Friday, August 27, 2010

Pony Book Summer

Ain't nothin' like a good pony book if
you're a horse-lovin' gal.
This was to be a summer of reading pony books--both old favorites and new discoveries. Like most plans, this one has gone awry, by and large for good reasons (that is, working with real ponies, for my daughter, and...wait, my reasons aren't nearly as fun; never mind). But while camping, we were able to indulge in a few pony books, so at least we read some equine texts before the autumnal equinox.

We burst out of the post with two vintage books--my daughter embarked on a Pullein-Thompson yarn we'd bought at a thrift store in England, while I ran with a vintage horse title picked up at a local Value Village: White Ghost Summer by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.

To say that this was a strange book is an understatement. I kept reading snippets aloud to my daughter in astonishment, provoking her to cry "As if!" and "OK, then," and "Suuuure" at frequent intervals.

In brief, White Ghost Summer tells the story of young Mel, a horse-loving girl, and her sisters and one brother, who all settle into a big, rambling house with their self-employed mom in San Francisco. (She is an illustrator, putting my daughter and I in mind of Jill's whimsical storybook-writing mother in Ruby Ferguson's books.)  The illustrations depict the house as a Victorian wonder complete with widow's walk.

This marvelous dwelling sits across the street from the beach, where Mel can see horses from the local riding stable, which is located in a vast and wild city park that also houses a beautiful zoo that has free admission. And of course Mel gets a gift of an entire summer's worth of daily riding lessons. Daily!

"Right," said my cynical daughter. "And I bet there is a nonstop county fair with free cotton candy, too."

For a while, that is how it went: I'd read aloud snatches of the book, aghast at the weirdness of Mel and the stunning pace of events; my daughter would react with astonishment.

"Listen to this! Mel tells her riding instructor which horse she will ride! '"I will ride that little bay gelding," Mel said to Mr. Blake. "You will ride that gray mare," said Mr. Blake.' Can you imagine telling your riding instructor what horse you will ride?"

"Oh, and this! This is what Mel says to a girl in her class: '"Playing tag [on horseback] is very good; it teaches you a good seat, and makes good hands. How are your hands?" The little girl looked at Mel and fled to her mother."
"I'd flee, too," said my daughter. "What a weirdo!"

Mel's intensity makes one understand why other girls in the story gang up on her and stick a burr under her saddle at one point.

Mel goes on to become the stable's top rider in barely two months, and by the book's end she rides in a top-rated show and comes home with blue ribbons galore from the biggest events. That's when she's not busy with the mysterious orphaned boy who has a herd of pureblood Arabian horses hidden in a secret rock-enclosed meadow deep in the park that has never been discovered by park authorities.

And yet. I couldn't put it down. Neither could my daughter when I'd passed it along to her.

Although we still couldn't suspend our disbelief at Mel's meteoric rise at the stable and in the showing world (a feat far less believable than finding a hidden valley of Arabians in a city park, a story element akin to a doorway to Narnia in the back of a cupboard, or winning the Grand National on a piebald won in a raffle), the author's lovely writing drew us along.

The girls in the story, though eccentric, seemed like the sorts of people we'd like to hang out with. We'd love to live in sister Zee Zee's attic room, helping her put together a jewelbox of a dollhouse made with bits of glass and stone she found there. The older sisters were calm and supportive. The mother and one aunt appealed to me; they were, as Anne of Green Gables would say, "bosom buddies." (Their frequent longing for coffee indicated they'd be the type to drop everything to run out and grab a cup of java with you.)

And the character of Mel's pony, Buttons (a riding-school pony who, of course, eventually becomes her own) is well drawn. So often the horses in a story are just physically described and scant attention is paid to portraying them as the individuals they are; they often function as little more than transportation or a fulcrum for human drama. But Buttons is a full-blown portrait of a grumpy, loveable, irascible school pony. And the story is even told from his point of view at times, such as the occasion on which he runs away at night and hides in a thicket, listening to the commotion raised by the searchers hot on his trail:

"Buttons stayed where he was, ears twitching this way and that as the noises came from one side, then the other. When they got close enough he would slip away. But not yet. It was deliciously exciting to stand like a shadow and hear everyone thrashing about and making a great stir. He took another drink."

Which is pretty much what our cats do when everyone is frantically looking for them.

The book was published in 1967, when I was still learning to read, and I assumed the author was long gone; I am glad to say I assumed incorrectly. We did a bit of Googling when we got home, and found that she is indeed alive and has produced a well-received series of detective mysteries starring cats (written for an adult audience), among other works--and that she grew up on a farm where she rode hunters and dressage horses! There's a delightful interview with her on this site: http://www.sylviaengdahl.com/joegrey/author.htm.

My daughter and I agreed that this was one of the oddest horse books we'd ever read but also one of the most enjoyable. We were quite pleased that it had come along on vacation with us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Front-row Seats at Cascade Lake Wildlife Dramas

We knew that a week of camping in the South End campground at Moran State Park on Orcas Island, Washington State, promised a plethora of wildlife sightings the minute we drove under the giant horseshoe of a sign that arches over the entryway: our first glimpse was of a Columbian blacktail deer whose standard-issue brown coat was splashed with puddles of white. By the time we'd reached our designated site, we'd already had our fill of deer, having passed three doe-fawn pairs who paused in their browsing only briefly to watch us go by.

Our site nestled on the very edge of Cascade Lake; we pitched our tent a dozen feet from the water. Then we sat on the vast, well-worn log separating land from lake, dangling our feet in the water.

Straight away, one of the many dragonflies skimming over the water swooped by to take a look at the newcomers in his territory. He hovered in front of us; the little probe droid certainly looked as if he were glowering. Then he was off to nab smaller insects and chase away larger intruders. Incredible, the dogfights waged among the dragonflies; I saw one dragonfly nearly drive another underwater.

This is, I think, an eight-spotted skimmer; the whitish tail, per
Audubon, indicates that it has become "gray with age" (one can
relate). These dragonflies' black-and-white wings made them
look like flying checkerboards as they flickered above the lake.
Dragonfly-watching is definitely enhanced by 90-degree weather. Early in the morning, their zipping, zigzagging flight through the mist over the water created an ethereal scene that I think could only be captured in watercolors; the slanting yellow beams of sunlight made jewels of their flickering wings.

Smaller damselflies, boldly striped in blue and black, also flitted over the water. When we floated out onto the lake in our ridiculous, polka-dotted, inflatable life preservers, the damselflies would perch on us as if we were nothing more than exotic, oversized lily pads. At one point, at least a dozen had settled on me, including a pair relaxing on my big toe. When a violinist practicing on shore began to play a pastoral piece, the Damselfly Club Med atmosphere was complete.

Temperatures dropped as the week progressed, and the dragons and damsels' activities subsided, but the wildlife show went on. A belted kingfisher rattled noisily from a perch nearby before her fishing expeditions; once she was chased in wide figure-eights around the lake by a pair of angry crows. An osprey hovered overhead one afternoon before folding his wings and diving into the water, then laboring skyward again with a fish clenched in his talons. Douglas's squirrels--red-bellied critters also known as chickarees--chuckled madly in the treetops and left middens of cone scales the length and breadth of the loop trail around the lake.

Some animals, of course, didn't hesitate to stroll right into our campsite, despite the presence of our large yellow Lab, Luna. A pair of cheeky song sparrows nearly perched on our knees to join us for morning oatmeal. A family of juncos, a bit more shy, foraged in an orbit around our table. A yellow warbler glowed briefly on a branch above us. Under cover of night, deer investigated the plastic bins that contained our food, as did raccoons. Fortunately for this timid camper, Orcas lacks bears, so one could get away with being quite careless with food--as long as you plonked a few heavy stones atop the cooler, furry bandits didn't make off with your meals.

This butterfly flew with all the grace of an intoxicated
tissue-paper flower. It stumbled and staggered all
over the place as if fighting a headwind even when
the air was still. Am pretty sure it's a pine white. The
Audubon field guide notes that "this strange white
normally flutters weakly, high among conifers" but flits
lower to sip nectar from flowers, as this one's doing.
Some birds were only heard, not seen; the yank-yank calls of red-breasted nuthatches tugged at the forest at dawn, and the fluting song of a Swainson's thrush spiraled through the trees at dusk. I also heard my first owl in the tomblike silence of 2 a.m.--the throbbing hoots of a great horned owl.

Best new-bird-for-the-list sighting: a merlin streaking after smaller birds by the water in the small town of Eastsound.

Didn't get to see the strange animal spied by my daughter while she was out on the trail one morning, though. Swept away by the beauty of the woods and the lake, she told us about all the wonderful things she'd seen, including "a mouse! The cutest little mouse! It had soft brown fur, and a long pink tail, and black eyes, and six cute little pink feet..."

"Six?" we asked, eyebrows raised.

She folded up with laughter as she realized what she'd said, knowing she was doomed; the "six-footed mouse" would now haunt her on all future camping trips. "How many feet did it have?" became the standard question to ask her after she spotted any animal after that.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chickens, Vicariously

Gerty of the gimlet eye.
We are taking care of a friend's daughter's poultry operation for a few days this week. That is, four hens. Plus a few fish, a tankful of walking-stick insects, and a hermit crab. I learned only this morning that the supposedly sedate hermit crab is a trickster in disguise. Apparently, in the past, a gang of hermit crabs escaped their tank and managed to scrabble to all corners of the house; one got into the washing machine, another turned up in the dining room, and just one lily-livered hermit crab scuttled under a bed in the same room as the tank.

But I digress. Fortunately, the chickens did not escape their pen while on our watch. They were, on the whole, most cooperative, save for one stubborn gal who would not join her sisters in being gently herded into the coop for the night. She couldn't be allowed to wander her pen after dusk because raccoons as big as VW Beetles roam the neighborhood at night and would be quick to make a meal of her. After the other three hens had already settled in for the evening with gentle, satisfied clucks, this bird would flit to the farthest corner of a pen that was accessible to humans only by way of a gap under a guillotine-type wooden door that was about 2 feet high.

You can imagine my delight at having, finally, to creep through this gap like a commando through a layer of hay and chicken muck to grab the stubborn thing.

Fortunately, we didn't have to repeat this maneuver the next night because we knew the way to a chicken's heart is through its stomach. Or gizzard. Or whatever. A piece of bread crumbled into a corner lured the three cooperative hens immediately and eventually won over Miss Suspicious, too.

A very, very, very small part of me would like to keep hens. I do love the sound of a contented chicken's cheerful prattle, not to mention the glorious, fresh, warm eggs containing plump, carrot-orange yolks. Actually, very much of me would like to keep hens, but nothing in me wants to clean chicken coops.

When I was little, I spent one glorious day anticipating the arrival of a pet chicken. I was playing with my toys when my mom wandered through the room and I idly asked, "Where's Dad?" She replied, "He went to get a chicken."

I didn't say anything, but this news certainly brightened my day. A chicken! How nice. Being only four years old and safely believing that adults, unlike children, lived in a world where they just did whatever they pleased without rhyme or reason whenever they wanted, I didn't even think to ask "Why?" or "Since when?" If my parents had suddenly decided to procure a chicken, well, OK then. It was no stranger than their suddenly deciding to, say, buy a new living room chair, or a sink, or baking soda.

By evening, however, no poultry was in evidence except for the one being prepared for dinner. I had to ask my mom "Where's the chicken?" a few times before she figured out that I'd misunderstood her and explained that she'd meant Dad had gone to the grocery store.

What else could I say but "Oh"? I was slightly dismayed that we weren't getting a new pet. But chicken was my favorite dinner. So there really wasn't anything to complain about.

Foghorn Quackhorn and either Henny or Penny
Before chicken-keeping became so popular in my city, we did get to dabble in all the fun of poultry without any of the work each summer for a few years, when we'd pack up the car and head for central Washington to spend a week or two in the little town of Manson, near Chelan. The owners of the cabin we rented had a glorious chicken yard: a large area where a flock of 20 or so birds wandered freely, scratching in the dust, snapping up insects, and dozing in the shade of a tree. At night, they tucked themselves into a decades-old coop.

Every morning and evening, we'd visit the chickens--a big thrill for my then two-year-old daughter. We tossed corn to them and sometimes fresh fruit, which drove them into a frenzy of feeding. Their passion for fresh fruit caused them to rain pecks on my daughter's red-painted toenails peeking out from her sandals. Fortunately, she thought this was pretty funny and not cause for panic, though we took care to put her in sneakers for future visits.

These chickens had great lives--even the young roosters, despite the fact that only one of them was slated to rule the roost and the others were all named "Fajita." The winner of this lottery was the rooster who proved himself to be a wise and noble leader who wasn't rude to the hens and who was also capable of refraining from attacking human visitors. The hens roamed all day and dreamed feathery dreams at night in the safety of their nest boxes.

The only two casualties we knew of were two hens who flew the coop: little Broody Hen, always picked on by the other birds and who, we like to think, went on to better things after she left, and a big Barred Rock hen with beautiful black-and-white zigzagging on her plumage who didn't make it more than 20 feet from the chicken yard before being eaten by a coyote, leaving only a small oval of feathers.

This little band we're minding consists of Henny and Penny, a pair of Barred Rock (I think) hens--one of these twins is the aforementioned suspicious bird, and the other isn't exactly in love with us; a big brawny Buff Orpington named Foghorn Quackhorn; and a clever Rhode Island Red (I think) named Gerty. Gerty follows us around telling us what to do and to do it quickly.

I think that Gerty is the only one able to read the inside of the coop door, which is covered with henny pennings.