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Gotcha Day for Curtis Loew

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

I let Curtis run on this first real snow of the winter. He loves snow and cold and he loves nothing better than to run. When he’d been gone for about an hour I set out after him with the Marco Polo tracker. I knew about where to start because I’d been with him when he picked up a coon trail, ever his favorite. So I headed west, out the old orchard, and in the direction I’d last heard him bark. No dice. The signal said he’d gone southwest. So out the meadow I walked, snow clinging to my boots with that crunching tramp I’d had yet to hear this winter. 

Man, he was a long way off. I heard him bark, and plunged down into the west valley. He was clear over on the other side of the Chute! I called, and the tracker sent a little ping to let him know where I was, and before too long he appeared on the slope above me. He wove through the trees and was so happy to see me. Not as happy as I was to see him!

We found a deer bed.

And an old cast iron bathtub, on our land, one I’d never known was there! It shows up a lot better in snow. For those who wonder (and I do, all the time), farmers use them to water cattle. They place them in a natural spring and let the spring keep them filled.

Bonus score. I now own an old rusty bathtub, and I can tell you it’s staying right there. I wondered who lived in it, but didn’t feel strong enough to tip it up and see. 

Since we were sort of in the vicinity, I decided to show Curtis the Chute. The Chute used to be where I went when I needed a destination. It took me about a half hour to get there, tramping quickly through the woods on trails I maintained with a clippers. Chet Baker and I went there all the time. 

In fact, in my very first blogpost, which I think was called Chet Likes Ice, back in December 2005, I told about how that pup skibbled  up and down this watercourse with a huge grin on his face, like it was no big thing to race up and slide back down a slick icy creek bed. That’s the kind of dog he was.

Curtis is not that kind of dog. He doesn’t do a lot of things just to be silly. He is a more serious kind of guy. He is all about independence and freedom and exploration, about hunting and then finding his way back home to keep me company in the most marvelous way. 
He’s the kind of dog you have to let go, so he will come back.

To see this magnificent dog, my Curtis Loew, in the Chute for the first time was a wonderful and wondrous thing. To look up the stream that feeds it

And down the path where Chet and I used to walk, now completely obstructed by fallen beeches, was incredibly moving to me. Could he know what it meant to me? This is where I hiked with my babies in backpacks, and later with the Boston terrier who made me a dog lover for life. 

I think he knew. He stuck to me like a tick the whole time, when he could just as easily have gone off on another toot.

I’m writing this in honor of Curtis Loew’s Gotcha Day, which is February 19, 2019. What all my family was enduring at that time I cannot and will not even describe. Adopting Curtis was the best decision I could possibly have made, for all concerned. How I connected with this dog, first through a chance viewing of his photo in my friend Kelly’s ( @ballabing) Instagram post; how an arrow pierced my heart when I saw his face; how I thought about him the entire time I was at Klamath Falls, Oregon; how I decided in Medford’s tiny airport that I had to adopt him, and then how I stayed overnight at Kelly’s home in Columbus just so I could meet him the next day... it still melts me just to think about that chain of events.

And how that dog connected with everyone who needed him, how he guided us through the darkest woods anyone can walk with the sweet light of his love...he saved US. All I had to do was say yes, please open that stainless steel door, and let that brindle one out. I want to meet him.

I led Curtis up out of the Chute and he kept looking over his shoulder to the northeast, toward home. No, sweetheart. Follow me. I want to take you somewhere else.

He fell into place beside me and I took him to the Overlook, where I had stood so many times with little Chet. We gazed out at the view, which is different, and still the same.

Here, the coyotes had milled around, greeted each other, and undoubtedly howled in the night. Oh, he was all afire investigating their news.

Here I used to come when I needed to clear my head. Now the paths I so carefully cut are all grown to briars and crossed by tree fall after tree fall. It is hard to get here now.
That makes me sad. But it made me happy to know the way like the back of my hand, even when I had to detour for hundreds of yards. I know these woods.

And it made me so very happy to have a fine dog at my side to hug and talk to, a dog who cares about me and loves nothing more than to see me happy.

In one of my tree fall workarounds, I slipped and fell deep in the forest. Unbeknownst to me, my iPhone 6 bounced out of my pocket and into the snow. I didn’t discover it until we got home. I explained to Curtis that we had to retrace our steps until we found the place I’d fallen, because I knew that was where the phone would be. Thank God for snow! I could follow my steps exactly, looking the whole way for the little slot in the snow I knew that phone would have made. 

And there, 3/4 mile back, was the big floofmark where I’d gone down, and the little rectangular slot off to the left that the phone made when it landed. I laughed out loud to see the phone standing pertly upright in the snow, waiting for me exactly where I knew it would be. I hugged Curt and thanked him for coming back with me to find it. He danced and his eyes sparkled, and we loped even faster toward home.

Back up the meadow, to the red house with the red garage.

Back to the place that feels like home, because of who lives there with me. 

I don’t know that there’s anyone who could have helped me through this ongoing labyrinth of grief the way Curtis has helped me. And, seeing him coursing through snowy woods, I don’t think there’s anyone who could have given him just exactly what he needed, exactly when he needed it, either. Some things were meant to be, some souls were meant to meet and be together, as long as Fate allows. And Fate has allowed a great deal here.

Curtis, finest of brindle curs, thank you for gracing all our lives with your wise, warm, mellow presence. Thank you for, under all the loving, still being the purely wild thing you are, for knowing the ways of the woods and of wild animals, for perfectly embodying whom I most want to be, in canine form. You truly are my spirit animal.

No thanks for being skunked three times in 8 months. No thanks for thinking that getting sprayed is perfectly worth it, because next time you’re gonna grab that little animal just right, before he sprays. You big dummy. You’re the smartest dumb dog I’ve ever known. And the best. Happy Gotcha Day, dear Curtis Loew. Let’s have many, many more.

From the Heights: Vultures, Deer, and Remembering Bill

Friday, February 14, 2020

We’re back in Extremadura, Spain, because vultures and deer. Big birds like griffon vultures were easier to capture than the little birds. Do click on these; they're quite nice if you can see them at size.

I loved the griffons. We watched them for much of the day. This one is building its nest in a likely cranny.

This one may have been feeding on a bloody carcass, as its head was stained red. I wondered how so many huge vultures found enough to eat. I understand there are feeding stations where cattle are laid out for them. Knowing how vultures are suffering and declining worldwide, it’s comforting to see them being subsidized here in Extremadura.

I was grateful to see so many griffon vultures sailing by with comfortably full crops and bloodied heads.

Phoebe, Liam and I climbed to the top of a tower to see the countryside. We did a lot of that, climbing cathedral towers and castle towers, always looking for the eagle's vantage point. 

Ah my beautiful babies. How I reveled in being with them for two weeks. We never got sick of each other. That alone makes my heart sing. To see their enduring love for each other...I can paint and write for the rest of my life, but these two and that love they share is the most beautiful thing I've somehow, inexplicably produced. Had a lot of help from their big sweet crazy dad.

He would have loved showing us Extremadura. We laughed about how goal-oriented he'd have been, searching for the golden eagle, the gigantic black vulture that we somehow spotted the second we entered the park. We looked, too, but we didn't find eagles, and that was OK with us. It wouldn't have been OK with him! He was a goaly guy.

They’re somewhere out there, and that was enough for us. We didn’t have to go chasing over hill and dale to find one. We felt him with us. How could he be anywhere else? If you could see him at 20...he looked an awful lot like this beautiful boy.

You'd have to love wind to live here. Wind sculpted our hair every second.

Me, lugging all necessary optics, all the time, up hill and down dale. 
I was thoroughly encumbered. Once in awhile I'd give Liam my camera to carry, and think how lovely it would be to have a personal porter.

Gliding down, flaps lowered...I imagined my great wings carrying me like a hang-glider, my legs dangling down.

It looks like such fun to dip and dive over this landscape, to ride on the wind instead of standing around fighting it.

And then we rest...

Some of the vultures were carrying twigs and greenery for their nests, before Christmas! Seeing such a majestic and mysterious bird carrying a little sprig of greenery moved me. You could see its goal, there in its bill. It had a thought in its mind and was carrying it out.

After having seen the stag swim the river, we were thrilled to see an Iberian hind and her fawns feeding amongst scattered boulders on a hillside. This is Cervus elaphus hispanicus, the Iberian red deer.

These creatures are much larger and longer legged and lankier than our whitetail; they're very much like the Scottish red deer, which is built more on an elkish body plan. Both European red deer and American elk are in the genus Cervus. Interestingly, Cervus is a primarily Eurasian genus, and our wapiti is the only representative in North America, and certainly the largest of any Cervus worldwide. Our elk are just hyooooge compared to Iberian deer, but this is still a whole lot of animal!

I was most delighted with this shot of three running amongst the rocks; the way they're in focus but the rocks aren't. Please click on it! It looks like a diorama if you embiggen it.

That evening, an Iberian stag cut right in front of our car, and Liam grabbed the moment. December 21, the Winter Solstice, was a charmed day with my sweet family, and it wasn't over yet!


This post is a little Valentine to my Liam and Phoebe. Your mama is very far away at the moment, but I hope you can feel my love hurtling on clumsy wings through an Ecuadorean rainstorm, up over the Andes, over the Gulf of Mexico, up through the Appalachian chain, and dropping down into Morgantown. Then it’s picking up again, crossing the winter Atlantic, and zeroing in on a certain girl in mainland Spain right now. You can close the windows and bar the doors, but it’s coming in.

Birds and Hogs, Cranes and Dogs!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

These photos were taken Dec. 21,  2019, on Liam's and my epic trip to mainland Spain to be with Phoebe and, later, Oscar and his family way out in the Canary Islands. Despite my life's barrelling on apace, I am dogged about getting this Spain stuff posted, so my kids and I will have something semi-coherent to remember the trip by. I can see by the numbers that you really prefer the day-to-day Indigo Hill reportage, and I get that. It's more accessible and personal.  I thank those of you who stick with me here on the blog as I travel a bit.  

Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura, south central Spain, is a wild and windy place. Being winter, it was also cold, though I understand it can be broiling hot in summer. We carried on despite the howling wind, and managed to see some sights and some wildlife.  
This is a very distant blue rock thrush. I'm sure in proper light it's lovely, its blue being more of a slate color. There are similar birds in South Africa.

The cork oaks in the dehesa forest are laid out so regularly you wonder if they were planted like this, or if they somehow assert their space and keep all other oaks away with root poisons. I don't know the answer to this. I've been rooting around to try to understand more about this strange oak savannah ecosystem. Suffice it to say it's probably anthropogenic in origin, and dates back thousands of years, yet it provides both for livestock and wildlife in myriad ways.

 It's an acorn-based economy! Sheep and pigs and cattle graze the grass beneath the oaks and wild olives; shepherds take the sheep, especially, to the highlands in summer, which prevents overgrazing of the dehesa plain, in a process called transhumancia. It's much like the cattle drives of the old American west, but it's still going on.

I was beyond thrilled to get a close look at a Mastin de Extremadura, and a brindle one to boot! This Spanish mastiff, a specialty of the region, was wandering out by the road, with no humans in sight, but his job is to guard the sheep. These dogs are raised with sheep from the time they're tiny; they seem to think they're sheep, and want only to be with sheep. But let someone approach their herd, and their protective nature comes out. They'll follow you with the evil eye until you give up the pursuit. And they can back it up with massive jaws and great speed.

I just couldn't get over the beauty of this dog, with a tail like a tiger's, and brindle stripes running through its long fur. I will admit to a new fascination with brindling. Not sure where that came from.

It wanted nothing at all to do with us, and retreated to the top of the bank.

There, I got a shot of its kind and gentle face. Still, not a dog to be challenged or trifled with. It's got a job to do!

I will sit here until you drive away. Please go away. I have sheep to guard.

Meanwhile, nicely rounded Iberian hogs and sheep, cattle and goats, kept in by wire and impossibly ancient mortar-free stone fences, all eat the acorns that fall from the oaks, and that  diet gives the hogs' hams their unique flavor. But they're not the only ones who eat the acorns. 

Cranes (which look like nothing unless you click on the photo) do too!

Click on the photo to see a juenile crane, with its featureless head. This was as close as we ever got to them, and they were in a hurry to right that wrong, walking off immediately.

I managed to catch a few in transit.

The hogs were pretty wild, too, come to think of it.

Cattle were more approachable.

A couple of the famous fighting bulls for which the region is known. Oscar is a born Spaniard, but he detests bullfighting, as do many of his peers. One hopes we are entering a different age, one a bit more advanced than that of the Roman emperors and their bloodlust.

There was so much to take in here that my mind was whirling the whole time. The interconnectedness of the dehesa oaks and olives; the livestock living cheek to jowl with cranes and vultures and azure-winged magpies

You may be quite sure I bemoaned my craptastic shots of these beautiful magpies. You can only see their azure if you click. Oh how I wanted to be closer, but they were too wild.

A crested lark amongst the cowpies. We loved his up-do. 

A beautiful linnet in winter plumage!

Linnet reprise.

A pair of siskins with Moorish architecture behind.

And a wood pigeon. Man, I was under-equipped in the camera realm. An 800 mm lens might have gotten something; my 300 was smoking and still I got so little. No wonder European birders flip all the way out when they come to America and especially the Neotropics. It's like a dang petting zoo compared to Extremadura. 

A confiding great tit. It was wonderful to have any bird confide in us, so skittish were they all. There aren't many bird families whose European representatives are prettier than the American species, but man, the tits in Europe are really beautiful. Insert whatever middle-school level joke you wish here _____________.  I saw long-tailed tits flying over Caceres this same evening, but getting photos of them would have been an impossible dream.

All right. I've gone on long enough. Until next time!! Olé!

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