Cleaning Day at the Wren Ranch



Over the weekend, Steve and I noticed the white-breasted nuthatches checking out this box, in which they’ve nested several times in the past (competing with Bewick’s wrens and western bluebirds, whichever claims dibs first). Even though we emptied the box year before last, we could see small twigs protruding from the entrance, which meant it was crammed to the top. Mom and Pop Nuthatch were painstakingly emptying the box, twig by twig, and so we gave them a hand today, and emptied it for them.




Here’s the long view of what all those twigs looked like.




And here’s the short view; it’s about two inches deep in there.




As long as we were emptying nesting boxes, we decided to tackle the box in back on the west side of the yard. This little box was chock-full too; it’s another nuthatch favorite.




While Steve was replacing the box on the tree, two red-shouldered hawks flew over, crying, crying, crying, before landing in the gray pine just to the right of these scrub oaks.




After Steve reattached the box to the tree, I asked him to bring his ladder over, so we could check out this cavity, carved by an acorn woodpecker. The good news is there’s more than plenty of room to raise a family in there, which also brings bad news: the entire trunk is hollow, which means it could (and probably will) come down in the next big wind storm.




Here’s another cavity in the same tree. It’s not as suitable a nesting spot, because it isn’t as deep. There’s an acorn stashed at the bottom, though, a treat for a rainy day.




Here’s a closer look.




Once we’d finished the nesting boxes, I took a moment to photograph these periwinkles, which are blooming perhaps five weeks early. We had the driest January on record this year, and today, February 15, we may have broken a record for the warmest. Even the bluebirds were sweating.




The azaleas like the sunshine, too. But honestly, it’s difficult to enjoy the warmth and beauty of this early spring, because the variables are so unknown. I’m a little worried the insects that nesting birds depend on will hatch too soon, and that by the middle of summer, Folsom Lake will resemble a teardrop in the palm of a giant’s hand.




Donner, however, holds no such worries. She lives in the moment, content to soak up the sun, let her eyes go droopy, and wait for a squirrel to swing by.

A Year in Compliments — Erich Kepner

IMG_9059 (2)


Today is Erich Kepner’s birthday, and a great day to compliment him on his devotion to our daughter Maya and their son Dillon Wyatt. Erich is the original good sport, willing to take on almost any project with a can-do spirit and a tool box. In the handful of years since Maya and Erich purchased their house, Erich has added a deck to the back porch, landscaped the front yard with drought-tolerant plants, and torn down a rickety shed. Before long, a mini-castle will stand where that old shed existed, and in it he’ll store his lawn mower and power tools, and some sort of cook stove, where he’ll whip up ribs and grilled corn and Texas toast for Maya. He’s good to their dogs, too, ensuring Country and Delilah get a daily run, or a game of fetch in the back forty.


We’re super proud of you, Erich, and wish you all the best on this birthday, and all your birthdays to come.

A Year in Compliments — Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl John Dyess


My totem animal is the great horned owl. Since moving into this house four years ago, several great horned owls have sporadically appeared in the redwoods on the east side of the house, and in the gray pine, just over the fence. While brushing my teeth last night, I heard an owl calling from one of the redwoods, so I cracked the window and returned his greeting. (Their call is easy to replicate – listen here for a sample.)

Back and forth we went, seventeen times, at intervals of thirty seconds for the owl, six seconds for me. After my last response, I counted to sixty-five before I heard him call again, this time from a distance, which meant he’d moved to a different tree, on to someone else. It hurt my feelings a little. Later, though, as I sat at my laptop, I heard him again, from the pine this time. His evening song was reassuring, as it always is, and I went to bed with the belief that for the moment, at least, this owl had found his home.


Illustration by John Dyess. Used with permission.

A Year in Compliments — Mother Nature



After a three-year drought in California, Mother Nature has graced us with us with 23.6 inches of rain, according to Steve’s records. Most of the rain (6.1 inches) fell during what Sacramento meteorologists termed a “massive storm” on December 11 and 12, and for us it was significant, filling the ponds and creeks and rivers. We’re at the base of the foothills, and so we tend to get a bit more moisture than Sacramento-proper. And because we’ve got a couple of acres, there’s always a lot of picking-up to do after a storm. The shot above is a small representation of the work cut out for us. Steve calls this “nature’s trimming.” I call it the job of one strong man and his pickup truck.




The pasture is loaded with mushrooms of all varieties. I spent a couple of minutes Googling “pancake mushroom,” figuring this guy would come up. Closest is this one, and it’s strictly a guess, but I suspect it’s a Lactarius of some sort, named for the milky substance it exudes when injured.




And here’s a photo of Steve and Donner, absorbing the long view of the pasture, contemplating nature’s bounty and all the work ahead.

A Year in Compliments — Elk, California

Crab claw

As I sit on the terrace of my room at the Elk Cove Inn, I scan the surf with binoculars, searching for seals and whales and otters. The kelp plays cruel tricks on me, bobbing up from the waves like whiskered heads, and my heart surges with excitement. I could say I’ve been disappointed a dozen times this week, but that wouldn’t be close to the truth. The truth is there are too many distractions to feel shortchanged, too much evidence of beauty. Just look at all I’ve found:


Pink seaweed


A twig of pink kelp, which reminds me of ginger…


Seaweed green


…and this sea grass, of sorts, which would nicely garnish a salad.


Unstaged feather and seaweed


Then there’s this peculiar tangle of seaweed, which has captured a feather…




…and me in the late afternoon. (The sun goes down around five o’clock, always before I’m ready.)


Dead bird


Not everything I find is delectable, but it all makes me curious. What happened to this Cassin’s auklet, I want to know. It no longer has a head.


Kelp cemetery


And here’s a photo of a kelp cemetery. Yesterday I walked boldly through it, wondering if the Sea Gods would strike me dead.


Skimming stone


And then I realized That’s not going to happen – look at this! They’ve gifted me with a stone.


Wave comes


I skimmed the small flat rock across a lingering wave, and it bounced thirteen or fourteen times. All right, ten times. Okay, it bounced twice, but it felt like more, given my grateful spirit.


Elk Grocery Store


A few days ago, after first arriving, I walked across the street to the grocery/deli to pick up a sandwich for lunch. I met Terri (the best sandwich maker ever!) and Sean there. It turns out Sean and his wife bought the store from its former owner roughly six weeks ago. I’m positive they’re going to make it.




This is my fifth trip to Elk. Always, Steve has come with me, but this time I asked to go alone. To get some writing done. I’ve worked hard each morning, hunkering in the breakfast room, with its excellent view of the sea. After five hours or so, when I can no longer straighten my back, I pack up my laptop and go for a walk, stretching the bones in my body.


Elaine and Pru Museum


On Tuesday I ventured forth to the Greenwood/Elk Visitor Center, where I met docent Elaine and her friend Prue. Elaine (on the right) is also a seasonal aide for the California State Park system. We talked about Elk’s history, and when we were done, I took a few notes about trees. Here’s an interesting factoid: The Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the world’s tallest tree, growing to heights of more than two hundred feet. It can have a diameter of twenty feet or more, and weigh over 400 tons. If you were a logger in the 1800s, you would have cut the tree by hand, using only axes, wedges, and two-handled saws. And it would have taken a week to get it done.


Post office looking in


Elaine also told me that Elk’s old post office closed in 1993. When they built the new post office across the street, it was as though someone said, “Okay, let’s go,” and then closed the door and locked it. Everything remains just as it was, including the circulars and flyers.


Box 53


Here’s Box # 53. The Year of the Snake. If you were born in ‘53, you prefer a peaceful life, and don’t like a noisy environment. Which is why you should come to Elk.


If you stay at the Inn, Patty and Mary, the innkeepers on duty during my stay, will take terrific care of you, feeding you a breakfast that will make you weep with love. And if you need a massage to get through your next two chapters, Felicity is your girl.


A Year in Compliments — City of Woodland

Pioneer High 1

Had a great time on Thursday, spending the day in Woodland and speaking about THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE to four fabulous groups, starting with English students at Woodland High. I was a little nervous, as my own teens left home years ago and I’m rusty talking to anyone between the ages of two and 34. But these kids were smart and respectful and asked tons of great questions, and I loved spending time with them.


At noon I attended a luncheon at Woodland Community College, where a group of fine men and women gathered to hear about the book, and then it was off to Pioneer High School, where the students pictured above also behaved beautifully. When did kids get so smart? I was blown away by the sophistication of their questions – “What tense do you prefer to write in?” and “Why did you dedicate your book to Steve?” I told them a bit about my background – how I met Steve during my sophomore year in high school (I was their age!), and how he’s been my trusted reader for 41 years now. If that blew them away, they were gracious about it, and generous, too: when I asked if I could take a picture of them for my blog, they readily agreed, although it turned out I couldn’t photograph their faces without permission from their parents. (Mr. Uebner had the brilliant idea to take the pic from the back of the room.) I wish you could see their smiles – happiness abounds.


Woodland Reads 2014


That evening I met with my last group at Woodland Public Library, and then headed for home. It was a terrific day all around, and I’m enormously grateful to Woodland Reads (a community program based on Seattle’s One Book One City) for selecting my novel as its 2014 book, and to Meg Stallard, who served as chief organizer and chauffeur. I also appreciated Wayne Ginsberg’s assistance with publicity. Thank you, Woodland Reads Team, and the city of Woodland – can’t wait to visit again!

Newest Story in Crossborder


So honored to announce that my latest short story, “The Volunteer,” is appearing in the Fall 2014 edition of Crossborder, the literary journal of Leapfrog Press and Guernica Editions.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Each summer, Claire and her son Quinn drove from Berkeley to the northern Rockies, where they pitched a tent in Dulcet National Park, and camped three months for free. In exchange for the campsite, they worked as volunteers, cleaning restrooms, picking up trash, and grooming hiking trails. At the end of their shifts, when the sun drifted low in the crystalline sky, they wandered the banks of the Dulcet River, rods and nets in hand. It was all fly-fishing — catch-and-release — and Quinn was a natural, sometimes hooking up to six rainbow trout, while Claire’s line tangled on an out-stretched willow, then snapped and lost its fly. Quinn had the rhythm, the musicality to cast, mend, point, and set, and the ability to distinguish the nuances of the water: the little blurp a cutthroat made when it slowly surfaced for air, or the almost silent spin of a whirlpool as it gathered behind a boulder. Once he caught his fish, he reeled it in and netted it, deftly slipping the hook from the trout’s mouth before gently letting it go.

Special thanks to Rebecca Schwab for her kind and generous compliments, and to Leapfrog, for hosting its annual fiction competition. My friend Thom Atkinson placed as a finalist in Leapfrog’s 2014 Fiction Contest with his novel TIKI MAN; as it happens, Thom was in my workshop at Tomales Bay this past week, where we worked with Robert Boswell. Thom and I hadn’t met before, so it was a fun coincidence!


Working with Mr. Boswell

tomales bay

Gearing up for the Writing by Writers Workshop in Tomales Bay, working with Robert Boswell, author of seven novels, three story collections, and two books of non-fiction.

Boswell WorkshopThere are eleven of us in the class, including me, and these are our manuscripts. Can’t wait to dive in, and discover through story all that is important and meaningful and fun to my fellow workshop-mates. And I’m wondering, of course, what nugget Mr. Boswell will impart, who will listen and who will ignore, and what I’ll bring home from the experience. I expect a great deal, and am confident he will not disappoint.

Woodland Reads 2014 / Renee Thompson

woodland reads

So pleased and proud to announce that Woodland Reads has chosen my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, as its 2014 community book.

Come to Woodland on October 30 and give us a listen! Books available for purchase at The Gifted Penguin (716 Main Street, Woodland; Terry’s Hallmark, at 375 W. Main, Woodland; and The Avid Reader, in Davis).

A Year in Compliments — Masa and Hime

Masa and Hime


It happens every so often that on a day when I most need to see, or read, or hear something heartwarming, I’m given a gift that reaffirms my faith in man.


Steve and I were in Honolulu recently, where Steve and seven of his friends were preparing to tackle the Waikiki Rough Water Swim – a 2.4 mile race with over 900 competitors. The day before, on August 31, I had gone down to the beach around 10 a.m., while Steve stayed behind in the room, wrapping up a project for one of his clients. (He planned to join me later.) Not long after hopping into the water, I noticed a young man – slight, but athletic-looking, in dark swim trunks – and his small black dog; they too were heading for the water. The dog led the way, dragging a long red leash. Once in the ocean, the man soon passed the dog, swimming leisurely, allowing the dog to catch up. Every once in a while the dog shook its head, bothered, I guessed, by water in its ears.


The man swam toward the wharf, and then cut across the reef and angled back toward the beach – it seemed a long way to go. When the man reached shallow water, he stopped swimming, stood, and took the dog into his arms, so that the dog faced him, resting its paws on the man’s shoulders. In that moment I knew this was a good man; that he loved his dog, and his dog loved him. After a few minutes the man released his pup, and they returned to their spot on the beach. The man then made a sweeping motion with one hand, and the dog sat. Once he himself was situated on his towel, the man offered the dog a snack and a drink of water; afterward, the dog rolled in the sand and kicked up its legs. A testament to happiness.


I watched all of this from a distance of 50 yards, wanting to get out of the water and compliment the man, but hesitating. My inner voice said, “Don’t do it, Renee, he’ll think you’re a nut-job…or worse yet, a stalker.” But the whole point of A YEAR IN COMPLIMENTS is to go out of my way to say something nice to someone who deserves recognition – and if anyone deserved a compliment, it was this man and his sweet black dog. So I got out of the water.


“Excuse me, sir. May I speak to you a moment?”


Startled, he blinked and sat up. “Yes?”


When I kneeled to speak to him, the dog scooted over. I let her smell my hand, and then patted her, and introduced myself to the man, telling him about my blog*, and how I’d watched him with his dog. I told him how much his kindness had touched me, and he smiled, relaxing, telling me the dog’s name was Hime – Japanese for princess. She was a Lab/pit rescue, he said. He got her when she was around one, although he wasn’t sure of her age, since she wasn’t microchipped. He’d had her for six years.


“She was afraid of everything when I first brought her home – every little sound.”




He nodded. “She had a lot of scars.”


I rubbed Hime’s belly while she stood next to me, and she sneaked a lick to my mouth. “What’s your name?” I asked the man. He said it was Masa, and that he lived in town. He worked as a sushi chef.


Not wanting to take up more of his time, I told him I’d let him go. We shook hands, and after I left, I looked back, seeing that Masa’s ball cap now sat on Hime’s head, and that Masa was talking to her.


*I didn’t have my smart phone with me that morning; hence, the “stick” reproduction, above.