Serenity Lake

Certain locations exert strong powers over our imagination. One such charmed destination for me is Manitou Lake in neighboring Teller County. I think of it as “Serenity Lake” which captures its character perfectly, as I was reminded during an excursion in late July/early August. The lake is nestled in an idyllic broad mountain valley which offers superb views of Pikes Peak’s north face, and a home to a wide array of attractive denizens.

Pikes Peak with a halo early in the morning

Pikes Peak with its own cloudscape later in the day

Because Manitou Lake is Teller County’s top birding “hotspot”, according to ebird, it has accommodated my birding group’s annual picnic repeatedly. This year’s get-together was the impetus behind the visit, but I tagged on a few days. Once we had engaged in ornithological observations and culinary excesses, and my fellow birders (about whom I will write more in the future) had flown away, I continued to engage in my favorite pastime. Without enumerating every avian sighting, one that regularly recurred was a Spotted Sandpiper. It proved very cooperative and photogenic, gladdening this hopeless watcher’s heart because it is one of the few shorebirds I can somewhat reliably – well, occasionally – correctly identify.

I am even more hopeless when it comes to insects, but in that regard am content to admire their myriad shapes, shades, and sizes, and grateful when one poses long enough to get my camera into gear.

I do recognize the ubiquitous, curious, and impossibly cute Golden-mantled ground squirrels. Next to providing additional enchanting and entertaining wildlife encounters, they totally stole my heart.

While Manitou Lake is now an exclusive day-use area, camping is possible at three nearby Forest Service campgrounds. I chose South Meadows, about two miles away, to pitch my shelter for two nights. My stay coincided with a string of sunny days sandwiched between a row of rainy ones, precipitation being the predominant pattern in previous weeks, compliments of our “monsoons”. Long-term regional residents did not used to refer to Colorado’s summer rains this way, but contemporary meteorologists seem compelled to apply this tropical term to our decidedly non-tropical climate.

Monsoons or not, the rains have clearly contributed to a state of botanical exuberance in a state famed for its wildflowers, but not necessarily for its lushness. In the mixed conifer-aspen forest, in the verdant meadows, and in the saturated wetlands surrounding Manitou Lake, colorful blossoms brightened each hike and served as floral reminders of the preciousness of the period, and of the enthusiastic energy of our earth.

At 7,700 feet elevation, daytime temperatures in the high 60s to low 70s were very comfortable and my sleeping bag kept me sufficiently warm when they dropped into the 40s at night. A starry firmament followed partly sunny skies. The waxing moon peeked through my open tent fly before it dipped behind the western horizon. In retrospect, I could have dispensed with this external shell, as the heavens held back the buckets until about an hour after I had taken down my temporary domicile. We Coloradans are spoiled by sunshine and grow grouchy when it stays away for extended periods. I benefitted doubly from my brief getaway at this serene site: by experiencing one of the few dry windows in our recent wet weather, and by witnessing several sunrises and sunsets, as well as nature’s incessant, indefatigable goings-on.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/stiller-see/

Summer Sorrow

     At the height of summer, after an evening of sustained rains, Fountain Creek is a ruddy river. The mountains remain shrouded in layers of clouds. Instead of paths there are puddles, the air is pregnant with moisture, and the vegetation with dewy droplets. Slightly sluggish avian and insect activity accelerates with the rising sun. Alas, mosquitoes are not among those handicapped by the high humidity. On trails bordered by wet grasses my shoes and socks become soaked.

     The flora is in full bloom or has gone to seed. I am greeted by the golden smiles of manifold sunflowers. Despite a bounty of milkweed, I see a lone Monarch butterfly. Grasshoppers disperse before my approach, one group to the right, the other to the left.

Baby birds are everywhere, growing up fast. The avian mood differs from the urgent wooing and coupling of spring. Now is a time for family joys and challenges, with hungry infants, toddlers, or teenagers constantly begging for food and attention. Is it my imagination, or do the parents show exasperation? Their biologic goal fulfilled, they don’t have as many reasons to sing. Other than the squealing in the nurseries, it is relatively quiet. Adult robins’ plumage is past its prime, but the juveniles’ appears adorned with brilliant beads. Swallows sail on shiny wings, forever the aerial acrobats. While hyperactive wrens work their way through the woods, velvety waxwings gorge themselves on berries, goldfinches on thistle seed.

     There is loveliness wherever I gaze. I sate my soul with this life-affirming commotion. But interlaced with my joy is melancholy. Why am I sad? Is it because of the knowledge that natural habitats are diminishing? Because this enclave teeming with energy is encircled by development, and there are not nearly enough similar refuges? Because many animals will sally south soon? Because summer will be followed by fall and winter, by dormancy, if not death? Because of (wo)mankind’s inability to coexist peacefully, with fellow humans, and with other species? Because our exquisite, unequalled earth seems on the verge of the abyss? Because of love and loved ones lost?

     I am not alone in my wistfulness. “In the midst of life we are in death,” is a saying dating to medieval times, but reflecting a sentiment likely as old as humanity. Perhaps I am feeling it so acutely because nature’s vitality has peaked? Sad as I might be, it is comforting to know that the earth, for now, will continue in its orbit around the sun, and life in its inexorable, heart-rending beauty.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/08/10/sommerschmerz/

Agnes Grey-Some Thoughts

After reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in English for the first time last year, I recently immersed myself in Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, a highly autobiographical novel. Like many women in 19th century England who had to work for a living, all three Brontë sisters became governesses, one of the few accepted professions in educated circles. Despite this “acceptance”, they were neither treated nor paid well by their employers, nor granted any true authority to discipline the rich, pampered, and frequently unmanageable children.

When Agnes Grey, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, seeks to support her family financially by becoming a governess, she experiences this first-hand. Her first position is short-lived, because the overindulgent parents can find no fault with their offspring, and instead blame Anne for their disobedience. Her second employment lasts several years, but proves only marginally more satisfying. When her charges reach a marriageable age, her services are no longer required. She returns home to assist her mother in founding and administering a private school, following her father’s death (running their own school had also been the Brontës’ unfulfilled wish).

After years of unappreciated dedication and countless deprivations, Agnes finds true love when Mr. Weston, the curate of her former parish to whom she had lost her heart, seeks her out and proposes, in these words, “ ‘My house is desolate yet, Miss Grey,’ he smilingly observed, ‘ and I am acquainted now with all the ladies in my parish, and several in this town, too; and many others I know by sight and by report; but not one of them will suit me for a companion…in fact, there is only one person in the world that will; and that is yourself; and I want to know your decision?’ ” The Hollywood-style ending of Agnes Grey deviates from Anne’s sad story, but knowing about the Brontës’ fate, I cheered for that ending, wishing for Agnes what was denied to Anne.

The Brontës’ biography reads like a tragedy and fascinates generation after generation. It is a tragedy linked to one of mankind’s oldest stalkers, consumption, or tuberculosis, in modern parlance. Between 1814 and 1820, the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria brought six children into the world. In the next year, the family became motherless, when Maria died of an ill-defined malady. In 1825, two of the daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption at the ages of 11 and 10, respectively, likely brought on by wretched living conditions at their boarding school. Four children lived to adulthood, but not to old age. In 1848, the lone boy, Branwell, died at 31, ravaged by consumption and years of alcohol and opium addiction. Three months following his funeral, 30 year-old Emily joined him in the grave. Only one month after the dreaded disease claimed the life of her favorite sister, Anne, too, succumbed to it, 29 years young. Charlotte Brontë survived to the comparatively advanced age of 38, supposedly dying from consumption, but possibly from other causes, while pregnant with her first child. The patriarch, Patrick Brontë, despite lifelong physical ailments, outlived Charlotte by six more years, passing in 1861 at the age of 84.

We often think of the Brontës as a trio, with Charlotte playing first violin, Emily second, and Anne third. While Anne, as the youngest sibling, might have been eclipsed by her older sisters, she, too, left a legacy that allows glimpses into her soul. She had the satisfaction to see two novels published during her lifetime. I found Agnes Grey eminently readable, and look forward to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which became a huge success, but was also hugely controversial. This later story about a battered wife who leaves her abusive husband with her son proves that Anne was a woman with her own opinions who addressed uncomfortable societal realities and whose quiet and self-effacing character might have been at least a partial posthumous fabrication by Charlotte. May Anne’s words speak for her.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/agnes-grey-einige-gedanken/

A Stroll in our State Park

Cheyenne Mountain State Park opened its gates in 2006. Even though this coincided with our return to Colorado Springs, it originally did not engender curiosity enough to make us pay the $7 entrance fee, when the area offers a host of alternative outdoor playgrounds, all free of charge. That changed a few years back, when we invested in an annual pass which affords unlimited entry to all of Colorado’s 42 state parks, for $70. We soon realized how effortlessly we exceeded 10 visits in a 12 month period.

Among our intermittent destinations are Castlewood Canyon State Park in neighboring Douglas County and Mueller State Park in Teller County, but Cheyenne Mountain State Park’s proximity to our house is a decided advantage — to reach its entrance from our driveway takes under 10 minutes. Situated just south of Colorado Springs, off Colorado Highway 115, El Paso County’s first and to date only state park is nestled at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain, famous in olden days for being much loved by Helen Hunt Jackson, local author and Indian activist extraordinaire, and, in contemporary times, for concealing NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) in its man-made caves and conduits. The land used to be a homestead and was saved from a housing development by the combined efforts of the city, the county, an association of state parks, and a number of private organizations.

Twenty miles of trails invite hiking and biking across differing terrain. My husband makes occasional use of the archery range to practice with his recurve bow. Sporadically, we participate in bird and wildflower outings, as well as in literary walks which have as their central theme writers of regional interest. They commence with a biographical overview at the Visitor Center, and culminate with a reading in the ”rock garden”, accessible by a short stroll. The popular campground is typically filled on summer weekends and holidays, mostly with RVs, but two walk-in tent loops are also in high demand.

Visitor Center

Rock Garden

From the access road, the scenery unfolds like a canvas. The grassland of the lower reaches is punctuated by wildflowers. Yellow stalks of mullein, pink heads of thistle, and snowy disks of prickly poppies peep out of the green. Prairie coneflowers wear sun-colored skirts, creamy yucca blossoms dangle like garlands between the bayonet-like leaves. This prairie-like environment also harbors winding warrens for prairie dogs. Their chirping sounds I interpret as a friendly greeting. Mobs of magpies attempt to drown out the marvelous music of Western meadowlarks in vain. Tree swallows line the fences near their nesting boxes. The foothill scrub oak and juniper plant community of intermediate elevations is the preferred habitat of Spotted Towhees and Scrub Jays. At higher altitudes, it gives way to a predominantly coniferous forest, with aspen interspersed now and again. Vanilla-scented Ponderosa Pine hide Hermit Thrushes whose haunting melodies float down the hillside. Invisible silken strings stretch across the trails, dragon- and butterflies flutter by on soundless wings.

Impressions from the trail: The rock tree

Impressions from the trail: Culturally modified tree, the creation of Ute Indians

Prickly Poppy

Prairie Coneflower

An occasional summer visitor with an onomatopoeic name: Dickcissel

Mule Deer

We are content to explore the existing routes in changing combinations, yet are pleased about the prospect of a path leading to the very top of Cheyenne Mountain, heretofore off limits. Currently under construction, it is slated to open in the foreseeable future and will add another attraction to a favorite retreat right at our doorstep, with an even loftier view of the park and its environs.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/ein-spaziergang-in-unserem-state-park/

Of Quill Pigs and Hand Shoes

Every foreign language student has put her foot in her mouth. I recall several such situations. Now I can contemplate them with an air of amusement, but then they were exceedingly embarrassing.

Years ago, during a visit to Alaska’s Denali National Park, I enthusiastically told a couple on a hiking trail that I had just seen a quill pig. I was slightly puzzled when they did not appear nearly as excited as I. When I caught up with my husband a few minutes later and informed him about my encounter, he held his belly and wiped tears from his cheeks. Turns out I had called a porcupine a quill pig, the literal translation of the German term, Stachelschwein. Only recently did I learn that the German who first named them was not alone in not being fazed by the fact that porcupines aren’t pigs. Turns out that porcupine is derived from the Latin porcus (pork) and spina (needle or quill).

We are easily entertained by engaging in similar linguistic exercises. Next to quill pigs, our bestiary is populated with nose horns (from Nashorn, for rhinoceros), Nile horses (from Nilpferd, for hippopotamus), and wash bears (from Waschbär, for raccoon). We don’t limit our verbal play to animals. Hand shoes keep our fingers warm in winter (from Handschuh, for glove), and hoof irons prevent horses’ hooves from wearing out (from Hufeisen, for horse shoe).

A recent visitor to the yard prompted us to resume our game. Though it is technically nocturnal, I happened upon this handsome hunk with a reeking reputation rather early in the morning, when it was vacuuming the area at the foot of our bird feeders for leftover morsels from the previous day’s feeding frenzy. This reputation was immortalized in the creature’s name, without any attention to its attractive appearance.

Meet our odiferous, malodorous, but oh, so gorgeous, guest, the stink animal (from Stinktier, for skunk).

I would love to hear about your favorite foreign words, or about your favorite foreign language bloopers.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/von-stachelschweinen-und-handschuhen/

The Original Helen Hunt

Out-of-town visitors to Colorado Springs regularly think of the present-day Hollywood actress when Helen Hunt’s name comes up during my tours as a volunteer docent at the Pioneers Museum. Both share a name and a relationship to California, but Helen Hunt, the First (1830-1885), was a pioneering woman and writer during our town’s infancy, in the latter half of the 19th century. Her initial impressions were inauspicious. “I shall never forget my sudden sense of hopeless disappointment at the moment when I first looked on the town. There stretched before me, to the east, a bleak, bare, unrelieved desolate plain. There rose behind me, to the west, a dark range of mountains, snow-topped, rocky-walled, stern, cruel, relentless. Between lay the town-small, straight, new, treeless. One might die of such a place alone.” No chamber of commerce would advertise these words on its banner. It is ironic that Colorado Springs did, in time, pride itself of the person who expressed them and name the popular waterfalls in North Cheyenne Cañon after her.

Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon

Helen Hunt, née Fiske, was 43 years old in November 1873 when she suffered these somber sensations after a cross-country train journey across the flat, monochromatic Great Plains from her home in Massachusetts to Colorado. Knowing about her past life, they are understandable. Motherless since age 13, fatherless since 16, she had lost her 11 month-old son Murray at 23, her 42 year-old husband Edward B. Hunt when she was 32, and her nine year-old son Warren at 34. Ill at heart and ill in body, she came at the behest of her physician, who recommended a change of scenery for a chronic respiratory condition. Before the antibiotic era, Colorado, by virtue of its healthy climate, was among the premiere destinations for health seekers suffering from consumption. During a period of frequent misdiagnosis, Helen might have been afflicted by tuberculosis, but officially it was asthma.

Fortunately for the burgeoning community at the foot of Pikes Peak, founded only two years prior, the dry air of the mountains did, indeed, benefit her health, while their beauty lifted her spirits. Helen decided to stay, after a complete reversal of her earlier attitude. In an essay about her new home in the New York Independent in August 1874, less than a year after her arrival, she reflected, “To-day I say, one could almost live on such a place alone.” “Almost” because she continued to love and pursue travel.

While mourning in Massachusetts, Helen Hunt had started to compose and publish poetry. Once she voyaged abroad, travelogues ensued. Her circle of friends in New England included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson, with whom she had attended boarding school in New York. They corresponded throughout Helen’s lifetime and she encouraged Emily to publish her poems in vain (they appeared only posthumously). Once settled in Colorado, Helen added novelist to her résumé. She belonged to an elite group of women authors able to make a living from their craft.

Colorado Springs, designed on a drawing board and in an early state of growth, did not yet offer many accommodations. Helen resided at the Colorado Springs Hotel, the settlement’s earliest, where she met fellow boarder William Sharpless Jackson. He was secretary and treasurer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which, like Colorado Springs, had been founded by General William Jackson Palmer. Helen and Mr. Jackson’s friendship led to marriage in 1875.

Four years later, a lecture by Ponca Chief Standing Bear altered the course of Helen’s few remaining years. She researched the mistreatment of the Indians and became an outraged and outspoken activist on their behalf. In 1881, she distributed her critical treatise, A Century of Dishonor, to members of Congress. Though it remained largely unnoticed, it led to an assignment by Century Magazine to explore the situation of the Indians of the former Spanish missions in Southern California. She subsequently managed to have herself appointed a special agent by the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, and described the Indians’ pitiable living conditions and prospects. It also moved her to fictionalize their predicament. In a May 2, 1883 letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly she articulated her ambitions thus, “If I could write a story that would do for the Indians a thousandth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”

In her novel Ramona, feverishly written in four months, and published in 1884, she conveyed her indignation. A tragedy about the ill-fated love between an American Indian man and a mixed-race Indian-Scottish woman, raised as an orphan by a family of Spanish-Mexican heritage, it delves into the racial prejudices and abuses suffered by the Indians of the Catholic missions in the former Mexican territory of California which was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

While the extent to which Helen Hunt’s reporting effected Indian policy reforms has been difficult to quantify, her novel Ramona became a literary bestseller. It has been in print since 1884, adapted for multiple film versions, and, since 1923, performed annually as a drama at the Ramona Pageants in Hemet, California.

Sadly, Helen’s death soon followed the birth of her masterpiece. I sincerely hope that the sale of more than 15,000 copies in the 10 months between its publication and her passing, was gratifying to her. True to her convictions till the end, she beseeched President Grover Cleveland to correct the wrongs inflicted on the Indians from her deathbed in California, where she was trying to recuperate. On August 2, 1885, she succumbed to presumptive stomach cancer at only 54, with William by her side.

Helen loved Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs so much that her husband had remodeled their house to enable her to view it from her chambers. Now he honored her wish and buried her in the mountain’s shadow, at Inspiration Point near Seven Falls, already a tourist attraction in her days. She lay interred under a growing mound of rocks, lovingly placed by the hands of her many fans who pilgrimaged to the site.

Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point (with the wrong year of birth)

View of modern-day Colorado Springs from Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point

Eventually, she was relocated to the Jackson family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. It is consoling for her acolytes to know that her grave is the one closest to, and with a direct view of the mountain which she so cherished.

Helen Hunt’s resting place at Evergreen Cemetery, with a view of Cheyenne Mountain

When the city acquired the Jackson property in 1961 and the house was slated for demolition, the family donated portions of her domicile to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which showcases four of Helen’s original rooms and furnishings in a permanent exhibition.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Portions of Helen Hunt’s dining room and library in the preserved rooms at the museum

Helen Hunt Jackson occupies a special place among the early citizens of Colorado Springs. Her indomitable spirit allowed her to overcome one blow of fate after another, and her American Indian activism was unusual for a woman of her era and social standing. In our local historic universe, she shines as one of the brightest stars.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/die-ursprungliche-helen-hunt/

Helen Hunt’s portrait came from a photograph I took of a postcard issued by the Pikes Peak Library District. Photographer and date unknown.

Breeding Bird Survey

I was in a deep sleep when the alarm jolted me awake at 2:30 AM. The wind billowing the curtains and rattling the windows, the neighbors’ dogs barking, and fear of oversleeping had not been conducive to restful slumber. When a friend had asked me to help her with a Breeding Bird Survey, I had agreed, eager for this novel experience. In order to reach the starting point of her assigned area near Olney Springs in Crowley County, about 80 miles away, by the official start time of 4:59, we had to depart Colorado Springs by 3:30. I met Diana and another friend, Rose, at a parking lot, where we piled ourselves and our bags into one car and set out.

The early rising did not make for a good night, but it allowed us to witness a spectacular sunrise. Diana and Rose had done a survey in another locale a few days before, but I still needed to be initiated. “Breeding bird survey” had invoked images of stealthily searching for occupied nests in my mind. Instead, we got out of the car every half mile and recorded all the birds seen or heard within 3 minutes. Covering a distance of 25 miles, this meant a total of 50 stops. As soon as Diana identified birds, she called out their names. As one of two scribes, I kept a checklist with species and numbers. Rose, as the other, monitored and jotted down GPS coordinates and associated landmarks to assist future surveyors. This long-term monitoring event of North American bird populations has been organized and overseen by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service since 1966.

In this Colorado terrain carpeted by shortgrass prairie and dotted with cholla cactus, the most frequent feathered denizens and enthusiastic singers were Western Meadowlarks, Northern Mockingbirds, Horned Larks, Lark Buntings, Mourning Doves, and Cassin’s Sparrows, and they serenaded us throughout the morning hours. Red-tailed, Swainson’s, and Ferruginous Hawks soared in the cloudless sky. Our species count in this relatively homogeneous habitat was 35.

At our first few stops, we wore long sleeves, but the rising sun quickly made us peel off layers. Besides feathered we saw furred creatures: fox, coyote, pronghorn, and jackrabbits. And two turtles that traversed our path. When I transferred one from the middle of the road, I was promptly reminded that numerous animals relax their bladders when stressed. My rescue was probably unnecessary, because we encountered a mere four vehicles in five hours.

Shortly before the conclusion of our survey at about 10 AM, we happened across a prairie dog town. Luckily, the endearing rodents shared space with Burrowing Owls, always a treat. One of them perched on a post next to the car, and its stare seemed to suggest it was time for us to leave. We obliged.

Scattered ranches represented human activity on this challenging land, some active, some in ruins. We were particularly impressed by a sturdily-built structure with a stone foundation. Who had resided there, in somewhat grand style? What human stories happened under its now defunct roof?

Similar to previous sojourns in Colorado’s prairie, my appreciation for the human, animal, and plant life adapted to an austere environment only deepened.

Thank you for inviting me along, Diana.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/eine-studie-der-brutvogel/