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Big Sean the Brush-Wolf

Saturday, May 21, 2016

I was headed for the car, which was loaded up with packages, a bit before noon on May 16. My destination: the Lower Salem post office. I was already pushing it for time, but I knew I could make it before the place shut down at noon sharp. I raked the meadow with my eyes, the way I always do, and picked up a distant anomaly.

First look.  Oh, that's something good out there in the meadow. That's a canid.

Grabbed my car binoculars to confirm. Coy-wolf, brush wolf, eastern coyote, hybrid canid. Take your pick. Big male. Catching and eating small things. Jackpot!

I happened to have my Canon 7D with me because going anywhere in May without it is just stupid.
There is so much to see and photograph in May. Every time the animal dropped his head, I ran closer.
Looking at these shots, I'm pretty confident he was picking off freshly-emerged periodical cicadas as they clung to the grass blades. Brood V is coming out of the ground in Ohio after its 17-year sleep!! if the rain and cold ever subside. The first few have started coming out. Bracing myself. It's gonna be huge.

 And thus I kicked off my personal Brood V Project: to photograph as many creatures as possible, exploiting the abundant food these cicadas provide. So far, coy-wolf is the first, and a new one for me. Cardinal: #2.  The way my biology professor friend Dave McShaffrey puts it, "This is like Halley's Comet coming around for astronomers. Brood V is an entomologist's Halley's Comet." Exactly. I don't pretend to be an entomologist, but I had a blast documenting species eating cicadas in the summer of 1999, when I didn't even have a proper camera. This time: look out.

Finally I got close enough to the preoccupied coy-wolf to get his attention. I'm sure he smelled me before he saw me. He suddenly picked his head up. Imagine being able to smell a reasonably fresh human down the length of a football field.

He raised his head higher when he saw me.

There was that moment when he said, "Oh, crap. Now what?"

 He looked away in annoyance and confusion. How could I have let that woman creep up so close to me? What an idiot I am. Having so much fun eating these delicious big bugs I completely overlooked the fact that there's a house up there. And primates pop out of it during the daytime. Duh, Wile E.

Gonna mosey on.

I marveled at the heft and beauty of this animal. There is coyote in him, yes, but there's a lot of something else, too, something big, dark, strong. Eastern wolf, Canis rufus. We didn't quite manage to exterminate them. Left just enough of them in a Canadian refuge to mingle their genes with those of western coyotes and produce something larger, stronger, brainier and more adaptable than any canid we've ever seen. Evolution, afoot.

Evolution happens, right before our eyes. It's always and still happening, whether we acknowledge the process or not.  No Deus ex machina required.

The pattern of his coat, the fine white bib and the red flammulation. The fine stippling of his dark fur, tan, red and black; the thick ruff and long legs. The shorter, deeper muzzle; the robust dentition; the bigger feet. This creature is genetically set to take down much larger prey than cicadas. Groundhogs. Deer. Feral cats, to name a few. Welcome, coy-wolf! Eat hearty! We are serving all your favorites today. 

I was grateful to be so close, thankful to have caught him on my camera. What a gift. How do I know he's a guy? Too big and bulky to be a gal. I can't really see his bits in any of my photos, but there's enough to suggest his sex in his build. Though a radiotagged female coy-wolf in Massachusetts tipped the scales at 60 pounds, twice the bulk of a western coyote.

 "Coyote" just doesn't fit. I like "brush wolf." Might start using that.  And "Coy-wolf" is a lingual stumble. It has no music to it.

He glared at me. Thanks for wrecking my hunting, woman.

His ears, set backward in disappointment.

With a last stink-eye at me, he simply melted into the unmown half of the meadow.

I saw him enter it, but never saw him exit. There's an open path on the far side of the tall vegetation he's going into that he'd have to cross to gain the woods. I never saw him cross it, and repeated scans of the unmown half with my binoculars showed he'd simply disappeared. What he actually did, I'm almost sure, was come toward me until he was behind a small rise, then dart behind that into the woods. 

I love the gotohell look on his face. He's not afraid of me. He just knows he has to curtail his current, enjoyable activity (eating tender, freshly emerged cicadas) and beat it out of here. Because that's how the world works. He's the king of his little pack; his basso profundo howl makes shivers run up and down my spine, but he's outta here, because the two-legged pale creature cannot be trusted. Might be packing heat.

Because my kids have polluted my steady musical diet of Americana with the songs that most move them, I've named this magnificent animal Big Sean. There are times when his hit song is the only thing I want to hear. Had it up to here with it all, OK with explicit rap? Enjoy. Heck of a bit of filmmaking and acting--Big Sean manages to convey hurt and a sweet vulnerability despite his profane braggadocio. I can hear my kids and their friends (I'm lookin' at you, Thunder Squad) laughing at my pin-headed critique, reading my stiff appraisal aloud even as I write.

Easily offended? I pray of you, don't click. And if you do, and get all huffy, scolding me is not your best choice. Like coy-wolves, like evolution, explicit material is going down all around us.

I never made it to the post office. That's OK. I had an audience with Big Sean, whom I adore.

 Who hates me. 

 I'm OK with that, too.  

Burning Mustard, Burning Time

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The last blogpost was supposed to be about pulling garlic mustard, and the one before it was supposed to be about spring in West Virginia. Not sure what’s coming out now, but I think I’m done writing about my teeth. “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what it set out to teach.” Not sure who said it --was it the Dalai Lama or Rumi, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Paula Deen?—but it’s a good ‘un. Clop, clop, clop. I’m learning, slowly.

 Duck Creek Road. One of my happy places. I love the way it curves on into infinity. It draws me onward.

So I’m coming back on a two hour drive from a dental procedure that shall remain unnamed and I turn up Duck Creek Road just to quickly stop in and check a couple of bluebird boxes I put up on Washington Co. Fish and Game Club’s property. I put them up last year, two brand new boxes with pole-mounted predator baffles, because I could no longer stand to watch the club’s old boxes rot and fall off the trees they were nailed to, bluebirds and tree swallows struggling, making nests in wet, rotten, roofless houses, soaked by rain. How could you stand by and watch that? And in the first of my new ones were four baby bluebirds—good!!in the most enormous nest I've ever recorded.

Four-day-old eastern bluebirds

 and in the second were five baby house sparrows—bad!! but what could I do? Nothing. Not throwing these gold-lipped jewels into the weeds; it’s too late to fix this now. 

I remember painting my house sparrows for Baby Birds. I’d kept dragging their nests out of the clothesline pole box until I got lazy and a clutch hatched before I could get to it. Phoebe asked, “Why don’t you paint the babies?” It was a lightbulb moment, the child leading the parent in insight and wisdom, and it wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last that my kids have shown me the way. 

While I take no pride in having allowed, by my travel-induced inattention, this nefarious pest to nest in a second one of my boxes, the artist in me is delighted to see young house sparrows again, such strange, flat-eyed, vividly colored three-day-old babes, lying in their many-textured fluffy grass nest. It’s lined with rock pigeon and Canada goose feathers. When they’re done with it, I’ll take it home and identify all the feathers inside; it’ll be like Christmas for a Science Chimp. And I’ll figure out how to trap the adults should they start a second brood. Such is the irony and pang of managing bluebird boxes.

While I was at the Fish and Game Club I checked the clubhouse and stage structures for any phoebe nests, and found a couple of robin nests, one of which looked long and strange. To my friend and club caretaker Sid’s quiet amusement, I climbed up on the banister, clinging to the rafters, and documented my first American robin duplex! Must not have liked the first one, because she stopped before she mudded it and built an addition. I wonder if the babes will spread out into the anteroom when they get big, feathered, 13 days old? Bet they will! Eggs in the main house were warm from Mama’s brood patch. Nothing like that blue, that blue.

Though I was in a hurry, I could not fail to notice the most incredible swathes of appendaged waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) I had ever, ever seen. Waterleaf must love rain, because this was just off the hook fabulous. It went on and on, deep into the woods, and in a panorama of shivery lilac, all along the road, completely covering the hepatica and Dutchman’s britches, squirrel corn and trillium that had held sway only a couple of weeks earlier, which is done and gone anyway.

Ephemerals. No better name for these native spring wildflowers. I got out of the car and shot some waterleaf photos to share, because unless you happen upon this fabulous borage in bloom, you don’t know what it can do.

And while admiring the nativity, the real nativeness going on, I happened upon a medium-sized patch of garlic mustard, possibly the plant I loathe and fear the most of all invasive exotics. I saw red. I started to grind my teeth, and stopped. I looked at my just-washed Keens, shrugged, leapt the muddy ditch and lunged up the steep slope. Braced myself and started pulling, mindful of the poison ivy that always grows amidst garlic mustard on the shaded roadsides where it first takes hold. Got a big patch on my elbow despite being careful. I threw the plants down in the road, finished the job, then leapt back down. Looking at the siliques laddering up the stems, I could see they were nearly mature, and about to spread thousands of seeds into this heretofore pristine wildflower Valhalla. I couldn’t leave them in the road, where car tires would spread them even farther. I looked at my never-mudded new Subaru, sighed, and loaded the muddy plants into the back.

Now what? Head for home. Try to find time to burn the damn things. I drove, scanning the roadside. Another patch, this one three times the size! I growled and repeated the routine, adding to the batch in the back. The car stank of garlic. Now what? I had too much to burn. Take it home and bag it up? Lay it out in the sun to dry and burn it when I got home from Utah? I’d doubtless wind up introducing it to our forest in the process. What a mess.

I kept driving. And started praying that Randy would be out and about in his yard. He’d helped me last year when he saw me pulling and throwing. Though he’d never heard of garlic mustard, he understood what was needed immediately, and offered to load the plants in his truck, take them home and burn them for me. I rounded the curve and there he was, like a burly angel from heaven, only smoking a large blunt cigar. YAAAAY!!

“Remember last year when you burned some garlic mustard plants for me? Well, I’m baaack.” He smiled and pointed to his fire circle. “Load ‘em in there and I’ll burn ‘em for you.” I was only too happy to get the reeking pile out of my car. Randy looked at it and started for the shed. “Why don’t we  just build a fire and burn that right now?” He fetched a bag of refuse and lit it. It was going slowly.  I thanked him for taking the time to help. “I was going to burn anyway. I’m always burning.”
How kind of him.

“Right about now, my dad would go for the propellent,” I mused. “I was just thinking the same thing,” he said, and headed back to the shed, coming back with a jug of kerosene.

 I observed that it was a rare man who’d throw kero on a fire while smoking a large cigar. “Kerosene isn’t as much of a hazard as gasoline. It needs contact with an open flame.” Exactly what my dad would have said, I thought, a filmstrip playing in my head of the time my father, having lost some of his once excellent judgement to a brain aneurysm in 1989, spilled gasoline down his pants, then threw more on an open fire in our backyard. The flames leapt up his pant legs, and were just as quickly extinguished without doing much harm. But that image stays with me, the burning man who had once been a guy who wouldn’t have done that in a million years.

A man and his fire. If you live in the country, you need a place where you can burn stuff. I envied his setup—the sturdy stone wall especially. We have a rickety ring of stacked bricks that the deer keep knocking down in their quest for whatever it is they get out of ashes. It took awhile to get the plants all burned down, but I didn’t want to let a seedhead get by. I looked at my watch. Oh man. The time had flown. I’d been at this quest for two hours, and I had to leave for Utah the next day. I thanked Randy again, got in the car, and got about 200 yards down the road before I saw another patch of garlic mustard, bigger than the last two. The air went blue. I sighed, leapt the ditch, pulled it all—it was perilously close to going to riotous seed—and loaded it into the Subaru. Zick 3, garlic mustard, 0. I hoped. While I was pulling, a curious neighbor stopped to ask what I was doing. Never one to let a teaching moment go by, I showed her the plant, told her how to recognize its paltry white blossoms, and encouraged her to look for it and pull it wherever she saw it. It’s hard to convey to someone who may take them for granted how rare and precious such diverse wooded slopes are, and what a deadly threat garlic mustard poses, but I tried.

Randy watched me back up to the fire circle for the last time. “Didja miss me?” We repeated the dry wood and kerosene routine until the last plant went up in black smoke. It was starting to get dark. What a day it had been.

Best part? His last name is BURNWORTH.

There are those who say that, with massive introductions of exotic invasives worldwide, we have a global flora and fauna now; that it’s pointless to fight the Burmese pythons and the walking catfish, the Japanese honeysuckle or the water hyacinth. That we should just sit back and appreciate it all. It’s all natural, it’s all good. Well. I choose not to trade Duck Creek Road’s trillium, Dutchman’s britches, squirrel corn, hepatica, Jack in the pulpit, purple cress, dwarf larkspur, blue phlox and spring beauties for a solid stand of tall, gangly garlic mustard. I consider that a natural diversity holocaust, and I’m not scared to put in the work to prevent it. I’ll go farther, and say that you should care, too; that if you’re able, you should be pulling that crap wherever you find it, and disposing of it in a way that won’t spread it further. (Easier said than done). For me, choosing not to do anything is tantamount to watching a mugging in progress, shrugging and saying, “I guess he needs some money for drugs. Too bad for that person he’s robbing.” I can’t drive by the stuff, because I know what it’s up to. And neither should you.

From 30,000 Feet

Thursday, May 12, 2016

It was a day. I’d just had my third root canal since March 24, when I had my first on Molar 19. The second, on Molar 20, followed March 29. Those two teeth were crowned April 14, and that was unexpectedly delight-free, as well. Now it was May 10, and I was in for my fourth multi-hour session in The Chair, and on this beautiful balmy afternoon I slunk into Jim Murrin’s office like a yaller street dog, my heretofore cheery mien dissolved. I was thoroughly done with numbing and needles and pain, with shots of epinephrine (or whatever it is that numbs my jaw and makes my heart race) and the wasp-sting and giant bumblebee drone of drills inside my head. I was done with latex mouth dams and fighting back the sudden panic that I couldn’t swallow, cough or breathe. I was almost ready to cry for the gas of oblivion, but pride held me back. Not sure who I’m trying to impress any more, but there it is.

I don’t have bad teeth. I have great big, beautiful teeth, and I love them. This is not their fault. The problem is that my cavities were treated in the late 1960’s, when, as Jim explained, the conventional wisdom (or dumbness) was to carve out a whole lotta tooth around every cavity, and fill that great hole with silver. There. All done. Fixed it. This weakens the tooth structure, and eventually what’s left of the tooth is going to dry out and crack around those gigantic silver fillings. Eventually, apparently, is in the spring of one’s 57th year.  As I understand it, eventually comes quickly if you grind your teeth in your sleep, eat kettle corn, muesli with dried apricot bombs, or almonds, to name just a few of my favorite things that have brought such joy and drained my bank account.

I find myself thinking about primitive dentistry. About cavemen, and what happened when their teeth cracked. Which they must have, given that there was the inevitable pebble in the roots, fruit or flesh. Dental pain is intractable and life-altering. What did they do when it struck?? They didn’t wait in a little anteroom full of alluring magazines to be put out of their pain. They didn’t have pliers or anything resembling them. How on God’s green earth did they pull each other’s teeth? Bash them out with rock and ice skates, Castaway style? I shudder to think of them suffering, perhaps for years. And I feel lucky that I, in my figurative silk suit, can go to Dr. Murrin and say "Please put me out of pain." I’ll sit still as I can. When you see my thumbs twiddling, or my feet describing little circles, you’re hitting pay dirt.

This array of magazines in the waiting room definitely helped, for it speaks volumes. Thank you, sweet Ida, for leading me here to this magical endopaintist, this paintodontist, who loves plein air, cityscapes, mountains, beaches, light, music, birds and my books, too. Who calls as I’m making the 2 ½ hour drive home to make sure I’m OK. I’m sure it was your doing that guided me here. What did DOD know of endodontists? I can recall my dad going to the dentist maybe three times in my youth. It was Ida who flossed twice a day, bought us all electric toothbrushes (with cords!) and spent far too many of her mornings in the chair at the dental school in downtown Richmond, returning silent and shell-shocked. She knew from tough dental work.
Close-up of central issue. This is an article about Jim Murrin's alter ego as a plein air painter. See his work at

 Dad had enormous teeth in a robust jaw, which he passed on to me. He’d throw his head back and bare his molars so we could see all that gold. We liked to say that he could chew soup. And he did! We’d laugh to hear his choppers clop-clopping on Mom’s fresh tomato soup, islands of Longhorn cheddar melting in it, a to-die-for summer treat. Clop, clop, clop. When he and Ida were first married she made him a pecan pie, which is kind of like making a peanut butter and honey sammitch for a 200-pound black bear. She took off a little piece off the pie and offered it to Dale. And he bit down on it and by accident her thumb, too, and she said she was sure he’d bitten it clean off. She never hand-fed that man again.

And now I’m remembering Dad slicing things, summer sausage or cheese or apples, and offering bits to us on the tip of his pocket knife, which was always well-sharpened and likely never truly washed. He’d stick it into the dirt to clean it. Dirt, he liked to say, is an excellent cleanser. To him I likely owe my healthy stable of antibodies. I loved the little thrill of danger I felt when I picked a treat with a delicate bite off the end of that knife. That’s probably how the ancestral Zickefooses fed each other, no fingers in the way. I’m wondering where my first pocketknife is now, the one with sides made of furrowed antler, and a wolf-head insignia in the silver base. Dad gave it to me, and I’d give the world to pry it open again, swivel the blade between thumb and forefinger and send it spinning into a perfect stuck landing in the lawn, the way he showed me to do.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Lately, I sit down to write about, for instance, the beauty of West Virginia in a rainy spring (my last post, which turned out to be about teeth) or garlic mustard (this post, which turned out to be about teeth), and what I get is teeth. With sprinklings of mortality, and Ida and Dale. I write about what’s on my mind, I guess. My son, once a nearly-spherical babe with white duck fuzz hair, has passed 6’, spends time building muscle, drawing amazing characters, fussing with his perfect ‘do, and driving himself to school. My daughter lives in Maine, is coming home for a couple of weeks this spring, and then spending the summer working at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. My much-too-beloved dog is growing old before my eyes. And look! so am I. What do you know.

 I don’t mean to sound forlorn, self-pitying, creaky or any of that, because I’m not. I’m riding this fresh and twisty bronco with everything I’ve got, and enjoying it immensely (well, all but the…you know). I’ve almost completely missed spring migration in Ohio; Chet and I haven’t had time for a good run since books started arriving in late March; but I’ve got a new book out, it’s got hard covers and gatefold pages and it weighs 3 ½ pounds! I’ve sold a pack of them, and people seem to like it. I get to zip around giving talks and meeting people, smiling and signing it. I’ve seen spring come on in Massachusetts and West Virginia and I’ve caught snippets of Ohio’s oriole, tanagers and bobolinks out the car windows as I flit around. In the one or two days at a time that I’m home, I plant and weed, piling straw around the tender peppers and tomatoes, and promise my gardens I’ll be back in late May. The house looks like several suitcase bombs went off in it—Bill’s traveling even more than I. I care, but not enough to do anything more than unpack, wash it all, and pack it up for the next trip. Thank God Liam can drive now, and is giving his rapidly-growing knees a rest from track this spring, because his far-flung parents would have missed every meet.

Me and Neka Roundy, Great Salt Lake Bird Festival mastermind and gracious host. Taken this morning, May 12. 2016

 I’m headed to Utah now to see what’s flying through there, take some field trips and give a couple of talks at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. I’ve shipped 30 copies of Baby Birds out here, and I hope hard I sell them all.  Being strapped into a small blue and gray seat is the only time I get to write these days. In fact, I just now yanked my laptop screen back from disaster, courtesy of the guy in front of me who, two hours into the flight to Denver, suddenly and swiftly drove his seatback into my space. Gotta love it. Yeah, I love it; love 35 minutes standing sock-footed in TSA processing, love the 36-carb pack of blueberry cookies that are my breakfast; love boarding position C-25 on a Southwest flight, which sent me to the why-me seat hard up against the restrooms, not breathing deeply. It’s all so glamorous, and I remind myself that it’s the life I asked for. But I treasure the time to buckle myself in, flick on the headlights, grab the wheel, and see where we wind up going.

Salt Lake City from Ensign Peak

I realized with an inordinate amount of glee that these pincushiony things are the seedpods of itty bitty alpine geraniums--the cranes' bills. Not an inch high, hugging the rocky slopes of Ensign Peak. Whoa!!

Not in Ohio anymore. Here be Lazuli bunting, black-headed grosbeak, vesper sparrow, ravens, magpies!!

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