Sep 30, 2007

I Honking Love Nature

There's a lot to recommend living in the country. Hearing foxes call to each other in the dusk. Birds of every type and description. Praying mantises, anole lizards, and garter snakes under every bush. And then today; what I've tentatively identified, thanks to the miracle that is the Internet Tubes, a Mottled Grey Carpet Moth. (You can't make that sort of thing up.)

I didn't actually see it until it flew away and landed again, it was that well blended in with the pecan bark it was against. When it changed trees I had to let Weerelephant find it again for me because my eyes simply couldn't pick it out again.

Damn Nature for being so cunning.

Sep 27, 2007

Poetry Friday Challenge: Honk

Yeah, I know, three posts in a single week. Unhonking believable. I'm almost back to my old rate. *S* So, er, just so you know, don't hold your breath. Sorry.

Mona posted a nice one for Friday--Honk. She and her ubergeek coworkers have been using it in place of more common cursewords like damn and hell and Republican. And now it's the Poetry Friday Challenge word.


You know, my first intention was to drive off the last few readers I have with another train post, as it's a pretty easy connection to go from honk to trains and the pattern with which they have to announce their presence at a crossing (never knew they had a regulation about THAT, didja?) but no. I'm gonna talk about honking up photography.

I started into photography like most people, I'm sure. When I was a kid my folks bought me a Kodak 110 point and shoot for Xmas one year. It was the size and shape of a starter from a '94 Ford Taurus, took one of those strangely shaped plastic film cartridges and produced...well, photos of a sort. Images on paper. *shrug* I used the honk out of that little camera, then women and school and other things got into my head, and it got put aside. But humble as it was, it was my start.

I think I always owned some sort of cheap 35mm point and shoot or other but never got back into photography with any sort of passion until probably ten years ago, when I bought my first fully manual 35mm. It was (and still is, it's on my desk behind me) a little Ricoh KR-5 Super II I picked up at my local Ritz Camera for less than $200; a package deal with camera, lens and bag, a little learner's book and a pat on the back. I wanted to learn how to really shot photos and not just point at things and click, and that little manual taught me, sometimes the hard way. Where is the light? What's the shutter speed? F stop? Film speed? Composition? I learned it all, and I really honking enjoyed it.

And just recently here, I decided to take the big plunge I had been avoiding all this time; I bought a honkingly nice, fairly expensive digital SLR, the Nikon D40. And I seem to have forgotten all about how to take photos. Okay, so it's not that honking bad, but it's honking aggravating sometime. And don't get me wrong, I LOVE my D40. It's just that the Nikon is geared to do EVERYTHING for you, and I'm so honking retentive from long manual-use that my results usually aren't quite what I was looking for. And then, just for honks and giggles Nature does everything She can to honk the photographic event up.

Today, for instance. Every afternoon after 5 a train passes by the office, headed for the UP yard. (Yeah, you KNEW I'd work trains into this post somehow.) And so after work I hied myself down to a new friend's house, whose back yard happens to run butt up against the tracks. The sun was good--behind me and off my left shoulder, no clouds nearby, the image area was as I knew nicely uncluttered, the colours of grass and expected subject were good, I was good. I waited.

And then I had to take a brief diversion into the thicket near the rails a call of Nature (when you're a man the world is your urinal) and found this pretty girl sitting in the middle of the rails:

Now, I'll give the Nikon this--it can take some honking close photos, as close as six inches or so. The Ricoh is blind at less than a yard with the stock lens. Anyhoo--

After visiting with my lovely little green friend for a while I heard the distant honk of an air horn and knew my prey was approaching. I genteely tossed my little lady friend into some deep grass and took my spot, long since picked out for angle and viewing range. And it was at this point that the sun decided to pass behind a honking great cloud, casting everything into middling darkness. GAH! Honk you, Nature.

But I soldiered on. The honking great honking beast hove into view, and my heart fell to see--it was the wrong colour. I had expected a grey and red KCS, not a GMTX in washed out UP yellow, but there you are, you take what you can get at times.

See what I mean? Honking lackluster.

I even followed her up the line a ways to try my 'reflection shot' again, hoping for better results this time using the flash.

Same problem as last time. Even with the flash the shutter was too slow, confused by the dark bottom half and the over-bright upper half of the shot, and the subject ended up honking blurred. Honk me!

But this is okay. I know with the flip of a switch and a few button pushes through the menu I can effectively turn my HAL 9000 into a Delta-Minus*, and I'll have to re-learn how to honking use a honking manual honking camera.

Here. How about a picture of a honking mushroom?

*If you missed the somewhat obscure sci-fi references there, I suggest you read Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." And I don't mean go rent the movies either, you honker.

Sep 26, 2007

Nature Abhors A Vacuum

That's why it always uses a broom, instead. And sometimes one of those Swiffer Sweeper things. And it always has a dustpan handy, one of those kinds with a little matching brush.

Aah, beating a dead horse. Nothing quite like it to get the blood pumping, eh?

First, some flowers. I'm sure you guys would rather see that than another train photo.

Now then--more Nature.

Meno's post about finding a spider in her sun room led me to remembering a certain writing spider I photographed some ten years ago at my old house, and about how I first learned about them.

The 'spider' you see to the lower left of the bigger spider's leg is in fact the bigger spider's freshly shed skin. She was a good four inches across, easily the largest writing spider I'd ever seen, and she was utterly gorgeous, clean and bright in her new clothes.

I remember my first encounter with a writing spider. I was wandering around in the overgrown barnyard of my grandfather's home in Mississippi; my brother and father were somewhere, and my grandfather was behind me. I might have been all of six or seven, and the dead weeds rustled and crackled as we pushed our way through. I came upon a writing spider who had spread her web between tall stalks of some weed or other, and I couldn't help but notice the scribble of white webbing that she rested above. My grandfather leaned over and said "That's a writing spider. See? He's so proud of his web he wrote his name on it." I can still see him pointing out the squiggly thick white line down the middle and him saying "Henry" in his clear, heavy preacher's voice. I didn't get the joke for grandfather's first name was Henry. I tried for hours to make letters form out of that random scrawl of thick silk. *S*

I can't look at a writing spider now without thinking of that wonderful old man, without hearing that voice just over my shoulder. He died just a few years later. His was the first casket I ever carried as one of six pall bearers, the first time I ever felt like an adult man. I was performing a man's task. It was his death taught me that Life, no matter how grand or pathetic or mediocre, ends sooner or later. It's just Nature.

I can still hear his voice.

Sep 25, 2007

They're At It Again

Nancy over at Just Another Love Letter tells us that she knows Fall has arrived by the change of the leaves on the trees, gold and red and yellow. Scott in Oregon knows it's Fall because his nuts are falling. (Acorns, that is.) The Nor'easters tell us that they know it's Fall because they're all driving to New Hampshire and Rhode Island to watch the colours of the trees change. Across the country, people are looking to the forests to watch Nature slip out of her green summer suit and into her lovely brown and golds and amber gown of Fall.

Well, not in the South.

In the green bayou air of Louisiana the pine trees drop a few brown needles but they stay green. The magnolia branches hang low, laden with heavy, red cones filled with exquisitely scarlet seeds, each a potential magnolia, but their leaves remain, huge dark green ovals cluttering every branch. The oaks have put on a burst of fresh light green growth to hide their loads of acorns, as if to scoff the coming of a chill in the air. Even the most venerable cypress trees seem to be ignoring the slight drop of temperature, and the pecan trees reveal their hidden loads of pecans by turning their leaves from lovely green straight to curled brown crisps without stopping to try on a russet or a golden hue. It's hard to tell by the foliage that Fall is come.

The only way to really know it's Fall is the cotton. It's time to harvest.

(That's my next-door neighbor from last week, picking while the Moon showed us Her pale face.)

The crop dusters were strafing the fields the past few weeks with their loads of white, sharp-smelling defoliant, the huge cotton pickers have been brought out of the barns and been fueled and tuned, and the evening air is filled with the coughing growl of long-disused diesel engines grumbling into surly life. The tractors are milling around like ants looking for their nest, and my memories are rolling back to my childhood as the green fields die back and reveal brown stalks and the spills of white cotton frothing out of their now black and shriveled boles.

Thinking back to those days so much seems to have changed. Long gone are the huge, mesh-sided cotton trailers that used to lumber carefully along the narrow back roads leading to the gin. They've been replaced by pneumatic presses that crush the cotton into huge, multi-ton loaves that rest on the ground, covered with orange tarps. Now they wait by the dozens for huge trucks with rollers for beds and canvas covers to scoop them up and haul them away, leaving behind dirty grey-white patches on the ground. Gone are the cotton pickers that seemed so huge when I was a kid, replaced by new machines that are two, three times the size and capacity. Gone are the days when a ten year old boy and his brother could climb up into the trailers and tromp cotton.

I can remember seeing the crop dusters scudding about, and feeling the chill in the air that meant that Mr. Mathews and his sons Joe and Cecil would be along in a week or so. I can see their old red Ford pickup pulling one of several huge, battered cotton trailers, and not far behind it would be Cecil, driving their dusty red cotton picker. They'd appear as if by miracle--I'd get on the bus one morning for school, and that afternoon two or three trailers would be sitting in the grassy turnrows, empty save for potential. The weekend would creep up with agonizing slowness, but arrive it would and Saturday morning would find me pressed to the windows, itching for a glimpse of farm equipment. I'd wander around the pasture, desperate to hear the low, steady purring of a certain elderly International Harvester cotton picker making it's slow way up the lane. My ears would be sharply pricked up to catch the soft, coughing growl as it's engine was throttled back and the metal on metal bumps and clanks that it would make as it shuddered and worked it's way under the overhanging oaks and down the turnrow to our field. Cecil would be driving, as always, and he'd never fail to wave as my brother and I tore out across the pasture like maniacs, eager not to miss a single second of the work.

Mr. Mathews was a sharecropper, perhaps the last of that breed. He didn't own land of his own, but raised and tended cotton on I don't know how many little bits and blops of land around the bayou. We supplied the land, he supplied the seed and the labor and got a fair share of the profits from the crop. My brother and I didn't care about the economics of the deal, all we knew is that when we saw that faded red Ford four wheel drive it meant cotton tromping. While Cecil carefully piloted that huge red mechanical hunchback up and down the rows we'd wait impatiently for the first few loads of cotton to be dumped in. Mr. Mathews wouldn't let us into the trailer until there were at least two loads in, enough to cover the bottom of a trailer six or eight feet deep, and somehow he'd hold us back, asking us in his slow, easy voice about how things were at school, and how each of us were doing. And he'd listen to us, his sun-browned face a mass of wrinkles and kindness, his eyes startlingly blue behind lids permanently squinted from the sun, his straw hat dappling the light across his cheeks and nose. And somehow he'd keep our attentions and our eager selves restrained just long enough.

Finally Cecil would bring the picker up alongside the wagon for that second emptying, and we'd wait wide-eyed and trembling while the hopper lifted, slowly, agonizingly slowly. The top would, after a few weeks of waiting begin to hinge open, and the bin would tip over and out and down would pour an avalanch,e not of snow but of cotton. Mixed in were tiny bits of twig and leaves, and it was flavoured with that high, sharp, CLEAN smell of freshly stretched and plucked fibers and the rich, sugary tang of burnt diesel fuel, all over the musty background fug of hot machine. The half-ton mass of cotton would tumble out in one huge lump it seemed, and make the whole trailer sway and rock on it's axles with creaks and groans over the muffled thump of the crop falling against steel, but all we had eyes for was the piled-high cotton, fluffy and thick and warm.

The first year we were old enough to be out with them Mr. Mathews would help my brother and I up to the seemingly sky-high first rung, but once my hands were on that cool rusted steel we needed no more help. I'd swarm up like a monkey and leap from the top, fearless; a pocket-sized, flightless Superman crashing arms-wide and full length into those huge mounds. We'd leap, we'd play. We'd jog and hop and leap in ever-decreasing circles, and we were tireless. We were helping, Mr. Mathews explained, helping to compress the cotton in the trailer so that each wagon would be as full as possible, so that we were making the most of each each trip to the gin. Except he didn't say it that way. He said we were "tromping the cotton," and tromping helped him, and it was fun to boot, so we tromped.

We leaped and we landed on a mattress so soft you'd wonder if you would ever stop falling. We stood carefully to one side as the picker hove alongside and dumped it's load, still hot from the machinery it rode above, and the moment the huge lid was closed on the hopper and Cecil smiled we knew it was time, and we go leaping into the fresh piles, laughing and yelling and trying to swim through the pillowy mounds. No one worried that we might fall out of the trailer as it got full, no one worried that we might fall and hit the steel mesh sides or one of the several hollow iron supports that crossed the body of each wagon. We watched out for ourselves, and we had a blast.

We'd tromp until late evening, until it got so dim that Cecil had to turn his beast out of the rows and park it under the old pecan tree that stood square in the middle of the field. It'd sit there, ticking and steaming as it cooled off in the evening's chill and we'd walk around it like we always did, ooohing and aaahing at this mechanical marvel. We'd touch it's huge tires, read each peeling warning sticker with serious attention, and we'd get our nerves up, step into the huge steel spreaders in front and carefully touch the hundreds of pulling spikes mounted on their steel spindles that hid in it's gaping maw, like mice gingerly testing the sleeping lion's teeth.

While Cecil did maintenance here and there and Mr. Mathews handed him tools and such we'd watch, absorbing it all. And all too soon Joe would come driving back from the gin, carrying an empty trailer behind. He unhook it, and his brother and their dad would meander back to the truck, wave goodbye and drive off home to their suppers and their families, and we'd run back to our house, eyes filled with sights and ears packed with sounds, cheeks red with exertion as the moon rose high.

Those times and those two little boys are gone, though, moved on as all things move on. Now when I drive past I look at the bored men sitting in high seats on their pneumatic machines, watching the silver piston work it's slow, mindless way back and forth across cotton that only they can see, hidden as it is by huge yellow steel walls. I think about the disused cotton trailers that quietly rust and collapse in forgotten corners of fields by the hundreds, sitting under long-forgotten barns, they themselves collapsing quietly, weighed down by the years.

But most of all, I think about all those little boys missing such a wonderous opportunity. I think about them, watching from behind windows and fences, watching with wide eyes as the huge pickers growl and wend their ways across thousands of acres of opportunity for play, each moment slipping by to be lost forever.

Sep 22, 2007

"Steamy Wet" : UPDATED!

Jaizus you people are horny. The search query that brings this page up the most? "Steamy wet." 29 queries. The one that people click through to my page the most from? "93qid" which is the radio station that I no longer listen to.

Sex. Music. Cripes you guys need a life! But so do I, so how about a tale of the Universe laughing at me?

Casual readers here may not know this, but regulars do--I'm not Xian. Religion makes me break out in hives and yell angry things at hypocrites. If I were pinned against a wall by a steamy wet (I'm going to see how many times I can use that term today) gangster with a Glock (held sideways, all cool-like) and threatened with certain Glock-inflicted death if I didn't tell him what I believed in, I might go so far as to say that I might could possibly find it in my heart to believe in the "Gawd As Clockmaker" theory. You know the one, where Gawd Hisself built this incredibly intricate, complex, mind-boggling big Universe, wound the little pewter key, pushed the pendulum once to get it swinging then put the whole thing up on the mantlepiece and is even now sitting in His big comfy wingback chair in front of a nice fire, His two favourite Borzoi sleeping by his feet, His pipe clenched in his teeth and a favourite book open in His big, careful watch-maker's hands, carefully ignoring the entire works.

And that's why it really bothers me when the Universe decides to mess with me; put things in my way, poke me in the back and run away giggling, hiding around the corner to trip me up.

See, a few days ago Fall arrived. I celebrated by taking part of my lunch break sitting in the shade on the sloped hillside of an interstate overpass. I know that sounds silly but there's an excellent view of the rails from there. And for forty minutes I didn't see a train but I had a sort of meditative experience. Cool breeze, shade, a beautiful day, and nothing nagging at me for over a half hour. Nothing. No phone, no filing, no computer. Just me and the bugs and the cars passing by, invisible behind me.

Well, that afternoon after work I figured I'd go sit a while longer and catch the train that I KNEW passes every afternoon around 5:30, and take some distance pictures. One can only take the standard 3/4 view from ground level shot of a train so many times before it becomes...the same. So, I'm branching out. Figured a lovely day like that, all clear sky and green grass and that cool uniformity of grey concrete deserved a photo with a train in it. Just one. Or a few. Four, no more. No chasing, just a nice landscape with train. And sure enough, there it came. Horns calling out behind the trees, crossing gates lowering, their lights blinking and bells ringing, and me ready with my camera, all settings go.

I had been mulling over the lack of difference out there just before I heard that horn; it being a UP line you see UP trains, and frankly it gets a little monotonous. That's why I was caught off-guard when I saw a splash of what looked like orange. For one moment I thought it was the lovely red and hunter green Ferromex engine that's been very good at evading me most of the time,

but then as it got fully across the intersection I saw it for what it really was--a Kansas City Southern "Retro Belle."

In brief, to celebrate some anniversary or other KCS painted about 100 of their newest engines in a red, black and yellow scheme to harken back to the KCS "Southern Belle" passenger trains of the mid 40's. I had heard about them, seen pictures by professional trainspotters in Dallas and New Orleans and all, but figured my chances of seeing one in the steel were slim at best. And there she was, to prove me wrong. The one day in hundreds I decide to sit on an interstate and wait the Universe, giggling, provides me with not only a gorgeous day but a beautifully painted, rare, CLEAN engine worth photographing.

Naturally, I gave chase, and caught her at no less than four different points along the tracks as she hastened on her way to wherever it was she was rushing to.

I caught her at one of my favourite crossings, as it's a major artery and the trains have to slow way down to cross.

I'm afraid I might have been giggling pretty wildly at this point, so pleased was I with my luck; the combination of cool weather, good sunlight, clear skies and such a beautiful lady as a subject.

I caught her at a new spot I've found about a mile shy of the yard, a big open spot near several overpasses that gives my steamy wet self (it's still fairly humid) good position with clear backgrounds and lots of sunlight.

And then my pride and joy photo of the forty or so I took. I went tearing up an overpass which just so happens to be right over the main lines leading into the UP yard. She wasn't slowing, so I was running like a madman, jacket flapping, camera bag banging into my side, struggling to get the Nikon out and turned on and aimed. I didn't notice until I got home and had downloaded the pictures that one of the crewmen was hanging out the side window giving me a huge grin and a thumb's up. Seems some people don't mind paparazzi, even the steamy wet, wild-eyed, giggling insanely in full sight of tons of speeding 5 o'clock traffic sort.

So that was the first jig in the ribs the Universe handed me.

The second is where I started getting spooked. The local train group on Yahoo emailed the daily digest the next morning as usual. There was only ONE email in there; very surprising, as it's usually six to twelve depending on the topics of conversation. This one email was from a very professional, very obsessive spotter from Dallas who had found and posted six pictures of....wait for it...a pair of Retro Belles. The funny thing? The two he saw were still in primer paint, so they were new but, well, quite frankly they were ugly. Flat greenish grey with black on the bottom. And so of course I was ready to show off my own handiwork, and replied with my photos.

I was a little worried at the sudden turn of coincidence, but it still hadn't sunk in. Two instances does not a laughing Universe prove.

Then the third came. After posting the photos I left for work, and had a nice surprise. Vulgar Wizard had brought in a photo album her grandfather had made for her from 1979, with her as very small girl. She had brought it in because there was a whole series of photos he had taken of her and him and her grandmother going to New Orleans, to catch an Amtrak train. She'd been telling me forever about this photo of her standing in the engine in front of the controls. He had even kept the train schedule. Neat stuff, indeed. The Universe had to butt in, though, laughing behind her hand the entire time.

I flipped one page over from the Amtrak stuff and there were photos and a postcard from some sort of monument park in Arkansas (I assumed that's where they had taken the train to.) The postcard photo was taken in front of an old restored steam locomotive. In front of the steam locomotive were tiny railroad tracks for one of those little micro-scale tour trains for kids, jam-packed with adults and their little charges, and I do mean packed. It was one of those tiny things into which adults can just about barely fit if they try; the "engineer" is stuffed into his tiny driver's seat like a sausage packed in it's casing.

Cue the Universe:

The colour scheme of the little engine? Circa 1940's KCS "Southern Belle" passenger train. Red, yellow and black.

UPDATE! VW scanned said postcard for me!


I nearly DIED. She hadn't seen my photos yet nor heard the story, so she had a hard time figuring out why I was laughing and crying at the same time. I'm just glad she didn't hear my confused mutterings about the Universe knowing Her place.

Sep 20, 2007

The Jena Six As Seen From Ground Zero

I guess this is my opportunity to make a blog post that's deep, meaningful, and socially relevant, to show you all what a socially aware creature I am. I don't know if I can really DO that, to be quite honest. I think I'm too close to this.

You see, about fifty miles from here is a little town called Jena. It's a backwater town, one of hundreds of tiny, backward towns that dot Louisiana, especially in the south of the state. Racism is rampant in most of these little podunk towns, and it runs both ways. And something happened there that has catapulted this bug-under-a-rock town into the national attention. I'm not going to supply a link, all you have to do is run a search on Jena Six, or tune into NPR. It's everywhere.

And that's as far as I got with this post.

No, not really. I had about six or seven more paragraphs below there, but it was like my mood--jumbled, confused. And so, I erased it, all but the first two paragraphs and the last line, which set the mood. My mood. I wrote this next bit hours later. It's got a little more sense in it than what I had managed this morning, but not much.

When I was a kid, Xmas time was a magic time. There was a local guy who would go on TV after the news was over for a little locally-broadcast show, dressed to the nines as The Jolly Old Elf, and he'd ho-ho-ho and read letters from kids in the area and do all the expected Xmas stuff. And at the end he'd pull out a telescope from his red suit's pockets and he'd "look" out across the city and tell us that he He'd call us out by name, and the fervent hope, at least in my little heart was that one day he'd call MY name out, that he'd see ME sitting there in my living room, anxious grin pasted on my face. Well, an eye more far-seeing and more extensive than that of Saint Nicholas' is pointed at us, and I can't stand it.

The upset that the Jena Six rally is causing today, already, has had surprising ripples in me, and it'd not just that traffic is backed up for an hour away in all directions from that little town. I'm distressed, but not sure why. I tried to blog about it this morning early--I figured that my little slice of reading public would like to know how it feels to be a mere 50 miles from the main focus, how it feels to be the city that will be hosting Mos Def's rant at the amphitheater here in Alexandria on the Red River, downtown, just about twenty minutes from my house. And you know, I can't? I started, got a few paragraphs down and it's like my mood--jumbled, distorted, makes no real sense. It's just bits and chunks, disjointed.

Do you know that even here, one of the six or seven major cities in this state there's a part of town called "Samtown," which is where the ghetto begins? I always thought that was just a derogatory term for the ghetto, but it's listed on the city maps that you get from the Welcome Center as "Samtown." Lower Third and down. Samtown. The places where a white face isn't ever seen.

I'm of the mind that by nightfall tonight Jena will be host to a riot at minimum, a city-spanning fire at worst. Jesse Jackson has shipped in his own audience--40 busses full of activists, full of strangers into the tiny, insular Jena, where people are desperately afraid and angry of black people, much less strangers, much LESS activist strangers from states so far away that they probably couldn't even FIND Louisiana on a map without a GPS in hand.

I'm afraid, in a way, and I'm angry that so much focus is being paid to this state, so much negative. It feels like someone has turned over a rotten log and is suddenly astounded and shouting to everyone who will listen that they've revealed a squirming, writhing mess of horrible bugs. I mean, it's not like there is injustice only here, only in Jena. We're HUMAN, for shit's sake, it's part of our nature to be selfish, introverted and aggressive. I'm with Nietzsche--we're all born "evil," and have to work to overcome that natural tendency. And then the National Eye turns here, to this rinky-dink state, to a podunk town of 3500 who are so racist that I'm surprised there hasn't been a hanging there recently, and everyone is suddenly "Oh my god, there's RACISTS here!" Wow. Who would have thunk it?

And somehow I don't see Jesse Jackson and Mos Def changing anyone's minds down there. No toothless white-trash redneck is suddenly going to burn his rebel flag because an angry black man came to his town with 40 busses of black activists. No, it's only going to inflame them, make the quiet angers much louder, make the closet klansmen come out in the open. I guess this sounds strange to folks from more civilised places but do you know guys realise that many houses way out in the sticks still proudly display the confederate stars and ex? It's a point of pride. It makes me sick, but there you are, I'm a resident of the most racist state in the union probably. No escaping it, and I don't know that any number of inflamatory speeches and fist wavings are going to change it.

If Jena isn't quite literally on fire tonight I'll be astounded.

Sep 17, 2007

Hot Chicks!

Yes, ladies and gents, before you cry "fowl!" I present a chicken post.

It's not enough for this family of three to have six cats, two dogs, a couple of dozen fish and a penchant for keeping hummingbirds sugared and whatever other freeloading avians who happen along filled with a pleasant variety of seeds. No, we need to go one step further and go into--

Chicken ranching.

Fifteen chicks now live in a wire cage on my back patio, fifteen chicks that arrived here one day old, fifteen chicks (I swear I keep wanting to shout "Fifteen live nude chicks fifteen!") who are so good at flinging their pine shavings bedding out of their cage at very high speed that it's dangerous to walk out there without leg protection. Such is the ferocity of this digging and flinging that it makes me wonder if maybe diamond miners in Africa shouldn't switch from dynamite and high pressure water cannons to a couple of thousand Rhode Island Reds.

See, Mrs. I is not a country girl. She's never stepped barefooted in a large steaming pile of chicken crap. She's never been threatened by a fourteen pound rooster with spurs so long he could be declared a lethal weapon in 35 states. Me? I've been there. I still have the scars to prove it. My father raised chickens, big mean chickens with teeth. And he had a rooster, an utterly gorgeous specimen of pure evil. White body like a Packer's linebacker, a huge blood-red comb, a beak like a scythe and the most exquisite deep green head and tail feathers. His tail looked like a fountain carved out of black-green jade. When that rooster walked by, people took notice. When that joker crowed old people would immediately leap out of bed and head to the nearest farm, implements in hand. And that bloody devil HATED everyone except my father. My father would, in the evenings, retire to the swing in the side yard with his evil companion scooped up in one hand like the world's most dangerous briefcase and there they would sit and swing, and he'd pet this rooster like a cat until the sun set.

I hate chickens. I made this point clear. And my point having been made, she decided we were going to raise chickens. In her defense she did her research. There were endless nights of her huddled over the cool glow of the monitor, searching The Internets for chicken lore. There was the teetering mound of library books covering such diverse subjects as Choosing The Right Breed and Chicken Husbandry and How To Wring A Neck. There were long discussions about whether to build a coop from scratch or to buy one pre-made. There was the night the guy from the Chicken Fancier's Board came by to give us some literature and discuss with us the merits of raising domestic versus imported birds. It was endless, and thorough.

And then there was the construction of said coop, after the decision was reached that we were not, in fact, going into commercial chicken farming and therefor did not need shelter for two thousand birds at a time. Almost as expensive as buying a new house, but not quite. When I build, you see, I build to last. I build serious. And so now for fifteen chickens which require about three square feet to roost we have The Chicken Cube, an 8' x 8' x 8' monster. We've still got to buy fence and posts and bird netting to lay out the yard and keep the wild birds out and the egg-producing beasties IN, and...whew. Unfortunately we also have room now to keep about two thousand chickens.

I kept holding out hope that something would derail this juggernaut. I hoped that after she picked out Buff Orpingtons and Australorps as being the best layers, most docile and easiest birds to raise something would change her mind. I lay awake at night trying to figure out a safe way to torch The Chicken Cube ("Resistance is futile. You will be brooded,") hoping that perhaps a conflagration of that size might stop this ongoing gallus gallus impetus. All to no avail, unfortunately. And then one weekend evening Mom and she got to talking about chickens.

You see, my Mom is a country girl from way back, and she knows all about chickens. I should have known better but I was hoping beyond hope that she'd inject some sense of chicken-poo smelling reality into this spiraling chicken-madness, but when Mrs. I said "We're getting Orpingtons" and Mom said (dare I say 'crowed'?) "Ooh, we used to raise those at the house when I was a little girl! They're WONDERFUL!" I could hear the final nail being driven into my feather-lined coffin.

So I think three more weekends of frenzied and expensive building, painting and fence running should finally put an end to the process, the chicks will be old enough to come out from under their heat lamp and their wire-mesh and pine-shavings cage and begin a new life roaming their chicken yard in the back 40.

I've figured thus far that with fifteen chickens laying four eggs a week each, figured against the cost of feed, with eggs going for $1.30 a dozen at the store it'll take until the heat death of the Universe for this enterprise to break even. I can't wait.

Sep 13, 2007

Poetry Friday Challenge: Letting Go

It's raining here, the last vestiges of Humberto the hurricane spending his last, failing energies.

The field out behind the office is filled with white cowbirds, each hunched over against the blowing wind and the driving rain. They're looking for bugs and such stirred out by the floodwaters, I assume, and being birds accustomed to working in knee-deep water they find the rain to be not so bothersome.

Here's the picture (much cropped) but that's not the entirety of it.

I want to tell you what I saw when I looked out that window. I want you to have the experience of it. Thus, my Poetry Friday Challenge: Letting Go.

Three Songs For The End Of Summer


Egrets in the rain.
A yard full of old men in long white coats.
Teachers of mathematics or science or medicine.
Each one's head bent under the unbearable weight
of vast stores of knowledge.

They all face the same way,
together they are wending
their slow way
across the huge, rough-kept quadrangle
of some ancient college

Each making for an echoing classroom or musty library,
ready to let go of their burdens,
ready to pour out their overfull clay jars of knowledge
onto the upturned faces of their students
or onto the pale blank pages of books.


Egrets in the rain looking like a field of nuns
resplendent in their white habits
sowing wheat by hand.

Undeterred by the rain,
heads bent to their task,
casting out carefully measured handfuls of seed
onto the damp ground

Mindful of the harvest their work represents
they move patiently, meticulously
letting fall potential onto the receptive ground.


Egrets in the rain.
Last vestige of Summer's theocracy.
They look like
a group of pilgrims
gathered in some consecrated vale,
quietly worshiping as the black clouds
let go their burden of rain onto white vestments.

Each one stands with bowed back
and head held low, humble before god
eyes looking only at the ground
as though to find some
pearl of wisdom cast before them
lost in the tall grass.

Sep 10, 2007

The Older I Get

The slower I am. At posting, that is. My apologies.

See, today I turned 40. The dread four-oh. Had the requisite black-ballooned party this past weekend. And today, my 'for real' birthday? Just another day.

Okay, not really. *grin*

Remember one year ago around this date? I took my first flight in a hot air balloon. Memorable experience, something I shall carry around with me until I quit walking this muddy old ball. Today I got to do something just as memorable, only not as planned. See, I knew I didn't want to work on my birthday, especially not my fortieth. I knew I wanted to do something fun, weather and time permitting. Unbeknownst to me the Universe decided to turn it's 10 billion candlepower smile on me. I planned on doing some trainspotting, get out and play with my camera a little bit, see what I could do.

And the Universe kept grinning. What fools these mortals be.

I went up a ways into the little town north of us to see if I could catch the morning train from the lumber plant, a fairly easy catch and a nice way to start the day, or so I thought. Found myself wading through knee-high grass still soaking with dew, and met a wonderful old man tending his garden. He lives in a trailer right up against UP's right of way, and I had been skirting his yard. We talked about cameras (he was a camera buff in his day) and about armadillos. Seems the armadillos were giving him seven kinds of Hell, and we tracked one a short way through the wet grass, a dark clear path where a little armoured digging machine had waddled through, looking for grubs. And we talked about trains. Seems a lot of the engineers would take time to visit with him when they had the chance; drink coffee and chat. He knew names, and towns of residence, all sorts of neat things.

I could have stayed there all day with him, just talking, but I was on a mission. I finally excused myself and took up post on top of a little hillock and waited, and watched the sun beam through the fog, which was trying desperately to hang on for a few more minutes.

I waited for twenty minutes, until long past the ordinary run time of that particular train, and decided to walk up the right-of-way a little to see if I could find a place out of the sun and maybe walk up on something nice.

And the Universe grinned.

I walked a ways and spotted something big and brown in the distance. Walked up on it and found the most beautiful old iron trellis bridge over a little bit of meandering river. Had no idea it was there, it's so well hidden from the highway. Stood there grinning like a fool for a while, and snapped some pictures, and listened to the birds in the trees and the insects buzzing around, and the quiet 'plash of turtles diving.

Stood there a while longer and a pair of old men puttered by in a little boat, fishing. We passed a few kind words and they went on their way. The sweat was gathering on me, my pants legs were still wet with dew, and I was coming up on having spent a near-fruitless hour on the same plot of land. I knew how desirable a photo of a train engine framed by that bridge would be, what an excellent thing indeed, but I decided to leave and come back another day, perhaps deeper into Fall. A day when it was much cooler outside. I knew now where it was, and knew the nice old man.

It was then that I heard a distant horn echo out across the intervening forest, a wild, sharp animal screaming in the green, and thought to myself "Well Sonny Jim, I've got you're ass now. You can't get past me without me seeing you."

Funny; I was right.

He hit his horn a brief blip when I waved, and thankfully stayed off it when he drew alongside and past me, forcing a juggernaut's rush of wind to either side. I wanted to give chase but knew that I still had to walk two miles back along the right of way before I could get to my truck, and UP 4181 was going to maintain his quick pace, so I ambled. Walked the very edge of the right of way while tons of auto racks roared by just a few feet from my shoulder.

I ended up catching him way up the Interstate again some twenty minutes later on another bridge, a spot I had scouted out a few weeks ago.

It was a banner day indeed. Only the Universe and it's smug smile knew what was still ahead. I drove up the Interstate a few more miles and got some nice photos of engines in the UP yard at Alexandria, including a brand new Ferromex power unit, all green and red and white, thinking I had indeed hit the Mother Lode. The Universe just kept smiling.

I had some errands to run then, which I did, having no idea what I was about to intercept. I was in no rush. I took my time, even. Gods, how little we realise the impact timing has on everything. EVERYTHING.

It was pushing eleven and even in the a/c I was pushing the edge of smelly; the temp was pushing 90. I had a camera-full of photos and was about ready to head home when a last minute decision hit me to drive to a little wooded area by a lake where I had seen a lot of boxcars parked. My hope was to catch some graffiti and then head home. When I got there, I saw the cars all right, and something more. A pair of engines hooking them up. My timing had been impeccable. Only the Universe knew just HOW impeccable.

I snapped pictures. I climbed the steep, bramble-covered embankment to snap some more. I watched the engine back and fill, pull forward, back up, connecting up with each and every empty car sitting there on the three sidings, preparing to haul them off, every one. Now, there is a little bridge there where the highway goes over the rails. I've always wanted to sit under there, a troll with a DSLR camera and wait for a train to appear, framed by those old (circa 1937) concrete pilings, but I had never had the time. Well, now I had the time AND the train was being assembled while I watched. I walked up, grinning, and took my place. A few minutes later, the engine followed me up, and stopped while the switchman changed sidings.

And it was then that the engineer came down out of his high cab and offered me a bottle of ice-cold water. We exchanged a few words about the heat; he could see that I was on the edge of heat prostration, and I thanked him heartily for the water. I drank it down gratefully, snapped a few more pictures, and my heart leaped into my throat as an idea arrived in my mind. It was now or never.

I ambled over, looked way way up at the engineer sitting at his window, and asked "Hey, do you think I could come aboard?" He grinned, a dazzling white smile against his dark sin, and said "Well, I'm not supposed to let you, but sure, come on."

Crossing in front of the engine I tried not to giggle too much.

I climbed those steel treads and ascended into Heaven. Or at least a small, hot, oil-and-machinery-smelling metal version of Heaven. The engineer gave me the nickel tour (there's only about six controls in a diesel engine's big wrap-around dash) and we chatted and listened to the radio dispatch office talk about a derailment somewhere. He showed me how the throttle had eight settings, and how the horns were controlled by a big yellow button, and how there were separate levers for the engine's brakes and for the entire train's brakes. He pointed out the big speedometer, and the tiny compartment for the restroom. Me, I couldn't get my fill of just staring out the windshield at the track spooled out before me. I told the engineer that in forty years of living I had never been aboard a train, much less stood in the business end of one, and that the opportunity he had given me was the greatest birthday present I had gotten.

Finding out it was my birthday, he went one further.

He told me to sit in his seat.

Then he told me to swing the air brakes lever to "disengage," which I did, listening to the long sharp whoosh repeated all down the line.

He told me to grab the throttle lever and pull it left, to it's first setting. I did. I heard the massive engines being me roar up from their purr, and the train started backing up. I could hear and feel each car bump into the one behind it as the slack was gathered in, as we, the engine and I, pushed them together, pushed them backward down the line to connect up with another cut of cars waiting.

He told me to push the throttle lever up to "two." I did. The engine stepped up it's music, and we sped up, just a little.

The Universe, I'm sure, was basking in the joyous radiance that had to be pouring off me, outshining the Sun. I. Was. Driving. A. Train.

He relieved me before I peed on his seat, and let me off some sixty or so feet from where I had boarded. I don't recall touching the iron steps on my way down; I'm sure I simply floated out of the cockpit, a piece of thistle carried on an errant zephyr. I could have been shot point blank with a load of rock salt at that moment and never felt it.

I had driven a train.

I positioned my buoyant, jubilant self up under the bridge and waited patiently, the heat long forgotten. And finally the train rolled forward, and I got my long-awaited photo.

You know, somehow it was different than I expected. Before, I was waiting for a train to appear under that bridge, but what I got was MY train under that bridge, and a lesson from the Universe: Once in a while She will hit you blindsides with something so good, so life-changing that you'll never look at the hours and days ahead quite the same way ever again.

I'm glad it took this long. I could appreciate it for what it is now. And thank you again, my engineer friend, for letting a boy hiding in a man's body do something that he didn't even dare dream of.

Sep 5, 2007

S. S. Fish Bones

Yup. You waited patiently, and what do you get for your reward? A post about a boat called "Fish Bones."

I like fishing. Let's start off with that. I like me some fishing. I'm not sure what it is about fishing that so enamours me of it, but there it is. I'm not a very good fisherman, either, but when given the chance I will sit in a boat or on a dock or beside a deep ditch and fling expensive lure after expensive lure into tree branches, hidden rocks, or culverts. And at the end of the day, burnt a delicate shade of brick red by the sun, near dehydration, out about $50 in lures and nursing blisters on my casting hand I'll be smiling, fishless but fulfilled.

So it was with some trepidation that I viewed the Offshore Fishing Expedition that my father-in-law had been promising us as a lure (heh...pun) to get us down to the Panhandle. Add in a few salient facts to the mix and you see why I was leery:

1) I can't swim. I can sink really well, but swimming is right out.
2) I've never deep-sea fished in my life. The closest I have ever come to deep sea fishing was to pluck hermit crabs out of tide pools on the Oregon coast.
3) I'm a rotten fisherman.

But with head held high and SPF 60 liberally applied we set out early Sunday morning for Destin Beach and the home of Steve, our professional fisherman, captain and fishing guide and his one-man crew, "Live Eel" Lloyd. No, seriously. You can't make up stuff like that.

I knew we were in trouble when we got there and met our two man crew. One looked like a retired office manager--paunchy, a day's worth of salt and pepper scruff, a head of equally greying curls and a smile in a very weather-browned face. The other guy looked and acted like the love child of Jerry Garcia and Karen Carpenter fresh from an all-night wedding reception/drinking marathon. Which he was. And naturally we all thought the clean-cut businessman was Steve, husband of a hospital's COO and commercial fisherman. Wrong. The middle-aged retiree was none other than "Live Eel" and the hungover hippie burnout was Steve, our mighty captain.

Me, I was scared crazy but determined to ride it out or die trying. Which was going to be the end result, I was certain. Life vests? I didn't dare ask, for fear of being handed a beer just before I was tossed overboard to learn how to swim. Safety measures? "Steve, who is driving the boat?" "Oh, I guess I am" he replied as he leapt back to the wheel just before we crashed into the only other boat within three hundred square miles. But that came later.

First, we motored out of a small private inlet into a very large, community-owned water lane and from there under a massive bridge into what I can only assume was Destin Bay or some such, where we caught our bait. There was a first for me--bait I knew was made out of pot metal, painted bright colours and came in a blister pack at Wal-Mart, or worst case was dug up in the back yard and stored in a plastic container full of loam. No, we spent half an hour chasing bait balls with our big boat, reeling here and there across the waters, tossing stringers loaded with six of the tee-tiniest little lures you'd ever seen, which was jiggled in the middle of the bait ball for a few moments and then hauled back onboard, usually containing six mixed fish.

"Live Eel" would grab the line and carefully pluck the little wrigglers off, naming each with frightening ease, tossing them into a live well that looked like the tub out of a washing machine. *pluck* "Squirrel Fish." *splash* *pluck* "Cigar minnow." *splash* *pluck* "Herring, that's a nice one." *splash* This went on until we had a fair microcosm of a bait ball in our live well, and then we pointed the Fish Bones for deep water.

That's the funny thing about the Gulf, you see. It's shallow for the most part. I kept casting a nervous eye at the depth finder, which seemed to be stuck on "3'." We had travelled almost half a mile or more, and the depth never varied from "3'." I was feeling pretty secure. Once Steve got the boat pointed due South, however, that changed. Quickly. The boat shoved it's nose high in the air, the twin inboards roared and smoked and churned up a huge rooster tail,

and we headed for deep water. The further we went the faster that depth finder dropped, but I was more concerned at that point with keeping my footing. Lloyd walked around like he was standing on a billiard table, Steve stayed on his captain's seat perch, and me? I clung to the biggest piece of aluminum I could find. A sea-farer I'm not.

I saw some wonderful things that day. A tiny slice of rainbow that seemed to have been broken off a bigger rainbow and left behind,

flying fish that seemed more bird than fish, startling up out of the water and sailing incredible distances, skimming just above the water, and such a wonderous variety of blues and greens that I finally decided I would never look at blue the same way again.

And then we fished.

Steve piloted us out to an exact, and I mean an EXACT spot in an otherwise completely identical Gulf, steering by three different GPS units. He warned Lloyd a quarter mile out we were nearing "the spot," and Lloyd went into action baiting hooks, readying reels and otherwise doing all the dirty work. NICE! And when Steve started calling out distances, "Thirty feet. Twenty. Ten. Five..." I knew we were seriously fishing. And when he shouted "Drop" you dropped. It was Time, that was the Place, and you didn't question that wavery, drunken-sounding voice because he was captain and the fish were Here. So I stood there and let what seemed like miles of fifty pound test line spool off that huge brass reel, watched the three pound Easter Egg of lead disappear into that cool blue-green depth, and I heard someone ask Steve how deep we were fishing.

"One thirty five," he called back. Feet. A hundred thirty five feet, and he'd stopped us dead above, I was to later find out, a rocky patch of sea floor that was a favourite haunt of Red Grouper. I also learned pretty fast that deep sea fish don't play around, either. You've got a bite within five minutes or you're moving again, because the fish just ain't there. And boy was he there. The first catch was mine, and I fought like the devil for him. You see, dropping a line one hundred thirty five feet down is easy--all you have to do is wait, and keep your thumb on the reel to control it's spin. The hard part is getting a very large fish back up to the boat, a fish that is very determined NOT to go up.

I struggled. I cranked on the reel. I sweated. I trembled like an epileptic. And worse, I had a whole boat-full of people cat-calling and cheering and yelling behind me, and I knew that if the first catch of the day was lost I'd never hear the end of it. So, I worked harder. And I know that I have never had to expend so much energy just to get a fish out of the water. I don't think I've ever expended that much energy on ANYTHING. And after about a year and a half of cranking, having that huge brass reel hit my forearm, enduring the rubber-capped butt of the rod being jammed straight through my hip, a huge reddish-brown monster showed it's face just under the surface of the water, and with another two cranks it was on the boat. Steve was calling "Red Grouper!" like I had won the lottery, "Live Eel" was helping get the beast secured, and I was ready to fall down on the deck and twitch for a while I was so exhausted.

And when it was all said and done and the grouper was in the huge cooler box I was back at it, it seemed with no intervention at all. The fish were there, Fish Bones was being held at station right over the spot, and all I had to do was drop another line. Which I did. There, and again and again over many other seemingly identical spots that only the GPS could tell us were different. And all I had time for was to wonder if I could do it again--did I have the strength to pull another of those behemoths up from some hundreds of feet?

I found out over the course of the day that I did have the strength, and could in fact do it. I could stand there in the steamy wet heat thirty miles off the coast of Florida in the back of a small, rolling boat floating at times some two hundred and thirty feet above the bottom and fish like I really meant it. Freshwater fishing has nothing on being in the Gulf. We fished a sunken tugboat. We fished rocky outcroppings. We fished hills and valleys and secret places, and we caught fish of every sort and description, and the pain? The pain came back later to find me, but for those hours it was stuck on land somewhere, sunning itself on a beach and drinking a pink fuzzy fruit drink.

We threw back Amberjack that weren't big enough to keep even though they could have swallowed my arm whole and asked for a shoulder. We caught and we sweated and we trembled and we struggled. Every time any of us caught a fish that person endured that struggle; the trembling muscles ready to give up at any moment, the powerful rush of adrenaline, the sudden intensity of the sun beating down on that little white boat in the middle of a very large, very uncaring body of water. And when it was all said and done and we were headed back to shore some eight hours later we all knew what it was like to really work for something that you couldn't even see until the last few moments, all the while wondering just what the hell you had gotten yourself into.

Lloyd knew it after I had caught that first fish. When he looked at me standing there in my little back corner of the boat, sweat pouring off me in rivulets, my arms trembling from the struggle he smiled a wide, white smile in a very sun-browned face, proffered a freshly-baited hook and said "Want to go again?"

He already knew the answer.