A bird in the hand…..

Shetland&PonyMay2015

It’s been some time, hasn’t it?

Though it was several weeks ago, for my WordPress anniversary-month I might as well share a little adventure I had involving a secret garden and an angry bird.

I found a Brown Thrasher living up to its name in the small courtyard of our City Hall. I heard it first, making an angry buzzing sound in the shrubbery, and thought it must be some kind of noisy insect. One doesn’t often see (or hear) thrashers in town. Soon, however, it was speeding like a missile into the walls and windows of various offices and such that made up the boundaries of the courtyard. While not lacking in vehemence, its flight — taking off as it did from scraggly rhododendrons — was not quite high enough to take it over the walls and into the greenery beyond. Whether it even intended to leave, or was set to defend its garden against its own reflection until sunset, I can’t honestly say. It didn’t seem like a nest would have been possible if that sort of behavior was going to go on daily, though.

It wasn’t long at all before the poor creature tired itself out and landed on the ground beneath one of the bushes. This was fortunate in a way, since my tracking skills were not up to locating a streaky brown woodland bird in a tangle of branches (or of sneaking up close to it in such a situation). I put a hand over its wings to stop it fluttering away, but the precaution wasn’t necessary. It was too dazed to do much but fluff up a little. I transferred it to a more comfortable position and then, with as little melodrama as could be mustered in such a situation, whisked it away through the crowd (there was an event in City Hall proper, which is why I was originally there — well, technically I was there because there was cake at the event) and into the greater outdoors.

The first spot I chose for it was unacceptable according to the bird, who hunkered down even further and glared at me balefully (to be fair, there is no other way for a Brown Thrasher to look at you). The second spot was a taller bush at the meeting of two brick walls; this was regarded for a moment and then accepted, as the bird suddenly came to life and leapt from my hands, clinging expertly to a small branch as it landed. It looked at me once more and then hopped away into the heart of the half-leafed twigs and branches, hopefully with no intention of soaring over the walls again soon.

I tell you, it’s always birds!

Half time…

SunlightSo many potential subjects on this day — Terry Pratchett, the Ides of March, Pi Day, St. Patrick’s Day, the rather nasty illness that’s kept me from working or drawing or writing or generally being useful for several days. But instead, I’m going to just skip all that and go straight to a day at the farm. And on this halfway day, I’m going to crosspost between Drawn @ Random and Shetland + Pony, with some of the content and style of each.

It’s warm weather, as I’ve mentioned, and that means a trip out to the horse barn to be mobbed by various small warm-blooded creatures. Depending on the day and the season, the assault may consist chiefly of cats, or it may also include dogs, chickens, and/or a slightly irritable turkey tom. And of course, the horses.

I’ve mentioned this place before (there wasn’t much time for drawing then either), but I haven’t been back in a long while. Little “Merrylegs” (I’m afraid I still can’t remember the poor thing’s real name) was in full-on Fluffy Pony mode, somehow looking both twice normal size (due to fluffy) and even smaller than before (possibly due to my brain over-correcting for the extra fluff). Some other new and old faces, obscured to various degrees by winterfluff, were there as well, but the notable exception was good old Cinnamon. She was old, and was basically a living model of How to Excel At Being a Horse for the time I knew her (even if she didn’t always love that old brown bridle), but of course that just leaves more reasons to miss her.

I should take some time to dwell on the various furry animals, though. Now, I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word “barn cat,” but I find it doesn’t generally connote cuddliness. And I’ve personally learned that it’s often wise to get out of the way when a farm dog (or any dog) you’ve never been introduced to comes barreling your way in a racket of mad barks and jumping-about. But no, this is some sort of legendary Doctor Dolittle-style land of interspecies truce. If there were lions in Iowa, and lambs at this farm, I would fully expect to see them frolicking in the spring mud together, with barn cats underfoot.

Now, I’m sure it’s not all peace and puppies 24/7. It’s a farm, out in the country, and nature will be nature. But if you park your car (or more likely, your muddy truck — or your VROOM!!! as the newest toddler in the family will gleefully refer to it as she attempts to scale the bumper) next to the flowerbed, hop out, and sit for a moment on the small bench, you will be covered almost instantly in 1-5 cats that materialize from under the skeleton shrubs and behind the big decorative rocks. You can pick one up and carry it around like a teddy bear for a while, or you can just let them climb all over you until they get distracted by another visitor or a dragonfly or the sun, the way cats do.

You may find that one of the cats is actually a Papillon (given their similarity in size and coloring, it will give itself away mostly by its manner of stepping indiscriminately on all other animals and objects that get in its path, instead of keeping clear and waiting for an opportunity to gather for a leap and suddenly place all its weight onto a single dainty paw pressed into your eyeball or navel). Neither the cats nor the Papillon seem to mark the distinction between them for the moment, lost in the excitement of Greeting A New Person. Later, there is a good chance you will also see this same Papillon “tree” a large, speckled hound dog on top of a picnic table. It will not appear to occur to either of these dogs at any time that you are potentially anything more sinister than a new belly-scratching machine. It will not occur to the old dog, whom you just realized was there, to do anything more than shift slightly in the sunny spot and lift one foreleg to ensure maximum scritchy-scratch surface area should you choose to wander a bit closer. This might remind you of another old dog, a previous monarch of horse barn and henhouse, that venerable Duchess of Dogs, who proved a favorite literary line to be more than a piece of pretty poetry.

There are many more denizens of this little place, human and animal, past and present and hopefully far into the future. But for one visitor, a somewhat nervous child who had been bitten and barked at and rudely chased about by all manner of territorial city beasts all her life (and to this day will cross the street rather than having to confront a neighbor’s unleashed dogs), they’ve always been first and foremost a welcome respite from the rough unreliability of the “real” world. A small girl who fairly burst into tears on a young horse’s back because he neighed and walked (or rather, was led) downhill at the same time, could in this place tumble out of the saddle — nearly under her mount’s hooves — and, sensibly or not, feel more worried about the pony (did I scare her?!) than herself. Years later, she could watch an even littler girl, not much more than a babe in arms, reach out to pet a proud bay stallion, whose only reaction was to furnish a helpful, nickering reply to the grown-ups’ query of “What does a horse say?” (It’s worth noting that there are some pretty stallions right here in town for anyone to visit, and that they all have helpful signs constantly warning in alarming black letters, CAUTION: STALLIONS MAY BITE OR KICK. The mares and their foals have no such signage that I can discern. I have never ventured to pet the pretty stallions here in town, though I’m sure they’re nice enough fellows if you catch them on a good day.)

Of course, the animals have been inspirational as well — after all, it’s because of Cinnamon’s slightly-wobbly forehead marking that Pony’s stripe is topped off with that crescent-shaped star instead of a “perfect” little round blob. The little bay stallion was the subject of one of the first “real” digital paintings I ever made.

In honor of all that, and in the style of Shetland and Pony, here are a couple of old friends in their fields of clover to close a long blog post:

Shetland&PonySEMarch

the late bird….

Shetland&PonyFeb2015

{The juncos are slowly giving way to house finches when it comes to non-sparrow visitors to the bird feeders … they’re still around though, even if it is a little harder to see them without all that snow on the ground.

This warm weather is pretty exciting, just as it is every year, because you never know just when or for how long you’ll get it. It’s one of the nice things about living in a decidedly seasonal climate; every anticipated “landmark” weather event (leaf turn, first snow, first blizzard, ice storm, January thaw, proper thaw, and so on) is a little bit of a Special Occasion.

Now that things are warming up, I may have to go on my oft-postponed Downtown Squirrel Walk to take some snapshots and check on the locals. I haven’t seen Pale Tail or Stumpy recently, though White Neck — the closest neighbor of the bunch, with a white streak behind both ears — has been making regular appearances. I do miss Black Belly, who lived near my old place and was quite striking to look at with his upside-down coloring. In addition, the campus is apparently home to a pretty little piebald, though I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him or her personally. Hopefully they’ve all made it through (or through the majority of, so far) another winter.

There’s another warm-weather bonus that’s more narrowly specific to us reptile-keepers. It’s finally warm enough to order feeder insects (a species of tropical roach in my case — don’t shudder, they’re basically huge pillbugs until they reach adulthood, and they’d do quite poorly if left to their own devices in a climate as capricious as this) without bundling on the heat packs and hoping they show up alive. Mail trucks are not known for their cozy interiors and tropical roaches are, as I’ve noted, tropical. My gecko will be pleased to know that the rationing is over. They don’t strictly need to eat every day, geckos, but he does love those little roaches. And the roaches, being long-lived, are something of a pet in their own right; it’s a little forlorn to see their numbers dwindling so.

My next post, which will be the Actual March Post (this one’s in February colors, being postponed from last month) is likely going to appear around my birthday, which as always is at the end of the month. I’ll try to do something a little fancy if I remember — I’m already ever so busy planning the annual feast (I know, I seem to have an awful lot of annual feasts; I’m a feasting sort of person). Birthday feasts are notable in that they require as little actual food preparation as possible, and preferably have a nostalgic element as well. They do NOT need to be healthy. I kind of ran with that particular ruling this year … but more on that next time.}

frosted windowpanes….

Shetland&PonyJan15

{‘Tis a lovely snowy Super Bowl Sunday, and though I’m not an avid watcher of the game I’ll take any occasion to make a holiday of something. I cut out some crinkle fries — the invention of the crinkle-cutter was a wise person — and later in the evening made a sort of paella. The “sort of” is necessary here as it is more of a Generic Rice Dish than a region-based recipe; the green peppers and crawfish made it more Southern than Spanish, though the seasonings leaned more to the paella side. One way or another, it used up leftovers, which ultimately is what casseroles/stews/rice things do best.

In all the revelry I very nearly forgot about this blog again — technically this should be last week’s post, to fall properly in January, but all things considered this is closer to the end of the month. It also gave me a little more time to fret about having to draw frost, as promised earlier. I’d planned to look very carefully at the patterns so I could replicate it properly, but in the end I just “winged it” and drew feathers. Pony is squinting grumpily through one of the little melt-windows, while Shetland grins through the other … I wanted to include cloudy breath to make that clearer, but it just cluttered up the picture.

Speaking of frost and clouds, today I discovered some new pros and cons of having a large dead shrub directly outside your bedroom window. I startled awake several times this morning because I thought I heard claws scrabbling around behind me. Each time I managed to fall more or less back to sleep after reminding myself that my current pets aren’t warm-blooded and wouldn’t move around that fast if they escaped. As it got later and my head cleared a little, I decided it must be birds landing on the window. As my head got clearer still, I realized there was no way there were that many birds outside. Finally I looked out and realized a very strong wind was battering the branches against the window every few seconds. Something may need to be done about that.

On the bright side, that selfsame shrub is now cloaked entirely in fluffy snow, except on the side that’s pressed against the window. This means I can see inside, to the little juncos and chickadees sheltering within, and they barely notice me watching through the blinds. It’s like a tiny cloud-palace full of winged beasties, with their usual drab camouflage making them stand out bright and bold against the new snow. I think my drawing for Grey Month will have to involve juncos; they’re something of a wintertime staple here. No promises this time, though!}

another auld lang syne…

Shetland&PonyDec14{Snow has been a bit … “iffy” here since the whole Polar Vortex nonsense wore itself out, but there was technically some on the ground on Christmas day. It was in the process of melting/being rained on, yes, but I’m fairly certain it still counts. Now we just have the ice and frost, mostly, which is still pretty in its way.

I’d say I can’t believe another year has almost gone, because it’s what one says at year’s end and because it does feel like far more recently that I made the last New Year’s post. But that aside, I most certainly can believe another year has gone. It has been a long, long year, and a great deal of things have happened in it. Some were good and some were decidedly less so, but I think that’s all you can really expect from a year when it comes down to it.

I got to have a holiday party this year, the first in a long time, and that was quite nice. I didn’t invite a large number of people, but I invited enough — only the kind of people you really want to see around the holidays, and none of the sort you feel you *have* to invite because it’s Christmas or whatnot. Yes, it was a devilishly selfish little party, and I liked it all the better for it. Call it a present to myself, if you will.

Speaking of presents, the little chickadee whistling his heart out from the top of this precarious pine was inspired partly a Christmas present (a little plaster bird with a curious expression, and an appearance somewhere between a Bluebird’s and a Blue Tit’s) and partly by a particularly vocal sparrow who was singing his merry way through the bleak morning today. Chickadees, too, are quite noticeable now — you can see and hear them in the bare branches outside my window, and occasionally they’ll perch right on the screen and peer in at me. Fortunately, they haven’t taken to flying at the windows like the cardinals briefly did.

Next month I’m going to try once and for all to incorporate a frost pattern into my picture. It’s beautiful stuff, but a little too delicate for my usual style. I may have to draw it larger and shrink it down, in the end. One way or another I’ll just have to manage it — call it a New Year’s resolution. Until then!}

the cold never bothered me….

Shetland&PonyNov14{…oh, for a thick winter coat like Shetland’s and Pony’s! With the right winter wear it’s really quite comfortable most days, despite the whole “polar bomb” nonsense we’ve been having, but at times it’s a bit of a pain “gearing up” every time I wish to go outside. Being warm and fluffy from head to toe would be endlessly useful for those quick trips to the library or grocery store … as it is, I often find it overly tempting to just forgo the many-buttoned coat or the hair-mussing hat and just freeze my ears and elbows off instead. The squirrels, though they’re getting a bit frantic-looking, are quite fat and lovely still. They’ll do just fine this year. Plus, we got to have snow on Thanksgiving, just like old times.

Thanksgiving dinner this year was almost entirely color-themed, because I wanted something properly pretty this year. Muscovy duck with olive caramel, red bell pepper cheesecake with chocolate-gingersnap crust, and three colors (red, black, white) of rice. I even found a white acorn squash so I could have my favorite side dish without mussing up the color scheme with orange and green. I was worried it might not taste quite so lovely as it looked, but everything actually went quite well together. The duck breast wasn’t quite as nice as it could have been, since it sat in the pan too long waiting for the other dishes, but the confit of the legs and wings was lovely, and now I have duck fat for ages’ worth of fried potatoes.

I’d hoped for a lovely dark-orange pumpkin as well, but sadly the one I got turned out to be more of a jack-o-lantern type inside, despite good things I’d heard about the variety. After some baking and a great deal of waiting for the sogginess to strain out of the cooked flesh, I got something roughly between canned pumpkin and applesauce. I decided to use half for some heavily-spiced brown-butter cupcakes, who would hardly notice the lack of pumpkin flavor, and the rest still resides abashedly in a bag in my fridge.

I have a feeling this and the other incidental leftovers — bits of black olive, a small lump of cream cheese, a tablespoon or so of pecan-tassie filling, and so on — will soon be forgotten in the face of December, which according to common knowledge is the Month of Buying Eggnog. There’s a local-ish brand (in-state, at least) that I’ve been meaning to try now that it’s back in stores; it’s surprisingly hard to find one without gum thickeners in it, and I’d just like to taste one without having to actually make eggnog myself. I just made Thanksgiving dinner, after all; I’m not *that* ambitious.}

We’ve got cul-de-sacs and barbecues…

Shetland&PonyOct14-0

{Cooler weather is coming– well, periodically at least. It still warms up, as it did today at 70+ degrees. That, of course, is bonfire weather; and even if you’re not in an area that’s particularly hospitable to bonfires, you must at least make an effort (but do try not to leave it burning like this one so critters like Shetland and Pony can stumble across it, of course!). In my case, this amounted to rambling over to the nearest park and cooking paella over the grill. The rather sportive nature of the winds today made it interesting to actually keep the young fire going, and to keep from having one’s hair and clothing set alight once it did start. In hindsight, a billowy skirt was a poor decision. But the firewood was dry and the weather fine, and the smell of smoke will air out eventually.

The one thing that did dampen my spirits a little was the discovery of a squirrel’s tiny corpse under a tree as I was searching out branches for the fire. It was quite whole from what I saw, though perhaps it had been struck by a car in the nearby parking lot and made it that far. I tried not to dwell on it too long and gathered my firewood elsewhere. It’s always alarming and unpleasant to find a dead animal in an unexpected place (or any place, of course, but it’s rather less surprising in the middle of a road or some similarly hazardous part of the world).

That said, I find myself unpleasantly alarmed quite often in my new neighborhood, as something — maybe the higher density of wildlife near the streets? — results in quite a number of tiny corpses on the lovely residential sidewalks. Squirrels, chipmunks, nestling birds, and various bits and pieces no longer identifiable as anything but “former animal” pop up far more frequently than I’ve been accustomed to in the past. For several days after a storm I found myself crossing to the other sidewalk on the way to work, to avoid a medium-sized bird carcass that apparently went unnoticed by the owner of the home outside of which it lay. It slowly turned from flesh to bones and then dust at last.

This has certainly taken a macabre turn, but it is nearly Halloween after all. I’ll close with the more upbeat observation that the short-tailed squirrel, whom I’ve christened (with spontaneity’s typically breathtaking lack of creativity) “Stumpy,” appears to be doing quite well for himself this year. So far as I can tell his domain encompasses a block or two in the vicinity of 7th street, and with all the local sciurine fatalities I’m always pleased to see him alive and well and growing fatter by the day. I assume it was a close call with a car that claimed part of his foxy brush, but it could well have been one of the yowling half-feral felines in the area as well. He now gets around with a distinctly bouncy gait, and these days looks for all the world like some sort of marmot with his plump body and brief tail.

Unless this is a common injury in the area, Stumpy in his current state has been around since nearly three years ago at the least; not too shabby for a fox squirrel with a gimpy tail. I always walk carefully when I see him to avoid accidentally driving him into the street. Of course, at this point he’s probably better-versed in the ways of the road than I am, but we humans do love to feel a little bit important when we can…}

might as well be walkin’ on the sun….

Shetland&PonySept14

{Okay, it’s not *that* bad out. But it was certainly above 80 degrees today, and when it’s nearly October that always irks me a bit. I’m not saying I don’t recall, for example, the wildly disappointing 70-degree Halloweens of ’99 and ’00, but overall I’ve still come to expect better of this time of year. It’s not *actually* having much visible effect on the outdoor plants, either — it’s the indoor chrysanthemums that are wilting and dying, and that’s because no one at work goes to their desks often enough to water them properly. I sneak back there for snacks, so I am appointing myself official mum-watcher.

I did feel a bit like Shetland and Pony here during the annual art festival, which involves a lot of walking around Main street in the sun. The vendors of hot foods weren’t doing so great, though the ice-cream people appeared to be making a killing. As an artist I’m not quite well-off enough to actually buy art — except for a small knitted narwhal that will go to a friend on her birthday — but I can observe it and say nice things about it, I suppose.

Of course, it would probably help if I didn’t insist on devoting so much of my time to making things to give away for free to people. That said, I find it difficult to spend time on something that may or may not make me money or even be seen in the future, when I can make something much easier that I know will be appreciated (because it’s free!). I did almost wind up late to my actual paying job because I was concentrating on fixing a paper mongoose I was making, though. My priorities may need a bit of work….}

You know there’s always rain…

Shetland&PonyAugust14

{Quite a month it’s been. The library is officially in its new digs, as am I, and it’ll take a while still for both of us to get used to it. I’ve already encountered several stray cats, a very forward chipmunk, and more giant fungi than I ever imagined to reside in this city. With such fungi, as it turns out, come the Pleasing Fungus Beetles, which is a name so utterly quirky that it could only belong to an insect (see the Question Mark butterfly, Small Elephant Hawk Moth — which may be the most animals in a row I’ve ever seen in a species name — and so on).

The Pleasing Fungus Beetle looks like an awful lot of other beetles, except for the bits that don’t, so it took me quite a while to figure out just what the shiny little chaps were. I’m fairly certain I’ve never even seen one before, and certainly not in mushroom-munching swarms like these had. It’s possible I simply missed them underfoot, as I would have done this time if one hadn’t taken a break from his mushroom lunch to crawl around on the grass and say hi to me.

They’re more yellow-orange than red-orange — I’ve cheated twice here, making him red and using August’s color a day late in the first place — but artistic license and so on. If it helps, there are in fact a variety of Pleasing Fungus Beetles in a variety of Pleasing Colors, and some of those are certainly red. The mushrooms, or at least parts of them, were properly red, just like the one I stumbled on around this time last year (though a less poisonous-looking shade).

Perhaps the fragrant fungi and general dampness of these nonstop rainy days have something to do with my irritatingly persistent cold over the last few days … or perhaps, as always, my immune system somehow managed to anticipate the three-day weekend so it could incapacitate me accordingly. It’s certainly preferable over taking a sick day during the work week, but truly, one of these days it would be nice to spend a minor holiday doing something other than drinking hot soup and ginger ale….}

 

all that you can’t leave behind….

Shetland&PonyJuly14

{It’s been a while! Today I am in the midst of that mad frenzy known as Moving Day. It is, more accurately, Moving Week (or possibly even Moving Month at this point), but the important thing to note is that a very great quantity of possessions are in the midst of traveling from one part of town to another, and many of them refuse to go gentle into that good storage unit. This may admittedly be out of solidarity with their less-attractive brethren, who will likely be quite literally kicked to the curb once a proper path has been cleared. Moving out has a way of reminding one what one does not really have any reason to keep around any longer.

On the subject of Shetland and Pony’s picture (I’ll leave it up to you to decide where the gate goes), the heirloom beans planted last year were so kind as to grace us with their offspring this year, all pink blossoms and curlicue vines and sickle-shaped pods. Unexpected free food just outside one’s window is always a pleasant surprise, especially when it has some decorative flair.

Speaking of which, the peppers, too, have returned, but in a manner even more surprising. In the waning months of last year they fared poorly, dwindling to a few brown-leaved sticks even when brought indoors. But slowly more leaves appeared, branches, buds … and now there’s another riotously purple-and-red crop of peppers like the ones I praised in Better Not Touch nearly a year back. It’ll be a bit of a shame, dismantling the “garden” for the last time — so many eager vines taking up every scrap of vertical real estate, up the slats and stems and bricks like slim verdant serpents. I shall have to keep the seeds.}