Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Watching American Idol

Phoebe and a (real) silk camellia, Asheville Botanic Gardens, May 2005

Another night devoted to a grinding band rehearsal, 7:30 to 10:30, working out arrangements and harmonies for our gig coming up Saturday. Phoebe was bumming because we wouldn't be able to watch American Idol together. Strangely enough, I was, too. I mean, I know it's better to actually sing with a real band, no matter how obscure, than sit like a dolt watching people who are hoping someday to sing with a real band, but still...
I fell into watching American Idol innocently enough. Phoebe, nine, had heard enough about it at school that she decided she wanted to watch it. She pulled my arm and begged me to sit down with her. I couldn’t resist her, as much as I wanted to. It was midway through last season; Bo and Vonzell and Carrie were in full warble. We rooted for Bo and Vonzell, but we liked them all, really. They could sing rings around anybody else we knew.
As the competition wore on, Phoebe began to look forward to Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and so did I. The show was ridiculous, silly and overly dramatic, but watching the contestants’ personalities and professionalism emerge from the glitzy dross was actually interesting.
Another season has started. This time, Phoebe corralled the whole family into watching the preliminary auditions. Two excruciating hours later, I was wondering just what we’d seen. Each contestant had the same frightened but eager look you see on a pound puppy’s face—when he hopes against hope that you’ll open his awful cage and take him home. They were so young—sixteen, seventeen, twenty years old. They were so sweet. A few of them had IT—breathtaking talent, even starpower. But most of them were not ready for prime time. That’s not a crime, unless you’re auditioning for American Idol.
The famously ruthless juror and show creator Simon Cowell made a fine point of crushing the hopes of those not-quite-readies. One slender, ectomorphic young man with a delicate, quavery voice was advised to shave and become a female impersonator. Another impossibly sweet, pink-cheeked boy, obviously sheltered from reality until this precise moment, sang in a high, operatic falsetto. Simon told him he sounded like someone’s old auntie.
We squirmed and howled on the couch, in an ecstasy of agony for the contestants. We hollered invectives at Simon. It was a Demolition Derby for human souls, and we couldn’t tear ourselves away. In another age, we might have crowded into an arena to watch bear-baiting, or dog fights, or lions released on a prisoner.
“Mommy, would you let me audition for American Idol if I wanted to and was old enough?” Phoebe asked.
“If you were good enough, honey, sure.”
I bite my lip as I say it. I’m not going to tell her she can’t do anything she wants to. But I’m hoping that she won’t be good enough. Some things, it’s better just to watch, cuddled in between the people who love you.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Nature Fix for a Dumb Monday

I always think I'm going to get so darn much done on Mondays, but usually I wind up multitasking so frantically that I get little bits of a bunch of things accomplished. Emails fly madly, the phone rings; I rush around like a gerbil. Today I figured I'd better check my rapidly filling engagements calendar before I double-book something. I'd had a creepy little feeling for a week or so that there was something funny about April 20. It's like having a strange feeling that you've forgotten something, and then there's that moment when you realize you've left the casserole on the roof of the car--and you're already hurtling down I-95 at 70 mph. So I braced myself, and confirmed that I had indeed booked myself for a talk in Washington D.C. and an art opening in Albany (where I have a painting to show) on the same day. D'oh! Casserole's all over the pavement.
After sending some lame emails and phone messages around, I finally decided that the thing to do would be to fulfill my commitment in D.C. and (very reluctantly) miss the opening, because, while it would be terrific to see my friends there, nobody was actually counting on my being at the opening. Then I'd drive straight from Washington to Albany to see my artist friends who would be gathering there for the weekend. It'll be punishing, but not punishment enough for being such a knucklehead.
Had to clear my head. Felt the woods calling. That's the only thing that fixes me when stuff like this happens. I stick my nose in Baker's shoulder blades, take a deep snort of his sweet dog smell, and head out with him. He's my jester. He's absolutely serious about taking Scooby back around the Loop another time. I'm not encouraging it, one bit. If he wants to do it, fine, but I don't think Scoob has another Loop in him, do you?
The pair of redtails that always scolds me when I near the overlook was together, and circling low today. That's a real spring sign. The woods was softly lit with high, diffuse sun, that's hinting of changes in the weather very soon. But for today, it was lovely again, in the upper 50's, and I was out in just a long-sleeved denim shirt and vest. It's been a long time since we've had a January this mild. I went from turmoil to bliss faster than you can say "Speeear!"
Chet and I paused briefly on a rock over the shining stream, and I wished I had a picture of us there, so you'd feel you were on the hike with us. Then I remembered the trick of holding the camera up and shooting oneself, which works a lot better when you have long arms. But I got a nice image that could be captioned, "Happiness is a Warm Puppy."
We hiked hard, doing three major climbs, and it felt wonderful. On the way back up through our old orchard, I heard the commanding roll of a pileated woopecker drumming--from very close by. I froze and figured out where it was coming from--a dead ash with a hollow bole. Creeping forward, I pre-focused on the most likely part of the trunk, and took a picture that actually includes the bird, though I hadn't yet found it. Do you see him?

Against all odds, he hitched around into view, and I got him in the act of drumming. This close, it sounded just like a machine gun!The trees I've seen them drumming on are mostly quite dead, and they resonate like a guitar top. This one even has a sound hole!

And then, he posed for a moment before flying off. He never seemed alarmed at my presence. What a gift. Zick, all better.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cowbell Sunday

Phoebe, Liam and I started the day with brunch at the historic Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, WV. Such a gorgeous place, nice food, but we were really there for the music--Bill's Sunday gig playing jazz with his uncle Bruce DeMoll and drummer Chet Backus (not to be confused with Chet Baker, dog). The kids adore going there, and the staff couldn't be nicer to them. One of my firm beliefs is that kids truly appreciate nice restaurants; that they need never set foot in a McDonald's or Chuck E. Cheez, and that if the kids are properly brainwashed, their parents never need to, either. Phoebe is famous in her class for once bringing a sack lunch to a McDonaldLand birthday party, and for shrinking back from the Happy Meal she was given on a class field trip. Success!
The light was killer beautiful, and we devoured the shifting cloud shadows on the drive to Parkersburg. Here's a view along the county road to our house. I never tire of seeing the light playing on this little pond--the one where I released Fergus, the bird-eating bullfrog, as a matter of fact! Yes, those trees are in bud. Everything is budding. Crazy weather, but I'll take it.

Bill played real purty, and it was so nice to listen, sip tea, and go through set lists looking for forgotten tunes for our band rehearsal this afternoon. We got home just in time to greet the rest of the band and settle in to rehearse. It was a marathon of running through tunes new and tunes forgotten, more than three hours of hard work. We dusted off some dandies, worked up some new cover tunes, and introduced three new originals, courtesy Bill and Andy. By the end of this, our second rehearsal, I finally felt my voice coming back, feeling reliable again. Baker kept his station on my lap. His coat is so smooth and sleek he feels like a polished ebony carving--a warm one.
He got hold of an old drumstick that I was using to beat on a cowbell. I got a fever, and the only cure for it is MORE COWBELL. Bill demands that I play cowbell (which makes sense, I guess, because everyone else's hands are busy with instruments), but then he laughs at me when I do it. Which doesn't seem fair.

Suet's the Big Deal?

8 cardinals, a junco, and a bluebird--just a small part of the morning crowd.

Somebody told the cardinals, who told the bluebirds that there was really good stuff on our front porch. I think it was the juncos who spilled the beans. Today started out dark and dreary, but the front porch was hoppin'!
Every winter is different. Last winter we had eight bluebirds and no more than five cardinals who developed a taste for suet dough. This winter I have trouble counting all the cardinals. It's spectacular. They all listen and watch for the door to pop open at about 8 AM, and practically run into me in their haste to gobble this delectable stuff.Here,the song sparrow who's trying out his songs under the bedrom window every morning is joining the fun.

I multiply the recipe (1 cup peanut butter, 1 cup lard, 2 cups quick oats, 2 cups yellow cornmeal, 1 cup flour) times six every time I make it. So it takes a 40-oz. jar of peanut butter, plus an additional cup, about a third of a large bucket of lard, 12 cups of oats. I always wonder if people look at me buying two large buckets of lard every time I go to the store and scratch their heads. It makes a jarring contrast to the arugala and sprouts, that's for sure. Roger Peterson used to go in the Old Lyme CT A&P and buy a half-dozen bags of Cheetos. He'd throw them in the water off the Old Saybrook causeway, hoping to lure black-headed gulls in close enough to photograph. Same thing. He said he got weird looks, too.

The kids both like to help me measure and add the dry ingredients, but everybody disappears when it's time to stir it all together. It takes a lot of strength to mix it as it's setting up, and we've broken a couple of wooden spoons trying. I've got my drill down and can get the big batch done in under an hour now. Sometimes I wish I didn't have to make so much, but then I look out the window and realize that it's not much effort for the beauty it brings to our doorstep.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Snuffle of the Penguins

These are king penguins, but hey, I was lucky to have a Zick painting of any penguin!

We spent the evening on the couch with the kids, watching March of the Penguins. Like its predecessor, Winged Migration, parts of it bugged me. I wanted badly to know how an emperor penguin stores food to feed a chick for two months while its mate is away, stuffing itself on fish, squid and crustaceans. Does it manufacture the food, from fat stores? Well, apparently, the male penguin, who has fasted for 5-6 months, is able to keep the chick alive for up to two weeks after hatching on a curdlike substance he secretes in his esophagus, like pigeon milk. But then the picture gets muddy. When the female comes back from her march across the ice, having been gone for the entire 8-week incubation period, she's got a bellyful of fish and other sea life. Does she somehow preserve an enormous crawful of food for two months, doling it out bit by bit while the father penguin's out fishing? I have a hard time understanding how this would be possible, but must find out. The National Zoo's website had the best information I found, but I still don't get how a penguin can keep fish and squid good in its stomach for a couple of months, if it's feeding its chick by regurgitation. It has to be digesting it, and then producing the food, like a pigeon does. Arrgh. Need to know.

Beyond my typical just-gotta-know attitude, which pretty much ruined Winged Migration for me, I was taken by surprise by this film; it snuck up on me and I had to go get my own personal box of Kleenex. The penguins' struggle just seemed insurmountable. The likelihood of one mate's getting killed, which would force the mate who stayed home to leave the chick to starve, was crushing. That the male emperor penguin memorizes his newly-hatched chick's voice, and then finds that chick two months later by voice, killed me. And the baby penguins pushed every maternal button I possess. They are cute on the rocks, those things. I'm continually amazed that the concept and execution of cute crosses so many phyla. Wonder if a penguin would think a human infant or Boston terrier puppy was cute?
Here's a little gentoo for you. That's all the penguins I've got, for now.

The dark-phase giant petrel that made an unannounced cameo to kill penguin chicks (nobody needs to know what kind of bird this is, I guess, just that it's a very bad bird) was a special thrill for Bill and me and a terror for the kids. Phoebe and Liam had their heads under the covers more than once during the movie. No wonder; as the penguins huddled together under vicious drifts of blowing snow, their mother was blubbering quietly away, covered in a drift of used Kleenex.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Bringing Scooby Home

Baby Chet with New Scooby

I'm getting kind of sentimental about the end of our game, Moving Scooby-Doo. Scooby-Doo started out as a yard toy, one that Chet liked so much he punctured. Here's a picture when both Chet and Scooby were new. When we started on a walk one day, Chet brought Scooby along, for a surprising distance along our trail. When he finally lost interest and left the ball lying along the trail, the idea for the game was born. This hike takes 45 minutes if we hustle quickly. I thought it would be a good challenge to see if Chetty could move the ball in stages until he got it all the way around the Loop. And, on the 25th, it seems we're within striking distance of our goal. One more walk will do it.
The worst part was getting the ball past where a bunch of semi-tame dogs roam. If they hear us creeping down the nearby trail, they open up a salvo of barking, and once a couple of them came out to meet us. Moving Scooby is a noisy game--I cheer Chet on to longer and longer carries--and it was hard to encourage him in whispers. But we did it. Chet seemed to understand that we needed to get it up and out of the stream valley and away from the dogs, and he carried it up an enormous slope in only two relays.
Liam came on the penultimate hike, inspiring Chet to new records for long-distance carries. He'd run ahead, then wait and call.
By now, Scoob was pretty careworn, and was in real danger of being destroyed before he got home. Whumpa whumpa whumpa! Chet would shake him from side to side, ripping a big hole in him and occasionally getting the whole thing over his head.
Our last hike was the 26th of January, when Chet finally succeeded in bringing Scooby home. He was as excited as we were, alternately posing, head high, and shaking the tar out of Scoob.
Seeing the house gave him wings, and he dashed to the finish line.
You'd think, having carried this thing almost two miles over hill and dale, that he'd be tired of it, but he played for the next half-hour, parading the ragged scrap around the yard and showing it to everyone.
There's probably nothing a Boston terrier won't do for a little praise.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nobody Can Cuss like a Titmouse

I do a bit of songbird rehabilitation, and have done it all my life. When I was a kid, I had no idea one had to have state and federal permits to handle wild birds. I just cleaned up what the neighbor's seventeen cats wrought, replacing baby birds in nests, trying to set broken wings, raising those who had been orphaned. I learned a lot from my father, who was raised on a farm and knew so much about how to nurture creatures. We came up with a formula, fed through an ear syringe, that raised a nice, fat mourning dove when I was in high school, because Dad knew that pigeons feed their young by regurgitation, and we went from there.
Now, I have all the pieces of paper that make such pursuits legal, and while I don't seek out busted birds, they come to me through a variety of channels. Either I find them or people know someone who knows that I might be able to help. I got a call on Sunday, January 15, about a titmouse that couldn't fly. The couple who found it suspected a window strike, but the limp wing and the fact that many of its upper tail coverts were missing led me to suspect that a cat was responsible for the injury. Later, they mentioned that they have two free-roaming cats, but that the cats didn't kill birds. They were the nicest folks, so I let that statement go, and allowed as how a sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk might have done the deed. One thing I know--a window doesn't grab birds from behind. And a hawk isn't likely to leave its prey on the porch and then ask to come inside. Free-roaming cats. Agggh. Sorry, but evidence suggests that even the fat, innocent-looking ones kill birds.
So this titmouse was bright and active but reduced to scuttling around on the floor of his cage, his left wing hanging. I wet him down thoroughly and examined him, finding massive bruising above the left scapula, but no obvious breaks or bruising in the wings. And almost went deaf as he cussed me up and down. In a wing exam, I manipulate the wing bones and listen for crepitation--the sound of broken bones rubbing on each other. With this patient, there was no way I was going to hear it, he was so vocal! His wings checked out fine. If the scapula or shoulder wasn't broken, he might just be all right. And if the gods willed it, he'd be releasable. You can't mess too much with the delicate bones, muscles and nerves in songbirds' wings and get a functional wing out of it. I decided to keep him confined to a small cage, keep him as quiet as possible, and see what about 1,500 mealworms and a couple of weeks' rest would do for the injury.
There comes a moment in a bird's rehabilitation arc when you walk in and you KNOW he's ready to go. This titmouse was ricocheting off the bars of the cage, more every day, and I saw him stretch both wings up over his back. The droop had disappeared; he was eating us out of house and home, and he was hitting the sides of the cage so hard as he flew around that I knew it was time to release him before he damaged himself. You need to release them when they're sufficiently healed, but before they lose their wild edge. This picture shows both wings engaged as he shoots up from the floor of the cage.

So he got his flight test in my 10 x 10' aviary this morning, and passed it. He clung to the screen, wanting out!

I wanted to release him in the front yard where he could see all the feeders, and the other titmice coming to them. I wasn't about to send him back where he was first injured, for obvious reasons. I figured it's better he start a new life on a cat-free sanctuary than hang out in his old haunts and risk getting nailed again.
So Bill snapped a couple of release day photos--I had to be having a bad hair day AND wearing my Sesame Street fashions, didn't I?
Man, could he cuss! Oh, I am such a glamourpuss.Trying to let the world's worst haircut grow out enough to be fixed. This shot should take care of any potential stalkers.

We took the titmouse out in the yard. He flew all the way across the yard, with a slight twist of the left wing, but he flew high and well, certainly well enough for a nonmigratory bird who moves from tree to tree in the forest. He rested awhile in the forsythia, where several juncos came to keep him company, then flew to the Russian prune hedge. I went out to try to get a picture of him fluffing, wiping his bill, and preening, and he flew right over my head, back toward the feeders (a distance of perhaps 50 yards), paused a moment in a little birch, then landed on the peanut feeder!
If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I'd never have believed it. What a guy. Has it all figured out within ten minutes of release. People should get on with their lives as handily. All the feeder birds spooked, and he rocketed into the woods with three or four other titmice. Not all rehab stories end so well. Now I'll be peering at every titmouse I see, wondering if it's him. O happy, happy day! Making the world a nicer place, one titmouse at a time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Robins (and Warblers) in the Rain

The other day, as Liam and I came out of the public library (always a must when we're in town), we heard the celestial caroling of robins--a huge flock that was feeding in an American holly across the street. Two gifts. First, we're far enough south here in southeast Ohio to even have American hollies. We're the same latitude as D.C., though our winters are colder and snowier, and our summers not quite as hot and humid. But hollies thrive in sheltered places in town, and there are some perfectly magnificent specimens like this fruiting female. Second gift: January robins. Robins singing and choking down holly fruit.
They let me get pretty close with my tiny 10x zoom. I guess that's the third gift. Oh, it was sweet to hear robin song in mid-January, even as the rain pelted down.
Today, with both kids finally back in school for the day, I'm drawing warblers again for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas. I'm thrilled to be taking part, as the atlas coordinators and steering committee have lined up some terrific artists to illustrate this update of an already monumental work. Old friends like Mike DiGiorgio and John Baumlin, and artists I haven't met but already admire: Alan Messer, Dale Dyer, Sue Adair, Cindy Page and John Wiessinger are all contributing black-and-white illustrations. My dear friends Jim Coe and Barry Van Dusen are painting some color landscapes--surely a first for a breeding bird atlas!
Here's a finished drawing, a female northern parula pulling Cladonia lichen (or reindeer moss) for her hanging nest. On to the worm-eating warbler. I have it taking a fecal sac from the nest. There are all kinds of ways to confirm breeding birds, and seeing an adult bird with a fecal sac is one of the best. It's ironclad evidence of breeding, as one must hope they only take out their own kids' diapers.
Worm-eating warbler taking fecal sac from nest
We've got worm-eating warblers on our southeast-facing slopes. I've only found one nest, back in Connecticut. I watched it from a distance, and the young fledged successfully. The day they left, I crawled up the slope to it, and while examining an infertile egg inside the nest, I noticed that the entire nest seemed to be moving. There was a thick gray mat of bloodthirsty bird mites. Egad. Imagine sitting in THAT for two weeks. They swarmed up my arm and itched like crazy. I really dig drawing nestlings and fledglings. Thanks to lots of experience in rehab, raising baby birds, I feel close to them, and I like making believable drawings of them. (See the worm-eating warbler nestling with stern up, having just delivered the goods?) Too many times, I see artwork of adult birds at the nest, in which the adults are beautifully rendered, but the nestlings are almost like afterthoughts. They're birds, too, and paying close attention to their (admittedly somewhat blobby) anatomy, behavior, and expressions results in a better piece of art.
Brewster's warbler and hybrid fledgling in black raspberry
Here's another drawing, a Brewster's warbler feeding a fledgling. This is a hybrid between blue-winged and golden-winged warblers. Blue-winged warblers are thought to be wreaking the same kind of genetic swamping on golden-wingeds that mallards have on black ducks. Blue-wingeds are more general in their habitat preferences than the fen-loving golden-wingeds, and they're likely to be better competitors, so we're seeing more birds of hybrid parentage and fewer pure golden-wings. We've had a persistently singing Brewster's on our place two years ago. In Connecticut in the '80's, I found a rare Lawrence's (another hybrid of the two pure species) feeding fledglings with a female blue-winged. How I wish I took pictures then! But it's a pleasure to be drawing them now. With its lineup of artists, New York's breeding bird atlas is going to be a heck of a beautiful book. It's a thrill to be part of it.
Lawrence's warbler on apple

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Phoebe's Bee

Yesterday morning, while Bill was waiting at the end of our driveway for the bus to pick Phoebe up, she told him that all her friends were asking her when she was going to get a PlayStation. "You can tell them it'll happen on the Twelfth of Never," Bill answered. He pointed out to Phoebe that she reads real books, draws, hikes in the woods, plays basketball, and was about to compete in a spelling bee--all pursuits that might be endangered or negated by such a purchase. NEVAHHH!
The spelling bee was last night. The list of words Phoebe and I had been drilling all week was barely scratched. Nobody had to spell polarimetric, waterloo, knightess, bioturbation, or sniggle.
It was clear to me that the kids all knew how to spell the words. What got in their way was nerves. And it was equally clear that many parents had a lot more invested in this than might be expected. The teachers and school principal were doing their best to be fair to the kids, giving them a break here and there, to loud comments from some of the parents. "Do you people even know what you're doing up there?" one father snorted. There were two lengthy disputes, which had to be settled by playing the tape recording of the word just spelled. I was amazed. It was just an elementary school spelling bee! You'd think that each child eliminated from a round were going to be thrown directly into a rattlesnake pit. Most contestants left the stage crying. Yiiikes.
Of course, I loved the whole event, for mostly the wrong reasons. There was drama, there were uncomfortable silences, there were murderous glances, there were charged particles flying around. Yessss! Real human drama is so hard to come by. Most of us color in the lines like good pupils. These parents were baaaad!
Despite forgetting the c in punctual, Phoebe eventually won the fourth grade division. Whoopee! She got a pencil, a ribbon, and an unbelievably homely trophy (show me a beautiful elementary school trophy, I dare you!) But she loves it, and that's the point.
. She got a little boost to her self-confidence, and I learned to cackle--no--sniggle-- silently. Liam was less than amused. "Fee, can I have your trophy?" he pleaded.
When she demurred, he plopped down in a chair, saying, "I hate fourth graders. They get all the trophies, and all the pizza parties, and kindergartners get garbage."

We left in a hurry for the 7 p.m. spelling bee, leaving our dinner plates on the table. Phoebe was too nervous to finish her turkey burger and lima beans. While we were gone, somebody else was coloring out of the lines. Any guesses who??

Monday, January 23, 2006

Death,Owls, Water,Life

It POURED all last night, well over an inch of much-needed rain. I knew the stream would be spectacular today, and I could hardly wait to get out to see. Shila came out for a climb, fresh off a craniosacral teaching session in Cleveland, unable to resist the call of the cataracts we knew would be spilling over the rocks that were dry only yesterday. We weren't disappointed. We could hear the rush of water--such a spring sound--as we slipped and slid down the muddy slopes toward the streambed.
Chet was beside himself, so stimulated by the sight, sound and smell of the running water he could only run circles around it, dashing across the stream, wading in, pawing at the white rapids. He paused only to pose for me, and Shila caught the moment!
photo by Shila Wilson
It was like a wonderland for me and Shila, and we crept and stumbled along the slopes, which were slicker 'n snot after all the rain, taking pictures every few feet. The landscape was utterly transformed, and so were we--rapt within this surround-sound movie starring the swollen creek, Chet, and us. Our senses were sharp, and we found some beautiful owl bones, which I decided were the right size and heft to be barred owl bones. Preparing specimens comes in handy years later!

Further examination revealed that this bird had probably been killed by an avian predator, because the bones were not chewed as they would have been had a raccoon been the killer. They lay beneath a large hollow tree which could very well have held a barred owl nest. Perhaps a fledgling or sitting hen met its death at the talons of a great-horned owl, a species which only in the last four years has occupied our land. There's not much else that will kill a barred owl. And there's practically nothing other than a human that will kill a great-horned. In this photo, you can see its intact keel at the top, and two large talon bones to on the left, just above the Christmas fern, as well as long wing and leg bones.

The cave where Phoebe and Liam played with icicles only a week ago was roaring with water, which sprayed down off its ceiling, hitting the pool beneath with a great spatter. We continued along the creek and then cackled and slipped up the steep slope toward the Loop.
Passing through tall sumacs, we heard the clear, bell-like whistled tone of a hermit thrush, and saw it land in a treetop, saw the call issue from its bill, watched it raise and slowly lower its rusty tail. Oh, beautiful bird. Towhees zrrrreeeped from the black raspberry tangle. These are two species who don't stay with us every winter, but we're blessed with their presence this year. Even the female towhees have stayed, something I've never seen happen.

Halfway down the Chute path, we caught up with poor old Scooby-Doo, and Chet, for once, was delighted to carry him a record-setting distance, across the stream and up a steep wooded slope onto our land!
It's a piece of cake to get Scoob home from here...if we can keep Chet from completely destroying the ball before we get it home. He stopped briefly to nose at the foot of a tree, where there was a great splatter of fresh owl whitewash, and a disorganized owl pellet
The dark brown curved piece is a thoracic shield from a crayfish; the long "bones" are its leg exoskeletons. Squirrel hair is from another meal. It takes owls several days to work up a pellet, and they may contain remnants of several meals. Must feel good to get this out of your craw! Kagggh!

so fresh that the slime shone, and even still ran down the tree!
Owl slime--bleccch! But it's a beautiful thing if you look at it as fresh evidence!

We must have flushed the bird without knowing it. I was delighted to find the pellet composed entirely of crayfish exoskeletons, legs, antennae, lightly bound with gray squirrel hair: barred owl. So we found a late barred owl, and balanced it with a live one. There was a symmetry to that, that we found quite pleasing. While we meddlesome kids were solving this latest mystery, Chet was gutting Scooby-Doo. Caught at it, he apologized as only a googly-eyed Boston terrier can.

I am so sorry that I ripped this. It got hung up in my teeth when I was shaking it. And now I cannot stop ripping it.

Lots more happened today, but it's late again, and I need to wind down. Blogging is almost as much fun as hiking, but it keeps me up too durn late. More anon.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Band Practice

It's time to pay the piper (or, in my case, learn how to use my pipes again). The Swinging Orangutangs, our five-piece rock band, has a gig Feb. 4 in downtown Marietta. Uh-oh, we're soo rusty. So we came together in our specially soundproofed music room downstairs to practice for about three hours this afternoon. Liam had cousin Gus over, and Phoebe had neighbor McKenzie over, and they all ran around outside playing Zongies (a variant of Zombies, a Scooby-Doo inspired roar-and-pursuit game.) Chet was odd man out, so he joined us for practice, although he couldn't understand why it had to be so loud. He plastered his ears against his skull and took refuge in my chair, but he seemed to enjoy being part of the scene. He certainly enjoyed schmoozing with charming Vincenzo Mele, our bass player,
I will control you with irresistible beams from my eyes

and lovable Uncle Steve McCarthy, our drummer.
hello Uncle Steve I love you so much and by the way are you planning to finish all that pork?

Both Bill and his brother Andy were in rare form tonight, and both had written new songs for the occasion, something that impresses me no end. It looks like both songs will be added to the repertoire, too (which doesn't always pan out). I was really proud of the boys.
It was a little unsettling to realize just how out-of-shape we are, musically. At one point Bill, our lead guitarist, held up his left hand and yelled at it, "WORK WITH ME, HERE!" which cracked us all up. We were attempting to revive "Reelin' in the Years" and Bill's hand was balking. The Swinging Orangutangs played hard for more than six years--we did at least a gig a month and often two or three. (That's playing hard for people with full-time jobs and kids!) We were probably busiest when Phoebe was an infant, and that was murder. When Liam came along I told everyone I was going to bow out for awhile. We took about six months' break and then started playing hard again. When our fab-fave-never-will-be-topped bar, The Crow Bar, closed down, we lost heart and folded for two years. We had a wonderful group of people who turned out to see us every time, and that kept us learning new songs so we wouldn't bore anyone. One of the proudest achievements of my life was alphabetizing our gnarly dog-eared lyrics in a folding accordion file, so that when somebody wants to play "Don't Fear the Reaper" or "Well Alright" or "Time After Time" or "Smoky Joe's Cafe," well, I just turn to Sections D, W, T, or S and magically produce the lyrics and sometimes even the chords. At this point we've got pretty much everything memorized, but when you've been away from it for awhile, it helps to have that lyric sheet taped to the mic stand. Now we're hoping our gang will still turn out to support us. They're the dancin'est people in town.

After practice we demolished a nice pork shoulder slow-cooked with sweet potatoes and apples, with a sauce of apple juice, orange juice, honey, and brown sugar. Yummy! Chet of course went into cruise mode, wheedling his way onto laps in hopes of finding scraps on plates. He makes you think he wants you to hold him. We all know what he's really after, no matter how demure he acts.Hi darlin' pork pork pork pork pork can I climb on your lap pork pork pork pork pork aren't I sweet? pork pork pork

So there will be a couple more practices before we're ready for an outing.
Every time I think we are getting too old for this stuff I get a mental image of The Rolling Stones and I don't feel so bad.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Long Walk in the Beeches

Forties, partly cloudy, sun in the late afternoon, I'm gone. Bill and I spent the morning getting our Christmas card list together, trying to make Appleworks fit them onto ancient Avery labels, and folding letters. At this point it's too late to be a New Year's card, either, but it's the thought that counts. Every few years, we like to announce to our friends and family how un-together we are with an impossibly late mass mailing. I truly admire those who get their cards out before Christmas. I especially appreciate those with high information content and photomontages of the family. We're straining to reciprocate.
It is stultifying work, though, and wind roaring through beech tops is about the only antidote. I like steep slopes for their exercise potential, and for the way the vivid blue sky cuts through along their tops. The steeper the slope, the deeper the blue.

I took it slowly today, walking along the brow of a hill, looking down into the streambed. I sat for a long time on a bluff, and it took me twenty minutes to notice an old scarlet tanager nest saddled on a thin horizontal limb high above. That's something you don't see every day. It's coming apart, but the rootlets and twigs are clearly visible.Every bird has a style of nest placement and this is textbook tanager. (I can't rule out that a robin made it, but from where I sat, I couldn't see any mud or grass). I think it's probably an antipredator strategy to saddle one's nest well out on a thin limb. The mystery to me is how they make it stay securely enough to hold their eggs and nestlings, without using any mud, and without weaving it to the limb.
Baker was in rare form today, galloping up and down the slopes.
He roars back when I whistle, and when I ask him to linger awhile and pose, he does it as if he understands my every whim. Having read photographer William Wegman's comments on his Weimeraner models, and how much they enjoy posing for him, I have little doubt that Baker likes being photographed, and fully understands how to be a good model. I ask him to walk out a log, and he pauses right next to me and strikes a pose. I can almost hear him thinking, "How about if I look up this way, as if I'm seeing something interesting?" We may well be communicating on a psychic level when we're working together.

Pileated woodpeckers were everywhere today, and I found two more big sassafras trees with deep cavities in them. I'm pretty sure they're after carpenter ants. I dissected a dropping today and found tightly packed carpenter ant parts, sumac seeds, and grape skins. They take a great deal of fruit in the winter, but they're willing to work hard for protein. I wonder if there's some seasonal ant rhythm that sends them to the sassafras trees in late January.
I'm figuring out where all the old logging roads are, and slowly covering every bit of the land. It's nice to walk along the remnants of a logging road, and not have to dodge briers.
I will confess I miss my carefully cut trail on the Loop, where I can walk fast with a long, swinging stride, but between Chet's new hobby of cattle chasing and the possibility of attack by feral dogs, walking it with him has not been relaxing lately. I hate putting him on a leash when we're out in the woods, but there are a couple of places where I have to.
So I worked myself up into some gulleys on a part of our land that's frankly kind of a pain in the butt to walk, and paused to look around. A barred owl flopped out of a tree, flew a short distance, landed, then took off again. What a reward! We also found four gray squirrels, worth remarking on because they are pretty scarce in these woods. People hunt them relentlessly. The guy who practically lived on them, who lived alone in a farmhouse at the corner of our road, really put a dent in the local gray and fox squirrel population. He had squirrel tails tied to his old car antenna, and hanging on his porch. He went missing and was found stone dead, still standing up at the kitchen sink, a few years ago. The man who owns the land bulldozed the house. Perfectly good white Ohio farmhouse, gone. They don't make them anymore. I miss it, and the beautiful old pines in front of it. It's a featureless hay field now, but daffodils still come up on the corner where the house stood, remembering Gary, who ate squirrels.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Onward (Zick), Upward (Chet)

It was a gorgeous day. I spent much of it in the car, trying not to think about hiking along the stream in the sun. But I had a blast. Drove over to Athens, Ohio, to record a commentary for NPR. Recording engineer Jeff Liggett always bends over backwards to accomodate my often sudden schedule changes. We've got it down to a science, and the piece was recorded within 20 minutes. Since there were some sound effects, it was a bit challenging for me, but fun as always. Here's Jeff.

One of my favorite things about Jeff is that when Liam accompanies me, as he usually does, Jeff doesn't mind having Liam spin his wooden trains around on the LP turntable. Not much ruffles JL, and he makes Liam feel welcome. It's nice to feel a real affinity with one's local NPR affiliate station, and to know that when you respond to the pledge drives, you're helping pay your friends' salaries.
I asked Jeff to take a picture of me in the studio, knowing that I'd look dumb in headphones, but who doesn't?
photo by Jeff Liggett

Met my friend Cindy the Forester for lunch and we had a nice talk. I took her a plant to love--Abutilon megapotamicum. Nope, no common name. Just fabulous pendant flowers. I'll put it up on the blog when it comes into bloom. Another treasure from Lisa Van Dusen, master gardener. I had to have it when I saw it at her house. Many cuttings later, the fun continues. I took a picture of Cindy crawling under her truck but she deserves better than to have it posted here. I'll substitute a picture of a beautiful oak tree I always look forward to seeing on the way to Athens, along the Appalachian Highway. We'll call it Cindy.
On the drive over and back I saw a total of a dozen turkey vultures, unprecedented in January. We usually don't see many until about the twelfth of March. I imagine they're hanging around because the weather has never gotten really terrible, nor has there been much snow cover to speak of. Lord knows there's roadkill--I saw two fresh deer and a very nice wild turkey gobbler laid out--a regular buzzard Thanksgiving.

The cattle in Boaz, WV, were enjoying the springlike sunshine with a lie-in. Very decorative.
And, for those of you who log on for your dog fix, a jumping game, starring Bill and Chet.
It doesn't matter what Bill grabs to hold out of Chet's reach--it could be a sock, a teddy bear, a child, or a turkey drumstick--Chet takes it as a personal challenge to soar to new heights. The Dog Photographer was on her back below. Yes, we call Bill the Colossus of Whipple, and Chet is the Michael Jordan of Boston terriers. He must have pretty good knees.
And we are very easy and inexpensive to entertain out here in Whipple.
photo by Phoebe Thompson

My Funny Boys

Nobody cracks me up like my husband, Bill. Read his wonderful post, "Afternoon Delight," at his blog, "Bill of the Birds." And don't miss his photo captions!
Here's what happens when you tell your husband there's no way he can leap to the top of a ten-foot hayroll. (Because there's absolutely no way you can, and you can't imagine anyone else could.)
I told Bill that if a mountain lion were chasing me, I couldn't get up on that hayroll. I think it's a weight distribution issue.

This morning, Liam asked me, "Mommy, when will I be old enough to have pope?"
"Pope? What's pope?"
"You know, the big-guy drink." (He had been offered a can of pop at a friend's house, and combined the words Coke and pop. I declined for him. He's never tasted either one.)
"Oh, pope. Umm, I suppose when you're eighteen, and I can't tell you what to do any more."

Needless to say, it's now called pope at our house. But we still don't drink it.
Now go visit Bill of the Birds!

Thursday, January 19, 2006


This is crazy fun, knowing my science buddies are reading. I just got a message from my friend Dave McShaffrey, biology professor at Marietta College. We're partners in box turtle conservation, and spreading nature appreciation to the world. No text, nothing but these exquisite macro shots of a dogbane beetle! Oh, yeaaah! And I'm sorry, Dave, but as gorgeous as these are, they only begin to capture the depth of color, the highly polished intensity of a dogbane beetle on the hoof. I remember thinking that if you could get that finish on a Corvette, you'd really have something special. So the next time you happen on dogbane in July, look for these little guys, and turn your binoculars around to make them magnifying glasses.
Thanks again to Dave McShaffrey!

Bluebird Morning, Moss Afternoon

Red sky at morning: gorgeous day ahead. I went out at dawn to try to capture the sunrise, having awakened before five, and found our bluebirds just waking up in their cozy roosts in the martin gourds. They stick their heads out and survey the scene for a long time before emerging. Very cute. They sometimes wait until they hear me put the suet dough out to rise from their pine-needle beds. We use pine needles in the roost boxes because, should rain get inside and freeze, the bluebirds' feathers won't freeze to the pine needles as they would to grass. I imagine it's because pinestraw is slick. We had two bluebirds get frozen to grass inside martin gourds, and we had to bring the whole gourd inside to thaw it out in order to free them! (Good thing we heard them scrabbling around in the gourds or they'd have perished in there). When I related the incident to Amish bluebird impresario Andy Troyer, he said that wouldn't happen with pine straw. So now it's pine straw or nothing. You can gather a grocery bag full in no time at all if you find a nice row of white pines shedding needles in the fall.

Liam, Chet and I set out for a mini-hike today. It was warmish, sunny, gloriously clear. Chet was very bad; he rounded up the heifers again, even barking at them as he darted in amongst them, until I had to roll under the barbed wire and go get him. He got the farmer's dogs all barking and the farmer's wife out on the porch hollering at the dogs, and it was not good. I felt like a jerk. Durn dog. You can't punish a dog who comes when you call him (even if it's the fifth time you've called him), so all I could do was leash him and lead him away. This cow fetish of Chet's is getting old. You think he'd give it up if I tied a cow to his collar and made him drag it around for a week? That's how they cured Ol' Yeller of killing chickens.

We spooked the same pileated woodpecker off the same old sassafras--even saw it fly--and I was most intrigued to see how much progress he'd made on his feeding cavity from yesterday. He's got four sub-cavities inside the main hole. He must practically disappear in there when he's working, as deep as the inner cavities are getting. He left calling cards at the bottom, in case you want to know what still-warm pileated poo looks like.
All told, we encountered four different pileated woodpeckers on a one-hour hike. I watched a male excavating an old bigtooth aspen that looks like Swiss cheese. He saw me but decided there was enough timber between us that he'd go on with his work. I was so proud of Liam; when the bird yammered I asked him what made that call. "Piewated woodpecker," he said without hesitation.

The dogbane is dehiscing. I just thought you'd like to know. Neat time of year to spread your seeds around; lots of wind, enough rain. Dogbane is a great butterfly attractant. Fritillaries and skippers love its tiny white flower clusters. It grows in great big clones of hundreds of plants, given enough room, so you can get great butterfly concentrations. We've got an enormous patch of it in our meadow. Nothing much eats it but dogbane beetles, who don't mind its yucky white sap, and they are the most gorgeous green-red-blue ultra-shiny little models you've ever seen. All around, a fabulous, underappreciated plant. Looks like a milkweed but actually in the closely related Apocynaceae.

It was the kind of dreamy, sunny afternoon when a bed of moss looks mighty fine, and Liam dropped thankfully onto one at the top of a steep hill. When I was little, I used to dream of having a house with a real stream running right through it, with real moss for carpet and big rocks for chairs. Frank Lloyd Wright stole my idea. Fallingwater. Pah.
Clearly, my little plan is working. I figure if I take the kids out in the woods every day, pretty soon they'll regard the forest as their living room. So far, so good.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Baker Haiku

Chet absolutely loves snow. He gets all humpty-backed and wild-eyed.

My friend Cheryl is a Chet Baker fan. She is also a poet, naturalist, and all-around live wire. She wrote a haiku for Chet that seems to sum him up.

Lively terrier
Your life has no shades of gray
All is black and white.

See her web page for more neat poems, pictures, and (I mean this in the nicest way) doggerel!

The Snow Hike

Chet started poking his toenails into my thigh at noon today. He knew that, since both kids were in school, he was due for a good fast hike in the snow. I finally caved in at 1:45, after tomorrow's agenda had been set, after I'd finished one drawing and transferred another. We trotted out the meadow through two inches of brand new snow.
It blew so hard last night that the house shook; I woke up at least five times, hoping the kids would sleep through it. They're both leery of wind, but it never woke them. Amazing, how kids can sleep through storms and thunderclaps right overhead. I slept through a grain elevator blowing up across the street from our grandmother's house when I was Phoebe's age. I noticed that the neighbor's flag looked suddenly tattered this afternoon. All the flags on the ridge are tattered now.

It was in the 20's when we set out, and the realization set in that I'd worn the right boots (Keen Cortina Mids) and exactly the wrong pants for conditions. Keen boots are the best--waterproof and utterly comfortable. Note to self: Calvin Klein stovepipe hiphuggers suhk in snow. They were soon soaked up to mid-thigh, their rolled cuffs collecting great gobbets of wet snow which then obligingly melted and crept up my pants legs. Brrr! I moved as fast as I could to keep from freezing.
But the woods were ravishingly beautiful; the snow made crazy patterns on tree bark
and on the Christmas ferns. They looked like fish skeletons on the forest floor. There was one small peek of bronzy sun all afternoon, and I happened to be in the newly flowing creek bed when it happened. The brook was singing for the first time in months, and there were little waterfalls everywhere, where there had only been dry rock and leaves.
Chet and I spooked a pileated woodpecker at work. I thought Chet had seen a squirrel, but it was a peckerwood! He didn't even have time to clear the chips from the hole he'd just dug in a big sassafras. For you ivory-bill hunters, this is fresh work.
There were wood chips scattered atop the snow, not a flake on them.
We climbed an enormous ridge, and broke out of hawthorn thicket onto a field--the same golden field the kids had run across last weekend. What a different aspect today! The wind whipped at my soaked pantslegs, and Chet and I broke into a dead run for home. We had done a hike that takes three hours with kids, in only an hour and ten minutes. It was great to be able to scramble up the slopes without worrying about who might be falling behind. Good to get the heart pumping hard, like it's supposed to. Amazing that I used to spend days on end without getting my heart going--just idling along in my chair. Once you get hooked on it, sitting around just doesn't cut it anymore.

Beauty, Thy Name is Bougainvillea

It's snowing today, off and on, maybe an inch on the ground. Which makes the bougainvillea "Raspberry Ice," a rare variegated plant, glow from within. Stepping out of a snowstorm into the steamy heat of the Garden Pod, and being greeted by two huge bougainvilleas in full bloom, is enough to get me through any gray winter day.
I have several hidden agendas on this blog. One, of course, is to get cute pictures of my dog all over the place. Another is to celebrate my family. Another, to appreciate the forest and fields I love so much. And another is to show you the plants I can't live without.
Every year, I have a couple of Plants of the Year. Variegation in plants is an acquired taste, I know. When I was in my 20's and 30's, I thought variegated plants looked sick, and I noticed that they didn't grow as vigorously as green plants. I've come to appreciate them so much, though, for the way they light up a border or hanging basket. And for the added horticultural challenge they present. I like coddling my funny tri-colored geraniums, and I don't expect them to grow madly; I like their slow, measured pace. When I saw this bougainvillea, I simply had to have it. But it was $45.00, ouch ouch. I raved about it so much Bill got me a tall one, trained on a trellis, for my birthday. And I subsequently found another for 75% off at another garden center, doubtless because the plant hadn't bothered to bloom at all by August. Snapped it up. And they sat around with nary a flower, but still beautiful, until November, when the close, humid heat of the greenhouse warmed the cockles of their hearts, and they burst into bloom. Just when I needed them most. In summer, the flower bracts (they aren't really petals, but modified leaves) are brilliant, eye-popping magenta. In winter, they're this bewitching coral-salmon, which I actually prefer. There's nothing about this plant I don't adore, except perhaps its inch-long thorns! I'll be taking cuttings this spring, to spread the joy around.
Another variegated plant I've kept for many years is a true miniature geranium called "Grey Sprite." A miniature geranium takes maybe three years to get as big as normal geranium gets in a single season. Its leaves are tiny. Grey Sprite is a free bloomer, with bright warm-pink single flowers, and these beautiful grey-green leaves, edged in pink.Many variegated plants will "sport," or send up a shoot lacking variegation, that's colored like one of their parents. I don't quite know the mechanism of sporting, but conventional wisdom is to cut the sports off the plant, because they invariably grow much faster than the variegated parts, and might sap the energy of the plant. Here's Grey Sprite sending up a rare sport. As you can see, it's quite a bit more vigorous than the parent plant. Even its flowers are larger. I may make a cutting of this, because I think it's pretty, too.
For Ann L. and Barbara, here's "Bolton," a geranium developed in Bolton, Mass. When we were visiting my sister Barbara in Massachusetts last June, Chet broke a sprig off the Bolton geranium that Ann had given her. I took it home and rooted it. And now look at it, seven months later, spilling out of its pot, bent by the weight of its blossoms!
I just adore geraniums. They seem to know no other words than Thank you! Thank you!
And now, for a snowy hike with The Baker.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Art of Dog Photog

photo by Shila Wilson

Maybe some of my faithful readers (586 since my hit counter was installed Jan. 8 :-0 ) are wondering how to get good photographs of their dogs. I will share a couple of bits of advice.
First, it helps to have a dog who listens to you, and will come to you when called. Occasionally, though, this backfires. It is especially liable to backfire if

a: You have a Boston terrier or
b. liver treats are involved or
c: you are lying on your back or stomach (another favorite vantage point for taking photographs).
In this case, I had a vision of the picture I wanted: Chet Baker, backlit in a miniature forest of Lycopodium clavellatum. I sat down on the forest floor in my good green khakis, leaned back, called Chet to come a little closer, and was climbed upon.
I favor the ground-level vantage point because I still have functioning knees, because it's not all that far to the ground for me anyway, because I enjoy using ZOUT to take stains out of my slacks, and because it gives a monumental look to the humblest doggie. Wanky tilted horizon lines notwithstanding. Understand: I'm not pretending to be a good photographer; I'm just riffing on dogshots. Shooting from ground level produces an image that is much more evocative of a dog's world than a picture taken from five feet over the dog's head. Most dog photos are shot thus: from above. But it's hard to get an idea what the dog really looks like (or what it's thinking, a more elusive thing to capture) when you're shooting from directly overhead. Using flash on Boston terriers almost always produces a Village of the Damned look about the eyes. Blecch. Plus, shooting from ground level amuses the subject. The whole point is to have fun.

Here I will digress for a short treatment of the Novelty Dog Photo. Discerning readers of this blog may have noted that I am collecting photos of Chet Baker on the laps of long-suffering visitors to Indigo Hill. This will continue, and it's just one example of the kind of set-up that can drive your picture-taking.
The truly inspired photo can rarely be planned for. But taking photos constantly means you've got your camera ready to rock when the moment presents itself.So when I realized that the world's largest Boston terrier was grazing right by our mailbox, Chet and I were ready for the shot.

As you might have guessed, I have a library of Chet shots. It is large, and growing exponentially. Now that Bill bought us an external hard drive, the madness cannot be expected to abate. Somewhere out there is the perfect Chet shot. It will be mine, oh yes. It will be mine.
I hope that this non-comprehensive guide to dog photography (keep those Bil-Jac liver treats in your pocket and he'll always be willing to sit and stay!) inspires you to fire away at your own little darlin'. It's good for his ego, and great for your knees.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Phoebe's Brilliant Invention

A few winters ago, when the infestation of Asian multicolored ladybird beetles (stinkin' ladybugs, for short) was so bad that they were getting into our food and flying up our noses and tainting our morning tea, Bill and I constructed a light trap for the stupid things. For those who aren't infested each October with bazillions upon gabillions of ladybugs, these are noxious-smelling beetles that were imported to control alfalfa aphids, released upon this good land, and have since gone on to prosper and multiply in obscene proportions, like many foreign things do when brought to strange places. In the autumn, they are heavily attracted to tall, light-colored structures on ridgetops. Duh.
Every year, along about Halloween, there are so many of the blasted things seething up our siding that it looks like the siding itself is moving. They work their way into every window, through the siding, and they cluster in the windows, crawl across the dinner plates, and bite you HARD on the softest part of your neck for no reason at all. When you smash them they stink like nobody's business; when you vacuum them up, they stink up the whole room through the exhaust of the machine; and if you get one in your salad, you might as well forget eating the rest of your dinner. Noxious doesn't begin to describe how they taste.
So we hate them, heartily, as only people who have been smothered in them can. I know for a fact that my sister would never survive a heavy infestation of these things; I barely do. So we made this light trap, and I remember painting a milk jug black and suspending a lightbulb inside it and cutting another one to make a funnel and dusting the whole dumb thing with baby powder so the bugs would fall down into it and be unable to climb out...and over the course of the winter we caught something like fifty ladybugs, and we thought, well, great, but what about the two billion that are still at large? I catch more than that in my Caesar salad some evenings.
I went up to the tower room today to close the trap door, and found two little cups of what had been chocolate milk, forgotten there by Phoebe and a friend last Sunday. And they were full of ladybug-spiked chocolate yogurt. Bleaaaa! I was so intrigued I counted the corpses: 23 in one and 36 in the other. I came down the stairs with the cups in my hand and a big smile, and said, "Phoebe, I am not being sarcastic, for once. Thank you for leaving your chocolate milk up in the tower room for a week." She looked at me warily, then let out a squeal. Her eyes lit up as she grasped my meaning. Slothfulness sometimes pays off. Thus are great discoveries made.

Building Strong Bodies 12 Ways

As day after blessed day dawns gray, then clears off to glorious sun, I feel it would be ungrateful of us not to take advantage of the warmth and beauty. With the kids on a four-day weekend, we've taken a monster hike each day, exploring parts of our and our neighbors' land that we've never really seen before. It is a humbling feeling to come upon a magnificent tree you didn't know you "owned." What a strange word, owned, as if one could own a tree that grew unbidden on land you happened to buy. I like that sentiment that we can't own land, but merely borrow it from our children. I love to think that Phoebe and Liam will be hiking it with their kids someday. I hope I'm spry enough to come along. Got started a bit late...but I can dream. If Phoebe waits as long as I did to have her first child, I'll be...let's see...oh, let's not go there. Not many sycamores grow up tall and perfectly straight, but this one has. I picked up a beautiful piece of bark, curled and perforated, leathery and strange. Liam said, "Hold that right there." And karate-chopped it in two. Boys.

The pileated woodpeckers have been drumming and calling a lot since it turned warm, and I've no doubt they are already thinking about excavating nest cavities. In general, woodpeckers use the male's roost cavity for the brood each year. And, keeping to his habit of sleeping in this particular cavity, he incubates the eggs and later broods the young at night, while the female retires to her own roost cubby. It must be nice for her to get away and sleep soundly in her own room after tending to the eggs and young all day.
Today, we climbed the steep south-facing slope, enjoying the play of sun on the forest floor, and walked all along it, high above the little creek. The views were dizzying at times; this is one of the highest points in the entire county, and it feels like it. Sounds float up to you when you're that high. We could hear the interstate and even a train blowing its horn all the way from Marietta, 18 miles away.
Chet was intrigued by the sound of melting icicles on the far bank, and when one would crash to the rocks below, he'd plunge down the nearly vertical embankment, dash across the creek, and snuff around where it had fallen. He had hoped he was hearing squirrels, but figured it out after only two trips, and after that was content to watch for the falling ice.
Chet likes ice. He likes to walk on it, bust icicles off, and chew them.
He also kept a close watch on his kids.
He's really good about keeping an ear and eye turned our way; no matter what interesting things he runs across, he's constantly checking in, circling back, and always responsive to our whistle. He ran a couple of deer up into our neighbor's yard, and set their big dogs barking, and had the sense to run back to us rather than tangle with them. He's only a year old, but he has a lot of sense.
It's supposed to rain tomorrow, so I guess I'll be lashed to the drawing board. The funny thing about taking a three-hour hike every day is that when you come back, you're on such a high, that you can sit down at the drawing board and whap out a sketch or drawing that's waaay better than one you forced out when you weren't centered. At least that's one of my many elaborate rationales for treating myself to these workouts. The mind of the addict works in mysterious ways. The second the sun came out, I called Shila to jump in her car and join us, but she had to work today--what's that? I guess this beautiful hiking vacation had to end sometime. Every sunny day has been a gift. Thank you!!!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

High Hills, Sore Legs

photo by Shila Wilson

Addicted: that's what Shila and I are, to these daily hikes on rare sunny winter days. After the first one, five days ago, when we scrambled on all fours up an impossibly high hill, slipping, sliding back, struggling to get up out of the stream valley, we've just felt better in every way--more ready to take life on, triumphant, perhaps even in shape. It's empowering to tackle a two-mile hike with enormous climbs and come back with rubbery legs and a deep relaxation that you really can't get any other way. And taking the kids along is the best. They're tough and resilient, and they're becoming comfortable in the woods, straying away to play in the water or scramble like monkeys up the slopes to perch on high ledges. I have to trust that they'll pick their way carefully, and sometimes I have to look away. They find their own ways around, and I can't do it for them. Since they were old enough to walk, I've told them that I can't carry them; that I'm not strong enough, and they've believed me. Now that it's really true, I'm glad we started that old mom's tale early.

This walk has everything--caves and deep pools, tiny waterfalls, moss, beds of hepatica, ferns, redtails and woodpeckers. Today, after a night in the twenties, there were even icicles. I could hear my dad saying, "Impurities will not freeze!" as the kids caught drips on their tongues and sucked on the huge icicles. (If impurities will not freeze, then what are those blocks of blue ice that occasionally fall out of jets? I'm not going to think about it.)
Phoebe is a bit of a daredevil, and she decided to cross a gorge on a fallen log. Her confidence grew as she inched across, and Baker padded out to give her encouragement. Once she was safe, he showed off a bit, trotting out, grabbing a stick, and coming back across like a little tightrope walker. I love Shila and Phoebe's expressions in this picture. Such a ham, Baker is.

Today was a three-hour marathon, a deep plunge to the streambed, full exploration of the pools and riffles, and then a big climb up an unknown logging road onto our neighbors' land. We snuck through their fields and paths, hoping their large dogs were shut inside, and we lucked out. At last we broke out onto a beautiful sere haymeadow, and, with two miles of strenuous hiking showing on their muddy jeans, the kids amazed us by breaking into a run. They'll be hard as nails by spring if we can keep this up. How many children these days really use their energy and physical capabilities to their fullest capacity? Mind you, mine know their way around a VCR, a DVD player, and a computer, and their trigger fingers are well-practiced. But they also know what it is to be sore from exertion--that good sore that sends one into a deep sleep at night.
I can feel the difference in every muscle. It's good to be strong.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Bad Weather Looks Worse...

From inside a window, says my friend Hank from Connecticut. Hank gets out in all weather, and another of my New Year's resolutions (along with "Do More, Eat Less") is to copy Hank. So Chet and I took off a bit after 4 this afternoon to see if Hank's axiom was true.
Chet Baker is not the hairiest dog in the world, the wind was biting, and he was glad to hold his paws up so I could help him on with his new sweater. For some reason (perhaps the fact that it covers his binder), Chet is not crazy about this sweater, and for a while he refused to walk in it. Phoebe cuddled him and cajoled him, and after a few minutes of this, he was ready to go. The power of The Loop is great, and he soon forgot all about the sweater and went about his Boston business.

The colors were magnificent, and I got a rare good look at a wintering hermit thrush in the undergrowth. This is a really neat winter, with hermit thrushes, red-breasted nuthatches, and eastern towhees abundant and easily encountered--a stark contrast to the usual winter avian fare. If only there were evening grosbeaks!! How I miss them! The last incursion we had was 1992. It doesn't seem fair.
With the snow deadening our footfalls, Chet and I dared a good bout of Moving Scooby-Doo, a game that gets rather noisy, and might alert the dog pack that lives down in the hollow. We're taking great pains to avoid them since our last encounter, turning off the trail well before we come within earshot of them, and avoiding the cleared gasline cut altogether. Now, we bushwhack through the forest until we're on our land, and can breathe a little easier. The last thing I want is another encounter with these semi-feral dogs, and Chet agrees. We had a good carry, and Scoob is another leg closer to our house. It's going to be really tricky to get Chet to carry the ball up the steep slope and through the briars, but I think we can do it. At this rate, he'll be home well before spring, and we'll have to start with another toy.

As the light failed, I found some neat microhabitats for an eastern towhee commission. A towhee squirted out of the raspberry tangle as we headed down the path, and paused for a moment amidst wet oak leaves, mossy rocks and beech trunks. Perfect! I want to do a limited-palette painting that will best play up his tri-colored beauty.It was getting dark as we came up the orchard, and the warm orange light of our kitchen beckoned. Man, it's nice to be able to get out every day, whatever the weather. Hank's right--bad weather looks worse from inside a window.

Raising the Fist

I found a quote today by writer Tillie Olsen, born in Nebraska in 1913--which would make her just a year younger than my dad:

"More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible, Children need one now ... The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one's own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil.... Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished, makes blockage--at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be. (Silences 18-19)

At first blush, this might seem to be a comment born of despair, from a creative spirit thwarted by constant interruption. (Since I started this blog entry, I've been interrupted three times). But I prefer to view Tillie Olsen's observation as a raised fist from a mother who persevered and wrote anyway.
The sound track behind me? Phoebe has finished straightening and is now vacuuming the living room. I can hardly believe it myself, but this is the second Saturday she's busied herself, after an initial fit of ennui, to picking up after all of us. While I write, or draw, or otherwise raise the triumphant fist of creativity.
Liam: "Phoebe's getting all the loving. I'm not getting really big loving."
For his part, Liam picks up after himself pretty darn well. It may take him a week to get to it, but he can throw wooden track pieces into a bin with the best of them. Mostly, he keeps me laughing. At the grocery store yesterday, we passed a cinder block wall splashed with grafitti. Liam gasped from the back seat. "They wrote on that wall!" I explained about grafitti, and why kids do it. "Wal, I wish I was a caveman," he replied. "Because they could write on the wall, and nobody got mad."It's a quiet, snowy day, 30 degrees to yesterday's 65. Kind of a shock. I've put out a whole oversized jar of suet dough for the suddenly ravenous birds outside, jacked the heat in the greenhouse, corrected two drawings for New York's breeding bird atlas, and produced two more drafts. The kids started the day watching Racing Stripes, an unusually well-done movie about a zebra who wants to be a racehorse. To our amazement, Chet watched it right along with them, eyeing the animals onscreen, until the warm blankets got the better of him and he drifted off.
Charles cleaned the kitchen with me, walking around on the table until he found a bag of Dora the Explorer graham snacks, chewed through it, and helped himself to one. Booger. You can say what you want about parrots as pets, but you cannot say they are slow.
In a search for warmth and comfort after the movie was over, Chet moved into the studio, where my creative fires were burning. And he stole my chair. So I finished the last drawing standing up, with Baker's doggy afterburners firing away periodically behind me.
The studio is quiet but for the scratch of Phoebe's markers and the chuckle of the macaw, shredding and rearranging the papers on his cage floor. Chet's tags are jingling as he takes the last stuffing out of a long-limbed frog. Liam drags a chair down the hall and across the floor, and climbs atop the flat file to draw, where Chet can't lie down on his sketchpad.
Tonight, the kids and I will make popcorn and watch Amelie, a DVD from the library. We'll all have earned a cuddle on the couch. We'll send this one out to Daddy, working a trade show (Birdwatch America) in Atlanta. Wish you were here, love. I know, it's a chick flick, but we still wish you were here.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bite Me Harder, Tiny Dancer

Phoebe has a finger puppet we like a lot. You stick your fingers down through her body and then put these tiny toe shoes on them, and your fingers become her legs. When I play with her, she looks like she has a grave circulation problem, and drinks way too much whole milk. Chet is bewitched by this little toy. At first, he wouldn't look at it, the way some dogs won't look directly at a kitten or a baby chick. It's as if the temptation is just too great to snap the wee thing up, so they look away. It makes them uncomfortable. I am the same way around hot tortilla chips at the Mexican restaurant we frequent.
So we tease him, dancing the ballerina around him like a saucy Lilliputian, until he falls for it. Once he realizes it's OK to go after the ballerina, he bars no holds. He dances on his hind legs, a peculiar puckered expression on his face, and rockets up to grab her. Last night, he got ahold of her, and wouldn't let go for love or money.
Chet has a stubborn face: his ears laid flat back, his eyes wide. He stiffens so he's really hard to pick up, and the bulldog in him comes out. (Boston terriers are half white rat terrier, an extinct breed, and half bulldog. He gets his incredible energy from the rat terrier, and his sweet nature and doggedness from the bulldog half).
No amount of cajoling or loving would free the poor ballerina. Finally, Phoebe brandished the rosewater spray bottle she's been using to lessen the skunkstink, and Chet relenquished the now sodden dancer.

Poor Chet. The dog just doesn't get enough attention.
It was a good way to end a wonderful day. Just before bed, I took the camera outside, set it on the deck, and let a three-second exposure record the moonlight shining on the meadow. I really wanted to go for a woodswalk, but I was afraid I'd run into a sharp twig or low-hanging branch. I've done that before, hiking after dark, and but for my nice bony brow ridge, I'd have lost my right eye. It was at that moment that I understood why we have eyebrows. I could use a bit more prognathous profile, as much hiking as I do. It's an experience I don't want to repeat. So I'll wait for that moonlit snow!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Chet's Sweet Again

Under the heading of: Ain't nature wonderful? here's a dispatch. I was all set to bathe Chet with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda again tonight, because I just couldn't stand how he smelled. He stank up everything he touched. Then we went out for a two-hour hike in the warm sunshine. And when we came home, he smelled exactly as he should. I think the sun broke down the molecules of skunk odor, because he went from QUITE skunky to odorless in the space of that hike. How cool is that?
Like my little son, I have a super-sensitive nose. We both sniff things first to learn about them. When Liam gets a new toy train, the first thing he does is press his nose against it and smell it, then offer it to me to smell. I can't say what we find out from this, but it's essential. So it was torture to have dear little Chet smell so skunky these last few days, because the kids and I love how he usually smells (I can't speak for Bill).
Poor Chetty's so tired tonight, flaked out and limp as a washrag. There's a full moon, though, and even though he's beat, Liam's a NUT tonight! Now to try to get him into bed.

To Beechy Crash!

The phone rang this morning, this brilliant, warm morning, and Shila's voice said, "So when are you and Chet going on the Loop?"
"When you get here!"
She rolled up at 12:15, having to get back to work on a client at 2:30 (Shila does craniosacral and polarity therapy). Liam and I were booted, jacketed and ready to roll. We decided, despite the time crunch, to explore the streambed to the east of our house, which entails some scrambling over boulders and climbing on hands and knees. While I got down in this valley fairly often when we first moved here in 1992, it had been several years since I'd hiked the whole thing, and I was eager to see what changes had taken place.
This is some of the nicest forest on our land--big beeches and lots of oaks. If you want to find a black-and-white warbler in the spring, this is the place to go. The landforms are spectacular, and best of all there's a lot of big rock and a permanent stream--one that dives underground for several hundred yards in dry spells, and magically reappears in a huge boulder garden!

When we first discovered the boulder garden, a giant beech had crashed down across it. We named the spot Beechy Crash. That was 14 years ago. Here's what the beech looks like now:It's going back to the forest mould; part of it has simply melted away. It's no longer a major feature of the landscape. When it's gone, will this spot still be Beechy Crash?
This is a humid microclimate, and it has fabulous mosses. Backlit, the shades of vivid emerald are stunning. Chet briefly considered walking across the streambed on these logs, then discarded the idea. He did canter up and down the steep slopes like a fawn, having the time of his life. I really believe that in order to reach its full potential, every dog deserves a daily hike. I think that's true of people, too, but there's so much we deny ourselves in the name of duty and work. I watch Chet flying up and down the forested hills, and I think that Chet's gait in the forest is to mine as flying is to crawling. Not to mention all the things he smells and senses, of which I have no inkling. Shila and I were so proud of Liam. It's not every six-year-old who could take a two-hour, strenuous hike that ends with an all-fours climb up a small mountainette. I climbed behind him so as to catch him should he roll down the slope. Shila and I definitely could have used someone behind us. We wound up on our backsides and stomachs more than once.
Down in the hollow is an old car that was once used to pump oil out of a now-defunct shallow well. The well owners came down once a day with a big can of gasoline, and they kept the car running for days on end. Now, it's a silent monument to the 70's oil boom, startling to come upon in the middle of the woods.
A tree has grown up between the bumper and body, and copperheads like to shelter in it in the summer. Chet was game to pose on its rusty hood. Chet's game for anything.
A big cave along the stream had signs that it was inhabited: an ancient and many-times renovated eastern phoebe nest, and a nice white-footed mouse nest, made of chewed up oak leaves. I poked it gently with my finger, and an adult female mouse and three small gray babies squirted out and hid in a crevice, their bulging eyes seemingly seeing everything and nothing at all.
We ended with a scramble up the mountainette, Chet on a leash in case the cows might be near,which was punctuated by the discovery of a nice ravine salamander (an Appalachian specialty that's not found elsewhere). This is our commonest salamander, found under damp doormats. Then Shila lit out for her office, while Liam and Chet and I meandered home slowly, in springlike shirtsleeves, enjoying the wheatwheatwheat of tufted titmice and the spring song of white-breasted nuthatches.
As I write, it's almost 6 p.m., and it's still just barely light outside. Spring is coming, there's no stopping it now. Sure, it'll snow again, and it'll be rotten cold and wet again, but the days are getting longer, the moon is full, and I can feel life returning to the good earth tonight.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Brief History of Chet, Part II

Chet, in his tube sock sweater, February 2005

So there I was, stewing over a puppy who hadn't even been born yet. I had second pick of the litter. I wanted to surprise the kids with a picture of him on Christmas morning, although he wouldn't be ready to leave his mom's side until February. I waited out the last few weeks of Chili's pregnancy, probably driving Jane up a wall, sending emails asking how she was doing. Phoebe, who reads my email, found one from Jane that I hadn't manage to file away. "What's this about puppies?" she asked shyly. Oh, boy. The secret was out, in a big way. I toyed with the idea of having Jane send me an email saying both puppies were spoken for, and decided that would be too cruel. I realized that it would be a lot more fun if the kids were in on the process. And, boy was it fun! Finally, on December 12, Chili went into labor, and two puppies were born, both males. Jane sent me pictures of both, and told me we'd have to wait until her #1 couple had made their choice. The puppies looked like hamsters. I asked Phoebe and Liam which one they wanted, and both picked Chet. And lo and behold, the #1 couple picked the other puppy. Life was good.
We lived from email to email, seeing Chet grow from hamster to roly-poly puppy. The next two months seemed like an eternity to us. I was looking at the busiest travel year of my life, starting in March. Was I nuts to get a puppy now? I decided that I'd start kenneling him at an early age, and I'd try not to be a complete nut about leaving him. As it turned out, Chet's veterinarian runs an excellent kennel in the basement of her practice, and Chet whines and cries when we take him there for appointments or kenneling, wanting to get in! He showers the techs with kisses and eats his meals and is always ready to play. They love him, and it makes it a whole lot easier to leave him.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. On February 17, 2005, Phoebe, Liam and I made the drive over to the East Coast to pick Chet up. We visited my mom in Maryland, then cut north for Pennsylvania. As we pulled up Jane's driveway, an enormous flock of spring male red-winged blackbirds flew alongside our car, such a beautiful sight. I took it as an omen for a new life beginning.
It's been almost a year. Chet has changed our lives in so many ways. We laugh more, love more, and definitely walk the Loop a lot more. I can't imagine life without him. He's featured on Jane's web site as a puppy and as an adult; his story's been on National Public Radio; the UPS and Fed-ex guys all love him. He is, in Eudora Welty's words, the heartbeat at my feet.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Chet Baker? Pepe Le Pew. Pepe? Chet Baker.

7:10 AM, Tuesday, January 10. Dawn is just breaking. Chet Baker goes out for his morning constitutional. He's gone an unusually long time...

Chet Baker: Oh, hello there! I'm Chet Baker! Did you know that my favorite toys are all black and white? I have a pony, and a panda, and two Boston terriers. They're stuffed, and I love to chew them up. You look like an animal who needs a playmate. Would you like to play?
Pepe le Pew: Hmmmph. Get lost.
Chet Baker: You're so cute! C'mon! Let's play! Nippy, nip!
Pepe le Pew: Say hello to my little friend! Sploot!
Chet Baker: Aggggh! Mommy! Let me in! A bad thing has happened! Quick, quick! Let me burrow under the covers of the bed!!
Zick: Chet! What took you so long? What's happened to you? Chet?? What the....Agggggggh! Wait! Get off that couch! Not on the bed!!! Come HERE!! Agh! Where's the baking soda!
runs to computer, hits Google Search: neutralize skunk. Sends Bill to scrounge hydrogen peroxide (two very tired half-bottles) and baking soda (one box). Empties both into basin with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. Throws Chet into tub.
Scrubs Chet down with mixture; abandons all hope of making 8:45 dental appointment on time; changes clean clothes, now thoroughly odiferized.

Chet Baker: I promise never to do this again.
Zick: Right.

A Brief History of Chet

My husband Bill worked on me for 13 years, trying to get me to admit that we needed a dog in our lives. My answers were always the same. "I don't need any more things to care for. I already care for everything around here. If we got a dog, it would be my dog, and I don't want a dog. It would chase the wildlife. I like having wildlife right in the yard. There would be hair in our butter and sheets." Etc. etc. etc. Well, all those things are true. I really don't need any more things to care for. Except that Chet cares for me. We got a dog, and he is MY dog. And I LOVE that. He does chase the wildlife. I no longer have a bunny or deer problem in my gardens. There is hair in the butter and sheets. No comment.
Chet came about because I was doing a lot of bird rehab, and Phoebe and Liam were falling in love with every creature we raised. We weren't deliberately making pets of them, but when you feed a creature every half-hour, and see it through from a naked pink nestling to a flying bird, you do get attached. If you're cold-hearted about it, the babies aren't going to thrive--at least that's my philosophy. Everyone needs to know someone love them--especially young things. When we released them, Phoebe would weep and Liam would worry that they might not be all right without us. I had an epiphany one July evening, as the last of seven dearly beloved hand-raised chimney swifts fluttered off into the evening sky. This child needs a dog. And so do I. Something to love, that won't leave us.
I saw an ad in the newspaper, a female dog for sale, half rat terrier, half Boston terrier. That sounded like a nice-sized dog. I called. And called, and called. Nobody ever answered. Until the end of the week, when a slack- sounding man picked up and said simply, "She sold it." I was furious, for no good reason, other than that I'd decided I wanted that dog, and was thwarted. Thank God, I was thwarted. Who knows what I'd have gotten. But I'm glad I saw that ad, because it pointed me in the right direction.

So one fine evening in November 2004, telling no one, I started surfing. I kept it to myself because I wasn't sure I could go through with it. Boston terriers seemed like a good place to start. Although I had never even met one, I thought they were cute, and I'd heard they were smart and funny. Smart was my first criterion. I'd grown up with a wicked smart standard x mini dachshund. I did not want a doofy dog. And I wanted a clean, medium-sized short-haired dog that would be athletic enough to hike with us and romp with the kids. Which kind of ruled out pugs, another breed which had always appealed to me. I read up on Boston terriers, and two hours later I was "just checking" to see if there were any breeders nearby. The only Ohio breeder I found wouldn't have puppies until June. Thwarted again.

I read web site after web site. And then I found a breeder in eastern Pennsylvania (a mere 8 hours away) whose philosophy I liked. She bred for temperament and health. She wouldn't ship her puppies. I emailed her, and she responded quickly. I emailed Jane some pictures of our place, and a link to my web site. We set up a time to talk. We talked for almost 40 minutes, and got along like a house afire. Although she represents a number of other private Boston terrier breeders, Jane decided she wanted me to have one of her very own home-bred puppies. Since she kept only two females at the time, and got one litter a year out of each, this was a big deal. On the strength of our communication, she bumped me from the bottom to 2nd on her waiting list. What an honor! Her young female, Chili Bean, was due to whelp in December. I was beside myself. O, the power of the Internet. A non-dog person goes from zero to 60 in one evening. To be continued...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Hoping for a Hit

Two days of pretty decent weather, with some lemony winter sun, and we've had a couple of nice hikes on the land. Phoebe and Liam had neighbor McKenzie over for a Sunday hike. My kids are so used to my obsessive picture-taking that they never bat an eye, but I've had to train McKenzie not to whip around and grin every time she hears my camera click. I suspect that most kids get their pictures taken only at a discount store or at school, and only at set times of the year, and it's a novelty to be photographed as if one were a fashion model. We usually stop at certain points for snacks. I usually bring fruits and nuts, which fell out of favor once the kids discovered that McKenzie had a backpack full of candy. The odd look on Phoebe's face here can be ascribed to the fact that one of her very loose molars was stuck in a Twix bar, and came out at that moment! We were delighted. For once, the Tooth Fairy was ready with a present, too. We have an extremely disorganized Tooth Fairy in Whipple. She can't spell, has a lousy sense of direction, and sometimes forgets her appointments altogether. Today was bewitching. It was so hard to stay on task. I washed five loads of laundry, things that needed to be hung out in the sun and snappy southwest wind: bedspreads, table cloths, sheets, and towels. I decided to walk in the morning, since we rarely have a sunny morning that isn't followed by thick clouds. The light was hazy and changeable, with spotlights of sun. Chet amused himself on our morning walk by sniffing cow patties in the pasture where he got butted by the heifer. When he strayed too far, I'd whistle, and he'd come barreling back. I wish he'd have used that attentiveness just a little farther down the trail, when he happened on a flock of turkeys and chased them right down toward the shanty where six or more dogs dwell. They gave chase, and the next thing I knew, Chet came streaking by in front of me, followed by a large yellow shepherd cross. Fortunately, the dog slammed on the brakes and exited stage left when it nearly ran into me. These are the kind of dogs that breed freely among themselves, wear no collars, stay outside all the time, and travel as a pack. I don't know what they'd do if they ever got Chet cornered. I don't want to find out. When I finally got Chet in hand, we cut straight onto our land, headed for home. We amused ourselves by exploring the miniature hills and valleys formed by decades, maybe more than a century, of overgrazing and the resulting slump caused by erosion. Clothed in good-sized trees, the landforms are lovely, but the abuse our land has suffered is never far from my mind--to the knowing eye, it's written all over it.
You can see it in the shapes, you can see it in the forest understory. The wildflowers that carpet the floor of many forests in springs are missing in ours. Perhaps, given time, they'll recover, but having cattle stomping the soil cover into mud decade upon decade means that they'll have to seed in from outside. Wildflowers survive in pockets, giving a hint of what could be, given time.
For now, given our nasty dog encounter, I've decided to peregrinate more on our 80 acres, cutting overland instead of sticking to the trail that brings us within sight of the Dog Shanty. I figure this will give us much more to discover. My great dream? To buy the 85-acre piece that adjoins ours, and save it from clearcutting, overgrazing, and those who throw trash out the back door. Since I'm not a gambling person, I figure the only way to do that is to write a book that a lot of people want to buy. I've got one in press now. Whether a lot of people will want to buy it remains to be seen. But I've got to safeguard this land before somebody clearcuts it. The Kentucky warblers are depending on me!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Junco Tracks, Dog Tracks

Phoebe drew her initials on the cement bench outside, and a junco added its tracery.

Chet is particularly interactive tonight, so much so that he has been banished to the studio to hang out with me. This little animal spent his first 9 weeks with cats, and he seems to have studied their locomotion. He leaps to chair backs and tabletops with the same fluidity. He stomps across stomachs and shoulders and even drapes himself across your head if you sit still long enough. I love this strange behavior, of course, but he's 21 lb. of solid muscle, and it's not quite the same experience as having a cat walk across you. Storytime is punctuated by the shrieks of our kids: "Auugggh! Chet! Cut it out!"

Mrs. Tanner Gets Chetted

It's a quiet Sunday morning, and I'm reflecting on the last two days. Nancy Tanner and Janet McKnight were here from Tennesee, and we talked about ivory-billed woodpeckers for much of her visit. She brought a DVD which had clips of ivory-bills at the nest--a male and female. It was stunning to see the photo stills we all know so well, moving and even calling--the male's bill opening, that strange tooting call being given. They are shiny, shiny birds, so strong and vigorous. They looked nervous, and Nancy said they were--nervous about the grinding camera and the crew below their nest. Imagine! But it was even more amazing to sit on the couch next to Nancy and have her narrate. The Arthur Allen films were made as part of an expedition to film and record the vocalizations of vanishing birds. Jim Tanner was taken along at the age of 21, as Nancy put it, to cook and haul the heavy equipment and climb to the nests. "Why else would you take a 21-year-old along?" she asked. He would soon be in a position to lead his own expeditions, and to record almost everything we now know about ivory-billed woodpeckers.
Here are Liam, Janet and Nancy watching the David Luneau video on my computer. I was nearly overwhelmed a number of times during Nancy's visit, and this was one of them--this conjunction of modern technology, coincidence, and a remarkable person who has been in the presence of nesting ivory-billed woodpeckers--the last living person known to have seen them in the Singer Tract.
Another high point was walking the loop with Bill, Janet, and Nancy. At 88, Nancy was favoring one knee, but I could see in her eyes the desire to complete the Loop. When she offered to turn back, I told her I thought she could make it fine--and she did, creek fording and muddy steep climbs notwithstanding. We had to walk off the nearly constant meals somehow.
Like any visit, much of it was conducted around the kitchen table, and we didn't suffer for lack of good food. Chet Baker was absolutely delighted to have houseguests, and he pressed his abundant affections on both Nancy and Janet the whole weekend. When people are sitting around the kitchen table, Chet takes up station on someone's lap, where he seems to listen to the conversation. From this vantage, he can also keep watch for stray bits of pie crust or unclaimed scraps, and he'll stealthily put a paw on the table to lean over toward a plate when he thinks no one's watching. If he gets busted, he flattens his ears and rolls his eyes in apology, then regroups, to plan his next sortie.
Janet rescues dogs in Tennessee, and I'm sure the contrast between the abused, living skeletons she sees every day and little Mr. Happy was a bit much for her, especially as I was picking out just the right doggie sweater for our Loop walk. Nancy and Janet came laden with gifts, and the biggest hit was a baking soda and vinegar volcano, which was made to erupt about 50 times. The kids cleaned me out of baking soda and polished off half a gallon of vinegar. Chet was fascinated and a little worried by the constant eruptions.
All in all, it was a great visit. I scribbled constantly in my notebook, trying to take down everything Nancy said about ivory-billed woodpeckers. I would like to have recorded her, but I think my scribbling was intimidating enough. I got up early this morning to transcribe my notes while I still remembered the conversations. I still can't believe our good luck--that Mrs. Tanner would come up here from Tennessee and share so much with us. Thank you, dear Janet, for making this happen, for carving the days out of your full and busy life to connect us all.

Friday, January 06, 2006

That Sickening Thunk!

We've all heard it: the sickening THUNK! of a bird hitting a plate-glass window. I've been hearing it way too much lately. Yesterday, it was a male goldfinch who hit hard. I kept him on the counter in a paper sack with the top rolled over until I heard him scritching and fluttering around a couple of hours later. He flew away strongly, but you never know. This morning, Bill happened to be in the studio with me when a red-bellied woodpecker hit a glancing blow. "That's it!" he said, and went to get the ladder and eight Feather Guards (a product he and a BWD subscriber named Stiles Thomas developed).

But this THUNK was much louder even than the woodpecker made. We rushed outside to find this extraordinary bird gasping its last. Who knows how it made it here from the southern oceans, only to brain itself on our reflective windows? We were sick at heart.

As Bill knelt beside it, he noticed that it was still breathing, so we both ran inside and added it to our North American life lists. It'll probably be a hot day in Antarctica the next time an Adelie penguin flies into our window, but we'll be ready. Bill got the new Featherguards up and they're fluttering against the studio windows as I write.They work really well. We have as many as four or five collisions a day in spring and fall migration, but they go to almost nothing when the FeatherGuards go up. Up here on the ridgetop, we get some wicked winds, and after a few months the feathers get all beat up or the suction cups tear off, so we do have to keep up with them. We let it go too long, and look what happened. Bummer.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain

Today was nasty, rainy and cold, and I had work to do, cleaning house again to get ready for some very special guests arriving tomorrow. My friend Janet McKnight is driving all the way from Knoxville TN (about eight hours) to bring Nancy Tanner for a visit! I met Janet in the lobby of a motel in Jamestown, North Dakota--she had read a piece I wrote on birding the prairie potholes, and her opening line was, "I came here from Tennessee because of you." There seemed to be nothing else to do but spend the rest of the 2nd Annual Prairies and Potholes Festival together, and we did--and had a total blast. Janet is a kick in the pants.
Nancy, Jim Tanner and I met back in the 80's in Connecticut. I shyly asked Jim to sign my copy of his book, The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Well, it wasn't exactly a book--it was the bootleg Xerox copy I made as a freshman in college. But I wouldn't trade that signed title page for much of anything. I feel honored to have met Jim (who passed away not long thereafter), and to have become a friend of Nancy's. Our friendship solidified when I interviewed her for my 1999 article on ivory-bills for Bird Watcher's Digest. She told me things about ivory-bills that nobody else did--she was privy to some pretty special observations. And she's one of the last people living who knew the bird in the Singer Tract--perhaps the last. When everything is spic and span, some food prepared ahead, and the house is quiet, I'm going to sit down and think, "What would I ask Jim Tanner if he were alive today?" And then I'm going to ask Nancy those questions. I'm going to pull a nice rocking chair into the studio, and sit her down in it, and fire away.
Southern Ohio doesn't show all that well in January; I wish it were June, so I could cut a bunch of flowers for the table. If the sun's out, it still makes a good impression, but the thick, dreary cloud cover that's plagued us for most of this winter can be oppressive. I've decided that my mood could be charted by the ceiling height--the lower the clouds, the more I have to work to be productive and cheery. It's not nearly as bad now as when we first moved here; I couldn't believe how dark an Ohio Valley winter could be. I set to planting gray birches , because they're my favorite tree, but also because their white trunks light up the lawn. My other coping mechanism is the Garden Pod, the little space capsule visible at lower right in this picture. I can sneak out to the Pod and sink my hands into moist soil, smell the heliotrope, pinch here and prune there, clap my hands on a few whiteflies, and it straightens my head out just like a walk around the Loop.
I had some help with cleaning last night. Phoebe has decided she likes to vacuum (:-0). She straightened the living room, and vacuumed it, too. She put Chet behind a gate because it's impossible to make beds or cover the couch with him around. He leaps up onto the bed or couch, stands on his hind legs, and grabs for the covers. His idea of a party is being made up into a bed, and then rooting his way back out. I have to lock him out of the bedroom to get the beds made in the morning. Sure hope Nancy Tanner likes noogy little dogs.
I love how Phoebe is a little three-handed red and blue blur in this time exposure. The digital camera continues to amaze me, as does my carrot-top.
Bill called from Columbus, where he did some serious damage at the Apple Store. Soon after his return, we will be a wireless family. I'm sure he has a vision of tapping away on his laptop from the apex of the birding tower. He also purchased an external hard drive so we don't gag our computers with the thousands of digital images we are helpless to resist making. When I open iPhoto, over 3500 images download, and it's getting slower all the time. I used to burn them to CD's, but out of sight is out of mind, and I want them ALL THERE ALL THE TIME. Is that so much for a girl to ask? Hence the external hard drive. A photo warehouse.
And so to bed, to rest up for tomorrow! I have a 21-lb Boston on my lap now, telling me I've been fooling with the 'puter for too long, and two kids needing baths. Until tomorrow...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Robins Sure Do Dress up a Lawn

O wonderful surprise: a flock of robins, pulling inch after inch of earthworms from the soggy strip between one of Marietta College's administration buildings and Putnam Street. I pulled over and shot a few pictures. No, they're not the first robins of spring; they're nomadic, winter robins, wandering around eating hawthorns and, when drenching rains thaw the soil, availing themselves of earthworms. Robins make me so happy. We're so lucky to have this big, strong, beautiful thrush as a common city bird. It doesn't have to be so lovely, but it is...and its song is one of my very favorites. George Sutton's favorite bird song was a robin, after a thunderstorm. I can think of very few bird songs as evocative as that of a damp robin.

I spent the day in town, ricocheting around, procuring food, and meeting Bill for a late lunch at the natural foods shop and cafe in town. I'm almost as thankful for Brighter Day as I am for robins; it would be so easy for a small town like Marietta not to have a hippie food store. But there it is, and I love the food they serve and the arcane edibles we can buy there (I'm on a spirulina shake kick lately). There's something about eating soybeans and algae for two meals a day that feels right to me. Yep, algae. Now that's eating low on the food chain.

Got home just in time to put everything away, collect Chet, and go meet the bus. If I drive eight minutes to meet them partway, I can save the kids 30 minutes on the bus. With the finely-tuned consciousness of dogs, Chet knows the very minute we must leave to pick them up, and he comes to get me, eyes dancing with anticipation. He trembles when he spots the bus, every muscle rigid, and he moans softly when he spots the kids emerging. He washes their faces and by his careful inspection of their skin and clothes, I'm sure he can smell their friends on them, what they had for lunch, the disinfectant in the hall, and what was being served in the cafeteria. Oh, to be a dog just for a day, so I could know all that, too. With the kids home, it was finally time for the Loop. I take his leash as a formality, just in case we run across cattle. He loves to grab his leash and romp with it. He wears it for about 30 seconds as we approach the overlook where there might be cattle, and then I free him again. He covers enormous distances chasing squirrels, deer and sometimes turkeys. If I ran the miles he did on every walk, I wouldn't have to be eating algae for breakfast and lunch.
My motto for 2006 is DO MORE, EAT LESS. I've been living it since the day we got home from our Thanksgiving trip to Maryland. I felt, in my friend Cindy the Forester's words, "like a one pound package of Jimmy Dean Sausage. The only difference is that I am clad in denim and fleece instead of plastic and not wound quite so tight on the ends!" Oh, thank you, Cindy, for that image, a sausage walking through the woods...for the record, she's perfectly proportioned...It's amazing how little food we actually need. My dad liked to say that a handful of parched corn could keep a Civil War soldier marching all day. At least that's what he would say as he was stealthily trying to commandeer the stove so he could parch corn. Parched corn is a crispier version of the old maids from the bottom of the popcorn pan, but I loved it. As I think back on it, I was very faithful to my dad and his antique and bizarre notions, and he enlisted me to shield himself from the dubious looks he got from my mom when he tried to do anything in the kitchen. He grew soybeans to eat long before soybeans were cool. He got me to shell them (what a pain) and I remember proclaiming to the rest of the family that I thought they were delicious.

So I've come full circle, back to the humble soybean. I heard an item on Morning Edition today that farmers from the American Midwest are buying up enormous tracts (think 8,000 acres and up) of the "scrubland" of northeastern Brazil, and planting them to soybeans. The story was upbeat about enormous yields and cheap land, running about $275/acre; "ideal for agriculture." (The six-month dry season notwithstanding, apparently). The obvious questions were never raised. It left me wondering just how long that land would be ideal for soybeans before we simply ruin it. There's got to be a reason it's "scrubland," not lush tallgrass prairie like our Great Plains breadbasket once had. I guess this is a story whose epilogue has yet to be written. But it made me sad, all the same, knowing that there are habitats in that so-called wasteland, birds and animals and insects and plants unique to them, and that they are being burned away, and turned under for quick profit. We make the same mistakes over and over and over, but we have to go farther afield to make them now.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Kinkade Does Appalachia

The day started out with a good laugh. Chet is confined behind a baby gate at night so he'll sleep in his own very cushy doggie bed. We do this for various reasons; at first it was to make sure he didn't get obnoxious about insisting on invading guests' beds; then it was because if he is going to hurl, he always does it in bed; and now it's for all those reasons, with the additional factor that he farts all night. Released in the morning, though, he makes a beeline for the nearest warm bed, and his job is to awaken Phoebe with a smile. It is very hard to extract a warm Boston from deep cover. He spent the entire day swaddled, emerging twice to go outside and eat. By late afternoon, we were both ready for a hike, rain and thick fog notwithstanding. I couldn't wait to get out. The woods were absolutely silent but for dripping limbs. I put an extra-jingly collar on Chet so I could hear him if we got separated, because the leaves were like sodden Kleenex. Good thing, too. Just past our property line, Chet took off after a squirrel, and, since he couldn't hear my footsteps in the leaves, he didn't know where to find me. I pressed on for a few hundred yards, thinking he'd figure it out in time, but the woods looked spookier with every turn of the trail.I thought about coyotes. I always think about coyotes when I'm out with Chet. So I turned back, and there he was, in the meadow where he'd last seen me, watching for me. Smart guy. Reunited, we forged on through the fog, enjoying the intense, shivery colors, so saturated against the neutral sky.

Finally, we came to the bottom of the Chute, just as dark was coming on. A little log cabin, now covered in asbestos shingles, was lit with a single dim light. I had a Thomas Kinkade moment--if Kinkade painted Appalachian scenes. In this famous schlockartist's heavily trademarked "Twilight Cottages," there's always a glimmering light, and light shimmering on little cobblestone paths and arched stone bridges, drifts of pinkyblue flowers and little babbling brooks. Where I come from, the last light of day skips over tumbling rivulets of Mountain Dew bottles and plastic jugs, which have been thrown out the back door, since that's how Daddy always done it.

Finally, we came up through the orchard, and I saw glimmering lights that do warm my heart. Phoebe's voice came loud and clear over the walkie-talkie we use to keep in touch while I'm on my peregrinations. "Where are the Goldfish, Mommy?" From out in the orchard, I watched her rummaging in the cabinets in the warm orange light of the kitchen. Now that was a Kinkade moment. Next, I want to walk the Loop on a full moon, in the snow. You'll be the first to know if I do.

Monday, January 02, 2006

More Dog Games

We had an epic bout of the game Moving Scooby-Doo yesterday. It was sunny, one of the handful of sunny days in the past month, and my best friend Shila came over for a walk around the Loop. Well, I guess you could call it a walk, although Shila and I collapsed to the ground to soak up the rare winter sun about every 50 feet... Inspired by two people to root for him, Chet carried Scooby down a steep hill, along the trail through head-high sumac, and almost to the turn in the trail where we descend to the Chute. It was amazing. At this rate we'll get Scooby home long before spring. Shila really digs Chet, and the feeling's mutual. Truth be told, he loves everyone--almost. I've seen Chet refuse to approach only one person, and that was a man who hunts and traps and is sometimes heard yelling at his dog. No such fear with Shila, friend to all living things. In this blog, I'm featuring her photography. Since I'm always behind the lens, it's hard to get a picture of myself self-actualizing.It's cool to see my world through someone else's camera lens. Here's Shila's photo of Chet, scanning the overlook for chaseable cattle. I think his encounter last month may have cooled his jets on chasing cattle, but I won't know until we come in contact with a herd again. He approaches the scene of his cow-chasing escapade warily now, and I hope that means he'll have more sense next time.
One thing I love doing with Chet is inventing games on the spot. He can be walking through millions of fallen leaves, but hold one up over his head and invite him to jump for it, and it becomes a conquest. This dog is made of Flubber; he can spring like a rubber ball straight up to my chest height. Here, I'm talking to him through a piece of gas line pipe. Whatever the joke, Chet gets it. Fun follows him around like a steaming bowl of Quaker oatmeal.

Our friends Zane and Margaret are wildly imaginative, gracious hosts. They also have the best party favors. As each reveler entered, Zane, a wild New Year's elf, deposited a cup of Fish House Punch in his/her hand, and draped said reveler with some kind of lighted favor--flashing earrings, whistles, necklaces or hats. In the darkened dining room, while psychedelic patterns played on the ceiling, the bobbing, swirling lights on revelers made a dreamscape. Setting the camera to take a three-second exposure, I played paparazzo.
I love these ghostly images, and wish I could include the thumping audio that emanated from enormous speakers hooked up to Zane's iPod.
Before he melted down, Liam demonstrated his fabulous break-dancing moves. Phoebe had festooned his tummy with a cheery New Year's greeting, and he made his rounds with shirt hanging open to display it. A few key piercings and he'd have been a perfect miniature grunge-punk. We're having a New Year's thunderstorm right now--flashing lightning-yikes! I'm drawing warblers, a good thing to do on a rainy January day. I'll leave you with my breakdancing six-year-old, and best wishes for a happy New Year!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Diggity Dog

It was a beautiful day, New Year's, after a rawther wild New Year's eve. We took the kids to a really fun party, not factoring in the reality that they'd been up until midnight the two previous nights. To shorten a long, sad story, they melted down around 11, and we celebrated the New Year as we rolled into our garage with two completely zonked kids in the back seat. It was a bit of a downer, since country folk like us rarely get out to dance and act dopey with our buddies. I wasn't good for much but the day dawned sunny and still, so my friend Shila and I went out with Chet Baker on a long lazy walk around the Loop. Chet thought this was a fine idea and darted about, smelling things we could only imagine. He stepped on an ant hill, noted the soft soil, and decided to investigate. I was quickly covered with a spray of fine soil as it flew out behind him. Having grown up with a dachshund who, over his 12-year life span excavated most of a 5-acre woodland, I found Chet's efforts amusing. He was proud of his work, though, and paused to gaze nobly around with his dirty nose, like a champion racehorse who has just come in off a muddy track. It brought back memories of old Volks, who would come staggering home after an entire Saturday's work, his eyes two wet dark spots in a mask of red Virginia soil. Being a Boston terrier, Chet has been bred not for any honest work but merely for companionship and fun, so he doesn't get too wrapped up in any one pursuit. If he has a job, it is to make us laugh, and that he takes very seriously.I took down the Christmas tree tonight. Chet lay watching me with a worried brow, hoping that I would decide to give him an ornament to chew. He filched a chipping sparrow's nest that was lined with Phoebe's red hair clippings, a prize from years back, and chewed that up while I wasn't looking. I know that sleeping right next to the Christmas tree has been a kind of torture for him, festooned as it is with things of felt, wood, and fiber, things that really beg to be chewed up. But he never bothered any of them until he saw me taking it down. I believe he thought I was throwing the ornaments out at that point (hence the worried look) and that it would probably be OK if he took just one.
Early to bed for all of us tonight. I'll check to see if I have any good images from last night, tomorrow, when I'm awake enough to download them. Until then...