Monday, December 31, 2007

Make a Joyful Noise

As you know, this tends not to be a timely blog. You're in the clutches of a blog ant, who stores up posts like wheat, writing when moved to write, and taking food out of the pantry when not. So it feels like an event for me when I've got any news, and actually get it together to do a post about it the next day.

The Swinging Orangutangs have done a bit of a phoenix trick, with a new lineup and a bunch of new material. Bill and I sat down at breakfast this morning and made a list of all the people we've played with in this band in the past 14 years. We've had five different drummers, six bass players, and four instrumentalist/vocalists in addition to the core members (Bill and me).

Bands are like gardens. Some years, certain things grow really well, and other years, other kinds of plants take over. Some incarnations of the Orangutangs have emphasized original music, such as was written and performed by Bill's talented brother Andy. Others have been dance/cover tune oriented. Some have been folkier. Others have been a little more kick-butt rawk.

Back in October '07 we needed to put some people together to play a benefit for the Colony Theater's renovation. Bill went to movies in the beautiful Colony Theater when he was a kid, but since then it's closed and fallen into peely, spooky, Phantom-of the-Opera style disrepair. So we've played music for ColonyFest for several years running to help raise money to resurrect it. We asked Clay Paschal, who's recently moved here from Indiana, to play bass...a growing buzz was out on him already in the local music community.
I can use only one word that accurately sums up his bass and rhythm talents: MONSTER. A tasty, melodic, unfailingly in-the-pocket monster. Last night at practice, I was playing "Empty Pockets," a fairly obscure fiddle tune, on my pennywhistle, and Clay began to whistle it, and then revealed that he plays whistle, fife, and has taught low brass (trombone and the like) in schools. Oh. One of THOSE people, those Stevie Wonder kind of people who can walk into a music store and pull anything off the wall and play it. Oh, and he's got a warped sense of humor, too.

Speaking of those people, here's Vinnie Mele, who has come out from behind the keyboard to play a guitar lead. He also plays sax and sings beautifully, like a crazy bird. Hilariously funny and ridiculously talented, Vincenzo brings a sparkle and dimension to our band that's addictive. And behind him is another natural wonder, Jessica Baldwin. Jess is a classically-trained voice teacher and pianist who teaches voice and directs choirs in a large local church. She has always wanted to branch out into pop and rock, but has never had an opportunity until now. Speaking of unleashing a monster...we're getting some four-part harmonies with Bill, me, Vinnie and Jess that literally bring me to tears. Jess has a lot to teach me about singing, and she's debuting Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good..." singing while playing its quirky, offbeat keyboard part. She brought The Weepies' "Gotta Have You" to our repertoire, and we're tremendously excited about the dimension and vocal beauty she adds. Warped sense of humor, check. It's kind of hard to see here, but she's got her hair wadded into two Mickey Mouse ears for last night's on-site rehearsal. Chet Baker LOVES Jess, and he spends most of our rehearsal time here at home sitting on her lap as she plays keyboard, his ears pasted back in doggie joy, gently farting into our airspace. He has become our band mascot, a role he embraces with zest. There is NOTHING Chet Baker loves more than band rehearsals. He hangs with us like the white on rice, going between my and Jess' laps, roo-rooing at Clay and Andy, playing tag with Vinnie, and pestering Bill, but mostly just digging the music. He is one music-loving doggeh.
Andy Hall is an incredibly tasty, artful, creative drummer, and it's a privilege to play with him. I have to use the M-word on Andy, too. Monster. He brings a world beat savvy to our music. Complexity is his friend, but not his overlord. He spans genres like most of us walk across sidewalk cracks. My favorite memory of Andy was about a decade ago, when we went to a bar in West Virginia to hear him play with a band called Pole. As blood began to seep from our ears, we grabbed napkins, tore them up and made little ear-tampons, which barely helped. At the break, Andy came out to greet us. We complimented him on his work, which was stunning. And ventured an opinion that it might be just a teeny bit loud. Andy looked thoughtful, smiled, rocked back on his heels, and nodded. "Pole's a loud band."I'm happy to say that the Swinging Orangutangs is not a loud band. For my fifth and final monster, I present band leader Guillermo "Guitarzan" Thompson. He's in a special kind of heaven right now, playing songs he's always wanted to play with a dream lineup. With Vinnie helping on rhythm and leads, Bill's freed to sing more and soar on his Strat, Creamy Delight. Ryan Adams, Wilco, Tom Petty, Talking Heads, and a bunch of crazy 70's disco stuff; we've fattened the repertoire by about 15 songs, and more keep flowing. There is a sense of energy and possibility about it all that is heady and intoxicating. Bill burns CD's for everyone, calls practice in our basement music room, makes chili, keeps the cold beers coming, and the band rolls along like a well-oiled monster truck. We have a New Year's Eve gig tonight, with tons of our friends coming. A team of friends has transformed a downtown building into Party Central. We've got three digital projectors and some kind of fourth gizmo throwing swirly psychedelic shapes on the walls, every Indian tapestry we own hanging up, strange fiber-optic lighting gadgets, food and bev's. Me, I'm a pig in mud. I looooove harmony singing, and I love having another woman to balance the testosterone swirling through our lineup. I haven't laughed this much in a year. Tonight, I'm taking a mirror with me, because I have to stand directly in front of Jess, Andy and Clay. You can't be turning your back on an audience, so I'm going to hold up the mirror and grin and make faces at them. We're going to hard. Every photo in this post was taken by our band photographer, Phoebe Linnea Thompson. She was fighting some bad odds--poor lighting and the tendency of musicians to block each other thanks to being crammed together with a bunch of homely equipment. Thank you, Phoebs.

Phoebe has been taking photographs and writing for a couple of years now, with increasing success. She usually works with a small Canon Powershot point-and-shoot, but she prefers my Rebel XTi (naturally). More and more, I lean on her for off-the-cuff photography assignments. It's wonderful to watch her blossom. Speaking of blossoming...Phoebe has a blog now! She's got mad blogging skilz, born of posting for me and Daddy when we're indisposed, and spending lots of time getting Macs to do what they were made to do, without her mother's fear of failure. I can guarantee lots of Chetfixes on Phoebe's blog, since those two are rarely found far apart. I told Phoebs she needed to do five good posts before I'd link to her, and she did five in one day. Acorn don't fall far from the tree. Go check it out, and give her a twinkle in the comments section!

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Waiting for Mr. Lewis

Bill and I have a thing for Lewis' woodpeckers, another dream-bird of our childhoods. For me, it's all tied to color. A green, pink, crimson and silver woodpecker. Who wouldn't dream of seeing that? But this creature looks and flies just like a crazy little crow, dressed up for Mardi Gras.
Last year, ever-resourceful BOTB found someone online through the New Mexico Rare Bird Alert who was kind enough to suffer a phone call to find out where we might see Lewis' Woodpeckers near Taos, New Mexico. He gave us exact directions to a road north of Arroyo Seco. We arrived there in mid-morning on a November 2006, and three Lewis' woodpeckers appeared out of nowhere as if called to cue.
This year, we trekked to the same spot, same grove of cottonwoods, but it was afternoon both times we went. No woodpeckers. Bill was uncharacteristically pessimistic. "They're gone. I know they're gone. It just doesn't feel right here."
I was uncharacteristically sunny. "I think they're morning birds. Let's give it a try tomorrow morning. I know they'll be here."
While we were waiting for the Godot woodpeckers, a compact falcon stormed overhead and fetched up in a cottonwood. I swung my lens up, sensing it was something good, and caught this:and then this:
A little adult male merlin. Yummm! Not a great shot, but diagnostic. We very rarely see blue adults back East.

Another dream-bird, one I haven't seen for at least five years, one I'd been pining for, showed up--an evening grosbeak, uncharacteristically all alone, like the merlin, thankfully masculine--oh, those colors!
Melting. Rapture. You wear your golden coronet well.As the sun set the second afternoon while we were waiting for Mr. Lewis, a shorebird flew in to the seep beneath the woodpecker's cottonwoods and landed with a harsh scraping cry in a grassy puddle. A common snipe! It allowed us to creep close and capture its onyx eye and creamy stripes. Perfect camouflage.At this point, I'd like to see a Lewis' woodpecker, but I'm pretty darn happy with all the other birds we've seen instead. Bill is more goal-oriented, and he was still fretting. A small band of sheep burst through an open gate, thundered across the road right next to us, and began to graze in the late afternoon light. Oooooooh. Sidelight. Zick: Clicketyclickyclickclick. Woodpeckers forgotten. I looove backlight. It doesn't get much better than this.

On our third try, in the bright morning sun, yaks grunting from the yurt next door, we rolled up, got out of the car, and a lone Lewis' woodpecker came flapping in, looking like a truncated crow. Ahhh. He lit in the top of a cottonwood, and promptly came down within lensrange, and commenced to preen for about a half-hour.
This is just a ridiculous bird. Silver, pink, green and crimson. OK. Who thought that up?
Over the next few days, Bill and I would stumble into Lewis' woodpecker Valhalla--apple orchards along a river not far from Embudo, New Mexico. We saw them fly over, land in the apple trees, exit the orchards with big chunks of frost-burned apple in their bills. One even flew over our rented adobe house in Arroyo Seco on the last morning we were there, while we were shooting pictures of tame magpies in the back yard. But this was to be our only opportunity to photograph one, and we grabbed it. Be sure to get my fluffy pink flanks in this shot. They are especially filamentous today.

Another magical sight while waiting fruitlessly for the woodpeckers: a crow against the rising moon.Not to be trite, but: I think one major secret to happiness is wanting what you've been granted, what you've already got. Pink, green and silver woodpeckers are just the marischino on top of the big, rapidly melting sundae sitting right in front of you. As a certain goal-oriented someone I love has told me (again and again and again): Life is good. Slurp it up.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Everyone have a good Christmas? Good. Us too. It was terrific, but I took the tree down today and spent the entire day finding homes for millions of little things we didn't know we wanted and probably didn't need. I feel like I've been putting things away for weeks on end. First, I was putting them away to clear the decks for the present orgy. And then I kept putting them away so we could move through the tree-dominated living room. And now I'm putting away a brazilian new things that are as yet uncategorized. Blaa. I'm tired of stooping down and picking up foam darts.
Shall we go back to New Mexico for a bit? Yes, let's! (As if you have a choice.)

Every once in awhile, I get into some country where I think I could live. I get this restless nomadic prospecting gene from my Australopithecus ancestors, no doubt, directly via my father.

My mom could hunker down and stay anywhere as long as it had good schools and grocery stores and she didn't have to move from there. My dad fretted and dreamed his life away, talking constantly about that place in the country he was going to buy. He promised me I could have a horse and chickens when we got it. I think I was the only kid of the five who believed it might eventually happen.

I'm not sure when it hit me that Dad was never going to get that place in the country. Maybe about 1981, when it became clear to me that now and forever, I had a choice about where I ended up. And from then on, it was deep in the country. Sure, it was housesitting and tenant caretaking for a decade, but it was in the woods and fields, where I knew I belonged, where I always felt my dad belonged. Dear Old Dad lived long enough to see us married, and to see us buy this farm in 1992. My brother-in-law said that watching D.O.D (as he always signed his typewritten letters) walk through our orchard, leaning on the cane he'd made, was the happiest he'd ever seen him. "He was plotzing," David said.

Our friend Paul Tebbell recommended we check out a valley near Embudo, NM, for a neat hike. So resourceful and imaginative friend Douglas got out some platte maps and Caroline got out her GPS unit and we caravaned into the most spectacular place this side of Magdalena. It was pretty tame on the approach, lots of orchards, peopled by those magical Lewis' woodpeckers. They were stealing huge chunks of frost-bitten apple and flying off with them. Yeahhh! Here's one sitting in a low apple, the siren drawing us to dash ourselves on the rocks. I'm still haunted by the possibilities of Lewis' woodpeckers amongst luscious apples.Bill and I desperately wanted to stop and capture some images, but we didn't want to get left behind, either, so we reluctantly pushed on. Good-bye, pink and green woodpeckers. We'll revisit you in a future post. This woodpecker is flying left to right. You can just make out his greasy green wings, pink breast and shining bill.
Had we known what wonders awaited, we wouldn't have felt so torn about leaving the orchards.. It wasn't long before we were traversing a valley that tore my heart wide open. It looked like a set Clint Eastwood might have chosen for Pale Rider.
We were looking for a certain branch road to a hiking trail, and we never found it. Well, we found it, and Caroline thought we should turn on it, but we pressed on instead. I just wanted to stop right HERE and stay for oh, say a decade or so. I could paint these mountains, hills, buttes, mesas...I could just look at them.

My fantasy bubble was pricked by the pin of reality when we passed a small driveway with a Sotheby's realty sign next to it. Oh. Yeah. That. I guess it would be expensive to live in a place that looks like a Pale Rider movie set. Duh.

I should have figured other people would be enchanted by this landscape, too.

Before long we broke out into the little settlement called Ojo Sarco. It looked like a place I could live, if I didn't have this neurotic need to grow lush flowers and have orchids on every windowsill. Lush flowers and orchids hate 13% humidity. Like my naturally wavy hair, they lay down and die in 13% humidity.
But a girl can dream, and oh, I do, I do. You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.Yeah, I'd be puttin' goat skulls on my adobe, and I'd be sellin' crystals by the side of the road. But I would add alpacas.

Another dreamscape. It's the spine of a Stegosaurus, in rock. Take me back here somehow, someday.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Frosty Morn

Well, it's Christmas eve, and Bill and I got up to pre-assemble some of Liam's things at around 6 AM. We got 'r dun, thinking it was much preferable to be rooting around with 8 tiny screws and Allen wrenches on Christmas eve morning than Christmas eve night. I have a few more things to wrap, some beds to wash and make, and a good woods lope with Chet to take before church and family this evening.

I wanted to leave you with some images from a morning after a mass of humid air was replaced by some cold Canadian air, growing hoarfrost on everything. One of the things I love about photography is that it makes you realize how rare and special such events are. It makes you seek out beautiful light and appreciate it in a way you wouldn't, were you not trying to capture it. It makes you see beauty in an entirely different way--as fleeting but palpable. It gives you a way to catch it and keep it.Every weekday morning, weather permitting, we walk the kids out to the end of our driveway. The cow pasture across the road, which becomes a hayfield in spring, has a different mood each day. Shivering in frost, its rainpool frozen solid, it was a moody study in rose and dove-gray this icy morning.

I loved the way the warm morning sunlight played over oak leaves, rimmed with frost.Phoebe called me over to see a pattern she'd found, where ice crystals had etched the mud in the turnaround. Good Phoebe.
More leaves, more frost. Hoarfrost.Baker and I walked slowly back, savoring the changed scene, everything glazed with sugar.A little piney Christmas card for you.The closed baskets of Queen Anne's lace, gone to seed. That plant is really good at seeding itself. I wonder if the seeds shake out of the basket one by one as the wind whips them back and forth. Must see what happens to them as spring approaches. Maybe they're holding their seeds up out of the reach of mice and birds until they're ready to drop them. Knowing plants, I'm sure there's a plan in it somewhere.
Black raspberry on ice.Baker hears a rustle in the grass.I keep looking at raspberry leaves.The meadow beckons. Walk or hot tea inside? I chose tea. Now, I wish I'd walked. Given a choice, I hope you walk. You can make tea any time. Hoarfrost only comes a few times a year.It's always out there, but it's up to us to turn toward it, whether for solitude, reflection, strength, courage, inspiration, exercise, wonder, spiritual fulfillment, joy, or any combination of those.

I love the quote Nina uses to head off her lovely blog, Nature Remains.
So I'll borrow it, because it's at the heart of why I turn to nature again and again.

"After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on-and have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear...what remains? Nature remains." --Walt Whitman

May you turn toward it at every chance in 2008.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

The Other Side of Eden

One of my commentaries aired on All Things Considered on Friday, December 21. It's not the cheeriest, but if you'd like to listen in, go here.
And then go look at Chet and Oona again.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

W.C. Fields Hates This Post

I can't believe you guys are pestering me for another Chetfix. You cannot turn this blog into a dogblog, no matter how hard you try. There are plenty of people blogging about their dogs nonstop. I try to mix in things like snow geese and pinyon jays, plants and art, whether you like it or not. But, since it is about to be Christmas, and because it is also the winter solstice, and it's so darned depressing to have it get dark at 5:00, I will give you a little present: a Chetfix. With an Oonafix for those who find tiny humans appealing. Freebase it, mainline it, whatever you have to do, but here it is.

Every once in awhile, my friend Margaret gets in a bind when she has to be somewhere where Oona can't be. Like when she's elected foreman of a Grand Jury, one of the perils of being too smart. I have no doubt that Oona behaves better than most citizens who have been drafted to drop their lives and report to court, but she wouldn't like it as much as she likes Camp Zick. For one thing, there are strange new foods to try, like goat cheese. For another, there are baskets of toys that aren't old hat. There are two older children who fight over her and think everything she does is adorable (which it is). One is a little boy who can make her belly laugh. There is an aquarium to watch, and there's a surrogate mama, who loves her all up and does funny odd things, dances with her and sings songs about nothing, and kisses her about a thousand times a day.For me, taking care of Oona is a prescription for exactly what I need. I can't bury myself in work when she's here. I can't run up and down the stairs a million times doing laundry. I can't get lost in writing some tangled essay or take off on an Internet safari. I have to be absolutely present, live from moment to moment, hang out, cuddle, mess around and snorgle her. I will tell you that she's the sweetest baby since Phoebe Linnea, and I flash back constantly when I'm around her. It's tough work, but somebody has to do it when Margaret's busy.**

**All due respect to sweet sweet Liam, thanks to chronic ear infections and possible lactose intolerance, he was not a top seed in the running for World's Easiest Baby.

And the prime attraction of Camp Zick: Chet Baker. Oona has a very nice cat at home, named Edgar (who she calls Egger or Nenner), who loves Oo and lets her pat and stroke him. Baker is a tad more interactive, as you'll see. Oona responds strongly to pictures of Chet, and gives a gutteral series of barks when she and Margaret read my blog. She's gonna love this one! It's so cool for me to be able to watch Chet and Oona interact. We've had the pleasure of her company for several entire days, and he is transported with delight when she arrives. What's interesting is that he clearly considers himself in charge of her. And not just in spurts, but every minute she's with us. He supervises her. He places himself in front of her, whichever way she's trying to move. He walks along with her as she crawls, as if bound by an invisible harness. He seems to be worried she'll get into some kind of trouble. When she crawled over to look out the window, Baker was convinced she'd somehow get the door open and fall off the 12' deck. So he stuck with her like the white on rice.You're here. You're always here. I might as well pat you.

Well, you are not a very trustworthy small small baby, and you might fall off the deck. So yes, I am here, and I like to be patted. Just do not try anything dangerous.

Oona loves to stand on the couch and watch me in the kitchen. Chet is worried she'll fall off, maybe suddenly levitate and pitch over the back of it. He does not trust that baby farther than he can throw her.
She can get up and down by herself now, but he doesn't quite buy it. So little CatDog vaults up to supervise.
Oo is a good kisser, if you like baby piranha kisses--open mouthed, slobbery and a bit toothy. I happen to like them. Here, she moves in on Chet.You are not kissing properly. Kisses should be done with the tongue. Let me show you.That wasn't so bad, actually. I might get another one of those.

Chet also brings Oona a steady stream of toys--his very favorites--to share. She is less than impressed with his gutted Floppables, and pushes him away. That doesn't stop him from trying to engage her. You seem to be getting new teeth, and I know that hurts. Chew this cat. It helps.

On the rare occasions when Chet goes off duty, Oona seeks him out. Here she is on her way to crawl into bed with him.
Or should I say "crawl into beds with him?" Chet has four beds, and when it's cold we stack them so he sleeps in a big tower of softness.

A Jedd is in bed
And the bed of a Jedd
Is the softest of beds in the world, it is said. He makes it from pompons he grows on his head.
He's sleeping right now
On the softest of fluff
Completely exhausted from growing the stuff.

Dr. Seuss' Sleep Book, a book that makes me yawn uncontrollably, just like it did to Mom when she read it to me.

Cute doggie, I like playing with you.
And I like playing with you, cute human baby thing.Sometimes you stick too close to me, and then I tell you to back off! Because I can do more than you think I can do. Mether. Isn't she the cutest small baby you have ever seen? She thinks she can take care of herself. It is a very good thing I am here to make sure nothing bad happens to her. You told everyone I was a bad daddy. But that one I chewed up was a fake one, and this is a real real babeh, and I am the best at taking care of her.Merry Christmas!

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

For All The Stinkers on Your List

...the perfect gift.

I met a woman named Diane in New Mexico. She's had Flower since she (the skunk) was one day old. Flower's pretty imprinted on people, and unreleasable, so she's the ideal education skunk for The Wildlife Center. Ooh, I'm jealous. I've always wanted to raise a skunk or two.

Diane just sent me some pictures of Flower checking out Letters from Eden. Just a reminder for all you folks looking for that perfect after-Christmas, anytime gift...I'll sign it for you.This time last year I was taking garden cartloads of boxed books to the Whipple post office. And I wondered why I had no time to Christmas shop or wrap presents or do anything but paddle madly to stay afloat...I'm thrilled not to be handling a holiday rush on book sales. Almost 800 individually-signed and boxed copies later, I've had my fill of fulfillment for awhile.

Just got in from recording three more NPR commentaries in Athens, and leisurely shopping for stocking stuffers. What a blast. I never do stuff like that. Had a nice Reuben at a diner and did some people watching; saw a college girl in a long black trenchcoat, rainbow scarf, Raggedy Ann striped tights and dreadlocks skip across the street. That was cool, something I don't get to see every day. I used to skip, too, when I wasn't rolling along on red Krypto skatewheels.

Thanks for the pictures of sweet Flower, Diane. You made my day. Mustelids rule!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Pinyon Smoke

My domain's been down all day. Sorry if you haven't been able to access the blog. I've had lots of Internet gremlins working overtime to make life interesting lately. Blaaa.

Here's a picture for you. A little blog ant, tucked into her Ohio studio on a cold gray winter day. Over her head on the wall hangs a barbed-wire heart, fashioned by her husband in Magdalena, just a year ago. She's lit a piece of pinyon incense and is immediately transported back to the wild open spaces of New Mexico, carried on the wings of nostalgia for a time only a few weeks past. She's thinking about pinyon jays.

Pinyon jays are one of those species that grabbed my imagination as an eight-year-old and never let go. I just couldn't fathom a large jay that was entirely, unequivocally blue. All the jays I'd ever seen had white and black on them. Mountain bluebirds did the same thing for me. All blue, all over. I dreamt of one day seeing them. Twenty-six years would pass before I'd lay eyes on either. They were worth the wait. For you, a tired male mountain bluebird, just arrived from Montana, maybe, in the agricultural fields along Rt. 1 south of Socorro, New Mexico, resting on a sun-warmed rail.
Look at the length of the wing and tail--the small-headed, big-chested, streamlined grace of this bird, in contrast to the chunky Eastern bluebird. These are long-distance migrants, making their way from the Canadian prairies all the way to Texas for the winter. They are built for open spaces, able to hover and forage where there may be few or no perches. They're built for flight. And their heavenly cerulean is theirs alone--not found on any other bluebird.

Another blue bird: Pinyon jays are closely tied to the pine that shares their name, feeding on the meaty seeds that they extract from cones with their long needlenose plier bills. Little blue crows, they are.Like most birds that feed on an abundant but patchily-distributed resource, pinyon jays travel in flocks, looking for the next bonanza. They are very happy to exploit feeders, though, taking great gullets-full of sunflower seeds and peanuts to cache and enjoy later. They come in a dull-blue blizzard, all at once, with nasal, querulous cries, nyak nyak! and leaving just as suddenly, flooooof!
They swarm over every surface, happily ingesting seeds--not eating just yet, just squatting and gobbling, building up a store of food to cache elsewhere. You' ve probably banged on the window at a blue jay doing the same thing at your feeder. Greedy? Nope. Just planning ahead, one of the hallmarks of intelligent life. maybe a little bit like a blog ant...tee hee all you bloggin' grasshoppers
There comes a point where the bird must tip its head back to get that last seed tossed back into the expandable gular pouch. I love the background color here. New Mexico is colorific.
My friends Paul and Barb Tebbel fed the pinyon jays for a couple of weeks before I arrived to spend the night at their wonderful place outside Espanola, New Mexico. They wanted to be sure the jays would appear on cue when I woke up. Now those are good friends. I crept out their side door and flattened myself against the house to get the sun at my back. It was a crisp cold morning, and the air smelt of pinyon smoke, just as it does here in my studio, and I waited motionless for the jays to return, grabbing images as greedily as they took seeds.
Thank you, Paul and Barb, and thank you, beautiful dream-jays. Your feathers match the mountains of Arroyo Seco, I notice, but you already knew that.
The aptly-named Pinyon Road in Arroyo Seco. Who designed this state, whose colors harmonize so beautifully with her birds and animals? Whoever it was, sure wuz intelligent.

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Elsewhere Around the Farm

An albino house sparrow that hangs with the flock of about a hundred around Pipe Dreams Farm. Cute, yeah, but I wouldn't want to put up a bluebird house within a mile of there. That's something I'll have to figure out when I become a goat farmer--what to do with all the house sparrows that eat the spilled feed and pick grain out of their manure.

The farm kitchen at Pipe Dreams--a long, long board table, soft light coming from the windows, glazing the old wood.
Here, we had a sumptuous meal of grilled steaks and salad. The lettuce was hydroponically grown by a friend; Brad had gotten the beef from his next door neighbor: Jersey steers. Think about it: the dairy industry can only use heifers. That means that every bull calf born gets castrated and raised for beef. But we don't, as a rule, get to taste the meat of an uncommon dairy breed like a Jersey, which gives the highest butterfat milk of all of them.

I have eaten several country-club filet mignons recently, and I can say that these Jersey sirloins were far superior. More tender, infinitely tastier. Knowing that they were raised right next door, on open pasture, humanely and without steroids and antibiotics, was good. I envy Brad and Jenny's association with their farming community. All their eggs, meat and milk comes from neighbors, or their own farm. How I would love to be able to live like that, buying our food direct from the producers. Maybe we'll finish cleaning out that old chest freezer and get serious about buying local.

These Berkshire hogs are in the back field at Pipe Dreams, being raised for meat. They were spooky and skittish, in marked contrast to the goats. Brad thought that it was due to some early experience, because he'd had other Berkshires who were very confiding. He said, though, that he doesn't try to get to know his hogs. "You have a different relationship with an animal you're going to eat. You can get attached to an animal you're milking."
I would have to stay waaay away from these hogs. One touched me with its wet pink snout. The rest seemed to suspect me of being the pork fan that I am. But the goats, the goats. I was free to fall in love.
Maybe this nanny will make it onto my next Zickefoose Wine label. That's all the goat posts. We're going back to New Mexico, at least in a virtual sense, this week. I've got some pretty birds saved up to show you.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Making Goat Cheese

Welcome back to the final chapter of our foray into the world of goats and their cheese. Oh, I've had fun with this one. Here is the Fort Knox of goat cheese. Ye gods.

In the third chamber of the dairy, behind the cooling room, is the cheese making room. Each room smells different, and this one has the most intriguing smell of all. Here, the milk goes directly from the teats into a stainless steel pasteurizer, which heats it, using kilocalories from the two biggest water heaters I've ever seen. They were like 7' high. Then, it goes into a huge cooling tank, where it's stirred with a big paddle until it's cool enough to add cultures. From there, it goes into two big open vats, where cheese cultures (live bacteria) and rennet (an enzyme from calf stomachs, that curdles milk) are added. Brad told me that milkweed sap contains rennet, too, but he uses calf rennet. Brad learned to make goat cheese in a lengthy apprenticeship in France, right after college. He was Bill's roommate! and what fun they had. Brad lives life in the moment, and his letters read like the musings of an unself-conscious beat poet. I don't know anyone with a fresher take on life.

The yellow liquid floating atop the curd is whey. These two vats hold the milk from seven milkings of Brad's goats. At certain times of year, Brad buys milk from other goat farms, and brings it in to augment his. His goats are drying up now, and he's about to take a break from milking and cheesemaking so he and the family can go visit at Christmas time.
The goats are all color-coded with spray paint. Orange means a goat is being milked once a day; green means twice. Blue means a goat is dry. When correlated with the numbered tags around their necks, each goat can be identified and given a milking regime specific to its hormonal stage. Goats freshen, or begin lactating a whole lot, when kids are born, but they can also be milked about four months into their pregnancy. A goat needs to keep producing kids in order to keep lactating, just like a dairy cow. That's where those billies come in. Back to the cheese room:
When the curd sitting in those vats is the right consistency, it's put into forms made of plastic. These forms, richly perforated with holes, need to be washed by hand every time they're used--a time-consuming prospect. There are cones and tubes and pyramids, as well as little flat tubs for the fresh goat cheese. Fresh cheese from Pipe Dreams Fromage is like whipped cream cheese from heaven. There is nothing like it. It's almost foamy. Put it on a good cracker maybe with a cherry tomato fresh from the garden, a little basil leaf...oh, heaven can wait.All the different types of cheese start with the same curd; what differs is the time they're allowed to age, and in some cases the type of cheese culture added to the curd.
When the cheese starts to form a skin, it's put in the ageing room, which is a little dim chamber off the cheesemaking room. It's cool in there, just right, moist...the cheese ages quietly on baker's racks, making a fabulous, Brie-like skin. Molds help with that.
Brad rolls some of the cheeses in ash. My favorite is the "Ashy Log," 11 oz. of pure heaven. It's salty and tangy and when it's dried out a bit, it's about the texture of a good hard Parmesan. Fresh, like the one I'm enjoying now, it's like a cross between cream cheese and hard cheddar in consistency. The skin is rumpled and ashy. White mold grows over the black ash, and it's all delicious. I allow myself one visit to the Ashy Log in the door of my fridge every afternoon. I stand all alone at the kitchen counter, eating goat cheese on whole grain flaxseed crackers, and making little umm umm umm noises. Nobody else in my house likes it. That much more for me.

One of the reasons some people don't like goat cheese is its smell. That smell comes from caproic acid, the carboxylic acid derived from hexane with the general formula C5H11COOH (although I also found it as C6H12COOH). It is a colorless oily liquid with an odor reminiscent of goats or other barnyard animals. This fatty acid is found naturally in various animal fats and oils, and is one of the chemicals that gives the decomposing fleshy seed coat of the ginkgo its characteristic unpleasant odor. Well. I've smelled a ginkgo tree in fall, when the fruits are lying underfoot, and I can tell you that goat cheese smells nothing like THAT.

So yeah, our fridge smells weird, but I'll take care of that as soon as I finish the second Ashy Log. It's worth it, at least to me. Bill tells me that his desire to get another beer is significantly compromised by it. Well, isn't that a good thing?

Goat's milk is rich in fats containing the 6-, 8-, and 10-carbon acids (caproic, caprylic, and capric acids, respectively; these names are all derived from the Latin root caper, meaning goat). These fat globules are smaller than those in cow's milk, one of the things which makes goat milk so much easier to digest. Brad told me that the composition of goat milk varies according to the time of year, and this time of year it's higher in calcium. All of this affects how it ages, and it's harder to age cheese in the winter. So the cheese is softer now than it was earlier in the year.Brad sells almost all his goat cheese in the Washington/Baltimore area, where area chefs quickly snap it up. I'd love to be able to tell you that you can order it online, but that's not in the cards just yet. My siblings have all reported back that they received their shipment, and are enjoying it. Zickefooses should be eating goat cheese***

Speaking of snapping up goat cheese, here's Oona and her mom Margaret, sampling both the Ashy Log aged cheese and the fresh curd.
There's not much Oona won't eat, it's true, but she moved in for more fresh cheese the moment she got a load of it. It was clear she dug it hugely. Sweets for the ultra-sweet. Dig those ears on her bonnet.

Here's to Brad and Jenny and Pipe Dreams Farm, to ancient crafts studied in France and brought over intact to Pennsylvania, to fresh curd and the Ashy Log, to sustainable farming, and to goats everywhere.
***Did you say your name was Zickefoose? You know that means "goat's foot," auf Deutsch, don't you?

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Authors of It All

A Saanen billy tries to get Phoebe to come a little closer. Don't do it, Phoebe!

Quite a strong odor emanated from the billy goats, who were penned separately at some distance from the dairy building. The beard in a billy goat is a potent scent distribution system. He puts various umm... fluids on his beard, and anoints his back and chest with it. I'm told that some French cheesemakers use the billy's beard to swipe through their cheeses for extra authentic flavor. I hope it isn't true. It certainly isn't true of Pipe Dreams Fromage.

The goats at Pipe Dreams Farm are all Swiss Saanan goats, named for the valley in Switzerland where they originated. They're big, tall, usually white animals, and they're the champs for milk production: the Holsteins of the goat clan. An Australian Saanan doe produced 7,714 pounds of milk in a single year. Their milk is sweet and odorless. Goat milk is more easily digested than cow's milk, because the fat globules are smaller and more easily dispersed. It's good for babies, small children, the elderly, and anyone with allergies to cow's milk, or a compromised immune system. But mostly, it's really, really good for cheese.

Brad told me that Saanens come in white, and that the brown ones used to be culled. Now, though, they're calling brown Saanens "Sables" and actually selecting for color. It's silly, when all that really matters is their sweet temperament and great milk production. I just couldn't believe what nice animals these goats were. They seemed so happy to see us, as friendly as dogs, but with a delightful, gentle reserve. Good thing. You wouldn't want a goat jumping up on you.

This billy is a sable Saanen. Here's another sable Saanen in the lower right corner of the picture:
This is a group of kids that squeeze under the fence and lead little goat parades around the farm, free of confinement. Goats will go out of their way to climb on strange, treacherous, high, odd things, and they're great fun to watch. Games of King of the Mountain spontaneously begin and end. In stark contrast to horses, they don't hurt themselves very often. You could never allow horses to mess around things like this.

I can attest that both billies were very sweet, and did not pee on me. Brad said this was probably because it's not breeding season now. He said they will try to pee on you if they succeed in luring you close enough. Nice. And I thought spitting llamas were a drag.Do I look like someone who would pee on a person? Don't believe the bad press Farmer Brad hands out. I wish I could get my horns through this fence so I could whisper in your ear.

I love this big nanny goat with UglyDolls on her black coat. Goats and weathered barns, ahhh ahhh ahhh.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Chet Baker is Three!

Today is Chet Baker's third birthday. I can't believe it. Three years ago today, I was absolutely popping with the knowledge that our puppy had been born. I had thought to keep the secret until Christmas, but as Chili Bean's pregnancy wore on, I popped, too, and told the kids, and they were in on the e-mails flying between me and Jane about the labor and birth. Only two puppies were born, and Chet was the big one. We had second pick of the litter, which meant that we got whichever puppy the first-comers didn't pick. It was a glorious and life-altering day when Jane e-mailed to tell us that the fat puppy with less white on his face was ours.

In honor of Chet's birthday, I will post a series of SnowDog photos. They seem to capture Chet's vitality and humor, as well as his blinding speed. This is a pretty shot. The conditions were tough, with very low light, so the pictures are blurry, but I like the strength and thrust of this pose.

He left a rooster tail of snow wherever he sped. I love this photo, the composition with the green toboggan.

A Santa's beard of snow on my puppeh as he banks around a turn.
Reveling in his speed, he schusses around the garage. He's his own canine snowmobile.
Joy shows in every line as he picks up speed and comes right at the photographer.The next three photos show Baker in full SnowGoogle.

Nobody grins like a Boston terrier.

Wait! There might be mice under the snow.
It's a good excuse to catch my breath, anyway.
The difference between Baker at three and Baker at one is that his snow-frisking periods are vastly shorter now. Boston terriers were not blessed when the Lord handed out fur coats. Chet has about the cold tolerance I do, stark naked. It wasn't long before the photo session was over; Chet skidded to a halt at the front door and stood, shivering, waiting for me to let him in.
I draped my parka over him and he settled down for a long winter's nap.
Happy birthday, sweet Chet Baker. We love you, Miracle Dog.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Goat #43

Playing King of the Mountain on a pile of coolers. Goats love to get up on things.Goat #43 is, I believe, the highly personable creative genius behind the small band of jailbreakers who roam Pipe Dreams Farm, slipping under the fences and getting into all kinds of goaty mischief. Although just a kid, #43 is smart and sassy and very, very sweet.
She kept approaching me, just wanting attention. Her horns were startlingly warm in the chill winter air, a detail I always forget about until I'm around goats. I guess there's blood supply in horns, because they bleed if they're broken or cut.

It wasn't long before I got down to #43's level and gave her some proper lovin', including nose by Phoebe Linnea Thompson
I could really get into keeping goats, if I could figure out a way that it was compatible with traveling oh, nearly constantly. Maybe I could be a nomad, and drive my goats up the jetway with a stick, just take them along. It's a thought. I'll have to check the by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

A goat, I think, is much like a dog, except that it gives useful milk.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

In the Milking Parlor

On our way back through Pennsylvania, we stopped to visit old friends in Greencastle. Sometimes you hear people talk about starting a goat farm. Brad and Jenny really did it, about 16 years ago.
Pipe Dreams Farm is an unpreposessing looking place. It's not hi-tech, nor is it shiny and new. It's comfortable and alive and friendly and interesting. Seventy-five animals live here quite happily. Brad takes the flock on walks through the surrounding woods to vary their lives, and their diet. They follow him because they know and trust him.

I adore this little dairy, which is the only new building on the farm. Bill and I and some music friends from Baltimore played a housewarming gig there the year it was built, 1991, if I'm not mistaken.It was designed by Jenny, who is an architect. Our friend Richard, also an architect, helped to build it. Richard designed our tower.

photo by James R. Hill III

Brad and Jenny's son Sam leads Liam up the ramp to the milking parlor. I love the eagerness on Sam's face, and the utter trepidation on Liam's. He's never pretended to be a goat before, but he's game. When he enters the milking parlor and the pungent scent of goat hits him, he staggers a bit but keeps true to the game. Since Liam has a supremely sensitive nose, I was very proud of my boy.
They're pretending to be goats, making horns. Brad swats them with a stick to keep them moving.
Once inside the milking parlor, the goats stand on an elevated concrete catwalk.
Brad tethers Dairy Goat Liam to the bar with a chain, and he sets to his feed.
The feed is a coarse sweet feed, with whole grains and roasted soybean meal. Roasted soybeans get the protein farther down the digestive tract to the abomasum, the fourth and last chamber of the stomach, also known as the "true" or "glandular stomach." This helps boost milk production. Goats don't like roasted soybeans, though (it was a revelation to me that there is anything goats don't like, since I watched them gnawing on my clothes and some poison ivy vines outside) so the feed producers add molasses and other flavor enhancers to the feed to get them to eat it.The goats eat happily while they're hooked up to the milking machines. Six can be milked at once in the parlor. When they're done, they exit via a small door at the top of the ramp, and another shift comes in to be milked.
In high milking season, the milk runs through a pipe into the next room, into a big stainless steel cooling tank, where a paddle stirs it. This is the pipe that shunts it into the tank. There are filters in the pipe to keep any dirt from getting in the milk.
This time of year, though, when they're just about to dry up, the 40 or so goats still producing aren't giving enough milk to get deep enough for the cooling tank paddle to reach it, so the milk runs into clean 5-gallon joint compound buckets in the cooling room. Here are Brad's notes to his two employees:
They include a note about one goat's bloody teat, something that needs to be attended to. Each animal is numbered, though I suspect they also get names.
More about the personalities of goats in my next post.

This Christmas, my siblings all got mysterious Styrofoam coolers stuffed full of fresh Pipe Dreams Farm goat cheese for Christmas. I know my three sisters, like me, are nuts for it. Haven't heard yet from my brother...Goat cheese is something you either love or you don't love, like cilantro. You have to feel sorry for people who don't love it.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Gallery Tours

On Saturday, December 1, gallery tours at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art started early. I'd never led a gallery tour. I gathered that I was supposed to go from painting to painting, talking about them. So that's what I did.
photo by Bob Zickefoose
There are so many stories behind paintings, especially when they're done from live creatures, that it wasn't hard to do. I had about ten minutes in between by Bob Zickefoose
My brother Bob and sister-in-law Bonnie drove up from Virginia, too, and it was so great to see them. Bob reminds me so much of my dad that I had to duck out of the tour for a couple of minutes to compose myself. It's funny how people live on in their children, and beautiful, too. That simple fact knocked the wind out of me. There was Dad. I mean Bob. I gave him my camera and he took about 50 pictures, glad to be given a job. That's a Zickefoose by Bob Zickefoose

I'm pretty sure that Chet Baker is the only dog who's ever set foot in the Ned Smith Center gallery. It's a nice gallery. Dogs aren't allowed. But over the course of the weekend, Baker wormed his way into the hearts of the staff and board of directors (who already loved dogs anyway), and because there were so many blog readers present and paying for the tours, it was decided to allow Chet in the gallery to meet them. Nobody objected to his puppyish affection. Here, he pesters Derek, the all-purpose graphics and computer dude at the Center, who is trying to videotape the tour. Derek is a big-dog guy, a Lab guy. But he "gets" little dogs now, thanks to Chet. I think he likes Chet a whole lot. Here, he looks like he's worried I'll drop by Bob Zickefoose

Being "on" for an entire weekend isn't easy for me. I can do it, and find myself working festivals where I have to be "on" for field trips and keynotes and signings and meeting people. But it's an effort, because I spend so much time alone. It was great to have Bill and the kids there to keep me grounded, even though I couldn't spend much time with them. Baker was there for me, and being able to cuddle him and just inhale his scent truly helped get me through. Thanks so much, Ned Smith Center, for understanding just how vital Chet Baker is to me, and making room for him, too. He's like my mental health guide dog. I understand that there are some people trying to make a case that they have to have their dogs with them at all times, because the dogs prevent panic attacks. So, like, they have to have Fluffy on the plane or they'll go all postal. Hmmm. Mental health therapy dogs. It's a scam I could work. Baker's essential.
When I wasn't meeting people, I was busy at a little work station in the Center's office, cranking out color remarques on books for special donors and sponsors of the show. See Baker curled up on his chair?

I got a little carried away on this one. It was for someone who had bought the chance to commission a special remarqued copy of my book at the silent auction. The gentleman loves box turtles. I do, too. I've found that the flannel-textured endpapers of Letters are much better for painting on than the title pages. Painting on coated stock is like painting with a banana on glass. Lotsa cussing.

Chet Baker commandeered a seat in the Center's office, right by a window where he could watch for me coming and going. He kept me company while I worked, and circulated the office for pats and hugs. It has never occurred to Chet that he might not be allowed on furniture wherever he goes. He is blissfully innocent of such rules, a perfect little heathen, but a clean one. He does not really know he's a dog. He thinks he's part of the social scene. I can't imagine where he got that idea. Give Chet a table with chairs, and he'll claim one right away.Mether. Are you almost done? I am popping. Take me out for a walk, please!

Saturday afternoon, after the gallery tours and book signing, I gave a two-hour seminar on how I paint. Well, sort of about was more about why I paint. There was some brass tacks instruction, but it was really more about how I learn about birds and animals, and how that comes out in the paintings and drawings. I figure you can learn about mixing colors in any book. My family and friends stayed for it. That was the most I could have hoped for. photo by Bill Thompson, III

There was another book signing afterward. Kathy B. requested a Baker pawdyprint in her book. Baker hates doing that, but he was a gemmun about it. (Dogs hate to have their paws handled.) Look at that face. Mether. Must I?
Yes, you must. We all sacrifice for art. photo by Bill Thompson, III

He loves Kathy, and spent a lot of time on her lap, and that of her husband. At first, he thought the Center's office was some kind of fancy kennel, and he cried a little bit when we left him there. Then he figured out that Mether would be dropping in regularly for visits, and got into the swing of things. I think the Center needs a staff Boston. Just as a greeter. I realize that not everyone is going to take my suggestion, but I'm just sayin'.photo by Bill Thompson, III

One of the great highlights of the weekend was a visit from Chet's breeder, Jane, who hadn't seen her boy since February 17, 2005. Oh, oh, oh. It was so wonderful to see her again. She couldn't take her eyes off Baker. Little wonder; he had his Velcro bow tie on and looked verra dapper. We took him outside, and he struck a pose looking for bunnehs, and Jane blurted, "He stacks so nice!!!"

I swear he remembered Jane--he certainly remembered the smells on her shoes! But as Jane says, "Bostons never met a stranger." So it's hard to tell if he remembered her, or if he was just being his effusive self.
photo by Bill Thompson, III

How much joy this woman has brought into our lives, and the lives of so many, with her power-packed black-and-white capsules of love and hilarity! Thank you, Jane. Love you. BFF.

Thus ends the report on the show. I have to admit, it took some nudging from people for me to write this up. There is something in me that shies away from self-promotion. It makes me feel icky. I'd so much rather hole up with a computer and my drawing table, and just make some product. Cranes and woodpeckers are so much more interesting to write about. But thanks to the folks who emailed me to ask about the show, gently urging. Done now. On to the real work.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

My Show of Shows

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson
All right, then. About the show in Pennsylvania. I hadn't had a one-woman show since 1993, upon moving here to Ohio. There were about 70 works in it. I took it to two venues, one in Marietta, and one in Parkersburg, WV, and I sold two small works. And decided that was enough of that. I folded my showtent.

This one was different. It wasn't my idea; it was the idea of people who think a lot bigger. Scott Weidensaul, who is on the board of the Center, asked if I'd like to do a show there, and I didn't hesitate to say yes. The Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art knows how to put on a show. That's what they do. So all I had to do was get our good friend John to frame about 60 pieces, and the Ned Smith Center did the rest, including some fabbo signage, labels, and even outtakes from the text of Letters from Eden, right there on the walls along with the art. They hung it in their beautiful gallery and invited a bunch of people, and the people came. They planned a huge Friday night gala/auction at the Harrisburg Country Club, with a keynote by me (including music with Bill); on Saturday, two gallery tours, a book signing, and a two-hour art seminar. There were radio and television interviews, newspaper articles, and 170 books to sign (and a bunch to paint original color remarques in). It was different from my show in 1993. It was a whole lot different from that.

David Sibley showed at the Ned Smith Center last year, and had a wonderful series of events. When asked whether he'd ever had a weekend show like that one, I'm told he said, "Well, I've given talks, and led field trips, and had book signings, and done gallery tours. But not all at one time." That's a wonderful little Sibleyism, and it mirrors my experience, by Bill Thompson, III

It was so strange to walk into the august surroundings of the Harrisburg Country Club, hear the muted roar of many, many voices, sneak around with a glass of merlot in my hand, and think, "Who are these people, and why are they here?"photo by Bill Thompson, III

I knew one person there, besides the Center staff and my immediate family. An old friend from high school in Virginia came up to see me, and he helped get me through the cocktail hour. It became clear in a sudden flash to me that everyone else was there to support the Ned Smith Center, and I was just the entertainment. I hadn't really grasped that before I walked into the country club, but realizing that helped me handle the scene, which is somewhat removed from my usual habitat (cluttered studio with kids and pets underfoot, or quiet woods), and put it in perspective. photo by Bill Thompson, III

Bill and I got the kids all cleaned up, and Bill set about documenting the event in these photos. Here, Phoebe and Liam do the Vanna White thing with one of the beautiful placards prepared by the Center. No, I didn't get to keep them. Rats!
After drinks and lots of conversation with a lot of nice, well-dressed people, it was upstairs to the banquet room. Zow. Double zow. That's a lot of people at $150 a plate. No, we are not in southern Ohio anymore.
The auction and talk went well. I had three pieces in the live auction and several more in the silent auction. I'm told they went well. I was barely there, thinking about what I was going to say. Did some reading from Letters from Eden, some poetry, and a couple of songs with Bill. They seemed to like it. By now it was about 10 PM and pretty well past my bedtime. There were some books to sign. Kathy B. kept me company, and Phoebe assisted. She loves to assist at book signings, but she is starting to make me look bad. She can wear Limited Too duds better than I can wear Coldwater Creek. Oh, well. We can't all be budding by Bill Thompson, III

Liam was a Very Good Boy all weekend. The Center staff was great at keeping him in paper and markers and computers to play on. photo by Bill Thompson, III

By the end of the gala evening, along about 11 PM, poor little Liam was reduced to a puddle of sleeping boy, first on Bill's lap, and then on the floor of the dining room, and finally on a couch downstairs near the fireplace. Thanks to Bill for not only masterminding the AV needs of the evening, but tending the kids while I did my thing. I was so proud of my little family. Those kids are troopers.That was Friday. On Monday, I'll write about Saturday. Thanks to the folks who emailed and pestered me to prepare these posts in a vaguely timely manner. You know me...the blog ant, still talking about cranes and New Mexico, while the world spins madly on.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Crane Confrontation

Watching the sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR is an education in itself. They travel in family groups, often two adults with their two kids from the year, and they talk constantly, gutteral, resonant purrs from the adults, and tweedling chirps from the juveniles. Seeing them pal around must be hard for a solitary great blue heron. I watched in amazement (and remembered to shoot pictures) as a lone heron flew over to join a small family group of greater sandhill cranes. What could he have been thinking?He's in their personal space. The cranes dawdle over closer to him. How touching. Or not. I had a pretty good hunch that the cranes would send the heron packing, and sure enough, when they got closer, they raised their stately necks and inclined their bills, giving a clear cross-species threat to the heron.
You can see that the heron is already gathering its neck in for takeoff. Wise move.

Cranes, by the way, fly with necks extended, and that's a quick and easy way to tell them from herons in flight. Cranes also lack a functional hallux, or hind toe, so they can't land in a tree like a heron can. They are open country birds, who can't perch but must stand on solid ground or in shallow water. This impacts their habitat preferences and natural history in lots of ways. (Thanks to Paul Tebbel for some thought-provoking conversation on cranes while we drove around in his truck).There are two species of sandhill crane at Bosque del Apache, the greater and lesser sandhill cranes. Lesser sandhills are much smaller than greaters (the bird in the middle with brown wings is a lesser sandhill). They also tend to "paint" their wings more heavily with iron oxide, so they really stand out in a crowd. Yes: cranes decorate their feathers by painting them with red-staining mud. That's why you'll only see the stain on the parts of their bodies they can reach.
Cranes on green, a lovely sight. The second bird from the left is probably a lesser sandhill crane. In the photo below, the brown-winged lesser sandhills are easy to pick out, markedly smaller than the pale greaters. How I miss their resonant calls. Cranes are addictive.

It was a snowy day here; the kids were home from school, and so was Bill. What a nice feeling, to have us all together in a warm house. Kids played outside much of the day. Bill built them a mogul right before dark and they caught some sweet air going over it in the toboggan. Baker frisked around for about ten minutes at a time and then came in all shivery and grunty, wanting to be wrapped in a down comforter. I got some cute pictures of him googling along in the snow. All in all, we got about 8", and there are high hats on all the bluebird houses. I shoveled out the cardinals before dark, and left some corn for the deer out under the pines. Did two watercolors, diverting myself between washes with an excellent and thought-provoking discussion of sandhill crane hunting. You guys are the bomb. Thoughts were firing back and forth in private e-mails, too, about aesthetics and hunting and whether we have the right to hunt cranes. Nobody hunts flamingoes. What if sandhill cranes were lucky enough to be pink?

Time to fix dinner--a chicken, but not a prairie chicken. Life is full of ironies. Stay warm.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Wariest of Birds

Small technical detail: I'm suddenly being spammed at the rate of 100 messages every ten minutes, comments on archived blog posts, from "Anonymous." I've been forced to disallow anonymous comments on my blog, or risk losing email function. You will need to have a Google account to comment now. It's easy to sign up. If you're accustomed to commenting as Anonymous, just think up a random name for yourself, click "Other," and you should be good to go.A rare close flyover. There's nothing quite like hearing the crane's sonorous purr right overhead, along with the rush of its huge slaty pinions. If you've never heard that call, please go to Susan's blog, where she has a wonderful video, with sound, of a huge crane flyover.

See the coyote, third from the left?

The kids and I were watching a bunch of cranes out in a field when I noticed that their necks were unnaturally straight, and they had ceased feeding. "I'll bet there's a coyote around, kids!" And sure enough, a few pans of the scope revealed a pair of pointed ears in a patch of brush.

The coyotes were eating a carcass out in the field, and they really didn't pose much threat to the cranes, as long as the birds were aware of them. It's hard to sneak past a sandhill crane.

The kids were enthralled to watch a predator/prey interaction. Liam especially glued himself to the scope and fretted while Phoebe took a turn. "She's hogging it! She's had it for a hundred thousand million minutes!" We had the best time out on the refuge together. Once they settled into the slow but punctuated pace of nature watching, they were happy to while away the hours, peeking through the scope, playing with rocks and sticks and water while I looked for the next cool bird or animal to watch.The cranes walk along the roads atop the dikes at Bosque, and they often seem to stand vehicles down, in no hurry to clear the way. It's so good to see them rule the place, when they're hunted for sport all along their flyway. Yes. Sandhill cranes are shot for sport (and occasionally for food) in every state they migrate through. There are seasons and bag limits on sandhill cranes all along their migratory route. If you don't believe me, just Google "Sandhill crane hunt." If you're sensitive, don't. Most birders, who will travel hundreds of miles to watch their migration gatherings, don't know that these "ancient birds" that they admire so much are targets for hunters, and are as shocked as I was to learn it. I think they need to know it, and I often bring it up when I'm among crane fans, even though it doesn't do much for my popularity. Talking about crane hunting in such circles has roughly the same effect as cutting a giant fart at a cocktail party.
I've got an article mostly written about it, but I'm pretty sure the usual outlets for my stuff won't be interested. Maybe it's one for the next book. The thought of bringing these long-lived, monogamous, family-oriented and highly intelligent birds down for sport or roasting makes me physically ill. But then a lot of what's done in the name of sport hunting makes me ill. I know I'm getting crankier as I get older, and more conservative about speaking out because it might just be crankiness at work. But there's something about sport hunting of sandhill cranes that strikes me as fundamentally, indefensibly, sickeningly wrong.It's clear to me, if not to most state game and fish departments, that a sandhill crane is worth infinitely more alive than dead. (The same could be said of vanishing prairie chickens and sage grouse, both greatly admired by birders, hard as heck to find, and inexplicably, still hunted.)
Just go to the Platte River in Nebraska in March if you don't think so. Crowd into a blind with dozens of other paying customers, and hear their awe and stunned gasps at the beauty of the flocks sleeping and rising off the river at dawn. Here, a trio flies past the visitor center at Bosque, past people who are paying just to admire them, and let them go on their way.

It does explain why sandhill cranes almost never allow a person within gunshot range; why they are the wariest of birds. Imagine how wonderful crane watching could be if they could relax around us, the way we relax around them.
Can we find it in our hearts to just let them be?

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Monday, December 03, 2007


I can give you three reasons to get yourself a Boston terrier. Number one is The Roo.
When Chet Baker wants something really badly, whether it's a toy, or your attention, or just a change of scene, he roos. A roo is not a bark; it is much cuter. Roos are produced through closed doglips, but there is a telltale pucker of the muzzlepuffs which is hard to capture digitally. Here, I have succeeded.
The second reason why you should begin researching Boston terrier breeders, beginning and ending with Pups Will Travel, is the Google. Here is Chet Baker, in full google.I think that Boston terriers have been selected to look as much like silly people as possible. Lots of white in the eye, giant loose mouth, perpetual grin. I don't know what he does with all that cheek flesh, but it looks like he could pack several walnuts in each side.

Number three is the Kiss. Nobody kisses like a Boston terrier. When he is at his most fervent, Chet will throw a little nibble into his kiss, just like a person. I'm pretty sure Jen is getting a nibble kiss here. There is nothing like being able to get a kiss whenever you ask for one. I don't know whether this goes for all Boston terriers, but Chet Baker ADORES babies. Tomorrow, I have the immense pleasure of taking care of my one-year-old friend Oona all day. It will be the perfect antidote for my life of late. Baker never strays more than about five feet from Oona's side, all day. When she naps, he naps.Here, she's dropped in her crawly crawly tracks, one arm bent out, one leg under her. Baker studied her and decided she looked a bit uncomfortable. He walked up, licked her cheek, and she stirred just enough to unfold herself, whereupon he flopped back down beside her in Tube of Dog pose.

Time for a walk. Hunting season is over, huzzah! and it is time to reclaim the trails I so laboriously cut in November. I'm sure all the area hunters love my mad trailcutting skilz.
It is important to mark one's progress on the trail. This is not one of the reasons you will probably want a Boston terrier, but it factors in anyway.

At my show in Pennsylvania, Chet's breeder Jane came up to visit us. Oh, it was so wonderful to see her again, after almost three years! We shut ourselves in a downstairs office and went all dog crazy. She admired his Chetness from every angle and happily submitted to dozens of Boston kisses. How much happiness this wonderful woman has brought into our lives, no one can measure. Please note bow tie, worn in honor of Jane's visit. One of the last things I did before leaving for Pennsylvania was to sew the black bow tie back on Chet's dress collar. Priorities.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Pronghorn Reverie

The land around Magdalena seems to stretch forever, not a house in sight. Cattle, like this rugged crossbred bull, roam free, constrained only by cattle guards on the roads; thousands and thousands of acres where they can graze, fight and paw the ground. He makes my old Buck look like a real couch potato, doesn't he?
They share the acreage with bands of pronghorn, North America's bizarre un-antelope, a true relict of the Pleistocene. They're not deer or antelope, but more closely related to the bovids, and are in their own family, Antilocapridae.
What distant ancestors pronghorns may have had were probably confined to, and rendered extinct on, the North American continent. At one time there were more than 100 million pronghorn running the plains of North America, and they even outnumbered bison. Once market hunters had extirpated the bison, they turned to pronghorns, and numbers fell to less than 34,000 by the 1920's. With stringent protection efforts, pronghorn herds have rebounded to approximately .75 million animals.
They're set apart from antelopes by their peculiar horns, which have a bony core and a keratinous sheath made of fused hair. While antelopes never shed their horns, pronghorn males lose the sheaths every spring, tossing them off with a quick head throw. Female pronghorns also have horns, but shed the sheaths more irregularly.Here's a male and a female. Note the massive horns of the male, the short, blackish mane, and the bizarre, high, protruding set of their eyes. Pronghorns have amazing long-distance vision, and their eyes are set high and wide, like a woodcock's. They've got the equivalent of 8-power binoculars, and thanks to the protruding eye sockets, 320 degrees of vision! They're fast, too, capable of bursts of nearly 60 mph, and sustained speeds of 30 mph--the fastest North American animal, second in speed only to the cheetah in the world! I've summarized Tomas Tabor's excellent article in Countryside Magazine, and you can find the whole text here. Dang, I love the Web, almost as much as I loved seeing this band of ancient Americans loping along the road to Magdalena.Sunlight and shadow race across the plains as the pronghorns sift through the cholla.

Just back from my show in Pennsylvania. It was terrific. I am liquid with exhaustion. 7 hrs. home through driving rain, but thank goodness no snow or ice. Full report in the future.