Summer of a Different Color

August: By now, usually, our high mountain landscape is burnished with a brassy gleam, as grasses send seedheads up to nod and wave in any breeze that bothers to turn up.

In July, though, a monsoon weather pattern settled in, bringing daily thunderclouds and cool weather. The precipitation tally for the month overtopped six inches, which is very wet for this part of the country. And in the first half of August, we got almost three inches more.

For a while, I tried to figure out what was different about the greenness rolling across the slopes and hills. I eventually realized that depth was making this summer of green different from a soft surge of spring color: the lush summer grass has the dimension and sheen of velvet, denser and deeper than the vibrant felting of a damp spring.

I am continually amazed. For weeks now, I’ve either looked out a window or paused while I was outside to think, “I can’t believe how green it is!” My astonishment may be partly due to the fact that this summer started out frightfully dry. Winter snows were scanty and June was blazing hot and windy—and did I mention dry? When afternoon thunderstorms finally began organizing themselves in the second week of July, the knot of persistent tension that settles in my chest during fire weather began to dissolve, just a whit, with each fraction of an inch of rain.

Now, the urgency I feel now is how best to soak it all in.

The wildflowers know exactly what to do. When conditions shift in their favor, they don’t suffer from a paralysis of “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” They get down to business, blooming their flowery heads off. Many of the wildflowers we normally see blooming in late spring or early summer are still going, or are at it again. The Indian paintbrush is doing its best to beat back the green with strokes of vibrant orange, pointed tips of fresh color flaring next to fading tatters of plants that emerged despite the crispy conditions of June. I’ve seen some locoweed plants raising bright magenta flower buds alongside fat seedpods still ripening from an earlier bloom.

Most years, August brings a surge of yellow as sunflowers, rabbitbrush, and broom snakeweed begin their late-season show. The yellow is appearing on schedule, but it seems muted because it’s got so much competition—not just from the tall grass, but from wildflowers that normally would be fading from the landscape. Scarlet and blaze-pink firecracker penstemon are shooting off in bright clusters. Fluted blue discs of flax, which look like they should be gracing fancy china dishes on a formal table, spangle the grass in the morning hours. Purple penstemon buds bubble up stems among sprays of bunchgrass, while milkvetches dot the jungly growth with lilac clusters. Fleabane and chickweeds and asters and evening primrose scatter white flecks over the more open stretches where low-growing blue grama grass has sent inky pennants up on wiry stems. On rocky slopes, currant bushes are hung thick with orange-red berries.

And there are mushrooms everywhere, an orgy of fruiting bodies bulging beneath the soil and then throwing it aside. They balloon, puff, cup, and swell, under the pines and among the aspens, out alongside wildflowers, up from horse poop, and, of course, scattered in the grass: white, yellow, pink-red, brown, and orange.

Other than wind and sometimes snow, I don’t usually think of my home place in terms of abundance. The semi-arid climate frequently presents extremes, but usually those are conditions to be endured, not luxuriated in. There’s no lack of beauty, but it is loveliness with an edge—granite grit and cactus spines and poking conifer needles. Usually when I think of the adaptability of the local flora and fauna, I’m thinking of their capacity to hunker down in the face of conditions that are lean, or harsh, but this summer is a good reminder that they’re ready, too, to take full advantage of abundance.

I’d like to think I should follow their lead, but this suggests I ought not to wander around being dazzled by my surroundings, and I’ve decided I’m not willing to do that.

Posted in color, observation, weather, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Packing for the Trip

First things first: I am not a poet. As I mentioned in my last post, my writerly sensibilities are suited to essays, and that’s where I’ve long staked my claim.

If I were to pursue poetry again, I suspect the results would best be characterized using the term my dad used for his writing, which was mostly scribbled in bars on cocktail napkins: ditties.

Seven or eight years ago the nugget for this ditty announced itself in my brain. This hadn’t happened to me in decades, but I followed the impulse as far as it led. Since I mentioned poetry not so long ago, and because the theme of travel is relevant for many of us in these summer months, I offer you…

 

PACKING FOR THE TRIP

The trip is getting closer:
It’s almost time to start packing.

I don’t like to do it too early
because you never know if you’ll need an item before you go
and I hate to try to find something once it’s already packed.

You only need a few good metaphors
because they’re so good for layering.
I like to take one or two heavy ones
and a couple that are lighter.
I try to make sure they’ll coordinate
in case I need to use more than one at a time.

Metaphors pair well with images, too, and I like to take quite a few of those.
They’re tricky to fold, but I have a pretty good system
and I can get a lot of them in a small amount of space.
If you don’t choose carefully, though, you’ll take ones
that aren’t suited for where you’re going
and you’ll have to haul them home
without using them, which always seems a waste.

I sometimes slip in some synesthesia
because it’s fun to have on hand,
and a cliché or two—
I know they’re out of style,
but they’re just so convenient.

The analogies are hard to decide on
because I use them all the time
and tend to get sick of them before I get back home.
I try to make sure they’re sturdy, because of that,
and comfortable.

I don’t take characters at all;
they’re delicate and hard to fold and heavy.
I once forgot one in a hotel
and you can’t imagine the hassles that caused.

###

 

Posted in poetry, travel, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Writing Short

I recently dipped my toe into the sub-genre of so-called “flash” or “micro” nonfiction, the defining characteristic of which is an abbreviated word count. I regularly write blog posts in the 700-900 word range, which qualify as flash nonfiction under some definitions, but that length is comfortable for me. I wanted to try something shorter, so I went micro.

I find it hard to illustrate writing about writing, but this is a view of the horse pasture from my office window. My micro essay is set in this landscape.

The task I settled on was an essay of no more than 250 words: something with a little meat on its bones, but lean enough to be daunting to a writer prone to wordiness.

That I am concision-challenged may be a reason why I drifted away from poetry, which I used to write back in high school. I eventually figured out that I preferred writing essays, which offered more space and were better suited to the pragmatism of my cognitive personality. I enjoy starting from a tangible core and spining ideas out from that empiric center. Lyricism comes hard, and feels forced. I’m also terrible at the conjuring of fiction. The results when I try are always stiff and I’ve never written a short story a reader would want to keep reading, much less one she could get lost in.

I haven’t strayed from the essay form in decades, but I knew the micro version wasn’t going to be a slam dunk. I can happily string images together, but I needed to go beyond the simple anecdote of “I saw….” I’d need locate a point of arrival for a reader—and do so quickly.

After I was done, I realized that I’d fallen back on my high school proclivities, writing within the framework of a form. This is a timeworn but effective device, one I’d forgotten about. The restrictions of the micro essay pushed me to think harder about how to use language and pacing. Once a writer learns how to use it, a set form can be wielded as another narrative tool, like metaphor or dialog. I’m certainly not good at writing short, but the micro essay took me outside my comfort zone without making me feel like the effort was irrelevant to my style, and I’ll play with it again.

You can read “Badgers Run” here. My thanks to the editors of The Fourth River literary journal for selecting it for their Tributaries segment.

 

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Landscaping in Slow Motion

Native grasses outside the kitchen, just beyond the rock wall.

Most of the landscaping around here came with the place. Contracting crews working on the house in 2002-03 were flustered that we were such sticklers about maintaining a tight construction envelope around the site, but I’m glad every day we were so insistent. On the south side of the house, native grassland begins about fourteen feet from the windows, just beyond a retaining wall.

After the foundation was back-filled, though, the area between the house’s exterior and that retaining wall became part of the built environment. Outside the kitchen, most of the space is taken up by a deck and flagstone patio, but toward the west, near the front door, it begged for landscaping.

Even before we moved into the house, I harbored fantasies about what this area would look like: visitors approaching via the outdoor front steps would—in summer, at any rate—be greeted by a tidy oasis of emerald ground covers punctuated by a stone footpath. I’d plant a narrow herb garden at the base of the retaining wall, mixing flowers into the greenery. I pictured having a couple of feature plants in the bed, too, something dramatic to strike the eye, something worth a little extra care and attention.

Turkish veronica (blue) and woolly groundsel (yellow) next to the sandstone footpath.

Nowadays, mats of Turkish veronica and creeping thyme cover most of the gravelly soil. The veronica blooms early, vibrant blue. Seeds from native woolly groundsel took root a few years ago, and it turns out that groundsel flowers at the same time as the veronica, in vibrant yellow. The color combination isn’t anything I planned, but I’m quite taken with the accidental duet. I planted native iris seeds in the channel that draws water from the downspout away from the house, and in a wet year the pale blue petals banner in the wind. As the weather gets hotter, pink and rose take over from yellow and blue, with creeping thyme and scattered tufts of dianthus speckling the space like girly confetti. By late summer, the little “yard” settles into a patchwork in shades of green.

One tough poppy, flanked by more groundsel.

The herb garden is still more of a work in progress. A solitary poppy plant features prominently for a couple of weeks in June, its oversized orange petals swooning melodramatically. I have a sage plant slowly maturing to ornamental size, some chives, and a culinary thyme plant that’s entering its third season. This spring, I launched my fourth or fifth attempt at oregano, and my third try at tarragon. I decided early on to confine mints to planters made of terra-cotta chimney flue liners so they wouldn’t take over the herb bed, but it turns out this arrangement allows the roots to freeze in winter, so I bring home new plants from the nursery each year and they never get very big. The lone survivor of my feature plant ambitions is a “Miss Kim” lilac hunkered in the western corner. It’s a dwarf plant but even at that this one is of small stature. Still, after living inside a cage of wire mesh for several years, it’s now grown large enough to survive browsing from rabbits or deer, although it sputters fitfully when it comes to flowering.

These modest measures of success have taken fourteen years.

Part of this time was taken up with completing the hardscaping, in the form of rock work. Over the course of years, my husband and I devoted weekends to facing the cinderblock retaining wall—and the foundation around the perimeter of the house—with native moss rock. We gathered stone from the ridge beyond the horse pasture, and then sorted, placed, mortared, grouted, and cleaned.

Planting began in earnest more than ten years ago, and I’m not sure how to characterize the long course of my efforts on this front. I’d like to think that “patience” or “persistence”  is the right word, but in truth I’ve felt neither of those. Mostly the experience as been one of exasperation and frustration interspersed with the occasional fit of rage.

Dianthus taking the limelight as veronica and groundsel begin to bow out.

I knew that gardening at this altitude, in this climate, at a location still claimed as home territory by a variety of wildlife species, was going to be a challenge, but I had no clue how hard it would be. Deer are a familiar scourge to gardeners across the nation and I’ve taken my knocks from their appetites, but rodents have been more devastating by far.

The tales of woe inflicted by chipmunks, ground squirrels, big-footed meadow mice, rock squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, pack rats, deer mice, and pocket gophers would fill volumes. They have eaten, cut down, consumed the roots of, beheaded, and pulled out dozens and dozens (and dozens) of plants of all types: native transplants and nursery stock, annuals and perennials, succulents and cacti, herbs and flowers, ground covers and shrubs. Suffice it to say that even though orange is not my favorite hue, that poppy plant has earned my respect: it’s a survivor.

I have sprayed and dusted and caged and trapped and stomped and hollered. I have not kept calm, but I have carried on, and the payoff for the misery and expense and aggravation and despondency is a pleasure well out of proportion to the modest aesthetics of the space. I’ll sometimes sit out on the front steps with a cup of tea in the morning, listening to the bees bumbling and drawing in the spicy clove scent of the dianthus, able now, finally, to appreciate the contrast between the flat little expanse of domesticated ground and the grassland growing so effortlessly beyond the rockwork on the wall.

Morning on the front steps: the groundcover “lawn” and footpath lead to the patio and kitchen deck in the background, where tall black pots host scented geraniums. The rock wall is on the right, with native grasslands beyond; the rockwork on the left is some of the last we completed on the house, in 2009.

Posted in color, gardening, impatience, wildflowers, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Rooted

Fleabane on the move: easy digging in the arena.

One of the side effects of abundant solitary time is an inclination toward idiosyncratic projects. If my husband were not spending his weekdays provisioning Coloradoans with wine, he might kindly suggest that I stick with tasks that are either of manageable scope or practical advantage. As it is, some of the chores I come up with are distinctly oddball.

Superficially, my latest project is simple: plant the area around the hayshed, where the construction of an addition last summer left an L-shaped patch of torn-up ground. The reality is more involved. Planting required better dirt, but luckily I had some of that, native topsoil scraped aside years ago when the original hayshed was built. I spread that last fall, and then scattered leftover grass and wildflower seeds of unknown age and questionable viability before mulching the area with woodchips.

My plan this spring was to speed the greening with grass and wildflower plants taken from the small dressage arena west of the barn. I haven’t been riding as much as I would like the last few summers, and the easily pocked sand offers an inviting bed for seeds from the surrounding grassy areas. I have plants growing where I don’t want them, and an area without plants that needs some: two problems, one solution.

A few weeks ago, then, when a stretch of rainy days appeared in the weather forecast promising to spare me the chore of watering-in, I started transplanting. Out on the arena, I’d scoop under a plant with a quick step on the spade, releasing the roots from the sandy footing. Once I had six or eight plants in a bucket, I’d head over to the hayshed, find a spot for a plant, spade a new niche, and snug roots into dark topsoil with a few tamps of my toe.

I’ve salvaged—or recycled, depending on your point of view—bunches and stems and rosettes and mats. I’ve moved grasses—fescue, mountain muhly, blue grama—and wildflowers—groundsel, fleabane, yarrow, curlycup gumweed, western wallflower, purple aster, cut-leaved evening primrose, and a couple of varieties of penstemon.

Growing on the arena, where they’re not wanted, these plants are technically weeds. Moving them restores them to their rightful status as desirable native plants.

Shuttling back and forth in front of the barn with my spade and bucket, levering at sand and chopping at rocky dirt, gives me time for such heady thoughts, which is probably why I so often concoct repetitive and mindless chores like this one. As I uproot and replant, I think: that the plants are doomed if they stay on the arena, where they’d get crushed by hooves or raked out with the harrow; that I can’t move every plant, and every plant I move isn’t going to survive—but their chances are still better in their new location. My good intention inflicts a major disturbance, but these native plants are adapted to withstand hardship. They’re accustomed to intense solar radiation and bitter cold, tolerant of dry spells and pounding thunderstorms. They’re resilient in the thrashing of high-altitude wind, whether it’s accompanied by snow or hail or blow-drying heat. These plants withstand grazing by cattle and horses; browsing by deer and elk; nibbling by voles, gophers, chipmunks, mice, and ground squirrels.

And they do all this from anchorage in ground that is, in some places, more rock than soil. Out of sight, roots are out of mind, unless you’re trying to pull or dig. Having done both with some of these species in the past—this isn’t the first time native plants have asserted their adaptability in a location inconvenient to me—I was aware of those root systems, albeit not in such vivid detail as I am now.

Ironically, my appreciation for their rootedness has been enhanced by the ease of uprooting the plants. The loose footing of the arena has spared me the usual hacking and grunting and colorful language and hurling of plum-sized rocks that jar my joints like boulders. These plants are quite young, which certainly helps, but digging in sand is practically serene, opening me to details that would be lost to gasping effort if I were digging in actual soil, rocky or otherwise. The roots also emerge intact, so I’ve been able to admire the thick, noodly roots of the penstemon starts and contemplate whether taproots are best described as “pale carrots” or “gnarly pegs.” The runners of the yarrow and cut-leafed evening primrose zigzag like subterranean lightning. The rootballs of bunchgrasses reveal iceberg proportions, with their topsides dwarfed by subsurface mass.

I’ve always known, in a theoretical sort of way, that our native plants rely on extensive root systems. I’ll remain in love with lacy stems and artful leaf forms, with the fountaining sprays of grasses setting seed, with the sparks of yellow and purple and orange across the landscape as blossoms flare. But now I’ll think more often of the fabric weaving itself beneath the horizon of the soil’s surface, where color is irrelevant and form is not fancy.

With luck and some moisture, this transplanted penstemon should put on a purple display later this summer.

Posted in observation, weeds, wildflowers, working from home | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Complicated Horses

“Uncomplicated” is used in some districts of the equine universe as a polite euphemism for a horse that’s not so smart.

For better and for worse, both of our horses are complicated.

Fat and Happy (aka Jake and Moondo) out in the Big Pasture, June 2015.

Moondo is nerdy, curious, and friendly. He’s sensitive, an attentive learner. He likes the methodical training and intricate movements of dressage, and is always eager to show me that he remembers everything when I get on him after not having ridden in a while—at the first hint of an aid he’ll start busting out moves, trying to anticipate what I want.

To say that Moondo is sensitive, though, is to say that he can be flighty and that he takes offense easily. He’s incredibly opinionated; I’ve mentioned some of his preferences and creative ways of expressing himself in this space before. Years ago, before I knew that he didn’t have much of a sense of humor, I bought him a jolly ball. These are tough rubber balls with a handle molded onto them, so horses can pick them up in their teeth and toss them around. When I gave him the ball, Moondo sniffed it once and gave me a mortified look that said, “You don’t expect me to play with that THING do you??” He never went near it. When I gave it to a neighbor a few years later, her little mare played with it so hard she popped it within a day.

Jake, Moondo’s pasture-mate, is smart, albeit in different ways than Moondo. He’s a goof and a show-off. He scratches his ankles by crossing his front legs and rubbing one foot up and down. He tries to steal peoples’ hats. When tied, he has a hard time standing quietly: he’ll bop the metal clip on his lead with his upper lip like an OCD desk jockey clicking a ballpoint pen; he’ll run his teeth back and forth along the metal rails of the pipe corral; he’ll see how much of his lead rope he can stuff in his mouth. He was probably spoiled earlier in his life, given treats or praised when he did something his handlers thought was cute. Now he’s like the guy who’s convinced he’s the funniest one in the room—that guy who is kinda funny, initially, but who quickly gets annoying because…He. Just. Won’t. Stop.

Jake has a sweet side, but he can be petulant and he insists on testing me regularly to see if I’m still a killjoy who likes all that stuff around manners and maintaining personal space. After five years, I’m still not used to the idea that I can’t just hang out and relax with him the way I can with Moondo.

Jake in his stall, week eight.

There’s been even less in the way of relaxation with Jake lately. We cross-fenced the Big Pasture last summer so we could rest the grass on half of it each year. Jake tolerated the arrangement until the first signs of greenery started poking up this spring. Those sprigs weren’t even grass—the pale fronds of fringed sage are the first things that green up in these parts—but Jake didn’t care.

The conventional wisdom is that details make for better storytelling, but I’ll spare you the gory particulars. Suffice it to say that even smart horses do dumb things, and Jake’s insistence on gaming the cross-fencing system resulted in a to-the-bone laceration on his left hind leg, a trip to the equine hospital, a splint, antibiotics, regular changes of an elaborate stacked bandage, and stall rest.

A quick note about that last one: “stall rest” has a serene ring to it, but there’s nothing restful about the practice, at least not for non-equine members of the caregiving team. Stall rest means a shitload of work involving, among other things, many loads of shit.

Moondo, happy to hang out in his stall (note that the half-door isn’t closed); Jake is less happy to be hanging out in his (and yes, the stall latch is heavily reinforced).

It hasn’t been easy for Jake, either, I know. He’s a big, strong, athletic horse, and although the slow-feeder hay nets (he wrecked a couple over the course of this process) kept him mostly pacified, being confined to a 12 ft. by 12 ft. box for weeks on end was hard. Luckily for him, Moondo has nearby through it all, hanging around in his stall or in the pipe corral—although I have to admit that his role as steadfast nurse-companion was enforced by the closed corral gate.

Ten weeks on, Jake is out of bandages and is getting hand-walked twice a day. Moondo now gets time out in the Barn Pasture, while Jake stretches his legs in the pipe corral. I’m beginning to catch glimpses of life beyond stall rest.

The recovery process is ongoing, and there will no doubt be complications—some of which I didn’t already know about.

 

 

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The Rocky Mountain

Pikes Peak on March 20, 2017, almost devoid of snow.

In the usual pattern of spring weather, the promontory on our northeastern horizon gleams white like an alpine stereotype. The broad hulk of Pikes Peak is fronted by layered foothills and crags, which cascade down toward a grassy pool called High Park, from whose western shore extends a line of dune-like rocky wrinkles speckled with pinion pine. These relatively lower regions make up the middle ground of our view, and snow doesn’t last long on that terrain. The sun’s light is wintry and the angle of its rays acute, but it’s still intense, and swiftly resets the color scheme from blue-shadowed white to tones of earthy tan and evergreen dark.

The winter just passed was indecisive, with months of erratic weather whipsawing between unseasonably warm and bitter cold as the jet stream threw loops, carrying Arctic fronts down over our portion of the Rockies and then retreating with tree-snapping Chinook gales. Snowfall was too skimpy and too scattered to linger between storms, most of which amounted to no more than three inches of snow. Many dropped just a trace, a skiff, or a dusting. In March, we were very nearly skunked: not one measurable snow fell until we got an inch on the 24th. The 2.5 inches that fell a few days later didn’t lift the tally over 4 inches, in what’s normally our snowiest month of the year.

A week later, on March 28, with a little more snow.

The fleeting storms would refresh the white atop Pikes Peak, but after a few days the rocks would re-appear, like gray veins emerging out of clean white marble. By the third week of March, the bareness was downright alarming.

Pikes Peak isn’t particularly tall; at 14, 114 feet, it’s number 30 on the list of Colorado’s “Fourteeners,” peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. Still, it’s our nearest high peak, and a barometer of local snowpack, which is itself an indicator of spring runoff and summer water supplies. Moisture in the soil means water for trees and grasses; lack of water means elevated fire danger. The rocky mountain of March augured an elevated chance for a smoke-shrouded peak in June.

On April 4, we got soppy-wet spring snow, amounting to 10 hard-to-shovel inches. Pikes Peak, as expected, emerged with its snowfields refreshed, its whiteness newly whitewashed. Our snow melted in a few days. Up on the mountain, it lingered for a few weeks, but the purple is now reappearing.

Any respite from dry is fleeting in these parts, and I know that. In the sixteen years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned to draw inspiration from the beauty of the land and the toughness of the plants and animals that call it home. Whenever I start thinking I’ve taken on a measure of this native resilience, however, I find myself upended.

The normal wishes for this time of year are for green and for growing and for color. In its season, the stolid granite of the mountain’s top is reassuring and right, but under these April skies it leaves me unnerved, and I keep finding myself wishing for white.

On April 24, signs of winter still lingering on the mountain, but not a great deal of snow.

Posted in change of seasons, precipitation, snow, spring, weather | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Turkey (Photo) Shoot

On the move: winter feeding.

Wild turkeys are always in motion.

Their persistent mobility has been brought home to me (literally) this winter by a flock of about a dozen that frequented the district around our house. The big dark birds would show up every few weeks, whereupon I would hustle to fetch the camera. I had visions of capturing a wildlife-calendar-worthy shot: the turkeys were so close.

Hunters report that wild turkeys are wily, cautious, and smart, ready to either speed-walk into cover or flush and fly at the first sign of human presence, but our overwintering flock was blasé. When I’d step outside in pursuit of a picture, they’d simply redirect their deliberate pacing and scratching a few feet further removed from the house. I hardly needed to use the camera’s zoom lens, and I could click away with impunity.

I took pictures of solitary birds. I framed group shots. I tried for close-ups. Some of the dozens of pictures I accumulated over the winter were okay in a documentary sort of way: photographic evidence of the proximity of wild turkeys to our place of residence. None were striking, though, and most were just bad. Some depicted turkey-hued abstract shapes against the straw-colored backdrop of our dry winter.

It didn’t help that the turkeys usually came by the house in early morning, when dull flat light conspired with my lack of a tripod to produce photos that were either dark or blurry or both. The turkeys’ unceasing movement was the bigger challenge, though. Unlike deer, who are cocky enough to stop and stare, effectively posing for the camera, or cottontail rabbits, which obligingly freeze motionless, the turkeys were never stationary. They pecked. They strolled at a placid and deliberate but unceasing pace. They scratched. They bobbed their prehistoric-looking heads. Whether walking straight toward the house or offering an appealing profile aspect, they showed an uncanny talent for pivoting the second I pressed the camera’s shutter button.

Toward the end of winter, my favorite turkey-related picture was of the dirt under the barn’s shed roof. After the flock spent the morning gleaning seeds there, the entire expanse was comprehensively rearranged with marks from pecking and scratching. Any scrap of a hoof-print had been replaced by tiny dotted pits from the turkeys’ beaks, footprints reminiscent of peace signs, and scratches like an ancient alphabet.

Then, before sunrise on the first Saturday of March, a honking bird call summoned me out of a deep dumb sleep. I thought the house was being buzzed by low-flying Canada geese, but when the insistent call didn’t move away, my brain reconsidered. Turkey?

Stepping out onto the deck was like walking onto a balcony overlooking the dance floor in an avian singles bar. A mob of turkeys milled on the hillside, the toms fluffed and primped for courtship.

If there’s such a thing as bronzed chocolate, that’s what color wild turkeys are. Carried erect, the faintly iridescent brown feathers were sculptural. The strutting males carried their baby blue chins tucked tight to their dark bodies, the better to show off the colored skin of their heads and wattles, some of which flushed an impassioned red. The brown-on-brown pattern on their carefully fanned tail feathers was set off with creamy ivory bands, and the vivid brown and tan streaks of their wing feathers, extended stiffly to the ground, looked like elaborate basketry.

The males traced circles and serpentines and figure-eights, trying to flash their full-frontals to the hens, which they outnumbered three or four to one. Scrums formed, with a hen at the center, and broke up as she wandered away, seemingly indifferent but perhaps tittering self-consciously, not willing to tip off which fellow had caught her eye.

The visual show was something else, but the sound was astonishing as well. The hens sang a soft backup of muttered clucks to the toms’ complicated bass line of throaty burbles, thrums, and hums. High keeching solos broke out above the jazzy improvisation, and the entire chorus was accompanied by scratchy percussion from dragging wings and shuffling feet, like maracas shaken in no particular rhythm.

I’d been watching and listening and snapping pictures for almost fifteen minutes when the females decided to move on. They headed west at a fast and purposeful walk, leaving the males to wheel around one another for a hapless moment before setting off after the girls. Their come-hither struts deteriorated into comic bumbles of wings bouncing off shrubs and neat tail arches collapsing in the effort to hustle over uneven ground.

It’s not often a person gets a chance to witness the intimacies of animal ritual up so close you don’t need binoculars or a spotting scope. Rarer still, surely, is to observe such a spectacle in one’s bathrobe. My pictures were, true to form, suggestive of the events but not exactly remarkable.

Lucky me, then, that I got a second once-in-a-lifetime chance—including the bathrobe part—a few days later. The turkeys returned, the toms preening and muttering their hottest pickup lines, wing feathers scratching over the cold ground of a late winter morning. The day was more advanced this time, the sun’s soft yellow light catching in artfully fanned tails and glinting off the scalloped pattern of feathers standing up over each bronze-tinted body.

A few of the photos came close to my wildlife photography fantasies, even if the turkeys didn’t exactly stand still.

Posted in animal communication, birds, humans and wildlife, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The Shape of the Wind

An early-morning sun angle highlights the dune-like patterns on snow outside the kitchen window.

I am not, as I have mentioned in this space before, fond of the wind.

In its rush to be elsewhere, air on the move unsettles my universes: the interior one as well as the world outside. The agitated limbs of the ponderosa pines outside the windows might well be emblems of the jittering of my brain’s branching neurons. Wind rumbles around the corners of the house and whumps the walls with gusts that wake me up at night. The noise of its passing displaces all the normal sounds of the landscape with indistinct whooshes, rattles, roars, hisses. I get restless. Focus comes hard, and small irritants provoke outsized reactions.

Layered drift carvings atop the driveway.

Walking is my usual therapy for bitchiness, but for weeks on end this time of year, being outside is less than pleasant. Wind is an unavoidable factor in my local environment, however, which is why I vowed a few years ago to try to become more resilient in the face of it, a promise that has made me slightly less inclined to complain. I bundle up and go out on days that are merely gusty, gritting through with stinging cheeks and watering eyes and snotty nose. Even if the weather is too warm for it, I wear my wooly hat to muffle the insistent needling at my ears, and to contain some of the whipping of my hair.

I might avail myself of the land’s jumble to walk the side-hill running east of the house, where the momentum of a wind ripping out of the west will overtop the ridge with such momentum that the air catches air. In the relative stillness underneath the passing current, I can stumble along snowbound game trails or pick my way over slick frozen ground while the torrent overhead batters the upper branches of the Douglasfir into seething susurration. I draw the line at battling through unnecessary outings on days when blow-me-down gales are making the electric lines howl, but creating my own movement feels like an act of resistance to a force that seems bent on making me feel cooped up.

Etchings left by wind-spun grass.

My vow a few years back also included a resolution to defang the wind’s annoyance factor by seeking out signs of its handiwork. I had some success early this season, staying alert for showy arrangements in the snow. As the winter got drier, though, and drier still, those opportunities sublimated. By February winter had turned to dust. The mild temperatures created a tempting aspect, all sunshine and warmth, but on stepping outside I’m knocked around, shoved, and generally harassed.

Snowing from the ground up.

By now it feels as if keeping an eye out for the shape of the wind makes me complicit in its blowing, which is an uncomfortable wrinkle in my attempt at philosophical equanimity. When it’s not packaged with a cloudburst or a blizzard, the wind twists itself into paradox—obnoxiously persistent and penetrating, yet also hidden. Without a canvas of snow or cloud, wind is just wind, and to remark upon it only adds my whine to the unceasing moan.

Dust feathered drift…or dune drift feather?

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Pink Time

The view never gets old.

In winter, the straw-colored grasslands dotted with evergreen-dark have an understated, action-suspended aspect. Snowstorms change things up now and again, padding the view as if packaging it for shipment. The white expanses and mounds, throwing shadows of bluish-gray, are pretty, and I love watching the slow-motion changes as snowmelt re-paints my surroundings. Depending on how warm the air is and whether clouds interrupt the sun at its work, shades of tan and dark green can reassert themselves in a matter of hours. Since I’m not standing around to watch the process, the progression is revealed in stop-motion images as I pause to look out the windows over the course of the day.

I’m easily amused, and I enjoy these leisurely shows. I do have to admit, however, that the muted tones of a dormant landscape begin to seem a little repetitive in by midwinter.

Fortunately, I can find color indoors. It’s just by chance that most of it runs toward pink.

The bougainvillea that lives in our stairwell put on a little show this past December, adorning several branches with papery pink bracts. My houseplants live in a tough climate; the air is dry and temperature swings wildly in a house where the thermostat is set low, leaving as much heating as is feasible to passive solar and a woodburning fireplace. I also tend to be erratic to the point of inattention when it comes to watering, which is why we have an automatic system down at the garden. For the houseplants, it’s all riding on me, so they’ve got to be tough. I think of the bougainvillea as a bit prissy because it’s the first to wilt in a gestural whine, but it moved with us here from Boulder and has survived the vagaries of my care for something like twenty years. It rarely flowers, though, and would probably do so more often if I kept my watering can act together.

For zingy color and persistence, the prize for wintertime cheer goes the Christmas cacti. I have several of them around the house, the smaller of which are cuttings off a plant my mom left with me when she moved away from Colorado in 2000. Since they’re all related, they all bloom in the same outrageous magenta pink. It’s a shade and intensity I wouldn’t normally favor, but I appreciate their flamenco-ruffle exuberance during the darkest days of our winter. They started putting on pointy little buds in late October, and are still fountaining bright flowers as February gets set to go.

I over-winter my outdoor potted plants down in the greenhouse that adjoins the barn, and I’ve been getting a daily dose of a more demure shade of pink each afternoon when I record the weather. One of the scented geraniums that spends its summers on the deck outside the kitchen was positively ecstatic about its transfer to a humid environment when I moved it inside last fall. The plant promptly exploded with clouds of girly pink blossoms, and it’s still going months later.

These off-season blooms are exotic, products of hybridization and the whims of people on the hunt for ways of brightening the northern winter, when the local flora is locked in somber and sensible dormancy. For me in this place, potted flowers are part of the “urban”: that impulse—and the ability—to tweak my habitat according to preference or taste.

But there’s still native color to be found in these deep winter days. It’s fleeting. I need to look up, not down. And I have to pay attention at the right time of day.

Sunrise in the south, tinting the Sangre de Cristo mountains pink behind Cap Rock Ridge.

Our icy winters skies make for spectacular displays, especially at sunrise. There are mornings when first light sets the entire horizon aglow. These wraparound sunrises tend to come in soft pastel shades of lavender, peach, and petal pink. When conditions produce a more focused and concentrated sunrise show, colors run toward crimson or orange, sometimes veering into lurid shades, as if the world had upended overnight and magma got spilled across the sky. I’d say the fiery gleaming is almost unsettling, except that it makes such a nice break from all the pink.

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