The Lazarus Tree

Because the cranes are here and it’s chilly, I took Teddy out to find some refuge. It was a little challenging because there were cattle grazing next to the fence and Teddy is a herding dog. When he sees cattle he becomes incredibly excited and barky. This is breeding time for the herds who are old-school enough to rely on bull action and I noticed at least two in the field.

Other than the cattle, the first thing I saw was this patient osprey perched on a sign, looking for an easy meal.

Besides the osprey, there was a golden eagle circling the distant pond of geese and cranes. Winter is coming or whatever season is next. It’s hard to know with summer proceeding as it has been.

I kept driving until everything around us was Refuge and then we stopped and took our walk. In the distance were lots of geese and, I believe, a few Sandhill Cranes. Teddy’s level of alertness is incredible. He even sees birds in the reeds that I can’t see at all. I think when he gets better at this walking with Martha thing he’s going to be a great companion, spotting creatures near and far.

When we’d finished, I decided to take a road trip to see “the tree” from my painting. Teddy was happy because he likes riding in the car with me and listening to me sing. He is the only sentient being on the planet who likes that, so who am I NOT to give him that opportunity? We threaded our way along the “streets with no name” except things like “2 E and 5 S”.

I spotted the tree from quite a distance. It stands alone on a rabbitbrush plain. As Teddy and I approached (Singing “Africa” by Toto) I saw that the “dead tree” is not dead at all. I am renaming the painting “March” “Winter Tree.”

Teddy and I wound our way home, looking for a potato cellar I’d seen from a distance (no luck).

Anniversary Journey to the Big Empty

Six years ago today I saw the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge for the first time.

Strangely, it wasn’t until this year that it became “my” place. That probably wouldn’t even have happened if it hadn’t been for two things. 1) Off leash dogs at the spots where I usually took my dogs, 2) the virus and the need to walk freely without worrying about human contact.

Once I started taking Bear and then Teddy to the Refuge, no other place had any appeal. The big spaces, the changing mountain views, the weather, the birds, the whole THING. Yeah, it’s just a couple miles on a dirt road but WHAT a couple of miles!!!

This afternoon it suddenly clouded up, the wind started blowing, and I thought, “A-HA no mosquitoes!” I saddled up Teddy and we took off.

“Yay! Martha!”

Dark dark sky over the San Juans as you can see in the featured photo. Big peals of rolling thunder. Amazing changing light over Mt. Blanca. Holy fucking shit. And then, to put the final wonder on this wonder I saw dozens of…

Sandhill Cranes!!!!!

As it happens, Facebook told me yesterday and today that in past years I have seen cranes the first time in “fall” around the first of August.

You can see how dark it was where Teddy and I were walking! The sun shone on Mt. Blanca

The thunder and lightning got a little close and I swear I actually ran.

I’m happy the cranes are back. I’m happy we got to go out in a storm. Walking Teddy is so much easier out there than in town, so that was also great. When I got home, this song came on Mohammed’s Radio. Seriously.

Gift from the Big Empty

The sky clouded over before noon which meant that it was probably going to rain at some point. So far it hasn’t, but I saw it falling on the San Juans to the west. I looked at Teddy and thought, “It’s his turn today.” All about fair play here at Casa di Marta, Orsa e Teddolino. I put Teddy’s bug-deterring bandana on him and we drove out to the refuge which, lately, has been more like additional torture.

Today it was a refuge. The sky was overcast, and a cool breeze was coming off the rainy San Juans. For July it could not have been better. Nary a mosquito or deer fly to molest us on our peregrination.

Here’s what I saw when I stepped out of Bella.

Mt. Blanca

There was no need to hurry. No thunderstorm on the offing. No biting bugs to chase us away. Just a perfect day. I’m deeply grateful. I needed it.

The geese are gone. Some of the black birds have gone. All that remain around the pond and in the willow-tree slough are a few red wing blackbirds, tree swallows and lark buntings. But at our half-way point I noticed the slow flap of a large winged bird flying low over the grass. It was a female red tail hawk. She flew low and slow over me to see what my story was. I was so happy to see her that I got tears in my eyes. For some reason, I regard them as friends.

Teddy and I kept going, in absolutely no hurry, savoring the freshness of the day. A car passed us. An old guy kind of waved — I think people are getting disgusted and jaded at this point. Or maybe it’s all the politics. I shrugged. I know what my job is.

“This is great, Martha!”
“Isn’t it, Teddy?”

On our return, I stopped to enjoy the wind and the silence. I was stunned when a mountain blue bird flew past, not 8 inches from my face. I’m sure the wind carried him there, but it made me happy. A lot happens in places like the Big Empty if you just stand still for a while, as the hawk and the bluebird reminded me.

Milkweed in full flower

Thank you everyone for the moral support his morning when I was discouraged about writing my blog during these times when nothing happens (and nothing happening is a good thing…) Every writer wants to write words that are meaningful to those who read them. ❤

Summer Rains Finally Arrive Here and in the Big Empty

I’m wearing jeans. I just got back from walking Bear in the rain. The rain was cold and the breeze was cool. We watched a train pulling some coal cars. We sneaked onto the golf course. We SAVORED everything. It was almost — not quite, or even near, but almost — winter-feeling.

It was my second walk today.

Heat and I don’t do well together and godnose Bear hates it. The past month or more has been excruciating, all bike-to-nowhere and walking a dog at 8:30 pm. But today…I looked down at Teddy at about one and then out at the sky and put my jeans on. “C’mon little guy,” I said and strapped on his halter. We went out to the wildlife refuge — the first time in ages.

A black cloud was moving fast, but on our arrival the sun was shining brightly, and the trail a little — but not too — warm. “Whatever we do we do, Teddy.” He was amenable and set about his job of smelling every trace of bird poop on the road beside the pond. I looked around for the geese family and saw no sign, but I did get to see about 8 little ducks leap from the bank, take some running steps across the pond, and swim away from the danger represented by one lady and one leashed dog on the road some 10 feet away. “Run away! Run away!”

I kept an eye on the sky. Things can change quickly, and I didn’t really want to get hailed on. The wind blew harder, the sky darkened, the air took on a blissful frigid tinge. The light on distant Mt. Blanca changed constantly.

“We gotta’ go Teddy.”

I think I moved faster than Teddy has ever known me to.

It was grand.

Love Letter to the Big Empty

End of Day in the Big empty

The painting is End of Day in the Big Empty. Some pretty amazing oil paint in this painting. The gray in the sky, the gray-blue in the mountains and the blue in the water are all the ultramarine blue made of lapis lazuli called sometimes “Lazurite.” I was afraid to start this painting but at every turn it seemed that color was offering to help me. I really love it. You can see all the fantastic things it can do.

The bright blue in the sky is cerulean blue hue by Gamblin; hue means it’s pre-mixed with white. The intense, joyous yellow in the background, where the late afternoon sun has broken through the clouds, is Indian yellow over-painted with flake white replacement. Flake white is an old, old color known also as lead white. Gamblin came up with a way to make a very close approximation without lead. I really didn’t see the differences in whites until I did the very snowy painting. I’ve discovered doing this painting why people loved lead white so much. It’s just “friendly.”

The green in the trees and the brown in the foreground are both from my collection of natural pigments — the green is Verona Earth (natural green ochre from the Lessinian hills) and the brown is Cyprus Umber (dirt from Cyprus). Toning down the Indian yellow is Iron Violet, made from water pollution, by Gamblin Oil Paints. It’s a fantastic color and has a big part in this painting. Along with toning down the Indian yellow, it’s the purple in the mountains, the sky and the water and the reeds toward the back of the pond. I hope they keep making it.

The painting is 20 x 16 inches on panel.

Painting this was more than just doing a painting. It was an incredible experience. I cried when I finished. So strange. Then this came on Mohammed’s Old click wheel iPod.

“See, Martha?”

An hour and a half ago, Bear let me know what time it was. I had no desire to argue with her because a cool north wind was blowing through the Valley. It was a good time for us to seek Refuge.

Bear and I each wear mosquito repellant bandanas which, when the wind is blowing, aren’t really necessary, but it’s undeniable that we look cool.

I took inventory of the water birds — the ducks — mom, dad and ducklings — were all in a row, more or less…

The duck family. Hazy today from fires to the southwest and blowing dust. We couldn’t see the mountains to the east. A milkweed plant is blooming in the foreground.

And on the other side of the road, the geese and their teenage goslings were swimming in a pond more sheltered that the one the ducks enjoyed.

The yellow headed blackbird who has been so defensive of something has abandoned his watch which could mean the eggs have hatched and the babies have flown or that something happened. I’m going to believe the first because he’s been good company and fascinating to watch for the past month or so.

It was just a glorious, cool, windy afternoon with a dramatic sky. Bear and I were in Heaven. Then, on the way back I noticed a car and became a little wary. I never know if there’s a dog. But it was something else, and very sweet. A solitary woman was reading all the informative signs. Finally she stopped and parked and took the little nature walk around the small swamp. She had a camera with her. From time to time she stopped to take a photo or read an informative sign. I felt very happy seeing her because I knew she was learning something new about that wonderful place and I knew a lot of birds were down in there.

I think I saw the Colorado state bird for the first time — I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem impossible. It’s a nondescript little sparrow called the Lark Bunting. The male is black and white during mating season and brown during the rest of the year. This reminds me of guys who pretended to like what I liked until we became a couple and then they never did my stuff with me again. Like the Good X who pretended to like skiing, but once we were together, he just liked going to used car lots to drive old cars and going to the swap meet… 😉

There was a lot more carnivore scat than I’ve seen lately. Some of it, I’m sure, from the two wandering farm dogs. One pile looked like bear, but I don’t see that there’s much for bears to eat. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen badger scat, coyote and possibly bobcat scat. Bear’s poop inventory is probably more accurate than my guesses.

Cool, Windy Day <3

Looking East toward Mt. Blanca. Note the cool mammatus clouds on the left, facing!!!
Looking West toward the San Juans

Teddy and I headed out to the Big Empty on the spur of the moment because I had a theory that it would be cool at the Refuge, and the wind would be blowing. I was right. I do know my world. Fantastic skies the whole time. I don’t know anywhere where you would find — in one 45 minute walk — a variety of cloud formations like I saw today. I’m sure such a place exists, but where? Mongolia? Montana, certainly. Canada’s wide open spaces? I would add Iceland, but Iceland hates me. Fuck you, Iceland. 😉

The goslings of the two geese families have grown, and some of the babies didn’t make it. There are feathers in the carnivore scat along the road which probably explains that. The “little” ones now look like small versions of their parents. The Yellow-headed Blackbird who appeared so tame the other day behaved similarly today and I now think he’s guarding his nest. It should be up off the ground, but even so since it seems they build their nests in reeds, it would not be very high. He’s vigilant but very chill about his guardian job. I kept Teddy from testing the bird’s patience, though. I’ve studied that bird at length at this point and he has a sharp little beak.

I also decided that my Indian name shall henceforth be, “She Who Walks in Bad Weather with Dogs.”

Changing it to; “She Who Walks with Dogs under Wild Skies.”

Walk with a Friend in the Big Empty

Yesterday afternoon my neighbor and I took off for the Big Empty with Bear. It was a glorious cool day with wind, but not the kind that knocks over trees. We had a good time. She’s a wonderful walking companion. And, she has a good eye. Soon after we started out she spotted a feather. It’s a tail feather from a Northern Harrier Hawk. I asked if she wanted it and she didn’t. But I did. I wanted it to keep my Sandhill Crane feather company. I didn’t want to carry it all the way — I know it’s a feather and all but I didn’t want to smash it or lose it along the way. I set it carefully in the grass hoping it was fixed well enough not to blow away.

Karen is curious about things and I really like that in people. We took Bear’s favorite little loop and Karen got to see Yellow Headed blackbirds for the first time. At the end of our hike one of them posed on a reed fewer than 5 feet away from us for a very long time. “They’re not very afraid, are they?” she said.

“That’s the whole point of a wildlife ‘refuge’.” I thought about a talk she and I had had a little earlier. I’d told her I got into going out there because it was open, empty, beautiful, quiet, a natural world I didn’t know much about, there’s no virus, no riots, nothing but itself.

On the way back talk turned to current events. Where I live, BLM means “Bureau of Land Management” and I’m pretty sure people in the West have to take a minute to translate BLM to Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t even know any black people,” said my neighbor.

“I don’t think there are many out here.” I thought then that a lot of America — in area — is like that. It’s not a matter of exclusion, either. There aren’t many PEOPLE out here. Then I thought of the so-called “fly-over” areas that make up a lot of 45’s base, and it hit me that it’s exactly things like THAT that alienate people out here from people in cities. While American cities are in turmoil people out here are worried that they aren’t going to have enough water to bring the crops to harvest. Our biggest problems in the past 24 hours have been a massive power outage that affected 2700 people and below freezing temperatures just when the first cutting of alfalfa hay is on the horizon.

Fly-over regions feel “ignored.” A rancher I know and respect very much said that 45 is the first president to care about farmers. This is categorically NOT true, but it takes a LOT of noise to penetrate the Big Empty — partly because of the wind, and partly because a guy on a tractor for 10 or 12 hours a day or out with his stock is NOT watching the news. Maybe that guy saw 45 yammer about “Our great farmers” twice and never saw Obama say anything. That doesn’t mean Obama didn’t say (or do) anything; he did. It just means the farmer didn’t hear it. If a tree falls etc.

The “big city” of Alamosa had two marches in support of George Floyd. Compared to other spots in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is pretty urban. It has a university and a community college (branch). The Walmart is there. There are 9000+ people there. It’s a good bet that the people in Alamosa are better educated than the average just because the professors are there. An urban life is definitely more techno centered than a rural life as far as news media is concerned, anyway. The demonstrations — judging from photos, I didn’t go — were, except for one bizarre event — small and peaceful. People walked down the Main Street with signs and other people stood on the curbs. I don’t know who was supporting the march and who was not, but if it had made the TV news it would have shown a very different world.

My friend asked me why I thought all this was happening now. I told her my belief that this is the moment that African Americans were fighting their OWN civil war, that I didn’t believe anyone could give another person freedom because that person could take it back. I told her I believed it was phase 3 of the liberation of the slaves, a “war” that had to take place but that I don’t like it. I told her it made me sad, that I thought about all the African American students I’d taught and how it was a wild spectrum of motivation, preparation and comprehension, that it wasn’t just about us white people understanding the Blacks, they had to understand us, too, because we’re all on the planet together. I told her I liked the birder in Central Park a LOT and I wished I could invite him out here to see the Cranes, but then, I said, “Maybe he’s been here already.”

“It must not be easy to be a black guy who loves birds,” she said, “I saw a black professor of ornithology and I thought that was very strange.” I nodded, thinking about how we are all inured to expecting African Americans to be in THIS place and not THAT place, to be good at basketball but never have tried Nordic skiing. I thought about how I KNOW there is an attitude among some African Americans that there are things white people do, but that black people don’t. It isn’t just white people stereotyping. Inclusion involves so much more than we think of at first.

We got near the place where I’d stashed my feather. We both walked slowly along the road where the feather should have been. It wasn’t there. My amazing friend crossed the road, thinking the wind could have picked up my feather, and found it caught in the grass on the other side of the road.

I think we’re both glad we live here.

Tale of a Tail-less Little Dog in the Big Empty

“She really doesn’t want to go, Martha?”

“Nope. I’m not going to spend time trying to catch her when I have another perfectly good dog who DOES want to go, right?”

“Yay! Yay! Yay! I’m going to sit here and you put my harness on, OK?”

“Good boy, Teddy.”

“Bye Bear! Bye Bear! Can’t we take her? She’s looking at us through the fence.”

“That’s her thing, Teddy. She has free will. She chose not to come.”

“Yay!!! Yay!!!”

“Up, puppy. You do that so good, Teddy.”

“I know, Martha. I’m the shit when it comes to getting in the car. Is that a good song, Martha?”

“Yeah, it’s a good song.”

“Why don’t you sing?”

“I can’t sing this one.” (Truth is, only Teddy thinks I can sing ANYTHING.)

We arrive, park, get out of Bella. I take my handy-dandy poop bag for my little guy just in case and we take off.

“Martha, there is all kinds of NEW POOP everywhere! Martha, my geese are out of control. Wait, there’s more! More geese!”

I look and there are goslings.

I need to take a real camera instead of subjecting you to this…

“Stop, Teddy,” I say and take a zoomed in photo of tiny birds. OH well.

We go on and then, suddenly, beside the trail…


“No Teddy. You have to leave that alone. That little guy has enough enemies already.”

“What IS it? What is that miraculous beast? I WANT it!!!”

“Cottontail rabbit, Teddy.”

“Rabbit. Hmmmm.”

“Probably somewhere in your ancestral memory.”

“My WHAT?”

There are other signs of spring in the Big Empty now. The trees…

It is a hazy, windy day today with cool temperatures…

Look, more poop. And more. I’m going to taste this one.”

“Don’t eat that shit, Teddy.” I laugh to myself. Here in the Big Empty who’s going to laugh with me?”

“Martha, listen. There’s that sound you like.”

You can almost see the Meadowlark

“Hang on little dude. I’m going to try to take her picture.”

“Are you going to stop here?”

“Yeah. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see the osprey or the hawks again.” I sit down on a rock. In fact, this walk has been slow and painful. Various parts of my body hurt from wielding the pick-axe. I’m no spring chicken. But, you know, it’s just one foot in front of the other and there is NO race. I don’t mind at all because walking is better than NOT walking. Left, right, left, right, left right. No one is here. No one is judging me. Just this little guy who stops periodically to jump up on me for a hug. He thinks I’m great.

While I’m sitting on “my” rock, a pair of ravens flies over, surfing the wind. Teddy climbs up into my lap as much as he can. I think of the thousands of times I’ve sat on a rock somewhere in the turn around or half-way point of a hike and a beloved dog has sat beside me or laid its head on my lap while I watched birds. “What’s better than this?” I think from my “lofty” promontory of roughly 28 inches. “A great dog and ravens playing on the wind.”

On the way home (the walk back was easier and less painful than the way out which is why it’s better to walk) I hear a good old song that I LOVE and that I can sing. Nothing deep, no Rocky Mountain High or anything, but Teddy was happy, licked my hand (probably thought I was in pain) and snuggled beside me.