Caught in the Good Sense, Caught in the Bad

I didn’t think my iron had a flashing light. You know, the kind that is meant to warn you it’s still on and you haven’t used it for a while and it’s about to automatically shut off. Anyway I was sure I had unplugged it. But as I got into bed last night, I saw the unmistakably repeating on-off-on-off of a small light in the far corner of my room.

Normally the iron lives in my closet in its own place. Telling this story forces me to admit that I didn’t put it away when I was finished with it yesterday. (I wasn’t feeling well, truth be told, and spent a good deal of the afternoon on the couch, blah, blah, blah…) Anyone who’s been here knows I am far from an OCD housekeeper, but I do like things in their place, and I do – 99% of the time – put the iron away. At the very least, I unplug it. You’ll have to take my word on that. Yes, it was still out (wet noodle!), but no way did I leave it plugged in.

What was the light then? I live in the woods and it’s pretty dark outside at night unless there’s a bright moon. No one sees well in the dark, and I see even less well on account of having no glasses on or contacts in at bedtime. But I can see a flashing light, even if it’s very small. My laptop flashes, visible only when the rest of the room is very dark. It’s so incessant and annoying that I will usually put a pillow over it if it’s in my room at night. But my laptop was not in my room last night.

An airplane, I fleetingly thought. Airplanes have small flashing lights, right? But they are not stationary. An airplane would be 1. Much higher in the sky and 2. Moving. Airplane idea quickly dismissed.

I was tired. It was after midnight and I needed to get some sleep. I closed my eyes and tried to forget about the light. But I saw it inside my head. And I saw it when I opened my eyes again to check if it was still there. On. Off. On. Off.

A silent cry for help? A tiny UFO?

I know: A fairy trying to get my attention! Yoo-hoo! Over here! (This is apparently what happens when you are not feeling well and end up on the couch a good part of the day watching a show that’s set in 18th century Scotland! Outlander, do you see what you are doing to me?!)

Finally I couldn’t stand it any more and got out of bed to investigate. I followed the weak but steady flashing light and my heart dropped when I got to it. Some might say it’s ridiculous to feel emotion at seeing a firefly caught in a spider web, still alive, still trying, but I confess – I felt emotion! I wanted to put the poor, struggling thing out of its misery. Alas, this was not in my power. The web was outside and I was inside. I would need a tall ladder and more energy than I had in me at that hour. I had to let it go. A silent cry for help indeed!

My phone camera has a time delay. It doesn’t take the photo the very moment you tap the white dot, so I knew my chances of catching the momentary light of the poor, trapped firefly were super slim. But somehow this worked! I caught it! You can see the light. I caught it on film, we used to say (when film was a thing) – the good sense of caught. The spider caught it in the bad sense.

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Funny how this happened the very day the men came to take down the truncated red oak. It stands about 40 feet up, stripped of all limbs, and has that gaping, splintery wound down its lower half on the side that faces the woods. The climber put on his cleats and used ropes to shimmy up the trunk, intending to buzz-buzz it piece by piece in log length from the top, and lower them one by one to the ground.

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The gaping wound we knew about, but it was not the only weakness. Higher up, he found holes filled with tree fluff, an indication of rot and disease. And the lean was not insignificant. The 140-pound climber with his gear was enough weight to cause considerable swaying. He made the decision that this work was too dangerous and came down.

Is the tree safe enough for now? I asked him. “For at least a year, maybe up to five,” he said. “Without branches, in its present state, it can’t catch wind and likely won’t fall on its own.”

It’s pathetic. Poor tree.

“But it will sprout branches,” he told me. “It wants to save itself and knows it needs the nourishment it gets from having leaves. It will do what it can to maintain its necessary internal circulation. Over time though, the new branches might form a kind of sail. By then the fungus that’s growing on the backside will have weakened it more. Between the sail that could take it down and the fungus that could eat it up, it’s going to die.”

Wouldn’t it be better to put it out of its misery? I asked.

“Yes, that would be better than a slow death.”

Taking the red oak the rest of the way down will require a bucket truck again, he said. This time, I knew, it would be on my nickel, a bigger nickel than the climber would have cost. I’ll have to think about this.

Twice yesterday I wanted to put a living thing out of its misery. Twice it was not within my power. Twice I was reminded that some things we can do, and some things we…just…can’t.


Now here is a conundrum. What do you do when a thing that creeps you out, makes your flesh woobly and jiggles your insides is actually good? When, as much as you want to destroy it with one fell chop on the neck or well-aimed whack of a shovel, you are indeed asking for more trouble?

Not everything that looks bad is bad. Not everything you want to obliterate ought to be obliterated. But put yourself in my shoes. Okay, my sandals.

You are walking toward your house, hands full. Mine were full of cleaning supplies, yours might have groceries or sporting equipment. You decide to go into the house by way of the back door – easier to drop off your stuff – and you head along the side of the house to where the staircase leads up onto the back deck. About ten paces away from the bottom step you look up and you do not like what you see.


Yup, a black snake. The question then is this: Is it a snake that’s black, or a black snake?

Snakes in general make me nervous, and someone told me a long time ago that juvenile copperheads look a lot like black snakes. Copperheads are bad, very bad, and they certainly live in my area.  You will spend $500 for a vet visit if your dog tussles with one. Copperhead bites (to pets or humans) are serious, though fatalities are rare and they will bite you only if you try to handle them or if you step on them. I got close enough to take a picture, but that’s it.

It turns out that juvenile copperheads don’t look a lot like black snakes (having one in what I consider my territory encourages googling them!), therefore this is not one of those I should worry about. Therefore I return to the conundrum. Black snakes are the kind of snakes you want in your vicinity. They eat unwanted rodents and other pests. They can even kill the copperheads! Still, they are snakes. Are they welcome or unwelcome? What is it about them that is sooooo unnerving?

Is it the no-legs thing? Is that just too weird? It is the slithering thing? Is it their ability to move vertically without seeming effort or grip? Is it the tongue that flicks in and out? Why do our fear and disgust sensors kick into high gear?


This photo gives you an idea of its size. Small, as snakes go. Harmless, as snakes go. But I don’t like it! I want it to go away!

Let’s get a little closer (and thank God for cropping tools!). Is it the eyes that chill my spine?

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Makes me think about other things we like as much as we dislike.

French fries come to mind. I love them, but if they are not in front of me I will not eat them, and that is infinitely better for my body.

What about our cell phones? How amazing is it that we can call people, message people, take/send photos/videos, do research, make reservations, calculate numbers, play games, etc, etc, etc. on one device, but go crazy when we can’t get a signal or when we are bombarded by robo-calls or when the battery dies at a very inconvenient time? We never used to have a way to tell someone we were five minutes away – we just gave our best estimate and got there when we got there. We never chatted with friends unless we were in the same room – but those in-person conversations were so much richer.

Thunderstorms? Loud and violent but bring much needed rain (usually) and have a wonderful majestic quality.

Airplanes? So unnatural being 30,000 feet up in the sky, but they do get us to faraway places quickly.

All right, I admit I don’t want French fries or cell phones or thunderstorms or airplanes to go away altogether (maybe just sometimes), and I don’t dislike them anywhere close to how much I dislike snakes. I admit there’s not much I dislike more than a snake. You have your own list of what rattles you to the core.

But black snakes serve a useful purpose despite their inherent eeriness.  I just don’t know what to do with myself when one shows up. Should I be grateful? Thank you for eating all the nasty little mice we don’t want getting into the attic or the basement. But what’s to stop the snake from getting into the chicken coop and feasting on eggs? Nothing. What’s to stop one from showing up on the deck of the cottage and terrifying my Airbnb guests? Nothing. It’s one thing to see wildlife like owls perched in nearby trees or eagles soaring overhead or foxes scampering through the woods. But snakes? No one wants a snake to appear uninvited — especially while enjoying a cup of morning coffee in a lounge chair under the canopy of trees. Okay, a few people might think it’s cool. But most won’t.

To be fair, they are not a common sight. I see a snake about every other year (which is plenty for me!). Perhaps being deep in the woods has an advantage. There’s enough forest all around me, enough natural wooded environment, that they don’t have to come up to the house. Usually they don’t. I wish they wouldn’t. Why can’t they just not come so close?

Betty Alights on Golden Hill

Right now in my corner of the world, temps are in the mid-60s, low breeze, clear skies, super air quality, perfect sleeping weather, perfect waking up weather. I wonder if that’s why a winged marvel decided to stop by.

Betty, her code name in Virginia, was surely on a scouting mission. She and umpteen others like her have been sent far and wide to check out and report on landing sites that could potentially turn into what her kind calls “home zones.” Points to consider include number, health and variability of maple and oak trees, hiding and nesting options, and the HIF (Human Interference Factor).

Daredevil Betty chose her alightment spot without hesitation, determining it to be both shady (she was hot and tired from the journey) and central (for gaining a full assessment of the surroundings). She touched down, initially unseen, and kept still as a stone, but was less than successful at the stealth part of her job description for two reasons.

  1. Boldly contrasting colors are not as inconspicuous as she thinks. She saw the soft gray-green of the siding, thought of her own soft yellow coloring and decided Yeah, that’ll work. But she momentarily forgot about her baby-girl-pink stripes. Color valuation was never her strong suit.
  2. Vanity got in the way. No one can blame her for thinking that her yellow hair, fine and fluffy, is her crowning glory, and no one can deny that the way it coordinates with the rest of her cape and sleeves is primo. No one can fault her for having an iota of hope that even while gathering intel for her superiors, she might be noticed and admired (and left alone).

Betty showed up quite nicely against the siding of the cottage.

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Is this for real?! Do we really live in a world where moths are the crayon colors a child would choose? The delicate wisps of fluff on the heads of these yellow-topped fuzzies, the tiny pincers that I assume work to gain it food or whatever else moths want, the near-perfect (but not quite because then it might as well be manufactured) symmetry of the coloration – you can’t make this stuff up! Betty caught my eye as I came up to the door. She is a Rosy Maple, apparently not altogether uncommon all the way up and down the East coast.

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Her report is as follows:

Location (1-10 scale):
Hidden – 9
Quiet – 10 (excepting resident and migratory wildlife and HIF)
Safe – 10 (excepting unanticipated newcomers)

Oak/Maple Ratio: 20:1

Aerial View of Alightment Spot:

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1. Gawky, squawky birds in secure enclosure, some attempting (though failing utterly) to mimic/compete with Rosy Maple hair style.


2. Unintelligent hard-shelled reptile stuck until rescued.

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3. Broken Oak (sheltering possibilities).

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Human Interference Factor:

Insignificant. Humans emerge from a domestic enclosure or arrive in loud vehicles; putz around briefly; make noise; move objects; tend to above-noted, enclosed, gawky, squawky birds; speak with each other as well as the assortment of clueless, funny-looking canines (see photos below) as if they can understand; and drive away or disappear back into domestic enclosure.

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Additional Observations:

Roses in bloom.

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Strawberries coming.

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Directional Assistance.



Observations and Assumptions: Optimal mix of open and wooded spaces. Oaks predominate dense treescape; far fewer maples than desired. Clear signs of benign activity (human and canine), restricted by their inability to fly, all notably innocuous excepting one human (sensed from behind while I was in stealth mode) with flat shiny black object that clicks; no harm occurred. Typical native wildlife unobserved on this visit includes hawks, eagles, owls and other snatchers; skinks and lizards and other quick-tongued crawlies; coyotes, foxes, wild turkeys and other larger predators undoubtedly intent on larger prey and therefore unimportant. Directional assistance could be handy.

Recommendation: Excellent home zone potential. For purposes of resting and nesting, this safe, viable location is well suited. 

Respectfully submitted,
Betty, R.M.


Work, Mess and One Terrifying Spider

Expecting the worst sounds so pessimistic, but it has its upside. If and when the thing comes to pass and is not as bad as you expected, you can be pleasantly surprised and a great deal relieved – positive emotions both, and most welcome. The truth of the matter is: Some things are wonderfully and surprisingly simple, uncomplicated, straightforward.

That doesn’t mean they are not work. That doesn’t mean they are not a mess. But work is good because it gives us problems to solve, which in turn makes us stronger in many ways. And messes are good because cleaning them up leaves you feeling like you accomplished so much.

At my house right now is both work and mess. But I expected more work and worse mess. Truly I am grateful. For seven years I have been thinking I had a problem. Here’s why.

In my house is a funky circular staircase that leads to the basement. The wall in that stairwell that faces the front foundation of the house has been, shall we say, compromised. That’s what that crack is, a compromised wall. Clearly something has been pushing at it from the other side.

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You can see that the sheetrock has separated along its seam and is pushing inward. It has been that way for seven years. Part of the reason for this problem, we assumed, is that on the other side of this interior wall is an exterior wall made of plywood. Yes, plywood.

In the late seventies, when this house was constructed, they thought a plywood foundation wall was a good idea. A few years later the company went out of business but that is water over the dam for me. I bought the house with the plywood foundation. Over the years I have had both architects and structural engineers tell me it was sound and solid, and I wanted to believe them, but I see that crack every time I go downstairs. Not good, I tell myself, that cannot be good.

I might have watched it a few more years, hoping it’s not a disgusting mess behind that wall just waiting for the tipping point of enough water pressure + enough rot. The land slopes toward the house, so imagine the pressure of all that earth – especially when it’s soaked with rainwater – against my wood foundation. I envisioned a muddy mess busting through some rainy night when numerous other problems were also on my plate and of course, when this happened, I would be here alone. Can you see the creepy creatures that might accompany the burst? Yick!

The work and the mess that are here now might not be as bad as I expected, and I know there are worse things on earth than giant wolf spiders. But encountering them is still a near-death experience for me. (You do NOT want a picture of these, trust me! You will have to use your own very capable imagination.) I had to deal with one this morning and my heart is still beating too fast. It was on the inside of the screen door of the sliding door, which was inside the house, meaning there was no way to get it outside, and no way to sleep at night without killing it.

The spray that kills hornets was standing nearby. If it kills hornets, it will kill a spider, right? I figured I’d spray through the screen right at it. What part of my brain thought that would kill it immediately, I don’t know, but the thing did not roll over and die. It moved! And they move fast. I kept spraying, making a line of spray on the little red rug that, until this morning, occupied that part of the floor. It got as far as the small wooden cabinet in the corner, and I went to step on it (though you have to know I could hardly look at the thing).

What I saw when I lifted my slippered foot was just a bit of ick. No mashed spider. That’s very bad. Where did it go? If I missed it crawl under the cabinet, I’m in big trouble. I looked. I didn’t want to see it. But I needed to. I didn’t see it. I looked around some more. Oh.

That seems to be a bit of leg sticking out from under the red rug. It took refuge under there, clearly not realizing it was not altogether hidden. Probably it was delirious from the poison, probably would just die, and soon, from all that stuff I sprayed on it. But I couldn’t take the chance. I had to step on it. I had to hear the sound. I did. I had to. When it was done I could know it was done and I would once again be safe.

Didn’t I just write yesterday about your home being a place where you feel safe?!

My heart was beating like mad by this time, but I’m finished. There was no more in me. I sat. I waited for Samuel to wake up. Finally he did. I asked him to please clean up the mashed spider from the underside of the rug. He is a wonderful son who just smiled and got a tissue and did the thing. Then I decided that the rug, with its ribbon of poison spray, is probably trash now because what if Coco’s tongue, the one that doesn’t fit in her mouth, happened to touch the poison? Yup, trash.

See what an exhausting time I had?

One time, when I first moved here, there was one of these creatures on the outside of my bathroom window screen. When I told a colleague that day at work about that near-death experience, she calmly said to me, “You live in the woods. That’s their territory.” She had zero sympathy. Zero. I have never forgotten it.

All right, I confess. It’s not just the image of muddy slime oozing into my basement along with all manner of slitherers and crawlies that forced this repair. (You KNOW there would be an army of those things coming through!) It’s also the money. In the end I care about the money. I want a new front porch. I know this old one doesn’t look that bad.

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But it is. Its rotting boards would probably hold up a little bit yet, but it’s fair to say that wanting a new front porch was turning into needing a new front porch. So if I need to spend money on a new front porch, it makes sense to fix what would be henceforth unreachable under that new porch before building said new porch. Imagine not fixing the problem, ignoring the problem, moving forward in hope that there is no problem, and then finding out that there is in fact a problem after investing a lot of work and money in something that renders that problem unfixable without investing more work and money.

As much as I wish that stairwell wall was flat and perfect, it isn’t. It’s mine. I own it. Buck up. Fix the foundation.

On Saturday the excavator was here. That night at almost 11pm, my plane landed and Samuel picked me up at the airport. We talked till 3am. I woke at 730, went outside, and saw the piles of dirt.

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Like I said, I came home to work and mess. But I love it. Despite the downside.

Tomorrow, when I have truly recovered from my near-death experience, I will explain where the piles went and how we fixed the wall. At the moment I am still exhausted!

Picky Chickens

I have had chickens for a grand total of almost ten years and today I saw something new. Let me back up.

Chickens love to eat. They eat all day long. They are forever scratching around looking for a bug or some crumb they missed the hundred other times they scratched in that spot. When I worked at the hotel I brought them buckets of carrot peels, old bread, cheese ends gone hard, table scraps, slightly wilty lettuce. Whatever the cooks had that would otherwise have gone in the food trash, they put in a five-gallon bucket for me to bring to my chickens. I had the best-fed and happiest chickens ever. I never saw the hens refuse anything that remotely looked green or like protein except what they physically could not manage, like the woody ends of asparagus or broccoli. Those they left. Everything else they devoured.

I went to a lobster fest today. Lobster, mussels, sausage, corn on the cob, salad, watermelon, amazing desserts. While we were making a mess with the lobsters and people were starting to finish up their plates and put them toward the center of the round table, I remembered my chickens. Wouldn’t they love this?

The manager ok’d it, so I went home with three bags full of leftovers. I thought the chickens would pick incessantly at those lobster shells for any remnant of meat left in them – same as they would with a chicken bone (sad but true), a t-bone or a pork chop bone. Some of them did! Good, normal chickens these are.

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But some of them didn’t!

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The silkies walked away, the d’uccle walked away, the black copper maran just looked at it.

Who rejects lobster?? Colonial prisoners protested, this we know. No, not lobster again! It’s true. Back in the day, way, way back in the day, when people committed crimes on Cape Cod and were put into prison, they were fed the cheapest, most abundant food, which at that time was lobster. Apparently the waters teemed with the meaty crustaceans. Lobster was like junk. After a while, the prisoners wanted something else – understandable to me because I’m not exactly a lobster fan myself (the salmon today was delicious!), but that’s not the point! These are chickens! They eat anything!

In the meantime, I do think I have some very grateful DEER! At dinnertime, two deer were grazing close to the house on the same side as the watermelon graveyard!

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Do you see them? I watched, tried to take decent photos from inside so as not to scare them (but failed, I know, on account of the screen and the window between us) and then my heart jumped as the young buck on the right headed straight for the graveyard!

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He must have smelled the rinds I pitched there earlier. (Sandy wanted to take a picture of me doing this, and did, well before the deer came along, meaning I did not expect to be glad for this picture!)


I’ll see what’s left of the lobster when I go check the chickens tomorrow. Maybe the ones who rejected it just had to warm to the idea. Maybe just before I arrived with my gift to them, they had just found a massive stash of fresh bugs and were full. We’re full and watching out waistlines. Maybe later we’ll pick at the lobster… Maybe they don’t see what the fuss is all about. Lobster, so what? Maybe they realized instantly that it’s soooo decadent they have to eat it in private. No one’s looking, right? I can eat my lobster now??

I wonder what I’ll find…

The Watermelon Graveyard

One thing I love about living in the country is that I can stand on my back deck and chuck my watermelon rinds into the woods. If I lived in a city, I couldn’t do this. If I lived in a developed neighborhood, or in an apartment building, or in a place with concrete rather than earth all around my house, I couldn’t. Please understand that I don’t have to chuck them. I have a legitimate way to get rid of trash. But I can chuck those rinds, so I do.

I also chuck the tea leaves out of my teapot behind the house. This requires less of a throwing arm and more of a sweeping fling, a technique I have pretty much perfected through years of practice.

I not only can chuck the rinds, I want to. Reasons abound. Among them:

Coco the Adorable, Samuel’s sweet pug, LOVES watermelon and eats more of it than you’d think she could. I, too, can eat quantities that would surprise some people. It’s a thing we do together. I no sooner take the beast of a melon out of the refrigerator and put the point of my biggest knife into it, than she is off the cushy spot on the couch she had been curled up in, seemingly fast asleep, and is at my feet with that face of hers staring up at me. Surely you won’t deny a nice dog like me a healthy snack??  She presents herself as if she is underfed, starving, neglected, pathetic – none of which she is, of course, but she does a mighty fine job of acting that way. I cave. You would cave too.coco begging (2).jpg

Our routine gave me an idea last year. If Coco likes watermelon, maybe other animals would too. If I have this many rinds from eating this much watermelon, I ought to think of a way to be smart about disposing of them. I do not exist to feed the wildlife in my woods, but I know that deer and mice and squirrels and whatever else are out there. And if I can make their day with free food AND get rid of bulky trash at the same time (without adding to the piles in the landfill) with no known reason why this is harmful in any way to anything, why shouldn’t I? It gives me a warm feeling to know that the wildlife can gnaw away to their heart’s content. Mind, I have never actually seen them do this, but I did check the watermelon graveyard for evidence the other day, and this is what I found:


Looks gnawed to me!

The graveyard, yes. This is the full picture of that area.

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If you look carefully, you can see the rinds, old and new, among the broken, fallen branches which, granted, the wildlife have to maneuver their way through in order to get to said rinds. No one said it was going to be easy. The pinker rinds are from yesterday, the whiter ones have been enjoyed (let me hope immensely) by my resident wildlife.

I stand at this corner of my deck.

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I bring my rinds and look out at this view.

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And I pitch them. It’s just woods, but it’s also a pretty steep hill that drops off quickly, steep enough to have to walk sideways up or down it at times, steep enough to have to hold onto trees for support at times. Walking down to the graveyard to get the photo of it was no walk in the park. Anything I throw from the corner of the deck in that direction is going to land partway down the hill. It’s far enough away from the house to feel “away” from the house, but close enough that I can reach it with a good throw.

I want credit for being smart enough not to invite wildlife to come too close to the house using food as an enticement. I want them to stay in the woods. I want to throw the rind as far as I can. Judging from the abundance in the graveyard, I have a fairly consistent range. I am not going to measure that. I don’t weigh myself either. I don’t need the number. I just know it feels like the right distance/weight for me, and that’s enough.

A good throw has its pleasure for me too. Many, many moons ago I played softball. I have no concrete evidence to support this next statement, but I remember my team making it to the all-stars tournament when I was probably 11. I was a pitcher, and you pitch underhand in softball (or you did back then) but you also have to know how to throw a ball overhand to get it quickly to the first baseman or whoever. My dad taught me how to throw a ball and I am fairly certain he had one goal in mind: Make sure this girl doesn’t throw like a girl!

I am not going to enter any throwing contests, but I can throw a ball. And if you can throw a ball, you can throw a watermelon rind, trust me. The rind is more fun to watch than a ball as it leaves your hand on its way to its final resting place in the woods for one good reason: it spins. You have to do it yourself to know how fun this is.

As you may have noticed, the graveyard also contains unwanted branches; these were cut from saplings closer to the house that I needed to get rid of. (You need only so many saplings near the house.) When I have to get rid of cut flowers that have seen better days, I make my way toward the graveyard and fling them in that direction too. The watermelon graveyard is a place of eternal rest (and decomposition!) for unwanted plant material.

Come to think of it, the tea leaves are what got me started with the idea to Give back to nature what nature produced. I get my loose Earl Grey tea at Foods of All Nations in Charlottesville. I put a teaspoon of leaves in the pot, pour in the boiling water, then use my nifty strainer. Some of the leaves end up in the strainer, but none of them in the cup – a great, well-tuned system. Most of the leaves stay in the pot. Cleaning up (later) means finding a way to get rid of whatever tea leaves and liquid is left in the pot. I don’t want to throw liquid in the trash can, nor tea leaves down my drain. The perfect solution seemed to be: Chuck them. Give the leaves back to the earth. Granted, the earth didn’t produce the tea leaves exactly here, but let’s not fuss about details.

The main thing is we ought to embrace the freedoms we have and celebrate them. Act on them, live them out, enjoy them, cherish them. I realize that chucking watermelon rinds would probably not give anyone else under the sun the thrill it gives me. I realize that there are other ways to get rid of loose tea leaves and that flinging them off my deck into my backyard will not matter one bit in regard to improving the soil quality (although maybe that’s why the weeds grow so well??). But I can chuck and I can fling! Not everyone has the freedom (and the right property on which) to do it. But I do. Yay! Other people have the freedom and circumstances to do other things that I can’t do. I hope they appreciate theirs the way I appreciate mine.


Watching Girls Watching Whales

We got lucky at Zoo Atlanta on Sunday. We watched the elephant munching his lunch, the tiger slinking as only tigers can and the gorillas lumbering about, vying for status. The bald eagle perched as if posing for us just a few arms’ lengths away, the naked mole rats moved bits of straw about and the baby pandas sat facing us in their black and white perfection. I love to see their sleek bodies, fluffy fur, insane talons, unique markings, hilarious expressions and fascinating form. I want to see their bulk and their grace, the way their heads are shaped and how their eyes connect (or don’t) with mine or how the wind makes them cock their heads to catch a whiff of something. But in the middle of a hot and humid summer day, I was also not surprised to see a lounging lion, snoozing sun bears and tired turtles.

An aquarium is a whole nother thing. Everything is moving at an aquarium. Optimal water temperatures can be maintained. If you go to almost any of the tanks – jellyfish, otters, sea horses – you see bubbles in the water, fantastically shaped and colored marine life and almost continual movement. For these animals, moving sleekly and majestically through the water is part of staying alive. For the people watching them, that movement is mesmerizing.

Case in point, my darling granddaughters, not only mesmerized on Saturday at the Georgia Aquarium,


but also genuinely thrilled! There it goes, one of the beluga whales making another round, flipping over, spinning, gliding, accelerating, diving, playing, smiling, peeking at us, showing off!

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The belugas are extraordinarily graceful, obviously powerful, delightfully cheerful. These gigantic, all-white creatures from the Arctic Ocean are not small. I’m not sure of the stats on these individuals, but belugas can get to be 18 ft (5.5 m) long and up to 3,530 lb (1,600 kg). They can swim backwards, sideways and upside down. I loved watching them, but I was drawn even more to the five-year-old and four-year-old in my charge for whom nothing else in the world existed at that moment. The girls alternately oohed, aahed, squealed with delight, pointed and exclaimed, “Whoa! Look! Look!”


Other marvelous creatures inspired our awe as well. The sea urchins that you touch with two fingers together, the sea dragons that look like they could breathe fire if only they weren’t under water, the massive whale sharks that move hauntingly among the groupers, sea turtles, manta rays and hundreds of others, the dolphins that eject like rockets out of the water and touch a ball suspended 30 feet above them – these animals are absolute wonders of our world. I’m grateful to all those many people who worry about them, care for them, advocate for them – very grateful – but I am most grateful that what they do makes it possible for me to bring two sweet, wonderful little girls to see them, marvel at them, delight in them.

When is the last time you were awed by a majestic animal showing its stuff? For an even more awesome experience, take a child or two along. Watch them stare in amazement, watch them touch the sea urchins with two fingers carefully pressed together, listen as they recount the day and tell you from their experience that “You can’t touch the belugas!”

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The Flip of a Toad

Can a dog hear a toad through an exterior wall? Can she smell it? I wonder about that because last night Coco jumped off the couch around 10:15 and gave me the let’s-go-out look. She does not normally do this. Normally I tell her It’s time, c’mon and she gives me the do-I-have-to look.

I oblige when she asks because she knows her own needs. I soon realized that if she had a need, it was not a need to do business but a need to play. Either that, or the need to play immediately commandeered the need to do business.

Right outside the door, in the inner corner of the front porch against the wall of the house, was Mr. Toad. We can safely assume it was the same fellow as last time when we found him next to the planter box, which from a toad’s point of view is just as much a wall. He likes walls.closer eyeing (2)

Coco did not waste time but went right up to him and began the whole domination thing again. Do you see who’s bigger, Mr. Toad? I am bigger. Make no mistake about it.

domination (2)

Poor Mr. Toad. Trapped and timid, he stayed glued to the spot for a few moments, then did a remarkable thing when Coco leaned in a bit too far. He flipped himself over! (Okay, maybe toads do this routinely and I am as clueless about them as I am about backhoes and biscuit joiners, but it seemed pretty remarkable to me!)

flipped 1

Coco couldn’t stand it of course. She had to get closer.


In case you have never seen what a toad looks like upside down, up close and personal, this is it. Complete submission. Please don’t hurt me. I’m just a little toad. I mean no harm.

flip close up (2)

This toad got me thinking about submission. Generally it gets a bad rap, but we do it all the time.

Submission: the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.

Life doesn’t work unless we yield to forces and authorities beyond ourselves.

  • Someone else designed and built the vehicle you willingly drive. You trust that it’s not going to fail or crash. Driverless cars will add another level of trust.
  • Someone else grew, harvested, transported and prepared the food you willingly eat. You trust that it’s not going to make you sick.
  • Someone else built the house you live in. You trust that the roof isn’t going to cave in and water won’t leak through the window seals and the electricity is safe.
  • Someone else guards your neighborhood or steps in when there’s serious trouble. You trust that you and your family can sleep safely at night.
  • Someone else cleans your teeth, prescribes your medications, oversees your medical situation. You trust that they will not hurt you.
  • Someone else watches your children, your dog, your elderly parents. You trust that they will take good care of those you love.

We are all a little like the flipped-over toad. His eyes are open, as ours should be. He is protecting himself as much as he can (limbs drawn in to cover his soft belly), as we do in our own way (whether we have soft bellies or not!). Why he chose to be on my porch instead of a potentially safer spot in the first place is another point we could ponder, but since we cannot ask him, and maybe it’s none of our business anyway, we will assume he exercised his best judgment at the time and that’s just where he landed.

Clearly this toad also understands that despite his open eyes and shielded belly, he is still highly vulnerable and, if toads can hope – a big if, I grant you – must hope for the best when the situation is precarious. So must we and should we, for we know that we in turn are watching someone else’s children or prescribing their medications or making their food or building their houses, and we know that we are doing it to the standards we would want for ourselves.

Remember not to be like the master builder who was at the end of his career and couldn’t wait to retire. His boss said to him, “I just need you to build one more house for me.” Reluctantly the builder agreed but because it was the last one, he didn’t care anymore. He went as fast as he could, took all kinds of shortcuts and did sloppy work. He knew there would be major problems with that house, but he didn’t care. It would be someone else’s headache. All this time, his boss did not see what was going on – he had always been able to trust this builder to do outstanding work. When the builder told his boss he was done, his boss reached into a drawer and handed him a key. “Enjoy your new home,” he said. “My gift to you for all your years of service.”

Coco would have stared at and possibly pawed at and tormented that toad for a long time, but at 10:15pm we are not out there for playtime. I tried getting her attention, but she just looked at me like Hey, busy here.

looking at me

I picked her up and brought her to the grass. She did her thing and back up on the porch she trotted. I was a little disappointed in her nose because she did not head straight for the toad that, same as last time, had not used his window of opportunity to make a mad dash for a place of safety.

Where is it? I know it’s here somewhere!

looking for it

There is no place to hide in the inside corner of my porch (unless you are a blue-tailed skink of course, in which case you have all kinds of options, plenty of cracks to slide into). The toad was still there, but had gotten braver in that half minute, had decided to forget the whole upside-down, evoke-pity thing.

He had flipped himself back over and was going to stand up to the giant.

right side up

Coco got closer. Here we go again. What is it?

The power (domination!)?

The smell (yum!?)?

The intrigue (hmmm….)?

The weirdness (what the…??).

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Coco doesn’t know it, but sometimes she’s the toad. So she better watch out! (And I had better watch her!) Just yesterday morning, my Airbnb cottage guest said to me as they were leaving, “Look, I have to show you what we saw last night.” And she pulled out her phone and showed me a photo clearly showing…

owl 7.29

… an owl in a tree just next to my house. It is not a small one. It has a powerful grip and very sharp eyes. I suspect it would not dominate Coco in the toying, tentative way that Coco dominates the toad. It would simply eat her.

Is it altogether safe in the country? No. Is it altogether safe in the city? No. It is altogether safe nowhere. Are we always strong? We are strong only sometimes, and often only for a little while. Do we always have to yield to forces and authorities beyond ourselves? No. Like the toad – even when we are upside down – we keep our eyes open and our self-protection mode in place, and usually things work out. We do our best. We eat well, stay healthy, put our best foot forward, make good choices, associate with good people and contribute our bit to the well-being of our family and our community. We believe that (and for the most part it is true that) others are looking out for us as we are looking out for them. Like the toad in his vulnerable position, we sometimes just have to hope and pray for the best. I don’t know if toads pray, but I’m sure they would do that too if they could.

“C’mon, Coco. Leave the poor toad alone! We’re going inside.” Given the choice of staying outside by herself in the dark (not that I would leave her there!) or coming into the house with its cushy couch pillows, she made the smart choice. Good dog.

Yanking My Way Through the Jungle

About three weeks ago my friend Fred came for a visit. I don’t know what you do with your friends but sometimes with mine we end up at Lowe’s. Among other useful things, we bought a three-pack of hot pink garden gloves (for me, not for Fred). The palm side is coated with a waterproof layer of some kind of plastic and the back-of-the-hand side is a stretchy cloth to breathe and flex with your movements. They were shiny and clean, but not for long. This is what they look like today. You can see I used one pair for painting the bench.


The same thing happens to me when I get rubber gloves for cleaning with detergent water. I end up blowing through the right fingertips. At this very moment there are at least three perfectly good left-hand rubber gloves in my cleaning supply cabinet.

I need gloves. My hands would be torn to pieces without them. Last week I found myself yanking my way through this jungle in the back corner of my garden. This is how it looked when I just got started.


In the very back corner there is a wooden box that my boys built years ago as a compost box. Trust me. Guess what I will find hiding next to it when I get there.


When you have a job like this in front of you, there is nothing for it but to Just Do It. Yank, yank, breathe. Yank, yank, breathe. I felt like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner must have when they hacked their way through the Columbian jungle after (one of the times) they got away from the bad guys in Romancing the Stone. At least I’m fairly certain I will not come upon a downed airplane with a rotting corpse inside!


I’m aware it is the middle of July. Had I done this section sooner, it would not be so dense and high. But there was the chicken coop and the viewing deck and the strawberry patch and the bench with my uncle…


You just have to keep going. By this point the wheelbarrow was so full it would hardly hold more. But I was like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel – he had quite forgotten to leave a way out, and I had quite forgotten to make one! There’s a door at the back of the garden. Go through that and you come to Weed Mountain. The size of this mountain stays remarkably the same over time no matter how many weeds you add to it. Rain and decomposition counterbalance the additions.


I had to make a path to the door. One side of the door anyway. One side would serve (best to be expedient here). Those are blackberry and raspberry bushes gone crazy on the left. I’ll get to them another day when I have way thicker gloves. The thorns in those off-shoots are nasty.


I used my (isn’t it beautiful?) newly created path to get to Weed Mountain, emptied my load, then turned my attention toward the compost box in the corner – look at the next picture and you see it now, don’t you? (I didn’t think so.) Surely though, you can see that I do not get every single weed. A few survive my yanking. I return for a second pass later, and will get most of the stragglers then. We all have a style and I have mine, thank you.


Yank, yank, breathe. Yank, yank, breathe. As I slowly revealed the box, I found a little fellow.


He had had the right idea, and I commend his choice of location along the right side as close to the deer fencing as he could get. No way, he had said to himself, no way is anyone going to find me way back here. Foiled!


That’s the box. I told you it was there. Almost done, just keep going…


The little fellow had been in the shady weeds before I came along, so I moved him into the shadow to the left of the box:


See him back there? It was a good idea I thought, but he didn’t like it. Either that or he was so traumatized by being found and then moved, he had to find a more private place, and of his own choosing. (Damn humans.) I got busy with the next section and didn’t see him again.

Finally the area was decent. I didn’t say perfect. Fred had to tell me several times when he was here that “Perfection is the enemy of good.” I wonder what prompted him to tell me that. It reminds me of a saying I got from Claudia when she was here from Germany in the fall: Zu viel nimmt weg von genug, literally Too much takes away from enough. I.e. leave it alone, it’s enough. When it comes to weeding, you have to know when enough is enough. This is enough, don’t you agree?


Someday I might plant something back here, but in the meantime I’m just going to mulch over it and forget about it.

You already knew that my gloves are shot. And for some reason my fingers are sore. But oh, the jungle is tamed! And you see I also pulled those beetle-eaten Brussels sprouts from the last planter box. It all looks much neater now. Almost civilized.

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And did I mention the bench is finished?

finished bench 1.jpg


Domination, Pug Style

Last night when I took Coco out for her nightly, she didn’t make it past the brick walk because a toad was sitting there next to the planter box, just minding its own business. This was not the first time I saw this toad (I assume this same toad) on the bricks like that. It was nighttime, just like the times I saw it before, dark enough to need a flashlight. Maybe the bricks retain the heat of the day and the toad likes it. Whatever its reason, if it has reason, it sits there. From my height I might easily overlook it or mistake it for a leaf blown in or a rock that got kicked there. We are outside for one purpose only. Toads are not on the agenda.

Coco instantly fixated on it. Neither dog nor toad moved a muscle.

Toad: If I just sit here, maybe that gigantic creature will go away.

Coco: Now what am I supposed to do?

Coco toad 4

The toad appeared to rely on its ability to camouflage itself here the way it does when it sits in the dirt. Very often you pass by such creatures and never see them at all. Dogs, even pugs with a comical faces, need no lessons, no direction, no encouragement. Dogs have dog noses. They know a toad when they smell one.

“No,” I said matter-of-factly, “this is not why we are out here.” It was late and I was tired. Coming out here so she could do her business was the last thing before bed. Coco, however, does not understand English beyond five simple words, including her favorite, “treat!” At that moment, except for this toad, nothing else in the world existed for her. (I’m sure I could have said “treat!” and she would not have moved.)

I picked her up — we don’t need a leash where I live, and she wasn’t about to come of her own accord — and relocated her to the fallen leaves at the edge of the yard, this apparently being enough of a signal and change of scenery to remind her of the purpose of the outing. She obliged, good dog. Off she trotted back toward the front door.

Lo and behold, the toad!

Coco toad 3

It’s a toad all right. Not a very smart one. Clearly it did not realize that I had removed a much larger creature with teeth. It had not used the window of opportunity to find a hiding place.

Instantly Coco fixated on it again. I wonder: Did she forget about the toad when I physically removed her from its presence (“oh, look, leaves, I know what to do in leaves”)? Did she refocus her energy to the business we went out there for and then discover the toad anew when we came back toward the porch? Or did she acquiesce when I picked her up (“fine, I’ll go do my thing, that toad isn’t going anywhere”)? Did she humor me knowing she’d get no peace to enjoy her prize until and unless she obliged?

I have evidence of the toad’s intelligence, but just how smart is the dog?

Coco toad 2

Whether she thought she was lucky enough to discover a toad twice in one night or was simply glad to get back to it after humoring me, this was an unexpected thrill for her. I grant that. I gave her a moment to relish the domination or fascination or whatever might be in her pug brain. I see it from both sides.

Toad: Uh… this is a rather dangerous situation.

Coco: It’s my turn to be the big, strong one.

I let the toad feel its vulnerability. I let Coco feel her power. I watched as she moved closer. One could rightly say she towered over the little toad.

Coco toad1

Those paws remembered their ancient job. Harass the object of domination. See if you can get it to move. Sure enough, one little tap and the toad jumped. I gave this game about ten seconds to play out, watched the toad (finally!) hop to a safe spot under the porch, then had had enough. I was tired. It was time for bed. “C’mon, Coco.” She knew she was beaten and followed me in.

This morning it was still dark at 530. Once again I needed the flashlight to take Coco out. Don’t you know, there was that toad again. The bricks couldn’t still be warm, so perhaps there is another reason it goes there. The same scene played out: Coco fixated, the toad froze, I got impatient and relocated Coco to do her business, she obliged, we walked back to the house, same toad still there, Coco assumed domination stance.

This could be interesting, I said to myself. I left the flashlight on the railing pointing toward the dog towering over the toad and went inside to get my camera. It didn’t take me more than 30 seconds to do this.

When I got back, no toad. Slobber hanging from Coco’s mouth — not her prettiest moment. Considerable licking going on. Pugs do that sometimes. They stick their too-long tongues out over and over again. Like a broken record they repeat the curling motion. The unique sound that accompanies this habit sometimes gets annoying. It’s gross even when you aren’t wondering if they just ate something they shouldn’t.

What just happened?

She is not, as a rule, a slobbering dog. The licking did not make the slobber go away. I used a paper towel and wiped it off. She did her where’s-breakfast dance as usual and I made her sit and stay as usual. Still the licking. More slobber. Another paper towel. Should I feed her? Did she already have breakfast? Outside? In the form of a toad? Could she really have eaten it that fast? Toads have bones. Did she swallow them too? Toads have blood. The slobber didn’t. Do I want to think about this?

I gave Coco a little less food than usual. She inhaled it as usual and found her spot against the pillows on the couch as usual.

Coco on couch

I decided that this comes into that category of things we don’t know, we can’t know and maybe, sometimes, we don’t want to know. If there is a toad on the walk when we go out tonight, I’ll assume I saw the slobber of hope, the slobber of anticipation, the slobber of disappointment. If there’s not, well, what would you assume?

My son Samuel said to me just last night – on a completely different subject – that to him, a person’s ability to know the limits of their intelligence, their understanding, their abilities is an impressive marker of their development. To know that you don’t know everything, to be able to admit this, to be open to learning something new – these things set you apart. They indicate humility, a far more admirable trait than arrogance. They portend success because people who see themselves realistically and who are willing to see a new perspective or try a new approach are going to be nicer to be around and going to stretch and strengthen their intelligence, understanding and abilities, i.e. going to know more in the long run.

Did the dog eat the toad? I don’t know!

Somehow  I don’t think this kind of not knowing is what he had in mind. I don’t think it qualifies as impressive.

Uh-oh. More licking is happening…