Category Archives: Creatures

Up On the Sun

I wish you could smell where I live once the Summer Solstice arrives, and I do mean that in the best way. The scent of high summer in the Midwest, especially during a sunny, hot, and humid summer like the one we’ve been having since late May, is its own heady cut-grass-and-clover beast. Or its own pungent warm-dill-breadseed-poppies-and-horse-manure beast. You pick.

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I love that about 1 mile away from 909 and our very cute neighborhood, we can see these guys in something approximating a natural habitat.

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Orange: It’s the color of joy and creativity, of warmth and determination… of FUN! No wonder it’s been Jim’s favorite for decades.

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O, these sunflowers with their pale-yellow petals and chocolate-brown centers against that as-yet-unhazed summer sky.

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Summer also = international tournament/cup soccer. I’m off today, having myself a little Solstice-fueled vacation, and I’m eagerly awaiting my family’s arrival home from work in a bit so we can prepare to watch the US Men’s National Team take on Argentina. 909 is all about the flags at cup time.

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I was thinking today: Why is the phrase “real life” or “the real world” or “reality” so often used pejoratively? My daughter is working a fast-paced restaurant job this summer. Oh, that’s good, that’s a bit of the real world for her. Really? Hm. Sure, I guess. But… what IS the real world? I mean, I say shit like that, but this morning I was examining some of the things I say and I thought, well, that phrase, used that way by me, has GOT to go. I’m defining “real life” differently this summer. Real life can include working and earning money and enduring stress and trauma and stupidity and traffic and people being assholes and being tired and wondering IS THIS ALL THERE IS?, but it’s certainly not SOLELY or even PRIMARILY those things.

Thunderstorms are beautiful and terrible and necessary, and they are real life. Beautiful, hopeful weddings are real life, and, sadly, death is also real life. Ripening blackberries are real life; so are the thorns we have to deal with to get at them (unless you have the thornless kind, which I do not, but am still eternally grateful to Tim for letting me dig some up at his old house). Enthusiastic discussion with Lilly about filling out her proposed schedule for college – just a couple of months away – is real life. So is pondering the unverbalized question what will it be like when you’re away at school? And… so is admitting I’m afraid to find out.

The backyard at 909 is my real world. So is driving along listening to this interview with two absolutely awesome guys (twins!) in Ireland. So is sitting down every morning to write and watching difficult truths emerge. Vacation and daydreaming with Jim are real worlds. So is working at my desk at my job. It’s all real… but some realities seem to have the wrong weight attached. Recalibration is required.

Welp. I’m going to go smell some tomato plants and basil leaves. More soon.

Disruption

It’s been another Sunday spent watching the transport of cheap white bread, pre-packaged fruit pies, and old pizza.

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The sweet gum tree in the photo is the only one on our lot – it’s in the front yard. Ten years ago, when we bought 909, the fact that the only tree on the lot was in the front yard was a huge selling point for me. [Trees are awesome; I just don’t want them growing where I want to grow food.]

I hate picking up its goddamn gum balls off the front yard every spring, but I still love that tree. The infancy of those goddamn gum balls in the spring is ADORABLE. The tree has amazing bright yellow foliage in the fall. And it is most definitely some sort of environmental focal point for birds, squirrels, and Perry the Possum in a four-house area on our street.

I find this daily drama fascinating. Every day the sparrows hang around the feeders in our front yard, mixing comfortably with the squirrels, who rarely try to eat from the feeders anymore and are instead satisfying themselves, alongside the juncoes and cardinals, with whatever birdseed the sparrows drop out of the feeders (there’s plenty). When the silence outside becomes deafening, I look up into our tree’s lower branches. More often than not, a young hawk is watching like a … well, you know.

Let’s get back to the squirrels. The nest in our tree (see photo above) is home to some really active sciuridae-about-town. They spend a ridiculous amount of time going back and forth between our tree and the backyards of two houses across the street – they’ve worn a visible path on the grass between the houses – and the reason they’ve done that is the reason they no longer hog all the birdseed in our feeders.

The guy across the street is feeding them. He’s not feeding them peanuts, or chunks of apple, or stale bread, like one might every so often. He’s not feeding them stuff that would normally go in the compost, like lettuce butts and carrot peelings. Every day, he’s feeding them absurd amounts of old pizza, entire loaves of stale bread, Hostess fruit pies, ancient hamburger buns, and saltines. I watch these poor small mammals struggle up our tree several times a day, carrying pieces of bread as big as their torsos. They risk their lives in front of cars and bikes by going back after a half-bagel they dropped in the middle of the road. And, for whatever reason, they leave entire pieces of pizza and half-eaten fruit pies in our garage, on our back steps, and in our planters on our front steps.

Why? Why do they abandon their junk food in weird places? Is it because they’re full and somewhat disgusted with themselves and decide head off to my compost pile in order to undo the damage?

The other morning, as I was having my coffee and getting ready to face down another day at work, I saw something a bit different. The sun was up. It was just lovely outside, you could tell. And there was Perry Possum, heading across the street toward our house, from what can only have been a debauched night consuming processed white carbs. Perry Possum? In the daytime?

[I know a lot of people are not fond of possums, but I don’t mind Perry. It’s pretty clear Perry is known in the neighborhood, because our cats are just fine with him/her milling around while they hang out on the back porch at night. Perry is just doing his/her possumy thing.]

This isn’t good, this feeding of utter crap to the local fauna. It can make them sick and cause them to lose the instinct to feed themselves if/when the source of the junk runs out. I want to tell the gentleman across the street that he’s not doing them any favors, but I actually think he might actually live to feed these animals. I don’t know; in ten years he’s never spoken to us.

I thought about this today as I pondered the meaning of the word disruption in the context of work I do at my job and the culture we live in. Some disruption is very, very good; change is required for growth, and being able to discern, and then adapt, is critical. But I think about those squirrels wrestling with a Hostess fruit pie and I think, we can decide, at the end of the day, how we want/will allow ourselves to be disrupted; the local fauna really can’t. A bit less junk would be better for all of us.

There’s a lot to be said for continuity, too. Spring’s coming.

Welcome.

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Roads Less Traveled

A couple of nights ago, I dropped Lilly off at her friend’s house and decided to take some back roads to get home. The settling sun was providing some epic light, it wasn’t too cold, and I had some time to kill. It was a luscious pre-dusk-January-Saturday feeling.

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Geese and other birds seem to move around this time of year in this part of Illinois (perhaps they’re confused by our weather? I know I am), so when I saw the kite in the photo above from a distance as I drove along, I wanted to get a closer look at the “birds” that were moving in such excellent concert with each other. I navigated the patchwork of rural roads to get closer to them so I could get some decent snaps. In so doing, I flashed back to my days of running the farmers’ market here – I’d go out to visit farmers on their land, trying to make sense of county roads and state roads and wondering if the GPS was KIDDING ME by bringing me to some isolated dirt road a hundred miles from home. Anyway, as I got closer and the “birds” didn’t move forward, it became obvious I was not looking at birds at all, but an enormous (and unattended) kite. I stopped the car in front of the house to get a photo. A very large and very fuzzy collie watched me intently from the driveway; I stayed on my side of the road, while the sun gilded everything generously with the last rays of the day. I admired the house to which the kite belonged, a cute little mid-century modern-ish affair just out of the frame above. And, to my delight, I watched many hundreds of very confused geese flying north in huge Vs high above my head. It was a perfect moment, one of many I’ve spent on back roads in Illinois watching thunderstorms on the horizon, comets in the heavens, and now birds and kites on the breeze.

LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs Saved Aggressively):

GenX/Millennials vacationing with their Boomer parents (sorry for the generalizations)

One of my internet favorites, Melody Kramer

NYT: Write your way to happiness

I’m coconut oil-curious

Last week’s episode of MidAmerican Gardener

Medium is one of my favorite places to stumble upon thought-provoking writing

My friend Jessica did this fascinating interview with Bjork, and…

It’s Not Just Bjork: Women Are Tired of Not Getting Credit for Their Own Music

The Heritage Radio Network has some AWESOME podcasts, including Grace Bonney‘s “After the Jump”

The Goat Must Be Fed (digital journalism)

This piece on the cause of addiction is powerful (as are some of the comments)

So many blog entries this month. I’d say I don’t recognize myself, what with all this blogging, but… it’d be a lie.

Pause Game

The weather has hit the pause button on getting back to normal after the holidays, but we carry on in the house. We make dinner. Well, Jim does.

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Lilly has no school today, which is amazing. Her school, which is on the U of I campus, rarely closes. The air temperature is in the low single digits and will fall further this afternoon, but the real problem, and I can see it out my window (I’m sitting in that window you see above), is the wind. And the wind is far, far worse in rural areas just outside town. I’m glad they canceled. I see nothing wrong with it, because people’s response to extremely cold weather is relative, and a lot of people who live here are not of Midwestern stock. And even for those who are – why suffer?

I lived in Minnesota from 1981-1991. The first winter we lived there – and we had come from FLORIDA, OK – was impressive even by their standards. I think there was an ice storm shortly after Halloween, and then it was kind of the usual wintry weather through Christmas (sledding! Snowballs! Tromping around!), and then January came. It was cold early in the month, and then we received 37″ of snow in 3 days in suburban Minneapolis, and then the cold arrived again. I remember going outside in late January just to see what -70 windchill (measured the old way) felt like. It sucked. I was in 8th grade, from the South, and hated/would not wear turtlenecks, socks, wool, and hats. I WOULD NOT WEAR SOCKS. Now I’m properly attired at all times, and I don’t mind the cold as long as the sun comes out and my car’s tires stay intact and the heat stays on, but I’ve lived in the Midwest for 34 years. I follow the weather closely all the time, I know what to expect, and I’m lucky enough to have plenty of warm things to wear. If people stay in this part of the country long enough, they often end up doing the same. Enjoy your Cold Day, if you’ve got one, and wear some goddamn socks and a hat tomorrow morning when it’s -13. OK?

Other cold snap advice: Keep your pets warm. Fill the bird feeders. Make soup. Declutter something. The days are getting longer even though the cold is getting stronger. Spring is just 72 days away.

Bunch of Hooey

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Just like that, summer has gone.

This photo takes me back, though, to April. Tim and I ventured over on a nice day to the home of Jill Miller, batik artist extraordinaire and owner of Hooey Batiks, to shoot part of what would eventually become Backyard Industry video #3, “Bunch of Hooey”.

Jill’s work has been a source of local amazement for a long time. Sometime back in the late 1990s, I was driving along Race Street in Urbana, and almost got into an accident because the sight of what seemed to be a zillion jewel-toned garments being hung on a double clothesline by an all-business lady was so incredibly distracting. She lived on the corner of Race and California back then; what better advertising than a living billboard featuring incredible work? I didn’t know her then.

Now she lives a street over from me, in a neighborhood we sometimes refer to as the Lynn-Wabash Nexus or the Pre-Historic East Urbana Neighborhood (PHEUN). We’ve become friends. We’ve made sausage together, we’ve talked about chickens ad nauseam, we’ve cooked for each other here and there (more her for me, sadly). We have a lot in common. Seeds, gardens, food, chickens, cookbooks, dessert. But she’s been making her art all this time, too, and in the last five years (more?), many of her batiked designs have shown off food, animals, plants, and neighborhood activities. Bluebells and morels. Pears. Cherries. Chickens and chicks. Pigs. Weber grills. Corndog fairies. Cornhole boards. When I look at her food-related work, I see conviviality and community and our neighborhood, and I love it.

Here’s why we decided to feature her work in a BYI video: We’re all used to seeing food as art everywhere through all kinds of media. Food has been painted and drawn and sculpted for millennia. Food has been photographed for publication (often regrettably) and now food is Instagrammed. We’re surrounded by images of the food we eat (or that others eat), but often it’s without a discernible personal touch. Jill’s batiked shirts and skirts and table runners and scarves and dresses lend a window into her world that also looks like our world. It’s not aspirational; it’s what’s there, unadorned and unassuming and very important. She does all the work out of her house – the designing, the batiking, the dyeing, the washing, and the hanging out on the line. It’s all personal. Not only has she touched everything she makes – she’s thought about it. The same goes for her corndogs, which are legendary. Here. I’ll show you.

[Did you watch all the way to the end? Bloop bloop.]

One last thing: BYIV3 is dedicated to Violet the Cat, who just wanted a little cheese and maybe some charcuterie from Smoking Goose, that’s all. It’s also dedicated to Fausto the Dog, who was there that day (though is not in the video) and just wanted to sniff everyone’s drink. RIP, friends.

Backyard Wilderness

What I should be doing: Writing next week’s BYI Radio piece. What I’m doing instead: Enjoying a delightful night outdoors at the picnic table in the driveway at 909. Our entire lot becomes an extension of our quite small house once summer arrives, which it seems to have done. I could blog indoors, but why?

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At the moment, the only visible and/or audible evidence of wild things in my yard are the June bugs (I think that’s what they are) flying blindly into the side of the garage. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve started paying more attention than I usually do to the creatures that share the neighborhood with me. Tales of wild things in this decidedly residential, in-town neighborhood abound:

  • A fox had the run of this area for awhile this spring, stealing several neighbors’ chickens and, I think, efficiently killing a mourning dove in my backyard – only a compact pile of feathers remained (foxes are known for carrying their prey to an undisclosed location).
  • There’s a groundhog that’s turned up one street over, I hear.
  • One night last summer I had the disquieting experience of seeing 3 animals that were not my cats – raccoons – walk past my spot at the picnic table as I sat there, a fourth nearly brushing my leg as it sauntered under the table to join its friends/relatives.
  • Opossums snurfling around our backyard are common.
  • A few weeks ago, our friend Douglas saw a coyote chase one of his cats out of the woodsy area next to his house, which backs up against a very busy Dart beverage cup plant.
  • Then there was the afternoon this spring, as I started clearing out the garden, when I noticed all the dead lacinato kale plants that had been standing about 3 feet tall when we left for spring break in March… had been eaten down to about 2 feet tall. Further investigation in the garden, followed by, um, googling various types of poop, led me to believe that, at some point, a desperately hungry (and possibly lost) deer was eating whatever it could find in the days before spring truly arrived. A DEER. It was either a deer or equally desperate rabbits taking turns piling on top of each other, with the rabbit on the top getting the dead kale. I would have loved to see either.

All these animals – in addition to the usual array of rabbits, squirrels, birds (including hawks and vultures), toads, snakes, mice, voles, bats, and the occasional chipmunk – are living with us here at 909. Some variation of them are living with you, probably, wherever you’re located. Dealing with them as garden pests and possible predators is one thing. Dealing with them as neighbors is another, to say nothing (if you’re me) of dealing with a basic, childhood-based fear of animals that are not cats or dogs. [Raccoons freak me the eff out, you guys. We had one living in our chimney a couple of years ago, and there is nothing as terrifying as sleeping peacefully with the windows open only to be awakened by the frantic screaming of raccoons fighting and/or gleefully chasing each other around your house and you’re thinking, either those are aliens or something has killed one of the cats WTF do I do?]

I’m working on that by trying to notice them and then to observe them, even the annoying squirrels and the boring old house sparrows. Reading Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary has been a revelation (I highly recommend it), as was a “trip” to a park blocks from downtown Champaign with my friend, Rob Kanter of Environmental Almanac, where we saw a freaking muskrat going about its muskratty business in the creek (swimming upcreek, grabbing a huge wad of some beautiful green grass on the bank, then swimming downcreek back to its home, presumably to feed its family – not unlike when Jim makes a Mirabelle run on Saturday mornings, I thought). There were also an awful lot of not-very-exciting Canada geese pooping everywhere, but I didn’t care! A muskrat! In downtown Champaign! I doubt I’d have been as excited if I’d seen it in my yard, but I’ll get there.

There’ll be more about this experience in the aforementioned radio piece, which should be online by June 4. In the meantime, I’m going to do my best to co-exist and observe, but you can be damn sure I’ll also be protecting the food I’m trying to grow. There aren’t enough blackberries for all of us – at least not this this year.

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