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Fine Dining for a Good Cause

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An amuse-bouche started the meal…

We don’t have a lot of fine dining options around here, not like you find in a city. There are some good neighborhood restaurants, but they don’t change their menus for years at a time, and you can’t count on wanting the special. We fill this lack of gustatory variety by eating excellent and often exotic meals at each others’ houses, and we are a bunch of gourmet cooks.

Once in a blue moon, or more rarely really, because we have a couple of blue moons a year, an opportunity comes along for an extraordinary treat. Last weekend about 40 people attended a benefit for the Paonia Experiential Leadership Academy, and enjoyed a six-course meal created by Swiss-trained chef Lucas Wentzel. It was a 5 star meal. A lot of us from Crawford went because Lucas is the son of our dear friends Ruth and Jeff, and his sister Emily runs the school with her husband Phil. So it was the best of both family dining and haute cuisine!

Amuse-bouche translates more or less literally from the French as “Fun for your mouth!” and is an intensely flavored bite-sized appetizer selected by the chef and offered free to each guest. Lucas chose to delight our taste buds with Rosé Valentina (from the menu): “Béchamel & Black Forest Ham in homemade pasta served over a creamy tomato sauce, drizzled with a succulent sage butter. A popular dish from the Italian part of Switzerland, Chef Lucas learned from Chef Valentina herself. Available as a vegetarian option with spinach in place of the ham.”

This dish, I’ll tell you straight off, was my favorite of the night, and they were all delicious. Lucas went all-out with edible flowers for the meal, topping this teaser with a sprig of basil flowers, and adding several other blossoms to the remaining dishes.

VCEP1123The second course featured a creamy roasted carrot soup seasoned with ginger. Now I know the secret to the most full-flavored carrot soup is to roast the carrots first.

FQTQ0910This was followed by a ravioli filled with with sun dried tomato, toasted pine nuts and goat cheese in a pesto cream sauce. I am not a goat cheese fan. I try now and again to taste it, because my damn friends all love it, and it keeps showing up. But invariably, a musty goat smell comes out my armpits within ten minutes of eating it and I can’t stand to be around myself. So I typically avoid it. However, that night, I’d have had to miss a course, so I did try it, and it was so mild I barely noticed eating it, and there were, luckily for my neighbors, no after effects.

DUVK5980A kiwi-lime sorbet came before the main course, two tiny delicious scoops of tart sweetness with a slight bitter crunch from the kiwi seeds, which was a perfect palate cleanser.

TCCV6472The main course featured seared salmon with a creamy Béarnaise sauce (or stuffed roasted red pepper for vegetarians), parmesan encrusted asparagus, and a simple jasmine rice topped with another edible orchid blossom which tasted startlingly like watermelon. HGWE1291

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PELA Director Dr. Emily Wassell discussing the school with fine diners.

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Chef Lucas preps dessert plates with students, while head teacher Phil Wassell washes dishes.

GYBI0584 - Version 2For dessert, an exquisite chocolate mousse with a hint of orange, drizzled with a chocolate merlot sauce from local winery Azura Cellars, came atop a plate of sweet white sauce with a pansy flower and strawberry garnish. None of us could eat another bite, and we drove home through a steady rain feeling deliriously satiated.

Considering the quality of the food, the value of supporting this wonderful educational endeavor, and the company, the meal was a great deal. The pastas were homemade, pesto, eggs, goat cheese, and other ingredients came from local farms, and even the chocolate for the mousse came from a Colorado family starting an organic cacao farm in Costa Rica. Students from PELA helped chef Lucas prepare the meal, and their siblings, friends and parents served, bussed, and cleaned up. All this community action occurred at Edesia Community Kitchen in Paonia, a certified commercial kitchen available for events, preparation of value added agricultural products, and weekend wood-fired pizza. PELA’s chef-Lucas dinner is just one more reason I’m so grateful for where I live.

 

Resurrection

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The very first European pasqueflower attracted a few bees a month ago.

 

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One day in early March there were about a dozen honeybees exploring the little irises. This shot clearly shows the concave pollen basket on her back leg.

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A bleak beginning to bee season had me worried most of this month. After a few honeybees dipped into the first spring crocuses in February, and a few more came for Iris reticulata earlier this month, there were no bees in my yard for weeks. Meaning, more accurately, that I didn’t see any, and I was looking. I checked the irises, the pasqueflower, and the silver buffaloberry daily; I glanced at the first few almond blossoms as they’ve opened this week, and nary a bee, native or otherwise.

But at last the silver buffaloberry is in such bloom that even I can smell it, and I stood under it this morning feeling my first real sense of joy all month. The tree is full of bees: all the honeybees have nearly identical oval packs of pollen on their back legs, incidentally the exact same size as the unpopped buffaloberry buds, and they won’t sit still on a flower. If they’re not just skimming they’re crawling, even ambling across the clusters of tiny yellow blooms, gathering while they may their ample pollen. Plus there are clouds of sweat bees, a few mining bees, and a large black fly or two.

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After an anxious month observing a paucity of bees, I was thrilled to stand beside the thorny buffaloberry in a fertile buzz of native and honeybees.

IMG_1325Andrena, or mining bees, are known as a spring bee, and are valuable spring crop pollinators, including fruit blossoms, apples and almonds in particular. However at Mirador this week, there are way more Andrena on the buffaloberry, above, than on the almond tree, which is happily buzzing with honeybees.

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The almond tree is getting tall enough that I can capture bees from the deck above.

IMG_1541I never thought I got all that depressed here in the winter. I think of it as my hibernation, but I’m usually pretty content. This year, late winter, after we’d had barely any winter at all, I found myself getting testy, snappish, and feeling downright dead inside. There were a lot of reasons I could suppose, but the return of the bees has so lifted my spirits that I know part of it was anxiety about their whereabouts. As the garden is coming rapidly back to life, so too is my soul resurrecting.

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The native bee house filled up beautifully last fall, and I can’t wait to see the bees emerge. 

Sandhill cranes have been flying over most of March, sometimes in the hundreds, definitively trumpeting spring. The flicker in my eaves drills most mornings on the cornice, alarming out insects for her breakfast. Songbirds returned gradually over the past month and now serenade each sunrise.

The redtail hawks are finally sitting on their nest by the road, but nobody returned to the canyon cottonwood this spring. Concerned last summer when the nest appeared abandoned, I watched through the seasons, the weathers, the winds, as my hypothesis proved true: Over time the far side of the nest sloughed off, and by last fall there remained only a small cluster of twigs around the southwest anchor. I surmised it was a young pair of birds who simply hadn’t constructed the nest securely enough, and that a big storm blew out the back of it, dropping the eggs down the canyon side before or just after they hatched.

The leeks I left in the ground over winter are four inches tall and bright green. The leeks I left in the refrigerator all winter are just an inch behind! The last leek harvest was mostly small doubles, and I cut their tops off and stuck them in a bag in the fridge, intending to use them. But they slipped to the back and by the time I found them they were a little shriveled, and I put off using them. I looked at them a few more times through winter, and couldn’t bring myself to either cook with or compost them. Late February I pulled them out to dump in the compost, and found green sprouts emerging, so I split them up and planted them. And they’re coming along fine!

Meanwhile, I’ve still got a beautiful fifty-acre field for sale. I had hoped I could sell it this week to a lovely retired couple, dreaming of doing the very thing with it that I had intended to do when I bought it, before my health and strength fell short of what is needed to nurture that land into a thriving subsistence homestead. When I think about that field’s short history in my life, and its significance to me, and the fact that it is my 401K, I just can’t part with it for 20% under asking price. The domestic water tap alone is worth between $15,000 and $20,000, and water is of course the essence of life everywhere, but especially here in the high desert. At some point, the fact that it’s in conservation easement and borders a 105-acre protected wildlife sanctuary, will be an asset rather than an encumbrance. The perfect buyer will come along, I’m sure of it.

In the meantime, the Dutchman next door intends to fatten up the field with fresh fencing and cows to fertilize and plow the ground. Not selling it this week isn’t the worst thing. And the sense of rejuvenation I have this Easter season, with the advent of the bees, allows me to breathe easy despite my disappointment. Anyone out there “looking to move farther up the watershed” as one new farmer here from California said, call Bob at westerncoloradorealty.com and check out this gorgeous, peaceful piece of paradise.

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The field in spring, and below, after a successful haying season.

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A Very Dog Day

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This morning a neighbor borrowed Stellar’s “neck pillow,” the donut collar that keeps a dog from licking a wound, for his dog. Meanwhile, I was working on “The Dogs Dinner Party” puzzle, which I started yesterday, on Stellar’s ten years old birthday.

It started out as an ordinary neighborhood adventure. Billie called this afternoon to see if I might know whose dog was wailing in the cattails at the bottom of our canyon, directly below their deck. Big dog, red collar, tangled in the cattails. They were both sick, and Ken couldn’t go down there today.

He looked pale and drawn when Fred and I pulled up in front of their house. Not the hearty lumberjack who just weeks ago spent three days trimming junipers around my house. He showed us through the gate and to the path down the steep slope from their house to the creek below. I followed Fred, planting my walking poles below me and cautiously clambering down the slippery slope, soft dirt and small rocks sliding, big rocks and bushes, deadfall.

Fred went on and I stopped near the bottom to call Ken. Can you see the dog? 

I can’t believe he’s quiet, Ken said. He’s been barking for a loooong time… From his vantage on the deck far above, and from ours, no one could see a sign of the dog, and there was no sound. I stayed on the phone with Ken, while Fred looked for a crossing.

Eventually he just waded ankle deep through the rusty muck of the creek, and walked into the oak brush alongside the cattails. Shhh ~ he held up his hand. A faint whine. He moved along the back side of the cattails. Where are ya, buddy? Ah! He found him, and spent a few minutes unwinding the 20 feet of thick rope attached to him. I could see the dog through the thicket wiggling happily as Fred moved among the cattails. I was suffused with good feelings of neighbors coming together to help neighbors.

 

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Can you see man or dog in this photo? They’re both there. Maybe it’s easier to see them in the next one. Or the next one.

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A twenty-foot length of thick rope attached to the dog’s collar had tangled and trapped him in the thick cattails in the creek bottom.

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About midway up the canyon wall. The cattail patch from the first two images is a small splotch near the center of this one, just below the biggest patch of snow.

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We both knew the dog and where he lives. I got in the back of the truck with the dog, and checked his tag for the phone number. I called to make sure someone was home. Have you been looking for a dog? We’ve got him. He was tangled up in the bottom of the canyon.

“He broke his leash,” the guy said. Leash? Broke? The rope was sound, brass fittings on each end.

I know, I didn’t need to say to him, He would have died— Anyway, he interrupted me before I could finish the sentence, with No he wouldn’t! I would’ve found him! (Really? Before dark? When you weren’t even outside looking? Before he froze to death stuck in the mud overnight? Before a lion came for the siren song of his helpless whimper? Would you have known right where to look? Could you have seen him in that thicket if he couldn’t come to you? What if he went quiet then?)

When we dropped the dog off the man offered us another hostile thank you. Fred is a much better Buddhist than I am, and he doesn’t even try. He affably handed over the dog, No trouble. [oh yeah? I’ll be feeling that climb later tonight.] Chatting cheerily about the dogs by name. Being neighborly.

Hey, I said, trying to smooth things over. I wasn’t being critical— He cut me off again so I couldn’t finish the thought. Well that’s what it felt like! he snapped. It’s not like I don’t take care of my dogs! I love my dogs more than I like most people around here!

So do I, I said levelly, looking him in the eye.

I still feel that old urge for vengeance. I want him to realize he was a prick. At the same time that I try to hold compassion for whatever conditions led to him acting so defensive, I still feel angry about him being so snotty, and also for not solving this containment problem a long time ago.

He kept saying that he appreciated our bringing his dog home. But he never asked one question. Where exactly in the canyon did you find him? His rope was tangled up? in the cattails? Oh dear. How did you happen to find him? Oh, it wasn’t you? Who did find him? He didn’t want to know who either of us was. He said, You don’t know me and you don’t know my dogs.

In fact we’ve met several times; it appears you don’t know me, is all. And I do know your dogs. Everybody in the neighborhood knows you can’t let them both loose at the same time. If either one is tied they both stay home. If they’re both loose they run away. Three separate neighbors told me the same thing later, as if I hadn’t heard.

I tried to bring them home to you six or eight years ago, or more, when they’d been wandering that canyon all day and I found them at the mouth of it, panting, dragging. I got the bulldog in the car but the lab ran up the hill and turned down a driveway to nowhere. I sat in that driveway with the bulldog, big red collar with no tag, agonizing over what to do: Do I take the bulldog home with me, go through the rigamarole of radio, shopper, posters, trying to find the owner of the one dog, while the spooky thin dog remains lost in the woods? Or do I turn loose the companionable fat bulldog to go with his buddy, because they’re a team, and they need to be together?

I put him out and sent him after his black lab buddy down that driveway at the top of the canyon. Years later I met their owner, the wife, who thanked me for trying, who explained they can’t let them both loose at the same time, because etc.

No, I did not need to say He would’ve died down there… it just came out. But he would have if he’d had to spend the night out there. I can’t blame the guy for being defensive, though. I can only blame myself, for not dwelling in compassion right in that moment, and just giving the guy the good news that we were bringing his dog home. (But clearly, I argue with myself even now, the rope is not working: These dogs have been getting away for years. Someone who really loves his dogs more than most people would have come up by now with something that works.)

But, as I keep learning over and over, let me look to my own deficiencies, reactions, and conditionings, and not dwell on the behavior of others. I could have taken a different tone, and maybe the adventure would not have ended on a sour note. I’ll leave that behind now, though. The dog is safe, and I’m a little wiser with yet another painful insight about my own tendencies.

 

Winter Wandering

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Lots of deer browsing in the winter garden, especially after our first real snow days before Christmas.

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Snow is half melted by the end of this peculiarly spring-like week, but still covers much of the forest floor. I finally took my husband-camera out for a walk this week, after months on the shelf. Both of us.

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Ojo and the dogs came along. I forget somehow, sometimes, who I am and what I love. 

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But an hour in the woods with animals and camera, and I begin to remember.

IMG_0653IMG_0718Above, the east facing side of the tree and below, west facing side of the same tree. Things look so different depending upon your perspective.IMG_0715

Orion astraddle the horizon and I’ve not yet had my cocktail, I know it’s deep winter. Yet the breeze this afternoon where I sat on the rim of the canyon, bright sun reflecting on golden cliffs, snow-capped ledges, snow draping slopes and trees, the stream running fast with rapid melt, Ice Canyon sighing, all that and the breeze brushing my cheeks as it flowed down canyon… so poignant. What was that particular quality of air, not quite warm, well shy of cold, but so gentle, an evocative caress? What did it bring to mind that was so specific? It was spring. It was a downstream April breeze, moist, with the faintest remnant chill of winter.

Roadkill Tetrazzini

 

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There’s one stretch of road, on the way up the canyon to town, where wild turkeys often cross. They feed in the field below, and roost in trees uphill. In spring we watch the males’ magnificent displays as we cruise slowly by. Those of us who live here are pretty careful driving that stretch, though some of us have joked for years about hitting one for Thanksgiving dinner.

Yesterday, driving home from errands, feathers still flew as I approached the body; must have been a vehicle one or two in front of me that hit her. The bird, still warm, was missing her head. I put her in the back seat and drove home, thinking Do I really want to do this? But at least this way, I had the choice to butcher her, or throw her off the canyon for lions if I decided not to try.

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I tied her feet to a juniper limb in the driveway, and pulled some skin off to assess the damage. One side was pretty thoroughly smashed, but the other side looked good.

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After removing the tail, wings, and separating the body from the hanging legs, I texted this picture to David, my go-to hunter, captioned What now? He lives for turkey season. I knew it would get his attention. I had a lot of questions.

I wondered, for example, if it would ruin the meat if I got some of the green guts on it. And what tool would cut off the feet? And how to begin cutting up the body. Also, if I got turkey offal or blood into the splits in my fingertips, would I get sick and die? By the time he called me, I had the body rinsing in the sink. David talked me through the rest of the process.

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He explained about bloodshot meat: The breast on the hit side was deep red, shot through with blood that would make its flavor too strong for me, but, he said, I’ll bet you have two dogs that would love to eat that! Indeed I do.

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I filleted the breasts and the tenderloin off the ribcage, and put the carcass into the dutch oven full of water to make stock for the dogs. The two pieces on the left were damaged in the collision and deep red throughout. 

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I chopped up the bloodshot breast and loin and threw them in the skillet with some olive oil, then wrapped the good meat in freezer paper. 

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Cooked, it looked pretty good! I tried a tiny crisp piece, and it wasn’t bad… but it was strong and different, and by then I’d had enough of dead turkey for the day.

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While the dog food sizzled and the stock came to a boil, I went back outside to deal with the legs. First, as David told me where to bend the leg, I cut off the shattered thigh with the knife, then used my Felco garden pruners to cut both legs off the feet.

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After rinsing the legs clean in cold water I wrapped them, too, and popped it all in the deep freeze. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the meat, but knew I didn’t feel like eating it right then. Then, outside to sort the carnage.

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I suspected that a young naturalist friend might want the feet,  good wing and remaining feathers, so once I’d wrapped the guts and bloody feathers up in the newspaper that had caught the drips, I poured about an inch of kosher salt in a brown paper bag, and stood up all the parts, weeping ends down in the salt, to preserve them til I could get the whole deal to her aunt’s deep freeze. Such beautiful feathers! And the little curled feather ruffs that became of the skin that pulled off so easily. Who knew?

My neighbor with the milk cows gave me some kefir grains the other day. I gave up making kefir last spring because it just kept getting ahead of me; I couldn’t use it up fast enough to justify the cost of the milk I ended up wasting. This morning I transferred the grains for the first time. The kefir rollercoaster begins again! She said, I use it for everything I’d use yogurt or sour cream for. And I thought, aha! Turkey tetrazzini! A childhood comfort food with a wild twist. When my houseguests arrive this weekend, guess what we’ll have for dinner?

Maybe. We’ll see what they think of the idea of roadkill tetrazzini. Either way, I’ve practiced my homesteading skills, proven to myself I can be resourceful in a way I’ve resisted in the past (I have a friend who routinely eats roadkill, and I have balked when it’s been offered), and made use of an otherwise wasted life. And the dogs are loving their treats. Mother forgive us for our speed, I pray every time I pass a dead animal in the road. We don’t need to move so fast.

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The black cat survived his third Halloween. He is so precious! In for the night, awaiting dinner.

All Impacts Are Unknown

Anything I’ve written in the past few days, whether bucolic praise for my abundant garden, or a rant about epidemic high blood pressure in children, even showing up in toddlers (because everyone is scared shitless at a cellular level), is washed out of my head by this Noah-style flood in Texas.

At the moment my friends in Houston are in a tornado warning while the waters rise in their street. More than two million people are trapped in the fourth-largest city in the country. This storm blew up so fast there really wasn’t any chance for the nearly nine million people in the flash-flood warning region to get out of it. My heart breaks for the suffering to come for the people and the animals in the swath of this historically unprecedented (if you don’t count the Bible) event.

Unfortunately, I can imagine the suffering, so it’s not really unimaginable. Imagine them clinging to the security they’ve known in their homes, then fleeing to neighbors, seeking safety on upper floors, on roofs, wading through waist-high water and getting swept away, losing their grips on their pets or their children, drowning in their water stalled vehicles. There is no end in sight for this before Friday.

Officials decree “Seek higher ground immediately if home floods” and “Do NOT try to shelter in your attic” and “Stay off the roads.” Where do they go? What is the torment of anxiety and fear in their minds?

The National Weather Service just issued this statement: This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced. People were thanking God for saving their lives after the first day of the hurricane, a little prematurely perhaps. How many of them will still be alive, and what will they say about God, by the end of this week? This is our worst fears coming to pass, says the Weather Channel.

What does it matter that here, under bluebird skies, the tomatoes grow monstrous on their vines, the hummingbirds fly from dahlia to sunflower to salvia, leopard frogs bask on lily pads in the pond while the lush pink blooms open slowly to the sun? How do we celebrate and enjoy our little lives in the face of catastrophic suffering elsewhere on this churning planet?

Some people are talking as if things will go back to normal in a few days, in a few weeks; but things won’t, and they mustn’t. As this monster storm stalls over coastal Texas, we need to dig deep into our hearts, whoever we are, whomever we thank for our blessings, and wake up to the truth of anthropogenic climate change. Blind prayers and self-righteous dogma will not save Houston, or the rest of Texas, or the planet.

Last Friday Susan responded to my concerned email with, “I wish you were here to help us find the humor in this experience.” I wish there were humor to be found here. I wish I could help her family. I wish I could help everyone in southeast Texas, or anyone. I wish I could help the planet stop climate change.

But without the vast majority of Americans accepting the truly uncomfortable fact of it, making purchasing and business choices according to that fact, standing up to the US government and insisting that our representatives take seriously the threat of it to our present lives and the future of our planet, nothing I can do by living off the grid, recycling, driving a fuel-efficient car (as little as possible), eating locally and ethically, meditating, and being kind, can stanch the flow of “epic catastrophic” natural disasters fueled by the climate change that our species’ greed has wrought since the Industrial Revolution.

Wake up, America. Watch Texas this week, and WAKE UP.

I know I’m preaching to the choir. Anyone who reads my little blog already has reverence for the wild world and sense enough to know that climate change is not a “belief” but a fact. I’m just lamenting. If this were just a regular Sunday and I were complacently enjoying my little life high and dry, here’s what I’d share:

QUOQ7527The garden continues to give, especially this generous Brandywine. GLQW8474

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Dawn’s overhead sunflower, more than a foot in diameter.

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At last the grasshoppers are starting to die in situ.

SRIK3123Unexpected guests nourish my soul and lend their hands to my collection: Laura seduces the aloof cat, and Gary plays my heartstrings, I mean guitar.PLRL5539bird-9916bird-9970bird-9978

This Week in Sunflowers

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This week in sunflowers… and other yellow things. Diverse native bees, including the sunflower bee (Svastra, I think: the males have unusually long antennae) are buzzing and feeding in the sunflowers, and a few goldfinches have come for seeds but fly too fast from me when I come out with the camera. Grasshoppers continue to maraud every living plant, including the gladioli, giving me a window into a bud.Pollinator-9001

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Dahlias are suffering worse than glads from grasshopper predation, though these later blooms are in better shape than those in early summer; enough flower left to provide for this bumblebee. Bumblebees are so complicated, with any one species having so much variety in parts and patterns, queens and workers and males all different sizes with different color sternites, tergites, and corbicular fringes, variable leg part sizes and cheek ratios… It would take more time and focus than I have now to even try to learn them. We have about 13 species in this part of Colorado. But I can’t even remember that many. One, two, or possibly three more species below, on Prince’s Plume, mullein, and Rocky Mountain beeplant respectively.

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Meanwhile, the fernbush, Chamaebateria, has also been blooming, attracting more flies than bees, and a few butterflies as well, including this Painted Lady.

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But who will this adorable, soft creature turn into one day? I rescued it from porch sweepings, and dropped it into some leaf litter, but not before examining it on my breakfast plate. Its antennae surprised me, popping out when I scared it, then sucking back into the top of its round face. Here, they’re halfway back in, after shooting straight out in alarm.

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Dragonfly perched on a radish seedpod.

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Those horrible thunks against the window… I heard one on the west kitchen window last week and saw the body drop. Dashed outside, around the Foresteria loosing masses of purple berries to the ground, beyond the woodpile, and tiptoed through the mess of palettes, hoses, wire cages, and empty pots to find this young yellow warbler out cold on the ground. I carried him around to the south side of the house looking for a good shady perch, and set him in a sturdy crook in the apricot tree. Brought the cats inside and left him there for awhile. When I went back he had flown, so that was one good deed for that day.

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Then, just this afternoon, another smack into the east window. Outside, a tiny hummingbird facedown in a geranium pot. Its beak was a little askew. In my hand it was weightless, but its minuscule heart pounded. Cats secured inside, I set the hummingbird in a shoebox in the shade, putting a twig under its barely perceptible toes, and set a small bowl of water in front of it as it wobbled on its perch. I shut the lid for awhile, then checked, and tipped the water bowl so it could reach without moving. It flicked its threadlike tongue into the water. I dumped the water and filled the bowl with nectar, and it drank again from the tipped bowl.

I shut the lid for another ten minutes; checked again, tipped again, left again. The fact that it was still alive encouraged me, though I was distressed it didn’t fly right off. Half an hour later I returned and opened the lid, tipped the bowl for another drink. I left the lid open and checked again in another half hour, dismayed to see the bird still there. But as I moved toward the bowl, the little bird cocked its little pea-head then zipped out of the box, up and out of sight! Sometimes all they need is a safe space for long enough to get their head on straight.

Not long after that, I caught a goldfinch in the sunflowers.