Close Encounter of the Fur Kind

I know the dogs hadn’t — between them — hatched a nefarious plot that would have gone against their self-interest. I know that but here I am this morning walking slowly through the house, waiting for the paracetamol (Tylenol) to kick in. For a few moments yesterday out at the Refuge I lay flat on my face, glasses thrown a short distance away, wondering how I was going to get up on the slick snowy road.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone but, on the other hand, if I’d been alone, I never would have fallen.

There was a moment when I regretted having socialized Bear so well to like people and Teddy? Never mind Mr. Throw Himself Through a Glass Door to see people — specifically the UPS man.

There is a couple we’ve run into a few times out there — Sharon and Tom — that we like very much. I’ve never had any challenges controlling the dogs in their company before, but yesterday? I think the problem was that they were preceded on the road by a car — and Teddy wants to chase all cars. And they were stuck at home for two days. So they were filled with piss and vinegar. In their eagerness to greet friends, Teddy leapt forward and pulled me down. It wouldn’t have happened at all if I’d been paying attention, but I wasn’t.

I let go of the leashes, asked our friends to hold the dogs, and Tom helped me up. OH well. And then, of course, the dogs returned to me as if “See, Martha! We found our friends!”

I’m not hurt, just a little banged up.

Once I was upright again, we had a great conversation. Last time we met I told them about the article I was writing about the Crane Festival. As we talked, I thought about how the are the ONLY people I ever run into when I’m out there walking. They are the only people who walk out there, too, except one of the people who lives there. I thought about that and about what we talk about. Invariably our conversations turn to what we have seen. Last time we met they had seen the elk herd — about 400 elk — and heard their feet hit the ground as they ran across the fields. Yesterday they asked about the article. I told them they were in it, but I hadn’t used their names. I said I felt weird — but what I felt was the immensity and silence of that place, and all the people who have witnessed it over the millennia, none of them are named. I might have my name on the article, but as a wanderer out there, I am nameless. I told them I wrote about how when we meet up we talk about what we’ve seen to, maybe, the only other people in the world who are out there with no agenda. I told them where they would find the magazine when it comes out.

So, for a while at leash (ha ha), I won’t be walking Bear and Teddy together. I’m also thinking that Teddy is going to get a head collar like that Bear wears. I used one with him when he first came to live with me, but he hated it. Now I’m wondering how much I care whether he hates it or not.

Quotedium Update 81.9.3i.x

The dogs and I have been out in the Big Empty enjoying the snow that’s on the ground. I learned today that most of Colorado is covered with snow and that the snow pack in the mountains is 134% of normal. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the drought, but it’s a good sign. Snow is falling right now. Little flakes, gray sky, pure January aesthetic.

We went out Friday while the snow was falling. I didn’t know until I got out of town that it wasn’t just snow. Fog! Beautiful, adding to the silence and mystery. The snow was wet and on the warm side. The light was flat and the Refuge was beautiful in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It reminded me of the under-painting of the big crane painting and gave me the thought of actually painting THAT. There was no sign of life beyond the slow low flight of a Northern Harrier in front of me.

We walked our walk, the dogs each having its turn at the side off the road where the good stuff is. Bear’s and Teddy’s feet accumulated snow balls, but both of them are happy to have me pull them out. The featured photo is the end of that snowstorm.

Saturday I woke up to find the fog had lingered, leaving its beautiful mark on the tops of the trees, but dipping low enough to regale my lilac bush.

Yesterday we were out again. The sun was shining, and the walk was beautiful. Enough people had driven on the road that there were nice tracks for me. I don’t mind walking through the snow at all, but when Teddy is pulling one way and Bear the other it’s a little less fun. Not a lot less fun, just a little less fun. By yesterday, the snow had crystalized over night, so it didn’t stick to the dogs’ paws.

On our return, a truck stopped. Turned out it was some people I haven’t seen in four years! but like very much so we caught up, laughed, chuckled, and enjoyed the moment. It’s an interesting phenomenon how that place, as solitary as it is, often results in my having a great conversation with someone. I guess it’s kind of a funnel. Anyone who’s out there is probably someone I want to talk to and who wants to talk to me.

I’m hoping for four inches or a little more of snow. I will take the Langlauf skis to the Refuge — or the golf course — if that happens. The snow that’s there now will be a very nice base for fresh powder. It’s slightly packed and will have had the chance to crystalize a few times.

I have no projects hanging fire other than reading books for the contest. At the moment I’m between shipments. They come twice during the winter and the second shipment will come next month which is not that far away. I have electronic submissions to read right now.

and yet ANOTHER Snowy Walk with Bear

Very beautiful day yesterday. The snow fell off and on all day but only got as deep as my ankles. I shoveled the walks then sequestered Bear and headed to the Refuge.

The road was treacherous. I have consciously avoided winter roads since I moved here. It isn’t difficult since we have more sunny days than gray, and most winters have been dry. At first it felt a little sketchy. Bella is a jeep but she doesn’t have the best tires for snow/ice. I soon relaxed into the experience and enjoyed it.

It is a little strange to think that most of my winter driving experience was in Montana driving my aunts around the winter-slick roads in Billings in their cars. Front wheel drive and studded tires, but if the snow was deep? Everyone stayed home until the plows came out. As I drove, I felt strangely nostalgic for Billings’ winter roads and my bundled up aunts.

I always wondered WHY my aunts wanted me to drive. It had been DECADES since I’d driven on winter roads, but there I was. San Diego driver. I had learned to drive in those conditions so it wasn’t long before I was fine.

“You’re doing good, honey,” my Aunt Jo would say.

Before Bear and I left the Refuge yesterday, a very amazing snowplow came up the main road. It had a front blade, and pulled a heavy trailer that had another blade, this one pointing toward the side of the road. The plow system was immense and fun to watch. It gave us an easier ride home, though still slick.

Bear and I had, again, untrammeled snow and tracks — fox or coyote, but my money is on fox. The snow was soft and the tracks were a little filled. A male Northern Harrier passed low in front of me and then moved on.

Northern Harrier in the tree…

Bear had the time of her life investigating the mischief made by other animals since the last time we were there.

“Very interesting, Martha!”

The sky to the south was so dark that the shadows of the trees were on the “wrong” side. The storm came from the southwest. To the north the sky was bright with a band of clear turquoise on the horizon.

You can see the effects of the odd light in the photo below. I’m facing east. The sun was desperately trying to shine through dark clouds over my right shoulder. The tree’s shadows would — normally — point in the opposite direction. This can’t be painted. It’s a photo that needs words, a phenomenon maybe unique in my life.

In a place like the Refuge where there is nothing overtly dramatic to look at, a person who goes there often, like I do, is going to notice ambience and detail. It is really not the same place twice.

The day before yesterday I saw a beautiful, huge, pale tan feather. I wanted to pick it up, but as we were just starting out, I couldn’t. I planned to get it on the way back, but the wind and a couple passing cars had blown it away. I thought about that later. Moments of beauty are just like that feather or a harrier’s low, slow flight.

Lois Lane, Here…

Life as a world-renowned journalist will continue later this morning when I go interview another Crane Festival organizer and wildlife biologist. I hope this time I remember to take the questions with me. She’s a person I’ve met before — on the golf course on skis. I liked her.

Yesterday I worked on the article, integrating my last interview into the structure of stuff I already have. Some basic information has to go into that piece, but as I transcribed the interview I took last week I realized what my job is; it’s less about informing people as it is about exciting people.

What a cool job description! “Write a story that makes people excited to see Sandhill Cranes.”

When I was talking to my cousin on my birthday I learned that he’s written a book. It would be his second. As he talked about what he’s doing (getting editors, having it read, etc.) I thought but didn’t say, “Tom, there are no guarantees.” I did say, “Wonderful!” And somewhere in there I said, “The most important thing about writing is that you do it and enjoy it.” But really I can’t speak for anyone but me there. He could have heard that in a lot of ways — one as me trying to cushion him from disappointment, but, I was just speaking from my experience.

Sitting here with all these independently published books I feel differently about THAT than I might have felt 20 years ago. Independently published books are not (necessarily) “second class” or “not as good as,” not at all. Usually (in my experience) they are just different. The big difference is in audience, not the quality of the writing. IF these authors had sought “conventional” publication and had not found it, it would have been, in most cases, because the book they’d written would not have an audience. The publisher wouldn’t sell many of the books he’d paid to produce. That’s the major factor in the decision to take on a writer’s work. Logically so from a business perspective. The moment I understood that for myself, I knew what direction I would have to take. It’s a self-knowledge thing, I think.

Well, that said, and none of it new, I’d better get ready for my gig… Here’s Stephen King’s advice for wannabe writers. The only points I agree with unequivocally are #6, #8, #11, #14. For me the other points are matters of personal taste and style. Some people are quashed by a “daily writing goal,” for example. I have no idea where the word for today, “coddle,” was supposed to go in here; I had an idea when I started, but… OH well.

Life as a Journalist (huh?)

Yesterday I interviewed a woman for the article I’m writing on the upcoming Crane Festival. It was very interesting. The dark side was technology. She has two VHS tapes of Crane Festivals from the antediluvian era. She brought a VCR to the Chamber of Commerce to hook up to their TV but, of course, the TV is too new to have RCA hookups. Today we are embarking on Plan B which involves my TV with connectors dating back to the transitional epoch between RCA and HDMI.

Life as a world-renowned journalist is pretty interesting and not always in the writing. The best part of the interview for me (so far) was talking to another person who gets excited about wildlife and birds. Not since I was hanging out with the rangers at Mission Trails Regional Park have I had that experience. She also had a really nice dog.

The video tapes are from 30 some years ago when the festival was still called the “Whooping Crane Festival.” I also learned yesterday what happened to the Whooping Cranes. As a species they are larger than Sandhill Cranes and the mountain ranges and the altitude made life — migration — here very hard for them. Then the problem of electric wires. Cranes get tangled in them often. Last summer I learned from a maintenance guy at the Refuge about 40 cranes who died from being tangled in power lines.

I don’t know how much of the dark side I want to put in a 1000 word article, but I will put some. One thing about being a future Pulitzer Prize winner is that the time invested in an article brings the hourly rate down to about a nickel. 😀

Both species were severely threatened back in the 80s, but have made a comeback thanks to people as it happens.

The word for today is “depauperate” which kind of breaks my brain because I think it should mean “enrich” but it means the opposite. He was a poor guy but thanks to his great work ethic he’s depauperated but noooooo….. English, that whore, takes a little bit from HERE and little bit from THERE and constructs meaning in a completely arbitrary fashion.

Anyway — it occurred to me last night that I’m an amateur naturalist at this point, just from going out there for most of my life and watching stuff, then reading about it. I guess I must be pretty obnoxious to real naturalists who’ve studied formally. It made me think of Goethe who had an axe to grind with the then new approach to science which was based on experimentation rather than observation. The experimenters had an axe to grind with HIM.

We humans have this “either/or” thing going on. Experimentation requires observation so it’s not really one or the other, but humans take sides. Goethe was an observer. His theory of plants and his theory of colors were both based on direct observation and neither theory is totally flawed. Darwin said he owed the Theory of Evolution to Goethe’s observations on the growth of plants. Early humans, too, survived better because they observed how nature worked. What made yesterday’s interview fun was getting her to share things she had seen. I think that will inspire people to attend the festival which is the whole point.

Thank goodness my dogs like tourists.

Good News

It snowed — almost .75 of an inch which, as this winter is going, is pretty good. The dogs and I were out as soon as we could and were met by untrammeled snow, beautiful light and fascinating tracks.

Tracks I can’t identify — do you know?

Most of the snow is gone, but the important thing is we carped the diem and had a lovely time. Here’s the long view…


Yesterday afternoon turned a little strange. Two days ago, as Bear and I were walking, a car approached us. I waved, the driver waved. The car went on and driver parked at a pull out. Bear and I kept going.

Today when Bear, Teddy and I were out, the car — a sedan — was still parked. I called the Refuge number and left a message. I felt a little lost about what to do. Anything could have happened. Worst case scenario, the driver killed herself. Best case scenario? A stolen car, a drug deal, someone picked her up, car abandoned. I knew one thing; I wasn’t going near the car.

Things like that happened a lot back when I lived in the hood in San Diego (City Heights) and before Mission Trails was a real park with rangers and people visiting. Back then, Mission Trails was a remote place frequented by Hells Angels, drug dealers, human coyotes bringing human contraband, prostitutes in mobile whorehouses. It was colorful, but a little sketchy…

Bear, Teddy and I walked our walk. On our return, I saw that someone was approaching the car, holding something shiny that caught the light. Weapon?

We got to Bella. I put the dogs inside, and I got in. From the drivers side rearview I could watch what happened. The person got into the car on the passenger side and was clearly examining it. Also, clearly, the car had been abandoned.

And don’t worry; we were not in any danger. We were far enough away. Visibility out there is at least 12 miles.

For a while on Monday, after I saw the sedan pull into the parking space, I watched to see who it might be. I’m always alert for dogs. I had to return that way. I saw a person there for a while, then I didn’t. I didn’t see the car drive away, but I thought I just missed it.

As Bear and I returned to Bella that day, I looked to see if anyone was in the parked sedan. It seemed the driver was taking a nap, with the seat reclined fully. It was strange but not THAT strange. I didn’t see a person, only the fully reclined seat.

I’ve been trying to figure it out. While Bear and I were there, the only other car to drive by was the family in the big SUV. I don’t think they picked up the driver of the sedan. If the person had taken off across country, I probably would have seen them.

This is the kind of thing that inspires mystery stories…

In other news (there really isn’t any) two things; I saw photos of the inside of an airport today and I realize that I don’t even know how to use the modern airport. Either I’d better get on a plane soon, or forget it. It’s not going to get any less futuristic. The last time I was in an airport was 2016. It made me think about how much my life has changed since 1) I moved here, 2) altered financial circumstances from when I was working, 3) Covid changed the world.

And, yesterday, Bear ran out of rawhide pencils. She figured (with her Bear Brain) that if she just went outside and came in ONE MORE TIME there would be an esculent rawhide pencil waiting for her. That’s dog cause and effect thinking.

The sky was great yesterday — in every direction there was something different going on. To the north, the sky was dark, dark, gray, flat clouds. To the east lenticular clouds in a blue sky built and fell apart. To the south — the featured photo. Small, snow laden clouds were pulled by the cold air about the San Juans where they dropped snow and moved on. That’s what’s going on in the photo. Above that cloud, a bright sun was shining.

The Museum

Yesterday I went to get my paintings at the museum. While I was there an elderly couple (80s and beyond), their grown kids and teenage grandkids were there looking at exhibits. The woman had grown up in Del Norte and remembered some of the people — doctors and dentists — whose old time tools are part of an exhibit. The tree had been decorated with old postcards, and one of them had been written by the old lady’s father. K, the woman in charge yesterday, asked the old woman if she’d like to take a photo of it. I think I would have given it to her. It’s just paper.

I thought about the purpose of a museum, especially a small local museum. In one more generation, the old things in there aren’t gong to evoke much of a response in people except as they might remember going there on an elementary school field trip. I wonder how they will see the ephemera, like the Christmas postcards? I asked myself, “Where do our memories actually lie and what do they mean?” Christmas is a nostalgic time.

I didn’t put up a Christmas tree because, honestly, why? BUT…when I pulled out the stained glass box that is a candle holder I found some Christmas ornaments inside it. Well, to cut to the chase, I “decorated.” In front of me right now is my “tree.” It’s a little museum to Christmas past, memories. The ornaments seemed to say, “For the love of god do SOMETHING with us!” I put them all on my tuner in front of me here on my table. The angel, in particular, with her chrome, foil, plastic, pipe-cleaner little self, her wooden ball head with its sweet expression that so enchanted a little girl that her dad bought it for her.

The real museum is probably in our minds, the stories behind the objects, artifacts, ephemera, like the elderly woman in the museum seeing her dad’s handwriting on the back of a postcard from the 1920s. I would have given it to her. “Here. Merry Christmas.” Yep. I would’ve done that.

Services at the Church of the Big Empty

It’s been a while since Bear and I have attended services at the Church of the Big Empty, not because we haven’t gone out there, but it just doesn’t always happen. I don’t know what factors conspire to make it happen, but I’m happy when they do. It seems to be most often a winter thing, so I’m thinking that possibly solitude and silence enter into it, and then there is the amazing sky, the clouds that behave unpredictably, giving warnings and telling the news. The clouds are the only messengers I know that accurately foretell the future. Today they were offering mixed signals — which is pretty much what the weather forecasters are offering, too.

Teddy has learned what it means “Not today, little guy. I just want to go out with Bear. You have to stay home.” He sits in front of the sofa in complete understanding. One thing about having two dogs — one of which was here first — it matters that once in a while the first dogs gets to be the ONLY dog, especially when the two dogs are such incredibly good friends as Bear and Teddy are.

And so… We strolled along, covering 1.08 miles in a little under an hour. Bear got to smell EVERYTHING her heart desired and I got to stare off into space as much as MY heart desired.

At one point I could almost see a little boy in a loin cloth, the clear water of the ancient lake just below his knees. He was looking intently into the water. He held a pointed stick raised and ready. I felt as if I knew him. Was him? This place has some kind of mysterious fascination for me. Sometimes — not always — when I’m out there, I feel it. I painted it long before I saw it in a painting titled, “Ancestral Memory.” What if?

Bear and I walked on until she stopped in front of me to lean for a while. It’s her thing. We resumed our walk, Bear next to me, curling her head around my left left. I rested my hand on her back and we went on like that for a while, until a smell captured her attention again.

Bear leaning…and walking

I love these walks. I love it when the magic happens, and I love that I can’t MAKE it happen. In these times I feel that every other thing in my world is completely irrelevant, “Passatempo“.

When we reached the car, I looked up to see a very large raptor — the Golden Eagle from last week? — cruising low over the grasslands. He didn’t come nearer, and above him I noticed a very interesting cloud — a cloud that had been turning lenticular, but was hit on the face by some air currents that made it resemble 1930s permanent waves. You can kind of see it in the photo below. The snowy mountain farthest left facing is Mt. Herard and at the base are the Great Sand Dunes.

The sky out there has so much going on in any single moment (unless there are no clouds). The sun breaking through here and there and there, and here lit the distant Sangres like spotlights in a Broadway show. Now this, now the Sand Dunes, now the Crestones. Now colors on Mt. Blanca. In another direction was this — lines as if the the wind were a comb. A little hard to see…

Most people drive that loop road at 30 mph. The speed limit is 15. I drive between 10 and 15 because there are things to see along the way. I thought about that as I drove, watching the sky and the space between earth and sky for raptors. It’s all there.

I thought again of how grateful I am to Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego, though the “empty” season there is summer. One December afternoon I stood on a ridge looking toward the north and winter’s lush green chaparral. I spoke to it, “God, why are you so beautiful?”

God in this case was just a word, but I got an answer. “So you would love me.”

I answered, “I do love you.”

IT answered, “No you don’t. You don’t come when it’s hot, my snakes are out, and nothing is green. You only come when everything is like this.”

Talk about the smack down. After that? I got the best lesson of my whole life; how to see a place that might, to superficial outward appearance be “nothing,” but which is, in fact, everything. In 1988, with my first real dog, Truffle, I began my apprenticeship in “How to take a walk.” No, it wasn’t my first walk or hike by any means, but it was the beginning of walking knowing I was not just on a trail going somewhere. I already WAS somewhere. My job was learning to BE there. Emerson wrote it in Nature:

Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,)  which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,  — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Featured photo: the only snow Bear could reach — she said it was better than nothing, but it’s pretty hard. And I found on the gravel road a beautiful green stone, that made me think of Zorba the Greek. I picked it up and put it with the feathers in my car.

Morning’s Minion…

Yesterday we had our first below 20F walk. No biggie. If there had been a sharp wind, that would have been a different matter, but mostly calm. The light, silence, the blue and gold of the world without snow, ringed by the snowy mountains? How does it get better? It can, which is a little mind-boggling. From the distance a large bird was soaring, and swooping, and hovering — not all raptors hover that way. What was it? It got closer and hovered again, “Spiritu Sanctu.” I loved it. He hunted, swooped, lifted, hovered and again then dashed off across the shallow, frozen pond and I lost sight.

He was a hawk I had not seen before; a rough-legged hawk not that it really matters, but I couldn’t figure out from his markings or color what he was. I got a little irked at myself for trying to pin a name on him, but I forgave myself saying, “You’re a human. That’s what you do. His function in your life is to expand your knowledge and watch in silent wonder. One doesn’t obviate the other.” I thought about that some more — animals do the same without words. They need to know what’s up there so they can make the all-important “kill or be killed” determination. I shrugged, accepted my humanity one more time and moved along so Bear could smell the side of the road which was the whole point of everything.

Earlier yesterday I was just kind of minding my own business when something struck me. The Crane Festival Committee has shared my story about John Patterson because it opens with a little history of the festival. I had written them thanking them and telling them about John’s death. The chairperson wrote back that a lot of people have asked about Cooper the Whooper and she was happy to share that bit of history. Suddenly it hit me, 2023 is the 40th anniversary of the Crane Festival. Would the magazine like a story telling the history of the Crane Festival and its future plans? I wrote the chairman of the festival to see if she would be up for working with me and wrote to the magazine querying the possibility. By the end of the day I had a story I can’t wait to write AND the chance to write for the Crane Festival newsletter.

Honestly I am not very connected to my town. Covid and politics made me psychically move away, but I am deeply tied to the Refuge and the animals who live there and the people who, one way or another, traverse it, coming from all over the world.

Still, my town is part of the story. I was thinking that the lead for the article might be something a clerk said at the local Safeway after I’d gone to my first Crane Festival. I was there with my friend Lois’ developmentally disabled son. We were buying his favorite — Sarah Lee Pound cake. The kid in front of the cash register said, “Did you go to the Crane Festival?”

Mark said, “Yeah.” Mark is EXTREMELY adept at finding birds hiding in trees. He’d seen the mated pair of great-horned owls in a cottonwood tree before the naturalist did.

The kid said, “Did you enjoy it?”

Mark said, “Yeah!” in his inimitable way. He’s a little speech limited, but it didn’t matter. His eyes and voice said what his words couldn’t.

The kid answered, his eyes shining, “We are proud of our Crane Festival.” Maybe that won’t be in the story, but it is the spirit I want to convey. Mark’s feeling of wonder and the cash register kid’s pride in his town.

Since then eight years have passed. For me, thousands of cranes, hours at the Refuge learning about the wetlands. I’m very happy that I get to learn more about it and write about it.

But…this project coincides with the annual book-reading marathon and judging event, so I’m looking at a busy couple of months. The books are already starting to come in. Usually I finish the books by March, but I have until May so, really, maybe there’s no problem.

The featured photo by Roy Priest, Rough-legged Hawk.