A certain free margin

Maybe it’s my imagination, but this cardinal appears to be deep in thought. June 2019

“You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness – perhaps ignorance, credulity – helps your enjoyment of these things…”Walt Whitman

I think Whitman just explained why I get such a kick out of nature. My ignorance of the scientific details in the natural world is so vast as to allow me an enormous free margin to have lots of fun with my own credulity.

The Ligustrum shrubs at our York home used to be a condo for my beloved robins, but a few years ago the cardinals moved in and drove them away. Last week I was sitting at the kitchen table when I noticed the redbirds flying in and out of the bushes, landing on the deck rail for a few minutes before launching again.

I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. It seemed too late for them to be building nests or tending hatchlings, and I didn’t think there were any berries or other edible parts of the plant they might be after. It wasn’t until I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures that the telephoto lens gave me a better idea what those birds were after. Eeewww. Suddenly they seemed less like colorful state mascots and more like vultures eating road kill.

Yuk! Is that insect’s wing still beating?

Not only that, but there was what I could only describe as an annoyed expression on the face of one bird who noticed me watching her. I could almost hear Robert DeNiro saying “You talkin’ to me?” Maybe she was just upset at having an obviously bad hair day. I didn’t realize a bird could have those until I saw this one. Does anybody know why her head looks so mangy?

Obviously would have preferred to eat lunch in private.

I have no doubt that an ornithologist would laugh at my decidedly unscientific observations, but no matter. I can’t imagine that I would feel more delight in watching those birds– or anything else– if my head was full of facts rather than fancy. I bet Walt Whitman would agree.

So this week, I hope you will go out and enjoy nature, whatever the range of your personal free margin might be.  Whether your focus is the fantastic firmament, comical creatures, or just a calming walk on a mild, breezy day, you’re sure to be richer for the experience. Feel free to share with us your adventures, scientific or otherwise.



  1. Sheila

    Good Monday afternoon, July 1st, and happy hot Summertime! We have an unlikely pair of visitors in Garden City, two mallard ducks! We’re amazed that they’ve maneuvered these streets from the oceanfront to the Inlet marsh grasses for weeks. They come to our bird feeding area and help themselves to the bowl of seed I have there for the ground feeders. Just one big happy family enjoying the bounty. Bill hung Walter’s favorite swing /perch by the water tray for the birds to enjoy. Warms my heart! 🐥♥️ I hope you’re enjoying summer there in your new home. Happy Fourth of July! ♥️🇺🇸

    • Sheila, happy hot summertime is right! I’ve been indulging in the iced tea this week. Wow, mallards! I love watching ducks. Maybe it’s my imagination running away with me again, but duck seem friendlier than geese, at least to me. How perfect to hang Walter’s swing outside for his distant cousins to enjoy! I’m sure you may have guessed, I thought of Walter when I wrote this post, as I do whenever I’m talking about birds. Happy 4th to all the Vann clan!

  2. Mike B.

    I did not realise that Cardinals could kick out the Robins from the neighborhood. In the Northwest, it’s the crows who are the neighborhood bullies. I have enjoyed getting to know these little red guys during our sojourn here in the south.
    Have you been to Rock city? Next planned voyage. Oh, went to Booth Western museum last weekend in Cartersville. Very amazing venue. Finest display of western art- East of the Mississippi. Several Remington’s on view also. Cartersville also has the Bartow museum which hope to visit next time through.
    Too much inspection can lead to dissection which in the process kills the animal. It is also fun to lean a few of the wildflower names- like Virginia bluebells and last week I discovered the Cotton Borer moth which looks like a scary wasp, but isn’t.

    • Mike, I didn’t know cardinals would drive robins (or any other bird) away, but they surely seem to have done that at our York home. We used to have tons of robins including babies in the nests every year, but since the cardinals moved in, I never see them anymore. Yes, I went to Rock City many years ago, and while we were there, Daddy bought me a “fairy cross” necklace that I still have someplace. In the south one used to see barn roof advertisements everywhere “See Rock City” and “See Ruby Falls.” I never saw the latter, but I did enjoy Rock City. I’m guessing it has changed quite a bit since I was there in the early 70’s, though. I never heard of the Cotton Borer moth but I know that the wasps are driving me crazy this year. One of the guys working on my lawn stepped into a yellow jacket nest at the edge of my property and ended up going to the ER from all the stings.

  3. Carolyn

    Sorry we were not able to visit with you and Matt. The days were so busy and the trip wasn’t easy for me. Maybe this fall. They are in Stafford, Va. Now. We love watching the birds in our back yard and Terry put up a Blue bird house. It is fun watching them fly in and out of that tiny hole. Sure is hot right now for the porch but the fan helps. You stay safe and have a great summer. Hugs and love to you & Matt.

    • Hi Carolyn, I wrote you a card a few days ago but kept forgetting to mail it. It’s sitting in the mailbox now but I’m afraid I missed the pickup for today. Oh well, hopefully you’ll get it eventually. Stafford is where I have been going to church for about a year now. It seems like a very nice little town and an easy drive to Quantico. I’m sorry the trip was hard for you. I find that travel seems to get harder and harder as the years go by. But hopefully you’ll be coming to see them sometime in the future and we can get together then. I bet having a bird house is great fun! I have two bird feeders that I need to put up. I might wait until closer to cold weather, though. Hope you and Terry enjoy the rest of the summer and keep cool. Sending much love your way.

      • Carolyn

        Be sure to look up Jennifer &Paul. That is where they will be going to church. That is where they went when they were there years ago. I will be sure to tell her. Happy to hear from you. Hugs to you .

        • Hi Carolyn, so far I haven’t seen them. They may be going to a different place. Ours is a small congregation in north Stafford. I’ll email you the address so you can check with them.

      • Carolyn

        Stafford is where they will be going to church. You all will have to find one other.

        • Carolyn, do you know which church they will be going to? There probably are several in the area.

  4. You have the very best friends. Have a wonderful week. While you have been with Walt Whitman, I have been with William Wordsworth, Dancing with Daffodils! I love poetry and have read to myself aloud, in an empty room. https://anchor.fm/teatoasttrivia/episodes/Dancing-with-Daffodils-e3mnn5

    • Dancing with daffodils is one of my favorite things, because they are my favorite flowers! I have always loved that poem. I’m glad you mentioned the address at the end of the podcast (teatoastrivia.com) because the link in your comment somehow sent me to Spotify, which I don’t have, so I listened to it on Google. But then when you gave the URL I went there and got to see the pictures and video too! Thanks for sharing it. BTW when I first started playing it I put it on pause so I could go grab my tea to enjoy while I listened. 🙂 And I had toast earlier today, too.

      • I am delighted that you joined me on the podcast conversation. I find having a cuppa tea with a friend is a great way to spend an afternoon. Many thanks. One of my promises to my father before he passed was that I would tell our story. So I’m enjoying my time with my mother going back over time. She has a marvelous insight – and I have learned a great deal…

        • Those times with your mother are precious and will mean even more as the years go by. I have only a couple of short videos I took of Mama and Daddy. I treasure them and wish I took more. I think you are doing a great thing that will be a gift to the family for generations to come!

  5. Rene

    I have so many hummingbirds visiting today. I just realized that they are ruby-throated. That iridescent flash of red as they zoom by, rather than any expertise has made me decide that they are. A suitable replacement for the purple-headed ones I have been missing.

    • Rene, I didn’t even realize there are different types of hummingbirds. When I got your comment I looked it up so I could see what a purple-headed one looks like, and come to find out, there are 20 types of hummingbirds in the USA alone! And maybe others in other parts of the world. WOW. I’ve only ever seen the ruby-throated ones. I need to get my hummingbird feeder up and running. My sister has kept the feeders going for years and last time I went to see her, I was so amazed at how many are there all the time. They are great fun to watch, aren’t they? I hope your summer is filled with them. Thanks for telling us about them so I could learn a tiny bit more about them. I learn so much from the comments here.

      • Rene

        Talk about being filled, one just flew over and stopped for a few seconds to check me out! I am so happy right now!

        • Wow, how fun! Thanks for sharing that treat with us.

  6. cjbeam79

    I had entered a comment on Monday, but somehow it disappeared. I had begun the process of creating a WordPress account (having to do with my church), and the comment would not post, as normal. I had to log into WordPress to continue, and I tried, but apparently it’s too hi-tech for me. 😩
    I think I was telling you about my trying to feed a wild rabbit in my back yard. Anyway, I agree with you and Walt! And, yes, the cardinal does have a menacing look!! Watch your back when you go out next time! 😊


    • Hi Chris, I’m so sorry you had problems with the WordPress sign-in. There are some perks if you figure it out (mostly you get to click “like” and have your very own Gravatar posted on the page, hee-hee) so I hope you will keep trying. I’ve had several people tell me they could not get the hang of it, and they gave up, so it must be a common problem. Plus, browsers are getting so paranoid about privacy and other potential violations, that I now find all sorts of programs that used to work fine for me, no longer do. 😦 Is it my imagination, or does technology get more frustrating all the time? Shades of Hal! Talk about watching my back! In any case, I’m glad you came back and posted the old way. Did you succeed in feeding that wild rabbit? I used to see tons of bunnies at the Alexandria home, but none here so far. I can’t help but wonder if this has anything to do with the foxes that are so common they are almost like pets around here, with people posting photos of them online all the time. York County still seems to be “hopping” with rabbits, though, so I don’t miss them completely. Maybe if I put a bird feeder out the cardinal will be happier? Perhaps bugs aren’t their favorite cuisine. In any case, I’ll be on the lookout for them. Fortunately, with those red feathers, they are hard to miss!

      • Dear Julia,
        Old Baldy (our resident cardinal thus named due to losing all of the feathers on his head, and I don’t know how he stays warm enough in winter that way!) likes black sunflower seeds.
        Somehow, he also manages to find or keep a mate (another of my ignorances), and they have babies every summer, despite his pitiful appearance.
        So I wonder if they just plain go bald in old age, like human men can?

        • Susan, I had no idea that birds could go bald! Even the so-called Bald Eagle has feathers on his head. But I think that must be what is happening to some of the birds in my yard, including this one. So maybe these are “senior” birds. That makes them even more interesting, in my book. 😉

  7. Good morning, Julia!
    I was going to send a link on anthropomorphism, and then I realized that would defeat the whole purpose! It’s fun to attribute human characteristics to animals. For one thing, we can say things like “they look grumpy” or “confused” and know that they aren’t, really, so we’re really not insulting an actual person.
    I’m imagining two photos: a pair of robins and a pair of cardinals, and one robin is whispering to the other, “there goes the neighborhood!”
    I think it’s a funny idea; I’m delighted to see people who wear bold hair colors and styles. But some people aren’t, and would side with the robins on this matter. Maybe they wouldn’t find it funny in the same way. Hmm.
    Regarding that either / or aspect, I remember seeing robins often as a child – harbingers of spring! Of course, the cardinals are here year-round, and … where are the robins?? So now I know!
    It’s amazing the things I keep learning from your blog!
    Have a super week!

    • Susan, thanks for pointing that out– I had never noticed before that I see robins around mostly in springtime, but the cardinals are year round. And yes, anthropomorphism is great fun! Where would children’s literature be without it? No Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, no Wind in the Willows, no Peter Rabbit…on and on the list could go. I think Whitman was totally right about the free margin. And anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows that it can’t all be in our imagination that they are, in at least some respects, very much like us…

  8. Mike B.

    Yes Cardinals are pretty awesome little birds. I also enjoy watching the ubiquitous Southern vultures that are all over.
    Today is Raynard’s Shady party. I told him to say hi to you if you make it.
    Verie has shoulder surgery on Monday so please include her on your prayer list. It could be along day.
    Picked up a copy of Stephanie Gayle’s debut novel ” My summer of Southern Discomfort.”
    We will see.
    I had a devotional accepted for next July at the Upper Room.I was thinking it would be fun to visit Nashville and see the sights and the Upper Room Office. I would like to take a XX writing seminar at some point. I can’t believe Norah goes back to school next week in Cherokee County. Such are the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

    • Mike, I will remember Verie (and you) in my prayers for her surgery tomorrow. My sister is likely going to be having something very similar soon. Congratulations on your Upper Room submission! Be sure to alert me when It’s going to be published. If you have never been to Nashville, I highly recommend the trip. I lived there 6 years total (4 in college, and 2 more while Jeff was finishing college, as he was 2 years to the day younger than me). I enjoyed Nashville although I loved Memphis better, maybe because it was more fun being married than engaged! 😀 The city has grown and changed a lot since I lived there, of course. Yes, it’s hard to imagine kids going back to school in August, but many do. Here in Virginia, they don’t start back until after Labor Day, but of course they don’t get out as early in the year, either.

  9. Mike B.

    Not for a year Jul-Aug 2020. Surgery went well, except she somehow got a scratched cornea which was more painful than the actual procedure. She had a rotator cuff repair with an overlying alograft??
    Yes Nashville sounds fun. I also want to fly down to Norleans and take the Crescent train to Penn station in NYC. via Atlanta- 30 hours or so. Our trip to St.Augustine was interesting, but too many tourist traps. I was a little dismayed when we had the tour of the fort (Where your picture was taken) and they told us that a big entertainment draw for the early town was to see the condemned prisoners hanged in the square. Also I was dismayed to learn the Spanish killed all those who were not Catholics -including a bunch of French Hugenot folks. Oh well I guess things are a little better now between the Catholics and the Protestants, but the Spanish were pretty brutal.
    My southernism for the week is,”it was so dry the trees were bribing the dogs.” Did you ever get pink lemonade sherbert at Brewsters? Hear it is good.
    I guess the Upper room has some elonline writing courses.
    The book is by Paige Ashville? “My summer of southern discomfort.” It takes place in Macon.

    • Glad to hear Verie made it through the surgery well, except for the cornea injury– it does sound very painful. Speaking of painful, I don’t remember those details about St. Augustine although I do remember that even as a very inexperienced traveler, it seems way too full of tourist traps. In fact my early memories of Florida left me with a sort of bias against the idea of ever living there, despite all the good things about it. I don’t remember any gruesome descriptions of genocide or torture, but I am guessing that the discussions of past brutality have been ratcheted up a good bit since the 1960’s, when it was less common to focus primarily (or even exclusively) on what past cultures did wrong rather than what they may have accomplished. Hey I thought that the train running out of New Orleans was the “City of New Orleans” as immortalized by Arlo Guthrie. Perhaps that was the name of the train itself and not the route.

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