Curse-Worthy

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.

Posted in precipitation, wildfire | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

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.

 

 

Posted in home, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

Hope Springs: An Epilogue

I had been pinning my vague sense of unease and discouragement these past weeks on the weather: on the dry and the wind and the swinging of temperatures from too warm to too cold.

But when I saw clusters of pasqueflowers this afternoon, I thought, Oh, at last. That’s what I needed to see.

Pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla patens) are usually the first of our wildflowers to appear, sometimes as early as mid-March. We spotted a single flower near the house weeks ago, but it had vanished the next day, presumably into the maw of a deer. I can’t begrudge the critter its grazing, but when I failed to see any more buds or flowers in any of the places they usually appear, I began to fret. The winter was dry, and spring has been as well. Could there be such a thing as a season too dry for pasqueflowers?

That’s a despairing thought, although I suppose it’s possible.

Not this year, though. Whether they’ve been biding their time for a favorable swing in the erratic weather or were encouraged by the bit of precipitation that’s fallen in the last ten days, the pasqueflowers are here, and they’re pouring on the charm. The bees are happy to visit the poufs of yellow pollen inside the fuzzy lavender cups, and if I am brought to my knees, surely that’s only because it’s the best way to get a picture.

Posted in change of seasons, spring, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Hope Springs

Every year it’s the same: as temperatures start creeping up, offering reassurance that winter is winding down, I start obsessing over color. This is a spring thing for many of us living in the world’s temperate zones, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel there’s something slightly dysfunctional about my preoccupation.

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the subtle polychrome of the land during our six or seven months of floral dormancy. The parchment tan of the grasslands, the shadowed green of the conifers, the marbled gray of rock outcrops and leafless shrubs: these are the earth tones interior designers promote for calming spaces. The colors are subtle, not flashy or saturated. Easy on the eyes. Browns and grays and tans and muted greens evoke feelings of warmth, of durability, of being grounded. Such shades coordinate with any pop of color you might want to throw into the mix.

Which is part of my problem, come April. I’m always ready for some flash, some gaudiness. I’m impatient for the emerald gleam of new grass, for the cheerful bubble of buds and the ostentatious fling of petals, for the lime-green exuberance of leaves just unfolding. Give me hot pink bling, outrageous yellow, sexy purple, flaming orange, romantic lavender!

Planting more bulbs in the garden would help, no doubt. Safe from browsing ungulates and digging rodents, crocuses, tulips, and daffodils announce the seasonal shift with bright petals and fanciful forms.

As cheerful as they are, the sunny daffodil trumpets and cute tulip cups and candy-like grape hyacinth are dots and spots, confined within a wall. The color I’m wanting is large-scale, expansive, horizon wide. The earth tones are lovely, but I’ve been looking at them since October.

Such is life in the high country, I tell myself; The season is young.

And that’s true. It’s still early for botanical pop and flair: the wildflower season around here doesn’t coincide with the start-and-stop thaws of spring. If I want floral fanfare at 8900 feet, I’m just going to have to wait until July, when temperatures are warm and water can be expected to fall from the sky with some regularity, dropping out of the fat gray bellies of summer thunderstorms.

As the long brown winter continues yielding to a long brown spring, that water from the sky is the missing link. The land isn’t just muted and subtle, it’s desiccated. My vernal fantasies seek dewy softness and the tender spring of leaf and stem, but what I’ve got is puffs of dust and brittle grasses and parched air. I have to prod myself to feel grateful awe at the stubborn resolve of returning bluebirds and soaring red-tailed hawks. Despite the thin green lines that are beginning to poke up through the crisp straws of old grass, my mind thinks “tinder,” not “tender.”

I’ve been spoiled by a few years’ worth of well-timed precipitation, which kept fire weather at bay. Now, though, the familiar pangs of anxiety are back. Coping with elevated fire danger literally comes with the territory around here, but I’m struggling with the early onset of this year’s fire season. Resigning myself to mitigation chores and a preparedness mindset when nighttime temperatures are still dipping into the teens on a regular basis is just plain harsh.

The droughty weather complicates my relationships to everything. The thrill of watching elk or wild turkeys comes with a pang, wondering what challenges they’ll face as the season wears on. I walk into the garden, smile at the flowering bulbs, and then sigh, wondering what I’ll do in a few weeks: plant vegetables, or succumb to creeping worry about how our water well will fare if it stays so dry. If so, I’ll plant nothing and water just enough to keep the established perennials alive.

As grass and brush fires flare on the plains to the east and south, I realize my fixation on vibrant colors is fading, replaced by a preoccupation with precipitation. Instead of pining for signs of spring outside, I go looking for the promise of ongoing winter in my office, calling up the weather website on my computer multiple times a day.

10-day forecast from Monday, April 16 (from Weather Underground).

I’ve been watching a storm system in the forecast for more than a week now. Instead of hope surging at the song of a robin or the petite yellow petals of a cinquefoil blossom, I feel its expectant tingle when the graph showing a better-than-seventy-percent chance of snow ratchets forward one more day.

10-day forecast for Thursday, April 19: less wet, but still there…

A single storm won’t do us much good, not long term. But the thought of water falling from the sky sizzles on my mind’s fevered brow, promising to cool my anxiety. A little bit. For now.

Posted in change of seasons, color, gardening, spring | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Jake

My little red horse Moondo has delicate skin, which makes him an attractive target for flies and parasites. This winter, he fell victim to a double-barren infestation: lice and ticks (technical term: Yuck and Double Yuck).

The lice have proven vulnerable to the nasty insecticide engineered to do them in. I don’t take the decision to use chemicals lightly, whether it’s in the house or on weeds or with the horses, but Moondo is elderly and a little frail and lice could, literally, suck the lifeblood out of him.

The ticks, despite the doomsday rhetoric on the product label, seem indifferent to the toxin, though, so I’ve been hand-picking them off. Daily. For weeks. I’ll spare you details other than to say that this routine is time-consuming and has led to Moondo receiving a disproportionate share of my equine-directed attention lately.

And this makes Jake sad.

Since Jake was the recipient of an enormous share of my time and emotional resources at this time last year, his melancholy strikes me as just a little bit theatric, but that’s Jake for you. We knew he was a ham from the beginning. When we first went to look at him, Jake ended our meeting by showing us how he could bounce his lead rope rhythmically with his upper lip. The trainer who was selling him scratched his head and said he’d never seen Jake do that before. Knowing what I know now, this doesn’t surprise me. Theirs was a strictly professional relationship, and Jake had no doubt learned early on that the trainer wasn’t going to fall for cute shenanigans. Doug and I, though, were a fresh audience, and Jake was already testing us, feeling us out for soft spots.

Playing with the lead rope is only one of the repertoire of tricks Jake has ready to deploy. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, he will also stuff said lead rope into his mouth, try to steal your hat, play with fence latches, and refuse to budge when he knows you want him to. He loves to be the center of attention, which wouldn’t be so bad if he knew when to stop, but he usually goes too far and what starts funny quickly morphs into obnoxious. He’s accepted that there are rules of behavior around Doug and I, but that knowledge does not always translate into acquiescence. Jake also does not generalize: he refuses to consider the possibility that our expectations might also apply to other people. I warn visitors to pay attention when they’re around him; although he’s friendly, every person is a new test case. If you’re strict, he might snort or fart derisively to let you know he thinks you’re a killjoy, but he’ll mostly behave. If you let him get away with stuff, though, he’ll keep pushing to see how far he can go…and a 1400 pound animal doesn’t have to go too far before things get out of hand.

A horse of a different color: walking the fence line before turning Jake into his new pasture in February, 2012. Like most gray horses, he has become more and more white every year.

Finding the right balance in my relationship with Jake hasn’t been easy. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I could relax around him, and I haven’t always felt like I could trust him. There were times when his attention-seeking had an aggressive edge to it, and living with him has sometimes felt, at best, like an uneasy truce. Since he arrived in February of 2012, Doug and I have nursed Jake through snakebite, colic, and the long recovery from his severed tendon last spring. There are many small acts of trust when you spend time with horses, and the accumulation of those, together with the familiarity of long-term daily contact, has slowly, finally, put our relationship on a new level.

I trust more Jake now, which is good given that he outweighs me by roughly 10 to 1, but he also trusts me more too. He still barges around and acts cocky and is, it seems, thick-skinned: I have yet to find a single louse or tick on him this year. The clowning has lost some of the demanding edge though, and his efforts to claim attention seem now more like affection. He still gets reprimanded at times, but reminders that he’s out of line are milder and less frequent. I’m still cautious about overindulging his smart smart aleck side, but I’m also better at recognizing how he behaves when he’s being sensitive. Jake’s known my soft spots for a long time, but I’m getting a better feel for his, too.

Jake getting a scratch during a visit to the pasture, 2015.

 

 

Posted in horses | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

“First Signs,” and an Opportunity

“Spring arrives in the high country differently than in other places. Where the land has a strong vertical dimension, the change of seasons is bound to elevation, not distance from the equator. Shades of green swirl up the flanks of mountains as the snow recedes, making the end of winter a complex topographical dance. It’s possible to take in the scope of multiple seasons in a single glance: stark black rock laced with winter ice on a mountaintop, looming over new growth shimmering like bottle glass in the valleys below.

“I’ve lived within sight of Colorado’s mountains all my life, so my experience with winter’s passing is exclusively alpine. I’m conditioned to the idea that spring unfolds cautiously, that it is not a sudden onrush of new foliage and floral outbursts, as I imagine it to be in milder climates. Around here, it takes a while for the planet’s slow tipping toward the sun to thaw the ground enough to unleash botanical exuberance, and sudden snow­storms may arrive most any time, setting my heart back to February. Eventually, though, the flake of white drifting in the air is not snow but a small butterfly or moth.”

~The opening paragraphs of “First Signs,”
in Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado

 

One of those snowstorms descended overnight here in central Colorado, a week after the official start of spring. It will be a brief reset to winter–the few inches that fell are melting fast. Still, the snow seemed like a good excuse to share a few lines from one of the essays in my collection, Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado.

I though sharing those lines would be a good way of letting you you know that the book is currently on sale–so, if you’re been thinking about buying a copy for yourself or to give as a gift (Earth Day is coming soon!), now’s a good time.

You’ll you save $7.50 off the cover price if you buy directly from the University of Iowa Press by April 1, 2018.

The sale price only applies to the paperback version (the ebook is available from UIP, but is not currently on sale). Click this link to go to the book’s page, select the “ADD TO CART” button, then process your order from there. Remember to insert the promo code (IPP18) after you specify how many copies you want to order.

If you’d like more information about the essay collection, please visit The Book page on this site. If you’re interested in interviews and reviews,  you’ll find links if you scroll down below the bio info on the About Andrea page.

Thanks, happy spring, and happy reading!

Posted in books | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Best Tip for Getting Out of Your Head

After weeks of grinding away on a recalcitrant chapter for my book project, I am dazed, cranky, frustrated, and thoroughly sick of being in the same room with myself.

Deciding that it’s time to get out of my own head, I do what a lot of us do these days when we’re wondering how to go about something: I google it.

I scan the first several articles. Go there—by talking about it. Don’t judge. Be slightly inappropriate. Be in the moment. I huff, and, knowing me, snort derisively. Moving on to the links further down on the results page, I’m now scanning faster. Meditate. Exercise. Talk to a Stranger. Breathe. Focus on others.

Pfffft. I’m agitated at this point because, let’s face it, by googling “getting out of my head,” what I’m actually looking for is the article or research or commentary or blog that validates what I already think.

Having clicked through the first page of websites—Practice mindfulness; focus on others (again); write your gratitudes—I shut down the search window, put my computer to sleep, and go do exactly what I was planning to do in the first place.

I’ve learned over the years that what’s going on when I’m feeling like this is that my brain is starving. The restlessness, the inability to focus, and being generally pissed off at the world all mean that my brain has run out of gas.

The fuel it needs is low-tech and 100-percent reliable. I need to read a book.

This works every time—although I need to qualify. I’m talking books here. Long-form. No distracted flipping through a magazine or swiping through websites, no matter how “informative” they ostensibly are. I don’t use an electronic reader, but if I did my rule would be that it must be disconnected from the internet.

Now, I’m always “reading” a book, and more often two and even three concurrently. They’re scattered around the house, dutifully at the ready, bookmarks waving from between pages urging me to come back soon. These are typically books I should be reading, however: they’re related to what I’m trying to write about, or they’re the latest Important Book, by Important Author that’s come across my radar. Most are accessible and well-written and on topics that interest me, but they require focused attention. I’m often making notes or thinking about whether the content relates to what I’m working on myself.

To be a sure thing, reading to get out of my head calls for a book that flows and is off-topic from anything that preoccupies me at the time. I need a book I can be with for hours at a time, one I can read without working at it too hard. A book that’s so engrossing that I don’t feel like doing anything else until I’ve turned the last page is ideal.

Fuel. Brain sustenance–and junk food is permitted in this instance: a speed read through a hokey novel or a glib self-help title is just fine.

To switch metaphors, this is novelty-seeking behavior. Reading this type of book should be like peering through the slats of a stranger’s window blinds, a voyeuristic glimpse into the intimacies of a different life, or lifestyle. This book should reveal a slice of the world that I’ve never seen or considered before. Fiction can be good for this, obviously, and since I don’t read a lot of fiction it makes a nice change. Many of the contemporary novels I’ve tried to read in the last few years are so contrived and overwrought that I’ve lost patience with them, though, so I’ll sometimes pull a familiar sci-fi volume or a Dick Francis mystery off the shelf in the basement and make do with that. But: novelty. New territory is best.

The book I start reading after lunch is one I bought at the Colorado Book Festival a couple of weeks ago*. I read for a couple of hours in the afternoon, feed horses, take a short walk, and, since I’m on my own for a few nights while Doug’s away on a business trip, heat some leftovers for dinner. I spend the evening reading.

I finish the book the next day and, since my brain is still fussy, I pick up another, this one by a local author I met last year**. I finish that one the following day, then grab a book that’s been languishing on the coffee table for a few weeks, mostly read, its bookmark lolling out like the tongue of a dog eager to be taken out for a run***.

At the end of three days, I’ve read 2 ¼ books and have started in on yet another. I can feel the binge winding down, and this last book will be good for nibbling at in the evenings: I don’t feel compelled to finish it in one sitting, or in a day. I am less strung out, more cheerful, less frustrated by my chapter, more interested in life (it helps, no doubt, that in burying my head in books for days I have successfully and comprehensively avoided paying attention to the news).

There’s something about the immersive experience of a good book that’s like nothing else for snapping my brain out of a tizzy. The magic of a book isn’t that it actually gets me out of my head—I think that’s called death—but that it lets someone else in. A different voice takes the floor in the internal chamber. The narrative switches. The imagery is unfamiliar. The location is probably far from my home terrain. The problems are different from mine, and may well be far more challenging than anything I’m facing.

Having gotten out of my head by retreating into it—with company—the one thing that still has me a bit crazy at the end of the week is the fact that not one of the websites I had perused mention this simple, accessible, and effective tool. Sure, you could argue that reading a book is a way of focusing on others, but I don’t think that’s what the authors of those bits of advice had in mind. I’m a little sad about that, but figure I can rectify the situation with a post dedicated to the technique.

 

http://www.patriciaraybon.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Undivided-3D-book-cover-THIS-ONE.png*Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, by Patricia Raybon and Alana Raybon. I met Patricia a couple of years ago through the Colorado Authors’ League. On one level, this is a family memoir, and like the best of that genre it is intelligent and brutally honest, offering insights into human relationships through the lens of personal experience. I learned things I didn’t know about Islam, things I didn’t know about Christianity, and things I hadn’t thought about regarding interfaith conflict and dialogue.

slide-1**Radical Survivor: One Woman’s Path Through Life, Love, and Uncharted Tragedy, by Dr. Nancy Salzman. I met Nancy last year at a writing event we both presented at. This, too, is an intimate story that ripples wide. Nancy lost her husband and two sons in a small plane crash in 1995. The book honors the lives of her “boys” and offers a portrait in endurance through loss that will get you out of your head in a hurry. It’s harrowing but has grace notes of humor and you will learn a lot about coping (not faith-based, incidentally) and how to write a note of condolence from the many examples of supportive correspondence Nancy includes in the narrative.

***Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I really love this book. Kimmerer is so smart and so gentle and the braid of this narrative is absolutely captivating. I had to come back to it from a break only because there is so much to think about AND because Kimmerer’s theme of how science fits in to other aspects of our lives is so directly cogent to my own writing at the moment that reading it has demanded close attention of me, and thus wore me out. That’s my own personal stuff though. I think YOU should read it because it’s everything narrative nonfiction can be: lucid, lovely, grounded, and truthful; challenging in the topics it discusses as well as the ideas it presents.

 

Posted in books, reading, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments