Posts Tagged With: outdoors

custer versus napoleon

A look at my posts over the years indicates I’m more than a little bird obsessed. Birds creep into my fiction and essays, into the décor of our home.

Since February, I’ve been back at the chicken mama thing. I’m (mostly) thrilled to have babies again, and their presence in our lives has been a lovely diversion during a pretty strange year.

Plus, we have this tiny farm now, and farmers keep chickens.

Riley and I went to the hatchery and chose six pullets – two Wyandottes, two Auracanas, and two Bantam Golden Sebrights.

The girls have been inside our garage cozying up to each other in their heat-lit habitat. There’s nothing so thrilling as a bunch of animals living in the garage, stinking up the place, squalling as they figure out who’s in charge, and making a general ruckus that results in the shavings from their cage becoming airborne in the way of fine dust sprinkled over every single thing. The veiling silt is a pall fine as drywall dust.

It’s time for the birds to go outside to the coop we’ve assembled. Over the past few weeks, Owen – desperate for money to feed the prom monster – has led the charge on building. Our creation is more like a chicken condo, really, and built from a structure we carried from our previous urban chicken days and another we rehabbed from the new place. We focused on using what we could reclaim this time, and the result is funky and…artistic…the enclosed run will happen in Phase 2, due to begin soon.

It’ll do the job just fine.

As John says, “They’re just chickens. No need for the Taj Mahal.”

Which is true, although it’s pretty easy to get carried away.

We talked about our bird love so much, we convinced two other families to get flocks for the first time. “It’s easy,” we promised. “Think of all those eggs,” we said. “There’s hardly any chance of getting a man,” we said, our fingers crossed behind our backs.

 

The last time we had birds – Mrs. Howell, Ginger, and Marianne – we discovered that the 99% certainty in predicting the sex of chicks means the Gibsons will access the 1%. Mrs. Howell was anything but ladylike in the end. Crowing all night, telling the whole neighborhood what a stud he was. With some friends who own a farm, we traded the rooster formerly known as Mrs. Howell for a hen who was sweet, a steady productive layer, and much nicer than Mrs. Howell.

This time, I joked early and often that another rooster was in the cards for us, though every time I said it, I secretly hoped this wasn’t the case. We’re allowed to keep a rooster on our land, at least, but still. The threat of another dandy has made us reluctant to finalize names for this flock. I’m inclined to go with female characters from Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, which has been met with some complaints in the group, but since I’m the one scooping the poop, feeding the birds’ relentless hunger and cleaning the garage, it seems reasonable I get to call them whatever I want.

So, Mrs. Hughes, Cora, Daisy, and Mrs. Patmore it is then. For the birds I know are hens, anyway.

By late March, one of the Wyandottes was clearly developing the most gorgeous florid comb and wattles. Bigger than the other, more aggressive. Most sources say bossiness doesn’t a cockerel make, but I’ve had my eye on him, worried. Last week, his voice-cracking teenager crow was unmistakable. John named him Custer, a name we giggle about every time we say it. We’ve decided we can handle one rooster. It’ll be good to have a bodyguard for the girls.

My other worried eye has been on one of the Bantam Sebrights, who is beginning to look very much like this fella:

www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

http://www.cacklehatchery.com
Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

The other one looks very much like this hen:

http://www.cacklehatchery.com/

http://www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Hen

Over the weeks, the be-combed Sebright has become a tiny, angry specimen of a bird who struts around his habitat starting fights, flicking his tail feathers. We named him Napoleon (he does look very French), hoping we’d be wrong.

Yesterday, Napoleon, a week younger than Custer, announced HIS presence in the world. The two generals, of course, cannot stand each other and are separated, so now I have TWO filthy garage habitats to keep clean, and twice the dust.

Today they really must go outside, where there is only one living arrangement. It’s going to be ugly with too many suitors in the manor. I’ve asked around, and no one, of course, wants a rooster, even a really beautiful one. And, of course, none of the friends we convinced to get chickens got a rooster, and so they are reveling in the good fortune of their 99%-ness.

At our house, one of these boys is going to be voted off the island. There’s much heated debate about which one. And also, quite a bit of discussion about the virtues of a hearty late-spring soup, versus a chance encounter with a hawk, versus a sudden interested benefactor willing to adopt a general still in his awkward teen phase.

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Categories: chickens, family, girls, outdoors, writing | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

billy and the band

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 515

This summer John and I gave in to the siren call of buying a log built home on an acre.  A project house, a blank slate of a place, it’s too small, has poorly insulated doors and windows, and lacks reasonable cooling (which is to say, it has none) and heating (which is to say, it has a tiny woodstove and electric baseboard heaters we’re not sure work).  We nonetheless fell in love with its possibility.

For Riley, the cabin fulfills a few wishes.  She’ll get to raise animals, have her pick of climbing trees, eat fruit she picks herself, go wading in the small irrigation stream in the back.

The first time we showed the place to Owen, he stood next to the car shaking his head.  “I mean, all that looking around and this is what you chose?  I’m confused.”   Our choice was further evidence that his parents are nutjobs, that he was switched somehow at birth and got taken home with what he calls “hygienic hippies” instead.  Owen wanted a pool, a media room, a hot tub, a house that said “Wow” from the street.

Early summer was long and lovely and mild, the perfect conditions in which to move ourselves just the few miles with hundred of trips in our pickup truck and some help from a band of teenage boys.  Owen’s friends are much more willing helpers than he is, for which we’re grateful.  In addition to a growing curiosity about his real birth parents, Owen is newly in love, and therefore anything we ask him to do is half completed in a hot rush, one eye on the clock, while he counts the minutes and seconds until he can be reunited with his gal pal.  When they cannot be together, there is furious love-struck texting, and also more than a little staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought.  He wants to be fully independent and stay out at night as late as he likes.  He wants to bring five friends home for dinner with five minute’s notice.  He wants to go camping with a pack of boys and girls and no chaperones, burn huge bonfires in the desert, wear a LOT of cologne.

This territory is new for all of us and seemed to come all at once.  He can hardly have a conversation, changes clothes three times a day, and takes a lot of showers.  We like his gal pal quite a bit; she’s genuine, helpful, a good friend to him.  John and I do remember how all-consuming teen desires of any kind are, which helps us dread the brain-damaged condition we’re all going to have to suffer through for the next few years.  We remember enough to be a anxious about Owen’s choices in his Technicolor love haze.

“Give me a break,” Owen tells us when we talk about not getting carried away in love. “You’re in love too, you know.  With LAND.”  As if it’s a bad thing.

Many days, the new house is too small for Owen and me, so I spend a lot of time outside on the LAND, which I do, I must confess, love.

Anyway, by day three in the cabin I realized the back pasture’s thigh-high grass needed attention.  On Craigslist I found a goat wrangling schoolteacher with a hobby farm a few towns over, so I called him and asked him to bring me some professional eaters, which he did.  The next day our new Nubian friends pulled up to the house in the bed a tiny pick-up truck .  A mother goat and twin kids, a boy and a girl about four months old.  They’d been on the freeway and caused quite a ruckus among drivers, but when they arrived the goats eyed us from the back of the truck, chewing rhythmically on some hay, and didn’t seem too worse for the wear.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 528

The wrangler stepped out of the cab.  He wore workout clothes, a pair of Nikes, a baseball cap.  I’d expected him to show up wearing, um, goat wrangling clothes, and then realized I had no idea what that attire would be.

“That’s Cooper, the mom,” the wrangler said, “and Coeur d’Alene, the girl; and Preston, the boy. We name all our goats after places.”

Riley and I sat on the tailgate.  The goats nuzzled our hands from the truck’s bed and leaned their foreheads into our chests.

“I just banded Preston,” the wrangler said, “so he might not feel too well for a few days.”  He took some leashes from his cab and reached to clip one to each goat’s dog collar.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  “You did what?”

“See that rubber band back there?”  I maneuvered to look at Preston’s backside and spied a green rubber band wrapped around the top of his testicles.  “It takes the Billy out of his Billy, if you know what I mean.  Last thing you want is a Billy around.  Doesn’t really hurt, just tingles a little.  Should dry up and fall off in a few days.”

Though I had just met the wrangler, I said something about how great it would be if it was that easy to take the Billy out of some human males, remembering John’s post-Billy-surgery-drama-queenness.  The frozen bags of corn and peas. I thought of Owen’s burgeoning Billy, and also wondered how anyone could possibly know that for a goat, having a rubber band cutting off the blood to its Billy did nothing more than tingle.

We stood quietly a moment.  “Wait,” I said.  “Which thing falls off?  The Billy or the rubber band?”

“You’ll see,” he said.  “You can call me if there’s a problem.”

We put the three goats on leashes and took them into the pasture and let them go.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 533

Preston licked at his backside and then laid down by the gate while Cooper and Cordy wandered off.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 539

We watched them browsing in their new salad bar, and by the time the wrangler was ready to leave, Riley and I were decidedly smitten.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 540

It’s been two months, long enough for us to train the goats to come when we call.  They follow us around in the pasture, nudging our hands for kitchen scraps, putting their front feet onto our chests to make sure we’re not concealing anything.  When it’s hot, they lie together under a big spruce at the corner of the property, just opposite the fence from our neighbor’s chickens, who lean against the fence from their own side, close enough to touch their goat pals.  They’re fast friends, which has given life to a habit of breaking property lines to be together.  Once, my neighbor found the goats inside his chicken run, where they ate all the chicken feed and then laid down with the chickens.  A few days later, the hens were in our back pasture, trailing the goats and chortling to one another in chicken speak about what good fun a day visiting friends was.  They put themselves to bed later in the evening.

We’ve spent a lot of time shoring up fencing, hoping each time we’ve succeeded in preventing their next houdinied adventure.

All summer we waited for Preston to lose whatever it was he was going to lose in only a few days.  We called the wrangler once to ask why it was taking so long and got another cryptic answer:  “Sometimes it does,” he said.  In the background I could hear a chicken laying an egg, a lawnmower, some kids yelling.  Riley and I decided to resist asking Uncle Google what to do, and instead, we just waited.

Preston, his Billy perpetually shriveling but not falling off, spent the summer trying to work out what it all meant.  At dusk, he’d run up to his mother and nurse furiously for a minute, then canter spastically toward his sister Cordy and mount her until Cooper bleated at him to stop, at which point he’d run in zig-zags, until they were all sprinting back and forth along the fence line, tossing their ears.

Summer’s pretty much over as far as the kids are concerned.  Owen’s still with his gal pal.  Though John and I are bold in our conversations about how it’s possible to be in love and also make smart choices, we’re terrified of Owen’s Billy being in the driver’s seat of decision making.

Last week Owen and I were in the way back diverting water into the pasture.  He’s been much more willing to help than I imagined, and I’m tickled.  The goats were with us, using one of the fence posts to stretch up into the leafy branches of a locust and eat.  Their appetite is like nothing I’ve seen; it beats even a band of teenaged boys after swim practice.  Owen and I stood in the knee-high stream in our rubber boots, watching the water find its way through the grass in the pasture.

“Isn’t water games so much better than a media room?” I asked.

He shook his head, smiled, offered a clutch of mint to Preston, who nibbled on it, jerking his head to keep it away from Cordy.

I leaned down to check out the status of Preston’s rubber band, finding nothing at all.  All of it had fallen off, both the Billy and the band.  I patted his head and asked him if he felt better, if he’d even noticed that he was newly unencumbered.

“Poor guy,” Owen said.  He stepped out of the water, and Preston sniffed his pockets and put his front legs up on Owen’s chest.  “Wasn’t really a fair fight, was it, Bud?”

I opened my mouth to seize the opportunity to have another TALK about inhabiting the world of love while also making good choices.  But my boy was in galoshes, mucking around with me in the pursuit to divert water, and he was pretty good humored about it, for once.  And already, I was seriously at risk of being the dog whistle he couldn’t hear, so I let it lie.

Owen patted his pocket for the appendage of his phone, then looked toward the house.  “So.  We’re done here?” he asked.  “I’m going to do that thing in a while?”

“Sure.  Thanks for the help.”

I bit my tongue against all the cautionary words to live by, the pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own near-misses and hard lessons, the ever-present feed of news informing new pitfalls for youth.  He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Already gone, Owen walked back to the house, sloshing through the water-soaked pasture, his head bent into texting while the goats trotted along behind him.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 608

 

 

Categories: family, goats, kids, nature, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

screech

For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.

While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door.  That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures.  From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other.  The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.

Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny.  It was mid-day.  I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss.  But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray.  They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.

Over the course of last week the babies filled out.  Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day.  I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.

In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent.  After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks.  This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high.  The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby.  Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone.  From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now.  They blink down at me, unfazed.  They’ve got my number.

Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting.  Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other.  In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators.  When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”

A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind.  There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches.  The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine.  But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.

Their impatience is raucous.

At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive.  Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding.  He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness.  He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success.  I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear.  He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.

Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van.  I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over.  After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home.  Breakfast was on the way.

The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard.  Three mice in an hour, a good haul.  Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple.  The adults flew off into the night.  I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.

Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships.  Owen, too.  I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right.  He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding.  His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.

I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over.  If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats.  If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

 

 

Categories: family, nature, outdoors, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

depth perception

Deep and sincere thanks to Matthew Limpede and the staff at Carve Magazine, who said yes to including the story “Depth Perception” in their Spring 2014 Premium Edition.  I’m in great company in these pages and ever grateful for the chance to be there.

 

2014_1 spring.png

Categories: fiction, gardening, outdoors, publishing, short story, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

bragging post

birdweb.org

birdweb.org

In the foothills I saw my first meadowlark this week.  It was the perfectly orchestrated sighting.  That gorgeous canary yellow breast, embellished with a black chevron, heaving with song from a perch on a stem of sagebrush.  Backlit by the blaze of rising sun, it was crooning its heart out.  There could’ve easily been music, something by Bach or Handel, or maybe Beethoven.

It was pretty thrilling to finally spot one and feel the song was aimed at me, for I was thrilled, too, at witnessing the paling sky surrendering to the bold lines of day.  The half moon was just disappearing across the valley.  I stopped to soak in the privilege of being present at that moment in that place and hoped it wouldn’t startle and fly away.  What with the tilting sky on the threshold between night and day, the full-bodied song, the solitude of the place, I understood the impulse to yawp over the rooftops of the world.

Later I learned male meadowlarks like to squat on “bragging posts” to tell the world all about their fabulous selves, much like roosters, and this certainly seemed to be the case that morning.  The lark was busy with the job of wooing, to be sure, but also, it would seem, saying to any fellas within range, Robert de Niro-style, “You wanna piece of me?”

His serenade must’ve trumped the undersong of pugnacity.  Along came two females – these fellows travel in the world with two mates—and off they flew together.

allaboutbirds.org

allaboutbirds.org

Categories: nature, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

boomerang

At the trailhead Zora always lingers too long, inhaling the scent of other dogs who’ve peed on the boulder by the kiosk, ferreting out who’s squatted in the sage, heavy with flowering stems.

“Hurry up,” I say.  “Spending too much time here is like reading a dime store romance.  The story’s way better up ahead, I promise.”

And it is.  Off the leash, she frolics, radiating wider and wider until she finds some deer and is gone for twenty minutes.  Too long.  I worry about her driving the chase into a street over the ridge.  I worry whether she’ll be able to find me when she’s finished running that story down, creating and telling it all at once.

Over the ridge I can hear her syncopated deer song, high and yearning, joyful.

good photo, sage and sunrise

She always comes back, tongue out, sides heaving, sharing her adventures through that Sherlock of a nose she bumps against my thigh and those eyes, wild and dark.

I pretend to be mad.  I put her on the leash and ask her if it’s worth it to lose her freedom by going so far away.

But I know the answer already.  Next to storytelling about others, running to find me with her nose to the ground is her quest.

If she could talk, she’d say she can’t  invite me along to chase deer, because then there’d be no me to come back to.

2013 December 022

Categories: dogs, outdoors | Tags: , | 4 Comments

winter’s fist

2013 December 009

It’s been in the single digits for days now.  Minnesota cold, John keeps saying.

On the phone with family and friends, I try to describe the frigidity.  Waking up to temperatures below zero and the way it stings your face, lungs, and teeth.  Sheets of  ice crystals on the original windows of our old house.  Remembering youth, when this sort of cold required us to coddle our car batteries, keep them warm enough to start the next morning.  Though we’ve seen some cars in the neighborhood plugged into heaters, our cars get no such attention.  They’re starting right up but registering their complaint through intermittent dash display lights asking to be serviced.

2013 December 025

We finally stacked a pile of firewood, a job we did quickly, a race against too numb fingers.  It’s the best sort of riches, the delicious possibility of all those fires.  Even better, coming inside from this kind of cold to sit next to that warmth.

2013 December 016

Since the weather turned, I’ve carried in my head a poem by Joe Green, one he and Marquita sent to us as a holiday card, hot off their own printing press, a few years ago.

The Longest Night
 
Ice on the sidewalk.  The first dusting
of snow lasting a week on your deck.
Perhaps tonight you’ve even left
 
 
the faucet dripping in your kitchen sink
to keep the pipes from seizing.
Think of this weather as winter’s fist
 
 
adjusting its grip around the hours.
Then go outside and try to collect all the lost
particles of light around your sleeping house.

2013 December 001

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gluttony, thy name is arturo

On Thanksgiving day, Arturo decided to make his move and get to the nougaty center of seeds inside the acorn squash.  He tolerated a few pictures through the glass, so they’re a bit hazy.

2013 November 032

Although a gallery of his henchmen, four of them, sat on the fence, drooling in anticipation of finishing what he did not eat, none dared interrupt the Godfather’s meal.  Zora couldn’t photobomb the event because she was out on a walk. He sat for almost a half hour and ate more than his body weight.

2013 November 031

I still can’t figure out how he crammed that much into his being.  He only stopped once to shake his fist and beat his chest at those fellas on the fence.  Or maybe they were ladies.  It’s hard to say.  But there was for sure some kind of exchange that involved threats and cussing, after which the gallery on the fence sat skulking, perhaps plotting their revenge.

2013 November 040

Unfortunately, his girth, jewels, and gold chain are mostly hidden.

2013 November 042

We were getting along so well, I tried to open the door and join him on the deck.  His mouth is closed here, but he had just told me to step the (*&^%$ off.  The next step, I’m pretty sure, was to pick up that blue broom handle and beat me.  So much for all that nonsense about the hand that feeds.

2013 November 049

Arturo seems to have a good handle on what Thanksgiving is all about.  After he ate, he waddled off the deck and managed to climb the big oak in the backyard.  I can’t imagine he could do anything else but sleep off his binge.  This is what he left for the fence-squatters, who gave themselves several minutes before coming down to brave the leftovers without getting their asses kicked.

By the time we finished our own Thanksgiving feast and went out to see what was left, the whole thing was gone.  There wasn’t so much as a seed left.

Arturo’s bar is officially closed for this year.  He’s going to have to go back to foraging for nuts as nature intended.  But it makes me wonder, if he can make such quick work of a little squash, what could he do with something much bigger, like a butternut or turban? Maybe next year I’ll go for broke, leave out a pumpkin the size of Arkansas, and see what kind of tomfoolery will come of that.

Categories: gardening, nature, outdoors | Tags: , | 2 Comments

arturo

what yearning looks like

what yearning looks like

For our dog Zora, spring and fall are full of yearning.  Each cusp season, she becomes a quivering, drooling, yowling mass of desire. She desires cats.  She desires birds.  She desires the mail carrier.  But what she desires most is squirrels.  Whatever constellation of breeds she’s sprung from has programmed her to believe  she will actually win a squirrel.  Any day now.

Training for the big day involves a regimen of smearing the glass with her nose to track squirrels in the backyard, whine-singing a song that will lure them to her, hurling herself at the fence they like to traverse, and going in and out twenty times a day to monitor the premises.  There are also hours of daintily gumming a stuffed chipmunk she’s had since we got her five years ago.  Other toys roughly approximating real animals have died quick deaths in a blaze of stuffing and plastic parts.  But Chippy is very precious –she would never fully ingest it.  Chippy’s squeaker is broken.  Chippy is also missing an eye and part of an ear, and looks a little an object used to foreshadow murder in a bad horror film.  It makes me wonder what she’d actually do if she managed to catch the real thing.

Zora spent the first month she came to live with us wearing a muddy track from the mimosa tree to the telephone pole to the gate to the garden in the backyard.  We’d just redone the landscaping, which she destroyed.  Her sole quest was chasing gray squirrels, especially a pair that came to play every morning about the same time.  One day I came home to find the three of them faced off, Zora crouched at the base of the telephone pole, the squirrels immobile, noses touching, fifteen feet up.  No one moved for three hours.

At our new house we also have squirrels, red ones, who make their gray cousins seem lazy and stupid.

It wasn’t long after we moved in that we met the new object of desire.  Arturo.  He’d come calling mid-morning, squatting by the back door while eating a sunflower head from our garden and looking at us through the glass.  Which is to say he was very close to the glass.  So close he used the window as leverage to extract seeds, never taking his eyes off our lives inside.  This, of course, was a thrilling new development for Zora, who could somehow hear him no matter where she was in the house.  Arturo would stay an extra beat, watching her smash herself into the glass, frothing at the mouth, just on the other side of his nuts, before he’d scamper off the deck and up into the oak tree.

Although I do often name things when I get the itch (We have a lamp called Celeste, I’m not sure why.  My truck’s name is Stella.  John’s mountain bike’s name is Jolene, as in please don’t steal my man…), I’ve never named a squirrel before.  I don’t know why Arturo is this creature’s name, except that he is VERY distinct.  He is easily the largest squirrel I’ve ever seen.  I mean, almost the size of a small house cat.  Despite his girth, he’s fast enough to still be alive, savvy enough to dodge all my attempts at taking his photo, and very decidedly the boss of this territory.

Arturo still comes calling every day, to the delight and crazed desire of Zora.  On the deck we’ve left an acorn squash that fell out of a shopping bag, one he quickly helped himself to, so he’s got extra inducement to make an appearance.  He’s clearly getting enough to eat.  He’s bigger than ever, even for a squirrel preparing for winter.  I’m a little worried about how much more weight he can gain and still get the job of squirreling done.

arturo's snack bar

arturo’s snack bar

Lately, he’s taken to sitting up on the fence near the deck.  Other squirrels in Arturo’s posse hang out there too, though not when he’s there.  In pairs usually, they run along the fence, making a chittering racket, doing a snake-charmer thing with their tales, dancing squirrel hip-hop with their back feet.

Arturo is always alone.  And he never does any hoorahing.  He just sits.  His posture is much the same as the sunflower seed window squatting, but his safer vantage point gives him extra time to taunt Zora.  Seemingly unperturbed, he eats, unblinking, languorously, while Zora throws herself against the fence beneath him, begging him to come down.

From the kitchen window the other day, I watched Arturo sitting on the fence, surveying the yard like some kind of mob boss while he consumed an entire chestnut.  It was a long squat, even for Arturo.  Maybe he’s got henchmen to deal with the Red-tails and Cooper’s hawks that troll the yards around here.  Maybe he thinks he can take out any house cat that crosses him.  It’s hard to say.

But he was clearly feeling very comfortable, because hanging down and resting against the fence was his massive nut sack.  I had no idea male squirrels could possess such impressive jewels.  But they there were, huge and hairy and disproportionate to his frame, on display as if was a rodent porn star.

I’m not going to contact Guinness Book of World Records or anything, though a quick online search tells me I’m not the first to be stunned by squirrel genitalia.  Arturo’s junk puts every photo I saw on the interwebs to shame, though.  Also, according to Uncle Google, red squirrels are supposed to be smaller than gray squirrels, and they’re more territorial than most species.  They store their booty in caches crammed with nuts, called middens, which are usually in the middle of their territory.  I’ve seen Arturo win some impressive arboreal battles against smaller squirrels.  It seems safe to say that our yard is Midden-landia for him, and if it’s true that he can live up to 10 years or more, Arturo’s here to stay, nut sack and all.

I don’t know how old Arturo is.  This season could be his swan song.  And it’s not all about love and admiration.  Days when I know he’s been mucking in my garden, gleefully digging up garlic bulbs when there’s plenty of food if he’d just climb a damn tree, I’m tempted to get a bb gun.  Not that I’d be able to hit him.  He’s far too crafty to get taken down by the likes of me.

Still, out of love and respect, Zora and I could help him lose a little weight by both chasing him, maybe help prolong his life.  After all, we are in his territory, and until one of his minions can figure out how to arm wrestle him out of it, Arturo’s the boss.

Categories: dogs, fiction, gardening, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Earth. Wind. Fire

2013 Matches for Blog Post 005

Many years ago, when we lived in the Eastern Sierra, John and I were nearly evacuated from our home.  That summer, the Rainbow Fire brought firefighters from all over the West to our small mountain town.  Whether and how we’d have to leave was all people could talk about.  For over a week, the sky was heavy with blood-red smoke that occluded the sun.  We kept our truck packed with a few essentials, those we couldn’t bear to lose.  Just in case.  Firefighters saved the day then, as they will soon, I hope, in the hundreds of fires that rage now in the West.

Years away from that proximity to wildfire have made me forget how fire worry cloaks dry places in summer.  When we lived in Pennsylvania, I can’t remember one fire scare that didn’t involve a structure.  Floods were that region’s menace.  In our seven years there, the shed in our backyard flooded three times.  Next to a culvert which backed up every spring from heavy rain and idiotically designed drainage from a nearby golf course, the shed was full of things we’d carried from move to move.  Memorabilia, furniture, yard tools. One March evening John and I forged through our backyard in chest-high water and hacked a section of fencing away so the water could drain instead of flooding the house.

In the Pacific Northwest, late summer means smoke from fires east and south. My favorite woods are closed down by the timber company in August and September.  Just in case.  But in general, for many years, I have spoken of fires as not that near to us.  They are over there.

This year, fire has been on my mind pretty much since spring, when we decided to move.  It is a story both short and long, too tedious to report here, and is also the reason for the radio silence in this blog space.

John and I have moved a lot in our together life, each time purposefully, each time surprised we’re doing it again, each time mystified about the way our belongings have multiplied like those gremlins in that awful 80s film.  Moving means limbo and heartache, straddling the line between the love of one place and the hope about the next place.  It’s exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, terrifying.  The cleansing power of fire – a proper burn of most of our things and the party that would accompany it – was a solution I thought about more than I should have.

Before we moved, I ended up burning only a few things I’m not at liberty to report here, but suffice it to say there was (probably) too much beer involved.  Not as a retardant but as liquid encouragement.

The second night in our new town, which is in the high desert, we were jolted awake by a thunderstorm and a fire raging in the hills above town.  It was three o’clock in the morning.  The seven fire trucks worth of sirens I counted were ultimately eclipsed by the din of thunder above us, which boomed so loud it rattled the glasses in the cabinets and made the dog hide behind the toilet (I’m not sure why this was a safe zone, but she felt that it was).  The kids climbed into bed with us, and it would’ve felt like a scene from The Sound of Music, except that ash blasted into the house through the open windows until it occurred to us to close them.

The next morning we found all the surfaces in the house covered with chunky silt.  Parked on the street, our car looked like it had been in a ticker tape parade.

This.  Our new life.  We’ve moved from the one of the rainiest places in the West to one of the driest, a climate John and I haven’t lived in for fifteen years.  In the months that led up to being here, I made a habit of turning to John and telling him all our moving troubles and expenses could be solved by one thing.

“Oh yeah?,” he’d say, “What’s that?  A brigade of leprechaun movers?”

His ideas were different every time.  A team of furniture-hungry zombies.  The world’s biggest yard sale with a complimentary deep-fried bar – Oreos, pickles, butter.  A Dumptruck Demolition Derby, all the contestants loaded down with our household goods.  The crowd could trash-pick our stuff when the event was over.  The list was endless.

“Nothing so theatrical,” I’d say.  “I was thinking a book of matches.”

“Your solution lacks imagination.”

Maybe.

I didn’t think we’d move again, at least not this far away.  For months, while I packed up our belongings, I cursed the weight of them, the knickknacks and kitchen crap, the books (oh dear, I DO have a problem), the clothes and shoes and yard stuff and furniture.  I fantasized about using this life change as an opportunity to become a family of ascetics.  We could retrofit our trailer and practice micro living, everything we owned having more than one purpose.  Downsizing!  The next frontier!

With my truck:  Eleven trips of donated goods, one trip to give away items to family members, several more trips to deliver plants in pots and those dug up from the yard to friends, one trip to the food bank.  A massive neighborhood yard sale.  And still, we had too much crap.

I mean, what do we really NEED my high school lettergirl jacket for?  Or the skis John lost in an avalanche twenty years ago that we found the next spring?  Or the newspapers from 1875 wrapped in wax paper my great aunt gave me?

It turns out downsizing is a tricky business.  Even though we gave away so much, we still have too much to fit into our new house.  (I’m mostly sure we’re not hoarders). So we did what all good Americans do and put the overage of our lives in a storage unit.  Boxes upon boxes of it, where it will probably mold overwinter in the rainy Northwest, the plywood walls of the unit wet with condensation as so often happens, and then we’ll probably have to get rid of it anyway.  Maybe we’ll learn our lesson this time.

Now that the world is burning all around us, the thought of lighting matches doesn’t bring me much joy.  Each morning we wake to see what our day will bring.  Some days it is a “red flag warning” (a trifecta of wind, lightning and plenty of tinder).  Others it is an AQI (Air Quality Index) level Orange or Red (UNHEALTHY).  Above Red are Purple and Maroon, levels that are “HAZARDOUS.” We plan our time outdoors accordingly.  Morning is best.  In the afternoon it’s hot as balls, and the air reeks of fire and burns our lungs.

The kids have begun to ask what would make the world reach Purple or Maroon, and I don’t trust myself to answer, because of course I’ve imagined something apocalyptic already that involves much more than wildfires.  As a family, we keep our fingers crossed that fire will not be the thing to get us into those foreboding AQI colors.

Truthfully, now that I’m a high desert dweller again, I can’t make the joke about needing a book of matches without thinking about the loss of life and property this year’s fire season has already cost.

But at some point we’ll have to face the music with the rest of our things, and I’m pretty sure the leprechauns are not going to help us out.  I guess I’ll stow my matches for another time.  Just in case.  For when the rains come (I hear they do here), for when there’s not such a constant reminder of how nature is the boss of us.  For our next move.

Or maybe I’ll put my matches away for good.  Now that I’m thinking about it, John’s Dumptruck Demolition Derby idea isn’t half bad.  We DO have a county fair here…

Categories: demolition derby, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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