Sean had surprised me with a half-hour visit on his way around the world, just long enough to have a cupcake and a cup of tea, and to climb the gumbo limbo tree that had replaced the big juniper just outside the spider gate.
“We have to walk a fine line here,” he said as he restrained himself from kissing me. It was alright. When he left shortly thereafter we kissed with pursed unhappy lips, but it was alright. At least I got to see him one more time.
I also dreamed the crocuses were up as the snow melted. Half the snow melted in a day, revealing patches of giant crocuses, twice the size they used to be, in brighter shades of yellow, orange, purple, blue and green. Other small, glorious, strange bulbs also emerged in groups of three or five among the extravagant crocuses.
I am grateful for dreams. These days, they’re more comfortable, like clouds and flowers. For decades there were nightmares mixed in with the absurd, about as dense as citron in a fruitcake, along with rare and lucid prophesies. I haven’t suffered a nightmare in a couple of months, and can’t remember the last one so it couldn’t have been traumatic. The most recent absurd, delightful dreams which may or may not hold meaning came this morning.
The crocus part is not far off of true; some years recently they’ve bloomed in early February. I’m so grateful that the first possible crocus may be only three weeks away, and this thought welcomed me to wakefulness today: a day, a week, otherwise fraught with uncertainty bred of a mean man’s evil ego. I’m grateful for all the true American patriots, who represent this week what my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, great-greats, all the way back to the founding of this great country strove for, the service women and men who will do what they must to protect the authority of the United States Constitution, instead of some aggrieved minority’s dream of what they think it should be.
But I digress. Dreams of all kinds, healthy and delusional, seem to be coming to mind all day as time progresses inexorably toward nightfall, farther away now than it was three weeks ago, creeping toward equinox. The garden wakens. Crocus dreams grow beneath the dirt.
For more than half my life, I’ve been grateful for a woodstove as my primary source of heat. It’s kind of like meat: As an ethicarian, I eat meat if I know who killed it. I burn wood if I know who cut it. There are complexities and complications around anything that I’m going to be grateful for, and wood heat is just one of many. But I’m grateful for the woodstoves in my life, the three I’ve owned and the several many more I’ve tended at other people’s homes. Each woodstove, practically each fire, teaches me something new.
I’ve learned that the more options for oxygen intake a stove has, the more control I have of the fire. I’ve learned that a top-loading option is a good thing for an older person, and I’ll be sure to get one if I ever buy another woodstove. I’ve learned how to start a fast fire first time-every time with the proper configuration of paper, kindling, and logs: there are more than one way, and I know how to tell with accuracy what will start readily and what won’t; I’ve learned how to resurrect a smoking mess in someone else’s fireplace and, very rarely, in my own woodstove. I’ve made friends with fire.
At least, with domesticated fire. No one really makes friends with wildfire, I think, except maybe some extreme firefighters. I’m grateful for firefighters, men and women who understand how wildfire makes its own weather, and lean into that, season after season. Once I did something good for a slew of wildfire fighters, and that’s one moment in my life I knew I was doing the right thing. I like a small, contained fire, in a cast-iron woodstove, heating my home.
This little Dovre replaced a big Fisher, my second woodstove, first in this house. It was given to me, and you don’t look a free woodstove in the mouth. I’m grateful for the friends who outgrew it, and let me have it for nothing in my new home. It could eat gigantic logs, almost Manor-sized. Imagine one of those six-foot-across fireplaces with an equally gigantic mantlepiece. It wasn’t that big, but could easily take a few two-foot long logs. It kept me warm for several winters, with many fond memories. Then I bought a much smaller, more fuel-efficient woodstove, with a catalytic combustor.
That was complicated, because I didn’t pay enough attention when I bought it to know that it required hardwoods, not pitchy pines and junipers. I’ve made-do for almost twenty years, burning a combination of soft, hard, and pitchy woods, and getting almost-yearly chimney sweepings. And I’ll make-do for a few more years. It’s still a great woodstove, though it’s suffered some ravages of time. One thing I’ll never buy is a woodstove without glass in the doors. The Fisher had solid iron doors, but my first woodstove, in the tiny homesteader cabin in Jensen, had glass doors, and I fell completely in love.
A glass-doored woodstove brings together the best of a fireplace with the best of a stove: you can see the warmth without sacrificing heat. I love my little, efficient, glass-front woodstove for its heating capacity and its cheering warm light. I’m so grateful for this stove, for the wood that fuels it, for the people who have cut and split and delivered the wood, for the saws, axes, mauls and mallets that enable me to feed its fires, for the dead and down trees that lived and died to unintentionally provide me with fuel, for the kindling cracker that makes it safer and easier for me to cut wood down to starter-size, for the men who have taught me about chainsaws and the women who have inspired my confidence in using them. I’m grateful for the friends who sometimes ferry fuel from the woodshed to my front door, and for my ability to fetch it myself; for the wheelbarrows that have carried countless loads of firewood, and for the matches, endless matches struck against the iron or the sandpaper to light the paper, for the newsprint and tissue paper and bank statements that have ignited fires in these woodstoves for more than three decades.
That first woodstove. I’ll be eternally grateful for that tiny woodstove in that tiny log cabin, and for all that I learned about living while using it. Adaptability, for one thing. And how to pay attention. I’m grateful for Mrs. June Stewart, that pioneer Mormon grandma who rented me that little log cabin, and taught me how to use the little woodstove that came with it. I’m even grateful for my first real lover, who lived on the banks of the James River in Virginia, and was the first also to teach me the first thing about building a fire in a woodstove. I’m grateful forty years later that there is still deadwood, there is still a woodstove, still a life that needs its heat, still a house to heat, still a mind and body capable to feed a woodstove. I know this will not always be so.
The last of 2019’s almond crop, store-bought organic romaine and cheddar, and homemade ranch dressing: so much to be grateful for within a simple salad in deep winter. Grateful for the almond tree, that feeds bees in spring and provided pounds of fruit last year; this second crop proved the tree is not a bitter almond after all but a sweet one. This year, drought and an exceptionally hard spring freeze yielded only a handful of nuts, which I left for birds and squirrels. I still had a bag frozen from the previous summer, and thawed them out last week intending to bake or cook with them. After thawing, I slow-roasted them with a spritz of olive oil and some kosher salt, until they were crunchy, and set them on the counter to cool.
I keep snicking a few here and there over the next few days til I can get time to bake, and next thing I know, there aren’t enough left in the bowl to grind for a torte. A couple more days and all that’s left is a handful for salad. Oh well, and yum! Each crunch is a reminder of all that each almond took to get here.
I tried the “tarp under the tree whack it with a broom” method of harvesting, but it felt all wrong, smacking the limbs of the living tree, so after a few whacks I gathered the sheet and went back to snapping individual nuts or handfuls off the twigs. Over the course of a few weeks, I harvested several bowls full and enjoyed sitting outside processing them. Most I used before I harvested the next batch, and I saved the last in the freezer.
So, today I’m grateful for almonds in winter, and grateful for this trip down memory lane. I’m grateful for Philip, who among other demonstrations of friendship delivers groceries, grateful he’s survived Covid to once again bring cheddar cheese and greens, grateful for the growers and pickers of organic romaine, the makers of cheese, all the people all along the trail of ways these foods get to the store, drivers, road maintainers, all the conditions that make it happen that Philip can buy lettuce in December….
Gratitude practice today begins with SNOW, for obvious reasons. Western Colorado is among the regions hardest hit by climate chaos in the Lower 48. We are in Exceptional Drought, the driest, most dangerous category, expected to suffer both short (agriculture) and longterm (hydrology, ecology) drought. The state has activated its municipal drought response for second time ever. Any moisture is good moisture, and snow is the best. Our fundamental water reservoirs are snow-capped mountains.
I’m celebrating the biggest snow of the year, a really big snow! Compared, anyway, to past years. This morning’s accumulation measured only 5.2 inches, with .38 inch moisture content. I’m grateful for CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, a citizen-science initiative that began with a few weather geeks at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in 1998. Now thousands of regular folks (also, I guess, we are all weather geeks) report daily precipitation from our own backyard weather stations across the Northern Hemisphere.
And I’m grateful for Julia Kamari-Drapkin, who started a now-global interactive climate change platform called I See Change in the North Fork Valley in 2015, in collaboration with KVNF and NASA. As part of her yearlong residence here, exploring climate change through the eyes of local ranchers, farmers, beekeepers, and weather geeks, Julia invited Nolan Doeskin, then Colorado State Climatologist, to do a little workshop at the radio station, where I got turned onto CoCoRaHS and started daily precipitation measurements with an inexpensive rain gauge and special snow ruler. I’m grateful to weather geeks the world over for their citizen science, and for that matter to birders, too, who are in the midst of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, for their contributions to global climate research.
So much to be grateful for today! Among other things like chocolate, soap, a functional woodstove, and the propane truck that got stuck for awhile in plow drifts at the bottom of the driveway, I’m grateful to Deb for calling me on my dark side in a conversation yesterday, which allowed me to see something clearly and ultimately laugh at my silliness, before I did any harm. Grateful for daily mindfulness practice, which enables me to live each day in better alignment with my core values.
This morning I’m grateful for New Dimensions, a weekly, one-hour radio program more than forty years old, that I have been listening to for almost thirty. Today’s interview with Richard Louv is just one of many that I find profoundly moving. Some of the shows are a bit too… esoteric for my taste, but that’s just personal preference.
“It is only through a change in human consciousness that the world will be transformed. The personal and the planetary are connected. As we expand our awareness of mind, body, psyche, and spirit, and bring that awareness actively into the world, so also will the world be changed. This is our quest, as we explore New Dimensions.”
Each interview brings a unique perspective to some inquiry that inevitably relates to mindfulness. Richard Louv’s latest book, and the topic of Justine Willis Toms’ interview with him in episode #3716, is Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives – and Save Theirs. Gosh, hasn’t this been my calling all along? Among many other things, he talks about the plague of loneliness, derived in large measure from our disconnection from Nature, that ranks with diabetes and obesity as a US human health hazard. He talks about how urban planning for wildlife (such as grasslands on factory rooftops), and home habitat gardens, can fortify migratory bird corridors, and help restore endangered species. One office building he describes raises endangered butterflies on their all-glass first-floor, so not only is there a plenitude of natural light to lift people’s spirits, when you enter the building you’re likely to have a butterfly alight on your shoulder.
“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder.” I had a poster in my childhood bedroom with this quote that’s resonated with me ever since.
Louv also discusses the idea of habitat of the heart, a habitat as important to the preservation of Nature as natural habitat, and how we must cultivate this habitat from childhood on, as each generation’s ‘new normal’ becomes acclimatized to less and less wild nature in their lives. I remember climbing the birch tree in the backyard woods when I was in the single digits of my life, sitting in the top branches of its gently swaying slender trunk, just sitting, being part of the woods. Do you have a childhood memory of being with nature in that way? Do your children? I hope so.
Gratitude practice today starts with New Dimensions, ripples out to include KVNF which introduced me to this show and has expanded my horizons in so many other ways since I moved to this valley, and leads to gratitude for all the conditions of my life that led me to settle here in 1992. Grateful that a deep sense of missing something, in my twenties, led me to trust and rely upon my profound inborn reverence for Nature, and to create this little sanctuary for the Wild, in which loneliness never enters my mind. Ok, sometimes, but not often!
At last, another one of those recently-all-too-rare days when I can heave a sigh and enjoy the benefits of months of practicing the skill of relaxation; awareness that there has only ever been and will only ever be one thing in Life that I can control: my response to anything. This is true freedom.
A negative Covid test has released me from four months of holding my breath. From Covid only incidentally, the pandemic being one equal part among many distressing external conditions that have cascaded over me this year, and that’s only the overwhelming sadness of a single particle of humanity, the insignificant itchings of a lone flea on a small dry patch of the planet’s skin.
I’ve tried so many ways to say this, and it’s kept me silent since August. Ojo was eaten by a mountain lion.
Lots of Life went on, as usual and unusually, all summer in the garden and the forest: the roller coaster careened through weeks and months of joy and sorrow, contentment and compassion, and the grueling, rewarding practice of mindfulness. Bees pollinated, flowers bloomed and went to seed.
Life began and life ended in the wild.
All summer long I have accepted deaths, and threats to the lives of others, those I love and those I’ll never know, with equanimity. Years of practice have really helped develop a calm abiding, regardless of what happens. Ojo didn’t come home on August 24, and two mornings later, after numerous searches, I followed a magpie and Stellar’s nose to a grisly scene not far beyond the yard fence in the woods. I felt calmed, knowing what had happened to him, and that it was quick, and he probably didn’t suffer. I suffered less, knowing, than I would have wandering the woods for weeks, months, years, looking for some sign of him.
I gathered up what I could find, three legs stripped of muscle, and his sweet, perfect head, and brought them home to bury under the apricot tree. The shock of finding his remains. The finality of it. A small black cat left a huge black hole in my life, into which, in my darkest moments, all hope and love and light vanishes. On the surface, I’ve kept my sense of humor, and joy in the fawns growing up, satisfaction in the garden harvest, pleasure in connections with friends and family mostly online, interest in my vocation. I’ve rejoiced in Stellar’s unexpected improvement with a new magic potion from his holistic vet, and Topaz has grown fatter and furrier than ever in her brother’s absence.
For weeks I saw him everywhere in the house that he used to perch or sleep. He filled the house and the garden with his remarkable energy. I struggle even now to write any more about him because when I do the ache swells inside and mutes me. One might say, the cat got my tongue.
Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, infecting more and more people I know, taking the lives of friends and relatives of friends, and as of today more than 1.6 million others around the globe, including 2500 Americans just today. The malice and ineptitude of the Trump regime’s lying, denying, misguiding, and dividing also renders me speechless. Thank god for the integrity of scientists the world over, for the dedication of healthcare workers, for the kindness, compassion, creativity, and fortitude of people everywhere, delivering the best that human beings are capable of during this monumental crisis.
Add to the current regime’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic their escalating onslaught eviscerating environmental protections: It’s been hard to grieve the death of a single cat in the midst of such overwhelming human and planetary suffering. I search my soul for something I can do. I meditate. I pray. I try to offer help and comfort where I can, and fight as I am able. I cherish the wild world that surrounds me, I love the lion that ate my cat, I surrender my self to the larger body of the living Earth who spawned us all. I wake up each morning determined to celebrate the miracle of being alive, choosing to turn my attention to gratitude for all the beauty and joy that each day offers, even in the midst of suffering and loss.
I listened to an interview with Joanna Macy that reminded me that Hope is a verb, Apathy is the refusal or inability to suffer, and “Unblocking occurs when our pain for the world is experienced and expressed.” I recommend it as an antidote for anyone else who feels despair at the suffering of the planet, panic or paralysis induced by this pandemic or the climate crisis, or the isolation of living in a fragmented world. We belong to this Earth, our mother. Hang in there. Happy Solstice.
Wrapped in melancholy as thick as the smoke that obscures the northern horizon, I sit inside in the cool house, in the recliner, just thinking. A flutter outside the window, and a phoebe lands on the cable where the parents perched for months while nesting, where the babies learned to cling as they were fledging. It gladdens me to see her there, after a long hard summer. It’s mid-August, and soon the phoebes will fly south to their winter range along the US-Mexico border and beyond.
My little phoebe family. It was an emotionally arduous journey, wrapped up in so many other journeys of love and loss, to get them to this point! How funny, to think of them as ‘my’ phoebes, but I do. They’ve been a lifeline for me during this season of profound loss, and there was a week at the end of May when I thought I’d lost the phoebes too.
They began plumping up last year’s nest under the east deck in early April, singing, chirrrrrrupping, and both swooping in from the yard carrying bits of fluff from the weathered patio rug, wool from the garden fence, prayer flag tatters, bits of grass, and other soft scraps. The nest was pretty large for the two-inch deck joist it was resting on, tucked into the corner with the wall and the foundation beam.
On April 20th, I found the nest fallen into the geraniums below. It was upside down, but it was barely disturbed. Without thinking, I got the ladder, a 1×6 board scrap, screws and screw gun, built a wider ledge, and tucked the nest back into the corner. The next day they were back at work. By May 9, she was sitting on eggs.
I watched with delight as Mrs. Phoebe sat on her nest, and her husband bird flew and sang and hunted the yard. I worried when a whole day passed and I didn’t see him, but he’d invariably show up in the evening, perching in the birch tree, before flying down to check on her.
Since the phoebes arrived summer before last, I’ve not had a grasshopper problem. They also eat flies, wasps, and moths, some of which lay eggs of potential garden marauding caterpillars. We have a symbiotic relationship. I do what I can for them. But sometimes it’s not enough.
Every day I’d sit as much as possible at the patio table or under the nest, for morning coffee, lunch, midday break, and happy hour, as the phoebe father flew around me. She would take breaks too, to hunt for herself, then return to the nest. They perched on everything upright in the vicinity, from the shepherd’s crook where the hummingbird feeder hangs to the dead locust sapling, to the back of a chair, to the candlestick beside me, so close I could identify their prey without binoculars.
I was amazed with their dexterity: one flew straight at the tower wall, I was sure it would die from the collision, but it snagged an insect off the wall, banked steeply, and flew off unharmed, well fed. One evening I sat sipping a martini with my bare legs up on the patio table, enjoying Phoebe TV. A fat black fly landed on my thigh. A phoebe swooped down and plucked it; all I felt was a rush of air, not a thing more, in that split second thrill.
On May 25, I noted the chicks chirping; they are silent, or at least below my hearing range, for a few days after hatching, so these were at least a few of days old. On the 27th, I saw three fuzzy, barely-feathered heads popping up above the nest edge! Success!
The next day, I had to take Stellar to the vet in Montrose and since I’d be gone all afternoon, I shut the cats in the house, a precaution to protect the phoebes while I couldn’t keep an eye on them. Just in case. Mostly, the cats feared or at least respected the phoebes, who would swoop down clacking at them when the cats crossed the patio or, phoebe-forbid, lay down under the nest. But since they were still hanging out on the patio, I didn’t want to take a chance that one would snag a phoebe mid-clack in my absence. The poor kitties were also being chased around the yard by magpies, who were raising chicks in a juniper on the other side of the house.
When I returned, I released the cats and fell asleep in the recliner. That evening, I sat down in the deck chair outside the window, under the nest. The phoebes flew and perched and chattered nearby. Ojo jumped up on the bench behind me among the geraniums. Hey! get outta there! I scolded, turning to look: he was intently peering at something on the bench, and to my horror I recognized it as the phoebe nest. It was upright and empty. I was crushed.
No sign of a chick anywhere. I assessed the possibilities, and concluded that a cat couldn’t have reached the nest without an extraordinary acrobatic feat involving the ladder, the hanging orchid, and an advanced rock climbing move called mantle. The obvious culprit was a magpie, who could easily have swooped in to grab the chicks, and knocked the nest off the ledge. What to do?!
I gathered ladder and tools again, a curved juniper stick, and some 1×2 scraps, tidied up the nest and replaced it, braced it with the juniper, and screwed in some baffles spaced so that, I thought, the phoebes could get in but not the magpies. The poor phoebes flew around confused for a few days, until I realized the baffles obstructed their entry. A desolate week after I removed the baffles, the persistent phoebes began to tidy and fortify their nest again. Around Juneteenth, she settled onto her second clutch of eggs. Joy returned to me.
Sort of. In the meantime, Raven had died in mid-May, followed closely by Auntie’s stroke; Michael had a stroke in early June and died ten days later; Diane entered hospice, and another friend received a scary diagnosis. Around July 5th, new phoebe babies hatched, providing solace as Auntie continued to decline, while Diane died in mid-July, the same day a next-door neighbor also died.
The phoebe feeding frenzy ramped up, and consumed me. Again, I spent as much time as possible outside watching, or watching through the window in passing.
July 25, the first baby flew over the nest from one deck joist to the next and back a few times. The next day it flew from the nest, following mama onto the wide-open window frame, about a four-foot flight with a one foot drop; then mama flew back to the nest and baby followed. I saw the first flight of the first phoebe baby!
I watched like a hawk from then on, and kept the cats inside if I couldn’t be outside to supervise. I couldn’t bear it if one of them caught one of these dear birds we’ve all worked so hard all summer to bring to maturity. By ‘we all,’ I mean myself and the phoebe mama and mr. husband bird, and of course Stellar. It’s been a lesson in perseverance.
As I sipped coffee, I watched mama fly from the ladder to the nest and back, calling, encouraging them to follow her. At lunch, I spied the eldest chick perched on the garden cart handle, where mama fed it. Mama lured it around the yard from tree to tree with a fat grasshopper in her mouth, while the other chicks perched on the joist, peering at the activity beyond, screeching for food.
The next 24 hours were filled with excitement, as the remaining chicks took their first tentative flights to joists, the window frame, the ladder, and finally, nearby trees.
For a couple of days, they returned to the nest to roost overnight. During the day, I could hear the parents calling in the woods beyond the yard, and occasionally spot one of the five flitting through the trees. A week later, I noticed mama, with a full beak, flying to the ground outside the bathroom window. I ran outside to see what was up, and all three babies flew up and away. I think she took them away from the house that first week, far from the cats, to teach them flying skills, and then returned to the insect-laden yard to teach them to hunt for themselves.
Since then, I’ve spied the three chicks along the driveway fence, hunting in the field; noticed occasionally one or two phoebes returning to the house in the evening; seen them perched and flying around the yard day to day; each siting a delight.
On August 6, Auntie died. I lost myself to grief for the next week. Compounded by the global loss wrought by Coronavirus, a devastating fire season from the Arctic to the Book Cliffs, mind-boggling corruption and democracy-dismantling by the US government, shredded environmental protections and climate chaos denial, I struggle daily to keep my chin, and my spirits, up.
To see a phoebe last night, still coming home to roost, gladdens my sorry heart. I know they’ll leave soon, but the good Lord willin’ and the climate don’t rise too much, I’m confident they’ll be back next spring.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.