Greenie, a Lion, and a Tufted Titmouse – heart to heart

Today I’ll start by asking – what do a fish, an elephant, a lion, a swan, and a titmouse have in common? It’s not a joke!

FISH! The great news is that Greenie surprised and thrilled me yesterday, returning for the 9th summer! That means he’s at least 11 or 12 years old – quite an accomplishment for a green sunfish in a small private lake full of predators! He gave me lots of fish kisses, seemed to relish my petting him, took a bit of oatmeal from my hand, and jumped for a little tilapia. Then we had a refreshing swim together. Those of you who know him will recognize his gold belly fins in this new video. Click on the picture to play it.

ELEPHANT! If you’ve read my book you know I’ve been blessed by special encounters with birds, dogs, and horses as well as fish. But I doubted African animals would have any interest in me – just another tourist. Yet when offered the opportunity to pet the incredibly adorable baby elephants at Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, I chose first to kneel down and hold out my open hand. I always prefer it if a child or animal comes to me. One of the smaller babies reached out her trunk and touched my hand. There was nothing in it but my love and wish for her to feel it. I became a giggling child and petted that being who has more in common with us than we have ever recognized.

LION! This magnificent lion was drinking from the lake a long way off when I silently asked him to come closer. He stopped to comb his royal mane on the long thorns of an acacia tree before walking straight toward our van. I always acknowledge that it could be coincidence, but the look in his eyes and the awe in my heart felt like an answer to my request. As he walked inches from the side of the van where I stood, my new friend Sue’s phone picked up the words I had to whisper, “I love you. Thank you for coming.”

SWANS! At home after my dream safari, I found myself contemplating – was there more to these special moments than I knew? Seeing the first two swans to visit our ice-framed lake, I wondered if these usually shy birds might possibly come to me from the other side of the cove. As I stood on the shore silently calling to them, I was again surprised and delighted as they started toward me. I started talking to them, and singing that old  song, “Swanees, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Swanees”, fully expecting them to turn away. But no, they came slowly but steadily until they were less than 20 feet from me, preening and floating there elegantly, as swans do. I stood, full of wonder and gratitude, for quite a while until my chores called me away. I thanked the swans, and watched them swim off as I walked up the hill.

TITMOUSE! Of course I’m not the only one who experiences these gifts from critters. Yesterday, while I was relishing attention from Greenie, my dear friend Carol Gillen had an even more surprising visit from a wild bird – a tufted titmouse. In her words:

“OMG…the most amazing thing just happened to me. I was sitting still on my patio watching the squirrel on the table and a bunny in the grass, when 2 little birds (tufted titmice) landed on the chair next to me and twisted their heads back and forth looking at me. One flew off and the other flew up to the back of my chair and started pulling my hair out. Then he flew up and landed on top of my head and for the next half hour he pulled my hair out!! It was Awesome!! He’d flutter his wings, tail hanging down in front of my eyes, scratching to rearrange my hair and plucking and plucking and plucking…sometimes on top, sometimes on the sides and on the back. I couldn’t believe he could take that much hair. For a moment it felt like he was going to make a nest right up there on my head. I have never in my life experienced something like this. Tears were streaming down my face. When Mike brought the dog out, it scared the bird away and I started sobbing and laughing at the same time. Mike was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I couldn’t speak because my throat was totally constricted from the sobbing/laughing. Such an incredible experience. And now somewhere in my woods there is a nest made of my silver hair…and I am crying again. (Mike may have me committed.) And my scalp hurts….surprised I don’t have a bald spot. I feel like a Disney character. Wow!”

Wow is right! But clearly, that little bird sensed that Carol had the special kind of heart that would cherish an experience that might horrify others. Lucky bird, lucky Carol.

THE ANSWER! Telling these stories, I often fear that I may be perceived as arrogant. Yet I know that the special powers are not in me, but in the animals – all the animals. Every animal that has survived and evolved has done so by reading the body language – including scents – of other animals – including us. It should not be surprising that they know when someone means them no harm, is unafraid of them, and respects, or even loves them.

Sweet Beings: George Winston, Greenie, a striped fawn, hummingbirds

First and foremost, I want to thank all those who came to my photo/poetry exhibits. I learned a lot and am looking forward to exhibiting at the Burnhaven Library in Burnsville all of November and December. Maybe my art and books will have the thrill of being wrapped up and opened as gifts for the holidays!

Greenie the sunfish

Until October, I’m committing to focusing on Greenie’s book. Yes, he’s back! Along with Slim and the kids. Not every day, so I suspect he’s busy guarding a nest, but he checks in and warms my heart every few days. My sweet fish and my daily swims keep me happy and healthy. I took this picture with my phone between the boards in my dock and was delighted with how it turned out (with a little editing). Doesn’t it look like a painting in a children’s book?

Thanks to Sue Lund for taking this picture in 2004. Today I want to acknowledge the sad passing of George Winston, who honored me with his friendship and music for 40 years. My book tells how we met in 1983 while I was a volunteer usher at Orchestra Hall and how he chose to save precious time by wearing jeans and a casual shirt, even while playing (stocking-footed) at ornate halls around the world. I so appreciated his giving me tickets and CDs so I could share him and his music with friends, but his generosity went far and wide. His constant support of food shelves locally and nationally while he played about 100 concerts a year is just one example. He spoke of the wonders of his beloved cats, but never spoke of his battle with cancer except to encourage support for the City of Hope, where he had a bone marrow transplant. We only talked once a year, backstage, but the cards he sent me with brief messages show me how one can maintain a friendship while maintaining focus on a larger mission. I learned much more from this gentle man so dedicated to bringing beautiful music to the masses. Perhaps some day I will go through my journals and glean wise or funny things he said. But for now I am embracing his example of focus while I write Greenie’s story and listen to George’s sweet music. 

Click on the picture to watch the video and see the unusual stripes on the back of this darling’s neck. Imagine him/her saying “Look Ma! I can clean myself, wipe my nose, and even poop by myself!”

I need to hone my photographic skills to catch the wings on a hovering hummingbird. For now, I’m happy when they pose in the sun. I know they can be very territorial, but their beauty is as sweet as the nectar they drink from flowers. May your days be the same. 

What the World Needs Now

Do you remember that song? Watch the new video at the end of this post. How many of the people do you recognize?

Leo and Greenie show curiosity and respect toward each other.

Before I move on to other topics, I must follow up my last post with Kare 11’s video of Greenie and me for posterity and those who missed it on TV. I also want to thank, again, Boyd Huppert and Chad Nelson for the incredible job they did recording and writing the story. I’m still flabbergasted at the response – thousands of reactions, shares, and re-publications around the country and even overseas – and hundreds of comments. All of this attests to the exceptional sensitivity and skill of Chad and Boyd. Here are just a few samples of the comments flooding in. There were even a few who had known of similar friendships. Maybe you can have one, too!

I am so unbelievably moved by this, that it has brought me to tears. . . . So lovely that your special friendship with Greenie is seen as newsworthy. . . . In the midst of so much bad news, it’s great to see this bright spot. . . .This story made me smile today! . . . It certainly changed my perspective about fish. . . They handled the subject very respectfully. Hooray. . . .What a happy, uplifting story. . . .Your poem was especially poignant! . . . this made my day . . . Awesome story . . . A joyful, calming, and heartwarming story . . . Loved it. . .  It was so touching . . . This is soooo sweet! . . . So fun! . . . Adorable! . . . Very precious and inspiring . . . I am a believer! . . . So cool! . . . Incredible! . . . a marvel! . . . Beautiful fish. . . . This gives new meaning to the words “fish story” . . . Wonderful story. LOVED it!!! . . .This has been the most touching story of 2020.

Clearly, we are hungry for positivity. For gentleness, friendship, respect, trust, sweetness. I will definitely continue to tune in to KARE 11 for more inspiring stories from Boyd and Chad.

And I will definitely vote early and blue – not only for the environmental protections that you and I and all our animal friends desperately need – but also for civility. For the calm, honest, respectful connections that even a fish is capable of, but that some in our country have abandoned.

Click to join Greenie and me for some fun.

Bonus treat! Love Sweet Love!

Greenie’s Television Debut!

Coming this Wednesday, Sept 16th

Greenie, my Green Sunfish friend has always been special, but he’s about to become, well, famous! On Wednesday he will be the subject of Boyd Huppert’s “Land of 10,000 Stories” on the KARE 11 news, 10pm CDT. I’m excited to see the underwater video and what they chose for the short segment. Here is a bit more of his story.

Greenie getting a beetle treat
Greenie loves Japanese beetles!

It was 2016 when I noticed him in his nest by my dock. The males are notorious for guarding their nests, but there was something very different about the way he looked at me. Soon he was rubbing against my leg like a cat and letting me pet him. When he showed up the next year and acted the same, I offered him the Japanese beetles I pulled off my flowers. He was so excited his orange highlights almost glowed. That seemed to cement the friendship. I named him Greenie so I’d remember his species, since I never knew much about fish. In 2018, there was a smaller fish with him who was just as friendly. His offspring? I noticed he used only his left pectoral fin. Eventually the right one healed and had a scar. That made positive identification easy, but it’s usually behavior that helps me tell one animal from another.

Spot and Greenie greet me
Spot and Greenie greeted me as I joined them for a swim.

I understand why people might be skeptical, and think this is just a fish story. I remember hearing, as a child, that fish couldn’t feel pain, much less anything else. At first I wondered if I was just the “human at the dock” and this was their territory. That changed the day I took my daily swim and decided to sit on a log at the other end of the lake to watch the sunset. It was lovely. Then I looked down and saw someone looking up at me. Spot? Really? I put my hand in and he came and nuzzled it, and I saw the white scar that proved it was him. Oh, my goodness. Greenie has done the same, sometimes following me to the other end of the lake or to someone else’s dock, surprising them as well as me.This year, I anxiously awaited ice out. I couldn’t help but wonder if they wondered, as I did about them, “Did my friend make it through the winter?” There they were – the first two fish to show up. I was delighted, and even more motivated to swim every day, anxious to see who was out there.

Greenie rubbing my leg, like a cat.
Greenie rubbing my leg, like a cat.

Greenie came and went often, which made me happy that he was exploring the lake, as he should. Spot (named for the spot on his dorsal fin) had a bit of oatmeal with me just about every morning. Not too long into the summer, there was a day when Spot came, but kept his distance. Had he been caught and released? I saw no wound, but was he not feeling well? People shy? Then he disappeared. Of course that made me sad, and I suspected Greenie felt the same. With the eagles, osprey, and herons that frequent our shores, I hoped he had contributed to the circle of life. But it wasn’t long before a new friend showed up. A bass! I’d never seen one hang around the dock with the sunnies, but this one stuck with Greenie, who seemed to accept this new friend. So I had to name him. His long, slender shape, so different from all the sunfish, made “Slim” appropriate. As usual, this sparked my curiosity and led to research. Bass are predators, but are in the sunfish family, which means they can also mate. I don’t know if Slim is Greenie’s buddy or girlfriend, but I’m glad my friend is much too big for Slim to consider as a meal! How do I know Greenie is a male? One summer I got to watch what I’d read about. After building a nest, he brought a girlfriend back to it and they did their courtship “dance” – around and around in circles on their sides before dropping eggs and sperm. Fascinating!

Greenie and Slim
Greenie and his new bass friend, Slim.

The advantages of a wild pet are obvious: no walking, litter box, or vet bills. But be warned. It hurts your heart when your friend shows up with a torn lip. That’s happened twice over the years with Greenie. The second time, he stared at me a long time before he dared come close. It took a beetle treat to regain his trust. But that trust was crucial this year, when he came to the dock with a hook in his mouth. Oh, no! Amazingly, he didn’t wiggle a fin as I held him and carefully removed the hook. Putting him back in the lake and watching him disappear, I wondered if I’d see him again, or if he would fear me. An hour later, I went for my swim and returned to find him waiting for me, welcoming my petting. Thank goodness he knew I was helping him. The next day he proved he was fine by jumping clear out of the water for a treat.I don’t like to preach, but felt the picture I’d taken of Greenie with the hook in his mouth was worth sharing, especially with the delightful video I’d gotten of him jumping. The response from Greenie’s fans was heartwarming. Surprising was the message from KARE 11 asking if they could do a story on him. Sure, as long as you don’t reveal our location.

To see seven seconds sure to make you smile, click here.

The next day Boyd and Chad were here with an underwater camera and a lot of patience. They recognized Greenie right away as the friendly one and he cooperated by showing great curiosity for the camera and staying all day. Slim and the others were around, but Greenie made sure he was the star, chasing them away when need be. I was happy to share our story, along with a few facts, like the study at Oxford and Queensland Universities that showed fish can recognize a face among forty-four others and remember it for at least six months! But after they left, I wanted to learn more. I called the university and found a wonderful resource – Dr. Peter Sorensen, ichthyologist – a doctor of fishology! He was clearly a fan of fish, as well as a scientist, saying they were much more intelligent than we give them credit for, and do have individual personalities. I was thrilled when he and his wife came out the next day to meet Greenie. Here was an expert, assuring me that Greenie, a senior citizen now, looked healthy and very special. He’d known fish in the lab who recognized him, but hadn’t seen a wild one with such clear interest in humans and trust of an individual.We traded books – my Enchanted for one called What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe. I was enthralled by the wealth of research, all confirming that a fish is an individual with relationships. He or she can use tools, plan and learn, perceive and innovate, soothe and scheme, experience moments of pleasure, fear, playfulness, pain, and, probably, joy.The days are getting shorter and the lake colder. Greenie’s not here every day, as he was in mid-summer, but greets me warmly when he is. I know the day will come when he’s hunkered down for the winter, and the day will also come when he’s no longer in my life. But he will forever be in my mind and heart, with immeasurable gratitude and an indelible message – all life is precious.

I can’t wait to see the story KARE 11 put together, and will provide a link when I can. In the meantime, click here to see a few tender moments between Greenie and me. Big thanks to Teresa Foushee for capturing us under water! 

Footnote: (or fin-note!) The current administration has rolled back 100 environmental protections, endangering our air, water, and all species, including our own. Greenie would vote blue if he could. Will you do it for him?