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Song for the First of May

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I've been haunted lately by this beautiful song from Kris Delmhorst, formerly of Redbird, a roots-folk group whose work I love. It’s one of those rare ones where the melody and lyrics mesh perfectly. It captures that gentle and overwhelming obsession when your every thought is filtered through your feelings for someone you love. I can't get it out of my head.

So many love songs celebrate the obsession of infatuation, the fun, first part; the fire whose own heat gradually but inexorably melts it into something quite different, more complicated. It's so easy, so alluring, to run with infatuation, which is so uncomplicated, so unburdened by history, shared experience or disillusionment. It's tricky and demanding to abide with its aftermath, to stick around for the long train ride into the unknown. Listen to country radio if you want to hear about infatuation. Listen to Kris Delmhorst if you want something approximating real life.

I’m thankful for artists like Kris Delmhorst, who walk on the uneven ground.

Birds of Belfast Kris Delmhorst

The field grew wild all that buzzing summer
We dozed a while, woke a little younger
Hung your clothes, waited on the weather
Thorn and rose twine and grow together

When did all the birds of Belfast learn to sing your name?
When did all those silver ashes breathe into flame?
Who are you without your sadness? Who am I without my shame?
When did all the birds of Belfast learn to sing your name?

Which was right, the fight or the surrender?
You my light, my solitary mender
Still the sun will rise on every weeper’s mourning
Tearstained eyes, pearly light adorning

When did all the birds of Belfast learn to sing your name?
When did all those silver ashes breathe into flame?
Who are you without your sadness? Who am I without my shame?
When did all the birds of Belfast learn?

Who am I to sing a love song? Who are you to do the same?
With our weary little hearts full of broken little claims?
Will they even recognize us? Should I give you a new name?
And then all the birds of Belfast would sing it just the same.

Fuertes and Other Luminaries

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

As promised, we'll walk down the halls at the Lab of Ornithology, savoring the paintings that hang on its walls.

Here’s one that’s the rarest of the rare: A Fuertes study of the extinct Cuban macaw. Of all the extinct birds in the world, the Cuban macaw is one that gives me great remorse. Imagine: A small macaw, perhaps the size of my chestnut-fronted macaw Charlie, but colored like a huge scarlet macaw. Wow, wow, wow. Looking at this painting, I could see that Fuertes painted it from a study skin. This colorful little macaw was extinct in the wild by 1864, and gone from the face of the earth by 1885.From the Smithsonian Institution's web site, here is a picture of ornithologist Katie Faust holding a mounted Cuban macaw. People always smile for photos, but I'd bet she's sad, too. What a massive bill this bird had for its size. One wonders what hard nut it had to crack. It was unique in so many ways, such a loss to the planet. But Cuban macaws were edible, and they probably ate fruit that people wanted for themselves, and for that, they were extirpated, and another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one will be seen again.

Just down the hall was a stunning gouache of a gorilla, a frequent subject for Fuertes. I’m always impressed by his handling of hair. Take it from me, when you’ve been painting feathers all your life, hair is kind of a stretch. This guy jumps right out of the frame at you. His hair is perfect. Gonna order up a plate of beef chow mein. I have GOT to do some portraits of Chet Baker in his young prime. Just have to. If LAF can master a gorilla, I can paint a shiny little dog.
I adored this gorgeously drawn study of a whitetail buck—another unexpected treasure from Louis. My guess would be that he worked from a mounted head; a photo of him working in his studio shows several on the wall above his easel. The sweep and structure of the antlers is so convincing and three-dimensional; the treatment of the deer’s various textures utterly convincing. What a wonderful subject for “life” drawing the ubiquitous mounted deer head would be. We all ought to try it. Those things are everywhere. Well, they're everywhere where I come from.

There are other bird artists represented here, as well. Robert Mengel is one of my favorites—he was a painting ornithologist whose works are possessed of great accuracy, vigor and life. Here’s a running bobwhite by Bob, who passed away in 1990, another painter I would very much have loved to meet.It’s really hard to paint something as intricately marked as a quail without getting too fussy. This is a masterpiece of understatement and grace. It has the mark of Fuertes, and Sutton, with whom Bob studied informally, but it is all his own, and instantly recognizable by its almost careless painterly beauty and truth to the species.

Peter Scott was a British artist who simplified even further, and in my opinion has never been surpassed in his mastery of waterfowl in flight—even (or especially) by the legions of hook-and-bullet painters to follow. How many paintings of waterfowl flocks have been churned out--but are any of them as true or beautiful as this? Look how each swan in this flock has a slightly different angle and wing position; there are no cookie-cutter birds in Scott’s paintings. Flocks are among the hardest thing a bird artist can attempt to paint, because the slightest variation in size or proportion can make the viewer think there’s a different species tucked in there. In addition, perspective demands that distant birds be depicted smaller—but making a convincing statement without suggesting that some of the flock members are miniaturized, or of another species, is extremely difficult. You can see me, hunkered over with my camera, reflected in the glass, wondering at the perfection of this small, seemingly simple but utterly exquisite painting.

This has got to be one of the coolest Francis Lee Jacques paintings I’ve seen. Anyone who’s been to the AMNH in New York has seen Jacques’ work in the dioramas. A peerless painter of landscape and wildlife, Jacques could put birds and animals in space better than anyone before or since. I love how he dwarfed the barn, giving us a (doubtless frightened) frog’s-eye-view of sandhill cranes. Jacques vastly preferred painting waterfowl and waders to songbirds. A paraphrased quote from him that I love: “The difference between warblers and no warblers in the landscape is very slight.” That little gift, from my friend, painter Bob Clem.

An incubating female common nighthawk, painted from life by George Miksch Sutton. Sigh. Again, Sutton’s handling of the intricacies of the nighthawk’s vermiculated plumage—something an artist could fall into and not get out of—is masterful. To me, this bird fairly breathes; she is aware of being watched but holds tightly to her job.
I'm grateful to Charles Eldermire, Benjamin Clock, and Alan Poole, who took me to hidden areas of the Lab where many of these paintings hang. It was a privileged peek at a treasure trove of ornithological art.

The Fortunate Tooth

Monday, April 28, 2008

When I was eight years old, an extra tooth pushed through the roof of my mouth. My mother had had the same thing happen as a child. I doubt the extraction of my extra tooth by oral surgery was much nicer than hers in the 1920’s. To soothe the pain, Ida took me to an old bookstore in downtown Richmond near the dental hospital, the only time I can remember having anything bought for me in such a place. If I remember correctly, my dad met her at the bookstore and helped pick out just the right book for me. I remember picking up a weighty forest-green hardcover book from a table in the center of the dark, wood-paneled reading room, and knowing that this would be the finest book any child could have. It was A Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, by Edward Howe Forbush and John Bichard May. I know now that the slightly florid but vivid writing style of Forbush and May, the expert integration of natural history information in readable anecdote and liberal quotes from direct observers, had a massive influence on my writing style. But though I read each species account many times over, it was the paintings I thirsted for most of all, and in particular the paintings of Louis Fuertes. I had never heard of him before; didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. I just knew that he got it right. His birds were alive.

In fact, Louis Fuertes died on August 22, 1927, his car struck by a train at a crossing. Ida, my mom, would have just turned 7 at the time. He’d been at dinner with friends; he’d brought his finest work, the bird portraits he’d painted in Abyssinia, along with him. They were flung free of the wreckage and miraculously unharmed; Louie was not so fortunate. I wonder where that crossing is, if anyone still knows. I’d like to go there, to see if any of that gentle man’s spirit still hangs in the air. I know I would have adored this man. I know it from reading his writings (To a Young Bird Artist by George Miksch Sutton is the perfect place to start). I know that just looking at his paintings.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a mecca for bird artists, with its vast collection of original Louis Fuertes paintings, as well as those of other luminaries. If you’ve hours to spend looking, Cornell has many of them up on the Web. What a gift, what a service to artists everywhere! Thank you, Lab! (and thank you, reader Harlow Bielefeldt, for alerting me to it).

Click here: The Fuertes Gallery at Cornell

If you don’t mind lousy pictures taken through glass in dim hallways, I’ll show you some of the paintings I was free to look at while prowling the innards of the Lab on my recent visit.
A golden eagle dives on a ptarmigan. Remember, in looking at these, that Louis had very little access to photographs of birds in flight. He likely worked from a mount here, though I don’t know that to be true. The birds’ wings are beautifully observed, even though the eagle’s somewhat static pose, with bill open, is a bit stylized and indicative of the fashion of the times. Modern photography of such action scenes would show the eagle’s feet flung far forward, directly under the head; the wings swept well back. I can only imagine the wonders Louis would have created had he had access to the kind of resources we take for granted.

I love this oil of a goshawk mantling a spruce grouse; the intensity of the hawk’s pose, the rounded curve of its arching wings. The grouse is particularly lovely, and I imagine Fuertes observing captive hawks and falcons and sketching them in an effort to capture this pose. There’s a gorgeous dawn glow in the sky.

Fuertes did a series of paintings for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, which included them on collectible cards found in each package. Man, as little baking soda as I use anymore, it’d take a lifetime to get a decent collection, but my dad remembers eagerly searching for each one when his mother got a new package. Seeing my delight with the Fuertes paintings in the book he and Mom gave me, he spent years looking for a set of them for me, writing letters to Arm and Hammer, asking if they might consider re-issuing them. My dad was a letter-writer, patient and persistent. So far, it hasn’t happened, but I did see a traveling exhibit of the paintings at the Boston Museum of Science in the 1980’s. This exquisite little kestrel was one of them. He’s so perfectly captured the strange, boxy head and elfin look of the little falcon, I almost expect to see it rapidly bob its head as it peers at me.

Walking through the Lab is such a treat for a bird painter; treasures abound. I think my favorite treatment was this one of a magnificent Fuertes mural, depicting a peregrine on the hunt over Fisher’s Island, New York. I spent some of the happiest days of my life bicycling Fisher’s Island as a field biologist for the Nature Conservancy. It is a little jewel, full of piney maritime forest, open grasslands, marshes and salt ponds and dunes, and all the birds that go with those habitats. This painting of a ring-necked pheasant's last flight perfectly evokes the sweep and scale of the island, the sparkling summer salt air, and the tantalizing knowledge that in a few hours, you can pedal its length and breadth, and see what there is to see.

I think that Louis would have glowed with pride to see the places of honor where his work now hangs, so beautifully integrated into a bustling ornithology lab.

More Cornell treasures await.

Spring in Marietta

Sunday, April 27, 2008

It’s spring in Marietta.

The deciduous magnolias dance in the breeze, their softly perfumed flowers blowsy and extravagant. This time of year, I drive slowly down Marietta’s brick streets, marveling at the sometimes perfect pairing of house to tree. This is one such, a gracious cream-colored house with a rosy magnolia confection gracing its flank. Oh, perfection.

The petals remind me of a fawn’s ear, delicately veined in pink.
Inside, the zillion stamens proclaim its tribe: the Ranales, or magnolias. They include tulip trees, sweet bays, Carolina pineapple bush, and the classic Magnolia grandiflora of Tara. Summer afternoons in Virginia, I’d bury my nose in the creamy, waxen flowers of our shiny-leaved grandiflora, vying for perfume with orange and black beetles. I can still recall the scent, though the tree has long since been cut down.I'm posting this from the parking lot of Curley's Motel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I'm so busy taking pictures of birds up here that I haven't taken time to download any. I don't know when I'll get Net access again (I'm poaching at Curley's), so I decided to post this Sunday afternoon as I'll be traveling all day Monday.

Despite the frantic nature of my previous post, I began having fun the minute I got behind the wheel on the way to the airport on Friday. It is ever thus with big trips--the preparation is awful, but the trip itself almost erases that angst. If I didn't have so many other cherished life forms depending on me for so many things, it might not be so hard to get away. Talks went great. Whitefish Point Bird Observatory Spring Fling Festival, really fun. Terrific, kind people. Sleeping like a rock. Go figure. I guess I have to go to the Upper Peninsula to get some sleep.

Weather report from the U.P.: 38, snow squalls, peeks of sun. Don't want to guess the wind chill factor. Seen today: northern goshawk, long-eared owl, saw-whet owl. Common loons in breeding plumage. Yeah. This isn't Marietta. I have worn absolutely everything I packed--four layers including long underwear, two hats, two pairs of gloves. Off to find lunch at a restaurant near a spectacular high falls. You'll see it all in time.

Crazy moment: Cellphone rang while I was watching a common loon in breeding plumage powering by my frigid perch on a hawk observation platform. It was Bill, watching a least tern from his platform at So. Padre I. in Texas, thinking about me.

Life is good again.

April Madness

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spring is many things to me, but the last of those is relaxing. There is nothing relaxing to a die-hard gardener about warm, sunny weather. Warm sunny weather means weeds growing toward the sky, things needing to be planted out, things cooking slowly in the greenhouse, things needing to be watered and pulled and mulched, cleaned, mowed and trimmed. Warm sunny weather means festival season, means travel and packing. For instance, this weekend Bill is in south Texas, and I am in Whitefish Point, Michigan at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's 2008 Spring Fling. In a way, it will be good to get away from all this burgeoning vegetation and all this weeding and planting, and go back to early, early spring. I need a break. It's all happening too fast. Winter into summer, that's what this spring has been. 30's to 8o's.

I wish I could relax. I wish I could sleep. Both elude me. I am alternately a zombie and a weepy manic counterwiping floorwashing freak. Something about having all four of us in different places, having to arrange care for Phoebe and Liam and Chet and Charlie and Shoomie the turtle and the ancient bonsais and my teeny new tomato seedlings and all those gorgeous greenhouse goodies I've grown all winter makes me insane. Something about the end of April makes me sad. It's all coming too fast. I'm a tired bird trailing the migrating flock, trying to catch up. I can't stop it; I can't control it, so I sweep and wipe. Dirt, at least, I can control. Shila helps me. Shila is a healer. That's what she does. Here is photographic evidence. Not long ago, Chet Baker had a terrible couple of days, womitin' bad, sorr. I didn't know what he'd gotten into, but it was bad. He'd go out in the meadow and graze like a miniature Angus bull for an hour at a time, then clean himself out over and over. Shila came over, just to talk a bit and enjoy the spring and the daffodils. Chet vaulted up into her lap and turned to her with his most hangdog expression. I am sick, Shila. Maybe you can fix me. Will you try?

So Shila draped Chet over her lap and commenced gently stroking his ailing stomach. He relaxed immediately and completely, this poor dog who'd been rigid with cramps for two days. Look at his hind legs. Limp as a noodle. He snored gently. Shila and I think this picture looks like Silence of the Lambs, with a Tulumia orchid instead of a hawk moth over her mouth.I met Shila after I'd given birth to Phoebe, when I was in total shock about what having a baby really meant. It meant having this little person, this houseguest, who never planned to pack up and leave, who was here to stay, who might need anything at any hour or minute of the day, and generally did. It meant that I was suddenly in service to someone else, someone who didn't answer to a reasonable request to scale back the demands or maybe go somewhere else for dinner, give me a break once in awhile. It meant saying goodbye to the sleep patterns I'd taken for granted; it meant giving a couple of pints of my bodily essence to her nourishment every day. I quit sleeping and wandered around like a haggard zombie. Shila helped. We became friends. She's known both kids since they were babies, and she was often the only person other than Bill and me who could hold and soothe cranky Liam. I'll never forget handing him to her on New Year's Eve, when he was not even two months old. He went limp as a homemade egg noodle, from squalling like a banshee.

I watched her work her magic on Chet and marveled at the treasure that she is, at how lucky I am to call her friend and confidante. The first time she touched me in the course of craniosacral therapy, I asked sleepily, "How long have you been a healer?" There was a heat radiating from her hands, an energy and soothing power that I've never felt before.Clearly, it crosses species lines. Shila has worked on sore horses as well as infants and children and insane nursing mothers. Now she can add pukey Boston terriers to her list of the healed. He was fine from then on. When he got down from her embrace he walked over to his bowl and cleaned up yesterday's untouched dinner.

In this crazy, busy season, I wish you peace, and dear friends who know just what to say and do. Or, as in Chet's case, when to say nothing at all.Mr. Popcorn Paws, at peace.

Things You Never See

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ithaca turns out to be a good place to see things you never see otherwise, especially with Alan Poole as my guide. I had never seen people riding unicycles in my life. Maybe I saw a chimp ride one once on television. But here were these two dudes going along a very narrow, very fast road with nothing but two pedals and a wheel between them and Eternity. It's the mother in me, I'm sure, that made me gasp and immediately begin to worry for them. Think about it. They've got nothing to grab should they hit a rock or a pothole or a squirrel or a dead possum. How in the world do they dismount safely? How do they go down huge hills? Why don't they get down off those damn things?
I was completely in awe of them, and I couldn't stop taking pictures of them, something they found very funny. My inner Gomer was gaaawww-leeeeee-in' all over the place.I did get to see them dismount and remount near Taughannock Falls. There was a whole lot of arm waving going on as they attained their balance and rhythm atop those dreadful wheels. I was glad they were wearing helmets, at least. You couldn't get me on one of those things on a dare. But then, I won't even play volleyball, and I suit up in steel wrist guards to roller skate. I break a wrist, I'm S.O.L., and the workman's comp plan for freelance artist/writers is raiding the piggybank.
That said, they made excellent time, almost beating us to Taughannock Falls. But we were birding.

Taughannock Falls was a pilgrimage for me, because it was there that ornithophotographer Arthur Allen shot his famous peregrine photos, when a pair nested naturally there in the early 1900's. It looked like a piece of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, plopped down in the Finger Lakes country. That's Alan for scale.
I believe Louis Agassiz Fuertes also painted those peregrines at this spot, where they nested just to the left of the falls. Just knowing my greatest bird art influence had stood on this spot filled me with awe.
Chet Baker came with me on this trip, and it was absolutely lovely to have him along. Almost nine hours on the road each way, Baker kept me company and showered me with kisses. We talked and I ran my hand over his muscular little thigh as we drove. We ran around after squirrels at the rest stops and jumped creeks in the woods. Alan took an immediate shine to Baker, and was amused at how he'd leap atop walls, catlike, to walk along the tops.Baker was not allowed in the Asian Art floor of the Johnson Museum on the Cornell campus, so he spent the afternoon curled in bed instead. The sheer age of most of these artifacts filled me with awe. Here's a cloisonne Chinese dragon vase.

A beautiful man, carved from an elephant tusk. His backward lean is thanks to the curvature of the tusk, but it perfectly evokes the weight of the ivory basket he carries. I am sure there were carved fish inside the basket, but I couldn't see inside it. How do you carve a fishnet out of ivory? I could only shake my head.

A painting of Kali, my favorite Indian goddess. This is me, oh, about one week a month. Look out, demons and wrongdoers. I am riding the lion with my sixteen arms. Mess with me: I will slice and dice you. I find it interesting that Liam makes the same bloodspurts on his headless people that this artist did several centuries back.

Looking down on the magnificent Cornell campus. Because of its history of great ornithologists, this was the college I most wanted to attend, but when my parents drove me all the way up there from Virginia, an admissions officer told me I'd never get in as a biology major with my crummy math SAT scores. He told me I'd better emphasize that I wanted to major in journalism. Which I didn't. So, being a timid but principled high school student, I didn't even apply. That's OK. I got educated anyway. Still, the visit made me wistful, remembering and appreciating the vision of my father and mother walking little baby me up these same sidewalks. Dad was looking for a good ice cream place. He said college towns always have the best ice cream places, and he knew Cornell had a dairy somewhere. That was Dad. I sought out a local ice cream factory in his honor, where Bacon and I shared a hotdog and a coconut almond shake. Dad would have ordered maple walnut ice cream.
Because I knew the daffodils wouldn't be blooming yet in Ithaca, I cut a huge bunch of mine and took them up for Alan and Charles. I was sitting across from Alan, with the still-cold spring light coming in the window, and was struck by the beauty of the scene. It was a Vermeer interior, timeless and serene.
These are my two favorite photos from the whole trip. For me, they evoke the peace that animals bring to us, with their quiet, caring presence. If you want to see me happy, give me a cup of tea or a glass of Shiraz, and sleek little Chet Baker on my lap.

For Mojo Man

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

This essay aired today on All Things Considered, in honor of Earth Day. You can hear me read it here. I couldn't have written it, much less felt it, without a letter that Mojo Man, a self-described frustrated forester, wrote to me more than a year ago, when I was complaining about selective cutting. In essence, he said, "Get over it. Think of the alternative. Logging is a sustainable use of a forest. Forests are dynamic systems, and even logged-over woods beat a housing development."

Sometimes we don't know the impact a few well-chosen words to a friend can have. Mojo's letter got me through the logging, got me through the snarling chainsaws and the shrieks and cracks of dying trees. Did I enjoy it? No. Would I allow it to be done to our forest? Never. But I repeated Mojo's wisdom to myself over and over throughout February and March; I repeated it to Bill and the kids; kept it in my head as I spoke respectfully to my neighbor, and it truly got me through. This old earth is a renewable resource, bouncing back after unthinkable injury and insult. Think of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the healing that's gone on in those diesel-soaked beaches. We owe her so much more honor, love and respect than we'll ever give her, but like a good wife and mother, she keeps coming back, taking care of us even at our spoiled, self-centered and destructive worst.

Our neighbor is logging his woods. We listened as the bulldozers and chainsaws moved closer each day. One by one, the big trees fell. The loggers were taking everything over 18” in diameter, leaving the smaller trees to mature. After three weeks, there was only one giant left, the tulip tree we called the Privacy Tree. We called it that because it shielded our house from the road, made it feel like a secret.

I knew the logger was saving the biggest tree for last. He couldn’t have overlooked it. It was time to say good-bye. I walked out through the snow, meaning to wrap my arms around it, and had to spread them for a good-bye hug. I know, I’m a tree hugger. But it’s something, in this cut-over, degraded forest, to find a tulip tree that’s 36” at breast height.

“Can’t we ask them not to cut the Privacy Tree?” asked Phoebe, her voice plaintive. “Doesn’t the logger have a heart?” Well, no, honey, we can’t ask him. A 36” tulip is worth money, and it’s on our neighbor’s land, and that, dear, is that.

While she was at school, I did call my neighbor and offer to compensate him for the value of the tree if he’d leave it standing. It was a reckless act, born of a mother’s desire to fix what’s wrong. I had no idea what it was worth, figuring I’d either be able to meet the price or not. I just wanted to buy it, to leave it standing, so the tanagers and wood thrushes could still perch in it and sing. He turned me down flat. “Nope, I’m gonna cut it. If it dies and falls down, I can’t get anything for it. And I don’t want it lying on the ground. Trees are a crop, just like anything else, and you need to harvest them before they fall down.” I suggested that trees might have another value as habitat, even after they fell down, and we hung up, agreeing that we saw things differently when it came to trees.

Two days later, my husband and I watched in silence as a chainsaw snarled into its base. The Privacy Tulip trembled, groaned, spun slowly, and smashed down, taking five other trees with it.

Four years ago, I watched with dismay as another forest I loved was logged just like this one. I’d drive by every day, watching it get thinner and thinner. The loggers took all the big trees, piling them like Lincoln logs on a flatbed truck, hauling the forest away in a cloud of diesel fumes. I ground my teeth and muttered as I passed. The next spring, underbrush sprang up in the newly opened woods, from seeds that had been waiting for decades in the soil for just such conditions.

Within three years, new, strange bird songs rang through the opened stand: Wild turkeys, American redstarts, blue-winged, prairie, hooded and Kentucky warblers flocked to the thick young growth that sprang up in the wake of the cutting. Come spring, I’ll park my car where the logging truck once sat, and watch jewellike birds fetching insects and nesting materials in the flickering sun, in the new growth racing toward the sky.

For birds like these to survive and thrive, some trees must fall, some sunlight must strike the forest floor. Even as I mourn the Privacy Tree, I know that my neighbor’s is a changed woodland, and not necessarily for the worse. Come spring, I’ll be listening for new songs.A postscript:
Even before the branches had settled, five hawks appeared in the sky directly over where the Privacy Tree had stood for so many years. Two red-shoulders and three redtails circled and screamed, keening an unearthly chorus in the space where the tree had been. Their cries tore through the pearly sky. Who can say why? I think that we are not the only ones who mourn it.

Old Bread Memories

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ithaca is gorges. It's waterfalls and snow, and for me it was also daffodils just peeking up through still-cold ground; phoebes just arrived and singing tentatively. I keep traveling north this spring, and I act like a big baby when I have to get my down parka and gloves back out. Looking at the bright side, it makes it all the more delicious to return to sun and warmth, such bits as we have. This is a view of the valley plowed out by the glacier that passed through what is now Ithaca. Winter keeps a grip on the place for a long, long time.

And yet...the first Ithaca Farmer's Market of the season was happening, and I joined my old friend Alan Poole for a visit to the land of hearty-looking breadladies and spun maple sugar. We got some white bean soup and braved the cold wind off the lake to enter the open-air barn that houses a very robust farmer's market. Oh, what wonderful things!We bought bread from this artisan stand. I bought a loaf of Amadama bread, a curious rolled around and around in my mind; I knew I'd baked it in the past; I knew I loved it, but I couldn't remember any more than that. Alan jogged my memory. "It was a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book." Yes! Back in the late 70's I lived in a big old house in Petersham, MA, where we baked breads from that collection of monastery recipes. So I bought the loaf and brought it home--so sweet and brown and good. Here's what I've found about it on the Web, from a Los Angeles Times article from 1922:

"Amadama Bread--One pint of boiling water poured slowly over one-half cup of
Indian (fine corn) meal, stirring all the time. When cool, add one bread spoon of lard,
one-half cup of molasses, one dessert spoon of salt, one-half yeast cake
dissolved in one-half cup of luke-warm water, and flour to make a stiff batter.
Knead well and rise in again, let rise in the pans till almost double in bulk,
and bake."
The name "Amadama" is a curious one. It is almost impossible to find anyone
who can explain its origin convincingly. Perhaps the most feasible story
regarding it is the following:
When Mrs. John Johnston of Gloucester, MA first introduced the bread, she called
it "Epidemic Bread,"which name was mispronounced by an ignorant maid in one
customer's home, who called it "amadama" housewives clamored for it and it became
most popular. For this reason Mr. Johnston called it "Epidemic Bread," which name was
mispronounced by an ignorant maid in one customer's home, who called it "amadama"
bread (instead of "epidemic.") From that time on many customers, who heard of
the maid's mispronunciation, called it "madama" in fun--which name became a fixture.

I'm doubting that these women have lard anywhere near their kitchen, so perhaps butter would suffice. As you know, lard is a staple in my kitchen, if only for Zick dough. The amadama bread is the toasty looking loaf at the very bottom margin of the photo. I was to regret my purchase upon climbing on the scales back home. Bread and pasta are now struck once again from my diet. Sigh. Travel eating is the worst. Somehow, you think it won't count, until you get home. Why do carbs have to taste soooo good? Begone. No more.

I always get a kick out of kids in college communities like Ithaca. They all look like fortune-tellers.
There were some mighty thrifty looking winter carrots and taters, too. Alan says the carrots are incredible.
Later, Alan and I went to the Johnson Museum of Art, where there happened to be an Easter egg hunt and celebration going on. I was amazed at the biomass of mini-people crammed into the lobby. In my college days in Cambridge, children were an anomaly, evoking double-takes on campus. Things have changed. Graduate students and professors now reproduce. I was also amazed at the fortitude of this single stalwart folksinger, armed only with a gut-stringed guitar, who was belting out "Puff, the Magic Dragon" without benefit of mic or amp to what felt like several thousand chattering kids.
This would, for me, define the Gig from Hell. Give the man a Pignose.

Our Swinging Orangutangs gig at the Whipple Tavern last Friday night was anything but. We had a steady full house and the most marvelous time, and our tips plus the spaghetti dinner hosted by the tavern brought in over $500 for pocket money for the sixth grade class trip to Pittsburgh. We played a mini-set of songs from "Boogie Nights" that I'm fairly certain have never been played in that space, including "Best of My Love," with screaming female vocal harmonies between me and Jess; "Jungle Boogie," sung by Bill of the Birds, "Get Down Tonight," sung by JZ, "Brick House," by BOTB (he does a real nasty job on that one.) Jess does an amazing job on the vocal and antic keyboard of Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good." Yes, it was something completely different. It was such fun that we looked up and it was 12:30.

More Ithaca anon.
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