Along Came a Spider and Sat Down beside Her

cobweb-morgentau-dew-dewdrop-53367From nursery rhymes to Emily Dickinson’s poem, The Spider Holds a Silver Ball, these eight-legged, silk-producing arachnids ignite wonder for the curious-minded and, in Charlotte’s case, bestow wisdom that stretches far beyond the barnyard. And why not? Their ability to spin glorious webs that catch droplets of morning dew make romantics swoon. But as Little Miss Muffet reminds us, they are also to be feared.
I’ve been a gardener my whole life. I blame it on genetics. My people were Irish and Bohemian farmers. Hearty Northern folk who held the seasons in their bones. I grew up in the 70’s in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where lawn care bordered on religious doctrine and dads fired up the grill in the backyard on Saturday night. In our backyard we had a garden that rivaled those found on hippie communes. It never occurred to me that we were the only family in the neighborhood who spent the summer planting, harvesting, canning, and pickling. My sisters and I were too busy weeding to notice most people just went to the grocery store. I was a scrawny kid who froze most of the year. If for no other reason, I loved working in the garden because it provided plenty of warm sunshine. My mom had a shelf in the bathroom of salves, sprays, and repellents for the bug bites and scratches. If I complained to her about spiders or any other creepy-crawlies, I don’t remember. That all changed after I was bit by a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite while living in Honduras.
I was sick with malaria for five years. What I didn’t realize at the time was that few US doctors have the training or knowledge to address the long-term effects. When the last fever passed eighteen years ago, I thanked God I had survived. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long list of health anomalies I would encounter over the years.
Our orchard and garden demand our full attention right now. Along with the work, comes a host of insects that can do me in. Whether it’s the seemingly benign grass spider that builds its funnel-looking web among the squash leaves or the banded garden spider whose ladder-like web stretches along the tops of tomato plants, I know that as soon as I enter their domain, I’m fair game. No matter how careful I am, spiders seem to be attracted to whatever it is malaria left behind in my blood.
We finally planted our garden last Friday. It was a terribly windy day. Both Ron and I were exhausted by the time we finished. After a hot shower and some lunch, I was still tired and took a nap. I woke three hours later disoriented and experiencing muscle pain and chills. I immediately checked my body for bites. Sure enough, I counted three. I couldn’t focus my thoughts to make dinner and over the next twenty-four hours, things went from bad to worse. A red ring formed around one bite (perhaps the sign of either a tick carrying Lyme’s disease or a brown recluse) and thoughts of worthlessness consumed me.
Two days later, as I started to come out of it, Ron and I went for a walk through the desert where I was bitten again. Beyond the pain and exhaustion, my greatest fear is that the confusion will stick with me. I wonder if in a week, a month, or a year from now, I will pick up a book or sit down to write, and all I will see are individual words on a page that my brain can no longer link into sentences and paragraphs. I’m terrified I will lose the ability to make sense of the world through stories and my thoughts.
I woke up today feeling much better. My Little Miss Muffet fear of spiders has receded some as I sit here thrilled that I am able to write this. The seeds we planted last week are poking through the soil. Nature waits for no one, and I have work to do.

Hoot Hoot

animals-birds-owl-fauna.jpgFor thirty-seven days a Great Horned Owl sat on her eggs in a nest twenty feet up in a pine tree outside our front door without doing much more than twitching her ears. During that time, Ron and I got haircuts, joined friends for a fish fry, and spent time with our granddaughter. We planted seeds for our garden, trimmed fruit trees, and Ron harvested three gallons of honey from our bee hives. I hosted the Cochise Creative Writing Celebration, edited the Mirage Literary and Arts Magazine, and presented a writing workshop for the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers & Photographers. I learned a little something about birding, attended my first bull sale, and read two novels. In short, our lives consisted of much more than twitching our ears.

The owl came to live with us back in October and perched for months in a pine tree on the west side of the house. At night she graced us with her hoot-hoot. In February, we noticed a male owl and in no time a love connection was made. Once she took to the nest, we included checking on her in the morning when we took the dogs for a walk and again in the evening. I could hardly contain myself when, on the thirty-seventh day, we found her sitting up in the nest. My best guess was the eggs had hatched. Four days later my suspicions were confirmed when a downy, white head with enormous eyes peeked out from the nest and wobbled in the wind.

From what Ron and I can tell, there are three owlets. I’ve been doing a great deal of reading and it seems even though the male and female mate for life, Great Horned Owls lack in parenting skills. Because they are opportunists rather than nest builders, they often make bad decisions when shopping for real estate; often times selecting a nest that is flimsy or too small. Luckily this couple commandeered a vacated raven’s nest. It’s a catawampus mess of sticks, but I’d trust it in a hurricane. Even so, I worry about the baby owls. If the parents are bad, the owlets are god-awful. Some will bat their wings until the nest falls apart, others try to fly the coop long before they’re ready, and sibling rivalry can send a brother or sister tumbling to the ground. I worry at least one of these little guys won’t make it long enough to fly out of here.

That’s the owls’ side of the story. Inside the house we have four cats and a ten pound Corgi-Chihuahua mix named Peaches. The voracious appetite of a parliament of owls leaves little to the imagination should my cats get out. I keep the dog on a leash for our walks with a vigilant eye to the sky. Several times a day I shout out, “Where’s Peaches!” or “Count the cats!” The anxiety wears on me as I make my way through the house checking doors and windows.

Now that I’m noticing the amazing birds migrating through the pine trees and orchard, I’m reminded of my house in Arizona where our cats spent the mornings outside while I gardened. To show their appreciation, they often brought me lizards and pretty, little dead birds. The karmic implications are not lost on me. This is the cycle of life, I tell myself when I can’t find one of the cats or Peaches darts out the front door unaware of the hunters perched above her head.

Black-headed GrosbeakToday a Black-headed Grosbeak is holding our bird feeder hostage as the poor House Finches plead for seeds. I have spent most of my life unaware of how insanely active and cut-throat the natural world is. I’ve been too preoccupied to notice things like the owl-cat-songbird cycle-of-life. I’m too busy with meetings, appointments, and obligations to notice the grosbeak bully on the block. This morning an owlet spread its wings. The birds are twice the size they were when we first saw them a week ago. Moments like this give me pause. Life goes on whether we pay attention or not.

 

Stormy Weather

barn owlIt is not late snow or heavy rains that send us indoors dreaming of better weather to sooth our aching souls after months of cold and darkness. Here, in Animas, it is the wind. March comes, and we pray this spring will be different. It never is.
I have sacrificed scarves, hats, dog dishes, even food (Cheetos mostly) to the wind gods, and still they laugh, sending stronger gusts our way. A stretch of I-10 is often closed this time of year because of dust storms. The birds and rabbits hunker down for days. We pray the roof will hold. It’s that kind of wind.
I was out of town last weekend when Ron called to say he’d found the barn owl that lives in our pine trees, injured on the floor of the garage. Ron surmised because of remarkably strong winds, the bird was caught off guard and may have slammed into a tree. Soon a photo came, via text, of this once majestic bird laying with its wing at a peculiar angel on our doggie bed.
Ron and I both made calls and by ten that morning, we’d found someone who could help. While I went about my business in town, Ron wrestled with a logistical nightmare to get the owl to a wildlife rehabilitation hospital.
The recent weather reports coming from New Hampshire and Louisiana sound like something out of a postapocalyptic thriller. Before cable television, weather events like we’re seeing now were big news. Families huddled around the TV in the living room, where they watched stories that rocked the nation on the CBS, ABC, or NBC evening news. Parents shook their heads at climate anomalies. “It wasn’t like this when we were growing up.” People talked about the aftermath of such storms in a collective frenzy at offices, schools, and factories. There was a sense of community in the shared experiences we gleaned from the news. The nation would have grieved for the people who lost their lives in Louisiana; the family who lost their house when a tree toppled in New Hampshire. “Terrible,” we would have said while waiting to use the copy machine. “Just terrible.” “Let us bow our heads in prayer,” our spiritual leaders would have asked of us.
It isn’t like that now. There are too many bells and whistles vying for our attention. We are all kids in a global candy store. Our barn owl nearly lost its life in a crazy wind storm. Like us, it was caught off guard by changes in the weather; by the changing times.

Wolf

dreamstime_xxl_85209538 (1)
The 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest north of Silver City on the border of New Mexico and Arizona is a hiker’s paradise. Ron and I flew friends up there for the day to scout for elk. Shadowed by tall pine trees, patches of snow, and cool temperatures, the forest was a welcome change from the desert heat. It was morning; the dew had melted making it easy to recognize tracks and scat.
Ron headed off down a ridge in search of elk while our friends, Nancy and James Brady from Anchorage, and I wandered through the woods armed with binoculars and cameras in hopes of capturing moments of wildlife. James took the lead while Nancy and I chatted quietly; all of us stopping occasionally to locate the source of a bird’s whistle or to ponder animal tracks left in the damp ground.
On our slow, meandering hike, we saw wild turkey and a dozen elk. A curious kit fox climbed high onto a branch of a pine tree to observe us. The trail we’d started out on dissolved as we pushed on. Midday, the sun found its way through the trees and warmed our backs. Being avid hikers, it was unusual to roam freely without a destination or deadline in mind.
To the west, we met with a ridge, where at the bottom, the sandy clearing of a seasonal riverbed was shrouded by trees and brush. We were about to turn around when James noticed a Mexican gray wolf  some thirty yards away. In silence and awe, we watched as the wolf combed the area with its head down picking up the scent of its surroundings. Its thick, long coat blended in with the landscape, making it difficult to spot as it paced the riverbed. Being upwind, the wolf didn’t sense our presence. James slowly raised his binoculars. Later, he would tell us the animal had a reddish collar that Nancy and I were unable to see with the naked eye. Like us, the wolf moved with confidence and ease. Then it was gone. We remained still for several moments, while our primal inner workings aimed to make sense of the experience.
My days are filled with school work. In between grading papers and answering emails, I keep our daily lives on track. And when there is time, I write. It’s the life most of us live—rushing to finish one task to make room for the next. But, for an instant, I lived in the present when, on a perfect day in the wilderness, a wolf crossed my path reminding me I only have now.  airplane
Wolf photo courtesy of dreamstime.com

Saying Goodbye

 

kipper-2Last summer my mom and I took a road trip to Houston to attend my niece’s high school graduation. With all the activity in the house, a few scuffles broke out between the family’s American Staffordshire Terrier puppy, Eli, and their nine-year-old Poodle mix, Kipper. By the end of the weekend, we agreed it would be best for the dogs if my mom and I took Kipper back with us.
Kipper was a runner, but in the suburbs of Houston, he was confined to the backyard. On his first morning at the ranch, I hesitated to let him off the leash. At thirty pounds, he was no match for coyotes, bobcats, javelina, or rattlesnakes. But this was a dog who needed to run free. With his remarkable human-like eyes he pleaded with me to let him go. Before I did, I kissed his muzzle. He’s in God’s hands, I thought.
That first morning he was gone over an hour. I heard yips and yaps coming from the desert and feared the worst, but he eventually came home. After having his treat, he sprawled out on the living room floor, where his legs twitched as he chased critters in his dreams. He’d been a naughty boy in Houston— peeing in the house, running away, sneaking into rooms where he didn’t belong. After that first run, his behavioral problems disappeared.
Each morning Ron and I walked the airstrip with Kipper and our other four dogs. Kipper would vanish into the creosote and tall grass then pop out only to dash off into the brush on the other side of the runway. Most days, after the rest of us returned home from our walk, Kipper would continue on his adventures. I worried about him being out there hunting and chasing on his own. If he was gone too long, I’d get in my truck to go look for him. Sometimes he’d show up carrying a rabbit or a sun-bleached bone from a deer or cow in his mouth.
Kipper’s eyes danced with newfound freedom. Ron and I dubbed him The Happiest Dog in the World.  He did not adhere to the rules of dog obedience, instead he had his own way of doing things and seemed grateful we were willing to go along with his antics, which earned him his nick-name, Ding-a-Ling.
In the past I’ve fostered dogs for rescue organizations, volunteered at vaccination clinics, worked as a behavioral trainer, and sat on the board for the Santa Cruz Humane Society. In short, I thought I knew dogs, but Kipper changed all that. I learned Poodles are not little French fufu dogs made for our laps. Instead, they are skilled hunters and water dogs adapted with webbed feet. The rabbits he brought home were no accident. They were trophies he presented to me. Next to Border Collies, the Poodle is ranked the second most intelligent breed. Kipper wasn’t naughty, he just didn’t have the words to express his disappointment at being confined as a house pet.
With tractors, trailers, trucks, and livestock, a ranch can be a precarious place and accidents happen. Kipper was hit by a truck nearly a month ago, and we are still grieving. Our other dogs are wonderful, well-behaved animals. They wouldn’t think of running off or stealing a sandwich from the counter when I wasn’t looking. I miss the infectious energy Kipper brought to this otherwise quiet place.
We buried Kipper at the end of the runway surrounded by creosote and scrub brush. On our morning walks I still find myself waiting for The Happiest Dog in the World to cross my path before disappearing into the desert.