Thursday, February 28, 2008

Art, Unbidden

Look at the carved cattle trails, all converging on the dark heart of the barn. The little outbuilding I'll tell you about is the half-white one in front of the barn. The house Clarence and Opal lived in is on the left side of the road.

Any city person who moves to the country has outbuilding envy. We city folk tend to put up houses, garages, and not much else. Country folk had an outbuilding for everything. Maybe that's why their houses were so tidy and homey. They weren't trying to cram everything into them the way we do. They had outbuildings for all their crap. For instance, I dream of a potting shed, where the stacks and mounds of huge planters and tiny pots that spill all over our tractor and bicycles could find a real home.

The beauty of country outbuildings is the way they fit into the farm and the landscape. I can't bring myself to buy a pre-fab shed just to have a shed. But this little garage/shed/barn has a beauty that's hidden from the main road. The former owners of this farm were Clarence and Opal M., who I had the pleasure of getting to know just a little when I stopped to talk with them about the brilliant blue bluebird houses Clarence had constructed and put on fenceposts around the house. They were enormous, perhaps 9" square, and painted bright blue because Clarence thought that might help attract bluebirds. Of course, they were full of house sparrows. I gave Clarence a couple of little Gilbertson PVC boxes, which house sparrows don't much like, and he put those up, too. Got bluebirds in 'em! Clarence was in his nineties by the time we met. I'm so glad I stopped to talk with him that day.

Clarence and Opal are gone now, and the bluebird boxes are gone, too. But the new owner of the little farm has saved, at least for now, one thing I prayed would survive the change of hands: Clarence's art.
I'm glad I got a chance to admire this in front of Clarence, to show him my paintings in the copy of Enjoying Bluebirds More that I gave him, so he'd know I wasn't just blowing smoke when I told him I loved them. Here's a closeup of the pinto's head…
This painting has the same quality, to my eye, that Inuit art displays--an elegant reduction of unnecessary detail, a fluidity and grace. It makes me want to paint a horse on our barn. But my horse would look much more like a real horse, and in that something precious and irreproducible would be lost. I simply know too much about how to paint a horse "properly" to do a nice barn painting. How I wish I could ask Clarence to come paint a horse on our garage, because I'd much rather look at his art.

Another surprise awaited around the corner: a frieze, depicting a pair of horses and a foal, now almost lost to the elements:
The square chips of paint gave it a mosaic-like quality, and looking at these paintings I saw something ancient, as ancient as cave art: the desire to capture beauty, however well or ill-equipped the artist. Clarence surely captured something in these paintings, and through his interpretation gave them another layer of beauty.

Inside the barn, another surprise awaited: some folk art by kittens.
The cat and her kittens, like Clarence and Opal, are doubtless long dead, but I am here on this February day, rinsed clean by the traces they have left.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Breathing Barn

Lines, and a bit of captured sky, a perfect red oil drum for color. I wheel around and see the scene, perfect.

A walk needs a destination, I think, even if it loops around and comes back home. As I've shown in previous posts, a restlessness for new ground has set into my soul and I've ranged miles from home, borne only by shanks' mare and my lust for discovery. That quest was richly rewarded when Shila and I came upon an old barn, recently purchased and well-cared for by a new owner. He's put some new windows in it, and though I prefer the old, I have to admit that a barn is only as good as its roof and its windows. The view through the new little window was hypnotic:These Appalachian foothills, when scraped of their trees and put under cattle, have a sculpted beauty that I find incredibly poignant. Would I rather see them wooded? Yes and no. I remind myself that a much greater percentage of them are wooded now than ever before in our history except pre-colonial times, and that's why we're seeing bears and bobcats, coyotes and cougars where they haven't been before. That's why we're not seeing meadowlarks and bobolinks, Henslow's or grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, harriers or short-eared owls. This land has a history of clearcutting and pasturing that makes my augenblick on the planet look entirely insignificant. All these thoughts and more, running out over that denuded but lovely landscape as I gaze out the little new window.Ah, the grace of an old gooseneck barn lamp. We have new imitations on our porches. I guess we're carrying the style into the 21st century.

It's the light coming through in lines that kills me, that makes me want to stop my life in its tracks and sit down and make a watercolor. I'm sure these interiors will show up in my paintings. When I start to berate myself for not packing along palette and paper, brushes and water and easel, I step back and remind myself that there is a time and place for everything. It may take years for me to get around to that barn interior painting, but it will happen. For now, I'm just grateful to have a camera that can save the moment for me. Breathe deeply and take in the sweet hay, hear the gutteral coo of a pigeon, the clatter of its wings as it dives into the sky through a broken trapezoid in the boards.Jagged bits of sky, light in lines
splashes and stripes of sunlight
Here, the sky caught in twin ruts
Puddle, or hole in the firmament?
A small window frames the surreal countryside
Stripped of trees and carved by cattle
Meandering tracks leading to its own dark heart.
Pigeons clatter out
and circle, wings whimpering, waiting for me to leave.
Cement poured on a summer day
holds dainty prints of kittens, long grown into cats
who themselves have moldered away.
The hay is still sweet where the sun paints it gold
and I would lie down in it
But for the rustle and peep of mice.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Still Walking with Chet

The sky was beautiful this day, silvery and broken, a presage of more rotten weather to come.

I was glad to be out, though, and to find some scat that had probably been left by a raccoon. I say that because there are two different piles here, one fresh (on the left) and one older (grayer, on the right). I'm guessing it's 'coon scat because they like to poop in the same place a bunch of times. It could also be coyote scat. It was pretty big.

It's full of persimmon seeds. That's the other thing that makes me think it's probably 'coon scat. A coyote would have a hard time filling up on persimmons, because they'd have to scrounge whatever fruit fell to the ground, and they'd have to compete with opossums and raccoons for it. A 'coon, though, could climb the tree and pick the 'simmons, making for a nice big persimmon dump.
I could be all wrong about this, but I thought I'd let you in on the thought process. As you know, there's a lot to see and think about in feces. Well, maybe you don't know that. One should never assume one's readers stand around in the woods pondering poo as one is wont to do.

Chet does that too, which is part of why we get along so well. He also ponders voles. Here, he's listening hard for the scuttling sound of a vole in the meadow. You can tell he's onto something because he's pointing. See how his tail is sticking straight out?
He's still listening. This is a better look at that elegant tail of his. Sometimes I wonder if another sort of tail might complement his formal attire a bit better. And then decide he's perfect as he is.The stream was running down in the Chute with a happy sound. It seems hopeful that spring will eventually arrive.Southern Ohio usually enjoys some concrete signs of spring by late February. But this year, the daffodils are still just emerging, the water maples and Norway maples haven't even thought of budding, and the woodcocks are AWOL, along with the spring peepers. On bright mornings, though, the bluebirds are singing like mad. I heard a Carolina wren shouting JULIE JULIE JULIE! on the front stoop this morning, and the tufted titmice and cardinals are caroling. White-breasted nuthatches are yammering, and the red-bellied woodpeckers started quirring on the 23rd. It's coming, whether the weather agrees or not. Good thing I've got sweet Baker to keep me smiling.

Here, Mether, is the stick that you requested I return to you. It is large and unwieldy, but I, Chet Baker, am the dog for the job.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Walking with Chet

It's true. People who own dogs tend to walk more and are overall healthier and happier than people without them. We also smell better, have thicker hair, and make all our own clothing. Chet has been fixing me with stares lately, stares that say, "We haven't been out in WEEKS. I am losing my mind." Well, I am, too, but I'm smashed flat trying to get ready for two major trips, back-to-back, and the weather STINKS. Our woodcocks should have arrived February 17 and begun twittering and peenting in the meadow. Not a single sign of them, and I listen every evening. I hope they're all in South Carolina, biding their time. My poor daffodils are growing taller every day, perhaps party to some inside information about the next ten days that eludes Intellicast Weather. I think they're insane to poke their heads aboveground. I am heartily tired of winter.

On those rare, rare sunnyish days I HAVE to get out and walk, and Chet is the guy I want by my side. His exuberance buoys mine, and he always makes me laugh. I find myself saying, "You little goofball!" again and again. Chet lives to be called a little goofball.

I sat down to rest and found a twisted branch that I lobbed toward Baker as he snuffled around in the grass. There ensued a game of Fetch that Chet enjoyed because he likes a challenge--hauling a twisty old branch that kept rotating in his jaws and getting hung up on things. Good boy, Chetty.
My camera's AV (Ai Servo) setting is good for taking pictures of an object moving toward me, in this case my pet dog. It adjusts focus continually as he approaches. This is about as sophisticated a photography tip as you'll get from me, and I got it from Shila, who takes photography classes and has taught me most of what I know about my camera. You see, she reads the manual instead of sticking it away in a drawer overflowing with varranties and water heater assembly instructions and lost computer passwords and old check stubs.
My usual brand of photography tip goes likes this: If you want good pictures of your dog, lie down on the ground. Or: If you get mayonnaise on the lens, you might as well lick it off.

Chet and I found some cool stuff on this walk, including what I believe to be bobcat scat. I say that because cat scat tends to be broken into very short segments, as anyone who cleans Fluffy's litterbox can tell you. As you can see, this is not composed of digested Friskies. It's all fur, and there is a gorgeous little bit of shrew maxilla in there, too.
The whole thing actually looks like a skull to me, complete with eye socket, and teeth in approximately the right place. See, you can find beauty and verisimilitude in catdoody, if you look closely enough.

I took this acorn photo on December 21. It was just sending its root out. Now, the same acorn is firmly rooted in the ground. It hopes to be a chestnut oak someday, but it's growing in a gas line cut. I'm afraid its hopes will be dashed.
A plant with more realistic aspirations: fernlike moss.I'll finish the walk with Chet tomorrow. My life is in a Bassomatic blender at the moment and I have spent almost all day canning posts so you will not be without some trace of Zick for the next two weeks. I could just leave you hanging, but it doesn't seem fair somehow to either of us. Dependability is about 80% of successful blogging, in my opinion. Originality and quality are in there somewhere, too.

Signing off....

Old Faithful

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Chet Buries Things

I wanted to do a post called Hiding the Salami but I didn't think it would be very ladylike, or a very accurate reflection of my incredibly dull life lately.

While I have your attention, gentle guest, another little quirk of my pet dog: He buries things. When you give him a treat he doesn't necessarily like all that much, but wants to keep, he trots around until he finds a good place to cover it up. This is much easier to do outside where there are leaves and grass and dirt. Inside, Chet's instinct to bury gets short-circuited.

He begged so hard for a slice of hard salami that I relented and gave him one. He spat it out immediately, not liking its oversized floppiness, I guess, and then thought about it and picked it up. Soon I heard the rhythmic snorfling sound of him burying a treat. And looked over to see him trying to nose a tablecloth over the salami.
Which might have been fine because Crazy Old Dog Ladies are used to finding salami under their tablecloths, actually happy to find it, because it means darling Poopsie has been up to his old tricks! but the tablecloth was about 12" away from the salami , and there was no way it was going to cover the treat. But that didn't stop Baker. Twenty or more times, he nosed the tablecloth toward the salami. It would extend, and then fall back into place. It was like watching a dragonfly try to lay its eggs on the shiny hood of a car, or a cardinal fighting its reflection in a window. Where is my sweet, intelligent doggie? What is this little instinct-driven automaton trying to accomplish here? Hello? Free will? Reason? Brain cells?
Finally, he was satisfied that he'd hidden it, and sat down to see if anyone would find the buried treasure as we bustled about in our morning routines.What salami? I do not see a piece of salami. I have buried it and no one but me, Chet Baker, knows where it is. I find it with my laser vision.

Well, I'm sorry, Chet Baker, but I do not happen to want a piece of greasy salami lying around on the kitchen floor, so I'm throwing it away.
Some Crazy Old Dog Lady you are. The next thing you will tell me is that I am not getting the 17 brothers and sisters I have been hoping for.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Attention-seeking Birds

This morning dawned brilliantly clear, standing at 18 degrees. Last night, the kids and I danced in and out of our warm house every ten minutes or so, dragging ourselves off the couch to check on the total lunar eclipse. American Idol; lunar eclipse. From the ridiculous to the sublime.

First there was a nibble, then a bite, and finally at about 10:15 the entire disc of the moon was covered in shadow. The snow, once brilliant silver in the moonlight, took on a dull pinkish glow, and the night deepened like velvet. The moon was viscous and dull, swirled with burnt orange and violet. My photographs are hopeless. Some things must be left to the pro's, with their tripods and timed exposures. Resting a 300 mm. zoom telephoto lens on the top of one's daughter's shivering head produces less than admirable results. She is tall enough to serve as a tripod now, but I needed a bit more light than was offered by the slowly surrendering moon.

Liam was spooked, and he didn't want to be alone in the house with the moon doing things like that, so he put his coat on and trudged out with me and Phoebe to look, too. I have to think that eclipses were strange and scary to early people who, like Liam, couldn't have understood what was happening. Lunar eclipses make my heart race, but solar eclipses make me run around in circles, helplessly wondering. Have you ever seen birds fly to their roosts in a total solar eclipse? I have, twice, once when I was a child in Virginia and once here in Ohio, in early May of 1993. I love freaky nature, nature that's bigger and stronger and stranger than any of us.

Cold as it was, it was such a beautiful morning. I scuttled from window to window in the house, snapping pictures of the birds clustered around it. They come here for the food and the cover, and yes, for the sight of me inside, and for the hope that I'll emerge to stoke their feeders full again. Make no mistake, they are hoping to get my attention by sitting close to the windows, looking decorative. Ahem? Sunflower's getting low. I am beautiful, no? Feed me.

Hello, Zick? Juncos like suet dough. They like it a lot. Here's my feathery butt. Cute, yes? Feed me.There's been a big influx of goldfinches lately. They love the gray birches we have planted all around the house, and they work on the seed cones as they wait for a place at the feeders.
Junco tracks give silent testament to the wildlife value of gray birches. Think of birches as showering food all winter long, and you have them from a junco's eye view. No wonder juncos like snow. It makes their food so easy to see.

I have to confess that the junco tracks are a bit more concentrated around the front door, where I throw suet dough several times a day.These are the tracks of a single dawn, in the twilight hours before I get up, put on my rubber clogs, and go out to slop the juncoes. Yes, it's ridiculous. We have a lot of birds at Indigo Hill. And I love each and every one of them, down to their little pink toenails. Don't think they don't know it. In cold like this, in late February, when the daffodils should be blooming, as should the Norway maples, they make me feel needed.Have a wonderful weekend. Ours started yesterday, with a snow day. Just another four-day weekend for my barely-educated kids. When people ask, "You must home-school, right?" I answer, "Yes, in the winter, whether I like it or not."

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'm Expecting. It's a...Flower!

OK. Nature. Nature. Enough on the navel-gazing, enough on the local rokkers. I'm a nature blogger. Right. Look around room, since it's 18 degrees and snowing again, and the kids are home for yet another snow day. Ah. Orchids: Exotic plants that do exotic things right on your windowsill.

February is a time of anticipation for orchidkeepers. February is when a lot of plants decide, through the stimulation of lengthening days and intensifying light, to put out bloom spikes. Nine of my plants are cooking up something wonderful as I write. Like most orchid collectors, I count quite a few seedlings and new starts among my 50-odd plants. I also have some old soldiers.

One of the oldest is a Dendrobium phalaenopsis var. alba (which simply means, auf Latin, a Dendrobium that has a bloom that looks like a Phalaenopsis bloom, and happens to be white). It lived for about three years at the Bird Watcher's Digest office, where it bloomed reliably and delighted everyone. And then it died. I took it home, snapped the living shoots or keikis off the top, rooted them, and put the corpse of the mother plant in sick bay for a year. You see, orchids rarely really die. They're incredibly long-lived plants, lasting for decades, even centuries. And they are tough, tough, tough.

The mother plant threw out some new shoots and even came into bloom on my birthday the following year. I gave it back to the BWD office, freshly repotted, growing, blooming. It hung on for about another year, and then it died. Again. I brought it home and put it in sick bay once more. It sulked for a year and a half. I don't blame it. I'd sulk if I'd died twice, too.
At this point it wasn't the most gorgeous plant, but I thought it deserved a third crack at life. I promised it that it had finally found a Forever Home. It thanked me by throwing out a ridiculous shoot atop an old cane (the one that starts level with the top of the Acoma pot) and blooming, all 2 1/2 ungainly feet of it. You gotta love a plant like that. The big lush leaves at the base belong to another plant. The old girl probably has only six leaves to her name.

I think it looks fabulous, flowering there next to my Acoma pots and my jaguar mask from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. That's the mask that came with its own wood-boring beetle larvae that made a strange grinding sound in the night. Science Chimp found frass on the dresser top, put two and two together, did not want to be the person who introduced the next Emerald Ash Borer to our fair country. So Science Chimp put the mask in the freezer for a week. No more grinding, no more frass.

Part of being a true orchid lover is appreciating the plants' resilience. Part of it is being willing to put up with topheavy, dopey-looking canes and straggly air roots; even finding a certain beauty in them. Part of it is respecting the plant and listening to it when it asks you for help. And most of it is not giving up on them.

When I visited my friend Cindy in New Hampshire in mid-October 2007, I fell in love with a miniature Dendrobium that was blooming wildly in her airy, well-lit studio. The fragrance got me, a perfume to die for. I asked if I might cut a shoot off the plant to root at home. I took the only shoot that wasn't blooming, and did a bad job of cutting it off. I carried it home in my backpack and dipped it in rooting powder and put it in moist medium. It shuddered and dropped its leaves. Not a good sign. I kept watering it. It withered and shriveled. And then it put out a bloom spike. No. This little four-inch-long withered cane, severed from the mother plant four months ago, with no roots or leaves, blooming?

Yes, and not only is it blooming, but it's putting out the same heavenly perfume I smelled last October. It's drawing all the resources for this superbotanical feat from its shriveled little stem. I do not deserve this plant. You see, it thinks it's dying, and so it's trying to throw some seeds out into the world before that happens. It may well be dying, but I'm not going to give up on it until it turns brown and snaps like a twig. I owe it that much.

Shila and I go to an orchid show at the Franklin Park Conservatory every spring. Well, we're planning NOT to go this spring, because we're completely out of room in our respective houses, and we cannot look at a beautiful orchid and not buy it. It's a real problem. It's like going to the pound and looking into a puppy's eyes and saying, "Nope, sorry, I'm not in the market for a dog." The answer, if you don't want a dog, is to stay the heck away from the pound, right? Right. So we're not going this year. Right. So that's settled.
Not going...But LAST year I bought a little seedling of an orchid called Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos." I was buying a bunch of other plants in full bloom from a really cool couple from Broadview Heights near Cleveland who call themselves Windswept in Time Orchids. Kimberley leaned over and said, "Psst. I have a couple of Psychopsis seedlings here if you're interested." Having just seen one taking all kinds of blue ribbons for beauty and weirdness in the show in the next hall, my antennae went up. "It doesn't look like much, and it may take a few years for it to bloom, but you will not be sorry."

$25.00 for two little leaves. Hmmm. I looked at the red marbling on the leaves, tough as split steerhide. And bought the plant. The picture above is how it looks now. Last summer, it threw out the two bigger leaves.

The other day I was washing my plants and trays. Several times a year, I put them all under a lukewarm shower, wash their leaves, check for bug infestations, spray them with pyrethrins, and scrub the humidity trays (which get disgustingly eccchy with this green gloopy algae that smells like, of all things, patchouli). Feh! As you might imagine, with 50 orchids and more than a dozen humidity trays, this is the job of an entire Saturday morning. As I was washing my Psychopsis --no jokes, please--I found THIS:Which can only lead to THIS:
a crazy little Spanish flamenco dancing lobster. At least that's what it looks like to me. Upon looking closer, I expect to see THIS:
and you will be the first to know when I do. Aggggh! Much hooting and happy dancing, excited phone call to Shila, who also bought a Psychopsis that day. I just spoke to the grower, who told me that, although a Psychopsis plant will put out only one bloom at a time, the SAME SPIKE may throw flowers consecutively for six or seven years. At the same time, other parts of the plant will throw out more flower spikes, so the reward just gets better the longer you tend the plant. It's like finding out you're pregnant and you're going to have a beautiful FLOWER!!

Thanks to Ed Merkle for these terrific photos, cribbed from his web site.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Majesty of Rock

Well. Well, well, well. If my life has had a theme in the last couple of months, it would be turning dross into gold. There are several examples, and I'm saving them for you, storing them up, because they're just so cool. Certainly, what happened last weekend qualifies. From one only mildly snarky review-- more a damnation by faint praise, actually-- there comes an outpouring of love that would bring Sally Field to her knees. I feel so thoroughly appreciated, so stuffed with love, that I may have to enter rehab. Thank you. I promise to crease and fold my Leonine ego back into its aging, fleshy envelope for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of aging, fleshy envelopes (and who doesn't?) I want to share something with you that fills me with profound joy. It is a front page story on the "Life" section of our local newspaper, The Marietta Times. It's a story about local online YouTube stars.

Disclaimer: As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. The Marietta Times does that for me.

First is a gentleman, now 42, who was captured on videotape winning a lip-sync contest in 1986. He expertly mouthed the words to Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell," all the while keeping an Elvisoid sneer on his lips. Doing so, he became the Southeast Champion Lip-Syncer. But he failed (by 1% of the call-in votes) to become the National Lip-Syncing Champion. But all is not lost, because the video of his performance is now available on YouTube. It's so easy to forget, watching this electrifying video, that Derek is not singing. Or playing the guitar he picks up for his "solo." That he is not actually the real Billy Idol, his very own self. If you are able to watch the whole video, he doffs his leather bolero toward the end.Bet you won't have much trouble figuring out which picture is from 1986. Derek is now the owner of a public-relations company in Charlotte, NC. He will live forever as the Southeast Champion Lip-Syncer on YouTube, and in my heart. Hotness, thou art Derek in 1986. This constitutes breaking news in Marietta, Ohio.

What really arrested me about this article, though, was the photo of two area rockers that graced the top of the page. They're from Parkersburg, West Virginia, right across the Ohio River from us. For your viewing pleasure, I have located this video performance of their original song, "Growin' Old," on YouTube. I know that I'm really pushing the boundaries of a nature blog reader here, but at about 1:30 in this video, there is a moment when the bass player (the large guy) lays his head tenderly on the shoulder of the lead singer (the little dude who looks like a lady) and keeps it there, a cigarette smoldering between Big Guy's lips the whole while. Bill's take on that is that Big Guy wants to make sure he's in the video. I have to watch this video a couple of times a day because I bark like a seal every time he does that. Let's have a closer look at that picture. They are rockin' on with their bad selves.
Notice the cutline. It says, "Submitted Photo." So that means that the band, who shall remain nameless in this post (since their loyal fans are doubtless legion) gave the Times this photo, as representative of their undeniable majesty.

In sharing this small-town moment with you, I am staying true to my BlogArtist's Statement, to make room in my life for the things that bring me joy. These things include radiant sunsets, fossils in streambeds, flights of snow geese and the resonant purr of cranes. They also include The Marietta Times, white socks, old sneakers, and the sheer power and absolute Majesty of Rock.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Baker's Got a Brand New Bag

You know how, when you've had a dog or cat for a few years, they have these things that they do? The kind of things that, when you have guests over, you realize are just flat-out strange, and you hear yourself saying things like, "When Chet hears me tearing something, he thinks it's for him?" and then you hand your dog a Wheaties box that you were about to put in the burn bin, and he grabs it and trots into the living room and shreds it into itty bitty pieces, and your guest thinks, "What the hell is this woman doing with this dog? Why would anyone want to pick up 565 shards of a cardboard box spread all over the living room carpet?" and then maybe your guest is bold enough to ask, "Why do you do that?" and you find yourself thinking, "Why am I doing this?" and the answer you should give your nosy guest is: "I know. I am insane. I am seeking therapy. But until then, I let my dog strew bits of cardboard all over my living room rug. It doesn't make sense, does it? (giggle)...."But what comes out of your mouth is simply, "Because Chet Baker likes to tear up boxes!" and that is when you know you are rapidly headed for Crazy Old Dog Lady status. At that point you might as well get about 17 more Boston terriers and let them poop wherever they like and just spread newspapers all over your floors about six layers deep instead of carpet and you should take your guest by the arm and tell her the idiosyncrasies of each of your 18 Boston terriers until her eyes roll back in her head and she backs slowly out the door, then turns and runs.I have processed this Wheaties box for you. It is no longer a danger to you. My fondest wish is that you would give me a full one someday. It would not be that much messier.

Does anyone read their Edward Jones prospectus when it comes in the mail? You do? Woo. I don't. I hand it to my dog, lest any useful financial information impinge on the endless merry-go-round of largely useless biological trivia whirling in my head.

So now it's not just cereal and cracker boxes but junk mail that gets shredded. Since this had staples I stood over him and eventually took it away before he got that far. He probably got more out of it than I would if I tried to read it. In fact, I'm putting Chet Baker in charge of my investments.

So, anyone got a Boston terrier for me? I need a couple of dozen more, because at this point my house is still marginally livable.

I am joking, of course. Please, do not send me Boston terriers. One is more than enough.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Blog? Here's Why.

Lawn ornaments, Zick style. You know, skulls, scattered bones, busted watering cans. Everything's better with BlueBirdies on it. I'm pretty sure my reader demographic knows the Blue Bonnet Margarine jingle. I still sing it on the rare occasions that I buy margarine. And I buy Blue Bonnet, because everything's better...

It's a THING, as John Acorn likes to say. I'm still sitting back, slack-jawed, at the response. Breaking 60 comments on one post? Can't be happening here. That's for the Big Fish, the hyper-connected bloggers with dendrites snaking into every corner of the Net. Or so I thought. Being honest about the self-indulgent and frankly egotistical side of my blogging smoked out a lot of people who wanted to chime in. Mostly, you were being kind, and trying to make me feel better about what boils down to a completely insignificant (and probably imagined) slight. But many of you were intrigued, I think, that I'd drop my virtual pants and admit that I'm a craven feedback hog at heart. And what about you? If we're honest about it, why else would we post our thoughts and pictures? Why not just write it all in a locked journal and throw away the key? Certainly, hearing feedback from appreciative people isn't my entire motivation for blogging, but it's a powerful one.

Why write, if you aren't trying to please your readers by doing so? I don't care if you're writing gorgeous poetry or hateful spew---you can't tell me you don't care what people think of it. If you make the effort to post it, you've demonstrated that you care. By posting it, you're hoping to reach a reading audience; otherwise, you wouldn't put it out there. And I'd submit that you're hoping that audience likes it. Thoreau, for all his indifference to social convention, hoped somebody would treasure the scribbled product of his hermetic lock-in at Walden Pond. Audubon gloried in painting birds beautifully, and was crushed when critics attacked the animated poses of his birds. Sid Vicious peered out through slitted eyes, gauging the reaction to his snarls in the mosh pit. Though I know little of him personally, I can assure you that Rush Limbaugh hopes his audience likes the particular brand of llama-gob he belches up.

Aside from blatant ego-stoking, I use blogging as an illustrated, archived record of my life that, as it grows, is becoming, if I may say so, flippin' OSSUM to look back on. Diving into the archive instantly transports me back to forgotten events and feelings, both good and heartbreaking. I used to keep a document, running to hundreds of pages, called "Nature Notes." Every day, I'd update it with arrival and departure dates of migrating birds, who's singing, what wildflowers are in bloom, the first toad trill of spring, that kind of thing. I knew I'd experience these astounding things and just as quickly forget they ever happened if I didn't write them down.

When I started blogging, I gave up my Nature Notes. Every time I mourn its demise, I slap myself and say, "Zick. You are archiving the most bodacious nature notebook anybody ever saw!" I've substituted the jottings of a few minutes a day with over an hour of careful journaling, complete with a photographic archive. Would I ever organize my thoughts and photos like this if I didn't have an audience I was trying to please? I'll answer that with another question. Will I ever take the time to fill those baby scrapbooks in the closet with birth announcements, photos, locks of first-haircut hair, and taped-on teeth? Snowball's chance. Maybe if somebody kneecaps me. The time to do that has come and gone.

I have you to thank for getting me to clean up my journaling act, to learn to work with a decent camera, to stretch my brain and heart to produce something I'm proud of, five days a week, two years running. I can't think of anything else I've done that faithfully, except eat.
It takes soft mud to give you deer dewclaws.

Writers have to write. It's how they process the world, chew it into chunks they can swallow and digest. If writers cease to write, are they still writers? Blogging, though it's often disparaged as hasty and careless jotting, just another way we "dumb ourselves down," needn't be any of that. A blog is as good as you decide to make it.

I use blogging as a proving ground for essays and ideas, as a cooker for themes in my writing. The intense reader response to a post about the hunting of sandhill cranes spawned two chapters in the book I'm writing--essays I have been trying to squeeze out for almost a decade, essays I never thought I could put into words, much less a book. Suddenly, they were necessary--not pretty or lyrical, but essential. It took a community of nature lovers and, interestingly enough, hunters to show me how to write them. Everyone who reads this blog loves birds, deer, and bunnies, but not quite in the same way. I'm glad for that, too.Some of you are thinking, How beautiful! Some are thinking, Perfect lungshot! You're all welcome here. Please check your guns at the door.

Blogging makes me live larger. Blogging makes me want to experience new things for more than just a momentary thrill. Just as seeing a new bird is more fun with a friend by your side, life is more fun to experience when you go at it with the intention of interpreting it, presenting it to friends. I'm a whole lot more likely to say yes to any diversion, any curious experience, than I was before I started blogging.

If you want to have an interesting blog, it helps to lead an interesting--and interested-- life. Asking people questions about themselves flings doors open to a big, bright and insanely fascinating world. How did Charles Kurault keep coming up with his gentle, moving stories about obscure but remarkable people? How does Ira Glass keep producing This American Life, a show so riveting that, should my kids interrupt while I'm listening, makes me wave my hands around in the air, pleading for silence? Reporters like Kurault and Glass ask people questions about themselves, and the rest follows. In blogging, I pretend I'm working for a small magazine that gives me complete creative freedom, sending me on any assignment I wish. Small detail: Cash flow's not so good. I haven't seen a paycheck in two and a half years. I haven't quite figured out how to approach the boss, but I'm pretty sure she likes my work.

So it's a two-way street, and I get just as much as I give, in the warm glow of your approval and the sparks of your ideas. I have no idea where this train is headed, but I'm hanging on, grinning like a raggedy hobo, as the scenery whips by. Thank you for the virtual cards and letters, the bunches and bunches of roses you have laid here at my door.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Baker at the Beech

Recently, I joined the Nature Blog Network.

It's a consortium of nature bloggers, the brainchild of the estimable Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds. It's the first such group I've ever joined. I live under a cyber-rock, if you haven't noticed by now. When memes or awards go around, and people are kind enough to tap me, it's like throwing that meme or award into some kind of black hole. The meme stops here. I am sorry. So I don't know nothin' about webrings or chatrooms or guilds, and I kind of like it like that, to be truthful. Picture me in a little lace cap, flailing my apron.

Anyway, the Nature Blog Network's central concept is to get all these good blogs in front of other bloggers, and thereby get them read by more people. It's easy to join, even for a Luddite like me. Just click on the link! I salute you, Mike Bergin. It's a noble goal. There are so many people putting the good stuff out for free every day. It blows my mind. I could easily spend all day every day reading blogs, but I don't, because I have to like, do a lot of other stuff, and somehow squeeze a decent post out 5 days a week. It's the same reason I don't watch TV, except for American Idol. A girl has her needs.

So imagine my giddy and totally overblown delight when my blog shot to #1 on the Nature Blog Network for a shining day, meaning it was getting the most hits of any of the blogs so far signed up. I even displaced Mike. Oh! The ecstasy! So I got all uppity and started thinking I was really something. But it was short-lived, because then some Real Blogs joined the network, and smooshed me back down to #7, where I struggle to stay. I don't know how these blogs get all those readers. 10,ooo page hits a day? Their writers probably do not live under rocks. They probably pass around memes and awards and read everybody else's blog and comment like crazy and do all those nice-person things I avoid. They probably lead upright, wholesome lives and visit shut-ins, delivering casseroles. They probably know all about webrings and chatrooms and Wiccan Web practices I am too incurious to investigate. I know when I'm beat. Visiting the Nature Blog Network for me now is an exercise in much-needed humility. But there's more.

In that narrow window when I was bouncing around between #1 and 2, tromping all over the other Nature Blog Network members, and loving every minute of it, someone posted the following review of my blog:

Sometimes some great bird photos and commentary, but more often lots of personal stuff about Julie's farm, kids, and especially her pet dog.

Pause to reflect. Hmmm. All that is true. Sometimes I get a decent bird photo. I'm not a bird photographer, but if a monkey bangs on a typewriter long enough...Sometimes I write something interesting enough to spark some discussion. Sometimes. But more often...uh-oh. Lots of personal stuff about my farm (minus the chickens and cows, I guess), my kids, and especially my pet dog.

One of the completely ridiculous things about tending a blog, and its resultant Web presence, is getting caught up in rankings and hit counters and numbers of comments and, in some strange bit of alchemy, turning all that in your mind into some real assessment of your personal worth. So I read that review with a small snort, and it still makes me laugh every time I read it. There's something about the words, "especially her pet dog" that sound so...I maybe the reviewer doesn't exactly dig my potatoes. Like, just don't bother with this one. It's a thinly disguised--errrp---mommypetblog.

So, like the craven, groveling person that I truly am, I scrambled around and posted a whole bunch of my less crappy bird photos and tried to think up some great commentary. (Love me! Love me! I don't know who you are, Anonymous Reviewer, but maybe you'll like THIS?? or THIS?? Wait! What if I paint a huge bird picture and tell you all about it? Will you like THAT??) I was like Sally Field, accepting her Oscar. "You love me! You truly do love me!"

(Minus, of course, the Oscar, and the uh, love.)

Finally, I admitted to myself that it's true. I'm not a bird photographer, and I don't actually aspire to be. If I took fabulous photos of birds, I'd probably stop painting them. I need to keep painting birds.

I do like taking pictures of birds so I can share them with you. I like writing about birds, but there are too many other interesting things in the world to focus solely on feathers.

I like writing about my kids, especially as they discover the natural world. Except for a couple of lapses in which I gave too much information about their effluvia, I don't think I've crossed the line into mommyblogging.

I like taking pictures of Chet Baker, because it is obvious to me that you, my admittedly small but growing bunch of regular readers, enjoy seeing him and reading about his adventures.

It's true. What you're gonna get here more often is

lots of personal stuff about my farm, kids, and especially my pet dog.

And so I return to my roots.

Some of the beeches on the bit of forest I've been walking lately are old enough to wear pants. Cool how the bark looks like any other tree's on this beech's pants.

A bit of Boston terrier trivia: The breed is an American original, said to be the product of a cross between a white rat terrier (an extinct breed) and a bulldog. I see elements of both personalities in Chet Baker. He's got that kind of kooky terrier energy, that go-for-it nature that I love (and, in my own flabby way, would like to think I share). The energy is balanced by the bulldog's phlegmatic, comfy, loving nature, and is most often expressed when Baker flops down and sleeps for 12 hours straight, waking up only to get snorgled or move his lazy carcass to track the puddle of sun on the floor.

On a recent walk on our new ground, I stopped to marvel at a beech tree that was little more than a shell, with some pretty vivacious looking sprouts miraculously emerging from the rotted, hollow trunk. Chet Baker immediately sensed its critter-housing potential, and set about exploring it as only a nutty Boston terrier can. He vanished. I could hear snorfling and scratching, but Baker had been engulfed by the tree.

Clearly, he smelled coon and squirrel in the rotted hulk. There had to be a way up in there.
Using his rocket-propelled hinders, Baker launched himself up into the heart of the beech.

Meanwhile, I went around to the other side to peek in a rotted hole, and saw this:
I could see the wheels turning. Chet came around to my side and tried out that entrance, too. It looked like a breech birth.
So I ran around to the front of the tree and got this image of his soft, ottery throat as he gazed up into the hollow trunk:
What a little goofball. Even though it's blurry, this is my favorite shot from the session:
That, my friends, is the terrier in the Boston terrier. Because I am a primitive blogger, and my first attempt to embed a video will likely end in failure, I will refer you to a link for a video of the anthem, "God Loves a Terrier," sung by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, from Best in Show, a movie I would have been perfect for. I could step right into Catherine O'Hara's role without even STUDYING. Songs like this get sung in our kitchen every day! I am a Crazy Dog Lady. Christopher Guest, are you listening?

Dang! I think I figured out how to embed a video! It is my valentine to you, gentle readers.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Rare Blue

If you're going to brag on your big sweetie, Valentine's Day is as good a day as any. I owe Bill of the Birds a life morph. For those of you who aren't avid birders, and who don't split lifelisting hairs, a life morph is a color phase of a species that you've never seen before. The flocks of snow and Ross' geese at Bosque del Apache NWR are fairly ubiquitous, and their members can number in the tens of thousands. The vast majority of those tens of thousands are white-morph birds. Big white goose=Snow goose. Little white goose=Ross' goose. Most people don't bother to comb through them. Bill did. And he found a bird that set the refuge afire: a blue morph Ross' goose.

Ross' geese are like shrinky-dink snow geese. Much smaller, more compact, much cuter, actually, with pushed-in faces and stubby pink and blue bills. Both snow and Ross' geese come in a blue morph, which can breed with the white morphs and are in every way still snow or Ross' geese, except for their plumage color. It's like red or gray morph screech owls--just a different color of the same species, nothing more.

Blue morph snow geese are not as common as white morph, but they're tolerably common and easy to find. Here's one.This blue goose's underwing is a map of color-coded feathers. Look at those gorgeous underwing coverts, especially the ovoid pad of axillars, which are long, flexible, gossamer- textured feathers in the wingpit, that serve to contour the bird in flight, so wind doesn't eddy in the angle between wing and body. Lovely!

And here's a blue goose flying with a snow goose, perhaps its mate or its parent.Blue morph Ross' geese are another thing altogether. Very, very rare.

Here it is: the hopelessly sharp and classy little blue-morph Ross' goose that Bill found, rarest of the rare. Sorry it's so blurry, but it was a long, long way off. That's a white-morph Ross' in the foreground.
Here's another shot, in which you can see a great big white-morph snow goose in the upper left, and a white-morph Ross' next to the blue Ross'. I was stunned by the beauty of the rare blue bird, really more black than blue, with its zippy black-drawn tertials, its perfect white head, and clean markings. Thanks, Bill of The Birds.
That about does it for the New Mexico posts. Sorry I'm jumping around so much lately, taking old preserves off the pantry shelf. We're getting ready for two trips back-to-back and our lives are like a whirling wind tunnel leading to those departures. Imagine going from the humid lowlands of Guatemala to the frigid, windswept plains of Nebraska in March without even getting to come home to change out your suitcase. That's what happens when you book a festival two years in advance. Another life lesson for the Chimp.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Rising

I've been grasshoppering lately, but as an obligate ant-blogger, I went back in the pantry and looked, to find this long-overlooked post from November. I hope you'll forgive me the sudden jolt from my Ohio backyard to New Mexico, but I didn't want it to go bad on me, so here it is. I like this post for the dose of reality it brings to the romance of bird photography.

On the one afternoon we had free and together at Bosque del Apache, the light was perfect, the air was warm, the colors were stunning, and the geese were cooperative. I remembered having found a lot of waterfowl on one impoundment, and suggested to Bill that we go check it out for its photographic potential. Instead of canvasbacks and redheads, what we found was a mixed flock of snow, blue and Ross' geese. And they were doing the most amazing thing: rising up, flying over to a nearby cornfield, staying a little while, then coming back to the impoundment. We stood on the dike and watched in amazement, our cameras clicking madly. I was able to document one rise in a series of pictures, which I'll give you now:

1. The geese give a great clamor of calls and begin to lift off the water.

2. The wind from their downstrokes writes on the water.
3. They gain altitude.
4. They rapidly get closer. Autofocus is the only option. I'm firing madly and laughing like a hyena, but you can't hear me over the clamoring geese. See the ripples on the water? I'll tell you about that later.

5. The bulk of the flock is directly overhead now.

6. I turn to catch part of the flock going over.
7. The flock on high.
Now, about those ripples on the water. Take a look at this lovely flock, coming right over our heads. See anything to be alarmed about? Let's take a closer look.Uh-huh. Pretty much every bird that takes off lightens its load by pooping. That's what the marks on the water's surface are all about. And mixed with the exultation and clamor of their liftoff is a pattering rain of warm goose poop. These are big birds, folks. So the soundtrack from the photographers clustered on the dike is gasps of wonder followed by exclamations of disgust. I had a hat on, and I've been pooped on by everything from terns to macaws, so I didn't mind. They scored on the front of my khakis. That's what field clothes are for.
This is one of my favorite shots of the session, for its symmetry and the poetry of the birds' synchronous wingbeats. But I have to note, being an observant person, that the uppermost bird is in mid-poop. I guess that's what Photoshop is all about. If I knew how to use it, I'd probably still leave the poop in. Why delete any information? Information is manna to Science Chimps.

I'll take a patter of warm goose poop any day, for shots like these. Oh, how I'd love to be back in November's sunny New Mexico, as the sleet patters on frozen boilerplate snow outside.Just remember to keep your mouth shut, should you ever be so lucky as to witness a rising.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

MY Feeder. Got that?

Clientele is kind of thin at the feeders these days.

This was taken soon after he arrived, in October '07. He's spending a fat winter here.

There's been a little immature male sharp-shinned hawk hanging around our yard for three months now. Soon after he showed up, he bonked himself on the studio window, and I watched him cartwheel crazily into the shelter of our Virginia pines to sleep it off, and worried about him. He seems to be fine now, if a bit tame...a correlation I've made with other known individual window-hit birds. Not sure what it means, but it's happened enough to make me think it's not coincidence.

I think he figured something out in that accident. I think he figured out how to use plate glass to his advantage. He wouldn't be the first to do that, nor the last. He comes bombing around the corner of the house and scares everyone up from the feeders and sometimes one or two birds fly and bonk themselves on the same glass that got him. He's no dummy.

He's getting tamer and tamer. He sits for minutes on end on the feeders now, waiting for a titmouse to fly in, waiting for a junco to not notice him and land right underneath him. It hasn't happened yet, but a hawk can hope, can't he?
Several times we've seen him sitting in one of our little birches, a flustered titmouse right on the other side of the trunk from him. The titmouse dithers and scolds, knowing that it's not safe to break for better cover, but also knowing that the sharpie wouldn't be able to fly through all the twiggage to get him if he stays put. These golden pictures are from October, when there were still leaves. The sprucy ones are recent. Same bird, though. I had a couple of wonderful salons with the sharpie the other day. He came to the feeder twice in the afternoon, just hanging out. He watched me disinterestedly as I shot him through the glass, occasionally turning a withering glare on me.

What a gorgeous little bird, all fluff and needle-sharp talons and a stringy strong body underneath.
Don't let his contemplative look fool you. If you were small enough to carry away, he'd kill you, too.

If you'd like to hear the whole story, in the form of my NPR commentary, click here.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Snob Feeding

A suet dough fan at the back deck (female eastern bluebird). I post these just to show you that I am capable of taking a decent bird picture.
Blue jays are prone to gobbling great quantities of dough, but I don't mind it. They're just bearing it away to cache it for later. Sometimes I give them the bum's rush when I think they've taken enough. But I adore them and they know it. Well, that's enough of good bird photos. On to the crappy ones.

It's that time of winter, when the cold clamps down and supplies of natural bird food are dwindling. As I write, the temperature is plunging through the twenties, despite brilliant sun and blue sky. Tonight's going to be in the single digits, brrrr!

When the ground freezes, European starlings come in hordes to my feeders. I am an unrepentant snob when it comes to feeding good suet dough to starlings. Hence my newly coined term, "Snob feeding." If the starlings would just take a little food and leave, like all the rest of the birds do, that would be fine. But starling style (dare I call it Eurostyle?) is to descend in a pack of a dozen or more, crowd, squabbling, into the dish, and vacuum up every bit of food. Before they depart, they unload the foul contents of their caecums into the food dish for me to clean up. (No, clearly I dare not.) What doesn't go into the dish goes all over our front stoop. They sit all day in the sumac on our north border and watch for me to put out more food, and they try to beat the bluebirds, Carolina wrens, cardinals, titmice and woodpeckers to it. Usually, they succeed. If starlings weren't exotic birds, and so aggressive and abundant, I'd probably put up with their gluttony. But the filth they leave everywhere puts me over the edge.

Making suet dough is enough work, especially when I'm mixing up the recipe times ten, that this starling problem had to be addressed. So, taking the advice I hand out so freely to others, I got out my so-called "bluebird feeders" and once again tried to make them work to everyone's advantage but the starlings'.

This Plexi-sided feeder has proven to be an unequivocal flop. It's a great looking feeder, a nice concept, and I'm sure that somewhere on Planet Earth, there are happy bluebirds and chickadees going in and out of a feeder just like this one. However...I've been trying to entice birds to use it for five years now, and I have never had a single bird, blue or otherwise, enter it via the entrance holes in each side. Cardinals perch on the side railings and peer forlornly at the dough locked within. Chances that a cardinal would enter a hole are nil, anyway. Carolina wrens peek and lean in, occasionally snagging a morsel. I think it's because it looks like some kind of trap. It's been hanging up for two weeks now, stuffed with suet dough, and the most action it's gotten is a pair of tufted titmice, perching and peeking in one hole. But as bold and innovative as titmice are, neither one has dared enter. One year I put it out and found the same results after a couple of weeks. So I opened up the hinged top, and birds would hop down inside it to get suet dough. But that defeats the purpose, which is to exclude birds that can't enter a 1 1/2" hole. So I reluctantly give this feeder an F, and will consign it to eternity.

This little feeder is somewhat more successful. The principle is that it excludes all birds that can't or won't enter through the 1 1/2" square wire mesh holes. It's a little more user friendly, since the bird doesn't have to squeeze through a hole and enter a completely enclosed area. After a couple of days of sitting unused, a pair of Carolina wrens and a couple of titmice learned to use it. The starlings also figured out that if they stuck their heads inside and stretched their necks all the way out they could vacuum up all the suet dough. Putting the dough in a small plastic dish in the center solved this. But a problem remained: Cardinals, woodpeckers, juncoes and the bluebirds I was trying to entice refused to go inside. In past years I've had bluebirds enter this feeder successfully. It's a matter of giving them time to get used to it. So this feeder was marginally successful, but nothing to write home about, because it's just too small all around to completely defeat the starlings. I often wonder if feeder manufacturers bother to give prototypes to people like me who can test them before going into production. Apparently not, in many cases. The small size of most feeders available today has to do not with utility or efficacy, but solely with whether or not they'll fit on store shelves. Starlings have a reach of more than three inches by just stretching their necks, and this little feeder encloses an area about 9 x 9". So there's a three-inch "safe zone" at the very center of the inside. Hmmph.
There had to be some other solution, given that the "bluebird feeders" I have are both failures, from a number of standpoints.

I decided to use the starling's natural (and well-founded) fear of humans to my advantage. I'd feed suet dough only when I was in the kitchen to watch it. This is easy enough to do, since I'm in the kitchen for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple in the evening, fixing lunches and breakfasts, cooking dinner. I put my birdbath pedestal on top of my bonsai bench, which stands just beneath the kitchen window. I put the suet dough dish on top of that, neatly bringing it up to window level. This is a great arrangement, since the whole affair is under the eave, which keeps the food dry. The dish is snugged right up against the kitchen window, which means that I am about two feet away from it. And I make a terrific scarecrow.Tufted titmice are usually the first to try anything around here. They're inquisitive, smart, and bold. But even the juncoes and song sparrows are becoming accustomed to the new arrangement.My first Carolina chickadee at the new location. Yes, it's me. The Dough Lady. You know me. Don't look so spooked.At first, the birds all avoided the dish, but I was patient. I knew that my true friends would come to accept it if I would only wait. At first, they only came in ones and twos, and only when I was out of the kitchen. About ten days into it, I'm delighted to report that most of the birds are now using the "snob feeder" when I'm in the kitchen, especially if the kitchen lights are off. Titmice and cardinals will come when I'm standing right at the window, and the bluebirds are rapidly acclimating to me as well. Hey, it's not like they don't know who I am. These are the same birds that stare me down, begging shamelessly, when I'm writing in the tower. They know darn well who I am, and they know that I'm the person who puts the dough out for them. And they're cool with it. We're friends.
I really like it when the bluebirds feel comfortable enough to turn their backs on me. That is something I can assure you the starlings NEVER do. A subtle refinement of this new system is to pile the suet dough on the side of the dish nearest the window, so the birds have to come right up against the glass to feed. The starlings don't like that, and I have seen only one house sparrow venture on this feeder. That's saying something.

The starlings are not cool with feeding two feet away from me. I make horrible faces and lunge at them should they be so bold. This photo was taken while I was standing well back from the window in the darkened kitchen, and just a millisecond before I yelled BLAAA! and waved my arms. The starlings didn't come back for the rest of the morning. I have to laugh, because when I drive up from being in town, the "snob feeder" is full of starlings. They know when I'm away and take that opportunity to clean up all the food. But they're decidedly uncomfortable with eating in front of me. They get strong negative reinforcement when they dare. And I actually have suet dough left in the dish at dusk.

For now, two weeks into it, this is working well. I get ridiculously close looks at all my favorite birds. They get good food, unmolested by starlings. I don't have to wash the dish twice a day. My suet dough output has gone from over a pound a day to about 1/3 pound. That's as it should be. What's the sense of putting expensive, labor-intensive bird food out and not hanging around to see who eats it? When you think about it, it makes sense to feed a premium food like this in a highly structured way, at the same time of day. That way, the birds you want to attract learn when it's available, and the birds you don't want have to lump it, because you're there guarding it. The system is based on snobbery, on the natural spookiness of starlings, and on the bond of trust I've built with the birds I feed. Snob feeding.
Action like this right by your kitchen window is its own reward. I know these pictures are awful, but it was the darkest rainy day ever, and I haven't had a chance to get up and clean the outside glass. I just had to show you what all goes on now outside my window as I'm cooking and washing dishes. As you can see, sunny days are worse yet for photography! This is a bluebird with a cardinal. Check out the hind toe length on this white-breasted nuthatch. Nice hook to hang by.How nice to see Mr. Redbelly conquer his shyness! Help yourself! We're all friends here at Birdie Cheers.
If you're around at predictable times a day, and you're having trouble with starlings eating all your good Zick dough,** you might want to try something like this. A large, high-quality cage excluder feeder is a good place to start. But it's really rewarding to train the birds you like most to trust you and eat in your presence. And they'll like you, and trust you right back.

**There. I wrote it. I still have to suppress a startled "Waaak!" when I see people I've never met calling it Zick Dough on their blogs. I keep forgetting that we're all out there, introducing ourselves, every day.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Did You See the Sky Last Night?

The storm front that brought such destruction to the states just south of us brought us terrible winds in the wee hours of February 6, winds that it seemed would tear the roof off the house. I spoke with a friend from down the road, whose house also tops a hill, and she said she lay awake all night, unable to get this image out of her head: That the wind would take the roof off her house and suck her two youngest daughters out of their cribs. I lay awake with similar thoughts, constructing disaster scenarios. Finally I got up and paced from window to window, my limbic system having taken over completely. I muttered like a mother lion, thinking about how and when I should take the kids to the basement, knowing that I'd never see a twister coming in the inky darkness. We all ended up in bed together, Baker too, listening. He is stunningly unfazed by lightning or thunder, high winds or rain. But he comforts where he can.

All the storm brought us was rain, some creek and river flooding, and a sunset of unbelievable beauty and majesty. It was like an apology for the terror of the night before. It all started yesterday evening with a sudden downpour, a burst of late sun, and a big fat rainbow, plunging down behind our pear tree.

Ranks of puffy thunderheads marched away off to the southwest, over our meadow. Creamy clouds are ever my favorites.
I shot a lot of creamy cloud photos, and realized we had better get our hineys up in the tower to get the best views, because this was going to be one humdinger of a sunset. There, we discovered a lavender and pink wonderland unseen from the ground, off to the north. I wish I could tell you how those distant ridges looked, lit with peach and apricot. This picture only hints at it all. It's not often you see steely clouds march across a flamingo-pink backdrop.
One little red cloud rose up in the southwest sky, seemingly still inflamed from the previous night's battle.
I whipped back around to the north to see more alpenglow and pink fantasy. I felt I was missing something no matter which way I faced.
Now it was getting serious off to the west. The kids and I were freezing in the rapidly dropping temperature; the wind was still whipping. I stripped off my coat to wrap Liam up and kept shooting.
A closeup of that coral tornado:Here's the wispy underlit backdrop to the pink tornado. At this point we were howling in appreciation.
I think the name I put on this jpeg is sunsetjustridiculous20608:
Finally, everything went kind of steely with just licks of crimson and rose, and suddenly the show was over. We were all breathless with cold and catharsis. These clouds looked to us like dragon heads, coming to eat the sun. Or, as Liam said, "A Triceratops, biting off a piece of plant."
It's hard to know what to do with sunset photos. I take a lot of them, but rarely find a way to say much of worth about them. Sunsets just are. Their beauty is so intense, yet fleeting, that I feel I have to make some homage to it. I have to do something about it. And so I run out and take photo after photo, and then I run up to the top of our tower and take more. It's cool to be able to capture just a little bit of it and share it here, but putting a winter sunset in a rectangle never does it justice. It's like looking at a still from a movie, minus the action and music. It's being bathed in that glow, feeling part of some unique and irreplaceable natural happening in 360-degree panorama that makes my heart race. I spent today in the company of two of my best girlfriends, and both of them led off our separate conversations with, "Did you see the sky last night?? I wanted to call you!"

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Nannyberry Robins

Robins have never left our area this winter. It's been a long time since the robins hung around all winter. I often wonder if they know something we don't about the relative severity of a winter. Then I remember that it's all about food. Although most of Ohio was in a bad drought last summer, we got a bunch of small showers that made it less severe in our area. As a result, there's still a lot of fruit in the woods. So there are a lot of robins and waxwings, flickers and hermit thrushes. About ten days ago, I was shocked to see a brown thrasher hurtle across the driveway in front of me. And yesterday, there was a jay-sized bird tossing sunflower and millet along with the jays--but entirely the wrong color.It was our first winter brown thrasher. Thrashers usually migrate to the southern US in winter, but a few hang around here and there. Seeing such wonders, I tend not to think of some freaky trend due to global warming. I think about fruit crops.What a fine sight, one I usually have to wait until March 16-28 to see. When the thrasher sings, though, spring is truly here. This one has been silent.

I see robins every time I walk, but on this sunny walk I was lucky enough to see them foraging in a viburnum. I may be mistaken, but I think this is Viburnum lentago, or nannyberry. Thanks to Tom from Ohio and Tom from Wisconsin (if I ever get a Science Chimp, I'll name him Tom) for steering me in the right direction on that ID!   It's a big bush, maybe 12 feet high, and I could tell it was a viburnum by its opposite branches. And that was about as far as I got. But with guidance from the Toms and the gorgeous web site of the Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin, I think we've got it nailed down.

They were leaning over, plucking the big black fruits and choking them down, giggling and whisper-singing like robins do in February.Robins tend to migrate in same-sex flocks, at different times from each other. I love early spring, when the all-male flocks come through. It must be nice for the birds to meet up again on the breeding ground after having hen and bachelor parties all winter. These were mostly females, with their paler breasts, laced with white feather tips. But there was a handsome black-headed male in among them, too. What a thrilling bird the robin is. I have never once been tempted to take robins for granted. I always look and marvel at these hearty big thrushes, and I'm thankful that they are so common. What a great bird, to be so common. That it has one of the most simply eloquent songs of all is just perfection on perfection. George Sutton said his favorite song of all was that of a robin, right after a thundershower. At the risk of being a copycat, me too, me too.

Other things seen on our sunny walk: The Slingshot Tree (Phoebe's name). Maybe Giant John could use it. I'd love to know what happened to this tree, to shape it so.
As we made our way home along Dalzell Road, we paused to rest in the fragrant needles under some white pines. Phoebe and Chet watched for squirrels and the infrequent cars that came along (hence Chet's unaccustomed confinement to a leash). In six four-mile hikes, he's only taken off after deer once, and he came right back. When we're on unfamiliar ground, Chet sticks close. The more walks we take, the farther he ranges, learning things untold about our route. It's good to have a dog you can trust to come back. But you'll never be able to trust him to come back unless you make that leap to trust him in the first place. Just in case, I carry acorn caps in my pockets. A pair of thumbs on an acorn cap makes an ear-piercing whistle that always brings Chet hustling. The leash only comes out when there are dogs, cars or cattle near.
Liam sacked out in the sweet carpet of needles, little lizardboy. Everyone who drove by stared at us. It's very unusual to see families out walking in this area. Everyone assumes there must be something wrong, for people to be on foot. So we give them bright smiles and happy waves to tell them there's no need to stop. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

I spent some time contemplating my Smartwool socks--the only sock worth wearing--and Keen Cortina Mid boots. After only a year and a half, I had worn the soles almost completely smooth, rendering these fine boots useless for the steep slopes along which I scramble. The uppers, made of split leather, aren't anywhere near wearing out; they're just getting broken in. Keen's not making this model any more. To my chagrin, all of Keen's new hiking boots seem to be Goretexy creations, still nice, but too sneakerlike for the harsh handling I give them. So, for about half the price of a new pair, I had them resoled at Cobbler John's in town. They ground what was left of the soles off them, and glued on new Vibram soles, with good luggy treads. Kind of like getting a crown for a worn tooth. Now I have grip again. I need grip, like I need robins, and winter walks in the infrequent sun.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Tired Barns

I have borrowed from Robert Frost's "Birches" for the first two and a half lines. The rest is straight out of Whipple. I am moved by the primitive, elegiac beauty of tired barns. No one's making them any more, and I hope not to see the day they all have fallen down.

When I see barns lean to left and right
Along the lines of straighter, cleaner sheds
I like to think the years have granted them perspective
of a kind denied the newly-built.
A point of view, born of knowing
the things new sheds can never comprehend.
The bleat of a lamb, newly born
Left across the field by its foolish dam
The siding strains, calling back.
Afterbirth and greasepot
Rope, sweet hay, pigeon feathers
Carcass hanging, gleaming corn and chaffy oats.
What is kept in the galvanized shed?
A car, a lawnmower, cans and bottles
Tools and tires.

The wood barn leans over, listening
For hoofbeats, the cluck and slap of reins
Gentle belch of cowcud, new chicken peep
The rolling sigh of blue doves.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Liam's First Fossil

The chestnut oak acorns were sprouting bright red roots as of December 21. The roots are well sunk in the soil less than a month later. Try to pick up this acorn, and you will have to pull it. I revisit it with each walk. There is such life and vigor in a seed.

I've taken six walks on the new ground lately, two of them accompanied by Phoebe and Liam. They love walking, and they never complain. Liam may do some broad, falling-down slapstick about how tired he is, but he plays it for attention and laughs, and loves leading us the whole way.
On Saturday, as he watched me ease down a particularly steep, muddy slope sideways, he said,

"No offense, Mommy. No offense. But you look like an old grandma going down this hill. And aren't you just a little too old to do those awesome moves that you're doing? No offense."

"Well, if I'm such an old grandma, how come I have to keep stopping and waiting for you to catch up?"

That made him laugh. I have to say that walking three or four miles over rough and uneven ground several days a week feels great. It's not running a marathon, and it's not fast or flashy, but the sights are so fine, and it makes me feel strong and sane. Come late spring, when the fields get too high to wade through, I'll get my exercise mowing, raking, gardening, checking bluebird boxes and hanging out laundry, and my sights will narrow to what's around the yard and meadows. I love covering ground in winter. It's good to have a reason to appreciate winter.

Crossing a little stream, Liam spotted something in the water. He came running back to us, all afire, his eyes like saucers. "You have got to come with me RIGHT NOW becauseIthinkIfoundaDINOSAURFOSSIL!!!He's been reading enough paleontological lore that he knows that streambeds are a good place to find fossils. And there it lay, glimmering in the rushing water. Liam's first dinosaur fossil.

The Science Chimp in me leapt up, screaming happily, and was just as quickly muzzled. Suddenly, I wasn't so sure just what kind of creature might have once used this jawbone.

Liam examined the teeth, and decided it must have been a plant-eater. Check. The Chimp agreed.
He studied it and studied it.He smiled a secret smile, whispering, "My first dinosaur fossil."
He turned to me, saying, "Smell it, Mommy! It takes you all the way back to prehistory, and you can tell what kind of dinosaur it came from, tyrannosaur or a felociraptor or maybe a longneck!" And it did have a wild, earthy scent, the smell of mystery and uncertainty, of moss and soil and creekwater. This picture makes me weep.

For a shining week, that jawbone went everywhere with Liam. I had a flutter of misgiving when he took it to school for show-and-tell the following Friday. This Monday morning, he's home with me, suffering once again from a stomach virus. (This time, I was pathetically grateful to find he had only anointed his bed at 2:13 AM Saturday, instead of the hall carpet. Beds I can wash. Carpet thus soiled makes me beat my breast and tear my hair.)

In the course of conversation in the studio this morning, Liam said, "When I took my fossil on the bus, Jeremy and Chase said it was a deer jaw."

"Really!" :-/

"And Sue (the bus driver) said she thought it might be, too, but only a little bit."

(Sue is very kind. The two boys tend not to be.) "Who's Chase?" I asked.

"Oh, he's this tricky, kinda not-nice kid. I know he's older than me, I think. Are you imagining him as a boy? Because he is."

"Yes, I had him imagined as a boy. So what do you think that jaw bone is?"

"I still think it's a dinosaur. What do you think it is?"

"I'm just not sure. I still think maybe it's from a dinosaur."

"Thank you for understanding my feelings. I think Chase is kind of a liar.
He said, 'Thet bone raht thar is a DEER JAW.' And he always tricks me."

Thus, we learn. But hope stays alive, and flutters in the breast.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Heading for New Ground

As much as I love The Loop, I've been walking it for 15 years now, long enough to make a narrow depression of compacted soil in a wavering line on my route. It's the kind of little trench you see along the perimeter of the lynx's enclosure at the zoo. I've been longing lately to walk in a straight line, as straight as the brambles and steep topography will allow, and end up somewhere I've never been before. So one fine January day I did just that. I had to open and close a couple of gates, wriggle under a barbed wire fence or two, but oh, the feeling of walking into unknown ground. A pair of pileated woodpeckers swooped in front of me; a flock of bluebirds gobbled down smilax fruit. A yellow-bellied sapsucker yelped from a red maple trunk. The sun gave a rare warmth and I actually broke a sweat. Turning around to look over my shoulder back toward the house, this is what I saw. It's good to make your legs do what they're meant for, to cover ground. I like to pretend I'm in North Dakota when I take this walk. Big expanses of grass are kind of hard to find in Appalachia. Since that first day, I've done this walk five more times, discovering new things each time. I've had to work around some pretty gloomy, rainy, cold weather, but I've grabbed the chance to go out whenever I could. Chet Baker heartily approves. I've noticed that his limpy left hind leg, which never completely cleared up from last winter, was much worse on the first long walk we took than on subsequent ones. I'd like to think he starts out stiff and limbers up the more exercise we get. Chet loves to jump up on tree trunks like a cat, testing his balance as he walks out to the end.
I like to look for last summer's nests, thinking about what I'll hear singing here come May. Here's a wood thrush nest. Wood thrushes often leave long streamers of grass and leaves hanging down below the cup, which turns out to be good camouflage. It looks like the kind of debris a flood leaves hanging in trees.
Cardinals make pretty, airy nests out of fine sticks. They're hard to find in summer, because cardinals like to build their nests in dense vegetation, but you can bust them in winter.
There was a new calf in Carl's pasture this day. It seems awfully cruel to be dropped on frozen ground, to have to stand out in the winter rains, but somehow the littlest calves seem to pull through. His momma was licking him all over. These cattle have a barn to go to, and I hope they use it. The black Angus is the daddy, but it's not ol' Buck. This is the feisty young bull we see as we wait for the bus. I must find out what his name is.
Robins are everywhere this winter. They never left us. But then wild fruits are everywhere, too, and there's still plenty for them to eat in the woods, especially along the river bottoms. If we don't get a prolonged ice storm, the robins should be all right. It's only a few weeks until they'd be coming through on spring migration, anyway.
Smilax's black fruits are a major robin food source. As annoying as greenbriar is to try to walk through (hint: don't even try. Catclaw is another good name for it), it's a lifesaver for robins and bluebirds in winter. Waxwings love them, too.
Shila, Phoebe and Liam came along, and, lizardlike, Phee found some sun-warmed rocks where she could bask.
When did this happen? When did my girl become so long and lanky? I never could wear skinny jeans. Failing a leg transplant, I'm sure I never will. But they were made for her.
We came to a fresh runnel of spring-melted water, perfect for sailing leaf boats. The kids scrambled after sycamore leaves, curled and sturdy. And just as quickly, Chet Baker scrambed after their little boats, grabbing them, taking them and crunching them up. It was the finest game for a Boston terrier on a springlike day in winter.Your boat will sail no more. I, Chet Baker, have snatched it from the water, and I will snatch the next one, and the next one too. And I will crunch them beyond recognition. Sail more boats. I will crunch those, too.

Wet to the brisket, Baker paused to bask and pose.
Oh, sweet doggie. In the kitchen as I write, I can hear him cleaning up his second bowl of kibble, drowned in homemade beef stew. I had to re-up his dinner so he'd give Bill some peace. He pesters Bill from the moment he walks in the door until bedtime, wanting to play. It reminds me of when the kids were little, and Daddy was Mr. Fun.
I am sure there is a chipmunk under this big rock. I can smell him.
I know there is a squirrel up this tree. I can smell him, too.
Shila and I wandered around like sun-dazzled robins, turning our faces to the unaccustomed warmth and light.
When we put our hands in this rosette of wooly mullein leaves, it was like touching an electric blanket. If I were a bumblebee, that's where I'd sleep.
I looked up and saw one last leaf clinging...or was it a luna moth cocoon?The last thing the luna caterpillar does as a caterpillar is to put a thick coating of silk on the petiole of a leaf, to keep it from falling when all the other leaves fall. It cements the leaf to its twig, then uses silk to wrap the leaf around itself for the transformation into a pupa. See how the actual leaf petiole is sticking out to the left? That's another tipoff this is a luna cocoon--it's suspended by pure silver strands of silk. That luna is lucky I'm not a hungry titmouse.

Come May, the emerging moth will secrete enzymes from what ought to be its mouth (it can't actually feed), and those enzymes will melt the steel-tough silk cocoon wall, and a ghostly green luna will emerge. That is, if no titmouse hammers in first. I check this cocoon every time I walk in the hollow. It's still hanging tough.

Finally, we turned for home. When we broke out onto the big hayfield, Baker marked his territory and scratched divots of turf behind him.I think he feels just like I do about our new walking route: invigorated and ready to discover more and more. He runs until he's a little black dot, then runs back to check on me.

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