BC’s Anonymous

Owain's FIrst Day at Home

Owain’s FIrst Day at Home

If I had a blog, today I would write about my secret addiction. They say the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, so here goes: I am addicted to border collies. When my fourteen year old BC, Owain, passed away a few weeks ago, I knew I would eventually get another dog, but I had no intention of getting another border collie. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that life with a BC was unfulfilling, its just that these are seriously high-maintenance dogs. They are brilliant, energetic, and demand entertainment from everyone around them. I thought one small consolation to losing my dear Owain would be a quieter, simpler life where I could do things like watch TV without also playing catch, sit at the river without my dog asking for a running commentary on the sheer awesomeness of the hold he’d dug in the sand, or have breakfast without shouting, “Wow! You’re the man!” every time my furry friend chased off a flock of songbirds. I thought life would be easier that way, but boy, was I wrong.

Finding the First Leaf

Finding the First Leaf

It appears that once a BC has installed himself in your life and become your best friend, workmate, and entertainer, you simply can’t live without that glorious energy humming around your life. I know I am grieving for the individual who was Owain and regardless of what kind of dog I get, it won’t be him, but even in studying other breeds (labs, corgis, golden retrievers), nothing but a BC can fill the empty place in my heart.

Ordinarily the solution to my problem would be: Get a border collie, but our farm has changed since Owain came along and I worry he (or she) wouldn’t have enough to do. At present, the only livestock we have are five horses, two old Jersey cows, one ancient sheep, and an assortment of poultry. We might get back into sheep in a few years, but would that be soon enough? Would I be able to provide enough stimulation to satisfy a border collie’s startling intellect. If an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, then a border collie without a purpose is the inner ring of Dante’s Inferno.

Owain Working Sheep

Owain Working Sheep

So here’s the issue: Do I go with my feelings and look for the next BC of my dreams or do I wait? My thought is to approach this as I have all my animal friends: I will send out a request to the Universe and trust that when the time is right, a border collie will fall into my life. It has happened with all four of my cats and my horse, so there is a good precedent to work with. I will set my compass towards all things BC and follow the arrow as it flies from my heart.

Old Friends

If I hand a blog, today I would write about the comforting presence of some especially dear friends.

Things are quieting down in the woods these days. The joyful chaos of the fall migration is, for the most part, over and my birdwatching has become less about adding to my life-list and more about greeting old friends. As the autumn passes and the riot of color fades, a sense of peace settles over the woods and fields as our winter residents settle into their regular routines.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

Along the path to the river, the white-throated sparrows have settled en masse among the pasture roses, their dark forms dipping in and out of shadow as they dine on rose-hips the color of autumn apples. As they go about their day, they sing their winter-song, a shortened version of their lyrical mating call, and it is music to my ears.

Junco in the Sun

Junco in the Sun

The juncos are working in the tall grass along the lane these days, erupting skyward in a flash of slate gray and white when they sense my presence. Later in the season, when they know me better, they will linger in my presence, but for now, they are wary, unsure if I am friend or foe.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

On woodland walks, my companions are the chickadees and titmice. These are the bravest and ckeekiest of birds, daring to land on branches just a few feet above my head as they sing their familiar songs. I always feel as though they remember me and are just keeping their distance to maintain their standing among their avian colleagues.

There is a lot to be said for the new, the unusual, and the exciting, but more often than not, my soul needs the familiar, the known, and the comforting. In a world where little is certain, the cycles of the natural world give me peace. As long as I can rely on the turning of the year, the rising and setting of the sun, and the return of my feathered friends, I have hope that I can weather whatever storms may come.

The Ocean of Grief

If I had a blog, today I would write about grief.

By the Sea

By the Sea

Life is hard, often too hard. Losing a loved one to death is the hardest test we face. It is the price we pay for being human, and sometimes that price is too high. On October 20, we lost our border collie, Owain. Owain had shared our life for almost fourteen years and he was family. Owain’s intellect, his zest for life, and his boundless love made him as “human” as a dog can be. Owain not only shared our home, he was our partner in every moment of our lives. Whether we were working sheep, herding cows, playing at the river, or watching television, Owain was there – all day, every day for thirteen-and-a-half years. And now he is gone. My mind can’t seem to wrap itself around the fact that his absence is permanent; that until I make The Crossing myself, I will have to live without my most beloved friend.

Since Owain died, I feel as though I am afloat in an dark and perilous sea.  I am overwhelmed by endless waves of emotion that send me down into darkness; a darkness where I can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t tell which way is up and which way is down. At first I thought i could keep myself atop the waves, but strength died with hope and now I just let the sea do with me as it will. If I was a selfish person, I would simply breathe in the icy flow and become bones on the sea-floor, but there are people and animals who depend on me, so I will do my best to keep my head above water until my rescue comes.

My Owain

My Owain

Today I found a glimmer of hope, a fleeting glimpse of  the beams from a distant lighthouse; today, instead of talking to God, I talked to Owain. I told him how bereft I was, how sad and lonely and unbearable my life had become. I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to go on without his shining face to greet me and his boundless love to guide me. In the silence that followed my catharsis, I felt him. I felt Owain’s presence within me, filling a corner of the empty space his passing left behind and I considered the possibility my life might go on.

Though I am still at the mercy of the Ocean of Grief, there are moments when I feel hope; hope that one day I will see a shoreline and the high hill on which my lighthouse stands. Someday the waves of emotion will lap at my ankles, unable to pull me out to sea. Someday The Spirit of Owain will fill the hollow cavern in my heart and I will begin to live with joy again. Someday.

Until then, I will keep talking to my Mr. True, keep remembering the beauty he brought into my life and years of bliss we shared. Those memories will be my guiding light, the beam of hope that steers me through the reefs and back to safer shores.

Best Friends

If I had a blog, today I would tell you that, this morning, I lost my best friend, Owain, the border collie.

Owain was part of our lives for thirteen years and from the day Mom and I brought him home, Owain and I were buddies. He respected Mom as his trainer and companion, but Owain saw me as a littermate – someone to pal around with, someone who was always up for a game of catch or tug-of-war. I am thankful for every second Owain and I spent together and although the house has an empty place tonight, my heart is full. I can feel Owain’s presence everywhere I go and for that, I am so grateful. The days ahead will be a mixture of joy and tears; of funny stories and touching remembrances. The love of family and our other pets will help us find our way and I have no doubt that one day, Owain and I will be together again. Godspeed Mr. True. I’ll see you soon.

Owain - Our Mr. True

Owain – Our Mr. True

Let The Games Begin

If I had a blog, today I would write about the perils of bird photography.

When I began taking photos of birds, some thirty years ago, I was embarrassed to share my work with others. Birds, I thought, were too easy a subject for a wildlife photographer in-the-making. Compared to the exquisite work of wolf-photographer Jim Brandenburg or those who stalk the grizzly bear, the cougar, and the wild game in Africa, my shots of juncos and titmice seemed rather insignificant. Songbirds were everywhere: In cities, on farms, and in the woods, my quarry was ubiquitous and unlikely to threaten life and limb, so I assumed they would be a stepping-stone; and easy way to practice my skills before moving on to “real” wildlife and real adventure. But that was before; before I knew what I was up against, before I knew I was facing the wiliest wild creature on Earth.

Birds are not stupid. They watch bird photographers as avidly as we watch them and not only do they observe, they plan and they plot, turning the tables to make us the key player in avian entertainment. Over the years, I have identified a number of games my feathered friends enjoy, keeping me on my toes whenever I enter their world (and by the way, its all their world).

The Tease (Savannah Sparrow)

The Tease (Savannah Sparrow)

First, there is The Tease: Rather than hiding the moment a photographer appears, birds coyly flutter into sight, landing on perfect, bare branches, singing their lovely songs, practically begging to be photographed. This gives the birdwatcher a false sense of hope, feeding her fragile ego and setting it up for a fall. A few good shots may be permitted, just to sweeten the deal, but then, with the skill of a confidence man, the real mind-games begin.

The Foil (Yellow Rumped Warbler)

The Foil  or Can You See The Bird in This Picture? (Yellow Rumped Warbler)

After The Tease comes The Foil: Somewhere out there exists a book on photography written by the birds, for the birds. This Rosetta stone teaches all birds the basic needs of the photographer enabling them to foil us at every turn. For example: Birds know exactly how strong a telephoto lens is so they can alight just outside this boundary, appearing as small, indistinct shapes regardless of the power or quality of one’s equipment. Birds also know how long it takes to set exposure and focus and they use this skill so they can flit merrily away or ruffle their feathers into an incomprehensible blur just as the shutter closes. This move is usually followed by the “tail-flip,” which is, in the truest sense, giving me “The Bird.”

The Icarus Immitation (Lincoln's Sparrow)

The Icarus Imitation (Lincoln’s Sparrow)

If The Foil gets boring, birds opt for The Icarus Imitation: Birds clearly understand the importance of good lighting in a photograph and do their best to position themselves so as to manipulate the sun to their advantage, not mine Woodpeckers, for example, always light on the shady side of a tree trunk and colorful birds, like robins and bluebirds, will leave a bare branch, in full sun, to glower in the crook of a limb the moment I appear on the scene. At times I suspect the sun is in cahoots with the birds, as it often disappears behind the only cloud in the sky just as my shutter closes.

The Reward (Red-Headed Woodpecker)

The Reward (Red-Headed Woodpecker)

Some individuals may see these behaviors as merely survival skills. Birds are vulnerable and humans with guns have done nothing to improve our standing with the avian world, but the regularity with which these particular actions occur makes me think there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Short of finding the Bird’s Book of Photography, I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the truth of the matter, but I enjoy my fantasy nonetheless. I know birds are smarter than we give them credit for and, to be honest, I think its only fair for them to toy with humanity when they have the chance. After centuries of predation and environmental destruction, we deserve far worse from the natural world than we get. And so, when I venture out on my bird walk tomorrow, I will take the frustrations in stride, knowing even if I fail to get the photo of my dreams, at least I have given the bird-world a few hours of well deserved mirth. Its really the least I can do.


The Mystery Bird

If I had a blog, today I would write about the importance of The Mystery Bird.

The Mystery Bird

The Mystery Bird

The ultimate objective of birdwatching is, of course, identifying what you have seen, but this year I have come to realize that the best sightings are the ones that defy identification. A few days ago, Mom and I hiked down to the river and as we approached the field we call Big Valley, a flurry of activity in the wild rose bushes caught our attention. Mom was on point with her binoculars and I homed in with my telephoto lens, trying to make sense of the shadowy forms flitting about among the thorns. We identified two cardinals, a brown thrasher, and several sparrows, but then a flash of orange and white caught our attention. The bird was robin-sized, but robin’s have no white. The body was black or dark brown, but the shade of the underbrush made it hard to tell. Was the white on the wing or the breast? Was the breast orange or was it the wing?  I took a couple of  less-than-stellar pictures to look at when we got home, but until then, identification would have to wait.

Mom and I continued along the path Dad created in the swampy river bottom and there were birds at every turn. Goldfinches picked apart the seed-pods of poppy mallow, field sparrows gleaned the tall meadow grasses, and woodpeckers chattered at us from the trees at the edge of the valley. As much fun as it was to see our well-known bird friends, my mind kept turning back to our Mystery Bird and every time I thought of him, I could feel endorphins flooding my brain. There was something magical about seeing something unknown, something that didn’t quite make sense.

On the walk home, I thought about the rapture I felt when confronted with even a small slice of the unknown and it occurred to me that we need mystery in our lives as much as we need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink. The desire to explore, to learn, and to understand is part of our DNA, part of what makes us human.

The lack of curiosity I see in the world today troubles me. We work, we shop, we watch television, and we sleep. That is the daily round of most people. Weekends are for sleeping or watching sporting events or trying to catch up on chores. It leaves little time for awakening the part of our brain, of our soul, that craves exploration. We rush to and from work under a canopy of stars, yet we have no interest in the vastness of space. We mow the lawn and fill bird feeders, but we don’t identify the birds who depend on us, and we venture into the natural world with the goal of calories burned or miles traversed. Exploration is a dying art and with its death goes part of that which makes our species unique and beneficial to the world.

In all honesty, my 90-Day Journey to the Solstice is my way of staying awake to the world. I am as guilty as anyone of letting my “To Do List” rather than my “Bucket List” run my day, so I try to combine the two and give myself an opportunity to explore my own little corner of the world. Once I’m out in the woods, I feel dim parts of my brain light up as dormant neurons fire back and forth across their synapses; I feel life infiltrate every part of my body and, for a time, I feel part of something that defies description: A universe so vast and so full of mysteries it staggers the mind and scintillates the soul. For a time, I do not feel alone.

As it happens, our Mystery Bird was a Rufus-Sided Towhee. They are fairly common in our part of the country and both Mom and I have seen them before. On the same excursion we also identified two other newbies: The Lincoln’s sparrow and the clay-colored sparrow, also common migrants this time of year. Despite the fact that we had not discovered a new species or seen a migrant from Timbuktu, we counted our journey a success. You see, it is not the answer to the question that is important. All that truly matters is to have the willingness to ask.

The Voice of the Wilderness

If I had a blog, today I would write about the healing power of the natural world.

October 11 - White Throated Sparrlw

White Throated Sparrow

It has been a hard week. On Friday, I lost a dear friend: My nephew-dog, Hank the yellow lab. Hank was with us for thirteen years, most of them spent living next door to us with my brother and sister-in-law. For the last four years, we were Doggie Day Care for Hank when his people were at work, so his absence from our life has left a great empty place, a place even our own dogs, Owain and Bree, can never fill.

Yesterday it was chilly and overcast, the weather making my sadness deeper. I tried reading, watching a movie, and even attempted some writing, but I couldn’t focus; couldn’t stop my mind from going deeper into dark places that pronounced life nothing more than a long string of sad goodbyes. I felt hopeless and depressed, too bereft even to sleep, so about noon I packed up my camera gear and went for a walk in the woods.

Given my state of mind when I started, I figured my walk would be short, but I thought maybe some fresh air would do me good and I needed a photo of the day, so I headed down towards the little valley just beyond the barn. When I got to the gate, I felt a little better and decided to go a little farther.

Down by the creek, I came upon a gathering of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, and juncos – all feeding on rose-hips, the berries of the multiflora rose. I took a few photos, then a few more, and before I knew it, two hours had passed and I was watching kingfishers down at the river.

About mid-way through my walk, I started to feel better. The dark cloud in my mind lifted as the sun peeked out and warmed the landscape with it mellow light. I still carried the weight of grief, but out in the woods, it was a weight I could bear, and I realized as long as I have Nature, I have refuge from life’s heavy-handed blows.

I can’t put my finger on any one event or sensation that eased my pain, so I can’t offer a ten-point plan to finding peace in the natural world. All I can tell you is: Being surrounded by the beauty and abundance of life made me feel part of something larger, more eternal, and more substantial than fragile, mortal life.

I returned home in the late afternoon, sweaty, tired and covered in stick-tights, but my mind was quieter, my thoughts less troubled. As I tended the barn-cats and chickens, settling them in for another night, I had hope – hope for myself, for my loved ones, and for the future. With that hope came thoughts of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Singing Wilderness, by naturalist Sigurd Olson. In it, Olson writes:

I have discovered that I am not alone in my listening; that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere… We may not know exactly what it is we are listening for, but we hunt as instinctively for opportunities and places to listen as sick animals look for healing herbs.


In Loving Memory

If I had a blog, today I would not be able to find my own words to compass the ache in my heart. I will, as I have often done, rely on the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer to be my voice:

In Loving Memory of my nephew-dog, Hank (2001-2014)

In Loving Memory of my nephew-dog, Hank (2001-2014)

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary,
bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Stepping Out On Faith

If I had a blog, today I would write about my further adventures in pursuit of a stronger faith in The Universe.

White-Tailed Twins

October 8 – White-Tailed Twins

My Uncle Bruce, who is a Christian counselor, had one admonition for those of us seeking to grow spiritually: “Be careful what you wish for. If you pray for long suffering, you might just get it.” Well I managed to dodge that particular bullet, but I did plunge off the deep end when I asked The Universe to help me have greater faith. In so doing, I forgot Uncle Bruce’s advice and the basic tenet of spiritual growth: If you ask The Universe to give you something (faith, courage, patience, etc.) it won’t wave a magic wand and give you that power. Rather, it will put you in circumstances that give you the opportunity to develop the skill you aspire to possess. Today was proof of that, to be sure.

Normally, I work in town on Tuesdays, doing payroll and the book work at Dad’s dental clinic. Yesterday I had to postpone my sojourn to town because my labrador nephew Hank was ill. Dad did the payroll, but I had to go in today and do the rest of the accounting. I knew something was up with The Universe as I drove to town this morning, because everywhere I looked I saw flocks of migrating birds. Catching the one or two days in the fall when the warblers and other small songbirds are coming through is a high-point of my photographic year and I just knew I was missing out; and I was right. Mom took a two-hour walk this morning and saw all kinds of warblers, sparrows, and even golden-crowned kinglets. I didn’t begrudge Mom her sightings, but I have to admit I was a little irritated at my Higher Power for messing up my big day.

As I went about my desk-work, I was struggling not to be in a foul mood. “Missing one day of warblers is a stupid thing to be upset about,” I chastised myself. It is true, but I had to dig deep to find confidence that the order of the day was as it needed to be, however unfair it might seem.

I got home around 2:00 and took a long walk, but all I saw was a couple of blue jays and two very argumentative squirrels. I let it go and spent the rest of the afternoon helping Mom identify the Magnolia and Nashville warblers she had seen during the morning. Every time I started to feel jealous, I repeated my mantra, “Things are the way they are supposed to be.” It helped some, but I was definitely struggling.

White Throated Sparrow (2009)

White Throated Sparrow (2009)

After dinner, I gave birding one more try and went up to the High Field where our native grasses are heavy with seed. Clouds were gathering in the west and I was losing valuable light much faster than usual so I knew I had to make any photo-op count. As I passed by a row of cedar trees I heard a chirp and stopped to investigate. Using my long lens, I peered into the depths of the brush and saw, much to my delight, the first white-throated sparrow of the season. My spirits lifted immediately. White-throats summer in Minnesota then visit us for the winter. I love hosting these visitors from my beloved North Country and catching their arrival is every bit as thrilling as a warbler sighting.

October 8 - Stepping Out on Faith

Stepping Out on Faith

I walked back down the road with a spring in my step, content with my birding experience for the day, when I saw a movement near the woods’ edge. There in the twilight were two lovely young white-tailed deer. Children born this past spring, the twins were still small and very dainty. I snapped a few pictures and was about to wrap things up when one of the deer walked towards me. She was very alert and very confident; stopping every few yards to stamp her foot and let me know she was not to be trifled with. I stood stock still, taking pictures as fast as I could. Before the little deer satisfied her curiosity, her mother appeared in the pasture, snorting and stamping in alarm. Both young ones took their mother’s warning seriously and retreated to her side, vanishing into the woods without a trace.

Driving back to the house, I thanked the deer and I thanked The Universe for my gift of the day. As I thought about my close encounter, it occurred to me that the fawn who approached me was an example of new faith: She walked towards me with head held high, confident in herself and confident in me. She stepped out on faith and in that moment, made both of our lives something beautiful. We don’t need perfect faith in the beginning, only a willingness to take a few steps forward without knowing what happens next.

Tomorrow is another day and will present its own opportunities for growth. It scares me a little to put my trust in a being other than myself, but I will remember my lessons from today and I will pray to be as brave as a little white-tailed deer.

Rooting For the Underdog

If I had a blog, today I would write about my deep compassion for vultures.

October 7- A juvenile vulture sits in the morning sun, warming his wings before flight.

October 7- A juvenile vulture sits in the morning sun, warming his wings before flight.

In keeping with the All Hallows season, today I want to write about a bird that has a truly undeserved bad rap. The bird is the turkey vulture. In mid-America, we call them buzzards or just plain old vultures, but their name is important because world-wide, there are 23 species of vulture, inhabiting every continent but Australia and Antarctica. Admittedly, the vulture was created to fill a rather gruesome niche (i.e. feeding primarily on rotting carcasses), but without them we would be in trouble. Without the vulture, every landscape would be littered with decomposing carnage and disease would run rampant. Not only do vultures do nature’s dirty work, but their stomach acid is strong enough to kill nightmare bacteria such as anthrax, botulism, and cholera, preventing it from entering the environment and infecting otherwise healthy creatures (humans included).

Outbreak prevention aside, turkey vultures are also dedicated parents who mate for life (40-50 years).I witnessed their dedicated parenting skills this morning when I encountered a young vulture standing on the ground, soaking up the morning sun. To conserve energy, vultures lower their body temperatures at night. The downside is: In the morning they have to warm in the sun until they are warm enough to fly. Apparently they young bird I came upon hadn’t quite got the hang of his morning warm-up and continued to idle on the ground long after his parents had taken flight. The juvenile’s concerned parents circled continuously above him until he finally got up the gumption to fly. I admire that kind of dedication in parenting and it made me smile to know that all young creatures struggle on their way to adulthood.

This alone would be enough to earn my admiration, but there’s another reason I like vultures: I always root for the underdog.

Throughout my life, regardless of the situation, I have always been on the side of the social pariah. I was a nerdy kid who didn’t fit in at school (or in any other social setting), so I developed a deep compassion for others who shared my plight. I champion a wide range of causes, some social, most environmental, but my deepest feelings are for the creatures we humans have cast our lot against. In addition to vultures, I support snakes, spiders, a variety of lizards, and any predator given a bad name just for eating meat – a trait, I might add, shared by a two-legged species I know. I rescue earthworms from the sidewalk on hot summer days, guard nests of lizard eggs I find in our sawdust pile, and rescue bats that get trapped in the house. I know I’m a soft-touch, but it makes me feel good to support my fellow outsiders.

So, as we travel the road of autumn towards the festival of All Hallows Eve, let us remember what is fact and what is fiction. A vulture may look sufficiently scary on a tombstone, but he is not an omen of death. The vulture is our protector and sanitizer, working behind the scenes to keep death at bay. The next time you see a vulture at work on the side of the road, call out a hearty “thank you!” and wish him a Happy Halloween.