same stage in their development, learning the skills to hunt while still getting most of their food from their parents.

Until now, my bird watching has focused on the pretty little songbirds that frequent our feeders. It’s exciting to have this opportunity to observe the impressive birds of prey for an extended period.

In the morning light – A Prairie Update

Gray-headed Coneflowers reach for the sky

Gray-headed Coneflowers

The days are breathtakingly hot and humid nationwide this July. Yet in the early morning, as the sun crests the horizon, temperatures are more tolerable and the air still fresh. The more forgiving, early sun on the prairie caught my eye and sent me back to the house for my camera to capture these sights. 

The Gray-headed Coneflowers reach for the sky and lean to the south as though they can’t get enough of the sun that bakes the rest of us.

Partridge Pea

Partridge Pea

Delicate little Partridge Peas line the outer edges of the prairie where they find the hottest, driest ground and are free of competition from the tall grasses and burly Cup plants.

Still shaded from the morning sun, the lovely blue spires of Hoary Vervain show off against the bright yellow coneflowers. When the sun is full on them, these blue tones pale by comparison. Early morning is the best time to enjoy them.

Hoary Vervain with Gray-headed Coneflowers

Hoary Vervain with Gray-headed Coneflowers

Though these Foxglove Beard Tongues appeared early in the spring and are long past flowering, I’m sharing them because this is the very first time these pure white flowers have shown up in my five-year-old prairie. They deserve recognition.

Foxglobe Beard Tongue

Foxglobe Beard Tongue

Though other gardens may wilt in this arid July heat, the prairie is undeterred. And I am fresher myself from a walk in its beauty.

Thanks for joining me!

Ready to take flight? – A robin update

Three robins crowd a tiny nest.

Three robins crowd a tiny nest.

Only a couple of days ago, the baby robins – their little heads marked by wild bits of hair – could barely peek above the edge of the nest. Only when Mama flew in with a worm did they crane upward, their beaks wide open. I could not tell how many babies filled the nest. Two for sure. More than that? Impossible to tell.

Yesterday, however, the nest was packed. One of the young – probably the first to hatch – stood high in the nest, her speckled breast beginning to show a tinge of rust. She scanned the horizon, perhaps thinking of her first flight. Meanwhile her younger siblings still huddled low in a nest literally full to over flowing. Of necessity, someone would have to leave soon. There simply isn’t room for all of them to remain, they’re growing so fast.

One more day, oready to fly?

One more day, or ready to fly?

Today, only one bird remains in the nest. Her beak is wide open as she looks out to the maple tree across the way. Missing the warmth of her siblings? Feeling all alone? Looking for her mother? Hoping for one last meal before she’s on her own?

I scanned the shrubs and trees and lawn, looking for the juvenile robins who’ve gone before her. None were in sight.

As the young launch, I wish them well. I hope they will find lots of worms. I hope they will keep a sharp eye out for nasty predators. I hope they will choose wisely when they build nests for young of their own.

I have many hopes for the robins, as I did for my son when he left the nest. And I am amazed at these robins, as I was with my son, at how quickly they grow.

Other Robin posts:
Hungry & growing: A robin update
Life & Death in the Wild Kingdom
How to spend waiting time? A robin, writing update
And then there were four
A bird’s eye view

Hungry & growing – A robin update

Mouths open, ready to eat!

Mouths open, ready to eat!

An experienced Mama Robin is very difficult to photograph. Her babies aren’t so easy to capture either. But I’m pleased to report that the baby robins in the downspout nest are making good progress.


As I passed by recently, Mama was dropping worms into wide-open mouths. As soon as I grabbed my camera, Mama flew off, probably hoping to attract me away from the nest. I snapped this picture before the babies got the word and retreated below the nest rim. You’ll need to look closely because the babies blend perfectly with the nest and the bricks behind them. Very good camouflage. There are at least two babies, maybe more, mouths up and wide open, ready to eat.


Mama doesn’t spend near as much time on the nest anymore. She spends more time shuttling back and forth, finding worms and bringing them back to fill hungry mouths. It helps, I’m sure, that the weather has grown modestly warmer. Mama’s food is more important to the babies than Mama’s body heat.


FYI, the windowsill nest is still in place but no one has returned to take up residence.


In other bird news, I looked up from reading the morning paper to see a Baltimore Oriole on the deck rail. My camera wasn’t handy, so I simply enjoyed the sight until the Oriole flew away. Then I quickly went for my camera and when I returned, there was an Indigo Bunting at the finch feeder.  I’ve never seen either Orioles or Indigo Buntings so close to the house.  In this picture, the Goldfinches are easy to see. Look to the bottom of the feeder and you’ll see the bright blue of the Bunting.


Two Goldfinches and an Indigo bunting

Two Goldfinches and an Indigo bunting

A bit of trivia courtesy of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, “Indigo Buntings have no blue pigment; they are actually black, but the diffraction of light through the structure of the features makes them appear blue.”


I love this time of year. So many birds migrating offer a continuous show! 


Other Robin posts:
Life & Death in the Wild Kingdom

How to spend waiting time? A robin, writing update
And then there were four

A bird’s eye view



Life & death in the Wild Kingdom – Robin Update

Robin Nest EmptyOne day, I looked past my computer screen, out the window to the front lawn, where a smallish bird pecked away at the wood chips under a Redbud tree. At that exact moment, a Red-tailed hawk swooped down out of the sky and captured the smaller bird in its talons. The hawk remained on the ground for the time it took to look around, then it flew off, the smaller bird firmly in its claws. If the smaller bird was not already dead, there’s no doubt it would be soon. The whole event took less than 10 seconds.

Wow! We had an episode of Wild Kingdom right in our yard. Excited by what I’d seen, I rushed to tell my husband.

We had another episode of Wild Kingdom in our yard yesterday.  Yesterday morning, I peeked at the robin nest on my bathroom windowsill, hoping as I did each day to see the eggs start to hatch. The eggs were still intact though the robin was away getting breakfast. That whole “early bird” thing. I went about my day.

That afternoon, I took another peek at the nest. Not only was the robin gone, but the nest was empty! All the eggs gone, no doubt to a predator bird. Possibly a Blue Jay. We have many of those in our yard and they’re known for robbing nests. 

As one reader pointed out, the window sill was a very exposed site. Perhaps the robin was a first-time mother, choosing the site for it’s warmth rather than safety. Since robins nest two or more times a year, perhaps she’ll come back to this nest or she may choose another site.  My husband agreed we’ll leave the nest where it is, just to see.

Nesting in a more protected site.

Nesting in a more protected site.

Looking for solace from our loss, I want to check on the nest on the downspout under the eaves. As I stood looking at that nest, which unfortunately I cannot see into, the mama robin arrived with a worm in her beak. The wide-open mouths of baby robins stretched above the edge of the nest and Mama shared the bounty. Having served lunch, Mama settled into the nest to keep the young warm while they napped.

I’m hopeful for this nest, protected as it is by the eave, downspout and corner of the house. But even that is no guarantee. My husband had a nest in just such a position on a downspout at his shop. The eggs hatched, the young were headed toward fledging. At that point, a hawk swooped in and robbed the nest. No robin has chosen that site since.

As another reader reminded me, reproduction is a numbers game. The more eggs, the more likely one is to survive. The very fact that robins lay clutches of multiple eggs and do it more than once a year speaks to the species knowledge that not all will make it. Maybe even that most will not.

What’s the message here? I guess one is that there are no assurances in life. We do the best we can, but we do live in a wild kingdom.

 Other Robin posts:
How to spend waiting time? A robin, writing update
And then there were four
A bird’s eye view