My 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. 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.
Within 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
The 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.
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?
Last 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.
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.
With 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.
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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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
My husband recently gave me a Canon Rebel T6 camera as a late birthday gift. I’d been asking for one since I learned birds come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I was thrilled. Now, instead of slinking around my yard to snap grainy photos of birds using my phone, I would try my hand at some half-way decent photos.
The last camera I bought was a Kodak Easy Share C180. Judging by the photos I found on the SD card, I bought it in 2008 to take photos of a family trip I took back to Wisconsin. It was the last time all of my sisters and my mom were together. Before that, my high school sweetie had given me a Kodak Tele-instamatic (circa 1981) with a pack of flip flash bulbs that blinded my unsuspecting subjects. My point here is that I am not a photographer. So imagine my surprise when this beautiful Canon camera showed up with all its buttons and lenses. I was more than a little intimidated. But the migratory birds were flocking to our feeders and would disappear soon. There wasn’t time to go through the manual or look online for tips. Instead I attached the zoom lens and parked my butt in a lawn chair I strategically hid under a plum tree to camouflage myself.
Generally this isn’t how I approach projects or hobbies. I am more of a by-the-book kind of gal. I like to know what I’m getting myself into. I prefer having a plan and instructions to follow when I am trying something new. If it wasn’t for the urgency the migratory birds provided, the camera would still be in its box. After taking at least 1,00 photos, I still feel I have no idea what it is I’m doing, but that’s not true. I’ve learned a bit about composition in that I need to focus the center red dot in the camera at the eye of my subject. Shadows cause havoc when photographing birds, so it’s important to make sure the subject is not surrounded by foliage no matter how pretty it might be. Taking photos in the early morning and as the sun is setting creates such beautiful lighting, some of my photographs are lovely. I’ve learned unlike people or objects, birds do not sit still for long. Sometimes it’s best to take an awful photo to identify a bird rather than no photo at all. I’ve also decided I’m more interested in taking photos of wildlife than of people. There’s too much self-consciousness going on there for everyone involved.
My mother has accused me of suffering from Patty Perfect syndrome. Messes and making mistakes have always bothered me, but as I get older, I have a keen sense that I’m running out of time. Leaving the camera in the box until I knew exactly what do with it would have accomplished nothing. All the time I’ve spent in the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains, at the San Pedro River, and in my backyard just to photograph birds would have been gobbled up by the mundane chores in my everyday life. Sure maybe I would have tackled spring house cleaning and changed out my wardrobe for the summer, but for what?
I like this new me. A middle-aged woman armed with a camera around her neck hoping and praying to get a glimpse of a rare bird that might only be here for a day or two. Let the dust settle on my coffee table and the cobwebs stretch across the beams in my living room. I don’t care. Life really is too short. I only wish my older self could meet up for coffee with my younger self. I have so much I would like to share with her.
I haven’t been blogging much these last couple of months. Even though I’d like to write about the migratory birds, the orchard, and the honey harvest, we’ve been too busy this spring. Most days I feel overwhelmed with springtime chores and worry I am not going to get everything done.
In an interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye, musician and singer/songwriter Neko Case talked about living on a farm in Vermont. When host, Jesse asked her, “Are you comfortable with the kind of like quiet and relative loneliness of living on a farm?” Neko responded, “Oh yeah, I love it. Farms are not quiet, peaceful places at all.”
She went on to mention the constant maintenance and the emergencies that pop up. But she also said living on a farm is exciting. That she notices the first night of fire flies and seeing Jupiter in the night sky.
I resent Jesse Thorn’s choice of words to describe farm life. Though quiet is influenced by our environment, loneliness in some sense connotes sadness and, at its core, desperation—a need for things to change, to get better. I don’t have room for loneliness living this close to the land. And I don’t think nature does either. The quail and coyotes travel in family groups. The migratory birds often show up in pairs or small flocks as they make the harsh trip together to their northern nesting grounds. There is order and dependency, the sense that we are all in this together. It’s a frenzied time of year. I feel it in my bones. I have the energy of a hummingbird right now and find it hard to sit still for any length of time. I am energized by the long days and the constant cacophony of birds.
I agree with Neko’s thoughts on farm life. She admitted that there is always something that demands attention, but she also mentioned the fireflies and clear night skies. There is harmony to country living if you learn not to push too hard. There is also joy, wonder, frustration, and even anger when a pipe breaks or the tractor doesn’t start. But loneliness? No, I haven’t experienced that.
If you find yourself in need of a break from your crazy world, check out Neko Case. While listening to her, take a mini break—a mind vacation to someplace quiet where you can spend a few moments alone. And if you are experiencing loneliness, call a friend or a family member. Believe me, they will be thrilled to hear from you.
My friend Kirsten Allen and I drove up to the Huachuca Mountains, which butt up against Mexico in the Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona. It was eleven o’clock when we parked at the Brown Canyon trailhead, gathered our gear, and headed out on a day hike. I’d forgotten to bring a hat and felt a bit ill-prepared when Kirsten produced a snazzy, purple boonie hat from her pack. Binoculars at the ready, we spotted our first bird just a few minutes into the hike. It was going to be a good day.
Kirsten is the publisher and editorial director at Torrey House Press in Utah. She was in town as a guest presenter at the annual Cochise Creative Writing Celebration in Sierra Vista. We were taking the day to unwind after the event. The weather was perfect, the conversation easy, and we were excited to explore the area.
The Brown Canyon trail is both hilly and rocky, and though I wouldn’t try it on a mountain bike, it makes for a great hike. At a water trough where the trail splits, we continued on rather than head back to the truck. About three hours into the hike we came to the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail intersection where new trail signs had recently been posted. Up until then I had felt confident of where we were, but now we were faced with several choices. We were down in a canyon where it was difficult to determine cardinal directions. The path to our left was narrow and crossed a dry riverbed of rocks. The trail heading right was wide and well-maintained. I hadn’t been up that way in a couple of years and told Kirsten that my gut said we should take the groomed trail.
We started off and were soon climbing. The grade increased every few hundred yards then descended and crossed the stream. I thought as long as we followed the river, we would find our way out. The sun dipped, filling the canyon with moving shadows. At some point I realized my gut had betrayed me. I was in unfamiliar territory. Kirsten and I stopped and discussed our options. We’d been hiking for hours. To go back the way we came meant spending a great deal of time navigating the trail in the dark. There was also the matter of returning to a spot where I knew we might run into illegal crossers from Mexico. We checked our phones. Kirsten didn’t have a signal. The little hiker on her Google map hadn’t moved. My phone had service, but was low on battery. I called my husband to see if he could text us a map. It was hard to describe exactly where we were. We both had spotty service. “Face the setting sun,” he said. “Stick your right arm straight out from your side. Hike in that direction.” I was grateful to hear his voice and for the instructions.
Canyon walls surrounded us. Looking up, trees glowed from the cliffs, and we assumed the sun was behind them. We each stuck out our right arm and continued uphill in the direction we had been going. When we had climbed high enough to nearly reach the tree line, we stopped again to take in our surroundings. This time we saw the last bit of sun hanging in the sky. Facing the sun, I again stuck out my right arm. Kirsten and I knew instantly we had been hiking in the wrong direction—and had been for two and a half hours. Kirsten was out of water, and I only had enough to ration. We were no longer interested in bird calls or the trees that had previously caught our attention. It was time to get the hell out of there.
Something happens to the psyche when the sun goes down. Vulnerability bubbles to the surface clouding rational thoughts and the ability to make good decisions. Checking my watch against the setting sun, I knew we would be faced with new challenges when we reached the trail intersection, the place where I had made the mistake of taking us in the wrong direction hours before.
Heading north down the trail, we noticed an open backpack and a camouflage shirt turned inside out. I told Kirsten to keep moving. She isn’t from the borderlands, but she understood the danger. We were not afraid of the dark, lions, or bears, rather the two-legged creatures who travel the mountains at night carrying dope on their backs. I texted Ron, Found evidence of smugglers. Get us out of here! However, I didn’t send it. On one hand it seemed ridiculous to be so afraid. On the other, I imagined someone jumping out in front of us and me hitting send before my phone and backpack were taken at gunpoint. I imagined helicopters flying overhead with spotlights shining down on us and Border Patrol agents calling out our names. I imagined a stranger’s hand over my mouth, a deep voice whispering, “cállate.”
After a traumatic fifty minutes, we arrived back at the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail juncture. It would be another hour before we reached the parking lot at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where I hoped we could fill our water bottles before walking another two miles on a county road to my truck. The sun was long gone before we came to a spot on the trail I recognized. It was a steep climb out of the riverbed over large rocks. I’d left my glasses in the truck and still wore my prescription sunglasses along with Kirsten’s headlamp to navigate the trail. Kirsten’s sunglasses remained perched on the brim of her hat and our binoculars dangled around our necks. Our hips and legs ached as we hurried up the trail after the sound of snapping branches startled us.
A text came in from Ron. If you’re not down by 8 pm AZ time, I’m sending in troops. Seriously. RSVP receipt of this message. I hated being the damsel in distress. I hated that primal fear all women wear like a second skin. We were on the border at night in a mountain range known for illegal traffic. Feeling exposed and small, I kept my head down. Kirsten seemed lost in her thoughts as well.
It wasn’t until Kirsten and I reached the preserve around eight o’clock that something wonderful happened. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, our friendship transcended into new territory—a sacred place where teasing and giggles rescued us from our fear. We had weathered the storm, conquered our demons, slayed the dragons, and we had done it together. This was our war story. Depleted of any pride, we knocked on the door at Ramsey Canyon Inn where a kind gentleman from Michigan gave us a ride to my truck.
All the amazing adventures of my life have been unintentional. I prefer making plans to avoid surprises. In the desert summer heat I carry sunscreen and a cooler of ice filled with plenty of cold water in my truck. I stuff a blanket and jacket behind the seat when the weather turns cold. My hike with Kirsten may have been harrowing, but it reminded me I need to leave room for the unexpected. I would have missed out on so much had the day gone as planned.