Morning meditation

Sparkly sunset on the James.

Sparkly sunset on the James.

My poor, neglected blog! One sure thing about a personal blog: it only gets updated if you update it. I have a backlog of pictures, guest posts, and wonderful horse books to share. But time remains finite, and I guess I always find ways to spend my time other than here.

Back in February, I started a new job. After working remotely for ten years, it’s an adjustment going into an office every day. One outcome of that switch is that I overhauled my daily routine so that I start my days spending my time doing things that I love: yoga, meditating, writing.

That way, every day starts out as a great day! Continue reading

Barn Birds

Getting out to the barn to ride Angel or care for Albert brings lots of rewards: the companionship of good horses, the constant light breeze on my face, the distant sound of baying of hounds, and the good birds.

How is that watching a mockingbird find a narrow strip of shade between the slats of the mare’s fence makes me feel cooler, too? Or how the sudden appearance of a certain woodpecker lulls my worries into a sweet hush?

Oh, the good birds.  Here are my favorite birds of the barn this time of year, but thank goodness for them all.

Little daredevil acrobats! Somersaulting in the air. Diving, swooping barn swallows.

I think of the Killdeer as a beach bird in the gelding field! Busybody bird always running here and there, checking on this and that, and making a fuss.

Northern Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite –

While I have only ever seen this bird at my grandparents’ place in Mississippi and on my family’s cattle farm in Cumberland, I hear the Bobwhite almost every day that I visit Albert at dusk. I could listen to bob-bob-white forever. This one truly carries me back to my childhood. My granddaddy whistled the Bobwhite call in the truck, by the pond, in the garden. It’s a bird he took with him everywhere and so no matter where I am when I hear it, I’m reminded that Granddaddy is with me.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker –

You know the rush of breath and wonder you feel when you dive under a white cap? No matter how accustomed I think I am to the great and ancient ocean, the awe of it never wanes. That’s how I feel when I see a red-headed woodpecker.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird –

The Bobwhite is like a ribbon tying me to my granddaddy, the mocker – the state bird of Mississippi – leads me home to Grammy. She and I loved to watch mockingbirds together.

I guess, I never just watch a bird. Each one holds some treasure – a memory, a feeling, a poem, a story.

Symbol of His Service

Cornell Lab of O Red-headed Woodpecker
Photo: All About Birds, Red-headed Woodpecker

I’m avoiding writing about Albert. Oh, there’s a lot to say. A lot of ruminating to come on questions of health and injury, beliefs and fairness. Some wisdom, I hope, will come from Albert, our family, and our vet. He has survived a medical crisis. Right now, it seems like he has.

And, one of the questions for us is how many more medical crises will we ask him to face? Like many animals I’ve known, if you ask him to accept pain and fight through something, he will do it. Silent and stoic, he surely will.

He’s getting older. That’s probably the real bottom line. He is getting older, and his good, easeful days fewer.

So, I took my coffee and newspaper out to the barn this morning. Just to see him and sit with him.

Something else has been on my mind at the barn. Where is the red-headed woodpecker?

I used to see one all the time when I’d first turn down the drive. After all, this medium-sized woodpecker lives in Virginia year-round. Lately and to no avail, I’ve been scouting for it at the edge of the road, in the fields, and on the trail.

What makes this bird a thrill to watch is its crimson hood. Red-hooded woodpecker seems like a better name to me, really. While the bird is not on the threatened list, its habitat is shrinking fast.

When I first pulled up to the barn today, I heard a bird in one of the two old oaks by the gate. Sort of a cherr-ah or kirr-ah. I made a mental note to try to research that call. But, I didn’t look up because I wanted to look in on Albert first. I nearly wept from joy when I first saw him today. Calmer than yesterday by an ocean. Steadier, too. And he nickered.

So, I pulled up a chair beside his stall door. He poked his over the gate and stood near me while I read him headlines. I didn’t read to him about Boston. I read good stuff: about the history of the James River Park System. I read book reviews to him. We looked at the grocery coupons and perused the open houses, too.

I heard the kirr-ah or cheerr-ah again. “What is that bird, Albert?” I asked him. A few minutes later we heard a dull drumming of a woodpecker against a tree in the woods. I’m horrible at identifying woodpeckers by their drill.

Finally, after fussing over Albert – grooming him good, spreading out his shavings, doing my best to repel flies – I headed home. I sat for a minute in the car, thinking about my horse. One or two of those big questions that need attention sallied out into the open meadow of my cleared mind. Cleared like it always is when I’m out there.

And like these birds just do, sometimes, right then a red-headed woodpecker came around a limb of the oak. Went back up, came back down, went back up. I watched one then two red-headed woodpeckers forage the tree for insects. They didn’t drum or cry, just let me see them.

In The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tells that a woodpecker helped Hiawatha in battle and in thanks for his service, Hiawatha gave the red-headed woodpecker its scarlet hood. Here’s moment from Chapter 9 Hiawatha and the Pearl-Feather:

“Then the grateful Hiawatha
Called the Mama, the woodpecker,
From his perch among the branches
Of the melancholy pine-tree,
And, in honor of his service,
Stained with blood the tuft of feathers
On the little head of Mama;
Even to this day he wears it,
Wears the tuft of crimson feathers,
As a symbol of his service.”

Red-headed Woodpecker Western Soundscape Archive
Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Even the red-headed woodpecker helps me consider Albert and his life. How will I thank this horse for his service?


Yesterday’s Richmond Times Dispatch carried a piece by my favorite nature-writer, Rex Springston called Cicadas ready to emerge in Richmond area. I’ve never met Mr. Springston, but I love his writing and his heart for nature and the natural world.

Half the time, honestly, I’m not even paying attention to the byline.

Yesterday, I was just doing my usual slow mosey through my hometown paper, a meander I savor every morning with tea during the week and a Latte on weekends. His stories just draw me in, and about two lines down, I look back up to the headline.

“I wonder if this is Rex? Oh, yep!”

Like his story about the Cicadas, which I totally devoured. Can’t wait for Brood II to crawl up and out. When they arrive above ground, I’ll be ready to be still and sit and listen and watch.

Here’s a portion of an encounter I had with a cicada molting on my front porch in 2011. The whole event took about half an hour.

If you enjoy reading about the earth and our relationship with animals and if you relish the wild places that somehow stay wild even with our tampering, you’ll love Rex Springston’s work.

Here are some of my favorites from him this year:

Two Bryan Park birds make unusual duo

Ospreys offer clues on the environment

Herons return to island near Shockoe Slip

2011: A Wonderful Life

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Here’s a look back on 2011, a really great year for my family and me. Bubba started a new job a year ago and every day we’re thankful that he has a job he enjoys. This year I got to go to Houston with my mom and my cousin to watch our VCU Rams play in the Final Four. My daughter graduated high school, started college (go Rams!), got a job, and is really making a wonderful life of her own.

I traveled to San Francisco and Arizona for work and writing and visiting. Home is definitely here in Richmond with our family and friends. Home is wherever and whenever I’m with my West Coast family, too. I also spent some great days with Judith and dear friends in Oak Island, NC.

Bubba and I worked lots of good hours in our garden and good hours planning our garden for 2012. After three years of cultivating a purple leaf coneflower border, we’re about there. Now for the Baptisia! Oh, and also, I want a Lewis and Clark garden. I’m not sure how this will work out. Maybe I’ll fill our entire garden space with plants introduced by the Corps of Discovery.

2011 was a really awesome writing year. I finally realized that I love the research and reflection every bit as much as the creating and editing. I finished up my manuscript for a new book that will come out in 2012 called Come August, Come Freedom about the blacksmith, Gabriel. More than any other, this book changed who I am and who I hope to be. I also wrote my first short story since 5th grade – about the river, of course. And visited so many schools! One highlight was participating in Longwood University’s Summer Literacy Institute, where I met some great writers and lots of inspiring librarians. Oh, and in the fall, reading with some rockin’ amazing women at artist Susan Singer’s Beyond Barbie series. And writing with middle school students at Carver and Midlo, mmmm-mmmm, mighty fun!

Last year I enjoyed writing retreats at Richmond Hill with poet, Cheryl Pallant and at The Porches, with good friends. Two enchanting spaces conducive to creating and quieting. When I couldn’t get away, writing with Valley Haggard was its own mini weekly writing retreat.

We moved our horses to Campbell Springs Farm, like, a day before Hurricane Irene! Albert and Latte have settled in nicely. We found a silver lining of living without power for nine days post-Irene: evenings of ice cream and conversation with Bubba’s parents, a tradition we’ll continue until McDonald’s stops selling $1 caramel sundaes.

There wasn’t anything wildly spectacular about 2011 except for everything about it. All the regular, every day moments that make life good: fixing tacos with my goddaughter, working cows with three handsome men, sharing meals and manuscripts with my beautiful friends, looking for bufflehead and bald eagle on the river, watching a cicada molt, cooking with Judith and Bub, revising and revising with my dog and a fire, taking our sweet nephew to his first bball game. And even on days of sorrow or uncertainty, smelling Grammy’s roses or my Winter Daphne and remembering Shelley. If Winter’s here, can spring be far behind?

My plan for 2012? More.

 2012 Plan

My plan for 2012

Herons and Shad and Poetry

A dog and her river

A dog and her river

Last night, I dreamed that I was walking at the river, down at Pony Pasture. In my dream, there were Great Blue Herons everywhere!

Not a stretch, really, since there actually ARE Great Blue Herons everywhere on the James. [And lately, I can pretty reliably sight a kingfisher, too. No, not the beer. The bird.] One time I sat on the rocks at Belle Isle and counted 32 herons. It was crazy. First, I had to find the magic eye way of seeing them, but once I tuned in? Well, abundance is the word that comes to mind.

Back to my dream of last night. So, there were all these herons walking around eating and carrying extra food for later under their wings:

Eaglets and eaglet eggs,

Big fish, little fish,

Red fish, blue fish (Not really.)

An abundant James River is not only real in my dreams. There’s no way you could live here and miss the actual living proof that the James is expanding in abundance, in fish and wildlife, and in inspiring people to spend more time outdoors. But, if you need confirmation from outside the region, check out this recent New York Times article about the James River:

In Richmond, Va., Herons and Shad Signal a James River Revival

Even better than sitting at your desk reading about the river, give yourself a day off to walk and write and explore the James using this Poetry Guide to the James River Park System:

Yes, that’s right, our river comes complete with poetry guide!

Find your inspiration from the river, find guidance from river poems by Wendell Berry, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Longfellow, and wondrous more. Maps to Belle Isle, Pony Pasture, and Reedy Creek are included in the guide.

So, what are we waiting for?

Pick a park, go there, and follow these instructions from the Poetry Guide:

“Read a poem
Stay still and contemplate the meanings.
Write a poem, reflections or musings using the blank pages or the
style templates provided.”

When you go, remember: be safe and be aware. Let someone know where exactly you’re going and when you’ll return. And whatever you do – do not, I repeat, do not try to ride a floating tree.

As Style Weekly reminds us in Melissa Scott Sinclair’s article “The River Wild,” as alluring and inviting as the James is, our river also wants to kill you. Heed the advice therein from Ralph White, ‘This is not a Kings Dominion ride. This is the real thing. You can die.’

So. Go to the river! Act right while you’re there. Walk around. Write some poetry. Sit down and count Great Blue Herons.

Or count the trees floating by.

One more time: Don’t what?

That’s right. Don’t ride them.

For more about the James go here:

James River News Hub

James River Association

James River Park System

Who Cooks for You?

Where I live it’s kind of like an urban forest. We’re near the river, yet right in the city, too – right on Rattlesnake Creek (no rattlesnakes!). We see our fair share of deer and bunnies, raccoons and all sorts of woodpeckers. I’ve even seen a red fox crossing the street at night.

And, oh, the owls.

One of my favorite delights is being woken up in the middle of the night by the after-midnight sounds of our neighborhood – trains whistling around the James, thunderstorms rolling in before sunrise, owls calling for love. My mom lives right next door to us and, since spring, we’ve both been hearing a Barred Owl in between our two yards.

Back in April, when the evening temperatures were still cool enough to sleep with the windows open, a Barred Owl woke Bubba and me up a couple of nights in row. About 2:00 a.m.

Just now at 3:00 p.m., I hear him out there: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?

I can’t seem him, but I can hear him. Oh man, I need a hammock out back, so I can read and nap and linger in the place between waking and sleeping while the Barred Owl hoots.

Here’s a handy list of all owl songs – should you want to do like I do – quickly identify an owl by its call.

Owl Calls & Sounds – All Species.