Yesterday was a spring day of transient weather, but during an episode of sunshine (and between chastising Eli for chasing the neighbor’s dog) I took photos of the wild flowers blooming: blood root, violets, bluebells, and trout lilies. Later before bed, I opened up the photos from one year ago, to see if there were any fun reminiscences of 14 month old Eli’s puppy antics, and there were photos of the same flowers, exactly on time, blooming one year ago. When we had a snow storm a week or so ago, I opened my photos to find the storms of years past. Same patterns, to the day. 

My mornings are usually the same. I wake in the dark, pour myself coffee, and wander into either my office or our cozy library to write. My writing is usually more productive in my office, but my ability to observe the morning rituals of the woods is better in the library, and this is where I usually end up. As the dogs settle into their customary places, I drink coffee and write. I like seeing how the tilt of the earth changes the location of the sunrise behind the trees, and I gauge the time of year by its place along the long horizon visible from the ridge where our house sits. With the leaves not yet out, the sparkle of the lake down the hill forces me to move my chair so I can see, but in a week or so, the lake will have disappeared behind the foliage. 

I can see the turkeys flying down from their roosts, the deer browsing, the plump raccoons waddling up their trees to bed. On a sullen morning like this, there is no burst of sunlight, only a gradual undarkening. On sunny days, the mists rise from the valley in a haze of purple. For the dogs, the scenes of life outside the windows are riveting, too. I like watching the rhythms of life, the interplay of the different creatures who wander in and out of one another’s paths, and the sameness of it—with only small variations to account for the seasons—is reassuring.

At this time of year, in a ritual I now understand, the turkeys are dividing themselves from the large winter flock into smaller family groups. The males parade up and down before the females in full regalia—spectacularly beautiful and with great pomp—making a mechanical thrumming sound like enormous insects—I think by vibrating a set of feathers that skim the ground like a 19th century train’s cow catcher. The females scurry back and forth, cackling, in some kind of hierarchical battle with one another. In the end, it is unclear to me who choses whom, but there will be five or six adults in each final group, and they will pair off to start families. Every morning there will be fewer and fewer remaining from the main flock, until they have melted into the woods for summer. We won’t see much of them again until fall, when they come together again. Finding a nesting hen is extremely difficult, but they nest on the ground, and stay in place from the moment the eggs are laid until they hatch, with no apparent help from the males—although I suspect they keep watch nearby in military readiness to fend off attackers. Turkeys are fierce. 

The deer, who do their pairing in the late fall, are already heavily pregnant and browsing hungrily, as are the raccoons, whose cumbersome travels up and down very tall trees make me hold my breath in suspense. I recall one spring watching the antics of a raccoon family, as five or six babies, chirring excitedly, popped out from the hole in their hollow tree, while their mother frantically clung to the tree with her back legs and used her front paws to stuff them back in like someone trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. No sooner would she get one in, than two or three more siblings would pop out from another hole further down and swarm the tree trunk. They would fall with quite terrifying thumps to the ground, and call wildly for their mother. Then, while she made a laborious trip down to take them by the scruff of the neck to carry back up, more would fall like hail from the den above, while the sound of their frightened and excited calls came from above and below. She would try to carry two at a time: bringing one up a few feet, leaving it to cling to the trunk, returning to the ground to retrieve another, like a relay, while the first one promptly fell past her head with another resonant thunk. The cycle of babies was unceasing as they continued popping out, swarming, and falling with more thunks as is if they were in a cartoon. Mama’s increasingly desperate attempts to gather them up and stuff them back in were as futile as they were comically pathetic. This went on for more than an hour, and I can only imagine how tiring it is to be a mother raccoon. It’s remarkable how much noise a baby raccoon can make when it falls, and even more remarkable that they seem utterly unfazed—which is more than I can say for their mother. 

It pleases me to understand these patterns, perhaps because it makes me feel a part of the cycles of the earth. Later, less charming cycles will begin: the annual infestation of deer flies who torment dogs and humans equally with wicked bites, the mosquitoes, the unceasing battle against invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn plants, and one peculiar festival we have come to refer to as “personal fly season”, when a walk down the driveway invariably includes one—and no more—fly to accompany each individual, buzzing and landing on our heads. They don’t bite, but their relentlessness is exasperating, buzzing with a particular emphasis on entangling themselves in hair and crawling on ears. A hat is essential, and preferably a handheld electronic bug zapper, which sizzles satisfactorily when it encounters the enemy. Success makes no difference, since a new assistant ineluctably appears to take the place of its fried colleague.

It is usually at this moment that summer in the woods ceases to charm, and we gather everybody together and decamp to the lake. There, we will inevitably find a different cohort of creatures with their own summer patterns, and we will begin our own. It is a modest place, a rickety cottage with only the water as an amenity, but that is amenity enough. There will be the pleasures of a quiet summer morning on the dock, drinking coffee with a blanket tucked around our toes, of wet dogs and floating, of visits from friends and family, of cocktails at sunset. 

There are also the millions of wet towels to drag home to wash, dishes and pans to wash in the tannic water, muddy feet from wet dogs, and the back and forth of various necessities from one household to the other. It’s joyful at the beginning, but by fall I will be tired of the discomfort and upheaval, and ready to settle in at home again. Even as I anticipate the joys of summer, I am already excited at the prospect of the beauties of fall, and its own patterns of renewal.

When we return to the woods, the deer, unmolested by barking dogs, will have browsed the hostas and lilies to the ground, the raccoon babies will have grown and wandered off on their own, the turkeys will be returning to gather their clans together for the winter. And the sun, whose slow track across the horizon will have continued unobserved by me, will be rising far to the south as the days continue to shorten. 

My city friends wonder how I can live without the museums, theater, restaurants, and vibrancy of the city. But I wonder how anyone could live without this vibrant scene of the earth, the animals, and their own dramas.

I have lived in the city and felt my soul shriveling among the pressures of a life removed from nature. Here, I breathe, and my soul drifts out among those of the animals and trees, their calls and their battles, and I know I belong, too. 

As I write, the horizon brightens, and I hear the last sleepy calls of the great horned owls conversing with one another. The dogs sit up, alert to the presence of the deer in the dark, the turkeys thrum and cackle, the sun hits the water of the lake, and I settle into myself, content, and glad to be alive. 

They Sing

Every morning in the dark, my prayer comes in silence. Or rather, it comes in my silence amid the conversations of others: of the hundreds—possibly thousands of geese calling at sunrise; the turkeys having another of their frequent family squabbles; the robins in their distinctive sweet monotony; the sparrows and the chickadees, each with their own language of singing; the owls calling their last sleepy good nights; and the raccoon silently ambling across the open lawn and slowly up the tree trunk to bed.

The soft sleeping breath of dog one; the impatiently waiting breath of dog two; and the intense watchfulness of the puppy who sits at the window to see, hear, and smell the lives of others, these are the sounds of my prayer. This morning noise is the sound of life, of the world.

The traffic sounds that rise from the valley will come soon, too, but not yet. For now there are just these other lives among us, busily, and with unknown degrees of self-awareness, going about the hard work of living. If they worry—and I think the garter snake who encountered us yesterday in the orchard was damned worried—they don’t sit around and wallow in it. They don’t have time for self pity. They have to eat, and get where they have to be, and find a mate, and feed their young, and elude homicidal neighbors. Every decision they make is life or death. It’s a lot. It is, frankly, more than I have to worry about, and probably more important. But they start each morning by raising their voices.

I don’t know that it’s cheer. Who can say? But it is life affirming. It’s a statement of presence, of vitality, perhaps of territory, perhaps of love.
Life is hard, and may be over before the sun sets.
But still, they sing.

(But still they sing.)

Signs of Hope

I was watching a small drama this morning at dawn. The polar vortex has moved on, the -22 temperatures have risen more than forty degrees, and the vicious winds, creating a wind chill factor of 40 or 50 below zero, have died. I have been worried about the wild animals, knowing that this weather kills many birds, and probably mammals, too. I have not seen a single squirrel in a week, and this is highly irregular. The turkeys, normally restless and predictable in their daily patterns, have not followed their usual path, but stayed beneath the trees where they roost, puffed into enormous balls of feather, clustered together like giant mushrooms.

I put out seed, and fruit, and all kinds of nuts, suet balls with nuts and meal worms, and big chunks of suet in fat strips from the butcher, which I have to shoo the dogs from. The fat has drawn crows, whom I rarely see up close, and that makes me happy. We have springs on our property so we don’t have to worry about a water supply, but still, this is a hard season for creatures. Many times over the past week I thought of the animals, curled up in balls trying to keep warm in their trees or burrows, and I felt helpless pity.

This morning, though, as I was watching the sunrise, I noticed a black mass against the side of tree deep in the woods. Suspicious, I watched until I saw it move. It was a raccoon, returning home from its nighttime ramble. And then I saw a second raccoon, climbing up the same trunk in a congenial fashion. So this is how they survive the cold. I was enchanted. A pair! There will be babies! 

As I watched their clumsy, though expert climb, I was cheered by the thought of their snuggling together in the winter weather. And then I peered more closely. Not two. Three raccoons. Clearly joining forces to keep one another warm. Were they siblings? In this woods, probably. They were all fat, but not as big as some I’ve seen, possibly yearlings. They each perched on a separate branch, far more precariously than any turkey. Turkeys, after all, can fly. And although there was one spectacular slip and fall, the raccoons all managed to stay on the tree without falling fifty feet to the ground. 

I wonder whether this arrangement is long-term or merely expedient, but the sight of this little pack, or family, or club, cheered me and distracted me.  I watched, my coffee growing cold, as they settled in uncomfortable-looking poses on their separate too-small branches, until they each made their way back to the trunk where they had their nest, and disappeared, presumably until night falls again, when they can resume their sociable adventurings.

All is well.

He’s all right

After multiple treatments, Moses still smelled like skunk around his eyes and muzzle. I couldn’t put any of the harsher treatments near his eyes, so we went with the old-fashioned method of tomato paste.

Moses made it quite clear that this was beneath his dignity, but after he had wiped his face on Pete and splattered tomato paste all over Auggie, he contented himself with licking off some of the residue. He got several very big pieces of chicken for his patience. And he actually smells better too.

Meanwhile, I think we have his Halloween costume in the bag.

Sith warrior, anyone?

QUICK NOTE: If you would like to read my first novels in preparation for the release of the third in the series, Robert’s Rules, next spring, they are both on sale for $1.99 each on Kindle this month.

Learning to Love Again

To the both of you who follow my blog: by now you are probably used to the reality that when I am writing a book, I don’t post many blogs. It’s a husbanding your resources thing.

Nevertheless, I interrupt this novel for a brief announcement:

We are in the queue again for a puppy. He has been born. He will be two weeks old tomorrow. We hope to pick him up and fly him home (on our laps) on May 6th. He is a cousin, of some sort, of Moses.

My husband insists that his name will be St. Augustine the Younger. He gets to pick, since I picked Moses, but I am still lobbying for St. George, the Dragon Slayer.

He will win.

So, watch this space for puppy pictures. Because my life needs a complication, albeit a delightful one.

Here is one of the puppies from the litter. Who knows? We may become friends.


Maybe Icarus was a Turkey

We live at Turkey Central. It started out small a few years ago, when we would occasionally hear turkey calls in the spring. But now there are turkeys–about forty of them–who roost in our trees every night, and their comings and goings are part of the rhythm of our days. At dawn and at dusk, you can look up into the tops of the trees and see these unwieldy, bulbous creatures, precariously perched on the tiniest of branches, fifty feet above the floor of the woods. I have no idea how they manage to stay there, but so far, I have seen no evidence of them falling. They make quite a lot of noise, too, which I rather enjoy.

For those pedants among you, I draw your attention to the fact that wild turkeys constitute a flock. Domestic turkeys constitute a rafter, or a gang.

I don’t know.

One of my great pleasures in life is to watch the turkeys at dusk, flying, one by one, up to their nighttime berths. They gobble as they make a running start,  with a long rumble like a B-52 at take-off, and then, unexpectedly, they take to the air, and with a great flapping, land on a perfectly unsuitable branch, bobbling back and forth, as they establish their balance. This takes some time, and it is most enjoyable to watch with a cocktail in hand. Preferably bourbon, but I am not always particular.

We frequently attempt to bore our guests with it, but everyone who witnesses it seems as riveted as we are.

Last year, we had one turkey who broke the routine. Instead of using the little hill in the woods for his take-off, he would courageously mount the big hill to our house, where dogs do dwell. He would get almost to the top, near the patio, and then he would turn and run down the hill, his wings flapping, using the hill for acceleration on take-off. My husband commented on it one night in amazement, and after that the turkey came–this one bird, alone–every night.

I came to think of this bird as an innovator; a cultural leader, possibly breaking the Darwinian bonds of avian technology. I looked for him, I admired him, and I was delighted by him. Then came turkey season. I don’t hunt, so I don’t know what the rules are about where you can shoot, or when, or how. But I can say that the number of turkeys was considerably diminished. As winter came on, there were only about a dozen left. And our innovator was gone. The flock that remained continued its old habits, without variety or novelty.

In my heart, I know what probably happened. But I like to think of him, laboriously climbing the perilous hill, alone, undaunted, his vision of glory before him, as he turned and began the run to take-off, lifting up exultantly from the earth, closer and closer to the sun, on his way to immortality.

It’s spring again, and we have more turkeys than ever. But not the innovator. The flock has lost some of its magic for me.

He was a turkey. And I think of him every day.








First sing.

When we were newly married, my husband and I had an agreement: whenever I said I “hated” something, I owed him a dollar; whenever he interrupted me, he owed me a dollar. I hated bad grammar. I hated vinyl siding. I know…unimportant things. He still interrupts me incessantly. But I have come to rarely say that I hate anything. I’m good with that. Not with the interrupting, really, but marriage is about compromise. I mean: it’s better not to express so much negativity about trivialities.

So you will, perhaps, appreciate the intensity and genuine feeling expressed when I tell you that I hate daylight savings time. Much of that is about being an early riser. After months of the dreariness of rising in pitch black and turning on the lights as if you’d never gone to bed, we had finally been waking in the faint light of pre-dawn. It was easier, and life had a rhythm to it. Even on days off, my body clock would chime, and I would rise at the usual time. It made the mornings effortless.

But last night, we couldn’t get to sleep because it was too early, and this morning, after a restless night with odd and vivid dreams, getting up was dark, and hard, and miserable. It was jet lag, but imposed without the lovely trip to London.

I dragged myself to the kitchen for coffee, and returned to the bedroom, to sit by the window and watch the stirrings of life in the woods. The room felt overheated, so I threw open a window. What I heard made me stand up and go to the doors and open them to listen, just to be sure. Mixed with the turkeys, and the geese on the lake, and the red squirrels, was the song of the first robins. Flocks of them, not just one.

March is early for robins in Wisconsin. Maybe this warm weather is more than just a tease.


The Nostalgia of Crows

I am a crow lover.

I had never seen a crow until I moved to Wisconsin in my childhood, and I remember being astonished at how big they were. I first noticed them in the spring when their big, clumsy fledglings would fall off their perches onto their beaks, and would make odd, baby caws that were laughably unbeautiful. But their parents were sleek and affectionate, and they seemed to be large families of mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles.

We fed them. My mother would leave them meat scraps and suet. They would gather in the early mornings and winter evenings, circling overhead and calling. It was rare to see one alone. Most often, though, they would travel in pairs. Nordic myth says that they were the messengers of the god, Odin, and they always seem to carry both mystery and omen.

When I grew older my brother gave me a crow call, and I would use it to summon them. They almost always responded, and we would carry on conversations in a language that consisted on my side merely of imitation. I can’t say what was intended on their side.

Crows are very intelligent. I remember reading somewhere that there was a man who somehow rescued a baby crow, and from that day on, the entire flock (technically, I believe, a murder of crows) would greet him in his car every day as he entered his subdivision, and escort him to the main road when he left. They always remembered his heroism, although, perhaps, it was a tribute that not everyone would appreciate.

Somehow, bleak winter days–the days with neither sun nor snow–seem like crow days, and today was one of those days. As I was hurrying in from my car to a meeting, I heard in the distance the rough song of crows, and it flashed me back to my childhood, ambling home from school through the snow, cawing and calling to the birds who seemed to know me.

I realized at once how much I have missed them, and I have resolved to go back to carrying my crow call in my pocket.

Night Crow
When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
further and further away,
Into a moonless black,
Deep in the brain, far back.

(That great man) Theodore Roethke

The Going Price for Squirrels

My sister from out of town is staying at our lake cottage. She is being respectful of my writing time while she works on our late mother’s house, doing many things that I am tired of doing. She told me she didn’t want to distract me, and that I shouldn’t be worrying about her during this period of intense writing. But she did want to borrow a dog for company. Well, not “a” dog. She wanted snuggly, sweet Pete.

On her first night there she announced that we had mice or something in the ceiling. I did not find this alarming. Mice kind of come along with cottages, and much as I love animals, having seen what they do when we’re away, even I have been forced to take a hard line. So the situation did not seem particularly alarming or challenging. But when my sister began to describe what she was experiencing it began to seem unlikely that mice were the culprits. Scampering, twittering, scrabbling, and, yes, chewing.

I am living my own novel.

We went out to the cottage that night and were sitting on the couch drinking wine, looking at family treasures my sister had unearthed when she stopped me and said: Listen.

Above our heads we heard what I can only describe as the kind of squeals and squeaking you expect to hear in a Disney animation. This was not a squirrel. This was a colony. At least. And it had happened so fast. We hadn’t been away for more than two weeks. It actually was alarming. There were many, many, many animals up there. And they were apparently rather busy. From the sound of things, they were singing to themselves as they made a dress for the ball.

My husband gave me the lecture: You cannot be softhearted about this. You have to call an exterminator. There is no other way. I nodded and pretended to look reasonable, but I confess that I had no intention of exterminating an entire neighborhood of baby squirrels. Sometimes I wonder if he knows me at all.

The next day I called a company that my friend had once used to remove a bat. Or a raccoon. Or both. They specialize in trapping and releasing wild animals that have taken up residence in your house. They assured me that they would not harm the squirrels, and they even have a squirrel expert–although he has injured his back and is not as available as usual. They charge $149 for the house call, and $39 per squirrel.

They will be there at 8:30 this morning. And I suspect that the bill will be rather high.