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Turtle Bone

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Carol Foster continues to send photo-updates of lucky Belle, the box turtle who ran afoul of a mower this summer. She and her husband Gary are taking wonderful care of Belle. They're planning to keep her eating and active all winter, to speed healing of the wounds. Carol has a Real Camera, a Canon, the kind I would like to get if I ever have any money that isn't already devoted to replacing furnaces, paying mortgages and buying books. When I see her pictures, I know my limitations. Carol and Gary are sneaking romaine lettuce into Belle's canned chicken, and dosing her with vitamins. I think she looks fabulous. This closeup was taken Sept. 6.
The white Silvodine cream has turned dark gray now, and the shell hole continues to close in. This next series of photos was taken Sept. 23. I'm sure Belle's building bone underneath it too, where she needs it most, over the hole that leads directly into her right lung. First, apparently, a membrane forms, then hardens, and bone builds over it.

Carol and Gary found two other box turtles in their backyard, and sent this picture of the two, a male (left) and female (right). Shell pattern isn't an indicator of a turtle's sex, other than that a turtle with a whole lot of yellow patterning is likely to be a male. I really dig the marks on the right-hand female's shell, too--like little strongmen holding their fists up. Even eye color can be misleading: red-eyed turtles have been seen laying eggs! By and large, though, red eyes usually denote adult males. This is a male!Belle's a demure, brown-eyed girl.

Probably the best indicator of a turtle's sex is the plastron,or lower shell. If it's scooped in, concave, it's a male. If it's flat, it's a female. The male needs a hollow in his plastron so he can balance atop the female. Here's an old picture of Naraht, the turtle who was released here nine years ago after an even worse shell injury than Belle's. He was hit by a car and had to be wired and glued back together. He's still coming around to visit, most recently about this time last September. I always give him a big plate of fruit and mealworms when he comes around the front door, and invite him in for a trundle around the kitchen. Anyway, Naraht is demonstrating turtle mating practices on a lifelike resin statue. Not getting much of anywhere, but he's having fun. Now you know what a horny turtle looks like.

Parakeet Painting

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I recently finished a private commission: a portrait of a Carolina parakeet. Jumped at the excuse to paint this bird, as I've only done one other painting of it. I have to say, painting an extinct species like a Carolina parakeet is a lot less daunting than it used to be. It's so much easier to root out images of mounts and the like with the help of the Internet. And what I found most fun was finding images of species that were morphologically similar to Carolina parakeets, like the cherry-headed conure (Red-masked parakeet to you ornithologists) so beautifully depicted in the movie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. It doesn't take much imagination to turn them into CAPA's. Very appealing birds. I have to think that the genus Conuropsis would have been changed to Aratinga, given a little time. I liked the tilt of this bird's head, so I stole it. But I was careful to watch bill proportions--CAPA bills were a bit finer, and the birds overall more delicate, than red-masked parakeets.

In a painting of this kind, you're only going to be as good as your reference. And no one is going to send you a museum specimen of an extinct bird. So you root around. And with a fast connection and a good Mac, it doesn't take long to build an impressive library of images to work from.

I started with my own photographs from the Field Museum of Chicago, where bird curator Dave Willard kindly let me handle some incredible specimens.

Then, I moved on to Net images of mounted birds. This is probably the prettiest mount photo I found. Immaculate feathers, amazing considering the specimen is probably well over a century old.

And found this Louis Fuertes study of a wing-clipped captive. My favorite artist, in the presence of a live Carolina parakeet. Will wonders never cease. This painting makes me sad, as I'm sure it did him. There it clings to its cage mesh, its left wing clipped. Poor thing. I can feel Fuertes' sadness in his painting.

I decided to give my bird a lively pose, stretching its wing and tail. Here it is, before I added the background wash and modeled the bird and leaves more fully. I could easily have stopped here, but then it would have looked like a plate out of an old book. I wanted to give it some context. I decided to put the bird in a peach tree, since its fondness for orchards was one of its downfalls.

In selecting colors for the background wash, I try to keep in mind what will complement the bird's colors. A cool periwinkle seemed like the best choice for that vibrant canary yellow and orange. I sprinkled some kosher salt into the wet wash to sparkle it up a little. Salt is hydrophilic, so the water pools around the crystals, and the pigment settles out when those pools dry up, making starry patterns.
The finished painting. You can see how I've gone in and tickled in darks all over the bird and leaves, added shadows to the peaches, and toned the whole thing up. I got a card in the mail from the person who commissioned it. He really likes it. Yay! And I get a few more trips to the grocery store and gas pump. So it goes. Beats flipping burgers.

Working the Land

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There are chainsaws snarling in the woods on two sides of us. This is the time of year that rural Ohioans cash in their timber. At least they don't do it in June, when they'd be felling scarlet tanager nests, too. Needless to say, I hate chainsaws, I hate the way they sound, and I hate what they do. I recognize that, but for timbering, we wouldn't have hooded or Kentucky warblers or redstarts or common yellowthroats or countless other species that depend on new growth. But when I hear chainsaws and see skid after skid of logs coming out of what were once beautiful, nearly maturing woodlands, it hurts my heart. Stand after stand falls, and they never seem to get enough. Part of the 85-acre piece of land adjoining ours, where half of my beloved Loop Trail runs, has been timbered this autumn. I have not had the heart to go see what was wrought. The saws started up at 6:30 every morning, and the crack-crack swish CRAAASH of giant trees dying resounded through the valley. Once that was done, they started on the north side of us.
Yesterday morning, the noise was so loud I had to gather Chet up and go see what was going on.
We worked our way down through our woods and to our border with the neighbor.
There were cattle in the woods. Why do people put cattle in woods? There's really nothing for them to eat, and it's full of white snakeroot (known locally as locoweed, which can kill them). Still, they looked neat, like big old black bears stepping softly through the trees. They came to check us out, and blow their fragrant breath at Chet. I was proud of the wee dogge. He trembled, but never barked or growled, and he sat quietly and observed the cattle, and left willingly when I asked. My goal is to cool him down about cattle, so he doesn't feel the need to head 'em up and move 'em out whenever he encounters them. Or to get his head caved in by a quick kick.
From our border, we couldn't see the loggers, but the noise was overwhelming. As we turned to leave, a huge tree came down with the awful sound of hundreds of years of growing-- dying. I turned and raised my fists. RAPISTS!! I shouted, as loudly as I could. The only answer was the brup-brup ROWWWWWLLLL of the saw.
It's stupid and juvenile of me to rail against the time-honored southern Ohio way of making your land work for you. You wait until the timber gets some size, then you cut it down, taking all the biggest trees. Or maybe you completely clear it, and put cattle on it, to cut their zig-zagged trails deep into its flanks. The hillsides slump down, the mud chokes the streams, you sell the beef in the fall. That's how it works here, on all but a handful of farms where the farmers are sensitive to overgrazing and erosion. Like Jeff and Jay's, like Rusty's.
I work my land, too, in a much different way, and nobody calls me names. Well, at least not to my face. As I turned to go up the hill toward our old orchard, a big stand of great lobelia glimmered in a perched wetland.
A female great spangled fritillary took the morning sun.
And a great ash sphinx cut holes in the leaves of a white ash.

Lif is Good

Monday, September 25, 2006


One of my great pleasures in life is to drive the Appalachian Highway to Athens, to go record commentaries. Last Tuesday, I went to the WOUB studios in Athens, an hour and a half away, to record five more commentaries for All Things Considered. The first one aired today (well, yesterday for most of you who aren't pounding away at your computers until midnight). It's about Liam's bellyache, an unlikely subject for a commentary, I know, but the unlikely ones are the most likely to catch, it seems. They named it "Back to School, in Spurts and Starts." You can listen here.
It felt great to be back on the radio again. There are more coming. My dear editor at NPR wants to give the book a few plugs. Listening to Michele Norris plug my book on the national airwaves made me dance like a ruffed grouse, beating my featherless wings in the air.
Oh, the light in fall just drives me wild. Makes me want to wander. Makes me want to cut trails and spend the day sweating and cooling off in the chilly air. Makes me want to bury myself in fragrant sycamore and sweetgum leaves. Here are some scenes from the road back from Athens. I had to keep pulling over; the light and the clouds and the sycamores etched against the sky just shouted to me. Look how the earth colors are carried in the bellies of the clouds.

It's getting on time to say good bye to some plants I love dearly. My friend Jason (he of the errant Yahoo map and Baker smooches) has offered to house some plus-sized beauties in a college greenhouse for the winter, where he'll personally tend them. How sweet is that? Somehow, I managed to root a cutting of this amazing red mandevilla, so if it cacks, no big deal. Even though it's too big for my little Garden Pod, I cannot just leave it outside to die. Same goes for a select handful of oversized plants that Jason is going to abscond with, right before frost. What a nice offer. He doesn't know what he's offering, clearly. He'll have to rent a van.

This one dwarfs Phoebe, who is perilously close to dwarfing ME. Leggy thing. Rrrr.

I packed books for 2 1/2 hours tonight. I'm now at 151 out of 202. I'm into the orders made in the second week of September. What a delight to hear from people who are just receiving theirs. The thing that gets me is that almost everyone says, "I've put it aside to savor. I'm reading a chapter a night," or something to that effect. It's good, after writing for so long, drawing for so long, for publications that may be printed months or even years in the future, to have a product in my fists. To write a note in it, and pack this heavy square thing up in tissue paper and cardboard and send it out to people who want it. My sister Barbara said her favorite job ever was driving a flower delivery truck in Bridgewater, Mass, just marching up to people's doors and presenting them with bouquets. That's what this feels like to me.
Liam drew a picture of me and Bill at school. We're both wearing the slogan, "Lif is Good" on our shirts. Since I got my hair butchered, it's hard to tell which one is Daddy and which one is me. I think I'm second from left. (Big Hands, I know you're the one). That's Phoebe, looking mumpsy, and Liam, with his rockstar hair (Bill does a different, heavily gelled, standup do for him every morning). He (Liam, not Bill) announced his first crush on a girl in his class tonight. Bill, Phoebs and I melted.
At the top of the drawing, Baker's there, on the left, and that's macaw Charlie on the right. See his green wings? OK, I'll work with him on drawing birds.
I'll leave you with Baker, begging for roast chicken tonight at the dinner table. He ensconces himself on the bench behind the kitchen table, and after a few sheepish glances at us, decides it's probably fine to beg from there. He's such a gentleman (pronounced gemmun) at the table, it's hard to deny him. And so we don't. Nice gets you everywhere.

When World Leaders Doodle

Sunday, September 24, 2006

When I miss All Things Considered, or hear something I want to know more about, I haunt the NPR web site.

I can't tell you how many great things I've enjoyed on this site: new music from unknown bands, commentaries, videos, pictures of things described on the radio, stories I heard just the tail end of and wanted in their entireity. I visit the site a couple of times a day just to catch up. It's an amazing resource, one that changes daily.

Here's a story I adored, about a new CD of pirate songs (brought out just in time for Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sept. 17!). If you can get the audio working, dig Bully in the Alley. This guy just sings his butt off; he's so joyful and loose. We should all be thus. I have to get this CD!

On All Things Considered Thursday evening, there was a story about a book just out: a collection of doodles by past presidents of the United States. It's called Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles and Scrawls from the Oval Office. It's by David Greenberg and Cabinet Magazine.

This got my attention immediately, and I dragged these pictures off the NPR site. Presidential doodles, cool! Ulysses S. Grant was probably the most talented of all of them; he did really nice paintings and drawings in his youth, like this lovely study of a cart horse.
Ronald Reagan's doodles, on the other hand, look like they were copied out of a You Can Draw Cartoons! book from the 1940's: football players, mean thugs, babies with curlicues on their heads. He's there, too, the pale rider on the upper left. They're sweet, and certainly better than your average scribble. And then there was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Beholding LBJ's work, I laughed like a kookaburra. Eeeek!

Does this look like the work of a man who picked his beagles up by the ears? I thought so, too.

Keepin' to the Sunny Side

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Thrill report: Bill and I tiptoed into an enormous Barnes and Noble in Columbus on a recent Saturday, hoping to find Letters from Eden nestled on one of its shelves. Downstairs are the really sexy tables, with big green signs saying, "NEW NON-FICTION" and the like. A quick check netted nothing there. We took the escalator upstairs (yes, the store was that big) and there, in the nature section, was my book, displayed cover forward at the end of a shelf.
A man-span away was Jane Goodall's new book. OSSUM! The event seemed to merit some kind of notice. Bill of the Birds did a gannet-like sky-pointing display, accompanied by some gutteral, harsh calls. Awk! Awk! Awk!My editor, Lisa White, emailed to tell us that Letters was indeed on the New Non-fiction table in a Boston Barnes and Noble. Would it be uncool of me to spread a sleeping bag under said table, to keep a close eye on unsuspecting customers?

Upon downloading these photos, I noticed that, in the one of me holding the book, the sun appears to be shining out of my butt. As happy as this moment was, and despite the hopelessly self-aggrandizing nature of this post, I can assure you that this was but a shaft of sunlight, beaming in a west-facing window.

I'm now into the 80's, of the 182 orders thus far. Here are the choices I make every evening. Shall I mow the lawn, or sign books? Shall I make dinner, or sign books? Shower, or sign books? The lawn is 8" long; the kids are gaunt and hollow-eyed, and nobody wants to come near me.
If you'd like to add to the general neglect being suffered by my family and home, you can order Letters from Eden here.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It was such a cool day here, in two ways. First, it never cracked 60 degrees--heavy scudding clouds, flashes of blue and shots of sunlight, and a cold northwest breeze. It was an express train for warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes. We got a simply ridiculous list of birds--more than 50 species just off the back deck. A dozen of those were warblers! Plus crippling looks at Swainson's and wood thrush. Luckily, BOTB was working at home, and when one of us would glance up and spot birds going through, we'd both race out to the deck for a 15-minute hit of power fall birding (our favorite kind!) I'd love to list the birds that came through the birches, sycamore, willow, and mulberry right off our deck, but that would be boring, and besides it would narrow down the possible candidates for my Nefarious Quiz. The quiz is Nefarious because it is Hard, and because there is no Prize. Arrrr. Now that you know what you're getting into...

what's THIS? We shall call it #1.OK, what's THIS? #2And, worst of all, this? #3 (Hint: It's not an ivory-billed woodpecker.) Arrrr! (I'm still talking like a pirate today). I really do apologize for this one. You may feel free to throw up your hands, or your breakfast.All seen in our yard, all cruddily photographed through glass with a toy camera by yours truly.

Those of you who think birds are nice, but don't really care what names they go by, may feel free to pine for Chet Baker, and scroll down for your hit. The rest of you can fill the comment section with guesses good, guesses bad, and guesses from Mars. I'll give the answers there.
While we were watching warblers from the high deck, Chet spotted a benneh in the yard. We could tell because he started trembling and breathing hard, and his eyes were like twin laser beams focused on the nibbling lagomorph. I suggested that he give it a run for its money and he soundlessly padded down the stairs and tore out to try to catch it. The benneh watched calmly until Baker was about 15' away, then shot sideways while he continued madly on his straight line. We never tire of watching the bennehs outsmart our Baker. Even the baby ones take dog-fooling tutorials from their moms.
Baker was trotting back from chasing the rabbit and thoroughly sniffing where it had been sitting when he caught the scent of honey. He followed it to a little hole by our foundation. The next thing we heard was a sharp yip and a thump! as Baker ran straight into the wall of our house. He was writhing on the grass as five yellowjackets pumped him full of venom. OW OW OW! I ran and brushed them off, and pulled the stingers out (hadn't known that yellowjackets left their stingers like honeybees, but they did). I put a 25 mg Benadryl down Chet's throat (telling him it was a Bennehdryl) and tucked him under the covers to sleep off the pain. Poor Baker.
As the afternoon wore on his swelling got worse, until he bore a strong resemblance to Quasimodo. You be the judge...
I'm happy to say he's much improved now, and he never lost his appetite or willingness to play. Bostons, as Susan is joyfully discovering, are very tough little dogs, forgiving of insults, abounding in love and goodwill.Smile, and the world smiles with you. Even when you look like Quasi. Welcome to the good life, Boomer K. Williams. And while I'm being congratulatory, happy first Bloggin' Anniversary to my life light and heartbeat and best birding partner, Bill of the Birds. Go give him a huzzah!
This is not BOTB. This is a Disney hunchbaque.

Books Arrive!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

It's heeeeere! Psychically attuned to the rumble of the UPS truck, I had been listening ever since we got back from Iowa for Letters from Eden to arrive. Finally, Chet's throaty Demi Moore bark announced the the birth of a new chapter in our lives. In that first shipment, 100 copies came, to be followed by another 20, then another 100 (there's another box of 20 floating around out there somewhere). My studio, already crammed with the stuff of a dozen jobs, took on the immediate aspect of a cottage industry, with tissue paper, square white cardboard boxes, tape gun, rainbow Sharpies, and stacks of orders. Have patience with me, ye 179 faithful who have ordered this book to date. I'm working my way through the orders from first placed to last (I know, I want it NOW, and I want to send it to you now...but imagine if you'd written a check in April and had been waiting all that time!) For each book sent, I've got to inscribe and sign it, wrap it in tissue, fold up a box, seal it with tape, address it, stamp a return address on it, stack it, then cross the order off the list. It's satisfying work, especially the last step. Inscribing is the hard part, especially when I know the recipient--thinking up something meaningful that's worth scribbling on the dedication page is a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially when you've done a couple of dozen in an evening.I love the hind leg position here as Chet strains to sniff the first copy. Everyone was so excited, you'd think there were bennehs in those boxes.

My family's copies are already gone in the first bunch of two dozen. Twenty-eight more went to the Whipple post office this afternoon. I sign and pack in the evening, in between cooking dinner and helping the kids with homework.
All UPS photos, except penultimate, by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

Baker snuck around the front of the truck to gain entry, and check to see that the driver had remembered to unload all the boxes. He was also expecting a biscuit, but this driver wasn't packin'.

Bed-making, Boston Style

Monday, September 18, 2006

Chet's usual attitude on beds:

Breed trait: Boston terriers like to help make the bed, but they're about as much help as the average two-year-old. Chet Baker's idea of helping is to get made up in the bed, under the fitted sheet. When he hears the flap of bedspreads, he comes running, leaps up, lands in the middle of the sheets, and dares you to displace him. He loves large expanses of cloth, especially when they're flapping.
The moment he gets under the fitted sheet, a change overcomes this normally gentle dog. He turns into The Gremlin. He skibbles around under the sheet at high speed. You can only tell where he is by the wet spot his nose makes when he stops. (And the largish lump under the sheet, and the clop of his jaws as he snaps away). If you lift the corner to peek at him, you don't find Chet. You reveal The Gremlin. His eyes get buggy (well, buggier); he growls a lot, and he snaps randomly at anything nearby.

It's downright scary.
Wall-eyed Gremlin. It only comes out at night. This is the Monster Under the Bed that we've all feared since childhood.


Sunday, September 17, 2006


Bill and I were walking back up the driveway, having dropped the kids off at the bus, when we were arrested by this fabulous orange dye in a puddle. At times like this all my neurons fire at once. What made that stain? How come it's orange? Gotta know, gotta know...
So I bent down and discerned a lovely barrel-shaped caterpillar dropping at the origin of each stain. Imagine that much dye, packed into one pellet. We looked up and found a sassafras tree, well-chewed. Brain: clackety clack. Remembered that we used to boil sassy roots and got a very similar stain in the "root beer" we created. Must be a tannin of some sort. So the caterpillars are taking this in and dumping it back out as they chew the leaves. So much for tannins as chemical protectants. At least some caterpillars get around it by pooping them out. What caterpillars? Well, spicebush swallowtail is a real good guess. They're big, and abundant here, and they're all over the butterfly weed.
So get this: When a spicebush swallowtail is in its first three instars, it roams around on leaves. And it's black and white, and it looks exactly like a bird dropping! Who would eat that?Here, it's mad enough to have its osmetrium extended, and is probably exuding something noxious from those little orange "horns" over its head. (the true head and two front legs are visible beneath the osmetrium).
Younger instars are really dark and look even more fecal than this. Unfortunately, Internet piracy netted me no images. I owe these to the Net...wish they were mine.

Before it pupates, the later instar of this caterpillar rolls itself in a leaf, and binds the edges together with silk. In this instar, it has a fabbo snake face on its anterior segments. It stays in the shelter during the day (which is probably why I couldn't find the poopers), its head up. Should a worm-eating warbler probe into one of the rolled leaves, it would pop its scary "face" out of the shelter and scare the bejabbers out of the bird with its realistic "eyes." As an artist, the thing that flips me most about this kind of mimicry is the HIGHLIGHT in the fake snake eye! Check it out. There's a big white highlight on the yellow "lid," and a really cool smaller white highlight on the shiny black "eye." Please.

So how do you get something that perfect out of natural selection? Lots of folks would say God had to make that caterpillar, because it's too wonderful to have been arrived at through natural selection. I dunno. I'm comfortable with the concept that the ones that didn't look as much like real snakes got eaten by worm-eating warblers. Lotta years, lotta caterpillars, lotta warblers: snake eyes, moving toward perfection.

Humans as a species are so impatient. We can't fathom the pace and process of evolution. We want somebody to have made it with a snap of his divine fingers, or a wave of his wand. Somehow, that sort of mystical explanation makes more sense to many of us. We can sit back and accept that some entity rolled those tiny vessels and intestines and nerves, what, from some kind of caterpillar putty? Then baked it until it was done? It makes no sense to me at all. I think about it a lot, but the notion of divine creation rattles around in my head, and then falls out of my ear, plop! --spreading a stain in a puddle in the driveway.

For M. Rosetta Weiss
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