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The Cat Came Back!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

My friend Walt Sweet, fiery-haired maker of my Irish flute, used to sing The Cat Came Back, a picaresque folk tune in a minor key, which detailed one ludicrous end after another for a cat that couldn't be gotten rid of. I've been humming it lately.

James came back. And back, and back. As I write, it's Saturday night. James first showed up on Monday,  August 15, 2016. I got the shot of a lifetime through the glass patio door, every hair defined, the highlight in his greengold eyes, his tail curled up over his back. I figured I had had my ultimate chance to photograph a wild bobcat. I could die happy. And then he came back the 17th, 18th, and 19th, too. 

Needless to say, I was glued to the studio window, my magic portal to the world of wild things. How could I leave my station? At any moment, there was the possibility that I might see a bobcat, one of the most elusive of Ohio's animals, one that was nearly extirpated and fought its way back and is now  repopulating its historic range. To me, that's a miracle in itself. To have one show up in my yard, and then come back? Manna from heaven. 

On the morning of Wednesday, August 17, Bill and I were catching up, talking a blue streak about the kids, and all the events we have coming up. He'd just gotten back from a trip, was getting ready to take off for England again, and I was showing him the bobcat portraits on my laptop, when he saw a brown blur run up the very same birch tree that brown blur had run up on Monday. 

But where did it go? I ran to the east side of the big studio windows and behind the birch clump, and saw this:

James had a squirrel treed, and he was hoping it would lose its nerve and leap out of the top of that tree. He's putting a hex on it, trying to stare it down and freak it out sufficiently to crack its cool. 

This failed. So James tried another tactic: Disappearing. He stopped moving his head, and moved only his eyes.

There followed a series of expressions so beguiling I wondered if he was trying to charm that squirrel out of the tree.

Stop, you!! I know that behind those gorgeous muzzlepuffs, there is a lethal set of ivory fangs, and in that clever head is a prey drive that makes Chet Baker look like a Care Bear. 

You're not fooling me.

I've actually been bitten by a bobcat, when I was a dopey twenty-something. Someone had one on a leash at a Massachusetts shopping mall (remember, I grew up in the 1970's, when people thought they could keep things like bobcats and mountain lions and ocelots--shudder!--and they actually got away with it). Sort of. As much as one gets away with treating any wild animal like a dog. And, being the animal freak that I am, I reached slowly out to stroke its back. Wearing a studded collar and being held on a leash only made it look domesticated. That cat whipped its head around in one lightning move and sank its teeth into my wrist. I remember being instantly and deeply impressed at the crushing power of its jaws; the way those shining white canines seemed to be hooked into oh, I don't know...a vise? Gawp. That was a good one for the Bite List. Memories, good times.

Bill and I stood transfixed, he watching James through binoculars; me wielding the Canon 7D, both of us beyond delighted that he got to see the bobcat before taking off for the British Bird Fair that same day! I love seeing this stuff, but being able to share it with someone who digs it too is the bomb.

Eventually James tired of the disappearing act, and his attention wandered. We got a look at those delicious stenciled, spray-painted earbacks. 

He mrrowed several times, to whom or at what I don't know.

And then he got up

unfolding that beautiful fluid body, his long cat-hams working

and I noticed how he slung his hind feet under his body so that his tracks would be in a perfect line; this perfection unconscious, springing from how he is made

with a flexible spine and the softest of velvet padded paws making his progress as noiseless as an owl's 

and that slinky crafty cat was gone, to thrill another day.

I am still inwardly squealing at the very thought that Bill and I once looked out my studio window and saw this, THIS, crouched under the birches. 

This. This photo makes all my bells go off. It gives scale and presence to this apparition. It's incongruous and unbelievable and wonderful, a bobcat with an overturned urn and a weeping blue ginger plant from Logee's. A bobcat with geraniums, on my mowed lawn.

This wildest of wild things, this least expected, most wanted, never dreamt of apparition. This beautiful bobcat. 

The Best Thing I've Seen In My Yard

Monday, August 15, 2016

There's this beautiful line in a Bruce Cockburn song called "Pacing the Cage." It always makes me smile and breaks my heart at the same time, because for me, it's the essence of creating art, which is a continual giving, giving, giving, whether most people realize or appreciate it or pay attention or not.

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything.

All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing.

It's perfect for me, that verse, on two levels, because on one hand, I feel that some portion of my brain is always engaged with coming up with the next thing I want to share, something that will make you smile or gasp or feel good all over, knowing that there is this little corner of Ohio where all the things that should be happening in the turning wheel of the seasons are still happening. That there is this sanctum sanctorum where the ironweed bursts into bloom and is mobbed by swallowtails, where box turtles are laying eggs, some of which actually hatch, where newly-minted hummingbirds are dipping into dwarf pomegranate blossoms and there is someone there to witness it and bring it to you. 

And on the second level, that verse is perfect, because the gods or God of all that is beautiful and perfect is lobbing beautiful and perfect things at me faster than I can field them, faster than I can photograph them. I could sit at my drawing table all day long in late summer and shoot out the window and never, ever be bored for a moment. So maybe He never knew what all I wanted, so He gave me everything. Or She. Or It. Or Dod.  Dod and Ida. I don't know who's behind this. I'm still trying to figure out why so much magic comes my way, every dang minute. I just know that it I am in a constant state of worshipful excitement about it, and grateful doesn't even begin to describe how it makes me feel. It takes me to an otherworldly plain. A star plain. That's it. I feel like I live on a star plain, right here on Earth. And I am thankful that I have the means to share it with so many people. 

I am getting little waves of migrating yellow-throated warblers, several a day. And every durn one of them stops to peek in my studio window at me. Today, this one was hovering right at eye level, again and again, as if it had come to call me to attention. I'm there! I'm there! I'm paying attention!

  I have several dozen photos of these exquisite birds from today alone.  Dozens from the day before, and the day before, and they're all different birds. Yellow-throated warblers. Of all the things. And just inches away from my face, so close I have to back up to photograph them. I just shake my head. It's all so, so beautiful, and it's all as if it were being choreographed to bring me to an ecstatic state. 

I woke up this morning to this. Tuberoses still exhaling their night perfume, Rose of Sharon rolling open, sheep-clouds trotting across a pearly sky, all of Nature singing, still dripping with the night's little showers. I knew it was going to be a wonderful day. Mostly because I get to be here, all day long, witnessing. I do not forget for one minute how lucky I am to be here. 

I did my morning routine, which is get up, let Bacon out for a wee, give him his blood pressure and thyroid pills in little sausage treat balls, then a liver bikket to top him off; feed the woodpeckers, finches and cardinals their peanuts and sunflower hearts on the deck; grab a small handful of koi sticks for the comets in the pond; walk around the house admiring the zinnias and purslane and gaillardia and crazily blooming roses; check the morning glories for buds; pull whatever weeds I missed yesterday, end up in the garage where I tote the black oil sunflower and thistle seed out to the studio feeders; check to see that the birdbaths are clean (scrub them with Comet and refill if not), and finally retire inside to open the laptop and see what's happened overnight. I opted not to run this morning because those little sheep-clouds closed in for a morning thundershower, what a delight! So I was at my drawing table when the Gang of Eight Squirrels appeared to chow down.

This is a recent phenomenon. We never had a solitary squirrel in the yard until years after our neighbor Gary died. Gary had been eating them all. I mean, all. If you ever saw a squirrel, it was deep in the woods, and it would leap like a scalded ape from tree to tree to get away from you. They never came into the yard. Humans live in yards. They were terrified. 

All that has changed. These squirrels have grown up for probably ten squirrel generations, eating sunflower seed at Casa Zick/Thompson. I am appalled at their numbers, but the most I can do is send Baker out to rout them every couple of hours to give the birds a chance. I broadcast seed all over the yard so the birds can get some, too. Then I throw some sunflower hearts for my brown thrasher, who otherwise laboriously pounds the black oil seeds open one by one, and we don't want him to have to do that. Everybody eats.

I had found an interesting splash of mourning dove feathers near the spruce a couple of days ago, and it didn't look like the big young Cooper's hawk's work. It looked different. Like something had grabbed that dove and not stopped to subdue it or pluck it the way a hawk would. Just grabbed it and carried it off. I puzzled over that. I'd seen a black and white housecat  slink through about three weeks ago, and I wondered if it was still lurking around doing its dirty work. No housecats allowed here. 

I'm doing my combo of working a little bit and staring out the window a lot. It's around 7:33 AM, August 15, 2016. All of a sudden this spaniel-sized medium-brown BLUR races into my peripheral vision, flowing in one huge lunge up the trunk of a birch tree right behind the Bird Spa. OMGGGGGGG that had to be a BOBCAT!! It's hot on the tail of a fat squirrel which practically turns itself inside out spiralling up that trunk, then leaping wildly out of the crown of the tree to flump! to the ground and skibble to the safety of the nearby woods. I leap up just as quickly and start flailing around for my big camera, which turns out, after several darting sallies, to be PLUGGED INTO MY LAPTOP by its downloading cord.  I.E, it's  right at hand. OK. Stop panicking!!

I seize the camera and yank it, cord and all, away from the laptop, like I'm pulling out a bindweed  vine. By this time the cat has lunged back down the birch trunk and run into the backyard. I still haven't so much as gotten a clear look at it; I just know it's a bobcat because it was brown, it climbed a tree and didn't seem to have a tail. I'm sure I'm pant-hooting at this point, trying to motivate my body through the studio maze of prints and matboard and furniture to get it as fast as possible down the basement stairs and to the sliding glass doors of downstairs bedroom, where I am praying in rapid-fire heathen gibberish that it will still be visible. It's a small, scant hope, that the cat will have paused to catch its breath, but that small hope is so big it is bursting my heart.

And it has paused. It is standing about eight feet from the patio door. I shoot wildly through the heavy black screen and two layers of glass. It is here. It is a young male. And it is so, so beautiful.

I have come down here quickly enough to capture his look of disappointment as he thinks about the squirrel he might have been eating, had he not flubbed the chase. I guess that he might be a yearling. I don't think this year's kitten would be so big yet, or hunting on his own.

I keep shooting. I wish I weren't shooting through screen and glass, but this is far better than any bobcat photo I've ever taken, because I've taken none. This is my Most Wanted Ohio Animal. In my back yard. And I have my big camera on him.

He seems to get a notion, and trots toward the greenhouse, then reverses his course and heads for the orchard. I quickly sashay left and can now shoot through the glass door from behind a curtain, unobstructed by screening. Ohhhh yeah.

I love the way he keeps his tail curled up over his back. Still excited from the chase? Planning to spray a bit? Don't know. Just charmed.

I will him to stop for more photos. He does. I get overexcited and start punching the shutter again. I am so, so excited. There is a bobcat in my backyard!!!!!

BREATHE. BREATHE. Squeeze the shutter button. Don't punch it. You got this, Zick. 

You're going to need to click on this one to embiggen it, folks. Let your eye travel over every inch of that exquisite piece of wilderness, that puzzle piece of Ohio's fauna that has been missing until less than 15 years ago when our pitched efforts to extirpate bobcats finally trailed off into futility. When reforestation and their modest reproductive potential finally caught up with the heinous leg-hold trapping and persecution and habitat loss we have visited upon them since we first set ugly foot into their beautiful world. 

Look into those greengold eyes, those eyes that say "I see you. And I am not afraid. Thank you for the fat squirrels and mourning doves you supply me. You've got too many of them here. I'll take care of that." 

I know that, as long as I live, I will likely never take a better photo of a bobcat, in perfect health, in perfect light, with the Ironweed Festival going on behind him. And for that I will be grateful forever.

He turned to go, giving me a flash of his fabulous pied earbacks. Soft padded pink paw pads. Jungle spots and bars.  Tail still saucily curled over his back. Gotta love this cat! 

I'm calling him James, for my feisty, fiery friend in Honduras. It just fits. 

I kept shooting as he calmly walked away.  I had to drink this sweet cat in, every inch of him, while I had him in my sights.

As he turned, and I looked at his slab sides, it hit me that he really is still a kitten. A really big, really fierce kitten. Please come back as often as you wish, grow big and strong and smart, and help yourself to my squirrels. Thank you for your efforts. Tomorrow at 7:33, again? I'll be watching!

As he disappeared, bunnylike, into the ironweed, I remembered the bobkitten I'd tried to help in the  summer of 2014. 

I remembered how I had loved him, what a delight it had been to feed and shelter him,  

and how my heart had broken clean in two when he was taken away to a purely lousy fate.

And I smiled. Because in a very real and beautiful way, Bobkit was back. Here, big as life.

 Home. With me.

 Leaving scratches on my birch tree, scratches from great big claws on toes that are very far apart.

Yes, this is the Best Thing I've Seen in My Yard. Ever.

The squirrels squir-squir-squirrrred for about an hour after the attempted murder, which made me laugh out loud.

I laughed again when this squirrel climbed all the way down a little tree until it bent over, before he got the nerve to come to the ground for seed again.

You should be afraid, you little rascals. You should worry when you come into my yard. James is on the prowl! There will finally be a price on your fat little bottoms!

While you're at it, James, take a chipmunk hors d'ouvres. Please.

So there you go. There's the story, and it's just one little piece of a day here in Paradise. It's past midnight now, and I've got to turn in, but I wanted to give you everything. xoxo jz

Ironweed Festival!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Ironweed Festival is spotty; it's not going on everywhere. That's because ironweed (in southeast Ohio, we have Tall Ironweed) only grows in masses in badly overgrazed pastures. It is distasteful to cattle, so they eat everything around it, and as a result the ironweed takes over, enjoying the fact that its competition has been chewed to the ground. The main Festival Grounds are waay down at the end of Dean's Fork, about 2.5 miles from where I park.

I don't mind the walk at all.

I've made this walk/run more this summer than in any season before. I found three pairs of breeding rose-breasted grosbeaks down here in early June, and I was hooked for the summer. It's been a pure joy to see the vegetation grow up and different flowers come into bloom, to hear the periodical cicada chorus finally silenced, and to welcome the swamp cicadas, with their swelling oscillation, as they take over for shrieking hordes of periodical visitors.  To make a bird list every time I go out; see it swell past 80 species in May and shrink to barely 35 these days; to look forward to the total surprises like blue herons and skunks, snappers and redtails and Hannah the Appaloosa. 

Truth is, I've gotten hooked on it, on the peace it seems I can sometimes find only here. Shila helped me figure out something about running, and why it keeps us sane in an upside-down world. 
If you're caught in turmoil, whether it be from overly demanding work, relationships, indecision, world events, or some nasty combination of all those things, and you can't see your way out of it, go for a run. 
If you think of what's bothering you as a beast that's snapping at you, what makes sense? 
To run away from it. When you run, you send your primitive brain the signal that you're fleeing the beast. You've taken care of the problem. You've gotten away. 

And your brain says, "Oh, good. OK. Whew! Good going! You're going to be fine now."
And at the end of the run, you feel better all over. You could call it an endorphin high, and you'd be right, but I think the feedback loop is something as I've described it. Running makes you feel better. It shuts up your primitive brain, which is always screaming, "Well, DO SOMETHING about this!! Get the hell out of here!"
We all know that sometimes there is no getting out of the particular mess we're in. There's just picking the best way through it, living our lives as well as we can under the circumstances.
I usually fit in four miles a day, 7 or more when I have the chance. It keeps me going.

It's the best. I get out and see all my friends. 

The combination of tiger swallowtail's sweetcorn yellow and tall ironweed's royal purple is a mighty fine one. 

I love to watch them diving deep into the flowers, thorax pumping, head dipping--there's so much butterfly behavior to watch. They aren't just decorations. They are goal-driven, methodical little beasts.

On this cloudy morning, a surprise awaited me at the Ironweed Festival's Main Grounds. 

Oh no. What fresh hell is this? 

It was actually worse than it looked from afar. 

A five-foot deep trench where there had been a culvert. 

It ran clear out into the Main Festival Grounds. Damn, damn, damn it. Why can't they leave Dean's Fork ALONE???

All right then. A  huge new culvert is going in, right by the black barn I love so much. Whyyyyy?  I don't know why an untraveled dirt road needs a yard-wide culvert, but there you go. They've been working on Dean's for several years now. It used to be impassable, with ruts two feet deep, but now I could drive the Subaru top to bottom. There are new culverts going in all over the place in our area. I have a sneaking suspicion this is because they're expecting greatly increased traffic from huge heavy trucks in the near future.  See previous post. It comes down to oil and gas development.

Chet and I pushed around the mess and entered the Festival Grounds. Exhale. Accept what is, move on.

 All is well there. The ironweed is coming on strong and tall. 

 I have to be careful that I don't lose Chetty in the ironweed. It's hard to keep him in sight, and with his deafness, I can't call him anymore. When he loses visual contact with me, he starts zigzagging, head high, searching. It touches my heart. I've got to dash after him and make sure he sees me, or he'll light out for home, thinking I've left him behind. He's gotten much better, isn't so quick to panic and take off now, just as I've gotten better at making sure I stay in his sight.

We have an understanding. We keep an eye on each other now.

From this angle, I couldn't see the culvert dig.

I knew that soon enough the pipes would be in place and the road would be replaced. It would never be as beautiful as it was, but that's change for you. 

Sometimes you have to cling to what remains all the harder.

A female indigo bunting with a nest nearby gave her "SPIT!" call over and over. 

On the way home I looked at leaves that had fallen early. This one looked like a weather map of Florida to me, when a tropical storm is attacking.

The leaves that fall in August have something wrong with them.  Red maples shed a lot, and some disease has the yellow buckeyes dropping all their leaves, which turned red in July. 

Black tupelo. Mmm. They can make a red like no other, even when they're sick.

Another red maple, all blotched and spotted. Fantastic.

I looked up, and Chet Baker was waiting, smiling fondly. You and your leaves.

So, for those who miss the Ironweed Festival, this is how it looks this year. With Whipple's version of The Big Dig going on, perhaps it's best that there not be a full-blown Festival in 2016. Maybe we'll wait until it's all smoothed over. 

Torn up as it is, Dean's still saves me. Please, may it never see pavement.

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