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Baby Bird Time

Sunday, June 30, 2013


I'm blogging from our hotel in Albany, New York. We're on a college-viewing swing through New England, on our way to teach The Arts of Birding at Hog Island Audubon Camp (not very far) off Maine's coast. On the schedule for today: Bennington College. No matter that Bennington's the country's most expensive college. An artist and editor's daughter can still dream. 

It's hard to be away in June, and I've been away from home since June 10, when I flew out to North Dakota.

I had a trailer behind me. Before I could leave, I had to drop off three baby birds. The first, a newly fledged downy woodpecker I found in our shrubbery. It appeared to have a spinal injury, showing bruising over the back right pelvis. It couldn't use its legs and could barely use its wings. I can't imagine how it ended up that way. There were no puncture wounds. Perhaps its nest tree collapsed? I don't know.

I just knew that I couldn't leave it there flopping on the ground. So I mixed up some Purina One Kitten Chow, ground in a coffee grinder, added warm water and syringe-fed it full. 

Next was a baby robin that a woman had found a week earlier. She called me about it. After I talked with her awhile, I could sense that she had the right stuff and the desire to take care of it. I didn't have time to mess with it, so I told her how to feed it until I could take it. Which was just as I fed the downy. 

She did a marvelous job. Just look at it! She'd never fed a baby bird before. She loved it. Said it had been the best week of her life. I felt sorry that she couldn't finish raising it, but she wasn't permitted to do so, and lived in an apartment complex full of cats which would be a bad place to try to soft-release a robin. 

It was easy to tell that robin had had plenty of love. As well as plenty of kitten chow. FAT.

It sat on my shoulder like a friendly parakeet. It was time to get this bird with other robins, in a big net flight enclosure where it could learn to be a robin instead of a parakeet.

 How I wished I could do that myself, but I had to go. So I took it in and fed it up, too, and prepared a carrier for it. That's two. But there was a third call, another one I couldn't say no to. I don't care how busy you get as a rehabber, there are just some birds you can't turn away. To be continued...

So we're dealing with a paralyzed downy woodpecker and a very sweet fledgling robin. Last but not least, I got a call on the phone the day before my departure. Someone had found a tiny owl on the ground in the woods behind Tractor Supply and brought it, of all places, to the local We Love Pets. Christy the manager has my number. I asked her to send me a cellphone photo of the bird, just to be sure what we were dealing with. 

Yep. Babeh eastern screech-owl. OMG, squeeee! Literally the size of a navel orange, with a creaky little voice that stole my heart. Reeek. Reeeek. 

More anon...

Heading Home in Flat Light

Thursday, June 27, 2013


We move on. The light has changed, flattened as the sun has gone behind a layer of clouds. It reveals the landscape without shadows. Flat light can be the best for flower photography, for many things. I love it for bird photography. No dark branch shadows bisecting my tanager, thank you.

The mist that decorated the holler earlier is gone now.

As are the mackerel clouds of morning. I'll go back this way. The roof of the Toothless Lady peeks out over the hay.

 There she is, a cup plant (Silphium) standing guard, showing its lovely perfoliate leaves and bud a-coming.

In the flat light, her ravaged form shows up even better, set off by the smoky blues of breathing plants. I'm told that the blue of distant hills is caused by the haze of hydrocarbons,  byproducts of photosynthesis.

Artists call the blueing out of far horizons "atmospheric perspective." Things get bluer as you go farther away. I remember my painter friend Jim Coe, who has actually had schooling in painting, complimenting me on a landscape. "You're organizing your greens very well." I still love that, though I had to ask him what he meant at the time. He meant that I was dulling out my greens appropriately as they moved from the foreground to the back.

Flat light reveals the Toothless Lady's contents, amongst them a Barcolounger and a galvanized washtub. 

It's time to go home, in flat light, over these rumpled hills.

Field daisies, red clover, and crown vetch. Not a one of them native, but lovely nonetheless, especially in this light, at this hour. Black dot on curve: leading the way.

Photography Tip: Get Down!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Back behind the barn, an old tree supports new barbed wire. I know without even looking for the bark that it’s a sassafras. We’ve got a lot of sassies in our woods. They are beloved by pileated woodpeckers for their tendency to go hollow, which was my first tip as to its identity. 

And in those hollow cores invariably dwell carpenter ants, the backbone of the big woodpecker’s diet. In life, they bear navy-blue drupes which feed bluebirds, thrushes, woodpeckers, cardinals, waxwings and doubtless many others. Their mitten-shaped leaves are highly aromatic, smelling of Big Buddy bubble gum when first crushed, segueing into a sweet spicy scent that finally collapses into fresh-cut grass. Their roots, boiled, make a lovely light root beer. I’m not sure the wood is good for much other than woodpeckers, but already the tree has many charms to recommend it.

I know that he has been here recently, the landowner, because of how fresh the cut vegetation still is. And here are the tracks of his tires in the mud.

 Yes, he was here only yesterday afternoon. I suppose one day I’ll run into him. Will I turn away before he sees me? Will I step into the white pines and study him for awhile before deciding? Will I tell him how much this old place means to me? Probably. I think we need to tell people we appreciate them. Places, too.


Here’s the welljack for the oil and gas well that once supplied the house with heat and the means to cook. Somebody’s planted crown vetch to cover the scars of the bulldozer that cleared the patch. Nasty plant, crown vetch, but oilguys don’t know or appreciate that. And the Soil Conservation Service is still giving it out to landowners as a quick groundcover. Duh. As a species, we are very slow learners.

Chet and I have enjoyed the farm, and we turn for home as the air begins to warm up. He pauses in the road to sniff a bunch of nascent chicory and I drop down low to capture the road running off over his bat ears. Mmmm. 

The phrase coined by a photographer unknown to me, and gleaned from someone else’s comment on a photo, comes to mind: “Don’t patronize your subject.” So many photos are taken from five feet up. Most people photograph their dogs looking straight down on them, so you get a huge head and a tiny body and no idea what the dog actually looks like. And no sense of how he sees his world. I get down with Chet and try to see him as another dog would see him, and see his world as he does, and he takes on a kind of majesty that is his rightful due.

 The same goes for flowers. A bug’s eye view is ever so much more satisfying, and it has the added bonus of giving you a slice of habitat and sky that really places the plant in space.

So get down on your knees, people, put your cameras on the ground and see how that changes everything.

Dog in a Barn

Sunday, June 23, 2013


The interior. Oh my gosh. As lovely as it was in winter (above), it’s killing me in summer. Cowpies of indeterminate age spackle the floor.  I find a little liniment bottle tucked into a corner, tucked the way you would keep a bottle you don’t want to throw out. 

 Chet thinks there have been mice there, and he stands for a long time, huffing the mysterious scents. 

Surely something brought the moss and sticks here.  I look at this muscular little dog and admire his thighs for perhaps the thousandth time. 

Note the marks on these hand-hewn sandstone blocks. Here in Ohio, we take such blocks for granted, most of the time not thinking about the epic struggle of making them with hand tools. 

I love his thighs. I can’t imagine owning a dog so furry you couldn’t see the delineation of every muscle, run your hands over that warm sculpture. I never tire of watching him trot just in front of me, watching those legs clicking off the miles like clockwork.

The mystery windows, black frames around summer's springing lushness. A coil of poison ivy, like a hangman's loop, furry and creepy. 

We go out to gaze at the siding and I grin again at the traces of someone long ago, trying to stop the vines. Well, good luck with that. New recruits on the way! Go ahead and chop us. We’ll make more.

A pitched battle against massive poison ivy vines appears to have ended in victory for the farmer. Chopping with an axe, he stopped them cold. The vine leaves bas-relief graffiti that nobody dares touch, even decades later.

 I wonder about poison ivy, a lot. Why? Why should this plant be so heavily armed? What’s it got to protect? Are its leaves delicious? Its fruit? I’ll never know. Twice in my life I’ve had a whole-body case, and I never want that again. The last time I had an outbreak, I popped tiny homeopathic pills all day long for several days, and it simply went away without ever blistering . I also have two bars of Fels Naptha soap in waiting. It smells amazing, and is said to quell the itching. I’d love never to find out. 

I'm glad there is someone beating back the darker forces of Nature, keeping this farmstead alive.

He Mows Around the Ferns

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Mowed for no one, this farmstead, and yet there’s an aesthetic working, one I appreciate. The owner, I understand, is a well-known former basketball coach for a local high school. He keeps the place nice. I look at the traces of his presence all around.

He lets the elderberry bloom around one old outbuilding. For the birds? For wine?

 I don’t know, but I’m grateful for the lacy spray of buds that will mature to flowers, then to red-purple fruits that birds love.

There hang the Concord grapes I’ll eat come late fall. They saved me last September when I was thirsty and tired. So sweet, ichor to a runner miles from home. They and the well with its water tasting faintly of iron got me home again. I cleaned the grapes up, unashamed. Nobody else was using them. A possum might object, however.

We move on to the big barn, the one I photographed in a March snowstorm. He’s left clumps of ferns at the front, and I smile at the aesthetic operating; that, unlike some country folk on a mission to clean, he spares these lovely plants as he whacks his way around the building’s perimeter.


I smile again at the hulk of a door, twisted and collapsed, that serves no useful purpose, but is somehow allowed to hang in space from its tired hinges. It’s part of the landscape now, and he cleans up around it and leaves it be.

A golden-backed snipefly rests on a blue spruce. What a lovely fly. There have been many this spring, most of them mating, little F-16 bombers making more bombers.


I can’t wait to see the barn interior in summer light. It does not disappoint. I’m fascinated by the lush glimpses of the outdoors I get through its jagged broken siding. 

I can ask the iPhone to focus on the trees outside, just by touching the screen on the area of interest. Try that with any other automatic camera. That feature alone makes it an indispensible companion on my runs. No. Don’t focus on the grass. The bug. I want the bug. Or the newt, or the toad, the mushroom, the blossom. I find myself vainly poking at the screen on my point-and-shoot Canon G-12, wishing it would serve my needs as well as my little phone does.

In a comment on my last post, Donna said that famed photographer Annie Liebowitz, when asked what kind of camera to buy, replies, "iPhone." Yeah. Its major virtue? Being with you all the time.

This blog is brought to you by an intense mix of old-fashioned romanticism and modern technology, applied in a thin layer over Nature herself.

For No One

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


 Earlier, I used the pronoun “who” in referring to old barns. These buildings are alive to me. The Toothless Lady waits, late for the sky.

 She didn’t burn down when the farmhouse did; she’s still standing on the hillside with only a singlewide for company now. She kills me, she with her sky window and her great gaping mouth, the piles of household junk that populate her once-useful interior. I hope I don’t see the day she falls in. But fall she will, and I must treasure her while she’s with us.

We come to the farmstead, which has been mowed just yesterday. I’m always a little abashed that this “abandoned” farmstead is often better kept than our lived-in yard. I’m glad the owner still does all that, grateful. And yet as I walk the paths with Chet, Paul McCartney’s voice begins to sing “For No One” in my head. A day later, he’s still there.

I’ve never been here when the peonies are blooming. Ohhhhh. The landowner mows around this peony, as she bows her head in sorrow at the state of her friend House. Coiffed in vines, squirrels running through.


The roof of the wellhouse fell in this winter in a storm when a branch landed on it. I could still get a drink of water, but it'd take some work and clearing away. I've no doubt that thirst will be a strong motivator on hot summer days. I'll get it cleaned up, and let him wonder who did it.

An old hydrangea, doubtless once a stunning blue, hugs the siding. 

Anybody home? Apparently not.

This is my road, my place on the earth. One of them, anyway. There are many places I love, but the ones I can get to on foot are dearest to me.

Speaking of dear to me...that little black dot up ahead, trotting into the mackerel sky. That's dear.

For DOD on his birthday, June 18, 1912. Imagine. 

Running on Sunday

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It is a most inviting road, hills and all. I really love running it early on Sunday mornings. On this morning, no cars pass us at all. We're all done by the time church traffic starts up.

We run past the pond where Fergus the bird-eating bullfrog met his personal grim reaper, a great blue heron.  
Field daisies are making constellations, Milky Ways of flowers.
I do love the tonsured look of this hill, half hayfield and half pine plantation.
Cattle turn to stare. 

The hay is high, and needs cut. Yes, that’s what they say around here. I’m starting to like it, that dropped infinitive. Very occasionally one will even issue from my lips. I already use “holler” for “hollow” and “run” for “creek” and don’t even think about it. The place is leaving its stamp on me.

Liam waits for me at the corner, stretching his long boylegs to pass the time. My boys have no trouble outdistancing me.
 He turns back, and I go on toward my abandoned farmstead, my musing place, to the barns who are my muses.

The big sky on this route thrills me every time.

 Chet and I continue on up the steep hill to the next farmstead. I see the same red maple branch I photographed last September, as its leaves were just blazing to orange. Oh. Hold that thought. I love autumn most of all, but this spring, ohh this spring. Let me live every day of it, seeing and smelling it all.

So says Chet Baker. He smells the meadow, the trails of the voles and rabbits.

Something about the way my iPhone camera handles landscapes lends a surreal edge. Planned or not, I'll take it. And I now understand why Tim Ryan shoots and shoots with the camera I had the audacity to make fun of. It's a camera, all right, and perhaps its greatest virtue is that it's always with you.

Making these images helps me appreciate the beauty all around. Capturing them and sharing them somehow lends a grandeur to the landscape that I am never tempted to take for granted. It's good.
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