Save Lucky

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

kitten 2

“Why are people such heartless jerks?” this kitten might be thinking — but she isn’t, because she is the most cuddly, affectionate, purr-fect little snoogie-woogams you have ever seen!

“Is this the Apocalypse?” you might be wondering, because you never expected to read the words “purr-fect little snoogie-woogams” at Via Negativa. But look, I need to get rid of this cat. And I don’t feel like dealing with the Humane Society, who always hit us up for a donation and act as if it is our fault people like to dump their four-footed problems off at the entrance to Plummer’s Hollow. Somehow or another, Lucky here managed to make it all the way up the road on her own, through the ice and snow — and happened to find a bunch of a gun-toting bird-lovers in a charitable mood. (It helps that we had a gallon of sour milk to get rid of.)

kitten 1

See what an appealing little kitten this is? Do you really think she needs to die in the jaws of a coyote or the talons of a great-horned owl — or from a lethal injection at the local Humane Society? What has she done to deserve such a fate?

Please help her live up to her provisional name and spread the word: Lucky needs a home. I wasn’t kidding — she really is very affectionate. I’ve seen her catch a fast-moving small rodent (a meadow vole), so she’d probably make a good mouser. And she seems to know how to act around small children. Truly, a wonderful animal.

kitten 3

UPDATE: We appear to have a taker (see comments). In fact, Suzanne responded within 15 minutes of my putting up this post! Who needs the classifieds?

The bottom corner

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I am trying in secret to set the field on fire. It’s going to rain. I crouch down with an old book of matches I found among my grandmother’s things. The head of the first match I try crumbles into white sand against the strike pad. The second, drier, pops and flares into life. I hold the flame against the wiry blond curls of dried grass and it catches, races up one blade and down another. A thin pencil of smoke. My brother spots it and comes running over. “What are you doing?” I tear another match from the book, and another. The first fat drops begin to fall.


That was a dream, but it got me reminiscing all the same. There were wild dogs on the mountain back then. The one we called the Red Dog whelped a litter in an old woodchuck den down in that same corner of the field, and then abandoned them when they were half-grown. She never seemed quite right in the head, and some of her pups didn’t, either. We tamed them one by one, running them down in the long grass and when we caught them, petting them for hours and crooning words of endearment. I remember the beagle-looking one I frightened so badly he pissed himself, so that forever after he would urinate wildly whenever he was excited, until the family that adopted him finally took him to the pound. The one my brother Mark befriended developed a taste for chickens and had to be shot. That’s a hard thing for a 4-year-old kid to take, especially one with two domineering older brothers and no close neighbors. He said later it bothered him for years.


Early on, my parents wanted to have a pond down in that corner of the field, but the contractor decided it wasn’t clayey enough to hold water and left us with just the test holes. One of them quickly silted in, but the other was next to a spring and remained filled for much of the year — the pond, we called it, though it was barely more than a puddle. A few times we brought a microscope down and spent hours peering at algae and microorganisms. And every March during wood frog mating season we’d sit motionless beside the pond for hours, listening to the strange chorus of quacking calls and watching the orgiastic pile-ons whenever a female showed up. It was an education.


Once when we were teenagers, Mark and I went down into that part of the field with every book about wildflowers, weeds, grasses and sedges that we could lay our hands on, trying to attach a name to everything we found. We almost succeeded.

You must understand: we didn’t have television.

That section of the field hasn’t been plowed now in probably 40 years, and it hasn’t been mowed in over 30. Some catalpa trees have seeded in, and a few black locust, but other than that, the over-abundant deer have prevented trees and brush from taking over. We planted some white pine seedlings about ten years ago, but the deer got those, too.

Down under the grass and goldenrod, a thick carpet of moss has built up over the years, dotted with clumps of ebony spleenwort and cutleaf grape ferns; you sink in with every step. It’s nothing like walking in a pasture or a plowed field. This is the kind of spot that can haunt your dreams.

The Owl

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A large owl glimpsed
in flight at the edge
of the spruce grove,
wings clipping against
the locust saplings as
it drops from its roost
& glides down the hillside
through trees as brown
as its feathers, a glare
off the snow & above,
the deepest blue:
I think of it again
just as I’m falling asleep.
The wind is shaking the house,
& I am wondering if this
is what it feels like
to be happy.

Forward, March!

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Four days ago the snakes were out. Now once again we have snow, we have abstraction, we have calligraphy. But this is not a step backwards, as so many people like to think.


The water in the stream looks black because the snow is white — this was true even before I upped the contrast in post-processing. Winter is about nothing if not contrast. And during no other month are the contrasts as sharp as they are in March, at winter’s end.

blackberry leaf

The dance between winter and spring is well underway. Mourning doves are pairing off, and the sharp-shinned hawks are wickering in the depths of the spruce grove. The woods echo with the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers.


Certain dried weeds from last autumn remind me of wildflowers that will be blooming in another two months. The seed capsules of one unidentified weed in the hollow this morning, for example, were reminiscent of yellow mandarin blossoms. And the arrangement of leaves on the stem of the weed above reminded me of Solomon’s-seal, though I very much doubt that’s what it is.


A common grackle foraging in the stream made me think for a moment that the Louisiana waterthrush had returned a month early, though there’s no mistaking that baleful eye.

This may well be the last snowfall of the year, so I took special note of all the tracks. In one place, a vole had left a complex arabesque of tunnels in the top two inches of the snow. A little farther along, I saw where a chipmunk had made a very brief foray out from its burrow. And up near the top of the hollow, a winter cranefly strode purposefully over the snow without leaving any tracks at all.

winter cranefly

Black box

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

BOOM. The crash of thunder jolts me out of a sound sleep. Oh shit, I mutter — there goes the DSL box.

There’s a qualitative difference between the thunder that accompanies cloud-to-cloud lightning and a cloud-to-earth strike. This was the latter: a heavy thudding crash with no echoes. And the kinds of storms that produce close strikes often sneak up quickly — just a few rumbles in the distance before a very close strike like this one. Of course, it isn’t quite as bad as it might be if the house weren’t tucked a little ways down into a hollow between two higher ridges. But we’re still less than a hundred feet below the ridgecrest, and the woods are filled with lightning-struck trees if you know how to recognize them.

I lie awake, listening to the rapidly receding rumbles: a small storm. But maybe another storm is on its way. I weigh the pros and cons of getting dressed and going up to my parents’ house in the driving rain to disconnect the magic black box that brings us — or used to bring us — high-speed internet. Closing the barn door after the horse got out, I think. It would only make me less likely to get a good night’s sleep. Hope doesn’t come easy to me.

But after half an hour or so, realizing that I wasn’t going to get back to sleep, I switch on my bedside lamp and get dressed. Only midnight! It felt as if I’d been sleeping for hours.

It’s a dark night, and for some reason I don’t feel like turning any other lights on. I like the dark. My feet feel their way up the driveway and across the slippery lawn where most of the snow has just melted off within the previous twenty-four hours. I pause at the front door to shed my shoes and set my umbrella down, then creep indoors like a cat burgler. My parents are away for the night, hence my need to look after the Plummer’s Hollow wireless network. I move through the dark farmhouse at almost normal speed, brushing the walls and doorjambs with the fingers of one hand. This is where I grew up — I could do this in my sleep. I think of the traditional blues verse:

I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark.
I can tell my rider if I feel her in the dark.

I do switch on the light in my dad’s study, squinting as I unplug everything, then gratefully return to the darkness. I guess I feel as if the darkness covers my guilt, somehow. I should have been following the weather forecasts!

Back in my own bed, I realize that sleep isn’t going to come anytime soon. I sit up and grab a book off the nightstand: Walking the Bible: A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses, by Bruce Feilor. It’s a little simple-minded in parts, and the author periodically makes statements I strongly disagree with, but every time I think I’ve had enough, he comes out with another good insight, or tells another great story about an encounter with some modern-day religious fanatic, and I decide to keep reading. I read three chapters and start a fourth before I think I might be drowsy enough to give sleep another try. But I still lie awake for another couple of hours with a knot in my stomach.

By morning, I’m resigned to getting by without the internet for however long it will take us to replace the black box and go through the series of complicated steps necessary to reconstitute our little network: maybe a few days, maybe a week or two. I’ll catch up on my book reading. I’m sure both my blog readers will be able to find other things to entertain them for a while.

Glumly, I go back up to the other house to plug everything in again, on the off chance that the lighning strike didn’t disable our connection. I double-click on the Firefox icon and wait. Nope, nothing. Well, at least we should still be able to connect through the computer’s built-in modem, via dial-up — unless that too has been blown. But after ten minutes of searching through my dad’s computer, I give up, unable to find the right program.

It could be worse, I tell myself: a power blackout, for example, renders me incapable of writing altogether. It’s been so many years since I’ve composed on paper, I have trouble forming letters with a pen, and the lack of an ability to instantly erase or rearrange lines totally throws me. But before I give up for good, I click on the internet connection one more time, and suddenly there’s Google News.

It takes a few moments to sink in. September 11 Mastermind had Plans to Bomb Australia, I read. Hamas and Fatah Present New Government. Major Powers Close to Iran Sanctions Deal. I sit back in the chair with a heavy sigh. This knot in my stomach isn’t going away anytime soon.

Good questions

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Oekologie #3 includes a lot of fun posts raising a variety of interesting questions, such as:

  • Is rape adaptive? (Behavioral Ecology Blog)
  • What counts as a “species” in the asexual world of microbes? (A Blog Around the Clock)
  • How do you measure the ecological impact of goats in Eastern Mediterranean countries? (Snail’s Tales)
  • Why does the eastern pipistrelle adapt more easily to changing environmental pressures than the gray myotis? (The Infinite Sphere)
  • Does it make sense to pour aid money into replanting mangrove forests in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami? (ESA News & Views)
  • Why isn’t the endangered pygmy hog-sucking louse on the IUCN Redlist? (Endangered Ugly Things)

To learn how to participate in this fast-growing new blog carnival, check out the Oekologie blog.

Skin deep

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

black birches

Where does it hurt? asked the acupuncturist, and then placed the needles somewhere else.



It’s not that I have thick skin; I don’t. I just change skins often enough that names don’t stick.


black walnut ribs

So much of our lives are spent in caring for the dead — washing, drying, laying them out. Someday, when we too are dead, this will be our crowning glory: perfect hair at last!


the big beech

It becomes evident with age that this parchment in which we live is being written on from both sides at once.

First things first

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The first contribution for qarrtsiluni’s Ekphrasis theme has been published. I think this will be a fun edition. I know if I weren’t an editor, I’d be submitting like a fiend. For example, here’s something I just wrote in response to this image.

Living in the country, you learn that you can let almost everything else go, but you must look after the roof. Not far from here there’s a junkyard that sprawls over a couple of hilly fields next to the highway — ranks of auto bodies, refrigerators, stoves and kitchen sinks. I like the idea of lining the highways with refuse, as a daily reminder of our profligate ways. Besides, it’s better than looking at crown vetch. But at this particular place, it’s the old barn that attracts attention, because you can see right through it. Most of the siding has been removed, presumably for some other building project, leaving little but the beams and a tarpaper roof. One can often spot a few goats inside, silhouetted against the sea of rusty metal. Once when we drove by, the entire herd was out front, clustered around an old chevy. One goat stood in the bed of the truck with his front hooves up on the roof of the cab, as if at a podium. He had the beard of prophet. It was a sunny day, with no hint of the wind that was sure to come.

Turdus migratorius

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

owl pellet

The owl grips a thin branch of a walnut tree overhanging the driveway and regurgitates a large mass of hair and bones in the shape of its gizzard.

When an Owl is about to produce a pellet, it will take on a pained expression — the eyes are closed, the facial disc narrow, and the bird will be reluctant to fly. At the moment of expulsion, the neck is stretched up and forward, the beak is opened, and the pellet simply drops out without any retching or spitting movements.

I find it there the next morning, frozen solid. Tiny pelvises and femurs, jaw bones and vertebrae, and somewhere the miniscule bones from the inner ear. The owl doesn’t retch, no — owls are silent creatures, and besides, this is more like a turd, albeit one that travels in the wrong direction. I can imagine it making a quiet little blog.


“Look for antennae,” says the note beside me on the table. It’s in my own handwriting. I scratch my head.

Nope, nothing there.


I was listening to robins singing this morning while I drank my coffee. Despite their Latin name, Turdus migratorius, American robins are year-round residents throughout much of their range. They roam around in the winter in large gangs, foraging for wild fruit (Hercules’-club, sumac, fox grapes, etc.) and generally avoiding areas with heavy snow cover, so it’s common not to see them for a month or two at a time. And the wimpier ones do fly south, so I guess that’s how people started thinking of robins as the archetypal harbingers of spring. I liked what David Lynch did with that notion in Blue Velvet: at the end of this very strange movie about a small-town psychopath, a mechanical bird lands on a branch and the college-kid hero says, “Oh look! The first robin of spring!”

Although actually I prefer Gary Larson’s twist on the spring arrivals motif: bird bath in the foreground, typical Far Side fat kids with their eager faces pressed against the picture window, and their mother saying, “Look children! The slugs are back!” If you grew up in a family of nature nerds as I did, trust me, that’s hilarious.


Yesterday, I got into a pointless argument with a friend about whether it was possible to be mildly obsessed. I said I thought mild obsession was the only kind I’ve ever experienced. Full-blown obsession is entirely too much effort.

Take these robins, for example. When they start singing, it is a sign of (very early) spring, because it means they’re starting to pair off and defend territory. But birders like to interpret their song as: “Cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.”

Yeah, right. Much more likely, they’re saying, “Look at me, look out, look out, look at me, look out!” There’s an obsessive quality to their singing that just isn’t captured by the first interpretation.


There are at least two different web-based businesses built around the sale of owl pellets. I had no idea they were such a hot commodity. At Genesis, Inc.,

All of our owl pellets are from the Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and come from various locations. The majority come from the Pacific Northwest and are of the Highest Quality in the United States. Each pellet is inspected for quality and size. They are then heat treated and wrapped in aluminum foil. You can order 3 different sizes. The “SOP” are under 1.5″ and are usually between 1.25″ and 1.5″ in length. The next size are the “BOP’s”. These Owl Pellets are 1.5″ and larger. The BOP’s can contain pellets that are well over 2″ but will never be smaller that 1.5″. The BOP’s are the same pellets we fill our kits with and are the most common ones to order. The BOP’s are a great choice! If you can afford the price, the “JOP’s” are excellent! These owl pellets are 2″ and larger (may be limited to stock on hand).

The purchase of Owl Brand Discovery Kits help support humanitarian efforts around the globe.

Here is a highlight of just a few of the projects that you have helped OBDK participate in:

  • Funded 9 short term missionaries to a children’s home in Mexico
  • Promoting humanitarian outreach through our corporate structure
  • Participated in building hundreds of wells in Africa
  • Sponsored, coached, and managed more than 50 Little League players

All through the sale of barn owl pellets. Amazing.


I saw something on a tech blog the other night that absolutely horrified me. At the top of each post, right under the title, there was an extra line displaying the word count, followed by an estimate of how many seconds it would take someone to read the post.

I mean, blog.