Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hot Monkey Luck

Speaking of monkeys…there’s nothing harder to photograph than wild monkeys. Normally, they’re high in the canopy, which means you’re standing in deep shadow, shooting against a bright sky: guaranteed silhouettes. And everywhere else in the world, they are killed for food, so they’re not going to let you get close enough to see the whites of their eyes. I know--it's unthinkable, until you have stood by a caboclo's campfire in the Brasilian Amazon and seen a howler monkey's hand lying in the ashes. It helps to understand how someone could eat a monkey if you spend six months there, living on rice, manioc and beans, and you only get meat on Sunday afternoons, and that consists of one drumstick from an undersized pullet. Then, you come closer to understanding...not that I would or could ever eat a monkey. I'm just trying to explain how it can happen. I remember being hungry.

One morning outside the Hotel Tikal Inn (I know, a bit redundant), a female spider monkey was plucking small palm fruits with her lips, just like someone eating a bunch of grapes. I had to suppress a whoop, to be able to walk right under her and get photos of her sweet face. Egad. What a lovely creature. She had a huge round paunch, good for digesting plant material like green leaves. She was not in the least concerned about her audience, though I have heard that some monkeys at Tikal will throw fruit and worse at people who annoy them. I felt honored to stand so close to her, and I think she appreciated that.
One of the signature sounds of Tikal is the dawn and dusk chorus of black howler monkeys. Unlike the gracile spider monkeys, with their attenuated limbs and tentacle-like tails, howlers are powerfully built, and the males have amazing bony resonating chambers under their jaws (hyoid bullae) that they use to utter resounding roars. Their song sounds like the loudest belch imaginable, and it goes on and on, rushing like an oncoming storm. You can imitate it by drawing your breath in and letting your vocal cords vibrate with your lips in an O. Sort of. You’d have to have a microphone and a Marshall stack to get the volume these monkeys achieve. They’re gorgeous animals, moving with a fluid sinuosity and care through the treetops. You don’t see them crashing from thin branches pell-mell into the next treetop, the way spider monkeys do. Howlers flow. This troop hollered almost the entire day, making the ruins ring with their stormy song.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 26, 2007

More Figgy Fun

This picture's for Sharon and for Robin Andrea: A disapproving chachalaca. I caught her eating palm fruits early one morning and she took a dim view of the intrusion.

We're finally home for a little while, back from the Ohio Ornithological Society's Owl Symposium near Oxford, Ohio, just about as far away from home as we could be and still be in our own state. We were too darn busy playing music and giving talks and emceeing to take a single picture, but we trust our buddies will send some soon so we can tell you about it. Lots of fun, connecting with friends, and further adventures in sleep deprivation. After two weeks of living out of suitcases, Bill and I are staggering around like a couple of Frankenstein's failed experiments.

Although we saw lots of habitats in Guatemala, none was as salubrious for photography as the lowland forest of Tikal. In fact, the highlands represented an extreme challenge, with rain and cold or highly contrasting light on narrow trails. There, you’re lucky to get your binoculars on a bird, much less capture its image. So I’m back to the fruiting trees of Tikal for more fun.
Parrots are messy eaters; having fed and cleaned up after Charlie for 20 long years, I can attest that they put any other pet in the shade for messiness. It’s their job to be messy. They tear into fruits not so much for the flesh but for the seeds, and they drop and fling bits in a wide arc all around. This red-lored Amazon has got a face full of fig. It’s so lovely to see parrots being parrots—loud, messy, gregarious, loving and cantankerous, as they should be.

The poses he struck were terrific. Parrots are basically feathered monkeys—acrobatic, inventive and agile.

More messiness: Another red-lored Amazon attracted a large crowd near the entry gate by tearing into a pair of fruits known locally as huevos del toro. Bull’s balls. This is an incredibly glutinous fruit. I think he was after the seeds, clustered kiwi-like in the middle, and he was willing to get himself mighty sticky for them.

I can’t look at a wild parrot without thinking that they should never be kept in captivity. Yes, I’m a parrot owner, and I’m linked to Charlie for as long as we both shall live, which could be a pretty darn long time. Knowing what I know about macaws, I’d never buy a parrot again. But I was young and dumb, and though I didn’t realize it, my biological clock was going off, so I bought a baby macaw. Dirty cage papers, bite scars and bits of fruit stuck to the wall and all, it’s probably just as well. If I’d hauled off and had kids in my twenties, I wouldn’t have gotten Phoebe and Liam in the great cosmic roulette.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Weird Little Toucans

Being here in Guatemala with Jeff Gordon, bird guide extraordinaire, is a dream. We have laughed our way through Tikal and now the cloud forest highlands. Being a guide for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) for a dozen years has made Jeff sharp as the proverbial tack in bird spotting and vocalizations. It didn't take long for us to chuck our 6-pound Howell and Webb in favor of a walking, talking, laughing encylopedia of tropical bird lore. There are so many great people on this excursion, people who had only been names for me before. And there are old friends, too, and there's never a lack of someone fascinating to talk with. Put all that in a verdant setting with sun streaming down and you have a very happy, if tired, pair of Zick/Thompsons.
I especially love watching Bill ratchet down and relax and use his new camera. Birding is different through a camera. You look for good light and opportunities to grab an image. It's like hunting, and it makes you notice things and evaluate situations. It makes you conscious of light. It's really fun. I have been striking a pretty good balance between photography and field sketching. It goes like this: I take 900 pictures of a bird, and then I sketch it. If it's in rotten light or too far away, as most birds in the low humid forest are, I just sketch it and don't even bother to try to get a picture. Bill keeps hope burning and takes a lot more pictures than I do. I haven't got near the rig he has, but I'm banging away at the birds, too, and getting some pictures that, if not publishable, at least bring the experience back for me.

This fruiting fig tree just kept coughing up delights. Yellow-throated euphonias are incredibly snazzy little mini-tanagers with a huge appetite for fruit. I couldn't resist posting two pictures of this little dude working on a big ripe fig. Amazing how wide his gape is! The euphonias descended on the tree in a cloud and stayed there most of the day, communicating in lisping calls. They'd leave en masse before sundown, giving way to other birds.

Tikal boasts toucans, those highly desired tropical icons. Everyone who comes to Tikal hopes to see a toucan. Keel-billed toucans sit high in emergent trees, croaking like frogs, their yellow breasts shining in the sun, impossibly large bills glowing neon green, blue, yellow and pomegranate. Gorgeous birds. Less well-known are the small toucans known as aracaris, who have their own jerky charm. They're great fun to watch, as they strike poses and hold them for a few seconds like modern dancers or mimes. These photos were taken toward dusk, and lack a bit in saturation, but they capture the aracari's weird color scheme (oily green, silk yellow, and blood red) and personality.

Aracaris (are-ah-sah-rees) have weird horizontal pupils that give them an impassionate, goatlike stare, but they more than make up for that with their zippy personalities. It's almost as if they're overcompensating. Charming birdies!

The verdant greens, gentle breeze and magenta bougainvilleas are calling. I'm going to amble around the hotel grounds to see what I can see. I'm kept company by hooded warblers (they all seem to be guys), Wilson's warblers, and black-and-white warblers, along with the resident clay-colored robins, brown jays, and great-tailed grackles. There are peacocks, roosters, dogs and geese right under our hotel window. What Latin American hotel, no matter how luxurious, would be complete without incredibly noisy birds and animals under its window? The roosters start at 3:30 AM. The dogs go all night. The peacocks don't start hollering until we're showered and dressed. Today's wakeup was 3:40 AM for a 3 hour bus ride down winding mountain roads. It isn't ALL paradise...Just wanted to check in and give you another peek. I know your weather's rotten, and soon ours will be, too...flying back tomorrow (Wednesday). Sigh. I'll try to drag it out by posting about Guatemala for awhile after I get back.

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Figs of Tikal

Me and my baby atop a temple in the Grand Plaza of Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Jeff "El Jefe" Gordon. It's sweaty up there. Soundtrack: screeching red-lored Amazon parrots and burbling Montezuma oropendolas. Blurp-blurp-blooooeeeeepppkkksksksk!

In the tropics, one fruiting tree can make all the difference in your birdwatching experience. A lovely fig tree in the Grand Plaza is dripping with fruit, and hordes of birds are taking advantage. Tikal is one of the few places on earth where you can watch big, tasty birds like crested guans, curassows, and ocellated turkeys. They aren’t molested, and more importantly, they aren’t extirpated in parks like Tikal and Chan Chich in Belize. I spent six solid months in Amazonian Brasil, and never saw a wild cracid (the family name for the chachalacas, guans and curassows). Here, they’re present, and they are unafraid, a very unusual thing to be when you live in Latin America and are big enough to be edible. Oh, what a delight. I looove these birds, love to draw them as they clamber around in the fig tree, plucking fruit. They have a polished greenish patina on their feathers that reminds me of bronze. Not to mention their slate-blue facial skin and screaming red wattles. Here's a crested guan in flight, temple ruin behind. Yeah. Guan in flight. Happens every day in Ohio.Bill, Jeff and I set up on the flank of a temple at eye-level with the fruiting fig. It's not often you're at eye-level with a crested guan...
or a Montezuma oropendola. These amazing members of the oriole and blackbird family build enormous hanging nests, five to eight feet long. They're almost ridiculously loud, bold, and bizarre. Highly recommended.
Surreal, this, posting from Coban, Guatemala, telling you about the wonderful birds in this gorgeous little country even as I'm experiencing them. The Internet continues to delight and amaze me. Too soon, we'll be heading home. Bill and I are slated to play music on Friday night, February 23, for the opening reception of the Ohio Ornithological Symposium to be held at Hueston Woods near Oxford, Ohio. It's the OOS Owl Symposium. I'll be speaking on Saturday, Feburary 24, along with the incomparable Denver Holt of the Owl Institute. Bill and I will help lead field trips on Sunday. Yeah, we'll be fried crispy--racing home Thursday morning, driving across the state with kids and Chet on Friday. Yes, Puppy Supreme will be making an informal appearance at the Owl Symposium. Check it out! Hasta luego!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hello from Guatemala!

This photo was sneakily taken at Phipps Conservatory's Thai Wing, by Shila Wilson. I was sound asleep, a lizard in the sun. Just like I am here....

Oh, man. We're in Guatemala City. It's about 10:30 p.m. We've been up since 4:00 AM. Yeah, we're beat. But there's lightning fast Internet at our hotel, and we only have it for tonight. It took about 40 minutes to de-ice our plane in Columbus at 6 AM. The snow was pounding down. Cost us $200 to change our ticket and come a day early, but our other choice was sheets of ice and snow, and possibly missing a day or two in the humid lowland forest of Tikal. We decided to pay through the nose.
We're seeing good Guatemalan friends, and hanging with Jeff Gordon, and laughing a lot. We shopped today at the Artisan's Market, and our prize of prizes was a giant quilt made of sewn-together pieces of clothing from all over Guatemala. Amazing hand embroidery, including pieces of mens' pants that haven't been worn in Guatemala for 20 years. It's like having textile history all laid out in one beautiful work of art. For pictures, see Bill of the Birds' blog (link in blogroll to right).
I'll leave you, blearily, with a couple of pictures of our Whipple home the day before we left. Here's what a skunk does when it needs to cross a field in deep snow. Poor thing. I can imagine its plumy tail waving as it fought its way through the drift.
A closeup of the tracks.

Baker, of course, had to find out who left that intriguing track.

Baker makes a snow face when he's romping in white.

It's hard to say, but I haven't seen him skip lately. Which may have to do with the difficulty of going through deep snow. I'd like to think his left hind knee isn't bothering him any more. Let's hope.

Phoebe called us as we were checking into our hotel in G. City today, to tell us that Chet Baker had fallen through the ice of the fishpond. They heard a tremendous crash, and then Baker came roaring up and rolled around in the snow. Yeah, that'll help dry you off! They let him in and toweled him dry.

Man, it feels good just to hear about snow, ice, and cold. When we come back, we'll be a week closer to woodocks and spring peepers!

I don't know when I'll be able to post again, but prospects look good for periodic updates from our superfine hotel, when we're there. Tomorrow, to Tikal, for a hot date with a pair of orange-breasted falcons. Arriba!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Corn-Totin' Mama Weighs In on Cardinal Flap

A little corn will do wonders for a backyard. This day, when snow was coming down, I counted fifty cardinals in one sweep of my binoculars. That didn't count any in the back or side yards; that was just what I saw from the bank of north windows in the studio. We have cardinals like some people have mice, but I'm not complaining. Wondrous birds, miraculous birds, a grosbeak that 1. feeds on the ground 2. is incredibly common here 3. is tame and confiding 4. is solid red, riotous, tomato-gone-wild red. May I never become immune to the allure of cardinals.
Well, one male did fight his reflection in our windows one summer before Phoebe was born, and he was a flippin' drag. He started bonking the glass at 5:30 every morning and kept it up nonstop until nightfall. He woke us up every morning, Saturdays too. I don't know when he found time to eat. He certainly didn't participate in rearing his young; his mate raised her brood by herself. She had to have been asking herself what she was thinking when she said yes to him. Passing that warped territoriality gene on!
Those who say that someone shouldn't be bothered by behavior like this have obviously never had an insane cardinal attacking their house for months on end, dawn to dusk, nonstop. This bird wore all his toenails off on the cement sills of our basement windows, and they bled, so every time he jumped at a window, he bled all over it. And when I sprayed artificial snow or put Saran wrap on a window, he'd just move to another. Ever count the windows in your house? Me neither, but there are lots of them, and many I can't get to even with a ladder.
Months. We grew to loathe that bird, him and his haywire territoriality. I tried to trap him with food, but he had no interest in anything but the glass. I tried to lure him into the house, where I could get my hands on him, with a lifelike carved cardinal and tapes of cardinal song. No luck. People sometimes call me an expert on such things, and he completely bamboozled me. Finally one day he was gone, and I'm sure he had to have been killed, because nothing but death could have stopped him. The silence was deafening. It took me a week to stop waking up at 5:30; I was so used to waking up to the bonk of beak on glass. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, along with a prayer that one of his sons wouldn't take up the glass-fighting banner in his wake.
Comparing notes with my friend Larry Barth in western PA, I learned that the Barths were unwilling hosts to a FEMALE cardinal who fought every window in their house for SIX YEARS. Yes. Winter, summer, year round. So much for those who proclaim that only male birds do this; that the territorial instinct will wane when breeding season passes. Larry Barth (master bird carver and artist) knows more about birds than almost anyone I've met, and he never figured out how to dissuade her.

What's operating here is a supernormal stimulus, a rival that won't go away no matter how aggressively it's attacked. And we have a bird that becomes obsessed with this unnatural stimulus, and forgets how to be a cardinal. This bird's mate raised the first brood herself, but that was it. He couldn't be bothered to court or mate. He was like any addict: immersed in his addiction,insensate to anything else.

I read the Newsweek piece that everyone's talking about.

Having suffered the attentions of a mind-gone window-fighting cardinal, I was not so much outraged that the "gun-toting granny" offed the bird as I was that Newsweek saw the essay fit to print. Did anyone on the editorial staff have a concern as to the legality of her action? I have had some experience with magazine editing, and I've seen how meticulously NPR checks facts, and I simply can't believe Newsweek would overlook the myriad red flags her piece raises, and print it without at least some informational disclaimer. Their editorial decision to print her essay, crowing about having killed a native songbird, was either incredibly ignorant, incredibly arrogant, or both. They've made themselves quite a bed.

All our cardinals now are sane. Durn good thing, too, because we have a whole lot of them.

It's also a good thing deer don't often take to fighting windows. You'd have a real problem on your hands.

This fawn is looking undernourished to me. I hope the corn helps him make it through the winter. Fawns get this kind of dome-headed look when they're malnourished, I think because their eyes are sunken. I'll put out an extra measure of corn for him, and buy another 50 lb. bag tomorrow.

They know who the Corn Lady is, but they make a big show of trotting off when I open the window to get a better picture of them. They only go a few yards, then stare and stamp until I close the window and let them feed in peace.
Don't get any ideas, big guy.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Gettin' Out!

Accepting dates to give talks in February and March--well, any time in winter--is a leap of faith. Pittsburgh is about three hours from here, if you allow for traffic jams. There are always traffic jams around Pittsburgh. But the Three Rivers Birding Club made such a nice invitation that I knew I had to make the drive. Sure enough, snow started coming down the afternoon before, and it snowed until about midnight, dumping five inches of gorgeous, iridescent flakes on the two-inch base already there. I decided not to worry about it, realizing that it was going to be what it was going to be, and that's why I have four-wheel drive on my ol' '95 Explorer. Shila had cleared her very busy schedule a couple of months back, and she bravely agreed to accompany me.
I was glad to be getting out. I've had my head firmly inserted in my navel for a couple of weeks now. Cabin fever, Bill away for a week; kids out of school for most of two solid weeks, midlife musings, ridiculously cold weather...all the elements are there for a Zick version of The Shining. We keep the hatchets in the garage.
The moment I turned out into the driveway and felt the strong wheels of my car/truck grip the snow, I was glad to be getting out. The dawn greeted me with pastel delights. The road was pretty terrible, but the white snow covering its surface was at least tinged beige with sand. I felt thoroughly cared for.
Shila and I met at the gas station by the highway, and after some futzing around hit the highway. Oh, it was good to be out with my best gal, yakkin' up a storm. I hoped I wouldn't be too hoarse by the time I had to give my reading. Shila is wise and wonderful, and she helps me see larger truths. Coming down our county road into a little hamlet of Bonn.
The drive was incredibly beautiful, the rising sun hitting off fresh snow on pines. Shila and I agreed that the high mountains of West Virginia can make us feel a bit closed in. They're dramatic and magnificent and they're nice in small doses, but I need to see more sky than that. Appalachian Ohio is a nice compromise between open plains (which I also love) and high mountains. Look at this landscape not far from Wheeling, the Dickinson Cattle Company property. Love it, love it. It kisses the sky.
Every time I go to Pittsburgh, I wonder why I don't just plan a weekend there. There is so much to see and do; the food is great, the people are quirky and fun, almost like Baltimorons, and the city is a jumbled delight. The Phipps Conservatory was exactly what the doctor ordered. Sun pouring in on our faces and beauty at every turn. It has a big ol' extravagant Victorian feel, and each greenhouse has a different intoxicating scent--wet earth, jasmine, the powdery smell of pansies in bloom; orange blossoms, the complex aromas of orchids...Shila and I swooned for three straight hours.
A species Paphiopedalum that made me laugh out loud with delight. It's like a loopy bird, tadaaa! here I am!
The bonsai conservatory is stunning. They're all tropicals, heavy on the Ficus species, venerable and impressive. This tree was huge--almost four feet tall. That hole in the trunk had to have been hand-carved out. I have a hard time imagining carving a hole in one of my treasured bonsais, but some people do it. It's a good effect, a Wizard of Oz tree. And I reject the idea that these plants are being tortured. They're working, and serving a high purpose as pieces of living art. And they look like they're enjoying their job. Think those trees don't know they're loved and admired?We practically had the place to ourselves this Wednesday afternoon. How I loved the aesthetic working here. A wall of maidenhair ferns, and that perfect little statue.
We finally made our way to the finale--the new Thai wing. Gorgeous architecture, intelligent design! and lots of waterfalls. The only thing lacking were little birds, maybe white-eyes, flitting through. Wish they'd have some birds in there...These fan palms looked to me like music sounds. They've got rhythm and rhyme and melody in their planes and pleats. The sun beat in on my face, though it was about 13 degrees outside. I sat down on a bench and before I knew it I was reclining and then I was asleep. Shila looked at me as I woke up. befuddled and grinning, and commented that this was probably the first time I'd taken some time out for myself for several months. I realized that she was right. Soon, it was time to gather ourselves and go give the talk. It was great--full of new and old friends, 97 strong. Ken Parkes, a mentor from way back, made the effort to come to the talk, and we reconnected and shared a few quiet moments together. What an honor to see Ken and Ellen again. The incomparable Larry Barth was my slide changer, since my remote died. Jack and Sue Solomon, Claire and Eric Staples, Pam and Bob Mulvahill, Pat and Sherron Lynch, David LIebmann, man of letters... it was old home week, and loads of fun.
Well, with this big fat post I have to tell you I'm going to take some more time...to go to Guatemala next week. There won't be wireless where we're going; I may even leave the laptop home. Everybody needs a vacation sometime, even if it's a working vacation. Bill and I will be together with nothing to do but look for birds, laugh and have fun with our friends. I'll come back with a camera full of ocellated turkeys and trogons and a head ready for spring. It's anything but black and white in Guatemala.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

The woods is lovely, stark and deep. Black and white it is, with the occasional Christmas fern frond to break the monochrome. Water that's still open is black, none blacker; no skylight here. I open up the camera's eye as far as it will go.
It is silent. I see only two birds on this evening walk, both of them winter wrens, tiny motes of chestnut with almost forgotten tails, about the size of a pompon on a mariachi sombrero. Their calls are bold, a loud, ringing CHEMP! The perfect bird for this colorless fastness. They seem to wonder why Baker and I are here.

We are here for patterns. There are no bobcat tracks, as there were this time last year. I don't make it all the way down to the rock overhang, so that doesn't mean there are no bobcats. I stay in the upper reaches of our nameless stream, bewitched by black and white.

Castles of icicles hang from every ledge. They're big; here's Chet for scale. They're Tyrannosaurus teeth, shiny and clean.

I am walking, looking down at the ice, and stop dead. A happy dog cavorts before an ivory-billed woodpecker, inviting it to play. I have passed through the looking glass.
This is another kingdom, where my most heartfelt questions are answered in riddles. Normally, when I walk in the woods, my mind goes blank, the better to take in what I see, hear, and smell. Tonight, I'm taking it in, but there's an ambient rumble going on. I'm contemplating the source of happiness. Where does it come from? This is not as simple a question as it might seem.

From what I've seen, I think that happiness is something like the ability to sing. If you can't carry a tune, nobody can show you how to do it reliably. They could sing and sing in tune right in your ear, and you could try to match the pitch, but if you're tone-deaf, and unable to produce a true note yourself, it's not going to give you a song.

Shila says that Buddhist teachings hold that nobody else can make you happy, but nobody else should be able to make you unhappy, either. Both happiness and unhappiness come from within. Thinking about this, it fits with the Buddhist teacher, sitting alone on a mountaintop, self-contained. It is, though, an enormous prospect to contemplate, a call to self-reliance that seems pretty extreme.

I don't know why I need to generalize about life. Writing is, in large part, coming up with generalizations. It cuts complex things up into bits we can digest. I don't know if this new one of mine is true. I suspect the Buddhist idea is true. For now, it feels like some kind of answer.

Why the happy dog? Why the silent woodpecker? There's an answer hiding somewhere in the black and white forest, and I can't get to it tonight.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Shallow Moon

Baker leaves tracks all over the place. I know his sign. He's usually running, and his overlong toenails drag between prints.

As I root around these woods, I'm painfully aware that the complement of mammals I haven't tracked is shrinking. Rats. Actually I haven't found rat tracks yet, but I'd like to.

As the sun sank a couple of days ago, before the cold really clamped down, Baker and I went into the north border near the glass jar terrarium dump to see what we could see. The snow was still quite fresh, and there hadn't been a whole lot of activity, except for one tantalizing set of tracks that meandered through the snow. This is not a big animal, and it's slow, and not particularly graceful. It's got a fairly wide wheelbase. There are foot drags and body marks. The paws are distinctive, a little bearlike. Any guesses?
Let's look more closely at those feet. This animal has wonderfully intricate pads, convoluted, with multiple heel pads instead of one central one like a felid or canid displays. The forefoot is the lower track. Most mammals have small forefeet and larger hind feet. This could be called a plantigrade animal; it doesn't walk on its toes, but rather flat on its soles as we do. There is a whisper of long claw marks on both fore and hind foot. Warmer? Here's the best picture, showing the contrast between fore and hind. This is an animal that's walking methodically with short steps. You might even say it's waddling, from the scuff and drag marks. There are maybe seven inches between each hind footprint.
OK. If you don't have it by now, it's a mustelid, a striped skunk. It's normal for them to be out and about in February, but February is usually a lot kinder than this. We've smelled their scent on the air for the last week. Striped skunks are true hibernators, but they awaken early. I hope this little guy found another hibernaculum before this awful cold hit, and that he's sleeping through it. Perhaps he's feasting on our compost pile. He's welcome to it.
If I had to find only one decent set of tracks this evening, it was lovely to have a new mammal to show you. I broke out onto the Cut and drank in the pastel sky and etched trees.
The moon rose over the orchard, and I looked into its face, searching for something, some kind of answer. On this walk, I had asked myself question after question, and the mysteries just got deeper. Nothing came to me to answer them. I remember being young, and feeling as if I were able to figure things out if I thought long enough about them. Now, I seem only to come up with more and deeper queries. I go digging back to the very elements of my dilemma, and question all I once held true. The line from Cats sprang into my mind:

Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone

No help there.

At least I knew what kind of tracks I'd found. Is it any wonder I love tracking?

In tracking, the questions have answers; you have only to search well.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Zero Degrees at Dawn

No school again today. It's sunny and clear; no additional snow has fallen. Zero degrees at dawn. Far from sleeping in, the heat struggling to bring the high-ceilinged living room up to temperature (and baking the back bedrooms in the process) woke me up at 4 AM, and I have been occupying my brain by worrying about sundry things, most of which I can't control, ever since. Bill, temporarily ill with a Superbowl-induced blarrrgh. (Liam: "Where's Daddy?" Me: "Sick in bed." Liam: "Do you want me to check on him?" Me: "No, we'd best leave him alone now." Liam: "OK. Just want to be kind.")
I put my nose in Liam's sweet bunch of white hair and breathe in his scent, thinking. About a treasured friend, stricken with cancer. The inexplicability of life's pathways. The turns and bends in the road that offer only uncertainty. The feeling that I ought to be able to know what lies ahead, and simply can't. The stuff of wee hours.

Today, the school's problem seems to be that it is too cold. Do children's brains shut down at zero degrees? Mine doesn't. Mine shuts down when they have their tenth fight of the day and complain that they're bored. When my studio floor becomes a minefield of scented markers and wet paint pots. At this rate the kids are going to be doing make-up days until July. The wisdom of the school district's decision escapes me. Are all children in Alaska homeschooled? I hear it's really cold in Minnesota. Do they still have school there? The trend of shutting down schools for a quarter-inch dusting of snow or diving temperatures seems to be firmly entrenched in southeast Ohio. I can only imagine how it drives the teachers nuts, trying to fit in a whole lesson plan once in a blue moon. My new refuge is a pair of headphones, plugged into Pandora's free Web radio or an iPod. I can disappear inside my work, even as Spongebob natters and the kids thunder through the studio begging for another tangelo to be peeled. I'm heading down the homestretch of that 200-drawing job. I started working on it in late September. I've promised myself not to do that to my Muse ever again. These promises have always fallen by the wayside when the furnace craps out. High mindedness doesn't survive long in cold like this.

Here's how Liam spends much of his time. He had help on this track from BOTB, who took time out to start its construction off. I love seeing the two of them on all fours, talking wood-track physics. Liam is now reading track layouts and copying them, then adding his own embellishments, such as the elevated skyrail. Watching him work, I have to glow at his focus and foresight. It's lovely to watch, and the soundtrack--soft humming and singing--is just as delightful. I like having my kids around. But they miss their friends and the stimulation that going to school provides. I feel I should be presenting lesson plans to them.

The cardinals are cold, hunched down on the snow like tea cozies. I'm going through unprecedented amounts of suet dough, suet, peanuts and seed. I bought 15 pounds of canned peanuts at Wal-Mart last night, two bags of cornmeal, two magnum jars of peanut butter. I think I still have a couple of 5 pound tubs of lard in the basement. I'm tired of making suet dough, when a huge batch lasts but a week, but I'm glad I'm here to see the birds through this deep freeze. I wonder how the bluebirds would fare without it, and that keeps me going. At this point I make the recipe times seven. That's a lot of ingredients, and pretty painful to stir.

And yet there's food out there for the seed-eaters. I always marvel at what's revealed by the snow. It's anything but a cover-up: it reveals all. A spent goldenrod head seems uselessly fluffy, and yet this junco evidently got a meal out of the seed fallout it dropped into the snow. I wonder if they bother to shell goldenrod seeds, or just swallow them whole. They're minuscule, smaller than a mustard seed. There are so many things I don't know. Does the snow make it possible for them to see and eat seeds they wouldn't ordinarily be able to detect? Is that why juncoes seem to fare well in snow?

I go out for a few minutes just to throw more seed around for them, and feel as if I'll die. Baker, in his sweater, pees just off the front stoop and races back inside, stands bug-eyed and shivering atop the heat register. And yet the birds sleep out in it, and they weigh about as much as a first-class letter. How do they do it, on a diet of itty-bitty seeds? How is it that humans have gotten so very soft, that we have to build these enormous, climate-controlled boxes to live and roll around in?

The art of birds. What are the juncoes trying to tell me? Don't worry, be happy, like this little dancing Woodstock we drew. We were fine without you, but thanks for the millet.

Knick Knack, Paddywhack, Give this Dog a Home

No, no, no, not THIS dog. Read on...
Sometimes I wonder if people who read this blog look at Chet Baker and think, "That's a cute little dog. I might like to have a dog like that someday." Although you can expect a certain amount of breed chauvinism among dog owners, Boston terrier owners are particularly devoted to their dogs. Their lovability index is very high. BT's can be energetic, bouncing like rubber balls when they're happy, but they are also world-class nappers, floppy and warm as ragdolls in the sun. Baker, awakened.
They're smart, and they have an incredible sense of humor. They live to make their people laugh. They're athletic, and fast as greased lightning. They mind pretty well, though they have their own ideas about where they ought to rank in the household and are given to pushing the envelope from time to time.
Phoebe and Chet. Paws up! They're both in their tie-dyed T-shirts.

They have googly eyes and they like to kiss on the lips, so you have to be fast if you don't. They don't bring dirt in because their paws are small and smooth. They're about the cleanest, lowest maintenance dog you could ask for, and they smell wonderful. They're a snap to bathe when they try to make themselves smell even more wonderful by rolling in something. When they shed, they shed little black eyelash hairs, which show up really well on white linens, so you can tell what stage of the molt they are in at all times. Some of them snore. They like to sleep under a million covers, and they hate the cold and extreme heat, just like people do. Most of them enjoy wearing sweaters and polo shirts. Bostons bark only when necessary, to tell you someone's coming or invite you to play. They're just the right size to sit on a lap or sling over your shoulder. They have a sixth sense about their owner's well being, and will do what they can to make you feel better when you're blue.

I have offered to help Susan (of Susan Gets Native) find a home for Boomer, a Boston terrier that showed up in a shelter near her home in Cincinnati, emaciated and running loose. Having followed the adventures of Chet Baker, Susan thought Boomer would fit seamlessly into their household, but her cats thought otherwise. Boomer is everything good I've described, and he gets along well with other dogs, but he wants to eat Susan's cats. This has proven to be a problem, since there are five of them. He's up to 25 pounds now, silky, shiny, healthy, neutered, housetrained, about two years old. He loves to fetch, and knows the command, "drop it." He loves to play, and needs to be reminded to play easy, but he is very gentle. (Chet Baker needs to be reminded, too, and he knows but does not follow the command to "drop it," so I think Boomer has one over on him.)

Here's Boomer, probably looking at a treat. His markings are classic.

Here, he's beginning surgery on an elephant.

I found Chet Baker in bed this morning, praying that Boomer will find his forever home soon.

If you have a cat-free home and think you'd like to join the happy ranks of Boston terrier owners with a housetrained, sweet and loving two-year-old neutered male, contact me here.
Thanks for any help you can offer. This ends our public service announcement.

An aside: I wound up taking the computer to the hospital that same Friday afternoon that it died. I'd already blown the day coping with its funeral arrangements; might as well transport the body. There is some hope that Apple will cover the repair, since blown power supplies and logic boards are a "known problem" with young Macs. Ominously, I was told that there are computers awaiting these parts without so much as a promised shipping date for them. Five hours of straight driving, just to learn that. Ah, life in the country, life with computers.

Friday, February 02, 2007

One of Those Days

You realize that you're in the grip of an obsessed blogger. Post after post: tracks. Tracks, tracks, tracks. I can't stop. And yet I realize that not everyone cares as passionately as I do who went where in the snow on Indigo Hill. My own husband has begun to tweak me about it. And so I offer up a post about something else. Let's see. Hmmm. (Drum fingers, Jeff Gordon style). I know! How about this one? My main computer died last night. Yep. It started acting really strangely, super-slow and confused. This, while I was preparing a nice, picture-filled post on...tracks...including a very cool shot from my friend Ruthie in Minnesota. Everything took forever, and to top it all off, Blogger wouldn't take a single picture. I tried five times, driven by my need to make you all happy five days a week. Finally, I shut the poor thing down, patted it on the head, and told it I'd see it in the morning.

It's an iMac G-5. It's a wonderful machine. And it is dead. Our preliminary diagnosis, based on Bill's taking off the back and pressing the internal power button, is that the logic board is gone. The nearest repair place is 86 miles away, near Columbus. It is snowing like mad, at least 2 1/2" since dawn. The kids are in their constant default state of having a day off from school. People ask me if I homeschool all the time. They assume that, and they assume I'm a vegetarian. Why, i dunno. People make you what they want you to be, I guess. This winter, I feel like I'm homeschooling; they haven't had a single entire week since before Christmas. I'm resolved: I am not getting in the car with them and the corpse of a computer. I'm saying this mostly to convince myself not to try it.

I knew when I got my MacBook Pro laptop that this day would come, when my main, desktop computer dies, and I am surprising even myself with my level-headed cool. It seems kind of soon, though, since the thing isn't even two years old, but such is the world of hi-tech machines. Their lives are measured in months. I haven't started trembling or crying. It's a bummer, but aside from about two dozen minor inconveniences discovered thus far this morning--the first being that all the pictures I'd lined up for this post are on the dead computer--I'm not the puddle of tears I would be had I not taken the leap and gotten a laptop. The kids aren't missing a beat, sledding. It really hasn't hit them that their play station is going to have to go to the hospital.

After refusing all food for a day and a half, Baker finally accepted Royal Canin mixed with spaghetti sauce. I guess he's tired of beef stew. And then he got all krazy in the snow. I've always loved otters. Maybe that's why I love Boston terriers. It's the mouth and eyes that get me.

For now, I'm trying to get some overdue drawings done, and I'm looking out at the snow, trying to squeeze the lemons for a little glass of lemonade. I need some time off, anyway. I'll see you Monday.