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Chicken of the Woods!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


When we came back from our New England trip, we noticed something different on the enormous red oak tree by our mailbox. It was a growth, a spectacular one.
It took the Chimp awhile, but I finally remembered its name. Chicken of the Woods, so called because it is edible, and has a texture, if not a taste, similar to chicken breast. Oh! Oh!

Also (dully) called Sulfur Fungus, Laetiporous sulfureus comes in two forms--shelflike, and globby, like ours. They may be two separate species. You can tell that I did a bit of Web research before committing to eat this beauty. You can't be too careful with 'shrooms.Both forms are edible, and I mean to cook some of this big mess o' mushroom up. You're supposed to cook them when they're very fresh (which this is) and sautee them for 10 whole minutes--wow. I guess the chances of your lips going numb are less if they're well-cooked. OK. I can do that. I loooove wild mushrooms, especially big obvious ones like Chicken of the Woods. Wonder if I'll be able to get the bairns to try it?I can see them now, sticking just the tip of a quivering tongue out to touch it briefly to the fungus, even drowned in garlic and butter and served over pasta. Probably too smart to eat a wild mushroom, even one identified by The Science Chimp. I won't try it on Baker. Who knows if dogs can eat wild mushrooms? If macadamias, grapes and raisins are poisonous to dogs, all bets are off.It don't smell that good to me, Mether. I would not eat it. But I will pee on it for you if you would like me to.

Being a blog ant, I wrote this post before I cooked it up for the family. It sliced and sauteed beautifully, keeping a firm meaty texture. As predicted, the kids each ate about a square millimeter. Liam said he liked it but refused seconds with a polite, "Ummm, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but no thank you." Phoebe made no pretense; just the thought grossed her out. But she did eat a tiny bit. Bill liked it OK, but he's not much for mushrooms. So I ate my portion, and both kids' and some of Bill's. And, like an idiot, had a couple of glasses of Sauvignon Blanc with it.

Along about bedtime, I felt kind of droopy, a little toxic. This progressed to feeling like crap. At 3 AM, I had the sensation of having an esophagus level full of stomach acid. Nice. What a disappointment for a hopeful and enthusiastic woodswoman. I've since learned from my woodswise neighbor Sherm that wine and mushrooms, much as they'd seem to be pals, are a no-no. Sherm asked if he might carve off a shank to cook, and I gladly assented, after warning him about my experience. I ate a lot of wild mushrooms, including Chicken of the Woods (oyster mushrooms and morels being my favorite) when I was living on a Nature Conservancy preserve in Connecticut, but that was before I became a wino. Not the mushroom's fault. My fault.

Chicken of the Woods, for all its homey name, is a serious tree pathogen, which infects and kills trees with brown rot. Buhhhmer. I hope it's slow-acting. We love this old oak, which shades our mail (good for shipping mealworms in summer) and the bluebird box. It's made its own island of habitat for northern fence lizards, and many kinds of birds and animals, who perch in its branches and feed on its acorns. I cannot imagine our entry without it. I hope it's true, as my DOD used to say, that trees are 50 years growing, 50 years living, and 50 years dying. Then I won't have to say good-bye.

A little Halloween present for you, courtesy of my sister, Micky. When we were in high school, we absolutely lived for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents story collections. One of the stories was called The Desrick on Yandro, and it has stuck with me over the thirty years since I last read it. It was written by Manly Wade Wellman, and it evokes a strong sense of place. If you've ever driven up a winding North Carolina mountain road so steep you wonder if your car will tip over backward, it's guaranteed to give you shivers. Tonight, I'll read it to our babies by the light of a jack-o-lantern. Click the link, and tell me what you think! Sweet dreams of Bammats and Flats!

Trick or Treating with the Indigo Hillbillies

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

OW! My brain hurts!

Finally, after the basketball game and the school party, it was time to go trick-or-treating in Marietta. I love this part. Marietta homes are so lovely, and it seems that each one has a generous front porch, where the residents sit in chairs to dole out their goods. Oh, I love it. It was just cool enough to keep us walking fast, a little spit of drizzle every now and then, but not cold enough to overcome the three pairs of winter pajamas under Spiderman's suit.

This lady was really getting into the spirit with a home-made costume. I thought she overdid the whiskers just a bit, but she gets an A for effort. You make do with what's in the closet when you're 80. This is not a PETA-approved costume.
Phoebe with her cousin Annalea (in the black wig) and one of Annalea's friends. They're zombie prom girls. May they dress up and trick-or-treat well into adulthood, and keep rockin'. It works for us. Sooo cute. Gotta love that little red bow, and the bruisy makeup.

Speaking of makeup, here's cousin Jake, as Dracula. Man, he was a sight, running down the street with his cape flying behind him, candy bouncing out of his plastic pumpkin. There's something a little Michael-esque about those enormous eyes, outlined in black...
Some people really go nuts at Halloween. I thoroughly approve of it. It's much more interesting than going nuts with Christmas decorations.
This is Chet Baker's costume. He went as a Neopolitan mastiff. Seriously, this was the first NM I'd ever laid eyes on, though I've marveled at them on televised dog shows. This is one of the giant breeds, quite rare. At first I thought he was a Cane Corso, and asked the owner, who said that their other dog was a Cane Corso. Wow. What a pair. It probably isn't a coincidence that they live in the most lavish house in Marietta. Their owners probably need two massively protective guard dogs to safeguard all their fancy stuff from the meth freaks. I noticed that the Cane Corso wasn't out greeting children...Actually, this mastiff, by all appearances a hound from hell, was extremely sweet and gentle, and his lead-gray hair felt like velour. What an incredible animal. I think he overdid it on the jowls, though. Blblblblblbbbbbbb! I cannot imagine what his dog dish zone must look like. Bacon's bad enough, dribblin' little bits of kibble from his tiny jowls.

That wraps up our Halloween report from Indigo Hill. I'm still getting little blebs of black makeup out of the corners of my eyes, and my skin feels like it was sucked dry from the greasepaint, but I'm staying out of the kids' treat pumpkins, so far. It'd be really scary if I raided 'em. Happy Halloween!!!
Oh. If you're in the Marietta, Ohio area, I'll be giving a lecture at Washington State Community College Thursday night, November 1, at 7:30 pm in the Harvey Graham Auditorium. It's part of the Evergreen Arts and Humanities Lecture Series. I'm really looking forward to it. There will be a reception and book signing afterward. I've been working on my talk, working in a bunch of new stuff, some poems and essays. I sooo want to deliver it in my skull makeup, in honor of Day of the Dead, but it's probably a bad idea, don't you think?

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chet in his costume. Note the enormous fungus on our mailbox oak, the subject of a future post...

Oh, how I wish that trick-or-treating were done as it was in my childhood, on the actual night of October 31, when elves and trolls creep out of holes; but alas, it's always the closest Saturday to the date. That's good for blogging, though, because it means that blog ants have it all tied up with a bow by Halloween.

Chet greets the season by wearing his Halloween pumpkin t-shirt (size 3T) to meet the bus. The really scary part of his costume is the pee that soaks the entire underside of it. Pheeew! Boy dogs are hard to dress. He smells like a ferret now.

Every year, the kids' school has a Halloween party, and we like to dress up for it. The kids expect it. So we need to come up with four costumes each year. I love doing it, though, and try not to stress too much about it. I don't have a complex about making my own costume, and I'm happy to buy them after they get marked down a bit. I love going through the discount store costume racks. I find that a bit of artful makeup can push a storebought costume over the cliff. That's one of my favorite parts of the holiday--makeup hour.

Liam wanted to be Black Spiderman. Bill tried to talk him into something more interesting--I had found a groovy bat costume on sale the year before.

"Liam. There will be fifty Black Spidermen at the Halloween party this year."

A triumphant chortle in his voice, Liam crowed, "And I'M gonna be ONE OF 'EM!"Liam communes with Ethan, one of the many Black Spidermen running around, crouching and shooting imaginary webs, at the party.

He couldn't believe he didn't win a prize in the costume contest. Here, he's grumping about it while his ghostly mother (who took home the prize for Ugliest Adult) tries to jolly him out of it. Wouldn't that make you feel better, to have a ghoul come up behind you? Nothin' doin'. He stayed in a bad mood until trick-or-treat hour, when several double handfuls of candy jolted him out of it.

Phoebe had a dream a few days before the party, that a woman in surgical scrubs came up to her and said, "You should be a punk rockin' granny for Halloween." I was dispatched to Wal-Mart to find the right costume. Here, Phoebe vamps with her friend Chelsey, who I guess was just a rocker. I drew wrinkles on her with eyebrow pencil, and carefully bled lipstick up into the wrinkle troughs. Yeahh! She won Most Original.
Bill was planning to go as a football player, since he had a fabbo letter sweater from the 1970's. He borrowed a helmet from Zide's Sporting Goods in town (how NICE of them!). I thought his costume needed a little push toward the creepy edge, so I made a squishy pink and gray brain that protruded out the top of his helmet. Baaad accident on the Astroturf.Our costumes always have a little creepy edge to them. The former school principal didn't much appreciate that, but he's moved on now. I know I was scaring the pee-pee out of some kindergarteners, and my smile didn't help. It just made me look more like a skull. Sorry. Hey. It's Halloween. It's supposed to scare you.

More anon...Mwoooha ha ha ha ha!!

Birds of Passage

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A molting juvenile male indigo bunting gets a shower from a field sparrow.

They’re gone, almost all gone, the birds of passage. Every year, the Big Sit rolls around, and it seems uncannily timed for the moment that the last warbler of autumn quits the place entirely. Sure, we usually see the first junco of the year on Big Sit Sunday, but many of the birds that peopled (or birdled) our trees only two days earlier are gone like a puff of smoke.

The nights have turned cold lately, finally. It feels final, anyway. It feels like time to haul plants into the greenhouse . It feels like time to take the last desperate measures to propagate plants whose cuttings didn’t root, or give it up and dig them up and bring them in as mother plants. It feels like time to get the garden cart and load it up with tropical mandevillas and bougainvilleas and grunt it down the side hill to the Garden Pod. Time to fire up the little gas heater in there and bask in warmth. I am thinking these thoughts, this same person who was cursing the 90-degree days just a couple of weeks ago.

And I've spent the entire day outside in the first nice weather for what seems like two weeks, hauling plants and digging geraniums, planting a serviceberry my friend Cindy gave me two years ago, planting a daylily Margaret gave me for my birthday, planting the beautiful blue rose of Sharon I got at Chautauqua, planting two propagules of the heirloom lilac bush. I've pulled the pond pump and drained the filter and taken it all inside. I've drained the hoses and taken them in, too. I've cleaned the Spa and made sure it's bubbling furiously so as not to freeze. I've filled the feeders again. I've mowed the lawn for the last time (I hope) and I can hear the growl of the weed whacker as Bill trims the long hair around the beds and edges. I'm going to go out before dark and cover the huge red mandevilla with a sheet, maybe drape some sheets over the salvia beds. I brought in the Pig of Good Fortune, who is made of terra cotta and who is slowly sloughing away, nose first, and found the cellophane of a monarch chrysalis that had hatched out, affixed to his belly. Good fortune, indeed.

My legs and back ache and I'm tired to the bone, a good tired. It's a good thing it's getting dark; I'm collapsing. The greenhouse is bursting with beautiful flowers in fresh new pots and it's all clean and sunny in there and it makes me look forward to the winter, to know I have it to go to when I'm needing a dose of green and fragrant things. I filled it last week and put some more plants in there today. I think I've got everything I'll need for the winter...heliotrope, mandevilla, hibiscus, impatiens, fuchsia, geraniums, my big ol' cacti, the jade tree with a trunk as big around as my arm, my rosemary tree...on and on. It's lovely in there.

The Carolina chickadees are looking sleek in their new winter plumage. As Mary has pointed out, this is a hard bird to get in the frame, much less in focus. Ahhh, Mary. Are you ready for your new Digital Rebel yet? Ooh, I love to tease you, especially with chickadee pictures. Once you get your new camera, you'll try to catch the highlight in a chickadee's eye, instead of trying just to catch the chickadee. Easier said than done!
Looking back at the birds of passage: I photographed what's probably the last indigo bunting in the Spa on October 12. This is a gorgeous first-year male, just coming into winter plumage. It reminds me very much of the cordon bleu finch of Africa (and aviculture). Immature male indigo buntings undergo an extra molt in the fall that gives them some blue nuptial plumage. Most birds would travel to the wintering grounds in first basic plumage. It's an energetically expensive thing to do, so there must be a reason for it, right? It's thought to perhaps confer competitive advantage on the wintering grounds, where they're fighting mature males for territory. But we don't know that for sure.

Chipping sparrows have massed and largely departed, making way for the juncos and tree sparrows. They appreciate our wild “lawn,” studded with crabgrass of many kinds. The nice thing about crabgrass if you’re a bird is that it makes so many little seeds, and it heads out so quickly that there are always crabgrass dinners available. The nasty thing about crabgrass if you like a neat lawn is exactly the same thing. Good thing I look at crabgrass as chippy food. Here’s a little klatsch of chippies under the Bird Spa, going at the seedheads. Love it!

One from the seed eating bunch flew up briefly to perch in my studio birch. I really like this shot. Such a pretty little sparrow. I miss them when they leave, and I’m so happy when they come back in April. Something to get me through the winter. I'll be saving hair clippings all winter for them to weave into their nests come April.

Approving Dog

Friday, October 26, 2007

Chet Baker's First Book Review, as dictated to JZ:

Here's the thing. Most of Mether's books don't do much for me. I look at them when she is away, right after I get up on the kitchen table to see if there are any Cheerios left from breakfast. But I would rather nap than read most of her books. She does not let me chase birds, and most of them are about birds.

This book came in the mail the other day. I thought it might be liver treats, but it was something better. It is different from the rest of the books I have seen. It is by some friends of mine, Sharon and Bill, people who really ought to have a Boston terrier instead of a grumpy old red bunneh.

This book has pictures of bunnehs. Lots of pictures of them, especially of their lips. Bunnehs have cute lips.

Each picture has a caption. Some of which make me laugh out loud.
Some of them I do not get, but I think that is because they do not make sense anyway.Bunnehs, you should try approving of something now and then. It takes more muscles to frown than to smile. Boston terriers approve of almost everything except kennels and vacuum cleaners. I approve of Disapproving Rabbits.

You should get your own copy of Disapproving Rabbits from Sharon. She will sign it for you. I can tell you that you are not getting my copy. Even when I am asleep, I keep it near.

Meadow Deer

Thursday, October 25, 2007

This morning I saw a big doe sneaking through a sumac thicket just behind the house, and I ran to get my long lens. She’d changed over into winter hair, all soft and blue. Her two fawns ran to join her.

Deer used to come right up to the house and graze in the yard all winter. I loved that, and took a lot of wonderful pictures with my little Olympus. That was BC: Before Chet Baker. Deer no longer graze in the yard during the day. He’s all over them. In fact, he starts many mornings by standing on the high back deck, scrutinizing the meadow for the dim shapes of deer. When he spots them, he lights out down the steps and streaks across the meadow, his hind legs flying out behind him, sometimes tripping and rolling over a few times in his haste. He chases them, their hooves thudding ahead of him, but he slams on the brakes and stops when they enter the woods. I love that about him. Truth be told, it probably has to do with protecting his protruding eyes. Chet hates the thick briars that ring our meadow, and he won’t run through them, thank goodness. Corneal abrasions are good things to avoid.

I’m always amazed at how widely deer can flare their tail hairs when they need to signal alarm, and how they can tuck that same tail when they’re trying to escape unnoticed. . When they have some warning, they flare the tail to tell you they know you’re there. It’s a white flag, but not one of surrender. The message is more like, “There’s no use trying to catch me. I know you’re there, and I’ve got a lead on you.” On the other hand, you know you’ve really surprised a deer when it tucks its tail, drops its head and flattens out in a dead gallop. In this situation, it doesn’t want to draw any more attention to itself.

This little button buck had to stop and stare over his shoulder at me before joining his mother and sister. What a cutie.

They moved across the meadow, stopping to sniff at our freezer-burned meatpile, which the turkey vultures have been enjoying immensely. I love how the Virginia pines set off the emerging autumn colors. And oh, how I love deer in the meadow. I did not tell Chet Baker they were there.

Shed, Asleep

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


A hundred years I stood
Sun and snow on my roof
Icicles dripping sharp
Snakes and ivy, grease and bolts
Planks and parts, bottles, tools
Once, a pony, whose old belly sagged
Almost to the grass tops
Taking shelter under my roof.
One by one the boards rotted
From the ground up
A scalloped edge starting
Where they no longer met the dirt.
Behind the dripline, a chipmunk highway
Powderpost beetles ticking a death watch.
Phoebes in and out; the furtive rustle of mice
Piling pignuts against a rainy day.
One day I lay down
Like a cow slowly, falling to my knees
Dropping the hindquarters last.
I lay against your trunk
You: sprung from a seed
Spat forty years ago
from a jaw long gone to dust.
May I rest here, lean on you
In the fine autumn rain?
Of course I may.
You're stuck here, too,
dropping apples small as a monkey’s fist
On my weary roof.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

Tennessee Toilette

Tennessee warblers are common here in fall migration, distinctive for their grass-green upperparts, unmarked whitish underparts, groovy pale line over the eye, short tail, and needle-sharp bills. After seeing enough of them we can tell them naked-eye by their unique grass- green, and by their dumpy shape. That’s a great luxury, to see enough fall warblers every day to get the general impression, size and shape (GISS)--er, I mean gestalt-- down. It’s a luxury we’re thankful for, but one for which we’re also responsible, because we started planting for birds 15 years ago, and that hard work is bearing copious fruit.

The mulberries and willow and grey birches and glorious hummingbird gardens join all the wonderful bird-friendly plants that already grew here—sumacs and sassafras, grapes, Virginia creeper, native bittersweet, poison ivy, dogwood and tupelo and spicebush and black raspberries and Virginia pines, to name just a few. It’s a bird’s paradise, and as such it’s a paradise for us. I do indulge in tropicals, too, like the Cuphea "Batface" pictured above. Roly-poly little batface plant.

Tennessee warblers LOVE water. They dive right in and pester the big birds, sometimes right out of the bath. This little guy was attracted by the droplets flying off a bathing mourning dove, and he shouldered right in to enjoy a shower as well as a bath.

Not much intimidates a Tennessee warbler in the bath. He's nose to nose with a bird who could smoosh him.

Gotta love this pose--wings up!

When the dove left, he went right on splashing, and showered a juvenile male cardinal in his turn.Cute, but not particularly friendly...
that's a Tennessee warbler in water.

Thanks for your comments on these fall warbler posts. I think this is a good way to learn about fall warblers. One at a time, with a little behavioral commentary and photos from multiple angles. Maybe that way, their salient features will sink in better, and you'll know them better when you see them again. The little Spa keeps giving, even as fall comes on. If I'm going to be showered with blessings, I'm going to throw them around a little.

Blessings All Around

Monday, October 22, 2007


The blue jays are moving. An early Bruce Cockburn song went:

Mmmm—every day
Flashes like a spray of blue jays
Mmmm- a golden crown on every one
Like an eagle, seen against the sun.

Jays flashing from tree to tree against autumn foliage do something to me. I try and mostly fail to capture their beauty in a picture. I’m grateful to have such a big, boldly beautiful bird be common around here, and abundant in the fall. If you’re ever tempted to take blue jays for granted, just have a birder from England or Wales stay at your house. You’ll never look at blue jays, cardinals, hummingbirds or lightning bugs the same way again. Imagine life without them!

We had a Welsh family spend a week with us some years ago. Steve Moon is a birder who gives new meaning to “avid.” He chases vagrants and can endlessly discuss the pattern on the third tertial of some juvenile stint. But let a blue jay land on the feeder and Steve would drop everything and stare, open-mouthed. “Brilliant!” he’d shout. He’d stand under the porch light at night, gently capturing and examining moths, and he announced that he could stay here for a year and never identify them all. To him, we owe the small bit of knowledge that we have Setaceous Hebrew Characters at our lights at night. What a moth name. It refers to a little black scrawl on the wing that looks like a Hebrew letter, lying on its side (setaceous). Yeah!

Peter Lawson, a peerless bird guide from South Africa, had a similar reaction to our throngs of ruby-throated hummingbirds when he stayed here. The closest thing Africa has to hummingbirds is sunbirds, which clamber around on inflorescenses, probing with curved bills. They’re colorful, in a greasily iridescent way, but they’re too big to hover and dart; they’re five times the size of hummingbirds. Peter was enchanted with the hummingbirds and the colorful warblers and tanagers in our forests. And his favorite North American mammal was the opossum, another animal we tend to take for granted. He was deeply impressed with the forest everywhere, and kept asking who owned and managed this or that tract we’d drive by. He couldn’t believe I didn’t know. In South Africa, any existing forest is under some kind of official protection, and likely to be surrounded by high game fencing. Peter just couldn’t get over the thought that he might see white-tailed deer running free across the road, when we weren’t even in a game preserve. He couldn’t believe that garden centers left their flowers outside all the time—he said they’d all be stolen the first night in South Africa. Think about it—living in a place where anything that isn’t tied down is stolen; where the forests are all known, circumscribed, heavily protected; where all “game” is accounted for and certainly not wandering out amongst the populace. We are truly blessed, with our hovering hummingbirds, wandering deer, our blankets and miles of forest, our sprays of blue jays.

Hanging On to Fall

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fall warblers—all but gone. A few yellow-rumps, maybe a late palm... I miss them already. Well, we did pull black-throated green, palm, yellow-rumped and Tennessee out of our hats at the Big Sit, but you have to be looking hard and close to see even that much now.

One of my favorite fall warblers is the chestnut-sided. Oh, what a gorgeous lime-green on its back, such a clean gray on its underparts, a surprised little white eye ring and yellow wing bars to top it all off. For those who know the chestnut-side, its posture is distinctive—it often cocks its tail like a wren, drooping its wings and hopping springily along branches as it gleans the undersides of leaves. This one cocked its tail as it inspected the Bird Spa, and I knew, from its clean green coat and cocked tail, what it was without picking up the binoculars. This is a pose I believe I'll use in a painting someday. Warbler poses don't get much better than this. It’s such a revelation when you realize that each warbler has a distinctive shape and style of movement, little things it does that help you identify it. It's what British and some American birders refer to as GISS (general impression of size and shape; a military term referring to airplane ID)--such an ugly word! or even worse, jizz. Blaaaa. I refuse to use either, but I will make fun of it.

Magnolia warblers are active little things, often falling off branches in pursuit of insects. In fluttering, you’ll see their largely white tails, which look like they’ve been dipped in black ink. This fall magnolia is clambering about in the gigantic leaves of our red mulberry tree. Does ya think I yam a Schmoo? I don’t know why our red mulberries (we’ve got three) are putting out new leaves in September and October, but they are. They are still putting out new leaves as I write, on October 16. You’d think it foolish to put new leaves out just before frost, but the tree seems to have a plan to grow as much as possible before it has to stop. Kind of like getting a facelift at 97...Sometimes I wonder if it’s trying to get some branches up out of the reach of the deer, which browse it back hard all winter.

This is the last phoebe of fall, sitting on the porch railing, looking for flies against the siding. Luther? Is that you, bathed in blue skylight in the morning?
Yes, the warblers and phoebes are gone, but we’ll have smooth smoky blue and mauve bluebirds all fall and winter, and they gladden my heart.
Hey, lady. Ya got any suet dough in there?

Boot Haikus

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


It's odd, but I know
Whose boot this is, growing moss
His name was Gary.

He ate the squirrels
For acres around his house
Those remaining, run.

He died in his house
Standing alone at the sink
Was found, still standing.

People spoke his name
And then, quietly, "He drank."
Here: His jars, his boot.

Yesterday afternoon, my commentary about my neighbor, Gary, aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. If you'd like to hear the whole story, listen here.
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