Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Race Is to the Swifts

In February and March, people visit San Juan Capistrano in hope of seeing the return of cliff swallows to their nests beneath the eaves of old mission buildings. March is also when folks await the return of buzzards (turkey vultures) to Hinckley, Ohio.

And every summer night, hundreds of people gather to watch more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats pour out from under a bridge in Austin, Texas.

But if you've missed these annual animal aggregations, never fear. Because now is when Vaux's swifts are streaming south for the winter, pausing to rest and feed in the vicinity of Monroe, Washington--and when people flock to an old chimney to watch the little birds plunge into it at night.

Vaux's swifts, often described as "flying cigars," are North America's smallest swifts at barely 4.5 inches in length. They spend spring and summer in western North America, primarily in coastal states and Mexico, ranging as far north as southern Alaska . Then they skip out on us to spend winter in warm, sunny central America. Clever birds.

"Wait a sec," says you. "What was that bit about the chimney?"

Yes, it's true, Santa isn't the only organism that plummets down chimneys on a predictable schedule. Vaux's swifts nest in cavities, in hollow trees, and chimneys. During migration, they cram into trees and chimneys by the hundreds and thousands in order to keep warm--and safe from predators--at night.

Photo from Washington Dept. of Wildlife
They cling to vertical surfaces with sharp-clawed toes. Their short legs and feet are completely unsuitable for walking on the ground and not much use for perching, either.

When they're not stuck upright as if held in place by Velcro, they're flying. Vaux's swifts do nearly everything on the wing--courting, mating, feeding by snapping up insects in midair, and drinking by swooping over water and scooping up a beakful. They even gather nesting material while in flight.

In Monroe, the birds swarm into an old, unused chimney that's part of the Frank Wagner Elementary School. The chimney is 31 feet tall with an opening that measures four square feet. As many as 21,000 swifts funnel into it in a matter of minutes. Once inside, each bird jostles to find a holdfast. They settle into place, overlapping like shingles on a roof.

We visited the swifts in September 2014, arriving early to enjoy a feast of spaghetti and apple crisp. (A swift eats about 20,000 insects in a day, so we didn't save any for the birds.) Kids pitched beanbag swifts into a cardboard chimney. People wandered about wearing headbands adorned with paper swifts bobbing on pipe-cleaner posts. An Audubon table lined with stuffed remains of various bird species attracted a small crowd.

Looking at the fragile form of the Vaux's swift, you couldn't help but marvel at its diminutive size and realize just how much of a live bird consists of flurry, fluff, and motion.

Early-birds fluttered near the chimney as evening advanced. The sky darkened, and the swifts' numbers grew. They looked like bats as they flickered through the air.

Darker and darker grew the sky, faster and faster whirled the birds. And then, as if at a signal, they began dropping into the chimney. Each bird dove at the opening, braking its fast forward motion to plummet in tail-first.

So many birds! It was as if the chimney were a vacuum drawing them in from the sky. They twirled in like a reverse cloud of smoke. The tornado spun for several minutes before diminishing, bit by bit, until the storm was down to just a few stragglers.

And then, after a few beats, one last bird zipped across the sky and ducked in just in time, accompanied by onlookers' laughter and applause.

John James Audubon doesn't appear to have ever painted the Vaux's swift, but he did encounter its eastern cousin, the chimney swift, and study its natural history. He witnessed the birds' flowing into a communal roost at dusk and described it :

"When about to descend into a hollow tree or a chimney, its flight, always rapid, is suddenly interrupted as if by magic, for down it goes in an instant, whirling in a peculiar manner, and whirring with its wings, so as to produce a sound in the chimney like the rumbling of very distant thunder."

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson (1873–1928), who called the Vaux's swift a humble "sky-scooter," notes that "at favorite seasons the birds cross and recross each other's paths in lawless mazes and fill the air with their strident creakings, while here and there couples and even trios sail about in great stiff curves with wings held aloft."

Vaux's swifts are a cause for celebration at a number of chimneys along their migratory flight path. You can cheer them on in Monroe this year on Saturday, September 12 (find out more on the Swift Night Out website here). The website also streams images of the birds inside the chimney via the Swiftcam (shown below).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Boy Howdy, Plum Pandowdy!

It's been so hot around here that one of our fans finally conked out from exhaustion and was replaced with three new ones. The Pacific Northwest spent June and July smashing high-temperature records (13 days with temperatures of 80 degrees or warmer in June...8 days of 85+ in June...plenty of 90+ record high recorded in Walla Walla on June 28 of 113 degrees...that sort of thing).

Thanks to this scorching, it's looking a lot like September around here, with parched brown lawns and trees shedding yellow leaves and mountain ashes already flaunting bunches of orange berries. And it surely must have something to do with our ornamental plum tree producing a bumper crop of plums, probably for the first time in its life.

Ornamental plum trees are not bred to produce luscious fruit. They're just supposed to look pretty decked out in their frilly pink spring finery. Perhaps some quirk of timing in when the tree bloomed this year due to the heat caused more of its flowers to be pollinated, because it's pumping out plums by the bucketful.

The plums are perfectly edible, which is not the same thing as perfectly luscious. We haven't felt terribly inspired to pick them.

For one thing, our tree's branches are up very high, and we don't have the right sort of ladder to boost us safely up into the branches. For another, the fruit, while copious, is scattered throughout the crown, not easily situated for picking.

And gathering up the fallen fruit is a tedious and unproductive activity. The only way to do it without constantly stooping and looking like one of those drinky-bird toys teetering around the yard is to crawl on hands and knees, inspecting each grape-sized fruit for worms. Any that aren't infested with worms are bound to have burst open, because they hit the ground like water balloons. You can hear them crash from across the garden.

All that effort garners a few cups of puny plums, which, though resembling red grapes, lack that fruit's snap, pop, and zing.  They're mealy and mushy, with a seed that takes up about a third of the interior. Fine for jam, but pretty blah out of hand.

But I did have a nice bowl full of yellow plums from a friend. It was way too hot to bother making jam, but it's never too hot to make a fruit dessert to serve with vanilla ice cream. I flipped through the recipe books and settled on a plum pandowdy.

"Pandowdy" is one of those words that's fun to say but has murky origins. The recipe book claimed that the name came from the way the pastry was laid across the cooked fruit and then chopped into squares and pushed down into it--an action called "dowdying." I haven't been able to verify that anywhere. Though perhaps if you smash something that's literally an upper crust to bits, it becomes dowdy...?

I never got to the "dowdy" part, though, because I was impatient and made the classic mistake of not reading the recipe through before assembling it, so I ended up dumping some dry ingredients into the pastry that weren't supposed to go in because they were for the filling. Oops. There was no way it would ever roll out under a pin, so I just crumbled it into blobs and dropped it on the filling. Even dowdier than the original plan.

The end result was an extremely tart caramel-colored plummy dessert with mediocre chunks of pastry in it. Filling definitely needed more sugar, which could've been supplied by putting on a crumb topping instead of pastry--but a nice dollop of vanilla ice cream offset the tartness, so the pandowdy was history in a respectable amount of time.

It didn't inspire me to crawl around the garden scrutinizing fallen plums and collecting them for another recipe, however. I'm leaving them to the birds (robins particularly love fruit, and it's fun to watch them stab the orbs and shake them around before swallowing them), and to Luna, who's been joyfully hoovering them up for weeks. She is transported with joy that we have a snack-dispensing tree in the yard.

But for the resident humans, walking across the yard is like tramping around on a giant sheet of bubble wrap, and it'll be that way for a few weeks yet, judging by how many plums are still dangling from the branches. I must say, this ornamental tree looks extremely proud of itself.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hush! A Thrush

Some birds are more often heard than seen.

The Swainson's thrush is a member of this shy chorus. Cryptically clad in buff and white, with a spattering of spots to break up its form, it slips quietly through trees and shrubs, keeping out of sight.

But when the male Swainson's lifts his voice in song, it's enough to make you feel as if you've been transported to some Arcadian idyll. The song is an ethereal upward spiral, sung not only at dawn but also throughout the evening, often until well after sunset. A haunting, ringing quality seems to make it hang shimmering in the air until the next trill rises. (You can listen to it here.)

Before this year, I'd only seen a Swainson's thrush once, and that was just because he was kicking up a storm rustling through leaves in a neighbor's yard uphill from my Seattle one in an area where a fence had fallen down. He gave me one startled look and vanished.

This summer, I have the privilege of watching a female Swainson's incubate her eggs in a nest perched on a conifer branch just a few yards from my office window in Cottage Lake.

She sits so patiently on  her tightly woven nest; on many days it seems she only moves to snuggle herself in more deeply. I often feel like bringing out a few magazines for her, and a little cup of coffee. With the recent scorching weather, though, I've observed her sitting next to the nest, letting the air keep the eggs warm. She prods the eggs with her beak now and then, testing their temperature and turning them over.

The male, however, is all over the place. He often flutters into the maple right next to the window to peer in at me. Or to give a thumping to the male robin who rashly lands on a branch in his domain. Sometimes he swoops through the spray of the hose when I'm watering the raspberry patch out front. Sometimes he perches on the shepherd's hook in the garden near the nest, looking like an expectant father pacing a waiting room in a 1940s movie.

The Swainson's thrush is such a lovely bird, it's a shame that it's got such an unimaginative name--the fate, alas, of so many birds. No offense, Swainson, but seriously? You already have a warbler and a hawk named after you. (Reptiles and fish totally luck out when it comes to names. More on that some other time.)

Regional names for this flutist of the woods aren't much of an improvement. According to the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, its nicknames include Alma's thrush (who's Alma?), olive-backed thrush (ho-hum), russet-backed thrush (yawn), and swamp robin (better, but rather limiting).

More interesting are the varied ways in which bird books render the thrush's skein of song.
photo from Wikipedia

"Song spirals upward, like whip-poor-will-a-will-e-zee-zee-zee, going up high and fine at end..." explains the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

"Po po tu tu tu tureel tureel tiree tree tree," warble the thrushes in the Sibley guide, but only if they're in the Pacific; interior west and taiga birds tend to whistle "po rer reer reeer re-e-e-e-e-e" instead.

Naturalist William Leon Dawson, in Birds of California, describes this thrush as "a flitting shade and a haunting voice," and admits to difficulty in recreating the song in syllables, but shares other naturalists' versions:
weeloo weelo weeloeeewit-wit
govendy govindy goveendy
Well, wit-wit and weeloo and a govindy, too. Some authors, though, dispense with interpreting the song and go with the "everybody's a critic" approach:
"Those who have heard the olive-backed thrush singing an even-song to its brooding mate compare it with the veery's, but it has a break in it and is less simple and pleasing than the latter's." Neltje Blanchan, Bird Neighbors, 1922
"Its song, while perhaps not as beautiful as that of the Hermit Thrush, is better known to most bird-watchers..." Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region
"The throaty, gurgling song lacks the richness of the wood thrush's and the purity of the hermit's but is pleasantly musical." Richard Pough, Audubon Guides
Fortunately, Swainson's thrushes cannot read.

By Don Faulkner via Wikimedia Commons
They also make a wonderful call that sounds like a drop of water, often rendered whoit or quoit.

[We interrupt this twittering about thrush song for some breaking news. It appears the eggs may have hatched, as I thought I saw a tiny head and gaping beak protrude from the nest's edge before Mama Thrush stood over it. She has her wings spread out to shade the nest, as it's currently in full sunlight on a day shaping up to be a hot one.]

I have my fingers crossed for our resident thrushes. Their nest is built precariously close to the tip of a branch, rather than tucked closely by the trunk, and I fear that the day will come that a jay or crow takes note of it and dives in for a meal.

I know, I know, that's nature for you. I don't blame the jays and crows; I just hope it doesn't happen. The thrushes have been so single-minded  in raising their brood, parental intensity condensed to a single point in their black ink-drop eyes. I'd like to see their little ones fledge.

In fall, Swainson's thrushes leave the northwest and head south. Some migrate as far as Argentina. They fly at night, calling to each other, and if you listen in a quiet place, you can hear their notes twinkling down from the sky.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Fifth Father's Day

We're approaching our fifth Father's Day now without Dad. Which seems impossible--impossible both that he's not here, and that it has been five years. So much happened during that span that it wasn't until this past spring that I was able to deliver on a promise we made to him in his last month--that we would take good care of his book collection and not just chuck it in the bin at a thrift store.

My dad was never without a stack of books to read. He consumed a steady supply of books about history, mathematics, and airplanes (he was an aerodynamics engineer) and also would fasten on to subjects that he'd pursue for months on end. Among the last ones were the Peloponnesian war and the building of the Panama Canal.

All those books would be carefully bookmarked with his favorite marker: a computer punch card from his early days at Grumman Aerospace. He had stacks of them, having retrieved them from the company when they were throwing them away after they were outmoded.

Often these cards bear a list of words my dad encountered in his reading and intended to look up, sometimes because he didn't know the meaning but more often because he wanted to learn more about the word's origins.

After his death, and our mom's subsequent move to a smaller home, the vast majority of the household's books were easily sorted: history and boating books mainly went to one brother's household, a lot of science books to mine, cooking ones to my sister and me, a handful of aircraft books to my nephews.

But finding a place for his aeronautical and engineering books, many of which were highly technical, would be hard--that is, if Boeing's own museum and library wasn't interested.

We didn't want to ask them point-blank if they just wanted boxes and boxes of books, so I set out to catalog the entire collection and gather it in one document so the librarians could pick and choose according to the needs of their library.

Sounds tedious, but it actually offered ample time to muse on the office--the "den" as we called it--where Dad kept his books when we were kids and worked late sometimes on special projects. It was a tiny room, rather dark, but we were always welcome even though now I know we were probably delaying his work by popping in to visit.

I recall gazing up in wonder at all those books, many of them somber-looking tomes from the 1940s and early 1950s, and whispering in awe, "Wow, Dad, you must be really smart!"

"Not really," he chuckled. (But he was.)

Sometimes as I flipped the pages of a book after gleaning the title, author, and publication date, a computer card or piece of paper would fall out, or I'd find a note written on a page. Because the mathematics involved are totally beyond my understanding, I could only marvel at the inscrutability of what was amazing to him.

One item in his library was a 4-inch-thick bound stack of papers with 7 or 8 columns of numbers on each page, just a river of data pouring through the volume. On one page, in one column, Dad had corrected a few digits in one number after the decimal point. How he could've spotted that error utterly escapes me.

I loved seeing the enthusiasm he had in acquiring a volume, and how the engineers kept a running history in a beloved book, as if it were a family Bible:

On a more down-to-earth level, I enjoyed seeing how his signature changed over the years: from a student's careful script...

to the firm hand of a graduate...

to the confident use of his nickname and purple ink of his later years. He preferred purple felt-tip pens and was dismayed when local stationers and office supply stores ceased carrying them. One of my last Christmas gifts to him was a big box of purple Papermate felt-tips. I was sure he'd have years more of using them.

It was also pretty cool to Google the house in  New Hyde Park where he lived as an older child; it's still standing. Not sure exactly where he lived as a little kid--I know it was an apartment building in Queens, that his dad and mom (German immigrants) were the caretakers of the building, and that due to their position they had access to the basement, which made Dad a king among his peers as they ran up and down alleys fighting endless world wars.

After cataloging everything from "Akin, J. E., Finite Elements for Analysis and Design" to "Watman, H., 'Assessment of the Unified Approach for Predicting the Hypersonic Characteristics of a High L/D Reentry Glider,'" I contacted the Boeing library, and fortunately they were interested in taking on most of the books; the old books were particularly welcome because historians and engineering students delved into them in their work. Plus there were my dad's own folders of writing and collected materials on the development of aircraft on which he worked.

I hauled them all up to Boeing's restoration center on a gray March morning. We know Dad would be really glad to think of his books in the hands of another generation of engineers.

I also know Dad would be very amused and slightly appalled (if you can be such a thing) at my saving bits and pieces like scribbles on paper. He'd probably make some jokes about relics and Oliver Plunkett's head. I don't really know why I hang on to them other than that it's all I've got left of him other than photos and what he's instilled in us kids. I feel sometimes like a bird on a nest, tucking every precious scrap around me.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Does a Bear Sit in our 'Hood?

There is a bear prowling in our Cottage Lake neighborhood.

A black bear.

A big black bear.

Well, actually, it's surely many black bears, but people tend to refer to it as The Bear. Much as Mount Rainier is simply called "The Mountain," and everybody knows you're talking about that one snowy peak among all the other many mountain peaks in the area.

These pictures aren't mine (all but the last one are from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's photo archive), but the only time I saw The Bear was when he galloped past me while I was on a walk, about a block and a half from my house. Even if I had had a camera ready, I daresay I'd probably have frozen in fright and forgotten how to use it if the bear had hung around to pose for a picture.

As it was, he ran past me so quickly I only had time to think "Big dog!" before (a) he was gone and (b) I realized, "That's no dog."

Anyway, local police departments and wildlife offices are doing their Rite of Spring, which is to send out information about how to deal with bears, avoid bears, prevent attracting bears, and what to do if you actually encounter a bear.

So I thought I'd post a humor piece I wrote on the topic a few years ago, and sent to a magazine and got a favorable reaction though not an acceptance. At least I hope it's humorous. I had fun writing it anyway. I hope you grin and bear it ;)

Beware the Bear

“Anyone who sees a bear in the city should call 911.” –The Seattle Times, p. B1, May 18, 2009.

"Here are tips should you come in close contact with a bear: Stop, remain calm, and assess the situation...If a bear walks toward you, identify yourself as a human by standing up, waving your hands above your head, and talking to the bear in a low voice. (Don’t use the word "bear" because a human-food-conditioned bear might associate “bear” with food . . . people feeding bears often say 'here bear.'" --Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, "Do's and Don'ts in Bear Country"

As if there weren’t already enough to worry about. The economy. War. 401(K)s becoming 200.5(K)s. Sick pigs. Bunions. Jagged edges on cans opened with rotary can openers. Now this: urban bears.

So. I may not be wise or deep. I may not be profound or insightful. But I am diligent. I am observant. I can keep my eyes open for bears. That I can do. I’m a good citizen. And I know that, no matter how cold my blood runs at the thought of meeting a bear in a dark alley, I must continue to go about my daily business. We all must. If we don’t, the bears win.

(Note to self: Does city contain dark alleys? Have I ever been in one? Are dark alleys dark all day or are they lit at high noon?)

Anyway, so far so good. No bear sightings yet. Then again, I haven’t yet left the house. Time will tell. I must gird my loins and step out boldly on daily rounds.

First stop: Starbucks. A quick glance reveals that there are no bears. No scat, no tracks. I check the coffee-condiments counter—the jar of honey is there, intact. A good sign. I breathe a sigh of relief and head for the counter. For a second, I consider joking with the barista about her being a “bear-ista” but decide that will just make me sound like a jerk—dozens of people may have already made the same joke, or—worse yet—she doesn’t know about the wayward mammal and will give me a patient, puzzled half-smile. So I simply order my usual, an iced double venti, 6 pumps vanilla, caramel sauce top and bottom, no ice, extra-whip mocha, with room. Decaf.

Drink in hand, I settle into a comfy chair. Just as I take my first sip, I raise my eyes to find a child staring at me. “Mommy!” it cries. “Somebody’s sitting in my chair!”

The child is summoned to a nearby table by its parents. It perches on its seat and slurps its drink. I turn my gaze back to my beverage, but because my senses are on high alert, I am still tuned in to this family—and so it is that I hear the father say, “My coffee is too cold.”

The mother responds, “My coffee is too hot.”

And the little one pipes up, “My cocoa is just right!”

My God. Carefully, without any sudden moves, I look up and study the trio. Lots of brown hair. Father particularly shaggy. Suspicious. But they lack inch-long, daggerlike claws, and the female does not appear to weigh the 150 pounds typical of a black-bear sow.

Still, I will not get between her and her young. My drink is in a to-go cup, so, ergo, I go.

I set out on my usual round of morning errands: a quick stop at the market (shelves fully stocked with food, salad bar not ravaged), the post office (long wait at counter as staff is apparently hibernating, but nothing else), and finally the bank (where I consider making a “bear market” joke to the teller, but again, show restraint).

I touch down briefly at home to put my groceries away and change into running clothes. As I lace up my shoes, I dimly remember that running sets off a predator’s instinct to pursue. Is this true of bears? I scroll a list of do’s and don’ts for bear encounters in my mind. I recall the sensible first piece of advice: “Do everything you can to avoid an encounter with any bear.”

Excellent. I’m doing well, then. My life thus far has been dedicated to avoiding bear encounters. I do not even read Reader’s Digest for fear of encountering a bear encounter in its pages. But now, with the bear at the door, so to speak, I must vigilantly maintain a Code Red level of awareness.

I close my eyes and concentrate on visualizing the cautionary measures I have committed to memory: Don’t throw things at the bear. Avoid eye contact during initial phase of encounter. Don’t climb a tree to escape. Don’t use the word “bear” when talking to an approaching bear (bears that have eaten human food can link this word with “treat” because people who feed bears often say “here, bear!” Two words that, I suppose, are among their last.)

Ah...there it is. Don’t run from the bear unless you know you can quickly reach a place of safety. Right. Much of my jogging will involve dashing through a park. Many trees, no bear-proof chambers. A walk, then. With pepper spray in hand instead of water bottle.

Nothing appears to be amiss as I stride down the sidewalk. True, I do spy several rather flat carcasses along the way: a squirrel here, an opossum there, even a raccoon. But no overturned logs, no torn-apart hollow trees, no “rejected bits of carrion or large prey, such as pieces of skin, often with head or feet attached,” as my Audubon field guide indicates would be the case if indeed a black bear were at large.

(Note to self: Find out what preys upon squirrels, opossums, and raccoons in city.)

It isn’t until I’m a block from the park that it happens.

I finally see it. Large as life and twice as ugly—Ursus americanus itself.

The beast lumbers toward me, swinging its ungainly head, jaws dripping, baleful eyes glaring malevolently.

I swore that I would be ready for this—forewarned is forearmed, and all that. Instead, I feel ice-cold panic flooding through me. I force myself to take a deep breath and call up the list again. As the instructions unspool once more, an eerie calm replaces the terror: I can handle this.

Quickly, I identify myself as a human. I stand tall and wave my arms around. I talk to the bear in a low voice. “Hey, b—Ursus. I am a human. Repeat: I am a human.”

But the damn thing keeps coming. It doesn’t even break stride.

I move on to more desperate measures. I clap my hands. I stamp my feet. I yell at the bear and stare it straight in the eyes.

It works. The dread creature stops. It growls. It says, “Hey, knock it off, what are you, an idiot?”

Only then do I notice that this bear is leashed and attached to a handler. I drop my arms to my sides and let the word “human” die on my lips. The handler is staring me straight in the eyes and is employing dominant body language. As there is no sure-fired place of safety nearby, I do not run away but merely walk briskly, my strides taking me into the leafy cool of the park.

(Note to self: Could handler be walking a dancing bear? Surely dancing bears are outlawed in U.S. Must check.)

Today, however, the park isn’t the balm to my soul that it usually is. Woods and bears, after all, are intrinsically linked. I ignore the erratically scampering children and their high-pitched squeals of delight (their parents really ought to warn them against such prey-like behavior) and focus on the trees, with particular attention to shadowy areas.

Fortunately, no trunks are scarred with tooth marks and claw slashes, the classic signs of a bear marking its territory.

It isn’t until I reach an open clearing that it happens. For real. This is not a chow-chow encounter.

It’s a bear encounter.

And this time, it’s not just one bear. It’s two bears. Unleashed. No handlers in sight. What’s more, these are no black bears. These are grizzly bears—two 1,496-pound examples of bruin pulchritude in their prime.

I know they are grizzlies. They have dished faces, not the straight muzzle of the black bear.

There’s no time to wave my arms, no time to utter words of warning in a low voice. I think of the children, of how the bears will hug them and then devour them. I do as the newspaper has bid me to do. I whip out my cell and call 911.

My screaming into the phone attracts many onlookers. The operator, meanwhile, seems confused by my repeated shouts of “Ursus arctos!” I lower my voice so the bears cannot hear me and utter, “Bears! Grizzly bears! Loose in the park!”

At first, the blood pounding in my ears makes it hard for me to hear clearly, but slowly it dawns on me that I keep hearing one phrase again and again.

“You are in the zoo,” says the operator. “You are in the zoo. The zoo. In the Northern Trail exhibit. They have grizzly bears there. Two of them.”

“The zoo?” I whisper. I look up. The people around me take a few steps back. They look suspicious. I wave my arms over my head to assure them that I am human.

I glance back at the bears. OK, now I see the fence. But they’ve done a clever job of hiding it from view. If I hadn’t made this mistake, somebody else would’ve, if they were watching out for the common good as I am.

It seems like an apt time to head home. I take a wandering dirt trail through the woods so as to avoid the gaze of the curious. I keep my eyes peeled for tracks that, according to my field guide, “look as if made by a flat-footed man in moccasins” but with the big and  little toes reversed and claw marks visible. Fortunately, I do not see any tracks that meet this description.

Once I am safely indoors, I feel relief settle upon me like a veil. (That is, after I have carefully checked in the closets and under the beds and have ascertained that my goldfish are still in their tank.) I crack open the back door just enough to determine that the sack of cat chow I leave out nightly for the local feral cat is still there. (I have never seen this elusive creature before, but it eats an entire bag of kibble every night and has even consumed entire haunches of venison; it must be the size of a cougar!)

I fire up the computer. My brushes with panic have unnerved me. Knowledge is power, so I will Google for more information about urban ursids to set my mind at ease. And while I’m at it, bear traps.

[photo by Jim Martin via Wikimedia Commons]

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Soft Spring Evenings with "Apricot Sky" by Ruby Ferguson

In the early 1970s my uncle delivered a stack of books to me. He'd picked them up on a trip to Ireland and assumed, quite rightly, that his horse-crazy niece would love a series of books about a girl her age who acquires first one pony, then a second, and tumbles into a series of misadventures with them.

These books were the "Jill" books by Ruby Ferguson, a series of nine titles starring the sharp, funny, sometimes klutzy, and often impetuous Jill Crew. She begins the series as an 11-year-old and ends as a 17-year-old, pony-mad from start to finish.

Sadly, there were only the nine, and my equally horse-besotted friend M. and I read the paperbacks over and over and went around talking like Jill, saying "frightfully" and "smashing" rather a lot, until the pages became soft as tissue and the spines scored with folds.

So, since there weren't any more Jill book to be had, about a decade ago I thought I'd have a go at reading some of the books Ferguson wrote for an adult audience. (Ferguson, by the way, was born Ruby Constance Ashby in Yorkshire in 1899. Between 1926 and 1934, she published 7 mystery novels under the name R. C. Ashby. Her 13 adult novels were published between 1937 and 1967; the "Jill" books fall in the middle of that span, as does a children's book entitled A Paintbox for Pauline. More biographical information can be found here.)

Ruby Ferguson
Unfortunately, it isn't easy to find these books, at least not in a Pacific Northwest library system, which is pretty far removed from Yorkshire. At one point the Seattle Public Library had two of her titles circulating (or not circulating actually, which would explain why they were ultimately weeded from the collection). The King County system had just one title: Apricot Sky, published in 1952.

Apricot Sky is picked out by Ferguson fans as the best one to track down, the other romances being fairly gloomy and the mystery novels being just OK. Author Hilary Clare describes this book as "a glorious romp through the summer of a West Highland family and contains some children who might be straight out of the Jill saga." And she's totally right.

The story unfolds in post-World War II Scotland. There are references to some brothers lost in the war and to rationing, but there's generally an air of "things are looking up," no doubt because the heroine, Cleo, has just arrived home after spending three years in the United States and because her younger sister is about to be married--to the younger brother of the next-door laird, Neil. Whom Cleo has pined after for years. Neil, however, is very Darcy-like and barely seems to notice her existence.

Cleo's hapless attempts to engage in conversation while writhing inwardly at her blunders alternate with the escapades of her niece and nephews, Primrose, Gavin, and Archie, who are wonderfully messy, rambunctious, and realistic kids who long to spend the summer potting about in boats rather than preparing for a wedding and entertaining their sordid, stuck-up older cousins, Cecil and Elinore.

Apricot Sky is an affectionate comedy of manners, with humorous touches that remind me not only of the beloved "Jill" books but also such works as Shirley Jackson's stories about parenting (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons) and Betty MacDonald's stories about finding a job in Seattle and spending time in a TB sanitarium (Anybody Can Do Anything and The Plague and I).

Ferguson described moors, fishing villages, and lovely seascapes, but didn't neglect to leave out the little things that intrude into the most heavenly moments, such as ill-fitting shoes and sore feet, leaky  jam jars, and the embarrassment of saying stupid and obvious things when you're desperately trying to seem lighthearted and carefree in conversation with the object of your crush.

A New York Times review sums up the book thus: "What happens during the long, lazy summer of Apricot Sky is not of great consequence....What counts are the gently satiric pictures of life in the highlands and the fresh, light wind of wit and charm that ripples the pages of this book."

Here are a few of my favorite bits and pieces from the story.

Scene: the garden. Characters: Cleo's mother, who's been ambushed by the arrogant, pretentious poppycock of a novelist who lives next door and has asked her to tell him, as a woman, what his Sister Agnes character in his latest work might do next. She hasn't been listening to a word he's said, so is caught off guard and wildly suggests she break her vows, which makes the novelist cross, saying that would be out of character.
"There wouldn't be any novels at all if everybody did everything in keeping with their characters,' said his hostess stoutly. "and what's more, people love stories about nuns who break their vows. Look at The Woman of Babylon, by Joseph Hocking. It's the best novel I ever read."
     Mr. Trossach closed his eyes in pain and made a kind of whiffling sound in his throat.
     "Would you mind getting off that pansy?" said Mrs. MacAlvey. "It's rather a favourite one of mine. You know," she added triumphantly, "I've always thought I could write a novel myself if only I had time."
(Any writers among you will be only too familiar with that last line.)

The "Jill" books are filled with descriptions of food, because Jill and her friends are always starving and gobbling up cream teas and toast, so it was fun to discover that the inhabitants of Apricot Sky likewise enjoy good feasts:
In spite of being so disturbed by love, Cleo was hungry. The roast chickens came in, preceded by a rapturous smell mingling the odours of bread sauce, rich gravey, and game chips....Everybody disposed of large platefuls.
In their sailboat, the younger kids are barely away from shore before they're ready to tuck into their picnic:
"I've never been so famished since that day we went to watch the shooting and forgot the sandwiches. I could eat a whole sheep. Let's start on the meat pie, and then work up to the apple charlotte and the chicken legs and the crackers and jam. Isn't this utter blissikins?"
That's 15-year-old Primrose speaking, who's what they would've called a tomboy back then. She's full of great observations, such as  her disgust at her aunt's decision to buy 25 yards of brocade for curtains in her new home:
"What a waste!" said Primrose. "Fancy spending fifty galumptuous pounds on curtain material when you could use old sheets or anything and buy a cine-camera."
Primrose is not one to mince words ("She really is the most binding clot," is how she describes cousin Elinore). And she's not about to be put down by her supercilious cousin, as evidenced by the mockery she incites among her siblings and their friend Gull at Elinore's expense:
"I think Elinore is a beautiful name, and I have another. Felicity. Elinore Felicity. Don't you think that's musical? Have you got another name, Primrose?"
     "As a matter of fact, I have," said Primrose, dragging one leg out of the sand to scratch the ankle. "But I don't like it much. It's Hephzibah. Primrose  Hephzibah."
     Archie gave a great snort of joy. "I've got another name, too," he volunteered. "It's Brontosaurus."
     "I think Neurasthenia is an awfully musical  name for a girl," said Gavin. "Don't you, Prim?"
     "Oh yes, and so's Lethargy."
     "They only call me Gull for short," said Gull. "My real name is Seagull Nightingale Cuckoo Stork Tordoch."
One scene mid-book reminds us that fussy food fetishes have always been in fashion: here Raine and Cleo are visiting their snobbish, controlling sister-in-law Trina and her two milquetoast children. Trina is ushering them out the door of her home at lunchtime without exactly shedding a tear at their departure.
"I'd have asked you to come back and share ours, but I don't think you'd be satisfied with our simple food."
     "Oh, but we're not fussy--" began Cleo, and Trina interrupted, "When I said Simple Food, I was speaking advisedly. I don't suppose you've read Adelaide Amble MacPherson's book, but we all have the greatest faith in it. She says that to obtain the maximum of nourishment, food ought to be simplified to the nth degree; that is to say, colourless, formless and practically tasteless. We've been practising this for three weeks, and we're all wonderfully better for it. It seems to have made our lives quite different."
     "I'm sure it has," said Cleo.
But I'll have to leave you with much better fare than that. Here's the younger kids, out on another sailing adventure, and Archie has just asked if they can have dinner before they do anything, because explorers always begin by eating.
"I've never heard that," began Gavin, but Hamish was already unpacking the food....There were packs of sandwiches, ham, egg, and tomato, wrapped up in separate dozens in paper napkins with pink roses round the border. This novelty added considerably to the success of the feast, especially from the point of view of Elinore, who was faddy about finding bits of the boat bottom in her food. There were also fresh scones, buttered thickly, and chunks of fruity cake. There were tarts with apple inside and biscuits with chocolate on top. Finally everybody had a bottle of fizzy orangeade, the quart size, all to himself. So superior a lunch seemed fitting for such an occasion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Getting to Know the Garden

Last year was a doozy of a year. Family illnesses and emergencies made it hard to find time to garden; falling off the front steps right at the juncture of spring and summer and breaking my arm effectively wiped out any gardening ambitions.

So although I certainly enjoyed seeing the magnolia bloom, the azaleas and rhododendrons burst in fireworks of blossoms, and the dogwoods deck themselves out in spangles of starlike flowers, I didn't really get to know the garden on that intimate, shovels-in-the-dirt, gravel-in-the-knees way that I'd gotten acquainted with my Seattle garden of 18 years.

It was blissful to be gifted with so many beautiful, warm, dry days this April and May--days that conveniently fell on weekends--to explore our new garden and get to know it better at, literally, a grassroots level. I especially liked discovering how beautiful the tracery of veins in fallen magnolia leaves are.

Things are popping up all over the place that we labor to identify (and to determine if it's OK to let them stay, lest we find ourselves with a horror on our hands like the Himalayan Balsam non-native highly invasive species that briefly lurked in our Seattle garden).

Earlier in the season, a plant came up near the drainage ditch out front that made me hold back the overeager scuffle hoe. There was something about the leaves that gave me pause, the way you might hesitate upon meeting someone who reminds you of somebody else.

I think I've managed to identify it as a native wildflower, the large-leafed geum. Cultivated geums are among my favorite flowers, so that explains why this plant tugged at my heartstrings and prevented me from tugging at its roots.

Apparently, the timing of this plant's growth of new leaves correlates with the birthing season of seals, so now every spring I can stand at the base of the driveway, check the drainage ditch, and say in tones of great profundity, "Somewhere, right now, a baby seal is being born."

Up the slope from this wildflower is a super-sized bleeding heart, which I saw briefly last year but really noticed this spring, especially as the plum tree that once stood next to it fell down in a windstorm this past autumn.

Bleeding hearts are always lovely, but this particular plant is bewitching me because it seems to be producing a clutch of white flowers, too:

We also found a large patch of leaves that looked like those of columbine spreading across part of the front garden where little else grows in front of the shrubs. Now that they're flowering, they continue to look like columbines, and I think they're a variety called Clementine White.

The previous occupants of our house hired landscapers to take care of the garden, and someone in the past had professionals plan it all, so that there are lots of pretty, healthy shrubs and small trees (for which I am grateful; my last garden had to be hacked out of a thicket of half-dead trees and blackberry bushes and overgrown shrubs, so it was nice to start off with good bones in this garden).

They mainly covered open areas with layers of black bark, with the exception of one small area near the deck where someone planted a nice little garden of groundcovers and some daisies. I'm planning to slowly replace a lot of the bark with groundcovers elsewhere in the yard.

One nice surprise is an avenue of ferns that the landscaping crews were no doubt told to remove every spring, because they weren't here when we moved in but are now growing vigorously in a strip of stones bordering the deck. I think they're Lady's Ferns.

Ferns pop up all over the place, and I've added a bunch of ferns from the nursery (as part of the groundcover master plan). After taking a few books out of the library about ferns, I felt myself ready to go haring off in search of rare ferns and desirous of setting up a large upturned root section from a Douglas-fir in order to build a stumpery, the fern-garden setup that those crazy Victorians went mad for. Had to steel myself because It's Not Like I Don't Have Other Things I Must Be Doing. For now I'll just enjoy the built-in Douglas-fir stump sitting in the yard, and the huckleberry tree and ferns and moss growing on it.