Sunday, November 30, 2008

Birding Guyana's Coast

We might as well start with the chicken pot pie. In my packing frenzy as I prepared for ten days in Guyana, South America, I also went into a cooking frenzy. Realizing that baking is not one of Bill of the Birds' myriad fortes, I left instructions on the fully assembled but uncooked pie. Sure enough, he called me at the airport to ask me how long he should bake it. "Just take the pie out of the fridge and look at it!"

There followed a series of long flights, a 10:30 PM arrival at the one-gate Georgetown airport, an 11:30 PM arrival at the Grand Coastal Hotel an hour away, and a comatose night. At 5:30 the next morning, we left for our first outing, a pattern that would continue for the entire ten-day trip: rising in the dark to constant motion until it was time to collapse back into bed. Our destination was a marshy savannah within earshot of Guyana's coast. Here, birds like laughing falcons, named for their ha-ha-hoo-hoo call, stand sentinel on palm trunks.
before flying off.
There's nothing like a laughing falcon anywhere in the States, but we do have snail kites--an endangered species, found only in the Florida Everglades. In Guyana, they sit all over the powerlines, diving down occasionally to nab an apple snail from a roadside ditch. It's nice to see them being all abundant. This is an immature snail kite.
We'll see it use its specialized hooked bill in a future post.

We had a couple of target birds for this outing, found only in Guyana. One was the blood-colored woodpecker, a small bird which cleverly eluded us for the entire trip, showing only bits of itself before winging away, as if headed for Venezuela. I managed to photograph the back and wings of an immature female. I'm told the male is a real stunner. Still, you can see some red on her back.
All told, this is typical of my Guyanan bird photos. Now, I got some dandies, but the vast majority of the 2000 exposures I made were garbage. This was without doubt the most challenging environment for photography I've ever encountered: hot and humid as anyplace I've ever been, with a blinding bright sky and deep dark jungles, thick with tangled greenery. Most of the birds were right up against that blinding sky, smack dab in the middle of a vine tangle, or just under the canopy of the deep dark jungle against the bright bright sky. Suffice it to say I learned a lot about the limitations of a camera in these conditions.

Another Georgetown specialty: the white-bellied piculet, sort of like a miniature woodpecker, the size of a small nuthatch. Here's the female, preening. It's OK if you yawn. We were pretty excited, but then we're birders, and the word "endemic" (found nowhere else on the planet) gets our hearts pumping, no matter what the bird looks like.
The male dresses it up with a red forecrown, but he is careful to hide behind sticks.
Even those of us with huge lenses succumbed to the conditions, and even got all balled up in our gear from time to time. Here's Michael Weedon, Associate Editor for England's Birdwatching Magazine, trying to figure out which strap goes to which so he can get his camera free. He toted the most gear of any of us, and thanks to that scope and a pocket camera, also got some of the best pictures, I daresay.
We moved on from the white-bellied piculet to something more powerful: a crimson-crested woodpecker, member of the exalted genus Campephilus, and thus a cousin to our much sought-after ivory-billed woodpecker. Just a peek, but the stance is soooo familiar:
Oh, please come out. I need to see you.
Oooh! Look at your beautiful head!
Thank you. Everything about you, your huge semi-circular claws and your powerful bill, your erect carriage and your proud crest, haunts me, reminds me of what might yet be in our southern swamps.

Because there were lots of things like iguanas
and tegus (a life lizard for me!)
scurrying in the savannah forest, there were lots of things like this rufous crab hawk sitting around scanning for prey. This is a dandy huge gorgeous beast, perfectly lit and situated for his portrait, and, like the piculet, careful to have several branches in front of him for good composition.
OK, now, try to get me flying through the same branches. Good work.
His main dietary item appears as dots in this photo. Like the snail kite, he's surrounded by food all the time. Every dot in this picture is a fiddler crab. Yum!
The marshes in Guyana are themselves often dotted with the beautiful little pied water-tyrant, a member of the flycatcher family, which has speciated wildly in South America. There were two full pages of flycatchers in our Guyana checklist, and my eyes glazed over when trying to identify most of them. I prefer tyrants to many other flycatchers, because they are so unequivocally marked.
Female and immature pied water tyrants have some black on head, back and wings.
A good male will knock your socks off. I am not sure what the adaptive value of being so obvious might be. It is not obvious to me.
Our guide to all this beauty was Andy Narine, a Rastafarian birder of East Indian (to distinguish from West Indian) extraction.He's one of the leaders in Guyanan birding, keen of eye and ear and encyclopedic of knowledge. His lilting Caribbean accent lapsed freely into musical Creole, gorgeous and sometimes hilarious to hear. We were definitely not in Kansas any more.
Showing us birds all the way, Andy led us along the coast, where an unexpected dot of scarlet resolved into my life scarlet ibis. I cannot tell you how exciting it was to have a flourescent red bird appear out of nowhere. I was jabbering and hooting and hollering. Pure, vibrant color does that to me, and life birds do that to me, but give me a life bird that is a pure, vibrant color and Sally bar the door.

Again, adaptive value of this flaming color: unknown. Just beautiful, that's all.
Terry Moore of Leica was kind enough to dial Bill on his cell phone and hand it to me so I could stutter, "Scarlet ibis!!" to my surprised mate. It would be the last time we'd speak for ten days.

Too soon, it was time to drop Andy off at his office, where he heads a natural history society. Thanks so much, Andy Narine. You are awesome and 'ital, mon.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

More Dog Togs

In all the flap about dog togs, I should explain that there is, at least in my mind, a difference between putting a shirt on your Boston terrier occasionally, in the privacy of your own home and yard, and taking that dog out in public dressed. (We'll ignore, for the moment, the incongruity that, while I wouldn't be caught dead walking my dressed dog down Front Street, I happily show him and his stylin' sweaters and shirts to 25,000 people on this blog...)

Ignoring that slight disjunction, think of it as the difference between cross-dressing for kicks at home, and performing a full-on drag act on stage.

I spotted this poodle at King's Kreamy Kreations (yes, that's the real name, and no, I don't know why they couldn't spell it King's Creamy Creations) in downtown Marietta three summers ago. She seemed pretty happy, even though her slightest motion produced a tappity tap tap sound from her tiny bound feet, stuffed into shiny vinyl shoes. I couldn't take my eyes off that dog. I was convinced that this is the kind of thing that makes dogs turn on their owners and rip them to pieces in the night. Don't you see something ready to snap in those eyes? Maybe I was projecting onto that sweet little ball of curly fluff, but to me this is just wrong. Shoes for a search and rescue dog who works so hard he wears his pads off, sure, but shoes for fun? Nope. We're interfering with normal locomotion here, and for what? Just to be cute? Big thumbs down from the Animal Fashion Police.

At the fair this past fall we were sitting on a bench minding our own business when a couple pushed a stroller right up to us. They had big smiles on their faces and they obviously wanted us to admire their The Yorkie looked utterly dejected, her ears pasted back and her eyes ashamed. She was wearing a pink dress, and worse than that, she was riding in a stroller, at the fair no less, when there were so many wonderful things to smell and taste all around her. I have little doubt that she needed a stroller because she refused to try to walk in the dress.Maybe it's the bow, maybe it's the gaggy pink, maybe it's denying a healthy, energetic terrier the right to use its muscles and walk for Pete's sake, but it was all I could do not to ask the owners what they could possibly be thinking. I forced a wan smile, whispered  my condolences to the Yorkie, and looked away. Phoebe and Liam crooned in sympathy. This is not a doll, this is not a baby; this is an animal, and she has the right to her dignity. Looking in their gleaming eyes, seeing their proud smiles, I could see that the owners were much too far gone to reach, so I let it go, reminding myself that if this dog lived in China or Peru, she might be dinner, so by comparison she had it pretty good. Being called someone's "furkid" beats stirfry any day.

And so I leave you with my double standard. It's a bit complex, so I'll spell it out. By my double standard, it's OK to put a shirt on Chet occasionally for a few minutes
to snap a couple of pictures, as long as he seems to be having fun

Mether? Are you done yet? This 3T human toddler shirt binds me at the legpits. Clothes designed for dogs are better. And you need to know that this pumpkin you carved looks like a pig.

but shoes and strollers and pink dresses on other people's dogs, nuh-uhhhn.

Hypocritical? You bet. I'm splitting tiny black Boston terrier hairs here and I know it.

Happy Thanksgiving, Chet Baker fans everywhere. It is so good to be home and receiving kisses and cuddles from my Human Kids and my Human Husband and my little black doggeh once again. Can you tell I read The New Work of Dogs by Jon Katz in one sitting on the plane to Guyana? Highly recommended, especially for those of us who can't help blurring the human/dog line now and then.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dogs in Togs

Some weeks ago, a gauntlet was thrown down by the estimable KatDoc, a woman of many and strong opinions, bolstered by her built-in white-coated authority as a Veterinarian, a Woman of Medicine. Yea, even though I hold veterinarians in higher esteem than human physicians, I quailed not.

Her words:

"Dogs in clothes - just so - so ...


Sorry, but I am an anti-clothes person when it comes to canines. Just never saw the cute in it."

~Kathi, ducking and running for cover from all the things being thrown at her by the haute-dog-couture set

There followed a peppery response from Mether, to the effect that it takes a Boston terrier to pull off a polo shirt, and nobody would want to dress up an ol' Rottweiler (Kathi's chosen breed) anyway.

It was all in good fun, and though she tries and tries, KatDoc has never managed to offend me. I resolved to torture her with some Dogs in Togs. And so I bring you Chet Baker, Fearless Deer Hunter and Polo Shirt Model.

No dog enjoys the act of being dressed, but Chet submits quietly.
He's still a bit ambivalent, but a turned-up collar gets him the attention he loves.
He turns to give Daddeh a toddler hug
followed by an exuberant kiss.
He settles back down, but from his elevated perch, notices a white-tailed deer in the meadow.
He lights out after it, and the doe stands stock-still, agog at what she must think is a two-year-old human child tearing like a red, white and blue streak toward her. He's hidden by the goldenrod here, but he's as close as he's ever gotten to a deer before she finally bounds off, doubtless still wondering what sort of little centaur child is after her.
If I had not had this shirt on I would have caught that deer.
I know I would have caught her.One of these days I am going to catch a deer and bring it home for you to cook. You dress me up like a child but I am a hunter inside, a very good hunter.Yes you are, Chet Baker, and your dignity is not diminished in the least by your fabulous polo shirt. You are fierce, and you are working that shirt for all you've got.

And somewhere, a deer is snorting quietly.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Time Warp

In the special wrinkle in time that is my life lately, I post about leaving just as I am returning from a ten-day trip to Guyana. If that doesn't make your head hurt, nothing will.

Chet Baker hates it when I pack. Much as he loves the rest of the family, he is My Dog, and he doesn't let anyone forget it. I have taken to scattering dog beds in every room so he can sleep at my feet while I work. When I'm gone, I'm told he spends hours sitting at the foyer window watching the driveway, my own personal Greyfriars Bobby.

So when I began gearing up for this trip (from which I am now recovering), Chet Baker parked himself in the suitcase, a time-honored cat trick to keep one's owner from packing properly.

Who could leave a doggeh as cute as me?
This suitcase provides the perfect support for chewing my dinosaur.
I think you should leave it here for me all the time, and never take it on airplane trips.
Because you cannot take me, Chet Baker, on airplanes.
As you read this, Chet Baker is undoubtedly greeting Mether with multiple face washings, and making unpacking just as interesting as packing was.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Who's the Scariest?

Andy and Jess' house was done up, all four floors of it, with Heaven on the top floor, all soft music and gauzy fabric and blue lights...My fellow Swinging Orangutang Vinnie and I take five in Heaven.

The basement of the house was Hell. There was a very nasty torture chamber down there. Oddly enough, I felt equally comfortable in both places, although after awhile Hell got to me and I went back to Heaven.
Andy and Jess had worked for weeks, with the help of Matt and Ali, to transform their warm and pleasant house into something Other for this party. The basement was undeniably creepy. Andy confessed to me that his childhood dream was to make monsters for the movies. He'd be real, real good at it.

Speaking of scary...Bill of the Birds was voted Scariest.
I cannot imagine why, unless it had to do with the fact that he was 6'8 in that wig, and he slammed his costume together the night of the party. He's always been good at improv. We took separate cars to the party, and when he walked in I had a laughing fit that lasted a good 15 minutes.
Here, he's talking with Zane, who did a very convincing turn as roadkill, complete with tire tracks and litter pasted all over his otherwise natty attire. Half his teeth are gone, and his glasses are shattered. Beautiful. Here, he's talking with Hef.
Margaret was a new mom, not a huge stretch for may remember her as Oona's mommy. She's got a big glass of Mother's Little Helper to get her through.
She had a crib mattress strapped to her back, covered with the accoutrements of motherhood, most of them having to do with poo management.
Robert Smith from The Cure made the scene. Every time someone pointed a camera at him he stopped laughing and smiling and fell right into character.
Although he did let down his guard once, for me.
A naughty schoolgirl from Kill Bill.
has a conversation with the Lizard King, who happens to be our next-door neighbor and fellow musician.
A little klatsch of witches in the living room.
And a very happy caveman, enjoying the company of his friends and a cold brewski. Gotta love Hef's artless hand, draped over the couch...
I love my creative friends so much sometimes it hurts.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Halloween Fun

I know. Halloween's a long way away. And so am I. I'm sitting at home by the fireside canning blogposts on a quiet November Sunday afternoon. Bill's in Texas. Phoebe's curled up with a book, Liam's reading; Chet is chewing a Nylabone at my feet. As I write, I'm looking forward to a ten-day natural history trip to Guyana, to not having to think about my blog for ten whole days.

So I'm looking back and writing ahead, picking and choosing topics that will sustain the effort in my absence. I'd love to think that at some point I could relax about it all and just go, leave a little note on my virtual door, Gone Birding. I'm not there yet. True or not, I believe that all my readers would up and leave if I were to do that, lovely as it sounds.

And so I give you some images from Halloween past, a wonderful costume party thrown by our fabulous friends Jess and Andy. Jess is a Muse, which is appropriate for a singer, musician and voice/piano teacher--My Voice Teacher!!, and Andy is a Pastafarian. He has a Flying Spaghetti Monster on his shirt, but his dreads hide it. This link is why I love Wikipedia.
Lots of people look great on Halloween. They manage to be slightly menacing or odd and alluring at the same time. Cathy and Martha are prime examples of this approach.As is Andrea.Clay as Cool Hand Luke definitely qualifies. He's carrying a specimen that he drinks from.Sarah made the scene, palin around with terrorists. (Stole that line from the Kinsey Sicks).

I happen to think Halloween should be scary, and Bill and I dress accordingly.BOO!

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Dog, the Cow and the Nest

Now that Chet Baker comprehends English, I have great fun with our one-way conversations.

Chet Baker. Do you know what's going to happen today?
Later on, Shila's (ears prick, big smile) coming over and we're going to take a WALK!
Frisk, frisk, boing, boing, whee!
Nobody loves a walk more than Chet Baker, unless it's me and Shila.

Chet's getting much better in responding to voice commands, unless there is a cat, a squirrel, a coon or a cow around. So the lead comes out when there are cattle around. In the fall, our neighbor puts his breeding herd of beeves on the pasture near our mailbox, which we must cross in order to visit the beaver pond.

You had better have that little heathen on a leash, Missy.(Rising to her feet) You know that we have a new calf here, right?Yes, Mrs. Cow. He will be on the lead for the foreseeable future. Sorry to disturb.

We happen to think that your animal is ill-mannered, and we disapprove...

Yes, Mrs. Cow. We're leaving now. Please resume your cud-chewing.

The wind brought a field sparrow nest out into the path in our meadow. Only the field sparrow builds this angular structure of blonde stems, perfectly uniform and distinctive in its simplicity.
This nest has rather more base structure than one usually sees in a field sparrow nest; I think it may have been on the ground, as I look at it. It had caught a bright sumac leaflet in lieu of an egg.

More faux eggs--a sturdy brown thrasher nest lodged in a multiflora rosebush had a mouse's stash within--hickory nuts that will never hatch.
The multiflora hips, highlighted against a barn. What is that color? Oxblood? It's so far beyond barn red, well into alizarin crimson, so beautiful. Nobody's painting barns that color any more.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Autumn Rambles

Before it gets any later in the year, I had better share an autumn walk that Shila and I took on November 5, sort of a post-election celebration. We were both too keyed up and excited to get much done, and when it hits 72 in the first week of November, you can't just stay home hunkered over a smoking computer. Even now, as I write this on November 9, these photos look hopelessly verdant and lush. In the last two days, almost all the leaves have cascaded to the ground. They hung on as long as they could. I can't remember a fall when there wasn't a big rain and wind event in October that ripped the beautiful leaves off the trees. This fall, they hung on until they got tired, and one gentle rain November 7 took them to the ground. That's OK, I guess, but I miss them terribly. I'm not ready for the bare skeleton of winter.
This maple left a golden puddle beneath it. The huge pin oak by our mailbox dropped every leaf it owned overnight on November 8, and my Japanese maples have done the same.

We decided to walk to the beaver pond, to see what preparations they've made for winter. They have a huge larder of branches and twigs piled outside the lodge.
They'll spend cold days inside the warm lodge, diving in every now and then to grab a branch from the larder, which they'll haul up inside the lodge to eat in safety and comfort. How I would love to see inside the lodge, especially when the kits are born.

Chet Baker loves the beaver pond, but he sprinted on up the road to see what else he could see. I've quoted it before, but I always sing this Joni Mitchell verse when I watch Chet Baker in motion.

Well I'm learning
It's peaceful
With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown of the century
You're not gonna fix that up
Too easily


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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Babysitting Baker

photo by Nina of Nature Remains

I often wish I could take Chet Baker everywhere I go. I have known people who take their dogs everywhere, and I am not one of them. For one thing, I like to eat in restaurants. Americans have a pathological fear of dogs where food is concerned, and one could no more bring a dog into a restaurant than walk in wearing only underwear. What's the big deal? Are dogs dirty? Liable to jump atop the tables and steal the steak? Dangerous? I dunno. Go figure. At home, Baker sits at the table with us, but out in the eating public, he's strictly verboten. So when we travel with Baker during the summer, and it's far too hot to leave him in the car, one of us (guess who) usually sits outside holding Chet on his lead while the others order and eat inside. Ridiculous, but that's how it goes. He oughta be sitting there in that vinyl booth with Mether, sharing the veal parmigiana.

American hotels are slowly getting up to speed on the fact that people love to travel with their pets. Still, in this part of the country, "pet friendly" hotels are not the lavish doggie paradises you always see described in the newspaper, the ones with special beds for the dogs and butlers bearing gourmet dog biscuits. Nope, the pet friendly hotels around here tend to be a little tatty around the edges, and they still charge you extra, and they won't let you leave your dog in the room while you're gone. So you're still reduced to sitting outside the restaurant with a leash in your hand when you have to leave the room. So they're more like "marginally pet-tolerant" hotels.

However. When I get a chance to travel with Chet Baker, I will do almost anything to make it possible. If I have to give up the lavish B&B for the tatty hotel, that's fine with me. He's worth it.

Nina of Nature Remains had written months before my Clermont County visit to offer me lodging in her luxurious and lovely little guest house, and I boldly inquired about bringing The Bacon along. She said that would be fine, and I didn't have to beg. I suspected that Nina would love The Bacon, and that proved true.

On my first night, Clermont Northeastern's science teacher and conservation sparkplug Melody Newman hosted a get-together for 2o or so like-minded teachers, conservationists and friends, a kind of potluck welcome dinner. Since it was in a private facility, Chet Baker was allowed to attend. He spent most of the dinner cadging bits of lasagna from Susan Gets Native, who captured this wonderful shot of me with my Mental Therapy Dog. See how hard he's working to keep me centered? Little dog, BIG job.fabboo photo by Susan K. Williams

I have this long-range plan, when accepting speaking engagements, to become increasingly obtuse and difficult, and to then reveal that, in order to fulfill my obligations, I MUST be accompanied by my Mental Therapy Dog. If Chet Baker is with me, everything will go well. If not, well, then, it's anybody's guess what might happen. Might come to the gig in my Nick and Nora Sugar Skulls PJ's; might speak extemporaneously and off-topic, might have to be carried off stage while reciting Hoosier poetry in dialect. Just let me have my dog with me and everything will go fine. Think it'll work?

Having revealed my Excellent Plan, I will say that prudence prevented me from bringing Chet Baker to CNE Middle School. I knew very well that, should he accompany me into the gymnasium, anything I said would fall on 600 deaf ears. Those kids would be watching the dog, nothing more, and if he so much as twitched his nose, there'd be little whispers: "Look! He twitched his nose!" I would be background noise to the Real Star.

So Nina offered to babysit Chet Baker on her day off, an arrangement Chet thought was grand.

Nina's beautiful place has Squirtles (two species!) and Chiptymunks, more than any Boston terrier could even dream of seeing. He spent most of the day watching and some of it chasing. It was heaven. Not only that, but Nina is every bit as graceful and beautiful as her writing, and Chet Baker gravitated toward her.

photo by Nina

She took some pictures of His Bakerness while Mether was away. This is Baker's Blue period.

And here he is in gold. photo by Nina

Nina thought he was missing Mether in this shot, but I think that if you popped open a little door in that skull there would be a picture of a squirrel inside.

Nina and Anton took spectacular care of us, even to the point of sending their beloved (large and exuberant) doggeh to a favorite friend's house while we were there. We rambled around the property, basking in the late autumn sun, wishing we had days together instead of hours.
Thank you, Nina, for hosting us, for gathering Kathi and Susan to your lovely home on Sunday night, and for the gorgeous blog you give us each day.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Red Bat!

Just being in the woods with 25 people is an experience. The ways in which I normally sense things have to be recalibrated. Because 25 people make a lot of noise, listening for birdcalls or tiny scufflings in the leaves is out. But I can still look, and 25 pairs of eyes can look, too. We looked at an old hickory that had been struck by lightning, and was now healing along the blaze mark, wrapping fresh wood around a rotting inner core.

I decided to ask the students to look at the woods through the eyes of a worm-eating warbler. Worm-eating warblers (here's one of my drawings of a female tending her nest)
specialize in finding insects, spiders, egg sacs and larvae hiding in hanging dead leaf clusters. Until you look at the woods through a worm-eating warbler's eyes, you'd never dream how many hanging dead leaf clusters you could find to plunder for food. So I asked the kids to think like a bird, a bird which makes its living clinging upside down to dead leaf clusters, looking for whatever lives inside them. We went from cluster to cluster, prying them apart and seeing what was inside. And there was a spider or an egg sac in nearly every one. Calls of "I found one!" rang out through the golden woods. And then came the call from Caitlin Adams: "I found a BAT!"
Everyone froze and hurried over to Caitlin's side. She had indeed found a bat, hanging upside down right beside a leaf cluster. Well, how about that! A bat. A BAT!! And not just any bat, but a Red Bat. My Favorite Bat of All. One I have seen countless times, but only on the wing. Oh, how I have longed for a better look at a red bat. And now, thanks to Caitlin and Mrs. Newman and Clermont Northeastern Middle School which owns these beautiful woods she helped to save from the lumber mill, here was a red bat hanging right at eye level from a sugar maple leaf for all the world to see.

Lasiurus borealis is one of the tree bats, family Vespertilionidae. Red bats occur across the eastern two-thirds of North America, and they are more common than you'd think, but they don't live in colonies; they're solitary. They migrate south just like birds when it gets cold, though with their luxuriant cinnamon-colored fur, they have much greater cold tolerance than most other bats. In Ohio, we see them most often in late October and early November, as they make their way south. If you see a bat flying around alone on a cool autumn evening, or even during bright daylight in fall, it may be a red bat. They roost, often hanging by one foot, and look remarkably like a hanging dead leaf or pine cone. Females may have up to five young at a time, and she flies with them clinging to her belly, and when they're old enough to hang up she leaves them hanging while she forages, then flies back to nurse them. Imagine a female red bat hanging her babies up and then coming back to nurse them. It's a scene right out of Stellaluna. Red bats are actually pretty large bats, as bats go, with a body length of around four inches and wingspans of up to 13". When it's really cold they ball themselves up inside their furry tail membrane, looking like almost nothing at all.

Gently, I tipped the leaf so the kids could see the bat's face, and the weakened leaf petiole, about ready to let go anyway, snapped off in my hand. After a moment of panic--I have a bat in my hand! What am I going to do with him now? Unhook his feet and hang him up somewhere else?-- it occurred to me that in the 100 or so pockets of the kids surrounding this bat there might be a bread wrapper or a piece of string. Sure enough, Tierra pulled a bit of blue yarn out of her jeans pocket. Another student held the leaf while I tied the yarn around the stem and then around a twig on the little maple tree. Voila. The bat was safely hanging once again. Phewww.

It is hard to overstate the concentrated cuteness of a red bat. Hanging head down, he didn't look like much. Maybe like a hamster, with that unusual cinnamon brown, silky fur. But I insisted that even the kids who were a little shy about bats come forward and have a look at his face. And it was there, eye to eye, that the true connection between these kids and this bat was forged. It is impossible to be afraid of an animal this adorable, no matter how bad the advance press on bats might be. Along his side, just above the wing, was a stripe of creamy fur that seemed almost too lovely to be true. We all wanted so badly to stroke that satin fur, but we didn't want to scare him any more than we already had. For those who have internalized all the myths about bats and who recoil in horror at the thought of touching one, rest assured that no one but me got closer than a hand's length to the animal, and I stayed with it as long as the students were present.

You have been warned. The bat pictures in this post will increase in adorability until your face melts.

Every once in awhile he'd raise his head and look around in wonder at all the faces staring back into his.
Once, when we got a little too close, he gaped at us, a little warning, but even that was pretty cute.
All the while, I told the kids what I knew about red bats. The nice part for me was that we ignored, never deigned to mention, skipped completely over the old wives' tales about bats--that they get tangled in your hair, that they all carry rabies, that they are evil, bloodthirsty, black-hearted flying mice...none of which are true, and none of which obviously applied to this enchanting little creature. No, we leapt right to the infatuation phase in our relationship with this bat.
Everyone wanted their picture taken with the famous red bat (who looks like a chicken nugget in this picture, hanging right in front of one kid's face on the left side of the photo). I wish I could post all my pictures, and I apologize to anyone who was there but feels left out. There were permissions forms got complicated. Thank you, Sherri and the other teachers and students who raced to get written parental permission, for making publication of these photos possible. Caitlin the Bat Locator is the tall girl in pink, and Tierra's right in front of her, in white. She gave me yarn, and reminds me of hauntingly of my niece, Christy. I had to stop myself from scooping her up and hugging her.

Although cellphones aren't supposed to come out during school hours, Mr. Blake
made an exception. It's not every day you get to say hello to a red bat.
A whole bunch of photos later, it was finally time to turn back toward school. We'd no sooner gotten in the doors than Mr. Blake gathered several teachers and headed back out to show them the little vespertilionid. That was one of my favorite moments of the day. I had no sooner returned from my third field trip than I turned right around and took a fourth, impromptu group out to see it. Then Sherri Newberry took two more groups. It was that special, that irresistible. The whole school caught red bat fever that golden November day.
Bridget was so completely enchanted that she couldn't leave. I knew a girl like that once.
I don't know what she'll become when she grows up, but something rare passed between Bridget
and the bat. I would imagine that teachers never get used to seeing a life change before their eyes, and that's what keeps them working and grading papers long into the night.

Thank you to Pam Murphy, Sherri Newberry, Melody Newman and Stephen Blake for making my visit so rich and for preparing the students so well, so that they could hear what I had to say. Thank you to Nick Adams for building the blind, and to his younger sister Caitlin for finding the bat. (Coincidence? I think not). Thank you to the students for loving the bat every bit as much as I did, for being willing to look into its face, to connect with its small furry soul and imagine what it must be thinking and feeling. Thank you for reading my work and looking at my paintings and photographs, and for the nice messages you've sent me. And thank you to Clermont Northeastern Middle School for protecting the pond and woodlot, for these seemingly simple landscape features provide habitat for all creatures great and small, and by their presence afford limitless opportunities for learning and spiritual renewal to your students.

I have yet to see a parking lot or a pile of lumber that can do that.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Singular School

An Author Visit. I had never done an author visit to a school before. I could never have anticipated what that entailed, the months of preparation on the part of my school contacts at Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Batavia, Ohio. In order to accommodate an author, in this case for the entire day, they have call assemblies, figure out how many kids they can pack into each assembly, and in general discard any semblance of their normal schedule. Speaking to middle school students is different from speaking at nature festivals or bird club banquets. For one thing, festival goers and bird club members don't have to sit on the floor. There are other differences, too. Middle school students get a lot more excited than bird club people. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

I visited Clermont Northeastern Middle School on November 7. And it was clear to me as the excitement for my visit built up that overhauling their schedule was the least of CNE's preparations. I had first received an inquiry from a gracious and lovely person named Pam Murphy, who was familiar with my work, but who retired from her position as school librarian in the year that ensued. She must have made a good case for hosting me. Library aide Sherri Newberry and science teacher Melody Newman took up Pam's torch and made sure the students were familiar with Letters from Eden. Mrs. Newberry got all fired up, made Letters a centerpiece of her library classes, and read several chapters to her students. In a unique electronic outreach, they and several other teachers took pains to familiarize their students with my blog.

Ooh. Wait a minute.

When the 5th through 8th grade students began digging into the archives of the last three years, I was extremely happy that I've taken care from the very start to keep it reasonably clean, rant-free and kid-friendly. Once a post goes up, it's up, and there it stands for anyone to read at any time. So do the comments.

Pause for other bloggers to think about whether they want 5th through 8th graders reading their blog archives...waiting for their next post...

OK, go get yourselves a glass of wine and come back. Pour me one, too. The genie is out of the bottle. I am not going back to edit old posts. I yam what I yam, as Popeye says.

Not only had the kids read much of my book and begun following my blog, but Melody Newman had spearheaded an effort to have a feeding station put up and a bird blind built overlooking the feeding station...all in time for my visit. This fact really didn't sink in on me until I walked into the blind, redolent of new plywood, and sat down to look at birds visiting the spanking-new feeders. This is not just any bird blind. It is a masterpiece, built as an Eagle Scout project by CNE alum Nick Adams. Here is Nick, with his sister Caitlin, me and Melody Newman. You'll see more of Caitlin later. This is the night before the school visit, and she doesn't know what she is about to discover. Neither do I, but we look like we're expecting something good, don't we?photo by Sherri Newberry

And here is the blind that Nick built, on weekends and evenings for "I don't know, exactly. A really long time."
photo courtesy Melody Newman and Sherri Newberry

I could live in this bird blind.The students were obviously proud and happy to have an official school bird blind. Have you ever seen a middle school with its own bird feeders and observation blind? Me, neither. The middle school I attended was an enormous, dark, windowless prison, a maze of dreadful dark halls and windowless cubicle classrooms. Did I mention that there were no windows? Every bit of vegetation had been scoured away, as if to eliminate places for prison-breakers to hide...But I digress. Shudder...

Clermont Northeastern Middle School was much, much better. It was great. Though the feeders had been up for only a week, cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, and even a red-bellied woodpecker visited the feeding station while the students and I looked on. I was impressed at the birds' adaptability; they were probably already well-acclimated to the sight and sound of active kids, and our wiggling around in the blind didn't faze them. It was the perfect way for kids without binoculars to get close looks at wild birds on school grounds. Imagine.

It became clear to me that Mrs. Newman is the kind of person who can't help leaving a legacy behind. She cares deeply that her students truly connect with nature, and she puts that caring into action. Thanks to her, plantings around the school building were bird-friendly, fruit-bearing shrubs and trees. A beautiful pond graces school grounds, afloat with Canada geese, home to snapping turtles and minnows, because Mrs. Newman refused to allow it to be filled in for a parking lot. She and her students can be found out there with dip nets and buckets, figuring out what all lives beneath its quiet surface. A school with a pond.Is the sight and sound of Canada geese skimming in to land on a pond, a wriggly crawfish in a child's hand, the sight of a young snapping turtle surfacing to breathe, worth as much as a few extra parking spaces, a slab of hot asphalt? Mrs. Newman thinks so, and so do the CNE students. The pond is an aesthetic oasis and a place of inquiry.

But there is an even greater legacy now. Behind CNE, on its land, is a very fine stand of old timber, many trees in excess of 100 years old. Dominated by fine, straight oak and hickory trees, it is precisely the kind of stand that, in southern Ohio, might long ago have been cut and sold for lumber. How it escaped timbering this long is a wonder and a mystery. Finally, though, tough financial times and its undeniable monetary value combined to bring it onto the block. The old trees were spray-painted and marked for cutting. Melody Newman said no. And then she yelled NO!!!! long and loud, and a lot of other people yelled with her. She and her students had made a nature trail through that forest, and they meant to keep it. Were these trees, this mature forest ecosystem, worth more than their value as timber? Mrs. Newman thought so, and she'd have lain down in front of the bulldozers if she had to. She may yet have to. There is as yet no formal protection of this woodlot, no covenant to ensure that it will remain forever wooded. But for now, it is safe. Here's Mrs. Newman in her element.
Here is the outdoor classroom that Ivan Glasgow built for the school's science classes. Mrs. Newman's vision at work, again. It's in a beautiful natural amphitheatre and it has all the comfort and wonder of the woods in courtesy Melody Newman and Sherri Newberry

And it was through that beautiful forest we walked on November 3, and it was there that we found the most magical thing imaginable.
Oh. What's THAT?Next...It's a bird! It's a mouse! It's a...

I love to torture you kids.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Repotting Orchids

There followed almost five hours of crouching, carrying, washing, spraying, potting and groaning. Anybody who says, "Oh, I stay away from orchids. They're so much work!" will no longer get a breezy dismissal from me. They are a LOT of work, especially when your collecting gene kicks in and you allow your little family to grow to 38 plants, none of which is getting any smaller as the years go by. And I am still on the steep part of the learning curve where orchids are concerned, still trying to figure out which potting medium, from sphagnum to bark to a fabulously expensive medium called Aussie Gold, works best for me. Naturally, it is the fabulously expensive medium called Aussie Gold.

Because, as their web site crows, "You cannot overwater Aussie Gold!"

Well, good. Because I try like hell to overwater my plants and sometimes succeed. Just ask Lazarus.

At the end of four hours, my front yard looked like this:
Everybody's in a pot, everybody's clean and sprayed and, we hope, deciding to grow new roots to replace the rotted ones, and their benevolent overlord has decided to go ahead and spring for Aussie Gold for everybody for the big repotting in two years. Another round for the whole bar!

Bark as a potting medium is comparatively inexpensive, and great if you have all kinds of time to devote to your orchids and you enjoy repotting once a year. But if you have a life that includes a lot of other things besides diddling with your orchids and repotting them at the first sign that their bark medium might be rotting and getting sludgy, Aussie Gold is the way to go. It's soil-free, made of ground-up rocks and diatomaceous earth among other good things, it doesn't deteriorate into oxygen-choking sludge the way bark does, and I noticed that there were NO BUGS in any of my plants potted in Aussie Gold. That was a startling revelation.

Diatomaceous earth, made from microscopic fossil diatoms that once floated in primeval oceans, has sharp silica edges in it and it kills bugs that try to wriggle through it. It's like writhing around in broken glass. That's my Science Chimp theory, and I'm sticking to it. Oddly enough, though the Aussie Gold web site mentions practically everything else about the benefits of diatomite, it omits this key point. It's murder on nematodes and mealybugs and whatever those little white things swarming in the medium might have been. I threw a handful of prophylactic Gold into each pot, and used pure Gold for my most precious plants.

The Psychopsis mendenhall "Hildos" which has been blooming since early June is STILL blooming, on its sixth successive flower, and I took a deep breath and repotted it too. You're not supposed to disturb an orchid in bud or bloom but at that point I had blood in my eye. And I'd heard that a good Psychopsis might throw blossoms off the same stalk for as long as seven years before sending up another one. With all care, I peeled its pot away from its roots, soaked it in rainwater, and gave it fresh medium. Hildos got pure Aussie Gold in its new pot.I'm so glad I did--the plant's pseudobulbs were alarmingly withered, and they've plumped up nicely since repotting. There appears to be no transplanting shock with this medium, since it retains so much water yet allows air in, too. Old Hildos needed help. A week plus later, it's hanging on to its flower and buds and looking better all the time. The happy flamenco lobster dude bobs and smiles. I smile back.

The aftermath--yuccky pots and piles of buggy medium. I cleaned it all up, even though my muscles were weeping by then.
Before carrying the plants back inside, I washed all their humidity trays. Bleh. The fifth hour of labor ticked by.

The whole time, I carried visions in my head of the ultimate reward for the work.
Come April and May, I hope for a shower of blossoms like last year's.
Yes, orchids are a ton of work, but they say thank you so nicely.

And now I leave for Guyana, having spent the last week paring my suitcase down to 34 pounds, my optics backpack to 16. I'm hoping to use the marvels of Mac technology to teleconference with Bill, the kids and Baker at least once while I'm gone. It's like something out of the Jetsons, to open your computer, activate i-Chat, and not only talk to but SEE your husband and babies there on your screen, for free. Cross your fingers for me that we're able to make it work. Bill has to remember to activate iChat every day...I think I'll put Phoebe on that detail.

I've been cooking and storing food like a crazy squirrel in fall: brisket, chicken pot pie, chicken chili, leaving love sealed in Tupperware.

Don't worry. The BlogSquirrel has cooked for you, too.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mission Creep in the Orchid Room

It all started innocently enough. I took a hard look at one of my orchids, which seemed to be dying again. An orchid in my house can visibly die, dwindling down to one or two withered leaves, and at that point any normal person would simply throw it out. I respond by pulling it out of the pot and looking at its roots, to see if there's any chance I can salvage the plant. So I took said orchid (one I call Lazarus, because it did this before, three years ago), and dumped it out on the front lawn. The potting medium (bark and charcoal) was dried out on top and soggy toward the bottom of the pot, and all but a couple of the orchid's roots were dead. This is Lazarus, in better days:Here's the thing with orchids. Oxygen is even more important than water to them. That's why orchid potting medium seems so coarse and dry. You pot this thing up in chunks of bark and your natural instinct is to water it a LOT because the medium doesn't hold any water. But that is exactly the point. Orchids need to dry out between waterings, or their roots rot. And after 15 years of keeping orchids, I am still watering them too much.

Worse than that, the medium was absolutely seething with tiny white insects, or maybe they weren't insects. The Science Chimp did not know what they were, but she knew they were bad news. Sometimes her taxonomic curiosity fails her and she just wants to get rid of the damn things.

So I sighed and immersed the infested plant in tepid water, taking all the medium off the roots, and got out my potting medium and a new clean pot and sprayed the plant, roots and all, with pyrethrins and let it dry in the sun before potting it up again.

And it occurred to me that if Lazarus was suffering so, well then the five or so plants next to Lazarus likely were, too.

And it was a warm day, really nice and sunny, and it was already November, and when would I get this kind of weather again and maybe I'd just take a peek at Lazarus' neighbors to see if they had bugs and were miserable too. So I carried four more plants out onto the lawn and dumped them out and yep, there were tiny white bugs crawling through their rotten soggy medium too so I sighed and immersed them and got out some more fresh potting medium and sprayed the plants with pyrethrins and left them to dry on the lawn while I went and dug up some more pots which then had to be washed in hot soapy water.

While those plants were drying I went back inside and took a hard look at the dozen or more plants on the other bureau in the bedroom and hmmmm. They didn't look so hot, either, and it was a warm day and it was already November and when would I get a day like this again so I hauled them out and dumped them out on the lawn, too. And before you know it my entire orchid collection was out on the lawn, roots up, and it was overload, and it wasn't cute.I began to sing loudly, to take my mind off the abyss, the pit of hell into which I now leapt.

Mama said there'd be days like this
There's be days like this my mama said
Ai yi yi yi yi yi yi...

Next: Zick leaps in and finds redemption in the mess.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It is afternoon now. I have let the butterfly rest and drop its orange liquid waste on my kitchen table for four hours. I want it to be outside when it takes its first flight, which I sense is coming very soon. I wish no indignity for this one, such as the one who hatched before had suffered. That one dropped out of its chrysalis and stretched its wings quietly in the kitchen, I working in another room, unaware...and when I came in for lunch it set sail and clambered against a window, struggling toward freedom. I had to carry it, flailing and doubtless shouting in a voice too high to hear, to the clear September air outside.

For this one, this special butterfly at whose side I've held such a long vigil, I creep softly, holding the creature aloft on its twig, hoping that it won't lift off before we get outside.
It snaps its new wings open and shut, a butterfly's signal of arrival and power, and clambers higher on its twig.
Wait... don't go yet.
I'm not ready for you to leave.

Swinging around wildly, I click and click, capturing a few frames, amazingly enough. Have you ever tried to photograph a flying butterfly
When you are crying
When your breath is taken from your lungs

When you are engulfed in grace?

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Becoming a Butterfly

Having spent a gray Sunday sitting by the fire composing 14 blog posts to nourish and entertain you while I pack and travel to Guyana this coming Saturday (eek!), I have to say it's tough to balance real-time events (like Liam's birthday, like my October trips to Boston, Hartford and Chicago--poof, gone with the wind!) with measured and carefully composed posts like these. For instance, I just found a treasure trove of photos from the Washington County Fair back in September that I must share with you soon; they are too wonderful to let languish in the files. The same goes for a bunch of Halloween pictures that make me quack out loud.

There's just too darn much going on around here to blog like a grasshoppa. If you want real-time twittery stuff, you're in the wrong place, mah friends.

Anyway, you get what you pay for, and you eat what I'm servin', right? (Slams plate down on table).

Thanks for all the birthday wishes for Liam! He read them before leaving for school this morning and almost bounced onto the bus, riding it as a nine-year-old for the first time. He had said he wasn't so sure he liked being nine, but I promised him I would still treat him like my little Shoomie when he was 9 or 25, and that seemed to help.

We're back to enjoying the ecdysis of the Artist Formerly Known as Combo. When last we left him, he was looking miiiighty transparent, and I was yakking on the phone with my mother, helping pass the time in my five-hour vigil, when I noticed a bulge at the chrysalis' bottom.

With a hurried explanation, I hung up on Mom, who understood. I'd always missed the ecdysis before; it had happened too fast for me to see or record. But Combo took his time, and how sweet it was to see him slowly emerge.
When does the chrysalis end and the butterfly begin? Here?Here, when the great swollen abdomen flops out of its case?

Here, when the proboscis pulls free and begins to coil?
Here, when the wings suddenly begin to expand?

The new butterfly swivels on its legs, swings in the breeze, its abdomen unwieldy, heavy with fluids meant for the crumpled wings. To fall now might mean the butterfly's death. Hang on, Combo.
Contained so tightly for so long, the wings expand like sponges soaking up water.
Its abdomen expands and contracts as it pumps blood and fluids through the long black veins of its new wings.
The wings unrumple and grow before my eyes; every blink brings a change.
The chrysalis, once opaque and green, is no more than a discarded cellophane wrapper.
The butterfly scrabbles for a hold on the twig, its strong hooked feet clinging surely as the wind buffets it. To fall now would be to die, injuring its wings and rendering them useless for flight. The expanding wings must be held clear of all obstructions until they are bright and hard. It swivels until it gets all four legs (the front two are reduced to pedipalps) on something. It's taking no chances.
Every gust bends its wings to and fro. Still it pumps fluids, and still they grow larger. The wings are almost full size now, but a half hour from emergence, they are still wet and soft, unable to bear weight, to open or close.
Finally, they are fully expanded. Still, they are so wet that a breath of air bends them, and I see the brilliant cinnabar upper surface. This is a rare shot, for they will never again be this flexible. All of this has happened in the span of perhaps thirty minutes. Quick, as miracles go.I am nervous enough about this newly minted creature now to bring it back inside, to the kitchen table, so its wings may dry and it may rest, untroubled by wind or predators, for the next four hours.

Tomorrow, we fly!

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Liam is Nine!

Nine years ago this day, I was holding a very small boy in my arms. His hair was the color of champagne, a blonde I'd never seen before, with a silvery cast. His head was the size of a Delicious apple. His hair is still white-blonde. His head is bigger now, and stuffed with thoughts.
Saturday, we celebrated his birthday. I arose at 5 AM to begin wrapping presents, baking his cake, and straightening the house. Liam and Phoebe helped me bake the cake--they're trying to get egg cracking and using the mixer down these days--and clean up the house. The weather was glowery and cold, but I decided that the first thing we would do would be to take a good hike. Maybe it would burn off some of the almost unbelievable ya-yas that five 8-year-old boys generate when they are together. If there were a way to harness that energy to some purpose other than total chaos...But then they wouldn't be 8-year-old boys.
Barely contained chaos.Phoebe just towers over them at 5'3". My gosh, she's within a couple of inches of towering over me. It's not fair that she got the willowy gene. Managed to get them lined up on a log like little wood ducks.
Ethan cracked me up. He wouldn't smile; he looked like he was posing for a Polo spread. "I'm used to not smiling," was his laconic answer when I ribbed him about it.

On the way back, Liam's introspective side came out, and he let the other boys rampage far ahead as he dropped back to walk quietly with me. "Don't you want to catch up with your friends?" I asked, just making sure. "That's OK. I want to walk with you. Thanks for my birthday, Mommy."
In the meadow, we checked our little persimmon tree, that came up a few years ago in the middle of a clump of sumac. The fruits we'd been watching eagerly all fall were finally ready to taste.That is, they'd frozen solid a couple of times and were mellow enough not to make our throats close up and our tongues fuzz out. At least not too much. I tied into a handful with little groans of pleasure. Liam liked them at first, but the bitter aftertaste was too much for him.I have to say, he's a game little guy, and he'll try anything once. But there's no mistaking this look. "What did you feed me?"Soon enough, we were back home, and it was time to open presents and blow out the candles on his butter cake with bittersweet chocolate icing.
He somehow got the idea that he'd turn nine when he blew out the candles on his cake. So here he is, turning nine.

After cake, we repaired to the stairs to throw water balloons off the towertop.

The culmination of the party was throwing a large whole pumpkin off the towertop. I did the honors, mostly so it wouldn't land on the roof, and because at that point in my day I needed to throw a pumpkin off the tower. The sound it made when it hit the ground 50' below--a muffled SBBBBLLLLOOOOOOPPPPBBBTTT!!! was the most exhilarating thing I have heard in a long, long time, and the perfect anodyne for having planned and executed a boy party. They loved it too and we all cracked up and high-fived.

When everyone had gone, Phoebe and Liam set to excavating Liam's new "I Dig Dinosaurs" kit. Some clever person got the idea to encase a jumbled up plastic skeleton in a block of coarse grit, and give a kid a chisel and hammer with which to chip out the prize. Genius, if a bit messy. This is the kind of toy that would have caused my mother to deliver a barnyard animal on the kitchen floor. Grit and sand were flying everywhere. I banished them to the guest room, spread newspapers, and resolved to vacuum it out of the carpet when they were all done. Big deal. The cheesy little chisel and hammer were too delicate, so we got busy with a real wood chisel and a screwdriver. That made it go a bit faster. They worked peacefully together, chiseling away, until almost two hours later they emerged with a complete Tyrannosaur in their proud little hands. Phoebe did the gross excavation and Liam did the detail work.

Bacon was so tired from chasing little boys that he fell into a dreamlike stupor, sucking on what remains of his Vo-Toys Gigantic Fullback (one of the best toys he's ever had, and one I must replace this Christmas).
Happy birthday, sweetest Liam. You're growing up so fast, changing every day--you won't be my little boy much longer. Know that I treasure every moment with you. There never was a sweeter Shoomie.
photo by Ric MacArthur

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Morning in Thrall

The dark chrysalis seemed to become more transparent by the minute. In the dull kitchen light of pre-dawn, I could see that the butterfly's legs had pulled away from the chrysalis side, leaving a whitish translucence behind.As the light from the dawn grew, I realized that I needed to take the chrysalis outside to have enough light to capture its details.That's better. Sunlight gave me a whole new perspective, enhancing the transparency of the chrysalis.It seemed it would burst open at any moment.How much more transparent could it get? More, apparently...The waiting was driving me crazy. The sequence above was taken from 6:30 AM to about 10:45 AM. I had taken a small break to take Phoebe to her bus at 6:15, and, not daring to leave the chrysalis, I'd taken it out with me to deliver Liam to his bus at 8:04. Back home, I was sitting on the deck with my laptop, writing a journal of the metamorphosis, in between glancing up at the creature on the deck railing every 30 seconds or so, looking for the slightest change.

A different, somewhat foreboding look at the miracle to be. It's a pod, alien yet familiar.
Finally, I called my mother, to while away the time and see how she was faring this fine autumnal morning. That did the trick. This is the last picture of Combo as a chrysalis.I looked away, looked again, and Combo was splitting open.

I do apologize for not giving this to you in one big heaping bowlful. There are so many photographs in the sequence--dozens upon dozens-- that it would be a shame, a waste, a drag to put them all in one elephantine post. Besides, I want to give you some feeling for the kind of ---I detest this word, but I'm using it for fun---


that it takes to follow an organism from egg to butterfly. Please don't ever quote me on this, OK? I fancy that I am not the kind of person who uses a word like


Then again, I never thought I would use emoticons in an email, or buy shirts for a dog. 

More on Combo on Monday. 

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Waiting for the Monarch

I have not forgotten about our chrysalis. Although a monarch chrysalis, in nice warm weather, normally gestates about two weeks, my life went into spin cycle right after the last chrysalis post, with multiple speaking engagements at far-flung places.

So picture Wayne making a bead curtain with his fingers, and time-travel with me back to the caterpillar Liam named Combo (one of my pet names for him, as it happens). Combo went into J formation, split his skin down the back, and became a sea-green chrysalis, which then hung for two weeks. We almost forgot about it, but then one day Combo's chrysalis went slightly transparent, and within a few hours it went completely dark.
The chrysalis covering goes from opaque to transparent, and the building color of the monarch's wings and body shines through. In this picture, you can see where the butterfly's legs have pulled away from the outer shell, giving it a whitish look. Something's about to go down.

Liam was on fire. He kept a close eye on Combo all through the predawn hours as we got ready for school.
Much as we willed it to be so, I knew that Combo wouldn't emerge before the bus came for Liam at 8:05.

So we made consolation pancakes, and Liam got to flip them. This one is just about ready to flip.Go Shoomie, go!

Well done, Chef Shoom.
Finally, the time came to take Liam to the bus. I drove down the driveway, holding Combo on his twig aloft in one hand while negotiating the bumps and curves. I didn't know when he might hatch, and I wasn't going to let him out of my sight for a moment.
Liam and I took Combo on the bus to show the kids, he knowing that the chrysalis would be a butterfly by the time he came home that afternoon. It would be three more hours before the butterfly emerged, and I fought with myself the whole time. Should I have kept them home to see this miracle, this thing that means so much more than math and social studies?

Yes. I wish I had kept them here to see it.

Like crazy.

The photos in the ensuing posts will have to suffice. There will be other summers and other monarchs, but this one was special.

We await the new monarch.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Rural Ohio Voting

At last, the day arrives. It dawns warm and sunny. Mist rises from the hollers as we wind our way to the community hall.It is old and tired, a blue tarpaulin stretched across its bell tower.After one man leaves, we are the only ones here. We wish we could share the space all around us with those who must stand for hours.There had been a rush this morning--40 or 50 people, they estimate, more than these workers had ever seen at one time. Bill checks our stubs. He is number 27. Oh well. Twenty-seven looks like 40 when you live in the country.
They were working on a breakfast cheese ball and laughing, still talking about the crowds they'd seen. I took this picture when the laughter reached a crescendo, not wanting to intrude. In the background, Bill gets up from making his choices, while Liam draws a cartoon and waits. He will wear our stickers proudly to school.
It is so beautiful when we emerge from the hall that I stop and stare.

I feel lucky to be alive, lucky to be able to vote, to black in the oval of my choice.

Black in the oval. The subliminal mind is a beautiful thing. I must let it out more often.

Sleep well. I'll see you in the new day.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Swing State

An evening rally in a swing state. Front Street fills up with people.

Police watch from rooftops in a pastel sky
and pigeons swirl around the courthouse, watching as well.
There are people I haven't met
and some that I have. We call undecided voters from our cellphones.
Our mayor plays guitar and sings.Two from our band moonlight.
I am happy to see them.
The old armory cries out for salvation
It's a fine backdrop, even empty and worn.Full moon peeks at the shimmering crowd--a logo unto herself
Flag points her out. O!
Some watch from windows as the sky goes black.
Buses arrive. A motorcade whoops down the inky street,blue and red lights mixing to violet on the bus's flanks.Waves heave through the crowd
and the band finishes up.Everyone waits
and he emerges.
The roar goes on and on.
At last, he speaks.
He tells us what he can doand leaves us changed.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Missing Tennessees

I'm happy to say that I still have warblers in the yard as I write this. They're all yellow-rumped warblers, the most behaviorally and dietetically flexible of all the wood warblers. Right now, five of them are flitting around a pile of suet dough on the deck railing. I've never had that happen before. A Cape May warbler sampled suet dough briefly in late October, but it was in the company of yellow-rumpeds. And we did have a pine warbler eating it early last spring, but this gobbly little bunch is unprecedented. They've actually figured out how to beg--to get my attention from way in the kitchen.

I thought I'd share some photos of a bathing Tennessee warbler, taken in September.

The post next to the Bird Spa is often the vantage point from which birds make up their minds about bathing. Ooh, looks good. I'm thirsty, and I could use a bath, too.
I'll flutter and ruffle my wings. It will feel so good to be in water!
The durned thing about starting a bath is that everybody else wants to jump in too. Copycats.
A Tennessee warbler has a reputation to uphold. We're tuff.
Hello. I believe I was bathing here first.
And I happen to like where you are bathing.
I'm sorry. Am I in your way?
Don't mind me. I bathe a little large.
Well, excuuuuuuse MEEEE.Better. Much better.
You lazy resident birds need to realize that we long-distance migrants get first dibs on the bath. You can bathe anytime. We have things to do, places to go, people to see. Begone!

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