Practicing Loving Kindness to the Polar Vortex

Disclaimer: This was originally posted in January, 2014, to Hothouse Online Magazine which is sadly no more. After making the discovery of its disappearance from the public domain, I am re-posting the piece here because it deserves a home on the Internet.

Practicing Loving Kindness Towards the Vortex

I have sure heard a lot of complaining going on with this polar vortex thing. I have done my share too. You are probably complaining about the vortex as you read this. Or maybe you are reading this on one or another of your pads while on the bus, and you hear for the umpteenth time a grandma seated next to you beside a younger man, probably her son, probably on the way to fill a prescription, and the grandma is saying, “What is a polar vortex, anyway?”

And the son says back something about how air currents in the arctic have slipped down further south than usual causing half the country to shiver in unison. If he’s a progressive thinker he might say this weather could be traced back to human induced climate change, as an extreme warming event in the polar regions has the capacity to disrupt the mechanisms that usually keep the arctic cold in its place. Or he could have recently listened to Rush Limbough tell his followers that the term polar vortex was essentially invented by fear mongers promoting their leftist agenda. You might want to ask him what exactly this leftist agenda is, and how a hoax about climate change would aid the media in their ongoing leftist assault, but most likely your feet are quite cold, and you have got your scarf wound so tight it practically serves as a gag, and you remind yourself of your tried and true rule to never engage with anybody on the bus.

No matter the city name stamped on the side of this bus that is now crusted over with road salt, the grandma beside you might remind her son that in fact, looking back through her long life she cannot remember such cold. You know that grandmas along with all the rest of us sometimes suffer selective memory. Still, in a lot of places we have not felt such extended cold in a quarter to a half-century. On top of that, the low temperatures come as a shock after basking in over a decade straight of above average global temperatures.

Don’t let me, or that guy or his grandma, or anybody on the bus undermine your predicament though.   Your dislike of this cold is justified.   Climate change or not, frozen toes or not, seasonally affected to the point of disorder or not, our problems are all relative, and you are plumb worn out with this weather system that seems to have intentionally plopped right down on your head.

I was tired of it too.   I will tell you what I did to break out of that coldest of clouds. I started practicing loving kindness.

See, this winter has been so cold, so dark, so full of complaint that I recently found myself in a hole of doom and gloom, perusing my bookshelves for some bit of wisdom or salvation to get me through the bleak weeks ahead. There I stumbled upon a book probably purchased in the depths of some winter past.

The book talks about breathing and gratitude. It is one of those books. Deep in the heart of the polar vortex, with no immediate alternative entertainments, I helped myself to a heavy dose of self-help, and then, as the book suggests, I drew up a gratitude list geared towards my worst enemy. According to the book, I should eventually learn to include my worst enemy in my circle of loving kindness.

After wracking my brain for a worst enemy, an engaging winter pastime in itself, I realize my worst enemy has essentially got me surrounded. As far as enemies go, this cold, this blasted polar vortex, outranks them all.

By practicing loving kindness towards the vortex, I hope to set myself free from the binding traps of inaction and discontent that my disgust for this winter weather have set upon me. Through love I will set myself free. You can go there too. If you haven’t tried it, you should make a gratitude list of your own. Not a list making person? No problem, you can borrow mine. I have been inside revising it all day. I mean, come on, it’s not everyday a girl even manages to change out of her pajamas.

Anyhow, I thank the polar vortex for so very many reasons.

  1. The polar vortex has forced me into relative stillness and afforded the down time to write this wonderful list. Had other weather conditions prevailed, I might be out doing practically anything.
  1. The vortex might be enough to kill off some booming populations of pine beetle in the west or deer ticks in the east.
  1. The cold offers an excuse to snuggle up inside with a coco or a whiskey or whatever.
  1. This much cold should remind us about trying to save energy. When knit caps, slippers, and long johns become mandatory indoor attire, we get motivated to seek out the drafts and seal them up.
  1. If you’re brave enough to venture out, you get the fun all to yourself. Winter is about wearing enough of the right kind of clothes.   Layer up and go admire the snow sparkle through those few precious hours of daylight.
  1. Who doesn’t appreciate an excuse to wear wool socks?
  1. Speaking of precious hours of daylight, check out the sun. I am not only grateful for the sun, I am grateful for my gratitude towards the sun. Follow that?
  1. Romantic partners become all the better with their bonus offerings of warmth appeal.
  1. This weather event has proven major enough to cause our country’s hordes of dislocated consumers to notice weather happens. That must have some sort of net positive effect on the nation’s collective psyche?
  1. The sound of trees popping with cold is a good sound.
  1. The sound of snow creaking underfoot, it is good too. Where tree popping jolts the spine with electricity, snow creaking adds a mellow accompaniment to the song of winter.
  1. Chickadees seem all the heartier when seen bopping around on days like these.
  1. Thinking about fat black bears sleeping right through all this blustering gives me the warm fuzzies inside.
  1. Let’s face it; frozen nostrils are a delight. Don’t agree? Aside from pain, what other physical experiences hit you with such blunt force? I bet you can count them on one hand. Sex, drugs, and frozen nostrils.
  1. The modern pleasure of indoor plumbing cannot be overrated.
  1. Shoveling is good exercise.
  1. The polar vortex extends to us long stretches of nothing much to do but lurk about in kitchens, and all that cold sure spurs the appetite.   Yum to soups and cream sauces, chicken stock, stew and gravy.
  1. People look cute and funny when bundled up and hunched deep in their knit-ware.
  1. Steam condenses on the innards of coffee shop windows and makes for the most intimate, cozy atmosphere.

Speaking of intimate, cozy atmospheres, did you miss your stop? Practicing loving kindness can do that to you. Recognize this moment as the first shift in the necessary realignment of your priorities. But, oh, your toes are still cold, and now you have to backtrack three blocks into the biting wind? Isn’t it good to be alive?

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Send Your Gaze Upward

Sometimes the news gets to be too much. Sometimes I shut down the laptop, throw the newspaper in the fire, and take a walk to bounce all newsy thoughts right out of my head. I did that today. Well, the newspaper to fire is hyperbole. I don’t have a fireplace and I don’t read the newspaper, but I did turn off my computer when I realized neither memorizing the profiles of compromised OkayCupid matches, nor habitually clicking on employment pages, nor browsing Craigslist for an apartment with a fireplace were tasks that much improved my immediate state of mind or the world at large.

Robin in TreeSo I took a walk. On my walk not only did I bounce the newsy thoughts out of my head, I also gave my carpal tunnel clickers a break, and then I looked up past my navel, away from all flat screens, and out into a complex and textured beyond. That is when I heard a robin sing. There it was, high in an otherwise still bare treetop, its chest a puff of color in the fading dusk.

Oh for those who have never endured a Midwestern winter, that have never felt the tentative March sun linger into evening, that have never felt the hopeful tremble that the news of the robin song awakens, may you find an equivalent.  If you look you are bound to find, so seek with intention.

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Book Review: Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz had me curious even before I cracked open this suspense thriller.  Schwarz hails from Wisconsin, also my home state.  Her author photo makes her out to be about my age when she wrote this book, and the back cover hints that this is her first novel.  Poor Christina had a lot to live up to with me as a reader.  I openly admit that I get a little competitive when I discover that I am reading an author’s first novel, but I didn’t go into this book entirely biased towards skepticism.  I am always looking for good books by women, especially books that stray from the conventional theme of child rearing.  Also, I have enough hold on my writer insecurities to appreciate, cheer on, and find inspiration from other young writers.

I think I am on a real history kick lately, and I also appreciate heavily place-based stories.  Drowning Ruth won me over with its descriptions of Wisconsin lake country in the years leading up to and through the First World War.  The plot of the book twists and turns in clever ways, ways that I don’t want to ruin by giving too much background away too soon.  So, let me keep to the general themes and ideas.

This story does center upon the theme of child rearing and more specifically family, but it managed to approach the subjects from a fresh angle.  Although it was suspenseful, the characters mostly seemed driven by realistic motivations.  Sometimes, when I read suspense novels, I feel like the plot overwhelms the characters and causes them to act in ways that propel the story but are not that believable.  Drowning Ruth rarely, if ever, falls into this trap.  On the contrary, the plot allows for an examination of the social expectations placed upon women in this past era and by extension, today.  It’s also simply a fun page turner.

If I have one criticism of this book, it is that the male characters are underdeveloped in comparison to the female characters.  Granted, the book revolves around the relationship of two sisters and a daughter, but much of the story’s action is driven by the women’s reactions to the men.  Therefore, the story could have been strengthened with a deeper understanding of what catalyzed the men’s actions.  The book I read immediately after this one centered upon a man’s experiences fighting in the First World War.  That book’s descriptions of the brutality men suffered in the war led me to consider how those experiences played out in the actions of veterans in Drowning Ruth.  Basically, that aspect of the era was overlooked in this story.

Maybe though, in hoping to round out certain characters, I envision a much more ambitious novel that would have to take on a whole new style and form.  In other words, Drowning Ruth already achieves what it set out to achieve.  I recommend this story to anyone who might appreciate a new and engaging take on familiar themes such as family, social norms, and obligation.

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Love Birds

Such a Lonely BirdJo Jo was a lonely bird, maybe the loneliest bird.  For six years she lived all alone.  She woke each day to call out to no answer.  She called out a bit and ate a bit, and otherwise passed her days huddled next to a small mirror where perhaps her reflection offered some small comfort of assumed company.

The people in Jo Jo’s life tried to help her forget how all alone she was.  They bought her toys and hung them from the bars of her cage.  Jo Jo took no interest.  They brought her food treats.  She continued to eat just enough to stay alive.  They gave her fresh water each morning, and in doing so, they sighed at her situation, wished they had never inherited this lonely bird.  They scolded the cat when the cat drew too near, same with the dogs, but sometimes they wondered; might it not be better to go down with one quick crunch than to continue on in this way?

The days stretched out before Jo Jo, each the same, nothing new, nothing changed, no hope in sight, no reason to think about hope.

And then one day he appears.  Out of nowhere he appears.  His feathers glow bold with saturated yellow, green, and blue.  He fluffs those feathers out so his chest becomes a barrel, and then he calls to her.  She sings in response.  A small, melodious conversation begins between the birds, and it does not stop.  For a day this other bird talks and eats, talks and eats from a cage all his own.  Jo Jo watches, pressed against the bars of her cage so as to get the very best view.  The new bird sleeps then sleeps some more.  Does Jo Jo recognize this other bird had its own trials before it came here?

Some kids, out playing beside a pond just past Jo Jo’s view from the window,  spotted something bright, something out of place.  They asked Jo Jo’s people, “Are you missing a parakeet?”

Sure as any day of any week in the past six years, Jo Jo sat and waited in her cage beside the window.  The people said, “No, we are not.”

But maybe they were wrong, and they just didn’t know it yet.

The kids caught the bundle of color, and the people brought it inside while they wondered, “What are the chances?”

For two days the birds sing and cluck and click at one another between their cages.  On the third day, the people decide it is time for an experiment.  Jo Jo protests when a hand reaches into her home, grabs her, and moves her to this new home with its new occupant.  As soon as the hand goes away, Jo Jo’s protests end.  It is not much of an experiment, because the idea proves so exactly right.

From the start the two birds share a perch, so when they rest they sit together side by side.  But usually they seem very busy.  Sometimes he gobbles seeds and then he feeds her.  To the people, it looks like they give little bird kisses.  Jo Jo sings.  This new bird sings.  They perform little dances with bobbing heads and fast feet.  He puffs his feathers.  She preens her feathers.  She preens his feathers.

The people watch and smile.  This one thinks, “So this is where ‘love birds’ comes from.”

Each morning Jo Jo wakes to face a string of days.  She sings, and the people hear her song from their own nests of sleep.  The song reminds them that sometimes something even better than hope comes along.

Note: This is not a photo of Jo Jo and Buster.  They flipped out when I tried to get a picture.  I guess their love is a private thing.

Note: This is not a photo of Jo Jo and Buster. They flipped out when I tried to get a picture.

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A.B. Guthrie and The Big Sky Series

It is time for some overdue book reviews.  I’ve been on a Western American history kick, and today I would like to share a few words on two books by one of my latest favorite Western American authors.  The Big Sky and The Way West were written by the late A.B. Guthrie, a longtime resident of Montana.  I enjoyed Guthrie’s work so much, I wanted to learn more about him.  Who was this man who used his words to paint intimate portraits of the landscape and people of the early American West?  Turns out, he was a real character.  In my favorite interview, conducted with Guthrie when he was 86, four years before his death in 1991, while discussing his family life, and explaining that many of his nine siblings did not live past early childhood, Guthrie is asked if he was a precocious child, “I was an ornery little bastard.”  Asked why he goes by the name, Bud, he replies, “Because Alfred Bertram is a sissy name.”

If you would like to hear more from Guthrie, and begin to understand how a gruff and tough Montana man can accurately portray a vast range of characters and situations ranging from the complex emotions of mountain men forced to stand by as they watch their way of life melt away, to the conflict and strength of early pioneer women as they cross the continent by wagon on the Oregon trail, check out the interview at, Writers of the West: Remembering A.B. Guthrie.

The Big Sky and The Way West are the first two books in a series of four that together chronicle the changes visited upon the West beginning in the early days of the American fur trade and closing with the cattle boom of the 1880’s.  Big Sky follows the lives of three mountain men, detailing their first trip as Greenhorns up the Missouri River, and closing years later, the way of the early mountain man lost to Western expansion.  The Way West picks up a few years later, and follows a family on their journey from the farm they leave behind in Missouri through the trials of life as members of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail.  Dick Summers, a seasoned mountain man and star of The Big Sky, joins the train as a scout, having given up the vanishing mountain man ways to become a farmer, only to realize his heart remains in the vast open reaches of the West.

Guthrie covers tremendous ground through the telling of his tales.  His stories carried me away, so that I too could see the unbroken landscapes and people of the West before and through Western expansion.  I have little patience for poorly rendered pictures, so it is telling that Guthrie’s descriptions of people and place kept me up all night turning the pages.

Guthrie’s style demonstrates his authority on all things Western history.  From his ability to employ the vernacular of the times, to his detailed descriptions of the era’s tools, medicine, and social sentiments, Guthrie asserts his authority as an author.  This is not to say that Guthrie puts himself on the page.  In the Remembering A.B. Guthrie interview, he speaks to this when he says, “I happen to be a writer who can’t bury the author on the page. Any sign of him and I’m through.”

It is this knack for letting the stories and the characters speak for themselves that makes Guthrie’s novels stand out as some of the best historical fiction I have read to date.  So, if these warm summer days have you looking for a book that meets the restless spirit of adventure that super moons and thunderstorms stir in the likes of avid readers, or if you’re looking for just the right book to pack in your suitcase headed for summer vacation, check out The Big Sky Series.

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The Tongue River Legacy Project Top Ten

Site of Otter Creek Proposed Coal MineBack from hiatus, I have news to share.  I have been busy putting together a summer project, the type of project that could ripple out goodness into this world.  You should check it out at

Yes, the link above takes you to our campaign donation page.  We have less than two weeks to raise the money necessary to get this project out of my head and into action.  At the link, you can find a video and lots of photos and text that explain why exactly we think it is a good idea to record and share the oral histories of the Tongue River valley in Southeastern, Montana as a means to fight back against the proposed coal mine and coal train that threatens to destroy the integrity of this place.  Here are ten reasons I think you, as readers of this blog, will feel inspired to help out.

1. The other day I was talking with some friends about our family histories.  We got out a large atlas (tactile versus a computer btw) and we each pointed to the various places our ancestors lived.  Later, as I looked at my map of Montana it hit me that many of the people I plan to interview for this project can point to one place on a map and say, “This is where my family has always lived.”

1.5  The Tongue River Legacy Project focuses on a particular valley and the people who call it home, but this is a story that reaches beyond this specific place.  The Tongue River Legacy Project is here to remember and celebrate our histories and the land that supports us.  In sharing these specific stories, I hope to help others rediscover and reconnect with their own stories.

2.  I like to share my photos with you here on my blog.  When you donate to this campaign, you ensure a summer full of images of a place that cannot be beat for its aesthetic charms.  I want everyone to see this place.

3.  The Tongue River valley is only minutes away from the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  This weekend I hope to go there to watch the reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand.  People know their history here, because it surrounds them; the land speaks of it.

4.  The people in this valley give equal voice to their ancestors and their future descendents.  It’s a lesson worth sharing and practicing.

Raising Beef Near the Tongue River5.  If you like steak, chances are, you’ve eaten a product of the Tongue River valley.  You have a bit of the Tongue River flowing in your blood.

5.5  Speaking of products of the Tongue River valley, let’s think about coal for a moment.  When we focus in on our history, doesn’t it make the idea of the limited returns and long term consequences of coal extraction feel all the more absurd?  If we work together to stop this coal mine, we keep 1.2 billion tons of coal in the ground.  What has your weather been up to of late?  Climate change is already happening in a big way, yet there are people out there trying to sell us the idea that short term monetary gains for a few already wealthy, greedy, sneaky dudes will benefit us all.  They’re telling us this archaic form of energy, slated for use in China, is worth the destruction of tradition, of a landscape, of the future.  I’m getting heartburn now, because I’m festering over how stupid they think we are.

6. There’s an 80 plus year old rancher down that way who rides his horse after his cows every day, and it would break his heart if a coal mine and coal train broke his land.

7.  Hauling Hay Beside Tongue RiverI recently toured the site of the proposed coal train.  Various local residents stood at the front of a large and packed bus, and pointed out site after site of cultural significance that will be altered or obliterated with the construction of a coal train.  At one point, we stopped beside a farm owned by an Amish family.  We got off the bus to greet one of the farmers who was hauling hay with a horse drawn cart.  He pointed at his home down in the valley, just as a coal train representative pointed at his portable computer, boasting of the GIS and mapping capacity.  He showed me on the screen where the train line cut through the valley’s contours just as the farmer described how the line will cut between his family’s home and his hay barn.

8.  The stories I gather, well, I can promise with certainty that they are going to be good.  The Northern Cheyenne once fled from their involuntary move to a reservation in Oklahoma to walk back to the Tongue River Valley through the heart of a Rocky Mountain winter to return to this place.  Homesteaders scraped along and proved up on their claims here.  It’s better than Dances with Wolves because it’s real.  It’s better than Little House on the Prairie because it’s Montana:)  The people I will interview hold stories from the heart of history, stories they heard first and second hand as children.  They lived these stories.

9.  Here’s a selfish one.  If you like me, or you like my writing, and you want to see me keep it up, here’s a chance to help out.  It’s not everyday I get access to a fine network of people with such stories to tell.  This is it.  This is my chance to take all my work and preparation and put it to use.  Finding the story, telling the story, this is all I want to do.  On top of all the public good here, this summer also represents a wealth of material for me.  Jim Harrison is getting older; don’t you want someone who has such rooted knowledge of this place to step into his shoes?

10.  Donating to the Tongue River Legacy Project will make you feel good.  Your donation will make everyone feel good, everyone but the coal mongrels.  By the way, last year the coal industry spent $40 million on advertising.  I’m not sure all that money made them feel as good as you could feel right now by clicking here…

Thank you for your support in this and all my endeavors.  Keep checking in, as I plan to repay you with endless stories.

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Singing to Ghosts

I awoke this morning to a full dawn chorus of birds.  I squirreled deep in my bed with the thought that maybe the birds were a bit excited over the weather, because it finally rained just a tiny touch last night.

Dawn in the Sage This has been an unusual spring, to say the least.  This week temperatures hit the nineties.  Check the date, Weather.  I thought about this in bed.  I thought about this and the drought, and then I heard a house sparrow.  FYI, house sparrows are not native to North America, but if you go outside and look around, even in a parking lot, you can’t miss them.  Along with European starlings, another exotic species, house sparrows are now one of the most common birds in the country.

So, there I was, intending to enjoy the dawn chorus, while instead my brain just bounced from the drought, to the crazy high temperatures, to this invasive song that my generation grew up knowing as the most familiar birdsong of all.

It all made me think of ghosts.  See, the farmhouse I live in is pretty darn old, and it’s supposedly haunted.  I have never seen the ghosts, but the history of the place keeps ghosts in the forefront of my thoughts.

Ask my brothers, I grew up terrified of ghosts.  Lately though, pity has replaced fear.  Half asleep, I wondered, what if a ghost, in visiting this place, didn’t have the opportunity to see what came in between its life in a place and its haunting of a place, so that all the changes came as one big, long surprise.

How very disorienting to be a ghost.  The geography might look the same, and some of the plants and animals remain, but consider all that has changed.  Not only have new buildings sprung up like weeds, but literally, new weeds have sprung up as well.  Not just a new season of weeds wait to greet our ghosts; entirely new species of plants have replaced what once grew here.  New birdcalls fill the air.  New fish populate the rivers.  A ghost might mistake the growl of trucks headed to the dump visible from my bedroom window for some new breed of monster.  Actually, maybe the ghost wouldn’t be mistaken in such an assumption.  Which leads me to ask…

Which would be scarier, to see a ghost or to be the ghost who sees us?

Clouds Hide Ghosts

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Photo Dispatches from Lambing

A new mom licks her minutes-old lamb clean.

A new mom stands over her minutes-old lamb.

This spring marks my second year working as lambing help in the sheep sheds of Central Montana.  For twelve days my life revolved around the needs of hundreds of newborn lambs and their mamas.  It will still be a few days or weeks until I can process the experience enough to put into words.  Until then, I thought I would share some of my favorite photos I grabbed along the way.

The Main Sheep Shed

The photo above shows the main sheep shed where I spent most of my time.  On the right side of the frame you can see a sheep poking its head out of what is called a jug.  When a ewe gives birth, she and her lamb or lambs are placed in a jug so they can have the private space to form a bond under the shelter of a roof.  The ewe in this shot is of significance, because she is a yearling.  I know this because I can see that her left ear has been clipped in the style that signifies a yearling of this year.  This year’s yearlings had a harder time than usual because of the drought and its subsequent difficult winter.  Therefore, it was important for us to make note of the yearlings and be sure their lambs were getting the nutrition they needed.  I could venture a safe guess that the yellow flagging tape denotes a jug occupied by another yearling.  Each day we designated a different color of flagging tape to mark jugs with ewes or lambs that needed special attention.  With ewes and lambs cycling through the sheds on a daily basis, the flagging saved a lot of time and confusion.

Life with Mom

I like this picture because I can imagine that this lamb sees the world through a similar soft blur.  Here, a new mom licks her moments-old lamb clean.  Between all the hustle and bustle, I was grateful for these small interludes when I got to slow down long enough to appreciate the intimate interactions going on all around me.  I most enjoyed my time in the sheds at night when things were settled, and I got to be the lone human amid the low rustle of hundreds of new lives.


It is surprisingly easy to lose track of the individual within such a large-scale operation.  Here is another quick glimpse of one of the private worlds within a jug.

A sweet little lamb peeks out from his private world into the bigger world beyond.

A sweet little lamb peeks out from his private world into the bigger world beyond.

It appears the sweet little lamb doesn't like what he sees.

It appears the sweet little lamb doesn’t like what he sees.

Lambs like milk.  This lamb will need nothing but a good nap after this big meal.

Lambs like milk. This lamb will need nothing but a good nap after this big meal.

Pitching Hay

Life happens outside the sheds too.  Each morning they spread hay in this pasture for the ewes who have yet to lamb.  The dogs enjoy a good romp in a season when their willingness to be of use goes underutilized.

Zora (left) and Loop wait to see if any afterbirth falls within scavenging range or if maybe someone might just need some help with the sheep.

Zora (left) and Loop wait to see if any afterbirth falls within scavenging range or if maybe someone might just need some help with the sheep.

Lamb HospitalAbove is a quick snapshot of our lamb hospital.  This little shelf contains most of what we need to care for the newborns.  On the right we have a coffee machine that we use to heat up milk or other fluids.  I spilled a lot of milk on that counter.  Here you can see some of the many jars of milk that we got from sheep with abundant milk and saved for hungry lambs.  The beer bottles are for bottle feeding lambs, and the syringe is for when lambs are too weak to take a bottle.  This year I became an expert tube-feeder of lambs.  It’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s the only option.

Lambing wouldn't be complete without a photo of a sleeping guard dog.

Lambing wouldn’t be complete without a photo of a sleeping guard dog.

Puppy and BethieAnd finally, lambing would not be complete without a photo of me with a puppy.  This little guy just got in trouble for teasing a lamb.  The puppies live in the shed right with the sheep so they can learn their role as guard dogs.  By the end of lambing, the puppies had gotten pretty mobile and full of mischeif, but the sheep generally paid them little to no attention.  I had a harder time ignoring the little cuties.  I named this Buddha-belly George Jones in honor of the late, great George Jones who passed away one of my first days on the job and whose music thereafter dominated the sheeps’ favorite radio station, AM 790.  Maybe I should have named him White Lightening.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Montana, Place, Ranching, Sheep | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Bird Nerd Fodder

Spring has sprung.  The grass has ris.  I wonder where them birdies is?

A Brewer's sparrow nest... from last year.

A Brewer’s sparrow nest… from last year.

I am a hopeless bird nerd.  Springtime peaks my bird nerd tendencies (AKA has me tripping over things, driving recklessly, and missing bits of conversation because I have my eyes to the skies).  This week has been good for me nerdwise with lots of first of the year bird sightings and happy reminders that it’s coming on to nesting season.  The only problem?  The need to share my birder enthusiasm is hard to squelch.  Maybe, I’m thinking, just maybe if I give a blog post sneak preview of what you can find just outside right now, maybe someone will talk birds with me for a second.

How exciting is this?  I have been seeing and hearing a belted kingfisher this week.

Male kingfisher as commonly seen on a prominent perch over water.

Male kingfisher as commonly seen on a prominent perch over water.

In a lot of their range, kingfishers will stay in one place year round, but kingfishers hightail it out of country where the water freezes over.  That’s because they use those huge beaks and heads to catch fish and other aquatic creatures, which they feed on almost exclusively.  Here are a few of the reasons I heart the kingfisher:

  • Belted kingfishers are one of only a few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male.
  • Kingfishers, like owls, regurgitate pellets of food they cannot digest.  If you’re an even bigger bird nerd than me, and you know where some kingfishers live, you can find their pellets beneath favorite roosts and use them to reconstruct their diets!

Kingfishers are vocal and visible.  You can hear their distinct call on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website (one of my favorites on all of the World Wide Web).

The Say’s phoebes are also back.  These migrants that feed on insects are in the flycatcher family.

Say's phoebe: An aerial artist.

Say’s phoebe: An aerial artist.

Reasons I adore phoebes:

  • Two of the phoebes that grew up on my porch

    Two of the phoebes that grew up on my porch

    Phoebes often nest on human structures.  I had a pair nest above my porch light one summer.  They raised two successful nests that season.  I got to watch the first brood leave the nest for the very first time.

  • Watching phoebes hunt can be a fun summer evening activity.  As Cornell’s All About Birds says, “They fly from perch to perch pursing flying insects.”  I have seen them in what look like fighter pilot dog fights with moths.  Good stuff.

Red-winged BlackbirdThe red-winged blackbirds are back too.  I can hear a few of those noisy guys calling right now.  Just because they are common doesn’t mean we should overlook them.  In fact, common birds can be kind of the best.  Their sheer numbers make them easy to watch and get to know a bit.  Red-winged blackbirds are a bit famous in the birder world, because their accessibility made them an easy target for early behavioral research.  These days, scientists can measure how productive a system is (i.e. how much energy is transferred to living organisms) just by measuring the size of a red-winged blackbird territory.  A larger territory translates to a less productive site.  If you take a minute to watch, it’s easy to discern the different sized territories around you.  Male red-winged blackbirds patrol the perimeter of their territory and perform choreographed displays of their bright red wing bands while they call.

Speaking of bright colors here are a few other cool bird facts related to how birds might perceive the world:

  • Females of many species, including the red-winged blackbird and the classic example of the American cardinal, choose their mates based in large part on the brightness of their suitor’s feathers.  The brighter the bird, the better chance he has to mate.  Researchers figure this is because the bright colors reflect a balanced diet and good genetics, which in turn reflect physical vigor and access to resources.  It all gets so complicated so fast with birds.  I love it.
  • Starling coming in for a landing.

    Starling coming in for a landing.

    Many birds can see ultra violet light.  That’s a level above and beyond the human eye.  I cannot imagine how a starling’s iridescent feathers appear to another starling.(Iridescence is a function of light reflection rather than pigmentation and results in the shiny blue/green/purple appearance of some feathers in certain lights.)

  • Speaking of eyes, small songbirds have such small retinas that their entire spectrum of vision is in focus at once.  Think of how humans see.  We have to focus in on an object of interest.  Since songbirds’ eyes are on the sides of their heads rather than the front, not only do they see everything in clear focus, they also have a near 360 degree field of vision.
  • And finally… Just because a bird post is not complete without multiple references to owls…Owl eyes are cool too.  Their eyes are so important, they take up about five percent of an owl’s total body weight.  If humans had eyes that big we’d look like anime characters.

    Fledgling Barn Owls

    These birds are all eyes and feathers.

Okay, time for all of us to get off the computers and get outside.  And remember, if these fledgling barn owls were in kindergarten, they’d learn it too; stop, look, and listen.

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An Eagle’s Sharp Eye

In addition to this blog, I am now a staff writer for the Culture Section of Hothouse: A Place of Inquiry which is the blog for the online journal Newfound: A place of Inquiry.

It’s a cool venue.  Here’s what they’re all about…

“Place is our subject of inquiry. At Newfound Org, we aim to make folks more aware of the spaces they occupy—human-made, natural, conceptual, or otherwise.”

And here’s a preview and link to my first post there.

An Eagle’s Sharp Eye

cottonwoodseedsSometimes as I drive down the dusty streets lined with tire shops and long parking lots and oil refineries all entombed in the smell of those refineries, I think I have landed in some foreign place.  Sometimes when I walk along the river and the high whistled call of nesting wood ducks floats atop the more distant sound of traffic that is as constant as the wind in the now bare cottonwoods, I think I have landed in some foreign place.  Sometimes, when I look up with a start and spy a black faced goat staring straight in my eyes, or as I scan the horizon and catch the silhouette of an immature bald eagle tilting its neck just so, or when the geese all go up in a clatter at my intrusion, then too, I think I have fallen into some foreign place.  Keep Reading…

I’ll be posting to Hothouse the second Thursday of every month, and I’ll also contribute a few less regular, longer form pieces.  In the future, you’ll also find me on Newfound.  It’s a cool venue.  Check it out.


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