What I’m learning as I’m writing this blog is that most mornings I have no idea how, when, or where a compliment will emerge. While this sometimes creates a small bit of pressure, I’m also learning to trust that an idea will come of its own volition; that I won’t have to force or coerce it, as was the case today.
This afternoon, as I passed my neighbor Ann’s yard during my walk, I thought I would turn back and grab my camera, so I could take a photo – the little median adjacent to the road in front of her house is loaded with poppies of red, orange, yellow, and coral, and it seemed I ought to tell her how much I enjoyed this stunning mix of color. But I just wrote about poppies, and even though a “Poppies 2” wasn’t out of the question, I thought I should try harder.
Then, as I perused Facebook, I noticed that my son-in-law’s mother had posted a photograph of her new painting: a plein air of pink azaleas from Middleton Place, which she painted in a workshop. It struck me that Karen is wildly prolific, and I thought I should tell her that every time she posts a new painting, I’m astonished by her talent and speed. I wish I could produce one-tenth of the work that she does, and have it turn out this well. So this compliment is for you, my friend; I am plein-air green with envy!
Today was my last book-club discussion for my second novel, THE PLUME HUNTER, as I’m beginning research on my new novel, which I’ll start writing in earnest this fall. Today’s meeting, hosted by Beverly McLaggan, featured over a dozen women, most of whom are affiliated with the American Association of University Women, or AAUW. I was really impressed with the thoughtful questions Beverly asked, as well as the questions asked spontaneously by various women in the group. One woman wanted to know the origin of the word “Malheur,” a region in southeastern Oregon, where my story is set. I had never given this much thought, assuming it was the name of an early explorer, or a settler in the region. But I learned from this woman today that the name is French for “misfortune” – a significant surprise, given that my husband Steve worked at Malheur for seven years, and it had never come up before.
When I got home, a quick search revealed that the name Malheur originated with the early trapper Peter Skene Ogden, who, after losing his cache of furs, considered the area unlucky. So I have to compliment these women for asking intelligent, challenging questions, and thank them for inviting me to participate in their fun. It was a wonderful afternoon.
I’m not a girly-girl. I will never be the woman whose nails and toes are manicured, nor will I wear sequins on anything, ever. I don’t go in for all-girl weekends, or pine over designer stilettos. But that’s not to say I don’t admire (and love) women who do. My daughter Maya adores rhinestones, and probably owns 15 fancy cowboy belts, not to mention a tricked-out stapler. My mom is glamorous too: that’s a capital G that rhymes with C that stands for Cool.
My friend Liz falls somewhere between Maya, my mom, and me. She loves the outdoors, is an avid hiker, and an all-around natural woman. But she’s got these hands to DIE for. All my life I’ve wanted fingers just like hers: long and shapely and lovely (as opposed to little sausages, as a former friend once described mine). Liz’s rings turn on her fingers (every woman worth her weight in diamonds knows exactly what that means), and it’s really something to see. I intended to tell her so when we met for lunch today, but we got lost in our conversation about mountain lions, and it slipped my mind until now. So just know, Liz, that I admire your fingers; not only are they beautiful, but they can play violins and pianos and guitars! Lucky girl, indeed.
It’s been a long time since I wrote a letter, or received one in the mail. I’ve corresponded almost exclusively by email since moving to California in 2002, and now even texting has replaced email, at least with close family and friends.
This compliment, then, goes to the letter-writers of the world. I don’t know who you are, or where you live, but one day I hope to correspond with you. We’ll send real letters – not just cards – that we’ve written in longhand, and we’ll savor the scent of the paper and the weight of the pen, as we tell our secrets, and our stories.
Sometimes a compliment comes haltingly, which was the case with these two swans. Steve and I were just south of Redding this weekend, celebrating the birthday of a friend, and when we carted our bags to our hotel room, we were greeted by these mute swans. The female (called a “pen”) was sitting on a nest, and the male (called a “cob”) was nearby, keeping her company. If you look closely, you’ll see an egg at the base of the nest, just to the left of her tail; it’s broken, but for a time she tried unsuccessfully to nudge it back into the nest, and it seemed the male was trying to help her. It was tough to watch, but tougher still was watching these swans baking in the sun. It wasn’t until late afternoon that they had any shade at all, and I asked Steve why she hadn’t nested near the river, in the brush, which was maybe two hundred yards away. He didn’t know, but he speculated that if her attempt this season wasn’t successful, she would learn, and try again next year. It was an explanation, but not necessarily a comforting one, and I got up twice in the night and looked out our door’s peephole to make sure she was all right. There was just enough light to illuminate her shape, and I noted she sat alone.
By dawn, though, the cob was back, and when we checked out, around 8:00 a.m., they were resting in the shade. And so I compliment their tenacity, and hope for a good outcome.
Steve and I checked this western bluebird box last weekend, and while there was a tidy little nest tucked inside, no eggs had yet been laid. Yesterday, Steve saw two bluebirds celebrating “date night,” which meant they were getting serious. When he checked the box later in the afternoon, he found five beautiful eggs inside. Impressive work, bluebirds – we’re eager to meet your young ones!
While browsing the Marketplace at Boise Airport, I met Sandy and Linda, two friendly, hard-working women who deserve a compliment.
Linda was ringing up my magazine and bag of trail mix while Sandy was logging into her cash register, and when Sandy was done, she turned to Linda and quietly said, “You know how nice it is to come into a clean store?” Linda didn’t look up, but smiled and said, “Thank you.” This caught my attention for a couple of reasons: first, because Sandy proffered her appreciation, and second because Linda graciously accepted. There was no justifying, no explaining. It was just that simple.
I haven’t said too much about the novel I’m currently researching, since, like most writers, I suspect that talking too much about the book will suck the life out of it. But I can say it’s a contemporary novel, which features a falconer as its protagonist. For that reason, Steve and I flew to Boise a few days ago, where he conducted a bit of business with The Peregrine Fund, while I interviewed three friends, Pete Jenny, Bill Heinrich, and Tom Cade. The Peregrine Fund is a non-profit dedicated to saving birds of prey from extinction.
I spoke first to Pete, the Fund’s President. Pete generously answered my rookie questions and tolerated my confusion regarding falconry terminology. (For example, I thought an eyass, which is a young bird taken from the nest before it’s ready to fly, applied to wild birds only, but it also applies to captive birds…see what I mean? Tricky!) During the hour that we chatted, I began to appreciate how good Pete is at intuiting when an interviewer (and by interviewer, I mean me) wasn’t entirely following an explanation, as more than once he steered the conversation in a direction that made more sense. When we were done, I told him he possesses a real gift for putting people at ease, and how much I appreciated his effort to make me feel as though I had actually contributed (and by contributed, I mean nodded) to the conversation.
Bill was next on tap. Bill joined The Peregrine Fund in 1976, and now works as their Interpretive Center Director. As soon as I walked into Bill’s office, I spotted an empty perch in the corner, and asked him about it. He told me Victoria, a teita falcon (named for the Teita Hills of Kenya), often sits on the perch during the day. Bill is her primary caretaker, and he took me out back to show me the small falcon, who was sitting in her “weathering” yard, enjoying the out-of-doors. Bill brought her inside while answering my questions, and several times during our conversation, he paused to show me photos of her when she was a downy nestling. There was pride in his voice when he spoke of Victoria, and I saw real devotion there. (A man who is good to animals deserves special recognition.)
Tom Cade, the Fund’s Founding Chairman and a Professor Emeritus of Ornithology at Cornell University, met me in the archives. We spoke for nearly an hour and a half, first exchanging a bit of history, and then discussing some of the philosophical aspects of falconry. During our conversation Tom laughed often, and never once balked at my straight-forward approach. Afterward, he took Steve and me out to watch his gyrfalcon fly, and as he attached Kumpan’s bell, he said, “Mr. Man, would you like to go for a flight?” It was a question filled with love and affection, and for his tenderness with this 22-year-old bird, I admire and applaud him.
I met Skip Horack a couple of years ago in San Francisco, when we both read for Narrative Magazine at LitCrawl, but I was already familiar with his work, having earlier read his story, “Borderlands.” Skip is an assistant professor of creative writing at Auburn University, and the author of “The Day of the Dead,” a short story that recently appeared in Narrative. I read the story to Steve as we sat in the sun yesterday, and when I finished, I told him that Skip writes as well as Ron Carlson – the highest compliment I can bestow on a writer.
“The Day of the Dead” is as captivating as Carlson’s story, “At the Jim Bridger,” or Wallace Stegner’s “Blue Winged Teal,” which has long been a top-10 favorite. If you don’t know Skip’s work, pick up a copy of his novel THE EDEN HUNTER, or his story collection THE SOUTHERN CROSS, or read his stories in Narrative. You won’t be disappointed.
At heart I’m a worrier. I stew a lot about melting polar ice caps, loss of habitat, and here in the West, especially, a chronic lack of water. Back in October, when we hadn’t seen measurable rainfall in nearly a year, the trees and shrubs surrounding the Wren Ranch were beyond wilted, and the grass – where it still possessed a stronghold on the hard, granite soil – was scorched and feeble-looking. Acorns fell by the thousands. And then the rains came, and although we’re only about 40 percent of where we should be in terms of annual precipitation, the world is green again. All over the pasture, lime-colored worms dangle from transparent threads, feeding blue birds, nuthatches, and several species of woodpeckers.
And while the sight and scent of lilacs, roses, dogwood, azaleas, camellias, and periwinkle encourage me to look on the bright side, nothing inspires optimism quite like the California poppy. In honor of our state flower – and of California Poppy Day – I’m complimenting the poppies of our Golden State for their power to coax a smile from even the most stalwart worrywart, and sharing with readers a roadside photo I took earlier this afternoon.