A Silver Ring

To observe birds in their natural setting is one of my favorite pastimes. Binoculars are generally indispensable to properly identify a species from a distance, because most will not tolerate being encroached upon. Seeing wild birds from close-up is a rare privilege. Banding stations offer such views. One I am familiar with and have visited repeatedly is located not too far from Colorado Springs at Chico Basin Ranch, in the eastern reaches of El Paso County.

In addition to being an environmentally-conscious, conservation-oriented, active cattle ranch, Chico Basin is the number one birding hotspot in El Paso County as its terrain lies along a migratory route. For that reason, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, under the auspices of the US Department of the Interior, organizes a four-week banding event staffed by master banders each spring and fall. Nets are erected in densely vegetated areas, and avians that get entangled in the fine mesh are carefully extracted. To keep them calm and protected until their evaluation, they are enclosed in hand-sewn cotton bags corresponding to their various sizes, and hung on a numbered rack according to the nets where they were found.

Chico Basin Ranch Banding Station, with seating for school classes and other interested observers

When it is the bird’s turn, it is pored over painstakingly. Its feathers are examined, fat stores assessed, wingspan and tail length measured. Age and sex is determined with the help of additional parameters, such as state of plumage, degree of skull ossification, and stage of molting. When a captive’s identity is still uncertain, beak and other, more arcane measurements are in order. Banding stations are repositories of the tools of the trade, and of relevant ornithological literature. A copy of the Bible of banders, Peter Pyle’s Identification of North American Birds is mandatory, as is the tabular version which enumerates numerous pertinent details about distinguishing features of each species. Nobody knows everything, but every bander knows where to look up information. And fast, to limit the amount of handling time and stress.

A light, numbered aluminum band, that does not interfere with flight, is then selected from a neatly organized tackle box, and fastened to one leg, based on that extremity’s thickness. Experienced banders know which diameter to choose, but a nifty gauge, or one of many lists can assist in the selection. Its unique serial number allows tracking of avian movements over vast distances. Recapture at the site of original banding to which individuals may return during future migrations occurs not infrequently. I was surprised to learn that the likelihood is only 1 in 10,000 in a different location. Very recently, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published an online article about a Yellow Warbler being banded in northern Colombia, before it was re-captured in New York State 2 months and 2300 miles later, no small sensation.

The final step consists of establishing the bird’s weight by placing it head first in a tube large enough to hold it, while immobilizing it sufficiently to prevent injuries. That accomplished, it either wriggles out on its own once the cylinder is held horizontally, or, more typically, the bander extricates it, cups it between two hands, then slowly lifts the uppermost. After this ordeal, the feathered creatures fly off into the adjacent trees, a few immediately, others following a moment of reorientation.

The Yellow-breasted Chat from the photo above is being weighed

While all this measuring is going on, the information needs to be recorded as well.

The differing reactions to their capture are equally fascinating. Some individuals seem silent and subdued, others anxious and agitated. A few appear utterly indignant at their confinement and express their displeasure vocally and voluminously.

White-eyed Vireo, a rare visitor in El Paso County

Spotted Towhees occur more frequently

Blue Jays are among the most vocal captives…

…as are Brown Thrashers…

Raptors, like this Cooper’s Hawk, are feisty and fierce (and seldom founds in the nets)

Banders in action are reminiscent of dancers in an artfully choreographed performance. Birds, the beguiling ballerinas, are gently but assuredly lifted, repeatedly rotated, and finally released. As I watch these winged wonders vanish into the foliage, I wish them smooth sailing. May they gain enough weight during their layover to carry them securely to their wintering grounds, find sufficient habitat and nourishment there, and bless us with their presence again come spring.

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A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak

To be called a “Bloomer Girl” was not a compliment in polite society. According to Victorian mores, proper clothing for proper women equaled an ankle-length skirt, regardless of its impracticality for many activities. “Bloomer Girls” donned dresses that reached slightly below the knee and were worn over a pair of billowing, loose-fitting pantaloons – a scandal. Even though she did not design the outfit, it was named after Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), one of the early proponents of women’s suffrage, and an advocate for dress reform. Women who donned these progressive garments protested society’s arbitrary norms and typically supported the early feminist organizations and their goals of equality, and the right to vote.

“Reform Dress” or “Bloomer”. Illustration from A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak.

The title of this post originates from a book I recently discovered. Published by the Denver Library District in 1949, The Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak refers to Julia Anna Archibald Holmes (1838-1887). Born in Canada, she moved to Massachusetts at age 10, and to Kansas in the mid-1850s, where her abolitionist family was part of the movement that settled the state to prevent it from becoming pro-slavery. They helped found the town of Lawrence where she met James Holmes, a fellow abolitionist, and, furthermore, a member of John Brown’s Free State Rangers. Julia married him in the fall of 1857, when she was 18. After the discovery of gold in Colorado the following year, the couple joined the Lawrence Party in June 1858, among the earliest hopeful gold seekers. Crossing the Great Plains in covered wagons and on foot, they arrived at the base of Pike’s Peak about one month later and set up camp near the future Garden of the Gods.

Half a century earlier, in 1806, Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike had led the first U.S. government expedition to the region acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. While searching for the source of the Arkansas River, he saw and approached a tall mountain in the distance, but was prevented from its ascent by November’s inhospitable conditions. In his journal, he expressed the conviction, that “no man could have ascended to its pinnacle.” On August 5, 1858, however, Julia and her husband summited, and Julia is generally presumed to have been the first white woman to stand on top of the 14,115 foot mountain named after Pike years after his death. Ironically, she did so wearing her Bloomer dress which facilitated her journey, whereas Pike and his men were prevented not only by snow, but also by their inadequate summer uniforms.

Julia kept a journal, and even though it has been lost, letters to her family as well as articles written for women’s magazines have survived and provide insight into her adventures. They form the core of The Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak. The following are quotes from the book.

We were now fairly launched on the waving prairie. A person who has beheld neither the ocean nor the great, silent, uninhabited plains, will find it impossible to form an adequate idea of the grandeur of the scene. With the blue sky overhead, the endless variety of flowers under foot, it seemed that the ocean’s solitude had united with all the landscape beauties. (page 15)

I commenced the journey with a firm determination to learn to walk. At first I could not walk over three or four miles without feeling quite weary, but by persevering and walking as far as I could every day, my capacity increased gradually, and in the course of a few weeks I could walk ten miles in the most sultry weather without being exhausted. Believing, as I do, in the right of woman to equal privileges with man, I think that when it is in our power we should, in order to promote our own independence, at least, be willing to share the hardships which commonly fall to the lot of man. (page 20)

I have accomplished the task which I marked out for myself and now I feel amply repaid for all my toil and fatigue. Nearly every one tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed; and now, here I am, and I feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all. In all probability I am the first woman who has ever stood upon the summit of this mountain and gazed upon this wondrous scene, which my eyes now behold. (page 39)

Modern-day view from the summit of Pike’s Peak

When gold proved elusive, Julia and her husband moved to New Mexico for a number of years. Of their four children, two died. Julia was granted a divorce in 1870, probably as a consequence of domestic abuse and adultery. She made Washington, D.C. her permanent home where she remained active in the suffrage movement and worked for the US Government until her death at the age of 49. I have not been able to establish the cause of death. The portrait above shows Julia at about 32, when she left her husband. Does anyone else think she bears an uncanny resemblance to Julia Roberts?

“America’s Mountain” reminds me regularly of the eventful and accomplished life of “A Bloomer Girl on Pike’s Peak”, the progressive, abolitionist, suffragist, writer, and first known female to scale its steep summit.

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For weeks the unmistakable signs of approaching autumn have advertised the change in seasons, yet they coexist with vestiges of estival exuberance.

Still, butterflies drink deeply of the sweet nectar of friendly flowers whose vital force continues to pulsate.

Still, the sun warms the air and lights the days, though they are growing shorter. Birds wing southward to milder climes, and while one swallow does not a summer make, the absence of their multitudes signals summer’s end.

Barn swallows at the height of summer. Now they are gone.

The transformation of green foliage into hues of yellow, orange, and red, and of colorful blossoms into seed-bearing vessels is the most obvious harbinger of the earth’s ever-increasing distance from our solar orb. It is accompanied by a chill that rides on Aeolus’s wings, by leaves that tumble in his wake, and by the smell of composting vegetation on his breath.

It is a time of endings. The ending of vibrancy. The ending of the earth’s most productive period.

     A time of wistfulness.

     A time to reflect on goals unfinished.

     A time of regrets.

It is also a time of beginnings. The beginning of dormancy. The beginning of the earth’s most conservative period.

     A time of gratitude.

     A time to celebrate accomplishments.

     A time of hope.

Hope, that life will continue, that we will have another chance, that spring will once again spring.

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The Gift(s) of Guests

     Living far away from my childhood home, I don’t see family and friends from Europe nearly as often as I would like, excepting this year, when my husband and I were blessed with two rounds of visitors, resulting in multiple excursions to Denver’s airport. Our friend Susanne came for an impromptu stay in April, giving us the opportunity to introduce her to a few of our favorite destinations.

Susanne and Pikes Peak seen from Garden of the Gods

Even though she made us hike daily, she also contributed to our waistlines by supplying us with mounds of chocolate, tea, home-made jam, and bread spreads. Those have mostly vanished, but we continue to benefit almost daily from the magic frothing wand that did not report for the transatlantic return.

     Thank you again, Susanne. On your next trip we will explore all the trails we missed.

     Soon after I squeezed out the last imported fennel tea bag kindly carried in the luggage of the woman who can stand neither its taste nor its smell, I was frolicking with the anticipation of a re-supply. Fortunately for us, my cousin, her husband and daughter decided to stay with us for a (too) short stint in August, before traveling to the West Coast in a rental car. My request for fennel tea was heeded – and my expectations far exceeded. Instead of the three or four boxes I had in mind, I found myself counting twelve! Why the fuss about this beverage? It is not widely available here, and its classification as a medicinal herb increases the price tag. I could try to grow it myself, but have, thus far, been enabled in my complacency by our accommodating guests.

     I was no less surprised to find that asking for chili chocolate was answered by ten (10!) bars, as opposed to the anticipated two or three. My resolution to fight against my bulging hips flew out the window, outmaneuvered by an overabundance of goodwill and calories. From my better half who does not care for this flavor of chocolate, I can’t expect any help.

     The gift list does not end here. I was thrilled to receive a book that bears the same title as a condition I am (happily) afflicted with: Ornithomania. And my husband to obtain a pair of handsome, hand-knitted socks certain to warm his feet come winter. As if these offerings were not enough, my mere mention of admiring a cloth bag resulted in its bequeathal to us, when we had the opportunity to spend one last afternoon together in early September in Denver, where my relatives had a one night layover before their return to Germany.

     It just so happened that my cousin’s husband, a dedicated (should I say obsessive?) runner, had signed up for our most iconic local mountain race, the Pikes Peak Marathon. Five days after arriving in Colorado Springs from an elevation of about 800 feet, he started his run at about 6300 feet, covered 7800 feet over the course of 13 miles to the summit at 14,115 feet, then turned around and did it once more in reverse – and all in under six hours. Hat off, Sven (that is, Pikes Peak Marathon hat on)! I can only dream of such a performance, but you just fit it in before leaving on a 3000 mile drive to California.

Garden of the Gods is a mandatory stop for every visitor to Colorado Springs

Still smiling after the Pikes Peak Marathon

Leaving for California

     Tamara, Chiara and Sven, we loved having you spend time with us and only regret that it flew by. We hope all of you will come back, ere long.

     Henceforth, I will respond to the hugely appreciated offer of presents from Germany only after profound reflection and deliberation. I should not need fennel tea or chocolate for the foreseeable future, even though a couple of bars have already disappeared, inexplicably.

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Garden of Eden

     Of all the states in the Union, Colorado boasts the most 14ers (between 52 and 54, according to the source) and the highest mean elevation (6,800 feet), and lies therefore closest to heaven. It is a place of sunshine, natural splendor, and rarefied air, and with this in mind it should come as no surprise that it is also home to the Garden of Eden. I have seen it with my own eyes – was actually there not long ago.

     Lest it be frequented even more, I will say merely that Eden lies in a cozy valley near a charming mountain town not far from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. It can only be reached via steep, narrow hiking trails strewn with rocks and studded with roots. Because water signifies the origin of all life, the dell is fittingly formed and dominated by a creek which fosters the growth of dense vegetation. Towering boulders on one side and a sloping hill clad in varying shades of green on the other provide a sense of seclusion suitable for an exclusive garden.

     Like the verdant and lush landscape currently on the cusp of autumn, the soundscape also harmonizes with the paradisiacal setting. The water’s gentle murmuring is complemented by the euphonic singing of birds, humming of insects, rustling of aspen leaves, and whispering of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. The locale’s natural beauty and peaceful ambiance, its variety of plant and animal life as well as the general absence of human cacophony harken back to a prelapsarian state which might have inspired its Arcadian name.

Definitely present in Paradise: Golden-mantled ground squirrels

     Jan and Richard, I am grateful you asked me to housesit for you. Your residence is closer to Eden than most others in your hamlet, thereby enabling me to visit it more easily; but staying in your domicile, on your plot of land, very nearly approximated the experience of living in Paradise already, without having to take additional steps.

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Ancestral Puebloans-Part 4: Hovenweep

This is part 4 of a 4-part series.

Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 2.

Click here for part 3.

     Hovenweep National Monument was established in 1923. A lesser-known assembly of Ancestral Puebloan relics, it straddles the border of southwest Colorado and southeast Utah and is one of those hidden, out-of-the-way gems with enduring gravity, pulling us back repeatedly. Our fourth journey happened in early May of this year.

     Hovenweep is composed of six different sites, thought to harbor approximately 2500 inhabitants between 1200 and 1300 AD. Five outlying communities are chiefly accessible by four-wheel drive dirt roads or hiking trails. The main attraction is known as Little Ruin Canyon and lies near the handsome Visitor Center built in an emblematic southwestern style that resembles the former pueblos.

Hovenweep Visitor Center

A two mile hike allows relatively easy access to the round, square, and D-shaped towers characteristic of this locale. The route parallels the rim of the canyon, but also dips down into it. Legendary western pioneering photographer, William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), is credited for naming it Hovenweep, translatable as “deserted valley”, in the Ute/Paiute language. In 1874, he explored the region as a member of the famous Hayden Expedition which also enabled him to take the first photographs of Mesa Verde.

Sunrise and moonset

The early morning light bathes the ruins in warm tones

Close-up of one of the most intriguing ruins of Little Ruin Canyon, the “Eroded Bolder House” (I call it the shell)

     During our last two expeditions, we camped at the comparatively compact campground composed of 31 sites. A footpath connecting it to the nearby Little Ruin Trail encouraged repeat excursions. Ever since our first acquaintance, we have been enchanted by the local plants. Dark-green juniper and piñon pine, fragrant sagebrush, sword-like yucca, and colorful cacti were omnipresent and punctuated by smaller, more delicate wildflowers attractive to hummingbirds and other pollinators. A profusion of cliffrose dotted the rocky scenery and perfumed the air with their sweet scent. Despite the severity of the environment, the fauna was no less diverse than the flora: insects, lizards, birds, and mammals were amply represented.

Datil Yucca (many subspecies of this versatile plant exist)

Cliffrose lining Little Ruin Canyon

Penstemon after the rain

Collared Lizard

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher also liked to hang out in Little Ruin Canyon

     During the Ancestral Puebloans’ era, every material usable for food, fire, and clothes was harvested. Yucca alone delivered food (flowers), fiber (leaves), needles (leaf tips), and soap (root). Cactus pads were eaten. Stringy juniper bark provided fiber, padding, diapers, and toilet paper. Pine seeds represented high-energy morsels. Whether or not the pueblo dwellers lived in harmony with the land is interesting to ponder. There is evidence that, even after building stone houses, they temporarily moved from one settlement to the next, perhaps to allow the soil periods of recovery by letting it lie fallow. It is likely that they rotated crops. I can’t help thinking that a civilization who read the heavens for celestial signs would have failed to heed the lessons of the earth. Was it a prolonged dry spell that finally overrode all foresight and planning, and resulted in their departure 700 years ago? The walls of Hovenweep alone know.

     Lest we are left with overly romantic notions — life was harsh, life expectancy short. Hunger and thirst? Daily concerns. Armed conflict? Likely. Cannibalism? Possible. The Ancestral Puebloans were human beings with human foibles. But they also inspire and invite us to return time and again, and to immerse ourselves in this intriguing world still open to interpretation. Their exodus, their remarkable relics, their picturesque petroglyphs and pictographs raise more questions than answers, and their secrets survive.

     Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

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Ancestral Puebloans-Part 3: Mesa Verde

    This is part 3 of a 4-part series.

Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 2.

Click here for part 4.

     Once Chaco Canyon lost its prominent role, due to natural or man-made causes, Mesa Verde saw its star shine brightly, before it, too, flickered, then faded. American Indians had lived on this part of the Colorado Plateau, which now lies in southwest Colorado, since the mid-500s, first on mesa tops in pit houses, then in aboveground stone constructions. From 1150 on, they built extensive pueblos in alcoves of reddish sandstone, the picturesque backdrop of the iconic images many of us envision when we think of Ancestral Puebloans. In fewer than one hundred years they departed. Here as elsewhere, the reasons are still debated. Historians often point to the defensive position of these pueblos in support of the theory that drought and famine led to warfare and, finally, to the dispersal of the clans.

     Mesa Verde became a National Park in 1906 and a World Heritage Site in 1979. My husband and I explored it twice, in 2009 and 2011. When we drove past its entrance during a trip to the area in May of this year, we regretted not having time for a third foray. But we reminisced about former sojourns, following the road into the park in our mind’s eye. Soon after the turn-off from Colorado Highway 160, a spur reaches the main Visitor Center. Even if travelers are unable to explore the park in depth, a stopover here will give an overview of one of Colorado’s best-loved National Parks. At the four mile marker, the road passes the campground (open from mid-May until mid-October), before it slowly winds up to the top of the mesa with its superb views of the surrounding scenery. After 15 miles, the road branches into two. One leads to Chapin, the other to Wetherill Mesa.

     Chapin Mesa is home to the Cliff Palace (featured image on top) and Balcony House, perhaps the best-known and most-photographed dwellings. Because of many years of pillaging, wanton destruction, and safety concerns, they are only accessible by ranger-led tours. Reservations are typically available for the same day. Self-guided tours are possible at Spruce Tree House. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offers detailed information about the history of the Ancestral Puebloans. Nearby, remnants of earlier pit houses have been excavated. The impressive Sun Temple is thought to represent a ceremonial center, unfinished at the time the Mesa Verdeans left their habitations. Former check dams and reservoirs illustrate various ways to collect water. While this was indispensable for everyday purposes, farmers supposedly used dryland techniques, without artificial irrigation.

Balcony House

Kiva without a roof. A ceremonial chamber thought to represent the place of emergence of the people.

Kivas at Spruce Tree House with roofs and central openings, accessed with a ladder.

Original interior decoration

Sun Temple

Cactus thrive on rocky surfaces

     Wetherill Mesa is open only from May through September, weather permitting. Its major residences are Long House (ranger-led only), and Step House (self-guiding). This portion of the park is named after Richard Wetherill (1858-1910), a well-known if controversial figure in the annals of several ancient pueblos in the Four Corners region. Hailing from a Colorado ranching family, he is credited with the discovery of Cliff Palace. He seemed genuinely moved and inspired by those uncharted stone structures filled with daily implements, food, even human skeletons, but might have been at least partially responsible for their subsequent theft or sale to collectors and museums. Thus he may be considered the first in a line of pothunters who continue their misdeeds to this day. In 1901, he moved to Chaco Canyon and tried to establish a homestead on land surrounding the local ruins. When Chaco became a National Monument, he relinquished his claim, but continued to run a trading post there. He was shot in 1910 and is buried not far from Pueblo Bonito.

Square Tower House, one of several smaller pueblos within Mesa Verde

     Mesa Verde was our first acquaintance with the design of the Ancestral Puebloans, and the elegant masonry nestled between two strata of sandstone left indelible impressions. Here, too, many pieces of the puzzle of this fascinating culture remain missing.

     Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

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