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Looking Down and Out

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I sprinkle a lot of fairy dust around on this blog. I shamelessly romanticize the place where I live, because I am in love with it. I show you its best side most of the time.

But it's been a long strange winter and I've been housebound by ice and snow and extreme cold for a long time. The kids have been out of school more than in, and we're all cooped up save for epic grocery runs I make so I can keep everybody fed, birds too. I haul in food a hundred pounds at a time. On a glorious Saturday it briefly hit 53 degrees, and the boilerplate snow finally melted for a dizzy 12 hours, and we got to see the land again. Of course we had a gig that day so between loading and lugging equipment, sound check, rehearsal and gig I couldn't get out and run in a T-shirt as I so desperately wanted to. I wanted to feel warm breezes ruffling the little gold hairs on my arms. Just once. It was not to be.

By Sunday it had plunged down to the 30's again, and it was raining. But I had to get out. I'd been sidelined for so long that my legs and ankles hurt like crazy when I started running again, just like they had when I first started almost four years ago. It just didn't seem fair to have to go through that twice. I knew I'd have to keep running through the pain or it would never go away. So out I went.

I took my phone, of course, and I ran for awhile without shooting photos. What light there was, was totally flat. The first thing that grabbed my eye, about a mile into it, was a box turtle plastron from a road-killed summer turtle. My heart sank. I'd picked so many up right here, carried them across. I wondered if this was the one that had taken two years to recover from his lost eye and hurt forelegs, the one I'd released where I found him, the one I'd asked to please be more careful next time. I didn't want to think about that. But I snapped a photo. 

And it occurred to me at that moment to take photos of things that I wouldn't ordinarily record. The not so pretty things. It could be interesting, could take my mind off the stinging in my rusty ankles. 

A chicory plant, freezer-burned but still alive at the core, despite temperatures plummeting to -12. That's snow for you--an insulator. Out of this melted mess will spring a healthy plant before too long.  I've seen a few such plants this winter, many in my own greenhouse. Most didn't come back. I have a feeling this chicory will. 

I love chicory because it grows where nobody else wants to. I sometimes feel like a chicory plant, loving these hardscrabble roadsides in Appalachia as much as I do. My coastal friends with their museums and symphonies, galleries and stores where you can get anything you want, the hothouse flowers, wondering what chicory loves about hard-packed gravel.

I went a little farther, and spied something that has been buggin' me since before Halloween. I don't find fake cobwebs very attractive at best, even when in season. But Halloween decorations left up until Groundhog Day? Nuhh.

Every time we run here this dog barks and barks. His entire world is a packing box, a chain, and mud. So anyone who passes gets barked at, because there's nothing else for him to do.

There are three such dogs on this mile and a half stretch of country road. And another elderly beagle who lives in a wooden box on our county road. All chained for life. I wish so hard that I could change that. I think about the vast gulf between a dog who's chained outside a wooden box, left to bark himself hoarse, and a dog who lives as a family member, who shares the comfort of a human pack and their warm home; is loved and honored as an individual. The only difference is in the way he's treated. People start with perfectly good dogs and give them a life like this. They ruin them. This could have been a wonderful dog, but no one will ever get close enough to know. Chet eyes him sidelong and keeps trotting. The free man striding past the slave. The slave, howling in outrage.

We make our dogs what they are, and we also make them what they aren't.
We never pass without praying his chain doesn't break.

Deep in the woods, a truck dump. Yes, it's the other side of this beautiful place where I live.

I realize what a stretch this is for me, looking for the sad, the homely. I'm strangely pleased at that. It hits me that I've been filtering this corner of Appalachian Ohio all along, giving it a pretty face for you to look at. I do that because I love where I live, warts and all, and because seeking out beauty is a hard-wired habit. It's a habit I will continue to cultivate. It makes me grateful.

But sometimes it's a good exercise to turn your worldview on its side, to point your camera at the cold wet ground. 


love this post (something about this time of year should bring out the sad, winter poet.) Went for a run myself, even here, on the west coast, in the arctic air--all the garden spring flowers (cyclamen, hellebores, snowdrops) cowering under two inches of snow.

Every time I see one of these chained-up dogs, it makes me wish that I had the power to put their owners in their place. Let THEM live outside in a box, chained to a post, with no human contact. Further proof that dogs are better than people; a dog would never even think of doing this to a fellow creature.

Posted by Anonymous February 6, 2014 at 3:41 AM

These same things - chained dogs, out-of-date decorations, and junk cars are sights we see here in our area, too. The thing in your post that resonates most with me though are the turtles hit in the road. Living next to a beaver swamp with a busy road by it brings it's joys and sorrows especially when egg laying season comes around. (I did a post on my blog about our turtles last spring: So, at first I guess I was a little sad when I read your post this morning. But, then I was humming "Little Soldiers" all the while I was feeding the birds and going about my morning chores. You can't be sad while singing that catchy tune! Thanks for both the song and the post!

Bravo, Julie! I've always felt that the sad and ugly points us firmly to the joyous and sublime. Life consists of both and it's good not to forget.

I think your previous post about Ellen the deer has already proven your willingness to see beauty in the un-beautiful elements of your world. One could presume that the falling down barns you share with us as things of beauty are eyesores to others. I for one am glad for your chicory, which (yes! lucky for me!) always makes me smile when I see it poking up out of the crappy excuse for soil that exists between the bumpy sidewalks and the curbs of my neighborhood. Hooray for the Lyle Lovett unsymetricals and the brave hardy weeds that bring joy to its true seekers.

I still have my wreath up. Actually, my wreath is made of well-constructed plastic that looks like boxwood leaves, and it's been hanging on my front door for almost a decade. Probably driving my neighbors nuts. Eye of the beholder, dontcha know...


Posted by KH Macomber February 6, 2014 at 6:30 AM

Thank you for the frequent updates of Chet and the world he lives in. We live in a condo in N California. I call it my "tree house" because of the tall pine trees just outside the bedroom window. I frequently walk the trail in the park nearby - my piece of "wilderness". I admire the weeds growing beside the pavements. My favorite is Dove Weed. They grow in the driest and hottest spots in the dirty gravel and even flourish. Just amazing and inspiring. Such pretty velvety leaves. It bothers me when somebody sprays poison on the Dove Weed just when the seeds ripen and the Mourning Doves want to feed. Fortunately the plants regrow again, which makes me admire them even more. Many people in the neighborhood put out food for the birds, so the birds are doing well anyway. The Redtailed hawks keep their numbers in check. Yip, even in this overpopulated, noisy city neighborhood we have interesting things to see and be grateful for.

Life, no matter where we live is like painting-- There is no light without the dark!

Chicory and some of its relatives are the most wonder shade of blue

Whenever we drive into town and back we pass by a dark place, a funky old house, a yard with no plants or green. There are metal fences and a metal stall where two horses stand, day after day after day. It breaks my heart. I always feel like I should do something, but I know I can't. So, I close my eyes. I'm glad you took these photos and shared this part of your world. It is the raw truth of life, all of it, even the stuff that makes us sad and shakes us to our bones.

Just wonderful, Julie. Wonderful!


Yep, life in this physical world has that other side, doesn't it? How could we appreciate the light without the dark, as others have said here. The deal is, bloggers like you, Julie, shine the light for us regularly, which is so great when our own particular patch is showing its dark side. Like when southern California has had only ONE inch of rain since last April! Scary, very. Or when your best friend tells you this morning that a THIRD person in her family now has cancer in addition to innumerable other family difficulties. And what do you say to your beautiful, generous kind best friend who has to suffer it? You shine the light; you say "I'm with you, in the dark, we are together, but there will be light again. We'll be on the other side again. Together." So hooray for you Julie, and the fairy dust you usually sprinkle; you're saying that to us with each post. And to this post, I say: Spring WILL come to Ohio!! Promise. xxo

Yea, I'm a fellow Appalachian; living your same life, a few miles away. I love your writing because it means I don't have to say it;, but I feel it, too. The truth is, I am glad I don't have to go to Somalia or Afghanistan to do the work that needs doing. We can do it here, where we "fit". Please know: you are not alone. You are my muse. You give my feelings power. Just do what you do, and I will do what I do (a therapist), and so it goes. Some dogs are prisoners; some birds are, too; and some women, too. It's all the work we must do; all our lives. I try to be grateful that I am in a place where I can make Thank you!,
being "out front". Scores of us are with you.

Posted by Anonymous February 6, 2014 at 6:25 PM

"I love where I live, warts and all, and because seeking out beauty is a hard-wired habit. It's a habit I will continue to cultivate. It makes me grateful." I wish every writer and artist had this perspective. I'm sure some places and some lives, like the chained dog, are so full of the grim that looking for beauty would be a forced, false gesture.

Julie and other compassionate souls, there is support out there for people who want to do something to help chained dogs. Please check out and They have practical suggestions for ways you can help., or at least try to help. People may think it is none of their business, but it really is up to all of us to speak up when we see animals being ill-treated. If maybe helping those households build a fence around their yard would convince them to unchain their dogs, that would be a win for all involved. Best wishes from one animal lover to another. :)

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