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On Gratitude: Phoebe Speaks

Friday, May 25, 2018

 Writing from a small bed in Freeport, Maine, where Bill, Liam and I are holed up in the midst of a wild, wild weekend of graduation ceremonies:

Everyone loves a grateful person. Conversely, people who act as if the world owes them something just for drawing breath are somewhat less popular, unless they're really good looking or rich and thus somehow mysteriously entitled to respect and admiration by the masses. It's hard to know where gratitude comes from. A certain amount can be instilled ("Say thank you to the nice lady, honey.") But the feeling of gratitude isn't something you parrot out when commanded. You have to feel it deep inside, and then it comes out in intangible ways.

I've never understood people who don't thank waiters, public servants, or anyone who helps them, be it their friends, their parents or their friends' parents. Somebody holds a door for you or cooks you a meal, you acknowledge that. You single them out for thanks.  So I guess, in this house, there has been an expectation of gratitude and acknowledgement for kindnesses large and small instilled from an early age. Again, intangible, but there. It's a culture. Still, when your kids get past the age where you can hiss, "Say thank you!" you hold your breath and hope they remember, and you take them aside and set them straight if they fail to show gratitude. But you can't make them feel it unless they feel it. I am happy to report that both Phoebe and Liam feel and show gratitude in eloquent and sensitive ways. If gratitude be a measure of a person, they are both tall.

So it was with great anticipation that we learned that Phoebe, among all the students receiving scholarships from Bowdoin College, had been asked to prepare a speech thanking the donors to Bowdoin scholarships at a luncheon late last week. When she was home for spring break, she'd riffled through my closets as she often does, and she picked out two cocktail dresses, both in Bowdoin black and white, that she thought might work.  I was bemused to see this long-stemmed lovely wearing my clothes! Who wore it better? The redhead!! But even better than that, she gave her speech to me right there in my studio, because I had long since committed to a keynote for the Biggest Week in American Birding that very same day! Bowdoin offered to fly us both out to see her speak, but only Bill was able to take them up on it. Sigh. He had a marvelous time, and he said he'd never felt more proud in his life.

Through the magic of live streaming and the kindness of Bowdoin staff, I was able to race back from the Magee Marsh boardwalk, which had been crawling with warblers, to my room at Maumee Bay Hotel and watch President Clayton Rose introduce my daughter. Then I watched her take the podium. What a thrill that was! My heart overflowed. I have always told her she is a natural writer; that whatever she does in life, her attention to the craft of writing and storytelling will carry her through and set her apart.

So I sat there, my faithful iPhone running, making a video of the whole thing, intending only to send it to my brother and sisters and aunt and a dear friend or two, and it occurred to me that you might like to see and hear her speak, too.

 And here's the speech. You'll see the back of Bill's head, and he gets up at the end and hugs her. It's pretty sweet.

 I guess what I love most about it, aside from the deep breath she takes as she begins, is that she is so aware that she is both blessed and lucky to have been raised to aspire to more. Her empathy for her high school classmates comes through loud and clear. So does her self-awareness, her sense of where she fits in the rarefied atmosphere she has been privileged to breathe. It's a delicate line she walks in this speech, and I think she toes it like a pro. Being able to get up and do that--to make people feel something-- is a tremendous gift in itself. Anyway, enough of my blabbin'. Enjoy the speech.

The quiet and completely self-effacing hero of this madcap weekend in Brunswick, Maine, when both our children graduate, is Liam. He is skipping his own high school graduation back in Marietta to support his sister, to dwell in the reflected glory of her honors-festooned graduation ceremonies. He made Dean's List at Washington State Community College, where he's taken the last two years' worth of his courses, readying himself for fall admission to West Virginia University. He won't get to march with his class at Marietta High School, but not a peep of complaint from him as he holds his weary, exhausted, much celebrated sister close here in Maine. I have never been more proud of both of them.

Two Days in May

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

 Dang, this is a strange and wild spring. It was January until about April 25; people were saying it wasn't April 25; it was the 115th of January. And that's exactly how it felt, like the winter that would never end. Then it ended and BOOM, on the first of May I walked into the greenhouse and all the plants that had been basking in its gentle warmth were suddenly and inexorably being broiled alive. Winter to summer in one day. I've been cooking this idea for a blogpost about May 1 and 2, all the crazy crazy stuff that happened when spring finally burst open like a pinata.

And then it all happened. It warmed up, and everything woke up, including me. The lull I'd fallen into, of just leaving my plants in the greenhouse until whenever, left in a hurry.

April 25, 2018. Creole Lady finally awakens, like Sleeping Beauty, from her winter-long sleep, and resumes dazzling me as if she'd never languished. Still in the greenhouse. Last week of April and it was still dipping into the lower 30's every night!

Now it was May 1. And the greenhouse looked like this. It was 93 in there with the vent and doors flung open wide. No question about it: My to-do list for May first had just been turned on its head. 

 I was going to have to empty it out today, and plant everything out into larger pots and planters, or into the ground. It was that or let them roast alive.

On April 11, I'd found this little female tan jumping spider (Platycryptus undatus) in a shoe in my closet. Well, what was she doing there?? I had brought her down to the greenhouse and released her on the geranium. And here she was again! I gave her another drink, which she received gratefully. She'd grown! And now she would go outside with the geranium.


I was sure when I set it out by the Bird Spa on May 1 that Happy Thought Red would never look this grand again. Once the wind and rain got done with it, it'd be a sorry sight. Little did I know how right I was...You don't set a 7' wide geranium outside and expect to keep it that way. But it was Live Free or Die time. The greenhouse was no longer a living option, and wouldn't be until next October. It stands empty from May 1 until late October, because it's just too hot in there for any living thing except paper wasps. The derecho of May 15 pruned it all right, but it still looks pretty impressive. It needed a pruning, anyway.

Before I realized that this (May 1) was D Day for the greenhouse, I'd started a couple of loads of laundry to hang out. And while hanging out the first load, I looked out across the meadow with a sigh and noticed that it was full of yellow rocket. Growl! That's an exotic mustard that cheerfully turns meadows into monocultures of yellow rocket. 
This is the before photo. Yeah, it's pretty. Pretty obnoxious! Each one of those plants has to be hand-pulled before it sets seed. Jeez!!

  This is the after photo. Meadow clear, and laundry basket plus trash can packed tight and full, not with dry clothes but with yellow rocket. I grabbed the nearest handiest thing, as is my wont. Just another thing on a naturalist's to-do list.

While I was weeding the meadow, I heard a meadowlark sing, and spotted him in the top of a tree in the sideyard. He couldn't be serious! Our 12-acre meadow wasn't near big enough for him to successfully nest. But it sure was nice to have him stop through and advertise. He appeared for three mornings, then was gone. His clear slurred whistle stays with me. It's the quintessential sound of springtime. 

While watching him, it occurred to me that I needed to check the bluebird box out in the orchard. 
A bluebird had laid a beautiful clutch of five eggs, then left them lying stone cold for at least a week. In a normal spring,  bluebirds commence incubating with the third egg, almost invariably. The last one or two laid have to hurry up and catch up with the first three so they all hatch together. Now here her eggs lay, cold as stones, when they should have been halfway through the 14-day incubation period. I had a hunch she was coming back, and a hunch that today was the day. 

But on my way out to her box, I found this. There ensued a hunt netting eight large morels, which I ended up taking to the New River Birding and Nature Festival to cook up and feed to a few lucky friends. I usually have morels to share there. If you're getting dizzy, hey, me too. Going, going, gone, all spring long.

Morels gathered, I forged on, knowing this was the day I'd find out if the bluebird eggs were being cared for. And it was!! The  eggs were warm as toast when I went out to check. Oh, that was the sweetest thing. They'd been so cold 'til now.

Just goes to show you: never second-guess a bird. They know what they're doing.

 Yes, we do.


While I was out there, I remembered it was the right time of year to check for Incisalia henrici, better known as Henry's elfin. Its brood plant is redbud, and there's plenty of that in the orchard.


I found my little man!!  I love this bug. I love going out to look for it, when I get a feeling it's out there, before the redbud even blooms. I've only ever seen it at the end of the orchard. And I've been seeing it there in early spring for 24 years. There's great comfort in that.

Back at the house, it was starting to look a lot like springtime! Hummer feeders are out; colorful planters deployed; greenhouse plants finding new places to thrive in the cooler spring air.  Camera and binocs always at the ready on the front stoop. That's how I bring you all this great stuff, with these Essential Tools. I've been told to expect my Canon 7D to die any old day now, as it's passing the usual number of actuations (190,000) that constitute a normal camera's life. So far so good. I baby that thing. 

The hibiscus were enjoying their shady new digs after the scorching they'd gotten in the greenhouse. 

Amazing to see jonquils still going strong on May 1, when the lilacs were in full bloom.

The first catbird celebrated arriving at Indigo Hill by taking a bath in the newly activated Spa! Oh what a wonderful thing to witness!

I found a silken tunnel in the lawn that I suspect might belong to a very large spider, perhaps Hogna georgicola. I've raked them up while raking the lawn, and I've dug one of them up in the garden before, so I know they go underground.


 It would be on the size order of this one. Big.

I think this is a Dolomedes fishing-spider.  Ain't skeert.

Meanwhile, it occurred to me that it was probably getting pretty darn hot in the tower room, where I'd been growing lettuce all winter, keeping us and the neighbors in delicious salads. 


Yep. Hot up there, too. So before Liam left for school I enlisted his help in carrying the heavy planters down two flights of stairs, one of them small and treacherous. I could hear the lettuce sigh in relief when it got in the open outside air, which moves and swirls. Down it would go to the bunny-proof glass table on the side patio.  

Man, I hated to cut this uber-sexy flower stalk off my North Dakota rhubarb, but it has to be done before the plant expends too much energy into making seeds. Rats!! I manured it and the peonies next to it as an apology. I mean, I put cow manure on them. Pfft. That sounded weird.

Here's a flower stalk I won't cut off until the last flower falls: my Encyclia cordigera, which is still stinkin' up the bedroom with paradisiacal scents of clove and heady musky perfume. Never has it had better blossoms. I credit manure tea!

Of course, the lawn needed to be mowed and raked, too. It needs that again today. There is so much more to do in spring and summer, but I take great joy in doing it all. It's my cross-training workout when I have no time to run.

Phoebe sent me a blissed-out photo from Maine. Yep, that's pretty much how I felt at the end of May 2, with all this done, and all this to enjoy.

Wakeup Call: Hitting the Wall

Sunday, May 20, 2018


I've been waking up early this spring. Like 4 AM early. So it was no biggie when I opened my eyes in my hotel room in Hendersonville, NC at 4:45 AM on Sunday, April 29. What was a big deal was seeing the ceiling moving.  It was disconcerting to have the room spinning crazily around me, and no fun alcohol overindulgence to explain it. I closed my eyes and somehow drifted back to sleep. Opened them again at 6 to find the room still spinning. I mean, spinning so hard I couldn't stand up. 

How inconvenient. I had been planning to drive the 8 hours home this morning. Wanted to get an early start.

I thought, lying flat with my eyes closed. I knew what had happened. I had overdone it yesterday, gotten dehydrated again. I'd hiked around in the mountains for most of the day. Capped it off with bending and stooping and lifting heavy boxes, giving a talk, then bending and stooping and lifting more heavy boxes, and I hadn't drunk nearly enough water to get me through it all. If water even could save me. This time of year I drink pediatric electrolyte by the quart. I dehydrate easily. I know this about myself.

I had been stricken, again, with BPPV (Benign  Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo). A little crystal, which naturally floats around in your inner ear fluid, had dislodged and gotten stuck in my cochlear canal, where it was affecting the normal flow of fluid in my inner ear. It's that fluid that tells your brain where you are in space. When the fluid doesn't move right, your brain responds by sending your eyes into uncontrolled motion.  Mine were darting rapidly all the way to the right over and over again.  I couldn't stop it.
This was bad. Because not only was I horribly dizzy, but I was nauseated, too. 

I crawled to the sink for an ice bucket, then crawled back to bed with the bucket on my chest. Why wouldn't it stop? 

I rested for awhile (being that dizzy is absolutely exhausting), then crawled to my laptop and Googled "Julie Zickefoose Vertigo." 

Not coincidentally, as explained in the link above,  I'd had this before, after a day in the hot sun bending and lifting muck buckets full of cow manure. But that vertigo, which went on for a couple of days, was nothing like this. This was incapacitating, devastating, violent beyond description. There was really no living with this. There was just surviving.

I found the link in the post to a very simple video that told me what to do--hang my head off a pillow and roll it around, then sit up quickly. This is supposed to move the crystal and dislodge it. Sitting up after the  maneuver would cause it to fall out of my cochlear canal. Easier said than done. 

I did the Epley Maneuver twice on each side, because I was so disoriented I couldn't even tell which ear was affected. 

It didn't work. 

It. Didn't. Work.

The maneuvers actually seemed to make the vertigo worse. Now I was retching regularly, as well as spinning. "Abject" is one word I'd use to describe my condition.

I sent an SOS text to Shila, who had turned me on to the Epley Maneuver in the first place. I can't tell you how comforting it is to have a friend answer your text at 6 something AM when you are nine hours from home, in a hotel room alone, on a Sunday, and the ceiling is spinning over you. And it's sinking in on you that the only way you have to get home is to drive your car. And you can't even make it to the bathroom, much less get behind the wheel. Oh man. I was really screwed.

I put my phone on speaker and Shila and I talked about what might be going on. It seemed that the Epley Maneuver had moved the crystal, all right, but now the vertigo was so bad I could neither stand up nor lie down. The only way I could get any relief was to sit bolt upright! Try doing that when you feel like collapsing.

Shila rooted around and found a vertigo clinic in Hendersonville! Makes sense, because BPPV and other types of vertigo affect older people more, and a lot of people are retiring to this part of NC. I called the number she sent, and left a message on their "hotline." I told them I was desperate and alone at the Mountain Lodge right there in their town. That I had severe vertigo and needed help, preferably NOW. I'm still waiting for that callback. It was Sunday morning,  yes, but you'd think they'd have called me back by now, just to see if I was still needing help, or was just a pile of dizzy bones in a hotel room with a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Nope.

I'd hit a wall and was plastered flat against it.  This was about as bad as it gets. Shila kept me from freaking all the way out while she figured out what to have me do. She was working on a theory that the crystal was lodged in a posterior canal, and was about to take me through some different exercises to address that. I wasn't looking forward to that. I had barely pulled off the Epley maneuver. It took me about an hour and a half of sitting bolt upright to work up the strength to think about lying down. I know that sounds weird, but the vertigo was so bad, if I so much as leaned back against the pillows I started retching again. 

Finally I called Shila and told her I was ready for the test, which would involve lying back on a couple of pillows, letting my head hang down behind me, and turning my head to the right, and then to the left. If the vertigo came back on either turn, we'd know which ear was affected.

Terrified that the retching would start again, I started to lean back. I lay down. Shila told me to turn my head to the right. Nothing happened.

Then I turned my head left. Nothing happened. 

The vertigo was gone. The crystal must have finally dropped out of my ear canal during that hour and a half of sitting bolt upright. In the end, my body told me what I had to do: roll my head around some, then sit up, and stay sitting up. Anything else: violently contraindicated.

Here's a link to the best, simplest video on The Epley Maneuver. It has comforting music and no razzmatazz.

That was about the worst six hours of my life, but I got through it, with a lot of help from my friend. It was 11:30 AM before I could even think about getting behind the wheel. Eating? Forget it. I limped back home, taking about 10 hours for a 7.5 hour drive. I stopped every hour or two and rested, feeling weak and woozy but grateful that I was on the road at all. Finally ate breakfast at 4:30 PM at Tamarack: The Art of West Virginia, ever my favorite highway rest stop in the universe. They play homemade string music, show WV artists in a gallery, and sell glorious hand-made work from WV artists and writers. And the food is catered by The Greenbriar. So you must stop there.

When I was going through Bristol, Virginia, I saw a gigantic Confederate flag on a hilltop, stark red against a blazing blue sky. I didn't photograph that.

But soon after, in Abingdon, I saw a very large dogwood tree on the edge of a cow pasture that was as white as a thunderhead. Not a leaf on it--just snow-white flowers, piling up against the sky. It was so beautiful I wept. Granted, I was tired and shaky, but I think I would have anyway. That is something, to see something so beautiful you just break down. And a native tree at that.

I stopped to take a nap and appreciate the dogwoods at the rest stop, since I couldn't stop for that one. I thought of Xerxes, who is said to have halted his Greek army's march for several days so that he might admire the beauty of a sycamore tree they encountered along the way. I could have lain under that lovely dogwood tree, looking up at the sky through its bracts, all afternoon. But I had to get home.

I felt the same about this magnificent redbud, but it was a bit close to the highway for lounging while admiring. See, I'm full of excuses for not stopping. I will always be that way.

 The light coming through new spring leaves was dazzling.

I felt so very, very lucky to be coming home under my own power, and not lying in a Hendersonville ER full of anti-nausea medication, waiting in line for a bunch of hugely expensive and unnecessary tests, probably starting with an electroencephalogram.  I had narrowly avoided putting myself in the medical machine, the diagnostic sausage grinder that eats your time and money for all the world as if it were an industry designed to do just that. The simple, elegant Epley Maneuver had come through. I had, with Shila's help, fixed myself.

 It just took a few hours longer than I'd have liked.

 I wondered why my weekend of hard work, sharing with like-minded souls, and taking joy in nature had ended so badly. Shrugged and decided that it just did, that's all, and there was no preventing it and no feeling sorry for myself. There was only taking the message. And that message is to stop doing so much. I've gotten that hint a number of times, but there's nothing like being grabbed, shaken hard, whirled in circles and turned upside down to get one's attention. It was a cosmic smackdown.

It was time to pay attention.

To the afternoon light running down the flanks of the Appalachian foothills. 

To the familiar shapes of the Three Graces, waiting to leaf out still, at the end of April. 


To the Hereford, looking over at her new calf.

To the freshly-washed white of its face, and the slow drain of a long day into peach.

To the full moon rising, getting caught in the arms of an heirloom pear tree, home at last.

In My Car, I'm Gone to Carolina

Friday, May 18, 2018

A little rattled, but hugely grateful.

That pretty much describes how I feel about this spring. OK, I'll expand and say it's how I feel about my life lately. Some things have happened in the last three weeks that amount to an arm-grab from the Universe, letting me know that I'm not a superhero. Or even half of one.
A bit of magnetic removable Subaru decoration from my friend Valerie Sinex of Wild Birds Unlimited in Yorba Linda, CA. Best goodie bag I've ever gotten!

450 miles. I can drive that in a day. No problem. For whatever reason, I don’t get tired while driving like I used to. My eyes don’t slam shut or roll back. I just go, and go, and go. Good thing, because I really slammed my schedule full this spring. People kept making enticing offers for me to come speak in places I really wanted to go! So I went, winding through the southeast Ohio foothills and into the West Virginia mountains and then the Virginia ones and Tennesee’s and from there into the serious by God mountains of North Carolina. I was amazed to see spring being completely held off, even that far south. What a year, what a cold, stingy spring it’s been, everywhere I’ve gone. I-77 was a regular redbud gallery, though, and that, the spring leaves, and my little Talenti gelato jars full of nuts and twigs and berries got me there.

I was in for a treat with Hendersonville, NC, where the Carolina Bird Club was holding its spring meeting, where I’d been invited to present. Even though I was tired when I got there, I made myself go out and find dinner. Yelp is a beautiful thing; I found a yummy mom and pop Thai place only a half mile from my lodge, so I walked there, reveling in the warm air on my skin. 

The clouds and a farm field, across from the restaurant. The food was homemade and I got to sit outside. And walk back to the hotel. Perfect! Yay Yelp!


Then, unable to resist the changing sky and balmy air, I drove to the old downtown and spent the rest of the evening walking up and down Main Street, windowshopping and taking photos of a nearly full moon rising over a stunning cloudbanks. What a beautiful town! Plus there is an ice cream shop at the head of Main Street, a meet destination for a weary traveler.

Live music floated out of two establishments; there were hippie d├ęcor shops

and clothing shops and one consignment shop that has my noseprints all over the glass. I’d have to try to get back when it was open. 
 Spotted on Main: a Tibetan terrier I could easily have smuggled home. He had lovely manners and one blue eye. Needless to say his color scheme was appealing to me. I'd keep him cut short, too.

Wow. Great live music. I wished I weren't so tired from my drive; I'd have gone in and not had a beer.

As night fell I basked in the warmish spring air and the sight of a nearly full moon rising over Main Street. It was lovely to be among the people walking the sidewalks slowly, looking in the windows of darkened shops. That’s my kind of shopping. It’s much cheaper than doing it when stores are open. Snort!

 Thanks to loyal blogreader Sheila, I already haz one of these. It was sweet to see a hint of Bacon looking back at me from a deserted antique shop. I remembered when I first got the cast iron Boston terrier doorstop. I put it on the floor and Chet barked at it, then walked up and smelled its ears and bottom before deciding it was inanimate. He was never quite sure about the Pig of Good Fortune, though. He barked at that intermittently, and even sniffed its ears now and then, just to make sure it was still terra cotta and hadn't suddenly turned into pork. A gemmun can dream.

Just a year ago, spring all lit up, little inkdog dribbled on the lawn. But it seems like forever.

The next morning was just full of birds. Birds everywhere, and wonderful people to share them with.  I got my best-ever look at a mama wood duck and her babies. She was stuck--there was a 5K being run in the park where we were birding, and she was hiding out in a little swamp circumscribed by the paved course with runners streaming by. Relaxed enough to preen, though, while we watched her babies feed themselves--for a woodie, she was one cool cucumber!

I was charmed by the Carolina silverbells--a small tree that blooms with pendant snow-white bells.

Occasionally, a warbler would slip through.

 Fraser magnolias were abloom. A classic Southern mountain tree. We see them in WV too--silverbells as well.

A group of naturalist/birders I was supposed to be co-leading got fractured, and a little ragtag band of us decided to climb up to Hickory Nut Falls because we couldn't find the others, and we all had cars to get back to the conference center for my keynote that evening. It was a good call and a nice, flowery climb.

Fern-leaved Phacelia was blooming enthusiastically amongst large granite boulders. 
I think its color shines best in shadow.

Also wearing Paradise Purple to the ball were dwarf crested iris. I had to teeter on a mountainside for this shot, and I was hoping the rocks didn't roll under me. These are dwarf with a bullet--only about 6" tall!


 Hickory Nut Falls was worth the climb!

I got back in plenty of time to load in, then get cleaned up for my talk. Reception, schmoozing, dinner, talking, keynote, booksigning. Met the lovely Maryann Kolb and her daughter Linda, longtime Facebook friends who I knew would be wonderful. I love it when it works out like that!  Loaded in many book boxes, each weighing 36 lb. Lots of bending and carrying and stooping after a very long day. Then loaded them out again. I had almost 17,000 steps on my Fitbit by the time I turned in at 11:30 pm.

Little did I know that my real adventure was just beginning. 
Next: Things that go sideways in the night.

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