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Messy Dog

Sunday, April 30, 2006

There's been a load of botany and horticulture here lately, and I can feel you Chet Baker fans keening for your pup. So I present the down side of Chet Baker, and I daresay Boston terriers in general. Heck, it's the downside of all dogs except poodles. Who have their own downsides. Someone who owns two of them tells me she has to pull their ear hair once a week. Ow!Baker helps too much. Here, he's pulling on the rope that raises and lowers our martin nesting gourds. Oh, thank you. That's a big help.
He is not good to his toys. The only ones that survive his attacks now are the canvas postman and referee made by Doggie Hoots. The rest are toast from the minute he sinks his teeth into their seams.Patrick Starfish held up for a long time, perhaps because it wasn't even meant to be a dog toy. But during American Idol Wednesday night, Baker got into his groin and eviscerated him most gruesomely.
There is Patrick stuffing all over the house. I finally threw the limp rag away tonight, but not before two more salvos of Hollofil, and one big Baker upchuck that consisted of Hollofil laced with Royal Canin dog chow. Bleeeeah.
This is the time of year when Baker changes his coat from winter to summer. So he gets rid of it all over the place. But especially on flannel sheets. Because the camera didn't know what I wanted to focus on, I had to put a quarter down on the bed. It has no other significance than as a focal point. Yes, we sleep in this. Bleeeah. Big Baker downside.Is he worth it?
Yes, He Is.
Hair? What hair? Is there a problem?

Now THAT's a Lilac!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Excuse me. Gotta brag on a plant again. Bill's mom, Elsa, dug up a lilac shoot from a bush that grew for years on the Miller farm (the ancestral Thompson family farm,which is now under a highway cloverleaf). For years, this offshoot has grown between Bill's parents' house and the neighbor's--not a great place, doesn't get much sun--but it's hanging in there. Every Easter, Elsa climbs out the bathroom window and walks around the corner of the roof to cut some blossoms for the table. The bush is that big. We call it Aunt Lolly's Lilac, because she was the queen of her garden, and she knew from good plants. I would have loved to have known Bill's Great Aunt Lolly. Told she had a live bat clinging to her hat, she said, "Oh, leave it there. It's not hurting anything." My kind of cool old lady.
Aunt Lolly's Lilac isn't just any lilac. The is the finest, most gorgeous, most deliciously fragrant, and the BIGGEST lilac on the planet. This is not a lilac for the faint of heart. It knocks you over with its size, color, and aroma.
Naturally, I went poking around under the offshoot at Elsa's, looking for sprouts. I found a number of them, and potted them up. At the end of the summer, I planted them, and gave several away. This is what mine looks like now, after maybe four years of happy growth:And just to show you what I mean, today I broke a sprig off the garden-variety lilac that came with our farm. The kind that grows everywhere. The ordinary kind. The one in my hand.
Now do you see why I rave about this lilac?
This plant is an heirloom in the finest sense of the word. I'm making it my mission to propagate it and spread it around, because I've never seen a finer one. My sisters in Massachusetts and Connecticut are all waiting for theirs to bloom. Bill planted one in a sunny spot in his folks' backyard, so we can see what it'll do there. I like to think about how old the variety must be, and how old things are often so much better than new things. And the old things all come around in their own time. This is a lilac whose bloom trusses are big enough to accommodate your entire face. Ahhhhhh. Wish I could give you Smellovision. That's on Mac OS29.

Burning Down the House

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Phoebe had softball practice tonight, two hours of it, in the golden afternoon sun. I took Liam, a book (Annie Dillard's For the Time Being), and Chet Baker along. Soon I tired of trying to figure out what Annie was trying to get me to figure out and surrendered to the warm sun and the laughter of children, and I lay down and dozed in the cold grass. When practice finally ended, Phoebe begged to stay and watch a friend of hers practice. But behind her pleading face, coming out of the trees a ridge or two away, I spotted a plume of thick black smoke, and I didn't like the looks of it. Brush burns blue; grass burns yellow; tires burn black, and so do houses. I dragged the kids to the car and sped off in that direction. Only a mile down my beloved, beautiful Germantown Road, we were horrified to see this old Ohio farmhouse going to its reward. One by one, they burn up or, more often, are pulled down, and what replaces them is almost invariably modular, spiritless crap, doublewides that add nothing to the landscape, and worse, will roll over and kill their owners in a tornado. Oh, I hate to see a house burn, but an old farmhouse hurts most. Just look at the setting--it's like a gem in the landscape.
The house can't have been burning for more than fifteen minutes when we arrived, but it was clear that there was nothing to save. Only two tankers were there, and they were giving it all they had.More vehicles rolled up as the flames were doused to rolling smoke.
The renters arrived. Neighbors were saying that there were three in the house, and they were all accounted for. Their dogs were tied out back, thank goodness, far enough away from the flames to be all right. We couldn't hear anything but the occasional pop or crash, but I could imagine what these poor people were saying, in the anguish of watching everything they owned go up in flames.In the midst of it, the children were watching, so heartbreakingly beautiful. People have been watching such things, feeling such things forever. It was like being present for someone's dying, and we were all hushed and quiet, sending this good old house into the afterlife.

Welcome to My Greenhouse

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I was driving from Columbus one afternoon when a call came over my cellphone from Bill, who happened to be peddling Bird Watcher's Digest's wares at a home and garden show in Chicago. "Zick, do you want a greenhouse?"
"You know I've ALWAYS wanted a greenhouse."
"There are some guys packing up a prototype called a Garden Pod and they told me they'd give it to me half-price and ship it free if I'd take it off their hands. Do you want it?"
"Absolutely." No hesitation there. Bring it on.
And thus was one of the world's greatest birthday presents given. I think that was 2002. Man, I have had some fun with this little greenhouse. It's not much larger than your average phone booth--9' round--but it is packed with the most wonderful plants, plants I cannot live without. It's my own personal Florida vacation.
This view shows a couple of neat plants from Africa. The cascading one at far left is Abutilon megapotamicum, a member of the hibiscus family. I love its little pendant red and yellow bells. It's one of the most floriferous plants I know. The shrubby one just to the right, with small round pink flowers, is another hibiscus clan member--a mallow called Anisodonta capensis. I saw it in a planter at a restaurant in Amish country several years ago, and flipped over it. I filched a couple of little cuttings and prayed they'd root, because I'd never seen this plant before. It's like a tiny hollyhock, and it makes a nice full shrub spangled with pink all summer long in the garden.

This perennial snapdragon was my Plant of the Year three years ago. It's terrific for hanging baskets and rock gardens, being gray-green, wooly, and trailing. Besides that, it's fragrant. What more could you want in a plant?

You'll notice that everything is just blooming its head off. Secret? Feed Peter's Plant Food half strength each and every time you water. That's what the professional growers do. I do the same for my orchids, with their special food. Same trick keeps hanging baskets flowering hard all season long. You've got to nourish them each time you water or they'll peter out. I don't know why Peter's works so much better for me than other brands, but I'm not questioning it.
Bougainvillea "Raspberry Ice" (top left) has brought me a smile all winter long. It sat around on the front porch moping through July, August, and the rest of the fall, then burst into bloom inside the greenhouse in January and has just kept going. I'll be curious to see if the Ohio summer is hot enough for it. This baby likes it hot. I think I'll put the pots against the east side of the house near the front door and see if the reflected heat off the house is enough to keep it blooming all summer.
This heliotrope is coming into its third season with me. A lot of these tropicals are very long-lived and durable plants--it's a shame to let the frost get them. The Garden Pod is all about cheating winter (and saving lots and lots of money on fancy hanging baskets and planters come spring). And it smells like Paradise. The next couple of weeks will be a frantic pastiche of bird festival travel, talks, weeding and planting, and stuffing all this wonderful herbiage into planters, pots, and hanging baskets. I've got to get it all moved outside before May 2. It gets so darn hot in that greenhouse in spring that, after a winter of tenderly bringing them to their fullest beauty, I risk cooking everyone should I forget to open it in the morning. I have to keep a screen over the door because it's a magnet to hummingbirds. They come in and can't figure out how to get out--their instinct tells them to fly up when they're confused or frightened. But there's an exhaust fan up there that will make hummer hash of them. And so I never leave the door unscreened for so much as a second.I'd love to think this is Bela, one of the hummingbirds I raised. He's hanging by the front door like Bela always did.

Speaking of things getting in--there's a titmouse stuck in the garage right now, and a !@##$$#% chipmunk in the house. Chet was chasing him through the front flower beds as I was coming out the side door with a load of laundry to hang out. Before I could say what the heck?? he had chased that durn munk right into the basement. We opened all the basement doors, but asking a chipmunk to leave a nice dark basement for blindingly bright sunlight outside is asking too much. He didn't even take the trail of honey-roasted peanuts we laid out from his lair under the stairs to the door. For the last two days he's been in my studio! chittering at me from under a large chest whenever I make a sudden move. He chittered from under the fridge this morning. I've left him food and water, and set a livetrap for him with peanut butter and peanuts and seed. No interest so far. Durn dog.
Growing up to be such a handsome little man-dog. I hardly recognize him, he looks so filled out and stately. He knows the words "chipmunk," "deer," "cat," "bunny," "Daddy," "The Loop," "hungry," "breakfast," and "your own bed," as well as all our names.

The Last Time I Saw Pandas

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

was 1974? I think that's about right. Anyway, I was a kid. We went up to see the first pandas to come to the National Zoo with my grandmother from Iowa and my mom and dad and sister Micky. I remember standing in line for a long time, then pressing myself up against glass to watch them amble around their grassy enclosure.
Liam and I were hoping to see the baby giant panda Tai Shan, but there was a line about forty people long, so we walked on by. Standing in line didn't figure in our day; we had three hours to do as much of the Zoo as we could, thanks to bumper-to-bumper traffic, technical difficulties setting up my talk for that evening, and a recalcitrant guard at the gate who told me the parking lots were all full, and I'd have to show a Smithsonian ID to get in. When I told him I was from Ohio, and I was going to speak there that evening, he said, "Well, you'll have to show me your Smithsonian ID." As if they issue one when they invite you over. So instead of starting our zoo adventure at 11, we started it at 1:30. They were all out of strollers, too, and that meant mutiny from Liam. I was reduced to following a tired-looking grandmother all the way up the hill to the stroller return station to make sure we'd get one. Liam, trudging red-faced and sullen, behind. Fun!
Our dear friends Howard and Marta Youth arrived to grease the skids; Howard worked for the Zoo for years and knew all the right people to summon. We got it all figured out, and their adorable little son Thomas gave Liam a couple of kisses.
Then we were off, zooming from exhibit to exhibit. I think our favorite was Amazonia. We stared agog at giant arapaima fish being fed chunks of herring and fruit. If I'm not mistaken, this is the same fish we called pirarucu in Manaus. I have eaten a lot of pirarucu, even filed my nails with their dried scales. They're being overfished into oblivion, like every other large fish in the world. These were about six to eight feet long, and utterly, prehistorically stunning.
Gorillas, giraffes, some orangutans who were playing with bedsheets in a most amusing way; glossy starlings and tawny frogmouths and gibbons...we flew through the zoo. Despite being pushed around like a pasha in his scooterbug, offered water and snacks and every comfort, Liam grew increasingly fretful. Our little Armageddon occurred when he refused to look at a baby gorilla, because it wasn't a train. That's when you know you have a problem. Liam got a ferocious, hissing lecture from Mommy, and his attitude improved. Stepping back from it, though, I realized that, while many kids around us were throwing screaming stomping flailing fits, I was bent in half just because my son averted his eyes from something wonderful that I wanted him to see. Little stinker. He doesn't have to say a word. He knows how to push my buttons.
So we're coming back up the interminably long hill to the gate, and I remember hearing that sometimes you can see the pandas from the terrace of the Panda Cafe, so I exit stage left and there, miracle upon miracles, in the late afternoon sun, Tai Shan is ambushing his mama about twelve feet directly beneath us. He's hanging upside down from a forked log and biting her as she deliberately walks beneath his station. All bearlike creatures are cute, but pandas are flat-out adorable, and they are playful as all getout on top of looking like giant stuffed toys. I love how Mom casually puts herself in harm's way again and again.

The little knot of people were all goo-goo over this little panda, and I was the worst offender. Pandas are pure magic. Awwww! Lookit that!
Liam was laughing out loud. It was the perfect end to a strenuous day. Well, almost the end...I had to give a talk that evening. I knew it would be rough to do the Zoo, get myself presentable, then give a talk, but I really had no other recourse. It worked out fine. I got to have dinner with my hero Russ Greenberg, an ornithologist specializing in studying our rapidly declining Neotropical migrant birds. Russ realized that if he didn't do something quick we'd have nothing left to study. So he started the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. I've been blessed to work with Russ on a number of occasions, illustrating SMBC's beautiful publications, and I hope to work with him for a long time to come. He's a mighty smart guy, and he sees the big picture like nobody's business.

It was a wonderful trip. Stumbling on the pandas was a metaphor for the whole journey. What a gift from above. These animals are doing good work for their Chinese brethren. Long may they live and reproduce.

Come Walk With Me

Monday, April 24, 2006

and we'll do a nest check. Oh, I love checking my nest boxes. It's hard to stay out of them this time of year; each time I open one it's like Easter morning.
There are baby bluebirds in many of my boxes right now, and watching them grow is absolutely riveting. The weather's been great for nesting, not too cold at night, and the rains have been brief with plenty of sun in between. I can't remember a better spring for nesting birds. So far. Exactly one year ago today, I was looking out at six inches of snow, snow heaped on green leaves and piling up atop bluebird boxes full of nestlings. Arrrrgh. I like this spring MUCH better.
While playing the Easter bunny, I gathered grass for Easter baskets, but also for my nest boxes. I always gather a feed bag full of dry grass early in spring before it all rots down--now is too late. The fast-growing green grass and the spring rains have rotted all that good winter grass to moldy tatters. I store it in the garage and use it for nest changes. Eastern bluebirds get a parasite, the bluebird blowfly, Protocalliphora sialia. The maggots infest the nest, and suck the babies' blood at night. Almost all nests are infested, especially in the second brood, so I automatically change the nests when the babies are about a week old. I just make a new nest from dry grass and take the old one out. Then I count the maggots to see how badly infested the nest was. A bad infestation will be 75-150 blowfly larvae. I always think how good it must feel to the chicks to be blowfly-free at last. If I can't find any evidence of blowflies, I often leave early spring nests alone. By May, though, those blowflies will be busy!
These four-day old nestlings in the Spring Trail box are almost ready for their nest change. I wait until they're big enough to handle safely. One of the eggs in this clutch hadn't hatched, so I took it out. Better that, than it cracks and soils the nest. If an egg hasn't hatched by the time its siblings are two days old, it's not going to hatch. I'm always curious to see if I can tell what went wrong, so I take the egg a good distance from the nest and open it up to see what's what. The vast majority of unhatched eggs were never fertilized, but this one died in the shell after about ten days of incubation. I don't know why, but maybe someday an answer will present itself. The thing is to keep asking the questions, and keep looking for the answers.
The very next box Phoebe and I checked had five eggs. If you look closely, you'll see that the topmost and lowest eggs are pipping. So now I know that the babies will all be hatched by tomorrow morning. The momentary sadness we felt over the chick that died in its shell evaporates. Life surges on in the spring.

Those of you with a hands-off appreciation of nature may be unsettled by my tales of nest intervention--removing nests, handling young birds, opening unhatched eggs. I know a man who has bluebird boxes in his yard, unprotected by baffles, who never opens them until the end of the season. He's appalled at the way I manage my boxes. He thinks I should leave the birds alone and let nature take its course. But when the bluebirds in his yard mysteriously "abandon" their nests, he doesn't know why; snakes and raccoons have their way with them; parasites weaken the young. Maybe some of his bluebirds make it. Most probably don't.

By contrast, I'm an unapologetic interventionist. I don't handle the birds for fun or profit; I handle them only to help them. Having run nest box trails since 1982, I've figured out how to help them. And I'm not above feeding them when their parents have trouble finding enough insect prey. Last year, 52 fat, healthy baby bluebirds fledged from boxes on my trail. There were a couple of snake incidents, a couple of raccoon incidents, some very cold, wet spring weather...I was trying out a waxed pole that proved emphatically not to work in Ohio! Those poles are all baffled now. In 2004, the best year ever, a whopping 72 bluebirds fledged from our boxes. This year, I'm holding my breath. It could be better than '04. We've got eight pairs of bluebirds (up from our usual total of six), a pair of tree swallows, and a pair of Carolina chickadees in boxes on our land.Here's a ten-day-old bluebird, about to be put into its new, parasite-free nest.
I'm as serious about pumping healthy young birds out as any farmer is about fattening cattle. I've got seven new baffled boxes up on Stanleyville Road, and another couple more to put up. And I'm checking them all once a week, and sticking my nose into their business. And I'm teaching my kids to do the same. Our goal is to overrun this part of the county with bluebirds. It seems to be working.

Liam Does D.C.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


City kid, chasing pigeons. You can tell the ones from Ohio, because when their mothers tell them to try catching pigeons, they actually think they will catch one.

We left last Monday for Severna Park, Maryland, where my sister Nancy and mom Ida both live. Sisters Barbara and Micky and Micky's husband, David, and son Evan came down to make it an almost all-Zick reunion (missing only my brother Bob, who is closing on a piece of hilltop in the Shenandoah Valley at the moment). It was just Liam and me. The proximate reason for the trip was a talk I was slated to give at the National Zoo, and all the other wonderful stuff just accreted around it like layers of a hailstone. Man, it was great to hang with my sisters and mom. We went for a four-mile walk, nearly killing Liam, who takes after my dad. He was the one waiting on the park bench for my mom while she ran around.
Ida, my mom, turns 86 this May, but you'd never know it, from the pace she sets. She walks 3 miles a day, and all the people at her independent living community call her Speedy. I hope I'm as fit and sharp and funny at 86. You can't pick your parents, but I would have picked Ida in a heartbeat.
It was a train-centric trip. The highlight for Liam was taking the MARC train from BWI airport all the way in to the glamorous, historic Union Station in Washington. We wanted to see the old trains in the Museum of History and Technology, and the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. I thought Liam would pop, waiting for the train out on the platform. No one ever enjoyed a train ride more. He liked riding the train waaay better than he liked the museums or even the zoo, where we spent the next day.
Continuing the train theme, we stopped in Cumberland, Maryland, on the way home. Cumberland's the home of Mountain Thunder, a famous steam engine that takes people on 35-mile round-trips to Frostburg in the summer. We didn't see MT, but we saw his coaches and caboose, and Liam climbed aboard, waving away huge cobwebs as he made his way along. He stopped and pretended to be "an old skeleton, forgotten on the siderail." It was a convincing portrayal. We ate at the local creamery, and we stopped in the fabulous gift shop that's strategically designed to strip train-crazy kids' parents of all their extra cash. My goodness. $70 later, Liam had a bunch of new DVD's, a wooden diesel engine, a Thomas placemat and teacup, and a new engineer's hat. He needed one; his old one was sitting up high on his head like a little sparrow.
At the Mall in Washington, we trudged from museum to museum in the thrilling spring sunshine. I quickly realized that I would have to spring for a cab from Union Station if Liam was to survive the walk. Washington "blocks" are Ohio half-miles. The scale of the place is almost inconceivable, especially to a weary six-year-old. I thought a ride on the merry-go-round would revive Liam, but as we stood, thirty deep in line, he set his heart on riding the sea monster, something that clearly only the first child in line gets to do. We managed to get horses right behind it but... Only Liam could get on a merry-go-round and stay mad the whole time, because he didn't get the monster he wanted. By that time, my ragged maternal edges were showing. But it was the coolest sea monster. Liam is incredibly specific in his desires, and if he sets his heart on something, you can forget placating him with anything else. Traveling with him is an adventure in negotiation.

When we got off the merry-go-round, we walked back to where we could catch a cab to the station. There was a man drumming on garbage cans and joint compound buckets. He didn't even have drumsticks; he was using random pieces of wood, and splinters were scattered all around him. He was an artist of the highest caliber, rock solid in rhythm, playing tunes on those hunks of plastic. Every once in awhile he'd hit the shopping cart, which made a great crash. We were mesmerized. I could have stayed and listened to his music all day. All the exhibits and rides were fine, but the guy who was playing real good, for free, was the one who touched us most.

Making Manakins, 4

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Here's the final installment of Making Manakins, in which I reveal some of my painting techniques with step-by-step photos of a long-tailed manakin painting in progress. Many thanks to Dan Mennill for the great reference photos in this and previous blogs! This one is a wonderful example of why it's really hard to judge colors in photographs. The low-angle tropical sun has washed out the bird's colors. But this image is great for feather texture and eye detail, and that's what I used it for. Man, what an appealing little bird!
It's time to put in the black. There is a great temptation when painting black birds to paint them other than black; to back off a bit and make them brownish or grayish; or to pump a lot of color into them, be it blue or green or violet. Which is fine if you're painting a grackle or some other iridescent black bird. But there are some birds that are Why should a manakin be iridescent, when its black plumage functions as a fabulous foil for its sky-blue back and crimson crown patch? It's more or less velvety, flat black. So I squeeze a dab from my tube of Ivory Black and get to it. As I paint, I can hear the great late bird painter Don Eckelberry's rough voice hollering, "If the bird is black, paint it BLACK!" OK, Don!
Ivory black is really fun to work with. It's made from burnt bones. Cow bones, I think. The pigment particles are really fine and it dilutes to a fine, but still black, wash. I adore it. The first bird is painted in about a half-hour. You may have been wondering how long this painting took to complete. I spent a good six-hour day composing and making thumbnail sketches, and figuring out where my darks and lights would go. The painting went faster though; I started at about 9 AM and was done and out the door for a hike by 3 PM. This, with breaks to snuzzle Chet Baker and take photos, chase butterflies around the yard and such springtime things.
Here's the final piece. The black tail streamers were the last thing to go in. I loaded a round brush up well with paint and did each one in a single fluid stroke. The older the bird, the longer the tail plume, but I'll spare you the ramifications behind that. These are geezers!

Here they are in close-up, minus their tails, just so you can see a little more of the detail and brushwork.

I took it outside to photograph it (I like to shoot my paintings in full sun, then come back inside and correct the overexposure and juice the colors right back up to where they should be). Chet Baker was prone on the sidewalk, baking his liver and lights. He's been waiting to do this all winter. He heaved himself up sleepily when he heard my camera jump to life. And, sure that I had come outside just to photograph him, struck a perfect, monumental Baker pose before flopping back down on the sidewalk. I read an interview with William Wegman (he of the dressed-up Weimaraners) in which he said that his dogs loved to work and pouted when he wasn't dressing them up and posing them in the studio. Chet obviously considers striking poses part of his job description. It has nothing to do with food rewards--having his picture taken is reward enough for Chet. Not wanting to break his bubble, I took the photo-op. Yes, Chet, it's all about YOU.
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