Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Everything but the Bird

Because my day was mundane beneath describing, we have another installment of Building a Bayou. In the last progress picture, the water had gone in, and I'd painted a neutral wash over it to gray it down and make it recede a bit. A lot of what's going on in the current series is furthering the illusion of water. Light passing across dust and scum on the water's surface will help define its plane. Ever since my painter friend Mike DiGiorgio turned me on to it, Chinese white is my best friend. With it, I can create semi-transparent white washes that are really useful in painting things like bayou scum or the top of a bird's feathery back, washed in light.
You can see a magical disappearing snag on the lower left corner of the painting. I put it in, and my friend, painter Jim Coe, objected, and I agreed with him. (I'm sending jpegs around to my artist friends, soliciting comments. It's a new experience for me, but lots of fun). So I flooded the area with clear water from a loaded brush, let it sit a moment, and then lifted the water and the offending, finger-like snag right off the paper. See, watercolor isn't quite as unforgiving as people would have you believe when they tell you it's so "hard!"

Oh, yes...the Bird! I don't normally "allow" myself to paint the bird until I have wrestled its habitat to the ground. As you've seen, there was a whole lot of wrasslin' going on in this painting, a tall order, lots of trees and leaves and shadows and water and scum. It was all to set the stage for the star, to make her white wing patches shine against the gloom. She's really small, not even two inches long in the original, and getting the expression on her face just right is a challenge at that scale. It would have been easy, by comparison, to do what my friend painter Bob Clem calls a "Big Fat Bird Painting," where the star is front and center and big and fat with minimal context or habitat. Putting the bird believably in a habitat that the viewer can breathe in is much more demanding.
Mike suggests that I run some yellow leaves behind her primaries--and boom! she pops out of the picture, as she should.
Why a female? Well, almost all the paintings out there are of males (nobody seems to be able to resist that dash of red), and I wanted to strike a blow for the girls. They've got a little more reproductive significance in a dwindling population, too. And the habitat's so colorful, a red crest would be almost lost in it. Last, seeing a female ivory-billed woodpecker is just that much more diagnostic, since female pileateds have plenty of red in their crests. So in she goes, and her reflection too, and I mess around making the reflection duller and duller, so you have to look for it.

What I'm after is painting the experience of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker, not just painting an image of the bird. I don't want it to look like anything--painting or photograph--that's out there. I want it to be completely unique.

There are some fun little devices that you can use when establishing the plane of water. Sparkles are scratched out of the paper with a razor blade. You're scratching the paint off, down to the white paper, and they can bring water to life. But you don't want to go overboard. My sister Micky suggested a floating red leaf. Good idea! Did that.
It's almost done. Debby Kaspari suggests that I differentiate the green bush on the left from the mossy bank--oh, good thought. So I darken the bank and lighten the bush, and there's now definition where there was none. The roots in the foreground are judged a little problematic by Will Reimann, so I vary their treatment and insertion into the water, paying attention to how each one goes into the water. Agggh, there's so much to pay attention to, but I slog on in my chest waders, wanting to turn this bird loose.
Whether she's done or not, I'm finished with the painting, and I box it up and send it off to Arkansas, to decorate The Auk, and herald Jerry Jackson's important and thoughtful roundup of ivory-billed woodpecker events to date. Thank you, Jerry, for asking, and thanks to the editors and staff of The Auk for doing it proud in their reproduction.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Liam's Trains

Liam draws for much of every day. He works quietly at his own table, talking to himself as he selects colors and composes pictures. Every picture he draws has trains in it. But he imbues his trains with such personality that they're never dull. This kid can use a page!
He just figured out how to draw a face in profile, and he's been riffing on that for several days. I love watching my kids figure things out, and I rarely tell them how to draw anything. I will gladly draw something for them to copy, but they don't often ask. I suppose every mom thinks her kids' drawings are special, so there's no news here. But I think these little train scenes are the berries.
This one is supposed to say, "Boys Are Liam." Instead, it says "Boys UOR Liam." I think he misheard me when I spelled "are" for him. It's a rare double-page spread. Note that he's also drawn a girl train, in pink, and given her a fetchingly curved smokestack.

This is a night train, throwing light from its headlight into the darkness. Looks fast.
Phoebe drew this scene of a little mouse in a dress, tending her carrots. At 9, Phoebe is trying to get back to using the whole page, something Liam at 6 does with abandon. I have found that compositional skills come naturally to very young kids--they fill the page and go on diagonals and do the most wonderful big, bold things. And then self-consciousness creeps in and the figures get smaller and smaller, and the detail gets finer and finer, and everything is at the very bottom of the page and very small. But Phoebe's coming back out of that phase, and starting to do more with the blank page. Her drawings are so precise and sweet.
"I don't know why I drew this," she said. "It was stuck in my head and I had to get it out."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Gremlin's Gold

Phoebe and Chet Baker have invented the ultimate bedtime stalling game. It's called Gremlin's Gold. Every night, just as we're tucking Phoebe in, the Gremlin slinks dangerously into her room, drops to his belly, and laboriously crawls under her bed or dresser. The last thing we see is his froglike hinders, disappearing into darkness. The Games have begun. Once in his lair, the Gremlin glares out at us, waiting for someone to bring him his Gold.

Which is usually a tennis ball or reasonable substitute.

The Gremlin hoards his Gold in the safety of his lair, and only the bravest may dare to take it from him. He has a wild and fearsome aspect, daunting to the boldest knight or princess (but rarely frightening the Queen, who is after all Alpha Female). But enough about me.

Some tremendous tugs-o-war ensue. There is much twisting and grunting, but the Queen bars growling.

Stealing the Gremlin's Gold will anger him, and he will leap prodigiously to recover it.

If the Queen fires steadily and makes many exposures, one is sure to inspire great hilarity on the land.

All this before bedtime.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Country Goes to City

On the eve of our departure for Guatemala, Bill and I spent the day in Columbus--he at a meeting of the Ohio Ornithological Society, and I goggling at the big-city sights. First stop: Aquarium Adventure, where I stared at genetically-engineered zebra danios who have glowing jellyfish genes. The attendant told me that they breed true, passing the electric-orange coloration on to their offspring. For those of us who stay away from genetically modified soy products, having a fish that passes jellyfish genes on to its offspring in our living room is a bit of a stretch.

It occurred to me that everything I stopped to look at in Columbus had a common theme: Human engineering of other life forms. I had not gotten over the day-glo danios when I turned around and was greeted by these:
They seemed to be asking: Why? And I couldn't answer why someone would want to do that to goldfish eyes. I'm one to talk; I have a dog with a smashed face and goo-goo eyes. So it's all a matter of degrees, and we all have different aesthetic boundaries between cute and deformed.
I've had three people tell me they have always thought Boston terriers are ugly. All men, which might be a coincidence, and might not. I think women may have a different concept of what's appealing in general.

Remember Gomer Pyle? When he'd see something really amazing, he'd say Gaawwww-leee!
I was channeling Gomer Pyle at the Whole Foods Market. I have never seen eggs like they had there. They had organic and conventional Araucana eggs. This breed, originally from Peru, lays seafoam and teal and sky-blue eggs. They had emu eggs for sale. Now, I cannot imagine eating
an egg that has the potential to turn into an emu. I lifted one, and it was as heavy as if it were filled with molten gold.My final stop was the freeze-dried mushroom section. I got a whole new perspective on morels, which grow free in our woods, when I hefted this feather-light coffin full of dried morels.
Check out that per/pound price. Gaaawww-leee.
Sorry if this post is somewhat lacking in the poetic prose you have come to expect. I'm sitting on the floor of the Atlanta airport with a laptop, struggling to master an unfamiliar mouse and overcome the combined effects of our friend Peter's hot tub and Cabernet souvignon last night. More anon. Wish us luck getting to Guatemala!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

American Idiots

Jammie photos by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Fashions by Sears. Hair by Tina, just today. She zhuzzed it with gel.

Hooked, irretrievably hooked on it, shamelessly, popcorn-eatingly, hoot and holleringly hooked on this ridiculous show. I bathe the kids early, get everyone in their jammies, fire up the ancestral Zickefoose heirloom popcorn pan, fetch the dog and the macaw, sandwich myself between kids and hubby, and waller in American Idol.
The guys are smokin' this year, blowing the women out of the water, in my opinion. Taylor Hicks is my favorite. He's got music coming out of every pore in his body. Adorable. But I'm coo-coo about Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin, too. Killer vocalists. I don't want to like Ace Young,
because he'll have it made no matter what, but ooooh, lawd, the boy can't help it. He was born to please. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
I'll have two of those Ace units, please.

Liam likes sweet lil' Kevin Covais, a proto-nerd with the voice of an angel, the best. "Mommy, can I have the phone? I want to vote for that boy with the glasses." Phoebe's a Chris Daughtry fan. Bill's behind Taylor Hicks, too.

The subplot going on during our nightly Idolwatching is Pet Games. There has to be a subplot, because the commercial breaks are interminable. Charlie and Liam play Toss Harold (there are also Toss Thomas and Toss Percy variants, too).
Hey, Harold. You lookin' at me? You lookin' at ME?

Liam approaches Charles with a toy; Charles rushes at it; grabs it, and flings it off the back of the couch with a loud "OWWW!" Liam dissolves in giggles.
Take that, you saucy helicopter! OWWW!

Chet brings one toy after another to chew on our laps. For beauty so rare/ No dog can compare /To the Boston Terriere/ Is that his derriere?

Tonight Chet got both the speaker and the stuffing out of Patrick Starfish, so our never-pristine living room is once more a sea of Hollofil. That took some doing, and I give Patrick high ratings for durability, and Chet three stars for persistence.
I wonder if there is Hollofil in that big parrot. Here, parrot, parrot.

So if you were wondering what kind of losers would push the Olympic telecast into second place, and American Idol's audience share to a whopping 37%, you're looking at 'em.
'Em R Us.
Ace Young aside, there's really only one idol in my heart. He's got a lot of what they call The Most. He sings, and plays a mean guitar besides.
Sweet William von Heineken III and IV

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I Wish These Were Mine

This bird is ALOFT!!

May I have your attention? Please look, just look at these paintings. My dear friend Mike DiGiorgio is painting some of the most beautiful bird portraits since Louis Fuertes. I absolutely cannot get over his handling of shadow on this swallow-tailed kite's white underwing and belly. If Mike can be said to have a mentor, it was the great Don Eckelberry. He made many pilgrimages to Babylon (Long Island) to hear what Don had to say about art, bird painting, and the wide world around us. I went with him once, too, and I'll never forget that night, Don's raspy voice and great booming laugh, Ginny's gentle counterpoint; the amazing original art on every wall and cranny in their beautiful carriage house/residence. How I wish Don Eckelberry could comment on these two works.

Can you tell how much Mike loves kestrels? This is a celebration of North America's most ornate bird. He's rolling around in its beauty. Mike's a soul man, a delightful and loyal friend, and such a wondrous painter. He is perfectly at home with watercolors. I'm going to try his favorite paper: Fabriano Artistico Extra White 300 lb. soft press. Wonder if it will make me paint like him? Worth a try, anyway.
Thank you, Mikey, for decorating my blog. It's not every day an artist is commissioned to paint North America's most beautiful birds--but I can't think of anyone better for a dream job like that.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Giving Plants

The spring orchid show has begun. Burana Beauty, whose flowers opened a few days ago, is now in full color and scent, filling the room with a wildly sweet perfume. These flowers are so lovely they wouldn't have to be fragrant too, but they are. This plant is tough and willing and I love it. It's an honor to share a bedroom with Burana Beauty.

This is my favorite phalaenopsis, a keikei (offshoot) of one of Shila's plants. It was tiny when I got it in 2002, but it's my best phal. by far. See the kink in its stem? I was preparing for the Big Sit crowd of birders and naturalists to descend on us last October, and this plant was to be my table centerpiece, and its flowers were just opening as they are right now, and I decided to stake the blossom spike just in case it got knocked around, and I bent it just a wee bit too far and it snapped off in my hand. All that beauty, those months of beautiful flowers, snapped off, and there wasn't a darn thing I could do to fix it. I cried for two hours, I am not kidding. But the orchid's heart went on, and it sent out a replacement spike, and now, four months later, it is in glorious bloom again, and I am staying away from it with my big dumb fingers.

Last summer, Shila and I went on the Marietta Garden Tour, which we try to do every year. Snooping around in other people's gardens is more fun than watching Cops (when you get to snoop around in their yucky houses). No, I'd say that the garden tour is the antithesis of Cops. Anyway, one of the featured gardens was our artist friend Anna's, and hers was full of whimsy and weirdness and fabulous plants. One of them was an absolutely enormous potted clivia (Kafir lily) in full orange bloom. I've always kind of wondered about clivias--they're terribly expensive, usually starting at $50., but people who love them really love them. They bloom when you need it most, in late winter, and they need to go dry and cold before they'll set buds. So I've admired them from afar, but I've never taken the clivia plunge. Shila and I were excitedly admiring this amazing plant and Anna smiled and walked over to another, smaller clivia, also in full bloom, and carried it over and put it in my arms. "I've just found a home for Baby Clivia," she said. We were blown away.

That was July 2005, and it's seven months later, and Baby Clivia is almost as big as her mom, and I got this feeling that she was up to something after a long, cool, dry winter; I'd just stepped up her water and light, and I looked between her long straplike leaves and there were a row of baby toes peeking out at me. So that's how the flowers emerge?? Amazing. I guess I always figured it would be a big old tongue-shaped bud like an amaryllis.

And she has made Clivia III, for whom I will find the perfect home.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Bad Bad Dog

Sunny but cold, and Shila and I decided to do a noon hike to see what the icicles were up to. Right from the start, the energy was weird; I was preoccupied with Liam, who's been coughing, and Chet, who was misbehaving, and worry clouded my outlook. There was beauty everywhere I looked, but I felt a threat, too. I decided I was worried about an upcoming trip; as nice as it can be to get away, I hate the process of leaving my kids, this home; all the living things that depend on my care. Don't worry; I've been preparing blog entries in advance, and training a very bright little sub-blogger; you'll never know I'm gone...
The first thing that drew my eye was this lovely ice pattern, which morphed into a monster face.

So I took more pictures, and saw a crazed mandrill chewing a rock in the ice.

This elfin forest of moss sporangia was momentarily soothing.
Nothing scary there.
The ice castles were terrific today, thanks to zero-degree nights and continuing runoff from the steep hills. They were more gracile, less ponderous than the last batch, and decidedly dangerous-looking. I cheated death long enough to take this picture.
Shila and I quickly became absorbed in firing at the ice, and we crawled from one formation to another along the cliffside, sliding and slipping and thoroughly muddying ourselves.
Like a child who gets bored when his mom lingers too long in conversation, Chet was looking for trouble. There was something in his eyes today. I shot this picture, and then he vanished.
You guys are all wrapped up in icicles; I'm gonna go raise some hayull. Catcha later.
No amount of calling and whistling with my super-duper acorn-cap dog whistle would bring him back. He had never been gone for so long. Shila and I had a bad feeling that he had gone way down the stream and slipped under the fence to round up some cattle. Darn him!!
So we made our way slowly through the boulder field and slippery slopes, calling and whistling all the way (so much for that bobcat sighting!) to try to recover the prodigal pup. No response, no jingling tags, nothing. I hate yelling in the woods; it's antithetical to everything I stand for, but sometimes I have to yell in the woods. Durn dog!!!
Oh, great. So that's what that feeling of foreboding was all about. I always wonder if I've just taken the last picture of Adventurer Chet, alive... After an eternity of walking, calling, and waiting, Chet finally appeared at the top of the cliff, panting, a little dirty, and wild-eyed. If only he could talk.
Shila and I went on with our expotition in a desultory kind of way, heading for the ice cave with a chastened Chet sticking close by, for once.
We sat down beneath a spectacular icefall, and while we were admiring the leaves,
seemingly coated with that nasty white icing you see on Danish pastries (oh, sorry, Divine Stars of Mohammed),
a chunk of icefall, probably weighing several hundred pounds, suddenly separated from its mooring and thundered down right in front of us. Not a nanosecond of warning; one moment it was hanging, and the next it was shattered all around us. Had either of us been underneath it shooting pictures of moon eggs, well, we'd have been smashed flat.
The gap in the ice teeth was a turret of icicles perhaps two feet across and eight feet long. KRRRAAAASH!
Listen to your premonitions, Zick. The next time you have this feeling of foreboding, just turn around and head home.
So we laughed with relief for awhile and pondered the imponderable and started home. Chet disappeared briefly and came back with a red balloon.
Leave it to Chet to find a red balloon in the woods. He played with it until it popped and as I was coming over to get it away from him he swallowed a two-inch piece of it. I'm telling you, that dog was BAD today. I told myself that it would pass, just like a piece of gristle, or the rubber dinosaur he ate the first afternoon he spent in our house.
We trudged home, talking about this exceedingly weird chain of events. A truck pulled up in the driveway as Shila was preparing to leave. It was our neighbor from down in the holler, the one who owns the cows Chet likes to chase. He'd seen his cattle racing around the pasture, and had been amazed to see this little tiny dog in a blue shirt, as he put it, trying to round up his cattle. When he shouted, Chet had run and leapt into his arms. Not exactly the response he was expecting, but then Chet is not your average stray dog. He held Chet and carried him toward the house, read his tags, figured out where he must belong, and then he and Chet heard my super-duper acorn whistle and Chet leapt out of his arms and tore back up the stream to us. He just drove up to the house to make sure Chet had found us and made it home. He told me he wasn't worried that Chet would harm the cattle, but he was worried that come spring when the cattle had calves, they would no longer be playing when they charged him. I thanked him and apologized profusely on behalf of my bad, bad little dog with the blue shirt.
I am hoping that tomorrow brings wave upon wave of normalcy. I don't want to see any ice turrets, any mysterious woodland balloons, any trucks in the driveway, or the disappearing rump of my dog. I want to take Liam to the doctor, come home and clean the house, that's what I want to do. Urrgggh.

Blogzilla, signing off.**

**Bill calls me Blogzilla now.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Child Labor Buys Studio Time

What a peaceful day it was. Our favorite neighborhood playmate McKenzie came over, and she, Phoebe and Liam spent the entire day counting the spare change that had accumulated around the house over the past two years. Honest, I didn't put them up to it; they wanted to do it! Soon Phoebe's floor was dotted with piles of coins. Each pile had been painstakingly counted, and if the piles got stepped on or kicked, the effort was for naught. Liam had to dump some excess energy in a safe place before being allowed to walk across the floor/minefield.
Chet, of course, took full advantage of this situation. I don't know if this is a breed trait, but this Boston terrier cannot bear to see anyone absorbed in anything, whether it be reading, counting change, wrapping presents, or taking photographs, while reclining on the floor. He identifies the focus of your attention, then simply sits on it. So Chet alternated between dragging toys in and chewing them atop the coin piles, or simply plopping himself on the coins. He so wanted to be a part of the process, but having no fingers, had to use his butt.
no, that's not a Boston pup asleep behind Liam, but the place-holder I bought Phoebe a year ago, when we were waiting for Chet to get old enough to be picked up...

The kids were amazingly patient with him and worked around him, quickly sequestering counted piles where Chet couldn't sit in them. When it came time to put the coins in rolls, I came in to help. McKenzie would count, while I started the rolls and handed them to the kids to finish filling. When all was counted up, they'd sorted and rolled more than $316.50! Each kid got a $10 roll of quarters for a good day's work.
note Chet, chewing a stuffed toy on Liam's chest, and the assortment of toys Chet brought in throughout the afternoon.
I've been amusing myself lately by tracking two of my commentaries on NPR's Most E-mailed Stories list. This is the first time I've had two commentaries air in the same week ("Blogging: A Boon or Blight to Marriage?" aired Monday, and "Bird Watchers Begin Great Backyard Bird Census" aired Thursday. "Blogging" was crazy--it hung in at #3 for the first two days, bopped down to #11, went back to #5...it didn't drop out of the top 25 until Sunday (today). I think that was because it got onto four or five major blogs, and there was a snowball effect as people heard about it and then checked it out. Meanwhile, "Bird Watchers" got as high as #4, and is still on the charts at #15 Sunday night.
Both were Editor's Picks on the NPR home page. Pretty heady stuff. NPR gave both Bill and me a link to our blogs, and mine has gone from picking up around 25 new readers each day to adding more than a hundred. If you're new, welcome!!
Today, though, I let the computer sleep while I worked on three drawings I'd started several weeks ago but never got time to finish. These are for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas. Here's a female blackpoll warbler, incubating.

Here's a northern waterthrush, feeding tadpoles to its young. Northern waterthrushes often nest in the upturned rootballs of wind-thrown trees. Thus, the roots protruding from the soil. The tadpoles came from an observation I made in Connecticut, where I was amazed to see a northern waterthrush catching wood frog tadpoles from its perch on a stump in a vernal pool.

And here's a Louisiana waterthrush turning her eggs. Their nests are very cleverly concealed in earthen banks. They stuff wads of wet, muddy leaves into an existing hole for a foundation, and they make a porch of wet leaves that then dries and is quite strong. I watched a pair build their nest and almost succeed in raising the young to fledging before a predator clawed them out of the bank near the Chute some years ago. I was heartbroken. I'd been so careful to keep a great distance, and only watch them through binoculars...but when there are 20-odd feral cats roaming the area from the nearby shanty, it's really only a matter of when they're going to find the nest. Another reason I must find a way to buy that land.

Charlie is never happier than when I'm working at the drawing table. He hangs out either on my shoulder or right by my left elbow, where he will be handy should I reach over to tickle him or preen the feather sheaths off his head. He's amazingly good about leaving my books and art materials unmolested, which is more than you can say for most parrots. He understands, I think, that sitting on the drawing table is a privilege which can be revoked for bad behavior. For my part, having his bird consciousness so close is a part of my creative process. If I forget to go fetch him when I first sit down at the drawing table, he lets me know! Parrots are excellent at letting people know what they need. AWK!!!

and extremely good at giving people what they need, too.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


When Phoebe or Liam get invited to a roller skating party, we always RSVP with a yes. I grab a totebag that contains my skates, which are equipped with Krypto street wheels and hardware dating back to 1976. They're about shot, but then so am I. Last summer the right front truck dropped off while I was executing a wide curly-Q (curlicue? curliqueue?) on the sidewalk by the Lafayette Hotel, and I went sprawling. My important bits (knees and wrists) were protected by pads and steel shanks, but I got a fabulous sidewalk burn on my calf from the accident.

I have been on rollerblades once, and know when I'm over my head. It's skates for me. Wider wheelbase, slower speeds, more maneuverability. Most of the older kids at the rink last night were on blades, and they were careening at twice the speed they should have been, with half the control they should have had. Almost lost my dear digicamera to a near-collision with a boy zooming by. Teen-agers are more comfortable with hairsbreadths than I am. I bark at them like a surly old dog until they give me a wider berth. Watch it! Maybe you're immortal, but I've figured out that I'm not.

I used to skate in college, commuting from the Radcliffe Quad (aka Siberia) to classes and friends' dorms along the Charles River, and occasionally skating all the way to MIT and downtown Boston. I had to look sharp when I got on the subway, and hide myself in a crowd, then tuck my feet under the bench, or the conductors would bust me for skating on the train. I skated in any weather except wet or snow, and thoroughly enjoyed weaving in and out of stalled traffic, leaping from street to sidewalk, looping backward around parking meters, and rolling wherever I went. My instructors adapted to my odd mode of transport, and tolerated my wheeled feet, once they realized that I wouldn't crash or fall. The dining hall ladies were cool, too. I used to fetch coffee for people because it was fun to take a tray of coffee cups around like a waitress at a diner. It's much easier to skate with a tray of drinks than to walk with it--smoother. The great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once reprimanded me for skating with a drawerful of bird specimens at the Harvard MCZ. But then he watched me for awhile and allowed as how I could still do it as long as I was careful.

Phoebe is going to be a killer rollergirl. Hallelujah, here she comes.
Her feet are growing so fast right now that I don't want to invest in a third pair of shoe skates until summer, when we skate the sidewalks and bike path, so we're renting for the moment. Liam, on the other hand, went around the rink once, hanging on to me, and was done.
Liam doesn't want to do anything until he's good at it. Which makes learning to do new things kind of hard. But he amused himself watching other kids play air hockey.
When we put some quarters in the machine, he had fun
until Phoebe scored on him--D'oh!
Gotta figure out how to get Liam to loosen up a little. I'll put him in skates and pads this summer and let him learn little by little on the sidewalk. That'll help with skating, at least.

Mr. Gibeaud has been skating for over 50 years. He tightened up my trucks for me, and then presented me with my own personal wrench. It was a good night. Lots of laughs, good sore legs, no bad wipeouts.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Big Ol' Day

Howdy. I've been on the road all day. This will not be the poetic post you might be expecting. Because we're heading back to town for dinner, and then I have to put on roller skates and skate around with Phoebe and Liam at the funky rink in town.

Yesterday, I was in the middle of cleaning the greenhouse when Bill, who just happened to glance at my e-mail, told me that my NPR editor had requested a timely commentary. Those two words, used together, congeal my blood. They mean, "Write something now, to be recorded ASAP."
The Great Backyard Bird Count commences today. It's a joint effort of the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's a very cool concept: Get volunteers all across the U.S., Canada, and Hawaii to count birds in their own backyards. Combine the data (they're expecting 100,000 participants this year) and get a snapshot of late February bird populations across the continent. The Count is in its 9th year. Last year, 52K people sent in their records.
So, in between beheading geraniums and repotting, I wrote the commissioned commentary (actually, it was more like a press release) about the GBBC. Today was entirely devoted to: Refining two additional commentaries (the usual quirky Zick stuff about birds doing things nobody knew they do), editing the aforementioned piece, and getting my carcass to Athens, 1 1/2 hours away.
Recorded the three pieces from 1-1:40, jumped back in the car, hit the store and reprovisioned the house, and walked in just in time to hear the Great Backyard Bird piece air at 4:20. This is the first time I've been on NPR twice in the same week, and both times the piece aired in the first half-hour of the show. KOOL. Here's the crazy part: the blogging commentary that aired Monday is still sitting in the top 10 most e-mailed stories, even as another airs. Sharon told me that a blog was the place for shameless self-promotion. So there you go.
Needless to say, I counted birds all the way home. The kildeers are in!! and I counted three. Turkey vultures were circling! (about a dozen). Kestrels were everywhere. Spring is here, spring is here, and I love it, even though it's going down to the teens in the next few nights. Those blooming water maples and budding willows are going to have to shiver.
Today is very special for another reason. It's the one-year anniversary of the day Phoebe, Liam and I drove to SE Pennsylvania to pick up the tiny puppy, Chet Baker. We started the day with a big cuddle in bed, treasuring this amazing being who makes us all so very happy. I don't know how one little animal can make such a huge difference in four lives, but he does, and I'm not about to question it. I'm just going to go give him a big hug, and a fabulous stuffed crab with googly eyes and lots of Hollofil to strew around the living room.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Building a Bayou 3

I think by now the Auk is in everyone's hands, so it's all right to go on with another installment of Building a Bayou, the blow-by-blow of how this cover painting was done. When we last left our heroine, she was cowering on the edge of the cold bayou, unwilling to stick a paintbrush into the water. So I began by tickling in the most colorful reflections, to give the viewer guideposts that would tell the eye that this was a mirror image of the forest. It's strange to paint the same forest upside down and I had to fight the urge to turn the painting upside down. I wanted to paint the reflections more loosely and not get too caught up in their detail.
This is all about illusion. I had plenty of time to think about what makes a reflection look different from the image it's mirroring, and what makes water read as water. By this time, I had painted in almost all of the reflected forest. It was cool how it began to look like a reflection now.

The thing to do, now that I'm up to my knees, is de-emphasize the water. I took a few passes over it with neutral washes, to gray it and blur it a bit, so it wouldn't draw too much attention from the forest. And bang! it looked a lot more like water.
Phew. Now I could go back to the forest, and start fine-tuning the darks and lights, preparing to paint in The Bird. Ironically, in most of my paintings, the focal point is a bird. But I rarely spend more than an hour on painting it. All the effort and sweat goes into creating a believable setting for the bird. It's not that the bird is an afterthought--no, it's the motivator for the whole work--it's just that there are a lot fewer things to consider in getting the bird right. I will add that painting the reflection of a flying bird is a stinker. I had to figure out what it would look like from underneath. And then I had to figure out where its reflection would fall on the water, because that would tell the viewer how high it was flying. More on that later...we're almost there!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Trailing the Bobcat

Bobcats are one of the hardest animals to see. I've seen two in my life: one in North Dakota, sunning itself by a prairie pothole. It was the size of a springer spaniel, thick-necked, muscular, burly; it must have been a male. I had a bit of trouble convincing Bill it wasn't a house cat until we got it in the scope, and it stood up, flicked its six-inch banded tail, and stomped off. Fantastic. I was dancing around like a spider on a griddle, I was so excited.
Before that, I had my best-ever life look at a bobcat on the trail that leads through Sta. Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas. I had been trailing along on a nature walk, lugging 7-month old Liam in a backpack, when he started to caterwaul with hunger. I waved the group on and sat down to nurse him (Spicy water!) All was silent. I heard a slight crackle of leaves and the loveliest male bobcat on the planet stepped out onto the trail only about 12 feet away. He was spotted and striped and flames of rufous ran up the inside of his legs and over his ears. He pretended not to see us but oh, he did--he paused, looked over his shoulder and bolted into the underbrush, where he switched his tail and stared into my eyes with a gold-green intensity that made my heart turn inside out. Oh, thank you, Liam, for making me wait for that bolt of grace.
So I am laying for our bobcats. I've photographed their tracks and today I've found a place where one must like to hang out--an enormous dry ledge-cave on a very steep part of our neighbor's land.
A bobcat had left its calling cards, pretty fresh, at the edge of the cave (kind of a No Trespassing sign to the ubiquitous 'coons).
Bobcat ca-ca is broken into segments, like Tootsie Rolls. And it doesn't smell nice, but they don't bury it when they want to send a message. This was not here a week ago.

Chet's spine hair rose up, something that doesn't happen when he sniffs coon scat. I got such a vivid image of a big, thick-furred bobcat wedged under the ledge. I don't know whether Chet sent it to me or not--he didn't need to. I thought, This is where I would go in a downpour, if I were a bobcat. I might even sleep here all day. Who knows. Maybe he heard us coming and slipped out, down into the ravine. What a thought.

The bobcat cave was just a part of Chet's excellent day. With everyone else in school, he was #1. I gave him a DentalChew, and he decided to take it outside to bury it, something I normally try to prevent. Those things are expensive.
I've been reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' books lately, starting with The Hidden Life of Dogs, continuing with The Social Life of Dogs. EMT has to be one of the coolest people on the planet. Her book, The Harmless People, a loving portrait of the !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari, is an amazement. She applies the same gentle observational and interpretive powers to her small pack of dogs, following them on their rounds and watching their social interactions. So I decided to follow Chet with his DentalChew.
He was concerned that I was watching him; I could see that, so I dropped farther back. He took off for the orchard with a casual, nonchalant gait.
He tried a number of different sites before finally deciding on a brushy corner of our woods. In the house, Chet buries all kinds of things--biscuits, chew bones---but he doesn't have much to work with, and I'll find bones in my shoes and treats under piled-up computer cords. Here, his broad nose served him well, and he pushed leaf litter and twigs over the chew until it was all but buried.
Sorry, Chet, but I'm not interested in donating your chew toys to the coyotes. When I thought he wasn't looking, I stuck it in my pocket to recycle. But he saw me, and gave me a baleful look. Durn humans. I had that thing buried.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Walking with Liam

I feel the days when Liam is a little boy, home from school, slipping away. I treasure his impish presence in the house. I love his voice, his scent, the things he says. Today we took a long walk. He was grumpy and teary when we started, so I let him pick the route (he favors the Loop), and then settled back to watch the fields, woods and sunshine work their magic on his mood. He relaxed visibly, stopped fussing, and started to live. We stop a lot and drop into our own reveries, watching the sun sparkle on the creek.
Liam likes to hold conversations while we walk; in fact, he talks most of the time, but his voice is so soft and sweet that it's like music to me. I like asking him what he remembers from his early years.
"Liam, do you remember nursing?"
"Oh, yes."
"What was it like?"
"It was like taking a drink of water when you're 30 years old. Spicy water."
I had to suppress a hoot so as not to interrupt our conversation. But he comes out with stuff like that all the time, and it's all I can do not to laugh out loud. He's another universe unto himself. Quirky and strange and always original.
The rule in our family is that as long as you're wearing jeans, it's OK to slide down embankments on your rear. Liam goes out of his way to slide down embankments.
His nickname is King of the Woods. But every now and then the King of the Woods slips his warm little hand in mine and he's still a little boy. I know it won't be long before he'll have other things to do than hike with his mom, so I make it happen now.
Boston terriers aren't much for quiet reverie. Chet noses around in my pocket until he finds his leash and initiates a game of tug-0-war. The only brand of leash and collar that has survived such antics is Lupine Leads. They have a money-back guarantee, even if they're chewed. And they're gorgeous. So far, Chet has chewed four collars into oblivion, but his Lupine collar and leash are as good as new.
Liam and I sat on a wooded hillside watching Chet course back and forth. I never tire of watching his muscular, lithe trot. And when we're in the photographic zone together, he poses as if he were doing it for a living.
This is my favorite picture, though; it captures his springy strength and catlike grace. For as much as we love making over him and teaching him tricks, he's really happiest in the woods, following his nose, just being a dog.

The light today was so gorgeous--it has a springlike intensity now that's turning the maple twigs bright red against the blue, blue sky. The water maples in town are all blooming. Whee!
Spring starts for us in February; the signs are all around and stronger every day. Bill and I stood out on the deck talking tonight, catching up and looking into our future for a long time. We were hoping the woodcock would be back, but it was a silent twilight, the light draining from blue to orange in a line over the trees.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Nature Girl Gets Pinched

There is a difference between altruism and the inability to say no. So when a tiny library an hour distant calls up and asks if I will give a talk for their coffee break series, I gape like a goldfish for awhile and then say yes. I know I will kick myself later, when I've got to practice my slideshow and find the old projector and wipe the hairballs off its lens, load up the car and blow an entire day getting to the tiny library. Today, I overslept and had to get the kids dressed and brushed, pack their lunches and (an extra wrinkle) make sure all their hand-made Valentines made it to school in one piece. I had to feed the animals and the wild birds and then get myself cleaned up, dressed, and packed for the show, put the kids on the bus, and hit the road--all in 50 minutes.
But I enjoyed the ride up the Ohio; it was a pearly bluegray day and the great blue heron rookery was looking hopeful and ready for tenants.

I always love seeing Mail Pouch barns, an icon from my childhood that's still a common sight around here.

I shot pictures through the windshield, out the open window... Oh yeah, having fun. Life gives you lemons, you make beef stew.
The funny thing about little Ohio towns is that you can be in deep doo-doo before you've even seen a speed limit sign. I know every speed trap around Marietta dead to rights, but I was out of my territory. This little kitty gave me a knowing look as I came into town.
aren't you going a little FAST, Missy?

Ooh, 35 mph. I pumped the brakes--OK, slammed them on, and decelerated. Lights flashed in my rear view mirror. Oh, turbobummer.
I looked at my watch. I had left a half-hour to set up my nasty old projector and deal with whatever lighting and screen situation I'd encounter, to strew my offering of books and cards and stuff to sell, hoping to at least make my gas money back. And I knew this small-town officer would take every bit of that half-hour in painstakingly checking my license, registration and proof of insurance and then writing me up some god-awful ticket. I could see I didn't have a snowball's chance of impressing him with my "Give Turtles a Brake" and John Kerry bumper stickers, my nature girl altruism, traipsing along on my way to give a talk on hugging hummingbirds at the library. I told him I was sure his radar was correct; that I knew I was speeding, but would he mind expediting the process, because I was due to give a free program at the library in five minutes.

That hint rolled off him like water off a duck's back. He was half my age, and he was gonna stick it to me. Ever notice how the younger the cop, the less mercy they seem to have? 46 in a 35 mph zone, that's what I was doing, and he must have clocked me just beyond the place where the speed limit mysteriously changed from 45 to 35. They've got it all figured out in these little towns, just where to lurk to maximize their chances of grabbing the inattentive out-of-towners and hummingbird huggers.
He wrote me a ticket for $90, which was $90 more than I was making for my day's work. I thanked him very much.
I staggered into the library at 10:03, to find 14 retirees sitting expectantly, smiling at me, eager for their morning's entertainment. I didn't feel very entertaining, but I smiled and said, "Well, I'd have been here a half hour ago, but one of your finest just wrote me a $90 ticket for doing 46 in a 35 mph zone. Heh heh heh." Now there's an icebreaker.

"That was you?"
"We saw you stopped there!"
"Oh, that's just terrible!"
"He's always grabbing people right there, and he always blocks the road!"
"Let's go down to the mayor's office and talk to them!"

That last suggestion sounded pretty good to me. It could be kind of a Milagro Beanfield scene. I hoped they meant it. I could make placards for them. We'd march together on Town Hall.

So I gave my talk about homesick hummingbirds and bird-eating bullfrogs and other nature esoterica, sold enough books and cards to cover my costs, took a picture of the happy people filing out of the library (having forgotten their promise to accompany me to the mayor's office)

and set out, alone, to find the mayor.

My first stop was the mayor's office, which also seemed to be the fire and police station. The cruiser that had nabbed me was sitting ominously outside. I forged on, my jaw set.
There was a big NO SMOKING sign on the door, and two more inside, one in Spanish. The office was thick with cigarette smoke. Hmm. I squinted through the bluish haze and found a clerk. "Would the mayor be in?" I asked. She put her cigarette down. "Is this about a citation?" she replied. Answer a question with a question. I realized I was still holding the ticket in my hand. Duh. I am soo smooth.
"Well, yes, it is."
"He's not in his office. He's not going to be back until late late this afternoon," she said, a little smugly.
"I expected that. I was told he lives nearby."
"Well, yes, he does, but he's probably busy." She looked at me significantly. I wondered how busy the mayor of this itty bitty river town could be. Pretty busy, from her look.
"Would you mind telling me which house is his?"
"Gray with white trim," she said, a little sheepishly, then looked down and started shuffling papers.
I walked outside, looked around and found a gray house with white trim. I knocked on the door. It was not the mayor's house, but the occupant told me which one was.

I knocked on that door. Dogs barked and a TV blared.
The mayor and his wife were watching TV. Bob Barker was holding a Pet Quiz. They invited me in. The TV went on with its business. Two doberman mixes sniffed me all over, seven times. Luckily they liked me. Probably because I could have aced the Pet Quiz with both hands tied behind my back.
"My name is Julie Zickefoose. I'm a freelance nature writer, and I was coming into town this morning to give a free talk for the library's coffee break, and I got written a $90 ticket for doing 46 in a 35 zone. I'm sorry to bother you at home, but I just hoped that you might be able to help me out. It seemed a little harsh, when I was coming here to do a public service."
That sounded good to me, and I hoped it sounded good to the Mayor.
He said, "Here's what I can do. I'll cut it to $50, and I won't give you points on your license, but that's all I can do."
I took it, thanked him warmly, kissed the Dobies on their long noses, walked over to the police station, paid up, and headed home. I stopped to admire some geese planing into an embayment along the Ohio. There's grace all around, all the time, even on crappy days. My heart lifted.

I got home at 3 p.m., with just an hour left before I had to pick the kids up and start dinner. Phewwww. Whatta day. The phone rang. It was my beloved editor at NPR, telling me that my commentary on blogging would air this afternoon on All Things Considered.

Beats getting a speeding ticket in an Ohio river town. All things considered, it was a good day.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Blue Skies and Tracks

I got up late this morning and the juncos were worried I wouldn't get up at all. They wrote me a message in the snow, but didn't get time to finish it. I think it would have said, COME ON JULIE!

Durn birds are getting uppity. I hurried out in my bare feet, leaving a human pugmark in the midst of their tracks. That was the theme for the day, as it turned out: tracks!
There's a mass of cold Canadian air over us, surreally blue skies and crisp, sweet tangy oxygen. I drove into town this morning to take Liam to his grandma Elsa's to make valentines. Almost didn't get there for pulling over and shooting out the window. Here's one of the surest signs spring is coming to southern Ohio: manure spreaders at work. It's too cold to catch the scent, unfortunately; I have wonderful associations with the smell of manure, of time spent on my uncles and aunts' Iowa farms, of endless hours in and around horse barns. I love it!
Another spring sign: red-shouldered hawks coming out of the woodwork, screaming, working out their territory boundaries. They're fearless this time of year, and a bright blue sky brings them out around every curve in the road.
If I had nothing else to do in the world I would make watercolors of some of these barns and skies and fields lightly covered in snow. I'm absolutely itching to paint, but I have to give another talk tomorrow, so that's not going to happen. Rats.
I was beside myself when I saw a couple of inches of snow on wakeup, because I've been waiting all winter for a cat-tracking snow. Specifically, a bobcat-tracking snow. I know they're here. Last summer, I found one set of perfect 2" pugmarks and a scatpile with scratches all around it, right in our meadow by the oil well. I didn't have my camera, resolved to return in the afternoon to record it, and was foiled by a thunderstorm. So Shila and I set off to see what we could see. I never thought we'd hit the bulls-eye...

We hadn't gone far along the stream when we found large, round pugmarks criscrossing the stream--atop narrow, slippery, snow-covered logs. Certainly not the kind of place a canid (other than the Tennessee Turd-Tail) would go. Perfect! There were a few places where the claws even showed, which is understandable considering the slippery substrate (cat tracks generally show no claws). Notice how the forepaw (larger, rear track) has only one claw mark. And it's just a hole in the snow--indicating a sharp recurve to the claw. The smaller hindpaw shows two claws. A canid can't retract its claws, so all will generally show, especially in snow. A cat can have one or two claws out, the rest retracted. This thing was scrambling up sloping snowy boulders and tiptoeing across narrow logs--very catlike. Chet was galvanized by its scent, and he overlaid the cat tracks with his own--I barely snagged this photo before there was a lacework of Boston tracks atop them. The tracks were twice the size and breadth of Chet's, almost perfectly round--bobcat. How wonderful to finally have documentation that they're here. Shila and I were wishing Chet could speak, because he seemed to know what he was smelling. Suddenly Shila got a mental picture of a furry bobcat face, and she was sure Chet had sent it. Dogs are thought to think in pictures, and animal communicators (psychics, if you will) get those pictures. This is the second picture Shila's received from Chet. The first one was of a multiflora rose thorn in his paw pad, a few weeks ago. We came in from a long hike, and Shila asked, "Do you ever check his paws when you come in, for thorns and stuff?" I answered, "No, I haven't, unless he's limping." We both looked at Chet, and he was moving fine, and we forgot all about it. Sure enough, an hour after Shila left, Chet was limping, and I found a rose thorn in his pad. I called Shila and she said a picture of the thorn in his paw had suddenly popped into her head, which is what made her ask the question out of thin air.

Inspired by Shila's ability to receive, I'm going to try to get some of those pictures myself. I have been able to send a few to Chet. Once I was calling him away from chasing cattle, and he was ignoring me. I stopped calling and concentrated hard on a picture of Chet, being trampled by a cow. He came running back, his ears flat to his skull, and cowered at my feet. Maybe it was a coincidence, but he looked like a dog who had gotten a message. Later that same day, we were resting together, and I sent him a picture of the same awful scene. He flattened his ears, looked at me, and moved closer.

We had loads of fun shooting ice pictures again, this time in late afternoon light. Shila is given to flopping down to the ground to get the angles she wants.
Chet takes full advantage of this, and he'll make a beeline to pounce on her, steal her hat or gloves, or just give her a very thorough face washing. He's got a pink washcloth, and he's lightning fast with it. The more Shila laughs the worse he is. We all get to hooting and cackling. I'm sure the bobcats know exactly where we are at all times.
On the return loop, we stopped dead in the trail at an area scratched bare, with a pile of duff and leaves in the middle. The hair went up on Chet's back. I dug down into the pile and found dead-fresh bobcat poo. Shila, who's changed a litterbox or two in her day, confirmed my hunch that the scent was cat. This photo doesn't look like much, but the area scratched bare was a couple of feet across.
So. Bobcats walk our land, breathing the same cold Canadian air that we do. That's a good day's work.

Ice Castles, Shrew Bones, Career Choices

The day Ora Lee died, Shila came over and we went for a healing hike. I hired a sitter for Liam so we could revel in the hiking without having to cajole him up and down the cliffs. It was well worth the investment. The creek had dropped since this skim of ice formed, leaving it suspended like delicate isinglass in mid-air. The struggle was to get to the ice panels before Chet did; he delighted in patting them with his paw and watching them shatter. We made our way down the creek with mounting anticipation, knowing that we were in for a treat. We'd had some rain, and night temperatures dipped into the twenties. An ice kingdom worthy of Zhivago awaited. I loved to think that, while we went about our lives and ate and slept and worked, these enormous pillars of ice were silently forming.

It's hard to appreciate the scale of the cliffs at Beechy Crash without a human or canine element, so here's Chet, scrambling about like a mountain goat.
These might be the best icicles we've seen, formed under perfect, still conditions on a snowy night. Every icicle was polka-dotted, and we wondered about that until Shila figured out that snowflakes had fallen on them and frozen in place.

We lay on our sides and backs to get the best angles, hooting and hollering with delight as we discovered one bizarre formation after another.

At once point it occurred to me that, should a rack of icicles suddenly break loose, Shila and I would be smashed, impaled, or worse. We thought it was probably an acceptable risk, considering the photo ops.
Beneath the daggers lay the most enchanting moon-eggs of ice, softly glowing from within.
These are only a few of the dozens of images I took away from that hike. Here's Shila, beholding the spectacle.

We could have stayed there until nightfall, firing away at ice.

The woods was alive with birds; a sharp-shinned hawk, a couple of pileated woodpeckers, and a red-phase ruffed grouse greeted us as we came down into the Chute. I was particularly delighted about the grouse, as I have started to see him at the same passage in the Chute every time I come through. This tells me that he is beginning to think about drumming on one of the mossy logs that litter the forest floor. There was a year when I didn't see a grouse there, and I missed him sorely. Now there's one living there again. I hope he doesn't mind being flushed once every couple of days.
We moved on to the barred owl tree, where we found the crawfish-loaded pellet. It has dried out enough now so that I can identify the fur in it as opossum. Interesting. Even more interesting was the pile of shrew bones I had overlooked until this hike. They were under the same tree, only inches from the flashier pellet and whitewash. Look at them!! You can tell they're shrews by the bizarre sharp RED teeth. I'll go a bit farther and guess that these are short-tailed shrews--just by their size. The short-tailed shrew, Blarina brevicaudata, was rather recently discovered to be North America's only venomous mammal. It bites its victim (say, a white-footed mouse), then follows it until it drops, paralyzed. They're even said to bay while trailing their prey. It's in frequencies beyond human hearing, but it's undeniably baying. And doubtless nerve-shattering to mice. Eek!
There's a gorgeous little pelvis on the upper left, with a row of holes for nerve insertion. And that's a vertebra on the dime. It's so great to look at bones with Shila, since she's a craniosacral therapist and knows all about bones. We do comparative anatomy with all the bones we find.

Speaking of shrew bones...seeing them catapulted me back to the summer of 1976.
When I was just out of high school my father strongly encouraged me (heh) to get a job as a typist for an insurance company. Yes, it was a rather bad fit for my nascent set of skills. All day long, I transcribed dictation from insurance adjustors. I corrected their grammar and syntax as I went, and I think they appreciated it, even as it embarrassed them. There were two things that kept me alive that summer: watching the pigeons who bred on the window ledges of the building (and there's an amazing story in that, but I'll save it for my next book). The other thing that kept me going was visiting this young woman who worked in a garage studio in the alley where I walked on my lunch break. She was ethereal, pale, with crinkly blonde hair. And she made the most delicate and unearthly jewelry out of shrew skulls and bat skulls and fine silver wire. Could there be any greater contrast in employment situations? Here I was, trapped like a roach in a flourescent-lit insurance office, retrofixing barely literate memos on an electric typewriter, giving names to pigeons on the ledges because they were more interesting than my co-workers. And here she was, an Artist, crafting exquisite jewelry from exquisite things, her studio open to the humid Richmond summer. She was kind to me, and didn't mind my questions and creativity-starved presence for a half-hour each day. God bless her!
Needless to say, I made it clear to my dad that I could find my own damn jobs from that summer forward. Which, I now realize, was exactly his point. Find a career you like or I'll choose one for you. I think you'd make an excellent TYPIST. You got a better idea, kid?

And I'd like to thank the Artist. I wonder where she is, and if she's still looking for shrew bones.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Chipmunks Gone Bad

Oh yeah, he's cute, but read on...
This is Bob. Last summer, he lost the end of his tail, to what I know not. Chet likes to chase him to a hideyhole under the garage; maybe there was a close call. Bob has been out and about from hibernation for about ten days now, defying winter, stuffing his cheek pouches with suet dough and sunflower seed, corn and millet. I suspect he has a multi-room condo somewhere under the garage, with a different entree in each room. As chipmunks go, Bob is a good one. He doesn't do too much digging in planters or nipping off seedlings. You get a bad chipmunk, you got trouble.
I like Bob because I can tell him from the others, and because he strikes decorative poses on the garden furniture. I said he was a good chipmunk, but I just remembered a moment last summer when a cardinal lay down to sunbathe under the feeder. Flopping over on his side, the cardinal spread one wing and threw his head back and closed his eyes, just letting the sun reach his dark gray skin. You could tell it felt really good. I was watching the cardinal, but I was also watching Bob, who was sitting on a stone wall under the studio window. Bob's tail stump wove back and forth like a cat's, and I knew he was up to no good. Sure enough, Bob launched himself off the stone wall and straight at the sunbathing bird. Cardinal reaction times being what they are, the redbird was up and out of his trance before Bob got there. But somehow, I don't think ol' Bob was fooling around. I did get a good laugh out of it, and another tidbit of insight about chipmunks.
Ironically, chipmunks are the whole reason I can't keep the captive-bred hatchling box turtles I raise in an outdoor enclosure. (They're being raised for eventual release on our preserve). There's really no way to exclude a chipmunk from anything, since they're so tiny and dig so well... They open the box turtles up and eat them like walnuts, I'm told, until the boxies get to 3/4 lb. and their shells are hard enough to resist chewing. Chipmunks are weird. There's a dichotomy there: vegan-gone-vampire. So Chet and I keep our eyes on ol' Bob.

Sweet Things

Phoebe and Liam have been taking extra good care of Mom. There is something about having my kids come up and put their arms around me that makes me feel better than anything in the world. It's the switcheroo of suddenly being cared for by these precious beings, I think, of knowing that the tables can turn and they'll be there for me. Here's a conversation with Liam from bathtime last night:

If I had a hundred dollars I would go to a store with a lot of bluebells and buy them all for you.
I would buy you some birds, too. Can birds live in bags?
Well, if they're made of open cloth mesh, they can.
Okay, those kind of bags.
What would I do with the birds?
And he pantomimed opening the bag and letting them go.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Goodbye, Ora Lee

I had just finished the turkey post when I turned to start the morning ritual of changing cage papers and preparing a nice hot breakfast for Charlie the macaw and Ora Lee, the orchard oriole. Ora Lee was brought to me by a nice young woman who couldn't keep her cat inside. She brought me, in rapid succession, an injured catbird, which I raised and eventually released, Ora Lee, who was permanently disabled by a bite to her right shoulder, and a baby wood thrush. I dealt with the first two, but by the third patient I had had too much of this tender-hearted but misguided woman and her @$#&$%& cat. I could see that the baby wood thrush was going to die, so I sent her home with it and told her to make it as comfortable as she could. I told her I hoped that witnessing the needless death of the wood thrush would make her realize that her cat, whatever his preference, belonged indoors. She never brought me another bird. I have no way of knowing whether the lesson took. But in the meantime, I was stuck with a catbird to raise, and a recently-fledged orchard oriole, probably in her first week of independent life. The year was 1989.
Ora Lee was badly injured; her right wing was hanging, the humerus broken just below the joint. I took her to have a steel pin inserted, in the hope of making her more comfortable and saving the wing, and committed myself to her lifelong care. What led me to this decision was her powerful will to live. On the way to the vet's office, with her ribcage torn open and her lung exposed, Ora crawled over to her food dish and helped herself to some strawberries. I was so moved by this little bird's fortitude that I decided to keep her for as long as she seemed content in captivity. Little did I know that almost 17 years later I would still be whipping up sweet potato and butternut squash, three cheese ravioli and fresh fruits and vegetables every blessed morning. Ora Lee proved to be the Methuselah of orioles; she's outlived every known orchard oriole on the planet by years.
By December I knew that, if Ora made it to spring, this would be her last. Her breathing had become labored, her appetite faded, and I had to come up with better and better menus to keep her interested. I could have dosed her up with antibiotics, I suppose, but it seemed unfair to prolong her life. I had to let her go sometime.
So I got up from my chair and walked into the aviary, as I have almost every morning since 1989, and found her, silent and still, in the corner of the cage floor. This is how death comes to birds, in the wee hours of the night, just like birth. They slip away when no one is there to notice.
I wasn't good for much today.

My reaction to her loss took me by surprise. I thought I was ready to let her go. I wept a long time for this gallant little bird, who lived as good a life as I could give her, for so very long.

Be Careful What You Wish For

there is entirely too much teestosterone in this picture. Hold your breath.

When pastel artist Cindy House moved from Vermont to the subtropical zone of southern New Hampshire, she wished she could get some wild turkeys in her yard. So Cindy started throwing out a bit of corn. It worked. Yesterday, Cindy had 70 turkeys in her yard.
Something tells me that turkeys weren't really meant to travel in flocks of 70. Cindy sent a hilarious video of the turkeys chasing crows that dared land too near their corn (cheap entertainment for a winter day). And this pair of young gobblers wound their necks together, and one bird's head ended up in the other's mouth. They struggled and fought for ten minutes until they finally got untangled. Gagg!
Maybe they'll consume each other, like mantises.

Cindy is fully aware that, while she complains about this mob of poultry, she could just stop feeding them at any time. Having fed a modest flock of 14 turkeys here on Indigo Hill, I understand and sympathize with Cindy's predicament. On one hand, you feel like a drone whose only purpose in life is to satisfy the flock's craving for corn. On the other, you get hooked on watching them, and you want to see what's going to happen next.

When she's not hauling around 50 lb. sacks of corn, Cindy paints landscapes with pastel. Cindy is a recovering bird artist. She did her time illustrating field guides (see her ducks and shorebirds in the National Geographic guide, and her exquisite warblers in Warblers by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett (part of Houghton Mifflin's Peterson series).
Now, Cindy paints places where she, and birds, like to be. For more of her ravishing work, see her web site.
Cindy says it totally ruins her Monday mornings to read my blog. Another of our mutual friends surmises that I must have the metabolism of a shrew. Aw, gee. See how nice my friends are? Cindy is perhaps the most self-deprecatory human being I have met outside Nebraska or North Dakota (two capitals of self-deprecation). She says that if she had a blog it would be more like a blip. Gagging, crow-chasing turkeys and stunning artwork notwithstanding, I presume. When I grow up I want to paint like Cindy.
I would like to lie down in Cindy's landscapes.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Chet Baker, Fashionista

Today was a momentous day for Chet Baker. Most of it was spent slumbering under down comforters while I shopped in town. But the rustle of Wal-Mart bags brings Chet at a run, because he knows that somewhere in their depths lies a dog toy or two. I'm an apologetic Wal-Mart shopper. I'd love to have the luxury of saying I hate the place, but it's the only place around here that sells roasted peanuts in big cans and lard in big tubs and cornmeal in big bags and Lord knows I need those for this ravenous crew of cardinals, juncos and bluebirds. I go in there for a few such things and before I get out of there, it's as if someone turned me upside down and shook all the money out of my purse and pockets.
Today, I hit a personal best (or worst) for amount spent in a single go, feeding the big smiley yellow monster. I am consumerist slime. Chet cares not how ethically I shop. He prances around me, eyes dancing, and when I set all the bags on the floor he goes hunting.
When he finds the surprise (and it's uncanny how he knows what's a dog toy and what isn't), he races down the hall to chew it on Liam's choo-choo train bed. Only special things get chewed on the bed.

But Chet had another surprise in the mail--a hand-knitted sweater from Sue Robbins of Harvard, Massachusetts. Sue loves animals as much as anyone I've ever met. She and Worth kept Chet for us when we traveled to Boston last June. Chet's first move on entering their home was to tangle dramatically with one of their cats, rolling over and over on the floor. Over the course of his stay he woke the whole household playing musical beds, and took a skein of nice yarn all the way through the house like a demented spider. Being a young thing, he doubtless anointed a carpet or two. But Sue loves him anyway, enough so that she knitted a sweater bearing his name, discovered by measuring that it would be too small, and knitted him another.

This one is smashing. Unlike store-bought dog sweaters, which tend to be harsh and tight around the arms, this one's very soft and warm, and the armholes are big enough not to restrict his motion. Chet saw it and came forward for me to put it on, and frisked and romped when it was on. He didn't tug at it or tuck his hindquarters under the way he does when a sweater is uncomfortable; he just went about his doggly business and seemed genuinely disappointed when I took it off him at bedtime. Chet knows from nice sweaters.
Thank you so much, Sue, for this wonderful gift from the heart. Know that we all appreciate it!

Sunny Hikes

Sunny hikes with my three boys. Really sore legs. Happy sigh. It all makes me feel incredibly good. Shila says that if you walk on uneven ground every day, you can forget about needing a chiropractor. Walking slopes like this gives your spine a little adjustment with every step. I used to avoid these slopes. Now I crave them. It doesn't feel like a hike unless I drop to all fours a few times, slip back and laugh a few times, grunt with exertion and grab for handholds. It's a strange thing to be hooked on, but I'm not questioning it. Such climbs, and spirulina shakes, are fighting writer's spread in a big way. That's the irony of being a nature writer. The more you write, the bigger your butt gets. So I figure you've got to climb more than you write, or the balance will be pretty unbalanced. Not to mention that, unless you get out every day and scramble around in the woods, you've got nothing much to write about.

When you walk with guys you have to let them be guys. It's interesting to see what Chet considers his "turf." He marks like crazy all along the Loop, much less so along the rocky stream we call Beechy Crash. In this picture, you can see where he got his affectionate nickname, "The Tennessee Turd-Tail."
When we emerge out of the deep woods onto a well-worn trail, Chet always marks. I haven't really discerned a pattern to Liam and Bill's marking, but I'll spare you pictures. Liam's given to dramatic collapses after long climbs, but that little guy can cover serious ground. He's strong and tough, and it doesn't even occur to him to ask to be carried. Phoebe's just as fit.
Loving these days when there is still water flowing in the stream. It's been so dry here for so many years that I'd become accustomed to empty stream beds. Annie Dillard says that the stream carries its own lights, and it's true--even as evening comes on, the stream reflects the sky and is a light source itself.
I'm re-reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that probably influenced me more than any other. I was in high school when it came out, and I felt as if it had been written just for me. I think I stole that from Bill, who made that comment when he saw it in the latest stack of library books. I think it's Dillard's way of mixing the everyday with the imponderable that's so alluring. She finds amazement in small natural events that others would completely overlook. It's good to go on walks with Annie Dillard. More than any other writer, she captures that combination of peace and utter excitement that being in the woods brings. And, like a painter, she notices light, and its power to transform.
Being in the woods with children and dogs connects me to things I might have overlooked. I like to see what they notice, what impresses them. Would I have known there was an active raccoon den under a rock ledge, had Offisa Pupp not poked his head into a concealed air passage? Chet found the barred owl pellet made of crayfish shells... Would I have tasted an icicle if Liam weren't along? Would I have taken a basketball on a two-mile hike? Chet's campaigning heavily to take a large green Frisbee all the way around the Loop now. We keep throwing it back toward the house, and he keeps fetching it and carrying it farther along the trail. Can't we just bask in victory for awhile, you nutty dog? Always has to be doing something.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Making a Bayou, 2

Painting a forest is really hard. You have to simplify it enough so you don't go mad, while still giving the impression that the detail is there. As soon as you start putting in every little leaf and branch, it stops looking like a painting and the detail overwhelms the composition. A lot of the nature art painted in the heyday of wildlife prints (the early 70's) did just that--included every little detail. That stuff just drives me nuts. I suppose it has its place, but I'd so much rather look at a painting that looks like it was done with paint.
Don't pay attention to the differences in brightness and color here--just different lighting regimes. Often by the time I photographed the day's work, it was nighttime, and the incandescent light makes for a yellowish hue in the jpeg.
I couldn't wait to get out of the leaves and into the tree trunks, which I could paint wet-on-wet. Then, I could have fun with grays and browns, those most malleable of pigments. You can push grays and browns around and blend them forever, unlike, say, yellows. The difference is that grays and browns sit atop the paper until they dry, while most yellows are stains--they soak right in and you can't push them around without getting muddy.
You can see the bird's shape here, and see me thinking about how to make it stand out against the heavy trunks. I still haven't stuck my brush in the water, save to put in a yellow leaf reflection. I'm a little scared of that water. I'll have to paint the same forest upside down, and then smear it over so it looks like a reflection. That's a little nervy, so I'm working up to it. Fear is the watercolorist's constant companion. We're about two days into painting now, and I'm having a lot of fun building a bayou.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Evening Walk

I ran around like a hamster today, trying to do a million things at once. I paid bills and sent artwork off and made calls and answered emails and just ran on my wheel. It was 5:30 by the time I got dinner in the oven and took time to breathe. Chet and I took off on the Loop in the gathering darkness. The lights were coming on in the valley, something that always gives me a lonely feeling. I kept Chet on the leash at this overlook--nocturnal cattle herding is not my sport.
As we came down into the Chute, the dog pack was barking, and I leashed Chet again. He surged forward, almost pulling me off my feet, despite my hisses of "No pull, Chet!" So I backed the command up with a light slap on the shoulder. Funny thing--he didn't pull on the leash after that. I have corrected Chet with a smack maybe four or five times in his year of life. Once, when he was a puppy, he stood right next to me in the basement and peed, looking up at me. I surprised him with a smack on the rump. Funny thing--he never peed in the basement again. Chet is a quick study. I'm not about to start hitting him regularly, but the occasional surprise wakeup seems to be a good reminder for this headstrong but sensitive little man-dog.
The barking dogs' house had a single, feeble light shining in a window. As we passed, I heard voices, and then the rattle and crash of more garbage being thrown out the back door. Ahh, Appalachia. The romance, the atmosphere.

We came up through our old orchard by moonlight, listening for the woodcock our neighbors say has arrived. No calls, but the patches of snow took the moonlight beautifully, and the kitchen light beckoned home.

What the Skunk Did

Stinky, prospecting for stew beef

It snowed during the night, and we awoke to a white world, just enough to smooth over the patches and make everything clean again. I looked out to check the bird feeders and saw that a skunk had meandered through the yard. Maybe it's the one who anointed Chet about a month ago. I knew it was a skunk even from inside, because nobody can meander like a skunk. Possums meander, but skunks d0 loops within loops. I was reminded of those tiresome "Family Circus" cartoons that show where Billy went after Mommy asked him to fetch the salt. But this was anything but tiresome; it was high mustelid art.
A closer look revealed the plantigrade tracks of the skunk; they walk not on their toes, like dogs and cats, but on their toes and heels, like bears. With their wide wheel base, skunks make a double line of tracks.
I absolutely adore skunks, although my enthusiasm for living with them has waned a bit since Chet's encounter with this fellow. Before Chet, there was one in our yard the kids named Snowy (I called him Stinky), whom I used to feed. Stinky was cool. He knew I was cool. I could go outside, speak to him, and lay a piece of meat a few feet from his nose without getting sprayed. He'd trundle over and eat it happily. He chewed with his mouth open, but that was OK with me.

Stinky wore his odor like a plume in his hat, and took it with him wherever he went. I could tell when he was around just by sniffing the air. I loved Stinky, loved having a relationship with a skunk. He was a very decorative little guy, too, almost all ivory-yellow-orange (I wouldn't call him white). I think I saw him crossing our county road the other night. I suppose there are other white-blanketed skunks around, but I hope it was Stinky. For all I know, it was Stinky who perfumed Chet Baker. I haven't seen this skunk; I've only experienced his art.
I climbed the tower to take pictures of the skunk's work, and took in the view.
that's our roof in the lower left corner.

We don't go up in the tower too much when it's this cold. Surprising how much colder it feels 42 feet up! While I was up there, I noticed that most of the birds in the yard were looking at me, expectantly, it seemed, and I remembered that I had not yet put out the suet dough. I hurried down to comply. The juncos massed and huddled in the shrubs right by the door, out of sight, they thought. Here's one perched on the dried vines of the pink mandevilla that climbs up the side of the house every summer. Look how the vine disappears into his plumage.
I'm going to use that in a painting one day. I decided to test the juncos' courage by tossing a bit of suet dough right beneath them. One brave junco came down to eat only a couple of yards away, and he was quickly joined by others.
Lovely little birds. Their calls sound like skates on ice. I like having relationships with juncos, too. I'll let you know when I get a look at the skunk artist. Perhaps our yard skunk, be he Stinky or not, will work to build a better relationship with Chet Baker.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

I and the Bird

For peeks into some other bird and nature-oriented blogs (as if you didn't fool around ENOUGH on your computer), please check out I and the Bird on the New Dharma Bums' beautiful blog. The cussing titmouse entry made it into this festival of bird blogs, and I've noted an uptick in visitors. Happy thing. Hope you'll all set a spell.


The Swinging Orangutangs flumped back into action Saturday night, to a packed house at the Marietta Brewing Company. This cavernous, brick-walled space is the only music venue in town at the moment. Clearly, this is a town starved for live music. The huge bar was full by 9:30, and got fuller as the night wore on. People were standing three deep around the fringes of the seating area, and dancers bobbed and swayed at the front of the room. The crowd was great, and they sent us energy and good vibes. Drummer Steve McCarthy was tucked into a nook at the back of the stage, but he was en fuego. The thump of his kick drum and whomp of his massive toms compelled the crowd to move, and the Solid Gold Dancers improved the scenery immensely. Bill had a beatific grin on his face for much of the night.
He had an Elvis Costello look happening, with a 40-year-old pinstriped suit of his dad's and a skinny tie. When you play for four hours straight, you can amuse yourself mightily by observing the crowd, and I picked up on a peroxide blonde who obviously thought Bill was something special. Little does she know... Being the good wife that I am, I pointed her out so he could bask. Within limits, of course.

Bill's brother Andy fills out our sound with vocals, rhythm guitar and keyboard (the Hammond sound is my favorite).
We played a number of new original songs last night, with Andy and Bill both contributing. A measure, however unfortunate, of a song's hookiness is whether it sticks in your brain. I have two alternating brainworms; one written by Andy, and the other by Bill. Maybe they're radio-ready!
Bass player Vinnie Mele held it down all night, flashing his dazzling smile and adding ethereal harmonies. Singing bass players: fabulous. Cute singing bass players: Rare and doubly fabulous.
It was just amazing to see so many of our friends out there smiling and singing along, dancing and laughing. The bar manager came up to Bill and said, "It's so crowded in here that people are coming to the door, looking in and leaving!" as if that were a problem. Gee, we'll try to play crappy so some of the patrons will leave and make room for new ones...
Apparently they emptied the beer cooler twice during the night--remember that this is a brewery, with giant copper vats in the front windows. I'm guessing that's a whole lotta beer. It goes a long way toward explaining some of the dancing styles that evolved as the night wore on. I stuck to my thermos of steaming hot rooibos tea. Taking a gulp of ice water or beer when your vocal cords are all warmed up is about the worst thing you can do. I find it a lot easier to hit the highs and lows when I keep them warm. And a lot easier to drive home when I'm alcohol-free.
By 2 A.M. we were beat. We'd blown through more than thirty songs, most of them uptempo dance numbers. We finished the night with "Dark Side of Love," one of Andy's originals, "Essence" by Lucinda Williams, and "Can't Find My Way Home," a Steve Winwood song that's perfect for close harmony and peaceful goodbyes.
Bill stayed in town to be ready for his Sunday morning jazz gig (oh, he's a crispy critter by now), and I drove home in the snow, to fall in bed at 3:30 AM, lie awake, cursing the adrenaline still coursing through my veins, until 5, sleep fitfully for a couple of hours, and get up at 7:30 with the kids. Liam is still practicing flying leaps and cannot be dissuaded. He remembers to be quiet for about a half hour and then bumpbumpbump WHUMP! I can either jump up and yell at him every 20 minutes, or just resign myself to a bleary day. I'm blundering around looking forward to bedtime. But it's a good tired.
Many thanks to Shila for taking these woozy, psychedelic photos. Flash is so uncool. And Shila is anything but uncool.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Baker's Yodel

There's a thing Chet Baker does when he really wants to communicate something--when there's something he needs or something he's trying to say that we're just not getting. He hates the open wooden stairs up to our tower room; they freak him out. He'll go up them, reluctantly, but absolutely won't go down them. And yet he can't bear to be left behind.
Today we were up in the tower, and Baker came along. When we were done, we came down the wooden stairs, and Baker was stranded at the top. He moaned, and cried a little, and then he yodeled.
It's very hard to catch Baker yodeling. It's usually over before it starts. He usually yodels with his mouth closed, so it's muffled. His voice is low and hoarse and rolling, very endearing. He sounds a little bit like Demi Moore in "Ghost," with that (depending on how you feel about Demi) fetching hoarse catch in it. Rrrroooo rrrooo rrrooo! he says.
He always gets what he wants when he talks like Demi.
Photo credit: Phoebe Thompson
Our band, The Swinging Orangutangs, plays tonight at the Marietta Brewing Company. Wish us luck. I have one friend who's bringing ten people, a few neighbors who are sufficiently intrigued to attend, and there are quite a few Orangs fans in Marietta who haven't had the chance to shake their collective bootays for many a moon. Expect the place will be packed. I have spent the entire day trying to recapture sleep lost last night. I was in bed by midnight, and still staring at the ceiling at 5 AM. What a rotter. Napping today was a struggle, as Liam is practicing becoming airborne. He runs as fast as he can, then launches into the air and lands with a thud. I suppose I should have just gotten up and made him a cape. Off to see if I can put enough spackle on my face to pass for a singer in a rock-and-roll band. Like putting lipstick on a caterpillar, and calling it a butterfly.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Making a Bayou

Now that I'd drawn a passable bird (angst and nailbiting notwithstanding), it was time to put that bird in context. I wanted to show the bird at Bayou de View, Arkansas, since that's where the best sighting was made. But I don't much care for the look of the place in winter. When I think of ivory-bills, I think of lushness and deep shadow. Maybe it's reading and re-reading Tanner so much, but I always picture thick forest in full leaf; I have a hard time envisioning ivory-bills in winter. Jerry Jackson took some beautiful photos of Bayou de View in autumn, and I chose one to work from. I could see it was going to be a bear to paint in watercolor, especially if I keyed up the foliage colors as I envisioned. Once again, the plan was to make a painting unlike anything else out there. When you think about exisiting ivory-billed woodpecker paintings, most of them are a bit sterile, a bit like museum dioramas. The birds are on a dead snag, almost always perched, rarely doing much of anything. Even Audubon's treatment, by far the liveliest of them all, places them on a white background with dead wood, although he did show us the grubs they prefer, as well as some cool, animated poses. I wanted atmosphere and light and humidity, even dankness in my painting.

With this posting, I'm really dropping artistic trou. Someone with formal art education and a hint of how to go about such a complex painting would block out darks and lights first, perhaps do an underpainting. Not me, nuh-uh. I paint like Grandma Moses. My college studio drawing professor, Will Reimann, used to laugh and tell me I was pulling a magic curtain aside to reveal my finished work, from left to right. I'm sure Will is still laughing. So be it. For better or worse, here's the first installment. Please pardon the lousy jpegs; many were taken under incandescent light. And here's the second. See, I'm painting around where the bird goes.
That's because I'm saving it for dessert.

Chet Baker, Supermodel

I have long suspected that Chet enjoys having his picture taken. (He'd better. He'd be one miserable pooch if he didn't.) I have also suspected that he deliberately strikes poses when I have my camera out. But both suspicions were confirmed this morning when, while alone in the kitchen, I turned on my camera to take some pictures of the bluebirds feeding just outside the window. My little Olympus C-730 makes a loud TaDAAA! when it's turned on or off. TaDAAA! went the camera. And Chet Baker leapt up from his snooze in the living room and trotted in, tags jingling, to pose. I am not making this up. He plopped down right in front of me and looked at me expectantly. It would be hard to read too much into those eyes.This pensive look would be good for my author photo. I will probably need a ghost writer. I pick you.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Making an Ivory-bill

Welcome to the first installment of Making an Ivory-bill. I'm about to reveal,through sleight of hand and prestidigitation, just how I go about creating a painting, in this case, a painting of an ivory-billed woodpecker booking through Bayou de View. I wish you were about to be staggered by genius; instead, you'll find out how a self-taught painter muddles through a painting. My techniques are pretty primitive. By the end, you'll doubtless be saying, "Hey! I could do THAT!"
Since I've become so camera-happy, I keep the little Olympus on the drawing table when I'm working, and anything remotely interesting gets recorded. I decided to take progress photos of this work because it would be my first cover painting for The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union. I was a member of AOU for two shining years in the early 80's, until I got a load of how much the dues cost, and how quickly those journals piled up and weighed me down. In those days, I was moving as many as eight times a year, making (no kidding) $1200 a season as a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy, and I couldn't justify the expenditure or the extra weight. I already had enough boxes of crap I carried around with me. That's OK. I like being on the fringes of the field. I have ideas about birds, and especially how birds think, that no real ornithologist could ever admit to having. I'm in real good company. Ornithology has always been sustained by amateurs. Witness the furor Gene Sparling started in Arkansas...
So, on an ordinary morning, I send an email about an unbelievably dumb article I found in USA Today to Jerry Jackson, the ornithologist widely acknowledged as the world's foremost authority on the ivory-billed woodpecker.

"Jerry: I was taken aback by a half-page color illustration of an ivory-billed woodpecker adorning USA Today's November 10 "Life" section. It appeared to have been done from a photo of a very bad mount; as Bob Clem would say, "There was nothing right about it." My bemusement turned to amusement when I found the sections titled "Native habitat, Its sound, Life span, What's new, Its name..." Among these informative bits was this paragraph:

Why it's a sight to see

This woodpecker is light and can fly swiftly through the swamp forests. It has no jawbone or teeth and no vertebrae in its tail. Its bones are fused to provide support for flight. The birds sometimes fly above the trees when flying long distances to avoid branches.

Words fail me. "

We laugh about it, and then he writes back, "I was going to contact you today anyway. Is there any chance you would be interested in doing an Ivory-bill for cover art for the January issue of The Auk?" It was November 11. Knowing most magazines need art in a couple of months before press time, I was thrown into an instant panic. I emailed the editor, who said it would be good to get the painting by December 12 at the latest. I relaxed a little, but I still had a good job ahead. Fortunately, panic and I are old friends, and I leapt into sketching and composing. I knew one thing only: I wanted to paint the bird from an angle and in an attitude that hadn't been done before. I wanted a bird that would thrill the viewer, not something that looked like another static mount nailed to a dead tree. I wanted it flying right toward you, coming out of the gloom, alive.
A profile would not do. I didn't want this to look anything like what was already out there. I watched the David Luneau video about another hundred times, making rough sketches of the bird as it flapped away. There was a day and a half when I almost had myself convinced that was a pileated woodpecker in the video. Then I slept on it, watched it full-speed with well-rested eyes, and laughed at myself. There is no way, I told myself, no way that that's a pileated woodpecker. There is entirely too much white on the upstroke and the downstroke, white spanning the trailing edge of the wing. I kept drawing it. What if that bird were coming right at you? I turned it around in my head and drew that. I liked that view, and sent it to Jerry. He made a few suggestions, then a few more, and before we knew it three days had gone by and I'd drawn and redrawn those wings and I didn't like the drawing anymore, and neither did he. In the end, we went with the first one I'd done. It had pizzazz. Neither of us was completely sure it was correct, but then neither of us has ever had an ivory-bill fly right at us at eye level. There aren't many people on the planet who can critique it, although I'm sure they will. This is the American Ornithologists' Union, after all. But I was not going to play it safe, and come up with another tepid ivory-bill image. Who needs that?
At this point, I'd rather try something new and be shot down than play it safe. I decide to go with the first draft. To be continued...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What's Sexy?

Once in awhile as I'm vegetating in the grocery line, I'll pick up a so-called women's magazine, and there will be an article entitled, "What's Sexy?" And there will be lists of what somebody must think is sexy about a man. Things like nice suits and good shoes and great eyes and massive pecs... Good grief. Maybe I have a strange idea of what's appealing in a man, or maybe they're all missing the bigger point. Bill has all those things and more. It's the more that gets me. Here's my sweetie, interviewing Phoebe and Liam about their respective school days. I submit these for your consideration.
Liam had a very bad day at school, so bad he didn't want to talk about it. Apparently he forgot to bring money for the book fair so he could buy a book, and muttered aloud in the library that he was "pissed." Uh-oh, some sixth graders who overheard him told the librarian who told his teacher, and he got a talking to. He's a product of his environment, that's all I can say. Poor thing is being raised by wolves.
Liam loves to cook, and whenever he sees me in the kitchen he asks if he can help. He wants to be a chef in the dining car of a train when he grows up, so he can feed people and watch the scenery roll by. Beats Burger King. Now, my mother is an excellent cook, and I loved to help her too, but she didn't let me actually do much of anything, because it was bound to be messy. I am trying to be more lenient with my kids so they learn not just by watching, but by doing. So Liam turned the burgers tonight. The plastic bag headgear was his idea. Like I said, raised by wolves.

Getting back to the question of what's sexy: Our weeping willow, planted in honor of Liam's birth in 1999, has got it going on. February first, and already unfurling leaves. Now that's sexy. Stupid, but sexy.

I think that I shall never see
A tree as sexy as Bill T.

Paintings Old and New

One of the incredible gifts of the Internet is being able to correspond daily with artist friends who might otherwise be seen once every three to five years. My dear friend Debby Kaspari of Norman, Oklahoma, is one such treasure. She sent me a link to a web site featuring Frederic Remington's amazing nocturnes.

These paintings just take my breath away. Part of their appeal is the limited palette, dictated by low light. But most of it, I think, is that the center of interest of the painting--that to which the subjects' attention is drawn--is usually out of the frame. What a concept!

Remington was unusual in his time for relying heavily on photography for reference. It shows, a little, especially in the uncanny accuracy of his skinny horses and Indian ponies. But the painter's skill and subtlety override the photographic aspect of his work.

Debby's work is amazing; her field sketches from Panama rival anything I've seen. Such a natural draughtsman; her line is free and bold and her grasp of form irreproachable. Not only that, but she's a top-flight banjo player, great singer, and all-around amazing human being.

Such are the blessings of having your friends at your fingertips.