Double Blind Peer Review (By an Owl)

2017-07-23 08.27.53A biologist friend told us not to become attached to the three baby Great Horned Owls that hatched this April. He explained the owls have brains the size of peas and that their sole purpose is to hunt. This isn’t our first rodeo; we’ve had baby owls before, but I didn’t mention it.

It’s hard to be objective when Ron and I watched the mother owl sit on her nest for thirty-seven days without so much as flying to a nearby branch high up in the pine tree from where she nested. We were thrilled when the first baby poked its head up from under its mother’s wing and were in awe when we counted heads again a few days later to find the mother was willing to share her nest with three rambunctious babies. All the while, the father brought food to keep his brood alive.

In mid-June, when Ron found one of the fledglings on the ground out by the windmill with a broken wing, we made calls and found Dennis who works for Gila Wildlife Rescue in Silver City. Two days later, we found out the owl had an infection and needed to be euthanized. I was sad but told myself its part of nature’s plan. “We still had two babies left,” I said, when a friend asked how I was doing.

One evening in late June, a wind storm came through sending dog dishes and lawn furniture skittering across the lawn. The next morning, we found a second baby owl under a pine tree. We called Dennis, and Ron and I agreed to keep an eye on it. A day went by. The owl was able to fly short distances but continued to return to his place under the pine tree. We took the owl in to be examined where it was decided it had been electrocuted. It died shortly afterwards. Devastated, I followed the third baby with my binoculars praying nothing would happen to it. As the monsoon season approached, I secretly hoped the wind and rain would remain at bay until the baby was strong enough to withstand the punishing storms. In these parts, where every drop of rain counts, this was an act of treason for which I harbored no guilt.

My interest in the baby owl, which bordered on obsession, grew into something that now resembles friendship. Each morning, I am greeted with screeching when I take the dogs outside. At night, after chores are done and the animals are in for the evening, I step out into the yard beyond the lights and call for her. Sometimes she answers from a nearby tree, but now that she is getting bigger and hunts on her own, I hear her faint screech from a half mile away. When I return home after being gone for a few days, she will greet me from an outlying branch where she bounces and shrieks as though saying, “Look at me! I’ve missed you!”

Like many kids, I took my first biology class in eighth grade where, with trembling hands, I dissected a frog that had spent its post-life in formaldehyde. It was in that class that I was introduced to the scientific method:

  1. Make an observation
  2. Pose a question
  3. Form a hypothesis
  4. Conduct an experiment
  5. Analyze the data and draw a conclusion

At no point was I asked to share my feelings about the dead frog that lay on the metal tray in front of me spread eagle with pins sticking out of it to keep it from sliding onto the floor. If given the chance, I would have asked to go home where I would have gone to bed, pulled a blanket over my head, and cried until my mom said it was time for supper.

Like some of the other kids in my class, our friend the biologist was cut from a different cloth. I imagine examining the internal workings of a frog or a sheep’s heart may have provided a sense of order in his world as he studied systems and learned about the taxonomy of animals. And by spending a career steeped in the scientific method, he learned to avoid the obvious: Great Horned Owls are capable of forming relationships.

As so often happens, I didn’t have a rebuttal when he said, with professional authority, owls were designed to hunt. That’s all. Period. But if I had been prepared, or at least wittier than I generally am, here is what I would have presented to him in terms he would have understood:

  1. Make an observation- The baby owl seems to notice me more than it does other people.
  2. Pose a question- I wonder if the baby owl has formed an attachment to me?
  3. Form a hypothesis- If the baby owl has formed an attachment to me, it should react to me in some distinct fashion.
  4. Conduct an experiment- Each time I go outside, I will screech and see if the baby owl screeches back in response. Control Group: Ron will also screech when he goes  outside to elicit a reaction from the owl.
  5.  Analyze the data and draw a conclusion- The baby owl reacts differently to me than to other people. Proof: Ron comes in and says, “You need to go outside. Your owl is calling for you.” Conclusion: Great Horned Owls are capable of discerning their attachments toward humans.

My own conclusion? I care deeply for the baby owl who continues to defy the monsoon storms that have arrived in full force. I delight in her antics and feel a connection when she calls out to me. I can’t predict what nature has in store for her and will have to deal with the loss, god forbid, something happens. What I have learned in observing the owl is that the things that matter most like friendship, feelings, and love cannot be accurately measured using the scientific method. I guess for now, the owl and I will stick to what we know, and let science ponder questions that don’t concern us.

Let the Star Spangled Banner Wave

Fireworks 9



We spent the Fourth of July in Rodeo, New Mexico. Once a whistle stop on the old El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, it now boasts a population 101. As the crow flies, it’s just southwest of the ranch on the west side of the Peloncillo Mountains. It was ninety-five degrees in the shade, so many of us stopped in at the Rodeo Tavern where they were serving root beer floats, iced coffee, and good, cold beer.
The thirty-ninth annual parade began promptly at six o’clock and featured the grand marshal, Shriners wearing funny hats in little cars, local folks toting flatbed trailers depicting ranching scenes and promoting local businesses, several fire trucks, pretty horses, and a decked-out tractor. Kids and grown-ups alike waved little American flags someone in the parade handed out, and we all raced to pick up candy tossed into the crowd by folks on floats that lined state highway 80. Traffic headed north and south was forced to stop and partake in the fun or find a dirt road around it.
After the parade, most everyone met over at the Rodeo Community Center for a BBQ prepared and served by local men and women. The meal included roasted beef, ranch beans, coleslaw, tortillas, and desert. My mom and Jessie, a great kid who helps out at the ranch, joined Ron and I. We sat with friends at one of the long tables covered in a red checkered table cloth, where we caught up on all the goings on in our lives. American flags hung from the walls and red, white, and blue decorations twirled from the ceiling. Following dinner, a raffle was held (my mom won a TV!) and prizes were given out for the best horse in the parade, best shootout (there was only one), and even the funniest float. We were too tired to stay for the cake auction and dance that followed, but I’m pretty sure folks had a good time.
If this sounds to you like the muse for a Rockwell painting, a chapter out of a Mark Twain novel, or a scene from an old Western, it should. People like my mom, who had taken the holiday literally, showed up in red, white, and blue, while others had dusted off their cowboy hats and donned clean shirts. People talked about the state of their gardens, the incredible heat wave we’re experiencing, and summer vacation plans. We all commented on the clouds building to the south, a sign of a monsoon storm we hoped would charge up the valley.
Through it all, I couldn’t help but think someone got it wrong on the campaign trail. It isn’t about making America great again. We are pretty great the way we are. Neighbors watch out for one another, churches look after their flocks, communities band together in times of need, and many people in local government do give a damn. Our greatness was felt throughout this country yesterday as we gathered at parades big and small. We ate hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad. We lifted our beer cups and wine glasses in celebration. We sat in awe watching star-spangled firework displays boom and crackle above our heads in city parks. Despite the current political climate, I am proud to be an American, and I look forward to waving my little flag on the Fourth of July again next year in Rodeo, New Mexico surrounded by friends a neighbors.

Photo courtesy of © R. L. Wolverton | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When to Say No or at Least, No More

webpage photoMy spider bite and subsequent health related problems prompted me to get answers, so I went in to see my new doctor armed with a litany of information about getting to the bottom of my recurring and severe reactions to insect bites. In a nutshell, I told her I was no longer interested in taking antibiotics and steroids, being treated with a nebulizer, or spending countless hours in an emergency room. I’d done a bit of research and asked what she thought about me going to see someone who knows about malaria and bugs. She thought it was a good idea.
My sister had some major health issues as a kid. On the advice of our family doctor, my parents took her to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Without the expertise and skill sets of several doctors, my sister may have died. In our family, the good deeds performed at Mayo Clinic are revered as something akin to religious. When I settled on Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, I was certain I would have my health problems diagnosed and treated in short order.
By some sheer stroke of luck, I was scheduled for my first appointment with an internist a week after I made my initial call. Surely this was a good sign! Ron and I adjusted our schedules, then I packed my bags and headed off to Phoenix.
My first appointment went well. The internist admitted he’d never heard of the symptoms I’ve experienced, but he didn’t dismiss me as so many doctors have and believed the root cause might be from the malaria I had years ago. Within fifteen minutes of leaving his office, I had my itinerary to include labs, tests, X-rays, neuro-psych exam, meetings with an ophthalmologist, an allergist, an infectious disease doctor. If you have never experienced a trip to Mayo Clinic, throw your disdain for doctor appointments and crowded waiting rooms out the window. It is a well-oiled machine that rivals the organization and scheduling magic of a Carnival Cruise. Everyone was helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. I not only felt like I was in good hands, I was in good hands. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff are at the top of the food chain professionally, and they love what they do.
All was good until I met with the one person I thought would have answers—the infectious disease doctor. Instead, she had formed her own theories about my case before our meeting and was unable or unwilling to hear my responses to her questions. I left her office angry, confused, and disappointed. I’d already been told by three doctors that insect bites simply don’t bring on the problems I experience. In one case, just a few years ago, a doctor said my symptoms could not be brought on by a spider bite as I lay in his office unable to sit up while he prepared a steroid IV.
My final appointment that day was with the internist I had originally met with. When he asked how it went with the infectious disease doctor, I took a deep breath to keep from crying and told him she simply didn’t know a thing about malaria or insects in general. He was empathetic and continued with his report that included all my test results and notes from the doctors I had seen over the course of four days. In the end, I learned I am completely healthy. My heart and liver are functioning as they should. I have no allergies to speak of, my eyes, though not great, show no sign of disease, and my chest X-ray was clear. I should have left his office exhilarated, but no, I was still hell-bent on finding the cause of my health issues. I didn’t have answers to my questions about the long-term effects of malaria. Still angry, I called Ron and gave him the news, then I went back to the hotel and collapsed.
That night I stopped in at a little Mexican restaurant and ordered a delicious meal and a margarita to calm my nerves. It didn’t take long for me to realize what an ass I’d been. I was just given the best possible news anyone could receive regarding his or her health. I felt ashamed. I’d seen so many sick and dying people at Mayo who would have rejoiced at the diagnosis I had received. And when I thought about it, I did get my questions answered. At least some of them. I learned that whatever is behind these crazy symptoms, they are not whittling away at my brain, my lungs, or my kidneys. I learned that all the antibiotics and steroids I’ve taken over the years haven’t caused any kind of permanent damage, and that I will live through the next round of symptoms. Sitting there sipping my margarita, I decided I’d had enough—enough doctors, enough medication (unless absolutely necessary,) and enough worrying. It was simply time to be thankful.
After it was all over, I left Phoenix and made it as far as my mom’s house where I spent the night. The next morning I got up and went for a bike ride. Five miles from her house I hit a bump in the road. The crash left me full of scrapes and bruises. The following day, I was back home picking peaches when I was stung by a tarantula hawk. Now anyone who knows anything about these winged-devils knows the pain goes right to that place inside a person that makes her scream for mercy. As the pain subsided, I worried I’d end up down the rabbit hole again, but it didn’t happen. Apparently this is one bug that doesn’t throw my system out of whack.
You don’t have to be religious to see the kismet in all of this. After surrendering to my health issues, I was tested. First a bike crash and then the wretched sting of the tarantula hawk. I will no longer ask, “What else can happen to me?” As the last three weeks have proven, the story of Job can present itself if we invite it into our lives. I’ve made peace with what the internist dubbed a “medical anomaly.” Sometimes it’s enough to take stock in what we have and to be grateful for answered and unanswered questions.


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.

Broadway in Animas

24195Before the summer wedding invitations arrive, there is prom and high school graduation. It’s a busy time of year for teachers and parents who hustle to keep up with hectic schedules. The Animas Drama Troupe recently put on The Saga of the Golden Horseshoe directed by English teacher and drama coach, Alysha Wagley and assistant coach and math teacher, Carrie Massey. Family, teachers, and friends showed up early for the spaghetti dinner that was served by parent and student volunteers. As the lights dimmed in the auditorium, I was prepared for something akin to what I sat through each year as a high school student—the dreaded Spring play.
Wow, what a performance. These young people were fabulous. Their comedic timing was spot on, and the acting was brilliant. But it shouldn’t surprise me. These are the same kids that went to the state drama competition at New Mexico State University and that helped take the Animas Panthers to the second round in state for girls’ volleyball and basketball and took the boys’ football team to the state semi-finals. 24189
This year, sixteen students graduated Friday night from Animas High School. To compete in anything, everyone needs to pull their own weight. The end result are kids who exhibit more self-confidence than some adults I know. But it takes a village. Without parents and teachers willing to give up their weekends to drive sometimes eight or nine hours one-way to events, or family and friends stepping in to watch the ranch while folks are away, none of this would be possible.
24193I began my teaching career in public schools. After eight years, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t find it in me to sign another contract. It’s hard work with little financial incentive. I marvel at teachers like Alysha and Carrie who work their regular jobs, raise families, and still find time to support students outside the classroom. When asked why she gives so much of herself to the drama troupe, Alysha said, “I see shy kids open up, and it helps students develop leadership skills. It literally changes lives.”
24199Alysha is unabashedly proud her students, and she deeply appreciates their dedication not only to the drama troupe, but to all the extracurricular activities they are willing to participate in. “Without the kids, we wouldn’t be able to offer the programs,” she said. Six of the actors were seniors who have been in the troupe for four years. They brought experience and talent to the stage and mentored underclassmen. Alysha also recognizes that Animas is a small community where there just isn’t a lot of opportunity for people to come together. “I enjoy bringing quality entertainment to our town,” she said.
24205There is a lot of rhetoric in the media and in general regarding teenagers. They’re rude. They’re lazy. They don’t care about anyone other than themselves. That may be true for some teens, just like it is for some adults. I say, give teenagers a chance. You don’t have to be a parent or a teacher to attend a basketball game or to enjoy a school play. As founder and long-time host of Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor wrote, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.”
Animas isn’t perfect, but what teachers and parents in this community seem to understand is that when it comes to kids, the show must go on! 24209
Cast: Rayce Wagley, Haley Bender, Laurena Avila, Orin Offutt, Brenda Acosta, Patrick Needham, Kylee Guilliam, Hailee Cruz, Brandon Hoffman, Tiana Gibson, Brenda Elias, Abigail Cushman, Brittney Sjoblom, Jennifer Acosta, Ryan Estrada, Ryan Shultis,Dashiel Krick, Britney Gibson, Hailey Russo, Ty Wagley, Rybecca Webster, Heather Klump, Jaiden Ybarra, Chance Kipp, Jessica Reyes
The Crew: Stage Director, Carrie Massey; Sound, Lindsey Massey; Lights, Levi Gulliam; Advertising, Elizabeth Mendoza; Program, Layla Shewell; Stage Construction, Mikey Sheehan; Opening song written by Kip Calahan Young and performed by Tiana Gibson; Photos courtesy of Alysha Wagley24207
Special thanks to: Kip Calahan Young, Sam Wagley, Mikey Sheehan, Levi & Missy Klump, Saucedo’s Super Market, Ricky & Bobby Massey, Scott Massey, Jacque Davenport, Kacie Peterson & Lighting Dock Geothermal, Amy & Justin Kip, Loren & Debra Cushman, Parents helping with dinner, Parents of cast and crew

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.


No Bull

2017-04-26 22.19.32Cash Massey and his wife, Kanzas, own Three Mile Hill Ranch a few miles north of our place. Cash had invited us to their fifteenth annual Angus Bull sale. I’ve done a lot of work on ranches over the years, seen a lot of bulls, even castrated a few little guys who were better suited for slaughter than passing on their genes, but I’d never attended a bull sale and didn’t know what to expect.
It was a gorgeous day, which for this time of year, means the wind wasn’t blowing. The Massey’s barn sits on a knoll just east of their house. We parked among other pickup trucks, some with stock trailers ready to haul livestock home. Potential buyers walked amid the corrals next to the barn where the bulls were housed. The yearlings weighed between 950 and 1,050 pounds and appeared impressive against the desert landscape.
We joined neighbors in the barn for a delicious lunch Kanzas had prepared and awaited the sale. Gates and alleyways led from the corrals to the back of the barn where the doors opened to a large pen. To the left of the enclosure was a platform big enough to seat the auctioneer and Kanzas. Before the sale, Cash and Kanzas handed out brochures to buyers. Cash welcomed everyone and then said a prayer giving thanks for family, community, and the Lord’s bounty, including the bulls.
Since I first heard my fifth grade P.E. teacher, Mr. Omen, belt out square dancing calls in the grade school gym, I’ve been fascinated with auctioneers—fast-talking men who scare me a little bit. With the confidence of a ring master, Cash ushered his bulls in and out of the pen while the auctioneer had my full attention and buyers bid on the bulls. The mutual respect shared between Cash and his animals was evident. I wondered if he had a favorite.
This is a family affair. Cash is a fourth generation farmer and Kanzas is a fifth generation rancher. Their teenage daughter, Jade, helped with the paperwork and the money end of things while their son, Cap, ran the gates in the corrals along with a few neighbors. Good values and a strong work ethic are evident in the Massey children who are kind, confident kids. Grandparents were available to help out, and even the family’s corgi/Australian shepherd mix was on her best behavior.
When the sale was over, I introduced myself to Bryan Waldrop. As the livestock inspector for Hidalgo County, his job is to verify the purchase of each bull. After all, this is a business. It is also risky business. A family’s livelihood is at stake. I admire Cash and Kanzas for their commitment to a lifestyle that demands a great deal from families. Across the nation, rural communities  lack in education funding, employment opportunities, and health care services. There are over 46 million people living outside metro areas making up 14 percent of our population and, unfortunately, the number is dwindling. Places like Animas are dependent on the work folks like Cash and Kanzas do. Unlike cities that rely on the sale of goods and services, we depend more on production from the land. A bull sale plays an important role in the economic well-being of our community.
Watching folks load the bulls they’d purchased into stock trailers, I was reminded how lucky I am to be free of florescent office lights and a work schedule that once dictated my life. It was Tuesday afternoon, and Ron and I were at a bull sale in Animas, New Mexico. It doesn’t get much better than that.