What Do You Do Down Here?

I am often asked by people who visit the ranch, “What do you do down here?” They look around and wonder how it is we survive. “How far is your closest neighbor?” they ask. “Is there a restaurant around here? What do you do for fun?” Ron and I are generally too busy to give a proper answer to any or all of these questions, but if folks are ready to put on a pair of work gloves and help out, we are happy to share our story.

The truth is I am guilty of asking these same questions when I am driving through small towns or down the Interstate. I wonder where people shop for groceries and what kids do when they are not in school. I think about broader issues like health care, education, and employment. I find myself creating stories about the people who live in these places, and there is a sense of bewilderment in my scenarios. I should know better because the people in these rural towns live like I do. Except I don’t know them. I don’t see them at  Valley Mercantile or at the Fourth of July parade. I don’t attend their school functions or writing groups. I have no history with them. They are strangers so I can make them into whomever I see fit. Instead of admiring the garden in a local park, I may see run down homes and think the whole town is poor. Instead of complimenting the cook on a great meal in a local restaurant, I may gripe about the terrible service. It’s easy to paint a community’s story with broad strokes when you have nothing invested and everyone is a stranger. I don’t want this for you or for my community when you pass through, so I’d like to share what the last month looked like down here along the border:

Animas High School Spring Play. Dinner and a show!

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Animas High School graduation Class of 2019! Twenty-three graduates and over $700,000 in scholarships. Yes, we are all proud of these young adults!

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Two open mic nights. One in Sierra Vista, AZ at Broxton’s Coffee and one in Rodeo,NM at the new Sky Island Grill and Grocery. We have amazing talent in our communities!

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Open mic June 1 , 2019

My dear friend Denise Hoyos and I went up to the Chiricahua Mountains for a little bird watching and got caught in a rainstorm until a nice gentleman took us back to my truck. We had lunch at the Portal Peak Lodge Store and Cafe where a couple from North Carolina helped us identify some of the birds we saw.

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I went up to the annual Cave Creek Garden Party in the Chiricachua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest where I met wonderful neighbors and had a terrific lunch sponsored by Friends of Cave Creek. On my way home, Ron called. Three of his fly buddies flew into the ranch to spend the night. The winds were too strong to fly back to Phoenix. We set them up in my studio, and then we all headed back up to the mountains for dinner at the Portal Lodge and dancing. Entertainment was provided by Al Foul and his band. Al’s from Dudleyville. I’m not even sure that’s on a map!

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And to answer that question about what it is we do down here, well, we do a lot!

Cats in the Cradle

catWe lost our barn cat yesterday. I found her sprawled out on the concrete just a few feet away from the cat door we have out in the barn. It looked like she may have died from a head injury, probably attacked by a coyote. I didn’t know this cat well. Occasionally she would dart through the barn to a proven hiding place when I entered to leave food and water. Last week she came around the house and even got into our back room where she drove our indoor cats crazy with her carrying on. I’d mentioned to my husband, Ron, that she was probably in heat. Our neutered, grey tabby, Fast Eddie, kept us up for three nights, some primal residual egging him on to mate. The sound was low and sorrowful, like he understood what we had done to him; what he’d missed out on.

I’d been out on a walk when I noticed the cat. After putting the dogs up in the house, I grabbed a garbage bag and a pair of gloves. I’ve had to do this kind of thing before: the kitten that was half-eaten by a coyote; birds, lizards, and mice that lost their lives to cats and other predators; the Great Horned Owls that perished atop a faulty electrical transformer; song birds that chased their reflection right into our living room window. Each animal I’ve stumbled upon has caused a catch in my throat.

The barn cat was brown and white. She was young and had six toes on her front feet like my nineteen-year-old house cat, Little Miss Molly. Seeing those paws, I fell to my knees and sobbed. You don’t belong here, Beth, rose from somewhere deep inside me. There is no taming this wild place. I either play by nature’s rules or pack my bags and get out. Last week it snowed, followed by three days of brutal, frigid wind. Today it’s seventy degrees. The trees in our orchard are confused. The plum trees have blossomed in tandem. The peach trees are giving it another go after the buds froze in the last storm. Songbirds are fighting for space on the feeders, and the bees, so heavy with pollen, are buzzing around like they’ve had too much to drink. All this was going on yesterday while I walked back to the house with the barn cat cradled in my arms. I cried when I placed her on a table in the garage where she wouldn’t be disturbed until Ron could bury her. I cried while I poured a glass of wine and got dinner started. I was still crying when I went outside to feed the dogs. By then I had convinced myself I didn’t belong here. That I would be better off in a small house in town where my life would be manageable, a place where I’d have some peace of mind for God’s sake.

Then I looked up from the dog dishes and caught the sun setting behind the Chiricahua Mountains, leaving in its path a crimson sky; a slice of cornflower blue cut through the middle exposing a glimpse of heaven. I wiped my eyes. “Okay,” I said. “For now, I’ll stay.”

Stille Nacht, Silent Night

nativity-painting-1This year I went all in for the Holidays. It began with baking and decorating Christmas cookies with our granddaughter, Ada. She’s four now, old enough to help out. Her excitement and joy were infectious and fueled my desire to see this whole season through to the end. I sent out Christmas cards, made candy, decorated the house (including a tree we brought home from the Gila National Forest), strung lights, and entertained a host of family and friends. It was weeks of preparation that culminated in a wonderful Christmas.

This season has also been a time for reflection on faith and a profound connection with Jesus and Mary. Being Catholic, I followed the Advent schedule of readings from the Old and New Testaments. I attended Mass, and on Christmas Eve was fortunate enough to hear a wonderful homily from a wise priest, a brilliant theologian who is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to the bible. Part of his sermon included a story many of us have heard before.

On Christmas Eve 1914 British lieutenant Charles Brewer stood knee deep in mud in the trenches along the Western Front. It was only months into WWI, but the soldiers were cold and scared. Sometime during the night, Brewer heard a soldier sing Stille Nacht, “Silent Night” in German. The song broke the tension and soon it could be heard above the trenches in English and French. During that night and through Christmas Day sworn enemies met on the battlefield to exchange stories of family and small gifts of rations and cigarettes. It was dubbed the Christmas Truce and news of it spread across the world. Such healing power in something as simple as a song.

I studied theology in college but changed my major to education when I learned there was no money in becoming a theologian. Anyone living on a teacher’s salary can see the irony in my decision. I bring this up because over the Holidays I heard two things I often hear when I mention I’m Catholic or that I studied theology. The first was from someone who said Catholics are not Christians. The second was from a friend who said he doesn’t believe in organized religion. I don’t know where the assumption that Catholics are not Christian originated or why, but the Catholic Church was the first church of Christ’s teachings. Some scholars say Jesus appointed the apostle Peter   as the first pope. While others say the Catholic Church was simply a continuation of Jesus’ teachings. In any case, for those who may be curious, the Catholic faith is based on the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ our Savior.

The latter decree is puzzling to me. If you do not believe in organized religion, then what is it you believe in? And is the word believe really necessary?  Perhaps it is better to say that you do not participate in any religion or that you do not follow religious practices because by definition, all religion is organized. Whether you follow canons of Jewish prophets, Jesus, Mohamad, Buddah, John Smith, or a myriad of Native American teachers, chances are you are indoctrinated into some kind of system that involves rituals, customs, and moral codes that govern your life to some degree and that these doctrines are founded in religious principles.

As a kid I was under the illusion that Catholicism was old-fashioned, boring, and full of nonsense. I met some cool kids in catechism class, and we had a youth pastor that took us on a retreat, but past that, I couldn’t wait to get confirmation over with. I finally left the church for good after I got my first part-time job at KFC citing scheduling conflicts as an excuse.

This new found freedom opened up a whole world to me. I soon forgot about my religious obligations and spiraled headfirst out of control. Drinking, smoking, sneaking out, lying, these things became easy because God was no longer looking over my shoulder. Jesus didn’t seem to mind that I skipped my nightly prayers. In short order, I’d adopted a teenager’s sensibility regarding religion and held fast to it until at twenty-five a decision I made left me broken and desperate. Unsure of my future, I enrolled at Mount Mary University, a women’s Catholic school in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. What I expected to find there at the time, I still have no idea, but I had an inkling that something inside those walls would help me heal. Over the next four years I found my voice and the confidence to move through my grief. I read everything I could get my hands on about faith and our universal need for it. Slowly I shed my teenage rebellion against my Catholic upbringing and began a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A mature relationship that continues to be the foundation of my daily life.

I’m not an evangelist. I don’t own any cute mugs, shirts, or wall art professing my belief in Jesus Christ. But what I do have is my faith. We are living in precarious times of fake news, hate speech, fear, and divisiveness. A time when religion, rather than being the cornerstone that unites us, is the rock being flung to hurt those we perceive as different from us. It’s a lot to think about during the Holidays. And I for one am ready to unplug the lights and box up the ornaments to settle in for a long winter’s nap. But before I do, I want to wish you a Happy New Year. I will be praying for peace. Join me if you would like. It is never too late.

Every Breath You Take

green heartI had a health scare recently while in bed reading. A heavy pressure filled my chest, my arms went numb, and I broke out in a clammy sweat from head to toe. Given where we live, I knew it would be hours before I could make it to a hospital. As I lay contemplating my options, the symptoms disappeared. When it happened again a few days later, this time while on my bike, I was scared and called a friend and local volunteer EMT, Jared Fralie, who suggested a few options. My mom was in Scotland, and I had planned to go feed her cats in Sierra Vista later in the day. Instead of waiting, I took an aspirin and hit the road, promising Ron I would go to the hospital as soon as I got to town. During the two and a half hour drive to Sierra Vista, I felt fine and thought a trip to the emergency room was a bit dramatic. I called my sister Missi who is a paramedic, and a friend who recently had open heart surgery. Both agreed I shouldn’t wait until morning to see a doctor.

It was after dark when I arrived at the emergency room, which is in a busy, rural Trauma III hospital. The staff and medical team were friendly and accommodating, but this isn’t a heart center. As long as I wasn’t dying, there wasn’t much they could tell me. The no-nonsense emergency room doctor admitted me into the hospital citing an irregular EKG as the problem. I spent the night in observation where I was woken often to be poked and prodded. In the morning, I was delighted to have two of my former college students assigned to me, one a nurse, the other a CNA. I also met a young resident who asked a lot of question and then suggested maybe my problems were hormonal or maybe I had low blood sugar, and as he put it, “If you were my mom (Ouch!) I would tell you to eat a piece of candy.” At this point I seized the opportunity to use the ridiculous conversation we were having as a teaching moment. We went through my symptoms again and this time I asked questions. After we finished, he admitted he didn’t know what was wrong with me.

As I remained calm, the less civilized part of me wanted to throttle him. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African-American and white women in the United States. Our symptoms can often be more subtle than that of men. We may complain of indigestion, or a sore back rather than grabbing our chests as though a locomotive has passed through our bodies. And yet, here was this young doctor parroting the long held attitudes and beliefs of his mentors—beliefs that diminish women in the eyes of the medical community. As recent as the 1970’s, I may have been given a diagnosis of hysteria  or melancholy and prescribed Valium. In 2018 I should expect more and was deeply troubled that, as a middle-aged woman, I had been systematically erased by archaic ideals and practices that date back to ancient Egypt.

I stayed in Sierra Vista for nearly two weeks while I gathered information and made numerous phone calls to find a cardiologist. But the real reason I didn’t go home was that I was afraid. I thought, if I have a heart attack at the ranch, I may not survive given the logistics. This is a real concern for people in rural areas. Country living isn’t for the faint of heart (No pun intended.) and statistics prove it. Our urban counterparts have a longer life expectancy and have more physicians and specialists available. Those of us out in the sticks have more occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Given all this fresh air and open space, you would think we would all be happy, but unfortunately that’s not true. Young people in rural areas are twice as likely to commit suicide, and we have a higher drug overdose rate than city folks.

Going home meant I would have to face some troubling realities in our rural community as well, and Jared was kind enough to help paint a picture. Our volunteer ambulance service has five EMTs, some with more skills and training than others. Two of them have full-time jobs and currently, one volunteer is unable to work because of health issues. If I had called 911, Jared estimates it would have taken fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get to our house, given volunteers were nearby and available. Depending on my symptoms, I would have been transported to the hospital in either Silver City or in Deming, both of which are an hour and twenty minutes away. Among Jared’s numerous responsibilities, he also has the authority to decide when to Airvac a patient. After he makes the call, it takes approximately forty minutes before a chopper lands in Animas and then another forty-five minutes for a patient to be airlifted to Tucson or to Las Cruces.

Aware of what it meant to return to the ranch, I needed to know with some certainty I was out of the woods. So before I left Sierra Vista, I went for a hike in the Huachuca Mountains and gave it my all racing up and down rocky trails. In the end, I felt pretty good. Good enough to pack up and head home, yet I still worried. Ron was on an elk hunt, which meant I would be alone for a few days, but I wanted to get back to my normal routine and the dogs were getting antsy after being cooped up in the city. When I got home, I was greeted with another reality as two startled rattlesnakes scared me half to death. After barricading myself and the dogs in the house, I contemplated the heart monitor I was prescribed to wear. Is it worth it living out here, so far from town? I don’t know any more.

The last couple of days have been cold and stormy. Today the sun came out and with it dozens of finches that have flocked to the feeders I filled this morning. They will be with us through the winter trusting that the tall lady wearing flannel will keep them fed. For now they are a good reason to stay here. If they can survive the storm, so can I.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird Requiem

Marty and BethMy Uncle Marty, my dad’s only sibling, passed away this week surrounded by family in his home up in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Ron and I went back a few weeks ago to see him knowing the end was near. Marty was the keeper of our family stories. He had a knack of filling in the missing pieces with the best versions of our ancestors and of ourselves. This meant that sometimes the facts were altered like the broad strokes of a paintbrush hiding the dark colors with something brighter and better for all of us.

Unable to make the funeral, I yearned to be connected, so I picked up where Uncle Marty had left off. One of the last stories he shared was about our family’s history with Abbott Pennings, the founder of Saint Norbert College in DePere, Wisconsin. In Marty’s story, Abbott Pennings was a dear friend of my great-great- grandparents, Louis and Pheilomen (François) Colburn. Sometime in the late 1940’s when Louis was an old man, he donated his house and land to the college. The house was turned into a primate lab. Years later it was torn down, and no one seems to remember exactly where it once stood. Over the years I have collected other snippets of information. We were the distant relatives to Enos Colburn who has a park named after him in Green Bay. My great-grandfather Bearl Colburn was an inventor. My cousin Chad is the spitting image of our fifth great-grandfather, Jean-François d’Amours, Sieur de Courberon born in Kamouraska, Quebec in 1791.Jean Francois d'Amoiurs, Sieur de Courberon Past that I didn’t have a lot of information about my Colburn relatives. I grew up immersed in my mother’s big, fun-loving Irish Catholic clan. The Colburns by comparison were quiet, polite people consisting of my Uncle Marty and Aunt Linda and their two kids, my cousins, Tracy and Chad. My grandparents Bud (Heath) and Evelyn Colburn are long gone. Bud had a brother, Lee, and a couple of kids, but I only met them a handful of times. My grandma Evelyn was an only child. I remember her mom, my grandma Mamie, but she died when I was young. There were also two sisters, Verna and Glad, Bud’s aunts, who lived together in Milwaukee in a tiny house on 91st Street with a calico cat named Cookie. I loved all these people dearly, but with the exception of an occasional visit, they required little of me. I didn’t feel the sticky, messy glue of family when I was among them. Marty with his stories, colorful language, and sometimes raucous behavior made him the unlikely super hero that held us all together. In recent years, with the addition of nieces and nephews, and Marty’s frequent calls, I am grateful to the rekindled relationships I have with that side of the family, and with my sisters and their children.

ChadWithin an hour of researching my ancestors online, I traced them back to the early 1500’s, Paris, France. My great-great-great grandparents, Theodore and Célina (Desmarais) D’Amours de Courberon, came to the United States from Quebec to Redford, New York in 1852 (where our family name was changed to Colburn) before they made their permanent home in DePere shortly thereafter. They had twelve children. I learned that Enos Colburn was my great-great grandfather Louis’s nephew. Enos grew up with seven brothers and sisters. The family was huge. A few more searches and I discovered there are still over 100 Colburn relatives living in and around Green Bay. I called my dad to give him the news. He was quiet, which is his nature. Then he said. “My God, I’m seventy-eight years old and didn’t know any of this.”

We speculated why his immediate family had been cut off from the Colburns. He said that when his dad, Bud, was born, my great-great grandma Pheilomen snatched him up and brought him to Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church to be baptized. “You see, Norma, my grandmother, was protestant,” he said. “She didn’t want my dad baptized Catholic. This caused quite a problem in the family.”

After that the two women never got along. It makes sense that Norma circled the wagons around her small family leaving her husband’s people behind. I don’t think my Uncle Marty knew much of this, and though I’m happy I was able to share it with my dad, I feel it came too late.

While the sorrow of my uncle’s passing catches in my chest as I water the garden or cook a meal, a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds have settled in the orchard, scaring off all the other birds. Cowbirds are parasitic. A mama cowbird either eats or kills an egg or two in perhaps a sparrow or a dove nest, then she lays her eggs leaving them to be incubated then raised by the unsuspecting mama bird. But there is another way to look at this. Cowbirds are like the character, Philip Nolan, in Everett Hale’s short story, “The Man without a Country.” In the story, Nolan, a US Army lieutenant, renounces the United States and is sentenced to live the rest of his life in exile aboard US Navy warships. In some cosmic way, God, Mother Nature, or whomever you may pray to, exiled the cowbirds to a life without a nest to call their own. Without a home, Nolan lived the rest of his life with deep melancholy for what he had lost. The cowbirds have found a way to survive as outsiders looking in. I understand these sentiments all too well.

Most of my family is still in Wisconsin, cold country dotted by forests and farmland where lakes freeze in the winter, and rivers cut their craggy paths into the earth like veins. As a kid I complained about the weather and swore one day I would move someplace warm. In my late twenties, I followed through with my threats and moved to Arizona, to the Sonoran Desert with its thirsty earth and vegetation armed with stickers and thorns, blistering sun, and rattlesnakes coiled in the parched grass ready to strike. There is beauty and danger in both places. I was born into one extreme only to seek out the other.

The days are getting shorter and as I reflect on family and my role in it, I feel so very far away from home. My body has never forgotten the change in seasons, the explosion of red, orange, and red wine leaves lighting up trees this time of year, the cool nights, the hunger for stew and mashed potatoes. I miss Wisconsin to my core and yet I belong here, too. Going home means leaving the desert, a place that has settled in my bones alongside the dark, cold winters of my childhood. I would long for the mountains, the sunsets, the open spaces if I left. Marty’s phone calls kept me tethered to another life and to possibilities. I miss him. Right now I feel like a woman without a country, a cowbird without a nest.

Photo #1- My Uncle Marty and me

Photo #2- My fifth great-grandfather, Jean Francois d’Amours de Courberon

Photo # 3- My cousin, Chad

Let it Bee (Whisper Words of Wisdom)

squash blossomThe couple who stayed in the bunkhouse this week were  both PhD students. The woman is studying bees, She was delighted to discover squash bees in our garden working diligently deep in the centers of squash blossoms. Her partner’s focus is insects. I lack the inclination and discipline necessary to be a scientist, but I marvel at folks who have the propensity to hone in on something as specific as bees.

I am hardwired to linger in the grey areas of life. While driving or taking a shower, I ponder the words we use and the context in which we use them. Kismet feels fun on the tongue. It’s Arabic for divide and was adopted into Turkish to mean fate, as in the way we use the word in English. I wonder if the Muslim faith believes in fate and how this word that once meant divide came to mean something that in the end, brings us, the universe, and our faiths together. Looking into a dog’s eyes, I see the reflection of my best self and worry that science and politics has whittled away so completely at the natural world that perhaps I have lost bits of tenderness and intuition along the way. This is how my brain works. The edges are fuzzy and bleed into one another. In short, I’d make a terrible scientist. That said, if I wasn’t deathly allergic, I may have committed myself to the lives of bees as they answer the philosophical, religious, cultural, and political questions that have plagued humans since the dawn of our existence.Inkedbee_LI

On our morning walk down the runway, Ron and I came to the conclusion that honey bees would have been wiped from the planet long ago if the little buggers didn’t sting. Hives would have been robbed clean by cave dwellers and nomadic folks if bees acted more like puppies or butterflies. Their sting reminds us nothing worth a lick is given up freely. I’d never even heard of a squash bee or the 20,000 other species of bees that inhabit the planet until our guests arrived. The honey bees we have here at the ranch are perfectly happy living in cramped, warm quarters of 15,000 to 60,000 whereas squash bees are solitary creatures who nest in the ground. In human terms, I imagine it’s like our small community of say 500 versus the 8.5 million people that make up New York City.

By some metrics, I have the home range of a female black bear. I need 3 to 10 square miles of open space to feel at peace. Some folks I know live in apartment buildings akin to marmot burrows. Whatever the case may be, humans fall somewhere on the home range continuum. How close is too close? We don’t have a great deal of crime out our way, no shootings this year that I know of. Chicago, on the other hand, has had over 1,400 shootings since the first of the year. Does having people crammed into such close proximity increase the likelihood of crime? I have no idea, but I do know this: if bees are in harmony whether living on top of one another or nestled alone in the ground, why is it so difficult for us?

Starry, Starry Night

M 8 Lagoon NebulaLast October we renovated our bunkhouse. At the time I aspired to downsize so that someday I could live in a small space with less to worry about. Then a friend recommended that we post the bunkhouse on Airbnb. Forty-five minutes later we were up and running. It’s been a great experience. We’ve met bikers, hikers, birders, and travelers. We’ve hosted a painter, a filmmaker, a lawyer, and two astrophotographers from Canada who took these gorgeous photos. M 20 The Truffid Nebula

I’ve always had my feet planted firmly on the ground. No skydiving, paragliding, or deep sea diving for me. I prefer the sensation of cool ground and damp grass between my toes and am confident navigating river rocks and trails to get where I’m going. Give me a day pack and a water bottle and, like a Golden Retriever, I’ll follow you just about anywhere.

watertowerWith most of my interests connected to nature here on earth, I’ve rarely caught myself contemplating the night sky. Aside from noticing the moon cycles each month while waiting for my dogs to pee before we all go to bed, I am not one to star gaze. And like most things that have to do with my 1970’s public school education, I believe my lack of interest is directly tied to my junior high years where the sciences were taught by rote using outdated textbooks and grainy filmstrips.Milky Way

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t ask questions while the men set up their equipment outside the bunkhouse. I didn’t even ask to look through their cameras to capture the images in real time. I was too busy just trying to keep our daily lives afloat. There were trees to water, animals to attend to, and meals to prepare. By the time the sun went down, I was too tired to look to the heavens.

IMG_1058After their first night of taking photos, Frank Roberts (gentleman in the blue t-shirt) shared the photo with our water tank in the background. Several days into their stay, Leslie Webb (gentleman in the white t-shirt) had taken the rest of the photos you see here. I was dumbfounded to learn these celestial marvels hover above the ranch while we sleep- a dome of glorious colors, shapes, masses, and gasses. I look up now at night when I take the dogs out and feel connected to the universe. After all, like the soil, plants and animals, it’s nature in all its grandeur. The stars are no longer a million miles away, rather they appear much closer as though they could be plucked from the sky.IMG_1056

Vincent van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” in 1889, a year before he died. The painting depicts the  view Van Gogh had out the window from the Saint-Paul asylum in southern France where he committed himself after cutting off his ear. In 1970 singer/songwriter Don McLean wrote  the song “Vincent” on a paper bag before a public school performance. He had just learned of Van Gogh’s troubled soul while reading a biography on the painter. Maybe if someone had shown me the painting of “Starry Night” or Georgia O’Keeffe’s, “Ladder to the Moon” as a kid, I would have fallen in love with the night sky in the way children learn best- through stories and by instilling a sense of wonderment.M 17 Omega

I am grateful to Leslie and Frank for their photos and the time they took to teach me something about the universe of which each and everyone of us belongs. It is never too late to learn.

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Night sky photos beginning at the top of the page:

M8 Lagoon Nebula; Trifid Nebula; our water tower; Milky Way; M17 Omega; Cat’s Paw