Monday, April 30, 2007


It seems fitting to post pictures of flowers that I meant to post while they were still blooming, but never got to...antique daffodils at Malabar Farm.

It’s a day. I'm turning over the big heavy rock of my life and peering at all the things that crawl and slither and hide from the light. My greenhouse is stuffed with overheated, overgrown flowers needing to go into the ground. Weeds are thickening and leaping to cover the plants I love. The lawn needs to be mowed again, five days after the last mow. The half-tilled garden is alive with bindweed and goosefoot. I've got to till it and get the beans planted. Pond filter's clogged; Bird spa's full of mourning dove ca-ca and gurgling helplessly. The kids need to be fed immediately, then get driven to T-ball and softball practice, a mere 10 miles away, where I will sit on an aluminum bleacher for two hours, smiling and giving Liam the thumb's up, trying not to think of all the things I should be doing instead. Baker rolled in something awful and will need another bath tonight. I don’t even have to lean down and sniff his left shoulder to know. He crawls under the dresser and stares at me with red-rimmed eyes; he stands on the bathroom scale with his head hidden behind a hanging towel. Just the words “Did you roll?” send him into a googly-eyed, ears-down picture of dejection. “Yes, Mether. I wanted a bath. And you are the only person who can bathe me.”Baker, apres bath, feeling much better.

Spring goes on as if there were some kind of deadline to meet. A few twisted, dwarfed racemes have opened on the frost-blasted lilac, enough to give me that little whiff of the divine, of what might have been. The bleeding heart is trying to bloom for the second time, having been rendered into limp yellow plant spaghetti the first time it sent its strong shoots skyward. Looks like it's well on its way to taking over its ten square feet of the perennial bed. Everything seems to be accelerating toward something, this rush to bloom and set fruit and prosper; the sun climbing high in the sky and the temperature rising. It all seems to be going too fast for me. Winter, straight into summer, the springtime stolen away by an icy thief.
Blue hepatica, long done now. This was the bluest hepatica I'd ever seen. Look at its wooly new leaves. Mohican State Forest, Ohio.

I look around the place. For the first time, I seriously consider hiring someone to help. Or an entire staff. Mow, plant, weed, run the tractor, cut or bulldoze the multiflora rose and wisteria and trumpetvine, poison ivy and Japanese honeysuckle that’s taking over our meadow and closing in from three sides on our house. Are there still handymen around? I could use about five of them. While I’m at it, I’d like to find a cleaning person who wouldn’t steal my jewelry or suck my will to live. Who could help me keep up with the cascade of dirty clothes and towels and bathmats and sports equipment and optics and toys and dog chewies that crunch and roll underfoot, the greasy sinks and glubby toilets and floors crying to be scrubbed. The balance on this place, inside and out, has definitely tipped toward the plant kingdom, and it looks like somebody’s weekend country home that they come to when they can, and mow maybe once a month. It takes a lot to overwhelm me, but I’m overwhelmed. The truth is, having a personal heaven is a hell of a lot of work. Most of the time, I just get down and deal with it. I like riding around on the mower, I like weeding and planting and tending things. I clean a lot, though I like it less and less. Being in constant motion is my resting state. But tonight, I feel very small, and this house and 80 unkempt acres feels very, very big.
Bloodroot, just a memory.

I decide to get up tomorrow, when I open my eyes at 5:30, and just get dressed and start dealing with it, one thing at a time. No lying in the dark, listening to the dawn chorus and thinking. If I can get the house picked up and the cleaning started, I’ll let myself plant the gladiolus bulbs and the two tall delphiniums, royal blue, that I bought. I’ll let myself make a couple of hanging baskets of miniature Swiss ivy geranium and bluest lobelia. I’ll pretend I’m giving orders to a hired staff, and try to ignore the fact that I’m the staff. For all of you out there who are feeling steamrolled by the fact that summer, with all its sweaty hubbub, is ever so suddenly here, you are not alone.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

To a Prairie Warbler

Little scrap of life
What a difference you make
in this landscape of briar and thorn

your song
a bony finger sliding up the frets
of a silver dulcimer.

You are not afraid of me
or this great black barrel
slicing off image after image.

You have singing to do
and in between you'll look
for curled coin of caterpillar
in the folded leaf.

Find a mate. She'll weave a little cup of plaits
Stripped from last year's goldenrod
the color of cedar on the Cape.

If she sees me watching she'll drop the fluff
and pretend she wasn't fashioning a cradle
No, just tidying up the old stems of winter.

I am glad you're here, and glad it's April.
Prairie warbler, sprinkling song
How did I do without you?

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Biting the Bullet for Swallows and Bluebirds

I don't have a great big long lens--only 300 mm, handheld. What I do have is ridiculously tame tree swallows. Think they know who got rid of the house sparrows in their box? You bet they do. The female won't even budge off her eggs when I open the box. I have to lift her up to count them.

Nothing good comes without passion and hard work, I think. Well, duh, I don't think that. Lots of good things happen unbidden. Sure they do. But if you want nice birds nesting in your boxes, and you have a plague of house sparrows around, you've got your work cut out for you.

We don't usually have house sparrows around this place. But last spring I wanted to paint a brood of baby house sparrows from life, and I figured it was worth letting them nest in a bluebird box, just this once, for the painting. It's a great painting. It was worth it. What I didn't bet on was that when that brood fledged, the pair would sneakily set up a second brood in our big bluebird roost box, which can't be opened, and raise that one, too. Before you knew it we had nine to fourteen of the freakin' things chirrupping around here every morning, stuffing themselves with suet dough, and stuffing the bluebird boxes with weed stems and feathers. Oh, man, what a bed I made for us.

So I went rummaging around in my bluebird supplies in the basement and garage and miraculously found a small white sealed envelope. I opened it up and found a Gilbertson in-box sparrow trap. What are the odds. I didn't even know I had it; I was looking for the Huber in-box trap I had years ago and have since misplaced. Nothing's ever truly lost when you own as much krap as we do; it just gets covered over. Steve must have sent it to me as a gift when I ordered the last case of 14 Gilbertson PVC bluebird boxes from him. Not only is he a genius, he's a really nice guy, too.This has to be one of the neatest and best little inventions ever, made by my friend Steve Gilbertson, he of Gilbertson PVC bluebird box fame; he of the Gilwood box (a fabulously well-designed wooden bluebird nest box). It's simple, but man, does it work well. You mount it with a couple of screws on the inside front door of the box, so when it's tripped, the little tongue of flexible but strong plastic flips up and covers the entrance hole. The treadle, which looks like a wire L in this shot, hangs down over the nesting material, and the bird lands on it when it enters the box. Here , the trap is set, ready to spring when I close the box and a bird lands on the treadle.
When you see the orange dot in the hole, you've got a customer inside.

A trap like this is non-specific; it will catch whatever bird enters the box. But neither does it hurt the bird. The only thing you must be sure of is that you check it frequently, at least every three hours. I check it every half-hour. I've caught a bluebird and a Carolina chickadee this week, and they were only confined a matter of minutes before I ran up to release them. I've also caught seven house sparrows in two weeks. They were not released.

I've made dozens upon dozens of trap runs to four different far-flung bird houses on our property, but it's been worth it. We're down to one male house sparrow on the place, and he's real lonely. I hope he'll bug off soon. Why do I do it? Because the house sparrow infestation is a problem of my own making, one that threatens to negate the 15 years of good work building bluebird and tree swallow and Carolina chickadee populations on our farm. If I let them reproduce in my boxes, before long all I'll be producing is house sparrows, an imported Eurasian species that kills native nesting birds. And I do it so, instead of a scruffy house sparrow, I can see this sitting on my bluebird boxes:And this sitting on the perch post beside a box where I've trapped two house sparrows:And the lovely tree swallow and his mate, having an animated conversation about the new house that just opened up. This may be the only kind of bigotry that's really justifiable.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Little Miracles

I just changed keyboards because my old one was full of Cheezits, dog hair and Edy's Slow Churned French Silk ice cream. Multiple threats to my kids about eating over the keyboard produced only elaborate sneakery and slumping back in the computer chair while slurping ice cream from a mug, a posture which supposedly kept the food from falling into the keys. I looked down this morning and saw a big mocha drip running down into the space bar. Smoke came out of my ears. Went downstairs and dug out the great springy Macally keyboard I got for my old blue iMac. Battleship gray, it's ugly as sin with my sleek white Mac, but it works, the keys moving like satin. I have now shed my growing aversion to writing, brought about by the difficulty of working with a gunky keyboard, and the masses of mistakes caused by stuck keys. To tell you the truth I never much liked the sleek white keyboard that came with my G-5. The transparent cradle, through no fault of my own, filled up with the most embarrassing kiddie compost. Well, I do pet Baker over the keyboard. So the black dog hair is my fault.

As of this morning, there is a crude sign taped to my computer, where even a seven-year-old couldn't miss it.


It will be a miracle if even this heavy threat is heeded. I know that I'll find French Silk in this keyboard, too.

Speaking of miracles, this has been a day of them, ones I'm very thankful to witness. I've been waiting for the backyard bluebirds to hatch since incubation commenced on April 10. They're about a day late, but they were hatching at 2 p.m. Hallelujah! Three hatched, a fourth pipping, and we'll see about Egg # 5.

The lilac I have been mourning since the big freeze that commenced April 5 is showing signs of life.
Against impossible odds, the flower brackets that had been frozen crispy through night after night of 2o's somehow retained enough turgor pressure to straighten (mostly) out, point upward, and begin to develop. They're way behind, but their florets are opening, and I got the barest whiff of lilac scent out of this one today. They won't be as beautiful as they would be; they actually look strange against the blasted black leaves hanging on the plant, but they will open, and I am thankful not to be denied that signature scent of spring. The lilac: an heirloom from Bill's dad's family farm. The farm was destroyed by a highway cloverleaf, but the lilac remembers and goes on. Miracle. Maybe I'll get those tip cuttings this year after all. I MUST propagate this wonderful plant.

Hosta "June," opening up. Let's hear it for chartreuse plants.The lilies of the valley I dug from beside my grandmother Ruigh's house in Meservey, Iowa about five years ago are finally taking off. I'll have enough by next spring to send starts to my sisters and brother. Oh joy, oh rapture, to know that this very plant delighted Frieda, filled her sunporch with perfume, and now grows in Ohio.More miracles anon. April is just full of them. They sustain me through everything.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ritual Bonsai Potting

Bonsais in the wintering pit, already leafing out and awaiting release.

April 10, the day my dad died, is usually the day I repot my bonsai trees. He was fascinated with them, and I'm sure his interest rubbed off on me. I started my first trees in 1981, and built my collection through the 80's and 90's. Over the years, I've winnowed it down to the real winners, trees that I hope I'll have to pass on to Miss Phoebe or Master Liam. Bear in mind that these trees were started not from big ol' nursery stock that's trimmed back and crammed into successively smaller pots, but from tiny nursery starts in the case of the evergreens, and from two-leaved seedlings I collected under the parent trees--beautiful Japanese maples in cemeteries and parks. This is not how most people start bonsais, but I didn't know any better, and I generally don't do things like most people do them.

I love containers. Here is the array of containers I have to choose from. I can't pass up a nice bonsai pot, no matter where I find it. I've been scolded by a real bonsai enthusiast for putting such venerable trees in "cheap pots," but they're good enough for me. I took it as a compliment.

Though I have some tropical Ficus trees that I grow indoors that are passable bonsais, these plants pictured here are not houseplants. These are real trees that need a dormancy period, that turn color in the fall and drop their leaves and have bare twigs all winter long. About mid-November, I take them out of their pots and cover their roots with soil in a 2' deep pit under the deck, and cover it with an old glass shower door, and other than watering them every couple of weeks or so, I let them sleep all winter. I wrap their trunks in foil to keep voles from feasting on their bark. (It hurts their fillings). That was a lesson hard-learned, after voles practically girdled all my trees one winter. They survived with a lot of TLC, but they still show the scars.

The trees are so big now that they have to lie down on their sides to fit in the pit. So when they start putting on new growth in the spring, it grows sideways if I don't get them out of the pit in time. The cold kept me from potting them until just last week. I took pictures to show you how it's done. Here they are in the cart, ready to come up to the potting station, trunks still wrapped in foil. This was a quick and dirty potting. I usually hose all the soil off and trim the roots back about 20% every spring to keep them from growing too much (the idea is to keep them fairly small and manageable). This year, they had put on so much new soft growth under the glass that I didn't dare trim their roots for fear of harming them. So I just added a little fresh soil and potted them up. Onto the display bench with you! It was the labor of an hour rather than three or four.The small pots in the bottom row hold my new starter maples that I dug at Holden Arboretum last year. I'm so excited that they all made it through the winter. They're leafing out without missing a beat. That first winter is their most vulnerable. Clearly, there is a bigger, deeper bonsai pit somewhere in my near future.

The trees were delighted not to be trimmed back and to have some fresh soil to eat. I mix potting soil with builder's sand for better drainage. I have yet to go into the woods to get the moss that covers the bare soil and helps keep them from drying out. One of these days...At least they're potted, happy, growing, and so far the weather looks like it's stabilizing enough for them to stay outside until next November!

Here's how they looked April 23:They'll only get more beautiful, although I have to say I love the tiny-leaf stage of early spring. Best of all is autumn color--the maples just light up with yellow and scarlet. Mmmm. It takes the sting out of summer's end.

I spent most of today in Athens again, at a book signing (fun! Steady traffic! Cookies and sandwichettes! Dumped my punch, but not on the books! Always good!) and then being interviewed on WOUB-TV about Ora Anderson's lovely book, Out of the Woods, to which I contributed some drawings. It was just published by Ohio University Press and it's a keeper.
Took myself out to dinner and just got home, dog-tired again. I'll be up at dawn, though, because all the migrants that have been held back by the cold are coming in at once--11 arrivals yesterday and 3 more today. Warblers, vireos, tanagers, they're all flooding in. See Bill of the Birds for a lyrical list of what's in right now. Ahhhhh. Do yourself a favor. Grab binoculars and GET OUT THERE! The show doesn't last long but man, it's lovely, especially with no leaves to impede the view. Hmmph. This spring...

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Monday, April 23, 2007

The Madness of Martins and Elk

On my drive up to Bellville, Ohio on Friday, April 19, I stopped at a favorite haunt: Zanesville Pottery. This is where I get a lot of my bonsai pots and the Ohio-made birdbath pedestals that I use for orchids and planters. Didn't find much this time but I had fun looking, and I decided to cruise north on old U.S. 40, which parallels boring old I-77. Boy, am I glad I did. The first thing I saw was a flock of birds overhead, with a distinctive shape. Gol-darn. Those are martins! After the dire news I'd heard of an almost complete die-off of adult male purple martins (many of whom arrived on territory just before the April 11 cold snap), it was manna to see these birds overhead. I checked the rearview mirror, slowed to a crawl, and craned my neck to see if there was a colony nearby.

There was.
Simply the most magnificent purple martin colony I'd ever seen. Most of the nesting gourds home-grown; the houses, nay-- castles, all home-built. More than eighty martins swirled and chattered around the immaculately-kept abodes. The gourds were most popular (martins love swinging gourds for their roomy insides, and they tend to raise larger broods in gourds, too!)I pulled over and started taking pictures. I saw a woman fetching her newspaper at the bottom of the driveway and hailed her. I asked if it would be all right for me to photograph her colony. She invited me up in the driveway, and we struck up a nice conversation. The work was all her husband's, she said, and the colony has been extant for 10 years. There were a few house sparrows and starlings around, and she confided that her husband shoots them from the blind provided by a basement window. While this might upset some readers' sensibilities, I can confidently say that there are probably no successful purple martin colonies that are not protected by some form of stringent sparrow and starling control, whether trapping or shooting. The two cannot co-exist, thanks to the house sparrow's nasty habit of piercing martin eggs, throwing babies out, and pecking adults to death. Blaaah. They are vermin, and have to go.

Friday was the first nice day in about two weeks. The martins were chortling and basking in the unaccustomed spring sunshine. They looked so happy, and they sounded happy, too. I was so happy to have found this wonderful spot, an ordinary little white ranch house with owners who care about purple martins, enough to put this kind of work and dedication into them for a decade. Mrs. Martin (not her real name) told me that they had taken their ugly TV antenna down but the martins missed it so much they put it back up, in the middle of the colony. It was festooned in birds. I asked the woman, who might have been in her sixties, if they had anyone in mind to take over the colony when they could no longer care for it. She shook her head sadly. I wondered if someone might buy that house just for its colony. A long shot, I know. But what a gift to the universe, to put purple martins in the sky.She asked me if I'd like to see the reindeer. Yep, in addition to hundreds of martins, they keep reindeer. Very fat, well-fed reindeer. The cows had sweet faces. The bull looked positively malevolent. If I had about 75 pounds of antler on my head, I'd be cranky, too. She told me that when the antlers harden off, they have to dart the bull each year and saw them off, because he's so evil. He has hooked her husband before and nobody wants that to happen again. He reminded me of an Irish elk, the extinct cervid that lived in what is now Ireland, that is thought to have died out because its antlers got too massive and the males could no longer survive. Sexual selection gone wild. The implication being that the females mated selectively with the bucks with the biggest antlers, and there was intense selection pressure for big antlers, and things just got out of hand. The bucks got bogged down in the peat and died. Hmmm.

Whether or not you buy this evolutionary just-so story, I have definitely seen some people who are responding to selection pressure by the opposite sex in ways that are not adaptive. Like women, trying to run on stilettos, and falling down and breaking an ankle. Or wearing skirts so short they can't even bend over or sit down. Or acting dumb and helpless and trading solely on their looks. Or putting bags of silicone and saline on their chests. (How do you nurse a child around that?) Like men, trying to drive the hottest cars the fastest, thinking to impress women, and wrapping themselves around telephone poles. Jumping off bridges secured only by bungee cords. Shooting whitewater rapids nobody ought to mess with. Irish elks, all. Pfffffft. That's my lecture for the day. And I plod off to cook dinner for the bearers of my genetic material, wearing homely, sensible shoes and khakis, and thinking about Irish elk.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Hotdog Brothers Love Flowers, Too

Friday, April 20, another of my commentaries aired on All Things considered. This one was about Liam, and how much he loves flowers, and all beautiful things, especially those that smell good. I took these pictures in a garden outside the Smithsonian Museum on April 20, 2006, as it happens, while Liam and I were on an adventure together to Washington, D.C. So if he looks about a year young, that's why. Now, he'd be more likely to have a Hot Wheels in his hand than a train. Sigh. He's moving on.
I was surprised and very pleased that my editor managed to get the commentary aired, because it's about the long, cold spring, and the endless winter (which is clearly ending now) and how starved we get for something beautiful and sweet smelling. Even grubby little Hotdog Brothers pine for flowers. Airing it Friday, just as the weather seems to be turning finally toward the light, was literally the 59th minute of the eleventh hour. It's at #8 on the Most E-mailed List on NPR's web site as of Saturday evening. I think people need something nice in the midst of current events.
You can listen to the commentary here.

I'm hangin' in there at the Mohican Wildlife Weekend, too beat to download any of my photos, having a great time. There is hardly a leaf on any tree here, and the migrants are wisely staying down south where there are leaves (and presumably small soft caterpillars, aphids, and the like). But the landscapes around Bellville and the famous Malabar Farm (where Bogie and Bacall got married) are incredibly beautiful, and the crowd is big and very appreciative, and I'm having a lovely time in my motel room, directly adjacent to an in-house waterpark called Splash Harbor. I confess that I have not used my wristband to gain access to this kiddie paradise. My experience of Splash Harbor is limited to hearing water roar in an irregular but predictable pattern through pipes under my room's floor, on its way to the revolving pirate ship water feature that I can dimly see out my window. Some people think it's fun to have tepid kiddie soup dumped unexpectedly on their heads. Most of them are under four feet tall.
I thank my friend Weedpicker Cheryl Harner for inviting me here, for taking fabulous care of me, feeding me, introducing me to the coolest folks, squatting in the leaf litter examining hepaticas with me, and for taking this picture of me with my new friend Gary sitting on an air-conditioned rock in Hemlock Gorge near the Rock City.The weather is smashing. Life is good. Wish you were here!

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why Whack Bluets?

It's really difficult to write good copy for your web site. It's like one big, multi-page artist's statement. You try to write things that will still sound good in a year or two, things that represent who you are and why you do what you do. One of the things I came up with for my home page is this:

Since 1986, I've made a living from natural history illustration and writing. I'm writing and illustrating my own books now, providing commentary for National Public Radio, and bringing the natural world to many readers with a daily web log. I have finally convinced myself that hiking in the woods is my work. Naturally, I love my job.

I still like that statement. Hiking in the woods IS my job. Blogging, in a very real sense, is my job, too. And taking the joy of discovering nature out wherever I go is my job. This weekend, I'll head to the Mohican Wildlife Weekend in Belleville, Ohio, sorta west of Akron. I'll do a reading from Letters from Eden, two book signings at Malabar Farm, and a couple of nature walks. I'll get paid for it, but that's the least of it. I like doing these things. I feel very fortunate that people will pay me to speak and take walks in the woods, to point out birds and wildflowers and insects and all the minutiae that are so important to me, that make up the fabric of my life. It's not always easy. I have to leave my family and work and drive long distances and get up at ridiculous hours (though MWW is a lot kinder than most festivals in that regard). I come home smashed flat and dead tired, but it's a good tired.

Yesterday's walk with Baker netted so many images that I saved some for tonight. The first thing I saw as we swung out the big meadow was a clump of bluets. Quaker ladies. Honesty. Whatever you call them, they're the sweetest harbingers of spring.Poor soil indicators though they may be, I adore them and their shivery blue color. On the route I drive a couple of times a week there is a barren hillside in front of a ranch house. About the only thing that can grow on it is moss and bluets. They do their best to brighten the red clay. On a couple of passes by this steep incline, I have seen the homeowner out, weed-whacking the bluets in the height of their bloom.There used to be white trillium on that slope (it was woodland not that long ago), but he's long since taken care of those. It's all I can do not to stop the car, climb out, wait for him to shut his ridiculous tool off, and ask him what he could possibly be thinking. As if nothing--bare blasted clay-- were better than bluets and trillium. I wonder if I'm going to be the kind of little old lady that would stop her car, jump out and confront a person doing something like that. It could happen.
The sky was just delicious yesterday and this morning. I love clouds with flat blue bottoms, clouds that rank in the sky like grazing sheep. I checked for cattle in the pasture below, found none, then let Baker run ahead. This is a picture of a Boston terrier, self-actualizing.This is about as happy as Baker gets. I suppose seeing a bunneh and being allowed to chase it is a bit better. But nobody appreciates a good romp in spring sunshine more than Chet Baker. He did a bit of dog-grazing, eating the fresh grass and even a few multiflora rose leaves. Just a bit of roughage to wash down the pot roast and Royal Canin Special 27 Mini kibble.
He had to check the old dead shagbark hickory for squirrels. What a squirrel might be doing in a stone-cold dead tree in the middle of a pasture, only Baker knows. But he checks anyway. Such a doggeh.If you're anywhere near Belleville this weekend, come see me! Remember to blurt, "BLOG!"

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More Orchids, Forgive Me.

Part of growing orchids is the bragging rights. I first became aware of orchids as a young kid, maybe 8 or 9. A couple of the women who lived in our neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia had greenhouses, and they grew orchids. I remember going over to their houses--haunting them, actually, and having them show me the orchids in bloom. One of the ladies, Mrs. Hunter, was a smoker. She couldn't tell which of her orchids were fragrant, and I delighted in trying to describe their exotic and mysterious scents to her. Mrs. Cook had tons of orchids. They all looked alike to me--leathery, ovate-leaved plants mounted on bark. And yet when they bloomed...rapture. I remember thinking you had to wait an awfully long time for them to bloom, if they only bloomed once or twice a year. What I didn't know is that orchid flowers last for weeks, even months! And that the anticipation of the next bloom is part of the whole delicious package. I get it now, so completely.
Laeliocattleya "Robert Strait" is just finishing up now. Shila gave it to me for my birthday last summer. It was a big, sprawling plant that needed a little TLC, but she assured me that the grower told her it was fabulous. Oh, boy, is it fabulous!!It budded while we were in Guatemala in February and burst open soon thereafter. Think about that--flowers, 4" across, that last two months, and emanate the most delicious spicy scent all day long for the entire time. Yes. It makes buying cut flowers look so...pointless. The cattleyas aren't even that long-lasting, by orchid standards.
Phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, are ridiculously long-lasting. Three, four, six months in continuous bloom. Some of the smaller, more leathery-flowered ones can be in bloom for a whole year. This is one that I got as a tiny baby from Shila about five years ago. It's mature now, and giving everything it's got. It'll only get better the older it gets, with multiple spikes, each of them branched. Whatta plant. Liza Lee, these are the easy orchids you can get at home improvement stores.
One of my very favorite phalaenopsis plants is "Lava Glow," a small-flowered and very willing creature. This one has more than 30 flowers on it at once. Though I got mine from a grower at an orchid show, I saw this variety at a Lowe's once. Grab it if you see it!
The lip is molten magenta and fire orange. Rapture.

I am a firm believer in total beauty inundation. This congress of Paphiopedalums oversees my kitchen activity every evening. They make me smile, even laugh, to look at them, nodding wise heads over steaming sinks full of dishwater. Especially the little character with the Flying Nun hat on the far right. Make no mistake, they love the humidity associated with my cooking and washing. These exotic lady slipper orchids are terrestrial-growing, and they hail from places like Borneo. Quite aside from their beauty and novelty, I like the thought of having (captive-bred) Bornean ladyslippers on my rural Ohio kitchen windowsill. If it's possible, why not??


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Finally, Walking Weather

It being April 17, I spent most of today in service to the IRS gods, scurrying from financial planner to accountant, writing over-large checks. Ow, ow, ow. When I walked into my financial planner's office, just to find out into which IRA or simple plan I should dump money to avoid intense tax pain, it became apparent that he had picked that moment, nay, the next hour, to do a full frontal financial intervention. He whipped out his dry erase markers and memo board and went at it. Full display, tail spread, gobbling; I felt like a hen turkey mutely watching him strut his stuff. OK. OK. Just tell me how big a check to write, and to where. I love my planner and am grateful that he cares enough to guide me. I believe him when he says he can double my money, what paltry sum there is, in seven years. I just don't like thinking about any of this, and the language is foreign to me. Before tax, after tax, deferred tax, simple plan, college plan, Roth, traditional, big bucket small bucket deduction adjusted gross income please release me let me free. Maybe someday I will invite him out here and give him the lowdown on, say, warped bluebird psychology. And see if his eyes roll back in HIS head. P, if you read this (and I doubt you do), know that I'm grateful, hopelessly ignorant, and deeply appreciative of your skills, and I hope that someday I have enough money to actually play with, to justify your effort.
The only thing to do when I finally got home was to take a walk. Head all bunged up. It was finally and absolutely beautiful out, 60 degrees, just the right temperature for a Carhartt jacket with no lining. As beautiful as my orchids are, I'd like to see them survive 11 days of subfreezing nights and come out blooming. These flowers may not be hot pink or molten magenta, they may not be noticeably fragrant or the size of my palm, but they are what is at hand, and they are beautiful in a small, white way. My friend KF gently chided me today, reminding me that there HAD to be something blooming out in the woods, so this post is for him. The little bumbershoots of mayapple.

Shy blossoms of rock saxifrage.

Golden ragwort, a lousy name for a sweet plant.

I am in awe of these plants, that send shoots up in 35 degree weather, that persist and survive. We should all be so indefatigable. If we could just get on with living the way they do, and not let gloom and icy cold--the irrefutable evidence that the universe cares naught for us--get us down. They grow and bloom, despite it all.

Coming up the old orchard, I checked boxes. The backyard bluebirds are due to hatch in about six days. Yayyyy. I was elated to find the Carolina chickadees nesting in the same box they chose last year. I LOVE these birds. They're excellent nest architects and even better parents. They have chipped out the whole inner front of the box, making a fabulous wood chip foundation for a layered parfait of moss and animal hair. Check out this lining. Deer and rabbit, and plant down...In my next life I want to come back as a baby Carolina chickadee. I dug down a little to see if there were any eggs, but none yet. Chickadees cleverly hide their eggs under a layer of fur until they're ready to start incubating. They leave them cold until they have five or six, and then they pull back the blanket and start incubating. Soon come. Nothing sweeter than baby chickadees, take it from me.
For his part, Baker had a fabulous time. He loves to run up fallen logs.
I love to take pictures of him, running up said logs.
He loves to be photographed, running up logs. It's a symbiosis. It's so exhilarating to walk with someone this enthusiastic. I took him into town this morning to run errands with me, and he hauled me down Front Street like a Nantucket sleigh ride. How can you not smile when you're being forcibly pulled down a springtime sidewalk by a 23-pound Boston terrier? Come on, Mether. There are spring beauties and squirrels to be found. Maybe even turkehs.

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Monday, April 16, 2007


A shot of the east corner of the master bedroom. Note the candelabra of dark red buds in the left lower corner--they'll be bright orange-red when they open. I go in the bedroom about four times a day just to look and see who's opened next. I drag guests back there almost as soon as they're in the door.

By this time of spring, the last thing I'm usually doing is ogling my orchids. There should be so much blooming in the wildflower department, so many birds coming in, that it wouldn't occur to me to be inside. This year is different. Just looking out the window depresses me. It's cold and gray and windy and wet and all the leaves are hanging, blasted black. My willow tree is a sick shade of olive drab as its leaves dry and cure on the tree. Blaaaahhh. So I look inside. Have to look at something, and the orchids are coming through for me like they never have before.

Two amazing things about this year. One, my orchids have never waited so long to burst into bloom. Two, they've never been so perfectly synchronized, so that they are practically all in bloom at the same time. I am just wallowing in orchids. And what better time to be wallowing in blossoms than when everything in my garden has been frozen back to the ground? It's 35 degrees, a howling blue gale out there tonight. I listened with incredulity as my little woodcock peented merrily away, barely audible over the wind. It's the first I've heard him in ten frigid days. It was 80 degrees on April 4, and 22 by the night of April 5. So it has gone these past ten days. So the woodcock made it through, as I knew he would. And he has enough extra reserves to sing. God love him, and bring him nightcrawlers for dinner.

Most of my orchid plants live in the master bedroom, upstairs, the one with perfect south and east exposure. They sit on tiles, elevated above long trays filled with water, so they get higher humidity without rotting their roots. Every morning, I put two pints of water in those trays--that's how fast it evaporates when the heat's on. I water the plants once or twice a week, with the scuzzy water I siphon off the bottom of the aquarium, stored in 5-gallon jugs. Fish poo in rainwater. Oh, boy, do they love that. No nasty sodium or chlorine or chemicals; no lime buildup on the pots, no root or leaf burning, just pure goodness and natural fertilizer (to which I add a half-measure of Hilltop's Orchid Food each week). Those are my secrets. That, and sacrifices to the Orchid Gods, usually made in embarrassingly large outlays of cash once a year. Oh, those orchid growers love to see me and Shila coming, our eyes blazing with avaricious delight. We get the big Halooo!! Nice to see you again! (Yeah, I bet! Ch-ching!)

I have this plan, if I ever get some extra money, to put a perfectly enormous window on the east side of the bedroom--maybe a bay that bows out, and fill it up with orchids. East windows are perfect for them, year-round. Morning sun is gentle, and by the time it might burn a tender leaf, it has moved around to the south side. If I have an orchid in the north studio window that's just sitting there not doing much, I move it to the east window, and boom! It isn't long before it buds up.

There are so many things to love about orchids. One is their extreme longevity and durability. Believe it or not, this exquisite plant (Phalaenopsis leucadia "Red Pepper" x goldiana "Zuma" lost all its leaves but one, to a mysterious ailment that turned them mushy brown and yellow. Remembering how beautiful it had been, I repotted it, sprayed it with sulfur, and put it in the downstairs bathroom in quarantine. That was two years ago. It has six leaves and ten blossoms on it now, and it's one of my most beautiful plants. I never knew what felled it, but it refused to die. And I refused to give up on it.

Here's Laeliocattleya "Rojo." Got it last year, and it's reblooming with twice the flowers it had the first time. (it has another cluster coming, off-camera). Perfectly elegant little fire-red flowers in clusters, and a lovely miniature, compact habit. I love the hot-colored orchids. Some of my favorite Phalaenopsis are the ones with species schilleriana in their parentage. They're dainty and small and often have yellow lips. Mmmm. This one has incredibly lovely gray-green mottled leaves. It's a dandy. That blush of pink kills me. Each flower maybe the size of a 50-cent piece. Got her as a seedling in Chicago in 2005, carried her home on the plane in my backpack in a styrofoam cup.I bought this one (below) at the Franklin Park Conservatory's annual orchid show and sale in Columbus, in March 2007. I fell hard for its graceful flowers. The initials on its tag read BL "Morning Glory" x BC "Macksi." Not very telling. But I knew that B means that one of the parent plants had to be a Brassaevola. This is a genus of orchids that flower at night, trying to attract bats and moths. Shila had been raving about her Brassaevolas for a few years, but I'd never flashed on one until I saw this lilac charmer. Although it had not a whisper of scent the morning I bought it, I hoped it might emanate at night. Not much happened the first few nights, as it had just opened. But along about the fifth night, I walked into the bedroom and wondered if I'd left a bottle of my Origins "Shedonism" open. Ooooooh, to be that beautiful and smell that good, and to grow happily on a bedroom dresser, now that is a houseplant what am a houseplant. I feel about these orchids kind of like I feel about my kids and dog. What did I ever do to deserve these angels? One thing for sure: they all know they are loved.
This is less than half what's blooming now. I'll have to show you the others in another post. Wouldn't want to overload you. I sure wish I could do smellovision, though. Maybe in 2015? Whenever it happens, it'll happen first on a Mac.

Baker sends his love. He is perched on my lap like a big, sweet smelling, smooth black cat. I have used this photo before (last July) but I ran across it today and could not resist revisiting it. Please forgive me. I got such a cackle out of it I had to put it up again. Kiss me, you fool. I have purple lips.


Good New Is, The Bluebirds Hatched...

I've had a lot of e-mails about the five bluebird eggs in my front yard box, which were due to hatch April 12 or 13. Short answer: Yes, they hatched, at least four of the five did. There's also a long answer, as there usually is here in my little laboratory, where natural events rarely go unobserved, where there's always a bigger issue lurking beneath most interactions between me and the birds whose lives I affect. That's the stuff of another post; right now I've got some supreme weirdness to report.

On the evening of April 12, the eggs were pipping. There were pinpoint cracks in the big end of each one. The chicks were making their way to freedom. April 13 dawned cold and spitting rain (what else is new?), but turned out to be a surprisingly nice day, with highs in the 50's and intermittent sun all afternoon. By 9 AM, two bluebirds had hatched. Since it was dry and reasonably warm for the first time in many days, I left the little family alone, not wanting to disturb them as they got acquainted. I had ordered 10,000 of the smallest mealworms sold by Nature's Way.
Tim Vocke, proprietor, is a friend and great supporter of my work (his company sponsors my column, Watcher at the Window, for the Backyard Bird Newsletter.) Tim grows and ships what are, in my opinion, the best and cleanest mealworms available.

The weather reports for the weekend were frankly horrible. Highs in the 40's, lows in the 30's, mixed rain and snow. That turned out to be charitable. Sunday was freezing cold, and we got an inch and a half of rain all told. I knew that the nestlings could survive most of their first day on what was left of their yolk sacs, which start out external and through the process of embryonic development are incorporated into their guts. On hatch day (Friday) afternoon, I put a lid full of mealworms on the roof of the box. The wind was blowing a gale, so I duct-taped it to the top of the box. Later that afternoon, I found it upside down on the lawn, and figured it had blown off. So I got up Saturday morning before light, refilled it, and taped it down even more firmly. I didn't know if the bluebirds would accept the tiny larvae as a suitable food for newly hatched chicks, but I figured it was worth a try.

Over 20-plus years of feeding mealworms to bluebirds, I've learned a lot. One of these hard-won lessons is this: Bluebirds will not feed regular-sized mealworms to their chicks until the babies are at least six days old. I had never tried tiny mealworms (1/2" to 1/4" in length). I already had my doubts that their refusal to offer mealworms to young babies was a size issue; I think it's more a tenderness issue. Bluebirds instinctively know what foods are right for their young, and they vary the offerings according to the age of the chicks. So when the chicks are new and tiny, they feed them soft, small larvae and spiders. They aren't going to try to jam a grasshopper down their throats. As the chicks grow, they gradually increase the size and toughness of the insects they offer. The problem with mealworms is that they have a whole lot of chitin on them--the hard exoskeleton that makes them feel smooth and shiny. Tiny mealworms have proportionately more chitin than big ones. But I couldn't think of any other live food that's commercially available that would be small enough for newly hatched chicks. Look at your pinky fingernail. Their open bills are not even that big. It was an imperfect solution, but it seemed like it was worth a try.

Sure enough, the bluebirds looked in the dish, picked out the large mealworms and nubbles of suet dough I'd put in there for them, ate those, and ignored the mini-worms. Rats, rats, rats. I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed. Early on Saturday morning, I decided to take a few minutes out of a busy day and watch the box for awhile to see what was going on. The female bluebird appeared, holding something medium-sized and wobbly, perhaps a caterpillar. She took it into the nest box. The male kept visiting the mealworm dish, picking out the larger mealworms. He'd take them to a perch, think about it for a moment, then eat them. Then it happened. He flew down to the dish, squatted, and peered underneath it. Circled around and peered again. With one swift, decisive movement, he grabbed the pad of duct tape that held the dish to the roof of his box, yanked it, and ripped the whole thing, mealworms and all, off the box. Twenty-five feet he flew, lugging the heavy lid, raining tiny mealworms the whole way. He dropped it in the grass and returned to his lookout on the wire overhead.

I was astounded, gasping for breath and laughing. I've been feeding bluebirds this way for many years, and I've never had one do that. I could only wonder at what was going through his mind. My first hypothesis was that he didn't like the idea of attracting cardinals, titmice, juncos, and blue jays (the last being known nest predators) to the roof of his nesting box. All of those species had seen me put the food out and were hanging around; titmice, cardinals and juncos had already landed on the box to snatch a mealworm. Smart bluebird. He's right: you don't want a bunch of other birds, especially chick-eating blue jays, landing on your nest box. I decided to offer food some distance away, and take the attention away from the box. Sorry about that. My other hypothesis was a little less charitable: This is very unusual behavior. Maybe he's got a screw loose.

Having established that the food I was offering was not being given to the nestlings, and that, thanks to the unseasonable cold, the adults were not able to find adequate amounts of natural food, I decided to start supplementing the chicks' diet. I mixed up a slurry of soaked kitten chow and calcium/vitamin supplement, warmed it nicely, put it in my smallest syringe, and marched out in the cold rain to the nestbox. It was noon on Saturday. I was shocked to find only two chicks and an unhatched egg. One of those chicks, despite my best efforts to revive it, was already dead. Zow. That was fast. What had happened to the other two chicks? Had they already died and been removed by the adults? They only hatched yesterday morning, and they should have been able to survive that first day just fine--it was mostly sunny, and tolerably warm. I fed the lone remaining live chick and removed the dead one. Good grief, this was weird. I'd seen a lot of chicks succumb to bad spring weather and food shortages, but I'd never had any die that soon after hatching or be removed so promptly by the adults. More typically, I'd have to remove them. Hmmmmm.

Over the next three hours, I syringe-fed the lone remaining chick every half-hour, leaving it in the nest box so as not to sever the bond between it and its parents, and was pleased to see its color and vigor improve. The female bluebird sat closely on it and the unhatched egg, leaving momentarily when I'd open the box, returning when I'd leave. At least they were warm and dry. This could work. It would be a pain in the neck, but I was pretty sure that I could pull this chick through the weekend as long as the adults hung in there with me. I'd done it before, most notably in a weekend snowstorm last April 24, when I pulled five boxes full of babies through that way (and almost wore myself out doing it). I was absolutely sure that the chick would die unless I fed it. Even if the weather were to turn warm and sunny, how many small, tender larvae could have survived more than a week of sub-freezing nights?

Three o'clock rolled around, and Bill and I were slated to help serve food at the local elementary school carnival--an all-day sucker. We'd already planned to take two cars, so I could race back and give the chick a few feedings before nightfall. I went out to the box, and the female bluebird shot out. And the chick I'd been feeding was gone. Now, hold on just a minute. I KNOW that chick was alive. It was alive and eating a half-hour ago. It was doing better! I cast an eye up, to the phone wire overhead. The male bluebird sat, looking down at the sad scene--me holding a nest containing one unhatched (and, it turns out, dead-in-shell) egg. I searched the lawn all around the box, thinking that perhaps I could find the chick, still alive and squirming in the wet grass. Nothing. I thought about the male bluebird and the jar lid, and turned over the loose-screw hypothesis in my head.

Birds are funny creatures. They're individuals, and given a set of stimuli, no two individuals will react in exactly the same way. I have known many of the bluebirds that live on our property for season after season. I know which ones like to use grape bark and rootlets, and which ones like to use grass to build their nests. I know which ones are fussy about hygiene, and which ones are so slovenly that I find myself removing fecal sacs from their schmutzy nests. I know which ones seem not to fear me at all, and which ones swoop low over my head, snapping their bills as I check to make sure all is well in their houses.

I can't help but think that the male bluebird's display of "housecleaning" behavior--removing the dish from the roof of his box--could be linked to the sudden disappearance of his own young. There is a mental leap that birds must take when the nice, smooth eggs in their nests suddenly begin to crack, and squirming pink chicks emerge from their broken halves. The parent birds need to be accepting of this change. Part of what helps them accept the strange new objects in their nest is the automatic gaping reflex that even the youngest chicks display, blindly raising their heads and opening their tiny bills. Ah. This the parent understands, in an instinctive way, even if it's a first-time event. I must poke some food into that mouth! Now imagine if that gaping reflex ceases, as it would as a chick loses strength in the face of starvation. Here are these fleshy objects in my nest. Where are my beautiful blue eggs? Perhaps they're hidden under these things. I'll take those out, and maybe I'll uncover my eggs... Significantly, the unhatched egg is still in the nest as I write, early Monday morning. It's cold as a stone, but it has not been removed. This argues strongly that a house sparrow or other nest box competitor was not the culprit in the chicks' disappearance.

I may never know what was going on in that male bluebird's head, if indeed he was the one who removed his own chicks, dead and alive, but then again, I might get the chance to figure it out. He's the resident territorial male here in the yard, top dog, with the best territory. He and his mate will doubtless try again, probably in the same box, and I will be here, watching, and trying in my clumsy way to help, as I have been for 15 years. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, through snow and rain and gloom of night, we're in this together. And, given time and patience, I might just figure out what happened here.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Snowy Easter, Naughty Baker

Phoebe's basket was heavy on the clothing and drawing materials. Our Easter bunny is a pragmatic, low-sugar bunny.

It wasn't hard to see where the Easter Bunny went when she was hiding eggs (dressed in a down parka and stocking hat and boots) on Easter morning. There were big fat tracks in the snow. Once the kids noticed that, finding all the dyed eggs and baskets was a snap!

Liam wrote the following classroom essay on manila paper about his Easter basket, which contained a stuffed Boston terrier (which he adores) and some Cars and Spiderman boxer shorts (like his dad, he's a boxer guy).


In my Easter basket the other day, I dug and dug until I found a puppy.
Then I dug an dug again. Then I found some underpants.

This effort garnered him a 100 in English and a 95 in Writing. Plus a sticker with a tiger on it that says TERRIFIC! And no doubt a chuckle from his teacher. Liam's the kind who would pull down his pants to show her his Lightning McQueen...This morning, I was packing lunches. I've been raiding their baskets for lunch treats since Sunday. I left them on the bed, since they were almost empty, just a couple of malted milk robin eggs in each one. And came back to this:What are you looking at, Mether? I am just sitting here on the bed, as I often do in the morning. Hmmm? I do not know what you are talking about. There is no grass hanging from the corner of my mouth. Why would there be grass in my mouth?
There were no robin eggs in these baskets when I found them. Liam must have taken them.
Mether: Let me smell your breath, you lying sack of sugar. Aha! Malted milk!
She used the breathalyzer on me! Busted!

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Tikal Dreaming

It was a bird I had always dreamt of. The ocellated turkey. A jungle turkey, a turkey not of dry upland hardwoods or pine flatwoods, but of humid tropical lowland forest. Not only that, but it was colorful, extravagantly beautiful, every inch of it a masterwork. I had seen a few poor images of it over the decades, but nothing could have prepared me for how beautiful the ocellated turkey is in life. I saw my first ones in 2006 at Tikal, when I was working with my little Olympus point-and-shoot. On the 2007 trip, I was ready for them with the Canon digital SLR."Ocellated" means "having eyes."

I'm posting about beautiful exotic birds today because it's still only 48 degrees, spitting rain, and I just read that the entire apple and peach crop in our area has been destroyed by freezing temperatures. I am thinking about a late summer and fall without sweet, snappy Honeycrisp apples from Grimm's Green Acres, without local peaches. I am thinking about the irrevocability of night after night of temperatures in the low 20's. I'm thinking about the people who have spent years cultivating these fruit trees, seeing all their effort go to nothing in a single cruel April week. I am thinking about five bluebird eggs, due to hatch tomorrow, in a box in my front yard. I am thinking that I should be able to help somehow, and knowing that I can't.

I went to find my asparagus today and the tips of the fat shoots are squishy and brown. My bleeding heart is a flaccid pile of limp yellow spaghetti, dotted with pink. Daffodils are prostrate, their flowers deflated like used Kleenex. The lilac is wearing a limp greenish-black shroud, when it should be opening its first sweet blue blossoms. The birches and willows are clothed in hanging, weird-smelling forest- green scrappets that used to be new leaves. Daylilies are translucent, deflated. The Russian prune hedge, once snow-white, is khaki brown, as is the old gnarly pear. I took pictures of them in their glory, which lasted exactly two days. April 11: There is not a flower or butterfly in the yard. Sometimes it hurts to be tuned into nature.

And so, tropical turkeys. Turkeys who know no season, who are beautiful year-round, who have never felt frost or even chill. Turkeys who wake up to day after warm, sunny day, who give a throbbing love song that sounds like a lawnmower starting up, who toss their electric-blue heads and strut around the ruins. Who sort through thousands of ornate feathers, rearranging them, beautiful and unconscious as Degas' preening dancers.
I was on a quick trip to the restroom (they are few and far-flung at Tikal), getting ready to head down a long trail with Bill and Jeff Gordon. I was hurrying. They were waiting for me. But so was grace. There, walking slowly through deep shadow, were four ocellated turkeys. On the trajectory they were taking, they would emerge into sunlight in a few minutes. Time stood still. I forgot the trail, the guys, the restroom, everything but the turkeys on their slow march toward sunlit glory. I hunkered down and waited, following them at a respectful distance, wallowing in their beauty, "spirit open to the thrust of grace," as Bruce Cockburn wrote.

We should be able to linger, able to stop and gape for awhile, no matter what we are doing, no matter where we are supposed to be. It is the essence of living well. We think our plans and schedules are what matter. I am sure now that it is everything else that happens around our plans that really matters. John Lennon knew it. "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." You don't "take a second" to cuddle your child. You cuddle your child, and let everything else wait. You don't "wait until I have time" to call your mom, your husband or your wife. Bruce again: Life's short. Call now. And from Zick: Stop. Gape. Take beauty in when and wherever you find it. Like the lilacs, it could be gone tomorrow.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An NPR Day

This day: big exhale. It started off with seeing BOTB off yet again, this time to Akron, Boston, and parts of northern Ohio. Looking at our schedules this winter, I wondered what it would be like to live through this spring, and now I'm finding out. Our wonderful home feels like a place where we throw our suitcases, run the washing machine, and sleep occasionally. I started missing him before he left. It gets harder to wave goodbye each time. He knows. He came dashing home to say goodbye again at lunchtime before he had to leave for good. It helped.

I was feeling blue for a number of reasons. The underlying reason: April 10 is the day my father died in 1994. I always try to suspend the normal stuff that fills my days on April 10, and do something that honors his memory. I decided to plant peas. He was a gardener, a man of the earth. So last night Liam and I counted out and soaked about 400 sugar snap peas and this morning they were nice and fat. I was digging a trowel trench for the first row when the phone rang. I was wanted in Athens, an hour and a half away, to record an interview with Melissa Block, about the effects of the cold snap (is it a snap when it lasts more than a week?) on birds. We'd corresponded about it, and she decided it would be newsworthy. It was about 1:15 when I got the call. I had to be in Athens by 3. I called Sue, the beloved school bus driver described in an early commentary, and asked her what I should do, because Phoebe had softball practice, and I'd miss him at the bus stop, and Bill wasn't here to catch for me. This is part of what I love about living here. People stop to help. Without a moment's hesitation, Sue suggested that Liam ride home with her, and I was off, pedal to the metal, headed for Athens. I grabbed a handful of tamari wasabi almonds and a pint of yogurt on my way out the door. That was lunch.

Oh, rot. Gas tank empty. Why would I need to keep gas in the car, living 20 miles from town? Red "CHECK GAGE" light and all. Yes, Ford spells it "GAGE." Stop for $20 worth of gas. Throw the bill on the counter and race back out to the car. They know me at the Pit Stop and didn't bat an eye. Jump back in. Speed all the 50-mile way, thanking the powers above that the road to Athens is fairly straight, and you can see a long way ahead, scanning for cops. I hate speeding, have been pinched more than once for it, (see Nature Girl Gets Pinched, one of my favorite posts of all time) but when NPR has studio time reserved at 3, you're darn well there at 3, even if you have to fly low to make it there. The engineer at WOUB, Mark Robinson, staved off a prior studio commitment to help me set up the audio connection with Washington's NPR studio. Gosh, I have come to adore Mark Robinson. He is THERE for me.

I slid into the padded chair in the darkened studio at 2:57. Melissa greeted me through the headphones at 3:00 on the dot. We talked about cold weather and birds. A lot of our conversation didn't make it, doubtless because it would have been impossible to fact-check before 4 p.m. Heck, it would be impossible to fact check before 2008. Like the information I got, via a desperate cellphone call to Bill, who called Louise and then called me on my way to Athens, from my friend Louise Chambers at The Purple Martin Conservation Association. Louise said that this cold snap may have caused a nearly complete die-off of adult male purple martins in the affected areas (most of the upper Midwest and Northeast). See, the poor things came home on schedule in late March, but couldn't endure more than a week of subfreezing temperatures, and no flying insect food. That's the bad news. It's likely going to be the worst die-off since the early '80's, when there was an Easter snowstorm. The not-so-bad news is that the breeding female and subadult martins are only just hitting the Gulf Coast, headed north. So there will probably be a whole lot of subadult male martins who get to breed this year, who ordinarily would have been outcompeted by the mature males (the "scouts" in martin landlord parlance). Now we just have to pray the freakin' nature gods don't hit those birds with a late April snowstorm. That would really, really be awful. I'm holding my breath until we hit 80 again and hold it.

So bits and pieces of our conversation made it, and it was good, and I feel deeply honored to be asked to talk about nature on NPR. It aired this evening, while I was out planting the rest of the peas. Liam wandered out to find me, saying off-handedly in his dove-soft voice, "You're on the radio."
I tore into the house to catch just the last third of it, so I had to listen to it online. Kissed my boy for thinking to come find me. He is the sweetest thing.

What's cool is that I feel as though my deep connection with the natural world is finding its highest use--connecting millions of NPR listeners with nature, too. Making them think about things that might not have occurred to them, locked as they are in home, car, city and office. It's an everyday thing for me. It's something that may not enter others' consciousness unless they hear it on the radio. Bringing it to them feels good, and deeply fulfilling. You can listen to my chat with Melissa Block here.

While I was listening to the audio file on the NPR web site, I saw a banner ad for the brand-new Driveway Moments collection. Those are the stories that people nominate, the ones that kept them sitting in the car out in the driveway, listening to the end.

"When Hummingbirds Come Home" is on the newest Driveway Moments 5 Collection: All About Animals.

So it was an NPR day. A saying goodbye day, a Dad day, a sad day, a wild, hairy pea-planting day. DOD, I miss you. Wherever you are, I hope you get public radio.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Painting a Phoebe-Finis

All right. The wood's under control. Finally, I am ready to tackle the window view. I wanted a light, springy scene out there, and the best evocation of that-and of the antiquity of the scene-was a lilac. Better than that, the heirloom lilac from Bill's family farm. (The one that's all frozen crispy right now, all 50-plus blossom trusses pointing at the ground). I wanted the outside view to be flooded with light, in contrast to the barn interior. So I had to keep the hazy window glass quite light and bright, so it would be a believable source of the strong light flooding the room.
I love the idea of a single spot of riotous color in an otherwise three-color painting. I took the mockup pane off, enjoying the look of the painting before the real lilac went in. It could be a snowy day now, but for the ghost of a lilac in the middle right pane.
Before "dessert," I went back to further darken the bird, so it could believably sit in the dark barn interior. It was fun to play with the bird's colors, darkening and strengthening them, and yet still making the bird's underparts read as grayish white. On the painting, they're a medium brownish-purple!) I did this by darkening its upperparts accordingly. It is the contrast between upper and underparts that fools the eye into reading it as a gray and white bird.

Darker, darker, darker. Drama, drama, drama. I kept taking washes of ultramarine blue and a little Chinese white over the boards, which was a tricky thing to do now that the bird was in. Still needed to age those boards. The crud really helped, I think.

Almost shivering with anticipation, I readied myself to paint the lilac bit. In some ways, the lilacs are the most important part of the painting, more important than the bird, because they evoke the world outside, the possibility of the phoebe's life, in freedom outside the nesting barn. I don't want the lilacs to be photographic. I want them to be dreamy and drenched in sun.
So I paint fast and resist the temptation to get all carried away with detail.

I think it's done now. I'm calling it "The Missing Pane." Decrepitude is in the eye of the beholder. For phoebes, for barn owls, barn swallows, house and Carolina wrens, mice, snakes, bats, for me and many others, decrepitude's an open door, an invitation.If you've enjoyed following the process of "The Missing Pane's" creation, and would like a memento for your wall, you can order a print of the painting with this link. There will be a limited edition of 300, and I'll sign each one (and inscribe it to someone special if you wish). Prints should be ready by late June. You can pre-order and get it before anyone else. The painting will appear on the cover of Bird Watcher's Digest's July/August 2007 issue, with an article about raising Avis and Luther, the orphaned phoebe babies, inside. See the June and July 2006 archives for the whole story. Phew. That's about as many links as you want in one paragraph, huh?
I would like to thank my studio assistant, Chet Baker. He kept me company, kept the kisses coming for a lonely painter, and only occasionally rui--ahem, enhanced-- a shot. He's convinced that any time a camera's out, he's going to be the subject. And thanks to you, for being here with me, and for all your nice comments and encouragement. I've never painted with an audience before. It's fun!

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Painting a Phoebe--Cobwebs and Crud

It's the morning of the third day of work. Now, I get to put the phoebe in. I don't really have that much to say about the process of painting the bird. I've been doing it for so many years that it happens very quickly. The only tricky part here is lighting it so it can sit believably in the scene. I'll talk more about that later. It's by no means done here, just blocked in to hold the space.

Back to the wood. I have a friend, Taff Roberts, who's a talented artist-woodcuts and writing-as well as being a housewright. Taff's from Wales. He showed me some of the woodgraining he's done while restoring old houses. In woodgraining, you take a surface that's bland and pointless, and you paint woodgrain on it until it looks like real wood paneling. It's not that hard. You use a broad brush dipped in different colors of paint, separate the bristles a bit, and run it horizontally over the surface, letting the brush bristles organically define the grain of your faux wood. This technique was used liberally in Victorian finishes, often on furniture made of wood without its own distinctive grain. It's clever, and it fools the eye amazingly well. This is what I did with this painting-make fake wood.Here, it's very important to keep the wood grain lines consistent, so that the board planes are believable. Because I had masked it with film and masking compound, I painted over the bird quite freely, making sure there were no zones around its shape that might suggest I'd had to paint around it. The single most important thing I had to do in creating depth was make the boards behind the bird consistent. Any perturbation in their lines would make them "lift off" and make them come forward, instead of staying back behind the bird. Now that the bird was in, there would be no more broad brush strokes over it!

Another really important thing in making the shadows believable is running the woodgrain through them, so you can see the grain running through both darkness and light. Of course, the grain lines are darker in the shadows, and lighter in the light, but they are what make you believe that that's really a sunbeam playing over the surface, or a deep shadow. It's the change in the color of the grain lines, and the fact that you can still see them in the deep shadow, that really fools the eye. In all the overpainting, I was careful never to touch my sunbeams. Wouldn't want to dull that bright,warm color down. But I worked on the shadowed wood a lot.

I kept struggling with it, though, because my wood looked too fresh and new. It looked like cedar, and I wanted it to look like aged pine. So I kept taking darker and darker washes over it, ultramarine blue, and finally Chinese white to gray it out a bit.

In fact, while the window looked cruddy and old, the whole right wall just looked too new. It was time for some cobwebs and crud. Up to this point, I'd painted everything transparently. Now, I got out my Chinese white, which is a color with some opaque body to it. I painted some of that nameless scuzz that hangs on barn walls-cobwebs and dust, I guess. I put some cobwebs in the corners. Fun!

Bill was working at home, so I kept taking the painting to him for suggestions. He caught a bunch of things-wavering lines, nuances of color that suggested that the boards were new rather than aged. I made sure the parallax was right (see the fixed seam above the phoebe's head? It was fanning out too much and that ruined the perspective) and took washes of ultramarine blue over the cedar-red boards to age them. A few well-placed rusty nails helped with the age factor, and more crud hanging from the cracks. The space underneath the window looked dull and blank to me, so I went foraging out in the garage to see what was hanging on its walls. Ahh. An old crusty, rusty snaffle bit that we'd dug up while turning the garden. It's just half a snaffle bit. This is a horse bit that has a joint in the middle. Sometime in the last century it rusted in half. While I was at it, I painted another fake panel of lilacs for the window and taped it on, to make sure the concept was holding. It looked good, especially with the hazy suggestion of more lilacs in the pane directly above it. Again, the perfect subject for watercolor.
You can see in this image that I've darkened the bird a whole lot. I'd think I had it dark enough, and then I'd step back and it was still too lit up. I kept running violet and burnt umber and buffy gold and ultramarine streaks into its breast to darken it. Once he was nice and dark, boom, he suddenly fit into the scene. Compare this image with the one immediately above it if you don't think that helped. It's hard to go and make yourself paint shadow colors over a bird whose "local color" is technically "correct," but in order to make him inhabit the shadows, I've got to paint him lavender and gray and burnt umber. And that's what's really FUN.

I saw a short film once about a Japanese couple who work together painting huge scenes on rice paper. She paints the figures, carefully constructing them, drawing their anatomy. And when she's done, he gets in there with great basins of wet paint and runs sloppy washes right over her carefully painted figures. She has to leave the room when he's altering her work. But she agrees that he improves the end product. That's the kind of tension that exists between the scientist in me (who knows what color a phoebe "is," or should be) and the artist, who knows that shadows have all the colors of the scene running through them, and knows how to inject mood into a scene. The scientist paints a correct phoebe, and the artist comes in, politely asks the scientist to get lost, and messes with the stage and the lighting.

Everything I'll do from here on out falls into the realm of fine-tuning. The painting is just about done, at the end of the third day. Got to make sure I don't get too carried away with cobwebs and crud. Just as I'm getting the hang of painting them, it's time to stop. Wouldn't want the phoebe to turn into Miss Haversham. Thanks to Big Stuff for your keen eye and helpful suggestions.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Painting a Phoebe, Part 2

I've mentioned the concept as being paramount in making a painting. Maybe it's the illustrator in me. I've been illustrating since 1976, and I can't help but tell some kind of story with my paintings. So I had this concept of a phoebe in a barn that just had to get out. As I worked on the painting, it became clear that there would have to be some way for the phoebe to get in and out of the barn in which it was perched. How to do that? Break a pane out of the window, of course.

It was a little alarming that I hadn't considered that before, but my mind was all filled up with windowpanes and sunbeams, and I hadn't had time to think about how the phoebe might have gotten inside the barn in the first place. And obviously, he'd need a way out, too. So I decided to knock a windowpane out. But which pane?

This is where watercolor can be a challenge. You have to know exactly what you're doing. You have to plan. You can't really paint an intact window in transparent watercolor and then decide to go and break a pane out of it. So I took another piece of paper, painted some sample panes and broken places on it, and taped it to the painting. This way, I could try out some ideas before committing them to paint.
Two panes (plus a bullethole) seemed like overkill. It would look better with just one pane out. The lower right pane seemed the best choice, compositionally.

As I looked out my studio window, I could see my favorite lilac, about to bloom. What heaven, to look out and see that. I decided that the glimpse of the outside world would be my heirloom lilac, bathed in sun, blooming its head off. I painted a little panel on a scrap of watercolor paper and taped it to the painting. Good. I like that. I painted the study on a day when it was in the upper 70's. By the next day, it had dropped to 22 degrees, and it's clear to me now that my heirloom lilac will not be blooming this year at all. I am sick about it, but there's nothing you can do about a crispy, wilted, translucent lilac. You just have to suck it up and hope the thing lives another year, having had its entire first flush of leaves and blossoms frozen smack off. April. Pah.

The copper bucket was next. Apologizing to the Carolina wrens, I got a stepladder out and lowered the ancient holey bucket they nest in under the eaves. I put it up there for them four years ago, and they've nested in it ever since. I carefully removed their nesting material-not yet renewed for the season-and dumped out the dust, feather sheaths and blowflies that had accumulated over the years. Took the bucket inside and painted it. An hour later, while I was still working on the bucket, I went outside to photograph the painting and a pair of Carolina wrens scolded and sang and made it very clear that I was to replace the bucket the moment I was done with it. Message received.
You can see that, having made my decision about the windowpane, I've removed the sample panel and left the window blank again. Time to focus on the copper bucket.
Here, on the bucket, salt was my friend. I wanted a scrofulous finish, with Paris green and rust and oxidation creeping over it. I doused the surface with strong pools of dark pigment, then sprinkled table salt onto it. The salt would attract the water, and leave little pools of pigment wherever it had settled. Kosher salt would make larger sparkles, having larger grain. I used both. The bucket was a snap to paint, after I peeled off the masking compound.
I've peeled off the phoebe's masking compound too. Believe it or not, this is just the end of the second day. I told you a lot happened that second day. I've got the wood pretty much under control, the bucket painted, and the windowpanes started. I like the way the light is coming in. It's believable. Believable light is the single hardest thing to do in any painting, as far as I'm concerned. You have to exaggerate it so much to get it across at all...I'm saving the phoebe for dessert. I've also got a job ahead of me in ageing the wood behind the phoebe. Right now, it looks like fresh-milled cedar, and I want it to look like old, old pine. The stuff of much thought, consideration, and many overwashes. At least the light is happening. To be continued...

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Painting a Phoebe

As those of you who've been with me for the past year know, eastern phoebes are special birds for me. In several of the springs of my life, I've done a phoebe painting. Phoebes move me, enough to have named our firstborn for one, enough to make me paint pictures of them that have something to say about the stages in my life. And last summer, with a lot of help from Phoebe, I raised two orphaned phoebes: Avis and Luther.On March 13 of this year, a phoebe showed up singing in the yard. He sang around the garage and the back deck. When I walked out to the driveway, he flew to a low branch on the ash tree that hangs over the pavement. Hmm. The same branch Luther used to go to when he wanted to be fed. When I moved closer, calling his name, he didn't retreat, but kept chipping and wagging his tail. From there, he flew to the birch tree that overhangs the birdbath where Luther drank and bathed. It was a favorite hangout. I have no proof it was Luther, but I felt I knew him, and it seemed he knew me. He certainly wasn't skittish around me. Time will tell; if the weather lets up (it's in the 20's today) perhaps this bird will decide to stay, and one fine day come in to a Pyrex plate full of mealworms. That would be something fine.

Clearly, it was time to paint a phoebe again. I thought for a month or more about what I wanted to do with this painting. For me, the bird image is the least of it. The setting is everything. Ever since we were in New Mexico in November, I've wanted to paint a barn interior. I saw light streaming into adobe structures, old wood and sunbeams...Reading The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a fictionalized account of the Dutch master Vermeer's life, just enhanced that feeling. I wanted to play with light coming in a window. So I designed a scene that would incorporate some of the things I love most: a phoebe, a barn interior, and sun coming through a window.Here's the drawing, already transferred to the watercolor paper. The painting will be nearly a square at 13 x 14 1/2".

Because there will be a lot of darkness in the painting, it's going to be necessary to mask the bird and foreground perch (a copper bucket, also a beloved possession that dates from my early childhood in Kansas). Here, you can see the yellowish masking compound that I've painted on the bird and bucket to protect them from the dark brown washes I'm planning to lay down. Here, with the finished drawing, transferring it to watercolor paper, and masking it, my first day of work ends.Ohhhhh.....this is too much fun. I'll take you a bit into the second day so you can get a peek at how the painting will evolve. I decide to block in the window and the wall. The window has some of the darkest values in the painting, and I want to lay something really dark down so I can dial up or down from that as I build the rest of the scene. I put a sunny buff -yellow underpainting down on the wall, that will give me some of the lightest values.At this point, the inevitable depression set in. I should see it coming, but it always creeps up and surprises me. It's a stage I go through with every painting, even when it's going well. I become convinced that it is in fact a piece of crap. I think one of the reasons I love to write so much is that it's mysteriously free of that downcycle. When I'm writing, I just go.

I sank deeper into an unproductive despair, until I realized that the only thing that would fix me was going out for a walk. So Chet and I set out on the Loop, and a good soaking in 80-degree sunshine, a handful of butterflies and a deep draught of wildflowers was just what the doctor ordered. See yesterday's post!

Refreshed and recharged, smelling of sunshine and fresh air, I was ready to make the wall look like wood. Another couple of washes of burnt sienna, quinacridone yellow and burnt umber, and I got the plane laid down. It was no longer a flat field of color; it was lying in space the way it should. I painted in some of the woodgrain and really felt the painting begin to take off.

Here's how it looked by the middle of the second afternoon. I kept painting until the light went away, and a lot more happened that afternoon, but this seems like a good place to stop. The painting is starting to look like something now. I hope from this you see that watercolor is not a medium over which one should linger and noodle. It takes nerve and speed, and if you're working well, it really doesn't take long to make something out of nothing. In the end, that may be my favorite thing about it. That, and the luminosity, the way you can layer one wash on another but still see the first wash, and the way the paint feels, flowing out of the brush. OK, there's nothing I don't love about watercolor.

Tomorrow: sunbeams, more wood, and a bucket.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Gifts of April

The old pear tree that dates from the original farm on our site has horrible rock-hard fruit, but it more than makes up for that shortcoming in April blossoms. The deer and butterflies like the fruits, especially when I mow over them. Brrrrp!

Any time I see a forecast of 80 degrees on April 3, I plan to take a walk. Chet and I set out on the Loop to see what we could see. The first tiger swallowtails drifted overhead--a good omen, though I worry for them, because it's all of 39 degrees and dropping as I write this. April is nothing if not cruel. It's the cruelest month of all. But yesterday, Chet and I were in the moment, basking in her warmth.

Falcate orangetip butterflies fluttered ahead of us, just a foot off the ground as is their wont. I've long since given up trying to get a photograph of a FOTI. They never alight, and I've learned to enjoy the spectral orange on their wingtips as they go by, eating them up with my eyes. Which I kept peeled for the first Henry's elfin, Incisalia henrici. Those are hard to come by, but easy to photograph. A surefire April specialty of Indigo Hill. I adore these little dark bugs. They fetch up on black raspberry twigs to watch for rivals. Their brood plant is redbud, and there's plenty of that around. Gorgeous little things. I'm happy with the way the telephoto blurs out the background for a nice, unicolor backdrop. This could be the cover for Enjoying Elfins More, huh, BOTB?
On this day, I carried my 300 mm. lens, and I was thrilled with its performance. I could shoot butterflies without disturbing them in the least. No creeping up on them with this lens! It's tricky to get it to focus, but when it works, it works really well.

At the overlook, spring was creeping up the valley. How green is my valley! I was eager to see what was blooming farther down on the rich slopes in the Chute. I was not disappointed. Spring beauties and dentaria were going full bore.
Some bee-mimicking flies (dressed for cold weather, I noted) and an honest hymenopteran were vying for space on the dentaria blossoms.
I didn't even see the little flying wasp until I viewed this on the computer screen. I love how the camera captures what's there, whether we see it or not.

Coming back up toward home, a violet smiled shyly from the forest floor. I haven't keyed this one out yet, but it had a round, slightly downy leaf and the most bewitching blue color. I don't think it's Viola sororia. Maybe downy blue violet? If Jim McCormac ever commented on other people's blogs, he could tell me. That was a taunt, in case you missed it.

A chipping sparrow sang to the clear blue sky. This male was giving a slow, melodious trill. The male only a couple dozen yards down the driveway was giving a dry, buzzy, colorless trill. I thought it was interesting that they were countersinging with such different styles.
Chetty was thrilled to be back out in the woods, even if he got a tad hot when he scared up a pack of turkeys and two deer. They had to be pursued.He's back, victorious, sending me pictures of fleeing turkeys.See the splashes of mud on his back? That's the spatter of a high-speed doggie. We're drunk on April.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007


A photograph on
Susan Gets Native's wonderful blog stirred me out of my spring stupor and sent me and the kids looking for red-spotted newts this afternoon in our favorite newtpond. The kids, seeing my car pulled over to the side, bounced off the bus in anticipation of a promised newthunt. We weren't disappointed. Red-spotted newts make themselves known with lizardy squiggles in the shallow water of woodland ponds. They wriggle down under the leaf litter on the pond bottom as you approach. If you slow down and look ahead of you, you can see the males floating motionless, doubtless looking for females in the water beneath them.
I love the poses they strike, completely relaxed and suspended. I didn't see any females engaging in this behavior. See the manly bulge at the base of his tail?
Red-spotted newts (Notopthalmus viridescens) start life as eggs, laid on underwater vegetation in early spring. Half-inch long gilled larvae metamorphose at the end of their first season into a terrestrial form called the red eft, and spend the next four years wandering on land. These flame-orange beauties, protected by poisonous skin secretions, can cover impressive distances. Think of the red eft as a mobile genetic diversity vehicle. This is not my photo. It belongs to Robert Rold.
Once they metamorphose into the adult form (which still has lungs, not gills), the newts are able to mate, as the adults in the pond today were doing. Neat to think that it has been at least five years since these animals were born, probably more like six. We don't usually think of amphibians as being particularly long-lived, if we think of it at all. Nor does it occur to us that the nice big lobster we're cracking into may be more than 40 years old. Sustainability. Should we be eating 40-year-old lobsters? Are they able to make more, fast enough? Answer: No.
The laterally flattened tail develops after the eft takes back to the water. Lovely thing.
And how does one sex a red-spotted newt? By his newtbag, of course.
Liam was so thrilled to be able to hold a courting pair of newts. They were distracted enough not to mind being gently scooped up.

The courting pairs we saw were interesting in that the smaller, darker female was lying atop the male's back, kind of sitting on his head and wrapped around him. Dunno what that's about but it's a nice break from the animalian norm.
Miss Phoebe was a water naiad, crouching and absorbed.
Liam was in constant motion. This is why I get more pictures of Phoebe.
I will quote my little guy here. I wrote this down when he said it. How did it feel to hold newts in your hand, Liam?

"They felt like cream swirling in my hand, only nobody was swirling it.
And with legs, and a nut sack."

This is how the sky looked on our way back up the hill from the pond. Spring skies and observant, eloquent children make my heart swell almost out of my chest.A tiger beetle watches for prey from its perch on a sun-warmed log. Spring fills me up, like a vessel that has been empty all winter.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Box Turtle Mysteries

Well, the wait is over. Early last June, I found a female box turtle laying eggs in our meadow. I left her alone, marked the spot with a Kleenex, and returned first thing in the morning to cage the nest, to protect it from digging mammals, egg-loving snakes, and crows. I put a fine-mesh cage over the nest proper, with 1/2" hardware cloth, and a large iron milk crate over that. I drove stakes in to firmly anchor the outer cage, knowing the strength and determination of raccoons. Last summer, I found three box turtle nests along the same path, all of which had been dug out by coons or skunks.

Knowing that box turtle nests need about three months to incubate, I began checking the nest every couple of days in September. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Nothing through October, and then it was too cold for the hatchlings to emerge. A certain percentage of hatchlings emerge in spring. I checked on it all winter, and began checking it this spring on warm days after rains. I worried all winter that my driving the stakes in the day after they were laid might somehow have addled the eggs with vibration.

Today, while working on a painting, I got an overpowering feeling that something had happened at the nest. Chet and I trotted out the meadow, and I peered into the cage. I couldn't tell, with all the overgrowth, whether I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I yanked the stakes up to find two small exit holes, and a tiny box turtle hatchling, nose down in a shallow scrape in the clay. I was shaking with excitement.

Gently, I pried the little turtle out of the clay. It was so tiny, it could fit on a quarter. Its shell was soft and it was motionless. Slowly, it dawned on me that this hatchling was dead. I was crushed. and determined to figure out why. My CSI tendencies kicked in. First, it was clear to me that it had died very recently, perhaps even this morning. There was no odor, and it was stiff with rigor mortis. There was something very wrong with its eyes and beak; they were covered with a pinkish membrane that I cannot remove. It could not have opened its eyes or breathed, except perhaps through its mouth. I thought at first this might be an egg membrane, but it seemed too tough. I still don't know whether this was a birth defect or an unusually tough membrane that adhered to the turtle's face in hatching. More of the pinkish membrane appeared along the sides and top of its shell. Again, it couldn't be peeled off. I began to think that this turtle had a birth defect. How sad.

The yolk sac had been completely absorbed, making me think that this turtle had hatched last fall and slept in the scrape over the winter. Clearly, it had enough energetic resources to dig out (no small feat, given how many roots had infiltrated the chamber). How it did that with its nostrils and eyes covered up I don't know.

Here is a picture of the entire scene. You can see one dark exit hole to the upper left, and the second one is to the right of the turtle, just to the right of the three grass blades.

I dug more, very carefully. First, I found an addled/infertile egg that had collapsed, entire. Then, two eggshells that had been hatched out of. One must have belonged to the dead hatchling. The other must have belonged to the turtle that made the second exit hole. But where was that turtle? I searched through the grass for several feet around the nest, finding nothing.

I dug out the entire scrape. No hatchling. I can only think that the second hatchling must have dug laterally until it was out from under the small, inner cage, then exited the large milk crate and set out for parts unknown. It's also possible that it made its way out of the small cage via the larger corner holes. If there even was a second hatchling. But the eggshells and the second exit hole argue strongly that there was.

As is often the case in nature sleuthing, I'm left with more questions than answers. Did I do any good here? Did I cause the death of the unhatched egg, or somehow cause the death of the defective hatchling? Is there one tiny turtle crawling the planet who would have otherwise been lost to predators? I don't know the answers. I can only think about how to do better by them this year, if I get the chance.

To all those who've been waiting, and especially to Kai, I'm sorry I don't have a happier story for you.

Meanwhile, in the front yard box, life is beginning. Four warm bluebird eggs on March 30, five eggs on March 31; projected hatch date April 12.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Chet Baker, Action Hero

Yes, it's time to break out the acoustic clothes dryer.

I tried to work today, I really did. But the sun was hot, the air pellucid, and the garden was shouting to me. I could feel the weeds growing. I had to get out there and do it. See, it's past time to plant peas in southern Ohio; the thrasher's been in for two weeks and I haven't gotten them planted yet. So I cranked all day, forking and weeding, then burning. I'm all stove up now. Peas still aren't planted but they will be soon.
Afterward, I collapsed in a newly-hauled-out lawnchair and shot photos of Phoebe and Liam playing with Chet. Gotta love Phoebe's Daisy Mae outfit. I can't tell you how much fun I had, leading him with the camera, letting ISO 200 freeze him in his tracks. The background's a bit blurry when I'm panning, but that adds to the excitement of the shot.
Sometimes the stars align and you get everything in focus. When he's coming right at me, I can brace myself and not have to pan... I think this is my favorite of the bunch. I crowed like a rooster when I saw this one.
The kids were running back and forth across the lawn to see what I'd gotten, and Chet was in his element: the center of attention, leaping, running, growling, play-bowing. I never tire of watching him play with the kids. They tussle like brothers and sisters. Chet is much sassier with them than he dares to be with me; they holler and plead with him, but I have only to say his name in a warning tone and the ears flatten and the googly eyes cut over my way. It's pretty clear who the alpha beyotch is in this pack.
What a joy a well-bred, healthy young dog is. A joy to look at, to touch and to be with. Chet kept me company all day out under the sun, and was ready to rock when the kids got home.
Yesterday the Fed-ex driver, the one who always gives Chet two Milk Bones to bury, asked me how much a Boston terrier should cost. I got a big old grin. He's not the first person who's gotten to know Baker and then thought seriously about adding a Tennessee Turd-tail to his family. I laughed and told him my hidden agenda is to cover the earth in well-bred Bostons, and to let me know when he was serious about it. Mr. Milk-Bone, If you do get a puppeh, will you bring it by here, please? I would like to look it over, and perhaps sniff inside of its ears.
Just so you know: By posting about Chet Baker, I am in no way caving to pressure from Non Birding Bill, JaneyMS or any of his or her minions. It was time to post about Chet Baker. My artistic integrity emerges unpunctured.

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