Monday, December 28, 2009

The Food Chain

Four and twenty songbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Makes sense to me. Have you ever heard blackbirds "sing"?

The Food Chain

Last year I planted an herb garden, just a small plot. In the fall I mulched it heavily with leaves. Winter was harsh. I worried over which herbs would survive and which might winterkill. Spring arrived and the chives poked their heads like glory into the warming sunlight. Chives are tough. And grow fast. I was harvesting chives while the mint, sage, oregano, parsley and thyme were still in baby stage. I re-planted tender sweet basil. It must be an annual in this country. I watered and weeded faithfully. I added a rosemary bush. My herb patch was looking good.

Grasshoppers are such little things. The variety that came to my house looked like adolescent punk-hoppers, kind of cute with body jewelry and fake tattoos. These definitely were not the giant WWII bombers of the insect world. They bopped in one morning, a well disciplined cloud, and landed in my yard. The teeny buggers danced in formation, pincer jaws wide open, over to my herb garden and proceeded to decimate it with a million bites, one herb at a time. They chomped my English thyme down to bare-naked stalks. They attacked my French oregano before infiltrating the parsley. Clippers in hand, I rushed to rescue what was left of my sweet basil while the hoppers sweetened their breath on the spearmint. They despised the chives. Found sage barely tolerable but ate it anyway. Rosemary, fortunately, repulsed them. They sampled flowers and devoured their favorites. My yard was a banquet table.

From the first retreat of winter a wealth of birds, fat, healthy birds, took up residence in my yard. Robins and finches and sparrows and doves, vireos and warblers and larks and grackles. I didn’t feed them. Correction: I didn’t fill bird feeders with avian snack foods. I didn’t have to. First my strawberries disappeared. The plundering birds left me six puny berries. Then they went fishing. Long, juicy earthworms lurked beneath layers of mulch in my yard. Bird heaven. I found it especially fun to watch a robin grasp an earthworm, pull with all its might, half the worm anchored in the ground, until finally the worm lets go with a plop. The robin lands on its sitter, fat wriggly worm dangling from its beak. That show was worth the admission ticket of a few strawberries. When the currants began to ripen, I checked them daily, hovered around them, waited until the optimum day for harvest, and went, berry bucket in hand, only to find every bush stripped. I pictured four-and-twenty song birds, baked in a pie. Next year I will net my berry bushes.

Meanwhile, back at the grasshoppers’ buffet, a multiplication of birds flew in. Storm troopers. These newcomers joined the already fruit-fattened yard birds in a round ‘em up, smorgasbord feast of crunchy critters. For several days birds of all sizes and shapes and colors scurried along the ground, gobbling up hoppers. The birds were too fat to fly. They lounged around and picked their beaks and gossiped, then waddled back for dessert.

For several months before the grasshopper invasion, two colossal cats had hung out in my yard. Every morning they patrolled beneath my cabin, keeping mice and shrews and snakes away. These were not feral cats. They belonged to someone in the neighborhood. They were well-fed, well-groomed kings of their castles. I have not seen a mouse since they began standing watch. They stalked birds and butterflies and bees but without success. I figured those cats were walking the beat, keeping the birds safe.

That all changed when the overweight songbirds, sated with hoppers, could barely lift off the ground. My patrol cats, feathers fluttering from their mouths, called for reinforcements. Enter the feline SWAT team. I have no idea where they came from, but eight humongous cats swaggered into my yard, pounced on the birds which ate the grasshoppers which ate my herbs. My backyard bird population returned to normal.

Not so the cats. Every morning the full regiment of cats musters in my yard. This morning they brought along new recruits, three cute gangly trainee kittens. They patrolled the cabin for mice, the yard for birds, and basked beneath the lilies in the sun. In the evening the cats pranced, tails aloft, back to their respective homes for kibbles and cream. But they will be back tomorrow. The good news is that my basil and oregano have sprouted new leaves, so I’ll harvest a second cutting. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are making a comeback like the promise of new love. The grasshoppers are gone. The wary birds perch in the trees. It seems the cats take seriously their day job as guard-cats. But I don’t need thirteen cats hanging around my two-cat yard.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
December 10, 2009

On the Toad With George

Travels with a teddy bear.
On the Road With George

George and I have traveled together for years. George is a pleasant roadpartner, an easy companion. He is never critical of my driving, and doesnot have a lot to say. Oh, he gets a bit cheeky at times. I plunk a hat onhis head, tie a silk scarf around his neck and belt him into the passengerseat. George is a “Bear of Very Little Brain”*. We headed west on Highway 2, early morning sun at our backs, air crisp andfull of pungent autumn. Traffic was light. Blackbirds cross-hatched thesky, flocked for departure to warmer climes. By the time we reached Shelbyan intermittent-wiper rain splashed the windshield. I noticed George sulking. “George, what’s wrong? Seatbelt too tight?” “Iwant shades.” “ Sunglasses? I don’t wear them. Why should you? Besides, it’s raining.” George turned his face toward the passenger window and sulked all the way over Marias Pass. He didn’t beg for his usual huckleberry ice-cream cone in Hungry Horse. I stopped for the night in Bonner’s Ferry. The proprietor of the inn whereI often stay picks huckleberries every year. I bought a pint for Georgeto munch for supper. I asked Jim to reserve a couple gallons for my return in December. I’ll make jelly for Christmas gifts. George, face stained with berryjuice, said, “This is great. But I still want shades.” The next morning, just past the little town of Priest River , George asked for a story. He had nearly finished his jar of honey and was getting sleepy. Storytelling on the road is easy. Everything along the way can be woven into the tale. I looked around. The river coursed on our left. Steep rock cliffs defined the right side of thehighway. “See that quarry? Too bad about the brothers who owned it,” I said. “They never did find the body. Of the older brother. The younger brother is in jail. He’s the prime suspect.” I had George’s full attention. “It was on the news for weeks. The brothers owned mountains and land and timber and mines and banks and hunting lodges and politicians. They had the Midas touch.” I looked around for another clue to further the story. “I think theauthorities have it all wrong. About the motive, I mean. Couldn’t have beenmoney. Both brothers had piles and goodles of money and knew how to makemore. No, I don’t think that was the motive. And I am not sure the youngerbrother committed the crime, if there was a crime, there being no corpus.”
Across the river and up the hillside in the trees loomed a monstermansion with decks and gables and crenellations galore. “That’s their house, George. The brothers lived in separate wings. Who knows what went on behind closed doors. But there were rumors.” We passed a ’57 Chevy Coupe stopped along the verge of the road. It was turquoise and white, gleaming with chrome and totally restored down to the fuzzy dice dangling from the rearview mirror. Next to the car stood a striking blonde, poised with camera. “Beautiful,” George said. “Um hmmm,” I agreed. We were commenting on different aspects of the same scene. “Speaking of women, George, last year when I drove through here, shortly after the older brother disappeared, I heard that the boys, and I quote, ‘red-blooded healthyAmerican patriots’, liked to party and fool around with women. Yep, I thinkwomen figure into the motive.” George nodded. “Course, there is no body, sowe don’t rightly know for sure there was a crime.”
George licked the last vestiges of honey from the fur around his mouth and started to toss the jar out the window. I lunged and caught it. “The roadside is not a garbage dump, George.” George growled. We crossed the river from Old Town into Newport . We passed a movie theatreon the main street. I read the marquee, a double feature. Halloween was fast approaching. The movies featured blood and gore. I turned to George, “The newspaper said the scene of the crime looked like a slaughter house. Gore all over. Blood trailed out the front door, down the walkway and disappeared at the river.” I heard whuffling. George, hat askew, leaned his head against the windowand gently snored. He slept through Spokane and all the way to Cle Elum. I stopped for gas. George woke up. We pulled back onto the freeway and headed up Snoqualmie Pass. “Red,”George said. “The blood?” I asked. “No, the frames. I want my shades with redframes.”
*Apologies to A.A. MilneSondra Ashton: Home Again, Havre Daily News
Published December 17, 2009

Christmas Past

Here's my Christmas story for this week. These things never do turn out the way I intend them.
Christmas Past

One day my phone rang. It was my friend Mary Row with a bizarre request. “Everything you touch turns into a work of art. I’m giving a party and want my house to look perfect. Will you come over and arrange my cashmere throw over the back of my couch? I’ll put on water for tea.” I needed to see her anyway, so I drove around the lake to her house. While she was in the kitchen I tossed the throw haphazardly toward the couch and watched the folds settle. Voila! A vignette of beauty.

What makes my artistic propensities an oddity is that I am constitutionally incapable of wrapping a gift. Ask my children if you don’t believe me. I hate paper adorned with Santa and reindeer, manger scenes with wise men and camels, snowflakes, foil candy cane stripes, and nutcrackers. I trace my aversion to wrapping paper to my early childhood.

I grew up without a Mother. “Ah,” you say. “That explains everything.” Indeed it does.

My Dad had no idea how to buy presents, so beginning when I was in first grade, he drove me to town and handed me the list of names, my own included. I trudged up and down the aisles of the department store, deciding which gift to give various family members. While my peers were snuggled in bed with visions of sugarplums, I was up wrapping gifts, scotch tape tangling my hair, curling ribbon slipping off my scissors, tears of frustration running down my face. Santa Claus? That myth was debunked Christmas morning when the only gifts beneath the tree were the ones I had inexpertly wrapped.

I always dreaded the first day back in school following the Holidays. All my classmates were abuzz with delight, merry with tales of all the gifts Santa had brought them. The year our jaded fourth grade teacher told the class there was no Santa Claus, I nursed a secret smug superiority. I knew better. I was Santa Claus. And I hated it.

Dressing the tree was marginally better. I was the Christmas Tree Tyrant. But I was the only one I got to boss around. I would decorate the branches, stand back and say, “Those lights are too close together. Take some of the blue globes from the right side and shift them to the left, no, up a little, no, down just a bit.” My specialty was the tinsel. I emptied boxes of silver foil icicles, hung them one strand at a time until the entire tree shimmered, twinkling with lights fastened onto the branches in perfect symmetry.

So when I had children of my own, I insisted two things be an integral part of our family Christmas tradition. Santa Claus is alive and well. And I don’t wrap gifts. Oh, I cleverly disguised them. With newspaper, with grocery bags artfully decorated by Crayola, with magazine pages, old calendars, duplicate copies of past due bills. Our presents under the tree didn’t have the traditional, store-shelf look, but the kids said, “That’s our Mom,” and grinned with delight.

My gift to each of you is a heartfelt “Merry Christmas”, wishes for a season filled with abundant joy and love enough to keep you happy throughout the coming year. I send this gift wrapped in newsprint. Santa Sondra

PS: My first place award for the Most Creative Christmas Tree goes to the Burlington Northern and Amtrak people at the station in Havre. This is a “Must See”.

Home Again: Havre Daily News
Sondra Ashton