Archive | December 2016

Puzzling Proverbial Politics


It doesn’t matter what the puzzle is: clicking that last piece into any wooden jigsaw puzzle is supremely gratifying.

Puzzle season is upon us! We are trading them amongst ourselves as we did last winter, and emailing each other images of which one we might buy this year. In our informal club each household seems willing to contribute one puzzle per winter. I borrowed this one from a friend none of us suspected had puzzles. “Netherlandish Proverbs,” a 16th century oil-on-oak painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder, depicts Dutch proverbs of the time.

Artifact Puzzles includes a key to 60 of the sayings, several of which (To cast pearls before swine) are familiar to me, and many brand new to me seem particularly relevant to our times, like To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ.


Pieter Breughel’s “Netherlandish Proverbs” as rendered by Artifact Puzzles. The painting is 400 years older than I am. The proverbs… timeless.

Our favored wooden jigsaw puzzle maker is Liberty Puzzles in Boulder, but Artifact will do in a pinch. I’ve only done two, and I don’t like them as well because they have fewer whimsy pieces, and the cut of their pieces isn’t as intricate or interesting.


Whimsy pieces in the two Artifact puzzles I’ve done are both fewer and less intricate than in Liberty puzzles.

Liberty puzzles trick you on the edges; Artifact puzzles differ in the nature of the deceit. While  all of the edge pieces look like edge pieces, there were at least seven corner pieces in this puzzle, and numerous flat-edged pieces that are not edges, that abut each other various places in the center of the puzzle.


The painting’s original title was “The Blue Cloak,” from the proverb “She puts the blue cloak on her husband,” meaning she deceives him. Notice the three pieces in the upper right, where one seeming-corner meets two seeming-edge pieces. This particular trickery seems unique to the Artifact brand.


“To carry the day out in baskets” means to waste one’s time, as some might think I am, doing these puzzles.

Last winter I sat at my table on a cold afternoon and a neighbor crept inside the front door without knocking, without calling first, without the dogs noticing his arrival. In the second after we all heard the front door squeak, they crashed open the door to the mudroom nearly smashing it into his face. “What are you up to?” he asked, then peered over my shoulder. “You’ve got too much time on your hands,” he said. I was alarmed by his entry and annoyed by his judgement.

These wooden jigsaw puzzles are a meditation for me. The mental agility required to assemble them gives several aspects of my brain good exercise, pattern recognition, color discernment, and memory top among them. Then the image itself offers another layer of awareness: is it a classic painting, like this one, or a Hiroshige waterfall? Or is it a contemporary image, is it an antique print (and of what? butterflies, or a historic locomotive?), does it conform to a rectangular shape or take the organic shape of a jaguar; and what thoughts does that image stir, what feelings, both when I first see it, and as I move through the pieces over time? There is never nothing to think about when working one of these beautiful puzzles, each a work of art in its own right.

And it affords, above all, the gift of concentration. For while my mind may roam pondering proverbs, or mulling mythology while assembling a mermaid, or considering the effects of climate change on the Netherlands, or the plight of jaguars; while a memory may be sparked by a porpoise-shaped whimsy piece or a prairie dog (or is that a meerkat?), the rest of the world falls away. The mind is given the exercise it loves, and the spirit is free to to untether and rest beyond thought, observing the layers the mind plies while it fits together cleverly cut pieces of wood and color.


“To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ” meaning to hide deceit with Christian piety. The proverb feels relevant to our current situation on several levels. Beyond the obvious, it tells us that 16th century Christians clearly did not see Jesus as a blond man, touching off in me thoughts about racism, xenophobia, and hypocrisy. 


Five proverbs listed on the puzzle key are represented here, and at least one more discerned only from researching the painting online.

The central proverb in this image is To be unable to see the sun shine on the water, meaning to be jealous of another’s success. The fellow above is throwing money into water, i.e., wasting it. To his left, the bottoms poking out a hole in the planks represent a couple of proverbs, one stated on the puzzle key, It hangs like a privy over a ditch: it is obvious; and one uncovered hereThey both crap through the same hole, meaning they are inseparable comrades. Heehee! Under the privy (and the money) is Big fish eat little fish, meaning that whatever people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance, or “Those in power have the power.” This makes me squirm a little as I consider the looming transfer of power in Our Nation’s Capital. Add to that the crumbling brick wall, A wall with cracks will soon collapse, or Anything poorly managed will soon fail…


“To have the roof tiled with tarts” meaning to be very wealthy. Perhaps soon the White House will be tiled with tarts. Hmmm. At whose expense?


While doing the puzzle, I noticed a few images not identified on the key, like this fellow kneeling at a fire, so I looked up the painting online. The central proverb here is “To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze,” meaning to take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others. Hmmm. 


Like the above man at fire, the fellow “sitting on hot coals” wasn’t in the key either. He is being impatient. Above him is one “catching fish without a net,” meaning he profits from the work of others. 


“To bang one’s head against a brick wall.” We all know what that means!


The details of expression in the painting are particularly well captured with this poor, morose boy. “He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again,” or as I learned it, don’t cry over spilled milk: what’s done cannot be undone.

“Netherlandish Proverbs” was a fast, fun and thought-provoking puzzle, however burdened with nincompoops. I’m glad to have passed it on. I look forward to the beauty, surprise, and complexity of the next puzzle, next year, something bright and wild and full of life.









Wild Canids


Not a wolf, I know; though catahoula leopard hounds derive from centuries of wild canids breeding with “tame” dogs. And they sure can howl!


The howling, at night, of the wolves; the howling in the past week of the wolves seemingly all day long, or at least every time I go outside to bring in firewood, or walk the dogs, or drive to town, or watch the current supermoon rise. It seems there is always, these days, another supermoon; when I first heard the term a few years ago, it was the brightest supernoon since 19whatever and it won’t happen again for twelve years; then, “another 34 years!”, then, in our lifetime… The frequency of super moons seems to increase with a variable definition, an arbitrary portrait of statistics, like in baseball.

Our UPS man, delivering a package yesterday, mid-afternoon, stopped in mid-sentence and asked, “Doesn’t that bother you? I can’t stand it…”

“What?” I ask, senses seeking something that might bother me in the beautiful expanse of outside, finally settling on only one sound coming from the direction he’s waved his arm. There are no trucks, drills or saws. “The wolves?”

“Yes!” he says, “the howling!”

“You don’t like wolves?”

“They don’t belong here! They’re wild animals. They shouldn’t be fenced in a yard! She’s got three of them!”

I guess I’d rather hear them than a fracking drill venting day and night, I think. Or a quarry going on. “I think they’re rescued from somewhere,” I ventured. “Maybe they’re not whole.” I actually love hearing them. They should be here, wild, and if not wild I still love hearing a sound that’s been missing from this landscape for a century.

“They don’t belong. I’ll never go up there again. I took a package up to the gate one time, and all three of them were pacing the fence, never took their eyes off of me.” He shrugs with the willies. He loves my dogs, and gives them cookies every time.

I wonder who he voted for. We are friends who don’t know each other well. I know he eats what he hunts, including fish, and he almost won the ice fishing championship last year. In a delivery sense, I can trust him. I know he’s got a sense of humor. I love his smile. I know it makes him very happy when I give him a bottle of Crown Royal at Christmas time.

That I live where I can hear wolves at all, no matter they’re fenced in a yard, makes me very happy. And other wild canids, too. This summer and fall we heard more coyote choruses, and closer to our homes on this mesa, than many of us have heard in years. The past few years we’ve watched with delight as one or more fox litters has grown up before our eyes, knowing where to see them along the roadside, playing in dormant irrigation pipes still laid out from winter, or dashing to and from their burrow on a hill. And the foxes yipping we heard this spring and summer, barking and laughing in our fields, more than usual. It’s been a good year for wild canids here.


Stellar full-throttle through the aspens up Kebler Pass.

The other day, before the big snow, I ran the dogs up the driveway in a drizzle. Stellar lifted his nose and took off from his usual casual lope into a dead run, and I saw a large red fox flush from the tall dead grass. Raven spotted it and made a mad dash to catch up, but I called them both off, slowed them down, gave the fox a chance to get far ahead, then started up the car and let the dogs run again. Sniffing and poking into grass and ditch they ran in fits and starts up the rest of the driveway hot on the trail. We turned around at the top and my calls dragged them back to me; they continued back down the driveway racing from one pungent scent to the next. My own wild canids.

A few days later, a bunch of us went to our wonderful Paradise theater for the Wednesday matinee of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Some of us seeking distraction from a political world that depresses us, and some, maybe only me, because I’ve been waiting six months since the first trailer to see this film. I loved the movie. I loved the fantastic beasts, and where they lived in his suitcase, and the mischief they got into when they escaped, and everything about the film.


I got home just before dark, to a houseful of my own magical beasts. My first sight of each of my pets that evening gave a deeper glimpse into the wonder of their being: at all, and in my house, and each in their unique way in a complex relationship with me. I saw each of them more thoroughly, body and soul, than I tend to day after day in the comfortable complacency of our staid lives. Such a wonder that they live here, with me!

And that made me celebrate their lives, again, reviewing pictures. No matter the money their vet visits cost, no matter the glassware they break, the paper towels they pull from the garbage and shred, the hairballs they puke up onto the occasional rug. The truth of them is the warm hefty shoulder against mine in bed, the purring on my chest, the bounding joyful greeting when I come home, the happy glance back to make sure the pack is all together on a walk through the woods, the quivering nose knowing something I can’t, the proud trot home carrying a shed antler, the cat chases up and down stairs, the certainty that the dogs have my back.

There’s more and more science coming out proving that dogs have cognition, sentience, and other formerly-considered exclusively human qualities. Anyone who has lived with animals they love, of any species, is way ahead of the science on that score. We know that animals are conscious beings. All animals, domestic or wild, are sentient beings. The question of sentience can take us down a rabbit hole (and has! like, is an amoeba, then, sentient?) but that would be a detour from my point here. And I guess that is simply this: that I consider myself blessed beyond rationale to know now, and to have known in my life, such an extraordinary number of remarkable animals, wild and domestic, each a fantastic beast in its own right, and it is the greatest joy of my life to wake up each day and share it with them.


Raven, newly arrived at six weeks old, discovers the laundry basket and makes it her own.


Shortly thereafter she discovers the rim of the canyon, under the watchful eye of her uncle Mr. Brick.


Mr. Brick and Mocha raised her well, though she always knew her own mind. She often wore her ears on backwards as a pup. The individual character of each dog is evident in their expressions in this image.


Brick doted on Raven, little Miss Chiff, and let her do whatever she wanted with him.


Teenage Raven curls up with Little Doctor Vincent, who showed up under a juniper tree bleeding from his mouth just three days after Dia the Psycho Calico lay down and died inside the back door. Five years later, Little Doctor lay down and died outside the back door. Renal failure and cancer seem to take out so many of the animals who show up here.


Raven in her first snow. Clearly she has some questions.


Raven was traumatized after I had her spayed. Too late, I realized the only thing she ever wanted in life was her own puppy. So I got on the list for the next bobtail male from her parents, Sundog and Feather. 


When Feather finally invited Raven into the puppy pen, she watched her approach where I sat with Stellar on my lap. As Raven stretched out her quivering nose, Feather gently clamped her teeth over Raven’s muzzle, to make her pay attention, saying somehow without words, Do not hurt this; this is our young.


And she never has hurt him. See how he holds her skin in his little mouth the first time they play.


And how she groomed him from the moment she was allowed to touch him.


She taught him every little thing about everything, and they remain inseparable.


Grumpy Uncle Brick, who lived only eight months after Stellar arrived, taught him everything he needed to know to be a good mama’s boy.


Raven makes sure he learns all the skills he’ll need to know living in the high desert, digging good deep holes among the most important.


She’s kept him clean from the first…


…and grooms him daily still, almost ten years later.


Raven and Stellar sleep on the floor below Uncle Brick on the couch as, unbeknownst to us, his days wind down. Below, the face of a matriarch.



Then last year those kittens showed up, horning in on our place in front of the fire.


Stellar the Stardog, Son of Sundog, can be a very big dog…


…or a very small one.


Stellar and Raven and I wish for all beings to be happy, and peaceful, and free from suffering. We wish for all humans to recognize the souls in other species, the individual in each living creature that we meet, the sanctity of all life. We wish for all humans to honor life on earth, respect and love the land beneath their own feet, recognize that water is a precious thing, share and protect our fragile planet for the good of all species, without greed. We wish, for the sake of all species, for peace on earth.