Saturday, January 30, 2010

Going Out with a Bang

My wife and kids are lucky: when I die, I just want to be cremated. Forget mouldering away in a pool of chemicals under a patch of Kentucky Blue grass. No thanks.

I know, I know: different strokes for different folks, but cremation alone seems downright boring when compared to the guy I heard about today on the radio. When he dies, he wants to be cremated, the ashes packed into paper bags and then fired out of his beloved 110-pound replica cannon on the opening day of hunting season. Now that’s going out with a bang.

(Photo courtesy of Jason C. McMillian; original photo available at:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bird Food

Wild birds crowded the front yard this morning: juncos, house finches, cedar waxwings, and a few others I couldn’t identify. The waxwings hammered the remaining crabapples, while the smaller birds moved methodically between the dry stalks and seedheads of coneflower, aster, and hummingbird mint.

I didn’t plant any of those with birds in mind. I planted them because I like tough, hardy plants, resistant to drought and neglect. What’s more, I’ve hated that crabapple, with its soft, withered fruit that lingers well into Spring, and Becky finds the dry coneflowers unsightly and asked me to clip them off last fall. Fortunately, I didn’t remove the crabapples or the coneflowers and here they are, providing a midwinter feast to native birds of every shape, color, and size. Even a few robins dropped in for a fruit snack or two, the long boughs bending beneath their weight.

The take home lessons? Look for beauty and grace in unexpected places, don’t deadhead the flowers, and leave the old crabapples alone. The birds will take care of them, soon enough.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Any Excuse

Friends and family know me as a serial hobbyist, with most of my hobbies having something to do with the great outdoors. The appeal may lie less in the hobby itself than the indirect benefits: like getting outside, at interesting times and in interesting weather, and hopefully experiencing something unique or extraordinary. Hobbies give me an excuse to be out there where the magic can happen.

I recall an experience several years ago collecting fossils on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay (sounds normal enough), but it was also at midnight during a raging storm. Sounds strange, I’m sure, but it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life: all sound and fury, wind and white caps and black water, the endless roar and spray of the surf, and there, rolling about in the surf … fossils. That night, as luck or fate or serendipity would have it, the yellow beam of my headlamp touched on one of the rarest shark teeth of all: a symphyseal tooth from a prehistoric cow shark (yeah, I’m a weirdo), which means nothing to the lay reader, but looks rather like the crown worn by the Statue of Liberty: a half circle of radiating spikes. Cool. Would not have found it—or experienced such a wild night—but for a quirky hobby and a peculiar passion for that hobby.

Do you know that you can find your way by starlight? I wouldn’t have thought so, until I was able to pick out a path quite clearly on a moonless night this past September, on a river in the wilds of Utah, where even the stars and planets cast long, bright trails over the water. What was I doing there? Fishing. At midnight, again, and it was as beautiful a sight as I’ve seen in all the world.

Again and again, hobbies have given me that kind of experience: rare moments of beauty, of wonder, of grace.

Yesterday morning found me out in the fog with a camera and tripod. Fog has that magical ability to transform the familiar into something entirely different: strange, mysterious, and wonderful, and a camera can capture that. A poor substitute for the real experience, perhaps, but, with persistence and a little bit of luck, it can produce something magical—presto!—a rabbit from the magic hat.