Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heed the Birds.

"A fisherman does well to heed the creatures that fly."
~ Ted Leeson 

My great grandmother's feeder in Minnesota, 1982.

My great-grandmother fed the birds, my grandmother feeds the birds, and my mother feeds the birds. Now, I do too. October 9th I put the feeders up -- my own feeders up,  for the first time -- the day after our first snow. It's tradition. But carrying it on makes my grandmother and mother nervous -- and for good reason I suppose (as grandmothers and mothers usually have), there are many stories of canyon bears bending suet cages beyond mends and emptying feeders like a gradeschooler with one of those translucent Christmas candy-cane tubes striped from the inside out with red and white M&M's. But I've yet to have any trouble with bears, so I thought it worth giving a go.

Perhaps the feeders are a knock on wood. I’ll see.

But I have to see...for myself, and for tradition's sake. They are hard to keep alive,
traditions, and nowadays hard to come by -- for like other things of age, many times they aren't appreciated until they're rusted, forgotten, and buried in dirt. Traditions are essences of humanity and thus they too will die at some point, to some end. But I haven’t forgotten....and so I feed the birds, and I watch them closely.

I grew up surrounded by birds. On our farmhouse's large deck were hung feeders on the corner posts, and a large messy mulberry tree naturally did the job in late spring. Sparrows and Grackles cleaned up around feeding troughs and buckets, Meadowlarks and Red-Wing Blackbirds roamed in brome fields, and warblers-of-many-colors blended into the umbrage of Indian Creek which formed our property into a "V," like the geese who flew over in autumn.

As an experiment once, my mother and I laid still in our northernmost pasture for a good hour as Turkey Vultures circled above us....just to see if they'd think we were dead, come down, and start pecking -- at which point we'd sit up like corpses in an overly-decorated lawn on Halloween night. That was the plan. They didn't fall for it though (most kids don't fall for corpses in the lawn thing either), and we ended up pocked with chigger bites...yet also backed with the encouragement that their refusal meant we still smelled alive.

And then there were the Barn Swallows, for whose sake I, year after year for two weeks out of the summers, re-arranged barn entries and exits so their young could fledge without being accidentally killed by fat-steers stomping at flies. The swallows ate the bugs in the end, so I thought it the least I could do. The steers certainly weren't helping themselves in the matter.

In our family we were always watching the birds. It was borderline blasphemy to call a Cardinal a "red bird" or Blue Jay a "blue bird." Identification ignorance was grounds enough for incredulous scrutiny upon whether you indeed were of Lundsten stock or not. When I moved to California for college, my grandmother's parting gift to me was Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds and a pair of binoculars. There were going to be new birds, and I wasn't to be calling them simply by their color. Snowy Plovers, Brown Pelicans, Caspian Terns, and Northern Mockingbirds were all in my vocabulary by the end of first semester. Grandma will be proud, I thought.

And now, a Kauffman Guide to Birds of North America sits on my kitchen window sill (allegiances switched from Peterson), with the binoculars my grandmother gave me still sitting atop. Ironically, a Gray-Headed Junco flies into one of my big kitchen picture windows as I sip coffee and write this piece. He falls into one Banjo’s paw-prints which is crusted in snow like a plaster cast. In between stillness, he twitches. And then, like my mother showed me to do as a little girl, I go outside and cup him in my hands until the warmth revives him and he flies away. I am not sure why this works, but infallibly, it does -- like salt on a fly.

My grandmother and mother have taught me well. When I am on a lake, I watch the Pelican’s placement, and the Osprey's hover and dive to make a catch before I can. There is no competition between us as fishermen. They are the old masters, the ones who rely on being a good fisherman for food, not a pleasured pastime -- although I do sense they find pleasure in it as well, for it is their craft and livelihood and that which builds a life for them and their families. I watch and learn. I heed what they say. And when I’m on a river or stream, I watch the harbinger Bank Swallows and Dusky Flycatchers swoop into a hatch before the trout can even rise.  

Ted Leeson writes that while one can acquire all the technical skills one needs -- that, does not make a fly fisherman. Rather, fly fisherman is a temperament which one is either born with, or not. A gene which can never recess, and manifests differently in each of its hosts. Recently, I've had the thought that I've been enduring the symptoms my entire life, and only now discovered the treatment -- only now do I appreciate my temperament, seeing it working to some end, good or no.

And recently, I've been thinking that my great grandmother must have been, and my grandmother and mother must be fly fishermen too. They show the symptoms. We were all just born that way.   

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On This Day, Thanks.

In many ways, thanks is a lot like love. We say we love chocolate and coffee -- a color, fishing, books, and our significant other. When we talk about food or friends, shoes or our grandmothers, we talk of “love” and it comes out sounding just the same. Sometimes we even say we love things just to be polite or to get something in return – those looking for the former are notoriously guilty of this. In the English language, we don’t really differentiate -- we just love. And it’s a curious thing to figure, much like thanks.

Which we give often -- thanks for nothing, for sharing, for sending, thanks for listening. Thanks for dinner. Mindless turns of phrase however fine and culturally useful. And yet, I live under the belief that words mean something – hurting more than sticks and stones and sticking longer and harder than zap-a-gap accidentally dripped on your index finger. Words scar, and words sculpt our ideas and understanding of the world. This, is no light matter.

And so when I say thank you, for reading, for commenting, for your thoughts….I mean it with all sincerity. Thank you.

But intrinsically, I am not a thankful-hearted person. More easily can I say I’m appreciative and grateful, yet these all leave feelings of indebtedness. Which might really be the point -- to know what you’ve received is at cost to someone or something and to appreciate -- yes, to be thankful for -- the gift. To put things in perspective that the world isn’t just you and yours. Yet human nature is not inherently thankful, observe that we have to be taught to share and to say please and thank you -- we're selfish little souls. And although I was taught these things well, my constitution is discontent. Not unthankful, mind you, but thankfulness seems tainted with a satisfied complacency, an acceptance of what one has been given is all one will get -- I’m thankful just to be here, for example. 

"Butter Boys" by Eva Zimmerman

But I’m not. I’m not thankful just to be. Anything. It is not greed, but perhaps the disruptive quality of curiosity poking holes in my personality -- my inquiring mind does want to know -- there must be more to it, there has to be. And why? I’m here to do something, to think, to write, and to live with integrity in the definition of words, for they in the end will define me. Words will be spoken of me after death, and will these words be honest with thanks and love? Or rote -- my name filled into blanks in a funeral service template.

Today is Thanksgiving, and today I will put a large turkey in my old gas stove -- more than enough for a small dinner for two, schnups for one dog, and copious leftovers for a week. And today I am thankful -- for words and love – for the love of my family, my dog, and a good man.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Face Down.

walking against a current
of lunch breakers
cyclists and joggers
heading away
from downtown
on the bike path
as a mob with fire
in their bellies

I stay on the dirt
side blindside
going the wrong direction
but the right way
close to the creek
and the pool
that two weeks ago
drowned a homeless man
face down
staring at trout
just like I’m doing now

Thursday, November 17, 2011


These are the days after daylight savings time -- of early rising and setting, of falling back into being standard -- and maybe this is why it feels good. Springing forward rushes, spurring urgency, reminding that you must run hard and fast over the next six months. There is no time to stay at home or indoors or lallygag. The sun beats from its high-noon arched pulpit that the days are longer for a reason. So get busy. Find your reason.

As a child my reason was kick-the-can into twilight. As a youth, it was bathing and blowing cattle and cleaning stalls to George Straight’s croons late into the night. Modern ‘lightricity,’ as my sister used to say, lengthened days as well as work. I wonder if Franklin or Edison thought about that --- now, you can always see the shit.

Then as a college student, I lost track of seasons and daylight -- and my reason -- locking myself into windowless practice rooms for hours at a time, within a city socked in the stasis of fog. For years, life was measured in sonata form by semester.

And now as an adult, I’ve found it again -- my reason, the highcountry. Long days are created for hikes deep in and their opposite. Spent in these glacial-fed-lake cirques, the hours are a microcosm of the larger world. Strange, I always think, being in a place at once expansive and yet suffocating, ages old and yet young – but such opposites tinge love (of place and person); and thus, we not only are able to discover familiar in the foreign, but also foreign in the familiar. Like a lover who daily you learn, and after years turned into decades still find pleasure in re-reading....like a good book or homewaters.....none are ever exactly the same twice. Such opposites, discrepancies if you will, also tinge life – and mine and its parts are summed between abacus wires framed on foothills, equalized on talus.

Yet right now the days are short, and getting shorter. Right now is the time of addition. The sum will be worked out in seven months or so. In the meantime, I add.

If we want to survive, we have to. For what is life but subtraction always at work? Thus we run on, trying to keep the ground we’ve gained, trying to work harder. Sometimes putting up trail signs – not the kind showing the animal track of its namesake; rather the un-named sort following blazes in tree-trunks. Other times, we want no one to follow us -- the terrain being too good, or bad -- and so we nail up No Trespassing signs at overly-cautious 9 ft. intervals. But I want to survive, and I want to leave a trail.

Thus I eat, adding a little weight here and there, in the tradition of mammalian wintering.

I read, laying in a sun patch, spreading like a stain over carpet I should be vacuuming. But instead I add stories and words to a mind already full.

I sit at my desk and tie, adding to boxes from whom many were lost. Some blood stained. Some frayed. All, mirrors of a soul.

I write, to add memories to a life I hope won’t someday be forgotten.

And I wait, to be measured, weighed, and not found wanting.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Down the Hatch - The Backcountry Journal.

The Backcountry Journal is a new online periodical created and edited by hunter, fly fisherman, fly designer, and writer, Ben Smith of Arizona Wanderings. I am very excited and honored at being included in the first issue. 
Read it here: The Backcountry Journal.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mason Jars, Dead Bugs, and Worship: or, Why a Praying Mantis Should Be the Mascot for N.O.W.

I developed an obsession with crane flies this past summer. It started as a vengeance of sorts -- Jay and I getting skunked at a backcountry lake...the kind of lake it had taken half a day just to walk to. And then, a half-a-day's sweat and expectations were dried up by crane flies. They were hatching (and being eagerly eaten) all over the surface of the water, but neither Jay nor I had a crane fly pattern in our box. Jay had some Halfbacks though, so we coated them with floatant, and they did just that. But the cutthroats knew better, and we walked the five miles out at dusk, muttering....we really need a crane fly pattern.

A few weeks later Jay trapped one who was flying around the mason-jar yard light, with another mason jar (these might, in fact, be the most useful things in the world aside from duct tape). I sat at the kitchen table and stared at it, as a ghost of the kid who I once was, transfixed before a praying mantis cocooning on a magnolia tree twig in a sun-tea jar. I remember feeling empowered because I'd read that after mating, the female eats the male. How cool. I always felt somewhat jipped by the birds at my mom's feeders in the backyard -- the males were always prettier. The females? Pragmatically dressed to care, feed, and hide the young. You know, the usual. And to my growing mind of feminist leanings, it was a microcosmic view of what I feared awaited me in life. A praying mantis should really be the mascot of N.O.W.

But, it isn't.

And so I continued looking at the crane fly in the mason jar, eventually letting him go to fly around the house until he escaped through the door propped open for Banjo.

Then just a month ago, one appeared dead on the bathroom floor. I left him there, exactly where he lay -- just like a CSI investigator would do -- a body on a scene. The gestalt. That's how I do things creatively -- I type and write and tack pictures up on my wall -- I keep the subject always before me, trying to understand its entirety. For that, is worship -- and worship in some form, is necessary for creation. It need not always be praise-full though, I fully believe there to be a type entered into out of fear, hatred, or in this case, avengement. And sometimes this sort of worship is the truest, making for the most interesting of creations.

So for a good month now, I've swept and cleaned around, leaving him undisturbed as an ever-constant reminder that I needed a pattern after his kind. I'm sure preserving an insect for observation on one's bathroom floor is considered uncouth, and I was glad there wasn’t to be company (at least, that is, expected company; and be it un-expected, well, then I'd have a good excuse for the large insect laying on my bathroom floor. Caught unawares, you know).

Having decided I had stared enough, I picked up and pinned him above my tying desk to look at some more. To worship. To tie. And as I did, I thought about the lake, it’s lay, and how I would go back with this fly. Yes, this next high lake season, I’ll have crane flies in my box.

Crater's Crane Fly
Hook: TMC 100 size 18
Body: Ferruled dubbing loop (brown dubbing)
Legs: Four turkey tail feathers, 1 fiber knotted for each leg
Wings: Brahma hen soft-hackle feathers trimmed on one side and tied back in a loop
Hackle: Brown saddle hackle

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I watch for deer
there is no movement
only the sun rising
on the wheel
my hand and a coffee-cup
over miles of slate road lines
reading neat hand-writing
slowly dying out at the end
but chance
like the deer
is always there waiting
for astigmatism behind fogged glasses
to see