Sunday, September 30, 2007

Charlie Checks Out

I got a call not long ago I'd been waiting for, ever since taking Charlie for his first veterinarian visit in--eep--18 years? I got Charlie in Connecticut in 1986. Connecticut's a hotbed for birdkeeping, with a strong Italian and Latin American birdkeeping tradition running through much of the populace. Charlie had a wonderful avian veterinarian in Dr. Robert Giddings, and we saw him often. On moving to Ohio, I found the nearest avian veterinarian to be 2 1/2 hours away, outside Columbus. And so most of the questions that arose I handled with phone consultations to Dr. Giddings. And truthfully, nothing's happened that I couldn't handle. I trim toenails and beaks, broken blood feathers, and deal with the occasional insect sting. When Sherri (of Raven's Haven exotic bird rescue and Magic the Hummingbird fame) told me she was hosting a bird wellness clinic at a Marietta hotel, featuring Columbus avian veterinarian Dr. Mohan, I leapt at the chance to have Charles seen.

Charlie: Please, may I see your finger? You could use a little exam yourself.

There are precious few veterinarians who see exclusively birds, and only one that I know of in Ohio: R. Mohan, DVM, MS, PhD. Needless to say Dr. Mohan goes through a lot of towels, since that's the way you restrain birds who can bite your finger off. He's really good with a towel.

Charlie had bloodwork done; he had a gram stain and a fecal exam. He had feather follicle biopsies taken, to see if there's any organic cause for his featherpicking. I knew that I had a healthy bird; at 386 grams he's a hefty little chestnut-fronted macaw. I knew he eats wonderfully, a varied and healthy diet, and that he gets plenty of love. Although it's hard to give parrots, who spend their lives monogamously paired, as much love as they need. But it was nice to hear Dr. Mohan say he tested out fine in every way for a bird his age (21). His flora and blood counts are normal. I'm especially grateful, having heard recently that Alex the African grey parrot, subject of years of language acquisition studies, died suddenly. What a shock, and tragedy, to lose such a learned, beloved and Very Useful bird at only 31. His last words to Dr. Irene Pepperberg: "Good night. Be good. I love you. See you in the morning."

So we're giving Charlie extra kisses and bits of ribeye steak,
and we're thankful to have his greenness in our lives. He gives me a bird's perspective on things from his perch on my shoulder as I paint and write. He breathes in my ear and makes sure my eyebrows are on straight. I'm thankful to have a macaw I can trust to sit on my son's chestand preen my daughter's cheek with his odd, rubbery tongue. He's even made room in his little parrot heart for that interloper, Chet Baker, and he's just as sweet and playful with Bacon as he is with us. What a guy. It'd be easier (and more characteristic of many parrots) for him to be cranky, but Charlie goes toward the light.

On these lovely autumn evenings we bring Charlie outside to sit with us in the slanting light. When it gets cold he climbs down our shirtfronts and chuckles in the warm darkness next to our hearts.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Moonlit Ride Home

Seen in the ladies' room of Bixler Hall at Ashland University. I would have planned to attend, but the Whipple One-Shot Buckmasters Club is meeting that night, and I'm bringing petits fours and doing the minutes.
Spotted on a sweet potato leaf in one of Ashland University's glorious flower beds: a male Fiery Skipper. Ahh. I love this bug, and rarely get to see it. For those who are stymied by skippers, its bright orange, lightly-dotted underwing is unique. Which is to say: a beginning butterflier who shies away from skippers has hope of recognizing it.

Filled with the thoughts given to me by the students in David Fitzsimmons' classes, and fueled by the good conversation David, his cool wife Olivia and I had in a sweet little Mexican restaurant afterward, I climbed in the car and started home. I passed Grandpa's Cheese Barn and Heiny's Cheese Chalet. Who comes up with these names? And why do they make me want to abstain from eating cheese for awhile? Could it be the juxtaposition of Grandpa and Cheese, or, worse, Heiny and Cheese? Ponder it. Now wipe your screen. Considered photographing them and decided to keep going. Not in the mood.

I desperately wanted to drive home in the evening light, along old Rte. 250 East through Amish country. A little thundershower had dropped a freshet of rain on the thirsty land, and the full moon was rising in silence over the fields.Coming down out of Apple Creek. Ahh, ahh, ahh. The misty trees folding into the fields, road as river, silo as finial.

The skies were mesmerizing.The moon was big and pink and kept getting itself caught in the wires and treetops. I kept pulling over to gawk and take pictures. The ride, not the destination, is the whole point, and that never seemed truer than tonight. I wished the moon would stay low and pink and that Highway 250 and the evening would go on forever.
How lucky I feel to live in Ohio, to be able to travel through pastoral landscapes like these, passing thin Standardbreds pulling black Amish buggies (images I yearn to capture, but can't bring myself to photograph).

Even birdwatchers have to stop for gas now and then, and where better than this station in Strasbourg?
Besides, it wuz $2.89 a gallon over to the Kaufmann Mart. sorry Kenn, sorry Lisa

My last picture of the night, Simon and Garfunkel singing in my mind's ear.

And the moon rose over an open field
We've all come to look for America.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Advice to Writers, and Myself

photo by David Fitzsimmons
I spent yesterday at Ashland University of Ohio, where English professor and gifted photographer David Fitzsimmons had invited me to come up and speak. David became aware of my work when he heard the commentary, "OK 1902" (about a dying beech tree on our land), on NPR last winter. As a naturalist, conservationist and awesome photographer (click the link!) as well as an English professor, he connected with the commentary and did a little digging around on the Web. That led him to Letters from Eden, which he decided to use as a text in his composition classes at Ashland University. Gaa-aaw-leee.

So I walk into the morning classroom with 16 adorable smart thoughtful students yesterday and there's one of my sentences up on the board with circles and arrows around it. Another Gomer Pyle moment. We settled down for a Q and A session. I was blown away by the questions the students asked. Several of them cut right to the emotional core of the book and we were off. A high school student who is taking college courses asked the most penetrating question of the day. She's the tiny blonde in the Superman T-shirt, front left row. "You are so passionate about nature and writing and art, and so much of your creative work seems to be done alone. Does this ever impact or hurt your personal relationships?"

Give me a second here. I was really expecting something more along the lines of, "How long did it take you to write the book?"

From there, we got into the issue of how one preserves time and mental space for creative pursuits, and I had a quote from Tillie Olsen ready. I've excerpted this from The Writer's Almanac, which sends me meaty things to think about every day. Tillie was 48 when her short story won the O. Henry Award. She was 49 when her first book came out. We have a little common ground...

It's the birthday of American novelist Tillie Olsen, born Tillie Lerner, in Omaha, Nebraska (1913). A young radical, she started work on a novel about the struggles of the working class, but put it aside when she was raising her children. Her short story, "Tell Me a Riddle," won the O. Henry Award for the best American short story in 1961, and became the title story of her first published book (1962). In Silences (1979), she wrote about the conflict between motherhood and writing. She wrote: "Children need you now ... The very fact that these are real needs, that you feel them as your own, that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; ... Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be."

It was so good to share, and as a published writer make real for the students, that struggle that all artists and writers and creative people fight each and every day--to push aside that which is unnecessary and make room for that which is vital to their spiritual health. I told the questioner that if I let myself, I'd do nothing but wipe counters all day, that it would be easy to let laundry, lawn care and kid-taxiing rule. That sometimes it does, for days or weeks at a time. And that every creative spirit has this conflict, and must find his or her own answer to how to balance the things that must be done with the more spiritual and fulfilling things that really should rule the day. I told the class about sitting at basketball games and practices with my laptop, typing madly, thinking, writing...cheering Phoebe on, in an absent-minded way. Knowing that it was a compromise all around, hoping that Phoebe and Liam understand and see that it's a way for me to strike some kind of balance, hoping that they learn from it how to keep their creative cores burning bright. (To my left, Liam is drawing a cityscape, with night club and coffey shop, peopled with penguins, ghosts and Halloween pumpkins. I think it's working.)

It is an honor that David Fitzsimmons chose Letters from Eden as a textbook for his composition classes. Thank you, David, and thank you for bringing me to Ashland. It was nice to sign every student's book, to meet each one and shake their hands and connect with them. Some of them had me sign it to their mothers, or grandmothers, because they would love the by David Fitzsimmons

Many had removed the dustcover to keep it unbent. I loved hearing that they like the book and are enjoying dissecting it for composition and style. But the fulfilling thing for me was to show them that an ordinary, sweaty human being who gets stuck behind trucks and is 20 minutes late to class, who trips over strewn toys and cobbles together suboptimal meals and never catches up with housework, who tries to do too many things and screws up and falls asleep at the wheel and sometimes gets utterly lost, also manages to squeeze out a book. I want them to know that it's in their grasp to do all these things--to do a lot of things badly, and to do one or two things well. Putting out a product should be part of every creative person's life. It's their duty, in a way, and also a reward. And the thrashing about and clawing for creative freedom and the mental space to use it well is part of the cost. Nobody has the answer as to how best to go about keeping the creative flame alive. How to remain a giving human being, a member of family and society, while still answering the call to be wild and introspective and silent and alone. We're all just blundering, no one more than I. That's what I hope they took home, that and the spirit to keep trying.

Here's Louise Erdrich.

Advice to Myself
Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Goat Showmanship

It was unutterably hot the day we went to the fair, and these 4-H'ers were gathered under the galvanized metal roof of the new cattle barn for a Goat Showmanship competition. Two of the girls are friends of Phoebe's, and we watched with great interest as they pulled and tugged on the collars of their recalcitrant animals, trying to get them to stack up and stand right for the judge (in red).

Rumor had it that one of the goats in the group had been purchased for $1,000. Our friend McKenzie's goat, Simon, had cost about $50.00. The longer I looked at the bunch of animals, the more convinced I became that Simon stood head and rounded shoulders above the lot. What a gorgeous animal--well filled out, straight of spine and leg, clear of eye, just about perfect, as far as I could tell.
McKenzie's other goat, Randy, was supposedly better-behaved, but went into a snit just before this heat, so Simon stood in. I told McKenzie's dad that I thought Simon was a keeper, though I knew the whole point was to sell him to the highest bidder. Just wanted to put in a plug. I'd stop short of spray-painting NFS on his side, y'know. I mean, look at that sweet goat.
There's something doglike about these meat goats. OK, I can't think about that any more. Moving along...

Phoebe's friend Jessi had her goat there, too. I think his name was Jared. I like this picture. Jessi looks so intent and serious. That's big old Simon's pink posterior just to the right of Jessi. My gosh, what a gorgeous goat, even his bum's nice.
There's a lot of standing around and waiting in ring judging. This goat alleviated its boredom by trying to nibble the rivets off its handler's jeans.
The judge carefully considered each animal, teaching the kids and onlookers a lot about goats in the process.
In the end, Simon won Grand Champion of all the goats entered. We were thrilled for McKenzie, and I got a little glow that I'd been able to spot his quality, knowing essentially nothing about goats. Yaaaay for McKenzie and her folks! I will tender my application for goat judge in 2008.Today, I'm whipped. I've been on the road the last three days with some good adventures and funny pictures to show for it. Sure has been nice to ride on my ant's harvest of blog posts--a nice break after the couple days' work it took to put two weeks of posts together. But they're petering out. It's 10 PM and I've just finished driving the same durn stretch of I-77 for the third time in three days. Phew. I fell asleep coming around a sharp curve on the road home--just one of those moments of unconsciousness that remind you that your heart can still leap and race. That would have sucked, to run my old car into the crumbly shale cliff face that had ZICK written on it... Smacked my thighs so hard to stay awake I have bruises. But I can stay home now for a little while and paint!! Yay¡¡ Talk to you soon...

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Writers and Big Red Dogs

On September first, Bill and I had a book signing at the grand opening of a new Books-a-Million near Wheeling, West Virginia. It's one of the many stores that has followed the opening of a Cabela's sporting goods store. We have been in this Cabela's once, just to see what it would be like. We were on our way back from Chautauqua, Chet in tow, and they put Chet in a courtesy kennel for us while we "shopped." By the time we got into the dimly lit Hall of Dead Deer, we were ready to get back out. It was the size of your average ballroom, with a naturalistic island running down the middle, and velvet ropes holding the onlookers back from the exhibits. There were probably 50 mounted bucks standing on the middle island, another 75 around the perimeter of the room, and another 200 whose heads had been lopped off and put up on the wall. I could feel their departed spirits swirling all around me, asking, "What's the big deal about our antlers?" All due respect to hunters and giant gear retailers, that is not my cup of tea.

But I digress. This development, called The Highlands, reminded me of Brasilia. It was so huge, and the distances so vast, that you had to drive from store to store. Each store was bigger than the last. You practically had to drive from your car to the door, the parking lots were so huge. I wondered what had been here before these hundreds of acres went under the bulldozer. Box turtles, oaks and hickories, maples and pines. Tanagers. Eventually we found the Books-a-Million and enjoyed a warm reception by Jacquie, their Regional community Relations Specialist. They'd gone all out to make sure someone showed up, making color posters and buying spots on local TV and radio.

We spoke a bit, signed some books, met friends new and old. It was nice. I liked being surrounded by a million books, and seeing people reading and looking at books. It gave me hope that there will still be books for some time to come, all indications notwithstanding.

But the main attraction of the day was Clifford The Big Red Dog.

Liam was almost too old to hang with Clifford, but despite his tuff exterior he was quietly and genuinely excited.

Phoebe was a little too old to want to meet Clifford. Make that a lot too old. Does she look like her mom is forcing her to pose for the picture? She threatened me roundly about posting this picture. We'll see if I can sweet-talk her into it. She's been known to go in and edit my posts after they're up…
I'm a lot too old to pose with Clifford, but at least he still looks like a Big Red Dog next to the Zick, all 5'5" of me. Hey! I'm taller than Clifford! And he's Big! Does that make me tall? Ooh, I wanna be by Miss Phoebe Thompson

Bill of the Birds, on the other hand, rendered Clifford a Medium-Sized Red Dog. He is tall. Times like this make all the head bumping worth it, huh, B?

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What's that Bird?

I'm trying not to commit too many Science Chimp attacks on my fellow bloggers. I'm paranoid, to tell you the truth, because I don't want people to roll their eyes and say, "There she goes again!" If someone asks, well, I'm happy to try to help identify something. It's a Science Chimp's favorite thing to do. Here's the thing: we all get caught out from time to time. Bill caught me on this one. I photographed this bird, virtually convinced that it was a summer tanager. All the marks were there. Large paleish bill, low-contrast wings, warm ochre-green-yellow coloration, longish tail. I truly thought it was a summer tanager until I examined the photos, and until I saw what might have been the same bird the next evening. Bill and I had a lively exchange about it. "Oh! there's that summer tanager that's been hanging around the Spa!" I said. "That looks like a scarlet to me," Bill commented. Being a chimp, I went one by one through the ID characters that I thought added up to summer tanager. He wasn't impressed. It seemed like an impasse. And then the bird sang, sitting up in the bare branches of a dead tree. It was a scarlet tanager's song.

So I looked at these photos with a fresh eye, and realized that, while it bears a certain resemblance to a summer tanager, this bird lacks the oversized and rather homely yellow beak, the long tail and undertail coverts, the rich coloration, and the large size of a summer tanager. But look how big that bill looks when the bird's head is sleeked all the way down!
From a field mark standpoint, this bird is pretty confusing. Scarlet tanagers are supposed to have blackish wings, which contrast with a pale body. Summer tanagers have very little contrast in wing to body. Like this bird. Or like a fresh juvenile scarlet tanager.
Scarlet tanagers are supposed to have darkish beaks, not yellowish, and the beak should be much more delicate than a summer tanager's. This one has a dark culmen, but the mandible is pale. Again, this is a function of its youth.

He contemplates his own identity. Darn it, I'm still not dead sure. But I can tell you that all the photos in this post depict the same individual.Bathes with an immature indigo bunting.
It just goes to show you that it's easy to misidentify a bird, and uncertainty can be waiting right around the corner. It helps to have multiple observations, multiple observers, and it really helps when the bird opens that indeterminately sized-and-colored bill and sings!
It really looks like a scarlet from this angle:

I'm convinced that birds enjoy bathing together. One splashing about brings others from far and near. It's so cute...the bather gets going, and birds come to the nearby birch and fluff their plumage, and you can see them thinking, "Man! That looks like fun!" The next thing you know they're in the tub. This young cardinal was geeking out, thinking she was bathing with a celebrity. Allow me to splash you.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gremlin's Gold, Revisited

Is it the weekend already? Yes, it is. Phenomenon noted: Weeks go by much faster when Bill is home. Weeks draaaag when he is in Peru, looking at fabulous birds and not hugging me.

I will leave you for the weekend with a post about Baker, because after all it is time for a Chetfix. (Not the same thing as Chexmix, which you eat in your living room around Christmas time).

Chet Baker. You know you are not allowed to have this teddy bear. photo by Phoebe Thompson

I am not Chet Baker. I am The Gremlin. And I defy you. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

The first winter of my bloglife, I posted about a game Phoebe, Chet and I play every night without fail. It's called Gremlin's Gold. (Worth checking out. Phoebe looks so little and so does Chet! And I got one comment, from Rondeau Ric, aka Old Faithful, thank you.)

Chet stands, ears flat back, watching Phoebe go through her bedtime routine. Just as I'm tucking her in for the fourth and last time; just as I'm ready to turn out the light and think about what I want to do with what's left of the evening, Chet Baker vanishes. He drops to his belly and crawls under the bed, dresser or desk, then glares balefully out at us. This is the equivalent of going into a phone booth and coming out as Superman. Only Chet undergoes a reverse transformation; he becomes an Evil One. We aren't sure why he does this, but we're glad he does. It's an essential part of bedtime stalling for Phoebe, and sometimes it's the best laugh I get all day.

Anyone passing by (say, a little man walking innocently on two fingers) usually gets grabbed and dragged into the Gremlin's Lair. There are many kinds of gremlins, and we determine which kind we've got with this little finger-man test. For instance, there are Licking Gremlins, Barking Gremlins, and Biting Gremlins. The Biting Gremlin is most common, and one of the worst of the lot. Worse yet is the Biting, Stealing Gremlin.

What the Gremlin is waiting for is some gold. The best Gremlin's Gold is something the gremlin knows he is not supposed to have. In this case, it is a pink plaid teddy bear Phoebe got for her birthday. He is really not supposed to be chewing something like that. Chet Baker knows that, but the Gremlin ignores convention, grabs the nearest Gold, and drags it into his lair. Chet Baker never growls or bites. That is the evil work of the Gremlin. I don't know if there was a radioactive spider involved, but our dog mysteriously disappears every night around 9 p.m. And then we find the Gremlin. His eyes have an evil glow, otherworldly. I am not chewing it. I am just holding it.
I will take it to the couch and open a seam, something that milquetoast Chet Baker would never dare to do.
You may tug on it all you want. You will not get it back. By the way, your fingers are in extreme danger.Sometimes the Gremlin relocates to a place where he will not be so vulnerable.Sometimes the game goes too far and the Gremlin has to be chastised. Some of the chastisible offenses include: Growling too realistically, biting too hard, and opening teddy bear seams. It is worth noting that the gremlin will chew vigorously on Mether, but only licks Phoebe. We can switch our hands as cleverly as you please, but he can always tell which hand to lick and which one to chew on.
Why are you using the name of that sissy dog? Why do you use an angry tone with me? Where is your sense of humor? Did you lose it along with your sewing kit? Because you are going to need both.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007


My mother-in-law, Elsa, co-founder of Bird Watcher's Digest with my father-in-law Bill Thompson Jr. , likes the county fair for all the same reasons I do. She loves to people watch, gawk at the animals and chickens, look at the flowers and produce, eat corn dogs, and ride the merry-go-round. She's much more adventurous than I am. The merry-go-round and sometimes the swings that hang on long chains are the only rides I will go on. Nothing stops Elsa.

Here's Elsa, with her two granddaughters, Annalea and Phoebe. I think Annalea looks just like Elsa.
It was about 225 degrees under the merry-go-round canopy.

This guy was heavily tattooed and kind of scary looking, and he had the giant homey shorts working. But he walked slowly though all the flower arrangements, considering each one. "You never know," Elsa commented, as we watched him appreciating them.
Confession: I love corn dogs. I eat approximately one and a half corn dog per year. That would be the one I buy for myself, and half of Liam's. Whoever came up with the concept of putting a hot dog in cornbread batter and deep-frying the thing deserves a ribbon. I do not approve of deep-fried Twinkies or Snickers bars, the other treats that are sold at the corn dog stands. But corn dogs are divine. Bill of the Birds enjoys his yearly allotment of a single corn dog. He came to pick us up at the fair when our brains were thoroughly baked, and I brought him a corn dog as thanks. Although I believe he got another at the Demoleetion Derby on Tuesday night. So he's over quota.You put a big squiggle of bright yellow mustard on them, wait for them to cool, and bite. I gotta say, this is the best mustard line I've ever done. Ahhhh. I really like eating dinner at the county fair. Which consists of corn dogs, a lemon shake from the Band Boosters, and home made ice cream.

These are meant to scare crows, but they scared me badly. I call them Scarezicks. I would not take a kernel of corn from a garden protected by these apparitions.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Yellowthroat Toilette

Regular readers of this blog will remember the yellow-throated warbler (Dendroica dominica) that hit my studio window in early September. In that post, I made a bit of a slight against the common yellowthroat, and one of my old friends called me on it. I said that the yellow-throated warbler outclassed Geothlypis trichas six ways to Sunday in the beauty department. As my pal pointed out, this wasn't fair, so I want to go on record here as stating that the common yellowthroat beats the tar out of its more elegant cousin on the cuteometer.
The common yellowthroat is a bird of wet meadows and marshes. It likes water. It looooves water. It is among the most enthusiastic bathers that visit our Bird Spa.
Like any songbird, a yellowthroat bathes by first dunking its head, then raising the head, which rolls water down the back. During this maneuver, it flutters its wings, which sends spray flying into the plumage. This immature male yellowthroat added some curliques to the routine, though. First, he literally dove beneath the water's surface, like a dipper. He'd travel for several inches, pushing with his feet, then pop up to bathe like a normal bird.When he was done fluttering, he'd pop straight up about six inches into the air. He looked like a kernel of corn with heat under it. He'd come down in another place and start the routine all over again.
Ahh, serendipity, and the flutter of small birds' wings. I can practically live on both.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Closet Cleansing

I had a choice. I could slowly lose my mind while waiting for Bill to call saying his plane had gotten in to Lima, Peru. Or I could occupy my hands and mind with SOMETHING. I knew better than to write while in such a state. Nobody wants to read that stuff anyway.

So, after putting him on the plane in Columbus and doing just a little shopping (read: applying money directly to what was bothering me, which seems to work for some women), I came home and went to my closet (there are two walk-in’s) to try to get some hangers for the new duds I’d bought. New, bright-colored, slinky, dressy, fun clothes. Couldn’t find a single free hanger. Couldn’t have hung the clothes anyway; prying a temporary space for them to be smashed in the press would be a more appropriate term.

So I started throwing out things I didn’t want. The sack dresses, in shades of sage, sand and dung. The elastic-waist casual pants. The high-waist, pleated-front khakis. The dresses friends had given me because they couldn’t bear to leave them at the Salvation Army. Heavy denim jeans, some weighing four pounds each. More sack-lady dresses. Hippie dresses that scraped the floor, because I'm too short to wear long dresses made for normal people. What the hell was I thinking? I bought this stuff when I was young! Why would I have wanted to cover myself in sackcloth?

Pretty soon I was singing a little song with each piece of clothing I’d toss out the closet door. “I’ll never wear this again, I don’t want it at all. It means nothing to me, it’s practically an antique!” Operatic runs and rills, white rap. The piles grew. Hangers stacked and multiplied on the bed. I finally collapsed just before midnight, and was going into REM when Bill called to say he’d made it to Peru.I got up the next morning and started back in on it, because I was about a quarter done. Oh, here’s the infamous dress I’d worn only once. It has little Parisian street café scenes on it and a big tulle skirt, and when I bought it I thought it was summery and charming, so much so that I wore it for a special event. At the end of the evening Bill confided that it kind of made me--which you aren't!! he hurriedly added--look just a teensy bit wide in the beam. I looked at the dress with new eyes. It made my butt look the size of Texas, to be exact. It might have been better to have known that before we’d stepped out. The event was my 25th college reunion dance. Oh, good. That's where you want people thinking how much you've swelled. (Ever notice that the gals who CAN dress in size zero skin-tight tubes at college reunions? I need to get with the program).

Since that soul-crushing moment, I've pulled that dress out and hung it back up probably a dozen times. Needless to say, that one went out the closet door with a flourish of tulle and Parisian street scenes, and a special snarl.

Some things I couldn't throw out. This fringed, sleeveless T-shirt/tunic, for instance, stating an essential libidinous truth. A souvenir of the Washington County Fair, and veteran of a Swinging Orangutangs Bad T-Shirt Night gig.By evening, I had 13 oversized black leaf bags full of clothes and one full of shoes. There were 30-year-old cowboy boots in there, that I could wear before I got pregnant and my feet spread with the extra weight I was carrying. There were clogs and slip-ons and horribly painful Evan Picones and ugly Sears old lady pumps and dopey short boots that clopped against my ankles when I walked and, when you get right down to it, pretty much anything that wasn't a Keen or a Pikolino went flying out the door.

Today, I took it all to the Salvation Army, where it joined a pile of black leaf bags full of similar stuff that was about 12' high and 20' long. There were women putting clothing on hangers and dumping some of it into hampers. It smelled of sweat and cigarettes in there. I left my sartorial past behind and got in the car and drove on, feeling a little smaller in the beam, a little lighter on the earth.

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Why People Drink Beer

Scenes from a festival: Good pizza (With NOOO PAW PAWS!!) at sundown
Redhead on the shore, taken by a mom who's sitting down and unable to keep the camera straight

Skary gyro lady who looks like she has wrapped your brain in a pita. It says "Hungry for something different?" File under: creepy carny art.

I don't drink beer. More of a wine person. Well, I should qualify that in the interest of total disclosure. When we go to Las Trancas, our favorite Mexican restaurant, with the most delightful waiters on the planet, they now plunk a Negra Modelo down in front of each of us without even asking. And then idly amuse themselves through the time we're there by trying to get me to order a second cerveza. They know I'm a one-beer girl, and by about the third quarter of the first, I'm done. As soon as I've slurped the lime juice off the top and it's something other than ice-cold, I lose interest in beer. Too much volume for the buzz. These same waiters like to torture me by bringing hot boats of chips and fresh salsa and putting the basket right in front of me. They watch me turn my head away and push the damn things down the table to those who can eat them without turning into a human barge, and they laugh and tell me a few chips won't hurt me, why not try some? As the kids are vacuuming up the last fragments and I'm sighing in relief that I haven't caved, they swoop out with another boat of hot chips, and pester me as to why I'm not eating them. At this point I moan and put my head in my hands. Bring the food already and stop with the chips. You're killing me. Knowing what little I do of the restaurant business, I get the feeling they have a bet going in the back as to whether they can get that nice senora with the bad Spanish to drink a second beer or eat hot fragrant tortilla chips.

So it's Saturday, and I've brought the kids and Baker to this paw paw festival, the perfect kind of festival, because it celebrates a wild fruit endemic to the Appalachians, and that's where we live. There's paw paw curry and paw paw pizza and ice cream and slushies and my dear friend Chef Dave Rudie, who talked me into coming here, is doing a cooking demonstration (here, he's slicing frozen pureed paw paws while Deb makes sure he has the right tongs and enough scallops and plates and butane cans and...)Dave's going to make paw paw lemon curd and paw paw cream sauce and in an orgasmic finale feed everyone a giant honkin' sautéed scallop draped in his velvety paw paw beurre blanc. The festival's less than two hours from home. It's a crystal clear day, the first crisp fall day we've had in what seems like an endless succession of hot, muggy ones. It's maybe 68 degrees in the sun. Sign me up. I've brought the kids and myself here because I know that hanging around the house making sure the bathroom grout is clean (my other pressing agenda for the morning) is bad for me. I need to eat somebody else's cooking, let the kids wander in a safe place that has face-painting by a girl named Echo , to feel Chet building my arms into living pieces of sculpture as he hauls on the lead. I need to talk to some other adults and breathe the cool air and hear some live hillbilly music that won't suddenly include a song that will crush my heart like a beetle. I need to drink a beer.

The Marietta Brewing Company has made some paw paw beer and is selling it for $5 a pint. Paw paw wheat beer. I make sure the kids know where I am, inside a snow-fence enclosure where all us beer drinkers will happily co-exist, maybe, given time, reproduce! in our paw paw beer ghetto. Phoebe leans against me, her coppery hair silky and fragrant in the sun. Chet leaps up onto my lap, spilling a little beer on my groovy new pants. I can see Liam bouncing wildly in an inflatable rubber castle. I take my first gulp of the cold fruity paw paw beer. Wow. That's good. I try to tune out the music, which is too loud, and settle back to look around at everyone else.

I've been talking with a woman maybe half my age who is also here alone with her two children, one still nursing, one barely weaned. We're in the farthest corner of the beer ghetto, trying to get away from the speakers. They are the dearest little girls you could dream up, and she is lovely, newly moved here from northern Ohio into a farmhouse on 90 acres with an outhouse. It's got running water but no bathroom. Oh. I think about the implications of that, with two little babies to care for, and am suddenly thankful to have had shower tile grout to scrub all morning.

She tells me that she's not a beer drinker, either. She's going to have to hang around the festival for a long time to let her single beer (maybe her third this year) wear off, but she wants to make it back home before dark. Like mine, her husband travels for a week or more at a time, and he's gone again, too. And last night she was awakened by a pounding on her front door, in the middle of nowhere, she alone with her two babies. WHO IS IT?? she hollered, in her loudest, fiercest, most manly voice. No answer. More pounding. She couldn't see and wouldn't open the door on a dare. She's got a gun in her hand, had it within three seconds of hearing the pounding. She's firing on all of her terrified cylinders, thinking of her babies, thinking of what she will do. It's a weird world out there. At this point their 9-month old Aussie shepherd x chow puppy is going nuts, barking and barking. She wishes it were a Rottweiler, or that it had more chow in it. The pounding stops, a car crunches the gravel in her driveway as it pulls slowly away, and she never knows who or what it was, or whether the pounder will return tonight. And she's got a week more alone out there with her babies. Good God! I want to take them all home with me. She needs a beer. We both need a beer.

I take another draught and feel the beer beginning to work on me. I look up at the sky, where a puffy white cloud is drifting. A tear forms in the corner of my eye as I contemplate the cloud, changing and spreading against the blue vastness. A turkey vulture drifts across the cloud, always my harbinger of good. It turns its head to look down at us, at me, looking up at it.
And I am filled with the sudden, overwhelming and utterly foreign feeling that everything is going to be all right. I breathe in the cool air and realize that I'm gasping. That I've been looking for this feeling for so long that when it finally comes, unbidden, it hits me with the force of a freight train.

I look across the beer garden, seared with sudden insight, at the people assembled there, all of them drinking, most of them smiling and relaxed. All of them damaged, all of them needing succor. Jesus, I think. No wonder people drink beer.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mayan Delight

A long time ago, I alluded to this beautiful quilt, and promised I'd post about it at some point. Well, I'm being a hyper-super-insane bloggrasshopper lately, storing up posts as if Armageddon itself were on the way. Must be the fall coming, or perhaps I'm girding myself for some kind of cosmic shootout after which I'll be psychically indisposed for the foreseeable future. I can't tell you why I'm doing it myself, but there are 14 posts and counting on tap, and I'm still hoarding. This one is fresh, done tonight, in case it matters. I'm insane, I know, but at least I'm aware of it.

On our second trip to Guatemala last February, we visited a market in the center of Guatemala City and made a beeline for the nice textile shop there that has a selection of bedpreads, shams, pillow covers and tablecloths. We didn't know quite what we wanted, but we knew we'd know it when we saw it.

I could spend days at that market. Everything's neatly folded and stacked, and when the shopkeeper pulls something out for you you get a tantalizing glimpse of the next thing, be it garment or bag or bedspread, and then you just have to see that one. I am NUTS about the Mayan aesthetic. Nuts about their colors and patterns and the way they incorporate birds and plants and flowers in their art. Nuts about the color combinations, the fabulously fine handwork, and the wildly disparate styles of each region. My favorite textiles come from around Lake Atitlan, but I love them all unreservedly. I'm more than delighted to peel off bills and give them directly to the woman who created this incomparable art. It feels like free trade as it should be. It's all I can do not to stare at the women wearing these things on the street, and I've been known to discreetly use my binoculars from the bus to appreciate the textiles they're wearing to the market and the bank. Mayan culture is alive and dominant in Guatemala, and it's one of the main reasons we love the country, troubled as it is.
To me, the people in their handmade finery look like hummingbirds, with their brilliant, iridescent gorgets.

This bedspread is pieced together from discarded huipils (wee-peels), the heavily decorated blouses that Mayan women still wear for everyday use. It's covered with neck holes from the huipils, which have been creatively patched with other pieces. Here's a little tour around some of my favorite passages on the quilt.
Another neck hole. I think these are roses in the outer part, and on the inner ring are orchids, probably dendrobiums.
Who'd put roses with herringbone? Mayans. We couldn't even imagine such a combination. To me, huipil weavings are like nature itself--unexpected and beautiful beyond imagining. The merchants told me that many of the pieces of fabric in this quilt are no longer being produced; they're from men's dress pants that are no longer being made or worn. This quilt is holy, a piece of Mayan culture, and I feel privileged to have it on my bed, and not a little unworthy, too. It always makes me smile, just like sun on running water. And it doesn't show dog hairs at all.
This is Big Toe, my Ugly Doll. I bought him as a travel pillow, but because he, too, makes me smile. There's something comforting about taking a monster on your flight with you, sticking him in your backpack to pull out as the jet's taking off. Chet knows he is not allowed to chew Big Toe and treats him with respect. I know it's late in life to be buying dolls for myself, but there are things I find I need and cannot resist, from the ridiculous to the sublime. The wonder is the way they all fit together in my life.

Until I hoard again,

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Remembering and Wishing

It was hot, hot, hot at the fair. Nineties. Humid. The heat was coming up off the asphalt on the midway, drying my kids up like French fries. After we finished the water we'd brought along, I kept buying bottles of cold water and emptying them into my babies. Liam found a way to keep cool in the cattle barn.

The heat collected under the carousel's canopy, and Liam almost swooned as we waited for the music to begin and the horses to start their dizzy gallop.It was time for ice cream. I followed the sound of a one-lung gasoline engine, circa 1900 or so. It sounded like a John Deere, and it was. This was the first model of engine my dad ever restored, and by the time he died, he'd restored dozens. He was good at it. He tore them apart and cleaned and greased every moving part, and then he painted them in original colors, sometimes asking me to do the lettering or pinstripes, and put them back together. He'd sit on a bunch of newspapers on the basement floor with hundreds of little parts spread out around him, his legs out like a kid playing marbles, and mutter to himself as he worked (or played).

He would have liked Liam and Phoebe, if he had ever gotten to meet them.

When he finally got them reassembled, he always liked to start them up for the first time to see if he'd done it right. Remember, this was in the basement of our house. The exhaust would drift up the stairs, along with the sometimes deafening report of the engine firing (if he hadn't put a muffler on it), and when she couldn't stand it any longer my mother would stomp over and holler DAAALE!!! down the stairs and slam the basement door and you'd hear him shut it down, the flywheel coasting to a whispered halt. Then you'd hear some muttering and tinkering and before long he'd give the flywheel another crank and the whole show would repeat.

Because I'd been hanging around like a dirty shirt while he rebuilt the things, I always ran downstairs to congratulate him on another busted-up engine brought back to life. I always wished my mom would at least go down a few steps to take a peek at what he'd accomplished, but she didn't think much of having to pick her way through antique engine debris to get to the Maytag.

The man tending this ingenious setup--the engine is turning the ice cream makers' cranks-- was pleased to have someone come by who knew what she was looking at. I was taken away by the pop and chug of this noble machine. All that iron for a quarter horsepower.

Something was wrong, though. It looked right, sounded right, but the nostalgic loop was incomplete.

You're not burning gasoline in this, are you?
Nope, Coleman fuel.
I didn't think it smelled right.

The ice cream was darned good, nice and sloppy, but not as good as Dad's. Mom used to buy Golden Guernsey milk and put extra vanilla in, too. This was made with regular old Holstein milk, I think. Dad was forever trying to figure out how to hook an engine up to the churn, but never got the ratios right. He'd have loved this, hanging out all day making ice cream. He used to take his engines to the Virginia State Fair in Richmond and come home hoarse from talking about them all day.

Good thing this old Deere wasn't burning gasoline. Had I caught the scent of that old familiar exhaust, I know I'd have stood there and bawled.

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Small Animal Barn

The Washington County Fair happens over Labor Day weekend. I go every year, no matter how hot, stanky and humid it is. Bill didn't accompany us this year, which is probably a good thing, because you have to really, really want to be there to deal with the stifling heat and smell of fried dough. There is a Felliniesque quality to it that attracts me. I take millions of pictures, while dispensing five-dollar bills and juggling the repeated entreaties of my kids to get to the midway where we can roast our brains on the hot asphalt, waiting in line to ride icky filthy undersized kiddie rides and throw darts in weak arcs at balloons made of titanium so we can "win" a "free" "prize" that costs us $8, is worth about 79 cents, and breaks in the car on the way home. At least they don't have baby green iguanas or red-eared sliders as prizes any more. That made me insane. And don't even talk about the box turtle races, which I protested and brought to a halt several years ago.

I do miss the sleazy house of horror, trampy T-shirt stands and creepy sideshows that accompanied the concession that gave live animal prizes. They had these great hand-painted wooden fronts with giant pythons and parrots, recorded tapes blaring about the giant snake that could eat an entire sheep, and the creepiest carnies. Loved it. But the midway now is all dull as a corncob, without the sparkle of danger and sex, though you couldn't call it sanitized.

I'm there for the chickens and bunnies, cattle and horses that clop smartly around the trotters' racecourse. I'm there for the homemade crafts and giant pumpkins. Mostly for the chickens and bunnies, though. It's hard to photograph them; the lighting is bad and the cage bars are obtrusive. The only hope is to stick the lens right up against the bars and get in their faces.

This is a Japanese silky. He's got a genetic mutation that creates feathers without barbules, those little hooks that interlock and keep a feather sleek and smooth. You don't want to leave Japanese silkies out in the rain. They wouldn't survive a month without a coop, methinks. What chicken would, in this raccoon-ridden world?
I like the extra touch of Antwerp blue around the eye. This little rooster looks intelligent and slightly severe to me, though I think it's just his feathery eyebrows.

I can't tell if this rooster looks intelligent or not. He's a Polish crested, with the added allure of lacy feather edges.
Tiny sweet baby bunnies, all together in a pile.
A giant angora, allergy in a cage. I sneeze just thinking about it. I'm allergic to rabbits, cats, and horse dander. I can ride, but don't ask me to curry a horse! Some dogs drive me crazy--Cocker spaniels and some other long-haired dogs. Kind of depends. But not birds, thank goodness, or Boston terriers. I can bury my face and go to sleep in Chet's sweet eyelash-length fur. If I buried my face in this rabbit's fur I would not wake up.
And a Siamese dwarf bunny. Please. Every time I thought I'd found the cutest bunny in the world, another one would hove into view. I have to get out of the bunny barn now. Cute overload allergy. Achoo!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reason to Believe

I am thankful for Tennessee warblers

And for the Cape May warblers that pass through here in the fall.

I'm thankful that some of them stop in the birch to look at the bubbling water
and sometimes take a bath.
I'm thankful for the box turtles that roam our land, and glad they keep trying to nest here.

I'm thankful for small dogs and redheads.
I'm thankful for jasmine on the nightstand.I'm thankful for tuberoses, and for flowers that can give off fragrance in the darkest nights.I'm thankful for Fuchsia magellenica, that lives through the winter right there in the garden and explodes like a pinata in late summer.I'm thankful for morning mist, and for the mornings when I have had someone with me to walk Phoebe and Liam out to the bus stop.
Someone like you
Makes it hard to live without Somebody else
Someone like you Makes it easy to give
And never think about myself

Tim Hardin, "Reason to Believe"

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Monday, September 10, 2007


Chetfans, I think you're going to like this one. Thanks for all the wonderful comments on the autumn melancholia post. How is it that shorter days cause us to reflect on our lives in their entirety, set up such a restlessness and a wondering? I think I have it figured out, in part, but that's another post.

Bill and I don’t walk much in the summer woods. Any time past early May, the understory growth is so heavy, the briars so thick, that, coupled with the heat and steep slopes, walking doesn’t constitute fun.

But we got a wild hair and decided to see what Beechy Crash might look like in early September, on a 90-degree day, no less. We needed to get into the woods. Chet Baker could hardly believe it. He was overjoyed. To have a woods walk in growing season, and to have Daddeh along? Oh!
We came to the log he always traverses, a good ten-foot drop beneath it onto a rocky stream bed. “Chet! Do you want to walk the log?” Since I almost always walk here alone, Bill had never seen him in log-balancing action.
Without a moment's hesitation, Baker dropped what he was doing, sprang up onto it and trotted back and forth twice with an aplomb that said, “I come by this grace naturally.” Little CatDog.
As we worked our way back up the steepest slope to home, though, Chet vanished. It was the kind of gone that didn’t feel good. No jingling tags, just silence. We began to call, and call.
After what seemed like a very long time, I heard him panting. I heard him breathing long before I could hear him moving through the leaves. Clearly, he’d found something good to chase, in 90-degree heat, too. I’m thinking it was the black and white cat he treed last winter, which doesn’t seem to get how much we dislike it hanging around our sanctuary. But at length, he came back.

Overdoing it in hot, humid conditions isn’t good for any dog, but the brachycephalic (smashy-faced) dogs suffer more, and have a harder time getting their body temperature back down, because they don’t have nice long nasal passages to cool incoming air.

He struggled up the hill, panting like a steam engine. We walked slowly along the oil well access road until we came to a tire rut full of muddy water.
And Chet Baker decided to cool himself down.This is a fastidious dog. Normally he’d never deign to step in water like this. But he needed to get his body temperature down fast, and he flopped down like a pig in a waller. Good boy. That's thinking.Like a hog in mud.

This feels good. I think I will rub my head in the mud. Ahhh.While I am at it I will drink some of this icky water. I am just too hot to refuse it. I prefer the reverse-osmosis, quintuple-filtered, carbon-polished water Mether gives me at home. But after all I am a dog, and dogs drink from puddles.Blecch. Maybe I will leave out that part of being a dog.
Bill was shooting me, shooting Chet. Jane calls Boston terriers "canine antidepressants."

All the rear views are Bill’s; the front views are mine. I have to say he got the definitive doggy ‘tock shots.

This would be my favorite. Hello, Cute Overload? He looks like a George Booth cartoon dog in this picture, ears canted back, cranky even from behind.When he rose, the muddy water poured off him in sheets. His panting slowed and we walked back the rest of the way to the house. Although he’s normally afraid of the hose, I set it on a gentle stream, called him to me and rubbed him down under the cool water. Oh, he loved that. And so did I.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Letting Go

When did this happen? When did the goldenrod come out, the dogwood begin to turn?

When did the sun begin to slant low and golden at only six o'clock?
When did my spherical, bald baby grow a head of cornsilk, stretch out like taffy, throw away his training wheels, and climb on a grownup bicycle? When did you stop holding the seat, stand back and watch him ride?

When did an autumnal haze begin to settle over the meadow in the mornings?
When did the tall thistle bloom?When did the Cape May's gold tarnish to green?

When did the hummingbirds leave?
I must have been thinking about something else, because I missed all these things. They've gone on without me, and I'm standing here, looking out over the meadow, wondering what I'll do without them.

I'd like to call back summertime
And have her stay for just another month or so
She's got the urge for going
I guess she'll have to go.

Joni Mitchell, "Urge for Going"

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


My studio has a rack of three fixed-pane windows, facing north. To them I owe countless Bird Spa pictures, constant bird sightings, endless hours of gazing and wondering, and a pure north light on my palette and paper. On those windows are six FeatherGuards, designed by a Bird Watcher's Digest subscriber (and marketed by my husband) to deter collisions. They're lines of monofilament, strung with colored chicken feathers. Usually, they work. In the height of migration, with a bunch of crazy juvenile birds bouncing around, we still get some strikes.

Bill was out in the blind and I was at the drawing table inside when we heard that sickening BONK that means something has brained itself on the glass. We're so attuned to it after 7 years that we can tell which window it's hit by where the bonk comes from, and the pitch of it. A big window makes a deeper BONK. I always jump up and go digging in the flower beds for the poor thing, to see if I can help, or at least take it out of the way of predatory chipmunks (like Bob.)

You never know what the bird is going to be. You always hope it's not badly hurt.

Sometimes, what you find takes your breath away. Oh.We get one or two yellow-throated warblers here every year. This is a big, robust warbler with a long, slightly decurved bill, large clinging feet, and strong legs. It hitches around on the trunks and limbs of sycamores like a black-and-white warbler, and nests in natural cavities. (One of only a couple of warblers that do nest in cavities; the other being the prothonotary.) They nest sparingly right in the center of Marietta, which, as a river town, has lots of huge holey sycamores. They nest all up and down the hollers and runs near us, the low-lying ones with sycamores. I wish this bird were still called the sycamore warbler. It's so hard to keep from confusing it with the common yellowthroat, in name at least. All apologies to Geothlypis trichas, this bird has it outclassed six ways to Sunday in the beauty realm, don't you think?

Usually, we see them in fall, and they are almost always in a weird place--in the bird bath, on the deck railing, climbing up the beige stone chimney (which I think looks like a sycamore trunk to them), and once inspecting the LEG OF A TRIPOD we were using!!

This one was in a pile beneath the studio window. Rats, rats, rats, rats. Please be OK.

Might as well give you a good preen and fluff while you're down for the count. I have a feeling we'll be taking some pictures of you. There's Bill's doghouse blind behind me. He was trying for some bathing beauties, but never dreamt he'd see by Bill Thompson III

Of course the first call that went out was for the kids to come see what the window had wrought. Ohhhhhh! What a pretty bird! Is he going to be OK?photo by BT3

Gradually, he began to come around, and realized that Zick's fingers were not where he wanted to be. He moved up into one of the birches, higher and higher. You would have to be the most beautiful warbler on the planet, wouldn't you? Do you like butter?

The next morning, we saw a yellow-throated warbler preening calmly in the top of that same birch. It was a strong coincidence, if coincidence it be. He was fine, healthy, with it, but unconcerned about us standing just below him, snapping pictures. Singing a few bars in between rearranging his feathers. I pray it was the same bird, ready to continue his migration south. Given the paucity of YTWA sightings here, it seems likely. In my experience, if a bird can grip with his toes and open his eyes immediately after impact, the foreseeable prognosis is better than if he can't. He's not singing here. He's still panting.Compare these photos with those taken of the bird we saw the next morning in the same birch tree. Pretty darn similar. But so delightful to see this bird preening,
stretching his wing and tail
scratching his throat with his little yellow-soled foot (note that the feet match the window-stunned bird's!)
and being devastatingly lovely.
I'm going to think it's the same little fellow. Chances are. It's two visitations from heaven, that's for sure. Take care and stay away from windows, little scrap of beauty.
Thanks to B. for letting me borrow your camera for the preening shots. I love that gargantuan fixed 300 mm. lens. I just don't love carrying it around.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stomach Wolves

The three children. Two are going to school this morning. One is staying home to try to make Mether laugh.

Around here, when observing less-than-optimal behavior, we toss around phrases like, "Were you born in a barn? Shut the door!" and "Use your fork! Were you raised by wolves?" We're joking, usually, trying to make a point. But it sinks in, and comes back out in interesting ways.

Liam was bemoaning the fact that his best friend in second grade, "Jeremy," won't play with him at recess. Instead, he collects pebbles on the playground, spending his time absorbed in this solitary pursuit.

"Well, honey, maybe he just needs to wind down at recess. Spend some time thinking his own thoughts."
Liam spooned some chocolate pudding in his little cakehole.
"Poor Jeremy. He was born in a rock's stomach."

This is the kind of observation that has earned Liam the title, "King of the Non Sequitur." And yet it made a perfect kind of sense.

Phoebe, who was helping me shell lima beans from the garden, cut her eyes at me and whispered,
"Raised by stomach wolves."

I laughed all the way through a big plastic bag of lima beans, and got them all shelled. They're so good I'm going to put them in a cream sauce for my little stomach wolves.
What would I do without my babies? They make me laugh .
First day of school, August 22, 2007.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Things that Move and Delight

Not many people are aware that tuberoses exist. Their robust fragrance is the basis of many perfumes, but who thinks about them, who grows them? They aren't grown for their beauty in the garden; they're grown simply for their scent. On the hoof, they don't look like much:Simple, strap-like leaves collapse in a heap at the base of the plant. Along about late July, they begin to send up their spikes, whose waxy tubular white flowers begin opening in the first week of August. Yes, the garden has gone to weeds, and to indigo buntings. That's all right. I can still find the tomatoes and limas and mizuma greens.

I stayed overnight at the beautifully preserved and tended home of a brilliant garden friend named Gordon Vujevic near Youngstown, Ohio several years ago. It was autumn, and Gordon gave me a room with a little white bed with an iron frame and an ivory chenille bedspread--the kind my grandmother and mom had. The room had high ceilings and wallpaper with a wildflower motif. There were old books on the shelf and a chamberpot on the mirrored dresser. And Gordon had put a vase of fresh-picked tuberoses on the nightstand. "If they get to be too much, you can move them out in the hall," he said. I inhaled their exotic fragrance, and said, "This could never be too much."

By 2 AM they were out in the hall. They were keeping me awake. That same fall, Gordon sent me a brown paper bag full of tuberose bulbs from his garden. They look like garlic cloves, but what wonder is locked inside them! and what a gift, that gives and gives.

This is a flower of the night, sending its chemical lure far out into the still moist air, aiming for big fat-bodied sphinx moths with their long tongues. It emanates its scent when darkness falls, and ceases at dawn. It is powerful. One flower can perfume a room. As I have become accustomed to the scent, and enjoy the wild dreams it brings me, I now keep eight or more flowers in a little vase by the bedside. When I stir in the night I get waves of fragrance. I've also got a poet's jasmine plant in the bedroom window, and I move that to the nightstand every evening. The mingled scents are intoxicating. I will miss them so when frost comes.

The jasmine will go into the greenhouse should it begin to sulk in the south window. The tuberoses I'll dig and store in the basement before the ground freezes. I'll break apart the clumps of clustered bulbs and plant them in long thin rows in May. This was my best year ever--ten bloom stalks from perhaps thirty bulbs. Soon I'll have enough to give away. But you don't give tuberoses to just anyone. You must give them to someone who understands.
This little Hall vase is perfect for tuberoses, almost as if it were designed to support them in water. Perhaps it was. People back in the 30's probably appreciated and grew tuberoses a lot more than we deskrats do today. I saw some in a vase at the natural foods store called Farmacy in Athens. The woman behind the counter noticed me noticing them. Our eyes met.
" Tuberoses!" I crowed.
"YES!" she crowed back. "Aren't they delightful?"
"Did YOU grow them?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
We compared notes on culture and agreed this was a splendid year for tuberoses. I encouraged her to break apart the clusters of little bulbs and plant them singly, whatever the garden books said. She said she would.

The nighthawks are still coming through. Like tuberoses, they're a late-summer delight. They fill my heart as they row over, white wing slashes flashing in the low autumnal light.
They look down on me with their liquid eyes, these strange bird angels. How I love them, and how I'll miss them when frost comes.
In December, I'll have been blogging for two years. Though at first I felt a strong temptation to write about anything, delightful or sad, that occupied my mind, that urge is gone. I can't and won't do that any more. Some flowers give out fragrance in the darkness; others close up, fold in on themselves. This old world keeps coming up with beauty and grace, in an abundance that staggers me. I keep going.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Crazy Mad Spa-ful of Birds

You'll have to believe me when I tell you this is not unusual. Two cardinals, an eastern bluebird, a tufted titmouse and a cedar waxwing, all bathing at once. The Word is Out on this bird bath, folks.

August at Indigo Hill is just flat-out ridiculous for birds. Especially when it's hot, and the fabulous Bird Spa is clean and bubbling away, and it's literally the only accessible water for about a mile around. It is deleriously, ridiculously good. I' ve been working on my book, perched on the drafting stool by the studio windows just so I can keep an eye on the Spa, and I barely get anything done for all the birds coming in to it. I spend much of the day dropping everything, grabbing the camera, talking to myself and laughing out loud at the things I see. Anyone who calls on the phone has to deal with the zip and zing of my camera shutter as I deploy it in the middle of a sentence. I don't care who's calling. If there's a pewee at the bird bath, they're going to have to listen to the camera.

It's hot out there, and when the birds get a load of that clean bubbling water, they literally start panting for it, like this lovely cedar waxwing. You can definitely see how that gape could handle a full-sized bing cherry.
There's really nothing I don't love about this bit of bird-attracting gear. It has it all--a capacious reservoir, a fairly easy-to-clean design, generous size, nice loud burbling sound, a powerful pump. The very best thing about it is the way it pulls woodland birds right into the yard; birds that wouldn't have anything to do with a feeder; birds that are simply thirsty and want to take a bath. Cedar waxwings, for instance, are not going to come to a feeder for any commercial food. They could be lured in with pokeberries, I suppose, but they aren't birds you can expect to come calling. And yet the Spa drives them nuts.

Take the eastern wood-pewee, a flycatcher related to the phoebe. (Take my pewee, please!) Ever see one of those at a feeding station? Not unless there's a bug he wants on it. But here he is, contemplating a quick sip or maybe a bath at the Spa right below him.
Same thing applies to red-eyed vireos. That's a mighty nice bird to see at eye level, from the comfort of your studio. When do you ever get to see pewees and vireos bathe? When you've got a recirculating bird bath in a sweet spot. I know, his eye doesn't look very red. That's another one of those bird names, like red-bellied woodpecker, that works better if you're a turn-of-the-century ornithologist examining a bird in the hand.

Notice how many times I've used the word "clean" in this post? That's because I've figured out that birds are infinitely more attracted to a freshly-scrubbed and filled bath than one that's got droppings and feathers floating around in it, or scuzzy algae covering it. They sit in the trees overhead, watching me give it its twice-weekly scrubbing with Ajax, sending me telepathic instructions.

You missed a spot over there on the bowl. There's still a patch of algae there.
Thank you, Mrs. Waxwing.
Are you done yet? Because I'd really like to take a bath now.
Going as fast as I can.
Would this cedar waxwing immerse those exquisite feathers in anything but a freshly-cleaned Spa? Nope, nor should she. And neither should Baby Wax. Awwww! Gotta love the striped onesie.
All photos, unbelievably enough, taken in a single afternoon, August 29, 2007. Weather sunny, humid, scraping 90 degrees. There are dozens more, but that's enough for one post. I am definitely going to melt my computer with all these pictures. And I just got back from the Washington County Fair, where there were fancy chickens and bunnehs and goats and plates of fried dough that looked for all the world like gutpiles. There. Used it on Sunday. Thanks for all your comments on the last one. Loved 'em.

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