Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Liam and the Big Foam Finger

NOTE: If you're still visiting me here, change your bookmarks to


NOW, 'cuz this address is going to disappear. I'm moving, and I want to take all of you with me.
Bloggers who link to me, please change the link? Pretty please? Thank you!

Not long ago, Bill of the Birds got a wild hair, and he called me in the afternoon and asked me if I wanted to take the kids to PNC Park in Pittsburgh (a mere three hours away) for a Pirates game. That same night. Well, uh, sure! Sure, we can do that. I could hear in his voice how much he wanted to go. I examined my inner soul and realized that, to my surprise, I did, too. (I am not your biggest sports fan. I know that will come as a shock.) However...As summer wanes away and school grinds into gear, Bill and I jump at the chance to do special things with Phoebe and Liam. Nothing makes them happier than when all four of us are together, even if it's just on the couch with popcorn or sitting outside for dinner in the slanting light of evening. That's when their world is right.

When I told Liam what Daddy had suggested, he did one of his trademark boneless swoons, collapsing to the floor like a happy limberjack. Phoebe did her bouncy eep dance. I raced around like a shrew, madly getting outfits and snacks and drinks and coats and hats and sunscreen and throwing everything into tote bags. I apologized to Chet Baker and left a sliding glass door just a little bit open and taught him how to squeeze through it and when I was sure he had it down I told him that he'd need to use it when he needed to go pee and he said, "Mether, thank you. I can go without for 12 hours, but I would prefer not to." That dog understands. And sure enough when we got home he pranced and bounced around us and took just the tiniest of wees, because he had availed himself of his makeshift doggeh door. And we were all happy, and he was very proud of himself.

It was so exciting, approaching the ballpark. It really is just the best ballpark you could ever imagine, spotlessly clean and graphically appealing and full of pretty good if hugely overpriced food. Plus, the Pirates are there, and they are Bill's favorite ever team, even though they break his heart pretty much every day, they win just enough to keep him hooked.

We got there really really early, a half hour before they even start letting people in, because Bill wanted to watch warmups. It was so cute the way he wore his Pirates jersey and hung over the wall watching.

Speaking of cute, Liam saw some big foam fingers for sale and said in this dreamy voice, "I have always wanted a big foam finger. May I go look at them?"
At this point I got my 300 mm. telephoto going, because I didn't want him to feel self-conscious. He approached the foam finger girl.

and asked to see the foam finger.
Look! It's a giant foam finger!

At this point, Bill and I were ready to pay anything for the foam finger. I think it was the slightly knock knees. The slightest thing about my kids can make me weep.

But being Liam and being a sweet boy, he gave it back to her and came back to us, ready not to have it for his own. I love her body language here.

And Daddy sent him right back to buy it.

He is his father's son.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Goodbye Blogger

Feels like almost four years ago that I last did this, posted a Testing Testing post. Only now I know what's involved in blogging, where it can take you and what you have to do to keep it going. One of the things I had to do recently was get off Blogger. See, sooner or later, Blogger makes sure that anyone who is uploading via FTP: (i.e., anyone who hosts their blog on their own web site) becomes miserable. Blogger sends plagues of locusts and boils and finishes those prideful souls off with plain old recalcitrance. Blogger (which I refer to as Booger) slows down to a crawl, and then flat out refuses to take any photos at all. For a photographer, that qualifies as a major bummer.

Bill of the Birds had to flee from Blogger to Blogspot, and I had a few more months of joy, and then one fine day in July Booger wouldn't take my photos atall. Hey, it seemed like symmetry, given that my laptop had been out of commission and flying back and forth between here and Houston for most of July anyway. Nothing more than I deserved.

And I sighed and uploaded via Flickr, which took a mere eight to ten clicks, leading to something like six different pages, for each berloody photo I put up. Can you say Clunky Interface? Flickr. Please. Figure it out. And even then, I had to manually resize each durn one, or they'd flop all outside the template. Sometimes Chet's head would look stretched or too tall and I was just too durn tired to go back in and twiddle with it. Doesn't take long before that gets old.

The other thing about Booger is that it won't let you use any but one of a handful of designs, each more generic and worst than the last, if you are hosting your blog on your own website. I chose Rounders, that hospital-green, generally inoffensive template. It was the least worst. Meanwhile, I drooled over friends' truly pretty blogs, blogs with artwork and photos and curliques on them. For almost four years I have looked at that moss-green template and rolled my eyes. Clearly, it's time to go.

I do have to remind myself here that Booger, with all its frustrations, is still FREE. Duh. You get what you pay for. And I really am grateful for this self-publishing forum that's held my attention for all these years and thousands of posts. I am. I'm just moving on.

I'm going to post a photo now, and see if it takes under a half hour. Hmm. Which photo shall I choose?

This is what happens when you leave your Mac alone. This is how uploading photos via Flickr makes me feel. You may have noticed that I have been a bit testy lately. Little things like "Jack" selling his alarm systems in my comments living room drive me up the wall. Well. Blogging five days a week is hard enough without getting a raft from Booger and Flicka.

Farewell, Booger. Bye bye, Flicka. I'm headed to Blogspot, where a gal can have nice pitchers on her blog template, and upload photos nice and fast. It's been real, but I'm moving on.

Blog redesign to follow. I spent a lovely afternoon choosing oh, two hundred photos and bits of artwork that I thought summed up my blog perfectly. I burned them all on a DVD and sent them to Oz. It's up to my WebWizardess, she who stands behind the curtain, to decide which ones work. She has the most unenviable of jobs, but she is unfailingly kind and professional with me. I am sure from her perspective it's like being employed by J. Fred Muggs.

I want dis one and dis one and dis one and dis one and DIS ONE! Eeeep! Eeep! Eeeep!

What will you all have to do? Just change your bookmarks, that's all. Update your RSS feeds. Delete the old Zickblog bookmark and use this'n. Do it on all your browsers, and do it now, while I'm standing over you shaking my finger.

OLD BOOKMARK: http://www.juliezickefoose.com/blog



Those using Feedburner and LiveJournal to access my blog should have uninterrupted service, since those are being swapped over. After tomorrow (Tuesday, August 25), everyone visiting the blog directly via the web should be redirected automatically.

Thank you. Keep on reading, and I'll keep on keepin' on.

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Cash for Clunkers: Zick Takes the Bait

Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Last caress for the old car. We're on our way to the car abbatoir.

I'll be on National Public Radio's All Things Considered this afternoon, between 5:30 and 6 pm Eastern time, talking about trading in my faithful, 14-year-old, 14 mpg Ford Exploder for a sleek green beauty of a Subaru Forester. Here's the text of the piece:

As of 8 pm tonight, the Cash for Clunkers program will grind to a halt. An estimated 600,000 low-mileage cars will have been traded in; the three billion dollars allocated for owner trade-ins guzzled down like gas in an oversized SUV’s tank.

I was going to buy a used car. Just one not quite as used as mine, a 1995 Ford Explorer with 178,000 miles on it, dicey shocks and transmission, and an insatiable appetite for fuel. Before the Cash for Clunkers program hove onto my radar screen, I had said it again and again: “I’m going to drive this thing until it falls apart under me.” I was sure we’d pass the 200,000 mile mark together. After all, we’d been through a lot.

That Ford carried me to the hospital twice when I was in labor. We strapped our new babies into its back seat, fumbling with the buckles and straps. Both kids grew up in it, and the slow and steady rain of Cheerios gave over to Nerds and bubble gum, and an orange DumDum embedded in the back carpet, stick pointing up. School papers and Matchbox racers and hairbobs accumulated under the seats; stickers appeared on the windows where I wouldn’t have put them myself.

There were bumper stickers from Maine to North Dakota. There was Give Turtles a Brake! There were dog stickers and flower power daisies and Life is Good stickers and during the 2008 election there were some pointed ones that got me more than a few hairy eyeballs from other drivers, maybe even a ticket or two.

Mice lived in it off and on, including one mama mouse who had the bad judgement to make a big fluffy nest and have her babies in the false fabric ceiling, which was a tenable plan until I drove the car and parked it in the sun. It took a month for me to find the nest. You can imagine. The half-gallon of milk that tipped over and leaked one summer day didn’t help. Neither did the chicken that rolled out of a grocery bag and festered quietly in the cargo area for a week until a small flock of vultures circling low told me there was something of interest in my garage. I didn’t drive it very often, just when I needed to.

It broke down on me only once, and that was just a dead fuel pump, in a parking lot only three blocks from my husband’s office. That car took care of me. And so, between the memories and the stickers and the mingled smells and the familiar, dependable roar of its engine, it became part of our family. I would drive it until it fell apart.

Until Cash for Clunkers. Until it hit me that nobody was going to walk up and offer me $4,500 for the MouseMobile, ever. And I began to see the wisdom of starting over with a new car, no, the heady, intoxicating appeal of it. I struck the Cash for Clunkers lure like a hungry bass.

But the thought of having a dealer fill its good heart with goo and rev the engine to death; of crushing its still strong if rusty body, broke my heart. It seemed so unnecessary. Couldn’t they give it to someone who needed a car? Couldn’t we not kill it, and say we did? I felt like a heel, a faithless, thankless creep, and twice I had to pull over and bawl for awhile at the thought of condemning a perfectly good car to such a violent death.

When I finally closed the deal on my new car, I asked the dealer to leave the Ford on the lot for awhile, not to lead it into the back pasture until after I was out of sight. He chuckled. "People get attached. They do!" I sat quietly in it for one last time, breathing its many aromas. I looked at its stickered rump in my fancy new auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass, stepped on the gas and headed home.

Last look at the Explorer, waiting to be junked. Oh, I can't bear it.

The sleek new beauty, a 2010 Subaru Forester. I know, it's the same color as the old one. I''m comfortable with green.

If you would like to hear the commentary, click here.

And if you do go to listen, please hit Recommend, and leave a comment? I'd appreciate it, NPR would appreciate it, and good Web action helps me get aired the next time!

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Filmmakers Visit!

To "Jack," who keeps leaving strange comments on recent posts along with a handy link for home security systems (or whatever): OK. You're at least looking at the pictures and trying to leave a semi-relevant comment. Please stop with the ads. It's tacky to pimp your stuff on my blog, and you're ticking me off. My readers aren't interested in a home security system. They're here for the birds and bugs and dog, not your links. So cut it out.

Think that'll work? Me neither.

Not long after Michael Male left, Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger arrived, intending to make high-definition films of insects. I assured them that this is a very buggy place, and they found gold in these thar hills. It's amazing what comes around when you manage for diversity in vegetation, and plant gardens like a schizo monkey.

Lang and Wil had been here before, when they were doing the field work for their incredible book The Songs of Insects (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). The book comes with a CD in back, and it finally let me identify the myriad whirrs, chirps, cheeps and clicks coming out of our meadows. The photography, some of which was done right in our basement guest room of our very own crickets, trigs, cicadas and katydids, is stunning. Why, we just used their book today. The kids found a dead cicada in the yard, and we identified it as a Robinson's cicada, green morph (Tibicen robinsonii). What a pleasure to be able to do that, and know its call, too. A good book is a beautiful thing.

Now Lang and Wil are filming for a soon-to-be-unveiled online project. They found our gardens and meadow a wonderland of color and insect song. Here's a long-spurred meadow katydid singing on my Perovskia, or Russian sage.


Here are the spurs in question--actually cercae. They look like a bull's horns, turned inward.


Lots of bug ID is done at the naughty end. Wil is forever talking about how one bug's genitalia differ from another's. OK. I'm down with that.

Wil is in back, Lang in front as they flood the bug with light and film him singing his dry prolonged shirring rattle.


We all must spend time at our laptops, and Chet Baker makes sure that time is extra enjoyable.
Any guest who visits Indigo Hill sooner or later winds up in the Seat of Honor at our kitchen table, with a lap full of Boston.


I am glad to have our 80-acre sanctuary used for such purposes, for its abundant diversity of life to be recorded and catalogued, photographed and appreciated. If I have to trek to the grocery store a few more times than usual, wash a few towels and maybe some grotty field clothes, it's worth it. When those photos and recordings and films go out to the world at large, a circle is completed. We like to share.

Up to a point. Hear that, "Jack?"

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Filmmaker Visit

We have been graced this past month by visits from some illustrious naturalists. First came Michael Male, who with his wife Judy Fieth creates absolutely amazing films about nature. We know them mostly from their work with birds (their eastern warbler video is soon to be followed by a western warbler DVD that is mouthwatering).

Here is Michael with a camper top of his own design and construction. It reminded me of the enormous snow plow blades you see on the front of locomotives in North Dakota. Imagine making your own camper. He confessed that it's very heavy and probably overbuilt, being made of marine plywood. Still. Anyone who can custom build a truck topper with a queen-sized bed and a pop-up top and tons of storage has my immediate respect. Just thinking of doing it in the first place gets major points with me.


Michael has spent the summer in North Dakota, filming ducks in the pothole region where they court, breed and raise young. He went out to North Dakota the same time we did, and he's only just come home! To do his filming, he made a huge floating blind with a shelf all around the inside. He wore waders that go up to his chest, climbed in the blind, and kind of walked it around the edges of the ponds as he made his groundbreaking films. It was a very cold, wet summer in North Dakota, and his was very cold, wet work. I thought he probably needed a couple of really nice meals and a comfy bed with some headroom, so we made that happen.

Watching some clips of wild ducks pottering around on the water, I felt like a louse on a duck's back; they are that close up and that sharp. They are just breathtaking. It's rare to see a film that takes you so completely into a creature's world. Michael has worked with David Attenborough and the BBC and National Geographic, so he's on a level most wildlife cinematographers hope to attain.

Mether, this would be a boring photo without me, Chet Baker, to spice it up. So here I am, on Michael's lap.

I wish I had something to show you. You can just make out the ducks on his laptop screen in this photo. They more than fill the frame. You could see their duck eyelashes. To see some of Michael and Judy's work, go to their website, www.birdfilms.com.

Michael had the most fun with ruddy ducks, and his series on bubbling male ruddies (they very rapidly duck their heads and beat their breasts with bright blue bills, making a fountain of bubbles in the process) just blew me away.

Chet Baker was his usual hospitable self, making sure Michael's blood pressure was nice and low for the ride home.


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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Orchids Again, but Wrapped in Dog

You may remember my blog from last November, when I picked a sultry warm day and repotted every durn one of my orchids, spread 'em out on the front lawn and about kilt myself bending and stretching and fetching and washing and spraying.

Normally, you shouldn't have to repot an orchid more than once a year. But I had bugs. Lotsa bugs. Tiny white bugs aswarm in the medium and awful awful Boisduval scale and mealybugs around the base of the stem and regular goopy sticky scale all over the underside of the leaves. It was verging on horrible. By the time an orchid starts to look peaked from bug damage (mostly being sucked dry by scale), you had better jump to fix it. Mine were not yet looking peaked, but I wasn't going to wait for that. See, they talk to me and tell me when it's time to intervene.


Last November, I repotted most of my plants in mixed bark medium, and therein lay the problem. Bugs just love living in that stuff. I decided to knock every single plant out of its pot and take a hard look at the situation. Sure enough, the plants in bark all had bugs, and the plants in Aussie Gold, which has diatomaceous earth in it, were virtually bug-free. OK. I had ordered enough Gold to redo almost everybody, and I went for it. Thirty-two times. Sigh. There are thirty-two of them.

There followed three days of futzing around with orchids, capped by a washing and spraying extravaganza. I won't use anything stronger than pyrethrins, which is probably why I continue to have bugs. Fine. I'll continue to have bugs, and I won't croak young.


There was orchid medium dumped everywhere, hoses and bags and trays and pots...it was ridiculous. But the weather was glorious for it all--raining and warm--and nobody got sunburned, least of all me. I just sat out there in the rain soaked to the skin and dealt with it. Enjoyed myself, in a painful, back-breaking kind of way.


The sun finally broke through, but by then everyone was potted and taken back inside.
I think the hardest part of any job is cleaning up everything you've pulled out while doing it. Blaa. You want it to be over, and then there's cleanup.


Mether, I get very tired just watching you. You are never still, do you know that? You should nap more. Look at me. I nap all the time and I think everyone would agree I am more lovable than you.


Chet Baker, what kind of thing is that to say?


Forgive me, Mether. It's just that you have been diddling with your orchid plants for three days now and you have barely done anything with me. When will you be all done?


When the last plant is washed and sprayed and potted in sterile medium, Chet Baker, that's when I'll be done. But you know I love you more than all these orchids thrown together. Don't you?

Yes, Mether. And I also know that your readers find me much more lovable than orchids. I am the whole reason they put up with your plant stories. And I would add "hamster stories" to that.


Well, all right, Chet. You've got me there.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009


It really does not take much to win my heart. I wear it pinned on my sleeve. And where small helpless young things are concerned I probably have an overactive maternal instinct. Which, on the whole, has been a very good thing. I've raised hummingbirds and chimney swifts and phoebes and waxwings to name just a few, and two very very sweet children and sometimes I find myself daydreaming about baby knuckles with dimples instead of bumps and I know it's going to be a very long wait until Phoebe gives forth with a grandchild, but I can wait. I cherish the still-little parts of Phoebe and Liam, and I have a dog who looks like a baby, and life is very good.

My kids are getting to the age where they want pets, their OWN pets, something young and helpless they can care for, and that is a beautiful thing. Since we have the Dog to End All Dogs there are no puppies on the horizon. Liam talks about a bearded dragon and I think that's going to stay in the realm of talk. The $100 price tag on one is just the beginning of some expensive upkeep. And I dunno, lizards...we've met some very sweet ones but they're still a a little foreign and spiky, a little salmonellaey for me. We have a line on a hatchling box turtle who needs to be raised for release on our place, and it's been promised to Liam, so we'll go with that.

A while ago we met a Chinese dwarf hamster named Monster who belongs to Phoebe's cousins. I was never much for hamsters, not after my sister brought one home from the biolabs at William and Mary, and we named her Maggie, and long after she'd been in residence rocketing around her cage and throwing cedar shavings all over the place, long after she should have been the Virgin Maggie, she popped out some little red beanie babies, and proceeded to throw them against the bars of the cage and do other unspeakable things to them. She must've stored the sperm for a couple of months. It was upsetting to a nine year old who was trying to do everything right. So hamsters, ehhhh.

And then along came Monster. Monster is calm and quiet and very sweet and she doesn't bite unless your hands smell of food. She walks slowly over your hands and arms and doesn't make any sudden moves and she crawled into the crook of my arm and found a spot of sun and fell asleep on me and my heart melted clean away. So did Phoebe's. It had to do with being trusted utterly by a small helpless animal who should by all rights be afraid of me.

Right then and there I decided to try to find a Chinese dwarf hamster just like Monster for Phoebe, which proved to be harder than I thought. All the area pet stores have Russian dwarves which seem to be fast and nippy and rather nasty on the whole. I have yet to meet a pet store employee who likes them. There are regular Siberians like Maggie which I'm sure are fine, but they don't appeal to Phoebe.

Marietta doesn't have them, and Columbus doesn't have CDH's. So Phoebe went to Hoobly.com and found someone about three hours away from us, but still in Ohio, who breeds the durn things. She emailed the breeder and the breeder emailed back. Why, that's just how I met Jane, Chet's breeder! Last we heard, she was introducing a male and female CDH and lo and behold they liked each other and have been sleeping together. She said you can't tell the females are pregnant until three days before they give birth at which point they look like a furry ping pong ball. Oh, joy. So we're waiting. Maybe two, three months. It reminds me of waiting for Chet Baker to be born. I like the idea of getting a pet directly from a home breeder. It sure worked out well with Chet. I don't mind driving three hours for a good hamster. We drove eight hours to get Chet from Pups Will Travel.

I know what you're thinking. So: What about that Bacon? who is at this very moment standing with his pawdies on the edge of the kitchen table murpphing for his second bikkit of the night. Would a CDH just be another bikkit for him? Well, despite his insatiable appetite for chasing small furry rodents outdoors, The Bacon is a very good boy. He has spent a couple of hours with his jellybean nose pressed up against the bars of Monster's cage, mere inches from her, and has never tried anything. He just likes to look. He will not jump up to try to grab Monster while you're holding her and he knows in his bones that hurting her would be a bad, bad thing to do. It is probably the ultimate test of a Boston's self-restraint, but we think he's up to it. Needless to say her tank will be on a high shelf. And he will be behind closed doors when Monster goes walkabout. But we believe in The Bacon.


There's yer Chetfix. And for the hammie fans, a Hamfix. The first, but I hope not the last one.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Requiem for a Rosepink

Perhaps my favorite wildflower of summer is the rosepink, Sabatia angularis. This generous, free-blooming pink beauty is not only beautiful, it's staggeringly fragrant, with a light muguet (honeysuckle) scent that makes me swoon. Wherever and whenever I see it, I stop the car, leap up the road bank, and bury my nose in it. I don't see it very often; in fact I only know one place around here where I can do that.

Rosepink, a member of the gentian family, grows in a little bunch, like a bouquet all ready to put in a vase. This is not a small, shrinking wildflower. This is a spectacular showgirl, runway ready, each blossom the size of a quarter. Mmmmm.


Close up, rosepink has a bewitching greenish-yellow center finely edged with red. Oh, for Smellovision.


I always look for rosepink on my birthday. And that night, I listen for the first katydids. Both were late this year, but that wasn't their fault.

This rare gentian used to grow in abundance in a meadow halfway out our county road, until a family we have since come to know bulldozed it all and plopped a modular house on the spot. They keep the featureless lawn shaved down to the roots, no shrubs; only a few petunias surrounded by mulch and a square of sweet corn off to the side. This, where butterfly weed, slender ladies' tresses orchid, and rosepink used to thrive, where I used to stop my car just to revel in it all. That meadow was one of the reasons we decided to live on this road.

Where do you even start to explain what they had; what they've done to the land, how they have replaced this rare and irreplaceable population of plants with their mundane and spiritless fescue; what a crime against nature they have committed? Well, you don't, because they wouldn't understand. No one who understands would have mown that meadow. You just remember, try to be kind, and treasure what is left elsewhere.


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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pink Chicory, and Musings on E-Etiquette


Such a glorious summer for wildflowers. It's green right up to the road margin, something you don't often see in August in Ohio. I take my camera everywhere I go. On our bluebird box route, the kids begged to take their bicycles along. I couldn't take both bikes in my car, so they settled for razor scooters. I saw them scooting along that lovely road and dropped to my knees to get the Queen Anne's lace in the action, too.


Their outfits were perfect reverses of each other. The spots of red brought the hazy summer landscape alive.


Like Queen Anne's lace, chicory survives our best efforts to rub it out. It grows in the worst compacted gravel it can find, right up to the roadside. It's probably salt tolerant, given the winter treatment of the roads. And it has the best blue, bar none, of any wildflower, in my opinion; a clear, periwinkle blue that makes my heart sing. I don't care if chicory, like Queen Anne's lace, is an exotic from Europe. I love it unreservedly, not least because it grows where no other flower will. (It's also used to flavor Luzianne coffee; it was used in the Civil War as a coffee substitute, and people got used to the taste).

I once bought a budgie because he had a breast that color. His name was Bing. My German grandmother loved Der Bingel (Bing Crosby), and decades earlier, she had named her parakeet Bing, too. If I ever get another parakeet, he will be Bing. It is a fabulous name for a parakeet. You may use it. I won't mind.

But once in awhile we find chicory that isn't blue. This is a wonderful year for pink chicory. We have five plants along our road near our mailbox. We see them every year, leading me to think that chicory is a perennial.


I don't know if you'd get pink flowers true from seed. Someone emailed me once about getting some pink chicory seed from me, but I lost the email in a crash. People email me about a lot of things, thanks to the Google image search, thanks to this blog, thanks to the Tubes of the Interwebs. I answer the urgent appeals for advice on baby bird care, but sometimes I get tired of the constant dribble of people needing things. They always want something, and they almost never properly identify themselves, state their name or location, use a proper salutation ("Hey Julie" is the usual) or say thank you once they've gotten it. The ones that do are lovely, but they are vastly outnumbered by people who think the operaters are standing by to take their call. I don't think I'm being cranky here. If you're asking someone you don't know for a favor, you need to write a formal letter. I try to indicate as much in my replies:

Dear stargazer@yahoo.com,

Thank you for your inquiry. I cannot tell you how to become a freelance writer and artist in an email. It's just something you have to do over and over until you get it right.

Ever at your service.

Julie Zickefoose.

Oh. Where was I?

I wonder why you'd want to propagate pink chicory. It's unusual, but it's about 1/10 as beautiful as regular old blue chicory.


People are funny, Mether. They propagate all kinds of unusual things. Look at me. Am I more beautiful than a wolf? I thought you would say yes.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Caspian Terns--Finished

It's time for the last installment in our little painting class. Watercolors go pretty quickly!


Here, I’m playing with bounce light on the birds. I want some of the mauve and pink tones from the underlying sand playing up on the birds. They’re standing in shallow water. I figure the sand colors just under the water’s surface would be bouncing up on their underparts. So I feed mauve and pink into their bellies and underparts. This helps tie the bright red bills into the painting and keeps it all from looking too sterile.

I lay the tracing paper outline of the magazine cover over the painting to make sure it’s all going to work with the text. Looks OK.


Once again, I was flying, and unwilling to stop long enough to photograph the birds as I worked

on them.tern8

By now, it's almost evening, and the light is gone, but I shot a photo anyway. It looks blue, but don't worry--I haven't taken a blue wash over everything.

I’ve gone with a Billy Idol ‘do for the forward-facing bird. This is a pair of birds who are greeting each other with extended wrists and erect crests, something Caspian terns do. Howdy. Nice hair. Right back at ya. Ak ak ak ak ak.

To get the strong sidelight I wanted, I had to really play up the shadows. I adore painting white birds, and terns in particular, because white is such an expressive slate on which to play with subtle colors. It’s amazing what you can do to it and still have it read as white.


For instance, I decided that those shiny red bills would probably be sending bounce light onto the birds’ necks and breasts, so I went with that, sending a pinkish glow down their throats. Why not? If you can’t be playful when you paint, why do it?

I think I’m done. Gotta quit before it all gets too picky.


I hope you've enjoyed seeing this painting come to life.

If you'd like to order a signed, limited edition print of Sidelight: Caspian Terns, click here. And click on Limited Edition Prints.

I will sign it for you, inscribe it, and send it to you. I hope that this series has inspired the painters and dreamers. I know you're out there.

Psst. Just DO it! Paint, I mean.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Caspian Terns Part Two

We're working away on the Caspian tern painting. I have nothing pithy to say about how I painted the sand and the ocean. I just did it, painted things wet on wet in stripes and painted right over the masked out birds with great abandon and speed. When the paint dried, I could peel up the masking film and rub the dried masking compound off with my thumb and bingo! clean paper where I could paint the terns. Truth is, I couldn’t have stopped to take a photo if I’d wanted to.

While things were still wet I scrubbed out the reflections of the birds, which means I took a brush loaded with clear water, laid that water down, waited a few moments, then did a light scrub with a dry flat brush and just lifted the paint back off the paper.


But here’s where it gets tricky. For their reflections, I had to paint the same three birds, but upside down. Urggg. I tried it on the leftmost tern, tried drawing the durn thing upside down, and it was hard, even when I turned the painting upside down, to draw a convincing reflection. I decided I'd better figure out a better way for the next two birds. So I took a piece of tracing paper, traced my birds, and then flopped the image down on the painting and transferred it using soft pencil applied to the back of the tracing paper. By pressing down hard, I could make pencil lines on the watercolor paper.
In this way, I got an exact image of the bird where the reflection should be. Cool, huh?


This is the kind of thing you figure out on the fly when you’re painting. It was something that I knew I’d have to suss out, but I had only the haziest idea how to tackle it when I started the painting.


Here’s a detail. You can see that I’ve got the reflections of the loafing birds pretty well done. Note the leftmost bird. It's not a perfect reflection. On the other two, I used the shortcut I'd figured out. I don’t want them to be exact or too fussy or they won’t look like reflections. They just have to be convincing enough that the eye passes over them and accepts them as reflections. So, keeping that spirit, the inexact leftmost bird doesn't bother me. It works well enough.


Where the two large front cover birds were concerned, it looked like the reflection of the left-hand bird would run onto the wet sand, where it would conceivably not show up as it would in shallow water. So I just kind of hazed it out. Any painting tends to have its own can of worms; every painting has things to consider and conquer that the artist hadn’t figured on when first envisioning it. If you choose not to paint directly from photos, slavishly copying everything the photographer captured; if you choose to create your own scenes, you get can after can of worms. But it’s the worms that make it fun, the worms, and keeping a playful spirit. In watercolor painting, it helps to be able to say "Whatever." It's good enough, let's move on.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Time to Paint!

Another year, another Bird Watcher’s Digest cover. My 18th, I think. Maybe 19th. I’ve been painting covers for this wonderful magazine since 1986. Yow. That’s a long time.

This was to be a special painting, one to mark and commemorate the fact that Bird Watcher’s Digest is hosting the Midwest Birding Symposium Sept. 17-19 in Lakeside, Ohio. The Caspian tern is the Symposium’s logo bird. The last time BWD hosted the MBS at Lakeside, Phoebe was very sparsely furred, pot bellied and little enough to sit under my French easel and arrange my paint tubes by color, and stay happy that way for a long time. Liam wasn’t even here; he was just giving me a distinctly Hitchcockian profile. Now Liam’s nine going on ten, and Phoebe is 14 going on 25. I remember the Bird Watcher's Digest-hosted Symposia of 1997 and 1999 as the most fun I’d had in a long time—so many of our friends from the bird world came and hung out. The weather was divine, the setting was Victorian and gorgeous, the speakers were top-notch, the birding was great, and Bill and I were excited to share our little family with the world, even though as a primary organizer he was running around like a crazy man, walkie-talkie in hand, making it all fall together for the nearly 1,000 participants. That was where I first held a Swarovski EL binocular in my hand and said, “If a pair of these drops down from the ceiling of the delivery room when Liam arrives, I won’t need any Demerol.” And I didn’t, and I got my binoculars and my sweet boy.

I wanted this painting to somehow capture the excitement and sense of camaraderie of the Symposium. I also wanted this cover to be different, looser, more fun. I was determined not to tighten up and get all picky. I was happy with the last one (The Missing Pane), which featured my orphaned eastern Phoebe, Luther. But I wanted to push it farther into the loose, slightly sloppy world of watercolor. I’m a watercolor painter, and at the half-century mark, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be anything else. I just love it. I fall back in love with it every time I pick up a brush.

A BWD cover demands that there be something of interest on both the front and back of the magazine. Of course, the main area of interest needs to be on the front cover, but I don’t want to neglect the back, either. There needs to be room for blurbs and the masthead and the UPC code…it’s a lot to think about. In the end, though, I didn’t want a painting that looked like it was engineered around all those little necessities.

I wanted strong horizontal and diagonal lines, and I wanted the birds to be bathed in light—that most of all. Here’s the sketch, which is actually pretty well realized, with the direction of light already worked out.


The thing about watercolor is that it’s fast. So fast, in fact, that I had already masked the birds with film and liquid masking compound by the time it occurred to me to take a photo. I had already put in the surf and sand flats. I had already made my paper dolls of the cover birds, cut them out, and stuck them to the painting so I could see how their colors would work with the sand and water I'd painted. See how the cutout bird is casting a shadow? It's stuck to the painting with tape.


I’d already started figuring out where the reflections were going to go and how they would look. Whoops. Well, that just goes to show you that sometimes life takes precedence over blogging. Lately it has taken a LOT of precedence over blogging, and that is a beautiful thing.

Next: Birds and reflections.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

For a Deer


I have no claim on this running doe
except that I am here and agog
Trying to catch her, keep her
in a little black box with a magic window
Somewhere I can see her again and again.


How is it that such a creature
Lives here among us
Weighs just what I do yet
cannot make an awkward move?

From whence this perfection
This polished haunch
these slender legs?


Boil me down and start me over
I want to run like that
Vaulting log and wire
Hitting with a thump and springing high
Bounding up the slopes that slowed me to a trudge
Before the change.

I've nothing to offer her but a reason to run.
Nothing to say but thank you.


For Mimi Hart, which after all means Deer

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

More News from Paradise

There are some urgent news flashes from Paradise that I need to pass along. This is the only news that really matters, so pay close attention.

It is very hot, touching 90. I suppose it had to get hot sometime. August 9 seems like a good day for it to finally turn hot. Having spent the first half of the day sweating, weeding and getting filthy, I'm running the air conditioners. It feels divine, although I miss the bug and bird music that has filled our house this whole cool fresh summer.

Today I clipped off the green bean plants, about three inches from the ground. My friend David told me a couple of summers ago that he'd taken a lawnmower to his green bean rows, just to get rid of the bug-eaten old plants, and to his shock they had resprouted and borne a beautiful fall crop! It's too late to plant more seeds, so I thought I'd give it a try. There are good roots under that soil. Maybe they'll put on some new growth, bloom and feed us again before frost. They've already outdone themselves, but maybe they can do more.

While I was at it I planted some "Farmer's Market Baby Lettuces" from Renee's Garden Seeds. I have never succeeded in getting a fall lettuce crop, but if there were ever a summer to try it, this is it.

Big news: The tuberoses are going wild, 14 blooming stalks, a personal best and all-time high. From this I surmise that tuberoses like a cool, wet summer. Our nights are perfumed with wild dreams from the little white flowers in vases on the nightstands.

The dwarf peach tree gave its all this year. Too bad we were in Trinidad for peak peachdrop. I surmised by all the chewed pits on the ground that the 'coons had a field day, waiting beneath it each night. One thing I know: they didn't make it up my homemade baffle to pick them for themselves. The Science Chimp has learned a thing or two about stopping 'coons, having experimented with it since 1982. You may feel free to copy my original design with your own taped-together Yard Funnels. It is especially handsome, I think. Do not try to use duct tape. The only tape that works is that silver metal stuff. You could probably fix a car with that tape.

The Rose of Sharon "Satin Blue" that we bought at Chautauqua two summers ago is growing and blooming, delighting us with its delicate mix of lilac and sky. I do love the mallow family. I can think of seven different species growing in my gardens right now. Two are from Africa, several from Asia, exotics all. My giant pink hibiscus might well have been developed from the native marsh mallows, which are turning Marietta's Kroger Wetlands into a total fiesta right now with their huge red, pink and white blossoms. My cultivar and the wild marsh mallows have the same structure and blooming schedule. So I wonder if I could boil the roots and make marshmallows? As if I'd ever find time to try it.

More news: There is a beautiful sorrel pony on my bluebird route. Sometimes she comes down to the fenceline where I can admire her.

Almost all the hay is cut now, the last time this season. August looks like it's burgeoning, but in truth hardly anything is really growing any more. It's more just seeding and fruiting.

The hayrolls are almost all gathered up now, piled and coated in ugly white plastic. I wish I could say I find them attractive when they're shrink-wrapped, but I don't. Here's an unwrapped holdout, with a thunderhead crown.

Bill goes around this curve at least twice a day. I like how the road looks like a model racetrack in this photo, like you could just peel it off the land and roll it up.

And always the hayrolls, lurking like musk oxen off to the side of the meadows.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dispatch from Paradise, Ohio

Mether, I see you are shooting a picture of our house. Perhaps you need a stately pose from me, Chet Baker, to improve the image.

I live in paradise.

A 1978 vintage ranch house in Southern Ohio is not what most people would consider paradise, but that doesn't bother me.

Not many people really know Appalachian Ohio. Maybe they know Seattle or Ann Arbor or Great Falls or Palm Springs or Bali and they have a different definition of paradise. That's OK with me, too.

Along about this time of year I would not want to be anywhere else but right here, watching the farmers roll up their hay. To come out my driveway and see this landscape is a fine, fine thing.

We watch the light play across the rolls.

I try to catch a thunderhead. I can't, but I still try. If I take a light reading on the cloud, the land goes dark.

If I take a reading on the land, the cloud washes out. I think it is all too beautiful to capture.

It's not meant to be captured--just lived. Or, come to think of it, painted. Yes. I could do that. Maybe I will.

I watch the sun burn red into the ground.

And wait for the mist to come up out of the hollers.

I ride around with Chet, checking bluebird boxes, wondering if he finds it as beautiful as I do.

Figuring he does.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Chet and the Rat Snake

Not long ago, Bill was backing his van out of the garage in the morning when I heard him give a yell. ZICK! ZICK! It was his snake yell. I hoped it wasn’t a big black rat snake hopelessly mashed in the garage door track again. Not going to talk about that time. I also hoped it wasn't another big snarly copperhead disappearing into a tangle of garden tools.

This time, he’d apparently nicked a big female black rat snake with a tire as he backed out. She'd been under the car, and there was no way he could have known she was there. Two eggs popped out. One was crushed, and the other was fine. So, strangely enough, was the female snake. I watched her carefully and could discern no injuries. She moved normally, slithering away, leaving her two leathery white eggs for me to deal with. I cleaned up the busted one and buried the other in a flower pot with dampish soil and a mix of sun and shade. You can always hope…It was such a beautiful snow-white package with its leathery shell. I had to believe there was a snake embryo in there that might hatch. So far, not so good. It's looking stained and dented and feeling kind of hard. Probably too much rain for it to develop properly.

Still, we worried about the female snake, and Bill asked me every day if I’d seen her again after she coiled up behind a garbage can to sulk. Finally, I could say yes. She was making her way across the lawn, fine as frog’s hair, identifiable by her still-gravid belly and beautiful reddish cast.

Chet Baker played Offisa Pupp, and went into full snake alert mode, circling and circling her 4 ½’ length.

Black rat snakes are normally phlegmatic and cool, but this old girl puffed right up. It had been a rough week for her. You couldn’t blame her for feeling put upon. First, they run over me, then they let their impertinent pooch niggle away at me.

Careful, dog. I will bite you.

I know that, Mrs. Snake. I just want a sniff and a closer look.

You do not have to worry about me. I am a gentleman, a well-mannered smallish dog, and only curious.

Well, go be curious with someone else. I will swivel to face you no matter how many times you circle me.

I am so curious. I want to touch you, but I am afraid of you, too.

Go ahead. Come closer. Here are my little white teeth. If you want me to sink them into your muzzlepuffs or that shiny black jellybean nose, just keep it up.

All right, Chet Baker. It’s time to let Mama RatSnake go find a place to lay her eggs.

All right, Mether. I am a terrier, but I am only half a terrier. Since you asked, I will back off.

And she climbed the terrace wall and rested for a long time in the shade of a big purple coneflower, and for all I know she will leave the rest of her precious eggs there in the loose soil. And I was happy to know she was all right, and still had her babies inside her.

Sometime during the day on August 4, 2009, this blog had its one hundred thousandth unique visitor. I'd been keeping a desultory eye on the little counter at the bottom of the blog page as the unique visitor count crawled through the 90,000's, then forgot about it. It must have happened yesterday, because when I looked at 10:30 pm there had been 100,057 unique visitors since January 8, 2006. At 10: 37 pm there had been 100,087 visitors. Dang. That's a lot of people. I thought that was pretty cool, even if many of them are just clicking through and forgetting, to know that more than 100,000 people have been here, and 30 more in just seven minutes. And that some of you have come back again and again. And some of you have gotten Boston terriers, and some have put up bluebird boxes or tried growing orchids or identified a sleeping ball of feathers or stopped and wondered about an unknown animal dropping or just had fun you might not have had, if you hadn't been reading. Thanks, y'all. I've had fun, too. I think of the people I've come to know through this funny little medium and it makes my heart fill up and about beat through my ribs.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Pleasures of Vegetables

On a menu in Port of Spain, Trinidad recently, we saw an entrée called The Pleasures of Vegetables. I didn’t order it, but probably should have. It’s always hard to leave home in spring and summer, but it’s especially hard when the sugar snap peas and green beans and tomatoes are in. Mid June is murder. We’re always on the plane to North Dakota then, and usually with a few quart Ziplocs of our own snap peas to pass around between rows. I have to say they beat dry-roasted pilot pellets or those darn pretzel things as an airline snack.

It was the best sugar snap pea year I can ever remember. The vines grew well above my head for the first time ever. We gorged. I almost got to the point of freezing some, but we managed to eat them all fresh. By the end of the season I was shelling them and even serving some in cream sauce.

Durn good lettuce year too, but we weren't here for most of lettuce season. I bought seed labeled Buttercrunch and got oakleaf, grrr. I haven't found good Buttercrunch seed in years. I get this lame stuff that looks like Buttercrunch on the package, but lacks the buttery, convoluted texture and grows straight up like romaine. This year, oakleaf. Double grrrr.

I brought a big bag of our Sungold cherry tomatoes on the flight to Trinidad. This was the first year I ever had a tomato ripen in June! They taste best warmed by the sun, right out of the garden, but they tasted mighty fine thousands of feet up over the Caribbean, too.

I’m all for slow local food, the kind you grow yourself. Chet Baker loves green beans, but he much prefers them steamed and buttered, or sautéed with garlic. Like us, however, he prefers his sugar snap peas raw.

Here, I’m wallowing in the fruits of our garden (and the neighboring you-pick blueberry farm).

photo by Bill of the Birds

Snapping beans is one of my favorite activities—it’s contemplative, productive, and mindless all at once.
Photo by Bill of the Birds.

The old Wear Ever pot I’m using belonged to my mom. She used it to make popcorn, and I still do. The sound of the first kernels being dropped into it, of its wiggly-handled lid clapping on, will bring the kids and dog at a dead run, just like it did 40 years ago in a kitchen in Virginia. Different kids, different dog, same feeling of surprise and delight. Mom’s making popcorn! My mom used to make enough to fill a turkey roasting pan half up, and then she’d sit on the couch with it on her lap and we’d all dive in. Sweet memories.

Here, you can cue the first soft piano notes of “A Summer Place.”

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Monday, August 03, 2009

MidSummer ChetFix

There is something about a brisket tickle that makes Chet Baker a little crazy. The brisket is a very tender bit of the Boston terrier, probably the tastiest and most chewable. It is very lightly haired, so it’s not a big leap to imagine beginning one's carving there when dividing the dog. This is where we would start if we ever ran out of food a la The Donner Party. The brisket.

This is called Crazy Face, and you can induce it in a four-year-old male Boston terrier by vigorously tickling the brisket.

Yes, Tim, this post is for you. I am well aware that a computer screen cannot French kiss you, but it is the best we can do from here. How I wish I could give you Smell-o-Vision. Baker is lying at my feet, silently but vigorously fumigating the studio air. It might make you miss him less. I am wiping a tear from my eye, and it's not because he's so adorable. The fartfest at my feet...

When the tickling ends, a trace of the crazy smile remains.

Until someone mentions bunnehs.

Disclaimer: For those of you who are wondering, no Boston terriers were eaten in the making of this blog post.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Checking the Frog Puddles

A particularly handsome American toad.

The summer posts will keep coming for awhile. My laptop is back at Apple, having given about twenty high-pitched death wails in a row (a nerve-jangling experience) before I removed the battery and silenced it. I'm working off a small reservoir of photos, now undoubtedly consigned to eternity, that I uploaded before the hard drive committed hara-kiri. Best case scenario will see it back here with its hard drive erased...again. I've got 40 days remaining on my 3-year AppleCare contract, pffft. Everybody make a little sacrifice to the technology gods for me. I'm working on Old Slow, who tries but can't do much any more, as her operating system is too old to accept upgrades. She says they hurt. But enough about me and my screwed up computer. Boooring. Frogs and toads, frogs and toads.

Bluebirds aren’t all we check on our rounds. This has been such a wonderful wet summer that our frog puddles on the oilwell access road have been stocked with taddies all season. Green, wood, mountain chorus frog, spring peeper, Cope’s gray treefrog and American toads have all successfully fledged from their muddy depths. Heavenly! You hear so much bad news about frogs lately I thought I'd pass along some good news.

The kids love to go look. In a concession to the abundant ticks on our place this year, they don kneesocks.

Liam was adamant that I not photograph him in red kneesocks, as he did not appreciate my observation that he strongly recalls Christopher Robin when he wears them. So I shot him from the back, to preserve his dignity, at least for the moment.

A child can get lost in a puddle, watching the tadpoles surface for a quick gulp of air, watching the water striders skitter on its thin skin.

Perhaps Indigo Hill’s teeny-weeniest vertebrate: a newly metamorphosed spring peeper.

If there’s a smaller spined soul on the place, the Science Chimp has yet to catalogue it.

A soul so small, yet to itself so dear (paraphrasing Bobby Burns).

Liam eventually relaxed his no-photos policy enough to make some goofy jumps while I crouched at ground level, hooting in delight. The Bacon joined in, but his leaps were somewhat less spectacular.

Phoebe’s “Let’s Go Bananas” t-shirt seems particularly appropriate. Here’s to kids who are willing to make beautiful fools of themselves. May they grow up into adults who feel likewise.

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