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I'm Back! Where's Jemima?

Sunday, December 17, 2017


It's been a week, but I feel like I've just now returned from 12 days away, ten of them spent in the Ecuadorian Andes and foothills. I left on Opening Day of our weeklong gun season for whitetails, so I missed the whole bang-bangy thing.  It was very wet and not warm in the Andes, so these frigid Ohio temperatures weren't much of a shock. I had an 18-hour journey home, getting up at 4 AM in Quito and finally walking in the door, loaded down with luggage and fresh groceries, at 10 PM Friday night, December 8. The trip was incredible, awesome, fun as all getout, full of fabulous birds and wonderful friends who were all grooving on it together. I'll return. I have to!! There's so much more to experience!

 While I was in Ecuador, I dreamt of birds every single night, except for the night that I dreamt of my DOD. All the birds needed me to care for them. They kept getting into trouble, losing feathers, breaking wings.  Obligations, things I wasn't taking care of, birds that needed me--the theme of every night's dreams while I was away. I may have been having fun as a bird guide all day, but at night the birds reminded me of my true work. Finally, I was home.

After a fitful night full of dreams of--get this--living in a house with glass-free windows, where birds kept getting trapped-- blue-gray tanagers**, cedar waxwings, and hummingbirds that kept getting into trouble, all of which I had to help--I jumped out of bed, wanting only to see Jemima, at 6:30 AM. I hadn't had nearly enough sleep, but before it got fully light, I filled all the feeders and washed and refilled the bird bath and put all the best food out. Whole corn, cracked corn, sunflower hearts, black oil, peanuts in and out of the shell. And in the Secret Studio Window Feeder, diced cooked chicken thigh, walnuts, pecans and unsalted cocktail peanuts. Yep, got 'er covered. I was sitting vigil at my usual post when along came Flag!

**This is a cool thing the brain does in dreams. Blue-gray sounds like blue jay. So when I'm dreaming of blue-gray tanagers, chances are my brain is substituting them for blue jays. It's always about Jemima!

 Flag still wears her wide white eyerings, her surprised look.

She was closely followed by Aunt Buffy, a stout little dachshund among whitetails. I love Buffy. She looks terrific, considering that she may be nearly as old as Ellen. Her eye, while still squinty, isn't weeping any more. Progress!

 My two wee does made it through hunting season! Not surprising. That's why I let myself fall in love with scrawny little does. The big bucks? I look, I admire, but I try not to let them take my heart, because they're all marked for death. If they make it through the bloody first week of December, well, that's a bonus, gravy. Good for them.

And that morning of December 9, I watched and photographed an armload of blue jays, but not The Blue Jay. I amused myself photographing them, gathering data, trying to tell one from the other in the flock of seven. I felt rusty, out of practice. This is Darko. He's had three different nicknames, until I realized that I was lookingat the same bird the whole time.

That super white face, contrasting with the dark breast and sides, is one good marker. Also his broad black eyebrows.

This is Lilac. Notice anything about this bird's overall color, especially in contrast to Darko? Yep. Pale. Lilac. Low-contrast. Even the lower throat is lilac-colored. Thin eyebrows. You see the subtlety I'm talking about. These are two extremes in coloration. Most are barely discernible from each other. I have to see a jay a bunch of times and take a bunch of pics before I can identify it with any confidence. I'm a real beginner at this.

But even as I watched and waited and wondered where she was, I knew she was here. I could feel it. My heart was happy and full of anticipation. Liam and Bill had been faithfully putting her chicken and peanuts, corn and sunflower hearts out each morning. At 9:07 AM she finally comes in. I photograph her without knowing it's her at first. Only when she takes several hops and jumps up onto the trunk of a birch do I figure out it's Jemima. These are little things a normal jay wouldn't do. A normal jay would spread its wings and fly. But she's here and Hallelujah! she's made it another twelve days without me around fuss over her! The boys had reported that her meat and peanuts were completely gone every night. The pessimist in me figured that the chipmunks must have defeated my homemade baffle around the tree by her feeder, because Jemima had never finished her meat. Surely something else was taking her food.

  Jemima grabbing corn to cache, Dec. 9

Pigging out on chicken, Dec. 11

But the Jemima I saw on December 9 was a different bird. She was ravenous, taking gullet after gullet-ful of meat. And what was different about that was that she was carrying it away and obviously cacheing it in the woods. When I left in late November, it was still warm--60-degree days. I was intrigued to see that, while she cached large amounts of corn and seed, she always swallowed and ate her chicken. If she did carry away a big gob of chicken, she'd fly to a nearby tree to process and eat it all. She knew that, when it was warm outside, she couldn't hide meat without losing it to decay. It was a different story now. I filled her meat bowl four times, and thrilled to see her visit at least ten times. She was in and around the yard from 9 until nearly 2 pm. At evening every scrap of chicken was gone, and I knew that Jemima had taken it all.

When she flew out the driveway, I followed her. I talked and sang to her. She turned around and flew toward me. No sweeter welcome home. If she could have said MAMA'S HOME!! I think she would have. She showed me how she uses the tangles to navigate to her feeder. Tree to tree she flutters. 

She was here with me for two days--December 9, the morning after my return, and she was back on December 11. And then she vanished again.  I haven't seen her or Maybelline since then. Is it driving me nuts? You bet your bippy it is. But Jemima taking off for a week at a time is just another thing in the great continuum of Things Over Which I Have No Control.

This continuum includes pretty much everything in my life. Jemima is here to teach me more about letting go. It's the one thing I'm worst at. My pitbull tendencies serve me well when it comes to writing my column, finishing books, getting that last illustration done under the deadline, and just generally persevering in the face of obstacles. But letting go of the people and creatures I love is a real challenge, because there inevitably comes a time when you have to. I think I'm programmed to love and hold onto them forever, no matter what. Jem's working on that in me.

I've held vigil at the studio window for six days. Maybe she'll be back on Day 8. Stay tuned. Until then, I'll be editing Ecuador photos. And you're gonna love 'em!!

A Ten-Point Messenger

Sunday, December 10, 2017


I'm back from 12 days away, 10 of them in Ecuador's Andes. It was the most excellent adventure!!

 And all is well at home; both Liam and Jemima survived without me; both boys pitched in to make sure she got fed every day; and I've done nothing since I got back but study and photograph blue jays. It feels great to be back in the saddle again. My suitcase exploded in the living room, and there it still lies, because there are jays to be watched. All my Ecuador birds are jammed into one 128-gig memory card that is glowering at me from a corner of the drawing table. Let us out!! they cheep.

I have stuff to do. I'll get to you. Here's the rest of my magical Dean's Fork walk, from a post I prepared before I left.

Keep them on the memory card, says the winter wren. I'm the star of this show.

Alone, and yet not alone. The animals were coming to me this fine late November day, and each one lifted my spirits and made me feel accompanied. You could ask who might be sending them. You could pick now from any number of spirits who've passed on, but are walking beside me every day.

I came up to the Miracle Sycamore, a tree I've enjoyed for years. Sadly, the Miracle half of it finally died this summer. I'd marveled each time we met at the fact that the blasted-out shell of bark that was once such a fine, huge tree had managed to send up a living, vital trunk to the heavens. And that trunk subsisted off what that hollow shell could give it, through the remaining bark layers. You'd have thought it was dead, but no. It still grew.

And now that trunk has died. But there's another trunk. It took off from the base of the tree, and it's running off the roots it's made for itself. Yay for that!  It's all part of the same tree, so the Miracle Sycamore isn't dead. It's just taking another direction.

Being a writer, I've seen nothing but metaphors in this valiant tree. I gather them up and tuck them close to my heart for safekeeping. 

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.--Joseph Campbell 

For me, Campbell's mantra is embodied in this tree. That sycamore had a life all planned out. She had a  big strong supporting trunk. She was headed to the sun. For whatever reason--lightning strike, disease, flood--who can say--her great wide trunk failed her, became hollow and weak. You could see right through it.

 It was time for plan B.  Every trunk for itself! She sank down some more roots and sent up another trunk. Years from now you might look at her and never know she'd had another life, for the hollow part will have fallen away.
I feel my heart lift as I look up at her sending out new twigs and branches, lit by the last rays of sun. Let the old part go. Life is what you make of it.

The light was fading fast. I headed home, enjoying the feel of chill descending in the shadows. I decided to take the low road back, because it has thick briary tangles and often gives me deer. 
Sure enough, as I walked, I sensed their presence all around me. I even heard two antlers clack together. I became very still and walked slowly and softly. 

A small buck burst out of the briars to my left and bounded up the trail. I didn't have time to raise the camera. I stopped and waited. I was pretty sure I wasn't the reason he was running. 

There was another buck on his trail. Shall we count the points? Click on the photos and you'll see them all. He's got a double brow tine on his left antler, and three points on the beam of his right, for a total of ten. Wow-eee. How I love shooting bucks this way, leaving them to run and walk and fight and scuffle another day. I get all the thrill of the hunt with no blood other than that which pounds in my ears.

This is the first ten-point buck I've had in my sights in years. Oh glory, hallelujah. I love my does, and I think I've proven that, but what a thrill it is to see their elusive mates!

I don't mean to hurt his dignity, but I loved this pose, and I can't help noticing the white stockings down the front of his legs. Hmmm. Another thing to watch for, another thing to notice.

And then, in the ultimate gift of the wild, he stopped and looked back down the trail and saw me. I checked the time signatures on my photos and we locked gaze for 11 glorious seconds before he put his head down and charged into the brush. Thank you, Buck; thank you, Animals; thank you, Dean's Fork, and thank you, whatever great spirits are sending me these gifts. It was a walk for the record books, one to remember forever.

I came back up the hill and found the rusty gate, portal to all my favorite places and things, waiting open for me. Might as well walk through.

Remembering Hannah--Dean's Fork Walk 2

Sunday, December 3, 2017


I looked back down where I'd been and reveled at the stripe of sunlight still illuminating Hannah's old pasture. That big cut log to the left is where I saw her last, on my birthday in July, 2016. That image is burned into my mind. That was a day the animals came to me, too. Three skunks and Hannah.  They know.

There was nothing like this moment, and it was one of those rare times when the camera captured exactly how it felt to be met, accompanied, as darkness was falling. That was the last time I saw Hannah. I understand she's gone to live with five other horses. So maybe that's good, better for her. But Dean's Fork just isn't the same without the spirit of this perfectly made, cool little Appaloosa. I loved it so much when she'd come walking out to meet me, and accompany me a few hundred yards down the road before turning back to her preferred pasture.

A redtail screamed and circled overhead. They always make me smile, because I'm wondering if DOD sent them. At this point I'd have been perfectly content with all I'd seen and been able to shoot. But I heard footsteps in the leaf litter, and the fattest of all possums came walking down, crossed the road, climbed down into the streambank and up the other side, and kept going.

He was a good-looking boar possum, had most of his tender ears (frost tends to bite them ragged); had his whole tail and all his fur.


He crossed Hannah's pasture and kept walking. I bet he knows where all the persimmon trees are.

And up the next slope he went, a possum with a purpose.


I wasn't dead sure who left these. Maybe a bobcat, maybe a fox. Hybrid poop, with the short squarish segments of a cat, and the long hairy taper of a canid.

In November, you begin to treasure the last colored leaves. You look for the contrast between them and the brown background, and revel in the blue sky while it's here.

I got down to the black barn, and the magic portal that let me inside last time I was there had been tied delicately shut with blue twine. Oh. 
As much as I'd enjoyed snooping around in there, I was glad to think that someone was trying to keep the barn uninvaded. 

I stuck my iPhone's eye up to a crack and got in that way.

 I never tire of the slashes of light that come through open barn siding. I know I'll paint this phenomenon someday, maybe when I have to sit still for awhile. Like, getting over something, or letting something heal.  I feel compelled to move as much as I can while I still can. 

Everything was still in place, including the giant black mound of bat guano that makes me smile every time I see it. That's a LOTTA BATS. Or a few, pooping for a very long time. Either way, it's a beautiful thing, at least to me.

Back out in the sunlight, I found more tracks from the good-sized coy-wolf that had made the exact same walk I was making, just a few hours earlier. He'd have to do for my canine companion. Unseen, like most of my companions these days.

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