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Conversation With a Bleeding Heart

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Up again, are you?
Always sooner than I think to look.
Always stronger than I thought you'd be.
What are your plans?
Will you take over again, smother the sunny flowers?
Or will the frost bite you back, turn you to mush?

You're red as blood; cruel, inexorable
Despite your beauty.
You carve your space, elbows out
A slow-motion black eye to any plant coming close.
Three years you've ruled this garden
Spreading farther every April
Coming back, coming back, coming back.

A month from now you'll sprawl as wide as I am tall.
I wonder why I give you room.

I could take a shovel, dig you out
to plant somewhere else
or throw on the heap out back
The mound of plants that didn't work out.
You'd rot down to nourish the ones who come after.

I could, you know.
The poacher's spade would do it.
Weedy dock or bleeding heart: all the same to the narrow blade.
So watch yourself.

What's Blooming Now

Monday, March 30, 2009

Did everyone turn off their lights from 8:30-9:30 on Saturday? We did. We're pretty good at dealing without electricity, after this winter. If anyone's wondering, that's a vintage Poll Parrot clock on the wall, a second anniversary gift Bill and I gave each other. The mysterious black machine beneath the clock filters our water five times, ozonates, carbon polishes it, and, we hope, fills us with never-ending health and goodness. I couldn't live without Mr. Goodwater.

Turning the lights off made us notice how beautiful daffodils are by candlelight. So are clivias.

The Clivia miniata (Kafir lily) I've nurtured for three years has three huge bursts of orange, fragrant blossoms. This, for having left it bone-dry in a cold basement all winter. That's what it likes.

I love flower time. I really, really love flowers. Outside, there are crocuses and daffodils galore.

When we first moved here, there was a sad little straight line of fancy daffodils that ran right through the middle of the lawn. It had once lined a driveway that was no more, and it no longer made sense in the landscape. So we mowed around them for a few years, then dug them up out of the rock-hard soil and planted them in the soft compost of our new raised flower beds. This is just a fraction of the daffodils we now have.

The big dig was about 14 years ago. They have multiplied to the point that I dig up daffodil bulbs with everything I try to plant in those beds. I can bring them in by the armload and never notice I've cut them, there are so many bobbing and dancing in the cold spring wind. All that from just a few bulbs, transplanted to a place they can thrive and multiply. Plants just give and give and give.

Meanwhile, out in the greenhouse, everyone's going k-k-k-krazy.Look at the little red and yellow bells of Abutilon megapotamicum. All the gerania that were just leaves in my last post are blooming their heads off.

Inside the house, the orchids are winding up. Oh Lord, I love this time of year, when I get up every morning and peek down into their paired leaves to see if I can find a new bloom spike starting. Plants are blooming this spring that haven't bloomed for years. I think it's the massive repotting I did in November, that's what I think. I think it's the Aussie Gold medium I used. It's payback time. The diatomaceous earth in the Aussie Gold medium seems to have licked the mealybugs, and throwing out sick plants helped a lot. Not to mention the thorough washing and spraying they got in November, in that marathon of orchidaceous labor. With orchids, it's all about being willing to wait.

Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos" is about to unfurl another dancing flamenco lobster, its eighth since last June. Ahhh.

Here's Laeliocattleya " Firedance Patricia" about to haul off and give me some red flowers.
You can tell it's happy because the new growth off to the left side is so robust and full of buds.

The promise in those fat bronze buds...the anticipation of waiting for them to open...such fun. And then a few days go by and boom, they open.
But for now, the undisputed Queen of the Collection is a Brassaevola cross called "Morning Glory."
The flowers are enormous, three inches or more across, and fragrant. OK, you had me at enormous, but fragrant? Almost seems too much to ask for. Now, pull back and look at the entire plant, which is a couple of feet across at this point.

That's what I'm talkin' about. A plant that is self-actualizing, blooming from every new growth point, practically leaping from its pot in exuberance. At last count, sixteen blossoms open at once. Stinkin' up the place.

These are the things that happen when plants are happy, when the lines of caring and communication are open between plant and caretaker. You feel like an orchid samurai, keeper of ancient secrets, axion of ability, but really, it's just this little magical thing that happens when you care enough to figure out how to do the right thing.

On Friday, I made my way back from my speaking engagement in Middletown by way of Columbus. There was to be a huge orchid show and sale, if the American Orchid Society and Central Ohio Orchid Society web sites were to be believed, running from Friday through Sunday at an airport hotel. I drove around in circles looking for the right Mariott, and when I finally found the entrance, I made my way inside the huge atrium where I teamed up with two equally confused women who'd driven down from Detroit, who, when I spotted them, had that look of the orchid fancier about them: smart, sharply dressed, well-tended. (I am a distinct anomaly). We wandered around asking custodians about it until someone told us which conference room might hold the show. Finally we found a room with a few orchids on a folding table, nothing more. It seems the web sites had misled us; setup was Friday, and the show actually opened Saturday morning. The vendors hadn't even arrived yet.


The orchid ladies from Detroit, who'd driven three hours expressly to buy some new orchids, were a good deal more perturbed than I. I immediately took it as a cosmic smackdown, and actually felt relieved. Clearly, I don't need any more orchids than the 38 currently cramming my shelves, and the gods agree about that. I climbed back in the Exploder, kissed Chet Baker, and headed home to enjoy what I already have. Which, in truth, is way more than enough. A fact that will make itself clear next November, at the next repotting marathon.

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

Sheryl Crow, "Soak Up the Sun"

Monetizing Your Dog

Sunday, March 29, 2009

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

I'm not sure how I feel about these not-so-subtle hints I've been getting, sprinkled here and there in the comments section. "It's been over a month and we want more Chet!" read the latest. And I checked, and it has, by two whole days. Obviously, some of you keep track (and have noticed that I don't), and it seems that there's some kind of Chetmeter ticking away in your brains that goes off BLANNNNG!! when you've reached the critical limit of Chetlack. These are the times that I wish my blog had a little slot into which you could insert a one, a five or a ten, after carefully smoothing it to make sure the machine will accept it, and making sure the president is facing up. I could blog away five days a week about birds and rivers and butterflies and anteaters, frogs and Fanta and orchids and otters, blissfully unaware that the Chetpressure was building up, and then I'd open my laptop in the morning and all this money would pour out of it, whee! from all the people who were finally starved out and willing to pay for their next major Chetfix.

Y'all keep having to remind me that it's really all about the dog.

He is lying at my side, smelling slightly of skunk (there's another story there), heaving those little rumbly dog sighs of contentment. Every once in awhile I take his smooshy little face in my hands and say, "Baker, you will be my ticket out of poverty. I don't know how just yet, but you're gonna get us out of this." His big pink tongue flops out and washes my chin and we laugh. It's true, we both know it, but I haven't figured out how to monetize my dog.

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

On Thursday, I drove to Middletown, Ohio, a neat four hours straight across the state, to guest lecture in a creative fiction class at Miami University's Middletown campus taught by Dr. Eric Melbye. I think I've written one piece of fiction in my whole life--the introduction to a 1997 piece on ivory-billed woodpeckers.

It was fun, but this is a big ol' goofy world, and it is so crammed with wonders that I have never felt the need to write fiction. Just describing what's going on all around me is more than enough.
So we talked about the creative process which probably isn't all that different between fiction and the kind of embroidered nonfiction I do. We talked about how to get out of the way of your subconscious mind, how to let it flow, because it writes much better than the conscious mind. The talk ran 'round to Chet Baker, who was slumbering back in my hotel room, and we traded stories about nonverbal communication between people and animals. It was cool.

Thursday night, there was a public lecture, and a lot of the people who came are also readers of this blog. And it occurred to me that some of them might like to meet The Bacon. Although Nina and Susan already had, they are always up for another crispy serving. So after the talk, I invited four women up to the Manchester Hotel and we sat around on the floor hooting with laughter as Chet Baker ripped Susan's new toy to smithereens,

decked Susan, purveyor of toys and Pupperoni, a couple of times,
had a scavenger hunt for bits of Pupperoni, aimed sudden and deadly accurate kisses at everyone's tonsils, and just generally lit the room up with his doggy joydaveev.**

**Joie de vive. I know. I just like making new words.

Unh unh unh unh unh unh unh rrrrrrrrrrrrrowwwwww. All the puppy training books warn you not to play tug o'war with your dog or he'll grow up to dominate you, make your life miserable, and eventually kill you while you sleep. Hasn't happened yet. So far, we just play tug o'war.

Four grown women sitting on the floor, hooting over a dog. You'll recognize Nina in the middle, too...

Think he knows what a star he is? Smile, Chet. Look at the camera. Yes, Mether. How is this? I am making my eyes extra googly.

I suppose at some point Chet will be attending the lectures with me. Or he will let me attend them with him. I can see me, dog on my knee, answering questions aimed at Chet, in the distinctive dawgvoice we've developed. Kind of a Charlie McCarthy act, but with a much cuter and smarter dummy. We'll take it on the road. I hope all the hotels we pick are as pet-friendly--I'd call the staff doghappy!-- as the homey sweet Manchester Inn in Middletown, Ohio.

Many thanks to Eric Melbye, his writing students, and MUM for making such a fuss and being willing to listen to a bunch of animal stories.

On the Issequibo River

Thursday, March 26, 2009


The Issequibo River flows right by Iwokrama Lodge. It is an absolutely gorgeous river, clear of water and abundant in life. This is Sankar, a huge black caiman who hangs out right by the dock. He gets fed. I don't know if you can strike a deal with an 11-foot caiman, like: we'll feed you if you won't eat us. Can you work something like that out with a giant reptile? Is it capable of knowing you shouldn't eat the people who bring you chicken scraps? Probably. Anyway, Sankar hung around like a dirty shirt, floating like a hopeful log just off the dock.

We took a few boat excursions in open whalers to see what there was to see. One of the most fascinating birds we found was the black-collared swallow, Atticora melanoleuca. This diminutive bird nests in crevices in river rocks, which would seem to put it at great risk in the face of fluctuating water levels. On the bright side, there's not much that's going to swim across a swift-flowing river and prey upon their eggs and young, especially far back in a narrow crevice. I should think it would cut down on the snake predation, especially. I like this picture because it shows the great big, deeply-forked tail--such a surprise on a bird that otherwise looks a lot like a bank swallow.
I decided to stage a shot of me reading Bird Watcher's Digest in the boat. This is a tradition with Bill and me, staging such shots, just to show that BWD goes around the world.Photo by Mike Weedon. See, Mike, I credit your photos.

That was so much fun, we staged another of me reading BWD in a bar on the Issequibo River. One night we wound up in a very funky, cool little bar within shouting distance of the lodge. There, we got pretty snookered on rum and vodka mixed with Orange Crush, because they were out of fruit juice. This is something that I would not even consider drinking at home, but it actually tasted sort of not too horrible in this little bar, because it was so cute and friendly there. They had a videotape playing on the television. First Anne Murray gave a concert, and then Kenny Rogers gave one. Then Anne Murray, then Kenny. Then Anne, Kenny, Anne...The tape was probably about thirty years old, and they probably know every single song by heart, but that's what they had. This is what I look like on vodka and Orange Crush.Photo by Kevin Loughlin

I wish you could see Kenny on the screen but you can't.

After that, we went out spotlighting wildlife, but we probably didn't see near as much as we could have because Weedon and I started talking about Cockney rhyming slang and other ridiculous things and we laughed too much. I took one picture of a large frog they call mountain chicken. Why you would call a frog "mountain chicken" I have no idea, because it lives in the river. Sadly, this is the only photo I took that night.

The next morning, our guides Ron and Asaph sat discussing something, probably what they ought to do about the loud, disruptive people in this press group. Asaph is recommending that they wad up a sock and then put a little duct tape on my mouth, and Ron just thinks they should cut me off on the vodka and Orange Crush.More adventures anon.

Iwokrama Lodge

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I guess I'd better set the stage here for some more adventures in Guyana. We'd reached our final destination: Iwokrama Lodge on the big, wild Issequibo River. What a cool place--completely oriented toward ecotourism and research, bird and animalcentric. You know you're in a good spot when there's a table full of skulls right in the dining room. lowland tapir (right) and brocket deer (Mazama sp.), left.Jaguar skull. Possessed of the most powerful crushing bite in the cat family, this is what sabretoothed tigers became, I wager. Jaguars are built like sumo wrestlers, built to bring down lowland tapirs.

Diagnostic Zick habitat.
I burst out laughing when I sank a spoon into my dinner and found it toothed. Just fish, but still. That was one bony stew. What is proper etiquette when one finds oneself being chewed by one's soup? Spitting it across the room is out, that much I know.

Another thing not for the faint-hearted: taking a beloved and highly essential laptop to a place with nearly 100 percent humidity and what felt like nearly 100 degrees all the time. You want to talk computer bugs? Yes, that's a roach, and I found it on our cabin porch, and it is just a whisker short of 3" long. Communal shudder. Easton Apple Store dudes, this is how it happened:

After its ordeal at Atta Canopy Tower camp, when it poured for a day and a night, my computer started spontaneously shutting down. And then, arggggh, it wouldn't start up, either. And there was Internet at Iwokrama, as there is nearly everywhere we went in the interior, and I wanted to talk to my husband and kids. I also wanted my data, and my next book manuscript, and 20K photos, and sundry things like that. I was wiggin'.

I went cabin to cabin interviewing all the sympathetic and helpful gearheads, who also happened to be Mac people (I told you there were great people on this trip!) and we reached the consensus that my laptop had drowned. I should try setting it out in the sun. It had worked for my portrait lens, which I drowned when I put it in a fanny pack with an unscrewed water bottle. Drowning appliances is one of my many fortes. I have drowned three, count 'em, three cordless telephone handsets. I watered one and washed two in the machine.

But back to the Mac. Now, setting something out in the Guyanan sun is tantamount to broiling it. So I decided to set it out for only a half hour and see if it would start then. After about five minutes, I peeked at it. Tiny red ants were POURING out of the keyboard, running in crazy zigzags across the white-hot titanium. And each one had a cookie crumb in its jaws. That had to be a good thing. People go to spas to stick their feet in fishtanks and let little fish eat the dead skin off their feet. I thought this might be something similar. The pharoah ant treatment for your laptop.

Lo and behold, after its time on the tanning bed, it started. I've never been so happy to hear the annoying DAAAHHH! it makes when I wake it up. (Why can't it peep or twitter instead?) But I had to set it out in the sun every time I wanted to boot it up. That couldn't be a good thing. I am happy to report that my Fed-ex guy came up the sidewalk today with a laptop-shaped box, and the people at Apple had done something to the logic board, fixed the fan, and fixed the disc drive, too, and we are cookin' now, and she's not shutting down no mo'. And I am real, real glad I bought AppleCare. Real glad. Even though it expires in September. By then, MacIntosh is betting I'll have to have the new AirBook with a green battery that lasts eight hours. Too bad I'll have even less than no money by then.

Too bad I couldn't bring my REAL, 3" long computer bug back home.

ZICK ALERT: I will speak and sign books tomorrow, 6:30-8 pm. at Miami Middletown Downtown, 4 North Main St. Middletown, OH, as part of Miami University Middletown’s public lecture series. Contact email:; phone (513) 727-3248 (Dr. Eric Melbye). For more ZICK ALERTS, see my website's Meet Julie page.

Jabiru Nest!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Once again, a ceiba tree was host to a forest king. This time, it was not a harpy, but a jabiru pair, nesting along the Rupununi River. It takes a heck of a tree to hold up a jabiru nest.This nest is probably bigger than the antique oak flat file that takes up the entire center of my studio. Those birds are five feet tall, as tall as people. It's hard to convey how huge the whole affair was, tree, birds, nest and all.

And how rare is the opportunity to look into a jabiru nest.
We were to see not one but two different jabiru homes. In the second, a little jabiru princeling.
Ceibas are good trees, are they not? What treasures these forest giants hold. No wonder they're sacred all across their range. From tribe to indigenous tribe, everyone respects the ceiba.

I feel pretty certain that I'll never have a better look or photographic opportunity with jabirus than I got in Guyana.
The jabiru soaring overhead reminded me of DaVinci's flying machine, a man hanging from the great jointed wings.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, spring is on hold. It has to rain, it just has to. Dust curls up off the road and the spring peepers are silenced. There are no wood frogs, no mountain chorus frogs, no salamanders. Even the bluebirds, always eager to nest, are holding back. I can't remember a spring like this. When?


Monday, March 23, 2009


Jabiru! Just the name sends a thrill through any aspiring Neotropical birdwatcher. Though they occasionally show up in Texas as vagrants, you really have to be in the tropics to see this magnificent stork.

The jabiru eats fish, crustaceans, mammals, reptiles, amphibians: whatever it can subdue with its enormous, slightly uptilted bill. That's probably most of the animals it encounters, because this thing is BIG. It is the tallest bird in the Americas, standing nearly five feet, tipping the scales at almost 17 pounds, looking me right in the eye. And I can tell you I would not want a jabiru to look me in the eye at close range. Herons and storks have a disconcerting way of aiming for the eyes of people who tick them off. So I will have no hair-raising tales of patting the jabiru.

I'd only ever had distant and pretty crummy looks at jabirus in Costa Rica. To come to a place where they were reasonably common and easy to see was a great thrill. Guyana thrilled me in so many ways.

Flying jabirus are distinctive mainly by their absolute hugeosity. Not only that, but their plumage is completely white--no black primaries here. Their feathers must be enormously strong, both to hold their weight and to resist wear without the aid of melanin, the dark pigment that strengthens the wingtips of most white-winged birds.

In flight, jabirus appear very neck-heavy. Its name is a Tupi Indian word meaning "swollen neck." Yeah.Most of the birds that we saw were circling in pairs or even quads, and we witnessed a few really strange neck-throwing displays in flight, where the bird would toss its head over its back, flashing a big red patch at the base. I wish I had a picture of the bird with the head thrown up, but it happened really fast.The display looked aggressive in nature to me, but one never knows. It could just as easily have been a breeding display. I noticed that the base of the neck varied in color; most birds that have such skin coloring are able to deepen the hue by allowing blood to rush to the part. Think turkey heads, which can go from blue to blood-red to snow-white in a few seconds. Whether this is something that is under voluntary control I don't know; it's more likely related to how excited the bird happens to be.

Oh, gosh I love jabirus, and I had a hard time picking my favorite photos. When I am focused on a circling jabiru, I'm very happy that my camera, set on Auto, knows what to do to bring out the detail against a bright sky. Tomorrow, a jabiru nest!

A Jungle School

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The second Guyanan school we visited, Aranaputa School, sits right next to the peanut factory that makes Rupununi Golden Peanut Butter. Here we met a local celebrity—the little Amerindian girl whose picture graces its label. These children have an innate dignity and self-possessed presence that is remarkable. She wasn't about to get all giddy about it. She just put up with us and our cameras. I wished she'd had the macaw feather headdress on for the peanut butter label shot.
For this visit, the kids were outfitted in what I guess is an approximation of indigenous wear, though we never went deep enough into the interior to find anyone dressed like this, if anyone still is. I'm thinking the Guess T-shirt has probably infiltrated just about everywhere.
I can’t quite imagine Liam and Phoebe being willing or eager to don what amounts to swim gear and dance and sing before an audience of people from overseas. But these kids launched in without a hint of self-deprecation, irony or embarrassment. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
Scarlet and blue and yellow macaw feathers bristled from their headdresses.
I'd been kid-starved for long enough that I wanted to just grab me one and get some kid hugs.
Mike Weedon was missing his little ones, too, so he started some arm wrestling bouts with the kids behind him.
Kevin Loughlin pulled out an eminently portable musical instrument--his hands--and played a few squirky little tunes, filling the open-air school with the music of laughter.
He's especially good on Sousa marches, which lend themselves well to the fruity sounds made by sweaty palms. Yeah! Hearty laughter from all the kids. Way to go, Kevin!

After the concert, we wandered through the school buildings. There were no smartboards here--the big computer screens that enhance my kids' schoolrooms in rural Ohio. There was no electricity.
And yet I entertained the thought that, with a powerline, the Internet and some monitors, the whole wide world could be opened up to these children, too. I thought about them looking up at a smartboard and seeing the same things Liam sees at at his little country elementary school in Ohio.

For now, it's little wooden desks, mildewed, curled up books, and animal skulls on a table. And some loving and capable teachers doing their best with what they've got.
From left, back row, there's a lowland tapir (look at that sagittal crest!); a couple of javelinas -wild pigs- (I think); a capybara (world's largest rodent--see the huge incisors?); a round manatee cranium and a possible manatee jaw. Front row: a water turtle, two dogs, an unnamed rodent (probably an agouti); a mystery jawbone, and a monkey, species undetermined. Boneman, feel free to kick in with alternate ID's.

It's a beautiful spring day here, and I'm writing a column for Bird Watcher's Digest that's due tomorrow. Like so many of my published pieces, it was sparked by a thought first aired--and responded to--on this blog. The kernel: Why don't we ask more of our children? Given a choice, they'll stay on the couch. We must lead the way into the woods. If we don't, we can't complain that they're just not interested in nature.

I'm thankful for you, the readers who give me feedback and help me think.

When it's done, I'm going to make a place for the peas and lettuce in the garden--the reward for sitting still long enough to write the piece. At least that's the plan. Given a choice, I go to the garden! I guess that's what deadlines are for.
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