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Coming Home to Color

Sunday, June 29, 2014

North Dakota, where I traveled to work at the 12th Annual Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival, was amazing, as it always is. Here I've just gotten up off my now damp butt having gotten frame-filling photos of a Nelson's sparrow on my absolute favorite piece of prairie. In this photo it looks like just grass. Trust me, it's everything. Sedges and wildflowers galore, even little pincushion cacti. 

JZ victorious photo by Rick Bohn

 The sparrow formerly known as Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow. My best shot of a notorious skulker.

North Dakota was so sweet and special to me that I can't bring myself to blog about it yet. Or ever. I don't know. I get too lonesome for those skies, those spaces and those wonderful friends and I have to come back down to earth and write about something else, something right in front of me that's not just a dream or a memory.

I came home to some pretty nice things. Liam was charged with watering all my plants while I was gone, including the precious bonsai collection. He stepped right up to the plate and did an excellent job, with an assist from regular thunderstorms.  We have a wee bit of color going in the front...

Hanging baskets are coming into their own. I adore this new petunia called "Papaya."  Exactly.

Hibiscus "The Path," a Logee's specialty, and a gift from my dear friend Donna. Everyone needs a Path. Her enormous flowers stay open for two full days, instead of rolling up at the end of one, like all the other hibiscus. I feel like throwing a party when two salad-plate sized flowe

rs open at once, it's that wonderful.

A great big fishing spider, possibly Dolomedes tenebrosus. Nah, I'm not afraid of her. I rescued her from a cooking pot in the basement where she'd been trapped. A goodly spider, well met.

House wrens are nesting in one of my boxes for the first time in 22 years. This is not exactly cause for celebration, as a wandering male has already pierced and thrown out a clutch of bluebird eggs in another box. This pair in the driveway has behaved themselves, though. I plan to paint the babies for my upcoming book. Which I will likely never, ever finish. There are too many birds to include. Good news is I've fought back a lot of obstacles to start painting the plates again. It feels good.

June 22, 2014. The first egg appears. I breathe a sigh of relief. They've settled down.
Her mate won't be piercing bluebird eggs now. 

House wren eggs, exquisite red garnets the size of your fingernail.

June 24, 2014

June 25, 2014

June 26, 2014.  She's done, and incubation has commenced. 

You may remember my complaining a lot about having to repot the tomatoes and peppers I planted in mid-January in the greenhouse. I thought I'd have some nice healthy blooming plants by May. What I got was head-high monsters that needed staking before they were even set out, and had to be repotted three times before I was able to plant them in the garden. OK. I jumped the gun. I knew that when I planted those seeds, but spring fever hit me on Jan. 16 and I just had to do SOMETHING. 

Like a woman who wants another baby, I have forgotten the labor pains of growing them under glass. And all I can see now is the JUNE TOMATOES gracing our plates.

I have never had homegrown tomatoes in June. It is sweet beyond describing to be able to go out and pick a double handful in June. I usually have to wait until August. 

Also featured: sweet snack peppers, sugar snap peas, and bodacious Swiss chard, probably the most prolific and willing vegetable I grow. We eat a LOT of chard.

Temporary January madness=June fabulousness

Five Hour Energy

Thursday, June 26, 2014

There was a fluky little 60's song by the Small Faces called Itchycoo Park, with the refrain, "It's all too beautiful..."Sometimes that sticks in my mind as I move through these landscapes, helpless to stay home in the morning. How can I stay inside when the chicory is showing the knapweed, with flowers the color of faded underwear, what blue means?

When the sun finally peeks out and slams silently across this hayfield, turning it into a Landseer painting? It's all too beautiful. I want to paint it. But I settle for grabbing it in click after click, taking it home in my pocket, and sharing it with you.

Today we'll do a six mile run, beyond the church, then back to it.

I've been upping my mileage because it feels good. I try to run at least 4.5 miles each morning. Then sometimes more. Nothing hurts. I've shrunken. It works. It keeps me on the earth. It looks good on Chet, too. That's a 9 1/2 year-old dog there, with a shiny tuxedo and a waistline, trotting smartly. Dogs last longer if you get out with them every day.

As I go, I often pick up litter. It ticks me off that people litter, but I do like to read the labels on what the litterbugs are eating and imbibing. Without exception, they throw bottles, cans and wrappers of things I would never consider putting in my mouth. I like a good IPA, but Bud, Busch and Miller Lite? Life's too short. Ding Dongs, Little Debbies, Slim Jims, Dr. Pepper. The wrappers that get thrown in our hayfields and ditches do not come from health food. And as a latent anthropologist, the litter I find tells me a lot about the segment of humanity that's tossing it.

I found this one interesting. I've always wondered what makes up Five Hour Energy. Let's see...You could run every morning, and feel great throughout, and be full of good thoughts and energy and have 30 beautiful pictures in your pocket when you get back, or you could just tip this neat little bottle into your cakehole.  8,333% of your MDR of Vitamin B12, 2000% of the MDR of B6. That sounds like a good idea. I tried taking normal B vitamins when I was in my 20's because some doctor said it was a good idea, and I broke out in zits and was jittery as a flying squirrel. Not a big believer in vitamin supplements. I think you just pee your money out. I believe in food. 

Oh, and in addition to your just sublethal B vitamin overdose, it's got caffeine comparable to 12 ounces of the leading premium coffee. We don't have to tell you how much that is. Is that like 12 oz. of Starbuck's darkest roast? A couple hundred mg of caffeine? Dunno, but go warned: it just might cause nervousness and occasional rapid heartbeat. Oh, and there's the Niacin Flush to watch for. I'll pass. If I drank this stuff I'd be up until sometime in 2015. You don't put caffeine on crazy.

 I open the top and take a furtive sniff. It smells like a wildberry urinal cake. 
W. T. F.?? People drink this stuff?
Yes, let's drink this. And then toss the bottle in the ditch when we're done. Ready for our day, and we've added our little touch to the landscape while we're at it.

 I gather the trash and hide it at little waystations, then pick it up later when I pass by in my car. 

I like this landscape as it is, unenhanced. I see paintings everywhere I go, in fleeting atmospheric changes, the skeins and veils of mist, the mackerel sky and the old asphalt shingles. In the simplicity of a shed, built innocent of flair or grace, but settling into a grace all its own as it ages.

In the pitted patina of its beautiful latch, edges shining with age.

There is so much to see.

Suicide note of a dusky slug, Arion subfuscus, the last loops of his slow cursive reflecting the morning sun. He will write no more on this good asphalt.

The Best Part of the Day

Sunday, June 22, 2014

They often say it's the best part of the day. Whoever "they" are, I agree.

Dawn is the best. I feel like I'm stealing away when I wake up at 4:45, put on my shoes and go out into the fields. I go out to disappear into the light and the air, fragrant with the last of the honeysuckle and the first of the milkweed.

Indigo buntings sing very early. This male perched on a bluebird box along the driveway, singing his heart out in the darkness. Inside the box, a bluebird may be laying her third pale blue egg. So much blue. I stood and listened as long as he sang. 

Ground fog pours over the hayfield and into the road. I'm shivering a little this morning, a nice change from sweating.

The mackerel sky speaks of rain before this time tomorrow. There's been a lot of rain. I love seeing the wildflowers burgeon and grow huge. I almost don't recognize them, so lush they're growing.

It isn't hard to spot a striped skunk doodling along, digging pits in the haymeadow near the county road. Chet sees it too. He hangs near me, not giving chase. I think this dog's training is close to done. Only two days ago, he spotted three wild turkeys strolling on one of our favorite lanes, and didn't chase them, either. 

It is a beautiful thing to have a dog with judgement, who doesn't need a leash or even a word any more.

For a Boston terrier, such restraint is rare. They are half terrier, after all. My favorite part is that in both cases, I didn't have to say a word to him. He just knows that good dogs don't chase turkeys or skunks, no matter how alluring they may be. 

We move up on the skunk to try to get a photo with my iPhone. Chet sticks right by my side. He's been sprayed twicet. He knows. 

The skunk gets wind of us and does a meerkat act. It is very cute. Then it ambles over to a telephone pole and digs and digs. From the way it's digging and then pouncing, I suspect it has found  a nest of baby rabbits. But I'm not about to go investigate.  That's his bidness, and I'm not interested in bathing in baking soda and white vinegar today. We just watch. 

Here's the skunk, the dark spot at the base of the telephone pole, and Chet, watching without having to be held back. What a good boy. 

We leave him there, digging. And when we come back three hours later I go investigate and sure enough, there's a bunch of soft grass pulled out of a hole. He had found a nest of baby rabbits. They must've been small for him to gobble them up so cleanly. There are so many rabbits this year, and some of them are born to die. That's part of being a rabbit. 

 Mist hangs in the holler over Carl's house. 

We run down the dip and up onto the ridgetop, and it's so beautiful I can hardly believe that everyone else is asleep. The milkweed is about to burst into bloom. It's untouched. I haven't seen a monarch yet. I will wait, and so will the milkweed.

The scene is so perfect in the diffuse morning light it reminds me of a diorama painted by Frances Lee Jacques. But it's real, and I'm in it, and I'm grateful to be there. I couldn't do everything I have to do; I couldn't be who I need to be and take care of the people I care for without starting my mornings like this. Everyone has things that get them through their days. I wonder what the world would be like if we all got up in the dark and took three hours to dwell in, to move through such grace. I find it transformative. 

A Facebook friend whose updates often make me snort wrote this:

"I run. I run until I don't want to stab people. Sometimes I run a long time."

I'd never say that. But I'm glad I have a friend who would.

I'm also glad to have this friend, this solid dark polished ebony chunk of love. There's something to be said for being able to get a kiss whenever you need one, even if it's only from a dog. He's quite a dog.

The landscape looks to me like a little farm set, and I feel like a child again, creating perfect scene after perfect scene, lining up the white plastic fencing, the barns and the tiny brown and white cattle. This world is in order. I have only to move around to frame and appreciate its exquisite symmetry. 

Today I record birds, as I do every time I go out, on a little folded bit of paper. Today I hear or see 63 species in three hours, which feels darn good to me for late June. I say that because everything I'm logging now is likely to be staying around to breed. This is the second run in a row where I record rose-breasted grosbeak, two different males  a couple of miles apart. I'm very excited about that. I've never had June records of RBGR. Only one July record in 22 years. I also log five singing yellow-throated warblers and two worm-eating warblers, in addition to ovenbirds, Kentucky warbler, American redstart, yellow, blue-winged, and black and white warblers. Life is good.

Recording the birds I hear every morning has become a comfort thing for me, like doing a crossword puzzle or reading the newspaper. I am reading the newspaper, the news that means something to me.
For those who can read bander's code (or my bad approximation of it), here's June 22's list.


Dakota Miracle

Friday, June 20, 2014

There are still white bison in Jamestown, North Dakota. They're in a big enclosure at the National Buffalo Museum. As you're driving along Highway 94 headed west you can sometimes see them, if you're very lucky. I'd never seen them from the road. My friend Ann Hoffert, who drives there all the time, has never seen them from the road. 

So I'm coming out of Fargo and it's very late, getting dark, and I'm trying to make it to Carrington, 2 1/2 hours west if you go 75-80 mph. I'm exhausted and discombobulated and I've had things coming at me to accept and deal with that I simply can't. I've hit a wall. 

Out of habit and hope I search the hills around the Buffalo Museum as I roll along in my little white rented Ford Fiesta, hungry and tired and wrung out. 
And there on a ridgetop is White Cloud, the albino cow bison who is so famous she has her own sign on the highway. She was born the day before Phoebe, on July 10, 1996. She, too, is 17. The perfection of seeing her, when I'm missing my kids so much, overwhelms me.

I can hardly believe it. I want to take a photo of her. I pull over, hesitate. Should I run across four lanes of highway with my big camera? The way my luck has been running, I would likely end up a spot of grease on I-94. But I grab the camera, bide my time and dash across, in between roaring semi's. It's worth it to me to see White Cloud again.

She's really white, and looking healthy and beautiful. I remember her twisted little horns from the first time we saw her in 2008.
I'm so grateful that she presented herself to me this evening. I needed her. I look up from the viewfinder and someone is coming up over the ridge. Someone I remember.

I'd last seen him with his mother, White Cloud, in 2009 when he was a half-grown calf. You can read that post here. 

 He is no longer slab-sided or spindly. He is magnificent.

I cannot believe that Dakota Miracle has come up to meet me.

I start crying again, this time in joy and disbelief, and I can't stop. I feel these bison were waiting for me. I'm sure of it.

I try to be quiet so as not to alarm them, but fail. Miracle is curious, and he looks straight at me. Which moves me even more. I've never had a bison pay the slightest attention to me. They have always seemed above noticing a mortal. These white spirit bison, even more aloof.

Woman, why do you weep?

I've been here, waiting for you. The prairie is waiting for you. 

Go out in the wide open spaces. Look up at the sky. You don't even have to look up--look straight ahead, all around. At your feet. The sky arches over you. 

Breathe the clean wind, hear the meadowlark and the longspur, listen for the sparrows you love so much. Nature heals you at home. Here, even more. You'll see. The prairie is big medicine.

He walked past the World's Largest Bison.

And stopped to turn a kindly ice-blue eye my way. 

You have a long hard journey ahead of you. I hear that in your voice.

 In time, all will be well. Go now. I will watch over you.

Liam and Bison

Sunday, June 8, 2014

 A Carolina wren pair raised a brood of babies in Liam's bison skull, which hangs on the side of our garage. He found it on a bison ranch in North Dakota years ago...maybe 2008, and he wanted it so badly, but we were flying and it wasn't exactly carryon size. Our friends the Ashers from Cincinnati volunteered to bring it back in their van for us. And darned if Jean didn't get it to us, and up it went on the garage under the eave, and there it has hung ever since.

Photo by Rondeau Ric

There is a classic post about how Liam found that skull and lost his stuffed monkey at the same time.
Read it here.

 Flashing forward six years...I kept seeing the wrens perched on the skull with food in their bills, and it took me a little while to realize that they had made a neat little nest down inside the brain case. Before long we could hear the baby wrens piping in there, and soon they were big enough that the adults would pop onto the skull, poke a spider or caterpiggle into the foramen magnum, and be gone. They were a very sneaky wren family, and I never saw them fledge. I think they did it during a thunderstorm when I was inside all day. When we took the skull down to look there was feather sheath dust in the nest, which generally means the babies made it to fledging. Being wrens, they kept their nest spic and span.

I got to thinking about Liam and bison. About all the times we've had with bison.
The bison is Liam's totem, and he was obsessed with them for a long time. It was a nice obsession, one we were happy to indulge. 

In 2009, when he was 10, we took him to Jamestown, North Dakota, which has two white bison--one the male calf of the first female they got. This is her.

And here's her boy calf, with the long thin horns.

OK, they don't look too great in June, because they're shedding old winter hair. Liam didn't mind. He was transfixed. He watched them through the spotting scope.

Then he called his friend Will back in Ohio to tell him all about it. 

In 2010, when Liam was 11, we had the most awesome family trip ever to western North Dakota, Montana and Yellowstone.
In Medina, ND, we tracked bison in the weird clay that makes up Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

And found this monstrous gentleman scratching himself on a guard rail.

Now that's a BISON.

We saw a candidate for some Darwinian selection.

Who was fortunately not selected out, at least while we were watching.

After both of them left, we went and looked at the shiny rail. Obviously he comes here often.

We spotted our first-ever elk.

and bought Liam a NDSU hat at Scheel's in Fargo.

I can't see to type.

 I'll be going out to North Dakota by myself this year, to work the 11th annual Potholes and Prairie festival. Bill's got other travel; Phoebe's got a job, and Liam wants to spend as much time as he can with his sister. They've been biking and swimming and reading together under the Japanese maple. I'll be doing my last packing as you read this.
I am thankful for all the times we've taken Phoebe and Liam along. I'll miss them terribly this year. 
Life changes on you, and before you know it the kids are elsewhere, no longer in the back seat wherever you go. That's when the memories kick in. 

These photos all raise such a lump in my throat I need to stop writing now. 

This grand and glorious bull said good-bye to us on our last day in Yellowstone in 2010.

It is something, to have an animal the size of a car, that could squash you in a New York minute, scratching itself on a lamppost right handy by.

There is nothing like showing an animal like that to your kids. I'm so glad we did, when we could, because animals like this one don't come along every day.

Neither do boys like Liam.

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