Monday, December 13, 2010

Camp Dog, George

Here's a shot of my little dog, George, on the dock in the Adirondacks, learning "the ropes" of being a good camp dog. She's not really tied up with that big rope--it just looks that way! My August-October project was a chapter book called, Camp Dog George.  

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Children's Pony

The Children’s Pony

When I was three, and we were living in Loudonville, New York, our parents bought us a pony. She was a palomino Welsh pony, with a luxurious silver mane and tail. She had a triangular white patch on her near hindquarter. That marking made its way onto Thunder, the primitive horse in my novel, Wind Rider, as a sign that she was somehow genetically different, with a kind streak which allowed her to be tamed. To this day, Przewalsky horses are nearly impossible to train.

Our pony’s name was Primrose when she came to us, and she was quite naughty at first. I remember that my brother David thought up the name Maple Sugar and gradually she came to trust us and grow into her new name. She settled down to following my mother around like a big golden puppy and allowing all sorts of shenanigans like London Bridge under her belly and multiple children on her back. I truly thought I could ride her and embarrassed myself horribly when I told my teacher at Farm School (a magical nursery school) that I didn’t need to be led. You guessed it! The venerable old pony, Mickey Mouse, ran back to the barn with me at a trot! We did have one scare with Maple Sugar when she ran away down Border Road with my sister, Cathy, on her back. Like Mickey Mouse, she was probably thinking about her hay. Daddy was able to flag down a passing car, head her off, and catch her, and Cathy stayed in the saddle.

That summer, and for the next few years that we had her, we brought Maple to our camp on an island in New Hampshire, where my older brother, Ted, then ten or twelve, rode her on the old logging trails. When I later discovered the Billy and Blaze books by C.W. Anderson, I thought of Ted’s adventures riding his pony alone on the island. She learned to roll under the single strand of electric fence wire and visit Mrs. Fenn next door, who would open the kitchen window and hand her a few chocolate Hydrox cookies.

When we moved to Winchester, MA, in 1957, the fall of my fourth birthday, Daddy built a tiny stable for Maple in the back yard under the oak trees. Our grandparents came over to help and it was a big family project. Maple’s stable was a beautiful little building that stood until my parents passed away and the house was sold fifty years later. It had plank siding, a shingled roof, two windows, an overhang which allowed storage of a few bales of hay, and an electric light which worked from a big round, red battery on a little shelf by the door. I recall sitting in her manger on a winter’s day, methodically setting off a roll of caps from my brothers’ cap guns, one by one, by scratching each with a nail. Maple never minded. She just kept on placidly munching her hay and blowing steamy breaths into the cold air. We have a lovely home movie clip of Maple frisking in new snow on Christmas morning in the back yard.

I don’t really know what happened, but as many ponies do, Maple foundered. I remember the vet coming and big white horse pills which were probably the horseman’s common anti-inflammatory known as “bute.” (Butezaldone—hope my spelling is close I can’t seem to find it in Google.) Founder is a painful condition of the laminae of the hooves which causes lameness. Ponies can recover and be ridden again, but I think my mother was frazzled from raising four kids and felt she just couldn’t cope with a pony any more. In any case, Maple was given to Doris Spollett in Hampstead, NH. Doris was a NH representative in the days when few women were in politics. She loved horse and actually had her childhood pony and family carriage horse stuffed in the barn. She was going to breed Maple. We went to visit our pony once, and when all four children cried, Mummy said, never again. I was six.

Every Christmas after that, I asked for a pony. When my own children began begging for one, a fuzzy, round Shetland pony appeared in the goat pen one Christmas morning. His original name was Peanut. It was magical when the girls, then four and seven, chose Chestnut as his new name. Chestnut lived with us for about fifteen years before going to pony heaven. I am still working on a middle grade novel about him. He was always naughty, but we all loved him dearly. Sometimes he would rest his chin on my shoulder. He went to Pony Club Nationals for games twice and when Fern wanted to “be a cave girl for the summer,” was the inspiration behind Wind Rider. Like my golden childhood pony, Maple Sugar, he too was a Children’s Pony.

The Children’s Pony

We have a golden pony
With silver mane and tail
And Daddy built a house for her
With hammer saw and nail

Davy named her Maple Sugar
Teddy fed her hay
He’s big enough to ride alone
They saw a deer one day

Cathy’s toe got stepped on
It bled and made her cry
And Maple nudged her with her nose
As if to ask her why

I like to go and visit
In my snowsuit, boots, and hat
And sit up in her manger
For a cozy winter chat

We play London Bridges
Underneath her tummy
And she thinks chocolate cookies
At the house next door are yummy

We dressed her up as Pegasus
With cardboard wings and ties
And we were mad that day
Because she didn’t win first prize

She follows Mummy like a dog
And I’m not scared at all
With both fists buried in her mane
I know I couldn’t fall

Our cousins and the neighbors
And the dogs all run beside
And each child gets a turn
When we take Maple for a ride

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Ordinary Childhood

I'm still working on that title, but am simmering up a collection of rhymes about my childhood, 1953 through about 1965. We spent summers on a lake in southern New Hampshire. Maybe that's not so ordinary. We were damned lucky. We still are. My kids only had two weeks there each summer, but they are lake kids in their hearts. Our camp had well water piped to the kitchen sink, but my grandparents' camp had only lake water. My two brothers, Dave and Ted, my sister Cathy, and I were expected to fetch well water every few days for Grammy and Baba in gallon glass jugs.

The easiest way to fill them was from the faucet on the side of the pumphouse behind our camp. This was a little squat building of weathered boards nestled among ancient pines and hemlocks, on a path beside a Colonial-era stone wall. In May, pink ladyslippers sprang out of the pine needles like earthbound fairies. Until August, we battled swarms of mosquitos which thrived in the cool, moist air around the pumphouse.

The jugs were heavy. The good ones had a sort of glass tab which allowed one to use several fingers to carry them. The hard ones had only a ring for the index finger. As the littlest child, I was assigned a half-gallon jug with a tab. I remember being quite fond of my jug. As I grew, I could handle a full gallon like my big sister and finally a gallon in each hand like our bigger brothers. Our grandfather wanted us to develop a little muscle, I think, and didn't like to put the jugs in the cupboard or fridge with pine needls or sand on the bottom, so the challenge was not to set a jug down to rest on the five minute walk.

There was a greater challenge though. When a few gallons had been drawn from the tap, the pump would start up with a loud banging which sounded like: a-huntel! a-huntel! a-huntel! My brothers were masters of terror and invented a little old man who lived in the pumphouse. They told Cathy and me that he resented us taking his water and hammered with his hammer to warn us away. If we took too much, he would burst out the door and come after us. I have a pretty clear image in my mind to this day of a wizened little man running after me with a hammer in his upraised had!

The twist to this horrible possibilty was that the boys were bigger and filled their jugs first. Just about the time their jugs were full, the pump would start up. they would run down the path, laughing, chanting: a-huntel! a-huntel! a-huntel! along with the banging pump. Cathy and I were left quaking, sometimes even crying, yet more fearful of our our grandfather's rath if we didn't fetch our share of water. Even seeing our father go into the pumphouse to work on the pump, peering into that damp, cobwebby, half-underground, concrete chamber and seeing for ourselves that there was nobody at home, didn't entirely erase our fear. Until my grandparents finally had a well drilled at their own camp, my heart always thudded harder when the pump started up and The Little old Man in the Pumphouse started banging away with his hammer.

The Little Old Man in the Pumphouse

There’s a little old man in the pumphouse
My brothers both say that it’s true
But sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be scared
That he’ll jump out and run after you
The little old man in the pumphouse
Has skin that’s all mossy and green
And snaggley teeth and little mad eyes
He’s horrid and hairy and mean

A-huntel! a-huntel! a-huntel!
He hammers with might and with main
A-huntel! a-huntel! a-huntel!
Again and again and again
Who would be stealing my water—my icy-cold bubbling brew?
Children who dare
You’d better beware
Or I’ll hunt with my hammer for you!

There’s a little old man in the pumphouse
He pounds and he pounds with his hammer
We have to fetch water for Grammy and Baba
In spite of the clash and the clamor
Teddy and David are bigger
They make us girls fill our jugs last
And the hammer is pounding as loud as our hearts
As laughing they run away fast

Cathy can carry a big gallon jug
Switching hands without stopping to rest
Our brothers are strong, they can each carry two
But I like my half-gallon best
I can’t set it down because Baba will know
If there’s pine needles stuck to the wet
That drips down the glass on the side of my jug
Like icy-cold hot summer sweat

There’s a damp little room in the pumphouse
One time Daddy opened the door
And pulled on the string that turned on the light
I saw steps and the pump—nothing more
But the little old man in the pumphouse
Still hammers with all of his might
And tho’ I’m quite sure that he’s only pretend
He still makes me shiver with fright

A-huntel! a-huntel! a-huntel!
He hammers with might and with main
A-huntel! a-huntel! a-huntel!
Again and again and again
Who would be stealing my water—my icy-cold bubbling brew?
Children who dare
You’d better beware
Or I’ll hunt with my hammer for you!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Morning pages, Take Two


Morning Pages as Blog

Well, I didn’t get too far with that. Last entry, May 8th. But the good thing about life is that until we close our eyes for the last time, we can always open them again, and try something once more. Do all writers worry that what they write might be ho-hum drivel? The trouble with morning pages as blog is that they tend to be—and it’s okay—messy, vague, wandering, unedited, or in other words pretty embarrassing if published to the web without spending some time slapping them into shape. But at least it’s a start, and at least it’s writing. It seems like far too many days, I don’t actually write.

There are so many other things to do . . . Sorta like the little boy at Whitesville school who when I was talking to his class about writing, stuck his hand up and asked, “Did you ever think of all the things you could have been doing when you were writing?” So what kept me from it yesterday? Girls Scouts, dear friend Marsha who got me involved . . . and horseback riding, which is not a bad thing to do at all on a glorious, warm sunny day in November when I know there will be months ahead with no riding. Well, at least thanks to Sandy, I have discovered the joy of riding bareback in winter. The insane gallops which Katy and I love so much should be reserved for a saddle and good footing.

I did get an odd and an end done yesterday. Finished Jan de Hartog’s The Little Ark about two children who survive a great flood in Holland in 1953. When I picked it up at Kasey and Kevin Cox’s (From My Shelf Books, Wellsboro, PA) Book Festival used book table a few weeks ago I was thinking he was Meindert DeJong who won the Newbery for The Wheel on the School in 1954 (lovely story about children trying to get storks to roost on the roof of their school). De Hertog’s story is written from the perspective of two children, but the details about the horrific flood with bloated bodies of people and animals are so graphic that I kept wondering if it was at all meant to be a children’s book. I think the only other books I’ve read about Holland are Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates (which I now want to read again after reading about it in the essay on classics at the end of Red Badge of Courage which I recently reread as research for my long-simmering Civil War story) and those lovely artbooks about Trolls that came out about 25 years ago. One of my first serious creative writing attempts must have come soon after reading Mary Mapes Dodge. It was a play that took place in Holland. I was in about fourth grade and I’m pretty sure it was about a flood! Oh look, yummy! I have in my hoard of treasured books a 1932 Garden City Publishing edition of Hans Brinker illustrated by N. C. Wyeth and Peter Hurd. Hmmm, who the heck is Peter Hurd? Any relation to Goonight Moon’s Clement Hurd? (Same generation 1904-1984, western artist, b. Carlsbad, NM territory, student on N.C.)

Quick glance at Jan de Hartog (1914-2002) son of a minister, ran away to sea twice, playwrite, novelist, Dutch national treasure, came to America. He clearly needs more investigation! Anyway, the book was exquisite and despite the tough stuff, very funny.

So yesterday, I read, walked, applied to the Empire State Book Festival, prepped for Scout meeting, rode with Carol, put today’s book signing for Moose Power! at the Canacadea Country Store in Alfred up on Facebook, counted $$ from &#@@!* cookie sales, talked to my girls about courage and strength, taught them how to giftwrap a box of cookies (our sales gimmick for our cookie sale at the Independence Grocery Store Sunday 1-3, do come and buy some cookies!), let them groom and ride little old Shady for horse lovers badge, for dinner made crab cakes to go with our garden carrots and Wiz’s fabulous salad and fried green tomatoes, watched John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, relaxed in the hot tub with Wiz and saw four shooting stars--one stunning--and started a new book, Woof, loaned by Ronnie, dog stories, so far delicious. And all the time, a potential rhyme about “The Little Old Man in the Pumphouse” is running through my head. I tried to write it once. Think I can do better, but the troll on my shoulder keeps saying I’m a lousey poet.

So now, with two quick edits, it's 7:40 and there's lots to do today, so I’m going to post this drivel.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shameless Self Promotion

Moose Power!
Muskeg Saves the Day
a sweet Christmas Story

2010 Events: Meet the Author and buy a signed copy for someone you love:

Rochester Children's Book Festival, Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY
Saturday, November 6, 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM

Canacadea Country Store, Main Street, Alfred Station, NY
Saturday, November 13, 11:00 AM - 3:00 PM

Holiday Extravaganza, Main Frame Picture Framing, 112 N. Main Street Hornell, NY
Beckhorn Books and Fire Cat Glass Jewelry
Saturday, December 4th, 1:00 - 4:00 PM

Holiday Booksigning, Independence Grocery Store, 458 Main Street, Whitesville, NY
Sunday, December 5th, Noon - 3:00 PM

Reading and signing Moose Power!, Open Mic Night, Wellsville Creative Arts Center, Main Street, Wellsville, NY, Wednesday, December 8, 7:00 - 9:oo PM

Holiday Booksigning @ Barnes and Noble, Pittsford, NY
Saturday, December 11, 1-3 PM

Santa and Storybooks, Fisher's Pharmacy, 138 N. Main Street, Wellsville, NY 14895
Saturday, December 18th Noon - 2:00 PM

Lift Bridge Bookshop, Brockport, NY
Saturday, December 11, 3:30 - 5:30 PM

Saturday, September 18, 2010

As The World Turns

September: A three o'clock drive down Main Street means stopping for the school bus--Lisa's driving a brand-new one this year! A mom and dog wait for a first grader, the dog wagging, bowing, and barking as she takes the big steps down to the sidewalk. Self-consciously pierced, dyed, and duded-up teens walk hand-in-hand.

Birds are on the move. I glance up from my desk mid-afternoon to see an event happening: thousands of starlings flicker through the woods like tattered black sprites. They keep coming for five minutes, but how long before I noticed them, and why are they moving through the trees like that?

The leaves are changing: no brilliant color yet, but the delicate filigree left by the caterpillar invasion of June is faded green and falling in torn fragments to the ground. Goldenrod glows with a seeming inner light and my favorites, the dark purple asters, are coming on. I think of my birthday coming on as well, October second. Fifty-seven rich and wonderful years. A share of difficulty and heartache, but that is what being human and alive is about, and my share has been blessedly small. The past few days have been rainy and cool, but, there are four more days of summer!

Where have I been? Good adventures, wanderings, and visits with loved ones! No internet service! New memories to store and savor in this old head! In July we went to Virginia where I was a presenter at the VA Highlands Festival. I tried out my new "Writer's Medicine Bag" with treatments for all the ailments, physical and mental that authors suffer, from rejectionitis to writer's block. Plus we got to visit with dear old friends and family. Fun!

Then time and space at my beloved Island Pond in southern New Hampshire. It was a mix of solitude and social whirl with family and friends. I wrote a new story, Camp Dog George, in which a puppy learns the ropes of being a good camp dog from the ghost of the late family dog, Old George. We celebrated daughter Fern's engagement to Scott with songs and laughter. I did a presentation for daughter Spring's Audubon Camp. We raced kayaks and canoes for the WBW Memorial Regatta. (The girls and I placed second in our three-woman-powered canoe!) We recreated Mum's terrible recipes for the MLW Memorial Cook-Off. What a walk down our gastronomically distressed memory lane! We climbed mountains. Fred sold two beautiful tables at the Adirondack Rustic Furniture Fair in Blue Mountain Lake and I signed copies of Moose Eggs and Moose Power at the gift shop. We celebrated Mom and Dad Beckhorn's eightieth birthdays with a wonderful Beckhorn gathering in Owego. One dear old friend, Ranger, was lost to cancer and another sweet one, Linda, was saved from it. Year-old puppy, George, learned to swim after a stick thrown in the lake and leap from the ground straight into our arms.

Home again to lonely cats and an overflowing garden. We've gotten some wood stacked in the cellar, more to do. I've cleaned out the freezer in preparation for filling it again and we've frozen twelve quarts of beans and as many of tomatoes, brocolli, and summer squash. The mornings are dark and chilly. But there will be mist burning off the hills and brilliant Indian summer days, pumkins and cider. Here's an old unpublished song lyric of mine that I made up when the girls were little:

Color Time Rhyme

October is the color time
I like to sing a little rhyme
Come along and walk with me
I'll tell you what we'll see

The leaves are yellow, brown, and red
White geese are flying overhead
I see an orange pumpkin too
The sky is very blue

The squirrel finding nuts is gray
And purple asters line the way
There's nothing blacker than a crow
Green pines stand in a row

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Christmas in July

The red currants are ripe. We planted the bush perhaps twenty years ago on the edge of the steep bank in front of our house. It’s a little too close to the drop off. Now that the bush is big, that side is difficult to pick. You have to fight the slope, encroaching blackberry canes, and the frightful crown vetch which someone told us would be a good thing to plant on the bank, but which we deeply regret. It swallows up anything else we plant, and it has been a struggle to grow the lilacs, flowering quince, althea, and rose bushes we’ve been planting on the problematic bank over the years. We have to keep peeling back the smothering blanket of vetch. (The bank is the result of building a passive solar, partially underground, stone house into the side of a sunny knoll.)

Crown vetch has now crept across the lawn and into my flower garden. It joins the throng of persistent weeds which love the huge raised bed of soft loam, laid over the near bedrock left by the house excavation and contained by a stone wall, as much as the flowers do. Bind weed and (shudder) horseradish both appeared without help. The Bouncing Bet I found as a pretty little slip in the sand of the riding ring. I stupidly bought the wormwood (nurseries should mark potentially invasive plants) and my sister-in-law brought me an un-named, hollow-stemmed bog plant for my garden pool which has spread all over, but thankfully is easy to uproot. But now, like the crown vetch, my thoughts have wandered to the flower garden—a vast subject in itself—which is ripe for a much-needed weeding after last night’s rain.

Currants are on the agenda today. It is a love/hate relationship, I’m afraid. Every July, I watch with a mixed sense of anticipation and dread as zillions of tiny fruits turn to brilliant, ruby jewels. With exactly no nurturing, and with rabbit-like fecundity, this bush has pumped out bumper crops year after year. My gardening encyclopedia tells me that in some states it is illegal to plant currants as they harbor a rust disease which affects white pines. I dearly cherish my thirty or so white pines, all of which I have planted. They are a sweet reminder of my New England childhood. But I cherish this crazily generous red currant bush as well. So it remains and the pines seem to be growing well. My resource also tells me that currants like well rotted manure, potassium, mulching, and some late winter pruning. Do I dare encourage more productivity?

Red currants are so sour that the birds seem to have no interest in them. Without sugar, one might think them poisonous. They are tedious to pick. Processing them is a bit of a chore. But! They make the most beautiful, tart jelly! Oh my! A jar of sparkling, glowing, tasty, red currant jelly, tied up with a green satin bow, in my mind, makes a lovely Christmas gift. I try to stow away two or three batches of half-pints jars every July. It eases my love/hate relationship with The Holiday to know that I have inexpensive, useful, gifts—with my heart sealed into them—put away for that foolish, exhausting, joyful season that I really do love.

And my heart goes into those jars indeed. Red currants are a strange fruit to pick. They grow in gleaming, cascading, grape-like clusters, which I strip off the stems, by rolling them gently between my fingertips. I feel almost as if I were stripping milk from the teats of a cow, as if I were milking the bush, easing her of her heavy burden. I tuck a quart yogurt container into an elastic waistband so that both hands are free, and set to work. But it is frustrating. There are so danged many of them that only a truly obsessive compulsive person could clean a branch entirely. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know where to stop. I am lost in a seemingly infinite world dripping with glowing red fruit.

I have picked them in the broiling sun with puppies playing in the shadows under the bush. I have picked them with my sister and friends, chatting away as we worked. One summer, I had family visiting to attend their Alfred-Almond High School reunion and had to leave be on the faculty of the Highlights Foundation’s Chautauqua Conference the next day. My in-laws all pitched in. We got the currant harvest into the freezer, I made the jelly later—and they all got jelly for Christmas!

Two days ago, I started by picking a quart. Yesterday evening, my husband helped and we got three more quarts in the grey light of approaching night and rain. I am reminded, with my face deep into the intricacies of the red currant bush, observing at close hand its many insect residents, how little I know of them. What is that spider with the body like a tiny white marshmallow? Or the triangular, hard shelled beetle that so often drops in with the berries. Look! Here’s a tiny snail, four feet off the ground!

So now, it’s time to get out the canning funnel and tongs, the strainer bag, jars and lids, pectin, a fresh bag of sugar. Will I pick all the currants this year? Perhaps I’ll have enough left over currants to put away for Spring’s boyfriend, Chris, to brew a batch of red currant lambic beer. Now that’s an idea. Better stop blogging about currants and start slogging away at them!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Frog Blog

Deep summer, and the nights, even here on breezy Toad Hill, have been sweaty and twisted-sheet-sleepless. The green frogs in our pond love it. They twang away through the dark. I have finally figured out what they are singing. It is a slowed down version of The Camptown Racetrack played disjointedly: The Camptown . . . racetrack’s . . . five miles . . . long doo . . . dah . . . doo . . . dah . . . the Camp . . . town la . . . dies sing this . . . song . . . oh . . . the doo dah . . . day . . . Just like the Camptown ladies, those darned green frogs are gonna to sing all night! Every now and then, a bullfrog thrums, but most of them are so deeply into their jug-o-rum by this hour that they are nearly comatose.

Heat and humidity, thy name is frog. They seem to be moving around these days, perhaps freed up to travel a bit with the air so moist and no fear of their skin drying out. I found a young green frog in one of the horse sheds the other day and was surprised by a bull frog in the garden at the end of the lettuce row. Perhaps he was going a-courting one of the mice that live under the straw mulch? Last evening, the sparse grass under the maple trees in our back yard was alive with the tiniest possible toadlings, just out from the pond and jerkily faring forth. We had to watch our feet as we stepped.

Charlie the rooster crows twice and I turn to look at the clock. 4:38. "Shut the hell up!" he crows. Why does he say that? He’s the one making the noise? The rest of Toad Hill is pretty silent. I am in some sort of half-sleep now, mind rambling. I hear the light lapping of Goldie stealing a forbidden drink from my water glass and the guilty thump as she jumps down from the bed when I roll over. Usually I keep a coaster over my glass as I really don’t like to share my water with a cat. It doesn’t seem like I am sleeping now, but I must be, because when I try my strategy for falling back to sleep, reciting The Walrus and the Carpenter, I keep forgetting where I am and don’t get past “and then they rested on a rock convieniently low . . .” If I am seriously wakeful at night I go through The Ballad of Sam McGee, The Pines,The Road Song of the Bandar Log, and perhaps, Gunga Din—at which point it is probably better to just switch on my Itty Bitty Book Light and read. Maybe it’s time to learn a new poem? Maybe some Gerard Manley Hopkins? Hopkins? The frogs are getting to me!

Our there, a song sparrow now sings briefly, perhaps the one who likes to perch on a dead branch of the old white lilac to pipe up his bit of music. Charlie is quiet for a half hour before crowing again. At least the chickens are down in the new garden in their “chicken tractor,” a moveable, bottomless cage, where they have been feasting on clover all summer. His crowing is blessedly muted by the distance. An indigo bunting sings wheezy double notes and then at five o’clock precisely, an entire chorus of robins breaks forth. The earth has revolved and now we will have light. A crow caws. Going to my desk now, I open the door to gather in the morning song. An oven bird. Really? So close to the house? Thank you.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Slow, Abbreviated Walk

I was recovered enough from a very nasty stomach bug to try my usual walk this morning. We went to my niece, Susy’s, graduation from Connecticut College on Sunday and had a splendid family time. But midway through the lovely luncheon in Mystic, my daughter Spring and her boyfriend were struck simultaneously, necessitating that I drive Spring back to Northampton in her car, while Fred did the honors for Chris in our car. It was long and miserable drive. My time came during the night, and luckily Fred was able to drive me back to Rexville (another long and miserable drive) before he too was felled by the relentless germ. Not fun. At last, I was able to keep down a few crackers and some chicken broth.

But after a long sleep, I awoke to a misty, green morning full of birdsong. A bath and a very easy yoga session on the deck eased the aches. It felt wonderful to be interested in life again. Still, leaning over to tie my sneakers made me dizzy. I sat out in the yard and slowly ate a little yogurt and granola which tasted so good it almost made me shiver. The avian voices around me were like the layered fragments of conversation at a cocktail party. I could hear a tanager in the treetops across the road, the yard residents: yellow warblers, yellow throats, song sparrows, and redwings. Of course the oriole couple flashed about like flying orange slices. The male seems to have composed a new melody since Friday. It sounds like the opening of a Mozart minuet. I wish I was savvy enough to identify it. Maybe I can hum it for my sister Cathy and, with her perfect pitch and memory for things like that, she’ll recognize it.

Entering the woods, strands of tent caterpillar webbing clogged with tatters of wasted new foliage made it impossible to walk without trying to wipe the sticky threads and the creepy crawlies away from face and hair and neck and arms. Ick. I vacillate between crushing every caterpillar I encounter in an effort to do my part, and just picking them off and tossing them. Unlike the cuckoos, who are thriving on this second year of infestation, I do not find them in the least bit appetizing. Did I hear that bears eat them? But nothing seems to be able to keep up with all these busy larvae. They love the sweet maple leaves and many are denuded even as they try to leaf out after the winter. It is a sad sight after months of looking forward to the green woods of summer. Now it’s the chewed and chomped woods. The forest floor is covered with an unnatural litter—not the richly colored litter of mature leaves that have ceased photosynthesizing as the planet travels on its yearly passage—but a layer of tissue-thin crumbs of faded spring green. I stand motionless and can hear the activity. Is it tiny larval jaws chomping, or merely the rustle of leaf debris falling?

Suddenly, a streak of blue. An indigo bunting dives into a rosebush, another unwelcome invasive. An elegant mistake. He/she knows just how to get through the thorny mass at blinding speed, but somehow didn’t notice me. I look for the nest and find it, an untidy platform of twigs when viewed from underneath and as close as I can get without threatening myself or the safety of its contents.

There is plenty of foliage on the poplars to hide the tanager. While I listen and search for a glimpse of scarlet, his raspy notes are intersected by the more melodious notes of a rose breasted grosbeak. He doesn’t seem to mind being seen, but at last I give up on the tanager.

I am slow, but George-Jack-Russell is her usual energetic self. In the hedgerow stone-rubble wall, she suddenly encounters Mr. Skunk. I see the scuffle out of the corner of my eye, the dancing black and white derriere just before the skunk disappears into its den, and then George is rolling and running, scrubbing her face into the grass. She’s too frightened and miserable to go on with the walk, so there’s nothing for it but to go home and mix up some skunk recipe: peroxide, baking soda, and a few drops of dish liquid. Now she’s really a dog . . . except that she hasn’t met Mr. Porcupine yet . . .

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Drizzly Green World

George, all fifteen pounds of her, is a real dog. Here's a picture of her last June at seven weeks old. Just now, after a wet walk to the mailbox and back through the overgrown thorn apple meadow (indigo bunting, ovenbird, chipping sparrow) instead of following me back into the house, she opted for a session in the yard gnawing on her latest prize: a deer leg dragged home from the old Kane farm orchard. We’ve been going there daily looking for morels, but no luck yet. Well, I look for warblers and Fred looks for mushrooms, while the dogs cover the midrange. They look for deer, which George is too small and Spike to slow to bother much—or the occasional dismembered limb leftover from hunting season. So, just now, she came in, thoroughly soaked, needing a good toweling, and smelling like a wet dog that just chewed a deer bone. Such is a dog’s morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately—and tamping in fence posts for our new quarter acre garden and turning over a stony, goldenrod overgrown section of the old one the last few days has given me a lot of time to think—about children asking questions. “What’s that?” and “Why?” and how often we adults say, “I don’t know.” I love knowing, and each year it’s a little more: “That’s a black billed cuckoo calling and skirmishing around the shrubs by the pond with his mate. They’re eating up those hairy caterpillars—tent and gypsy moths. There are a lot of cuckoos this year because it’s a high caterpillar year and was last year. When the eating is good the birds lay more eggs, sometimes in other bird’s nests.” The cuckoos have no doubt been calling around Toad Hill for all of the thirty years that I’ve been here, but this is the first year that I feel like I truly know them. And yet I have not seen their nest, or eggs, or young . . . There is so very much to see. Much we are blind to, much we must search for. The sad thing is that when we keep saying “I don’t know” children stop asking—and become blind to what they once noticed and asked about. Children, I think, in some ways notice much more than adults. Yes, there is much they cannot understand, but: “What’s that?” “An ant.” “Like Aunt April?” “How can it carry such a big crumb?” "I don't know."

We should say, “Let’s find out” more often.

It takes me a long time to learn some bird songs. This year I’ve learned hooded warblers and now that I know the song, suddenly the blackberry woods near the area I think of as “Sherwood Forest” seems full of them singing “Danger danger! I see you!” I like to make up my own transcriptions. The common yellow throat does indeed often sing: “Whitchitty, witchitty witchitty!” like the Birding by Ear CD says, but I also hear: “Wheat eater, wheat eater, wheat eater!” and sometimes “Interview, interview, interview!” I wonder if children, with their ability to absorb language, could learn bird songs more easily that adults. Watch out any grandchildren of my future! Gramma’s going to take you birding!

My great grandmother, Mina Vestal French, after whom I patterned Grandmother in The Kingfisher’s Gift, took my mother and my uncles birding. My mother told me she sometimes found it boring, yet Mum took the time to teach me to recognize the birds page by page in the Little Golden Book of Birds before I went to kindergarten. Later, in college when I was given my first pair of binoculars by Grammy (Nin’s daughter-in-law) I would look at a bird and it would come back to me from that little guide: purple finch! Uncle Bob remembers that Nin would point out a bird and then shoot it with her twenty-two in order to skin, stuff, and mount it! I find that hard to believe (but why would he make it up?) unless it was a large bird--a warbler might end up just as a puff of feathers. But she did indeed have stuffed and mounted birds all over her house in bell jars. I remember them vividly. After she died, Mum took Cathy and me to Wayland to help clean out the house. I opened a trunk in the attic to find a gorgeous, perfectly mounted pheasant lying inside, so lifelike it could almost have jumped up and walked away.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fox Eyes

I think there is a children’s picture book by that name, and now I see why. (Ah yes, dear old Margaret Wise Brown, Knopf, 1977, illustrated by my favorite illustrator, Garth Williams and yes, he really captured the intensity!) On my morning ramble a few days ago, approaching the dike of our upper pond, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a fox curled up resting at the base of a young Scotch pine. I say resting, because from the constant motion of his ears, he was clearly not asleep. I say he because I believe this is the male of the pair that I have seen a number of times. I had suspected they might be denning in the old slash pile in the grove of young maples that our daughter Fern long ago named, The Woodland of the Twilight Elves. I’m thinking that his mate might have a litter already and be holed up with them.

In any case, it was overcast with a strong wind from the east, and even though I had just coughed and then called Georgie-year-old-heyena-Jack-Russell pup, the fox was unaware of my presence. I sat down less than fifty feet away and studied him through my binoculars, imagining painting the many shades of red, buff and gray fur ruffled by the moving air, and the many texures of his coat. The black ears swiveled, keeping watch. Presently, Georgie came close without discovering him. Instantly his head came up and he fastened a gaze so intense on her that it took my breath away. Fox eyes! Gleaming jewels. Penetrating, intense, measuring. At last, Georgie discovered fox, and there was a merry chase down through the pasture to the Woodland, but he was safely gone, brush and all. Perhaps the den is entirely elsewhere and this was a ruse to lead her away.
The website says, “Foxes are nocturnal animals whose nighttime vision is especially acute. Behind the light-sensitive cells in a fox's eye lies another layer of cells called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back through the eye, increasing the sharpness of its vision and better allowing it to spot prey. The fox's sensitive hearing also enables it to locate prey easily. It can pick up low-frequency sounds, such as a mouse rustling in the grass or earthworms moving on the surface of the soil.” The website also said that their eyes reflect green at night and they have whiskers on their legs as well as their faces! And a careful observer can distinguish individual foxes by coloring, so I will have to try to observe more carefully. I’d like to know my shy, russet colored neighbors a little better.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Moose Power! Muskeg saves the Day

Hurrah! It's finally here! Moose Power! Muskeg Saves the Day is now available from Downeast Books, Amazon, Borders, and where ever children's books are sold. Who doesn't love a big goofey moose and a grandpa and grandson who don't know what to do about their horse, Katy, who is too old to work and their fast-growing, big antlered orphan from the woods? The beautiful artwork is by Vermont illustrator, Amy Huntington. I think she really captured the heart and soul of my story. Thanks, Amy!

You guessed it, Katy in the story is named for my little Morgan mare who would gladly pull logs and race all in the same day, like her famous ancestor. I really hope people like this one because I just sent my editor Moose Feathers, in which the little boy, Ti'Jean finds a goose egg which hatches and, you guessed it, the gosling imprints on Muskeg! I'd love to see Amy's illustrations for that!

A big thank you goes to my editor, Karin Womer. A while back, after Moose Eggs was published, I sent her one of those photos that goes around the internet of a moose in full harness with the message, "Our next book?" She said, "Sure!" and the rest, as they say, is history. Easiest query I ever sent! Turns out the photo was a hoax, but there are existing real photos of moose and elk in harness, so it's a tall tale with a germ of truth to it. My French Canadien connection, Francine Veilleux, helped me with finding suitable phrases for my character, Jean du Bois. We had a lot of fun, sitting on the dock at my camp in New Hampshire working on the manuscript. So a lot goes into a few words, you see! My computer animation students at Alfred State got to see the story in progress as well.

So now, weighing in at just a few ounces, but strong and healthy and looking for lots of love, is my new baby, Moose Power! I hope lots of kids and librarians find it. Let me know what you think!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bird Day

Bird Day
May 9, 2010

Mother’s Day and nearly the whole day spent doing the spring bird count. I started in my own back yard here just over the Steuben County line. It was thirty-two degrees, with a dusting of snow on the shingles of the sunroom, and no sun to be seen. I was afraid no birds were to be seen either, but those migrants are tough! Starting out below the pond, in the wet, old meadow, overgrown with thorn apple trees, I found yellow rump, magnolia, a black and white, and a Nashville busily stoking their tiny furnaces with whatever nearly invisible bits of nourishment they were finding amidst the fearsome three inch needles. They weren’t doing much singing, just industriously eating! On the way to the spring, a robin flew out of a cavity in a red maple and I could see a cluster of brand new, bobbing, gaping beaks in the nest. Up in the horse pasture, the bluebird couple was perched on box and fence wire, mama not brooding yet, I guess. The bobolinks were back in Jerry Smith’s field, swinging on grass stems and singing their phoenix phoenix phoenix song. By the time I came in at 9:15, my fingers were hurting with cold and I needed to warm up.

At ten, Fred and I met up with Ronnie, Lauren, and the two Eds for a Potter County, PA count. Because of the chilly day, we did a lot of drive-by, listen-out-the-window birding and were counting many commoners (a flock of 70+ crows, 158 robins), but feeling a trifle disappointed. Still the back roads of northern PA were enchanting. Then we stopped at an old homestead, its cellar hole surrounded by a carpet of budding lily-of-the-valley, a sentinel white lilac bush nearby, and many of those hardy little white jonquils with the orange centers that the old farmers’ wives planted. The gully across the road was filled with willow thickets and old apple trees—and busy with birds: oriole, rose breasted grosbeak, magnolia warbler, ovenbird, redstart, and posing, peering curiously at us, and singing lustily: a northern parula! It was a first for all but one of us. I thought Fred might be hooked when he said, “It’s much better than the photo.” (in Stokes)

Came home thoroughly chilled despite the fact that I was wearing my cold weather cross country skiing garb. Standing around trying to spot birds is not the same as moving! Fred made up a fire and cooked steak and potatoes and fed me one of his fabulous salads. Unfortunately my cold had really taken hold and I couldn’t taste much of anything. Had good chats with both girls on the telephone. Fern sent me some super organic lotion which I am sure will magically transform my face back into the bloom of youth. Together, the girls and Fred gave me an azalea to plant by the drive way. I wonder if the one they gave me at the lake last Mother’s Day is blooming?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Daily Detours

Does a day ever go as planned? I did get the day lillies in front of the dining room weeded. They are doing well in that sunny, but dry spot by the stone wall. So good to pull those long roots of quack grass out. It will come back, but I beat it down for a while! Ed was true to his word and came by with his lens cleaning stuff to work on the telescope--brought from Paris by my great great grandfather, James J. Walworth in 1858. The mirror needs to be recoated and sadly there is no literature existing with it to expalin all the different lenses. We couldn't get it to focus, but after Ed left, I kept tinkering with it, found etches lines on the barrel, and by lining them up and messing around, was able to get a nice clear view of the hog farm down on Cryder Creek ["The Cyder" (no R) if you are local]. I'll give Dr. Stull a call in Alfred and see if he can help me some more.

By lunch time the weather had turned very windy, with the sky to the west clay colored. Soldiering on, I went up to the shop and filled buckets with wood sawdust for mulch, but Wiz thought it would be too acid, so we'll use it on the blueberry bushes. I moved on to weeding the day lillies beside the tree lilac by the gully, which is doing quite nicely. It felt good to be able to rip garlic mustard up by the roots. We'll use old hay to mulch there. Didn't finish because the rain was coming horizontally then--my family's official description of "sea hag weather."

I retreated to the house and did what I've been threatening to do "some rainy day" for quite a while. I cleaned our funky little walk-in bedroom closet! I filled a leaf bag with discarded clothing. Found Mum's (and my) wedding gown just fine in it's box, and Dad's old fedora hat (should I give it to Dave?), relieved myself of formal tennis attire (stained) from the days when we used to go to the Hillsboro Club in Florida with Mum and Dad, did keep the brand new and very expensive tennis sneakers, snooped a tiny bit through a box of my husband's memorabilia. He is SO sentimental. Anything, no matter how pathetically poorly constructed, that was ever given to him by one of his children is kept unused as a religious relic: such as a pair of socks embroidered with "I heart you." Well, I have to admit, I couldn't part with the shiny paper medal Fern made me for cleaning up an extra large dog poop one time whne she was about ten. I hung my Pony Club Games hat with DC and coach's pins (and my pin from 1955) in the guest room closet. It was just too sentimental. Dust and mouse turds. And an indescribable feeling of calm and control to have two closets of my life clean and tidy. (I did the linen closet, with some mouse proofing foam around the stone chimney, last week.) What a housekeeper I am!

And I did go to bed, pleasantly sore, to sleep well.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Gardening Day

May 8, 2010

Okay, morning pages can be my blog or my blog can be morning pages and it can all be a spilling of my thoughts onto the record, hopefully some worthwhile. May eighth, 2010. It sounds like science fiction to me. Sometimes I’m sure I’m still living in the last century. A splendid blustery, sun and fast moving cloud morning after a thunderous and wet night. We needed the rain. The birds are loving it. Tomorrow I do a spring count with friends. The migrants have flooded in over the past few days. Yesterday I saw or heard nine different warblers up at the old Keaton farm, where there had only been a handful two days before. I stalked what sounded like a northern parula for forty-five minutes with no success. Darn. It would have been a life bird. Has anyone noticed that the leaves came out before the birds did this year? The treat was running into a flock of yellow rumps and a good look at a yellow billed cuckoo who was busily eating caterpillars. It was a very welcome sight at it looks to be another bumper caterpillar year, tents and black clusters of writhing worms everywhere in the woods.

I am finished with my year teaching drawing at Alfred State College. I’m feeling wistful about students I may never see again, but reveling in the thought of more time. I am a one track person. I seem to need clear slates to work on. Yes, I’m spoiled. A person can do much in spare, disjointed moments. Having more time is also a bit scary. Now I have no excuse—except for all the gardening, traveling, horseback riding, birding, fishing, kayaking, etc. that I want to do! In the end, we make time for what we want most to accomplish. Argh! I've been watching too much Grey's Anatomy--I'm beginning to sound like Meridith!

This Saturday is a gardening day: weeds to pull from the damp, softened ground, fence posts to set for the new plot, mulch to spread, seeds to put into the earth. Yesterday I watched my tray of morning glory, cosmos, and sunflower seedlings sprouting, new ones popping up each hour. It was miraculous. Age old and brand-new. So good for the soul. Twelve hours from now I will lie down to sleep with aching muscles, dirt under my nails, ears full of birdsong, nostrils full of lilac and new cut grass, and my inner eye brimming with the spectacle of green and growth and flower and rich, open ground.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Moose Feathers

So it's Saturday afternoon, brilliant blue sky, and I've given myself a few more minutes at the desk before going for a ride in Katy. I love throwing a bridle on in the winter, hopping on her back, and just taking a walk through the woods. Snow is deep and melting fast. We skiied with Mike and Marcia this morning with the three young dogs beside themselves with energy and poor old Spike plodding in our wake. Yesterday, thinking about our puppy, Georgie, as I skiied:

She's got way too much tail for a Russell
And her ears don't stand up as they ought
Her legs are too long
And her teeth are all wrong
But this is the puppy we got . . .

Brilliant poetry! I think like a five year old sometimes, but that's good. Maybe more too come? I do love how ideas flow when we are doing things other than art, like how my swimming/flying idea for my new picture book text, Moose Feathers, came during shavasana (sp?) at yoga class the other night. I've been working my way through chapter one of The Artist's Way. What a great book. Doing my morning pages does seem to center me for the day, but now I'm not getting as much reading done, and the transcribing of my great great-grandfather's journals isn't getting done either. And ever since I went to Kindling Words in January, I've been frustrated with teaching, or the time it takes away from my writing. I truly love my students, even the difficult ones, who are few. It's been very exciting watching their drawing develop this year and thinking that I might have something to do with it. I feel deeply that this odd year of a different path was the right detour for now. I will use what I have learned in unexpected ways. Maybe I will be a little better at drawing myself. Maybe I will try some illustration again.