Sunday, December 22, 2013

Solstice Rambles

It has been a long and emotionally wrenching year. Our most fervent hope is that, just as the shortest day of the year comes to a close and the hours of daylight gradually increase, life follows suit and brightens a bit more each week.

With that thought in mind, we decided to chuck all responsibilities while the Resident Teen was out of town with a friend's family, enjoying a snowy getaway up near the border, and just go wandering in our new neck of the woods.

But you know what they say about mice and their best laid plans. At first, Things Were Not Cooperating. We'd planned to center our outing on a visit to Sliders Cafe in Carnation, where Tony would bring his banjo and enjoy a bluegrass jam.

However, this goal was thwarted by the fact that, despite a chock-full calendar of events on the cafe's website, the forbidding news that it was closing down (which we'd learned a few weeks ago) came true, and instead of the bluegrass jam, yesterday was actually the Big Move-Out Day. Showing up with a banjo would've been just silly.

We decided to haul the dog with us and go for a walk in the Carnation area anyway, though I think partly the resident Banjo Player wanted to see for himself that Sliders actually was closed. Driving past the darkened building without a name on it anymore was a pretty good clue that it was.

"Hey, why don't we go to Remlinger Farms and get a pie for later?" suggested the disappointed musician. So we headed east, driving a route we took many times when the Resident Teen was a little one and a farm park with ponies, old-fashioned sweet rides, a fire truck to climb on, and baby goats to pet--with the promise of an ice cream cone before going home--was all that happiness required.

We knew the park would be closed, but thought perhaps the big produce and gift store would be open. We were wrong. No pie for us.

Well, at least we could go for a walk. Or could we? The first two pull-outs on the main road demanded that we have a Discover Pass to park there and set foot on the trail. Lacking said pass, we pushed farther south. And there we discovered a little gem that made all the dead-ends worth while: Tolt Macdonald Park and Campground.

The dog bounded out of the car (as much as she could bound with a leash around her neck) and nearly hyperventilated snuffing up all the rich new smells as we followed a path along the Tolt River. The river, roaring thunderously, galloped along like a herd of mustangs.

We hadn't walked for five minutes before we  heard the creaking cry of a bald eagle. It settled in a tree just ahead of us on the trail.

Across the river, its mate perched  near the enormous nest the two had maintained for years. Another walker told us they'd raised an eaglet there last year and she'd come every day to see the story unfold.

Another bit of walking took us to a curve in the trail where the Tolt joined forces with the Snoqualmie River. A suspension bridge over the roiling waters led to a lush green campground complete with yurts.

A cheerful sign warned us of the usual dangers to expect (oh, you know, little things like cougars and bears), but the only perils present were a pair of off-leash Doberman pinschers. I think Luna would've preferred the cougars and bears to the investigation she got from the Dobies.

As it was, she didn't appreciate walking across slats and having to spread her webbed Labrador toes wide, so she carefully walked like a trapeze artist on the little wooden "sidewalk" that ran down the middle of the bridge to facilitate rolling wheelbarrows full of camping gear across the river.

Finally, the low-lying white strips of cloud sank to ground level, creating that particularly Northwest variety of snow-globe-style drizzle.

Wet and muddy, we returned to the car, drove home, tidied up, and went out again, this time to Willows Lodge for an evening by a roaring fire complete with a glass of wine, a plate of antipasti, and thumping good music played by a young acoustic guitarist and his drum-playing friend. Christmas lights twinkled inside and out, laughing at the darkness of the longest night.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Winter Walks, Cottage Lake

"17 degrees," read the dashboard thermometer in the car, which meant the street surface a few feet down from that thermometer was actually several degrees colder.

A morning made for black ice, and indeed many road signs in the area warn "Watch for ice."

A mass of Arctic air lumbering into the Puget Sound region this past week brought the first killing frost along with the icy roads and encrusted windshields.

White crystals have outlined leaves and blades of grass in shady spots, fooling one into thinking it's snowed.

Before the cold snap hit, I took a walk to Bassett Pond to take in the lovely hay-and-smoke coloring of the leafless branches and the beauty of the white-trunked birches with their tracery of dark twigs. A few days later, the pond had frozen over and the last of the bright green mosses and ferns had faded into mushy clumps.

 Strands of Methuselah's Beard Lichen (tentative identification)

Bracken, already brown and crisp while many native ferns are still glossy green

Bassett Pond, late November

Bassett Pond, late November

A blaze of redtwig dogwoods  

Labradorus woofus in its natural habitat 

Fungus called Witch's Butter with moss

Bassett Pond, frozen

Close-up of frozen pond and its contents

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Month Devoted to Writing

November's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) passed me by this year, as did PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) and NaPlWriMo (National Playwriting Month) and probably a lot of other NaMo things I've never even heard of.

But November was still a wonderfully writer-ish month, filled with events that took me away from the computer and into the company of other writers and all the inspiration that such mingling can bring.

For starters, I went to a writers' retreat for the first time ever, namely the "Weekend on the Water" retreat at Port Ludlow in early November. This event was associated with the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. The speakers were Patricia Lee Gauch, author and former Editorial Director of Philomel Books, and author Linda Urban (A Crooked Kind of Perfect).

And what a spoiled-rotten weekend it was. I sat enthralled as Ms. Gauch analyzed passages from Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout, drawing our attention to the author's word choice and imagery, tone and voice in a way I hadn't enjoyed since college.

My mind traveled back even further, to my 10th-grade English class, when teacher John Long surprised us all with a pop quiz on To Kill a Mockingbird that tested our knowledge of seemingly ridiculous details in the book.

His purpose, it turned out, was not to prime us for winning trivia contests but to show us how important it was to read carefully and closely instead of gobbling up pages and racing the clock.

The spoiling, of course, also included excellent meals, walks in the woods, beautiful views, lively conversations, and time to just read and write.

To top it all off, my roommate and I discovered we shared all sorts of connections; not only did we live in Hoboken, New Jersey, during the same span of time in the 1980s, but also one of her oldest friends turned out to be one of my former work colleagues.

The retreat was followed a few weeks later by PubCamp, hosted by, an online marketplace for writers in search of editors, book designers, and marketing assistance. This event took place in Seattle in the lovely Center for Urban Horticulture, where the plants were edged with crystalline rime at the start of a very cold day.

The morning got rolling with an introduction by Shawn Welch, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, followed by advice from a social media expert, Peggy Fitzpatrick, and CEO Kelsye Nelson. After that, I had the luxurious choice of presentations divided into four blocks of three sessions each.

I opted to hear Peter Rowan (Coinstar) discuss "The Business of Self-Publishing."  Next up was Waverly Fitzgerald (author of Slow Time, Dial C for Chihuahua, and more). Ms. Fitzgerald focused on the considerations one should keep in mind when thinking about self-publishing or going the more traditional route with a publishing house; paramount among these considerations were how to best locate and connect with your readers.

After lunch, I attended a "self-editor's toolkit" workshop presented by author Wendy Call, which provided a nice summary of levels of editing, and rounded out the day with a lovely, humorous presentation about memoir writing by author Theo Nestor (How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed and Writing Is My Drink).

Peek-a-Who Owl from "Peek-a-Who" by Nina Laden watches readers
peruse books at the Ballard Writers Collective "Writer Next Door" event.
As if this weren't enough, the month also included an evening at the Sunset Hill Community Center called The Writer Next Door, hosted by the Ballard Writers Collective (authors' panel! refreshments! books! readings! raffle prizes, of which I won one!).

Not long after, I enjoyed an SCBWI informal gathering on a chilly Sunday night at a Bainbridge Island pub called the Harbour Public House, a cozy restaurant tucked inside a house built in 1881.

I feel as if I need another retreat and evening at a pub to process it all. In the meantime, here are a few quotations and observations I jotted down during these events. I'm amazed I can read my scrawled notes, actually. So, see? I did do some writing outside of my freelance work this month after all. It was all part of NaJoDoMo (National Jotting and Doodling Month).

When writing for children:
"Honor the small things in a big world that matter to kids."--Linda Urban

On "show, don't tell":
"There's a terrible thing going around: 'show, don't tell.' Don't you believe it!"--Patricia Lee Gauch

(Ms. Gauch went on to explain what she meant, so she was certainly not advocating dull writing. I wish I could summarize what she so eloquently expressed, but basically she used Olive Kitteridge to show how showing related to introspection. Showing could also help you "navigate the contours of your character's life." I believe this topic was linked to another of my cryptic notes about the author writing as though on a dolly used for filmmaking, to move in and out of a scene. Ms. Gauch also stressed, "Don't report it; let it live.")

"Of course, use adverbs when you want them! Give me a break! [Banning adverbs]'s the dumbest thing." --Patricia Lee Gauch

Attitude is like "a fine rain casting a mist over the whole story."--Patricia Lee Gauch

A quip on being realistic:
"If you want to make a lot of money, publishing probably isn't the right business for you!"--Waverly Fitzgerald

Serial commas or not?
"You know, there are comma people!" --Wendy Call

On submitting your memoir:
"Yes, it's been done before. Here's how mine's different." --Theo Nestor

On the universality of your story:
"A book about you that is also about others makes your want real; they [readers] will want it for you." --Theo Nestor

Monday, November 18, 2013

As the Crow Flies

I am exhausted at the mere thought of writing about crows despite the fascination they hold for me. These intelligent, intriguing birds have been so thoroughly and splendidly covered in recent years, online and in books, by authors and scientists that I think the best thing to do is simply refer people to these sources and just add my own poor anecdotes and images to the growing body of literature and imagery.

It's almost impossible not to notice crows in late summer, autumn, and winter in our area: They appear as an endless frieze of silhouettes streaming across the sky at sunset to communal rookeries, where they settle in for the night while making a huge ruckus.

In Seattle, the crows flew east over our house in the evening en route to a rookery on Foster Island in the botanical gardens near the University of Washington. Here in the Woodinville area, more than 10,000 crows flock at the UW's Bothell campus. Clearly these are brainy birds if they feel most at home in the vicinity of institutions of higher learning. (Video here.)

I've noticed that crows in Seattle are much less suspicious of humans than crows here in rural King County. In Seattle my dog and I could stroll within five feet of a foraging crow and it would merely pause in its poking at the ground to keep an eye on us.

Crows in Cottage Lake, however, fly off when we're still 20 feet or so away. With fewer people per block, and even fewer walking on local streets, I guess the crows haven't had as many encounters with people as city crows. (It's not farm country, so it's not that they've learned to associate humans with gunshot.)

Just about everybody has a crow anecdote. My first one involved attempting to rescue a blue-eyed baby crow fledgling who was sitting in the road right under my friend C.'s car tire, gazing up at us trustingly as we tried to shoo him to safety while his parents screamed overhead. I finally had to scoop up the little guy to deposit him on the sidewalk.

My thank-you consisted of being dive-bombed by the furious pair of crows and having my head pecked and my hair pulled. Plus they yelled and cawed at me every time I returned to that spot, which I had to do just about every day since it was outside my kid's elementary school. (Crows have been shown to have keen facial recognition skills.)

Another story involves coming home to find about 75 crows perched on the roof of our Seattle house and in the branches of our trees, all hollering their heads off. Unfortunately, I eagerly shot pictures of the bald eagle sitting on a telephone pole across the street calmly eating a pigeon (the focus of the crows' fury) instead of the crows. Looking back, I think the mass of crows would've been a far better picture.

Just a scant few of the crows harassing the bald eagle.
Crows also enjoyed sipping water out of the gutters of our home and prying up wads of moss on the roof to eat the dainties hiding beneath it. They also discovered that the weephole in our curb, which channeled a rivulet from an underground stream into the street, was a great place to dip food items to soften them and congregated there regularly.

Crows are always on the lookout for easy pickings, and city crows learned long ago that local playgrounds are full of untidy children and untended picnics. When the Resident Teen was small, she stood aghast in the playground near the Woodland Park Zoo, watching as a crow grabbed our paper bag containing a bagel and flew off with it. Bagels are heavy, however, so I became the lunchtime hero by chasing the crow, which dropped the bag so it could gain elevation and escape.

This one seized upon some unguarded pizza at the playground
during an elementary-school picnic a few years ago.
Crows nested in our old neighborhood, and when their babies fledged and spent a few days shuffling around on the ground as they learned to fly, the parent birds would attack us in our garden. We learned to go outside holding a broom above our heads, not to swat the protective mom and dad but just to keep them at bay. Everybody was much happier when the youngsters learned to fly. Then they'd sit on the power lines, where the young birds would wail pathetically for food and generally torment their parents.

Junior is the blue-eyed bird on the right
with the gaping, insatiable red maw.
My most recent crow encounter was a bird who defied my earlier statement that Cottage Lake crows are more wary than Seattle crows (exception proves the rule, and all that). This one landed on the handle of my grocery cart when I returned to my car with my purchases.

"What did you get? Anything for me?"
Then he jumped into the back of the station wagon when I opened the hatchback to load it. He pecked up some spilled grain and then proceeded to try and open the grocery bags, at which point I shooed him out. He sat on the hood waiting for me to come back after returning my cart. Once I was in the car, he hopped on to the side mirror to pierce me with a gaze and see if he couldn't stare me into giving him some handouts.

We've had lots of lovely birds visit our new garden, but so far crows have only dropped in once. I hope they'll be paying us some more visits because I find them endlessly entertaining.

Crows bravely whooping it up at Woodland Park Zoo,
pilfering pumpkin right from under the noses of the grizzly bears
Some great crow books:
Bird Brains by Candace Savage
Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff, Paul Ehrlich, and Tony Angell
Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys by Candace Savage
Mind of the Raven [the crow's cousin] by Bernd Heinrich

Some cool crow videos:
National Geographic "Clever Crows" 2-minute film
Nature's "A Murder of Crows"
Crow fashions hook out of hairpin to get food from a tube

Crow winkling critters out of shells, Carkeek Park

Friday, November 8, 2013

Horses: Ridiculous Creatures, Really

"Ha, ha," says Avi.
Noble, beautiful, proud, powerful...yes, the horse can be all of these things.

"Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?" the King James Bible asks.

"When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it," declaims the Dauphin of France in Shakespeare's Henry V.

But horses can also be awkward and just plain silly.

Granted, most of this ridiculousness is sort of inflicted on them, because we give them stalls to live in and make them wear funny things.

Still. Big teeth, bugging-out eyes, and a lack of self-consciousness do help set the stage.

Photographic evidence herewith.

Horses sometimes wear silly hats.
(This is actually a cribbing collar, to stop the horse from
grabbing a fence with its teeth, arching its neck,
then sucking in and swallowing big gulps of air--

an odd habit of some horses.)
"No, really. I'm a bunny."
(Actually, a practical bit of headgear:
it's a fly mask that keeps pesky
insects out of its ears and eyes.)
"My best friend is a sheep."

"Truth to tell, it's not a ba-a-a-a-d job at all."
Here's Avi, totally stylin' in some hip
mod duds. Woo hoo!
Let's make sure we get a closeup of that groovy pattern!
This fellow's discovered that you can
make a really glorious racket by running
your teeth up and down the metal bars
of a stall. 

Rapunzel, equine-style.
"Aww. Horses are so cute and pretty!"

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Woolly Logic, Caterpillar Division

We found this guy on a path in Marymoor Park, Redmond, WA.
Just in time for Halloween, here's a caterpillar that dresses up as a tiger but is known as a woolly bear.

Woolly bears are found throughout North America, except in the most northern latitudes. They're one of the most familiar and well-liked caterpillars; it was fondly called a woolly bear even back in Colonial times. (Southerners, however, call them "woolly worms.") Thanks to its fuzz, this larva enjoys an affection not granted to its bare green and brown cousins.

Part of a woolly bear's appeal must also spring from its dogged caterpillar-on-a-mission behavior. Woolly bears catch our eye in autumn because that's when they trundle across sidewalks, paths, and roads, seriously boring ahead as if bearing important messages that must be delivered as soon as possible.

This woolly bear's curled-up self-defense certainly
dissuaded me from devouring it.
Nothing distracts a woolly bear from its task.

If you pick it up, it will coil tightly, under the assumption that you are a bird who wants to eat it but will give up once its potential meal turns into an unappetizing burl of bristles.

It will stay curled up until it figures the coast is clear, then will abruptly straighten out and resume its determined trek.

What these busy caterpillars are actually doing is looking for a safe place to hide for the winter. A woolly bear spends the cold months curled up under bark or tucked among rocks or logs. Its entire body shuts down, even its circulatory system. A natural antifreeze permeates its tissues, protecting it from damage in freezing temperatures.

Adult tiger moth, Wikipedia
In spring, the caterpillar emerges from this hibernation to spin a silken cocoon, shedding its bristles and incorporating them into the fabric, too. From this cocoon emerges the "tiger": a golden Isabella Tiger Moth.

The moth quickly finds a mate and lays eggs. In most of its range, this species hatches out into a spring generation of caterpillars that chow down on herbaceous plants (wild species, not garden plants or crops--probably another reason it's so well liked).

The spring generation then pupates, ultimately hatching into a second generation of moths that produces a second batch of caterpillars.

It's these summer caterpillars that chug across paths in fall, grabbing our attention with their cinnamon-and-black-velvet cloaks. They're also responsible for inspiring a charming bit of folklore: the width of a woolly bear's brown band is said to predict the severity of the upcoming winter. A wide band foretells a mild winter, while a narrow band warns of a harsh season ahead.

There's no scientific basis for this belief; studies haven't revealed any correlation between band width and weather. How much brown is on a caterpillar has more to do with its age: older caterpillars have wider brown bands. Caterpillars that feed in regions where fall weather has been damp tend to have narrower brown bands than caterpillars that frolicked in dry regions.

This woolly bear is not a woolly bear.
One of the first attempts at sussing out the relationship between bristles and blizzards took place in the 1940s and 1950s, when an entomologist named C.H. Curran spent some time collecting woolly bears, measuring their bands, and calculating the average.

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Curran was simply larking about while enjoying an excuse to take in the beauty of fall foliage in the Bear Mountain area of New York, knowing his sample sizes were too small to yield useful data. He, his wife, and his friends dubbed themselves "The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear." Apparently his caterpillars boasted relatively broad brown bands in those years, which were marked by winters that were milder than usual, confirming that the folklore was true in many people's estimations.

Of course, nothing (least of all scientific proof) will stop people from believing what they want to believe. Especially when it involves furry caterpillars. In some places it's thought that not only does the degree of brown banding foretell winter weather--the direction of caterpillar travel is a clue, too. A southbound caterpillar is telling you winter will be terrible, while a northbound one believes that winter will be mild. (That would mean peregrinations precisely prognosticate precipitation.)

"I'm heading south. No! North! No...wait..."
Although woolly bears are probably no better than TV meteorologists at predicting the weather, they're apparently aces at balancing their intake of toxic substances to rid themselves of parasites.

 A recent study showed that woolly bears infected with fly larvae (which rudely devour their host as they grow) increase their consumption of alkaloid-containing leaves, which kills off their unwanted guests.

If you just can't get enough of woolly bears, you can find woolly-bear festivals, complete with costume contests, woolly-bear races, and weather predicting, in several towns nationwide, including Vermilion, Ohio; Banner Elk, North Carolina; Beattyville, Kentucky; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; and Oil City, Pennsylvania. Or start your own Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.