Saturday, June 30, 2012

Heat Rash

This is the kind of weather that I dread.  It keeps me plotting and strategizing round the clock on ways to avoid it:  work outside only in the early morning (but then I'm sleepy because it was too hot to fall sleep the night before);  close all windows and shades to keep the heat out (but a dark house is so depressing);  pretend it's the middle of January and forget about gardening (but the beans must be planted, and right away).

And yet here, in the hottest part of the day, it is only 90F.  Compared to most of the nation, this doesn't even qualify as hot, and compared to future summers, it may be barely warm.  It's not so much the heat that's bothering me as the awareness of how summers have gotten so hot so fast, and the thought that we may be heading towards the tipping point that will cause a cascade of further catastrophes.  And that so many people are still denying the reality of global warming.

I suppose that if you live in an air-conditioned house, drive an air-conditioned car, amuse yourself in an air-conditioned mall, and never set foot outdoors from April to November, you can fool yourself into thinking that all is well.  Until, of course, the power goes out, as it has done in large areas of DC.

And that is the single bit of weather-related good news I have heard lately.  One and a half million houses and businesses are without power in the DC area.  I realize that many of those houses and businesses belong to the poor, who already have enough to contend with, and I feel bad about that.  But I'm hoping that maybe some of the global-warming-denying politicians will be left to swelter in their Georgetown row-houses, and they will begin to realize that the climate problem is more than a left-wing delusion.  And maybe do something about it. 

Just the tiniest sign that they're beginning to move in the right direction would make me so happy, I'd gladly stop complaining about the heat.

Monday, June 25, 2012

OCD Bluebird

At first I thought it was because she was playing hard to get, and it was breaking his heart, and that was why he was trying to break his head by crashing into our porch windows.  I'm talking about the father of the bluebird family that was hatched and reared in the nest box a few feet from our back porch, and disappeared one fine morning two weeks ago without leaving a forwarding address.

Now he's back, all blazing blue and orange and white, and obsessed with our window.  He flings himself at it, so that the glass, which is covered in dog slobber and nose prints at the bottom, now has bluebird foot and beak prints at the top.

For four days he's been hurling himself at the glass, then perching on the nest box and crying "Heee-re!  Heee-re!" to the heavens.  For a long time, there was no response, and I worried about how much head trauma a small bird could sustain.  Then Saturday morning, as I squatted on the hot patio for three hours, pulling up chamomile and crab grass and lemon verbena from between the slate slabs, I was rewarded.  Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the bluebird a distance away, following another bird.  He came back to the nest box, sang his "Heeee-re!" and banged into the window some more.  Then, as sweat poured into my eyes, I saw him perched on top of a pine tree, a respectful distance away from another, browner bird on the same tree. 

As I threw the last of the weeds to the hens, I saw the female perch on the gutter next to the next box.  She stuck her head into the hole, then flew off.  No wonder she was loath to commit.  I had seen what hard work it took to rear that first brood, bringing in bugs and taking out poop sacks round the clock.  To be fair, the male had done his part, but she was the one who'd laid the eggs, and sat on them.  Maybe, instead of raising a second batch of babies, she wanted to take the rest of the summer off.

But he didn't.  He was driven.  Bang!  he would go against the glass.  "Heeee-re!" he would cry piteously.  At one point I saw him shaking his wings as he sang, in imitation of a baby bird's plea for food.  I didn't think that reminding her of all the future meals to be dealt with was a productive romantic strategy.

While he was mostly present at the nest, she was mostly absent, and from sunup to sundown he called and threw himself against the glass.  Wolfie, the self-appointed protector of our lives and property, didn't like the banging on the window, and barked and growled whenever the bird approached.  I wondered if I would soon find a little blue cadaver among the echinacea beneath the nest.

Yesterday, surfeited with drama, we stood on a garden chair and peered into the nest box.  Not only had a new nest been built, but there were two M&M-blue eggs in it.  So she hadn't, after all, been deaf to his pleas.  Another brood was on the way.  But why, then, was he still hurling himself against the window?

I think that he just likes the percussive effect of wings and feet and beak on the glass.  He likes it so much, in fact, that he can't stop.  Even while his wife has given in, and is laying eggs, he has to hear that thwap-thwap-thwap.  It makes him sound big and powerful.  It accompanies his melody.  It started out by chance as he tried to fly through the window, and now it has become his reason for being, his obsession,  like hand-washing or hair-pulling.

On the other hand, perhaps he's just an artist.

Friday, June 22, 2012

PVSD (Post Vacation Stress Disorder)

Wolfie and Bisou are exquisitely exhausted after their stay at the Halfling B&B, which is wonderful, since I am exquisitely exhausted after our trip to Montana too. 

My eyes are having to adjust to the contrast in the two landscapes.  In Montana, and especially Yellowstone, everything is vertical and spiky.  The mountains and the pine trees all point to the sky.  In Vermont, while things are not exactly horizontal, the mountains are low and rounded, and so are the trees, which, shrouded in their summer foliage, seem to be without trunks or branches.  The intense green of les verts monts needs some getting used to as well.

While I was gone, the annual June explosion took place around our house.  The chicken shed has disappeared under an avalanche of roses, which need to be deadheaded, as do the peonies and the lavender.  The lilacs need pruning.  The espaliered apricot needs further espaliering.  The rampaging mint and chamomile need to be brought under control.  The suckers growing at the base of the apple trees need to be decapitated.  Wolfie needs to be brushed.  And the broccoli and the chard and the peas and the kale and the zucchini need to be picked and processed and frozen.  The last of the spinach needs to be dealt with and replaced with beans right away, or it will be too late.

And I need to hold a tiny funeral for the three lavender plants that didn't make it through the mild winter because there wasn't enough snow to cover their sensitive Mediterranean feet.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Buddha Vs. Lady Gaga

I've spent the last couple of weeks in the serene presence of Bisou's litter-mate, Theo, the black-and-tan Cavalier puppy who went to live in Montana with my daughter and her partner shortly after we got Bisou.

Theo has saved me from going into acute dog withdrawal while we've been in Missoula.  Two weeks is a long time to be away from one's dogs, especially for someone with my monastic existence, who worries if she's out of the house for more than four hours.  At the same time, Theo has prompted much philosophical reflection on nature, nurture, and the mysteries of dogs in general.

I'm a little worried that, having experienced the ultimate Zen dog, I will not find it easy to readjust to his red sister's frivolities and intensities.  As I write this, Theo is stretched out in the arm chair that has been consecrated to his use, with his chin resting on his little blue stuffed lamb.  He is not asleep.  He is gazing at me.  But it is a calm, accepting, present-in-the-moment gaze that says "you are there;  I am here;  all is well."  And so I am able to continue writing.

If his sister were on that chair, awake and by some miracle lying still, it would be a very different story.  For one thing, the lamb would have long ago been torn to shreds.  She too would be gazing at me, but there would be no calm or acceptance in her gaze.  Instead, it would be full of frantic hope and attachment to worldly outcomes.  I would see this out of the corner of my eye, knowing that if I looked her in the face she would catapult out of the arm chair and run to the back door and pant and moan and befoul the glass with her nose.  And if I managed to ignore her she would leap up on the sofa and squeeze herself under my elbow, causing many typos, before subsiding with a great guilt-inducing sigh.

It's not easy to write with a dog under your elbow and waves of guilt engulfing you. My Muse is leery of dogs--my dogs at least.  But she's not afraid of Theo, which is why I've managed to do a lot more writing (not just on this blog, but on my CFS manuscript as well) in Missoula, Montana, than I normally do in West Pawlet, Vermont.

Bisou, Bisou, why can't you be more Theo-like?  Your father Denzil, whom unfortunately you've never met, covered himself with glory on the agility field.  To do that you have to be able to stop thinking about yourself all the time and pay attention.  You and Theo both have his genes.  Fling, your mother, who for good reason growls at you whenever she sees you, gave you and Theo the same responsible upbringing.  So why the difference?

Some have thought that it's the color of your hair that makes you the way you are, but that seems a little, well, racist.  That leaves one major variable:  me.  All the dogs I've ever had, no matter what breed, have been intense.  All the dogs I've ever had have interfered with my writing.  Which leads me to speculate that I have caused my dogs be to intense and demanding in a twisted ploy to keep myself from writing.

But you won't get off the hook that easily, Bisou.  These days with Theo have shown me that it is possible to get quite a bit of writing done in the presence of a dog.  So hurry up and calm down, and stop scaring my Muse away.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bison Funeral

Here is a photo of the bison mourning his relative,  killed by Yellowstone's Mollie Pack.  The picture was taken Kathy Vaughan, who kept her wits about her while all I could do was whisper, "OMG!  OMG!"

Monday, June 18, 2012

Notes From Yellowstone, Part The Second

June 12, 2012

In the park before seven, we saw a long line of cars stopped by the road, and people peering through spotting scopes and speaking in whispers, as if they were in church.

The Mollie Pack—named after Mollie Beattie, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was instrumental in bringing wolves back to Yellowstone—had killed a bison cow during the night. There were two meadows bisected by the Lamar River between us and the wolves, so we had to use optical aids to see them well.

I counted eight to ten wolves around the carcass. Three of them were flung flat on the ground, looking exactly like Wolfie when he comes back exhausted (in a good way) from his stay at the B&B. But these wolves were not tired. They were full of bison, dozing off like fat uncles after a Thanksgiving meal. The others were ripping out huge slabs of meat, carrying them off, and returning for seconds. (Fact: a wolf feeding on a carcass consumes over two pounds of meat a minute.)

It takes a lot of energy to eat a bison. The wolves would dive into its entrails, and every once in a while you could see the great head lift off the ground or a hind leg jerk towards the sky as the pack struggled to tear off the meat.

Most of the wolves were “black,” which is actually a dark reddish brown, a relatively rare color except in Yellowstone wolves. The other Mollies had the typical German Shepherd black/gray/white coat pattern. The German Shepherd illusion was completed by the tracking collars that all the wolves wore around their necks. Their muzzles and ruffs and forelegs were covered in blood.

We stood watching for almost three hours. The meadow was like a stage, and the frieze of wolves around the carcass like a troupe of actors improvising on a familiar plot. A troupe of ravens waited in the wings for their turn at the dead cow.

There was a herd of bison nearby—there is always a herd of bison nearby in the park—grazing and apparently unconcerned about the Mollies. But gradually three bulls made their way towards the carcass, and  we watched in disbelief as the biggest one put his muzzle into the remains of his dead relative. For a while, it looked as if he were eating right alongside the wolves. Then he stood over the carcass, and the wolves had to dart under his belly and between his legs to get at the meat.

The first bison moved off and the other two took their turns, sniffing and pawing the carcass and trying to lift parts of it with their heads. Then the biggest bison returned to the kill and, goat-like, butted the wolves away. This was the ravens' cue, and quickly the carcass disappeared under their oscillating black forms.

The bison eventually moved off; the wolves returned; the ravens fled. We stood transfixed. What had we just seen? Bison grief?

Wary of anthropomorphizing, the next day we casually mentioned the scene to a park ranger. “That was a bison funeral,” he told us. “They do it whenever one of the herd is killed.”

Wolves do not often kill bison: bulls weigh 2,000 pounds and wolves a maximum of 140. It takes wolves a while to learn to kill bison, and for some reason the Mollie Pack has become especially adept at it. The ranger said that the adult Mollies are all females, accompanied by a few juvenile males. They need an alpha male, he said. But from what we saw, the Mollies are doing o.k.

I won't list all the other animals we saw during the rest of our stay. But I must mention the trio of black bears we ran into disporting themselves in somebody's backyard near our lodge. The mother must have had a recessive gene for coat color, because in the setting sun she was a luminous gold all over. Her infants were black, big-headed and clumsy, toddling around and trying to climb the guy wire of the utility pole.

There's only so long you can stand and watch these scenes. Then you either have to go eat breakfast, or you have to walk back to the lodge because it's getting dark. Or you can fly back to Vermont and sell all you have and move to Yellowstone and spend the rest of your life following the Mollies and the bison around the Lamar Valley until your time comes and you become another carcass on the meadow.

(Note:  for some reason, Blogger is letting me post, but not respond to comments.  Don't feel I'm ignoring you!)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Notes From Yellowstone, Part The First

(I'm posting these after our return to Missoula, since we didn't have internet access in Yellowstone.)

June 9, 2012

It took us three days to fly to Missoula—about as long as it would have taken to drive there from Vermont. When we finally landed yesterday, Missoula looked a lot like where we'd just come from: chilly and rainy, and bright green.

Today we drove to Yellowstone, to the Lamar Valley off the northeast entrance, a place known as “the Serengeti of North America.” This is where people come who want to see charismatic mega-fauna: grizzlies, bison, and (please God) wolves. Incredibly, it is much less crowded than the areas near the west entrance, where the geysers are. Me, I would much rather see charismatic mega-fauna than a geyser, no matter how faithful.

The Yellowstone landscape looks oddly manicured. The mountains and the meadows are covered in an even blanket of short green grass or gray sage. The pines rise straight up from this, each one outlined against the background with as much precision as the cedars in a Mediterranean cemetery. There is no underbrush.

Little streams crisscross the meadows, which are dotted with large brown rocks. Every once in a while one of these rocks staggers to its feet and begins to browse the bright green grass. The bison are rejoicing in this cool, wet spring. And behind every meadow and every hill rises a tall, jagged, snow-covered mountain, just like you the ones you see on calendars.

We stopped several times to let big herds of bison cows cross the road. Beside or behind each shaggy, dread-locked beast trotted a calf, short of neck and long of leg, wearing its brand-new, light-orange coat. Amazingly, the calves were all the same size. They must have been born on practically the same day. That must have been quite a day in those meadows. (And the day in the fall when they were all conceived must have been something too.) As a former dairy-woman, I checked out the cows' udders. Since bison are not dairy animals, their udders are small, and you have to look closely to see them under all that fur. I'm sure that they don't have any of those problems with ligaments that torment their high-producing Holstein cousins.

Our lodge is just outside the park, at the foot of a really tall mountain. There are a couple of friendly dogs—a chocolate lab and a beagle--that run around on the grounds. There are a couple of bison bulls who hang out in the area too, but we've been warned that they are “ornery.”

I remember the first bison I ever saw. It was in the Barcelona zoo, and I must have been four years old. It was lying down, but its head and shoulders towered over me, and I remember thinking that it must be a mountain. But then I saw its moist little eye peering at me, and I knew it was alive.

We've been told that this is a banner year for wildlife. Sightings of wolves abound. Wish us luck tomorrow.

June 10, 2012

Have I ever been this cold before? It's windy and snowing, and because we didn't want to check any bags on the airplane, we did not bring a full complement of winter gear, which we badly need.

Drove off in search of wolves in the afternoon, and kept stopping at the pull-outs beside the road whenever we saw people with spotting scopes trained on something. Sometimes we would be the first ones to stop (what's that black spot up there just below the tree line?) and get out of the van and set up our scope, and pretty soon cars would be stopping alongside us, and people would be asking what we were watching. We did this many times, alternately freezing and thawing out.

In this manner we saw: a horned-owl nest high up in a tree with a gigantic, fluffy, ghostly baby in it;  more bison—the cows and calves in companionable bunches, the bulls in pairs or in splendid isolation;  a black bear or two;  a mountain goat or two;  and, our eyes alerted by a running antelope, a grizzly lumbering along parallel to the road. We did not need scopes or binoculars to see that particular bit of charismatic mega-fauna.

We did not, alas, see a wolf. We were told that in this kind of weather they stay inside their dens. That is how cold it is.

Tomorrow we'll get up at the crack of dawn and try to spot a guy in a yellow SUV who supposedly lets people tag along on his wolf-spotting expeditions.  (To be continued.).

Monday, June 4, 2012

My Mastodon

For Mother's Day this year, the man-who-made-it-all-possible gave me something I had coveted for months:  a necklace that includes a piece of mastodon ivory.  You remember mastodons--those huge trunk- and tusk-bearing creatures that became extinct 10,000 years ago, probably due to rapid climate change.

Now, another age of rapid climate change is bringing their formerly frozen remains within reach of human hands.  My bit of mastodon comes from St. Lawrence Island, which is technically part of Alaska but geographically closer to Siberia than to North America.  The necklace was made right here in Vermont by the artful Sandra Owens  (, who let me pick out my own piece of tusk.

The mastodon necklace is the latest addition to the collection of silver amulets--a pentacle, a carnelian pendant my daughter made for me, a little bear--that I like to hang around my neck.  They are all earthy and primitive-looking, and the mastodon fragment is unimaginably old.  And it looks it, too, since Sandra left it unpolished and practically untouched. 

You can find on the Internet all kinds of mastodon jewelry in which the ivory has been cut into geometric shapes and polished to a high gloss.  To me, those pieces look like they might as well be made of plastic.  My piece of prehistoric fauna looks like it was just dug up out of the earth. 

The cave-dwelling woman in my DNA likes to adorn herself with bits of bone and pebbles and such.  But her favorite is the chip off the tusk of a big beast that her mate dragged home for dinner, on Mother's Day.

Note:  I may be posting even less frequently for the next couple of weeks.  My spouse and I will be in Montana visiting descendants, and possibly digging for more amulets.  I'll resume posting after the solstice.