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 www.wonderclub.com 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.