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The Souls of Trees

>> Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My best friend's father once confided to me that trees were his first friends.  I understand completely, for they were certainly among my first friends, too.

My love for trees started when I was a kid.  My parents had this great maple tree out front that was perfect for climbing.  It had plenty of branches that were low enough to scramble onto, and plenty of branches in general.  I spent many, many hours of my childhood in the branches of that tree.  My sister and I used to climb up it and hold perfectly still so we could eavesdrop on the conversations of the people who were walking laps around the block.  Or, we'd go up it with some small stuffed animals and bonnets from some of our baby dolls, and we'd tie the strings of the bonnets around the branches and make swings for the stuffed animals.  We played countless games up that tree.

As I got older and my sister outgrew tree climbing, the tree became my refuge.  I loved to sit quietly in it and just feel the rustle of the leaves and the quivers of the branches in the breeze.  Its strength and beauty were soothing.

I never did outgrow climbing trees.

Saturday, my husband and I drove over to my Dad's house to do a little tree doctoring.  That sweet old maple is still there, although considerably thicker and more gnarly than it used to be.  It's doing fairly well, considering all the bark that squirrels have stripped off it over the years.  It had an old dead snag that needed to be cut down before it fell and took out a power line, and since my husband and I are more of tree-climbing years than my Dad, we volunteered for the project.  It took but a quick scramble up, some rope, and a couple of cuts with Dad's chain saw, and the old branch came down without any problem.

It was a pleasure to be back in my tree again.  It always is.  I think my husband's affection for that tree is nearly as great as my own, now.  I still climb it whenever I get the chance, and my husband being who he is, always scrambles right up after me.

Thinking about my love of trees makes me remember my experiences in the UK.  When I was in college, I had the luxury of spending 6 weeks backpacking in Ireland and Scotland during a break between terms at Oxford.

I spent the first three of those weeks in Ireland, exploring old ruins and castles, rambling through fields with irritable bulls in them, and enjoying Irish music in the pubs in the evening.

I loved Ireland, with all its majestic beauty and stone ruins, ancient history and warm friendly people.  Yet when I took the ferry from Northern Ireland and landed in southern Scotland, I found myself noticing that I somehow felt relieved.  It took me nearly 24 hours to realize it was because of trees.  There were so few trees in Ireland that, without realizing it, I had begun to feel lonely without them.

I spend lots of time in the woods, including plenty of time in a tent.  Especially at dusk, but at other times too, I am conscious of the presence of the trees - such massive beings.  How much they've seen!  Some of the oldest that I encounter have experienced many more years than I have.  I confess to talking to trees on occasion, too.

I know my best friend's father and I are not the only ones who feels so strongly about trees.  There are so many myths and legends about trees - from stories about women turning into trees, to the Ents in the Lord of the Rings series - that it's clear trees hold magic for many.

One of my all-time favorite children's books a dear friend bought me when I was in college.  It's called The Voice of the Wood, and is about a craftsman who made musical instruments.  He had a favorite tree that he loved, and when it died, he made a cello out of its wood.  The cello was magical, and eventually taught the most talented cellist in Venice humility.  The illustrations themselves are magical, and the tree a powerful presence in the story.  It's a fairly safe bet that I'll like any tale that features a tree as a major character.

As for me, I'm certain I shall both talk to and climb trees for many years to come.


Trouble with Tribbles

>> Monday, May 24, 2010

My husband has a problem.  It has to do with fluffy tiger tuxedo cats.

The first time around, it was Maxfield (a.k.a. "Smacky").  We were happy at the time with our one-cat-one-dog household, particularly because we were living in a rented 700 square foot townhouse with a lease that prohibited us from getting any more pets.

My husband, unbeknownst to me, became fixated on a cute fluffy little stray with a lot of attitude that had been wandering the neighborhood.  One morning he woke me up with a cup of coffee as a bribe, and said, "You know that little fluffy tiger cat that's been hanging around?"  I replied, "Yeeees..."  He responded, "I, um, let him in.  He's in the downstairs bathroom."

And we had acquired Maxfield.

I admit his little fuzzy lion face peering in the back door must have been hard to resist.  He was cute as a button, and insistent on coming in.  But poor Max had had a hard life before he found us.  We suspect he'd been abused, as he was terribly afraid of quick movements of any kind, particularly if you had anything in your hand.  He was also terrified - and I mean unbelievably terrified - of dogs.  And, unlike some cats who get skittish and shy when afraid, Max was an attack cat.  He acquired the nickname "Smacky" because he smacked everyone.  A lot.

Max spent the first 6 months with us living by himself in the spare bedroom.  If he was left on his own in there he was fine - affectionate and calm.  As soon as we left the door open and gave him the ability to roam the house, he'd get panicky and aggressive.

It took months of patience, and a whole lot of scars for all of us before Smacky settled into our household.  He did, finally, although he never trusted our dog Clancy, who was such a sweet soul that he just learned to avert his nose and never make eye contact with the fuzzy devil cat.

Crazily enough, I loved that cat.  Sometimes the more work a pet takes, the more I wind up loving them in the end.

A little love nibble:

Unfortunately Smacky had a too-short life.  We had him for perhaps 2 years when he developed repeated urinary blockages, and there was nothing we could do to make them stop.  We tried everything, including changes in food and even surgery to essentially turn the little guy into a girl so that the crystals wouldn't block his ureter.  It didn't work.  Within weeks scar tissue had occluded the opening again, and we had to put him to sleep.  Poor Smacky.  I still miss him.

Sooooo, my husband has done it again.  Fluffy, tiger, and tuxedo.  This time, it's Pippin.

You remember this little fellow?

He's been hanging about for the last few months.  We believe he's the offspring of two of the local feral cats: his papa is a ballsy little cat we call King Friday, and his mama is our sort-of cat Rocky's sister.  (We do our best to look out for Rocky, but he's a wild thing.  We've never been able to capture him even to get him neutered.  He continues to roam the neighborhood lookin' for love, and drops by only on occasion.  I still have hopes of snagging him and getting him snipped, but recognize it's a bit of a long shot.  He was too old and too wild when we tried to befriend him, and he remains extremely skittish with only very sporadic visits.)

My husband cannot resist this little kitten he's dubbed Pippin.  Is it the tiger or the tuxedo or the combination of the two?  My spouse, the same spouse who complains that I have a bad habit of acquiring cats, has been spending great amounts of time and energy coaxing the little fellow toward the house, getting him comfortable with petting.

In personality, he's frightfully like Max.  He's got the same kind of incredibly brave, not-intimidated-by-anything attitude, although thankfully no one has ever been mean to Pippin and he's exhibited no aggression of any kind.  He's feisty, stands his grounds with my spastic dogs, and isn't afraid of Tucker.

He spends much of his time flirting with my girl kitties through the window screens.  While Sneakers wants nothing to do with him and hisses at him, Wednesday, who is spayed, purrs and yowls like she's in heat when she sees Pippin.  Methinks she has a crush on the handsome devil.  She's been spending all her time trying to escape the house so she can roll around with him in the dirt under the neighbor's porch.

Although a couple of months ago Pippin was a wildly skittish kitten, he now comes when he's called and follows my husband around like a little shadow.  Amazing what can happen when you catch feral cats young enough.

Saturday morning, I caved.  After watching my husband scoop the little guy up and nuzzle him while Pippin blissfully rubbed his jowls against my husband's scruffy chin and purred like he was going to vibrate into pieces, I resigned myself to the fact that we have a new cat.  I fed the scrawny thing a good meal, and we called our vet and scheduled his first checkup, his first shots, and his neutering.  He made his first foray into the house this afternoon.

Good God, that makes 4 cats, plus our two awful Basset hounds.

My closest friend in law school was this wonderful woman who, along with her husband, had 2 dogs and 6 cats, all rescues.  My husband and I used to chuckle and shake our heads about how crazy they were for having so many pets.

Okay, universe or karma or whatever you're called, I cry Uncle!  I apologize for laughing at that wonderful couple.  You can stop sending us pets who need homes now.  No, really, you can.  I get the point!


All Creatures Great and Small

>> Saturday, May 22, 2010

It's been another Saturday for doing stuff around the house and garden.  No grand adventures to report, but plenty of creatures have livened up the day.

We started off the morning with a new friend hopping through the lawn:

Just look at that little frowny face!  And that little bowlegged squat!  How can anyone be in a bad mood while looking at a dense, hoppy, frowny, bumpy little toad?

I don't know how long he'll last, as anything that moves is a target for the cats, both my own and the local strays.  My Tucker took a long hard look at the fellow, and then pointedly ignored him, but I suspect he'd stoop so low as to chase a toad if he was in a frolicksome mood.

We plunked this guy (or gal) into the garden near the toad abode anyway, in hopes that s/he'll stay and snack on garden pests.

After going to the Regional Market for fresh eggs and meat, we stopped at a local garden store on our way home.  While looking for a red day lily variety that doesn't get too tall for the front of our house, we nearly stepped on this fine lady:

A nesting killdeer.  Isn't she magnificent?  I really was that close to her, too.  I do have the camera zoomed in all the way for this shot, but didn't crop it.  I was only a few feet from her.  She occasionally fluttered her wings as if we made her nervous, but she never did the broken wing walk that killdeer are famous for.  I have never been so close to a killdeer before, and had never noticed the amazing red ring around their eyes.  She was sitting on 4 beautiful speckled eggs.

The owners of the place had put a few plant pots around her so no one would accidentally step on her eggs, but they confessed that they are worried a cat will get the babies.  Given the oddly unprotected way killdeer build nests on the ground, I bet there are a whole lot of things that readily snack on the young.  How do any ever avoid death by cat, raccoon, blue jay, or any of the many other critters that would happily eat eggs or young?  Amazing that there are any killdeer at all.

The owners said they were vastly relived with her choice of nest location this year, as it's nestled in the gravel behind one of the greenhouses.  Apparently in years past they've had killdeer nest smack in the middle of the gravel driveway where the delivery trucks come in, and have had to put orange cones all around the spot so they wouldn't get driven over.

We had the chance to rescue a damsel in distress from one of the greenhouses, too.  This poor Red Admiral (actually I have no idea if it's male or female - how does one tell?) was frantically beating its wings against the sides of the greenhouse in a desperate bid to escape.  I gently corralled it out the front door, where it promptly landed on a nearby lilac and began to sip nectar.

Then, after dropping off plants at home we took the hounds for a play date.  The place we went to is a house we drive past every day on our commute, and have felt sorry for the poor house because it looked abandoned.  It turns out the owner is now trying to get it ready for sale and is selling the antiques that the house is chock full of.  When we stopped there on Friday to look at an old Morris chair she had out front, we met the owner's lovely Basset hound puppy, Lily.  Ain't she cute?

She's still all floppy in that deliciously uncoordinated puppy way.

Now, I'm no big fan of the Basset hound breed, and have vowed never to get any hound breed again after the nightmare that mine have proved to be with regard to house breaking and general willful, disobedient, irritating stubbornness.  I'm going back to good old SPCA-special, Heintz 57 mutts after these two.  But my hounds do love other Basset hounds, and there's something indescribably appealing about all the wrinkles and droops when you get a bunch of Basset hounds together.

Lily and my Lucy took to each other like a house afire.  There was lots of rollicking and wrestling and chewing and rolling about.  The experience gave me some hope that if, heaven forbid, something were to happen to Simon, we might be able to get Lucy to find a reason to keep living if we got her a puppy.  I just hope any puppy will do, and I won't have to get her another Basset hound...


A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!*

>> Monday, May 17, 2010

Since we'd spent the past few weekends playing, this was mostly a catch up around the house sort of weekend.  The mess was taking over, and I hate the house being in such a state that I'd be embarrassed to have surprise guests.  So, Saturday, I cleaned.  Spouse spent the day avoiding my whirling, sneeze-inducing vacuum and duster and cleaned the barn instead.  Sometimes (rarely) it feels good to be productive, even though I despise wasting a perfectly good weekend day on chores.

The sunshine on Sunday was blissfully lovely, despite a little nip in the air.  I could not spend another day indoors, so spent some time trying to reclaim the perennial gardens from the weeds.  I think, pound for pound, there may have been more weed than plant in the gardens.  They look so happy and neat now with all those strangling, nutrient-stealing weeds gone.

Ah, how I love gardens.  Here are a few glimpses of my garden afternoon.

As usual, I started out with Tucker trying to climb my leg for attention.  Ow, darn it.  He's pointy.  And insistent, the little booger.

The peonies have buds!  Hooray!  I love peonies, and pretty much count down the days until I'll have those big blowsy blossoms in my garden and can cut bouquets for my dining room.

The critters were enjoying them even with just buds.

The lilies (I can't remember the name of the variety) are thriving and multiplying.  I love the patterns of the leaves in the sunlight:

The bleeding hearts are taking over.  I love bleeding hearts in part because they are easy.  These started out as the scraggliest, most pathetic little scraps of plants two years ago.  I "rescued" them from a local garden store because I felt sorry for them.  They are now each probably about 5 feet in diameter, and positively covered in their funky flowers.

The astilbe that we nabbed from my boss's garden last summer was also absolutely pathetic last year - only a few scraggly spiky leaves - and I wasn't sure they'd return at all.  Yet it's doing amazingly well, and is rapidly providing some lovely ground cover.

I don't know why my plants are so happy - they're woefully neglected more often than not.  All the poop from the neighborhood stray cats must be extraordinarily effective fertilizer.  Do you think my adoration provides extra nourishment?

Garden time makes me mellow, especially on sunny days because sunshine makes everything happy.  My husband says I picked the wrong part of the country to live in if I love sunshine so much, but I think the dearth of sunshine is what makes me appreciate it so much.

Wednesday, although stuck inside, made the most of the nice afternoon too.

* Thomas Edward Brown, 1830-1897, "My Garden"



>> Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our chickadee family (round two) seems to be thriving.  While I haven't yet provided them with a cat-safe bird bath, I did at least eliminate the puddles in the tarp over the wood pile that I believe sealed the fate of the last chickadee that tried out my nest box.

Stupid cat.  I still haven't forgiven him for eating my chickadee.

The current pair of chickadees is busy, busy, busy.  They have 7 hungry babies demanding a steady supply of worms.  It's incredible how much louder and more insistent their tiny peeps become each day.

This afternoon I popped open the little window on the nest box and peered in, and was delighted when I made a tiny noise that made all their little heads pop up with beaks wide open.  Awwww.  Really, they're sort of hideous if one looks at them objectively - blind purplish enormous closed eyelids, little damp looking spikes that will hopefully become downy feathers, purply gray naked skin, and big frowny beaks.

Yet when they tip up their heads and open their peeping little beaks in unison they sort of ooze charm.  Unless you're one of their harried parents, of course.  Just contemplating having 7 kids who are that continuously demanding makes me exhausted.

Mom and dad were busy scolding me and hopping about my head in the branches of the apple tree, so I quickly closed the window and retreated a distance.  The parents are so tame they will almost eat out of my hand, or, alternatively, land on my head while I'm filling the feeders.  Why is it that wild birds being so tame is so appealing?  Although they think us humans are okay, they aren't thrilled when I get close to the box.  I cannot blame them a bit.  Since the babies soon will have real feathers I won't be able to peek at them again since I don't want to run the risk of causing them to fledge too soon.

After watching the parents today, I really want to know how they can make that much noise scolding me with beaks chock full of worms?  And how do they find that many worms?


Thank Heavens for Blogs, or Food Allergies in New York City

>> Wednesday, May 12, 2010

This post isn't necessarily consistent with the theme of this blog, but since it's about another blogger and some of the power of blogging, I thought I'd go ahead and post it.

I have a hard time traveling because I have a whole host of food allergies and intolerances.  While one might think that chefs should know what is in the food they prepare and should be used to dealing with food allergies in this day and age, such is not the case.  Most restaurants don't properly train servers to deal with food allergies, either, and there is little worse than having a server who is rude and huffy because I have to ask a lot of questions and s/he needs to do a little extra work to serve me.  Rude servers annoy me especially because I'm a very generous tipper when the server is courteous, just because I know I'm more work than most patrons.  I always try hard to make it easy on the restaurants, too - I call ahead to each of the restaurants, make reservations at non-peak dining times, and warn each ahead of time what my list is. 

However, one thing that's distinctly worse than rude servers is being sick, especially while traveling, and before seeing an opera one has been waiting for years to see.

Therefore, I planned ahead for our New York City trip very carefully.  

In some respects, NYC is a good place for me to eat because it seems more people there at least know what gluten is, and there are even a number of gluten free restaurants and bakeries.  However, I have discovered the hard way that just because a restaurant knows what gluten is, it doesn't mean they know how to handle other food allergies, including my rather long list of dairy, soy, corn, coconut, and a variety of random fruits.

In planning our trip, I stumbled on an outstanding blog written by a woman who refers to herself as Allergic Girl.  She happens to live in NYC, and has reviewed quite a long list of restaurants that are friendly for those with food allergies.  Right now she's my hero.  I relied almost exclusively on her reviews of restaurants, had some outstanding meals, and had a very pleasant time at each of the restaurants.  Three cheers for Allergic Girl, for making my trip to New York a success!

Without Allergic Girl's blog, I don't know that I would have found any of these restaurants, and I certainly wouldn't have felt so comfortable knowing that I'd be okay at them.  Allergic Girl allowed me to focus on the fun parts of visiting New York City, and focus less on what could have been overwhelming challenges.

In case anyone who ever reads this is planning a trip to New York City and needs some food allergy safe restaurant recommendations, here are the highlights:

Friday night we ate at Sambuca at 20 West 72nd, largely because its location was convenient to our hotel and Lincoln Center.  It's an Italian restaurant that serves gluten free pasta and breads and even desserts, and is generally very astute about food allergies.  Better yet, the service was friendly and very good, and the food was fantastic.  I had veal paillard, which is veal scaloppini topped with chopped tomatoes, arugula and basil, and my husband partook of their pasta.  They had gluten-free beer, too, which is an extra plus in my book.  It was such a wonderful experience I shall certainly be returning there.  In fact, I'm looking forward to my next trip to New York in part so I can go back there.

Saturday we had brunch at a place called Brasserie at 100 East 53rd Street.  While it wasn't as exceptional service-wise as Sambuca, they did serve me a good and safe omelet, which at the end of the day is what really counts.

Saturday night we ate at a place called Five Points, at 31 Great Jones Street.  It was crowded and lively, and a pleasant spot after spending the day walking for endless miles.  Like Sambuca, the server was well-educated about the ingredients in the dishes they serve and about food allergies in general, and was generally extremely pleasant.  I had an outstanding Halibut with a spring vegetable ragout, and my husband said his pork was delicious as well.


Finding the Green in the Chaos

>> Monday, May 10, 2010

Saturday was our day to experience New York City in all its glory.  Being a tour guide there is a big responsibility, especially when the person one is showing around has never been there before.  How on Earth was I to cram the New York experience into one day???

Since I am me, we started the day with a stroll through Central Park.  Trust me too go haring off in search of the only significant green and growing space in a sea of city.

I love Central Park.  I think part of my appreciation of it is probably that it is the only green space, and seems all that much more wonderful because it is surrounded by traffic and noise and people and chaos and that particular garbage/sewage stench that occasionally wafts out of the subway grates in every major city.

Part of it, though, is that everyone else loves Central Park, too.  Every time I've been there it's been a happy place, filled with health-conscious runners and bikers, frolicking kids and dogs, and relaxed and happy people relishing the healing of being surrounded by green things.

We wandered about, absorbing the mood.  The selection of wildlife that we spotted wasn't exactly glamorous or surprising:

Although rumor has it one can do some real bird watching in Central Park.  One can also do some great people watching there, trust me.

My husband was particularly enchanted by the little sail boats you can rent and sail on the pond:

Ominously, as we watched the sail boats, the wind started to pick up.  We'd heard the weather forecast, and knew it was going to get gusty as the day wore on.  A big blast swept the pond and flattened all the little sail boats, dipping sails into the water and causing some of the kids sailing them to shriek.  Ah, but that was just the beginning of the wind.

We stopped for brunch, and then walked up to museum mile.  I do love some of the architecture one finds throughout the City, in all sorts of random spots.

By the time we got to the Guggenheim, the wind was whipping so hard we were getting sand blasted.  I had to take out my contact lenses because I couldn't take another bit of grit underneath them.  Thank goodness I had thought to bring glasses as a backup.  It was a great relief to duck inside for a bit.

I love the Guggenheim, partly because the architecture is so amazing, and partly because the art there is always so weird.  This time was no exception.  It left us both wondering how people manage to get art chosen for display in the Guggenheim, and I happen to be an abstract artist myself.  The show that is up at present is nearly all photography (which should be up my alley) but it was just so stinking odd.  It struck me that some of the artists who had work on display were trying too hard to be weird and significant, but clearly I just didn't "get" this exhibit.  Virtually none of it spoke to me.  Oh well.  That's half the fun of the Guggenheim.

After our dose of art, we got blown back down for a little taste of 5th Avenue.  When I asked my husband if he wanted to see Times Square while we were there, he replied, "What on Earth for?  I've seen it on TV."  However, when I asked him if he wanted to go to FAO Schwarz, his face lit right up.  Thus, we went to FAO Schwarz.  After all, this was really his trip to New York.

Spouse with a Lego Wookie:

I was ecstatic to find a whole bunch of Smurf figurines.  I realize I'm dating myself by saying this, but I loved the Smurfs when I was a kid, and can hardly believe anyone still watches them or plays with them.    Rumor has it they've made a comeback in Europe.

A little of 5th Avenue was more than enough, so after only a few stores we hopped the subway downtown to see ground zero, which is always depressing and very weirdly exposed without the towers.  We then got our depressed selves blown to Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty.

Now, I had been planning to take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry so he could see the Statue of Liberty better, but I happen to be a martyr to sea sickness, and anything short of a million dollars was not going to get me on a boat in the harbor with 50 mile an hour winds whipping the waves to a froth.  He had to settle for the view from the shore.

We wrapped up our day with a stroll through Greenwich Village and dinner there.  Spouse loved the Village.  I figured he would go for the crunchy, liberal, more laid back atmosphere, as compared with the more frenetic uptown.

All in all, what did I take away from my day in the City?  Sore feet, of course.  Grit ground into the top few layers of my skin and enough knots in my hair to make make me contemplate - briefly - cutting it off rather than brushing it.  I got a healthy dose of city craziness, some art, some opera, some good food, some great people watching. 

I also took away the realization that I tried to get trees into nearly every picture I took.

You can take the country mouse to the city, but you can't take the country out of the mouse.

No, I will never be a City girl.  I love a little of it on occasion, and in fact crave it once in a while, but would wither and die without my gardens and trees and lawns and fields.  It's good to be home.


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