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Chet Baker Won't Go!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Here's a little slice of life with Chet Baker. I love this video because it shows so many classic and sly dog avoidance behaviors. A little background first.  Chet Baker loves to run, more than almost anything. But truth be told, he really only wants to run with me. I'm his Alpha female, and whatever I'm doing is exactly what he wants to do. I wish he'd go willingly with others, but he seems to consider that cheating on me. When I'm traveling, Phoebe can very occasionally get him to run with her, but she has to trick him. She tells him we're going to go find me. And the little man gets desperate enough to believe her. Awww. And he'll do a whole run with her, but she has to watch him as they pass the end of our driveway or he will turn in and go back to check the house just one more time, to see if I've magically appeared. And there he'll stay, waiting, watching the driveway. Chet. Really. It's OK to run with other people.

So we all know that when she asks him if he wants to go for a run with her, he's going to demur. I had my iPhone ready to catch that. Watch what happens in this video.


First, he enlists my help. Please don't let her do this, Mether. You know I can't leave you. Something might happen to you. Sorry, Bacon. I'm making a video of you, can't help you now.

Then, when carried outside and called to join Phoebe and Liam, he pretends he's seen something around on the other side of the house. Pretending is a fairly sophisticated means of deception, but it's used by all kinds of animals, from great apes to birds. Jays and magpies will pretend to bury something edible when they know they're being watched, then "palm" the item and quietly hide it elsewhere. Piping plovers and kildeer, among others, do an amazing "false brooding" behavior that's fooled me many times--settling down onto empty sand just as if they had eggs or chicks beneath them. You go to investigate, and the bird runs off, leaving an empty depression, no eggs, no chicks.

  So Chet dashes off around the corner as if there's a deer to be chased. He comes back, knowing the ruse didn't work, but decides to try it again in another direction, pretending to study something out in the meadow. Oh look. A deer or something. Will ya look at that?

Finally Phoebe tells him that they'll go look for Mether, the trick she uses when I'm traveling. This is a suggestion he clearly finds flat-out ridiculous, and he turns on his heels and trots decisively right back to me. His brisk pace, laid-back ears and head angle say it all. Can you believe this girl? You're right HERE. Stick a fork in me, I'm done.

 We're all chuckling at this point, Chet too, as he settles down to sit on the porch and watch them leave without him.

He ain't sorry. He's already done his run today. Long as Mether's with him his world is right. Is it any wonder we love our dogs so? You can fail completely at any number of human endeavors, but still be your dog's whole world. Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am. 

Horses, Corn Shocks and Marmalade Skies

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Sunset light is magical. All the better when you have magical subject matter, bathed in surreal light.  A chestnut horse, blissfully unaware that the forest behind her is going up in flames. That the flame is licking along her legs and belly, lighting her mane.

Farther along, a little group of horses catches the spirit of the moment. A black filly canters up to them, setting them all off in a flurry of pounding hooves.

As my blogger/artist friend Erin says, pretty horses bring out the seven-year-old girl in me. I cannot get enough of them, especially in motion. I live in a rather depressed area, and riding horses are a luxury that is becoming rare. Nobody can afford to feed them, shoe them, vet them. Especially since they wind up being animated pasture furniture 99% of the time. They don't really have a job or a purpose where I come from. Everybody's so busy that only a lucky few seem to get ridden at all. 

These, on the other hand, are Amish country working horses. They may pull a buggy, a wagon or a plough for much of every day. And when they get turned out in the pasture to hang with their friends, they're genuinely happy. Released. 

I have a hard time picking my favorite shot of the day, but it may be this enormous draft horse putting on a little speed. She's on fire in the late sun, her proud blue shadow high-stepping right alongside her. But for the halter and the fencepost, she could have come off a cave wall. My heart fills up and overflows with her solid beauty. This world is such a wonderful place.

We can drive two hours and come to a place where nobody uses electricity because nobody needs it. Where, if the power went off, nobody would notice. Where nobody stares into screens, but into sunsets and fires. Where bedtime is when it gets dark and work starts when it gets light. 
You blow out the flame, close the hardcover book, and sleep.

Where your transportation is alive and breathing, gets thirsty and hungry, is subject to moods, and whickers to you when you come out of the grocery store. 

Where top speed is around 10 mph.

I can romanticize it all I want, because I really have no idea what life is like in Amish country. I can guess, but I can't know. I'm of another time and place. I might as well have stepped out of The Jetsons' cartoon, with all my timesaving gadgets and my car, which might as well be a spaceship that can transport me hundreds of miles with no effort at all. Living like this, I'd miss the ability to take photos, to share them and reach out to so many. I'd miss the people I'm in contact with. I'd certainly have a lot fewer people in my life, but I'd know what their voices sound like, the color of their eyes, their particular scent.

I'm grateful for the standing stubble, for the spilled grain that draws bunting and lark, for the sun's last fire on antique cornshocks. I'm grateful for the mice rustling within, that draw the harrier, the hawk, the great white ice owl, which in turn draws me here.

Whether I see it or not. 

 I still have these horses, these cornshocks, this snow and these skies. I still have this light.

Amish Country Sunset

Sunday, January 26, 2014


So we're tooling along Kansas Road near Kidron, Ohio, looking for snowy owls in a desultory sort of way, and the sunset is settling in and getting moreso. A pair of rough-legged hawks fusses and tumbles, silhouetted. One is a dark morph, the other, who can tell? We decide to be satisfied.

Sunlight is coming through windows in the outbuildings. Phoebe points it out and Shila and I swing our lenses toward it.

Phoebe says she wants a jigsaw puzzle made of our photos. It sounds like a good idea to me.

It all just makes me want to paint, this light and the way it hits the buildings. It's nice to think that I could do it if I wanted to, just become a painter of barns and horses and landscapes. But I like what I'm doing now, writing and painting and traveling around giving talks, too much to stop. I have a burst of gratefulness that still lingers. I wish I had more time to tool around looking for beautiful things in places I've never been. And then the time to make watercolors of them.  

This farmer sells eggs and potatoes from the house. The signs out front say so. I think those are raspberries neatly trained on stakes. If raspberries can ever be neat, these are. 

The sun is smacking the west side of the farmhouse, gilding it. The snow's gone rose-pink. It is so cold outside, but the colors are so warm and inviting. We get out of the car just long enough to ooh, ahh, click and retreat. This farm has such beautiful trees, too.

And on the lee side, some ravishing Belgians. One moves over for a little comfort from the two-toned mare as the light goes pink and dies behind them. 

We hurry on, rolling over snow-covered roads in the trusty Subaru, chasing the last light. We had planned to go to The Wilds, a reclaimed strip mine about another hour southeast, planned to go see a golden eagle and some short-eared owls, but the light has wrapped itself around us and held us here for the sunset. 

Sometimes the best part of a day can be the moment when you scrap your plans and realize that being in this moment, in the light of this hour, is the best plan of all.

An Owl Called Godot

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My first trip to Amish country Ohio to see a snowy owl being such a roaring, two-owl success, I was all het up to repeat the performance. This time, I'd have victims. I'd take Shila and the kids, and arrange to meet my new friends Kara and Amanda, and they'd bring some family along, and we'd all feast our eyes on snowy owls through my scope and loaner binoculars. I was so excited I couldn't sleep much the night before. I had a big basket of binoculars, my scope, cheese and crackers and fruit and dates and nuts and energy bars, nary a cheezy pouf to be found. 

Realized too late that Lehman's Hardware and all but a couple of restaurants would be closed on the Sabbath, many being Amish-run. I said some not-very-Sabbathy words when that realization hit me. But Sunday looked best for weather, at least from a few days out, so Sunday it would be.

Well, it turned out that Sunday would top out partly sunny, in the lower 20's, with sustained winds of 20-30 mph. And we found out that snowy owls don't like to be out and about in high winds. I don't know what they do in high winds. From what we witnessed, I'm pretty sure they lie down on their white bellies in a furrow between the white rows of snow in the cornfield, close their eyes, and go to sleep.

We took the whole day. We looked and looked without success. We barely saw any birds at all. Well, there were some distant blizzards of horned larks, mixed with snow buntings, and a couple of distant rough-legged hawks, and two male harriers powering by low over the stubble. We drove back and forth down dirt roads, sightseeing but not seeing a lot else. So we met Dave at the small regional airport he manages, hoping against hope that his owl had shown up. He'd brought his Sheltie pup, Lexie, with him. I think he wanted us to meet her, and maybe make a little fuss over her.

Lexie is kind of like a fox in dog's clothing. She is extremely bright, very vocal, and she questions everything that happens. This is not a complacent animal. This is a dog who is engaged with every cell.

We all fell in love, right away.

Shila worked some of her calming magic on Lexie by doodling with her ears. When Shila doodles with  my ears in a session, I make this face too. 

Because there was no owl at the airport, nor was it likely there would be an owl at the airport, I repaired to the Pilot's Lounge, a dark, quiet room where tired pilots go to recharge, to try the Barcolounger. It is a good thing we don't have one at home. My skellington would probably be found in it in early spring, after a long search.

We finally figured out that what Lexie wanted all along was for Phoebe to carry her around. She stopped barking and got as limp as a noodle. Phoebe would have gladly carried that dog out, and home, but I think Dave would have stopped her. 

All the way home, a quiet voice from the back seat would pipe up. "I want a puppy."

You has a puppeh. The Oldest Puppy in the World.

The sun got lower and lower in the sky and my photographer's alarm went off. LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT it shrieked. So we said our goodbyes to our friends at the airport and Dave promised to call us when the owl finally showed up.

We went out to find ourselves an Amish country sunset. 

And oh, did we.

The sky cleared off and the sun turned gold and the snow turned pinky lilac.
We raced back to the road with the best draft horses and the windmills and farmhouses.

What we found is worth a whole 'nother post. Because the beauty might disable you if I unleashed it all here. We realized that we were here not to see an owl, but for whatever the land and sky would give us. A snowy owl would have been a bonus.

Dave called my cell about 9 the very next morning. "Guess who's sitting out at the end of the runway."

"AUUGGGHH!! I hate you. Get outta here."

Much laughter. Birding. It can be that way. We'll be back,  like Ahnold, on a weekday with calm winds when we can have our owl and Lehman's Hardware too.

Sharing a Snowy Owl

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


I left Lehman's Hardware, many pounds of popcorn richer, and went back to check on the distant owl in the cornfield. Yep, still hunkered down there, well out of camera range. Oh well. A huge flock of horned larks lisped over. I looked up, and an exquisite rough-legged hawk hove into view.

Against all odds, it came and circled over to check me out. Maybe it thought I had a mouse in my pocket. Maybe it felt sorry for me, not getting photos of the Kidron Road Owl. Maybe it had never seen somebody grin that big.

Oh, people look above you...
It's there your hope must lie
There's a (big) bird above you, gliding in one place
Like Jesus in the sky... 

(Jackson Browne, "Rock Me On the Water")

Rough-legs take my breath away and don't give it back for a long time. 

Oh thank you, Hawk, thank you.

 When the hawk flew out of sight, I headed for a small regional airport where a snowy owl had been hanging out for several weeks. I was excited at the possibility that I'd be close enough to focus my trusty 70-300 mm Canon lens on the bird. I didn't know that I'd make a bunch of new friends in the process. 

I pulled up next to the all-purpose gate/office/hangar/machine shop/pilot lounge building and began scanning the runway from my car. A gentleman came out and looked in all directions across the runway and surrounding fields. 

I had a hunch he'd know all about the owl. So I asked him if he knew where the big white bird might be. 

"Well, it likes to hang out on the watch shop, and that white aviation building, and the second telephone pole down toward the farm, and toward evening it generally sits on the green oil tank back there."

I knew I'd found The Man. David is Airport Manager here, and he'd been watching the owl for five weeks. Not, I'd add, with a spotting scope. He's borrowing mine here.

This man has 39,000 hours in the cockpit. He had that raptorial gaze, that far-off pilot look in his eyes.  I could not even imagine flying that much, that far. I wondered what all he's seen and done. I wanted to ask him a million questions, just listen to him talk, but he is a man of few words. I don't think I've done anything for 39,000 hours in my life, unless it's lollygagging.

I indulged my fascination for flying machines, peeking into the spotless hangar. Ohhhh. David was very relaxed about my dancing all over the tarmac and peeking in there.

A Piper came in, and he walked out to meet it, carrying some home-made chocks for its wheels. I liked this little airport.

  I found this air ambulance so beautiful, and longed to go up in it, but not because I had to...

It wasn't long before another small plane came sailing in, and this one spooked the owl from its hidden resting place behind a rise! I saw its great white sails cleaving the air and got very excited. I swung my scope onto the bird, took it in, and shared the magnificent sight right away with David. It was sitting on a runway light, too far away to photograph, but thrillingly close through the scope.

Word spread through the complex and pilots, mechanics and line personnel appeared like magic to see the wondrous sight, brought close by the scope.

Jennifer showed up with her two sons, one 12, one newly in college. None of the three had ever seen a snowy owl, but they'd heard it might be here. I was delighted to put their spotting scope on the bird.

Everyone was smiling. I felt like there might be sparks flying off my hair and fingertips, I was so happy that everyone was getting to see it. Just to be in the presence of someone seeing a life bird is such an honor. But a snowy owl?! Words fail me. All I could do was smile.

The little planes came and went. I didn't know they wheel them out of the hangar and hand-roll them out on the tarmac. Oh, I want to fly, too. 

 The ceiling lowered and snowflakes began drifting down. It would be dark all too soon. The owl had flown off. It was time for me to leave, though I didn't want to. David pointed to a big white pole barn, suggesting that the owl might be perching there. I drove over and soon discerned a giant white blob just a settin' on a floodlight. Ohhhh! I pulled into the parking lot at a respectful distance, for this owl is skittish and I could tell that David didn't like to see it flushed by people trying to get closer. I wasn't going to be that boob. So I lay across the seat, rolled down the window, and waited for it to look my way.


O marvelous white ghost of the Arctic, thank you for coming down here to visit us. May you find many voles and rabbits, may you return to your birthplace healthy and fat, to find a mate and make more giant ice owls. 

As I ogled and shot, waiting for increasingly long periods for the owl to deign to look my way, I heard the whisper of tires behind me. Looked out to see two young women with excited smiles on their faces. Rolled down the window. 
"What are you looking at?"

I couldn't believe they didn't see the owl up there, but they didn't have binoculars. So I pulled alongside their car and handed them mine.

Their suppressed squeals of delight made a fabulous day perfect.

Kara and Amanda work for Stark County Parks District.
They were the best. So excited. Wanted to bring their whole office here to see this wonder from the North. I said DO IT. 

Thing is, I wanted to be there, handing out loaner binoculars like candy, setting up the scope...An owl this magnificent must be seen well. 

I got their business cards and gave them mine. We decided to make a date soon.

I drove home down old Highway 250, looking at the corn shocks in the gloaming, thinking about this cool, parallel other world I'd been in all day. A place where horses still whicker softly to their people when they finally come out of the grocery store

which is stacked with row upon row of beautiful fresh spices and herbs and more popcorn and yes I bought some...

A place where the world's most awe-inspiring owls have come to spend the winter, making birdwatchers of everyone who falls under their spell. 

And for someone who's been birding since she was eight, magically making it all fresh and new again.

Amish Country Owl Safari!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Working hard to bring you Bird Watcher's Digest doesn't leave a whole lot of room for the staff to play. 
But in an epic snowy owl invasion year, how could we not make a try for the nearest bird?
Which happens to be in Amish Country, just two hours northwest of us in Ohio.

Bill threw together the company van and Marcy (Mrs. Tools) brought her big Suburban, and I trailed behind in my Subaru for reasons of my own. Mostly because I knew I wouldn't be able to leave a snowy owl and return to Marietta by 2 pm, nuh-uhh. 

We looked for a bird near the intersection of Kidron Rd. and Route 250. Dipped out for the better part of an hour. And then Bill spotted it atop a silo, of all places, where it looked like a blinding white decoy. The bird spooked when we pulled over, and sailed right past our vehicles, the sunlight coming through its great white wings. 

It landed in a cornfield and there it sat, turning its head occasionally, for at least the next four hours. Kyle phonescoped this image. What a thrill to see! Six of our party had never seen a snowy owl before, so there was a lot of celebrating to do. There's Marcy at far left, Steve with the Fudd hat, Carol, obscured, Ann with the green gloves, our new Managing Editor Dawn with the red coat and matching shoes (!), Kyle just right of her, Melody, a guy from Indiana, and me, with my giant brown hands. Function first, fashion, dead last.

We repaired to the Country Crossroads for lunch, parking alongside the transportation standard in the area. 

I'm glad Amish horses don't mind having their photos taken.

Perusing the menu, many of us regretted coming on a Thursday.

There would be no noodles, home fries or Manager's Favorites. That's OK. That Manager's Favorite sounds kiiinda heavy. The waitress explained that they don't have much room in the kitchen on Thursdays because that's when something or other gets delivered. Sorry. I'm foggy on the details. I love idiosyncratic menus and hidden basement cafes. I heard Low German being spoken among the regulars, more than half of whom were Amish. It was like walking into another world. 

We all got admirably fed anyhoo. Blackberry pie, mmmm.
I was teleported right back to the cafes of North Dakota.

After lunch, the staff returned to Marietta, as it was production week for the magazine. My adventure was just beginning. I continued less than a mile farther down Kidron Rd. to Lehman's Hardware, dodging buggy teams all the way.

This place, this place. Woodstove and cookstove showroom. Propane refrigerators, too.

Cookie cutters, organized by genus.

Just the ladles made me dizzy. This is a place for people who still cook. A lot.

I went a little nuts in the popcorn section. To see all the red, blue, purple, yellow and rainbow popcorns all laid out and labeled...I succumbed. And picked up some nifty kale and lettuce seeds and my favorite Kirk's Castile Soap and strike-anywhere box matches while I was at it. I could easily live at Lehman's Hardware. It's my kinda stuff.

My day was to get even better from there...

Healing Heart

Thursday, January 16, 2014


I saw a tree today
which had cast out
its own rotten heart.
But for honeysuckle hanging fast
the tree’s whole core would fall.
I could see the tree would go on
already growing healthy bark
and rolling it over the chasm inside
which might have been a lightning strike
or just a slow drip of rot through the years.
Whatever had set it back
this tree was going on
making the best of where it was
growing where it stood
rooted there and helpless
to do otherwise.
It would be hollow now
but after all many trees are
Looking solid from the outside
standing for years through storm and ice
In desperate straits, you'd think, but holding fast
making leaves and throwing shade
year after year
sheltering others
animals, birds
young seedlings
In the healing heart that was once its greatest wound


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