Sunday, May 30, 2010


I had planned for us to walk for miles along the wooded trail, a former railroad bed, meandering through pine forest, high desert, grassy meadow over this long weekend. My dog Sadie and I were set. Goretex, good sox, sunscreen, cashmere hat, gloves, water, snacks: we were prepared. A pre-trek jaunt was dress rehearsal. Parking spots, “urban” areas (of 20 homes or more), trestles, river access, I pinned them all on my mental map of this unique hiking highway. I was especially excited about the stretch of trail that veered from auto routes into an “uninhabited” stretch of canyon. Sadie and I were set for one long day on the rail to river trail, no matter what the unsettled weather shot our way.

Then I made the mistake of talking to locals. Not just any locals, but seasoned, sensible, well-rounded locals. Folks whose observations I valued. Folks whose declarations were not typically histrionic. Folks who knew this country deeply, after decades and decades of out-in-it residence. One who’d hunted rattlesnakes as a kid and who calmly stayed in his sleeping bag as cougar cubs caroused through camp. These were not lightweights, these men telling me about what it’s like out there now.

Wolves, I learned, have changed lots of things. Their presence is, without a doubt, very disturbing to people around here. I heard of the golden retriever snatched from the farmyard just up the highway. I heard of the huge male wolf carrying a thirty-pound raccoon across the road as if it were a kitten, just up the highway. I heard of the wolf who popped up here and there in a farmyard and who met his end ten feet from the rancher’s wife, just up the highway. I heard of the pair that moved into the neighborhood a few miles from town, just down the highway. I heard of the large male wolf that stared at a seasoned mushroom hunter from twelve feet away, not afraid, not startled, not curious, but just there, just suddenly there, just up the highway. I heard of the hunter on the other side of the state who shot repeatedly at the wolves attacking his hounds, emptying, then filling his gun. I was told that he flung one of his dogs over his shoulder and had to defend this dog from a wolf at his feet, even while he was gunning down its packmates.

I heard level-headed grandfathers say that, because they have dogs and grandkids, they now pack heat when heading into the wilds. I was instructed to do the same. I thought about it. I thought about it. I thought about my ditzy dog who, if confronted with a wolf pack would most likely either try to play or conquer, neither of which is a smart move. I thought about my own fear of bears, knowing that I would most likely lose any semblance of composure should a wolf cross our path.

And I thought of a poem I wrote about being prey:

Wolves? You too. Bring your pals.
Make me a canine banquet.
You scare me much less
than the pack of dizzied symptoms
that is Alzheimer’s.
Take my flesh.
Let my mind remember it.

From “Predation,” The Silence of Bright Star

The brave stance of these lines wilted when it was time for Sadie and me to begin our trek. I did, in fact, change our plans. We still explored the gorgeous trail, especially the section that heads into the remote canyon. We still savored the luscious green and wildflower splash of this high mountain May. We still enjoyed the bright flash of yellow, white, blue songbirds. But we didn’t hike for miles and miles, off on a solitary adventure. We did most of our gazing from spots within view of the road and only hiked a section of the trail near a town, a town so small that a sign posted in its core says “Yes, this is Fruitvale.”

So why did I let the local counsel change my plans? Why did I succumb to the fear of others? I’m not sure. I’m a brave person, one who travels by herself, frequently heading out to remote places all alone. I’ve been a solitary traveler often in my adult life. Why now did I change my plans in response to dangerous possibilities?

I do not know the answer. I do know that the notion of being prey, of my dog being prey, was not one I liked. Rationally, I understand the statistics about wolf attacks on humans and know that the creatures have most likely moved further up slope, where elk calves and deer fauns are abundant. But, for some reason, I chose to be more cautious than usual on this wildland trail.

I don’t think I was convinced that we would encounter wolves. Just didn’t feel like hiking with a victim’s mindset. Didn’t want to keep looking over my shoulder, gasping at each snapped twig, hyperventilating at each shadow. Just didn't want to spend my time feeling like the frail heroine in Rackham's fairy tale illustration shown here. Just didn’t want to spend my time on the trail acting like prey.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

To Feed or Not to Feed

I admit it. I'm a geek birder, someone who gets so excited at seeing a pileated woodpecker (yes, in my state, awhile back) that I do not object to stopping the car in the middle of the road, leaving car doors agape while we all stab our binocs into the woods to scan intimate details of a bird that is rare around here.

I admit it. I'm a gawker, staring out the window for long, long stretches while ostensibly doing dishes, savoring the antics of rollicky gold finches who happen to dine upside down.

I admit it. I get a bit nervous when I've run out of the good birdseed and ponder the notion that I'm "neglecting" the feathered ones who have learned to dine at my feeders.

I always thought that being a birdfeeder was a good thing, that consistently putting out high quality seed was a pro-bird kind of thing.

Then this spring I heard from an advocate/researcher/birder who's been similarly smitten for three decades that maybe birdfeeding isn't such a good thing. Maybe the resulting imports of invasive flora and fauna are too damaging. Maybe the increased predation that birds face in backyards, predation from domestic cats, isn't worth the price of a daily handout. Maybe the birds' dependence on "welfare" meals isn't something that helps species in the long run.

But today, today after hours and hours and hours of non-stop rain, I'm convinced that being a birdfeeder is a good thing, that feeding birds is an act to be continued.

Why this epiphany on a rainforest day in the high desert? It's because of who's been visiting my feeders. It's because my efforts at providing safely situated dining rooms, along with fresh water and lots of trees, shrubs, and flowers, have made this small yard a refuge for songbirds. In the past few days I have been blessed to watch brilliant lazuli buntings peck good seed from my feeders and drink clean water from my bird baths. I am sorry if you have never seen a lazuli bunting up close. They are stunning: tropical turquoise, coral, and white dress these sweet finches. Their flash of blue through the garden is absolutely hypnotic. I've stationed myself at windows, perched myself on a futon in the sunroom, peered from behind living room drapes, just so I could gaze at these gorgeous birds.

And today, throughout this rare deluge, these jeweled buntings have been ravenous at my feeders. It's almost 7:30 pm here and, as I've written, a soaked bunting has been persistently gobbling the seed in a feeder beneath my crab apple tree. Can I offer this little trooper some refuge? Come on in the sunroom, out of the rain...I'll just leave a window open for you. The dogs can just stay in the house for awhile. You rest. Let those azure feathers dry a bit.

Yes, I will continue to feed birds. Maybe it is all about me, about my being able to savor the blessing of the turquoise zips of lazuli bunting. But maybe it is more. Maybe feeding birds helps folks like me connect with the natural world, a union that is increasingly difficult to forge. Maybe feeding birds gives us town folk a way to exchange our arrogant dominance over nature for a humbler, more durable companionship with things not human. Maybe more of these connections will help us maintain life on this planet a bit longer.

I'm thinking that's the lesson I've learned this week from the spectacular lazuli bunting. I'm thinking the answer to the question posed in this post's title is resoundingly clear: I shall continue "To Feed."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Too Cute

So fourteen pound Trudy the Cutie has been staying at my house, intimidating my sixty pound golden retriever Greenleaf Sadie Sue. It's too funny...this little white bit of fuzz curling her upper lip and making the big ole dog back off, down the hall, back off, there you go, no need to even think of coming down the hall when I am lying mid-way between dining room and Man-Cave. Don't even think about it. You stay down there. I'll preside here. I will let you know when it is time for you to move.

It's so funny because, to look at Trudy, one would think this creature is nothing but fluff. All white: the best color for cute dogs. Lots of soft-looking hair: no hairless, red-skinned, boney carcass here: this is angel hair, drifty white blur all 'round. And there are the eyes! Coal dropped into the snow-drift of face. These are phenomenal in their intense contrast. The ears? Diminutive papillon butterfly ears, delicate, fringed, pointy, cute elfin ears. Who could resist such a creature? Then Trudy sits primly, crossing one front paw coyly over the other and we're all suckers, taken in by a tiny dominatrix, determined to make us all mind.

Okay, maybe I'm being melodramatic. But Trudy the Cutie is no coy ingenue, trust me!

Trudy makes me think about what it means to be cute. Decades ago my parents thought I should cultivate my drawing skills and provided me with wonderful drawing manuals. One book about drawing animated creatures taught me that the best animations are infantile: these beings have over-sized heads, with the top half of the skull swelling way beyond normalcy; these beings have huge eyes, big, round eyes, with long, alluring lashes; these beings have undersized bodies, with minimal limbs and certainly no sign of musculature! These animated "babes" harken back to the cradle, helping viewers feel at ease at the cartoon critters' vulnerability, cuteness and harmlessness.

Watching Trudy the Cutie, I think of these instructions for creating cute animations. I also think of my golden retriever Sadie as a pup. My sister said young Sadie was so cute it hurt and that was true. I'd never seen a puppy cuter than Sadie. She was perfect! I took pictures of her daily and bored my colleagues with her images. I built a Power Point to memorialize her incredible sweetness! I sent e-mail after e-mail with images of this blonde, big-headed, dark-eyed softy. And what was that all about?

The "cartoon" image of Sadie was very different from the reality of Sadie, a dog so driven toward self-gratification that she bore the nickname "Doggie Terrorist." She could block out all instruction, all human guidance, if her goals required that focus. Just this weekend she proved, yet again, that her precious exterior is only veneer, that under the "cute" exterior of fluff and dark eyes is another creature, a steely mercenary who will not be stopped.

Looking at Trudy the Cutie, thinking about Sadie the doggie terrorist, I'm re-evaluating my assessment of cuteness. I may want to be more cautious when branding a creature the title of "Oh, So Cute!"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Gardeners' Holy Grail is blue. I know this. I know this because I read gardening catalogues, gardening blogs, gardening books, gardening memoirs. I know this too because deep blue in my garden steals my breath.

What is it about deep blue? Why do we garden folk trek far to find a clear, hearty blue for our beds? Why did the Himalayan blue poppy stir so much excitement? There are so very many colors to choose from! Why blue? What's wrong with red or pink or apricot or yellow? Why blue?

Something magic going on with hearty blues. Years ago I used to paint reproductions of medieval illuminations, recreating tiny scenarios of m' lady and her knight, fantastic creatures, and stylized flowers, all in a delightful palate of toasty reds, greens and browns. Then I'd crown these little pieces with gold leaf and intense royal blue! What a show! I'd carry them proudly to my mentor, a PhD smitten with courtly love and, maybe, me, and offer them up. "Here, here is my offering: some royal blue. For you."

Something about blue. When my late husband and I were looking for engagement rings (I said No to a diamond), he yelled across the gem store, holding the perfect stone: "Hey, Lowman, how about a chunk of mountain sky?" How about a chunk of mountain sky, indeed. It was perfect! A cornflower sapphire from Sri Lanka. Ideal! We designed the wedding band to fit around the engagement ring and I cherished it for the 18 years of our marriage. And somehow he'd find delicious blue-stoned rings to give me as Christmas gifts.

Betty Davis wore a stunning sapphire ring in the movie "Dark Victory." Diagnosed with a terminal disease, her character jumped into the remaining time. I have a reproduction of Davis' ring: three bands of emerald cut stones, diamonds and dark sapphires, a dark victory indeed. Wearing the ring makes me cherish each breath.

Strong blues just strike deep chords. Don't know why. I don't wear a lot of blues, don't have blue furniture, have never chosen a blue car. But deep blue in the garden: now that's another story. A berm dedicated to my late aunt is jammed with blue Japanese iris; they'll be popping out soon, hundreds of them, dancing around with the strongly pink (no candy-ass pastels here) tulips that are strutting today. I've encouraged the rowdy centaurea montana (mountain bluet, a a big bachelor button, but all dressed in the same intense dark blue) to take over wherever it can. Enabling its spread, I give starts to friends and neighbors. "Here, here is my offering. Some royal blue. For you."

This week I found indigo in the gorgeous garden my sister and her husband have painted in the bay area. My goodness: a bench, inviting one to sit, think, meditate, breath, view, smell...a bench of royal blue. What a treasure! A chance to tap into the magic of this rich hue, the resonant tone that is blue.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Measuring a Life

I've wondered a lot about how one's life is measured, ultimately. What do these few fast decades on the planet mean? Why is such a visit part of the cosmic scheme? Like the old movie says, "What's it all about, Alfie?"

Some answers became clear this week as I helped celebrate my favorite uncle's life. Repeatedly I heard these words to describe his behavior while here: love, family, honor, integrity, laughter, example, courage, optimism, fidelity, curiosity, and commitment.

I learned that his life is measured, not just by the Purple Heart he was awarded for his service as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II; not just by the sixty year marriage to his beautiful lady; not just by the three fine human beings that are his children; not just by his two incredible grandchildren; not just by the educational foundation set up to honor him and his lady; not just by the professional successes he attained through difficult decades.

I learned that his life is measured, ultimately, by the values he lived, by the example he set, by the legacy of behavior he leaves behind. At his funeral, we were challenged to do a good deed in my uncle's honor in the coming weeks, as one way of honoring his stay on earth. That is a fine challenge, an easy one that will benefit many.

When his lady, my precious aunt, passed, I purchased a sterling bracelet with the well known prayer from St Francis of Assisi engraved on it. Wearing the bracelet, if I were inclined to respond to a stressful situation with haughtiness or impatience or disdain, I could simply touch the bracelet and be reminded that I could choose to respond as my aunt would have done: forgiving, patient, smiling, compassionate.

Now I am going to look for something to carry with me that will help me emulate my uncle, something that will help me carry on the legacy of his inspirational life. I am so blessed to have known this noble creature, my Uncle Marty.