Dare we Dream of Spring? Happy Imbolc (Groundhog Day) 2011

Update 2011-02-02: Flatbush Fluffy didn’t see his shadow this morning. He did see his reflection in the sheet of ice that covers everything. Not sure what that means.

The snow in the backyard – undisturbed by shoveling, snowblowers, drifts, and pedestrian traffic, save for a few small, furry quadrupeds – is above my knees, about two feet. As I write this on the eve of the last day of January 2011, there is yet another Winter Storm Watch in effect, the billionth this Winter.

For the first day of February, the National Weather Service predicts snow, snow and sleet, freezing rain, sleet and snow, ice, freezing rain, snow and sleet, snow, then freezing rain, in that order. That’s just Tuesday. It continues into Wednesday, Groundhog Day, with much the same result. The sole consolation is that come Imbolc morn, Flatbush Fluffy, the resident Marmota monax, will not see his shadow. Dare we dream of Spring?

Flatbush Fluffy

The groundhog, Marmota monax, also known as a woodchuck, groundhog, or whistlepig, is the largest species of marmot in the world.

Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2, has its roots in an ancient Celtic celebration called Imbolog [Wikipedia: Imbolc]. The date is one of the four cross-quarter days of the year, the midpoints between the spring and fall equinoxes and the summer and winter solstice.
NOBLE Web: Groundhog Day

The other cross-quarter days are Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain, associated with All Hallow’s eve, Halloween. The quarter days are the equinoxes and solstices, dates I also like to observe on this blog. The cross-quarter days fall between the quarter days. At the Spring equinox, day-length is at its mid-point, but the rate of change in day-length is near its peak. At Imbolc, day-length acceleration is near its peak; we are rushing toward Spring and Summer.

This is my fifth annual Groundhog Day post.This May will be the fifth anniversary of this blog. I am grateful for all the grace and privileges that have allowed me to continue doing this, and grateful for all my readers, friends, and community this endeavor has brought me over the years.

Regardless of the weather.

Related posts



Wikipedia: Imbolc

Happy Imbolc (Groundhog Day) 2010

Update, 2010-02-02: Swing, and a miss. It’s overcast this morning. The sun is up, and visible over the rooftops, but no shadows. Spring will arrive on time! (Oh, and my neighbor’s Snowdrops are up, if not yet in bloom.)

If the National Weather Service forecast for tomorrow morning is correct on this point, the sky will be clear for dawn in Flatbush. Flatbush Fluffy, the resident Marmota monax, will see his shadow, promising six more weeks of Winter.

Flatbush Fluffy

Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2, has its roots in an ancient Celtic celebration called Imbolog [Wikipedia: Imbolc]. The date is one of the four cross-quarter days of the year, the midpoints between the spring and fall equinoxes and the summer and winter solstice.
NOBLE Web: Groundhog Day

The groundhog, Marmota monax, also known as a woodchuck, groundhog, or whistlepig, is the largest species of marmot in the world.

Related posts



Wikipedia: Imbolc

Bats, Bat Houses, and White-Nose Syndrome 2009

Mosquito control is a perennial topic on the Flatbush Family Network, one of the numerous email discussion groups which cover the different neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Bat houses invariably come up as a way of attracting a natural predator to keep mosquito populations in check. Here I’m reprising and updating my posts on these and related topics from last year.

White-Nose Syndrome (WNS)

Last Spring I wrote about White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). A breakthrough that occurred just in the past few months is that the “White-Nose” has been identified as a group of previously unknown species of Geomyces fungus. It’s still unknown whether it’s a symptom – such as an opportunistic infection – or a cause or contributor.

Bats exhibiting white-nose syndrome in Hailes Cave, Albany County, NY, one of the first caves in which WNS was observed. Photo: Nancy Heaslip, NYS DEC.

Bob Hoke of the District of Columbia Grotto (DCG) of the National Speleological Society (NSS) maintains an excellent chronology of WNS news and understanding. WNS has already killed hundreds of thousands of bats across the northeast over the past four winters. Mortality has been as high as 90% in some caves. It’s estimated that 75% of northeastern bats have died in just four years. Unfortunately, it continues to spread; for the first time, it’s also been found or suspected in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Map of occurrence of White Nose Syndrome by county as of March 4, 2009. WNS was later confirmed in Virginia. Credit: courtesy of Cal Butchkoski, Pennsylvania Game Commission
Counties with White Nose Syndrome

Because of the high mortality, rapid spread, and still-unknown causes of the disease, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS) has issued a cave advisory to suspend all caving activities in affected states, and take precautions in states where WNS has not yet been detected:

The evidence collected to date indicates that human activity in caves and mines may be assisting the spread of WNS. Therefore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending actions to reduce the risks of further spread of WNS:

  1. A voluntary moratorium on caving in states with confirmed WNS and all adjoining states;
  2. Nationally, in states not WNS-affected or adjoining states, use clothing and gear that has never been in caves in WNS-affected or adjoining states;
  3. State and federal conservation agencies should evaluate scientific activities for their potential to spread WNS; and
  4. Nationally, researchers should use clothing and gear that has never been in caves in a WNS-affected or adjoining state.

This also applies to mines used by cavers.

These recommendations will remain in effect until the mechanisms behind transmission of WNS are understood, and/or the means to mitigate the risk of human-assisted transport are developed.

There was a big thing that came out in the environmental reports last year that chemical mosquito killers are quite bad for the environment and killed more than just mosquitoes. They might even be part of the reason why there is a bacteria/virus killing off northeastern bats. Although, scientists haven’t found anything conclusive it seems.
– via Flatbush Family Network

WNS research is ongoing, but it’s still not known what the cause is. A plausible explanation is immunodeficiency caused by environmental contamination, such as insecticides sprayed for West Nile Virus, but again, that’s just one of several hypotheses being explored by researchers. A pathogen such as a virus, bacteria or fungus is likely due to the patterns by which it’s spreading.

Bat Houses

Bat houses seem like a great idea. At night, bats eat about 1,000 pesky insects an hour. I don’t know how one attracts bats to your bat house but I’ve seen them in the evening in Prospect Park, amazing little creatures that they are.
– via Flatbush Family Network

I wrote about bat houses last year. Bats have specific requirements for roosting sites. Most of the houses I’ve seen commercially available are too small or lacking in other requirements. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) article, “Why I Built a Bat House,” contains detailed instructions for building a house that meets current knowledge about bats roosting needs.

The bat house I purchased last year from Bat Conservation International before I installed it on the side of the second floor porch – my “tree fort” – at the back of my house.
Bat House

Note that this is the time of year when bats are looking for their “summer homes.” I put mine up mid-April last year, which was a little late. I’m hoping they find it and set up house this year!

General information about bats

Is there ANY danger to my 4 year old son? Do bats poop/pee/spit anything bad for him? Do they really only come out at night?
– via Flatbush Family Network

Bats really do only come out at night. You’re most likely to see them at dusk, when they leave their roosts, and dawn, when they return. At the end of last summer, I saw a few on my block flying amidst the gaps between the canopies of the street trees. They seemed to be feasting on the insects attracted to the street lights.

Many people are concerned about rabies. While sensible caution is warranted, the risk is extremely low. In New York City, you’re more likely to contract West Nile Virus (WNV), which bats help combat by eating mosquitoes which carry the virus. If you see any normally nocturnal animal – such as a bat, raccoon or opossum – out in the open during the day, keep children and pets away from it and notify animal control by calling 311.


Related Content

Rabies in NYC: Facts and Figures, 2008-07-08
Bat Houses, 2008-04-13
Northeastern Bats in Peril, 2008-03-18
Other posts about bats



Bats of New York, Eileen Stegemann and Al Hicks, Conservationist, February 2008, NYSDEC
Bat Conservation International (BCI)

Bat Houses

Why I Built a Bat House, Carla Brown, National Wildlife Federation (NWF) (H/T Sara S. via Flatbush Family Network)
Bats Wanted, Al Hicks and Eileen Stegemann, Conservationist, February 2008, NYSDEC
The importance of bat houses, Organization for Bat Conservation
The Bat House Forum

White-Nose Syndrome

An excellent chronology of WNS is maintained by Bob Hoke of the District of Columbia Grotto (DCG) of the National Speleological Society (NSS).

White-Nose Syndrome Confirmed in VA Bats, WHSV, Richmond, VA, 2009-04-02
Cave activity discouraged to help protect bats from deadly white-nose syndrome, Press Release, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2009-03-26
Fungus Kills About 90 Percent Of Connecticut’s Bats, Rinker Buck, Hartford Courant, 2009-03-18 (H/T NewYorkology via Twitter)
Newly Identified Fungus Implicated in White-Nose Syndrome in Bats, Press Release, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 2008-10-31
Bats dying off across western Maine, Maine Sun Journal, 2008-07-19 (H/T Center for Biological Diversity)
Dying Bats in the Northeast Remain a Mystery, USGS Newsroom, 2008-05-09
First It Was Bees, Now It’s Bats That Are Dying, Natural News, 2008-04-11
Bats in the Region Are Dying From a Mysterious Ailment, Litchfield County Times, 2008-04-03
Bats Perish, and No One Knows Why, New York Times Science Section, 2008-03-25
Bat Die-Off Prompts Investigation, Environment DEC, March 2008, NYSDEC

White-nose Syndrome Threatens New York’s Bats, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)
White-Nose Syndrome, Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC)
White-Nose Syndrome in bats: Something is killing our bats, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Mystery Disease Kills U.S. Bats, Bat Conservation International
Bat Crisis: The White-Nose Syndrome, Center for Biological Diversity
White Nose Syndrome Page, Liaison on White Nose Syndrome, National Speleological Society (NSS)

Something is killing our bats: The white-nose syndrome mystery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Wikipedia: White-nose syndrome

Bat Houses

Corrected 2008.04.17: Restored missing photos. Other edits.
Updated 2008.04.16: In response to Manhattan Users Guide, provided additional explanation of why I put up a bat house: to help prevent their extinction.
Updated 2008.04.15: Added inline links, plus link to BatCatalog, BCI’s online store.

The new bat house

Today I installed my first bat house, on the side of my tree fort, the second floor porch on the back of our house. It’s a two-chambered house which I purchased online three weeks ago from BatCatalog, the online store of Bat Conservation International (BCI). (Disclosure: I’m a supporting member of BCI.)

BCI has free plans for a single-chambered house [PDF] on their Web site, and they have a handbook of many different plans for folks to design and build their own houses. I chose a pre-built house, for my first one. Because it’s my first, I wanted one that was well-designed and built. I also wanted to get one installed in time, possibly, for this year’s summer breeding season. I’m handy, but I procrastinate; if I started building a house now, I’d be lucky if I got it done for NEXT year.


Why build (or buy) and install a bat house?

I know some of you are thinking, “WHY?!”

Why build a bat house? The simple answer is because having bats in the area is an easy way to observe nature at her finest, and the bats will provide a guaranteed show every warm evening of the summer season. Bats are insect eating-machines that may help keep troublesome insect populations in check. In addition, providing bat houses is one method of encouraging bats to relocate their colonies out of buildings.
Bats Wanted, Conservationist, February 2008, NYS DEC

This year, there is an additional, more urgent, reason. I wrote a few weeks ago about the disease that is wiping out bats hibernating in their Winter colonies across the northeast. The disease has been confirmed in four states so far: New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Mortality has been estimated to be as high as 90% in some of their hibernation caves. If the cause cannot be discovered and eliminated, we may lose entire species of bats in just a few years.

Bats are not prolific breeders. A mating pair may have a single pup a season. Even if scientists find a cause for the disease, and can prevent further mortality, it will take decades for bats to recover the numbers they’ve lost in a single season.

Artificial roosts, such as my new bat house, are bats’ “summer homes” and, more important, their nurseries: they use these to bear and raise their young. It’s my hope that by creating more summer roosting and nursery sites, we can increase their health and rates of survival during the year. They need all the help we can give them.

Where can bat houses be used?

Where will bat houses be effective? And where should they be placed? The answer, if familiar, is location, location, and location:

  • It should be located near fresh water, no more than 1/2 mile away. Houses within 1/4 mile have higher rates of occupancy.
  • The house must be mounted at least 12 feet high, either on a free-standing pole or the side of a building.
  • Away from bright lights.
  • They must be away from tree limbs and other aerial barriers such as wires which can create obstacles to finding the bat house or provide launches for predators.

In an urban area, it’s a challenge to find these conditions. I live just over a half-mile, as the bat flies, from Prospect Lake in Prospect Park, the largest body of fresh water around. But my area is more suburban than urban, with large lots and open yards. Many of my neighbors have “water features” in their gardens: ponds or pools which can serve as alternate sources of fresh water.

The bat house in place
The bat house in place

I think I have a good place for my bat house: on the side of my tree fort, facing south-southeast. The garden beds below are in full sun all summer. Even in Winter, when the sun is low and the beds are shaded by our neighbor’s house, the bat house is mounted high enough to receive full sun. My neighbor has a security light, but the house is placed behind its main field of illumination, out of direct line of the light itself.

Most nursery colonies of bats choose roosts within 1/4 mile of water, preferably a stream, river or lake. Greatest bat-house success has been achieved in areas of diverse habitat, especially where there is a mixture of varied agricultural use and natural vegetation. Bat houses are most likely to succeed in regions where bats are already attempting to live in buildings.
Criteria for Successful Bat Houses [PDF], BCI

Bat houses should be mounted on buildings or poles. Houses mounted on trees or metal siding are seldom used. Wood, brick or stone buildings with proper solar exposure are excellent choices, and houses mounted under eaves are often successful. Single-chamber houses work best when mounted on buildings. Mounting two bat houses back-to-back on poles (with one facing north and the other south) is ideal. Place houses 3/4-inch apart and cover both with a galvanized metal roof to protect the center roosting space from rain. All bat houses should be mounted at least 12 feet above ground, and 15 to 20 feet is better. Bat houses should not be lit by bright lights.
Criteria for Successful Bat Houses [PDF], BCI

Houses mounted on the sides of buildings or on metal poles provide the best protection from predators. Metal predator guards may be helpful, especially on wooden poles. Bats may find bat houses more quickly if they are located along forest or water edges where bats tend to fly. However, they should be placed at least 20 to 25 feet from the nearest tree branches, wires or other potential perches for aerial predators.
Criteria for Successful Bat Houses [PDF], BCI

Where you mount your bat house plays a major role in the internal temperature. Houses can be mounted on such structures as poles, sides of buildings and tall trees without obstructions. Houses placed on poles and structures tend to become occupied quicker than houses placed on trees. Bat houses should face south to southeast to take advantage of the morning sun. In northern states and Canada, bat houses need to receive at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight. It is also advantageous to paint the house black to absorb plenty of heat (when baby bats are born, they need it very warm). Use non-toxic, latex paint to paint your bat house and only paint the outside. Your bat house should be mounted at least 15 feet above the ground, the higher the house the greater the chance of attracting bats.
Where to put up a bat house in the Northeastern United States, Organization for Bat Conservation

Bat houses installed on buildings or poles are easier for bats to locate, have greater occupancy rates and are occupied two and a half times faster than those mounted on trees.
Attracting Bats [PDF], BCI

What makes a well-designed bat house?

The bat house before installation
Bat House

Successful bat houses are much larger than one might think. Take a look at the photo above. The house is leaning against a table of standard height. That’s a garden spade next to the bat house for scale.

Bats are communal creatures. Because they’re so small, they need each other to keep warm at night. The more bats, the better. The larger the bat house, the better. This is especially important for infant survival in nursery colonies. My relatively small two-chambered bat house can shelter up to 100-150 bats.

The spacing of the chambers is important. Just large enough that the bats can crawl up inside, small enough to reduce the attractiveness to potential problem nest-builders like wasps and hornets.

The bottom of the bat house is open. Guano will fall down to the ground below. It doesn’t collect in the bat house, so it doesn’t need to get cleaned out.

The key to a successful bat house in the northeast’s cooler climate is to keep the house hot. Be sure to seal the upper portions so that warm air cannot escape, paint the house a dark color, and place it in the sunniest location you have that is near cover and not far from water. Maintenance, such as repairing a warping exterior that no longer traps warm air, will be an issue over time, so consider providing some kind of protective cover.
Bats Wanted, Conservationist, February 2008, NYS DEC

Only in the most extreme southwest should bat houses be painted a light color. In my area, a dark brown would also work with a bat house placed in ideal conditions. Because my bat house is backed by an open porch, and not the house itself, I chose the darkest color, a flat black, to compensate for the lack of insulation one would get from mounting on the side of a house.

When should bat houses be installed?

According to DEC’s Conservationist magazine, in New York State, bat houses are most likely to attract either little brown or big brown bats. So, where do you get the bats?

Bats have to find new roosts on their own. Existing evidence strongly suggests that lures or attractants (including bat guano) will NOT attract bats to a bat house. Bats investigate new roosting opportunities while foraging at night, and they are expert at detecting crevices, cracks, nooks and crannies that offer shelter from the elements and predators.
Attracting Bats [PDF], BCI

Bat houses can be installed at any time. However, it may take up to two years for bats to “adopt” a shelter. The best time to install a new bat house is in late Winter/early Spring, before bats emerge from winter hibernation and begin seeking summer nursery sites. I saw a bat flying at dusk at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden last Thursday, during our botany class walkaround. Now may be too late for my bat house for this year. We’ll see what happens.

Bats return from migration and awaken from hibernation as early as March in most of the U.S., but stay active year-round in the extreme southern U.S. They will be abundant through out the summer and into late fall. Most houses used by bats are occupied in the first 1 to 6 months (during the first summer the bat house was erected). If bats do not roost in your house by the end of the second summer, move the house to another location.
Where to put up a bat house in the Northeastern United States, Organization for Bat Conservation


Related Content

Northeastern Bats in Peril, March 18, 2008
Other posts about bats and White-Nose Syndrome


Bats Wanted, Conservationist, February 2008, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Bat Conservation International (BCI)
BatCatalog, BCI’s online store
The importance of bat houses, Organization for Bat Conservation
The Bat House Forum
Wikipedia: Bats

Northeastern Bats in Peril

Bat House at the East 4th Street Community Garden in Kensington/Windsor Terrace
Bat House

A discussion thread about mosquito control on the Flatbush Family Network led to this question:

I heard that bat houses are a possible long-term solution for mosquitos. I guess you put a bat house up and hope that they come and live there. It can take a few seasons to get them to do it but an average bat eats lots of mosquitos a day. Seems strange to try and seduce bats to your house but those mosquitos are terrible. Anyone else heard about these bat houses?

The photo above is of a bat house in the East 4th Street Community Garden, which I visited for the first time last November. One of the questions they get when they explain what it’s for is, “Where do you get the bats?” If you build it, they will come. We have bats here in Brooklyn. Whether we will continue to have them is in question.

A newly emerging epidemic is wiping out bat colonies. First discovered last winter in a single cave near Albany, New York, this winter it’s been found to have spread to more locations, including sites in Vermont and Massachusetts. Mortality has been as high as 90% in some caves:

Thousands of hibernating bats are dying in caves in New York State and Vermont from unknown causes … The most obvious symptom involved in the die-off is a white fungus encircling the noses of some, but not all, of the bats. Called “white-nose syndrome,” the fungus is believed to be associated with the problem, but it may not necessarily contribute to the actual cause of death. It appears that the affected bats deplete their fat reserves months before they would normally emerge from hibernation and die as a result …

What we’ve seen so far is unprecedented,” said Alan Hicks, DEC’s bat specialist. “Most bat researchers would agree that this is the gravest threat to bats they have ever seen. We have bat researchers, laboratories and caving groups across the country working to understand the cause of the problem and ways to contain it.”
Bat Die-Off Prompts Investigation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Bat populations are particularly vulnerable during hibernation as they congregate in large numbers in caves-clusters of 300 per square foot in some locations-making them susceptible to disturbance or disease. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of bats known to hibernate in New York do so in just five caves and mines. Because bats often migrate hundreds of miles to their summer range, effects on hibernating bats can have significant implications for bats throughout the Northeast.

Indiana bats [Myotis sodalis], a state and federally endangered species, are perhaps the most vulnerable. Half the estimated 52,000 Indiana bats that hibernate in the state are located in just one former mine-a mine that is now infected with white-nose syndrome. Eastern pipistrelle [Perimyotis subflavus], northern long-eared [Myotis septentrionalis] and little brown [Myotis lucifugus] bats also are dying. Little brown bats, the most common hibernating species in the state, have sustained the largest number of deaths.

Related Posts

Bat Houses, April 13, 2008
Other posts about bats


Bat Die-Off Prompts Investigation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Mystery Disease Kills U.S. Bats, Bat Conservation International
Something is killing our bats: The white-nose syndrome mystery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Wikipedia: White-nose syndrome

Flatbush Family Network (requires membership)


Dying Bats in the Northeast Remain a Mystery, USGS Newsroom, May 9, 2008
First It Was Bees, Now It’s Bats That Are Dying, Natural News, April 11, 2008
Bats in the Region Are Dying From a Mysterious Ailment, Litchfield County Times, April 3, 2008
Bats Perish, and No One Knows Why, New York Times Science Section, March 25, 2008

Coda, Spot: Our Lady of Abundance

Label, “Our Lady of Abundance,” inside the lid of a reliquary box by Grace Gunning.
Detail, label, "Our Lady of Abundance," inside lid

1) An endnote, or final word, in which the author elucidates what has come before.
2) A few measures or a section added to the end of a piece of music to make a more effective ending.

This afternoon we picked up Spot’s ashes and brought them home.

She died three weeks ago. By the time we got her to the veterinary emergency room, she was already gone. In that emotional haze, we had to make a decision about what to do. We chose individual cremation. Three days ago, we got the call that her ashes were ready to be picked up.

John and I had discussed what container we might use for her ashes. We thought of a small, bronze triangular nested box inscribed with Celtic designs which we bought a couple of years ago. But we didn’t know how much … material the box would need to hold. I didn’t think it could be very much. Then I remembered we had the reliquary box. I bought it for John. He’d kept it first in his apartment, then we had it in our first apartment. We hadn’t found a place for it since we moved into our house three years ago, but I remembered seeing it recently inside one of the opened, still unpacked, moving boxes.

Reliquary box, "Our Lady of Abundance," Grace Gunning, 2000

Over the past three weeks, John and I have gone through the familiar phases and states of grieving. I told John last night that, over the past three days, the main feeling for me has been, “I want to bring her home.” I know that “she” is gone. There are layers to the emotional acceptance of that loss.

When I re-read my first diary entries about her, what’s remarkable is that her personality was so present in them. She was always affectionate. When I came home, she demanded my attention. But however hungry she was, she insisted that I first pick her up and “schmoosh” her. She would purr, deeply and resonantly. Then I could set her down and she could eat. That I was able to give a flea bath to a strange cat without her fighting me was all about her gentle, compliant, trusting nature. Even the vet would always remark how calm and cooperative she was.

The most difficult moments have not been the physical reminders of her: her toys, her brushes, her scratching post, her bowls, her litter box. Gradually, we’ve packed these up and put them away. The absences have been the hardest. When I leave the house, she doesn’t follow me downstairs, trying to sneak outside. When I come home, she doesn’t greet me at the top of the stairs. When I go to bed, she’s not there to “tuck me in.” She’s not there to paw my face in the morning and wake me up.

I peeled back some of the final layers of acceptance today. I called ahead before we drove over: “We’ve never done this before. I don’t know what to expect. Is there a bag? A box?” The woman I spoke with said there’s a bag inside a metal box. It was more thoughtfully elaborate than that.

There was a paper bag tied with a ribbon. Inside the bag was a condolence card and some promotional literature (not so thoughtful) from the pet cemetery where the cremation was done. Also inside, green tissue paper wrapped a small metal tin, something like what you might keep loose tea in. We had brought the reliquary box with us, but the tin’s size and shape wouldn’t fit inside. That’s as far as we explored it at the E.R.

Gardener’s corner in the backyard
Gardener's Corner

When we got home, I went and sat in the backyard. It was a sunny day, and it was still early enough in the afternoon that the house wasn’t yet shading the gardener’s corner. After parking the car, John came and sat beside me. Here I carefully opened the metal canister. Inside this, more green tissue paper wrapped the bag containing her ashes. John opened the lid of the box, and we placed the small, green package in its center. I remarked, “She always liked the sun.” We cried and held hands for a few minutes.

The reliquary lid didn’t quite fit over the little green package. When we got back inside, I took it out of the reliquary and started unwrapping the tissue paper. I wanted to reshape the bag to better fit inside the reliquary. I was also curious, and knew I needed, to see the ashes themselves. When I got to the last wrap, I got a glimpse, covered it back up, and held the package in both hands, tears running from my eyes. John asked, “What is it?” I said, “I don’t know what I was expecting.” Consciously, I was expecting my mental image of “ash”: gray and dusty, powdery. Instead, it was white, chalky, gritty with tiny fragments of bone. I wasn’t ready for that. Another time, I’ll be ready to unwrap that final layer. I wrapped it with some ivory cloth as a shroud and returned it to the box.

I appreciate all the comments, cards, and phone messages we’ve received. What I write now is not to diminish anyone else’s beliefs, nor the sentiments they’ve expressed. I don’t believe in anything. If there were a heaven, animals would be there. If there were angels, they would be animals. But I don’t believe in heaven, or angels, or gods, or any life other than the one I’m living.

Death is final. I knew that as Spot was dying in my arms. I knew that her limp tail – which had been so expressive of her presence and personality – meant she was already gone from us. I don’t know how much she was aware of at the very end, when we were driving her to the E.R., and I cradled her in my arms, and she cried out for the last time, and I lifted her up and turned her face to mine because she couldn’t do it herself. I hope my face was the last thing she saw, but I’ll never know. I know she was gone from us as the last breath left her body and her heart stopped beating beneath my fingers.

Despite my skepticism and disbelief, I have come to accept that spirituality and ritual are important to me. The box itself holds layers of memory and meaning which make it an appropriate resting place for Spot’s remains. I bought it six-and-a-half years ago, when John and I had not yet moved into our first apartment together. I was still living in my garden apartment on 5th Street in Park Slope, where Spot had found me. John and I were well underway in our adventure of exploring relationship with each other. Spot was there to nurture us on that journey.

John and Spot on the couch in the 5th Street apartment
John and Spot

On September 10, 2001, John and I went on vacation upstate. The next morning, from a distance, we watched our world change. For that week, we were ambassadors, representatives of New York City and all that had happened there. When we met people upstate and they learned where we were from, their faces and postures changed. Some were brought to tears. Like it or not, we carried a responsibility everywhere we went.

I think it was in Kingston where I found the box in a gift store. They had a couple of these reliquary boxes, and I wanted to buy John one. I bought some chimes there with him, then he went outside. When I saw that this one was titled “Our Lady of Abundance,” I knew this was the one. “Abundance” was a word we used deliberately and frequently at that time to try to describe the richness we felt in our lives, as well as the challenges we faced in accepting it.

The title of the box is stamped into the inside of the lid. It’s signed with a power tool on the underside.

Inside of upper lid

Today this box became a true reliquary, holding the relic of Spot, that time when we were learning to accept abundance into our life together, and the memories of that terrible week.

Related Posts

Spot, February 23
My Flickr photo sets of the box and Spot


Grace Gunning, Copper Reliquary Boxes


Update 2008.03.15: Added follow-up post: Coda, Spot.
Update 2008.02.25: Added a rare photo of me and Spot together.

My partner, John, with our cat, Spot, taken two nights ago in an examination room at the vet’s. She died in my arms earlier this evening around 6:30pm.
John & Spot (Black and White)

Spot found me in the garden, in the backyard of my apartment on 5th Street in Park Slope:

A beautiful young black cat found me at the end of my day in the garden. He started going for the container I’d just planted. He was friendly, but when I realized he was licking up some organic fertilizer I’d spilled I realized he/she was starving. (It does smell good, like the original MilkBones [dog biscuits]). So I gave him a bowl of milk. He/She was purring so hard his tail was shaking. Only a white spot on his chest, otherwise black. I named him “Spot”. I’ll look for him tomorrow. If he’s around again, maybe I have a cat.
– Diary entry, November 11, 1993, Veteran’s Day, F Train en route to dinner

I didn’t realize it at the time, but she represented, or embodied, a peak of synchronicity in my life. I was three and a half years into my recovery, and less than eight months sober. In therapy the previous night, I had mentioned that I was thinking about getting a cat, or two. After this first encounter with Spot, I was off to see a dance performance that evening which explored the connections between veterans of war and survivors of sexual violence. The following Monday, I was starting my first session of a gay men’s therapy group.

Spot moved in with me on Saturday. I spoke to Jonathan [my landlord] Friday at work to ask him if it would be okay if I got a cat. Saw Julia [landlady] working in the garden Saturday morning. While we were inspecting and talking, I saw a black form moving behind the fence.

I called out: psss-psss-psss … Spot leapt to the top of the fence (or climbed) and walked along the top directly to me. I took her into my arms and she (female, confirmed) started purring. I left her with Julia while I went inside and prepared the can of food Renah [a work colleague at the time] gave me Friday at work.

Bought everything for her on Saturday. Saturday night discovered she had fleas, so wouldn’t let her sleep with me. Gave her a flea bath, changed bed-sheets and clothes, dusted the rug. She was not happy about the bath, but remarkably cooperative. I came away with no scratches or bites.

Remaining health concern: diarrhea, foul-smelling, and may be caused by her fondness for milk.

Long day today: first session of the group (first for me) is tonight. I won’t get home until after 9pm probably. Spot will freak?!

Need to make up “FOUND” posters for the area, just in case someone’s looking for her.
– Diary entry, November 15, 1993, Monday, Subway, en route to work

Later that evening, around 8:30pm, riding home on the F train:

Home to Spot. Incredible what an emotional anchor she is for me right now. Anchor is not the right word. Alternatives: focus, tether, center … ballast …

I’m not going to put up “Found Cat” signs tonight. I don’t want anyone to answer. I don’t want to give Spot up. She’s just a cat I’ve known for only four or five days. I just want to go home to her …

When John and I began exploring relationship together, Spot adopted him as well. She was a great comfort to him as he dealt with his mother’s terminal illness, and especially after her death. John called her a medicine cat, an apt description.

She found me in the garden, and Spot always wanted to go outside. She often accompanied me when I was out in the garden. Here she is in the backyard of my apartment on 5th Street in Park Slope. This was in May 2002, the last set of photos I took of the garden I was leaving to move with John to our new apartment.
Spot in the garden on 5th Street in Park Slope

Here she is on the deck of our apartment on 6th Street in Park Slope, where John and I first lived together.
Spot the Cat

Here she is in the backyard of our new home two years ago, acting like she owned the place, which, of course, she did. She was skeptical at first, but eventually allowed that she was pleased that we bought her a big, old cat house.
The Backyard

Outside yet again, on the front steps here. I have several shots in this series, trying to get her to look at me. This is the closest I got. Note the tail curl. She wasn’t having it.
Spot on the front steps

This is the earliest photo I have of Spot. This is from 2001, in the 5th Street apartment.
John and Spot

This is a typical posture for her. She spent a lot of time lying on John’s chest, close to his heart, while he was himself prone on the couch or bed.
Spot and JohnSpot and John

Here’s a rare photo of me and Spot together. (Only at John’s insistence.) Rare not only because I’m usually the one behind the camera, but because she wouldn’t often settle down on me. In this photo, she’s wedged into the the nook between me and the sofa cushion. We’re also playing one of our games here. If one of us stopped petting her before she was done, she would reach out with her paw, cup it around the edge of our hand, and pull it back toward her face. I would often respond by “squooshing” her paw, as I’m doing here, and telling her how evil she was. You can see from her face how that upset her.
Spot & Xris

I’ll close with this photo of her. She’s sitting on the floor of my tree house, the second floor back porch on the back of our house. Her tail was the most expressive part of her, and I recognize the little curl at the end of it visible in this photo.
Spot the Cat

You can see more photos of her in my Flickr set of Spot.

She followed me across 15 years of recovery, healing, and growth. She was so much a part of my life, and John’s, and of our life together. We will have other familiars, but none like her. The house is empty without her. I miss her terribly.

I’m open to comments. I especially invite anyone reading this who met or knew her to leave a comment with a memory or reminiscence about her. John and I both will welcome that as a way of memorializing her.

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” (Lost Cat)

Romeo, a Cat
Romeo, a Cat

A neighbor is on the lookout for their cat, Romeo:

Romeo, our much loved small (only 8-9lbs.) male gray and white cat is
missing–now over 2 days. He has no collar and frequents the backyards
between Albemarle/Church and Westminster/Argyle…any sightings?
– message posted to Flatbush Family Network

We’ve been trying to socialize a litter of three kittens that appeared in our backyard over the summer. So we’ve been on the lookout for strange cats. We think we’ve seen this little guy on our property, a block away. We’ll keep a special lookout for him.

Sidewalk Skull

Sidewalk Skull, Westminster Road

Tuesday morning I detoured slightly from my usual work commute routine to pay a visit to 251 East 19th Street. Along the way I found the item above, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, as if it had been placed there.

I don’t know what it is, or was. I’m thinking raccoon, maybe opposum? Anyone out there able to provide an id?

This is the sort of found treasure I would normally snatch up and take home, to Blog Widow’s chagrin. Except that I was on my way to work, not home, and running late at that. Oh, and because it still had stuff on it; looks like remnants of skin on the right cheek. And me without a baggy to put it in.

I also didn’t have the foresight to whip out my ruler and place it alongside for scale. (Yes, I always carry a collapsible ruler in my bag.) It was a medium-sized skull, as skulls go. Bigger than a cat or a squirrel. Bigger than my fist, slightly smaller than my hand with fingers extended. Could have been a small dog, I guess.

The large eye orbits make me think it’s a nocturnal animal. The nasal ridges are also interesting. Whatever it was, it had a good nose.

Flatbush Wildlife Report: Raccoons and Opposums

Virginia Opposum, Didelphis Virginiana, in my backyard in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Virginia Opposum, Didelphis Virginiana, Flatbush, Brooklyn

This evening my tenants saw five raccoons, Procyon lotor, and two opposums, Didelphis virginiana, in our backyard.

By the time I got downstairs and into the backyard, they were all gone. We did manage to lure an opposum into the open with some fish. I got the one good photo above.

I didn’t get to see the other opposum, which was larger and all white rather than marbled as the one above. I believe the white one was the mother, and this was one of the young.

The raccoons were four smaller and one large. Again, seems like a mother and pups.

Last year’s raccoons first appeared in late July, early August, so they’re about three weeks early this year. Last year’s sightings also occurred during a series of warm nights; it’s been in the 90s during the day and only down to the upper 70s at night the past two days.


Related Content

Midnight Photo Blogging: Raccoons in Flatbush, July 2006


Opposum Society of the United States