Friday, January 31, 2014

The Stupid Things That Scare Horses

The Resident Teen's horse, Avi, is a big, sturdy boy. About 1,100 pounds, 16.2 hands high (66 inches tall at the top of the shoulders), and plenty of muscle. He has big, brave steeds in his ancestry, such as Secretariat and Native Dancer. (This is not a brag. Look in any Thoroughbred's ancestry and you'll find famous racehorses in it. It's called inbreeding. But they're still big, brave steeds.)

He has galloped down the homestretch (once to win, once to lose) in front of loud, surging racetrack crowds.

But like just about any horse, he's wired to react first and think about it later. Which makes sense. If you're a prey animal, and you decide to stop and ponder, "Is that thing I see out of the corner of my eye a panther stalking me, or is it merely a Doritos bag skipping along in the breeze?" it might be the last thing you ever think, if indeed it is a lion. Bingo! You disappear from the gene pool.

Excellent instinct, certainly. Even the fear of a puddle (which might be a bottomless pit) or an expanse of shade (see: bottomless pit) makes sense in the context of survival. (And plenty of humans meet their doom because their sense of survival has been occluded by--take your pick--adolescent sense of immortality, delusions of grandeur, general recklessness, cluelessness, ignorance...fill in the blank. A horse would have good reason to marvel, regarding humans: "Seriously? You went and picked up that rattlesnake on a dare??")

Still. That doesn't mean the list of things that horses spook at isn't legion and absurd. A brief fossicking online yields personal stories of horses that have spooked at a plastic Santa, a mailbox, a butterfly, a baby rabbit, another horse lying down for a nap, a leaf on the ground (as if leaves aren't, like, everywhere), and a nun (OK, as a former Catholic schoolgirl, this I understand).

Which leads us back to Avi, whom the Resident Teen had to lead home one day because the sound of children on a playground gave him the vapors, forcing her to give up on a trail ride that day. A trail that, of course, contains other horrors just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting horse and tear it to shreds, such as the following (info drawn from recent, actually accomplished trail rides; viewer discretion advised):

The Blue Chair (of doom)

The Small Sign (of death)

The Swingset of Terror (and carnage)


The Horrible Hen of Horror

There is truth to the oft-repeated reply to the question, "What do horses spook at?":

Everything that moves, and everything that doesn't.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Of Comfort, Cookies, and Casseroles

The most frightening phone calls tend to come in the dead of night, ripping you out of the cradle of sleep and dropping you on the floor.

The effect is only slightly less jarring when the phone call comes in early evening, because at least you're awake, but there is still the same sensation of life-as-you-know-it falling overboard.

Never mind that, in the end, everything turned out to be fine, and nobody is sick or in hospital, and life went on pretty much as before. For that moment, when you see an unfamiliar number on your phone and answer it and it's your husband and he starts by saying "I'm fine, there is nothing to worry about, but..." and reveals that he went into the emergency room a few hours earlier with chest pains and has to stay overnight for observation, your vision suddenly narrows to a pinpoint and sounds are muffled and the world seems to be contained within a bubble made of the thinnest glass, ready to shatter at the slightest motion.

Most likely the cause of this event was stress ("only" stress), of which there has been an abundance this year. Everybody gets a serving of this time and again in the feast of life.

And that's where the comfort, cookies, and casseroles come in, brought by friends and family who assemble like firefighters in an old movie with a big tarp stretched out between them, ready to catch you when you jump out of the top story of a blazing building.

When my family was gathered at the hospital for several days a few years ago, existing in that strange timeless place one inhabits when a loved one is in the ICU on the threshold of death, friends stepped in, unbidden, to relieve us of all responsibilities for everyday tasks. A friend with a key to our house made sure the dog got let out, walked, and fed. The child was picked up from school, fed, and cared for. The refrigerator seemed to fill up magically with food, with casseroles and other dishes that needed only to be reheated. Mail was collected and milk taken in.

Coming home after each exhausting marathon of anxiety and despair in that time was like starring in a production of "The Tailor of Gloucester," in which the desperately poor and worried tailor, sick and feverish, takes to his bed knowing that he will never be able to finish making a wedding coat for the mayor by morning and will therefore be ruined, only to wake up and find the coat exquisitely completed thanks to the hard work of an army of grateful mice who toiled all night, unseen.

Though this most recent event was short-lived (and hopefully just a wake-up call and not a general alarm), the firefighters that are friends and family immediately began to stir. Siblings called to let me know they were on hand for anything. Two friends appeared in the ER with homemade meals and treats to take home with us so we wouldn't have to worry about a thing. Other friends weighed in on social media and via email with advice, shared experiences, and concern.

The custom of showing up with a casserole may seem sort of quaint and funny to people who are still in the immortal stage of life, but when the going gets rough, it's immensely reassuring to have someone show up with one, even if it's just tuna wiggle. "Food has the power to heal, to comfort, and to convey care and affection," writes chef Joyce Goldstein in her introduction to the cookbook From Our House to Yours, which was published to benefit San Francisco's Meals on Wheels program.

I certainly don't mean to infer that the bringing of food is appreciated only in dark times. Having meals show up when you're taking care of a brand-new baby is a lifesaver, too. (And anybody who wants to bring me food when absolutely nothing of any importance is going on is quite welcome to do so.)

One of my favorite casserole scenes appears in  Lars and the Real Girl. Lars sits in the living room, tensely waiting for news about his beloved Bianca. Women show up with knitting and sewing projects to sit quietly with him. "We brought casseroles," says one. Lars thanks her and wonders aloud if he should be doing something. He's told, "No, dear. You eat." Another chimes in, "We came over to sit." A third woman adds, "That's what people do when tragedy strikes."

Tragedy, however, didn't get us this time, and we went on to have a perfectly lovely weekend, complete with a lazy morning cup of coffee and a sunny-afternoon walk on the Tolt Pipeline trail. With plenty of warm minestrone soup and garlic bread to come home too, and a pot of lentil sausage soup to look forward to (the chocolate chip cookies are already pretty much history).

We've done our share of providing comfort food, too, and life being what it is, will no doubt be on both the giving and receiving end of this tradition many times in the future. As Garrison Keillor says regarding living a good life, "do your part, and bring a hot dish when it's your turn."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This and That and Stuff

A lazy blog post featuring random signs spotted in the past few weeks.

You are not allowed to walk upside down
or defy gravity in this zone.
Quite right. There are, indeed, no children in this basket.
A right-neighborly sort of person
here in Cottage Lake.
I love how astonished even a faceless icon
can appear. A masterful job
on the part of the illustrator!
I might put this on my car even
though I don't have any  reptiles
People rinse their feet in the dog bowl? Why? Why?
(Not that my dog would care.)

Words to the wise.
Noobles are worth their weight in rubles.

Monday, January 6, 2014

First Bird of the Year 2014: The Spotted Towhee

I gingerly drew open the shades on the morning of January 1, 2014, hoping that the First Bird of the Year would be something a little out of the ordinary. So I was very pleased to find that it was one of the birds we commonly see now that we live closer to the countryside--the feisty Spotted Towhee.

This species is an excellent bird in so many ways. For starters, it's just fun to say Spotted Towhee. (Admittedly, it was even more fun to say Rufous-sided Towhee back in the day when this bird was lumped together with its eastern cousin, now known quite boringly as Eastern Towhee. But nobody has asked me to take over the job of Official Namer of Birds, so I'm afraid Eastern Towhee is official.)

Adult Spotted Towhees also have fierce, blood-red eyes. Which are just the perfect touch for their absolutely outraged expressions. They are the original Angry Birds.

All the birds shown in this post were photographed through our back window as they visited our feeders.
The towhee's plumage is yet another big plus. The male is crisply attired in a black coat and hood speckled with white dots over a chestnut vest and white bib. (The female is, as usual in the bird world, more subtly dressed.) He really stands out when winter has turned the landscape tan and gray. He looks like he's been drawn with bold felt-tip markers on a watercolor background.

The word "towhee" is imitative in origin, though you wouldn't know it from listening to this western species; it's the Eastern Towhee who clearly says "toe-hee." Two other names for towhees based on this call note are chewink and jo-ree.

The Eastern Towhee also distinctly warbles "drink your TEA" when he sings in springtime. But others have heard the tune differently. Thoreau rendered it as "hip you, he-he-he-he." Nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton claimed the bird called "chuck-burr" and sang "pil-a-willa-will-awill."

The modern Sibley field guide says the eastern species sings "jink denk teeee" while the western species trills a Russian-looking "chzchzchzchzchz." To the ears of the nineteenth-century naturalist Thomas Nuttall, towhees called "par par" or "pay payay" and sang in a "monotonous and quaint warble."

No self-respecting female towhee would respond to any of these fellows no matter what they sang, so it's good that at least the towhees know what they're saying. Especially since our western Spotted Towhees don't enunciate the way their eastern kinfolk do. Here, the towhee's call is more of a rasping, catlike buzz, the song a truncated, trilled version of the lyric "drink your tea."

Despite all this chatter about chirps, the sound that's most likely to alert you to the presence of a towhee is the rustling of dry leaves as it scratches for food. A towhee typically sticks to low shrubs and the ground as it hunts for seeds, berries, insects, and other tidbits. It turns up hidden food with a quick one-two step in which it hops forward with both feet then immediately hops backward with its toes scraping the ground. The motion is a bit like doing the hokey-pokey while at a salad bar.

The towhee's ground-hugging, leaf-litter lifestyle has earned it names such as turkey sparrow, ground robin, and low-ground Stephen (and if I ever figure out where "low-ground Stephen" could possibly have originated, you will be the first to know).

In the 1920s, ornithologist William Leon Dawson lauded the towhee's lurking ways with some wonderfully purple prose: ""The Spotted Towhee bulks large in the economy of the underworld. He is, in fact, its acknowledged prince; not of course in the Mephistophelian sense, but as the undoubted aristocrat among those humble folk who skulk under dark ferns, thread marvelous mazes of interlacing sticks and stalks, sort over the leafy wastage of the careless trees, and understand the foundations of things generally."

The Spotted Towhees who visit our feeders don't appear to have read a single word of Dawson's tome, nor do they stick to the script of field guides. They boldly gobble up sunflower seeds in the wide-open spaces under the feeder, where seeds fall as the untidy house finches rummage and squabble. They peck and scratch beneath the suet feeder, too. But they also readily land on the feeders themselves, clutching the wire frames with their reptilian feet and flapping as needed to maintain their balance as they eat.

If they see you watching them, they don't scamper off to hide shyly in the undergrowth--they glare back with those glowing red eyes, looking as if they're seething with incomparable rage.

I can't find any folklore or proverbs associated with these birds, so I'll have to figure out for myself what seeing them augurs for the new year. Maybe it's "don't believe everything you read." Or maybe it's "don't always skulk out of sight--be bold and step into the limelight!"

Or maybe it's just "drink your tea."