Thursday, September 28, 2006

Turtle Bone

Carol Foster continues to send photo-updates of lucky Belle, the box turtle who ran afoul of a mower this summer. She and her husband Gary are taking wonderful care of Belle. They're planning to keep her eating and active all winter, to speed healing of the wounds. Carol has a Real Camera, a Canon, the kind I would like to get if I ever have any money that isn't already devoted to replacing furnaces, paying mortgages and buying books. When I see her pictures, I know my limitations. Carol and Gary are sneaking romaine lettuce into Belle's canned chicken, and dosing her with vitamins. I think she looks fabulous. This closeup was taken Sept. 6.
The white Silvodine cream has turned dark gray now, and the shell hole continues to close in. This next series of photos was taken Sept. 23. I'm sure Belle's building bone underneath it too, where she needs it most, over the hole that leads directly into her right lung. First, apparently, a membrane forms, then hardens, and bone builds over it.

Carol and Gary found two other box turtles in their backyard, and sent this picture of the two, a male (left) and female (right). Shell pattern isn't an indicator of a turtle's sex, other than that a turtle with a whole lot of yellow patterning is likely to be a male. I really dig the marks on the right-hand female's shell, too--like little strongmen holding their fists up. Even eye color can be misleading: red-eyed turtles have been seen laying eggs! By and large, though, red eyes usually denote adult males. This is a male!Belle's a demure, brown-eyed girl.

Probably the best indicator of a turtle's sex is the plastron,or lower shell. If it's scooped in, concave, it's a male. If it's flat, it's a female. The male needs a hollow in his plastron so he can balance atop the female. Here's an old picture of Naraht, the turtle who was released here nine years ago after an even worse shell injury than Belle's. He was hit by a car and had to be wired and glued back together. He's still coming around to visit, most recently about this time last September. I always give him a big plate of fruit and mealworms when he comes around the front door, and invite him in for a trundle around the kitchen. Anyway, Naraht is demonstrating turtle mating practices on a lifelike resin statue. Not getting much of anywhere, but he's having fun. Now you know what a horny turtle looks like.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Parakeet Painting

I recently finished a private commission: a portrait of a Carolina parakeet. Jumped at the excuse to paint this bird, as I've only done one other painting of it. I have to say, painting an extinct species like a Carolina parakeet is a lot less daunting than it used to be. It's so much easier to root out images of mounts and the like with the help of the Internet. And what I found most fun was finding images of species that were morphologically similar to Carolina parakeets, like the cherry-headed conure (Red-masked parakeet to you ornithologists) so beautifully depicted in the movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. It doesn't take much imagination to turn them into CAPA's. Very appealing birds. I have to think that the genus Conuropsis would have been changed to Aratinga, given a little time. I liked the tilt of this bird's head, so I stole it. But I was careful to watch bill proportions--CAPA bills were a bit finer, and the birds overall more delicate, than red-masked parakeets.

In a painting of this kind, you're only going to be as good as your reference. And no one is going to send you a museum specimen of an extinct bird. So you root around. And with a fast connection and a good Mac, it doesn't take long to build an impressive library of images to work from.

I started with my own photographs from the Field Museum of Chicago, where bird curator Dave Willard kindly let me handle some incredible specimens.

Then, I moved on to Net images of mounted birds. This is probably the prettiest mount photo I found. Immaculate feathers, amazing considering the specimen is probably well over a century old.

And found this Louis Fuertes study of a wing-clipped captive. My favorite artist, in the presence of a live Carolina parakeet. Will wonders never cease. This painting makes me sad, as I'm sure it did him. There it clings to its cage mesh, its left wing clipped. Poor thing. I can feel Fuertes' sadness in his painting.

I decided to give my bird a lively pose, stretching its wing and tail. Here it is, before I added the background wash and modeled the bird and leaves more fully. I could easily have stopped here, but then it would have looked like a plate out of an old book. I wanted to give it some context. I decided to put the bird in a peach tree, since its fondness for orchards was one of its downfalls.

In selecting colors for the background wash, I try to keep in mind what will complement the bird's colors. A cool periwinkle seemed like the best choice for that vibrant canary yellow and orange. I sprinkled some kosher salt into the wet wash to sparkle it up a little. Salt is hydrophilic, so the water pools around the crystals, and the pigment settles out when those pools dry up, making starry patterns.
The finished painting. You can see how I've gone in and tickled in darks all over the bird and leaves, added shadows to the peaches, and toned the whole thing up. I got a card in the mail from the person who commissioned it. He really likes it. Yay! And I get a few more trips to the grocery store and gas pump. So it goes. Beats flipping burgers.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Working the Land

There are chainsaws snarling in the woods on two sides of us. This is the time of year that rural Ohioans cash in their timber. At least they don't do it in June, when they'd be felling scarlet tanager nests, too. Needless to say, I hate chainsaws, I hate the way they sound, and I hate what they do. I recognize that, but for timbering, we wouldn't have hooded or Kentucky warblers or redstarts or common yellowthroats or countless other species that depend on new growth. But when I hear chainsaws and see skid after skid of logs coming out of what were once beautiful, nearly maturing woodlands, it hurts my heart. Stand after stand falls, and they never seem to get enough. Part of the 85-acre piece of land adjoining ours, where half of my beloved Loop Trail runs, has been timbered this autumn. I have not had the heart to go see what was wrought. The saws started up at 6:30 every morning, and the crack-crack swish CRAAASH of giant trees dying resounded through the valley. Once that was done, they started on the north side of us.
Yesterday morning, the noise was so loud I had to gather Chet up and go see what was going on.
We worked our way down through our woods and to our border with the neighbor.
There were cattle in the woods. Why do people put cattle in woods? There's really nothing for them to eat, and it's full of white snakeroot (known locally as locoweed, which can kill them). Still, they looked neat, like big old black bears stepping softly through the trees. They came to check us out, and blow their fragrant breath at Chet. I was proud of the wee dogge. He trembled, but never barked or growled, and he sat quietly and observed the cattle, and left willingly when I asked. My goal is to cool him down about cattle, so he doesn't feel the need to head 'em up and move 'em out whenever he encounters them. Or to get his head caved in by a quick kick.
From our border, we couldn't see the loggers, but the noise was overwhelming. As we turned to leave, a huge tree came down with the awful sound of hundreds of years of growing-- dying. I turned and raised my fists. RAPISTS!! I shouted, as loudly as I could. The only answer was the brup-brup ROWWWWWLLLL of the saw.
It's stupid and juvenile of me to rail against the time-honored southern Ohio way of making your land work for you. You wait until the timber gets some size, then you cut it down, taking all the biggest trees. Or maybe you completely clear it, and put cattle on it, to cut their zig-zagged trails deep into its flanks. The hillsides slump down, the mud chokes the streams, you sell the beef in the fall. That's how it works here, on all but a handful of farms where the farmers are sensitive to overgrazing and erosion. Like Jeff and Jay's, like Rusty's.
I work my land, too, in a much different way, and nobody calls me names. Well, at least not to my face. As I turned to go up the hill toward our old orchard, a big stand of great lobelia glimmered in a perched wetland.
A female great spangled fritillary took the morning sun.
And a great ash sphinx cut holes in the leaves of a white ash.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Lif is Good

One of my great pleasures in life is to drive the Appalachian Highway to Athens, to go record commentaries. Last Tuesday, I went to the WOUB studios in Athens, an hour and a half away, to record five more commentaries for All Things Considered. The first one aired today (well, yesterday for most of you who aren't pounding away at your computers until midnight). It's about Liam's bellyache, an unlikely subject for a commentary, I know, but the unlikely ones are the most likely to catch, it seems. They named it "Back to School, in Spurts and Starts." You can listen here.
It felt great to be back on the radio again. There are more coming. My dear editor at NPR wants to give the book a few plugs. Listening to Michele Norris plug my book on the national airwaves made me dance like a ruffed grouse, beating my featherless wings in the air.
Oh, the light in fall just drives me wild. Makes me want to wander. Makes me want to cut trails and spend the day sweating and cooling off in the chilly air. Makes me want to bury myself in fragrant sycamore and sweetgum leaves. Here are some scenes from the road back from Athens. I had to keep pulling over; the light and the clouds and the sycamores etched against the sky just shouted to me. Look how the earth colors are carried in the bellies of the clouds.

It's getting on time to say good bye to some plants I love dearly. My friend Jason (he of the errant Yahoo map and Baker smooches) has offered to house some plus-sized beauties in a college greenhouse for the winter, where he'll personally tend them. How sweet is that? Somehow, I managed to root a cutting of this amazing red mandevilla, so if it cacks, no big deal. Even though it's too big for my little Garden Pod, I cannot just leave it outside to die. Same goes for a select handful of oversized plants that Jason is going to abscond with, right before frost. What a nice offer. He doesn't know what he's offering, clearly. He'll have to rent a van.

This one dwarfs Phoebe, who is perilously close to dwarfing ME. Leggy thing. Rrrr.

I packed books for 2 1/2 hours tonight. I'm now at 151 out of 202. I'm into the orders made in the second week of September. What a delight to hear from people who are just receiving theirs. The thing that gets me is that almost everyone says, "I've put it aside to savor. I'm reading a chapter a night," or something to that effect. It's good, after writing for so long, drawing for so long, for publications that may be printed months or even years in the future, to have a product in my fists. To write a note in it, and pack this heavy square thing up in tissue paper and cardboard and send it out to people who want it. My sister Barbara said her favorite job ever was driving a flower delivery truck in Bridgewater, Mass, just marching up to people's doors and presenting them with bouquets. That's what this feels like to me.
Liam drew a picture of me and Bill at school. We're both wearing the slogan, "Lif is Good" on our shirts. Since I got my hair butchered, it's hard to tell which one is Daddy and which one is me. I think I'm second from left. (Big Hands, I know you're the one). That's Phoebe, looking mumpsy, and Liam, with his rockstar hair (Bill does a different, heavily gelled, standup do for him every morning). He (Liam, not Bill) announced his first crush on a girl in his class tonight. Bill, Phoebs and I melted.
At the top of the drawing, Baker's there, on the left, and that's macaw Charlie on the right. See his green wings? OK, I'll work with him on drawing birds.
I'll leave you with Baker, begging for roast chicken tonight at the dinner table. He ensconces himself on the bench behind the kitchen table, and after a few sheepish glances at us, decides it's probably fine to beg from there. He's such a gentleman (pronounced gemmun) at the table, it's hard to deny him. And so we don't. Nice gets you everywhere.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

When World Leaders Doodle

When I miss All Things Considered, or hear something I want to know more about, I haunt the NPR web site.

I can't tell you how many great things I've enjoyed on this site: new music from unknown bands, commentaries, videos, pictures of things described on the radio, stories I heard just the tail end of and wanted in their entireity. I visit the site a couple of times a day just to catch up. It's an amazing resource, one that changes daily.

Here's a story I adored, about a new CD of pirate songs (brought out just in time for Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sept. 17!). If you can get the audio working, dig Bully in the Alley. This guy just sings his butt off; he's so joyful and loose. We should all be thus. I have to get this CD!

On All Things Considered Thursday evening, there was a story about a book just out: a collection of doodles by past presidents of the United States. It's called Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles and Scrawls from the Oval Office. It's by David Greenberg and Cabinet Magazine.

This got my attention immediately, and I dragged these pictures off the NPR site. Presidential doodles, cool! Ulysses S. Grant was probably the most talented of all of them; he did really nice paintings and drawings in his youth, like this lovely study of a cart horse.
Ronald Reagan's doodles, on the other hand, look like they were copied out of a You Can Draw Cartoons! book from the 1940's: football players, mean thugs, babies with curlicues on their heads. He's there, too, the pale rider on the upper left. They're sweet, and certainly better than your average scribble. And then there was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Beholding LBJ's work, I laughed like a kookaburra. Eeeek!

Does this look like the work of a man who picked his beagles up by the ears? I thought so, too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Keepin' to the Sunny Side

Thrill report: Bill and I tiptoed into an enormous Barnes and Noble in Columbus on a recent Saturday, hoping to find Letters from Eden nestled on one of its shelves. Downstairs are the really sexy tables, with big green signs saying, "NEW NON-FICTION" and the like. A quick check netted nothing there. We took the escalator upstairs (yes, the store was that big) and there, in the nature section, was my book, displayed cover forward at the end of a shelf.
A man-span away was Jane Goodall's new book. OSSUM! The event seemed to merit some kind of notice. Bill of the Birds did a gannet-like sky-pointing display, accompanied by some gutteral, harsh calls. Awk! Awk! Awk!My editor, Lisa White, emailed to tell us that Letters was indeed on the New Non-fiction table in a Boston Barnes and Noble. Would it be uncool of me to spread a sleeping bag under said table, to keep a close eye on unsuspecting customers?

Upon downloading these photos, I noticed that, in the one of me holding the book, the sun appears to be shining out of my butt. As happy as this moment was, and despite the hopelessly self-aggrandizing nature of this post, I can assure you that this was but a shaft of sunlight, beaming in a west-facing window.

I'm now into the 80's, of the 182 orders thus far. Here are the choices I make every evening. Shall I mow the lawn, or sign books? Shall I make dinner, or sign books? Shower, or sign books? The lawn is 8" long; the kids are gaunt and hollow-eyed, and nobody wants to come near me.
If you'd like to add to the general neglect being suffered by my family and home, you can order Letters from Eden here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


It was such a cool day here, in two ways. First, it never cracked 60 degrees--heavy scudding clouds, flashes of blue and shots of sunlight, and a cold northwest breeze. It was an express train for warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes. We got a simply ridiculous list of birds--more than 50 species just off the back deck. A dozen of those were warblers! Plus crippling looks at Swainson's and wood thrush. Luckily, BOTB was working at home, and when one of us would glance up and spot birds going through, we'd both race out to the deck for a 15-minute hit of power fall birding (our favorite kind!) I'd love to list the birds that came through the birches, sycamore, willow, and mulberry right off our deck, but that would be boring, and besides it would narrow down the possible candidates for my Nefarious Quiz. The quiz is Nefarious because it is Hard, and because there is no Prize. Arrrr. Now that you know what you're getting into...

what's THIS? We shall call it #1.OK, what's THIS? #2And, worst of all, this? #3 (Hint: It's not an ivory-billed woodpecker.) Arrrr! (I'm still talking like a pirate today). I really do apologize for this one. You may feel free to throw up your hands, or your breakfast.All seen in our yard, all cruddily photographed through glass with a toy camera by yours truly.

Those of you who think birds are nice, but don't really care what names they go by, may feel free to pine for Chet Baker, and scroll down for your hit. The rest of you can fill the comment section with guesses good, guesses bad, and guesses from Mars. I'll give the answers there.
While we were watching warblers from the high deck, Chet spotted a benneh in the yard. We could tell because he started trembling and breathing hard, and his eyes were like twin laser beams focused on the nibbling lagomorph. I suggested that he give it a run for its money and he soundlessly padded down the stairs and tore out to try to catch it. The benneh watched calmly until Baker was about 15' away, then shot sideways while he continued madly on his straight line. We never tire of watching the bennehs outsmart our Baker. Even the baby ones take dog-fooling tutorials from their moms.
Baker was trotting back from chasing the rabbit and thoroughly sniffing where it had been sitting when he caught the scent of honey. He followed it to a little hole by our foundation. The next thing we heard was a sharp yip and a thump! as Baker ran straight into the wall of our house. He was writhing on the grass as five yellowjackets pumped him full of venom. OW OW OW! I ran and brushed them off, and pulled the stingers out (hadn't known that yellowjackets left their stingers like honeybees, but they did). I put a 25 mg Benadryl down Chet's throat (telling him it was a Bennehdryl) and tucked him under the covers to sleep off the pain. Poor Baker.
As the afternoon wore on his swelling got worse, until he bore a strong resemblance to Quasimodo. You be the judge...
I'm happy to say he's much improved now, and he never lost his appetite or willingness to play. Bostons, as Susan is joyfully discovering, are very tough little dogs, forgiving of insults, abounding in love and goodwill.Smile, and the world smiles with you. Even when you look like Quasi. Welcome to the good life, Boomer K. Williams. And while I'm being congratulatory, happy first Bloggin' Anniversary to my life light and heartbeat and best birding partner, Bill of the Birds. Go give him a huzzah!
This is not BOTB. This is a Disney hunchbaque.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Books Arrive!

It's heeeeere! Psychically attuned to the rumble of the UPS truck, I had been listening ever since we got back from Iowa for Letters from Eden to arrive. Finally, Chet's throaty Demi Moore bark announced the the birth of a new chapter in our lives. In that first shipment, 100 copies came, to be followed by another 20, then another 100 (there's another box of 20 floating around out there somewhere). My studio, already crammed with the stuff of a dozen jobs, took on the immediate aspect of a cottage industry, with tissue paper, square white cardboard boxes, tape gun, rainbow Sharpies, and stacks of orders. Have patience with me, ye 179 faithful who have ordered this book to date. I'm working my way through the orders from first placed to last (I know, I want it NOW, and I want to send it to you now...but imagine if you'd written a check in April and had been waiting all that time!) For each book sent, I've got to inscribe and sign it, wrap it in tissue, fold up a box, seal it with tape, address it, stamp a return address on it, stack it, then cross the order off the list. It's satisfying work, especially the last step. Inscribing is the hard part, especially when I know the recipient--thinking up something meaningful that's worth scribbling on the dedication page is a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially when you've done a couple of dozen in an evening.I love the hind leg position here as Chet strains to sniff the first copy. Everyone was so excited, you'd think there were bennehs in those boxes.

My family's copies are already gone in the first bunch of two dozen. Twenty-eight more went to the Whipple post office this afternoon. I sign and pack in the evening, in between cooking dinner and helping the kids with homework.
All UPS photos, except penultimate, by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

Baker snuck around the front of the truck to gain entry, and check to see that the driver had remembered to unload all the boxes. He was also expecting a biscuit, but this driver wasn't packin'.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bed-making, Boston Style

Chet's usual attitude on beds:

Breed trait: Boston terriers like to help make the bed, but they're about as much help as the average two-year-old. Chet Baker's idea of helping is to get made up in the bed, under the fitted sheet. When he hears the flap of bedspreads, he comes running, leaps up, lands in the middle of the sheets, and dares you to displace him. He loves large expanses of cloth, especially when they're flapping.
The moment he gets under the fitted sheet, a change overcomes this normally gentle dog. He turns into The Gremlin. He skibbles around under the sheet at high speed. You can only tell where he is by the wet spot his nose makes when he stops. (And the largish lump under the sheet, and the clop of his jaws as he snaps away). If you lift the corner to peek at him, you don't find Chet. You reveal The Gremlin. His eyes get buggy (well, buggier); he growls a lot, and he snaps randomly at anything nearby.

It's downright scary.
Wall-eyed Gremlin. It only comes out at night. This is the Monster Under the Bed that we've all feared since childhood.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Bill and I were walking back up the driveway, having dropped the kids off at the bus, when we were arrested by this fabulous orange dye in a puddle. At times like this all my neurons fire at once. What made that stain? How come it's orange? Gotta know, gotta know...
So I bent down and discerned a lovely barrel-shaped caterpillar dropping at the origin of each stain. Imagine that much dye, packed into one pellet. We looked up and found a sassafras tree, well-chewed. Brain: clackety clack. Remembered that we used to boil sassy roots and got a very similar stain in the "root beer" we created. Must be a tannin of some sort. So the caterpillars are taking this in and dumping it back out as they chew the leaves. So much for tannins as chemical protectants. At least some caterpillars get around it by pooping them out. What caterpillars? Well, spicebush swallowtail is a real good guess. They're big, and abundant here, and they're all over the butterfly weed.
So get this: When a spicebush swallowtail is in its first three instars, it roams around on leaves. And it's black and white, and it looks exactly like a bird dropping! Who would eat that?Here, it's mad enough to have its osmetrium extended, and is probably exuding something noxious from those little orange "horns" over its head. (the true head and two front legs are visible beneath the osmetrium).
Younger instars are really dark and look even more fecal than this. Unfortunately, Internet piracy netted me no images. I owe these to the Net...wish they were mine.

Before it pupates, the later instar of this caterpillar rolls itself in a leaf, and binds the edges together with silk. In this instar, it has a fabbo snake face on its anterior segments. It stays in the shelter during the day (which is probably why I couldn't find the poopers), its head up. Should a worm-eating warbler probe into one of the rolled leaves, it would pop its scary "face" out of the shelter and scare the bejabbers out of the bird with its realistic "eyes." As an artist, the thing that flips me most about this kind of mimicry is the HIGHLIGHT in the fake snake eye! Check it out. There's a big white highlight on the yellow "lid," and a really cool smaller white highlight on the shiny black "eye." Please.

So how do you get something that perfect out of natural selection? Lots of folks would say God had to make that caterpillar, because it's too wonderful to have been arrived at through natural selection. I dunno. I'm comfortable with the concept that the ones that didn't look as much like real snakes got eaten by worm-eating warblers. Lotta years, lotta caterpillars, lotta warblers: snake eyes, moving toward perfection.

Humans as a species are so impatient. We can't fathom the pace and process of evolution. We want somebody to have made it with a snap of his divine fingers, or a wave of his wand. Somehow, that sort of mystical explanation makes more sense to many of us. We can sit back and accept that some entity rolled those tiny vessels and intestines and nerves, what, from some kind of caterpillar putty? Then baked it until it was done? It makes no sense to me at all. I think about it a lot, but the notion of divine creation rattles around in my head, and then falls out of my ear, plop! --spreading a stain in a puddle in the driveway.

For M. Rosetta Weiss

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Google, Silk Cranks and Crawler-type Vehicles

I got an inquiry about an ivory-billed woodpecker painting today over the Net. As you might guess, with things being the way they are with ivory-bills, a Google search for ivory-billed woodpecker images leads photo-hungry publishers to email me with requests to reproduce one of my paintings. It was from natur+kosmos, a German magazine.

Before I fire back, I always Google people and publications that contact me, so I know a bit more about them before quoting a price, or agreeing to lend my work. One man gave me no information about his project, other than that he wanted me to paint a pink butterfly on a blue flower for a software CD cover. There are a couple of pink moths, but there aren't any pink butterflies around here. My antennae went up. A couple of questions, a little Googling, and I found out that he was developing organizational software for use by right-to-life organizations. It's good to know such things when I'm thinking about whether or not a job is a good fit for my work.

Another man wanted to commission some paintings for his Carolina beach house. Click, click: he's the CEO of an AI firm. Hmm. Good to know. Not that my prices vary that widely, but it's still nice to know you're not going to break somebody's budget if you charge what your work is worth.

The best Google disclosure ever: a gentleman who e-mailed several years ago, wanting to buy a black-billed cuckoo painting that had appeared on the cover of Birding, turned out on closer Googling to be David Sibley's agent. Needless to say, after jumping around the studio like Daffy Duck for a few minutes, I sold the painting to him. He owns the monk parakeets now, too. And represents me!

Back to the German magazine. I Googled it, and selected Google's automatic translation of the web page. You can find it here.

In the kids' section, I found an article about natural fabrics. As I read it, I started to laugh, and by the time I finished reading this paragraph, I was howling.

We owe silk to the butterfly with name silk crank. It puts eggs, out of which small crawler-type vehicles slip, which are gefrässig and grow, to it are ready for their conversion. But they produce themselves their abdomen a thread, with that them over? winding, until they eingesponnen completely in one about taubeneigrossenKokon are. Therein the crawler-type vehicle changes itself into a doll with firm covering, in which the butterfly develops. Before the silk crank slips, the Kokons are in-collected - the fine crawler-type vehicle thread is simply again completed. Two to three threads thereby to a sturdy silk thread are together-turned.

Yeah, Google. Thanks for the translation. To you, I owe much good and otherwise inaccessible information, and today, a good belly laugh. Headed to town today, but first, to change myself into a doll with firm covering.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Something New Under the Sun

Well, it's not new, really, just undiscovered until now. I LOVE hearing about "new" bird species, which are species that have been around for hundreds of thousands of years that we're just seeing for the first time. The latest, though, is a real crippler: a new babbler from northeast India, near the border with China.
Ramana Athreya, a professional astronomer and avid birder, first saw the bird at a sanctuary called Eaglenest in 1995. It was to be more than a decade before he saw it again, this past May.
And now, Liocichla bugunorum, the Bugun Liocichla:Isn't that a beauty? What a crippler! Bohemian waxwing, catbird and Kentucky warbler, pureed. This is one of two specimens who were captured, examined, recorded for posterity, and then released!

Here's the best part: No birds were harmed in the making of this discovery. The bird was judged too rare (with 14 known individuals, including three breeding pairs) to take so much as a type specimen, so photographs and feather samples and song recordings will suffice. And, it's named for the Bugun people, also endemic to the region. If you don't think humans are evolving, just consider that. As Birdchick would say, WHOOT! May they find dozens, hundreds more.

For your viewing pleasure, I have rustled up a couple of other Liocichlas from the Net. Here's Steere's Liocichla, a very common endemic on Taiwan:And here's the Red-faced Liocichla from Bengal. Ahhhh. Serve that one on a stick.
It's a good day when a new bird comes into the light. Especially one that beautiful. Don't take my word for it; read more here.

I am so over the dog eviction. So's Baker.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Dragonflies, Cheese Puffs

Those of us who live in unglaciated southern Ohio are nuts for water. We're on a deprivation diet. The nearest large expanse of water is the Ohio River, which is a huge, muddy highway for barges. I make a point of driving by the riverside as much as possible whenever I go to town, just to feast my eyes on it. There's always something interesting out on the water, be it a gull, a barge, or a sternwheeler.
Because BOTB is a Pisces, there's almost always water in our vacation plans. On Saturday, we took our one-man canoes out on a weedy lake. There were dragonflies EVERYWHERE. And all of them were getting it on. These looked like yellow-legged meadowhawks, Sympetrum vicinum. Properly identified, they immediately used me as a trysting platform. Bad haircut warning! At least somebody stayed at the park long enough to get lucky.

I had this vision of taking Chet Baker for a nice long paddle in the canoe. I lifted him in, and he lifted himself right back out. And, having refused a ride, he was not pleased to see me paddle off in a canoe for the first time. He dithered on the boat launch for a moment, then launched himself into the water. A brachycephalic dog swimming is not a pretty sight. Bulging eyes, snorgling nose, frantic expression: I had to ask Phoebe to hold him until I went around the bend.
When I got back, Baker was happily burying something in the wet, muddy bank. I watched him from a distance; like any good pirate, he doesn't like to be observed when he's burying treasure. Sure enough, he came back to the bag of cheese puffs that Phoebe and Aveen had been raiding, as it lay unattended on the dock. He extracted a puff and buried it some distance from the first one, in wet mud. Sure, that'll be there when you come back, Baker. You're never coming back! Spreading allergens, endangering the health, safety and comfort of other parkgoers, Chet Baker wreaks destruction wherever he goes. Hey, is he smoking crack???

Busting People

Piping plover family, watercolor by JZ. Commissioned by the USFWS as a retirement gift for Chincoteague's wonderful preserve manager, who probably had to bust thousands of people in his time.

Wow. Damn. Twanging a chord with this post. I think everyone, at some time in their lives, has run afoul of petty authority. It's everywhere; you don't have to look far for it.

In the mid-80's, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I worked for The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut Chapter. I was a "Preserve Designer," which meant that for the sum of $1200 per season, I drove my own car all over the state looking for rare and endangered plants and animals, attempting to find the best of the last. Then, I mapped out the habitat that each population seemed to need to survive, looked up the land records, made contact with some landowners, and made recommendations to the chapter on how to go about protecting those species. I couldn't help but notice that the least tern and piping plover nesting colonies along the Connecticut coastline were completely unprotected. No signs, no fencing, nothing: people driving ATV's and trucks through; people sunbathing and partying in the colonies; dogs running amok. The state DEP wasn't interested at that time; you can't hunt 'em, they're no good to eat; and the hook-and-bullet crowd held sway. (Things have changed quite a bit since then!)

Connecticut was such a stark contrast to my former residence of Massachusetts, which had had its beach-nesting bird chops going for years by then. I was appalled. Here, people were stepping on eggs, gathering up chicks, letting their dogs chase piping plovers! Agggh! I decided to do something about it, and started the Least Tern/Piping Plover Recovery Program. For three years, I put up signs and string fencing, and patrolled the beaches to protect the birds. Also published a newsletter to let people know what I was up to. I hated weekends; I prayed for rain. A sunny weekend meant that I would have to hit the most crowded beaches, and bust people all day long. To this day, I still love Mondays and rainy Saturdays! TNC was kind enough to fund me (again, $1200 per season, no benefits, use your own car, good luck!). I had as many as 30 volunteers working with me at the peak season. In 1987, the State of Connecticut stepped up to take over the program, and I decided to starve myself instead as a freelance artist. I liked the work. At least I didn't have to bust anyone anymore.

The tern and plover work was exhausting. I looked like a living skeleton at 118 lbs, toasted brown. But in the end, it wasn't the endless coastal driving or the need to be eight places at once that got me. It was having to bust people who were just having a good time. People are not exactly at their best when they're at the beach. They're partying; they're relaxing, and they don't want to be told they've spread their towel in the middle of an endangered bird colony, or let their dog chase a Federally threatened species. Some of them were nudists; some of them were nudists AND perverts, and they used the bird colony for their...whatever... BECAUSE I had fenced it off. They did not want to see me coming down the beach. So they were inclined to be nasty more than the norm. I tried my best to befriend them or at least not threaten them as I asked them to respect the birds. It's hard to befriend a baggy ol' guy who's waving his naughty bits at you as you're trying to kick him out of a tern colony. But I got pretty good at it, even as I hated raining on their parade. I just hated being a cop. So I've been on the enforcement side, for three long summer seasons, and I know how to treat people when you're trying to get them to do your bidding.

I also know how not to treat people. There is a certain type of person who is into law enforcement for the wrong reasons: because they actually enjoy busting people. We've all been stopped by just such a cop, or brought up short by the high school hall monitor who just seems to be doing a low simmer all the time, who needs to take it out on someone else. And I think the dozens of comments on my last post are coming from people who've run up against such folks, and have their own stories of petty tyranny to tell.

Phoebe and Liam saw firsthand last weekend that such people exist. Might as well learn that young. They saw their mother screw up and make bad choices. They saw punishment that could only be called outrageous; punishment that could never be said to fit the crime. And they saw their parents question authority. Our kids aren't growing up with a blind respect for anyone in a position of authority, much as the public school system would like them to. When someone abuses their authority, my kids' unfairness radar goes off, even as young as they are. And they're good, solid citizens, destined to grow up to be considerate adults who think.

Ultimately, it's much more interesting to me as a writer to have a misadventure than a peaceful, relaxing weekend. It may not be restorative; it may not be fun, but it is inspirational. I could have come back all glowy and written, "Oh, we had the most wonderful anniversary! We fished and canoed and sang around the campfire (whoops, can't do that at Herrington Manor either! Just briquettes!) and hung out with our friends. It was marvelous!" And you'd have thought, well, fine, how nice for you, and stifled a yawn. But instead, you're all jiggy and hopping up and down and writing letters and stuff, and I'm reading your comments and laughing out loud. Thank you. You rock.

A big, heartfelt thanks to the dutiful, just doing our job ma'am, Ranger and Rangerette who, in their zeal to make a really big bust, netted an illicit Boston terrier and made two children and a grown woman cry; who put us out on the highway fighting sleep and dodging deer from 10PM to 2 AM; who bummed out sixteen good people who will never set foot on Herrington Manor soil again; who inspired two blog entries and 30-plus comments. We never asked their names; it doesn't matter. They are who they are. May they draw their state paychecks in peace. We came home, wrote, cleaned our house, got a day's jump on a big week, and went on with our lives, lives enriched by contact with you.

My gosh! Got to get to bed!

Sunday, September 10, 2006


An expotition by canoe on the lake at Herringon Manor State Park. This is a scene I feel sure I will not witness again. Nor, for that matter, will any of our friends who were there.
It was our 13th anniversary, after all. We wanted to spend it with friends, three other families with kids. It took a day and half to pack for it, this weekend getaway at Herrington Manor State Park in Oakland, Maryland. Packing involves getting binoculars, spotting scope, swimsuits, lifejackets, canoe paddles, barbeque tools, clothes, towels, soap, sheets, blankets, pillows, pads, food for three meals a day, condiments, baking pans, a decent skillet and spatula, Frisbees, footballs, beer, wine, juice, dishwashing liquid, dish sponge…I know I'm forgetting something here; I always do… and when all that is stuffed into two groaning vehicles we tie two canoes on top of the Explorer and are finally and exhaustedly ready to drive almost four hours and have a relaxing weekend with dear friends.
We also took Chet Baker.

As one drives into the park, there is a sign stating that no pets are allowed in the park from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This might seem to intimate that it's OK to bring a dog after Labor Day. And last year, though we put Chet Baker in a kennel, we saw a number of other dogs trotting happily beside their owners through the park's cabin area. Over the ensuing year, Chet Baker has gone from our dog to something more. I won't try to define what he means to us. That's obvious to anyone who reads this blog. Suffice it to say that it's really hard now for us to have a good time, knowing he's waiting for us in a stainless-steel cubicle in the basement of the veterinarian's office. And so, against our better judgment, we decided to bring Chet. We'd put his cushy bed and blankets in the car so there could be no possible chance he'd damage anything. It seemed like a plan.

We stay in rustic cabins at this park. They date from the 1930's, from the government work programs that gave the newly destitute masses something constructive to do. Their floors are wide planks of wood, deeply scored by saws from decades of vacationers who cut their firewood in the living room. The cabins are pervaded by the reek of creosote and mouse urine; little mouse feet patter overhead all night long. Bats chitter from eaves; chipmunks dart in and out of the foundation; a skunk met us on our back porch as we checked in. That’s fine with us. Between the reek and the crackly sleeping platforms and the mouse chorus lines, the cabins are not particularly restful, but sleep deprivation is part of weekends away with the family. Since there's no carpet, and no bedding whatsoever, it's difficult to divine what a small, squeaky-clean and impeccably mannered Boston terrier might do to damage one of these cabins if he tried. Or so our rationale, admittedly flawed by puppy love, went.

The first night went well. We arrived just before dusk, unpacked, scrabbled together a meal, and hung out with our friends. In the morning, we went out to the park's playing fields to watch a parade of warblers, tanagers, vireos, finches and flycatchers moving along the ridgetop. Chet sat beside us, patient at the end of his leash, just happy to be included. A park ranger pulled over and inquired if we were staying in the cabins. Yes, we are.
“You're aware there's a no pets policy?”
“Well, sort of. Isn’t it OK after Labor Day?”
“Well, not really. Just keep him under wraps so other guests don't get the idea it's OK to bring their dogs, OK?”
“You bet. Thank you.”
It was the nicest, gentlest possible bust. The ranger got in his truck and drove away. We settled into a day of bliss with Chet Baker as a full, if closeted, member of the gathering. Bill and I made blueberry pancakes and sausages for everyone for breakfast. We spent the morning paddling around on the lake, then all trooped back to our cabin again for soup beans and cornbread. I'd made the soup at home and lugged it to Maryland in gallon jugs. I baked the cornbread, golden and perfect, in the oven in our cabin. We loved feeding our friends, and they planned to reciprocate with dinner, breakfast and lunch in the days to follow.Aveen and Phoebe with what Aveen called "a small, large-mouthed bass." Aveen caught a total of four bass on Saturday, totalling nine ounces of fish. All were released, despite our entreaties to provide dinner for eleven.

Saturday afternoon, I took off on a hike along the park's miles of trails, Chet Baker bounding happily at my side. We took the .9 mile Green loop, and itching for more, set off on the more ambitious 2.4 mile Blue loop. As the miles rolled away, my mind relaxed, in the way it only does when I'm walking with my little dog. Chet and I saw two deer, six wild turkeys, and about 70 chipmunks. When I'd stop to sit on a log, Chet would jump up beside me. He's the perfect hiking companion. He's enthusiastic, but quiet and considerate. He even pants soundlessly, something I deeply appreciate when I'm listening for birds. We heard a barred owl, and Chet met his first horses. I held him in my arms as he touched noses with them, then licked their faces. The riders laughed, and one remarked that she'd never seen a dog do that. The horses seemed pleasantly surprised, their eyes wide, their ears as far forward as they would go. Chet and I continued on our way, always taking the farthest loops, loving the solitude and the walking.

Chet and I finally loped into camp after 6 PM. Bill hadn't been the least bit worried about me, even though I'd been gone for four hours. He knows that I'm most at home in the woods of anyplace on earth. But our daughter Phoebe was pale, and her eyes were wide. A female ranger had knocked on the door of our cabin while she was alone inside, and “yelled at me about Chet.” Uh-oh. Phoebe told me that the ranger had said that I should report to the park office immediately upon returning. This had happened just before 5 p.m. I looked at my watch, doubting that anyone would be there after 6 p.m. on a Saturday. I decided to let it ride. I didn't particularly want to talk to someone who would yell at a ten-year-old girl. I wanted to pour a glass of wine and join my friends and family, who were playing music around a picnic table next door, and preparing for a feast.

We sang a few songs, and then Bill and I went over to our cabin to clean up for dinner. I was just climbing into the shower when a truck pulled up, and the female ranger rapped smartly on the door. The bathroom door opened and Bill tossed Chet, who had been sleeping off our hike in his own little bed, inside with me. I listened as the ranger, backed up by another male ranger, launched her accusations. “We understand you have a dog in this cabin. Are you aware that we have a no pets policy?”
Bill equivocated, not exactly admitting to being aware of the policy, and alluding to the fact that dogs are allowed in the park after Labor Day. I listened, mouth agape, as the iceberg of their conversation began to turn over. The rangers began talking about our writing the manager, applying for a refund for our stay. It sank in on me that we were being kicked out of our cabin. I put my clothes back on and went out to see if I could help.

Bill and I offered to keep Chet locked in the car. What harm could he do, locked in our car?
“Dogs aren't allowed in the cabin area at all.”
“Even in a locked car?”
“No. People come to this park because we offer allergen-free cabins. They expect a clean environment without dog hair.”
At this, I had to interject. “ I'd hardly call this cabin an allergen-free environment. It reeks of mouse urine!” Phoebe and I had had to take Claritin on arrival, and we’d been up coughing much of the night. My observations were not helping, I could see that, but the ludicrousness of the situation was overwhelming. The rangers smiled and laughed nervously. It was clear that they were enjoying their first real bust in a long time.
“How can he spread allergens when he's locked in our car?”
“It's the principle, Ma'am.”
And that was the crux of it all. It didn't have to make sense. This wasn't about dogs, or allergens. This was about a Rule Being Broken. This was about retribution.
The rangers suggested that we get a hotel in town.
“Why would we get a hotel in town?” we countered. “We don't want to stay in town. We want to stay here, and leave first thing in the morning. We're just sitting down to dinner! It's 7 o'clock on a Saturday night! We're four hours from home!”
I offered another compromise. “How about if I leave with Chet, and spend the night in the car with him, outside the park? This would at least allow my family to stay, have something to eat, and get some sleep.”
“No. We're sorry. We're just doing our jobs. You'll all have to leave, immediately.”
It was time for the time-honored play. “Who's your supervisor?” Bill asked.
The rangers eagerly offered his name. And then offered to call “Kenny” at home, and see if he would change his mind. But, they warned, Kenny had told them to evict us in the first place, so they doubted that he would. Kenny was new, and somewhat strict. We should start packing. They'd come back in a few minutes, after they'd talked with Kenny, and tell us what our fate would be.
From the bathroom, Chet let out the tiniest little moan, a dog question. Why am I locked in the bathroom?
The rangers heard it. I could see their eyes light up with predatory zeal. They finally turned to leave, saying that they understood how upset we must be. And then the male ranger hurried back, smiling, his eyes gleaming. “Where is the dog right now?”
“In the car,” I lied. I didn't want this guy to get anywhere near Chet. If he would throw a family out on its ear at dinnertime, who knew what else he might do? Confiscate Chet Baker? Have him put to sleep?
“I looked in your car and couldn't see through the tinted glass. Will you please open your car and show him to us? Because my supervisor's going to ask me where the dog is, and I'm going to have to tell him.”
Now, the rangers were really having fun. Might as well humiliate us while they were at it.
I opened the bathroom door and brought Chet out. “Here’s the cause of all this consternation. Take a look at him. Here he is.”
“OK, Ma'am, that's all I need to know. I don't want to see your dog. I just wanted to know where he was, so I can tell my supervisor.”
Oh, you do that.
I started throwing shampoo and soap into my tote bag.
The rangers roared back up ten minutes later with the news from Supervisor Kenny. We had exactly an hour to get out of the park. The female ranger shot her cuff and checked her watch. “You'll need to be out by 8:05.” She giggled nervously.
"Thank you very much." Bill and I closed the door.
Phoebe began to weep. I began to cry. Our six-year-old son Liam patted my back, then brought me a chocolate chip cookie, to make me feel better. Bill began throwing sleeping bags and pads down from the loft.
Once I started crying, I couldn't stop. I thought about our kids, exhausted from a day in the sun, having to get back in the car for four hours. I thought about the glass of wine I'd just had. My legs were weak from my 4 ½-mile hike. I thought about making the drive in two cars through the mountains at night, with deer popping out on every side. (And sure enough, at 12:15 AM, somewhere along Route 50 in West Virginia, an enormous doe sauntered out onto the highway and stopped, squarely in the middle of my lane. Ford Explorers are topheavy at best. With two 40-lb. canoes on end atop the roof rack, I knew I couldn't swerve or brake too severely. I braked, swerved as gently as I could, and blew the horn just as I drew even with the deer, hoping to frighten her back the way she had come. By some grace from above, she sauntered back the way she'd come, and we didn't roll the car.) Thank God we were on the highway at midnight, and there wasn’t a dog in the Herrington Manor cabin area, though. At least that area had been secured.

Back at the cabin, I threw bedding and towels into baskets while Bill emptied the refrigerator. I washed and dried the dishes in the sink, and put them back in the cabinets. I don’t know why I felt compelled to leave the cabin in perfect condition, but I did. Darkness fell. Our friends carried boxes and bags to our car. Bill fetched the canoes from the lake, a mile away, and we tied them to the top of the car using flashlights. We got out of the cabin with eight minutes to spare. We trooped sadly over to share a last meal with our friends. We made S'mores. At 9:30 p.m., we settled the kids into pillows and blankets for the four-hour ride home. I ate another S'more for the road, perfectly melted, as only our friend Tami can make them. Joe and Tom promised to stop by the park office after they checked out to tell the management they wouldn't be returning to Herrington Manor. To tell whomever would listen that none of them would ever set foot in the park again, nor would any of their friends. It was the only thing they could do for us, but it wouldn’t give us back our anniversary weekend.
As we drove slowly out of the park, the rangers’ white pickup truck pulled up behind.
“We're leaving now. Thank you,” I called.
Bill turned on his flashers, and I turned mine on. They winked satisfyingly in the night. Something about it felt like a final act of rebellion. A little motorcade of bitterness.
The rangers escorted us and our dog out of the park.
In the dark car, Phoebe stroked Chet's head. He rolled his eyes, ears plastered back, frightened, and fully aware that he was somehow the cause of all of this. In the perfect wisdom of innocence, my daughter summed up the foolish sentiment that had led to our misstep and eventual disgrace.

“I'd rather have a bad time with Chet Baker than a good time without him.”

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Belle Thrives

There is a certain little boy in Manhattan who has probably lost all hope that I'll ever do a box turtle post again. Well, Kai sweetie, here's your box turtle post. Remember Belle, the turtle who was hit by a mower in July? The injury made a hole in her shell that exposed her lung, yucch, and things looked very bad indeed. With the help of an expert turtle rehabilitator from New York, I did a fill-and-patch job on Belle, using a heavy solid cream meant for burn victims and some synthetic plastic skin, some injectible antibiotic and a lot of TLC. I set up Chet's old puppy pen in the yard, giving her an 8' circle to rumble around in, complete with recessed swimming pool and a panoply of fresh fruits and live insects. Belle drank and trundled around, but she refused to eat for me. D'oh! I really wanted this turtle to eat before having to go into hibernation, but you can't make them eat if they don't want to.

What I could offer Belle was nothing to what Gary and Carol Foster can. They're the folks who own the mower that hit Belle, and no one could care more about this little denizen of the woods than they do. Right before we left for Chautauqua, Gary asked if they might be able to care for Belle over the winter. I readily assented, having just a wee bit too much on my plate right now to want another critter to worry about.This is the latest picture of Belle, from Carol. The Fosters have supplied her with a UV light, timed to go on for a 12-hour day, and she's become a lusty eater of canned chicken, dusted with reptile vitamins. Carol and Gary think she just missed being near her home (they found her in their backyard, which borders on a woodland). The plan is to keep her awake and eating all winter so her shell can heal. In this shot, the hole looks smaller to us. We think it's beginning to close over. Hooray!
We have no way of knowing how old Belle is, but she's an adult. Counting rings on scutes only works while they're young. After a certain point, the annual growth rings are so close together it's really hard to tell how many there are. And in really aged turtles, wear is a factor; I find a few old soldiers who are worn almost smooth. No way to age them, except to guess that they're probably old enough to be our grandparents. Imagine keeping a 97-year-old turtle in a box, as a pet.

In other box turtle news, I've got to walk out and check that nest cage again. I try to check it every few days, hoping each time to see silver-dollar-sized turtlets stomping around inside. It's gotten so overgrown that I must take a flashlight with me to see down into the grass and make sure there's no exit hole. Then, the question will be: Should I release them right then and there, or bring them inside for a safe hibernation and perhaps a few years of growing up, until they're too big and strong to be chipmunk snacks?
Anybody want to take bets on what I'll do? I know, no-brainer.

The shipping boxes for Letters from Eden arrived today, all 300 of 'em. 75 lbs. of boxes. I don't want to take chances with padded envelopes for this heavy hardcover book. The books were shipped today from Indianapolis. Oh my gosh. I absolutely can't wait to see them. I hope they don't arrive tomorrow though; I want a guilt-free weekend in the sun with my little family. We can get down to bidness when the books get here.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mother's Butterfly

I used to shudder a little when people referred to their dogs or cats as "furkids" or to themselves as the dog or cat's mother. That was before I had my own kids, and before I got used to the idea of being anyone's mother. Once you've been referring to yourself, for the benefit of your kids, as a third-person "Mommy" for ten years, it's no great leap to keep referring to yourself that way when you get a puppy. I'm sure I make plenty of people's teeth hurt when they hear me talking to Chet. I ameliorate the sweetness just a bit by referring to myself as "Mother" around Chet. It's pronounced, in his backwoods accent, like this: "Mether." If you're still with me, and not gagging, stick with me.

The terrier instinct is, let's face it, a killer instinct. Chet has it in spades. He sees a small furry animal and goes on instant, quivering, I-want-to-kill-that alert. He's the same way about low-flying butterflies and grasshoppers, innocent crickets and roaches. However... Since he was a puppy, I've been working with him to gentle down that urge to overkill. So he's gone with me on bluebird box nest checks, and he's been allowed to sniff eggs and chicks and fledglings. Part of training a dog is showing it respect, and trusting it to do the right thing. From the very start, when he's been shown a small helpless bird or animal, I've said, "That's mother's bluebird" (or turtle, or catbird, or toad)...And he's been utterly trustworthy, sniffing but not touching.

This morning, Chet was standing at the glass door, quivering, on alert. He was watching a red-spotted purple butterfly flitting around on the porch, landing and slowly opening and closing its wings in the morning sun. This lovely butterfly, a mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail, is actually related to the commas and question marks, not a swallowtail at all. And like its two cousins, it's strongly attracted to nectar and fermenting fruit and droppings and urine (for the phosphates within them, with which it makes its pheremones). It probably detected some spilled hummingbird nectar, or even the copious hummingbird droppings on the porch, and it kept returning to the same spot.Chet really wanted to get that butterfly. But just as much, I wanted him to leave it unharmed. And so, just before opening the front door to let him out, I said, "Chet, that's Mother's butterfly. Be nice to it." And instead of bolting out the front door as he normally would, Chet stepped ever so carefully out, slowly walked up to Mother's butterfly, and sniffed it. The butterfly fluttered up, made a circle, and came back. Chet flopped down on the porch and spent much of the rest of the morning idly watching it, this butterfly that would have been a spot of grease on the porch had I not asked Chet to be nice to it.This is what is so cool about dogs. And, I would submit, about male dogs in particular. Some female dogs I've known will do what you ask until your back is turned, and then go ahead and do what they want when they think you're not looking. As if that rule applied then, but doesn't really apply to her, now...And most of those girls get away with it. But a good male dog has a conscience. He listens, remembers, and complies, even when you're not there to watch. I don't want to use the word "obeys," because it's something more than that. Chet complies because he understands the concept of something small and defenseless being protected. Even against his primary instinct, which is to pursue and kill that small creature. More than that, he let it alone all day long. Red-spotted purples are creatures of habit, and it flitted around the porch, even landing a couple of times on Chet's rump (we won't speculate what it was after there) without being molested.

Good dog, Chet. You're shaping up into a fine, fine doggie.I try. I really do. I just hope you never tell me those are Mether's Bennehs out there in the yard. A man's got to have somethin' to chase.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

It's a...BOOK!

I don't quite know how to describe it: the feeling I got when I held Letters from Eden in my hands for the first time. It was a little bit like looking into Phoebe's hazy blue eyes for the first time, saying simply "Hi," because I couldn't think of anything better to say. I could never equate the two, but there were elements of that overwhelming amazement in it. I guess the main parallel is in the sudden culmination of a creative act. Seeing a book through publication is a little like pregnancy and labor, because you work and work and wait and wait, and you never get to see the finished product until BOOM it's lying there in your hands like a clothbound baby.

I can't praise Houghton Mifflin highly enough for the careful treatment they have lavished on this book. I wouldn't change a single detail. Big sturdy hard cover, nice dust jacket, luscious paper that's coated but with a matte finish. Great typefaces. The watercolors are bright and sharp as tacks; they leap off the page. The pencil drawings are so delicately shaded that they look as though they were drawn right on the page. Sixty-three paintings and 53 drawings. I just keep looking at it, reading it, waiting for the next painting or drawing to be revealed. It's like a picture book you can read. The designer, Anne Chalmers, gave each painting and drawing the room it needed to really sing. There were no shortcuts taken. It's a full-bore art book approach. I carry it with me in my groaning Guatemala bag everywhere I go, ready to whip it out at the slightest indication that someone might be interested. Gotta cut me some geek slack here. It's my first all Zick book, and I'm thoroughly loving it.

When the ten cases I've ordered come sometime in the next week, I'm going to be shipping
out the 122 copies so far pre-ordered. I'll sign each one as requested, most with some kind of personal inscription, wrap it, slip it in its mailing box, address it and haul stacks of boxes down to the Whipple post office, which needs all the help it can get to stay open. A mass mailing like this ups their quotient of pieces handled and helps justify their continuing existence.Apologies for these photos. They were taken by an overexcited photographer on a rainy day in a hotel room in Iowa.

The next few days will be a flurry of ordering shipping boxes and packing materials, and getting everything ready for the arrival of the cartons of books. I think I'll probably have to order a few more cartons just to be safe. The official publication date is October 4; that's the date that retail booksellers will be able to sell it. I hope to have books in hand and be shipping them by the week of September 11. If you'd like to be added to the list of people who want Letters from Eden, signed by the author, before you can get it anywhere else, please click on the little banner ad to the right near the top of the blog, or click here.

The more the merrier! Now I have to scrape up a couple of grand to pay for all those cases of books from the publisher. If you wonder what I've been doing with your $32 checks over the last few months, well, I've been buying shampoo and peaches and Spiderman sneakers with them. Hope that's OK.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Changing Face of Iowa

The Muhlenbruch barn, no longer home to free-range Duroch and Hampshire hogs, Simmental and Hereford cattle. No longer home to anything but barn swallows, in fact. Just over the bean field behind is a factory farm. Small farmers like my uncle can't compete with the super-efficient, ultra-economical and incredibly inhumane animal warehousing that now passes for farming.

Iowa is where my mother and father were born, and where I still have many beloved relatives. Bill was born in Pella, Iowa, home of the famous RollScreen windows and Tulip Time. We've both got roots in Iowa. Every summer, my parents loaded us in the car--five kids and a dachshund, later just the two youngest and the same dachshund--and we drove 1200 miles from Richmond, Virginia, to north central Iowa.
My childhood memories are simple, pungent, cherished. Uncles on both my mom and dad's side had farms, old-fashioned farms with chickens, cattle, hogs, horses; hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans; trains rumbling by in the night, squeaky iron beds; the belch and bicker of hogs fighting under a mercury light; the smell of manure and fresh-cut alfalfa; clouds of dust on the gravel road. There were so many alfalfa butterflies that our windshield would be yellow with their guts, and we'd have to wipe them off periodically if we were to see our way from farm to farm.

I remember playing with our cousins in a wagon full of shelled corn, pouring it over our heads. I remember studying hogs and cattle and chickens, trying to get my uncle Howard to tell me the difference between a gilt, a barrow, a sow and a boar. I remember burrowing in the haymow, looking through holes in the one-board floor at the cattle in the barn below. Barn cats with pasty eyes waited for my uncle to shoot hot Guernsey milk into their mouths. We'd visit so long in the evening that Bossy and Rocket wouldn't get milked, and they'd bellow pitifully until Howard tore himself away from bridge with my parents to go do his chores. I am thankful for those memories, and for my parents, who made the supreme effort to get us all out to Iowa to see our cousins, grandparents, and the place we came from. The place our food comes from.

Iowa, 40 years later, is a changed place. Where there used to be animals, there are vast fields of soybeans and corn. The animals are all hidden from view now, kept like prisoners in enormous metal sheds, bundled out of sight, cheek to jowl. This is factory farming.This is a shed that houses turkeys. It seemed to go on forever. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a pile of white turkeys panting in the front of the shed, stacked atop each other, trying to get a look at the sky. Butterballs, all.
We passed a hog truck on our way, but it was one such as I'd never seen. This truck was loaded full with just-weaned piglets, on their way to a factory farm. On this ride, they'd feel the sun and wind for the last time. They were crammed in like the sausages they'd become, nosing at the sky. I'd never seen weanling piglets being trucked; all the hog trucks I've ever seen had full-grown animals going to market. Another change, a new way of doing things.

My aunt Toot, who farmed for 35 years on this beautiful place, explained to me that the factory farm corporations have a sophisticated approach. First, they wine and dine farmers at a banquet, giving each one a $500 check for attending. All they want is to buy a little corner of land where they can put a couple of sheds. And the factory farms aren't really all that obtrusive to look at; in fact, I was amazed that they weren't bigger. Just a couple of long sheds, some silos for feed, tanks for water, and another shed for equipment. You don't see people around; in fact, you don't see any living thing. All hidden from view.

But in each one of those sheds live (and I use the word loosely) 2,500 hogs. A total of 5,000 in the two. A city of animals, just existing: eating, pooping, drinking, sleeping. That's it. They can't walk; they can't see the sky; they can't fight or bicker or roll or wallow. They can't amble slowly out into a grassy field and flop down on their sides as my uncles' hogs always did. But I know they think, because most pigs are at least as intelligent as a really smart dog. Many, probably smarter. Imagine, locking a mind like Chet Baker's up like that, just waiting for his body to grow bigger. This is what we do to the animals we eat. But we don't want to think about that. We just want them to hurry up and get big so we can eat them, and truck more piglets in to complete the same, horribly wrong cycle. Much of the meat goes to Japan, my aunt told me.

Each factory is required to drill its own well. Think about how much water 5,000 hogs will drink in a summer. This draws down the water table. And in the winter, the accumulated droppings from 5,000 animals for an entire year is spread on the surrounding fields. My aunt says the smell is incredible, nauseating. The runoff inevitably pollutes watercourses, lakes, and gets into the groundwater, and we drink it, antibiotics, steroids, nitrates and all. But look at this check for $500, and this nice dinner we just had! And there's more money coming! It's easy to see how it all happens. It's a takeover, a buyout, a guarantee that real barns will go empty, and slowly deliquesce into piles of siding, weeds sprouting in barnyards that once housed hogs and cattle.

Over the soybean field next to the Muhlenbruch farm is a factory farm, in view of the house where Toot and Howard spent 35 full, hard-working years, raised four girls and married them off. The Muhlenbruchs never sold out, but their neighbors did. The smell drifts over. Everywhere in Franklin County, everywhere in Iowa, the silver sheds have risen.

And now the windfarms are coming, full force. There's lots of wind in Iowa, and overseas corporations are flocking to what once was prairie, raising hundreds of enormous turbines that slash the air. This picture doesn't look like much, taken as it was from a speeding car, but it's the changing face of Iowa: soybean fields for ethanol; factory farm, with turbines.This is the barn on the farm where my father grew up. It was here that Peppy the collie buried a chicken who wasn't quite dead yet; here where the team of horses lived; here where Dad hauled sacks of feed and bales of hay. Now, just a relic, never to house animals again.

Young as I am, I miss the old Iowa I once knew, the colorful, lively one with red barns and wandering animals. I'm glad my father never saw the new face of Iowa. He wouldn't have liked it.