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The Six O'Clock Fox

Saturday, November 19, 2022


I hated to leave Mason's Neck, but I was losing light, as one does in November. It was 6:30 when I decided to turn toward finding dinner and sleep. I was driving very slowly, drinking in the warm wind, the incense fragrance of the forest, when a big fox walked out of the woods and headed toward my car. 

Foxes usually avoid making eye contact, but this one was as bold as he was beautiful. 

It didn't take long for me to figure out that people have been feeding this animal.

For he was clearly begging.

He came up to my car and sat down.

I'll just wait here until you decide to give me some of those snacks I can smell you have in your car.

And then he lay down and pretended to doze.

I am nothing if not patient.

It is very dull, waiting for you to do the right thing. Do you have any fruit? Nuts?

Chips? Fried chicken?
Apples? Ham?

Instead of throwing him what he was asking for, I spoke to the fox. 

You, sir, are far too healthy and beautiful to be begging from cars.
Someone has done you a great disservice, throwing treats from their car. 
Probably many someones. I've no doubt you're famous around here.

But make no mistake:
You're the most beautiful fox I've ever seen, but you're a garbage hound.
There's nothing wrong with you that you need to abase yourself this way. Your fur is thick and glossy, your eyes bright, your legs strong.

But there is something wrong with the people who think it's a good idea to feed a fox.
Those are the same people who carve their initials on beech trees, you know. 

The very same?  I hate to see the beeches marked up. It's so ugly, and it never heals.

Yes. They aren't bad people, but they are ignorant and they have little respect for the beauty and sanctity of living things like 100-year-old trees, or wild red foxes.

And though you may think they're being kind, they have no respect for you and your amazing ability to catch food with nothing more than your teeth. They couldn't do what you do in a million years. They'd die in a week out here. And you're letting them turn you into a junk food junkie. Nothing they give you is good for you.

You are wild and free, making your living off the land, and there is absolutely no reason you should be begging for Cheetos from cars. 

The fox thought for a moment, then slowly walked away, his great thick brush low.
The white tip shone like a beacon in the gathering dark.

He stopped three times to look back at me.

You are an unusual human. You're not like the rest of them, who are very loud and who move too quickly and throw their hands around when they talk.

That's right. And you're not like the rest of the foxes. Go in peace, and find yourself a squirrel or a vole before dark. The world of people is no place for a soul like yours.

I drove away, and he continued walking around the bend. I hoped he'd change his ways; I sent him mind pictures of speeding cars, dogs let loose to chase him; people with guns.
I tried to send him back to the woods to stay, but I knew he'd do what he'd do.
I hoped he wouldn't bring his kits up begging.

I Yelped around until I found an El Salvadorean restaurant that, contrary to reviews and my high hopes, was awful. Who serves a quesadilla with frozen french fries? Ish. All white food.
 I'd have done better foraging in the woods.
So I Yelped some more and found an ice cream stand called Tim's Soft Serve and that was good.
It more or less balanced out. I hoped the fox had done better than me for his evening meal. 


Carry Me Back

Tuesday, November 15, 2022


 To olde Virginny...

I grew up in Virginia, roaming her woods and horse pastures when there were still woods and horse pastures (and bluebirds and brown thrashers and wood thrushes and red-shouldered hawks) sprinkled throughout the Greater Richmond area. I had a ten-speed and man I wish I'd had an odometer on that thing, for as far as I'd ride. 20 miles was nothing for a Saturday. I loved to explore. I had no GPS, nothing but the baked-in memory of all the turns I'd taken, and how I'd need to flip that mental map backward to get myself home. It was a grand and wonderful way to grow up. Independent, free as a bird, strong and healthy. Lucky. I worried the blue-eyed crap out of my poor Mom and Daddy, and more than once I'd hear a car pull up slowly behind me and find it was them, out on a Sunday afternoon, looking for their wild, far- flying bird.

 Of course I never understood why they couldn't grasp the fact that I was invulnerable. Until I had my own's the oldest story ever told. But mine never took off alone all day down country roads, probably because we have such horrendous hills all around here in Appalachian Ohio. The Piedmont was pretty flat, and man, could I ride. I'm sorry Mom. I'm sorry, DOD. I know now how utterly crazy I drove you. Thank you for letting me go. Truly. Thank you. As if you could ever have hoped to contain me.

This is the house I grew up in, how it looks right now. It looks pretty good, if you don't mind the fact that a hurricane took down the enormous sweet gums and oaks behind it--there was a wall of forest back there, that nurtured me just as sure as my mom's pot roasts and potatoes did. And if you don't mind the fact that a couple of owners back, they decided to run a paved driveway all the way around the house. They paved our sideyards. They paved the back yard, cut down all the trees. They smothered that rich red frustrating Virginia clay where my dad and I grew tomatoes, zinnias, snap beans and marigolds, even soybeans and once, popcorn! We grew four o'clocks and geraniums and petunias and cockscomb. Portulaca and a southern magnolia and even a couple of spindly pecan trees, much to the delight of the zillion squirrels. I grew Mediterranean birches, too--I was mad for birches. I haven't been back since they paved all that. A peek on Zillow is all I need to know that going back would kill a part of me. Look at those stupid just-bought shrubs, just trying to give it a little more curb appeal. We had boxwoods! These probably still have the tags on them.

You see that little blue slate sidewalk to the right of the front door? My dad laid that. He poured the cement driveway, too. And that's all that remains that I remember, other than the gross structure. I used to press my nose against those little windows on either side of the front door. The window slightly off center over the door was my bedroom, and in the summer flickers would drum on the metal gutter. What a way to wake up. I feel certain nobody in that house has heard a flicker drum for many, many years. Flickers need forest as much as I do.

  They completely remodeled the basement, since they're saying it's a five bedroom house. They'd have had to. It was my dad's workshop, and it was indescribably dirty down there. But oh, things happened down there. Things got made and fixed and created, and I loved that. There were wood and metal lathes, old gas engines, small two stroke engines, vises and hammers and chests of screws and nails. I can still smell the grease and exhaust and wood shavings and my dad's sweat. I'm glad I was raised in a house with an immaculate upstairs (thanks, Ida!) and a dirty basement (thanks DOD!) An immaculate Mom and a greasy Dad. It was a good way to grow up.

I wasn't expecting to write about all this, but what comes out is what comes out, and that's why I enjoy blogging, and writing in general. I needed to tell you this. I'm thinking about Richmond because I was just in Virginia again, to give a new talk to the Virginia Bluebird Society, in Woodbridge, about 90 miles north of my hometown. For all the reasons above, I was not tempted to go back "home." I dearly and desperately want to see my English and World Lit teacher from high school. so consider that a warning, Edith. I got to get to you somehow.

Omg this group of women--we laughed SO hard and we were SO bad at dinner, and we barely knew each other. It was just love at first sight! Vickie Fuquay, who is cut in half here, helped me so much at my booth. I was so distracted and having so much fun. She kept me grounded and signing books. I can't wait to see some of these folks at the North Carolina Bluebird Society meeting in April near Burlington! Already looking forward to it.

I had SUCH a marvelous time at the VBS meeting. Met people who will be my friends for good. Gave  new talk called "Have You Ever Wondered...Things I've Learned in 40 Years of Bluebirding."
 It's a collection of truly arcane, bizarre and fascinating things I've learned about bluebirds (and chickadees, wrens, swallows, nuthatches) while tending their nest boxes. I pitched it at people who do this, too, and it struck a chord that resonated and made music. I work on these talks for weeks, sometimes months, and it's always, always worth whatever time I put into it. 

After a couple days of socializing, though, my inner introvert was ready for the woods. I packed up an hour early on Saturday and was out by 1:30 pm. I pulled up Google Earth and looked for the nearest large forest tract. I'd been indoors too long. Mason's Neck State Park looked perfect! I'd never been, but I headed there like a migrating goose.  The minute I got out of the strip malls and housing developments and turned down the peninsula, I could smell the forest. I couldn't believe it. The smell came right through the car windows. It was so delicious. I felt like a dog, hanging its head out, taking big gulps of sweet air, smelling everything that lived and walked and grew in that woods.

I got to the gate and paid my ten rocks to get in, and asked the young attendant which trail would get me down by the water and would be best for bird photography. "That would be the Bay View Trail." Sign me up! I was not disappointed. 

One of the first plants I saw was new to me, outside of a pot or a greenhouse. I'd never seen harts tongue fern in the wild! WOOW!! Omg huge Science Chimp fail—turns out to be swamp dock. Total plant Buck Fever. And what happens when you let an app tell you what you’re looking at. Thank goodness someone swooped in to correct this. “Seen nearby,” iNaturalist?? I think not!

It was pretty common throughout the first swamp I encountered.

Gorgeous swamp forest--beaver swamp! Oh it's so good to see beavers allowed to do their magic! Why can't humans realize they are the best habitat engineers on earth? Why do people trap them out and kill them wherever they try to do their beautiful work? Look what they do, spreading a welcome mat for ducks and shorebirds, fish and frog and salamander alike. Do click on these photos to appreciate it all.

Do you see what I see? Asleep in the hollow of a beaver-drowned tree?
They look like angels when they're sleeping...

The first bird I heard and saw was a winter wren! To my surprise, winter wrens outnumbered Carolinas three to one here. I decided that winter wrens must come here to spend the offseason, as they are boreal nesters. What a beautiful little bird to find anywhere, especially here.

I was keeping an eBird list, and I counted nine winter wrens. The local reviewer questioned that, so I sent him these two photos, and he validated my report. Heh. I talked to a couple of birders I ran into, but they weren't even aware they were swimming in winter wrens. Oh well. Now they are. Gotta learn those calls, folks. You miss so much if you don't learn the calls.

American holly is very scarce here in southeast Ohio. I know where to find some, but it's rare.

 It isn't rare in Virginia! What a treat for me and the robins migrating through! and what a cheery presage of Christmas!

All the great beautiful beeches near the trail had been defaced. Humans. I even found my initials on this one. I assure you I would never harm a tree to make such a dopey cruel mark.

If you do this to a tree, you are a blithering idiot, and you need to stop immediately and forever. I'm preaching to the converted here on this blog, but be it known: If you're carving a beech, you'd better hope I'm not coming down the trail. Carve a beech, and you're gonna get my full Mad Mom voice, which is like being judy chopped. You're gonna get Zicked good.

The ignorant are also lazy. I didn't have to go more than 100' off the trail and into the woods to find pristine beeches, never defaced.
Look how this one is burying its big old toes in the duff. It's like someone sticking their toes in the sand at the beach. Ahhh.

Even here in coastal Virginia, the leaves were almost all on the ground. Only the beeches and oaks were still hanging onto them. The duff was a foot or more deep. I remember that from my childhood, barely being able to walk in the woods for the depth of the fallen leaves. I remember my dad saying, "Virginia sure can grow big trees." Spoken like an Iowan.

Deep in the woods, a spider had hung a wreath on this pristine beech. The leaves its web caught moved in the breeze, making the most beautiful decoration--the only decoration it needed. 

Believe it or not, this is a tulip tree's feet. I suspect this anomalous root growth is a response to periodic inundation in this swamp forest, with the tree trying to get a bit more oxygen. It may also reflect shallow soils. I don't think of tulip trees as being a bottomland species, but I think they can be. 

Here's the top of the same tree. It went up forever!

UPDATE: I heard from Almuth Tschunko of Marietta College, who told me what is more likely going on with the tulip tree "legs":
Almuth: "I think the seed from which this tree grew, most likely germinated on top of a big "nurse" log or stump. Over the years it grew several roots out and down along the nurse log/stump and into the soil. These arched roots grew woody and stout enough to support the tree by the time the nurse log/stump had decomposed. (A Google search for "nurse logs" brings up a lot of nice images.  Enjoy!) "

Love it when my sharp friends come in for a correction!

The forest smelt of incense. Curing oak and sweetgum (sweetest of them all)--a smell right out of my 8508 Academy Road backyard memory book--we had four beautiful sweetgums that would turn yellow, red, purple, maroon and orange all at once!! Oh how we loved to see those trees turn in October! And the scent of their fallen leaves!! And the little spaceballs they dropped! My dad used them as briquettes in an antique blacksmith's forge he used as a grill. They would glow orange when he pumped the handle to send more air through his fire. And oh, the taste they laquered onto our bacon-wrapped hamburgers. I'm drooling just thinking of it. I wonder if his beautiful blue slate patio is still back, no. Don't go back. Just remember.

I was drunk on the sweet smell of this forest. There was just the slightest hint of fug beneath it, from the methane in the marsh mud--but it served to set off the high, sweet notes perfectly, like a black backdrop sets off a rose. I reeled down the trail like a possum, wondering if anyone else thought it smelled like Paradise here. It was the last warm day of November, too, in the mid-70's with a nice soft breeze.

Maybe the locals are all used to it. I could never take that scent for granted.

If you're anywhere near Mason's Neck State Park, near Occoquan, Virginia, treat yourself.

It was just the most sublime four hours I could have spent. And I didn't even know the best was yet to come.

The Metamorphosis of Liam Thompson

Monday, November 7, 2022



Liam, I've been thinking about you. As you know, I love metamorphosis, watching living things grow and change and thrive. So I'll start your birthday post with the larval form. This photo was taken November 8, 1999, at around 2 in the afternoon, and we'd just gotten you home. It was your birth day. You were so precious. Your head was the size of a Delicious apple. Your hair was a bizarre satiny champagne color.


In this photo, you look to be about at the second instar.  Still pretty soft and grublike. Mighty cute.
 You've got some molts to go, little worm. Washington County Fair, probably September 2003.

We'll fast forward a bit to the sweet fella, who has shed into a form that's a bit more hip.

And I couldn't resist this one of you peeking to see if Daddy was really asleep in the hammock on Hog Island. If he was, he wouldn't be for long. You were an itch!

An all-time favorite, from that time I took you along to the Space Coast Birding Festival, and we had a little time just to mess around on the beach. Prolegs have lengthened. This caterpillar is maturing! 

I cannot look at this photo without laughing out loud. Lord, how you make me laugh. Still an itch!

Lots of good food, fresh air and exercise add up to a healthy late-instar unit. Running the haybales on a winter evening. I can only watch in amazement. This is not in my Hobbit repertoire, to leap at high speed from bale to bale. I'd be down in the first crevasse in a heartbeat.

Oh, my. I have been surpassed by a head or so.
Renting a tux for prom, April 6, 2017.

Ma wasn't going to let just anyone take your senior photos. She's too cheap, and 
homegrown is better.

Moving into elegant form as a college freshman on November 6, 2018. Who's that lady?

She keeps appearing. Must be someone important!

Four years later, at your June 2022 college grad party...

photo by Evan Dorsky

and a time-travel back in summer 2022...why, there's Hailey again! 

I feel like the lucky one to be able to see you through each molt.  You've emerged!
You're a Mothman now!

Liam and Hog Sphinx, July 24, 2022

Fully realized, and able to fly, now looking for a place to land.

I'm so thankful to have you here, if only for the interim**, to share this place, this cur, and these skies.

Your first magazine cover arrived via rumbly brown truck yesterday. I hadn't painted a magazine cover by the time I was 23! Oh, what a feeling, to see your work in print! May this be the first of many, many more!

And there's the full lunar eclipse from 3-6 AM, on your birthday. I am, of course, up to see it. I've gotten up to look at the moon at 12:30, 2, 3, 4... I peek out. The moon has but a tiny sliver of light; the disc is dark. You're asleep, and I'm not going to wake you.
I have been awake, enjoying the eclipse, sleeping in peaceful bits, thinking about the Metamorphosis of Liam. 23 years old!

I go to wake you. I have to. I have a coat for you in my arms. You think about it for a minute, then come with me through the dark house to the downstairs patio. Through the binoculars, the moon is a pellucid disc, not red, but more the color of sun through a squirrel's ear.

Orion blazes to the south, leaning into his battle with Taurus. Mars is hung up right between Taurus' horns.
I'm betting on Taurus for this battle; he's got Mars on his mind. The Pleiades twinkle over the moon, revealed in its darkness.
 Everything is perfectly dark but for the stars and that softly glowing disc. The night is cold, breezy. Dry leaves swish and tick in the wind. 
Whoa, coool! you say as you look through the binoculars. I'm grinning in the dark, glad you let me drag you out yet again into this abundant life.

You look again, take a deep breath of the sweet cold night, and turn back to the warm house and your  bed.
I'm glad I woke you after all. I stay out, looking. 

 A meteor streaks over. I'm still smiling about it when another meteor falls.
It has to be so dark to see the meteors any more.

The moon stays in totality for ages longer than I thought it would. Its disk gets darker and darker as it sinks behind the orchard trees. I can't see my hand in front of my face. I can't take photos; this is well above my pay grade as a photographer. It's 6:05 AM, and still dull squirrel-ear mauve. 6:18 am, and it's still a barely visible pinkish whisper in the west as dawn streak-paints the eastern sky. Who knew?

Up and down the tower stairs I go. I hope you're asleep again.

I love you, sweet, funny, brilliant, beautiful boy. I sure love living here with you. Happy birthday, and salut! 
to another swing around Ol' Sol.

 Here's to you, to the tremendous strides you've taken the last few years; to the life I know is waiting for you out there, the work that will, I trust, use your talents and bolster your confidence; a space of your own; love and travel and new places to explore on your big, still-tender wings.

**PSA: he's still looking for a position as a graphic designer. The closer to NYC, the better.  

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