Winter Pasture

There’s a distinct pleasure in being able to make someone else happy. Sometimes their pleasure persists even as your own memories of the effort involved in said happy-making fade, tipping the scales of your satisfaction even further toward the positive.

In the spring of 2018, almost a year ago now, I was getting started on a project that’s still making the horses happy: stringing fence around some acreage we had long planned to use as a winter pasture.

As with most improvement projects hereabouts, this was a slow process, starting with hiring a fencing crew. The new pasture occupies part of a flat plateau west of our house, and I suppose it’s a general rule of geography that high ground tends to be high because it’s hard: rocky or otherwise resistant to the patient forces of weathering and erosion that help render low ground low. The fencing guys cheerfully assured us they’d have no problem with the rocky ground, but when they left there were about two dozen T-posts strung out along the “fence” line, evidence that their jackhammering wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

The next summer, we hired our problem-solving fellow, the guy who’s always willing to help us come up with solutions to unusual problems. He spent a couple of days forming up and pouring square concrete bases for the prone posts, getting them upright where they belonged.

It was another eight or ten months before I got going on my part, which was stringing the lines to complete the fence.

One of the things I like about the Electrobraid fence material we’ve been using for fifteen years now is that all the tools I need to string and maintain the fence fit in a two-gallon bucket. The spools of cable are light enough for me to carry by myself, too, so I can work on the fence independently…which, let’s face it, can be translated as “when I get around to it.”

Spring was already arriving by the time I got around the winter pasture, but oh well. I would go out for an hour or two on nice afternoons when the March wind wasn’t howling. By the time I was done I had walked that fence line dozens of times: placing insulators, unspooling cable for each of the three strands, splicing and terminating, connecting and grounding and tensioning.

When I let the horses out into their new pasture, it was pretty obvious they were happy, although theirs was a gustatory sort of joy, not high-heeled bucking and running and kicking. I led them up to the now-open gate, stepped through, and invited them to follow. They both threw me an incredulous look—“Really? Out there??”—and dropped their heads. Their butts weren’t even beyond the gate opening before they started eating.

For the rest of the spring and early summer, they spent most of their days—pretty much any time the wind wasn’t ripping, actually—out there on top of the ridge, noshing on cured bunchgrass that hadn’t been grazed by livestock in a couple of decades. Rather than getting fat, though, the horses got fit. The new pasture is a good half-mile walk from the waterer here near the house. The horses would march purposefully down for a drink five or six times a day, and then head just as decisively back out. When the vet came to administer spring vaccines in April, she had nice things to say about muscle tone, especially with Moondo, who is an older fellow for whom the extra movement is a great benefit.

I was a little worried when we closed the gate come summer, afraid the horses would resent being denied their new favorite hangout, but by then the grass had rebounded in their regular pasture, and they seemed content to focus their attentions there.

None of which is to say they weren’t conspicuously happy when I re-opened the gate in November.

I can’t see in to the new pasture from the house, so when the horses are up there I can’t look at them through binoculars, spying on them from my office as they nap or graze or play together. If I walk out to visit, though, or stop on the road as I’m coming in or going out, it’s hard not to think how content they look.

Sometimes I feel dumb about how happy making these two horses happy makes me. Particularly on days when I’ve been sunk in a fog of gloomy news or am pinching my nose hard against the miasma of human pissiness, I know life, and the world, is vastly more complicated. I know there’s at least one angle from which all this looks like avoidance or denial. I could—and feel like I should—try to account for some of the realities of privilege and lifestyle, for the effects of fences and domestic equines on wildlife and native grasslands.

But when I see—or even just think about—the horses hanging out, enjoying being in their place, I think, well: maybe it really is that simple. At least once in a while.

Posted in animal communication, horses, winter | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Top Twelve Books of 2019

No, that’s not a typo.

I know this cusp-of-the-new-year timeframe is a popular time to spotlight favorites and best of’s and top tens from the year about to pass, but I’m in the mood to look forward, not back.

A couple of years ago, I started gathering references to books I wanted to read together in one place, instead of rat-holing sticky notes and review clippings in various piles and cubby-holes where I would find them much later and never when I was in a bookstore or library. It has lately occurred to me that this list of books TO-READ just might be growing faster than my HAVE-READ list, which would seem to be a problem.

The obvious remedy is to get more books off the former list and onto the latter one. Rather than being paralyzed whenever I scroll through all those titles, I’ve decided to play favorites in a moment when I’m not looking for something to read, selecting a (hefty) handful of titles to get started with. Twelve seems manageable–more ambitious than ten, while still leaving plenty of room for serendipitous browsing or referrals from friends.

Without further ado, then, and in no particular order, here are twelve books I have every intention of reading in 2019. Some are by lesser-known authors, and a few have been out for a while. I’ve tried to give myself some variety, including titles that are relevant to my research, some that just intrigued me, and a few that I’ve been meaning to read for too long. You might find something here to add to your own TO-READ list…unless yours is also getting too long.

I’m not going to promise that I’ll get every one of these read , but I’m gonna try. I’ll meet you here around this time next year, and we’ll see how I did.


Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

Scienceblind: Why our Intuitive Theories About the World are So Often Wrong, by Andrew Shtulman.

Quite possibly a  “need-to-read” rather than a “want-to-read,” since this book promises to be highly relevant to my own work-in-progress, which is about scientific literacy. But it also just sounds interesting.



Sawbill: A Search for Place

Sawbill: A Search for Place, by Jennifer Case.

One of the many advantages of thinking of myself as a writer is being able to justify going to writer’s conferences, where I meet cool and interesting people. Having met Jennifer and from reading some of her shorter essays, I know she’s a keen observer who has done deep thinking about place-based writing.



Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide

Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, by Robert Micheal Pyle.

This one makes the list because the subject matter is exactly what I usually wouldn’t read. Pyle is an erudite and generous writer, though, and I’ve been starting to catch myself up on his books. I got to see him give a reading in Salida, CO in November. It’s hard to fault a naturalist/realist who, in this day and age, can make you laugh while admitting that we all have good reason to cry.


Known and Strange Things: Essays

Known and Strange Things: Essays, by Teju Cole.

Because: essays, and I love essays. A new writer for me, too, and so maybe the best kind of book.





The Writer's Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers

The Writer’s Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers, by Amy E. Weldon.

I try to read one or two writing craft books a year, to remind myself how much I don’t know. I met Amy at the same conference where I also met Jennifer Case, so I guess this is sort of a theme running through the books I selected to push to the top of my reading list: to catch up on the accomplishments of friends. Besides that, Amy is wicked smart, crazy hard-working, and an insightful commentator on the effects of digital media, a topic that befuddles me almost to the point of paralysis.


The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are

The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are, by Alan Jasanoff.

Another book that’s likely relevant to my current writing project. I’m intrigued, too, because I’m a bit of a neurology nut, and this one looks like it might cross over to pick up on my place-based writing interests as well.



Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf.

I read Wolf’s Proust and the Squid several years ago, and it might be a tough act to follow, since the earlier book thoroughly altered how I think about writing and reading in this, our computer age. As I said above, the digital universe baffles and befuddles me, even as I wallow around and try to make my way in it. As I also said above, I’m a neurology nut. I’ve been thinking I should re-read Proust and the Squid, but will try this new one first.


What Is the What

What is the What, by Dave Eggers.

I have some fairly entrenched reading habits. This book ventures outside of pretty much all of them. Which may be why I’ve been meaning to read it.




The Library Book

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean.

I don’t always use the library as often as I should…which might be why that TO-READ list has gotten out of hand. Among other things, I include this one as a reminder to seek out some of the books on this present list at a venerable lending institution near me.




Ordinary Light

Ordinary Light: A Memoir, by Tracy K. Smith

Smith said this in an interview I read a couple of years ago: “I think any poem, no matter the topic, is an endeavor to get to whatever sits behind what we think we know or what we have learned to name.” If I could put a lofty label on how I’d like to write, “Endeavoring to get behind what I think I know” would be it.  Also, I indexed a book several years ago by Smith’s husband, Raphael Allison, so even though I don’t know Smith, I can claim this funny kind of connection.


Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, by Dan Flores.

I usually read a lot of natural history, so I need something in that vein to round out my target list. I’m seeing coyote tracks in the snow every time I go outside lately, so this seems like an appropriate pick.




The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, by C.M. Mayo.

I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I loved Mayo’s travelogue about Baja Mexico, Miraculous Air. She is another scary intelligent and freakishly hardworking writer that I know personally, and it’s possible that I want to read more of her work in hopes that some smarts and diligence will rub off on me. Visit the Madam Mayo blog if you’d like to wander in the company of a brilliant and quirky guide.

Posted in books, reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Not an Owl

Having fresh snowfall is a bit like getting a local newspaper delivery: I learn about things going on in the neighborhood I wouldn’t otherwise know. Tracks on the fresh sheet of snow spread across the arena last month were like a headline, albeit one in a script I couldn’t read. But given that the track set appeared to have dropped from the sky—no trail in, no trail out—I knew that the language was avian, not mammalian. On closer examination, I learned that the author was a large bird. The tracks were almost three inches long, with dragging nails that joined one mark to the next like the pen strokes connecting letters in cursive writing. Here and there, dense scribbles tore through the clean sheet of snow to the underlying sand of the arena.

I was thinking owl, imagining the hunter dropping down onto an unsuspecting vole or mouse burrowing under the surface of the snow. A niggling protest from the back of my mind pointed out that there weren’t any rodent burrows evident where the bird had been, even though such excavations were obvious elsewhere. I pushed the thought away, along with the obnoxiously reasonable question of why an owl would wander around rather than striking and lifting off.

Another set of tracks appeared in front of the house a day or two later. There, too, the visitor left doodles and rummaged down into the snow in spots. The snow’s surface was crusted by then, hard enough to hold up the bird and capture impressions of the knobby joints of its feet. Many of the footprints showed an asymmetry in the alignment of the middle toe.

Back in the house, I checked my Peterson Guide to animal tracks. The author, Olaus Murie, concedes that birds merit only “some passing attention” in a guide devoted principally to animals, but the field sketches, complete with the offset middle toe, suggested a raven rather than an owl. I was more than a bit disappointed, and turned to the internet hoping to have my preferred preconception confirmed, but there too the evidence pointed to family Corvidae rather than Strigidae (typical owls) or Tytonidae (barn owls). I learned that owl feet (and hence their tracks) are zygodactyl; that is, comprised of a pair of toes pointing forward and a pair pointing back, although one ostensibly backward-pointing toe tends to jut out to the side. Ravens’ feet are anisodactyl: three toes out front and one to the back.

So my tracks were left by ravens.

I’m not going to lie. I was disappointed. How cool it had been to think we’d been visited—twice!—under cover of dark by a shadowy silent predator.

But no. Just ravens.

Rationalizing my dismissiveness, I told myself that I liked the owl storyline better because owls are more rare. Corvus corax, the common raven is…well, common: I see them pretty much every day. This fact alone should have tipped me off that the track sets would almost certainly be left by a raven and not an owl, but such is the nature of bias. We see what we prefer, not what is real, or most likely.

I suppose I might have learned something new if the headline written on the arena had indeed announced a visit from an owl, but it’s more likely that, with my theory confirmed, I would have closed the mental book on the topic. As it was, uncertainty held my attention.

In researching the tracks, I learned a few new things (zygodactyl, anisodactyl); was reminded of some others (I watch ravens, but the ravens also watch me; they don’t hop with feet parallel but use a walking gait—and do so quite a bit for an animal capable of flight); and began to wonder about yet other things (why dig in those spots? Food, most likely, but perhaps not; perhaps, literally, just poking around? If a raven wrote a blog, what would it blog about?)

So, yeah, maybe it’s okay that it wasn’t an owl after all.

Postscript: unless you are willing to piddle away a day, don’t start looking for information on Corvids online. Ravens are smart. Crows hold grudges and attend funerals, Clark’s nutcrackers have capacious memory skills, and gray jays will make you rethink the uses of  saliva.

Posted in animal communication, birds, ravens, wildlife encounters | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Thought About

I thought about writing about these fall days: the glossy blue skies, the serene air, the landscape golden and splashed with umber and gilt. The temperature hovers in that curious cool-mild zone, so you go out wearing a jacket but you’re soon too warm and have to strip to shirtsleeves. You need keep the jacket handy, though, because the days are abbreviating and when the sun drops below the horizon the temperature will swiftly plunge. Bright but without oppressive heat, these are the mild days that incite so many people to name fall as their favorite time of year. Everything, save the colors, is more temperate with summer gone: thunderstorms are finished, outdoor chores are less intense, the manic fun-making of summer vacations is done. We’re not committed yet, but we transit toward winter and its sheltering, hunkered postures.

Then, it snowed and didn’t warm back up. Winter arrived, early, with gruff winds and a no-nonsense disposition: Put on your boots. Get a coat. Where are your gloves?

I thought about writing of the last days of the garden, the kale and carrots and beets and chives steadfast despite frosts hard enough to shrivel the more dainty tomatillos, pea vines, and beans. Salvaged tomatoes ripen on the kitchen windowsill, the last of them red in time for a Thanksgiving weekend salad. The beets—golden variety this year—are a parade of yellow globes after the tops have been cut for greenery in the soup pot. Roasted, they are sweet. Sliced equatorially, they are shot through with bulls-eye rings, alternating shades of a color that hasn’t been named: too deep to be gold, browned beyond buttery, more opaque than amber. The last of the gnarly carrots, grown huge and woody in its hiding spot beneath a volunteer cosmos plant, gets cut up as horse treats. Moondo rolls the chunk across his tongue, nodding, before biting with a satisfying crunch. Jake: crunch. Both look for more.

Then, it was all eaten and the garden was done.

I thought about writing of Moondo’s least favorite time of year. I open the parallel gates across the driveway and invite the horses through the alley to eat their grain at the barn. I’ll feed their evening hay there, too, where the walls help keep the belting wind from blowing it all away. I stand at the gate and Moondo throws me a wounded look, sticks his nose pointedly into one feed box and then the other: I want to eat out here. I don’t like the barn. Please don’t make me. He dawdles, evades shooing. I eventually lead him—to his doom, you might think—using a strand of baling twine fished from my pocket.

Then, he gets used to the new routine and enjoys eating with the stall’s half-door closed, blocking Jake from stealing his grain.

I thought about writing about a quiet walk. It is not one of Those Fall Days, but it is a fine wintry afternoon in November. The sun rides low over the contours of the horizon, and the snow under the trees on this north-facing slope is shadowy blue. I pause and listen to the stillness of winter woods and am suddenly unnerved. The stillness is too still. I listen harder, but what I hear is the faint breath of conifers sighing in a bare breeze. No wheel-squeak chirps from juncos, not a single dee dee from a foraging chickadee. No scratching of wiry feet against bark, no rattle of wings against twigs. No raven croak or jay squawk. I walk on, but pause now and again on the way home, listening hard. The silence from the birds is profound. Finally, between the barn and the house, a solitary Steller’s jay wings past, flying hard to the east and saying nothing. The birds reappear, of course—Clark’s nutcrackers whiff-whiff-whiffing past the house, ravens hunched in the pasture, scintillating wings of unidentifiable small birds pelting in front of me across the road. I’m alert for juncos, though, and for several days I do not see any sign of them—no fluffed gray orbs perched on fence wire, no gossipy flocks scratching for hay seeds under the barn’s shed roof, no cuneiform footprints in the latest dusting of snow. I am unsettled, but mostly I am sad, wistful for my winter companions.

Then, a few days later, Doug tells me the juncos scared the crap out of him, exploding out of the open stall doors when he went in to get an armload of hay. On a walk, I flush a pair from their gleaning along road, and later see more scratching near the feed boxes. I wonder where they’ve been, and pause to look affectionately at a chain of little Y-shaped tracks like a zipper across an undisturbed drift of snow.

Posted in animal communication, birds, fall, gardening, horses, procrastination | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Summer Got-away

Double rainbow, early July.

I promised myself last spring it wouldn’t happen again: the summer, this year, would not spiral out of control. I would manage my time, balance my obligations, ride herd on my expectations.

But the summer got away from me. Again.

I can never figure out how this happens, can never reconstruct where, exactly, the days go.

Weeds take up no small share of my time and energy, of course. Having decided that providing expanded opportunities for native plants in my surroundings is one of the things I do for the good of the world, beating back the aggressions of bindweed, kochia, yellow clover, thistles, cress, prostrate knotweed, and cheatgrass keeps me working away with pulling gloves, string trimmers, shovels, and hoes for hours each week.

The garden also requires effort I don’t expend in other parts of the year. Once I committed to planting this summer’s garden, I did my best at due diligence, at least early on. When mice dug up and ate the seeds of the pole beans, I replanted. I replanted again when those seedlings failed to show, and yet again a couple weeks later when there was still no sign of bean leaves unfurling—and then one last time, to fill in gaps. In the long, hot, smoky days of a fierce June, I coddled planting beds with mulch from the worm composter, coaxed tender young plants with sips of compost tea.

The hot haze of June was also accompanied by a project related to the rental properties my husband and I own in Cañon City, keeping me hustling with meetings, research, phone calls. As the calendar rolled into July, we had visitors, socialized here and there. I managed to corner a few hours in my office now and again, picking away at sections of the Big Writing Project. A smattering of thunderstorms brought relief from the blazing of both heat and wildfires burning around the region. The monsoon was welcome, but it egged on the weeds and delivered just enough hail to pummel the garden right as it was hitting its stride.

While we were hauling hay and splitting wood in August, I didn’t notice that the garden had rebounded from the hail. Things went feral down there, devolving into a free-for-all of pea vines and bolting greens. Volunteer cosmos fountained and tomatillo plants surged, hiding the beets and carrots, and covering for the underperforming pole beans. When I went to harvest carrots in the waning days of September, the objects I uprooted bore no resemblance to the shapely tapers of carrot-inspired imagining. Their purple hue was expected, since my proclivities toward that color in my gardening efforts are unabated, but the spiky masses beneath the luxuriant tops can only be called freaks.

Carrots gone wild.

I decided, however, that the carrots are perfect emblems of what the summer had become by that point. From orderly hopes set forth in May, the season had morphed into a welded jumble, an overcrowded confusion: gnarly, un-thinned, and chaotic.

I’ve been thinking lately that summers at this stage of my life are beginning to resemble those of my school-age youth. Back then, too, the elongated days of summer passed in a flurry. Weather and daylight framed priorities, with each day finding its own urgencies, or lack thereof. Now, as then, outdoor pursuits wrestle indoor matters to the ground, dominating them and pinning them into the forlorn corners of the weeks. In our house, in summer, dust bunnies mature and raise young under the dining room table. Laundry overtops its basket, making a break for the hall. Paperwork accumulates in piles, swamps desks, and laps over our office floors.

Then, abruptly, fall takes over, slinging brassy colors and staging the world in spectral light. Darkness gatecrashes earlier each afternoon and lingers later each morning, damping the frenetic spin of extended daylight hours. The weeds retreat, the garden freezes. I no longer dash mindlessly out the door, but pause long enough to see if I need a jacket. These shorter days reverse the spin of my body’s gravity; they slow my outward flinging and bend the currents of my energy, gradually, inward.

Posted in fall, gardening, summer, time, weather, weeds | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments


In the normal scheme of things, I wouldn’t consider it a weed. Western sticktight (aka Lappula occidentalis, (or ledowskii), flatspine stickseed, flat-spine sheepburr…all variations on the theme) is a native plant, and as a general rule I have a bias in favor of natives.

And at first the plant seems innocuous, if not sweet. Pompoms of elongated leaves form early in the spring, charming in both their apparent eagerness to get an early start on the growing season, and in the tender fuzziness of their surfaces. Touch the plant in its youth, and you will marvel at the softness. When they emerge, the flowers are so tiny and of such a delicate shade of pale baby blue that you might be forgiven for cooing.

You’d think I was describing the kitten of the western plant world, but as this species matures, its cuteness and charm wither, and its character becomes anything but twee and touchable. The seeds that follow the wee flowers look furry, but their fine spines are barbed. Brush the plant with fabric or the hairiness of an animal hide, and a certain grippiness is revealed. By now, the plant has shot up a stem as a central column and extended a spray of gangly branches, somewhat in the manner of a miniature palm tree, each hung with tiny spiny fruits.

So long as the seeds are still green and immature, their capacity for cling might be a source of amusement, or mild annoyance. If, say, you come across one of these plants and decide that it is not wanted where it is  growing (thereby nominating itself as a weed), and you pull the plant whilst wearing gloves, you’ll find that the entire assembly sticks rather persistently to your hand. Release the plant by taking it with the opposite hand and is simply transfers its attachments thereto. You might find yourself passing the unwanted herbage back and forth from one hand to another, hoping no one is lurking nearby with an infernal smart phone camera to video the unintentional comedy sketch.

Once the fruits mature and harden, the plant’s true nature asserts itself. By high summer, western sticktights are neither cute nor jocular nor merely annoying. They’re nasty.

The little seeds live up to the plant’s common name; they snap readily off wiry dry stems to stick tight to most anything that touches them. Sticktights have a particular affinity for shoelaces and socks, which is unfortunate because the plants branch at ankle height. Blunder into a stand of western sticktights, and you will emerge with lower extremities liberally peppered with tiny brown seeds, each of which is studded with hooks that grip and spines that poke. The seeds stick too firmly to brush off, so you’re forced to pluck at them one by one, whereupon they’ll stab your fingers with itsy-bitsy spines. The tips of these botanical needles easily break off, leaving you with a near-invisible but painful sliver.

You might think the stickers would break up in the washing machine, but they don’t: unplucked socks will emerge from the wash with the seeds even more deeply embedded in the weave. If a seed does happen to come loose, it will, by some as-yet-unknown rule of mechanics, wind up on the inward-facing surface of a pair of underwear. The tiny spines, it should be noted, do not soften after going through the wash.

The plants themselves appreciate a disturbed ground, which a common trait in plants we humans consider weedy: we like to disturb ground and then hope that it will remain disturbed, which is to say bare. Plants recognize bare ground as a vacuum ready to be occupied, and so roadsides or newly tilled fields or riding arenas are prime real estate so far as a seed is concerned. In the case of prolific seed-bearers like sticktights, one plant can yield a thicket the next season.

Dead sticktight stems remain standing, suspending the seeds in a miasmic cloud hovering above the ground. Essentially dirt colored, the mess is hard to see, and a moment’s failure of attention will win you armored pantlegs, stickery socks, and shoelaces welded into a bristly blob. Since my attention is frequently otherwhere when I’m out walking, I am now in the habit of yanking sticktights whenever I notice them. I don’t necessarily go looking for them the way I do certain other weeds, but I think of sticktight management as a matter of self-defense.

A good nemesis tends to inspire grudging respect, and I do have to hand it to the sticktights: they know how to survive. Like just about every other native plant I’ve ever met up here, Western sticktights demonstrate tenacity and adaptability, intricacy and efficiency. The plants have even devised a back-up plan in the event of uprooting efforts like mine. The taproot easily breaks, and a fragment left in the ground will quickly regrow. The replacement plant skips the effort of lofting a stem, and focuses on producing a compact ball that sets seed with speed and vigor, giving it a second chance to disperse the next generation via unwitting perambulators. I might admire the ingenuity and persistence, if I wasn’t so busy pulling stickers out of my socks.

Posted in trees and plants, weeds | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Out of the Background

In the foreground: catmint near the front steps humming with pollinators. In the background: the smoke plume from the High Chateau fire on its first afternoon, June 29.

The fear that a bad fire season would be in the offing come summer lurked in the background for months.

The prickle of anxiety persisted through the windy days of March and April. It lingered while I planted the garden, and stayed in the back of my mind as the weeds popped up and I started pulling and mowing. In defiance of worry, I bought new perennials for the flower beds near the house. I marveled at the tenacity of the wildflowers that managed to bloom despite the lack of rain. I started trying to photograph the multitudes of pollinating insects that swarmed to those flowers, wondering if their numbers were particularly high or they were merely more concentrated on whatever blossoms were available.

As summer officially punched its timecard and started its shift, I thought we might squeak through: perhaps the thunderstorms of summer would arrive before the fires did.

The rains haven’t arrived.

The fires have.

Wildfire in the American West is a fantastically complicated subject, both ecologically and culturally. The topic resists simplification; in fact, the simple idea that fire should be excluded from the landscape is now a factor in the severity of many fires.

As I thought about composing a new blog post over the past couple of weeks, I resisted the idea of writing about wildfire, even as the topic claimed a growing share of mind day over day. For one thing, I’ve touched on the subject before. For another, writing yet another blog bemoaning lack of precipitation seemed tiresome. Plus, well, geez: fires are such a downer.

But I was arguing with myself all the while. If this blog is indeed about life in this part of the Central Rockies, it can’t not be about fire, sometimes. Wildfire is indigenous to ponderosa pine forests, and I live at the edge of a ponderosa pine forest. The more I thought about the realities of wildfire in this setting, the more it seemed a bit odd that I haven’t written more about fire.

Smoke from the East Fork Complex, burning about 100 miles southwest of us, in June 2013.

Then I realized that I haven’t had much occasion to do so because the last really bad fire season we had was in the summer of 2013, and I started this blog in October of that year. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of fires in the last five years, and fire danger is never far from my mind. But the last time the hazard loomed large enough to take over the collective consciousness of the entire region was 2013. Then as now, fires dominated gossip, overwhelmed news reports, and filled the sky with smoky haze day after day (and then week after week).

2013 was fraught in part because it felt like an extension of the 2012 fire season, which was marked by the Waldo Canyon blaze. We weren’t particularly close to that fire, but the enormous smoke plume would billow over the shoulder of Pikes Peak in the afternoons, dwarfing the mountain and dominating the horizon. The fire would eventually make a run into the west-side neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, sending thousands of residents, including friends, fleeing. By the time it was out, Waldo Canyon had become Colorado’s most destructive wildfire. That record didn’t last, however, falling less than a year later when a fire ripped through the Black Forest community north of Colorado Springs, burning nearly 500 houses.

The Black Forest fire started on June 12, 2013. The same day, the Royal Gorge fire ignited, burning between our house and Cañon City, about 16 miles south of here. We were upwind, but I again watched smoke boiling up on the horizon. Meanwhile, in the mountains on the west side of the state, multiple fires merged to form the East Fork complex, burning in high-elevation lodgepole pine forests and sending smoke drifting for hundreds of miles.

Dry air holds tension very effectively, I think, and it was difficult not to obsess. As the fires burned, my attention rotated from smoke columns to various media channels, incessantly checking updates, road closures, evacuation notices, weather forecasts.

In July, the rains finally began—hair raising at first, as lightning stabbed at tinder dry fuels. But the grass eventually softened and began to turn green again, the dust relented, and the trees began to drink. By September, we’d received enough rain to push our annual precipitation numbers for 2013 well above average. The worry by then was flash flooding across all the burn scars.

2014 was less marked by radical swings from wet to dry. In 2015, a wet weather pattern set up over the region, in some areas dropping a year’s worth of rain in a few weeks during May. Flooding was front of mind, not fire, at least until fall. The winter of 2015/2016 wasn’t noteworthy for snow, but storms in April and May ushered in a welcome rush of spring green, and a wet August refreshed the verdure. The next winter was downright dry, but spring snows again mitigated fire danger somewhat, and July and August brought a fair monsoon. I thought about fires, but mostly in the context of how nice it was to not feel like they were right on the doorstep.

Smoke from the High Chateau fire fills low terrain on the morning of July 2.

Since then, however, the tap of our regional precipitation appears to have been shut off. After five years of relative luxury, our fire weather luck has run out. In the eight months before the 2013 fire season, the year of the Royal Gorge and Black Forest burns, my NWS rain gauge collected 7.33 inches of precipitation.

From November 2017 until now, the tally is 4.08.

So, yes, fire is front of mind these days. In the space of a few days last week, four fires started close enough to home that their smoke plumes are features on our horizon. One of them, the Spring Creek fire, is closing in on 100,000 acres as I write this: another monster for the record books. The smell of smoke creeps into the house whenever the wind is right.

But that’s life. This is the reality of my local environment. Conifer forests evolved with wildfire and if we want to live here—which we do—we have to evolve, too. Climate change exacerbates the conditions favorable to wildfire, and it’s possible I’ll look back wistfully on the five-year stretch between 2013 and 2018, when fire stayed more or less in the background. Meanwhile, we’ll carry on with mitigation efforts around the house and barn: mowing, felling some more trees, cutting brush. I’m shopping for fine-mesh metal screening for our roof vents, and will haul in pea gravel for the planting beds near the house. We’ve reviewed our evacuation plan and I’m writing it up so we have a checklist on hand if fire breaks out nearby and we decide we need to leave. We’ll keep watching for smoke, even as we remind ourselves to enjoy life in our beautiful corner of the Colorado Rockies.

Smoke from the Weston Pass fire paints the sunset on July 1.

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Parched…and Yet

Sunrise on June 14, tinted with smoky haze.

I knew these days would come.

In late spring for the last several years, I have nagged myself to remember—and be grateful for—the luxury of going into summer with moisture in the ground.

How pleasant those days were. I didn’t have to witness the slow crisping of tender young leaves, didn’t have to stand by as the first flush of spring green faded back to straw: growth suspended not by cold but by dry, pure and simple.

I was free to relish the clear air and the crisp-edged sunrises and sunsets. I could forget about red flag warning and enjoy the absence of nervous gossip about who was ordered to evacuate in front of what fire.

The break from persistent fire-related anxiety was wonderful. But now it’s all back—the so-crisp-it-shatters grass, the burn bans, the smoke in the air, the nervous checking of both horizons and weather forecasts. The hot winds are blowing again, lifting the hackles on the back of my neck. Jangled awake by the sharp scent of smoke drifting in through open windows, I tiptoe through the house at night, scanning the dark horizon outside for orange glow. I stand some chance of falling back to sleep if I reassure the fearful lizard core of my brain that the smoke has been carried across the mountains from someone else’s fire.

I’m not thrilled by the return of fire weather, but I’m not surprised, either. Like I said, I knew these days would come. What I had forgotten to remember is that the world does not stop when they do.

The grasses that shatter underfoot are biding their time: dormant, not dead. The bluebirds are feeding their young, who erupt in famished shrieks whenever an adult returns to the next box. The mule deer bucks are sprouting velvety knobs on their foreheads, while the does either plod belly-heavy or prance casually away from me, feigning ignorance of fawns secreted somewhere behind them, spotted brown hides invisible in the brown grass.

Mice spend the night digging up bean seeds in the garden, coyotes whinny at dawn, Steller’s jays rove through the pine trees by day, yelling, and nighthawks swoop through smoke-hazed air at dusk. The rattlesnakes are nosing into the dusty burrows of ground squirrels. The horses wander in from their far pasture in the heat of the afternoon, staring expectantly at me if I’m working around the barn and garden. They’re hoping for fly spray to quell the plague of horseflies tormenting them—flies that arrive every year at this time, in dry weather or wet.

Meanwhile, candles of new growth adorn the ponderosas, whose catkins have already loosed clouds of pollen, coating surfaces—outside and in—with superfine yellow grit. Some of the abundant dust has no doubt found its way to the new cones on the branches’ tips:  spiny lilac-colored swellings that look like exotic tropical fruits rendered in miniature. The currants and thimbleberry shrubs have unfurled their leaves and put out flowers. They might settle for producing hard knots of seeds rather than plump pulpy berries, but they’ve got work to do, and they’re doing it.

Out in the straw that is the grass right now, the wildflowers are doing their jobs as well, attracting pollinators and admiration with elaborate petals folded out of jewel-toned tissues. The display is modest; the plants’ leaves are small and the flower stems are short, but even more than in an average year, or a rain-abundant one, the flowers knock me back in awe. I crunch through brittle grass, marveling at the business of life carrying on, fire weather be damned.

Posted in color, humans and wildlife, summer, weather, wildfire | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Back to England

Looking south from Housesteads Fort in Northumbria, May 2018. It should be said that the blue skies and long-distance views are not entirely typical.

Thirty-five years ago, in June, 1983, I traveled to England as part of a 4-H exchange. I no longer remember exactly how I came to sign up for the program, but what’s clear in retrospect is how much that summer shaped my life.

Even without the international component, the trip would have been monumental for me. Then eighteen years old, I had never traveled further east than the plains of Colorado. I’d never flown on a commercial airline, had never taken public transportation, had never encountered humidity.

London rooftop view. Beyond the chimney pots: Millennium Wheel, Palace of Westminster, Big Ben (under scaffolding in 2018, as it was when I first saw it in 1983), Westminster Abbey.

My journey began at the edge of Washington, DC, staying with the family of friend of my father’s. I roamed with their son and his cousin for a week, marveling incessantly at the greenness and vapor-heavy skies, at marble-crusted buildings, at crowds. I was boggled that people would jog in that heat, as many people did, huffing along National Mall at noon. I then joined a group of about 20 4-H-ers from from around the US at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, for orientation. On June 20, we donned our matching bright yellow t-shirts, boarded a plane at Dulles Airport, and flew across the Atlantic.

The exchange was originally touted as a six-week stay with a single family, but something had gone awry and the trip ended up being a series of 10-day stays with families in three different counties in England. I fell in love with my first host family, the Clemitsons, in Northumberland. Leaving Heugh Farm was hard, but I managed to enjoy my subsequent farm stays in Lancashire and Derbyshire.

I’ve been paying my respects to this equine statue (Greek, from the Temple of Halicarnassus in present-day Turkey, now housed in the British Museum) since 1986.

The final phase of the program, however, consisted of a bus tour. Being a tourist with my American cohort was doubly fraught for me: I didn’t like being a associated with a loud pack of teenagers, for starters, but I’d also been living in England for weeks by then, and did not appreciate the demotion to mere sightseer. By the time we arrived in London I was fed up with the group and negotiated with our chaperone to take a train back up to Northumberland for a few days.

At it turns out, I’ve continued to do the same thing for more than three decades: negotiate a way back to northern England.

I first returned a few years later, spending the 1986-87 school year at the University of Lancaster, by way of the University of Colorado’s Junior Year Abroad program. Since Lancaster was an easy two-hour train ride from the Clemitson’s farm, I spent most of my term breaks in Northumberland, content to be “home” while most of my JYA compatriots either flew back to the States or traveled Europe on 30-day rail passes.

Back at CU after that year, my college social group expanded to include a number of Lancaster JYA alums—one of whom I would marry a decade later.

Beachy Head, on the south coast (East Sussex). Not my usual stomping grounds.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduation, but since I’d always wanted to work with horses, I applied for and landed a job with an Arabian horse breeder. After a year of working ten hours a day, six days a week for the handsome agricultural-worker salary of $1000 per month, I was ready to put my brain back to work. I applied for a scholarship and was able to return to Lancaster, where I pursued a Master’s degree on a 12-month program.

Back in northern England, I was again able to visit my family in Northumberland, although my full-time study commitments didn’t accommodate those leisurely month-long term breaks. I stayed busy with thesis research while on campus, but was also occupied with a social calendar that I don’t expect I’ll ever match again. A few of my fellow graduate students were from the UK, but everyone else came from somewhere else: Sri Lanka, Greece, France, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Spain, Ghana, Belgium, Singapore, Kenya. My old JYA chum Doug even wandered across the campus square one day, on a visit from the Scottish farm he was working at for the summer. Looking back, I marvel at how spoiled I was from the fall of 1989 to the fall of 1990, living near my home away from home while the world came to me.

Weymouth Harbour, Dorset. Also new territory for me on this trip.

Two years after I returned to Colorado, Doug and I started dating. We got married six years later, in a ceremony officiated by the director of International Education who had sent us both to Lancaster years before. I settled into life as a confirmed homebody, anchored in the mountainous terrain of Colorado, but our shared history there has impelled Doug and me to visit England periodically—most recently a few weeks ago.

Our destinations on this trip were dictated by the home towns of friends and family. From London we first went to the south coast, visiting friends in Bexhill-on-Sea and then in Weymouth. From there we headed north to Bristol, for a quick visit with one of my host sisters. En route from there to the northern Borderlands, we made a quick stop at Lancaster University, and found the campus virtually unrecognizable from when we lived there almost thirty years ago.

Talkin Tarn: perfect for a stroll ’round the water, with a cup of tea at the end.

I’d like to say things were more relaxed while we were in Northumberland, but the days were filled with catching up with my English parents; exploring some of the western reaches of the county, where they’ve retired; and visiting my other host sister and her family. We squeezed in a quick trip to Loch Arthur, too: the farm where Doug worked in 1990.

The scatter of people we wanted to see ran up against our compressed schedule, making our visits with everyone too short; the trip was wonderful but exhausting. Back home here Colorado, I’ve been trying to settle back into the rhythm of my day-to-everyday while I wrestle with how to sum up our trip—for myself, for people who ask, and for a post on this blog—but I’ve been fumbling at that latter effort for as long as we were away. True, the trip was a whirlwind, but there’s been something else I’ve had trouble pinning down.

In the Bluebell Wood, Northumberland.

My slow realization has been that I’m feeling out of sync because looking back toward England alters my depth of perception. “Most recent” doesn’t mean a lot; recollection summons glossy reflections, but they float and waver atop a pool of impressions swirling three-and-a-half decades deep.

England, for me, is a four-dimensional presence, demanding an accounting not just of length, width, and height, but of time. There are through-lines of life and love and learning that join there and here, then and now. Inter-positioned, segmented, cross-stacked, and layered, the lines create a geometry that complicates my transits between one place and another. Among other things, although I leave England, it never, fully, leaves me.

Requisite photo of sheep.



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Pesky Wildlife

“…Rural development encroaches on the traditional habitat of coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, bears, mosquitoes and other animals that can be dangerous and you need to know how to deal with them.”

from “Code of the West,” created by John Clarke, former Larimer County (Colorado) Commissioner

Moving to the country from the city is a common enough theme in the modern era to have spawned a minor literary genre. Writers offer advice about what to expect and how to ease the transition in rueful first-person memoirs, boosterish how-to magazine articles, and cautionary tales. Guidelines such as the “Code of the West,” quoted above, are more blunt in their effort to moderate the idealism of newcomers to rural and agricultural lands.

None of these resources, to my knowledge, warn you about the bluebirds.

Can you see him? Cerulean on cerulean.

They are pretty, no question. Male mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides), in particular, are a shock of color this time of year, fluttering like windblown scraps of blue silk. The word often used to describe the shade is “cerulean,” a term sufficiently uncommon to put you on alert that we’re not talking just any shade of blue. These birds can sizzle your optic nerves.

When we moved to this part of central Colorado years ago, bluebirds were new avifauna to me. Our old house was situated the foothills west of Boulder, where the forest cover is thicker than the open canopies preferred by Western Bluebirds or the open grasslands favored by Mountain Bluebirds, both of which are common here.

We lived in the small cabin attached to the horse barn while we were building the house in 2001-2002. We didn’t have a garage, and we learned pretty quickly not to leave our car windows down. Bluebirds are cavity nesters, and evidently a parked vehicle is worth investigating as a cavity.

For the most part, we inferred their reconnaissance from splashes of whitewash on the dashboard or seat backs, but I once started for town with a bluebird in the car. This latter fact was unbeknownst to me until pandemonium broke out in the rear window after I’d driven a few dozen yards down the driveway. Bluebirds aren’t large, but they’re capable of explosive noise, particularly in a confined space.

Once the house was finished and we had a garage to park in, this particular issue mostly resolved itself—although a female Mountain Bluebird did manage to get herself trapped in the garage last summer. I didn’t know she was in there until she gave me a mild myocardial infarction bursting off the roof of my care and out through the garage door as it lifted. Inside the car, bird poop on my dashboard and steering wheel led me to reconsider the wisdom of leaving car windows down even when the vehicle is parked inside the garage.

Keeping windows closed obviates birds-in-the-car, but does not eliminate bird-ON-the-car issues. Male bluebirds are territorial, and will fight with their own reflection should they encounter it in, say, the side mirror of a parked Dodge pickup. Our truck lived outside, and the wing mirrors and side windows bore streaky smears of bird shit every summer for years. Whether from exertion or as a means of chemical warfare, battling bluebirds seem to defecate quite a lot.

This reflection-fighting behavior can be also be triggered by house windows, if conditions are right.

One morning in our third or fourth year in the house, we were awakened by a dull thudding/scratching noise. It was first light, about 4:30 a.m., and the sound was coming from the front door.

Details have been fuzzed by the passage of time, but there’s little doubt that one of us mumbled “What the hell??” The person who crawled out of bed was almost certainly Doug and not me as, a) I am not a morning person and b) his side of the bed is closer to the bedroom door and c) he’s much bigger than me and thereby more qualified to investigate odd noises coming from outside.

He shuffled down the hall to the small entry where the front door is located—a door with a full-length window.

NOT the Crazy Bluebird: this was a juvenile who–peacefully–rested on the handle of the door onto our back deck long enough to have his portrait taken. Note that the plumage is not breeding-bright.

“What the—?”

Sound of door opening.

“Get the [expletive deleted] out of here!!”

Sound of door slamming shut, with as much force as you would wish to apply to a door that is mostly glass.

Doug came back to bed. “[Expletive deleted] bluebird,” he growled.

When the noise resumed a few minutes later, he stomped back down the hall, repeated the “scram!” and door slam procedure, this time also closing the interior entry door on his way back to bed. This muffled the noise when it resumed a few minutes later, but only slightly.

And so began the chapter of the Crazy Bluebird. We were convinced that if he wasn’t brain damaged at the time he declared war on his reflection in our front door, he was by the time the urge to battle had dissipated, weeks later.

Hazing didn’t faze him—if one of us charged out the door he’d flit to the top of a ponderosa, catch his breath, and take up the fight refreshed once the door closed again. I tried different things to deter the cerulean psychopath, first applying multiple hawk silhouettes to the glass. These are the stickers you can place on your windows to keep birds from flying into them, but the hawk outlines didn’t bother this bluebird in the least—which probably isn’t a surprise, given that the utter lack of an actual opponent didn’t bother him either.

The early morning noise was bad enough, but in addition to a sworn and invincible enemy, the Crazy Bluebird had a superior fighting position. The deck railing next to the door provided a perch on which he could take a breather (presumably glaring at his nemesis as it, too, rested), re-gather his resources, and jettison some waste. The next time he landed there, he would do so in fresh poo. Not only did the deck railing accumulate a significant coating of bird crap, the door glass did too, since he tended to attack feet-first.

I finally ended up shutting a beach towel in the door, with most of it draped over the glass outside. This did the trick insofar as keeping the mad bluebird at bay, but it evoked funny looks from guests and was a major pain to reposition every time anyone used the door.

My best guess is that the Crazy Bluebird was nesting in the box on the nearby fence line. Either the baby birds fledged and the family moved on, or the light shifted enough to disrupt the reflection, but in any event, the morning battles stopped and we could sleep in to a normal hour…until the nesting season the following year.

As a non-lethal intervention, the following season, I crafted a curtain of curling ribbon out of my gift-wrapping supplies. Taped above the door, it didn’t have to be re-hung every time the door opened, and the long streamers blew spookily in the breeze while also breaking up the reflection of whatever approached, whether in a testosterone-charged huff or not. I suppose the ribbons tangled in a bird’s feet and wings, too, but in any event the curtain worked—although the looks I got from visitors made it clear they thought I was the one who was nuts, not some bluebird.

The Crazy Bluebird attacked our door four years in a row, if memory serves. I assume he stopped coming because he found someplace else to nest or because he died. If four to five years is a short lifespan for a male Mountain Bluebird, I have a theory for this one’s early demise.

We worried that the combative trait might be passed on to the next generation, but we’re coming up on a decade now without avian warfare breaking out on our doorstep in the predawn hours of early summer.

So, yes, country living poses challenges and urges self-reliance. Wild animals don’t have to be dangerous for you to need to know how to deal with them. If you’re thinking about a move to rural Colorado, don’t say nobody warned you about the bluebirds.

Neighbors: a family of Western Bluebirds, the young newly fledged, hanging out at the nest box on the fence line.

Posted in birds, spring, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments