Goodbye, Raven

Of all the many things I thought I’d write about next, getting high on lilacs, Stellar’s last days, a neighbor’s sudden death, being an introvert on lockdown… Raven dying in my arms last night wasn’t even on the list.

Something must have happened while I was inside making dog food around six. When I called them in to eat, she didn’t come. I called and called, and saw her rise from a strange place by the fence, but she wouldn’t come. I walked up to get her, and coaxed her down and into the house, where she lay on her bed and wouldn’t eat even a cookie. She was moving oddly, all tight and slow. I thought she might have had a stroke.

At the canyon in March

Over the next few hours, she seemed to relax, then she got up on the sofa and I thought that signaled improvement. An hour later she got off the couch and collapsed on the dog bed next to Stellar, unable to move her back end. I lay beside her for the next few hours breathing deeply and calmly myself, massaging her spine and hips the way she likes, telling her what a good girl she has always been, and how I love her. She struggled to turn a few times, her breath coming more labored. Her gums paled, her paws cooled. Her breaths came farther apart, turned guttural, then thinned to a whistle. I prayed for her to be reborn in the best possible life, and rubbed sand from the monks’ mandala on her forehead, to guarantee her a human reincarnation.

In two weeks we would have celebrated her fourteenth birthday. She’s been a joyful, delightful, challenging, loyal companion since she came to me at six weeks old. She died peacefully in her own bed, in my loving arms, at 11:40 pm, of unknown causes.

Grooming her baby brother in March. I don’t know what he’ll do without her.
Double rainbow and the last ice, three weeks ago at the canyon.

Three Days Under the Crabapple Tree

Way back in April, honeybee in Tulipa tarda.
Drama in the dandelions
Grape hyacinths keep on blooming despite a deep freeze, and bees keep coming.
Excitement in the tulips
What exactly is going on here in the apricot tree?
Big bees and little bees. Bombus griseocollis?
Anthophora, a digger bee. For awhile, the apricot tree was ‘the bee tree.’ Thankfully, its bloom survived an 11 degree night, perfect timing, and looks like another bountiful apricot crop this year.
Bombus huntii are prolific this spring, thank goodness.

Bee sightings ramped up over the past month, from crocuses and grape hyacinths to dandelions and tulips, to blooming fruit trees. First the apricot, then the wild plum, then the crabapple. A butterfly I haven’t seen much in the past is also prevalent in the past week, the Anise swallowtail. Hummingbirds have also come to the fruit trees, but so fast I haven’t been able to catch one with the camera.

Unperturbed by the presence of two catahoulas in the yard, and a wild woman with a camera, this doe continues to browse where she pleases in the yard.

Despite the lockdown, or perhaps because of it, I am busier than ever outside in the garden. I can’t tell you where my days go, except to say that they are filled with as much color, light, love and joy as I can manage between sunup and bedtime, most of it outside in the garden. Work is of course diminished, as is almost everyone’s in this dire time, but I am doing my best to make the most of extra hours in the day. Fortunately my body is in better shape than it’s been for years, thanks to physical therapy and a healthier attitude, and I’m able to work more in the yard than now than ever before. I’m so tired by the end of the day that I just don’t sit down and post the pictures I’ve taken. Off to bed now, with more thoughts and images to come. Wishing for everyone to lay low, look close to home for joy and beauty, and stay well during this continuing pandemic. Please don’t be impatient and too quick to seek the old normal, which I hope never comes back. The planet and all its non-human inhabitants has appreciated the break from our reckless pace.

Cultivating Joy in a Dark Spring

How is it that with all this extra time on my hands I still can’t unclutter my house? Oh yeah… the garden is waking up.

First to bloom in early March, purple dwarf iris.
As the purples fade, these new Iris reticulata ‘Eye Catcher’ bloom for the first time.
Then the first native bees take advantage of grape hyacinths…
… including Muscaria azureum, a delightful surprise this year, which only grows to a couple of inches tall.
Here they are just sprouting from bulbs planted last fall in my Blue Bed.
The first butterflies come to these early spring bulbs.
And also the first bumblebees!
Last week European pasqueflowers began opening, attracting an early digger bee…
… and one happy spider with a not-so-lucky little sweat bee.
This one fares better on a little yellow tulip.
This tulip is an accidental hybrid between Tulipa tarda, the ground-hugging wild tulip, and a tall coral-colored cultivar I planted many years ago. Told I should name it after myself, I just did: Tulipa ritala.
Meanwhile, Stellar wobbles along on his last legs, filling my heart and breaking it at the same time.

I simply don’t have words to convey the maelstrom of emotions that swirl within like March winds this spring. Above all there is gratitude for the many blessings this life has given me so far. I’m grateful to be an introvert who works from home anyway. I’m grateful that I have a reasonably healthy body, though my immune system is not robust and neither is my right lung, which never quite fills all the way. I consider myself to be fairly high risk, and so I’m grateful I have friends willing to shop for me and deliver necessities. I’m grateful I’ve worked hard for nearly thirty years to create this beautiful refuge, which now offers solace and peace amid global turmoil, and I’ll be grateful when I am again able to share it with people.

Other emotions may be less healthy but are also valid: rage at the rampant greed and graft manifesting at the highest levels of government during this pandemic when all humans should be working together to stave off despair and death; disgust at the ignorant response by trump cult believers that is causing so many more Americans to sicken and die; despair that the dying petroleum industry and the politicians that subsidize and profit from it take advantage of our distraction to rape and pillage even more egregiously our fragile planet. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention: Broaden your information horizons.

Meanwhile, the Say’s phoebes are back shoring up at least two nests around the house. A day after they first fluttered into the yard, I took last year’s nest off the top of the ladder leaning against the north wall, and lay it down so I could use it this summer if I needed to. The next day I felt so bad that I gathered scrap wood, tools, and screws to build a little shelf in the same spot where I could replace the nest. But once I stood there with all the materials I realized it would be way too complicated, so I propped up the ladder against a joist to provide corner stability, and tucked the old nest securely back into place. It’s one small thing I can do…

Like Biko emerging from hibernation, I take advantage of every sunny day to appreciate the rich beauty of this particular spring.

IT'S A MIRACLE!

“Get me down, please.” Cyn’s caption of this photo she took this evening

I don’t often drive off the mesa after a drink, but tonight was an exception. I was enjoying a quarantini on a Zoom happy hour with Dawn when my phone, across the room, went off with text dings and call rings. I ignored it until Dawn got a text from Pamela, asking if she knew where I was, saying they had found a tortoiseshell cat at the end of their road…

It’s a miracle. I knew she had gotten in Philip’s or John’s vehicle that day a month ago when she disappeared, but… they both checked, and… somehow… who knows how… she ended up at the end of the road a quarter mile from the Bad Dog Ranch. A month ago yesterday. Both Marla and Pamela saw her in the past few days and thought she was Idaho, her sister who lives at the ranch, but Idaho was accounted for. Pamela said, “I knew it wasn’t Idaho because she’s so furry I can’t see underneath her, and I could see underneath this cat. I thought she was a feral cat from one of the ranches down there.”

This evening, they caught her, carried her home, put her in a crate, and tried to reach me. Dawn and I were chatting away, about the pandemic, of course, and other things, and Dawn checked her texts. “Do you know where Rita might be?” That moment when someone’s face changes so dramatically you know it’s important? I saw that. I leapt across the room to my phone, and saw this picture:

“It’s a long shot, but…” Pamela had checked the pictures on here and matched markings…

“It’s her I’m on my way.”

Twenty minutes later…

Had there been any doubt, which there wasn’t, because I have memorized her face during all my adorations of her, it would have been immediately dispelled when I got the crate out of the car. She began thrashing and butting her head against the grate. She knew she was home. The dogs were waiting in the yard, and she went nose to nose with them. Inside, I took her out in the mudroom, and flipped her upside down just to make triple sure, checking for that sweet flan spot on her tummy. She wiggled out of my arms and butted against the door to get in the house.

She ran right in, pranced around the house, ate half a can of food, ran upstairs, checked out all her sleeping spots. Ojo chased her around hissing and growling. I guess he didn’t miss her as much as I thought he did. I know she smells different. And maybe he was actually happy to be an only cat. She hissed back. She’s thin and tense, and very happy to be home.

One thing’s for sure: this cat is on lockdown for at least two days, if not two weeks. She’s not going outside until I get my fill of cuddles, and feel some sense of certainty that she won’t run off after her taste of the wild. No pun intended. I’ll have to buy another bag of that kibble. And clean the copper sink more often. And fret a little more about keeping cat food supplied during this uncertain time. Although we know now that she can hunt her own food. And, sorry Benny, but I’m glad I didn’t give you her scratching post yet because she used it immediately.

We’re all doing quarantine for various reasons around here, some because of recent flights from both coasts, some from reasonable caution, but we are all extra happy tonight. Topaz is lying on the rug in front of the fire now. Thanks to Cyn and Pamela for catching her and for the pictures, and to my dear friends who are as happy as I am that my ‘forever kitty’ has returned home. It’s made our day: a moment of pure joy and gratitude in this deeply disturbing and uncertain time.

Grumpy, scared and tense kitty on the first leg of her journey home

And it is. I experience waves of terror when I think about the future. But I’ve got a few resources that keep me grounded in the present moment. One is Catherine Ingram’s podcast ‘In the Deep.’ Another is the remarkably sane newsletter from Robert Hubbell. And there’s Telesangha, a weekday morning meditation group: since September 2016 a dear international community has developed in this half-hour telephone sangha that I look forward to each morning, and that years ago caused me to commit to a daily meditation practice without which I suspect I’d be losing my mind to utter anxiety at this point.

My heart grieves for all of Italy, for the horror of the unnatural aberration of death and mourning there during this pandemic. My heart grieves for all the suffering and death worldwide that is happening now and is yet to come as a result of this natural disaster, this once-in-a-hundred years pandemic, this world-changing plague, this inevitable result of too many humans exploiting a finite planet. Amidst all this grievous suffering there are also tiny sparks of joy. The practice, the balance, lies in holding the experience of the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows at the same time.

It is an inconceivable situation. And, for this one iota of life called me, as I learned to breathe with decades ago in a Thich Nhat Hanh meditation, In this moment, all is well. Inhale In this moment, exhale all is well. Over and over. And over. In the next moment, or the next month, or six months from now, it might not be. “We’ll know more later,” as my auntie always says.

Although there are some things, very few things, that we will not know more later about, like the past month in the life of the flan-tummied cat Topaz.

Missing Topaz

Topaz, Stellar and I take a rest on a walk last September

This is not the post I meant to write this weekend. I’ve been planning to write about Stellar’s last days, but fortunately that can wait awhile. Little Topaz did not come home Wednesday night. She’s stayed out late a few times through her nearly five years, but never all night, never in winter, never for three days.

When a cat disappears on this mesa it rarely ends well. Neighbors have seen big cats and their tracks this month, both bobcats, and a lioness with cubs; foxes abound and vixens are no doubt eating for pups on the way, while the coyote population seems to be rebounding. The first night, when I still thought she was out late napping somewhere, or hunting, I heard an owl not too far off. Maybe she was napping, and came when I called, and got swooped on her way home, making a good meal for an incubating owl pair.

Though beautifully camouflaged in the juniper woods, she is not immune to predators.
They have each been through around a dozen breakaway collars in their first four years but the last two have lasted almost all of their fifth year. Sometimes I find one caught in a branch or on the ground. I’m hoping I’ll find the last one she wore, even if I never find her.
A morning cuddle

When was the exact last time I saw her? She got in bed for a morning cuddle, which she’s been doing more frequently this winter. She left half a bowl of food, which was unusual. Was she here after lunch? I left at four, and came home at dusk. Her brother waited by the door. I called, shook the kibble bag, stayed up til one. Nothing. Twenty degrees out. Acceptance settled quickly, a dark cape tied with a shred of hope.

Shortly before I brought her home, July 2015. Thanks, Mary, for the photo.
Topaz at six weeks, eyes changing from blue to gold

In some ways I was just beginning to get to know her. While very affectionate as a wee kitten, she became an elusive young minx once I let them go outside. She couldn’t stop hunting grasshoppers her first two summers, and needed twice weekly doses of powdered psyllium husk in her food to help eliminate their bountiful exoskeletons. She brought lizards and birds, which I discouraged, and rescued when possible. She spent most daylight hours of her first few years outside. She always came when called, but sometimes not til a few hours later after I’d resort to shaking the kibble bag.

On her bed in the sunroom table, holding down the garden calendar.

Only last summer did she begin to come inside before dusk regularly, without enticement. She’s always let me hold her on her back, but only this year did she actually seek more attention. She loves her creature comforts and napped away many a day this winter on her bed on the sunroom table, rather than spending them outside. She was growing up, and I was loving it, my peace of mind growing reliant on her skillful behavior. If she could come home to me, she already would have.

It is so sad, so fucking sad. She is just gone. I know nothing about where she is or how or when she went or if she’s still alive. In this moment, I know nothing of the only single thing I care to know. I tremble with recognition that this is only one peak in the ever flowing terrible unknowing that is sentient life: all our moments and all our days stink of this unknowing and yet we mostly manage to smell only roses.

Below, Topaz at 4 days, 5 weeks, 6 weeks, and 2 months.

My heart breaks with the not knowing, and with the loss of her. At the same time I acknowledge, If this is my worst suffering I am indeed blessed. She is a cat, however special, beautiful, unique and loved, she is a cat and not a child. Her demise is not the end of the world. She is one minute life in a teeming world on a collision course with human ingenuity. Chances are that a predator caught and killed her swiftly, and she’s returned to the cycle, some youthful lion making her first kill, or food for a den of wriggling fox pups. Though there remains the nightmarish possibility of some lingering death by inextricable entrapment, or the even more far-fetched possibility that someone picked her up and took her away. Or, yes, that she may yet return home.

I could stretch and blame myself, as I have rightfully in other animal departures. But in this case, though there were a couple of impatient moments in the past few months, You coming inside? You going outside? I can’t hold this door open forever… there is one thing this Topaz cat has always known for certain: this is her home, she is loved here, I love her. I’ve taken the precaution, some surely laugh at me while others understand to do the same, of telling each cat, each time it leaves the house, I love you, come back to me. I’ve never pushed this cat outside in anger, as I did once decades ago and never saw that cat again. Whenever the last time I saw her was, I am certain she knew that I love her and she intended to return. So I can’t agonize over any potential role in her departure, and that is a blessing: for all my life I have blamed myself when things are simply the way they are.

Often entwined, these two have been inseparable since they came into the world.

These were the cats who were gonna grow old with me, the precious pair of them. Ojo garnered all the extras with his dramatic health episodes during their first four years. Topaz was the easy one. Only around when she wanted food, never sick a day in her life, as long as we kept those grasshoppers, bones and feathers moving through. Always let me pick her up without complaint, sometimes draped like an alpaca shawl across my knees when I sat on the fire stool in front of a freshly-lit stove, either her spine draped along my pressed-together thighs, head lolling back over my knees, purring while I rubbed the soft flan fur on her tummy, last year’s weeds having rendered her lower belly fur-free like a brand new baby cat and just the merest fuzz regrown overwinter; or lying on her side across my thighs dangling her ends down along each calf, her front legs and head, her back legs and tail, hanging soft, relaxed, just hanging out letting me groom her, fire growing hot beside us, we shift, now heat behind us. She always chose her cuddles, and was skittish with most people and other animals, except our two dogs.

Weeds were so thick all last summer that Topaz groomed her belly furless, and even this winter it barely began to grow back.

It’s not going to be different, just because I don’t like it. It isn’t unfair. I had no reason other than happy complaisance to believe it would be otherwise. But why her? Why not some cat who was less beautiful, less loved, less appreciated? Some feral stray without a person grieving in its absence? Why not her? You sign up for this when you adopt a cat in a rural setting, and ever let it out of its box, your house. I decided Thursday night that Ojo will be the last outdoor cat, period, forever. If I ever adopt another cat once he’s gone, it will stay inside. I want to feed birds again.

Her eyes, more gold than green orbs, with an amber ripple around the outer edge of iris, her pupils narrow vertical slits. Her fur she kept clean and free of mats and burs with her extensive grooming, and it was soft as owl feathers, especially in her little armpits. Around her nose dainty short hairs on her soft muzzle and long whiskers white brown and black. She was a beautiful creature who graced us with the surprise of her life for almost five years.

Above, the most recent pictures of Topaz, including the last known shot of the missing person taken on a driveway walk two days before she disappeared. Our little family will be missing Topaz for a long time.

This loss is hard not because I thought it can’t happen to me, I didn’t, but because it happened out of the blue, as these things do. Meanwhile, I’ve started counting up the benefits to one less mammal in the house. Half the cat food cans. Half the interruptions throughout the day, let me in, let me out, feed me, and no more cat piss in the bathroom sink. For the past six months, when she doesn’t want to go outside, she pees in the copper sink. So less scrubbing of the sink now, and less fur to vacuum up, wipe out of my mouth in the morning, wash from blankets. I’m sure I’ll be conjuring positive spins on this scenario for some time, just to assuage the grief.

Topaz wants her mother and brother Benito to have her scratching post…
…and she leaves the rest of her kibble to her brother Spider and sister Idaho.
Her brother Ojo she leaves bereft, and also she bequeaths him all the beds in the house.

Shitstorms

Raven and Stellar at Ice Canyon, before the dog plague struck.

It was a rough holiday season here at Mirador. The worst of it, on one level, was the dogs, who each suffered for three straight days, first one then the other, with diarrhea. It was a real shitstorm. I was up every hour or two for that whole week letting one then the other out, and entered the new year as sleep deprived as a new mother. But from a big picture perspective, this latest escalation of US dominance and prerogative in the Middle East is just about my worst nightmare, for so many interconnected reasons.

Consider the Iranian spider-tailed viper found only in the limestone mountains of western Iran. Imagine that you are that creature. You hatched from an egg, and you have grown up just the way your millions of years of evolution have conditioned you to do. The tip of your tail looks just like a spider, with a pale bulbous abdomen and a bunch of legs. When you’re hungry you emerge from your cave and coil, perfectly camouflaged on the limestone rocks, and ever so slowly wave that tail tip about, until a bird comes to eat it. Then you strike and eat the bird. It’s a marvel of adaptation, one of the most amazing examples of caudal luring in the animal kingdom. There you are, in your remote desert-cave, living your amazing, singular life, and some corrupt, lying, power-hungry bozo an ocean away decides to start World War III. KABOOM!!! You are no more.

The Iranian spider-tailed viper. Yes, that’s her tail. Photo by Patrick müller.

Spectacularly unique endemic species like the Iranian spider-tailed viper live on all continents. Endemic means that they exist only in one particular place or habitat on the planet. We have a few here in western Colorado: the Colorado hookless cactus, for one, and the Gunnison sage grouse, as well as four ancient and endangered fish species. Most of our endemics are threatened by habitat loss and destruction, much of it from extractive industries.

The astonishing variety of reptiles and other animals native to the wartorn Middle East, as we call it, or center of the universe as they might refer to it, diminishes with every bomb that some regime explodes. We humans are destroying the planet in many ways by the needs and greeds of our sheer numbers, but the worst culprit by far is our addiction to petroleum, and the lengths we will go to to get more of it.

For 150 years the Petroleum Industry has fed this addiction and knowingly deceived us about its consequences, with evil disregard for Life on Earth in pursuit of their obscene profits. The climate crisis that now rages unchecked is the end result of the stupid greed of a small number of heartless magnates over the past century, though we are all complicit for having bought into or been born into this ‘consumer culture.’

Imagine that you are a tiny marsupial, a joey still confined to your mother’s pouch, and she is running or hopping for her life ahead of a monstrous fire that sweeps at the speed of wind across the only home you’ve ever known. And that fire is faster than you. More than half a billion animals have perished in the Australian wildfires this season, and countless more are suffering. Entire endemic species may go extinct on that continent. Don’t let industry propaganda fool you: there is no question that this disaster is a direct result of the climate crisis perpetrated by the petroleum industry.

Perhaps you are a refugee from Sudan or Central America fleeing unlivable conditions that have arisen from the climate crisis, and you traverse seas and countries to find safe haven, just to continue to live your fragile, single human life. You get somewhere and you’re not welcome, and you try to move on hoping you’ll find refuge somewhere farther along. Or you die on the journey. Or you are imprisoned at the border.

I cannot bear the pain of living in this world for another minute. My heart breaks constantly, and I am filled with rage.

And yet, here I am, with my delusions and my hopes (many of which are the same things), with my best intentions, with my random prayers, with my gratitude and appreciation, witnessing the magnificent, minute, grand and ever-changing exquisite beauty of existence on this fragile planet. I continue on with a crushing burden of guilt for my part in this human shitstorm that is rendering the planet uninhabitable for many species including our own.

How is this not visible in every living moment to every living human on this spinning globe? We are but a tiny, miraculous speck in an increasingly incomprehensible universe. As the inter-relationships among all things become more clear, the very nature of Life grows more divinely mysterious. Not only is the largest living organism on the planet an underground fungus, but Gaia’s crust is actually alive. We the human species are a tiny part of an immensely complex organism.

We are all one. None of us is a single unaffected, unaffecting life. But how does this awareness help us? How do we do something in the service of Life, to protect and preserve the LIFE that we revere above all in this world?

Looking forward to happier times…

It’s hard to be a Buddhist and practice acceptance during this time. It’s hard to cultivate loving-kindness for the people in the regimes of this country and others who perpetuate war, hate, misogyny, and genocide. I personally can’t do it. I believe there are enlightened people who can. I try not to hate, but I hate. The most cogent expression I’ve encountered of the crisis facing us is Roshi Joan Halifax’s Friday Fire Drill Speech.

Who wins if the US goes to war with Iran? Not the Iranian spider-tailed viper. Not the people of the US or Iran. Not the young men and women who will lose lives and limbs. Not the parents and children of those soldiers. Whose stocks have soared since the US president’s reckless assassination of a revered Iranian general? The manufacturers of weapons, the manufacturers of the devices from drones to jets that deliver those weapons, and the Petroleum Industry. Those will be the winners in another war. Their wins are short-sighted and will be short-lived. Another war will only speed up the already accelerating climate catastrophe.

We are all one. All pieces in a great cosmic puzzle.

This isn’t what I want to write about. But I must. We must talk about it with open, breaking hearts, to our friends and families, with people who share our beliefs and with people who don’t. We must meet on the common ground of our shared planet. I implore you to vote for compassion in the next election, whatever country you live in.

Vote in your own self-interest, which is not the interest of the Petroleum Industry, the Weapons Industry, or the corporate billionaires who have won tax cuts that only hurt you. Stop voting for their interests and vote for your own. In the US, vote to save the place where you live from reckless energy extraction, vote for comprehensive healthcare and a decent living minimum wage, vote for extensive upgrades to our failing public education system, and the crumbling roads and bridges we travel every day in our petroleum driven vehicles. Vote for science-based solutions to this climate catastrophe, for renewable energy to power our homes and vehicles, for common-sense kindness, for the protection of Life on Earth.

In the midst of the shitstorms, in the winter sunroom, a tiny personal victory …
… and gustatory delight
Clinging to another winter pleasure that eases my despair. Balance is found by cultivating the capacity to be with both the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows

Pleasure Hunting

“The Hunt” was painted by Scottish artist Robert Burns around 1926, as part of his coherent Art Deco interior design for Crawford’s Tea Rooms in Edinburgh.

Deep into the first puzzle of the season, a light snow drifts down again. We’ve all ordered our puzzles for the year, and since everyone else’s were primarily blue hues, I chose different colors. There are so many factors to review in choosing only one puzzle per year. When I first got addicted, I made my selection solely by the image itself. As it became clear that more recent puzzles feature more complex cuts, I began looking for harder puzzles, those with fewer edge pieces, smaller pieces, more intricate whimsy pieces, and now, knock me over with a feather, there are several with alternative solutions!

How did I never think of doing this before with the whimsy pieces?
All the pieces are whimsical but whimsy pieces have a recognizable shape, either an animal, plant, person, or part thereof, or they’re geometrical or symmetrical. Whimsy pieces are at the heart of what makes these puzzles works of art in their own right.

The seemingly infinite variety of the cuts, as Liberty’s designer gets more inventive season by season, brings surprise and delight in each new puzzle; older puzzles in our community collection continue to gratify as I do them again with a different strategy each time: from the outside in or the inside out? starting with a color, or a figure, or clockwise or counter-clockwise…? The designer’s puzzler fans here are growing with him and seek more complexity in each puzzle we choose. This winter we’ve all opted for challenging puzzles, one even designated “Experts Only.”

Opening the puzzle box that enticing new puzzle scent wafts out. I have a particular way I sort the pieces, as I unpack them from their tissue paper nest. Whimsy pieces all to one side, obvious edges at the top, and then some other classifications as each unique puzzle invites. People have asked if I have a strategy, and the truth is that the particulars of each puzzle dictate how I sort its pieces, and all following aspects of my strategy: each strategy is unique as the puzzle that shapes it. So I’ve sorted all the pieces, played Forest House with them, and it’s time to stretch my legs, my back, give my eyes a break from close-up for awhile.

I look away from the table, and movement out the south window catches my eye, three does leaping the picket fence. A small forky buck strides up under the apricot tree.

No wonder the does leapt. As he stalks stealthily west across the yard and leaps after the does, I notice a good-size three-point buck in the brush left of them. Scanning for more I glance away, then am drawn back by odd movement. The buck has something caught in his antlers, and seems to be struggling to scrape it off — is it wire? God no! I’m always worried I’ve left some stray piece of wire or fencing around that will accidentally snag a buck.

Then I see he’s got a juniper branch stuck in his antlers: he does, then suddenly he doesn’t, then he does. Then he stands tall with his white antlers free of green twigs, and looks to the right, into the woods, from which emerges a larger three-point buck, stalking in that wild restrained way of rut. The smaller buck casually veers off to the south, and the big buck comes to the same juniper, a small sapling I see now, about four feet tall, and rages through it with his antlers in the same manner. Both have been spreading their scent all over this little tree from their forehead glands. Topaz sleeps in her cushioned bed on the sunroom table missing the whole thing. She would’ve enjoyed watching it. The large buck turns back into the woods, herding an older doe ahead of him.

Not a great photo, but observe the buck’s lips, partially obscured by a twig: His upper lip is curled, and nostrils squeezed, in the rut behavior called flehmen, where he inhales directly into a scent organ beyond the roof of his mouth. Many mammals do this for different reasons, and in this case he’s scenting the female he follows in hopes of breeding.
The observed distracted by the observer, he drops his lip and watches me for a moment, before continuing after his quarry.

It’s been a thrilling wildlife interlude, more fun than I could have asked for in a ten-minute break. After they’ve all moved past the boundary fence I let the dogs out to read the air, and we stroll around the yard before returning to the now oddly more relevant puzzle.

Not only is this ‘complex whimsy’ piece that stands on its own four feet precious by itself, but with the first connecting pieces in place it reveals one of Diana’s nymphs. The other nymph lurks in the corner…
This kind of truly whimsical detail just brings me a quick hit of joy. And they pop up throughout doing the puzzle, like little mental pop rocks all sweet and fizzy.
Corners can now be made of three pieces, not just two! Notice the little bat full of toes?
While sorting, there seemed to be a lot of flat edge pieces. There are actually a lot of flat fake edge pieces semi-symmetrically arranged, above, and below.

At this point, on the third morning, I can hardly bear to finish the puzzle, yet I can’t stop myself from working it. So few pieces left, only barely easier than it was at the beginning to find a matching space for each. So complex, so alive, a naturalist’s delight. Fleas as one-of-the-leopard’s spots! A tiny monkey face in the top left corner and another half monkey, magpies flying all across the top; pink toes, too many feet! But they all fit into their perfect places perfectly. It’s time to invoke Kathleen’s Rule.

I’ve been working so far with Seymour’s Rule, which is usually called into play before starting the puzzle, but can be invoked at any time. Seymour’s Rule dictates that you may look at the cover image once, before starting the puzzle, and never again until you finish it. At first it seemed unimaginably challenging to me, and I excused my lack of willingness to play it by saying, I enjoy the original artwork too much to not look at it from time to time while doing the puzzle. But now looking makes the puzzle too easy, seems almost like cheating, which is what Seymour obviously thought, and also Philip, who insists on this rule.

To start a puzzle, I usually pick a distinct color there’s not too much of, in this case the black jaguar’s pelt, and gather and assemble as many pieces as I can find of it, sometimes invoking Kathleen’s Rule for just that section. There are always missing pieces, that show up later in the puzzle with just the tiniest fleck of the color.

Kathleen’s Rule states that once you pick up a piece from the table, you must place it before you can pick up another piece. You may slide pieces around to get a closer look, but once you’ve lifted it, it must go into its proper slot. You don’t want to invoke this rule too early in the puzzle, or it might drive you mad, so it’s usually only called when there are a few dozen pieces left out. However, I find myself enjoying doing more of a puzzle in this methodical, meditative way, and often start with nearly half the pieces left. But of course I bend the rules when I play alone. All except the cardinal rule, No Food or Drink on the Puzzle Table!

I like to save a special piece for last, which, again, the nature of the puzzle dictates.

And there she is, Diana and her Nymphs, and her jaguars, and monkeys, and magpies, in her mythical jungle, together after two and a half days of concerted focus. A weekend well spent, with a few chores and exercises squeezed in between bouts of obsession that left me with a stiff neck and blurred vision. Next long weekend, I’ll tackle the alternative solution, unless another puzzle comes my way first. Notice how the weird, imperfect symmetries of the original solution now make sense.

It took a few times looking at this image to discern that it’s a stag’s head. Getting my myths mixed up, I thought at first perhaps it was a tree. Now it’s so clear I see nothing else: Actaeon, the hapless hunter who stumbled upon goddess Diana bathing naked, and whom she subsequently turned into a stag.