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Ice Castles, Shrew Bones, Career Choices

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The day Ora Lee died, Shila came over and we went for a healing hike. I hired a sitter for Liam so we could revel in the hiking without having to cajole him up and down the cliffs. It was well worth the investment. The creek had dropped since this skim of ice formed, leaving it suspended like delicate isinglass in mid-air. The struggle was to get to the ice panels before Chet did; he delighted in patting them with his paw and watching them shatter. We made our way down the creek with mounting anticipation, knowing that we were in for a treat. We'd had some rain, and night temperatures dipped into the twenties. An ice kingdom worthy of Zhivago awaited. I loved to think that, while we went about our lives and ate and slept and worked, these enormous pillars of ice were silently forming.

It's hard to appreciate the scale of the cliffs at Beechy Crash without a human or canine element, so here's Chet, scrambling about like a mountain goat.
These might be the best icicles we've seen, formed under perfect, still conditions on a snowy night. Every icicle was polka-dotted, and we wondered about that until Shila figured out that snowflakes had fallen on them and frozen in place.

We lay on our sides and backs to get the best angles, hooting and hollering with delight as we discovered one bizarre formation after another.

At once point it occurred to me that, should a rack of icicles suddenly break loose, Shila and I would be smashed, impaled, or worse. We thought it was probably an acceptable risk, considering the photo ops.
Beneath the daggers lay the most enchanting moon-eggs of ice, softly glowing from within.
These are only a few of the dozens of images I took away from that hike. Here's Shila, beholding the spectacle.

We could have stayed there until nightfall, firing away at ice.

The woods was alive with birds; a sharp-shinned hawk, a couple of pileated woodpeckers, and a red-phase ruffed grouse greeted us as we came down into the Chute. I was particularly delighted about the grouse, as I have started to see him at the same passage in the Chute every time I come through. This tells me that he is beginning to think about drumming on one of the mossy logs that litter the forest floor. There was a year when I didn't see a grouse there, and I missed him sorely. Now there's one living there again. I hope he doesn't mind being flushed once every couple of days.
We moved on to the barred owl tree, where we found the crawfish-loaded pellet. It has dried out enough now so that I can identify the fur in it as opossum. Interesting. Even more interesting was the pile of shrew bones I had overlooked until this hike. They were under the same tree, only inches from the flashier pellet and whitewash. Look at them!! You can tell they're shrews by the bizarre sharp RED teeth. I'll go a bit farther and guess that these are short-tailed shrews--just by their size. The short-tailed shrew, Blarina brevicaudata, was rather recently discovered to be North America's only venomous mammal. It bites its victim (say, a white-footed mouse), then follows it until it drops, paralyzed. They're even said to bay while trailing their prey. It's in frequencies beyond human hearing, but it's undeniably baying. And doubtless nerve-shattering to mice. Eek!
There's a gorgeous little pelvis on the upper left, with a row of holes for nerve insertion. And that's a vertebra on the dime. It's so great to look at bones with Shila, since she's a craniosacral therapist and knows all about bones. We do comparative anatomy with all the bones we find.

Speaking of shrew bones...seeing them catapulted me back to the summer of 1976.
When I was just out of high school my father strongly encouraged me (heh) to get a job as a typist for an insurance company. Yes, it was a rather bad fit for my nascent set of skills. All day long, I transcribed dictation from insurance adjustors. I corrected their grammar and syntax as I went, and I think they appreciated it, even as it embarrassed them. There were two things that kept me alive that summer: watching the pigeons who bred on the window ledges of the building (and there's an amazing story in that, but I'll save it for my next book). The other thing that kept me going was visiting this young woman who worked in a garage studio in the alley where I walked on my lunch break. She was ethereal, pale, with crinkly blonde hair. And she made the most delicate and unearthly jewelry out of shrew skulls and bat skulls and fine silver wire. Could there be any greater contrast in employment situations? Here I was, trapped like a roach in a flourescent-lit insurance office, retrofixing barely literate memos on an electric typewriter, giving names to pigeons on the ledges because they were more interesting than my co-workers. And here she was, an Artist, crafting exquisite jewelry from exquisite things, her studio open to the humid Richmond summer. She was kind to me, and didn't mind my questions and creativity-starved presence for a half-hour each day. God bless her!
Needless to say, I made it clear to my dad that I could find my own damn jobs from that summer forward. Which, I now realize, was exactly his point. Find a career you like or I'll choose one for you. I think you'd make an excellent TYPIST. You got a better idea, kid?

And I'd like to thank the Artist. I wonder where she is, and if she's still looking for shrew bones.


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