Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cheddar Bunnies

Our friend Jason came to visit last night to pick up a crockpot he'd left during the Big Sit. Hard to believe we hadn't seen him since October 9, but we picked up where we'd left off, with a glass of wine, a nice dinner and some laughter.
Jason decided, based on recent blog posts, to upgrade Chet's snack food with some Annie's Organic Cheddar Bunnies. The kids were enthusiastic, too.
Before Jason unveiled his gift, Chet gave him a right good butting. This is something Chet does that I can't really explain, another of his catlike behaviors. He jumps up on the lap of the long-suffering guest, and presses his rump against said guest's chest. You either like this or you don't. Gorillas are said to like to stand on people. Cats, of course, like to rub their chins on people, and wave their tails in your face. Chet butts people. It's better than some behaviors I can think of, and as long as we don't point it out, people seem to be willing to overlook it, until Chet fires. Jason looks like he's enjoying it. Hmmm. Jason.
Chet was immediately galvanized by the unveiling of the Cheddar Bunnies, forgetting all about his butting mission. He morphed from a nonchalant butt-inflictor to a shameless beggar. Note ear position: farthest forward possible. They only come this far forward for bunnies, cheddar and otherwise.
Jason whipped him into a frenzy (it's not hard to do that with a Boston; they are very suggestible) by withholding the bunnies. Chet was soon waving his paws in the air and oinking like a pig.
Rest assured Chet got plenty of bunnies.
Cheddar bennehs. They are good. Only the best for Chet Baker. Thanks, Jason, for the new snack treat. When winter's cold winds start to blow, we look for new junk foods to keep our carb fires burning. We are not paid or otherwise compensated by Annie to tout her snacks. We just grab photo ops where we find them. No actual bennehs were harmed in the making of this photo essay. This one is for Jane, who I'm sure can use a laugh right about now.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hot Spring Reverie

That's the spring, with rockworks around it, a primitive spa, probably known and enjoyed since time immemorial. Above the Rio Grande, we found an old stagecoach road rising precipitously up the canyon sides. Amazing. Photo taken not from a helicopter, but from partway down the canyon trail.

Hot springs are a uniquely Western phenomenon. They're a culture. People know about them, seek them out, hike great distances to enjoy them. Bill and I have a hot spring experience that shines in our memory as the ultimate. With our friends Caroline and Douglas, we hiked down a canyon on Thanksgiving day, 1991, to the hot spring at Rio Hondo. When we got there, there was a really scuzzy bum in the spring, stark naked, who welcomed us warmly. Eeeyyew. The phrase "testicle soup" presented itself to my writer's mind, and I couldn't get it out of my head. But we threw our clothes off and climbed in and when we felt the hot upwellings and relaxed, the scuzzy bum and whatever kind of unchlorinated bum soup we were sitting in didn't matter anymore.
Bill and I had been looking, as long as we were in the right habitat, for a dipper. A magic little gray bird that swims underwater using its wings, that braves the most ferocious cataracts and rushing rivers to walk on the gravel and pick things like caddisly larvae and amphipods out of the crevices. Then it pops up like a cork and perches on rocks and gives metallic calls.
As darkness came on, as we were up to our necks in the spring, a dipper popped up, out of nowhere, and gave a call that sounded, as Bill put it, like someone pulling a rope out of a beer can. My first dipper. While soaking in a hot spring on Thanksgiving day. It was a perfect moment. We followed it up by a dinner at a roadside diner, some kind of pressed turkey and canned gravy on Wonder Bread. It was fabulous, because it was our own, seat-of-the-pants impromptu Thanksgiving.
And so, in search of perfect moments, we followed directions to another spring on our latest trip to New Mexico. The road leading in was terrible: good sign. The hike was moderate. Good for the kids. The spring looked really cool from above, lightly developed. And there were no skanky bums in it (Turns out to be a bad sign). We had our swimsuits and towels; we were prepared. We got down to the spring and it was...tepid. It was a cool spring in more ways than one, perhaps due to the high river level. Massive bummer. I was not about to strip down for a tepid soak. Neither were any of the other adults. But the kids were undeterred, and they had a lovely time. This is not the first time I've wished I were a kid again.
I decided to seek my joy in photographing them, and found it. Pearl was as lovely as one of Degas' dancers, binding her hair up out of the way. Two redheads.
Phoebe's eyes took on a green cast.
Liam tried to get the girls' attention, my little Scorpio, appreciator of feminine beauty.He looks like a faun here.
A dipper came, out of nowhere, and perched and bobbed on a rock. There are all shades and colors of perfection.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

His Eye is on the Cheezit

Whew. What a day. I was on the phone giving and scheduling interviews all day. Drew a few gulls in between. The Martha Stewart Radio interview was really, really fun. Marion Roach loves the book and was really warm and welcoming. She said she is giving it to half her Christmas list this year. Yeah! I imagined those words beaming up to a satellite and beaming back down into millions of kitchens and cars, and I liked the image.
I have an insight, after today, into the work of a publicist and what that must be like. It is exhausting. But man, Taryn Roeder does beautiful work. And I appreciate her so much, knowing what she does all day, which is be really nice and upbeat to try to engender interest in the books she's working with. She makes amazing things happen. She was the little bird that got my book into Ketzel Levine's hands at NPR! Figured that out this morning. Taryn, my sincerest thanks.
One really nice thing that happened today: I found out that my commentary, "When Hummingbirds Come Home," will be included in the next Driveway Moments CD from NPR. The commentaries and stories that get included in these compilations are nominated by listeners. They're called Driveway Moments because people sit in their car until the story is over, because they can't stand to leave without hearing the end of the story. Another of mine, about Buck the Bull, also got nominated, but they could only include one, so I asked them to include the hummingbird story. It's just a bit more magical and quintessentially Zick than the bull story. Cliff's notes: it's about three orphaned hummingbirds that I raised, released, and that migrated and returned home the following spring. You can hear both commentaries, or waste an entire evening, here.
So my head is spinning, and I'm officially overstimulated. Working on about nine hours of sleep in the last two nights, which ain't enough. The kids have coughs and I am up schlepping cough syrup to them at all hours. Bill has taken to calling me Media Mogul, but I feel more like a mogul, as in speed bump.
Along about 3:30 this afternoon, Chet came into the studio and asked for a walk, and he wouldn't take no for an answer.
He bossed me around, barking in that rolly Demi Moore growl, and he kept play-bowing and dancing around.
I'd pet him and he'd dance away and then as soon as I bent back to my work, he'd poke me with his toenails, paddling away at my leg. Dog's a darn pain in the leg. But oh, I need him so. He knew I needed some air and a change of scene. So we went for a walk. It was a flat, gray, dark day, no good for photography, but warm. I donned my flame-orange vest and Buck Fever hat (I look soo good in it) and set out with Chet, having fun by mentally writing my own obituary as I went. Chet and I learned something about deer behavior during hunting season. Chet found two groups of deer, all does, all bedded down in thick cover--thorns and sumac. Of course he chased them, cheating death, and eventually came back. The second pod of deer included six animals, tightly bedded down in sumac and brambles. Chet put three deer out of there, and I thought that was it. And three more does shot out of the same cover, widely spaced, running with their heads down just like soldiers trying to make it past gunfire. Amazing. They sat very tightly and waited amazingly long to leave. I was standing right there but they held their ground. Doubtless they noted that I was unarmed; doubtless they know my scent and know I don't kill deer. This is not behavior I have witnessed before, but it speaks of the pressure on the animals during hunting season, and to their coping mechanisms. I felt bad to have spooked them out of their haunts, but no gunshots followed either flush.
After that, I leashed Chet, and we listened to a flock of turkeys rustling through the leaf litter, and turned for home. It sure feels good to get some exercise, even at risk of being mistaken for venison. I never have been able to stay inside for a whole week. I wish it would rain so walking wouldn't be such a temptation.
Since I didn't get any pictures outdoors today I will leave you with another Chet Baker fix. I walked into the kitchen to find this domestic tableau, almost something Vermeer would set up. How sweet, I thought. The kids are reading to Chet. And then I noticed the Cheezits, and the reason for Chet's intense interest became clear. I call this series, "His Eye is on the Cheezit."
And now, I will emulate Chet, and attempt to sleep like a dog. Oh, to be able to curl up any time of day on whatever pile of blankets presents itself, and sleep the dreamless sleep of the just, undercommitted, and innocent.

All Streams Gather Light

In the afternoon
Rio Grande or unnamed trickle
All streams gather light.

It is good to be home, even if the vistas aren't as grand. It's home, and this little trickle holds all the magic of the Big River, though I might have to turn over some rocks to find it. Ohio welcomed us with warm temperatures and sunny skies, and I got some nice hikes in with Chet before hunting season started. Opening day was Monday, and we awoke to salvos of shots. You really have to live it to understand it. Hunting season always hits just as I'm getting into the rhythm of daily winter hikes, and I have to sit on the sidelines until most of the people from Cleveland and Youngstown have spent their ammunition on thin air, tree trunks, and each other. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! When you hear four shots in a row, you know he didn't get the buck. And you wonder what it would be like to be caught in that hare-brained crossfire. Yes, we have 80 acres in our sanctuary, and another 85 that are posted by our neighbors, but you can take that and a dollar and it won't get you a cup of coffee. So I sit it out, and fume, and wait for the goobers to go home so I can have my Loop back.

Today: big. Put the kids on the bus for the first time in almost three weeks this morning. Ahhh. We've been living with them around the clock, even sleeping with them the entire time in New Mexico, and it has been a lovely family bonding experience, but I am ready for some semi-solitude. Live radio interview with Marion Roach on Martha Stewart's Sirius radio channel at noon today. If you get it in your car, tune in! Marion has been reading excerpts from the book on a segment of her show titled "The Naturalist's Datebook," and she'll be interviewing me about exploring nature with kids, and journaling.

Yesterday, a holiday book roundup by Ketzel Levine went up on the NPR web site. She highlighted thirteen books as the best gift books of 2006. Letters from Eden is one of them. Interestingly, she say this about having chosen it:

"What I didn't know -- much to my embarrassment -- was that author Julie Zickefoose is often heard on NPR's All Things Considered. So in choosing her bucolic bedside reader, I'm pushing nothing beyond a truly charming book -- written in the same soft language she uses in her on-air pieces, and made irresistible by her drawings. Wait for page 157, where a squabbling Carolina wren writhes on its back like a kid having a tantrum, or page 53, where a spirited phoebe alights in a watercolor dream."

Ms. Levine, whose radio broadcasts from the garden and the wilds have delighted me for years, couldn't have given me a nicer gift. I don't know what gods of good fortune, or what little bird at NPR placed the book in her hands, but there you have it, and you have a very happy Zick, more than a little agog that Ketzel found LFE and thought it worthy of including in her roundup. Trying to hold myself in from writing her and slobbering all over her with puppylike gratitude. Wouldn't be cool.

Last night, Bill and the kids and I walked into the brand spanking new Borders store in Parkersburg WV, at 9:30 p.m. We found LFE, All Things Reconsidered (the anthology of Roger Tory Peterson's writings that Bill edited), and Identify Yourself (the bird ID book Bill and I put together two years ago) on its shelves. All Houghton Mifflin titles, and all there, not because we pushed them, but because they were there. Whee! We gathered up the books and took them to the counter and asked to see a manager about having a book signing there. The manager had gone to high school with Bill, so it looks like it will happen. And we found out that she's planning to have live music in the cafe on Fridays, so we may have picked up a Singing Writer's acoustic gig at the same time.

I'm sounding suspiciously like the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion here, so I'll quit. Still have mountains to dig out from our trip, and I somehow have to turn this house from a troll's den to a showplace by Friday, when a local reporter is coming out for an interview about the book. No wonder I prefer phone interviews! I can sit there in my skeevy jammies surrounded by squalor, and sound proper, put-together, and perfectly appointed. Kind of like blogging--semi-anonymous, with only the pictures I want you to see. No live video feeds forthcoming from the Random House of Piled-up Stuff anytime soon.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Bacon Bits

Ten days was a long time to go without Chet Baker. It was a long time for him to be in the kennel, down underneath Dr. Lutz's office. There would be times when we'd have to leave him, this dog we were only contemplating, and that was one of the things that kept me from getting a dog for 13 years; 13 years in which Bill steadily worked on me to just go ahead and do it. I didn't even know the dog yet, and I already dreaded leaving him in a kennel. I knew how much I'd love him. Part of deciding to get Chet was becoming comfortable with the concept of kenneling him, because living where we do far from any neighbors, and as much as we travel by air, there is no alternative. We decided that we'd start leaving him at the kennel while he was very young, for short stints, and by the time we were inseparable, he'd be comfortable with it, and we would too.
It worked. Chet always strains at the leash to get into the kennel lobby; he greets his caretakers enthusiastically, full of curiosity about the other dog smells emanating from the place. This time, though he did all that, he also cried from his cage for as long as he could hear me talking to the attendants. That was tough. So I cried on the steering wheel for awhile.
When we got him back Thursday night, he had lost a couple of pounds, and looked a bit gaunt. That would be the equivalent to my losing 13 pounds in the same time frame, which I can assure you did not happen. The caretaker I spoke to told me that he hadn't been interested in food for the first three days, eating only about a quarter of his rations. Then his appetite kicked in, and he finished his food every night.
She told me that some of the dogs that kennel there refuse to eat or even perform bodily functions while incarcerated. Imagine holding it for a week. It's amazing what dogs can do, or refuse to do. I feel blessed with a well-adjusted dog who undoubtedly misses us, but realizes that life must go on. I hope he'll continue to be this good. We'll have to leave him for a week or more only a couple of times a year.
There's no doubt that it takes Chet a while to get over being left. I read in Temple Grandin's incredible book, Animals in Translation, that when dogs act standoffish upon returning home from the kennel, owners often interpret this as the dog's being "mad at them." In reality, Grandin says, the dog is acting subordinate, because it figures it must have done something bad to have been locked up all that time. Being confined to a kennel reduces a dog's self-esteem, and it takes awhile for the animal to feel right about itself around its owner again. I see this in Chet, and notice that for the last few days, he averts his gaze from me, needs more reassurance than usual, and is not nearly as ready to growl when one of the kids hauls him around.

Chet and I are a lot alike, and the best remedy for low self-esteem, we find, is a walk (or a leap) in the woods. And so this afternoon when the light got buttery we took off, I putting a flame-orange vest on for protection from deer hunters; Chet using his speed and blackness as his shield. We had no encounters. I took Shila's good good camera for a final shoot; I'm already dreading giving it back to her tomorrow.To get this shot, I tracked Chet with the camera moving along with him, hoping, in the low evening light, that I'd get an acceptable image of him in full bound. It turned out better than I'd hoped. It captures a bit of the joi de vive that makes Chet who he is.

I get a lot of pictures of Baker from behind, since I always let him lead in the woods. This is part of why walks make him feel better about himself. He gets to be lead dog. And I get to watch him experience the woods. Today, I wanted to try to get some profiles and head-on shots. Chet knows very well when I'm trying to get those kind of pictures, and he poses like a champion. I'm always amazed at how he strikes those show-dog stances--and holds them--while I compose the shot. But then, I've been photographing him since he was nine weeks old, and he is anything but slow, and he wants most of all to please me. Here, I've asked him to sit and stay, something he's loath to do in the woods. But he does, because I've asked him to. Here, I've just asked him if he thinks there might be any squirrels in the trees. I love a dog who's fluent in English.
Right after this session, Baker spotted a young raccoon lumbering through the brush, and gave chase.The coon flowed straight up an enormous double tulip tree while Chet circled the base. Here it is, quietly bumming out, wedged between the trunks. I'm going to miss this camera with its 12x zoom. Never once did Chet yelp or bark; he just tried once to run up the trunk, then stopped and gazed up at the animal, cutting glances back at me to be sure I appreciated what he'd accomplished. When I'd documented everything, we moved on and left the little coon in peace. Above all else, Chet is cool. He doesn't yap or make a commotion, and he knows when he's beat. Some dogs would stay there all night, barking away. Baker's happy to moonlight as a coonhound, but he never loses sight of what his real job is: Zick accomplice. He falls into step beside me and we turn toward home.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Life Bird, Life Mammal

A life bird is one you've never seen in your life. When you see it, you add it to your life list, and it becomes a life bird. Being a card-carrying Science Chimp, I keep life lists of mammals, butterflies, reptiles, plants, and what-have-you. I wish I were organized enough to write them all down, but I somehow keep the information in my head, and I know when I've seen something new, and especially when I yearn to see something new.
Lewis' Woodpecker is a bird I've longed to see since I was about eight, when I first saw an Allan Brooks painting of it in a book. The only pink and green bird in North America, it's a large Melanerpes, related to the red-headed woodpecker. It makes its living in much the same way as its more famous cousin, flycatching and caching acorns. Nowhere is it common, and we asked around until we found it was fairly reliable around Chama in extreme northern New Mexico, two hours from Taos, where we were staying.
I call Bill Logisto Mephisto for good reason. I had the bit in my teeth about getting to Chama, and was meeting some fair resistance from everyone else in our party, who didn't much fancy driving four hours to see one bird. So Bill got on the Net and located a Taos bird guide who was kind enough to tell him where, a year earlier, he'd seen Lewis' woodpeckers in Arroyo Seco, about five minutes from where we were staying! We followed explicit directions, stopped at a cattle grate in a dirt road, looked to our right, and spotted a pink, silver, red and oily green bundle of feathers in a dead apple tree. Bam! Wooooo Hooo! We spent the next hour and a half swiveling the scope and cameras around, trying to capture a decent image of these lovely big birds. Which, by the way, never sit still for more than ten seconds at a time. They look for all the world like miniature crows, very dark in flight, with the same wing-body proportions, much the same wing shape, and even the same cadence of wingbeat as crows. LEWO's have the habit of sitting on an exposed perch, then launching out in a wide circle. Much as this looks like the birds are hawking insects, Bill and I watched carefully, and never saw a hawking bird catch anything. We decided that the birds we were watching were doing it for some kind of display purposes, because at least five individuals were present, squabbling and flying in and out of a small grove of cottonwoods. The flight display was visible from a tremendous distance, and once we had an image of the birds, we could spot them from very far away by this distinctive behavior.
Every once in awhile a bird would descend to a small cluster of Gambel's oaks, hop around on the ground, and come up with an acorn, which it would break into pieces and cache in the bark of the cottonwoods. I wish I could show you a better picture of the filamentous wine-pink flank feathers of this beautiful male, but for that you'll have to visit Bill of the Birds' pre-emptive blog strike on Lewis' woodpeckers. Given their hyperactivity, getting a digiscoped picture of these birds in the tangle of cottonwood twigs took all his considerable scope-wielding skills. I know I'd never have gotten a look at them at all but for him. Thank you, sweetie, for setting me up. I took these snapshots with Shila's camera. Go look at Bill's now.
The next day, Bill and I spent more than two hours watching and sketching the birds, a delight, so relaxing. Neither of us are the kind to tick off a species on a list and move on. We want to know a little something about the bird, to feel we've given it its due. To live with it for even a little while. We never heard them make a sound but for a high-pitched rattling squeak when they were in conflict. More information is needed, perhaps the stuff of another trip to Arroyo Seco.
It took a very long time before I'd drunk in enough of these tremendously interesting and active birds to look about at my surroundings in Arroyo Seco. When I did, I noticed a yurt on the horizon, something you don't see every day. Immediately in front of the hutlike structure was a little knot of bovids, which I did not recognize at first sight. I moved closer, binoculars trained on the animals. Could they be....yaks? Well, I didn't know, because I've never seen a yak, except in pictures, and on one particular blog I could mention. They were so small, so utterly adorable! Somehow I'd always thought yaks were great big animals. These were about a yard high at the shoulder. I would think that milking a yak would give you about enough milk for your morning cereal, and not a lot more. Maybe some to drizzle over the strawberries and make a latte with. Small animals.
It is at such times that being a Science Chimp is perfectly wonderful. You can flip through your library of mental images, stored over four-plus decades of staring at and subconsciously memorizing animal books, and definitively proclaim the identity of a small, cute, tiptoeing bovid for anyone within range who might care. It gives you a big, electric, nerdy thrill and edifies nearby parties (whether they care or not). And if you do it long enough, you really don't mind what they think of you and your proclamations, or the fact that you're talking excitedly to yourself: clinching the ID is the thing. You take your six-colored ballpoint pen out of your pocket protector and write, "YAK. Life mammal. November 22, 2006, Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, group of four with yurt. Also, five Lewis' woodpeckers. Life bird. Same place!!"
Then you snap your pen, adjust your thick, tape-mended specs, hike your pants a little higher, and get on with your bad self.
I kept moving closer, snapping away. The kids got caught up in the moment and ran to the fence, drawing the yaks closer with curiosity. Yes. Yaks they were. Life mammal!
Oh, adorable bovids. They looked like they were wearing too-small wooden shoes. They licked each other a lot. I think the parti-colored one was Dad, and the slightly smaller one in the back with finer horns was Mom. And I think the two black ones in the front were their twins. At least that's what I decided. I couldn't sex them; there was too much hair hanging down. But Mr. Parti-color looked decidedly guylike with this curly forehead and heavy horns. Yaks (Bos grunniens) have been domesticated for longer than just about any animal, having first been kept by the ancient Qiang Chinese about 4,500 years ago! There are still wild yaks, but they are endangered, probably less than 15,000 in number, and larger than their domesticated counterparts. For a fabbo rundown on yak faks, see this link.
We never succeeded in luring them close enough to touch, though we tried every endearment we could imagine. I suspect we were not speaking their language. I could tell these yaks were well-treated. Nothing that cute could be mistreated.
I do not know where one gets yaks, any more than I know where one gets a yurt, or plans for one. I am just glad that somewhere in the New Mexican hinterlands, there are yurts, and yaks. FYI they did not seem to have any need to be herded; they seemed content to find their own way in the world.
Once I started learning about yaks, I could not stop. I was distressed to learn that people eat them, but I suppose that is the lot of most bovids when you think about it. They're also highly prized for their fiber (which I assume refers to their coats). I quote from the website of the International Yak Association: "We have only begun to expound the virtues of the yak. For those whose interest is piqued, please feel free to contact us for more information. We have members exploring every asset of the yak and we are happy to share our discoveries." This one's for the Swami. May you continue to explore every asset of the yak.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Mountain Bluebird Thanksgiving

Drinking, bathing, partying, mountain bluebirds celebrate water in the high desert winter.

The females are bewitching, the color of river stones with rich, green-tinged blue in wing and tail.

The Bosque del Apache blog posts are getting a bit of notice from the local media. I think this is a good thing, but don't know if I'm going to be let back into the Owl Bar anytime soon. I sure didn't mean to offend...just to point out some things that made me scratch my head. Maybe there will be a Blogger Shoot should I return...Please Dispose of Your Own Blogger. Bill is the one you want, a trophy buck blogger, dresses out to about 180.

I have a thing for bluebirds, as author of Enjoying Bluebirds More, a 30-page booklet which has sold probably a half-million copies. I know a little somethin' about enjoying bluebirds, friends. And so New Mexico, winter home of the cerulean-blue spirits known as mountain bluebirds, is a place of pilgrimage for me. I saw more mountain bluebirds this trip than I'd seen in a lifetime. Flocks of 30, 40, 50, lining the wires and adorning the fenceposts. I thrilled to their breezy, low calls--phew! And when I'd draw closer, I could hear the syllables in the call, almost a stutter of notes within that simple call.

Every morning, behind our adobe house, dozens of mountain bluebirds gather to feed on the fruits of a silvery tree. Then they whirl off across the sage flats. I followed them, and found them on the fenceposts across a pasture. They kept flying down to the ground, then rising up to preen in a brushpile nearby. I began shooting pictures from across the pasture, worried that they'd leave if I drew closer. I've only got 12x zoom on Shila's Panasonic, and I never thought I could get much before they spooked. But I pretended that the last thing on my mind was mountain bluebirds, not fooling them for a moment, I'm sure. I meandered slowly closer to the site, and discovered that they were drinking and bathing in a little pasture rivulet. Oh, joy, oh, rapture! Best of all, they did not mind my presence one little bit, bathing and preening like swimsuit models. I spent two hours in their company, enthralled and loving every minute. Finally I had to leave, and I meandered back the way I'd come, leaving them in peace.
They are living turquoise, gemstones in the mountain landscape. Theirs is a spectral cerulean that bears little resemblance to the hue of either the eastern or western bluebird. They are big and strong, long-winged and upright in their stance, fighter jets to the eastern bluebird's Piper Cub. They are built for vast distances and long flights, with long, tapered wings and deep chests. They are perfection.
This Thanksgiving Day, we're being smart travelers, flying when everyone else is cooking and gathering and celebrating.At least the planes won't be packed solid; at least the airports will be quiet. It was a calculated move, a little bleak from one angle; smart from another. I'm trying not to think about the longstanding traditions we're missing, preferring to give thanks today for New Mexico's landscapes and their birds, and the time we've been given with them.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I Found My Heart in Magdalena

Fifteen years ago almost to the day, Bill and I found this spot on NM 107 that bewitched us. Equipped only with a Polaroid and my old film Canon, we took pictures of ourselves standing before the gate that would become part of my mountain bluebird painting, "The Road to Magdalena." Trying to find it again this trip proved a bit more difficult than we'd thought it would be, because the original fenceposts had been moved. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that it had to be at one certain spot that had a funky wood fence, a stock corral, and a spectacular view. Our conviction that this was The Place grew as we walked toward it. And then we saw the fencepost--the funky bent one to the left of the posts, the only one that was unchanged from our little Polaroid photo. All the rest of the pieces fell into place, and we posed for Phoebe to take our picture.We just couldn't get our minds around all the things that have transpired in the last 15 years. Here we were, not young lovers anymore, but accompanied by our kids, who have become two fine and interesting people.
The sky was just as blue, the grass just as golden, the distant mountains purple, the silence just as thick and soothing. But we were more, and we were immeasurably happy about that.

The first time we visited, mountain bluebirds appeared out of nowhere, the first ones I'd ever seen in my life. They sat on the corral posts, let us take in their beauty, and then they flew off. This time, as we stood and looked out on the mountains behind the magic gate, two mountain bluebirds came winging up and landed on the wires overhead. Having spent the last couple of days blissfully in the company of mountain bluebirds, I know that they were motivated by curiosity--they wanted to see what our little family was doing out in the middle of their nowhere. A male and a female, just like last time, maybe the great-great-great grandchildren of the ones who'd sought us out before, the pair that found its way into my painting. I knew I would have to paint this scene again.

Bill found a bit of barbed wire on the ground by our fence, and gave it to me as reference for the painting. "You could bend that into something," I said, and he set to work, bending and twisting it into a lopsided heart.
I had to sit down for awhile then, and think about all this, about all we have done together, about the joy and the heartbreak, and about how much more and different love is in our lives now than there was even then, when we were new. It's not often that your life passes before your eyes, that you have the perspective to compare yourself now to the person you were a decade and a half before. Coming up from the reverie, I held the heart my sweet Bill had made up against the blue New Mexican sky, for all the world to see.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Fretting, Basking, Yearning

So I'm sitting here in a beautiful adobe house on the high plains of Taos. We've just come in from a long day of hiking--a 2.4 mile trek from the top of a plateau to the rocky banks of the Red and Rio Grande Rivers. I've got a lightning fast wireless Internet connection. I have photos a-poppin'. Hundreds. And, characteristically, Blogger will take two (no, after an hour more of trying, four) and no more. So I try to access my Flickr account. Only problem: it was created on another computer. I'm on my brand spanky new laptop, and I don't have all the durn passwords and ID's I need to get in there. So Flickr doesn't recognize me, and I cannot come up with the Yahoo password I need to access my Flickr account. So I go in and change ALL the passwords and ID's, and I STILL can't get into my account to download or retrieve photos. Two hours pass. I'm all tangled up in Internet manipulations and I am exactly at the same place I was two hours ago---struggling with Blogger, unable to do my Flickr end run, unable to show you anything but some photos I took several nights ago. Two, to be exact. Foaming at the mouth. I can't tell you how frustrating this all is. There has to be a better way. End of rant.
Cranes. Prehistoric, intelligent, stately, beautiful in every pose. Drifting down like giant pteranodons from pastel heights. Calling, groo groo groo, a rolling, sonorous purr that fills the heart. In these pictures, you can see the earth shadow, the shadow our planet casts on the sky. It's the band of blue beneath the pink, and it's all too enormous.
Dawn and dusk is the time to be out at Bosque. That's when the guards change, that's when the birds leave for where they're going and come to where they want to be. And that's what you want to see--the swirling, clamoring flocks, the liftoffs, or "blastoffs" as my friend Artie calls them.
Standing under a blizzard of snow geese reduces me to blithering and grinning and moaning. It's a spectacle, something that takes me out of my body and up into the air with the birds.
And much as I love Bosque, I love the road to Magdalena more. Bill and I were on a quest, to retrace our route up NM 107 to Magdalena. Not that Magdalena is much--a soda fountain, a couple of businesses, a post office. It's the getting there. This road opens my soul. The vistas are endless, the colors sere and purple and blue. The last time we drove it was 15 years ago. We weren't married; we were just in love. And it was the most perfect thing, to find this road just out of curiosity, and follow it to its end.
The animals and birds were waiting for us. This band of pronghorns stopped to stare. Three prairie falcons beat by. Three coyotes loped and whirled to a stop to see if we were packing heat, then kept loping out of rifle range. Mountain bluebirds appeared, then disappeared. This time, we had Phoebe and Liam with us, and we could show them these marvels through our spotting scope. It was different--less romantic in some ways, even more romantic in others.
I'll tell you more about the road to Magdalena in a subsequent post. Perhaps I'll be able to show it to you.
Know that I'm itching to get home, to feel Baker's warm kisses, to log into my Flickr account without having to stand on my head and whistle Dixie--to get these images to you. We're having the most wonderful time. We're with good friends in a lovely adobe house buried in sagebrush. Mountain and western bluebirds greet the dawn; ravens row overhead grooping their gutteral calls. We hike and play with the kids and forget the icy cold of gray Ohio. We're basking in November sunshine and turning our cheeks red. November sunshine: I wish I could bring it to you. I wish I could can it and open it up when I get home. For now, I'm resetting my winter clock to the BASK setting. I'm savoring the last three days of our vacation, even as I'm pining for home. This trip has let me out of my everyday skin; freed me of the burdens and obsessions that weigh me down when I'm surrounded by obligation and schedule. I'd love to think that when I get home they'll stay somewhere out there in the ether. I know better, but for now, I'll pour another glass of wine and rest my eyes on the mountains.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Best Night of My Life

We spent all day Wednesday in the company of Mr. Bouton, also known as Boo-tawn, PrettyBoy, and all around great guy. We birded Bosque, drifting from one neat wildlife encounter to the next. The kids were mostly content, having Bill set up the scope to show them breathtaking views of cranes, waterfowl, hawks, flickers, a preening adult bald eagle (gasp!) and a young bald eagle devouring a coot. We were just able to identify the prey by its foot before the foot fell off. Science Chimp was fulfilled.
At the end of the day, we found this line of photographers, led by our old pal Artie Morris. Naturally, they had an incredibly choice setup of pastel sunset with sandhill cranes and snow geese dropping artistically against the painted backdrop. We joined them and bogarted the scene with our somewhat less impressive camera gear. Nevertheless, the images that came from that evening are among my favorites yet (thank you again, Shila, for loan of this great camera!) And no thank you, Blogger, for inexplicably refusing to upload any of my bird images except this one. What is it? What am I doing wrong? Dying to show you these things...
We were in a state of rapture that peaked while there was still light enough to capture sharp images, and gradually fell off into afterglow.
For their part, Phoebe and Liam amused themselves gathering railroad spikes in the gloaming, always watching and listening down the track for an approaching locomotive. This image blows my mind, the track a shining line, little more. And approach it did—an enormous, several hundred-car freight, pulled by no less than four genuine Santa Fe engines.
I think I love trains almost as much as Liam does. It’s a visceral thing—the sheer power of them, the rumble, the earth-shaking majesty, the knowledge that they could turn me into a spot of grease on the steel. Liam was alternately laughing and crying, running like a crazed terrier up and down the trackside as the great freight roared by.
And then, it began to slow, and stopped---right there where he could admire it up close. Liam, Phoebe, Bill, and I were the only people in that assembled throng who thought that was terrific. Of course, the mile-long train totally blocked our access to our cars across the road, just as we were hoping to cross. Everyone else was tired, cold, and hungry, thinking of hot hotel showers and warm food. Several people, unbelievably, threaded their cameras and tripods through the cars and climbed to freedom. We stood and gaped at their temerity, commenting on the possibility of a sudden lurch by the train. And sure enough, from way up the track, the engine gave two quick toots, and began to roll. The suddenness with which it picked up speed was frightening. It was going faster than a person could run within seconds. We stood, rooted, watching it pick up to 80, maybe 90 mph in a matter of minutes. Liam began to cry; it was all too much, and he was afraid it might derail. He soon recovered, turned to me with a tear-streaked face, and said, “This was the BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE.”
Yes, he’s missing more than a week of school. We don’t feel bad about that at all.
Posting once again from The Place in Socorro--Socorro Springs Brewing Company. Fabulous food, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and homebrewed beer. Yes. It's all I can do this morning to keep BOTB from ordering ale with his eggs Benadryl.
Posting, uncharacteristically, on a Saturday, because we're headed north to Santa Fe, Sandia Peak for rosy finches!! and then Taos for cultural koolness. I've no clue when I'll have a connection again, and as it is Blogger is blocking our every attempt to show you New Mexico, so it may be adieu for awhile. The festival presentations went swimmingly, they seem to like us down here. Now we're off the clock and ramblin' again. Later!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Please Dispose of Your Own Coyote

New Mexico is different, a bit rough around the edges. The no-smoking, clean-air-everywhere deal that just passed legislation in Ohio is going to take a long time to get out here. The Owl Bar has its own charm, bathed though it is in cigarette smoke. It’s the closest watering hole to Bosque del Apache NWR, and as such it’s one of the only smoky bars I’ve been in where you don’t get weird looks when you walk in wearing binoculars.
This sign in the lobby took a little getting used to, though. Notice it's two-man teams. That actually made me happy. I don't know many women who'd sign up for this.
Yesterday (Thursday), we drove up our favorite-ever road to Magdalena, NM 107. It dwindles to well-groomed gravel not long after you find it. We were graced with the sight of three great big, fluffy coyotes, flame red along the sides, and wary as all getout. Who can blame them? It’s good to see large mammals; it’s one of the reasons I love the West. We’re still looking for a lion. Boy, I’d love to see a mountain lion. Phoebe is somewhat less enthusiastic about that. She’d be the one I’d pick to carry off if I were a predator.
This is a place of almost incomprehensible beauty, especially at dawn and sunset. The sky just drains one color into another. I can't look at it without thinking of the impossibility of ever painting that in watercolor. That doesn't mean I won't try, though!
Cranes at sunset, ahhh. It's good to be here at Bosque del Apache. We're really having fun now!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Birds as Remedy

We’re fried right crispy after getting up at 4:12 AM, flying all day, arriving in Albuquerque, renting a car, driving another hour to Socorro NM. A little snafu at the motel meant we couldn’t get into our room, so we flogged onward to the Bosque del Apache NWR. The wind was kicking a steady gale of at least 35mph, and the air was full of sand, which filled our eyes and optics. The ONLY thing that could have fixed my now advanced state of crankitude is birds, and lots of them. The wind died down, we watched cranes and pintails, and I felt my blood pressure dropping precipitously. We hooked up with Jeff “Pretty Boy” Bouton and, when the light died away and the birdwatching was over, filled our empty tanks at the famous Owl Bar in San Antonio. The green chile cheeseburgers were fire-hot and good; the kids had a wonderful time drawing on dollar bills and pinning them to the walls; the company was stellar, and we began our vacation.

Jeff knows, being a dad himself, that birding nonstop is tough on kids, so he launched little lizard-spotting expotitions, and developed the sport of chunking rocks into mud (making the most wondrous flump when they imbed). Liam can be a bit of a tough sell where birding is concerned, but there are just enough trains in New Mexico, and they are close enough to the good birding, to keep him in Nirvana while we visit our own private heaven with the sandhill cranes and snow geese.

Thank you, Shila, for loaning me your fabulous Real Camera, a Camera that Listens to Me and Does What I Want When I Want it To. Blogger won't let me post any bird or habitat pictures; must be a stricture I don't know about. So I'll bid you adieu and try again tomorrow. Jeff Bouton, you rock for letting us camp out in your fancy room and use yer internet connection. Blogger, you do not rock.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Off to Bosque!

Life is good, if a bit hairy today.

After a day of running around that included much packing and attending to details; shipping my last 36 copies of Letters from Eden to New Mexico at the very last minute because there turned out to be no copies in Socorro for my planned booksigning; leaving my whingeing bi-colored son at the vet's kennel; crying a little, but knowing he'll be fine; lining up the housesitters, sitting in the waiting room at the quick care facility to see about an infected finger; going to the bank, the grocery store, and the pharmacy; and trying to figure out how to turn four carry-ons into two; I am going to drug myself and try to get a few hours of sleep. A Benadryl and some rotgut local red wine should do the trick. When I wake up at 3:30 it'll be time to get up. The only benefit of insomnia that I've discovered--it helps with those wee hour drives to the airport, 2 hours away.

I checked on the availability of wireless Internet in Socorro today and wasn't encouraged by the reply, which amounted to, "What's wireless Internet?" Mind you, I wasn't really expecting Internet access at our little motel, but I was thinking how nice it would be to give dispatches from the front. Know that if we can, BOTB and I will post. If we can't, well, we can't, and we'll just have to look at cranes instead.

We'll eat at Frank and Lupe's, we'll raise a beer at the brewery, we'll down a green chile cheeseburger at the Owl Bar, and we'll stand agog at the clamor of a million snow and Ross' geese. We'll look for whooping cranes and a real Santa Fe engine. We'll show the kids the desert. We'll go to Water Canyon and listen for the quiet, and we'll take the lonely road to Magdalena and look for mountain bluebirds. We'll hug each other in the perfect silence of the high desert.

Thanks for your patience. Keep checking back, OK?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Simple Needs

There is nothing--nothing--that makes me feel the passage of time like visiting a maternity ward. Like holding a brand new baby, a baby so young she doesn't know her mother's cheek from her breast. Standing there with my great big lanky kids, who walk and talk and nag and sass, looking at a little proto-girl who can't even hold her head up, who slumps forward like a little bag of beans, I hear time screaming by, feel its chilly wind. I think about starting from scratch, what it was like to have another person in my arms, where once there was only a huge, taut belly. I muse on the absolute miracle of human procreation. That two people I love, and who love each other, could make another person I will also love. A perfect person.

This is Oona Lazer. She's one day old in these pictures. She is perfect. Everything on Oona works wonderfully, and she's a champion nurser, already prone to irritation when someone tries to substitute a finger or knuckle for the real thing. Watching her face cloud over when she's denied what she wants, I know there's a thinking, reasoning mind in there. She has a few things to learn. You can't get milk from your mother's cheek, for one. But you can make her laugh by gumming away at it.

Seeing Zane and Margaret embarking on the greatest ride of them all was bittersweet. I miss the fat tummies and the rounded cheeks. I miss the sound of a smile behind a pacifier, and the smell of the back of a baby's neck. I don't miss being on call 24 hours a day. Well, I still am, but there are lots fewer calls these days.Talking in the car on the way back home from the hospital, Bill and I reflected that we have maybe eight years left with Miss Phoebe, 11 with Mr. Incredible. If we do our job right, they will be out of here like arrows shot from bows, like we both were. Off to find their own way. Eight years, fewer than we've had with her already. We can't afford to waste a moment of it.

And so we are taking our babies to New Mexico with us, for ten days of arroyos and mesas and canyons, clamoring snow geese and crooning cranes. We'll try to show them a coyote, a roadrunner, mountain bluebirds, Townsend's solitaires, a Santa Fe engine. We'll make them eat Mexican food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For this trip, I have borrowed Shila's Panasonic DMC-FZ30 8 megapixel camera with its 35-420 lens. Ironically, this is a camera that my friend Cindy House told me about, that I told Shila about. Shila bought it; I hung back, because I had no money. Now Shila is moving onward and upward in the photo world with a new 16 megapixel Nikon. She wants this one back, make no mistake, but in cameras, it's often hard to climb back down the rungs. This camera takes pictures when you press the shutter button, not 15 seconds later. I know, as I make the first preliminary photo rambles with this machine, that there is no going back to my old camera, the Olympus C-750, with 4 megapixels and 10x zoom.. And yet I think you'll agree that it's been a fine friend; it has taken virtually every photograph in this blog for the past year. It can do a lot, but I need a camera that will catch a fleeting expression or roll of the eye, a bird before it leaves the branch. I need megapixels that will permit publication. I need, I need, I need. What do I really need? Food, shelter, something to do, the knowledge that I am needed and loved, Origins skin care products, and an eight mpxl camera, to name about 1/2000 of the things I need. Human beings are such funny animals.

Oh, to be Oona for awhile, needing only milk, sleep, warmth, love, and clean didies.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Proud Parent: The Text

Proud Parent of a Mental Athlete

Although I have been dutiful in taking my daughter Phoebe to basketball practice two nights a week, and sunny fall Saturdays are often given over to her games, you could never fit a jersey saying “SPORTS MOM” over my head. I love her dearly, and my corporeal body is in the bleachers, but I usually haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on out on the court. In her first season, eight-year-old Phoebe made a single basket, and four mothers simultaneously wiped away tears. The sheer improbability of it all did us in. It was like watching a baby sea turtle struggle across the sand, beset by diving gulls, trying to make it to the ocean. Phoebe dribbled slowly down the court, alone. For once, the ball didn’t bounce off the toe of her shoe. Her thin white arms somehow found the strength to heave the regulation-sized basketball up and over the high rim. All that, and the painfully hard bleachers, combined to move us to weep. I’m still waiting for this season’s perfect conjunction of circumstance.

OK, I’m a writer, not an athlete, and I have a sneaky feeling my daughter takes after me. She came home one afternoon, stood up tall, clicked her heels, and said, “Guess what? I won the Marietta Times’ Scary Story Writing Contest!”

My antennae hove skyward.

“You won the contest over everyone in your class?”

“Um, I think I won it for the whole school.”

Oh, this beat a basket six ways to Sunday. OK, it’s a tiny school, one class per grade. But it’s something.

A few days later, I came in from shopping to find the answering machine ablink. We were to call and make an appointment for Phoebe to record her story on the local AM radio station. This was getting better all the time. I pictured Phoebe in headphones, in the plush-lined hush of a recording studio. I liked the picture.

Phoebe bounced off the bus last night, eyes dancing. “MOM. My teacher says I won it for the whole county!”

Plotz. To burst, as from strong emotion. From Yiddish, plotsn, “to crack.”

Suddenly, I identified with those parents of star athletes, who rare up off the bleachers, pumping their fists, eyes bulging, when their child commandeers the ball. Only this time, I know the moves, and understand the rules.

Writing: Such a lovely pursuit. You can do it in an easy chair, propped up in bed with a plate of Oreos. You never have to drive to practice. You can eat dinner slowly, as a family. There’s very little screaming, no buzzers, no jammed fingers or poked eyes. No way to lose. Darling daughter, that’s OUR kind of sport. Go! Go! Go!

Listen here if you'd like to hear the audio file from NPR.

Proud Parent of a Mental Athlete

Phoebe reads her Scary Story at Marietta's own WMOA Radio. She got to record it and hear herself read it on the air, the prize for having won the contest. It felt like my prize for being her mom.

If you're going to be near a radio this afternoon, and you are able to receive National Public Radio's afternoon news show, "All Things Considered," you might want to give it a listen. It usually starts at 4 p.m. Eastern. One of my commentaries, about Phoebe winning a writing contest, has been put up for consideration. This means it might run this afternoon. We hope it will.

Not to be outdone, little Liam wings it with a story of his own, about a ghost train. This picture is a year old. Amazing how much Mr. Incredible has grown in that time.

I'll post the text of the commentary after it runs, for those who miss it on air.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Birthday! Cake!

Last night, cutting Liam's chocolate cake. Saucy niece Annalea Thompson getting in on the pic. I made it to look like Lightning McQueen from Cars. Other than the salmon-pink hue of his paint (I couldn't bring myself to put enough coal-tar derived Red #5 in the buttercream icing to make it really red), it wasn't a bad likeness. Liam loved it. Phoebe asked me this morning if I'd felt bad when I had to cut it. Nope, I replied. It was a mandala.
What's a mandala? Phoebe asked. So I told her about the Buddhist monks who make these enormous paintings of colored sand. It takes them a couple of days to make one. They're highly detailed and imbued with symbolism, and absolutely beautiful. And as soon as the painting is done, the monks destroy the mandala. The point (or one of the points) being that the creative process is more important than the product. This is something Will Reimann finally hammered into my hard head when I took a year of studio drawing with him at college. The product is nice to have, but don't be precious about it. What's important is what you learned from doing it, and that you can make another. What a fine artist Will Reimann is. Check him out. There's nothing that man can't do. And, thanks to the Net, he and I are in constant touch, 26 years later. How's that for a gift?

Speaking of birthdays, trumpets of joy and streamers of light descended when our dear friend Zane Lazer called this morning. "What do you know, Zane?" I asked, barely able to contain myself. "Not much. You?" he replied, and then said, "She's 8 pounds, 8 ounces, and she's very red and squawks a lot, and she has a lot of dark hair." Oona Lazer arrived this morning, relieving our sweet, endlessly patient and philosophical Margaret of a very heavy front load and a boring prenatal diet. And filling our hearts with joy beyond measure. Oona was nursing as we spoke. How beautiful.

Please excuse the dark nature of the last post. I loved that orchid more than a person should love a plant. (Part of the strange relationship we humans cultivate with orchids. They creep into my heart and I love them fiercely. They are not your grandma's philodendron). Shila had it sent to me three years ago, in bud, and it opened on my birthday, and in my horticultural hubris I assumed it always would bloom on my birthday until I was too old get up and smell its flowers. A beautiful but evil cachepot came between us, drowned its roots, and silently and insidiously ended a beautiful relationship. By the time an orchid starts to look bad, it's often too late. It's been rotting along for weeks or months, keeping a brave face to the world, but dead at the heart.

Which makes me all the more glad that I booked my February 7 speaking date at the Three Rivers Birding Club in Pittsburgh to coincide with the Phipps Conservatory's orchid show. Occasionally, I mix bidness with pleasure.

An orchid in the east window
Of the thirty growing here, my favorite.
That all summer blossomed, redolent
Of citrus and ginger
A scent that wafted through the morning
Until the sun’s departure left it silent.
As if on a mission
It had always bloomed on my birthday.
I thought it always would.

Today, I touched a yellowing leaf.
It came off in my hand.
A second, then a third.
Foul water had collected
Inside the handsome pot that housed it.
A month ago, I’d found it, poured it off
Too late, it sobbed
Though the leaves were firm
The core was rotten.
I pulled it up, peered at its roots
Black patter, white carpet

Hope dissolved.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Kickin' Republican Posterior, Kissing Liam

The radio is blaring election results. We are almost completely happy about what's happened. One of my favorite NPR moments was when Bill and I were sitting, despondent, in the kitchen, after the last presidential election. The results were announced, and the interim music immediately following was an instrumental version of "It's the End of the World as We Know It." It was subtle, it was quick, but it was there, and it was funny as hell. Now the interim music between reports is dizzy Dixieland jazz. Celebratory and giddy. Yep. I get it.

If only Washington County voters had seen fit to pass the school levy that will keep Phoebe and Liam's little elementary, in danger of being closed, going. Missed it by 30 votes. Now, we're told, the school probably won't close, at least not immediately, but there will be no music, art, or gym. Who needs music, art or gym? Nonessential. There are already no field trips. This will be the 25th year the school has survived without a levy's being passed. A slim majority of voters here just don't see the need. Hey, their kids are out of school, and they don't want to pay a household average of $70 a year to keep the smaller elementary schools going. Who cares? Their kids are all grown. That's the dark side of country livin' in an economically depressed area, friends.

I didn't have the heart to tell Phoebe this morning. She'll know the moment she walks in the door of Salem-Liberty Elementary.

It's another gray, weepy day here, but Democrats have all but swept the offices up for grabs in Ohio, and that's cause for some kind of celebration.

Speaking of celebration, Liam turned seven at 7:24 AM. That was the moment the obstetrician took him and spun him three times, quickly, to get the umbilical cord unwrapped from his neck. I remember watching, not enough time even to pray. Thank God for the doctor's quick hands, and the good blood that began coursing through this precious little boy's veins.In this picture, he looks so much like my dad, pigeon chest puffed out.
He draws in every spare moment. His school papers are full of drawings. There is seige and attack, fear and victory, disaster always awaiting the unwary.

Liam is affectionate. Except for a brief germophobic phase at age 5, he's always been an eager kisser. And he no longer wipes my kisses off, something that gives me great, if inexplicable, joy. Baker gladly submits to Liam's hugs and kisses many times each day.

Thank you for being my sweet Liam, William Henry Thompson IV, Engineer of Many Trains, Artist of Note, King of the Imponderable, the Unanswerable Question, and the Hysterical Non-Sequitur. Happy birthday, precious one. We'll get you music, art, and exercise here at home.

Monday, November 06, 2006


When the wind kicked up, the leaves of this beech shimmered and swam like a school of golden minnows. Now they've all turned brown. But they'll hang on to those dry, taupe leaves almost until spring, a trait known as marescence, and one of the things that makes beeches one of my favorite trees. Most everyone around here hates them; at least the people who sell timber for money, because beeches are usually hollow and not good for many board-feet. I enjoy having an entirely different, aesthetically-based value system, even as I am aware that having that value system is a luxury in itself. I'm no Thoreau; I like hot baths and fancy lotions, and I don't have to sell timber to buy them.

The last couple of days I have been hanging on until it's time to go for a walk. I force myself to work until I'm cross-eyed, and then I set out on the trail at a fast lope, Chet in the lead, to try to send some air through my lungs and some blood through my legs and clear my mind out. I don't know what I'd do without these woods, this dog, the light hitting off his smooth back, his small feet hitting in a perfect, foxlike line. I watch him, the fluid working of his muscles, and watch him some more. He's so clean, so beautiful, so young and strong. A living, frolicking, sweet-smelling antidote to drudgery, dissimulation, self-absorption, anger, hurt, ill humor; all the soul-clogging conditions and emotions that seem to be the unique province of the angel beast.I've been keeping him on the lead until we get off the neighbor's land and come back onto ours. This is for the cattle, for the turkeys, fox squirrels, towhees, sparrows and grouse, for the hermit thrushes and anything that makes a rustle in the leaves. I've decided that I like to see them before Chet does. And it's good practice for him to behave once in a while, to learn not to haul on the leash but to walk like the American gentleman he is. To my delight, the gas company cut the head-high brambles and weeds that choked The Cut, a once-clear strip along the back of our property. Now I can see again, lope again. Some clearings are nice. Once we get there, I unleash Chet, and he's free to boing off after chipmunks, deer and squirrels to his heart's content, always heading toward home.

It's rutting season, and I'm seeing bucks every day. A beautiful eight-pointer, head low, following a frisky doe along Dalzell Road, oblivious to the time of day and my stopped car. Hunters, of course, take advantage of the single-mindedness of a horny buck; I do too, though I'm content just to admire them. That value system again... Everywhere on the Loop are big areas of the forest floor, scraped clean; broken twigs overhead where the buck has been thrashing his antlers and poking twig ends into the glands below his eyes, leaving resin-like scent droplets on them. Sumacs are broken and girdled. Somebody out there is getting lucky.
This little buck was sunning along our meadow one morning before the gale took the leaves away. I'll know him again from his odd, high-crowned rack, the left antler pointing straight up. That is, if the bowhunters allow it. Yes, I wish I could protect him and the other deer, and I know that our land offers some safety, if incomplete. They know it too. I suspect they know me, by the way they stand and look. Animals always know so much more than we give them credit for.
Chet climbed unseen up a long, leaning log, reaching its broken end, which jutted up some four feet over the forest floor. I was examining some ferns and didn't see him until I glanced up to resume my climb. He waited while I fumbled with my camera, held his pose while it slowly awakened, and gave me a half-dozen shots of his leonine majesty. He was right--it was the perfect photo-op. How could a dog know how to make the woman he loves smile? And then I remembered: it's Job One for Chet Baker.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Look! Bird Dentures!

See the dentures? No? Read on...

Well. Thirty-five comments on the singers we love to hate. And one from Mike Marrone. Smoked him out. He's out there, reading. And in a Sunday morning, Charles Kuraulty way, I'm reflecting on what's going on here. It's fun to riff on what you don't like; there are talk show hosts and columnists all over the world making a living doing that. The extreme expression of that "occupation" would be the sub-scum currently taking jabs at Michael J. Fox. It's so EASY to be snarky and snotty. And oh, do we love to read it and listen to it. Look at the tabloids reaching out for your attention as you stand in line buying frozen waffles and dishwashing liquid. Snarky and snotty is their stock in trade.

There are so many pitfalls in blogging, and the temptation to fall into snottiness is one of the big ones. That, and writing about your husband (kids, family, boss, client, work situation...substitute just about anyone or anything) in anything other than the most glowing terms. I guess it's a relief occasionally to be able to be snotty about SOMETHING, and The Loft's very occasional strayings from the Proper Musical Path that I, in my self-anointed harmonically enlightened state, think they should take seemed an easy and fairly harmless target.

And along comes Mike Marrone, a human being who, as Program Director of The Loft, has a lot of pride and hard work tied up in this (to me) previously faceless satellite radio station. He's out there, sincerely wanting to know how the music he programs is going over. Reading inconsequential blogs, and stung by the incorrect accusation that he plays, or has ever played, That Song Which Shall Not Be Named. (Not named, because the Ooooh Waaah Ooooh's are running through my head like pernicious sludge right now).

And I thought about the time a letter came in to Bird Watcher's Digest from a man who said he hated my paintings, especially the ivory-billed woodpecker cover, because it was just plain bad, like all the rest I'd done. Oh, and the male woodpecker, which had a big white cerambycid beetle larva in its bill, looked like it was wearing dentures. And I looked at it, this painting that had taken weeks to create, and the bird did look like it had false teeth. Ow. Maybe that guy was just trying to get a rise out of me. I didn't satisfy his desire. I just took the hit, but I still remember it, as I remember the occasional but often vicious attacks that came in once I started blogging. I remember wondering what my critic's product might be. Was he a painter, too? Did he write? Was he putting anything out for others to take in, other than bile? But taking criticism from the sidelines is part and parcel of creating a product for public consumption. A few people find it easy to overlook the fact that you're a well-intended human being creating this stuff that you're obviously hoping everyone will like, and they settle back in their lawnchairs and get out their pea shooters or their .410's, and they have a little fun with you, trying to get a lung shot.

So I thought about The Loft's DJ's and programmers, and about our shared admiration for so many essential artists like Ryan Adams and Wilco and Bryan Ferry and Mindy Smith and Damien Rice and Over the Rhine and East Mountain South and Iron and Wine and Ben Harper and Chris Whitley---the last eight being artists I never knew even existed until I heard them on The Loft. And now they're among my favorites. And what a gift that is! I know about these artists (and many others) and seek them out because Mike Marrone and his crew played them for me to hear. And I've heard incredible interviews with musicians by Mike and Graham Nash, and am privileged, through that, to know what David Crosby's been listening to lately. And went out and bought Shawn Colvin's new album on the strength of his recommendation. I can have great music streaming through my house, commercial free, all day. And there are human beings behind it, selecting songs they hope I'll like, interviewing musicians I can only dream about talking with.

And what did I choose to riff on? A couple of artists whose product I don't happen to like, just because it was easy and fun. I guess that's why they call it "making fun."

Yesterday, Bill and I sat at the Buckeye Book Fair from 9-4:30, stacks of our product out in front of us, pens poised, ready to sign. Hoping people would like it. A lot of people did. And then there were the ones who leafed through every page, studying, reading bits, and then put the books down again. And as I sat there with a set Mona Lisa smile on my face, reassuring them that not liking Letters from Eden was perfectly fine with me, inwardly I was yelling, "WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE??" Protest as we might about being creatively independent or cutting edge or fiercely self-expressive, there isn't an artist on the planet who doesn't hope that people like their stuff. That's me, Bill of the Birds, that's Billy Joel and John C. Mellencamp and Natalie Merchant; that's Mike Marrone, that's Michael J. Fox, and that's even Rush Limbaugh. Phew. Tough to put him in the lineup, but he's there, too. We're all putting out a product we're hoping people will like. (His just happens to be spew, and a lot of people seem to think it's the best spew around).

Mike Marrone, here's to you and your radio station. Here's to caring about your product. "Making fun" was fun, but know that I DO like your stuff, a whole lot. I'll never listen to it the same way again, and I'll get a rueful smile when I hear your voice, knowing that you heard mine, snarky and snotty as it was, and took the time to respond. Thank you for all that you do.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Net is a Freaky Place

I may have mentioned that I'm deep into a 200-drawing assignment. Yes. 200. I had about 80 of them already in the files. I've done about 40. And am slogging to the end. I rely heavily on the Google image search to find reference photos of birds in poses I can use. To keep myself from dying of boredom, I think up zany things to draw. The last drawing I did was of a laughing gull trying to eat a least sandpiper, something we witnessed at a horseshoe crab beach in Delaware last spring. In my drawing, the sandpiper gets away, instead of being gulped down whole as the unfortunate Delaware bird was. It reminded us that gulls are predators, and they're always watching, always ready to take advantage of the small and unwary. Gulls and deadlines. The closer I get to the deadline, the more predator/prey drawings I seem to do.

I was searching for images of willets, and found my own willet photo in the Google lineup, from our March '06 trip to Sanibel. I'd posted it on the blog, and it made its way into Google's capacious memory bank, and into my image search. So I used that for reference. That was cool. I'd forgotten taking the photo, and the Net organized it for me without even being asked.

So I'm doing a search for images of kildeer, and on page 8 I run across someone who looks familiar. Does he look familiar to you? What's he doing on Google's kildeer image result page? Well, it was last February, the 17th, the anniversary of the day we got Baker from Pennsylvania, and Laura, Somewhere in NJ, made a comment about having heard a kildeer call that day, and through the magic of the Google search that comment got linked to Chet Baker's impossibly cute photo, and there you have it. I'm looking at my own one-year-old puppy, up to his eyeballs in kildeer photos.

I'm quite used at this point to seeing my own paintings and drawings show up in image searches for particular species, but it was cool to find one of my photos, and my lil' pup, popping up too. Hello, Bacon!

If you haven't been reading Bill of the Birds, you've missed a good belly laugh. In one of his "Song in My Head" posts, Bill riffed a bit on XM Satellite Radio's program The Loft, mostly lauding it, but complaining about periodically having to dive for the stereo power button when they play Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl." I came to this relationship 15 years ago hating Billy Joel, and I think that's probably why Bill decided I was OK. That, and the bird thing, the music thing, and the art thing. But hating BJ was a must. For the record, I also hate John Cougar Mellencamp, Lionel Ritchie, Jewel, Madonna, Natalie Merchant, Bill Morrisey and Rufus Wainwright, but this is a shiny, happy blog and sometimes these things just slip out. I am sorry. That was uncalled for.
So Bill gets this comment on his post from Mike Marrone, Program Director for The Loft at XM Satellite Radio, stating for the record that while he does play some Billy Joel, he has never played "Uptown Girl."
I think Bill and I laughed and high-fived for 15 minutes. I mean, you're typing away in this cybervacuum, pretty sure NOBODY except your most loyal comment cadre is reading this...stuff... you're cranking out, and you get a FYI c0mment from Mike Marrone, whose voice booms out of our quadraphonic speaker system for much of every day. Waaaah! He probably has a Google Alert that tells him when anybody mentions The Loft. And he jumps on that thing and gets all FYI on your a-s.

We were still laughing about it at mid-morning when the Lil' Bastard's immortal epic poem (like a vampire is immortal) "Jack and Diane" came schlubbing out of the speakers. We dove for the power button.
Oh, God. It just hit me... Do you think Mike Marrone's Google Alert is going off now? Is it OK that I said I hate the Lil' Bastard in the same post as I mentioned The Loft?

Yeah, the Net is a freaky place.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

You and Me as Trees

On the back part of our land
where I'd never walked before
I saw you and me as trees
Trunks too close together
yet each one growing straight.

At the top, they leaned into one another
and mingled branches
sharing the sun and sky.
I smiled to think of their roots
down under the leaf blanket.

November 1, day of the Very Much Alive. For Big Stuff. Who else?