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A Natural Wedding

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Let's face it: Weddings can run the gamut from stultifying to sublime. Put two tremendously creative naturalists (Jeff Gordon and Liz Bennett DeLuna) together in the piney woods on Delaware Bay, let them unleash their love of nature and hospitality on a few lucky guests, and you have sublime cubed. When I think back on this wedding I see a swirl of color and beauty, doors flung wide, nature a full participant. There was whimsy in every detail.
Liz, not being the kind to want a train on her gown, nevertheless had a trainbearer: Liam, with James the Red Engine.
This is how she spent part of the morning before the wedding. I was awed at Jeff and Liz's ability to kick back and enjoy the preparations. It rubbed off on the guests and we all just fooled around and had the best time on this fine, hot weekend.
The bubbly flowed at the reception.The cake was perfect, and there were flowers absolutely everywhere--not just cut flowers, but flowers in pots and planters, gobs upon gobs of flowers.Bill and I listened to the homily and the vows and got all choked up. With 13 years of pulling together and making it work, every word cuts to the bone.
Liz left her lovely silver shoes in the reception hall before the wedding; Jeff picked them up and stuffed them in his suitcase so she wouldn't lose them, and nobody could find them at 4 p.m. So Liz went barefoot.
Does Liz look like the kind of person who would sweat the small stuff? Here she is, demonstrating the proper use of Italian pepperoni.

Luna moths were the theme--their colors and shapes have always enchanted Liz and Jeff. And one was perched on the building next to the chapel when we came out from the ceremony.The Flower Fairy meets her muse.

Chet Baker, Snaker

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chet Baker LOVED Camp Arrowhead. He investigated every cabin and outbuilding, and roamed free the whole weekend, always coming back to check and make sure we hadn't wandered away. It's good to have a trustworthy dog. My only fear is that someone will invite him into their car and he'll take them up on it!

We spent a fabulous three-day-weekend on the Delaware shore at an Episcopalian church camp called Camp Arrowhead. We were there to play music for our dear friends' wedding, and play we did...more on that later. But since it's been such a Chet drought for his thirsty fans, I thought I'd lead off with Chet's First Snake.
I took a brief walk Sunday afternoon to collect my thoughts and energy, wandering through the dry loblolly pine forest with Baker. It smelled like incense, and was quiet but for the squeak of brown-headed nuthatches and the occasional CHINK! of a blue grosbeak. Oh yeah, nice nice birds. Up ahead on the sandy road of the nearly deserted camp (their season starts June 1), I spotted an enormous black rat snake. Ah. Just the thing for a naive dog's first snake. I let Chet walk right over it, dum de dum de dum, and quietly sat down a little way off to watch him discover it.
Being the most faithful of pups, if not the most observant, Chet soon circled back to join me. Oh, look. A big black stick. I like those. Chet pressed his nose to its scaly side and snuffed deeply. Hmmm. This one smells rather strange. Tarnation! What is this thing?

I could almost hear the snake hissing, "Fie upon you, curious dog! Bite and I shall bite back!" At this point, I was really glad this wasn't Chet's first copperhead.
The snake slowly gathered itself into a defensive posture, vibrating its tail in the dry pine needles. Baker backed off, instinct his only guide. I was fascinated how he stayed just out of striking range, while trying to get more olfactory data on this strange creature. I didn't coach him, just let the two interact. I've been bitten by a similarly sized black rat snake (while peeling it off a wren house), and it's not pleasant, but neither is it life-threatening. It feels like about fifty tiny hot needles, and it leaves a cool U-shape of blood beads on your skin. But you really have to piss them off to get them to bite--like peeling them off a wren house...For now, I wanted Chet to get the concept of "snake" for the inevitable time he stumbles on a copperhead back on Indigo Hill. And if he was going to do something stupid, I wanted him to get a bite for it.Black rats are gentle snakes, very slow to take umbrage and even slower to strike. If you handle them gently, they usually won't strike at all. And this was a monster by any standard, at least five feet long. Such a beauty.
Chet quickly settled down, and stationed himself between me and the snake. Whether he did this to protect me or not is open to question. As I've said before, he sticks to me like glue when he's leery of something. Bill looked at him, asleep on my lap on the long ride home Monday, and said, "You are the base Chet plugs into to recharge himself." Funny thing: He's my recharger, too. How I love this pooch. And now he knows a little something about snakes. He passed his test with flying colors. He investigated, kept his distance, then let the snake be. No fool, he. I'm proud of my little black son.

The Old Copper Bucket

Monday, May 29, 2006

Friday, May 19: A young Carolina wren on its last full day in the nest, peeking out at the world.

I prepared this post before we left for Delaware, knowing we'd be fried crispy on our return. We're back, so happy to be home, picked our dinner out of the garden, checked my phoebe nest (hatched!), checked the 6-egg bluebird nest (hatching!), unloaded the car, watered the orchids, threw some pot pies in the oven for the kids, started the first load of laundry. See you sometime tomorrow, in between about ten loads of laundry and grocery shopping and returning all the baby bird and box turtle calls that came in while we were gone.

I remember this little copper bucket from our house in Kansas City, Kansas. There was a variegated pothos (philodendron) in it, which rambled all over our brick fireplace on Wenonga Road. How this bucket stayed with me through countless moves I'll never understand. It was pretty much useless, having a hole in the bottom. But I kept it, maybe because I remembered it from when I was about four.
Three years ago I looked up and noticed a bunch of bark and twigs on our sloping downspout by the front door. A Carolina wren had been trying and trying to make its nesting material stay in the triangle between the downspout and the eave, and failing. I looked at the wren, and our eyes met. "Hang on a minute," I said to her. I ran to the garage, grabbed a ladder, the bucket, some wire and a roofing nail. I skibbled up the ladder and wedged the bucket up under the eave, and secured it with a wire, while she watched from her perch on the gutter. Satisfied that the bucket was secure, protected from weather, and safe from snakes and raccoons, I climbed back down the ladder. I was still folding the ladder only a few feet away when the wren grabbed a bill full of nesting material and stuffed it in the bucket. It was so clear to me that she knew I was trying to help, and thought I had the perfect solution for her problem. I went so far as to wonder whether she had left the festoons of bark, twigs and leaves on the downspout--clearly visible in our foyer window-- as a call for assistance. I wouldn't put it past a Carolina wren to do that. That afternoon, the pair stripped all the moss off my bonsai tree pots, and stuffed that in, too. Their nest was finished by the next morning, and they have nested in it ever since.
Saturday was fledging day for the four baby wrens. I think they were only about 11 days old, with lots of down still adorning their crowns. They spilled out of the bucket and hopped around on the ground and the front stoop. Twice, Chet Baker tried to round them up, nosing them and sniffing them. He could so easily have snapped them up, but he knows that birds are special to me, and restrains himself...The fledglings were completely unfazed, squeaking and begging from their parents as we stood right by them. They'd been raised right under our noses, so what was there to fear? I kept Baker occupied elsewhere for the rest of the afternoon.
As night fell, they were still on the ground, and I fought the urge to gather them up and take them inside for the night. I didn't want them to lose contact with their parents. When I went out this morning, they were gone. I heard their father singing in the orchard, and occasionally scolding, and I knew that the babies had been led, in the way of wrens, away from danger and into deep cover. I relocated them Monday midday, in the thickest cover in our abandoned orchard, squirking and begging from the adults. It never ceases to amaze me how much ground a baby Carolina wren can cover, given the right coaching by its parents. We won't see them for a couple of weeks, but they'll be back, I've no doubt. They'll remember where the suet dough is.
In four years, I've never cleaned out the bucket, leaving that to the fastidious wrens. But I think it's time now. They'll have no trouble filling it back up. I've got a fresh batch of moss on the bonsais, just waiting for them.

Crazy Packing Frenzy

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Just a few notes...We're packing for an epic trip over to Maryland and Delaware, to see my mom and sister's family, and to play music for what promises to be the sweetest and most fun-loving wedding ever--that of our dear friends Jeff Gordon and Liz Bennett DeLuna. On the Delaware shore, amid the salt marshes. Our wedding present to them is putting together a four-piece band and playing for the rehearsal dinner and afterparty. The last time Bill and I played together was in West Virginia, and we're really ready to lay down some music. So there will probably be a four-day hiccup in the blog, but do check, because we may get a chance to check in from there.
I got my phoebes baffled. They're safe from snakes and coons now. I've tried a variety of baffle systems for these obstinate birds, who flirt with nesting on all the safe little shelves we've erected, but always choose the relay box for DirecTV. You can see the little mossy nest atop the gray box with the black cord coming out of it. Which would be fine, but it's just too easy for a rat snake to go up the gutter, or come down from the deck above. As I think about it, I think phoebes like a low overhang--a narrow space above the nest. And all our shelves have ten inches or more clearance. They like feeling hidden and inaccessible, even if they aren't. The first year they nested on the direct box, I tried an overturned wastebasket baffle on the downspout. A five-foot rat snake just went out and over it and ate the babies when they were four days old. So last year I hit on this ridiculous-looking arrangement. Man, it's fugly, but it works.
This past weekend, I dug all the holes for the tomatoes, peppers, and basil. I climbed into our fetid awful compost pit and dug out the really ripe, nasty stuff, crawling with worms and mango seed pits and liquefied ears of corn and nameless gook that smells like manure and vomit all mixed together...and put a big shovel full of that into the bottom of each tomato hole. Tomatoes love to put their toes in that stuff. I couldn't set anything out, because the last two nights, it has gone down to 32 and 37 degrees, respectively. Disgusting for late May, but there it is. Here are the holes, waiting. I planted everything out today. Whee!
Five years ago, while visiting my brother and his wife in Raleigh, NC, I dug up three little red mulberry saplings from his backyard. I took three, because this tree is dioecious, and needs a male and female to produce fruit. Well, they finally bloomed this spring. One is a male, long catkins spewing pollen. One hasn't decided its sexual orientation yet; the deer chewed on it and upset it and it's sulking. The third and finest is a female! Here are her fruits! She's loaded! She's right in front of the kitchen picture window, so we can watch the birds flock in to take them. How exciting. She's also going to hang over my greenhouse and drop berry juice all over it. Oh well. That's why we have hoses.
And because I know you are all baby bird junkies now, here are some tender sweet three-day-old tree swallows. So delicate and transparent--swallows are delightful. I serve them on crackers.

C'mon Baby, Light My Fire

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sometimes I have to watch it or this blog starts to sound like this big ad for Bill Thompson. Every home should have one... But he has been doing some really nice things for me lately, and I appreciate it so much. When he torched our yard, I really plotzed. I've been wanting to burn this part of our yard for a long time. On this plot, we've had a variety of "meadows in a can," some more successful than others. One year it was spectacular--red Flanders field poppies, white daisies, blue flax...butterflies bouncing through. Those flowers don't persist, though, and we decided that going native was the thing to do. Enter our friend Bob Kehres at Ohio Prairie Nursery.
Bob is very cool, a man so full of life sparks fly from his eyes. He came down to visit, briefly, just before Easter, and he promised to set us up with just the right kind of seed for this forlorn patch of dry clay/loam. In gratitude, I sent him home with a few orchid babies, hoping it would be a reasonable trade. He recommended that we burn the patch first, pick a nice damp windless day and let 'er rip. Then, Bill should disc it lightly with the tractor, sow the seed, and run over it with the tires to make sure it was worked into the soil. And so, over the next couple of weeks, he did.
Now, it's a bit nervewracking, burning a meadow patch so close to one's house, but we hooked up the long hose and started really small. Soon it became apparent that the problem would be keeping it burning, not having it get away from us. We probably should have done this a little earlier in the season, before the goldenrod and Canada thistle got so well started. Bill was wreathed in smoke, raking away, trying not to let the fire die. This is a man who is dreaming of wildflowers, relighting a fire that wants only to smolder, and trying to make his wife smile.
Chet Baker supervised from a safe distance. He was a little leery of the whole undertaking. He sticks to me like glue when he's leery of something.

A couple of days later, Bill disced the patch, slicing furrows in the earth, and turning it shallowly.
We sowed the seed with a little whirlything.
And then Bill ran over it with the tractor, packing it into the soil. Liam climbed aboard, and I watched my two boys rumble around. And I smiled.

Grace Happens

Monday, May 22, 2006


While waiting for the school bus today, I spotted a doe, deep in the shadows, nervously waiting to cross the road. I grabbed my camera, turned it on, waited the eternity for it to wake up, another eternity to reset it from Play to Shoot, finally heard the click that said it was ready to take a picture...and shot this as she hurried across the asphalt. Deer hate asphalt; their hooves clatter and slip on it, and they have to work up their courage both to enter the open and skitter across the unfriendly substrate. For them, it's like wearing stilettos on ice, and it's why so many of them blunder around in the road and get hit by cars. So they hesitate before crossing. Good thing, or I'd never have gotten this cool picture. One of these years, I'll get a camera upgrade...

And a little child shall lead them...Phoebe bounced off the bus a moment later, begging to walk down the path to a secret pond near where I pick them up every afternoon. One of my cardinal rules is never to deny a child who wants to explore nature. (I'd had the same thought; it was a bright sunshiny day, and I wanted to see what the red-spotted newts were up to). Liam did NOT want to go, and when a triple Scorpio doesn't want to do something, you've got to tread carefully. I hugged him and whispered in his ear, "Come on, Liam. I'll make it fun for you. I promise." Finally, he oozed off the car seat and tromped down to the path.
You can see by the way he's walking he's still real mad.
By the time we got down to the pond and saw the newts squirting off into deeper water with every step we took, Liam was fine, as I knew he would be. This pond is full of bluegills and newts, and they're really fun to watch as they hang in the water, copulate, and do their bluegilly/newtly business. Liam squinted off into the woods. "I think I see a zherky." And there was a fine wild turkey far off down the path, a hen, and I could tell by her behavior that she had poults with her; her wings were drooping and her head was about as high in the air as it would go. I could also see that she was very upset, darting side to side. I gave a running commentary to the kids, who had no binoculars.
"She's got chicks, I know it. I can't see them, but the way she's behaving... And she's really upset, but we're too far away for it to be about us."
"Here they come. 1,2,3,4,5, at least six. Really young. Maybe only four or five days. Striped, downy."
"She's flying! Why would she fly? She's flying straight up in the air, like a helicopter! I've never seen a turkey do that! What on earth is she doing?"
"Oh my GOSH! She's knocked a red-tailed hawk right out of the air! He must have been after the chicks!"
And she had, body-slammed this red-tail off his perch, after a 30' absolutely straight vertical climb. It was a flight such as I'd never have guessed her capable of. Imagine the effort of lifting a 15-pound body 30' straight up in the air. The red-tail faltered and sideslipped, flopped to a perch, and sat for awhile eyeing the poults while the turkey clambered around in the pine branches facing it, doubtless planning another attack. The hawk beat a retreat, flapping hard. Meanwhile, the poults had scurried into thick brambles, as their mother had doubtless told them to.
The hen turkey helicoptered back down and disappeared on down the path with her chicks.

But for Liam, I'd never have seen the turkey. But for Phoebe, I'd just have buckled them both in their seats and headed home. Phoebe had the good idea. Liam might just look forward to the next walk a little more. And I know one more thing about turkeys. My heart is full.

I've Got Plenty of Nothing

the view out the kitchen window.

Today is the birthday of Peter Matthiessen, born in New York City in 1927. The Writer's Almanac told me so. Of all the wonderful things he's written, this is the quote they picked:

"There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."

I think Peter Matthiessen needs a May weekend at Indigo Hill. My kids are of the generation he's bemoaning, and they've got a whole lot of nothing. Maybe it's just recovering mesic deciduous forest; there are no grizzlies or wolves, but there are coyotes and bobcats, box turtles and a dozen species of breeding warblers; chats and brown thrashers singing; sun hitting off fresh leaves. Maybe we're easily amused. Maybe the natural world is all full of nothing. It depends on your perspective. I can't imagine Matthiessen would have picked that particular quote to sum up his great life's work.

The Writer's Almanac usually comes in during the wee hours. This one came in at 1 AM on a Monday morning. Perhaps the compiler would have picked another quote after some sleep, and a latte or two. Make no mistake--I love their work, and most every day I find something to file away and return to later for a talk or an essay. But this one hit me wrong.

We all make our own weather, and we've had way too much rain lately.

Saturday in the Country

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Yesterday, the sun peeked out and stayed out, all day, for the first time in two weeks. It was blindingly bright and clear and cool. Phoebe had a softball game in Beverly, and we all took off at 9 AM to watch her do her stuff. She's Catcher. It's such a pleasure to see her do something she's good at, and hang out with her friends.
I was intrigued by the photographic potential of all these sweet little girls in bright colors on a sunny day. They creamed the Beverly team three to fourteen. And especially moved by the scene when Phoebe's friends would descend on her after each inning, and either remove or apply her protective gear. I never participated in team sports, but it's neat to watch Phoebe digging it. She gets that from her dad, a team player if ever there was one.
When my father, who was pretty much bald from his late twenties on, would see a group of girls together, he'd always mutter, "Look at all that HAIR." I remember his saying it at my college graduation, as we looked down from the bleachers on a sea of mortarboards I caught myself muttering the same thing to myself as I looked down the bench. It was like a visitation from Dad. Look at all that shiny bright blonde hair. I used to be a honey blonde, before the hormones of pregnancy decided I'd serve better as a brunette. Same thing happened to my mom. She was a platinum blonde until the first kid, then bam! Gone. At least I was warned.
This is our friend Missy with her dog-nephew, Bentley. I grew up with a dachshund and still have a big soft spot for these great little dogs. They're personality-packed, quirky and individualistic.
This is Dozer. He's an English bulldog, who weighs around 80 pounds (down from over 100). Despite his formidable appearance, he is a real cream puff, and I spent much of the game hanging out with him and his owners. His owners said they'd never seen him make over someone like he did me. When he saw my camera, he literally smiled. Every time I pointed it his way, he smiled again and gave me his best side. His six-year-old owner was about as proud of that dog as a kid could be. What a delightful giant superfudge chunk of a doggie. Utterly huggable. Chet's got bulldog in his lineage. That's where his sweetness comes from. It perfectly modulates the rat terrier fire.

A stop at the school playground proved that my mother's instincts are still honed sharp. Even as I was shooting Liam as he shot down the slide, I realized that he was coming much too fast for it to end well. I threw out my arm and stopped him just before he removed his brand-new incisors on the gravel below. Phew! And made another rule: No sliding down on tummies. Not even big girls.

After the game, we went to a terrific local and heretofore undiscovered pizzeria, Jukebox Pizza in Waterford. They were using the best North Dakota-grown wheat flour for a crust that was crispy on the outside, perfectly moist within. Man, what a nice pizza place. Liam, who loves pizza more than any food in the world, was in nirvana.

Then we went to two different country nurseries, where sweet Bill bought me whatever I wanted. This included trailing perennial snapdragons, Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue," portulaca, Sanvitalia, two quarts of just-picked strawberries, and yet another fancy-leafed star-flowered geranium. Can't have too many of those. How much was that? Do you take Visa? (Photo by Phoebe)

We ended the day with a glass of wine and barn swallows swooping low over the yard, picking eggshells off the sidewalk. Bill digiscoped a kingbird. I enjoyed my small, sweet canine lapwarmer, thankful that, as easy as it would have been to do so, I had not fallen for a hundred-pound English bulldog. There's a lyric from a seemingly fluffy Sheryl Crow song that comes to me at times like this:

It's not having what you want
It's wanting what you've got

Dough Carnival

Friday, May 19, 2006

With the cold rainy weather for the past two weeks, the temperature barely edges into the 50's each day, and a thick blanket of glowery gray clouds covers the sky. It's hard for birds to find insects for their young. And everyone has nestlings or fledglings to feed right now.
Bill and I were brushing our teeth this morning and a male bluebird landed on the lawn beneath the bathroom window. He wasn't foraging; he was making a point. He stayed just long enough to look Bill in the eye, then flew up and over the roof to where the suet dough dish was standing, empty. The birds listen for us to stir in the morning, and find us wherever we are. We put out a heaping double handful of suet dough and it disappears within an hour. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to get the meaning in this Carolina wren's posture.They're feeding a batch of babies in a copper bucket under the eaves, about 12 feet as the wren flies from the suet feeder. Got any more dough in there?
Lately, I've been standing at the kitchen window, noting the birds that come to the feeder. The traffic is amazing. Here's a seven-minute sample of the customers on our front porch, starting at 7:33 AM:
WBNU (white-breasted nuthatch), SOSP (song sparrow), NOCA (northern cardinal), EABL (eastern bluebird), CAWR (Carolina wren), NOCA, HOSP (house sparrow), NOCA, BLJA (blue jay), SOSP, NOCA, SOSP, HOSP, TUTI (tufted titmouse), EABL, SOSP, EABL, BRTH (brown thrasher), EABL, NOCA, NOCA, BRTH, HOSP, NOCA End of observations, 7:41. That's seven minutes of frantic bird activity, nine species; multiple individuals of each. And each and every bird gobbled some down first, then took a giant load to stuff into their babies. There's Bougainvillea "Raspberry Ice," liberated from the greenhouse, and shivering outside. Sorry about the clashing colors. Can't help that.
Some even bring their babies. This male bluebird fledged five young in our garden box, and the female's already sitting on six eggs in the same box. They snuck right past me; Bill and I opened the box last evening, expecting to see the first few straws of a new nest, and there were six warm blue eggs. My goodness. She's in such a hurry the doughball is suspended in mid-air as she gobbles it down. I'm going to have to cut down on the suet dough once the weather stabilizes, or she'll try to do four broods this season--good for bluebird populations, but not good for her or her mate. They'll wear themselves out if they have a superabundance of food.
When the sun comes out, traffic declines noticeably. It's clear to me that this frenzy is spurred by the rotten weather. And so I make batch after batch, and enjoy the show on the porch, knowing that when it warms up I'll have to cut back. But there's something about having shy, reclusive brown thrashers on the porch that fills my heart.
Chipping sparrows are big dough fans; this male and his mate fledged three fine babies from a juniper just outside Liam's bedroom window. Here are those babies at about 8 days of age. Chippies leave the nest ridiculously young, at about 10 or 11 days. They can't fly yet but can hop, and they hide in thick cover and wait for their parents to find them. They're safer that way than all together in a nest, where one snake or raccoon or jay could clean them out in a single strike. They left the nest only three days later, and are hidden here and there around the yard, eating ...what else?
The flip side of this miserable weather is that snakes are quiescent, and if the parents can just find enough to feed their young, they're having better success without the immense predation pressure that comes later in the season. And it's great news for grassland birds. The hay's too wet to mow; when we drive along the road into town, eastern meadowlarks are on every guardrail and fencepost, food dangling from their bills. What a beautiful sight. But I sure could stand a beam or two of sun. I mowed the lawn last night wearing a squall jacket, and I was still cold. Today, my undersized little rat of a dog is draped around my shoulders like a warm stole. Try that with a "real" dog.
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